The second-hand kidney-shaped dressing table came minus a stool and, since she had not yet procured one, Rachel used the padded linen-box instead. It had been an impulse buy, bought with available birthday money because of a notion that the one large and two small mirrors would enable her to improve her image.
She studied her reflection, noting the way her skin glowed as if she'd just emerged from a hot bath, and her eyes were sort of dreamy, if that was possible. She picked up one of the china lambs Amy had bought for Christmas and held it to her cheek, savouring the coolness of its smooth white glaze.
She peered closely at the furrows on her forehead which appeared to have deepened in the last few days. She was obviously frowning too much. And for what? Her deliberations had got her nowhere. For four weeks, she and Gary had courted in the true sense of the word, but progress in their love affair was virtually non-existent. Oh, she was happy enough, staggeringly so, especially when he held her close - she'd go weak at the knees then. When he kissed her, she'd practically writhe with desire; even his foot touching hers sent her chemical balance haywire. Yet they never made love.
He was a remarkably tolerant man, particularly with her mother, who seemed to have grown more crotchety, castigating Toby for silly things like being late home, not walking the dog before supper and, worse, for not buying her flowers on a Friday.
Rachel yawned. How tired she was. All this cogitating was extremely taxing. Replacing the lamb alongside its porcelain mother, she started to undress. She smoothed the pleats of her wool skirt and looped it on a hanger, covering it with a polythene bag to defeat the moths. Not that there were any at this time of year, but she was not taking any chances. One could be poised in the wardrobe, waiting patiently for her to forego the protective custom.
She crammed her blouse and underwear in the laundry-box and wound the alarm, setting it an hour earlier in order to get stuck into the washing. Then, dressed in a plain blue nightdress, she strode barefoot to the stairs to summon Rex. He slept in her room at night, in a basket situated between wardrobe and bed from where he could keep an attentive eye on his mistress. The dog bounded up the stairs and nudged the bedroom door with his snout. Only after ascertaining that Rachel was behind him did he flop panting on his bed. ‘I'm here,’ she murmured, fondling his ear. And probably would forever be, the way things were going.
IT took a long time to hang the washing. Her fingers were so cold she could hardly squeeze the wooden pegs, but eventually she elevated the washing with a warped prop and stood back to admire the result of her labours. She nodded appreciatively when the breeze transported the clothes towards the sky. Calling Rex to heel she hurried across the lawn, scaring a nervous Dunnock from the birdbath.
Realising there was time for a quick trip up the road, she snatched the dog lead off the hook on the pantry door. The tether was only necessary if Rex chanced to roam from her side - not something he was wont to do, being an obedient animal. It was a factor that infuriated Amy, who had no confidence in the dog's ability to obey orders. When Rex pulled, she stumbled, and no matter how often Rachel demonstrated the technique of dog-walking, Amy continued to exercise him in absurd stilettos, running behind screaming she would lay into him when she got him home. She never did. Rachel wouldn't let her.
Rachel trudged along
She headed for the playing fields, her attention lingering on Eric Hudspith. If all else failed, came the defiant thought, she could turn to him. If she fluttered her lashes, he would have her on his desk in a flash - old as he was. So far, she had been successful in discouraging his hand from travelling too near the hem of her skirt, but if
As she hared round the field she told herself she was being daft, but it didn't stop the onset of salty tears. Besieged by a desperate need to cry uninterruptedly on Cynthia's shoulder, she ran faster, with Rex delightedly competing for a winning place.
CYNTHIA was at her usual spot in the cloakroom, lipstick in one hand, cigarette in the other. She wore a blue two-piece, the exact match of her eyes.
‘Do I need to see you,’ blurted Rachel. ‘I've got an enormous quandary.’
Cynthia drew on the cigarette, squinting as she always did through the resulting haze.
‘What's that, then?’ she asked. When Rachel did not immediately reply, she began shading her generous lips with her new Capri Pink, muttering out of the corner of her mouth, ‘What's the dilemma?’
‘I should have guessed. You don't talk about much else these days. What's he done?’
‘It's what he hasn't done.’
Cynthia's eyebrows lifted. ‘Oh! Tell me more.’
‘We haven't ... I can't persuade him .... Oh, hell, we haven't done it yet.’
‘Done what,’ asked Cynthia, innocently, licking a finger to moisten her eyebrows. ‘What haven't you done, pet?’
Fingering a small speck on her cheek, Cynthia pointed out, ‘Well, pet, you simply announced you wanted to marry him, you didn't mention sleeping with the guy.’
Rachel bid her to quit fooling. Couldn't she detect how worried she was?
Cynthia's tone softened. ‘I'm sorry, Rach,’ she said, and went on to ask whose fault it was.
‘Course I'm sure. I'm trying my best to make out, but he continually backs off.’
‘Maybe it's the difference in your ages.’
‘He's a mere five years older, for God's sake.’
‘Ah, but you're only eighteen. He may judge you to be a trifle young for a sordid affair.’
‘It wouldn't be sordid. It would be absolutely wonderful.’
‘Maybe he's scared you'll become pregnant,’ suggested Cynthia.
‘He's more worldly wise than that,’ retorted Rachel. ‘He knows the score. Anyway, why would he keep a Durex in his wallet? I saw it once when he went to pay at the flicks. I remember thinking it would happen on our way home. I managed to entice him into one of the shelters in the field, but it was no use. The kissing and stuff was great, but as soon as my erotic nature went into overdrive he complained about the grass stains on his white Mac.’
Cynthia nearly choked. She remarked that she'd heard various excuses in her time, but a grass stain wasn’t one of them.
‘Oh, Cynth, what can I do?’
‘I advise you to play hard to get,’ said Cynthia as the factory whistle sounded. As they gathered their things ready to depart, she ordered Rachel not to worry and promised further discussion at break.
ERIC Hudspith was at the end of the walkway, his arms loaded with files collected from Sales. That meant Rachel would spend the day filing and she would be hard-pressed to type letters. However, filing would present an additional spell in which to ventilate her problem over
They arrived at the despatch office to find Eric had organised the tea. ‘Come in, girls,’ he said. ‘I've made the tea and there are some ginger nuts in the tin. If you'd bring yours in, Rachel, I'd be obliged.’ He disappeared into his office, bearing a steaming cup of tea and a plate of biscuits.
Cynthia grinned as she gave Rachel a plate with four gingers in the middle. ‘He's polishing the grindstone early. Wonder what's up.’
Disgruntled that the letters were to take priority, Rachel filled the pocket of her grey skirt with pencils and tucked her notebook under her arm.
‘Don't do anything I wouldn't do, pet,’ joked Cynthia, bending over her ledger.
Rachel went into the office in reverse, pushing the door with her posterior. Seeing her notebook slide to the floor, Eric Hudspith swiftly skirted his desk to retrieve it. Relieving her of the tea, he instructed her to sit down, indicating the chair which was angled so that his wicked right hand would be two inches at most from her thigh. Rachel dragged the seat further away before sitting down, then began arranging her pencils, two either side of the pad and two at the top as if laying for dinner.
Ignoring her performance with the chair, Eric swivelled to face her. ‘You look charming, my dear. What's that scent you're wearing?’
She informed him that it was Gardenia soap he could smell and explained that her perfume was kept exclusively for social events.
‘You're very remote,’ he observed, propelling his chair so that it glided on castors nearer to where she sat. She could smell hair oil and a whiff of the grease used on machines. ‘I shall miss you, my dear,’ he said.
Rachel recoiled. What was he talking about? She ruffled her hair in her confusion, then, conscious of the mess she was making she flattened it with her hands.
‘Are you all right, my dear?’
‘Fine, Mr H. I'm just curious about your statement.’
‘My dear girl, my retirement approaches. It is time for me to separate myself from the business world.’
‘You don't mean it!’
She gazed at him, this elderly man who had devoted his life to Hodder and Spicton. Unrewarded and overlooked for promotion on several occasions, Poor chap. Nothing much going for him here or at home, if past admissions about cold-as-ice Mildred were true. How he and his imperious wife managed to generate two kids was a miracle. It must have been a major achievement when, according to Eric, he never got his leg over.
Eric adjusted the crotch of his pinstripes. ‘Have a biscuit, my dear. My wife favours them. They are, apparently, tastier than most.’
‘Very nice, Mr H. Now then, the letters?’
‘Ah yes, the letters. I feel inclined to assign the correspondence to the waste bin but that could effect an earlier retirement than the one I already face. Nevertheless, I will leave the dictation until later in the day.’
‘Right you are,’ Rachel said, scooping up the pencils. ‘Incidentally, when do you leave?’
‘Six months, my dear. Six short months!’
He followed her to the door and reached past her to open it, accidentally brushing her breast as he extended his arm. His glinting eye alarmed her for a minute but he quickly stood aside to let her pass. ‘Tell me,’ he mumbled, ‘Don't you ever wear a brassiere?’
The question was so audacious that Rachel couldn't help marvelling at his nerve. It deserved an equally brazen reply. Holding herself erect and staring him straight in the eye, she revealed that she managed quite well without. She did not add that her breasts were so weighty the bra straps left weals in her shoulders.
‘There's a clever girl,’ he said, grinning, and went on to concede in a low voice that her boy friend was an exceptionally lucky man.
CYNTHIA stubbed her cigarette and rotated her chair. ‘I shall be glad when Sandra returns,’ she said. ‘I'm fed up with checking these sales figures.’ She began clipping the sheets together. ‘Are you doing anything special tonight?’
Rachel dropped her pen and shook her head. ‘
‘Why don't we go out? We could arrange your love affair over a drink.’
‘We'll find somewhere quiet, eh?’
‘We could try the new wine bar in
‘Good idea, but it won't be quiet. Meet me at seven at the bus stop and we'll give it a whirl.’
(to be continued)