Henry stood like a sentinel behind the heavy, musty net curtains. They had been white once, but time and the pervading march of a nicotine filled atmosphere had made its mark and the curtains were now an unpleasant murky yellow in colour.
One last drag on a cigarette, then it was ground out suddenly and violently. The extinguished stub joined an evil smelling pile already discarded in the grubby saucer that was serving temporarily as an ashtray.
She would be home soon. You could set a clock on her punctuality. Ah. Yes. Here she was. Just turning into the avenue. She was pretty, and she had a confident walk. But You could tell she knew she was good looking. It was all in her confidence as she strolled along. He had only been close to her the one time. That had been when he had gone into a beauty shop looking for a hastily purchased birthday present for mother. She had been on checkout till. Henry was fourth in the queue so there had been plenty of time to weigh her up.
Yes, she was definitely eye catching. Even nicer, viewed at close range. Her eyes were pale blue in colour and were fringed with thick long lashes, only slightly darkened with the aid of make-up. The mouth was soft and full, holding the merest trace of lipstick, and her teeth were white as she flashed her smile once again. Even the brows were thin and perfectly shaped, an effective finish to her well-groomed features. Everything seemed just perfect. Hair that was long and heavy, a burnished gold in colour, and a figure that was obviously trim and muscular. Her appearance that day was only slightly marred by the drab regulation shop uniform, the wearers name printed neatly on the tag pinned to the overall pocket. Tina. Their fingers had brushed lightly as she had dropped his change into his palm, but she was quick to pass onto the next customer. She must know him. Or at least know of him. They were neighbours after all. But no. He wasn’t worthy of her attention. Not handsome enough. Not wearing the right clothes. Clearly not worth her consideration.
Henry flushed. He couldn’t breathe. He had had to get out of there before he made a fool of himself. People stared as he pushed past them, eager to get to the exit. Once outside he waited a few moments. His panic attack ha lasted until he was safely home again.
He was suddenly angry. Angry at himself for letting her inattention bother him, but especially at her. How many times had he stood in the dark, watching through the window as she and her cronies had gathered at the top of the avenue. There was a garden wall there. About three feet in height and long, it had always been a meeting place for the teenagers of the area. The place was ideal for cultivating friendships, courting girls. Henry would stand in the dark listening to the shouts of the lads and the squeals of the girls as they pretended to rebuff the boys’ attentions. She was always there of course. Tina. In fact she seemed to hold court as it were. She knew she was the favourite. Laughing as each of the lads fought for her particular attention, the other girls begrudgingly knowing they were only second best. God, he hated her. Hated them, yet at the same time knew himself enough that he would jump at the chance to join them. But he’d never been asked.
Henry knew he wasn’t good looking. He had peered into the mirror often enough to realise that. He was short and stocky and his face had a few scars from an old acne problem. His hair had always been a trouble too. It was always greasy no matter what amazing shampoo he tried and it just wouldn’t conform to any attempts at styling. No. Nothing to see here. Who could blame them for ignoring him.
Henry jumped . For a woman using two walking sticks she could certainly creep up on you. He put out another cigarette as he turned to face his mother, standing just inside the parlour door.
“Henry its gone six. Are we having any tea or are you just going to stand smoking behind those blasted windows all night!” Henry sighed as he reluctantly let the curtain drop and turned to follow his mother from the room
Ruth Benning fumed as she turned around and walked slowly into the kitchen. MY god he looked worse today than ever. Didn’t he ever wash his hair or change his clothes. How anyone could let themselves go like that was beyond her. Thank goodness she had that nice young lady come to wash and set her hair once a week. It always made her feel tons better knowing she was presentable, even if there was nobody to see her. Well. There was Henry off course. But if he couldn’t take any pride in his own appearance he wasn’t likely to notice hers. She just could not understand him. Never had. Oh he was shy, always had been. But letting himself go like this was no solution. How was he to attract friends, girls…… It wasn’t as though she hadn’t tried to help him. When the tv was on she was always pointing out the handsome young men and how Henry could look just like them. With a little effort. Well…..a lot of effort. But no. he’d have none of it. Henry was stubborn, always had been. Sometimes she thought he let himself go just to spite her. On rare occasions she even considered there had been a mix up at the hospital. Knowing her genes and those of her late husband how could this sour dumpling face really belong to her. Ruth stared into the distance as she tried to work out this conundrum.
“We have liver for tea”.
“What?…….What?” Ruth mumbled confusedly as she was brought harshly back to reality.
Henry leaned forward slowly, and purposefully positioned his face a hairs breadth away from Ruth’s own.
“I ….SAID….THERE’S LIVER FOR TEA!!”
“My God! Why on earth are you shouting! I’m not deaf. Get away from me for goodness sake.” Ruth pushed hard against Harry’s chest with one hand and sought to gain purchase on her chair with the other. “Your breath reeks of tobacco!”
Ruth shaken so abruptly form her reveries was suddenly trembling. She hated it when he got up close like that. She didn’t know why exactly. Perhaps it was his eyes. Yes…yes, it was defiantly the eyes. Try as she would to dismiss the thought, to her, Henry’s eyes had a blank quality to them.
Henry had retreated from the chair and Ruth watched from the doorway as he went methodically from cupboard to fridge, from cooker to waste bin whilst dragging a heavy pan across the worktop. Henry carelessly wiped a dewdrop from his nose onto his sleeve and Ruth grimaced inwardly. She hated to be so reliant on somebody especially him. “Idiot!”
Henry had looked up from his workspace, unsure if she had spoken. When she continued to stare ahead he went back to the task at hand. For a moment Ruth really wished she could open up to him. Tell him that she begrudged her reliance on him. But also that she was gratefull that he was there. She knew that she was taking his life from him. Needing him with her all the time. Helping her wash, getting her dressed. Feeding her. Perhaps if she had or did speak the words would they come to a new enlightenment. Some kind of friendship.
“Is something wrong?” Henry had stopped chopping and was now looking over at her with a bemused expression.
Ruth was herself once more. What rot! Any hope of such amity had long since perished. It vanished simultaneously with Ruth’s illness and Harry’s enforced metamorphosis from son to caregiver. Could one ever go back, once such intimate exchanges had been conducted? Not without a great deal of understanding and……the word choked in Ruth’s throat, an alien word, long unspoken,……. love.
Ruth was suddenly confused. Boundaries had blurred, lost definition. She found solace in the familiar. “Oh just get on with it will you? And for goodness sake use a tissue. Also you would do well to put that greasy hair of yours under some kind of hat, we don’t want anything other than the recipe ingredients in the meal do we?”
He turned away, shoulders stooped and Ruth was once again on home ground. She slowly rose and took a chair at the kitchen table, as Henry began to set out the dishes and cutlery. Each rattle of a spoon or clink of glass fuelled Ruth’s ire. Perhaps if he had a friend. Someone he could emulate and learn from. But what hope was there of that happening. He was so insular.
She glanced down as a soup bowl was placed in front of her. The soup had of course splashed onto the side of the dish and now dripped apologetically onto the tablecloth. Henry looked away sheepishly but Ruth was too weary to extend any further criticism tonight. They simultaneously picked up their spoons and began to eat silently. Mother and son together once again, locked in their interminable embrace.