The old man grunted as I helped him up, his bones whining in protest. “You all right?” I asked, seeing his brow furrowed in pain.
“Yeah. Fine.” He pulled away from me and began the steep climb to the caretaker's cottage alone, his breath labored, each step hesitant. I frowned to myself, and began trudging along the path after him, thinking over what he had said.
Mr. Liddel was a quiet man, his long stretches of silence usually broken only by the occasional “good job.” I’d worked for him for a solid two months now, planting flowers, bushes, and the like side-by-side with him; sharing the same tools, the same cottage, and the same meals. Yet, before today, the longest speech I’d heard from him was a monologue on the proper use of a spade. He was a mystery to me, which, quite frankly, I was perfectly content with. I didn’t particularly enjoy divulging the dregs of the past myself. I respected his silence, and he respected mine.
All the same, tonight’s words had stirred some curiosity in me. I couldn’t help but wonder about Mr. Liddel’s history, or about the long, raised scar that framed his left eye. Occasionally, I would catch him stroking it, his eyes cast toward the bay, a pained expression cast upon his lined features. I wondered if—
“Matthew? You coming in?”
I blinked, startled out of my reverie. Shivering, I quickened my pace, wrapping my jacket close. Five minutes later, I reached what Mr. Liddel fondly referred to as his “little spot of paradise.” As I paused and caught my breath, I let a smile crawl across my face, taking in the familiar view. The walk might have been tedious, but I had to admit that it was worth it. The cottage was situated on a grassy bluff, surrounded by flowers of all hues. An oak tree stood to its side, its gnarled branches spreading out in every direction, perfect for sitting under during a hot summer’s day. To the south, the bay stretched outwards, its waves gently lapping at the shore below. To the north, the Grand Hotel stood, radiating elegance and prestige, every tree, bush, and flower dotting its lawns attended to tirelessly by Mr. Liddel.
As a brisk wind blew in from the south, I reluctantly turned away and took the final steps to the cottage. Taking a deep breath, I savored the cool night air and stepped onto the threshold, shutting the door tightly behind me.
“Took you long enough,” Mr. Liddel said gruffly. “Want some coffee?” I nodded my head in response, grateful for the offer. Sinking down into the dilapidated couch, I took the cup he gave me and wrapped my hands around it, attempting to soak in the heat radiating from it. Mr. Liddel took his seat at the kitchen table, his hands shaking slightly as he placed the mug in front him. He didn’t look out of place in this worn-out house, where everything was composed of sleepy, faded colors, the furniture made out of oak — sturdy, stubborn, and solid. The sole decorations were a lonely line of pictures on the mantle of whom I presumed to be his family — although he never spoke of them — and a threadbare blanket draped across the back of the couch. Once, during the first week of my stay, I had reached for it to wrap around myself to help fight the chill, to only be stopped by Mr. Liddel, who had placed his hand on my shoulder and asked me to put it down. Annoyed, I had inquired why. Mr. Liddel had only turned away and stared out the window, answering my question clearly enough with his back. There had been no mention of the blanket since. But, as I turned back around to face Mr. Lidell, I saw him glance furtively in its direction. He saw me studying him intently, and hurriedly turned away, wiping a single tear off his leathery cheek.