“Helen, I’m sorry … rushing you off like that. What must you think? I just can’t bear overcrowded bars, but more to the point, some of my students were there. I wasn’t going to meet you for the first time in full view of them.”
“No, it’s fine. Fine.”
The car seemed new. Smelled new. She clutched her bag. Her mobile was safely inside it. After a few minutes she glanced at him sideways, very quickly. The photo had been pretty good. He was not as tall as she’d imagined, but he was not a small man either. She had a phobia about small men.
“What have you been doing today?” he asked. “Tell me from the beginning.”
To her surprise, she did. They sped through the darkness, away from town, away from Tom and Elizabeth, away from everything familiar, away from the place she had told them she would be for the evening, and so, to quell the anxiety she felt riding at night in a fast car with a stranger, she talked through every detail of her day.
The Croxley Oak had the tawny atmosphere only some good country pubs acquire, mellow, with the pleasant hum of conversation. Helen drank lime and soda, then a glass of white wine; Phil had a single half of bitter and then went on to ginger beer. And they talked. After almost an hour, they ordered home-baked ham with chips and salad, and the chips came thick and handcut, the ham in chunky slices, sweet and lean.
He was talking about some difficulties with one of his school’s department heads, how everyone had to handle her tactfully, how she upset students. It had arisen because Helen had told him about a colleague who had always been exceptionally conscientious and had recently become slack and careless, worrying everyone because it was so out of character. She told Phil she couldn’t take an interest in cricket, though she had tried hard for Tom’s sake when he had been in the school team; he expressed total ignorance of choral music when he learned she was a member of the St Michael’s Singers.
Now, as he shook his head over a remark the department head had made that day to a pupil, Helen looked across the table at Philip Russell and felt an extraordinary sense of having known him all her life. It was as though he had been there, familiar, trusted, even while she had been married to Terry and bringing up their children, somehow living a parallel life which was interwoven with hers. The feeling startled her and in a second it had gone, to be replaced by the knowledge that she was simply enjoying her evening and his company.
“Would you like a pudding? Coffee?”
“I’d like some tea.”
“Good, so would I. Isn’t it great that you can actually get tea in pubs now and no one thinks it odd?” He made to get up, then said, “Helen, do your family know where you are?”
“They know I’m meeting you.”
She felt embarrassed. How could she say, Yes, and my son is sitting at home waiting for a call to tell him to come and rescue me? “Why do you ask?”
He laughed, looking embarrassed himself, and went off to order their tea.
The pub was emptying before they paused in talk about their families—how her Tom was one of those teenagers struggling to find a meaning and a spiritual dimension in his life, and how she worried that most of his friends seemed to be so odd; how his elder son Hugh was spending a year teaching in Africa and the younger, also Tom, was at drama school—against his father’s better judgement. “But I’ll support him all the same. I have to. You have to make up for a lot, don’t you find? Make up for that huge gap in their lives.” His wife had been killed in an appalling electrical accident in the house. He had stated the fact in a way that forbade further enquiry.
“It’s rather late,” Helen said.
“I know, but we’re grown-ups. Nobody’s going to tell us off.”
“Oh yes they are!”
He held open his car door. I am enjoying myself, she thought again. I haven’t enjoyed myself like this for too long.
At her car, in the now deserted yard of the Old Ship, he said, “Thank you, Helen. I’ll phone you if I may?”
Turning out into the street and on her route home, glancing in her rear-view mirror as she drove away, she saw that he waited and watched.
Melanie Drew was so happy. It was very quiet, very peaceful, and the early autumn sun was coming in through the window onto the table at which she sat with a packet of thank-you notes. She had written two and had worked out that she still had forty-two to go.
The previous day, a delivery van had arrived from the company, everythingwedding.com, with which they had had their list and it had taken two men the best part of forty minutes to bring all the parcels and boxes out and up the two flights of stairs to the flat. They had been perfectly cheerful about it, though, and after it was all done Melanie had made tea and given them each a piece of wedding cake and they had toasted her in the new blue mugs with white stars.
Now, she took an envelope and wrote on it—but not the address of the aunt who had sent them a hundred pounds.
Mr and Mrs Craig Drew.
Mrs Craig Drew.
Craig and Melanie Drew.
Craig and …
What a waste of an envelope! But she sat in the sun looking at her writing and she couldn’t stop smiling. She hadn’t been able to stop smiling since the wedding two weeks ago.
Now, though, the honeymoon was over, Craig had gone back to work at the estate agent’s yesterday, she had another couple of days off but then she would be heading for the reception desk at Price and Fairbrother. Tonight, they had more wedding presents to open. The flat suddenly seemed very small. The spare room was where Craig wanted to keep stuff like his Wellington boots and waterproof jackets and mittens. Now, it was so full of boxes they could barely open the door. And then there was a mountain of wrapping paper, tissue paper and cardboard to dispose of. Craig was keen on recycling and determined to find out the greenest way of binning it; Melanie had muttered about a bonfire.
“Do you know what you’re saying there, Mel? Bonfire? You can’t have a bonfire. It adds to the carbon levels in the atmosphere.”
“You should be more concerned.”
“I’m concerned about getting my spare room back, that’s all.”
It had not been a row though. They never rowed. They agreed to differ.
She smiled now and wrote Mrs Melanie Anita Drew three times on the envelope.
The sun was warm as well as bright. The flat faced west so it would be like this when they got in from work and for a lot of the evening, right through the spring and summer. They had been lucky to get it, and for the price, though they had worked like slaves for the previous six months replacing the kitchen, taking up ancient lino and rotten floorboards, pulling down sixties wood-effect panelling, ripping out old gas fires, and redecorating. It had paid off. It looked fresh and bright and new and Melanie was delighted with it all. Married life, she thought now. Married life. She and Craig had known one another for three years but never actually lived together, so everything was new, everything was fun, as well as, occasionally, slightly scary.
She looked around the room. Then back to the envelopes. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Midnight-blue Le Creuset cookware, pale blue Nigella Lawson kitchenware, china with hearts and stars, soft white fluffy bathrobes and towels, desk lamps, cutlery, mirrors, clocks, and a massive chandelier made out of tooled wire and hanging crystal beads that she had put down on the wedding list because it looked fun but which was so expensive she had not really thought anyone would ever buy it. Her godmother, who was an actress and liked what she called “a bit of OTT’, had. The box it came in could have housed a new fridge. The moment it arrived Melanie had had misgivings. Craig hated it.
But it didn’t matter. It was a laugh. It was daft and she was happy. Happy, happy, happy.
She put aside the thank-you notes and opened her laptop. The wedding pictures had gone up on the photographer’s website and she had looked through them several times since they had got home, revelling in every detail. She was still surprised at how much she had missed on the day itself, and also, of course, how much happened that she had never got to see at all—Craig and his brother and ushers arriving at the church, the bridesmaids getting out of the car and her sister Gaynor almost measuring her length and her posy having to be reassembled. They had made a beautiful collage of the reception which by some clever trick moved and changed as you watched—so that every time Mel opened up the website she saw something she hadn’t previously noticed. This time, it was the expression on Adrian’s face, as he was waiting to make his best man speech: he looked as if he were headed for the gallows.
She also had two disks of pictures taken by friends, and she planned to post the best of these on the wedding-day-and-honey moon website she had set up. That way some of the family on her father’s side, who hadn’t been able to join them, could share the day.
She had taken a lot of persuading to have a September wedding. May or June had been her choice, but she’d been shocked at how booked up everywhere got so far ahead and September was the earliest they could organise. Which had turned out well because most of May and June had been cold and wet and September, including their wedding day, gloriously sunny.
She sat back and closed her eyes and let the sun warm her face, remembering. It was odd. Time did strange things. The day had passed so quickly, in a flash really, and yet ever since it seemed to have expanded and grown so that she could relive it in slow motion, going over every little detail again and again. She thought that Craig probably didn’t. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed it, because she knew he had. But his attitude was: Right, that’s that, it was great, so what’s next?
If she was honest, it not only puzzled her, she was mildly upset.
“Well, he’s a man, isn’t he?” Gaynor had said. “Get over it.”
If she didn’t have to go back to work, she could imagine spending a great many more afternoons like this, looking at the photographs, unpacking and sorting the wedding presents, writing thank-you cards and then starting to get supper ready with all the new kitchen things. She enjoyed her job. They were a nice firm to work for, she liked everyone there and she knew perfectly well that once the novelty of all this had faded she would have gone off her head with boredom alone in the flat all day. All the same, just another couple of weeks would have been nice.
Meanwhile, there was tonight. She was making a Thai chicken recipe with three fresh vegetables and a citrus and walnut salad. Bread. Cheese from the new Just Cheese in the Old Market Square—Lafferton’s latest mall of small shops which were very tempting and very expensive. She got up to check on the recipe to see how much longer the chicken had to marinate and discovered that she had forgotten to buy walnuts. That was the sort of thing you could do when you had the day at home to yourself—shop in a leisurely fashion and pop out again if you found you had forgotten something. The flat was less than ten minutes by car from the supermarket on the Bevham Road. She could get walnuts and a bottle of wine. Wandering round the supermarket at half past three in the afternoon was part of the fun of these last days off. Part of being happy.
Melanie laughed at herself as she picked up her handbag and keys. Being happy because you’re going to the supermarket in the middle of the day—” How sad is that?” as her teenage stepsister Chloë would say.
Chloë. Who would have thought that Chloë would have looked like that as a bridesmaid—her hair up, skin glowing and a smile like half a melon. Chloë, who had sworn she would die rather than wear sugar-almond pink and who had behaved like an angel and seemed to have grown up to become a stunning young woman—for the day, at least.
Melanie laughed again as she went out.
The street was quiet. The sun had made the inside of her car too hot and as she didn’t have anything so fancy as air conditioning, she opened the windows and door and waited for it to cool down. It was while she waited that she saw him, loitering along the opposite pavement, in the shade. He stopped to light a cigarette, his head turned away from her.
It struck her that she might have forgotten to doublelock their front door. There had been burglaries in the area, a spate of them, though mostly of the detached houses and ground-floor flats. Had she double-locked it?
God, was she going to turn into one of those women who had to go back nine times to make sure they’d turned the gas off and another three to double-check that the light wasn’t on in the bathroom?
No, she was not.
She started up the engine and when she looked again the man had gone.
In the supermarket she picked up a copy of the local paper to read over tea in the café. And there it was. She hadn’t even remembered they had sent in the details.
The photograph was quite large on the page because there were only two other weddings. It was the one of her looking adoringly at Craig, the one which Gaynor had pronounced “Yuck.” But Mel liked it. Her dress looked its best, the silver beading shining and the silver quills in her hair looking as original as she had hoped. She had never seen anyone else wearing them. Pity about the lilies which the florist had foisted on her. They looked huge and stiff, the stalks too long, and she hadn’t known how to hold them, up or down or what. They weren’t like flowers, they were like something man-made. In the newspaper photograph they jumped out at you. Otherwise, though, it was nice. It was very, very nice.
Melanie Calthorpe and Craig Drew
The marriage took place, conducted by Senior Registrar Carol Latter, between Melanie, elder daughter of Neil Calthorpe of Lafferton, and Mrs Bev Smith of Lancaster, and Craig, youngest son of Alan and Jennifer Drew of Foxbury. The bride wore a strapless dress in white jersey crêpe with a bodice encrusted with crystals and silver beading and silver quills in her hair, and carried a bouquet of calla lilies. She was attended by Gaynor Calthorpe, bride’s sister, Chloë Calthorpe, bride’s stepsister, and Andrea Stannard, bride’s friend, who wore burgundy off-the-shoulder dresses and carried posies of ivory roses with silver-ribbon accents. Lily Mars, bride’s god-daughter, was the flower girl in a silver satin and tulle dress and carrying a basket of burgundy rosebuds. Mr Adrian Drew, bridegroom’s brother, was best man, Carl Forbes and Peter Shoemaker, bridegroom’s old school friends, were ushers and the reception was held at the Maltdown Hotel. The couple honeymooned in Gran Canaria and have made their home in Lafferton, where the bridegroom works as an estate agent with Biddle Francis and the bride as a receptionist for Price and Fairbrother, Solicitors.
She read it twice, read it again, and on the way out bought six more copies of the paper. In the car, she sent a text message to Craig and then drove home feeling as she had felt when her father had pushed her on the park swings so high she had thought that if she let go of the chains on either side she would simply fly up and up to heaven.