“Rosemary.” He smiled back warmly, yet nervously. “It’s been so long.”
“Too long,” she replied, taking his large, brown freckled hands in hers. “Nearly forty years.” Their thumbs quietly noted each other’s prominent knuckle joints and loose, wrinkly skin.
“And all because…”
“No, Frank. Say no more about it. It’s all in the past. You’re here now.”
“I need to say how sorry I am, though. I was so childish. It wasn’t important.”
“I forgave you years ago, my darling. Come in. You must be freezing. Come and see my humble abode.”
She led the way – not that it was needed – into her tiny, square council bungalow and motioned towards the sitting room.
The central heating hit him with a hot, dry, home-furnished, carpety smell that was unfamiliar.
“Yeah. You’re right. Really felt the cold as I stepped off the plane. Haven’t had my face sting like that for decades. Oh, you’ve made it nice. Real nice. So different to the houses back home. It’s so hot we keep the soft furnishings to a minimum. Oh and look at all the old photos! Oh – and you’ve got Dad’s cigar box!”
“Home? Is that where you call home now?”
Rosemary looked so small and lonely that Frank wished he’d chosen his words more carefully. He looked down at her, wanting to hug her, cry, take care of her. But he felt frozen by years and years of guilt and being here with her, seeing how sweet and fragile she was, only made him feel worse.
But, bless her, she knew and immediately brightened her face for him bravely. “Come and see the kitchen. Tea? Bet you haven’t had a proper cup of English tea for a while?” She patted his arm and crinkled her eyes at him again.
It took three seconds to view the claustrophobic kitchen and overwhelmed by the tight space, Frank wandered out again, leaving her to it. He strolled the four steps across the hall, eyeing the family photos on the walls, recognising an old painting or two, peering into the barometer. “Jeez,” he whispered as he went back into the sitting room, “everything’s so bloody small here.”
He remained on his feet, with his arms behind his back, taking a step or two towards each nic-nac that his eyes lighted upon. He noted their mother’s old writing table, and their father’s footstool. It must have been terrible for Rosemary sorting through their belongings alone. How could he have been so mean and greedy? It was quite clear from her humble surroundings that she hadn’t stolen his coins. She was a good, kind person. He shouldn’t have accused her.
The absence of any photos of children and grandchildren of her own was stark. How unfair that he had been so blessed with a big family and she had no-one.
He chuckled at a cheeky-grinned photo of the two of them as children and thought about what mischief they might have been up to seconds before it was snapped.
Behind the telly was a photo he did remember. A clipping from the local newspaper after he’d found the coins: Local Boy Strikes it Rich! And a small write-up about how his parents were going to keep his coins safe until he was old enough to sell them himself. His future was secured. Or so he had thought…
He tapped the top of Dad’s shabby old, worthless cigar box thoughtfully as he read the article and he thumbed the catch absent-mindedly. It sprang open unexpectedly.
Inside was a piece of paper from the British Museum with details about Roman coins and identification. Mum and Dad must have had them valued for him. He didn’t remember them doing that.
He pulled it out and looked at the date, scratching his head.
Eight years after Mum had died and 10 years after Dad had died.
He went to put the paper back in the box and then he heard it. Dull and unassuming, but nonetheless the unmistakeable chink of old coins.
As he picked them up and turned them over and over in his palm, china teacups rattled close behind him in their saucers.
“You little bugger,” he said, without turning round.