Mark Baillie: The Truth
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/e8f21--1XT8) 06.01.2023.
The neighbours hardly ever saw Jimmy Andrews, so most of them had no idea he'd died until his son John and granddaughter Paula pulled up outside his home in a rental van.
John didn't want to clear his father’s house - it was going to be emotionally difficult - and he'd left it to stand unoccupied and silent over the summer. But Paula had offered to help and he could feel autumn in the air now and took this as the signal to get the sale underway.
Jimmy was a hoarder, so the clearance was going to take several visits, but Paula didn't mind. She had plenty of time on her hands after being made redundant from her job as an auditor for an accountancy firm. She liked bringing order to untidy situations and saw the house clearance as something to keep her occupied.
Inside the house, memories came to Paula as she moved from room to room. Jimmy had grown hunched and slow and as deaf as a post while living there. He also became a widow in it, after his wife, Jean, passed away one night ten years earlier.
It was around then that Jimmy’s hearing deteriorated to the point where John and Paula had to write notes to communicate with him and there were bundles of notepads they used for this in drawers all over the house. Paula kept finding them and getting sidetracked from what she was supposed to be doing. They were full of mundane questions and observations, going back over many years, but she couldn't help picking them up and flicking through them. Have you got enough food for the week? Are the pills making any difference? Awful wind last night - you’ve got a few tiles down off the roof.
Most of the notes were from Paula, her dad, or Jimmy’s carer, but she also found messages written in an unfamiliar hand. Someone had been writing long messages to Jimmy, not addressing the practicalities of his life but asking how his week had been; discussing books, politics, and TV programmes. Probably just a neighbour stopping by for a visit, she thought.
In the bedroom she opened a cupboard and a pile of fusty junk mail and magazines spilled onto the floor and spread out around her feet. Crouching to scoop them up, she noticed the spillage had revealed an old shoe box at the back of the cupboard. She brought it out and found that it contained letters from someone called Richard. The first was dated from a few years after Jimmy had became a widower and read as if Richard was an old friend, aiming to catch up. The next letter was warmer and more personal. The third ended with Richard declaring his love for Jimmy and that he was having the most wonderful time of his life.
It was a shock, of course, and she had to read them a few times to get her head around it. There were never any hints when Jimmy was alive that he was gay or bisexual, but he was born in the 1930s; she understood the conventions of the times and the expectations that men of his generation got married and had families.
She was still looking at the letters when her dad appeared at the bedroom door.
‘What’ve you got there?’ he asked.
'Nothing. Just old shopping lists.’
‘Unbelievable,’ sighed John. ‘That man kept everything.’
Paula stuffed the letters into her coat and took them home. She looked at them again that night and wondered what to do with them. If she kept them there would always be the risk of her dad discovering them and she wasn’t sure how he might react - but destroying them was out of the question. They were part of who Jimmy was and, in a strange way, discovering this new part of her grandad's life was a comfort.
She spoke to her friend Steve about it as they drank coffee, looking out on a wet Edinburgh street.
‘What would you do?’ she asked.
‘Absolutely nothing,’ said Steve. ‘Just put them away somewhere safe.’
‘But what if he doesn’t know Jimmy died? What if he never got a chance to say bye?’
‘You don’t know that,’ said Steve.
‘He definitely wasn't at the funeral. I knew everyone there. What if he thinks my grandad ghosted him?’
Steve shrugged. ‘We’ve all been ghosted.’
‘There’s an address on the letters,’ said Paula. ‘Maybe I should pay him a visit.’
All that fretful week she visualised a heartbroken, lonely old man suddenly and inexplicably cut off from the man he loved. She decided to reconcile the situation by returning the letters and that weekend drove south past the Pentland hills into the Scottish Borders. At a small village she checked the address on the letters, found the cottage, and forced herself up to the door.
‘Can I help?’ The woman who answered was in her seventies.
‘I was looking for someone I think lives here or might have lived here - Mr Chester.’
‘Yes, he’s my husband. How can I help?’
It was an awful moment. Paula panicked and found herself spraffing nonsense that she was a student doing research into the history of the village and was interviewing local residents. She flashed an old student card as if it was a detective badge.
Richard Chester was sprawled in a wide-backed wicker armchair in the conservatory, surrounded by plants and a few sleepy cats. He was heavy and rumpled and bald, with a huge dome of a wrinkled forehead. Paula had imagined someone more like Jimmy, with his slick-backed hair and trim, wiry frame.
Mrs Chester came and sat next to her husband, draping her hand over his knee. There were wedding photos on the walls and family pictures all around the room.
Paula asked how the village had changed in the time they’d been living there. What attracted them to move there in the first place? Would they say it had retained its character over the years?
As she went on with the charade, Richard Chester’s eyes narrowed and scanned her face and she worried he was detecting a family resemblance with Jimmy and that he would realise there was another reason for her visit.
‘You have a look about you,’ he finally said. ‘Like something's pressing on you.’
Mrs Chester went to the kitchen and Paula leaned across and whispered, ‘I'm Jimmy's granddaughter. Jimmy Andrews.’
He sat back and cast his eyes up as if it was taking a moment to recall the name. ‘Oh, Jimmy,’ he said with a nod.
She gave him the sad news of Jimmy’s passing and braced for whatever the reaction might be.
‘Ah, dear, dear.’ He sucked his teeth and tutted. ‘Poor Jim. Sorry for your loss.’
And that was it. There were no tears or quivering lips. He went back to talking about the village. There was, he began telling her, concern that the post office might close.
‘I'm sorry,’ she interrupted. ‘I thought you were close?’
‘Yes, well… but… I mean…,’ there was an embarrassed chuckle, ‘... it was really just a fling.’
‘A fling?’ This was her grandad he was talking about. She couldn't help sounding indignant. She produced the letters and thrust them towards him. ‘What about these?’
‘The honeymoon period,’ he said, waving a dismissive hand. ‘We had a wonderful time, but it fizzled out.’
‘But I've been wrestling with this for weeks.’ She gestured around her. ‘This, coming here to tell you, it's been a big dilemma for me. I was worried that you’d have been wondering what happened to him.’
‘That's why I'm giving you the truth,’ he said.
‘But that’s…’ she couldn’t find the right word and settled for the only one that came to mind. ‘Messy. That’s just messy.’ Then she raised another concern. ‘Well, did he ever talk about any struggle within himself, before he met you?’
‘With his sexuality?’
‘Not at all. He was very comfortable in himself. That’s what I liked about him.’ He leaned towards her, a little irritated. ‘I'll tell you what he did worry about - you. Used to say that you were too uptight; always fretting on other people’s problems. I can see where he was coming from.’
Mrs Chester came back into the room and, with an abrupt clearing of his throat, Richard Chester resumed his tales of the village.
Going home, Paula got stuck behind a tractor and had to drive at a snail's pace much of the way back to Edinburgh. The cars behind were beeping at her to overtake but she wasn't confident in doing that. Catching sight of herself in the rearview mirror, she saw that inadvertent frown she hated.
When she got home she called Steve and arranged to go for a drink.
At the bar, Steve was talking about a dispute with his noisy neighbour.
‘I’m not kidding you; I can even hear him going to the bathroom. There must be a wall cavity running between our flats or something…’
Paula’s attention drifted. She scanned the faces of the drinkers and imagined all the ways the evening could take an exciting turn. She wanted to shake loose of herself and stared into her beer then took a long sip from it as if to flush her body with wild notions. Her fingers drummed on the table as she thought how, if she wanted, she could do something rash and out of character. Yes, she wanted to throw off her clothes with a stranger, not caring who they were or what their name was. Then she thought about Jimmy and his crooked smile and rasping laugh. She realised what she had lost and that she could never recreate it in herself.
Steve must have noticed some hardening of her expression. ‘Paula - what's wrong?’ he asked. ‘You've got that pensive look about you again.’
Author about Himself: I'm an Edinburgh-based writer with an interest in Romany-traveller themes, inspired by my own traveller roots. I’ve had short stories published in Analogies and Allegories Literary Journal and Livina Press and non-fiction published in the Journal of Media Ethics. In my spare time, I enjoy climbing and surfing.