Friends

12 June 2012

Jumping the Hurdle



JUMPING THE HURDLE

Ray Cash reeled as he sidestepped Eve's tapestry frame, swearing when his shin made contact with the silly footrest she would leave lying about. His hawk-brown eyes were bleary with too much drink, his long legs weak and incapable of walking straight. For a solid hour he had paced the living room, knocking back Holsten Pils, opening another can before he had finished the last. His sights were set on the alcoholic euphoria that would not only lessen the weight of worry, but also reduce him to semi-consciousness before Eve got home. 


 The stone fireplace lurched towards him, driven by a leering mantel clock. Ray faltered and tried to focus on the clock's face. Instead his bloodshot eyes were drawn to his reflection in the mirror. 'You look...bloody...deplorable,' he said, attempting to measure his speech. His lips contorted into weird shapes, emphasising the awfulness of his drunken state. He didn’t like what he saw. Spinning away, he pitched himself towards the window from where he could see who wandered into Laurel Grove. 


Clutching his can of Pils, Ray kneeled on the window seat. He barely noticed the pain as the varnished wood located a jutting bone. Irritably he surveyed the sweeping cul-de-sac. Once upon a time he was thrilled to live in such fashionable surroundings, with walkways lined with pretty Rowans and houses integrated with lordly conifers, giving an impression of prosperity. Indeed, ancient annals revealed that the grove was once the habitat of dignitaries. But the neighborhood had changed, or rather the people in it. 


 Ray drained the can and slung it on the parquet floor. He’d drunk the last and now he didn’t know what to do. Should he go out for more? Could he make it there and back before Eve arrived? Could he make it at all? Pondering the quandary, he adjusted his position at the window until he could see, beyond the dwellings and a narrow field, the lake known as Kinder's Pool. Speculation was that the name originated after the drowning of a German Aristocrat’s youngest child. Now part of Sutton Spires Country Club, the lake afforded a breathtaking panorama for present-day residents of Laurel Grove. It was there, twenty years ago, while fishing in Kinder’s Pool that Eve consented to be his wife.  


The memory of that early morning proposal brought moistness to Ray's eyes. He was rapidly approaching the peak of his depression, and still there was no answer to his dilemma. What was he going to tell his wife? 


 FAIRHEAD'S CONFECTIONERY SHOP was always busy at Easter when Frank Fairhead's personally designed eggs went on sale. The absence of two regular assistants had resulted in chaos and Eve Cash would be glad to see the back of it. Dressed in a warm camel coat, she hobbled on aching feet towards the road she had lived in for nineteen years. She was still wearing the obligatory white confectioner's cap over auburn curls and carried her blue-striped overall over her arm. Going home was not something she actually wanted to do, not while Ray was so fraught. He would doubtless be drunk. Hardly a day went by lately when he wasn't. In twenty years of marriage, with all the inherent disputes, he had not needed to resort to drink; he could always solve his problems by talking them through. So what was different now, she wondered, tugging a crimped strand of chestnut hair with her free hand. Why did he so resolutely refuse to explain his problem? 


Frank Fairhead, a man nearing retirement age whose benevolent nature spurred her to confide, was sympathetic. He offered no solution, just the opportunity to offload her disquiet eased the pain of those distressing weeks. Until the previous weekend: when Ray was even more uncontrolled. Eve had complained about his unpunctuality, when the evening meal was ruined because of it. Unable through drink to bandy words, Ray had completely flipped, striking her so fiercely that she fell, grazing her head and cutting her lip on the stone hearth. Gingerly, as she relived that frightening moment, Eve fingered the still sore spot that was barely covered by the cap. 


A small boy, lifted by his mother to post a letter in the red mailbox, was chortling over his cleverness, squirming in his mother's arms to receive her praise. Beyond them was the corner around which was No.1. Laurel Grove, where lingered Ray and another evening of endless discord. A yellow bus appeared in the distance, the one to Council Square. The freedom bus, thought Eve, as she blinked on burning tears. Abruptly wheeling, she retraced her steps and hurried towards the bus shelter. 


 IT SEEMED AN ETERNITY since the clock hammered home its five-clock call, yet the fingers showed it to be only five-fifteen. Ray was convinced the clock had stopped. Settling his elbows on the mantelpiece, he pressed his ear to the glass. He was a tall man and he found the position agreeable: it didn't interfere with his drinking. 'Tick-tock goes the clock,' he drawled as he raised a glass of Southern Comfort. 'Tickety, dickory dock.' The words of the nursery rhyme eluded his befuddled brain. He squeezed his eyes shut and listened to the soporific ticking. Somewhere, a telephone rang. He didn't move. He didn't think it was in the house. Briefly, he thought it might be Eve, decided it wasn’t. There was nowhere to ring from once she left the shop. 


Eventually he stirred to refill his glass. He thought, as he gyrated over to the window, that it had been a grave mistake opening the bottle Eve had earmarked for Joel's birthday. She'd go berserk when she found out. Gripping the glass, he opened the window and leaned out. 


A young couple ambled arm-in-arm towards the Patch: the common name for a small verdant sitting area through which access could be gained to the country club grounds. At No 12, two young girls were swinging on the gate. The hinges were screeching out for a drop of oil. Typical of newer neighbours, not one seemed to possess DIY skills. Bit like Joel, thought Ray as he swigged more liquor. 


There was no love lost between the two men, but they tolerated each other for Freda's sake. Ray thought his sister wanted her head examined for marrying such a self-righteous ass. Joel would be sickeningly smug when he found out about Ray's misdemeanor. That would be a while off; he had to tell Eve first. Ray flinched at the concept of Eve's hysterical castigation when he broke the news. 


THE BROOCH IN THE JEWELLER'S WINDOW had mesmerised him; three shades of gold with a sapphire in the middle and little diamonds edging the oval shape. Showcased as a single item, displayed on a velvet covered plinth, Ray knew it would make a wonderful gift to celebrate twenty years of marriage. He had entered the shop and asked the price. It was, of course, far too expensive but still he asked to see it. Close up he could see its real beauty and without thinking he snatched it from the pad and belted out of the shop. It was unfortunate that he collided with someone outside the door and fell flat on his face. The jeweller had been close on his heels and not only did he retrieve the brooch, he also made a citizens arrest. Ray had been charged with the theft and was once again to appear in court. He dreaded telling Eve.


Drawing back into the room, he stared at the bottle of liquor. The craving for the sweet, gold balm was magnificent. Swiftly he closed the window, seesawed back across the room, grabbed the bottle, lifted it to his lips. So what if Eve castigated him … he’d soon show her who was boss. He clenched his fist and aimed a punch into the air. One smash and she’d soon kill her hysterics. 


Next door, Alfie Green started hammering. Uncharitably, Ray concluded that Alfie was probably hanging another goddamned picture. Ever since Christine Green had discovered how to sew, she'd been making goddamned pictures. Their goddamned walls were littered with the things. Bloody good job Eve only made tapestry cushions. He licked his sticky lips, savouring the heavenly sweetness. He couldn't stick having frames all over the place. It'd be like living in a goddamned gallery. Ray slammed the flat of his hand against the wall and yelled out to Alfie to stop his bloody racket. 


Five fifty-five. Where on earth was she? She should've been in by five past. It wasn't more than four minutes walk from the shop. Ray didn’t identify the frisson of unease that passed along his spine, but he sobered slightly. The time for dreaming up excuses was fast diminishing. He'd had a bad day, that's what he'd say. He wouldn't tell her the truth 


ALF GREEN EMERGED from behind the evening paper and scratched his sparsely covered head. 'That'll be Ray collapsing in a stupor,' he said intolerantly, referring to the commotion next door. 'About time we sound-proofed our walls.' 


Christine's expression was troubled as she listened to the heavy thuds on the other side of the intersecting wall. Beside her husband's spherical figure, she was sylphlike, but her forceful temperament enabled her to hold her own when he was at his most belligerent. Nonetheless, she didn't argue with his assessment of Ray's condition. Normally Alf was right, but this time it sounded as if Ray had taken to throwing furniture. From what Eve had recently told her, Christine could picture him indiscriminately breaking up the home. 


'Heavy tapestries would do it, like those they have in palaces. Fancy a change from cross-stitch, love?’ Alf chortled. 'Be like living in Hampton Court.' He spanned his hands across his rotund belly and gave another laugh. 'I guess I look a bit like Henry VIII.' 


'Old King Cole, more like.' 


Alf dropped his paper on the floor and laughed vociferously. When he stopped, he went to the adjoining wall and hollered, 'Thanks, Ray,' as if Ray could hear, 'we can always rely on you for a giggle.'  


Christine launched a disdainful glance at Alf. The knowledge that their barrel-chested neighbour had fallen foul of drink was more worrying than amusing. It was certainly having a grave effect on Eve, who had no idea what was wrong with her husband. Eve rarely disclosed anything about her private life, but she confided in Christine after Ray started staying out at night. 


A good deal older, Christine watched over Eve as if she were her own daughter. They had become good friends over the years and Christine didn't like to see her unhappy. 


Alf returned to his chair and picked up his paper. Kicking off his slippers, he stuck his feet on the fireguard. He didn't have the same patience with Ray. 'You can't talk to the man. I've tried telling him only idiots drink. He'll have a hard time drying out. Mark my words. If he'd had to deal with as many drunks as I have, he'd think twice about carrying on.'


Christine poured scorn on his remark. 'Give over, Alfie. Ray doesn't get blotto for the fun of it. There must be a valid reason. He's a good man. Your experiences in the force are no comparison. This excessive drinking is such a recent incursion; there must be a genuine reason.' She picked up the telephone, intending to ring Fairhead's and warn Eve, but then she noticed the time and replaced the receiver. Eve would be home by now. 'I think I'll go round. See if Eve's all right." 


'Leave it, Chrissie, love. Ray’s clearly at his worst. Eve'd be embarrassed if you showed up.' 


Six-year-old Cindy Bevan yelled from the top of the stairs. 'Grandma.' 


Christine hurried from the living room and looked up at her granddaughter. 'What's wrong, Angel?' 


'Uncle Ray's being sick.' 


'Serves him right,' muttered Alfie who had joined his wife in the hall. Aloud he said, 'Probably ate too much, Princess. Isn't he a silly man?' 


'Uncle Ray's a silly man,' repeated Linda in a singsong voice, and she rushed off to supervise her brother, Lloyd, in the bathroom. 


THE WIND PARTED EVE'S LONG COAT, circled her ankles. It was more like winter than Easter. She smoothed the red material around her legs, but not before two passing navvy types had whistled their admiration. Having seen one of her neighbours emerging from Taylor's Department Store she stepped backwards into a doorway. Engaging in conversation wasn’t something she wanted to do right now, she might have felt compelled to explain her lateness and hadn't quite got her excuse sorted. Although the wind was cutting she waited for the woman to move on; there was plenty of time, the bus wasn’t due for twenty minutes. The wind whirling around Taylor's building transported a delicious aroma of baked potatoes. She suddenly felt hungry. 


The clock chimed the hour. Eve sought confirmation from her watch. Right on time a number 37 bus turned into Council Square. Eve hitched her long coat and loped towards the bus stop, crushing the soft collar to her swollen mouth. The queue was enormous, so many people taking advantage of late night shopping. She didn’t think she stood much chance of getting on the bus. In any case it would be standing room only.  At that moment a black cab pulled into the taxi rank. 'Just the ticket,' she murmured, suddenly veering towards it. It wasn’t often she indulged in the luxury of a taxi ride. 


Inside the cab, she leaned against the soft leather and closed her eyes, remembering the last occasion she and Ray had taken a cab home from the theatre. It was after a Shirley Bassey show and they were still humming their favourite ‘All I ask of You.’ These days they barely spoke warmly to one another. 


There was definitely something wrong with him, something he wasn’t telling her. It had been that way for weeks. Ray would prattle on about his worthless days until she lost her temper with him. 


Unusually remorseful, she admitted to herself that he had nothing else to occupy him. Over the years she had suggested various things that might interest him but in the end she had given up. She had to be honest … he couldn't even get a hobby going. 


She wondered if losing the baby was the start of it. Eve had forced herself to get over it and move on but Ray had been hit hard by the loss. It was two years since Bethany died, last week was the second anniversary. Frank Fairhead had told her that Ray’s emotional scars were deep but she hadn’t taken any notice. His scars could never be as deep as hers. 


She’d read somewhere that couples who lost a child seemed to lose interest in each other. She wasn’t sure if they’d actually reached that stage yet deep down she felt very uneasy. Maybe she should have tried harder to reach him. Maybe she shouldn’t have pushed him away. Aware that the taxi hadn’t moved for a while, Eve glanced out of the rain splattered window. Wet surfaces shone in the street lights, two teenage girls huddled under an umbrella as they walked, laughing, along the footpath. Young enough to enjoy being out in the wet. Eve wondered when she had stopped having fun over something so trivial. Was it before or after Bethany? 


The taxi driver moved on, slowly negotiating his way round a breakdown truck and a black Volvo. For some strange reason Eve thought about their first car, a blue Mini. Ray had been so thrilled with it.  And then she thought how good it would be if he had something to cheer him up and maybe stop him drinking 


 RAY CASH WAS NEVER MORE SOBER. Worry over Eve had expelled the normal consequences of swigging alcohol. She had never been this late before. He referred to his watch, forgetting that the battery needed changing, then hurried to check the time by the microwave clock. It was the only timepiece left after the drunken rampage. The mantel clock, an ugly wooden thing given to them by Eve's mother, lay where it fell, on the floor, totally destroyed. Eve would be livid. 


Ray had twice gone to the phone to ring the police, but Alf Green advised him to leave it a bit longer. He and Christine had arrived about twenty seconds after the white jardinière sailed through the lounge door and crashed on the tiled floor in the hall. Christine was horrified when she saw everything upside down and most of it ruined. Ray tried to keep her out, but he wasn't quick enough closing the living room door. He hadn't expected them. He thought the knocking on the door meant Eve had forgotten her key.  Jaded beyond description, Ray leaned against the refrigerator door and for the first time in months he prayed. ‘Please God,’ he pleaded, ‘let Eve be all right. Bring her home safe.’ Choking on the final word, he surrendered to an avalanche of uncontrollable weeping. 


EVE COULDN'T BELIEVE HER EYES when she saw the state of her house but it was the look on Ray’s face that hit her most; anger tinged with relief and red rimmed, watery eyes. She should have been angry that her home had been smashed up but the sight of him just made her feel sad. She’d had no idea he was so desperate. 


Stepping over the pile of broken ornaments, she walked over to the window, gazed out at the grove for a minute or two then sank down on the seat, the one Ray had built specially for her. Ray continued to lean against the wall as if he didn’t know what to do next. She saw a run of tears slide down his cheek. 


This wasn’t the Ray she married. Until he started drinking he had been a gentle soul, proud of his home and garden, and her. Although he had few friends he was well liked by the neighbours and he’d been glad of Alf’s company after Bethany died. Alf and Christine had been golden. They were real friends, there every day until Eve found her feet again. And look what happened when she did, she’d criticised Ray about everything. He’d only to leave his coat on a chair and she’d throw it at him, screeching like a banshee for him to put it away properly. No wonder the man had taken to drink, gone off the rails. She should have given him more support. 


Eve toed a porcelain cherub to one side then pushed herself off the window seat, moving to where Ray stood. He froze as she went near. Seeing it caused a rush of emotion. Please God make it all right. Ignoring his appearance she asked him point blank what was wrong. ‘I know you’ve been worrying over something,’ she said as she slipped off her coat. 


Ray slid down the wall, sank to hunkered position, relief oozing out of every pore. Without looking at Eve he launched into an explanation, finding it easier than he had expected. Once the first words were uttered his story came out in a rush. He told her about the brooch, how he wanted to surprise her on their anniversary her. Shamefacedly, he described how he’d fallen and then been arrested.  He admitted, ‘I didn’t know what got into me.’ Then he told her about the court appearance, saying how ashamed he was to find himself in such a place.’ 


Although inwardly shocked Eve walked over to him, put her hand on his shoulder and, almost as if she had rehearsed the words, spoke in an unusually confident voice. ‘We’ll get through it, Ray. Together. Deal with it day at a time.’ Momentarily she wondered if Ray was as relieved as she herself felt. Instinct made her kneel beside him. She put her arms round him and caressed his neck, a gesture he’d loved in their early days. 


Ray whimpered like a child and breathed out two words ‘Oh, Eve’ before wiping away another run of tears with his sleeve. 


Her next words surprised Eve for they came unbidden. ‘I think we should start again, Ray. It’s not too late.’ Seeing the confusion on her husband’s face, she tried again. ‘A baby, Ray. We’ve plenty of time but let’s try again. We’ve had enough heartache. We owe it to ourselves and Bethany to keep our relationship alive. 


A GOOD SOLICITOR HAVING BEEN RETAINED, the court case came and went. The offence of theft of an expensive piece of jewellery was reduced to attempted theft which the Magistrate was quick to label as being very serious indeed. However, on reading the social worker’s recommendation that Ray should receive treatment for his depression and alcoholism, he sentenced him to a period of community service.  


The whole experience had been like a nightmare. Several times during the proceedings Ray had wished he could die of shame. Eve was his only solace and he found it hard to believe that she was standing by him. He didn’t deserve it. When the Magistrate’s gave the final pronouncement the relief was so great Ray stumbled against the dock panelling. His knees felt like jelly and there was something in his throat that felt like a lump of lead. Only when he saw Eve’s smiling face did he finally take control of his emotions. 


OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS Alf and Christine proved what good neighbours they were. Alfie took Ray under his wing, diplomatically suggesting they went fishing at weekends, have some man time. He got Ray involved with the youth club where he taught the kids to play table tennis. It had been a long time since Ray had played but he suddenly found he was itching to get back to youthful practices 


EVE FINISHED HEMMING THE LAST TABLE NAPKIN and placed it with the other five. They were pretty napkins, a gift for her sister. 


On the couch, Christine lowered her knitting. ‘They look really nice, Eve, they’ll make a lovely Christmas present. I thought of knitting a jumper for Ray. He’s going to need it when he takes the boys into the country.’ 


‘You’d best get a move on then. Alf said they were planning on going before Christmas instead of waiting until the spring. If you ask me, they’re after a bit of holly and a few Christmas trees.’


‘Isn’t it illegal to dig up trees?’


‘It may be, but Alf has his contacts. He wasn’t a copper for nothing.’ Christine carried on with her knitting. It was a jumper for Cindy and she was finding it slow going because she only worked on it when she visited Eve. Back at home she was knitting something entirely different. A shawl. Just in case Eve should ever want one. She knew her friend had been through a belated spell of grieving and that she was now coming to terms with the loss of her child but her hopes were high that she and Ray would soon be able to face having another child. 


Eve went into the kitchen to make some coffee. For some reason she had one of those major thirsts that coffee probably wouldn’t slake. It was due to last night’s secret intake of wine. She wasn’t much of a wine drinker nor did she normally indulge in secret drinking but she had needed something to quell the churning in her tummy. It was strange how all her actions seemed to be in slow motion, even putting water in the kettle took twice as long. At this rate she felt the coffee would never get made simply because she was in some kind of dream world. 


Pulling herself together she managed to get everything onto a tray without mishap and carried it into the newly decorated lounge. Christine’s knitting was on the couch but Christine wasn’t there. Through the open door Eve heard the bathroom door close. She took the lid off the biscuit barrel and heaped chocolate creams onto two plates, remembered that she’d forgotten the paper napkins. "Your head will never save your legs.'  She went back to the kitchen, holding her tummy as she walked, wanting to caress the child she carried. She hadn’t yet told Ray she was pregnant, she wanted just a little more time to nurse the news to herself. Eve smiled, finally confident that their future as a family held unquestionable promise.


7 comments:

Ron said...

Wonderful story, Valerie!

Richly layered with stories within the story.

I don't know how you do it, but you have such a talent for painting clear visuals with your words - both physical and emotion.

LOVE the ending! Makes me want to know how Ray reacted when he heard the news!

Thanks for sharing, dear lady. Enjoyed!

X

Brian Miller said...

smiles...nice story val...the last bit caught me...digesting of that news is not easy at times but i am glad she has the reassurance..

Valerie said...

Brian, that's the trouble with storytelling, the ending always seems good.... unlike real life, eh?

Valerie said...

Ron, thank you for your kind remarks. It's quite easy to paint visuals, I just imagine the scene then go ahead and describe it.

To answer your curiosity: using a writer's prerogative, I guarantee that Ray was delighted with the news.

HermanTurnip said...

Awesome story! Ray seems like a load of fun to be around (not). And yes, I had to google the word "jardinière" :-)

Akelamalu said...

Oh I love a happy ending! Lovely story Valerie.

Valerie said...

Thanks, Pearl. Fingers crossed that it stayed happy. I wonder if I should write a sequel.