An old lady misses her bus home and must accept the kindness of a stranger, but fate has a surprise in store; by Ceinwen Haydon.
"Coincidences are spiritual puns."
- G.K. Chesterton
Nora walked into the crowded café, another refugee from the downpour. She attempted to wipe her muddy walking boots on the coir doormat emblazoned with the word 'WELCOME', but her efforts had little effect. She bent over stiffly, loosened the laces and stepped out of them. She left them by the door, claggy and worn. Water dripped from her navy 'Hilltop' jacket and puddled on the floor. She avoided the eyes of the other occupants as their glances assessed whether she was of interest to them. She wanted to be alone, but the weather had driven her in from the fells where she'd gone for solace.
She shuffled into a chair behind a corner table, and picked up the menu. She noticed that after all that had happened, she could still go through the motions of daily life.
A young woman emerged from the kitchen, and crossed the room holding her notebook and pencil. Her name badge said 'Daisy'. She gave a toss of her head that flicked her dyed russet fringe to one side and her emerald coloured earrings, shaped like parakeets, glinted under the overhead light.
"Good afternoon, are you ready to order?" she said.
"Yes, I believe I am," Nora said. "A pot of tea please, and I think I might like a toasted teacake?"
Nora pulled off her Andean chullo as she heated up from the warmth of the radiator. Her colourful headgear, made from alpaca wool, contrasted with the washed out pallor of her skin, and the dark rings beneath her eyes. Daisy looked at her with concern.
"No problem at all, I'm pretty sure we have one, I'll check. Would you like milk or lemon with your tea?"
"Milk please. Could you leave the butter on the side? I only have a scrape."
"Is that everything?"
"Yes, thank you."
Daisy smiled broadly at Nora in an attempt to reassure the anxious older woman, who blinked back at her and nodded without any obvious reason.
Daisy strode back to the kitchen. Nora noticed her energetic movements, and her lithe body. She had once been quite similar, fit and with a bold approach to life. She couldn't recognise herself any longer. Daisy also had the powerful legs of an athlete, maybe a runner or a cyclist. Her black leggings and bright green thigh length tunic gave her the air of Prince Charming in a Christmas panto, all she needed was a pair of long boots to complete the look. Her apparent confidence made Nora envious.
Nora poked around in her day sack and pulled out a damp bus timetable that was buried in a damp fleece. As she unfolded it the fragile paper tore down the middle. The print had become indistinct and she found it hard to make sense of the times. After scrutinising the scraps she saw that she had missed the last bus back to Keighley, so she couldn't get the transfer to Leeds. She was in Haworth for the night unless she wanted to pay for a taxi, but such expenditure was not an option after her retirement four months ago.
Nora glanced across to the door behind the counter just as Daisy re-emerged. She carried her order on an old fashioned silver coloured tray decorated with curlicues. Their eyes met and this time both women smiled, amused at the obstacle course of bags, walking poles and pushchairs that Daisy would have to negotiate before she could get to get to Nora's corner table.
"You're earning your wages today, aren't you?" said Nora as Daisy offloaded her tea.
"You could say. The wet weather brings folk in. But I'd rather it was busy, then the day flies by. By the way I adore your Celtic ring, the knot work is beautiful. It means continuity doesn't it?"
Nora was surprised to get a compliment.
"Thank you, you're very kind. I love it too, the look of it and its meaning. If you've got a moment I wonder if you could help me? I'm afraid I've missed my bus and I'm going to need bed and breakfast tonight. Is there anywhere that you'd recommend, in the budget range that is?"
"Oh Lordy, you're going to struggle. There's a big fell race tomorrow morning and the village is heaving with runners and their supporters. You could try the Fleece Inn but it won't be cheap. You'll not get much change out of £80 even if they have a room."
"Never mind, I'm sure I'll find something. Thanks anyway."
Nora's anxiety crept over her face like a shadow, and she slopped her tea as she poured it out. Today she was embarrassed, and fearful. A few months ago she would not have been in this situation. For a start she had had her own car, and contingency funds. She was known as a strong and independent woman, a force to be reckoned with. She'd been the manager of a team of social workers for fifteen years. She had always tried to be fair and supportive and she'd believed that she had the respect of her colleagues. Now, her confidence had gone. She could barely remember it at all.
The café began to empty in the late afternoon, and Nora remained seated as she tried to decide what to do. She could not come up with a plan. She realised with a start that the cook, a craggy faced man, had come out from the kitchen and flipped the 'Open' sign on the door to 'Closed'. She shifted to her feet and asked, "Have I time to visit the 'Ladies' before you lock up?"
He looked across as if he'd only just realised that she was there. She felt invisible and of no consequence. He was fortyish and his forearms were covered with tattoos of near naked women in suggestive poses.
"Go on then, I'll wait 'til you've been."
Nora looked at herself in the mirror as she dried her hands in the 'Dyson'; her age seemed to have ambushed her overnight. An outline of down softened her face, her neck and jaw line was scrawny. Her skin brought to mind words like caruncle, dewlap and wattle that she'd picked up whilst studying hens. She had hoped to keep a flock after retirement, but that was another hope that had now died. Her eyes peered out from wrinkly folds, and she saw that her laughter lines were sinking into worry whirls. Her hair, dried out after the deluge, was unruly and shapeless. She did not recognise herself; her distinctive features had become fuzzed and blurred, leaving an approximate mask. No wonder he had stopped wanting her.
She came out of the rest room and saw the impatient frown on the cook's face,
"You took your time. I've got a home to go to you know."
"I'm really sorry; I didn't mean to hold you up."
"Mark, don't be so rude," said Daisy as she pushed through the swing doors from the kitchen. "You'll be old one day you know."
The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she realised what she had said, she turned to look at Nora who had just struggled into her sodden boots.
"I'm so sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean... That was crass. I'm so sorry, please forgive me."
Mark snorted and turned away. Daisy racked her brains to think of a kindness that might draw the sting from her thoughtless words.
"I'd like to offer you a bed for the night, if you don't mind my small flat. I'd be glad of the company."
Nora was halfway out of the door when Daisy said this. She intended to give her thanks, before she declined the offer. She had spent her entire life as a giver rather than a taker and it did not come easily to her to accept help, especially from a stranger. But before she could speak, Mark called from the kitchen and said in an acid voice.
"You've never asked me to stay the night."
"No, nor am I ever likely to. How many times do I have to tell you, I'm not interested."
"Is that so? Well you know what? You can forget your job, don't bother coming back."
"I wasn't going to anyway. I've had it with you."
"Come on," said Daisy as she put her hand on Nora's shoulder "let's get back to mine and get the kettle on."
Nora allowed herself to be led out into the street. The rain had stopped, and the cobblestones glistened in the pools of light that cascaded from the streetlamps. Then reality intruded once more - she didn't have a tooth brush or toiletries, night things or clean underwear.
"I don't think that I can come with you dear. I haven't come prepared. I don't have anything with me..."
"Don't worry about that, we'll pass the Spar and you can get the basics. I'll lend you some PJs and knicks and you'll be sorted. By the way, what's your name? Mine's Daisy."
"Nora, Nora Lloyd Davis. Daisy, are you sure that you want me to stay? It's a real bind for you, I'm sure."
"Nonsense, I meant what I said, I'd be glad of the company, your company."
Nora felt incompetent and bereft, and silly for being a bother to this kind girl, who should have better things to do on a Saturday night than play host to a hapless woman. But in spite of herself she felt anticipation stir at the thought of this unexpected turn of events.
Twenty five minutes later, with the emergency shop completed, they arrived at Daisy's home. It was accessed by a climb up weathered stone steps at the rear of the souvenir emporium that occupied the ground floor of the building. An iron hand rail, icy cold to the touch, was a welcome balance for Nora as she followed Daisy upwards.
The front door opened straight into the kitchen. Nora glanced around with interest. The walls were painted daffodil yellow, and the woodwork and cupboards were royal blue. It was a little scuffed, but cosy and clean, with half a dozen travel agents' posters of sunny climes, murals that expanded the space and promised possibilities to come. Some whacky magnets held various photographs onto the fridge door. The air whispered aromas of patchouli and rose water, on odd mix that beguiled her. Now that Daisy was inside her own domain she adopted a warm and idiosyncratic bossiness that swept away Nora's reservations.
"Right, kettle on. Can you make us a brew when it boils and I'll run you a bath? You need to warm up after that drenching you had. I'll lay the fire and cook supper whilst you're in there." She disappeared into the darkened hall.
Nora went over to the fridge for milk and her eyes settled on the smallest photo placed at eye level. Its colours were faded and it showed a woman holding a child of about three years old. Their shared DNA was unmistakeable. The pair looked straight at each other; the camera had caught them as they laughed with delight probably at some private joke. Nora sensed pathos around this little cameo, with its commanding position that trumped all the more recent digital snaps of fun times with friends. Was the child Daisy, and was the woman her mother? If so what had happened to her, to them? The woman looked familiar.
Nora became self-conscious as she stared and she decided the picture was none of her business and she should not speculate. This intrusion on Daisy's privacy was inappropriate, a poor way to repay her for her hospitality.
Nora had just done the honours when Daisy came back; the noise of gushing water confirmed that the bath was filling.
"I hope you like bath salts? I've put some 'Milk of Rose' in for you. They're my favourites. You can't live in Haworth and not sample the pleasures of Rose and Co, our traditional Apothecary. You must have heard of it?"
"Yes, I've been in a number of times, but not for a couple of years. Their creams are lovely. But you shouldn't go to so much trouble for my sake, you really shouldn't."
"Nonsense, you're very welcome. You can undress in my bedroom; it's the last door on the left, opposite the bathroom. I've left a couple of towels on the bed. Take your time, I'm going to make a Breton fish stew, it'll take a while. Sorry, I should have asked, do you like fish, Nora?"
"Yes. Yes I do very much. You mustn't go to a lot of trouble though. You've been at work all day."
"It's fine, I love to cook, especially when I've got someone to share my food with. Go and have a soak and make yourself at home."
Nora took her cup of tea and padded down the corridor in her walking socks. By the time that she made it through to the bathroom, festooned in fluffy purple towels, she felt tired but quite at ease in her new surroundings. As she lowered herself into the hot water, fragrant with salts, she allowed herself to relax for the first time in weeks. Sleep must have crept up on her, because the next thing she knew was that Daisy had come to tap on the door and call her to eat. The water had turned stone cold.
Daisy laid trays so that they could eat on their laps in the sitting room in front of the fire. Blue glazed stoneware bowls filled with thick soup reminded Nora of her Scottish grandmother's Cullen Skink. Warmed crusty rolls lay buttered on side plates. Daisy offered Nora a glass of Muscadet and her new friend was glad to accept, then she poured one for herself. They carried their meals out of the kitchen and took an armchair each either side of the fireplace.
"So Nora, what brought you to Haworth today? It surely wasn't the weather!"
Nora swallowed hard, unsure of how much to give away, she didn't want to spoil the evening.
"I just needed some fresh air and time to think. When I left Leeds this morning the skies were grey, but it was dry. I should have checked the weather forecast with more care."
"It can change very quickly high on the moors, but at least you were dressed for it. Some aren't and they come a cropper. A month ago a young lass was flown to hospital with hypothermia, after she went out in jeans and a tee shirt and got lost. She's lucky to be alive."
"Peter always took great care with things like that."
"Peter?" said Daisy
"Peter my husband, well my ex-husband I suppose."
"I'm sorry. How did that happen?"
"That's a good question. Anyway you don't want to hear about all that. Are you settled here in Haworth, Daisy, or do you have other plans?"
"I'm in two minds if I'm honest. I did my degree at Leeds Uni, English Literature. Then I did my MA and my dissertation was on 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall'. I've always loved the Brontes, but it is Anne in particular who fascinates me. I intended to do a PhD, but I needed a break from study and I wanted to understand more about her home."
"How did you go about finding a place to live? It can't be easy in this popular place."
"I was lucky. My boyfriend at the time, Declan, told me that his dad had a flat in Haworth and it had come up for rent, I came to look and I fell in love with it. I was lucky to get first refusal. I've been here for three years. Declan's in New Zealand now, married with a baby, but it was a great favour that he did me. The trouble is that now I need to work to pay my way. The Brontes would have understood that only too well."
"And now your job's gone? That's hard. What will you do now?"
"Maybe it's the wakeup call I've needed, I'm twenty eight this summer and I can't just drift here for ever. Work has been dismal since that little creep took over as chef two months back. He's made my life a misery, but he's the boss's brother and she won't hear a word said against him, arse toucher or not."
"That's shocking in this day and age. Bottom pinching is assault and the way he spoke to you when I was there is sexual harassment. Why don't you report him to the Police?"
"You really think that they'll take me seriously? No chance."
"Obviously it's your call but I don't think that he should be allowed to get away with it."
"Can I get you a refill Nora?" said Daisy getting to her feet. Clearly the subject was closed. She returned with the bottle and topped up their glasses.
"So, Peter. How long since you split?"
Nora ran her hand through her grey curls, and shut her eyes. It took her a moment to steady her voice.
"It'll be three months at the end of November, in a week's time."
"I'm sorry. You must be feeling like shit. Did you want it to end?"
Part of Nora did not want to go over the whole sorry mess, but to her surprise she longed to confide in Daisy.
"Everything happened at once. I'd just retired and we'd made so many plans. I believed that he was happy about our future. We'd always sparked off against each other, both of us determined to have the last word. But we shared a lot too, best of all our love of hill walking and wild Northumbrian beaches. Sex had pretty much withered on the vine but I put that down to age and medical problems, the natural course of things. It made me unhappy but I tried to live with it."
"So why did he go? Was it him or you that decided?"
"I brought things to a head."
"Did you find someone else?"
"No he did."
"Oh my God, aren't men predictable. Fancy him waiting 'til that late in the day. Do you know her?"
"No, I don't know 'her': I know him."
Nora's cheeks were on fire. She'd kept these details away from everyone she knew, but she was on a roll now.
Daisy's eyebrows shot up.
"Bugger me... Lord, I'm sorry..."
"You're fine, don't worry. The worst thing was finding him wanking to a gay video. I got up for some water in the night and he didn't hear me come downstairs. He was, as you can imagine rather preoccupied. This wine is going to my head. Is the Spar still open? I'll nip out and get us another bottle."
"No need, I'm stocked up, they were three for £10 on special offer. I'll open another."
Nora followed Daisy out into the kitchen.
"That happened one Friday night. We had an almighty row and then spent much of the next day hugging each other and crying. He told me that he'd fallen in love with the landlord of our local, David. I knew that David was gay, out and proud, not to mention thirtyish and gorgeous, but Peter? Him and Peter? The idea hadn't entered my head. Apparently it hadn't entered David's head either. A week after our barney Peter took David out for a drink and he came clean. David said, 'Thanks, but no thanks'. By this time Peter and I had already agreed to separate, we had a plan. I had a plan. When David backed off, Peter returned with his head in his hands. But I couldn't live with him anymore. Not as his wife."
Daisy uncorked the wine, and pulled a tub of ice cream from the freezer. She emptied the trays and reloaded them with wine and dessert.
"Let's go back into the warm. Where's Peter now?"
"He went to stay with our son, Luke, in Edinburgh. Luke was mad with me; he didn't know any of what had happened and he thought that I'd been hard on his old Dad. Peter did nothing to disabuse him of that view. In fact I think that he fed it and that made me furious."
"Are you still mad at him?"
"I don't know. I've tried to understand. I do know that we were friends for thirty odd years, at times more than that. But he lied to me for so long."
"He probably lied to himself too."
"Why don't you go and talk to him, try to clear the air at least? For your sake as much as his. I saw how sad you looked when you came into the café today."
"I can't, it's not possible."
"He hung himself a month ago. He left Luke's at dawn and went to the woods near Rosslyn Chapel. Why did he do that to our son?"
Daisy went white as Nora's tears finally flowed. She came across and held the newly widowed woman, as her mind seared with her own pain.
Neither Nora nor Daisy remembered much of what they said after they started to drink the second bottle of wine, and then the third. Daisy wouldn't add to Nora's distress by talking about her family, and Nora became calmer after a while. There were twin beds in Daisy's bedroom so no-one had to rough it. By midnight they were both fast asleep.
Nora awoke around nine o'clock stirred by the clanking of a bin lorry. She was disorientated for a few seconds before she remembered where she was, and Daisy's kindness. Daisy lifted her head off her pillow and groaned.
"I should have had a drink of water before I came to bed. Shit, I didn't put the rubbish out. Never mind, it's too late now."
"I'll go and make us some tea? Or would you prefer coffee?"
"Coffee I think. Thanks."
Nora went to the bathroom and then made her way to the kitchen. When she returned with a cafétiere of fresh coffee she saw that Daisy's face was shiny and wet.
"Daisy are you ok? Do you feel ill?"
"Only a little, it's not that. Please don't be concerned."
"What is it then? You can tell me if you want to."
She sat on the bed next to Daisy. Daisy looked up at Nora, as she tried to decide what to say.
"Nora, when you told me about Peter it hit me hard. It's my Mum you see. I lost her too. I was six years old. She took tablets and I found her, she wouldn't move and no-one came for hours. It was only ever me and her, and I couldn't help her. I cleared the sick away and washed her face, I brushed her hair and still she wouldn't speak. I never loved anyone like I love my Mum and she left me."
Dry sobs racked Daisy's body.
"Why didn't she stay for me? Why didn't she stay for me?"
Daisy started to flail out with her arms, punching the air. Then Nora remembered. A house in Meanwood on her team's patch. She'd been duty social worker that day; the Police had been in touch, they needed a place of safety. A child found with her dead mother. No-one knew how long she'd been there. That little girl had struck out in denial in just the same way. For sure that child was Daisy; that was why Nora had recognised the woman in the tiny photograph on the fridge door.
"Daisy, Daisy, I was there sweetheart. I was there. I saw Rachel, your mother, and I took you to a foster home until we tracked down your grandmother Lottie in Derby. Do you remember?"
Daisy shuddered and let out a cracked sigh. She looked into Nora's face, creased with age and worry and her eyes full of affection.
"Nora, you're the one who came, aren't you? I'd been calling for so long, the policeman arrived first and I was scared I'd go to prison. But then you came; and you smelt of my mother's perfume. You wore patchouli too; I called it 'Mummy's chooli' because the word was too long. You wore 'chooli', you came."
Nora and Daisy's reunion was a coincidence of the strangest kind, stranger than fiction. The two women could have so easily missed each other. Nora might have caught her bus back to Leeds or she might have gone to the tea rooms instead of the café. Daisy could have called in sick to escape Mark's attentions or she could have had a date that night and been busy. It is even more striking that as time has gone on they became firm friends, one step at a time, sometimes visiting and often speaking on the phone. Both of them pursued intimacy and then pulled back as they feared the consequences, the possibility that they would be hurt again. At times they trod a rocky path, but by spring they knew each other far better. They liked what they saw and felt more secure with each other.
It had been a year since their paths crossed, and many things had happened. After Christmas the shop downstairs in Daisy's building went bust and she persuaded the landlord, Vic, to let her rent the whole building. Vic was relieved not to have an empty property and said that she could have it rent free for the first six months so that she could redecorate and make it more suitable for residential use. Once she had all the keys Daisy called Nora and asked her to come across and have a look at it.
"I'd love you to see it. It's an interesting space and I need some ideas to see how I can make the best of it. Please come?"
Daisy met Nora's bus the next weekend and they walked arm in arm up the hill to have a look together.
Nora was delighted with what she saw. There were three rooms downstairs; the largest was at the front with two smaller ones at the rear. The stone walls were exposed in places but the grey stone expanses were broken at intervals by sweeps of whitewashed plaster. She saw little recesses that would be great for candles or small sculptures, and her imagination was quickly fired. The wooden floors cried out for Persian carpets like the ones in her rooms at home.
"I'd no idea it was so lovely down here," she said to Daisy. "You could do a lot with this space."
"I hoped so much that you'd like it too, Nora. Shall we go and have a drink at the Fleece? There's something that I'd like to discuss with you."
"Sure, that sounds nice."
As they made their way back through the village Daisy noticed that Nora looked bright eyed and her skin was clear.
"Have you been getting out for walks lately?" she said
"Yes, I've felt much better. Did I tell you that I've got a new friend? A little Jack Russell bitch, Betsy. You'd like her, she's a rescue dog, but very well trained."
Once they were in the pub, ensconced with their glasses of wine, Daisy came clean.
"The truth is, Nora, I need a housemate. When I start paying rent in September I'll have to share. Would you be interested in coming in with me? It could be our joint project, and you could keep me right with practicalities. I'm prone to be flaky sometimes you know. I have a bit of cash that my Granny Lottie left me, and if I use it well I can do the old place up nicely. What do you think?"
Nora's eyes shone with tears, she was speechless.
"You mustn't feel pressured," said Daisy as she feared rejection, "I would never do that to you. You know that."
A nervous happiness threatened to overwhelm Nora; then she saw Daisy's anxious eyes and she rediscovered her voice.
"I'll come on one condition; that I can bring Betsy too."
Nora and Daisy hugged each other hard, and energised by their new project they ordered a tasty lunch to celebrate.
In the early summer months Nora signed the deeds of her house in Leeds over to Luke. He'd need somewhere to live locally when he finished his contract in Edinburgh, and she did not want to be surrounded by memories that had been spoilt beyond redemption. She was a little surprised that she could let go of the bricks and mortar with relative ease.
Daisy and Nora live together these days. They are very close, and Daisy likes to call her 'Ma' now. Their living arrangements work although they squabble at times like real mothers and daughters.
They share their expenses and this makes their straitened finances go further. Nora's pension and Daisy's bursary are sufficient if managed carefully. Nora is an economical housekeeper and Daisy has learnt loads from her already.
Nora was amused to note that Luke has taken to visiting them both with great regularity, and Daisy was always impatient to see him again. Nora said to Betsy on an early morning walk, "All sorts of changes might come in the future, who knows?"
Betsy barked, and licked Nora's hand to reassure her.
Daisy finally started her PhD in October; her intimate knowledge of Haworth serves her well as she develops her thesis. The title is not fixed, but the subject is the relationship between Branwell and his sisters.
One cold autumn night Daisy and Nora chatted into the early hours. They were tired and emotional because they'd talked over and over about their losses and how hard it is to let go of hurt and anger. Daisy felt sore and cheated that she had had to manage without a mum for so many years, until now.
"Ma," said Daisy, "how could Rachel have done what she did? I adored her. It was so selfish. Just like Peter, Peter was the same, wallowing in his own unhappiness. How could they have behaved so badly, and devastated everyone left behind? You would never have done that, I know that you wouldn't."
"Daisy, we'll never really understand. But maybe it's there but for the grace of God, or something like that. I heard a piece on the radio the other day and I keep thinking about it. This American lawyer said, 'Each one of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.' Perhaps we can start to move on if we can believe that too? It's worth a try anyway."
Daisy closed her eyes for a moment and thought.
"I had a dream last week. Rachel, Mum, was in a sunny garden with me. She cuddled me and said, 'You've found me again now you know.' And she's right. I have haven't I, Ma."