Rachel and Gary went back to living together, no questions asked, no excuses made.
Over lunch one day at Chaplins, where Rachel met Eric on a weekly basis - further communication being achieved by phone, Rachel declared her worries over her forthcoming big sister role.
‘You could pretend the child is your own,’ he said.
‘That's the trouble. I'm not afraid of handling a baby; it’s just that I might get too attached and fret when it was taken away.’
‘Are you jealous, Rachel?’
‘Oh, Eric. If you only knew. I've tried to fight it. I just hope that by the time mother goes into labour I will have sorted my feelings into some kind of order.’
Eric lifted the bottle of white wine from the cooler to refill Rachel's glass. ‘I wouldn't worry unduly, dear girl. Things have a habit of turning out right. I fancy you will be the child's perfect second mother. I also have a notion that your mother will be happy to allow it.’
‘You think so?’
‘Your own upbringing proves it. Were it not for your dear departed father you would have been the subject of neglect. I am surprised your mother wasn't hauled before the courts for ill-treating you. While you are on hand to protect your new sibling, I believe you will enjoy it.’
Thoughtfully, Rachel speared a piece of broccoli. ‘I'm ever so grateful for all your counselling, Eric. I don't know how I'd have coped without it.’ Seeing his contented smile, she added. ‘Seems to me we'll never have a lunch date that's free of my problems. I wish there was something I could do to lighten them for you.’
‘My dear girl, what rubbish you talk. Do you still not understand what joy you bring to my meagre existence? I am not here solely as adviser, you know. As a matter of fact, I rejoice in your company. I am proud, Rachel, proud to be with you. And grateful.’ Eric picked up his glass and threw the remaining wine down his throat. ‘There,’ he said as he set the glass down. ‘Now you know.’
IN TRUTH, Rachel enjoyed the new setup, with the three of them mucking in. Having the most time available, Amy carried out the shopping; Rachel did the cooking, and
Rachel secretly relished the fact that time spent with his paramour was being docked, albeit by only an hour. She liked seeing him in the mornings, too, to give him breakfast and watch him shave, although why he couldn't do his ablutions at Terry's place was beyond her.
‘How can you joke?’ he asked, wide eyed and incredulous.
‘It's getting easier.’
It was only natural that he should be curious and Rachel wondered if that was why he invited her to lunch. She did hint that Cynthia might be hungry, but Cynthia quickly informed her she had urgent shopping to do.
There was only one sneaky whistle as they walked up the factory, likely on account of Ralph steering her with his hand on her elbow. He kept it there even when they joined the bunch of female personnel waiting for the lift. Rachel could almost feel their envious eyes boring into her back.
‘What will you have,’ Ralph asked, as they stopped to read the menu board.
‘Something with chips, I think.’
‘You'll get fat.’
‘I've been fat all my life.’
Apart from that spell of useless dieting which achieved nothing but a broken heart.
Quite openly, Ralph's eyes left her face and roved over her breasts and down to her legs. ‘You're far from fat,’ he said. ‘You're what I call attractively mouldable.’
Fortunately, the other girls had gone into the canteen and therefore would not see Rachel's crimson cheeks.
Seeing Ralph was paying, Rachel chose steak, egg and chips. He also had steak, but with salad. I'll have salad next time, she thought, as she carried the food to an empty table. Ralph was delayed at the till, waiting for the cashier to get change. He struck up a conversation with the woman behind him: Linda Belton, a motherly soul, herself a divorce‚.
With a pocketful of loose change, Ralph carried his tray to the table and began to unload his food. ‘My neighbour,’ he explained, nodding in Linda's direction. He took up his knife and fork. ‘Now then, I'm all ears and poised to hear your story.’
It took the whole lunch hour to tell him about
Ralph summed up her current situation. ‘So, while he's sleeping with the boy friend, you're alone.’
‘Why not go and stay with your mother?’
‘I would never see
Ralph shook his head, obviously taking her for a fool. ‘You wouldn't consider divorce?’
‘I did once. It got pushed to one side when Dad died.’
A pitying expression took over from Ralph's quizzical one. Tenderly wrapping his fingers round her wrist, he said, ‘If you ever need anything, or want someone to talk to, will you call me.’
‘It's not necessary, really.’
Delving into his inside pocket, Ralph pulled out his wallet. He selected a card on which he wrote his telephone number. ‘Just in case,’ he said, offering it to her. When she did not take it, he repeated, ‘Just in case, Rachel. You never know when you might need a friend.’ He inserted the card between two of her fingers. ‘Take it, just in case.’
Rachel read the number, then reached for her bag, murmuring her thanks as she slid it to a safe spot in the side pocket, with Eric's number and the note he left after staying the night.
CYNTHIA examined her purchases, dangling a charming lemon romper suit for them to see. ‘I couldn't resist this one,’ she said. ‘Do you like it?’
‘Very pretty,’ said Ralph, craning his neck to peer through the window into his office. ‘Ben's not back, I see.’ Pulling out his cigarettes he took up his favourite position on the corner of Rachel's desk. ‘I suppose you know he leaves next week?’
‘Yippee,’ cried Cynthia as she folded the suit and placed it in the polythene bag.
‘I'll be your boss proper then, Mrs Ledbetter. Think you'll be able to cope with me?’ Ralph sucked the smoke through the filter tip.
‘You'll be no problem,’ declared Cynthia, unwrapping a white teething ring and swinging it on its ribbon. ‘We've got you sussed, all right.’
Ralph swivelled his head and contemplated Rachel. His lively blue eyes penetrated hers so deeply that her head swam. ‘What about you, little one? Will you be happy working with me?’
‘I suppose so.’
Ralph nodded, then disposed of his nub and retreated to his office, babbling something about a collection as he went.
Cynthia had by this time reached the last of her packages. ‘This is for you,’ she said, and chucked it on Rachel's desk. It landed on top of the typewriter.
Rachel picked it up and looked inside, expecting to see a bag of toffees or tubes of mints. She was not prepared for what she saw. Slowly, she extracted a pale lilac silk scarf, painted with wild flowers and garden birds. ‘For me?’
‘Do you like it?’
‘It's lovely. But it's not my birthday.’
‘I thought you could use a little cheering up,’ said Cynthia, a mite gruffly.
Rachel rushed over and flung her arms around her friend. ‘It's fantastic. What a lovely surprise.’ Spontaneously, she planted a kiss on Cynthia's cheek. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
‘Away, woman. You're making me feel humble.’
DURING the afternoon tea break, after listening to Rachel going on about Ralph and how he insisted on giving her his phone number, Cynthia expressed her approval. She agreed with his sentiment that one never knew when assistance might be needed and added that
‘Aw, come on, Cynth, he's been a lot better lately.’
‘Only because your Mum's keeping him in order. He's still away nights. If my Curtis behaved like that I'd make him lick the muck off the yard before I let him in. You’re too soft, that's your trouble.’ Cynthia leaned back in her chair and rested her clasped hands on top of her belly. ‘Let's change the subject. I get really cross when I think about your
Rachel dunked a biscuit in her tea. It was all very well for Cynthia to preach, everything was going well in her life. Without
‘Are you listening?’
Cynthia's far away voice infiltrated Rachel's private deliberations.
‘Where were you, for goodness sake?’
‘I was miles away,’ Rachel said, brushing her fringe from her face.
‘Sorry. What were you saying?’
‘Nothing much, merely pointing out that I think Ralph is very considerate and how I reckon he fancies you.’
‘You're barmy,’ Rachel said.
But Cynthia was quite serious; it showed in her voice when she answered: ‘Am I? I really don't think so.’