Days drifted into months and Cynthia Mates' courting days were coming to an end. In two months' time she would be marrying Curtis, a wedding which promised to be the talk of the neighbourhood, not to mention the factory. Witnessing Cynthia's nervous excitement and scared that she would collapse from mental exhaustion, Rachel was driven to allocate her spare time to helping with the arrangements. Time she had plenty of with
Seated at her desk, an eternal Benson and Hedges on the go, Cynthia studied the clutter of paper before her, sighing and lamenting over how long it was taking to do even the simplest task.
‘Like what?’ questioned Rachel.
‘Like trying to decide what time to book the hairdresser on the day.’
It was a decision only she could make, Rachel decided, giving her attention to the list she held in her hand. Beneath the heading Church Flowers, Cynthia had drawn four columns headed Lych-gate, Pews, Lectern, and Altar. To Rachel's way of thinking decorating a lych-gate was insane, an unnecessary expense on top of all the other wild features Cynthia had dreamed up, like a red carpet and master of ceremonies. Cynthia's folks would be destitute by the end of the proceedings. Not daring to peep at the florist's estimate stapled to the back, Rachel pencilled in what she considered would be sufficient posies to decorate the pews.
Privately she envied Cynthia. After months of cutting out fat and sugar her own weight had reduced by just under two stone. Visualising Cynthia sashaying down All Saints' aisle in the glorious pearly white dress, wearing long gloves and high heeled satin shoes, she craved the day when it would be her turn. For two weeks she had been secretly sewing a blue garter for Cynthia to wear and already had it marked as a borrowed item for her own wedding. Whenever that might be!
‘Reckon I'd be okay in those shoes we saw?’ Cynthia enquired. ‘I don't want to look taller than Curtis.’
Rachel reassured her. They were only a fraction higher than the ones she was wearing, which was as high as she dared go otherwise she would tower over her bridegroom. Being on the dumpy side Curtis looked shorter than he really was, a fact which continually worried Cynthia and made Rachel curious as to the extent of her friend's love for her chosen partner.
Cynthia extended a shapely leg to examine the heel of her blue suede court. ‘I hope you're right,’ she said. ‘I'll buy them at the weekend, if you're sure.’ She fingered the hire shop's price list, scanning the details of their wedding apparel. ‘I trust
‘Of course he will.’ Rachel had been thrilled when Curtis invited
Suddenly brightening, Cynthia announced: ‘We've had two presents already. Both toasters, would you believe. You'll be all right for toast if you come to supper. One does two slices and the other four, which makes six, so if
They burst out laughing, and tried to outdo each other with suggestions like halving, quartering and dicing to make six slices stretch to eight, sixteen and twenty-four.
‘Have you completed your gift list?’ Rachel asked when the pain in her side lessened. She’d been round the factory badgering for contributions, because Cynthia wanted cut glass and that necessitated several trips to
Cynthia stopped sucking the end of her pen. ‘I'm ploughing through the mail order catalogue, noting things I can ask for.’ Seeing Rachel's stricken face, she went on, ‘Don't look so horrified, I haven't included three-piece suites. Shall I look out for something for old scar neck while I'm at it?’
She was referring to Eric Hudspith, who sported a jagged scar below his left ear. Often they had sought to determine what had happened to him, their inventive minds speculating about a gangland attack, a subway mugging, or an overly wicked wife.
‘We could get him a clock,’ suggested Cynthia.
‘He won't need to know the time once he's retired.’
Hearing the Managing Director's voice outside the office door, Rachel hastily stuffed her list in the drawer, but with more to hide Cynthia was not quite so swift. Rachel darted to assist just as James Provost walked in.
‘Good afternoon, ladies.’
‘Good afternoon, Mr Provost,’ they chorused.
Peering at Cynthia's wedding lists, the Managing Director selected one. ‘Gift List,’ he read. ‘You're wise to register some ideas. Shall I add my own?’ Without waiting for Cynthia's reply, he pulled a gold pen from his top pocket and uncapped it. He began to write.
Rachel strove to keep from smirking. He might be a mind-reader, arriving at the precise moment they were discussing Eric Hudspith, but the stupid man was scribbling on Cynthia's private list.
When he finished writing, James Provost straightened, recapped his pen. He submitted the sheet to Cynthia. ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘My contribution. Management will naturally make the final choice, but your suggestions will be borne in mind. Meanwhile, you might consider purchasing your own farewell memento.’
Seeing him turn to go, Rachel hastily queried the specific reason for his visit. It would be too awful if he departed minus whatever it was he came for.
Looking over his spectacles, he replied sourly, ‘Wake up, girl. What do you imagine I've been doing since I came in?’
Rachel reddened and fixed her eyes on the desk until he left the room. ‘Pig!’ she cried, hurling a Bakelite dish of paperclips at the metal door.
Cynthia chuckled. ‘Good aim, pet, but a trifle late. You should have thrown it before the door closed. Mind, I'd like to have seen your face if he came back in and copped it on the chest.’
Sitting at her desk, fingering the corner of her blotting pad, Rachel sulked; her annoyance prevented her from seeing the incident's funny side.
Cynthia lit a cigarette and attempted to decipher Mr Provost's scrawl. ‘Cor, blimey,’ she muttered, then issued a loud chortle.
Rachel took no notice and kept her head lowered.
‘Look at this,’ Cynthia said in a voice wobbly with amusement. Racked with silent mirth, she handed Rachel the pile of papers, jabbing a red-tipped finger at the one on the top which now contained sundry items appropriate for a man's retirement. Mr Provost had entered on Cynthia's wedding list: a miniature organ, fishing tackle, vice and workbench, and a garden hammock.
One look at Cynthia's face sent Rachel into a paroxysm of laughter. Gripping pains circled her middle, over which her encompassing arms had no control. Wet faced, the two friends rocked, hooted, and guffawed, desisting only to acknowledge Gary Ellison's arrival with strangled, welcoming words.