A week later, as she handed Gary a plate of scrambled eggs, Rachel told him of her decision to purchase single beds. It was not a subject she particularly wanted to discuss at the breakfast table but what else could she do when he was so seldom home.
Without even raising his eyes from the morning paper,
The sports page was obviously so riveting that
‘The sleeping arrangements.’
‘What sleeping arrangements?’
‘I want single beds.’
‘Well, I do. I can't be expected to sleep with you knowing how you feel about touching me.’
‘I don't touch you.’
Infuriated, Rachel hurled her cup at him. ‘Christ, don't I know it.’
Though Rachel watched the procedure with dismay, she was too angry to apologise. ‘Bloody well wash one then, or get your precious Terry to do it for you.’ Dragging her
‘Don't swear, Rachel,’ he called as she crashed out of the house.
RACHEL examined her face in the mirror. The rings beneath her eyes were in desperate need of camouflage, but the factory whistle would sound any minute and she didn't want to provoke old Collins today. She simply couldn't cope with his reprimands in her present mood. Nonetheless, her face would have to be fixed before her lunch date with Eric. She checked the time. Three minutes was not long enough to perform the miracle her eyes needed but something had to be done and, if Collins kept her busy, she might never get around to it.
Deciding to take a chance, she burrowed in her bag for cosmetics, strewing stuff along the shelf which, for once, was free of Cynthia's paraphernalia. Rachel deplored the fact that Cynthia was taking the morning off, it meant no-one to moan with or confide her exasperations to. It meant she would have to wait until the afternoon to complain about
Unless she told all to Eric.
The whistle sounded as she applied the last brush of brown mascara. Good timing, she thought, shovelling the cosmetics back in her bag. She unhooked her raincoat from the door and flew out of the cloakroom.
Alf yelled, ‘Mornin', Rachel,’ as he started up his machine,
‘Good Morning, Alf.’
‘Hear that, chaps,’ Bert cried, gesturing with his oil can. ‘She's actually spoken to Alfie. Might be my turn tomorrow.’
Rachel felt the blood rush up her neck as she approached the machine presided over by Sid, who bent double to get a better look at her legs as she marched by.
‘I am doing.’ Suddenly straightening, Sid called to Bert. ‘If you don't want her tomorrow, can I have a turn?’
Catching his lecherous eye, Rachel shuddered at the idea of being mauled by his greasy hands. The men egged
It galled her to see Ben Collins consult his watch as the door banged behind her. Considering what she had to go through to get there, he was lucky she bothered at all. She'd like to bet he wouldn't like being baited the way women were. If he was accosted by a bunch of dissolute women, he'd run like a scared ninny. No, that wasn't fair; even crones would be fussy so in that regard Mr Collins had nothing to fear.
‘Were the men harassing you this morning, Rachel?’
The enquiry was so unexpected that she gawked at her boss, momentarily unable to respond. She wouldn't have put him down as being perceptive. Intelligent, yes, but not observant to the predicaments of others. Nevertheless, she enquired, ‘How did you guess?’
Ben surveyed her over the top of his glasses. ‘I do hear things occasionally, things which might sometimes surprise you.’
Rachel racked her brains in an effort to establish what sort of things, hoping there were no circulating rumours about her and Gary. It was unlikely, but she kept quiet, just in case.
RACHEL and Eric lunched at Chaplin's, the same restaurant they went to before. Eric did his best to improve her temper which worsened with every utterance of
Rachel's knife and fork hit the plate. ‘I can't do that.’ A couple at the adjacent table glanced in her direction. The balding businessman seemed amused, but his elderly female companion gave Rachel a disdainful gaze as if she was scum let loose to plague them. Rachel lowered her voice and carried on. ‘I love him,’ she hissed. ‘It's not him I'm against; it's the lack of intercourse.’
A puff of smoke drifted across from the next table. To Rachel's horror the woman had lit a cigarette mid-way through the meal. Rachel wafted the smoke with her hand, giving the woman a killing stare.
Oblivious to the charade, Eric said, ‘Sexual alliance is by far the most important part of marriage. Without that, you have nothing.’ He broke a chunk off his bread roll and brandished it to emphasise his next statement. ‘No amount of affection will keep your marriage alive while you are physically distanced from each other.’
A waiter arrived to top up their wine glasses and departed as noiselessly as he came. Drinking deeply from the replenished glass, Rachel pondered Eric's theory. She supposed it was difficult for people to understand that she and Gary were made for each other and that the concept of life without him was too terrifying to contemplate. ‘I can't leave him,’ she stated, firmly.
Eric shrugged and carried on eating. A heavy silence lingered between them for the rest of the meal.
IN the car, bothered by the abiding tension, Rachel sneaked a look at Eric's glowering face. She couldn't understand why her refusal to leave her husband should have created such a strain on their ordinarily affable relationship. Eric drove wildly, narrowly missing kerbs, cutting corners, jerking the pedals so sharply that Rachel's seat belt tightened uncomfortably around her. Eventually, he pulled up at the corner, slammed on the brakes, hoisting the gear lever so hard that the ratchet squealed.
The woman ambled away, her head arched towards
Eric's hand shot out to stop her. ‘Don't go, Rachel.’
She regarded him in bewilderment. ‘What's up, Mr H?’ She had unwittingly reverted to the old abbreviation.
‘Dear girl, I must apologise.’
Rachel's hand went again to the button, and once more Eric caught her. ‘Hear me out, Rachel. I won't distress you further.’
‘If you're going to tell me to leave
‘I know that and I'm sorry for causing you such pain.’ Eric was crimson-faced as he carried on. ‘I'm an old man now but I'll always be here for you.’ Leaning on the steering wheel, he gave a shuddering sigh. ‘Whenever you're at your wits end and feel like talking, I will listen. Share your problems, so to speak. I will be your confidante. Ease your life a little, if you will allow it.’
Rachel's throat ached. Feeling utterly woeful, she released the belt and propelled herself out of the car door, stumbling to the pavement with her hand covering her mouth.
The situation was unreal. She wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. Most of all she wanted Eric to go away; she felt threatened by so much charitable concern. Returning her husband's salute, she bent her head and peered into the car. ‘Goodbye, Eric. Thanks for lunch.’ She ran off without giving him a chance to speak, though not before glimpsing the wretchedness on his face. ‘I'll ring him later,’ she muttered as she dashed blindly up the road.
CYNTHIA was at her desk when Rachel hurtled in. Pausing from the business of nail-shaping, she waved her emery board and demanded to know if there was a fire or something and should she send for the fire brigade.
‘You'll never guess what's happened.’
‘You've lost your dentures?’
‘I think Eric Hudspith's in love with me.’
Cynthia's eyes popped, her mouth flopped open, and specks of white saliva appeared in the corners.
Rachel thought she was having a fit. ‘Cynth?’
‘You are joking? Tell me you’re only joking.’
‘Straight up. He's gone all protective. Wants to be my confidante. He said he would always be there for me. Honest to God, I think he's in love with me.’
‘I don't believe it. Is that what all those lunches have been about? You'll have to watch him, Rach, he'll have your knickers off before you can blink.’
A lengthy discussion ensued on the reasoning behind Eric's offer of friendship: whether it was for his benefit or hers. Cynthia begged Rachel to consider the implications of having an old man as a mate, stating that in her view it was positively unhealthy. ‘He'll drop his trousers one of these days to cure your dilemma.’
In spite of herself, Rachel giggled.
‘Picture the scene,’ Cynthia said, recovering her sense of humour. ‘Skinny legs jutting out from baggy Y-fronts and suspenders holding up his socks.’ She guffawed uncontrollably at the ludicrous description, just as the tea-break whistle blew. Still chuckling, she fetched the kettle. ‘Shall I collect the water or do you want to see
‘He's gone to
‘I'll go then. I could do with the walk.’
‘By the way, Cynth,’ Rachel asked, before the door shut behind her friend. ‘Have you heard any gossip about Gary and me?’
FOLLOWING a meagre tea of bread and jam and feeling more isolated than ever, Rachel took Rex to the playing field. The frozen grass crunched beneath her walking boots. The street lights by the fence, misty in the cold gloom, seemed to highlight the silence, giving her the eerie impression that she was the only person at large in the world. She grew distinctly jumpy and got quite desperate to return home. Impatiently, she called the dog to heel. Obediently, Rex bounded up and posted himself at her left side. ‘Good boy. Come on, let's go home.’
She broke into a jog, maintaining a regular speed until they were safely at the front gate. She saw no-one on the entire journey and was not likely to until morning.
THE evening stretched ahead, as did every evening when
She couldn't settle with so much on her mind. The day's occurrences coursed through her head in rapid succession, sometimes jumbled up as one, sometimes stumbling over each other to procure some rational contemplation. In the end, it was the incident with Eric that nagged the most.
Sipping the steaming soup, she replayed the episode in the car, rehearsing the words he used in an attempt to console her.
I'm an old man now, but I'll always be here for you.
The alarm she felt had long gone; indeed, she was not sure why it was there in the first place. She had no right to tell Cynthia that he was in love with her … that was absolutely her own notion. The man was being kind, that's all. Thoughtful and benevolent. She felt discomfited for even listening to Cynthia's comic routine.
Whenever you're at your wits end, I'll be your confidante.
Lifting the mug to her lips, she stared through the rising steam, remembering the gruffness of Eric's voice, picturing his face, and the pain etched on it.
I'll always be here for you, dear girl.
Slowly sipping the soup, she reminded herself that he was only trying to help.
Share your problems. Ease your life a little.
Goodbye, Mr H.
The loneliness escalated. She felt lifeless, like a discarded fragment of sterile rag. All because she had misjudged a good friend! She castigated herself for her cruelty and wondered whatever made her believe the man fancied her.
Don't you ever wear a bra?
I'll make your life easier.
Picturing again the anguish on his face when she flung out of the car, she was aware of a frantic need to appease. Slamming the empty mug on the coffee table, she raced into the hall and picked up the phone, wavering for only a minute before dialling his number.
There was a hush at the other end.
She nearly hung up, but then Eric said, ‘Rachel. How nice.’
‘Can you talk.’
‘Of course, dear girl.’
‘Can we meet?’
‘Do you want to?’
‘I'll ring you. We can fix a time.’
‘Eric, if Cynthia ....’
‘Goodnight, dear girl.’
(to be continued)