The cold metal frame of the trolley digs into my hands as we wander past the bust station, the street lights flickering into life in the growing gloom.
“It’s Just around the corner here” Tom says pointing as he shuffles along beside me, directing me down a long street of identical red brick houses that sit squat over the road like dark haired fisherman on a river bank.
Again he tells me how grateful he is and I reply and tell him that it is no problem at all.
“Have you lived around here long?” I ask avoiding the puddles trying to keep my good work shoes dry.
“Oh yes” he says, a sense of pride in his voice. “Been here since they went up new in the seventies.” He straightens his flat cap and then pauses for a moment as if remembering before I jog him from his thoughts.
“This way?” I ask, shifting the weight of the trolley from one hand to the other. I can feel the splashes of water soaking through the bottoms of my trousers.
“Yes, yes straight on, not far now” he says pulling his coat tight around him as the rain continues to fall. “Quite a thing it was back then you know” he continues. “To buy our own home, took every penny we had saved up plus some we borrowed from the family. But it was worth it in the end.”
“I’m sure it was” I reply and he leads me across the road and down a smaller side street. Cars line one side, the water swirling and swerving around their tyres sweeping litter along. Weeds strain through crevices in the path, and as we pass the houses the cracked paint, cluttered yards and stained net curtains tell of better times now past.
He tells me how he’s seen everything change so much over the years, and I’m reminded of my own grandparents who I see less than I should.
“Just over there” he says and nods to a house with a neatly tended front garden and freshly creosote stained fence that stands out from the others. The Gate squeaks as he holds it open for me and he looks almost embarrassed.
“Better get some oil on that” he says and pulls it closed behind me.
The gravel path, dark from the rain, leads to the front door and Tom fumbles for his keys as I let him pass. Eventually he pushes the door wide open and encourages me to head inside.
“It’s straight ahead to the kitchen” he says as I step into a small entry hall. I’m uncertain if I should take off my shoes but head down the short hall anyway, desperate to put the trolley down.
“Anywhere in there is fine ” he shouts taking off his coat and hanging it on a peg behind the door. I place the trolley down gently on the light colored linoleum.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” He asks. I check my watch. Not sure if will even be worth going to the pub by the time I get home now. Even so I decline politely but Tom insists and takes an old battered kettle from the stove and fills it. “Please, take a seat” he says waving towards a small wooden table and chairs against a wall. A biscuit barrel in the middle of the table in the shape of a bear grins at me as I sit down. He seems grateful for the company and I find it hard to refuse.
Slipping off my coat I hang it over the back of the chair and It begins to drip onto the lino. I start to apologise but he laughs, a glint in his eyes. “Oh don’t worry” he says, “now if my Kathy was still here that would be another matter. She liked things just right she did. Very particular.”
His words are a mix of pride and sadness, and it seems to me a fair assumption that she has died. Looking at Tom I guess he must be somewhere in his eighties at least.
“How long since you lost her?” I ask looking about. The kitchen is simple and compact with clear work surfaces and plain white cupboards. A single plate and glass are drying next to the sink and a small vase of tulips sits on the window ledge which looks out onto the garden.
“Oh nearly eight years now.” He looks out of the window as he drops three tea bags into a pot on a tray with two white china cups. “One for each of us and one for the pot” he says smiling. Steam begins to drift lazily from the kettle spout. “You’d have liked her.” He fetches a half pint of milk from the fridge, “Everyone around here did. Not a person she wouldn’t help if she could.”
For a while he says nothing more, concentrating on the tea. He pours the boiling water into the pot and gives it a stir before bringing it over to the table and setting it down.
“Do you take sugar?” he asks.
I shake my head even though I normally take two. I don’t want him to have to do anything else. He moves so slowly as if distracted, yet each action is so purposeful. I wonder if this is the pattern of his days. A quiet private existence filled with the routines developed over a lifetime which are now all that is left.
Waiting for the tea to brew he remembers that he has not yet asked my name and apologises.
“Oh you have the same name as my father” he says when I tell him and his hand shakes as he pours the tea, the china cup clinking as he lifts it from the tray and offers it. I accept with a thank you and add milk. Just a little.
“So do you have any children?” I ask. I don’t like the idea of him being alone all of the time, dragging that trolley to town once a week and then straight back home.
“No, it never happened for us. it was just the two of us. We would have liked a family but I guess it just wasn’t to be.”
I take a sip and add a little more milk.
“Looks like the rain’s stopping” he says and asks if I want a biscuit, reaching for the grinning bear.
“No I’m fine thank you” I reply as he takes a KitKat from the jar and slowly opens it.
“Kathy loved a KitKat, always used to hide them from me. I knew her hiding places mind, just pretended I didn’t.”
A distant single chime of a church bell tells me it’s half past six. I check my watch to confirm. I could actually probably still make it if I set off now, I might be a few minutes late but nothing major.
“Do you need to get going?” Tom asks taking a bite of his KitKat. “It’s okay if you do, I am just so grateful for your help. Not sure what I would have done if you hadn’t stopped to help me.”
I check my watch again and then pull my shirt cuff over it and reach for the biscuits.
“Maybe I will have one after all” I say lifting the lid on the bear barrel. “And then I’ll help you put that shopping away shall I.”