Friends

29 November 2012

ALL DONE!

Yes, we’ve come to the end of the decorating, lounge, kitchen, hall and porch are now finished. Throughout it all I felt as if I was living in a municipal tip. Nothing was where it should be. I couldn’t find anything that was urgently needed ... when I wanted certain items I wanted them there and then, not in the middle of next week. Duh! It was all very frustrating.  And I was hell to live with. Nothing was right for me ... I’m lucky Joe didn’t chuck me out.

First to be done was the lounge, which meant finding a home for everything except the bigger furniture. That was uneventful as it turned out; putting it all back was the biggest hassle. I mean, we just aren’t experienced picture hangers and ornaments just didn’t look right in their usual places. Time for a rethink and a change!

We liked the spaced out leaves on this paper.
Picture is 3D decoupage, angels cut out from giftwrap. 
After a week’s grace, the guy returned to start on the kitchen. Oh Wow! Most of the counter top stuff ended up in my office, complete with all the cups and kettles needed to keep the decorator (and us) going, plus plates to eat off. As it turned out we only had to eat off the plates on the first day... the rest of the time we went out for a pub lunch. It felt like Saturday everyday!

Kitchen wallpaper.
Picture will be described on future post.
Close-up
Weighing it all up I’m not sure which bit of redecoration was the most inconvenient. Even the hall, which isn’t exactly littered with stuff, was a problem. There are so many doors, you see; rooms leading off plus a cloakroom made nine doors ... and you can bet your bottom dollar there was always some reason to go in every room. I bet the decorator was fed-up as well. I learned a new way of walking, arms hugged in front, skirts tucked between the knees, the only way I knew to avoid all that wet paint.

Hall paper.
Preserved leaves have since been removed!
It all looks very clean and fresh and for that I am truly grateful.

I didn’t realise I had so much stuff but, hey, what a perfect time to replace or dispose of things we’ve had for years. I’m one of those people who likes everything to hand when cooking, consequently there is a considerable amount of gadgets and utensils within easy reach that can also be classed as decoration. Well, not any more. I made a vow NOT to arrange pretty biscuit tins on the tops of cupboards, NOT to litter the lovely windowsill with ornaments and plants, NOT to hang flower baskets, or ornamental fruits, or strings of imitation onions. Hmmm the next decorating job should be a doddle if I manage to keep all those vows. Help, what am I saying ... WHAT decorating job! OVER MY DEAD BODY! 

27 November 2012

A SUMMER CHILL, CHAPTER 15

Brian kicked the door with his heel and waited for the latch to click before moving away. He dumped his bags of groceries on a wooden shoe chest and sank wearily beside them. He massaged his inflamed palms where the plastic handles had dug in. The pain was searing. Shopping was not a favourite pastime. In fact, it was an expedition he would avoid if he had the choice. He had bought enough today to save making repetitive journeys for mundane items and having constantly to work out which were Audrey's half-days.

Manipulating his knuckles, he sighed at the loss of bygone days when he popped in the store for the sheer pleasure of seeing her. For a minute or two he allowed himself to reconstruct the happiness she tried and failed to hide whenever he walked in; she, too, replete with the previous night's lovemaking, but not wanting the whole village to know. Those former joys were so inbred that he only had to close his eyes and he could almost hear her wonderful giggle, catch the exquisite scent of her body. He sniffed the air as if to catch it now and so rapt was he that the first creak of floorboards was lost somewhere in the recesses of subconscious. But the second thundered into his mind like an ambitious bullet finding its mark. It came from upstairs. Wood thudding against wood, followed by the squeak of the loose board on the landing which he meant to fix and never got round to. Whoever was up there had gone in and come out of the guest room.
           
Too quickly, forgetting where he was, he shot up. The plastic bags collapsed, tins and jars clattered onto the quarry tiles, making enough din to give skeletons a headache. Instinctively creeping, he went to the foot of the stairs, paused to take stock. Should he rush up, or lie in wait? Deciding on the latter, he held his breath and sneaked round the balustrade. The noise came again. Brian was conscious of a figure emanating like an apparition from the upper floor's shadows. He looked towards it and was flabbergasted to see David on the landing, ready to descend; clutching what looked like a dinner plate in his hand.
           
'Hello, Dad.' David Porter's white trainers flashed as he ran lightly to ground level, his dark, lank hair flying at an angle to his neck.
           
After the shock of seeing his son, and an accompanying feeling of foolishness for tiptoeing round like an overzealous cop, Brian's greeting, though not hostile, was definitely on the cool side. He strove to comprehend why David was there. In his absence, the boy would have let himself in with his key and he might have gone to piss in the bathroom, but the route there avoided completely the insecure floorboard, not forgetting the fact that apart from bathroom requirements there was no need at all to go upstairs. Fleetingly, Brian regretted giving him the key. He had provided it under pressure from Maggie who felt the boys should be allowed to infiltrate their parents' homes without having to be invited. Against his greater judgement, principally for the sake of peace, he had given in.

Still puzzling over the reason for the unexpected visit, Brian piled the shopping on the ancient hall-stand. Had it been Malcolm up there he would have challenged him for an explanation, but he had long ago ceased to question his eldest son. He preferred not being on the receiving end of his vindictiveness. David seldom dropped by, professing in his supercilious fashion to dislike the obscure memories which came to life whenever he saw familiar things. So why was he here? And how would he like it if all and sundry paid unsolicited sojourns to his tawdry apartment.
           
'I took this off the wall,' David said, breaking into his father's abstracted musing on the wisdom of trusting shiftless kids. He was holding a silver shield, an old school prize earned by completing an orienteering course. 'I'm afraid it's left a white patch on the paper.'
           
Much as he would have liked to, Brian couldn't complain about David taking his own property, though he was more than a little curious about why he wanted it now.
           
'It's nice to see you,' David said.
           
That'll be the day, thought Brian as he carried the bags to the kitchen. He was aware of his ungracious judgment yet unable to change his view. Notwithstanding, he quashed the sentiment and fractionally softened his voice when he invited his son to take coffee.

*******
           
David shrugged off his black windcheater and draped it on a chair, then rolled the sleeves of his white shirt as if preparing for a fight. 'Don't forget, no sugar.'
           
He's as skinny as ever, Brian noted, spooning coffee into two beakers, but he made no comment. David was old enough to take care of himself. If he didn't, then he just had himself to blame. He filled the mugs with hot water, and decided it would be wiser not to interfere. It would only provoke David's anger and produce one of his distressing tantrums. He carried the mugs to the table, where David was closely vetting the shield, scratching it here and there with his fingernail and breathing on the inscription before rubbing it with the corner of the tablecloth. By design, Brian ignored his cheek. 'It's not real silver, you know, if you were thinking of selling it?'
           
'I want it for my wall.'
           
'You could have asked.'
           
'I know,' David said, a hint of skittishness showing through.
           
David rented a small lock-up shop in a sleazy alleyway in Redhampton, not far from his two-bedroom apartment. He sold second hand goods, furnishings, silver and jewellery. No garments, for he believed them to be untouchable habits of either the luckless or the dead. Brian found the place distasteful. He was repelled by the smell which he likened to an inhabited grave. Though recognising that decent money could be made from dealing in unwanted chattels, he couldn't help feeling it was a waste of good education.
           
Elbows on the table, hands clasped round the body of the mug, David slurped his coffee. His resemblance to his mother was uncanny, particularly those amazingly beautiful eyes and thick lashes. Brian wondered if his countenance would be less feminine if he had inherited the Porter features rather than Maggie's - like Malcolm had, and he was all right. From the number of on-off romances he enjoyed, his sex life would appear to be thoroughly normal.
           
The silence was getting on his nerves but Brian didn't know how to end it, so he slit open a packet of biscuits and offered it. David's flaccid wrist action as he selected one, and the way the little finger stood rigid, reinforced Brian's belief that he would never get used to his son's lifestyle. A single man, now thirty, David had never had a serious liaison with a girl. Short lived affairs with students were soon abandoned for the company of young, attractive men. Brian saw him once in town, holding his paramour's hand like lovers do. He was so disgusted he hurried away in the opposite direction, fearing he might disgorge his breakfast or whatever meal had preceded that repellent spectacle.
           
'I roamed round a bit while I was waiting,' David said, without unveiling even a trace of guilt. 'That snap of Malcolm and me, was it taken at Blackpool?'
           
'Which snap? There's two.'
           
'The one in the silver frame on the mantelpiece. Him on the donkey. Was it taken at Blackpool?'
           
'Yes.'
           
'And the plaster figure of a boy archer which Malcolm won at the fair, was that the same year?'
           
'I think so.'
           
Brian recalled that fair: colourful, gay and deafening. Maggie had been terrified on the waltzers, especially when the attendant spun their car for an additional thrill. Out of the blue, Brian was gripped by nostalgia and the longing for a sight of the past sent him scuttling to fetch a box of old snapshots which he could never bring himself to destroy.
           
The single stone in David's signet ring sparkled as he riffled the jumbled heap. Choosing one of Malcolm toddling along Menorca's huge marina, he said, 'I was thinking about dear brother earlier.' He tossed back a lock of hair. 'Remember the miniature helter-skelter we had in the yard? I can still hear him crying because he was too scared to let go. I pushed him extra hard once and he squawked all the way. That gave him a something to cry about.'
           
'You two never got on,' observed Brian. He was examining a picture of his sons, aged two and four: Malcolm on a blanket, happily holding a beach ball, David glowering behind him. 'I hoped the bond would improve when you grew up. I assumed when he moved in you'd outgrown your differences.' Malcolm had shared David's home for eight months, but after a massive argument he returned to live with their mother.
           
Instead of answering, David studied a snap of his parents posing in Brighton, thoughtfully inverting it to look for a date. 'I get an impression of angry words when I look at this. Hadn't you been there previously?'
           
There had indeed been a veritable reservoir of angry words. Brian had been there on a prior occasion, with Audrey, for a sinful weekend they dubbed sex in the sun. Without thinking he had let slip a local snippet which he ought not to have known and on which Maggie had pounced as if unearthing a jewel from the sand. The ensuing bitter quarrel took months to overcome.
           
David sauntered to the window and, with his back to Brian, he said, 'Do you rendezvous with Mum when you go into town?'
           
It was a mystifying query considering the numerous years since the divorce. Brian wondered, as he took a crushed pack of cigarettes from his pocket, why David had asked. He took his time lighting up. 'We bump into each other periodically,' he said, wafting the blue smoke with his hand. 'In the supermarket, mostly. We've had coffee there a few times.'
           
David came back and straddled the seat, blowing away a circle of smoke. 'She's lonely, and frightfully unhappy,' he said, twisting his hair round his fingers. 'She doesn't ever say so, but I know she is. It's my opinion she misses the nooky. I thought if you went to see her ....'
           
'There's nothing I can do about it,' Brian exclaimed, utterly horrified that David should even mention his mother's personal inclinations. 'As for being lonely, that's bloody poppycock. She's got plenty of friends, as well as your do-gooding aunts. I presume they're still around. And Malcolm's there to keep an eye on her.'
           
'Him! He couldn't help himself let alone Mum.'
           
The remark was uncalled for, no matter what their relationship. Brian fiercely defended his second son. 'Your brother's regard for your mother's welfare is commendable. He does everything for her.' Grinding the half smoked cigarette in the ashtray, he added, 'She doesn't have to lift a finger.'
           
A rising high colour indicated David's annoyance. 'Not like when you were married to her, eh?' He slammed his hand on the table. 'She had to do everything then. You were never there. Supposed to be working.' His voice conveyed resentment. He stabbed Brian's hand with his finger and growled, 'You forced the situation on her. You owe her a little support.'
           
Altogether confounded by this attack, and especially the unforeseen change in David's attitude, Brian fiddled with the metal ashtray, viciously shovelling ash into a heap with the squashed nub, desperately needing to repossess his composure and not show that he was riled. 'What are you trying to do, Dave?'
           
David got to his feet and stared down at his father, the sudden emotional flare-up apparently subsiding. 'I didn't mean to get on my high horse. It's just that I worry about Mum's mental state. Malcolm ...' Seeing Brian was about to interrupt, he held up his hand. 'Let me finish. Malcolm's capital with physical jobs, but he doesn't understand her psychological needs.' And with that peculiar statement, he snatched up his coat and slung it casually over one shoulder, saying, 'I'd better go.'
           
Lulled into a sense of sentimentality, Brian ignored David's extended hand and pulled him close, completely forgetting for a moment the discrepancy of genes. The fleeting contact was like drowning beneath a pounding breaker of mushrooming embarrassment and the force with which they shoved each other away signified that the devastating experience was mutual.
           
At the front door, though keeping his distance, Brian made a last attempt at fellowship. 'I didn't see the motor when I came in. D'you want a lift?'
           
There was no comment about the car nor gratitude for the offer. All David said was, 'I'd rather use the bus.' At the gate he stopped. 'By the way,' he sneered, returning to the vitriolic style his father loathed. 'I like the photo.'
           
'Which one?' There were so many.
           
'The bitch by your bed.' The venom in David's utterance was odious, but his malice wasn't sated for, as he twisted on his heel and strode away, he scurrilously yelled, 'Man's best friend, she who only fucks married men, the one who pinched you off my mother.'
           
Solidly stupefied, Brian started to chase after him, but David was too quick. He was out of sight before he reached the gate. Brian stood there, surveying the empty road, knowing it would be futile to try and catch him up. Though he was stronger and could easily crush David, he was responsibly aware that battles were never won with fists. And he reluctantly admitted that David's command of scathing language was far too vigorous for him to compete with. He went into the house and crashed the door so hard that a vase toppled from the adjacent sill. It hurtled to the floor. He disregarded it, went instead for the whisky, gulping it in one before racing upstairs to check on Audrey's picture. It was in its rightful position, facing the bed, not mutilated as he had feared it might be. He ran his forefinger over her lips, outlining the welcoming smile. 'He won't get away with maligning you,' he said. 'I'll see him in hell first.'

*******

Armed with a glass brimming with scotch, Brian slumped in his armchair and agonised over all aspects of the visit. Nothing would have been achieved by explaining that he and Audrey were no longer a twosome, even supposing David had a right to know. Taking a long swallow, he threw his leg over the chair's arm. Thanks to David he was now encompassed in a low spirited hopelessness which was akin to grief after death.

(to be continued)

26 November 2012

Monday Mirth



Two blondes walk into a building ... you’d think at least one of them would have seen it.


 

Phone answering machine message:  'If you want to buy marijuana, press the hash key...'



 
A new book has confirmed a theory that I first proposed in 1987, in a column explaining why men are physically unqualified to do housework.

The problem, I argued, is that men -- because of a tragic genetic flaw -- cannot see dirt until there is enough of it to support agriculture. This puts men at a huge disadvantage against women, who can detect a single dirt molecule 20 feet away. This is why a man and a woman can both be looking at the same bathroom commode, and the man -- hindered by Male Genetic Dirt Blindness (MGDB) -- will perceive the commode surface as being clean enough for heart surgery or even meat slicing; whereas the woman can't even see the commode, only a teeming, commode-shaped swarm of bacteria.

A woman can spend two hours cleaning a toothbrush holder and still not be totally satisfied; whereas if you ask a man to clean the entire New York City subway system, he'll go down there with a bottle of Windex and a single paper towel, then emerge 25 minutes later, weary but satisfied with a job well done.

When I wrote about Male Genetic Dirt Blindness, many irate readers complained that I was engaging in sexist stereotyping, as well as making lame excuses for the fact that men are lazy pigs. All of these irate readers belonged to a gender that I will not identify here, other than to say: Guess what, ladies? There is now scientific proof that I was right. This proof appears in a new book titled "What Could He Be Thinking? How a Man's Mind Really Works".

I have not personally read this book, because, as a journalist, I am too busy writing about it. But according to an article by Reuters, the book states that a man's brain "takes in less sensory detail than a woman's, so he doesn't see or even feel the dust and household mess in the same way." Got that? We can't see or feel the mess! We're like: "What snow tires in the dining room? Oh, those snow tires in the dining room.''. And this is only one of the differences between men's and women's brains.

Another difference involves a brain part called the "cingulate gyrus" which is the sector where emotions are located. The Reuters article does not describe the cingulate gyrus, but presumably in women it is a structure the size of a mature cantaloupe, containing a vast quantity of complex, endlessly re-calibrated emotional data involving hundreds, perhaps thousands of human relationships; whereas in men it is basically a cashew filled with NFL highlights.

In any event, it turns out that women's brains secrete more of the chemicals "oxytocin" and "serotonin", which, according to biologists, cause humans to feel they have an inadequate supply of shoes. No, seriously, these chemicals cause humans to want to bond with other humans, which is why women like to share their feelings. Some women (and here I am referring to my wife) can share as many as three days' worth of feelings about an event that took eight seconds to actually happen.

We men, on the other hand, are reluctant to share our feelings, in large part because we often don't have any. Really. Ask any guy: A lot of the time, when we look like we're thinking, we just have this low-level humming sound in our brains. That's why, in male-female conversations, the male part often consists entirely of him going "hmmmm." This frustrates the woman, who wants to know what he's really thinking. In fact, what he's thinking is, literally, "hmmmm."

So anyway, according to the Reuters article, when a man, instead of sharing feelings with his mate, chooses to lie on the sofa, holding the remote control and monitoring 750 television programs simultaneously by changing the channel every one-half second (pausing slightly longer for programs that feature touchdowns, fighting, shooting, car crashes or bosoms) his mate should not come to the mistaken conclusion that he is an insensitive jerk. In fact, he is responding to scientific biological brain chemicals that require him to behave this way for scientific reasons, as detailed in the scientific book "What Could He Be Thinking? How a Man's Mind Really Works", which I frankly cannot recommend highly enough.



25 November 2012

Sunday Scenes from Vigo

This is Vigo

Peaceful, warm and, yes, wonderful
Shot taken from the coach
Don't ask ... it's just a passing shot!
This and the following are shots from the coach.



And, of course. the inevitable crane ... there's always one!

23 November 2012

Family Relics

Many years ago hubs and I lived in a huge 5 bedroomed house with stained glass windows, a staircase more suited to a crinolined lady, and a huge hall with a picture shelf all the way round. It was on that shelf that I displayed my collection of glass bottles, all shapes and sizes, ages, and colours. They were fun to collect, not so much fun to keep clean! If we saw a village market I just had to stop and see if any ancient bottles were for sale.

However, the collection had to be curtailed when we moved to a bungalow which was fairy-like compared to the big house. Nowadays it is known as downsizing.  As years rolled by the assortment of bottles diminished, some were broken and some given away until I was left with a few miniature relics of days gone by.

Having a house decorated does wonders for sorting out ones belongings and that’s how I came to study six of those relics. So the question arose ... chuck or not to chuck? The answer was ... No. Here's the six items in question. 

Mackenzie Smelling Salts
Original Bovril Bottle
 A very old medicine bottle (with measurements)
A bottle of Venos lightning cough cure 
A small bottle of Spike Lavender oil made by Boots, the Chemist, with some oil still inside.
Original Eye Bath
Two items, smelling salts and Spike Lavender, had belonged to my aunt, sadly no longer with us, and to discard them would be like removing her presence from my memory. So I made them into a display piece, gluing each item into a wooden box I just happened to have. It once contained packs of herbal and fruit teas, a gift from Australia, and was exactly the right size to hold a few vestiges of the past.
What do you think?


22 November 2012

TEA FOR TWO, PART 4 (repeat)

George was feeding a gaggle of Canada geese and talking reassuringly whenever one ventured to take the bread from his hand. He obviously discounted the steady drizzle for his soft-felt hat was squashed into the pocket of his Barber jacket. Much good will that do him, Gentle thought, as she huddled into her paisley umbrella. Leaving the path, she stepped across the grass to where George was shooing the geese away.
           
'That's all, boys and girls,' he said, bestowing Gentle with a sheepish grin. 'Hello, m'dear. Wasn't sure you'd wander out on such a miserable day, especially after my discourteous exodus.'
           
In spite of Gentle's determination to keep her cool, she thrust her hand in her pocket to bring out the grey wallet. Stitches popped as she wrenched it out.
           
'Brilliant,' George exclaimed. 'You found the wallet. I couldn't think what had happened to it. Didn't realise I'd left it behind. Thought I'd lost it in the bank, but the manager said not. At least he said no-one had handed it in.'
           
An unbearable wave of disquiet circulated Gentle's internal system. There was no question it was Gilbert Mellish's wallet; the initials confirmed it. So what was George doing with it? George was holding out his hand, palm upwards, waiting for her to hand it over. Idiotically, she thought how deeply-etched his life-line was and how red the flesh embedding the shank of a gold signet ring.
           
'Are you all right, m'dear?'
           
By degrees, Gentle's wits returned. Indubitably, there was a lucid explanation. 'I thought it belonged to Gilbert Mellish,' she said, offering the wallet. 'He was ... is my benefactor. There was a photograph of you. I thought ...'
           
George reddened, and there was a lull so intense that Gentle thought his malady had recurred. 'It looks as if I have been found out,' he said, and Gentle was surprised to see him grinning. He plucked the photographs from the wallet and leafed through until he came to the one of him. Perusing it briefly, he inserted it behind the one of the woman and child. He pressed his lips firmly together as though subduing an additional comment.
           
Gentle was exhaustively flummoxed. She tilted the umbrella and tested the air with her hand. The rain had stopped. A military jet streaked through the sky, observed by children in a nearby school-yard. It was home-time for them. They knew where their homes were. Gentle wasn't so sure. She wasn't convinced of anything any more.
           
George stowed the prints in the wallet and snapped it shut. Thoughtfully, he contemplated Gentle as if deliberating what to say, while Gentle furled the umbrella and endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to envisage what the eventual upshot would be.
           
George confessed: 'My real name is Gilbert Mellish. Gilbert George Mellish.'
           
The stunned silence that succeeded the extraordinary pronouncement was eventually broken by Gentle's belated gasp. Her umbrella thudded to the ground. So dumbfounded was she that she could not speak. She simply gawked.
           
'I hoped you would never find out.'
           
'Why?' she whispered, meaning why did he give her the house, but George thought she was responding to his last statement and he replied that, rightly or wrongly, he had reckoned it in her best interests not to know.
           
'Come,' he said, examining the dull sky. 'Let's take shelter before the next deluge. He picked up the paisley umbrella, took her arm, and escorted her to the deserted bandstand. It smelled damp. Puddles lay where rain had filtrated the punctured tarpaulin cover. The floor was littered with sweet papers, ice cream cups, and a pizza box. A baby's pink bootee was wedged in the rails. The perimeter bench was cluttered with crushed Carlsberg cans and George had to dispose of them before they could sit down.
           
IT WAS AT THAT DESOLATE SITE THAT GENTLE APPLEYARD'S ENTIRE EXISTENCE WAS PULVERISED AND REBUILT, THE SCRIPT REWRITTEN WITH A CHANGE OF CHARACTERS. IT CAME TO LIGHT THAT GILBERT GEORGE MELLISH, ALIAS GEORGE TENSING, HAD A BIGGER ROLE TO PLAY IN GENTLE'S LIFE THAN SHE COULD EVER HAVE GUESSED.
           
George had got to know Gentle's parents at a local youth club. They played table tennis and participated in tournaments. Matilda had been the strongest player and pretty soon outdistanced her artistic boy friend. She progressed to champion level, but did not win a title. Her head at that time was filled with ideas of betrothal and her concentration lapsed. She was unable to resist the attentions of the handsome academic.
           
'Seems like a hundred years, looking back,' George said. 
           
Gentle listened intently, unaware that she was corkscrewing her handkerchief, damp now from continual swabbing of raindrops in her hair. She did not interrupt. She was anxious for details of her parents' early lives, for neither had shown an inclination to air their past. Both were unresponsive to their children's curiosity. It was as though mortality had not commenced until they met. They were orphans, she knew that; they met in an orphanage in Birmingham. Perhaps that was why they didn't recount their exploits, or describe their romance, or spoke of friends, electing to forget the lamentable events.
           
'We lost touch when I went abroad,' George said. 'India. Five years, sketching the scenery and the people. Remiss of me not to ....' He broke off as two breathless juveniles appeared at the entrance, piloted by a heaving Alsatian puppy on a well-chewed lead.
           
'Sorry, mister,' the tallest boy said, intimidated by George's menacing glare. 'Majorette wanted a pickle.'
           
'Well, take Majorette elsewhere. There's enough moisture in here without adding more.' George winked at Gentle as the boys were led sharply away by the rumbustious hound. 'Majorette indeed. Ridiculous name for an animal. So, where was I?'
           
At Gentle's prompting, he continued his account. 'George and Matilda were married by the time I returned,' he said, wincing as he said it. He fell silent, hanging his head as if ashamed. 'I shouIdn't be discussing them with you.'
           
Gentle urged him to go on.
           
'They weren't as happy as one would have expected them to be considering how ardent they'd been at the start of their engagement.'
           
Gentle reflected on her parents' unhappiness, hearing once more the nocturnal arguments. Separately, they portrayed as kind, tolerant, and caring parents, leastwise to the outside world, but those characteristics could only be attributed to her mother. At other times, one sensed the sparks waiting to ignite. To their merit, they struggled to sustain near-normal behaviour so that the children would not be affected, maintaining an atmosphere so harmonious that no outsider would suspect anything was amiss. That was daytime. At night, things went terribly wrong. That was when, in the seclusion of their own space, their disputes ricocheted like exploding shells. That was when, converged in gloomy recesses, Gentle and her brothers encountered the qualms of insecurity. Notwithstanding, regardless of their trepidation and revulsion, Gentle and the boys respected their father and adored their mother. That's why their deaths were so painful.
           
With echoes of the past occupying her mind, Gentle missed a lot of George's nostalgic narration and by the time she tuned in he was reminiscing about the dinner he laid on for Matilda's birthday. 'I gave her a brooch. A butterfly. She prized it like it was a crown jewel. How radiant she looked when she opened the box. Her hair gleamed in the candlelight. The shawl collar of her chiffon dress encircled her throat like a soft cloud.' George moaned at the memory. 'She gave me permission to pin the butterfly to her lapel. I thought I would go insane with affection for her.'
           
'Where was this, George?'
           
'Why, at home, m'dear. Tensing House.'
           
A presentiment took shape in Gentle's overactive imagination, an inkling that it was because of her mother she had been given the house. Restraining herself from babbling, and willing now to receive whatever clarification came, she enquired if it was on account of her mother that he entrusted the house to her.
           
'I gave you the house, m'dear, to salve my conscience, because you are your mother's child. I would have provided for her and her family if she would have allowed it, but she dreaded the disgrace. No matter that your father's knowledge of her disloyalty converted him to a brute, or that he beat her unmercifully, she perceived that her children's innocence was of paramount importance.'
           
Finding the revelation distressing, Gentle twisted away and peered through the sheeting rain. A courting couple were canoodling by a broad oak, heedless of the inclement weather. What a pity her mother had not seen fit to turn a blind eye to her principles, thought Gentle, wondering how she hadn't discerned that she was a victim of domestic violence, or even that her mother had a paramour. Nor had she grasped the worthiness of her values. Gentle wrapped her arms around her body, swaying slightly as she embraced the dawn of understanding, and recognized the forfeits her mother paid. She had trodden a principled path in her denial of love and all for the sake of moral standards. Gentle challenged her mother's prudence in enduring beatings when a man like George abided in the wings, a man who idolised her, who would have comforted and sheltered her, and cherished her to the end of time.
           
Gentle's imagination was operating at such a pace she was losing the thread of George's revelations and missing significant details. The picture was almost complete, but she needed to backtrack, to the year her mother's birthday was celebrated in Tensing House. She swung round and asked. 'When was the birthday dinner? Was it long before she died?' She was thinking about poor baby Caroline.'
           
'Oh no, m'dear. It was forty-four years ago. The year before you were born.'
           
Confounded by the startling announcement and totally unprepared for its implication, Gentle was devoid of rational speech. She could only gape in astonishment. She'd had the notion that Caroline was his daughter, instead it seemed... Gentle swallowed. This was a new slant. It suggested that her creation was due to him and not the man who raised her. An echo of shouted words ascended from the past, when she and her brothers were sheltering in the dark, quietly querying what their father meant when he labelled their mother a whore, and why he was ordering her to pack her bags and go to her fancy man. And mother, exhausted by the years of bickering, insisting she would not leave the kids; and father, refusing to let them go. And the subsequent screams, their father bellowing, for some strange reason, his own name: George. Bloody George.
           
Gradually, as recollection faded, Gentle returned to consciousness. George was indulgently contemplating her.
           
'Are you telling me…'
           
'Yes, m'dear.'
           
'You are ... my father?'
           
'Yes, m'dear.' 
           
That night, while sipping a beaker of hot chocolate, George's leather-bound chronicles abandoned beside her on a mulberry chaise longue, Gentle finally admitted that, subconsciously, she had known from their first meeting that they were related. The fire was ebbing, the last fragment of charred timber ready to cave-in. Great-grandfather Mellish smiled benevolently from his gilt frame. The clock intruded on the quietness, its minute finger thumping around the hour, interrupted periodically by a faltering blip on the six. As an accompaniment, someone's car alarm rang out. The lounge was lit by a single lamp, ample to read by without disturbing George, who was dozing in the fireside chair. A velvet cushion supported his head. She had covered his knees with a tartan travel rug in case his slumbers deepened. He was worn out and no wonder, having borne the burden of confession that should have been endured by her mother. Gentle had begged him to stay, and they laughed when she did. Enjoining a man to stay in his own house had seemed hilarious. He had a singular sense of humour. He didn't deserve to have been so unfairly rejected.
           
Noiselessly, she slithered from her seat and kneeled alongside him, reaching up to stroke the edge of his beard. A whit more silky growth and he could play the part of Saint Nick and deliver gifts at Christmas. But his gift to her, the gift of belonging, could never be equalled or accepted so emotionally. Gentle searched his countenance, scanning the laughter lines and the minor imperfections: liver spots and a tiny scar on his brow. The affinity was so strong, so vibrant, it was surprising he didn't wake and catch her out.
           
She was thrilled with him. It was as if the other George, her pseudo Dad, had not existed. She wished her brothers could have known him. They, like her, would not have deduced that he had sired the entire Appleyard stock. What would they have said if they had known? Peter, the noisy one, often conceded his disgust for their father's arguing and yelling, sometimes mimicking the seething rages so well that Gentle fretted they could become immutable. Graham was a mystery, quiet and uncomplaining. Outwardly reacting as if the situation was ordinary family conduct, except that Gentle habitually heard him crying in the confines of his room. Caroline, poor mite, hadn't had the chance to learn any of it.
           
Returning to her seat, Gentle cupped her beaker and sipped the chocolate, letting the steam drift up her face. She lowered her eyelids and mused about her family, whose ghosts had taken alternative identities. Mother: a sweetheart and a mistress; siblings: all bastards; and father: a barbarous impostor. Primarily, Gentle understood his attitude. He must have thought the assaults were justified even though, according to George, the marriage was never consummated. Equally, she appreciated that her mother's frustration had driven her into George's arms. That she worshipped him there was no doubt, she had gleaned that from George's diaries, each entry infused with elements of rapture and delight, passion and enchantment, and the melodrama that accompanied each welcome birth - barring Caroline who died with her mother, she, too, a victim of George Appleyard's brutality.
           
Gentle drained the last mouthful of chocolate and selected another diary. The only one in white leather. Raising the cover, she saw more photographs of her grandparents and George in his knickerbockers. There was also a duplicate portrayal of the woman and child. She extricated it from the protective film and turned it over. A dedication was penned in black ink. At the foot, a squiggly arrow had been inserted to draw attention to a block of kisses the size of a postage stamp, below which was written: To dearest Bertie, with all our love, Matilda and Gentle. The date was Gentle's first birthday. With tears in her eyes, she looked at George and saw that he had stirred. He was smiling, and his smile depicted a contented soul, personifying a man who had, at last, achieved his rightful place in his daughter's heart. 

THE END

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)