Audrey interrupted her sluggish progress to the kitchen, hoping the footsteps outside indicated the arrival of the postman or a like person who had no reason to stay. It was much too early for visitors and the prospect of being courteous to guests did not please her, not after the troubled night she'd had. She'd been up since five, driven to leave her bed by a desire to make amends with Matthew. Throughout the long night she'd wanted to go to him but kept remembering Gladys's recommendation not to smother him with apologies. She might have been tempted to discount the advice if it had not been proved over the years that Gladys knew best.
She opened the door at the first knock and saw Gladys with her hand raised to knock again.
'I thought you'd appreciate a bit of company,' Gladys said, smiling doubtfully. 'How do you feel?'
Audrey wrinkled her nose and answered, 'So-so!' Then she made her way to the kitchen, where she started to clear Matthew's laundry from the wooden clothes-horse.
'Where's his lordship?'
Gladys sat side-saddle on a vacant chair. 'Think you could stand a bit of gossip?'
Knowing Gladys would tell her anyway, Audrey shrugged and started to haul several pairs of boxer shorts from the airer, dumping them on the work surface in irregular piles.
'Vera's run away. To Blackpool of all places. Liz has just shown me the note.'
The news so stunned Audrey that her hands froze in front of her, a pair of shorts suspended from her fingers. It wasn't possible; it was only yesterday she saw her by the river and she was okay, lively enough, not worried or anything. She slowly lowered the shorts, censuring her stupidity. How could she possibly know the girl's mood from a distant position on the opposite bank, especially considering her total preoccupation with herself. For the first time she realised how selfish she was and felt dreadfully ashamed. Abandoning the sorting, she sat down and reached for her cigarettes, thoughtfully rotating the pack end to end. 'Are you sure?' she asked.
'Sure I'm sure. I've seen the note. Complained Liz was driving her mad. She wrote Don't try to find me all round the sheet of paper, which was daft considering she'd scrawled train times on the back.'
'Goodness. I wonder where she is.'
'I told you. Blackpool.'
'Blackpool? I imagined she'd be somewhere local.'
'Apparently Gerald's brother lives there.'
With the urgency of the situation abating, Audrey fetched a pile of socks and vegan matching them in pairs. 'Liz must be in a right state. I think I'll pop and see her.' It was good to know that Vera was safe; nevertheless, she blamed herself for not sensing the girl's unhappiness. The idea of her being alone in the crazy world greatly disturbed her. When Gladys leaves, I'll go round, she decided. There might be something I can do.
'I've got something else to tell you,' Gladys said, delving into her commodious bag. 'Ah, here it is.' Bringing her hands into view, she gave a bonny smile. 'When I got home last night I couldn't cross the doorstep for flowers. The kitchen resembled Maureen's shop when I took them in. I reckoned they'd been left by mistake 'til I found this card stuck in a bunch of freesias.'
Audrey took the card, itself a masterpiece of floral design, creatively decorated with minute sprays of fantasy flowers. She read the cramped communication: Thank you for occupying my life. Love Sam. Her throat got very full when she saw her friend's tender expression. She extended her hand. 'You are lucky to have found him,' she said, happy for her and the teeniest bit jealous. Needing to hide her envy, she vigorously dismantled the clothes-horse and wedged it between the washer and the sink.
Despite the fact that she rang the bell countless times, no-one responded, yet she could have sworn there were noises within. As she moved away and entered her own garden she believed she detected movement at an upstairs window, which was heavily adorned by healthy clematis. Deciding she must have been attracted by the waving shoots, she carried on up the path, stopping briefly to pull grass from a cluster of self-seeded little dorrit.
Fishing the key from the pocket of her dress, she unlocked the door and went in, instantly glancing at the static red light on the machine, questioning if it would ever flash again. It seemed such an age since she listened to His voice, yet it was only yesterday.
'Hi, Mum,' called Matthew from the lounge.
Audrey pushed open the door. He was standing barefoot, wearing just shirt and pants, pressing his grey trousers on the ironing board. Why on earth couldn't he do it in the kitchen, she asked herself, but swiftly quashed the reproof; it was no good shattering the prevailing calm.
Matthew rested the iron on its end and grinned indulgently.
'I've been pulling weeds,' she said, presenting her hands for him to see. 'I'll have a shower. Do you mind?'
'Not at all. I've had mine. Don't forget I'm going out tonight.' Matthew looked as if he expected another confrontation, but he relaxed when she merely nodded.
Matthew was on his way out when Gladys arrived. Audrey heard him say, 'Look after her,' as he went out of the door. It infuriated her that these two people were taking it upon themselves to nursemaid her as if she had some interminable disease. It took some effort to shove the resentment away but she succeeded knowing that if she didn't stop this selfish attitude and have more time for others she'd find herself in the psycho ward. With no friends and utterly miserable.
Her fingers continued nervously to tap the wineglass as she pretended to read. It was that time of evening when edginess superseded normality, when she wondered, as she did now on a daily basis, whether He would ring. He was pretty smart, he'd probably sense someone was there. That meant she'd miss the opportunity to comply with his vile seduction. Sweeping her loose hair out of the way and tilting her head to one side, she absently plucked bits of fluff from her yellow trousers.
Gladys helped herself to a glass of red wine. 'I was under the impression you only drank white,' she said.
Instead of answering, Audrey sipped her wine and gazed over the rim of her glass, her stomach knotting with nervous apprehension. She had a powerful hunch that something was going to happen.
'I rang Sam.'
Good for you, thought Audrey's. The pledge to be selfless and kind was rapidly dwindling.
'At first he denied sending the flowers. Said they must have been from one of my other admirers. Stuck to it, he did, until I mentioned the card.'
Whoopee! The harshness was back, as strong as if it had never left, as if Audrey's pledge of tolerance and benevolence had never been privately agreed.
'I ask you. As if I ever had time for admirers.'
'Shush!' Audrey had heard the connecting click of an incoming call. Dropping the wineglass, she bolted from the chair, sending the library book crashing to the floor. Her leg caught the coffee table in her haste to reach the hall ahead of the opening peal. 'Hello,' she breathed, sinking to her knees.
'It's time for action, baby.'
Baby! He called her baby.
The pitch was different, not so shrill.
'I've got this thing about biting your paps and make 'em bleed. Blood turns me on, see.'
'If I bite real hard ....'
Slamming the phone down, she rushed up the stairs and stumbled into the bathroom, collapsed over the lavatory bowl and retched. He wanted blood. Her blood. She hadn't bargained on brutality.
Gladys knelt by her, offering the toilet roll, the yellow towels, water to sip. When the vomiting ceased and the sobbing began she sat with her arms wrapped tightly around the trembling figure and rocked her gently to and fro.