Michael Courtney was in his local supermarket one Friday afternoon. He was only shopping for himself, so he only had a basket, which he was slowly filling up with items that he thought he might need for the weekend. He was 36, and for the last three months since his divorce was finalised, he had been readjusting to the single life, after eight, sometimes good, sometimes tempestuous, years of marriage.
He quite liked these minor excursions, two or three times a week, to stock up on essentials and indulgencies. He wasn't the most budget conscious of shoppers: if he saw something he liked, it just went straight into the basket. He had come to loath shopping with his ex-wife, who would pore over items for ages comparing prices, even though there was no real economic necessity to do so.
He was cruising one aisle of goods, when he saw what he took to be a middle-aged woman in something of a quandary over a particular choice of item.
"Can I be of help, Madam, you look somewhat perplexed?"
It was only when she turned to see who was addressing her that he realised that she must only have been a similar age as himself.
"What ... oh ... thank you, I still find all this very confusing!" Michael smiled at her.
"I thought women loved shopping, or is that just a male-oriented stereotype?"
"Well, I used to shop with my mother, and she always knew exactly what she wanted. This is the first time that I've been since she..." He knew what that look on her face meant.
"I'm very sorry for your loss. How long?" The woman sighed.
"Two weeks, it was very sudden."
"Look, just let me pay for these few things. They have a nice coffee shop here, may I buy you something?"
The woman looked hesitant, but then her expression changed, as if she'd made a decision.
"I'd like that!" she replied, then smiled at him in a kind of coy way, which he found very attractive and very appealing.
They stayed in the coffee shop for about forty minutes, quietly talking about nothing much of any significance. But the woman did tell him that her name was Elizabeth Marsden, and that she lived in what Michael knew was a quite expensive residential area of town.
He tried to look at her without staring, but he could see that despite her quite austere appearance ... her hair was arranged in a tight braid and pinned securely to her head, and she wore no make up ... that she was really quite attractive, in an understated sort of way! Her eyes were the sort that needed no cosmetics to enhance their dark hazel colour, and she had long, elegant fingers, with plain, neatly trimmed nails. He also found it hard to understand how someone with her apparently natural poise could be so unworldly and obviously vulnerable. They finished their drinks, and although Elizabeth seemed in no hurry to go, eventually she glanced at her wristwatch.
"Goodness, is that the time! I'm sorry if I've detained you ... Michael." She seemed to find even such a commonplace familiarity as a first name, difficult.
"How did you get here today, Elizabeth? If you don't have your own transport," which he was sure she didn't, "I can offer you a lift home."
As he had seen her do several times since they had been sitting there, she unconsciously chewed on her lower lip.
"Thank you, but I really couldn't put you to any more trouble; you've already been very kind."
"It's really no trouble; it's not that far, and I have no other plans ... come on!"
He had made her decision for her, and she objected no more.
As he had guessed, it was a largish, detached house, in a road which consisted solely of other similar types of properties. She remained reticent during their short journey; not stand-offish, just unfamiliar with the circumstance that she found herself in.
Stopping on the drive outside of her front door, he got out and opened the passenger door for her. He waited and watched as she walked to the front door and searched in her bag for the keys.
"Would you care to come in for refreshments, Michael?"
It was another first: she'd never invited a man into her home before.
"Thank you, I believe that would be very nice!"
"And would you mind popping into the kitchen, it's at the end of the hall, and putting the kettle on. I'll just tidy up the sitting room."
The kitchen looked a little old-fashioned, but it was spotlessly clean. Michael filled the kettle, then switched it on. He made an educated guess that crockery would be near the kettle and he opened a few wall-cupboard doors looking for cups and saucers or mugs; he found them after only two goes.
While he was waiting for Elizabeth to finish tidying up, he stood looking around, leaning against the work surface upon which the kettle sat. He'd had an aunt, now deceased, who'd had a kitchen very much like this one; the same sort of 'feel' and even the same characteristic aromas. The main difference was that his aunt had been in her seventies when he had last seen her some years previously, and Elizabeth was still only in her thirties now. That was what he'd first noticed about her: her face said thirties, but her overall demeanour and bearing was that of a person much older.
He had seen the old-fashioned clothes drier, suspended from thick cord that ran through small pulleys attached to the ceiling, when he'd entered the room; but now with time on his hands, his gaze was directed upwards towards it.
Goodness, did she really still wear underwear like that!
Just then Elizabeth entered the kitchen; her gaze followed Michael's. "Oh, dear!" she exclaimed. He looked at her face, and saw the expression of acute embarrassment. She walked towards him, avoiding his gaze, and made a pot of tea.
"It's this way," she said, leading him out of the kitchen and into the room which she hadn't wanted him to see as it was when they arrived. "Won't you have a seat."
Michael sat in an armchair, while Elizabeth sat on a small settee opposite him. She leaned forward to pour the tea and was just about to rise to bring it to him, when he said: "No, don't get up, I'll come to you." And before she could object he had covered the floor between them and sat near her on the settee. Elizabeth looked a little uncomfortable, but she smiled weakly. Michael took a few sips of tea and then he looked at her and said:
"May I ask you a candid question, Elizabeth? You are a young, attractive woman, why do you wear clothes that make you look so much older than you are?"
She looked a little flustered, still, partly because she wasn't used to this degree of candour, and partly because of how the fixed gaze of Michael's penetrating blue eyes and his warm smile was making her feel.
"Well, I, I suppose because I'm not used to buying clothes. My mother used to buy mine and I haven't needed to buy any since she..." He quickly interjected:
"Please don't get me wrong, Elizabeth, there's nothing wrong with your clothes, but you have more choices now. When you go out, haven't you ever looked at other women's clothing and thought you would like something similar yourself?"
"Well, yes, sometimes, but my mother never approved. She said it was shocking how some women and girls dressed, showing so much."
"What about school? Didn't the others tease you: children can be quite unkind, sometimes."
" ... Oh, but I didn't go school! When I was younger my father taught me. And later, when he passed away, Mother hired tutors; but they were all older men."
"And please forgive the indelicacy, Elizabeth, but I couldn't help noticing your undergarments hanging in the kitchen. They look rather, uncomfortable; there are some much better alternatives that are available, and I would imagine easier for a woman to wear."
Elizabeth flushed again, but she found it surprisingly easy to talk to him about the subject.
"Yes, I have to admit, I have often wondered about such things." Michael decided on a bold course of action:
"Elizabeth, since you don't appear to know many other women of your own age, would you allow me to take you shopping for some new clothes?"
Michael was sure that she had a certain look about her that he had seen before in woman he had been attracted to, and who had returned his interest; although he was equally sure that if Elizabeth felt this way, she wouldn't necessarily know why. But she smiled that smile that transformed her face from dowdy spinster to attractive young woman.
"Yes, please, Michael, I'd like that, very much!"
Michael stayed chatting a little longer, and before he left they arranged that he would call round again the next day to take her on a new adventure.
Elizabeth sat alone in her kitchen, drinking tea and trying to take in everything that had happened to her during the last 24 hours. She had known that her mother's death would mean that there would be significant changes in her life, but she had no idea what those changes would be. She had lived in the same house all of her life, thirty-three years, and she had never had any cause for complaint. It was a case of, as they say, what you've never had, you never miss.
Her father had been dead for twenty years, from an undetectable embolism in his brain they said, which had taken him as quickly as the congenital heart condition which had recently claimed her mother. She missed them both, of course, but she was also glad that they hadn't suffered years of disability or illness.
.... There is more of this story ...