Doesn't Everyone Have a SecretThe Reverend Mike Bannerman had an early house call booked in his diary. Making his way on foot to the now familiar address he also had a spring in his step. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. He was greeted by a woman who immediately opened the door wide and welcomed him in to her neat little house.

Spending about thirty minutes inside, he kissed the woman on the cheek as he left. It was indeed a beautiful day; people were out and about enjoying an unexpected Indian summer. Passing a man busking on the pavement he popped a pound coin in the hat.

After a minute or two spent listening to a rather painful rendition of Wild Thing on the guitar, he asked, ‘Do you play requests?’

‘Who, me, mate?’

‘Yes. I just wondered if you knew, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, you know, from The Life of Brian?’

‘Not really, mate, I only know this song. Usually people find my playing so shit they don’t hang around long enough to ask for requests.’

Mike winced but felt there wasn’t much he could say to that. If he was honest the bloke was right, he was rubbish. So he moved on with a nod and said, ‘Right, well um, well done anyway. Keep it up. Peace be with you.’

‘Yeah pleased to meet you too, mate.’

So it was on with his house calls, after a short-cut through the park, Mike knocked on an old wooden front door. Mr. Rutherford shuffled towards the door shouting croakily, ‘I’m coming, bear with me, wait there.’

Mike duly waited.

Eventually the lock could be heard sliding back and with a clunk the door was opened a crack. Mr. Rutherford’s wizened face appeared in the small gap between the door and the frame as he uttered the immortal words, ‘Oh Vicar, I’ve got no trousers on!’

Mike was immediately reminded of the many French farce plays he’d seen over the years and fought to resist the urge to laugh out loud. Instead he chose to calmly utter, ‘That’s just fine, Mr. Rutherford. I can wait. Pop a pair on, I’ll still be here.’

After a good ten minutes, in which Mike had checked his messages and had a quick go at Sudoku on his phone, the door was once again opened.

This time a slightly wider gap was created and Mr. Rutherford could once again be seen; he was indeed now wearing trousers. ‘Oh yes, sonny, how nice to see you, come in, come in.’ He opened the door wider and waved his arm towards the lounge.

Delighted with the moniker, Mike followed Mr. Rutherford inside. As he removed his slightly muddy shoes in the hallway his nostrils were immediately assaulted by the incredibly strong smell of tobacco. Never having smoked, Mike struggled to understand the attraction of inhaling this foul smell deep into one’s own body. However, Mike was a compassionate and kind man and he could see that what Mr. Rutherford needed right now was a companion not judge and jury. So, trying his hardest to breathe through his mouth, which he discovered simply gave him the taste of tobacco (almost as bad), he advanced into the lounge with a forced smile.

‘Nice of you to come, sonny. I haven’t been to church for a while now. It’s the walk you see, it’s bloody hard to do that hill.’

Determined to impress upon this man that he was not here to complain, Mike launched straight into a familiar speech.

‘Please, please, don’t feel bad, Mr. Rutherford. I completely understand. Despite your rather complimentary nickname for me, I’m not getting any younger either. Hills that once were a doddle represent more of a challenge these days. I’m not here to insist you visit the church or to berate you for not coming.’

The relief was evident on Mr. Rutherford’s face. His stiff aged body relaxed immediately and he slowly lowered himself into his chair with a grunt and waved Mike towards the chair next to him.

Sitting, Mike carried on, glad to see that this nice old gent was no longer perturbed. ‘I was passing this way the other day and I remembered that this was where you and Marjorie lived, so I pencilled you in for today. I thought I’d pop in and see how you were and if there was anything I could do for you?’

Clearly rather touched by this gesture, Mr. Rutherford’s cloudy eyes moistened and he looked around the room as if suddenly seeing it from Mike’s viewpoint. ‘Sorry for the mess, sonny. It’s these bleedin’ knees. Since I lost Marj…’

‘Mr. Rutherford … can I call you Bert?’ Mike waited for a nod from the old fellow and once he received it he continued. ‘Bert, I’m not here to judge you about the state of your house. I’m not here to reprimand you for not coming to church. I cannot even begin to imagine how hard things must’ve been for you since you lost your wife last year.’ Patting Bert’s papery-soft hand Mike rose from the chair and continued, ‘Now then, shall I make us a cup of tea?’

Managing to avoid a suspicious looking stain on the carpet with his socked feet, Mike made his way to the kitchen. Alas, the floor in there was, if anything, more treacherous than the lounge. The lino was so grubby that he could literally feel his socks sticking to it as he attempted to walk. It felt like he was walking through treacle. Wishing he’d taken the longer route and kept his shoes from getting muddy, Mike resolved that when he came back to catch up with Bert next time he would ensure his shoes remained clean and firmly on his feet.

A pleasant half hour passed, in which time Mike’s nostrils became accustomed to the tobacco smell, so much so that he no longer had to moderate his breathing. He and Bert covered topics as diverse as National Service and how it changes a man, whether Bert’s wife was indeed safely in the hands of God and how versatile a potato waffle could be.

As he left Bert’s house with promises to return and a reassurance that if Bert ever felt the need to come back to church he could arrange a lift for him, Mike blinked in the sunlight. Seeing Bert so alone had made him think about what he had. Mike was so grateful for his life. Yes, he had a problem right now and due to some hesitance on his behalf, he’d ended up in a bit of a ridiculous situation but he had a wife who loved him, a son he was incredibly proud of, a wonderful mother and now he also had Maggie. If Bert had taught him anything today it was to never take for granted those who accept the love you offer and to cherish the fact that they love you in return.

The rest of Mike’s afternoon was uneventful, apart from a near collision when a large people carrier sped round a blind corner just as he was thinking of pulling out at a junction.

He’d been home a while when his wife, Jane arrived. Making her way through the front door, she called out, ‘What’s for dinner, Mike?’

Mike met her in the hallway. ‘What? Dinner? Why ask me?’

Jane tapped her watch. ‘Erm excuse me, it’s late and I’ve just walked in the house as opposed to you who’s been home for a good couple of hours.’

‘Yes, I know but … dinner, me?’ He opened his palms in a gesture that said ‒ I have nothing!

‘Almost every day I’m home first and I make dinner for you. Tonight I’ve been out helping set up the display at the charity shop and you’ve been home for hours. Why wouldn’t you think of making me something to eat?’ Raising her eyes heavenwards Jane tutted, ‘Men!’

‘I know that nothing I could make from my repertoire could come close to your cooking, Jane darling.’

‘Nice try, Mike but I’ll ask one more time. You’ve been home hours ‒ what’s for dinner?’

Casting his eyes around the kitchen Mike settled on a banana, held it up and stated pragmatically, ‘Full of potassium!’

Despite herself, Jane softened. ‘Mike, I will swing for you one day!’

After dinner, which was quickly and efficiently rustled up by Jane, of course, Mike checked his watch. He knew it was wrong to be excited, but what the heck, he couldn’t help himself; the fact that Jane had one of her ‘things’ tonight was nothing short of brilliant.

Just before eight o’clock she dashed out to her car, first kissing him brightly, her lips soft and warm on his cheek. Mike admired her retreating figure; Jane was a handsome woman, her clothes were always smart, even though they were frequently bargains from one of her beloved charity shops or vintage stores, and her short blonde hair was practical but just a little sassy.

Ahead of him stretched a good couple of hours; Jane’s ‘things’ never finished before ten, sometimes later. The way was clear for Mike to select his favourite box set and head over to Maggie’s. Obviously sooner or later he was going to have to confess to Jane, however, not tonight. Tonight was about spending time with Maggie and The Two Ronnies.

***

As she opened her door wide and welcomed him in, Mike sighed and his shoulders softened. Here was calm, here was laughter. Maggie’s house was cool, but not cold. It smelt clean and fresh, like laundry that had been allowed to dry slowly in the spring air.

‘I’ll put the kettle on for tea.’ Hanging up Mike’s jacket for him, Maggie turned towards the tiny kitchen which was just off the lounge. ‘Or I can do us an …’

‘No chance of an …’

In unison they finished their sentences with, ‘Ovaltine.’

Both laughed and Maggie nodded and continued into the kitchen.

Watching her prepare the drinks, Mike chuckled as he remembered the first time he’d come to this house. Again Maggie had offered him tea or coffee and he’d tentatively asked if she had such a thing as an Ovaltine.

He’d watched as her face had broken into a grin and she’d replied, ‘Wow, you like it too? For as long as I can remember I’ve drunk it during the day as well as at bedtime and I’ve never before met another soul who did the same.’

He’d nodded his agreement and added, ‘Such a waste to save it just for night-time.’ He remembered that he’d felt chuffed that they had this in common, he’d never met anyone with the same preference either, not even Jane or Sam.

He’d tried to show Sam how delicious the malty drink was when he was a small boy. Sam had taken one mouthful of the safely cooled down drink, spat it out and said, ‘Daddy, no, Daddy drink yucky!’

As he was once again reliving this precious memory, Maggie popped back into the lounge and Mike held out the box set for her approval. ‘Shall I choose the episode?’

Laughing she rolled her eyes, ‘Mike, you’re terrible. I know for a fact you’ve seen every single one of these before.’ Then, smiling, she added, ‘But … they are funny – fork handles!’

‘You see, you see. You just can’t help yourself!’ Mike poked her playfully in the ribs. ‘Now where’s that Ovaltine, woman?’
‘It’s coming, give me a chance!’

Half an hour later, Mike and Maggie were transfixed by two heavily made up middle-aged men performing a dance routine to a song which was cleverly packed full of tongue-twisters when, rather annoyingly, Maggie’s phone rang. Mike watched from the lounge as she spent a good fifteen minutes perched on a hard wooden stool in the kitchen chatting on the phone to her daughter, Mel. Her head was down and he admired her shiny hair which was auburn with hints of grey and burgundy low-lights, it was naturally messy but in a hippy-chick way which suited her. Frequently she would lift her head and laugh; catching his eye she’d mouth, ‘sorry’ and then her head would once again bow as she returned to her conversation. Eventually she joined Mike back on the sofa.

‘Sorry about that, my daughter sure can talk; that was meant to be a quickie!’

He hated to appear like a spoilt child but Mike simply couldn’t stop himself from pouting as he replied, ‘Well you’ve missed the bit about the Phantom Raspberry Blower!’ He could hear the whine in his voice; it irritated him, so it surely must annoy the heck out of her.

Fortunately, she was far more tolerant than he deserved. ‘Oh no! Shocking! I’ve only seen it about ten times before and it’s only on DVD! You daft sod.’

Mike didn’t want them to argue, forcing himself to shake out of it; he rose and asked, ‘Another drink? I’ll get them.’

‘Great thanks, a tea this time please, Piggy Malone.’

Chuckling Mike wandered into the kitchen and began making the tea, moving effortlessly around the small room. Opening cupboard doors he reaching for tea bags and mugs as sure as he would be at home of finding their rightful place. He marvelled at how relaxed he was here. Obviously he’d been with Jane for many years and he’d be the first to admit that he was completely comfortable with her, but being here with Maggie, being this laid-back, was an unexpected bonus. From the lounge came the sound of Maggie’s laugh, it was warm. Despite not knowing her for long it took him back somehow. Rainy Sundays in front of the TV, holidays on the beach, walking the dog in the bluebell woods; he couldn’t put his finger on it, but Maggie’s laugh made him feel … safe.

‘Tea.’ Mike handed the steaming fragrant mug of Earl Grey to Maggie and was rewarded with a grin.

‘Oh thanks, you do make a good cuppa, just a splash of milk, lovely. I’ve put the DVD back to the bit you like, the bit I missed.’

‘You didn’t have to do that, Maggie!’

‘I know I didn’t. But you’re right, it is the best bit.’

‘Of course it is, I didn’t get where I am today without putting in the hours and doing the research you know!’

‘How many times have you actually watched these programmes?’

‘I honestly don’t know. Originally I watched them with my parents on a Saturday night. Mother would open a box of Black Magic and my father and I were allowed to choose three chocolates each!’

‘Three! The Bannerman family knew how to live in the seventies.’

‘Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. I still get a frisson of excitement if I allow myself a fourth chocolate in one sitting!’

Maggie laughed her hearty laugh and Mike’s face lit up. Suddenly Maggie stopped and uttered, with a far away look on her face, ‘I wish I’d known you then. I’d have liked to have my hand in the chocolate box with you.’

Meeting her gaze, Mike stated, ‘I wish I’d known you too Maggie, as long as you didn’t take the Chocolate Brazil!’

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