According to the station announcer, the Blackpool train had been delayed. The irregular voice gave no reason and Brian had no option but to hang around the draughty platform. So much for being early, he thought, unskilfully trying to repel his frustration. His eagerness to see at first-hand Audrey's safe return, was so great that any delay was unsettling; however, he tried hard to be adult about it and not take vengeance on the nearest notice-board.
Pulling a handful of change from his pocket, he marched to the vending machine and scanned the contents. More decisions, he thought, having come fresh from the estate agents, where he had spent an hour sifting through brochures of suitably cheap flats for David. He selected a bar of Fruit and Nut, strode to the far end of the platform in the hope of finding a pew. The only seating available was a wide, grey pipe running the length of the wall, beside which a colony of feral pigeons ate their crumbs. Brian lowered himself onto the pipe and tore the wrapper off the chocolate bar, wishing he'd had the foresight to buy a beer to go with it. It might have helped him decide how best to greet Audrey when she arrived, an opening he'd agonised over all the way to the station. I happened to be passing sounded a bit hackneyed but he couldn't just launch into the real reason for coming, not with Vera's attentive ears flapping.
Apart from an overwhelming desire to see Audrey again, he was taking it upon himself to divulge the outcome of the business with Tomlin. It was his duty, he reasoned, his responsibility; if he didn't do it today he might not get another chance. With Audrey's emotions so fluctuating, she could as easily resent his attentions as adopt them.
Chris Beresford had denied his request to knock the shit out of Gerald, as well as banning his presence at the interrogation. Some interrogation; the bastard had owned up before Chris could get into his stride. Brian was surprised to hear that, for he had truly expected a flat denial. He and Chris had subsequently discussed the interview, though Brian did not believe a word of Gerald's story. He alleged that Liz was as frost-bound as the Arctic and said that for years he had hankered for sex with a warm-blooded woman, only he was too afraid to go after it.
Brian now knew that the hangdog expression and the cowed way Tomlin held himself was merely a disguise for his perversion. He admitted to being stimulated by ringing women, and being roused when making improper suggestions, and the giant orgasms he got when talking to Audrey, who he fancied like crazy, he described as incredible.
Chris shouldn't have told Brian that bit. He'd seen red ever since. The only distorted satisfaction he had was that the son-of-a-bitch did all this by phone. God help Audrey if the weasel had got his hands on her. Brian viciously screwed the chocolate wrapper. If only there was something he could do. Why had it to be left to Audrey to press charges?
The public address system crackled to life and the fragmentary-voiced spokesman for British Rail announced the arrival of the Blackpool train. The whole platform leaped into action; the pigeons took off and settled on the other side of the track, the waiting passengers surged forward. Brian struggled to his feet, diffidently conscious that he would shortly discover if Audrey was pleased or sorry he came. He remained where he was until the train grated to a halt. The doors swung open. People disembarked and hurried towards the escalator.
Brian pushed against the crowd, along the stretch of coaches, peering through windows and doors. He planned lunch before driving home and disposing of Vera, before finally discussing the interview with Tomlin; that is, if he ever found her. Please, God, let me find her.
She was in the penultimate compartment. She looked well and eminently desirable in an emerald green suit with her hair tumbling from a perky little hat of similar hue. Lord, how he loved her.
Vera saw him first. 'There's Mr Porter,' she cried, pointing a finger.
Audrey tilted her head and caught his eye.
'Hi there,' he said, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks. 'I was just passing ....'
They lunched at the Court Hotel, where Vera assessed the mirrored walls as absolutely marvellous and twisted this way and that to view herself from different angles.
'You're a vain creature,' Brian said, smiling.
The menu prices were astronomical, though he would have paid threefold for the pleasure of having Audrey at his side. The occasion was complete when she asked him to choose the meal, as she did in the old days, when she flattered his ego by saying his choice was superior to hers. He ordered quail's egg salad, roast duck, and chocolate profiteroles, and the whole meal met with Vera's approval. She giggled over the eggs, raved over the duck and cherry sauce, and slavered when she got stuck into the dessert. When the last scraping of chocolate vanished, she put down her fork, and said, 'Great!'
Audrey agreed. 'It was lovely. Thank you, Brian.'
'I could eat here every single day,' professed Vera.
Brian laughed. 'Who'd do the paying?'
'I'll have to find a boy friend who can afford it.' She prodded Brian's arm. 'One like you.'
Brian enjoyed a sense of frivolity. 'I'll talk to your Mum, if you like. See if she'll allow me to take you on.'
'Right,' he teased, and, placing his hand on his heart, he added dramatically, 'And we'll remember this day for the rest of our lives.'
Assuming that Audrey would go with her into the house, Vera looked mighty perplexed when she shook her head. Brian swiftly commandeered her bag. 'Audrey's tired after the journey. Come on, I'll race you.'
So, while he escorted Vera, Audrey waited at the entrance to her own garden, rotating her hat and wondering if this marked the end of their friendship.
Liz stood in the doorway as Brian and Vera raced towards the house, demonstrating her qualms, as well she might, by wringing her hands and dithering over her greeting. As she shyly embraced her daughter, she glanced at Audrey and smiled; a tiny, cautious smile, which unnerved Audrey so much she veered away without responding. Vera took her bag from Brian, waved to Audrey, and bounced into the house. Liz followed, clearly finding communication with her daughter difficult.
Brian was pleased when Audrey suggested coffee, thus removing the necessity to press for an invitation, equally thankful that she was relaxed enough to want his company, and the speed with which he hoisted her holdall must surely have conveyed his delight. He almost ran through the gate but, allowing that his haste might worry her, he forced himself to dawdle. Whatever arose, he did not want to hurry her. If she needed time, she could have it. He had plenty to offer.
He lingered by the ornamental chimney to inspect the plants, removing a bunch of seeded grass while he waited for her to find her key. Wiping his fingers on his pants, he ventured to ask how she felt about living next door to Tomlin.
She hunched her shoulders. 'I can't do anything about it. If it gets really tough, I'll go back to Blackpool.'
Brian was tempted to invite her to stay with him but better judgement prevailed. 'I gather you didn't tell Vera about him.'
Audrey searched through the contents of her handbag. 'It's not my place to disillusion her. And how can I, when she thinks the world of him?' She finally located the key and inserted it in the lock. The door opened easily and she stepped onto the rush mat. And that was when hell's inferno erupted.
'Oh, my God!'
Audrey slackened her hold on her bag, her hat sailed to the ground as she stood, stock-still, trying to take in the havoc inside her normally well-ordered home. It was an unbelievable scene of unwarranted massacre. The hall carpet was nearly buried beneath broken china and glass. Through the open lounge door, they could see her prized possessions crushed, mangled, and torn. Brian dropped Audrey's gear quickly when he saw her move to rescue a single porcelain rosebud, police caution overriding his extreme shock.
'Please,' he said, 'don't touch a thing.'
Helping her through the litter of fragmented ornaments, he led her into the ravaged lounge. Using a handkerchief to cover his hand, he wrenched the drawers and cupboards which, on the face of it, were undisturbed. The television and the music system were undamaged, records and tapes untouched. On the surface, it looked as if only the decorative things had been attacked. Likewise the kitchen. 'Is it how you left it?' he enquired of Audrey, who stood with her arms wrapped around her body. When she remained silent, he reached out to touch her arm. 'Audrey?'
She was staring at a torn photo album.
Brian continued to make mental notes. The electrical gadgets were plugged in, the clock on the microwave displayed the correct time. He scratched behind his ear, a habit of his when deep in thought. What breed of burglar was this?
'Will it be all right to go upstairs?' Audrey asked, weakly. 'I need the toilet.'
Brian pressed her upper arm. 'I'll take a look outside while you're gone.' Giving her an encouraging smile, he finished, 'Hurry back.'
Taking the mortice key from its hook, he unlocked the rear door and went outside. The pantry window, not much more than two foot square, was wedged with a piece of wood. That means he's not huge, he concluded, again scratching his ear.
He returned to the kitchen and relocked the door, then headed towards the hall, picking his way through the worst destruction of objets d'art he had ever seen. Suddenly, from above, came a bloodcurdling scream. Brian hurtled up the stairs, three at a time.
Audrey was at the door of her room, both hands clamped to her mouth, staring in at a mass of floating white feathers. Moving through the downy cloud, Brian yanked a duvet off the floor, a duvet that had been repeatedly lacerated. There was a bad feeling in his gut as he let it fall and nudged it with his foot.
Seeing Audrey was still in the same rooted pose, her face registering fear and panic, he tried to think of suitable words. None came. He couldn't even pass it off as a prank. There was nothing he could say when her property lay before her, wrecked beyond recognition or repair. He was staring at the bed, willing himself to come up with some anodyne phrase, when he noticed a damp patch in the centre of the valance sheet. He glanced up, expecting to see a leak, from the water tank he knew was directly above, but the ceiling was perfectly dry. He touched the edge of the patch, then sniffed his fingers. Urine?
Going forward to take a closer look at the upturned drawers that partially obscured a pile of shredded underwear, Brian's foot knocked a ruptured picture frame. He turned it with his pen. It was his photograph, the one of him promenading in Hove. Feeling nauseated, he ushered Audrey from the room and helped her down the stairs. The process released her from silence and she started to weep, sobbing bitterly against his chest. What a bloody homecoming, he muttered to himself as he held her tight.
Brian tongued a raw spot on his hand, caused when he slammed his fist on the kitchen wall. 'You'd better stay with Gladys,' he said. 'Shall I ring her, or do you want to?'
Audrey was too absorbed with the blinking red light to answer. Her face had paled slightly, and her hand was moving towards it.
'Leave it!' he murmured, putting his arm around her waist.
It could be that she didn't hear him, because quite deliberately she pressed a finger on the play button.
'You can't hide from me, bitch?'
There was a lull, succeeded by a sucking noise as though Gerald's mouth was filling with saliva. Then came an audible swallow. 'Who the hell did you think you were, telling me to fuck off. BITCH! When I catch up with you, I'll slice your titties to ribbons. Get rid of those slings, fuckin' bitch, 'cause I don't want NOTHING in the way. Rock your tits free, Audrey.' He emphasised the rhyme. 'Rock free, Aud-rey. For me, Aud-rey.' He cackled insanely. 'Rock free, Aud-rey, for me, Aud-rey.'
Feeling her trembling uncontrollably in his arms, Brian swore he would take Gerald Tomlin and squeeze out every vestige of life, and, while contemplating various tortures to precipitate his demise, his mind flashed to an earlier declaration, about remembering this day for the rest of their lives.
(to be continued)