CEDRIC’S PRAYER by Peter Hilton
The radio/alarm clock bursts into life, waking Cedric to the sound of the Today programme. Maud is already downstairs and mouth-watering breakfast smells rise to greet him. He pads across to the window and pulls back the curtains. Bright morning sunlight streams in. Bugger! Summery weather again! On the radio, the weather forecast informs him it will remain warm and dry all day and Cedric swears to himself, as he makes his way to the bathroom.
The kitchen table is laid, the kids are in their chairs and Maud is piling heaps of sizzling bacon onto their plates.
“Hello Dad, Lovely morning,” says Horace, as his father joins them. He winks at his sister Millie and they wait for their father’s reaction.
“What’s so ruddy good about it?” demands Cedric. If this continues much longer, it’ll be bread and water for breakfast, for all of us.”
“Don’t swear at the children, dear,” says Maud. “And don’t be so pessimistic. The summer won’t last for ever.” Cedric mutters something inaudible and pours cereal into a bowl.
“Once your business takes off, we’ll be rolling in money,” says Millie, suppressing a giggle. “You told us so.” She catches her mother’s eye and decides to say no more.
“It’s no joking matter. I sank all my redundancy money into that kiosk. It’s our only source of income,” says Cedric and pushes his plate away.
“When you opened in the spring, you did really well,” says Maud.
“Yes, for a month or so, but as soon as those April showers were over, business slumped.”
Maud follows him into the hall and whispers as he puts his coat on, “I know we’re a bit short, dear, but we’ll just have to economise. The kids can give that school trip a miss, for a start. There’ll be another one next year.” She hands him his briefcase, “Better hurry, now. Don’t want to miss your train.”
As Cedric leaves the house, his next-door neighbour waves to him over the hedge, “Beautiful morning!” he calls, “It’s going to be hot today.”
“Too ruddy hot!” says Cedric, “We could do with some rain.” He hurries to the station and positions himself on the platform, directly opposite a Fosters Lager poster across the tracks. This is where he stands every morning, knowing that, when the train stops, the door to his regular carriage will be right in front of him. He has done this every morning of his working life. A voice behind him calls, “Morning, Cedric. What a nice day!” and he turns to find his friend Ross approaching. “Alright for some,” he grumbles.
“How’s the business going?” asks Ross, “You should be raking it in. Couldn’t have a better location.”
“The location is fine. It’s this ruddy weather that’s the problem.”
“Ah, that’s why you’re looking so down in the mouth. I suppose all this sunshine is bad news for you.”
“Ruddy-well is. I wish it would rain.”
“Cheer up, Cedric! Here comes the train.”
They settle into their usual seats and open their newspapers. The same commuters who sit opposite them every morning, sit down opposite them and open their newspapers. The train moves off. Cedric cannot concentrate on the news. He is worried. He needs to confide in someone. “I’ve been in retail all my life,” he tells Ross. “Started as a delivery boy for our grocer. Landed a job with a national company and was loyal to them for 20 years. Worked my way up from shop assistant, to shop manager, to area manager, and then what? I’m suddenly made redundant, without any warning. Just to make way for the MD’s son. Bastards!” Ross makes sympathetic noises. Cedric sinks lower in his seat. He glowers at the scene passing by outside. Sheep and cattle graze in green fields, or lie under shady trees, smoke rises from the chimneys of quaint farmsteads. Winding lanes and verdant hedges pass by, all bathed in glorious sunshine. Cedric finds it too depressing to watch and returns to his newspaper, banishing the sunlit countryside from his mind. He passes over an article on Brexit and reads a book revue on “The Gods of Antiquity”. Cedric says a silent prayer to the weather god, begging for rain.
Outside the window, leafy avenues lined with houses appear, as the scene morphs from rural to suburban. Soon the trees too are gone, replaced by rows of terraced cottages, He looks into grubby backyards formed of grey bricks and paving slabs, adorned with dustbins. Nappies flutter on washing lines and dogs bark at the passing train, as it draws into London. At Paddington, Ross heads for the underground, while Cedric approaches a row of kiosks at one side of the concourse. He pauses and scans the window display in Sock Shop, admires the brightly coloured offerings in Tie Rack, and walks quickly past Knicker Drawer. At the last one before the station exit, he stops, pulls out a bunch of keys and raises the security shutter. He steps inside Brolly Box and looks around despondently at his substantial stock of unsold umbrellas. He begins to arrange some of the cheaper ones on a display stand, which he places outside. On a large piece of white card, he writes “Reduced – Special offer” and hangs it on the display. He sits down and waits for his first customer. As the morning progresses, the temperature rises steadily, in inverse proportion to Cedric’s spirits. One or two people glance in as they pass but only person comes inside. “Excuse please,” he says, “Which way, St Mary’s Hospital?”
At noon, his young assistant, walks in. “Hello, Cedric,” she says, “My god, it’s hot out there.” She rolls up the sleeves of her white top, revealing a desert island tattoo.
“Morning Sharon. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
Sharon sits down, takes out her phone and her thumbs flicker, as she starts a text message. Cedric says nothing. She is only here to relieve him for an hour, so he can take a lunch-break. He consults his watch. “I’m going to get a bite to eat, Sharon. Then, I might walk across the park and stretch my legs a little. I need some exercise. While I’m gone, please pack those multi-coloured plastic umbrellas in a box. They’ll never sell. I’m going to get rid of them. I’m sure you’ll manage but you’ve got my number, if you need me.”
“OK. See you, Cedric.”
It seems even hotter outside, and humid too. Cedric is glad he left his jacket in the kiosk. He walks to Bayswater Road and in his usual pub, The Swan, he orders his usual lunch, a pie and a pint. He decides to sit outside, where he can enjoy the fresh air and look across the road to Kensington Gardens. The little seating area is crowded but he finds a vacant seat in the shade of a parasol and takes a deep draught of cool bitter. If only he could get the image of all that unsold stock out of his mind. By the time he’s finished his pie, the sky is becoming ominously dark. An overweight man at the next table cups a hand behind his ear. “Was that thunder?” he asks, looking up at the sky. “Just an aircraft, I expect,” says Cedric, “The weather forecast didn’t mention …” But before he can finish, the pub, the park, the whole world, is suddenly illuminated by a flash of brilliant white light and a deafening crash, just overhead, that drowns out the traffic noise. Large drops of water hit Cedric’s empty plate and splash into his beer. People pick up their drinks and rush inside the pub. There is a crush at the door, as people struggle to get inside. Cedric stops in the doorway and looks out, his face beaming. My prayer is answered, he thinks. It’s like a monsoon out there.
“Wish I’d brought an umbrella,” says the fat man.
“I know where you can get one,” says Cedric. He turns to face the crowded room. “If anyone would like an umbrella,” he announces, “I have some I can offer you at very competitive prices. This may be only a shower but there will probably be more to come.” Through the streets of Paddington, Cedric leads a line of soaked and dripping figures to the station. People rushing in other directions hurry past, clasping plastic bags and soggy newspapers over their heads. On the station concourse, he finds a queue at the entrance to his kiosk. Sharon is handing out umbrellas, and collecting cash, as fast as she can. Newly disembarked passengers are anxious to protect their thin shirts and summer dresses. Cedric hears the ping of the till as more money is dropped in. Ah! The sound of music. He motions to his followers to join the queue. “Serve these customers, please Sharon, and hand me that carton of disposable plastic umbrellas. I’m going outside to sell them on the street.”
That night, Cedric returns home, damp and tired but happy. He plants a big kiss on his wife’s cheek and presents her with a dozen red roses. Then he opens his briefcase, and Maud’s eyes open wide at the sight of wads of banknotes. “This is only part of it,” he tells her. The credit card payments are already in the bank and I’ll be paying this lot in tomorrow. Tell the kids they are both going on that school trip.”
“Where did this money come from?” asks Maud.
“I prayed, and my prayer was answered,” says Cedric.
“So Foul and Fair a Day I Have not Seen.” by Helen Stewart
British Pensioners Killed in Lightning Strike. As Beth scrolled down the highlights of the BBC news on her mobile phone the headline caught her attention. She didn’t know what it was about this particular piece that made her wish to read more but, with her neighbours away on a trip to the Far East, she immediately thought the worst.
“Two British pensioners were hit by lightning on Inle Lake, Myanmar, yesterday. The husband and wife were killed instantly. Names have not been released until members of their family have been contacted.”
Beth uttered a cry. She knew in her heart that the couple involved were Bill and Jean from the house next door. It just had to be. Where was the postcard she had just received?
“Flight over was monotonous but two days in charming Yangon has cheered us up. We’re going up river tomorrow and then on to Inle Lake for the last part of the holiday. Hope the house is OK and the plants watered. Jean and Bill.”
A wave of hysterical laughter mixed with some guilt washed over Beth. She thought back to that evening last summer when, as new neighbours, William and Jean Duncan, (“Call me Bill”) had been sitting in her garden drinking a bottle of wine. They had politely praised her wild flower patch and informed Beth about their plans for a pergola and some decking. Jean had enquired if the black cat she had seen had belonged to Beth and Beth had acknowledged that she did but explained she did not like strangers and was hiding.
“Jean doesn’t like cats. Nasty, little creatures. Leave their fur everywhere. Good thing it’s not around.”
They then explored other topics. Beth was quizzed over her reading habits but they lost interest when she confessed to be a lover of Shakespeare.
“Bloody hell, not touched that since I was at school,” was Bill’s boast. “Even then I avoided it as much as possible. Think I saw the film of “Macbeth” once. Couldn’t follow the plot. ”
Jean appeared to read anything with a “touch of romance in it,” whilst Bill read nothing now but The Daily Mail. “Never been one to like books.”
“Holidays” was the next topic and the Duncans perked up as they went through their planned trips for the following year.
“We’re off to Myanmar next March. You know, Burma.” Bill’s tone implied that Beth wouldn’t recognise its new name.
“It’s going to be thrilling,” Jean supplied a little breathlessly. She looked adoringly at her portly husband. “We’re ending the ten days at a four star hotel on the edge of a massive lake. Aren’t we Bill?”
“Inle Lake. Have you heard of it Beth?”
“As a matter of fact I have,” but before she could elaborate and remind them, again that she, too, was well travelled, Bill indicated to their terraced house next door.
“That’s why we down-sided. To give us the freedom to go away more. Just shut up the front door and off we go!”
“That’s why we don’t have any pets, ” added Jean. “They’re too demanding and it’s not fair on them if we’re always on holiday.”
Beth thought about her own cat and wondered where she was hiding. “Sensible little thing,” she reflected.
Bill handed out his glass for another refill and nodded towards his wife, “Actually, Beth, Jean does have something to ask you. Please feel free to say “No” but we don’t know anyone else around here yet.”
“Go ahead. I’m intrigued.”
With a nod from her husband Jean continued, “We have a few special, house plants that won’t survive without watering whilst we’re away. Would you be an absolute angel and look after them for us?”
So it had been arranged that Beth would keep a spare key to number 64 and would take care of their plants. The evening had finished soon after , once the bottle was empty, and once they had “got what they wanted” thought a cynical Beth.
Months passed with little communication between the neighbours apart from the occasional , “Good morning,” or “You must come in for a coffee sometime,” until, one day in May, a note was pushed through her letter box. Scribbled inside the folded piece of paper were the words: Off to Myanmar. Don’t forget the plants! Back on the 18th. Jean.
Over a cup of coffee, Beth reread the news item. Myanmar. Where were they going? Inle Lake? Beth allowed her mind to drift, to go back in time and space. She saw herself in a small, canoe-like boat in the middle of an enormous inland lake. A teenage lad was in charge of the smelly outboard motor which ensured they progressed across the vast expanse of water passing local men in their conical hats, fishing and steering with one leg. She had seen their guide slip them some money so perhaps it was an act for tourists or was it to pay for their willing acceptance of hundreds of photographs on a daily basis?
She remembered there was no visible sun and everything was grey; grey water and a grey sky. Only the Shan Hills in the distance gave any indication where the earth ended and the heavens began. Suddenly, without warning, the sky lit up in front of the boat as a streak of white light brightened the horizon. This was followed by the inevitable rumble of thunder. Then the rain started; striking them like cold arrows and soaking every square inch of their holiday clothes. A general panic followed as plastic cagoules were hastily put on but wet clothes were already clinging to naked skin. Small umbrellas were passed along the boat but Beth had thought the metal ribs didn’t seem particularly sensible under the circumstances. There was no escaping the storm. They just had to endure it and pray, as the visual and sensory parts of the storm became one, that they would escape with no more than saturated clothing. Beth could place herself back there as if it were only yesterday.
The story of the two British pensioners killed in a lightning storm in Myanmar was the second item after more negative news about the NHS on the six o’clock BBC bulletin. This time they were named.
“William and Jean Duncan were killed instantly when lightning struck their boat on a lake in Myanmar. Consular officials are………”
Beth stopped listening as her black cat, Hecate, jumped up onto her lap.
“Hello sweetheart. Did you hear the news? What a good thing I didn’t bother with the plants. Now who’s next on our bucket list? What about that awful woman who has taken over the corner shop? Didn’t I hear her say she was off to Egypt for a holiday? I remember going on a balloon trip over Luxor and , you know, they can be incredibly dangerous especially if the wind whips up.”