Nice As Ninepence
A journal prompt response to “She came in every day.” April 2, 2013.
She comes in every day. Regular as clock time and quiet as a small draft that drifts in under the door. She creeps across the floor, it seems, almost as though she moves on tip-toe or wears slippers, and not a sound does she make save the snatch-catch of her breath as she approaches the counter.
It is no surprise when I turn around and see her there, same as every morning I can remember. It is no surprise ‘cause there’s a smell that she brings with her. She sends it a little ahead of her; a smell of roses and something slightly sour underneath, so I know she is there even if there’s been nothing to hear.
‘Good morning, Miss Purdie,’ I say and I smile at her and she smiles back.
She makes a show then of reading the noticeboard to see what’s on offer today. ‘Course, she and I know that is all just a thing that she does; we know that it’ll be a pot of breakfast tea and a slice of almond cake that she will order – same as she has ordered every day for years. I get the almond cake in specially for her.
She sits in the same chair at the same table and I bring her order out on a tin tray and I bring a cloth napkin with embroidered roses in one corner and I bring a small silver cake fork.
‘It’s turned out nice today,’ I say, making some common comment on the weather that is happening on the other side of the glass.
‘It has dear,’ she says. ‘Nice as ninepence.’
I don’t always know what she means by what she says. I don’t know how ninepence is any nicer than tenpence, but from her nodding and smiling I think she has given some agreement to what I have said.
‘Have you got plans for the day, Miss Purdie?’
I sit with her a while, if the place is not busy, and she tells me about the small excitements of her day ahead. They do not vary and she tells them the same whatever the weather and seems not to know she has told me them before. She says there is a man she sees, and her voice is shrunk to whisper like it is a secret. His name is Edward, she says, and he’s always turned out smart as paint and he’s got the bluest eyes you ever saw and he walks with her once around the park and he holds her hand and they say nothing. Then, at the closing gates of the park they kiss, just the once, and then, without a word having passed between them, they go their separate ways.
‘Isn’t that delightful?’
I tell her that it is and she goes on.
She has lunch a little later with another gentleman. His name is Elliott and he has a houseboat down on the canal and the boat’s name is ‘Jenny’, which is her own name when she is more than Miss Purdie.
Then Miss Jenny Purdie takes the bus to Covent Garden and she feeds the pigeons there and watches acrobats and jugglers and fire-eaters, and there’s a coffee shop where she meets a man who has no name and he tells her his life story in short installments and she says it is better than reading a book.
I know this is all make-believe because I followed her once. I thought it was such an oddly romantic story that I had to see it for myself. And though Miss Purdie did go to the park and did take a turn around the park, she did so alone. And at the gates she did stop, like she said, and she turned to one side, stretched tall on the balls of her feet, with her eyes closed, and she kissed the air – but no one was there to catch that kiss.
And there is a houseboat down on the canal and it is called ‘Jenny’ and I watched Miss Purdie watching the man at work there, painting the boat in bright colours, and emptying dirty water into the canal, and smoking a pipe when he’d finished. And he tipped his boatman’s cap at Miss Purdie and that was all.
And at Covent Garden there were pigeons which she fed, and acrobats to see, and jugglers and fire-eaters just as she’d said, and a coffee shop where she sat for a while over a coffee and where she talked to her own reflection in the window.
‘Course, I never let on to Miss Purdie. We all have our little lies that we live with. I tell her that Bob’s doing fine, that he’s a ray of sunshine in the house, that he’s a wonder with the kids and that I don’t know where I’d be without him. That’s what I tell Miss Purdie and anyone else who asks. But there ain’t no Bob now, just as there ain’t no Edward. Bob ran off with a stripper from Newcastle two years back, only he doesn’t tell his mum she’s a stripper; he tells his mum that she works in a salon and she does hair and make-up for girls when they are brides. We all have stories we tell.
‘Best drink your tea while it’s hot, Miss Purdie,’ I say and I get up from the table.
‘Thank you, dear,’ she says.
And the day shifts forward a little and I watch her picking at her almond cake like a bird, and she licks the point of her finger and not a single crumb is missed and the plate is left perfectly clean.
She checks her watch and checks the time against the clock on the wall and she drinks the last of her tea. Then at a minute before eleven she makes to go. She leaves a silver coin tucked under the edge of the plate and folds the napkin and sets it neatly in place on the tray. Then she tip-toes out, without a word, and off to be with Edward in the park, same as always, and Elliott by the canal, and a man with no name who has coffee with her in Covent Garden.
→Thanks again, dear Lindsay, for sharing your fine writing with us. And to others who find stories from the prompts I post, please feel encouraged to enter them in the comments section on the prompt’s page. And as always, thanks for reading! -PMc←