Friends

06 November 2012

A SUMMER CHILL, CHAPTER 12


The curtains waltzed in the warm breeze blowing through the open window. Bottles rattled in crates on the milkman's float. In the distance a baying dog accompanied a crowing cock. It was Saturday. The day when the entire community would gather for the village fete.

Audrey panicked as the realisation dawned that she would be facing hoards of people. How would she stop herself dissecting every one of them in her search for the mastermind behind her quandary? 'I won't go,' she said, curling up inside the quilt. 'I'll tell Michael I won't do the raffle.' She would have telephoned sooner if she could have overcome an aversion to facing him, knowing that he knew she was going round the twist.

Restively, she rolled over to her other side and repeated aloud her determination not to go, but as she drew the quilt over her ears she remembered that Brian would also be there, which meant she would miss the chance of soliciting his advice about going ex-directory or investing in a phone she could unplug or switch off. If she needed to, that is. There would be no necessity if things stayed as last night, an equitable pealing phone and no voice, and even that was subject to her having enough moral fibre not to answer.

For ages she contested the benefits of attending the fete and in the end it was the attraction of wearing new clothes that decided her to go. 'You will go to the ball,' she cried, leaping out of bed and wrenching open the wardrobe door. She thought of Brian again as she touched the blue garment, all shades of blue being his firm favourites and at one time the only colour he would ever buy.
           
It took no time at all to shower, swallow apple juice and bolt down wholemeal toast, and even less to ring the Vicarage to confirm she would set up the raffle, the late decision hailed by Michael as one which had literally saved his life. Then she flew upstairs to change, steadfastly resolving to make the most of the day.
           
She stepped into the new skirt and pulled the embroidered top over her head, truly delighted with the casual way the fabric swathed her breasts, then adjusted the neckline a fraction higher so as not to bare too much. Finally, she slid her feet into the pumps and perfected a pirouette in front of the cheval-glass, ready and reasonably prepared to face the world.

*******

Scrunching the chiffon skirt in her hand, she weaved through diverse tombstones to get to the final resting place of Buckhams. She had been assailed at the lych gate by a dash of conscience and felt strangely compelled to visit the grave. It was in a frightful mess. The grey marble headstone was grimy and covered with lichen and the sculptured book, which once had been so gloriously white, was now a mottled-grey and thick with wildlife droppings. She was saturated with guilt as she stooped to uproot chickweed and groundsel from the base of the empty urn. Here she was, in her finery, while her parents lay below the deplorable neglect. Silently, as she ferreted in her shoulder-bag for tissues, she promised her mother that she would cure her lax attitude and tidy the grave more often. Coming across a forgotten packet of moist-wipes amongst a conglomeration of cosmetics and letters and other paraphernalia, she quickly tore it open, withdrew one, and scoured her hands and nails until they were spotless. Only then did she continue the short journey to the church grounds.

Multicoloured banners fluttered over the gate, abutting a vividly printed poster inviting the public to Enter Here. Audrey's attention was drawn to a spot beyond where fuming villagers were laying siege to Michael Spencer, for some reason calling for organised patrols and threatening to set up vigilante groups. It occurred to her that if she hadn't stopped to mess about with weeds she would know exactly what they were ranting about.
           
The vision of Michael swinging his arms like a traffic cop in a bid to calm the wayward assembly was to her mind greatly entertaining. She was beset by giggles when his clumsy gestures caused his cassock (which she maintained was nothing but a long frock) to spin out and reveal limbs encased in well-washed jeans. It was utterly alien to her perception of a dignified vicar. In all the years since Michael Spencer came to Fieldmoor, she had only seen him in church garb. The concept of his scrawny middle-aged body cavorting in jeans brought a fresh batch of giggles and she was forced, lest he saw her, to employ facial contortions to overpower them.
           
The ballyhoo increased, a hubbub of a different kind, a shuffling, collective rearrangement. Audrey stood on tiptoe for it was impossible to see what was happening from the borderline of giants but, even as she lowered her heels, the throng separated and Gladys Stanhope's mercurial form materialised. Gypsy red skirts flying, she dashed to the forefront of the mob, yanking bodies aside and bellowing, 'Get back, get back.' But the crowd tarried and the noise persisted. Eventually Gladys dragged one of the stacking chairs from behind the trestles and clambered onto it. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, please listen.' Getting no response, she hollered, 'Hey, you lot.' That did it; the clamour abated. Gladys waited for total silence before continuing. 'There's no call to rant at the Vicar because of what befell that poor girl.'
           
The motive for the melee now clear, Audrey recalled the report in the local rag concerning the attack on the Dunkley girl.
           
Gladys's oration was intended to mollify self-styled law enforcers rather than create a debate on the whys and wherefores of the crime. She spent several minutes cautioning them about taking the law into their own hands. After that, she diligently surveyed the range of faces until she was sure she was getting through. She reminded them that the law was nearby and it was their duty to apprehend criminals. 'So why don't you leave it to them,' she said. 'Instead of belly-aching, start making the day a success? Keep your anger to yourselves 'til you get home, then do something constructive with it. Come on now, let's enjoy the day. If you behave I'll give you a complimentary reading with the crystal ball.'
           
Breathlessly, she climbed down.
           
'Some lecture!' Audrey remarked to the woman next to her.
           
Someone in the crowd applauded and others quickly joined in, and a voice bawled, 'Atta girl,' which made Gladys blush. Nevertheless, she smiled and flourished her arm to encourage the multitude to follow her to the marquee.
           
Sam Wilding grinned as Gladys passed him. He winked at Audrey. 'She's a rum 'un,' he said, proudly.

*******

At the entrance, Diane Pearce manoeuvred her makeshift desk under a sycamore for maximum protection from the sun, assisted by Vera who had been roped in to help for the first hour.
           
Audrey held out her book of raffle tickets. 'Can I tempt either of you?'
           
'How much are they?' asked Diane as she strewed her bits and pieces into place.
           
'Ten pence each or you can have a strip for fifty.'
           
'I'll have a strip then.'
           
Audrey smiled to herself as she ripped out five tickets and handed them over. The ploy never failed. Everyone was convinced a strip was a bargain.
           
Vera bought just one. As she tendered two five-pence pieces, she leaned close to ask, 'Are you feeling stronger now?'
           
The query, though well-intentioned, was somewhat ill-suited when Audrey was trying so hard to maintain a happy-go-lucky mood. It called forth the unfortunate day when Carol had sent her home, a day she much preferred to forget. To avoid discussing her wellbeing, Audrey handed the ticket over with a broad smile, airily assuring Vera that she was in splendid health. That said, she swept swiftly away.
           
Further along a gravelled walkway, near an ice cream van, Doris Pinches was arranging a sizable fruit cake on a chrome base, setting it dead centre on linen-covered planks which served as a counter. Small cotton wool clouds puffed across the azure sky and in the thicket a robin chirped. 'I reckon he's singing for crumbs,' she remarked, bending to retrieve her Gladstone bag. 'I'll have a quid's worth, Audrey, before you sell out.'
           
'There's no danger I'll do that. I've got enough here to last a month.'
           
After extracting a couple of strips from the book and dropping the pound coin in a drawstring pouch, Audrey walked to where Eileen Finnigan was sorting jars of preserves, neatly labelled and sealed with cloth lids tied with ribbons. She was studying the effect of her labours.
           
'What do you think?'
           
'Marvellous.'
           
'It's my first attempt at jam making.'
           
'Then you deserve a medal.' It did Audrey's heart good to see Eileen's pride. Impulsively she tore out ten tickets. 'Here,' she said, as she presented them to her. 'I'll treat you and if you win remember who to thank!' She laughed at Eileen's stunned expression and scuttled away.

*******
           
The plant stand, superintended by Fred Smith and Carrie, was next in the avenue of stalls. Pensive (Fred) and forbidding (Carrie), they stood like stone statues amongst the foliage and flowers. Fred's lips, smeared with ice cream, lengthened into a sickly grin as Audrey approached. His eyes strayed over her blouse. Feeling exposed, she pressed a hand to her throat. Carrie scowled at her husband then guided an accusing glance at Audrey as if she alone was responsible for his lecherous nature. She wanted to scream in her own defence that Fred belonged to Carrie and she was welcome to him. Instead she rushed off, steadfastly intent on putting space between her and the insufferable Smiths.
           
Halting at a far-reaching oak, she hunched over and rested her arms on its ridged bark, ingesting deep inhalations in order to flatten her rising temper, instructing herself not to allow the incident to mar the day. It took a minute or two, but she accomplished it. Glad that for once she had come out on top, she straightened, stuck her chin in the air and carried on until she arrived at the tent bearing a notice proclaiming that here sat Gipsy Rose and her Famous Crystal Ball. She paused to recapture her former composed state and, directly her chest stopped its heaving, she darted under the canvas flap.

*******

Gladys sat at a card table with her fortune-telling implement on its plinth in a focal position. She looked terrific in a red dirndl and white blouse, with a crimson silk rose fastened in her hair.
           
'You should wear colours more often,' advised Audrey, but didn't press it when she saw her friend's frown, always manifest when her morbid attire was criticised. Absently running her fingers over the opaque globe, she said, 'Michael won't be able to thank you enough for what you did earlier.'
           
Gladys extended her arms to secure the rose and admitted she was petrified when she saw the angry tribe.
           
'Why did you do it then?'
           
Gladys shrugged. 'Michael wasn't having any luck.'
           
'Sam thinks you're a rum 'un.'
           
'It was nothing.' Using an orange duster, Gladys carefully erased the fingermarks from her precious orb. 'Mind you, I can appreciate how they feel. The attack is worrying.'
           
'I daresay it was a one-off. I don't think it warranted the fracas we saw this morning.'
           
'I hope you're right. Now, I must get on. I want things right for my first customer.'
           
Audrey brandished her books. 'And I've got more of these to dispose of.' She was halfway out of the tent when Gladys's called her back.
           
'Do you think Sam approved?'
           
'Course he did. The man's smitten. You can't do anything wrong in his eyes. You could rob the Bank of England and he'd think you were wonderful.' Audrey waved the books again and blew her friend a kiss. 'See you later, you siren you.'

*******

At the centre of the field Paddy Finnigan was stacking hoops for the Hoopla and Bill Mountford was assembling coconuts on the shy - one handed, since the other had custody of a partially-eaten cornet. A gentle skirt-blowing wind promised to maintain the day's heat at a bearable level. Audrey figured it would suit Ron Pearce who was already a hardy pink with the strenuous effort of organising a mountain of wellies.
           
She hung around while he slung more boots on the heap, hoping that when he had fulfilled his task she could explore the whereabouts of Brian. But Ron didn't appear to be in a receptive mood and in the end she hurried off without even saying good-day. She would return when the fete got under way; Brian would undoubtedly be there then.
           
At the white elephant stand, arrayed as usual with worthless jumble, Liz Tomlin was rummaging through a variety of Tiffany shades as if survival depended on unearthing one in near-perfect condition. At her side, Gerald sucked in his cheeks in exasperation. Giving him an ill-natured glance, Liz turned her attention to a grouping of wall plaques, wine glasses, boxed teaspoons, and a decorative clog. The teaspoons took her eye and she picked up the box for a closer look. Gerald waited impatiently, the whole time fussing about the heat and constantly mopping perspiration from his neck. He maintained non-stop that ice cream was essential to lower his temperature until Liz capitulated and suggested he fetch one, resuming her examination of the spoons the instant he jogged away.
           
It's like giving permission to a schoolboy, thought Audrey, as Gerald trotted by. 'I trust he's got plenty of capital,' she said to Liz. 'The ices here are exorbitant. You need an additional mortgage to pay for one.'
           
'Oh, I don't think he actually wanted one,' replied Liz. 'All he wanted was to get away from me.' She put the lid on the box of spoons and produced the requisite cost. 'I expect he's frightened I'll spend his beer allowance.' She added a shallow laugh and combed her fingers through her hair, and looked significantly relieved now that her husband had gone.

*******
           
Audrey was aware of a tingling exhilaration as the band went into its introduction. As a kid she marched excitedly alongside parading scouts, sometimes running to keep up with the big drum. She would imagine it was her hugging the huge instrument, swinging her arms to wallop it with pretend sticks.
           
She followed the chattering horde into the main arena in time to witness the procession of dignitaries nearing the platform. The sight of Norman Dingle-Jones stumbling up the steps produced a few laughs from those at the front. His composure remained intact, his happiness visible, his immense pride as he bustled his daughter to her flower-decked throne almost infectious. The sun captured the spangles in Clarissa's hair and an appreciative purr swirled through the spectators when she crossed her legs to unveil an expanse of thigh.
           
Michael Spencer coughed and began his speech, paying tribute to Norman and Maureen's talented second-born and describing her as a brilliant actress whose talents had established Fieldmoor as a region of note. He welcomed other guests, then proceeded to remind his congregation that the objective of the fete was the inevitable monetary requirement for church repairs. He dwelt on the issue for far too long and after twenty minutes the audience's impatience became clear. Apparently indifferent to the growing restlessness, Michael spouted on in his excessive custom about the cost of building supplies and manpower, unnecessarily quoting prices and appealing for donations. To get her through all this waffle, Audrey studied the hem of Michael's robe and strove to guess whether he wore boxer shorts or Y-fronts.
           
At length, his address over, Michael invited Clarissa to open the fete. Amid impassioned cheering she glided to the brink of the podium and peered at her fans, manipulating the microphone as if fondling a living thing. Her worshippers loved it when she massaged the shiny rest with crimson-tipped fingers and, when she announced in a melting voice that the fete was open, their vocal ovation soared.

*******

Bored with the monotony of it, Audrey sat creasing tickets at her designated table. An obese woman, almost touching her left elbow, slid her tongue on a wafer of strawberry ice cream and followed the procedure as if it was an operation of unusual skill. By shaking her head, the woman declined Audrey's proposal that she buy one. Audrey endeavoured to divert the stringent inspection to the dog handlers leading their Alsatians to the showground. The woman took no heed. Deciding that she was either stupid or dumb, Audrey repositioned her posterior on the rigid seat and settled to watch the dogs. A moment later, the woman shifted to one side to see past another large individual who was blocking the view. The intense scrutiny was over.
           
As the tail-end of the canine column passed into the enclosure, a commotion erupted by Doris's improvised counter. Audrey's curiosity was aroused. She thankfully crammed the scraps of paper in a wooden box and went to investigate.
           
Doris Pinches was beside herself with frustration. Her mother, in russet straw hat and mesh gloves, sat on a picnic stool flush with the front of the cake, an unfortunate location considering the purpose of its exhibition. Doris took Audrey to one side. 'I've tried inducing her to inspect the other stalls, but she won't budge.'
           
'Maybe she thinks she's helping.'
           
'All I know is that I want her out of my way.'
           
It was the box in her hand that furnished Audrey with the idea of enlisting the old lady's aid. Squatting on the grass, level with Mrs Pinches and in full view, she commenced ripping out counterfoils and folding them in quarters.
           
Mrs Pinches leaned forward to watch, her eyes chasing each tear and fold. 'Let me do some,' she cried, youthfully eager and already removing the gloves and stuffing them in her pocket.
           
Audrey sprang up and, taking the old lady's arm, she escorted her across the congested footway and settled her at the raffle booth where she could sever and fold as much as she liked. Though her rheumaticky hands were slow, Mrs Pinches tackled the job with a zeal that put Audrey to shame. Animated with new responsibility, she soon started selling to the passing populace, waving books in the air with such frenzied recklessness that her hat slipped over one eye. Even the fat woman, who seemed more interested in the activities of others than the fete itself, and mesmerized in particular by Mrs Pinches' market-trader style, purchased several tickets, though it was difficult to get cash from her pocket and hold a three-in-one cornet at the same time.
           
'Roll up, roll up. Get your lovely raffle tickets.'
           
Doris watched with hands on hips and her jaw sagging.
           
'Didn't I do well,' mouthed Audrey.
           
'You did!' said Doris. 'You certainly did!'
           
As Audrey scooted away, Doris called out, 'You can move in with us, whenever you want.'

*******

Bess and Vera dallied in the foreground of the mobile hot dog stall waiting for Steven Smith to devour a burger in a bun. Thin streaks of tomato ketchup oozed from the corners of his mouth and dripped onto his school shirt, giving him the look of a Chinese mandarin. The girls clapped when he rammed the ultimate portion of burger in his mouth. Vera implored him to hurry before everything finished for the day. Steven screwed the paper bag in a ball and aimed it at a nearby litter bin.
           
Having had to nip smartly out of the way to avoid being hit, Audrey commented on the accuracy of his shot.
           
'I do even better with a tennis bat,' he said.
           
Bess groaned. 'Don't set him off, Miss B. We'll never get on if he starts on about his tennis.              
           
'Two minutes won't hurt, Bess,' Audrey said, and went on to enquire if Steve had seen anything special.
           
Steven rubbed his chin with his wrist. 'We watched a police dog arresting a crook. It was a copper dressed up really. He had a pad on his arm so when the dog bit him it wouldn't hurt.' He twisted his head to focus on Bess. 'She didn't like it.'
           
'Well, his teeth might've gone right through,' Bess grumbled.
           
Vera snapped, 'When you're quite ready, Steve. I thought you wanted to try welly whanging.'
           
Steven didn't need telling twice. He headed down the field, shouting, 'Come on then.'
           
And Audrey, believing she would see Brian, tagged along.
           
Brian wasn't there again. As the youngsters sorted their resources and determined who should go first, Audrey sat on the inverted plant trough which Ron was using as a bench and wondered if she would ever get to see him. She scratched a varnished fingernail on a white stain on her skirt. It struck her as suspiciously like dried ice cream and damned the fleshy woman's endless consumption of the stuff.
           
Ron provided Steven with wellies, then drifted over. 'This must be what slave labour's like.'
           
Grasping the opening, Audrey asked why Brian wasn't helping.
           
With a crafty wink, Ron told her he'd gone for coffee to assuage a raging thirst. 'Too many ice creams,' he said. 'Packs it in like it's going out of fashion.'
           
Audrey resumed her examination of the offending blotch, cursing the careless woman anew for spoiling her image. She was struck by the irony of the situation, finally (cautiously) admitting that she had, in fact, been keen to impress Brian with her appearance when they met. Now the appearance was marred by ice-cream, and Brian couldn't even see that. She was paying the price of pretension, yet the feelings of disappointment and regret were like harbingers of future emotions, of affection not fully lapsed.
           
'Sling it, Stevie,' yelled Bess, miming the action with her cardigan.
           
The boy heaved the boot over his head. 'I am,' he gasped as the welly left his hand and thudded to the ground by his feet.
           
Bess chuckled at his confounded expression while Vera twirled on her toes and sang, 'Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless,' as she restrained her ballooning skirt.
           
Bess glowered. 'Shut it, Vee. He did his best. It's not easy, is it, Mr Pearce?'    
           
Ron kicked assorted boots at the dwindling pile. 'I wouldn't know,' he said, 'I only take the dough.' He sauntered over to Audrey and bent to whisper, 'I couldn't let on I was a champion welly thrower, could I?' He prodded Audrey's shoulder and crowed, searing her cheek with his hot breath.
           
Abruptly terminating her jigging, Vera looked towards the barrier where Colin Mountford, the unwashed son of Bill and Ellen, worked his jaws on chewing gum. His eyes were out of service and his head bounced to the rousing music emanating from the marquee, swishing his rat-tailed hair over his shoulders, nodding like the toy dogs seen in car windows. Vera sighed dreamily when he engaged two grimy digits to drag a rope of tacky substance from his mouth.
           
Bess elbowed Vera. 'Come on, we're going to the fair.'
           
'Not yet. Colin's here.' Coyly peeping at Colin, she patted her hair.
           
Bess tugged Vera's sleeveless cardigan. 'We can see him later. Come on, Steve's waiting.
           
'I'll catch you up.'
           
Bess eyed Colin, then Vera, 'You keen on him?' When Vera didn't reply, she whooped, 'You are! Hey Steve…'
           
'Don't you dare!'
           
Bess tittered. 'Why didn't you tell me?'      
           
'Why should I?'
           
'I'm your best mate. You're meant to tell best mates everything.'
           
'Why?'
           
'Because!'
           
With that final utterance, Bess ran after Steve. Vera followed, but her progress was slow.
           
'Was I ever like that?' mused Ron, shaking his head.
           
'I was more unruly if anything. But I grew out of it.' Audrey presumed Vera would, too, with the right influence.

*******

There was a legion of diabolical smells in the refreshments tent: stewed tea, greasy doughnuts, and sweat. Every year Audrey vowed she would bring sandwiches, but never did. She would have returned to the fresh air, but quenching a momentous thirst took priority. She joined the queue and prepared for a tedious wait.
           
Among the tent ropes, lying like snakes in the roughly hewn grass, families juggled with polystyrene cups and paper plates. Rowdy children, skipping in and out of the flaps and dangling on the poles, were perpetually threatened by parents and minders to act properly.
           
There was no sign of Brian.
           
By the time Audrey got served to a cup of tea and salad rolls, two seats were vacant by Carrie and Diane. Pushing aside the desire to cold-shoulder Carrie, she went to join them.
           
Carrie poked Diane on the wrist and indicated the spot by the entrance where Kim Pearce was chatting to four boys. 'Is that your stepdaughter or what?'
           
'Oh, my God!' said Diane, sheltering her eyes. 'It looks worse on than it did in the box.'
           
Carrie sniggered and continued to gawk at Kim.
           
Chewing on a morsel of celery, Audrey thought that to say Kim's outfit was gaudy would be charitable; truthfully the wild purple, pink and orange bands orbiting her body could only be described as atrocious and, judging by Diane's black look, the monstrous costume had added another contretemps to the Pearce stockpile.
           
'And to think we parted with Ronnie's hard earned wages for that,' Diane said as she whisked sugar into her tea, tossing her head and gazing at other diners as if defying them to comment.
           
'She's doing all right for chaps, whatever it is she's wearing.' Carrie said, taking a fifty pence piece from her purse. 'Here, Aud, I'll have five winners off you.'
           
The rare demonstration of friendliness took Audrey by surprise. Even so, as she tore the tickets from the book, she itched to charge her double.
           
Diane angled her head. 'See who's with Len Bonser.' She all but raised a hand to indicate, but thought better of it.
           
Her shrill voice had enticed others to gape at the doctor and his lady friend, some even lifting backsides from seats for a sighting, though why Diane should think it was such a big deal was a mystery. Kate Dingle-Jones had been with Len all day. And why not, Audrey concluded. Being seasoned adults and of like intellect, it was a natural pairing.
           
'Looks thick with her,' Carrie said.
           
Diane relaxed into her favourite scandal-mongering pastime. 'She was ahead of him in the queue. Poor sap paid for her to come in. And him destitute, or so he says. If you'd seen her gloat, you'd think he'd provided her with life insurance.' She spied on the twosome, who were conferring quietly and harmlessly. 'I suppose he's after her birthright. Can't be anything else.'
           
It was a Carrie-style declaration, yet even she was shocked. 'Lord, Di, that's a mite strong.'
           
Kate Dingle-Jones lifted her cup and sought Diane's eye. 'Are you enjoying yourself?' she asked, her tone markedly insincere.
           
Diane had the goodness to flush.
           
Kate removed her spectacles. Using a white handkerchief she slowly and thoughtfully cleaned the lenses, leaving her eyes pinned on Diane's face. 'Amazing, isn't it,' she said, addressing herself to Len, 'how much one can hear above the pandemonium?'
           
Diane's complexion deepened.
           
'Serves you right,' hissed Carrie.

*******

Audrey and Sam Wilding strolled along the path at the side of the field. Sam was absorbed in a spirited dialogue, in the matter of Gladys's extraordinary courage, when he heard the ear-splitting deliveries of Mrs Pinches.
           
'Who on earth's that?' he asked, screening his ears.
           
'It's Mrs Pinches. She's supervising my raffle. Doing a grand job too. Doris was desperate to get rid of her.'
           
'She wouldn't shift for me.'
           
'It was a case of finding something useful for her to do.'
           
'D'you think she's safe?'
           
'Perfectly,' Audrey said as they trailed past the bandstand.
           
Uniformed musicians, beginning the second half of their repertoire with the Floral Dance, brought boys and girls sprinting to the area. Sam's arms swung to the beat, his nose wrinkling at the whiff of alcohol flowing from the beer tent. Audrey strode out with surprising buoyancy as they hiked to the entrance. Sam had been assigned to collect the bank-notes from Diane and Audrey aspired to peddle more raffle tickets to latecomers.
           
'Where is she?' Sam queried as they reached the reception area. The desk, askew on its trestle support, was devoid of the tackle which goes with guarding the admissions. No admittance cards or their container, no cash box, and no Diane.
           
Sam suddenly lurched to one side. 'There she is.' Hurling the overturned chair out of his way, he loped to the sycamore where Diane sat nursing her head. 'What happened to you?' he quizzed, helping her to her feet.
           
'I was damn well knocked on the head.'
           
He righted the chair and she fell onto it. 'Bloody kid tried to snatch the cash box,' she said. 'But he didn't get the money.' Plucking the box from the overgrown grass, she elevated it. 'Not a penny!' She glanced surreptitiously at Audrey and quietly asserted that it was punishment for being nasty to you know who.

*******

Gladys was counting the proceeds when Audrey dropped by. 'I've made a fortune for the Vicar,' she said, adding more coins to the stacks on the green baize. 'It's bizarre how gullible folk are. They seize on mere hints to solve the secrets they've come here to query.' Scooping the coins into a waterproof sponge-bag, she said, 'Sam popped in to check on his future.'
           
'Did you give him hints?'
           
Gladys's eyes twinkled. 'I told him I could see two warlike women and that he would confront a bewildering dilemma.'
           
'You're a dreadful woman!'  
           
A hoarse cry trundled through the canvas flap. 'Roll up, roll up'.
           
'Whatever's that?'
           
Audrey explained about Mrs Pinches.
           
'This I've got to see.' Sweeping the rest of the profits into the bag, Gladys hoisted her abundant skirt to her armpits and secured it in a leather belt sitting snugly on top of her black knickers, then, letting the skirt fall, she whizzed out of the tent.
           
Mrs Pinches was surrounded by kids and their parents. Her headgear was skew-whiff, her cheeks like beacons. Evidently she had discovered that a bright yellow world existed outside her dark brown abode.
           
'By heck, she's rejuvenated,' said Gladys, grinning. 'Come on, Aud. While we're here, let's gauge the weight of this cake.'
           
Doris pushed forward a dented tobacco tin. 'Ten pence a go. How many d'you want?'
           
'One'll do,' said Gladys, offering a pound coin.
           
Doris counted out the change, 'You were great this morning.'
           
Audrey beseeched her to say no more on the basis that praise would boost the size of Gladys's head.
           
Slipping her a stony look, Gladys deflected to Doris. 'Did you get to see the opening?'
           
'Ooh, yes. Vicar's speech was an improvement on last year, he didn't use such long words. And I couldn't cart me beady eyes off young Clarry.'
           
'Baggage!' roared Doris's mother from her station across the way.
           
Appalled by such fierceness, Audrey retorted, 'That's cruel, Mrs Pinches. She's very nice.'
           
'That's as may be, but she's an actress, isn't she?'
           
'Oh mother, what's that got to do with it?'
           
'Actresses are not principled.'
           
And she would not be persuaded otherwise.

*******

With Ronnie gone to check on Diane, Brian was swamped by clamouring lads. The fete seemed rowdier this year and he couldn't kindle any enthusiasm for dealing with barrages of boys who screeched at each other for no discernible reason.
           
Nearby shouts made him peer over the temporary fence where a troupe of white-faced clowns performed acrobatic routines, exuberant infants scampering behind like rats in Hamelin. The scene prompted him to think of David, who scoffed at his brother for being scared of clowns at the circus; of Malcolm, who whimpered for a week and declined to go to bed … though declining to say why; and of Maggie, who overheard David threaten Malcolm that the clowns would get him when he slept. He pondered on the pain within his heart that night as he belted his eldest son.
           
'Penny for them!'
           
Brian wheeled round.
           
Wagging a finger, Gladys warned, 'If you mention my guts and fortitude, I'll shriek!'
           
Brian burst out laughing. Good old Gladys. Always ready with a witty remark.

*******

In the deserted tea tent Audrey nursed a cup and observed Brian. How well she knew his countenance, every curve, line and freckle. She was mustering the nerve to go over, wishing she could stalk right up to him and say, Hey, Brian, I need to talk. The scenario as she saw it was for her to adopt a nonchalant pose and invite him to fork out for the raffle. A quite legitimate, though insubstantial overture.
           
Brian waited until she was abreast of him before speaking. Standing erect, legs apart in a commanding stance, he said, 'Gladys mentioned your trouble. How are you?' His tone was businesslike, his countenance inscrutable.
           
He doesn't honestly care, Audrey thought, her insides trembling as she forced herself to respond. 'I'm fine,' she said, in an over-bright voice. Was this what she had spent all day planning, even short-sightedly dreaming he would afford her at least an ounce of comfort? She had not anticipated this aloofness and she could definitely do without his arrogance. She turned to leave while she still possessed some dignity.
           
Brian suddenly seized her arm and swung her round to analyse her face. Forthwith his rough-hewn features softened. 'Tell me if he rings again.'
           
She hesitated before withdrawing her hand, sensing a switch from his resolute manner to one of tenderness. With an unsteady heartbeat, feeling extremely confused, she walked away.

*******

At the conclusion of the fete, People swarmed home clutching prizes and souvenirs. New alliances had been formed and affairs begun as tradition decreed. Audrey's passage home was spent reflecting on the day's adventures: the exploits of old Mrs Pinches, Gladys's persuasive performance. On the whole the occasion had been pleasant, except for that brief and baffling encounter with Brian. Thanks to her peculiar detachment she deserved his negativity, though she had not envisaged it.

*******
           
The sky dimmed to an ominous grey as she arrived home She scanned the heavens, thinking it was well-timed, until a creepy and ominous thought came to her that henceforth those same clouds would permanently darken her doorstep.
           
Letting herself in the house, she allowed the door to bang to and sank on the hall chair to discard her dusty shoes. She let her shoulder-bag fall to the rug, clenching her hand to eradicate the tingling consequence of Brian's touch, a solitary tear moistening her lashes as she struggled to make sense of it all.
           
And then the phone rang. It both irritated and pleased her, feelings she later put down to the light-heartedness of the day. Whatever it was, she no longer feared to answer.
           
'I saw you today.'
           
The blood drained from her face.
           
'Your thigh felt like a cushion.'
           
Oh, God!
           
'Were you cross about the ice cream on your fancy frock?'
           
Her mind raced, trying futilely to pinpoint the moment of contact. A useless exercise allowing that the site had teemed with humanity. 'Where were you?'
           
'The ice cream drove me mad. I thought if I daubed it on your tits ....'
           
She squeezed her eyes tight. The sensible section of her brain wanted to slam the receiver down,; an irrational offshoot pleaded with him to go on.
           
'It'd be as tasty as sucking sap through chocolate.'
           
Her hand crept down to the gluey discharge between her legs.
           
'Ain't y'gonna speak to me?'
           
Oh, God!

(to be continued)

7 comments:

Brian Miller said...

dang...this is good...i love events like this...esp in story as it allows you to get everyone in the petri dish at once and see how they play together....in the diabolical legion of smells...ha...love that...and dang she is slipping, the attention getting to her...interesting bit val....interesting indeed...smiles.

Valerie said...

Thanks, Brian. I'm so pleased you found it interesting. One of my favourite parts was the old lady and the raffle tickets.

Ron said...

Excellent chapter, Valerie!

And as I read your comment to Brian I was going to say the same thing...my favorite parts was the old lady and the raffle tickets!!!!

Oh...and also the ending!

'I saw you today.'

Gave me CHILLS! I kept thinking, "Who was it? Who was it?"

Looking forward to chapter 13!

X

Valerie said...

Great minds think alike, Ron.... smiles.

HermanTurnip said...

"though it was difficult to get cash from her pocket and hold a three-in-one cornet at the same time."

Heh....well done, but I must admit to having stopped right at that point. Darn kid is running around like crazy tonight. Will pick it up later this evening after we set him down to bed and I can relax with a beer.

I'm really loving your descriptors, and some of your characters as well, even if they exhibit behavior I could never see myself doing.

Three thumbs up!

Montanagirl said...

When will you tell us who it is? Curiosity killed the cat . . . . .

Lea said...

Interesting chapter as always! Never a dull moment :)