Apple Tree Cottage
14 February 1979
It’s St Valentine’s Day, and the postman’s bag will be much heavier this morning. Stan will take a little longer with his round than usual, and though he shares much news about the village he is reticent about St Valentine’s cards. For them he reserves a special respect. He asks no questions and just hands over the letter, and if he notices the odd blush or a fumbling with the paper knife opening the envelope, he pretends not to.
Stan is some way off pension age, but retirement is something that comes to all of us sooner or later, and here is Theresa’s story.
Theresa was born and brought up in Berringford. She did not marry, and after helping out in the Post Office here for few years she opened a small restaurant in Westington. It was not in the centre of town or even in one of those streets at right-angles to the High Street that lead down to the sea. To reach it, you had to know where it was, and even then you could walk past it, so little was made of the entrance. There was just a small hand-painted sign over the door saying ‘Theresa’s’. It was, in fact, Theresa’s house, and the two small rooms downstairs had been made into a dining room, and the kitchen at the back had been enlarged.
‘Theresa’s’ was always full at lunchtime. The food was good and plentiful. Theresa made meat and potato pie with a glorious pastry crust and unforgettable gravy. We always served ourselves a second helping from the enormous gravy boat which sat in the middle of the table and was refilled regularly. Then there were ginger puddings with piping hot custard, and apple pie made from the Bramleys that my uncle gave Theresa each year. Some customers always had their lunch there. For those who were retired, it was the highlight of their day. It was not only the excellent food but the company too. For an hour or so these old people were not sitting alone. Everyone entered in expectation and came out happy. There is nothing like a good meal for making us feel at peace with the world.
Theresa never stopped. Early each morning she went to the market and bought first the meat and the fish, and then the fruit and the vegetables. After shopping, she spent all morning in the kitchen. At midday her niece, Annie, came in and helped with waiting on the tables. Theresa found time to greet each guest at the door. During the meal she asked how they were getting on. She went from table to table like a mother hen fussing over her brood. People who came one day often returned and became regulars. One person would recommend another, and sometimes in the street people would stop me and ask how to get to Theresa’s because they couldn’t find it but someone had told them that it was by far the best place to eat in Westington.
Well, the years passed, and Theresa talked of retirement. So busily did she move around the dining room that no one had noticed that she was becoming older. When she retired, she said, she would make day trips to Weymouth and Torquay, and she would go on a weekend excursion to Cornwall to see Land’s End. She was going to take up watercolour painting and perhaps try to learn French at evening classes. When the day finally came, and people had reluctantly accepted the idea that her decision was irrevocable, there was a big party for all the regulars in the dining room and the next day the little restaurant was closed. During the next week or so some of the regulars wandered lost in the street outside. They were like wasps which had gone back to a nest that has been destroyed and then buzzed bewildered around the place where it used to be. Others forgot that the restaurant had closed, and they arrived to find the locked door. Then with a ‘silly me’ gesture they remembered and sighed. They turned around and made for some noisy pub on the sea front to have yesterday’s pie and soggy chips.
I saw Theresa the week after the party. She was in a pub herself, alone at a table. She met me with her usual smile and said how marvellous it was to be free, how she could watch films on TV until late and how she did not have to rush in the mornings.
I didn’t see her for a long time after that. The autumn and the winter passed and then I saw her last week once more. She was walking down the street near her home. When she saw me, the smile was still there but she walked more slowly now.
“How’s everything going, Theresa?”
“Not too well. The doctor says I have depression. He’s given me something to take each day. I can’t seem to get going with anything.” She seemed puzzled that this had happened. To her it was as if a car had emerged from a side street and knocked her down.
I said I was sorry to hear that, and I tried to be light-hearted and asked her to let me know if ever she opened the restaurant again. She smiled again but shook her head.
“I couldn’t manage it now. I have to get used to not having a job any more.” Then she slowly made her way down the street to her house. The big dining room there was empty, and Theresa looked at it sadly as she went to her little sitting room upstairs.
And there it is. The blessing of a job. The feeling of being needed and of being missed if you didn’t appear. The jokes about the work, the challenge of getting something done, the solving of all those little problems that crop up every day but especially on Mondays. Once at work, there is no time to think, and the day takes care of itself. And how good we feel at the end of it. When we retire, we have to organise each day. We have to make an effort again and again as the day progresses, and at each stage we must resist the temptation to do nothing.
I always thought, when I looked at retired people taking their time over a drink in the pub, slowly reading the newspaper, that all their difficulties were solved. They had their pension coming in every month after all. It seems that our problems never leave us. It is just that they change as we go along.