A short story
“You’re up early, Mr Dawes. “Not like you… especially on a raw morning like this.”
“You’m right, Mrs French. I stays in bed as long as I can in winter. It saves on the heating. But today’s special. My daughter’s coming over.”
“That’s good to hear. But don’t go catching a chill. It could be the death of you at your age.”
Mrs French anxiously watched the bent old man scrabble in the frost-rimed coal bin to fill up his ancient scuttle. Poor old soul, she thought to herself. He’s 93 and still making up coal fires to keep warm.
“Let me do that, Mr Dawes. You’ll strain yourself.”
“That’s very kind but I’m almost done. Got to stay active you know,” his defiant words cut short by a coughing fit. Mrs French let herself in by the gate between their gardens and patted his back gently, feeling the bones beneath his dressing gown; and, when he’d recovered his composure she led him into his kitchen, carrying the scuttle.
An unholy mess as usual: saucepans stacked in the sink; Belling stove covered in baked-on food; half-filled cat dish on the grimy, tiled floor.
“You sit yourself down,” she said firmly. I’ll sort out the fire and make a pot of tea.”
Usually fiercely independent, Mr Dawes acceded, even he acknowledging that his strength had been sapped venturing out on such a cold morning. As he gradually regained some of his energy and colour he chattered excitedly to his neighbour while she called on skills she hadn’t needed for many years, painstakingly placing kindling and coal on top of newspaper spills.
“Yes, she’s popping in later this morning, Mrs French. On her way to Weston, she said, so she can’t stay long. But it’ll be good to see her. I’ve still got her birthday present here – she told me to keep it by, and that was three months ago.”
Mrs French unbent her back and looked up. Three months… some family relationships you could understand being like that. People fell out or lived too far apart. But Mr Dawes’ only daughter Judith lived 12 miles away and had the most devoted father you could wish for. Still… none of her business. Judith was the biggest loser. Many children would give anything to still have their parents. Perhaps she’d realise that when her father was no longer there to ignore.
She watched the paper scorch and take light, charcoaled wisps drifting up the chimney as yellow fingers of flame crackled and licked hungrily around the kindling and crumbling coal. Mr Dawes, delighted to have an audience, explained how his grandson would soon be leaving University and was sure to do well as he had his grandmother’s brains. His words flowed around Mrs French as she found herself being hypnotised by the dancing flames: real fires might be a pain, but they still held an attraction that an efficient central heating system could never offer.
Confident that the fire would now take, she pulled herself up from her knees and bent low over Mr Dawes to straighten the crocheted blanket on his knees. She went back into the scullery, poured the water into the pot, found a cleanish cup, milk and sugar and put them all next to him.
“Just pop on a bit more coal in a few minutes, Mr Dawes, and make sure you wrap up nice and warm today.” She looked around, taking in the piles of old newspapers, the dilapidated writing cabinet stuffed with old papers, the sofa given over to Mrs Dawes’ portly ginger cat, and consequently resplendent in a covering of its distinctive fur. “Why don’t you get Social Services to arrange a home help, Mr Dawes? I’m sure you’d be entitled.”
The old man looked up over his cup of tea, his thin face drawn into a defiant frown. “They’m all busybodies,” he chided. “They’ll waltz in here and tell me I oughter be in a home. That would be the death of me. I likes me independence. Don’t want some chit of a girl nannying an old soldier like me.”
She caught his glance as he looked up proudly at the fading black-and-white framed regimental picture above the writing cabinet, the stiff-backed young men staring down impassively at them… but none more upright that the handsome sergeant on the right. Mr Dawes, who’d spent over 20 years in the Army and had seen action in Africa, Normandy, Burma and Korea was, she silently agreed, not someone who’d take kindly to being nannied.
“I’m hoping my daughter will find somewhere special to put that picture when I’m gone, Mrs French. Something to remember me by. I’ve precious little else to leave. And I won’t forget your kindness too.” He patted her hand as she went past him to leave.
“Don’t go talking like that, Mr Dawes. You’ll be with us a few years yet.”
They looked at each other silently and smiled, both knowing that this was just not true… but it never did any harm to look on the bright side. “I’ll look in later, Mr Dawes, perhaps pick up your paper?”
“That’s kind, but no. It’ll do me good to pop down the road. I’ll wait ‘til the frost is off the ground though.”
With that, Mrs French lifted the back-door latch and left. Later, she watched a smart blue car pull up outside and an expensively-dressed woman in her fifties went, rather gingerly, through Mr Dawes’ gate – looking for all the world as though she really didn’t want to be there. Barely half an hour later, as Mrs French took out some recycling, the lady reappeared.
“Hello there, Judith,” said Mrs French, quietly observing how changed she was from her days as a scruffy, rather obstreperous schoolgirl. “Keeping well I see.”
“Very well thank you, Mrs French,” her self-satisfaction mixed with a little embarrassment knowing that Mrs French had known her when she wasn’t so well heeled. “Yourself?”
“Can’t complain. But I do worry about your dad. He’s getting very frail.”
“I know, I know. He ought to go into a home. I told him again today, I won’t always be able to pop in and out to look after him. But he’s so independent. I can’t stand to see the mess he’s living in – all that smelly old furniture needs taking out and burning. I’d do it today if he’d let me.”
Yes, thought Mrs French to herself. I’m sure you would. It probably reminds you of where you started in life. And with that, the two made their polite goodbyes and Judith drove off, waving briefly at the old man staring devotedly out of the window.
The months passed, winter turned to early spring and the weather lost some of its venom. Some days Mrs French would be in her garden and exchanged a wave or pleasantry as Mr Dawes made his slow progress to the corner shop for his paper and occasional shopping bag of essentials. Now and again she’d make an excuse to pop in and ask if he wanted anything bringing back from the shop. He’d invariably be happy to chat… about his daughter, his grandson’s progress and, of course, his army days. He was the last one left now, he told her one day, holding a letter from his old regiment. “All those brave boys gone,” he said, eyes glistening. He looked up at the picture and visibly straightened his back, transported to the time when he was a proud, independent and handsome man. The way he wanted people to remember him.
Then, one day, he never emerged to get his paper and the shopkeeper kindly brought it after he closed up. Mrs French headed him off as he made his way down the path, took the paper and tapped on her neighbour’s door before letting herself in. She found him sat in his armchair, the cat nestling pathetically on his lap and the fire long gone cold… the old man’s eyes closed as in sleep, features at rest and the old regimental picture in his arms… the last thing he must have been looking at before he passed.
A few weeks later she found Judith at her door, this time dressed in dungarees and trainers and looking far more like her younger self. She explained that she’d been clearing out the house and asked if she could come in.
Over a cup of tea at the kitchen table, Judith eventually got around to why she was there. “We had the will read to us by the solicitors yesterday, Mrs French. Along with the house, which we’ll be putting up for sale when we’ve sorted it out, he left a tidy amount – we didn’t expect that to be honest. I can’t think why he didn’t spend it on himself, but there you go.”
Mrs French knew exactly why he hadn’t spent it on himself but refrained from saying.
“Anyway, he asked specifically for you to receive this for all your kindnesses over the years.” Mrs French opened the envelope and saw a cheque for £500. “That’s…. that was… very generous of him,” she said.
“He also asked, when we’d taken what we wanted, to give you the pick of what was left. ‘Something to remember him by’ he said.”
That phrase he so often used…
“There was nothing I wanted, to be honest,” Judith went on, “apart from the china they’d been given when they married and only ever used a few times. So, feel free to pop in and take whatever you want. We’ll get the charity shop to clear what’s left.”
“Nothing sentimental for you to take?” asked Mrs French, surprised.
“There’s nothing in there except the past, Mrs French. And you know me. I’m always one for looking forward.”
Later that day, Mrs French let herself in. The house was already feeling damp and unaired. She opened a window to let some spring air through, looking out at a garden that had once been filled with dahlias, rows of beans and a motley collection of rhubarb forcers… but was now sadly unkempt and overgrown. Looking round the familiar room she could see that virtually nothing had been moved since her last visit: the papers in the cabinet had been rummaged through, a couple of family pictures on the mantlepiece had left behind pale imprints on the wallpaper. But nothing else had gone… not even the faded regimental picture that Mr Dawes had been so keen to leave to his daughter as something “to remember him by”. Well, why not, she thought, as she took the photograph down and dusted it with her pinafore. He was a lovely old chap, and I’ll remember him – even if no one else wants to.
She drifted though the other rooms but soon realised that it was best to leave it to the clearance men. She closed the window and, with a sigh, locked the door behind her for the last time.
It was three weeks later when she got around to looking at the picture again. Her son had dropped by and they were talking about Mr Dawes. He had fond memories of the old man when he’d been growing up, so she took it out from under the stairs to show it to him.
“He looks so proud in that picture,” said her son as he held it up for a better look. “I’d be careful about this frame, though. It feels quite loose.”
With that, a small, folded piece of paper fluttered down from between the frame and the picture. Mrs French picked it up and stared at it with increasing puzzlement. It was a lottery ticket, dated the day before he died. On the top was scribbled in Mr Dawes’ spidery writing: “Something to remember me by.” And below were printed the numbers that would lead her to an unclaimed half a million pounds.
“Something to remember him by” indeed…
Image: Unsplash – JD Mason