Sidestepping the young tree, Gladys cursed the idiocy of placing saplings in the middle of a much used thoroughfare. Matthew wasn't interested in her objections. He was driven by a need to get the forthcoming farewell ceremony out of the way, as if charging into the terminus would accelerate his expedition. He much preferred to embark on journeys alone. Company called for small talk and small talk was hard to handle when he was strung up by emotion.
'Slow down, Matthew?' begged Gladys, as she scampered at his side.
With some reluctance, Matthew moderated his speed. Swapping his suitcase to the left hand, he hitched the holdall onto his shoulder and grabbed Gladys's arm to help her keep up for the remaining three-minute trek.
Tom Setton saluted as they passed his shop, the only one, apart from Gladys, to witness his leave-taking. It was too early for the ladies to hold court on the dew-damp benches and everyone else was at work - including Brian - though he did ring to wish him a safe trip and give his assurance that his mother would be taken care of.
To Matthew's dismay, they arrived at the bus shelter with time to spare. Dreading a nerve-racking wait, he dumped his gear and steeled himself not to take out his frustration on Gladys. She was fretting about the filth on the seats, as if it mattered, as if anything mattered. Still panting from the enforced trot, she unfolded an enormous black scarf and directed him to hang-fire while she spread it across the slats, saying it would be a dreadful shame to spoil his nice clothes.
There was graffiti everywhere; scratched on every available surface, it communicated its own story, imparting a permanent record of the kind of youth society had produced, something Matthew never dreamed of seeing in this quiet backwater. How wrong he’d been, ten days ago, to think the area was unchanged. Who would have thought it could harbour the gross individual who had victimised his mother.
Gladys squeezed his arm. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'Your Mum will be all right with me.'
She was trying to reassure him, but Matthew knew he would not have any real peace until the villain was apprehended. His Mum had cried when he left. She didn't clutch at him or do anything embarrassing, just positioned herself at the door, shedding unhappy tears. She did not, or could not, look at him. He wished it was not so difficult to decide if she wept for him or for her own plight. It could have been either in her state of mind, though he felt like a traitor for even thinking it. Some of her old backbone had returned since leaving home, though, obviously, she couldn’t go back - not with that damned madman on the loose. Thank God she's out of it, he thought, recalling how she behaved last night when they were leaving, her eyes lingering on the phone as she bypassed the hall table by a couple of feet, flattening her skirt to her thighs as if to prevent it from touching the table leg.
The church clock was striking nine. That meant the bus would soon be ascending the hill. Matthew gazed over the field in the direction of the police station and the pub. From outside the bus shelter, the church and the first few houses in Arbor Road could be seen. He didn't venture out; there was no point in persecuting himself further. Though he loved his career and his life overseas, a couple of weeks in Fieldmoor always effected a disinclination to return. And today would have been worse had it not been for the Vicar, who had prayed with him and helped him come to terms with the recent happenings, and promised to give his mother spiritual advice. It was a comfort to know he could rely on the church for support.
Matthew contemplated his godmother, who sat with her hands clasped, looking straight ahead. He wondered what she was thinking. He had mentioned her once to Heinz Kruger, flippantly describing her as witchlike with the strength of Goliath and the nature of a Samaritan. The wretched events of the last two weeks made him realise just how accurate his portrayal was. He had been an immature bore with the idea that a vaguely freakish description would impress; he didn't feel so disrespectful now.
He caught his breath when Gladys peered enquiringly at him. 'Mum ....' he began, in a strangled voice. 'Can she look after herself?'
Gladys wrapped her arms around him, her silvery hair shining against the darkness of his coat. 'Sometimes we have to help ourselves with only the Lord for guidance,' she said, 'but you can be confident your Dad and I will do our utmost. We love her, Matthew. We won't forsake her.'
'I know,' he replied.
The yellow single-decker rounded the corner and trundled towards them. On its side was a sign advising people to Post Early for Christmas, typical of the bus company's lax attitude to replacing old notices; nevertheless, it served to remind him to write to his mother as soon as he got the chance.
He kissed Gladys on the cheek and mounted the two steps to where Alan Benjamin waited to take his fare.
'Just off?' Alan asked.
Matthew nodded, uttered a hasty affirmative, then dashed to the back of the bus. At the roadside Gladys was brandishing her scarf as if shaking it free of dust. Probably off that bench, he thought, grinning for the first time. He waved until she disappeared from sight, then stowed his luggage in the overhead rack.
A young woman with a mischievous child occupied the seat in front. The little girl stared at Matthew through pink framed spectacles and showed him her chocolate covered tongue. He was tempted to return the gesture; instead he surveyed the fields and hedges and isolated dwellings as they glided by. When another bus overtook them bearing the same postal warning, he fumbled in his pocket for a pen, and scribbled a draft in his diary. Dear Mum, he wrote, I love you.
The room was shaded from the blinding sun by partly drawn gold velvet drapes. Long shadows patterned the wall. A dreary tune on the radio fitted Audrey's mood. She sat on the couch, her oyster-silk dress taut across her knees, the insipid colour making her look fragile in the half-light, almost a reflection of her unshakeable melancholia. Brian's cat had sneaked in and was curled up beside her, his rhythmic purr growing louder as she fondled his ragged ears. The skin under her eyes felt tight where the tears had dried. She had tried so hard not to cry when Matthew was preparing to go, but finally she did. She craved to hold him, but was afraid to do so in case she lost control; he would have hated that. He always refused to be escorted to buses or trains, so she was not surprised when he rejected her overtures to go, making the excuse that he'd feel happier if she stayed behind to rest; yet he accepted Gladys's offer to accompany him. Gladys had been very insistent. She claimed it wouldn't be proper to allow him to go without someone to wave him off. She said it was up to her to make sure he went off satisfactorily while his mother was incapacitated. Gladys was a paragon. Why then did she feel so resentful?
Gladys scurried in at four o'clock. She plonked her bag on the sideboard and at once checked her hair in the mirror. 'He got the bus all right,' she said, rubbing a smudge from her cheek.
'Was he upset?'
'A bit depressed. Only to be expected, considering.'
Gladys bustled round, drawing back the drapes and plumping the cushions. 'I'll get us something to eat shortly,' she said, giving Blackie a helping hand to the door. 'I popped in your place to do a bit of clearing up. I've put Matty's clothes in the wardrobe and done a stint with the vacuum. Oh, and I made a start on the bathroom but I didn't have time to finish that. I'll make it the main job tomorrow.' Tightening her apron strings, she sailed towards the kitchen. 'Right, then, I'll get the food.'
Gladys rapped Audrey's wrist with a wooden spatula when, suddenly ravenous, she tried to nip a morsel of liver from the pan. 'Your fingers'll drop off if you're not careful,' she said, as if talking to a child. 'Incidentally, I made a cup of camomile tea. Hope you don't mind.' She pressed on without waiting for a reply. 'I was admiring the bamboo wallpaper in your kitchen. I might get something similar for here.' She glanced round at the papered walls … three plain and one featuring teapots … before stirring the meat again. 'I did wash the cup before I left. Honestly, I can't fathom how you tolerate that monstrosity constantly dangling its leaf in the sink.'
She was referring to the Swiss cheese plant that was on the point of taking over the ceiling, as well as draping itself along the cupboards. Whenever there was a draught, one of its lower leaves swung into the sink as if trying to escape the cold. Audrey responded to Gladys's observation with a rare spark of humour, 'Maybe it thinks it's a plate.'
'I'd cut its arms off if it belonged to me.' Gladys dished the liver on what she referred to as her everyday plates … white with blue squiggles … and installed them in the top oven to keep warm. A trifle hesitantly, she remarked, 'Brian wondered if you might fancy a live-in companion.'
Audrey frowned at that, as much for Brian's audacity as the preposterous idea.
'I told him I doubted you'd be very inspired and, even if you were, it would take ages to find someone suitable.
Audrey questioned who granted him permission to volunteer such an inane proposal. Her response was vehement. 'Tell him to mind his own bloody business.'
Gladys stabbed a fork in the potatoes. Satisfied they were cooked, she lifted the pan off the heat and crossed to the sink. 'He's only trying help,' she said as she tipped them into a colander, slanting her head to avoid the rising steam.
Audrey shrugged. She could do without that sort of help.
The phone rang as Gladys dropped the hot plates on the table. 'Here, get stuck into that,' she ordered, hurrying off. An instant later, she reappeared. 'Somebody selling double glazing. What do I want with double glazing? Incidentally, I forgot to tell you, I switched your answering machine off.'
Audrey shoved away from the table, rage battering like an iron hammer. Her mouth suddenly felt like the bottom of a parrot's cage. When she tried to speak only hoarse noises grated out. Her sweat glands went berserk, she felt at once stickily hot and icy cold. She glared murderously at Gladys. How dare she interfere. How dare she!
(to be continued)