Authors: Christina Jones
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Mr Dickinson was already shuffling towards the door clasping his clock. No one took any notice of him. No one said goodbye.
Picking up her sheaf of relentlessly cheerful cards and her other retirement presents – a rather pretty crystal vase and a quite substantial cheque – Mitzi suddenly wanted to be as far away from this party as possible. There was no point in staying. She didn’t belong here any more. She simply wanted to go home.
Home offered its usual warm welcome some twenty minutes later, in Winterbrook’s neighbouring village of Hazy Hassocks. Unlocking the door of the pre-war redbrick terraced house, as she had done daily since arriving there as a bride thirty-five years earlier, Mitzi stepped into a world of sumptuous colour, and bejewelled and beaded opulence.
The hall, midnight-blue and gold, hummed gently to the welcome refrain of the central heating. Picking up the morning’s post from the fluffy cobalt doormat, Mitzi leafed through it – circulars, junk, and a free-sheet – and instantly discarded it into the wastepaper basket as she pushed open the living-room door. Easing off her stretchy ankle boots on the blackberry and damson hearth rug and hurling her wool jacket over the back of the plum velvet sofa, she gazed at her living room with sheer pleasure.
The plush, voluptuous cosiness of her house was a source of constant delight. Of course, it hadn’t always been like this. When she and Lance were married it had looked much like everyone else’s house: nice magnolia walls, a Dralon
three-piece suite in taupe, Cotswold stone-clad fireplace, beige carpets, Royal Doulton figurines tastefully arranged.
Only since the divorce, ten years earlier, had she decided to turn
The October afternoon was closing in, hinting at a chill night to come, and she switched on a selection of crimson-shaded lamps before clicking on the flickering flames of the almost-real-logs gas fire. The glow was immediately reflected in the profusion of jewel-bright glass ornaments and candles which adorned every surface, illuminated the row upon row of books on the floor-to-ceiling shelves and dripped from the exotic rainbow blooms of a proliferation of dried-flower displays.
Mitzi sighed contentedly as she always did in this room and pulled the deep-purple velvet curtains against the twilight. Autumn had always been her favourite time of year – the richness of the colours outside her window were echoed throughout the house – but would she love it quite so much now? With all day, every day, alone, and the uninviting prospect of the short dark days of winter only a few weeks away?
‘Get a grip, for heaven’s sake,’ she said sharply to herself. ‘You’ve coped with massive life changes before. You can do it again. You don’t really have much choice. And anyone who can handle being told about her husband’s mistress at her own silver wedding party can deal with a bit of early retirement, so there!’
Immediately after the divorce she’d felt bereft and afraid of the future without Lance, but of course Lulu and Doll had lived at home then too, and she’d had the bank. These had been constants in a world that had been rocked by Lance’s infidelity. Her daughters, the bank, her friends, and her daily routine had given her purpose and stability, and gradually she’d rebuilt her life over the next ten years, enjoyed her freedom, and eventually thoroughly relished living alone.
From today though, everything was going to be very
different. The girls now had their own homes with their partners, and without the bank, without working, without a real reason to get out of bed each morning, she was left to her own devices. What on earth was she going to do to fill the hours? She tried not to think about the glaring difference between being alone and being lonely. She had a feeling this might just become all too apparent before very long.
With a snort at her own self-pity, Mitzi padded into the kitchen with her new crystal vase and the chrysanthemums. The flowers would look nice here, she decided, splashing water into the vase and snapping the woody stems, releasing their cold, bitter scent. The golds, bronze and russet shades of the tightly packed petals matched her kitchen perfectly. She plonked the vase in the centre of the kitchen table, which should, as in all good country kitchens, have been ancient pine, scrubbed white, but was actually MFI and covered with a vivid yellow cloth.
‘The fire’s on in the living room,’ she spoke to the washing basket.
The washing basket said nothing.
‘And in a minute, when I’ve changed, I’ll do supper. Okay?’
The washing basket didn’t reply.
Mitzi peered at it. ‘Yes, I know this is a bit out of routine, me being home early, but you’ll just have to get used to it. I’m going to be around all the time from now on …’
The washing basket rustled a bit. Two grey, fluffy, feline heads emerged from its depths. Four pale-green eyes blinked at her. Richard and Judy, almost-but-not-quite Blue Persians rescued by Mitzi when they were tiny, scraggy, half-starved kittens from the garage next door to the bank, stretched themselves, spilled slinkily from the basket and rubbed against her in delight.
Mitzi stroked each of them, loving the feel of their fur, soft like liquid silk beneath her fingers. The purrs became loudly competitive.
‘Okay, I was wrong about being alone,’ she kissed the tops of their heads. ‘I’ve got you two … and who knows, I might learn to cook, or find myself another job – or even another man to while away the hours.’
Richard and Judy narrowed their eyes at this and the purring halted.
Mitzi shrugged. ‘I agree, it’s not likely – but a girl can dream, can’t she? Now, give me a few moments to turn into Mrs Slob At Home and then we’ll find something suitable for a lonely celebration supper.’
Showering and changing into jeans and a multicoloured sweater took Mitzi less than half an hour. She surveyed her deliciously golden boudoir-for-one bedroom which had, during Lance’s time, been as bland as the rest of the house but now was rich apricot and honey, with low lighting, and layers of sensuous fabrics trimmed with beads and sequins, and provided sheer, unadulterated, tarty luxury – and decided that a wardrobe purge would be high on her things-to-do agenda. She’d donate all her business outfits to the charity shop, and a major junking-out of her old life would be at least something to keep her occupied for a while. And why stop at the bedroom? Why not the whole house? Why not go for the full life-laundry treatment?
Feeling slightly more positive about filling at least the next few days, she padded downstairs, fed and watered Richard and Judy, then gazed at the stack of dinners-forone in her freezer.
The phone rang just as she’d decided on Fiesta Chicken with a glass of something dry.
‘Hi, Mum,’ Doll’s voice echoed cheerfully in her ear. ‘How did it go? No, don’t tell me, I’ll be round later as soon as I’ve finished work. We’ve only got a couple more patients, so it’ll be in about half an hour or so. Shall I bring fish and chips?’
Mitzi grinned. ‘Fish and chips would be lovely – but won’t Brett be expecting you home?’
‘He’ll be asleep as usual,’ Doll’s voice was still cheerful.
‘He won’t know if I’m there or not. I didn’t want you to be on your own – not tonight. Shall I bring a bottle or two as well – to toast your new-found freedom?’
Mitzi smiled fondly into the phone. Her elder daughter was a perpetual optimist. ‘That’ll be lovely, too. Thanks, love. I’ll warm the plates, chill the glasses and see you soon.’
As she was shoving the Fiesta Chicken back into the freezer, the phone rang again.
‘We’ve got a bloody great big sausage casserole on the go,’ Flo Spraggs from next door barked into her ear. ‘I know you never cook for yourself. Me and Clyde thought you might like to pop round – it being a bit of a sad day and all that. He’s uncorking some of his elderflower and rhubarb, special like. After all, you don’t want to be on your own tonight, duck, do you?’
‘Oh, Flo, that’s really kind of you, but Doll’s coming over as soon as surgery finishes and bringing fish and chips. Will my share of the casserole keep for you until tomorrow?’
‘Bound to,’ Flo said stoically. ‘We always does too much. That’s fine, duck, as long as you’re not on your own. Tell you what, you can nip round here for elevenses in the morning, all right?’
‘Lovely,’ Mitzi smiled. ‘I’ll bring the biscuits. Thanks Flo.’
‘You’re welcome, duck. We just didn’t want you to be lonely tonight.’
‘No, well, it’s going to be a bit strange of course, but – oh, there’s someone at the door … I’ll see you in the morning – and thank you so much.’
Still clutching the phone, Mitzi opened the front door. Her other next-door neighbours, the emaciated elderly spinster sisters Lavender and Lobelia Banding, were standing on the doorstep in the dusk clutching small tea plates covered in tinfoil.
‘We wanted to make sure you were all right,’ Lavender said. ‘Didn’t we, Lobelia?’
‘We did,’ Lobelia confirmed. ‘We know what it’s like to be cast aside. We didn’t want you to be doing anything foolish, did we Lavender?’
‘You’re at a funny age, young Mitzi,’ Lavender said. ‘Withering hormones and what have you. They can play havoc. You’ve been abandoned once by that philanderer you married, and we thought that losing your job might push you over the edge. Lots of people commit suicide at your age you know, especially when they find themselves unwanted.’
‘So we’re here to cheer you up,’ Lobelia beamed. ‘And keep an eye on you – oh, and we’ve made you some nice sandwiches. Fish paste.’
Mitzi chewed the insides of her cheeks to prevent herself laughing. ‘Thank you … oh, you’re lovely – but honestly, I’m fine. And Doll’s on her way over with fish and chips, so I won’t be on my own. And I’m not suicidal, honestly. A bit sad, of course, but otherwise I’m coping.’
‘That’s the shock.’ Lavender nodded, peeling back the tinfoil and chewing on a paste sandwich with relish. ‘You’ll be running on adrenaline right now, but you wait until the reality kicks in.’
‘Um – yes, I’ll bear it in mind … look, why don’t you come in? It’s cold out here and—’
The Bandings needed no further invitation. In a scuttle of drab drooping skirts and much-washed cardigans, they hurtled past Mitzi and positioned themselves in front of the fire.
‘Don’t shut the door, duck,’ Flo’s voice echoed over the fence. ‘I’ve put the casserole on the back burner. Me and Clyde thought you might like a bit of the elderflower and rhubarb to go with young Doll’s fish and chips.’
Slightly stunned, Mitzi waited until Flo and her husband had sprinted up the garden path.
‘Tell the truth, we saw Lav and Lob arrive,’ Clyde said gruffly, kissing her cheek through his bristly moustache and clanking together an armful of wine bottles. ‘We thought
you might need someone to tip the balance away from the wrist-slitting.’
‘Lovely and warm in here, Mitzi,’ the Banding sisters twittered happily as the Spraggs trooped into the living room. ‘Mind, you’ll have to watch the pennies now you’re out of work. You won’t be able to have the heat on like this for much longer. We know what it’s like to have to wrap up warm indoors and not turn the fire on until after
Coronation Street …
Ooooh, Mr Spraggs! Some of your home-made wine! Lovely!’
‘I’ll get some glasses,’ Mitzi said faintly. ‘And maybe I’ll ring the surgery and get Doll to bring some more fish and chips since this seems to be turning into a bit of a party.’
‘That would be a rare treat,’ Lavender pushed the last sandwich into her mouth just as Lobelia reached for it. ‘We don’t ever eat out. Can’t afford it on our pensions. As you’ll find out, Mitzi dear. You make the most of it.’
In the kitchen, Mitzi grinned at Richard and Judy who had retired to the washing basket and who were staring at her with orb-like eyes. ‘Yes, I know. I know. And I thought I was going to be lonely … Goodness me, now what’s that?’
The front door had crashed open. The chatter from the living room had died.
Mitzi stepped into the hall and gazed at the heap of bags now completely blocking the doorway and then at her younger, Afghan-coated daughter leaning red-eyed against the front door.
‘Hi, Mum,’ Lulu sniffed tearfully through a mass of blonde braided hair. ‘I’ve left Niall. This time he’s gone too far – I’m never, ever going back. Never! I hope you won’t mind but I’ve come home – to stay.’
Mitzi stared at the bulging sports bags, several bin liners and a couple of overstuffed Waitrose carriers strewn across the hall with a real sense of déjà vu.
‘Oh, dear – not again,’ she smiled cheerfully at her younger daughter. ‘Of course you know you’re more than welcome to stay, love. Your room is all made up – but we both know you’ll be back with Niall before tomorrow, so why not leave the luggage where it is and come and join the party?’
‘Party?’ Lulu swept back her beaded braids with a clatter and peered at Mitzi through heavily kohled eyes. ‘Oh, bugger – it’s not your birthday, is it?’
Mitzi shook her head. ‘That was last month. You bought me a loofah and a book on transcendental meditation.’
‘So I did,’ Lulu looked relieved. ‘So, what’s this for then?’
‘Oh, it’s just a small impromptu bash, thanks to the neighbours, to celebrate the little matter of my enforced retirement. The end of my life. Being officially one of the oldies. Out to grass. No longer needed.’
‘Shit!’ Lulu looked stricken and hopped across the baggage in the hall to hug her mother. ‘Is that today? Oh, Mum – I’m so sorry! I should have remembered.’
Mitzi hugged her back, aware, as always, of her daughter’s slender fragility. It was like hugging a baby bird. Lulu
smelled of old clothes and mysterious unidentifiable musky things and dust. Mitzi wouldn’t have expected Lulu to remember. Lulu had never remembered anything at the right time in her entire twenty-eight years.
‘It doesn’t matter, honestly. You’re here now – whether by design or accident – and Doll’s on her way over with fish and chips. Which reminds me, I’d better ring her and tell her to get some extra and—’
Lulu peeled off her Afghan coat and threw it across the banisters where it hovered for a moment before slithering onto the stairs. ‘There! Doll knew it was today! She should have reminded me, she knows what I’m like and–’ she regarded her mother fiercely ‘–I am not going back to Niall. Not this time. Not ever.’