Backroom Betty and Front of House Freddie were the perfect couple. Two halves of the one coin, a bit like Mr and Mrs Spratt in the nursery rhyme. They complimented each other beautifully until they retired from the public house they had run all their married life.
Forty years of married bliss was gone in seconds after the explosion of retirement. Freddie could not get used to being at home all the time and Betty discovered she didn’t like him loitering around. She baked too much, used to feeding the marauding mob in the pub. Freddie couldn’t understand while she wasn’t in rapt awe at his stand up routines like the regulars in the bar.
They were fighters though and fought tooth and nail to save their marriage, they took up golf. Freddie spent more time pontificating about the game than actually playing and Betty was far too shy to join the ladies in their own bar. Walking is good exercise they told themselves and equipping themselves in windcheaters and boots they began to walk the routes, couples had told them of when partaking of a swift half after many climbs. Freddie was not able for the steep paths after a life time serving on his feet, he was racked with a spaghetti junction of varicose veins. Betty did not like listening to Freddie and his endless tales of this one and that one always ending in a hearty laugh that she thought would one day choke him
Out of the blue, one spring day in March, Terence arrived. Forty years before he had been Freddie’s best man and secretly enamoured with Betty. He left shortly after the wedding on the penny to Australia scheme, enjoying the balmy weather and local fare. He too had started with a bar but had multiplied it many times over through all the major cities down-under. Freddie often remarked through the years that the “lad done well.” He never married, keeping his barely lit torch for Betty alight and deflecting any attention from the many ladies onto his erstwhile managers, who all married well and had many offspring.
Freddie greeted his friend like the prodigal son, insisting he stayed in their house. Betty enjoyed having Terence around, he helped in the kitchen, which Freddie never did, and he did it quietly. Sometimes there was an air of comfortable silence, that she sank into gratefully. Freddie began going out on his own, for walks in the park he said, but he came back with ruddy cheeks and the waft of barley from his mouth.
As time went on Betty couldn’t help but notice the clumsy loudness of Freddie in comparison to the graceful quietness of Terence. She reminisced in her mind, going back to the beginning when Polly, Freddie, Terence and herself would go to the dances in the local halls and walk in the park on Sunday after church. Polly, she hadn’t thought of her in years, it was a dreadful accident. The four of them were supposed to meet at the cinema to watch “The Sting.” Both her and Polly loved to watch Robert Redford and Paul Newman, especially when they performed together. Freddie and Terence arrived, but there was no sign of Polly. She lived on the other side of town, they had met through working in the typing pool at Monclief Solicitors so she travelled in by bus. Betty cycled, she loved feeling the wind against her cheeks as she pedalled along the cobbled streets. Freddie had a scooter and Terence was his passenger. They weren’t couples or anything like that, back then, just four friends who enjoyed spending time together. Romance was yet to come. An ambulance bell told them an accident had occurred and as Polly was so late they left the queue and followed the ambulance. Freddie and Terence got there first but Betty wasn’t far behind, years of cycling had developed sleek muscular legs that her tall frame suited. Polly had been on the bus, but got off a stop early. Betty thought she might be struggling to pay the rent as she was cutting back on lunch in the canteen, bringing her own sandwiches and even a flask a tea. Blood trickled in between the cobbles and Betty caught a glimpse of Polly’s famous red hair before the blanket covered her.
She supposed that’s when things changed. A threesome in mourning is a sombre picture, but a young man comforting a young lady in grief is quite breathtaking. Freddie took over. Suddenly they were a couple, going on romantic jaunts to country inns on a Saturday after half day closing. Terence stopped going out as much and when Betty enquired, was told he was busy with new friends. The truth of it Betty never knew. After six months of courtship Freddie arrived at her parents’ house to request her hand in marriage, the banns were posted and they tied the knot in the local registry office.
Shortly after that, they bought the pub, The Red Lion, down on Princess Margaret Avenue, Terence appeared to say goodbye and life settled into its routine. Betty in the backroom and Freddie in the front. Back then, she thought about Polly a lot but time went on and she slowly faded from her memory though because of her Betty always served big portions to anyone coming in for half a sandwich, throwing in a packet of crisps and a slice of apple pie on the side. Anytime she saw someone in the shop struggling to pay she upended her purse and helped them out. She took waifs and strays off the streets and fed them in the backroom of the pub, sometimes even putting them up. She did this all in Polly’s memory.
She met Polly’s mother once after the funeral, she didn’t have much to say, a damp handkerchief of woe in her hands. Betty had few words herself so they drank tea in the tearooms of the Walter Hotel and ate the dainty sandwiches. She never saw her father. Now as she thought back she didn’t see him at the funeral either and she wondered what that was about and whether he regretted it before he died. Most people regret rash decisions made in the spur of the moment. Did she regret her marriage? Now she finally had another man to compare Freddie with, it did cross her mind.
Later that day Betty began a journey she had no idea she was starting. She walked along Camilla Grove and onto the busy main street. So much has changed, she thought, remembering when Mr Ogden the chemist bought the first car on their road. As she stopped at the zebra crossing two teenagers on bicycles passed her, laughing and joking, in their own little world. She stopped outside the bike shop and pushed the door half way.
“Are you coming or going, Missus?” a man’s burly voice from within made her jump.
“I think I might like a bicycle”
“Well you’re in the right place,” the voice took the form of a young man, as broad as he was tall, squatting by a broken bike.
Half an hour later she was cycling down Princess Margaret Avenue, beaming, feeling the wind against her face, alive. She heard singing from the chapel opposite their old pub and was drawn in by the cheerful sound. Oh, she thought, as she sat at the back listening to the group of singers practice, I feel young again. She prayed for Terence and Freddie, she prayed for Polly’s family and all the people she had met over the years, without names now and then she prayed for herself, for the whole situation and for wisdom.
Betty went along to the services from that time on, very gradually she made friends in the congregation and slowly she brought Freddie and Terence into the small group of believers. The fleeting thoughts that had distracted her regarding Terence disappeared. After going to church for a year or so, Betty and Freddie renewed their wedding vows, Freddie had joined AA, Terence was stepping out with one of the ladies from church. Like a spring clean, Terence had come in like a breath of fresh air and as the dust settled, peace reigned.