Friends

09 October 2012

A SUMMER CHILL, Chapter 8

A new day had begun. Trees had taken shape and the garden had materialised from the shadows of dawn. From the bedroom window, Audrey watched Gerald Tomlin setting off to work, gently closing the gate to avoid disturbing his slumbering family. He waved to the milkman on his float. Two early birds and not a worm in sight. But she knew there was one, hiding in a secret hole, waiting for the opportunity to ring.
           
Gerald stowed his toolbox in the yellow Mini and drove off. How agreeable life would be if everyone was like him: unselfish, tolerant and, according to Vera, charitable. The world was filled with mortals who argued and fought and executed dreadful phone calls, and it had to stop.
           
She surveyed the awakening village, wondering which house the encroaching moron belonged to, which family might be protecting him with unwitting silence. Would they still be keen to shield him if they knew? Would she defend Matthew if he was tainted that way? Much as she loved him, could she live with herself if he resorted to inducing fear and dismay into some unsuspecting female, and she, his mother, said nothing? Though she might have done had she not been on the receiving end.

She knew better now than to safeguard the identity of transgressors, even one who had committed such a minor offence as the one directed at her. Once she discovered who it was she would expose him to the world, shout it from the roof-tops if necessary.
           
A semblance of her normal fortitude had striven to be recognised and had momentarily won, but the restoration of common sense was short-lived and a fermenting fury recurred. Thrusting her feet into navy blue mules she stormed down the stairs, coming to a halt by the phone. 'You wait!' she raged. 'Next time I'll give you such a bloody mouthful.'

*******

Perched on the bench outside the empty shop, Audrey awaited the first customer. She was on her own, it being Carol's turn for a lie-in. She persevered with the bewildering struggle to tag her caller's voice and her head reeled with the constant recall of his baleful laugh and apparent speech inflection, every attempt at recognition driving the modulation further and further out of reach. He was probably laughing himself silly over the quandary he had imposed upon her. Whoever he was, he was fixed on being more than a mere nuisance. That much was made apparent last night.
           
She persisted in her bid to assess the men of Fieldmoor, starting with Fred Smith. He was notorious for mentally undressing women, regardless of age, the disagreeable quirk doubtless the cause of his wife's bitchiness. Nevertheless, Audrey couldn't envisage him utilising mechanical means to satisfy voyeur tendencies unless something advantageous was to be gained.
           
Ron Pearce could be provocative when he chose, with his come-hither smile and half-closed eyes, who, by Diane's admission, wasn't performing at all well these days - which proved not a damned thing.
           
A nearby shout prevented further introspection. Carrie and Diane, wearing track suits, were chasing after Eileen. Beyond them the redoubtable Liz Tomlin wandered from one shop window to another. Audrey issued a wordless plea for her to go elsewhere. She was too low spirited to deal with her this morning. Her supplication was rewarded for Liz stopped window-gazing and hurried to the bus stop. Consequently, unless that was the destination of the others, Audrey had only three to contend with.

'He's ever so helpful nowadays. He washes dishes and does the beds instead of skulking off to read his paper.' Eileen was responding to Diane's inquiry about Paddy's welfare. Eileen's neck seemed to retreat into her shoulders as she scanned the store to establish that no-one could eavesdrop. Discovering they were the only customers, she straightened and carried on. 'I can tell he's happy to be working because his whole attitude has changed, particularly towards me. He's more affectionate. And frivolous.' Eileen peered round again. 'Especially in the bedroom.'
           
'You'd better watch it,' warned Carrie, 'you might find yourself in the club.'
           
Audrey mentally deleted Paddy from the list of suspects. She hadn't thought about it before, but it couldn't have been him on the phone, his Irish accent was too pronounced to disguise and he hadn't the talent to imitate another.
           
'He even brought me flowers.'
           
'Go on!' exclaimed Carrie in disbelief.
           
Thoroughly fed up with standing like a dummy waiting for the exchanges to lapse, Audrey bawled out, 'Does anyone require serving?'
           
Without a word, Diane tendered her shopping list and swivelled back to hear the rest of the conversation.
           
'Really,' Eileen insisted. 'First I've had since our wedding.'
           
That's nice, thought Audrey, putting a bag of sugar into a plastic carrier.
           
Diane gawked. 'He didn't pinch them, did he?'
           
Using the flat of her hand Eileen slammed the counter. 'He did NOT steal them,' she snarled. 'I'm surprised at you, Diane Pearce. For your information, Maureen said he could have them.' She released an outraged snort. 'Anyway, I shouldn't have to justify his actions to you.'
           
Audrey plonked the heavy bag in front of Diane. 'That'll be nine pounds thirty,' she said, somewhat flintily.

*******

Carol swaggered in at noon, dreamy eyed and glowing, bragging about having spent the entire morning engaged in shove and wedge with Alan.
           
Audrey went on unloading a batch of canned sweet corn. 'I trust you enjoyed it,' she said, pretending not to see Carol's salacious grin. It was not an appropriate time to be drawn into a discussion on lovemaking and being criticised for despatching Brian for good.
           
The quiet period was used to clean the slicing machines and scales. They grafted until mid-afternoon when an influx of wet-haired schoolgirls, intent on purchasing chocolate and chewing gum, scudded in like a deputation on an assignment. Vera Tomlin was last in. She had a screwed up swimsuit under her arm and was towel-drying her red hair. Shoving a bow-shaped hairclip in place, she tried to see how it looked in the door's brass finger-guard.
           
Audrey served irritatingly small quantities of rubbishy sweets to the chattering girls who were too young to care about extractions and fillings and extortionate dental bills. Eventually, with pockets crammed full of junk confectionery, they rushed out. The noisy exodus introduced a marvellous calm to both the shop and Audrey's head.
           
Vera pulled a face when Carol commented on the unusualness of her being without her chum. 'Her class did housewifery and cookery,' she said. 'Rather her than me. I do enough at home. And if I don't do it right ....' She administered a sharp slap on her hand, which coincided with the opening of the door and Bess racing in, recklessly swinging a basket by its handle, not a thought given to ejecting the contents.
           
'Come on, slowcoach,' grumbled Vera. 'I've been here ages.'
           
'It's only just gone half three.'
           
Bess lifted the basket onto the counter and adjusted the blue gingham cover. Audrey's fingers played with the corner. 'It smells inviting,' she remarked, breathing in the rich aroma.
           
Carol sniffed. 'What is it?'
           
'Bloody rhubarb fool and mince stew.'
           
Observing Audrey's raised eyebrows, Bess chewed her lip and stared intently at an array of tinned peas. 'Sorry, Miss Buckham.'
           
'If it's imperative you speak in such a manner then please keep it for your friends.'
           
Vera sniggered. 'Bloody ... er rhubarb. Cor, that's different.'
           
Bess punched her on the arm. 'Shurrup, you, and tell me about the swimming?'
           
Vera hunted in her bag for a hairbrush. 'I very nearly drowned a couple of times.' Holding the hairclip firm, she dragged the brush through tangled locks. 'Apart from that it was okay.'
           
'Don't do that Vera,' Carol commanded. 'This is a food store not a hairdressers. Remember where you are.'
           
'Sor-ry!' She didn't look it, but Carol let it go. 'Miss Stevenson said we're doing the breast stroke next week. Imagine that, sex at the swimming baths.'
           
Audrey was crushed by the girl's total disregard for other people's sensitivities. She was about to berate her when Bess began to twitch with amusement.
           
'You might be forced to stroke somebody you don't like.'
           
The teenagers crashed about laughing, only Vera recovering sufficiently to proclaim, in strangled words interspersed with hiccups, that she intended to ask if Bess could go. 'Her breasts could do with a massage,' she roared, before collapsing on Bess and both girls howling until they ached.
           
Carol joined in and, in spite of herself, Audrey giggled. The sight of Carol holding her sides and the two girls wailing and beseeching each other to stop making me laugh was infectious. Decorum aside, how could she spoil the fun when she was witnessing a duplication of a once-young self.

*******

To kill time until closing Audrey and Carol cleaned the shelves. Carol climbed the steps to scrub the ones at the top while Audrey disinfected those at the bottom. But everything went wrong when the telephone rang in the office and a spasm of nervousness caused Audrey to project her arm sideways and knock over a stack of tins. With the display capsizing, she stepped back and stumbled against the steps. Hearing Carol's cry above her, she wheeled round. Her foot struck the galvanised bucket of soapy water. She braced herself for the avalanche she was sure must come, supporting her head as if it too would fall, and crying, 'Oh, God!'
           
The ringing ceased before Carol reached ground level. Mistaking Audrey's confusion for concern about her safety, she touched her pale cheek. 'It's okay,' she soothed, 'I'm not hurt.'
           
'It was an idiotic thing to do,' conceded Audrey, with an over-bright air. 'I'm developing jumpiness in my old age.'
           
Jumpy was correct. The episode had genuinely ruffled her.
           
'I'll make us some tea,' Carol said, hurrying into the back room.
           
Without attempting to repair the damage, Audrey moved to the other side of the counter and sat on the chair kept for disabled customers. She rested her elbows on her knees and nursed her head. Would she always be perturbed by booming telephones? Was she fated always to suffer anxiety bouts? Was this what he wanted?
           
Carol brought Assam tea in the Prinknash mugs she bought at last year's village fete. Trying to ignore her watchful eye, Audrey sipped the tea and tried to decide if she should confide in her? Unquestionably it would be a relief to tell someone, but she wasn't sure she could without growing tearful and exposing her down side. As it was Carol's scrutiny and her discerning mind were bound to raise suspicions pretty soon.

Not yet, Carol, give me time.
           
As if reading her mind, Carol returned to the chaos caused by the clanging phone, and Audrey decided she would disclose the diabolical affair when she was less sensitive, less fraught.

*******

Chris Beresford propped his size tens on the edge of the desk and studied the shiny toecaps. 'So, who gave him the bins?'
           
'Arnie.'
           
Brian had earlier come across Martin Down sitting in the bus shelter with a canvas holdall tucked behind his legs. Never having observed a tramp with luggage, he checked it out. The holdall contained an assortment of clothes, footwear, a razor, and binoculars. He refused to be convinced that they were gifts from Arnold Trevors. On reflection Brian was sorry he hauled him to the farm to verify the story, but he had to ascertain that everything was above board.
           
Arnie confirmed that he'd given the stuff as a token of gratitude for his support. He regretted that the guy couldn't stay longer, though recognised the necessity to journey on. That was when Brian learned the truth about the man, who was not the tramp folk took him for. He was a man with a mission, a father searching for Melanie, his teenage daughter, who had disappeared the previous year. Once or twice Brian questioned the validity of Martin's tale, but was finally convinced by his apparent genuineness.
           
In reality, Martin was a widower, his wife having died in childbirth. By trade a plumber, he couldn't concentrate on work with his child missing, so he appointed a manager to keep an eye on his business and began scouring the country. Sleeping rough enabled him to travel fast and keep expenses to a minimum.
           
When Chris queried why Arnie furnished him with binoculars, Brian reiterated the farmer's words, 'To augment his search or sell if he wants to.'
           
Dropping his feet, Chris sat erect. 'That's it, then. He's history.'
           
'Yeah! I put him on the mid-day bus. The village can relax again.'
           
'And you'll believe anything!'

*******

The real telephone call came at eight, the same hour as the previous night. Ruthless peals ricocheted around the lounge, each note pulsating inside her. Audrey flung aside her book. It toppled to the floor, spine uppermost, pages splayed. She screened her ears, willing the din to stop, and when the awful booming terminated, there lingered a silence comparable to a tomb, and equally as cold.
           
Yet it wasn't over.
           
More soprano knells vibrated into the room.
           
She jerked rigid, her wrath recognising no margins. Rehearsing the profanities she intended to rant, she flew to the hall and banged the receiver to her ear.
           
'Black panties,' whispered the covert voice.
           
'What the hell do you want?' she thundered, and swiftly cursed the stupid question.
           
He disregarded her. 'See-through panties.'
           
She yanked the phone to a mid-air position. Her knees shook as she flattened against the wall and commanded herself to sever the call. But what would it achieve? It was a safe gamble he'd ring again. Recovering slightly, palms moist with perspiration, she determined not to listen. Lowering the handset to the table, she positioned it with the earpiece pointing away from her, visualising him fuming at the other end, a puny character with odious pockmarks.
           
Garbled, vile sounds grew louder as he began to bellow. He knew, of course, what she'd done. Instinctively she stepped back, rucking the carpet runner with her heel. She bunched handfuls of hair over her ears and had a childish impulse to run. A futile exercise when he claimed to know what she was doing in her own home and therefore would know her other retreats.
           
And then, glory be, it was over, the emerging dial tone indicating that he had finished hounding her. Trembling, Audrey replaced the receiver, unconsciously wiping her hand on her skirt. It was imperative that she confer with someone, Gladys, Carol, but she would have to leave it until tomorrow. No way was she touching again that contaminated phone.

*******

Peter Fleming balanced on rickety stepladders to drape streamers from the oak beams. An expanse of corpulent flesh showed where his T-shirt had escaped from his khaki corduroys.
           
'You'll soon be showing your assets, dear,' laughed Jane, planting her foot on the bottom rung.
           
She can talk, thought Brian, eyeing the plunging V-neck of her cardinal red dress. Tearing his eyes away, he selected one of the stencilled papers strewn along the bar, skimming the petition for jumble and volunteers printed in bold capitals. 'Good Lord,' he said. 'Is it feting season already?'
           
'Yup!' Jane directed a cajoling grin at the men. 'I have flower baskets to hang if anybody cares to pitch in.'
           
Fred salivated at the contour of Jane's bosom as she extended her upper limbs to pass streamers to Peter. Squinting at the wobble beneath her frock as she fed the pennants through her hands, he volunteered his services with the speed of a man terrified of losing the privilege of speech.
           
Peter's steel-capped boots (factory-surplus, which he insisted were invaluable when handling beer casks) walloped the ground as he jumped the last few rungs. He accepted a glass of ale from Jane and addressed Fred. 'Will you take that gormless look off your phizog? I got enough trouble keeping tabs on Jane without you egging her on.' He cleared froth from his mouth with his hand and caressed his wife's backside.
           
A young courting duo lit cigarettes and a liberal amount of distasteful grey smog ascended like chimney smoke. The anguished expressions on the faces of the non-smokers prompted Peter to ask if they were still managing not to indulge.
           
The chorus resembled yelps of pain.
           
'I shouldn't have asked,' Peter said.
           
Bill Mountford set down the poster he'd been reading. 'I'd sooner run the tombola this year.'
           
Norman chuckled and maintained that he would favour entrusting that task to the ladies, which Brian found amusing bearing in mind he was the village personage and netted the plum jobs anyway. Like escorting public figures.
           
Jane sought information on who the celebrity would be.
           
'As a matter of fact ....' Norman paused to clear his throat. 'It's Clarissa.'
           
'Aah!' Peter shifted a pace to dodge a kick on the shin.
           
'Delicious!' muttered Fred.

Brian was distracted from tendering a racy witticism by Ron Pearce bursting through the double doors. He was flushed from running. 'Wait till I tell you what I've seen,' he gasped.
           
'Spit it out,' urged Peter, levering the beer pump.
           
'The most gorgeous pair of limbs gliding from a taxi.' Ron shut his eyes, obviously reliving the experience.
           
Bill rolled his eyeballs. 'He needs a strong drink.'
           
'They took forever to reach the path, followed by a body in a slinky red skirt and a bare midriff ... sort of oily ....'
           
Bill chipped in. 'Blimey, no wonder you shot in here. You must be parched with all that drooling.'
           
Fred stood agog. 'Shut up, Bill.'
           
'Her white top clung like skin.'
           
'Who was it?' demanded Peter, placing a dripping pint in front of Ron.
           
'Didn't I say? It was Clarissa.' Ron outlined a female form with his hands. 'She's grown since I saw her.'
           
In the sudden hush, all eyes turned to Norman.
           
It was a few minutes before Ron noticed him standing four removed. Overcome with embarrassment, he tossed down some beer and made a detailed examination of his brown shoes.
           
A little badinage was in order. Norman broke into a slick routine guaranteed to compel Ron to shrink with mortification. 'I am pleased you approved of my daughter, Ronald. Please do come to tea on Sunday. Or brunch, if you prefer. You and Diane can resume your acquaintance.'
           
Ron gulped and swabbed his red face with a striped handkerchief. He stayed mute.
           
'Talking about appealing women ....' Bill glanced meaningfully at Brian. 'I spotted Audrey leaving the shop. Not at her best for once. She seemed nervy. I got the impression she'd been crying.'
           
'Perhaps she had a row with Carol,' suggested Jane.
           
Brian knew that was dross. Audrey was capable of holding her own without getting upset. Even so, he wouldn't mind knowing what was wrong. She seldom demonstrated her emotion in public. Maybe it was serious. Maybe it concerned Matthew. He dismissed the notion, confident that Audrey would keep her promise to communicate any trouble with Matthew.
           
The old frustration of not having easy access to Audrey returned. He contemplated ringing and promptly abandoned the idea. It wouldn't do to disrupt things. Whatever had happened between them, he could trust her. If it was essential he knew, then she would notify him. Most definitely.
           
Impatient to relocate, Brian rose. He would go home where he could do his worrying without interruption.

(to be continued)

12 comments:

Brian Miller said...

smiles...she is starting to come unglued a bit....the caller more aggressive and life goes on around her....i wonder at why she doesnt tell someone but...

faye said...

Val .. I saw your ebook listed... used the link on your page and Amazon won't let me download since it is for UK readers only...... :-(((

Valerie said...

Hi Brian. She doesn't tell anyone because of shame... in the era in which the story is set people kept things to themselves. It wasn't done to talk about such things.

Banker Chick said...

That is interesting, I was thinking the same thing, why wasn't she telling anyone.

Ron said...

Ooooo, Valerie, the telephone calls are getting more and more intriguing and unnerving!

Great suspense!

Loved the scene with the ladies in the shop.

I'm curious to see where Clarissa fits into this story.

Great chapter, dear lady! Looking forward to the next!

X

Valerie said...

Hi Ron. I introduced new characters to shed new light on the men's reactions, hopefully to create suspicion. I hoped the shop scene was realistic. Thanks for reading.

DeniseinVA said...

My goodness, can't wait for the next chapter!

HermanTurnip said...

"Ron outlined a female form with his hands"

Yeah, great time there, Ron. ;-)

I must confess, I had to go back a chapter to really catch up. So much happening, and with so many colorful characters I didn't want to overlook something. Can't wait for next week!

Valerie said...

Hi Herman, my aim with the characters was to create a wider circle of suspects. I thought a small village community would enable that :O)

Valerie said...

Hi Faye, matter solved... I think.

Lea said...

Can't wait for the next part. New characters, new possible suspects, more suspense. Is Audrey keeping the phone calls secret because she doesn't trust anyone?

Valerie said...

Hi Lea, the reason for her silence is because of personal shame and because in the era the story was set people 'didn't talk about things' so openly.