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The befriender

by Louise Smith

When I first met Grace
her shortness of breath meant her living space
had reduced to just one room
in her neat terraced home.
Up too-steep stairs her candlewick bedspread
lay long undisturbed, and instead
she slept upright, clothed, under crocheted blankets,
slippered feet on patterned carpet.

Trust growing slowly with regular visits,
she reveals an independent spirit,
tells tales of a girlhood in the Caribbean
before travelling east, becoming a doyenne
of the Manchester scene; an exciting life -
never as a mother, never as a wife.
But she can’t get out much now, she understates proudly:
she’s outlived her brother, sometimes she’s lonely.

One rainy day in early April,
I arrive to see that a length of red wool
is strung between the prints of Jamaican birds,
displaying a dozen or more birthday cards.
I congratulate her on having so many friends
who’ve remembered to wish her happy returns.
‘Have a look if you like’ she shrugs, and then
with a fierce, proud eye and a jutting chin
dares me not to not to speak, not to empathise
as I read the messages, the names, and realise
that five of them are from her dead brother,
and the rest are old too, put up one year after another.

Later I post a card and imagine
her slow, breathless work to fasten
it to the red wool, how she might feistily berate me,
with a smile, for sending her card belatedly.

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