30 January 2012
Most of the dwellings she passed were ablaze with light, presenting a lived-in, inviting picture; but not this one. While Rex investigated the blades of grass near the gatepost, Rachel looked up the weed-filled path to the dismal house where her mother and the new friend attended séances and did mysterious things to attract forces from the other side. An impression of impenetrable cobwebs hanging like curtains inside the dark windows made her shiver.
She speculated about its occupants. Her mother had said an old woman owned the house but it was her elderly companion who conducted the séances. Had her mother not told her otherwise Rachel would not have believed anyone lived there. The house looked totally uninhabited, not one window showing light. The place gave Rachel the jitters. She tugged the lead and dragged Rex away and without a backward glance she left the derelict-looking property behind.
Rachel resumed the journey home, gathering pace as she neared the garden gate. Now she had taken Rex round the block there was not much else to do to fill the hours until bedtime. To avoid another endlessly boring evening she had decided to call on her parents after tea, mainly to consult her mother about taking up knitting, or sewing, or some other useful craft.
Rex raced up the path, his lead trailing behind him.
‘Wait for me, you daft dog,’ laughed Rachel, leaning over his bulky body to open the door. Inside, the telephone began to ring but the animal's presence impeded her and, as her cold fingers fumbled with the key, the ringing ceased. ‘Drat!’ she exclaimed, and turned on the dog, cuffing his back, crying: ‘That's your fault.’
She prepared tea with one ear on the telephone, the other on the radio, until a recording of a brass band, strident and not to her taste, compelled her to switch off. It's morning music, she thought, using a slatted spoon to lift an egg from the pan; certainly not an ideal accompaniment at teatime. After loading butter on the toast, she cut it into fingers before pouring salt onto the plate and slicing the top off the egg.
There was an awful draught from under the ill-fitting front door, hitting Rachel's knees like a whirlwind. Her fingers felt like icicles as she spooned segments of egg into her mouth, but she refused to close the kitchen door in case she missed the phone. She was on tenterhooks in case it had been
Afterwards, she got ready to go out. Double-wrapping a plaid scarf around her neck and encasing her hands in woollen mitts, she bid Rex goodbye and left the house.
WALKING in the dark near the playing fields made her nervous. She increased her speed until, trembling with relief, she arrived at the well-lit Boar's Head car park.
Whirling round, Rachel saw her father using the short cut to the pub.
‘What are you doing here?’ Toby asked.
‘Coming to see you and Mum.’
‘I rang you earlier.’
So much for her concern over
‘Funny thing,’ Toby said, ‘I rang to invite you out for a drink, and here you are. You must be telepathic.’ He pushed open the door to the lounge bar. ‘Come on in, I'll buy you one now.’
Rachel followed him through the swing doors. The heat inside the lounge bar immediately hit her. She had forgotten the marvellous winter fires that glowed day and night in the deep brick fireplace, a fireplace which in summer months was host to a huge display of dried grasses and ornamental dried flowers.
The landlord polished glasses behind the bar. He was talking to a young man, a stranger to Rachel but who was apparently completely at home in his surroundings. Harry Bentine looked up as they approached. ‘Good gracious, if it isn't my little sweetheart. I thought you'd vetoed this place now you were married.’
‘She wouldn't be here now if she hadn't seen me in the car park,’ said Toby, smiling fondly at his daughter.
Rachel unwound her scarf and folded it neatly. ‘I don't get many opportunities to go out with
‘Well, it's nice to see you, and your pa. Now what can I get you.’
RACHEL chose a table by the fire, sitting as close as she dared without scorching her legs. There was nothing like a real fire for quickly warming a body through; even a chilled soul got the benefit.
Toby put a glass of white wine in front of her. ‘Nothing like a coal fire,’ he said, reading her thoughts. ‘I nearly didn't leave mine but it gets a bit monotonous stuck there on my own night after blessed night.’
‘Where's Mum then?’
‘Consulting the spirits.’
‘Again? Where at this time?’
Toby stripped off his raincoat and draped it on the spare seat next to him. ‘That place near you, I think.
‘Really! I walked Rex that way tonight. I didn't see any sign of life.’
‘You wouldn't. They're all dead.’ Toby picked up a half-pint glass of lager. ‘It's a silly business and not one I approve of. I think talking to spirits is dangerous.’
‘You won't go with her, then?’
‘Not on your life. I'll say this, though, it's improved her temper. Ever since she took up with her woman friend and got interested in spiritualism she's been a different person. She's much easier to live with. When she's in, of course.’
Rachel studied her father's face over the top of her glass. Was he telling it as it really was or just being loyal? He seemed entirely relaxed, no trace of his old tension. If he was lying she felt sure she would know. Accordingly she gave him credit for telling the truth. ‘This friend of hers, does she have a name?’
‘As in Adam and Eve?’
‘Perhaps she's trying to check up on Adam.’
‘Very droll!’ Toby lifted his glass and drank until it was empty. Pushing away from the table, he suggested another.
Rachel declined. Too much wine made her merry and set off certain cravings she could well do without. Iced water would serve her better now that the fire's heat had warmed her right through.
Toby returned while she was mopping sweat from her brow. ‘Do you want to sit somewhere else?’ he enquired, surveying the room for a free table.
There was no free table and Rachel didn't fancy standing at the bar amongst a band of old codgers, clamouring for drinks as if judgement day was nigh. ‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘I'm going soon. I don't like leaving Rex for long, not when he's spent all day on his own. I'll give it another ten minutes and then I'll be off.’
Toby began rotating a ceramic ashtray which defined the wisdom of drinking the local brew. ‘
‘Doesn't he get fed up with travelling?’
‘He never mentions it, but I don't think so. He's probably glad to get away from me.’
‘I reckon you drove him to it the day you were wed,’ joked Toby, not realising how near the truth his taunting was.
It was the way our bodies squelched, Rachel.
Hideous sucking sounds.
I felt I was drowning in wet mud.
Rachel gathered her scarf and gloves. Little does he know how accurate his jesting is.
(to be continued)
29 January 2012
27 January 2012
26 January 2012
25 January 2012
I can’t wait to show you my new home, hopefully soon to be our new home. It was on one of my restless days that I found it, when I was wondering how much longer it would be before we were together for all time. I’d felt agitated since my arrival. Not having you by my side is something I have to get used to but, my dearest, it is going to be hard. In an attempt to calm my soul I went to explore the hills and valleys of this unusual place.
As you know, walking has always been hard for me but strangely it now feels easier. It’s difficult to describe the sensation, it’s almost as though I’m weightless. I know that’s challenging to the imagination considering my size. But it’s true, I seem to glide rather than walk. I’ve put it down to the conditions, with air as pure as this I’m bound to feel different. Tell you one thing, though, I can breathe easier. There must be a no smoking ban here as well. The environment is considerably healthier, the grass is greener and the sky is a heavenly shade of blue. Oh and the everlasting scent of flowers is divine.
But I digress. I’m sure you’re dying to know about the house.
I had wandered away from the beaten track and almost missed the notice secured to a mossy bank by a twig. In my opinion it was a silly place to put it, I mean how would people know there was a house for sale when the paper was almost obscured by foliage?
‘Desirable Residence in Heavenly Location’
The word heavenly attracted my attention. I wondered where it could be. There was no place on earth that could be described as heavenly, not in this day and age, yet that was the portrayal that captured my imagination. Since I was destined to stay in this new territory I decided to check it out.
The agent, a kindly man with a striking white beard that tumbled from chin to portly chest, told me that the abode had been vacant for a long time. I assumed it was because there were no near neighbours, something that didn’t bother me as I am quite keen on solitude. At least I was until the day I found friendship of a different kind. With you, my darling.
As soon as I entered the unusual structure I knew it was exactly what I was looking for: comfortable, relaxing, soothing, and above all a million miles away from reality. Don’t misunderstand me; I am happy with reality but this place with its pure white freshness, gentle curving surrounds, strewn pillows, and an ambience ripe for love was perfect for dreaming.
Breathing in the calming atmosphere I wandered around, nosing in light and airy cupboards that smelt of roses, half expecting to find hidden secrets. All I found was an engraved talisman, vibes from which produced strange inner sensations. Happy people were here, I thought, and happy people would come again for at that stage I had almost decided to go ahead with the purchase.
The bedroom was extraordinary. No bed, just mattresses on the floor. Not mattresses as we know them, my love, these were soft and downy, like huge feather pillows. I admit to lying on one to see how it felt. Dreamy is the only way I can describe it, but that wouldn’t anywhere near conjure up the true experience. If you can imagine the far-away sensation that comes after a bout of flu you might be more aware of what I’m trying to say. It was like lying down and forgetting everything.
It was the bathroom that really brought the decision to a head, a pristine white tiled palace with gold taps sitting proudly at the end of a bath made for two. Two cotton robes draped on a chair and soft white towels neatly folded on a long tasselled stool convinced me that the room was waiting to be used.
And so it would be. I remember thinking this is where I would take my lover. We would indulge each other in warm suds, searching, soaping, drying each other with fluffy towels, then move as one to the array of plump white cushions. There I would place my lips on his in an emotional demonstration of desire. That was the effect of the newfound accommodation.
It is cool and sunny, in fact quite a pleasant day. My purchase is complete. I sit outside wondering how best to describe the new quarters to you, hoping you will like them as much as I do.
The sky is so blue a few small clouds like cotton wool stand out in 3D style. Lazily leaning back against the willow tree, I’m contemplating our future, wondering how you will take to this heavenly place. I’ve called it Cloud Nine, reminiscent of the fantasies we shared.
Signing off now, sending all my love and hoping your journey won’t be too painful or tiring. And please God, don’t let it take too long.
23 January 2012
A week later, as she handed Gary a plate of scrambled eggs, Rachel told him of her decision to purchase single beds. It was not a subject she particularly wanted to discuss at the breakfast table but what else could she do when he was so seldom home.
Without even raising his eyes from the morning paper,
The sports page was obviously so riveting that
‘The sleeping arrangements.’
‘What sleeping arrangements?’
‘I want single beds.’
‘Well, I do. I can't be expected to sleep with you knowing how you feel about touching me.’
‘I don't touch you.’
Infuriated, Rachel hurled her cup at him. ‘Christ, don't I know it.’
Though Rachel watched the procedure with dismay, she was too angry to apologise. ‘Bloody well wash one then, or get your precious Terry to do it for you.’ Dragging her
‘Don't swear, Rachel,’ he called as she crashed out of the house.
RACHEL examined her face in the mirror. The rings beneath her eyes were in desperate need of camouflage, but the factory whistle would sound any minute and she didn't want to provoke old Collins today. She simply couldn't cope with his reprimands in her present mood. Nonetheless, her face would have to be fixed before her lunch date with Eric. She checked the time. Three minutes was not long enough to perform the miracle her eyes needed but something had to be done and, if Collins kept her busy, she might never get around to it.
Deciding to take a chance, she burrowed in her bag for cosmetics, strewing stuff along the shelf which, for once, was free of Cynthia's paraphernalia. Rachel deplored the fact that Cynthia was taking the morning off, it meant no-one to moan with or confide her exasperations to. It meant she would have to wait until the afternoon to complain about
Unless she told all to Eric.
The whistle sounded as she applied the last brush of brown mascara. Good timing, she thought, shovelling the cosmetics back in her bag. She unhooked her raincoat from the door and flew out of the cloakroom.
Alf yelled, ‘Mornin', Rachel,’ as he started up his machine,
‘Good Morning, Alf.’
‘Hear that, chaps,’ Bert cried, gesturing with his oil can. ‘She's actually spoken to Alfie. Might be my turn tomorrow.’
Rachel felt the blood rush up her neck as she approached the machine presided over by Sid, who bent double to get a better look at her legs as she marched by.
‘I am doing.’ Suddenly straightening, Sid called to Bert. ‘If you don't want her tomorrow, can I have a turn?’
Catching his lecherous eye, Rachel shuddered at the idea of being mauled by his greasy hands. The men egged
It galled her to see Ben Collins consult his watch as the door banged behind her. Considering what she had to go through to get there, he was lucky she bothered at all. She'd like to bet he wouldn't like being baited the way women were. If he was accosted by a bunch of dissolute women, he'd run like a scared ninny. No, that wasn't fair; even crones would be fussy so in that regard Mr Collins had nothing to fear.
‘Were the men harassing you this morning, Rachel?’
The enquiry was so unexpected that she gawked at her boss, momentarily unable to respond. She wouldn't have put him down as being perceptive. Intelligent, yes, but not observant to the predicaments of others. Nevertheless, she enquired, ‘How did you guess?’
Ben surveyed her over the top of his glasses. ‘I do hear things occasionally, things which might sometimes surprise you.’
Rachel racked her brains in an effort to establish what sort of things, hoping there were no circulating rumours about her and Gary. It was unlikely, but she kept quiet, just in case.
RACHEL and Eric lunched at Chaplin's, the same restaurant they went to before. Eric did his best to improve her temper which worsened with every utterance of
Rachel's knife and fork hit the plate. ‘I can't do that.’ A couple at the adjacent table glanced in her direction. The balding businessman seemed amused, but his elderly female companion gave Rachel a disdainful gaze as if she was scum let loose to plague them. Rachel lowered her voice and carried on. ‘I love him,’ she hissed. ‘It's not him I'm against; it's the lack of intercourse.’
A puff of smoke drifted across from the next table. To Rachel's horror the woman had lit a cigarette mid-way through the meal. Rachel wafted the smoke with her hand, giving the woman a killing stare.
Oblivious to the charade, Eric said, ‘Sexual alliance is by far the most important part of marriage. Without that, you have nothing.’ He broke a chunk off his bread roll and brandished it to emphasise his next statement. ‘No amount of affection will keep your marriage alive while you are physically distanced from each other.’
A waiter arrived to top up their wine glasses and departed as noiselessly as he came. Drinking deeply from the replenished glass, Rachel pondered Eric's theory. She supposed it was difficult for people to understand that she and Gary were made for each other and that the concept of life without him was too terrifying to contemplate. ‘I can't leave him,’ she stated, firmly.
Eric shrugged and carried on eating. A heavy silence lingered between them for the rest of the meal.
IN the car, bothered by the abiding tension, Rachel sneaked a look at Eric's glowering face. She couldn't understand why her refusal to leave her husband should have created such a strain on their ordinarily affable relationship. Eric drove wildly, narrowly missing kerbs, cutting corners, jerking the pedals so sharply that Rachel's seat belt tightened uncomfortably around her. Eventually, he pulled up at the corner, slammed on the brakes, hoisting the gear lever so hard that the ratchet squealed.
The woman ambled away, her head arched towards
Eric's hand shot out to stop her. ‘Don't go, Rachel.’
She regarded him in bewilderment. ‘What's up, Mr H?’ She had unwittingly reverted to the old abbreviation.
‘Dear girl, I must apologise.’
Rachel's hand went again to the button, and once more Eric caught her. ‘Hear me out, Rachel. I won't distress you further.’
‘If you're going to tell me to leave
‘I know that and I'm sorry for causing you such pain.’ Eric was crimson-faced as he carried on. ‘I'm an old man now but I'll always be here for you.’ Leaning on the steering wheel, he gave a shuddering sigh. ‘Whenever you're at your wits end and feel like talking, I will listen. Share your problems, so to speak. I will be your confidante. Ease your life a little, if you will allow it.’
Rachel's throat ached. Feeling utterly woeful, she released the belt and propelled herself out of the car door, stumbling to the pavement with her hand covering her mouth.
The situation was unreal. She wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. Most of all she wanted Eric to go away; she felt threatened by so much charitable concern. Returning her husband's salute, she bent her head and peered into the car. ‘Goodbye, Eric. Thanks for lunch.’ She ran off without giving him a chance to speak, though not before glimpsing the wretchedness on his face. ‘I'll ring him later,’ she muttered as she dashed blindly up the road.
CYNTHIA was at her desk when Rachel hurtled in. Pausing from the business of nail-shaping, she waved her emery board and demanded to know if there was a fire or something and should she send for the fire brigade.
‘You'll never guess what's happened.’
‘You've lost your dentures?’
‘I think Eric Hudspith's in love with me.’
Cynthia's eyes popped, her mouth flopped open, and specks of white saliva appeared in the corners.
Rachel thought she was having a fit. ‘Cynth?’
‘You are joking? Tell me you’re only joking.’
‘Straight up. He's gone all protective. Wants to be my confidante. He said he would always be there for me. Honest to God, I think he's in love with me.’
‘I don't believe it. Is that what all those lunches have been about? You'll have to watch him, Rach, he'll have your knickers off before you can blink.’
A lengthy discussion ensued on the reasoning behind Eric's offer of friendship: whether it was for his benefit or hers. Cynthia begged Rachel to consider the implications of having an old man as a mate, stating that in her view it was positively unhealthy. ‘He'll drop his trousers one of these days to cure your dilemma.’
In spite of herself, Rachel giggled.
‘Picture the scene,’ Cynthia said, recovering her sense of humour. ‘Skinny legs jutting out from baggy Y-fronts and suspenders holding up his socks.’ She guffawed uncontrollably at the ludicrous description, just as the tea-break whistle blew. Still chuckling, she fetched the kettle. ‘Shall I collect the water or do you want to see
‘He's gone to
‘I'll go then. I could do with the walk.’
‘By the way, Cynth,’ Rachel asked, before the door shut behind her friend. ‘Have you heard any gossip about Gary and me?’
FOLLOWING a meagre tea of bread and jam and feeling more isolated than ever, Rachel took Rex to the playing field. The frozen grass crunched beneath her walking boots. The street lights by the fence, misty in the cold gloom, seemed to highlight the silence, giving her the eerie impression that she was the only person at large in the world. She grew distinctly jumpy and got quite desperate to return home. Impatiently, she called the dog to heel. Obediently, Rex bounded up and posted himself at her left side. ‘Good boy. Come on, let's go home.’
She broke into a jog, maintaining a regular speed until they were safely at the front gate. She saw no-one on the entire journey and was not likely to until morning.
THE evening stretched ahead, as did every evening when
She couldn't settle with so much on her mind. The day's occurrences coursed through her head in rapid succession, sometimes jumbled up as one, sometimes stumbling over each other to procure some rational contemplation. In the end, it was the incident with Eric that nagged the most.
Sipping the steaming soup, she replayed the episode in the car, rehearsing the words he used in an attempt to console her.
I'm an old man now, but I'll always be here for you.
The alarm she felt had long gone; indeed, she was not sure why it was there in the first place. She had no right to tell Cynthia that he was in love with her … that was absolutely her own notion. The man was being kind, that's all. Thoughtful and benevolent. She felt discomfited for even listening to Cynthia's comic routine.
Whenever you're at your wits end, I'll be your confidante.
Lifting the mug to her lips, she stared through the rising steam, remembering the gruffness of Eric's voice, picturing his face, and the pain etched on it.
I'll always be here for you, dear girl.
Slowly sipping the soup, she reminded herself that he was only trying to help.
Share your problems. Ease your life a little.
Goodbye, Mr H.
The loneliness escalated. She felt lifeless, like a discarded fragment of sterile rag. All because she had misjudged a good friend! She castigated herself for her cruelty and wondered whatever made her believe the man fancied her.
Don't you ever wear a bra?
I'll make your life easier.
Picturing again the anguish on his face when she flung out of the car, she was aware of a frantic need to appease. Slamming the empty mug on the coffee table, she raced into the hall and picked up the phone, wavering for only a minute before dialling his number.
There was a hush at the other end.
She nearly hung up, but then Eric said, ‘Rachel. How nice.’
‘Can you talk.’
‘Of course, dear girl.’
‘Can we meet?’
‘Do you want to?’
‘I'll ring you. We can fix a time.’
‘Eric, if Cynthia ....’
‘Goodnight, dear girl.’
(to be continued)
22 January 2012
20 January 2012
19 January 2012
18 January 2012
'Cleave's heroine is by turns funny, sad, flawed, sympathetic, both damaged and indomitable, and triumphantly convincing.' (Sunday Telegraph)
The Sunday Telegraph was just one critique, others followed in the same vein. This is my view.
I’ve read that people found this story interesting and realistic but I’m afraid it wasn’t so with me. The main character didn’t inspire any sympathy or real emotion. The blurb on the back page which attracted me in the first place was this:
“You aren’t stupid.
You know there’s no such thing as a perfect mother. Plenty of other books will tell you there is but this one won’t lie to you.
I was weak and I cheated and I was punished but my god I loved my child through all of it. Love means you never break and it means you’re stronger than the things they do to you. I know this is true because I have been through fire and I am the proof that love survives.
I am not a perfect mother but I will tell you the perfect truth, because this is you and me talking. This is my story.”
The whole story is, in fact, a sometimes humorously written letter to Osama Bin Laden, because he was the cause of her predicament. It concerns the plight of the main character’s policeman husband and small son who were tragically killed when terrorists blew up a football ground; this while she was having sex with another man. The entire book is based on sex, sometimes crude, and her exploits left me wondering where her heart was. The boy becomes a tool in her life, an imaginary presence throughout the story. If she had shown some remorse for her actions I might have had more sympathy. As it was I was at first sympathetic, then irritated by everything she did.
Admittedly the idea for the book was clever although the characters were somewhat implausible.
The style of writing was unusual: no punctuation, or rather no commas, which made the narrator seem illiterate. Her style of speech also made me think she was not well educated. Certain phraseology gave me the impression that she was working class living in a working class area, yet her policeman husband and noted journalist neighbours (whose behaviour at times was beyond belief) were more middle than working class. In other words, none of it rang ring true.
Chris Cleave is an excellent writer of words and knows how to put a laugh into a tale. However, the chosen subject was too serious so I would have preferred a little less flippancy in the compilation. I shall probably try reading another of his books. But not yet.