When my wife died – too young, she was only twenty-five, a year younger than me – I was left alone in the large house (six bedrooms) that we'd intended to fill with children. Ironically, it was pregnancy that permitted the choriocarcinoma to occur that killed her. That the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage was merely salt in the wound.
I'm not the sort to kill myself, but I did neglect myself for quite some time. My employers (a successful, rapidly growing IT security company whose bonuses had permitted us to buy the house) though understanding, couldn't carry me for ever and I had little enthusiasm for work anyway. With Sal's insurance, I was in no difficulty in the short term; the mortgage paid off and enough in the bank to feed me. Not that I was very interested in food. Friends were very good and rarely a day went by without someone calling, often more than one, but I was going nowhere. At least, until a few months after the funeral. My neighbour, a motherly lady in her sixties, arrived with a beef casserole one lunch time and made me sit at the kitchen table to eat while she boiled a kettle and made tea.
"Now, Pete. This has gone on long enough. I'm not saying forget Sally, or stop grieving, but you need to get up and do something, or you'll be following her."
I shrugged apathetically.
"See? That's what I mean. You've got years of good life ahead and skills and talents that shouldn't be wasted."
I merely shrugged again.
"So ... it's not good that you're alone all the time for a start. You could take in students in some of those empty rooms you've got. As it happens, I know a group who need to get out of their house; there's five of them and they'd struggle to find somewhere this time of year, apart from the fact they'd have to separate."
I couldn't raise the energy to object, so merely shrugged again.
"I'll take that as a yes, then," she said briskly. "I expect they'll be round in the next day or so to meet you." Then she added, "I'll make a start on cleaning up the house a bit while you take a shower and change. They'll have their own bedlinen."
I didn't have the energy or motivation to think about it, so having finished the food I toddled off to shower and get some clean clothing.
It didn't occur to me the students might be female.
There were two blondes – one, I was sure, from a bottle, and three brunettes, one of whom had enough red in her hair to be described as auburn. They were all pretty enough, but in a wholesome sort of way; modestly dressed, the combination saying, 'Okay, we're pretty, and we're girls, but we're ladies and not interested in messing about.'
The taller of the brunettes smiled and held out a hand. "Mr. Botham? It's very kind of you to consider us. I'm Jessica." She turned and indicated the slightly plump girl to her left. "This is Julie..." and turning further, indicated the auburn haired one, "Holly..." then the bottle blonde, "Sam," and lastly the blonde, "Carla."
"I'm Pete Botham," I agreed. "Please, come in." Once they were all standing in the wide hallway, I said, "Missus Harper ... my neighbour ... told you about me? That I'm not a regular ... um ... lodging house?"
"Yes," that was Carla. "She told us you..." she blushed, "I mean, I'm ... we're really sorry about your wife," she stumbled, but carried on, "We know this isn't a shared house, it's your home. We're just grateful for somewhere to stay so we don't have to split up."
I winced a bit at the reference to Sal, but the wound had clearly scabbed over a bit. "Thanks," I said quietly. "Come with me and I'll give you the ten-pence tour."
As I said, it was a large house. In common with many large houses of the era, indoor sanitation was something of an afterthought. The master bedroom had en suite shower, basin and toilet, there was a shower-room with a basin and toilet, a bathroom with basin and toilet, and downstairs there was a toilet and hand-basin; the other bedrooms didn't have their own facilities, though two of them (the two in the attic) had a hand-basin. I pointed out that the bedroom doors didn't have working locks. The first floor (if you're American, that's the second floor, the one above the ground floor) bedrooms had locks but they'd long since been painted solid and lacked keys. The ... facilities had privacy locks with an outside coin-turn; we'd expected children and didn't want them to lock themselves in when they were big enough.
The ground floor had a large lounge or sitting room, a similar sized kitchen where I usually ate, a small study or office and what I called 'The Library', though there were bookshelves all over the house.
Front and rear were gardens – rather overgrown due to my neglect.
The girls were almost awe-struck.
"What a gorgeous house," Jessica said quietly as we arrived back in the hallway. She looked round at her friends, who were nodding and making agreeing noises. "Could we possibly stay? I mean ... are we acceptable to you? We can get references if you like?"
"Come to the kitchen," I said, "would you like tea? Coffee? Fruit juice?"
I sat them round the kitchen table, which is large enough for eight, not that we'd ever had that many guests.
"I'd like coffee, if it's not too much trouble," that was Carla, but the others were all nodding.
"We tend to drink a lot of coffee," Jessica admitted.
"No trouble. Anyone like hot milk with it?"
"I would, please," Sam spoke for the first time.
"Me, too," Carla said.
"I'd usually just have cold milk, but that would be a treat," Jessica said.
"Black for me," finished Julie.
"A girl after my own heart," I smiled, a pang touching my heart as I remembered sipping black coffee with Sal. I made coffee; heated and frothed milk. We sat round the battered, heavy old table. I didn't know how to handle it all, so I was silent.
We sipped coffee. Perhaps there was a little tension there, but I thought it was comfortable, somehow.
"So..." Jessica prompted.
I looked at her and took a deep breath. "I can hardly refuse you..."
"How much would you charge?"
The shock must have shown on my face.
"We don't expect to live here for free."
"I hadn't thought about it. Two days ago I hadn't considered having anyone else living here. What are you paying now?"
"Sixty pounds apiece except Julie. She'd got a smaller room – fifty."
"Joking ... right?"
"You mean ... you're each paying sixty pounds a week for just a room? Heat, light, food extra?"
She shrugged. "It's the going rate."
"Well, it isn't going here," I paused.
Her face fell.
"I think fifty each," I said consideringly. "If you'd be willing to share cooking from time to time ... that would be good."
"Fifty plus utilities?" Her face had brightened.
"Don't be silly. Though I suppose the heating bill will go up. Let's just see how it goes. There's a wireless router for broadband in my office. It's supposed to be powerful enough to be picked up in the attic – I'll give you the key when you move in."
They stared at me. "Are you serious?" Carla spoke barely above a whisper.
"Don't you think it's reasonable?"
"It's more than reasonable," Sam answered, "it's better than I, than we, could hope to find anywhere else. Thank you. Thank you."
And that is how it started. I helped them move in. They were considerate of my space; they didn't wander around in flimsy nighties or come out of the shower in only a towel. No loud music, or coming in drunk. I got used to having them around. We cooked for each other most evenings and, if they weren't going out, sat and watched T/V in the lounge.
At least, they watched T/V. I've never seen much point in X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and so on. But the lounge was the only room apart from the kitchen I kept really warm thanks to a wood-stove. Small radiators kept their rooms not quite cold and they preferred to sit in the lounge or kitchen, or so they said, so the electric bill wasn't boosted much by extra heating upstairs. I ate well and cooked more and better than I would have if I'd been alone.
Once or twice a week each might be out with the current boyfriend. At least, I assumed it was a boyfriend; it may have been a girlfriend, of course, or sometimes they'd all be out together, but not often.
The year wore on. I began to dread the warmer weather, but they continued to sit in the lounge or kitchen rather than their rooms most of the time. Then I began to dread the end of the academic year, thinking they'd all be going home and, what was worse, that they'd find somewhere else to live for the next year.
When the May exams were over, Jessica cornered me in the kitchen one day. "Pete, I ... you've been really good to us. I've a favour to ask. Two, really, I suppose."
"Go ahead." I was uneasy; not exactly anxious, but unsure what was coming.
"Firstly ... Julie and I have placements in the area. Could we stay through the summer?"
I didn't have to think about that. "Of course."
"And ... can we stay next year?"
"Are you happy with our rent? We've been thinking we must have put up your bills a lot. We were thinking, maybe, sixty a week would be fairer."
"Jessica, I'm just happy you want to stay. I was dreading you all leaving."
"Really? We must have impacted your life."
"Oh, you have. You have. But in a good way."
"Well, we love living here. Please, let us pay."
"You want to do this?"
"We're agreed we want to do this. Julie and I will pay our usual. The others will pay a retainer."
.... There is more of this story ...