Like Cynthia, Rachel's first port of call was invariably the cloakroom and this morning was no exception. She hurtled through the door like a cyclone and threw her coat and bag and morning paper on the red plastic chair by the end sink. Without delay she grabbed a batch of paper towels from the container on the wall and proceeded to remove a gob of bubble-gum from her hand. ‘Look at this mess,’ she grumbled, rubbing frantically at the dreadful resin. ‘Some clown left his trademark at the corner shop. On the door handle, of all places. Mindless cretin! I'd cuff his damned ear if I caught him.’
‘Oh, dear,’ said Cynthia, interrupting the renewal of her lipstick. ‘Are we in a mood this morning? Does this mean the divine
‘Don't be rotten, Cynth.’
‘I'm not being rotten. I speak derisively about that charmer you married for the simple reason that I am very concerned for your welfare.’ Cynthia frowned at her reflection and added a touch more powder. ‘You didn't answer my question. Did your feckless husband go away?’
The constriction in her throat prevented Rachel from replying; she could only nod. Hastily, she searched for a handkerchief to stem the brimming tears.
Instantly, Cynthia was at her side. She drew her friend to the security of her chest and stroked her hair. ‘Go on, ducky,’ she said. ‘Have a bloody good cry.’
Her compassion made Rachel feel worse. Despite efforts to restrain the tears, they fell like rivers down her cheeks. ‘I-I'm sorry,’ she sobbed, fingering a wet patch on her pink jumper.
Cynthia released her hold and darted across the cloakroom to fetch the chair. Transferring Rachel's coat to a door hook, she pushed her into a sitting position, then bounced into a cubicle for a spare toilet roll. ‘Here,’ she said, removing the sodden towels from her friend's hand. ‘Now you sit there and rest while I go and keep the peace with Sir. He'll be beside himself if one of us doesn't turn up.’
Willingly, Rachel did as she was told, and felt better for it. The weeping had unchained her pent-up emotions, bringing a welcome sense of deliverance. Eventually, when the sobbing subsided, she glanced at her watch. Ben Collins would be on the warpath but suddenly she didn't care. Nevertheless she made a move to put in an appearance. She checked her face in the mirror. Watercourses like railway tracks had cut through her make-up, making a repair job absolutely essential; she could hardly walk through the factory looking like that. Kind though most of them were, the men would tease and call out near-knuckle remedial suggestions.
She turned on the cold tap. There was no soap to wash with, so she splashed icy water on her face and rubbed it with a paper towel. When her skin was dry enough, she applied a thin film of foundation, powdered her cheeks and covered her lips with a soft pink gloss. She stood back to check the effect. Apart from the puffiness around the eyes, she didn't think anyone would notice she'd been crying. The door crashed open just as she was ready to leave.
‘Blimey,’ Cynthia cried. ‘I thought he'd go on forever. He nearly raised the roof when I told him you were indisposed.’ She broke off to lean backwards and stick out her belly in imitation of the boss, dropping her voice an octave to mimic his words. ‘Indisposed! What do you mean, indisposed?’ She let loose a hearty chuckle. ‘I told him you were constipated and couldn't leave the loo.’
‘What else could I say? If I'd said you were howling your head off, he'd have come up here and dragged you out by the hair. You know how callous he is. Anyway, you look smashing now so let's go before he snaps a gut. And watch it out there, the men are in waggish form.’
As the girls went into the factory, Cynthia carried on cursing Ben Collins. ‘I hate him. I really do. I'd rather have old Hudspith any day.’
Cherishing the thought of her forthcoming lunchtime engagement, Rachel inwardly agreed.
Old Alf, on the first machine, saw them coming. ‘Mornin' girls.’
Cynthia whispered, ‘There's a new bloke started. Take my advice, keep walking.’
Rachel hissed back, ‘I intend to.’
Alf's neighbour, Bert, joined in. ‘Hey, fellers, don't the girls look bloody gorgeous today.’
Wolf whistles rang out as they passed the row of machine operators. One man, who sat on a wooden box fiddling with his crotch, looked straight at Rachel and hollered, ‘Hey, redhead, give us a feel of your breasts, there's a darlin'.’
‘Leave orf, Sid,’ called Alf. ‘You'll embarrass the girl?’
‘I'd like to,’ laughed the new man, standing up and cupping his hands in a simulated handling of breasts. ‘Cor! Just imagine them boobies in these hands. Fair makes me dribble.’
As the raucous laughter reverberated behind them, Rachel blushed to the roots of her hair. Yet, unlike Cynthia, she half enjoyed the risqué chaff; it was the nearest she ever got to having her libido roused.
The manager bawled as the metal door clanged shut, ‘I take it you're feeling better now.’ An arrogant man, he demanded Rachel's attention every minute of the day. He was overweight, with a fleshy face and about four chins and, when he looked at Rachel, his eyes seemed to drill right through.
Cynthia nudged Rachel. ‘Told you, didn't I?’
Hurrying to her desk, Rachel disposed of her belongings and quickly unlocked the drawer. She grabbed her notebook, aware that the man was watching through his window. Come back, Eric, she silently pleaded as she sped into the inner office.
Ben Collins sat fuming on his leather chair, his hands clutching the sides of his corpulent stomach. His head swayed from side to side in temper, causing his numerous chins to wobble. Before Rachel could apologise for her lateness, Ben Collins pounced. ‘And about time too. There's enough work here for a week.’ He examined his watch. ‘You owe me seventy-five minutes. Make it up at the end of the day.’
Rachel took dictation at a speed she didn't know she possessed: letters, lists, memos, and minutes, as well as amassing countless papers to file. A quick glance at the wall clock told her she had been closeted for more than two hours. It was almost lunch time.
ERIC Hudspith was already at the end of the road when Rachel left the loading bay. Out of habit she looked to see if
‘Hello, Eric,’ she said, squeezing his arm.
‘How are you, dear girl?’
‘Not so good today.’
Eric took her by the hand and led her to his silver Vauxhall. He unlocked the door and helped her in. ‘Bad weekend, was it?’
She waited until he was installed behind the wheel before revealing how unhappy she had been, and how she almost destroyed her wedding clothes; in her eyes tantamount to destroying her marriage altogether.
‘You should have rung me. I would have come to rescue you.’
And what, Rachel wondered, would his domineering wife do? Kiss her husband goodbye as he prepared to console another woman? But, oh, how she wished she could have plucked up the courage to call.
THE recently opened restaurant was obviously popular with professional people, if brief cases and furled umbrellas were anything to go by. Fashionably dressed female wine drinkers graced the bar, presumably awaiting their lunch dates. Rachel was thankful she was wearing her grey fur-collared coat and best boots; not exactly trendy, but perfectly presentable. The dining area was like a Victorian kitchen, natural pine furniture, plain white crockery, and not a tablecloth in sight. The brown and yellow decor gave the room a warm feel, as if a fire burned somewhere out of sight.
A waiter conducted them to a table at the far end of the room. He held the chair for Rachel, then handed them a couple of hard-backed menus. This was the part Rachel dreaded; always uncertain about what to choose, always conscious of the cost.
Eric scanned his menu. ‘They do have a fish course, Rachel, if you would prefer it to steak.’
Rachel closed her menu with a snap. ‘Capital. I'll have that.’
Consulting the menu again, she ran her finger down the list of fish fare, ignoring anything with garlic, which she hated. ‘Can I have the plaice?’
‘Dear girl, you can have whatever you like.’
Eric ordered for them both. Then he leaned back in his chair and contemplated Rachel. ‘I can see you've been crying. Was the weekend very bad?
Rachel put an elbow on the table and rested her chin on her hand. ‘I felt as if I'd been abandoned,’ she said. ‘I went shopping on Saturday, that broke the day up, but I thought I'd go mad yesterday. The house was so quiet. Did you know today is my wedding anniversary? I waited for the postman this morning but there was no card.’
‘Poor girl. You really will have to tackle
‘I do! And he promises faithfully to stay home more, but whenever Terry rings he forgets. They go out for a drink and he invariably stays out all night.’
‘I still think he's gay,’ Eric said. ‘I mean, he doesn't even have a shot at sex. It's abnormal for a healthy young man like him to avoid making love. I simply cannot comprehend why he got married in the first place.’ Two waiters arrived with their food and Eric rapidly changed the subject. While the vegetables were being served, he related an incident to do with Jeremy and Fiona, his married children, but, the instant the men left, he reverted back to Rachel's plight. ‘Have you told
‘No.’ Pensively, Rachel sprinkled salt on her fish. She had tried to pin
Eric said, ‘I think you should, Rachel. You certainly cannot continue living a solitary existence. The man needs sorting out.’ He paused before adding, ‘I wish I could be the one to do it.’ The latter sentiment was indistinctly voiced; a private afterthought infiltrating the bold, advisory style.
Hearing the catch in his voice, Rachel dropped her knife and stretched out to cover his hand, at that moment more concerned for him than for herself. ‘I know you'd help if you could,’ she said. ‘And I will endeavour to sort it out.’