Candyfloss and Pickles – Chapter Two: Andante
The light persisted in its piercing monotone all afternoon, finally softening into blotchy shadow as the seawater succumbed to a superior force and allowed itself to be dragged slowly up the beach.
Still the girl, at closer sight a young woman, sat on her rock. As constant as the light and sea had been during the day, she too took to movement as the thin waves arched and slithered around all obstructions, coming close to wetting her feet.
Either she had nowhere to go or such a definite destination that she didn’t want to get there. Her face, thin and serious, hinted determination, yet not so determined this evening.
The day hadn’t been especially cold, as the cloud blanket and still air had kept the temperature up, but now that the unseen sun had dipped and the orange blur of the streetlamps emphasised the murky dusk, a chill nipped any body, any limb, any extremity.
To keep her feet dry the young woman slid sideways off her rock and landed on coarse sand untouched by this tide. She hoisted a large travel bag over her left shoulder before lifting an even heavier one with her right hand. She’d travelled a long way to Fryeston and, unlike day-trippers who passed through in an hour or two, was minded to stay.
Weighed by her baggage and sinking into the damp sand, what might have been a vigorous march up the beach slowed to a trudge. From patches of black sand up to shingle, from shingle up to larger stones, from larger stones up the steps and at the top of the steps on to the flat of the promenade, at last she reached the road that led to her destination.
Any of the seafront shops and cafés that had opened their doors during the day had now shut them, their customers long gone. The promenade was deserted: no people, no traffic, no strutting seagulls. It was a desolate road she began to tread and she felt it keenly as the wind began to whip up.
On she walked, determined now, along the bleak pavement: past the shops, past the sleepy hotels and guesthouses, past the amusement arcade still open, past unending rows of eccentric dwellings, some lit, some not, until, reaching the kerb as it curved round and up a side road, she stopped.
A choice: certainty straight ahead or the diversionary lure of curiosity to the left. Her right arm now ached from carrying the heavy bag, while her left shoulder ached just as much from supporting the smaller one and her shoes pinched at her sore feet. A short walk ahead and she could be inside, ending hundreds of miles of travelling on this winter day.
But, too inquisitive, she started up the side road, along the narrow pavement, lined by a terrace of hard, old, stone-faced houses facing a similar terrace opposite. The houses stood like rugged cliffs ranged against wind, storm and rain. Not happy, carefree frontages, but masks lined and wrinkled by a harsh existence.
Darker than the more open road from the promenade, this side road, Abdication Avenue, was in full gloom. While the odd car straddled the kerb, overlapping the pavement in defiance of double yellow lines, there was no moving traffic.
The young woman walked on a hundred yards, fifty, ten, two, one, before stopping, out of habit it seemed, in front of a faded, pale blue front door with tarnished brass figures indicating a two and a seven below a grimy frosted pane. Perhaps she intended a moment’s thought.
But before anything sprang into her mind, the door swung inwards letting a young man swing out, almost knocking her back off the kerb and into the road.
“Piano man!” Greeting and warning combined.
“Claire! What are you doing here?”
Pausing in the hope of a spontaneous explanation bubbling into her mind, she realised quickly that her only hope was to talk one out of nowhere.
“I was passing, so I thought I’d . . .”
“Check up on me; I mean, see how I am.”
The exchange faltered in awkwardness, letting the strengthening wind interrupt with a gust, before the man grabbed her bag from her hand and swung back with it into the house.
“You’d better come in.” His words floated out from the door as he disappeared inside.
“But, Vaughan, you’re on your way out,” she almost whined, but without her bag she couldn’t refuse.
“Only for a few groceries. They can wait till tomorrow.”
And Claire followed him, out of the gloom and through the doorway into the dim front room. She backed the front door shut behind her before making her way through another door to the rear of the house where familiar flashing and flickering reminded her of how reluctantly the fluorescent tube lit the kitchen. Finally, it ignited and now buzzed from the height of the ceiling like a Second World War bomber on a raid.
Vaughan had put down her bag and switched on the kettle. He turned to face Claire as she slouched in the doorway. Standing and staring at each other, not knowing what to do next, both resorted to the ordinary.
“I’ll make some tea. Why don’t you make yourself at . . . ”
The instincts of the diplomat suppressed those of the host.
Claire let her arm drop, in turn letting her shoulder bag slip down to the floor and its long handle drag her after it to crumple on to one of the three wooden kitchen chairs. It was a relief to sit, indoors, out of the darkness, out of the cold. For the first time since arriving in Fryeston she seemed to thaw.
“It’s a while since anyone called me piano man,” ventured Vaughan.
“How is the shop?” Claire picked up the theme.
“We closed three months ago.”
“Closed? But the shop was your life.”
“I thought so too until I lost it and found life carried on.”
The sadness ran deep in her voice.
“So am I.”
The kettle, switched on but not plugged in, sat quiet and still and cold.
“So what are you doing now?”
“I’m working up the hill.”
“Recovering seagull?” She spoke in raw indignation.
“I’ve got to do something to keep this place and myself.”
“But surely there’s better things than processing vermin?”
“Sadly, the job centre didn’t have any other openings for failed music shop owners and part-time pianists.”
“I’m sorry.” The sadness in her voice ran deeper.
“I could have gone back home, but I need to make my own way.”
Still the inert kettle kept itself well clear as questioner and questioned circled to exchange roles.
“So how’s things with you? How’s London and the job?”
“Very good. The agency’s so pleased they’ve already promoted me to account manager.”
“That’s great. I’m pleased for you.” And he was.
“So you’ve come back to celebrate with your mum and dad?”
“Why not? They’re bound to be pleased. Your mum’s always wanted you to spread your wings.”
If Claire was poised to fly, she felt herself teetering high above an unmeasurable emptiness opening out underneath her.
“It’s just that I . . .” and she stalled, trying to ignore the prospect of plummeting on to the compacted earth below. “I’ve come back.”
“I’ve left London and come back to Fryeston.”
“But you’re doing so well. It’s your dream.”
“I know,” she agreed with half a laugh.
“The job, the agency, London were everything I ever imagined. The days were full and frantic and there was so much to do and see . . .”
She paused, as though to offer Vaughan the excuse to spoil it, but he knew how much her dream had meant to her.
“. . . but it just felt empty. I knew I couldn’t stay.”
“Perhaps you’re homesick,” he suggested.
“After a few days here, you’ll be itching to get back to city life.”
“No, I’m certain.”
“How can you know?”
“I’ve tried going away already, walking in the Lakes, and I just didn’t want to go back, I wanted to come home.”
“You’re worse than me,” Vaughan joked.
Sensing the hint of many years’ stick-in-the-mud teasing, Claire let it pass.
“What does your mum think?”
The light droned on, as if through a clear sky on a moonlit night.
“You haven’t told her!”
The bomb hit its target.
Having so far directed her gaze away from his, Claire now locked in on Vaughan. Feeling more vulnerable than she thought possible, she needed to know if he would put aside all their differences to be the friend she sought.
But the blow threw Vaughan in every direction simultaneously.
As his brain began connecting a million memories of Claire and him, Claire and her parents, Claire and her mother, Claire and complex people relationships, and Claire, Claire, Claire, it also flagged the broken connection in the tea-making circuit and, realising its equal significance to the break in the perfect progression of Claire’s career, he swiftly connected kettle to mains.
Responding to the shock of current, it wheezed from chill to lukewarm as cupboard doors were flung open above and below and teapot, tea caddy, mugs and sugar tin flew out, a milk bottle jumped off the fridge door and tea spoons slipped out of a gaping drawer. The kettle now rocked on its base as it frothed and blew, impatient to brew strong, scalding tea.
All this while no look of recognition, no gesture of support, no word of comfort was offered until, brewed, poured, milked, sugared as appropriate and stirred, the tea landed on the table and Vaughan settled himself on the next chair round from Claire’s.
“So you haven’t told her.”
He looked at Claire , then smiled.
She returned his smile.
And both smiles widened into grins as their previously restrained exchange loosened into carefree conversation, brimming with stories from happier days.
Sipping the piping hot tea, recalling shared times with their families and friends, chomping on toast and jam in place of the evening meal Vaughan hadn’t bought from the shops and drinking more and more tea, they stumbled aimlessly from one warm memory to another.
The chilly kitchen, the icy path to Claire’s family home, the quickening circuits of the clock face by hour and minute hands, the prospects of Claire’s revelation to her mother and of another business day at the seagull processing plant for Vaughan, all slipped beyond the peripheral vision of the mind’s eye, any pressure they had exerted seeping away as the couple focused solely on each other.
This unplanned coming together of Claire and Vaughan, fully recharged after almost a year apart, now sparked a reaction that propelled them out of ordinary orbit, leaving every other person and thing, responsibility and obligation, ambition and expectation far below.
As they caught up on the months spent apart, the kettle boiled three times, the jam pot emptied and toast crumbs spread themselves across the table. Both knew how special this time was and took care to delight in the unexpected thrill, not daring even vaguely to wonder what would follow.
It was only when a heavier chill had started to creep through the kitchen and tiredness began to drag on them that the conversation slowed and Claire felt compelled to glance at the wall clock, a look she knew would separate them once more.
“It’s nearly ten. I should get home.”
The bread knife on the table could not have sliced them in two more quickly and cleanly.
Suddenly Claire felt cold and tired. When she had revealed to Vaughan her change of mind, her decision to return to Fryeston, she had hoped he would show support.
He had more reason than anyone to not be there for her and she could not complain if instead he gloated at her low-key return.
She felt that he was more generous than that, but was still afraid that she was asking more of him than was reasonable. All their conversation this evening had dwelled on their past; they had not spoken another word about now or the future.
As the increasing grip of chill and exhaustion overwhelmed her, Claire realised that to reach the end of her journey she must gather herself up, abandon this evening’s comforting memories to the past and brave her mother’s welcome reception before she lost all strength. Only the promise of recovery in a warm, comfortable bed set every muscle in gear to stand up and depart.
“Wait till tomorrow!”
She remained in gear yet stationary.
“Why don’t you wait till tomorrow? You can’t turn up without warning at this time of night. Your mum and dad, well, your mum will want to know every little detail and you’ll be too tired to answer. You know what’ll happen: she’ll blow it up into a tragedy that the family will never be able get over it. Why not get a good night’s sleep and go home in the morning?”
Claire was overwhelmed a second time.
“You take the big bed, I’ll sleep in the spare room.”
It wasn’t what she had sought or expected and it was so tempting, but she didn’t want to be in Vaughan’s debt, even though she did want his support. And he was right: she was exhausted.
It was getting too complicated.
“You can go home tomorrow. I’ll be out before you wake up.”
“You don’t have to make yourself invisible; it is your home,” Claire acknowledged his generosity.
Each filled the pause that followed by judging the offer enticingly unthinkable.
“So you’ll stay.”Vaughan was at the sink, filling it with hot water to wash up their mugs and sticky toast plates, but Claire caught him and almost pushed him out of the way.
“I’ll do that; it’s the least I can do. You go on up; you’ve got to work tomorrow.”
“I’ll be out early.”
“So will I.”
“Well, good night then.”
And that was it.
Vaughan headed upstairs, as matter of fact in manner as if it had been any other winter’s Tuesday, preparing for bed as he always did, except instead of climbing into the large, double bed with its thick winter duvet, he left the comfort of his own bedroom.
The rarely used box room offered no welcoming refuge as Vaughan felt himself pushing his way through an unthawed block of air standing solidly in this most remote area of the house.
Too late to withdraw his offer to Claire of the warmer room, he gritted his teeth as he climbed beneath the thinner covers of the narrow single bed, sensing any remaining warmth squeezed out of him by the sting of the permafrost mattress below and the crisp ice sheet of the duvet above.
Downstairs, driven by a burst of energy spurred by relief, Claire cleared the kitchen, noting from the cupboards and fridge that everything seemed reasonably clean and tidy. When done, she grabbed the smaller of her bags, clicked the switch to black out the fluorescent light and climbed the stairs.
From the creak of treads, running of water, opening and closing of doors beyond the box room, Vaughan was aware of Claire’s preparations for her night’s stay. His excitement at the evening’s turn calmed by the heavy emotional outflow and the exertions of his day at work, the sounds blurred and softened until eventually no knock or click echoed in hearing, no crack of light from under the door edged into sight.
Just about lukewarm, the tense grip of cold had finally loosened and, no longer hunched and taut, Vaughan gradually slipped into the vague feather-light heaviness preceding the nightly shutdown. Almost asleep, but not quite almost enough to buffer shock from an inrush of icy air, sharp, quick, that cut him out of drowsiness, the duvet lifted and a cold body slid alongside Vaughan on the narrow mattress.
Mumbling a shriek mangled by an unresponding mouth into a grunt, he struggled to protest: “Claire, I don’t think this . . .”
“I need a hot water bottle, Vaughan, and you’re the only one in the house.”
Inclined to protest further, but recognising the instinctive heat-seeking mission of female sub-zero feet to locate the nearest source of warmth, usually radiated by an unsuspecting, sleeping male, Vaughan understood and acquiesced.
“That’s right. Now go to sleep.”
And, huddled together to warm each other, they did.
© Robert Zarywacz 2008-2009