|Vast: A Novel
Ch. XVI: A Fete
by Nicolas Travers ©
Colin sleeps late on Saturday morning, and wakes feeling pretty low, even though he has a date with Dorothy, and is a twitchy as a cat on hot tin roof. However Jane has no suspicion - she just thinks he has a bad hangover, and he does have one consolation in that he will be pretty much on his own, for Sarah has deftly avoided conscription. Jane will surely buzz about, and nobody could fault talking to a kitten.
However he needs a distraction, and picks up his Financial Times to check on Glotech. The group's shares are slightly better, up a couple of pence at four pounds in line with a general market improvement, and the group's long traded calls are priced at just fourteen pence apiece. This is most interesting news, and sets Colin thinking. He begins to play advanced financial mathematics, jotting busily on the newspaper's edge, and soon his sums are warming his heart as his calculations coalesce into a bright golden prospect of fortune. The numbers' potential is truly spell-binding: Glotech's grand will fund about six thousand long calls with a bob or two to spare, he will break even if the shares climb to four pounds sixty-five, double his money at four-eighty, and more than treble it at five pounds.
He mulls the numbers in his mind, impressing himself with his own brilliance, and transmutes himself into a top-flight financier. Can the Sultan push Glotech up by a fifth over eight months? Why not? Six pounds perhaps, and more than eight grand for Colin? Totally feasible. Could the shares climb even higher? The sky might well be the limit.
Now he daydreams in style, with Dorothy in mind, and they run together, hand-in-hand, into a new dawn, and she is wearing her sister's raincoat, and he is fashioning himself the stuff of a fairytale. But he is suddenly conscious of intruding music and voices, and the music and voices are radio sounds.
Colin twitches, and tumbles abruptly out of his daydream, and realises that he is listening to Sarah's radio, and that he can hear it quite clearly as a sound coming down the stairs. He springs to his stockinged feet in alarm. Sarah must be up, and her bedroom door must be open. He remembers patting hands, and has a sudden blinding, dreadful fear that she may be prowling, and exploring, and very possibly checking out the contents of his suit pockets, and his fear is a terror too horrible to contemplate.
He brushes past Jane, just as she is about to set a plateful of toast in front of him, and races up the stairs two at a time. His bedroom door is open, and the room is empty, but it is no assurance, and he races to his suit, neatly arranged on a hanger in the bedroom cupboard, and tugs at his wallet in an agony of alarm, to find that the wallet is fat, and well padded, and the thick wad of pinky brown banknotes smiles at him, and his anguish melts.
However fear has also - for one terror-stricken instant in time - chilled him to the bone in a most unpleasant warning. Colin, ever mindful of omens, responds immediately by tucking his wallet into the pocket of his winter overcoat, right at the back of the cupboard, and makes a mental note to move it somewhere really safe just as soon as he can.
Then he closes the cupboard door carefully, and turns to make his way back to breakfast.
But he is not alone. Sarah is standing on the landing, swathed in a misshapen T-shirt emblazoned with small teddybears that she uses as a nightshirt, and she is watching him curiously.
"What was all that about, Dad?" She has the look of a trufflehound conscious that it might have scented a delicacy, but not quite certain.
Colin scowls. For a quick moment he wonders whether he should dive back into the cupboard and move his wallet again, perhaps into a spare pair of shoes. But he knows that further action would only flag fear and hone his daughter's interest, and decides to counter-attack.
"Why are you making so much noise?"
Sarah looks startled. "Huh?"
"Your bloody radio. I told you last weekend to keep it down." Colin sees his daughter's surprise shade into alarm, and advances, making Sarah back into her room. "I heard it downstairs, quite clearly."
He can see that Sarah has been neatly wrong-footed, and advances on the offending stereo, all his fury at being disturbed in mid-breakfast, and his terror at a feared threat to his money, boiling to the surface.
Sarah retreats, turning her radio down with one hand, and holding him off with the other. "I'm sorry, Dad." She is genuinely contrite, and it is plain that she has forgotten Colin's rush to his cupboard.
His fury ebbs a little as they stand glowering at each other, and it is a stand-off.
Jane's voice interrupts. "Stop squabbling, you two." She is halfway up the stairs, holding a cup of coffee. "Sarah, keep that dratted thing quiet." She thrusts the coffee at her daughter. "And you." She glowers at Colin. "Come and have breakfast."
Breakfast is a sullen little meal. Colin munches toast, and pretends to read his FT, but he is still worrying about his wallet, and wondering whether he should return upstairs to seek a better hiding place. Jane has dismissed his silence as a sulk, and is busy juggling with complex table locations for the church fete. Sarah is locked in her room, listening to her stereo under her duvet.
Rain starts to fall, not heavily, but enough to shade the world a generalised grey. Jane listens for a moment, pushing her table locations aside in her mind, and gets up to stand by the kitchen window.
She sighs, and it is a gloomy sound, and Colin slides from top-flight financier into deep depression, because he knows from bitter experience that gloom will very probably hamstring Jane's sexual drive, regardless of promises. He begins to wonder glumly whether he really will enjoy coition by nightfall, or whether Saturday evening will rank as just another flop, and he is swept through by an overwhelming impulse to take his wallet, scrap his traded option plans, and tempt Dorothy into a mad weekend in Brighton or Bournemouth, or perhaps even Paris. But this temptation fragments even as it forms, shimmering for a mere instant in his psyche, for Dorothy might well laugh at him in his face, and call him a dirty old man, whilst successful seduction would surely bring dire retribution.
Jane sighs again, and thinks sadly of a rather smart summer dress she has bought for the fete, and feels the rain soak away all her public spirit. It is going to be an anoraks and wellingtons day, safe in a well worn blouse and skirt, and only dryness will triumph.
The rain patters down steadily, and she bites her lip in chagrin. But she has work to do, and she must first mobilise Colin, so she conjures up a brave smile.
"Come on." She holds out her hands. "Let's get moving."
Colin gets to his feet doubtfully.
Jane laughs despite herself. "Oh, come on, don't look like such a camel." She presses his hands. "You'll get your little bit tonight, whatever happens. A promise is a promise, and I won't let you down."
This is a brave thing to say, for she feels anything but promising. But she consoles herself with the thought that men are not really hard to satisfy, and can always be rushed, and determines to get on.
The door to the parish church hall is already open as the Vasts arrive in a Renault loaded to the brim with treasures of all descriptions, and John Saintly, the vicar, and his wife Moira are busy setting up tables.
Saintly is tall and gangling, with eyes permanently focussed on higher and better things a litle way above the foreheads of whomsoever he addresses, with tufts of wiry hair fringing a polished circle of baldness. He is in his shirtsleeves, his neck scrawny above his clerical collar. Moira Saintly is a stout woman of medium height, swathed in a baggy pullover and a pair of trousers that woefully exaggerate her rump.
They both wave cheerily, and commiserate about the weather. Then the two women go off together, and spend some time manoeuvering tables in a kind of aisle to the side of the hall, half hidden by a pair of pillars, whilst the vicar helps Colin unload the Renault, and comments admiringly as it emits a succession of boxes crammed with unwanted clothes and assorted Vast household debris.
The two women return, giggling conspiratorially.
"We're putting Colin in the corner, dear." Moira beams brightly, first at her husband, and then at Colin. She makes her words sound significant, and Colin wonders whether he is being promoted or condemned.
"You'll have most of the aisle to yourself, dear." Jane coos in descant.
Both men wait.
"Well, Angela Scolding and Felicity Savage have commandeered the best table, so we're giving Colin extra space to make up for it." Moira Saintly speaks with the pride of inspiration, though a smile lurking at the corners of Jane's mouth suggests some successful lobbying.
Colin and John Saintly ferry boxes into the aisle, and Jane begins to build. More boxes arrive from the vicarage, including two packed with long-playing records, together with trays laden with various cakes, and an elderly woman hurries in with a bag filled with costume jewelry, and hurries off again.
Other parishioners arrive, scattering hearty greetings, and Colin finds himself swept up in a cosy togetherness of stallholders helping each other manoeuvre tricky burdens, admiring fellow handiwork, and speculating on weather portents. Cups of tea are distributed, each accompanied by two digestive biscuits, and men and women gossip together in little groups.
The space between the pillars behind the Vasts' table fills with a pair of school blackboard easels hung with swathes of chintzes and curtain material, creating a kind of enclosing wall, and Jane settles Colin comfortably into a folding chair thoughtfully provided for the occasion.
He is snug, and secluded, in his own little shop, and he begins to feels in a very much better mood. Now the world can come and call on him, and nobody will be much the wiser.
Lunch arrives as a salad, brought by Sarah in tow on a token visit. She inspects her father with the triumph of a successful fugitive, but it is plain that she has kept her fingers out of his pockets, or at least not struck gold, and he smiles at her with magnanimity, for triumphs can sometimes be sweetest when most secret.
Opening time approaches, and Moira Saintly and Jane make the rounds of the stalls, checking that each has a float of small change and that all is neat and shipshape. Angela Scolding and Felicity Savage preen themselves as they pass, but Jane pretends not to notice, for hope is now building, and a kind of suppressed excitement fills the air. It is still raining a little, but patches of blue sky have begun to show through, and a small queue is forming at the church hall door.
The doors open on the dot of two o'clock, and a wave of treasure-hunters swamps the hall. Colin finds himself besieged by a sea of hands holding discarded Vast possessions and tendering money, and he is transformed into a bazaar merchant, valuing, bargaining, and haggling in a whirl of banknotes and small change. Jane appears at his side, packing a quick-fire sequence of breakables into plastic bags, and the table in front of them rapidly empties, for all the world as though attacked by a swarm of acquisitive locusts.
It is an alarming, and an exhilarating experience, and the last lingering fragments of Colin's hangover quite melt away. The locusts move on, and he sits again to relax, and realises that a man in a beige jacket and brown trilby hat is half-kneeling in front of the two boxes of records, looking up at him with a slight smile.
Colin stares, and swallows in disbelief. It is his carboot saviour and fellow Belvedere luncher.
The man holds up a record enquiringly.
Colin looks around, but Jane has gone.
"I was told to charge fifty pence a time." He pauses, feeling that a debt of gratitude must merit special treatment. "But I think I owe you for a good turn."
The man's smile widens, but he does not reply, and starts to pull records from the box until he has a fair-sized pile at his side. Then he takes each by the edge from its sleeve, holds it up carefully against the light, and repacks it carefully. It takes him a little time to work through his pile, discarding an odd record here and there, before he counts them.
"I've got fifty, mostly classical."
His voice is low, and Colin has to crane forward to hear him. He wonders what value he should place on gratitude, and what value might be expected.
They stare at each other for a moment, and the man plays with the records, still half kneeling, running his fingers up and down the edges of the sleeves.
Colin makes a gesture of invitation. "Make me an offer."
The man shakes his head, and it is a game that they are playing together.
"Okay." He tries to sound firm, and determined. "Fifty should be twenty-five quid."
"But you think you owe me a debt of gratitude."
It is an impasse. Colin tries again.
"Shall I halve that?"
The man's eyes gleam. "And again."
Colin yelps, and does some rapid calculations, and has a feeling that he is being sadly outmanoeuvred. "But that's only six pounds twenty-five."
The man beams. "Call it a fiver."
"A fiver?" Colin is aghast.
The man holds out a crumpled banknote. "I saved your pride."
Colin takes the money, and tucks it into a tin that Jane has provided as a cashbox as the man stands. He seems to be assessing Colin in some way, and Colin fidgets uncomfortably.
"Show me your right hand." Now the man is staring hard at Colin, and his words are as much an order as a request.
Colin stares back at him in bewilderment, and raises his hand slowly, palm outwards.
The man inspects it for a long moment, and seems pleased with what he sees. "You've got money coming, a lot of money." He grins, and now it is a much stranger game. "You're going to do well, and somebody with bright eyes has you in her sights." Then he pauses, and frowns. "But be careful, you are also going to find your neck on a block."
He turns, tucking his records neatly under his arm, and is gone before Colin can fully take in his words.
Colin is not a superstitious man, but the encounter is an astonishment, and a shock, and his mind swirls in a daze. He takes the man's fiver out of the tin to stare at it, holding it up as though it might carry some secret message in a very special watermark, and for a moment he is lost. A shape swims in front of him, and he is dimly conscious that somebody has stopped at his table, but he ignores it, busy chasing a daydream.
The newcomer does not move, and seems to be waiting. Colin reluctantly returns to a world of reality, and looks up, to see Dorothy facing him, dressed in her sister's silver satin raincoat, and it is as though a fantasy has materialised into flesh and blood and come to him.
"I promised to come and see you." Dorothy is smiling, but her voice is a little uncertain. She has some knowledge of boys, but this is the first time she has ever courted a man, and the word itself fills her with alarm as it forms in her mind. Yet she judges, from the stricken look on Colin's face, that her plan has created a major impact, and that she is very close to victory.
Colin swallows. His throat is too dry to speak, and he is unsure whether he is being swept up in a wave of terror or elation.
"I better not hang about, I passed your missus a moment ago." Now Dorothy is sure that she has scored a truly spectacular bullseye, and that she has Colin in the very palm of her hand.
"Yes." It is the only word he can manage, and it is a total gift of himself.
"I'll be up the back of the convent school at three o'clock tomorrow afternoon, by the back entrance, along Bolton Road, if you want to meet me. We can talk there." She smiles encouragingly: a certain outbuilding behind the convent is a trysting place bequeathed by Dorothy's first boyfriend, brother to a convent-educated girl, and very private.
Colin nods blindly. He knows that he is standing on the edge of a precipice, and that he risks crashing into an abyss, but he cannot refuse. He will meet her, and he will be bidden, whatever command she seeks to enforce, and his fate will be in her hands.
Dorothy slips away, and he is lost again in a reverie, and he does not hear Jane approach. She is bright with satisfaction, for the fete has gone well, though Angela Scolding and Felicity Savage have lost a diamond ring to a thief, and packed up and gone home early.
"Who was that dear, in the white swagger coat?" Jane does not really think that anyone else could take an interest in Colin, but it was a smart coat, and she needs to keep tabs on her husband if fortune is going to treat him well.
Colin looks at her, and can only see Dorothy, and shades his answer with deliberate vagueness. "Some girl, she wanted a collar for her pet cat." He throws his words away carelessly, fluent in his lying, even though his mind is in turmoil. But he is convincing in his untruthfulness, and Jane hurries off again, hailed by another stallholder.
He remains in a daze as he helps Jane clear up. It has stopped raining, and the afternoon is warm and clear. They pile the remnants of the stall into boxes and ferry them into a vicarage storeroom, where they will be stowed away, and Moira Saintly provides more tea and more digestive biscuits, whilst her husband counts the fete takings, piling coins in neat little rows.
Jane mistakes Colin's vagueness for exhaustion, and is contrite, for now she feels a little guilty that she has taken half his weekend. The vicar completes his count, and she grows solicitous.
"Let's go home." She smiles fondly. The church hall has been cleared and swept clean, and the other stallholders are in the final throes of congratulating each other on the splendid work they have done for the common good. It is time to relax.
"Sarah has gone to the cinema with some friends." She lowers her voice conspiratorially, and the knowledge that she can now dictate developments whets her libido. "We can go home, and you can have a little snooze." Her voice thickens, and her eyes darken with a rare excitement.
Colin lets himself be propelled. They drive home, and Jane beckons him into the house as though encouraging a lover, leading him up the stairs to their bedroom. But his mind is still filled with Dorothy, and she is a vision as he undresses Jane, taking her as a proxy for a daydream, and his fantasy merges into, and wholly supersedes, reality. He is careful, and gentle, seeing Dorothy's smile in Jane's eyes, and then they are entwined together, and he is taking his dream to completion, pressing on inexorably until Jane lets out a long moaning sigh of fulfillment, and he is driving himself hard to his own climax. But his fulfillment is also a disillusion: for his dream shatters as he descends from enchantment, to find himself lying at Jane's side, and Dorothy is only a dream.
To Be Continued...
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