‘Did you hear the latest?’
Alice looked up from her weeding to see Harry’s face grinning at her from over the back fence. She felt a surge of irritation. No, she hadn’t heard the latest, and she didn’t want to. She wanted to get her weeding done, in peace and quiet. She put her head down and pulled at the weeds again, hoping he’d go away.
He coughed and she turned to glare at him from underneath her straw hat. He was getting closer, and his grin was widening. He had something to say and he was going to say it, regardless of her indifference.
‘Harry, I can’t chat. As you can see, I have things to do.’
Harry frowned as he ran his eyes over the weeds and the moss covered pavers. ‘Don’t know why you don’t get a gardener in.’ He chuckled as he looked her up and down. ‘You’re no spring chicken you know.’
And neither are you Harry Tate. Alice bit back the retort and yanked at a large weed. She wouldn’t need any help if Harry didn’t appear like magic at the back fence every time she picked up a shovel. She always ended up going back into the house, and got nothing done.
The weed came away and ricocheted. She watched with horror as her garden gnome fell onto her terracotta pot and smashed into a thousand pieces.
‘You won’t find another gnome like that one, you know.’ Harry leaned a little further over the fence to inspect the damage. ‘Don’t make gnomes like they used to.’
Alice pulled her hat further over her face.
‘Jim bought you that years ago.’ He chuckled. ‘He reckoned it was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen in his life. Nearly took it back and got a frog.’
Alice pushed her hat back up and glared at him. ‘And now it’s ruined, Harry Tate!’ She stood up and reached for the garden broom, resisting the urge to poke him back over the fence with it.
‘I’ve got plenty Alice.’ Harry winked down at her, ‘You can have one of mine.’
Alice sighed. It was pointless being mad at him. Forty years of leaning over the back fence had desensitised him to the cold shoulder. After he’d burned her back fence down and destroyed her mango tree fifteen years ago, she thought she’d seen the last of him until he managed to almost power saw his finger off one Sunday afternoon, and she’d rushed him up to the local hospital. After that, as far as Harry was concerned, they were backfence buddies once again.
‘Shirley and Bob are splitting up.’ Harry’s voice became louder as he followed her along the fence, his face red from the exertion. ‘No one saw that coming.’ He shouted at Alice’s back, as she kneeled further into the corner. ‘Except me of course.’ Harry slapped the back fence triumphantly, laughing even louder.
Startled, Alice fell forward, landing face first into the large pile of compost she had been building up against the back fence. ‘Harry!’ she spat rotting leaves and dirt as she picked herself up.
Harry laughed so hard he could barely breathe. ‘Jeez Alice, skirt up, head down. What a sight!’
She cringed, pulling her skirt down with one hand and brushing her face with the other. That’ll be all over town by tomorrow. The colour of her knickers discussed over the morning paper at the newsagents.
‘I’m going inside Harry.’
Harry’s chuckling followed her to the back door and along the hallway to the bathroom. ‘So you don’t want one of my garden gnomes, eh?’
Alice turned on the tap and shut the window. A gardener might not be such a bad idea after all.
Two hours later, there was a knock at the door. Alice could make out Harry’s large frame through the stained glass, and she shrank back into the corner of the loungechair. Maybe he would think she was asleep. It wouldn’t be the first time. He hovered for a while, and bent down to put something by the door. Alice strained to see what it was, but she didn’t relax as she heard his whistling getting further away. What on earth had the silly old coot left on her doorstep this time? Last month it had been a couple of bottles from his home brew collection, which had subsequently exploded in her kitchen cupboard and taken hours to clean up.
She felt guilty as she eyed the garden gnome sitting on her welcome mat. It was an exact likeness of the smashed one. The one that Jim had given her. Alice tried to smile. Too bad Harry wasn’t like Jim, she might get along with him a little better. Harry and Jim had been as different as chalk and cheese, but they had been great mates. She suspected that Harry missed old Jim just as much as she did. She clicked her tongue. She was getting soft. There was no comparison. Harry was loud and brash. Jim had been quiet and conservative. Harry was adventurous and often clumsy. Jim had been careful, but sure of himself. Alice had lived a calm, quiet and unassuming lifestyle, and was quite used to it. Unless Harry upset her applecart, of course, as he often did.
A few days later Alice was out in the back yard again. She eyed the fence every now and again for Harry’s familiar face, but nothing interrupted her digging all afternoon. She felt quite satisfied as she stood back to inspect her handywork, and she nodded her head and smiled to herself. It was amazing what one could accomplish when there was no interference. It was almost a surreal moment as Alice placed Harry’s gnome in the same position as its predessesor. She looked back up at the fence again. It was unusual for Harry not to appear at least once. Perhaps he had gone out for the day. Alice shook her head at the idea, it was more unusual for Harry not to tell her where he was going and why.
Alice was still thinking about Harry as she sipped her evening cup of tea. She peered out the kitchen window into Harry’s loungeroom. His house was in darkness. It was only 6.30pm, and he was usually settling down to his current affair program, with all the lights ablaze from one end of the house to the other. Alice clicked her tongue, she was not a stickybeak, but where Harry Tate was concerned, anything was possible. She thought about the time she had rushed him to the local hospital when he had nearly power sawed his finger off in an attempt at some do-it-yourself cabinet making in his back shed. And the time he had tried to wash his roof off wearing a pair of rubber thongs. He had slipped and landed head first into his orange tree, and had hung upside down with a broken arm for hours before she had found him. She felt a sick feeling rising in her stomach. She could wait no longer, Harry could be in trouble.
‘Harry!’ Alice pushed in past the front door, grateful she had insisted on a spare key for his front door after the last mishap. She turned the lights on and looked in the front rooms, methodically going through the whole house calling his name. There was no sign of him. ‘Harry!’ A strange feeling was twisting in Alice’s chest. True, she was genuinely concerned for Harry’s welfare, but the fear of not seeing him again was paramount, like losing a loved one or a friend. Her stomach knotted as she heard a soft groaning from the back door.
‘Alice,’ Harry was lying half down the back steps surrounded by a colourful display of wilted flowers and garden gnomes. ‘Jeez, am I glad to see you.’ His leg was twisted in an odd direction and he clutched at his chest. ‘Alice love, I’m sorry, I don’t want to put you out, but I think I need to go to the hospital.’
Tears were running down Alice’s cheeks as she patted his hand. God knows what he’d been trying to do this time, but he must have been here for a while. His morning cup of tea still sat on the top step. ‘Stay still Harry, I’ll call the ambulance.’
Harry greeted the hospital staff like they were old friends. In a way they were. He’d been here often enough.
‘Back again Harry.’ An emergency room doctor smiled at him. ‘You’re lucky you have Alice to look after you.’ They knew her too, merely by association. She hadn’t had a sick day in her life.
‘Yeh,’ Harry smiled up at Alice and patted her hand. She blushed and pulled her hand away.
‘Let’s get you off to x-ray and see how bad it is.’ The ward nurse whisked him down the hallway. She turned towards Alice before she disappeared around the corner. ‘Will you be waiting for Mr Tate when he returns?’
Alice sighed as she sat down in the chair. ‘I guess so, he has nobody else.’
For the next two hours Alice sat and tried to read the magazines that dotted the tables in the waiting room. She couldn’t concentrate on the outdated information anymore than she could stop thinking about Harry and his mishaps. She had been a regular here when Jim became ill, and had continued the tradition with Harry. The hospital staff probably thought they had a thing for each other. She blushed again. She supposed poor Harry’s heart was in the right place, but he had two left feet and an itchy trigger finger. His good ideas and intentions were not always a product of good research and experience. Throwing caution to the wind was ok when you were young but it had it’s drawbacks when you were past tree climbing. Alice glanced up the hospital hallway. Harry wasn’t getting any younger. She would have to set him straight.
Two weeks later and Harry was home again, leg in plaster and home assistance three or four days a week. Alice had become his designated minder when no one else was available. So much for setting him straight, she was practically living with him. Her whole life had been turned upside down by a grinning old coot in a wheelchair. It had been a long time since she’d had to take care of anybody else, and she blushed every time she thought about helping Harry dress himself when he couldn’t manage, which was most of the time. He seemed to enjoy the shananigans, and made a big thing out of it. Alice was sure it would all become good gossip as soon as Harry could get down to the local newsagents again. It didn’t really matter, people were beginning to talk anyway.
‘How’s Harry?’ was the usual start to conversation these days. People just assumed that what they thought was obvious. Alice put down her cup of tea and sighed. There was nothing obvious about Harry Tate except his penchant for natural disaster. Her mouth curled into a slight smile. He was beginning to grow on her.
‘What are you grinning about?’ It was Harry, wrapped up in a dressing gown, with tea and biscuits. He was hobbling about now, and in an out of his wheelchair at regular intervals. It wouldn’t be long before Alice could spend more time in her own kitchen and her own garden. She was surprised that she didn’t feel as elated about this as she would have liked.
‘Nothing Harry.’ she wanted to change the subject. ‘I was just thinking about dinner.’
‘Don’t you worry about dinner tonight, you’ve done enough for me.’ Harry grabbed another crutch and swung into the kitchen. ‘I’m cooking my famous spagghetti bolognase.’ He swayed on his crutches as he reached for the frypan, and Alice jumped up from her chair.
‘Stay right there Alice. I’m fine. I’m not an invalid you know. Even though you think I’m useless.’ There was sadness in his voice as he shook his head. ‘I’m alright at some things, you know.’
Alice felt her face burning. ‘Harry, I have never said that you were useless. I just get annoyed with you at times, that’s all.’ she felt guilt rising in waves. There were plenty of times when she thought Harry was irritating, loud, silly and over-exuberant, but not useless. At least not in so many words, anyway. She looked away.
‘There, you see. You do think I’m useless.’ Harry did his best to puff out his chest and stand up straight. ‘I promised Jim I would look after you when he was gone.’ He looked her in the eye. ‘But I’m not Jim, Alice.’
As they looked at each other across the room, Alice felt a warmth in her chest that she hadn’t felt for a long time. She held out her arms and embraced the startled Harry and his crutches. ‘Oh Harry. It’s ok. You are fine how you are. I don’t mind at all.’ Alice was crying. It was true. She didn’t really mind. Harry was annoying, yes – but he kept her on her toes. Which is probably what she had needed all these years. She felt a great weight lift from her shoulders.
Harry hugged her back. ‘So you think we can be friends?’
Alice smiled. ‘Harry, we were always friends. It just took me a while to realise it.’