SHORT STORY: THE ADVERTISEMENT

He first met Hannah through an advertisement in the local newspaper. He had no income so he used the last of his savings to advertise for a Saturday job. He did this just before his parent’s telephone was cut off for non-payment.

Two men had rung asking if he was interested in photography. Then Hannah had called; she wanted him to do some gardening for her. He could start off doing two hours each week and see how it went. He arranged to meet her the next evening.

Hannah lived with her husband, Alan. They had a large, detached house in Longreach Road on the outskirts of town. Paul cycled there after school. He was about to sit his exams for university.

The house stood along a tree‑lined boulevard. Workmen had piled the brown and the orange leaves into heaps along the central reservation, but they had been scattered again by bored schoolboys on their way home.

The outside of the house showed signs of neglect. The paint around the windows was faded and flaking off and the rendering was cracked in places. Paul looked at the front garden, at the weeds along the path and at the broken fence and realised there was a lot of work to be done. Inside, the house smelt of cooking and damp.

Hannah looked older than she had sounded on the telephone. Paul guessed that she was about thirty-five. She had amber hair falling in curls to her shoulders; she was not tall and her skin was very pale and freckled. She had a gentle face and he felt relaxed with her, immediately.

“Hello Paul,” she said when they first saw each other. She had a slight German accent which he had not noticed on the telephone. She took him through to the back of the house and out into the garden. It was a large and untidy garden. The grass had grown long and the borders were a mass of weeds. At the far end there was a small shed; its timbers were green with moss and the door hinges had rusted. In the centre of the lawn stood a stone child holding a bowl. The fountain mechanism had not worked for years.

“My husband, Alan used to keep it tidy,” Hannah said. “But, he’s been ill recently and it’s got out of control. Do you feel up to sorting it out?” She smiled at him.

He thought of his parent’s house and the damp in his bedroom. “Of course,” he said.

“Good,” said Hannah.

Over tea they agreed he would start the following Saturday at ten o’clock. The tea tasted peculiar, but he decided not to ask about it. Instead, he looked across at the packet by the teapot and memorised the name of the tea.

After saying goodbye, he cycled to Sally’s house to tell her the good news.

Sally’s father used to be a coalman but these days he worked at the petrol station three streets from their house. When Sally’s father spoke to him and waved his hands about, Paul noticed how there were deep black lines across the man’s palms. He had big hands and his voice was hard. He never mentioned Sally’s mother who had died from cancer the previous year.

Sally was pleased he had found a job. Perhaps now they could go out occasionally, she had said. She enjoyed being alone with him. Most evenings they did their homework together but she also liked to dance.

Sally had often told Paul that she loved him. They tried to be alone whenever they could. They watched television at Sally’s house and worked every evening in the spare bedroom. They would sometimes start to kiss when they grew bored with homework. They had gone a little further each night, daring themselves that Sally’s father would not disturb them. One evening, six weeks earlier she had allowed Paul to undress her. She had been terrified, but at the same time she had never felt such excitement. That evening she had let him feel the soft area between her legs and she had imagined that her insides were slowly dissolving. It was exciting, but they longed to be alone.

Later, the excitement grew so intense that Sally let him lay on the bed with her. They kissed and Paul stroked her small breasts, squeezing her pink nipples between finger and thumb. It was when she had undone Paul’s belt and freed him into her hand that they heard her father moving in the doorway. He was turning to go, but they could both see that his eyes were very black and the muscles in his jaw bulged the skin of his face.

Paul left the house early that evening and did not say goodbye to Sally’s father. He knew that it would be a long time before he could look him in the eye.

It was very dark when he reached his parent’s house and the street light outside no longer worked. The house was dark and along the path he could smell the rotting mattress his father had left in the garden over a month earlier. At the door, he could hear his parents in the bedroom shouting so loudly he could not make out what they were saying. There was a small candle in the hall and another at the top of the stairs, but the light they gave out made everything look unwholesome and he realised again that his mother had given up.

The screaming stopped. “Is that you Paul?” From upstairs his mother’s voice sounded anxious.

“Yes,” he shouted back.

She left the bedroom and slammed the door behind her. Paul saw the familiar black streaks down her face and felt a sudden desire to kill both his parents.

“Have you eaten?” she asked.

“Yes,” he lied.

“Well, have a sandwich anyway. He still hasn’t got the electricity on, so I can’t cook, love.”

“No, you can’t cook love,” Paul thought.

After a time, Paul got to like Hannah very much. He liked her calm, her intelligence. In the late autumn, she would often talk to him as he turned the soil in the garden and pruned the bushes. He knew nothing about gardening but did what he thought was right. Clearing the leaves and turning the soil was easy, you didn’t need to know much about gardening to do that.

Hannah seemed to enjoy talking to him. Even when the air was cold and it got dark at four in the afternoon she sometimes talked to him, pacing the grass behind him as he cleared rubbish for a flowerbed in the corner next to the shed. It was nothing but stones at the moment. But in the spring, he told her, he would plant some flowers there and then it would look very different. She liked the idea and said she would buy some daffodil bulbs.

Hannah told him how she and Alan had met. They had been running fast through the streets of Prague and had made for the same doorway to shelter from the gun fire. That was in 1968 and they had both been very young. She had always loved Alan, Hannah told him. At first, soon after their first meeting, it had been a love from inside, from some mysterious place without name. That kind of love burned, it hurt, it was hot as tank metal in the summer sun. Later, she found she loved Alan in a different way; this new love had came from no particular place, but had soaked into her without her noticing it. When that happened, she wanted to stand, singing in the rain of her love for Alan.

Paul hardly ever saw Alan. Once he took them tea in bed late on a Saturday morning soon after he had arrived to work in the garden. It had started to rain, so he was trying to find something to do in the house. Hannah had sat up, her large breasts swaying over the top of the quilt and Alan, lay on his back, glanced at Paul as he came in and smiled weakly. Paul had not realised until then just how ill Alan was, he looked as though he was ready to die.

In the winter, the ground was hard, but Paul wanted to finish the flowerbed before the snow came. Hannah sometimes brought him hot tea and some strange cakes she had made. One Saturday, just before the snow stopped his work, Hannah told Paul something she said she could tell no one else. She said that she did not know how she could carry on living when Alan died.

Paul saw how calm Hannah’s face was as she spoke, but he noticed too how some of her fingers were twitching slightly. He did not know what to say.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she said and tried to laugh. She brought her twitching fingers to her nose but did not touch it before crossing her arms again.

“Probably because you know I cannot help you,” Paul said and they both laughed a little without really knowing why.

“Until now death has always been so impersonal,” she said. “Always something that happened to other people in other places. Even in Prague, I knew we would not die. I knew our love was too strong. Now he is slipping away from me and no matter how much I love him, he is slipping further still. It seems the more I love him, the further he slips away. But, I can’t stop loving him. It can’t be right can it, Paul? Surely, love can save us.”

The following Saturday when Paul arrived at Hannah’s there was no reply to the doorbell and the house looked deserted. It was very cold and he longed for a cup of Hannah’s tea. A neighbour told him Alan had died the Sunday before and had been buried on Thursday.

Walking back along the boulevard, leaves lay frozen to the ground and the cold burned the tips of his fingers. He felt hurt that Hannah had not told him.

Four weeks passed before Hannah telephoned Sally’s house and left a message, and when he returned to the house on Longreach Road, music was playing loudly and winter sun made Hannah’s face look younger than he had remembered it. In the hall lay bundles of clothes and books piled in neat columns tied up with string. Hannah did not come into the garden to talk to him that day, but after he had finished his work, she took him to one side.

“I’m giving away some of Alan’s old things,” she said and smiled at him the way she used to in the garden during the late autumn just before the snow came.

She handed him a pair of shoes and two shirts. “I don’t know if you like this sort of thing,” she said. The shoes were expensive brogues and the shirts were made from very soft cotton.

Paul tried on the shoes. They fitted, but he felt uncomfortable wearing the shoes of a dead man, someone he had known a little. All the same, he thanked Hannah and said he would love to have them and she looked pleased.

When he left, Hannah kissed him on the cheek but closed the door very quickly behind him. When he had reached a safe distance from the house and out of sight along the road, Paul took the shoes and the two shirts from his bag and dropped them into an empty rubbish bin near the gate of a large house with bright red curtains.

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