She looked at me through a pair of those strange glasses with plastic eyebrows that make even the most docile old women terrifying.
"What are you doing here? You shouldn't waste your time visiting some old woman like me."
I muttered something polite.
"Well, you might as well come in, then. There might even be a bite to eat."
The others were already there, maybe a dozen of them. She vanished into the kitchen. The table in the dining room had a white table cloth on it, clean, but not fancy. There were plates of scones and egg and bacon pie; a smell of baking in the kitchen.
"I don't know how she does it." said one of the guests.
When you are thirsty, tea tastes oddly sweet, even if you take it without sugar. It was a novelty to pour tea from a tea pot with a knitted tea cosy into cups and saucers. It somehow felt slightly naughty. The tea and the food were real enough, of course, but it still felt as if we were playing at tea-parties.
"I don't know if we should let her do it." said another.
After tea she waved us into the garden, and some of the others started to play "piggy in the middle" with a big ball she had found in a cardboard box in the cupboard under the stairs. It was slightly mildewed and smelt of rotting rubber, but they didn't seem to mind. I had never gone in for the running around games and I was too old for them now. But then, so were they. It was the other things that she found in damp boxes in old cupboards that I had loved: heavy toy soldiers made of metal, ancient hairless teddy bears, and getting my clothes muddy without being told off.
She washed the dishes in the kitchen, watching us through the window with a strange sort of disapproval. Then she called to me from the kitchen door, and handed me a white mixing bowl, and said, half-threateningly, that if there were going to be blackberries tomorrow then someone was going to have to pick them, and she didn't see why it should be her. She knew that picking blackberries had been the highlight of my weekend when we first came here. Me an my sister had practically come to blows over them. Not about eating them: they were cultivated bushes with plenty to pick and plenty to nibble - but about who should have the fun of looking for them. My sister no longer came; too busy with the baby.
I heard the shouts of the ball game, as I picked the fruit, eating the odd one, sometimes finding that I had bitten one that wasn't ripe, or that it had an insect on it. The juice of the fruit and the blood from the prickles mingled in my mouth. I looked out over the bushes, at a busy main road. Hadn't there been sheep here at one point? It was so difficult to remember.
"Have one." I said. " I didn't think I'd see you again this year."
"I haven't missed one yet. My parish can manage without me for one Sunday a year."
"Do they know where you come?"
"I don't think she'd forgive me if I told anyone."
"I don't suppose she would."
At the other end of the garden, a greying man hugged the ball to himself and ran off with it; the game the turned into a game of "tag". He ran towards us, towards the gate, his feet telling him that he should run across the field. He stopped, saw the cars, laughed out loud at his mistake. A younger took the opportunity: he grabbed his knees in a sort of impromptu rugby tackle, and they wrestled on the ground.
"I tried to come here in the winter you know." he continued "I was on my way to a conference and I thought I would drop in and wish her a happy Christmas. She was polite enough, and I could smell that she was cooking a dinner, and she said thank you for the card, but I she made it quite clear that there was no way that I was coming in and that I really wasn't particularly welcome, thank you very much."
"A relief, you know, to hear that. I've sometimes wondered..."
It was getting dark. In the old days, this would have seemed fun, part of the excitement: staying up past bedtime, no school tomorrow. It had seemed thrilling, then: city kids being woken by the sound of a cock-crow: sitting up in bed and thinking "it's true then, I am in the country." Ten o' clock was a very early night for me now. A few years ago I had suggested a pint at a CAMRA recommended pub ten minutes down the road. They all looked at me as if I had said something filthy.
We were joined by a third man, who took a handful of the fruit from the bowl. "I see the old cow trapped you as well." he said "Year after year, year after year, playing catch like kids in the garden. God, when I think what we might have been if not for her."
"Director of a big company" whispered the clergyman "You've probably seen him on telly. He sends her money, I think."
"I read one of those bloody kids stories" he said "that she used to leave lying about. About a witch who caught kids in a castle made of sweeties. That gave her little game away, that did."
"I liked her books" I said "I don't believe she ever reads them herself. Musty things: some of them quite unreadable with the damp. You'd never find them in a library. Dreadful moralistic children's stories about talking animals and strange English boarding schools."
"She always put one by my bed." said the clergyman. "She still does, and I still read them. Last years was the story of a family whose rich aunt pretends to have lost her fortune, to see if they will still be nice to her. They are, and she leaves them all her money. Just once, she put a bible there. I think it was the first time I ever read it for myself."
"For Gods sake" said the businessman. "It might have been all right when we were kids, but she had white hair then and we're old people ourselves now. Why the hell isn't she dead?"
Someone has said it, I thought. Sooner or later, someone was going to.
"Do you want her to die?" I asked, softly.
She was taking her apron off, and hanging it on a peg on the kitchen door, and moving the tail of the little wooden cow so it said "three extra pints". She walked slowly across the path, and looked over the gate, fixing her eyes on the middle of the road, as if she was looking for something.
Then she shrugged.
"Blackberries" she half smiled. "So good of you boys. And now I think it really is bed time. I do so enjoy these weekend, don't you?"