A Helping Hand (July Story)

A Helping Hand

Things don’t always go according to plan do they, Mark thought as he stood outside his uncle’s house.  Ten years ago, when he’d left he’d vowed never to return, yet, here he was back again.  He sighed, picked up his bags and let himself into the house.

Inside, the warmth embraced him, fond memories flooded his brain, but not all his memories of Huddleswick were as pleasant.

He left his bags in the hall and went to see his uncle. Uncle Bill had been like a father to him after his parents died. He’d been seven then and destined to go into what they euphemistically called ‘care’. This florid faced, affable man had taken him in, fed him, clothed him, supported him, made sure he did his homework and stood on the touchlines shouting encouragement at his feeble attempts to play sports. He’d sat with him for hours dealing with his schoolboy angst, building his confidence and willing him on through the heartaches of his teenage years. He’d been as overjoyed as Mark when he gained a place at Oxford. Some debts can never be repaid, he thought. 

His heart faltered when he saw how frail the old man looked. He’d aged, but then, Mark reasoned, he’d been ill.  He forced a smile and reassurance into his voice. “How are you doing, you old devil?” he said.

Bill took Mark’s hand, holding it fast in his. “Good to see you back,” he said. “I wish you could stay.”

Mark saw a world of longing in the old man’s face, his eyes wet with hope. Guilt washed over him but he managed to shake it off. He’d taken two months leave from the solicitors’ office in London where he worked to help out at his uncle’s estate agency; he had no intention of moving back to Yorkshire.

“Take more than a heart attack to kill off an old goat like you,” he said.”You’ll be right as rain in a couple of weeks.” 

On Monday morning Mark’s first appointment was to view a cottage on Halleywell Hill. Buried behind surrounding trees at the end of a muddy lane it appeared isolated and inaccessible. The property consisted of side-by-side farm dwellings, two-up and two-down, which had been knocked into one to produce a larger family home.  

“You have to see the granddaughter,” his uncle told him. “She’s arranging the sale. Wants to move Granny into a Home or some such. The old lady’s in her eighties, so be polite.”

“I’m always polite,” Mark said with a grin, “especially to old ladies.”

The drive up the hill past his old school brought back a deluge of childhood memories, all bad.  A skinny lad he’d been teased unmercifully by the bigger boys. With no Mum and Dad to look out for him he was fair game. They laughed at him in his old fashioned clothes and his head always in a book. They called him ‘worm’ and stole his pocket money. They beat him up and took his homework to pass off as their own. His Uncle Bill hugged him, showered him with affection and tried to teach him not to care, but the hurt couldn’t be brushed away as easily as his tears. His jaw hardened at the memory.

A sprightly old lady with grey hair and twinkling eyes opened the door for him. He checked his notes. “Mrs Holmes? I’m from Morley’s, the estate agent” 

“You’ll be wanting to see Stella,” she said. “You’d best come in.”

Inside the cottage was bright and welcoming. Mark took in the polished brasses, the log fire burning in the grate, the cosy feel of the room. A loving home, he thought gazing around, and felt a tightening in his chest. The obvious warmth and comfort inside the cottage was completely at odds with his recollection of the hostile coldness of the world outside.

“Stella won’t be long, I’ll put the kettle on.” 

Mark heard a car draw up outside and then Stella burst into the room. His heart clenched. Stella Robinson stood before him, not the Stella Robinson he remembered from school, but a grown up, fully matured, gorgeous, flame-haired Stella Robinson, with fire dancing in eyes that sparkled like emeralds. He swallowed.

“Ah,” she said.  “The Estate Agent. You’re a lot younger than I expected, but never mind.  Let’s get started.” Her voice was strident, urgent, rushed. She’s in a hurry, he thought, but then, he recalled, she always was.

Mark tried to still his trembling hands. He flicked through his paperwork to catch his breath. She didn’t remember him, but he remembered her. A big girl, larger-than-life loud, bossy even then, but she’d been nice to him. He’d almost died of embarrassment when, like a fire-cracker, she’d stood up against the bigger boys, shaming them into giving him back his dinner-money. He’d had a crush, admired her from a distance but never had the courage to approach. She’d been ambitious and destined to fly high. She was still beautiful: glossy hair, peach skin, immaculately groomed; he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She always was too good for Huddleswick and as out of reach as the stars in the heavens above.

“I’ll show the young man around,” the old lady said carrying in a tray of tea and cakes. “Give you a chance to take your coat off and settle.” She put the tray on the coffee table in front of the fire. “Now, come along young man,” she said. “You must call me Elsie.”

Mark followed her up the stairs. Every room they went into was light and trim. Every bed had a different coloured patchwork quilt with matching curtains, the assorted wooden bedside and dressing tables were a little scarred with wear, but highly polished, the windows shone, the mirrors gleamed, pots of lavender and lemon scented the rooms. “This is quite charming,” he said.  “You obviously care a great deal about your home.” 

“I do,” Elsie said.

Mark gazed out of the window. He noticed the overgrown hedges the long grass, the untidy, unkempt paths. The garden, flush with full blown roses, sloped down to a line of willows edging a small stream. Beyond that the hills rose in sheep spotted fields bordered by trees, clothed in autumn glory, to the far horizon. The peace and tranquillity of the scene stirred feelings inside him he hadn’t had for some time: feelings of gratitude and contentment.  “If I had a view like this, I’d want to stay here forever,” he said.

“I do,” Elsie whispered. She sighed and turned away. “It’s all too much for me you see, especially the garden. My husband was the gardener, God rest him. Stella wants me to move nearer to her, so she can keep an eye on me.” She turned to Mark, watery tears in her eyes. “I had a fall you see. Not safe to be left on my own Stella says.” She shook her head sadly. “She’s probably right, she usually is.” She sighed and moved unsteadily towards the door, her shoulders sagging.

Mark turned, his gaze drawn once more to the view. He wanted to snatch it, keep it safe forever pressed into memory, a moment of serenity in a mad, mad world.

Downstairs Stella was waiting. “Well, what do you think? When can you put it on the market? We need to move quickly. There’s a vacancy at a Retirement Home near me in Leeds, but it won’t be there for long.”

Mark grimaced. Super-efficient as ever, he thought, always in a rush. “I’ve made some notes. I’ll take them back to the office and come up with some figures.” He stood and shook Stella’s hand; the brief contact sent shock waves racing through his body. “I’ll be in touch,” he said.

Driving away from the cottage he mused, Stella Robinson? Who’d have thought?

His next call was on a young couple living on the ninth floor of a tower block. Riding up in the urine soaked lift he shuddered. It was a world away from the cottage and the old lady. Gritty reality, he thought. This is where I could have ended up if it hadn’t been for Uncle Bill.

The young man who greeted him wore jeans and a check work-shirt. His hands were large, red and calloused; shaking them brought home to Mark how smooth and slender his own were. The young man’s wife, a slip of a thing in her early twenties, was similarly dressed in jeans, her blonde hair pulled back into an elastic band. Pale with dark shadows beneath her eyes, she looked as though she hadn’t slept for a week, which Mark thought probably was the case when he saw the infant in the Moses basket in the lounge.

“We’re looking for somewhere to rent,” the husband, Richard, according to Mark’s papers, said. 

“Preferably on the ground floor,” his wife chipped in.

“We’d like a garden,” Richard added, “but that’s probably out of our price range.” He smiled and squeezed his wife’s hand. “I’m in regular work with lots of overtime and we’d really like an extra room for the baby if possible.”

Mark looked through the rental application, calculated an affordable rent and said “I’ll see what I can do. Of course, prices around here are quite prohibitive…”

The husband and wife looked alarmed. 

“Don’t worry, I’ll do the best I can for you,” Mark said and at that moment realised that he meant it. He’d go back to his uncle and find the best deal he could for them, even if it meant haggling with landlords. Driving back he sighed.  Going soft in your old age, he thought and chuckled.

By the end of the week working with his uncle Mark saw the agency in a different light. He’d been reluctant to commit to more than a month helping out, but now he saw endless possibilities.

“I’ve no one else,” his uncle said with a gleam in his eye. “When I’m gone this will all be yours.”

“Not for a while yet, I hope,” Mark said.

As a solicitor he thought he’d seen the worst of people, picking up the pieces of their lives, sorting out their difficulties and disputes attempting to find solutions to insoluble problems, but now, working as an estate agent he saw his problem solving abilities differently; he could actually change people’s lives.

Later that week he went to see Elsie, knowing Stella wouldn’t be there. Over tea and cakes they chatted. Elsie talked about Stella’s meteoric rise in the business world and her inability to sustain a personal relationship for more than a couple of months. “She’s not an easy person,” she said, “but she has a heart of gold.”

“You don’t want to leave here do you?” he said.

Elsie bowed her head. “I’m sure Stella knows what’s best,” she said sadly.

Mark’s voice softened. “If you restored the house to the original two cottages you could live in one and let the other. The rent would cover the cost and the tenants could do the garden and keep an eye on you,” he said. 

Elsie’s face lit up as though all her Christmases had come at once. “What a wonderful idea.”  She paused, looking doubtful. “Do you think you could…?”

“What? Make the arrangements? Sure.” He had the perfect tenants in mind.

“No, not that, although that would be great.” She twisted her hands anxiously. “No, could you explain it to Stella, you know, persuade her?” Her eyebrows rose in hope.

Mark chuckled. There was nothing he’d like more than using his powers of persuasion on Stella Robinson. Visions of telling her over a candlelit supper sprang to mind. And who knew what might happen after that.  “It’ll be a pleasure,” he said as warmth, like melting butter, flowed though him. “A pleasure indeed.” 

Driving back, his heart was full of optimism. Perhaps Huddleswick wasn’t such a bad place to live after all he thought, or maybe he’d move to Leeds. Then he’d be close to his Uncle and Leeds did have other attractions too.

(First published in Women’s Weekly Fiction Special in 2013)

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