If he could tell that the young girl with the fat baby in the blue snowsuit wasn’t interested, it didn’t matter. Not that day, not any day really.
Bert was an effusive sort of chap; never used three words where thirty would do. And they all came rushing out which tended to exhaust his listeners to the point where they would look at their watches and remember a pie overcooking in the oven or an appointment at the dentist.
Tracy was taking her children to her mums on the other side of town so she could go to a sunbed appointment and have a bit of peace. She deserved it, she thought – and so did her mum, knowing how hard life was as a single mum, especially since her Tracy was only 17.
When Bert got on the bus, still impeccable from the Remembrance Day Parade in his dark blue uniform and beret, a row of medals across his chest and a bright red poppy, she looked at him and thought how upright he was. None of the guys she knew stood like that. It was as though he had an extra-stiff backbone supporting the usual one.
She had looked out of the window, hoping not to catch his attention, preferring to be left alone but old Bert loved a chat with the ladies, especially young ladies with dark hair pulled back from luminously youthful perfect skin and dark eyes. She wore gypsy-style gold creole earrings which glinted as they moved. He leaned over and enquired with studied politeness “Excuse me miss, is this seat taken?”
“No. S’all right. You can sit there. Long as you don’t mind me feeding ‘im.”
Tracy looked out of the window, relaxed with the anticipation of a pamper afternoon at the sun salon. The fat baby was on her lap sucking intermittently at a bottle of milk propped up so that Tracy wasn’t actually involved in the process. Bert looked at the baby with some distaste. He was an aesthete, neat and very particular about cleanliness. He’d never had a child of his own, never even been married and he realised his freshly dry-cleaned uniform was in vomiting distance of the infant, who had rejected its bottle and was now gazing at him, it’s mouth widening into a milkytoothless smile.
“You’re all dressed up posh aren’t you?” Tracy noted the knife-sharp creases in the old boy’s trousers. She guessed he really liked getting all done up in his uniform.
“I’ve been on parade, my dear. With old comrades. I laid a wreath at the memorial. Many people did today. Remembering the fallen. Sad memories, my dear. Sad memories. But we did what had to be done.”
“What? You was fighting in the war? That must have been awful.”
Tracy’s school history lessons hadn’t covered the 20th century. Bert realised as much.
“Yes it was, my dear. There were some terrible times. Times it would turn your stomach to think about. I lost some very dear friends. The closest and best friends I could have had. They paid for our freedom with their lives, you know. Do you ever think about that?”
“Nah. But now you mention it, it IS amazing though, innit?”
Tracy wondered at this old chap, in his eighties, she guessed, smooth-faced, hair neat and combed, beret showing some complicated-looking badge. She didn’t know anyone like that. Her grand-dad might have been like that, she supposed, or her great-grandad.
Bert gripped the back of the seat in front with both hands, craning his neck to see what was going on outside. The bus had stopped in a queue of traffic. Ahead the reflections of blue lights flashed on the bus windows. Passengers were looking, murmuring to others.
“I must go, my dear. This is almost my stop. I can’t see what’s wrong. Oh Lord I can. There’s a fire. It looks like… it can’t be. Oh my dear God, I must go. It’s very close to my house!”
Bert jumped to his feet, groaning involuntarily as his stiff joints refused to co-operate, limping as hurriedly as he could down the aisle of the bus and almost fell down the steps.
“Steady on, chap!” shouted the bus driver.
“Wait! Wait for me. I’ll give you a hand,” yelled Tracy. Swiping the bottle from the baby, she picked up her bag, ran down the aisle, hauled the folded buggy out of the luggage rack and went in pursuit of Bert.
He was lurching ahead of her up the road. She caught up with him as they met a confusion of people, blue lights, fire engines and thick black smoke coming from a roof in the middle of a terrace of houses.
“Oh my Lord. What on earth’s happened? It’s my house!! Let me pass. Let me though.” Bert’s voice sounded very old and pleading.
“Get out of our fuckin way will you?” Tracy shrieked, with a note that made people shrink back. She caught up with Bert, took his shaking arm. He was shaking all over.
“Now, now sir. No closer please. We’ve still got men in there. It’s under control. You are the householder are you?”
The fire officer had seen shock written clearly all over so many faces before. It was obvious this smart old war veteran was the householder. A horrible thing to come home to on Remembrance Sunday.
Bert nodded, his face crumpling as he took in the wide open wicket gate, the thick black hoses running up the short front path through the open front door and up the stairs. His immaculate cream staircarpet exposed to the world and trampled by mud from fire fighters boots. Blackened bedroom windows – one smashed.
“Everything’ll be all right Bert. They’ve nearly put the fire out,” Tracy squeezed his dry, bony old hand, as though she could stop him trembling. She watched with him, attempting to comfort but not sure what to do.
Tears welled out of the corners of Bill’s eyes and ran, thin and swift, down his drawn, wrinkled cheeks.
As people moved out of the way, Bert caught sight of two blackened suitcases which had been flung, along with coats and shoes on to the small lawn littered with broken glass.
Before anyone could stop him, he pushed past the two firemen with Tracy still hanging on to his hand, baby cradled like a sack of spuds in the crook of her other arm.
The leather cases were charred but intact, stinking of soot and acrid electrics. Bert sunk to his knees in the grass and the glass, flicked the blackened catches of one case and lifted the lid.
The colours were startling – a rainbow of cerise, fuschia, emerald green, aquamarine blue. Silks and satins. Tracy thought for a moment they were flags of the world but light, silky ball gowns; flouncy things with skirts and underskirts.
Bill pulled out a frock the colour of flamingoes with matching pink ostrich feather trim. He held it to his face, sobbing.
“Ruined. They’re all ruined. They’ll never be right again.”
Tracy put a comforting arm around his shoulder. Poor old guy. Anyone would be upset if their wife’s beautiful clothes were ruined. Perhaps his wife had died years before. He was an old soldier. That was all she knew about him.
“Look, I know they don’t smell good but they just need airing. They’re not burned. You can get them cleaned.”
He seemed so desperate, kneeling there with the dress in his hands. Tracy’s baby wriggled in her arm growing dissatisfied, about to wail.
She stood up, moved the baby on to her hip and jiggled him up and down, uncertain what to do next. That was when she noticed the shoes; patent leather high heels in jewel colours stored carefully in transparent bags. They’d been half-hidden by the dresses.
They were substantial. Size 10, at least. Tracy was puzzled. This old boy was tall but his wife must have been too. She must have had feet like boats; a very big woman indeed.