Friends

31 October 2011

Trust Not The Vow ... Chapter 2


She waited in the steady drizzle, studying the houses on the left-hand side then taking in the ones on the right. Her nose was numb with cold, her fleecy gloves soaked through. Rain trickled from the hem of her raincoat, running in rivulets down her legs. Lowering the orange umbrella until it hooded her head, she queried the logic of loitering any longer.

Rachel had come to Coombe Road in the hope of seeing Gary, which was absurd considering she was not acquainted with Tim O'Flaherty and had no inkling as to his address. Her six o'clock wakening had been a miserable experience. That's when it dawned on her that it was Tuesday and in all probability, since he was at the factory yesterday, Gary would be sent elsewhere.

It was half-an-hour before it occurred to her that he might already have left. By then she was becoming concerned about being late for work. Her poor timekeeping had already earned her one of Mr Hudspith's rare rebukes. Only last week he warned her that dire things would happen if she didn't buck up, like demotion or the sack. Well, she had two choices. She could heap shame on the family with dismissal and sample what it was like to be permanently broke, or she could hotfoot it to the factory.

As if to remind her of the options the rain succeeded in snapping a leaf stalk on a nearby ornamental cherry, creating a channel for it to dribble onto a dented Coca-Cola can. It was like a distant drum intoning the words sack, sack, sack. Choosing the latter option, Rachel pivoted round and ran off, oblivious to the sea of puddles transforming her tan brogues to deep brown.

GRABBING the electric kettle from the desk next to the stationery cupboard, Rachel did the mile long hike along the tacky black walkway to the cloakroom. The route took her past machinery used in the manufacture of milk crates and churns. It was littered with silvery spirals of metal shavings spilled from dilapidated, overloaded cardboard boxes. They had been stacked at the side of the walkway in random locations, making the journey more hazardous than usual. She would have complained had the operators been available, but they had gathered in a group beyond a huge piece of equipment at the far end, out of earshot and very nearly out of sight.

Cynthia Mates was titivating in the cloakroom. There was no need, her appearance was impeccable whatever the weather. She was wearing the canary yellow, sunray-pleated dress, the one Rachel would have coveted had she been of corresponding proportions. She looked as if she was joining the line-up for Miss World.

Cynthia plucked her lipstick-stained cigarette from the tin ashtray and bid Rachel good morning.

‘Did you have a lift?’ asked Rachel as she filled the kettle at the sink.

‘No.’

‘Then how come you look so fresh?’

Curtis bought me an umbrella.’

‘Oh, Curtis did, did he?’

Cynthia drew on the cigarette, the red tip glowing beyond a build-up of grey ash. ‘Don't be like that, Rach. He hasn't done you any harm.’

'Sorry,’ Rachel said, and meant it. ‘It's his name, Curtis Ledbetter sounds so upper-class.’

The grey ash plummeted, landing squarely on Cynthia's chest. Lazily, she flicked it away. ‘Mrs Ledbetter had a theory that one day Curtis would be famous. She told me it came to her right after the Caesarean. She said after going through the ordeal of being hauled out of her belly, Curtis deserved recognition.’ Cynthia chortled as she wiped a flake of ash from her fingernail. ‘I didn't dare ask what kind.’

‘Mothers are strange,’ declared Rachel. ‘And so are wives. Mr Hudspith's got a problem with his. Which reminds me, he's waiting for his tea.’

Cynthia swept her make-up into her bag. ‘I didn't know he was in,’ she cried. ‘Why didn't you tell me he was in?’

‘You didn't ask, that's why.’ Rachel collected the kettle and headed for the door. ‘Don't forget your ciggies,’ she said, pressing the door handle with her elbow.

As usual when walking through the factory, they moaned about the distance they had to travel to relieve themselves, overlooking for the moment how much they enjoyed being teased by younger machine operators.

The machines were still silent, the men huddled now on the back benches taking a breakfast break, tea jugs and sandwich boxes spread around them. The union representative was there and going by the expressions on the men's faces he was labouring an issue of vital importance.

At the loading bay, Rachel checked to see if Gary's lorry was there, but only the firm's maroon vehicles, bearing Hodder and Spicton's distinctive gold roundel, were being loaded. It was still early, but she guessed that constantly hunting for Gary was a waste of time.

RACHEL poured the tea into Eric's prized Aston Villa mug, laced it with the whisky he stored in his bottom drawer, then moved to the outer room where she poured a cup each for her and Cynthia. She settled down to discuss her plans for Gary.

‘I've decided to marry him,’ she said.

Cynthia spluttered over her drink. Brown speckles of tea enlarged to freckle-sized spots on the blotter as Cynthia gawped in disbelief. She was obviously convinced that Rachel's senses had taken a vacation. Wiping her chin with a tissue, she extracted a pack of cigarettes from her bag and fished for the remains of one she’d smoked on the bus. Tobacco ends flared when she applied the match, but she left it in her mouth and spoke through a stream of smoke. ‘How can you marry a guy you've only recently met? You haven't even been out with him.’

Wafting the smoke away, Rachel studied her knuckles and tried to impress with nonchalance, casually mentioning that Gary had invited her out. The revelation prompted Cynthia to produce a chain of questions which Rachel couldn’t answer. She asked what Gary had said, and how he said it. She asked where they were going, and when. Scrutinizing Rachel's eyes, she asked what she intended to wear, and had she told her mother.

There was nothing Rachel could say about her mother at this stage. In fact, there was not a lot she could say at all. It was short-sighted of her not to have invented a proper story to satisfy Cynthia's probes. She sought to hide her chagrin by babbling on about Gary referring to her as his pretty, emphasising the fact that he had pursued her with a view to them spending an evening together.

‘Oh, well, that's okay then,’ Cynthia said, tapping her cigarette on the metal waste basket. ‘You can feel safe marrying the guy if you're definitely going out with him.’ She could be very sarcastic when she chose.

Undaunted, Rachel pressed on, disclosing that she had resolved merely to run away until the notion of marriage somehow wriggled into her head. ‘Apart from the fact that he's wonderful, don't you agree it's a brilliant excuse for escaping from home?’

‘No!’

At that point, the conversation was forced to an abrupt conclusion by the arrival of Eric Hudspith carrying his empty mug. This he dumped on Rachel's desk and with a beckoning gesture indicated that her presence was required for dictation. Clutching her pad and a fistful of sharpened pencils, she followed him to the inner sanctum, stealing a glance as she passed the window to see if Gary was in. She counted four company lorries and eight men chatting to the foreman, but Gary was not amongst them.

Disappointed, she sat on the straight-backed chair beside her boss. Adjusting her navy skirt and tugging the pink mohair sweater over her waist, she surrendered to the humdrum routine of taking letters at snail-pace speed.

AT the end of the day, on hearing the factory whistle, Rachel cleared her desk and shouted to Eric that she was going home. He called back that unless she could provide him with a good enough reason to tolerate the inconvenience of decorating, he would work overtime. He would see her in the morning, he said, bright and early, boots blacked, and rearing to go.

Rachel chuckled as she donned her Mac and covered her hair with a chiffon scarf. From Eric's tone she was fairly sure he had imbibed more whisky and as she vacated the office she made a note to inspect the bottle in the morning.

Thankful that the rain had ceased, she trotted home. Cynthia had left earlier to visit the dentist; consequently she had missed witnessing Rachel's feverish excitement at the possible prospect of meeting Gary. Rachel executed an occasional skip as she swung the orange umbrella at her side and whistled a tune remarkably similar to the Wedding March.

She knew he was there the instant she turned into Tewkesbury Road. In fact, by his unruffled manner as he lounged against Mr Dunthorne's privet hedge, it seemed as if he had been waiting for a tidy spell.

As she approached, an unexpected shyness paralysed her tongue. She halted a yard away from him, transfixed and coy, one arm hanging limply at her side, the other gripping the umbrella for support. She felt like a dumb chick just out of kindergarten, facing an unfamiliar situation totally alone.

Gary saluted. ‘Hi, Babe.’

She croaked a greeting, hoping that stammering was not habit forming.

‘I wondered if you'd care to go out,’ he said.

She pulled off her scarf and shook her hair. ‘You mean tonight?’ The stammer had miraculously disappeared. Energy returned to her arms but she quaked inside, sensing that something of tremendous significance was about to occur.

'Sound of Music's on at the Odeon.’

Be careful, Rachel, she told herself, even as she uttered the words: ‘I've seen it a thousand times.’ Not wanting him to think her unsophisticated or soppy, she refrained from saying that she would see it another thousand if he asked.

Gary's eyes penetrated hers as he murmured, ‘We don't have to watch it.’

The thought of canoodling in the back row of the Odeon wreaked an onset of severe tummy turbulence.

‘What do you say? Shall we go?’

‘When?’

‘Could you be ready in an hour?’

'Sure.’ She would have gone instantly, but she did have to get the tea or risk her mother's fuse snapping altogether.

‘WHO is he?’ quizzed Amy, on hearing of Rachel's assignation with someone new.

‘One of the driver's at the factory.’

Amy screamed: ‘A driver! Can't you do better than a bloody driver?’ She fell into the wooden armchair by the fire, shaking her head in exasperation.

Disapproval was to be expected since everything Rachel elected to do was denigrated. She could have been dating the Prime Minister and her mother would still have launched a smear campaign. Nevertheless, she challenged her, demanding to know what was wrong with drivers.

‘What's wrong with them? What's right with them, you mean. Dregs! That's what they are.’

Toby stirred at that. He squinted over the top of his paper then unexpectedly slammed it on the kitchen table. Amy's finest willow-pattern cups clattered in their saucers. ‘That's enough, Amy, you hear? I won't have you talking in such a fashion.’

At least Amy had the grace to look remorseful. In her portrayal of a snob she had forgotten that Toby drove a wagon when they married, before training as a carpenter. Now that he had risen to the rank of foreman, she judged people who did lesser jobs as common.

Toby advised Rachel to fetch Gary in to meet them, if only to prove to Amy that drivers were equal to shop workers and cabinet-makers.

Rachel silently agreed. Shop assistants should not assume fancy airs. Though, to be fair, despite the fact that her mother was currently employed at Hall's Confectioners, she had spent years nursing at the General. It was a specialised job, but it did not licence her to malign others.

SATISFIED she had done her best with her face, Rachel consigned the foundation, eye shadow, mascara and the entire range of six lipsticks to her bag. She wore a turquoise frock with white vertical stripes which she hoped gave her a more slim-line shape. Topping it with a fluffy cardigan, she sprinted downstairs to collect her bottle-green coat. She was barely able to contain her excitement and had to force herself to slow down and button the coat properly. Finally, she tugged the fur-trimmed collar upright, believing it would make her throat appear graceful and lily white. One last twirl in front of the mirror and she was ready.

She entered the kitchen, mentally lauding the tidiness her mother insisted on and the use of Summer Bouquet air freshener.

‘I will fetch Gary in,’ she informed Amy. ‘Only don't spoil things by being snooty.’

She smoothed her gloves over her fingers, pecked her father's cheek, then walked towards the door with her head high, self-assurance having at last asserted itself.

Toby opened the door with a flourish, commenting that she looked absolutely smashing. He could always be relied on to make her feel like a million dollars.

RACHEL opened the yard gate and peered down the entry. Her heart soared like a skylark when she saw Gary sitting on the low wall, sleeking his hair with the palm of his hand. Aiming to surprise him she sneaked towards him, but he suspected she was there and whirled round. The next second she was in his arms, her ribs crushed against him, and her spirits sang while the contents of her stomach pitched up and down.

‘Shame on you,’ he said, laughing. ‘Did you think you could put one over me?’

‘Don't be silly,’ Rachel said, giggling as she pushed him aside.

He took her hand and went to step into the road but Rachel stopped him, telling him he had to come and say hello to the folks. ‘Just for five minutes,’ she added, in case he believed her intention was to spend the whole evening with them.

‘Why?’

‘They like to k-know who I'm with. You k-know what p-parents are like.’

God! Was she fated to stutter every time she got nervous.

‘Right, lead on.’

With her high heels click-clacking on the blue bricks and echoing like machine guns, Rachel led him to the back entrance and into the kitchen, where Amy and Toby were positioned like sentries in front of the dresser.

‘Hi!’ said Rachel, breezily. ‘Allow me to introduce Gary.’

Toby advanced a hand. ‘Toby Skinner. Pleased to meet you.’

‘Gary Ellison,’ said Gary in return. ‘Likewise.’

Rachel fastened her eyes on her mother and was gratified to see amazement etched on her face. ‘Gary drives for Goddards.’

‘Really,’ said Amy. ‘How nice.’

Charlatan, thought Rachel.

‘Have you been with them long?’ enquired Amy.

‘Six months.’

‘Is that G and H Goddard?’ enquired Toby.

‘You have dealings with them, Sir?’

Rachel stole a lateral peep at her mother, observing the way her spine straightened in a private demonstration of affectation. There was no doubt she approved the use of the title Sir. While Toby explained the connection between his firm and Goddards, Amy's face registered a composition of curiosity, absorption, and fascination.

Hypocrite, thought Rachel.

Eventually, Rachel managed to draw Gary from her parents' inquisition by firmly steering him to the door, hanging onto his arm to deter him from succumbing to Amy's honeyed overtures.

THEY took the short-cut via the Boar's Head car park, steering clear of incoming cars. Stepping round the knee-high weeds, her heels sinking into wet earth, Rachel guided Gary to the gate. It was a mistake to go that way in flimsy shoes, but it was too late to worry. She would have to brush the mud off in the Ladies.

They flanked the wooden fence around the perimeter of the field, a popular trysting-place because of the old underground shelters Hodders had not seen fit to remove. Gary wanted to know what was behind such a high fence. Was it perhaps concealment for nuclear dugouts or a training ground for a battalion of space invaders?

Rachel chortled, amused by his ingenious wit. ‘It's only playing fields,’ she said, fully intending to show him when the opportunity arose.

They arrived at the cinema as the tail end of the queue passed through the double glass doors. They raced to tag on the end. Rachel feared the seating area would be full and they'd be compelled to stand at the back; not ideal if Gary wanted to snog. Breathing patterns improved while they waited to purchase tickets, shuffling along one place at a time in the brightly lit foyer. As they passed the sweet kiosk, Gary proclaimed it to be a sickly smelling place, saying he had disliked candy ever since, as a thieving boy, he gorged on the stuff he stole.

Rachel laughed, but was shocked by the admission. Not for anything would she admit to stealing the way Gary had. Feigning interest in the posters for the following week's programme, she remembered the minor crimes she committed when just a kid in ankle socks, perpetrated mainly to get back at her mother. She nicked sweets from Woolworths, and place mats and cutlery from cafes, stuffing them in her mother's shopping bag while she wasn’t looking. Fortunately, for Rachel and her mother, the sins were never discovered. Rachel cringed at the memory of her evil deeds.

The auditorium was not completely full. The uniformed usherette who took their tickets informed them that there were a few vacant seats. It was just a matter of finding them. Rachel scanned the back row as they shadowed her down the wide steps of the upper circle.

‘They're all occupied, dearie,’ said the woman, shining her silver torch along the row and illuminating several startled faces. The powerful beam travelled over the patrons and exposed two empty seats in the middle of a row.

Brushing knees and treading on toes, they worked their way to the seats. Amidst rasping cries of Shush and Hurry up, and with her bag secured by her feet, Rachel struggled to slip out of her coat. The exertion made her armpits sweaty. She unbuttoned her cardigan and sat for a moment with her elbows jutting out to let the air circulate.

Gary held her hand, all he could do without creating a disturbance. Feeling the pressure of his finger on her palm, Rachel gazed blindly at the screen and inwardly promised him the earth when they got out.

They sat through a mediocre documentary about mating bears, which at first Rachel thought would be both enlightening and provocative, but it had more to do with how the film crew did their job and proved to be most uninteresting. Sweet papers and crisp bags rustled furiously throughout the film, a mild distraction considering the rubbish they were watching. They sighed with relief when it finished.

Gary eagerly awaited the start of the big picture, but Rachel's mind refused to budge from the fantasy of sultry kisses and the crafty grope she anticipated would take place when the lights were less glaring and the would-be spectators were engrossed in the film.

Spotting the ice cream lady moving to her station by the rail, Rachel pronounced that she would like one and fumbled in her bag for her purse.

‘I'll get them,’ Gary hissed, guessing the reason for the activity. He stuck his hand in his trouser pocket and brought out a quantity of coins. ‘What would you like?’

‘I'll go,’ Rachel said,

‘As you wish,’ he said, giving her the money. ‘Get me a choc-ice.’

Shoving her coat and bag onto his lap, she pushed past the knees and bags and scampered down the steep steps to join the queue. Standing cross-legged behind a teenager with heavy braids, she mused about the film. She had a kind of fellow feeling for those grisly bears. She would have died with embarrassment if cameramen were watching her every move. She wondered how private the playing fields would be later on, whether it was worth taking a look. Or should they stick to the narrow track at the end, a recognised over-spill when the old shelters were occupied. One thing was certain; there would be no problem with cameras whichever venue they selected.

‘YOUR parents are pleasant,’ observed Gary, as he unwrapped the ice cream. ‘Disconcerting, though, being subjected to a spontaneous interrogation on a first date. I could understand if we'd seen each other a few times, but not on a first date.’

Thankful that the dimmed lighting hid her distress, Rachel kept her eyes on her lap and wished that her father had not insisted on meeting Gary. Humiliation bit hard and she experienced a desperate need to melt away, to go somewhere and weep away the mortification.

Gary's hand crept over her tightly clenched fist. ‘Hey, baby,’ he whispered. ‘Don't take on. I'm not angry.’ He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

She rejoiced. Her world was complete again.

(to be continued)

9 comments:

Brian Miller said...

ha. nice...relatable characters...some fun interplay around meeting the parents which feels authentic...nice read....

Akelamalu said...

Gary sounds nice! :)

Valerie said...

Pearl, I can't comment on your comment. It's a wait and see game...lol.

Brian, it's an ordeal at the best of times...grins.

Alan Burnett said...

Went back and read Chapter 1 as I had missed it. Then went on and read Chapter 2 : both over a cup of tea and biscuit. An excellent way to spend an afternoon break.

Ron said...

Excellent Chapter 2, Valerie!

I LOVED the moment when Rachel took Gary to meet her parents. I was nerviously anticipating her mother saying something outright rude - HA!

You have such a wonderful way of describing visual subtleties; making them so clear...

"As if to remind her of the options the rain succeeded in snapping a leaf stalk on a nearby ornamental cherry, creating a channel for it to dribble onto a dented Coca-Cola can."

LOVED that!

Can't WAIT to read more!

Have a wonderful day, dear lady!

X

Valerie said...

Cosy afternoon, then, Alan...smiles.

Valerie said...

Hey Ron, I'd almost forgotten that line. Rachel also expected her mother to say something rude. What a surprise, eh?

HermanTurnip said...

Cynthia is a woman who knows what she wants! Heh...

I wonder if her parents will ever accept a "driver" in their family?

Mel said...

gawped

*laughing* I'll ask himself. I just had to remember what it was TO ask!

Poor gal had to bring him in to meet parents.....much like my OWN had to do.
;-)