The resemblance to his brother was uncanny, though Jim Tomlin was not nearly so pasty faced as Gerald. He wore his hair in the same style and he had an identical ridge of freckles on his nose. His voice reminded Audrey of a rusty nail squeaking across a sheet of steel.
Fiona, a heavy woman, spoke with a sonorous voice that seemed to rise up from the depths of her cerise slippers. Braids of brown hair covered her ears and the diminutive studs in her pierced lobes seemed decidedly misplaced on such a ponderous and ill-shaped woman.
After a transitory hesitance during which he scanned her appearance from top to toe, Jim admitted Audrey to the house and steered her to a chaotic room which reeked of incense. The window sill was littered with books, and piles of magazines were banked against a free-standing cupboard. A group of low tables were cluttered with photographs, gift boxes, the telephone, an assortment of dried flowers, and the entire surface of an antiquated sideboard was hidden by cutlery and plates and a hazard of stacked cups. The upright piano that Vera mentioned was there, as were the black hymn books and sheet music.
'Who are you?' boomed Fiona Tomlin, which drove Audrey to seriously consider taking flight.
'It's all right, dear,' squeaked her husband. 'Miss Buckham lives next door to Gerald.'
'You only have her word for that. She could be an imposter. Ring Gerald. Immediately!'
'I appreciate your disquiet,' said Audrey. 'But I really do live next door. I've known Liz and Gerald for several years.'
Fiona scowled. 'So what is it you want with Vera?'
'As I explained to your husband, I invited Vera to stay with my uncle and me for a few days. We know each other very well and have lots of things in common, though I do have a more selfish reason. My Uncle, you see, is rather a lonely old man and Vera's presence perks him up no end. That's why I'd be happy to have her stay.'
Fiona appraised Audrey for a full minute, while her husband hovered behind her. Then she thundered his name. 'James! Speak with Gerald.'
At once, Jim crossed the room and began rummaging among the books and papers until he located a red plastic index with a mock telephone dial. He found the number and went to the phone. At least he knows where that is, Audrey thought, pondering on what percentage of people were unable to commit numbers to memory.
Fiona waited at Jim's side while he outlined the proposed arrangement to Liz. Every time Jim nodded, Fiona did too; if he tipped his head to one side, she copied; and whenever he emphasised a piece of dialogue with his hand, she did the same.
It soon became apparent by the way Jim smiled and nodded that Liz agreed to the plan, which was a relief because at that moment he handed the phone to Audrey and she would not have known what to say if the idea was opposed. There wasn't much in the way of conversation. At first, Liz vacillated, indistinctly mumbling about Vera missing school, but Audrey reckoned that was purely for effect otherwise she would have quizzed her about the state of Adrian's home or even accused her of interfering. She suspected Vera's absence suited Liz and she got the distinct impression that she didn't mind where her daughter stayed as long as she was away from her. Or perhaps she approved the transfer in order to remove her from the brother-in-law and his freakish wife. That would indeed make a lot more sense. However, since she was in no position to voice these thoughts all she could do was reassure her that Vera would be in safe hands. She gave Adrian's address and telephone number and promised that she would personally escort Vera home as soon as she possibly could.
'Honestly!' exclaimed Fiona when Audrey finished the call. 'That child turned up here without notice and expected us to take her in, then ups and leaves.' She twisted one ear stud with her great fingers. 'Still, if you'll see she's safe, Miss Buckham, I'll agree to it. Mind, I'll check on her myself. It's no good leaving things to her wretched parents. What do you say, Jim?'
'Yes, dear,' said Jim, tweaking an ear lobe.
His tinny squeal set Audrey's teeth on edge for the last time.
In her absence the bungalow had undergone a transformation; she could almost sense it from the path, the very walls seeming to exude a new, hospitable warmth. Inside, in the parlour, the first thing she noticed was the couch which for many years had faced the fire. Now it stood against the wall and in its stead were two easy chairs, making three counting Adrian's recliner.
'We've been busy,' Vera said as she plumped some unfamiliar patchwork cushions.
'Where did you get those?'
'Aunt Beatrice's room.'
Audrey raised her eyebrows at the ease with which her aunt's name was uttered, but she said nothing. Instead, by invitation, she went to inspect the bedroom. Expecting to see nothing more spectacular than the bed having been made up, she was amazed at the change, a transition from a raw, expressionless room to one containing touches of creature comforts. The dressing table, resplendent with a fringed, variegated, green silk covering, was in a new position facing the door; the bed now sported a different bedspread, crocheted in multi-coloured squares and undoubtedly the work of Aunt Bea. There were two white pillows with crocheted pink borders and, beside the bed, a lamp with a matching shade, its glow casting pink circles on the ceiling. Apart from the fusty smell of linen stored too long, which would undoubtedly disperse with the long awaited ventilation, the whole effect was snugly stunning.
'Where did it all come from?' Audrey asked.
'The cupboard in Aunt Bea's room. Isn't it lovely?'
'It's uplifting, like having your hair done by a different stylist.'
'How d'you mean?'
'Change can be as good as having a vacation, it can put a different slant to things, gets one out of a rut.'
'Great. I'll tell Uncle. He could do with a holiday.' Vera adjusted the dressing table's new cover and gave it an approving pat. 'We're going to get tea now; why don't you have a rest 'til it's ready.'
Not wanting to dampen the girl's enthusiasm, Audrey responded to the suggestion and retired to the parlour. The chairs had been arranged so that she would sit on one side of Adrian and Vera would sit on the other, Audrey's seat presumably being the one on the left which had her neatly folded tracksuit jacket on its threadbare arm. The speed with which Vera had made herself at home was staggering; she certainly seemed to be enjoying herself, delving and unearthing things that Audrey, so far as she could recall, had never seen before. The girl was a proper little homemaker; perhaps she could be encouraged to help turn the cupboards out and, between them, they could make Adrian's abode more comfortable.
While working out what needed to be done the telephone rang, giving rise to a moment of foreboding she had hoped to be rid of. But as she went to answer, she laughed at her fear, reminding herself that she was a distance away from harm.
'Hello, Audrey,' said Brian.
She jerked back, her recently acquired composure at risk of crumbling.
'How are you?'
'Okay,' she said, somewhat nervously.
'I was worried about you.'
After years of broken promises and non-events why should she believe him now?
'Gladys gave me the number.' He paused, waiting for her to speak. When she didn't, he pressed on. 'What have you been doing with yourself?'
'This and that. Shopping, cooking, nagging at Uncle.' She decided not to tell him about Vera?
'I rang to give you some bad news. I thought twice, wondering if you were up to it, but I fathomed you'd be upset if you weren't told.'
Convinced something catastrophic had happened to Gladys or Doris or Carol, Audrey almost dropped with fear. 'For God's sake, Brian, tell me.'
'Steven Smith, he died this morning.'
'Steven? Oh, my God; I didn't realise he was ill.'
'He wasn't. It's a real tragedy. He was only climbing a fence and a piece of wood, rotten wood, went in his thigh. He died in the hospital. Tetanus.'
Audrey wailed, 'Oh, the poor, poor kid.' She could picture him now, a happy boy, with two lines of ketchup running down his chin.
'Will you let Vera know?'
'She'll be devastated,' Audrey said, only cursorily wondering how he knew she was there.
'Can I do anything for you?'
'I don't think so. Gladys is running an errand for me. Thanks for asking, though.'
'I won't keep you then. May I ring again?'
He sounded glum, which was unusual, him being a man who always looked on the bright side, but whatever troubled him was no concern of hers, so she shrugged, and said, 'If you wish,' though in truth she could not be certain she would welcome the contact.
Vera flung her arms round Audrey and sobbed when she heard the news. Audrey rested her chin on top of her head, holding her as tightly as she could. Why, she wondered, did Liz find her daughter so terrible when in reality she was full of compassion and exceedingly kind. 'You'll have to go home for the funeral,' she murmured into the auburn hair. She felt Vera's shoulders shift inside her embrace.
'I'll go when you do.'
Adrian looked at them with watery eyes, causing Audrey's heart to lurch. 'I'll be back, Uncle,' she promised.
Vera broke away and went to him. 'So will I,' she said, kissing the hollow in his cheek.
Too choked for words, he too gave her a hug.
(to be continued)