It all started about a year after Margaret’s death, when we woke one morning to the sound of a pneumatic drill boring into stone. A dirty-looking van with a couple of cement mixers loaded onto the back had been parked down the side of Bob’s house. It reminded me of the one he used back when he was still working. I spotted Bob in the garden, standing in a cloud of dust. I waved, but he didn’t see me. And that’s how things went on. He’d start early and finish late, just him, doing whatever he was doing.
Sue wasn’t particularly interested in the goings on next door. But then, she hadn’t been much interested in anything for a long while, save for her mysterious online communications.
‘It’s really none of our business,’ is all she’d say about it.
Bob had taken Margaret’s death pretty hard. He’d nursed her for two years before she went into the hospice. Two years of watching the love of your life slip away from you has got to break your heart. And any idiot could see that those two were crazy for each other, right up till the end. Things are different for me and Sue, but that’s life. We’ve had our good times and, who knows, we may be due a few more, but Bob and Margaret, they had something rare and something special.
For a while I thought Bob had abandoned the place and moved in with one of his girls. It was pretty quiet over there for a long time. Some evenings I’d return home from my walk with Dusky to find him standing in the porch, smoking. Margaret had never allowed him to smoke in the house.
The really sad thing was, he’d allowed that beautiful garden of theirs to get all overgrown. There was a time when he loved that garden, spent every second he could out there doing who knows what to it, always making sure that it was a real picture. But I think it brought back too many memories for him – memories of Margaret sunning herself in the summer, drinking cocktails and listening to the radio while he worked.
One night, Sue and I had a little falling out over this guy called Raymond who’d been emailing her on an almost daily basis. Her face lit up with every new message and I’d begun to think that her secrecy was a little unnecessary. All she’d say was that they’d been in school together and that he wanted to meet up with her to talk about the old days. I said that was fine by me, but she claimed I’d said it in such a way as to portray some kind of hostility towards the idea. After that, she refused to discuss it with me any further, so I stepped outside for some fresh air, thinking it might help to defuse things a little.
Bob was in his back garden, doing something to a window frame, his right elbow triggering the security light every time he moved. It was then that curiosity got the better of me. ‘Warm night,’ I said, across the fence.
Bob looked up and frowned. ‘Sorry, what?’
‘I said it’s a lovely night tonight.’
He stopped what he was doing and seemed to take a moment to regard the qualities of the night. ‘Yes – yes it is,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t noticed.’
With that, he disappeared into his shed.
A couple of nights later, Bob was back is his garden, measuring and sawing wood. This time, he was aided by a powerful floodlight set-up.
I called over the fence. ‘Still at it, I see.’
He looked up and smiled. He checked his watch. ‘Fancy a drink?’ he asked.
We sat on paint-splattered crates in the lounge, drinking bottled beer from a cool box. Everything in the room had been stripped back to bare stone. It was a strange sight. Dust tickled my nose and the smell from an open can of paint troubled my sinuses. I thought briefly about Sue, tapping away on her laptop next door. I wondered if, at any point, she’d looked up and thought it strange to see my empty chair. I also asked myself what she’d think about me sharing a late night drink with our neighbour. And then it occurred to me that she wouldn’t think anything at all.
The following Saturday, Bob invited me over again. This time, he showed me the rest of the house, which, just like the lounge, had been stripped bare. He told me that a few years before Margaret died, before she knew she was ill, she’d made plans to renovate the place, get it just the way she’d always wanted it. Bob had been too busy with work to carry out these changes while she was alive, but he was doing it now, he said, in her honour. It seemed to me like a sad little project he’d taken on, but I admired him for doing it.
‘Actually, I could really do with some help,’ he said.
We were in the attic bedroom, looking up at the protective material that covered the new skylight.
‘I’m sure,’ I said, sipping at my beer.
It was a few seconds before I realised he’d been referring to me. I laughed, a little embarrassed.
‘I’m no wiz when it comes to that kind of thing,’ I said. It was true. I hadn’t carried out any maintenance on our bungalow in thirty years. And despite the fact that the place was in need of urgent attention in several areas, Sue always maintained that she’d prefer to wait for her brother Gordon to get back into port rather than have me make a hash of things.
Bob smiled and placed his big hand on my shoulder. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘I can teach you a few things.’
Sue was not at home when I got back that night. She’d left me a tea-stained note by the phone that was illegible apart from the name Raymond, written in large, red ink.
I watched some television with Dusky sat on my lap, but it was hard to concentrate on anything. Recently, Dusky had begun to make a strange and off-putting wheezing sound when she slept. The vet said it was her age, that it wasn’t anything to worry about. In any case, I was grateful for her warmth and her company that night and she was sleeping so soundly, so peacefully, that I didn’t have the heart to move her.
I was in bed when Sue returned, struggling to get into a novel about the growing pains of an autistic boy who possessed some kind of genius. Jackie at the book club said that she’d heard great things about it, but I wasn’t convinced. I placed the book down as Sue entered the bedroom. She started to undress, carefully folding her best evening gown over the back of the chair. I hadn’t seen her looking so elegant in a long time.
‘Good night?’ I asked.
She tried to conceal a smile, just like she used to do whenever I came home from a long day at the library and surprised her with a rose or a box of chocolates.
I patted the space on the bed beside me. ‘Come on, tell me all about it,’ I said.
‘I think I’ll just take a shower,’ she said.
I listened to the water running. She was in the bathroom for a long time. I thought she must’ve been staring at herself in the mirror, thinking how beautiful she looked that night.
The first real work Bob and I did together was to knock through the kitchen wall into the dining room. I was a little worried that the whole place would come down on top of us, but Bob assured me that he knew what he was doing. He’d made a career out of it, he liked to remind me. It was really very impressive, the way he went about things, and I felt like I was watching a true artisan at work. It’s hard to describe how honoured I felt the day he shared with me Margaret’s blueprints for the place, unravelling them as though they were some ancient scroll.
And I was learning new things all the time. I thought about all the little jobs I would now be able to do at home. It made me happy to think that I’d finally be able to fix the banisters and replace the gutters above our bedroom window. I imagined Sue’s surprise when she came home to find these things done. It concerned me, the malaise that had entered our marriage in the years since my retirement, and being around Bob had inspired in me a new resolve to make right whatever was wrong. With every nail I hammered into wood, I felt like a better man.
Over the next few weeks, we did more things to Bob’s house than I can remember. Bob displayed an admirable work ethic that began to rub off on me. We’d start at seven and finish only when our limbs began to ache, existing on strong coffee and a steady supply of heavy meat pies from the bakery down the road. At night, we’d sit on our crates in front of an old TV, eating our way through the curry house menu, Bob mocking my soft, librarian’s hands or the effeminate way in which I held a screwdriver. I was surprised when he told me he’d been to India once, before he was married. He’d spent the whole trip eating with his hands, he said. It caused me to wonder whether I’d made the most of my life. Sue and I had never travelled further afield than the Isle of Wight.
I particularly enjoyed helping Bob paint the dining room in a cold shade of blue that brought to mind the bottom of a swimming pool. It was satisfying work that seemed to sooth me in ways I cannot explain. I began to envisage how the room would look by the time we’d finished. Bob told me about the last time everyone had been together. It was the Christmas before Margaret died. Their girls had been there with their husbands and their kids. Margaret had been too sick to really take it all in, but there were still moments of joy, he said, looking off to the side at nothing in particular. It was hard to think of such a bare space ever containing so many people, let alone moments of happiness. Sue and I usually spent Christmas at home, just the two of us. One year, Gordon stayed with us, but it hadn’t been a pleasant experience and we never invited him again. I tried to remember what it felt like to have a house full of people.
Sue’s lack of interest in the work Bob and I were carrying out began to sadden me. On a few occasions, I tried to tell her how things had been going, hoping to share with her my enthusiasm for the project, but the more I said, the further away the look in her eyes became. Sometimes I’d see her drive away from the house in the middle of the day, only to return late at night. By the time I crept into the bedroom in my dirty overalls, she was usually fast asleep.
After the painting was complete, Bob and I made a start on the decking in the garden, as he said the weather was due to take a turn for the worse and he wanted to get it done. I was enjoying the work, shirt off in the sun, cold beer in my hand. I imagined that I was attaining a level of fitness I had never previously known and I began to fantasise about the two of us working together more often, perhaps engaging in some philanthropic endeavour whereby we renovated the homes of the elderly and disabled. But two days in, Bob got a call from his youngest daughter that put a premature end to things.
‘Sure. Right. Okay. No, of course you can – of course,’ he said into the phone, drawing thoughtfully on his cigarette. ‘I’ll be glad to have you.’
Bob informed me that his youngest daughter and her family would be moving in with him for a while as they’d been flooded out. I felt a real sense of sorrow when he told me that we’d have to lay down the tools for a while. Despite my disappointment, I helped him ready the place for guests. Shortly before I left, I asked him when he might be needing me again, but he said it was hard to tell.
Sue threw her arms around me when I stepped through the front door that night, her new nails digging into my back as she pulled me closer. She was wearing a floral blouse and a short blue dress that I'd never seen before. She began to cry.
‘Now, what’s up?’ I asked.
She wouldn’t say what was troubling her. Instead, she straightened herself out, kissed me on the cheek and poured me a beer.
When I got out of the shower, we sat together in the kitchen and ate pork chops and mashed potato. She asked me if I liked the wildflowers she’d arranged in a little vase on the table. I told her that I did, very much.
Later, we played cards and drank hot chocolate. I told her how nice she looked in her new clothes, but she frowned and said they’d been a mistake and that she’d take them back to the shop in the morning.
We both stopped to listen as a car pulled up outside Bob’s house. I heard Bob’s voice. He sounded happy.
Sue ran her hand through my hair. ‘Tell me everything,’ she said.
NICK RYLE WRIGHT is a writer of poetry and short fiction, currently based in the New Forest. This is his first publication.
He can be found on Twitter @nickrylew