Fiona met an old man on a bench. It was to change her life forever
Gathering up the withered flowers from the urn on the grave, it seemed to Fiona she was the only visitor at the cemetery today. The wind was bitter cold; she wore no hat or gloves, seeming oblivious to the conditions.
Fiona McIntyre looked at the row of headstones. “You’re all here, I’m alone now.” She whispered, tears running down her pale face.
Fiona was a regular visitor. Each Sunday she’d bring fresh flowers to place on the graves of her family. Her parents had been here for several years ever since the car accident that took them both so suddenly. Her husband’s grave was newer, the headstone showed the date of only six months ago. Michael McIntyre 1960-2016 Loving husband of Fiona. Father of Benjamin and Stella. RIP.
As her fingers lovingly traced the words, her thoughts travelled to her children, both living in faraway Australia. She felt totally bereft as she knelt on the freezing ground arranging the flowers, her fingers numb from the cold.
“I’ll join you soon, Michael. I promise.” She kissed the cold marble.
Groaning, she stood up, rubbed her stiff red knees preparing to leave. Glancing around the deserted cemetery, she noticed a lone figure, head bowed, sitting on the bench near the entrance. It was an old man, unshaven, his grey hair sparse. Fiona wondered if perhaps he was homeless, taking advantage of a place to rest. His ragged coat had buttons missing, she could see the dirty collarless shirt underneath. As she closed the gap, he raised his head, smiling, showing tobacco-stained teeth.
“Chilly one today missus, not fit for man nor beast. Best get going, it looks like snow.” He said, lifting his rheumy eyes to the leaden sky. As he did so, a few flakes of snow fluttered down, one landing on his red, varicosed nose.
Fiona felt a sudden compelling urge to stop and sat on the cold metal beside the old man.
He seemed surprised, used to being ignored or reviled.
“You shouldn’t be out here either.” She replied, looking at his thin frame. “Are you visiting someone’s grave too?”
He laughed a phlegmy laugh. “They’re all here missus, I’m alone now.”
She realised she’d said the same thing a few minutes ago as she’d sat amongst the ghosts of her family. On an impulse she took his wrinkled, dirty hand in hers. “Lets go, we’ll find a cup of tea shall we?”
The cemetery café was empty of customers on this freezing day. On a day such as this relatives imagined their dead could do without a visit.
“Do you live around here?” Fiona asked as they both sat, fingers wrapped around the welcoming warmth offered by the mugs of tea.
“At the Seaman’s Mission, missus, when there’s a bed available, otherwise anywhere I can find a bit of warmth. Oh, please, don’t look like that.” The old man said, seeing the look of sympathy on Fiona’s face. “It’s not so bad, there’s always somewhere out of the weather. Y’ just got to know where to look. I’ve got my secret places.” He winked, giving his thick cough as he laughed.
“What’s your name?” Fiona enquired.
“William, everyone calls me Bill though.”
“Have you got a bed for tonight Bill?” Fiona heard herself say, thinking she could almost feel Michael nudging her. Was he telling her not to be so stupid?
“Nah, not tonight Miss, the Mission is full in this weather.”
“Come on.” Fiona suddenly stood up. “We’re going home.”
When they reached Fiona’s house, she asked Bill if he would like to have a bath and she would find him some clean clothes to wear. Bill nodded shyly, his eyes filling with tears.
Rummaging in the linen cupboard for clean towels for her surprise visitor, her hand touched the bottle she’d hidden between the sweet smelling sheets. Hastily pushing it back into its hiding place, she went in search of something for her guest to wear.
Later that night, with Bill warmly dressed in Michael’s jeans, shirt and thick woollen jumper, he told the story of how he’d reached rock bottom. It was a litany of bad choices, both in business and personal. He spoke of his children who wanted nothing more to do with him. Grandchildren never seen, wealth lost and the ill health which would soon take his life, according to the doctor.
Fiona’s heart broke when she saw the regret on his face for a life wasted as he related his misfortunes.
Although she knew she was taking a risk by having this stranger in her home, somehow she felt he was harmless. Besides, she thought, what have I to lose?
Fiona was bustling in the kitchen preparing lunch. She glanced out of the window at the spring sunshine. The garden was looking splendid, thanks to Bill’s green thumb, she thought. Her face creased with happiness as she stopped for a while, staring at the scene.
Her family were having a game of backyard cricket. “You’re out!” Came a cry, followed by “That’s not fair, Mum she was out!”
Her family were visiting from Australia, both of her children with their partners, and the five grandchildren.
Bill sat proudly amid all the action, drinking tea, no longer battling the alcoholism that had contributed to his downfall.
Fiona cast her mind back to the day she and Bill met for the first time. Had her dead husband sent him to stop her doing the thing she’d promised at the graveside? Her intention to take her life stopped, just because she’d invited a poor derelict to share a cup of tea.
She stared once more at the scene outside the kitchen window, giving a wave to Bill as he caught her looking. She knew then that was a secret she’d never share.