Audrey was still smouldering over Gladys's appalling interference. For five miserable, shiftless days she had suffered her ingratiating attempts to please and not once had she indulged in a good scream. She got near to letting go last night over the shoe-cleaning incident, when the meddlesome woman had taken it upon herself to polish her sandals with brown boot polish instead of using cream.
The stifling room did not improve her temper and the fact that her pink slip clashed with the orange bedspread didn’t help. It was silly, she knew that, but colours were important to her and conflicting ones offended. She considered changing the garment for another, but the listlessness which engulfed her refused to allow the idea. Languidly, she extended her legs and trod the bed-rail with her feet, almost doing herself an injury when, hearing a knock at the front door, she swung her legs to the floor.
The clock on the chest of drawers said eight-thirty. Had she been at home she would have said it was a mite early for callers. Unfortunately, she had no say in who came to this address. Curious, she eased open the door and waited, expecting Gladys to charge along the narrow hall, but there was neither sight nor sound of her. Believing she had gone out and needing to satisfy her budding inquisitiveness Audrey grabbed her skirt from the dressing stool and hastily dressed. The inertia was now moderated with the stimulus of something to do.
A startled Sam Wilding stepped back when the door flew open, staggered by the sheer force of it. 'Is Gladys in?' he said, when he regained his composure.
Audrey was about to utter an unenthusiastic No, when, Gladys called from the kitchen, 'Come in, Sam.'
Sam stepped inside; all Audrey could do was follow. She shadowed him along the passage, bemused by his unexpected appearance and Gladys's apparent reluctance to let him in. He reeked of wash leathers and soap. It wasn't unpleasant and Audrey supposed Gladys should be well used to it. At the kitchen entrance, Sam stood aside to let her go first. A rare, mannerly gentleman, she thought, as she skimmed through.
Gladys sat drinking tea, clad in a blue candlewick dressing gown, which, Audrey noted, was tightly belted. She wore a huge, welcoming smile which included both Audrey and the early morning guest. 'I didn't hear you, Sam,' she said. 'You should have come round the back.' Fetching another cup, she commented that he must be warm in his jacket and implored him to take it off before he keeled over.
Audrey spitefully reckoned he must be stupid to wear one in the first place.
Sam was one of those people who cannot resist fiddling with inanimate objects, an annoying habit which Audrey found distracting. As the salt and pepper pots gyrated she sneaked a sideways peek, noting the way his eyebrows twisted at the ends. Apart from that minor quirk he wasn't bad looking; more like a mid-fifties man than an ancient sixty-two.
Sam's face glowed as he watched Gladys pour the tea. 'I hope I haven't called too early.'
'Of course you haven't.' Gladys handed him a mug and pushed the sugar bowl towards him. 'I nearly rang yesterday, but I wasn't sure if you'd mind.'
'I'd have been tickled pink,' he said, his blue-grey eyes sparkling as he blew on the hot tea, at the same time gazing affectionately at Gladys.
This exhibition of cow-eyed worship was, for Audrey, unbearable. The prospect of them succumbing to eager passion in front of her did not bear thinking about, and since no-one had invited her to sit down or offered her a cup of tea she had no other recourse but to leave the room.
By the time Audrey returned with an armful of washing Gladys was ready to go out.
'Leave those, pet. I'll do them later.'
Audrey glared at her. She was downright fed-up with being continually patronised. Angrily, she tipped soap powder in the dispenser and set the programme, then fiercely stuffed sundry items into the front-loader. A torn blouse was the result of not being careful and her bad humour escalated. Inwardly blaming Gladys for getting her so enraged, she shrieked, 'Look what you made me do,' and flung the damaged blouse at her. 'Your bloody meddling is driving me nuts.'
Terrifyingly calm and without uttering a word Gladys stalked to the door, holding herself unusually erect as she gripped the knob.
'And don't expect me to be here when you get back,' Audrey cried.
Gladys did not react; she just retreated to the back yard.
Sam snatched up his jacket and aimed an inky look at Audrey, who was hammering both fists on the worktop like a frustrated child.
In desperation, Audrey took a pill, then a second for good measure. She sat at the table to wait for them to perform their miracles, toying with the very thing that upset her earlier - the unattractive, brown and white condiment set. Within the hour the anger had receded. She examined the unfair outburst, naturally regretting it and aching with compunction for what she had done to Gladys.
The vibrating drum in the washer did a fine job of mesmerising her and as the whir increased to a high speed hum she discharged a slow yawn, reflecting on how like the appliance her life was, alternately orbiting, never stopping long enough to take stock. Her eyelids drooped as she tried to determine if she had always lived in an oscillating whirlpool, intangible perceptions of a topsy-turvy existence circulating her brain, until a drug-induced tiredness prevailed; yawning again, she used her arms as a pillow and drifted off to sleep.
She woke with an almighty thirst and a mouth she likened to a sandpit. Rotating her stiff shoulders, she got slowly to her feet and collected a tumbler from the cupboard, only vaguely irritated this time by the click of the door magnet. She ran the tap before filling the glass, just as a wind current swept the net curtain against two empty milk bottles on the sill, then sucked it outside where it flapped like a newly-released flag. Lucky thing, she thought, as she sipped the ice cold water; visualising herself being whisked to freedom, she wondered how she would feel if she were as free as that curtain, entirely forgetting that it was steadfastly anchored to the window frame by a rod. It was that short-lived incident that determined her to stop this egotistical and ungenerous behaviour and take herself in hand.
She planned an apology, searching for an explanation which would placate both Gladys and Sam, the dark glower he delivered on his way out having given her a thorough jolt. She had a tough time ahead trying to make up. Remembering the acute displeasure she had endured that morning, it occurred to her that she might possibly be a touch jealous, but she discarded the notion as absurd. Sam was an old man and she wasn't into consorting with old men.
When the telephone rang, she scrambled to answer, but skidded to a stop before reaching it. She peered round, feeling foolish, half expecting to be condemned. She crept into the lounge like a fugitive as if the caller would guess she was taking flight. Then, as she stood upright, she recognised the imperativeness of getting away, particularly from telephones, before she became fully unhinged. Nervously winding a handkerchief round her index finger she decided to leave right away, knowing she would feel better someplace else; moreover, it would save making excuses for her conduct.
But where could she go?
She knew one woman who might take her in: a former office acquaintance who had moved to a flat in London, but she was a demon for wild parties and Audrey didn't think she could survive in such a hectic environment. Then there was Reg and Gemini King, her old Superintendent boss and his wife; they'd often invited her to stay at their pad in Lichfield. But that was years ago, she could hardly land on their doorstep unannounced and expect to be welcomed. What she needed was to go somewhere miles away from civilisation, somewhere like ... like Uncle Adrian's. 'That's it,' she exclaimed. 'I'll go there.'
All the time she'd been debating what to do, the phone had continued to ring; only now did she re-attune. Impatiently, she waited for the ringing to cease, then dialled Adrian's number, apprehensively tapping her fingernails while she waited for his response. When there was no reply she resolved to take a chance and go anyway. If necessary she would book bed and breakfast accommodation; anything would be preferable to staying around here.
In a frenzy of activity, she emptied the washer, replaced half the load and set a sixty minute drying cycle. Stowing packets of cereal, bread and jam in cupboards - her last meal of several hours ago - reminded her that she should eat. And she would, when she had the time. She moved at a frantic pace. She washed the crocks and mopped the tiles and, after packing her bag, she picked a single rose and stuck it in a bud vase. The adrenalin flowed as she scribbled a note on a page torn from the message pad.
"I'm truly sorry. Please be patient with me. I am going up north to see Uncle Adrian. I've left my laundry in the drier. You've got my spare key and Uncle's number is by the phone, should you need either. I'll ring when I arrive. Tell Sam I'm sorry. You're a lucky woman. Love Audrey."
Propping the note on the vase, she let herself out.
Coming to a stop at her gate, Audrey noted the drawn curtains. Were they closed when they decamped, she wondered, or did Gladys pull them to?
With her hand on the latch, she glanced next door. Because of her idiotic setback, she never did talk to Liz or Gerald about Vera. She could see one of them in an upstairs room, though the growth around the window hampered positive identification. There wasn't time now; she had a train to catch. With that thought she rushed along the path. It seemed an exceptionally long way to the front door. As she progressed she experienced a peculiar sensation that when she got there she would be too late for some indefinable adventure. As the key went in the lock, she was aware of the familiar tingle of expectancy.
The answering machine crouched on the hall table like a toad ready to pounce but Audrey sailed by without discerning that its normally pulsating red eye was extinct.
To satisfy herself that everything was in order she toured the rooms, swishing drapes to let the light flood in. Outside, Jane Fleming caught the movement and waved. Audrey wiggled her fingers at her, then lingered a while, attracted by the glinting brass fingers on the church clock. Three forty-three; she knew she must hurry.
Matthew's bedroom was fine, except that a book had fallen to the floor and ejected its bookmark, a piece of A5 paper covered with jottings. She briefly scanned the notes, which mainly related to local people. Not knowing in which page to place the marker, she shoved it inside the cover and crammed the book amongst others on the shelf.
Downstairs, she checked the contents of the fridge, counting four boxes of long life milk, two unopened pots of blackcurrant jam, and a new carton of apple juice. Everything would keep until her return. A vision came then of Adrian Buckham's bungalow and his magnificent garden; on impulse, she hunted out one of her albums and flicked through. She came across the snap of her father, on the old wooden bench that nestled under an arch of climbing roses. He would sit for hours on that bench, shaded from the sun by the archway, reading and ruminating, his brother's corgi at his feet. And she would do the same; she would recuperate very well in that setting.
A swelling excitement sent her running up the stairs to pack. She pulled a nylon holdall from the top shelf of the closet, rolled skirts and tops the way Matthew taught her, and bundled them in, heaping underwear and toiletries on top. Sliding the zip across, she shot the drawers in, kicked the wardrobe doors to, and carried the bag to the hall. She seized the phone to ring for a taxi. She was about to dial when her foot touched something hard, and she looked down … and saw the disconnected plug of the answering machine. She stared at it, in disbelief, for several minutes, wondering how long had it been since Gladys's unacceptable tampering.
Swiftly she restored the power and, at the precise moment she rose from her knees, the telephone rang.
While he talked, she noticed blood on her finger, no doubt caused by the rough zipper on the bag. She sucked it while he ranted his annoyance. Because of the frequency of his calls, his voice was as familiar to her as Matthew's or Brian's, but why on earth was she listening to such trash? Why didn't she simply put the damned phone down?
The pressure of the handset made her ear hurt and she used her free hand to massage the spot around the gold stud, then, as he droned on about bloody sex, something inside her snapped. 'For Christ's sake!' she cried. 'Why don't you go fuck yourself?'
She slammed the phone on the cradle, grabbed her bag, and crashed out of the door, completely forgetting to double-lock. As she set off along the road a chuckle broke out, followed by loud giggles. Had she really said such a thing? 'My God, Audrey,' she whispered. 'I think you've cracked it.'
(to be continued)