Authors: Christina Jones
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Mitzi smiled gently. ‘No, of course you’re not. Now you go into the living room and chat to Flo and Co. I’ll give Doll a ring for the extras and we’ll talk about it later.’
Picking up the phone, Mitzi closed the kitchen door behind her. Richard and Judy popped neatly out of the washing basket and twisted themselves round her legs. While the phone rang on Hazy Hassocks’s dental surgery reception desk, Mitzi fondled the pair of fluffy grey heads, and pondered on her daughters, wondering not for the first time how she and Lance had produced two such different children.
The phone was suddenly answered with a dragonish roar making Mitzi jump.
‘Oh … yes, hello Viv. It’s Mitzi. Yes, Doll’s mum. Is she still there? Oh, good, good – look, can you tell her to make it fish and chips for five this end – and for herself, of course? Oh, and can she get a veggie burger for Lu, too? Tell her I’ll pay her back when she arrives. Thanks. What? No it’s not my birthday. No, nothing like that. No, no celebration at all really … What? I retired today, that’s all – yes, today. Yes, it has come round quickly, hasn’t it? No, I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to do with myself. The church flower rota? Really?
No, that hadn’t been uppermost in my mind … no, nor the bowls club nor the Evergreens’ coffee mornings – or what? Cricket teas? Good heavens …’
She clicked the phone off before Viv could depress her even further. The church flowers, the Evergreens, the bowls club and the cricket teas were all policed and championed by old ladies. Really old ladies. Like Lobelia and Lavender. All of whom wore knitted waistcoats and kept their hats on indoors without their coats and turned first to the obituary column in the
Surely, surely things hadn’t come to this. Not to her. Not when she still danced around the kitchen to the Rolling Stones on Radio Two and remembered doing exactly the same thing, barefoot in Hyde Park in 1969, and felt not a day older.
She scooped up Richard and Judy and kissed them both. ‘It looks as though I’m now officially regarded as one of the Hazy Hassocks wrinklies. Hey-ho … But if you ever catch me wearing the tea cosy as a hat or wandering around the garden at midnight pruning things or starting every sentence with “it wasn’t like this in my day”, you’re perfectly at liberty to look for new lodgings, okay?’
‘You want to watch that, duck,’ Flo Spraggs pushed open the kitchen door. ‘Talking to yourself is one of the first signs. I’ve just come in for some glasses for our Clyde’s elderflower and rhubarb. Young Lulu’s drinking it from the bottle. Says she’s emotionally disturbed.’
‘When isn’t she?’ Mitzi sighed, reaching for a selection of mismatched glasses from the cupboard over the cooker. ‘She and Niall are always volcanic. Not like Doll and Brett.’
Flo took the glasses. ‘Ah – but maybe it’s better to be a bit sparky. Sometimes I look at your Doll and Brett and feel sorry for ’em.’
‘Do you? I’ve always thought they were—’
‘Bored to tears,’ Flo nodded. ‘You mark my words. They’ve been together since they were kiddies at school –
what fifteen years? Not married, just fifteen years of the same old routine. Where’s the excitement in that?’
‘Maybe they don’t want excitement. Maybe they’ve found what they’re looking for and have settled for contentment and familiarity. Maybe they’re just happy with one another.’
‘And maybe they ain’t,’ Flo clanged the glasses together. ‘Still, you’ll have plenty of time on your hands to sort both your girls out now, won’t you?’
‘Yes, I suppose I will.’ With a last gloomy glance at Richard and Judy, Mitzi picked up the remaining glasses and followed Flo out of the kitchen.
In the living room, the Bandings were still hogging the fire, standing cheek by skinny jowl with their backs to the flickering flames, their drooping skirts lifted to allow the warmth to soak into their spindly, lisle-stockinged legs.
Clyde was talking earnestly to Lulu on the plum sofa, who, by her crossed eyes, looked as though she’d already had several glasses of elderflower and rhubarb. Mitzi hoped Doll would hurry up with the parcels of fish and chips – Lulu was definitely going to need a massive intake of saturated fat and carbs to soak up the alcohol. Clyde’s home brew was almost 100 per cent proof. Rumour had it that Flo ran her moped on it, and they’d always used it to kick-start the Hazy Hassocks bonfire every November the fifth.
As Flo busily filled glasses, Mitzi smiled fondly at the odd assortment of people in the living room. They were there – with the exception of Lulu, of course – because they cared and didn’t want her to be alone. Maybe it would be okay. Maybe she’d get used to all the WI-ish occupations and the cheap pensioners’ lunches at The Faery Glen, the only pub in Hazy Hassocks, and not having to remember to pluck her eyebrows and shave her legs and have clean shoes …
‘We were just saying, Mitzi dear,’ Lavender grabbed at her glass of wine, not moving a millimetre from the fire, ‘that you’ll have to find some little pastimes to keep you
from going – well – funny. Weren’t we Lobelia?’
‘We were,’ Lobelia drained her glass in one gulp and without so much as a cough or an eye-watering blink. ‘Being alone and being unwanted can bring untold misery. It’s one of the blessings that Lavender and I have, being spinsters. We may have no money and no hope of anything wonderful happening, but we have each other. There’s always someone to look out for you on the mornings when sticking your head in the gas oven looks like a good option.’
‘Er – yes, yes – I can see the advantages …’ Mitzi stared hard at the floor.
Lavender noisily sucked the last drops from her glass and held it out for a refill. ‘There’s some of us gets together in the select bar of The Faery Glen every Thursday afternoon, after we’ve collected our pensions, for a nice game of housey-housey and a schooner of Amontillado. You’d really enjoy it. Shall I put your name down?’
Not meeting Lulu’s shocked gaze, Mitzi nodded. ‘That’s – um – very kind of you.’
‘And,’ Lobelia continued as both glasses were topped-up by Clyde, ‘you might like to think about knitting some squares for our Christmas blankets. We always do lots and lots for the lonely old folks in the village.’
Mitzi nodded again. How long would it be before some fresh-faced forty-something knocked on her door with a festive blanket cobbled together in fawn and lovat?
‘And if you find you can’t make ends meet,’ Lavender swayed unsteadily towards the fire, ‘you could always take in a lodger. We’re going to let out our spare room to eke out our pensions, aren’t we, Lobelia?’
‘We are,’ Lobelia confirmed. ‘We’ve put an ad in the doctor’s surgery. And we’ll be offering breakfast as well. Cornflakes
toast. We wanted a nice young professional lady. Someone who understands how things should be done – but that damn surly leftie of a doctor says we couldn’t stipulate the – er – sex.’
‘Gender,’ Lavender looked shocked. ‘She means gender. But no, apparently we couldn’t because it’s not politically correct – tosh! – so we had to leave it at “person”. Most unsatisfactory. Still, at least we’ll get someone medical who can help us with our little ailments.’
Mitzi privately thought that by advertising in the doctor’s surgery Lav and Lob were far more likely to attract someone who was even more unstable and infirm than they were. And that any lodger unfortunate enough to take up residence would starve to death within a fortnight. She smiled encouragingly. ‘It’s a lovely idea, but I like to keep the girls’ rooms ready for them – just in case – so I don’t have room for a lodger.’
The Bandings clicked their dentures in sync at this shortsightedness.
‘Oh, you’ll find plenty to keep you amused without all that old duck’s nonsense,’ Clyde said quietly. ‘Far better things to spend your time on. There’s a fair bit of scandal and skulduggery afoot in Hazy Hassocks that you won’t have noticed being a nine-to-fiver and away from here most of the time.’
‘Really? Are Otto and Boris watering down the beer in the pub, then? Or is Mrs Elkins at Patsy’s Pantry overcharging for the iced fancies?’
Clyde stroked his moustache. ‘Oh, you may mock, my girl, but the village isn’t the little haven of tranquillity it looks on the surface. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on. You could do worse than to get yourself elected to the parish council and start sorting out the wrong ’uns.’
‘Me? But I’ve never been political—’
‘And you’ve never been unemployed neither,’ Clyde said stoically. ‘The council could do with fresh blood to purge the backhander brigade and you’ll probably be glad of something to get your teeth into, seeing as you’ll have—’
‘—so much time on my hands,’ Mitzi finished for him before he could possibly send the entire room to sleep with stories of Hazy Hassocks’s similarity to Watergate. ‘Yes, I
know. Oh … that sounds like the front door opening. Must be Doll with the chips. Excuse me …’
Practically sprinting out of the living room and across the hall, Mitzi tugged her elder daughter through the half-open door. The dark chill evening rushed in behind her, accompanied by a spat of rain and a flurry of dead leaves.
‘My saviour,’ Mitzi kissed Doll expansively, kicking the door closed. ‘You’ve just rescued me from promising to dedicate my declining years to knitting and bingo, and taking in lodgers, and boring the socks off myself on the council, and cleaning the sleaze out of Hazy Hassocks and—’
‘Have you been drinking?’ Doll surveyed her mother as she shed her suede coat and long woollen scarf and carefully hung them on the hall stand. ‘You have, haven’t you? God – not one of Clyde’s concoctions?’
‘Well, yes, but only a little glass. And I’m not drunk, honestly, although I can’t say the same for Lulu.’
‘Blimey,’ Doll grinned. ‘Is she here? Did she remember all on her own?’
‘Not exactly,’ Mitzi admitted, leading the way into the kitchen. ‘She’s left Niall. Again. Oh, those chips smell so good! I didn’t realise how hungry I was. Shall we have plates or eat them out of the paper?’
‘Paper, definitely. It’ll save washing up and it always tastes better. Oh, nice flowers – chrysanths. Very funereal. Very fitting.’ Doll grinned as she opened a separate parcel of piquant, steaming cod and distributed it into the washing basket. The purrs and squeaks indicated that Richard and Judy found it more than acceptable. ‘So why have Lu and Niall split up this time?’
‘No idea. We didn’t get that far. Probably something to do with her forgetting to remember something vital as usual.’
Doll leaned against the gaily coloured kitchen table. ‘More likely something to do with Niall being a Grade A prat. And before we go in there and start feeding the five
thousand, are you okay? Really?’
Mitzi looked at Doll, neat in her dental nurse’s uniform, her blonde hair in short no-nonsense layers – two years older and as far removed from Lulu’s second-hand grungy look as it was possible to get – and nodded. ‘I’m fine, love. I had a wobbly moment when I first came home, but it seems as though everyone in the village has found me something to do with my golden years. If I do all of it I won’t have a minute to myself to wallow in self-pity or resentment. No, seriously, I’m perfectly okay. We both know I’ve survived worse.’
Their eyes met. The silver-wedding-party revelations would remain as one of the all-time awfuls in the annals of the Blessings’ family history.
‘And on that happy note,’ Doll grinned, ‘has Dad rung to see what retirement is like?’
‘Not yet. But no doubt he will when he gets a private moment away from The Harpy. Now, let’s feed the starving hordes …’
The fish and chips were greeted by squeals of hysterical delight from the Bandings, gruff thanks from Clyde and Flo, and total silence from Lulu who had slid from the sofa and was curled on the floor, fast asleep.
By the time the paper had been scrunched into balls, Lulu had woken up, the bottles of wine emptied, and the neighbours despatched, it was half-past ten.
Mitzi stretched luxuriously in front of the fire, trying hard not to disturb Richard and Judy who had wandered in for the leftovers and settled on her lap. There really was something rather pleasant about the fact that she didn’t have to rush off to bed, and tomorrow morning wouldn’t have to be getting up at 7 for another day at the bank. She might even set the alarm as usual, then have the exquisite luxury of turning it off and cuddling down beneath the duvet for another hour or so.
She looked across the hearthrug at Doll. ‘Won’t Brett be wondering where you are?’
‘Doubt it. He’ll have fallen asleep in front of the telly, woken up about an hour ago and gone to bed. Sometimes I think he wouldn’t notice if I never came home for a week.’
Mitzi raised her eyebrows. ‘Well, he does work the most awful hours …’
‘True,’ Doll nodded. ‘And I’m used to his routine as he’s used to mine. We’re used to each other. There’s no aggro.’
‘I think me and Niall have got your share,’ Lulu mumbled from the depths of the sofa. ‘We’re aggro personified.’
‘That’s because he’s a poseur and a prat and you’re a messy grunge babe,’ Doll said cheerfully. ‘And it’s your fault for forgetting your station and abandoning your principles and going for a status-seeker rather than settling for a normal, horny-handed son of the soil.’
‘Don’t go all
on me,’ Lulu glared at her sister. ‘Just because I set my romantic sights a little higher than Postman Brett.’
Doll poked out her tongue and Lulu retaliated by flinging a shocking pink fun-fur cushion across the room. Mitzi smiled happily. It was lovely having them back together. Just like old times.
‘Actually, I always thought that you’d both chosen the wrong men. It seemed to me that if you’d swapped partners you’d fare better—’
‘Mum!’ Doll and Lulu howled in harmony. ‘Pul-ease! No way!’
Laughing, Mitzi shifted Richard and Judy on to separate knees and looked at Lulu. ‘So what was this particular row about, then? I mean you don’t have to tell us if you really don’t want to—’
‘Yes she does,’ Doll interrupted. ‘We’ve missed
Lu and Niall are the next best thing. Have you set fire to his designer arrangement of minimalist twisted willow with your joss sticks again?’