Tea And Sympathy

Entry by: Annechen

29th March 2018
Mrs McIlhenny was, I think, in her eighties. She lived on the High Street of my home town, in one of a small block of tiny flats that had been converted in the nineties from an old Toc H building. The building wasn't much to look at, and nor was she, though both of them had, in their day, been fit for purpose, or so I believed; attractive even, if I am to be charitable about it.

Each day, as I wandered up the High Street for my morning coffee at the local tea rooms, Mrs McIlhenny would be perched comfortably on her front garden bench. It was a small garden with a large seat, and she would be engaging cheerfully with the passers-by as she sat enthroned there. I was one such brief daily encounter.

"Morning" she would say. "It's a lovely day."
Or, "Morning. Nice and sunny today, but a bit chilly."
Often, "Morning. It'll be grand today, once it's stopped raining."
It was evidently always lovely, sunny, nice and warm when viewed from Mrs McIlhenny's front garden bench. Even on the rainy days.
"Yes, we need to make the most of it," I would reply, hesitating only slightly as I walked by, aware of the other morning shoppers behind me, who were waiting to receive her benediction.

Sometimes, when I reached the top of the street I would sit over my cappuccino thinking about Mrs McIlhenny. Slowly stirring the creamy froth I would wonder, was there, or had there ever been, a Mr McIlhenny? Children? Little McIlhenny grand- or even great-grandchildren?

Our acquaintance stretched to something over a year now, beginning when I had retired from my city job, which had kept me too busy to get to know people in the town where I had always lived, yet seldom dwelt. I wondered whether Mrs McIlhenny was lonely. I knew that I was. And there is no loneliness as deep as that you feel in your own home town, with no-one left there who could remember you growing up. Change happens, and we are meant to embrace it, but I was desperately homesick for a home that no longer existed and was not anywhere to be found, because I was already there. I feared my big mistake had been not to have moved away whilst I still had my youth. I would make the best of it, but I should not ask of myself the I should pretend contentment or peace of mind, let alone have the happiness I had hoped for.

One morning- rainy, but, and I tried to steal some of Mrs McIlhenny's bright take on life, it would be nice and warm once the rain dried up - I stopped and called over to her, from under my brolly to under hers.
"Morning. Do you fancy coming for a cuppa with me today?"
She smiled a toothless smile, shaking her head placidly.
"No, you're alright, love. I've just had one."
Not lonely, then. At least, not to the extent that she was tempted to sup a beverage with me. Nevertheless, I didn't feel rejected. I still felt blessed. Maybe I should not have chosen a rainy day for my invitation, I thought.

I tried again the next sunny day and her response was the same - a very amiably delivered refusal.

And so we passed our days, each of us, with coffee, tea and weather, until that day came, around the middle of August, when Mrs McIlhenny was not to be found in her regular spot, and I felt a chill run through me. This was not like her at all. I mused my way along the High Street, worrying, and sat disconsolately in the tea rooms at my favourite table by the window. I would often feel a small lightening of the spirits if the window table was free. It meant I might one day spot someone I recognized or, perhaps even less likely, who recognized me. Today there was no lightening of the spirits, as I began to entertain fears of the worst kind. Mrs McIlhenny had fallen ill in the night and would be dead and buried before I could find anyone to ask about the funeral arrangements.

I finished my drink, paid up, tried to look cheerful and made my way home, hoping I would see her on the way back, perched on her bench. Maybe she was just late up. But no, she was not there. And then I saw, nor was the bench. There was just a bald patch of earth where the bench had been. I had a sudden vision of Mrs McIlhenny and her bench rising heavenward, she still seated and nodding and waving to us all as she rose.

That evening, doing my regular trawl of social media to see which of my faceless "friends" had had a better dinner than me, was sporting a better hairdo than me or had a livelier social life or more valid politics than mine, I saw that an uncommon lot of people had posted on our Local Town and Surrounding Villages page.
"What's happened to Mrs McIlhenny?"
"Dunno. Haven't seen her."
"Did somebody tek her out for day?"
"She wunt go dunt like cars."
"Somebody said she died."
"Wot that luvvly owd lady."
"Nah, not her."
And then,
"Some gits nicked her bench!"

There was the perception of a distinct silence. Not so much as a whisper. Not even a "Lowlife sum!" nor an exhortation to "Share if you are AGAINST the gits that took Mrs McIlhenny's bench."

I scrolled down, but nothing. However, a picture was emerging. Mrs McIlhenny's bench had fallen to thieves. She had been unseated. She had lost her bench and it must be recovered, or a new one provided for her. And then, a plan began to be hatched and even as I watched I saw pledges of money starting to come in, all unknown to Mrs McIlhenny, who, I was certain, was a unversed in social networking of the electronic kind as she was versed in the face to face.

I went to bed that night, enjoyed a long, dreamless sleep, the first for many a month, and woke up feeling refreshed and ready for my daily walk. I could see from a brief look at the weather app that the day would be changeable. Changeable? Indeed it would. Mrs McIlhenny would not be on her eternal bench. But how could the weather app possible know that? A certain jauntiness and levity had crept into me overnight and it was coming out in wry observations. I had to smile, though there was no-one there to smile with.

I collected my sunspecs and brolly and made my way to the High Street. I thought it barely worth my while to cast a glance towards the old Toc H, but did so anyway, out of habit, and possibly a little burgeoning hope. And there she stood, Mrs McIlhenny, leaning against her front door jamb with her usual amiable, placid air. It was evident she had adapted, and if she could not be seated she would stand.

We exchanged our daily greeting and I carried on in search of my regular cappuccino. Really, it was as though nothing had changed. Yet something had. I ran through possibilities in my head as I stirred my froth. Yes, the bench had gone, but the important things, Mrs McIlhenny and her cheeriness, were still there. I mentally scratched my head and was still cerebrally itchy at bedtime.

Each day that week passed in similar vein. Mrs McIlhenny leaned, I scratched and bubbles seemed to rise and pop inside me. Apprehension? Stress? Anticipation? It was a long time since I had felt any anticipation. I had no clue and could only pace out my days until some clearer emotion surfaced.

Monday morning came, a sunny day but one which could go either way. I dressed accordingly and set off for my coffee in the expectation of seeing Mrs McIlhenny standing by her front door. As I approached the Toc H perhaps my gaze was fixed too high, for I did not spot her at once. I could see, however, that the person just ahead had lifted their hand in a friendly wave. I dropped my eyes a little and there sat Mrs McIlhenny on a brand new bench.

I saw it was made from beautiful beech wood, with a wrought iron inset back featuring vines, the leaves picked out in bright green paint. Mrs McIlhenny looked well on it. Rather like Cleopatra on her barge, I thought. But Mrs McIlhenny's bench was something that would not have done for the barge at all. It was bolted firmly to a concrete plinth set in the ground. The people of the town had made it stable and permanent. Not to be taken. Not to be messed with.

I looked at its occupant and she seemed to radiate lightness. She shone. As I looked, I felt all the chill of those long months leave me. These people of my home town were my friends even as much as they were hers. And these would be friendships that would support and last. Mrs McIlhenny had had her bench taken from her and, with kindness, generosity and sympathy, they had replaced it. I had lost myself somewhere on the way and they would replace that too, in time, without a word needing to be spoken. I stood there on the High Street and watched them go by, these friends of ours.
"Morning, Mrs McIlhenny. Nice day."
"Yes, it is. And they've said it'll last all week."
One after another the exchanges came. And then,
"Morning, Mrs McIlhenny," I said. "Do you fancy coming for a cuppa with me today?"
"Now, I would like that, love," she said. "I've had a few cuppas already this morning, but I'm sure I've room for one more."

And Mrs McIlhenny winked at me.