In sixty-five years of marriage, Frederick and Greta Farnsworth had never been on a picnic. When laid out like that - a timeline stretching backwards and disappearing into the hazy distance of memory - the slice of life that might have been that much sweeter with a sprinkling of outdoor lunches in the long cool summer grass overwhelmed Fred. What had become of their time together that picnics were still uncharted territory? That morning, he’d lain in bed searching for an explanation. It wasn’t like Freddie and Greta had not enjoyed eating out: there had been halls at university, and tea rooms, and even strawberries and cream shared over an afternoon of tennis at Wimbledon. That said, at no point had he lain down a blanket, opened a hamper of something delicious, and watched how the warmth of a lazy summer afternoon curled around his wife, inhibited her spirit, and made her literally pulse with life. He didn’t know that would happen of course: but he could very well guess.
Freddie rolled off the bed, and felt with his feet for his slippers. As he made to get up, Greta’s arm reached silently from underneath the duvet and gripped the back of his nightshirt.
“Can’t sleep?” Her whisper was made more muffled because it emanated from some dark place between the pillows.
“No. Wide awake, really. I might walk up to the bakers - bit of fresh air, you know.”
“Okay dear.” The hand relinquished its grip, and slid down to the bed again.
Freddie left the room, grabbing a shirt from the open wardrobe as he passed. Dressing in front of the bathroom mirror, he paused for a moment: is this what people wear to picnics? If he was going to break a sixty-five year dry spell, he was going to do it properly. He tipped his head to one side, face screwed up in concentration. A shirt would be fine, he thought. He relaxed and straightened up. As he used both hands to straighten the crease over his chest, he even managed a smile. Yes, fine.
By the time he had returned with a basket full of picnic treats, Greta had risen, changed, and was idly buttering a crumpet in preparation for breakfast. “Oh, G - don’t eat that - I have a better idea.” A short pause, whilst Greta put the knife down and looked at him. “A wonderful idea.”
“Does it involve breakfast? I’m ravenous.”
Better.“ Freddie gestured to the basket with his hand. “I thought we might go for a picnic.”
As if her husband had uttered a foreign word, Greta’s first reaction was one of pure non-comprehension. “Picnic?”
“Yes,” Freddie said. “We’ve never done it, and I thought it looked a lovely morning to try.”
Greta’s knowledge of picnics was as limited as Freddie’s, but she was sure there was something not quite right about Freddie’s plan. “Isn’t it a bit early?”
Freddie’s smile faded momentarily, the way a lightbulb might dim for a moment when someone puts a hairdryer on. When it returned, it seemed more brilliant than ever, as if he’d realised Greta was more ignorant about picnics than even he, and that she was in for a real treat. “Not at all. We’ll make a day of it!”
Greta returned Freddie’s smile, and went to fetch her shoes. As they left the house for the short walk down to the river, the smell of buttered crumpet followed them out of the door.
She realised Freddie had made a complete hash of the picnic when she opened the basket to find half-a-dozen eggs staring her in the face. Thinking they might have been for evening’s supper, she lifted them out and looked at what else Freddie had bought. Bacon, from the butchers. A tin of baked beans. Some mushrooms. “Freddie - what is all of this?”
Freddie had been watching the ducks drifting in lazy circles in the eddy current by the bank of the river. When he turned to his wife, she was clutching a string of sausages in one hand, and an unsliced loaf of bread in the other. But Greta did not look happy, nor confused. It was the way her eyebrows arched - ever so slightly. He could swear that she looked cross. “What’s wrong, G?”
“This isn’t picnic food, Freddie.”
“This isn’t picnic food. You’ve bought the ingredients for a fry-up.”
“Yes - your favourite.” His responses now were defensive parries against her angry remarks.
“Freddie - how are we supposed to cook all of this?”
The death-blow, when it came was brutal. Greta had worded it as a question, so in fact Freddie was strangled by his own realisation of his stupidity. He put one hand to his mouth. For a long moment, Greta and Freddie looked at each other; her face remained cross, and not even the distress in his eyes could soften it. He realised then that the plan which had seemed so wonderful to him only hours previously was now in tatters. There was nothing to say, but he tried anyway. “I’m-”
“-an idiot, Freddie. You’re an idiot.” It was a coup de grace. Freddie slumped backwards onto their makeshift duvet-cover picnic blanket. Greta left the sausages on the grass, and stared at the bread in her hands. Somewhere on the breeze, she was sure she could smell hot, buttered crumpets. “And I’m starving.” She tore open the bread, and grabbed a small chunk between thumb and forefinger. It smelt earthy and dry, and when she put it in her mouth, the lack of butter made her wince. Maybe there was something to drink to help the bread on its way? ‘Did you buy some drink, at least?“ she asked to Freddie’s back.
Freddie, sensing a shot at redemption, turned in a hurry. “Yes! I bought some t-” He paused, and then, as if punctured, turned back without another word. Greta peered into the basket. She knew what she’d find before she even laid eyes on them. A small pack of teabags.
Disgusted, Greta grabbed fingerfuls of bread from the nibbled loaf and threw it at Freddie. The wheat confetti that did not strike him in the neck sailed over his head. She grabbed another handful of crumbs. With every blow, Freddie sank into his shirt. After a coupled of minutes, he slowly realised that Greta had stopped throwing handfuls of bread at him, and was now aiming smaller quantities just over to their right. It was enough of a realisation to drag him from his melancholy thoughts; he lifted his head from the collar of his shirt, freeing up his ears, and almost immediately became aware of a lot of excited quacking. He turned to see where the bread was going. Five ducks were darting between the strewn breadcrumbs, pecking at the bread, honking in pleasure. As he watched, a sixth, and then a seventh, leapt from the water to partake of the feast.
Freddie turned back to look at his wife. She was no longer glaring at him - in fact, she was no longer glaring at all. She was staring hypnotised by the duck ballet that she was orchestrating with small chunks of dry bread. A smile parted her lips. As he looked at her, the warmth of the sun seemed to curl around Greta Farnsworth, inhibit her spirit, and make her literally pulse with life.