There was still this thing that drew Olive Brett to Jackson's petrol pumps whenever her driving took her near that town. Here she was again on the shabby courtyard at the town's edge, the two pumps standing like figures on a raised dais of concrete, scallop-shells for heads; the blue one dispensing 'premium' petrol for drivers of more opulent cars, the grey one dispensing 'regular' for drivers of Morris Minors, Anglias, scut-trucks. Olive sometimes wondered if she got regular instead of premium would her brown Ford Cortina break down, but not often - she was far too busy with other things. And now the young lad was running out of the ivy-clad old house to serve her, his white shirt open, a little Jack Russell at his heels. She knew him, Willie, first born of Lily Jackson, grandson of old William Jackson who had installed the pumps where once had been a privet-hedged rose-garden.
"Little man," she said, "will you fill me up?"
The petrol seemed to empty endlessly into the tank and the day was glorious and long. The small mountain behind the town faced the sun and appeared to be balancing on its peak a large Marian Cross that shone like a sword. These impressions merged in Olive's mind as she sat in the warmth of her seat and bees drifted above the escallonia beside the dustbin and the numbers clinked on the petrol gauge - three and elevenpence, four shillings, four and a penny - passing like the dates on a moving calendar.
Olive was thinking of Lily. She was always thinking of Lily; where was she now? She'd known Lily since she'd been a girl, remembered her as a young woman serving men at the pumps. She could still see her:
"How mut petrol?" Her self-conscious mumble, tongue clinging to the roof of her mouth.
"I'll tell ya when to stop, Lily." Those yokels: petrol gushing into their tanks; arms, dusted with pig-ration, hanging from opened car windows. Eyes crossed from having to look at the petrol gauge, at the same time down Lily's blouse. They'd made Olive's blood boil, squinty-eyed fools, hungry to have a gawk. They were always sure to tell Lily when to stop though, no waste of petrol for those hard chaws, no sirree girlie. Never dribble one drop.
Olive remembered a particular day she pulled in for petrol with her usual, "hello, Lily". And Lily didn't answer, instead cried big drops on to the dusty ground. This was a few years after Lily had given birth to Willie, though another story had been put about by her parents: Lily's mother had the baby; that was the story. An accommodation which people got used to and life carried on.
"What's the matter, Lily?"
"He was very rude, Mrs."
"Him that's Willie's father. What he said when I told him it was after happening again."
"Poor Lily. What did he say?"
"He said, 'Can't you let people think this one's your parents' papoose too, same as the first one? Everybody is laughing like jackasses at ye anyway'. But I can't do that, Mrs Brett. I can't bear them laughing at Mama and Dada."
"I'd give him a welt on his tongue. Who is he?"
"Married out the road. Will you help me?"
Olive did: Told Lily's parents that she'd get their daughter a job in a Dublin hotel. And then, for those months of Lily's confinement, Olive kept her at her own house. And when baby Heather was born, Olive adopted her - Heather would be sister to her own kids. Lily went to Dublin after that. She wrote back: "Thanks for your help Mrs Brett. I'm never coming home. Lily."
The cars passed up and down the road, whish, whish, as Olive sat in her driver-seat considering, and the petrol pump clanked. She knew why Lily had turned to her for help that time: There hadn't been many others she'd been able to count on. And she'd only been sure of Olive because she'd known Olive as the district nurse.
Olive remembered her early impressions of the Jackson household - Protestants, isolated except for Sundays, when they drove, a bubble of self-containment, to the church in the next parish.
Few but Olive would have seen into the plain kitchen: spotless stone floors that always looked as though they'd been scrubbed, un-storied lives. And Lily's mother: Willow Jackson, red hands always hovering over the table, weak tea, homemade biscuits from a tin; cars idling just beyond the front door.
Here was where the men who pulled in for petrol studied Lily, the hank of lard-blonde hair sliding across her wide face, and decided her future.
Here was where life began for the little boy who would one day take over the garage from his grandfather and probably modernise it like most other garages were already doing: new pumps, little shop, space to take a break on a journey and eat an ice-cream. Here was where Olive would never take little Heather, never show her to the worn woman in the cool kitchen or the bent man in the grease-windowed workshop behind.
"You're filled, Mrs," the young lad thrilled, a clarion of light and pleasure. He clamped the cap over the petrol vapour. Olive felt her heart move: his Mama, as he knew her, would soon be mashing his potatoes, making a well in the middle and pouring boiled mutton into it, soft and falling off the bone. He'd pick out lumps of fat and feed them into the mouth of his terrier, Monty, when his Mama wouldn't be looking.
Was that what made Olive's heart so suddenly burst with love: a place such as this - an apron of cracked cement where a garden once rooted; a faded embroidery 'Home Sweet Home' framed beside a front door; a sign saying SHELL that swung on hinges needing oil, that squeaked 'this-is-the-story, this-is-the-story'.
Here on a spot on a road departing a small town.