Rachel’s mouth was a grim line as she buckled the twins into their car seats. There had been the usual fracas, with Josh refusing his cereal and Grace tipping her yoghourt over the cat, so she was running late again. Of course she allowed time for this kind of thing, she thought to herself. “I know every time something will happen, and it always takes longer than I expect. We’ll never ever be able to get up, wash, dress and have breakfast in an orderly manner.” She had a momentary vision of herself as an old woman, still trying to get the twins organised and off to work, and a rush of irritation against Tim made her bang Josh’s arm against the seat. Immediately she felt contrite, and stroked and kissed him better.
As she drove her thoughts turned again to Tim. She was constantly in a turmoil of grief and anger, frustration and anxiety about the future. How could he have gone like that? Just as everything was starting to look good, a perfect little family, loving parents, beautiful children, ideal home, good career prospects. She had to admit that she resented it, and more than once had banged her fist at the lack of consideration he had shown in dropping dead, without any warning, without any farewell. How could that happen to a healthy thirty-six-year-old man, going out like a flame in a draught?
They’d had so many plans, so much they were going to do, and now …. Nothing. She was alone, dealing with all the everyday problems and issues, no one to talk things over with, no one to look for solutions and answers with her. No one to share bringing up the twins, to laugh about the funny things they said and did, or to give them that extra cuddle. And to top it all she felt guilty about her resentment towards Tim.
At least she still had her job, and thank goodness the day nursery near her office could take the kids so she didn’t have too far to drive each day. For the time being, anyway. The grim line of her mouth tightened even more. A year to grieve, they had said. Then you can start making big decisions. Well, it had been more than a year now. She already had a buyer for the house and knew she would soon have to find a smaller place for them to live, but the thought filled her with fear. Downsizing was an easy word to say, but the reality was a totally different matter. Should she look for a place to rent, until she knew what she wanted to do permanently? Her brain felt like scrambled egg.
Once she was in her office, though, she could close that compartment of her mind filled with all her private cares and worries, whilst she focussed on the matters demanding immediate attention. There were plenty of people worse off than she was, and her job reminded her of that. Her department was tasked with helping find accommodation for the homeless, the waifs and strays that wandered in and out, some looking utterly helpless, others defiant or vociferous. Some of them were easy to deal with, but there were others who seemed like hopeless cases and almost deliberately sabotaged all her efforts, their own worst enemies. Concentrating on their troubles helped her forget her own for a while.
Rachel looked at her agenda and realised she was due to give a talk at a local charity that afternoon. She had known about it, obviously. It had been there in her calendar for several weeks, but she hadn’t registered that it was today. She heaved a sigh and set to work on updating the last presentation she had given. No time to do anything original now.
By two pm, in professional mode with fresh makeup and her hair re-coiffed, she looked as if she hadn’t a care in the world as she arrived at the charity HQ. They gave her a warm welcome, her presentation went well, and the questions afterwards were less inane than usual. Rachel’s mood was definitely much brighter than it had been at breakfast time.
“Excuse me,” said a warm voice, “Would you have a moment to spare? I have a few more questions, more specific ones.”
Two smiling hazel eyes met hers. “Of course,” she said, “I think most people have gone now, so the rest of my time is yours.”
The eyes belonged to a middle-aged man who reminded her of a teddy bear, with his short sandy-coloured hair and beard and rather rotund figure. She wondered if he would growl if she pressed his tummy, and the thought made her smile.
“They’re serving tea and coffee next door,” he said, “if you would like to sit down somewhere more comfortable …” It seemed a good idea, and soon they were cosily ensconced in a couple of armchairs with their coffee.
“My name’s David,” he said. “Our church has a programme that tries to help people who are down and out, and I thought we might be able to work with your association.”
David was easy to talk to, and after they had discussed the various possibilities for their two organisations, their conversation turned to more personal topics. David told her about himself and how he had come back to his native town after working abroad for several years, and how much more fulfilling he found his present occupation than the rat race that had previously consumed him. Rachel found herself telling him about her predicament and the house-hunt that she was about to engage in.
“I’m thinking of going back home to Lincolnshire,” she said, “I still have family there, and the children aren’t in school yet, so it would be a good time to move. Trouble is, I do love my job and I’ve made some friends here. I feel so unsettled.”
“What would you do if you went back?”
“Don’t know, really. If I could find the right place here, I’d prefer to stay.”
David looked thoughtful.
“One of the things our Centre does is find work for our lame ducks. I’m mostly involved with building trades because that’s what I know about. It gives the lads a bit of experience and independence, helps their pride and self-esteem. We pay them at the going rate, and sometimes they can move into a place themselves. I’ve just sunk all my savings into a couple of properties that need some TLC,“ he said. “An investment for my old age. I thought I’d do them up and let them, some income when I can’t work any more. I don’t know if that might help you?”
“Where are they?” asked Rachel.
“One of them is in Long End Street, about ten minutes walk from here. Would you like to have a look? I haven’t found a tenant for that one yet, because I was going to do a few things to it first, but you’re welcome to first refusal.”
They arranged to meet for a viewing the following Friday, and Rachel went back to her office.
She was pleasantly surprised that evening, when the twins were tucked up in bed and she had finally managed to kick off her shoes and sit down, to get a phone call from her cousin. Jackie was the same age as Rachel, and they had been very close all their lives in spite of the geographical distance that now separated them.
“I’ve been praying for you,” Jackie said. She was a regular churchgoer, the only one in the family nowadays.
“God knows what for,” said Rachel flippantly.
“Yes, he does,” retorted Jackie. “You shouldn’t be so negative, duckie! Funny thing, actually. I got the distinct impression that you are going to live in a house with chickens in the garden!”
They chuckled at the thought of career-girl Rachel keeping hens, and turning into a smallholder, then went on to exchange all the rest of the family news and gossip.
By Friday Rachel had forgotten this conversation, and she almost forgot her appointment with David, but he called her just as she was about to leave the office, to give her careful directions.
“It’s an old house, as I told you,” he said. “But you can’t miss it, it’s got a black-and-white porch around the front door.”
Rachel didn’t have high hopes. He had said the house was a fixer-upper, and she knew enough about property to understand what that meant. But it could be a temporary solution until she had got everything sorted out, and she was touched by David’s kindness in offering her first refusal.
Her premonitions were correct. Her heart sank when she saw the peeling paintwork, the cracked path and the large patch of weeds in front of the house. This wasn’t promising. David opened the door and they stepped inside. Rachel was surprised by how light and airy the place was, and noticed instantly that it was relatively clean. Yes, the décor was stuck in the nineteen-eighties, the wallpaper and the patterned carpet screamed at the swag curtains, but it did have central heating and double-glazing.
“I’m planning to redecorate, of course, “David told her, “And put in a new kitchen and bathroom. I thought of knocking this wall out, and extending the kitchen. What do you think? It wouldn’t be too big a job. There’s plenty of room and it would make a huge difference to the kitchen. If you’re interested in renting it, I could get it done to your liking. A woman’s input matters in a kitchen.”
After they had been through the whole house, Rachel found herself feeling slightly more positive about the house. Yes, it was old, and had been occupied by an old person, but it felt friendly and had character, with real beams in the living room and a neat bow window with a window seat. There were three bedrooms, so the twins wouldn’t have to share, and although it was centrally situated it was in a very quiet cul-de-sac with little traffic. She could actually walk to work from there. She began to visualise how it might look with new flooring and freshly painted walls, and how she could fit in at least some of her furniture.
“What about the garden?” she asked. Through the windows, especially from upstairs, she had noticed that it was a decent sized jungle. Maybe the kids would like that! Much depended on what was lurking in the undergrowth, though, and it might not all be harmless.
“I’ve got people lined up for that,” David nodded, suddenly aware of the importance a garden might hold in the lives of four-year-olds. “We can do the front, too, make it into off-road parking. And I’d be very grateful for your advice on landscaping it and making it safe for the little ones. There are a couple of outbuildings, a shed and something, might have been a greenhouse once. The old man left all his gardening tools, too. I’ll get it all cleared away and we’ll prune the bushes and trees. It could be lovely.” He added this in a hopeful tone and Rachel smiled.
They stepped out through the kitchen door into a kind of lean-to, and David explained how easy it would be to make the kitchen so much bigger with a proper extension and picture windows looking onto the garden, which he promised to make child-friendly. “You could easily keep on eye on them while you’re in the kitchen,” he said, “and make sure they don’t get up to mischief.”
But Rachel wasn’t listening. She had noticed the old wooden shed next to the lean-to, and opened the door. It was dark, dusty and full of cobwebs, but one thing stood out very clearly: the black shape of a cockerel raising his head to crow. She gasped.
“What’s that?” she whispered.
“Oh, the old boy who lived here used to do metalwork as a hobby. This was his workshop. I think he made weather vanes and things.”
As her eyes adapted to the darkness, Rachel made out a few more recognisable shapes. What had Jackie said? “Chickens in the garden”?
Well, these were definitely chickens: fowl of all shapes and sizes, not just cockerels and hens but ducks and geese too.
She looked at David, her eyes like saucers.
“I think I’m supposed to take it,” she said slowly. “My cousin said I was going to live in a house with chickens in the garden!”
“What made her say that?”
“She’s a good Christian, goes to church regularly, and she said when she prayed about me, that’s the answer she got.”
“Did she say anything about the rent?”
Rachel shook her head, puzzled.
“Well, “ he laughed, “You’ll have to tell your Christian cousin that when I prayed about this house, and how much rent I should charge, I got the answer ‘Chickenfeed!’ I think we may have a deal!”
David awoke just before sunrise on Saturday as the sky was turning pink. Still in his pyjamas, he made himself a pot of coffee and sat down by the window to watch the daily miracle of dawn and prepare for his quiet time. He could see his reflection in the glass, his beard and the roundness of his cheeks. He sighed.
“Not getting any younger, are you?” he said to the face looking back at him. “What on earth are you thinking of?”
Later that day he was busy at the Centre when the pastor, George, turned up.
“Could do with a word sometime, George, when you have a minute.”
“Right. Want to book a date for the wedding or are you going to Gretna Green?”
David was taken aback.
“What do you mean?”
“That gorgeous redhead you whisked away from us the other day – you didn’t lose any time, did you?”
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, George. She’ll be moving into my house …”
George’s jaw dropped. “You don’t hang about, do you, David? I was joking …”
David laughed out loud and clapped George on the shoulder. “My house in Long End Street,” he explained. “You know I’ve been looking for a tenant. Well, she’s looking for a house and there was this strange coincidence.” He told George what had transpired, and that he needed to get the house fixed up sooner than originally intended. That would be work for some of the people on the charity’s books, and he wanted George’s recommendations. They had soon agreed on that, and David turned back to his duties. As he moved away, he suddenly stopped.
“George, I think you’re right,” he said.
“Of course I’m right,” responded George. “What about, in particular?”
“I’m going to marry her.”
Where did the words come from? David had no idea. He didn’t stop to elaborate, but fled into his tiny office and closed the door. Why had he said that? How stupid did that make him look, a tubby man getting on for fifty, who had never even been engaged before let alone married – what was he thinking, how could he dare to think, of himself and that striking young woman in any kind of relationship? They hadn’t spent more than a couple of hours together. And yet, the idea had settled into his mind that morning and now it was stuck fast like a limpet on a rock: “That’s the woman I’m going to marry!”
There was a knock at the door.
“May I come in?” asked George. “I thought you might like some prayer support.”
He sat down and the two men prayed.
After a lengthy silence, George looked up.
“I think you’re right,” he said. “But give it some time.”
Nothing moves as fast in the real world as we would like it to, and David was shy. He was not a man to sweep a woman off her feet, and he was embarrassingly aware of the age difference between them.
His house was soon ready for occupation, and he had been very grateful for the opportunity to see Rachel a few times with the genuine excuse that he wanted her advice on the refurbishment. Together they had selected the new kitchen and bathroom fixtures and fittings, and she had chosen the flooring and colour scheme she wanted. They had met to discuss what would be best in the garden, and where to erect the trampoline.
Rachel was grateful that she didn’t have to deal with plumbers, plasterers and electricians, and pleased that her ideas and choices were respected. Their dealings were businesslike, but a friendship was budding. She liked this uncomplicated man, who listened to her and talked sense. He treated the twins as human beings, taking them seriously, and giving them little jobs that made them feel important and involved in the preparation of their new home.
Finally, the sale of Rachel’s house was completed. Deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, with all the memories and associations attached to every object, had been harrowing. Some precious things went into storage. Everything else was packed up and to Rachel’s relief the move went smoothly. She lost that tight-lipped expression and her colleagues noticed that she was no longer on such a short fuse. She smiled and sang in the car on the way to the nursery. The twins were excited about having a new place to live and the novelty of a new garden.
“Are we going to have a new Daddy, too?” asked Grace, as she helped Rachel unpack a box of family photos, picking out one with Tim soon after the babies had been born.
“Do you want a new Daddy?” Rachel asked back, nonplussed.
“Well, our old Daddy hasn’t come with us, “explained the little girl.
Josh joined them.
“We’ve got the Teddy Bear man now,” he announced matter-of-factly.
“He can be our new Daddy.”
Grace nodded sagely and put Tim’s photo down on the floor. The two children picked up some toy cars and went off to play, leaving Rachel with the photos.
She stared at the picture of Tim, the radiant new father gingerly holding a child in each arm. It had been eighteen months now since his death, and so much had happened. The twins had been toddlers, little more than babies. It struck her like a bucket of icy water in her face that they had no clear memory at all of the man who had played with them, hugged and kissed them, and been so proud of them. He was a face in a photo, nothing more. He had disappeared forever.
She wiped her eyes, kissed the photo of all she had loved most in the world, and put it back on the pile of things that would go into a cupboard to become memories.