“God, I wish we
Thanks to Janet Berry for her extensive proof-reading for this story,
and for suggesting the title when I was really struggling...Ken
Paul slipped the car into gear then reached across and gave his
wife’s hand a squeeze. He looked at her and smiled a rather
smile as she turned round in the passenger seat to look at the lonely,
waving figure framed in the rear window.
“Yeah, I do too!” he sighed as he stuck his arm out
driver’s window to wave back.
“She looks more frail every time we come down here.”
“Well one thing’s for sure, Ali: she may not be
one hundred percent, but she’s all there mentally.”
Then, with another smile, more convincing this time:
“Of course she’s completely loopy, but she is
sharp as a tack!”
Alison took a final look at her Aunty Ethel, standing there in clothes
that had seen better days – and better days when they had
her properly – her cat, Kitty (what else?), under one arm
the other arm waving frantically. As Ali turned and settled back into
the passenger seat, the sigh she let out left a large steamed up patch
on the passenger window.
“That’s a bit unfair,” she announced in
indignation. “She’s just eccentric. And if I can
crosswords like she can when I’m in my late eighties then I
Paul reached over again and squeezed Alison’s thigh, smiled
“Well, she’s definitely my favourite
“Strictly speaking she’s not your Aunt. Of course
isn’t even my Aunt!”
“Listen, you are way more of a niece to her than the two real
nieces she has. It’s a three hundred and eighty mile round
for us to come and see her and we’ve been three times since
Christmas. They live an hour away and she’s not seen one of
for over a year, and the other last came on New Year’s
“But they aren’t blood relatives either. They are
John’s sister’s kids.”
“Maybe. But they won’t turn down the house, her
and her savings when she pops her clogs, will they?”
Another patch of steam appeared on the passenger window to go with
As they threaded their way along A30, M5 and M4, the conversation
gradually changed to whatever it is that couples, who have been married
for over twenty years and who are relaxed in each other’s
company, talk about.
Alison rang her “Aunty” every few days –
twice a week. If there was no answer, she’d ring later or the
next day. Ethel didn’t have an answering machine or a mobile.
Despite their frequency, Paul was always amazed at the length of the
conversations. He jokingly put it down to their both being women, but
could appreciate the lifeline that the conversations represented to
“Her real nieces call her once in a blue moon,” Ali
protest. “And the neighbours always look out for her, but at
end of the day I think I’m the only one she really gets to
to. Well, me and Kitty of course.”
Paul smiled. One of Ethel’s eccentricities was talking to her
cat, which Paul knew to be the most spoilt animal in the West of
England. It ate better than half of Devon.
It was a warm, early June Sunday morning a couple of months after the
last trip to see Ethel, that Paul came in from the garden. Ali was
holding the phone and had just hung up.
“Well, it should have been but it just rang out.”
“Hmm, I’m surprised she hasn’t taught
Ali looked at her husband. Paul could see the puzzled frown. Ali bit
her lower lip:
“I dunno. I’ve tried twice this morning and I tried
yesterday too. I just thought she was out, but …”
Paul asked when was the last time Ali had spoken to her.
Ali’s concern was infectious. Paul moved to his wife and put
bare arm around her, and suggested they leave it an hour and try again.
“And if there’s still no reply, you can ring Mary
other one. Never can remember the other niece’s
Ali nodded and uttered that it was a good plan.
“And thanks for the hug – I needed it. Even if it
was a bit
of a sweaty one after your gardening exertions.”
“Haven’t finished yet! Just a quick drink and then
I’m attacking the front.”
An hour later, Paul was feeling pretty proud of himself. The stripes on
the front lawn were as straight as he’d ever managed. Just a
more to go. He looked up as Ali was coming towards him. He
need a second look. He pulled the iPod headphones out of his ears and
mower shut itself off. He knew his face was betraying his fear that the
worst had happened.
“Is she alright?”
“She’s been in hospital since Wednesday. She fell
Paul wanted to say Oh thank God. Then it sunk in – a fall for
someone that age could be disastrous. By now she was in his arms.
“Broken arm and she’s black and blue all
“And of course they never thought to ring you and let you
“Mary said that Aunty had asked her to ring me, but that
she’d decided she didn’t want to worry me
“Aw that’s nice of her, to make up your mind for
Paul took a deep breath, and glanced at his watch. Nearly one
o’clock. An hour maybe less to shower, three plus hours on
He held Ali at arm’s length:
“Right, let’s get sorted and we’ll be
down there for
visiting time. I’ll call Dave and get him to stand in for me
tomorrow, nothing he can’t handle. We’ll stay over
out a few things for her. I bet the lazy bitches haven’t even
been to see her.”
Black and blue was an understatement. Paul noticed Ali visibly blanche
as they approached the bed with a dozing Aunty Ethel in it. He
whispered to Ali that she looked like she’d been run over by
Talking quietly, the story emerged. She had been upstairs when she
heard the front door bell. She’d gone to answer it but
over Kitty. The person at the door was a neighbour come to see if she
needed anything from the shops. They heard the fall and got the key
from next door, and got an ambulance. The hospital had contacted the
next of kin.
“I’m glad Mary contacted you – I asked
her to when
she came yesterday.”
Ali and Paul glanced at each other; the brief look was an entire
Don’t tell her she didn’t, it’ll only
Does that mean they didn’t come down here straight away?
They were interrupted by a staff nurse come to check up. Ethel
introduced Ali and Paul as “my niece and her
“Ah you must be Mary’s sister, Margaret.”
“No, this is my other niece, Alison. Errm, can you add her as
next of kin? She must have dropped off the list.”
Paul hid a grin. She may be bruised to hell, but she’s all
The nurse said that she would and asked Alison to stop by the desk with
her details when she left. At the end of visiting time, they told Aunty
they’d be back tomorrow and went to the nurse’s
Having given their details they asked when they would be sending her
home. The sister said they’d do an evaluation in a couple of
– to check on how she could cope with her broken arm, and
then if she was fit to be discharged.
Back at the hotel restaurant, Ali picked at her food. Despite his best
efforts to lighten the mood Paul realised it was a lost cause.
“I really hope she’s going to be okay. Did you see
“Look, we’ve done – we do – all
We’ve tried loads of times since John died to get her to
but she just won’t. So we’ll just have to keep
up and down as often as we can.”
The conversation went round and round, getting nowhere –
from making Alison even more upset.
The next morning they visited Ethel’s home and gave Kitty a
cuddle (a neighbour was feeding her), went through the post and sorted
the junk from the important looking, ready to take to the hospital.
Alison set about watering Ethel’s plants while David gave the
small back lawn a trim. When they’d finished they headed off
grab a quick sandwich and get to the hospital for afternoon visiting.
Over a sunny lunch in a pub garden, not far from the hospital, David
remarked how awkward that small lawn was to cut.
“It’s a funny shape, and that bloody stone bird
the middle is a devil to cut round.”
“Oh dear, I rather like it. In fact, I was going to ask Aunty
we can have it after she’s gone. It will be a nice reminder
her. She loves feeding and watching the birds.”
In the hospital they went through the post, said they would get bill
payments sorted and generally reassured Ethel that everything was under
control. When Ethel’s tea arrived, they hugged and kissed
other, and left. Alison reassured her that she would come down a stay
with her for a few days when she got out.
In the event it was Friday she was discharged from hospital, and so
Alison drove down and collected her and took her home. A carer had been
arranged to visit her for the first few weeks until she was back to
normal – whatever that meant, thought Alison.
On the second day she was home, Ethel was sitting with Alison in the
garden, and she remarked she’d seen a warbler a few weeks
earlier, and that she adored having her bird table. Alison said:
“Yes, I like it too, in fact, I don’t want to sound
horrible or anything, but after you’ve gone – you
several years after your telegram from the Queen –
really like to have it. It would remind me of you and afternoons like
“Of course you can have it. Those useless nieces of mine
won’t miss it. I’d like to leave you more but I
want to change John’s will – and of course
get everything. Well, almost. He knew how much you loved my engagement
ring, so we did put into the will that you can have it.”
The lump in Alison’s throat was betraying her, and she found
couldn’t make words come out. So, she just reached across and
squeezed her Aunt’s hand. Ethel just smiled back:
“Oh don’t get upset, none of us lasts for ever. Oh,
don’t let on but the ring’s probably worth more
the rest of my stuff put together… and then some.”
A couple of days later, Alison left in the knowledge that the carer
would come in a couple of times a day and keep an eye on her Aunt, and
she said she’d keep calling every other day or so.
As Summer drifted towards Autumn, Alison noticed a change, hardly
perceptible, but Aunt Ethel was definitely slowing down. Anyone over
the age of fifty will insist on telling you things they told you last
week. But with Ethel it was getting to be things she’d told
five minutes ago!
It was a Friday night when the call came. Paul and Ali were just
relaxing, finishing a bottle of wine off after a pleasant dinner. Ali
went to answer the phone, and was only gone a few minutes. As soon as
she came back into the room Paul saw there was a problem, he jumped up
and she fell into his arms, quietly sobbing. Despite having a good idea
what it was, Paul asked what was the matter. Ali said nothing for
minutes, before looking up with reddening, moist eyes and mouthing
The funeral date was set for late the next week, but in the intervening
few days a letter arrived from Ethel’s solicitor. The
were no surprise, Ali had been left her engagement ring. Ali and Paul
made the long journey to the small West Country village for the last
time. Throughout the journey Paul kept squeezing Ali’s hand
smiling. At one point he looked over:
“You know, I can’t say I’m going to miss
but I’d have been quite happy to do it four times a year for
next ten years.”
“I know.” Ali smiled back and squeezed his hand in
The service in the small village church was very thinly attended. Apart
from the two of them there were the nieces and their spouses and just a
handful of neighbours. Ali thought the service was rather cold and
plain, but afterwards she found herself talking to Ethel’s
while Paul was talking to a neighbour.
In the middle of the conversation Margaret, the older (and Ali always
felt colder) of the two sisters, blurted out:
“Oh by the way, we can’t find the ring.”
Ali was a bit taken aback:
“The ring. The one she left you. We can’t find it.
where it is, have we?”
Margaret looked at Mary for corroboration. She shuffled around a bit
looking at the floor:
“No we searched high and low.”
With a distinct lack of conviction, Ali said that she was sure it would
turn up and they could send it to her. Then she added:
“Oh by the way, I hope it’s alright but
I’d like to
call by the house and take the bird table from the garden.
always liked it and it will remind me of her.”
As she probably had done for most of their lives, Margaret answered for
the two of them:
“Oh go right ahead, we certainly don’t want it, do
Mary just shook her head in agreement.
The conversation drifted on and eventually they left to make the short
trip to the house to collect the bird table. As Ali looked round the
garden for a last time she heard Paul muttering to himself about
getting the table apart. The flat top came off the stone plinth
surprisingly easily. Paul carried it to the boot of the car and
returned for the base. Ali was just thinking about taking a couple of
cuttings when she heard Paul laughing.
Looking round she saw Paul was holding a ziplock bag which
opened. He was holding out a letter with Ali’s name on it.
envelope had a lump in it. Paul handed it over:
“It was in the hollow of the plinth. Well, you
to be a rocket scientist to work it out, do you? Don’t drop
anything out of the envelope.”
The ring fell into her hand. She glanced at Paul and started to read:
I assume that I have moved on to be with John, which is why
you’re reading this. I know you will think I am awful but I
don’t trust my nieces. I have therefore had a cheap copy made
my engagement ring, and the real one is here.
It seems like a small way to say thank you for always being there when
I needed you.
I hope you enjoy the bird table as much as I have,
Ken Orford, 2009