|Vast: A Novel
Ch. XV: Tea Time
by Nicolas Travers ©
Colin sets off for home in an aggressively alcoholic mist, but driving with care, because he knows that he really should not be driving at all. The guard at the directors' entrance salutes, and he waves in gracious acknowledgement. The salute is a tribute: power is the preserve of the elect, and Glotech's financial director is probably by now wending his way on foot to the nearest bus stop.
Fortunately the mid-afternoon roads are less than busy, and he is back in Windsor in just under three-quarters of an hour. The cottage is empty, and he heats himself a cup of coffee, and feels suddenly bereft. It is Friday afternoon, and Baptiste has promised the cassette transcription for nine o'clock on Monday morning, and meanwhile he has a fistful of money, and he feels on top of the world, but there is nothing to do. Windsor newsagents sadly lack small boards covered with cards advertising welcoming women, and Valerie Sweetdreams is far, far away, and probably busy into the bargain. He also thinks of strolling down the road, on the off-chance that he might encounter a kitten. But he quickly drives the idea from his mind, for he knows that his libido is restless, and fears that euphoria might diminish his natural caution, and tempt him to do something rash, and he has no wish to spoil a brilliant day.
It begins to rain, and he thinks wistfully of Dorothy's sister, but then quickly pushes her out of his mind as well, and momentarily lusts after Jane, and the controlled and respectable passion of a marital bed, but imagination is no satisfaction in loneliness.
So he watches television for a while, until the legacy of the liquid side of his lunch finally takes over in his head, and then dozes fitfully.
The sound of a key in the front door and a babble of female voices wake him again. Colin opens a bleary eye, to see Sarah sweep into the room, followed by a second girl. Both of them are in school uniform, chattering about some school scandal.
"Do you know?" Sarah's voice is quick with excitement. "She went snitching to Miss Armstrong, just because Jenny ..." Her voice trails away as she sees her father sprawled in an armchair.
"She's a right cow ..." The second girl chimes in, and as quickly breaks off, and both girls stand looking down at him uncertainly.
Colin endeavours to smile, but his head is painfully thick.
"Hello, Dad." Sarah shifts awkwardly from one foot to the the other. "Are you all right?"
She can see that Colin is a pinky grey colour, and she is instantly concerned about her forthcoming seaside trip. Sick fathers are not good news when girls need to bolster their resources, and Sarah knows that two of her travelling companions with prosperous and doting fathers have already equipped themselves with smart new anoraks, creating a tricky fashion problem.
Colin yawns cavernously. "I finished early." He wonders whether he can appeal to Sarah's better nature to make him a cup of strong black coffee, but then decides against it. Fathers who beg rank almost as low as fathers who are refused.
"Oh, didn't you go to see some big cheese?" Sarah takes a second look at her father and decides that he is under the weather, rather than ailing. She turns to her companion, still uncertain behind her. "Dad's started interviewing big businessmen and writing articles about them."
The second girl grunts neutrally: other girls' fathers are none of her concern.
Colin yawns again, and begins to struggle to his feet. "Coffee, I need coffee."
He means his request to be humourous, but Sarah and her companion both hear a clear warning signal, and Sarah quickly pushes the second girl towards the door. "We'll be upstairs, Dad, in my room."
A flurry of swirling dark blue school skirts, and they are gone.
Colin makes himself coffee, and feels painfully sorry for himself, and returns to his armchair. A fresh key rattles in the door, and Jane bustles into the room.
"Oh, hello, darling." She inspects him quickly, and sniffs, and the sound is disapproving. "They obviously gave you a good lunch." Her words are both judgment and condemnation: she is standing in the middle of the drawingroom, and her body language makes it clear that she is in mid rush from one task to another. "How did it go?"
Colin wants to look triumphant, but it is too painful. He settles for a tortured smile. "It was a breeze."
"Oh, good, I'm so glad." Jane essays a quick smile of approbation. "No problems at all?" Now she is positively fidgeting.
Colin thinks of the envelope filled with fifty-pound notes, and decides to keep his own counsel. "Wicked." It is a word he has picked up from Sarah, as an expression of supremacy in all things. "They've even offered to transcribe my cassette for me, and get it to Queensway first thing Monday."
Jane pricks up her ears - Colin has said nothing about the fete, but she has worried that transcription might deprive her of a helper, and compel her to try mobilising a recalcitrant Sarah. "You mean you can still help me run a stall tomorrow?"
Colin beams, because Dorothy will be bringing Prince to see him. But then his beam fades, because Jane has sharp eyes, and Dorothy might be hard to explain. The fete could prove risky, and this thought, coupled with his hangover, etches harsh lines into his brow.
Jane is now desperate to move on, but the woebegone look on his face makes her burst into laughter. She pats his arm comfortingly. "Don't look so miserable. You'll enjoy yourself." She smiles encouragingly. "Once the first rush is over I'll walk around, and you'll be able to make eyes at all the pretty girls on your own."
Colin swallows hard and closes his eyes, fearful that she may scent how close she is to the truth, but she is already on her way into the kitchen.
Sympathy, or more probably a desire to get him back on his feet and moving, then brings him a cup of strong black coffee, and Jane summons him for a briefing whilst she makes high tea for Sarah and her friend.
"We're all meeting tonight at the church hall, to sort out a table plan and tie up last minute details." She talks as she heats burgers and baked beans and toasts slices of bread. "Moira Saintly and I will be running it together, and it looks as if it might well rain, so we'll have it inside. We better take everything over there about eleven tomorrow morning: I've been busy clearing out Sarah's cupboards, and Moira's got various people making cakes, and we've got a dear old pensioner from Clewer Hill with a bit of fake jewelry."
Colin is lost. "Just three stalls?"
"No, silly." Jane laughs playfully. "That'll all be on your stall, our stall." Her correction is very quick. "We've also got about a dozen other members with stalls of their own."
Colin still suspects that the Church Guild fete will be small, and amateurish, and wonders again how he will be able to talk to Dorothy without attracting the attention of every inquisitive pair of eyes in the hall, and suddenly has very cold feet. But it is too late to back out.
"Don't be silly, dear." Jane deftly quashes his attempt at rebellion as she sets the pair of high teas out on two small trays. "Everyone has to chip in on things like this, it's part of our social duty. The Guild expects us to help give a lead."
Unfortunately however, whilst Jane is speaking, other Church Guild members are formulating quite different plans. Angela Scolding is having tea with Felicity Savage, and both share a deep conviction that Jane Vast has recently been getting a touch too big for her boots.
"I saw her having coffee at Fenwicks with Moira Saintly." Mrs. Savage, a thin spiteful widow with her hair wound up in a tight bun, bites into a generous slice of seedcake with quite alarming ferocity. It is a nice cake, but she values it less than she might, having been forced to take it as a second best choice at the Hospice fete a couple of weeks earlier after watching Jane Vast walk off with a prized bakewell tart. "Moira's so easily taken in, she doesn't realise what's going on."
"They both are." Mrs. Scolding toys with a cucumber sandwich - she has a weight problem, and would dearly like to control it. "The Vicar's too good for this parish, he just doesn't know the depths to which people can sink."
Mrs. Savage scents a tidbit of gossip in the offing, and stuffs the rest of her cake into her mouth. She is a spiky sort of woman, fond of severe browns and greys, with a sitting room to match. "It's all this sex on television." She hisses her words in her sibilance.
"Middle-aged men running after little girls." Mrs. Scolding swallows the sandwich, realises that her fingers are stretching out towards a companion, and with enormous strength of character, wills the offending digits into retreat.
Mrs. Savage pushes the plate of cucumber sandwiches gently towards her companion. "Oh, please, dear, do have one. Cucumber really doesn't have any calories at all." She knows Angela Scolding's weaknesses, and her fondness for simultaneously feeding and talking.
"I'm not sure, Felicity, that I should." But Mrs. Scolding's fingers close on another sandwich as she speaks, and she inspects the bread and butter and cucumber with surprise as she prepares to pop it into her mouth. "Well, anyway, as I was saying, he's running after the younger of the two Sorrow girls." She rolls her eyes: it is a juicy little scandal to propagate.
"Who? John Saintly?" Mrs. Savage's mouth is open wide with astonishment, and small cake crumbs decorate her lower lip. Nobody has ever before accused the vicar of any wrongdoing. Dullness, perhaps, but never immorality.
"No, dear, Jane Vast's husband." Mrs. Scolding chews comfortably for a moment. "I saw him following those two girls out of the churchyard, and they were walking very close together."
Mrs. Savage is doubtful. Angela Scolding has mistaken ducks for geese before. "Maybe they just happened to be there at the same time."
"It was raining, dear, rather hard."
"Oh." Mrs. Savage's eyes are as round as small saucers. "D'you think he was up to no good?"
"Sure of it." Mrs. Scolding eyes the last cucumber sandwich longingly, but she is a strong-willed woman, and knows how to control herself. "I caught them talking together, the day we had the Guild meeting at his house, they were in the street outside."
"What, Mr. Vast and that girl?" Mrs. Savage's voice climbs in delicious horror.
"The very same."
"Poor Jane." Mrs. Savage's voice is now pitched rather closer to bile than sympathy. "Do you think she knows?"
"Doubt it." Mrs. Scolding is a stout woman, with a generous appetite to feed, and just one sandwich is really a temptation. She debates within herself, and it is a hard battle, but in the end she decides to be tidy, and snaps the sandwich up. "She's not a very bright sort of woman."
"But pushy." Now bile ousts sympathy completely.
"Much too pushy."
The two women nod their heads in agreement, and are both silent for a moment. Mrs. Savage waits: she knows that her friend is not a woman to leave loose ends lying untidily about, and she is sure that Angela Scolding must have a plan. "Will you tell her?"
"I tried to warn her once, but she wouldn't have it." Mrs. Scolding spreads her hands wide with the gesture of a good woman wronged.
"Someone should tell her." Now Mrs. Savage is egging her on. "She has a right to know. Maybe you could have a quiet word with Moira."
"Moira's too kind-hearted." Mrs. Scolding's voice is thoughtful, and Mrs. Savage is content, for now she knows for certain that a plan is on its way. "I'd have to have more proof."
"We could watch them together."
"Taking turns?" Mrs. Scolding smiles slowly. She has baited a little hook, and it appears to have caught nicely. "We could watch the churchyard."
"In the evenings, before it gets dark."
"Starting on Sunday, before evensong."
The two women smile at each other, and it is settled. Jane Vast and her husband have sowed, and vengeance will reap, and strike a firm blow for propriety and justice, and force the Vasts to sup of the fruits of their harvest, even if it brings a sad reckoning. For virtue is proven by practice, wrongdoing must be seared from society, and pushy little social climbers and their grubby husbands must be trampled under foot forever.
Meanwhile Colin sips his coffee, and feels his head clear a little, and his libido starts to grow ever more demanding. Jane returns to the Vast drawingroom, having delivered her high teas, and he eyes her speculatively, for he begins to think that he really ought to seek some reward for playing helper at a fete. But Sarah is upstairs, and hope must be built around a carefully planned deferral. So he decides to be charming, and smiles in a winning way. But Jane is wary, and has her mind on the church hall.
"No, dear, you can stop making sheep's eyes at me." She speaks kindly, because she wants to keep Colin in a good temper, but her tone is quite definite. She is trying to work out a draughty placing for Angela Scolding and her friend Felicity Savage, who will be manning the parish bric-a-brac stall, and is minded to locate them between books and plants, with their backs to a window.
She glances at her watch. Time is beginning to move on, and she still has a husband to feed. A bright idea crosses her mind, and she looks up, to see Colin still watching her, for he has still not completely lost hope. His expression is really quite wobegone, and she laughs despite herself.
"Oh, dear, poor hubby, you are in a bad way, aren't you?"
Her words are couched in a tone of sympathetic statement, rather than encouraging enquiry, but Colin's eyes still brighten immediately.
"No, dear." Jane shakes her head firmly. "There's no time, not now, anyway." She glances at her watch again. "I've got to make you an early supper, then I'm going over to the hall."
Colin rolls his eyes hopefully. But a sudden clatter on the stairs interrupts them, and Sarah's head appears around the door.
"Janet and I are just going over to her place, she's going to show me a new video."
More clatter and the front door closes. Colin now looks very hopeful indeed.
"No, dear." Jane's mind is still exploring the church hall. She remembers her bright idea. "Unless you want to cook your own supper - there's plenty of pasta."
Colin leaps to his feet with an expectant leer, and Jane has to raise her hands in front of her to prevent him pouncing. She frowns, in a warning to him to retreat.
"No, dear, not now."
Colin looks baffled.
"I'm not going to bed now." Her voice takes on a steely edge. "Sarah might come back unexpectedly."
Colin backs away, and she smiles again. "But we might, if you make your own supper, so that I can leave early, and sort out one or two points with Moira ahead of the meeting, and Sarah goes to bed at a decent time, go to bed early ourselves and celebrate you having such a good interview."
Colin realises that he has been neatly outmanoeuvred, and feels a strong urge to thump his wife, just as he has felt many, many strong urges to thump her on many, many previous occasions. But he is not a violent man, and his urge vanishes as fast as it has come, and he nods bleakly, because concessionary sex must be better than no sex at all.
"Good." Jane's smile is now triumphant. "I'll go and get ready."
Colin is left to make pasta on his own. It is a sad meal, even though he makes himself a rich bolognaise sauce, and washes the pasta down with two generous glasses of Waitrose Cotes du Rhone, for there is precious little to watch on the box, and it has begun to rain hard, and every sensible kitten for miles around must be curled up sheltered and warm. He reads for a while, and dozes, and rehearses a sexual expectation or two, but his expectations are really just sorry little dreams, and he dozes again.
Sarah comes home, and rattles out a blow by blow account of Janet's video, and vanishes again up to her room, and Colin brews himself a pot of coffee and essays just half a glass more of Cotes du Rhone, and waits.
Jane returns home well after nine. She slams the front door behind her, and Colin's heart drops, for it is a bad sound. She also stays in the hall to take off her raincoat, a sensible and sandy poplin of her own choosing, instead of coming straight into their drawingroom to greet him, and he knows, despite all his hopes and expectations, that bad tidings are on their way.
Jane's entry is all the confirmation he fears.
"Bloody woman." She throws herself into a chair. "Angela Scolding cosied up to Moira and grabbed the corner table, by the door."
Colin is silent. He knows his wife, and he knows that this is just an opening, an introduction.
Jane fumes silently for a moment, clutching and unclutching her hands, staring at the carpet. Then she looks up, and her lips are pressed tightly together. "She's a bloody shit."
Colin murmurs in sympathy. His hopes are ebbing fast, but there is still a chance, just a very slim thought, that Jane will dissolve into tears and seek a comforting shoulder.
"She and that Savage woman pestered Moira, until she gave in. They just nagged her ..."
Colin knows the vicar's wife vaguely. A dumpy, good-natured woman, ever charitable, ever willing to help souls in distress.
"That's her trouble. She's just much too kind." Jane echoes his thoughts. "They went up to her, and she agreed, and then they rubbed it under my nose, and there was nothing I could do about it."
Colin sighs. He is lost, and events are moving from bad to worse. He fetches the last of the Cotes du Rhone, and presents it sympathetically, in a last hope that a fond husband ready for a lengthy and detailed explanation may come to a reward.
Jane manages a wisp of a smile, and sips wanly. "It was the best table, just by the door." She sips again, and her temper seems to abate a little. "I wanted it for us, and I thought Moira had agreed. But they just went on and on at her, and she was too good-natured to refuse them." She swallows the rest of the wine, and it is a gesture of defiance.
Colin watches her covertly, hoping that his eyes will not betray him, but it is a vain hope.
Jane glances at him, and smiles wearily, and shakes her head. "No, dear. Not tonight, I'm too upset." She pauses, because she knows that Colin has worked himself up, and now, more than ever, she will need support at the Church Guild fete. She decides to throw him a bone, to keep him onside. "But we will tomorrow, I promise you. I'll get my own back on those two old crows, and then I'll feel better, and then we'll be able to have a really good cuddle."
She smiles, and Colin waves goodbye to his final slim hope, and wishes, in a sudden unreasoning gust of temper, that sometimes, just sometimes, he might have the brute nature to beat the living shits out of his wife. But he also quickly feels ashamed of himself, for he is not a violent, wife-beating man, and humiliation kills randiness in the most lecherous. So he bites his lip bravely, and goes into the kitchen to make two cups of bedtime cocoa.
To Be Continued...
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