Authors: Araminta Hall
‘And you.’ Alice smiled. ‘We’ll be there.’
Sandra was confident they would be, and of course they came, the next Tuesday and all the following ones. The other mothers were wary of Alice at first, as Sandra knew they would be; she watched them pulling T-shirts down over their still flabby stomachs or smoothing their hair whenever she walked in. They soon learnt, like Sandra had, that Alice was not a woman to play on her beauty, in fact if anything Sandra would have laid money on her not liking it.
There was something charmingly vulnerable in Alice that made Sandra want to protect her, like an older sister. So when she turned up to Alice’s house for coffee one morning and saw her eyes rimmed in red she felt her heart lurch with worry.
‘Hello, Mrs Cartwright,’ she sang to Alice’s mother as brightly as possible as they followed the little girls through the back door into the garden. Sandra had grown used to Alice’s house by then, and even to Mrs Cartwright, who seemed to belong to another time altogether; she prided herself on the fact that the other mothers would be intimidated by it, but Sandra suspected that Alice barely noticed its grandeur.
Sandra also knew her friend well enough to know that you couldn’t rush things with her, suddenness made her nervous. The girls were running round the lawn and showing Mrs Cartwright a worm they’d found, which was making her laugh.
‘Everything OK then?’ asked Sandra.
Alice nodded, picking at the lawn as a child might.
‘Come on, you look upset.’
‘It’s just Tony.’
Sandra sighed. Of course it was Tony, she knew that without being told. Gerry saw him sometimes in the Hare and said he was a jumped-up so and so, always sitting at the bar on his own. She’d seen him at weekends carrying Dot around on his shoulders and he definitely had an air of someone who felt they were too good for their surroundings.
‘He’s always at the pub,’ said Alice. ‘He used to come home straight from work every night, but now he’s never in before ten.’
‘Men like the pub,’ said Sandra simply. ‘They like to feel they’re still free.’ Alice looked up and her face was so puzzled Sandra wondered how far back she was going to have to go in her explanation. ‘Have you spoken to him about it?’
‘So you mean he comes in smelling of beer and missing supper every night and you haven’t asked him where he’s been?’
‘I didn’t, I mean, I couldn’t …’
Sandra felt annoyed, with both of them. ‘Oh come on, Alice. You have to lay down a few ground rules with men. They’re like kids, they like it that way.’
Alice was close to tears. ‘But how do you do that?’
‘Imagine Dot was doing something she shouldn’t, like, I don’t know, picking your mum’s roses. You wouldn’t just stand there watching, you’d explain to her why it was wrong and then you’d maybe say something like she could pick them sometimes, but only when you said. It’s the same with men. Gerry goes to the pub on Thursday evenings. I don’t complain when he comes home drunk and he doesn’t expect to go any other night.’
‘Really? Do you think that would work?’
‘Of course it will.’ Sandra rubbed Alice’s arm. ‘Come on, cheer up. You’re hardly the first woman who’s had to fight the pub.’ Alice laughed. ‘Anyway, I’ve got some news I’ve been dying to tell you.’
Alice looked up, all expectation. ‘What?’
‘Oh my goodness, that’s amazing.’
Sandra put her fingers to her lips. ‘Shh, it’s still a secret, especially from Madam over there. I mean, I’m only a few weeks, but, well, I don’t mind you knowing.’
Alice put her arms round her friend’s neck and kissed her on the cheek and Sandra thought it was perhaps the gentlest kiss anyone had ever given her.
There is a friendship that often exists between women that is the most perfect of relationships. In its best form they feel no rivalry, they love purely, they anticipate and complement each other. Alice and Sandra reached that point quite quickly, when the beginning of a friendship often feels like the beginning of falling in love, except without the sexual tension that makes falling in love so dangerous.
So when Alice turned up at playgroup the next Tuesday Sandra could immediately tell that she was lighter and happier.
‘Did you talk to him then?’ Sandra asked as they moulded play dough into shapes for a table of toddlers.
‘No, but he didn’t go to the pub at all this weekend. And he seems much happier. I don’t know, maybe I was making a fuss over nothing.’
Sandra sucked back her innate worries, she would never trust any man completely. But why rain on Alice’s parade?
‘I’ve decided to have a party for Dot’s second birthday,’ Alice was saying. ‘I’ve got Mavis’s invite in my bag and I thought I’d ask a few of the others from here.’
‘Great idea. When is it?’
‘Two weeks. We’ll just have it at home, hopefully the weather will be good and they can all play in the garden.’
When Gerry got home that night and he’d poured them both a glass of wine which they drank in front of the TV after dinner, Sandra asked him if he’d seen anything of Tony recently.
‘He wasn’t in the pub on Thursday,’ said Gerry, ‘but I’ve heard a stupid rumour that he’s got the hots for the new barmaid.’
‘Really? What’s she like?’ Sandra couldn’t imagine anyone matching up to Alice, but then men were odd, they rarely did what was expected of them.
Gerry shrugged. ‘I don’t think she’s up to much. Bit overweight, peroxide hair, wears her skirts too short, you know the type.’
‘Typical barmaid then?’
‘Well, yeah, sort of. But when you talk to her she’s not like she looks. She’s got this, I don’t know, vulnerability, I suppose. Like she’s always about to cry or something.’
Sandra looked across at her husband. ‘Sounds like you’ve been studying her.’
He laughed. ‘Don’t be silly. You’re the only woman for me.’ And with that he drew her towards him with his strong arm, nuzzling into her neck and making her put down her wine glass and giggle with the pleasure of being desired by a man about whom she felt the same way.
Sandra did think about what Gerry had said the next morning as she walked to the green to meet Alice, but the baby was making her stomach churn so that the only real thing on her mind was a need to know where she could be sick at all times. Besides, it was only a stupid rumour and there was something about interfering in someone’s marriage, even when one half of that couple was your best friend, that seemed horribly wrong. She snuggled instead into the knowledge that her Gerry didn’t find the barmaid attractive.
Of course Sandra lived to regret this decision. She comforted herself with the thought that all her warnings would have probably gone unheeded, but still she felt pretty shitty about herself whenever she thought about it in the weeks that followed.
Tony was quite clearly absent from Dot’s party, which was strange, considering that it had been held on a Sunday especially so he could attend. And besides, he had always seemed very connected to Dot, as if they understood each other. Alice was also decidedly distracted and Clarice had a look of grim determination on her face. The other mothers were as impressed with Alice’s house as Sandra had always known they would be, but she couldn’t get any enjoyment out of this, couldn’t parade her best friend as she would have liked to have done. There was something weary and stale in the air that Sandra couldn’t place, something which made her want to leave, as if the house was haunted.
‘Where’s Tony?’ she asked Alice as they were peeling cling film off plates of sandwiches in the kitchen and the children screeched in the garden.
‘He went to buy some balloons,’ answered Alice.
Alice stopped her unwrapping and Sandra saw her hands were shaking. ‘Yes. He came into the kitchen half an hour before the party was due to start and said he didn’t think there were enough balloons. It was so strange. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to stop him, but I didn’t say anything.’
Sandra put her firm hand over Alice’s trembling one. ‘It’s OK, he’ll be back.’ But the words sounded hollow. Sandra thought the best-case scenario would be that he’d been run over or something, but surely they’d have heard the ambulance.
‘Where could he have gone?’ said Alice, the tears now dropping out of her eyes. ‘I mean, who misses their daughter’s second birthday? How do I forgive this?’
You should have talked to him, Sandra found herself thinking, didn’t I tell you that men need ground rules? But instead she said, ‘I’m sure there’s a good explanation. Something you haven’t thought of. He’ll be back later and you can have a good chat.’
‘He said something else strange. He told me that I’m an amazing mother. I was icing those stupid fairy cakes and he said, Dot’s so lucky to have you, Alice, you’re an amazing mother and you mustn’t ever forget it. What do you think he meant by that?’
The baby was turning Sandra’s stomach again. He was telling you goodbye, she thought, but only said, ‘Nothing. He was being nice, see. And you are amazing. I mean, look at this party. Dot is lucky. That’s all.’
Sandra wasn’t surprised that she didn’t hear from Alice over the weekend, but she felt uneasy when there was no phone call on Monday. This only turned to proper worry though when she didn’t turn up to playgroup on Tuesday. Sandra allowed the memory of Alice by the end of the party to dominate her thoughts; she had looked as awful as it was ever going to be possible for her to look, with deep dark circles shrouding her eyes and her skin as pale as paper. Sandra had offered to stay and help clear up but Clarice had ushered her out, telling her they would be fine. Sandra had walked away from the house with a mixture of relief and deep worry and she’d felt ashamed of both emotions. But now she knew she couldn’t avoid it any longer. She walked back home from playgroup via Alice’s house, telling herself all the way that she was being stupid and of course there would be a perfectly rational explanation for everything. Mavis was tired and dragged her feet, whining to be picked up, which made Sandra’s back ache.
Clarice answered the door and even though she was dressed in her usual silk shirt and smart skirt something looked awry. Dot was clutching on to her leg and there was an air of desolation that rushed out of the house like smoke.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Sandra, without knowing what she was apologising for. ‘I just wanted to check that Alice is OK. She didn’t come to playgroup this morning.’
Clarice looked tired, that’s what it was, Sandra realised. Her skin was drawn on her bones, almost as if she’d aged. ‘She’s come down with a bug. Since the party, actually. I’d ask you in, but she’s in bed.’
Sandra took an involuntary step backwards. Mavis was pulling at her hair and the sun was hot on her head. ‘Oh no, that’s fine. I was just worried – silly really.’
‘Not at all.’
‘Well, tell her I said hello. Maybe she could call when she feels better?’
‘Thank you,’ said Clarice, but she was already shutting the door and Sandra couldn’t wait to leave; she even wondered if maybe the house was haunted.
Gerry came home early from the pub on Thursday. Sandra was reading in bed and she heard him come in and run straight up the stairs. He fell on to the bed, still in his jacket and shoes, lying next to her on his stomach, his eyes twinkling. ‘You will never guess what I heard tonight,’ he said.
‘Charles told me that Tony has run off with the barmaid I was telling you about.’
Sandra sat up at this. ‘You’re joking.’
Gerry rolled on to his back. She knew he was enjoying this and sure enough he started to laugh. ‘I know, bloody priceless. You live with a supermodel and you run off with Bet Lynch.’
Sandra hit him on the shoulder. ‘That’s my friend you’re talking about.’
‘I told you he was weird,’ said Gerry.
‘How sure are you?’
‘Charles said Tony came storming in at around half one last Sunday and Silver followed him outside and they had this really deep-looking conversation on the green and then walked off together. Neither of them has been seen since and apparently he used to come in most nights and sit at the bar and whenever she wasn’t serving they’d be chatting and laughing. And once, when Charles was going home, he saw them talking down the back of the pub.’
‘There’s no law against talking.’
‘Oh come on, San, you’d be OK to find me talking to some woman in the middle of the night, would you?’
‘Oh shit,’ said Sandra, ‘poor Alice.’
There was nothing for it but to go back to Alice’s house the next day. Clarice answered the door again.
‘I know what’s happened,’ Sandra said simply.
Clarice opened the door wider. ‘Come in.’
The house felt cold even though the August sunshine was warm. Dot and Mavis were pleased to see each other and ran off into the garden. Clarice led Sandra into the kitchen. ‘Would you like some coffee?’
‘Oh no, thanks. I just wanted to see how Alice is.’
‘How did you hear?’ asked Clarice and Sandra thought she looked relieved that someone else finally knew.
‘My husband told me. He heard it from some men in the pub.’
‘Yes. Charles Wheeler’s mother, Lillian, is a friend of mine. He came round and told me.’
Sandra looked out of the window at the girls playing in the beautiful garden. Everything felt very illusory. ‘How’s Alice?’
Clarice sighed and Sandra could see how hard all of this was for her. ‘Not good. To tell the truth, I don’t know what to do with her. She went to bed after the party and she hasn’t got up since. I’ve had the doctor round, but he says there’s nothing physically wrong with her.’
‘She’s not getting up at all? Is she eating?’
‘How about Dot?’
‘I’ve been keeping her away. I didn’t want to scare the child.’
Which of course was a mistake, in Sandra’s estimation. A child was a reason for any mother to get up, if you asked her. ‘Would it be all right if I went up to see her?’
Clarice shrugged as if she was so out of her depth she might as well be underwater. ‘Be my guest. You can’t do any worse than me.’
The house was creepy when you had to walk up the wide wooden staircase on your own, looked down on by generations of Clarice’s bloodline who had no interest in you and your petty problems. Sandra knocked on the door of Alice’s room, but there was no reply so she turned the handle and let herself in. Alice was lying in bed, just as Clarice had said, but still it seemed shocking to Sandra. Her body made a neat lump under the white sheet and her eyes were open but fixed on the ceiling. Her skin was more than white, it was the absence of colour, as if it had forgotten to be alive. Sandra walked over to the bed, but Alice only seemed to notice her when she sat down next to it. Her friend’s eyes were raw, but still more tears fell when she focused.