Authors: Christina Jones
Tags: #Fiction, #General
‘He said I had to give up work.’
‘What?’ Doll exploded. ‘Oh, God – not the giving up
work and becoming a mother routine?’
Lulu shook her head in a castanets clack of beads and braids. ‘No, of course not. He just wants me to have a proper job. One where I can wear a suit and drive a hatchback and produce business cards from my designer wallet and—’
‘And pigs might!’ Doll snorted into the fun-fur cushion. ‘If he wanted to shack up with the businesswoman of the year he should have thought of it long before he moved you into his yuppie barn.’
‘It’s a loft,’ Lulu said. ‘A young executive’s loft apartment. I think he saw me as a challenge and thought he’d convert me in time.’
‘Like the loft,’ Doll giggled. ‘No, sorry … go on then – why does he want you to give up your job? Apart from the fact that you spend all day in that weirdo animal charity shop amongst other people’s junk and dirty clothes and earn slightly less than a paper boy.’
‘That’s about it really,’ Lulu sighed. ‘He says he’s had enough of me earning a pittance and not contributing enough to the communal outgoings and always being out on protests. And when we go to his business functions he says I look like a bag lady. And he said I wouldn’t know a designer label if it sat on my shoulder and introduced itself. And he says I fill his space with clutter and forget everything … All of which is true and I’m fed up with arguing about it – so I think we’ve just got to accept that we’re incompatible.’
‘And it’s only taken you three years to realise this, has it? Everyone else knew it straight away. I never understood why you got together with him in the first place. You were always chalk and cheese – me and Brett reckoned you’d end up with a
seller, which would have been far more acceptable. It’s not even as though Niall’s good looking. A good-looking prat would at least have some advantages.’
Lulu shrugged. ‘I think I was a bit impressed by him. He was so – well – different from the other blokes I’d been out
with. At least he had a job … no, a profession. As a recruitment consultant he’s a few steps up the status ladder than a bloody postman.’
‘Ooooh! Hark at you! You who swore to forgo all material things in the worthy pursuit of animal welfare. And what the hell is a recruitment consultant anyway? He’s just another flashy suit in an office trying to keep his own job by putting other poor sods into unsuitable occupations and—’
‘It’s better than riding a bike and carrying a sack and stuffing things through letter boxes!’
‘Girls …’ Mitzi intervened as she had for more years than she cared to remember. ‘Before we get too far down this well-trodden path and you start pulling one another’s pigtails, does anyone fancy coffee?’
‘Not for me, thanks.’ Doll uncurled her long black-stockinged legs and stood up. ‘I ought to be going. It’s early surgery tomorrow and I’ll be up to my elbows in decaying molars before you know it.’ She leaned over the back of the sofa and tugged a couple of Lulu’s braids for good measure. ‘Cheer up, Lu. If you’ve really left him this time and are moving in, at least you can help Mum choose her tank tops and fluffy slippers and advise her on the pick of the daytime telly programmes—’
Mitzi beat Lulu to the fun-fur cushion by a nanosecond and hurled it at Doll’s departing back.
Having made sure that Doll was safely in her car – not that there was really any likelihood of her being abducted on the front path – and waved until the tail lights turned the corner, Mitzi shivered and locked the front door behind her. The house snuggled and settled round her in cosy warmth. It was her cocoon. Once the novelty of endless days with no work had worn off it might well be different, but for the first few weeks she could surely convince herself she was on holiday, couldn’t she?
Lulu’s bags had disappeared from the hall and the living room was empty. There was to be no return to the minimalist loft or the unlovely Niall tonight, then. Mitzi
switched off the fire and the lamps and wondered if Lulu’s heart would be broken by the end of the relationship as her own had been. Probably not. She sincerely hoped not anyway. That sort of pain was something she wouldn’t wish on anyone.
‘Night-night,’ she called to the washing basket as she turned off the kitchen lights.
Richard and Judy didn’t reply, but she could hear them making cosy whimpering noises in their sleep. It was all a ploy, of course. Part of the nightly routine. They gave her half an hour to warm up the bed, then they shot upstairs and squirmed their way beneath the duvet, spending all night curled against her, as comforting as matching grey silky hot-water bottles.
All in all it had been a lovely evening, she thought, as she climbed the stairs, crossed the landing noting that the light was on in Lu’s room and opened her own bedroom door. Mitzi nodded sagely to herself as she dragged on her pyjamas. Tomorrow was the start of a whole new life … that was obviously the way to look at things. As a challenge. Setting herself new targets. New goals. Something new each day until she felt as though there was a purpose and … the shrill of the telephone interrupted her life-plan.
‘Bugger …’ She scrabbled around on the dressing table for the upstairs handset. ‘Okay, okay … Where the hell is it? And if it’s Niall ringing to speak to Lulu then he’ll get damn short shrift – ah!’ She rescued the phone from a jumble of make-up, moisturisers and cotton-wool balls. The life-laundry was clearly well overdue.
‘Hello? Oh, it’s you …’ She pulled a face as she recognised her ex-husband’s voice.
‘Mitzi, sorry it’s so late,’ Lance whispered. ‘But I had to call to see how you were.’
‘It’s nearly midnight,’ Mitzi hopped around with only one leg in her pyjama trousers. ‘And if you’re whispering because Jennifer might hear you then it’s probably better that you didn’t ring at all.’
‘Don’t be like that, love. You know Jennifer doesn’t like me calling you, but she’s asleep – I think – and I couldn’t let today go by without seeing if you’d survived.’
‘Of course I’ve survived. And don’t call me “love”,’ Mitzi muttered with the handset lodged beneath her chin as she finally managed to pull her pyjama trousers on. ‘It was fine. It is fine. It will be fine—’
‘Give the bloody declensions a break,’ Lance chuckled. ‘I would have come over but Jennifer didn’t go to the gym and I couldn’t get away.’
‘For heaven’s sake! Listen to yourself. You make me sound like some sort of mistress. We had a great night – the girls were here, and Flo and Clyde, and Lav and Lob came round, and we had a bit of a party.’
‘Oh – good …’ Lance sounded wistful. ‘As long as you weren’t alone.’
‘No, I wasn’t – but even if I had been it’s hardly your responsibility any more is it? Look, I appreciate you phoning but everything’s okay. Now hang up before Jennifer wakes up and demands to know who you’re talking to. Oh, and by the way, Lu’s here. She’s left Niall. Goodnight.’
With a smug smirk, knowing that Lance would be rattled, and probably Jennifer wouldn’t have been asleep at all and would ask probing and awkward questions all night, Mitzi clambered into bed and reached for her book. Richard and Judy soft-footed into the bedroom and landed on either side of her, making a huge fuss of trampling the duvet into the correct shape and purring loudly before settling down with twin feline sighs.
Mitzi stroked them both and smiled. She was safe and warm, Lulu was tucked up in the next bedroom, Doll was at home with Brett, and the cats were happy. What more could she ask? Okay, so now she was retired life was going to be pretty boring, but she could cope with that.
She started to read, listening to the wind spattering the rain against the window outside. The book was a blood and
guts crime novel, with all sorts of mayhem being thrown at the poor heroine and the tension being ratcheted up in every paragraph. Mitzi settled happily and sleepily into her pillows to enjoy the second-hand thrills. It was clearly the only way she was going to get any sort of buzz now. After all, nothing exciting was ever going to happen to her in Hazy Hassocks, was it? She’d just have to get used to being bored rigid for the rest of her life. She sighed and turned another page.
It was still raining when Mitzi woke. She opened her eyes, sleepily stroked Richard and Judy and realised that she didn’t have to get up. Not this morning or any other morning. With a small grunt of pleasure she hauled the duvet further over her shoulders and closed her eyes again. Another five minutes’ sleep would be blissful.
An hour and a half later, staggering downstairs just in time to see a far more perky Lulu off to work, Mitzi enjoyed the lazy luxury of three cups of coffee in front of the television while still in her pyjamas. Then, having fed Richard and Judy, she showered, dressed quickly and popped next door for the promised elevenses with Flo.
As this involved four more cups of coffee, a packet of Viennese Whirls, and the Spanish Inquisition on Lulu’s defunct love life, by midday Mitzi was both jizzing with caffeine and rather shell-shocked by her first self-indulgent morning.
She stood dithering on Flo’s front path beneath her dripping umbrella as the burnished leaves flapped and slapped damply round her feet. Should she go home straight away and start the life-laundry? Or should she go into the village and find out exactly what was on offer for a lady of leisure in Hazy Hassocks?
It seemed so odd not only to have a choice, but also to have all the time in the world in which to make it. Used to
running to a tight schedule with her day neatly mapped, this endless stretching ahead of time seemed a bit daunting. So, why not put all these extra hours to good use and do both things? Village first, and then she’d come home and have a late lunch and make a start on clearing out the years of accumulated tat. Lulu could then take it all to her animal welfare charity shop, so they’d both be happy.
Delighted that she’d made two major decisions in a matter of minutes and therefore wasn’t losing either her business acumen or her marbles, Mitzi turned up the collar of her trench coat, pushed her umbrella into the wind and headed towards Hazy Hassocks’s high street.
From the dental surgery at one end to The Faery Glen at the other, the high street wove its sinuous way through a random planting of stately sycamores and a mishmash of shopfronts. A few of the buildings, skew-whiff and half-timbered, dated back centuries to the original village; others had been added on and embellished over each decade since. Between them they offered practically everything anyone could wish for, if you looked hard enough. Hazy Hassocks residents only ever needed to make sorties into Winterbrook – or further afield to Reading or Newbury – for things like personal banking and superstores and the joys of Marks & Spencer.
The first thing that struck Mitzi was how many people there were. Not shoppers as such, more moochers. People, even on this wet and blustery day, drifting from shop window to shop window, simply staring. As if being buffeted by a chill north-westerly and having raindrops trickling down their necks while window-shopping on the high street was preferable to being somewhere else doing nothing at all.
And the second thing she noticed was that they were all about her own age.
Were there really that many baby boomers either out of work or retired? Had she just been added to the tip of a growing middle-aged redundancy mountain? Was every
industry being taken over by youthful Troy and Tyler clones?
It was thoroughly dispiriting to think that she was now part of this unseen grey army, although she realised she was luckier than most financially, at least in the short-term. Early retirement meant she’d receive her small monthly bank pension in full. Several of her kept-on colleagues had muttered jealously that their pensions would probably be worthless in ten years’ time. And of course there was also the leaving present cheque which she was about to deposit in the building society. And, thank heavens, the house was paid for – the last mortgage payment had been made merely weeks before she and Lance celebrated their silver wedding.
She quickly pushed aside the other less-savoury silverwedding memories, but once Lance had decamped with the vacuous Jennifer to her maisonette on the far side of Hazy Hassocks, he’d been very good about still paying his share of the bills while Lu and Doll had lived at home.
No, while money wasn’t abundant, losing her job in the bank hadn’t rendered her immediately destitute, and if she was extremely careful she might even manage to survive without working full-time.
But she didn’t want to. It came as quite a shock, standing there outside Patsy’s Pantry with its pyramids of fairy cakes and iced buns just visible through the steamy windows, that she actually was going to miss being useful more than anything at all. She didn’t want to become invisible, another early retiree statistic. She wanted to do something with the rest of her life.
Having paid the cheque into her savings account and exchanged damp pleasantries with the three cashiers in the building society, Mitzi headed towards the library. If there was anything at all on offer in Hazy Hassocks then it was sure to be posted on the library’s notice board.
There was a bit of a scrum in the doorway. As the library was housed in a long, low ex-Nissen hut, going in and coming out became somewhat confusing during busy
periods. Eight people with buggies, shopping trolleys and umbrellas were thrusting out as a similar number, equipped much the same only wetter, were thrusting in.
Mitzi stepped back to let the mêlée sort itself out.
‘Right old bugger, this, eh?’ the man in front of her, muffled up to his dripping trilby with various scarves, muttered. ‘You can go in front of me if you like, duck. If you’ve got books, that is. I ain’t got books. I’m just going in for a bit of a sit down and a read of the paper.’
‘Oh, right – no, I haven’t got books either.’
The dripping trilby turned to look at her. ‘You’re a new one, then? For the table by the radiator? Hmmm, we might be able to fit you in. Mildred dropped dead in Big Sava last week – them queues can be the very devil – and I don’t think we’ve replaced her yet.’
‘Oh, God, I mean – er – how sad … that is, about Mildred … and that’s very kind of you, but I was just going to have a look at the notice board.’