It was the morning when she was out in the front garden, pruning the rose bushes. Jacqueline Forsythe had lived alone at The Brambles ever since her husband, Donald, had died unexpectedly, of an aneurysm, three years earlier. He’d collapsed at work and had been declared dead when the ambulance had arrived fifteen minutes later. He was sixty six at the time, but they’d unspokenly accepted that they both had at least another twenty years ahead of them. So, she’d gradually got used to all that empty space, moving Donald’s books and things out into the garage. She even had the bed changed: some young men from the council came around one day and collected the double that they’d bought just after their wedding. Now she slept in a single, but she could still the mark scored into the carpet from where his side of the bed used to be.
She didn’t see that much of her daughter, Joy, and her own children; Lucien who was eight and Geraldine who was coming on for three. They lived on the wrong side of London, and even when they did visit Jacqueline could feel resentment radiating off them; that they were bored stiff by this six-monthly sacrifice: her daughter yawningly reheating family news in the front room whilst the children sulkily threw stones at the frogs in the wire-covered pond out in the back garden.
All in all, Jacqueline guiltily realised, she preferred being on her own; even Donald’s death now seemed like a good thing. When he was alive they never spoke about anything really important; he’d talk about how his cutlery company was getting on or she’d tell him how she’d counted out her day in housework or visits to the library. No, she liked things as they were now, and felt a retrospective boredom boiling within her as she thought about the long, barren years she’d spent with Donald. This same emptiness had seeped down into her relationship with her own daughter; she could feel that simmering ennui. But now here at The Brambles nobody forced her to make meaningless conversation, she could eat when she chose, and watch what she liked on the television.
As she cut happily at the tangled branches she noticed, through a gap between the two tall rhododenron bushes that screened the house from the road, a man sitting in the driver’s seat of a big silver family saloon. He was in his forties and looked respectable enough; seemed to be wearing a suit and a tie, with his hair brushed professionally into place. Jacqueline continued tidying up the garden, rearranging upturned plant pots: that must have been the next-door neighbour’s cat again. She heard the iron gate creakingly opened and then watched the man walk up the neatly paved path towards her. Now that he was closer she could see that his chin and cheeks were frosted in grey stubble, and that his tie was not tightly knotted. His tongue flashed over his upper lip and then he spoke;
“Mrs Forsythe, sorry to bother you, you know, when you’re gardening and that, but I need to have a few minutes of your precious time. I need your help, Mrs Forsythe. Please”
Jacqueline straightened herself up, leaving her trowel on the immaculate lawn, and replied:
“Well, how is it that I can help you?”
The man coughed sharply and looked back over his shoulder at the deserted road;
“Can we talk inside, Mrs Forsythe? Only I don’t want, you know, any Tom, Dick, or the other knowing our business”
Jacqueline looked at the man and he held her gaze. She went back to the front door and the man followed three paces behind. At the door Jacqueline turned around and asked him his name, to which he responded;
“Alan Minthouse, 38 Stable Lane, down the back of the Queen Elizabeth pub”
Jacqueline showed Minthouse into the spacious kitchen, and as she was doing so she tried to pin-point when it was that she’d heard the name “Minthouse”, it held a kind of currently unaccountable significance for her. He sat down at the expensive oak table, glistening beneath generations of honey-thick polish, and spread his arms out over its empty surface. Jacqueline switched on the stainless-steel look kettle and rinsed out the rarely used teapot; she preferred to dunk a teabag in a cup of boiled water. Minthouse was looking at his fingernails, but he called out to her:
“Mrs Forsythe, don’t you have anything, you know, a little stronger? Something to take the chill off. These spring mornings still carry quite a chill, don’t they, Mrs Forsythe?”
Jacqueline opened up an upper cabinet and produced a three-quarters-full bottle of rum that had been there for years; Donald must have bought it for some forgotten occasion. Strange, because Donald only really drank scotch, and that was sparingly, certainly ever since he’d had that spot of trouble. She filled up a squat tumbler for Minthouse and, dispensing with the teapot, made a cup of tea for herself. She brought the drinks over to the table and placed Minthouse’s rum between his outspread arms. She sat down at the opposite end of the table, feeling the warmth moving in waves from her mug up her arms. Minthouse bolted back his rum, got up, walked over to the work surface, took hold of the bottle of rum, and brought it back to the table.
“Well, Mr Minthouse, how can I help you? What is your problem exactly?”
The neighbour’s cat silently entered the kitchen, it must have got in through the downstair’s toilet window, and arched its back against Minthouse’s calf; Minthouse kicked out his leg and sent the cat sprawling against a welsh dresser.
“Sorry Mrs Forsythe, got a thing about cats; can’t stand the buggers near me. Leave them for the witches is what I say”
He had now refilled and emptied his stubby tumbler two or three times. He belched noiselessly and ran his left hand over his bleared features. Jacqueline replaced her mug on the table;
“Mr Minthouse, I can see that all is not well. Perhaps it would help if you got it off your chest?”
Pouring a fourth glass of rum, Minthouse studied the perfect liquid splash upwards and leave its perfect droplets on his large hand:
“The thing is, Mrs Forsythe, you sort of owe me. Now, I’m not talking about money. Like they say; money can’t purchase love. And I’m talking about love, Mrs Forsythe. I never mentioned money now, did I?”
He looked at her not with aggression but with an almost pantomime portrayal of self-pity. Nonetheless, Jacqueline was startled and not a little frightened. She could see now, and should have realised before, that Minthouse had been drinking before he’d arrived at her house. His face was sweat streaked and stained here and there with small, vivid patches.
“Mr Minthouse, I don’t see what you’re getting at. Couldn’t you just tell me?”
She tried to keep the tremor out of her voice but she knew, as she looked at the empty rum bottle, that fear was spread out over her face. She nervously repositioned her mug on the solid table top; hoping that this mundane act would somehow reassure her. He continued to look at her:
“Does the name Minthouse mean nothing to you, Mrs Forsythe? Nothing?”
He got up and went to the fridge; opened the door and took out an opened bottle of Riesling that Jacqueline had needed for a sauce she had made a few evenings before. He forced the cork out with his thick fingers and held the bottle up to his greasy lips and let the wine glug gaspingly down into his mouth. It ran down over his stubbled chin and soaked into the front of his unbuttoned shirt. The distant church bells peeled and a jetplane autographed the briefly cloudless skies seen through the kitchen window.
“Minthouse? I admit that the name does seem familiar, and I’m positive that I’ve heard it before”
“Course you’ve heard it before! Stand’s to reason, doesn’t it?”
He moved his hand vaguely in her direction, as if waving aside the infirmities of her memory.
“The accident, Mrs Forsythe, the accident. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about the accident”
Jacqueline swallowed the saliva that had collected in her parched mouth and tried to quell the rising panic that was now hammering in her chest.
“What accident, Mr Minthouse? Please tell me, Mr Minthouse”
Minthouse used his right hand to rake through the strands of his lank hair and stared at her:
“The 24th of Feburary 1962”
It was as if she’d broken through the sea’s surface after being forcibly held, head first, under the salt rich water; she gasped and met Minthouse’s gaze:
“Yes, Minthouse was the name”
“Whose name, Mrs Forsythe, whose name?”
Jacqueline now looked away, out through the kitchen window at the scruffy clouds collecting above the sawn-off tips of the hilltops. She spoke calmly:
“Yes, I knew that one day it would come back, that name. I’ve done my best to hide it away over these decades. We never spoke about it, my husband and I. Well, of course we spoke about it at first, for a few weeks. But then we never spoke about it again”
“What is it, Mrs Forsythe. This it that you talk about, what is this it, Mrs Forsythe?”
“The accident, Mr Minthouse, the accident, of course”
“Yes, Mrs Forsythe, your husband had a skinful, got in his car, and killed my parents. And what did he get? Nothing. Didn’t even lose his driving license from what I’ve heard. He had to be protected. He was somebody who needed looking after”
“Mr Minthouse, Donald was under pressure, immense pressure, with his work. He’d just started up his company. Created quite a few jobs in the community. His going to jail would have put a stop to it all. Can you imagine how many families would have been effected? Can you?”
Minthouse got up, stumbled against a sixteenth century carving table, and moved towards her. He was weeping silently; his face distorted in oily tears. He approached her and wrapped his arms around her frail shoulders:
“Mrs Forsythe, I only want some love. I’m only asking for some love”
He shuddered as he cried and buried his face in the chicken flesh of her neck. She stroked the back of his head, crying herself, and whispered:
“You’ll have my love, Mr Minthouse. You’ll have my love”