"I said I would." My voice was muffled again. "Like now, breathing might have been temporarily difficult, but otherwise giving you what you wanted was easy, and I enjoyed it because you were."
Angela lifted her breasts from my head.
"Up you come," she ordered. "Sit beside me."
"John," Angela said, "We have two projects to work on together. Christmas at the old people's home is the easy one. Monica, the twins and her sister Mary are the other project. That will be more difficult but we have friends who can help. In the short term that means you, me and Simon. Longer term, Lady Agnes and our wider group of friends. Agreed?"
"Yes, Angela, but I'm afraid that Simon will have to end his involvement very soon. His priorities should be his wife and children. I'm not sure that a recovering wife will be that sympathetic if she finds out he's been helping Angela."
"You could be underestimating her. She must know what Simon is like."
"Perhaps, but if she's in pain, or worried...?"
"You might be right. She'll have to know, sometime. Simon shouldn't keep secrets from her, should he?"
"No. But there are situations when revealing a secret too early might be awkward. It would be better if Simon could tell his wife when Monica's problems have been solved and he can minimise the tale of his involvement. But I'm blathering longwinded nonsense. What I mean is -- not now."
Angela hugged me.
"I know what you mean. Simon ought to stop now. Or as soon as he can, before his help becomes an issue with his wife."
"The problem with that is Monica's landlord. Simon's early morning departures are keeping the landlord's sexual demands away. If Simon stops..."
"Then we need to move Monica and the twins. As soon as possible. Our best ally for that would be Lady Agnes. She might be at the home tomorrow morning. If I make an appointment with her, could you come too?"
"Of course. But wouldn't Lady Agnes want to see Monica too? Might that be awkward for her, as a magistrate?"
"We don't know until we have spoken to her. But tonight? I think we need to catch up on our sleep. I'm on duty tomorrow afternoon and evening."
My disappointment must have showed. Angela kissed me.
"We'll have plenty of time in the future for more than talking about Monica. But you and I haven't had enough sleep in the last twenty-four hours. Sunday will be a day of rest, and work for me. Sex can wait -- a little while..."
She kissed me again and eventually our kisses and cuddles ended at her flat's front door. Angela arranged to telephone me about ten o'clock tomorrow morning. She hoped that she would have made an appointment to see Lady Agnes by then.
Angela rang me Sunday morning exactly at ten o'clock. She couldn't talk for long because she's not supposed to make personal calls when working, but she said that she had explained 'everything' to Lady Agnes, and things were looking good. We had an appointment at six o'clock Monday evening in Lady Agnes' office. Could I meet for coffee at five thirty?
It would be a rush to get there from work, but I could just do it.
I decided that I would see what else I could do for Monica. I looked around my flat. I opened my store cupboards. They were stuffed with food, more in some categories than I would use in a month. I sorted out a large cardboard box full. As I was sorting, David arrived.
"John," he said. "You weren't at the pub last night, but the card school had a whip-round. We decided that the minimum we should give was the cost of a pint. Most gave more than that, and some got their parents to contribute as well."
"Thank you," I said, "and them. How much did you raise?"
"I didn't believe it until I counted it this morning. We donated thirty-two pounds eight shillings and fourpence."
"So much! That will make a difference to Monica and the twins. Thank you David."
"You'll take it to Monica? Today? We are concerned that she should stop worrying about money, at least. If necessary there'll be more next Saturday."
"Monica needs a permanent solution, David. Angela is trying to see if Lady Smith, sorry, Lady Agnes, can help. She has far more clout with the authorities than any of us. Monica needs to leave that flat as soon as she can."
"We know. If we knew of anywhere she could go..."
"But except for me in this rabbit hutch of a flat, you're all living with your parents, aren't you?"
"At the moment. Most of us are aiming to be independent, like you John, within the year. Helping Monica might delay some of us by a couple of weeks because we won't be able to save as much."
"Monica is a good cause, but I hope between all of us we can get a real solution soon. If Mary were free, and could take her twins back, Monica would be OK."
"But when, John?"
"That might depend on Lady Agnes. There's no one important in this town she doesn't know. If she helps..."
"That's a big if."
"It isn't. Angela has already told her all we know. We're seeing her tomorrow evening."
"OK, mate. One more thing." He handed me a carrier bag labelled with a chemist's name. "This is from my sister. It was a duplicate birthday present, from the bloke who is now her ex-boyfriend. She doesn't want it and can't give it back."
"Thank her, from Monica, please."
"Will do. I'll let myself out. Give our love," David emphasised the word 'love', "to Monica. She has many friends who want to help."
"I think you should give her your 'love' in person, David. You love her, don't you?"
"Yes," David whispered, "But I can't tell her now. She needs to be her own person again before I can think of her as more than a friend. Now is the wrong time."
"You're right. We'll make that time come, sooner if we can. Hang in there."
"I will, John. If there's anything more I can do for her, let me know."
"Yes, David, I will."
He left. I loaded the foodstuff and my vacuum cleaner into my Dad's car that I had borrowed for the morning. It wasn't far to Monica's flat but too far to carry all that stuff.
When I knocked on the door Monica looked better than she had done on Friday night or Saturday.
"Oh. It's you John. I thought it might be Simon, but it couldn't be. He's visiting his wife."
"I've brought you some things, mainly food items," I said pointing at the car, "and my vacuum cleaner. Could you take the twins for a walk while I do some cleaning?"
"Cleaning, John? Didn't you do enough of that on Saturday?"
"I only did the kitchen. I can't turn this grot-hole into a palace, but I could make it slightly safer for crawling twins..."
"They're asleep. Not for long. Could you unload quietly?"
It didn't take long to unload the car. Monica looked at the pile of food as if Christmas had come early.
"That lot is from me, spare food from my flat, Monica." I stopped, embarrassed about how to give her the money. "I'm not sure how... It's difficult..."
Monica kissed me on the cheek.
"Come on, John. We're friends, aren't we? That's what we decided yesterday. You are Angela's. What are you worried about?"
"Friends. Your other friends. They have..."
"My other friends?"
"Monica!" I blurted. "You don't know how many friends you have. I didn't know. I don't think you can have kissed ALL of them behind the bike sheds..."
Monica giggled. That was the first time I had seen the Monica I remembered.
"There were a few. Not a lot, but most of your card school kissed me."
"You must have made a real impression. They gave me this, to give to you, with their love."
I held out an envelope. Despite my care, the coins chinked.
"Money? I can't take money from you, John."
"It's not from me. It's from the other friends. David brought this for me to give to you..."
"David? He's sweet... But I can't..."
"Please, Monica? They want you to have it. They want you to stop worrying about money. You have enough on your plate without that. Please?"
I was really pleading with her. I couldn't take that money back.
"Sit down, John. Do you know you're shaking?"
"They want you to have it."
I sat down on a kitchen stool. Monica sat on another.
"OK. I'll take it. I don't want to, but I have to think of the twins. How much...?"
"Open it. Please?"
Monica opened the envelope. She poured out the coins. At first she didn't realise that there were banknotes as well. As the first one came out her face blanched. I had to jump up to stop her slumping off the stool in a faint as the full amount became visible.
"I have that many friends?"
"Yes, Monica. And more than that many. If you need more money, there will be more next week, and the week after, and after..."
Monica cried on my shoulder. This time she was shaking. Finally she picked up the money, took the two pounds eight shillings and fourpence and put thirty pounds back in the envelope. She looked at me, still worried.
"John," she said, "please look after this for me. I daren't leave it around in the flat. The landlord has a key and I know he's been in when I've taken the twins out. I don't want to walk around with that much money on me. I wouldn't feel safe."
She sealed the envelope and pushed it into my hand.
"Me? You trust me with it?"
"Of course I do. Even if you weren't my friend, John, you're an accountant, aren't you?"
"Technically not yet. An accountant I mean. You know I'm your friend, one of many. But although I have taken my finals, and the results have been announced, I haven't got my certificate yet."
"Exactly like an accountant, John," Monica smiled. "So precise. You've passed your exams. With merit. Yet you won't admit that you're an accountant -- yet!"
"How did you know that much?"
"David told me."
"David? When? I didn't think he spoke to you yesterday."
"He didn't. Not while you were here. He came back later that day bearing a food parcel, including coffee. Would you like a cup?"
"If you can spare it."
"Silly John! What do David's parents do?"
"Of course. They run a chain of coffee shops."
"And David brought a catering size pack of coffee. I'll make us some."
David's catering tin of coffee was enormous. It was excellent. While we sipped our coffee we talked about more normal things. I found out that the twin boys were nine months old and a handful. While Mary might have been able to cope with them, it had been a steep learning curve for Monica. The hardest part had been maintaining a turnover of nappies. The bathroom had several buckets filled with whatever is used to clean nappies. I had no idea how much work that was.
We did talk about money. Monica was up to date with the rent. She daren't let that slip, but the money we and Simon had given her on Saturday had meant that she was able to feed the gas and electricity meters and buy some essentials. My food parcel, and David's, would feed all three of them for a fortnight. With the change she already had, the two pounds eight shillings and fourpence would be a buffer until her next unemployment benefit payment. She wanted the thirty pounds to be her reserve for clothing the twins as they grew.
I said that I hoped we would be able to help Monica before the twins needed new clothes. Even if they did, we could visit church jumble sales...
Monica laughed outright. Her whole face brightened. This was the Monica I remembered, flashing through the tiredness and worry.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"The thought of the card school sorting through baby clothes at a jumble sale. They'd have to fight through the dedicated jumble-sale fanatics. The grannies would elbow them aside, dig them in the ribs with their umbrellas, tread on their toes..."
"Perhaps we could send our grannies to do it for us," I said.
"That might work better, John. But I still like the picture of you lads trying to get the bargains. Not that I need clothes for the twins yet. When Mary thrust the twins' buggy at me, all they had was the clothes they were wearing and a couple of spare nappies. I hired a taxi with the money I had in my purse and cleared everything necessary for the twins out of Mary's flat while the taxi driver looked after them. I had money then. I was in work. But I can't work and look after the twins."
"What work did you do, Monica?"
"I'm a hairdresser. Don't laugh. I know I got good exam results but I couldn't afford to go to university. I had been training as a hairdresser during school holidays. That was easy because as a trainee I was cheap. I thought that I could work as a hairdresser even when at university. But I liked the work, found the City and Guilds easy, and qualified. I was earning real money, better than I might have done with a degree..."
"And you could again, once Mary is sorted out."
"IF she is, John. It's still doubtful what the court will decide. But eventually she can have the twins back, and I can work. I could get out of this grotty hole, away from this fucking landlord and perhaps even start my own hairdresser's shop. But that's a far away dream. Now I'm stuck..."
"...with more friends than you thought you had all trying to help."
Monica's face crumpled. I opened my arms and she cried quietly against my shoulder. I remembered the carrier bag from David's sister.
"There's another item," I said as she stopped crying, "from David's sister Sophie. That carrier bag. I don't know what it is, but Sophie said it was an unwanted duplicate present from a now ex-boyfriend..."
"That must have been Jason. I tried to tell Sophie he was no good, but at the time she wouldn't listen to any advice about him. I'm not surprised. Jason sounds and looks good. He doesn't show his nasty side -- at first."
Monica opened the carrier bag. Inside was a parcel covered in 'Happy Birthday' paper. She unwrapped it carefully.
"I could re-use that," she said. "It's Mum's birthday soon."
Inside was a large pink gift pack. It looked like a starter set of cosmetics and personal care items.
"Wow!" Monica exclaimed. "That cost a lot. It was on offer months ago and sold out quickly. I had wanted one but couldn't justify it because I had many of the items in it. I haven't now. That bastard Tony smashed everything I had, because he thought they were Mary's. They weren't but I'd let Mary use mine after Tony had thrown all hers out. He thought she'd been spending his beer money on cosmetics."
"He's an arsehole." I said.
"He is. I wish Mary had never..." Monica started to say, "...that doesn't matter now. She needs protection from him, as do the twins. Please thank Sophie from me."
Monica lifted herself and kissed me on the forehead.
"That's for Sophie."
She kissed me again. "That's for David."
"I think he would prefer to get that in person," I protested.
"Then he'll have one, or two, or..."
"You like David, don't you?"
"Yes, John. I like David. I like you, too, but Angela has claimed you. Anyway I don't like you the same way I like David. You are a friend, a great friend, but there's no spark between us, is there?"
"No. Monica. I like you. If there was no one else, I'd like you as a partner for a dance, and evening or day out. I'd enjoy that, but it wouldn't lead anywhere, would it?"
"No, John. As a friend, you're great. I'd like to keep you as a friend."
"He might be a different proposition, John."
"I shouldn't tell you, but I know he would like to be more than a friend."
"Would he?" Monica looked wistful. "But not now, not while I'm in this mess. Our problems need solving first."
"He'll wait for you."
Monica suddenly hugged me.
"That's for David. Tell him I wanted to hug him, please?"
One of the twins started to burble in his cot. The other one joined in seconds later. Monica got them up, checked and changed nappies, and prepared baby food. I helped feed one of the twins. I had forgotten what messy eaters small children are. The twin, the high chair, the floor and I, were splattered with food. Monica laughed at my efforts to keep the food going into the mouth.
But the twins were enjoying having individual attention instead of sharing Monica.
"Well done, John," Monica said as we started to clean the twins and their surroundings. "For a beginner that was a great start."
"Thank you. You looked like an expert."
"I'm not. I have had to learn, fast. But the twins seem to be satisfied with my efforts."
She had one twin on each shoulder. One burped, both of them giggled. That was an attractive sound.
"How about that walk, John?"
"I was going to do the cleaning while you were out."
"Can you leave the vacuum cleaner? For a couple of days? I'd like to do some of my own cleaning. You showed me how much I'd let slip."
"We didn't mean to. We just wanted to help."
"And you and our friends have. The biggest help is that I know I'm not facing this alone. I was tired, depressed, lacking any motivation and I couldn't see beyond the next nappy. The cleaning, the food, the coffee, the money... I appreciate them. I'm grateful. But the love? That's amazing and means so much..."
Monica looked as if she was going to cry again. I kissed her on the forehead. One of the twins grabbed my hair. I couldn't pull away.
Monica turned her head and kissed me on the lips. I hadn't expected that.
"I wish we meant more to each other, John," she said before kissing me again, "but we don't. If David..."
"If I were David, I'd kiss you back." I interrupted. "But I'm not. Even if David were here, I doubt he would. He is very shy with women. You would need to be gentle with him, nearly as gentle as you are with the twins."
"Is David worth being gentle with?"
"That's for you to say. I like David. I think he will make someone a great husband, sometime, but his wife would have to be the strong one in the partnership, to support him, push him to be more assertive, but most of all to be there at his side, loving him."
"And you think I could?"
"You know you could. You are your own woman, strong enough to be whatever you want, certainly strong enough for David."
Monica kissed me again, harder.
"I'm no angel, John. I'm flattered that you think so much of me, but I have flaws..."
"I'm not flattering you. David doesn't need an angel. He needs someone who can see things as they are and deal with them. Someone who has the worldly-wise experience to compensate for his innocence."
"And you don't need that?"
"Me!" I laughed. "No. I can stand up for myself, and do."
"And Angela? What can she do for you?"
"Stand by my side fighting the world together and enjoying it."
"I can see myself getting jealous of Angela."
"Why? You don't need someone like me. You need someone to love, protect, support, someone who will love you without reservation. You and I would be constantly fighting to prove which was the boss."
The twin let go of my hair. That was a relief. I had been so close to Monica's lips and so tempted...
We carried the twins and their pushchair downstairs. In the weak winter sunshine we walked to the park, past the bench where Simon had shared his fish and chips with Monica, and on to the lake. I produced a few slices of old bread out of my coat pocket and fed the greedy ducks. The twins appreciated the flapping, splashing, scurrying birds.
After an hour we went back to Monica's flat. I had to return Dad's car. Once the twins and pushchair were back upstairs and the twins were playing on the still clean kitchen floor I turned to leave.
Monica grabbed me, turned me round and kissed me again and again. I couldn't help responding even as I felt guilty. I should be kissing Angela, not Monica.
"Don't worry, John," Monica said as we stopped. "Those kisses are an expression of my thanks to everyone, and the ones for you are for reminding me that I'm loved. By David."
She grinned wickedly.
"But I think you love me too. I'm more than just a 'friend', aren't I?"