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Chapter 11

Hors d’oeuvres

The downpour started as soon as she left The Willows. Thick grey choked the sky, swallowing the wispy pair of clouds she’d watched from Esme’s bench. They must still be up there, high in the stratosphere, invisible now behind a sudden storm.

She longed to go back, return to the perpetually sunny courtyard and Esme’s bench where she’d felt seen and heard. If only she and Alan could converse like that, listen to each other’s hearts. But they were both equally pig-headed. They couldn’t go on like this, tiptoeing around each other pretending everything was fine. One of them needed to bring this situation to a head.

Heather leaned into the gusts that drove the rain like needles into her face, dragging Stan behind her, his sodden fur weighing him down like a lead X-ray apron. Water was already pooling in the potholes along the lane. Should she run or walk? Her mathematical brain wrestled with the calculation and decided it made no  difference. If she walked, she’d get hit by a certain number of droplets over a certain period of time. If she ran, she’d hit more droplets over a shorter time. It was the kind of equation Tilly would stay up all night trying to solve.

Before she’d decided whether to make a run for it, she reached the notorious Bridgestone Lane blind bend. The narrow, winding lane was a popular shortcut to the school, and twice a day laden people-carriers duelled head to head. Occasionally, a New Forest pony would decide to stand in the middle of the road, and not even Darlingford Dings and Dents could repair the damage a pony could do. Nor the vet hospital mend the damage a large vehicle could do to an animal like that.

Stan, who hated getting his paws wet, pranced like a frisky show pony in protest at the deepening puddles. Heather walked on the soggy grass verge, where the lane was too narrow for a footpath. The moist earth sucked at her canvas shoes. Her linen trousers and Breton t-shirt were equally saturated, and her hair fell in Medusa tendrils around her face. She was so focused on her physical discomfort that she almost walked into the back of a vehicle that had stopped in the middle of the road, hazard lights flashing. Immediately, her body launched into rescuer mode. It wouldn’t be the only time she’d been the first responder on the scene of an
accident and her body knew exactly how to prepare. Racing heart: tick. Dry mouth: tick. Sweaty palms: difficult to say in the rain. Instinct to run away: tick. 

It took a moment for her to realise that it was Alan’s silver Honda. Fearing the worst, she broke into a run. She squeezed past the car, snagging her arm on a bramble and came across a hunched figure, hands on knees and breathing heavily. 

Alan.

She called out. He didn’t react as she approached. Was this it – the heart attack they’d both secretly dreaded? There’d been times in the past few weeks when she’d imagined murdering him in his sleep. It would be simple enough to give the appearance of death from natural causes – insulin overdose, a high-dose opiate patch stuck onto his back as he slept, a dozen glyceryl tri-nitrate tablets crushed into his tea. Now, the thought of losing him was unbearable. He was an old fool, but he was her old fool. And she loved him.

‘Alan, are you all right?’

This time he turned to the sound of her voice.

‘Of course, I’m all right.’

‘Oh Alan, those are your best trousers.’ He was wearing his father’s Aquascutum raincoat and the trousers she’d recently collected from the dry cleaners, tucked into a pair of Wellington boots. ‘What on earth are you doing?’

‘What does it look like?’ He was leaning on the handle of a shovel. Beside him a hessian sack was half-filled with horse droppings.

‘Why?’ So many whys. Why horse shit? Why on a blind bend? Why in the pouring rain?

‘It’s for the rhubarb,’ he explained as if to someone of limited intelligence. 

The screech of tyres cut the conversation short. A blue van skidded to a halt a hair’s breadth from the back of Alan’s car. The driver released a torrent of abuse and the full force of his van’s horn.

‘Quickly, Alan, move this thing before you cause an accident.’

‘You’d better get in before you get soaked,’ he said, glancing at her sodden clothes. Alan dragged the sack of manure to the back where it joined several others and was eagerly accompanied by Stan who leapt into the boot like a gazelle. The smell inside the car was overpowering. Heather wound down the window, then shut it again when a gust of wind blew rain inside. 

‘What were you thinking?’

Alan launched into a well thought out defence. ‘You wouldn’t believe the price of rotted manure. I popped into the garden centre for a few bits and pieces while you were gone, and I was shocked. Kevin calls it daylight robbery. Thanks to all the free-roaming shit-machine ponies, he pointed out there’s a plentiful supply, free for the taking.’

Kevin again.

Behind them, the driver of the blue van was growing impatient. Alan found first gear, seconds before he  became Netherwood’s first road rage victim. ‘I was thinking that we really need a four-wheel drive out here in the sticks.’

‘We’ve managed perfectly well for forty years without a four-wheel drive, not to mention that we live half a mile from the ring-road and then it’s dual carriageway all the way to Darlingford.’

Alan raised his hear-me-out finger, his tone suggesting that, after Pericles, she owed him not to interrupt.

‘I’m worried about global warming. Flooding, in particular.’

‘Hold your horses, Noah. This is a passing shower. We don’t need to panic just yet.’

They drove in silence, Alan apparently steering through every flooded pothole to make a point.

‘You didn’t answer your phone. I was worried about you,’ he said finally. ‘I thought you might have been kidnapped.’ 

She glanced at her phone. Two missed calls. She always kept her phone on silent, as a matter of habit, so as not to interrupt her consultations at work. And also because she’d forgotten how to turn the ring tone back on again. Her skin prickled with irritation. It wasn’t unreasonable of her husband to wonder where she was. He wasn’t stalking her. At the same time, Heather didn’t like having to account for her every movement.

‘Alan, I’m sixty-six, with cellulite. I’m hardly likely to appeal to sex-traffickers. Besides, this is Netherwood. Nothing ever happens in Netherwood.’

Wasn’t that the truth?

‘Seriously though, where have you been all morning?’ Alan glanced across to where Heather sat in a pool of water on the passenger seat. 

‘I went to visit a friend. We got talking and I forgot the time.’

He eyed her suspiciously. Did he think she was having an affair?

‘Anyone I know?’

‘As a matter of fact, yes. Esme Clark at The Willows.’

‘Miss Clark is still alive?’

‘Very much so.’

He seemed to weigh up his next words, tapping them out on the steering wheel before trusting his mouth to say them.

‘What’s going on with you, Heather?’

‘What’s going on with me?

Alan’s knuckles blanched on the worn steering wheel. ‘See? This is what I’m talking about. I can’t do anything right. I thought this was going to be our special time, a chance to relax and reconnect, to enjoy growing old together.’

‘I don’t want to grow old!’ Her shout echoed in the ensuing silence. Stan tried to hide his head between his paws. ‘Not yet. Not until I’ve had my chance to be young.’

‘I don’t understand. Explain it to me.’

They were back home. Alan parked and turned off the engine. Stan reappeared over the back seat, his eyes flitting nervously from one to the other. It may as well be now, thought Heather. Upstairs, the curtains were drawn at Tilly’s window. She must be having a jet-lagged nap. It was Mrs Gee’s half day. Heather took a deep breath and, concentrating on maintaining a calm, non-confrontational, non-judgemental tone, set out her grievances.

‘I have dedicated my whole adult life to attending to other people’s needs. And I don’t regret any of it, not one brow mopped, hand held, or nappy changed. It was satisfying, fulfilling. It’s who I was, and am. Yes, there were times when I was exhausted, resentful and, I admit, self-pitying, but I fought so hard not to let that show.’

Alan regarded her intently. To his credit he didn’t try to tell her what she should think or feel. He simply listened.

‘I have become the sum of my obligations to other people. For once, I want to do something for myself. I want to make it up to the young woman who missed out.’

‘Is this about the Greece thing?’ Alan asked, turning the windscreen wipers off. It had stopped raining. ‘I don’t understand why it can’t wait until next year. Or the year after –’

See? Heather wanted to say. The goalposts were shifting already. She thought about Esme and Aubrey. She didn’t want to reach ninety with a bucket list of broken dreams. 

‘I can’t wait that long.’ Risk waiting that long, she nearly said. ‘The whole idea of retirement is that we can take off when we like rather than plan months ahead. I mean, it’s one thing to work around the junior partners, but quite another to schedule trips around bloody rhubarb.’ Or hens named after ex-girlfriends. ‘I don’t want safe, boring and predictable any longer. I want spontaneous, fun, adventure.’

He looked at her as if she was speaking in tongues. What was the point? They were going round and round in circles, as usual. She tried to open the door, to jump off this carousel. The door was jammed. Stuck like the bedroom window, the kitchen cupboard that still hadn’t been fixed, the mirror still resting against the wall. Stuck like their marriage.

Heather threw her weight into her shoulder and the door gave way, spilling her out onto the wet gravel. In the porch, she threw her muddy shoes into the pile of assorted footwear. So as not to drip on Mrs Gee’s freshly waxed floor, she wrapped herself in the brown towel she always left at the door to wipe Stan’s paws. Dog towels now outnumbered the human towels two to one. She’d smell like Stan, but that was a small price to pay not to upset Mrs Gee.

Heather scrubbed at her dripping hair and patted her cheeks that were damp from not only the rain but tears too. She buried her face in the threadbare fabric. Then she remembered the reason she’d kept this tatty old towel all these years.

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