Count Your Blessings

The looming census was throwing up some surprisingly complicated feelings for lonely librarian Carolyn…

Carolyn crossed off the date on the calendar on the back of the kitchen door and smiled. Only a week to go! Almost a year to the day…

She cast her mind back to the previous spring: the day of the 2021 census, to be precise.

She’d known Ted for as long as she’d worked in the library – more than ten years, from when she’d been a nervous assistant, still doing her library exams, right up to the present day, when she was Head Librarian.

Ted came in every Thursday during his lunch break from the nearby architectural practice where he worked, regular as clockwork.

He always got out four books – usually a biography, a couple of thrillers, and something non-fiction and historical.

She remembered reflecting sadly that she knew the reading habits of half the town, without knowing many people at all. They smiled and passed the time of day, but their minds were clearly on their shopping lists, or where they needed to go next.

But Ted was different. He always stopped for a chat.

On this occasion, though, he was standing at the bus stop outside her house reading the timetable and looking disconsolate.

Surely there wasn’t a bus for hours, was there?

Carolyn had put a casserole in the oven for lunch, but it wouldn’t be ready for another hour. She took her apron off and headed for the front door.

Ted had just turned to walk away, but looked back as she called his name.

He smiled as he saw who it was and walked the few steps back.

“I didn’t know you lived here,” he said, indicating her still open front door. “I only live round the corner.”

Carolyn knew this, but could hardly say that she’d looked him up in the library records, hoping one day to casually bump into him.

She thought his glance lingered for a second on the jumble of children’s bikes stacked against the railings in her front garden.

Had he frowned? No, she was probably imagining it.

“Were you waiting for a bus?” she asked, frowning herself. “I’m not sure they run on Sundays…”

He laughed. “Some days everything goes wrong, doesn’t it? I was about to submit my census form online, but my router’s given up the ghost, so I thought I’d just pop to a friend’s house and use his computer – just to get it out of the way, you know? It’s so busy at work I hardly have a second.

“And then my car wouldn’t start. Now there are no buses!”

“Would… would you like to come in and use my computer?” Carolyn asked hesitantly, feeling she was being uncharacteristically forward. “I was about to have a cup of coffee…”

“That’s so kind, but you must be busy…” His eyes strayed to the bikes again. “You’re probably getting lunch for your husband and children.”

“I’m not!” she replied too quickly, and then blushed.

“I’m not married, but my sister and her husband and their four children are staying here for a few weeks.

“They’ve sold their house and are looking for a new one near Birmingham. Greg’s got a job there.

“They’ve gone house-hunting this weekend, thank the Lord. Usually it’s bedlam. Not that I don’t love them all to bits but…”

Now she was babbling, and he was still standing on the pavement in the cold.

“Please do come in.”

A few minutes later she and Ted were sitting at her kitchen table with her laptop between them, along with two cups of coffee and a plate of cookies.

Thank goodness she had got children staying, Carolyn thought.

She’d never have had homemade cherry cookies to offer him otherwise.

“You’re very adept at this,” Ted said as Carolyn guided him through the online census form.

Carolyn looked sideways at him.

“Well apart from the fact that I had to train the library staff so that they could help people coming in to do it on our computers, on this occasion I had seven people resident in this house, so I got some practice.

“It was just me on the census form last time.

“I filled in this year’s form yesterday, actually, and my sister Anne spent the whole time saying how amazing it was that at the last census there had only been her in her little flat, and seven years on she had Greg and four gorgeous children, and wasn’t that wonderful?”

Carolyn tried to smile, but it appeared that Ted could see right through her.

“So she wasn’t even married in 2014? And now she has four children?” He paused. “And she felt the need to point that out, did she?”

“Not once but several times,” Carolyn said, “in between kissing her husband and telling him how happy he made her. It was actually quite sickening.”

Suddenly, to her horror, her bottom lip started to tremble. She couldn’t be going to cry – she just couldn’t.

But she could. And she did.

“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life,” she managed to say finally, when the sobs had at last subsided.

She stood up to look in the oven, anything to avoid looking at Ted. But when she turned round, he had stood up too, and she found herself in his arms.

Coffee turned into lunch, and lunch was followed by a bracing walk, and then tea, until eventually they heard a key in the lock. Six voluble people burst through the door, all talking at once.

“I hope you’ve got the kettle on,” Anne called above the hubbub.

“We’re all starving – a bit of cake wouldn’t go amiss either! Have you had…”

She’d reached the door of the sitting room and stopped dead.

“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t realise you weren’t alone. I was about to go and change the baby’s nappy.” She paused expectantly, then said, “I suppose I’d better go and put the kettle on myself, then, had I?”

She sounded, Carolyn thought crossly, quite put out.

“We were just on our way out,” Ted said pleasantly, standing up. “We’re off to the cinema. And then out for supper. Maybe see you later?”

Carolyn widened her eyes at him, then fetched her coat, happiness bubbling up inside her.

Outings to the cinema became a regular event over the next few weeks, as did restaurant dinners, long weekend walks, visits to the theatre and cosy suppers in Ted’s flat.

Anne had given up asking Carolyn (usually at the very last minute) whether she could babysit, and had even taken to doing some of the cooking.

“What, not going out this evening?” she asked one Saturday, as Carolyn set the table for seven.

“Ted’s gone to Sutton Coldfield, to see some college friends.”

“So why didn’t he take you? Or doesn’t he introduce you to his friends?”

Yes, why hadn’t he taken her? And why hadn’t she met any of his friends?

“Maybe he’s letting you down gently,” Anne continued quietly. “Men aren’t very good at ending things…”

The following weekend, exactly the same thing happened. Carolyn had only seen Ted once in the last two weeks – he’d been “working late”.

Was this his way of telling her it was over? Just when she’d started having dreams of floaty white dresses and roses round a cottage door?

Anne simply raised her eyebrows and cut Carolyn an extra-large slice of cake.

But the next week Ted suggested a picnic by the river.

“Hmmm,” said Anne. “Neutral ground. He’s probably afraid you’ll make a scene if there aren’t lots of people around. Who’s providing the picnic?”

“He is,” Carolyn said.

Anne shook her head.

“It’s guilt on his part. Doesn’t dare ask you to bring it.”

But the events of the rest of the week put all thoughts of Ted’s intentions out of Carolyn’s mind.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” she said as they sat down by the river the following Sunday.

“That sounds a bit ominous,” Ted said. “Actually, there’s something I want to say to you too.”

This would be it, Carolyn thought miserably. Just as Anne had predicted.

And the thought of Anne’s satisfaction in being right – not, of course, that she’d take any pleasure in Carolyn’s unhappiness, she wasn’t that mean – made her even more miserable.

“I’ve been offered a partnership in Sutton Coldfield. One of my old college chums has a practice there. I’m very tempted. It’s not that far away…”

Not that far away? Sutton Coldfield?

Carolyn was aware that her face must have fallen, and tried to compose it, but Ted was watching two swans on the river and wasn’t looking at her.

“We could still see each other every weekend… It would be a good career move for me. But if you’d rather I stay…”

He turned to look at her.

“Well that’s the decision made,” he said sadly after a moment, seeing her unperturbed smile. “I was afraid… well, I was afraid you might be upset.

“Stupid of me,” he added, apparently to himself. “I’ve clearly misread the signs. I’ll accept the job right away.”


He was doing a good impression of a man struggling with his stiff upper lip.

“You haven’t asked about my news.”

“Yes, sorry. What?”

“Greg and Anne and their kids will be moving out next week. They’re completing on their new house.”

He beamed like his normal self for the first time that day.

“At last! They’ve been taking advantage of you for quite long enough.” Then he frowned. “But, wait… I’m assuming that was the good news. What’s the bad news?”

“I’m not absolutely sure it is bad news now, actually,” Carolyn said as her mind raced ahead of her. “It’s just that with all these cuts, they’re closing the library. I’ll be out of a job. But now… I… I could perhaps look for a new one in… Sutton Coldfield?”

This was terribly forward of her! What was she thinking?

But Ted’s face had lit up.

“Oh, sweetheart! That would be wonderful! We can both sell our houses and buy something up there. You could get another job.” Then he stopped abruptly. “But maybe not.”

Not? Just when her heart was fit to burst? Not?

“Why not? You’re not making any sense, Ted.”

“I mean,” he said, dropping to one knee (to the delight of passing families, who stopped to watch), “Will you please, please marry me?”

“Yes! Of course I will!”

She broke away from his immediate and passionate kiss – more entertainment for the onlookers who were now clapping.

“But what do you mean, not get a job? Of course I need a job.”

She’d always imagined a proposal as a romantic moment to treasure forever, not this emotional rollercoaster.

“Yes, OK, but, well, we’ve got a wedding to plan, two houses to sell, another to buy, a honeymoon to fit in and… well, being an only child, I’ve always wanted a big family! Let’s see if we can’t beat your sister at her own game, shall we?”

Carolyn was gazing open-mouthed.

“My sister? What on earth has Anne got to do with it?”

“A husband and four children in less than seven years? We’d better get on with things! After all, we’ve only got six years till the next census!”

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