Compassion, word of the day, thought Stanley Brown. It was something he wasn’t used to feeling, but here he was, about to walk up a stranger’s drive. He quickly combed his hair, then with a brown-paper-wrapped package tucked into the pocket of an old great coat he walked briskly up to the porch, noticing the peeling white paint and patches of mould on the woodwork. There she was at the window, the thin wrinkled visage and the halo of white hair, peering out, a look of incredulity on her ancient face. He pressed the doorbell and heard a distant answering chime. The face disappeared from the window.
He’d woken up early in the hostel that morning, hearing the manager admonishing the janitor to “Get them toilets properly cleaned. I want to see my face in the porcelain!” Stanley would’ve liked to have shoved the manager’s face down the toilet and flushed it.
Whilst the other down-and-outs were still snoring he’d taken the opportunity to wash and shave in peace. Then he’d taken a stroll before breakfast. That’s when he’d seen it. An ornament in a charity shop window, laying there on a red cushion. A little silver horse. He’d felt in his pocket and found the few coins he possessed. Sweat broke out on his brow as he added them up. Then he’d walked the streets till the shop opened and his feet hurt from his old beat-up shoes.
He didn’t know why but that morning he’d found himself thinking about someone other than himself. The little old lady who lived up at the big white house on the hill. Whenever he passed, there she was, looking out, all alone. How long was it, he wondered? Mebbe, uh, two years – since he’d been down on his luck. And for no reason that he could think of, that day he’d decided to call on her with a little gift, one he could only just afford, the little silver horse.
The door opened and Stanley regarded the woman, so frail and thin, and so old, so very old.
Delores Donovan regarded the unkempt stranger. “Yes?”
“Pardon me, ma’am, but I pass your house most every day and I see you lookin’ out.”
“And … and I was wonderin’ ma’am, if I could come in for a few minutes. I’ve something for you.” He held up the package. To his surprise, the old woman began to cry. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I’ll go away, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, come in. Please … please come in.” She took a tissue from her sleeve and wiped her wet eyes. He noticed the eyes behind the tears were the palest grey. She led him through to the room that faced the street. A room where time had stood still. Faded covers on old-fashioned furniture, sepia pictures of men in uniform, an old grandfather clock, the pendulum long stilled.
“Please sit. I’ll make some tea. It’s been a long time since I had a visitor. I can’t remember …” Her voice trailed off as she headed out of the room. Shortly he heard the sound of a kettle boiling.
Stanley looked around at the photographs. A young man in uniform waved from a crowded train, a gap in his teeth and his hair greased back. So many nations at war, only seventy-five years ago, he thought. He peered at a photograph of an airman, this one with a touch of colour, standing proudly in front of an aeroplane.
“That was my cousin Gordon.” Delores reappeared. “He was shot down over Korea. He was just married. His wife committed suicide. A bride’s grief, I suppose. Do you know, apart from the groceries on Mondays you’re the first visitor I’ve had for … um, let me see … four months. Since the gas man came to check the boiler. Would you like biscuits with your tea? I’ve shortbread or chocolate bourbons. They’ve been kept in a tin. And you say you brought me something?” She wiped her wet eyes once more. “How clever of you to know it was my birthday. I’m ninety-nine today! No one else remembered.” She looked confused. “Mind you, I don’t have anyone else.” She gave a little smile. “The grocery delivery is the highlight of my week.”
Stanley said nothing, how could he know it was her birthday? He handed her the gift and watched, embarrassed, as her arthritic fingers fumbled at the paper. “Look, let me help you.” He took out a pocketknife and cut the string.
Delores looked at the little silver horse and began to sob. “Oh, you’re so kind. No one’s given me a present in years. And I used to ride you know, when … when I was young.”
“Look ma’am, I gotta go. I’m, er, I’m glad you like it.”
She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “No, please stay, the tea’s ready. And the biscuits, I’ll bring the biscuits. Shortbread and … and chocolate bourbons.”
But Stanley was already on his way out of the door. He’d reached his compassion limit for the day.
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