It's Never Too Late To Change The Ending Of Your Own Story
Thelma woke to the sound of a car engine failing and immediately winced at the shards of light sneaking in through the gap in the curtains. Instead of jumping out of bed, eager to start her day, as she might once have done, Thelma laid there, mustering the energy to move her aching back and tired muscles from the comfortable mattress. Perhaps it was the lack of purpose she felt at the moment; the uncertainty of what it was she could or probably should be doing. The general feeling of lethargy that came from doing very little. Thelma wanted to fight it, she still had a sense of determination burning somewhere deep inside her, but for now the flames had been quenched and she found herself in no hurry to do anything. Instead she started worrying about her high blood pressure, her softening skin and her hair; once a standout feature of a slim, happy-faced young woman with her future in her hands, but now an overgrown mass of grey frizz that required taming on a daily basis. When Thelma had turned seventy she had still felt healthy and active; in fact, no different really than she had twenty or thirty years earlier. Yet now, a mere two years later, she felt old, ready for giving up. How differently she had thought things would turn out. So, for now at least she tried to avoid having those thoughts; that debate in her own head where her former self was encouraging her to make the most of life and her current mind-set was telling it to shut up and stay in bed. Things would change eventually of course, she knew that, or at least she hoped they would.
It was only as she began to wake up a little more that Thelma remembered she had agreed to meet her friends for a coffee that morning. Perhaps she would call and cancel. She knew they would understand. After all, it had only been a couple of months and surely that was too short a time for anyone to get over a life-changing event. Thelma knew her friends meant well. ‘Have you been managing to keep busy?’ her friend Dottie had asked twice during their last meeting. What was she supposed to say to that? She’d had so many plans, endless lists of things she was going to do, tasks she was going to get around to starting and hobbies she was going to try her hand at. There was nothing and no one stopping her, it was more an issue of energy or rather the lack of it. It was as if she expected her new life to bring with it a renewed version of herself. But deep down she knew she had to find a way to be happy, on her own, at home, with her life just the way it was. She knew that as soon as she could accept that she could start thinking about what she actually wanted, what she was going to do next, from this unsettling and unexpected position she found herself in at a time when she might otherwise have coasted along with an easy life.
Thelma hauled herself out of bed, realising that if she cancelled on her friends they would only turn up on her doorstep wanting to help and that, she decided, would be even more stressful than sitting through a conversation about their grandchildren whilst eating a slice of her favourite lemon drizzle cake. So, pushing against her instinct to stay tucked up at home, Thelma slowly transformed herself, ready to face the public.
She selected a table near the window of the cafe, enjoying the familiar view over the Colne Valley and watched the endless trail of customers arriving at the farm shop next door for their weekly supply of locally grown food. She was lost in deep thought when Dottie arrived.
‘Lovely to see you,’ Dottie announced, kissing Thelma on the cheek as she pushed her shopping bags under the table and sat down.
‘Morning Dottie,’ Thelma replied, feeling an instant uplift in her mood.
‘Sorry I’m a bit late, I just nipped into the shop to stock up on a few things. Pies mainly,’ Dottie continued, ‘and some of those lovely cream cakes. Not all for me of course,’ she laughed. ‘I’m on visiting duties this afternoon and they do cheer up the elderly, don’t they? Pies, cakes, that kind of thing.’
Thelma laughed. It amused her that Dottie was so oblivious to her own age, still referring to herself as a girl. Dottie had always been slender and well-dressed. Her dark brown cropped hair and angular features gave her a look of being in charge, of being a woman on a mission, with too much to do and too little time. As far as Dottie was concerned, the people she took meals to, picked up milk and bread for, drove to hospital appointments and befriended when they were lonely were the elderly and she merely middle-aged, yet the difference between them was likely to be only ten years at most.
‘I’m sure they do Dot,’ Thelma said. ‘I’m sure the old people appreciate it.’
Dottie nodded, oblivious to the sarcasm.
‘Tea for two,’ Dottie told the waitress as she approached the table.
‘So, how are you?’ Thelma asked, choosing to skip over the fact that Dottie hadn’t actually consulted with her on what she would like to drink.
‘Oh I’m fine.’ Dottie replied dismissively. ‘And you?’
‘Okay I think. Better than last time,’ Thelma replied with a hint of a smile, recalling her embarrassment at bursting into tears and walking out on her friend at their last meeting.
‘We all have our off days, Thelma. Don’t be too hard on yourself,’ Dottie reassured her.
Thelma smiled. ‘It sounds like you’ve got a busy day ahead then?’
‘Just the usual for a Tuesday; a few visits then a committee meeting at the church hall this evening,’ Dottie replied. ‘We’re organising the next calendar of events. It’s a busy time of year.’
‘Sounds like it,’ replied Thelma.
‘They’re a nice bunch at the church though and it keeps me out of trouble,’ Dottie continued.
‘Yes, well that’s good,’ Thelma agreed. She always felt better in the company of her friend, who had such a joyful outlook on life. It wasn’t as if Dottie had had an especially easy time either over the last few years, having lost her husband Alf to cancer, but she had transferred all her energy from looking after him to looking after everyone else, and now volunteered for all number of local causes. This approach of occupying herself to the extreme, so that she had virtually no time alone, seemed to work for Dottie and Thelma was intensely proud of her friend for that, but she wasn’t finding that method particularly easy to adopt herself.
‘Have you made any decisions yet?’ Dottie asked. ‘About what you’re going to do?’
Thelma shook her head. ‘I haven’t really given it much thought,’ she replied, knowing that this was far from the truth. She had done nothing but think, but she still didn’t know quite what to do next.
‘There’s plenty of time for all that,’ encouraged Dottie.
‘I know,’ Thelma agreed, ‘but I’ll have to let it all sink in at some point.’
‘It will in time, Thelma,’ Dottie reassured her. ‘Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.’
‘No,’ said Thelma, smiling gratefully at her friend, as the waitress returned with their tea.
‘I can’t believe it’s summer already,’ Thelma began.
‘I know,’ Dottie agreed. ‘Doesn’t time fly?’
Thelma felt a smile emerge on her face. ‘Not long now.’
Dottie shook her head. ‘Don’t remind me.’
‘You know we won’t let you get away with not celebrating your birthday,’ Thelma told her.
‘We’ll see,’ replied Dottie firmly.
There was a sudden commotion throughout the café, enough to force the other customers to turn and look towards the entrance. Thelma and Dottie looked at each other and burst into laughter. Mary was making her way towards them, bashing into tables, knocking over a child’s milkshake on the way and requiring several people to pull their chairs in as she squeezed past with her oversized handbag. She smiled broadly as she approached her friends and stopped for a second to get her breath back.
‘What a morning,’ Mary announced. ‘I’ve had a million and one things to do. I’m exhausted,’ she sighed, running her fingers through her thick black, wavy hair. Mary called out her order for a coffee before finally sitting down and allowing the rest of the café to resume its calm.
‘It’s good to see you, Thelma,’ Mary continued. ‘You’re looking well. And Dottie, what’s new?’ she asked.
‘You know me, Mary, keeping busy,’ Dottie replied. I’m planning a party for Seth actually. He’ll be seven this week.’
‘Seven eh?’ Thelma replied. ‘He’s growing up.’
‘He is,’ smiled Dottie. ‘He’s a lovely lad.’
‘I think your first grandchild’s always special,’ said Mary. ‘I know George and I spoilt ours rotten. Still do. All of them actually. Silly really isn’t it. Unnecessary.’
‘Not at all,’ replied Thelma. ‘That’s what grandparents are there for.’
‘Still no sign of your Paul settling down then Thelma?’ Dottie asked.
‘Oh hardly,’ Thelma laughed.
‘Well make the most of it, that’s my advice,’ added Mary. ‘I’ve got six rowdy boys running around my kitchen every Saturday afternoon. I’d do anything for a bit of peace and quiet.’
‘I don’t believe that,’ Thelma laughed.
They each ordered a slice of cake and Thelma began to feel glad that she had pushed herself to get out of the house. She recognised that feeling of ease, of being amongst close friends, and how that could lift her spirits during even the lowest times. When they had first met they all had young children and were all, to some degree juggling motherhood with work and marriage. Their friendship changed from passing conversation at the school gates to providing company as they waited for football or orchestra practice, scouts or swimming competitions to come to an end. They had just got on with it, as most working women do, embracing their diverse role in life; their numerous responsibilities and commitments. Then, as the children became more independent and work became more of a pastime than a necessity they began to meet for coffee and lunches and the odd night out. It was during those later years that the three of them had become so close, despite their very noticeable differences in character. In that moment, unable to help reminiscing, Thelma felt thankful for her friends, even as Mary began to wind Dottie up, as she always did.
‘I can’t believe it’s taken us so long to arrange today,’ Mary said, glancing over at Dottie to see if she’d taken the hint.
‘Do you know we’ve become just like those older people who say they haven’t had a day off since they retired,’ Dottie said finally.
Thelma looked at Mary and they smiled knowingly at each other. ‘Older people?’
Mary scoffed. ‘That is us Dot. We are the older people.’
‘Never. Not a chance,’ Dottie replied defensively. ‘What do you say Thel?’
‘Oh I don’t know,’ replied Thelma. ‘I’ve been feeling my age recently.’
‘Well I won’t allow it to happen,’ Dottie stated.
Mary laughed. ‘Even I am finally giving in to the idea that my youth is a thing of the past.’
Thelma knew that although Mary wouldn’t freely admit to it, retirement was proving to suit her well and she was enjoying the contrast between the long days she could spend reading and the busy weekends with her sons and grandsons. Mary had never lost the ability to multitask, since juggling motherhood with a demanding career as a PA. Retiring at sixty, Mary had spent the last four years organising her family instead, which had proved to be just as tricky. Whilst she would often grumble about the mess and noise that was so easily created in her house, Thelma knew that she loved to be reminded how much she was needed.
‘So, are you still doing that course then Dot?’ Mary asked, in an attempt to lift the mood. ‘Cake-making or whatever it was. I’m assuming you’ll be putting it into practice for Seth’s birthday.’
‘It was Sugarcraft,’ Dottie corrected. ‘No, I finished that one a few weeks ago, but yes I’ll be using some of the things I learnt. Not that Seth will mind a bit whether his cake has sugar roses or steady pipework. He just wants jam inside and a picture of Spiderman on top.’
‘What’s the next course going to be then?’ Thelma asked, knowing that Dottie always had to be working on something.
‘I’m thinking about flower arranging,’ Dottie replied, without pausing for thought. ‘But I’m still looking into my options.’
‘How on earth do you find the energy?’ Thelma asked.
‘I have to,’ Dottie explained, ‘or else I’m pretty sure I’d go mad.’
‘And we don’t want that do we?’ Mary teased.
Dottie went on to explain. ‘When I lost my Alf, I sat indoors with the curtains closed feeling sorry for myself for weeks. It was only when Mrs Evans from church called round for a coffee out of the blue that I realised I hadn’t had any fresh milk in for days. That was the turning point for me. Enough moping, I told myself.’
‘Yes, and thank goodness for that,’ Mary said. ‘If you give up what hope have the rest of us got?’
Dottie laughed politely at Mary’s attempt at a compliment, then she turned to smile at Thelma. ‘You always get through it in the end’.
You did well, Dottie,’ Thelma replied after a pause. ‘We were all so proud of you. But my situation is a bit -’
‘Yes,’ Dottie interrupted. ‘But one way or another you’ll have to learn to be on your own.’
Thelma looked down at the table trying to compose herself. She wasn’t really in the mood for this conversation, no matter how well-meaning her friends were.
‘She’s not on her own Dot, she‘s got us,’ Mary added.
‘Of course she has,’ Dottie agreed.
In her usual tactless way, Mary decided to change the subject by loudly pulling up her chair, taking a gulp of coffee and raising her voice on what she knew only too well to be a touchy subject. ‘So then Dottie, any plans yet for your birthday?’
As she cut into her cake with a fork, the irritation in Dottie’s voice was clear. ‘Thelma has already raised that issue today,’ she stated forcefully. ‘And I thought I had made it perfectly clear to both of you that I don’t want to discuss it.’
Thelma looked over at Mary who was smirking into her coffee like a teenager being told off.
‘I’m sure your family will want to celebrate?’ Thelma asked, rather cautiously.
‘Come on, Dot, let’s do something. It’s a big occasion,’ Mary added excitedly.
‘Thank you,’ Dottie replied, carefully choosing her words. ‘But I would be much happier just letting it pass me by.’ Just as Thelma was about to speak again, Dottie continued, ‘I’ve told my family exactly the same as I’m telling you and they respect my decision.’
‘Either that or they’re planning a surprise party,’ Mary teased.
Dottie looked at Mary with genuine panic in her eyes.
‘Don’t be putting ideas like that into her head, Mary,’ Thelma told her.
Dottie sat frowning to herself and Mary took this as her cue to try to reinforce her friend’s self-esteem, becoming louder as she did and waving her hands in the air. ‘You should be proud Dottie, proud of your life and everything you’ve achieved. And above all else you look fabulous at -’. Mary stopped suddenly and glanced across at Thelma. Thelma shook her head as if to tell her ‘that’s enough’, to which Mary responded quietly, almost under her breath, ‘Sixty-nine’.
The three women continued to eat in silence for a few seconds before Mary resumed her questioning. ‘So, Thelma, are you planning on staying where you are for now then? Or are you thinking about selling up?’
‘I’ll be staying for now. I can’t decide to be honest,’ Thelma replied quietly.
‘Well there’s no rush is there?’ Mary said.
‘There isn’t,’ Thelma continued. ‘But the house does feel a bit big, just for me.’
‘You can always downsize can’t you once things settle down a bit?’ Dottie added.
‘Yes, I probably will.’
‘And what about the holiday apartment then?’ Mary asked.
‘What about it?’ Thelma replied.
‘Well, what are you going to do with it?’
Thelma shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ she replied, feeling a little too pressed for answers.
‘Harry always liked to have it as a getaway. I was never too bothered myself.’
‘You never know,’ Dottie added, ‘you might decide you’ve had enough of the harsh Yorkshire winters and pack yourself off for a new life in the sun.’
Thelma couldn’t imagine ever wanting to live anywhere else. Yes it was cold in the winter, and windy most of the time up in the hills, but she had no intention of leaving. If there was one thing she was sure she wanted to keep the same, it was to stay in her home town, even if that did mean a smaller house at some point.
‘I don’t think so,’ Thelma replied, looking out of the window at the acres of unspoilt landscape ahead.
‘Thank goodness,’ Mary said. ‘We wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on what you were up to over there.’
Thelma laughed and for a second she let herself daydream about all the things she could do, particularly those things that might give her friends a bit of a surprise.
The friends all agreed it would be nice to meet up a bit more often and the usual niceties were circulated before they all got up to leave. As they each walked towards their own cars Mary called over to Dottie, ‘You check your calendar, Dot and send us an appointment.’
Dottie laughed. ‘Hardly ladies of leisure, are we?’
‘And thank goodness for that,’ Mary said.
Thelma waved goodbye to them as she got into her car and set off on the short drive home.