"And this is Julie" said Miss Frink. She spoke my name in that don't-expect-too-much tone that all my teachers seem to use. I shuffled forward. The room smelled of medication and the curtains were drawn.
"Let Mr Pemberley touch you" said Miss Frink sharply, and then I remembered that Mr Pemberley was blind.
That was why I was here instead of in school. All our Care group had 'placements' one afternoon a week. I wanted a playgroup but so did everyone else, it turned out, and Miss Frink said I had to come and sit with this old man instead. I wouldn't have minded if there was anything to do, but there wasn't. Just, sit.
"Would you like me to fetch you anything, Mr Pemberley?" I said after ten minutes of doing nothing much. Miss Frink had gone off with a kind of raised-eyebrow don't-let-the-school-down look once the old man had put his shaky hand on my arm and mumbled my name a few times. I'd completely run out of things to talk about. I'd tried various topics but he knew nothing about music and didn't even own a video. I was supposed to stay here all afternoon. As he couldn't see the clock, I could have fibbed and gone home early but that seemed a bit mean. I thought if he sent me to fetch something at least I could get my mobile from my bag and do a bit of texting. That didn't seem too unfair - I'd still be there and he wouldn't
"There is nothing to fetch, I fear" he said. He had this very frail voice, like tissue paper, as if he was more tired than anything else. "I am very well catered for, my dear..."
"Julie" I prompted, as he seemed to have forgotten already. He just nodded. I think he'd got out of the habit of using names. All these people popped in and out to see to him, and he couldn't really tell who was
there or why, only that they were all in a hurry. Then he said "Unless you could oblige me by reading my letters?"
He pointed to a toast rack with a few envelopes stuck into it. I fetched them over and sat down again. They all looked pretty boring. I read him a motoring insurance offer and a letter from a book club. He sat tapping the ends of his chair, smiling but looking sort of sad.
"I had hoped for a pen-friend" he said when I'd put all the junk mail back. "I contacted the local paper, but I don't know whether or not they published my request."
"Maybe next week?" I said. I thought it wasn't surprising no-one had answered--people want pen-pals in places like Japan or America, not the scrag end of town.
"I've waited two months now" he said sadly.
When I went home I couldn't get out of my mind the picture of that old man sitting there, all on his own, tidied and fed and cleaned, and waiting every day for a letter from a friendly stranger.
The next week I picked up the skimpy pile of post and said " Oh, look! A handwritten envelope, Mr Pemberley. Shall I open it and read the letter?" I unfolded the page which I had torn from my note-pad, and read:
"Dear Mr Pemberley. I am a lady who likes writing and I was throwing out some old papers when I saw your letter. I wonder if you are still looking for a pen-pal?" I spoke slowly as if I was deciphering spidery handwriting. "My hobbies are reading and gardening and my family. But they are mostly dead. Also I never married." Plants and books I reckoned I could cope with but I thought it would get complicated if I had to keep track of relations. "My favourite place in the whole world is a beach in Cornwall where I went on holiday when I was a little girl and they do excellent pistachio icecream. I wonder what childhood memories you have and look forward to hearing all about it. Most sincerely yours, Eleanor Lamont. "
I looked up hopefully. The creases round Mr Pemberley's eyes were all soggy and he had a great big soppy grin.
"Eleanor Lamont" he said, like it was the most beautiful name he had ever heard. "Isn't that grand? That's what I call a proper letter. Well, I'll have to answer it. Only, my writing isn't too good..."
"I'll be happy to write out your letters, Mr Pemberley." I said. "I'll post them on my way home."
Of course Mr Pemberley was delighted. He talked all the the rest of the afternoon and I wrote it down. Then he rummaged in a drawer and produced a packet of pale blue envelopes, and I went off with tingling fingers and that nice feeling you get when you've done something good.
The next week I felt like that even more. Mr Pemberley looked much brighter and he seemed taller as he sat in his chair. The room even smelled nicer--fragrant, instead of mediciney. He explained he had put 'a bunch
of flowers' on his weekly shopping list, after thinking about Eleanor's love of gardens.
"I've left all the post for you" he said "None of my kind helpers have the time to look at it." I slid the letter I had brought into the slender pile and settled myself down to read. Every time I looked up he was tapping the arms of his chair slowly with long pale fingers and smiling into the distance with a sweet faraway look on his face.
I put my heart and soul into those letters. I noticed the kind of things he seemed to like hearing about most, and I always put in little comments to show Eleanor had read his reply. They were taking up a lot of my time.
The funny thing is, my school work instead of suffering was getting better. There were less tired 'Oh-Julie!'s from Miss Frink, who put on my last Care project that I was beginning to show more empathy. I was getting better marks in other subjects too--I started watching different stuff on telly so I had something special to write about each week. Those programmes where they dig up a field in the middle of nowhere and find it used to be a market place, and wild life programmes. I found out things like there are only a few thousand lions left in Africa, which is really sad but a bit hard to drop into a chatty letter, so I started asking Mr Pemberley about places he'd been and things he'd done, in order to mention a few fascinating facts he might not know. Actually he seemed to know a lot, considering he didn't have cable or sky or anything.
A lot of what Mr Pemberley was telling me in his replies was really quite interesting. I think he spent a long time planning what to say, too. He talked about the way the town used to look before the supermarket, with grocers shops where they served you at the counter, everything in paper bags, even the sweets. I thought he might want to go on about the war but luckily he said he'd rather leave all that behind. There's enough talk of war in the world he said, and anyway he didn't want to reminisce too much because Eleanor was probably a bit younger than him. That surprised me, because I'd tried to make her really ancient.
At half term a playgroup placement came up but I told Miss Frink I'd rather carry on with Mr Pemberley. She said "One's mind boggles to imagine the conversation but you have saved me a logistical problem." which is teacher speak for "OK." I said 'We don't have any conversations, Miss Frink, I just read his post' and it was true. The letters were taking up all our session, what with my ones to him and him answering, and the afternoons were really zipping past.
Then something terrible happened. Mr Pemberley invited Eleanor to tea!
I could hardly argue. I went home really gloomy. He had made the invitation for next Wednesday so that I would be there too, which was sweet of him. I couldn't think how to get out of it. I thought of 'flu, of course, or something else catching like a heavy cold. But the weather was fine and anyway even if I managed to make an excuse for Eleanor next week, he would ask again. Now instead of interesting letters I would have to keep thinking of fibs. She obviously wasn't housebound, because of all the nature rambles I had sent her on. I was out of my depth.
I wouldn't normally confide in Miss Frink but she caught me at a low ebb. I was looking through all the letters I had written in the last few weeks to and from Mr Pemberley, searching for inspiration, when she came in. She said "I hope those scruffy pages are not your project!" and I dropped the lot and found I was crying. Miss Frink came over to help me pick them up. First she made a big show of not reading them, then she started looking puzzled, and then she said "Why are all of these in your handwriting? What's going on?" So I told her.
She didn't blast me out, which surprised me. Her suggestion surprised me even more.
"The only thing you can do is kill her off. Write from the vicar, saying that she has died and he is going through her address book."
I stared. "Murder Eleanor! I can't do that."
"Make it a gentle death, in her sleep. Old people are used to the idea of death, Julie. It won't shock him so much as you may think."
She seemed very sure. I wasn't. "But then he'll be lonely again."
"If you tell him what you have done, he will be worse than lonely--he'll be confused and lose all his trust. That's important for vulnerable people."
I stuffed the last of the pages into my bag avoiding her eyes. I could see her point. I sighed. "But does she have to die?"
"Can you think of a better idea?"
I could. "Can't you be her, Miss Frink?"
"I most certainly can not!"
"Just for one week?" I pleaded. "You have to do a placement visit soon, anyway. You could come next week--please, Miss Frink! You don't have to lie--don't give your name, just say 'How nice to meet you at last'."
"We've met" Miss Frink said.
"But he won't remember that - he only wants a visitor, a friendly face."
The bell went then and rest of the group came and Miss Frink went back to her desk shaking her head and talking about professional integrity. So I decided to kill Eleanor. The letter from the vicar was the hardest one I've ever written. And for the first time I didn't have that feeling of doing something good. I was deceiving Mr Pemberley, and it felt terrible.
He seemed happy and excited when I arrived. He'd put some old music on his special machine and he'd got scones, very messily jammed, and some cream. He'd put out his special plates, the blue ones with the Chinese willow tree. I looked at them and remembered how we'd written to Eleanor telling her about the story of the picture and I felt worse and worse. "Shall we read the letters?" I said miserably. "Wait a minute, my dear. I hear a car. Is that the doorbell?" It was. I got up to let in Mr Pemberley's visitor. Miss Frink swept in. "How nice to meet you-" she began, and I could have hugged her.
"Oh yes, we meet again" said Mr Pemberley, 'You are the teacher. I find I remember voices, now that my sight has gone." Miss Frink stopped speaking and looked at me, and I looked at the carpet, but Mr Pemberley was still talking.
"I'm glad you have called today too, because it gives me the opportunity to tell you how delightful these Wednesday afternoons have been. Perhaps you would like to join our little event?" He beckoned me over and now his warm trembling hand held mine as he continued to address Miss Frink.
"Let me introduce you to a young lady who has been giving me a great deal of pleasure. She is known to me as Eleanor Lamont."