I’d like to live like a poor man only with lots of money.
‘How much have we made so far?’ George shouted from the loft where he threw down black plastic sacks of old belongings, most of which had moved with them from house to house.
‘£350!’ Penny shouted, consulting the sales list they’d put together. She tore open one sack and rifled through the contents. Essays, assignments, and exam papers from some course long ago. She moved it to a pile marked ‘for burning’.
‘We’ve still got £750 worth to flog, maybe less if we want a quick sale. You know, the dining room table, chairs, your golf clubs… that kind of thing.’ She bit her lip and waited a heartbeat.
George’s head appeared through the loft hole, reminding Penny of a Jack-in-the-box but upside down.
‘Golf clubs? Did we agree on those?’
‘Oh, George. How many times do we have to have this conversation? Of course we did. The van will only take so much. Roger can’t organise a flipping pyrotechnic, can he?’
‘What now?’ asked Penny, glancing at her watch. ‘Look, we want to get this done so you can get off—’
‘You are priceless, poppet. Do you know that?’
Penny held her breath. She knew George and his delaying tactics. He was like a little squirrel, hated throwing anything away. She knew she should have sent him off on some other errand. This would all be at the council dump by now.
‘Of course, I’m priceless. There are just some things money can’t buy. So what’s the joke?’
‘Darling, it’s a pantechnicon – large lorry – not a pyrotechnic, and it will be more like a double-decker bus. The dinky version. But to get back to the point of discussion, that is the golf clubs, you have this habit of deciding and then telling me after the event.’
Too right, thought Penny, otherwise we’d never make any decisions. But she must humour him. After all there were spiders in that attic, the size of small mice.
‘George, that’s not true. We make all the big decisions, together.’ She fluttered her eyelids, which usually did the trick. ‘Okay, I confess, that may be the case. Rarely. Occasionally. Sometimes.’
George raised his eyebrows.
‘But you must admit you say, often, that I know best.’ She stared back at him, hoping her expression was blank enough.
George jumped down, landing on his feet with a thud. Penny watched tiny crumbs of plaster fall onto the floor in front of them, like tiny snowflakes.
‘Whoops,’ said George as he scooped her up in his arms and twirled her around. ‘Well, I can’t argue with that, can I?’ He kissed her long and firm on the lips.
‘Put me down now, young man.’ Penny peeled herself from his arms. ‘We’ve no time for this sort of cavorting.’ She smiled and smoothed her hair. ‘And anyway, we don’t want you to put your back out. I need a fighting fit husband.’
George grabbed her, ‘Mmm, I like the young bit.’
Penny reached for her list. ‘No,’ she said firmly, holding him at arm’s length and perching her glasses on the end of her nose, consulted the paper. ‘Under stairs cupboard next.’
Their little one-up-one-down cottage was looking a little bigger. But then they had sold or dumped most of their furniture. Their sole cooking facility was a single burner camping stove, which was proving to be a little erratic, so they mainly ate cold out of the tin. If Penny never saw another baked bean in her life, it would be too soon.
Large brown boxes, which announced “triple protection incontinence wear” stamped in large letters, sat in every room. They taped some boxes shut tight with brown parcel tape, others with flaps gaping open like hungry mouths, waited to be filled. They were packing up their life in the UK, having sold up and paid off their debts, after choosing an early retirement in Italy. A small bubble of anxiety rolled around Penny’s stomach.
George ran his hand through his hair as they stared at the pile of stuff which tumbled out of the under stairs cupboard along with several dead spiders and several piles of mouse droppings. Penny stepped back.
‘Crikey! How long is it since we’ve opened this door, poppet? Can’t we just transfer it to a black “for the dump” bag?’ George extracted a photo album with chewed edges.
‘My doggy album! It’s ruined.’
George scratched his head. ‘Hector!’ he shouted at the Springer Spaniel, whose nose sniffed around a box. ‘Get out of there. Now!’ The dog retreated with one dusty golf shoe between his teeth. ‘Put that down, this minute.’ George demanded. Hector looked at them with doleful eyes, whined and dropped the shoe at George’s feet.
‘He knows something’s going on,’ said Penny as the dog skulked out of the room. ‘What are we going to do without him?’ She looked at George, his eyes shining and a small muscle in his cheek twitched.
‘He’ll be fine.’ George’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. ‘It’s for the best. You know it is Penny. We can’t take a Springer Spaniel who murders chickens. What will that old neighbour think next door? I can hardly tell them to lock up her animals. And anyway, I don’t want to talk about it any more.’ George followed the dog.
Penny sat on the wooden floor, the floor she had painstakingly sanded, varnished and polished when they had first moved in. She ran her fingers over the smooth finish, remembering the walk on which Hector had perfected his chicken chasing technique and the poor bird had died from shock. They hadn’t been far from the farm, and Penny feared the farmer would be out with a shotgun at any moment.
George was right, their neighbour in Italy had free-range chickens and a mad dog running amok amongst the vegetables in the orto would not be a great introduction to their new life. How she hated making decisions.
The next day Penny and George visited his father to tell him of their plans. They had left it as late as possible because it was just too difficult and anyway, with his dementia, he would soon forget they ever existed.
‘What do you want to do that for? Who is going to look over me now? And why do you want to go and live amongst…’ his father looked around, ‘… amongst them foreigners?’ He spat the last word out, showering his bristly chin with a fine mist.
George flinched and checked that no-one had overheard his father’s banter. But all the other residents were asleep, heads lolling on their chests like those dipping bird toys he had loved as a kid.
‘Dad! You can’t say things like that. And anyway, you’re looked after well here at Sunnydale.’ George stared out of the vast picture window through which the light flooded in. From here at the top of Higgbury Hill, the view spanned the green mossy peaks and tors surrounding the town. His father had been there for seven years. It was a small, family-managed place full of dumpy women with wrestler’s arms and hearts as big as buckets. George couldn’t fault the care.
‘Hmm, no-one looks after me. I’ve had to make me own breakfast and find my way here.’ His father sat in his favourite chair by the window and snarled at anyone who dared to even think of claiming it.
‘Dad, you know that’s not true. And anyway, the FOC,’ George faltered and looked at Penny who glared back at him. ‘I mean, Melinda. Melinda will come and see you as always. She promised. She thinks a lot of you, Dad.’
His father returned his stare with rheumy eyes, and George sighed. He watched Penny walk over to the window. She never felt comfortable with talk about the ex-wife who still lived nearby and had always kept in touch.
‘More than you did of her, I ‘spect.’ His father screwed up one eye, the other challenged him. ‘Still, you fell on your feet again, with this one. You should make an honest woman out of her.’ He smiled a toothless grin at Penny. She smiled, walked over and squeezed his hand.
‘He has, Pa. Remember? We’re married now.’ She turned back to George. ‘Dentures, George. Can you see them anywhere?’ George scanned the room and spotted a grinning row of plastic teeth sitting on a table.
‘I did fall on my feet, didn’t I?’ George picked up the teeth gingerly with two fingers and offered them to Penny. She shook her head and placed a kiss on his father’s bald crown.
His father nodded. ‘Like a pig in muck, you are.’
‘Oh, go on with you, you old charmer. I can see where your son gets all his chat-up lines from.’
George placed the dentures in his father’s hand.
‘Anyway, Pa,’ Penny continued. ‘When you’re fit enough, you can fly out and have a little holiday with us.’ George glanced at Penny and shook his head. ‘Yes, you can,’ she insisted. ‘We would be delighted for you to visit our little casa.’
His father smiled sweetly, then turned to George, popped his teeth in and sucked loudly. ‘If you think I’m getting on one of them flying machines, you’re wrong. And see what I mean?’ He pointed a twisted finger at Penny. ‘She’s even talking foreign now!’
Penny and George burst out laughing and seeing his eyebrows knot together clamped their hands over their mouths.
‘I mean it, son. You won’t get me over there, not unless it’s in a wooden box.’
Penny was in tears when they left. Although she had a large extended family, she was an only child and had been on her own since her parents had died several years back.
‘He’s so frail, George. What if all this upset causes him… to…’ She stopped in the corridor and sobbed, scrabbling inside her bag before pulling out a straggly paper hanky.
‘Oh, don’t you worry, love,’ George assured her. ‘My father will go on and on and on. He loves making everyone miserable. He should get a degree in it! And anyway he’s got his eye on that widow, Mrs Hatton, who arrived last week.’
Penny stared at him, red-rimmed eyes wide open. ‘He has?’
‘He certainly has. Matron told me she found him rifling through her knicker drawer the other evening.’
Penny snorted, ‘Never! Well, the dirty old rogue. I do hope you don’t pick up any of his bad habits.’
‘Who says I haven’t already?’ George winked and linked his arm in hers. ‘C’mon, I need a stiff drink.’
‘Can we afford it?’
‘Nope, but it’s a necessary expenditure. For medicinal purposes, of course.’
‘Penny, it’s not as if we are going to the other side of the world,’ George complained when she told him of the farewell party that she’d arranged for family and friends. ‘They’ll all be piling over to visit. It won’t be any different to how it’s been here, for goodness’ sake.’ He was sick of saying goodbye to everyone when it wasn’t goodbye. Only farewell for now. ‘I don’t want to go to a damn hooley.’ He folded his arms and stared at her.
‘Sweetheart, it’s not a hooley. People just want to wish us some luck, goodness knows we could do with it. And of course they won’t visit. Out of sight, out of mind. You will go to the ball.’ Penny sidled up to him and slipped her arms around his waist. ‘You will enjoy and you will smile. Won’t you? Just for me.’
George stared blankly at her.
‘George, please. For me? And anyway, we’ve agreed to handover Hector—’
‘You what?’ George interrupted, his voice an octave higher. ‘We’ve agreed, means you’ve agreed. When did that happen?’ Hector looked up from his bed and then lowered his head sadly. George rushed over and sat down, his knees touching his chin.
‘But, I’m not… I don’t want…’ He cuddled the dog to his chest, who responded by licking his face with a soft and very wet tongue. ‘Hector!’ George protested as the dog flicked his tongue around his ears. ‘Get off, that tickles.’
‘I know. I don’t want to let him go either. And it’s always me that has to make the hard decisions.’ Huge tears ran down Penny’s cheeks and George swallowed hard. He had been putting this off. ‘But when is the right time, George? I just thought,’ she took a deep juddering breath, ‘that this way we can go for his favourite walk along the canal and leave him at Pete’s like we have before. Only this time, we won’t be going back to collect him.’
‘Shush!’ George covered the dog’s ears with hands.
‘He doesn’t understand what I’m saying, George.’ Penny bent down and tickled the dog’s chin.
‘Hector is a very intelligent dog, as you well know.’
They spent the afternoon out walking over fields and streams, revisiting favourite haunts and smells. Just before dusk they arrived at their local pub and staggered home a couple of hours later led faithfully by Hector.