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Interludes: Saturday Morning

...Oh please, can I come in?” he said. His voice was little more than a whisper...

The small middle-aged man and his dog are allowed into the hallway of a terrace house. And there he ambarks on that long and mysterious journey from which there is no return. Sylvia West tells of an astonishing event.

Some years ago, on a bright Saturday morning, I was washing up after breakfast when suddenly, I knew I should go to the front door. My son was upstairs, and his friend was expected at coffee time. I took the milk bottle with me and went to the door and there, just beginning to climb the three brick steps up from the road was a middle-aged man and a little dog. By no means old, just middle-aged, and small, with a neat, careful appearance.

“Oh please, can I come in?” he said. His voice was little more than a whisper.

“Of course,” I said, and I opened wide the door so that they could come in together. It’s an old house in the middle of a terrace, and the hall is snug and carpeted. By the wall was a pair of my son’s trainers, none too clean, just cast off there the night before, but the man came in and sank down to his knees, and with a sound that was born of utter relief, he put his head on the shoes and lay down. With impeccable timing my son came downstairs and said nothing whatsoever on seeing the drama that was unfolding below. I asked him with the fewest possible words to take the dog into the kitchen and close the door. Thankfully, it was only a harmless little mongrel with gentle eyes.

The man had not said a word, and I knelt down beside him. I thought he might refer to some sort of medication or ask for water, but there was nothng, only that first long sigh of homecoming. It was Saturday morning: there’s normally no surgery and you have to ring an alternative number to find a doctor. Perhaps an Angel of Mercy was on standby, for I did ring the surgery and a doctor was there and he did say he would come immediately. A small miracle.

My unexpected yet somehow anticipated visitor was not going to be there much longer, I thought, so I knelt beside him and held his hand. The slightest movement of his fingers told me that he knew someone was there, and that he was not alone. The old house must have embraced many comings and goings, and after no more than a minute or two, the visitor left. There was one more long, long sigh, and he was gone. The little dog knew: a plaintive howl came from the kitchen and I stayed there beside him until the doctor arrived, and pronounced the man dead.

It was to be a day of twitching lace curtains, for after the doctor had done what he should, we had to wait for the police. It was a couple of hours afterwards that the men in black came with a body bag. I was asked if I minded having a corpse lying in my hall; I said I didn’t. Once the spirit had left, he was once again just a stranger.

They were able to discover who he was, of course, by going through his pockets. His car had broken down or run out of petrol half a mile away by the cricket green, so why he had wandered into this little cul-de-sac and up the steps to my house was a mystery. The police took the dog and eventually he was taken by a relative, but while they were still inside making notes and asking questions, Cris suddenly remembered that his friend was due any minute.

“You’ll have to warn him,” I said. “He can’t come in with all this going on. He certainly can’t come in till the undertakers have been.”

Our conversation was interrupted by the sound of Harvey’s car swinging round the corner and going to the top of the road to turn round. With a police car outside our house, he must have already had an inkling that something untoward was going on.

“I’ll tell him,” said my son, and leaving the dog in the kitchen, he shot through the front door. I didn’t, of course, myself hear what was said, but it must have gone something like this:

“Hi Cris.”

“Hi Harvey. I’m afraid it’s off, you can’t come in today.”

“Why not? Why can’t I come in?”

“You can’t. There’s a stiff in the hall, that’s why.”
“Yeah, yeah, tell me another one.”

With difficulty, Harvey was persuaded that it was true. He drove sedately away with one eye on the arm of the law, and Cris returned to resume dogwatch. The whole strange episode finally came to a close by lunchtime.

A week or two later I had a letter from the man’s sister thanking me for looking after him at the end. It hadn’t occurred to me that I needed any thanks for holding someone’s hand, even though he was embarking on a long and mysterious journey. One thing I am sure of. He was peaceful and he was warm before he set off: so much better than collapsing at the roadside where no-one could hold his hand.

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