I will definitely remember today, thought Audrey, recalling Brian's words when Vera baited him, though she was determined to erase the memory as quickly as she could. But she knew she would never erase Brian's compassion, his support when she desperately needed it, the protection she should never have discarded. He had always been there for her, yet she built around herself a fence so high that even she could not see over. And still she had not fathomed why. She peered at Brian with her red rimmed eyes, comfortable now in his presence and grateful for his nearness. He drove with one elbow out of the window, casually turning the steering wheel with one hand, and she experienced an all-over warmth as she gazed at the cleft in his chin, wondering why it had taken so long to come to her senses.
'You okay, love?'
'Yes,' she said, between the sharp intakes of breath that were the aftermath of protracted weeping.
There was no doubt that the message on the machine had disturbed her as much as the burglary but the emotion now was unrefined hatred for the man who Vera believed was a wonderful example of shining fatherhood.
Brian stopped the car in front of Gladys's house. 'I can't go in with you,' he said. 'I'm hellishly late.'
He leaned across to kiss her cheek, and she very much wanted to twist her head so that it would land on her lips. She restrained herself; even though she sensed she was finally where she belonged she warned herself not to rush. To show that she understood, she briefly caressed his arm, carefully gathered her gifts ... a basket of dried flowers for Gladys and the parcelled barometer.
Feeling a little light-headed, Audrey stood on the kerb waving until the car was out of sight. Only then did she walk briskly up the path. There was a smell of baking and she was unexpectedly confronted by a craving for a wedge of pastry or a slice of cake. Thus, she knocked the door and pressed the bell-push before stooping to wedge a stone against a bearded Iris that had lost the ability to stand erect.
Sam answered the door. He wore an apron round his middle and a flinty expression on his face, reminding her of the last occasion she was there ... the day of the big tantrum. She followed him through the house, feeling slightly awkward bearing in mind what a cow she'd been. She wondered what he thought of the current situation. Would he tolerate her taking up residence again. Gladys, however, soon dispelled the anxiety by catching her in a hug so close she could scarcely breathe. Audrey's throat constricted as she returned the warm embrace.
Seeing Sam smile, Audrey cottoned on to the reason for his dour greeting. The poor man must have feared her visit would upset his new fiancé. She returned the smile, hopefully reassuring him that she meant no harm, and handed over the basket and engagement present.
They shared the unwrapping, wrangling like juniors over the best way to undo the string. Sam wanted it cut; Gladys insisted on untying the knots, commenting that she would then be able to save it intact along with the paper. With a resigned sigh, Sam gave in. He stood quietly by while Gladys finished the task but, on seeing the barometer being lifted from the tissue, he cried, 'By heck, I've always wanted one of those.'
'Me, too,' said Gladys, polishing her fingerprints from the wood with her apron. 'What can I say, Aud?'
'You don't have to say anything.'
'Well, I do,' Sam said. 'Only thing is, I don't think thanks is enough for such generosity.'
'After all you two have done for me, I'd buy the moon if I could.'
Maintaining she was having trouble with an eyelash, Gladys bent to fiddle with the flowers, but before long she recovered her composure and installed the arrangement next to a planted geranium. After collecting three mugs and three plates and placing them on the table, she took cakes from the oven and put more in. She shifted a bundle of darned socks from a chair so that Audrey could sit down and proceeded to empty the cookie jar onto her plate.
Audrey spoke falteringly about the break-in, describing the havoc as insufferable, heartbreaking, and wholly beyond belief.
'Was anything stolen?' asked Gladys, holding the brown teapot aloft.
'Not that I could see. Brian reckoned someone wrecked the place for kicks.'
Presuming it must have been the actions of kids, Sam roared, 'They want their bloody ears boxing. A spell of army discipline would do 'em a power of good. Knock the disgusting little toe-rags into touch.'
Returning the teapot to its stand with a thud, Gladys glowered at him, silently censuring. Suitably humbled, he took over pouring the tea.
Addressing Gladys, Audrey said, 'Do you mind me staying?'
'Of course not.'
'Everywhere's such a shambles, you see, and depressing. Brian thought ....'
'What's all this Brian talk?'
Because she had additional news to impart, Audrey ignored Gladys's interruption and got on with her revelation. 'We know who made the calls.'
Sam gawped wide-eyed as the story unfolded.
Gladys's cup clattered into its saucer. 'Gerald?' She held her head as she tried to comprehend. 'I can hardly believe it.'
For Vera's sake, Audrey begged them not to broadcast it to a living soul.
Sam declared bluntly, 'I wouldn't mind getting my hands on him.' He deposited a cup of tea on the table and put a hand on Audrey's shoulder. 'Well, the nightmare's over, thank the Lord. Now it's recovery time.'
His sympathetic response made Audrey fall apart, setting off a further influx of tears, a minor seepage to begin with, then a deluge as reaction set in. As Gladys replaced her sodden handkerchief with a dry one, she wailed, 'I felt as if my whole world had collapsed.'
'Not to worry,' said Gladys in her practical manner. 'It's in one piece again and ready to be lived in.' Going to the dresser, she grabbed another handkerchief and tossed it to her. 'There. Now, let's get on with it.'
That night, the recent happenings filtered through Audrey's head, gathering pace and magnification, preventing sleep. She endured anew the shock of the first sighting of her ravaged home, despoiled by some hooligan who had no idea of the distress he caused for the sake of amusement. The wind outside made the shutters rattle on their squeaky hinges, evoking Gerald's voice ... as if a burglary wasn't enough to contend with. She shivered and rolled on her side, tugging the sheet to her ears to obliterate the imagined sound, feeling fresh shame on remembering her bygone response to his lewdness. But the reality of it is exclusive to me, she conceded, thumping the pillow and turning to lie flat. And residing next door will be difficult.
Leaving the bed, she parted the curtains and looked out. A furtive fox emerged from its hideaway and froze within the circle of light beneath the street lamp, alert to danger. Satisfied there was none, he easily jumped Brian's gate, its long shadow flying behind.
As dawn stole into view she wondered if Brian was awake. The likelihood motivated her to dress and tiptoe downstairs to the phone. She dialled his number, half-expecting there would be no reply, overjoyed when there was.
'It's me, Audrey. Did I wake you?'
'I haven't slept.'
'Are you all right?'
'I keep thinking of you. Does that make me all right?'
More than anything, she wanted him never to stop being all right.
'Did you manage to get some sleep?'
'Not one whit. I kept thinking about the house, and Gerald.'
'Then don't. There's no merit in persecuting yourself. It's done, finished, history.'
'Yes, Brian,' she said meekly.
It seemed, as she replaced the phone, that she was replaying an action she had been executing for a lifetime. How many millions of times a year did people pick up and put down their receivers, how often were the calls enjoyable, how many the absolute pits?
Unable to settle, she roamed the house. It would be useless going back to bed, and Gladys would not thank her for doing things in the house at such an early hour; she would pretend to be cross and start ordering her about. However, it was imperative that she answered the desperate need to do something constructive, like living ... and to this end she threw on a cardigan and hurried to the door.
At the gate, she glanced up at Brian's open window, her heart thumping so loudly she was certain he would hear it and look out. She waited a few minutes, then walked away, happy in the knowledge that he was at least there.
Audrey halted and looked round, saw no-one.
'Up here!' Vera was sitting carelessly on an upstairs window sill, hanging onto the flimsy net curtain and plucking clematis leaves. 'You coming or going?' she quizzed in a loud whisper. Not waiting to hear which, she ducked back in and a moment later appeared at the door. She charged towards Audrey. 'I'll come too,' she announced.
Audrey linked her arm. A walk, with company, appealed to her. The house could wait.
'I heard about the burglary, in Settons,' Vera reported as they flanked the shops. 'Mr Mountford told Mr Pearce that he saw Mr and Mrs Benjamin gawking outside. He said there were the most weird noises coming from your hall. Everyone was ever so concerned.'
But did anyone bother to investigate? Did no-one try and stop the vandal from inflicting more damage?
Vera went on. 'That's why I was curious. I kept thinking of those calls and, when I saw you drive off with Mr Porter, I knew something was wrong.' She broke off, giving Audrey a questioning peep. 'I got worried,' she said, shyly.
They passed the general store and Audrey noticed the Open sign was still displayed. For the first time she realised how hard-pressed Carol must have been, working single-handed, and no contact from her to say when she would be back. Little wonder the sign had been forgotten. Soon, she thought, if my job's waiting, I'll make it up to her.
Audrey squeezed Vera's shoulder. 'Come, let's go back and I'll show you what happened. You can help me sort things out if you like. It's in such a woeful state, I'm not sure I can cope alone.'
'You're on,' cried Vera. 'I can ring Mum from yours to let her know where I am.'
Vera whistled as she surveyed the bedroom. 'What a mess,' she said, kicking the feathers with a plimsolled foot. 'Got any black bags?'
While they worked, Vera made the surprise announcement that her Dad had left home. She spoke without a trace of sadness and showed no sign of regret.
Dear God, was this the end? Audrey endeavoured to suppress a growing gaiety and tonelessly enquired what had prompted the departure.
'Mum threw him out last night. They had a huge argument. It must have been serious for her to do that. She's been ever so nice since. Not a bit sad.' Vera dropped the plastic bag on the ground and sat on the edge of the bed. Unexpectedly, she bent her head and sniffed. 'Blimey,' she proclaimed, 'this mattress stinks.'
(to be continued)