The following morning, clutching a bottle of pills for his mother and a tube of hair gel for his own use, Matthew emerged from the pharmacy in time to see the usual clique of women settling on the benches for the day's gossip. In the hope of not being recognized, and accordingly questioned on the soon-to-end period of time off, he bowed his head and brought up his arm, ostensibly to scratch his scalp. At that instant, Michael Spencer appeared at the top of the library steps and called out to him. Matthew was compelled to stop the dumb pretence. He waved, and when Michael attempted to return the gesture, two hardbacks slid from under his arm and bounded on their corners to the pavement. Going to his aid, Matthew secretly begged the female tattlers not to allow the sudden stir to disrupt their deliberations.
Michael thanked him, in his lavish fashion, and proceeded to open his leather bag. 'You look in splendid shape,' he said as he placed the books inside. 'I do so admire the younger generation's capacity for travel. Makes me seem a bit of a fuddy-duddy. Ah, well, I had my chance. I must not grumble because I lacked the nerve to set foot outside England.' He tugged the zip across and grasped the handles of the bag, holding it at arm's length at his side, which made his posture seem slightly lopsided. 'So, Matthew,' he said, leaning over to adjust the balance, 'are you well established in Germany?'
'I'm acclimatised now. It's a remarkably advanced country, you know.' Matthew described the new school and, in particular, the ornate chapel. 'When I've got my own apartment I'm going to invite Mum over so she can see it. She's very fond of beautiful buildings.'
'How is your mother? I was informed she wasn't well. Maybe I should visit.'
Matthew stuffed the pills in his pocket. 'She's not up to seeing people at present, but Aunt Gladys is taking good care of her. Actually, I'm flying back tomorrow and I was wondering if I could stop by the Vicarage later today, or perhaps this evening. To tell the truth, I could use a bit of advice, and I'd like tell you a bit more about the school and where I live.'
'Of course, dear boy. Would seven o'clock suit you?'
'It'll do nicely. Thanks, Vicar.'
'It will be pleasant for me. It gets a trifle lonely in that big house when the day's work is done.' Michael assumed a wistful expression. 'I sometimes wish I had married. I am sure the evenings would be livelier with someone to share them with.' He tightened his grip on his bag and bade Matthew goodbye. 'I look forward to seeing you,' he said, eyeing the gathering of women.
Watching him hurrying towards the benches, Matthew mused about the likelihood of Michael ever marrying, and concluded that, if he was on the lookout for a likely candidate, then the benches were most definitely to be avoided.
He pocketed the pills and the gel and turned away in time to spot Peter Fleming disappearing into the saloon bar. That's what I could do with, he thought, a pint and a chat. He examined his watch to see how long he dare stay out. Being pretty sure his mother would sleep until mid-afternoon, he jumped over a flower bed and crossed the police station lawn, impishly two-fingering Chris Beresford, who was wielding a bunched fist.
Contrary to what he expected, the pub was deserted; chairs were tilted against the vacant tables and the bar was unattended, although the pump covers had been removed so Matthew knew he could get a drink. Hearing a faint rustling noise on the other side of the bar, he leaned across to investigate. To his amazement Jane and Peter were on their knees, running their hands over the floor like novice swimmers learning the crawl. 'Would it be impolite to ask what on earth you're doing?'
Jane was so disconcerted by a voice coming out of the blue she started to choke. Peter rigorously thumped her back. 'I've been dying to do that for years,' he said, beaming roguishly at Matthew as he gripped the edge of the bar and levered himself up.
'Were you dusting the floor or ironing it?' Matthew enquired.
Jane herself surfaced, displaying dusty marks like fingerprints on her neck and cheeks and grubby smears around her mouth. Matthew had the impression he'd intruded on a slice of hanky-panky.
'We were searching for money,' Jane said, seizing a damp cloth from the sink.
'I can let you have a bit if things are bad.'
Peter looked him over. 'Why look, Jane, it's Mr Moneybags himself.'
'Ignore him,' advised Jane. She went on to explain that she'd dropped a bagful of copper coins and they blended so well with the flooring it was difficult to detect them.
If that's so, thought Matthew, how come her lips are so mucky?
'Wondered how long it'd be before you showed your face,' Peter said, speaking immediately Jane finished. 'Reckoned you'd got too big for your boots, you being a professor and all.'
In the process of peeling off his jacket, Matthew roared with laughter. Peter joined in, well-pleased with his spontaneous quip. Then, by tacit agreement, after Matthew dumped his jacket on a nearby stool, the two men locked hands and feigned an arm wrestle, the way they invariably did whenever they met.
Jane tutted. 'Don't hurt him, Matthew, he's all I've got.'
'I'm all she wants, Matty. She'd be lost without me working her limbs.'
Even as Jane cuffed her husband in mock resentment, a gem of a blush started somewhere inside her scarlet blouse. It occurred to Matthew that not many of the married couples he knew enjoyed such a close bond. The Flemings might prank about but they had no problems with each other.
'How're you keeping, Jane?'
'I'm tiptop,' she said, as she walked to the lift-up section of the bar.
Matthew waylaid her as she came through. Catching her hands, he unfolded her arms and held her away from him. She looked very becoming in the fussy blouse and short skirt. 'As captivating as ever,' he said, unable to miss the dark separation of breasts between the frills.
She stood on her toes to peck his cheek. 'Your Mum's run down, isn't she?''
Matthew gave a weak laugh. 'Things have got on top of her lately. Worrying over me, I guess.'
Selecting a pint mug and lodging it beneath the pump, Peter said, 'Suppose you want your usual?'
'Is the draught good?'
'Need you ask? Have you ever known it bad?' Peter filled the glass, then jerked it from the tap, too fast; a spattering of froth sprayed one of the peanut bowls.
'Watch it!' Jane cried, rushing to rescue the dish.
'You watch it, sweetheart,' Peter said, taunting her by sticking out his tongue.
'Now then people, no arguing, not on a Friday.'
'If you think that's arguing, Matty, you should hear us when we really get cracking. We've been known to outdo the church bells when we're at our best.' Peter looked at Jane and grinned. She grinned in reply. Returning his attention to Matthew, Peter said, 'Now then, Matt, tell me about life in France.'
Peter spread his hands. 'So, tell me about Germany. It's all the same to me, they're both foreign.'
'Not a lot to tell. Plenty of work and kids. A bit of drinking, some discos, women.'
'Ah, yes. Women!' Peter smacked his lips and drew a shapely outline in the air. 'Tell me about the women.'
Jane lashed him with the damp cloth. 'Don't bother, Matty. He understands well enough about women.' She hit her husband a little harder. 'And you pack it in. You know my views on that kind of talk.' Emitting a low-pitched growl, she dumped the cloth in the linen box and stalked out.
'Take no notice,' Peter said, winking at Matthew. 'It's one of her bad days. Now, where did we get to?'
However, the opportunity to learn about German women vanished with the arrival of a coach-load of noisy pensioners. Matthew reluctantly, and sadly, for he would not get another chance to see his favourite people, took up his coat, saluted his farewell, and left.
It was pointless staying in bed when she wasn't ill. The pills made her brain woolly and disinclined to work; apart from that Audrey felt all right, and, anyway, she needed to be up before Matthew went out on his evening jaunt. Instead of shuffling, she took some experimental paces, primarily to make sure her legs could bear her weight on the stairs. Satisfied that they would, she took her caftan from the closet and slipped it on. Hoping it would make her feel less like an invalid, she discarded her slippers for an ancient pair of brown Jesus sandals.
Matthew regarded her taking one tentative step at a time. 'You shouldn't be up,' he said, extending an arm to help her.
'I can't stay up there while you're out.'
'Aunt Gladys said she'd come over. I shouldn't be more than an hour.'
'I can't imagine why you want to see Michael on your last night home.'
'He invited me,' he lied.
Whatever shall I do, she thought, when he's gone?
'What will I do when Matty's gone,' she asked Gladys, soon after she arrived.
'How about coming to me until you're on the mend?'
'I'm not ill,' insisted Audrey.
'I know that,' Gladys said, patiently. 'But a few days away would give you a nice break. What do you think?'
With Matthew gone Audrey thought she would at least have someone to talk to, someone to give her a hand if she had another one of those terrifying spells. She could go in the morning, after Matty had left, after she quit crying.
'Why not come tonight?' Gladys said, as if she'd decoded her thoughts. 'Matty can come with us. He'll feel a heap better going back knowing you're in safe hands.'
And Audrey thought: yes, and she would be safe from Him.
Cowering internally, Audrey remembered the last call, when he abandoned the smutty talk and spoke like a savage, using threatening words like slash, and wound, and rape. 'I'll get some things together,' she said, unexpectedly impatient to get away. 'I won't want much. I can always come back for more. It's not as though you live a million miles away.'
Thanks to another intake of pills, her feet seemed to float over the loop-pile carpet. Even her hands had trouble unhooking the hangers from the high rail in the wardrobe. When eventually she managed it, she stumbled to the bed clutching six dresses.
'Can I help?'
She veered round at the familiar deep voice. Her stomach flipped at the sight of Brian standing in the doorway. She didn’t question why he'd come, unwittingly reverting to the old habit of unreserved acceptance. 'I've got to do things myself,' she said. 'I'm going to stay with Gladys for a few days.'
'It'll be best with Matty going, and everything.'
What did he mean by everything?
'What am I going to do without him?' she breathed.
Brian cupped her chin and probed the depths of her eyes. 'You'll be fine,' he murmured. 'He'll be home before you know it.'
In that timeless juncture, when buried emotion was resurrected and delighted in, when the past became the present with no recollection of unhappy times, neither of them heard Gladys tramping on the stairs. They were unaware of her entrance, until she said, 'God blimey. Give her a kiss and have done with it!'
Shocked into reality, neither Audrey nor Brian knew what to say.
Either because of embarrassment or relief, Gladys began briskly to smooth the crumpled dresses then shot into the closet like a rapacious lion in hot pursuit of its quarry. When she came out, she was carrying Audrey's suitcase - a dark brown, expanding case that still paraded I love Wales stickers printed in black and red. Wordlessly, staunchly preoccupied with packing, she shoved in the things she considered her friend might require, while Audrey sat with Brian on the end of the unmade bed, viewing the undertaking in convivial silence and making no effort to intervene.
Downstairs the front door slammed and a minute later Matthew yelled, 'Where is everybody?' He bounded upstairs without waiting for a response and rushed into his mother's room, wearing a fractionally worried expression. He looked only moderately surprised to log his father's presence but stared in astonishment at the suitcase in Gladys's hand.
Audrey rushed to explain. 'I'm going to stay with Gladys.'
'Good.' Matthew gave her a hug, looking markedly consoled as he conceived that the heaviness of responsibility was ebbing away. 'You'll be okay with her.'
'I'll be okay,' Audrey whispered, and wondered yet again what she would do without him.
While Matthew stowed the baggage in the Ford, Brian bundled the two women in the rear, fussing like an indulgent patriarch, even going so far as to suggest he cover Audrey's legs with the tartan travel rug. The travel rug, remembered Audrey, recalling that breathtaking picnic. Her breath misted the window as she observed Matthew double-locking the door of the house. The closing of the door signifies change, she thought. The sensation of things turning over in her stomach was replaced by impatient expectancy. It was a pity she didn't know in advance what influence the transition would have on her.
Brian started the car. 'All set?' he said, to no-one in particular, as he released the brake.
The car began to roll and Audrey leaned contentedly against the leather, attaching no importance whatsoever to the twitching curtains as they sped away; after all, most of her adult life had been spent satisfying the nosiness of others.