A Neighbourly Manor-Part 4

  In the fourth and final part of the story, Lena and Richard are surprised by a late night visitor and Lena is witness to some revelations about her cynical, curmudgeonly husband of many years…

A Neighbourly Manor [Part 4]

            The May weather turned unsettled as some gusty showers blew over in the middle of the next week and it was during a heavy downpour on Wednesday evening that the bell rang. I’d been clearing up the kitchen and Richard was upstairs in the study editing his latest batch of Spanish photographs. I hadn’t heard a car pull up so I assumed it was someone from the village as I opened the door.
It was Imogen, though barely recognisable as the radiant girl of six weeks ago. With her hair plastered to her head and her thin shirt stuck to her, soaking, she looked bedraggled. She also appeared to be in some distress, from her red-rimmed eyes and stricken expression. I reached out and all but tugged her inside the hallway, where she stood dripping, her thin shoulders shuddering. I wasted no time.
‘Whatever has happened?’ I asked her. ‘Come into the lounge. I’ll put the fire on!’
Her mouth opened to speak and produced only a shivering sob as she allowed me to tow her into the living room.
‘Wait here,’ I told her, ‘I’ll get you something dry to wear.’
I went upstairs and hissed at Richard’s enquiring face as I grabbed a towelling robe then I dashed back and pulled it around her before sitting her down in an armchair like a child. ‘I’m going to put the kettle on,’ I said, and by the time I’d returned my husband had seated himself in the chair next to her. He glanced at me.
‘Let’s all have a cup of tea,’ he suggested.
As I left the room she began to mumble in halting sentences dotted with ‘sorrys’ and ‘thank yous’ until Richard leaned forward, put his fingers together and asked her, ‘Can you tell us what is wrong?’
By the time I’d set the tray down she was into her dismal story, which was no less depressing for being predictable; a whirlwind, fairy tale romance rising from a chance meeting with a charming, wealthy, practised, older suitor who’d promised the world before exposing her fully to the circles in which he moved. Circles which included a whole host of other women; ex-wives, of which Kristina was one, ex-partners, ex-girlfriends, ‘friends’ who would like to be girlfriends, ‘friends’ who were ‘helping with the designs’ like Liliana, married women, single women and all with one purpose-to be Jackson’s wife.
Having swapped a ward shift and wangled a couple of days off Imogen had planned to turn up without warning and give her intended a surprise, but when she left the car and approached the house she looked in at the un-curtained window and saw him with Liliana; the two of them dancing in the stark emptiness of the drawing room, one of his long arms around her waist, another with a glass of wine in hand. She’d stood in the rain and watched them, watched as they laughed together at the intimacies he whispered in the woman’s ears making her throw her head back in delight. She didn’t know how long she stood in the rain watching. She’d felt panic rising, welling up, threatening to overflow into a scream and then she’d run, back along the curving drive and through the gateway up the lane to our front door. The girl’s breathless narrative ground to a halt as she sniffed; taking another tissue from the box I’d placed beside her.
Richard sat back in his chair, crossing one of his legs over the other and turning his head a little in Imogen’s direction without looking at her face. He began to speak in a quiet monotone. He told her that she may feel distraught now, but that she would recover. He reminded her that she was a strong, independent woman and had proved it by raising a child on her own and following a responsible, highly valued career. He said she must remember that she’d led a good, happy life before Jackson and would do so again; that she must never allow any man to control and manipulate her feelings or treat her as an object to be owned and cast aside like a painting or a house; that a relationship should be based on mutual love and respect and she should look at me, Lena for an example of a resilient, capable woman; that our marriage might not look glamorous but he’d never been in any doubt that he’d chosen the right person. Throughout this monologue she sat motionless, her shuddering sobs subsiding, her narrow shoulders lowering, her eyes fixed hard upon Richard as if he were dragging her from a swamp.
‘Right,’ he concluded, ‘it’s far too late for you to be driving back tonight. You can stay in our guest room, which is always ready’. He looked up at me. ‘My wife can lend you anything you need. Shall we open that bottle of brandy we brought back with us? This would seem to be a suitable occasion to try it.’ He winked. I have a feeling my mouth was hanging open.
He asked Imogen for her car keys, declaring that he would fetch her car from the Manor.
Later on I ran a hot bath for our guest, after which she was subdued enough to submit to being tucked up in bed.
I extracted a promise from Imogen as she left next morning that she would under no circumstances email, ring or visit Jackson Agnew, neither should she respond to invitations from him, all of which she agreed to with a solemn nod. Her puffy face and red eyes showed that she’d wept the night away, but as she drove off Richard assured me it would pass.
‘Let’s go out for lunch,’ he said and I knew the subject was closed.

Some unspoken agreement kept us from cutting through Chiddlehampton Manor’s grounds for a couple of weeks and we were relieved to see no sign of Jackson or any of his paramours in the pub, or anywhere else in the vicinity.
It was June when we returned from a week in Torquay and saw the sign on the gate at the end of their drive. ‘For Sale- Grade Two listed Manor House with OPP for eight apartments’, it read. It was to be sold by the agent ‘Knight and Rutter’ who are known for their upmarket properties.
Doctor Jackson Agnew and his entourage, it seemed, had moved on.



The Crackling Feast [Part 2]

As Alex’s repugnance at the hog roast grows, her sister Chrissie’s appetite for the savoury treat increases. Chrissie and Simon seem to have developed a relationship. What have they been up to? And where has Jacintha gone?

The Crackling Feast concludes today. Part one is in the previous post.


Their father had been unusual in leaving express instructions that he didn’t want a funeral. He’d wanted this; a celebration, party, get together-call it what you like. He’d left it to Jacintha to issue invitations so she’d been surprised to have received the card-an elaborate, hand-painted creation on Jacintha’s own, customised, recycled paper. The woman had not been immune to the sisters’ antipathy, since they’d been at best Luke-warm when they’d greeted her at their infrequent meetings with their father. She must have realised she was the reason their visits had dwindled to annually, duty stops while en route somewhere. ‘Just a cup of tea, don’t want to put you to any trouble’. Jacintha would produce some herbal infusion picked from the hedgerows and proffer something inedible like nettle scones with tofu. It occurs to Alex now that these efforts may have been attempts to buy their approval, though in her own unorthodox way. Their father never commented on their lack of warmth towards his new wife, nor did he complain at the sporadic nature of their visits. Perhaps he felt it was the price he’d paid for her, for Jacintha; to lose the affections of his daughters.

Chrissie and Simon have settled at a table with their plates of hog roast. Chrissie appears to have overcome her repugnance and is tucking into a pork roll with gusto in between slugs of wine and peals of laughter at whatever Simon Patterson is saying. She glances at Alex then says something to him before getting up and approaching her, stumbling a little on her spindly heels. She sits down and drapes an arm around her younger sister, close enough for Alex to smell her hot, grease and wine laden breath.

“You should get something to eat, Alex. It’s really very good.”

“In a minute.” Alex stares at her lap. She and Chrissie have grown apart, their mother having been the glue that cemented their closeness as sisters. Now they rarely see each other and on the occasions when they do they’ve only had the one same conversation, one shared dislike of Jacintha. After a few minutes she allows Christina to pull her up and tow her to the table where Simon still sits and accept the glass of wine her gets for her. The plate she is handed is loaded with a pork roll, cole-slaw, apple sauce and a heap of greasy crackling, brown scored skin with a few blackened hairs still clinging. She nibbles at the roll and salad.

“So you’ve left the family at home then, Alex?” Simon Patterson is making an attempt at small talk. She shrugs. “It didn’t seem fair to drag them up here.”

Chrissie makes a face. “I’d have got to see my nephews! You’ve deprived me of the pleasure!” Alex looks sideways at her sister, who has never been shy about expressing her dislike of children.

The solicitor continues “She is quite a character though, Jacintha-a strange choice for your father to have made, don’t you think? All those odd tattoos in Greek letters and the dreadlocks?”

Alex puts her plastic fork down. “I suppose she made him feel younger-and I expect he got lonely. You must know where she is now though, don’t you? You must have been acting for them both-for Jacintha and our father?”

Chrissie is watching them, her small, white teeth nibbling on a piece of pork scratching. There are faint vestiges of blue ink near her fingers, indicating that this must be from the etched area of pig. Alex feels her stomach lurch as she recalls Jacintha’s ample, decorated thighs. Simon laughs. “All will be revealed” he tells her as the distant ringing of a spoon against a glass signals silence among the revellers.

The vicar asks for their indulgence, rising from his seat, paper in hand. He has a message for all of them, from Jacintha:

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all having a wonderful afternoon in the sunshine enjoying the good company, the delicious food and wine and the memories.

Edgar and I were only together for a short time before he was cruelly taken but for me it was the happiest time of my whole life…

Alex glances at her sister, who raises her eyes to heaven.

I ask you to understand that I am not able to be with you today to celebrate Edgar’s life as it is too soon for me to face people who knew us as a couple. In order to grieve I am leaving for pastures new and will be settling in Corfu where I am setting up a studio in order that my emotions can find an outlet in my work.

So it’s ‘Goodbye’. Bless you all and enjoy the remainder of the party.

In Edgar’s memory


There is a pause before the guests begin to murmur again. Chrissie is still clutching the spear of pig skin marked in blue ink. Alex sees her peer at it, then across at Simon Patterson who returns her look with an almost imperceptible wink.


Mr Hyde, I Presume?

An old friend who now lives on the Spanish Mediterranean coast rang last week to ask if he could stay. He is splitting up with his wife.

This is awkward. A number of issues jumped into my mind. Husband and myself are both ourselves ‘second-time-arounders’. This couple, both in their sixties are the first friends we made twenty years ago together, that is to say not friends from one of our previous lives. They are, or were both our friends. I had no desire to be taking sides, neither did we want to appear to be judgemental in any way [having ourselves been in their situation many years ago].

Being the hospitable folk we are we concurred, offering our best guest accommodation with the en suite. They had, after all accommodated us when our leaking, malfunctioning camper-van rolled up on their driveway several years ago. He arrived.

After a relatively short time I began to realise that while his political views and many of his likes and dislikes had always been at odds with ours we’d got along fine, except that now, without the tempering, conciliatory presence of his wife he is a different person altogether. His loud ebullience, once an asset to raucous nights at the pub has become overbearing and intrusive. He is unaware that we may be reading or writing, butting in with the tales of his current predicament, his medical conditions or immigration.

He explained that he has ‘not been happy for a long time’ in the marriage. He wasted no time in regaling us with the details of his testosterone levels and how he needs medication to help him satisfy his new girlfriend-the real cause of the gash. All this is far too much information. There was a much needed interval while he went shopping, returning with a substantial haul of medicines which he heaped into a pile in his room; then we were plunged back into his views, gleaned from the red-tops he reads or commercial news stations, his love life and money issues.

We continued to accommodate, murmur, provide and feed him, even when he threw himself into my own, favourite, comfortable chair with the TV remote control to watch football and comment loudly that I was eating a ‘big’ bowl of salad [whilst he chomps through the chilli and rice I have made].

My good intentions not to take sides blew away on a blast of hot air. Out of earshot I rang my friend, his wife. She is staying with another friend, too upset to see anyone. ‘How had she managed forty-five years with him?’ I asked her. ‘He is a monster. I’ve struggled to get through two days with him. She should get shot of him, ASAP’. She agreed he is difficult, but unchecked, his disagreeable traits have become exaggerated and offensive. When I told her she will be better off without him she replied that I was not the first to say it.

Husband whispered to me that relief was at hand. He would be leaving us after the weekend. We shared a grin of relief. We had only to spend an evening at a restaurant [he took us for a ‘thank-you’ meal] and then our duty would be despatched. The meal [our chosen venue] was good. His excesses were a little tempered. I drove him home. If there is a next time we will be a] very busy b] away or c] have a houseful of guests. Phew!

Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

Strangers Muriel and Niamh are bonding in the launderette-and Muriel finds they have more in common than an article of clothing…

[Part 1 of this story can be found in the previous post]

She gazed into the gyrating turmoil of clothes. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean he’s married.”

Muriel stared at the circulating washing. She realised now what the familiar item was. She was sure it was a shirt; one that her husband used to wear, but hadn’t for some time. She could remember where he’d bought it, when they’d been on holiday in Italy. It was an expensive, designer shirt; flamboyant, the colours an unusual mix of purple, red and cream, the design vivid and abstract like a Picasso painting.

A machine to the right of them jolted into an angry whirl as it prepared for its rinse cycle. Muriel continued to gaze into the enigmatic circle where the mingling colours jostled for prominence.

“I’m not shocked,” she said, once the raging machine had settled for a quiet, resentful simmer, “but it makes me sad. I’m guessing he’s an older man? I’d say you were too good for him, too young and lovely to waste your life on him.” She hauled her eyes away from the washer, from which a trickling sound issued.

Niamh drew out a tissue from her sleeve and blew her nose. “I don’t know why I’m opening up to you like this. I’ve not told anyone else. You must be easier to talk to than most people. I would never be able to confide in my mother like I’m confessing to you. Can we chat again next time you come? We could go for a coffee or something.”

Muriel was silent, contemplating the revolving drum. It turned this way and that as if undecided. The younger woman stood abruptly and began pulling articles from the dryer, which had churned to a grumbling halt. The Italian shirt tumbled out into a pale blue, plastic basket, pock marked with cigarette burns. She had her back to Muriel, speaking harshly into the cavernous cylinder.

“I’ve been too personal, haven’t I? I’m always like this with people; not reserved enough, nattering like we’ve known each other for years. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry. Say something. Please.”

She turned around. She had the shirt in her hand. Muriel nodded at it. “I see you don’t send his washing home for his wife to do.”

Niamh held the hot garment against her cheek as if the spirit of her lover was bound within its vibrant folds. “I love to do things for him,” she said. “I pretend I’m married to him. I spend hours finding new recipes to cook for him. I like to open the wardrobe and see some of his clothes hanging next to mine. That way I’ve got some small part of him when he’s not with me.” Facing the dryer as she closed the door, she missed the fleeting look of weary scorn that passed over Muriel’s face. A stab of cruelty thrust out, threatening to pierce the friendly bubble of shared confidences.

“He won’t leave his wife, you know. They never do.”

“He is going to leave. He’s waiting for the right time to tell her. He’s sensitive to her needs. I love that about him.”

She was folding garments now and placing them into a rectangular laundry bag. There was a brisk manner to the way she was pushing the clothes into the bag, as if she could press her conviction into the still warm fabrics.

“I wonder if he knows what her needs are.”

“She’s been occupied looking after the children all these years and now they’re growing up and leaving-like yours are. He has to wait for her to find a new direction in her life; something to fill the void her children have left. You must know how that feels. How have you coped with the extra time on your hands?”

Muriel smiled an enigmatic, knowing smirk. “Oh I like to travel. I’m always planning the next holiday and preparing for it. I like comfortable hotels in beautiful locations with wonderful, scenic views. I enjoy eating in expensive restaurants, shopping in exclusive stores and finding exquisite, original art works.”

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

Niamh stared, transfixed as she listened then nodded, grinning, her creamy skin pink with enthusiasm. “My man is well travelled. He’s going to take me on exotic trips once he’s free.”

She lifted the strap of her leather satchel over her head and gripped the handle of the chequered bag. She looked at Muriel.

“Shall I see you at the same time next week?”

“It’s possible.”

“Go on, you know you want to! I can give you an update on progress. I’m seeing him tomorrow night. He might have told her by then! Bye for now!”

She pulled open the door and stepped out, leaving the bell jangling. Muriel watched as she crossed the road, negotiating the passing traffic, tossing her head to rid the glossy, dark fringe from her eyes. Then she disappeared round a corner. Although the two machines had stopped, Muriel continued to sit in the silent laundrette. Outside the light was beginning to fade and glare from the headlights of passing vehicles cast intermittent flashes into the scruffy room.

It would soon be time to start packing, she thought, wondering what she would need this time.

She was jerked from her thoughts by the strident ring of her phone.

“Ah, I’ve got you. Where are you, Mu? I got home hours ago!”

“I had to come to one of those laundry places. The new washer won’t be delivered until next week.”

“Good God, Mu! Don’t these places collect and deliver or something?”

His voice crackled. “Anyway, never mind that now. I’ve found us some flights to Geneva. Thought we’d do the Swiss lakes. Fancy it? The flights are on Friday morning. I’ve just got a meeting tomorrow night to tie up some loose ends then I’ll be free.”

Muriel stood, pocketing the phone, savouring the anticipation. Last time they’d stayed at the Grand Hotel Kempinski on the lake. Their room had overlooked the Jet d’eau fountain. She would have to contact an ironing service in the morning, one that could do a rush job. She could spend tomorrow evening researching excursions and places to eat.

She crammed her laundry items into the holdall in an unceremonious bunch, stuffing recalcitrant clothes down into the corners, heedless of the creases that would form as they dried. When the zip gaped in an obstinate refusal to close over the bulging, newly laundered items she capitulated and grasped the handles, leaving it open in her haste to be away. She pulled the door, hearing its accompanying clank for the last time as she tugged the bag through to the outside. Trudging past the window she glanced back in at the stark, Spartan room, the plastic chairs and the worn lino and exhaled a profound, heartfelt sigh of relief.

Fiction Month. Unmanned on a Wednesday-part 1

It’s Fiction Month on Anecdotage. This is the third year I’ve celebrated National Novel Writing Month by posting up a month of stories. Here’s part one of the first story- ‘Unmanned on a Wednesday’- a tale of two women, a launderette and a shirt known to both of them.

Muriel stood outside on the pavement and examined the information on display, mouthing the words: opening hours, the management accepts no responsibility…

Shielding her eyes against reflection, she peered into the gloom, scanning for signs of life, hoping for an efficient counter assistant to relieve her of her bulky bundle; someone who was familiar with the machines and the vagaries of washing one’s dirty linen in public. Inside she could make out a figure, bending to pull open a circular door.

She inhaled, grasped the handle of the bag with one hand and pushed the door with the other, hearing its incongruous jangle as she dragged the holdall in through the entrance to the launderette.

The figure straightened, turned to acknowledge her presence with a smiling ‘Hello’ then continued to feed clothing into the open mouth of the washer, flicking items or turning them inside out.

Muriel looked around. The atmosphere was oppressive with the stifling damp of detergent fumes and hummed with churning dryers and the whirring of front loaders as they went into intermittent, furious spins. She approached an idle machine warily as if it were a stray dog and studied the instructions. It needed some pound coins. She dug into her bag for her purse.

A voice hailed her from the row of chairs opposite.

“There’s a coin dispenser if you need change. It’s on the wall by the service counter.” It was a lilting, youthful voice, the words coloured with a tint of accent.

Muriel turned to face the voice, the young woman having sat down, a dog eared magazine unopened on her lap.

“A coin dispenser?” she replied, “Oh, I see-for pounds to go in the slot. Sorry! You must think I’m an idiot! I’m not used to these places. I thought there would be someone here, to take the laundry and deal with it.”

In the ensuing pause she became aware that she’d spewed out her inadequacy like an over indulgence of champagne.

The seated woman smiled again. She had an elegant, restful face; a long nose above a wide mouth accustomed to laughter.

“It’s unmanned on a Wednesday and in the evenings,” she informed the older woman. “Don’t worry. It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it, as it were.” She grinned, extracting an inadvertent smile from Muriel, who negotiated the change machine, returned to the machine and stuffed as much of the contents of the bag as she could into its gaping aperture.

“They don’t like being overloaded,” cautioned her companion. “It might be better to split the load between two machines.”

Once the two appliances were humming in harmonious tandem Muriel sat down next to her mentor and the two watched the revolving drums in a shared trance.

“You must be a regular at this,” she ventured. “You seem to be an expert.”

The young woman shrugged.  “I’ve no washing machine in my tiny flat. I don’t mind it; in fact I enjoy coming. I get to read the trashy magazines I wouldn’t buy or admit to enjoying.”

“Except for tonight!”

She laughed; a light, infectious laugh.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying some company for a change! I come from a large family back in Ireland so talking is what I’m used to. But what brings you here? Has your home machine broken down?”

Muriel sighed. “The new one can’t be delivered until next week. I may have to visit a second time before it comes. You might have to suffer my company again.”

“I’d like that! What’s your name?”


“I’m Niamh.” She put a slender hand out to shake.

They watched the circulating fabrics in silence. Muriel thought it curious how an item would present itself at the front in the spotlight for a few seconds then withdraw to make way for a different article’s display. One of the dryers ground to a halt, prompting Niamh to stand, pull the door open and inspect the progress of its contents. Muriel continued to watch the revolving laundry behind the doors, her attention drawn to an item, the colours of which seemed familiar. Perhaps she had an identical tablecloth or bed linen; a coincidence. The piece of laundry came and went, teasing her in its intermittent exhibition.

Having reinvigorated the dryer with more coins, Niamh returned to sit.

“I see you’re married,” she said. “Do you have children?”

Muriel flushed. Accustomed to her own company or the stilted, polite society of her husband’s associates and their wives she was unused to striking up spontaneous conversations with strangers on subjects of a personal matter. Not for her the inconsequential chatter of the supermarket queue or the doctor’s waiting room. Her groceries were delivered, her healthcare private. But she was both flattered and warmed by this beautiful young woman’s attention and besides, she’d brought nothing to do or to read, not having considered she would have to undertake the task of washing the laundry herself.

She nodded. “I do, though they’ve flown the nest. The youngest is at university.”

“So you’ve more time to spend with your husband now, is that it?”

The older woman raised her eyebrows. “You would think so, but no. My husband spends more time at work since the children grew up and left; late evenings and overnight to different cities, for training sessions, he says. So I’m on my own most of the time.”

“This is a night out for you then!”

Infected by her familiarity, Muriel felt emboldened.

“You are not married yourself?”

She hesitated. “No. I am kind of seeing someone though.”

“Kind of?”

Check in next week for Part 2-the conclusion