Katy Nixon’s Short Story
Retired Gentleman Wanted
The garden stretched out before Jim and Doris. They hadn’t done a bad job considering neither of them had a clue. They stood surveying their hard work with It’s A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong pouring out of the back door of Dori’s house; the sun turned the clouds pink as its light was swallowed greedily by roof top chimneys.
Strange to think that earlier that day Jim had sat staring at a bottle of pills, unable to imagine any other option than taking the lot.
He had woken up and paused before opening his eyes, so that he could steady himself for the reality of his new life. He could still hear John saying “cup of tea old boy?” Before he kissed his forehead as he had every morning of their retirement. He wondered how he had managed to miss what an important detail that was. Only death had made him realise that the everyday mundane is the stitching of love.
He had left the bed quickly so as not to fall into grief too early in the day. Wrapping his dressing gown around him and sliding slippers on his feet he noticed once again how different the house sounded when there was only him to fill it.
He made it to the top of the stairs and then sank slowly down onto the first step, his knees connecting with his elbows and his face moving into his hands, his body well trained now and braced for the first sob that escaped from his covered mouth. He didn’t move for hours. The bottle of pills called to him from his pocket.
Later on, after somehow gathering himself together with the intention to die in freshly laundered clothes, Jim made his pilgrimage to the laundrette. The washing machine and tumble driers massaging his brain into stillness. A poster on the laundrette window caught Jim’s eye as he was leaving with his small bag of freshly washed clothes. It said in big, bold font, ‘Retired Gentleman Wanted’. He had paused and placed his bag on the pavement. So odd was it’s existence that Jim thought it couldn’t be anything other than a sign from some far away God.
He brought out his notebook and carefully copied down the phone number from the yellowing paper blu tacked to the glass. The number burned a hole in his pocket all morning. He mused over the possibilities of what a retired gentleman could possibly be needed for as he fought his way through the Kirkgate’s wind and rain. Curiosity got the better of him when he got home and the house mumbled its unbearable empty song. So he sat in the hall and dialled the number slowly.
The phone rang for what seemed like an eternity and then a woman’s voice answered. Jim was sure she had gasped quietly after she had said hello...as if surprised to hear a word spoken out loud.
“I’m phoning about the ad you placed in the window of the laundrette, the one looking for a retired gentleman.”
There had been pause.
“Aye, don’t be getting any funny ideas, I’m needing my garden done.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much use it was always my husband that did ours.” (Another pause, and the sound of a cigarette being lit.)
“My Tony used to always be out there too, green fingers I used to call him. It’s looking a mess since he passed, now I‘ve got her with the bidey-in across the way threatening to complain to the council.”
Jim liked that the woman spoke to him as if he knew Tony and “her with the bidey-in across the way.”
Their conversation carried on in halting sentences. Her name was Doris and she was seventy-two and widowed 18 months. Jim told her about John…
“It hits you hardest then.” Doris said when he told her it had only been three months. Jim had held the phone at his ear and leaned his head against the wall behind him, his shoulders relaxing with her voice.
“You know I haven’t touched any of John’s stuff since he died, perhaps there will be something of use for your garden?” He offered, while his hand held the bottle of pills in his pocket like a talisman.
“Right be here in an hour then, don’t be late I make my tea for 5pm on the dot every night so we’ll need to get the garden done now.” Before he could argue he heard a cigarette light and then the phone went dead.
Against his better judgement Jim decided to go to Doris’s house. He collected the gardening tools from John’s shed. The last time he had been in there, John had been cutting flowers for the house. Jim had folded down one of the old deck chairs and watched him meticulously bunching wild flowers together. The colours reminded Jim of what he saw behind his eyes when they kissed.
Jim greeted Doris with an outstretched hand, instead of reciprocating Doris had handed him, rather aggressively, a shovel. She was a woman of few words, direct in what she meant. But Jim immediately liked her.
They worked side by side that afternoon. Two strangers, brought together by loss, tending the earth Tony had left behind. Jim didn’t know what the day meant, but as he stood with Doris, the sun almost set, the garden ready to begin again, he felt John’s arms around him, keeping him safe.