Looking for a Lady
Harry took a step back and looked at the model boat on the dining room table. The lines of the hull were smooth but there was sawdust on the carpet, and a tube of glue oozing on a newspaper. Fiona wouldn't have liked that. He sighed. He was glad his son Andy had persuaded him to start building model boats again, but the hobby couldn't fill the hole in his life. Since Fiona died, he'd been lonely, rattling round the house like a pea in a pod big enough for five. The cat, Floss, was some company but not enough.
Harry remembered the advert he'd seen in the local paper. It would still be on the coffee table. He walked through the arch which separated dining room and living rooms and found Floss lying on the armchair nearest the coffee table. Having moved her gently, he sat down and rummaged through the pile of papers. Here it was. 'Active, confident widower, 81, GSOH, would like to meet mature lady to share his life with.' If an 81-year-old man could write an advert for a lady friend, so could he. It would be a good idea to act now, as autumn was coming, making outside activities more difficult.
Without further delay, he found a pen and paper, and started trying to phrase an advert. What to put? He'd never written anything like this before. Specifications for electrical equipment, reports for his employers, but not an advert for a lady friend. The nearest he could imagine was a job advert. The thought made him smile. What could he offer? 'Retired engineer, 73, own house and car, likes travelling and dining out, seeks lady for friendship.' Would that do?
A couple of weeks later the replies started coming in. As he collected the letters from the doormat and put them in a pile he was astonished. There were twenty. At the weekend, Andy arrived, ambling into the kitchen in an old jersey and jeans. With marriage and fatherhood, he'd put on weight and acquired a worried look, but Harry could still see echoes of the curly-haired schoolboy he remembered. Harry put a pot of tea on the dining room table, together with cups, milk and sugar. He'd moved the model boat and wiped the table clean, as if for a ceremonial occasion. It was big enough for six people and, during his married life, it had been used for family dinners and formal events. This time he was inviting his son to join him in a serious exercise – considering which of the letters he wanted to respond to. Floss wound herself round Andy's ankles, and he stroked her until she purred loudly.
Harry laid out the pile of mail on the table and explained his initiative. 'It's like interviewing people for jobs.' He laughed. It occurred to him the exercise itself had cheered him up. There were ladies who would like to meet him.
Andy's forehead creased with perplexity. 'I'm not sure I'm a good judge.' When Andy frowned, his hazel eyes screwed up in a way which reminded Harry of Fiona.
Father and son sat at the table, working through the pile of letters in companionable silence.
'This one's a bit odd,' Andy said. 'She's been married twice and both her husbands died of heart attacks. It sounds as if she's been bumping them off.'
In the end they produced a shortlist of five. A week later, Harry prepared to meet the first of the ladies, Daphne. To his surprise, he felt as nervous as a youngster. He stood in front of the mirror he'd fixed on the inside of the wardrobe door for Fiona's benefit and looked at himself. Not a suit, he decided, because that was too formal, but a smart shirt and tie. He had never been tall and had shrunk an inch, so his smart trousers were a little too long. Some hair remained, in a circle round his head like a monk's tonsure. His glasses tended to slope down to the right, but he was presentable.
Daphne had agreed to meet him in the coffee shop in the High Street of the suburb where he lived. This arrangement suited him, as the coffee shop was part of the baker's where he bought his bread. It was a homely place, with check cloths on the tables and a friendly woman serving coffees at the counter. He sat down at a table with a coffee.
When the door swung open and a woman walked in, he looked at her with interest. She was short and plump, with masses of carrot-coloured hair, which flowed over an embroidered jacket. Fiona wouldn't have worn anything so flamboyant. She saw him, hurried over and sat down.
'You must be Harry. I'm glad to meet you. I was saying to my friend Viv the other day that I really need to meet a new man. My horoscope said so. I always look at it. I know it's not accurate but sometimes it tells me interesting things. '
Harry hesitated. He regarded horoscopes as superstition. 'Can I get you a coffee?'
'Can you get me one of their flapjacks, too? They're very nice.'
Keen to please, he walked to the counter and asked for a coffee and two flapjacks. The woman who served him gave a smile. By the time he returned, Daphne had opened a large, paisley patterned bag and was waving a piece cut from a magazine. When he looked at her more
closely, he could see grey roots beneath the orange hair and folds of flesh under her chin.
She said with enthusiasm 'You see, it says here 'You may have been feeling a little jaded lately. The middle of the month is a good time to take on new work or meet new people.' That fits me exactly. What star sign are you?'
'I'm not sure. '
'When's your birthday?'
'So you're a Taurus. That's good because I'm Cancer, so we should be compatible.' She took a flapjack from the plate.
Harry stirred his coffee and wondered what to say. 'I don't know much about astrology. I was an engineer. I'm interested in how things work.'
Her mouth took on a downward turn for a moment. 'But I think there's so much more to the world than physical things. There's a whole realm of the spirit.'
'Do you think so?'
'Definitely. We pick up influences from each other, from the planets and a realm beyond.' She waved her hand vaguely, making a couple of silver bracelets jangle.
'I suppose the moon can affect us,' said Harry after a moment's hesitation. 'But not the other planets.'
Daphne tapped the piece from the paper. 'Let me read your horoscope. You'll see.'
'Well, I'm not sure...'
She waved the magazine at him. 'Here it is. ' The beginning of the month may have brought a new initiative. Don't give up too easily. If you keep going you may succeed.'
Harry laughed. 'That could be true of anybody.'
Daphne tossed her head, making her hair swing. 'Well, I think it's promising.' She took a bite of the flapjack. Suddenly her face took on a look of consternation, as she struggled with something in her mouth.
'Are you all right?' he asked, thinking she was choking.
Daphne put her hand in front of her mouth and he realised she was holding a set of dentures. She opened her mouth, fumbled and the dentures disappeared.
Embarrassed, Harry tried to continue the conversation as if nothing had happened. ' I think it's better to rely on your own good sense and experience. There's no scientific basis for astrology.' Realising he was making matters worse, he looked down at his watch and thought of an escape route. 'I've left my car at the edge of the car park, rather than in a proper space. If I leave it there, I'll get a ticket. I must go. It's been nice meeting you, Daphne.' He nodded in her direction and fled.
Back home, Harry sat in his favourite chair with a cup of tea and stroked Floss. His first attempt to meet a compatible lady had not been much of a success. When he looked back, he realised how well-suited he and Fiona had been, from the moment they met at a Students' Union event. He had offered to help with the maths in her biochemistry course; she had agreed to ride pillion on his motorbike. Such togetherness was hard to find. Perhaps he was expecting too much. Disappointed, he decided to wait a few days before contacting the next lady on his list.
Instead, he took one of his model boats to the local pond to try it out. The pond lay beyond the coffee shop where he'd met Daphne. This time, he made sure he'd parked properly and walked up the road carrying his boat. A couple of young boys followed him, making him feel like a Pied Piper. He gave a glance in the direction of the coffee shop as he passed, hoping Daphne wasn't watching. The pond was surrounded by willow trees and there was enough wind to send a few yellow leaves drifting down onto the water. It would be a good day for sailing a small boat. He carefully lowered the boat on the water, adjusted the sails and set it sailing across the pond. It sailed in a straight line across the pond and came to a gentle halt against a clump of rushes. The two young boys ran round the pond and he followed more slowly. Two elderly people were standing by the water's edge. The old man was leaning on a stick, and the woman was pointing at the boat with one hand, while holding his arm with the other. They were both
smiling. As Harry stooped to catch the boat, he envied the old man who had a lady in his life.
Harry decided to go back home and look again at his list of ladies. Having retrieved the list from the desk, he sat down with a cup of tea and let Floss lie on his lap while he read it again. The list had a sentence or two about each lady, as well as her name and address. After reading the list several times, he decided to try Laura next.
She agreed to meet him in her house, with her daughter Cathy as companion. Harry drove to the neighbouring suburb and found the house in a row of semis not far from the main shopping street. There was a small front garden, where a few roses were flowering. The woman who opened the door was small, with blue eyes and neatly permed silver hair.
'Thank you for inviting me, Laura,' he said, taking her hand. He noticed she still wore wedding and engagement rings.
As she showed him into a living room, a younger woman rose from one of the armchairs to greet him. She might have been in her late forties, with the same blue eyes as her mother.
'I'm Cathy. I hope you don't mind me sitting in,' she said with a pleasant smile.
'Of course not, I understand.'
The room was quite small, with a table covered by a cloth at one side and two armchairs and a dining chair at the other. A window gave a view of a long, narrow garden, with a winding paved path. A tawny coloured cat lay on one of the dining chairs, beneath the table cloth.
'You like cats?'a sked Harry, encouraged.
'That's Chilli. He's a big softy.'
Harry stroked Chilli as he passed by on his way to the dining chair. The cat took no notice. 'I've got a cat. Floss. He's been good company.'
'Oh yes. I wouldn't like to be without an animal. They all have their personalities. I always know when it's warm outside, because Chilli goes and sits by the fence.'
Harry looked at the garden. 'It's a nice garden. But why does the cat sit there?'
'The neighbour's got a pond with koi carp in it. Chilli could never catch any of them, but he likes to watch.' Laura smiled.
Harry smiled back. There was something warm about Laura. 'Have you lived here long?'
'Forty years. I've always rented from the same landlord. That must be some kind of record.'
'I think it's a company, Mum, rather than a person,' said Cathy.
'You must be a good tenant, anyway,' said Harry. 'We had a lodger, in the first house I owned. Clive was his name. One day, I was up a ladder painting the windows on the first floor when he walked past and, do you know, I upset the paint tin and it spilled all over him! He was very good about it.'
Both women laughed.
They chatted for an hour about houses, interior design and the history of the area. Harry decided he liked Laura, with her ready smile and her bright eyes. Although she didn't have Fiona's academic background, she was bright and ready to take an interest.
When he rose to leave he took her hand again. 'Can I see you again?'
She smiled. 'Yes, I think I would like that.'