STRAY LEAVES FROM THE TEA BOWL
By Stephen Cashmore
Andy was devastated. He who had passed all his days among the business and bustle of society now hardly seemed to notice the world around him. Forty years married and he'd come home one evening to find Betty sat bolt upright in a chair - stone dead. It was as much and more as a body could take. With no children and no real friends, himself and Betty had lived for one another, and once when her sister had dropped snide hints about bairnless couples, Betty had given this cutting reply; "It's only unhappy women who want children."
But there was still Alex. They'd been best pals at the school together, and had kept close ties ever since. A single man, Alex had been to Andy and Betty a sort of surrogate bachelor brother-in-law, someone who had to be reminded when his shirt needed a wash, or his socks were due a change. The night after Betty's passing away, Alex decided to take a walk up to see how Andy was coping with his unexpected tragedy.
"He'll be gutted," Alex said to himself as he laced his brogues. "Him and Betty was just like a married couple."
A cool wind blew through the gap under the door; rain was forecast. He was pleased, as it gave him legitimate cause to wear his new waxed jacket. "It's no' one o' your cheapjohn things, mind. No' one o' them what's hanging up by the hundred at the Town Hall sales and full o' holes a week later." No, this was a genuine Barbour, complete with lapel badge. Alex was so proud of it he had to go back next day and exchange it for the next size up to accommodate his swollen chest.
Andy stayed on the town outskirts, a fair walk that justifed a fair thirst. A six pack of Special was purchased en route to lay get the dust out of Alex's throat once he arrived at his destination and, as it would be bad manners indeed not to take something along for his host, he added a half-bottle to his carry-out.
There were no lights on. The washing-up was still lying in the sink. Alex found his friend beside a fireless hearth, unshaven and with a slept-in appearance.
"Heavens, boy, you're looking more like me every day. It's no' like you to be sprouting stubble on your chin. Have ye taken up pop singin', or what?"
This was not an ideal opening gambit. Andy was not renowned for humour appreciation at the best of times. Worse, he didn't seem to have noticed his friend's new jacket, even though Alex made a great show of removing it.
"What do you think o' this new coat? I bought it -"
"Hang the thing up outside in the passage."
Even with a couple of cans down their throats the situation remained unimproved. The bereaved sat staring into some unseen distance, his face a mask of incurable hopelessness. Alex cursed himself for coming. Why hadn't he the sense to know that grief is something best expressed in solitude?
"Would you like to be on your own?"
"What? Is it too much trouble for you to be here?"
"Hell, no! I just thought you might want to - well . . ."
"Och, never. Her sister's threatening a visit and I need some support."
Just then there came a loud knock on the door. Andy never stirred. Again the knocking came, louder this time. Alex made haste to the door, where he found a ferret-eyed little man and a woman with a face like an overcooked rice pudding. "Who are you?" the woman demanded.
"I'm a friend o' Andy's. Just come over to see how he's getting along and . . ."
"So you're no' family then? Well, I'm Betty's sister and this here's my man, so we'll come in if you don't mind."
As the newcomers marched through to the living room, Alex noticed that both of them were carrying black bin bags. Perhaps they'd come to tidy the house.
It took a mere ten seconds for the visitors to explain their purpose. "There's a few things o' hers what Betty promised to me. You won't find it written down in no will or nothing, but I know what my sister said I could have, so if it's all the same to you, we'll just go ahead and collect what's ours."
Alex was stunned at this blatant display of avarice. Here was a man who'd just lost his wife being subjected to the uninvited attentions of two human vultures. Surely Andy would have something to say about this. He certainly had. "Just leave them alone to get on with it. The quicker they're done, the quicker they'll be away. The last thing I want is their false greatin'." And he returned to his mournful reveries. Outside a fine rain had started to fall. Alex was pleased he'd come in his new jacket; now he'd have a chance to see it in its full splendour, all glistening with drops of water.
It took ten minutes for Betty's sister and her man to collect whatever they regarded as theirs. Then they poked their heads into the living room and announced their departure. "Would you like me to make you a cup of tea afore we go?" the woman asked, fearful that Alex might say yes.
"No. Just get out o' the house." And they did, black bags straining at the seams.
An hour or so later, as Alex carried the empty cans through to the kitchen he noticed how the china cabinet in the hall had been emptied, and that all the silver cutlery had vanished. This was downright thievery, and he told Andy so in no uncertain terms.
"Och, just leave it alone, man. They'll get their come-uppances on o' these days. Now get yourself away home before the rain comes on heavy."
Alex left, only to return a few seconds later, his face like thunder.
"What's wrong with you now? Have ye no coat to go home in?"
"No. Your bloody sister-in-law's gone off with my new waxed jacket!"
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Steven Cashmore 1999
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