Friends

12 March 2013

A SUMMER CHILL, CHAPTER 30

The taxi driver gave a muffled reply to the female radio controller who had asked, almost pleadingly, if anyone was near the Tower. He then continued to drive in silence, and Audrey settled against the black leather to enjoy the ride. She was surprised to see that a new housing estate had sprung up in her absence, rows of matchbox properties barricaded by fences, and this change served to remind her of how seldom she visited. A dawdling tractor delayed the cab for several minutes and the red-necked taxi driver, prevented from overtaking by oncoming cars, drummed impatient fingers on the horn. When the opportunity came to pass, he indicated his fury with an impolite gesture. Audrey shook her head. Was it every man's nature to want everything his way, immediately?
           
The travelling hadn't tired her as much as she expected. In fact, from the moment she stepped on the station platform she felt uplifted and carefree, as if none of her worries existed. She had spent the entire journey planning how best to occupy herself, dreaming of jogging on the sands, swimming, and playing tennis, but, now that she was here, a period of inactivity appealed much more: loafing around the cottage, or pottering in the garden, or lazing with a book; always supposing, of course, that Adrian would allow her to stay.

Adrian Buckham was leaning on one of the wide granolithic gate pillars when the cab pulled up, an old English sheepdog at his feet. Audrey waved through the window, happily noting his wide-eyed astonishment when he realised who it was, then, after paying the exorbitant fare, she seized her bag and scrambled out.
           
Adrian's pleasure was indisputable as he embraced his niece, then held her at arm's length to examine her face, his floppy shirt sleeves emphasising the scrawniness of his arms. He's wasting away, Audrey thought, reproaching herself for neglecting him, ashamed that her visits were so infrequent, particularly since, next to Matthew, he was her only relation.
           
Adrian took her hand. 'Come in, girl.'
           
'Can I stay, Uncle?'
           
'Stay? Course you can stay.' He squeezed her fingers and tucked her arm in his as they walked towards the shabby front door. 'I'm mighty glad you've come. Don't get to see too many people these days.'
           
'I'm sorry,' Audrey said, and meant it. 'I've grown really selfish lately, and dreadfully quarrelsome.' She pushed open the door, and stood back to let the old man enter first. 'I thought you might help get me back to normal,' she said.
           
Adrian took a keyring from his pocket and hung it inside the door, the two heavy keys jangling as they struck the wood. 'You won't need any help from me. If you're feeling a bit dingly-dangly all you've got to do is relax and let the sea air take hold. Powerful medicine, sea air. Has a strange capacity for putting things in perspective.'
           
'I hope you're right.'
           
Adrian closed the door, and immediately the hallway darkened as if an eclipse had taken place. Momentarily, Audrey hankered to snatch the door open, suddenly afraid of shadows. Unaware of her misgivings, Adrian walked on. 'It's not a matter of me being right, lass. It's a question of having faith in nature's energies. Better than pills and doctors any day.'
           
Now, whether his convictions were right or wrong, Audrey couldn't say, but there must have been some reason the fear drained away as quickly as it came, and since the hallway was still dark, and she hadn't yet been near the sea, she could only presume the recovery came from Adrian himself; she had known she could recuperate here, she just hadn’t known how. From the depths of the hall, Adrian called: 'This way for tea, lass,' an invitation which sent her scurrying towards him like an eager kid, glad to obey, and overjoyed to be in safe hands.

Over a cup of strong, virtually undrinkable tea that had Audrey grimacing behind her hand, Adrian chatted unreservedly about his few neighbours, all of whom, in his opinion, merited medals for their compassion and their helping hands; a similar description to that often expressed by Audrey when discussing Gladys. Was it a common quality of childless folk? Was having a son the reason for her intolerance? She didn't think so, though her recent behaviour set her wondering.
           
At the first break in Adrian's spirited dialogue, Audrey began to talk about Matthew, portraying him as a bronzed nubile, which Adrian thought was a highly amusing representation.
           
'You'd better fix him up in films if he's that attractive. He'll earn a fortune.'
           
Audrey chuckled. 'He's already doing that. Well, not quite a fortune, but he has changed his job and the remuneration is unusually high.' She went on to describe, as best she could, the school where Matthew taught, and laboured over his worthy achievements.
           
'If your dad was here he'd be strutting up the prom telling everyone he met, and your mother would've been beside herself with pretentious satisfaction. God rest their poor souls, they'd have been better pegging-out after Matthew proved himself, not all those years before.'
           
Adrian lifted the tea-cosy and asked did she want more tea, but Audrey fervently shook her head; his tea-making skills being non-existent, she resolutely committed herself to personally undertaking the brewing while she was here. Trusting her face wasn't registering any sign of condemnation, she introduced the matter of the phone calls, referring to them as bothersome and asserting, almost jokingly, that they hadn't worried her in any way. True to form, Adrian was sympathetic, but Audrey wondered how commiserative he would have been had she revealed the shocking content and her mindless reactions.

After a light meal, with the washing-up done and the table cleared, Audrey and Adrian went into the room that was still referred to as the parlour. They sat together on the battered horsehair couch, facing the old black range. Audrey had changed into a white track suit and Adrian wore a Guernsey sweater as protection from the evening chill. He sat erect, with a cushion supporting his back, his thin brown cords swamping his skinny thighs. The dog snored between them and Audrey reached down to scratch his head. 'Ben sure is an improvement on your old corgis,' she said.
           
'Aye, he is. I never felt at ease with them after the bite I had. They can be a bit tetchy when they want, for no reason. No, you never know where you are with corgis. Not like you, eh fella?'
           
Ben moaned contentedly when Adrian fondled one of his ears with a liver-spotted hand, and a lump filled Audrey's throat as she witnessed the signs of erosion on the once hale man.
           
The room possessed an air of agreeable calm and they fell into a comfortable hush. No sounds interrupted the stillness, not even a clacking timepiece. Audrey looked up at the shelf. 'Is the clock slow, or has it stopped?'
           
'The day that thing stops will be the day I do.'
           
'Don't say that, Uncle,' she chided, bouncing up to put it right. As a timepiece it was ornate, but beautiful nevertheless. Its face was embellished with tiny lilies, and the carved surround depicted a miniature garden not unlike the one here. Being something of a replica of Adrian's small but unique grounds, and since it was presented on the day he retired, Audrey surmised that the clock was handmade and specifically decorated, and of matchless sentimental value. Running her fingers along the smooth outline of leaves, she tilted her head to listen, certain now that it had stopped. She peeped at her uncle, whose head was beginning to droop, and decided it would be better if he didn't know. Making little noise, she opened the clock's drawer and removed a tiny brass key. Inserting it into the hole, she carefully wound the clock until the resonant tick resumed, then she withdrew the key and closed the glass cover. Adrian's comment that he and the clock were inseparable must have impinged itself for, as she leaned on the mantelpiece to concentrate on the ticks, she felt the trepidation secede. He'll be safe now, she thought.
           
Alongside the clock was a studio photograph of her mother and Aunt Beatrice in figure-hugging, white ball gowns. They sat in front of a tall potted palm, on a high-backed couch comparable to the one in Millards dress shop; behind them, elegant in dress-suits, stood her father and Uncle Adrian. Adrian had once joked that he wore the monkey suit to climb the palm; and a much younger Audrey believed him.
           
'Remembering the past?'
           
She jumped. 'I didn't know you were awake,'
           
Adrian struggled to stand. 'I won't be for long. Soon as my head hits the pillow, I'll be off for the night.'
           
'Can I get you a drink?'
           
'Nay, lass. I'd be wanting to wee-wee in the night if I let so much as a drop get through the old lips.'
           
Audrey kissed him goodnight, and, soon after he left, she turned off the light and went to the room where, as a child, she slept in a cot at the foot of her parents' double bed. Climbing onto the high divan, she snuggled down under cold, starched sheets. The day's events rushed through her mind like an express train, but, by good luck, they did not stop her drifting off to sleep.

The next morning, seeing the light streaming through the gap in the plain pink curtains, Audrey was flabbergasted that she had actually slept through an entire night. She bounded out of bed, feeling exceedingly refreshed and filled with energy, scuttling to the bathroom as if she hadn't a moment to lose. Studying her face in the mirror, she chose not to wear her normal make-up, accepting that a dash of foundation, primarily to cover the mark, would suffice. When her ablutions were complete, she dressed in trousers and a white cotton shirt, then slipped down the hall to the kitchen, but, instead of bothering with breakfast, she led the dog into the garden. While he sniffed his territory, she hunted in the potting-shed for an empty trug, intending to furnish the house with flowers the way Aunt Beatrice did: every nook, she remembered, containing foliage or blooms.
           
Bundling daisies and larkspur into the trug, she bypassed the shed and joined the path leading to the front garden. There, with Ben ambling at her heels, she strolled among man-high shrubs until she arrived at the arbour seat her father loved. She inhaled the orangy smell of Choisya as she listened to an early song-thrush. 'I bet you love it here, too, Ben,' she said as she stroked his shaggy coat. Ben's ears twitched but not in response to her fondling for he also growled and pointed his snout towards the gate. Audrey arched round and saw a white-whiskered postman coming in.
           
Presenting Ben with a couple of black biscuits, the postman said, 'Here you are, old lad,' then addressed himself to Audrey. 'Mornin', Miss.' Withdrawing a bundle of letters from his bulging sack, he selected two and handed them over. 'Lovely weather again.'
           
Audrey acknowledged that it promised to be quite blissful.
           
The postman's merry eyes sparkled as he bestowed on her a smile resembling that of a chubby gnome. 'Have a splendid day,' he said, touching two fingers to his peaked cap.
           
Thinking what a delightful man he was, Audrey returned to the house and put the letters on the sideboard, and, after feeding Ben, she crammed the flowers into an enamel pitcher with decoupage motifs. It was only when she was centring the pitcher on the huge table that it dawned on her that it was the second flower-picking in as many days, though the first seemed a million years away and the same amount of miles.
           
Alerted to Adrian's waking by his morning cough, she set about preparing his breakfast. She soft-boiled an egg and put it on a tray with cornflakes and toast, and carried it to his room. Placing the tray on his knees, she pecked his cheek. 'Morning, Uncle. Can you manage?'
           
'I've managed ever since your Aunt Bea died,' he grumbled.
           
She gave him a playful thump. 'You're incorrigible,' she said, going to swing back the curtain. Outside, in one of the neighbouring bungalows, an ageing gentleman was unfolding garden chairs. Later on, she thought, she would be out there, or her name wasn't Audrey Buckham.

The next hour was spent cleaning and straightening, putting ancient papers and magazines in racks, and scouring the grease encrusted sink. As the air of neglect gradually disappeared, Audrey concluded that, in situations like this, the services of a housekeeper would be indispensable, and a transient image of Gladys Stanhope, muttering her way through housework in a manner peculiar to her, prompted a wry grin. If anyone could cure Adrian's hatred of being bossed, she could. And that observation whipped up other, less merry reflections. Gladys! How angry she must have been when she found the note; how hurt, bearing in mind all the good woman had done. Audrey decided to ring before it became too difficult to heal the rift, and, before she could change her mind, she dialled the number.
           
'Hel-lo.'
           
There was something afoot. Gladys did not normally speak in such a lilting fashion.
           
'Oh, Audrey, am I thankful you've rung. I've got some very important news.'
           
A shiver travelled up Audrey's neck. For heaven's sake! She'd come here to forget things. The last thing she wanted was news.
           
'I've got engaged!'
           
Audrey stood absolutely rigid, uncertain if she had heard correctly.
           
'Did you hear what I said?'
           
'Engaged? You and Sam? I don't know what to say.'
           
'How about congratulations?'
           
Incapable of digesting news of such magnitude, and suspecting that Gladys was being frivolous, Audrey's response was clumsy. 'How did that happen?' she enquired, a shade flippantly.
           
Gladys answered with an air of assumed patience. 'It's simple. Sam proposed, I accepted.'
           
But Audrey simply could not absorb it. She'd only left Fieldmoor yesterday; less than twenty-four hours had elapsed since the upset. Surely Sam hadn't offered betrothal as a means of comforting an aggrieved woman?
           
'Haven't you got anything to say, Aud?'
           
Audrey brightened. Deep down, whatever the grounds for a rapid engagement, she was pleased. 'I'm thrilled, Gladys. Sorry if I offended you.'
           
'You didn't offend me. Anyway, I must tell you, Jane gave a party for us at the pub. Oh, Audrey, I wish you could've shared it with me.'
           
Audrey felt she really did not deserve such good-fellowship and as Gladys gave a protracted account of the celebrations she tried to adjust her mind to the idea of Gladys and Sam getting engaged - and married. Try as she might, she couldn't picture them kissing, let alone making love. Perhaps it didn't happen at their age; perhaps, in that area, they intended to abstain.
           
Gladys would have talked for the duration of the morning if Audrey's concern over Adrian's phone bill had not fostered an early cessation. Choosing an appropriate gap in the conversation, she broke in with a request: that Gladys pop round to the house and collect more underwear. Upon obtaining Gladys's agreement, she reassured her about postage and rang off. No mention had been made of either the conflict or the hasty departure and for that she gave silent, heartfelt thanks.

(to be continued)

11 comments:

Brian Miller said...

i am glad she has a bit of peace...i cant help but think it will be short lived and her caller will find her even there....

Ron said...

Valerie, do you know what I love about this chapter? It's such a complete departure and energy shift from the suspense and tension in the previous chapters.

I could literally feel a sense of calm and peace through the manner in which you wrote this.

And once again, I adore your visual and emotional imagery....

"when Adrian fondled one of his ears with a liver-spotted hand, and a lump filled Audrey's throat as she witnessed the signs of erosion on the once hale man."

And as I Brian shared, I can't help but think this is just calm before the storm, when the caller finds Audrey there.

Looking forward to the next chapter!

X

Valerie said...

Brian, this is Audrey's rejuvenating time. She needed it, I think.

Valerie said...

Hey Ron, yes it was a complete energy shift; well needed for Audrey and for the reader. Don't get lulled into a false sense of peace, though.

Montanagirl said...

Brian expressed my exact thoughts - I'll bet the "caller" will find her there and continue his vendetta.

Geraldine said...

You are an accomplished story-teller Val. I'll be back to read more soon, short on time right now.

Happy Week, G :<)

Mr. Shife said...

Looking forward to the to be continued. I love the stories but hate the waiting. Good job, Val.

HermanTurnip said...

'You won't need any help from me. If you're feeling a bit dingly-dangly all you've got to do is relax and let the sea air take hold. Powerful medicine, sea air. Has a strange capacity for putting things in perspective.'

You ain't kidding. There's a place called Sea Ranch in northern California that my parents love to go to. They rent a cabin on a bluff above the sea and relax for weeks at a time. There's no other place like it.

'How did that happen?' she enquired

Bwahaha...that brought a large smile to my face! Heh.

Things are steaming along in this tale. Really can't wait for the next installment. The length of your submissions is perfect, always leaving me wanting more! Darn you ;-)

Valerie said...

Sea ranch sounds idyllic, Herman. Could do with going there right now. Thanks for your lovely comment.

Mr. Shife said...

Hi Val.

Banker Chick said...

Well she will have a brief respite from the tension. You are very descriptive here, I could see the calm. Sure hope my corgi doesn't get grumpy like Uncle Adrien.