|Vast: A Novel
Ch. VI: A Garden
by Nicolas Travers ©
Jane and Sarah are waiting for Colin as he gets home. Both wear the strained expressions of people recently tangled in a lengthy and difficult discussion, for Sarah is acutely conscious that maintaining her social standing at school rests wholly on her travelling to the seaside, and is therefore totally set on having her fifty pounds, even if it means giving her parents hell until she gets it. But whilst so far she has whinged, and whined, and shed bitter little tears, it has all been to no avail, and now she is in a very bad mood indeed.
Jane has naturally been wholly supportive. But she has also made it clear that her support is wholly subject to Colin paying. She has a small and very secret savings account that she keeps to finance occasional fashion whims: she has seen a rather smart summer dress in a local boutique sale, and knows that it is just the thing to enhance her standing at the coming Church Guild fete. However the account is much too small to finance Sarah as well, and Jane also fears to count her daughter in on her only resource, for she knows very well that money once seen is never forgotten. So she has stonewalled stolidly, and now has a bad headache from trying to watch television and fend her daughter off at the same time.
Sarah glares at her father accusingly as he limps in. She is getting nowhere, and must now press very much harder. "Sister Teresa says we've got to pay her by the end of the week."
Her tone is threatening: Sister Teresa is school bursar at Saint Anne's Convent, Sarah's school, and a firm believer in prompt settlements.
Colin says nothing, but slumps into an armchair. He knows his daughter too well to try and fight: Sarah has unmatched staying power when it comes to complaining. His best defence is a wall of silence.
Jane gets to her feet, recognising his arrival as a chance to escape.
"I think I need a cup of tea."
But she is not quite quick enough, and Sarah strikes very hard indeed.
"Mum says I can ask Grandad if you don't pay."
She aims at Colin, but her voice stops Jane dead in her tracks. Sarah's barb is out and out blackmail, and also totally untrue. Jane's father has given Sarah small sums of money from time to time on the Vasts' regular weekend visits to Jane's parents in Beaconsfield: a couple of pounds here, a fiver there. But all his presents have been occasional gifts: surprises, made at good moments and received with many smiles and kisses, and Jane has a vision of her father in a black fury if Sarah sets out to scrounge and asks for as much as fifty pounds.
He will doubtless pay, but Sarah may very well torpedo all Jane's own hopes of charming any future chunks of cash out of him for herself. So she has already roundly rejected two attempts by Sarah to talk her into acting as an intermediary, and Sarah's ploy is an outrage.
Colin pales. Jack Wise, Jane's father, invariably lectures him at length on the benefits of prudence and financial self-sufficiency whenever they meet, and he presently needs another sermon on saving about as much as he needs a hole in the back of his head.
Sarah senses that she has both her parents on the run, and presses home her attack. "I'll ring him." She speaks thoughtfully, as though to herself. "I'll get the money tomorrow if he posts it tonight."
For a moment Jane looks as though she would dearly like to slap her daughter's face. But then she gives way. "I'll talk to your father." She speaks hurriedly, saying the first thing that comes into her mind.
Colin closes his eyes in a vain bid to shut himself off from this fast developing squabble. But it is too late. A hand descends on his shoulder, it is a summons.
Jane's face is blotchy as she confronts him in their small kitchen. "You've got to give her the money." Her voice is taut.
"I can't." He spreads his hands in a gesture of emptiness.
"You had it the day before yesterday." Jane knows that she is tempting danger, but she no longer cares. Sarah has triggered a major crisis, and now she must also use every weapon she can. "I went through your pockets when you changed your suit, you had five tenners." She can see anger building in Colin, and strikes home before he can retaliate. "Have you been gambling again?"
Colin winces. But at the same time a lightning jolt of relief cancels all pain, for she has totally missed her mark, distracted by a time when Colin had taken a hot racing tip from Twister, borrowed a fiver from Jane for finance, and lost. She has aimed, and missed, and now he is free.
His mind screeches into overdrive, conjures up a smart excuse in less than the blink of an eye, and he makes a small, panicky flapping gesture as though conceding discovery.
"I, er, lent it to Tim. He needed some cash in a hurry." It is a lie, and Colin knows that it is a weak and pretty obvious lie. But he is also sure that he will suffer far less by crawling to Twister and begging an advance from RichQuick's petty cash than admitting the truth.
Jane realises that she has missed. But she also knows, that if he says he has lent money, he can get it back, and therefore pay up, and so she no longer greatly cares. She can feel her headache growing worse, and she needs to lie somewhere quiet and relax.
She sighs wearily. "Tell her she can have it tomorrow."
She watches Colin return to their drawingroom and massages her throbbing temples with her fingertips. She wonders sometimes whether she should take the advice that her father has increasingly been pressing on her: to flee with Sarah to Beaconsfield, and dump Colin for good.
She has always resisted to date, for she shares the general opinion of most married women in classing separated and divorced women by and large as failures. But she is beginning to wonder how much more she can take. She decides that it is time for her to retire to bed, and give the matter some serious thought.
Colin finds Sarah deep in a soap. He hesitates for a moment, confused by the brightly lit television screen and the broadcast sound of a family squabble echoing his very own family row.
Sarah glares at him. "Are you going to give me the money?" She speaks sharply, she dislikes being disturbed during one of her favourite programmes, especially when she knows that she has both her parents running scared.
Colin nods wearily.
"Good". She grunts an acknowledgement, and vanishes back into her dream world.
Colin feels murderous, but there is nothing he can do. He watches television for a little while, and tries once to make polite small talk during a commercial break, asking Sarah questions about school and her coming trip. But she replies in bad-tempered monosyllables, and his mind is not really on the job, but filled with his own dream of his approaching rendezvous, with two pretty grey eyes and a small tortoiseshell cat with velvet soft paws.
Time passes, and Colin grows hungry. He levers himself out of his armchair to stand hopefully at the bottom of the stairs, but his bedroom door is shut, and Jane shows no sign of surfacing. He must fend for himself, and feed Sarah to keep her docile. He decides to combat vegetarian slimming with a hefty helping of pasta, and heats up a generously large saucepan of pasta, with a smaller well-spiced saucepan of his very own recipe bolognaise sauce.
Sarah insists on eating in front of the television, so he dines in the kitchen on his own, helping himself to perhaps rather a larger plateful of pasta than Jane might allow, washes up dutifully, and makes himself a cup of coffee.
Now it is almost time. He looks into the family room to announce that he is going for an evening stroll, but Sarah merely grunts an acknowledgement.
The secret garden is deserted. Colin sits on a bench and waits, remembering with a pang of guilt that he has forgotten to bring any provisions - but it is too late now to search for catfood.
For a moment the garden is silent. Then he hears footsteps, and looks up to see the fairhaired girl approaching, dressed now in a short flowered frock, cradling her cat in her arms. She smiles at him shyly and stops in front of the bench, letting the cat jump down: she has it secure on a red lead clipped to a small red elastic harness.
Colin and the cat inspect each other cautiously as he stretches out his hand.
"He ought to remember you." The girl's voice carries a note of anxiety. "Have you brought him something to nibble?"
Colin shakes his head guiltily, but the tortoiseshell is already reassured, and a small pink tongue licks at his forefinger. He looks up. "I meant to, but it's been a hard day."
The girl considers his words, standing in front of him. For a moment they are both silent, the small cat their only link. Colin badly wants to say something friendly, but is lost for words.
Then the cat is suddenly alert, transfixed by the sight of a robin on a nearby bush. The robin chatters at it angrily, and the girl has to bend quickly to gather it back into her arms, lest it break free.
She sits down on the bench beside Colin, holding the cat tight, and then lets him stroke its head, and take it from her, to cradle on his own lap.
"He likes you, you can see that." She speaks softly, fondly. "He don't always take to strangers."
Colin beams, he is flattered.
"Don't you have a cat?"
Colin wishes sometimes that he did, to provide an escape from a bossy wife and daughter, but Jane regards cats as destructive animals, given to clawing chunks out of carpets and chairs.
"Wouldn't you like one?"
He realises with a start of surprise that the girl is sizing him up. But it is something very pleasing, and soon they are talking freely, as though they are established friends. She tells him that her name is Dorothy, and that she goes to secondary school, but hopes to leave soon and get a job, probably in a shop, because she likes meeting people. She speaks with an indefinable air of wistfulness, and it is plain that she wants to escape. She tells him again of her mother walking out on her father, and her sister, named Alexandra, but known as Sandy, who works for Caleys, the John Lewis store in Windsor High Street. She talks of Prince, her cat, and trying to teach it to go for walks, of taking Prince into Windsor Great Park one day and thinking of running away.
"But we couldn't, you know, because we didn't have anywhere to go."
She smiles a little sadly at the memory, grey eyes shining, and the tortoishell raises its head, and blinks, and purrs on Colin's lap, and they are three good friends together.
Colin is bewitched. He strokes the tortoiseshell and tells Dorothy a little about himself, working as a journalist in London, commuting every day, trapped in stuffy trains.
Dorothy frowns. "Would you keep on going up and down every day, if you didn't have to?"
Colin considers her question, but he already knows his answer. "I'd run away as well." His words slip out before he has time to vet and approve them, and he feels suddenly naked.
Dorothy nods approvingly. "We're the same sort of person." She turns and smiles at Colin, her whole face alight, and for a moment he finds himself wanting to throw his arms around her, to enfold her, and protect her, and take her to himself.
But his impulse only lasts a split-second. Dorothy is young enough to be his daughter, and it is pure foolishness to try and fashion her into a fantasy.
For a moment grey eyes search his, and Dorothy's stare hardens a little. "But you'd be scared." It is a question as well as a statement, and Colin looks away, feeling as though he has been searched through and through and found wanting.
Then she laughs softly, and the sound is forgiving, and no condemnation. "You're like my dad." The softness in her voice is a tenderness. "He could scare easily too, at times. We used to play games, jumping out at him in the dark. But he never let us down."
She raises her face towards his, and Colin has to fight to prevent himself from kissing her.
The tortoiseshell cat breaks the spell, with a decision that it has been sitting on Colin's lap for long enough. It stretches, and jumps down, and Dorothy takes its lead as it walks again, and chases robins, and investigates some dark corners of bushes. For a while they watch it at play, until it starts to grow cool, and it is time to go home.
Colin is sad. He feels that he is somehow making a mess of things, in a life that he has littered with too many messes, and he avoids Dorothy's eyes as they face each other at the garden entrance.
She is holding her cat, and she lifts it until it is level with his face, and a small furry paw momentarily touches his cheek.
"Prince says thankyou, and to tell you that he'll come here again this time next week."
Dorothy's voice is barely more than a whisper. She stares at Colin again for a moment, her eyes searching his, and reaches up, to kiss him quickly on the side of his chin. The touch of her lips is very soft, a butterfly caress, and then she is gone, hurrying away before he has time to reply.
Colin is transfixed. He stands for several minutes without moving, his mind in a whirl: hearing Dorothy's voice, and still feeling the touch of her lips, and is caught up in a maze of doubts and questions and fears. A siren voice in his mind tells him that he is young again, in a world promising adventure, and challenges him to action. But cold reality intervenes, and reminds him of his age, and tolls a warning.
He begins to walk home, lost somewhere between a dream and a daze, passes his front door and walks on, struggling to become rational and cool-headed as waves of irrational excitement sweep through him each time he attempts to instill regulation and order, so that he advances in a kind of distracted quadrille, stepping out jauntily every few paces, and beaming at passing strangers, before relapsing back into slow reveries.
Something magic is happening, for good or evil, and his world is threatening to spiral out of control. Somebody has chosen him as a friend, and he has been hiding from friendship for a very long time. Somebody is showing him tenderness, and Colin considers himself deprived, paunchy, and middle-aged. Somebody has kissed him, and Colin's heart is ablaze.
Yet nothing makes sense, and everything is fraught with danger. Dorothy is only a girl, and may just look on him as a surrogate father figure - she may find closer ties repellent, and condemn his dream as corruption. She might talk, and pave a way for private and public opinion to compound his downfall: first in massacre by Jane and Sarah, then a lynching in the local papers, and possibly the nationals as well, with loss of home, and loss of status, leading to loss of job, and the death of his dream.
He wonders whether he dare meet her again, and knows that he cannot refuse; his emotions whirl, and flounder, and make no sense of things at all. Dreams seem about to rule, but dreams can also soon become nightmares. He twists and turns in his mind this way and that, exhilarated and confused, hopeful and yet fearful, and knows - with a kind of inescapable dread - that excitement and challenge will now drive him inexorably forward, and that fate will blindly govern all.
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