Hairstyles change but emotional dilemmas span the generations, as Norman and young Jack discover
“Morning, Mabel, love.” The first thing Norman did every morning was to say hello to his wife’s photograph. Mabel smiled out of an ornate frame on the bookcase.
“Do things that make you happy when I’m gone,” she had said to him the very last time he had held her hand.
Norman hurried into the hall and picked up the post. He shuffled through the envelopes as he wandered back to the front window of his flat. Across the wide expanse of grass outside, an old ash tree stood bathed in sunlight. Norman smiled at it then let his mind wander back to a cold day a few months ago…
A boy sat under the ash with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up to hide his face, his long fringe stuck out of it like stuffing exploding from a mattress.
Norman squinted. Was his hair purple? He huffed to himself. The youth of the day were such a strange bunch, all odd words and strange clothes.
One thing never changed, though. The boy scrambled to his feet as, down on the ribbon of the pavement below, he spotted a girl – a girl who broke into a trot, then slowed herself right down, clearly worrying she might appear far too eager.
Norman stood smiling when she finally sauntered up to the boy. They didn’t kiss or hold hands in greeting. No, this looked like a brand-new friendship. Like buds on an apple tree, it would take a lot more warmth before any blossom appeared.
The pair sat down and started to chat. They rocked back and forth as, in turns, they made each other laugh. They darted glances to each other’s face when they thought the other wouldn’t notice.
Norman watched it all with a smile. Then he told himself off for being such a nosy old fool. He went into his kitchen to make a sandwich for tea but could not resist peering through the blinds now and again to the ash tree and the young couple.
First love, he thought, it was so sweet and innocent, so hesitant and shy.
At dusk the couple parted. She went one way, he the other. They turned their heads now and again as they walked away, as if checking they were not in the middle of a dream. Norman chuckled.
“They will be back,” he said, nodding to the tree, sure that if the ash could, it would nod its leafy head right back. “Oh yes, they will be back.”
They were back – the very next evening and the one after that. Norman would catch little glimpses. The space between the girl and the boy narrowed. They started to hold hands. He chuckled, his heart swelling, his eyes wandering to Mabel’s picture.
“First love,” he murmured pensively. “You never forget it.”
The very next evening when Norman looked out at the tree, only the boy sat underneath it, the cool breeze rippling his white T-shirt. Norman glanced to his clock. The girl should be here by now.
Was it over so soon? He stared at the boy, taking in his sharp nose and blade-sharp cheekbones, wondering what girls saw in boys these days. Wasn’t he handsome or clever enough?
He gave a dry swallow, seeing the boy on his phone. The boy’s shoulders shook as he put it away and he swiped a wrist across his eyes. Norman pushed his window open.
He will tell you to mind your own business, you know.
“Is everything alright?” he asked as gently as he could. “Where’s your friend today?” He half expected a rude rebuke. Instead, the boy gawped, shell-shocked either by his phone call or by Norman’s sudden intrusion.
“Her… her dad won’t let her see me anymore,” he mumbled.
“Oh, I see.” Norman hummed and glanced at Mabel’s picture. “Well, that happens sometimes. It happened to me.” The boy stood up and edged closer.
“Why doesn’t her dad like you, then?” Norman asked. The boy shrugged.
“I don’t know. He just doesn’t.”
He knows alright, Norman thought, but who would ever want to say out loud that somebody saw you as second-best?
“Can’t you go round and see her?” he asked encouragingly.
“No,” the boy said and shook his head by way of emphasis. “I can’t.” He dare not. He was too afraid.
“I understand. I have been there myself. There is nothing worse than somebody looking at you as if you had just crawled out from under a rock, now is there?” He gave a sympathetic smile. “But you can’t just give up now, can you?” The boy shrugged again, pushing back his fringe that stubbornly fell right into his eyes again. His hair likely did not pass muster either with the girl’s father.
“What happened to your…?” Norman waved at the boy’s fringe.
“Oh, I like it purple.” I see.
“Well, each to his own. Would you like a cup of tea?” The boy thrust his hands in his pockets. He glanced about as if afraid he would be caught talking to an old man through his window.
“How about a biscuit?” The boy opened his mouth, then shrugged. One more glance to make sure they were alone and he nodded.
“What is your name?”
“I’m Norman.” Norman offered his hand. The boy peered suspiciously at him, than shook it. “Do not give up, Jack. Love takes courage.”
Norman frowned, sure the boy’s eyes had filled for a moment with some veiled emotion. It took time for the kettle to boil for him to realise what it was. Relief.
Maybe no one else had ever told him not to give up. Maybe they had simply pointed out that puppy love does not count for much.
Only, as Norman remembered it, love felt the same at any age.
The boy drank a cup of tea and ate three digestives. He leaned into the open window so Norman could sit down in his chair.
They talked about how Jack’s friends were teasing him about his hair and how he thought he should dye it brown. How he lived with his mum and tried to help her out. How he had started to meet Sara at lunchtime at school too, before her dad had found out.
They talked about how Norman did not get many visitors these days.
“You really need to go round, you know, and talk to Sara’s father. Politely, of course,” Norman told him as the wind stirred the leaves of the old ash.
Jack shook his head. No, he was too afraid of the man.
Norman watched him amble off home that day. Jack’s shoulders nestled up about his ears, his face hidden away in his hood. Norman imagined him growing up that way, shrunken and hidden, never straightening his back, sticking out his chest and feeling worthy of a little happiness.
The next day, Jack sat all alone under the ash tree once again.
He dialled his phone over and over, sitting there listening to it ring before turning it off. No answer. No reply.
Norman pushed his window open and set a tea cup on the sill with a plate of biscuits.
“No luck?” he asked when Jack hurried over. He shook his head. “Haven’t you spoken to Sara at school at all?”
“Her sister’s keeping tabs on her,” Jack said, looking pale and shadow eyed that day. “I do not want to get either of them into trouble.”
“I see,” Norman replied. “So, have you thought any more about going round to her house?” With that, Jack would not meet his gaze. He stared down at his grass-stained trainers instead.
The next evening was just the same. Jack was becoming an expert at waiting. He sat with his legs tucked against his ribs, his head down on his knees. At least until Norman opened his window and waved him over.
“Do you really want to sit out there all evening, Jack, or do you want to come in?”
Jack’s brow furrowed as if this tiny attempt at bravery might defeat him.
“I could come in, couldn’t I?” he said, as if persuading himself.
“Come on then. It looks like it is raining and there is no sense in you getting soaked.”
“Do you think I am being a coward?” Jack asked later, hunched over his mug in Norman’s sitting room.
Norman glanced over to his precious picture of Mabel, than at the old fountain pen, the paper and envelopes he had placed on the coffee table. To gather dust, he thought wryly. He shook his head.
“I think you just need a bit of time to gather yourself. I believe in you, Jack.”
Jack chewed his lip. “Really?”
Norman smiled. “I think you are a nice lad. Honest and decent. If I had a daughter, I would have been happy to find you at my door.” Jack’s cheeks flushed.
“Thanks,” he said, before he smiled.
Now, weeks later, standing in his sunny hallway, Norman stared down at the envelopes in his hand.
He discarded three bills, then a glossy flyer. He came to a small white envelope and heaved in a slow breath.
He remembered the day Jack had pounded on his door. How he had opened it to find the boy wide-eyed and panting.
“I did it! I did it! I went round to see Sara.” His knees seemed to lock as he staggered inside.
“And?” Norman asked urgently.
“Her dad told me to go away. So I told him, politely just like you said, that I thought it would be a good idea if he got to know me better. I told him how I help my mum and how one day I want to be a mechanic.” Jack flopped into a chair, feeling at his chest as if his heart were about to fly right out of it. “Sara’s mum was there. She told him he ought to show me the motorbike he was working on.” Jack gave a crooked grin. “And then he did! We talked for ages after that.”
His mobile rang. Nervous as a rabbit, he answered it. His eyes winded.
“Sara? You can phone? Your dad says it is ok?” He twitched with excitement. “That is great. That is really great.”
Norman had stood by, smiling. Now, alone, he turned the white envelope over.
He cleared his throat, puffed out his chest and set his shoulders straight. You are worthy of a little happiness too, Norman.
He pulled at the paper flap, shredding it in his haste into confetti. He opened up the letter inside and held his breath.
I was so surprised to hear from you after all these years. I think the post office redirected your letter three times before it finally found me.
Yes, I would like to see you. I would love to remember the old days with you. I am all on my own now, too. I know you said you were nervous about writing but I am so, so pleased you did.
Her name was Joyce. He had kissed her under a different tree a very long time ago. Her dad had hated him, but he had not fought for her. He had given up.
He heard later about her marriage and her children. Little snippets of her life had come and gone, meaning little than a happily married man with a family of his own, but things were different now and first loves were never forgotten. They stayed in your heart forever.
He glanced across to Mabel’s picture.
“Do things that make you happy when I’m gone,” she had said to him.
“I will, love,” he said now as he held onto the letter. I will try.”
He wandered over to the window and stared out at the old ash three. He smiled, knowing he would never have dared write to Joyce if he had not met young Jack. If he had not reminded them both of the simplest of truths – that love takes courage.
Source: My Weekly
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