Immediately outside Audrey's house, waving her arms in avid demonstration, Gladys was chatting to Carol Benjamin as if she was relating some scandalous international news. At her feet was a black canvas bag and resting against the zip was the gimmicky bottle-green mallard's head which represented the knob of her fold-up umbrella, giving the impression by its half-closed eye of having nested there. Carol was wearing a navy-blue trouser-suit with a salmon pink blouse and as usual looked sublimely ravishing, her black skin positively gleaming in the bright sunlight. Being a head taller than Gladys in high heels gave her the advantage, or disadvantage, of catching the full blast of sun, though disadvantage was probably the operative phrase since she frequently raised a narrow clutch bag and used it as a shield.
Viewing the discourse from the bedroom window, and going by Carol's vibrating shoulders, Audrey guessed that Gladys was relating one of her amusing stories. For a second she contemplated going out to join them. She was, however, half way through an overdue moisturising routine and that was more important than gossiping. The recent suspension of the punctilious night-time rite had resulted in a definite roughness to her skin and she had to do something about it.
Progressively she massaged a white emulsion into her arms, paying particular attention to the elbows that lately resembled pieces of pumice. As she worked she subjectively replayed last night's call, unable any longer to let a day go by without some form of evaluation. Sometimes it took the form of fanciful analysis, sometimes a cataclysmic calculation of her diminishing rationale.
Matthew was bathing when the call came, at exactly eight o'clock. She had at first shrunk from answering, fearful there would be more talk of blood and biting, yet, to her horror, she found she could not ignore it. Now, remembering those stimulating and erotic suggestions she wondered how she managed to control her itchy fingers until Matthew was in bed.
Screwing the lid on the enormous jar of delicately perfumed cream and returning it to the dressing table with other bits of cosmetic potions, she looked again at the two women. Gladys had calmed down. Her arms were now at her sides and she appeared to be speaking in secret whispers … and repeatedly glancing at the house.
Convinced that she was being discussed Audrey lingered behind the curtain, an awakening anger pricking like spines on a cactus. One particularly witty remark made Carol throw back her head and give one of her infectious laughs. As if it was something she'd forgotten, she produced an envelope and handed it to Gladys. It was accepted with a smile. Gladys extracted what looked like a greetings card. After reading the inscription she looked up at Carol. Audrey lip-read the words Thank you. Only then did she recall Gladys's birthday. The card she bought ages ago was still in the glove drawer, unwritten, with the unwrapped present. Quickly retrieving the card, she raced down the stairs to find a pen and some gift-wrap paper.
Carol was about to leave, but her curiosity over the contents of Audrey's package delayed her. While Gladys fiddled with the string, Carol talked about Vera, announcing that she had only just heard and expressing surprise that she hadn't escaped her mother's clutches yonks ago.
Gladys let out a yelp. Torn paper fluttered to the pavement as she scanned the scarf. 'This is grand, Audrey. Thank you. I'll look right affluent with this on. Wait 'til Sam sees it.' She stretched up to kiss Audrey's softened cheek then held out the gift for Carol to see.
The scarf had a silver fringe at each end and was embellished with water-lilies, painted on silk, Chinese-style. Audrey bought it at a craft shop in Redhampton. As soon as she saw it she had known it would make a perfect gift for Gladys. Inside the shop a host of jolly women applied their designs to fabric, paper and tin, humming contentedly as they worked. Although they were all wheelchair-bound their smiles were perpetual. She thought about their beautiful work and was ashamed that she, with all her faculties and intact body, fell short when it came to tackling even mundane things. Good-for-nothing her mother called her and she was good-for-nothing still.
'Are you listening to me?'
Audrey jumped. 'Sorry, Carol. What did you say?'
Carol chuckled. 'I only asked her age and she whispered it as though it was something sinful.'
One by one the cactus spines disintegrated.
'Sixty's nothing these days. I reckon my Alan'll keep me on call way past that age. Until I'm seventy, most likely. He'll never let me think I'm old.' Nudging Audrey's arm, Carol asked, 'Know what I mean?'
Audrey did know. At one time Brian promoted similar feelings; still did, as last night proved. On the two occasions he had positioned himself outside, the reason for policing her domain as yet eluding her. He looked irresistible in the lamplight and she found herself observing him with new eyes. His presence made her feel youthful and dangerously eager, and curiously safe. According to Carol then she was not too old. She wondered, as Carol was wholesomely enriched by a physically satisfying marriage whether she would also consider masturbation to be normal at their age.
'Well, work calls,' Carol said. 'I can't stand chattering all day. Maureen'll be getting fed up.' Seeing Audrey's bewilderment, she giggled and explained, 'She's standing in for a couple of hours. Paddy's doing the decorating and she can't tolerate the smell. Who was I to refuse an offer to mind the shop?'
Gladys folded the scarf and bent to tuck it in her bag. 'I'll walk up with you,' she said, straightening. 'I desperately need to buy sugar. That's why I came by, Aud, to see if you wanted any shopping done.'
'I'm all right, thanks.'
'I'll see you later then.'
'Cheerio,' said Carol as she seized Gladys's arm and waltzed her towards the Green. The expansive shopper swung on its rope handles in her wake. Audrey laughingly urged the yellow-billed duck to hold on and not to be travel sick.
The two disappeared round the corner. Audrey turned to open the gate but hesitated with her hand on the latch when she saw movement in next door's lounge window. Changing direction, she determinedly unfastened their gate and marched in. She knocked several times and, again, got no response. She found it perplexing because she'd been so sure someone was there. As she proceeded up her own garden path she scanned the window but the print curtains hung as straight and undisturbed as they always did.
It was a tearful Bess Coombes who called that afternoon. She made no sound as she emerged from the side entrance, shutting the gate as if afraid to make a noise, then tiptoeing past the kitchen window, employing such stealthy movements that Audrey feared she might run off if she opened the door. However, Bess did completely the opposite. She literally hurled herself through the door and clung to Audrey as if she was anchoring herself to a dependable, rescuing tree. Audrey stroked the blonde hair until the sobbing diminished, unashamedly proud to be chosen as a buttress in the girl’s time of need.
Eventually, Bess eased away to pull a handkerchief from her blazer. 'She didn't tell me. Why didn't she tell me?'
'Shush! She'll be all right. You'll see, she'll be home in no time.'
'But I didn't know she was that unhappy,' she whimpered, 'Something must have happened for her to go without telling me.'
Audrey pulled a tissue from the box on top of the fridge and dabbed the tear trails on Bess's cheek. 'She probably went on the spur of the moment,' she said in an effort to console her. She put the tissue on the draining board and grabbed another. 'It's no good you getting upset. You must be calm in case she rings and needs your help.'
Bess searched Audrey's face. 'Do you think she will? I'd do anything to help.'
Bess brightened significantly when Matthew came in, especially when he winked at her. He sat at the table and patted the adjacent chair, indicating that she should join him. When she did, he laid his hand on hers to pacify her. Her woe was replaced by adulation, not entirely forgotten as the heaving breast and recurrent gulps showed, but Vera's departure had now assumed a fait accompli less powerfully important.
Be careful, Matty, Audrey silently warned as she deposited an oval plate of biscuits.
Her worries were unfounded, of course, seeing that he was used to kids and their problems, knowing instinctively which topics would lessen the sadness. He discussed fashion trends and make-up and disco dancing, and lightly touched on the serious stuff like employment, until Bess's chest stopped its tireless heaving. Audrey, however, was aware that the transition from school to work would be inconceivable without Vera and with this in mind she drafted a mental reminder to repeat her quest to verify the girl's whereabouts. If she was indeed in Blackpool, perhaps Uncle Adrian could check her out. Failing that, she would go herself, for the day, or even a weekend.