“This is one of the best casseroles I’ve ever had”. Matthew spoke across the table to his hosts, John and Martha, his first visit to them since their marriage. “It has such a unique taste, sort of sweet, and the meat is so tender. You must give me the recipe before I leave, please”. Martha smiled. Matthew remembered that smile, friendly but never opening a way into some secret world behind it. Martha rarely said anything, leaving John to speak for them both.
They had all first met, apart from a passing nod during early classes, at university, Bristol, at a freshers’ party. They soon coalesced to form a trio after finding they were all from Yorkshire. Moreover, though they had never met until then, they had all spent their formative years within ten miles of Skipton and all chosen to study chemical engineering at Bristol.
After graduation, Matthew had taken a post in New York. This was only his second visit back to the UK in the intervening 12 years, his parents having died during his time as an undergraduate. His first visit had been to be John’s best man on the same day as today, 1st November. “It’s six years ago to the day since I’ve seen you”, he reminded them. “I was then so surprised to be asked to your wedding, let alone to be best man, as I hadn’t heard from either of you for the six years since graduation”. Again, that smile.
Matthew mulled over silently that the couple had anyway always seemed isolated, in a world of their own which even he was rarely allowed to enter. While he had made several other friends at Bristol, they seemed to have no others. When the wedding request arrived Matthew was still single so it had seemed a good opportunity to remake some old acquaintances and see what the UK was like after his absence. Mostly he was fascinated to see if and how the strange couple had changed.
This second visit was mainly business but, as it coincided with John and Martha’s anniversary, he brought a present with him, hoping that he’d manage to see them. He’d been delighted to find they still had the same address and telephone number and to be invited to dinner when he called them.
After graduation John and Martha had both returned to Yorkshire, taking jobs in Sheffield and Leeds. The distance between the two cities was too much for the relationship which had developed during undergraduate years, though it had never seemed to be quite a romance, yet certainly more than a friendship. Eventually John had found a post in Macclesfield and settled with Martha in Skipton, where she took a job as a teacher. So far they had no children.
“We always try to make something special for our anniversary”, said John. “We prefer to stay at home but it’s great to have you join us this year”. Seeing that Matthew’s plate was cleared, Martha spooned another generous portion of the casserole onto his plate.
“I was thinking of coming yesterday”, said Matthew between mouthfuls, “then I realised it was Halloween, all those kids with trick or treat. It’s a big thing in the US; I hate it. Maybe you don’t get them over here?”.
“Oh we get them alright”, John said. Just that smile again from Martha.
“Last night most came with their parents” John continued, “shrieking from behind horrible masks ‘trick or treat’ in what they thought were scary voices. I wanted to slap them, and the parents, but of course we just gave them sweets and they went away. However, one little girl did come alone after the others had gone. She told us her name was Felicity and she was six years old”. Matthew noted that this was the third time the number six had occurred in the conversation, an odd coincidence he thought.
Martha smiled at Matthew, again that intriguing smile then, to his surprise, she spoke, softly, thoughtfully: “Yes, as you said”, a hesitation, as if gathering her thoughts, “she was”, another pause, “sort of sweet … and so tender”.