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Authors: Wendy Perriam

The Queen's Margarine

BOOK: The Queen's Margarine
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The Queen's Margarine

Wendy Perriam

In memory of my beloved daughter,
Pauline Maria
1965–2008

‘Stop watching me!' Aubrey snapped. ‘I can't stand the way you stare.'

The figurines continued to observe him with disapproving eyes, ignoring his instruction with their usual insolence. In truth, there was no escaping them, crowded as they were on mantelpiece and sideboard and every available surface, and ranged six-deep on the display-shelves, made specially in their honour, many years ago.

‘OK, I know I should have dusted you, but that was
her
job and she's dead.'

The Spanish Beauty winced; the Queen of the May pursed her lips in shock. They preferred more tactful words for death: depart this life, pass over, meet one's Maker, join the angels, go to one's true home – all prissy, lying euphemisms.

‘Anyway,' he continued, in a bid to be more amenable, if only for his dead wife's sake, ‘you'll be glad to hear a cleaner's on her way – a pillar of the church, who'll sort me out in no time, or so the vicar says.'

People must be talking – parishioners and neighbours – if they were concerned enough to send someone round. True, the dirt was building up, but then he had never been one for housework – no need, with a wife like Pearl. As bright and shining as her name, she had kept the place immaculate; refusing to let him help with even minor chores. So, naturally, he was lost without her; had no idea how or what to cook; dithered in the supermarket because the place was just too vast and everything was sold in family-sized packs – nothing for a widower living on his own.

‘I wouldn't call it living,' the Prima Ballerina sneered – one of Pearl's Royal Doulton range, poised eternally
en pointe on
the top
of the piano. ‘You've allowed yourself to go to rack and ruin, like the house.'

‘And what would your dear wife think?' the Broadway Queen chimed in. ‘She'd be deeply shocked, if she saw you now.'

He fled into the kitchen and, slumping at the table, tried not to see the grease-encrusted cooker, the smeary windows, filthy floor, the larder shelves empty of all food. Perhaps he ought to scour the place before Marilyn, the cleaner, put in an appearance, so as to give a good impression. Or was that barking when you'd hired a dog? No point trying to decide, because actually he didn't have the energy to wash so much as a teaspoon. Grief had left him limp.

Instead, he made a cup of coffee – strong, to wake him up. Since the death, he had barely slept; missed the warmth of his wife's body curled neatly next to his. It was years since they'd made love – in fact, twenty-two years, four months and two weeks. He had kept a daily tally, although not knowing at the time that Christmas Day, 1986, would be the very last occasion. Nothing had gone wrong, nor had anything been said, either then or
subsequently
, apart from a few evasive excuses on her part: headaches, indigestion, wrong time of the month. He hadn't liked to force the issue, when she was physically so delicate, and so willing and cooperative in every other way.

Returning to his chair, he sipped the scalding coffee, not caring if it burnt his mouth. Physical pain helped distract him from the mental.

He jumped as the doorbell rang – a shrill, imperious peal. Marilyn was due at ten, and it was only a quarter to, but he shuffled out to the hall and opened the front door.

‘Sorry I'm early, Mr Sadler, but better early than late, I always say. You are expecting me, I hope?'

He smiled politely. He certainly hadn't been expecting someone quite so ancient –
his
age, by the looks of it, which meant well past retirement and shambling towards dotage. The name Marilyn had led him to envisage a voluptuous young blonde, garbed in a low-cut evening gown – not this wrinkled, wizened figure in a navy nylon overall, with salt-and-pepper hair scraped up into a bun.

He ushered her in and offered her a coffee, which she hastily
refused; horrified, no doubt, by the state of the cups, some of which were even sprouting mould.

‘No, I'd better get on, Mr Sadler. There's a lot to do – that's obvious. Where would you like me to start?'

In his mind, he was still engaging with Marilyn Monroe. If it was a question of starting somewhere, well, would she kindly press her luscious lips fiercely into his, offer him her breasts to fondle, then, while he kissed the nipples, let her hands glide slowly down towards his—

‘And where do you keep the cleaning things?' The other, breastless Marilyn was scrabbling in her bag for a pair or rubber gloves.

Cleaning things were Pearl's department, although he did vaguely remember seeing brooms and mops and suchlike in the cupboard under the stairs. As he led the woman there, he watched his private Marilyn remove her wispy undergarments and step naked from the shimmering folds of her seductive satin gown.

‘My word! These dusters could do with a wash. And this mop's seen better days.'

He bristled in defence of Pearl. In the last months of her illness, it was all she could do to
breathe
, poor soul, so she could hardly be washing dusters or shopping for new mops. ‘Start in the
sitting-room
,' he instructed, trying to sound authoritative, yet pathetically relieved when she followed in his wake. He'd heard tales of bolshie cleaners; tyrants in the home, who could hoover up an employer with the dust-mites, or sluice him briskly down the sink.

‘Oh, what lovely little ornaments!' Marilyn exclaimed, her eyes darting here and there, as she surveyed the array of figurines. ‘I've never seen so many all at once. They must have cost a bomb!'

Aubrey refrained from answering. It was ill-mannered, surely, for a virtual stranger to start discussing what things cost, the minute she arrived. Porcelain was, admittedly, expensive, but why begrudge his precious Pearl her one and only extravagance?

‘Was it your late wife who collected them?'

He loathed the phrase ‘late wife'. Well-organized, efficient and punctual to a fault, Pearl had never been late for anything.

‘Oh, just look at that dear little mermaid!' Marilyn touched an admiring finger to the seaweed-like long hair. ‘Every detail perfect, even down to the fish-scales on the tail.'

‘She's called Ocean Beauty,' Aubrey informed her, as familiar with the figures' names as with those of his own friends. It had struck him sometimes that Pearl herself would have liked to be a mermaid – at least when it came to love-making. An enthusiast for kisses and cuddles, she preferred to call a halt before things moved – well, lower down. He had often felt a bit of a brute, wanting earthy, blatant sex, and wanting it so badly; not content with the flirty dalliance that meant so much to her.

‘And those darling young lovers embracing! Aren't they just romantic?'

He nodded, unconvinced. The pair were called Love's Ecstasy, but to him their embrace was essentially coquettish, with no real depth of passion. And although Pearl had bought two similar pairs – Together for Ever and So In Love – none of the six lovers ever seemed to sweat or pant (as
he'd
done, long ago, in wild transports of desire), but made do with gentle squeezes and mere touches of the lips.

‘I'd better be careful not to break them. Did your late wife have a feather duster?'

‘She's not “late”.'

‘What, dear?'

So he was no longer Mr Sadler, but now ‘dear'. It would be ‘Aubrey' next, or ‘Aub'. Surnames were going the way of typewriters and coal-fires, mincers, mangles, fountain pens – quaint, unnecessary items that had outgrown their usefulness. The bereavement counsellor had called him Aubrey without a by-your-leave. He'd had no wish to see a counsellor in the first place, let alone one who looked sixteen, and whose sole experience of death was probably that of a pet guinea-pig. She had told him he'd feel guilt and anger, as reactions to his loss. Instead, he felt bewilderment and loneliness. Anger got you nowhere – he'd seen that with his parents.

‘I said I'm worried about breaking them,' Marilyn repeated, raising her voice and obviously assuming he was deaf. His hearing was near-perfect, in fact. He could distinguish a thrush from a blackbird when the little blighters began tuning up at half-past five in the morning. While Pearl was alive, he'd been blissfully asleep at half-past five in the morning; her small blonde head cradled on his shoulder.

Marilyn was still looking at him, clearly waiting for a reply. I don't care if you smash the lot, he had to stop himself from saying. Without their doting owner, the entire collection had become critical, judgemental; always pouncing on his faults and rebuking him for this or that. The hostility was mutual. He had never actually liked these schmaltzy figurines, but because they gave such pleasure to his wife, he had gladly shared his home with them. Now, however, they only served to emphasize her absence. The fairies he particularly detested, with their soppy faces, gauzy wings and self-satisfied expressions. As for the troupe of ballerinas, their fragility and elegance made him feel too big and brash; the proverbial bull in the china shop. And, when it came to the head and hair departments,
all
the figures shamed him. Bald as a boiled egg, there was no way he could compete with their elaborate coiffures, feathered hats, Easter bonnets, bridal veils, diadems, tiaras. The angels were the worst, of course, with cascades of ringlets rippling down their backs, and impressive china haloes. Although wasn't a china halo something of an oxymoron? Reflectively, he rubbed his bare pate, wondering if all balding men should be issued with a halo, as a form of compensation.

‘Did you hear what I said?' Marilyn asked impatiently, perhaps beginning to suspect that he was not just deaf but demented.

Hastily, he switched his thoughts from the latest image forming in his mind: Marilyn Monroe, still bewitchingly naked, but now complete with wings and halo. ‘I suggest you simply leave them alone and get on with the rest of the cleaning.'

‘But they're covered in dust. They need a good seeing to.'

A phrase he hadn't heard in years. His mother had often given him ‘good seeings to' – beatings with a wooden spoon – if his father hadn't hit him first, that is. A ‘good seeing to', in the sense of sex, wasn't part of his parents' vocabulary – nor, he suspected part of their relationship. In fact, it had often struck him as extraordinary that he'd ever come to be conceived at all, and he'd concluded, in his early teens, that his mother must have picked him up cheap in the market, along with the usual cods'-heads for the cats.

‘Look, do whatever you like,' he said, throwing up his hands in defeat and retreating to the bedroom. Happy as his marriage had been, he actually believed that men and women were two quite
different species. Things had probably worked out better for the Hunter-Gatherers, when the men went out
en masse
to catch rabbit or hunt antelope, while the women stayed at home to clean the cave, mind the bairns, and pick the nuts and berries. He had always hoped to have a couple of sons, so he could do some
hunter-gathering
himself: take the wee lads camping, teach them how to snare a rabbit, dam a stream, tickle a trout. But no children had materialized – none of either sex. Royal Doulton had made good the lack, with a whole range of china bambinos; chubby-cheeked kiddie-winkies, with cutesy names to match: Bundle of Joy, Light of my Life, Precious Little Sweetheart. Pearl had tended her brood with true maternal devotion, although spared the dirty nappies, of course; the broken nights, the screams of colicky rage, not to mention the actual labour pains. He himself felt cheated. He had wanted the real thing, noise and mess and disruption notwithstanding.

Upstairs, he paced the bedroom, uncertain what to do with himself, and feeling a tad uneasy with a stranger in the house. Usually, he just sat and stared – or sat and wept – but both were out of the question with Marilyn around. Nor was he free from interference even here. Pearl's Disney range was watching him from the dressing-table: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Peter Pan. Well, at least Peter Pan was male. When it came to gender, he was outnumbered fifty to one. Some blokes would think themselves lucky with a crowd of so-called Pretty Ladies clustered around the bed. But their haughty faces and stylish frocks made him feel still more of a slob. He had never been one for dressing up and now wore the same old shabby cords every day of the week. And he kept buying shirts from the Oxfam shop, because the washing-machine was a mystery, and bound to break if he, the ignoramus, tried to pit his wits against it.

He glanced at himself in the mirror, attempting to assume the smug, refined expression of the Ladies. Futile. In place of their well-defined cheekbones, he had only jowls, whilst their rosy-pink, baby-smooth complexions made his own yellowed skin seem like an ancient piece of parched and cracking leather.

‘Isn't it time you
did
something?' the Sleeping Beauty reproved. ‘Instead of mooning around feeling sorry for yourself.'

‘That's a bit rich,' he retorted, turning on the figure. ‘What did
you
ever do except sleep for a hundred years?'

‘She's got a point, though,' Cinderella remarked. ‘I didn't meet my prince without putting in a lot of hard graft first – cleaning hearths, skivvying in the—'

‘And
I
kept house for the Seven Dwarfs,' Snow White interrupted. ‘You've only yourself to look after, yet you're making a total hash of it.'

‘Look, cut it out! Marilyn's taking care of the mess.'

‘Yes, but what happens when she's gone? She may be doing you a favour today, but she won't be here on a regular basis.'

‘Thank God,' he muttered,
sotto voce
, already counting the hours until he was on his own again. However lonely he might be, the wrong company was worse than none.

‘Are you all right in there, dear?'

The wretched woman had materialized on cue, hovering just outside the door; her voice rising in concern. If word got around that he was talking to himself, the social services might cart him off to a care home, and before he could say Alzheimer's, it would be bingo and incontinence pads.

BOOK: The Queen's Margarine
12.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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