I stared aghast at myself in the mirror and avoided asking the inevitable question. All the full-length mirrors at home were removed the day I turned fifty and standing in front of the dress shop’s very large one invited distress of the highest order.
Susan the sales assistant beamed. ‘You look wonderful, Mrs Avonlea,’ she lied, gazing at my reflection. She pirouetted on her long, slender legs around me, making me feel older than I actually was.
I posed. Turned this way and that. Swung round to look at my rear end.
Yes, your bum does look big in this.
‘Would madam like to try some nice shoes to accentuate her legs?’
Madam would like the legs she had in her twenties and thirties, not the stumpy things protruding out from beneath the hem of the dress she was cavorting in.
At least the dress hid the cellulite that dimpled her thighs.
Thank God for small mercies.
‘Yes, please,’ I said, trying to conjure the same enthusiasm my assistant oozed. I didn’t want to go to the blasted book launch anyway, but Joe insisted. The author would probably be some unknown wannabe he was trying to push into the limelight. And on my birthday too.
‘Here, these are gorgeous, and they complement the dress perfectly.’
I looked at the strapless wonders before me. Thin stiletto jobbies, at least six inches high. I slipped them on.
‘Super.’ Susan cheered, clapping her hands.
Super, my arse.
Then I saw him. Sitting on a red chaise longue, a newspaper opened in front of him, but at that precise moment his attention was all mine. Drawn by my over‑enthusiastic helper, no doubt. A huge grin covered his very handsome face. My heartbeat increased.
I need to sit down.
But I took a deep breath and calmed myself, of a fashion, and leaned in towards Susan. ‘Is that who I think it is?’ I whispered, feeling my face flush.
Please, no, not a hot flush. Not now.
I was quite desperate as he nodded his head toward me, smiling. Susan swung round.
No, don’t turn around.
And then she waved.
‘Ooh, Jack Castle. Yes, he comes here a lot with his wife. I didn’t know he was in town.’
‘Well, he obviously is.’
‘He must be here for a book launch or something.’
No. Joe would have told me if the launch had been for Jack. He knew how much I liked him – his books.
Hmm. It is my birthday.
No. He wouldn’t, would he?
Jack Castle was the hot new author of crime fiction. Joe introduced me to his debut novel “Pandemonium” a year ago and I couldn’t get enough of him, his writing. He’d just written the perfect sequel and promised more in the series.
Like all good crime writers, he had produced a very believable character in the guise of Detective Inspector Grace Gardner: Assertive, successful, exactly where she wanted to be and menopausal. An excellent way to win female fans. And clever.
I smiled briefly at him, my lips quivering.
Pull yourself together, Avonlea, you’re not a bloody schoolgirl.
‘I think I’ll come back,’ I said. I needed fresh air. If the hot flush refused to go then I would have to.
‘But, Mrs Avonlea, your husband gave me strict instructions not to let you leave until you had found something beautiful to wear for your birthday. He—’
I made a cutting throat gesture, and she stopped in mid flow.
I loved him, but he did irritate me sometimes. Even when he wasn’t around, he was.
‘I’ll come back with Joe. I’d rather he were here with me when I choose something.’ An excuse to get out. Joe rarely had anything to do with my wardrobe.
‘Susan, please, I need to go.’ The girl was almost making me beg.
I stared at the mirror longingly. Imagined Jack’s strong arms around me. Pictured him leaning in…
I felt the soft whistle rather than heard it. A gentle breeze just below my left ear. Jack Castle’s intake of breath and the sigh as he stole a large lungful of my very expensive perfume, brought more heat and colour to my cheeks.
‘You look stunning,’ he said.
We gazed at each other via the mirror, his blue eyes smiling. I saw Susan in my periphery, hands clutched tightly together. My ample midriff flashed me a wink. Then, quite unexpectedly, and to my utter surprise, he put his arms around my waist and said, ‘I love a well-rounded woman.’
I didn’t know whether to be insulted or over the moon. I decided on the latter. His expression told me he meant it.
‘Jack!’ A shrill woman’s voice broke the vision.
He straightened himself on the chaise longue, dropping his newspaper to his lap and looked up at a woman I guessed was his wife. A tall, slender beauty with long blonde tendrils reaching her waist. All twenty inches of it.
‘What about this one?’ she screeched, like a feral cat out on the prowl.
‘Yeah, fantastic, I love it.’ He sounded interested but his expression and body language exuded boredom. She rolled her eyes.
‘Please pay attention, darling. I’m doing this for you, after all.’
He stood, approached her, then put his arms around her waist and pulled her towards him. Susan and I let out breathless sighs. He kissed her neck. She smiled up at him, a hand ruffling his dark locks and making my heart lurch.
Joe and I used to be like that once.
I turned to the mirror and found my answer staring back at me. I stomped to the changing cubicle, almost breaking my neck in the high heels that I was now kicking off.
‘Please, Mrs Avonlea—’
‘I have to get out of here, Susan. I’ll come back with my husband.’
Reunited with my own clothes, I made my way towards the exit. Mrs Castle had departed to try on further items, no doubt, and her husband had resumed his reading. As I flounced past, he looked up.
‘I thought that dress looked really elegant on you,’ he said. ‘You should buy it. Give your husband something to think about when you come to my book launch on Saturday.’ He folded his newspaper and placed it on the chaise longue. Winked at me. ‘See you there, I hope.’
Maybe I should take his advice.
I turned and glided back to Susan.
‘Let’s have another look at that dress, shall we?’ I glanced over my shoulder and Jack Castle smiled at me.
I smiled back, wondering if Joe realised he’d given me Jack Castle as a birthday present. Probably not. We’d stopped communicating telepathically for a while now.
My mobile bellowed from my handbag. I rummaged in my bag and pulled the contraption out, stared at Joe’s face on the screen. A photograph taken in July just gone, salt and pepper hair, bright blue eyes, a roguish grin. We’d been on a cruise around the Mediterranean. My heart jolted in my chest.
What’s wrong with you, Ruth Avonlea?
‘Hello, Joe,’ I said, catching my breath.
‘Sweetheart, I’ve booked a couple of tickets for the ballet tonight, Swan Lake, thought you’d like it. We could have a meal afterwards. I hope it’ll make up for you having to spend your birthday at a book launch.’
Oh, my. I glanced in the mirror at Susan.
‘I don’t deserve you, Joe.’
He was losing his hearing, but I didn’t care. Not right then. ‘You know me too well.’
‘It starts at seven. See you at home. Love you.’
‘Bye. Love you too,’ I added, but he was gone.
And so too was Jack Castle.