They sat round the table like members of a committee, water glasses at the ready, planning how to occupy the day. Vera reeled off various ideas of her own, all of them connected with the Pleasure Beach. Adrian shook his head to every one and did the same when Audrey proposed sightseeing or taking a trip up the Tower. He positively glowered when she suggested a meal somewhere, claiming his stomach could not cope with the greasy food served in modern eating houses.
'We'll do something else then,' Vera said, turning sideways to appeal to Audrey. 'We can do something else, can't we?'
'What about a picnic on the beach?'
Adrian sniffed at that and, instead of replying, he ambled towards the door.
'We'll go anyway,' Audrey said, loud enough for him to hear. Adrian grunted, and Audrey turned to Vera. 'Don't fret, he'll come. Let's get things ready.'
While Audrey collected the ingredients for a salad, Vera spread butter on wholemeal bread. 'I've never been on a picnic. What do you do?'
'Is that all?'
'It depends on the location. There's swimming at the seaside or walking in the country, sunbathing, or even bird watching, if you've a mind. Depends on your taste. Have you ever been up the Tower?'
'A pity Uncle didn't fancy it. You'd have enjoyed looking down at the cars. They look like ants from the top.'
Vera dug the knife into the butter. 'Is it scary?'
'Some people think it is, if they're afraid of heights, that is. Don't drag the knife so hard, you're making a trench. I read once that a matchbox dropped from the top of the Tower can kill a man if it lands on his head. Are you afraid of heights?'
'Don't know. I've never been higher than our stairs. Hey, I've just thought, I haven't got a swimsuit.'
Audrey went to the sink to wash the lettuce. 'You can borrow my blue shorts if you want.' She plunged the leaves into cold water and decided that now was as good a time as any to introduce the subject of Gladys's engagement. 'I forgot to tell you about the forthcoming Fieldmoor wedding.'
Vera paused from opening a tin of tuna. 'What wedding?'
'Mrs Stanhope is going to marry Sam Wilding.'
Vera's eyes and mouth opened wide and the can opener clattered to the floor. 'Crikey! You're joking! Aren't they a bit old for that sort of thing?'
Trying to contain her amusement, Audrey briskly swung the colander over the sink. 'What sort of thing?'
'You know! Anyway, when is this wedding?'
'I don't know, but it's another reason why you should go home.'
The shadiest spot on the beach was by a hoard of out-of-service deckchairs which cast rectangular shadows on the sand. Gulls cried gee-yah, gee-yah as they circled high above the remains of a child's sand-castle and its muddy moat. Moving aside a broken spade, Audrey covered the sand with a cloth and piled pebbles into heaps to wedge the dishes in. Vera thought it was a brilliant idea and had her leaping about to find the more colourful stones. Adrian knotted his handkerchief at each corner and placed it on his head to protect it from the sun, and the sight of him made Vera giggle. 'You look really funny with that on,' she said.
'You can have a good laugh, then, since it's staying where it is. The blessed sun's too hot for me.'
As soon as the sandwiches were unpacked, Adrian helped himself, choosing one with ham and one with egg. He put these on a plate and set it by his feet while he fiddled with the knots on his headgear, adapting it to his satisfaction before proceeding to eat his lunch. He bit into the first sandwich, and groaned, grimacing because some gritty sand had stung his lips. 'Damn stuff gets everywhere,' he groused as he flung the bread away. Within seconds, the vigilant gulls swooped to capture it.
Audrey offered a bowl of tuna salad. 'Eat this,' she said, 'and leave the sand alone.'
Adrian added salt to the bowl, awkwardly spooned in more mayonnaise which covering his fingers as well as the fish. With sweat running down his temples, he started to turn out his pockets.
'What have you lost?' enquired Audrey.
'Lost me handkerchief,' he mumbled, leaning forward in order to check his back pocket.
Vera sniggered. 'You are a daft cuckoo. It's on your head.' She passed him a box of moist wipes. 'Here, use one of these, and don't try putting one on your head.'
He looked a trifle sheepish; nevertheless, he took her teasing in good part. He shot his arm out to administer a playful slap, but Vera ducked, and Adrian's deckchair wobbled to one side and sank further into the soft sand. Fortunately, Vera managed to stop it completely toppling and shoved him back to a vertical position.
Adrian moaned, 'That could have been nasty.'
'Serves you right for being a bully,' declared Vera, consigning an affectionate kiss on his head.
At the end of the meal, Audrey stowed the dirty dishes in the cool box and enquired who was game for a paddle, an idea which didn't go down at all well. Adrian raised his brows as if she had suggested a game of Russian roulette and retreated behind his newspaper in a sulk. Vera declined the suggestion on the grounds that she favoured a walk. Gathering her thin white top around her waist, Vera tied it in a big knot, revealing an immodest amount of midriff that Audrey considered quite audacious in view of her age. She had to admit to liking the new slimline figure and the graceful way she carried herself, not a bit like the sloppy schoolgirl who, only weeks ago, sat in her kitchen and unmercifully harassed Bess.
Left alone, Audrey adjusted her sunglasses, peeled off her blouse and let her costume straps slip. She was determined not to miss the chance of a sunbathe. After a few minutes wriggling and twisting to locate the most comfortable position, she allowed her body to go limp and concentrated on Adrian's snores until eventually the tickling heat lulled her into oblivion.
She woke half an hour later and lazily opened her eyes. Vera had returned and was sitting beside her, engrossed in slapping together the soles of her trainers to shed a build-up of sand. With the laces tucked inside, she planted them alongside a brown paper bag. Audrey shifted her hand, and the movement attracted Vera's attention.
'Hiya. Goodness, you are red. I hope you're not getting too much sun. Here, let me show you what I've bought for Uncle Adrian.' She withdrew a white cotton cap from the paper bag and without disturbing him balanced it on the top of his chair to block the sun.
'You're a very kind girl and no mistake.'
Audrey proceeded to dislodge the orangeade bottle she had earlier wedged in the sand, poured them each a drink while Vera attempted to separate some humbugs by bashing the bag on the chair. She offered one to Audrey and popped another in her mouth, crunching like a masticating cow.
Still chewing, she reported her intention to ring home. That evening, if that was all right. Without seeming to worry about broadcasting her parents' secret affairs, she began to talk about their bedtime feuds. 'I couldn't hear the exact words, but the noise kept me awake.' She tried again to divide the sweets, smashing the bag really hard against the chair. 'I guess they got tired of arguing, 'cause all of a sudden the rows stopped. Look, I've separated three sweets. Two for me, one for you.' She held one with the tips of her finger and thumb and, with an engaging smile, presented it to Audrey.
That evening, while Adrian and Vera played cards, Audrey took the opportunity to call Brian. She made two attempts and each time replaced the receiver but then reproached herself for acting like an adolescent and promptly tried again. Her tummy pranced like a bucking horse as she inserted a finger in the dial, heightening to a fully-fledged rodeo performance as she listened to the overlong ringing-out. By the time he answered, the motive for calling had absolutely deserted her. To save face, she gabbled about Vera, telling him about her aunt and uncle. She described them as bizarre and was launching into a full scale report on their home and their extraordinary similarities, when Brian interrupted. 'Something odd happened here. To me.'
'David's been kipping in my loft.'
'In the loft?'
'He'd been there for ages and I never knew. His business went bust at the same time his mother threw him out. The little runt decided to doss in my house without telling me.'
'And you didn't know, or suspect?'
'I did hear noises. I thought it might be bats, that's why I went up there.'
'It's been extremely upsetting. I'll tell you all about it when you come home.'
The reference to home reminded her of the purpose of the call. 'I rang to find out the date of Steven's funeral.'
'I don't think it's been fixed yet. I'll find out and let you know. Can I ring any time?'
'Of course. You can leave a message if I'm not in.'
'You haven't told me how you are,' Brian said.
'I'm very well, thank you. A teeny bit homesick, now all that anxiety has gone. Part of me is longing to get back to work; you know, for some routine. I thought that today on the beach.' Audrey giggled. 'Too much sun and laziness, I expect. Not good for an ordinary working girl.'
'You'll never be ordinary, my dear.'
And as Audrey rang off, she almost believed he meant it.
First Gladys, then Steven, now David. Everything happened when she was out of town. Who would have thought David had the guts to try and outwit his father. He was, in her view, a puerile character with not enough intelligence to fill Brian's little finger. From all accounts, he had been allowed untold freedom as a child, with little in the way of chastisement. Thus, in adulthood he assumed he could defy all the rules. She had been surprised, though, that day in town, when she saw his ear being nibbled by another guy, believing that a man's closeness to his mother would forge a comparable fondness for women. In David's case, it seemed to work the other way; maybe in some cryptic fashion he was trying to spite her.
Catching sight of herself in the wall mirror, Audrey marvelled at the change. Free now from that dreadful apprehension, the frown had been replaced by an easy smile. You'll never be ordinary, my dear. What a lovely thing to say. She continued to gaze at her reflection, repeating Brian's statement until she could virtually recite it backwards. It was not the substance of his remark that pleased her, but his opinion and the possibility that he might still care. The phone rang while she was mulling over her state of mind, and, thinking it would be Brian, she grabbed a pen to write down the date she requested.
'I want to speak to Vera.'
'I'll get her,' Audrey said, disappointment rising because it wasn’t Brian. But she didn’t immediately move. She was transfixed, trying to identify the voice. It must be Jim Tomlin, or it could be Gerald. The way he said I want was identical to the intonation used by ....
Jesus Christ! She snatched at her breath. The phone slipped from her hand.
The time was eight o'clock.
Instantly, she was transported back home, to the hallway, just him and her, experiencing that giddy turmoil and stirring concupiscence. Her fingers plucked her skirt. She swayed on weak legs, braced herself against the wall, shuddering, picturing a bloodless face and wild eyes ogling her.
He existed. He was real. He was no longer an alien using utterances to play with her sanity. She had listened to his undisguised voice, and she recalled his choice of smutty expressions.
Vera and Adrian were clamouring to know what was wrong, but Audrey couldn’t communicate. Her lips were parched and her throat felt snared by a tightening tourniquet; she was conscious of sliding back into her former state of mental disintegration. Adrian forced her to sit, shoving the chair behind her knees, gripped her shoulders to stop the terrible shaking. He bent over her, showing his concern. 'What is it, girl?'
What could she say? It's the man who drove me crazy. It's the man next door, the one who propelled me into an incredible fantasy.
Vera noticed the phone swinging by its wire; she hauled it up and put it to her ear, saying uncertainly, 'Hello?' Her features illuminated with surprise when she realised it was her father at the other end. 'Hi, Dad,' she said, frowning at Audrey.
Adrian moved closer. 'What's amiss, my dear?'
Behind him, Vera chatted animatedly, making various promises like going home and attending Steven's funeral.
Audrey wanted to shriek out the accusation that her father was a sadist, that no matter what she thought .... I can't tell her anything. Dear God, tell me what to do.
Then, suddenly, she knew that God was bidding her to lie. For Vera's sake. He was saying that, at all costs, she must be cushioned from the shock of discovery. She had no choice but to comply with his wish. Consequently, as she clung to her uncle's hand, she gave her explanation. 'I felt faint,' she said, remarkably lucid under the circumstances. 'Too much sun, I expect. I'm all right now.'
'It must have been a bad attack to make you scream.'
She was not aware she had.
Audrey waited until the small hours to make her call, straining to hear the sounds of sleep prior to making her move. She had spent the last two hours exploring every conversation she could remember having with Gerald Tomlin: all concise, and mostly one-sided; it hadn't struck her before, but most of his terse contributions were uttered as if he was undergoing a bout of acute malaise, and none contained even a hint of his desperate predilection. Clues were what she sought, and clues were what she'd been getting, for months, although she didn't know it. How could she have known that Vera's complaints were really telltale pointers; how could she have known that her mother, by her antagonistic behaviour, was driving her husband to commit his sinful crimes. She had wept for a long time, as much for her own deeds as for his, but now her crying had run its course; she was once again in charge of her emotions … a little jumpy, physically, but definitely in control.
Assured that both Adrian and Vera were dead to the world, she crept to the door and eased it open. Her bare feet fused with the uncarpeted floor as she sneaked like a fugitive along the dark passageway. She didn't see Ben until she stumbled over him. Her heart bumped when he yelped and she swiftly hushed him, stroked his head, and whispered a verbose apology as if he too was Homo sapiens.
Snapping on the lamp, she dialled Brian's number, heedless as to time, or that three o'clock in the morning was a cloistered hour and should not be disturbed.
The relief on hearing his voice brought a flow of tears she had thought were completely diminished; they fell down her cheeks and rolled unchecked over her chin. 'Help me, Brian,' she sobbed, 'I know who he is!'
(to be continued)