Graham's True Stories
Number 8, Joe
Joe is what you would call an eccentric. His wife, Esther had quite a few other names which were far less complimentary. Visiting the pair was always a little traumatic - rather like being a referee in a grudge fight - and it got to the point where most friends stayed away and we only braved the battle once a year at Christmas time.
Joe had been an antiques dealer before a heart attack laid him low. After that he pottered around the house whilst Esther held down a job at the supermarket checkout. Then she reached retirement age and the house just wasn't big enough for both of them - Hurst Castle would have been too small.
There was no violence, no thrown pots - just a tense air and continual bickering.
Each year we would be welcomed in by Esther to find Joe slumped in an armchair in front of the television set. A ritual had developed. Esther would repair to the kitchen to make cheese and onion sandwiches - I don't know why but we always had cheese and onion - and Joe would launch into a 10-year-old story which he firmly believed had happened only yesterday.
The sandwiches finished, Joe and I would go up to his "collection room" for shop talk and more stories that I had heard a dozen times before - yes, including the one we had with tea - whilst Maggie and Esther huddled around the coal fire for woman talk.
Now, I had the best end of this deal. All I had to do was listen with as much interest as I could muster, to the same old yarns.
Maggie had the short straw.
As soon as the door closed behind us Esther launched on a litany of complaints about Joe. He was lazy, un-caring, noisy, under her feet etc, etc. Maggie would have to sit there and listen to how Joe had gone shopping and lost the change, how he'd spilt coffee on the rug and how he caused more work than a house full of children.
As soon as decently possible I would lead Joe back and the conversation would quickly turn to the best route from Birmingham to Preston. Joe would painstakingly draw a map based on the road system 20 years before the coming of the freeways.
Out of the house and breathing a lot easier, Maggie and I would continue our journey with her relating to me the latest list of Joe's failings according to Esther. As Maggie said, every third sentence was: "Did ever a woman have such torment. What have I done to deserve such a problem?"
Then Joe died and we travelled up from London for the funeral and to help with the estate. Esther met us at the door. She looked much older, frailer and very, very lonely. The cheese and onion sandwiches came along, of course, but there was no Joe and no escape to the collection room.
We finished the snack and Esther huddled down in the chair to tell us about Joe. It was a very different story, punctuated every third sentence with: "Did ever a woman have a man who helped her so much? What did I do to deserve a love like his?"
Maggie looked across at me and raised her eyebrows, I shook my head gently and we sat nodding at the story of the husband who was now gone.
Esther wasted away and followed Joe a couple of years later. Christmas visits to the North of England are a little empty now. No cheese and onion sandwiches and only the memory of a love story that failed to bloom until an old man died.