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.
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 about it next time she was
in his shop. Tom
Reaching the old
, with its
ornate blue clock and heavy brass fingers gleaming in the sun, Church
of St John 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.
door ajar, Doris 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
'Good, 'cause I sure won't win one for guessing how you came to fall down.'
Audrey did wonder if 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. Doris
'Everything about yesterday is hazy,'
'Don't worry. All you've got to do is get on the recovery road. Is there anything I can do?'
'There's hardly any left,' observed
as she wrapped discarded foliage and the ends of stalks in paper.
'Mother's fond of black grapes.'
cocked an ear to the ceiling, then
lowered her voice an octave. 'Mother was having one of her sulks when Doris 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
hobbled through the
curtained doorway from the stairs. A thin, gaunt woman - like Mrs
Pinches , only smaller. 'We don't want
people here,' she carped. 'We're all right on our own without outsiders
disturbing us.' She scowled at Doris Audrey,
who scowled back.
'Like the flowers, Mother?'
The knifelike tension was like a wedge between the two women. They were complete opposites,
easy-going, her mother captious. As far as ages went one couldn't be certain
who was the eldest.
Breaking the awkward hush,
came to fall. Doris
'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.'
extracted a foil pack from the box of painkillers. 'Perhaps it's normal for
folk our age.' Doris
Bearing in mind she was not yet fifty,
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
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.
Mumbling through a mouthful of cornet, Bess said, 'If you like. But only if you promise never to laugh at me again.'
'You've got to promise.'
Bess screeched, 'Promise!'
At the point when
capitulated, Audrey tapped her on the
shoulder. Vera whirled round. 'Ooh, ,
you didn't half startle me.' Miss Buckham
'If your tale's top secret I'll carry on and leave you in peace.'
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.
'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
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
'Oh, no. She's fine.'
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,
placed her knife and fork on the plate and clasped her distended middle. She
swore she would never take food again.
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.'
The tiny cups rattled in their saucers when
Audrey slammed her fist on the table. 'It makes me
cross just thinking about and her attention seeking
Tracing the outline of a painted periwinkle on her cup, Audrey advanced the opinion that it was the man that determined the sex.
Vowing to keep a close eye on
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?'
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
using chopsticks to pick up grains of rice, one by one, Audrey
persisted with her questioning. 'What did you eat?'
The wet plate slipped from
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.'
wiped dry another plate. 'Goodness, how did you remember…?'
'I wrote it down, silly, so I could tell you.'
'And how did
afford it on his wages?
'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
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.
It was unusual for the Broadway to be so deserted at 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.
swirled his brandy as if he was practising for a competition; Norman Dingle-Jones
tap-tapped his unlit pipe against a huge Cinzano ashtray; and Fred Smith
stabbed a pencil at his borrowed paper, supposedly checking cricket scores. At
an adjoining table Ron Pearce Brian and Bill concentrated on the Sunday Telegraph crossword.
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. Jane
When nobody answered,
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.
'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.
Choking back another guffaw,
enquired why they had all quit at the same time.
'We're raising funds for the mentally handicapped,' said
stroking his diminishing hair. 'Since you think it's so comical, how about
sponsoring us?' Norman
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.'
'I'll just use the phone if that's all right.'
Sam treated me to a
'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.
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.'
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)