After showing Mrs. Williams into her morning room, Mrs. Heddon brought a tray with coffee pot and wafery cups and told Mrs. Williams that her husband, Mr. Heddon, was in active charcoal.
“Active charcoal?” Mrs. Williams feigned an interest although she had no idea what her hostess was talking about. Imagining Mr. Heddon somehow barbecued she said, “It sounds very important.”
“Very important,” said Mrs. Heddon. “Industrially, you know. And he does so well from it, my husband. Coffee, Mrs. Williams?”
“It’s Audrey.” She smiled. They were neighbours, if not yet friends. “Yes. Please. It smells very good.” Mrs. Heddon had invited her to discuss some birthday party or other.
“My own blend. Kenya – and two rather uncommon Brazils that my husband smuggles in. He knows a little boulangerie in Geneva. He goes abroad a lot, you know.” Mrs. Heddon made a movement of her finger and thumb like sprinkling salt. “And just a dash of chicory. One must have good coffee – if one can afford it . . . particularly, you know, these days. I sigh for the early sixties.” Mrs. Heddon poured coffee. “Well, Audrey. I’m Zoe”
“How strange.” Mrs. Heddon stiffened and Audrey gabbled, “Oh, I didn’t mean Zoe is strange. I meant Audrey and Zoe. A and Z. First and last. I like crosswords, you see. I notice things like that.”
Mrs. Heddon put down the coffee pot although her guest’s cup was barely half full and Audrey had to pretend not to notice.
“Well now,” said Mrs. Heddon. “I understand your husband teaches at the University? You must find it a bit of a struggle. You know, with things the way they are. This government, Audrey. Sooner we get them out the better. Have a piece of chocolate cake? So common to call it gateau, don’t you think?”
“Thanks, but no,” said Audrey, remembering the uncommon boulangerie. She rubbed her maternity smock. “Just now rich things give me awful heartburn.”
Mrs. Heddon raised cake to her mouth, chewed quickly, coaxed crumbs from her top lip with her tongue. She can’t have failed to notice the baby, Audrey thought. “He doesn’t teach,” she said. “He does research.”
“My husband. He does research. At the University.”
“How interesting,” said Mrs. Heddon. “My husband travels. He’s been the world over. Europe. The States. South Africa. The civilized places, you know. Where the money is. He directs sales of . .”
“Active charcoal?” Audrey could not keep her gaze from Mrs. Heddon’s heavily lacquered hair.
“Exactly.” Mrs. Heddon frowned. “He’s on his way to Zurich at this very moment. They fly him everywhere. Business class, of course.”
“Of course,” Audrey retorted, thinking, just tell me about this birthday party, then I can go. A twenty-first, she concluded, unless Mrs. Heddon had come late to motherhood. She was intrigued by her hostess’s dough-white shoulders.
“I don’t suppose your husband needs to travel?” Mrs. Heddon’s cup paused halfway to her mouth. “In that sort of job?”
Feet pedalled suddenly under Audrey’s heart. She was too close to her term and too happy to resent Mrs. Heddon, even half-heartedly. Wanting to argue that her husband preferred to come home at night, especially just now, she said that sometimes he had to go to conferences, which he enjoyed, but not the travelling.
“Oh, my husband loves it! Loves it! You should see the knick-knacks he picks up. No . . . wait . . . I must tell you.” Mrs. Heddon set her cup on the glass coffee table. “My husband . . .” She leaned forward confidentially. Audrey glimpsed heavy white breasts before Mrs. Heddon raised her hand quickly to her neckline. “My husband was on Concorde’s very first commercial flight. To the Bahrain. Business of course.” Mrs. Heddon leaned back, victorious on her bottle green chesterfield. Audrey’s baby cycled on. To the Bahrain, she thought, clenching her teeth on a smile. Surely his antics show through my smock?
“That’s an experience to dine out on,” she said. She was aware of a belch coming. Mrs. Heddon frowned again.
“But doesn’t it show how important he is? Come now, Audrey. Some cake? Are you sure? I think I’ll . . . just a teeny piece more.”
Audrey raised her hand to her mouth to disguise the belch, thinking, in the Bahrain I could belch in her face to compliment her coffee. Mrs. Heddon was scrutinizing the cake plate. “Yet the fact is,” she said, munching, “with all his globe-trotting, he likes us to take our holidays at home. We have a holiday cottage. In the Yorkshire Dales. You won’t have a second home yet, I don’t suppose? We love the Dales. People do underestimate the North of England.” Mrs. Heddon selected a third slice of cake and chewed. “Of course there isn’t the money. And those dreadful accents. Buttyland, my husband calls it. But we find we can . . . insulate ourselves.”
“I was born in Batley,” Audrey said, caution to the winds. “A little town in the north of England. Somewhat underestimated. Not a patch on the Bahrain of course. And never a boulangerie for miles.”
“Ah, but you’ve escaped, Audrey.” The riposte was driven home by a steely glare. “Your background hardly shows. Hardly at all. I’m sure you’ll soon settle into a refined neighbourhood. More coffee?”
Audrey knew her voice was tightening. “I’ve given up clog dancing, if that’s what you mean. But I agree, it is difficult to adjust to refined ways. Perhaps a cat would help? I expect our neighbours all keep cats, Zoe?” Her baby was placid now, as if subdued by her anger and humiliation. A party, she thought. All I’ve earned is an invitation to leave.
Mrs. Heddon’s face softened. “Audrey! How spirited! Yes! You will fit in, my dear.”
Tried and found not wanting, Audrey thought, half expecting that Mrs. Heddon would clap her hands and bounce. But she merely prinked the bows on her summery frock. “Now,” she cried. “Down to business. The birthday party. You will come, won’t you?”
“But . . . we’ve no young children . . .”
Mrs. Heddon hesitated, then said “No, no, Audrey. You don’t understand! It’s a party for my husband. He’s fifty. No . . . don’t look astonished. Everyone gives parties. It’s expected. So one might as well have a reason. The avenue got together and came up with – Birthdays!” Mrs. Heddon chirped the word. Audrey stared. Now, surely, her hostess was going to bounce.
“So? Friday next week? About eight o’clock? Outdoors if fine. Feed on the hoof. No bottles, please. Dwinkies on the house. And please . . . no presents. Floppy hats and jeans if you like. Do say you’ll come. All the young set come. Even our divorcees . . . well, some of them. The avenue is dying to meet its newcomers.”
“Yes . . . I’m sure we can,” Audrey replied, dazed. Oh God! The sozzled and the trendy frolicking through the Heddon rhododendrons. “Yes. All right. Thank you Zoe.”
Mrs. Heddon clapped her hands. “Lovely! And . . . now we’re friends, can I offer you a little something?”
Audrey pressed her hand to her smock. “You’ll have to excuse me, Zoe. It goes straight to the baby.” Yet, with the truce declared, she wondered about Mrs. Heddon, one-upping, guzzling cake, tippling in the morning. And in case her refusal seemed ungracious she said that yes, she would have a tiny, tiny glass herself. So Mrs. Heddon rose, flowered haunches rocking, and went to a reproduction cabinet and poured vodka into chunky glasses while Audrey admired the floor length velvet curtains and the walnut grand piano and was told that, sadly, no one played. And then the two ladies sat chatting and sipping vodka while Mrs. Heddon’s mantel clock doled out the quiet morning and the sun printed oblongs on the parquet squares in the bay window.
Audrey declined a second drink, for the baby now lay in a torpor. She wondered when Mrs. Heddon would enquire about the birth, so close that terror had given way to massive impatience. But Mrs. Heddon steered the talk from the neighbours to the Yorkshire Dales and from the Dales to Bahrain and on round the world, while Audrey sat smiling and saying “Lovely,” and wondering whether her milk would be all right.
When Mrs. Heddon teetered for the third time to the cabinet, she brought the bottle back, banging it among the coffee cups and saying “Oh dear,” as she dropped back into her seat. She inclined the bottle towards Audrey who shook her head. Mrs. Heddon slopped vodka into her own glass, drank, rested her head on the back of the chesterfield but struggled upright at once, patting her hair, laughing.
“D’you know, Audrey . . . six . . . six . . . sixteen pounds this arrangement cost me!”
“Goodness! It’s so smart, though.”
“I thought, why not? I’ll be a reac . . . “ Mrs.Heddon dealt with a hiccough. “A reactionary in my age. Yes. And to my age.” She drained her glass. “You remember the style?” With her forefingers she traced the exaggerated flicks that curved almost to her shoulders.
“Eight years ago?” said Audrey, weighing politeness against astonishment at her hostess’s daring.
“Eight! Oh, Audrey!” Mrs. Heddon’s laugh shrieked. “Twelve! At least twelve! When I was . . . well, never mind. I hunted out an old Vogue and took it to Mister Nicolas . . . by the Mercat Cross. You know Nister Mic . . . Mister Nicolas . . . he’s so soothing. Just like that, I instructed. You should have seen his eyebrows. He’s so playful. But so with-it. He said, Is Madam sure? And I poked him and said yes, and Madam is paying. Lovely man. Lovely man.” She shook her head quickly and her bluish, greying hair swayed and she seized the bottle.
“But it suits you. It really does.”
“Mister Nicolas will freshen it, and I shall keep it . . . just like this, for the party. I’ll show them. The sixties revisited.”
Freak, thought Audrey, and wondered at her own uncharitableness. Mrs. Heddon examined the square bottle, twisting it this way and that in her tightly ringed fingers. “I can’t tempt you?”
“No thank you.” Audrey considered whether to go, for the clock whirred and began to chime eleven. Mrs. Heddon poured.
“Don’t you go thinking,” she began, “that I usually celebrate in the morning. Oh no.” Some regional accent that Audrey could not place was creeping into Mrs. Heddon’s voice. “That wouldn’t do at all . . . “
“I didn’t for a minute . . . “
“No! But once in a way you know, I like to have my morning snifter.” Mrs. Heddon giggled and swung her legs, briefly lifting both heels from the floor and had to pull her dress down over her pale knees. “Sometimes I lure a neighbour in and we have a good old gossip. We conspire.” With a vigorous nod she said, “But I can tell you’re more reserved, Audrey. More . . . contained within yourself. But goodness. I expect we’ll find we have a lot to talk about.”
“I expect so.”
Mrs. Heddon peered over the rim of her glass. “Well then?” High spots of colour were forming in her cheeks and between putting down and picking up her glass she rubbed her forearms and sometimes her knees, and fingered the ends of her preposterous hair.
Fill personal buckets to be passed along your refined gossip-chains? No fear! Audrey plunged into a different conversation without stopping to test the water. “Are your family away from home, Zoe? You see, I had worked out that the party must be your son or daughter’s twenty-first . . . “
Mrs. Heddon rose abruptly, took three paces to the fireplace and held on to the high marble mantel. “I have no children,” she said.
“Oh . . . I . . . “
“There were . . . difficulties.”
“I didn’t mean to be . . . “
“Difficulties,” Mrs. Heddon emphasized.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Mrs. Heddon pressed her forehead on her knuckles on the mantel. Mr. Nicolas’s handiwork brushed the clock face “Mental difficulties.” She sounded muffled. Then she straightened and turned to Audrey, pushing at the flicks of hair. Her face was blotchy red. “I have been cheated.” She raised her chin, wobbled and looked forlorn. “Cheated!” She swayed and would have lurched backwards but for the mantel. She elbowed herself upright, stumbled to the chesterfield and grabbed the bottle, knocking the cups about with a clatter.
“Zoe . . “
Tears came to Mrs. Heddon’s pale yes. Audrey thought, if only I could say it’s not too late. Her baby kicked again.
“Don’t you think . . .?" Audrey began, but Mrs. Heddon had half filled her glass. She drank and sniffed. “He . . . he . . . “ She flapped at the air near her face. Audrey rose clumsily and took the glass from her.
“Zoe . . . let me make you some fresh coffee. Put your feet up for a few minutes.”
Without opening her eyes, Mrs. Heddon said, “I read somewhere, in one of those . . . magazines . . . that it’s like having your soul bathed in champagne.” She grinned, her eyes still closed. Her head lolled from side to side. Audrey stood still.
“Whatever we did,” Mrs. Heddon said, and then, more carefully, “whatever we tried . . . you know, after the first once or twice . . . his . . . he. Just. Couldn’t. Twenty years!” When her eyes opened, Audrey looked away just in time. Mrs Heddon began a low, musical groan, a soft hooting sob that went on and on. Audrey though, this is not fair. There are people, volunteers she could phone to tell this to. She collected the coffee cups and her own empty glass and put them on the tray.
“I’ll take these to your kitchen.”
As Audrey went out Mrs. Heddon said, “I adored my husband when I married him. Adored him. D’you know . . . I picked him up.” Audrey heard Mrs. Heddon giggling in the morning room. “I lured him on. In a bus shelter. I had a red and white plastic rain hat on. Imagine it. He was a buyer then. For a bedding manufacturer. Little did I know.”
Audrey found the plug for the percolator. She rinsed the cups. Everything in the kitchen was electric and expensive.
“I let him sweep me off my feet. I was blonde then. What they used to call ash blonde. Remember? I knew he had prospects. He was a go-getter. I could tell.”
Audrey looked out onto refined neighbourhood gardens. Next door, her clothes drier drifted. She thought how brazen her red knickers looked, tugged by the breeze. Mrs. Heddon’s monologue drifted from the morning room.
“At first we lived in Maidenhead. I loved our little flat. I love the Thames valley. We kept telling each other . . . it will be all right. It will be all right.”
Audrey dried the cups.
“But it wasn’t all right. And it wasn’t only . . . you know, with me. He even tried paying. Paying? You understand? We agreed. But it was no good. After a year or so . . .” The sob was back. “You give up.”
Audrey put the cups on the tray. The percolator bubbled. From the morning room she heard the bottle chink against Mrs. Heddon’s glass. From the kitchen window she saw a thrush land on the lawn, hop, jab at the earth. Its little shadow looked very black. She thought, I could just go. This afternoon, after a sleep, she probably won’t remember. She switched the coffee off.
“I decided,” declared Mrs. Heddon, “to be faithful. Not that I couldn’t have had my share of flings.” As she said this, Audrey fathomed her accent. Birmingham! She’s a Brummie!
She took the tray back to the morning room. Mrs. Heddon was sitting upright, but she stood as soon as Audrey came in.
“Look . . . I’ve heated the coffee. Sit down and have a cup, Zoe. I’m sorry . . . sorry you’ve been upset.” She set the tray back on the coffee table. Mrs. Heddon lurched round the table. Audrey noticed tiny red lines in the yellowish whites of her eyes.
“Audrey . . . you’re too, too kind.” Mrs. Heddon came close. “Ever since you came in . . . ever since you . . . can I ask you something?”
“Mrs. Heddon, I really think . . .”
“A teeny, teeny favour?” Mrs. Heddon laid her hand on Audrey’s shoulder. The hand was cold and the slight grip fell away as soon as Audrey jerked her arm.
“What favour, Mrs. Heddon? Why don’t you have some coffee?”
“Let me put my hand on her. On your little baby”
Him, Audrey thought. Him. Him.
“Please. Just now, when you were sitting down, I could see her kicking. Just for a moment. I’ve never . . . so tiny.”
“He’s asleep. Asleep just now!”
"Like a little birdie . . . fluttering . . . only for a moment.”
Audrey looked around wildly. “I must go!”
“Just for a moment.” Mrs. Heddon placed her flat palm where the baby lay and made little noises like a settling dove. Audrey seized Mrs. Heddon’s hand and flung it aside.
“I’m going. I’m sorry, but I must.”
Mrs. Heddon dropped into a chair. She pressed her finger ends to her temples and when she spoke the cooing tone had gone. “Such a small favour to a cheated woman. Uncharitable. Just what I’d expect from Batley.”
Audrey fled, outside, down the front path and round to her own door, panting, crying. In her bedroom she lay down and at once fell asleep.
* * *
During the afternoon she went into the garden to take in her washing, but warily, for the dividing hedge was less than head high. She though how bright and soft the sunshine would make his nappies, which she had already bought. She loaded the clothes into a plastic tub, sunwarmed, sweet smelling towels, underwear, socks and shirts. It was hot in the garden. The lawn felt hot through her thin sandals. In Mrs. Heddon’s garden, sunflowers nodded gravely, golden and grand. Refined, sunflowers are, she thought.
Then she saw Mrs. Heddon coming down the stone steps from her house to the garden, still extravagantly dressed for summer, bare-shouldered, and approach the hedge. Audrey pretended she had not seen her. She busied herself with an old shopping bag in which she kept her pegs, thinking, I was unkind. Poor woman. If only she hadn’t been drunk.
“Oh . . . Audrey!”
There was nothing she could do but look round. “Hello Zoe.”
“A little word, my dear.” Mrs. Heddon waited till she crossed to the hedge.
Mrs. Heddon looked fresh and rested, had renewed her make up and tidied her hair. “I do hope that you will still come to the party?”
She sounded so unexpectedly contrite and friendly that Audrey blurted out, “Why yes! Of course!”
“I wondered . . . after . . .”
“Oh, that’s all right.” Audrey looked down at the grass, at her hands, at the sunflowers. “I . . . I’m. I understand. I’m looking forward to it. My husband will, too.”
“Good!” Mrs. Heddon paused. “There’s another little matter, Audrey.”
“It’s not easy to say this, my dear.” Mrs. Heddon sounded firm but helpful. “And you mustn’t be offended. You’re new here and not likely to realize.”
“This is the sort of neighbourhood where we try to avoid airing our washing in public. I, certainly, try not to do so . . . you know . . . too often.”
“Oh! Yes. I see,” said Audrey, relieved, seeing only that by saying no more she would be admitted to the refined freemasonry of Zoe’s confidantes, whether she liked it or not.
* * *