Peter Donnelly

Mavis Reynolds

Mavis Reynolds came out of her front door with her shopping basket.  She was small and slim and had short brown hair which was slowly turning grey.  She wore glasses all the time except for reading.  She was always well-dressed, and usually wore dark colours.  Her skin was slightly wrinkled, and she couldn’t walk very fast.  She was, however, in very good shape for her almost seventy years.  She always wore lipstick and painted her nails each day.
     Mick from next-door was lying underneath his car with a spanner in his hand, his radio playing loudly.  Mavis went up to him.
     ‘Now,’ she said, ‘I thought we’d got all this sorted out about radios playing out here.’
     ‘It’s not loud,’ Mick replied, barely looking up.
     ‘That’s not the point,’ Mavis said.  ‘You said the other day you wouldn’t have it on out here at all.’
     ‘How’s it affecting you?’ he asked.
     ‘It’s affecting me because I live here and I don’t like having my peace disturbed by your radio blasting out all the time.’
     ‘I don’t have it on all the time, only when I’m working on the car.’
     ‘That’s all you ever do, mess about with that car.  Have you got nothing better to do?  If that radio’s still playing when I get back from the shops, I shall be taking action.’
     ‘Fine,’ Mick shouted, getting up and dropping his spanner on the ground.  ‘Get the police!’
     ‘It’s not a matter for the police,’ said Mavis, her voice also rising.  ‘It is a matter for the department of the environment.’
     She stormed off to town, her head held high.  She was so much out of humour that she almost walked past the vicarage without noticing that Reverend Martin was in his garden, and was a little taken aback by his greeting.
     ‘Will we be seeing you on Sunday, Miss Reynolds?’ he said.
     ‘Oh yes,’ she replied, recovering her temper, ‘you know I never miss the morning service.’
     ‘Such dedication is very rare.  Your commitment is most valued.’
     Mavis was more committed to the church choir and its music than any other aspect of the Sunday morning service.  She didn’t have very deep religious beliefs, but she didn’t believe in self-praise, so she said,
     ‘Choir practice is still on at seven-thirty on Friday, I presume?’
     ‘Yes.  What do you think of the chosen hymn?’
     ‘Rock of Ages has always been one of my favourites.’  She was glad it was set to the tune she knew.  She knew there were more modern versions, which she couldn’t abide.  It wasn’t that she didn’t like the words of the hymns – she admired the poetry of many of them.  Not wanting to get into a discussion about the meaning of the words of this particular one, especially after her recent fit of anger, she said,
     ‘Your hydrangea has done better than mine this year.  I’ve only got one flower on it.’
     ‘It all depends on the compost, I believe.  Though of course Mary is the expert, not me.’
     ‘That would explain it – mine’s routed in earth.  How is Mrs Martin?’
     ‘Still recovering from her cold, though I hope she’ll be well enough for church on Sunday.  I’m tending her garden while she rests.  She was very grateful for the books you leant her.  I have little time for novels myself.’ 
     ‘They’re not Mills and Boon, you know,’ said Mavis, becoming heated again, and fearing the vicar was going to ask what she thought of the church magazine, which she’d only skimmed.  Part of her envied Mary Martin that she had such a good man for a husband – who would look after her – Mavis’s, garden if she were ill in bed?  She’d only recover to find it had been vandalised again.  But at least she had her own supply of literature and music, and one sermon a week via the pulpit was enough for her.
     ‘Well, I’d better go and see to her morning coffee.  I would ask you in, but I wouldn’t want you to catch Mary’s cold.’
     ‘That’s very kind of you, but I have shopping to do.  Be sure to pass on my regards.’
     She wondered afterwards if she should have said something to him about her neighbours, but thought it was probably as well the topic hadn’t arisen – all she would have got was a lecture about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
     When she got back from the shops, there was no sign of Mick, or his radio.  Mavis didn’t see him, or his car, for several days.  She couldn’t say why, but this somehow troubled her. 
     A few days later she happened to be visiting the doctor for a routine check-up, and thought she would mention it to him.  She had always had difficulty sleeping, which was usually aggravated by noise from her neighbours.  Now, bizarrely, it seemed to be aggravated by their silence.
     ‘So, Miss Reynolds,’ said the doctor, ‘what seems to be troubling you?’
     ‘I keep worrying about the couple next-door,’ said Mavis.
     ‘Oh yes?’ replied the doctor, looking interested, if a little confused.
     ‘You never see the chap anymore.  His car’s been gone for weeks.  I shouldn’t complain, really.  I mean, he was always outside, fidgeting with his car, radio blasting out, but - ’
     ‘Well?’
     ‘I thought he must be out of work.  His wife works down at the fish and chip shop.  They have a couple of young kiddies.  She can shout for England.’
     ‘I see.’
     ‘It’s not right.  Her out at work, with no-one to look after the children, except their father, who’s not keeping an eye on them, and now, it seems, not there at all.  I’d speak to the other side about it, only there’s been no contact since that business with the willow tree.’
     ‘Business?’
    ‘Oh, they have two kids as well – older, both boys.  They took great delight out of vandalising the willow tree in my front garden.  I had the police round to have a few words with them, but it did no good.  They still kick balls across my garden.  You can’t trust the police these days.’
     You can’t trust doctors, either, Mavis thought as she came away.  He had given her a prescription for some pills to take, which made her wish she hadn’t gone to see him at all.
     As she was walking up the street to her house, Mick’s wife was coming out of her front door with a buggy and her two children – a boy of three years old and a girl of about eighteen months.  Her name was Tina.  Mavis thought it strange to see her going out at this time of day with the children, and wondered why she wasn’t at work.  Was she on the dole now as well?  Mavis didn’t have a high opinion of people who claimed benefits, living a life of leisure at the expense of decent tax-payers.  She had been a hard-working woman all her life, rising above her humble origins and progressing in her career, and now she couldn’t enjoy her hard-earned retirement because of her neighbours.  She’d sacrificed marriage and motherhood for the sake of her career, and couldn’t help thinking more people should follow her example.
     Mavis would have crossed the street, but she was virtually at the gate, and anyway, she thought, Tina would probably scream abuse at her either way.  And she had to step aside and let Tina pass with her buggy, as the pavement wasn’t wide.  Not that she got any thanks for it.  Eye-contact was unavoidable, and from the look on Tina’s face, Mavis thought she was going to hit her.  Thankfully she had her brolly with her – if the woman wanted to fight rough, she wouldn’t be coward enough not to hit back, not if she got sent to prison for it.
     ‘You must be glad to see he’s gone?’ Tina said bitterly.
     ‘Pardon?’ Mavis replied.
     ‘My Mick.  Not half as glad as I am.  Leaving me to bring home the bacon, never lifting a finger.’
     ‘What do you mean?’
     ‘Gone and left me, hasn’t he?’
     Mavis’s countenance changed.  ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ she said.
     Tina was unmoved.  ‘Sorry?’ she said, ‘you?  Not about the music not blasting out anymore?’
     ‘I didn’t mean that.’
     ‘What would you know?  You’ve probably never been close to a man in your life.  Bet you’ve never had to work for a living, either.’
     Mavis had to bite her tongue so asnot to ask what business it was of hers or anyone else’s whether she’d ever been close to a man, and as for never having had to work, that was the most insulting thing she’d ever heard.  But she found herself making excuses for this woman.  After all, she had been misjudging her, so she deserved to be misjudged back, to an extent.  So she said,
     ‘Did you lose your job?’
     ‘How can I go out to work when he’s left me with two kids to look after on my own?  Never had kids, have you?’
     ‘Where are you off to now?’ asked Mavis, thinking it best to ignore the insults.
     ‘I’ve got to get them something to eat, haven’t I?  You think I’m such a bad mother that I’d starve my children?’
     ‘Don’t be silly,’ said Mavis, crossly.  She could understand why Tina was upset, but there was no need to say things like that.  Then she relented.  This was probably the first time her neighbour had been able to vent her feelings on anyone.  She’d imagined she’d been taking out her problems on her children, but she could see this was unlikely now.  ‘Let’s go inside, shall we?’ she said, walking up her footpath and opening the front door.
     ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?’ said Tina, though she spoke less bitterly now.
     ‘We can talk, and I can give you some soup and a roll.  I’m sure I can find something for the children, too.  I don’t have much, but what I have I have to share.’  Tina had probably been going to buy her children junk food, not out of choice, but because it was all she could afford.  And as for what she’d feed herself on, Mavis didn’t dare think.
     ‘Well, thank you,’ her neighbour replied, following her into the house with her buggy.
     ‘I’ll take your coats, and you can go and sit in the front room while I sort the lunch out.’  Mavis led her guests through.  ‘You’ll have to excuse the state of the house – visitors are so rare, that . . .’
     ‘It’s like a palace compared to my front room.  Be careful,’ Tina said to her son, who was touching an ornament.  At any other time Mavis would have rebuked the child herself.
     ‘He’s all right,’ she said.
     She went through to the kitchen.  This felt strange, having people in her house, but in a surprisingly good way.  She liked her own company, and tried not to think about how lonely she was sometimes, filling up her time with her many activities.  She even got pleasure out of preparing the meal – cooking for other people was satisfying.  Mavis had always hated cooking, though she liked to eat well.  Now she realised that it was because she’d only ever had to do it for herself that she disliked it so much.
     Over lunch the two women got to know one another as they had never done before, despite having been neighbours for a couple of years now.  Tina and Mick had moved into the neighbourhood just after their first child was born.  It was surprising how well they got on once they started talking, despite the differences in their ages and walks of life. 
     ‘You know,’ said Mavis, ‘I could look after the children during the day, if you went back to work.’
     Tina looked surprised.  ‘Really?’ she said.
     ‘I worked with children for years.  I was a teacher, you know.’
     ‘No, I didn’t.’
     ‘I taught the older ones, so I’m not too experienced with very small children, but I’m sure I could learn.  I often wish I had grandchildren.’
     ‘It’s really good of you, but what chance have I of getting my old job back?’
     ‘Go and ask – all they can do is say no.  And if they do, well, there are other places.’
     ‘Thank you, Miss Reynolds.’
     ‘Mavis, please.  It won’t be forever, of course, just until they’re a bit older.  And it won’t be long before this young man starts school.’  
     Content as Mavis had been with her life until now, she knew there was something missing from it.  Her other neighbours saw her out with the children, taking them to the shops and to the park.  She was worried what they might think at first, but her actions, though they caused surprise in the street, seemed to meet with approval.       One day in the park she was pushing the children on the swings.  She met the Reverend Martin and his wife Mary.
     ‘Are you feeling any better now, Mrs Martin?’ she asked.
     ‘Much better, thank you,’ Mary replied.  ‘I wish I had your energy, though.  ‘I do admire you, looking after those children.  I couldn’t manage.’
     ‘I’m sure they’re very good when they’re with Miss Reynolds,’ her husband added.
     ‘Oh yes, they’re little angels,’ said Mavis.  ‘Anyway, you’ve both got your work cut out, visiting nursing homes nearly every day.  I wouldn’t want to have to do that.’
     There was a time when Mavis would have suspected that a lecture on good works was coming, or that she was in some way being criticised by people who had little right.  She still didn’t agree with everything the Martins said and did, but she was glad of their friendship. 
     The most surprising thing was that, instead of wishing she had a husband and children of her own, or at least one or the other, as she had caught herself doing at odd moments in the past, she was actually glad she didn’t have a family.  She would never have time for all the things she did if she had relations of her own.  Since the death of her sister five years ago, she had very few close relatives left, except a niece who lived in Devon, whom she spent Christmas with.
     Mick never did come back.  Mavis had been worried that if he did, she wouldn’t be able to look after the children anymore.  She often wondered, had she been unreasonable to complain about his radio?  She’d even thought that maybe she was the reason he’d left.  Tina seemed much happier since he’d gone, anyway.  She asked her about it one day.
     ‘You weren’t the only one who minded,’ Tina reassured her.  ‘It bothered the whole street.  You were just brave enough to say something.’
     ‘If only I’d known,’ said Mavis. 
Mavis Reynolds came out of her front door with her shopping basket.  She was small and slim and had short brown hair which was slowly turning grey.  She wore glasses all the time except for reading.  She was always well-dressed, and usually wore dark colours.  Her skin was slightly wrinkled, and she couldn’t walk very fast.  She was, however, in very good shape for her almost seventy years.  She always wore lipstick and painted her nails each day.
     Mick from next-door was lying underneath his car with a spanner in his hand, his radio playing loudly.  Mavis went up to him.
     ‘Now,’ she said, ‘I thought we’d got all this sorted out about radios playing out here.’
     ‘It’s not loud,’ Mick replied, barely looking up.
     ‘That’s not the point,’ Mavis said.  ‘You said the other day you wouldn’t have it on out here at all.’
     ‘How’s it affecting you?’ he asked.
     ‘It’s affecting me because I live here and I don’t like having my peace disturbed by your radio blasting out all the time.’
     ‘I don’t have it on all the time, only when I’m working on the car.’
     ‘That’s all you ever do, mess about with that car.  Have you got nothing better to do?  If that radio’s still playing when I get back from the shops, I shall be taking action.’
     ‘Fine,’ Mick shouted, getting up and dropping his spanner on the ground.  ‘Get the police!’
     ‘It’s not a matter for the police,’ said Mavis, her voice also rising.  ‘It is a matter for the department of the environment.’
     She stormed off to town, her head held high.  She was so much out of humour that she almost walked past the vicarage without noticing that Reverend Martin was in his garden, and was a little taken aback by his greeting.
     ‘Will we be seeing you on Sunday, Miss Reynolds?’ he said.
     ‘Oh yes,’ she replied, recovering her temper, ‘you know I never miss the morning service.’
     ‘Such dedication is very rare.  Your commitment is most valued.’
     Mavis was more committed to the church choir and its music than any other aspect of the Sunday morning service.  She didn’t have very deep religious beliefs, but she didn’t believe in self-praise, so she said,
     ‘Choir practice is still on at seven-thirty on Friday, I presume?’
     ‘Yes.  What do you think of the chosen hymn?’
     ‘Rock of Ages has always been one of my favourites.’  She was glad it was set to the tune she knew.  She knew there were more modern versions, which she couldn’t abide.  It wasn’t that she didn’t like the words of the hymns – she admired the poetry of many of them.  Not wanting to get into a discussion about the meaning of the words of this particular one, especially after her recent fit of anger, she said,
     ‘Your hydrangea has done better than mine this year.  I’ve only got one flower on it.’
     ‘It all depends on the compost, I believe.  Though of course Mary is the expert, not me.’
     ‘That would explain it – mine’s routed in earth.  How is Mrs Martin?’
     ‘Still recovering from her cold, though I hope she’ll be well enough for church on Sunday.  I’m tending her garden while she rests.  She was very grateful for the books you leant her.  I have little time for novels myself.’ 
     ‘They’re not Mills and Boon, you know,’ said Mavis, becoming heated again, and fearing the vicar was going to ask what she thought of the church magazine, which she’d only skimmed.  Part of her envied Mary Martin that she had such a good man for a husband – who would look after her – Mavis’s, garden if she were ill in bed?  She’d only recover to find it had been vandalised again.  But at least she had her own supply of literature and music, and one sermon a week via the pulpit was enough for her.
     ‘Well, I’d better go and see to her morning coffee.  I would ask you in, but I wouldn’t want you to catch Mary’s cold.’
     ‘That’s very kind of you, but I have shopping to do.  Be sure to pass on my regards.’
     She wondered afterwards if she should have said something to him about her neighbours, but thought it was probably as well the topic hadn’t arisen – all she would have got was a lecture about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
     When she got back from the shops, there was no sign of Mick, or his radio.  Mavis didn’t see him, or his car, for several days.  She couldn’t say why, but this somehow troubled her. 
     A few days later she happened to be visiting the doctor for a routine check-up, and thought she would mention it to him.  She had always had difficulty sleeping, which was usually aggravated by noise from her neighbours.  Now, bizarrely, it seemed to be aggravated by their silence.
     ‘So, Miss Reynolds,’ said the doctor, ‘what seems to be troubling you?’
     ‘I keep worrying about the couple next-door,’ said Mavis.
     ‘Oh yes?’ replied the doctor, looking interested, if a little confused.
     ‘You never see the chap anymore.  His car’s been gone for weeks.  I shouldn’t complain, really.  I mean, he was always outside, fidgeting with his car, radio blasting out, but - ’
     ‘Well?’
     ‘I thought he must be out of work.  His wife works down at the fish and chip shop.  They have a couple of young kiddies.  She can shout for England.’
     ‘I see.’
     ‘It’s not right.  Her out at work, with no-one to look after the children, except their father, who’s not keeping an eye on them, and now, it seems, not there at all.  I’d speak to the other side about it, only there’s been no contact since that business with the willow tree.’
     ‘Business?’
    ‘Oh, they have two kids as well – older, both boys.  They took great delight out of vandalising the willow tree in my front garden.  I had the police round to have a few words with them, but it did no good.  They still kick balls across my garden.  You can’t trust the police these days.’
     You can’t trust doctors, either, Mavis thought as she came away.  He had given her a prescription for some pills to take, which made her wish she hadn’t gone to see him at all.
     As she was walking up the street to her house, Mick’s wife was coming out of her front door with a buggy and her two children – a boy of three years old and a girl of about eighteen months.  Her name was Tina.  Mavis thought it strange to see her going out at this time of day with the children, and wondered why she wasn’t at work.  Was she on the dole now as well?  Mavis didn’t have a high opinion of people who claimed benefits, living a life of leisure at the expense of decent tax-payers.  She had been a hard-working woman all her life, rising above her humble origins and progressing in her career, and now she couldn’t enjoy her hard-earned retirement because of her neighbours.  She’d sacrificed marriage and motherhood for the sake of her career, and couldn’t help thinking more people should follow her example.
     Mavis would have crossed the street, but she was virtually at the gate, and anyway, she thought, Tina would probably scream abuse at her either way.  And she had to step aside and let Tina pass with her buggy, as the pavement wasn’t wide.  Not that she got any thanks for it.  Eye-contact was unavoidable, and from the look on Tina’s face, Mavis thought she was going to hit her.  Thankfully she had her brolly with her – if the woman wanted to fight rough, she wouldn’t be coward enough not to hit back, not if she got sent to prison for it.
     ‘You must be glad to see he’s gone?’ Tina said bitterly.
     ‘Pardon?’ Mavis replied.
     ‘My Mick.  Not half as glad as I am.  Leaving me to bring home the bacon, never lifting a finger.’
     ‘What do you mean?’
     ‘Gone and left me, hasn’t he?’
     Mavis’s countenance changed.  ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ she said.
     Tina was unmoved.  ‘Sorry?’ she said, ‘you?  Not about the music not blasting out anymore?’
     ‘I didn’t mean that.’
     ‘What would you know?  You’ve probably never been close to a man in your life.  Bet you’ve never had to work for a living, either.’
     Mavis had to bite her tongue so asnot to ask what business it was of hers or anyone else’s whether she’d ever been close to a man, and as for never having had to work, that was the most insulting thing she’d ever heard.  But she found herself making excuses for this woman.  After all, she had been misjudging her, so she deserved to be misjudged back, to an extent.  So she said,
     ‘Did you lose your job?’
     ‘How can I go out to work when he’s left me with two kids to look after on my own?  Never had kids, have you?’
     ‘Where are you off to now?’ asked Mavis, thinking it best to ignore the insults.
     ‘I’ve got to get them something to eat, haven’t I?  You think I’m such a bad mother that I’d starve my children?’
     ‘Don’t be silly,’ said Mavis, crossly.  She could understand why Tina was upset, but there was no need to say things like that.  Then she relented.  This was probably the first time her neighbour had been able to vent her feelings on anyone.  She’d imagined she’d been taking out her problems on her children, but she could see this was unlikely now.  ‘Let’s go inside, shall we?’ she said, walking up her footpath and opening the front door.
     ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?’ said Tina, though she spoke less bitterly now.
     ‘We can talk, and I can give you some soup and a roll.  I’m sure I can find something for the children, too.  I don’t have much, but what I have I have to share.’  Tina had probably been going to buy her children junk food, not out of choice, but because it was all she could afford.  And as for what she’d feed herself on, Mavis didn’t dare think.
     ‘Well, thank you,’ her neighbour replied, following her into the house with her buggy.
     ‘I’ll take your coats, and you can go and sit in the front room while I sort the lunch out.’  Mavis led her guests through.  ‘You’ll have to excuse the state of the house – visitors are so rare, that . . .’
     ‘It’s like a palace compared to my front room.  Be careful,’ Tina said to her son, who was touching an ornament.  At any other time Mavis would have rebuked the child herself.
     ‘He’s all right,’ she said.
     She went through to the kitchen.  This felt strange, having people in her house, but in a surprisingly good way.  She liked her own company, and tried not to think about how lonely she was sometimes, filling up her time with her many activities.  She even got pleasure out of preparing the meal – cooking for other people was satisfying.  Mavis had always hated cooking, though she liked to eat well.  Now she realised that it was because she’d only ever had to do it for herself that she disliked it so much.
     Over lunch the two women got to know one another as they had never done before, despite having been neighbours for a couple of years now.  Tina and Mick had moved into the neighbourhood just after their first child was born.  It was surprising how well they got on once they started talking, despite the differences in their ages and walks of life. 
     ‘You know,’ said Mavis, ‘I could look after the children during the day, if you went back to work.’
     Tina looked surprised.  ‘Really?’ she said.
     ‘I worked with children for years.  I was a teacher, you know.’
     ‘No, I didn’t.’
     ‘I taught the older ones, so I’m not too experienced with very small children, but I’m sure I could learn.  I often wish I had grandchildren.’
     ‘It’s really good of you, but what chance have I of getting my old job back?’
     ‘Go and ask – all they can do is say no.  And if they do, well, there are other places.’
     ‘Thank you, Miss Reynolds.’
     ‘Mavis, please.  It won’t be forever, of course, just until they’re a bit older.  And it won’t be long before this young man starts school.’  
     Content as Mavis had been with her life until now, she knew there was something missing from it.  Her other neighbours saw her out with the children, taking them to the shops and to the park.  She was worried what they might think at first, but her actions, though they caused surprise in the street, seemed to meet with approval.       One day in the park she was pushing the children on the swings.  She met the Reverend Martin and his wife Mary.
     ‘Are you feeling any better now, Mrs Martin?’ she asked.
     ‘Much better, thank you,’ Mary replied.  ‘I wish I had your energy, though.  ‘I do admire you, looking after those children.  I couldn’t manage.’
     ‘I’m sure they’re very good when they’re with Miss Reynolds,’ her husband added.
     ‘Oh yes, they’re little angels,’ said Mavis.  ‘Anyway, you’ve both got your work cut out, visiting nursing homes nearly every day.  I wouldn’t want to have to do that.’
     There was a time when Mavis would have suspected that a lecture on good works was coming, or that she was in some way being criticised by people who had little right.  She still didn’t agree with everything the Martins said and did, but she was glad of their friendship. 
     The most surprising thing was that, instead of wishing she had a husband and children of her own, or at least one or the other, as she had caught herself doing at odd moments in the past, she was actually glad she didn’t have a family.  She would never have time for all the things she did if she had relations of her own.  Since the death of her sister five years ago, she had very few close relatives left, except a niece who lived in Devon, whom she spent Christmas with.
     Mick never did come back.  Mavis had been worried that if he did, she wouldn’t be able to look after the children anymore.  She often wondered, had she been unreasonable to complain about his radio?  She’d even thought that maybe she was the reason he’d left.  Tina seemed much happier since he’d gone, anyway.  She asked her about it one day.
     ‘You weren’t the only one who minded,’ Tina reassured her.  ‘It bothered the whole street.  You were just brave enough to say something.’
     ‘If only I’d known,’ said Mavis. 

 

All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Peter Donnelly.
Published on e-Stories.org on 01.11.2010.

 

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