Man And Shed
‘You know, if you were Queen you could wish for anything and it would just come true.' Robert was seven and balancing on his head on his grandmother's red velvet sofa.
‘Really?' Julia responded to her grandson's bare feet.
‘Yep.' Pivoted at the waist Robert swung round to look his grandmother square in the eyes. ‘You could wish for George Clooney.'
She threw back her head. ‘Now there's a thought!' Julia kept promising herself that she would start writing down the things her grandchildren had said over the years, and hopefully those to come. Something to look back on while languishing in the old folks' home Robert said she would eventually go to ‘when she couldn't play cricket any more'. ‘Imagine George Clooney in my kitchen,' Julia kept the hypothetical location age-appropriate for present company. ‘Do you think your Grandad would mind?'
Robert had returned to his former head-first position. Without missing a beat he replied, ‘But Grandad lives in the shed.'
Through the kitchen window, past her well-intentioned but largely bounty-less vegetable plot, Julia stared at the greying, weathered boards of Richard's timber workshop. The shed had entered their lives almost ten years ago. A place, as Richard had sold it to Julia, for him to ‘tinker, knock up a shelf or two'. And it had been just that. To begin with.
Every other Thursday was Julia's book club night. Over the past five years she had custard creamed her way through ‘the classics', the books she had read the Brodie's Notes of at school and was finally relieved to have ticked off her list. Some of them she had even enjoyed.
‘Oh, you're there. I'm just heading off. See you later.' Julia was on the cusp of incredibly late. Again. She fleetingly noticed Richard cradling pieces of wood as he kicked off his shoes at the back door. If she'd had the time Julia might have wondered if in fact they were the same pieces of wood her husband had carried into the house the night before, and the night before that. Indeed, she might have wondered what the wood was for as there was no tangible evidence of the construction of shelving or storage facility of any kind.
‘See you later then, love.' Richard was unaware that his wife had already left the building.
Julia wasn't participating fully in the heated debate surrounding the necessity – or not – of redeeming qualities in a main character. And it was only as she got up to leave and the now empty biscuit plate fell to the floor from her lap that she realised her uncharacteristic silence may not have been the sole reason for the puzzled looks she had been vaguely aware of receiving.
‘Grandad lives in the shed. The things children say,' Julia sank back into her car seat. She had kept meaning to tell Richard. He would find it funny, she thought. She drove the long way home. Richard was asleep when she got there; she would tell him tomorrow.
Julia and Richard were three weeks away from their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Although it was most definitely long enough to illicit a round of applause on Loose Women, she hadn't made any big plans. Richard wouldn't have, either. It wasn't a lack of caring; they loved each other very much. It just didn't seem necessary any more to celebrate that one particular date. It felt slightly forced, like Valentine's Day. Anyway, they were both so busy.
To the usual weekend serenade of drilling and hammering Julia made herself a cup of tea. She would have made Richard one too but he had a kettle in the shed. The kettle had been installed almost the moment the electrics had gone live, ‘to save either of us traipsing up and down the garden with hot drinks while I'm working in there.' It made sense. But then, of course, there was the issue of milk storage. The solution was a small, ‘cheap' fridge. A radio followed. Then a couple of years ago ‘someone at work' was getting rid of an old armchair; that too found a new home in Richard's second one. Julia had joked with their daughter Laura that she half expected to come home to a Sky satellite dish nailed to the felt roofing.
They had met and married quite late in life for ‘the olden days', to quote the grandchildren. Julia was a GP and Richard had taken over his family's farm. He was a brilliant businessman and planned change and diversifying at exactly the right times, and thus the farm and business thrived. Two daughters arrived in swift succession and Julia returned to work part-time. Happily hectic family life was punctuated regularly with time for just the two of them. Both sets of grandparents were only too delighted to look after the girls while Julia and Richard enjoyed an evening at the cinema, or theatre, or going out to eat. They knew it was important. They had seen enough examples of friends becoming completely immersed in the careers and families they were building but forgetting to maintain the foundations. So many had crumbled.
At least once a month they would go out, and every few months spend a whole weekend away. These they always booked well in advance to make sure they actually went; left to the last minute there would invariably be some pressing work, household chores, or family commitment to swallow up that time. Like everybody else, there was never a day when they woke up thinking, ‘I have done absolutely everything that needs to be done and simply have no idea how to fill my time today.'
Their wedding anniversary was the subject of special treatment. Informally – there wasn't an annual romance rota pinned to the fridge – they took it in turns to organise a suitably celebratory evening. These varied according to circumstances and didn't have to be flash affairs. One year they went back to the place where they'd first met; another year, a beautiful lakeside picnic; a day at the races; a night at a casino; a child-free night at home with a takeaway. On their tenth anniversary Richard secretly planned a long weekend in Florence. Unannounced, he had picked Julia up from work, suitcases packed, and driven them to the airport. Fortunately, Julia had the good sense to beat their destination out of him before they had travelled too far from home so she could swiftly return home and pack properly. It was an amazing weekend.
For their twentieth anniversary Richard bought tulips and contraband Maltesers, which they furtively shared at Julia's hospital bedside as she recovered from appendix removal. Thirty years of marriage was marked with a card. Belated, on Richard's part.
By the time the girls had left home and were making their own way in the world, it seemed that there had been a gradual and unspoken slouch into the ‘Phew, we've made it! Time for the comfortable shoes and tartan blankets' relationship phase. They hadn't reached this conclusion in any other area of their lives. Both were still extremely active, professionally, physically, and socially.
‘I have to put up all the shelves in our house.' Julia was eating tapas with best friend Mo. Richard was enjoying the company of the Rotary Club. ‘What's that they say about gift horses and mouths?'
‘Well, even given my library, there are only so many shelves one woman needs.' Julia had shared with Mo her grandson's summation of their living arrangements. ‘And anyway, to be honest there has been little production of late.'
‘Oh dear. Is one's staff slacking?' Mo could always be relied upon to lend gravitas to a situation.
Julia demolished the last, luscious chunks of patatas bravas and refilled their wine glasses. ‘One's "staff" is missing.'
Mo snorted into her Rioja. ‘Or hiding?'
Robert was setting up the cricket wickets in his grandmother's garden. ‘Granny!' Robert sprinted into the kitchen where Julia was loading a tray with a plastic plate heaving with cakes, a plastic jug brimming with juice and plastic cups. ‘Granny, I need a hammer to knock in the wickets.'
‘Ask your Grandad, sweetheart. I'll be out in a second to help you.'
‘Where is Grandad?'
Julia gave him a look. Robert rolled his eyes and groaned, ‘In the shed.'
‘You've got it.' Adding loudly before Robert got too far down the garden, travelling as he was at little boy warp factor, ‘And tell him Granny says to come out and play cricket with us.'
Robert thought his Grandad's shed was ‘a bit cool'. It needed much more in the way of plasma and Playstations to come even close to ‘wicked', but a boy of seven could quite happily while away an hour or so sawing and hammering while feigning interest in lessons on how to minimise the possibility of injury. However, when his Grandad was working on a project, as he was now, Robert knew that caution was advisable. Grandad needed to concentrate.
Julia held the wickets steady as Robert banged them into the lawn with the lump hammer Richard had supplied him with. ‘Is Grandad coming out?' Julia enquired casually.
‘He says he's too busy.' Robert placed the stump on the wickets, aligning and adjusting as if it was a spirit level.
‘Busy? Really?' The thought stomped through Julia's mind that she may not need to buy an anniversary card for her current husband after all. If Julia had been a better cricketer that day there would have been one less shed window for Richard to clean, temporarily at least.
Laura knocked, then let herself in to her parent's home. Robert rushed from the lounge and wrapped himself around his mum. He stayed with his grandparents every so often when his mum and dad went away or had a late night out. His Granny said it was important for his parents to spend time together and that she loved having him all to herself anyway. ‘But they see each other every day.' Robert had once observed. ‘They do live in the same house, Granny.' Apparently that was not the same thing.
‘Morning. Anyone home?' Laura called in the general direction of the kitchen.
‘No, just Robert.' Julia quipped. ‘Come through. I've got the kettle on.'
‘So, any plans for your anniversary?' Laura was trying to build a lifelike Spiderman out of square Lego blocks. It was not easy.
‘Don't think so.' Julia busied herself clearing away the tea mugs. Their anniversary was now less than a week away. Richard hadn't even mentioned it. ‘Anyway, I'm booked in at the hairdressers on Saturday morning.' She certainly wasn't going to spend their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary moping around feeling sorry for herself and wanting to throttle Richard.
‘Oh. What time?' Laura had been relieved of the Lego. Robert had taken over the build, unimpressed as he was with his mum's efforts. ‘I might be in town myself. We could meet up for a coffee?'
‘Lovely. My appointment's at ten o'clock. Should only be an hour.' Julia rinsed out the mugs in the kitchen sink and gazed through the window, drawn by the unrelenting hammering. ‘God knows what he's doing in there.'
‘Any ideas for Dad's gift yet?' Laura was standing next to her mother. ‘The garden's looking really lovely, Mum.'
‘Yes. Everything's just starting to bloom.' Julia turned her back to the window and leaned against the worktop. She sighed, ‘No, no ideas. Probably just get a card.'
‘You should get something, Mum. It is thirty-five years.' Laura was still looking out onto the garden.
Julia felt herself bristle. ‘I know it is.'
Staring at her bedraggled reflection in the hairdressers' mirror, Julia felt how she looked. She had left the house early, putting Richard's card by the kettle; the one in the kitchen. She hadn't seen much of him that week: he'd been at work; she'd been at work. He'd been in the shed; she'd been half-heartedly reading the next book club selection, having to go back to beginning of the book and re-read several chapters at least three times.
With Gregory the hairdresser mouthing words at her in the mirror Julia wondered why she hadn't just said something. It would have been so easy. ‘Shall we do something for our anniversary?' Simple. It wasn't as if it was Richard's ‘turn'; they had long since lost track of that schedule.
It was that bloody shed. Even a seven year old could see it. From the mouths of babes indeed.
Laura had arranged to meet her outside the salon at eleven. At 10.55 Julia had picked up an apologetic text from her daughter explaining that she'd forgotten her purse and could they meet back at Julia's in half an hour; they could go from there in one car. It crossed Julia's mind to reply ‘Forget it'; begrudgingly she sent ‘OK x.'
The first thing Julia noticed was the new, hand-crafted bench, conspicuously festooned as it was with a giant red ribbon and blocking the front door. Peering round into her back garden, Julia was met with a gloriously loud cheer. Her garden had never looked more beautiful, bountifully decorated with family and friends. Richard approached her sheepishly and handed her a glass of fizz.
‘Your hair looks lovely.' He touched her glass with his, ‘Cheers.'
‘You did all this?' Julia eyes swept across her truly blooming garden.
‘With a little help.' Richard smiled and kissed his wife. ‘Come on. It's your party…'
‘And I'll sit on my beautiful new bench if I want to.'
‘Thirty-five years, eh.' Next door neighbours Max and Pippa didn't seem to have let go of each other's hands since their wedding three months ago. ‘Fantastic, really. What's your secret?'
Julia and Richard looked at each other and laughed.
‘Say no more.' Max doffed an imaginary cap and took his new wife to look at Richard's shed.
‘Go on,' Julia nodded in the direction of the departing couple. ‘I know you want to give him the tour. I'll warn Pippa later.'
‘You look happy Granny.' From nowhere, Robert had hurtled into view.
‘I am, Robert. Very happy.' Julia reached over to her grandson and hugged him. ‘Come and join Granny on her throne.'