When Abby was 11 years old, her mother decided that she was old enough to take the bus on her own to visit her grandmother, Fanny.
Fanny lived in a red brick apartment building with a lot of other old people and they all made a big fuss over Abby’s visits. Abby adored the attention.
And very often the other residents had knitted her a pair of mittens or baked some of the cookies she liked best. There was only one old woman that Abby didn’t care for.
And that was the lady that always seemed to be standing outside every time Abby and her mother came to visit.
Abby didn’t like the woman’s bleary eyes or the way her thin fingers clutched the bag of mints she always had with her.
Fanny had told Abby that the old lady’s name was Grace Fiddler and that she was only waiting for her husband to come home.
Abby wondered why she couldn’t just wait inside like everyone else did. Even the woman’s name frightened her. Abby began to think of her as the Fiddler.
The thought of meeting the Fiddler on her own was terrifying.
Abby had nightmares about the old woman’s chapped fingers reaching for her in the dark and pulling her into some derelict cellar where she kept all of the other little children who’d crossed her path.
But if Abby told her mother that she was afraid, then her mother would say that perhaps Abby wasn’t old enough to ride the bus by herself after all.
Abby made up her mind to be brave and if the woman offered her a mint, which she always did, Abby would simply say no thank you and go into the apartment building.
Abby wondered how old the Fiddler was. Her wrinkles were like deep tracks running all over the lady’s wasted cheeks and Abby could imagine tiny trains making their way across the uneven landscape while the Fiddler slept.
Fanny didn't seem anywhere near as feeble as the Fiddler was. But she had told Abby that she and the Fiddler were the same age and that they had been friends since the time when they both lived in England.
Abby found this hard to believe and thought that Fanny had probably made it up to make her feel better.
On Sunday morning Abby woke with a feeling of anticipation and excitement. Today was the day. She said goodbye to her mother who cautioned her not to talk to strangers.
She didn’t need to tell her twice, Abby had no intention of talking to anyone.
Today the bus driver was Alfie, who Abby knew and she was relieved to see his round, flushed face as she climbed aboard.
“Off to your gran’s I expect,” Alfie said in his friendly way. "Yes," said Abby with pride. "All on my own."
“Well isn’t that something,” said Alfie. “Getting older all the time.”
The doors closed with a hiss and the bus sighed as Alfie pulled away from the curb. It wasn’t a long ride to Fanny’s.
But to Abby, it seemed like the short journey was full of unexpected possibilities. It was her first grown-up excursion and it felt good to know that her mother trusted her.
She sat back in her chair and gazed out the window at houses passing by.
They made a few stops along the way and the bus began to fill up. People chattered and carried babies or groceries and Abby felt excited to be part of this grown-up world.
She felt like a different Abby from the one she was yesterday.
When they rounded the corner, Abby strained to see if the old Fiddler woman was waiting. But she wasn’t there and Abby breathed a sigh of relief. The bus stopped and the doors hissed open.
“You have a great time Abby,” said Alfie tipping his hat. Abby waved and turned to walk the half block to the apartments.
As she neared the alleyway, Grace Fiddler stepped out of the shadows and held out her hand to Abby. Four pink mints rested in the crater of her gnarled fingers.
“Would you like a mint,” the old lady said, in her reedy voice.
Abby forgot what she had told herself and bolted past the old woman and up the stairs and into the foyer, pressing repeatedly on the intercom that connected to her grandmother’s suite.
When the door buzzed Abby yanked it open and ran through the common room where the other tenants sat in two’s and three’s over coffee or cards and ignored their greetings.
She had only one thought, to get to Fanny’s door. She ignored the elevator and climbed the six flights of stairs instead.
By the time she reached her grandmother’s apartment, she was out of breath and red-faced. Hardly the grown-up she’d hoped to be.
"Good grief," Fanny exclaimed. "Look at the state of you!" “That lady,” Abby panted, “the Fiddler, she was waiting for me.”
Fanny chuckled. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” she said, “well come in and sit down and catch your breath. I’ve just got our lunch ready.”
After her sandwich and cookie and cold glass of lemonade Abby began to feel better.
They talked about school and Fanny asked how her violin lessons were going and whether she’d learned any new songs. Then Fanny told Abby to stay put. She wanted to show her something.
When she came back Fanny was holding a photo album.
She opened the album and said, “Who do you suppose this is?” Abby looked at the picture of a young woman with clear skin and blue eyes looking serious in a nurse’s uniform.
“Is it you?” she asked. “It is,” said Fanny. “I was 22 years old.” She turned the page.
“And who do you suppose this might be?” The girl in this photo had big dark eyes and hair that curled under her nurse’s cap. “She’s very pretty,” Abby said.
“Yes, she was,” said Fanny, “very pretty indeed. In fact, you remind me of her sometimes.”
“Who is it?” Abby wanted to know, impressed that she reminded her gran of such a stunning beauty. “Why it’s Grace Fiddler, of course,” Fanny said with a smile.
Abby’s jaw dropped open. “No, it’s not. It couldn’t be.”
“But it is. We’d both just finished our nursing and not long after we joined the war effort. That’s where we met our beaus,” Fanny said with a wink.
“Beaus?” asked Abby.
“Boyfriends, you’d call it nowadays. But I like the old words. Beaus or sweethearts.” Fanny turned the page again. This time there was a picture of the two girls with two young men.
It was captioned, “Grace and George, Frank and Fanny.”
“You look happy,” said Abby still trying to reconcile the picture with the old woman who stood outside.
“We were. I remember that day because we were having a laugh that your granddad and I had the same name. Frances and Francis.
Well we couldn’t be that so we decided to be Frank and Fanny instead.”
“I like it,” said Abby. She’d never known her grandfather. He’d died before Abby was born. But looking at his laughing face in the photo made her wish she had met him.
Abby realized she didn’t know much about him actually. “When did granddad die?”
“He died in the war, with a lot of other young men,” Fanny said with a sigh. “It was a horrible thing.” Fanny shut the book.
“So you see,” she said smoothing Abby’s hair, “you have nothing to fear from Grace. She just got old, like me.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon in Fanny’s studio painting.
Fanny was a marvelous painter and Abby was lucky to be able to spend time learning to mix colours and layer the paint so the colours blended without getting all muddy looking or streaking.
Abby found painting very relaxing and before she knew it, it was time to go home.
“You’ll come again next week won’t you?” Fanny asked helping Abby with her coat. “Yes, definitely,” Abby replied with a grin. Then she paused.
Was that old Fiddler still outside? She thought of the young girl in the photo and stopped feeling frightened. She’d just gotten old. “See you next week,” she said giving Fanny a hug.
When Abby reached the alleyway before the bus stop Grace was still there. “Goodbye Mrs. Fiddler,” said Abby. “Goodbye dear,” the old lady said. “I’m just waiting for George.”
“I hope he comes soon then,” said Abby. “Have a nice day.” Fanny was right. Mrs. Fiddler was a nice old lady after all. She must love her husband a lot Abby thought. Old people were funny.
The bus pulled up and Abby got on and dropped her coins into the box. It was a different driver this time and she sat down at an empty seat by the back doors.
All the way home she thought about the pictures and about how people got older. Just last week she couldn’t take the bus by herself.
She was the same person this week, just older, only it didn’t show yet.
The next week Abby got on the bus with a new confidence. The ride was quick and when she got off she looked for Mrs. Fiddler. The old lady wasn’t out yet.
Oh well, she’d catch her on the way back. She buzzed Fanny’s suite and Fanny’s voice said, “come on up, door’s open.”
When she got to Fanny’s apartment Abby found her sitting at the kitchen table cutting something out of the newspaper. Abby dropped her coat and backpack on a chair and sat down.
“I looked for Mrs. Fiddler today,” she said, “but she wasn’t outside.”
“No,” said Fanny, “I'm afraid you won’t see her anymore. Her husband came for her on Thursday night.”