The old man at number forty-two waved at me. I'd seen him before as I marched home from the station. This evening, instead of sitting on the porch, he was in the garden pruning his camellia tree.
We always smiled or nodded a greeting at each other, nothing more, just a salute between strangers. But now here he was, ambling slowly towards the gate with a flower raised in his right hand and secateurs in the other.
'Nice day we're having,' he said.
I reluctantly slowed down to agree.
'Bit dry though,' he added. 'My garden's dying off. Shame to see the camellias all browning up.'
'Mm,' I replied, not happy to have my routine broken. Your garden still looks nice though.'
'Ah, not really the same since my wife died. She used to take care of that sort of thing. A real green thumb, she was.' He smiled wistfully at the flower in his hand.
'I'm sorry to hear that,' I mumbled dutifully.
He looked up quickly.
'Don't be love. That's life, isn't it? Some might call me lucky... Are you looking forward to Christmas?'
Christmas was three days away. My last day of work was tomorrow and then I could start looking forward to a week of sleep-ins, barbeques and drinking some wine.
'Yes I am,' I smiled in spite of my impatience. 'We're spending it with my husband's side this year.'
I hesitated, feeling myself inadvertently drawn into proper conversation. 'How about yourself?'
'I'm not up to much. I'll just be here.' The old man absently swept his arm up towards the house.
'Any family coming around?' I delved.
'No, my daughter's family is up in North Queensland and I don't see much of my son these days.'
'You'll have to make a nice dinner then, to celebrate,' I said, attempting to crack the awkwardness of the situation.
'Nah, probably just have the usual sandwiches.'
Horrified, I search his creased expression for traces of self pity. There were none. He smiled again.
'It's alright, I've had some good Christmases, I've got my memories. Here,' he extended his arm, crackled and sun-spotted, pushing the camellia into my hand. 'A pretty flower for a pretty girl.'
'Thank you.' I took his offering and inhaled the delicate fragrance.
'I'd better be going,' I said slowly. Suddenly I wanted to carefully wrap this fragile old man up and take him away with me. 'I'm Karen by the way.'
'John,' he replied. 'Pleased to meet you.'
'Bye then.' I began to wander slowly up the footpath.
'Merry Christmas, cheerio.' He went back to his pruning while twenty steps away I walked on, fighting back tears. Could I ask him to the family Christmas dinner?'
'Yes!' My conscience screamed.
But my husband's family? Would they think I was completely man, inviting a stranger into their home? Their Christmas was entwined with their own traditions. Too many presents and plenty of barbequed prawns. How could it possibly work?
It wouldn't hurt to ask.
I stopped and began to walk back the way I'd just come.
Paused again and stared over the lawns, just glimpsing the top of the camellia tree.
I swung back in the direction of my own house.
And kept walking.
(Originally published in 'Prism' magazine, NZ)