Getting Over Summer

bertie

bertie (Photo credit: miner)

Yet another unfinished novel! About half done as usual, but …still, one day! I’d be grateful for any constructive critique though…? 

 

Getting Over Summer.

‘…I used to have a life. And a lover. I am on my own now. Still.
If, when I was born, a good fairy had shown me a chart of the life I would live, then given me the choice of whether I wanted to follow it or not, what would I have done? Maybe, if no other choice were available, even seeing the horrors spread out in front of me, I would still have chosen to live me. I don’t think my good fairy would have offered me alternatives, the life of someone else born at the same moment as me, whose own fairy gifted more favourable life plans. No, I think it would have been my life or a return to the nothingness I came from. At this moment, that seems preferable.’

She snapped her journal shut and decided that recording her innermost thoughts didn’t make her feel better, as the advice columns in the magazines at the hairdressers suggested, it actually made her feel a whole lot worse. She put it on the kitchen table next to the letter, the letter which had lain undisturbed since she had opened it four days ago. Katie gave it uneasy glances as she crept past to weigh the natural bran she mixed with cottage cheese for her packed lunch. Finally, aware that ignoring it would not make it somehow disappear, she resolved to take it to work with her and ask Leo what he thought.
She smiled as she thought of her boss and how he had frightened her witless when she started working for him almost twenty years ago. Now she practically ran Parkins Pet Supplies for him. He had long since lost interest in the company, and on the rare occasions he was in the office more than two days running, he sat quietly in his room doodling and dreaming of the pictures he longed to paint. Kate had worried about him since she’d realised, with surprise that he could only be ten years older than her at the most. She’d tried persuading him to go out and enjoy himself. In a ‘tweed jacket’ way, he was very attractive and she knew at least three divorcees who would love to give him a run for his money.
She’d once introduced him to her best friend Rhia and still regretted it. He’d been taken aback by her vivacity and business suits. She hadn’t seen Leo as a person, only as someone who must have lots of county friends who’d come clamouring to book her company’s expertise, once she had demonstrated just how ‘haute’ her ‘cuisine’ was. Rhia had suggested a dinner date, he’d stammered but accepted, and she said she would ring when she had a ‘window’. Leo waited in vain for her call. It put Katie in an awful position.
She noticed she was running late and hastily put a dish of water outside the back door for Bertie, her elderly cross bred dogwho was nowhere to be seen as usual. It was a secret source of embarrassment to Katie that almost every litter of unwanted puppies born in the village bore an uncanny resemblance to Bertie. She comforted herself with the thought that when a puppy actually appeared on her doorstep requesting a DNA test, she would whip Bertie to the vets so quickly his paws wouldn’t touch the ground. Until then it seemed heartless to tinker with his tackle and besides, at his age, it was probably only a last-ditch attempt to impress the pampered dogs that arrived in German cars to weekend at their owners’ country retreats.
She rammed the letter into her bag and, after locking her door, headed towards her ancient Citroen, praying that today she wouldn’t have to suffer a display of its Gallic contrariness. It didn’t surprise her that the car refused to start and, after kicking the driver’s door shut, she grabbed her bicycle.
“Cochon!” she snarled at the car as she passed it. She was sure the rusting CV5, gangly on its narrow tyres, sneered as she pedalled furiously up the lane.
At least the weather was on her side. A dew-kissed spring morning glistened around her and the sun, full and golden as a corn fed-egg, promised a beautiful day. It was difficult to stay in a bad mood and she laughed softly as she surprised a trio of baby rabbits on the verge of the quiet lane. Too young to be frightened, they merely sat and looked at her looking at them as she cycled past, her floral, bought-at-Oxfam, Laura Ashley billowing behind her as she approached the main road.
She heard a sharp ‘beep, beep’, the horn of a work-worn Bedford van coming over the crest of the hill and realised she was in luck.
‘Lift, ma’am?’ the driver asked, as he pulled alongside her.
‘Oh, Kev, I’m glad to see you! The car wouldn’t start and, typically, today is the only day this week I have to be at work on time. I’ve got a nine fifteen appointment,’ Katie explained as she helped him load her bike into the back of his van. ‘The poor man is travelling miles to demonstrate a rabbit sexing device, so I can’t be late.’ She pushed empty cement sacks and several stained and dusty tools to the floor, making enough room to sit comfortably.
‘Your old banger lets you down so often, I’m thinking of investing in a chauffeur’s uniform.’
‘That would be great. A peaked cap for a ‘nearly-white’ van man!’ Kate laughed at the idea and, ignoring the clattering of her bike and building equipment rolling around in the back of the van, settled back to enjoy the ride.
She had known Kevin all her life. He had moved out of the village but his parents still lived next door to her. His business didn’t leave him a lot of spare time, but when he was able to visit his mum and dad, he usually popped round and he and Katie would sit outside in her sheltered garden and sip white wine and talk quietly, until late in the evening.
She loved Kev’s mum and dad. They had become family to her since her own parents died, and she often wondered why she didn’t fancy Kevin. Well, not since she’d grown up anyway. Apart from their names sounding ridiculous together (a fact she’d discovered after spending most of her third year at school scribbling them on her exercise books, entwined in an arrow-pierced heart) she supposed that it was because they just knew each other too well

Chapter 2

Rhia lay in bed smoking her first cigarette of the day and thought again about the expensive wrap dress she had been admiring for a fortnight. She’d actually got as far as trying it on, and admired the way it clung to her body. She loved the daring neckline, the way the cross over bodice accentuated her curves, the tantalising glimpse of thigh as she slowly walked around the mirror-lined cubicle. And then the sales assistant had ruined it.
‘Does that feel alright?’ she enquired, ‘Would you like to try the next size up?’
Rhia had suddenly seen herself through the assistant’s eyes and noticed, for the first time, the bulges above her waist where the wrap dress fastened. There were rolls of fat on her back above and below her bra strap and, dear God, she appeared to be trying to force four unruly bosoms into a bra designed to take only two. She’d fled the shop, ignoring the perplexed gaze of the assistant who was bearing down on her, almost hidden behind an armful of dresses, some of which looked big enough to accommodate Billy Smart’s Circus, as well as a pair of performing poodles.
A stray drop of last night’s rain squelched through the Venetian blind behind her and splattered onto her cigarette, almost extinguishing it. She stretched to douse it in the upturned lid of a porcelain trinket box.
She rose and walked slowly into her bathroom, thinking about her date last night with Ewan. She turned on the tap and slowly dripped bath oil into the hot running water. As the perfumed steam misted around her, she realised she’d used the same oil last night in preparation for her evening out. With little effect. She tossed the nearly full bottle of oil into the waste bin under the sink.
She’d been optimistic about Ewan, even though he’d made her uneasy on their first date. He’d taken her to a Burns Night celebration and spent most of the evening waving around his skeean do, as if he were the only man present who had one. It unnerved her that it nestled casually in the top of his knee-high sock and that it didn’t even require a sheath. She wished she hadn’t ignored her instincts in February; she could have saved herself the months of misgivings which culminated in his telling her last night that she wasn’t his type! What was wrong with her? Would she ever be anybody’s type?
She lay back in the tub and admitted to herself that there had been a long list of ‘Ewans’ over the past few years. Something had to change!
As she got out of the bath, she determined to think no more about the past and to concentrate on the future. She would ring Katie and see if she had any ideas. Towelling herself vigorously, she tried hard not to look in the full-length mirror.
‘Oh hell!’ she muttered, as it cleared in random patches and allowed her fleeting glimpses of a dimpled rear she would rather not see. In fact, all she could see was a future of speed dating and slimming clubs.

Rhia opened her wardrobe door and surveyed her sharply cut suits, and behind them, the rail of floating gossamer dresses she never wore. She put on a black trouser suit and a low-cut cream top, and glumly checked her appearance. She knew she should buy pantalets to shape her hips, bum and tum. With a sigh she gathered bag, phone and keys, locked the door behind her as she left for the office.
As she passed the reception desk at the entrance to her apartment building, the janitor handed her an envelope.
‘It arrived early this morning; I was just about to bring it up to you.’
‘Thank you, Andy. Isn’t it a lovely day?’ she smiled over her shoulder as she waited for the lift to take her to the basement where her car was parked. Idly, she looked at the letter. Her mail usually went to the office and so, intrigued, she opened it.

Dear Rhiannon,
How are you? I know you’ll be surprised to hear from me, but I’m writing to you in the hope that you will be interested in attending a school re-union I have been asked to organise. Won’t it be exciting to meet up again after all this time?
I got your address from Alice Brent; apparently her brother installed your spa bath. You’d also done a ‘thing’ for his in-laws, their Ruby Wedding, or something. Who’d have thought you would end up a professional cook, although you always did like food as I recall. No offence!
I’ve enclosed a full list of people I’ve yet to track down and as you will see, Katherine Jackson is on it. Are you still in touch with her and if so, will you pass on the details? Thank you so much.
Look forward to seeing you,

Isobel Harvey-Brown (nee Harrison)

A hundred well-scrubbed schoolgirl faces flashed through Rhia’s head, until she placed Isobel. Of course! Isobel, who always insisted on being known as Isobel, never Izzy, or Belle, and who always insisted on calling everyone else by their full name, however much they detested it.
‘How many years is it since someone called me Rhiannon?’ mused Rhia, already dialling Katie’s number on her mobile.
Katie barely had time to say, ‘Parkins Pet…’ before Rhia interrupted her.
‘You’ll never guess what. I’ve had a letter!’
‘You’ve had a letter?’ murmured Kate.
‘From Isobel Harrison. Well, she’s double-barrelled now but I didn’t expect anything less. It’s a school reunion Kate! Katie?’
‘I’m sorry, Rhia, I’ve got to go. I’ll speak to you later.’
Katie hung up abruptly, leaving her puzzled friend staring at her mobile phone.

Although Rhia had anticipated a long girlie chat with Katie about Isobel Harvey-Brown’s letter, she didn’t have much time to ponder on it as her working day unfolded.
Her senior waitress, Emma, had called in to help get ready for the evening’s booking and had slipped while carrying a stack of china platters to the van, injuring her wrist.
‘But it’s so sore!’ she blubbered, as Rhia impatiently bound it in a crepe bandage.
‘If you had been concentrating on what you were doing, instead of straining to see who was ringing your mobile, it would never have happened,’ she’d snapped. Now, driving Emma to hospital, Rhia admitted it did indeed look nasty. It had swollen up to twice its size and the bruising made it look as if Emma was wearing a camouflaged glove. Perhaps an X-ray was a good idea, though she hadn’t a clue how she was going to catch up on everything she had to do today. Better not to think about the dinner party for twelve she was catering for tonight. Who could she pull in to cover for Emma at such short notice? Perhaps Henry, her chef, would know of someone.
Oh hell! She had promised Henry that she would be at their kitchens, on the industrial unit on the outskirts of town by ten at the latest, to approve his menus, and it was almost eleven o’clock. He would be furious. He’d threaten to walk out or sulk or, even worse, he would drink all afternoon. Moreover, he wouldn’t even try to find a stand-in for Emma. No, he would gloat at seeing Rhia following his orders whilst wearing the ill-fitting polyester uniform she insisted all her staff wore and sweating over steaming dinner plates, up to her armpits in dirty dish water and scraping slops into the bin! It didn’t bear thinking about, her expensively polished image ruined. Bloody chefs!
Rhia, doing at least ten miles above the speed limit, hit a speed bump.
‘Slow down, Rhia. It’s excruciating when you throw me around,’ Emma cried ‘I feel like a broken biscuit rattling around in a carrier bag.’
‘Stop whining, it’s probably not even broken. I’ve got so much to do today and this is not helping.’
‘Oh, please forgive me for being in agony,’ huffed Emma. Chastened, Rhia slowed down a little. Then, with fresh panic, another thought assailed her.
‘Did you remember to post that cheque to the insurance company last month?’
‘I hate you, Rhia! How can you think about employer’s liability at a time like this?’
‘I didn’t mean it like that!’ Rhia protested. But she did.

Chapter 3

Katie replaced the receiver after abruptly terminating Rhia’s call. She stared dubiously at the implement on her desk. The sales rep. had demonstrated it several times, albeit not on a rabbit, but despite printed instruction sheets, Katie was still unsure how to use it. She also had reservations about whether her customers would find it as invaluable as the sales rep. had argued. She pushed the sexing device to one side as she heard footsteps in the passageway.
‘What on earth has happened? You’re as white as a ghost, Katie.’ Leo stood in the doorway looking at her with concern.
‘Oh, it’s just Rhia.’ she said. She wanted to confide in him, not about Rhia’s stupid letter but about the one she’d been trying to come to terms with for over four days. But didn’t know how to. ‘She’s had a letter. Some school reunion or something.’
She looked up at him, blinking away unshed tears as she searched for something that would deflect his attention away from her.
‘What do you make of this?’ She held the sexing device toward him. He took it and examined it curiously.
‘Well, I’d say it was a very large pair of sugar tongs.’
She giggled. She knew Leo was still wondering what had upset her so much, but she also knew he would wait to see if she wanted to confide in him. ‘No, you’re not even warm. I’m going for lunch now and if you haven’t guessed by the time I get back, you’re making the tea this afternoon!’

She walked across the busy main road to the Memorial Gardens and sat in her usual spot, upon the flattened gravestone of Gladys Nuttall, to eat her packed lunch. The inscription on the stone -She died with a sigh but didn’t say goodbye- failed to lift Katie’s mood as it usually did and, to make matters worse, the four teaspoons of bran, mixed with cottage cheese that morning, had expanded like the polystyrene stuff from the DIY store she had once used to fill the cracks in her bedroom ceiling.
She put her lunch box to one side and idly watched people entering and leaving the pub on the other side of the street. Groups of youngish women, probably office staff from County Hall since the garden was on the wrong side of town for the factory women, mingled with groups of men as they went up the steps into the pub. Laughing, so carefree. A few latecomers shouted to attract the attention of four young girls sitting on a bench under the pub’s bay window, drinking cooling shandies or lagers and lime. Almost immediately, the girls leapt up to be hugged or kissed or teased affectionately before they made their way inside. Katie wondered at their easy friendship; the casual closeness and careless intimacy. She envied them, and wondered how they found it all so uncomplicated.
The tinkle of glasses, the distant hum of a lawn mower, happy laughter and the low murmur of conversation. The buzz of sun-sodden bees which fed from flowers near her head all conspired to make her feel unexpectedly sad. Silent tears slid down her face as she shook her head to clear it. She unfolded the crumpled letter from her bag.

Dear Katie,
I hope you don’t mind me contacting you in this way but my daughter has, for several years now, been expressing a strong desire to meet you, or at least establish contact in some way that’s acceptable to you both. If you feel able to speak to me, please ring me on the above number any time during the day, but please don’t leave any messages on the machine. If you don’t want to speak, I hope you will at least be able to answer this letter.
Yours,

Sarah Jane Lomax

She put the letter and envelope back into her bag and, as she rose, startled a thrush on the headstone next to her.
‘It didn’t even see me.’ Her smile faded as she looked down at her flowered dress.
‘No wonder’ she thought ruefully ‘I look like a well-kept grave!’
She thought maybe it was a sign from above that she should treat herself to some new clothes, but not from the charity shops she usually went to. She would go shopping properly; not in the designer boutiques Rhia frequented, but surely she could manage ‘Dorothy Perkins’?
Picking up her belongings, she hurried from the Memorial Gardens back to the office to bury herself under piles of outstanding paperwork in a vain attempt to switch off the problems swimming around in her head. She would remain at her desk until five o’clock then leave half an hour early. Finally at home, as a solitary evening stretched endlessly before her, she would wonder why she bothered.

Chapter 4

Henry had been a pig all day and despite having lavish praise heaped on his menu, Rhia hadn’t managed to placate him. She suspected she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She knew Henry was gloating at her dilemma and couldn’t wait for her to don her nasty, itchy polyester two-piece and dance to his tune. She was also aware that he would be leaving as soon as the final crème brulee hit the table. Never mind any offers of assistance, clearing up and transporting everything back to base, or even driving the waitresses home. She’d be on her own and even worse, she’d be shiny with sweat, her hair like an oil slick. She’d have water-reddened hands and her waterproof mascara was sure to smudge and run until she looked like she slept in it after a vodka-laden night on the town. She could already feel the static from her two-piece building up and sending little electric shocks to people she brushed against, and she hadn’t even got it on yet.
She unpacked the cool bags and hampers from the back of the van, praying that the wine had arrived and been dealt with, and that the florist had been. Struggling up the flight of steps to the elegant Victorian front door, she was almost floored by a tall blonde girl struggling down the same steps carrying several large plastic containers and an improbably large salon hairdryer.
‘God help you if you’re going in there. It’s a mad house!’ the girl muttered by way of greeting.
As Lizzie stared after her, the door opened.
‘You’re cutting it a bit fine, Ms. Peters,’ Mrs. Gordon’s voice sliced the air like a whip, ‘and I think your chef is drunk!’ she concluded icily.
Lizzie decided that the best way of dealing with this was to treat it as a joke.
‘Ha, ha,’ she giggled feebly ‘I’m not late at all Mrs. Gordon. Loads of time! You go in to the drawing room and relax before you dress, and I’ll pop along with a dry sherry for you as soon as I’ve got the stuff into the kitchen. .Perhaps a few canapés?’
Mrs. Gordon thawed and made for the drawing room, much to Rhia’s relief, as she rushed in to the kitchen laden with Tupperware containers,
‘Henry,’ she hissed ‘where the bloody hell are you?’
She found her chef snoring softly, slumped against a cold frame at the entrance to the kitchen garden. It seemed as though he had knelt to snip some fresh chives, or perhaps some basil, then collapsed where he was, suddenly overcome with heat or tiredness. Well, that’s how she would explain it to Mrs. Gordon who, at that moment, was not where Rhia had fondly imagined her, reclining on a sofa waiting to gorge on caviar-heaped blinis, but was instead anxiously twitching at the drawing room drapes.
‘A touch too much sun!’ Rhia shouted to her cheerfully, pulling Henry to his feet.
‘Get up, Henry! God, I hate you! How could you do this to me?’
‘Gerroffme. Wanna sleep. Leave me alone!’
‘You are not going to sleep; you are going straight to a cold tap where I swear I will drown you if you don’t pull yourself together. Come on!’
She pulled and pushed him towards the back door and into the utility area next to the kitchen, turned on the cold tap over the Belfast sink, and ruthlessly shoved his head under the icy jet of water. His shouts of protest were cut short as the cold water hit the back of his neck and head and shocked him into silence. When Rhia heard him begin to whimper, she turned off the tap and glowered at him as she handed him a towel.
‘In the kitchen and cooking in two minutes or you’re dead meat, Henry!’
As Rhia unpacked the starters, individual seared tuna and dilled melon filo parcels, ready to put in the oven, Henry sheepishly came up behind her to take the tray of filet mignon.
‘Can you do that without messing it up?’ she enquired testily.
Henry was shaking badly but seemed willing, if not able, to make amends. She tried very hard to concentrate on what she was doing and not to notice the stainless steel Sabbatiers flailing dangerously around the immediate vicinity. It reminded her of a Cossack, sabre dancing.
She was glad of the distraction when her waitresses arrived, pleased to see them until she noticed Sara’s appearance.
‘Dear God, how many times? Get that nail varnish off and tie your hair back. Don’t take all night either, the first course is going out in forty minutes and you’ve got the aperitifs and appetizers to serve yet. On second thoughts, let Hayley do that, I don’t want ‘eau de varnish remover’ tainting the canapés. As soon as you’re ready, go and help Charlotte with the dining room; and for heavens sake keep out of Mrs. Gordon’s way. Keep an eye on the time and be back in here ten minutes before the guests sit down. Now, move it!’
‘Henry? How are we doing on the fillet?’
‘Don’t panic; everything’s OK. Shouldn’t you be changing?’
Rhia snapped her head around but Henry was bending and putting trays in the oven, his face turned away from her. She was sure she could see his shoulders shaking, but felt only relief that he appeared to be considerably more sober and in control. Taking her waitress uniform, she headed for the utility room where she changed out of her ‘whites’.
She would never admit it to Henry, but she got a real buzz out of being in the kitchen. She knew that she was as good a chef as anyone she had ever employed, but she hated the drudgery of the prep. work and clearing up, even more. No, her role was definitely ‘front of house’, the polished, professional face of cordon bleu catering. She ran the office, got the clients, did the buying and banked the cheques. If not actually on hand during the dinner parties, she was always accessible -often no more than five minutes away at the nearest wine bar. All in all, she was very satisfied with her business and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Apart from not working at all, that is. She had a recurrent fantasy of moving from one five star hotel to another, her every whim pandered to by nubile young men with oil-polished torsos, who found her totally irresistible. She wondered why, even in her wildest flights of fantasy, she never quite managed to reach the stage where she was choosing a Stella McCartney wedding dress.
The polyester outfit was every bit as bad as she feared, and she scrutinised Henry to catch even the ghost of a grin on his face. The girls returned to the kitchen and assured her everything was perfect in the dining room, that all twelve guests had arrived and Mrs. Gordon was happy for dinner to be announced at eight thirty.
Rhia asked the girls to wash the few dishes used in the preparation of the first course and then left Henry in charge and slipped into the garden for a cigarette. She drew on it deeply, relishing the few moment’s cool peace and quiet before she had to return to work.
It was so long since she had been involved in the practical side of a dinner party that she was surprised how quickly the evening charged towards its climax. Mrs. Gordon wafted into the kitchen, relaxed by copious amounts of pink gin, and effusively praised Rhia and the girls. She edged cautiously around Henry to hand little envelopes containing a small gratuity to Hayley, Sara and Charlotte.
‘Absolutely tremendous! Cyril, that’s Cyril Harpendon, of Harpendon, Harpendon, Harpendon and Sons, was so impressed he’s asked for your number! He was upset he may have offended you, but you must admit your outfit doesn’t exactly suggest you’re the boss!” she trilled. “He was so apologetic when he realised his little mistake. Oh, he did laugh!’
Rhia fought the angry blush she felt creeping across her cheeks and bit her lip to stop herself giving the stinging reply she knew was totally justified, but which would probably lose her business. She’d felt murderous when Cyril Harpendon of Harpendon, Harpendon and bloody Harpendon had spoken to her as though she was a servant, and that was before he’d clutched her buttock and made a double-edged remark about ‘sparks’ between them and was it ‘desire or cheap polyester fabrics?’
‘My pleasure.’ she murmured, her face frozen in a polite smile. She was pleased when, as he made a move to leave for the evening, Henry frightened Mrs. Gordon away. Rhia was grateful to see that most of the clearing away had been done and that Henry had arranged a taxi to take the girls home. He must be feeling contrite.

The chatter of young sparrows nesting in the eaves above her bedroom window woke Katie. It was still very early but she anticipated enjoying her breakfast in the garden, with the sun dappling through the silver birch tree on to her table.
She kicked her legs out of bed, disturbing Bertie, and giggled as she followed him downstairs. After a disdainful sniff he stood, head slung low, staring at the back door.
‘Hang on a minute Bertie.’ she told him ‘Wait until I’ve locked the gate. You are staying at home today, not carousing around the neighbourhood. I’ve hardly seen you all week.’
As Katie emptied and refilled her kettle with filtered water from the fridge, she watched as Bertie, secured in the garden, gazed wistfully at the garden gate denying him entrance to carnal doggy heaven and then peed wearily against the birch tree. He flopped in a disgusted heap near the garden table where the sun was especially warm.
Smiling, she gathered her breakfast tray and joined Bertie in the sunshine. She loved the solitude of her garden. She only had neighbours on one side, Kev’s parents, but the high Victorian brick wall meant she was never disturbed unless she wanted to be.
It would be possible to sunbathe topless, as Rhia had pointed out when they were both about fifteen.
‘What if Kevin can see us?’ Kate asked fearfully
‘Now that would make it worthwhile!’ she had giggled.

Advertisements
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: