I never knew her name.
Retirement hit hard. For the first three months I don’t think I moved far beyond my flat. I wasn’t completely cut off. I would do my little bit of shopping, speak to my daughter, speak to my daughter-in-law and sometimes I would call in at the local community centre coffee mornings, but mostly I stayed in.
Thank goodness, after three months of slowly settling into place, I decided I was not going to come to a stop. I started with a morning walk. I would wait until the school run had finished and then I would walk the five minutes to my local park, half an hour around the paths, and then sit and overlook the small lake while I drank a flask of coffee. And that’s when I met her.
She looked the same age as me and had the same air of striving to find a purpose. I saw her every morning, and after a week or so I smiled in recognition, and she smiled back. We were two old ladies sitting in the park, and we recognised the fight against drifting slowly into the sunset.
A smile grew into a timid, ‘Good morning,’ and then a comment on the weather, and a little chat about the day, and suddenly we were friends.
It was only ever that half an hour, between 9.45am and 10.15am, that we met. I brought enough coffee for two and she brought biscuits. We talked about our children, and their partners. Her son was finding being a parent hard. I talked about my worries over my daughter-in-law’s job. She told me about her volunteer work at the library and I shared jokes about my time helping in a charity shop. Then we would dust the crumbs off and set off in different directions to go back to our lives, a little energised and encouraged by that touch of contact with someone who understood.
We managed to meet up in all sorts of weather. If it was raining she brought a huge golf umbrella that we wedged between us and I had an old picnic blanket to put on the damp bench. We used the umbrella for shade if it was too hot and I brought iced coffee. I brought back sweets from my holiday to pass on to her grandson and she gave me cuttings from her scented geranium that flourished on my windowsill.
But we never exchanged names. That would have been ‘odd’. We had talked about the weather and stray chitchat for so long without names that it would almost be bad manners to ask about names now. I knew her son-in-law’s name, and the place where her daughter worked, but not her name. And she knew where my daughter lived and my grandson’s school, but no name. It was an unspoken taboo. After so long, how could we bring it up now?
Then she stopped coming. I was worried, of course, but what could I do? I didn’t have a name or a telephone number. It would be intrusive to try call her son-in-law or ask those regular dog walkers that greeted her every morning as we sat and talked. One week turned into two weeks, and then it was a month. I started bringing my own biscuits to have with my coffee. But I didn’t dare miss a day in case my friend, my dear friend, suddenly was able to make it one more time.
Then, after too many weeks, one of the dog walkers stopped as she walked passed. “It’s so sad about Gwen, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“Gwen,” he said, gesturing at the empty space beside me on the bench. “It was so sudden, and the family are devastated. I didn’t see you at the funeral?”
I withdrew a little at the small but definite hook for gossip. “I’m afraid I didn’t know.” A cold wave ran through me. “What happened?”
“A heart attack in her sleep, they said. It was very peaceful.” The dog walker leaned over me. “Are you okay?”
“It’s just a shock.” I said. “I’m glad it was peaceful.”
“Would you like me to take you home?” The dog walker said, tugging her dog back to her.
“No, I’m fine.” I said, lying, my hands trembling as I clutched my plastic cup of coffee.
“It’s no trouble at all.” The dog walker said firmly. “Come on, let’s get moving. I’m Rachel, by the way, and this mutt is Bruno.”
I managed a smile at the beautiful dog. “He’s very handsome.” I said, as Rachel helped me to my feet. “I’m Sarah.”
“He’s a bit of a mix.” Rachel said, and chatted about nothing as she guided me home and made sure I was safe in a chair with a fresh coffee. “And I hope I see you tomorrow on that bench. And if you bring the coffee, I’ll bring the biscuits.”
Rachel is a good friend now, and I have her name, and her phone number and I am always glad to dog sit, but I still miss Gwen. Gwen understood. Funnily enough, I didn’t know her name, but I knew her birthday, after all our conversations. So today, after Rachel has left with Bruno, I can leave some flowers for my friend, with a name on the card, before I go home to the quiet.