Matthew took advantage of his mother's shopping excursion to organise his surprise. Suspecting she did not have much in her life beyond work he was anxious to give her a decent night out. We'll have dinner in town, he decided, looking round for the telephone directory. He found the book in the hall table and ran through the page-long list of restaurants. He came across the Court Hotel where one could have set meals in the Conrad Room or a la carte in the Palm where on Saturdays a trio played. It sounded a bit top notch for him but he reckoned his Mum would go for it. He phoned to book and a condescending receptionist informed him that until five minutes before they had been fully booked.
'Does that mean you have or haven't got a table?' he enquired.
'We have received a cancellation,' replied the girl.
Wondering why she bothered to complicate matters, Matthew reserved a table for . He shut the phone book with a flourish, pleased that the outing had been easy to arrange. All he needed to do now was decide how best to spring the surprise, whether to get his mother out of the house and then tell her, or lie and pretend to take her to the cinema.
With various schemes filtering through his brain he went to return the book. The drawer had jammed. He jostled it, and groped inside, then tackled the problem from the drawer above. Once that was removed he could see a six-inch square, white cloth bag. He eased it out, recognising it as the one his mother made for shuffling Scrabble tiles. Puzzled, he untied the cord and took out five micro cassettes, four of them individually wrapped in white tissue. He wondered if they'd been hidden accidentally or by design.
Curiosity compelled him to remove the current cassette from the talk machine and insert the unwrapped one. He pressed the start button and sat down to listen to what he expected would be a stir of routine messages, totally unprepared for what was to follow, an unfolding of such salacious filth that his flesh seemed suddenly infested.
'Jesus Christ!' he cried, unaware that he was beating the table with his fist until the machine jarred. The lewd words hiccupped then continued without further pause until Matthew, his mouth labouring uncontrollably, ejected the tape and hurled it across the hall. His distressed howls did nothing to temper the blistering repugnance for a man not even worthy to be dubbed a psychopath.
'Am I glad to see you,' Audrey said as she struggled to unlatch the gate. The sight of Matthew on the step was decidedly welcome in view of all the bags she carried. 'Give me a hand, there's a dear. I didn't intend buying this much but I got carried away with you being home. Carol said to tell you Hello by the way.'
Matthew didn't answer, he merely collected the bags and carted them into the house; nor did Audrey notice that anything was wrong, she was just glad to be rid of the load, thinking how good it was to have him available for tasks such as these.
Inside she shouldered the door to, absently rubbing her deadened fingers and vowing never again to carry heavy goods in plastic bags. Inevitably she checked the machine for messages, sighing thankfully when she saw the red light was still and not constantly blinking like it usually was. But she jumped like a startled doe when she saw the tapes stacked one on top of the other and the empty bag beside them. Pallid faced, she pawed the wall, seeking support.
At once Matthew was at her side to help, assisting her with the removal of her coat, planting it on top of the four carrier bags by the wall. He seized her elbow and guided her into the lounge, pressing her onto the couch. He crouched in front of her and gripped her hands. His words were strangled when he addressed her.
'Why didn't you tell me, Mum?'
'Who is he?'
'I don't know.' Audrey pulled free and covered her eyes, wishing with all her might that the ground would crack open and suck her into obscurity. 'I'm so ashamed,' she sobbed.
Matthew began tramping backwards and forwards, finding this very difficult to deal with. Audrey shivered as she tracked his progress. She applied pressure to her temples; it felt as if an iron belt was clamping her skull. Perhaps if she stood upright ....
'Have you told the police?' demanded Matthew.
Red blotches appeared on Audrey's throat. She crossed her legs and nervously drummed the air with her foot. In a quivery voice, she reluctantly answered the question. 'Gladys told Brian, and he made me promise to tell him if I got another call. But I didn't.'
'Why ever not?'
Without warning, Audrey shot off the couch. Her eyes blazed and her nostrils widened like a rabid dog. She felt commensurately crazed. 'How could I?' she shrieked. 'They'd want details and I couldn't give them any. I couldn't repeat such loathsome things. I can't even listen to his bloody voice, let alone talk about it.'
God forgive her for these untruths.
'For Christ's sake, Mum. You wouldn't need to say anything. Just give them the tapes.'
Matthew leaned down to touch her shoulder. 'Well, it can't go on. First thing tomorrow we'll give the story to the police. Okay?'
What could she do? Arguing would make him suspicious and her motive for keeping quiet might be exposed. She couldn't endure it if he discovered that his mother had downgraded to the status of a slut,. For that reason she nodded her agreement, though inwardly praying for help with the battle for ongoing secrecy.
'Don't worry, we'll sort him out.' Matthew cupped her face and brushed her tears away with his thumbs. He spoke as if soothing a child. 'Put it out of your mind because I'm taking you out tonight and you'll look silly with mottled cheeks. Now, why don't you take a shower and deck yourself out in your prettiest frock.'
Compliantly, Audrey crossed the room, finding it easier to give in than put up a fight. In any case, it was essential to reserve some strength for potential disputes, and for the effort needed to assuage tension as hovered near. She was surprised at the stiffness in her legs and arms, both sets of limbs seeming disinclined to move.
Malcolm watched her with troubled eyes, and his head moved from side to side as she passed.
Early the next morning, Matthew fried bacon and eggs and carried a loaded tray to his mother's bedroom, walking in without stopping to consider that she might be indisposed. She lay quite still, staring at the ceiling, unblinking like a prostrate dummy. He thought for the first time that maybe he shouldn't be there, that she might not want him in her room. Blushing slightly, he started to retreat, but he'd only taken a single pace when she turned towards him and beckoned him to her bed like he was still a kid.
Stepping over the cream dress which his mother wore last night and which lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, and ignoring her protestations that she preferred to eat downstairs, Matthew positioned the tray on her knees. He was rewarded with a smile as she gave in and drank her tea.
She looked pinched, as if sleep had eluded her, and there was a smudge of brown mascara circling one eye. She flicked on the radio and adjusted the sound, while Matthew gathered up the dress and laid it on the nearest chair, on top of various items of underwear that looked as if they'd been dumped in a hurry. He rescued the abandoned shoes and put them near the wardrobe. Assured of his mother's absorption in the music, he playfully whacked the snout of the largest teddy bear and left the room.
But the instant the door clicked behind him the outwardly impish attitude disappeared. He tumbled down the stairs two at a time, halting momentarily at the bottom to cock his head and listen. Hearing only music, he went to the telephone and dialled a number.
A small cough came through the wire, and a sleepy voice inviting identification.
Overlooking the preliminaries, Matthew stated the reason for his call. 'I'm taking Mum to the police station to report the obscene calls,' he said, 'and I must say I'm amazed you didn't insist on it.'
'I beg your pardon?' cried Gladys.
'You knew about the calls, yet you did sod all.' The hostility was clear as he persisted with his reproach. 'Jesus! And to think you're reputed to be her friend. Was the affair too nasty for you to bother with?'
Matthew thought she'd cut off when he got no response to his tirade but, when she did speak, the full extent of her anger made him cringe.
'I don't need a whipper snapper like you ringing at first light and talking to me as though I was something hatched in the gutter. Now start again. What am I supposed to have done?'
Owing to his uncertainty about how to proceed, Matthew echoed his initial statement.
In a less severe tone, Gladys advised him that his mother did mention the phone calls. 'She begged me not to tell anyone.'
'As a matter of fact,' she went on, 'I ignored it. I told your Dad, and he talked to her. The problem died a death because, according to your mother, it was all a practical joke. So why are you getting at me?'
After chewing over what she said, Matthew adopted a remorseful approach. 'I apologise. That's me for you, always jumping to conclusions. Do I understand you right? Mum didn't confess other calls?'
'She did not.'
Matthew's hitherto iron control was abruptly and irretrievably demolished and it was several minutes before he was in peripheral charge of his emotions. 'She's got five bloody tapes chock full of bloody obscenities,' he said, the outrage back in his voice.
'My Good God!'
Matthew heard the receiver fall at the other end and Gladys moaning in the background, lamenting repeatedly, 'Poor, poor woman.' He imagined her rocking to and fro and tried to penetrate her anguish by calling her name down the phone. A crackling noise smacked his ear when she picked up the receiver. 'Will you come with us to the station?' he asked. 'Mum needs you.'
'I'm on my way, boy.' Gladys's voice overflowed with raw emotion. 'Just as soon as I excuse myself to the Vicar for not going to work today.'
(to be continued)