Friends

11 September 2012

A SUMMER CHILL, CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER FOUR

Audrey labelled Sunday as the most agreeable day of the week. It was the day she was spoiled rotten by Gladys who more often than not invited her to dinner. Moreover, it was the one day when she could choose whether or not to be lazy.
           
With a contented sigh she allowed her eyes to tour the room she shared with fluffy dogs, crinolined ladies and three solemn teddies: a haughty brown, a superior white, and a majestic yellow. Brian won the yellow at the fair. His prize should have been a goldfish in a bag, but the gullible stall holder took pity on him when he heard an invented yarn about the landlord banning pets. After she and Brian parted she was tempted to give the bear to her mother who had coveted it at first sight, but she was disinclined to let him go as well.
           
The sound of the Sunday newspaper being rammed through the letterbox prompted Audrey to get a move on. If she stayed in bed any longer she wouldn't manage to fit in a visit to Doris Pinches before seeing Gladys. Pulling on jeans and a sweatshirt she went downstairs. The paper and accompanying supplement lay on the doormat in tatters, edges hanging in strips because the lad hadn't bothered to lift the flap. She really would have to speak to Tom Setton about it next time she was in his shop.

*******

Reaching the old Church of St John, with its ornate blue clock and heavy brass fingers gleaming in the sun, Audrey paused to listen to the congregation singing hymns gospel-style, Michael's latest attempt to vitalise his services. She was tempted to step inside and join in, but the prospect of seeing Michael held her back. She'd only break into a sweat if he fixed her with his unflinching eye. Feeling quite regretful, she resumed her journey. As she left the shade of the church she promised the Almighty that she would definitely make an effort next Sunday. She wasn't a bad soul, she told him. Just busy, and a bit depressed over the perplexing phone calls.

*******
           
Finding Doris's door ajar, Audrey announced her arrival with a shout and went straight in, making a note to remind her of the need to be more vigilant about security.
           
'Come in, come in,' called Doris.
           
Audrey walked through the dim vestibule to the room Doris invariably referred to as the cave, the designation based on the fact that everywhere was so dark. Even if the sun was able to enter the north facing window it would be blocked by dense drapes the colour of burnt sugar. God knows why they lived and breathed in that one room when there were other, more cheery rooms at their disposal. Entering the cave was like being transported from daybreak to sundown in one fell swoop and there was an unmistakable smell of ageing flesh. Audrey tried to beat down an instinctive desire to retreat.
           
Doris was reclining in the deep well of an old mud-brown armchair, encased in a wool dressing gown and drab pompom slippers, and sporting an outsize plaster on her head. For all she looked harrowed her mood was cheerful. 'What do you think of my new hat?' she said, caressing the pink dressing.
           
Audrey chuckled. 'I won't want to borrow it, that's for sure.' She handed over a bunch of mixed blooms. 'I thought these might cheer you up. Shall I put them in water?'
           
Doris indicated the cut glass vase on the sideboard. Holding the weighty vessel with both hands Audrey elbowed aside the chestnut coloured door curtain and went into the kitchen. It was equally as dismal as the cave but for a different reason. The kitchen - or scullery as old Mrs Pinches called it - looked as though it was locked in a time warp of war years. Indeed even now, decades later, there was a blackout blind at the window. The china bowl covering the light bulb was still streaked with buff paint, a procedure some people adopted to darken their rooms. And it worked, she concluded, filling the vase with tepid water.
           
Doris sniffed the flowers as she arranged them. 'I'm doing well for presents. Doctor Bonser brought the oranges.' She pointed to the fruit bowl on a side table which was almost obscured by circulars and magazines. Burrowing amongst the papers, she pulled out a flat white box. 'He left these,' she said.
           
Audrey read the label. 'He prescribed the same for me when I had that abscess on the gum. God, it was ghastly! I lost count of how many pills I took.' She passed the box to Doris. 'Take a tip from me, make sure your belly's full before you take them.'
           
Doris tutted. 'Talk about cheering a body up. You'd win a trophy for it.'
           
'Good, 'cause I sure won't win one for guessing how you came to fall down.' Audrey did wonder if Doris was reaching the age of faltering steps and other afflictions which accompanied the onset of old age. She was well past retirement age and still sweating blood at the House, a fact which bothered Gladys and made her work extra hours in order to assist with the more arduous chores.
           
'Everything about yesterday is hazy,' Doris said.
           
'Don't worry. All you've got to do is get on the recovery road. Is there anything I can do?'
           
Doris stripped the bottom leaves from the last flower and inserted it in the water. 'I'd be glad if you'd ring the missus and tell her I'm okay.' She leaned back to admire her efforts, then waved an arm in the direction of the sideboard. 'Did I tell you Jane brought the grapes.'
           
'There's hardly any left,' observed Audrey, as she wrapped discarded foliage and the ends of stalks in paper.
           
'Mother's fond of black grapes.' Doris cocked an ear to the ceiling, then lowered her voice an octave. 'Mother was having one of her sulks when Jane came. Refused point blank to make her a cuppa. I felt awful. I mean, the least I could do was give her some refreshment.'
           
At that moment Mrs Pinches hobbled through the curtained doorway from the stairs. A thin, gaunt woman - like Doris, only smaller. 'We don't want people here,' she carped. 'We're all right on our own without outsiders disturbing us.' She scowled at Audrey, who scowled back.
           
'Like the flowers, Mother?'
           
Doris might have been asking if her mother preferred strychnine to honeyed milk. Mrs Pinches surveyed the colourful display with such stony-eyed contempt that Audrey withered inside. The old woman dragged a hairnet from her apron pocket and proceeded to cover her untidy grey wisps. That done, she perched on the straight-backed chair in front of the empty grate, warming her wrinkled hands by imaginary flames and massaging her thin legs.
           
Audrey peeped at Doris, hoping for an interpretation of her mother's surly disposition.
           
Doris shrugged and mouthed, 'Take no notice.'
           
The knifelike tension was like a wedge between the two women. They were complete opposites, Doris easy-going, her mother captious. As far as ages went one couldn't be certain who was the eldest.
           
Breaking the awkward hush, Audrey enquired how Doris came to fall.
           
'I don't know. One minute I was walking down the path and the next I was on a bed with the Doc leaning over me. I can tell you, though, my head's splitting.' Doris extracted a foil pack from the box of painkillers. 'Perhaps it's normal for folk our age.'
Bearing in mind she was not yet fifty, Audrey resented being included in the same age group. Without question she had a long way to go before reaching the tumbling down stage.

*******

It was such a relief to escape the dreary house that Audrey surged up the road as if the sheer act of running would expel the brown atmosphere from her mind. She had been in the house on countless occasions but never before had she felt so fraught. Probably the old woman's presence had something to do with it.
           
Her spirits improved as she jogged. There was plenty of time, she was only hurrying because of a determination not to be one second late for lunch although, with the unexpected exercise taking its toll, she wondered if she ought to make an effort to cut down on her food intake. At home she ate healthily and stuck to low fat spreads and skimmed milk, it was Gladys's cooking that persuaded the taste buds to enjoy excessive indulgence. Her breathlessness made her realise how dreadfully lacking she was in the fitness stakes. She should work-out more and present her waistline with the chance to wear a lesser size in skirts. She wouldn't have minded attending Weightwatchers at the church, but losing weight was one thing, sharing a class with the dieting Vicar was out of the question.
           
Slowing to a saunter at the corner of Ardenrose Road, Audrey carried out some profound breathing exercises. Bess and Vera were up ahead, deep in conversation as they dawdled, clutching cones of ice cream. One of Vera's knee-length socks was slipping down her leg, the other already rucked around her ankle. As Audrey approached, Vera dumped her bag on the pavement and commenced licking runny ice cream from her cornet - too late by the looks of it to stop it coating her fingers.
           
Feeling less like panting and surprisingly agile, Audrey drew near in time to hear Vera say: 'If we're friends again I'll tell you about last night.'
           
Bess swung a blue denim bag to the opposite shoulder and shoved her free hand in the pocket of her peach coloured dress. 'Go on, tell me,' she urged.
           
Vera pressed her forefinger in her chin. 'Are we friends?'
           
Mumbling through a mouthful of cornet, Bess said, 'If you like. But only if you promise never to laugh at me again.'
           
'Okay!'
           
'You've got to promise.'
           
'Okay!'
           
Bess screeched, 'Promise!'
           
At the point when Vera capitulated, Audrey tapped her on the shoulder. Vera whirled round. 'Ooh, Miss Buckham, you didn't half startle me.'
           
'If your tale's top secret I'll carry on and leave you in peace.'
           
Vera gnawed the end of the cornet. Shaking her head, she said, 'S'all right. I don't mind you knowing.'
           
So, as they strolled towards Doyle Square, Vera told them what happened when she and her father returned home from the cinema. 'We thought the place was deserted 'til we discovered Mum lying on the bed.'
           
'Asleep?' Bess asked.
           
'No!'
           
'Drunk?'
           
Vera bridled. 'Listen, will ya!'
           
Audrey laid a finger on her lips, directing Bess to keep quiet and listen. 'Go on, Vera,' she prompted.
           
'She was sprawled at a funny angle. It took both of us to shift her. Dad found an empty paracetamol bottle on the floor. She only bought them yesterday and she'd scoffed the lot.'
           
Bess's eyes popped. 'What did you do?'
           
'Sent for an ambulance.' Using a handkerchief and some spittle, Vera wiped dried ice cream from her mouth.
           
Audrey was appalled and disturbed by the Vera's nonchalance, especially when she revealed that Liz had the stomach pump, which came out a bit like a boast. There was nothing she could do. Vera had grown up with situations like this one.
           
Bess hitched the bag higher. 'What's a stomach pump?'
           
'They stick a tube down your throat and pump the contents of your stomach in a bucket. It comes out green.'
           
Bess stood rooted to the spot, open-mouthed and sickly looking. Audrey was afraid she might puke and grabbed her arm to distract her, but Bess cut loose and demanded to know if Vera's Mum was still suffering.
           
'Oh, no. She's fine.' Vera spoke as if overdosing was the most natural thing in the world. 'She always is after the stomach pump.' She strutted off, leaving Audrey and Bess staring after her.

*******

Lunch consisted of a toothsome beefsteak pie worthy of five star status in a good food guide, and a superabundance of mixed vegetables. Stocked to the brim with food, Audrey placed her knife and fork on the plate and clasped her distended middle. She swore she would never take food again.
           
While Gladys poured coffee, Audrey reopened their earlier discussion. 'There isn't another family in the whole village like the Tomlins. It's terrible how offhand the girl is over something so serious.'
           
Gladys helped herself to cream. 'It's probably as well. Otherwise she'd be a bag of nerves.'
           
The tiny cups rattled in their saucers when Audrey slammed her fist on the table. 'It makes me cross just thinking about Liz Tomlin and her attention seeking conduct.'   
           
Gladys went into one of her reflective moods. 'I remember the night Vera was born. Gerald came here. Merry, he was, and maudlin. According to him Liz told the hospital sister that Gerald forced her to get pregnant. She maintained that she loathed every minute of it. Even blamed him 'cause the baby was a girl. Ever heard such balderdash?'
           
Tracing the outline of a painted periwinkle on her cup, Audrey advanced the opinion that it was the man that determined the sex.
           
Gladys went on. 'Liz told him she wouldn't ever have any more. She reckoned every time she handled the child she'd be reminded of the excruciating suffering.'
           
Vowing to keep a close eye on Vera, Audrey started to stack the dirty plates. She carted the first load to the sink and ran hot water into the bowl. 'Will you wash or wipe?'
           
Gladys chose to wash and Audrey reached for the tea-towel. 'You haven't mentioned your date with Sam.'
           
Depositing a soapy plate on the drainer, Gladys said, 'There's not much to tell. We had a meal in a Chinese restaurant.
           
Knocking away a picture of Gladys using chopsticks to pick up grains of rice, one by one, Audrey persisted with her questioning. 'What did you eat?'
           
'Rice.'
           
The wet plate slipped from Audrey's grasp. Her heart somersaulted, but her reaction was swift and she succeeded in catching the plate in advance of it reaching the floor. Placing it gingerly in the middle of the table she offered silent gratitude to Gladys for not turning round. Convinced Gladys would hear the galloping heart beats, she strove to appear normal and queried what Gladys had with the rice.
           
'Prawn crackers, spare ribs, bird's nest soup, lemon chicken, beef in black bean sauce, roast duck.'
           
Hesitantly, Audrey wiped dry another plate. 'Goodness, how did you remember…?'
           
'I wrote it down, silly, so I could tell you.'
           
'And how did Sam afford it on his wages?
           
Gladys laughed. 'He won on the horses. I tell you, Aud, I really enjoyed it.'
           
'I should think you did. Ask him to include your mate next time. I'm partial to Chinese.'
           
'Go and get your best clobber then, 'cause we're going again tonight.'
           
The telephone rang and Gladys scurried from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her pinny as she went. More confident now that the plates were safely dried and stacked in a pile, Audrey polished the periwinkle cups until they shone.
           
Gladys reappeared and reported that it was a wrong number - an overwrought woman wanting the vet. 'It took me five minutes to understand what she was talking about. She kept on about Blackie. How was I to know she was talking about her own moggie and not Brian's flea-bitten creature.'
           
Audrey liked Blackie and didn't believe he had given coat-room to fleas, but she said nothing. Her head was trying to get round why her friend's callers had the courtesy to speak and her lot didn't. Discourteous, that's what they were. Or ill-bred.

*******

It was unusual for the Broadway to be so deserted at eight o'clock on a Sunday. The room echoed whenever anyone spoke. Not that there was much talking going on. A couple of hikers, thick socks overlapping their hiking boots, were the only ones exchanging words. Even their discourse was limited to the occasional passing of data gleaned from manuals about birds.
           
There was a portentous trio in the corner of the room. Norman Dingle-Jones swirled his brandy as if he was practising for a competition; Fred Smith tap-tapped his unlit pipe against a huge Cinzano ashtray; and Ron Pearce stabbed a pencil at his borrowed paper, supposedly checking cricket scores. At an adjoining table Brian and Bill concentrated on the Sunday Telegraph crossword.
           
Several times Jane Fleming peered at the men but reverted to rinsing glasses without a word. Finally, she ventured to enquire if there was anything significant about the lull.
           
When nobody answered, Peter undertook to draw them out. 'Hey, chaps,' he cried. 'Was it difficult adopting this vow of silence?' Obtaining no response, he gave up. Leaning his elbows on the bar, he gawked at his taciturn customers. 'Blimey, I wish it was this peaceful in our house.' He shot Jane an amused glance and collected the indignant one she flashed in return.
           
Norman fiddled with the button on his shirt pocket. 'Did you say something, Peter?'
           
'Ah, a solitary voice speaks from the bowels of the ghostly tavern.'
           
The sarcasm did the trick and one by one, wearing pained expressions, the men came to life.
           
Jane's suffused cheeks blended with her rose-red outfit. She was so incensed she lashed a damp tea-cloth on the bar. 'For heaven's sake!' she roared. 'Brighten yourselves up, or go home.'
           
Peter grinned. 'That told ‘em, my love.'
           
Bill Mountford capped his pen and folded his paper. Placing the pen on top, he scraped his seat back and stood up, twisting his signet ring round his little finger as if the gold was unbearably hot. 'We've quit smoking,' he said, the word quit quivering out of his mouth.
           
Peter hooted with uncontrollable laughter and, judging by their sniggers, the two ramblers also found it amusing.
           
Brian glowered at Peter. 'If you were a smoker you'd have greater appreciation of the torture we're going through.'
           
Choking back another guffaw, Peter enquired why they had all quit at the same time.
           
'We're raising funds for the mentally handicapped,' said Norman, stroking his diminishing hair. 'Since you think it's so comical, how about sponsoring us?'
           
Jane deemed it a brilliant idea and without hesitation pledged a fiver to each man if he desisted for a month, an offer which Ron rated as supremely generous. He challenged Peter to match it.
           
Peter stated that, with the wife making such a handsome offer and him not wishing to appear parsimonious, he had no choice but to agree that a pound or two wouldn't break the bank.

*******

One of Peter's unofficial foibles was to uphold the Broadway as a pub for men. Apart from believing women to be a disruptive influence, he so disliked them drinking alcohol in public places that he tried hard to keep them out. That was why his jaw dropped when Gladys and Sam swept through the door.
           
Spotting the disbelieving expression on her husband's face, Jane rushed to greet her. She settled her in a secluded alcove and hurried back to where Sam waited at the bar. 'What can I get you?' Jane asked, since Peter's tongue seemed still to be paralysed.
           
'Could I use your phone? The one in the square's out of order again.'
           
Peter recovered himself. 'Don't you want a drink?'
           
'I'll just use the phone if that's all right.'
           
Gladys stroked the sumptuous blue-green curtains which harmonised with the cushioned stools. She scanned the pictures of Fieldmoor and was studying a framed parchment map when Jane arrived carrying two glasses of white wine. 'Here you are, Gladys. Can I join you? I could do with a break.' She raised her glass. 'Been somewhere nice?'
           
'Sam treated me to a meal.'
           
Jane smiled. 'So what brings you here?'
           
'He wants a taxi, but the phone on the Green's kaput.'
           
'Where's his car?'
           
'Oh, he doesn't drive if he's had a drink,' Gladys replied, airing her knowledge of Sam like a child delivering a confidence.
           
Mystified, Jane cupped her chin. 'Couldn't he use your phone?'
           
'I'm not inviting him in. Who knows what might happen. No, it's better if he books a cab from here.'
           
Jane covered her mouth to hide her mirth.
           
Gladys went headlong into a description of the new decorations at the vicarage, plans for the fete, and Audrey's dilemma over Michael's invitation to tea. Gladys giggled. 'I reckon the Vicar fancies her.'
           
Brian overheard it all. And damned Michael Spencer. He cursed anew the age it was taking to banish Audrey from his brain. He'd survived a marriage break-up faster and without significant ego damage. But this was different. This was about Audrey, and she was indestructible.

*******

After removing her jeans and pulling on a comfortable chenille robe, Audrey prepared for a quiet evening. She switched off the television and dimmed the lights, all except the tall standard beside her chair. Propping her bare feet on the fringed footstool, she opened the ragged newspaper to catch up with the news. When the phone rang a few minutes later she swung her legs off the stool and padded into the hall.
           
She lifted the receiver, and caught a sound like the hiss of air. 'Who is it?' she cried, tightening her hold on the paper.
           
Someone drew breath at the other end.
           
She waited, in case the person spoke, but, after what seemed an eternity, the dialling tone terminated the malignant hush. It jarred her into action and she slammed the handset down, but a spasm of fear assailed her and she brought the paper to her chest for protection.

(to be continued)


8 comments:

Brian Miller said...

nice...i love all the characters you are able to introduce...it feels most natural...building a small town...the stomach pumping, err...ha...that she always feels better after....the pub...and the phone calls...it really gives you a sense of place through the people...

Valerie said...

Thanks, Brian. There is a suspect in there somewhere, not too easy to find among diverse village members.

Ron said...

Once again, Valerie, your conclusion to this chapter has me suspenseful in wondering WHO the caller is!?!?

As Brian shared, I really love all the characters you introduce; each one being completely different and purposeful to the plot. I don't know how you do that!?!

I especially love the two characters of Vera and Bess. They are so funny!

Looking forward to chapter 5!

Have a great day!
X

Valerie said...

Hi Ron. I tried to make the schoolgirls seem like a double act. Must admit I smile when I read their exchanges.

HermanTurnip said...

Man, that Vera sure is one cool customer, like an overdose is a common sight for her. What the heck?!

"scullery": Yet another word I had to Google. Great job! :-)

Valerie said...

Hi Herman, it is for some kids, even today.

Lea said...

You're a very talented writer :)

Montanagirl said...

Okay, who IS that caller?