'Hi, Brian,' called Carol from the top of a pair of tall steps. 'I'll be with you in a tick.'
'No hurry,' Brian said, shoving his hands in the pockets of the tweed jacket he wore over his uniform shirt. Propping his backside on a Hessian potato sack, he allowed his thoughts to turn to Audrey; not that he'd thought of much else since that early morning call. He wondered what she was doing now. The dawn call, coming out of the blue, had so astonished him that he had forgotten all about the task she had ahead of her. While it could have been the reason she rang he preferred to think her motivation came about by a more romantic desire. It was not until she rang off that he gave the matter any attention. He made a mental note to arrange something for later in the day. Maybe send some flowers, or chocolates.
'Yes, Brian. What can I get you.'
Blinking back to his surroundings, he stifled a yawn.
'No sleep?' Carol's teeth flashed as she grinned.
'I'll have a thick white sliced and no cheek, thank you.'
Carol peeped at him from under her lashes, trying to determine whether he was serious or merely frivolous.
Giving her a wink, Brian said, 'You wouldn't believe me if I told you I'd spent the night dreaming of you so there's no point in lying.'
Carol slapped a wrapped loaf in front of him. 'I'll set my Alan on you if you don't mind yourself.'
He raised his hands in mock surrender, 'Oh no!' he cried, in a high pitched voice. 'Please, not Alan. Anyone but Alan.'
Carol giggled and reached across the counter to swipe his upper arm. Ignoring his feigned wounded cry she quizzed him about Audrey. 'Is that right she's back?'
'Yes,' he replied, and before she could pump him for facts, he added, 'I'll let her tell you everything you want to know.'
'I'm itching to find out about the terrible racket Alan and I heard inside her place.'
'Like I said, Carol, Audrey will explain.'
'Can't you give me a clue?'
'If I did, you'd have it painted on a board and hiked round the square before the count of ten.'
'Aw, come on, Bri,' she wheedled.
'I'll come anywhere you want to take me, dear heart, except round the square toting your gossip.'
Effecting a pout, Carol stuck out the tip of her pink tongue. 'Be like that then, Mr Policeman.'
Pulling a face, Brian left the store. He was totally beguiled by the spontaneity of their banter, unable to remember when he last felt so uninhibited. He had Audrey to thank for that.
Prior to going home, he popped into Settons, extracting a Gazette from the rack on the way in. He purchased forty Silk Cut, a box of matches, and the paper, then started home, scanning the headlines as he walked. Later on, he meant to visit Maggie to discuss David's need for a home. Until then he would have a read and maybe take a bath.
He still failed to understand why David had crawled like a deserter into his loft rather than go home to his mother. He had badgered him for answers but, in his usual surly manner, David merely alluded to trouble at home. Whilst not actually instructing him to keep out of his affairs, he implied that interference would not be welcome. However, Brian felt obliged to intervene, and that's why he intended to call on Maggie.
Following his eviction from the loft, David had moved to stay with one Edward Watson, a known drug addict and homosexual. Thankfully, according to David, it couldn't be a permanent residence because Teddy had a liaison with another bloke, and the other bloke didn't care for a threesome. According to Brian, the whole scenario needed sorting out. Therefore, this afternoon was an urgent mission; since he could not order David's return to his mother's house, he would try to persuade Maggie to change her mind.
Climbing into the car, Brian tugged the seat belt and sat for a moment with his eyes closed, endeavouring to conquer his apprehension over the approaching audience with his ex-wife. He twisted the key and the engine roared. He switched on the radio in an effort to relax, though the opportunity to annihilate a scotch would have been a preferable panacea. Bluegrass music drawled to the swish of the windscreen wipers, an expert breaking in to deliver prolonged and inessential opinions instead of playing fully the songs he raved about. This conjured thoughts of David, who was an erstwhile enthusiast of country ballads; accordingly, since he had a thirst for imperturbable composure, he switched it off.
The rain worsened as he entered Maggie's district. Ordinarily, he was a faultless driver (he had been commended many times for his ability in handling vehicles) but this journey was getting on his nerves and the perpetual zing of the wipers was distracting; hence, losing concentration, he zoomed through a set of lights, on red, forcing a Vauxhall driver to brake sharply. The driver, who was eloquent in offensive nouns, rightly hurled abuse and the emphatic revilement resulted in Brian, who was severely daunted by his performance, slowing down and driving more cautiously until he instinctively guessed he was nearing his destination. He switched off the wipers and peered through the smeared screen at the dimly lit road. Murchison Road was the next on the left. The knots in his stomach tightened when eventually the road-sign came into view for it had been a while since he saw his ex-wife and he had no idea what her mood would be.
He drew up outside the house and stared at the black and white exterior. An iron lantern swung laboriously above the transom, illuminating the long needles of silver rain. Inside the dark windows, a dim chink of light showed on top of an inner door. He planted his elbows on the steering wheel and massaged his fingers. 'Well, Brian lad,' he muttered. 'Here we are. All you've got to do now is get the hell in there and get it over with.'
Brian ascended the two steps and pushed the bell, setting off musical chimes ... a well known tune, although he couldn't recall the name.
'Who is it?'
'It's me, Brian.' He took a deep breath as a bolt was drawn back and a key turned in the lock. Maggie Porter peered over the brass safety chain before opening the door.
The entrance hall was lit by a single lamp shining onto a writing desk. Above it, in a pine frame, was an enlarged snapshot of Maggie, on which David had scrawled I love you, Mummy. A good photograph, showing to advantage her dark attractiveness.
The comfortable sitting room was uncomplicated and undemanding. A simple wine coloured, cottage style three-piece faced a small television set. Abutting one chair, a large footstool was adorned with knitting and newspapers. A central, unlit chandelier glowed with the reflection of two shaded wall lights.
Brian sat down and adjusted a cushion behind him; a herb cushion if the emanating whiff was anything to go by. 'Is Malcolm in?' he asked.
Brian was relieved. It would have been too embarrassing discussing David in front of his second son. Amiable as Malcolm was, the whole conversation would have been peppered with disparagements.
Maggie listened attentively while he reported David's business problems and homelessness but he got the impression she did so out of politeness. He was not surprised when she said, determinedly, that she couldn't have him there.
'I assumed you'd be pleased to help him out.'
'Brian, I've had as much as I can take of him. He's been told never to come here again and, quite honestly, I don't care where he lives.'
She watched Brian from underneath her lashes, in much the same way Carol did earlier in the day, and the connection reminded him of Audrey. He moaned to himself; he had forgotten to check on her. Though the realisation made him want to rush off and make amends, he made himself lean further into the herb cushion and wait for Maggie to carry on.
As it turned out, her tale was a lot more mind-boggling than his. It involved Ben, a man friend whom David apparently disliked. He couldn't, she told him, get on with any man she got friendly with. One night, a dreadful incident occurred; David arrived at the house, uninvited, while she and Ben were upstairs.
'He wasn't due,' she explained, 'although he often turned up without warning on a Thursday night. If Ben was here, we regulated ourselves so that we'd be downstairs if and when he came, only things had got, sort of, hectic ... you know how it is ... and we were still in bed.'
I'm not sure I want to hear this, Brian thought.
Maggie went on to recount how David shouted several times from the foot of the stairs, then stormed up when he got no reply, bursting into her room without stopping to knock. When he found her with Ben he went crazy, standing over them and screaming at him to stop fucking his mother. She defined his eyes as glinting like steel, and said his neck seemed to retreat into his shoulders. He had dragged Ben off her, screeching at him, and demanding to know what obscene things he had done to her.
Brian snapped his mouth shut when Maggie caught his eye, only now realising that his jaw had sagged in sickening dismay. He was aware of David's obsession with his mother but he would never have imagined him to be capable of such bizarre behaviour. 'What on earth did you do?'
'Ben hit him. Then I threw him out. Don't worry about him, Brian. He's got plenty of places he can stay. It's lack of money that stops him lodging with his so-called friends. I'm quite prepared to help out with that side of things.'
'I did search the estate agents for somewhere rented. I'm prepared to offer financial support, but I can't have him in the house. We don't get on well enough.'
'Neither do we any more. I do have Ben to consider.'
And I have Audrey, Brian reflected. 'Right,' he said aloud. 'I'll tell Dave to get off his backside and find accommodation. And I'll sort the details. Is that how you want to play it?
Brian waited while Maggie unfastened the brass chain. 'Is all that on account of Dave?' he asked.
Maggie told him she had no choice. David had refused to give up the key. 'Malcolm's going to change the locks,' she said, and added that it came to something when your own kid had to be locked out.
She pulled open the door and stood back to let Brian go through. He wavered for a moment, contemplating her pleasant countenance, wondering how they came to rear such a strange son.
'Do you still see Audrey?' Maggie asked, flushing beneath his gaze.
Brian sighed. 'If you'd asked me a few weeks ago, the answer would've been no. We've started to edge back recently, though I'm not sure if anything will come of it.'
'Do you want it to?'
Thoughtfully, Brian leaned an elbow on the wall and rested his head on his hand. He was hesitant about acknowledging a love that could so easily be thrown back.
'If it's what you want, then I wish you well.'
'Thanks. I've got a gut feeling that pretty soon things'll be sorted between us. I'm certainly keeping fingers crossed.'
Maggie grabbed his free hand and stretched up to peck his cheek. 'I hope you make it, my dear, then she can come with you to meet Ben.'
Brian would have enjoyed staying longer to talk about Ben and Audrey, the future, and what each of them expected and looked forward to. For now, though, he was happy to leave things unsaid and wait until a more definite promise was in the offing.
(to be continued)