WRITTEN BY VIVIEN BROWN
There had been many changes in her life that she could not control – but this change will be very much intentional
Barbara Watson had never wanted to sell the house. It was her husband George who had insisted that the market was about to slump, and that if they didn’t sell now, put a little nest egg away for their future, and rent somewhere while they looked for a nice little cottage to retire to, then they’d probably make a huge loss that they would always regret.
Number eighteen, Park Lane. Oh, how Barbara had loved that house. The trouble was, she had loved George too. Loved him enough to be guided by his judgment, and to believe everything he told her. She’d believed him when he’d said he was going away on business trips, believed him when he’d said he was only sleeping in the spare room to save her from being kept awake by his snoring, and believed that all their assets should be transferred into his sole name – for tax reasons.
George had not loved her. He had conned her. Barbara, she now realised, had been a fool.
His so-called business trips had turned out to be weekends away with his secretary, young enough to be the daughter they had never had. And moving into the spare room, she had been forced to admit, simply meant he no longer wanted to share her bed.
Putting everything into his name however had not worked when it came to the divorce. She had come away with a very fair financial settlement, one that the judge felt reflected the length of their marriage and her status as a loyal and dependent wife. But all she had ever really wanted was the house, and that was long gone.
Now Barbara shivered on the pavement and gazed at the house that, until two years ago, had been her beloved home for more than forty years. She had been tricked into letting it go. That surely couldn’t be right.
The front door had been re-painted red. Not a colour she herself would have chosen, but there’s no accounting for taste. The new owners had put in PVC windows too, and mended the garden wall. She couldn’t help wondering what the inside was like now. Not that it mattered. When she got the house back, she would change everything back to the way it used to be. The way it was supposed to be.
She had been coming here every afternoon for weeks now. At first, setting off after lunch with Maisie on her lead, it had been a way of getting out of her little rented flat and just walking, working off some of those extra inches that seemed to have appeared around her once-trim waist.
However, in time, as her walks grew longer, she found herself drawn back to old familiar territory. Back to the park she had been able to see from her bedroom window, where she had walked Maisie every day and, before that, her boxer dog Butch. Butch, who was still there in her old garden, lying peacefully, buried beneath the apple tree.
Then she had ventured into Park Lane itself and found herself pausing outside number eighteen, just for a few moments at a time, fiddling with Maisie’s lead or pretending to tie a shoe lace…
It had been an older couple who had bought the house, she remembered, but she had never met them, leaving the viewing arrangements to George and the estate agent while she walked the dog, not quite able to face up to the reality of someone else buying – and living in –
Soon, just looking at the house from the pavement was no longer enough. So, one afternoon, taking a deep breath, and with no idea of what she was going to say, Barbara strode purposefully up the path and rang the bell. Strains of Edelweiss tinkled away behind the door. At least that hadn’t changed.
Nothing moved. Nobody was in. Feeling braver now, she edged her way along to the lounge window, cupped her hand over her eyes and peered in through the frosty glass. Gone was the pink striped wallpaper she had so carefully chosen and in its place were leaves. Big flouncy leaves all over the wall. And a green sofa and chairs, to boot. Green! How dare they? For a minute or two she forgot that she no longer had any say in the décor. It was all so very upsetting.
The next time – oh, yes, there had to be a next time – when she rang the bell, a man came to the door. “Can I help you?” he said, pleasantly enough.
“Yes, I do hope so. I used to live here, in this house. And I’ve misplaced a rug. Pink. I may have left it behind when we moved, perhaps in the cupboard under the stairs?”
Barbara felt her cheeks reddening at the lie, but with a bit of luck he’d ask her into the lounge, offer tea, give her the chance to satisfy her curiosity about what else had been changed.
“Well, you’d better come in out of the cold. Although I’m fairly sure it’s not there. I’m Stephen, by the way. Stephen Jenkins. I didn’t catch your name.”
“Watson,” said Barbara, hovering behind him as he opened the cupboard door and turned on the light. There wasn’t much inside. A raincoat on a hook, a vacuum cleaner, umbrellas, a pair of muddy Wellingtons…
“Sorry, no sign of a rug.” He straightened up, a good foot taller than she was, even in his slippers.
“Sorry to have troubled you. I suppose my ex-husband must have taken it.”
“Yes, we divorced. Soon after moving out of this house.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m on my own too, as it happens. My wife died, rather suddenly, just nine months after we moved in. But leave me your phone number and if the rug turns up I’ll give you a call.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mr Jenkins.” She quickly scribbled a number on the pad of paper he thrust into her hand. Not her real number, obviously. Just the first one that came into her head.
“Call me Stephen, please.” He held out his hand and she shook it. Then he closed the door gently behind her and she was alone again, outside, just as it started to snow.
For the next two weeks she thought about what to do next.
She could call about the rug again, of course, say she’d made a mistake with the phone number, but he wouldn’t have found a missing rug, no matter how hard he’d looked.
She could try bumping into him in the street as he was going in or out. Strike up a conversation, and maybe he would ask her in again. Or better still, ask her out! A lonely widower, with a lovely house. A short romance, perhaps even a marriage… It would certainly be a way to move back in, wouldn’t it? But, to be honest, she’d had enough trouble with the last husband. She certainly didn’t need another. No, she was just being fanciful. There was no way to get the house back. She had to let it go, forget it, move on with what was left of her life.
That was when George came back. Just turned up on her doorstep, clutching an overnight bag. His lady friend had left him at Christmas, he told her, and run off with someone her own age and twice as rich. And then he’d had a heart attack, and had been in hospital for a fortnight, and had only just been let out. And now he was all alone. Words like “mistake” and “always loved you” slipped into his rather rambling conversation, as she watched and listened in disbelief.
She let him sleep in an armchair that night, having just the one bed and being quite certain she did not want to share it, except with Maisie, who seemed to have completely forgotten who he was. No, an old sleeping bag and a pile of blankets from the airing cupboard would do for the likes of George.
In the morning, she poured two bowls of cereal and let him talk again. If only he had not been such an old fool, if only he had realised how lucky he had been to have her. If only, if only…
Seeing him like this gave Barbara a new and unexpected feeling of exhilaration. She was in charge now. George was old and frail and desperate. He would not be attracting any more young women. He was hers to do with as she wanted. And he had a new house, a good pension, and all those thousands she was sure he must have hidden away to fool the judge…
“So, would you, do you think?” George was almost pleading now.
“Sorry, George. Would I what?” At some point, at least ten minutes earlier, she’d stopped listening to a word he said.
“Consider taking me back?”
It must have been fate that led her to the property pages in the local paper as she spooned her breakfast mindlessly into her mouth the next morning, George still snoring like a pig in the lounge. Because there it was. Number eighteen, Park Lane. For sale. Hurriedly, she grabbed for Maisie’s lead, wrapped her woolly scarf tightly around her neck and headed off on their old walking route.
She stood at the gate and gazed again at the house, now sporting a For Sale sign that waved invitingly at her in the wind.
Edelweiss played sweetly as she pressed the bell.
Mrs Watson! I didn’t expect to see you again.
Stephen Jenkins opened the door with a mug of tea in his hand and a smile on his face.
“The house is for sale,” she said.
“It is indeed.”
“I want it.”
He laughed. “I thought you were in search of a rug, not an entire house!”
“Not this time, Mr Jenkins.”
“Then perhaps you’d like to come in?”
They sat side by side on the hideous green sofa, sipping tea, as he explained that, without his wife, the house felt too big for him now, too empty.
“So, will you sell it to me?” Barbara asked. “Forget surveys. I know this house, all its faults and quirks, and no surveyor will be able to tell me anything I’m not already aware of. Save yourself estate agents fees too. We’ll do a private deal, get things through quickly. My husband and I have the money, so there’ll be no need for a mortgage.”
But I thought you were alone now. Divorced, you said…
Barbara wiggled her toes in the soft green rug at her feet. The wallpaper didn’t look quite so bad up close, but she would be changing it, just the same.
“We have recently reconciled,” she said, curtly.
“Oh, I see. Well, in that case… yes, Mrs Watson, I think we can do business.”
Barbara sat back and smiled. The house, and Maisie, were all she needed. Not a husband, and certainly not George. But he would not be around for long. He had already had one heart attack. The stress of moving, a little too much lifting and carrying, some good home-cooked cholesterol-packed meals…
“Poor George,” people would say. “Just back with his wife too. Such a shame!”
“Thank you very much, Stephen,” she said, as she took his outstretched hand and shook it warmly. “And, please, do call me Barbara.”