As she strolled along the Golden Mile, breathing salt air and sniffing seaweed, Audrey watched the glistening waves rising and falling and eventually dwindling to a trickle on the sand. An unmerciful sun was burning her scalp and she knew she'd be in trouble if she didn’t buy a hat. Consequently, darting between tramcars, she crossed the road for the sole purpose of such a purchase.
She wandered by congested amusement arcades and souvenir shops until she found a stall selling hats: straw and cotton, wide brimmed or peaked, with or without slogans. There she bought a modest, slogan-free, blue straw with curly ribbons, and arranged it at a fetching slant over one eye. A woman on a whelk stall called out that her seafood was fresh today, and Audrey wondered if it could possibly be the same place where her mother once urged her to try a loathsome oyster. To this day, the memory of it slithering down her throat made her want to heave. She had vowed at the time never to repeat the experience; keeping the pledge had been easy.
Browsing round, undecided about where to go next, she came to a double-fronted jeweller's shop and it occurred to her that she should buy an engagement present for Gladys. She stopped to examine the window display and sniggered when she saw an arrangement of silver teething rings, spoons and pushers. 'They definitely won't need baby things,' she said, and blushed when a pair of love-birds turned to stare. Disdainfully, the couple moved to inspect the rings in the other window.
Audrey resumed her search. A wood and brass barometer on the backdrop caught her eye, reminding her of the one on Doris's wall that Gladys so often admired. That would be perfect for a mature twosome who already possessed the requisites for keeping house. Being unsure about Sam's tastes she based her decision on the fact that Gladys's were similar to her own and since the barometer was decorative as well as functional she decided to buy it.
Her purchase made and gift wrapped, she emerged from the shop, and debated the idea of popping in the milk-bar next door or getting a coffee someplace else. The decision to choose coffee came as a result of witnessing the unbelievable bedlam inside the milk-bar: arguing families, crying babies, kids screaming as they cavorted like chimpanzees on the tables; a scene instrumental in sending Audrey to a quieter coffee bar further along, for which she would ultimately be extremely grateful.
She paid for coffee and an Eccles cake and carried the tray to a blue and white plastic covered table, tacky with coffee spills and chocolate smears. Artificial plants in white troughs were installed between tables and a plastic bear holding a charity box was used to prop open the door. The coolness in there made up for the cake being just about palatable and the insipid coffee merely lukewarm.
She bit into the cake and stared at the cheap poster frames on the walls, mostly prints featuring the Pleasure Beach and the Tower. When two middle-aged women gathered their belongings and went out, Audrey noticed that the rest of the customers were local women taking a break from shopping; all except a jeans-clad girl in the bay, a straw hat hanging from her neck by its string and judging by the droop of her shoulders having the world's problems to contend with. Just then a group of chattering teenagers jostled each other to get through the door, and the lone girl turned to watch.
That's how Audrey came to find Vera Tomlin.
'Mind if I join you,' she asked, depositing a tall glass of lemonade and a cup of coffee on the table.
Vera curved round to see who had spoken. Showing neither surprise nor embarrassment, she said, 'Hello, Miss B,' and cleared her things from the chair so that Audrey could sit down, as coolly as if the meeting had been planned.
Sipping the coffee, which was a great deal hotter than the last, Audrey said in a light voice, 'I didn't see you until those people left.'
Vera gave her a weak smile. 'You here on holiday?'
'Yes. Are you?'
The senseless question was all Audrey could think of to say, in the light of the apprehension she felt over broaching such a delicate subject as running away, but it turned out to be an unnecessary sentiment because Vera unashamedly blurted it out.
'I ran away,' she said, matter-of-factly. 'Couldn't take Mum's carping any longer. Nag, nag, nag.' She snapped her finger and thumb three times. 'All she ever does is nag.' Without being prompted, she embarked on lengthy descriptions of one unfortunate scene after another until at length she ran out of steam and began fiddling with her cup. She averted her eyes as though regretting the divulgences of family life.
'I ran away, too,' Audrey said impulsively, essentially as a demonstration of joining forces, but instantly conceiving that it was a misguided means of consoling a girl who did not need or require such succouring. As if the admission wasn't enough, she went on to explain why, surprising herself by mentioning the nuisance calls in much the same way she had explained them to Adrian: jokingly, and keeping the nature of them to herself.
'I knew something was wrong,' Vera cried. 'Whenever you answered the phone you got bad-tempered. Were they naughty calls?'
Now, how could she know about such things?
Audrey shook her head. 'Some idiot playing havoc with my nervous system. I got used to it after a while and …'
Looked forward to them!
'I ran away.'
'You must've been at your wit's end.'
Vera talked about her Aunt Fiona and Uncle Jim, a boring couple, who thought television insulted their intelligence and who didn't seem to mind that their radio was broken. They preferred to spend their evenings singing love ditties … with hands on hearts … and hymns. Thinking the situation would encourage her to return home Audrey probed the possibility, but Vera thumped the table and said she would sooner be bored to death than suffer constant fault-finding and threats of suicide.
They remained in the cafe for most of the day, braving two lots of sandwiches consisting of dried-out luncheon meat, and a vast amount of drinks. They talked non-stop until Audrey remembered that Adrian would be waiting and, as yet, she hadn't bought the plaice she promised for dinner. She was, though, reluctant to leave. Who knew what might happen to a single girl bored witless by undiscerning adults. Nevertheless, she put on her hat and separated her parcel from Vera's things, guiltily eyeing her crestfallen expression. She thought about asking her back to the house, certain that Adrian wouldn't mind; he had, after all, complained of not seeing many people. So, taking a gamble, she hastily invited Vera to share their fish.
'Can't,' Vera said, consulting her watch. 'Aunt Fiona's roasting a chicken. I said I'd be back at five.'
'Come tomorrow then, to lunch.'
'You're on. I'll tell Aunt not to cook for me. Will you be having fish again?'
Audrey chuckled. 'Not on your life.'
Vera fell in love with Adrian and he with her. They acted like they'd known each other for ever, spontaneously fussing and bantering in the most natural, unaffected way. At dinner, they vied over the last helping of beef stew and laughingly soaked their broth with slices of granary bread. Audrey silently rejoiced at their close affinity.
'Now look, young Madam, you've pinched the last crust.' Assuming annoyance, Adrian looked at Audrey. 'See what you've landed me with? This wench is one of those who pinches crusts off old men.'
Audrey grinned and fetched more bread. They were similar to Brian and Matthew, she thought, remembering how they had bread with everything, even cake, and always demanded seconds. She disliked faddy eaters who picked at food so it pleased her enormously to see the two satisfied faces in front of her.
Vera rubbed her lips with a damask napkin. 'That was super, Miss Buckham.'
'I told you to call me Audrey. Miss Buckham makes me sound like an old maid.'
'You're not an old maid. You've got Matthew. Old maids don't have kids.'
'Some do,' muttered Adrian.
'You what, Uncle?'
'I said, some do. My cousin Ada gave birth to a daughter at forty-six. A real battle-axe she was. Still, someone fancied her. I couldn't understand what he saw in her. Her temper flared faster than a struck match. And talk about unattractive; she could've modelled for one of those ugly mugs they sell in the market.'
'Ooh, you are terrible, Mr Buckham.'
'You're right, I am. I'm so terrible I'm going for a snooze in the garden.' He whistled to Ben. 'Come on, let's get out of here before they get me washing up.' The dog struggled to get his bulk off the floor and followed him outside.
Adrian seemed more upright, a fact Audrey put down to lively company and a good meal; and, if that was all it took, then the sooner a housekeeper was engaged the better.
Audrey lowered herself into one of the deckchairs she had earlier pitched on the lawn. In his chair, Adrian slept, his face hidden by his paper; his whole body budged as his breathing grew more noisy and the chair squeaked with every exhalation.
'What do you aim to do in Blackpool?' Audrey said to Vera, who was lying on the grass.
Vera rolled onto her stomach and waved her legs in the air. 'I could rent a flat.'
'You could go home.'
'No! I'll go home when you do. Since we both ran away, we should go together.'
An attempt to persuade her to ring Gerald brought another refusal and Audrey decided to chill down, believing Vera's flush signified anger rather than excessive warmth. Whatever happened, she did not wish to be cast in the same role as the girl's parents. She plucked out a handful of clover and idly separated the flowers from the leaves. 'I suppose I could ask Uncle if you could stay here.' She said it without thinking but on seeing Vera's eager expression, she knew that once again she had taken too much on herself. She promptly tried to dampen the girl's enthusiasm. 'You mustn't be disappointed if he says no.'
Vera swivelled round and sat up. 'He won't. He enjoys having me around.' She clapped her hands. 'Just think,' she shouted. 'No more hymns.'
'Shush!' said Audrey, glancing at her recumbent uncle. 'If he agrees, will you ring your Dad? Because if you don't, I will!'
Adrian peeped over the top of the paper and winked at Vera. 'I want her to stay, Audrey, lass. She makes me feel ten years younger.'
'Told you,' exclaimed Vera, wrinkling her nose at Audrey and sidling to Adrian's side. 'I thought you were asleep.'
'How can an old man sleep with such a commotion?' Singularly wide awake, Adrian lowered the newspaper and launched his own idea of what should be done, recommending that Audrey should go forthwith to put the idea to Mr and Mrs Tomlin, and adding that, if they approved, she could bring with her some of Vera's clothes. 'And, while you're out, I can sort the small bedroom. Just in case.'
Vera rounded on him, threatening to go straight back if he so much as touched a towel, while Audrey clamped her lips to stop herself chortling at the girl's audacity in assuming she could blackmail him so.
(to be continued)