Friends

02 October 2012

A SUMMER CHILL, CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER SEVEN

The absence of Doris Pinches must have dramatically altered the routine in Romane House for Maureen Dingle-Jones to shop like an ordinary housewife. Nevertheless there she was, list in hand, waiting to be served. She wore a simple dove grey dress and matching sandals which Audrey estimated was the peak of elegance. Standing next to Diane Pearce, whose wild mane appeared in desperate need of a brush, Maureen's neatly styled hair looked an absolute dream. The striking contrast brought a muted titter to Audrey's throat. It was like observing the straight man with his clown.
           
Maureen launched into a dialogue on magpies. Not a common theme in the store's discussion programme; the customers were more devoted to gossip than topics of an intelligent nature. 'I am appalled at the number,' Maureen said, waving her expressive hands to demonstrate the quantity. 'Every morning they cavort on the roof generating so much noise that sleep is out of the question.'
           
Carol Benjamin about-faced, trying hard to suppress her mirth.
           
'Poor you,' mocked Diane, hitching up her scruffy denims. 'And you do need your sleep.'
           
'Exactly!' If Maureen caught the contempt, she ignored it. 'I read recently that one is permitted to shoot the birds now they have become such pests, but if I saw a person directing a gun at them I would notify the authorities. Even the simplest creature is entitled to an existence.'
           
Diane moved up a pace. 'It would be a sad world without the likes of you and Norm.' She was always ready with a flippant retort.
           
'Norman, please! He does hate his name being abbreviated.'
           
As she carried a side of bacon to the cold store Carol gave Audrey an eyes-to-the-ceiling look, muttering out the corner of her mouth, 'One of these days I'll abbreviate her.'
           
'Don't be catty. It doesn't become you.' As Audrey spoke a noticeable silence descended. She stopped what she was doing and glanced up to see every head twisted towards the door, and was dumbfounded to behold the travelling man peering through the glass beneath the visor he made with his hand. Carol was hugging the flitch as if to protect herself from transient dangers, Maureen's hands were half way to covering her mouth, and Diane was hiding her face with her clutch bag. The remaining shoppers displayed their panic by clustering en masse at the end of the counter. Audrey cast her eyes from one to another. 'Just look at you,' she said. 'He's a man, not the devil in disguise.'
           
A voice in the queue mumbled, 'How d'you know?'
           
The cowardly customers drew back as Audrey swept resolutely towards the door. Pulling it wide, she enquired, 'Can I help you?'
           
'Do you stock throat lozenges?'
           
It was such an anti-climax after the charged concoction of fear that Audrey's' previously stifled giggle threatened to return. She bit her lip to drive it away. 'I'm afraid not,' she replied. 'Try Settons's, three doors up.'
           
'Thank you.' He nodded as he strode away.
           
His voice was nothing like Audrey imagined a tramp would have. She had expected to hear a gruff timbre, not the precise, succinct, incisive tone of a man accustomed to issuing instructions.
           
The instant he was lost to view the babble started.
           
'What did he want?'
           
'Did you spot the odd socks?'
           
'How's that for a chiselled face!'
           
Maureen seemed puzzled. 'Did you notice the binoculars protruding from his pocket? He could be the birdwatcher Gladys saw, the day Doris tripped over.
           
'Can't be,' Audrey declared. 'Gladys never forgets a face.'
           
'Mm!' murmured Maureen. 'I must mention it to Norman.'
           
Audrey scratched her jaw with her thumb. 'He's had his hair trimmed since I saw him, and disposed of the ragged overcoat. And did you hear his perfect diction? I wonder what happened to make him choose the open road.'
           
'You going to serve or am I standing here for health reasons?'
           
Audrey hurried to where Diane was brandishing her list of required goods. She accepted the order - a pound of smoked middle and six eggs - and set to work. Selecting the leanest rashers she held them up for her inspection. 'These all right?'
           
'Fine.'
           
Ellen Mountford hailed the group as she bustled through the doorway and joined the end of the line. 'Did you see him?' she asked.
           
There was a general affirmative response, and Diane yelled above it, 'Hey, Ellen, shall we go for coffee after?' before turning back to command Audrey to pack the jumbo eggs.
           
Ellen called out her agreement then, switching a heavy plastic carrier to the other hand, she complained about having to cart the excessive load. 'You'd imagine one of my men would help, wouldn't you? Bill would, if he wasn't so tired all the time. Our Colin's just too lazy.' She nudged Maureen. 'We don't often find you here. Care to join us for morning sustenance?' Ellen discounted Diane's glower.
           
With all customers now attended to Audrey invited herself to accompany them. 'Give me a minute to clean up,' she said as she disappeared into the tiny area that served as a cloakroom.
           
Carol Benjamin was hanging her overall on a peg. 'I'm off to my beloved for an hour,' she announced, allotting Audrey a saucy wink.
           
'You're lucky to have a beloved to go to.'
           
Carol shrugged her dusky arms into a cerise cardigan. 'Well, you're not having my Alan. Anyway, it serves you right for giving that lovely man the elbow.' Carol grabbed her bag. 'Don't forget to turn the key when you go. See you tomorrow.'


*******

Installed in the Copper Kettle, at one of the tables by the far wall, the women waited for their order. Ellen leaned back and clasped both hands on her blonde head. Taking advantage of the lull in the filter machine's relentless gurgling, she remarked, 'I understand Paddy Finnigan's fixed up with a job.'
           
Audrey looked quickly at Maureen and evoked a delighted squeal. 'Great! You approved of him then?'
           
'Patrick has significant potential.'
           
The waitress bestowed a sickly-sweet smile on Audrey as she distributed the coffee and a plate of biscuits. Diane's watchful eyes noticed. 'What did you do to deserve that,' she demanded when the girl had gone.
           
Audrey snapped her reply. 'Probably because I recently had to put her in her place.' She peered at Diane, silently challenging her to make a derogatory comment. Diane didn't bite, instead she absently dunked a ginger nut and contemplated Maureen.
           
'So you found Paddy full of potential, eh?'
           
'Yes, indeed. He's a natural plant lover.'
           
Diane's mouth fell open and a blob of soggy biscuit dropped on her silk blouse.
           
Without thinking, Ellen stretched across and scooped it with her teaspoon. 'I should've got Bill to apply. He's after another position. Shop work might suit him better than slaving all hours in an office.' She replaced the spoon in the saucer. 'Still, I'm glad Paddy's got it, it'll be the making of him. Can I borrow your spoon, Audrey. Don't fancy adding pulped biscuit to the coffee.'
           
Diane made a face. 'I didn't ask you to play mother hen,' she said. Spitting on her handkerchief, she rubbed at the stain then went back to quizzing Maureen, querying in a rancorous voice, 'Is your daughter involved with the family, Maureen, now he's out of prison?'
           
'I imagine not.' Maureen seemed untroubled by the concept. 'Though I do sometimes wish Kate could execute her social work further afield.'
           
Diane persevered. 'It must be nice collecting the gen on the families she visits.'
           
Maureen successfully hid her rage. 'Kate's work is classified. She does not discuss her case-load with non-professionals.' Coolly, she turned her back on Diane and faced the rest. 'Have you ladies heard about Susan?'
           
Ellen agitated the spoon in her cup. 'You mean Susan Trevors?'
           
Diane knew. 'I forgot,' was her lame excuse when Ellen attacked her for neglecting to broadcast the news.
           
'Forgot my Aunt Maud! That's terrible news, Maureen. Wait till I tell Bill.'
           
'He already knows,' Diane said. 'Ron told him.'
           
Audrey only half listened to the ongoing discourse. She was dedicating her thoughts to Arnie Trevors who must be fraught with grief, and submitting an appeal to God to lead him safely through his sadness.
           
Following a prolonged discussion on the tragedy Maureen straightened her shoulders. With an air of victory she mentioned Ron Pearce's gaffe.
           
Diane glared at Maureen but for once she had nothing to say, evidently thinking that whichever words she chose to defend her husband would only make his blunder more humorous.
           
Audrey felt almost euphoric that Diane had received her comeuppance, but she repressed her glee as the subject matter was so serious. Notwithstanding, she did not lose sight of the fact that Diane had earned Maureen's reciprocation. Perhaps in future she would treat her with the respect she deserved. Maureen was a jot scatter-brained at times but as first lady she was damned good.


*******

Though it was not a firm arrangement, the majority of Audrey's half-days were spent with Gladys and today it necessitated walking with Diane for company.
           
Diane talked about Susan Trevors with commendable deference, stating that she was too young to die.
           
'She was fifty-eight.'
           
'That's not old! It's men who take badly with hearts at that age. It must have been a hell of a shock for Arnold. Ron mentioned it was Brian who broke the news. At an auction, would you believe.'
           
Audrey knew Brian would have been deeply upset. In her mind's eye she bridged the years, recollecting the acts of loving ministration when he bordered on the inconsolable. She longed to comfort him now. Aware that her attention had lapsed for several minutes, she thrust the impulse aside and charged herself to concentrate on what Diane was saying.
           
'The tramp discovered Susan lying on the kitchen floor,' Diane said, as she scraped her nail on the back of her hand. 'Ron reckons Arnie will take him on as a labourer. You'll never guess what his surname is?'
           
'Arnold?'
           
'The tramp! His name's Martin Down.' Diane cackled. 'Bloody good label for a down and out.' She inspected her hand. 'I'm sure I've been bitten!'         

*******           

By the time they arrived at Diane's house, Audrey had digested enough knowledge of Diane's stepchildren to last until doomsday. She heard about Kim, the churlish stepdaughter who caused such unrest in the home, and listened to an extensive account of how well Ralph's apprenticeship at the butchers was going. She was made privy to his inability to acquire a girl friend - a fact Diane deemed unbelievable at nineteen. Finally she learned of Diane's exasperation with Ron, whose inadequate performance was beyond a joke. It took a while to cotton on to what she meant by performance, but when the realisation dawned that she was referring to his sexual achievements Audrey shyly suggested that an appointment with the doctor might be beneficial.
           
Diane licked her hand. 'He wouldn't go. He says there's nothing wrong with him. He says I expect too much. Will you come in?'
           
Fearing further disclosures concerning the Pearce clan, Audrey declined, submitting an explanation about catching Gladys before she went out.
           
She was, however, unsuccessful in her quest for according to the note under the milk bottle Gladys had gone out with Sam.


*******

Audrey sat in the dimly lit lounge with a box of milk chocolates in front of her. She leafed through a magazine, though her attention was riveted to Tosca. Brian's favourite opera. As the third act reached its climax she became engrossed in the passion and tragedy of the piece until the closing bars faded. She reminisced, journal forgotten, summoning to mind the miniature cow-bell Brian bought in Austria and rang in accompaniment to the one in the death scene. He could nurture humour from the most inadequate ingredient but never at the expense of mankind. She'd wager he wasn't feeling so frivolous tonight. Choosing an orange cream, she brooded over those moments when she assisted him to overcome his stress.
           
The piercing ring of the telephone penetrated the stillness.
           
Audrey dropped the chocolate.
           
The journal slid to the carpet as she sprang to her feet, trying to dispel the frisson of alarm. 'Silly!' she scolded. 'It'll be Gladys, or Matty.'
           
Something told her, as she lifted the receiver, that it was neither of them.
           
'I know what you're doing.' 
           
She bawled down the phone, 'Who the hell are you?'
           
His malicious laugh stabbed through her. Ripples of consternation located the route to her spine.
           
'For God's sake!' she cried, seconds ahead of the dialling tone.
           
The receiver slipped out of her hand. 

(to be continued) 

10 comments:

Brian Miller said...

hehe....it deepens....love the scene and all the gossip being added to the soup, bits of dirty laundry....and her mind on more passionate pursuits and the phone rings once more....hmm....

Ranita Sinha said...

Missed a few of the episodes and will catch them shortly..all at once..

Banker Chick said...

I had to play catch up today, a great scene of the women all talking together, I could picture it clearly. Rather creepy, the phone calls.

faye said...

the suspense biulds ...
love it... you weave such a
suspenseful story...

next chapter please !

Ron said...

You build suspense brilliantly, Valerie!

I find myself scrolling down through each one of these chapters; anticipating another phone call.

"His malicious laugh stabbed through her. Ripples of consternation located the route to her spine."

Oooooo....gave me chills!

Well done, dear lady. Can't wait for chapter 8!

X

Valerie said...

Hi Ron, heehee the phone call came ... right at the end. Sorry about the wait ... whaaaaaa. Hope you have a terrific day. Watch out how much cake you eat...lol.

HermanTurnip said...

"His malicious laugh stabbed through her. Ripples of consternation located the route to her spine."

Ohh...very cool. Really had a good time soaking up this chapter! Creepy, creepy, creepy.

Montanagirl said...

Gossip, Gossip....Then the phone rings - again. Oh my, now who in the world keeps calling?

Valerie said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Sorry I can't answer them individually today. I have a heavy commitment outside the house...grins.

Lea said...

There is this " I know what you're doing" again and left me thinking who the caller probably is. Nothing does this better than you, Valerie! You are a very brilliant writer. I get to have a free good read just by visiting your blog. Thank you! :)