Working it Out

Hector Harrison lived alone with his new-born son Henry in a small basement apartment. Unprepared for the sudden catastrophic stroke suffered by his wife Helen moments after Henry’s birth, Hector was stunned and near-catatonic. That is to say that grief robbed him of all reaction except that required to nurture Henry.

His mother Henrietta helped, of course, as did Helen’s mother, Heather, though the grief they both felt matched that experienced by Hector. They had both experienced other griefs in their lives, which enabled them to soldier on, despite everything.

The only one of the family that seemed to be unencumbered by grief was baby Henry, who slept through much of the day and smiled and burped through his waking hours, an agreeable infant if ever there was one. So cheerful was he, indeed, that within a month or so Hector, Henrietta and Heather found themselves able to smile, wanly perhaps, from time to time.

As the weeks and months passed, Hector found that his new life held a certain charm. Oh, certainly he still grieved the loss of Helen, who had been the love of his life. But he discovered that his growing love for Henry was beginning to compensate for her loss in a way that he had never dreamed would be possible. With the help of his mother and his mother-in-law he soon mastered the intricacies of caring for his baby son. He had, in his previous life, been an engineer: this new life, he considered, was child’s play.

On being woken in the middle of night Hector would roll cheerfully from his bed, carefully heat Henry’s bottle and watch with a smile as Henry contentedly fed then burped with what Hector was certain was a grin. Quickly and efficiently Hector changed Henry’s nappy, blowing bubbles in the child’s wriggling belly and enjoying Henry’s obvious pleasure. Then the two of them would lie in a bean-bag as Hector read stories from thick-paged books until the smiles and giggles reduced and sleep took over. Even then Hector would be reluctant to return Henry to his cot, preferring to cuddle his child and maybe think with regret of how much Helen had missed, and how much she was missed.

And so time passed, and though Hector still grieved, he found that life as a single father, supported by a small pension from the state, was actually rather wonderful. For instance, he discovered he had plenty of time for all sorts of pleasures that he had missed, without ever guessing that they existed, in his previous busy life. Most of all he loved feeding Henry, a time of cuddles and laughter.

He loved cooking, too, though he could hardly have boiled an egg before. He would sit Henry in his high-chair close to the kitchen bench and show him everything he was doing; looking through the cookery book, getting out the ingredients, letting Henry take part in the measuring and sifting, the cracking and spooning, the stirring and, of course, the tasting. Because of all this, cooking took a very long time; but they both had a whale of a time.

And when the time came for shopping, Henry invariably high on his father’s shoulders, his little fingers entwined in Hector’s hair, it was Henry who reached for items from the higher shelves, with Hector ready underneath to catch the odd dropped bottle before a messy accident occurred.

So you know what’s going to happen next, of course. He’s going to meet a beautiful young widow, hopefully called Hannah, with a girl-child roughly the same age as Henry, called, perhaps, Harmony. And, naturally, after a pleasant courtship during which the two children become the very of closest of friends, a lovely wedding occurs and everybody lives happily ever after.

Sounds too good to be true, and it was.

What really happened was that Hector bumped into Herb one day.

Herbert Hanson wasn’t a widower, but he might just as well have been. His girlfriend Hayley had shipped out within days of the birth of their daughter Hannah (I wasn’t that far out, was I?) and was never seen or heard of again.

Herb wasn’t too upset about Hayley’s defection. He had been tiring of her tantrums for some time. What he wasn’t so keen about was being lumbered with Hannah. Oh, sure, she was his daughter (at least, he had accepted that assumption, though when he thought about it, which he avoided most of the time, there wasn’t that much evidence to support it), but he had a life to get on with, a career to follow, things to do that that were far more exciting than changing nappies and staying in at nights unless he could find a baby-sitter, which was hard enough at the best of times.

Hector and Herb met, not surprisingly, in the aisles of a supermarket.

Henry was busily passing things to Hector that Hector had pointed to, while at the same time exuding a certain atmosphere that warned Hector that he’d better find a changing-room pretty quickly.

Hannah was slumped silently in a shopping trolley, gnawing on the rim of a tin of tomatoes that Herb had given to her. She seemed to like the cold hardness of the metal, which Herb thought meant that she was teething.

It was a Saturday morning. In his pre-Hannah days, Herb would have been out running at that time of day. Herb ran marathons, and when he wasn’t racing he was training for a marathon. It had been more than six months since he had last trained, and he was feeling unfit and unhappy about it. But what could he do? Hannah was in childcare every day of the week, which was incredibly expensive. He couldn’t afford more child care.

Herb could see no way out of it. He trudged the aisles head down and grumpy, searching for the items he needed amongst the crowded shelves, concentrating more on his unhappiness than on what he was doing. He turned the corner at the end of the aisle and ran his trolley into the back of Hector’s legs.

‘Da’ shouted Henry and pointed, which at that age could be deciphered as meaning, ‘look at that’, or ‘watch out’, or even ‘hungry!’ So far, it was his only word, if it could be said to be a word. Hector, anyway, always knew what it meant.

He hadn’t been expecting to be hit in the back of his knees, surprisingly, so he collapsed to a kneeling position, holding on to the trolley for grim life, only too aware that Henry was rather insecurely perched on his shoulders. But feeling the pressure on his scalp, he knew that Henry was holding on for grim death as well. He smiled to himself. Good old Henry. He knew how to look after himself.

Herbert, of course, was shocked by the accident, and being Herbert, grumpy about his lot in life, went for the jugular. ‘You stupid idiot,’ he said, rather too loudly, which caused other shoppers, mostly women at that time of day, to turn to see what all the fuss was about. Hannah started to cry,

Hector slowly turned his head, which was difficult with Henry on his shoulders, particularly as his hair felt as though it was being pulled out. He pushed his glasses back on his nose and blinked owlishly at his assailant. ‘Excuse me!’ he responded quietly. ‘As I’m the innocent victim of this foul attack, I can hardly be the idiot, can I?’ Henry stopped tugging at his hair, apparently interested in the conversation. Hector dragged himself to his feet and discovered that he was at least thirty centimetres taller than Herb, who found himself in the always-compromising position of having to bend his head backwards to look at Hector.

‘Yes,’ he said, suddenly recognising that he was well and truly in the wrong. ‘I expect you’re right. Are you okay? Nothing broken?’

Hector smiled at this sudden capitulation. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly. ‘Surprisingly, I’m fine.’ He cocked an eye to check on Henry. ‘You alright up there old fellow?’ He reached up a hand and tickled his son in the neck, and Henry squirmed.

‘Da’ he said, and Hector smiled.

‘Look, I’m really sorry,’ Herb said. 'I’ve been out of sorts all morning. I shouldn’t have shouted’

Hector smiled. ‘Had a row with the wife?’

Herb scowled again. ‘Oh, she buggered off just after Hannah here was born. Dropped me in it good and proper.’

‘Well,’ Hector commiserated, ‘I suppose that makes two of us.’

Herb looked surprised. ‘What, your wife left you too?’

A while back this would have elicited a miserable sob from Hector, but he was over the worst of it. ‘Sort of, I suppose. Actually she died while giving birth to Henry.’

‘Da,’ Henry added, and Hector’s hand drifted up to wiggle Henry’s foot.

‘Shit,’ Herb said. He took a close look at Hector and Henry, both smiling and clean and well dressed, and compared them to himself and his daughter. Neither he nor Hannah had combed hair, their shirts were both crumpled and there were grass stains on Hannah’s knees. Herb ran his fingers through his unruly hair. ‘How do you manage?’

Hector had, actually, been making the same assessment of his new-found companion, and felt a certain empathy for Herbert and Hannah. ‘Tough, is it?’

‘You bet,’ acknowledged Herb. ‘Not really managing at all.’

Hector smiled yet again (he really was a very cheerful chap). ‘Fancy a cuppa?’

‘So where are you living?’ Hector asked, and Herb told him all about the house that his aunt Hermione had left him in her will, and how it was gradually turning into a millstone around his neck as he had neither the time nor the money (nor, possibly the inclination, thought Hector as he started putting two and two together and making four) to fix it all up. The roof was leaking, the plumbing was appalling and most of the windows were rotting. The garden was an absolute tip.

‘Doesn’t sound too good,’ Hector said.

‘If I could fix it up I could rent out the first floor, and from then on things might pay for themselves,’ Herb said without much hope. Then he realised that he was being a bit of a bore about his troubles. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘What about you?’

And without a second thought, Hector launched himself into a description of his wonderful life with Henry. Herb listened in astonishment. How the heck did Hector manage it? ‘So that’s the way things are,’ Hector concluded. ‘The only way things could be better would be to have a miraculous return of my wife. I love her to distraction.’

What I’d give for a life like Hector’s, thought Herb. ‘D’you realise how lucky you are, mate?’ he said.

What else could Hector do but smile again. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But look, next Saturday you could bring Hannah round to me and Henry, and get back to running again.’

Herb was gob-smacked. ‘D’you mean… you know, that you’d look after her sometimes?’

‘Course we will, won’t we, Henry?’

‘Da,’ said Henry, and smoothed Hannah’s hair with his custard spoon.

So that’s how things worked out, slowly at first, but the four of them gradually growing closer and closer.

After a year Hector went to live in Herb’s house, and took care of all the household chores, and sometimes did a bit of renovating, starting with the roof. As they say, if you’re an engineer, you can handle anything.

After another year both Henry and Hannah started school at the local Primary, and in no time at all they insisted on walking there and home again all on their own. It was only one block away, and Hector could actually watch them toddling off together, holding hands as they went, all the way until they turned in to the school.

Hector and Herb became the closest of friends, and the ever-cheerful Hector injected a great deal of happiness and satisfaction into Herb’s life. Before too long the upper floor of the house was returned to habitability, and they started looking for a tenant.

Hector was working in the garden one beautiful spring afternoon. Herb’s house was double-fronted with a reasonable garden in the front, and Hector did the usual thing, once the long-collected debris had been removed, and planted a lawn with a wide border. In the border Henry wanted flowers, and Hector obliged with agapanthus, both blue and white alternating. Henry loved it, but as the summer progressed it became clear that the long stems of the flowers became an irresistible target for males of all sizes with sticks of any sort, and one by one they were struck down, which made Henry cry until Hannah cuddled him out of his tears.

Hector thought long and hard about this and with Henry and Hannah’s help, decided that perhaps a herb garden might be a better bet, with perhaps a short wire fence to give at least some protection. So in went the herbs (Herbs, get it?) (No, I didn’t mean to make a joke of that.)

So in went the basil and the chives, the coriander and the parsley, and even some garlic surrounded by oregano and lemon thyme. The agapanthus were relegated to the house-side of the lawn, and, together with the herbs, they made a pretty sight.

One Saturday morning when Herb was off running a half-marathon down by the docks and along the banks of the harbour, Hector, Henry and Hannah were busy weeding and mowing in the front garden when Hannah noticed a young woman standing on the pavement watching them. She looked up and nudged Henry, and they both stared at her.

Hector had ear-muffs on and the engine running on the mower, so he didn’t notice at first; but when he did notice he stopped dead and stared at her. He killed the engine and removed the ear-muffs, never taking his eyes from hers. Henry noticed his father’s sudden fascination, and nudged Hannah back, and they both smiled, looking from one adult to the other.

The young woman seemed to suddenly realise that it was her that was attracting so much attention, and she blushed and dropped her eyes. ‘Hello,’ she stammered.

And Hannah got up and said, ‘What’s your name?’

‘No Hannah, you can’t ask that,’ Hector told her.

But the young woman smiled. ‘It’s okay,’ she said to Hector. ‘What beautiful children.’ She looked up at Hector. ‘My name is Hollie.’

So by now you’ve guessed how it’s all going to turn out. When Herb got home in the early afternoon he found the four of them in back garden eating scones and cream and jam and all chatting away like old pals. Herb leaned against the verandah post and eased his running shoes off. His heart had fallen. Oh no, he thought, Hector has found himself a girlfriend!

Hector looked up and called to Herb. ‘Come and meet Hollie,’ he yelled enthusiastically. ‘You’re going to love her: she’s a marathon runner, and she’s looking for somewhere to live.’

Herb walked hesitantly across the grass and stood beside Hannah. ‘Hi,’ he said, and fondled his daughter's head. ‘I don't think I've met you. I thought I knew all the runners around here.’

Hollie looked hard at Herb, and you could see by the look in her eyes that something had clicked. Maybe something in her heart. ‘No,’ she said, a little breathily, her eyes suddenly shining, holding out her hand. ‘I've only just come here to work at the Uni. Maybe you could introduce me to the marathon crowd?’

Herb took her hand, and discovered that he was shaking. Just a little.

Hannah leaned into her father and smiled knowingly at Henry.

And that’s really how it worked out for Herb.

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