The circle of life

I’ve posted predominantly flash fiction for a number of weeks recently. However, I haven’t given up on longer forms, and I’ve been working at incorporating the lessons I’ve learned from flash fiction into a full-length short story. ‘The circle of life’ is a little over 2000 words, and will take about 10-15 minutes to read. I hope you enjoy it!

The circle of life - Lamb 170906

The circle of life

The blades of the plough sliced smoothly through the soil, peeling the ground into ribbons of compacted earth that rolled aside in long straight rows. Rooks followed the plough, feasting on the earthworms it turned up. Fluttering around telephone wires, the swallows were restless. It was nearly time to migrate.

Robert, as he walked alone, studied the pattern of the furrows, which the sun, low in the clear autumn sky, made stark. He strode down the gentle gradient from his cottage in Hillfold, lingered briefly at the Withy Brook to enjoy the chuckle of its tumbling water, and then on to Midham.

There is a post office and general store in the village of Midham which stocks everything you would reasonably expect and some things you wouldn’t. There are tins of Irish stew, tins of cling peaches, tins of sardines. There are sweets, tobacco products and booze. There is angling equipment, because the owner, Tom, is an angler. And, of course, there are newspapers.

Robert went in and bought ‘The Times’, as he did every day. The shop would have delivered for a modest charge – Robert could easily have afforded it – but he enjoyed his walk, and, more to the point, he enjoyed meeting people there. For Robert was a widower; he was retired, and he lived on his own.

As he chatted to Tom about the village quiz, a woman, a stranger, came in.

“Have you got anything for cleaning a ceramic hob?” she asked Tom. She had a noticeable accent; Yorkshire, thought Robert. Tom shook his head.

“Sorry. You’ll need to go into town for that.”

“When do the buses run? I suppose there is a bus?”

“Eight o’clock in the morning and five o’clock in the afternoon, but there’s no bus back in the afternoon.”

“So I’ve missed it, then.”

“If you like, you can use some of mine.”

“That’s very kind,” said the woman, doubtfully.

“No problem,” and Tom vanished through the curtained opening at the back of the shop.

“New here?” asked Robert.

“Moved in two days ago. Still living out of cardboard boxes.” Her hair was dark, streaked with grey.

“Here we are.” Tom handed her the cleaner.

“Thank you, I’ll bring it back in ten minutes, if that’s okay?”

“No rush.”

Tom watched her with a smile on his face until she’d left the shop, then he went to the window and watched her walk down the street.

“Number 11,” he told Robert. “Good-looking woman, eh?”

“Very pleasant,” agreed Robert, although truth to tell he’d hardly noticed her appearance.

Paper bought and conversation finished, he walked on through the village. Out of curiosity he glanced at the front window of number 11.

“Of course, she’ll be in the kitchen at the back,” he murmured to himself.

*       *       *       *

December came. The frosts were early and hard that year. Robert’s breath steamed as he walked. He watched diligently for patches of ice. “Have I reached the age when I would ‘have a fall,’ rather than ‘fall over’?” he wondered. The grasses beside the Withy Brook were rimed and white.

He noticed her as soon as he entered the shop.

“Good morning. Settling in now?”

She smiled. The skin beside her eyes crinkled attractively. “Yes. Only a few cardboard boxes of books left now. Why do they never build houses with enough bookshelves?” Her accent was definitely Yorkshire; her laugh was gentle.

“I have a spare bookcase in my garage doing nothing. It won’t fit in my cottage, but I could never bring myself to dispose of it. Would you like it?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that. If it’s a treasure that you’ve kept, I mean.”

“Book cases are meant for books. I’d be delighted if it fulfilled its true function.” He looked at her, and then, surprising himself, said, “I’m Robert, by the way. Would you fancy having dinner with me in the Jester’s Motley some time?”

“A man who values books. A bookish man. Dinner in the Motley? I’d like that very much indeed, thank you, Robert. My name’s Helen. Just in case you didn’t already know.”

“Helen. Lovely name. I’ll bring the bookcase round this afternoon – Helen.”

*       *       *       *

March departed with a shout. April crept in, with gentle sun and balmy air, and Robert and Helen walked side by side past the Withy Brook. Water, turbid and brown, pooled upstream of the bridge. There were large puddles on the road.

“Two days ago this was under six inches of water,” observed Robert.

“You told me. You had to go the other way to visit me.”

“Oh dear! Repeating myself. A boring old man!”

“Never that, Robert. Not old, and certainly not boring.” She squeezed his hand. “I was amazed to see you in the stormy weather. You could have been squashed by that tree that came down! And the rain – I’ve never seen rain like it!”

They strolled on, comfortable, relaxed.

“Oh, look, Robert! That lamb must be new-born. Look how wobbly his little legs are. I must take a photo!”

Robert smiled as Helen pulled out her phone, and crouched on the verge to take the picture. She was sixty-one years old, medium height, with square shoulders. She gave an impression of brisk competence, energy and enjoyment of life. Robert realised suddenly that she was beautiful.

“Mind the ditch,” he called as she edged forward.

“Oh, you. Mr Cautious,” she grumbled, but cheerfully.

They ambled back to Midham. “Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve baked a cake. Carrot cake!”

“Sounds delicious.”

And it was.

“Why don’t you stay for dinner?”

Robert hesitated.

“Don’t you like my cooking?”

“I love your cooking. It’s just…” Robert paused. He couldn’t think of how to say what he felt he should.

“You’re afraid I shall drag you into my bed? Well, the idea’s tempting but I think I can probably just about control the urge.” She was grinning, but Robert was not.

“Don’t joke about it,” he pleaded.

Helen’s face softened. “I’m sorry, Robert. You’re right; it’s too important to joke about. But do you mind if I say something?”

“No, go ahead.”

“Well. We’re not old, Robert, but we’re definitely nearer our end than our beginning. We don’t know how long we’ve got. For my part, I’d like to spend as many as possible of my remaining years with you. And, yes, I mean in my bed as well as every other part of my life.” She scanned his face anxiously.

Robert had shrunk back into the far corner of the settee they jointly occupied. His hands were clasped over his knees.

“What’s the matter, my dear?”

Robert just shook his head. “I don’t know,” he answered eventually. “I’ve been on my own such a long time, and everything had settled down, and now it’s…I don’t know.”

“You must have loved Margaret very much.”

“How do you know about Margaret?”

“Oh, Robert, this is a village. Everybody knows everything about everyone.”

He was shaking.

“I loved her so much, and she suffered, Helen, she suffered, and I couldn’t help her. And now, I’m starting… I’m starting…”

He stood up. “I must go. Thank you for the invitation. I must go.”

She helped him put on his coat. “You’ll need that; it’s getting cold,” and then she kissed him firmly, on the lips. He gasped, turned aside, gripped her arms. They stood still, cheeks touching. Helen could hear his uneven breath, feel the tickle of it on her face. His hands became gentle on her, neither seeking to control nor to cling on. Then he kissed her, briefly, softly, once, on the cheek, and departed.

Helen closed the front door quietly and took a deep breath.

*       *       *       *

Nearly a week passed and Helen heard nothing from Robert. He would normally have phoned her on Thursday so they could go together in his car to the supermarket; but this week he didn’t.

Instead, Helen caught the bus into town. She was cross with the check-out girl, and then felt she should go back and apologise. Which made her late for the return bus. Which meant a taxi ride home, fifteen pounds that she could ill afford. And when she arrived home mid-afternoon, she realised that she’d forgotten to buy potatoes.

“Damn and blast,” she said, and stomped out of the house to the village store.

“Sorry, Helen, I sold the last of the fresh ‘taters ten minutes ago. I’ve got tinned ones.”

Helen took the can off the shelf, banged it down by the till.

Tom looked sidelong at her.

“Your friend alright? He’s normally in here every day for his newspaper. He hasn’t been in for the last three days. Looked a bit peaky, you know, coughing a lot. That’s two pounds seventy, please.”

“Oh, I think I’d better have a tin of soup as well.” She took down a tin of chicken broth.

“That’s four pounds forty altogether.”

“Tom, you’re a highwayman.”

Back home, Helen packed the soup, a loaf, butter and some fruit into a backpack, and set off for Hillfold. The Withy Brook swirled and gurgled as she passed, its dark waters sinister under the indigo sky.

There were no lights on in Robert’s cottage. Helen pounded on the knocker. There was no reply. Heart thumping, she went to the garage and lifted the door. Yes, Robert’s car was there.

The rear garden was full of shadow. She could hardly see where she was going. She felt her way to the back door, turned the handle and pushed. The door stayed fast shut. What now?

She went back to the front of the cottage and stood irresolute by the door. Should she try knocking again?

She took hold of the handle and turned it. The door opened. There was a moment’s satisfaction, and then her concern redoubled. Robert would never have gone out leaving the door unlocked. As she entered, her feet kicked envelopes aside.

“Robert?”

Her voice quavered.

“Robert!”

She reached out her right hand and turned on the light in the hall. There was a handful of post under her feet.

She looked into the sitting room. Nobody there, but she left the light on; it gave her courage. She glanced into the little kitchen. There were some dirty dishes on the table. Her heart sank. Robert never left things dirty.

“Robert!”

Helen, full of trepidation, climbed the stairs. This was the first time she’d been upstairs in his cottage. She listened. Was that the noise of somebody breathing? She pushed open the bedroom door.

The room stank. Robert lay on the bed, eyes closed.

“Robert?”

He didn’t move.

Helen placed her hand on his forehead. He was burning hot.

The ambulance arrived quickly, in less than fifteen minutes. Less than five minutes after that, Robert was in the vehicle, a saline drip in his arm and an oxygen mask over his face.

“Will he be alright?” Helen begged.

The paramedic gave her a look, full of compassion. “We’ll do our best for him, but he’s a very sick man. If you hadn’t found him, I don’t think he would have made it through the night.”

After the ambulance had left for the hospital, Helen sank down on the settee in the sitting room. How could she have been so self-centred as to assume that Robert’s absence was because he hadn’t wanted to see her again? Why hadn’t she called him? She shuddered with the dread that he might die.

Eventually she rose, extinguished the lights and set off home. She locked Robert’s door after her, and tucked the key into her purse. Tomorrow, she would come and clean everything, in the hope that Robert would pull through.

*       *       *       *

The summer sun was hot on Robert’s shoulders as he walked hand-in-hand with Helen. He wore a carnation in his buttonhole, and she a broad-brimmed straw hat on her grey-streaked hair. The Withy Brook was back within its banks, which were green and flower-speckled.

“Robert, look! That’s the lamb I photographed in April, all grown up – I swear it is! Have I got two minutes?”

“Go on, then!”

The bells of Midham church sang across the fields.

Robert and Helen looked at each other, kissed and strolled on.

Tom, resplendent in a college blazer that must have been thirty years old, emerged from the Post Office and Village Store and turned over the sign to read ‘Closed’, before joining Robert and Helen. Friends greeted them, and then followed them to the church. And there Robert and Helen exchanged their vows; for richer, for poorer (I couldn’t be richer, thought Helen); in sickness and in health (I must try not to be a burden on her, thought Robert); till death us do part (to which we can all say ‘Amen’, and hope that the parting is long delayed!)