31 October 2011

Trust Not The Vow ... Chapter 2

She waited in the steady drizzle, studying the houses on the left-hand side then taking in the ones on the right. Her nose was numb with cold, her fleecy gloves soaked through. Rain trickled from the hem of her raincoat, running in rivulets down her legs. Lowering the orange umbrella until it hooded her head, she queried the logic of loitering any longer.

Rachel had come to Coombe Road in the hope of seeing Gary, which was absurd considering she was not acquainted with Tim O'Flaherty and had no inkling as to his address. Her six o'clock wakening had been a miserable experience. That's when it dawned on her that it was Tuesday and in all probability, since he was at the factory yesterday, Gary would be sent elsewhere.

It was half-an-hour before it occurred to her that he might already have left. By then she was becoming concerned about being late for work. Her poor timekeeping had already earned her one of Mr Hudspith's rare rebukes. Only last week he warned her that dire things would happen if she didn't buck up, like demotion or the sack. Well, she had two choices. She could heap shame on the family with dismissal and sample what it was like to be permanently broke, or she could hotfoot it to the factory.

As if to remind her of the options the rain succeeded in snapping a leaf stalk on a nearby ornamental cherry, creating a channel for it to dribble onto a dented Coca-Cola can. It was like a distant drum intoning the words sack, sack, sack. Choosing the latter option, Rachel pivoted round and ran off, oblivious to the sea of puddles transforming her tan brogues to deep brown.

GRABBING the electric kettle from the desk next to the stationery cupboard, Rachel did the mile long hike along the tacky black walkway to the cloakroom. The route took her past machinery used in the manufacture of milk crates and churns. It was littered with silvery spirals of metal shavings spilled from dilapidated, overloaded cardboard boxes. They had been stacked at the side of the walkway in random locations, making the journey more hazardous than usual. She would have complained had the operators been available, but they had gathered in a group beyond a huge piece of equipment at the far end, out of earshot and very nearly out of sight.

Cynthia Mates was titivating in the cloakroom. There was no need, her appearance was impeccable whatever the weather. She was wearing the canary yellow, sunray-pleated dress, the one Rachel would have coveted had she been of corresponding proportions. She looked as if she was joining the line-up for Miss World.

Cynthia plucked her lipstick-stained cigarette from the tin ashtray and bid Rachel good morning.

‘Did you have a lift?’ asked Rachel as she filled the kettle at the sink.


‘Then how come you look so fresh?’

Curtis bought me an umbrella.’

‘Oh, Curtis did, did he?’

Cynthia drew on the cigarette, the red tip glowing beyond a build-up of grey ash. ‘Don't be like that, Rach. He hasn't done you any harm.’

'Sorry,’ Rachel said, and meant it. ‘It's his name, Curtis Ledbetter sounds so upper-class.’

The grey ash plummeted, landing squarely on Cynthia's chest. Lazily, she flicked it away. ‘Mrs Ledbetter had a theory that one day Curtis would be famous. She told me it came to her right after the Caesarean. She said after going through the ordeal of being hauled out of her belly, Curtis deserved recognition.’ Cynthia chortled as she wiped a flake of ash from her fingernail. ‘I didn't dare ask what kind.’

‘Mothers are strange,’ declared Rachel. ‘And so are wives. Mr Hudspith's got a problem with his. Which reminds me, he's waiting for his tea.’

Cynthia swept her make-up into her bag. ‘I didn't know he was in,’ she cried. ‘Why didn't you tell me he was in?’

‘You didn't ask, that's why.’ Rachel collected the kettle and headed for the door. ‘Don't forget your ciggies,’ she said, pressing the door handle with her elbow.

As usual when walking through the factory, they moaned about the distance they had to travel to relieve themselves, overlooking for the moment how much they enjoyed being teased by younger machine operators.

The machines were still silent, the men huddled now on the back benches taking a breakfast break, tea jugs and sandwich boxes spread around them. The union representative was there and going by the expressions on the men's faces he was labouring an issue of vital importance.

At the loading bay, Rachel checked to see if Gary's lorry was there, but only the firm's maroon vehicles, bearing Hodder and Spicton's distinctive gold roundel, were being loaded. It was still early, but she guessed that constantly hunting for Gary was a waste of time.

RACHEL poured the tea into Eric's prized Aston Villa mug, laced it with the whisky he stored in his bottom drawer, then moved to the outer room where she poured a cup each for her and Cynthia. She settled down to discuss her plans for Gary.

‘I've decided to marry him,’ she said.

Cynthia spluttered over her drink. Brown speckles of tea enlarged to freckle-sized spots on the blotter as Cynthia gawped in disbelief. She was obviously convinced that Rachel's senses had taken a vacation. Wiping her chin with a tissue, she extracted a pack of cigarettes from her bag and fished for the remains of one she’d smoked on the bus. Tobacco ends flared when she applied the match, but she left it in her mouth and spoke through a stream of smoke. ‘How can you marry a guy you've only recently met? You haven't even been out with him.’

Wafting the smoke away, Rachel studied her knuckles and tried to impress with nonchalance, casually mentioning that Gary had invited her out. The revelation prompted Cynthia to produce a chain of questions which Rachel couldn’t answer. She asked what Gary had said, and how he said it. She asked where they were going, and when. Scrutinizing Rachel's eyes, she asked what she intended to wear, and had she told her mother.

There was nothing Rachel could say about her mother at this stage. In fact, there was not a lot she could say at all. It was short-sighted of her not to have invented a proper story to satisfy Cynthia's probes. She sought to hide her chagrin by babbling on about Gary referring to her as his pretty, emphasising the fact that he had pursued her with a view to them spending an evening together.

‘Oh, well, that's okay then,’ Cynthia said, tapping her cigarette on the metal waste basket. ‘You can feel safe marrying the guy if you're definitely going out with him.’ She could be very sarcastic when she chose.

Undaunted, Rachel pressed on, disclosing that she had resolved merely to run away until the notion of marriage somehow wriggled into her head. ‘Apart from the fact that he's wonderful, don't you agree it's a brilliant excuse for escaping from home?’


At that point, the conversation was forced to an abrupt conclusion by the arrival of Eric Hudspith carrying his empty mug. This he dumped on Rachel's desk and with a beckoning gesture indicated that her presence was required for dictation. Clutching her pad and a fistful of sharpened pencils, she followed him to the inner sanctum, stealing a glance as she passed the window to see if Gary was in. She counted four company lorries and eight men chatting to the foreman, but Gary was not amongst them.

Disappointed, she sat on the straight-backed chair beside her boss. Adjusting her navy skirt and tugging the pink mohair sweater over her waist, she surrendered to the humdrum routine of taking letters at snail-pace speed.

AT the end of the day, on hearing the factory whistle, Rachel cleared her desk and shouted to Eric that she was going home. He called back that unless she could provide him with a good enough reason to tolerate the inconvenience of decorating, he would work overtime. He would see her in the morning, he said, bright and early, boots blacked, and rearing to go.

Rachel chuckled as she donned her Mac and covered her hair with a chiffon scarf. From Eric's tone she was fairly sure he had imbibed more whisky and as she vacated the office she made a note to inspect the bottle in the morning.

Thankful that the rain had ceased, she trotted home. Cynthia had left earlier to visit the dentist; consequently she had missed witnessing Rachel's feverish excitement at the possible prospect of meeting Gary. Rachel executed an occasional skip as she swung the orange umbrella at her side and whistled a tune remarkably similar to the Wedding March.

She knew he was there the instant she turned into Tewkesbury Road. In fact, by his unruffled manner as he lounged against Mr Dunthorne's privet hedge, it seemed as if he had been waiting for a tidy spell.

As she approached, an unexpected shyness paralysed her tongue. She halted a yard away from him, transfixed and coy, one arm hanging limply at her side, the other gripping the umbrella for support. She felt like a dumb chick just out of kindergarten, facing an unfamiliar situation totally alone.

Gary saluted. ‘Hi, Babe.’

She croaked a greeting, hoping that stammering was not habit forming.

‘I wondered if you'd care to go out,’ he said.

She pulled off her scarf and shook her hair. ‘You mean tonight?’ The stammer had miraculously disappeared. Energy returned to her arms but she quaked inside, sensing that something of tremendous significance was about to occur.

'Sound of Music's on at the Odeon.’

Be careful, Rachel, she told herself, even as she uttered the words: ‘I've seen it a thousand times.’ Not wanting him to think her unsophisticated or soppy, she refrained from saying that she would see it another thousand if he asked.

Gary's eyes penetrated hers as he murmured, ‘We don't have to watch it.’

The thought of canoodling in the back row of the Odeon wreaked an onset of severe tummy turbulence.

‘What do you say? Shall we go?’


‘Could you be ready in an hour?’

'Sure.’ She would have gone instantly, but she did have to get the tea or risk her mother's fuse snapping altogether.

‘WHO is he?’ quizzed Amy, on hearing of Rachel's assignation with someone new.

‘One of the driver's at the factory.’

Amy screamed: ‘A driver! Can't you do better than a bloody driver?’ She fell into the wooden armchair by the fire, shaking her head in exasperation.

Disapproval was to be expected since everything Rachel elected to do was denigrated. She could have been dating the Prime Minister and her mother would still have launched a smear campaign. Nevertheless, she challenged her, demanding to know what was wrong with drivers.

‘What's wrong with them? What's right with them, you mean. Dregs! That's what they are.’

Toby stirred at that. He squinted over the top of his paper then unexpectedly slammed it on the kitchen table. Amy's finest willow-pattern cups clattered in their saucers. ‘That's enough, Amy, you hear? I won't have you talking in such a fashion.’

At least Amy had the grace to look remorseful. In her portrayal of a snob she had forgotten that Toby drove a wagon when they married, before training as a carpenter. Now that he had risen to the rank of foreman, she judged people who did lesser jobs as common.

Toby advised Rachel to fetch Gary in to meet them, if only to prove to Amy that drivers were equal to shop workers and cabinet-makers.

Rachel silently agreed. Shop assistants should not assume fancy airs. Though, to be fair, despite the fact that her mother was currently employed at Hall's Confectioners, she had spent years nursing at the General. It was a specialised job, but it did not licence her to malign others.

SATISFIED she had done her best with her face, Rachel consigned the foundation, eye shadow, mascara and the entire range of six lipsticks to her bag. She wore a turquoise frock with white vertical stripes which she hoped gave her a more slim-line shape. Topping it with a fluffy cardigan, she sprinted downstairs to collect her bottle-green coat. She was barely able to contain her excitement and had to force herself to slow down and button the coat properly. Finally, she tugged the fur-trimmed collar upright, believing it would make her throat appear graceful and lily white. One last twirl in front of the mirror and she was ready.

She entered the kitchen, mentally lauding the tidiness her mother insisted on and the use of Summer Bouquet air freshener.

‘I will fetch Gary in,’ she informed Amy. ‘Only don't spoil things by being snooty.’

She smoothed her gloves over her fingers, pecked her father's cheek, then walked towards the door with her head high, self-assurance having at last asserted itself.

Toby opened the door with a flourish, commenting that she looked absolutely smashing. He could always be relied on to make her feel like a million dollars.

RACHEL opened the yard gate and peered down the entry. Her heart soared like a skylark when she saw Gary sitting on the low wall, sleeking his hair with the palm of his hand. Aiming to surprise him she sneaked towards him, but he suspected she was there and whirled round. The next second she was in his arms, her ribs crushed against him, and her spirits sang while the contents of her stomach pitched up and down.

‘Shame on you,’ he said, laughing. ‘Did you think you could put one over me?’

‘Don't be silly,’ Rachel said, giggling as she pushed him aside.

He took her hand and went to step into the road but Rachel stopped him, telling him he had to come and say hello to the folks. ‘Just for five minutes,’ she added, in case he believed her intention was to spend the whole evening with them.


‘They like to k-know who I'm with. You k-know what p-parents are like.’

God! Was she fated to stutter every time she got nervous.

‘Right, lead on.’

With her high heels click-clacking on the blue bricks and echoing like machine guns, Rachel led him to the back entrance and into the kitchen, where Amy and Toby were positioned like sentries in front of the dresser.

‘Hi!’ said Rachel, breezily. ‘Allow me to introduce Gary.’

Toby advanced a hand. ‘Toby Skinner. Pleased to meet you.’

‘Gary Ellison,’ said Gary in return. ‘Likewise.’

Rachel fastened her eyes on her mother and was gratified to see amazement etched on her face. ‘Gary drives for Goddards.’

‘Really,’ said Amy. ‘How nice.’

Charlatan, thought Rachel.

‘Have you been with them long?’ enquired Amy.

‘Six months.’

‘Is that G and H Goddard?’ enquired Toby.

‘You have dealings with them, Sir?’

Rachel stole a lateral peep at her mother, observing the way her spine straightened in a private demonstration of affectation. There was no doubt she approved the use of the title Sir. While Toby explained the connection between his firm and Goddards, Amy's face registered a composition of curiosity, absorption, and fascination.

Hypocrite, thought Rachel.

Eventually, Rachel managed to draw Gary from her parents' inquisition by firmly steering him to the door, hanging onto his arm to deter him from succumbing to Amy's honeyed overtures.

THEY took the short-cut via the Boar's Head car park, steering clear of incoming cars. Stepping round the knee-high weeds, her heels sinking into wet earth, Rachel guided Gary to the gate. It was a mistake to go that way in flimsy shoes, but it was too late to worry. She would have to brush the mud off in the Ladies.

They flanked the wooden fence around the perimeter of the field, a popular trysting-place because of the old underground shelters Hodders had not seen fit to remove. Gary wanted to know what was behind such a high fence. Was it perhaps concealment for nuclear dugouts or a training ground for a battalion of space invaders?

Rachel chortled, amused by his ingenious wit. ‘It's only playing fields,’ she said, fully intending to show him when the opportunity arose.

They arrived at the cinema as the tail end of the queue passed through the double glass doors. They raced to tag on the end. Rachel feared the seating area would be full and they'd be compelled to stand at the back; not ideal if Gary wanted to snog. Breathing patterns improved while they waited to purchase tickets, shuffling along one place at a time in the brightly lit foyer. As they passed the sweet kiosk, Gary proclaimed it to be a sickly smelling place, saying he had disliked candy ever since, as a thieving boy, he gorged on the stuff he stole.

Rachel laughed, but was shocked by the admission. Not for anything would she admit to stealing the way Gary had. Feigning interest in the posters for the following week's programme, she remembered the minor crimes she committed when just a kid in ankle socks, perpetrated mainly to get back at her mother. She nicked sweets from Woolworths, and place mats and cutlery from cafes, stuffing them in her mother's shopping bag while she wasn’t looking. Fortunately, for Rachel and her mother, the sins were never discovered. Rachel cringed at the memory of her evil deeds.

The auditorium was not completely full. The uniformed usherette who took their tickets informed them that there were a few vacant seats. It was just a matter of finding them. Rachel scanned the back row as they shadowed her down the wide steps of the upper circle.

‘They're all occupied, dearie,’ said the woman, shining her silver torch along the row and illuminating several startled faces. The powerful beam travelled over the patrons and exposed two empty seats in the middle of a row.

Brushing knees and treading on toes, they worked their way to the seats. Amidst rasping cries of Shush and Hurry up, and with her bag secured by her feet, Rachel struggled to slip out of her coat. The exertion made her armpits sweaty. She unbuttoned her cardigan and sat for a moment with her elbows jutting out to let the air circulate.

Gary held her hand, all he could do without creating a disturbance. Feeling the pressure of his finger on her palm, Rachel gazed blindly at the screen and inwardly promised him the earth when they got out.

They sat through a mediocre documentary about mating bears, which at first Rachel thought would be both enlightening and provocative, but it had more to do with how the film crew did their job and proved to be most uninteresting. Sweet papers and crisp bags rustled furiously throughout the film, a mild distraction considering the rubbish they were watching. They sighed with relief when it finished.

Gary eagerly awaited the start of the big picture, but Rachel's mind refused to budge from the fantasy of sultry kisses and the crafty grope she anticipated would take place when the lights were less glaring and the would-be spectators were engrossed in the film.

Spotting the ice cream lady moving to her station by the rail, Rachel pronounced that she would like one and fumbled in her bag for her purse.

‘I'll get them,’ Gary hissed, guessing the reason for the activity. He stuck his hand in his trouser pocket and brought out a quantity of coins. ‘What would you like?’

‘I'll go,’ Rachel said,

‘As you wish,’ he said, giving her the money. ‘Get me a choc-ice.’

Shoving her coat and bag onto his lap, she pushed past the knees and bags and scampered down the steep steps to join the queue. Standing cross-legged behind a teenager with heavy braids, she mused about the film. She had a kind of fellow feeling for those grisly bears. She would have died with embarrassment if cameramen were watching her every move. She wondered how private the playing fields would be later on, whether it was worth taking a look. Or should they stick to the narrow track at the end, a recognised over-spill when the old shelters were occupied. One thing was certain; there would be no problem with cameras whichever venue they selected.

‘YOUR parents are pleasant,’ observed Gary, as he unwrapped the ice cream. ‘Disconcerting, though, being subjected to a spontaneous interrogation on a first date. I could understand if we'd seen each other a few times, but not on a first date.’

Thankful that the dimmed lighting hid her distress, Rachel kept her eyes on her lap and wished that her father had not insisted on meeting Gary. Humiliation bit hard and she experienced a desperate need to melt away, to go somewhere and weep away the mortification.

Gary's hand crept over her tightly clenched fist. ‘Hey, baby,’ he whispered. ‘Don't take on. I'm not angry.’ He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

She rejoiced. Her world was complete again.

(to be continued)

29 October 2011

Sunday Scene

The River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland, which I believe was not excessively flooded during the recent heavy rainfall that flooded the Dublin area. The problems came from other, smaller rivers.

27 October 2011


Sprigs of Rosemary...

... and a Lavender loving cat seen at the local garden centre

I found this poem on the Net
(Author Unknown)


Gentle eyes
that see so much,
paws that have
the quiet touch.

Purrs to signal
"all is well"
and show more love
than words can tell.

Graceful movements
touched with pride,
a calming presence
by our side.

A friendship
that will last and grow,
small wonder
why we love them so.


When I was born, I was the:
person alive on Earth
and I'm the
person to have lived since history.

Click the link to find your number, then select RESET to fill in your date of birth


and finally, my offering for 'Things in a Row'

26 October 2011

Visiting the Doctor

My appointment was late afternoon, right after work, and since there wasn’t enough time to make the journey home and back I settled down to wait.

Sunlight streamed through the window making the crowded waiting room feel quite warm. There was also a smell of lavender, obviously sprayed when the room was devoid of people. A small overhead radio, set to provide music, was responsible for a lot of toe tapping in tempo. One elderly bearded gent grinned as he rapped his knuckles against his walking stick before breaking out in a shrill whistle. Next to him an old lady frowned. Probably his wife, I thought.

I had chosen a seat at the far end of the narrow room so that I could flick through the heap of magazines on a small table. The ones I’d brought the week before were no longer there; pinched probably by someone called in before finishing an article. It was terribly frustrating to get half way and then never know how it ended. That was as bad as having to return a library book before it was finished.

From where I sat I could hear laughter on the other side of the door. Someone, it sounded like a man, was enjoying the visit here. But then, didn’t we all.

Not all of the people were waiting to go in the same room. I knew this by the timing of the appointments ... and judging by the signs of agitation (checking watches and nervous twitches) I could work out who was running late. Thankfully it didn’t affect me. I was booked to see the lovely Doctor Charlesworth and although he was worth waiting for he rarely kept anyone hanging around.

Another burst of laughter. Someone was certainly enjoying a bit of a joke.

The gent with the stick grinned, wiped a folded handkerchief across his brow, then toppled forward. I thought he’d just slipped off his chair but apparently he was, in the words of the lady next to him, ‘having a turn.’

It was all go after that. While everyone stood round him, looking and not doing anything, I hammered on the doctor’s door and thrust it open. If things hadn’t been so fraught in the waiting room I might have stopped to laugh at the patient standing with his back to me, naked all except for a singlet. In a lighter moment I might have wished he’d turn round, I might then have had an inkling why there had been so much laughter.

Doctor Charlesworth was the first medical personage on the scene. As he came through the door bells started to ring in the distance and almost immediately a flurry of uniforms headed to where the old man had collapsed. The small crowd shifted to make way and I took it upon myself to usher them into the surgery. It was the right thing to do since the man’s prone body was blocking the way to the exit but I don’t think the semi-naked patient thought much of it. I remember smirking and giving a sort of half-wink as he dashed into the cubicle and pulled the curtain. It was just his luck that the rings stuck on the rod; all he could do was drape it across his nether regions.

Just as I was debating whether to pass the man his coat, which he’d casually draped over a chair, the doc came back in. ‘All’s well,’ he announced, and went on to thank me for my prompt action.

His patient snorted behind the curtain.

After telling me that an ambulance was on its way to collect the old guy he advised me to go outside and wait for my turn. ‘You know me, Val, I don’t give preferential treatment to the WI.’ His eyes twinkled with merriment.

Since my turn was at least two people away I decided to visit the ladies room situated on the far side of Reception. The old guy was still there but now he seemed to have recovered from his ordeal. He was talking to one of the nurses and I heard him say ‘Thanks to him, if and when I die I shall go out laughing.’

It struck me then that Doctor Charlesworth’s objective was to make us all feel cheerful. Certainly there was never a dull moment when I visited. I know the naked patient incident was a stroke of fate but let’s face it he and the doc were having a good laugh over something before the old guy crashed out. Doc has a typical bedside manner when needs be. He is everything a doctor should be, practical, sensible, soothing, and friendly. Above all he instils a sense of wellbeing in his patients.

While I waited I got to thinking about my visits. I always looked forward to going to the surgery because I knew Doc and I would banter with each other. If ever I felt a bit low he would sweep it away in a trice and I ALWAYS came out of his room feeling happy. I reasoned that it was because we’d known each for years but what I hadn’t realised was that he treated everyone the same. I’m going to suggest he has a motto printed and framed in his room … something to the effect that laughter is the best remedy.

(True story, slightly embellished!)

24 October 2011

Trust Not The Vow ... Chapter 1

She stood in Harrow and Spicton's loading bay fiddling with the tail-end of her blue and white woollen scarf, almost swooning with the realisation that if she hadn't used the bay as a short cut she might have missed this extraordinary sight.

The subject of Rachel Skinner's fascination was dark haired and bronzed, slim waisted and lithe, sporting a smooth, bare chest that made her feel tingly cold to look at him, though she couldn’t decide if that was to do with the effect he had on her or the wintry weather. Although normally incapable of judging age, she guessed him to be mid-twenties and with those looks probably happily married. She had been secretary to the Manager of the Despatch Department since leaving school and knew every driver who brought in their dockets for endorsement. But she had never seen this one before.

Her red hair bobbed as she propelled herself through the metal door of the office. After saluting Cynthia, she slung her second-best blue coat at the clothes rack in the corner before speeding out to take another gander at the dark-eyed wonder. Moving swiftly, she hid behind a pile of wooden pallets where she could gaze to her heart's content.

‘What's going on?’ demanded Cynthia, towering over Rachel with a quizzical look on her face.

‘Shush,’ Rachel hissed, unceremoniously dragging her colleague to the shelter offered by the pallets. She was entirely oblivious to the wounded cry when Cynthia's knee caught a protruding nail.

Cynthia carefully inspected her knee before condescending to ask what the devil Rachel was gawking at, but she looked intently when Rachel pointed to the figure standing on the back of a lorry, stacking a consignment of milk churns.

‘Isn't he something?’ Rachel murmured, staring almost devotedly at the new driver. He had donned a thick blue shirt, left the buttons undone, and she observed the single streak of oil that sullied his golden skin. Seeing Cynthia pat her blonde hair, she cried impulsively: ‘Leave off. I saw him first.’

‘That must be the chap the girls were raving over in the cloakroom,’ Cynthia said. ‘They were right, he is dishy.’ Suddenly, she seized Rachel's arm. ‘Watch out, old Hudspith's coming. If he sees us shirking, there'll be hell to pay.’

Eric Hudspith, as boss of Despatch, rightly demanded that his girls applied their minds unreservedly to matters relating to work. He would not view favourably an episode of man-ogling and if he saw her ensconced by pallets he would definitely have something to say. Rachel reluctantly brushed the swarf from her linen skirt and chased after Cynthia.

DURING the ensuing week, Rachel researched the new driver. She learned little, except that his name was Gary and he was employed by a subcontractor, which meant he would not come in as often as she would like. When he did, he was accompanied by an older man who dealt with the paperwork himself. Each day, she kept a vigilant eye on the window overlooking the bay, praying he would come alone and bring a docket she could deal with.

News of him travelled to the offices: Sales, Accounts, Reception, and the Switchboard Room. Gary's audience steadily increased. Obsessed by him, yet too shy to go near, Rachel experienced the first tremors of jealousy as she witnessed the spectacle of parading females. She became acutely aware of her chubbiness and formed the habit of covering herself with loose jumpers and cardigans to conceal her podgy breasts. She felt bad enough next to Cynthia but that stylish lot made her imperfections seem gross. When it got unbearable, she buried herself in her work and tried to dismiss Gary from her thoughts.

ONE afternoon, Cynthia hurried into the office, a cigarette in her hand, grey smoke belching from between her red lips. ‘Hey! Your bloke's here on his own.’

Rachel's stomach did several high-speed somersaults. Beads of sweat lined her brow and the hand holding her ballpoint pen began to quiver. ‘Where?’ she asked, hardly daring to breathe.

Cynthia had no chance to answer for the door burst open and Rachel's dream-man strode in. He quickly surveyed the layout of the office and then marched over to Rachel's desk.

‘Hello,’ he said, pulling a pink slip from his overall pocket. He handed it to Rachel, obviously unaware of the havoc his appearance had caused in Rachel's heart. ‘Are you the girl who signs these things?’

Speechlessly concurring, Rachel took the paper from his remarkably clean hand which, in view of the work he did, flaunted surprisingly spotless nails. She scribbled her signature beside that of the foreman, feverishly wondering how to initiate a dialogue before he marched out again. Mentioning his superb physique didn't seem an appropriate opener somehow, and reference to his gorgeous looks would be a little premature. There was, of course, the weather to fall back on; a dreary topic, but it would do for starters. However, just as she opened her mouth to speak, Cynthia beat her to it.

‘Have you finished loading.’

‘Yes, and am I glad. My mate's off with flu and it's no fun humping crates on your own.’

‘You should have called me,’ Cynthia said. ‘My name's Mates!’

He laughed, believing she was joking, but Cynthia swiftly pointed out that it truly was her name.

‘Well, indeed I would have sent for you, Miss, if I'd known.’ Turning to take the proffered docket from Rachel, he beamed at her and said, ‘Name's Gary, by the way. Gary Ellison.’

Inarticulately, her voice strangely impeded by a brick-like obstacle in her throat, Rachel gave her name, mumbling disjointedly about it being dull and old-fashioned. She felt terribly gauche under what she felt was a critical gaze, but she did notice how white his teeth were, how moist his lips, and she predicted that she would die happy if only Gary Ellison's smiling mouth would attach itself to hers.

‘I think your name is charming,’ Gary remarked as he reached for the door, but before passing through he swept round and gave Rachel a huge wink which set her heart banging like a Chinese gong.

Later, at tea break, Rachel confessed to Cynthia … boldly, now that Gary's spell had worn off and she was in complete control of her emotions … that if she hadn't been glued to the chair she would have vaulted the desk to kiss the man.

‘Just because he winked? That's daft.’

‘But it was a knowing wink.’

‘What the hell is a knowing wink, when it's at home?’

‘Sort of ... seductive.’

‘Go on, you're off your rocker. He's a smoothie. I bet he bats an eye at all the women.’

DAWDLING home at the end of the working day, Rachel barely noticed the ordinarily tedious journey. Her thoughts were totally occupied by Gary. She had hung around after work, hoping to see him and had been rewarded for the longish wait with a grin and a wave as he drove by in his lorry.

She believed she was in love. Certainly the excitement bubbling inside like a seething cauldron was nothing like the way she felt with Keith. But she didn't want to analyse or compare; she wanted to relish these escalating sensations not put a damper on things, which thinking about her previous boy friend would definitely do.

It was gone six when she arrived at the house, an hour later than her usual arrival time; if her mother was home she would be in serious trouble. One step from the side entry, Rachel hesitated, sensing that someone was walking behind her, cushioned footfalls not detected because of her busy mind. She spun round, and promptly forgot her mother's likely vexation when she saw who it was.

‘Here we are, then,’ said Gary. ‘I'll wager you didn't expect to see me.’

Rachel's speech only faltered when she was excited or nervous; unluckily, both emotions applied to the current situation and all she could do was stammer: ‘N-no.’

‘I've taken lodgings with Tim O'Flaherty's family in Coombe Road. D'you know them?’

‘N-no.’ She urged herself to restrain the stutter.

‘So I may be seeing a bit more of you, my lovely.’

As if a blush wasn't sufficient evidence of her personal flurry her heart undertook to join in, embarking on a mercurial leap to heaven. Her lower limbs turned to jelly when he bent close to say:

‘What do you reckon to you and me going out one night?’

Rachel swallowed hard, thinking she would faint if he didn't move away. She didn't dare speak lest the words emerged all wrong and he thought her a simpleton. In the end, she nodded her agreement, but gave him a smile to be going on with.

‘That's dandy,’ he said, touching her arm. ‘I'll see you then.’ And he marched away in the direction of Coombe Road without enlightening her about where or when.

PROVIDENTIALLY, the house was empty except for Rex, a retriever-spaniel crossbreed, who was wagging his tail as if trying to dispose of it. Rachel gave his head an affectionate pat. ‘You're a nutty dog,’ she said. ‘Anyone would think I'd been away for months.’ She buried her nose on the top of his head and gave his belly a quick rub. ‘Okay, that's enough. I've got to iron the last two sheets before Mum gets in.’

Discarding her coat, she fetched the iron from the old toy cupboard under the stairs and set to work, applauding the wisdom of doing the bulk of it at lunch time. Her mother insisted that Rachel did her share of housework, especially the ironing. So you'll know what to do when you grow up, she’d explained when Rachel was about four. And woe betide her if she failed to execute the tasks. Social excursions were allowed in this house only when all the work was done.

Amy Skinner came in as Rachel was folding the last bed sheet. Rex lifted his head, but sensibly chose to stay where he was.

‘I'm bushed,’ Amy said, kicking off her ridiculously high heels and padding across to the chair by the grate. ‘Are you getting the tea tonight, or must I do it again?’

‘I'll see to it.’

Rachel put the sheets on the chair ready to transport upstairs, then fetched potatoes from the sack in the pantry. While waiting for the water to run into the bowl, she absently gazed at a splash of red poppies on the curtains and pondered Gary's weird invitation, endeavouring to determine if he was the sort of guy who said things in jest without really meaning them. Could someone so captivating be that unkind? Swiftly, she drove the notion away, reasoning that he hadn't actually made a date; he'd merely asked her opinion of the idea. She might have read more into his remark than he intended. Nonetheless, her palpitations were rife, and that was usually a sign of things about to happen.

‘What're you doing that for?’ bawled Amy.

Rachel paused with the peeler poised, silently cursing the intrusion into her deliberations.

‘I told you this morning, we're having salad. Don't you ever listen? It's time you got your head out of the clouds, my lady. Airy-fairy, that's what you are. Neither use nor ornament.’

Rachel mutely threatened, as she invariably did when Amy set upon her, that one of these days she would thrash the living daylight out of her mother.

Not a woman to care if her actions hurt, Amy shoved her aside. ‘Shift,’ she said. ‘Let me get to the sink. Your Dad will want his tea any minute.’

Her statement was correct for Toby Skinner appeared as she finished speaking. A welcome arrival for Rachel who loved her father to bits and only felt relaxed in the family home when he was there. She went with Rex to greet him. Toby removed his cap and planted a kiss on her cheek, then tweaked the dog's ear. Rachel snuggled up to him, a childish practice never outgrown. She breathed in the odour of fresh sawdust and it occurred to her that Gary might feel equally as strong, and cuddly, and warm. Her doubts had entirely disappeared.

‘Here, girl, what's all this for?’

‘I'm pleased to see you, that's all.’

Toby playfully pushed her away and went over to his wife, who was scrubbing celery as if her livelihood depended on it. ‘Is there time to wash before tea?’ he asked, squeezing her shoulder.

‘Half an hour, I'd say. I'm late tonight. Madam here didn't listen when I told her to do salad.’

‘I'm in no rush,’ Toby said, heading towards the stairs.

Rachel followed, aiming to confide in him about Gary, but her mother's deafening summons stopped her in her tracks. She sighed loudly and resigned herself to tackling whatever it was her mother had in mind for her to do.

‘Don't idle,’ Amy cried. ‘Get the table laid, and don't forget your father's napkin. And the cruet. Then you can butter the bread, there's a new loaf in my bag.’

Doing the jobs in instructional order, Rachel swore that pretty soon she would do something drastic that would teach her mother once and for all that her detestable dominance was unendurable. Quite possibly she would run away or … or get married.

Married! Now that would show her. The unsolicited notion surprised her, it being a concept she hadn't contemplated before … not even on the occasion when her mother beat her almost senseless with a heavy poker. And never with Keith. Gary's image flashed before her and an unexpected eagerness consumed her, an exhilarating expectancy of a future spent with the amazingly handsome Gary. She would have to discuss it with Cynthia. No use bothering her Dad at this stage. He'd have a blue fit if she suggested marrying a man she scarcely knew.

But she would know him.

She'd make sure of it.

(to be continued)