The boy had travelled more than four hundred miles to meet her. That was what she called him to herself, “the boy”, even though he must have been forty or thereabouts. What immediately impressed her, however, was his resemblance to his father, when he was far younger than his son was now: the same smile, the same physique and way of holding himself, and almost the same face; yes, she suddenly found herself looking at almost the same face, as if time had turned back.
She would have recognized him at once even if she’d met him somewhere else, in a different place or in different circumstances, rather than at that prearranged hour, in her house.
He seemed, therefore, terribly familiar, although the feeling was evidently not mutual. For him, she was a stranger and a matter of complete indifference. She sensed that no sooner had he arrived than he was longing for the visit to be over.
And yet she welcomed him as warmly and spontaneously as she would an old friend, inviting him to sit down and have a cup of tea. She asked if the journey had been tiring, and he said no, doubtless purely out of politeness and without saying anything more, allowing a brief silence to grow.
She had a thousand questions she would like to ask: what he did, if he had children, where he had studied, where he lived. She wanted to be able to place him in the world, to know who he was.
She suppressed that impulse though. She could not submit him to an avalanche of questions, at least not in that importunate way.
After all, she thought, putting a sugar lump in her cup (just to do something, because she never usually took sugar), if he didn’t want to tell her the reason for his visit straight out, he could, just to gain time, at least show a little interest, however false, in the elderly lady sitting before him. He could thank her for her warm welcome or comment on some detail in the living room, for example, the lovely children in the photographs right next to his tea cup. He could even ask if they were her grandchildren.
But that would be a personal question, which he would doubtless prefer to avoid.
Then she decided to leap over the barrier and advance resolutely into the private territory of her personal life:
“These are my grandchildren,” she said, moving one of the framed photographs so that it was facing him.
“Very nice,” the boy said politely, barely looking at the photo. “Really lovely.”
And he chose to continue in the same hesitant mode, rather than tell her the reason for his visit. He did not even mention the snow that was beginning to fall in light flakes outside the window. Perhaps he was waiting for her to do that.
But she would not speak about the snow. Southerners like her, she thought, tended to overflow with emotion with a frank, noisy ease that northerners like him envied, which is probably why they were always so critical.
In the end, she was the one to mention the snow, aware of the ridiculous inevitability of ending up talking about the weather, instead of speaking of the pleasure she took in his company, in the cosy, crackling fire, and the smell of strong tea, which the teapot kept nice and hot under the tea cosy she had patiently made last winter, a patchwork of various colours.
She waited for him to broach whatever banal topic might occur to him before he finally told her the reason for his visit, but he didn’t. And when she mentioned that it had started to snow, he merely nodded, adding that, according to the weather forecast, the snow would linger for several days.
Then he fell silent. Her presence clearly troubled him. He seemed annoyed at having to carry out this mission, whatever it was, and sit there with this complete stranger.
Then she decided to break the silence herself, to broach the topic and say how sorry she was to hear about his father’s death.
He looked at her, somewhat surprised.
“Oh, so you knew?”
“Yes, just by chance,” she said. “It was in the newspaper.”
The boy gave a deep sigh, as if he had been relieved of half his task, and he put his cup down on the table beside him. For a few minutes, neither of them spoke.
“He asked me to give you this,” the boy said at last. “In person. That’s why I phoned you a while ago and asked for a few moments of your time. And I’m very grateful to you for that, I really am.”
He then took a small package from his pocket and rather clumsily handed to her.
She untied the string, removed the paper and opened a small box: inside, was a ring set with a very pale blue stone. An aquamarine.
“It used to belong to you,” said the boy, as if some explanation were necessary. “My father wanted the ring to be returned to you. It was yours.”
“Yes,” she said, slowly picking it up and turning it around on the tip of one finger. “It was mine.”