by Marianne Ashurst
‘No one over eighty is happy or useful.’
Bill overheard the woman’s terrible statement in the hospital waiting room where he sat holding Alice’s hand. At seventy-nine, Bill fervently hoped she had got it wrong. Alice was quietly slipping away from him and he was fearful for the future.
A year later, looking out over a patch of scrubby land from the window of his new sheltered accommodation, he worried that the woman may well have been right.
Alone now, he was losing any joy in living. Even worse was a growing suspicion that he was losing it altogether; he often forgot what day it was and had to set the alarm to remind him when to eat. This was ok except he kept forgetting to set the alarm. Today however, there would be a break in routine.
The son of a colleague from his days in the police had called. Brian Pugh taught at the local comp and asked him to take part in their pupils’ community service project. Bill wasn’t sure but Brian was persuasive and now, every Friday afternoon, one of the Year Ten boys was coming to transform the wasteland outside his window.
Jarrold arrived on time, small for his age and unkempt. A good worker though, Bill admired his energy and thought he deserved a break.
‘Sandwich?’ asked Bill, when the boy had demolished his snack. He certainly looked like he needed feeding up.
Jarrold chatted freely as he ate; he lived with his mother and sisters just round the corner; never saw his dad, and loved football.
‘What about school, lad?’
‘Hopeless, never manage to get me work done,’ Jarrold indicated his homework-containing rucksack.
‘Maybe you should be working instead of digging?’
‘Nah, I’m enjoying the digging! That your missus?’ steering the conversation neatly away from schoolwork, he pointed at a photograph next to Bill’s chair, where a delicate young woman holding a baby smiled out at him.
‘Yes, that’s Alice and our son,’ Bill gently brushed the glass with his finger.
‘He moved to Canada thirty years ago.’
‘I’ve got a photo of my dad. I miss him too.’
They shared a moment of silence before Jarrold resumed his gardening.
Friday afternoons became the highlight of Bill’s week. Sandwiches turned into meals. Bill began to cook again although often they cooked together, Jarrold being surprisingly good. They chatted or watched TV but try as he might, Bill never got him to open that rucksack.
Things began to go wrong when Jarrold found an old shed behind the flats. It was easier to keep his tools there and the warden found Bill the key. Then Lee turned up on Fridays too.
Bill disliked him on sight. Although not what Bill considered smart, he was certainly dressed expensively but not at all suitably for the job, showing little enthusiasm. He would help himself to drinks from the fridge and one week a ten-pound note went missing from Bill’s milk money behind the clock.
‘You’re getting forgetful granddad, must’ve put it somewhere else,’ came Lee’s reply when Bill asked if they’d seen it.
‘Losing it, you are. Like my gran, swears fifty quid went from her purse last week.’ Bill didn’t miss the wink that Lee gave Jarrold.
Gardening progress was grinding to a halt. The boys spent an increasing amount of time in the shed and, Bill noticed, not just on Fridays. He decided to take a look inside.
The plants he recognized immediately, he’d spent several years with the drug squad after all. A flash of silver foil under the workbench led him to their stash.
‘Oh Jarrold, you should know better,’ he mumbled in disappointment.
Answering the door later that week, Bill found Jarrold standing between two officers. Hunched in on himself, he looked up at Bill with wide, frightened eyes.
The officers explained that they had reason to believe there were illegal substances on the premises and had come to take a look. Bill wore his gravest expression.
‘I’m sorry officer, I’m afraid I have to come clean. You’ll find what you want in the shed. It’s for my own use, you understand. You must have read how good it is for the aches and pains of old age.’
Looking totally nonplussed the policemen went outside.
‘Quick Jarrold, tell me what’s happened,’ whispered Bill.
It appeared that Mr Pugh had found a suspicious package on the floor beneath Lee’s locker. The police were called and when questioned, Lee – true to form thought Bill – blamed Jarrold and told them where his friend kept his supply. Jarrold himself had been too frightened to say anything.
The returning officers spoke solemnly, ‘We’ve removed the evidence from the shed sir, and we’ll have to ask you to attend the station in the morning.’
‘I don’t understand…’ began Jarrold when the police left.
Bill smiled conspiratorially, ‘Well, I’d found what was in that shed and I didn’t think it was your idea.’
‘No, it wasn’t but… you have to do what Lee says or else… he knows a lot of people…’ Jarrold’s eyes filled with tears.
‘Just what I thought lad. Now, I can take responsibility for what was found. I’ll probably get a caution for a first offence, but I’m too old to worry what goes on my record, whereas you need to stay clean. Come with me to the station tomorrow and it can be put around that you confessed to shield Lee. That way he’ll leave you alone. He will owe you.’
‘Wow. I owe you too, big time!’
‘There’s something you can do for me, lad. Keep coming round but the garden can wait. We’ll work on what’s in the rucksack of yours. I want you to do well.’
‘Ok, you’re on!’ Bill delighted to see Jarrold’s grin again.
Later, Bill called Brian Pugh. ‘Worked like a dream, Brian, thanks for your help.’
‘Thank your friends in the force too,’ Brian replied. ‘I’m sure Jarrold will get back on track. Dad said you were the sharpest officer he knew, you certainly haven’t lost your powers.’
‘I’m glad you don’t think I’m losing it, Brian,’ Bill smiled – that woman had definitely been wrong – ‘it makes you happy to be useful when you’re eighty!’
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Marianne, who writes under the pen-name Ashurst, lives in Wimborne with her husband and cat. She is a Lancashire lass at heart; being born and brought up in Blackpool accounts for her love of bright lights
and all things glittery. She moved to Dorset 25 years ago, having spent her early married life in Leicester where she and her husband had attended teacher training college.
Having started teaching in the early 70s, Marianne retired a few months ago and is enjoying seeing more of her three granddaughters and being able to devote time to writing. She is thrilled to have become the first Dorset person to win the Creative Writing Award with her short story “Community Service.”