It was a lovely wedding, mused Rachel on the eve of her first wedding anniversary. Before her on the bed was the wedding dress, taken from its box of white tissue and laid out, the long sleeves crossed in a deathbed pose as if it was herself she had placed there. She slid her fingers along the folds, then touched the petals of the cream silk rose, a last minute addition to hide a flawed seam at the waist.
Looking back, it seemed to her that the flaw was an omen, a sign that the future would be anything but normal. It was loneliness that drove her to inspect the dress; she had forgotten that the mere sight of it would be like reliving the momentous occasion when she made a vow to love, honour and obey. She snorted as she recalled those words, knowing how unbalanced the undertaking was.
Rex's tail flicked into action when he saw her kick off her slippers, wrongly anticipating that she was going out. Ignoring him, Rachel slid her feet into the high heeled shoes and checked her appearance in the wardrobe mirror, lifting her skirt to show her knees. After a year-long diet, her legs had slimmed down and were not at all bad to look at. Some kind of reward for all that fasting would have been nice, but even when he was home
‘What did I do wrong, Rexie?’ she cried as she subsided on the bed. The dog kept his muzzle on the ground and gazed at her with doleful eyes, his tail wagging continuously. She lay back, sighed, thinking if he could talk he would be a better companion than
Her attention was drawn to the deep white box on the uppermost shelf in the wardrobe. The box that housed the album. Suddenly, she jumped up to fetch it. Standing on tiptoe, she yanked the box, staggering with the momentum of its fall. The album had been packed away six months after the wedding, when the white leather-bound cover got scuffed; not by relatives or friends, but by her wretched self when she felt in danger of forgetting what
What was the point of keeping it around as a permanent reminder of her dreadful mistake. Or his.
The album fell open at the picture of the wedding group, female members wearing time-honoured suits and obligatory carnations, men dressed in grey with white shirts. Her mother, in a picture hat, feathery frills adorning her neck, beaming at the photographer in a way that suggested it was her wedding, rather than that of her only child. And her father: happy, but in a different manner. He wore a proud expression and stood erect like a man aiming to touch the clouds with his head.
Curtis stood next to
Rachel would never know for whom she was heartbroken. Was it for her husband, Reg, who died the year before, or Gary? Was she familiar with her son's problems? Did she guess that he would not consummate his marriage? Would she have castigated him if she did?
As matron of honour, Cynthia was as elegant as when she herself was a bride. She smiled disarmingly at the camera. Rachel remembered that Cynthia had just urged
Eric, as friend and ex-boss, assessed
Over the months she tried supplicating, and wooing, even bribing
But she was mistaken.
Recalling how violently sick she had been afterwards, Rachel screamed at the top of her voice, ‘Bastard.’
Rex opened a cautious eye.
Exasperated with the entire sad mess, she thrust the shoes from her feet and threw them onto the bed.
Rex scampered to take refuge behind the dressing table.
She dragged the dress off the bed, stuffed it roughly in its box, fighting an impulse to throw the lot in the refuse-bin. Then she crashed out of the bedroom as if the devil himself was at her heels.
Rex followed at a more leisurely pace, uncertain about this current mood.
In the living room, some guy on the radio raucously crucified a love song. Rachel hastily switched him off; in her present mood, songs of love didn’t go down at all well.
REACHING for her bag, Rachel moved into the hall to collect her coat, unable to bear the thought of spending another morose evening with only Rex for company. She sat heavily on the stool near the cloakroom and drew on her brown snow boots.
Rex hurtled jubilantly towards the door, catching the edge of the phone table in his eagerness to go out. His tail swept the table top like a feather duster. An ornament plunged to the floor …
It was like the last straw. ‘I'll leave him,’ she muttered as she slammed the door to; but deep in her heart she knew she wouldn't, no matter what she had to endure. At the gate, she stopped to survey the rented house with the ivy covered crannies that had endeared it to them a year ago. If she deserted the dwelling would suffer, for
The abrasive wind numbed Rachel's fingers and she fished in her pockets for her sheepskin gloves. She hadn't bargained for snow and questioned the advisability of travelling far. Rex pulled on the lead. ‘Wait,’ she ordered, wondering if the weather was too bad to visit her parents. There would be drifts near the fields but if she stuck to the roads she should get there all right. Deciding to take a chance, she set off in the direction of her old home.
THE kitchen was warm and welcoming, with a lingering aroma of pot-roast.
‘Take your coat off and come to the fire,’ said Toby. By the state of the hearth, he had obviously been there some time himself, proof coming in the form of a heap of papers, a brandy bottle and glass, and several sticky rings on the tiles.
‘Where's Mum?’ Rachel asked as she unwound her scarf.
‘She's away with that friend of hers.’ Toby shook the cushions on the second fireside chair. ‘Where's
‘Away with that friend of his.’
They both laughed at the absurdity of their two situations.
Rachel sat by the fire to warm her hands and knees. Rex gave a shudder of delight and lay at her feet. Her father took a glass from the dresser and wiped it with a tea-towel.
Frown lines scored his forehead, but he seemed cheerful enough. Rachel wondered if he had finally accepted Amy's new social activities. Encouraged by her new friend, Amy now attended mystical meetings and had become engrossed in the occult. Her life, she claimed, had been transformed. By all accounts, so had Toby's. Rachel asked, ‘Are they at a séance again?’
‘I didn't bother to ask.’ Toby poured a generous measure of brandy, handed it to her. ‘She's welcome to trek out on a winter's night to hear some lifeless soul sending messages. I've no truck with that sort of thing.’ He leaned back in his chair and drank deeply. ‘Tell me your news. Where's
Rachel sipped her drink and kept her eyes averted, afraid she would cry when her father scolded, as she knew he would. ‘I don't know,’ she mumbled.
‘Don't know? What the stinking hell sort of man is he, eh? Can't he think about anything else besides sodding work. It's about time he grew up and took his responsibilities seriously. He should be paying you some attention not his sodding cronies.’
Rachel flinched as Toby's fist whacked the arm of his chair and wished she had chosen her words more carefully. Not for anything did she want her father's wrath to fall on
Disbelievingly, Toby scrutinised her face. ‘You sure, my girl? If he's deliberately staying away, I'll swing for him.’
Rex raised his head. Rachel stroked him with a reassuring hand. ‘Honestly, Dad., everything's fine.’ Her father would perceive by her tumbling words that she had lied, but she dare not let him lure her into uttering more serious accusations. If he ever learned of the non-consummation, he would, as he so often said, swing for him.
In a bid to change the subject, she began to chatter. She spoke of the factory and Cynthia's new house and the ongoing friendship with her old boss.
‘You still see him?’
‘He regularly comes by the office.’
‘I'd have thought he'd be glad to give the place a miss.’
‘He likes to maintain contact. He buys me lunch sometimes.’ And helped enormously when the need to discuss difficulties was critical. Rachel believed she would not have lasted the year if Eric Hudspith had not been around to give her strength; however, that was a fact she must necessarily keep concealed.
Endeavouring to disguise her sadness, Rachel asked if her father had eaten. Once more, Rex lifted his head, the tip of his tail showing signs of excitement.
‘Not yet. Your mother had the last of the pot-roast. I felt like waiting a bit. See, Rachel, I must have known you'd turn up.’
‘I'll cook you something.’
In the refrigerator she found bacon wrapped in greaseproof, sausages and eggs. ‘How about a mixed grill?’
‘Smashing. You'll have some, won't you?’
NEXT morning, as she nibbled her toast, Rachel reflected on the visit to her father. It had been like old times eating with him in the kitchen, reminiscent of her early teens when her mother worked long hours at the hospital. That was before Toby was employed in more remote areas and Mum waved the whip to make her work harder.
Not a happy time, she thought as she buttered a second slice and spread on a forbidden dollop of marmalade. How strange it was that certain experiences remained perpetually in one's memory while others passed through without making a dent.
Would her anxieties ultimately fade, or would they haunt her for the rest of her days?
She fondled the dog's ear for a moment, then almost wearily piled the crocks on a Melamine tray and carried them to the sink. ‘Come on, old boy, I'll pour you some tea. Now, where's your bowl?’
Listening to her question, Rex tilted his head, then, with his tail wagging wildly, he shoved his paw between the cupboard and the cooker and dragged out a plastic dish.
Despite a feeling of wretchedness, Rachel giggled. ‘You're a clever clogs,’ she said. The dog panted at her, then lay on his back with his legs in the air, waiting for a tickle. Rachel rubbed his belly until he growled with happiness. ‘There, you are,’ she laughed. ‘And if you wouldn't mind showing
The ringing telephone ended the frolic. Counting on it being a call from
It was Eric Hudspith. ‘Good morning, dear girl. I hoped to catch you before you left for work.’
Wholly deflated, Rachel sank on a chair. ‘I was just going.’
‘I will be engaged all morning, you see, so I couldn't ring later. I thought a nice lunch might dissolve your cares and there's a new steak bar I'm anxious to try. Would
His ability to sense her gloom and propose welcoming invitations amazed her, he even knew what her response would be. ‘Your timing is incredible, Eric,’ she said.
He chuckled down the line, a satisfied chuckle, taking it for granted she would agree to accompany him. ‘, then. At the corner. I look forward to it.’
So shall I, she thought, replacing the handset, thankful for the opportunity to unburden her soul.
(to be continued)