An Unexpected Guest by Roy Barton

by Roy Barton

The rain must have been falling for hours and looked like it was set for the evening . The cloud had prematurely darkened the day and spread a gloom about the old mans’ house that forced him to turn on a table lamp in the living room, in the farthest corner from the window. It was there he slowly moved towards, stooped by age and the wastage of bone and muscle caused by arthritis and rheumatism. The pain mattered little, though. The primary thought was of movement towards the square of natural light in the wall.

He stared out towards his beloved garden and sighed. The water ran jaggedly down the glass, slowing as it met other loose droplets and speeding up again as it merged and moved on, smearing the glass and obscuring the view to the outside. Other droplets would then appear after its’ wake making the blurred view even more difficult to unravel. If only it had waited a couple of hours, he thought, then the weeds would all have been up.

He sat down in the armchair by the window with a feeling of dismay that the weather had delayed his work. As he sat there he could clearly hear the rain splashing down at the world outside and the ticking of the big clock in the hall made an almost rhythmical accompaniment. They were both soothing solid sounds that his mind could easily settle with and within a few minutes his head started to nod forward.

Before his head had finished its’ downward movement another noise startled him awake. It was barely perceptible but it was there, none the less. A slight tap on the door. Who would that be in this weather, he wondered to himself. It wasn’t a question, more of a statement that he knew no-one, not well enough that they would venture to his home at this time. He lifted himself up, with a slight acknowledgement to the pain that spread across his shoulders and walked stiffly out of the living room and into the long hall. He passed the big clock about half-way down and observed the time, more out of habit than in interest. It was about three minutes from six-thirty.

He reached the door without it knocking again but he could see someone was there through the half glazing. He turned the latch and opened up to the figure.

‘Good evening.’ It said politely, lowering an umbrella and smiling affably.

The old man smiled back a little and moved away from the door to give his guest entrance. He didn’t ask who the stranger was and the stranger in return was not surprised by the old mans’ hospitality. He just nodded courteously and stepped in out of the rain. Although he had been standing at the door for a few minutes he was, in fact, completely dry.

‘Very bad weather today.’ He stated as he tied his umbrella back. That, too, was not wet.

‘It was badly timed.’ Agreed the old man as he walked up the hall and back into the living room, with the other person following on.

‘It does seem a shame to interrupt your gardening with it all so close to perfection.’

The old man sensed a slight feeling of distress in his visitors’ voice and once more nodded. ‘It could have stayed off until tonight, but it was only a bit of weeding was needed. Besides, nature holds the key to more perfection than I do. It is that which decides how the garden looks best, and if it is with water then it should rain a little. After all, if it did not rain there would be no garden.’

The old man had reached the chair by the window and sat down again. His caller sat in another chair opposite and looked at him.

The octogenarian looked back. Unlike his obvious aged state the man opposite had no discernible age, but must have been very old. The eyes looked very old. Without having to recognise any more he knew why he had let him in and without any feeling of irony knew he was looking Death in the face.

‘When do I go ?’ he enquired.

Death smiled, a little sadly this time. ‘Whenever you are ready.’ he answered, not about to rush the old man.

‘That is an answer that I’ve always wanted to have ready.’

‘So do I’ agreed Death. ‘But I do allow a little time - to acclimatise to the transition. It makes things slightly easier for all of us.’

‘I often wandered about how I would feel when it got to this moment.’ the old man spoke, his eyes looking out to his past, ‘ I often felt scared just thinking about my mortality and of those around me. My son died in a war in some foreign land, and I wandered if he died alone, far from his home and young family, and whether he was frustrated by this fact, or whether he just accepted it as his fate. Maybe his soul was lost and he has spent all this time trying to get back home to us and is as trapped as if he was still alive but without the ability to find us. I wonder if the pain that he suffered was as bad as our anguish at never seeing him again.’ His eyes misted slightly as he recalled those painful times. ‘ I also wonder if he ever knew that we truly loved him and would have done anything to bring him back. If he had gone like my wife, Donna, that would have been more acceptable. Even though she was old and had suffered a great deal of pain in her final days, she was surrounded with family and friends and she was able to have a quiet dignity which she kept until the end. It is with those two personal tragedies that I realise I have seen your face twice before and have welcomed it into my bereavement. Only now can I see that my grief was shared and carried. you and you claimed responsibility for them, and I could never blame you.’

‘John was serene at his time, for I was there and he saw you with me.’ Death said, quietly. He was not lost. He could not be, because he felt your sympathy for him. He was happy afterwards. Donna, as you suggest, was aware of everything and was worried for you and how you would take it all. She knew she did not have to worry. You were always there to support and advise anyone when things went wrong and they were always glad you worried for them. Now you do not have to worry any more because it is your time now. So how does it feel ?’ The question was caring, not forced or with any trace of humour or spite.

The old man considered how his feelings of mortality had changed over the years, the things he had grown to realise were beyond him, and the sacrifices he had made throughout his life, the he replied, ‘ Once, I would have been unable to cope with it. I don’t have the strong faith of some, and I do not know what lies beyond. I would not have been glad to go, but now I am willing to leave. It has been a long and generally enjoyable life. I have seen and learnt many things. Most importantly, I have accepted that I am what I am but I have looked to improve wherever I could do. I hope that I have achieved that.’

Death smiled, ‘You have achieved far more than that. Far more than you could ever possibly imagine. You are like nearly everybody else that I call upon. So unsure of your achievements, but so sure that somewhere you have improved something. It probably seems strange to say it, but doing this job carries its’ own rewards. The decent people are, like yourself, happy to enlighten me, whilst the bad people, well, I have no regrets that they are gone. As some would say - the jobs not very good but its’ the people you work with !’

They both smiled at the observation.

‘Let us go, now.’ The old man decided that the time was now right.

They both stood up, and as they did the sun broke through the clouds, shining down on the garden and showing off the range of bright colours outside. All the yellows and reds and greens glinted, as the raindrops hanging off of petals and leaves sparkled like jewels, all displaying and magnifying the glorious scope of colours that were present.

They both looked at the scene unfurling before them, through the window.

‘ It looks like it wanted to thank you and say goodbye, as well.’ Death said, his smile broader and happier at the scene.

‘It would appear so. It is so nice that my last sight here is of the garden in sunshine, just after the rain. Everything looks so alive.’

‘It seems fitting that you should see your work come look its’ most vibrant at this time. It will stay with your memories forever. Trust me.’

The old man knew that whatever Death said was true. It seemed like the right thing - a natural progression, though he was still unsure as to where. All he knew was that he felt particularly comforted by this thought and was aware that somehow he had felt like this since John had died. This feeling had been fortified even more after Donna went. He hadn’t known it then but he realised that somewhere deep inside he knew, that this was just a transition The garden looked so beautiful.

They both turned away from the window and walked toward the hall. They disappeared before they reached the door at he far end of the corridor. In fact they started to blur out of existence just as they reached the big clock. As they vanished the clocked chimed the half-hour. It was six-thirty !

Inside the living room the table lamp remained on as the sunlight streamed through the window. By it was the chair with the body of the old man seated in it. He sightless eyes were staring out of the window and towards the garden, which still glinted under the re-emerging light.

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