Grateful cries ricocheted round the houses as the deluge started. Brian's neighbours, sheltering beneath colourful umbrellas, scurried to relocate their potted plants. It struck him as farcical but then he was not keen on cultivating things in pots or messing with associated chores. He sympathised with Ron, though, striving to unstick the lid of his water butt and getting wetter than a seal.
Brian had knocked a day off work on account of his acutely fragile head, the booze in his system having spent the whole night ravaging his insides. No matter how careful he'd been not to effect nonessential movements the pain had substantially worsened. He had indulged in two mint flavoured mouthwashes before daring to check his appearance in the bathroom mirror. The unkempt vision that stared back was appalling, the furry tongue, skin the colour of parchment, pupils like pinheads making him look older than ninety. Avoiding breakfast altogether, he had swallowed three Paracetamol and rung Chris to report sick.
Now marginally revived, leastways sufficiently to undertake a couple of chores, he went upstairs and contemplated the unmade divan, hearing again the vague overhead vibrations which had disturbed him in the night, indistinct noises issuing from somewhere in the loft. He frequently heard scrapings and rustlings which he attributed to either wind in the eaves or the fire escape steps, which had shifted slightly during a gusty spring storm. Yet another critical job he should have done and hadn't got round to. He ought to investigate, but today was not a good time for muddling through a filthy loft or swinging through a hatch designed to cater for more streamlined hips. Tomorrow, if he remembered, he would definitely explore.
Making a mental note to borrow Ron's ladder, he returned his attention to the paisley-patterned duvet which he appeared to have utilised as a tent. The valance sheet resembled a dust cover and two feather pillows had cleverly relocated to the bottom board. By that he knew he'd drunk too much the night before. For some reason he'd never been able to comprehend, excessive consumption of spirits led to nights of energetic wriggling, sometimes inducing a complete head-to-toe turnaround, sometimes causing him to dispense with the bed and sleep on the floor. Looking at the state of things now, it was hardly surprising his head was pounding like a hammer drill.
His weak behaviour so vexed him that he yanked the quilt violently to the floor; and Audrey's gilt-framed picture went with it. Instantaneously, he concealed his gaping mouth with his hand, reminiscent of childhood poses when breakages were criminal. He stooped to rescue the frame, whistling faintly on finding it unmarked. He tried to avoid the chatty eyes which looked directly at the photographer, arm outstretched as though to communicate a rare titbit. Audrey's expression was so incredulous that he had often tried to think up a caption, and sometimes got a bit narked when he enviously reasoned that if he'd been the one holding the camera, he would've known what she wanted to say. It was the only thing in the relationship that riled, but he never let it show.
He thumped the pillows and tossed them to their rightful spot, then hurled the duvet back on the bed completely disregarding the rumpled sheet. Task concluded, he opened the window to rid the room of the rank, bad breath kind of smell before gathering together the weekly wash.
Ten minutes later, with his jutting chin on top of a mountainous bundle of towels, he felt for the top stair with his toe, hugged the banister with his right hip and elbow, and blindly started to descend. Halfway down he stopped. He'd heard what sounded like a latchkey in the door. He stood motionless, dropping all towels bar the one he held in his left hand. Kicking them to one side, he gripped the rail and was about to take a further step when the key twisted in the lock. At that point he fused with the wall and glued his eyes on the gradually creaking door.
David Porter peered cautiously into the hallway.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?' Brian's sharp cry sounded hollow in the confines of the staircase. Every furious enunciation seemed to bounce off the plastered walls and penetrate his aching head.
Airily, David stuck his thumbs into the pockets of his slacks and sauntered to the foot of the stairs, one defiant eyebrow raised as he regarded his father. 'I've come to collect a letter,' he said, glancing towards the living room. 'I dropped it in there.'
Seeing that he was intent on going in, Brian sprinted down to waylay him. 'Say again!'
Slowly and deliberately, as if Brian was an imbecile who needed things precisely explained, David repeated the information. 'I lost a letter, father. Last time I was here.'
Brian rammed the door, a big mistake since it was already slightly ajar. His anger increased as he zoomed clownishly through. Fighting to conserve his cool, he steadied himself and said, 'If you'd rung first you could've saved yourself a journey. There's nothing here that belongs to you.' Crunching fragments of glass into the carpet, the forgotten residue of the drunken binge, he crossed to the centre of the room and wielded one arm. 'See? Nothing!'
Was there ever?
Disbelievingly, he watched David search the shelves and look under cushions. When he went to open the bureau drawer a fresh parcel of annoyance split open. 'For Christ's sake,' he bellowed. 'It's not in there.'
'You could've put it in.'
Brian's lips narrowed with fury. 'What is it with you? You come here unannounced and interfere with my property. God knows where you got the idea you can do what you bloody like in my absence.'
David rolled his eyeballs. 'I wouldn't touch your belongings with tin gloves.'
Indignantly, Brian towelled the sweat from his brow and the nape of his neck. If he persisted in bartering words like this he would lose control and spoil David's good looks forever. Unable to endure any more of his son's acerbity, Brian told him, in that threatening tone for which the policeman in him was famed, 'Get out, before I kick you out.' The final words were uttered so treacherously that David, for once, departed without issuing one of his notoriously astringent remarks.
Audrey was unable to curb a crippling restlessness. Matthew's stint of letter-writing in the privacy of his room had produced an oppressive silence and she had zero to occupy her. Routine duties were done. There was no need to cook until evening. In fact, there were no demands on her time whatsoever. She was a free bird. She could dance the Highland Fling on the front lawn or pirouette naked in the road. No-one would know. The more patrolling she did, the more redundant she felt.
Taking a volume of short stories from the bookcase she sat on the settee to read but it was impossible to concentrate in the dragging hush. After running through the same paragraph a dozen times she slammed the book shut. Her nerves were tangled with discontent. Immobilised by torpor, she gazed into space until, seeking solace from her music, she slotted the Sibelius into the recorder. For once the beloved melody failed to render its customary contentment. With an exaggerated sigh she switched it off.
Eventually, concluding that she would be better off outside, she went into the hall and exchanged her mules for low-heeled, strappy sandals. Throwing a grey cardigan round her shoulders, she put her keys in her pocket and left the house.
Reciprocating Audrey's wave, Gerald Tomlin paused wearily by the gate as if he was taxed by many problems. It'll be Liz, she thought, remembering the free-for-all at one o'clock that morning. She's well on the road to driving the poor man crazy. Smiling her greeting, Audrey enquired as to his welfare.
Gerald responded with a gloved hand partially masking his lower face so that all she got was a distorted mumble. She believed he said he wasn't too bad considering, but not wanting to be implicated in any way she didn't pursue it. Just because they were neighbours didn't mean she should show interest in their matrimonial disorders. She inwardly commiserated but that was as far as it went. Her chief concern was for Vera and, so long as no harm befell her, Liz could harangue her husband to her heart's content.
From behind his hand Gerald queried the remaining duration of Matthew's vacation.
She confessed to being reluctant to calculate the outstanding days since Matthew had only recently arrived. 'It would,' she said, 'be like wishing him gone.'
Grunting as if to intimate that her remark was foolish, Gerald's hand moved a fraction and Audrey spotted the livid bruise he had been so careful to secrete. He averted his head when he saw her inquisitive inspection. Growling that he needed to make haste he rushed up Arbor Road like a man with fire in his boots. Watching him go, she was unexpectedly thankful she didn't have to endure the tribulations of domestic disharmony. Even supposing she and Brian had continued their affair she could never have despised him enough to land him one on the chin.
The headache had been substituted by a churning stomach which Brian hoped to relieve with a pint of ale. Brooding over David, he strode towards the Broadway with rain dripping unnoticed from his hair, using his umbrella as a walking stick rather than a protective implement. David's a bum, he decided as he swiped a sodden pizza box out of the way. He's a despicable degenerate, a fiasco of a man. And what was behind the furtive visits? What was the strategy? If he could sort that out, he might know how to deal with it. He could change the locks or simply ask him to surrender the key. David would take umbrage whichever procedure he chose and, knowing how unpleasant the lad could be when roused, neither action appealed. Maybe he should rein his urges and see what else transpired.
The pub sign swayed in the pelting downfall, a harsh clatter guaranteed to jar his nerves. His feet squelched inside his shoes as he scraped them on the rush mat. He regretted not having used the front entrance where the path was paved.
A mixture of smells greeted him: beer, disinfectant and soap. Consigning his gamp to the wrought iron gamp-stand, he approached the deserted bar where Jane waited, an empty glass in hand ready to fill, her red blouse reflected in the pump handles.
To take his mind off the similarity between her and the brassy, curved handles, Brian scanned the saloon and referred to its unusual desolation.
Jane fluttered her eyelids. 'The weather's put everyone off. Except you, that is.'
Don't encourage her, he thought, taking the pint she presented.
Jane blathered about trivialities, disclosing that Peter had gone playing snooker with a mate, her mother's old employer had been in telling tales about a deceased aunt, and she, Jane, had broken the heel on one of her new sandals, a prized fingernail, and the strap on her bra. The whole gabble and the occasional double entendre so irritated Brian that he abandoned his second half-pint and made the excuse that he had urgent things to do at home.
On the way, this time taking the thoroughfare, he recovered a semblance of humour, and sniggered at his lack of appreciation for an unrestricted unveiling. Once upon a time, maybe. Not now.
Leaving his mud-caked footwear on the doorstep and hanging his raincoat in the lean-to, Brian went forthwith to the kettle and flicked the switch. He was at the fridge when the door burst open. Presupposing the intruder to be David, here to antagonise him further, he swung round with his arm poised ready to strike.
Gladys flinched as she heeded the fist.
'Jesus!' exclaimed Brian. 'What brings you here?'
Blackie peered round Gladys's ankles, one white tipped ear quivering as if questioning the advisability of entering.
'Would you believe I've come for the washing,' Gladys retorted.
The house was busier than Crewe Junction.
While she fetched the laundry, Brian made coffee in an Ovaltine beaker. He sat on a kitchen chair to remove the saturated socks, flinging them into the corner near the cat basket. He squawked with sheer pleasure as the cold floor eased his toes. Lifting the beaker, he swigged the entire contents in one go.
'You'll burn your gullet,' warned Gladys, coming in with the laundry bag.
'Never mind the gullet.' Passing her the empty mug, he pleaded. 'Make me another, there's a love. I've got a blazing thirst.'
'I'm not here to wait on you,' she grumbled, taking his cup and whizzing over to the kettle. She made his drink in treble-quick time and placed it in front of him.
Adjusting a chair pad, she perched on the edge as if she didn't intend to stay. 'I heard the strangest noise in your loft.'
'I know. I think it's bats.'
'Are they dangerous?'
'Don't be ridiculous. They're a protected species. You should be proud to work here if that's what they are.'
'Huh!' Gladys gave him one of her withering stares before going on to tell him that she was proposing to visit Audrey. 'See how she is. You know, see if there's anything I can do.'
Noting her disquiet, Brian was reminded of her intense loyalty to friends and her maternal attitude when confronted with their problems. 'Give her my best,' he said. He'd have sent his love if he thought it would be accepted.
Gladys proffered an unqualified opinion: 'She deserves a spanking for keeping you at arm's length.'
Recoiling from the comment, Brian's arm cuffed the mug and splashed coffee everywhere.
From his basket, the cat eyed him doubtfully.
'S'all right, old chap,' counselled Gladys. 'He won't hurt you.' Tilting the chair, she seized a moist cloth from the drainer to mop the splashes. 'Good job the tablecloth's in the wash,' she said as she briskly swabbed the Formica. 'Now, as I was about to say before you chucked coffee everywhere … that woman loves you, Brian Porter, though she doesn't know it.' She paused to monitor how Brian had taken the pronouncement. Aware of his shock, she pitched the dishcloth in the sink and laid a toil-worn hand on his. 'Don't take offence where none is meant,' she said, 'but it's time something was done about the pair of you. Here's you, as lovesick as a man can be, and there's Audrey, as stubborn as a mule with a load on its back, denying herself the privilege of happiness. This strife of hers could be a boon, you know. It could reunite you. And if it does, don't let her go her daft way when the culprit's finally exposed.'
Gladys rose. 'Now I've voiced my piece I'll be off,' she said. Blackie judged the action to be a signal to budge. He arched his spine, then sneaked over to her bag. Gladys shooed him away. 'Look at that. Bugger's after me bit of fish.'
Solemnly, Brian ordered Blackie to his bed.
Picking up the laundry bag, Gladys collected her umbrella and started to leave, but halted when he called her name.
'Audrey did the breaking off,' he said. 'I've loved her solidly for fifteen years.
'I know you have,' conceded Gladys, and she followed the cat out muttering that if he knew what was good for him he wouldn't follow her home.
Audrey crouched to dabble her fingers in the water, then leaned back to rest on the sloping bank. Upriver, a frog croaked and a blackbird gave an alarmed cry. She closed her eyes and thought of the battering Liz Tomlin had given her man, presumably during the nocturnal rumpus. It re-established the unease brought on by her recent dream: of Brian repairing telephones to enable her to carry on receiving calls, then spitefully ripping out the instruments, demolishing them with hobnailed boots. His petitions for reinforcements became fainter with each pulverising stamp. Giving a strangled sob, she pushed the dream away.
She tried to think what she required from life. For the first time in her life her aims were vague. Did she want an uncomplicated existence or invigorating adventures? Part of her welcomed the safe, dull lifestyle which preceded His calls, another part yearned for liveliness. It was astonishing that one unknown man could release such dormant passion. Through him she had discovered a latent appetite, having supposed that desire for intimacy was taboo after parting from Brian. She knew that attaching importance to a lunatic on a telephone was utter folly; she was equally aware that engaging in do-it-yourself sex was unpardonable. What else could she do with no partner to oblige her?
She was so preoccupied that she didn't see Bess Coombes on the opposite embankment, not until the girl yelled, 'Hey, Miss Buckham.' Yards from her, Vera teetered on one leg with her arm flailing in an effort to expel a shoe. While Bess laughingly rejected Vera's plea for assistance, Audrey grudgingly acknowledged their presence, pleading silently that they stay put. Though generally she enjoyed the way they hammered sparks off one another, and occasionally ached to be as consistently unfettered, their banter could be wearing and she was not in the mood for such frivolous raillery.
She viewed their capers until they ran off, then decided that she too should go. Matthew would be missing his tea. Struggling up, she swept the dried grass from her skirt and ambled along the dusty track, thinking how agreeable it was to be remote from people … and telephones.
Arriving at the iron bridge, she grabbed the handrail and mounted the four concrete steps. Faint murmurings made her look through the railings. On the water side of a hawthorn bush, well hidden from the path, Barbara Finnigan was with a dark haired man, her uncovered legs extended across his lap and him displaying a lascivious grin as he stroked them with navvy-like hands.
Fascinated, Audrey leaned on the rail. As his caresses neared the hem of the girl's polka-dot dress, she squeezed her thighs, giving little sighs as she imagined how it felt. She had done all that, of course, in her youth, in advance of sleeping with Brian, when the verve slowed to a comfortable momentum. An eternity ago. She now knew it was wicked to accuse him of exclusively wanting her for sex, when she had wanted it as much, if not more. It had taken a man on the phone to make her realise. But that was silly, the real argument was that after such a protracted period the relationship should have progressed. Maybe it would have, had it been based on more than vibrant copulation. And now, here she was, still alone, still enduring an almost virginal existence, afraid to go forward and unable to retreat.
Strolling to the end of the bridge, she flattened against one of the broad uprights which made her feel less conspicuous. The vertical post, whilst not completely screening her, was an adequate barrier behind which to hide, enabling her to spy unseen. Barbara's legs still graced the chap's knees, her body now tilting and her breasts pointing upwards. Eager as a voyeur, Audrey awaited the next act, but the guy suddenly pushed aside Barbara's limbs and lifted his hindquarters to ease the faded blue jeans from his crotch. Catching sight of Audrey, he winked and bestowed on her a drawn-out, knowing smile.
Her heart pulsated with an exhilarating dread as she stepped swiftly back, thinking: Who else but Him would perform so outlandishly. From the sanctuary of the iron support, she risked another peep, principally to etch his image on her mind. He had, however, reverted to gnawing Barbara's face. Jealously, she observed the outline of his hand fiddling beneath her crumpled skirt.
Shortly afterwards, as she tiptoed down the steps to the stony footway which led to home, Audrey considered hunting him out, approaching Barbara, but imagine the embarrassment if he proved to be a bona fide playmate. He would think she was chasing him. Wouldn't he?
From the quietness, Audrey guessed that Matthew was still closeted in his room, so she went to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.
She pricked the skin of six sausages and left them on a Pyrex plate beside the stove. She opened a can of mushy peas. Filling a bowl with tepid water, she started to peel potatoes. She recalled Barbara's beau and her thoughts flew to when, as a teenager, she fell for a Yorkshire lad named Latham. Like the lad this afternoon, he took joy in naked flesh. She still possessed the cherished pearls he bought when they went on an excursion to Blackpool. She stopped paring and gazed out at the garden, recalling that her mother … a great advocate of superstitious nonsense … described them as pearls for tears, asserting that no benefit would come of keeping them. Uncle Adrian had redressed the situation by advising her to give Latham a shilling as payment. Dear Uncle, always the romantic one in the family, though it went without saying that her mother's prophecy had been correct.
Outside, an unfamiliar ginger cat scaled the fence in one fluid motion, treading the jagged top with nonchalant assuredness. As she followed the animal's passage, her mind rambled to that special occasion when she unwrapped the tissue and revealed the string of simulated pearls and the warm sensation in her belly as Latham fastened them on her neck. Perchance I should dispose of them, she mused, selecting a hefty spud and absently shaving off a lengthy coil. Even now she retained vivid memories of the courtship's termination, when she threw the necklace in the trash bin and her wily father fished it out. Her throat tightened as she cast her mind to that dreadful day when she received the Dear Jane letter and her father's consoling assurance that no man was worth crying over. Nonetheless, thanks to him neglecting to instruct her how to stop, it had taken months to heal the pain.
Matthew shouted from the top of the stairs, 'Is tea ready, Mum?' The row he made as he clattered down was akin to a herd of ox.
Audrey deduced from the crisp white shirt, brass buttoned blue blazer, and the smell of shaving soap and aftershave, that he was going out. 'Are you in a hurry?' she quizzed, irritably, requiring a few moments to gather her wits.
His voice was artificially cheerful as he said, 'I thought as Aunt Gladys was coming, it'd be okay if I had an evening out.' He offered no explanation as to where.
On account of her, Matthew was hanging round the house instead of spending his holiday with friends. Audrey experienced no guilt. Why should he take his pleasure elsewhere while she suffered her difficulties at home? Unexpectedly crushed by resentment, she lashed out, 'Go on then. Don't trouble about me.'
Matthew was bewildered. A full minute went by before he replied, 'I'll stay in then. I thought …'
'Don't bother to think,' she screeched. 'Just go.'
Angrily, Matthew fled from the room.
'What about your tea?' she screamed.
'Fuck the tea!' he roared, subsequently slamming the outer door.
When Gladys arrived Audrey was in a state of exhausted confusion. Dried tears had formed channels in the film of foundation. Her fringe was damp and dishevelled from brushing it from her eyes.
'What on earth's wrong?'
Audrey screwed a yellow handkerchief into a ball and dabbed a fresh eruption. 'I don't know,' she wailed.
Gladys touched the cold teapot, then went to fill the kettle at the sink. 'You had another call?'
Audrey wept louder.
Gladys brewed a pot of weak tea and poured some into a cup she found on the drainer, adding milk and heaping in the sugar. 'Get that inside you,' she said, ignoring Audrey's grimace. 'It'll do you good.'
A cigarette gave Audrey a measure of composure and she attempted to define her irrational behaviour, feeling more and more ashamed with every word she uttered.
'Matty wants a bit of freedom, Aud. You can't keep him locked up, blaming him for someone else's crime. It's not him causing you grief. Dear Lord, the boy'd clout a body as quick as blink if anyone laid a finger on you. If you must take your frustrations out on somebody, take them out on me.'
She's right, thought Audrey, tapping the cigarette on the ashtray Gladys provided. The paralysing frustration abided, though, along with the perpetual unrest.
Matthew's call was opportune. Brian was beginning to wallow in self-pity and his presence shook him out of it. 'Vodka do you?' he asked, ushering him into the sitting room.
Matthew accepted and while waiting for Brian to do the honours he drifted round to examine the numerous oddments of objets d'art, admiring the trio of framed landscapes near the fireplace, the valuable old Ormolu clock on the sideboard. Noticing his scrutiny, Brian wondered if maybe David's visits were premeditated bids to appropriate that particular timepiece for his shop.
Matthew studied the photographs on the mantelpiece until Brian placed the vodka and two uncapped bottles of tonic on a small table, then immediately broached his mother's plight, detailing the obscenities recorded on the answering machine.
'He talked to the bloody thing as if it was human,' he said, pulling from his wallet a handwritten transcript. He began to recite, and Brian winced as evidence of the loquacious seduction was unfolded.
When he'd finished reading, Matthew folded the paper and put it beside his drink, shaking his head when Brian edged an onyx cigarette box nearer to him. Brian, however, had a colossal craving and drew several inhalations of smoke into his lungs, then angrily stubbed the cigarette and mashed it in the ashtray until the tobacco strands broke loose. Pressing his fingertips together, he undertook to decipher clues.
The way the propositions were posed signified that the man was acquainted with Audrey. How else would he know, unless it was pure fluke, about her the size of her bust or that her hair was auburn? Although he didn't mention the naevus, his reference to her red face being redder by the time he'd dealt with her confirmed that he was a local man who hated her so much he would do anything to cause her the most harrowing distress.
Brian went for refills. As he handed one to Matthew, he indicated the paper. 'Can I keep that?'
'Keep it as long as you want if it helps spring the bastard.' Matthew topped up his drink with a lavish amount of tonic. He sat quiet for a second then asked, 'Do you think he'd really damage a woman?'
Brian straddled a straight chair. 'My guess is that he's simply a talker. I reckon he hasn't got the ability to go with women. He could be scared and this is his way of exerting his power.' He withheld his assumption that Audrey's verbal aggressor was someone they knew. If he could listen to the tapes ....
'I'd best go and see if she's okay,' Matthew said, standing up and clenching his fists. 'If he gets to Mum I'll destroy whatever it is the fucker's got in his pants.' A private battle raged inside him. 'You know something, the creep hasn't phoned since I've been home. It's as if he knows I'm there. I hope to God he didn't ring tonight.'
Brian grasped his arm. 'Please, Matty, tell me if he did.'
In the hallway, they quietly watched the rain bouncing off the slabs, both men engrossed in their respective anxieties. When they shook hands, Brian was conscious of the firmness of Matthew's grip.
'If you unearth anything,' Matthew said. 'I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know.'
'I certainly will.'
Matthew smiled jadedly and Brian wondered why he felt so much tenderness for him and hardly any for David.
On the stroke of midnight, Audrey saw Brian idling by the street lamp. She was baffled as to why he was there but he looked so fetching in the dim light that she did not analyse it. Instead, because of her permissive mood, she allowed herself to reminisce, to mentally undress him, visualising his strong torso, the way his bold hands restrained her as he drove his immense and virile organ between her legs. The sight of him made her long to terminate the feverish self-fondling she was bound to indulge in - like tonight, at the culmination of the belated call, when she had to work furiously for fear that Matthew would return and catch her out. Burying her head in the bunched curtain she forced herself to resist the temptation to throw open the window and invite Brian in.
Brian lingered until he was satisfied the house was quiet and nobody loitered in the vicinity. Only then did he move away.