There were four cottages in Archmont Terrace. They were built at the turn of the nineteenth century. Each one had a wooden latch gate to the front, flanked by traditional, low brick and flint front garden walls that separated them from one another and from the village high street, too. All four had smooth, paved paths, as deep-set as gravestones leading up to their front doors. Their surfaces of the paths had been polished smooth by eight generations of boots and shoes, and by more than 130 seasons too; of snow and ice and wind and rain and drought and frost, of damp and dry. To all intents and purposes, they were your traditional two up, two down, workmen's cottages, originally built for farmhands on the local country estate. They all had an outdoor loo block now used to store tools or logs, and a linear washing line half way up their long, narrow back gardens, whose winding paths led to compost heaps, a shanty town of garden sheds and greenhouses and back gates, which in turn lead out onto one of the lanes, that ran like a warren through the village, between the houses. The lanes were too narrow for cars, but wide enough for bicycles and babies' buggies, for walkers and joggers, for foxes and badgers and for lovers' trysts on moonless nights.
Now, in the early 21st Century, two of the four cottages had mansard extensions in their attics, which from the front gave them the appearance of an extra set of hooded eyes above the smaller windows on the first floor. They belittled the views from the lower floors, with their superior, high vantage points. From the top of these two cottages you could see the comings and goings of the locals along the village high street; walking their dogs, ferrying their children to the primary school, riding their horses past. Look right and you could see the village shop-cum-post-office, too and to the left straight into the car park adjoining The Walnut Tree pub; yes, this was still a true village, with an active community and a real sense of itself; not one of those villages that had lost its heartbeat, the locals would tell you with mounting pride, but one where the pulse was still well and truly alive. A village where real people lived, a village where things happened.
From the mansards at the back, you could also see above the old stonewalls onto the lane and into the meadows beyond, and on across the glorious, rolling Berkshire Downs. If you craned your neck left you could also see the brick and flint church with its elegant spire and its mournful bell, hanging heavily in its tower. When the doors were pulled back for a service, you could even see the backs of the congregation's heads and the altar with its weekly-changing floral arrangement, too. You couldn't quite see the vicar, but you could see the pulpit where he stood and the swishing hems of his heavy, purple and white robes.
Because Archmont Terrace was set back from the street slightly, the cottages had a sense of privacy about them; they were diminutive and unassuming compared to some of the larger houses around. If you weren't thinking about it, you could almost forget that they were there. Three of them had low-maintenance , blowsy wild flower cottage gardens to the front, which almost camouflaged them completely from passers-by. By way of contrast, the fourth, or indeed, the first, Number One, "Magnolia Cottage," had a recently nurtured, immaculate arrangement of neat beds flourishing with carnations, sweet peas, roses and a rare, ornamental magnolia tree at its centre, surrounded by a neatly cut, daisy-speckled lawn. It had a stone statue, too, the kind you get from garden centres; of a naked female ballet dancer, balancing on one toe, her second leg extended backwards, slightly raised, elegant, artistic. This front garden was distinctly feminine and, compared to the other gardens, a little suburban, a little sophisticated. The statue had raised a few eyebrows for its immodesty when the new owner first placed it there, but that was nearly three years ago now; and people had got used to it, as they do to most things, in the end.
It was Helen Llewellyn who lived at Number One. A regular listener to Radio Four's Gardener's Question Time, she had bought the house when her marriage had ended. In the year after she arrived, she had thrown all her emotional energy into the creation of a perfect oasis for herself and her cat, Poncho. She had finally peeled herself away from her husband, Jack at sixty-five years' old! Momentarily, her decision had rocked the family, like a tsunami crashing onto their shore, shattering all semblance of normality, in a split second washing away the years of cement with which she and Jack had pasted over the cracks. It had apparently eroded the foundations that her two children, Jane and Michael said they had "believed in", too - or so they had told her, a touch scornfully, at the time.
"You'll all get over it," Helen had told them huffily. "For God's sake, you're both in your thirties now, don't tell me we're still your bedrocks."
Her outburst had met with a shocked silence from both children, who had simultaneously looked pitifully over at their father, sitting, legs crossed in his armchair for their ‘joint announcement'- which is what Helen had wanted. In response he had simply shrugged his shoulders towards the children and raised his eyes skyward. Helen knew what they were all thinking; that it was outrageous, unspeakable, for her to behave like this. She could almost read their minds; she's gone completely bonkers, they thought.
But Helen hadn't gone bonkers at all. In fact, she felt more sane than she had done for years. With their reaction she had felt her defiance mount, and a previously unknown, stirring strength of certitude rising inside her, too. Ha! It wasn't up to her anymore, to hold them all together. She had broken free. They would all have to do it for themselves from now on. She felt a huge weight lifting from her shoulders; the weight of responsibility. To her surprise, she also found that her years of smouldering loathing for her husband and his mini-minded ways evaporated, too, and in place of these high emotions she simply felt a bit sad and sorry, that she had waited so long, that he would have to learn to cope on his own at this late stage. It would in many ways have been kinder to have done it a long time before.
She tried to feel guilty for her decision, but she couldn't quite convince herself that she was wholly culpable. He had always been a selfish man, self-obsessed and a little bit pompous; never contrite, never truly generous, a bad listener. She had suffered him for all of these years out of a sense of duty, for the sake of the children, for the status quo, she supposed. When she looked at him now, he seemed an awful lot older than her, too, with his aches and his pains, his tedious somnolence in the afternoons. She was ‘sprightly and lithe at sixty-five", as one of her friends had written on her birthday card; she had dealt well with the menopause, was past the HRT and all that now, and felt she had a bright, long future ahead of her. She wasn't at all bothered about finding a new relationship; in fact she fast discovered that she loved being alone. It felt so refreshing, not to have to share any more. Not to have to give. To be able to go to bed every night with a good book and a cup of tea at nine, without even having bothered with supper, and Poncho curled up purring at the foot of the bed, for company, Radio Four on, or, now she knew how, a Podcast of the previous week's Gardener's Question Time if she'd missed the last live recording. And being a silver-surfer, she was past being noticed by the opposite sex now, too. Life was great - or kind of. Three years on and the garden was perfect and her life was tranquil, but although she wouldn't confess to it to Jane or Michael, there was something nagging at her; something hard to pin down. A little gap, that seemed to be widening. She had located it to a space between her rib cage and her heart. It was hard to define quite what it was because it was numb, or blank, or a vacuum, or maybe even a hole. She wasn't quite sure how else to describe it.
Helen tried the church, to fill the gap. The psalms and hymns and scent of fresh flowers all perfumed her spirits for the moments that she was there; but by the time she got home again she found that the scent had already faded, its impact diminished to nothing, and she couldn't remember a word of the sermon, or its meaning either, without really trying to cast her mind back. During the service she felt as if she had been lifted out of herself, become adrift at sea, swayed with the waves, backwards and forwards, as if in a meditation, or in the arms of someone singing her a lullaby. She wondered if that was because of the vicar, rather than the content of his words. He was old-fashioned, which felt comfortable. He didn't call his parishioners by their first names unless they asked him too, (she was still Mrs Llewellyn to him, even after two years of regular attendance), and he didn't hold your hand for too long at the apse when he welcomed you to a service. He did mind if you wanted communion but weren't confirmed and he had a gentle, lilting voice that allowed you to float with his words until they became abstract, mingled with your sub-conscious, your innermost spirit. Maybe that was what it was; finding God. Helen wasn't sure.
"Funny thing you should remember, when you're painting in windows," she explained to her grandson, Tommy, one spring afternoon as they sat together on low wooden stools in the pretty, flower-filled back garden of Magnolia Cottage.
"When you look at them during the day, they always appear black and it is almost impossible to see what's happening inside."
Tommy dipped the tip of his field brush into his pot of water, wiped it on the kitchen roll his granny had brought out with them from the kitchen, and then dipped it into the black tablet of watercolour. He pointed the tip of the brush at each of the windows he had drawn into his picture of the four houses in turn and allowed the colour to spread into the squares, as she had advised. Then he looked up at her and grinned. Helen smiled back, delighted. Her grandson appeared to share her observant eye, her artistic bent.
"The time you can observe the interior of a room is at dusk, when lights are on but the curtains are not yet closed," she added, as if to herself, as she drew her sable across the skyline of her wetted watercolour paper and allowed it to spread, creating a soft, blue, billowing sky above her own interpretation of the row of terraces.
Being alone afforded one a more observing eye, it was true. Helen had found this on moving into this sleepy little community. Her daughter lived at the other end of the village and when she had left Jack, Helen had agreed to move closer to Jane. Often, throughout that third spring and summer, of an early evening, she would wander out of the back garden and along the winding lanes, to pay her daughter a visit. Callum, Jane's husband was regularly late home from work. It was the price they paid, for this country life, the distance from the city of London to West Berkshire was at least an hour and a half, door to door. It meant that, essentially, during the week, her daughter was often alone with the children. This had proved a great bonus to Helen, gave a punctuation mark to the end of her day. Once she'd done in the garden, she often pottered around there and helped her daughter put them to bed. And then they'd have a small glass of sauvignon together before she headed back home, slightly drowsy but content. That was when she got to look inside other people's houses; at that moment between night and day, when they haven't quite closed the curtains yet, but the lights had already gone on.
One of the houses that she passed was the vicarage. The first time it happened was quite by accident; that she saw him and found herself pausing, absorbed. The vicar was a similar age to Helen, a widower who lived alone in the large, rambling old rectory. She'd heard it said that when he finally retired, or died, that the Church of England wanted to reclaim and sell the house; that it was too large and grandiose for its purpose these days, that it would fetch more than a million pounds on the commercial market. The topic, whenever raised, would send a shiver of irritation between its faithful as they sat in their pews, for the proceeds would not be returned to the village, but into the centralised coffers of the diocese. This would mean a loss of assets and a continuing lack of funding to restore the bell tower and the roof.
What Helen saw that first evening as she stood in the lane, was a simple man, sitting at a large desk in the vicarage study, pouring over his papers, a single, desk lamp switched on, the rest of the house in darkness. There was nothing particularly significant in this, but for the modesty, the quiet commitment to his faith, to God's work, that touched her. And his solitude, too. She wondered suddenly, if, like her, he was ever lonely or if his faith negated the need for more intimate human, rather than spiritual contact. After a moment, Helen moved on, aware that her observation was intrusive, invasive. She would hate for him to look round, to see her, standing there in the dusk, alone.
But the next evening, when she went to visit Jane again, she found herself anticipating her return home up the lanes, before she had even drained her glass of its life-enhancing nectar. When she passed the vicarage she tried to stop herself from glancing sideways, but found that her eyes prevailed over her will and looked straight onto the study window, where, as before, she found him sitting, concentrating once more, on his papers.
On the evenings when Jane didn't visit Sarah, she now found that she felt restless by seven o'clock, desiring a moment of fresh air, a moment outside of the cocoon she had created for herself and Poncho. She would stand at her mansard window and watch the quiet high street, observe the people coming and going to the pub, or taking their dogs for their evening walk and she would want to get outside, amongst it. She would like to wander, for a moment, along the lanes. She would like to see him, sitting there, just for a moment. His presence felt reassuring. She couldn't explain why. And out she'd go, a touch furtively, without an errand or excuse. She'd glance back at the row of terraces, as she unlatched the back gate, to see if anyone noticed her evening-time ramblings. But there never seemed to be anyone home, or if there were, the curtains at this time appeared generally to be closed. No one was bothered by her movements; there was, she realised, no one to care.
The other terraces, curiously, were all now owned by single women too; one widower in her late seventies, one woman in her mid-fifties whose husband had upped and left her with their two teenage daughters, because "he'd had enough of all these females in one place".
Or so she'd heard said. The third house was owned by a hard-working female lawyer in her early thirties, who seemed to spend most of the week in her London chambers, before returning home for weekends alone, reading romantic fiction in the garden, or on the phone to her girl friends. This young woman's loneliness was different to Helen's but Helen sensed that it ran equally deep. It was strange, this world of the single feminine spirit; it was one she hadn't contemplated before, its existence, its prevalence. She could do it, this singularity, but she began to realise that what she felt in that gap between her ribcage and her heart was a certain despair, at having to, in perpetuity. She also knew that she had made the choice for herself, that she hadn't needed to find herself, at sixty-eight alone. Regardless, when she thought of Jack, already bedded in with a new girlfriend he had met on the Internet, she didn't feel a moment's remorse.
Helen began to go to the Wednesday evensong service, as well as regular Sunday morning communion. The vicar appeared increasingly delighted to see her, and if she wasn't mistaken, his tone seemed warmer towards her than to his other regular churchgoers. She noticed that he had incredibly deep-set eyes, and that when they looked at you, they seemed to see further than the surface of your expression, that they seemed to communicate more so with what lay within. One evening when she arrived, he asked her if she had been feeling well. Helen had found it impossible to hold his enquiring gaze.
"I get by," she had replied, somewhat lamely and had felt a tear prick behind her left eye.
"If you ever want a chat," he added, gently, "I'm always home, between seven and nine."
Helen didn't take the vicar up on his offer but his invitation hung in her mind like a starling on a wire. She continued to take her evening walks, to observe him sitting there. It was now late September and the evenings were beginning to draw in. She suddenly realised that it wouldn't be long before his curtains would be drawn too early for her to be able to observe him any more, at least until the spring and her heart dipped like the starling swooping. One night as she stood there, he glanced up and before she had time to duck. He had seen her and to her momentary horror, stood up abruptly, opened the study door that led onto his back garden and called out to her, bid her good evening. To her relief, he seemed delighted, not curious, to see Helen, standing there in the fading light, and the next thing she knew, they were sitting together on the garden chairs as the moon began to rise.
"Let me walk you home, Mrs Llewellyn," he urged her as their discourse finally came to a close. It must have been close to ten o'clock. They had been sitting there together for more than two hours, she realised, with surprise. Helen couldn't remember the last time someone other than Jane had spent so long in her company, talking of such small, inconsequential things.
"Come again," he said, as she bid him goodnight.
"Yes, I will," she replied.
"Oh, and by the way," he added, as if in afterthought. "Do call me John, if you prefer."
"Helen," she replied.
The following week Helen wandered past the vicarage on her way home from Jane's at half past seven. It was already dusk and as she glanced his way she saw John closing the study curtains. He paused as he spotted her and beckoned her inside. She came in through the back gate as he opened the door and followed him back into the study.
"Would you like a drink?" he asked with a broad smile, "It's at about this time I tend to mix myself a whisky and water."
"A glass of wine would be lovely," she replied, unable to suppress a wide smile.
"One moment," he replied happily and disappeared into the hall, humming.
Helen glanced around the lovely old, worn, panelled room, filled with books and files and old rugs. John's black Labrador, Petra was asleep in front of the fire. It was only then that she noticed an old gilt mirror hanging on the wall above the desk. She moved towards the desk, and sat down, looked up into the glass. From here she realised that you could see directly out of the back garden and onto the lane behind the house; her lane; the place where, so many times now, she had stood and watched him, apparently unobserved. She felt her heart leap into her throat as John reappeared, carrying a tray, and saw her, sitting there, in his place.
He smiled gently as he put the tray down and came to stand behind her.
"Don't move," he said, very quietly, very gently. "Sometimes when I'm working, I look up and out, and I watch the trees, swaying in the evening breeze, the world going by."
His voice had taken on the same lilt as it had when he was reading a psalm, or a sermon, a gentle, deep kindness.
"And just occasionally, if I'm lucky, I see a badger, or a fox."
He paused for a moment more and looked up into the mirror, where their eyes met. He held Helen's gaze steadily and she held his.
"And just occasionally," he added, very quietly, "If I'm really very fortunate, I see you."
Copyright 2007 Miranda Glove, author of Soulmates.
This story cannot be reproduced in part or whole without express permission from the author, Miranda Glover, or BFKbooks.com.