The low building sprawled out in every direction with a series of mismatched extensions, each revealing the decade of its construction in style. Although it was still light out, the cold blue glare of strip lighting issued from a number of windows hung with garish curtains and homemade light catchers – an air of artificial gaiety painted over glimpses of interior walls done out in drab institutional colours designed to soothe.
From his vantage point at the crest of the hill, Vince gazed down at the bus stop below. It was furnished with a simple wooden bench, and the little figure sat hunched at one end of it, a tapestry bag on the seat by her side. He had been looking for her.
He took a slow breath before beginning his unhurried stroll down the hill, taking pleasure in the light of early evening and the air that, out here, wasn’t permeated with the must that ran through it indoors. When he got to the bench, the figure, sitting on her hands and swinging her legs in childlike fashion, glanced sidelong at him from under concerned eyebrows, chewing the corner of her lip.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hullo,” she replied.
He wore a white tunic over utilitarian black trousers and comfortable shoes.
“Are you a milkman?” she asked. He smiled a small smile and said that he wasn’t.
“Oh,” she said.
“I’m Vince,” he told her. “Vincent.”
“I’m Molly Dawkins,” she said. “Pleased to meet you, Mister.”
The pair sat a while in silence.
The bus stop was tucked into the side of a green country lane lined with birch trees, hawthorn and hazel. It was early summer and late afternoon. One by one the birds took up their evening song and the bus was nowhere to be seen. It was peaceful. Vincent stretched his legs out in front of him and began to hum. Molly glanced at him again before peering down the lane in the direction the bus should come. Her eyebrows drew together in the middle, betraying her anxiety.
“It’s late sometimes,” offered Vincent. “Where are you going?”
Molly replied that she had to get home in time for tea – that her mother would be waiting for her and she would be in trouble if she was late. She lived in the next village but one, she said. She rubbed absentmindedly at a graze on her knee. Her stockings were falling down and she had on a yellow skirt scattered with tiny cornflowers, and a blue cardigan buttoned up over a cream coloured blouse. A red coat on top, even though the day was warm.
She told him that she had been to visit a friend whose mother was sick; that she took with her a basket of fresh scones and two sorts of jam, a dab of which adorned the corner of her mouth decorated with a pair of stray crumbs. She said she had had to leave when the doctor came. Her voice held an edge of agitation when she mentioned it.
It was nearly six o’clock and the bus did not come. Molly began to fret.
“I’m going to get in trouble,” she said.
“Come now,” said Vincent. “I’m sure your mother will understand if the bus is late.”
Molly indicated her doubt about this statement with an unconvinced sigh.
“It shouldn’t be much longer now,” said Vincent.
“I hope not,” replied Molly.
She had noticed the smear of jam and poked at it with the tip of her tongue, going cross-eyed in an effort to see how successful she had been in getting rid of it. Vincent chuckled at the display, but she showed no sign of being embarrassed by her unladylike behaviour.
Satisfied she was once more presentable, Molly eyed the post and rail fence edging the field opposite and sighed.
“If it doesn’t come soon I suppose I shall have to walk home over the fields,” she announced, evidently weighing up whether her mother would prefer mud-caked shoes and thorn-ripped clothes to tardiness. “It’s only three miles or so.”
The corner of Vince’s mouth twitched as he took in the object leaning forgotten against the bench next to Molly’s bag.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked Vincent. “I mean, how old are you, Molly?”
Molly drew her shoulders back. “Almost nine!” she said, indignant.
Vince struggled to conceal a grin.
“Oh, well, begging your pardon, Miss Molly,” he said. “But haven’t you paid the fare already?”
Molly’s face fell a little.
“Yes,” she said. “And Mother doesn’t like waste.”
“Seems like you have a bit of a dilemma then,” said Vincent.
“Hmmph,” said Molly, visibly deflated. “I suppose I shall have to chance being late then, shan’t I?”
There was still no sign of any bus, and silence fell over the pair once more, underscored by the sounds of busy wildlife coming from the hedgerow.
Eventually Molly stood up and took a few slow steps forward to see past a bend in the lane. The movement startled some birds from a nearby tree and they flew off squawking to settle elsewhere. Unable to summon the bus with will alone, Molly came to sit down again, smoothing her skirt over her knees as she sat, and adjusting her coat.
“Are they your mother’s rings?” said Vincent, gesturing toward the hand closest to him.
Molly sat very still and Vincent watched her closely for a moment, waiting. The transition was subtle – a flurry of blinks in an otherwise frozen expression; fleeting, like the briefest absence seizure. She sat up a little straighter and stilled her swinging legs, crossing her ankles underneath her as she reached for the delicate, old-fashioned gold bands on her left hand with the fingers of her right. She gave Vincent a guarded look and brought her hand to her chest, protective.
“I’m sorry, sir?” She was wary.
Vince held out his hand.
“Forgive my manners,” he said. “I’m Vince. Vincent.”
Molly took the proffered hand politely and gave it a light squeeze.
“Molly Johnson. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Do you happen to know when the bus is due, Mister, ah, Vincent?”
“It shouldn’t be too much longer now,” Vince replied. “Have you been married long, Mrs Johnson?”
Molly hesitated, cautious about being too open with a stranger, but then seemed to decide that the young man sitting next to her on the bench posed no threat to person or propriety.
“Well, I married Gerry at nineteen, so that would be twelve years now.” She smiled fondly at the thought. “I’m just on my way to him now, if this dratted bus ever arrives.”
“It’s late sometimes,” he told her. “Do you have far to go?”
“Oh no,” said Molly, relaxing a little. “Just into town. Gerry will walk me home from there when he finishes work. We’ll pick the children up from my mother on the way,” she explained.
Settling down to wait for the errant bus, Molly told Vince about how she had been visiting her sick friend; that she hadn’t wanted to take her children along, so as not to scare them.
“Just as well, too,” she said sadly. “She’s really very sick. Barely recognised me, and was quite overcome with fright when the doctor arrived.”
Vince made a sympathetic noise and pretended not to notice the way Molly was wringing her hands. They looked painful.
“It’s hard to see someone you care for like that,” he said.
Molly glanced at him with an air of sharp surprise.
“Yes,” she said simply before falling quiet.
They sat in companionable silence for several minutes. The sun began to dip, lending the air a golden warmth, and still the bus did not come. Molly sighed, then gave herself a shake and looked over at Vince with renewed interest, taking in his apparel.
“Are you a milkman?” she asked.
Vince grinned at her.
“No,” he said.
She waited for him to elaborate.
“I work nearby,” is all he said, avoiding the puzzled look she gave him.
“Oh. I see,” she said, curious but not wanting to pry.
She let out an exasperated sigh and stood up, tapping her foot impatiently.
“Where on earth is that blessed bus?” she exclaimed, taking a few steps into the road. “Gerry will be worried if I’m not there to meet him.”
“I’m sure it won’t be much longer,” said Vince. “Maybe the driver’s had a spot of bother with it or something,” he added as an afterthought.
“Well,” said Molly crossly, “If it doesn’t appear soon I shall have to go cross country.”
She looked from her shoes to the ploughed field opposite and back again, shaking her head.
“But I’ve already paid the fare and Mother doesn’t like waste,” she said, looking confused for a moment.
Spotting an opportunity, Vince gestured toward a pendant that hung from a fine silver chain around Molly’s neck.
“That’s lovely,” he said. “Is it a locket?”
“Hmm?” said Molly, reaching for the necklace. “Oh, this? Yes. Yes, it is. Would you like to see?”
“Love to,” said Vince.
Molly fumbled at the clasp with fingers that trembled slightly, muttering to herself as she did.
“Won’t be long now,” said Vince to himself. Molly, concentrating on the task at hand, didn’t appear to notice what he said.
“There. That’s got it, see?” said Molly, turning so that he could look inside the locket, now open.
“Oh,” he said. “What lovely photographs. Are they your children?”
Molly’s face softened as she turned the locket to look and said “yes”. Vince waited as she paused an almost imperceptible moment and blinked twice with exaggerated slowness, tracing over the surface of the pictures with a fingertip as her mind appeared to grasp for something. She opened her mouth to speak, and when she did her voice was tremulous.
“No. They’re my—my grandchildren,” she told him. “I—Why would I—” She looked lost for a moment, “—forget that?” and her swollen fingers turned white as her grasp on the bauble tightened.
She looked at Vince with wide, childlike eyes, frightened and confused.
“Who are you?” she asked him, reaching to grab hold of his forearm.
“It’s Vince, Molly,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
“Vince…” Her voice trailed off. “Are you an angel?”
Vince smiled a small smile and said that he wasn’t.
“I just work here, Molly.”
Molly’s bottom lip trembled.
“He’s not here, Molly.”
Vince put his hand over hers, patted it gently and waited for the new reality to settle into her mind, dragged unwilling through the years of Molly’s life.
“Are you a milkman?” A look of hope broke through her confusion.
He shook his head and reached for her bag, and the walking stick propped on the bench next to it.
“No, dear,” he said. “I’m Vince. I’m here to look after you, remember?”
Standing up and helping her to her feet, he took Molly’s hand and put it on the stick.
“Are we getting the bus now, dear?” she asked him.
Vince put her other arm through his and turned with her to face up the hill to the dementia care home above.
“There is no bus, Molly,” he said. “Let’s get you home for tea.”
“Will there be scones?” asked Molly, suddenly the child again.
“Oh yes,” replied Vincent, taking her by the arm. “And two sorts of jam. Come on.”