The rain had cleared the air. It had also erased sightseers from the neighbourhood, trippers who in fair weather exasperated the anglers. Along the river-bank, fishermen wearing sou'westers were surrounded by tackle and other paraphernalia. Brian interrupted his trek to the Broadway to sit on the wet grass and admire the skill of casting. Hunched beneath a decrepit red and yellow golfing umbrella, twirling a blade of grass between his fingers, he wondered what the reward would be at the end of the fishermen's patient wait. He'd heard there was an abundance of Tench but he suspected the men would unload their keep nets and go home empty-handed.
On the far bank, Gerald Tomlin stared at the water as if contemplating imminent death. Brian had never seen him so morose. Concluding that Liz, that hypochondriacal virago, had been nagging him he applauded his own ability to choose agreeable females. Neither Maggie nor Audrey could be classed as neurotics or shrews. Brian would have acknowledged Gerald if he had looked in his direction, but the man kept his eyes firmly fixed on the river, no doubt heavily encumbered by matrimonial anxieties.
Brian pondered on the differences in men's lives until he felt the damp seeping through to his underpants. He shifted the umbrella and stood up and then the most surprising thing happened. The move must have broken the spell, set Gerald's blood circulating; not only did he wave, he also did a spirited mime of rod slinging and reeling. It was a sudden and puzzling change in his demeanour and, as Brian drifted away, he wondered at it, close to believing that Gerald's despondency had been pure imagination.
Brian approached the pub's garden simultaneously with someone opening the door and releasing a remarkable aroma of roasting meat. He found himself hurrying, sniffing the air like a Bisto kid, with an excess of saliva gathering in his mouth. He strode past the stacked white furniture and circled the barbecue, stopping only to dump the umbrella before entering the saloon at high speed. Climbing on a high stool he commented on the capital smell. Peter disclosed that it was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and went on to say that the smell was making him decidedly peckish.
'Its a good idea to lay on meals,' declared Brian as his appetite soared like an unruly uprising. Noticing a queue forming he hastily enquired if he had to stand in line to order.
'Nah. I'll tell her Ladyship what you want.' Peter took up a notepad. 'Full meal or just the dinner?'
While scribbling the order Peter groused that, with the inception of providing meals to the masses, the character of the pub would doubtless change. 'Like it or not we'll soon have women flocking in for Jane's meals. She's going to do the whole bit, from soup to sweet, nobody'll want to cook when they can get it done for them. From now on, my friend, you can rule out peaceful Sundays.'
'It'll be worth it when you count the takings.'
Uttering a loud 'Harrumph,' Peter scuttled into the back. He could be heard voicing his opinion to Jane that some people ought to get their priorities sorted, and demanding to know if food was likely to rank higher than beer.
Grinning, Brian turned to view the scene around him.
Paddy Finnigan was carping loudly to Fred Smith, who was facing the entrance to the pub's living quarters, plainly hoping to see Jane in one of her revealing numbers. He barely listened to Paddy's tirade concerning his daughter's new boy friend and the way the pair behave in public. He went endlessly on about them cuddling each other with complete disregard for other people's feelings, and more especially Eileen's.
Arnie Trevors gave Paddy a dubious glance as he passed en route to the table where Gerald Tomlin waited, to whom he was transporting a pint of ale along with one for himself. Brian suspected that Gerald must have performed some kind of miracle to be so comfortably accommodated so soon when only ten minutes ago he'd been on the far side of the river, doing an impersonation of a fisherman.
At the table in front, Sam Wilding was engrossed in his newspaper, a half-pint glass in his hand. Every time he took a sip he consulted his watch, often comparing it to the clock on the wall, which suggested to Brian that he was a man with an appointment to keep and that his apparent preoccupation with the headlines was a front. Brian was mulling over who the other party would be at this meeting, when Ron and Bill appeared, their nostrils twitching as they stored dripping umbrellas in the rack.
'I can almost taste it,' Bill stated, snuffling the air as he unzipped his anorak and shook off the hood. 'Is it beef?'
'Aye,' said Peter, doing a fair imitation of a Highlander. 'Succulent slices of Scotland's finest beef in gravy with roast tatties and greens.'
Dropping the coat at his feet, Bill dried his hands on his backside and ran a steel comb through his hair. 'I'll have some, when you’re ready.'
'Don't you want a drink?'
'Pint of draught, and one for Ron.'
As he pulled the pump handle, Peter asked, 'Ellen not cooking, then?'
'She's doing chicken. I can have two dinners today. She won't know.'
Peter placed the first part of the order on a sodden mat. 'Well, I'm not one to blab. Mind, you'll be okay if you jog home.' Looking across the room, he yelled, 'You want yours here, Ronald or in the John?'
Ron Pearce indicated that he would sit next to Bill before resuming his conversation with Arnie and Gerald.
'I've finished jogging,' Bill confessed, idly opening and closing a cigarette packet. 'I didn't care for the way the old ticker pounded after each run. At my age you've got to be cautious.'
'True,' agreed Peter, setting down the second glass. 'And at your age you shouldn't have such a big belly. Take my advice, stick to chicken. Leave the beef to others.'
'Don't you want my custom?'
'I do. It's your wife that bothers me. She'll be round here complaining, then Jane'll have a go and between them I'll be a nervous wreck. No, William, you must do without. It's not worth the aggro.'
Norman Dingle-Jones emerged from the Gents and strolled over to where Bill sat. Catching Peter's eye, he mimed the pouring action from bottle to glass and waited for the brandy to be produced from its hiding place.
'How's your daughter?' Bill asked.
Holding his goblet to the light, Norman replied, 'She should be discharged in a week.'
Bill dragged out a stool for Ron, who was zigzagging round the tables carrying his mac by the loop as though it was infected. Heaving himself up and lodging his feet on the rail, Ron joined in the discussion. 'I bet she can't wait to get back. I said as much to our Kim the other day. She thought I was bonkers. She said girls don't want to be incarcerated with stick-in-the-mud parents.' He quoted Kim's pronouncement in a singsong voice, then laughed in an attempt to smooth over his tactlessness. 'She was referring to Di and me, naturally, because ... well, we are, I suppose ... dull.'
If challenged, Brian would certainly not have evaluated Diane Pearce as dull. Untidy, yes, and a bit caustic, but never dull.
'Anyway,' Ron said. 'I daresay you'll be glad when your girl's back under your wing.'
'Yes.' Norman spoke halfheartedly and not at all like a doting father. He was apparently unmoved by Ron's gaffe. Brian found that disquieting, knowing how quick-witted Norman usually was and how he loved to retaliate with satirical humour.
'Hey, Ron, who’s that with Arnie?' Bill tilted his head towards the rear of the room.
Ron followed the direction of the tilt. 'You mean Gerald?'
'Blimey, I didn't recognise him.'
'His hair's shorter, that's why. It's a bloody sight better than it was. That hairy mane dangling on his collar was more suited to a teenager. Like your Colin. Now, it suits him, makes him look real trendy.'
'You think so? I hate it. So does Ellen. She's always scolding him for being slovenly.'
'I don't have that problem with Ralph. He's got to have short hair in his job. It wouldn't do for customers to buy meat covered in hair.'
'How was Arnie?' Bill asked.
Ron idly scratched his nose. 'He's not bad. Lonely, I imagine, though he didn't say as much.'
'Funny, them being here together, when neither of them make a habit of coming in.'
Brian was only partially listening. His interest lay in discovering Norman's motive for nursing his brandy in such a doleful silence. Quietly suggesting they sit down, he guided him to a table alongside the one occupied by Arnold.
'Okay, chaps?' queried Brian as he pulled the chair out for Norman.
Gerald nodded, and Arnie said, 'Fine, thanks.'
'I'll pop round the farm one of the evenings for a chinwag.'
'Right. I'll get some ale in.'
'And leave the gun somewhere safe.'
Arnie laughed at that.
As if he too was in on the joke, Gerald let loose a resounding guffaw. He stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets and extended his legs. The simple operation provided Brian with the answer to his query: Gerald's grey trousers were wringing wet, right up to his knees. The inexplicable travelling time was now clear: Gerald Tomlin had, quite literally, waded in. Christ, thought Brian, contemplating the cloth that clung to Gerald's legs and was beginning to steam. He must be absolutely bonkers. As he reflected on the man's sanity, Gerald said something which convinced Brian that his assessment was proven.
'Don't look so nonplussed,' Gerald said. 'I picked the shallowest part, by the bridge.'
Totally confounded, Brian settled in the seat opposite Norman. 'Never in all my life ....' he started, but, seeing Norman's miserable countenance, he stopped. Why spend precious time mulling over Gerald Tomlin's mad practices when Norman needed some attention. He swallowed a teacupful of ale, then asked,. 'How is Clarissa?'
Norman's gloomy response was that her ankle was mending. But his shoulders lifted slightly as he pressed on and a shadow swept over his face. 'Tell you the truth, I dread her coming. It's been harmonious at home with her and Kate out of the way. Mo and I, we've been like young playmates with the girls away and, quite honestly, Brian, I do not want it to change. Having no better than a trollop in the house is not conducive to a tranquil existence.
Brian wasn't sure he'd heard right. 'A trollop? What makes you say that, for God's sake?'
'Advertising her wares in skirts shorter than an infant's she looks like a tart, and I suspect that is what she basically is. I guess that was how she came to be knocked down. Daresay the chap couldn't help himself. I have told her often enough, she will be set upon if she's not careful.' Norman seemed to shrink into himself when he said that.
Brian was at a loss to know what to say. It was true that Clarry flaunted her body, the beautifully formed body of which she had a right to be proud, but he couldn't see that this made her into some kind of hussy. He hadn't realised before how burdened Norman was with outdated persuasions. He'd thought his own opinions a bit rigid at times but mostly his attitudes were flexible. He could only imagine that having a daughter changed things in a man, producing an almost irrational paternal protectiveness. A reverse gender possessiveness not experienced by men with lads. As to the remark about Clarry being set upon, Brian thought that was carrying fatherliness too far. In his opinion it was enough to drive Clarry away from his protective arms instead of keeping her safe within them. And yet he would doubtless react the same way if he had sired a stunning daughter. He would probably have imprisoned her like a goldfish in a bowl, safe from marauders and physical foragers.
He thought of young Penny Hancox and wondered, if her father had kept her on tight rein would she have been saved from her ordeal. Her attacker was still at liberty to commit violent acts on other unsuspecting girls, probably stalking the lanes this very minute. Frowning with thoughtfulness, he lowered his eyelids and tried to remember: Wasn't there mention of stalking in Matthew's transcript? Abruptly, to Norman's brow-raising astonishment, Brian slammed down his glass; the beer jetted out like a tidal wave. Fortunately Norman was able to lift his elbow in time and the beer flowed unimpeded to the floor.
'I have to go,' Brian exclaimed, jumping up. 'I've got to check on something.' He sprinted to the door, grabbed his umbrella, swinging it out of the rack so frenziedly the whole unit swayed unsteadily. He rushed out just as Peter shouted: 'Number five. That's you, Brian. Hey, Brian.'
Dropping his mac on top of the hall chest Brian went straight to the Ormolu clock behind which Matthew's paper was located. He scanned through it until he came to the sentence about stalking. Wherever I see you, I'll follow. 'My God!' he cried, 'I was right. He does know her. That means the evil bastard's known to me.'
He paced the rug in front of the fireplace, clouting the side of his head, angry at not spotting the clue sooner. What the hell was the matter with him? God! God! Had he completely lost his marbles? Well, this was the turning point. From hereonin he'd shift himself, do some positive sleuthing for a change. By hook or crook he'd catch the fucker and, when he did, he'd personally rip out his fucking giblets.
First off, he thought, gripping the mantelpiece to assist his concentration, did Audrey get in touch with the phone company? And how in Hades could he find out when she wouldn't talk to him? He could, of course, ring Matthew, and he would if he thought Audrey wouldn't know. He didn't want the lad to be subjected to any harrowing interchanges between his parents. No matter, he'd go it alone, he'd use his own contact.
He crossed to the bureau as the phone rang. He ignored it and fumbled in the drawer for his address book. It wasn't there. He rummaged through the letter compartments and small inner drawers; repeatedly pausing to stare accusingly at the these sections and scratch his scalp in puzzlement. Disregarding the persistent ringing, he opened the two lower drawers but the search was fruitless and he finally came to the conclusion that, for some peculiar reason, he must have taken it to work.
The phone continued to ring. Frustrated and irritated, he snatched up the receiver, bawled down the mouthpiece, 'Yes?'
Startled by the fierceness of his tone, Audrey replaced the receiver without speaking vowing that under no circumstances would she, at any time or on any occasion, dial his number again.
That evening, for the sole purpose of fetching his book, Brian made his way to the station, battling against driving rain and splashing in unseen, opaque puddles. Hurrying along the road, head tucked well inside his umbrella, he failed to see Doris Pinches until his brolly's wayward spoke caught in her brolly's fringe. The two umbrellas were united and no matter how much they tugged to disengage them they remained firmly attached, until, in exasperation and in unison, they threw them to the ground where they rocked upturned like boats at sea.
Doris's hair was plastered on her cheeks. She giggled, albeit timidly. Brian did too, putting on hold the serious business which had brought him here. He retrieved and closed the umbrellas. 'There's no point sheltering,' he said. 'And heaven knows what your mother will say when she sees you.'
'Mother can say what she wants.' Doris held the fawn umbrella at arm's length. 'I wouldn't have missed witnessing the flirting umbrellas for all the world.'
Despite himself, Brian shared in the fun as they stood in the downpour, their drenched locks dripping. Regardless of her protests, he escorted her home and decided to call it a day. The book could wait until tomorrow.