It had taken an absolute age to pluck up the courage to dial Brian's number and look what happened when she did: she lost her nerve. Now she was suffering the frustrating indignity of what she considered to be a slight. Audrey slumped in the outdated rocker which had long ago been relegated to the kitchen. Swinging to and fro, she massaged her throbbing temples. Upstairs, the noise of boisterous activity meant that Matthew was up but she waited until she heard him splashing in the bath before preparing his breakfast.
Separating two bacon rashers from the pack, she restored the remainder to the fridge. While the bacon grilled, she returned for a couple of eggs and carefully deposited them in a dish then pressed her fingers to her head, feeling the headache meticulously taking shape. Cursing her forgetfulness she marched to the fridge a third time for tomatoes, snatching them from the salad box and banging them down beside the cooker. By the time she discovered that she had overlooked the bread, her nerves were set to snap. 'Aaagh!' she cried, her fists beating the air.
Matthew burst into the kitchen, fastidiously turned out in an ivory shirt and brown cords, his house keys dangling from his belt. He strode up to his mother and shoved his arms around her waist.
Audrey shrieked, 'Get off, you damned idiot. What're you trying to do, scar me for life? Can't you see I'm dealing with hot fat?'
Steaming with indignation, Matthew hurled aside. He wasn't a petulant man but he was easily ruffled in the mornings and Audrey had indeed upset him. It had been years since she'd spoken in that manner, being a woman who reasoned instead of yelling when displeased. Her ability to keep her cool was an attribute most people admired. Savagely, he slammed into a chair and spread the morning paper, switching the transistor radio to blasting point for the sheer hell of being awkward.
Audrey didn't trust herself to speak. She would have motioned him to reduce the volume, if only she could see his face. He knows full well I can't stand that station, she thought, pressing both hands to her pounding head. Her dry throat made swallowing difficult and she was convinced she had some incurable malady. She was bewildered by the cacophony of sounds: blaring pop music, a vociferous presenter, the chiming clock, the rustling newspaper, and somebody's wailing car alarm outside. She wanted to scream for silence, plead for mercy, anything to make the commotion stop.
Gazing at Matthew's hairline, she wondered if an apology was called for, whether he should be excused his stupidity on the grounds that he was seldom home, but, at the point of deciding the outburst was unwarranted, and opening her mouth to speak, the kettle began to hiss. She yanked the gas tap to make it stop; the wrong one, it seemed, for the relentless whistling carried on. Snarling at the cooker, she went along the row of taps, viciously twisting them all. There was a nauseating smell of fat that made her stomach heave. Her temples hammered even more. Her lips moved to ask Matthew's forgiveness, but only a stifled rustle emerged. Inevitably, for fear of what was happening to her, she brought her fist to her mouth and her sleeve caught the handle of the heavy frying pan. It crashed to the floor, oozing fat. This was more than she could take. She took flight, running into the hall like a fleeing horse, tears flowing in a downpour of wretchedness.
Matthew cornered her at the foot of the stairs. Grabbing her arm, he pulled her to him. 'Hey, Mum, slow down,' he said, looking at her ravaged countenance. 'Mum, Mum.' He cradled her against him for several minutes then helped her into the lounge and onto a chair. He kneeled in front of her. 'Mum?'
She trembled, incoherently rambling.
Matthew tore to the phone.
Familiar things appeared detached. Remote, as if they'd been transferred to inaccessible sites. Audrey held out her unsteady hands and stared, fascinated by the quivering fingers. Her conventional world had changed. It had become nebulous. She felt fabulously dreamy as she continued to study the clammy hands but it was an effort to keep them steady. As she slowly turned the palms upwards, she felt the last shred of energy begin to fade.
Audrey scanned the low ceiling, entranced by a swaying cobweb which originated at the lace lampshade and travelled all the way to the edge of the wardrobe. Or was it the other way round? Soft murmurings intruded into her deliberations and even as she became conscious of shadowy figures, someone asked her how she felt. Unhurriedly, she shifted her head to the right, felt a cool hand, touch hers. The hand belonged to Matthew, who was standing, stiff as a cane, beside the bed. He wore an anxious air. Audrey wondered about it, finding it mystifying. She brooded on it for a while then, hearing an indistinct cough, she checked to see who else was there.
Recognizing that the man next to Matthew was the doctor came as an all-out shock and for the first time Audrey questioned her presence in the bed. She turned her head slightly, catching sight of Gladys and Brian perched on the wicker chairs. Both outwardly distraught. It was strangely comforting. She mumbled to Brian, 'There was no need to snap,' though why she said it she didn't know. Switching abruptly to Matthew, she croaked, 'Have I been ill?'
Leonard Bonser answered for him. 'You were a little het up, my dear. I gave you an injection to help you sleep. If you still feel groggy, it might be advisable to stay in bed for the rest of the evening.' He collected his bag and blue blazer. 'Don't get up, Matthew. I'll let myself out. Cheerio, Audrey. I'll pop in again tomorrow.'
'What did he mean, the rest of the evening?'
'You've been asleep all day, Mum.'
Ever practical, always knowing the right thing to do, Gladys suggested that a cup of tea might go down well. She offered to brew it, discreetly prevailing on Matthew to help. Probably eager to escape the sick room, Matthew dutifully followed, which fittingly or otherwise left Brian and Audrey alone.
Brian quickly took advantage of the unexpected privacy. He drew the chair closer to the bed and planted his elbows on the bedclothes. 'How do you feel?' he asked.
'Everything seems miles away, like it did when I had the flu.'
Audrey peered at him. 'You do?'
Brian had nursed her through a nasty bout of influenza. They had been favoured with a break from Matthew's unshakable presence (him being in France for two weeks on an organised school trip). They had gone to Anglesey for the first weekend then daringly returned to hole up in her house. However, because of a sudden influx of aching bones and a soaring temperature they were not to enjoy their careless freedom. He had been marvellous; he had mopped her perspiration and fed her constantly with soup and soothing drinks until she could take a little food. And he held her hand like he was doing now.
Brian brushed his lips across her knuckles, pushed a few strands of copper away from her eyes, totally unaware that Matthew was smiling his approval from the doorway.
Gladys bustled in carrying a pretty tray loaded with mugs of tea. This she placed on a small table, covered with lace in keeping with the current fashion for Victorian trimmings. After plumping Audrey's pillows, she shook two tiny tablets from the bottle which Len had left and gave them to Audrey, who, without comment or query, washed them down with tea.
Much later, Matthew straightened the bedclothes over his slumbering mother, peaceful now, girlish almost with her hair fanning the pillow. It was difficult now that she was at peace to equate the turbulent upheaval with her existing serene state. He had no doubt about its cause. Common sense told him it had nothing to do with him; it was the recent cruel invasion by that foul-mouthed sonofabitch that disturbed her so. He moved away lest his anger came out loud and woke her up; he was tired enough to be careless and there'd been enough turmoil for one day. He tweaked the teddy bear's nose on his way out and after giving his mother a final glance gently closed the door and crossed the landing to his own room and started to undress.
Flinging his clothes onto a chair, he stepped into a pair of brief summer shorts and climbed into bed, but the minute he folded himself into a sleeping position the day's events crowded into his mind. For ten minutes he pitched about, then sat up - still tired, yet wide awake. The only remedy for sleeplessness was to read until such time as he couldn't see the print. He clicked on the lamp and reached for the sci-fi book he had started that morning, turning to the bookmarked page just as the first peal of the telephone sounded.
Vaulting from the bed, he raced to the door and tumbled down the stairs to the hall, where he wrenched the phone from the cradle, reciting the number like a babbling baboon. Without any delay, he heard the sound of a receiver being firmly replaced.
(to be continued)