Friends

04 September 2012

A SUMMER CHILL, CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER THREE

The clock's failure to sound its alarm was a puzzle to Audrey until she remembered it was her turn to have Saturday off. Clasping her hands behind her head she sank against the pillows and listened to the tireless twittering of tiny birds until the pandemonium began to grate and her back ached from lying too long in one position.

Wriggling free of the crumpled duvet, which was tacky with her perspiration, she wondered why she didn't change it for a lighter one. She couldn't count the times this week she had thrown it off, then hugged it to her when she cooled. For the millionth time, she deliberated the possibility of reverting to sheets, not altogether sure why she still kept one on the bed since it was Brian who preferred a quilt, not her. She resolved that sometime soon she would go to town and purchase those luxurious silk sheets she'd seen advertised in the local rag. Maybe next weekend.
           
After showering, she unscrewed a fresh pot of moisturising cream and began to massage her skin, paying particular attention to her face. She had scarcely any wrinkles as a result of routine cleansing and creaming, only the naevus on her cheek and she couldn't do anything with that. During the self-conscious adolescent years she moisturised her skin with meticulous care believing it would help eliminate the unsightly mark. She hated it and blamed it for everything that went wrong in her life. She had learned to hide it with her hair and became expert with cosmetics. Pressing two fingers on the blemish, she remembered how long it had taken Brian to stop pretending it was invisible.
           
Dressed in a cool blue dress, sandals on her feet, she sailed downstairs to the kitchen. She opened the window wide to let in the warm air and was tempted to close it again for it heightened the noise of next door's quarrel. Going by the emanating bumps and crashes, it seemed as if the bailiffs were in.
           
She tossed puffed wheat and a handful of muesli into a bowl and added cold milk, then leaned against the cupboard to eat instead of sitting down. Liz Tomlin was screaming something that sounded like slaughter, though it could have been a reference to her daughter, but it was Gerald's enraged ‘Drop dead’ and the ensuing astonishing silence that caused Audrey to choke on a mouthful of muesli. She ladled milk into her mouth to wash it down.
           
Audrey heard Gerald go out to the garden shed, grumbling to himself and yawning noisily which made her suspect they'd been at each other's throats for half the night. Pouring apple juice into a glass, she sipped thoughtfully, contemplating the amazing fact that Gerald had finally mastered the art of verbally disarming his wife. She hoped it wouldn't be too long before he discovered a way to defend his daughter.
           
Filling the bowl with soapy water, Audrey put her glass and bowl to soak. She returned the milk to the fridge and the cereal boxes to the wall cupboard. Arm raised like the Liberty statue, she suddenly stopped, holding the pose. Feeling oddly perturbed she  recalled her uneasiness the night before, the uncomfortable impression that someone was watching.

*******

Keeping in the shade of the horse chestnuts, Brian hurried up the gravel drive to Romane House, the rambling domain of Norman and Maureen Dingle-Jones. He followed the narrow path leading to the tradesmen's entrance and rapped the door, ducking in without waiting for a response. The sunny kitchen smelled of dough and the sweet fragrance of confection. He faced a sheer stockpile of food: one long work counter was home to wire racks filled with iced cakes, film-covered platters of sandwiches covered another, and bowls of green salad and colourful trifles swamped the giant scrubbed table.
           
He had come because of a message claiming that Doris Pinches, the cook, was unconscious. No more than that and no details. By the very nature of the word unconscious, he expected an atmosphere of panic instead of the sleepy ambience around him.
           
He asked where Doris was.
           
Gladys Stanhope, loading celery sticks into a white jug, informed him that she was upstairs in the guest suite and Doctor Bonser was in attendance.
           
'What happened to her?'
           
'We're not sure. She isn't awake yet. There's an almighty gash on her head. She'll have concussion at least.' Gladys plunged her nimble hands into a huge crock mixing bowl. 'I'll carry on, if you don't mind. I'm trying to finish this for the old girl. There's tea in the pot if you want some.'
           
'I thought you were opposed to working weekends.'
           
Gladys swept a lock of silver hair from her eyes, leaving behind a smudge of flour. 'Her Ladyship's having a do. Girl Guides - or is it Boy Scouts? Whatever it is, Maureen was in a panic so I came in to help. Between you and me, I think she's silly. She should let others have a turn at feeding the five thousand. I guess that's what comes of being top dog on committees and having such a big house into the bargain.'
           
Brian consulted his watch, hoping he could return to the station without too much delay. 'Can you tell me what led up to the incident?'
           
Gladys pulled a muslin cloth from her pocket and wiped the flour from her hands. She sat opposite Brian and rested her cheek on her fist. 'I was running the hot water in the sink. Well, I'm fibbing when I say running, the plumbing here's so old it hardly lets out a trickle. I get fed up with it. Any road, to get on with my tale. I spotted a bloke through the window. He was wearing a grey mac and holding binoculars. Doris swore he'd never been here before. And she'd know, her being here all week. Maureen told us that birdwatchers sometimes stray in, not realising the grounds are private. I didn't think any more about it with having to press on and get things ready for tonight's function.'
           
Gladys poured two cups of tea, then reached for a couple of small iced fancies, giving Brian a conspiratorial wink as she handed him one. 'After Doris had taken the garbage to the bins I made a cuppa and got our elevenses ready. I put my head down for five minutes. I've always been able to cat nap. My Percy used to say I could sleep on a spinning top. Anyway, when I woke there was no sign of Doris and the tea was stone cold. I must have gone into a real sleep. Well, I stirred myself and went to find her.'
'Where was she?' Brian asked, as patiently as he knew how.
           
Giving him a hard look, Gladys continued. 'I tried the kitchen garden, thinking she might have stopped to pick a lettuce, then I went to the old pig sty where the dustbins are. I don't like going that way 'cause the cobbles hurt my calluses. Give me gyp, they do.' She paused to lick an atom of icing from the corner of her mouth. 'Doris was lying on the path.'
           
At that moment Maureen Dingle-Jones entered the room, impeccably dressed in lilac and grey. She extended a gracious, ring-free hand. 'Good day, Brian.'
           
'Hello, Maureen. How's the patient?'
           
Maureen smiled. 'Much recovered. Leonard is going to take her home.'
           
'Do you know what happened?'
           
'It appears she tripped. We reckon she struck her head on the wall near the refuse containers. I am so sorry to have bothered you. A strange man lurked, you see ... and I thought ... well, one never knows, does one? She might have been attacked. One hears such stories.'
           
Suppressing a smile, Brian stated that he would call and see Doris in case there was something he could do.
           
'Lovely, Brian. You are kind.'           

*******

At mid-morning Audrey headed for Doyle Square, otherwise known as the Green. She stopped at the six wide steps leading to the library entrance where Eileen Finnigan, wearing a simple though frayed button-through dress, counted coppers from one hand to the other.
           
Eileen glanced up. 'I've just paid for a week's papers.' She moved her head from side to side as she spoke. 'God, the expense is crippling. I'd cancel, but Paddy wouldn't have anything to read.'
           
The Finnigan finances were meagre with only unemployment benefit and their daughter's wages to rely on. Audrey couldn't understand why Eileen wasn't better able to organise her husband's spending now that he was home. She must have had plenty of practice in household management while he was in gaol.
           
Tipping the money into a plastic purse, Eileen made a great show of separating coppers from silver.
           
'Does he read books?' Audrey pictured her own extensive collection.
           
'He reads anything when he's not on the phone to his damned cronies. He likes books, but they're pricey. We can't afford luxuries.'
           
'You could borrow some from the library.'
           
Pressing her hands together in praying attitude, Eileen proclaimed, 'You have to be a member.'
           
A fever of impatience pierced Audrey like a charred splinter, nevertheless she endeavoured to be charitable and offered to help her join.
           
Eileen nodded her appreciation. 'Okay. I'll give it a whirl.'
           
With the business in the library settled, Eileen set off home and Audrey strolled to the handful of shops. There were seven, not counting the post office or the bakery-cum-cafe. Every weekday and occasional Sundays the wooden benches located outside the stores were occupied by local women observing and discussing the village doings and the affairs of people who live there.
           
Audrey sat beside Diane Pearce and Diane's bosom friend, Carrie Smith, who was sliding her feet in and out of black suede court shoes.
           
'Nice day,' Audrey said.
           
'Too nice,' complained Carrie. 'I'm absolutely sweating in this jumper.'
           
Shielding her eyes, Diane criticised her friend for wearing sweaters at this time of year and advised her to take it off.
           
'Don't be impudent.' Carrie said, mopping her brow with a handkerchief.           
           
Diane laughed and patted Carrie's knee. 'I was only kidding.'
           
'Have you seen the tramp yet?' Audrey asked.
           
Carrie stuck her legs straight out and dangled her shoes from polished toes. 'Ellen has,' she said.
           
'God, it's getting hotter,' complained Diane, undoing the two top buttons of her blouse.
           
From the depths of a canvas bag Carrie extracted a thick magazine and brandished it to and fro.
           
Diane lifted her face to the wafting breeze. 'Memsahib thanks you, punkah wallah.'
           
Audrey raised her eyes heavenwards and prayed for strength.
           
*******

Holding her paper-wrapped purchase, Ellen Mountford left Stan Barnett's greengrocery shop and lumbered over to the benches. Everybody shuffled along to make space, wrinkling their noses at the potent smell of fish. Ellen wedged two carrier bags between her plump legs. From one she plucked a shiny green apple, scrutinised it for defects, and polished it on her skirt. 'Anyone want one of these?'
           
A buzz of refusal travelled the row.
           
Looking from right to left along the line-up, Ellen declared, 'I've decided in future not to go out at night without Bill or our Colin.' Her statement delivered, she gnashed her teeth into the apple.
           
'Why?' enquired Carrie as she contemplated her feet.
           
Ellen shoved the piece of apple to the corner of her mouth and glanced furtively in all directions. In a subdued voice, she said, 'Jane Fleming saw the tramp going into Arnold's farm. The more I think about it the more convinced I am he's taken up residence there.' Her voice dropped to an even lower octave. 'We might have a violent man on our doorstep.'
           
'I never thought of that,' Carrie cried, waving the rolled magazine. 'I'd better take our Steven with me when Fred goes pubbing.'
           
Diane Pearce cackled. 'He could stick the knife in ...' She placed her hand dramatically against her heart. 'Here!'
           
'Behave yourself, Di,' ordered Carrie, flicking through the pages of her book. 'It's no laughing matter.'
           
Even though she felt her pique returning, Audrey sat quiet. It was not her place, she told herself, to update their brains.
           
Ellen Mountford tossed the apple core into a litter bin marked Paper Only and started to complain about the extra time Bill was putting in at the golf ball factory. 'He's so tired when he comes home. I wish he'd make his calls during office hours. I did suggest it once but, according to him, it's impossible to pin sales reps to specific times.'
           
Diane lifted her damp blouse away from her skin. 'He's conscientious like my Ron. He stays at the post office after closing time to clear the paperwork, especially on pensions day. Mind, it's easier for him, being local. He doesn't have to travel from town like your old man.'
           
Carrie eased a shoe over her heel. 'At least we know what our men are up to, which is more than Eileen Finnigan can say.'
           
The ensuing cruel laughter was too much for Audrey. She threw herself off the bench and stalked off without a word, leaving the band of hardhearted women to steep in their own virtuous integrity.

*******

Audrey spent the afternoon in the garden, dragging clumps of cuckoo flowers and trefoil from the heavy soil. She worked at a brisk pace to eradicate her anger. In the distance a cuckoo called as if to halt the destruction of its namesake. As she tugged the last tuft free she heard familiar footsteps running to the gate and she rested on her heels to wait for the girls to launch themselves upon her.

They charged in as though pursued by rampaging tigers. Audrey flinched as the gate slammed behind them. She opened her mouth to issue a rebuke, but closed it again. What was the point when Bess was obviously dying to impart some crucial information, hopping from one foot to the other, plainly unable to contain herself.
           
'Guess what?'
           
Audrey waited for whatever announcement was important enough to so energetically excite the child.
           
'We've seen Mrs Stanhope with the window cleaner.'
           
Audrey shifted from the kneeling pad and stood up.
           
Looking first at Vera, then at Audrey, Bess began again, 'They were walking …'
           
'Get on with it,' broke in Vera. 'Why don't you just say he was holding her arm?'
           
Stripping off the clay-packed gloves, Audrey commented that it was a gentlemanly thing to do.
           
'They don't usually stroke people,' Vera retorted. 'Mr Wilding was stroking Mrs Stanhope's arm.'
           
Kicking the rubber galoshes into a corner of the tool shed, Audrey ran barefoot into the house to respond to the shrill ringing of the telephone, determined that at the first opportunity she would chase up the matter of the stroked arm. Grinning in anticipation of teasing Gladys, she snatched up the receiver. 'Hello,' she said.
           
No response.
           
Unable to believe it was yet another mute call, she kept the receiver pressed to her ear until the pressure hurt, then furiously wrenched it away. What wouldn't she do to identify this kook with a fetish for making dumb phone calls.
           
Angrily, Audrey returned to the kitchen and washed her hands at the sink, drying them by mistake on a cotton blouse waiting to be ironed. She slung it on the drainer, disgusted by her inability to cope when bothered by someone with a cracked personality, who only had to pick up the phone and dial her number to send her into a paroxysm of heedless preoccupation. Seizing a knife, she hacked into a slab of fruit cake as a butcher might to a piece of meat and vowed to swing for the wretch if ever she discovered who it was. The whole thing was getting on her nerves.
           
'Are you all right?' queried Bess, from her seat at the table, her plimsolled feet wrapped round the chair legs in total disregard for their (so far) unmarked and immaculately polished condition.
           
Audrey poured the lemonade. 'Sure I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?' But her breathing was wrong and her stomach felt as though it had been compressed in a vice.
           
Bess persisted. 'It's not like you to be so quiet.'
           
Audrey threw her shoulders back in mock indignation. 'Are you suggesting I'm noisy, young lady?'
           
Both girls giggled.
           
Firmly bent on getting back to normal, Audrey dragged her chair to face them. She perched on the edge. 'Right, you two. I want to know every detail about Mrs Stanhope and Mr Wilding. Come on, spill!'

*******

The instant Gladys answered the phone, Audrey plunged into sportive inquisition. 'What's this I hear about you and Sam?'
           
Gladys chuckled. 'He's invited me to go for a Chinese meal. Can you picture me with chopsticks?'
           
'I heard he was stroking you.'
           
'Who told you that?'

'The breeze told me. Is he after your money?'
           
'That'll be the day when I've got money.'
           
Audrey grinned. 'Just you be careful. If it's not money, I dread to think what else he wants.'
           
The idea of Gladys having a decent night out filled Audrey with pleasure. She gave everything to the community and friends and took nothing in return. Reliable, trustworthy, and well respected, Gladys was regarded by most as Fieldmoor's linchpin and she deserved a spot of long awaited pampering.
           
'There's someone at the door, Aud. I'd best go. I'll speak to you tomorrow.'
           
Audrey replaced the receiver. And the rest of the evening's your own, she thought, wishing for the first time in months she could share it with someone. Wandering into the lounge, she tried to decide whether to watch television or write to Matthew. In the end, after slotting a Sibelius tape in the machine, she switched on the reading lamp. Under its soft glow, she opened her notepad and wrote, Darling Matty ...

*******

Straddling a high stool, Brian nursed a measure of whisky. He glimpsed Norman Dingle-Jones through the bar mirror and turned to greet him, taking in the classic slacks and sweatshirt trimmed with suede.
           
Peter Fleming dived under the counter for the special French brandy he kept hidden for whenever Norman popped in.
           
Norman raised an imaginary cap at Jane. 'You're looking dazzling, my dear, in your lovely frock.' He lowered his roving eyes to her bosom. 'An attractive design, too.'
           
Jane blushed a shade complementary to the cherry red dress.
           
Brian gave his head a subtle shake. Were he to make such remarks, he was sure Peter would vault the counter faster than a man training for the high jump, with fists ready to strike when he landed. Rolling a terracotta bowl of mixed olives backwards and forwards between his hands, he remarked, 'You're earlier than usual, Norman.'
           
'I am. I felt in need of some congenial company.' Norman assigned Jane a meaningful glance.
           
In response, she pouted her glossy red lips which reminded Brian of his mother, who was young in face and body until the day she died, to the delight of his waggish father.
           
Norman climbed onto a stool and wedged his feet on the brass footrest girding the bar. 'We're having a bit of an occasion this evening. It is disgraceful coming here when there is so much to do, but I do seem to get in the way when Maureen sets about organising.' He emptied his glass in a swallow, then recounted his version of Doris's unfortunate misadventure.
           
As fast as Peter polished the drinking glasses Jane put them away, straining to deposit them on the glass shelf. Peering over her arm, she asked, 'How is she now?'
           
'Leonard Bonser maintained she would feel like a millionaire in a couple of days.'
           
Brian expected Jane to make a facetious comment, but all she said was, 'I'll go and see her tomorrow.'
           
Peter collected Norman's empty glass. 'Another?'
           
'No, thank you, Peter. Actually I must go. Maureen's bound to have a catalogue of tasks ready for me to tackle.'
           
Just then Bill Mountford came in, pushing the door wide when he noticed Norman.
           
'Hello, William,' voiced Norman as he rushed past him.
           
'Hello, and goodbye,' Bill called, and advanced towards the bar. He placed his brief case on a stool.
           
'Just finished?' Brian enquired.
           
'Finished at work. I've got a helluva lot to do at home, though. I'd stay at the office to finish if Ellen didn't get so miffed.' Bill ordered a gin and tonic and unfolded his evening paper.
           
If he has so much to do, mused Brian, why does he come in here?
           
Jane Fleming ushered Brian to one side. 'I saw the tramp going into Arnie's field. I bet he's camping there without permission.'
           
That was a surprise. Arnold Trevors hadn't mentioned anything last time Brian saw him. 'I might pop over and take a gander,' he said, feeling it might be a good idea to see the body who was causing him so much unrest. He checked the time by his watch. If he left at once he'd be bound to catch Arnold securing the gates which would save knocking him up and plying him with questions.
           
'I hope he's not going to be a nuisance,' Jane said. 'Susan's been under the weather lately.'
           
Brian drained his glass and pushed it towards her. 'I'm sure you're worrying unnecessarily.'
           
Jane's voice rose. 'I don't trust drifters. They don't conform. It beats me why they imagine they've got the right to steal and scrounge and frighten people?'
           
Bill Mountford peered over his paper, and Peter sidled over.
           
Brian felt a debate looming. Scrambling off the stool, he said, 'I'll leave you to it, folks.'

*******

Brian strode up the high hedged lane leading to the Trevors' farm, wondering how long it would be before the council thought fit to install street lights. Didn't they realise that country areas needed light the same as the village? He was considering switching on his rubber torch when the window of a nearby farmhouse was suddenly illuminated, splashes of light being generated by two or three kids swinging on curtains like monkeys in a glass cage. He sent wordless thanks to the spirited children for the intermittent light enabled him to see that Arnold's cross-barred gates were padlocked top and bottom, which meant he had completed his final inspection.
           
It was graveyard quiet. Brian shuddered and ground his teeth as a bat of wings sounded overhead. Hugging the hedgerow, he circled the perimeter until he reached the gate leading to the house.
           
Sensing movement ahead, he stood stock still and waited. Out of the gloom a man's silhouette emerged, levelling what appeared to be a rifle. Brian melted into the hedge, watched the figure slowly turn, holding the firearm steady. He groped for his torch. The man was almost facing him. Brian stole away from the hedge and waited until the man's face was in view. A twig snapped beneath his foot, and a voice cried, 'Who's there.'
           
Flashing his torch, Brian directing it straight at the eyes.
           
'What the…?' cried Arnold Trevors.
           
Brian's laughter shattered the tense moment.
           
Arnold lowered the gun, 'God, you're lucky, I nearly pulled the bloody trigger.'
           
'Did you think I was the down-and-out?'
           
'Nah! He's tucked him up for the night in the far field. I didn't reckon to see you hereabouts.' He opened the gate to override a timed floodlight, the sudden harsh glare exposed a scamper of mice near the sheds, caught out while stealing grain.
           
Brian screened his eyes.
           
The farmer laughed. 'That's better. I can see you now. What were you up to?'
           
'Patrolling, and checking.'
           
Arnold propped the gun in the shadow of the outbuilding.Brian edged towards it, noting that it was merely an air rifle. A childhood incident flashed before him, when a mate was injured by his doltish father playing the fool.
           
'You're a bloody idiot waving that thing about. I've a good mind to put you on a charge.'
           
'I wanted to scare a prowler.'
           
'What would you have done if I'd lashed out, squeezed the bloody trigger?'
           
'Nah!'
           
'So, nearly pulling the trigger was a joke, yes?'
           
Arnold kept quiet.
           
Brian let the silence linger before confirming that he meant what he said. 'Use it to threaten again and I'll take you in.'
           
'I'll watch it.'
           
Brian sailed towards the gate. As he reached it, he remembered Jane's concern for Susan and lingered to enquire after her health.
           
'Fuss over nothing. Indigestion, that's all. She's okay now.'
           
In the process of opening the gate, Brian yawned. It had been a hectic day and he needed his bed. He stumbled against the hawthorn.
           
'You need tucking in. Want to borrow a tarpaulin?' Arnold wagged a stocky finger. 'Your Audrey ought to make sure you get an early night now and again.'
           
Good Lord, thought Brian. He assumes we're still together. He had forgotten that Arnie and Susan lived in a cocoon, choosing to keep their own affairs private. He found it incredible that two people should spend their lives not knowing what went on in the outside world. If that's the way they wanted it okay, but to be years out of date was scandalous.
           
He walked off into the night, plodding cautiously along the dark lane. Fingering the torch in one pocket and his cigarettes in the other, he pondered about his own future. It wasn't so bad a married couple forsaking the world, but imagine how devastating that kind of life would be on one's own. He would have to make sure he resisted the lure of seclusion when eventually he stopped work.

(to be continued)

10 comments:

Brian Miller said...

nice...the phone calls...remembering this well..love how you build the tension too with the girl tripping or attacked..and the stranger....

Valerie said...

All things happen in villages, eh Brian ... smiles

Ron said...

Ooooo, Valerie, you sure have me peaked with intrigue! I'm just dying to find out WHO is making those phone calls!

Love the scene on the bench with the gossiping town-ladies!

Looking forward to Chapter 4!

Have a great Tuesday, dear lady!

X

Valerie said...

It is a typical village, Ron. Somewhere in the midst of characters lies the culprit but there are a few red herrings... smiles.

DeniseinVA said...

This is wonderful to read Valerie, you write a riveting tale.

HermanTurnip said...

"leaving the band of hardhearted women to steep in their own virtuous integrity"

You have so many wonderful descriptors in this story. Seems you're capturing my attention anew with every other sentence. Fantastic job so far!

Valerie said...

Hi Herman, that's exactly how I feel when I read your work.

Montanagirl said...

Okay, so who's making the phone calls? I think I've not read the first two chapters, so I'm a little lost.

Montanagirl said...

Val, you're right! I think I got caught up in "Feline Capers" and forgot all about this tale! After I went back and reviewed those two chapters and comments, I remembered. Maybe my excuse is that I turn 65 next month. LOL!

septembermom said...

I have to catch up on this one! It's terrific. Love how you capture my attention so quickly.