April Short Fiction 2

Today’s post consists of Part 2 of the story that began last week, ‘In Vino Veritas’, in which we met middle-aged, moody Harris slumped in a corner of the pub and obsessing over one of the bar staff

In Vino Veritas [Part 2]

Realising he should have prepared better, he tries to think of something witty or flirtatious to say before she’s finished serving him but when she turns to place his beer in front of him all he can manage to croak is “Quiet tonight”. She nods, smiling again. “Yep! We might even get off early, you never know!” She’s offered him the card machine now and there are only seconds left until her attention is elsewhere. He clears his throat. “Do you have far to go, you know, to get home?” She’s checking the transaction as she speaks. “No, not far.” Then she’s away, collecting glasses from the counter to take to the washer.

Harris returns to his corner. A couple have come in to stand at the bar and are exchanging pleasantries with Acquaintance. They will have come for a post-performance drink, he thinks, since they’re dressed up and this is about the time the theatre chucks out. Megan is serving them. She’s pretty enough, he thinks, although the dyed, black hair, nose stud and the tattoos are not to his taste and she lacks the magic, luminous magnetism that radiates from Shona, who has not returned from the glass washing area.

He leaves his beer and makes his way through to the men’s room. While it has a cubicle and two urinals, there is barely room to turn around in the narrow space. Randy Andy has compromised on toilets as he does on everything else- ‘except for bar staff’ Harris thinks as he washes his hands. Through the paper-thin partition wall, he catches a drift of conversation, the tinkling, musical voices of young girls. Shona and Megan are gossiping in the alcove by the glass wash. He puts his ear to the wall as his hands drip dry.

“Eugh! Got the perves in tonight then!” [Megan]

“Tell me about it! That short one with the greasy comb-over is so creepy! He’s always staring and when I serve him, he never takes his eyes off my chest!” [Shona]

He stands, frozen by the wash basin, stares into the pock-marked mirror at his thinning hair with its long strands brushed forward to disguise the pink circle in the centre. He places his still damp hands over his burning face and leans against the wall as the door is pushed open and Acquaintance steps into the room, filling up the tight space. Harris drops his hands as the man peers at him. “Are you ok, mate?”

He nods and pushes past Acquaintance, thinking only of escape now. He abandons his half-drunk pint, grabs his coat and scarf and makes for the door, the girls’ cheerful ‘Goodnight!’ ringing in his ears as he stumbles away down the road.

In the cold, night air his stinging cheeks cool as he plays the scene over and over in his head until he is at his own front door, taking out his key and stepping inside the hallway, silent except for the ticking of the living room clock. He hangs up his coat and goes into the living room where only red pinpricks of standby light illuminate the gloom. In the half dark he goes to the drinks cabinet and pours a generous slug of whisky into a glass before sinking down into his armchair. The liquor’s enveloping heat trickles down inside him as he rests back, the scene blurring a little now. Perhaps he’ll have one more drop before he tiptoes upstairs to slide into bed beside his wife. She’ll be asleep, of course. He’s thankful for small mercies.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

April Short Fiction 1

Continuing a mini-series of short stories concentrating on character, here’s one based on observations from local hostelries!

In Vino Veritas [Part 1]

Harris stares into the fading froth on his pint of Meadowlark craft beer and heaves a long sigh before lifting the glass to his lips and taking a gulp. He sets the glass down and surveys the early evening crowd from his vantage point, tucked into a dark corner by the log burner.

Another solitary drinker, propping up the bar turns and acknowledges him with a barely perceptible nod before turning his back. Harris doesn’t know this other man, not really. He is just another lone, paunchy, middle-aged man passing some time with a beer before going home to…what? A cold, empty flat? A blowsy, TV obsessed wife? A noisy, chaotic home of clamouring kids? Who knows?

From the space tucked into a corner behind the bar, a small nook around a corner Harris can’t see into, peals of laughter ring out. Shona, he knows, is there, fooling about with her fellow bar tenders, sharing a joke that he, along with fellow drinkers on this side of the bar is not privy to. He wonders what the joke might be? Are they laughing about their boss, randy Andy, an overweight, over-familiar and over-opinionated slob who over-estimates his power over the young girls he employs? Or are they giggling about the customers they serve, he and the nameless, nodding acquaintance plus three younger men in football kit playing darts in an alcove on the far side of the pub?

He keeps his eye on the bar while he swallows more beer, waiting for the moment when Shona will return to the counter to serve another customer or to wipe up some spills. After a moment she appears. She’s flushed, still chuckling, swiping her unruly hair back behind her ears and tugging her tiny skirt down before she leans her elbows on the smooth, brown gloss of the bar and indicates nameless man’s glass. “Another?” she asks him and he nods, leaning forwards to mutter something for her ears only. She straightens up, giggling and Harris feels a hot, jealous, irrational flush overcome him, that she should be sharing an intimacy with Nodding Acquaintance and not with himself. Still, his own glass is almost empty. One more mouthful and he can go to the bar for a second pint, although he’ll need to time it so that she serves him and not one of the others.

He finishes the beer and waits while Shona pulls three glasses of lager for the footballers, rising from his seat while she is at the till and making it to the bar before she’s replaced the card machine. He catches her eye. “Same again?” she smiles and it’s like a warm shaft of sunshine bathing Harris and warming his being to the core. She flicks a long curl of blond hair back and takes his glass, her slender fingernails topped with pink, sparkly gloss. There’s a narrow sliver of black lace visible above the vee of her T-shirt and below the smooth, brown skin of her neck. Harris knows he’s staring and glances quickly at Acquaintance to mitigate it.

Part 2 of ‘In Vino Veritas’ can be read in next Sunday’s post.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Short Fiction 2

Today sees the conclusion of a brand new short story, ‘Empathy in a Country Churchyard’. Part 1 can be read here: https://gracelessageing.com/tag/churchyard/

Empathy in a Country Churchyard [Part 2]

“So how are you, Judith?” she asks. I’ve got the choice of looking at her and answering or pretending I haven’t heard. If I answer I’ll have to look, which I do. And I know her. She’s looking a lot older, but well preserved, which is more than can be said for me. She still has blond curls, although I suppose these days it’s out of a bottle. She’s got the coat and she’s got patent, pink pumps to match, plus one of those dinky little bags, in pink of course, with a gold chain.

“Sharon”, I reply. “Why are you here?”

She chuckles. “You can’t accuse me of coming to gloat, Judith and I didn’t come out of curiosity. No- I’m here for the same reason as you; just visiting. Does that surprise you?”

He’d met her when she went to the print shop to order leaflets for a business she was starting: bespoke cakes for all occasions. Oh yes, he told me all about her. At first it had been anecdotal, the meeting, while he was talking about his day. Then he began mentioning her more often. After a bit he stopped talking about her. That was once they’d started having an affair, I realised. It doesn’t take long to surmise your partner is playing away because they get careless, and not just with stray hairs on collars. They stay later at work with feeble excuses. Their phone calls become more numerous and have to be private. They must to explain the increased incoming texts outside of work hours. He didn’t try to lie when I confronted him though.

“He’s dead, Sharon. Why would you want to see him?”

“Why would you? He wasn’t a great husband to you, was he?”

I look down at Malcom, or rather, the mound that Malcom has become. I haven’t tended it. I don’t bring fresh flowers to put in the grey, metal vase- or even plastic ones. I haven’t weeded it or planted it with primroses or brought along favourite items or a photograph. I haven’t scrubbed the stone, which has become encrusted with yellow lichen, the engraving almost obliterated now.

I raise my eyes to hers. “I come to make sure he’s dead. And to tell him all the things I should have said before.”

She’s leaning forward. “Did you love him, Judith?”

I shrug. “I suppose I must have done, in the beginning. Or perhaps it was only lust. I don’t remember. Did you?”

She nods, slowly. “Yes. I did. But you know something? He cheated on me, too.”

I settle back. Something eases inside me, as if a taught stretch of elastic has been slackened. “So you’ve come here before?” I ask her.

“Not every week, but now and again. It’s a lovely, peaceful place, don’t you think? I know you always come on Wednesdays, which is why I’ve always avoided them before, but I felt that enough time has elapsed now that we don’t have to be sworn enemies and we’ve quite a bit in common, haven’t we?” She’s smiling a lopsided grin. I can see what Malcom found attractive in her.

We sit in silence for a bit then I look at my watch. She looks at hers, too. “Does your daughter bring you? Pamela, isn’t it? Malcom was always very proud of her. You must have done a good job in raising her.”

“She brings me under sufferance. She doesn’t approve of my coming here every week. She’ll be back to collect me soon and she won’t be happy to see you, I can tell you that now.”

“She knows about me? That was unnecessary, wasn’t it? He never left you, after all, Judith, in spite of all the philandering. Why didn’t you send him packing?”

Why hadn’t I? For a moment I consider what my life might have been like if I’d thrown him out. I’d have been less comfortably off, for a start. I might have had to work full-time instead of enjoying part time hours. There had been Pamela to consider. She’d only just started at school when he began his dalliance with Sharon. Pamela always adored her father. But the one, overriding, persuasive factor in allowing him to stay had been that I liked his playing away. I liked his attention being elsewhere and the onus was off me to provide anything other than occasional meals and housekeeping. After the first shock and humiliation of Sharon’s existence I’d learned to adjust and enjoy my freedom from him. We became relative strangers sharing a home, ‘ships that pass’.

“I didn’t care, Sharon; not really. I was glad for someone else to take him off my hands. Now I think you need to disappear before Pamela sees you.”

She stands, brushing down her posh coat and picking up the dainty bag. “Will you be coming next week, Judith?”

“Oh yes. I don’t miss a week unless the weather’s too awful to be outside. Pamela hates it. I’m a burden to her, these days.”

Sharon’s looking down at me and grinning. “I’ve enjoyed chatting today. Why don’t I pick you up next week and we can visit together? Then Pamela won’t be put out and we’ll be company for each other.”

The next Wednesday comes round and, true to her word, Sharon picks me up and we go to the cemetery together. After a couple of times, she produces a flask of coffee and some doughnuts.

“Might as well make a morning of it,” she laughs. “What did you tell your daughter?”

“I said I’d met a friend in the cemetery who’d be bringing me in future. She was surprised but quick to agree. It’s let her off the hook.”

After about a month Sharon suggested we shorten our visit and go on down to the seafront for lunch. Then when she asked me if I thought Malcom would mind if we by-passed the cemetery sometimes and go straight to the beach café I didn’t think twice.

I haven’t told Pamela who the ‘friend’ is that picks me up to visit Malcom on Wednesdays. To be fair, she hasn’t questioned it and I know she’s relieved it’s just not her job any more.

Sharon tells me it amuses her to think of Malcom looking down at us from somewhere. “What do you think he makes of us down here having a good time together, Judith?” she asks me and I can only smile. “To be honest, Sharon, I don’t bloody care!”

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

New Short Fiction 1

Back from Tom’s Field and continuing to drown in the suffocating, germ-ridden aftermath of Covid I’ve applied myself to writing a new, short story. Two women meet in an unorthodox setting and have something in common

Empathy in a Country Churchyard

                “Mum, could we just go somewhere different this morning?”

Pamela. She says it every week. I watch from the window as she pulls up outside. She comes bustling up the path carrying the shopping, opens the door with her key and I can hear her impatient breath huffing and puffing as she stomps into the hallway. She opens the door and unleashes her exasperation. “It’s a lovely morning. How about going to the beach today and getting a coffee in the sunshine? Shall I get your shoes?”

“You could get my shoes” I tell her. “But I don’t want to go to the seaside. Just the usual, please.”

“Wouldn’t you like a change of scene once in a while, Mother? Whatever do you find to do, sitting in the same place, surrounded by the same, gloomy sights every week? Let’s face it, you never got on with him so why do you keep on going to visit him?”

“I like it there” I say. “It gives me a chance to think.” I’ve had to raise my voice now because she’s rummaging around in my kitchen, opening and shutting cupboards with a noisy efficiency of irritation.

It’s a lengthy business, these days, levering my feet into shoes, prising my body from the chair and thrusting unwilling limbs into sleeves but at last we make our way outside and she locks the front door before helping me out to the road and into the car. “Put your seat belt on” she orders, as soon as I’ve twisted my bones into the shape required by the seat.

“I’ll just drop you at the gate.” she snaps, like a piece of peanut brittle. “And I’ll go and do a few bits. You can make it round to there, can’t you?”

She never comes with me to the bench and I’m glad. I want peace and quiet, not a dreary, repetitive rant about how unsatisfactory her life is. She never needs to tell me what a burden I’ve become when it billows out in every sigh and tut.

She stomps around to open my door then I manoeuvre my legs round and prize myself out, remembering to take my stick. I catch my breath a bit, lift my hand as she pulls away. I feel lighter when she’s gone, like I’ve risen to the top of a murky pool. I turn towards the entrance and progress towards the bench; my bench, or at least that’s how I think of it; only it isn’t mine. It belongs to ‘Valerie Fraser, beloved wife of Geoff, mother to Gillian and Carol and grandmother to Daisy, Stanley and Olivia’. I assume Valerie doesn’t mind me using her bench every week since she’s got no use for it herself.

I’m just settling myself on Val’s bench when a flash of livid pink catches my eye, appearing through the gate- a woman in a magenta coat. I feel affronted by this, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps the colour of the coat feels inappropriate, or that I’d expected to be alone. Usually, it’s just me and a distant groundsman. Worse still, the woman is zig-zagging along the paths in my direction, like she’s coming to the bench and I don’t like the idea of this at all.

I make a point of taking no notice when she sits down on the other end. I think maybe if I ignore her, she might take a hint and leave. I’m irritated because I was just getting into my stride with Malcom and I’d been preparing what I was going to say for a week. Anyway, this woman in pink, she’s studying me. I know this without looking and I know she’s going to start talking, which is the last thing I need. I stare down at her shiny, pink shoes and I’m aware of how I must look in Malcom’s voluminous, old car coat and my extra-wide, orthopaedic slip-ons.

Who is the woman in pink? And what does she want? Empathy in a Country Churchyard concludes next week...

New Year Fiction 2

Here’s another fiction short telling of two women meeting during a family Christmas gathering. As the saying goes- you can choose your friends but not your family…

Christmas with Julia

                I am standing in the kitchen, tea towel in hand. I am drying cutlery and have just plucked the newly sharpened, steel carving knife from the rack. I can feel the weight of it and its smooth, shiny blade beneath the cotton fabric of the tea towel.

“Julia,” I say.

She totters towards me on spindly heels, expression composed into beatific, engineered grin.

“Oh Eve, can we be friends now? Can we? You and me?”

                Her features have grown sharp and pointed from all the years of anorexic self deprivation and she has begun to pencil dark arches of eyebrows beneath the highlighted fringe of her expensive, West End bob, giving her an uncanny resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West so that I expect, at any moment, she will cackle, wave her wand and change me into a frog.

“How about a smile? Come on! Give me a smile!”

                She leans nearer and I recoil, catching her hot, sour, wine-laden breath as she lurches forwards. I try to force my lips into the shape she demands.

“That’s not a real smile. It’s false. You are false. You are like my next door neighbour; false.”

                I don’t know the luckless neighbour; nevertheless I experience an empathetic warming towards them. I am still holding the heavy blade inside the towel. The insult sidles in to nestle amongst all the malicious comments Julia has dredged up and heaped upon me over the years. They roll through my thoughts now, like cine film. She is raising her arms, heralding the strong possibility that she may drape them around my neck in a repugnant embrace.

“Tell me what’s wrong. What’s stopping us from being friends?” She frowns, head on one side, her lips downturned in clown-like caricature.

                “This is not really the time or the place”, I tell her, as her arms drop to her sides. My fingers have settled comfortably around the handle of the knife, the blade continuing to rest in my left hand. She straightens, lifting her chin. “Yes it is! Tell me now! I want to know!” Her voice has risen, become a high pitched bark, threatening to summon the others from the Christmas table.

“Alright. If you must know, Julia, it’s because in all the years I’ve known you, you have never passed up an opportunity to make a spiteful remark.” I look down at the tea towel while I say this, sliding the cloth back and forth along the length of the implement as if it were a precious item of silver. When I raise my eyes to hers her thin lips are open in an outraged ‘O’ above the drop of her pointed chin and she splutters as a burst of laughter drifts through from the dining room.

                “You’re making that up. I’ve never said anything nasty to you. I always try to be friendly to everyone. You’re just a cow! A jealous cow!”

                I glance at her shiny, yellow, Jimmy Choo stilettos and her green Dior dress. Outside, her sleek, black Mercedes gloats over my second hand Nissan, sneering. I think of her ‘off-plan’, ‘Berkeley’, limited edition, cul-de-sac home, her time-share villa in Tenerife, the new Rolex watch my brother has just bought her and as I smile at how wrong she is she takes it for agreement, lifting her arms once more and moving in to encircle my neck, her face against mine. I try to draw back in her strangling grip but I am caught like a rabbit in the jaws of a trap, my hands and the towel-clad knife pillowed between us. I squirm, manoeuvring the bundle as I propel my lower legs back to create a space then take my left hand off and thrust the lethal blade up and forwards, where it enters in a swift, effortless slide through the flimsy fabric of the dress, encountering little resistance in the wasted flesh beneath her ribs. She grunts, stiffening, pulling back and away, her eyes stretched wide in surprise, a quick glance down at the knife’s sturdy handle protruding and a red stain spreading now on the shimmering silk across her abdomen. She sways for a brief moment, her mouth working to form words, her arms flailing.

                She grasps the worktop on her way to the floor, slithering down the cupboard door to leave a long, vivid, scarlet smear like spilt Claret and finally making contact with the tiles, the surprised expression frozen now, the skinny legs at unnatural angles, still punctuated by patent yellow caps.

                There is a clack-clacking of heels as she enters, startling me from a trance.

                “Eve!” she exclaims, “Penny for them!”

                “Oh Julia” I say, “I was just finishing off, and thinking about desert.”

                “None for me. I never touch it, but you love puddings, don’t you? Anyone can see that!” She pivots on the spiky, yellow heel, exiting with a satisfied smirk, leaving me to caress the carving knife like a secret lover.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

New Year Fiction

I’m starting 2022 with a complete short story, written entirely in dialogue. The character of Roger is based on someone I met long ago, when on a similar journey to Erica’s…

Blind Date

“Erica, is it?”

“Yes; Hello and you must be Roger.”

“That’s me! Roger the Dodger! Not really-just my bit of fun. What can I get you, Erica? Glass of champagne? You do like champagne, I hope?”

“Just a small glass of white, please. I do drink champagne but only on special occasions. Pinot Grigio is fine.”

“So what are you saying? This is not a special occasion, is that it?”

“Oh no, of course I didn’t mean…”

“Don’t worry love. I’m not offended. I’m only having a laugh. A glass of your best Pinot for the lady, my man, and I’ll have a single malt, no ice.

Did you find this place alright, Erica? Didn’t get lost?”

“No. I am familiar with the area. I have one or two friends who live around Fratton. That’s not far, is it?”

“No, but this side of the golf course is better; nicer properties. You can see my place from the first fairway. Did you notice my motor on your way in? Remember I said on the phone, look out for the Merc with the special plate-did you see it?”

“Yes. ‘RU55BIT’. Was that it?”

“That’s the one. Do you get it? RU-that’s me, Roger Urquart, then the 55-that’s meant to be two Fs. That spells RUFF. Then there is BIT. It says ‘Rough Bit’. It’s rather droll, don’t you think?

Well, Erica, what sort of things do you get up to? What ‘floats your boat’ as they say?”

“All the usual things, I suppose. I like to read, go to the theatre, see friends. I go for an occasional meal, go to the gym; but work takes up a lot of my time.”

“No special hobbies then? How’s the wine? OK?

Tell you what; I bet you’d like a spin in my little kite, wouldn’t you? It’s a thing that’s dear to my heart. She’s a Piper Cherokee, a little cracker! I don’t mean she’s got cracks in! I’m only joking! She flies like a dream. I take her over to Le Touquet some weekends. Do you like France? I can go over there for lunch and be back home for dinner. Do you like the sound of that?”

“It sounds…interesting.”

“Oh it is. It always goes down very well with the ladies. I don’t mean ‘goes down’ as in crashes! I’m jesting! You’ll soon get to know me. I’m a laugh-a-minute bloke.

Did you say you were divorced?”

“Yes, three years ago, but it is all quite amicable now and the children spend plenty of time with their father.”

“Ha! I’ve been married three times. That’s a triumph of optimism over bankruptcy, you might say! Especially now I’m young, free and single again. I get on alright with Mary, my first wife, but the other two; they’re a couple of scroungers. Gold diggers, I call them, the pair of them; always after something. If I had all the dosh I’ve spent on maintenance payments I’d be minted now. You know what Rod Stewart said? ‘I’m not getting married again, I’m just going to find a woman I don’t like and give her a house’-So true!”

“I wonder why he did get married then, if he didn’t like the woman.”

“Fancied the pants off her, I expect, if you’ll excuse the expression. Doesn’t last though, does it, Erica? ‘Once the thrill is gone’ and all that?

So have you done a lot of this Internet dating malarkey? Met many blokes yet?”

“No, you are only the third person I’ve met.”

“What was wrong with the other two then?”

“Nothing was wrong with them. They were perfectly pleasant people. There just wasn’t a connection, a spark. Perhaps I didn’t have much in common with either of them.”

“What do you reckon it is that gives you a spark? Give us a clue! If I can find out where the other two went wrong I’m in with a chance. What sort of men do you go for?”

“I like the people I meet to be well mannered, I enjoy stimulating conversation and of course a sense of humour is a very attractive quality, I think.”

“Phew! That’s lucky. I’m doing alright so far.

I must tell you, Erica that I’ve met quite a lot of ladies in this Internet game and you are by far the most attractive. In fact I’d say you are in a different league to all the other ones. For a start most are very economical with the truth where their age is concerned. Some of the ones who say they’re in their mid forties, they’re either lying or they’ve lived hard lives. Mid sixties would be nearer the mark. How’s the wine? Can I get you another?”

“I shouldn’t have another, thanks. I can’t be late or drink too much. I have an early meeting to get to in the morning.”

“Soft drink then or a coffee?”

“I won’t, thank you. I must be getting home.”

“What a shame! We should have met up at the weekend. We’d have had more time to get to know each other. Still, there’s always next time. When are you free? I’ll take you up in my little plane; show you my joystick! Boom boom!”

“It is a tempting offer, Roger, but I’m going to decline. If I have to be honest I don’t really think I’m your type. I wish you luck with your future Internet dating though, and thanks for the drink.”

“Ah well, you can’t win them all. I can’t say I’m not disappointed, but you know my number if you change your mind. It was lovely meeting you. Don’t forget your coat, love. Bye bye.

It’s your loss.”

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

December Fiction 2

Today’s post sees the conclusion of a short story. You can read the first part in last week’s Anecdotage. Lena has a puzzling encounter, Imogen learns some home truths from a surprising source and Richard astonishes his wife with some revelations she does not expect.

A Neighbourly Manner [Part 2]

We saw nothing of our new neighbours in the ensuing two weeks, but before we’d left that afternoon I’d elicited permission from Jackson to walk our dog, Molly, in the grounds of the manor and for Richard and me to continue to walk across them as a short cut to the pub.

‘Do as you like, my dear!’ he’d roared, throwing a gangly arm around my shoulders, ‘It’s Liberty Hall!’

And so it was the next weekend, while walking with Molly down the driveway, pausing to admire the view of the house with infinite swathes of daffodils surrounding it that I spotted a figure striding along ahead of me, dressed in a voluminous raincoat, wellington boots and a sou’wester hat; a vigorous, purposeful gait, head erect, hands in pockets.

‘Not Jackson Agnew’, I surmised, since he was taller and I’d the distinct impression that it was a woman; yet the figure lacked Imogen’s neat style, from the rear at least.

Our gregarious Jack Russell terrier had rushed ahead to greet the walker, who stopped and bent to the little dog. I could see from the profile it was indeed female and not Imogen. As I drew close the woman grinned as she made a fuss of Molly.

‘Good Morning! Friendly dog! I am Kristina and I guess you must be our neighbour-Lena, perhaps?’

I may have looked as confused as I felt, for she waited for my response, continuing to grin in an abstract, good natured way. Since she appeared older than Imogen I assumed she must be a relative, possibly a sister of Jackson’s, except that she spoke in a heavy enough accent to demonstrate that she was not of British origin, perhaps Scandinavian. She had a flamboyant, Bohemian look; red curls escaping from the sou’wester, bare legs between the Mac and the boots.

We strolled on together. A scud of spring rain began to sprinkle us. ‘Are you here for long?’ I asked her. She tilted her head to the sky, allowing drops of rain to fall on to her face and into her open mouth.

‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ she laughed. ‘I love English weather! We are just here for the weekend. My daughter must not be left alone for too long. She is supposed to study for her exams but without supervision, well I guess you know what teenagers are like. But these builders, they must also be supervised.’

We were almost at the house, which was encased in the cage of scaffolding that had arrived and been erected during the week in readiness for the replacement of the roof, a renovation that had prompted Richard to describe Jackson Agnew as having money to burn.

I remained silent, absorbing the ‘we’. Imogen had also used ‘we’. Was she here at the manor too? Who was Kristina? She was surely too old to be the stepdaughter Imogen had mentioned.

            We parted company with a ‘see you again’ from Kristina as I made my way around to the rear of the manor, where Jackson’s BMW was parked, though not Imogen’s Fiesta. ‘She could be out’, I thought, ‘she could be shopping or running an errand’ but I felt this couldn’t be true. The most likely thing was that she was working.

            Richard, when I described the events of my walk declared that he was neither surprised nor interested in ‘that man’s affairs’, but I was disappointed not to have seen Imogen, who I’d hoped to involve in village life. I’d saved some literature for her about parish activities and was hoping to have a conversation with her about the village History Society. I couldn’t help wondering if she knew Kristina was there, or even if she knew of the other woman’s existence.

            We left Chiddlehampton and the UK a few days later to spend April in Marbella with our son, who works there as an architect. We prefer to visit in spring or autumn when the Spanish temperatures are less sweltering than in summer.

            On the day following our return I collected Molly from some friends in the village who look after her when we are away and decided from her disgruntled expression and affronted manner that I should offer a brisk walk as a placatory gesture, so I combined this with a route through the estate. I was keen to learn what changes had occurred and who might be in residence.

            In our absence the mature trees in the grounds had taken advantage of the balmy May sunshine to burst into blossom so that intermittent drifts of white or pink petals showered across in a light breeze. Scaffolding was still in place around the creamy walls, although the roof replacement looked to be almost complete.

            Around the back in the car park area I noticed that an unsightly, corrugated pergola had been removed to reveal a semi-circle of elegant columns, a stunning feature. Jackson then had not been idle. His car was parked next to one of the sets of French windows facing the lawns. I loitered for a few minutes in hopes of spotting him or Imogen, or even Kristina, but with no obvious signs of human activity I continued through to the meadows with Molly.

            That evening, when Richard suggested we stroll down to the pub and catch up with some village news, I needed no persuasion. Since the evenings had drawn out and drawn the locals out, the garden of the Cuckoo was as busy as the two bars, making it tricky work getting to buy a drink. I noticed that most of the tables were occupied with diners, too.

             We’d just managed to gain access to the counter and the attention of the bar staff when I felt a rangy arm clamp around my neck and winced as a deafening voice boomed in my ear.

            ‘Well, well! The wanderers have returned! Welcome back you two. Did you have a good time? You must come down and see all the changes we’ve made. You won’t recognise the place! We have a table over in the alcove. Come and join us. You will let me get those, won’t you, old chap?’

            This was addressed to Richard, who’d not turned his head during the greeting, but responded while taking a note from his wallet and handing it across the counter.

            ‘We only came in for a quick one.’

            I could have predicted my husband’s reply, however I was not about to allow an opportunity to talk with one of the two women pass me by.

            ‘But we’ll come and say Hello. Where are you sitting?’ A quick scan of the tables revealed no one resembling either of them.

            We picked up our drinks and followed Jackson through the throng to the alcove. A woman was seated there, not Imogen, not Kristina; a young woman with a mane of dark curls and a heavy pasting of make-up, dark, sooty eyelids and a scarlet gash of lips. Jackson introduced us. When she stood she revealed a swell of cleavage above the line of her blouse.

            ‘This is my friend Liliana. She is an architect and has come to help with the interior design plans.’

            The woman placed her hands on Richard’s shoulders and kissed his cheek, one side followed by the other, continental style. Her fingers, resting on my husband’s upper arms were long and tapered, nails topped with the same livid red as her mouth; as she leaned to offer the same treatment to me I caught a whiff of sweet, pungent perfume.

            ‘I am happy to meet you’ she breathed; her speech coloured with a strong Latin accent which was confirmed by Jackson’s adjunct.

            ‘Liliana is Italian.’

            Beside me on the bench, Richard was silent, concentrating his attention on his pint of Best as Jackson continued.

            ‘She is also a terrific artist. We’ve brought some of her canvases down to see where they’ll hang. You must come and take a look.’

            As he spoke the woman’s lips smiled in their red slash, her eyes narrowing until I thought she might purr like a pampered cat stretched on a hearthrug. To fill the conversational void I murmured something non-committal and took a sip of my wine.       Richard lifted his glass and tipped it back it in uncharacteristic gulps before turning to me.

            ‘We can’t be too long, Lena. Don’t forget Bob is coming round this evening.’

As we walked back along the lane I asked him, ‘Who on Earth is Bob?’

            ‘No one. Anyone. What does it matter?’ he replied, ‘I just couldn’t spend any more of my time with that insufferable man.’

            The May weather turned unsettled as some gusty showers blew over in the middle of the next week and it was during a heavy downpour on Wednesday evening that the bell rang. I’d been clearing up the kitchen and Richard was upstairs in the study editing his latest batch of Spanish photographs. I hadn’t heard a car pull up so I assumed it was someone from the village as I opened the door.

            It was Imogen, though barely recognisable as the radiant girl of six weeks ago. With her hair plastered to her head and her thin shirt stuck to her, soaking, she looked bedraggled. She also appeared to be in some distress, from her red-rimmed eyes and stricken expression. I reached out and all but tugged her inside the hallway, where she stood dripping, her thin shoulders shuddering. I wasted no time.

            ‘Whatever has happened?’ I asked her. ‘Come into the lounge. I’ll put the fire on!’

             Her mouth opened to speak and produced only a shivering sob as she allowed me to tow her into the living room.

            ‘Wait here,’ I told her, ‘I’ll get you something dry to wear.’

            I went upstairs and hissed at Richard’s enquiring face as I grabbed a towelling robe then I dashed back and pulled it around her before sitting her down in an armchair like a child. ‘I’m going to put the kettle on,’ I said, and by the time I’d returned my husband had seated himself in the chair next to her. He glanced at me.

            ‘Let’s all have a cup of tea,’ he suggested.

            As I left the room she began to mumble in halting sentences dotted with ‘sorrys’ and ‘thank yous’ until Richard leaned forward, put his fingers together and asked her, ‘Can you tell us what is wrong?’

            By the time I’d set the tray down she was into her dismal story, which was no less depressing for being predictable; a whirlwind, fairy tale romance rising from a chance meeting with a charming, wealthy, practised, older suitor who’d promised the world before exposing her fully to the circles in which he moved. Circles which included a whole host of other women; ex-wives, of which Kristina was one, ex-partners, ex-girlfriends, ‘friends’ who would like to be girlfriends, ‘friends’ who were ‘helping with the designs’ like Liliana, married women, single women and all with one purpose-to be Jackson’s wife.

            Having swapped a ward shift and wangled a couple of days off Imogen had planned to turn up without warning and give her intended a surprise, but when she left the car and approached the house she looked in at the un-curtained window and saw him with Liliana; the two of them dancing in the stark emptiness of the drawing room, one of his long arms around her waist, another with a glass of wine in hand. She’d stood in the rain and watched them, watched as they laughed together at the intimacies he whispered in the woman’s ears making her throw her head back in delight. She didn’t know how long she stood in the rain watching. She’d felt panic rising, welling up, threatening to overflow into a scream and then she’d run, back along the curving drive and through the gateway up the lane to our front door. The girl’s breathless narrative ground to a halt as she sniffed; taking another tissue from the box I’d placed beside her.

            Richard sat back in his chair, crossing one of his legs over the other and turning his head a little in Imogen’s direction without looking at her face. He began to speak in a quiet monotone. He told her that she may feel distraught now, but that she would recover. He reminded her that she was a strong, independent woman and had proved it by raising a child on her own and following a responsible, highly valued career. He said she must remember that she’d led a good, happy life before Jackson and would do so again; that she must never allow any man to control and manipulate her feelings or treat her as an object to be owned and cast aside like a painting or a house; that a relationship should be based on mutual love and respect and she should look at me, Lena for an example of a resilient, capable woman; that our marriage might not look glamorous but he’d never been in any doubt that he’d chosen the right person. Throughout this monologue she sat motionless, her shuddering sobs subsiding, her narrow shoulders lowering, her eyes fixed hard upon Richard as if he were dragging her from a swamp.

‘Right,’ he concluded, ‘it’s far too late for you to be driving back tonight. You can stay in our guest room, which is always ready’. He looked up at me. ‘My wife can lend you anything you need. Shall we open that bottle of brandy we brought back with us? This would seem to be a suitable occasion to try it.’ He winked. I have a feeling my mouth was hanging open.

He asked Imogen for her car keys, declaring that he would fetch her car from the Manor.

Later on, I ran a hot bath for our guest, after which she was subdued enough to submit to being tucked up in bed.

I extracted a promise from Imogen as she left next morning that she would under no circumstances email, ring or visit Jackson Agnew, neither should she respond to invitations from him, all of which she agreed to with a solemn nod. Her puffy face and red eyes showed that she’d wept the night away, but as she drove off Richard assured me it would pass.

‘Let’s go out for lunch,’ he said and I knew the subject was closed.

            Some unspoken agreement kept us from cutting through Chiddlehampton Manor’s grounds for a couple of weeks and we were relieved to see no sign of Jackson or any of his paramours in the pub, or anywhere else in the vicinity.

            It was June when we returned from a week in Torquay and saw the sign on the gate at the end of their drive. ‘For Sale- Grade Two listed Manor House with OPP for eight apartments’, it read. It was to be sold by the agent ‘Knight and Rutter’ who are known for their upmarket properties.

            Doctor Jackson Agnew and his entourage, it seemed, had moved on.

Wishing all regular readers and visitors a very happy and peaceful New Year

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

December Fiction

Regular readers of Anecdotage may have noticed that November’s Fiction Month was missing this year, replaced by the last few episodes of Australia 2011. In recognition of this, December’s posts will feature short fiction. Here, then, is the first part of a story about a larger-than-life character who is not all he seems at the beginning. The story concludes in next weeks post:

A Neighbourly Manner [part 1]

‘I wonder what she sees in him?’ I kept saying.

            ‘Leave it alone, can’t you?’ Richard grumbled, or he would shake out a new page of his newspaper in a crackling signal of finality. But one month on the events following that afternoon dogged me as I weeded the border or strolled along the lane to the farm for eggs.

After we’d received the invitation I’d been full of excited zeal, wanting to make a reciprocal gesture before we’d even taken a step along the wide sweep of their driveway, but Richard had curbed my ambitions by frowning,

‘Let’s wait and see how it goes. We haven’t met them yet. We are only neighbours, nothing more. By all accounts they are society people so I don’t suppose we will be of any interest to them except as a kind of ‘country bumpkin’ story for their London friends.’

Despite my husband’s dashing of cold water, I continued to harbour fanciful thoughts of what might transpire. I knew that the manor house next door received a constant flow of visitors despite the seedy state of its accommodation. Some were well known figures in publishing, the media or the arts, invoking thrilling fantasies of meeting someone famous. Who knew what might transpire? This could be the beginning of a series of gatherings to which we were part. I began to run a mental inventory of the contents of my wardrobe and concluded it was lacking in some areas.

The previous occupant’s attempt to run Chiddlehampton Manor as a hotel had failed in a gurgling whirlpool of bankruptcy, depression and alcohol dependency. Villagers who had worked there told of stained carpets and mouldy en suites in the twenty three bedrooms; slimy, brown grease covering kitchen surfaces, dwindling bottles in the wine cellar, failed initiatives such as ‘poker breaks’ or ‘murder mystery weekends’ attracting a desultory handful of revellers and resulting in increasing event cancellations.     

            The parlous nature of the building lent even more urgency to my desire to see it and to meet the latest occupants, who wanted it for a country retreat, no less. A country retreat! Twenty three bedrooms and bathrooms, a ballroom, eight acres of grounds containing stables and seven cottages for staff plus a vast, walled garden with endless greenhouses-all now fallen into disrepair; disintegrating into the chalky, Dorset soil from which it had risen.

            There was a blustery March wind gusting across the fields as we walked through the open gate into the driveway; gaps in the two rows of elegant beeches that bordered the sweeping drive, and fallen branches. Weeds punctuated the centre of the crumbling tarmac as it curled around to reveal the yellow stone manor house nestling in a dip below.

            I stopped for a moment to admire it, tucking the box of homemade shortbread under my arm. Richard had scoffed.

‘They won’t want that. Their sort is used to posh nosh; Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, all that sort of thing’. I’d ignored him of course, as only one who is shackled to a curmudgeon for thirty two years can.

            Even in a decadent state the manor is beautiful. A graceful old house whose romantic symmetry complements the rustic setting of rolling Dorset countryside. As we approached the columns of the grand portico I shivered, hanging back as Richard strode up to the vast, oak door and pressed the bell in his no-nonsense way.

            In the ensuing hiatus my misgivings expanded. ‘Do you think they’ve forgotten?’

            Richard snorted. ‘Let’s hope so! Then we can go home and have a cup of tea.’ But steps could be heard echoing inside.

            I’d heard plenty about him from villagers, in the pub or at the community shop but I was still unprepared for the experience of meeting Jackson Agnew. That he was ‘upper class’, ‘stinking rich’and ‘ponsy’ was circulating the public bar of The Cuckoo, with ‘a bleeding, towny nob’ thrown in by Noah Barnes, Bendick Farm’s cowman, who was not known for holding back on his opinions. Little had been expressed about Dr Agnew’s companion; whether she was partner or wife or daughter no one knew, only that she was ‘posh totty’ [Noah Barnes again] and thought by some to be a model or an actress.

            The door was not so much opened as flung wide and filled with him; with Jackson Agnew. His frame crammed the doorway, everything broad, everything extended, from his lengthy arm and thin fingers reaching out to shake Richard’s to his gaping grin and booming ‘Hello hello-Welcome to my humble abode!’

            Once I’d followed my husband into the hallway my own hand was enveloped and squeezed. ‘We meet at last!’ he said and his voice was like a deep, mellow gong echoing around the cavern of a hall with its bare walls and floorboards. After I’d glanced around the barren space I noticed he was scrutinising our faces, hungry for our reactions.

            ‘I expect you’ve been in here hundreds of times, haven’t you?’

            Richard was peering up at the ceiling, eager for a sign of damp, death watch or woodworm. He avoided Jackson’s gaze as he replied.

            ‘We haven’t lived in the village all that long ourselves; retired here from Bristol eighteen months ago. We had no cause to come to the hotel. If we want a drink we go to the pub.’

            ‘We met the Judds, of course, out and about, you know, when walking the dog,’ I added.

            Jackson grinned. ‘Yes. Pour souls. What a state they got into. Shall we move into the lounge and we can rustle up a cup of tea, or something stronger if you like?’ He looked beyond us to an open doorway, calling, ‘Darling, our neighbours are here.’

            We walked through into what had been the hotel bar but was now being used as a makeshift kitchen and dining room. Here, overhead the ceiling was adorned in an ornate series of murals decorated in gold leaf portraying rotund cherubs cavorting with plump maidens in diaphanous robes. Jackson caught me scrutinising it and barked in noisy mirth.

‘What do you think of that? Someone went to town, didn’t they? Are you familiar with the Baroque style at all? Ah, there she is! Darling! These are our nearest neighbours, Richard and er…’

I broke in. ‘Lena’

‘Lena, of course. Richard and Lena.’

She was standing behind the bar, motionless, an almost smile on her lips; eyes that had been fixed upon him moving in a slow turn towards Richard and myself. In that moment I understood why all of the descriptions of her had been correct and at the same time wrong, because while she was young and undeniably beautiful there was no element of Hollywood style; no trappings that could be considered cosmetic enhancement. And one thing was clear. She could not in any way be mistaken for his daughter, since no daughter in the world would ever look at her father like that.

She moved around to join us, extending a hand, first to me.

‘Imogen.’

Her voice was soft and low and her neat features dominated by intense, deep blue eyes that held mine; her short, glossy cap of black hair a stark contrast with the near translucent pallor of her skin. She took my proffered shortbread, murmuring ‘how kind’ before placing the plastic box on the bar.

While Richard’s responses are never obvious I noticed from the widening of his eyes and a slight flare of his nostrils when she took his hand that he was impressed.

‘Now’

We swung towards the master of the estate. He had a look of Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp mustering his numerous children as he addressed us.

‘Shall I take you for a tour before we have tea?’

I nodded before catching my husband’s expression, which was set into ‘I don’t want to be here much longer’ mode. He glanced at his watch.

‘Perhaps just a short tour’ I suggested, and we followed Jackson through the connecting doors at the end of the bar into the adjoining drawing room; another vast, empty space with tall windows facing on to the grounds and adorned with only a huge, stone fireplace.

As we wandered through the network of rooms I hung back to allow Richard and Jackson to get beyond earshot and Imogen to draw level with me as I pretended to examine a carved mantel.

‘It’s all so big,’ I began, gesturing at the room. ‘Whatever will you do with it all? Do you have a large family to fill it up?’

‘Oh no,’ she shrugged. ‘I have one son and Jackson has a stepdaughter. But he loves large rooms and he wants a project now that he is semi retired.’

‘And how about you?’ I asked her.

‘I won’t be retiring any time soon.’ She gave that enigmatic half smile, yet I was undeterred.

‘And do you work in the same field, in art dealing?’

            She smiled a little wider then, as if enjoying a private joke. ‘Oh no, no-nothing so glamorous; I am a nurse.’ Though my surprise must have registered on my face she was disinclined to elaborate. I pressed on. ‘It will be difficult for you to spend so much time here then.’

She began to walk in the direction of the men’s voices, speaking swiftly, clandestine-voiced, over her shoulder.

‘We don’t live together, Jackson and I. He lives in Kensington and I am not so far from here, in Dorchester. We meet at weekends.’

            I caught her up, wanting to know more but she was intent on reuniting our group.

Jackson was explaining his plans to Richard, his long arms waving about and his cultured vowels bouncing around the bare walls. When we approached my husband gave me a meaningful stare, which I chose to disregard.

‘We thought we’d make this our kitchen as it’s so sunny. Imo would like to turn it into a monument to Monet-all yellow walls and blue tiles, but I like a bit of sexy steel and glass myself.’ He beamed at us, ruffling Imogen’s glossy hair and she closed her eyes, liquefying under his touch. Throughout the remainder of the tour she stayed close to her man as if every moment without him was wasted.

All attempts to engage Richard in feedback regarding the visit were quashed, his only remark being ‘bought himself a trophy wife.’ I knew better than to argue, but it was obvious to me that beautiful Imogen was infatuated with her distinguished, older lover, wealthy or not. 

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

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.

Fiction Month1. Three Marriages.

November is Fiction Month at Anecdotage. This year’s Fiction Month is starting later than usual because I didn’t want to interrupt my travelogue memoir: Solo to Africa. Here then, beginning today is the first of a two-part, brand new story, ‘Three Marriages…

Three Marriages

It feels hopeless. I’m staring at my reflection, sitting here on the stool at my dressing table and I’m thinking I might just feign sickness and send Solange to the wedding on her own. I let go of the soft concealer brush. I can do nothing with the sallow shadows under my eyes, the furrows around my mouth, my sagging, fleshy cheeks, thin, pale lips and wrinkly neck. I can’t pretend I’m younger than my age, can’t compete. Instead I pull the comforting folds of my ancient, towelling bathrobe around me and consider my options for the day.

I could don gardening gear and make a start on the rose border; or I could walk the dog-a long, leisurely stroll across the meadows, returning via Mabel’s Coffee Shop. I could come back and do some baking. I could loll about in a hot, fragrant, bubbly bath with a large glass of Merlot and listen to an audio-book. I could heat up a ready meal and slob around on the sofa watching a film. Yes. It sounds a perfect Saturday. I take the towel from my head and begin dropping make-up items into the drawer, leaving a dusty pink trail across the glass top, then there’s a knock and my daughter enters before I’ve a chance to answer, bustling up behind me looking like she’s stepped from a page of Vogue magazine, wearing a cream silk jumpsuit, her honey-coloured hair swept up into a twist.

She is exclaiming before she reaches my stool. “Mother! What on earth are you doing? Do you know what the time is? The taxi will be here in twenty minutes! You haven’t even started your hair. Whatever is the matter?”

                So many questions. But she knows the answers. She knows how I feel about my wedding invitation. Emilia, the bride, is the daughter of my oldest friend, Sonya, and the same age as Solange. The two girls were born in the same month, grew up together, in and out of each other’s houses here in this sleepy corner of our Wiltshire village. It would be unthinkable not to attend the wedding, this most important event in our friends’ lives. Wouldn’t it?

Solange is opening the wardrobe and taking out the dress and jacket we spent days looking for, scouring the shopping centres of several cities, trudging around clothing departments, searching the independent boutiques until I felt that if I was to try on one more floral shift or fitted, peplum jacket I’d run screaming up the High Street in my baggy, grey underwear. I watch in the mirror as she hangs the outfit on the outside of the wardrobe, smoothing it down. It is a dress in muted tones of dove grey silk with a loose linen, duck egg blue jacket on the top. I gaze at it. On the rail it looked beautiful. On anyone else it would look wonderful. The lure of the gardening gear is stronger than ever.

Solange is thrusting a hairbrush into my hand. “Here”, she says, “Start brushing your hair while I delay the taxi and get some bits.” She rushes from the room, leaving me to drag the brush through my mangy locks.

She returns with a hair dryer and some cosmetics, dropping items on the glass. “Tilt your head up!” she instructs, and begins to sponge foundation on to my face, then “lids down!” as she dusts my eyelids with a deft sweep.

I try to protest. “Sh!” she hisses, continuing with her mission to make me presentable. “Did you get that sculpting underwear on yet?” I shake my head and she tuts. “Next job then.”

Together we squeeze my protesting body into the dress before she teases and coaxes my wayward locks into a semblance of style. I’m relieved to see that the veil on my chic, blue-grey hat conceals some of my face. Solange stands back like an artist assessing a portrait. She darts forward to adjust the hat then turns me towards the mirror. “Ok, Mum. Stand up now and take a look.”

I can barely breathe in the constricting underwear and I wonder how I’ll cope in these heels but I admit she’s done the best she could, although not enough to allay my humiliation in the face of young, beautiful competition.

She is glancing out of the window. “Come on. Taxi’s waiting.”

She thrusts a small, matching clutch bag into my hands, pops a creamy hat with a broad, sweeping brim on to her head and grabs my arm as if I’m about to escape. Moments later we’re in the taxi and she’s instructing the driver. I study her as she sits beside me, cool, sophisticated, adult and I wonder at how she’s becoming the parent here, to my diminished, fearful self.

My hands feel clammy in my lap as we pull up outside the church. Solange steps out of the cab and waits for me, then tucks her arm in mine. “You look gorgeous, Mum”, she says. “I’ve done a brilliant job!” She’s done her best, I think.

                I’m breathing fast, my heart thumping as we enter the sunlit churchyard. The guests must be inside by now and as we approach the stone archway of the porch, I can hear organ music; the last few notes of ‘The Wedding March’ dying away. The oak door is open a sliver, policed by an usher, the bride’s younger brother; he pulls it open enough to allow us to slip through and indicates a space on the last remaining back pew, on the bride’s side, of course. No one notices us slipping in to sit on the hard, wooden pew. All eyes are facing ahead, to the couple in front of the altar.

Emilia is in place, half-turned towards James, the groom, as the vicar prepares to speak. Now I’m feeling hot and cold, scanning the assembled guests for a familiar head, for another couple, an older man with a much younger woman, a couple who could be father and daughter, except they’re not.

 I think I’ve spotted them half way down the row. I nudge Solange, who is engrossed in the ceremony. “Is that them?” I hiss and she looks where I’m pointing, at a balding grey head next to a red-haired one, an auburn cloud of hair cascading, hatless in riotous ringlets over slim shoulders. My daughter shrugs. Even though the back of Giles’ head is as familiar to me as my right hand I feel a tingling jolt that he is there, only a few pews in front of Solange and me. Does she feel the same way? He is her father, after all, although she’s disowned him since he left us for a woman her own age. But Solange has eyes only for her best friend, a vision of ethereal beauty in French lace.

I drift into a trance of memory, the heady scent of wedding flowers like a drug as I recall my own wedding to Giles in the tiny Normandy village of my birth; processing along the village street followed by the guests, braving a cacophony of trumpets, shrieks and whistles, standing before the mayor, solemn in his finery, emerging into the sunlit courtyard, white damask clad trestle tables adorned with gleaming, silver cutlery and small bags of candied almonds tied with white ribbons. Canapés and champagne flowed before we sat for the meal, after which, the speeches. Giles took my hand and led me into the middle of the space as the band struck up the first dance and I thought I could never be any happier in my whole life than at that moment.

There is a sharp pain in my side. Solange is elbowing me. It is time to stand as the couple prepare to exit the church. They advance, sedate and glowing, glancing right and left to give a smile and acknowledgement, three small bridesmaids in pink satin stumbling and giggling as they follow. As they pass us all I want is to slide out now, to slink from this place and go home, home to a comfortable cardigan and a cup of tea.

Why is Claire so reluctant to attend the wedding? And what will she discover as the celebration continues? Check in next week for the conclusion to Three Marriages…