Moments passed; maybe minutes. Maureen gave a swallow that smacked the silence. Im sorry, she said.
He nodded. He ought to look up, but he couldnt.
Its a nice morning, she began again. Why dont you fetch out the patio chairs? But he sat, not moving, not speaking, until she lifted the dirty plates. Moments later the vacuum cleaner took up from the hall.
Harold felt winded. If he moved so much as a limb, a muscle, he was afraid it would trigger an abundance of feeling he was doing his best to contain. Why had he let twenty years pass without trying to find Queenie Hennessy? A picture came of the small, dark-haired woman with whom he had worked all that time ago, and it seemed inconceivable that she waswhat? Sixty? And dying of cancer in Berwick. Of all the places, he thought; hed never traveled so far north. He glanced out at the garden and saw a ribbon of plastic caught in the laurel hedging, flapping up and down, but never pulling free. He tucked Queenies letter into his pocket, patted it twice for safekeeping, and rose to his feet.
Upstairs Maureen shut the door of Davids room quietly and stood a moment, breathing him in. She pulled open his blue curtains that she closed every night, and checked that there was no dust where the hem of the net drapes met the windowsill. She polished the silver frame of his Cambridge portrait, and the black-and-white baby photograph beside it. She kept the room clean because she was waiting for David to come back, and she never knew when that would be. A part of her was always waiting. Men had no idea what it was like to be a mother. The ache of loving a child, even when he had moved on. She thought of Harold downstairs, with his pink letter, and wished she could talk to their son. Maureen left the room as softly as she had entered it, and went to strip the beds.
Harold Fry took several sheets of Basildon Bond from the sideboard drawer and one of Maureens rollerball pens. What did you say to a dying woman with cancer? He wanted her to know how sorry he felt, but it was wrong to put In Sympathy because that was what the cards in the shops said after, as it were, the event; and anyway it sounded formal, as if he didnt really care. He tried Dear Miss Hennessy, I sincerely hope your condition improves, but when he put down the pen to inspect his message, it seemed both stiff and unlikely. He crumpled the paper into a ball and tried again. He had never been good at expressing himself. What he felt was so big it was difficult to find the words, and even if he could, it was hardly appropriate to write them to someone he had not contacted in twenty years. Had the shoe been on the other foot, Queenie would have known what to do.
Harold? Maureens voice took him by surprise. He thought she was upstairs, polishing something, or speaking to David. She had her rubber gloves on.
Im writing Queenie a note.
A note? She often repeated what he said.
Yes. Would you like to sign?
I think not. It would hardly be appropriate to sign a note to someone I dont know.
It was time to stop worrying about expressing anything beautifully. He would simply have to set down the words in his head: Dear Queenie, Thank you for your letter. I am very sorry. Yours Best wishesHarold (Fry). It was limp, but there it was. Sliding the letter into an envelope, he sealed it quickly, and copied the address of St. Bernadines Hospice onto the front. Ill nip to the postbox.
It was past eleven oclock. He lifted his waterproof jacket from the peg where Maureen liked him to hang it. At the door, the smell of warmth and salt air rushed at his nose, but his wife was at his side before his left foot was over the threshold.
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