An Adult Fairy Tale

Peter Rankin

Once upon a time there was a widow called Mavis. Mavis had married Archie when she was barely twenty years old. She lost her first twin babies at birth, but then had four more children, all boys. Archie died when the eldest was twelve years old and the youngest only one. Archie and Mavis had run a small creamery for many years, selling milk and cream and a house brand cheese, which had captured a niche market. For many years, Archie had been pestered by a large corporation to sell the business to them, but he'd always declined. He and Mavis were earning a good living and, more importantly, they were happy working together.

When Archie died, the pressure was stepped up. Farmers were coerced into stopping supplying the little business. Mavis tried to keep going, but finally she was forced to sell, getting much less than originally promised. Anxious about the future, she invested her money in a scheme she was assured would bring good returns. Like other promises, this turned out to be false. She lost all her investment.

So it was back to square one. One consolation was that Mavis had managed to hang on to her house, a modest home in one of the suburbs.

Trained as a telephonist, Mavis was able to find a job in the city with a large furniture company that she travelled to by train. An attractive woman, she kept her hair short and neat, and sewed herself a few smart outfits to give her confidence. Although money was tight, she always made sure that the boys were neatly dressed and well fed, even if she sometimes had to go without. There was always the fear in the back of her mind that the authorities might take them away from her.

She'd been travelling on the same train for some years and had noticed an elderly man who always sat in the same seat in front of her every evening when she was going home. No matter what the weather, he wore the same clothing. A shabby long overcoat, which he unbuttoned when he sat down, had burn marks down the front where cigarette ash had dropped and a tear on the sleeve. Dark brown trousers were frayed at the hem. His white shirt was laundered but crumpled and his tie was little better . A battered trilby that had lost its shape was carefully taken off in the carriage. Mavis noticed his hands in their cut-off gloves where his fingers stuck out: although his skin was rough, his finger-nails were well groomed and clean. But what most caught her attention were his bright clear blue eyes that lit up his homely wrinkled face: he was looking around at everyone and everything, absorbing all the details.

One day Mavis had a packet of biscuits in her bag. Shyly she leaned forward and offered it to him, and he took one with a smile. When he'd finished, she offered another, and he took that as well.

'Are you hungry?' Mavis asked.

'I am a bit,' came his reply.

Mavis handed him the packet.

'You're very kind, but no thanks, ma'am. I'll be getting my tea in a little while.' His voice was surprisingly well-educated.

Mavis noticed a lady standing in the aisle near them, even though the seat next to the old man was vacant. She drew the woman's attention to it with a friendly gesture.

'What, sit next to him? No thanks. I might catch something,' she said rudely.

Mavis glanced quickly at the old man and saw a fleeting mistiness in his bright eyes.

Mavis moved next to him, saying defiantly, 'You don't deserve it, but there's a seat for you.'

The woman sat down without a word of thanks.

When it was time for Mavis to get off, the old man said, 'Good night, ma'am.' And then, 'You know, I might be untidy but I'm clean.'

'I know,' replied Mavis warmly, glaring at the woman still seated in her place.

When she was making her lunch the next morning, she buttered an extra scone and popped it in her lunch box. That afternoon she offered him the scone, which he accepted with a grateful smile.

'Thank you, that was very nice,' he said. 'Did you make it yourself?'
'Yes,' she replied.

She felt quite at ease as though she'd known him for a while. So when he asked if she lived with her family, she responded with more than a simple yes.

'I'm a widow with four sons. I lost my husband when the youngest was a year old. He's five now.'

'It must be difficult for you,' he said gently.

She thought that she'd put it all behind her, but it still caught her unawares when she let her guard down. She scrabbled in her bag for a tissue to wipe her eyes.

She took a minute to compose herself and then replied with a wry smile, 'One just gets on with it but, yes, it is difficult at times. Especially when you can't give the little ones the things that they see the other kids getting. But mostly we manage.'

His eyes had softened. 'I didn't mean to pry,' he said, 'I'm just interested in people and you've been kind to me.'

That night she baked some biscuits for him. She couldn't really afford it, but she felt the poor old bloke didn't have much, and if she budgeted extra carefully that week they'd be okay. She also packed a little sewing kit into her bag.

The next night she asked him for his coat so that she could repair it. He looked at her in silence for a minute and then awkwardly removed the coat. She carefully stitched up the tear, and started to turn the cuffs. She didn't get off at her stop.

'You've missed your stop,' he said. 'The boys will be worried.'

'Don't you worry yourself about them,' she said. 'I told Archie, the eldest, that I might be a bit late and he'll get the tea going. This train turns at the end of the line and goes right back to town. I can get off at my stop then. I'll be home in half an hour.'

As she handed the coat back to him, he said, 'You're very kind. Please tell me your name.'

'Mavis Moleham,' she replied. 'What is yours?'

He looked at her with those clear blue eyes. 'You can call me Izzie.'

At the end of the line he stood up, put on his mended coat and gave her a little bow. 'Thank you, Mavis. Shalom.'

For months after that they sat in the train together and built up a firm friendship. He spoke of the past and his experiences during the war, and his reasons for coming to this country. Never once did he mention his family, or how he lived, and she never asked. She told him all about herself and the children, the good times and the bad times. He was a good listener.

She gradually convinced him to bring his spare shirts and later his trousers, which she repaired as best she could while they talked. She'd sometimes take them home and wash and iron them too. When he offered payment, she politely refused, telling him it was a pleasure to do these little things for him.

And it was. Often during the day, she caught herself humming. She realised that for the first time in ages she was happy. And it all related to Izzie. He might be thirty or forty years older than her, but he listened, and sometimes in his quiet way offered her advice. She loved her children dearly, but they were too young to understand. Izzie gave her an interest apart from the humdrum of a life of struggling to make ends meet, and she felt she was helping him in return.

Then one Monday Izzie wasn't on the train. At first Mavis wasn't concerned, as he'd had a cold the week before, and she'd made him promise that he would stay in bed over the weekend. By the end of the week he hadn't re-appeared and she was very worried about him. Mavis couldn't keep her mind off the old man over the weekend and it was a relief when she had to go to work on Monday. Surely he would be on the train on the way home.

During the day a Mr. Goldberg phoned Mavis, identifying himself as a solicitor from Goldberg and Sons, and asked if she could come into his office, sometime about a document concerning her. She hadn't had any dealings with lawyers. Puzzled and more than a little cautious, she asked for details.

'I can't discuss this over the phone. Please call me back to make an appointment.' He gave her his telephone number. After thinking about it, she went to see the company's Financial Director whom she trusted.

When she told him the story his response was encouraging.

'Mavis, I've known Larry Goldberg a long time. He is as straight as a die. Would you like me to phone him and find out what all this is about?'

'That would be very good of you, Mr. Armstrong. But I don't want to be any trouble.'

'Not a problem, Mavis. I'll get back to you.'

He phoned her later.

'Mavis, I've had a word with Larry Goldberg. I don't know the details, but you should contact him as soon as possible.'

'Thank you, Mr. Armstrong. Just one thing,' she said hesitantly.

'What's that, Mavis?'

'Am I in some kind of trouble?'

He chuckled. 'No, on the contrary.'

Still, it took her a while to pluck up the courage to phone.

'May I speak to Mr. Goldberg, please?' she asked tentatively, when a brisk voice answered the phone.

'Who shall I say is calling?' was the response.

'Mavis Moleham.'

'Please hold.'

Mavis could feel her heart pounding in her chest.

'Thank you for calling me back, Mrs. Moleham.'

His calm and professional manner made her less anxious.

'I need to see you as soon as possible. Perhaps after work?'

'That's difficult,' she replied. 'I need to get home to cook dinner for my four children.' She didn't like to mention that she was also hoping to see Izzie.

'If I arranged to get you home afterwards, would that help? It is rather important.'

How could she refuse?

Later in Mr. Goldberg's office she waited nervously as he spoke. 'I believe that you are acquainted with Izak Finkelstein,' he said, with compassion in his voice.

Puzzled, Mavis thought, 'That must be Izzie,' and nodded.

'And that in the time that you knew him, your repaired some of his clothes and generally looked after his well-being.'

More puzzled than ever, Mavis could only nod again.

'I'm very sorry to tell you that Mr. Izak Finkelstein passed away last week.'

Mavis was stunned. How could he be dead? And she hadn't even known his surname. She burst into tears. Mr Goldberg fetched her a glass of water. He waited until her sobs quietened, then continued, looking at her sympathetically over his half spectacles.

'As a result of your kindness, Mr Finkelstein has named you the beneficiary in his will. You may not have been aware, but from small beginnings his business grew into a sizeable recycling depot in the city. Although he sold it quite a while before he died, he kept travelling on the train because he enjoyed your companionship. He didn't have any family of his own. I cannot at this point in time tell you the exact amount, but I can assure you, Mrs. Moleham, that it will be substantial.'

After the meeting Mr. Goldberg drove Mavis home and said, 'You know, Mavis - I can call you Mavis, can I?'

Still in a daze, she nodded.

'A little bit of kindness can sometimes lead to a lot of happiness.'

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