Earl Grey tea (because it goes well with fruitcake)
Mary Wilson dragged a comb through her ginger hair and pulled until the curls surrendered allowing it to reach her shoulders. But when the teeth finally slipped free of the tangles, the hair sprang back to her ears in corkscrew curls. She frowned at her reflection in the mirror. Tight, ginger curls. There was nothing wrong with curly, ginger hair of course. Come the day when she moved to a deserted island and established MaryWorld, curly, ginger hair would be compulsory. It was just unfortunate that at the moment, no one lived in MaryWorld except her. There were lots of facts and truths in MaryWorld that didn’t get much credence elsewhere. Or, as Mary’s mother put it, “You’re a one off, dear. Completely out of step with the rest of the world. Always been a little madam, haven’t you?”
And that wasn’t all Mary’s mother had to say about her daughter. Take that morning at breakfast, for example.
“If you don’t get a move on and find a husband soon ̶ “
“Yes, I know, Mother, I’ll be left on the shelf ̶ ”
“On the shelf? You’ll be lucky to get as far as the shelf. You’ll be packed away in some cupboard somewhere with all the rejected ̶ “
“Yes, thank you, Mother.”
“Although…” Mrs. Wilson slid a newspaper cutting across the breakfast table, “you might rescue things at the eleventh hour. Speed-dating is the new way to meet a man.”
“It’s hardly the eleventh hour, Mother! I’m forty-two.”
“Exactly, I rest my case. Forty-two! I was eighteen when I married.”
“Yes but you didn’t even like Dad.”
“What’s that got to do with the price of fish, eh? At least I wasn’t on the shelf at forty-two.”
“Neither am I apparently. I’m in the reject cupboard.”
“Don’t be facetious.” Mrs. Wilson tapped the advert… again and again and again.
“Oh all right!” Mary snatched the clipping from the staccato beat of the yellow fingernail.
And that was how she met Derek Carruthers. Not that she’d liked him at first. She might have given in to her mother over the speed-dating evening but she wasn’t going to miss the last bus home because of it. Derek had been her last partner and he hadn’t made a promising start, remarking that he disliked ginger-haired women. Well, she hadn’t liked the look of him either. He had strands of grey hair combed over his bald head like strings on a strangely shaped musical instrument and a florid complexion that she later discovered was caused by his tie being pushed up to conceal the fact that his shirt collar was open because it was too small. Sartorially elegant, he was not. But that was good because Mother would hate his clothes sense and that might be enough to persuade her that Mary should stop seeing him. And then she’d have breathing space until Mother once again remembered Mary wasn’t married. But she was getting ahead of herself. They’d only been on one date – if you could call it that. She had called it that when telling Mother about it, although it was unlikely that Derek would have seen it as such. While they’d ridden on the last bus back to Basilwade together after the speed-dating event, he’d mentioned that she’d reminded him he needed mouthwash and that the cheapest place to buy some – should she feel the need – and he thoroughly recommended that she did – was Asco’s supermarket. Aware that Mother would be critical if she didn’t have any positive news from the speed-dating, Mary announced at breakfast that she was going on a date and had then spent most of the following morning prowling the aisles of Asco’s in case Derek should appear. She was just about to give up and go home when he rounded the corner, pushing a trolley.
“I’m just buying mouthwash,” she said casually and after that, one thing led to another and they found themselves in the Asco coffee shop.
He’d invited her out for a stroll through Basilwade on Saturday evening and he’d even bought her a bag of chips. Not that she liked chips but she was quite peckish after their walk and it didn’t look like Derek was going to take her to dinner.
She was torn. Derek was definitely not the man of her dreams – there were no men in her dreams, indeed none at all in MaryWorld – but in order to keep Mother off her back, she needed to show she was trying.
“… so if you care to come round on Sunday, for tea, you can meet my mother…”
“Well, I live with her, so if you come round for tea, you’re bound to bump into her.”
“I see. Well yes, all right then. How long will it take? The Grand Prix is on at half past seven and I never miss it.”
“If you leave at five, I’m sure you’ll get home in time.”
Now, how to introduce Derek to her mother? ‘Boyfriend’ was a ridiculous term. Derek had not been a boy for a long time. If ever. ‘Manfriend’ sounded just as silly. She’d overheard her next door neighbour’s teenage daughter at the bus stop the other day talking about her latest, and she’d used a term… now what was it? She must try to remember. It would be good to sound modern but casual. Slightly committed but not too committed. Yes, she definitely had to establish who Derek was before Mother started calling him her intended or fiancé.
Mary had anticipated that Derek would arrive early, so the table was laid and they were already seated when her mother came into the dining room.
“Derek Carruthers,” said Derek standing up and holding out his hand, “and you must be Mrs. Wilson.”
“How d’you do, Derek…” She fixed him with a steely stare, “So, you’re the man on benefits.”
“I don’t believe so,” said Derek sitting down and taking the large slice of fruitcake that Mary offered him.
“Oh Mother! Derek isn’t on benefits.”
“But you said ̶ “
“I said he was my friend with benefits.”
Derek choked, spraying Mrs. Wilson with fruitcake crumbs.
“Well, what on earth does that mean? Benefits? What sort of benefits?” Mrs. Wilson asked, flicking fruit off the front of her blouse.
“Oh, Mother! Honestly, you’re so behind the times.”
“That’s as may be,” said Mrs. Wilson.
A piece of cake had gone down the wrong way and Derek was finding it hard to breathe. Mary slapped him hard in the middle of his back and with his airway free at last, he clawed at his collar, gasping for air.
“Well, I’m going to take Twinkle for a walk, I think I’ll leave you to it,” said Mrs. Wilson picking a half-chewed currant off her sleeve and dropping it on the plate. Whistling for Twinkle, she rose and left.
“Leave us to it? You mean?... What, here?” asked Derek, “Now?”
“Well, yes. Now’s as good a time as any.” Mary looked at the enormous cake she’d made that morning. Surely he wasn’t going to leave immediately? Mother was enough to intimidate anyone but if he was gone before she got back, it would be obvious the date hadn’t gone well. “Mother will be out for a while. It takes her about twenty minutes to go round the block,” she added, hoping he’d stay at least until she returned.
“Twenty minutes! Look, I’m all for saving time and I know I said I wanted to be gone by five o’clock but this has all been a bit of a shock. I’m sure once I get going it won’t take long but I might need a few minutes to summon my… well, to prepare myself… to build myself up, as it were…”
“Well… it. You know… the benefits.”
Mary didn’t know. The only benefit she required was that Derek remained in her life long enough to stop Mother criticising, and then to give her time to realise that her daughter was better off without him.
“More tea? Cake?” she asked weakly.
“Have we got time for tea and cake as well as… it?”
“Well, it’s up to you. How much time have you got to spare?”
He checked his watch. “Hmm. I’m not sure. Only eighteen minutes left until your mother gets back. Suppose she returns before we’ve finished?”
“Oh don’t worry about her,” said Mary looking at the large slab of cake. They definitely wouldn’t finish that before she got back. “Look, forget Mother. I know she can be critical but ̶ “
“Critical? Critical of what? You’re making it sound like she’s going to give us marks out of ten!” Derek mopped his forehead.
“Well, she can be a bit demanding but ̶ “
“You haven’t got a shot of whisky have you? Or two? I think I need help.”
“Mornin’.” Mrs. Fanshawe from next door rushed to her doorstep when she saw Mary walking down the garden path with Twinkle. “That was a lot of commotion in your house yesterday afternoon…”
“Yes.” Mary sighed, “Men are such strange creatures…”
“Oooh, I know. The late Mr. Fanshawe was very peculiar. Who was that man your mum had in a half-nelson? I almost felt sorry for him. Mind you, when she tipped him over the garden gate, he was off like a shot. Never seen anyone so bulky move so fast.”
“Yes, he definitely was a fast mover. Very fast indeed,” said Mary through clenched teeth.
“What! You mean? No! Don’t tell me he tried it on?”
“With you?” Mrs. Fanshawe asked incredulously.
“Yes! With me! I was just passing him another slice of fruitcake when he lunged.”
“Oooh I say. The beast! Lunged, you say?”
“Yes, lunged! His hands were everywhere. Even places I didn’t know I had. If mother hadn't come back when she did who knows what might have happened? Mind you in a way it's mother’s fault I was in that predicament. She was the one who convinced me to go speed-dating!”
“O-oh!” said Mrs. Fanshawe with sympathy “Well, why don't you try online dating? That's the way people meet up nowadays.”
“I’m not very confident with computers. I can just about manage to look up the bus timetable but I wouldn’t know how to do online dating.”
Mary looked thoughtful. “Err, You don’t think your Amy could help me, do you? She seems to be an Internet expert, she’s always got that phone inches from her nose.”
“Well, I could ask her but I don’t think she knows anything about dating apps.”
“Yes, I think she does. I was standing behind her at the bus stop the other day and she was telling her friend about someone she’d met online.”
“My Amy? No, I think you’re mistaken. She’s only sixteen. I’d know if she had a boyfriend.”
“Well, he wasn’t exactly a boyfriend. She said he was her friend with benefits… Mrs. Fanshawe? Are you all right? You seem rather overwrought…”
Mrs. Fanshawe was stomping up the path to the house. “Ameeee! You get yourself down here right now my girl! You’ve got some explaining to do!”
Despite Twinkle trying to drag her out for a walk, Mary crept back into the house. Every time she’d mentioned the phrase ‘friend with benefits’, the world had gone mad. She sat down at the computer and logged on.
Colour drained from her face as she read the definition. So, it was a euphemism for two people who were simply together so they could… Blood rushed back into her face, making her cheeks throb with embarrassment.
Come the day when she moved to a deserted island and established MaryWorld, dating would be banned, men would be banned, mothers would be banned and benefits of any description would be banned. And euphemisms would be banned too.
About the author
Dawn’s third book ‘Extraordinary’ will be published by Chapeltown in October 2017. She has stories published in various anthologies, including horror and speculative fiction, as well as romances in women's magazines. Dawn has written a play to commemorate World War One, which has been performed in England, Germany and France. www.dawnknox.com