Gladys was on her knees vigorously cleaning the refrigerator when Audrey ambled into the kitchen. 'You've come back then,' she said, harshly, resting on her heels and swishing the cloth in a bucket of soapy water. The frown lines scoring her brows implied an undeclared annoyance. 'Where've you been?' she asked, wringing suds from the cloth until it was scarcely moist.
Audrey asked forgiveness, defending her failure to leave a note by saying she went out without thinking.
Gladys rebuked her as if she was a negligent child, asserting that if she had any decency at all she would have rung. Shaking with pique, she wiped the fridge floor and tossed the cloth in the bucket.
Eying a trickle of suds sliding down the green plastic bucket, Audrey apologised again, agreeing that indeed she should have done.
'I chucked your breakfast,' Gladys told her, and went on to enquire where she had gone to in such a hurry.
'For a walk.'
'Then I met Vera and she helped me clear the mess at home.'
'At that time? You must be mad.'
Audrey seethed inside. She had assumed that the third-degree treatment was a thing of the past and here was Gladys talking in the same cutting manner which had previously driven her away. Riveting her with cold eyes, she said, 'I've been mad, remember? From now on everything I do will be totally sane, sensible, and level headed. Please don't give me a hard time.'
Gladys snorted as she struggled to her feet to cart the bucket to the sink. Her gait was unbalanced by the weight and, when her toe caught in the ancient rug she was hard-pressed to save herself from falling. Audrey rushed to save her, her anger rapidly flagging. 'You must be more careful,' she said, noting Gladys's flustered expressed. 'You could've injured yourself.' And that concept was sufficient to make her recognise the unwelcome thread of friction weaving a route to hostility, giving her cause to trade it in.
'Oh, Gladys,' she cried. 'I'm a real bitch. I do beg your pardon. What are you going to do with me? She hugged her then, disinclined to let her go.
'It's me who should be sorry,' Gladys muttered. 'I couldn't help worrying, see.' She fished in her apron for a handkerchief and gave a hefty blow. 'Are we still friends?'
'We sound just like Bess and Vera when they argue.' Audrey sighed contentedly, grateful that the awkward moment had elapsed, and she privately pledged never again to accommodate even a grain of warlike animosity.
Gladys brightened. 'Well, we're only kids ourselves,' she said.
During mid-afternoon tea, Audrey reported that she had an appointment with the police concerning the burglary.
'Five o'clock. I was thinking I might as well stay on afterwards.'
'At the house. That's where the interview's taking place.'
'Do you mean stay for good?'
'It's much too soon to go back.'
'I have to return some time. I can sleep in Matty's room until I've got things straight. Nothing was touched in there.'
'Will you ring me if you need anything?'
'Yes, Gladys. I give you my word.'
Audrey did not allude to Gerald's departure; that news would be public knowledge soon enough. As far as she was concerned, the obliteration process had begun, and she did not want even to discuss it.
Five o'clock, on the dot, brought Police Constable Adam Clarke to the door. Freckle faced, with dark straggling locks, he looked more like a Dickensian ragamuffin than a bobby, and his tall helmet seemed far too heavy for his slender form. Audrey fancied that when he took it off, the release would be astronomic. Judging the kitchen to be too homely for a serious interview, she took him into the lounge and bid him to be seated by a table already laid for light refreshments.
The young constable went straight to work, hastily spreading his papers and asking her questions before she was ready. His manner, however, was sympathetic and he wrote her statement in large, tidy script, frequently requesting help with spelling words like knick-knacks. The questions were surprisingly painless, considering the shambles in her home and the havoc in her heart, and Audrey guessed it was due to Brian's organisation and personal assessment. Routine points were easy to answer, and, providing the pattern of questioning did not vary, she found she could brave it out.
At the end, the officer accepted a cup of tea and served himself to four sugar lumps, stirring for so long that Audrey feared Gladys's best white porcelain, on loan for the occasion, would be scratched. Pushing the biscuit barrel in front of him inspired him to stop stirring and select a custard cream.
'Do you get nervous living alone?' he asked, selecting a second biscuit before he had eaten the first. 'It must have been a terrible ordeal.'
Audrey studied him, enquiringly.
'I should have been more explicit,' he said. 'I'm referring to the phone calls.'
Presuming the sole reason for the visit was to take details of the burglary, the change of subject took her by surprise, but, of course, he was a member of the force and as such he was privy to police data. Dunking a ginger nut, she told him that she didn't feel quite so bad now she knew who the offender was.'
'Will you be pressing charges?'
She was neither prepared for the question, nor had she considered it, and she embarked on an agitated pace around the room. Supposing she did go for indictment, what would it achieve? Restitution? Satisfaction? Her subconscious mind successfully stifled the secret pleasure she'd derived from Gerald's calls, so that she was able to think subjectively. There would be endless court appearances and she knew from experience that gossip among Fieldmoor women would border on the malicious, human nature decreeing that a percentage of accusations should be directed towards the victim. And Vera, too, must be borne in mind. She did not deserve such a battle; though with her father gone she would have to struggle, as she did, against the spiteful tongues of narrow-minded people. These thoughts flowed through her mind like water streaming over rocks, deflecting occasionally, but generally running smooth. With so many things begging her not to rake the dirt over a clean track, her eventual reply was explicit. 'No!' she said, 'I won't prefer charges.'
Adam Clarke, having finished his tea and biscuits, put his notebook in his tunic pocket and stood up. Bidding Audrey farewell, he departed, striding youthfully down the path, looking too much of a stripling to be so discerning. He threw his helmet inside the police car and climbed in, shuffling his body to settle himself behind the wheel.
'I know I'm right,' Audrey whispered as she watched him drive off. More than anything she wanted to get the business over and done with. Charging Gerald would cause distress all round, and she would never know peace again.
In the evening, she sat in the lounge sipping a second gin and tonic. Her fingers played with a metal buckle she had spotted by the skirting-board, just after Adam Clarke had left. Realising it must have dropped from his tunic and half-expecting him to call back for it, she put it on the coffee table.
A sense of anticipation absorbed her, as though something momentous was going to happen. For something to do, she put her drink down and went upstairs to mooch around her soulless bedroom, primarily to initiate ideas for restoration. Her eyes travelled to the bedside cabinet where Brian's photograph once stood. How odd it looked, stripped of adornments; how utterly undressed without the crinoline lady and the ceramic vase. She sat at the dressing-table and opened the drawers, discarding bits of thread, safety pins, and odd buttons which had escaped the blitz. Inspecting a garment label and price tag fastened together by a thin plastic wire, she wondered what would have happened if the burglar had found her there? Might she have been murdered in her bed? Dismally, she thought he might as well have, since there was nothing left.
Depressed by the void aspect, she returned to the lounge and perched on the nearest chair to the alcoholic beverages, deliberating the wisdom of getting drunk on gin, harking back, as she gazed longingly at the bottle, to the time she swigged gin with Brian after making love. He had dubbed it mother's ruin, and she had messed about pretending that's who she was. Impulsively, she poured a large measure of gin and pondered on the state of affairs between them now, questioning whether she dared hope for reconciliation, and wondering if she could trust him enough to let him share her life.
At eight o'clock, as the church clock struck, there came a rap on the door. On hearing it, Audrey stiffened, and promptly switched off the radio. She seized the brass poker from the hearth. Holding it vertical, she went into the hall, passing the phone table and the defunct answering machine. She tiptoed to the door and listened, but heard nothing. Then the tapping came again, and a voice called her name. A woman's voice, so faint she could not put a name to it.
She opened the door no more than an inch, and looked into the timid face of Liz Tomlin.
'Can I come in, Audrey?'
'I'd rather you didn't.'
'I want to talk to you about Gerald.'
Audrey quaked at the mention of his name. 'Well, I don't want to discuss him, with you or anybody else.'
'There's things I need to tell you. There's no reason we can't be neighbourly, and I had this idea ... I thought, if I disclosed certain things it would make it easier for both of us.'
Liz sounded so forlorn that Audrey felt compelled to listen, so, although uneasy about inviting her in, she disposed of the poker in the umbrella stand and pulled the door wide.
She took her into the lounge, where Liz sat on the edge of the couch. 'I've come,' she repeated, 'to talk about Gerald. I feel you should know what breed of man he is.'
Audrey remained silent, and Liz launched into an oration of preposterous facts:
At the beginning of their marriage, Gerald tried to taint her with his own filth, being unethical in his lovemaking, demanding things of her she could not do; unspeakable things, as if he was festering inside and was trying to discharge it through her. It was thirteen unbearable years before she took her first overdose. 'Naturally, nobody knew why. You can't imagine how much I hated it when I heard Carrie Smith accuse me of being an attention-seeker.'
Audrey's cheeks positively burned. Were they not her own choice words? To cover her shame, she moved to get some wine. 'White or red?' she asked, hoping it wouldn't clash too badly with the gin. Liz chose the white and Audrey filled two glasses to the brim, spilling wine on the carpet as she carried them across. Immediately, Liz delved in the pocket of her white waistcoat and drew out a thin wad of pink tissues, then fell to her knees to mop up the drips.
'Thanks,' Audrey said.
Toying with Adam Clarke's silver buckle, Liz hesitantly went on with her account. She alleged that following Vera's birth, Gerald, who had ignored her for months, arrived home one night in a raging temper. Threatening her with a knife, he dragged her to the bedroom and spread-eagled her to the bed, whereupon he committed yet another act of rape. Liz's hand trembled as she replaced the buckle and raised her drink with both hands. 'Subsequent to that, I took more and more tablets. Aspirin and paracetamol.' She broke off, distinctly disturbed by the telling of her ghastly tale. She took a swallow of wine, then began circling the glass round the buckle in alternate directions.
Audrey sat absolutely still, captivated by the movements and confounded by the lurid account.
'My nerves have been in tatters for years,' Liz said. 'And I took it out on Vera. I was rankled because she loved her Dad. I needed her to detest him.' Thoughtfully, she ran her fingers along the edge of the table.
Recalling Vera's habitual misery Audrey didn't know how to react to the admission, but Liz wasn't waiting for a response. She blurted the next remark as if goblins were on her heels and she had to speak before she was caught.
'I despised Vera when she was born. You know why? Because she was the product of rape.' She paused to take a deep breath. 'God, that was a bad time.' Pulling another wad of tissues from her pocket, she dabbed the end of her nose. 'I didn't want her. I resented her. I thought, if she wasn't there I might have escaped.'
Audrey solemnly drank her wine, longing to ask if the pills had really helped. Again Liz didn't give her the chance to speak.
'Then, out of the blue,' she said, 'Gerald started ringing women, picking numbers at random. Initially, he did it to annoy me, but he got to enjoy it. And I was happy for him to do it; while he was occupied with that, he was leaving me alone. I used to spy on him, because once I'd noticed how excited he got when he talked. Sometimes, he completely lost control and he'd ejaculate, and afterwards he'd be rational again.' Liz closed her eyes in disgust. 'I truthfully didn't know about you until he was picked up. I kept out of his way as much as possible. But there was no escaping the nights. I was sure Vera heard things. She was only next door and the walls aren't very thick.'
'How do you feel about Vera now?'
'Oh, I'm glad she's there, especially now Gerald's gone. His absence means I can concentrate on her. I could never think straight when he was there. When she was in Blackpool I got to thinking how rotten I'd been. I'm trying to make amends now, and Vee's been really understanding. She's a good kid, always has been, it's just that my brain was too clouded to see.
Audrey discarded the wine bottle and poured instead a large, neat gin. What the hell! She needed it. Swivelling round to Liz, she asked, 'Will you have one of these?'
'More wine then.'
'I'm glad you told me,' Audrey said, 'But why didn't you leave him, for heaven's sake?'
Liz shrugged. 'No money. Nowhere to go. A child to feed. I tried once, and got severe internal bruising for my pains. It was that time you thought I'd got a bad back, remember? No, his threats were enough to make me stay.'
'Will you manage now?'
'Oh, yes. My bad habit will see to that. I started gambling about a year ago. Small amounts. Horses mainly. The successes were exhilarating and I got the knack of selecting winners. I was able to kit myself out with nice clothes. It was like receiving compensation for all the anguish. While Vera was away, I backed several horses to win. My finest accomplishment. I won quite a bit, and he didn't know.'
'Good for you.'
A number of puzzles had been solved in the last five minutes; Audrey could not credit how wrong she had been over Liz. She vowed that in future she would request an entire story instead of giving unwarranted opinions. If anyone should have learned the lesson, it was her. Had she not spent years cursing those quick to deride without knowing the truth? And had she not joined in, when the opportunity arose, to condemn out of hand someone she did not care for. The sick feeling engulfing her stomach had nothing to do with the mixture of alcohol.
When she was leaving, Liz pecked Audrey on the cheek, an unprecedented action that brought a blush to Audrey's cheeks and an arcane appetite for friendship to her soul. Liz started to walk away, then hesitated and swung back, holding out her hand. In it was the buckle she had inadvertently picked up. She studied it closely prior to handing it over, observing that Gerald had a similar one, on his mac, before spinning on her heel and hurrying away.
Audrey felt the spot on her cheek that Liz Tomlin's lips had touched, understanding at last how comparable they were. Two of a kind; both having suffered ordeals with the same man, both having borne the flying missiles aimed by misguided villagers. But one fact was certain: compared to the horrors poor Liz had experienced, hers were insignificant.
Before turning in, Audrey took a shower, allowing the hot water to wash away the traces of her affair by phone. As she shampooed her hair she was aware of a new optimism, a perception that whatever happened in the future her life would be auspiciously rosy.
(to be continued)