While Harry waited, Burt dropped a big churn of milk off at the grocer’s shop. He returned dutifully to Harry’s side and they started the journey back to the hall.
Harry didn’t talk and Burt kept his mouth shut too for various reasons. He was all too aware of his limited intellectual capacity and the accompanying restriction on conversational range. He might have been a right posh and cultured bird once who could have discussed anything from politics and religion to agriculture and the arts, but now, with his memories, intelligence and interests so dramatically altered, he no longer had that ability. He was fully capable of having what he might call “a laff” with his mates in the pub but he simply didn’t know enough anymore to hold his own at any decently cerebral level.
And Harry was his boss which meant that there was a constant low level intimidation at work; an anxiety that he might say the wrong thing and get run down as a result. Better to keep his mouth shut for fear of that.
And of course Harry was his superior. What could Burt talk about that would interest him?
It almost made him question if...
“Ere Burt; as we’re passin my ‘ouse I might just pop in and check on my wife.”
Burt came out of his ruminations and recognised the little cottage on the edge of the village where Harry lived. “Yes sir.”
“You want to come in? My Amy would be pleased to see a familiar face. She don’t get out since she fell ill.”
Burt nodded and followed the old man up the path and inside. It was a pretty little place, structurally shaky but well tended.
“It’s only me luv!” called Harry. “I’ve got Burt with me. You up for a visit?”
A faint sound came from the back bedroom that Harry seemed pleased with. The two men went through and Burt loitered in the doorway as Harry hurried ahead to help his wife sit up in the bed, bolstering her back with pillows. Burt had never seen her before as such, though the memories he had inherited when he took on this new form told him that the former Burt had met her a number of times.
She was about the same age as old Harry with long grey hair and a beaming wrinkled face. She was very frail but benignly patient as Harry busied himself making her comfortable. He asked her how she was feeling and even with his slow uptake Burt got the feeling she was trying to be more upbeat than truthful with her answer. “There were two magpies on the tree outside a while ago,” she said, “discussing what kind of mischief they would get up to today.”
Harry chuckled but he looked sad as he stroked the side of her face. Burt had still said nothing.
“I’ll go and boil the kettle,” said Harry. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“Well I suppose I’ll wait if I have to,” she replied, “though I had planned to go dancing.”
Harry went through to the kitchen and Amy regarded Burt, smiling very warmly at him. Burt smiled back but he felt unsure of himself.
“Well come a little closer Burt,” she said. “I can’t see you properly all the way over there.”
He shuffled closer to the foot of the bed, holding his cap in front of him.
“You’ve grown so tall Burt,” said Amy. “And very handsome.”
He flushed a little.
“Harry tells me that you won the boxing match at the fair. He says you’re the county boxing champion.”
“Yes ma’am,” replied Burt.
“He often talks about you, you know.”
Burt didn’t know what to say.
“I expect he gives you a hard time but he admires you a lot.”
“Really?” Burt could hardly believe that.
She nodded, still smiling. “Harry can be cantankerous – Lord knows, nobody knows that better than me – but when he has the measure of a man; once he gives his respect; he gives it wholeheartedly. I know you and he have been at odds in the past but he was telling me just yesterday how hard working you are and respectful; what a good man you are.”
Burt’s eyes widened but he felt a rosy feeling of warmth inside his chest.
“He’d deny it of course, if you asked him, but he thinks of you like a son.”
She went on beaming at him and Burt lowered his head, wiping the hint of moisture that had risen in his eye.
“Well if you’re the strongest man in the valley, I bet you must have ladies falling over themselves wanting to court with you. Is that right?”
Burt blushed again.
“Harry tells me you’ve been stepping out with Jeremiah Gibbs’s daughter, Mavis. Is that right?”
Burt nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
“She’s a fiery one, that girl, and no mistake. I’ve known her all her life. You won’t have a dull moment with that one and that’s certain, but she’ll keep you up to your neck in babies or I don’t know women.” She chuckled. “I hope you’re planning to make an honest woman out of her.”
Burt shrugged. “I want to. I’ve been fixing to save up to buy myself a ring for her so’s we can be married.”
“Well don’t wait too long Burt,” replied Amy. “Life has a way of surprising you.”
Burt had to chuckle at that.
“... and it can be over before you know it. Look at me.”
“You ain’t going to die ma’am,” said Burt.
She smiled and tears made a shimmering veil below each eye. “You’re a sweet boy to say so Burt but Harry and I have been ready for me to go now for a good many months. It won’t be long now.”
Burt frowned, wishing he had the wit to know what to say. They locked eyes for a while and then she nodded as if she understood. Then she smiled again.
“I have something for you here Burt,” she said.
He stepped forward, curious.
“I didn’t realise until now that I was keeping it for you. But I’m very happy to realise that after all this time I was; just waiting for you to walk in the door today.” She pulled on her wedding ring and it slipped easily off her emaciated finger. She held it out to him. “Take it. Don’t wait. Marry that girl. Make her happy. Live all the life that you can while you have the chance.”
“Oh no ma’am. I couldn’t take that.”
“It would mean so much to me Burt,” she said. “I’ve known you and Mavis all your lives and I never had children of my own. I couldn’t. If you don’t take this then all will happen is it will be lost and wasted underground when these old skin and bones are wasting away.”
Burt looked at the little plain metal ring, unsure if he should accept her offer. “But you’ll need it,” he said. “Keep it, for now at least.”
“You’re a sweet lad Burt,” she replied, “but I won’t be needing it for long and nothing would make me happier than knowing that a young lass is going to wear this in love and matrimony long after I’m gone.”
Burt gave a sad smile and reached for the ring but just as he was about to he caught movement in the corner of his eye and turned to see Harry standing in the doorway. In a strange blend of emotions, he looked both sad and happy and Burt realised that he had been standing there for some time. He looked Burt in the eye and nodded. “Take it boy. You deserve it. You’re a good man and if you’re half as happy with that ring as the two of us have been then you’ll be contented to the end of your days.”
Burt nodded and looked back at the elderly lady on the bed. He gave her a sad little smile and she beamed back at him and then he took the ring, looked at it reverently, and slipped it in his pocket.