Friends

20 November 2012

A SUMMER CHILL, CHAPTER 14

By five o'clock Audrey's bed was a tangled mess. The room was airless, which probably accounted for the disturbed sleep. Slowly sliding her legs to cooler spots, she drew the tangled sheet up to her chin. That was the problem with fancy bedclothes, they slithered off at the slightest twitch. She was tempted to bung the lot in the closet and rescue the quilt from the blanket chest but it was only yesterday she had converted to sheets. She ought to give them at least one more go. Eventually, when perspiration beads began to form on her chin, she got up to open the window. As though it was a signal, birds commenced whistling in competition. 

She clambered back into bed, convinced that sleep would come now that she could breathe. A foolish notion, she thought, as the anarchy in the garden grew more sonorous. In exasperation, she flung one pillow at the wall and pressed her face into the survivor, wretchedly debating whether or not to test the conventional practice of counting sheep. Even as she discounted it as a sheer waste of mental energy, her body slackened and she fell into profound slumber.
           
She dreamed she was in a damp tunnel. The powerful stench made her choke but she willed herself to proceed because from somewhere in the gloom her name was being broadcast. Groping along the slimy walls to the spot where the Tannoy was situated, the subway was hit by a severe turbulence. Leaves swirled and rustled around her; smelly water splashed up her legs. Someone screamed. Audrey ran, not caring into what foul substance she trod. In the foreground, a strip of light shone like a beacon from an open door. She hurtled towards it, throwing herself in and crumpling breathlessly on a length of coconut matting. Waited for something to happen.
           
She woke in her sunny bedroom. Everything, furniture, walls and windows, was so bright she had to shield her eyes. It was like being liberated from a pitch-dark, nether world, so frighteningly authentic she could scarcely believe the nebulous place was illusory, the obscure substance of a dream.
           
Still in that sluggish state that follows a heavy sleep, she brushed the hair from her eyes and peered at the clock. It was coming up to seven. Time she was up and about. Issuing a noisy yawn, she flicked on the radio in time to hear the local news.  She heard Clarissa's name. Quickly she turned up the volume. According to the announcer, Clarissa Norman (her stage name) had been involved in a hit and run accident in Redhampton when a car driver had sped through traffic lights on red and crashed into a tree. The announcer referred to Clarissa's broken ankle but he was more inspired to describe her acting career than the injury itself. Poor Clarissa, Audrey thought. That's what comes of opening fetes. She'd have been better off staying in London.
           
Hoping Carol would understand when she explained about the lack of sleep, Audrey snuggled down for five more minutes and allowed her mind to evaluate the events of last evening, only the journey in the dark dream persistently returned to blot out each attempt. All she could establish was that someone rang, though who it was she couldn’t remember.
           
A dull ache started in her tummy and she drew her knees to her chest to ease it, a procedure she adopted when the trouble began a couple of weeks ago. For some reason Brian's image came to her, together with recollections of his attentiveness when she was indisposed. He would lie behind her, cradling her with his hands on her belly, promising to stay until she was on the mend. She visualised his sturdy hands and the wide fingernails, but she couldn't see his face. She tried to bring his features into focus and gradually got the nose and mouth. His eyes seemed set in shadows. And his voice was ... his voice was the voice on the phone. It was sheer fluke that as she struggled to recall his voice there was a shrill ringing downstairs.
           
Launching herself out of bed, she ran down to the hall, still clutching her stomach. Expectantly, her heartbeats racing, she lifted the receiver; expectantly, that is, until she remembered He never rang in the morning.
           
'Audrey?'
           
'Gladys!' Audrey blushed, foolishly certain that Gladys's telepathic powers would have picked up the reason for the eager greeting. 'Is something wrong?'
           
'I'd like to buy you lunch. Are you free today?'
           
Lunch sounded great. It had been such an age since they went to town and as it was Audrey's half day....
           
'Am I right in thinking you finish early?' Without waiting for a reply, Gladys appealed for suggestions as to where they might go, confessing she only knew the Chinese restaurant Sam had taken her to.
           
'There's a quaint little Italian place in Redhampton.'
           
Gladys voiced alarm. 'Italian! I'm not sure about Italian. Don't they have cream with everything? And I've never eaten pasta. Still, I hadn't tried Chinese and I enjoyed that.'
           
'There you are, then.'
           
They arranged to meet outside the store with, as Gladys put it, their boots blacked and best brooches on. Feeling more cheerful than she had for days, Audrey replaced the receiver.

*******

The women clucked like hens in the furthest corner of the crowded store. Consequently, Audrey missed the bulk of the gossip. It wasn't that she hankered to join in, it was simply that listening to their chitchat was a useful method of blocking her own contemplations.
           
She was in the middle of serving Carrie when Liz Tomlin pushed through the door.  Audrey peeked at Carol to check if she was anywhere near at liberty to serve. Carol, however, was busy serving a customer to what appeared to be a month's supply of groceries. Audrey cursed. It seemed the dubious pleasure of serving Liz would be hers. All she could do was pray it was not one of her wailing days. If it was, she would scream. Honest to God.
           
Antipathy must have been registered on her face for Carrie suddenly bent over the counter to mumble that Liz wasn't that bad. She whispered a recommendation that Audrey should give her a chance … rich advice considering Carrie's reputation for casting aspersions. Feeling somewhat rebuked, Audrey carried on weighing the humbugs Carrie wanted. An appropriate purchase, she thought, adding two more to the paper cone for exact measure.
           
Carrie packed the shopping in a nylon string-bag, all except the cone of sweets which she handed round and into which, after shedding one of her cotton gloves, Liz dug. Carrie indicated a bruise on her cheek. 'How did you do that, then? Walk into a door?'
           
Diane Pearce sniggered.
           
Liz nodded. 'As a matter of fact, I did.' She gave an embarrassed laugh. 'Our Vera said I should take more water with it.'
           
Diane sniggered some more.
           
Audrey studied Liz as if this was their first encounter. She had never heard Vera attribute her mother with having a liking for drink. Just pills. For once, Liz was elegantly attired. A stylish navy and white dress and jacket, albeit plain, spotlighted her slender waist and slim hips, a sort of 'brand new' look. There was nothing about her pupils to indicate an alcoholic glut.
           
Liz ordered a jar of decaffeinated coffee. 'Isn't it a dreadful shame about Clarissa,' she said, discarding the other glove.
           
Audrey gulped back a flash of incredulity for Liz never expressed interest in anyone other than herself. It was a positive turn-up.
           
From the far side of the shop, where she was wading through a box of free-issue recipe leaflets, Diane loudly volunteered the opinion that Clarry was no doubt hitching a drive by elevating her skirt. 'Any driver would lose control with legs like hers flapping at him.' She followed this insensitive comment with a hefty sniff.
           
Eileen Finnigan quietly pooh-poohed the theory as preposterous, which caused Diane to emit another resentful snuffle.
           
Seemingly unmoved by Diane's disgruntled outburst, Liz presented a five pound note to pay for the coffee, then remembered to ask for a box of man-sized tissues and some paracetamol, explaining that Gerald was bringing home a bad cold.
           
'Tell him to keep it to himself,' cried Carol. 'We don't want his germs in here.'
           
Liz Tomlin's giggle was like an electric charge to Audrey. She was more used to hearing grumbles than traces of humour. 'Where's he been whittling this time?' she nonchalantly enquired.
           
'Shropshire. Near the Wrekin. He likes it there. He goes rambling after work.' Liz submitted the fiver again. 'We should have a collection for Clarissa. Maybe send flowers.'
           
That's an original, Audrey thought, doling change into the outstretched hand, now totally bewildered by the hitherto unseen facets of her character. It wasn’t at all surprising, since Liz was not known for her benevolence, that Carrie and Diane were goggle eyed.

*******
           
It was Eileen who acknowledged that Liz's proposal was a smashing idea.
           
Diane looked pointedly at Liz. 'Who'll do it?'
           
'We-ll, I suppose I could. It's just that -'
           
'I'll do it,' Eileen said. 'I've got to go to the shop to take Paddy's sandwiches.'
           
Liz went on. 'I can't be sure when Gerald -'
           
'Don't worry, I said I'll do it.' Eileen slapped a used envelope on the counter for contributions, and when the shop door opened to admit Doris Pinches, she was as good as her word. She literally pounced on her. 'Want to give a donation for Clarissa? We're sending flowers.'
           
Doris, though somewhat startled by the outburst, stayed calm.  She put her basket on the freezer cabinet and took her purse from the pocket of her mac. 'Mother's been ranting on and on about the accident. For some reason she thinks because the girl's an actress she's tainted and deserves all she gets.'
           
'Maybe she's right,' observed Diane, tugging the waistband of her jeans upwards. 'She does have an air of abandon about her. I noticed the way she watched Brian Porter on Saturday, with those shuttered eyes and come-to-bed look.'
           
Audrey forced a smile and had a crack at indifference. 'What did he do?' More than anything she needed to know precisely what developed from Clarry's come-on.
           
'Oh, he didn't see her. He was talking to my Ron. Clarissa looked fit to devour him - Brian, I mean.'
           
The relief that nothing transpired sent Audrey into a frenetic bout of tidying, clearing surplus tins and jars off the counter, until Doris stood in front of her and she was obliged to stop. 'Yes, Doris, what can I get you?'
           
Doris deposited a pound coin on the counter. 'I don't want to buy anything, but I'd be pleased if you'd split that for me. I really came to pass on a message from Mother. She wants you to come to tea. One Saturday she said.'
           
Diane's eyes widened and she drawled, 'Oh, yes!' then went on to enquire what Audrey had been up to. 'Whatever it is, Ma Pinches will shred your mettle.'
           
'That's where you're mistaken,' retorted Doris. 'Mother wants to thank her for what she did at the fete.' She addressed Audrey. 'She's functioning like an enthusiastic teenager lately. I'm grateful as well. Because of you, Mother and I are friends again. It's taken forty years but it looks as though it might last.'
           
Audrey rang up No Sale and extracted two fifty pence coins from the till. 'Thank you, Doris. I'd love to come. Let me know when and I'll be there.' She held out the coins. 'How small do you want this cash?'
           
'That'll do.' Doris accepted the money and offered a coin to Eileen then, changing intention, she placed both coins in her purse and plucked out a ten pound note. 'Here, have this,' she said, 'and get her a big bunch.'
           
Eileen regarded the others as if seeking permission to take it.
           
'My!' breathed Carrie.
           
'Lovely,' added Liz.
           
'Gosh, thanks, you are generous,' enthused Diane.
           
'Well,' Doris declared, 'it's not every day I find me mother again.'

*******

Gladys hopped off the bus as agilely as an adolescent. 'It's yonks since I came here,' she said, unfurling a black umbrella and holding it aloft.
           
Hanging onto her arm, Audrey huddled under the umbrella and bewailed the weather. 'I wouldn't have worn this dress if I'd known it would rain. There’ll be rain marks all over it.'
           
They turned into the main shopping area, stopping now and then to look in shop windows. It was market day. The town was alive with people and heavy with suffocating exhaust fumes. Weaving through shoppers, prams, and the odd bedraggled dog, Audrey led Gladys to Ernesto's Basement Pizza Parlour and shepherded her down the narrow stairs.
           
Gladys surveyed the room, taking in the shiny floor tiles, plants that looked like trees,  and glass topped tables. 'If this is your idea of something small, you want your heading seeing to.’ Tentatively, gripping chairs for support, she followed the waiter down the centre of the room.

*******
           
Exciting palatable smells emanated from the kitchen and Audrey hastily opened the menu. 'Would you like to try pizza or spaghetti?'
           
'I don't know. You'll have to choose for me.'

‘We’ll go with the pizza then. It might be easier for you to handle.’

Ignoring the waiter's inability to hide his amusement, Audrey ordered the Chef’s special, to share, and a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

Gladys queried the sharing. ‘I don’t mind paying for two,’ she said.

Audrey chuckled and explained that the Chef’s Special was too huge pizza for one person to eat. Seeing Glady’s doubtful expression she added that the topping was mainly cheese, ham, tomatoes and olives which she was sure Gladys would enjoy.

Still grinning, the waiter collected the menus and turned to scuttle off. Too fast. Slightly off balance as he tried to circumnavigate the next table he collided with a colleague transporting a tray of crockery. Cups, saucers, and plates fragmented as they hit the floor. As though forewarned a disaster would happen two men in white overalls, armed with brooms, rushed from the kitchen, uttering Italian blasphemies over the backs of the two kneeling waiters picking up pieces broken china.
           
Audrey watched the fascinating turmoil, smirking to herself as the men worked feverishly to get the mess cleared, reflecting that one solitary woman would have got it done in half the time. Then she saw something that almost knocked her speechless. Gerald Tomlin was hurrying towards the exit. 'That's odd. He's supposed to be in Shropshire.'
           
'Who is?'
           
'Gerald. Liz mentioned only this morning that he was in ... Oh, hang on, she did say he was due home. I thought for a minute he was playing hooky. He wasn't in working gear. Looked as if he was dressed for an assignation.'
           
Gladys twisted left, then right. 'Where is he?'
           
'Just gone out.'
           
'Oh, well. I daresay Liz will sort it out. If he's missing work, she'll soon have him regretting it.'
           
Now that the route to their table had been cleared, a team of servers in crisp, open-necked shirts emerged from the kitchen with their food. Full of apologies for the delay, they proceeded to serve. Gladys was impressed when one of them placed a large blue napkin into her lap. ‘Wow!’ she said.  I must come here again.’ Seizing knife and fork, she cut into the pizza. 'Hey! This is good,' she said, and continued eating for two minutes before going on to discuss Clarissa.
           
The wine waiter arrived with the Pinot and a stainless steel wine holder. Pouring some into Audrey's glass, he stood back while she sampled it. She signalled that it was satisfactory and he filled both glasses. Audrey waited until he had gone before resuming the conversation. 'Clarry was fortunate merely to break an ankle. She’s alive and that's the main thing.’ She declared her disgust at Diane's callous observation. 'She's got a growth between the ears instead of a brain and it doesn't allow sympathy for anybody.'
           
'Kim gets her down.'
           
Gladys's brief statement put a stop to what would have been a lengthy diatribe if Audrey had been allowed to get away with it and, for several minutes, she was confounded by her own scandalous, unfeeling attitude towards her fellow neighbours. But as quickly as Gladys had checked her, contradictorily she agreed with her view. 'That doesn't mean we should slate her for slating sake,' she said, putting her fork on the plate. She smiled. 'Let's keep our opinions private.’
           
What else was there to say. Sulkily, Audrey examined the painted dado, following it as far as the stairs, and tried to think what subject matter would take her through the meal without fear of further censure. She remembered Doris's invitation and thought that might promote reasonable discussion, not in the least likely to cultivate discord. 'There was a pleasant incident at the shop today,' she said, not quite meeting Gladys's eyes. 'Apparently, consequent to my enlisting the help of Mrs Pinches on Saturday, she's a new woman and wants to show her appreciation by giving me tea.'
           
'That's nice.'
           
'I feel truly touched, as if I did something stupendous.'
           
'You did, Audrey. No-one else would've concerned themselves.'
           
Unexpectedly bashful, yet relieved that she had redeemed herself, Audrey dabbed her mouth with the napkin and altered tack by enquiring about Sam.
           
Gladys assured her that he was fine. It was the rising flush and demure expression that reinforced Audrey's suspicion that her friend was falling in love. She was radiant. And why not. Sam was a respectable, practical man, who obviously thought the world of her.
           
At the end of the meal Gladys called for the bill. Reluctant to let her pay it all, Audrey produced her wallet, but Gladys had the money ready in a trice, saying, 'It's Sam's treat.'
           
Yes, Audrey decided, I approve of Sam Wilding.

*******
Alan Benjamin was about to pull out when he spotted them running towards his bus. He applied the brakes and sat with the engine running while they climbed aboard. He greeted them like old friends and refused their fare, saying it was unlikely an inspector would get on at this hour. They sat on the long seat at the rear and throughout the journey Alan pulled faces through his mirror, sticking out a pink tongue, winking a dark eye, and slow-smiling his thick lips.
           
Gladys nudged Audrey. 'You'd better not encourage him. He's taken.'
           
Trying to tame a jumping tic below her left eye, Audrey inwardly agreed. Not even in fun would she encourage him. She put a hand on the spot in her belly where the recurring twinge hurt the most. Conscious of Gladys's covert glances, she maintained the pretence of being enormously fascinated by a tracing on the dusty window: a speared heart and initialled arrow. Watching the trees speeding by, she mulled over the possibility that Alan might be Him. She was fairly confident he wasn't; she would doubtless recognise the Jamaican accent even if he stitched his jaws. Basically it was Alan's actions that made her wonder; it was how she imagined His would be if she met him in a crowd, familiar, yet distant. Perhaps it was only during the unique privacy of phone calls that He could let himself indulge in fantasies and say such passionately wild things.
           
Audrey felt a tug on her arm and heard Gladys commanding her to stir herself. She was already on her feet, strap-hanging. Securing her shoulder-bag, Audrey stepped into the gangway just as the bus jolted to a halt. They were pitched towards the doors like teetering drunks. Gladys fired Alan an indignant glance as she alighted. Audrey loitered at the top of the steps with her hand on the rail, ready to dismount, reluctant to get off without speaking but uncertain what to say. After all, she didn't know for definite that she could identify him on a phone.
           
'Chin up, lady. Where's that beautiful smile disappeared to?'
           
Observing the brilliance of Alan's own smile, Audrey knew it had been unfair to doubt him. Sensing their camaraderie might be in jeopardy if she did, she found herself grinning in return. 'I'll be as right as ninepence soon,' she informed him. 'Just as soon as the curse has its fling.' Though she reckoned, if she was in for a menstrual session, it was coming on a mighty queer date.
           
'What you need is brandy and a pair of strong arms. Now, if you'll let me…'
           
'Get off, Alan Benjamin,' exclaimed Audrey, and jumped to the pavement.

*******

They popped into Settons for a paper and encountered Eileen articulating about the tramp. Carrie occupied the single pew, navy skirt taut over the knee of her crossed leg, shoe dangling in its usual position at the end of her big toe. Diane was sifting through birthday cards slotted in a spiral display. She had swapped the blouse she wore previously for the jumper she consistently swore was too hot for this weather. Two delivery boys were filling their green sacks with papers for the evening rounds. The shop smelled of sherbet and printing ink. Tom Setton pored over his ledger, occasionally writing numbers on the newspapers. Audrey and Gladys leaned on the counter to listen.
           
'I'm going on what Paddy told me,' admitted Eileen. 'He saw him in the square.' Putting her face close to Diane's, she whispered, 'He was ...' She broke off, peeped at Tom, then tittered softly. 'He was urinating on the library wall.'
           
Gladys tapped Eileen's shoulder. 'I thought the tramp had gone.'
           
Taken aback, Eileen reiterated that she was only quoting Paddy.
           
Seeing Tom Setton wink at Audrey, Gladys promptly elbowed her in the ribs and murmured, 'Come on. Let's get out of here.'

*******

That evening, wearing Arabian-style trousers and a pink caftan, Audrey sat on the floor surrounded by cushions. She reclined against the couch on which Gladys sat nibbling cheese straws and celery.
           
Gladys put her stockinged feet on the fringed foot stool and listened to Andy Williams. She said the song reminded her of Sam. Prodding Audrey with her toe, she sought her view on the man in question.
           
Audrey searched for pertinent adjectives. 'Sam is ... nice. He's agreeable, kind, sociable. Furthermore, he's entertaining. That's my assessment. What's yours?'
           
'I like him a lot. Probably more than I should.'
           
Audrey bit a morsel off a cheese straw. ‘How come?’
           
Gladys shrugged. ‘I dunno. Maybe as time goes on I’ll be clearer in my mind.’
           
They were midway through a game of Scrabble when Matthew rang. At the first peal Audrey consulted her watch, noting that the hour of eight was long gone. On account of Gladys's presence, she answered apprehensively.
           
'Hi, Mum. How're you?'
           
As she talked to her son, Audrey underwent a dramatic transformation, moving upwards from passivity to animated fervour, brandishing expressive hands to emphasise each utterance. Afterwards, she twirled girlishly into the lounge and trilled, 'Matthew's coming home in two weeks, for ten days.' Flopping on the cushions, she expelled a loud sigh. 'You've no idea how much I'm looking forward to seeing him.' Hugging a cushion as one would a child, she chortled. 'Do you remember when he brought that awful girl with him?'
           
Matthew had been bewitched - an apt description - by a sexy French girl who generated the most nauseating body odour. Fortunately, she hated England on sight and caught a subsequent train to the docks. Recalling the occasion, Audrey burst into contagious laughter and before long the two of them rocked with uncontrollable glee. Happy tears flowed until they collapsed exhausted.
           
When the phone rang again, Audrey was still chuckling. Flinging the cushion aside, she made her way to the hall. ''Want to bet he's forgotten something?'
           
'I know what you're doing,' crackled the thin voice.
           
Her merriment died.
           
She slammed the receiver down, then snatched it up again and let it drop on the table. The lamp wobbled, but she made no attempt to steady it. Trembling, she supported herself on the door frame. How dare he ring when she had a guest. Her self-discipline rapidly diminishing, she stumbled to an armchair and nursed her head in her hands. 'Oh God!'
           
Gladys embraced her. 'I'll fetch Brian, shall I?'
           
'No!' Fiercely shaking her head, Audrey cried, 'I don't want him here. I don't want anybody. I need to be alone, to think.'
           
Gladys was wounded, and she looked long and hard at Audrey before dropping her hands and moving away. Audrey imagined she knew how she felt, but she couldn't help it. She had no explanation to give. The desire to be alone was acutely urgent.
           
After making her promise to ring if she required anything, anything at all, Gladys departed.
           
The swift transition from mirth to misery had so drained Audrey that she sat for a spell at the foot of the stairs, too jaded to go up. She kept her eyes on the phone. The cramps came and went. What next?' Her tired brain could not contemplate a thereafter, though she sensed there was one. She believed this was just the threshold of something. But what?
           
Tomorrow she would update the answering machine and use it to monitor the calls and, in future, she would assimilate and analyse his voice. She must, in order to get a fix on him. But what then? What would she do if she discovered the man who was gifted in kindling erotic desires?

At eleven-thirty, two minutes after reinstating the receiver, the telephone rang.
           
'The more you cut me off, the more I'll keep calling.' His voice was cold and harsh.
           
'I ... had a visitor,' she managed to say.
           
'I'm masturbating. Solo. Don't like it solo.'
           
Masturbating! What a gratifyingly carnal sound the word had. All evening she had successfully quenched an insane craving for the thrill of improper communion, but that one word impelled her to let go. It was no use even troubling to concentrate on the timbre of his voice. 'Tell me about it!' she said, and gasped at her temerity, wholly unable to believe she had actually said that.
           
He did tell her, his voice thickening as he described every stimulation, every push of skin, every semen drip. He suggested she did the same and describe to him how it felt.
           
Obediently, her hand travelled to the hem of the caftan, and the tic's momentum increased until her face was freakishly contorted.


(to be continued)

8 comments:

Brian Miller said...

heh the descent into madness continues....really nice dialogue through this section as well...the public to private contrast is pretty cool as well...

Valerie said...

Yes, Brian, it's a downward spiral ... until she learns otherwise.

HermanTurnip said...

Great entry! But eating pizza with a knife and a fork? That's just crazy. ;-)

faye said...

that call brings back memories ..
many years ago I had someone calling
me at all hours .. not sure if he was just a lonely college kid or a serial rapist.. but the threat of a
police wiretap put an end to his calls.

Valerie said...

Hi Herman, I'm curious.... how do you eat Pizza in the states?

Hello Faye. Not a nice experience for you. Thank goodness this is only a made-up story.

Montanagirl said...

Thank goodness I've never had calls like that!

Lea said...

I agree when you said about the swift transition.. merry at one moment, replaced by misery after. For Audrey, a single phone call can make that happen.

I'm not so sure she doesn't want those phone calls.. She's giving in to what the person on the other end wants.. and she doesn't even know who it was. The more she entertains the caller and the urges, the more she would need to know who her caller is. Because they are sharing something crazy. What a shame if they really know each other! Thanks for another great chapter, Valerie!

Valerie said...

Hi Lea. Audrey is in a state of mental confusion, part hate and part desire. Recovery will come, eventually!