Morag grabbed her purse and a coat from the rack by the door. She pushed her feet into the nearest pair of shoes and marched out from her flat into the grim reality of a damp and blustery night.
She seemed to remember there was a shop nearby that was always open. Not that she'd ever been in it. She didn’t need ‘convenience’ stores. She never ran out of anything, let alone food for Pier Gynt and Solveig. But the moment she had got home she had reached into the fridge and found every shelf empty. Not just of the cats’ dinner. Everything. No Caesar Salad, no yoghurt with bio-active enzymes, not even that bottle of 1982 Bordeaux Red. She couldn’t understand it.
Now standing within the grubby confines of Rani’s All-Nite Stores, rain dripping from her coat and forming puddles about her feet, she couldn’t begin to fathom what she’d come in for. She had been working too hard. That’s what it was. But at what exactly? She ran her own business she knew that much. But what exactly was it she did?
She wandered up and down the shelves. Bleach, soap, scouring pads. No that wasn’t it. Something for dinner. People were coming round. But who? The store with its cracked concrete floor and ‘Fine Wines for the Discerning Shopper,’ scrawled in black felt-tip on cardboard dangling at eye level appalled her. She hated dirt and disorder and loathed bad spelling. The place stank of earth and mouldy vegetables, but the cats were hungry. Cat food. That was it. Concentrate. She grabbed a large tin of something meaty and hurried to the checkout. Delving into her coat pocket out fell a grubby handkerchief screwed up with a five pound note. Where was her purse?
The man behind the counter accepted the note with a toothless smile. He wiped the dust from the top of the tin with his elbow and dropped it into a hideous canary-yellow carrier bag. No sooner had she stepped out onto the pavement than the handle broke and she found herself scrabbling in the gutter for the tin.
She was straightening up when a car screeched to a halt alongside her and the passenger door swung open.
She stared at him. She’d heard of kerb-crawlers but had never known they frequented this neighbourhood. Perhaps she ought to move. Thameside Villas was clearly no longer the best address in Maidenhead.
He spoke again. ‘Hurry up, Mo! Neil will be arriving any minute and you said everything would be ready in good time.’ He grinned. ‘Mind you, you said that on our wedding day and even then you were half an hour late.’
The man was clearly mad. And yet he seemed familiar, his face as comfortable and warming as these old boots she never knew she had. An image; a name floated into her mind and fluttered away again. She had vague recollections of standing on a bridge contemplating her future when a young man with hair the colour of rope came sculling downstream. He had looked up at her and grinned. Why had she remembered such an irrelevant detail? Then a silly thought struck her. Had she allowed herself to get to know him she might not be here now. She might even have become some dowdy housewife in the suburbs. She’d never have become Morag Melville, who ran her own…ran her own what?
Somehow she found herself climbing into the car. She noted the rust under the door-sill with distaste. The springs sagged. Tins of paint and unboxed cassettes rolled about at her feet plus something squishy she didn’t dare investigate. The car moved off with the roar and splutter of a clapped-out carburettor, the windscreen wipers wobbling in time to some tinny pop tune.
‘So what you got us, then? I’m starving.’
Unable to articulate any of the inchoate thoughts tumbling around her head, she plunged her arm into Mr Rani’s hideous yellow bag and fished out the tin. ‘Pheasant in a Rich Red Wine Sauce,’ she read aloud.
‘Bloody Hell!’ he laughed. ‘Can we afford it? Mind you, this girl Neil’s bringing might be the one and then we will be celebrating. The first of the kids to get off our hands. And the last. Can’t see any one ever wanting to marry Gail, can you?’
She smiled weakly.
The car splashed on through the greasy back-streets. A monotonous succession of street-lamps zoomed past, each one exploding like a yellow firework then falling away, marking a step further from everything she knew. The more lamps she counted, the more she had to force herself to hang onto reality. She had two cats, but what were their names? Something Norwegian. So why did the ridiculous name, Pussikins, keep rising to the surface of her mind?
‘Go away,’ she muttered to the silly name. It slunk back into the shadows and stared at her balefully through narrowed eyes.
‘First sign of madness, you know.’
‘Talking to yourself.’
That was it. She was going mad.
The windscreen wipers rocked. Her head reeled. The music rolled. ‘Do I know this tune? It’s awfully familiar.’ The man grinned but said nothing. She wanted to hit him.
They came to a roundabout and he slowed down. Here the street-lamps changed from sodium yellow which distorted everything in their glow to a more realistic white. This was her first chance to examine him properly. He was about the same age as her, about forty, reasonably slim, but with the beginnings of a paunch. He had probably been handsome once and although he wasn’t by any means bald, his hair line was creeping away from his forehead. She imagined that it was once the texture and colour of rope, the sort you tie up boats with.........
She must have gasped. The man turned. Concerned. ‘You Okay?’
She swallowed and nodded, but she wasn’t. She could remember running her fingers through such hair. When? It was a long time ago. He was young. She was young. They were lying together looking up at a blue sky peeping through a canopy of overlapping leaves, golden-tipped with sunlight. She was happy. She loved him. She knew his name.
‘Tim Frazer!’ she cried out.
‘Now what have I done?’
‘Nothing.’ She tucked her head inside her raincoat and the journey continued in silence.
They were driving along a suburban road of identical Tudor-gabled houses. He signalled too late, braked too late and swung left almost colliding with a pair of battered gates. He may have missed this time, but judging from the rusting dents that pock-marked the posts, he wasn’t always as successful.
A light flashed on from behind the glass-paned front door. A teenage girl emerged. On her feet a pair of lop-eared rabbit slippers; on her face, the obligatory teenage scowl. ‘What took you so long? Neil’s phoned. Said they’ll be here in ten minutes. Pussikins is being a right pain. There’s no crisps and I’m starving. Honestly, Mum! How could you forget to go shopping? You must be going senile.’
‘Don’t speak to your mother like that! Come back this minute! Gail!’ An upstairs door slammed shut.
‘Feeling better after a good night’s sleep?’
She opened her eyes a fraction and found the strange man bending over her with a mug of strong tea with ‘The World’s Best Mum’ printed on it.
Oh for a china cup of Lapsang Suchong, she pleaded silently. She had also been hoping that when she woke she would find it had all been a dream, like in one of those awful TV soaps she never watched.
She took a cautious sip. The tea wasn’t as bad as she had feared. She drained the mug.
‘Want another?’ She shook her head.
‘It’s not like you to refuse a top-up. Sure you’re okay? You weren’t yourself last night. A bit quiet. Shall I make you an appointment with Dr Jones?’
Again she shook her head.
‘If you’re sure. But take it easy today. I really have to get to work now, but phone me if you need me.’
‘Of course,’ she smiled. The sooner he was gone the better. Then she could leave. But what if she wasn’t alone? ‘Where are - um - Neil and his girlfriend?’ she added cautiously.
‘Fiancée. Have you forgotten the big announcement already? They wanted to get off early so they could tell her folks. They didn’t want me to wake you.’
‘What about Gail?’ Tim frowned. Had she got the name wrong?
‘It’s ten o’clock. She’s at school.’
‘Ten!’ she shrieked. She was always at her desk by eight. ‘I must call Howard.’ She leaped up, searching for her mobile phone, lifting knickknacks and other artefacts around what must have been the most hideous bedroom she had ever seen. The furniture was a flat-pack build-it-yourself job and to top it all, on the dressing-table sat a teddy bear clutching a crimson satin heart between its paws with the words, ‘I love you’ embroidered on it. Suddenly enraged, she grabbed it, intending to sling it across the room. Instead, she pressed the soft white fur to her cheek and held it there.
‘Who the hell’s Howard?’ said Tim, hopping from one suede shoe to the other as he tied the laces. Was she married to a man who wore suede shoes?
She sank back on the bed, still cuddling the bear, her mind a swampy mass of mud. She thought quickly. ‘A new hairdresser.’
‘Hairdresser? You? You hate hairdressers.’
‘Someone told me he was very good.’
‘Rita.’ The name came from nowhere. Fortunately it satisfied Tim. He pecked her on the cheek and left.
Time to think hard. She tossed the bear aside.
Going over the events of the night before, what amazed her was how she managed to get through it without any of the strangers around her batting an eyelid. In this mad world, she was Tim’s wife and Neil, a shambling scarecrow who towered above her was her son. Sulky Gail was her daughter. Luckily, she wasn’t supposed to know anything about Helen, so she was able to direct most of her questions to her, even if it did make her sound like the future mother-in-law from Hell.
But what had put the tin lid on it was not so much theirs, but her own unfathomable acceptance of the situation. Not only that, it had been fun, in an unsophisticated sort of way, like playing Trivial Pursuit with a group of friends and a large bottle of wine. She hadn’t laughed so much in years. There’d been a series of humorous toasts. ‘To Gail’s sweet smile!’ ‘To Dad and his vile taste in music.’
‘Phil Collins, I ask you,’ Neil had explained to Helen. That was it, she thought. That tape in the car. ‘Easy Lover.’ Tim was always singing it. One day she’d threatened to throw the tape in the river, but hadn’t.
Tim had remained unabashed. ‘It’s better than your Mum’s taste. I wish I’d never taken her to see Pavarotti. You know that night when it pissed down all night and we all caught colds. She was happy with Tom Jones before that. Now she thinks she’s an opera buff.’ And everyone had looked at her and laughed. But it wasn’t unpleasant. It was like being attacked by a soft pillow.
At one point over pudding; Peach Pavlova, apparently one of her specialities, the scarecrow with the big smile, sorry, Neil, started reminiscing about a holiday cottage on the Suffolk coast they used to rent every August. ‘Remember that crab I caught in a bucket and you found it in the kitchen next morning when you got up to cook breakfast and you screamed so loud, the neighbours called the police because they thought someone was being murdered?’
And the odd thing was she did remember. Clearly. She could see those bead-like black eyes peering out from under the sink. And she remembered Tim pouring her a tumblerful of brandy.
‘And it wasn’t even nine-o’clock in the morning!’ she exclaimed to the assembled company and she knew she always said this whenever the story was repeated and everyone always laughed. Not at her. With her. With shared remembrance. It was like nothing she had ever experienced and had sunk gratefully into this strange soft quilt called family. She could see how too much of it could be suffocating, but there was enough air to keep her sharp.
Some of that feeling still lingered annoyingly as she concentrated on re-establishing her true identity. She hated quilts, cushions and other fripperies. Her flat was a lofty expanse of hardwood and paint. She recited a verbal CV. My name is Morag Melville. I am forty three years old. After graduating from Reading University with first class honours in Estate Management, I began work for a major agricultural insurance company, leaving that after ten years to set up my own consultancy advising on forestry investment. It’s a specialist field and I’ve built up a good business. I employ Howard as my deputy and a PA called Shirley. I have never married. Never felt the need. I’m happy in my own company. I live in a deluxe riverside apartment in Maidenhead and I lead a fulfilling, busy life. I attend concerts, operas and read good literature. I have two Siamese cats called Solveig and Pier Gynt.
Something brushed past her legs. She picked it up. It was that fat scruffy tabby, Pussikins. She fondled its ear. It was torn and misshapen, but completely healed after his brush with next door’s greyhound...... She stopped. How the hell did she know that? Things were getting worse. She pushed the creature from her lap. It strutted from the bedroom its tail a vertical token of dented pride.
She dialled the office number. ‘Melville Consultancy.’ It was Howard.
‘I’m running a bit late,’ she said. ‘I’ll be with you in about half an hour.’
Howard sounded puzzled. ‘Who are you?’
‘It’s me, you idiot. Morag.’
‘Cut it out, Howard. April Fool’s Day’s been and gone.’
‘If you give me your surname I’ll check our records.’
She decided to play along. ‘Put me through to your boss immediately.’
‘I’m afraid Mr Melville is in a meeting. Can I take a message? Miss er...’
She slammed the phone down. If he was expecting a bonus this year, he’d have to think again. Mister Melville! Howard hadn’t even the gumption to think up a different name.
The first thing to do was return to her flat and change. She always worked more efficiently in tailored clothes. What she found herself in now was reserved for lounging about at home. She telephoned for a taxi and hoped she had enough change in her raincoat pocket to pay the fare.
Her key that let her into the building jammed in the front door lock. It wouldn’t turn however much she tried. As she struggled, she spotted the woman who lived in the next-door flat approaching. She didn’t know her name. They kept themselves to themselves in Thameside Villas.
‘There’s something wrong with my key. It’s a good thing you came along when you did or I’d be locked out.’ She affected a stiff laugh and was reminded of the hilarity of the previous night. The scent of loss drifted by and was gone.
The woman gave her that look of a headmistress watching a cockroach scuttle across the Axminster. ‘Do I know you?’
‘Yes, you bloody well do,’ Morag shouted back as the woman took her own keys out of her bag, let herself in the front door and slammed it shut in her face.
Get a grip, Morag, she told herself. Think again. The cleaner. Of course. She employed one through an agency. Her hours were nine to twelve. She’d be inside now.
She pressed the intercom.
Later she found herself wandering along the river. Yesterday’s rain had cleared and the blue sheen of the sky was reflected in the sleek launches bobbing on their ropes. A coxless four slid through water like a knife through mercury, their shoulder muscles rippling, their faces grimacing with the effort. By now it was lunch-time and shoppers and office workers alike were taking advantage of the early spring sunshine to eat outside. A fitful breeze teased the flags on the opposite bank. Muted traffic crossed and re-crossed the stone bridge.
It wasn’t her fault she mistook the girl who answered the intercom for the cleaner. Her estuary English was as broad as Southend beach at low-tide. It turned out that not only was she a famous model but she insisted it was her flat, that she’d lived in it for two years and if she didn’t leave her alone she’d call the law.
‘If anyone calls the police, it will be me,’ Morag had snapped back. ‘You’re squatting.’
‘And you’re mad, that’s what you are. You want fucking certifying.’
She hadn’t called the police. She knew she’d have trouble making them understand. She had no proof of identity whatsoever. She thrust her fists into the pockets of the raincoat she was beginning to loathe with a murderous hatred and marched on. What a scruff she looked. What if she met someone she knew?
‘Mo! What are you doing here? You don’t usually come into town on Fridays.’
It was that man again. The one called Tim - her husband. Sitting on a bench facing the river, stuffing a white roll into his face, scattering crumbs much to the pleasure of a group of noisy ducks, paddling around his suede shoes. This was the man who’d slept alongside her last night but had fortunately kept to his side of the bed, otherwise she shuddered to think what might have happened. He quickly finished his meal and made room for her on the bench.
She sat down, slowly warming to his friendly and non-judgemental expression. In fact, she realised, she had never been so pleased to see anyone in her life. He smelled of cheap aftershave and hard-boiled eggs. She took a deep breath. ‘I just felt like getting out of the house,’ she explained. Which was true.
Tim seemed to accept this. ‘You’re looking more like your old self,’ he said. ‘A bit more colour in your cheeks. I never thought you’d be worried about entertaining your future daughter-in-law. She’s perfect for Neil, isn’t she?’
‘I agree,’ she replied slipping her hand into his, enjoying its rough warmth. ‘She was very nervous though, wasn’t she?’
‘Do you remember when I took you to meet my parents for the first time?’
‘I was terrified,’ she said suddenly seeing an oak-panelled dining room and a table set with a multitude of knives and forks she hadn't a clue which to use when.
‘But they fell in love with you just like I had.’
The ducks had waddled back into the river. Two swans were cruising not far from the bank, trailing two perfect interlocked Vs behind them. ‘Can you remember when we first met?’ she said.
‘Remember? How could I forget? There I was single-skulling under Caversham Bridge, not a care in the world....’
‘No, Venice, Silly. Venice, Berkshire.’
She found herself replying, ‘Silly yourself.’ What sort of expression was that?
‘And there you were above me leaning over the parapet, chucking books into the river. I thought you’d dropped them by accident and tried to fish them out for you....’
‘And your boat capsized!’
‘And when I was suffering the first stages of pneumonia you told me you’d chucked them on purpose because you were, “sick of bloody boring estate management”’
‘Did I say that?’
‘The language was probably much worse, knowing you, but that was the general drift.’
‘All that pneumonia rubbish was to get me to your flat to seduce me!’
‘Seduce?’ he said as they began to walk back up the steps away from the riverbank. ‘You were a willing partner, I seem to recall.’
‘Oh yes? It seemed pretty much like a seduction to me. You filled me with wine and I told you how I was at a cross-roads with my life and needed advice.’
‘And I said if you carried on with estate management you’d turn into a boring old maid stuck in one of those hideous luxury flats they were putting up along the river, with only two snooty Siamese cats for company.’
She shuddered. ‘Cold?’ he said with renewed concern. ‘Tell you what. Let’s go home. Gail’s staying at Avril’s overnight, isn’t she? So it’ll be just us. I fancy seducing you all over again.’
‘How about the other way round?’
‘We’ll do it whichever way round you like.’ She punched him playfully on the arm. He kissed her.
In the short walk to the car-park, everything fell into place. She had given up estate management and moved into Tim’s Reading flat next door to Huntley and Palmer’s factory where she worked boxing cream crackers. When Tim graduated he took a job in a bookstore and they married. Later he was promoted to be the manager of the Maidenhead branch. They left Reading and bought an affordable semi in a tree-lined avenue. They didn’t have any pets because Neil was allergic to them. Pussikins only came along after he’d left home. Gail was a surprise. Now aged fourteen with a strange taste in footwear they couldn’t imagine being without her. Mo tucked her arm into his as they strolled past the Indian supermarket just before the car-park.
‘Shall I buy a bottle of cheap plonk to remind us of old times?’ she said suddenly.
‘Good idea. I’ll get the car and meet you outside.’
She pushed open the door and was immediately assailed by the mingled aroma of cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon. From somewhere, eastern music jangled, overlaid with commentary from a live cricket match. At first she found the smell exhilarating and breathed deeply. After a while it began to make her feel sick.
Her footsteps took her further into the depths of the shop to where a rough painted sign swinging from the ceiling proclaimed, ‘Fine Wines for the Disserning Shopper,’ in black felt-tip. She winced at the spelling error. Her eyes briefly ran along the shelves. Lambrusco, Soave, Chianti. What rubbish was this?
She marched up to the shopkeeper just as the commentator screamed, ‘He’s out! Caught in the slips for a duck.’
‘Where are your vintage wines?’ she demanded.
‘Wine there,’ he pointed. ‘Very good.’ He pressed his ear to the radio on the shelf-behind him from where the cricket commentary still trickled on.
She looked around her. What on earth was she doing here? She always ordered her wine from a highly reputable company in Windsor who delivered it promptly.
She left the shop. Her head buzzed as if it were tuned into a distant radio station. She felt weak and ever so slightly sick. She’d been working too hard. That was the trouble. She dashed across the road toward Thameside Villas. Just then a car emerged at a reckless speed from a nearby car park and almost ran her over. She stepped back quickly and scowled at the driver - a scruffy individual with hair the colour of rope. The car careened around the corner and was gone.
She had forgotten about the incident by the time she was slipping her key into the lock. She took a shower, fed the cats a slice of poached salmon each, opened the bottle of 1982 Bordeaux red and after slipping ‘Don Carlos’ into the CD player sank into her leather sofa.
Outside dusk was painting the river with grey shadows and one by one the lights strung along the river bank came alight, throwing out bright streamers across the water. A rippling skein of geese flew overhead, their wings stained pink by the setting sun. This was her favourite time of the day; a moment for reflection. It had been another profitable day. She had acquired two new clients. Her accountant had agreed her tax-projections for the next financial year. ‘Here’s to me,’ she said aloud, raising her glass to Pier Gynt and Solveig who, arranged tastefully on the windowsill, remained indifferent to her triumph.
And for reasons she couldn’t begin to fathom, a single tear as round and perfect as a pearl rolled down her nose, and splashed into the blood-red wine.