I scurried down the road to the train station that morning a few minutes late (as I always was back then) in the faint rain. Sheepish and damp, my slippery sandals wearing a welt into the side of my foot.
The train had just left as I creaked through the turnstile, so I bought a coffee and paced the platform, cursing my bad habits.
I tried to call Lenny to tell her I’d be one train behind. The phone rang and rang. I pictured it sounding in the bright-yellow little kitchen where she kept the eggs on the counter like so many English do. She didn’t pick up. She must already be in the car, on the way. Would she know to wait?
Over the loudspeaker: the train to Birmingham was delayed several hours.
A man next to me struck up a conversation, distracting me from my anxiety. He was going to Birmingham for a job interview. Neat leather portfolio in hand. He lived in Cherry Hinton with his mother. He was from Ghana. I told him I’d lately had the best meal of my life at a Ghanaian food stand in London. He wasn’t surprised. It strikes me now that he didn’t seem flustered by the lateness of the train. I don’t remember his name.
He was such a sweet man and he gave me no reason for discomfort, but as I always do I froze when he asked for my number. “I have to tell you,” I said, resorting to the truth that always sounds so cowardly, “I have a boyfriend.”
“That’s great! I just want to be your friend.”
I must have said something toying with the line between doubt and generosity. I gave him my number.
When my train arrived we said goodbye and I got on for Audley End. It was a short ride, no more than twelve minutes, and as we heaved between the hedgerows I kept looking at my phone. He never did call. This was back when I expected a call, not a text, from a new contact. I sound old saying that.
Neither did Lenny call, of course, because her only phone was plugged into the wall at her house.
Arriving, I ran off the train and down into the parking lot to find Lenny standing next to her car with her walking sticks supporting her, one in each hand, looking solid and fierce behind her glasses.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I tried to call.”
“That’s all right, dear. I knew you’d be on the next one, and if you weren’t then I’d go home and see if you’d rung.”
I don’t remember if I gave her a hug. We’d only met twice before: once when I was twelve and my grandmother brought me to visit her. She’d offered me wine, and I’d said in refusal “I’m twelve,” at which point she offered sherry instead. The next time I’d met her had been just a month before this meeting, when I’d stayed with her and my grandmother and mother in her sloping four-hundred-year-old house just down the hill from the thousand-year-old church just before I started summer school. She was nearly ninety, and I was twenty, and now we might be friends as well as distant cousins.
We got in the car and closed the doors, and she pulled out into the street. With her remarkable speed we flew by the sprawling grounds of Audley End, and through the old market town of Saffron Walden, then out into the countryside and the glistening fields of rapeseed.
She could not walk without her sticks, and yet drove with the reckless abandon of a teenaged boy to whom the thought of death had never occurred. I concealed my clutching fingers under my legs on the plush seat, and tried to reconcile myself with impending doom. I distracted myself, looking out the window at the sun gleaming off the bright yellow-green hills, by wondering about the colorful armies who must have galloped over them during the last few thousand years. Just a few miles away there was a trio of ancient burial mounds hidden casually in a copse behind a church.
The anonymity and broadness of all the bodies who have shared that space enveloped my mind.
Arriving in her tiny townlet of Hadstock, Lenny parked her car on the narrow road in front of her house. The hollyhocks swayed in the damp late summer. Inside, we drank tea at her kitchen table and talked about her trip to Bruges. A postcard of it hung above us on the wall.
Enough time remained for us to have lunch before I needed to catch the train for my afternoon classes. She took me (flying as though at warp speed down the winding lanes again) to her favorite pub. The Crown. I had a meat pie and lemonade, and for reasons I cannot remember we talked about little but death. Its strange beauty.
Later she would tell my grandmother that she never felt so close to a young person before, and the thought of that makes me happy still.
After she dropped me off at the train station, I never saw her again. She moved out of that house with its impossible stairs, and a few years later when I thought of her I looked the place up online. It had a “For Sale” sign, and the one next to it, too. The hollyhocks are gone from the front garden, and Lenny has moved on out of this life.