She dreamed she was being chased by tiny men bearing sandwich boards on which were scribed lewd messages. They snarled like dogs and snapped at her heels as she panted up a lengthy incline, striving to stay one step ahead of the endless pursuit. And she woke in the same breathless condition.
Audrey sat up and gulped air into her lungs. Her throat was as sore as if she'd spent the whole night screaming. Sweat-drenched hair adhered to her cheeks in surreal patterns, making her face grotesque in the half light. Vile words and innuendos flashed into her mind … those she read in the dream amalgamated with those He uttered. Exhaling gradually, Audrey knew she must soon confide in someone.
Suddenly enraged, she thrust the quilt aside and roared, 'You slimy bastard,' as she lunged from the room and ran across the landing to the bathroom. She hauled the shower curtain in position and turned the knob to hot.
Screwing her eyes, she tilted her head towards the jets and began the process of soaping every hollow and crevice to wash away his filth, but no matter how much she swilled and soaped she was powerless to shift what felt like a layer of scum.
Carol Benjamin, buoyant with humour and carefree chatter, wore her radiance like a collar of gleaming gold. It was, she said, the result of a shameless night with Alan. She was exceptionally candid about her relationship with her husband, judging it perfectly normal to exalt the man who made her dizzy with love. Audrey wished Carol's rationale could sort out the confusion in her own brain. Many times during the morning she came close to blurting out her predicament. She desisted because of a reluctance to ruin Carol's happy mood.
Or was that merely an excuse?
Carol went off to unpack a delivery of provisions, trilling loudly, extending the ultimate notes to the pinnacle of her piping voice. Audrey listened, arms folded and lodged on the counter, awaiting a possible surge of customers. She couldn't help smiling at Carol's high spirits. Neither could Gladys, who chose that moment to walk in.
'She sounds cheerful.'
'You know Carol. Nothing gets her down.'
Gladys rummaged through her commodious black bag. 'Now where did I put that list?'
'Try your purse.'
Sure enough Gladys discovered it tucked inside the flap. 'How did you guess it'd be in there?'
'It's where you always put it.'
Tell her. Now.
Seizing the paper, Audrey hurriedly collected the listed items, decidedly apprehensive about discussing Him, but determined to do it. She could not postpone it any longer.
While amassing the groceries on the counter, her nervousness transmitted itself to her hands. She knocked over a display of packet soup which had taken thirty minutes to build, let fall a large tin of ham and, worse, she smashed two eggs.
Gladys was perplexed. 'What's up, lass?'
Peering at the rear door, through which Carol could be heard but not seen, Audrey whispered, 'Can you come to the house? I've got something serious to tell you.'
The church clock tolled five, the tail end of each chime shuddering into silence before the next peal. They were sitting in the lounge in direct line with a shaft of sunlight slanting through the bay window. As she embarked on her tale, Audrey viewed the dust motes dancing in the beam. Gladys entwined her fingers as she listened, ashen and distinctly distressed.
'At first I thought it was someone playing a joke, doing a bit of heavy breathing for a lark. Then, when he finally spoke, it was as if ... as if he could actually see me. He said he knew what I was doing. It was scary. He talks dirty now, about ....' Audrey stopped, incapable of echoing the words. Blushing, she lowered her voice. 'He's obscene.'
'Did you recognise the voice?'
'No. It was kind of tinny. I wondered about a voice box.'
'A device that disguises the voice.'
Audrey glanced through the window when a pack of baying canines raced by and shivered as the wails brought vague recollections of last night's dream.
'Have you notified the police?'
Audrey held her head with trembling hands. It would mean demonstrating fear in front of Brian whose opinion of her still mattered. Besides, she'd be embarrassed. It wasn't her practice to use vulgar speech, let alone repeat it. 'I can't,' she mumbled, hoping Gladys wouldn't pursue the matter.
She felt better for having shared her disgusting news but exhausted with the effort of discussing it.
Her hand shot up to stifle a distressed cry. The unexpected absurdity of that fleeting thought flickered away as fast as it penetrated but it left her bewilderingly uncertain as to her mentality.
Gladys mistook the action for trying to beat down a yawn. 'You're worn out, lass. Why don't you put your feet up and rest.'
To satisfy her friend, Audrey crossed to the sofa and stretched out. It felt immoral relaxing in such a fashion when she was not sick, yet tremendously gratifying. Thankfully, she closed her eyes, and dozed.
An hour later she stirred to find that Gladys had prepared tea. The oval coffee table was filled with sandwiches and apricots and cream. Gladys stood nearby, quietly polishing plates with a tea-towel.
'I opened a tin of salmon,' Gladys said, when Audrey was fully awake. 'If I give you the money will you replace it?'
'Don't be daft.'
In companionable silence, they tucked in.
'I'm beginning to think the only food I enjoy is what you produce,' remarked Audrey, licking the final vestige of cream off the spoon.
'It's not the food, it's the company,' Gladys said. 'I'm the same. I never relish the stuff I cook unless someone's there to share it.'
Audrey opened a new bottle of sherry and poured generous amounts into the crystal glasses inherited from her mother. Reclining on stout multicoloured floor cushions, the bottle at her side, she drained her glass. Gladys covered hers to stop more sherry going in and watched Audrey quaff additional lavish measures.
'Did I ever tell you about my job wi' the p'lice?'
'You did,' replied Gladys, taking a sip.
Making a conscious effort to accurately pronounce the words, Audrey continued. 'They would load all the drawers with bricks to make them heavy, and fill all the plug sockets with dead matches, and mix all my sugar with tea.' She paused to ingest the sherry. 'Did I tell you about the coat?'
'Yes, you did.'
'They used to tack the sleeves. Awl-ways at home time.' Audrey's eyelids lowered. 'Awl-ways at home time. Did I tell you about the con... conf-fetti in the pockets?'
'I was the own-ly passenger on the bus with conf-fetti. Conductor got ever so shirty.' Emptying her glass, Audrey wound up with, 'Shmashing job.'
Gladys looked in her bag to check that her keys were in their proper place, then extricated the glass from Audrey's hand and carried it with hers to the kitchen. 'Do you want me to help you upstairs?' she asked when she returned.
Fervently shaking her head, Audrey accorded her a silly smile. When Gladys bent to kiss her cheek she threw her arms around her, unable to understand why she was so sad to see her go.
Gladys hugged her before prising the arms from her neck and dragging her to her feet. Guiding her out of the room, she said, 'Come and throw me out. And don't you forget to bolt the door.'
In her woozy state Audrey watched Gladys march down the path, saw her falter as her shoe struck a pebble. She giggled. 'She's dru-unk,' she said as she went inside. Slamming the door to, she teetered back to the lounge and started to undress.
She unbuttoned her white blouse, allowing it to slide from her shoulders while she unzipped and stepped out of her skirt, leaving both garments where they fell. She pulled the satin slip over her head and, holding one of the straps between finger and thumb, dropped it on top of the blouse. Wearing only bra and pants, she gyrated to the stairs. With one foot raised ready to go up, she hesitated, then swivelled round and swayed to the phone, contemplating it with quizzical eyebrows raised. 'Ring y'bugger!' she said before staggering up to bed.
(to be continued)