by Janet Howson
three glasses of red wineLauren rolled the stem of her wine glass between her forefinger and thumb, watching the remains of the red wine slosh backwards and forwards. Her thoughts too were swinging from one side to the other, one direction one minute then a completely different direction the next minute. Which should she chose?
“Are you ready to address the guests, Lauren?” Her close friend and PA, Charmaine, was studying her watch. “If we leave it too long people will start to drift off home. I’ve set up a microphone on the table at the back of the room and the notes for your speech are in the drawer.” She looked at Lauren’s glass. “Do you want a refill? You’ve been playing around with that for at least an hour.”
“What?” Lauren became aware of her friend, “Oh yes, I mean no I had better not have another drink, I must keep a clear head and yes I am ready to do my talk.”
“Great, I will get everyone to their seats.” She disappeared in the crush of bodies, still intent on drinking as much free wine as they possibly could without looking indulgent.
Lauren navigated her way through an endless number of guests who wanted a “quick word” but at last took up her position at the table. She remained standing. She preferred to deliver a talk standing. There would be questions afterwards, then, she could make her escape. She had told her father she would be home by ten o clock, dependant on the traffic. She still called it home even though she had been living in her own house for about five years.
Once everyone realised Lauren was ready to talk the noise died down and she was able to begin. She cleared her throat adjusted the height of the microphone and began.
“Welcome everyone to the opening of the hundredth branch of Homelands Bespoke Estate Agency. It only seems like yesterday that we were gathered to witness the launch of the very first agency in London. Since then we have gone from strength to strength, all of which could not have been done without all your help and support. I would like to mention in particular my father, Len, who encouraged me from the outset and has always been there for me with his valuable advice, not to mention financial support……”
As the audience clapped this reference, Lauren thought back to her childhood when her father brought her up to believe she could achieve whatever she wanted as long as she was willing to work hard and shoulder the disappointments and let downs. Her mother had died young. She could hardly remember her. A tiny figure, slightly stooped, walking her around the hospital she was in, introducing her to the nursing staff. Then that miserable, cold, windy day at the crematorium. It was all in the past now. She had learnt to live without a mother and her father had never married again. She came back to the present and continued.
“So, this branch in Mayfair will operate from Monday and I have full confidence that the appointed staff, managed by Bill Leeman, (pause for another round of applause) will make a great success of it and…..”
The speech continued. Lauren had added a few jokes to lighten the evening up and it all seemed to be received well. She hadn’t had time to run though it again as she had been rehearsing her lines for Midsummer Night’s Dream her Amateur Drama Group’s next production, as the Dress Rehearsal was tomorrow. She was pleased she had got the part of Theseus, not too much to learn, and was enjoying the rehearsals, but the clash of the opening and the play schedule had been taxing and the discussion she knew she had to have with her father had been put off time and time again.
“So that is enough of me droning on, I am sure you all have better things to do with your evening, but thank you again for attending and I hope to see you again when we open further branches.” She raised her nearly empty glass. “Here’s to Homelands and everyone involved in its success.”
“Homelands,” a reciprocal raising of glasses ended the evening as people left their chairs and collected their belongings to make their way home by taxi, tube, train or bus.
Lauren found Charmaine. “I’m off now, got a taxi booked. Would you just tie up the loose ends here and I will see you tomorrow?”
“No problem, a very successful evening. Good luck with your father. I am sure he will be fine with it.” She smiled at Lauren, they had been friends for so long, there was very little she didn’t know about her.
“Thanks, I wish I had your confidence, I am picking Chris up on the way so we can talk to him together. They haven’t met yet.” Lauren gathered up her coat and bag and leaving everything else to her friend she made her way to the taxi.
Lauren had always been able to talk to her father about everything. He had been mother and father to her. He had listened to her problems at school, with her friendships, her fears her life. This was different though. Although her father was relatively liberal about most things, he was also very religious and she feared his reaction to her news.
The taxi arrived at Chris’s apartment. Lauren got out her phone and texted the word ‘Here’. A few minutes later Chris was in the taxi, next to Lauren, looking immaculate in a pale blue suit and white roll-neck jumper. She had taken special care over her hair and make-up, she looked stunning.
“Sorry I’m late, the store opening went on for ever. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m looking forward to meeting him, I feel I know him already the amount of times you mention him.” She gave Lauren’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “The worst that can happen is that he doesn’t like me and I would have to live with that.”
The taxi pulled in outside an impressive, Victorian detached house. Lauren made a mental note to try and persuade her father to downsize. He had always said the only way he would leave the five bedroomed house was if he had to go into a home. He did not want to be a burden to Lauren. He would not contemplate living with her, she would marry one day and have children. She paid the taxi and Chris followed her through the front garden with its immaculate lawn and carefully weeded borders.
“Dad,” she called as she pulled her key out of the lock putting it safely in a zipped pocket. “Where are you?”
“In the kitchen,” came the reply. “Just finishing off the dinner. I didn’t know what time you would get here so it’s very simple.”
Lauren knew what it would be, the same meal he always cooked if he had visitors, not that that was very often. She pushed the door open to reveal her father with a striped apron on stirring a Bolognese sauce. “Hallo, dad.” He put down the wooden spoon and wiped his hands on his apron, allowing Lauren to give him a hug. “You shouldn’t have gone to all the bother of cooking for us, we were going to take you out for a meal.”
Chris had remained in the hall, waiting until Lauren had greeted her father. She knew their relationship was very close and this made her nervous. How would he take it? A man of his age was very probably set in his ways and opinions.
“Chris, come and meet my rogue of a father, Len, doing his Gordan Ramsey impersonation.”
She took a deep breath and joined the other two. Suddenly aware that she should have brought flowers or a bottle of wine. She, like Lauren had assumed they were dining out.
“Hi,” she extended her hand, her nervous smile betraying her confident voice. “I have heard so much about you.”
“All good I hope.” Len shook her hand firmly. “However, I don’t know much about you. Do you work for Lauren? There are so many names, I gave up trying to remember them all years ago, Chris is it?”
Chris noted the ‘working for’ not ‘working with’. Lauren’s father had immediately slotted her into an employee as opposed to an equal. She tried not to let it annoy her, retaining the smile that had now frozen on her lips.
“Yes, it is Chris, but no I don’t work with, Lauren. I own a shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea, I am an artist, or try to be, so I attempt to sell my paintings there.”
Len weighed this up. An accountant by profession he had never had much time for the art world. When his wife, Lauren’s mother was alive, she would often ask him to join her for an exhibition at the Royal Academy, The Tate Gallery or one of other numerous venues but he had always been able to excuse himself with the pressures of work or golf commitments. He was quite surprised his daughter had got friendly with an artist.
“Chris is a brilliant artist, dad, I will show you some of her work next time I see you. Anyway, let’s open the wine and start the meal.” She steered Chris round to the dining room where Len had laid the table and positioned the obviously expensive, crystal wine glasses.
“He doesn’t like me, I can see it in his eyes. I think I sunk my boat once I admitted to being a lowly artist.” She giggled, feeling like a naughty schoolgirl.
“Don’t be silly. He is like this with all my friends. He sees you as a threat to our close relationship. He still hasn’t recovered from me leaving home and buying my own place.” She gave Chris a reassuring hug before her father entered with the plates of spaghetti. “That looks great dad, I’ll pour the wine.”
Her father had always loved a glass of red wine. She had noticed that since she had left home he had increased his consumption; probably loneliness. She suddenly realised Chris had inadvertently sat in her father’s chair. She could see her father was unsure where to sit, his brow creased, he suddenly looked very old.
“Dad, sit down here. Your food is getting cold.” She pulled a chair out for him, and reluctantly he sat down in the unfamiliar place at the table. He pushed the food around his plate, sipping his wine between mouthfuls.
“I’ve got the dress rehearsal for Midsummer Night’s Dream tomorrow, dad, then it all kicks off from Thursday night. We are doing three nights and a Saturday matinee, are you still coming on Saturday night? I’ve got you a ticket. You could sit with Chris. She is coming, then we will go on to the after- show party.” Lauren caught Chris’s eye and smiles at her. She was trying very hard to include her and to get her father to like her, before she broke the news to him.
“You’re not in the play then, Chris?”
Chris stooped eating and leaned back in the antique upholstered chair. She was still feeling out of her depth in this expensive house. However, she must make an effort for Lauren’s sake. “Oh no, I couldn’t stand on a stage and act. I have helped Lauren with the set design and costumes. I would like to become more involved in future productions if I am needed.” She took a sip of her wine and carried on eating.
Lauren glanced at her father. He seemed preoccupied and why wasn’t he eating? He usually had a good appetite. Had he guessed? Did he disapprove? She finished off her bolognaise. “That was lovely Dad. Compliments to the chef. Shall I get the ice cream out of the fridge to thaw off a bit?”
“The ice cream, dad, shall I get it out of the freezer?”
“Yes, you carry on, I’ll finish this and come and help you. Do you want any more Chris, got plenty left? I can’t eat as much as I used to. Yet another downside of getting old.”
“Oh no, that was lovely, but sufficient, thank you Len. I am leaving a space for dessert.”
Lauren left the two of them chatting, pleased they were at least communicating. After the ice cream she would suggest they took coffee into the sitting room. Then she would break the news to her father. She felt butterflies in her stomach and silently told herself not to be so silly. Still seeking her father’s approval at her age? How ridiculous.
The rest of the meal passed amicably with her father telling anecdotes of Lauren in various past productions and she was pleased to see Chris relaxing and laughing at the appropriate moments. She couldn’t relax though, not until her father had been told.
“Okay,” Lauren stood up and started to clear the ice cream dishes away. “Let’s retire to the sitting room with a cup of coffee. It is much comfier in there. Chris and her father stood up and she went into the kitchen to sort out the drinks. “Anyone for a brandy?”
“I won’t, Lauren, just a black coffee,” Chris replied, “what about you, Len?”
“Just a small one, Lauren.”
Lauren reappeared carrying the tray of drinks, placing them with care on her father’s mahogany coffee table. She found three mats and positioned them on the table.
“Oh, the milk, I always forget you take your coffee white, dad. I won’t be a minute.”
Lauren returned to the kitchen and found the full fat milk her father always bought. ‘None of that semi skimmed or skimmed rubbish in my house,’ he always said. ‘Milk comes out of the cow with cream in it and in this house it stays put.’ Lauren laughed to herself as she poured it into a small jug.
A loud crash and a stifled scream from Chris brought Lauren back to the present. Leaving the milk she ran into the sitting room. Chris was bending over the collapsed form of her father who had fallen awkwardly over the coffee table. The coffee had spilled all over the table and the Axminster carpet.
“He said he was going to the toilet, got up and the next thing I knew he had collapsed. Is he all right?”
Chris looked frightened.
“Dad, can you hear me?” She shook him gently but there was no response. “Let’s get him off the table at least, I don’t think we will be able to get him onto the settee but at least we can lie him on the floor.” Lauren put her hands under her father’s arms and with Chris’s help she manoeuvred him into foetal position on the floor. She felt panic welling up in her stomach. Why was he not responding? This couldn’t be happening.
“Dad, can you hear me? Speak to me.”
“I will ring for an ambulance. I think we need to get your father to hospital, Lauren.” Chris pulled her phone out of her bag and went outside for a better signal leaving Lauren with her father.
Lauren, sat down on the floor then lay beside her father’s inert body cradling his head with her arms. As she lay there she thought. She still hadn't told the only man she had loved that she and Chris were intending to get married. Then unexplainably and perhaps inappropriately another thought ran through her shocked brain. She wouldn't be able to make the dress rehearsal tomorrow, what would Shirley say?
Links to previous episodeshttps://cafelitcreativecafe.blogspot.com/2019/11/episode-one-shirley-finch.html