Three Marriages. Part 2.

Part one of this story can be found in last week’s post:

I keep my head down as we step outside into glaring, unforgiving daylight but as I begin to make my way along the path to the gate Solange grabs my arm, preventing me from escaping. “Wait Mum. I’ve got us a lift to the reception. Emilia’s uncle has room in the car for us.” I’m about to reply, to tell her to go on and I’ll see her at home, when Sonya appears. My old friend stands in front of me, blocking my way, clutching my hands in hers, her face wreathed in a wide smile.

                “Claire, you look wonderful!” she cries. “I’m so happy you’re here! The day wouldn’t be the same without you and Solange. You are like family to me.”

                Her eyes glisten with tears that threaten to follow those she’s shed in church, judging by the faint channels down her cheeks. We hug and I’m crying too. “Emilia looks beautiful”, I tell her. “You must be so proud.”

                She nods. “I want us to sit down together and have a glass of champagne later; just the two of us. It’s all been so frantic I haven’t had a chance to gossip with you!”

I pull away. “Actually, Sonya I wasn’t planning on coming to the reception, but Solange will. She can be my representative.” I give her a weak smile. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of rust-red curls amongst the guests milling about on the grass. The throng has thinned out as people make a gradual move towards the road to find vehicles and make their way to the wedding feast.

Sonya’s face puckers. “Oh, but you must come, Claire! We’ll have a dance together, won’t we? It’ll be like the old days! And I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you about Giles, but I really didn’t know! Nobody did…” Someone is plucking at her arm now. Mother of the bride is in high demand at a wedding.

“Yes! Come on Mum, you can’t wriggle out of this. And our lift is waiting!” Solange is looking stern, parenting again. I’m sighing, bowing to the inevitable. I follow her to a car and climb obediently into the seat beside her. As we pull away I catch a glimpse of them, of Giles and his wife, standing on the grass a little apart from the other guests, her hand on his arm, his blank face staring out into the distance.

There is a melee at the hotel as guests flood into the foyer, taking glasses of champagne and drifting into groups to chat while they wait for photographs to be snapped. I hold my glass and stand with Solange, glancing around for them. I think as long as I know where they are, I can avoid contact. Now and again, one or two of Sonya’s friends and relatives come over to chat to us and I know Solange would like to mingle with her own set, the friends she shares with Emilia but I’m clinging to her like a drowning woman to a life-raft so she stays.

“I’m going to find the bathroom”, I tell her, disciplining myself not to ask her to stay put until I return and she nods and smiles, looking over my head for someone she knows. I make my way to the Ladies and when I get there I stand at a basin and lean my head against the cool glass, eyes closed. A woman enters behind me and goes into a cubicle. I wash my clammy hands and blot my lips, straighten my skirt and adjust my hat. I can’t stay here in the toilets. I must go out there. I only have to get to Solange. I must hope that she’s in the same place I left her.

I re-emerge, hesitate as I scan the crowd. Solange is nowhere to be seen. I begin to make my way towards the throng, taking a second glass of champagne from a proffered tray as I pass the waiter. I scan right and left as I move between the groups, searching for my daughter or for Sonya then a hand grasps my arm, halting me and I turn. I’m staring straight into Giles’ face, a few inches from my own. His eyes are burning into mine with a strange intensity, then he barks my name,

“Claire! There you are! I’ve been looking for you! Where have you been? I want to go home! Please, take me home! I want to go now!”

She’s there, his wife, on the other side of him, pulling at his sleeve. “Giles!”, she hisses, “Sh…shush now.”

I’m frozen to the spot as she makes ineffectual attempts to pull him away and he yanks his arm from her. “Get away from me! I’m with my wife. Leave me alone!”

The surrounding guests have all turned to watch us now, where we stand, the three of us like a tableau, glued together. A small trickle of moisture is trickling from the corner of Giles’ mouth as he begins to pull away from her, his agitation growing. I try to speak. “Giles”, I say, but he is too disturbed to listen, shouting and pulling.

I’m aware of a presence at my elbow. Sonya’s husband, Marcus is there, his voice low and soothing. “Alright Giles? Let’s go and get a drink now, shall we?”

On my other side Solange has appeared, her face aghast. She mouths at me. “What’s happening?” and I shake my head. Marcus seems to have persuaded Giles to let go and leads him, stumbling through a corridor in the surrounding crowd. A space opens between Giles’ wife and me and I look into her eyes and see a myriad of emotions; shame, fear, despair. The spectators have lost interest and begun to drift away. Solange puts an arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go and sit down, Mum. We’ll get another drink.” In the scuffle my glass has plummeted to the floor, the contents spilling into a champagne puddle like a teardrop.

“I’m sorry”. The red-headed wife is still there, alone now.

I stammer. “Oh, please don’t apologise, there’s no harm done.”

“I’d better go and find him.” She bites her lip, looks away.

Sonya comes to find Solange and me, perching on the arm of the sofa we’re occupying. Are we alright? She is so sorry for what happened. Marcus has offered to get them a taxi but she, his wife has insisted they’ll be fine and she can drive them home.

“How long have you known?” I ask Sonya.

“Goodness! I only found out this morning when they arrived at the church. Giles didn’t seem to know who I was. She just said he’d been unwell but that he’d be ok; he’d enjoy the wedding, she said. I didn’t like to ask what the problem was but it’s obvious now, isn’t it? How are you feeling, Claire?”

“I don’t know-numb, mostly.” It’s too soon to analyse my feelings.

At last we follow everyone into the dining room, where the tables are bedecked with flowers, glasses, sparkling cutlery and place cards bearing our names. The fellow diners at our table are friends we share with Sonya and Marcus and their friendly chatter is soothing. I can listen and smile without contributing much. During the speeches I’m lost in thought. How should I feel to discover that Giles, my husband of twenty-five years, who left me for a young girl my daughter’s age, has developed dementia? When he left I fell apart for a while, as if he’d taken my life away with him; all the best years. Then I’d begun to discover the benefits of not having him around; the joys of selfishness, having the house to myself, choosing how to spend my time. What to eat. When to eat. What to watch, who to see.

If Giles were still married to me I’d be caring for him, just as she is having to. I wonder how long she’ll feel obliged to look after him, since she is still such a young woman? What will happen to Giles when she decides to quit? I look around me at the guests, their attention rapt as the speeches continue, ripples of laughter, smiles and nods ensuing from them. Life is fragile; increasingly so as we age. Solange has a whole life of opportunity ahead of her and I have, if not a whole life, then a great deal of it. What do I feel? Lucky.

Ripple [Part 2]

Part One of ‘Ripple’ can be found in last week’s post [January 7th]. In this concluding episode Oliver is drawn to the canal he’s avoided for so long…

Ripple

            …His phone rings. Wrenching his eyes from the laptop he dives from the swivel chair and snaps the lid down on the device.
“Oliver Grantley” he croaks into his phone.
“Olly it’s only me, Mel! What’s with the formality?”
There is a pause. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I was working. The phone has broken my train of thought.” Oliver doesn’t want this. Doesn’t want his sister to know what he’s seen. She will think he’s lost it. Maybe he has lost it.
“I’m really sorry, Olly. It’s good that you’re working though. Are you sure you won’t change your mind and come round tonight?”
“I’m busy tonight, meeting a friend. We’re going for a drink.”
“Oh Olly! That’s great! Is it anyone we know? Male or female?”
Oliver stutters, frowning. “No. No one you know. It’s someone from work.”
“What’s her name then?”
Now all he wants is to tell his sister to get lost. “Paula. Her name’s Paula. Look, I have to go. I have a report to finish.”
“Alright Olly. But I want to know how it goes tonight. Call me back tomorrow!”
At last she hangs up. He tosses the phone on to the sofa, folds his arms and looks out at the city. After a moment he goes to the kitchen and swallows a couple more pills before going to his desk and glowering at the offending computer. He lunges forward, snatches it and stuffs it into his bag.
Outside the breeze has stiffened, whipping up eddies of litter and dust and tugging harder at his collar as he strides along. His deceased wife’s throaty laugh swirls around him in the wind. How many nights had he spent in the guest room after her claims of feeling ‘too exhausted for company’? How many times had he put his hand in his pocket to fund yet another ‘night out with a friend’? He could stand these deceits, and more if she’d shown him some affection instead of scornful jibes and mocking laughter.
He’s walked half a mile or so before he realises where he is; on the tow path. He stops, hitching the bag higher on his shoulder, takes a few steps to a bench and sits. The flowing canal is mesmerising, travelling along in it’s relentless passage to the harbour, carrying small islands of detritus-tangled sticks, discarded coffee cups and bits of polystyrene packaging or plastic bottles. He shivers. When they’d walked here last summer it had seemed romantic. He’d felt proud showing her the waterside. There had been swans bobbing on the water and a kingfisher darting amongst the willow trees that hung over the bank trailing leafy fronds, leaving ripples.
Today’s ripples are from the insistent, blustery wind. Beneath the surface there are dark, wavy shapes like hair; like black, glossy hair and the air is rank with an earthy smell of rotting vegetation. He leaves his bag on the bench and shuffles towards the canal side, drawn by the undulating contours below the water. He peers down. She’d asked him if there were fish he remembers and they’d leaned down to see. He’d put a restraining arm around her for protection. Weeks later he’d followed her, watching her swaying hips as she made her way down to the canal, hiding in the lush undergrowth while she lay on the bench with her lover, her skirt pushed up and her head thrown back as the other man drew his lips along her long, white throat.
Afterwards the man had left without a backward glance, striding away on the path, smoothing his hair and tucking his shirt in.
Under the wrinkly surface there are pale shapes, sometimes still, sometimes moving like soft, creamy limbs in the flow. This is where they’d found her. Oliver had been in the flat when they came to tell him how they’d pulled her from the canal, speaking in hushed voices, solicitous, offering counselling, offering to call someone. He shouldn’t be on his own, they’d said.
Later he’d had to go and identify her as she lay on a slab, her cold features bleached, her ivory skin blue-tinged; no trace of scorn remained on her pale lips, no remnant of guile under her dark eyelashes.
They’d traced the man from forensic traces along the path.
“He got what he deserved” Mel had said when Nerina’s lover was sentenced to life.            But Oliver knows better.
He is on the edge now, leaning forwards towards the shapes, drawn by them. She’d stood on the verge, her back to him as he’d emerged from his hiding place. He’d only meant to shock her, to make her see sense, to see how angry he was. She’d hit the water without much of a splash and the sounds were more like strangled squeaks than a scream, her slender arms flaying a little, making circles of ripples that radiated out from her head as it sank. A steady flow of bubbles rose to the surface, slowing after a couple of minutes then the brown, snaking canal had continued on as before.
A white hand flutters among the weed, beckoning. On the surface her face is appearing again, swaying in the ripples, mouth half open, smiling. A gust of wind rushes through the trees on the bank, roaring in his ears as he takes another step towards the undulating shape, where her arms are open to receive him.
In the bag on the bench Oliver’s laptop is wide awake, its blue screen oscillating as a gentle stream of bubbles rises from the bottom to the top in a never-ending stream.
 

Fiction Month. ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [Part 2]

               Nancy has heard enough from Jeffery and takes an escape route. Will she be able to integrate into her new community and can it offer her any of the comfort and friendship she misses?  Part 1 of this story can be found in last Sunday’s’s post on ‘Anecdotage’

The Courtyard Pest

Part 2

               Having had to demonstrate her intention by leaving the flat, she wanders along the High Street and turns down the lane leading to the library. There may be a noticeboard showing local events, groups and activities or at least someone who could point her in the right direction. The building is new with lots of internal glass. She spots a small, neat, grey woman like herself wearing a navy raincoat and realises it is herself, reflected in a rotating door.

The vast space is decorated in garish lime greens and scarlets. At a circular desk she has to wait as one librarian is attending to a young woman with a foreign accent and another is talking on the phone.

At last she is directed across to an area designated ‘local information’ where there are brochures, wall maps and a noticeboard advertising special interest groups and activities. She reads each flyer. There is a cycling club, meeting each Sunday morning at seven, a ‘knit and natter’ group in a church hall on Monday afternoons, there is the WI, the University of the Third Age and Psychic evenings. On a low table is a file labelled ‘cultural events’ and she bends to begin flipping through but is interrupted by a commotion around the reception desk.

Nancy straightens to peer around a bookcase and sees a figure in a beige waistcoat gesticulating at the librarian, who is responding by adopting a decidedly non-library tone and pointing in the direction of the exit doors.

“Mr Marsh, as I’ve said before we cannot stock every periodical and the library is run according to local authority guidelines. Now I’m sorry but unless and until you are able to follow our code of conduct I am going to have to ask you to leave the building and you may be barred from entering the premises in future.”

Her neighbour doesn’t spot her as he is escorted out of the exit doors. She sits down to look through the file of cultural societies, noting one or two phone numbers down then waits ten minutes before she leaves to avoid bumping into him.

She has walked twenty five yards before a dizzy spell threatens to topple her and she stops by a bus stop, clutching the side of the shelter until it has passed, then perching on the narrow plastic bench inside. A bus pulls up, disgorging several passengers; the driver leaning forward to see if she’s getting on. She shakes her head and takes a few deep breaths as the doors wheeze closed.

 

Back in the flat she feels jittery and unsettled. Perhaps getting on with her unpacking will help. But when she leans down from her bed to get a box out from underneath the dizziness descends like a fog and she sits back up, closes her eyes and sinks on to the pillows. A deluge of jumbled images gushes in to a background of piercing squeaks which rise to a crescendo, at which point her eyes fly open and she is aware of the door bell ringing with an insistent, lengthy clang.

“I didn’t know if you were in.” There is an element of reproach in his frown. “I thought I’d better let you know I’ve put some rat poison down in the alley. In case you go out that way. Let me know if you see anything, won’t you?”

It takes Nancy a moment to gather her thoughts. “Yes. Thank you. I will”.

He clears his throat. “Can I interest you in an early evening glass of wine? Over at my place?”

She pulls the edges of her cardigan together, aware that she is dishevelled from sleep. “Just a small one” he continues and she can think of no excuse to refuse. She keeps him at the door while she slips her shoes on and fetches her bag and keys. “All secure?” he asks, as she locks the door.

His flat is as different from hers as an identical design could be, the surfaces crammed with objects, odd-shaped stones, pieces of wood, metal parts of things; the walls clad in pictures, photos, mirrors and hangings. It feels claustrophobic, as if the entire space is closing in on her. She murmurs ‘thanks’ as he hands her a glass, watching as she takes a cautious sip. “Know your wines?” he asks, “Where do you think that one’s from?”

Tempted to say ‘Tesco’ she perches on the edge of a sagging sofa covered in piles of magazines and shakes her head. He grins, holding his glass up to an imaginary light. “Algeria! You wouldn’t know, would you? A friend brought it back from a trip for me. I love the stuff.” He places his glass on the edge of a shelf, snatches up an object from the coffee table and offers it to her. “What do think this is? Any ideas?” She turns the small, circular, metallic item in her hand. It has an opening with a serrated edge like tiny, sharp teeth

“A nut-cracker?”

He chuckles. “It’s a pepper grinder. African. I bet you’ve never seen one like that before!”

She clears her throat. “I must go, Jeffery. I have some calls to make. Thank you for the wine.”

“You haven’t finished it!”

“No. It’s very nice. But I’m not much of a drinker. It goes straight to my head I’m afraid”. She picks up her bag. He continues to stand, tilting the glass up to drain it then twirling the stem as he watches her.

Back in her flat Nancy makes some tea and takes it into the sitting room. She finds the numbers she wrote down in the library. As she picks up the phone she is distracted by a sound. She sits still and concentrates. There! A scraping, grinding sound, like a pot sliding along on the slabs of the courtyard. Jeffery told her if the rats got into the yard they might dig up the bulbs. She goes to the patio door and pulls a curtain back, peering along the shaft of light that’s been cast. But there is nothing other than the pots standing motionless in their places.     A rat, however large would not be strong enough to move a large, terracotta pot full of earth. The sound must have come from something in the alley; someone trundling something along there, perhaps. She picks up the phone again.

It is two twenty three when she wakes, having fallen asleep thinking about her telephone conversation with Rebecca Fripp, of the local amateur dramatic society. Rebecca’s response to Nancy’s enquiry had been Luke-warm, as if she’d be doing her a favour by allowing her to attend a rehearsal. But they always needed ‘front-of-house’ help, she’d said, even though Nancy’d explained about her experience in set design. Once she is awake, she is unable to drift off again and thinks that perhaps she should get up and make tea. She stretches out her hand to the light and there! There is the sound: scrape. Outside the windows.

She freezes, stomach churning, her skin prickly; but forces her feet to the floor; tiptoes through to the kitchen. She takes her time in the half light, pulling open a cupboard door to withdraw a heavy pan with a long handle. She breathes in long, slow pulls like an automaton. She returns to the living room, pan held to her side in one hand and uses a finger to create a slit of light in the long curtains.

A wind has got up, stirring the trees over the alleyway and chasing leaves around the small yard; but there is also a dark, rounded shape moving around the pots. Nancy grips the pan handle and uses her other hand to inch the patio door open. The swishing breeze is louder as she steps outside, flattening her nightie against her legs. She searches for the shape then spots it-moving from behind one pot to another. In two paces she is there. She pulls her arm back straight like a forehand smash and swings hard at the shape. Crunch! The contact is sickening, jarring her arm as she stumbles. The shape topples and she drops her weapon. She takes a step forward to look but the foot gives way, sliding and she falls to her knees in the wetness, confused. There has been no rain so why is there a puddle? Reaching out she feels fur, wetly sticky; then she is swaying, sinking as the fog descends.

 

She is dressed and in the chair when Sarah arrives. “Ready, Mum?”

Got your tablets and everything?”

Nancy nods. She stares at her daughter, eyes wide. She swallows. “Sarah-I can’t, I don’t…”

“Shh-Mum it’s ok. You don’t have to go back to the flat. Danny and I have packed all of your stuff. You can take a case with you today and the rest will follow.”

“How…how is he?”

“He’s doing alright, Mum. He’s a tough old boy. His skull has a small fracture but it will heal. He doesn’t blame you. He’s an idiot to have been there in the middle of the night! ‘Checking the rat bate’, apparently.

A solitary tear rolls down her mother’s face. “I’ve caused so much harm. I’m so sorry”

Sarah takes her hand. “No, Mum. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should never have nagged you to come. Now we must go or we’ll be late.”

Nancy stands and accepts her daughter’s supporting arm. In the car she sinks back, closing her eyes to picture Meg’s sparkly eyes and the way specks of scarlet lipstick are visible on her teeth when she grins. “You don’t have to downsize, dear” her friend had told her, sitting by the hospital bed. “Just come back and live at my place. We can look after each other, can’t we? And you can come back to The Nettlehide Players, where you belong.”

Nancy had nodded, feeling relief course through her like a transfusion. Of course. It was all anyone wanted or needed. To belong.