old man illustration

He smiled at me again

He smiled at me again, this morning. The old man at the corner house. He doesn’t always smile when I wave to him. But this morning he did. Not like the grumpy stare he wears on his face, much of the time. Though I don’t think he’s really an old grumpy. Just old. And lonely. And, maybe, in pain.

He’s always there, though. At his front window in the autumn and winter; or picking weeds out of his borders in spring; or sitting on an old bentwood chair, by the front door, soaking up some summer sun. That’s where I first saw him smile. Evenings, he must be out the back, cause that’s where the sun has gone to. He probably needs that more, to warm his old bones, than a friendly wave.

I asked Mum how old he was. She just said, think Methuselah. I didn’t know what she meant until I Googled it. It came up, even though I spelled it Methyousella. It said 969 years, but he can’t be that old, he’s still got hair. A wavy white shock of it. Though he has got a lot of wrinkles and his skin looks a bit red and flaky on his cheeks. Mum agrees, but says he’s still very old. He was old when she was born, ’cos her mum always called him Old Jenkins Up The Road and he used to walk down the street with a worn out leather shopping bag and hobbled a little, leaning on a gnarled walking stick, whenever he stopped and stood still. I’ve seen that stick. He keeps it by his chair, when he sits out front.

Now some kids are frightened of him. I don’t know why. Might be ’cos he shouts when they run across his front garden, to cut off the corner or fight each other on his small lawn. I don’t do that. You’ve got to respect other peoples’ property, Mum says. So, I skip around the paving stones, careful not to tread on cracks.

Now today was different. He was on the front when I came home from school. He beckoned me over. I hesitated. Then I thought, as long as I stay on the pavement, I can just say hello. He took a couple of steps towards me and smiled. I was ready to run, but he didn’t come too close. He just asked me to fetch my Mum over. No hurry. But he had something I might like, but couldn’t give it to me without her permission. Wouldn’t say what, although I asked him twice. I was intrigued.

Mum was perplexed. Said she really didn’t know him, but agreed to come. Knocked on the door, after tea. There was no bell push, just a shiny brass handle thing around his letterbox. He opened the door and smiled. That’s three times in one day. He invited us in and I could see through an oak panelled hallway right down to his kitchen. He left the front door open. I think, now, it was so Mum wouldn’t be afraid. He offered us tea and biscuits, or ginger beer if I liked. The real stuff he made in his garage, he said. Mum said no, she didn’t have time to stop. He nodded, then opened the door to a room on the right. It was a big room, smelt of liver and bacon (which I hate), wood smoke and something I couldn’t quite place, but I’ve a great aunt who smells a bit the same.

By the window was a table and four chairs. One with those pieces you pull out to make it bigger and big fat legs. They’re a bit like my great aunt’s too, come to think of it. On the table there was a greasy plate and a mug, with what looked like cold tea half way down. He’d obviously just had his dinner. But what I saw on the opposite side of the room made my eyes pop.

Mum looked fidgety, not knowing quite why she was there. He explained in short slow sentences. He had to move into an old folk’s home. He couldn’t manage on his own, any longer. He’s fallen badly three times, once on the stairs. So, he was selling up. The old-fashioned furniture would just be cleared out. The few things he needed or wanted to keep would fit in a couple of suitcases. But that, he said, pointing to what filled my eyes, needs a new home.

I see your lad a lot, he said. He makes me very happy, when I’m a bit down. Mum gave me a queer look, liked when I’ve been found out doing something I shouldn’t. My little waves, he said, brighten his day, even when he’s in pain from his arthritis and can’t smile back, and I’m the only one who always looks kindly at him when everyone’s off to school, in a morning. And I never use his garden as shortcut or have play fights on his front lawn. I felt a halo coming on, but I still didn’t know what he had to give me. And if it was just the ginger beer, Mum had already refused that for me.

The he gestured with his arm. It was much more than ginger beer coming my way. He said he needed a new home for his trainset. Trainset? It was mammoth! A large table with trains, carriages, wagons, two stations, signal boxes, a tunnel, a brickyard and countless little people, cars and lorries and trees and shrubs, just like the line between our town and the next. It was brill. A dream. And he had made it all himself, he said, to while away the time since his wife died, when she was only young. He used to work on the railways and every detail was correct for how railways looked in the 1960s. He didn’t want to sell it. He didn’t want it broken up, though it would have to be taken apart to get it through the door. He wanted it to go to someone who would cherish it, keep it running, invite his friends to play with it and he thought that I might just be the right person. Had we got room for it?

Had we? You bet! Even if I had to throw my bed out and sleep on the floor, underneath it. Mum hesitated. It was too much for him to give me, not really knowing him. But we have got room, Mum, I piped up. He looked at me; at the excitement in my eyes. He said, I have no one else I would give it to, that I would trust to look after it and, looking at Mum, I know there’s just you and the lad, so it must be hard keeping him supplied in plastic spaceships and toy cars or buying those computer games. I thought this might be something different, something of real worth to him. Something his friends haven’t got. And if he does lose interest in a few years, you can always make a bit of money from the engines and rolling stock. By then I won’t mind so much. I may not even be here. It’s my only chance to know it will bring pleasure to someone, for a short while, at least.

And we have got room, Mum, in the little bedroom at the back, I reminded her. Nobody comes to stay much, nowadays, and I can always give up my bedroom and take my sleeping bag in there. Mum smiled, but said she couldn’t afford to pay for anything like that and my heart dropped into my trainers. Then he said, no I don’t want any money. I just want someone to care for it. He held out his hand. Is that a deal? Mum smiled down at me pensively, but didn’t shake his hand – so I did. Quickly. And Old Jenkins Up The Road smiled at me. Again. With a twinkle in his pale blue eyes.

Back home, Mum told our neighbours on the left all about it and Mr Gerrard, who’s the dad in that family and is a carpenter, said he would help move it, next week. And I said we must have Mr Jenkins for Christmas dinner, which was still a long way off. Better than that, said Mum, he can come over some weekends, when I’m not working, to help you run your timetables or whatever you will do with your friends.

Yes, Mum, I said that would be great. And, Mum, for my birthday, which is in October, I don’t want that SuperBlaster gun, anymore. Can you get me one of those railwayman’s caps with a shiny peak and a silver badge?

As it happened, when the model railway did arrive, Mr Jenkins’ own peaked cap arrived with it. And Mr Jenkins came over once a month until winter set in and it was unsafe on the roads. He came twice in the spring, too, before he had another bad fall at the home he was in and decided not to venture out again, but slowly fade into the background. Though never forgotten by one young boy with a railway in his back bedroom, the envy of all his friends. Yes, even the ones who were wedded to computer tablets and phones switched them off, for a go on the railway.

Just a couple or so short stories for now, but there will be more to follow soon.
You'll find stories like these in two of my books, available as Paperback or a Kindle read from Amazon.
Stacks Image 60
The Schooling Chair

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