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Authors: Virginia Budd

A Change of Pace

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© Virginia Budd 2014

 

Virginia Budd has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 2001, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published in 1990 by Piatkus Books as
The Forgeries of Jealousy

 

This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd

 

 

Titania
These are the forgeries of jealousy:

And never, since the middle summer’s spring,

Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,

By paved fountain, or by rushy brook,

Or in the beached margent of the sea,

To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,

But with thy brawls thou has disturbed our sport

William Shakespeare
A
Midsummer
Night’s
Dream

 

 

Chapter One

 

‘I’m afraid the whole house needs rewiring, ma’am. These fuse boxes, I wouldn’t care to say when they were put in — must be years back.’

‘But it is safe? The thing is, my son and I aren’t frightfully good with electrics and it would be too ghastly if the place caught fire. This old house would go up like a packet of crackers, and heaven alone knows where the nearest fire station is.’

‘It’s not that bad yet, ma’am, no need to worry. All the same, it best be done before the year’s out. You can’t trust this old wiring.’

Nerves twitching, Bet Brandon lit another cigarette, then discovered the tip was soggy; somehow or other in the general chaos, the packet seemed to have got soaked in tea. She didn’t know what she was doing smoking anyway, she was supposed to have given it up months ago. She pulled herself together. ‘The main thing is, it’s all-right at the moment.’

‘Let’s say you won’t be needing the fire engine yet awhile, ma’am, I wouldn’t go further than that.’ The man from the Electricity emerged from the cupboard in which he’d been crouching, and after carefully brushing the cobwebs out of his hair, replaced his uniform cap and picked up his bag of tools. He decided against any further words of caution, the lady looked harassed enough as it was. Instead he smiled, and with a flourish flicked the mains switch to ‘On’. ‘All-ready to cook your dinner now, ma’am, so I’ll be on my way. And may I wish you and yours the very best of luck in your new home.’

‘How ... how kind. Thank you so much for your help and — ’

‘They say they can’t get that oak chest into the back bedroom, Mum, it won’t go round the corner.’ Diz Brandon, spectacles glinting, hair on end, a Roman candle of a boy whose enthusiasm was only increased by each fresh disaster, stood in the kitchen doorway. Just looking at him made his mother aware of her own exhaustion, and for a brief moment, as a solitary traveller in the desert might long for a cup of water, she longed to share his enthusiasm. ‘All-right, I’m coming,’ she said, vainly trying to remove the piece of damp cigarette paper adhering to her upper lip, ‘but why on earth did they want to try and get it there in the first place? Any idiot could have seen it wouldn’t go.’

‘Do stop griping, Mum, I thought you said you wanted it up in that little room.’

‘Of course I didn’t. I meant the other chest, the one that was in Dad’s study.’

‘That your boy then, ma’am? Helping you out, is he?’ The man from the Electricity shook with silent laughter, apparently convulsed at his own joke. He thrust a card into Bet’s hand. ‘Here’s my card, ma’am, if you need me. I’ll be on my way.’ Her head was beginning to ache and she couldn’t remember where she’d put down her cigarette. There came a distant shout from the removal men; to hell with the cigarette, the way she felt, she didn’t care if the damn place did burn down.

Hours later, mother and son stood together in the front porch and watched the departing furniture van hit the gatepost. ‘Silly buggers,’ Diz said, pulling a piece of packing straw out of his hair, ‘it must have been the tea you gave them.’ Bet closed her eyes. She did wish he wouldn’t make quite so many jokes. She decided to ignore this one. ‘Well, all I can say is, I shall simply deduct whatever it costs to mend the gate from those wretched people’s bill. Of all the moronic, inefficient outfits — and they weren’t even cheap, either.’

‘If you ask me, that old one was a bit past it, he had to sit down and have a quick rest after getting your bed upstairs and I didn’t like the sound of his breathing, poor old devil.’

‘In that case he shouldn’t have been doing the job in the first place.’

‘No choice probably, had to take what he could get. You can’t chop and change jobs these days, Mum. He probably has a wife and ten kids to keep, and the DHSS aren’t much help.’

‘Look, darling, why don’t you take Tib for a walk? He’s been cooped up all day and it’ll be dark soon. God knows where his lead is. If you can’t find it you’d better use string, we don’t want him running off.’

‘OK, OK, I can take a hint! We might as well go down to the village, I’d like to have a nose round the place anyway.’ Still bubbling, he hurried away. A moment later came the sound of hysterical barking, followed by pattering paws on carpetless stairs, then the slam of a distant door, then silence. Bet stayed where she was, hands in trouser pockets, looking up at the ossified remains of long dead files trapped in the cobwebs adhering to the porch ceiling. At her feet an angry black beetle, disturbed, crunched over the cracked tiles and scuttled to safety.

Perversely, now she was alone she realised that that was actually the last thing she wanted. Of course she would have to get used to being alone now, she had no option. What had Dr Ram said that last time she saw him? ‘It is when the mourning time is over, Mrs Brandon, and ordinary life begins again, this is the time to watch. It is then that the psyche can play some strange tricks. I know this, Mrs Brandon, at first hand, and indeed it is true. My own very dear wife, when she passed on — it was hard, very hard. And it is harder still when friends say it is time to put away the grieving and stand upon one’s own two feet ... this is the testing time.’ Bet shivered. Dear, wise Dr Ram, if only he were here now.

Suddenly a swallow swooped down out of nowhere, making her jump, then just as suddenly vanished. Hadn’t the swallows gone yet, it must be time, surely? She stepped out of the porch on to the churned-up gravel and squinted up at the sky. What a perfect day, and this was the first time she’d noticed it. Sun shone through high, flying white clouds, the sky was a brilliant blue, there was a hint of gold and brown in the trees. Rooks cawed evocatively from their colony in the cedar tree that reared massively out of the unkempt lawn; from somewhere in the woods across the fields behind it came the raucous cry of a cock pheasant. Bet turned her face to the sun, blinking in its warmth, and unexpectedly felt a twinge of excitement almost childlike in its intensity. When on earth had she last felt like that? Not for years and years, not since she and Miles were married. She smiled, seeing herself from outside, as one did as a child: a heroine in a romance, winning a beauty competition or the Latin prize at school, marrying a duke, saving someone from drowning. What was the name of that book Dad used to read to them?
Maddy
and
the
Haunted
Rectory
. How she’d longed to be Maddy!

‘The psyche can play some strange tricks ... ’ And what on earth, she wondered, as she pulled off the scarf she’d worn round her head all day and let the warm air blow through her hair, had Dr Ram meant by that? She stood there for another minute, thinking about it, then with a shrug (she would no doubt find out soon enough if there was anything to find out) turned back into the house, shutting the front door firmly behind her. What she needed now was a drink, and if it was only half-past five, too bad!

Plonked down at the table in the big, old-fashioned kitchen, surrounded by half-empty packing cases and unfinished cups of tea, the only sounds the humming of the fridge and the chattering of a magpie outside in the yard, she reached for the half-bottle of gin she’d had the wit to bring with them from London and poured herself a generous measure. There was nothing but tap water to top it up with, so that the first sip or two tasted like medicine, but after that she forgot the taste and simply let the alcohol run through her; dangerous, deadening, blurring the edges of life. One could get used to this! She took another sip and wondered what Miles would say if he could see her.

Perhaps he could; perhaps against all odds he might be able to. But he wouldn’t mind, he’d know she had good reason for doing it. That was how Miles was, sensible, tolerant, kind. Dear Miles! She dug her nails into the palms of her hands so hard it hurt. Dr Ram had suggested she try this, and to her surprise it worked — the sharp, physical pain serving, just for the time being, to blot out the agony of loss. Now, as the pain receded, she felt safe to let her mind wander back over the events of the past year. Perhaps, after all, they had been lucky. It had all happened so quickly. A year ago they had had absolutely no inkling of what was about to happen.

She and Miles had just returned from holiday, a busy winter ahead of them; Nell was married and living in Fulham, Diz was studying for next summer’s GCSEs. There was a routine visit to the doctor — Miles’s tummy was playing up; holiday food, they’d thought, too much oil. An X-ray and ... there it was. Three months or possibly less, the hospital had said. In fact it was only six weeks.

They’d said goodbye in New End Hospital, Hampstead, its antiseptic tower block and whizzing lifts more like an airport than a hospital. ‘I’m sorry, my duck,’ Miles said, ‘I don’t seem able to crack this one. I know you’re supposed to be able to reverse cancer, but it seems beyond me; perhaps I didn’t have enough time.’ He was quiet for a minute, reserving his strength. ‘I suppose, as an experience, there’s an outside chance it might be an interesting one — death, I mean. It’s you ... ’ He paused again. ‘Please be all-right. Financially you’ll be OK — just about. The kids will survive, Nell has Bernard, and Diz will work something out. But you ... ’

‘I’ll be all-right,’ she had said. ‘You mustn’t worry about me.’ But then of course she hadn’t known, couldn’t even have imagined, what life without him would be like.

After that she remembered standing outside the hospital, looking down towards South End Green at the winter trees stark above the scurrying traffic, and thinking that this was going to be far worse than anything that had ever happened to her before.

Of the weeks immediately following Miles’ death she recalled very little. Had she been doped? The funeral was a blur. A lot of that time she’d felt angry, she did know that. She supposed she must have behaved fairly well — long training as the wife of a liberal-minded civil servant would have taken care of that — but the anger had been there all right, in fact still was. Another thing she remembered was overhearing her sister, Pol, talking to a friend on the phone — ‘My dear, Bet’s coping marvellously, but of course one knew she would’ — and for some reason feeling quite murderous.

But almost the worst thing had been Tib. Miles was a dog man — in the main, he once confessed, preferring dogs to people — and Tib was an integral part of the household. Every weekday evening he would position himself from six o’clock onwards at Miles’s study window, waiting to be the first to spot his master’s tall, weary figure, briefcase under arm, climbing the steep, winding hill that led from Hampstead tube station to their house. At the sound of Miles’s key in the lock he would rush into the hall, paws scrabbling wildly on the parquet floor, to greet him as he opened the front door ... After Miles’s death Tib became quite simply inconsolable. Diz did his best; had him to sleep on his bed, took him for long walks on Hampstead Heath, tried to make him play with his ball, but all to no avail. For weeks he barely ate, never relaxed, listened endlessly for the click of a key in the lock, the sound of a voice: ‘Hullo Tibby, you lazy sod, and what have you been up to today.’

When was it she’d first realised she no longer wanted to stay on in Thorn Lane? She and Miles had bought no. 10 Thorn Lane, Hampstead, soon after their marriage; it was the only home Nell and Diz had ever known, and naturally enough everyone assumed she would go on living there — she did herself. It was Mr Tyler’s visit that had triggered things off. He’d come to clear a blocked drain. ‘You’ll be needing that guttering renewed before next winter, Mrs Brandon,’ he said as they stood together in the back garden peering up at the roof, and she’d thought suddenly. But I won’t be here next winter, I simply could not bear to be.

At first she told no one of her growing feeling against the house — guilt, perhaps. Why she should have felt guilty she wasn’t sure, but she had. Despite the guilt, though, the feeling wouldn’t go away, and as the daffodils began to flower once again in the smart little gardens behind the smart little houses of Thorn Lane, so her longing to leave the place grew. She found herself beginning to hate the Hampstead she had loved: the people, the traffic, the trendy boutiques and bijou restaurants; and, at last, the house itself.

When she finally got round to broaching the subject of a possible move to Diz, his reaction came as something of an anti-climax. ‘Why not?’ he said listlessly. ‘If it’s me you’re worrying about, don’t. Once I’ve done GCSEs this summer, I can easily do my A-levels somewhere else — unless, that is, you were planning to go away somewhere on your own?’

‘Of course I wasn’t planning to go somewhere on my own!’ she’d shouted. Ever since Miles’ death she seemed to feel she could only get through to people by shouting. ‘Don’t overreact, Bet,’ Pol said, ‘we’re not all deaf. I know you’ve been through a lot, but all the same ... ’ ‘That’s all right then,’ Diz had said, and gone on doling out Pedigree Chum for Tib’s dinner.

Two days later Nell came to tea and produced her plan.

Nell and Bernie had been married a year by then. They’d met originally at an office party given one Christmas by the monster insurance group for which they both worked. Initially, neither Bet nor Miles had greatly taken to Bernie Sparsworth. Indeed, Miles remained lukewarm until the end, and had never got beyond addressing his son-in-law formally as Bernard. Bernie was a small, dark, fashion-conscious young man with a drooping Edwardian moustache, who wore what he called three-piece suits in the very latest style, and went in for jogging. He was one of the very few people Bet knew who, against all odds, continued to maintain the nineteenth-century view of the inevitable progression of the human race; citing, with an optimism touching in its simplicity, anything from the microchip to the latest fast food revolution to prove his point. Miles always claimed that Bernie secretly believed real history had only begun at his, Bernie’s, birth in 1953. Nevertheless, Nell and Bernie did seem ideally suited — even Miles admitted it. Nell and her father were never close, indeed Nell had always been a little frightened of him. He would occasionally make a sarcastic remark, cutting across her innocuous chatter, and she would flush and her voice take on a shrill note, the aggressive pose hiding the very real hurt. She had been upset by her father’s death, but not in the same way as Diz.

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