As usual I thank my LadyCibelle and Techsan for their patience, proof reading, editing skills and of course encouragement. As always I have to add that we don't always see eye to eye with each other, I can be one cantankerous old bugger when I want to be and I've been playing around a little with a story since they have read it. Consequently I take full responsibility for the content and any cock-ups in this tale.
I was sitting on my usual stool staring down at my half full glass, when the noise reached a new crescendo; yet another group of happy partygoers had obviously entered the bar.
"Shit, I hate this time of year!"
"Sorry, I'm not sure I heard you correctly. Did you say you hated Christmas?" a voice beside me enquired.
Bugger, I must have voiced my thoughts out loud, I hadn't intended to. But it was what I was thinking.
"Yeah. What's everyone got to be so fucking happy about? Disturbing my peace, that's bleeding what!" I replied without looking at whoever had addressed me.
"Now, come on, my friend, that's not quite the attitude you should have. It is Christmas, you know. A time for happiness and good will to all men; they're all just trying to enjoy themselves," the voice from beside me commented.
I turned now, and saw a short but rather rotund old man, complete with white hair and what could easily be taken to be a false beard, sitting on the barstool beside me. To be honest, he looked like one of those shop Santa Claus's, who had stopped for a drink on his way home from work.
'Where the hell did he come from, ' I thought to myself. 'I don't remember noticing him arrive. Mind you with the crush there was in the Rose and Crown bar that evening, the bleeding Queen could walk in and no one would be able to see her.'
"Look, my friend, I come into this pub almost every night, for a nice quiet drink and to drown my sorrows. Maybe I will have a little chat with George the barman or a couple of my friends. None of us has anything in particular to be happy about, we all live alone with our own demons and to be honest with you, we prefer to have our bar to ourselves. We don't like it when all these idiots come running round wishing everyone Happy Bloody Christmas." I scowled in the old man's general direction.
"We've all got our problems in life, my friend, but you must try to lighten up some times; this is the time to forget your problems and be happy." The old sod smiled back at me.
Why do people think they can understand your problems without knowing anything about you? I got annoyed with the old boy.
"You just tell me what the fuck have I got to be happy about?" I scowled back at him.
The cheeky old bugger was getting right up my nose, so I decided to give him chapter and bloody verse. After he heard my fucking story, he would see that I'd got nothing to be happy about.
"Look, three bleeding years ago, after years of what I thought was a happy marriage, I came home from work sick one afternoon to find my so called loving wife shagging her boss in my bed. I do my bleeding nut and then the bitch ups and runs off with the arsehole. He had a fuck sight more money than I ever had. So when it came to the bleeding divorce court; they give the bitch custody of not only my three kids, but my bleeding dog as well.
"What did the f-ing bitch do then? I'll tell you. She made it very difficult for me to get access to the children for the next eighteen months. I was in and out of court like a fucking yo-yo trying to pursue the bastards to force her to give me the access to my children that I was supposed to have. The fucking family courts don't give a shit for the fathers.
"Then the f-ing CSA - the Child Support Agency - those fucking bastards came down on me like a ton of bleeding bricks. The bastards took most of my bloody wages in child support for the next f-ing year or so. The f-ing bastards took my wages at source from my bloody employer, before I even saw it. So I couldn't afford to buy the kids much in the way of Christmas presents that year. I wouldn't have minded so much if the cow and her fucking stud needed the bloody money. But the arsehole she's living with owned the company she'd been working for. He makes more money in a fucking week than I make in a year.
"Do you know what the bastards did that Christmas? Well, I'll bloody tell you, they opened my presents to the children before Christmas. Then the buggers went out and brought more expensive versions of what I'd brought for the kids and they gave them to the kids first. Oh, I wasn't allowed anywhere near the children on Christmas day. Next time I saw my kids my gifts had been forgotten, whilst the children were playing with the more expensive toys."
"Ah, I see you have a vindictive ex-wife. But remember my friend, as they get older your children will know that you loved them."
"Now, that's one thing they will never be able to do, mister. Last Christmas the Bitch and that Git took the children away for the holidays. They went skiing over in France. But one night they all went out somewhere and the arsehole got himself a fucking skin full. On the way back to their hotel the bastard put his bleeding Merc into a lake. Oh, he made sure he and the whore got out of the car all right; but my kids were still strapped into their seats when the car was dragged out of that fucking lake the following morning. That bastard killed my kids.
"So now you see why I don't like Christmas. It holds no joy for me, just bad memories!"
"My friend, I'm sorry you have had such an unfortunate couple of years, but you have to try and move on with your life. You really must try to forget and make a new life for yourself. Just try to remember the good times you had with your children."
"Look to be honest there wasn't any good times. Once they had moved in with that arsehole, they got everything they ever wanted. The kids didn't really want to know me anymore. They were spoiled rotten. I only got to see them about once a bloody month; they were just forgetting me."
This old boy was still smiling at me. I've got to say it, I really felt like telling him to fuck off and leave me alone. But there were so many people jammed into that pub I doubt he could have moved away from me if he had wanted to.
"What you tell me is very upsetting to hear!" he went on "But there must have been some good times before your wife left home. And now surely you have to accept that your old life is gone. Perhaps you should try to make a new one for yourself."
The old man and I sat in the bar talking until closing time. Towards the end I had begun to warm to him a little. I think he was truly concerned about me and he was trying to convince me to forget the past and look to the future.
He left the pub just before I did and I watched him make his way somewhat unsteadily out the door. After he had gone, I finished my pint, said "Good night" to George and began making my own way home. I don't know whether it's lucky or unlucky that I didn't have a car that night. Its lucky I couldn't drive home in the inebriated condition I was in because I might knocked someone down and killed them. But it was unlucky because I couldn't drive into a tree and kill myself which was what I really wanted to do.
Once I got outside the pub, I found the old man slumped against the wall. He had undoubtedly consumed much more alcohol than he could handle. 'Damn, ' I thought, "I can't leave the old bugger there. If it turns any colder, he could freeze to bleeding death.'
"Come on, Pop, where do you live? I suppose I'm going to have to walk you home."
"That is kind of you, Graham. I am feeling a little unsteady. I should be alright after I've been in the fresh air for a little while."
It didn't strike me at the time. But this old boy knew my name; I never have worked that one out. Perhaps he heard George say it?
We made off in the direction of his home. Much to my relief it wasn't too far out of my way. The old boy was leaning against me and chatting on about life. I must admit, I wasn't really listening so I don't remember a single word of what the old bugger said. I just wanted to get him home, then get back to my own bed.
Suddenly the old guy stood up straight, as if he wasn't drunk anymore. "Fire!" he shouted.
A little confused, I looked in the direction he was pointing. Sure enough through the windows, blackened with smoke, of a nearby house I could just make out a Christmas tree in flames. Then with a god almighty bang the picture window exploded outwards. The next second the whole room was a roaring inferno and flames were licking up the front of the building.
"There's a woman and three children in that house," the old man said.
Suddenly I was as sober as a Judge! I pulled my mobile phone from my pocket and unlocking the keypad, passed it to the old man. "Call the fire brigade!" I instructed him as I began running towards the house.
They say that people do brave things because they don't think of the consequences of their actions. Well, I must tell you that, as I threw myself at that front door, I knew that there was a bleeding good chance that I wasn't going to be seeing the morning, and in my heart I don't believe I really cared.
I could feel the heat of the flames roaring out of the nearby window as I approached the door, which much to my surprise gave way at my first charge. Clouds of black smoke enveloped me as I staggered inside, only just retaining my balance. At this time of night, I figured that anyone inside the house, who was still going to be alive, would most likely be upstairs in the bedrooms. Most of these semi-detached houses are of a similar layout and I found the staircase easily. Taking the stairs two at a time I rushed up them, trying to shout fire at the same time, but the smoke choked me and I couldn't speak.
At the top of the stairs I found the door to the room directly over where the seat of the fire was, so I tried that one first. Inside the room I felt around, it was surprising how much smoke there was in there, until I discovered the inert forms of two small children lying in their beds. I swept them both into my arms and the next thing I remember I was coming out of the smoke at the front door. Some young guy was standing there and I literally threw the two young girls at him.
Having taken a few deep breaths of clean air to recover, I turned and went back into the smoke. By this time I could see that the flames were beginning to come through the door of the room where fire was. As I got to the top of the stairs there was whooshing noise as the flames enveloped the door and the fire flashed over into the hall. Through the smoke, I looked back down the stairs; my mind told me that I wouldn't be going back out the way I came in.
I went for the back bedroom this time. Inside I found a woman who had apparently been over come by the smoke as well. I'm not a big guy and I can't tell you how I managed to pick her up. One look out of the back window told me I wasn't going out that way. Flames were licking up from the window below. It must have been a through lounge downstairs; strange how these thoughts come into your mind.
Back out on the landing I made for the other front bedroom; kicking the door open I was relieved to see flashing blue lights outside through the window. Dropping the woman onto the bed, incidentally on top of her son who was sleeping there, I grabbed a TV set from a bracket on the wall and threw it through the window, hoping that there was no one standing below, then I kicked the rest of the glass out, as best I could.
I grabbed the boy first and leaning out of the broken window dropped him into the arms of a fireman who was now waiting below. The woman soon followed in the same manner; she was in no condition to object.
Looking around I saw that the flames were by then in the room with me; so I threw myself after her headfirst. Luckily the fire crew were expecting me. I had to wonder if they are trained to have people suddenly drop in on them, they made a damn good job of catching all of us.
The firemen put one of they're breathing sets on me, to help me clear my lungs of the smoke. I sat on the pavement and slowly recovered whilst the firemen tackled the fire. I watched the ambulance crew working on the mother and boy. I didn't see the two girls but there were several ambulances present by then, so they were probably in one further away.
My head was throbbing, I suppose because of the smoke, as well as all the booze I'd consumed that evening. People kept coming up and congratulating me, telling me I was a hero. Damn, I didn't want or need that. Shortly after the police came over and started moving everyone further back, away from the fire. I took this as my chance and standing up quietly disappeared into the crowd that had gathered. I mingled for a little while and then made a hasty retreat.
When I got home, I had a long shower to get rid of the smell of the smoke. I thought that I would have to get my clothes cleaned because they stank of smoke, but then I found some scorch marks on them and binned the lot. It was gone two by the time I finally crawled into bed.
The following morning, Christmas Eve, I crawled out of bed around ten, with the biggest hangover I've ever had in my life. I figure it was half the beer and half that bleeding smoke. I was in the kitchen popping coffee and aspirin when I heard my mobile phone ringing. I found the thing on my dining room table and answered it.
"Hello, is that Graham Stark?" A female voice that I didn't recognise asked.
"Yes! What's your problem?" I was back into miserable old bugger mode. I'll admit that that was how I used to speak to people then. It kind of kept them away from me and that was how I had grown to prefer things.
"Oh, Mr Stark I just wanted to thank you for saving my children and me last night."
"Who is this?"
"I'm Sheila Monroe. It was my children and me that you pulled from the fire last night. I just wanted to thank you. We would have died if you hadn't saved us."
"I'm afraid I haven't got the faintest idea what you're talking about, lady." Denial, I thought, was the best way to stay out of the limelight.
"He said you'd say that! But I know that it was you who saved our lives by getting us out of the fire last night. So don't try and deny it or I'll tell the newspapers who you are and I believe from what your friend has told me, you wouldn't want that. The press are going crazy trying to find you, you know.
"Okay, it was me, but there's no need for any thanks. I didn't think about it, I just did it. You really don't need to thank me," I told her and then I began to wonder. "By the way, how did you know where to find me?"
"Oh, your friend, the nice old gentleman came in a little while ago. He said he was a friend of yours. He told me who you were and gave me your number. Would you like to talk to him?"
"Yes, I would. I've got a lot to talk to him about. He went off with my mobile phone last..."
I stopped speaking. What the hell was I talking about? I was talking to Sheila Monroe on my bloody mobile phone. But last night I gave it to the old bugger to call the fire brigade with and after I came out of that burning house, I never saw the old guy again. How the hell did I get my phone back? How the hell did he know my name?
"Oh, he seems to have gone. I can't see him around anywhere."
"I shouldn't let it worry you. I think he has a habit of disappearing," I found myself saying.
"Mr Stark, I know this is a bit of an imposition on Christmas Eve, but is there any chance you could call by the hospital today. I really would like the opportunity for my children and myself to meet and thank you in person. We will not tell anyone who you are if that's what you wish."
Damn and blast, she was asking so nicely how the hell could I refuse. "If you insist. But really just knowing you're all safe and well is enough thanks for me."
What a bloody hypocrite I was! I didn't really care a damn about her or her kids. And I couldn't for the life of me figure out why I had run into that burning house last night, unless it was in an unconscious effort to kill myself. But I agreed to go and see her a little later.
It was probably about one-thirty when I found her at the hospital. Sheila Monroe was dressed in the strangest collection of clothes I'd ever seen. Well, I hadn't given them time to dress the night before, had I? Sheila knew who I was the moment I walked into the room.
"Oh, Graham, how nice of you to come," she said throwing her arms around my neck and then she began talking to me as if I was an old family friend.
There were two other people in the room and they asked if I was her husband.
She told them, "No, Graham is just a special friend."
The couple left us alone and then Sheila apologised for her behaviour, saying the other people were reporters and she thought they might wonder who I was.
I thanked her and then she took me in to meet her children. I was amazed that they all appeared to recognise me. The meeting, whilst friendly and a little overwhelming for me, was a little strained.
Let's face it, I didn't know this family and I found their gratitude to me very embarrassing. I was uncomfortable as well because they reminded me of what I had lost. The children were about the same age as mine had been. Well, maybe a little younger. I really wanted to excuse myself and leave; I really shouldn't have gone there.
The older of the two girls was Miranda - I would put her at about eight years old - had latched onto my left arm and was hanging on for grim death. Then the boy Jacob - I'd say a year or so younger - came over and took hold of my right hand and just never let go. The little one, Yvette must have felt left out but she solved that problem by climbing on my lap and locking her arms around my neck.
I really didn't know what to say to them. I could see a big bruise on Miranda's face and remembered the impact it had with my shoulder as I picked her up the night before. But she never mentioned it.
I hadn't been with them very long when a lady from social services arrived. She asked Sheila if she had any relatives or friends that they could stay with, but she didn't. The woman then told Sheila that she would book her and the children into a local bed and breakfast accommodation. I knew the dump she told them they would be staying in and immediately felt sorry for them.
Look, I knew the place; it's a right bloody hellhole, full of asylum seekers and illegal's awaiting deportation. I don't know why I said it, but I suddenly heard myself telling Sheila that she and her children could come and stay at my place for a while. I had the room I know, but why I invited them to stay I just don't know. Then I was really surprised to hear Sheila accepting my offer.
This was all very weird when you come to think about it. You might have gathered that it was completely out of character for me to have even offered. Looking back now, it was pretty weird for Sheila to accept the offer of accommodation from someone who was really a complete stranger to her.
The day got even weirder as all four of us piled into my car and I started to drive home. I suddenly realised I had nothing for them to eat in the house, so we stopped off at a supermarket and between us did some shopping. Four trolley loads we finished up with; well, we were buying Christmas for five.
As we stood waiting at the checkout, I looked over my guests and realised that they had little in the way of clothes to wear either. So from the supermarket we made our way to the clothing outlet next door, where we made an even bigger impression on my credit card, although Sheila assured me I would be reimbursed, which eventually I was.
When we got to my home, I showed them where to settle themselves. It was quite painful to see these children settling into my children's old rooms. I told Sheila she would have my bed and I would use the put-you-up in my study downstairs. That way she would be near the children and I would be on a different floor. I figured no compromising situations could occur that way.
Come on, there are some really weird guys out there now days. Sheila didn't know me from Adam. I was watching my own back.
To the children's disappointment my house wasn't decorated for the season, so I dug the artificial Christmas tree out and the Christmas decoration box. Then the children and I set about changing things with a vengeance. I did the usual and spent God knows how long getting the Christmas lights to work. Why is it when you last put them away they worked just fine, but when you get them out again you have to check nearly every light before they will come on?
Sheila still had the problem of Christmas presents for the children. That I solved by digging out the presents I had brought for my children the year before, that they hadn't lived long enough to receive. I had put them away in a cupboard and tried to forget about them. It was painful for me to do, but having done it, I was glad I did. Sheila's children were about the same age as mine would have been.
Christmas morning was an enjoyable time for me. The best Christmas day I'd had in years. I had some strange feelings watching the children open those presents. Look, I'm not going into that; it's far too painful. Sheila started cooking Christmas dinner whilst I played with the children.
About twelve some guy arrived from Sheila's insurance company. He was a loss adjuster and had come to tell Sheila that she had nothing to worry about; the company would organise the repair of the house and would inform her when and where to choose her replacement furniture and carpeting.
"Christ, they're on the ball!" I commented to Sheila after he had gone.
"You're not kidding! I hadn't even told them about the fire yet," she replied. "I wonder how they knew where to find me?"
We didn't really solve that one. Later when we enquired, the insurance company said they had received a phone call on Christmas Eve reporting the fire and making a claim on Sheila's behalf. The odd thing was their records said the call had been made during the morning, well before I had gone to the hospital to meet Sheila and before I had invited her and her children to stay with me.
That Christmas was a good one for me. Yes, I did kiss Sheila under the mistletoe, but it was a very respectful kiss and we only did it because the children insisted.
Having children in the house again soon came to the neighbours' attention. Well, the neighbours' children actually. I looked out of the kitchen window on Boxing Day and noticed several of them in the garden playing with Sheila's children. Suddenly folks who had been avoiding my eye for the last few years were smiling and waving enthusiastically whenever they saw me. They also took to stopping me in the street for a chat.
I thought we were just beginning to settle into our new living arrangements, when the New Year came along. At the stroke of midnight there was a bang on the door, half a dozen of the neighbours came in waving bottles of spirits and before anyone knew what was going on, an impromptu party started up.
Before my wife had left me, this had been a regular New Year's occurrence. I think the neighbours had stayed away in the ensuing couple of years, as I had turned into a bit of a killjoy. Now it looked like they intended to make up for lost time.
I won't go into details, as I honestly don't remember very much about that night. Until I realised that the neighbours had all gone home and Sheila and I, who had both drunk much more than we should have, were making out on the sofa. Nothing really heavy, but I suddenly realised that I had one hand on Sheila's breast and my other hand on her leg under the hem of her dress.
I'm not sure where my mind had been or what I thought I was doing, but I suddenly realised it wasn't the right thing to be doing.
Sheila is a very good-looking woman, I think very few men would want to kick her out of bed. But, hey, I'm nothing special. So I had to wonder, just why would she be letting me do what I was. I didn't want her to sleep with me, just because she felt she was obliged to. Because she was grateful that I had saved her and the children's lives, and given them somewhere to live. So I rapidly brought the encounter to a halt.
Sheila appeared to me to be a little surprised that I brought the encounter to a halt. She looked embarrassed and went very quiet for a while, before rapidly retreating up to her room. We didn't discuss what had nearly happened that night again and we never again got anywhere near being intimate with each other after that evening, although over the following months I thought we became very close friends. But it was a very strange situation, with both of us going out of our way never to come into bodily contact with each other. You know the idea, detours completely around the other side of the room, rather than squeezing past one another.
I became Uncle Ray to the children, because for some reason little Yvette had had trouble-pronouncing Graham. The way Yvette said it I sounded like Ray or something near to it, and the other two children soon took up calling me Uncle Ray as well. For simplicity and so as not to confuse the children, Sheila also started calling me Ray. Over the next few months the neighbours' children also began to refer to me as Uncle Ray. And before I knew where I was, Ray became my new name.
I spent a lot of time with the children over those months. Look, when you've got children in the house, you just take them for granted; or rather I had with my own children. When they are suddenly not there anymore, you certainly do miss them and all the things you should have done with them. Having Sheila's children in the house was like a second chance for me, although I think I did get melancholy a few nights, wondering whether I had been as good a father as I could have been to my own children.
Over time I discovered that Sheila's husband had taken his own life. Apparently his business had gone broke and he just couldn't handle it. He'd had a nervous breakdown and turned into a depressive, before eventually committing suicide. I didn't learn this all at once and not all of it from Sheila either. It was more that I had to work it out, from picking up bits and pieces here and there.
Work began on Sheila's house quite quickly, but we were told early on that it was going to take some considerable time. The heat had been so great that a lot of the structure of the house had been damaged, requiring an almost complete rebuild. Even the people in the other-half of the semi had to move out for a while whilst the party wall was rebuilt. All five of us would visit the house every week to see what progress had been made.
To outsiders, life in my house must have looked very normal. Sheila and I, to anyone who didn't know us, must have looked like husband and wife living together with our three children. But that wasn't the case; there was none of the intimacy that a husband and wife normally share together. For the first few months, the only times that Sheila and I left the house together were to go shopping, visiting the cemetery (Sheila's husband was in the same cemetery as my children.) and trips to her house to see how far the builders had got on with the repairs.
As time went on, I got dragged (willingly) to the children's school events. I really got into Jacob and Miranda's after-school activities. The reaction of the teachers was interesting; some of them had taught my own children and they obviously were aware of their deaths. I know one slipped up quite badly one day when talking about Miranda he referred to her by my daughter's name. He was quite embarrassed when Miranda corrected him. I mention this because it was never a mistake that I made. Although sometimes in my dreams the children would, not so much become mixed up, but sort of merge into each other.
As my relationship with the children got closer and closer, my relationship with Sheila stayed the same. We sort of kept each other at arm's length. Although many evenings I found myself watching her out of the corner of my eye, come on, she was an attractive woman, and it could be that sometimes I got the feeling that she was watching me.
During the summer I took them all on a camping holiday to Wales. It was something that Sheila and the children hadn't done before. I let them use the frame tent whilst I used my old hike tent. Once they got into it - living without all modern conveniences does take some getting used to - they really enjoyed themselves and we had a couple of more weekends away before the summer was over.
Late summer found us - or rather Sheila - picking out paint colours, furniture, floor coverings and things for her house. I drove her around as I had been doing since she'd moved in with me and she often asked my advice, not that I claim to be an expert.
October saw the house nearing completion and plans were made for them to move back in during the last week of the month. That was put back to early November because of problems with the central heating. And then quite suddenly I was in an empty house again.
I had known that the day was going to come, but that first evening that I came home from work to an empty house was a real killer for me. I looked around the place and walked straight back out again. I knew my destination was the Rose and Crown and as I walked up the street I began to wonder whether anyone had nicked my regular bar stool. I hadn't been near the place since the previous Christmas.
Although I was heading for the Rose and Crown, I somehow and without thinking or planning it, detoured past Sheila's house. Through the window I could see the children all sitting down to eat, Sheila was standing there talking on the telephone to someone. It did cross my mind to walk up that path and knock on the door, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to do so.
My stool was empty and George said, "Hi, Graham," and began to pull my pint as if I'd been in there yesterday.
"Ray!" I can remember saying to him. "Everybody calls me Ray nowadays."
"Whatever, makes no never-mind to me, Ray." George replied, and he carried on serving me.
I drank too much that evening, which I realised the moment I woke up in my bed the following morning. It was my hangover more than anything else that made me decide I wasn't going back to my old ways. Well, that was my intention, but the world is full of good intentions, isn't it?
The next two evenings I kicked around in the garage. I had this idea of turning it into a workshop. I was going to get myself a hobby, like woodworking or something. You know, then I'd have little projects to do in the evenings and on weekends. The next night a neighbour invited me over for dinner. Now lets be honest here, he was fiddling with his wife's car when I got home and out of desperation for something to do I went over to offer him a hand.
In gratitude his wife asked me to stay for a meal. I can't say I realised what was happening for the next week or so. But several neighbours would ask me to join them for a meal in the evening. Looking back now I can see that it was all planned. Just by chance the husband or wife would be out in the street when I got home from work and they would start chatting. The next thing I knew, I'd be sitting down to eat with them.
Often the subject of Sheila and the children would come up. But I could only tell them I hadn't seen them since they'd moved out. This normally brought strange expressions to the wives faces and embarrassing silences from the husbands.
I think it was the second or third weekend after Sheila had gone home that I ran into her and the children in the supermarket. Now let's be honest, I didn't run into them; the children ran into me and everybody in that bloody store knew about it. Before I knew what was happening, Yvette was sitting in my shopping trolley and the other two were hanging on my arms. Luckily the children were very vocal as Sheila and I didn't seem to know what to say to each other.
I took them over to MacDonald's for ice cream when Sheila and I had finished our shopping. Whilst the children played around Sheila told me about the teething problems she was having with the house. Nothing serious, just the kind of things you would expect.
Something made me invite them all back to my place for dinner that night. Just for a moment I thought Sheila hesitated, but the children made the decision for her. Now let's be fair, Sheila cooked the meal. Maybe that's why she'd hesitated - Sheila had sampled my cooking before.
That afternoon it was fun having the children over even though they spent most of the time playing with the neighbours children. I helped (or hindered; she never did say which) Sheila in the kitchen and we appeared to get on as we had whilst she was staying with me. That is until she asked me to call the children in and get them washed up.
Unfortunately we both tried to cross the kitchen at the same time and kind of collided, near the back door. Sheila lost her balance and I grabbed her to stop her falling. Just for a moment I was holding her in my arms and then we were both saying, "I'm sorry," repeatedly to each other, then we disentangled ourselves and retreated into our shells, embarrassed.
Dinner that evening was spent listening to the excited children tell us about their day with their friends. Once the washing up was done, I drove the family home. There was talk of them coming over again and of me going to have a meal with them. But no actual date was set.
My car was left parked in the Rose and Crown's car park that night. I was too drunk to drive it home. On the Sunday after I'd slept the drink off, I went back to the pub to retrieve it, and it spent another night parked there. Look, I just didn't want to go back to that empty house until I had to. Or I was so drunk I didn't notice the silence.
On the Monday morning, I didn't go to work. I went to the estate agent to put my house on the market. I had no idea where I was going to live, but I knew couldn't live in that empty house any more. To lose one family from it was bad enough, but losing a second was just too much for me.
I moved out of the house, although I left it furnished until after it was sold. The Agents told me it's easier to sell a house when it's furnished. I moved into a small residential hotel near where I worked. It was quite pleasant, but I can't say I made many friends amongst the other residents. I had for sometime been reverting to the miserable old fart I'd been a year previous.
I received summonses through the mail to attend Sheila's children's Christmas plays and concerts at their school. I sat with Sheila through all of them and I found it a little uncomfortable as the seats were jammed in quite tightly. Actual physical contact between Sheila and I was almost impossible to avoid. I knew Sheila did not like it, because I could feel her stiffen when I came into contact with her.
Again my going to their house for dinner one evening was discussed, but once again I somehow managed to avoid making a firm date. The children asked me if I was going to join them on Christmas day and I know they were upset when I told them that regretfully I had other plans. I gave them some bullshit about visiting my sister on the south coast. I'm not sure Sheila bought the story, but I think the children did.
I spent a lot of time choosing Christmas presents for Sheila and her children and arranged with a local courier company to have them delivered to her house on Christmas day. Expensive, but I thought worth it for the surprise value.
The night before Christmas Eve, I found myself drawn to the Rose and Crown again. Strangely it wasn't quite as crowded as it had been the year before. Different night of the week I suppose.
It must have been around ten-ish when suddenly a voice asked. "Any happier this year, Ray?"
I turned to see the old man sitting on the stool beside me.
"Oh, its you again. Where did you spring from?" I asked in surprise. I hadn't noticed him enter the pub, or buy the drink he was holding from George. But then again I was probably in my own little world again.
"I'm always about somewhere, Ray. It's just that you don't see me."
Jesus, sounded to me like the old boy had drunk too much already.
"What are you having?" I asked signalling to George to refill my glass. But the old guy just waved his hand to say he didn't want another at the moment.
George came over with my new pint and then stood there for a while with a strange look on his face.
"This one's on me, Ray, and I think you should make it your last for tonight," he said, waving away my proffered fiver.
I can't say I took much notice of what George said, as there were a few questions I had for the old man.
"Look, where did you get to that night of the fire?" I asked him. "When I came out of that house you were nowhere to be seen."
"I was busy, Ray. Before I passed, er..." The old man stopped speaking for a few seconds, as if he was thinking what to say. "Before I retired I was a paediatrician. I was in the ambulance helping the paramedics with the children. By the time I came out you were gone."
"But my telephone - how did you get that back to me?"
"I gave it to a policeman. You know you didn't look too good when you came out of that house. I assume he must have given it to you or put it in your pocket."
Well, I have to admit that could have been how I got the phone back. I couldn't exactly recall what happened or what was said when the police officer came over and asked everyone to move further away from the fire.
"You went to the hospital the next day," I said still trying to get my head around this old man and his actions.
"Of course I did. I wanted to see how the children were recovering. You know that was very fortunate timing the night of the fire. Just a couple of minutes later and there would have been a disaster."
"But you gave Sheila my phone number, how did you know that or my name?"
"From your mobile phone, Ray. You have your name and the number on a label on the back."
That was a fact, I was using a company mobile and as they are all the same, we have labels on them to say whose is whose when they're laying around in the office.
Whilst I drank my pint, I kept asking the old boy questions that he came up with reasonable answers for. But there was something about the old boy that didn't add up in my mind.
"So, Ray, are you spending Christmas with Sheila and the children?" he suddenly asked.
"No, I didn't think that was a good idea," I replied.
"And why ever not?" he demanded with a shocked tone to his voice.