Mrs. Stevenson was outside of her house and her old self was struggling to carry sacks of soil into her back garden. George, playing the good neighbour, stopped in the middle of his evening jog to give her a hand.
“These just came?” George asked while putting the sacks into a wheelbarrow, his voice strained from the effort he took to lift them. How strong was Mrs. Stevenson that she planned to carry these herself?
She put a hand on his back as she walked beside him in small strides. George had the courtesy to slow down his pace and let her guide him. Not that he needed her to, he had been here countless of times in the years that they were neighbours. “Just now, yes. The boy was kind enough to offer to bring them in but he seemed to be in a hurry. You’re not in a hurry, are you Georgy?”
George shook his head and gave her a little smile. He liked that she gave him a nickname, it made him feel like they were some kind of a family. Maybe she did feel that way about him. Her children only visited during Christmas once every two years, and that was if they were lucky. After they would visit, Mrs. Stevenson spent hours telling George how much her grandchildren had grown over time, her eyes twinkling as she talked. He wanted to have his own kids with his wife one day, and he hoped they wouldn’t do the same thing to them.
As they walked past a window, George saw that the television was on in the living room. “Since when does Mr. Stevenson watch tv?”
“He doesn’t. He’s in the room, resting. The tv is only on so he won’t get lonely while I’m gardening outside.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s a little ill.” She paused for a second. “He’s old now. Very old.” There was sadness in her voice, no doubt of it, but as George started unloading the sacks for the next trip and made eye contact with her, she only smiled. Despite all of those years of marriage, she still had a lot of love for him in her eyes. Or maybe it was because of those years that she could love him that much.
After the second trip, George asked if it would be appropriate for him to check up on her husband before he left but Mrs. Stevenson politely turned down the offer. “That man doesn’t want anybody to see him sick. He’s got an ego, you know?” There was that little smile again as if they had just shared an inside joke. George bade his goodbye then and continued to walk past a few houses before reaching home.
During dinner, he talked about the evening to his wife, Ada. “Do you think he’ll be okay?” She asked.
“I don’t know.” George swallowed a spoonful of mashed potatoes. “Did I tell you that when they got married Mrs. Stevenson was only 16? And the husband was already in his 30s.”
“How old is she now?”
“In her 70s.”
There was silence in the moment they took to let that sink in. Their neighbours were at that fragile age where it might be best for them to be close to their family, in case something happened. In their eyes right now, something was going to happen and it was only a matter of time before regrets were made and goodbyes were missed.
While cleaning the dishes, Ada asked George, “Do you think I should send them something or visit tomorrow while you’re at work?”
“Mr. Stevenson doesn’t want to see anybody at the moment. But maybe you can talk to the missus while she gardens. I’m sure she’d love some company.”
It was too bad, really, that George and Ada had to play the role of their children. Not that they minded, but George was sure the Stevensons would prefer their own flesh than blood over some neighbours they had only known for, like, what? 8 years? It was George first. He moved into the neighbourhood after getting a job in that town and Ada followed a few years later after they got engaged. Majority of the people came from the city, and they brought their culture with them; which summed up to not knowing their own next door neighbours. George and Ada and a few other people they sometimes crossed paths with came from a small town where everyone knew everyone and the Stevensons happened to be in that group.
George didn’t get to visit for the next few days because he normally worked long shifts three days out of the week but he still kept himself updated through the stories Ada reported back to him. “I saw him sitting in the kitchen the other day and he waved at me,” She would say one day but George would come home the next day to “Mrs. Stevenson didn’t even come out to the garden. I think she was taking care of him inside.”
The next weekend George was jogging past the houses in his street when he decided to stop by. He could hear someone in the back and it sounded like they were shoveling. He opened the gate himself and surely enough he walked into his neighbour doing some rough work. “Mrs. Stevenson, do you need any help?”
“Georgy, my boy. Come here, come here!” She beckoned him to take the shovel from her hands and he started digging.
“Why are you doing this work yourself? This is some hard labour.”
“I was expecting you to come in and help me.” She said.
“What if I didn’t?” He teased.
“Then I’d give you a call.” He felt her eyes on him while he dug up the earth, making sure that he was doing it right. “I can actually do it myself, you know? But it’s nice that a young man like you would want to help.”
George couldn’t lie to himself even if he tried. The sweat coming out of his pores would have given him away. “You’re really strong if you can do this yourself. How is that possible?”
“It’s all the years of gardening.” Sure enough around them George could see flower bushes with their colourful petals waving at them in the soft wind. Hydrangeas, lilacs and roses and several others he did not even know the name for. This was years worth of work and love.
He was supposed to dig out the soil and replace it with the ones she bought. It was more suitable and fertilized for gardening than the dry, hardened earth that came with the land lot. But she told him not to pour the new soil yet and she deemed that it was enough work for the day.
Mrs. Stevenson invited George to sit at the small round table next to the plot that he just dug up before excusing herself into the kitchen. “What are you planting next?” He asked when she came back with a tray of tea and biscuits.
“Roses,” She said, pouring into both of their cups.
“But you already have those.”
“Billy loves roses. Red ones are his favourite. I’m planting them for him.” She looked down into her cup as if she could see the reflection of her beloved husband in the drink, and she managed a sad smile. “I will miss him dearly.”
George had no words then. What could he possibly say to someone who was about to lose their spouse of almost six decades? All he could do was put his hands over hers and squeezed them reassuringly. No one deserved to look this sad, especially not elderly people. “I’m sure he’ll be okay,” George said and it was a blatant lie. He knew it. And deep inside he knew that she knew it too but she still smiled nonetheless. It pained him how sweet the woman in front of him was despite everything.
The next evening he came to visit again to make sure that Mr. Stevenson was okay for at least one more day. But that didn’t happened. He saw it in Mrs. Stevenson’s eyes. When he walked into the backyard, she was watering the new plot. The roses for her now deceased husband. She couldn’t manage a sweet smile when she gestured him to sit at the table. Before she could leave and disappear into the kitchen, George caught her by the arm and asked her to sit with him. “You don’t have to, please. Just sit with me.” She reluctantly obliged and sat down, the watering can placed next to her feet. “How are you feeling, Mrs. Stevenson?”
“I’m okay.” George reached out again and held her hand, same old move from yesterday because what else could he do? “He’s passed now but he’s here.”
George nodded at her words, touched by the simplicity of their love. It was simple, but it ran deep. “Yes, of course. He would always be here with you, in your heart.”
“And in the roses.”
“Yes, in them too.”
George weighed his next question. “How did he pass?”
“In his sleep.” She whispered. “He was already cold when I woke up.”
“Oh.” They stayed quiet for a second, George wanting to give Mrs. Stevenson moments to grieve.
Then he asked about the children, if they would come home for the funeral but she shook her head saying that there wasn’t going to be a funeral. “He didn’t want anybody to see him like that. I know my Billy. Didn’t I tell you that, Georgy? Nobody! Nobody!”
George could see that she was getting riled up with his questions so he decided to ease up on her. She was emotional from the death of her husband. He could understand that, but he was still curious. “Who took care of his body then?”
“Who else if not me?”
George didn’t hear an ambulance pass by this morning so he was sure she didn’t call the paramedics to help her whatsoever so he couldn’t understand what she meant by that, that she had taken care of his body herself. He was going to ask her, but decided not to when he saw that she was staring longingly at the new plot right next to them, all covered up with new soil and rose seeds.
What could he say then? Nothing.
So Mrs. Stevenson took the privilege of having the last words that evening, with something so sweet yet so dark now that George had understood the meaning of it when she said, “He’s here in the roses.”