The street was quiet and leafy; the trees were showing off their new green coats and a couple of the more adventurous ones were budding blossoms as well. Around their roots were flower beds with spikes of green shooting upwards with enthusiasm, and scatterings of colour showed where the flowers were already out. Des walked along peacefully, his mind free of worry and blissfully in tune with the natural world around him. About twenty feet behind him two burly gentlemen followed discretely. Both wore suits that were stretched across their muscled frames, all the buttons done up and straining for release. They wore white shirts with silver cufflinks, and their shoes were polished enough to reflect their Brillantined hair if they were to bend over to tie a shoelace. Birds twittered in the branches of the trees, invisible to the looking but clearly audible. Des was sure that their conversation, if he could only understand it, would be about sex. But that the case with most conversations, whether he could understand them or not, and he felt that this was just part of the natural order of things.
He stopped when he reached number 57, and looked at the house beyond the green wooden gate. The gate itself had last been painted years ago and the green was peeling off in large leaves that fitted well with the general late-springtime air of the street; the corners were splintered with long use and little care, and there were deep cracks running the length of the palings, testament to icy winters and hot summers. The majority of the house beyond was in a similar state of disrepair; the front door looked dilapidated and the window frames were beige from the old wood showing through what was left of the white paint. There were net curtains up, but they were grey and stiff with dirt and age; the brickwork was missing mortar here and there, and the lawn was uncut and unkempt. The chimney pot, a relic of an age without central heating, had a large hole in it, and there was at least one bird’s nest stuffed in the hole with the enthusiasm and disregard that birds have for all human actions.
Yet despite this suggestion that the house had been inherited by someone who had no clue was housework was, there was a tarpaulin up and stretched across what was clearly building work. Des found himself unsurprised that the lay-out suggested that the new construction would take up half of the lawn and stick out from the living room, probably leaving the majority of the room in a dingy darkness that would depress the poor souls forced to live there. The congregation that he tended to, as their Presiding Religious Authority, were eager but intellectually impoverished, and he had occasionally wondered if they’d had occasion before he arrived to sell off their collective intelligence and just got by on lucky guesses ever after.
He pushed the gate open, listening to rust-tortured hinges creak with a cry that would have made Procrustes shiver in delight and walked up the path, taking his time to step carefully from one mislaid paving slab to the next. The two burly gentlemen following him unobtrusively stopped at the gate and rested hands with fingers like raw sausages on the wall, one either side. After a moment, though neither looked down, they started tearing the yellow-green moss from the bricks.
Des knocked gently on the door and waited. After a minute and a half there was the sound of footsteps in the hall, and then the door opened. A gust of warm air smelling of wet washing and burning fish-fingers engulfed him, and he blinked. In front of him, clutching the door as though ready to slam it shut in his face, was a woman with a thin, hungry face and huge eyes sat in sunken dark circles. Her thin, greying hair was wrapped tightly in curlers that looked like torture instruments and there was a smear of lipstick across her mouth that looked like she’d swiped at herself and not quite missed.
“Jane,” said Des, his voice deep and resonant. “How are you doing today?”
She smoothed down her pinafore dress, an ivory colour that Des knew was more from its age than intent, revealing without realising that she was thin enough to be called emaciated, and shivered a little. “It gets better,” she whispered, looking down at her slippered feet.
“He’s been dead for sixteen years,” said Des. He’d found out only four days ago that Jane was still mourning her first husband, despite having been married three times and divorced twice. His voice was gentle and warm and listening to him was a little like being wrapped in warm arms. “You have to make room to grieve properly Jane, or you’ll never be free of his ghost.” He sniffed; the smell of burning fish-fingers was getting stronger. “You should turn the grill off too,” he said.
Jane disappeared for a moment, and Des shifted his weight gently, settling his stance for a longer conversation. When Jane reappeared she had a sandwich on a plate with her; charred fish-fingers set between two slices of economy white bread that had been slathered with equally economy mayonnaise and then sprinkled with table salt and sliced neatly on the diagonal. She offered the plate to Des, who shook his head.
“I did hear you,” she said, gesturing at the construction work. “I’m making a room to grieve in.” She picked up a sandwich half, which sagged sadly and dripped runny mayonnaise onto the other half, and bit into it. It crunched in a way that suggested there was more breadcrumb coating than fish in her fish-fingers.
“Ah,” said Des, a note of sadness creeping into his voice. “I’m afraid Jane that you’ve misunderstood a little. You’re not supposed to make an actual room, you’re supposed to make time in your day to sit down and think about what you’ve lost and what there is without it. You need to understand why this loss has been so hard for you, and see that there is still joy in living. I really think you need to see for yourself how this loss has contributed to you losing your subsequent husbands.”
She finished her sandwich-half and stood there, shaking a little, her head bowed and clutching the plate with the other sandwich-half on like it was a talisman.
“Let me help you, Jane,” said Des. He gestured behind him and the two gentlemen stopped exfoliating the wall and pushed the gate open. “My friends here will do away with this unfortunate construction for you, and use some of it to provide you with a seat under a shady tree. There you can sit and think about things for a while, and I’m sure that when I come back you’ll be ready to start grieving properly.”
“Yes, Des,” said Jane, her voice so quiet that he had to strain to hear it. “But… the builder….”
“I’ll have a word,” said Des, his smile as wide as his face. “I’m sure they’ll understand.”