Fiction: A Visitor at the Cottage

 

Mary and Tom had been coming to the cottage for the better part of fifteen years now. The owner, Bob Bender gave them preferred status against his other renters and so Mary and Tom managed to get just about any time they wanted throughout the year. Of course, they had to book time in advance but Bob always made sure they had first dibs and had only modestly raised their rent over the years. Bob knew Mary and Tom were good people, responsible and very tidy, so he always explained he would rather get less rent than to have to deal with the horrors landlords always complained about when they had the misfortune of getting a bad tenant.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, a long weekend. Mary and Tom had played host to the kids and their significant others so Sunday saw the entire family together, ten people in total, for a turkey dinner with all the fixings. As per usual Mary, with Tom's help, had gone all out preparing a beautiful bird with stuffing, gravy, the usual assortment of vegetables and mashed potatoes, then finishing the meal off with pumpkin pie and whipped cream. It was a feast and for sure a few belts had to be let out a notch afterwards.

Barry and Fred had to drive back to the city the same day with their girlfriends but Alan and his wife Barbara opted to stay over. It was a wonderful visit; the four of them having a lazy Monday morning together. The newlyweds headed home at noon and Tom went into Morrisville to visit a client. Mary had the place to herself for a few hours so she could do some last minute cleaning and pack up the few remaining items for their own trip back to the city. It had been a terrific family weekend.

Mary was at the kitchen sink when she heard a car coming down the gravel road serving the cottage. She glanced at the wall clock and thought it was far too early for Tom to be coming back. He said he wouldn't be back for at least another three hours.

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Mary dried her hands on a tea towel then stepped to the other side of the kitchen so she could look out the window to the road. An unfamiliar car was pulling up in the open area beside the cottage. Curious. Who it could be? Mary walked over to the side door and peered out at the car. The sun was on the other side of the trees and the light coming between the branches made it impossible to see inside the car. The driver's door opened and an elderly gentleman stepped out. How old was he? He was almost bald and his beard was nearly snow white. It was hard to tell. Mary had misjudged the age of people before so she wasn't going to commit to anything. Besides, what was old exactly? Here was a man still driving so he couldn't be a cripple or senile.

Pushing the screen door, Mary stepped out on the stoop and held one hand up over her eyes. "May I help you?"

The man looked up at her. "Oh, hello." He took a few steps towards her. "I'm sorry to trouble you. I had no idea if anybody would be here or not." He looked up at Mary squinting a bit. "My name is Robert Kent. I used to rent this cottage many years ago. I was just passing by and thought to take a peek at the place. I didn't mean to disturb anybody."

"No problem." Mary still held her hand over her eyes.

"Would it be an imposition if I took a few minutes to look around and, well…" Robert chuckled. "Maybe reminisce a bit?"

Mary smiled. This Robert seemed like a likeable fellow. She came down the five steps from the stoop and offered her hand. Robert smiled, stepped forward and shook it. "Mary," she said.

"A pleasure, Mary." Robert cleared his throat. "My wife and I used to come here once a year towards the end of the summer, usually Labour Day weekend. We would rent the place then invite the kids over. They didn't necessarily come for the whole week but they would make it for the long weekend. It was a nice time."

"We do the same thing with our family."

"Ah, the baton has been passed on."

Mary smiled.

Robert gestured to the lakeside of the cottage. "Would you mind if I took a couple of minutes to walk down to the lake? I was hoping to have a last look at the old place."

"By all means. No trouble at all. Keep in mind that it's a little cool down there. The breeze coming in from the lake is a fall wind for sure."

"I'll zip up my jacket. Thank you."

Robert started down the path towards the lake. He turned back briefly and waved to Mary. "Thanks again. Kind of you."

Mary watched him for a few seconds then walked up the steps and went back into the cottage. She had swept out the bedrooms and the hallway so wanted to clean out the washroom at the far end of the cottage. The kids were usually clean but with ten people running in and out of there, some things get a little untidy. In any case, she would feel better if she did something. Cleaning was a good way of assuaging a guilty conscious.

Mary filled the kettle and put it on the stove. A cup of tea would rejuvenate her. And a cookie. Yes, a cookie. She dug out the cleaning spray she had brought with her then picked up a roll of paper towels. She walked across the central part of the cottage, the living room, heading toward the opposite end of the building. She glanced out the large windows towards the lake and paused. There was Robert standing close to the water. He was looking towards the other side of the lake. At anything specific? The fall air was crisp and Mary had to admit that despite the coolness, it was wonderful down by the lake listening to the lapping of the water at the shore and the occasional cry of a loon. Considering the hustle and bustle of the big city, it was great to be surrounded by this calmness, the peace of the wilderness.

She watched Robert stroll towards some logs that had been set up around a fire pit. Mary, Tom, and the kids had spent many an evening out there stoking the fire, talking, and roasting marshmallows. Well, roasting marshmallows not so much since the kids had grown up but it was great to sit around and talk. The kids had come into their own and it was so different to talk with them as adults instead of kids per se. They were all out of the nest, independent, and self-supporting. How different to talk with them of topics that didn't come up before like the economy, politics, and all sorts of grown-up subjects. Mary smiled. She and Tom had not done such a bad job after all. The kids had turned out great.

Heading down the hall, Mary put the spray bottle under one arm in order to have two hands free to rip off a few paper towels from the roll. Once at the washroom, she set about giving everything a final wipe. She never wanted to leave any mess behind. She would be horrified if the owner Mr. Bender found any disorder after they left. She had to chuckle though. A cottage never seemed as neat and tidy as one's own home. With people running in and out swimming at the beach, walking in the woods, or carrying plates of food around, a cottage got not only a lot of wear and tear but an incessant flow of leaves, twigs, and all things creepy-crawly. Despite anyone's best efforts, a cottage was never pristine. It always looked a little primitive.

Mary tucked the bottle of spray cleaner under her arm and headed back to the kitchen. She bunched up the used paper towels with the intention of putting them in the recycling box. One always had to try and be green. As she passed the main area, the living room for lack of a better term, she glanced out the large window towards the lake. She saw that Robert was coming back up from the beach. Hearing the kettle starting to whistle, she decided to offer the elderly gentleman some tea. Tom wouldn't be back for hours and this seemed like an interesting interruption.

Throwing the paper towels in the blue box, she set the other items on the kitchen counter then went to the door. She pushed open the screen door just as Robert was coming up the path.

"Mr. Kent," said Mary.

Robert looked up and smiled. "Please, call me Robert."

Mary smiled back. "I was about to have a cup of tea. I was wondering if I could offer you a cup yourself."

Robert hesitated.

"I have cookies." Mary grinned.

Robert chuckled. "You present a tempting offer, Mary. By all means. That is very kind of you."

"Why don't you step around the side to the deck and rustle us up a couple of chairs. I'll get the tea and the temptation." Mary smiled pleased with herself over the wordplay. "Do you take cream? Sugar?"

"Just a little milk, if you have it. Otherwise black."

Robert made his way around the cottage while Mary went back inside. She got out a teapot and put in a couple of teabags. Turning off the burner on the stove, she lifted the whistling kettle and poured the boiling water into the teapot. She went over to a cardboard box packed with various dry foods and dug out a carton marked Chocolate Chip Cookies. She methodically went through her check list: tray, two cups and saucers, two spoons, small container of milk, plate of cookies, and one teapot. Oh, and for good measure she added a couple of paper serviettes. It seemed pretty fancy for a cottage.

Mary carried the tray to the main area and walked up to the door which led to the deck. Robert had seen her coming and had gotten up to pull the sliding deck door open so Mary could come out. She did have to use two hands to carry the tray.

"Thank you," said Mary.

"By all means." Robert moved the two plastic chairs closer to the end of the picnic table where Mary had placed the tray. Other than the picnic table and the two chairs, the deck was empty. "Once again, thank you kindly. This is very generous of you."

"I realised you are a distance from civilization out here. It being such a nice fall day, it seemed like a waste not to take a moment and enjoy the ambiance."

Robert nodded smiling. "How true. I have many pleasant memories of the cottage. Not only this cottage, but the cottage my own parents visited every year when I was a youngster." Robert laughed. "It's hard to believe I was once a youngster. That was so long ago."

"You mentioned a little milk. Shall I splash in a bit for you?"

"Sure. I usually say enough to colour it."

Mary handed Robert a cup of tea and a napkin. "And would you care to indulge?" She held out the plate of cookies.

"Ooo, chocolate chip. Now there's something I haven't had in some time." Robert picked up one of the cookies.

"Take two. I have plenty."

"Ah, if I'm going to sin, I might as well go all out." Robert picked up a second cookie but remained standing.

Mary gestured towards one of the chairs. "Please." She picked up her own cup and a cookie then sat down. She got her cup arranged on her knee and bit into her own cookie. "We've been coming up on Thanksgiving for a few years now. The weather is usually still agreeable even though cooler than summer. There is a certain freshness in the air."

Robert fumbled with a cookie. "You're right. Fall is a nice season."

"We invite our children to come up and we have our big Thanksgiving feast here. Somehow a turkey with all the fixings goes well with a rustic setting."

Robert nodded while chewing a cookie. He swallowed then looked at Mary with a raised eyebrow. "Pumpkin pie?"

Mary smiled. "But of course."

Robert beamed. "Ah, excellent. Pumpkin pie is so much an autumn pie." Robert paused for a moment looking thoughtful. "Okay, pumpkin pie is good anytime during the year but I tend to think of it as an autumn pie, the pie of Thanksgiving."

"I don't think you'd get any argument there." Mary sipped her tea. "You said that you came here years ago."

"Yes. I think the owner…" Robert's voice trailed off.

"Bob Bender."

Robert found his thought. "Yes, Bob Bender. The cottage has been in his family for at least two generations now and twenty-five years ago when I rented it, the young Bob Bender had already taken over running the place from his dad. Gosh, how old is Bob now?"

"We sent him a card this past April. He turned eighty."

"Ah yes, now I remember. He is two years younger than myself. Good for him. I'm assuming he's still going strong."

"I must admit that we don't see him directly. I talk with him once in a blue moon but for the most part, all of our communication is done through email. My husband and I book via email then mail him a money order. Since Bob is an American, we've always sent him money orders so he doesn't have to wait several weeks for an international cheque to clear at the bank."

Robert nodded. There was a moment of silence as Robert ate another piece of cookie. "I noticed the inner tube raft is no longer around."

"I think it's been five years now that it finally gave up the ghost. Apparently Bob had repaired it several times over the years but finally, we came up here and it was sitting in the water flat as a pancake. We tried to blow it up but realised it was leaking badly from one of the seams. When we reported this, Bob decided there was no life left in the old girl and never bothered to replace it. I'm not sure anybody really misses it. Somehow it seemed like something for young children and I saw that my own children as they left their teenage years behind them lost interest in it. I know Bob's kids are middle-aged but I'm assuming that's the case for Bob's other renters." Mary took a sip of her tea. "Don't we all start coming to cottages because we have young children?"

"I suppose." Robert smiled.

"The same for your kids?"

"I guess. I don't really know."

"What do you mean?"

Robert hesitated. He suddenly looked a little uncomfortable. "I've been divorced for over twenty years now."

Mary looked at him for a moment. "I'm sorry."

Robert shrugged trying to make light of it. "Life happens. I don't know if I was busy making other plans, but life happens." Robert leaned forward slightly with a conspiratorial smile and spoke in a softer tone. "That's me slipping in a quote from John Lennon of The Beatles."

Mary looked thoughtful. "Oh yes, the Beatles. I'm unfamiliar with the quote."

"The quote is: Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Mary looked around a bit with an expression that made Robert think she was trying to understand the quote and to remember it. Maybe she would be passing that one onto her husband later in the day.

"But…" Mary paused mulling over how to put her question into words. Finally she decided to blurt it out. "But what about your children?"

Robert looked off the deck towards the lake. For the longest while he didn't say anything seemingly lost in thought. "I… I haven't spoken to them in years."

"What happened?"

Robert continued to look towards the lake. Was he too uncomfortable to look directly at Mary?

"I hurt my wife. She never forgave me. And…" Robert shrugged his shoulders in a resigned manner. "And neither did the kids."

Mary didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry."

Robert turned back to Mary and smiled. "I apologise. I'm sure that you did not want to hear a sad story on such a wonderful day."

"No… I…"

"I take it you and your family had a nice Thanksgiving weekend together."

"Yes we did."

"Those are precious moments." Robert made an effort and was back being friendly and chipper. "I have many a fond memory of family get togethers. Those are the times that will stay with you long after everybody has packed up and gone home."

Mary nodded in agreement.

"Speaking of packing up, I'm guessing you're heading back home shortly."

"Yes. I'm putting together a few last items and cleaning a bit. My husband is out running some errands and when he gets back, we load up the car and go home."

"Every trip must come to an end but hopefully when it does come to an end we can say it was a good trip." Robert stood up and put his cup and saucer back on the tray. "Mary, you have been most kind."

Mary hadn't realised Robert was going to stand up and moved quickly to put her napkin, her cup of tea, and her cookie into one hand so she too could stand. "Are you sure I can't offer you anything else?"

"I haven't eaten a chocolate chip cookie in years. That was quite the treat. It's not something I buy myself but when you don't have kids, you don't normally keep such an item. And being by myself, I can't very well buy a whole carton as I would eat only a couple then not go back for months. By that time, the remaining cookies would be stale." Robert looked at Mary questioningly. "May I, however, trouble you?"

Mary looked at him for a moment then suddenly realised what he was asking so indirectly. "The washroom? Certainly. Just go in the deck door and walk straight ahead to the kitchen. It's the door in the corner."

"Thank you." Robert walked to the sliding door and pulled it open. He turned back to Mary. "Are you coming in?"

"Yes. Please leave it open."

Robert disappeared into the cottage. Mary gathered up the various bits and pieces and put everything on the tray. She picked it up and headed back inside. Setting the tray on a chair, she turned back and pulled the sliding door shut. It may be fall and cool, but there were still insects out and those little critters managed to get in just about anywhere.

Mary busied herself washing the cups and saucers, putting away the remaining cookies, and throwing out the napkins. She heard the toilet flush then the sound of the water running in the sink. She moved away from the kitchen and waited in the main area. The door opened and Robert walked out.

"Mary, thank you once again. It's appreciated. A good cup of tea rejuvenates the spirit. I have a few hours' drive ahead of me and I think I'm now in better shape to make it without having to pull over."

"You're more than welcome."

Robert walked to the side door. He paused then stuck out his hand. Mary shook it. Robert smiled and said, "Thank you. I trust you and your husband have an uneventful journey back home."

"You too."

Robert pushed open the screen door and walked out on to the stoop and headed down the stairs to the parking area beside the cottage. He walked to his car. Mary had followed him and stood just outside the door.

"Nice to meet you."

"It was nice to meet you too, Mary."

"If you are ever in the area again, you are more than welcome to stop in if we're here. It's easy to put on the kettle and I'm sure I'll have chocolate chip cookies."

Robert chuckled. "That's very kind of you." Robert paused looking at the ground. He was thinking of something but seemed to be weighing whether or not to say it. Finally he looked up as if he had made up his mind.

"Mary, 3 weeks ago I was diagnosed with cancer and I was given six months to live. This week I start both chemo-therapy and radiation treatments but even then I was told this will not stop the disease only slow it down giving me seven or eight months instead of six. Any way you slice it, I now know how long I have got. Life is precious. I came here today as part of a car trip I gave myself to revisit some of the more important places I have known in my life. I can visit those important places of my life but I am not sure I will be able to visit all the important people of my life. It's unfortunate but like cancer, sometimes life just happens. We don't know why, but there it is."

"I enjoyed the tea and cookies. Unfortunately I will not be back. I wish you all the best, Mary. Good luck in life. Enjoy your family; enjoy your time. It is over all too soon. "

Robert opened the door and climbed into his car. He started it then backed up a bit and turned the car around. Just as he was going to head out on the gravel road, he looked at Mary through the window and waved. Then, he was gone. Mary could hear the car tires on the gravel as the car went up the grade in amongst the trees and disappeared over a small hill.

Mary stood there for a moment. She didn't really know what to think or say. What would she do if she was diagnosed with cancer? What would she do if she got a divorce? What would she do if her children no longer saw her? She certainly had plans but what if life happened?

 
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