Rachel was to remember Cynthia's words during the next few weeks when Ralph beset her with small attentions and gave her an occasional gift of chocolate. She tussled with it, wanting his friendship yet fearing it. She learned to be aloof, adopting a more professional attitude, always efficient and cordial. Nevertheless, inwardly and very secretly she tested her flattered emotions, tasting the unfamiliar but welcome thrill of being cared about by a handsome man.
She was thinking about him as she prepared the salad to go with the salmon, relishing a quiet moment away from her mother, her lukewarm offer to help having been refused. Essentially Rachel wanted some time to herself, to brood, to analyse, or simply pursue a dream, an impossibility with Gary and her mother heehawing all over the place. She admitted to being illogical in her thinking. After months alone, shouldn't she be feeling more sociable?
Not keen to relinquish her seclusion, Rachel gripped the handle of her knife and severed a tomato. ‘Really, it's okay, Mum. You go and rest.’ She quartered a second tomato and tossed it on top of a bowl of lettuce, just as
Amy dropped the beakers in the sink. ‘I am merely putting on view the saintly side of your nature,’ she said.
Rachel felt murderous. ‘What are you both on about?’
‘Gary, the dear boy, has agreed to help sort out my loft after dinner.’
‘And where,’ Rachel asked, ‘does saintliness come into it?’
‘It's not a job he can do in half an hour. I need stuff moved from your old room, you see, to make space for the baby's crib and the new self-assembly wardrobe. There's so much to do, I think
‘It's okay, Mum. As you say, there's Rex to consider.’
Satisfied, Amy went back into the living room.
Rachel was struck dumb. Without exception, under the new regime,
THE next morning, Rachel woke to find shafts of sunlight streaming through the window and Rex's wet nose nudging her hand, his way of telling her it was time for his breakfast. She ignored him and lay watching the dust particles capering in the beam. Rex closed his mouth on her hand and pulled gently to remind her of her duty towards him. ‘Oh, all right, slave driver,’ she said, throwing off the covers and sliding her legs to the floor. ‘You should know by now the chances of getting fed early on Saturdays are extremely slim.’ Rex panted with expectation, then stopped, and angled his head to listen to a distant sound.
Rachel slid her feet into slippers and trailed behind the dog's reeling backside as he laboured down the stairs. When finally they reached the bottom, she snatched up the receiver.
She weathered the temptation to ask who the hell else it could be.
‘Is there much to do?’ Rachel's voice was carefully controlled.
‘It's not the quantity so much as the awkwardness. I'm having difficulty getting stuff through the small hatch. Your Mum will have to sling half of it.’
Even though she shrank from hearing the answer, Rachel forced herself to ascertain the time he would be home.
‘That's why I'm ringing. I might as well go straight to Terry's.’
Well, it certainly wouldn’t do to be late for Terry!
‘I'll see you when I see you then.’ She replaced the receiver without waiting for a response or saying goodbye. She supposed she should feel honoured that, for once, he'd bothered to ring at all. She felt strangely impassive as she stood staring at the instrument, totally stunned by the absence of tears that ordinarily sprang forth at the merest hint of
The spell was broken by Rex issuing a low moan. Rachel shot to her feet and rushed to feed him. ‘We'll go out when you've eaten this,’ she said, running the can-opener round a tin of dog food. She filled the dog bowl with foul smelling green tripe and added a scoop of meal before plonking it on the floor. Checking the second hand on the clock, she counted the eleven seconds it took him to finish the lot. ‘What kept you?’ she asked, almost light-heartedly as she replaced the empty bowl with one filled with water.
She opened the kitchen curtains and looked out. In the white plastic, urn-shaped tub, the first daffodil bud was forcing its way through the soil. Eager to take a closer look, she unbolted the back door and stepped out into the tiny garden. There was expectancy in the air, an impalpable excitement. She walked to the tub to inspect the bloom. ‘My very first daffodil,’ she cried, as exhilarated as if it was a new baby.
Abruptly returning to the house, she raced up the stairs to the bedroom. Sensing adventure, Rex bounded after her. She tugged on a pair of jeans and drew a sweater over her head, recklessly leaving her breasts free from the restrictions of a bra. An act of rebellion. She glanced round as she dragged a comb through her tousled hair, feeling a certain claustrophobia in the place which had, for so long, been the scene of separation from matrimonial love. With even more haste, she snatched up an extra woolly and left the room.
ONCE outside, she slowed and breathed in the pure air, letting out a long, blissful sigh as she steadily exhaled. Calling Rex to heel, she began to walk. They toured the area, stopping occasionally to allow passers-by to pat Rex on the head or fondle his ears. He enjoyed the attention and every time seized the opportunity to delve into a shopping bag in search of food.
Eventually, they arrived at the field. Rachel had not intended to go there on account of its proximity to her mother's house and not wishing to see
Her deliberations were brought to a swift end by the sight of three yellow earth diggers in front of her. Two were idle, the third was gouging rubble from the crater which was once an air raid shelter. The stench of dank soil was almost overpowering. Rachel watched open-mouthed as the jagged jaws lifted a load high in the air ready to drop in the back of a waiting lorry.
One of the workmen stopped to mop his neck with a rag. He called across, ‘Hey, lady, d'you want something?’
Rachel shook her head and tightened her grip on the lead.
The man came across and hunkered down at Rex's side, discarding his yellow helmet while he stroked the dog's fur. Bulging toecaps made his boots seem two sizes too big. Lumps of clay clung to the hairs on his brawny arms.
Rachel indicated the gaping hole. ‘What are you doing.’
‘Dismantling some old shelters.’
‘They must have been here years. I thought they'd be here for evermore.’
The man blew his nose on the grubby rag. Disregarding the other men's entreaties to ‘Come on, Pat,’ he carried on stroking the dog. ‘I suppose somebody just realised there was enough ground here to build flats.’ He twisted his head to look up at Rachel. ‘Live round here, do you?’
‘Used to. I still come back to walk the dog, though.’ Shyly, she acknowledged the man's smile.
‘I bet it was you who made the bed in there.’
Rachel giggled, remembering how scared she had been the evening she discovered the makeshift sleeping arrangement. ‘You found it then?’
‘We found lots of things. Had a good sort through before we started bulldozing. We appropriated some of it for ourselves. I picked up a trim little Primus.’
‘You didn't by any chance find a rubber torch?’
‘Found several. Did you lose one?’
‘I could do with one, if there's one spare.’ Rachel could not bring herself to admit she had lost one.
‘I think they're all in the wagon.’ Jumping up, the man ran over to the lorry and yanked open the door. He hoisted himself into the cab and after a minute jumped down holding a torch. ‘Them buggers must've had the lot,’ he said as he walked back to Rachel. ‘There's only this one left.’
Gratefully, Rachel accepted the torch. It was not the one she lost, but one torch was as good as another on a dark night.
‘I'd better get back, before that lot get agitated. Nice talking to you.’ Giving Rex a final pat, the man walked away.
POCKETING the torch, Rachel went out the way she came in. She walked towards home, habitually taking the route that took her by way of the Wildacre property. She walked leisurely, enjoying the spring air, musing over her encounter with the man who was wreaking havoc in the playing field. It was impossible to imagine flats being erected there; her father would have been incensed to know that the view from his window was to be ruined by concrete structures.
Five minutes later she stood outside Wildacre eyeing the upstairs windows for signs of life. There were none. The house stood sombrely at the end of the path, a little less woeful with its windows bathed in sunlight. Even the crop of uncultivated vegetation stood on end, as if drawn upwards by the sun. While she watched two hedge sparrows flitting boldly from twig to twig, there came the sound of approaching footsteps. She looked round and was astonished to see an old friend, a girl she shared a desk with at infant school, competed against in the seniors, swapped experiences with as they sailed through their teens. She shouted with delight. ‘Sally Anne, is it really you?’ She let her eyes drift over the trim figure, envying the well-cut navy suit, and elegant navy and grey blanket-style shawl.
‘Of course, it's me.’ Sally flung a friendly arm about Rachel's shoulders. ‘How are you? And how's that divine man you married?’
‘We're fine,’ Rachel said, wishing it were true. ‘And you?’
‘Life's a ball. I've just got engaged to the most fantastic man. Mario. He's Italian. Absolutely dripping with money. Here, look at this.’ Sally held out her ring for inspection. ‘Have you ever seen anything like it?’
The diamond solitaire sparkled like a million stars on Sally's finger. Inevitably, Rachel felt the need to hide her own ring with its tiny sapphire chips.
Sally linked Rachel's arm. ‘Fancy coming to the flat for coffee? I could do with a good feminine chinwag.’
‘What about the dog?’
‘Bring him. He'll be okay.’
‘I will then.’
‘Good. Let's go. That house gives me the creeps.’
Rachel nodded. ‘It does me, but every time I pass I feel compelled to stop and monitor the ghosts.’
‘Is that why
Rachel froze. Why would
Searchingly, Sally regarded her old friend, the slight lifting of her shoulders implying unspoken disagreement. ‘Except for the ghosts,’ was all she said before guiding Rachel away.
SALLY-ANNE'S FLAT was a luxurious blend of bronze and cream. The lounge was incredible. The bronze carpet was set off with cream rugs. A three-piece suite and one reclining chair, all covered in bronze leather, were piled high with cream cushions. Bronze velvet drapes at two massive windows were caught up by cream sashes. A centre light fitting shaped like golden honey pots would, no doubt, cast a bronze hue on the pale cream ceiling. The room gave off an impression of comfortable splendour, and Rachel decided that Mario must indeed be remarkably rich.
Sally came in carrying a tray bearing two gold rimmed cups of black coffee, matching sugar basin and cream jug. ‘Like it?’ she asked as she put the tray on a brass trolley next to the settee.
‘Do I! I'm not exactly jealous, Sal, but if you look closely you might notice a green tinge on my face. How does he do it, this Mario?’
Sally went to the highly polished stereo and picked up a photo frame. ‘This is he,’ she said, handing it over.
Rachel looked into the transfixing brown eyes of a very Italian-looking man who radiated sensuality. An escaping lock of black hair almost touched his slightly crooked, aquiline nose giving him a waggish appearance. Rachel glanced questioningly from the photograph to Sally.
‘Don't ask,’ Sally said, taking back the picture. ‘I look at my reflection and ask the same question. I have no answers, only a ring to prove this marvellous man exists in my life. Actually, if you could stay to tea you'd meet him but I warn you, you'd be hooked by his magnetism if you do.’
‘I don't think I'd better then. I've got enough problems without adding to them.’
Sally draped herself on the three-seater and patted the cushion beside her. ‘Tell me.’
After making sure Rex was not lying on a cream rug, Rachel did as she was told. Between sips of coffee, she told her about
‘Sounds to me as though he holds the key to your happiness,’ observed Sally, standing up. ‘I'll go pour more coffee. You sure you won't stay to tea?’
‘I can't, really. Maybe another time?’
‘That would be nice.’
She even talks differently, mused Rachel, when Sally had left the room. She rose to take another look at the captivating man in the picture frame. ‘You obviously have a knack with women,’ she muttered, unaware that Sally had returned so quickly.
‘He does. I have to admit it.’
Rachel shot round, colouring to her hair roots.
‘Don't fret, Rachel,’ urged Sally, conveying the steaming coffee to the trolley. ‘I understand, especially now I know about
‘I only want
‘But the trouble is, Rachel, and I'm going to be blunt,
That was it, in a nutshell. The problem had been aired and a solution established. Rachel knew that Sally was right.