The heart was still there.
Of all the sheds in the street, it was the only one with a heart. Pulling up outside in the parking space I’d last parked in two decades before, I could just glimpse the wreath in the narrow gap between Numbers 10 and 12. The alley where once I’d chased down the children with a super-sized Super Soaker before hallooing straight into an ambush of water-filled builder’s buckets. Soaked through to my skin, spitting sand and grit, I’d found myself laughing. But, then, Louise had told me I shouldn’t have worn the suit that day.
I wound the window down at the same time as switching off the CD. The B52s had been playing quite long enough on the drive out here. I used to stop off on the common on the way home, pulling the car off the road so sharply one time to avoid the cows that I’d taken off the front bumper. And still I’d let the song play to the end. Lighting up and doing the full “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” thing when anyone watching would have thought it wasn’t happiness at all.
“Oh, hello, Mrs P.” I smiled at the elderly woman in her cardigan and pinny. Mrs Pritchard was the current occupant of Number 10. Been there sixteen years said the self-same internet that was so shy when it came to coughing up details about previous occupants.
“You’ve come about the…”
Louise would have smirked at my attempt to straighten a tie I wasn’t wearing.
“The shed,” I said, “yes.” I’d loaded up the back of the car with everything that might conceivably be useful for shed-based work. Before, all those years back, I’d have been out of the car and fetching the petrol station roses, ready to brandish them at Louise like a bad magician. A touch of the old romantics, she’d called it, before giving the few worth displaying pride of place on the kitchen table.
“It really is very kind of you,” Mrs Pritchard said whilst I juggled power drill and bag and 4 x 2. Louise had always been the handy one.
“Not at all,” I said, slamming the boot, still flinching at the memory of beheading the flowers one time. There’d been petals everywhere.
“It was ever so good of the council to report it…”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” And it wasn’t. For them. Because they hadn’t reported it.
“I’m still waiting for them to come round and sort the boiler.” We both knew that would have been the council’s priority over a manky old shed. I gave her what Louise called the snaggle-toothed smile.
“Ah, well, it’ll be nice to be able to use it again,” Mrs Pritchard said. “I s’pose the hot water’ll have to wait.”
Mrs Pritchard led me towards the familiar front door. Stockinged feet or not – she looked the type to insist on stockinged feet – I stayed plumb where I was and did the nod-nod thing at my tools and my paint-spattered clothes.
“I’ll let you round the back.”
“No, that’s alright.” I shuffled my way up the path, turned right, paused at the gate and, without looking, reached through and round to the latch. Mrs Pritchard remarked on how most people found the gate such a fiddle. The snaggle-teeth were once again deployed. These houses were all the same, I told her. Same front doors, same internal layout, same gates. Same sheds, too. Minus any of the householders’ idiosyncratic touches, of course.
“That old thing on the door, you mean? Oh, I like that.”
Yes, I told her. So did I.
“It shouldn’t take too long,” I said. “Just a matter of taking up the old floor – that should stop the rot. Keep her safe for a few more years, at least.”
The stepping stones had gone. I’d once hopped them, blindfolded, playing some deliciously difficult kids’ game that an adult of my then serious standing would never have been seen dead enjoying.
Mrs Pritchard offered tea. If she’d suggested coffee, black, two sugars, I might have dropped the tools right there.
I might have said yes to the offer.
I’d never been much of a coffee drinker before. Or after, come to that.
Mrs Pritchard’s sandals clopped back into the kitchen via the back door that led to the downstairs utility room where Maisie had kept her doll theatre. I put the tools down and breathed in the familiar unfamiliarity of the garden. The lavender had gone. So had the little bed that Maisie had dug. There’d been an upside-down flowerpot painted with rosy-cheeked face and freckles. She’d put her sprouting Mohican-haired potato on top so he could better catch the rays. And I’d forgotten until this non-lavender-scented moment.
I had almost left it too long before coming back.
I put my hand out to the purple-painted wood and remembered the day Louise had said she’d paint it and damn the council. I told her I’d help her damn the council, too.
And, for a time, I had.
The kettle clicked. I wondered if the kitchen was still painted that vivid green. I remembered the day I’d arrived, mid-afternoon, fresh from work, to find Louise up a ladder slapping the paint about. I remembered how that day had ended. I remembered the view out of the kitchen window, towards the shed. And the heart that hadn’t been there on my first visit.
I reached out to touch it. I was here, doing a job, almost legitimately. I was allowed this much.
It was plastic.
But I was prepared for the eventuality.
With Mrs Pritchard whistling in the kitchen that, for me, had to stay forever Louise’s green, and before I turned my attention to the rotting wood, I opened the bag at my feet and took out the fresh wreath I’d bought that morning.
If nothing else, at least this time I had taken the trouble to stop off at a florist.
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018's "Not So Funny Now" about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, the Daily Drunk, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and Safe and Sound Press. His co-written, completed six-part BBC radio sit com remains unproduced but available to interested producers!