Dorothy donned an old pair of tracksuit pants and pulled an extra-large T-shirt over her head. She scraped her long hair into a pony tail and scowled at her reflection in the mirror fixed inside her wardrobe door: she looked awful. ‘Truth be told, my car looks worse,’ she reprimanded herself, kicking away the leather sandals she had been wearing. She cautiously eyed her meant-to-be-white car covered in thick spatters of mud after she had spent the previous weekend driving around a nearby game reserve, where the rain had caught her by surprise. What a job awaited her!
It was a pity the outside tap was situated on the opposite side to the garage attached to her cottage. She reversed the car further back along the brick driveway and fetched a plastic bucket from the kitchen. Dorothy hadn’t been living in Hadar Close for very long and had not noticed anyone else cleaning their vehicles, yet they were all clean. She sighed as she filled her second bucket with water to rinse off the worst of the mud: this was going to take an age to complete, she thought, already feeling weary at the prospect of a preciously free Saturday afternoon being spent on cleaning her car.
“Would you like to borrow my garden hose?” Sue called out as she walked past with her two young children in tow.
Dorothy straightened up and smiled gratefully at this unexpected gesture. “Thank you that would be a great help. Shall I come with you to collect it?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll send Andrew and Katie over with it.” She waved and then turned to her children. “Come on, I’ll race you home!”
The hose made her task a lot easier. Dorothy squirted water behind the wheels and watched with a growing sense of satisfaction as rivulets of mud made their way across the bricks onto the tiny patch of lawn next to the garage. She was soaping the bonnet to get rid of an accumulation of insect stains when a male voice nearby made her jump with fright. It was Simon, who lived in the cottage opposite hers. He held up a bottle of window cleaner, a sponge and a cloth. “Hello Dorothy,” he smiled. “I’ll do your windows for you quick-sticks.”
Dorothy laughed in happy surprise. “That’s very kind of you.” She squinted in the afternoon sun. “Would you mind cleaning the inside of them too? Sorry, that’s awfully cheeky of me.”
“Not a problem,” Simon answered lightly as the two of them set to work.
A moment later, Terry from number 4 stopped his car. “Hello Dorothy, do you need any more help?” They had developed a nodding acquaintance and usually waved to each other in passing. She straightened up to look at him carefully, then wiped her brow with the now damp and dirty cloth.
“No thanks, Terry. I’m almost done.” She stood still as he pulled away slowly. She hadn’t realised he had dimples when he smiled – never having been that close to him before – nor did she know that his eyes were a warm brown.
Dorothy had just finished drying her car with the remnants of an old towel when Ian strolled over from next door. He was carrying a tin of car polish and an electric buffer. “Shall I plug this into your garage?” Their cottages were all identical, so it was no surprise that he knew exactly where to find the wall socket. Simon helped him to apply the polish and so Dorothy turned her attention to the wheels.
Robert, from two doors down, had just returned from his regular Saturday 15km run. He stood on the road, sweating and panting while he watched the hive of activity for a moment. Then he walked forward, bent down and gently removed the cloth from Dorothy’s hand. “I’m in need of a shower anyway,” he said. “I’ll finish the wheels for you.”
Just then Terry returned with black polish and a brush. “To give them a professional finish,” he said, winking at Robert.
John, who had been walking his dogs, called out cheerily in passing, “Good work everyone. Glad to know our hose has been put to good use Dorothy.” He waved and walked on, only to return a short while later with Sue and two six-packs of beer. “Thirsty business this is,” he laughed good-naturedly as he offered them around. The car was gleaming.
Dorothy and Sue slipped indoors to raid the kitchen to make a large pot of soup. Wendy phoned while Dorothy was rifling through her cupboards to find the pesto she was sure she had. Sue cut open the packet and stirred it into the pot. “Sorry Wends, I can’t come out tonight.” Dorothy paused and looked at Sue, who looked very at home in her kitchen. “Why don’t you come here – and please bring us three loaves of garlic bread. You’ll understand when you arrive.” She held up three fingers and Sue gave her a thumbs up.
“My word! What have you all been up to? This looks like the start of a real party!” Simon’s girlfriend, Beatrice, was still flushed from having played tennis all afternoon. She kissed Simon and surveyed the men drinking beer around Dorothy’s car. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.” She returned bearing two bottles of wine.
Robert slipped away to shower and came back with two packets of crisps and a block of cheese. Wendy arrived and admired the now very smart looking car. “Dot, your car looks brand new!”
Dot? Dorothy’s neighbours looked at each other and laughed. “You’re called Dot?” Simon called out loudly. She blushed and turned away as Andrew and Katie came running down the road towards them.
“When are we going to have supper, Mom? I’m starving!” Andrew rubbed his tummy in an exaggerated fashion.
“Soon, soon. We’re having supper here tonight.” Sue waved towards the gathering. “Come home with me to collect the coleslaw and the rolls.”
Dorothy accepted a tumbler of wine from Beatrice and looked around at her neighbours that had made her worst job a happy one. She checked on Wendy, who was sitting on the grass chatting to Ian. Terry was missing. Dorothy felt a yawning gap in the crowd. She wondered when he had disappeared. Why hadn’t she seen him go?
There was no time to think as everyone began moving indoors. No-one seemed to mind that there weren’t enough chairs: some stood, while others sat on the floor. She noticed that someone had placed more beer and wine on the kitchen counter. Sue and Beatrice helped her to set out an assortment of bowls and mugs for the soup, while Robert sliced through the now warmed garlic bread. A pile of paper plates had miraculously appeared next to the wine bottles. Dorothy looked across the room to see Wendy and Ian in deep conversation near the open front door.
Sue served her children first so that they could settle themselves in a corner of the room. Dorothy watched Sue ladling soup for everyone to collect. She wondered again why Terry had gone for this was such an unexpected and happy gathering. She began handing out the soup to some of the people sitting on the floor when Terry entered the room bearing a large shopping bag.
“I know the story of Stone Soup,” he said, “but I think a little more sustenance won’t go amiss.”
Dorothy watched him deftly slice a whole salami sausage, drain two packets of olives into her empty sugar bowl, and clear a large space on the kitchen counter. “Two large pizzas are on their way,” he explained.
After most of the guests had departed, Wendy turned to Dorothy. “Dot, you’ve never let on that you have so many friends here!”
“Have I?” Dorothy observed Terry making four mugs of coffee. That Ian had returned with a slab of chocolate no longer surprised her. He and Wendy sat on the floor while Terry settled close to her on the couch. Dorothy smiled at them all. “I didn’t know,” she half whispered, conscious of the warmth of Terry’s thigh next to hers.