'Was that the phone?' she asked when he returned.
Another time she might have challenged his excuse that it was a wrong number, but tiredness persuaded her to let it go.
Reaching across the coffee table, Jack seized the whisky bottle and looked enquiringly at Fran. She shook her head, but noted with interest how trifling was the squirt of soda he added to his king-size measure of Bells. There was most definitely something afoot.
Jack adjusted the cushion on his armchair and leaned back, gazing round the room like a man with a secret, deliberately avoiding Fran's eye. Intriguing, for Jack was not one for mysteries. Then without warning, with his glass en route to his mouth, he discharged the question which was patently disturbing him. 'What would you like for your birthday?'
So that was it. Her sixtieth birthday had him floored. Fran giggled inwardly knowing he would be even more perplexed when he discovered what she had in mind for him to buy. But more time was needed to prepare her case. Tomorrow, when her persuasive powers were sorted, she would tell him. A few moments elapsed before she said that something useful would be appreciated and promising to think about it overnight.
Jack picked up a section of his newspaper and began to read, while Fran packed her sewing away and struggled out of the rocker. She hobbled towards the kitchen complaining about the rigidity of her joints.
While toasting bread and preparing a plate of muffins she dwelt on the business of the computer, a piece of equipment she craved but never dared ask for. Shrewdly, she put a generous dollop of strawberry jam in a ramekin dish and brewed a pot of Orange Pekoe tea. Jack's favourite. It wouldn't hurt to pamper him. The Melamine tray they used earlier was still covered with a doily and on this she placed the supper things, best china and cutlery, a silk orchid in a bud-vase for effect.
Jack eyed Fran intently as she deposited the tray on the table. Seeing his eager expression she abruptly blurted out, 'I want a computer.' It took her completely by surprise and she could only surmise it was her subconscious mind that wrested such spontaneous speech from her lips.
Jack spluttered in his whisky.
From the way his face changed colour Fran feared an attack of some kind. She hurried to thump his back but he waved her off, frantically wiping his puce countenance with a hastily selected clump of tissues.
Fran bent to retrieve the empty tissue box and tossed it in the rubbish bin by the hearth. Satisfied he wasn't destined to suffer anything serious and having inadvertently set the ball rolling, she proceeded with forced nonchalance to reveal what she yearned for, lowering the modulation when she uttered the word Computer and concluding the dialogue with a soothing term of endearment.
'What do you know about computers?' Jack had plainly recovered, mocking as only he knew how.
Telling him not to be patronising, Fran explained that Jeremy had advised her to have one, having more confidence in his mother than Jack had in his wife. Because Jeremy decreed that it wouldn't take long to master the workings she urged Jack to think how useful it would be. She was exhilarated by this time, falling over herself to convince him.
Jack brusquely quizzed her on the cost.
Fran nervously suggested discussing it with Jeremy, but Jack pooh-poohed the idea and rose from his chair. Following one last swig, he pocketed his spectacles and collected his vitamin pills from the sideboard drawer. That done, he took his small change from the small-change dish. He believed that money was better placed beside the bed. It was no good arguing that burglars would find his pennies wherever they were located. At least the sight of his money didn't cause him to bemoan his fate for marrying a woman with exorbitant tastes; however, he did remark on the muffins, stating that he might have more for his breakfast.
Proffering her cheek for his kiss, Fran declared her desire to read and as she wished him goodnight she made a mental note to treble his portion of muffins and strawberry jam.
With the day's tabloids stacked in a neat pile and the cushions plumped, she sank into the armchair and opened her book, reading several paragraphs with unseeing eyes. Her concentration level was low. Her mind was anchored on convincing Jack that a computer was a requisite they could scarcely do without, that graphic pictures would be a valuable asset to their home. They could write books, become famous. They could play games, learn a language or two. It all depended on Jack. Her birthday was in three weeks. She had that much time to persuade him.
During the ensuing week Fran met several computer literates in such places as the library, the supermarket, and the building society. All went into raptures over mechanisms that could change one's very existence.
Her longing grew and soon developed into an obsession. Enquiries were made and alarming discoveries gleaned. Computers, it seemed, were costly; too expensive for Jack, who was not a wealthy man. Celebrity status would never be hers and the knowledge filled her with unbelievable disappointment. Despite that awareness she continued to eulogize the merits of owning a computer, commenting on its ability to teach new skills or improve an old one, trying to impress Jack with the little knowledge gained from addicted acquaintances. He listened but made no comment. Finally, she gave up.
Fran woke early on her birthday. Atoms of dust danced in the single sunray entering a gap in the pink cotton curtain, making the white sill shine like a mirror. Jack was sound asleep, his snores competing with those issued by Ben who was recumbent on the sheepskin rug.
Half-heartedly she climbed out of bed and checked her appearance in the looking glass. She didn't feel different. She didn't look different. Apart from a few wrinkles around the mouth, one or two around the eyes, and a bit of a belly, she didn't look anywhere near sixty.
Feeling more cheerful Fran followed the Labrador down the stairs. His posterior undulated as he negotiated each step. Sweeping a wayward strand of hair from her brow, she unlocked the conservatory door and let him out. A heady fragrance emanated from the dewy garden. The air was blissfully serene, tranquility punctuated only by the distant clinking of milk bottles, the low growl of the trundling float, blackbirds in the nearby cherry tree, its branches laden with pink blossom.
Thinking tea on the patio would be nice, with lashings of hot buttered toast and a muffin, Fran retraced her steps through the conservatory. A cardboard box caught her eye, lurking behind a sun-lounger. Newly deposited; not there yesterday when she swabbed the floor. She peered inside and saw two packages wrapped in mufti-coloured paper. The strangest feeling came over her as she scanned the duplicate tags, each one wishing her Happy Birthday.
Whooping with joy, Fran transported the smaller parcel to the kitchen where she attacked the string with scissors. Shredded paper fell like streamers. Sufficient staples were prised out for her to rip the lid asunder. And there it was. The Computer.
'Hold on, hold on,' Jack cried as he emerged from the bathroom and encountered his excited wife rushing up the stairs.
'Thank you. Oh, thank you,' she panted, throwing her arms around his waist.
He kissed her hair. 'Happy Birthday, Fran.'
On account of its awkwardness Jack unwrapped the second package and Fran gazed lovingly at the dull grey monitor. Breathing ecstatically, she exalted his kindness.
Fingering the edge of the keyboard, Jack confessed the most amazing thing. The biggest surprise of all. The gift, the wonderful, unexpected gift was a prize - first prize in the social club's raffle. An opportune win the week before her birthday.
'Jeremy's been guarding it for me. Incidentally, I'm to tell you he'll be over this evening with his present.'
'Great,' Fran said, trying to quell a let-down feeling. Needing to be active she plugged in the kettle. A small parcel was propped against the milk jug, wrapped in glitzy paper and tied with red ribbon. A stick-on label bore her name. Unreasonably she questioned whether this was the raffle's second prize. But the testiness rapidly disappeared when the mobile phone was exposed, nestling in pink tissue with a satin rose stuck to the tiny window.
Oh what pleasure. What shame.
The grounds for tetchiness were clear. The computer had only cost Jack the price of a ticket; this lovely thing in her hand had been chosen and paid for especially for her. The price sticker was affixed to the box. Jack did not deserve his deplorable wife.
A week later Fran was ready to consign the machine to outer space, unable to grasp either DOS or TOS, WYSIWYG or ASCCI, macros or configuration … default or otherwise. Even Jeremy, when he came to give her lessons, seemed to speak in an alien tongue. He assured her she could do it. He directed her to press the keys and see the result. Trusting his wisdom, Fran complied … and eradicated a whole programme. She felt sick whenever thing's went awry, scared stiff of the monstrous machine with its vicious tendencies, flashing red alerts, issuing instructions that this or that couldn't be done as if a villainous character was monitoring her every move, not caring about her daily headaches or her need for merciful handling.
And then the battle was over.
Things finally made sense.
Instigated by her newfound enlightenment, bored with lonely evenings, Jack begged for instruction. How proud she felt teaching her brainy husband, a man who could add figures in a flash without the aid of a calculator, a man with knowledge at his fingertips, a man who knew everything.
They became computer enthusiasts. In three months they could brag about advantages, conveniences, and blessings. Their lives were filled with challenges like writing blockbusters or reporting for the local rag. Fantasies of fame cluttered their foolish heads. Venturing into other uncharted areas would be child's play after coping with a computer; taking chances and gambling with their remaining years would be painless; making the most of a new beginning would be no trouble at all.