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.
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
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,
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
‘Did you have a lift?’ asked
‘Then how come you look so fresh?’
The grey ash plummeted, landing squarely on
‘Mothers are strange,’ declared
‘You didn't ask, that's why.’
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
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
‘I've decided to marry him,’ she said.
Wafting the smoke away,
There was nothing
‘Oh, well, that's okay then,’
At that point, the conversation was forced to an abrupt conclusion by the arrival of
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.
Thankful that the rain had ceased, she trotted home.
She knew he was there the instant she turned into
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.
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.
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?’
‘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.
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
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
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
‘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.
‘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
Toby advanced a hand. ‘Toby Skinner. Pleased to meet you.’
‘Gary Ellison,’ said
Rachel fastened her eyes on her mother and was gratified to see amazement etched on her face. ‘
‘Really,’ said Amy. ‘How nice.’
Charlatan, thought Rachel.
‘Have you been with them long?’ enquired Amy.
‘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
Hypocrite, thought Rachel.
Eventually, Rachel managed to draw
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,
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.
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
Rachel laughed, but was shocked by the admission. Not for anything would she admit to stealing the way
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.
‘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,
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.
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,’
‘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
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
She rejoiced. Her world was complete again.