As soon as he’d seen that scruffy mackintosh displayed in the charity shop window, the beginnings of a plan began whirling around his head. The mac was crumpled and had seen better days, but its possibilities were endless. He’d laughed out loud – and it had been a very long time since he’d laughed.
Yes, Matthew was inspired. He was also late, which was not good as Irena was a stickler for good office timekeeping. Half his age and half his size, she could still floor him with her disapproving stares. The fact that he was her boss mattered not at all. He’d better get a move on.
All through the afternoon, Matthew was in excellent spirits. How he hoped the mac would still be there when he finished at work and wondered if he should leave early to make sure. Even while asking himself that question, Matthew realised the ridiculousness of his daydreams. But just this once he was determined to act out of character.
“Is anything wrong, Matthew?” Irena asked, hovering by the side of his desk.
He decided on the truth – she was his assistant after all – if she couldn’t appreciate his flashes of wisdom and imagination, then there was no hope for him.
“I have to leave early, Irena. There’s something I need to do urgently. To do with Sarah. We’ll come in early tomorrow and work on the Jamieson contract together, shall we?”
Irena’s face changed and softened.
“Of course, Mr Hanson,” she said, “Do whatever you need to do. I’ll see you tomorrow”.
Matthew then left the office early for the first time in as long as he could remember.
Increasing his pace as he made his way down the stairs to the front door, he almost tripped in his excitement. It was a ten-minute walk to the charity shop, and he ran the distance in just short of three minutes. Today was indeed a day of firsts – laughing, leaving work and running! Something was changing in him. That slightly stained and character-filled mackintosh was working some magic.
He arrived at the shop just as it was closing.
“Please…” he shouted through the glass. “Please, I need to buy something. I’ll only be a minute.”
The matronly manager must have decided he looked harmless enough (if a little eccentric) as she let him in.
“What did you want, lovie?”
He pointed out the mac, and she giggled a little too. Something about that mac brightened people’s days.
“Sorry lovie,” she said, with what sounded like real regret. “The boss says that if it’s in the window, we can’t get it out for another three days. I’ll reserve it for you. Four pounds it is… can you manage that?”
Matthew smiled, graciously – “I think I can manage that, yes. I’ll call in on Friday then, OK?”
She attached a small pink piece of paper to the lapel with a pin. The slip read ‘Sold. Collect Friday’. Matthew left her to the cashing up, disappointed but able to tolerate the wait. It would give him time to relish the planning. Sarah would be laughing all the way down to her cold little toes when she saw what he’d been up to.
Friday was a very long time coming, but as soon as the charity shop opened, Matthew was there, waiting.
“Gosh, you’re keen,” said the manager as she unfastened the coat and readied the mannequin for its replacement – a flashy 1980s style shirt. As she handed him the mac, her face fell a little.
“I’m not sure it is the right size for you. It looks quite big. And the arms are an odd shape.”
Even better, he thought.
All the way to work, Matthew kept checking inside the bag and chuckling to himself. Irena glanced at him continually once he was seated.
“Is everything alright, Matthew?” she asked. “I never thought I’d see you smile again.”
“Yep, me neither. Everything is good, Reen.”
His smile lasted a few moments, and Irena told him she liked him better when he was smiling. Matthew was enjoying the rediscovered spring in his step.
Once home that night, he changed out of his suit, with relief. In its place, he put on some old-fashioned slacks, a faded shirt and a cheap tie, all especially bought for the occasion. He looked at himself in the mirror. It was quite a transformation. All he needed was a little more stubble and a slightly more tousled hairstyle. Matthew had been preparing by watching one DVD after another copied from Sarah’s collection. He was almost ready.
It was Friday. ‘Their’ night. They would eat and drink, and he would tell her stories or read the newspaper. Maybe play a board game. Sometimes they would enjoy the companionship of each other: pure pleasure and pure love.
He was ready. Costume prepared. Stubble unshaven. Heart lifting by the second as he imagined Sarah’s face. He took a deep breath and walked into her room. There was no way she could have guessed what he’d been planning.
“Hello there, my angel. I’ve missed you.”
Her head lifted slowly to look at him, and she smiled back in greeting.
“Would you like me to put a DVD on? One of your favourites?”
She pointed out a title from her collection. Matthew smiled to himself – two films on one disc: Uneasy Lies the Crown and Murder in Malibu.
This was going to be fun, he thought, and hopefully would be fun for his beloved Sarah too.
Matthew set the disk whirring in her machine, selected Uneasy Lies the Crown and took hold of Sarah’s hand. They looked at each other, and he stroked her hair. They sat in silence, waiting for the film to begin.
Partway through Matthew got up.
“I won’t be a minute,” he said, “You carry on watching”.
Sarah lay with the faintest trace of a smile about her lips as he left the room. In the bathroom, Matthew hurriedly put on the crumpled clothes, the threadbare tie and the raincoat that was variously too big and too small in the places that mattered. He messed his hair up, adjusted his facial expression and lit a large, curiously perfumed cigar. He was ready.
“Just wait till I tell Mrs Columbo about this…” he mimicked as he opened the door.
Sarah stared at him with the biggest grin ever. He scratched his head.
“You know, madam, there are some things I just don’t understand about this case. Like why was the car in neutral? Why did a perfectly healthy man have a heart attack and plunge to his death? And why you can’t speak to me anymore? Please speak to me.”
His plea was heartfelt. Sarah grinned weakly, obviously trying to articulate words which wouldn’t come.
He took a deep puff of his cigar, and the smoke filled the room as he scratched his head in much the same way as Lieutenant Columbo. Sarah couldn’t take her eyes off him. Their eyes locked and he walked over to her, beaming.
“Did you like it, my angel? I saw the coat and couldn’t resist it.”
They hugged tightly and happily. Again, Sarah opened her mouth to talk, but the door burst open as she struggled.
“Mr Hanson! A cigar? In here? Put it out immediately. You are more than aware of the rules. You could be doing serious damage to the health of our patients, not to mention your own. This is disgraceful behaviour and I…”.
The nurse’s voice trailed off.
“You’ve been coming here for six years. Surely…What on earth are you doing?… Oh, Sarah, it is Columbo! Matthew is being Columbo for you! Still …Still, the cigar gets put out and the window opens. I don’t know what you were thinking of”. She wiped the small tear dripping down her cheek.
Matthew ignored her fussing and her mock-strictness. His eyes were firmly on Sarah, his step-mother from the age of two – the only mother he could remember, the only person who had ever given him what he needed: shared confidences, shared memories and shared joy.
The years had not been kind. For the past six years, the only joys in Sarah’s life were her fifty-something stepson Matthew, and an American-Italian detective called Lieutenant Columbo. She loved his scruffy beige raincoat, his cigar and his formulaic stock phrases that they both knew by heart.
Sarah had given him more than anyone else had. She’d supported him through the far-too-early loss of their beloved husband and father, through university, his wedding, his devastating divorce and the birth of his children – Sarah’s adored grandchildren. And this lady, this wonderful lady was now opening her mouth to speak. She hadn’t spoken in months, other than muttered unclear phrases in her more lucid moments. Her health was deteriorating rapidly, and so was her ability to communicate.
The nurse took the cigar from Matthew and began to extinguish it in the corner sink.
“No”, came a frail, elderly voice from amongst the pillows, “Here. Bring it here”.
“Sarah!” Matthew almost shouted. “Hello, my angel. You spoke. Oh my God, you spoke! Give her the cigar nurse, please, just this once.”
The nurse dripped a little tap water over the glowing end which sizzled then blackened, and she took it over to Sarah shivering under the pristine white sheets.
“No dropping ash now, nurse,” said Matthew.
Sarah reached out with her bony right hand and took the cigar, lifting it to her face and smelling the familiar scent.
“Your dad…” she said, her voice weak.
His father had smoked exactly that brand: one on a Friday night and one on a Saturday. That was why Matthew had chosen it in the unfamiliar atmosphere of the tobacconist.
Both nurse and Matthew sat by Sarah’s bedside, each holding one of Sarah’s hands expectantly. Warming the frail hands of this determined but very ill 96-year-old woman who had spent a lifetime in caring, loving and sacrifice.
She was struggling to move her lips, and Matthew held a glass of water and a straw to her mouth.
“What is it, Sarah?” asked Matthew with love.
Sarah carefully placed the cigar in her mouth with a wicked smile not seen for many years. That was when Sarah whispered her final, carefully-chosen words while the tears fell from Matthew’s eyes onto her paper-thin skin.
She spoke clearly.
“Just one more thing, sir,” she croaked with delight… as her eyes closed and the cigar fell onto the crisp, white sheet.
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