Dunstan

Another section from my unfinished novel about Kate and her attempt to reclaim her life after widowhood.  I have had some regular traffic on the extract ‘Pushing’ I posted a while back, and take that as encouragement!

 

Florence came in her BMW, all flowery perfume and Jaeger. The car was much too big for Kate’s drive, and Florence struggled to squeeze her ample form out of it whilst trying to avoid treading on next-door’s front lawn. Kate watched from her upstairs window as Florence locked her car and stood by the bonnet, surveying the neighbourhood, her head swivelling like a surveillance camera.

Florence had repeatedly asked to see Kate’s house, saying that she was ‘intrigued’, given its unpromising situation in Brunfield. Florence stepped gingerly over the threshold of the front door and stood in the tiny hallway, taking in details. Her eye seemed drawn to the cracks in the plaster, which the builder had assured Kate were ordinary settlement caused by the plaster drying out. Florence walked into the lounge, uninvited. She sat in an armchair and looked knowingly at Kate, who had followed her through. Florence’s perfume filled the room like a bowl of hyacinth placed too close to the fire.

‘This is a come-down in the world, Kate,’

‘It’s adequate, Florence. I don’t socialise much these days.’

‘No you don’t Kate.’

‘Would you like to see the rest of the house?’

‘I don’t think so, Kate. I have seen all that I need to see. Let’s go to Dunstan, I’ve got a new blend of coffee that you might like to try. I remember that you used be something of a connoisseur. I expect that you use instant now…’

Raked back in Florence’s leather-upholstered passenger seat, Kate was treated to Vivaldi and Florence’s opinion on Kate’s selection of a place to live.

‘Forgive me Kate, but I shouldn’t care to leave my car out overnight here…’

‘Fortunately, I don’t have one, Florence.’ Kate looked out of the passenger window of Florence’s car. A bird had deposited liberally on the windscreen, and Florence angrily operated the washer, smearing the mess right over the glass.

They took a minor road from the centre of the town towards the west, where the landscape opened out into pleasant countryside. Florence lived in a former vicarage in a small village, three miles from Dunkersley.  Kate noticed that the stone wall around Florence’s garden had been newly repaired. The start of the wall had always marked the place where Ralph signalled right, looking in his rear-view mirror. Kate would see the reflection of her husband’s face, looking not at her, but at what followed him. He’d click his tongue in a certain way and push the gear stick into first as he turned. Kate looked at the driver, expecting to see Ralph’s profile and his large hands on the wheel as the car crackled over the gravel. But instead there was Florence with her mop of soft hair and gently receding chin. Her plump, ringed, fingers gripped the steering wheel like the divided halves of a crab.

‘Here we are, Kate, Dunstan House… once again.’ She smiled at Kate in the manner of one presenting an undeserved gift.

Florence walked awkwardly over her drive to the door, trying not to allow her heels to sink into the gravel. She looked around at Kate, who was still in the car.

‘Can’t you manage the door Kate?’

Florence looked as if she’d come and open the door for Kate as she would for a child or an infirm relative, but Kate opened the car door herself and took a deep breath. It was like taking a step into the past where she no longer belonged.

Florence had had a new security lock fitted to her front door and it took her a while to find the correct key from the large bundle she carried.

‘Excuse me Kate,’ Florence said, ‘I must disarm the system. Don’t move or we’ll have half the county’s constabulary here.’

The alarm beeped its countdown. Florence put on her reading glasses and opened the hall cupboard. The sound of the beep came louder.

‘I’m surprised you need an alarm here…’ Kate said.

‘Caroline Todd was broken into last week, Kate. In Fairborough. And she practically lives behind steel shutters.’

Florence tapped away at a control pad, her keys still in her hand.

‘They stole her jewellery – urinated into her underwear drawer.’

Florence said it flatly, as if she was talking about a shoddy tradesman.

‘How very unpleasant…’

Florence messed up the code, and the alarm continued its beep, the frequency of the bleeps increasing the longer she delayed. She peered at the keypad, dabbing at it with her short fingers until the noise stopped. She took a breath and looked at Kate over her glasses.

‘And she wasn’t properly insured. I hope that you are, Kate. Given where you live…’

Florence took Kate’s jacket and hung it in the cupboard.

‘What happened to your wall?’ Kate asked.

‘Oh, a van skidded and hit it. No other vehicle in sight. Driver’s fault.’

Florence tutted and filled her kettle from a filtered water tap.

Kate looked around at the kitchen. It had a kind of worn look that came from unuse, as if the things were merely for decoration and didn’t really believe in themselves. There was an imitation range concealing a modern electric oven, and unused copper saucepans hung from the ceiling, dustless and free of the patina of flame. Florence generally used a caterer when she entertained, and Kate recalled the black uniformed staff handing out canapés and glasses of champagne.

Florence herded Kate into her sunroom and served coffee from a chrome and glass coffee set. It was elegant, although the finger holes were close to the sides of the cups and Kate’s fingers got burned if she tried to hold the cup firmly. She resorted to holding the handle with her fingertips. The tiled floor was strewn with rugs and the cane chairs were stuffed with puffy cushions, which made sitting awkward. Florence had lavish swagged and tasselled blinds at the windows that matched the lampshades.

Florence leaned forward in her wicker chair, causing the yellow-and-white striped cushion to billow at the back, almost pitching Florence out. Her coffee tilted and spilled a tiny dribble onto the white ceramic floor.

‘Look Kate, I know that things with Ralph were, you know, not quite so… straightforward.’ She looked at Kate, as if her gaze alone would pry open the lid of Kate’s personal life.

‘We all have our ups and downs in marriages, Florence.’

Florence coughed and looked away. In a corner, Kate noticed a sculpture of an African tribeswoman hewn in crude strokes from some red-brown wood. The woman was bare-breasted and carried a bowl on her head.

‘If you are referring to Adam’s little indiscretion last year, we have sorted it out. I have forgiven and forgotten. Adam was experiencing those doubts that all men do at his time of life.’

‘Yes, of course, Florence.’ Kate remembered the gossip.

‘But Adam has always been good to me, Kate. He still loves me.’ Her eyes filled. ‘He was never difficult. If you understand my meaning…’

‘Indeed, Florence.’

‘We worried about you, you know.’

‘Really?’

Florence offered Kate a shortbread.

‘Yes, really, Kate. We all knew that Ralph was demanding. His first wife…’

 ‘Ralph and I were married for twenty-one years, Florence.’

Kate smiled, remembering that Adam once made a drunken suggestion to Kate that would have made Florence worry well and truly.

‘Of course, and no one could have doubted that you were a loyal wife…’

‘That’s good to know.’

‘If you’d rather not talk about it Kate, I’ll not pry. It’s all over now, anyway, done and dusted…’

‘Yes, done and dusted indeed. It’s good coffee.’

Kate put her cup down on the table. She had been in this house, in company, many times with Ralph and they had eaten at Florence’s large dining table. Everything had been very proper, very civil – pleasant for the most part.

Kate ate the biscuit and accepted the refill of coffee that Florence offered.

‘It’s Ethiopian,’ she said. ‘Peaberry. Harrar. I got it from a specialist.’

‘I recognised the variety. It’s very good, thank you.’

Florence looked at Kate over her cup.

‘In your circumstances, Kate, I suppose you’ll have to get yourself a job…’ The tone of Florence’s voice was sanctimonious. She smiled, apparently with sympathy.

‘I might consider it, Florence. Maybe someone will want me.’

‘Oh but what are you qualified for, Kate? Women these days are all graduates of this or that, professional credentials up to their eyelashes!’

‘I have a degree.’

‘Oh yes, Oxford. I’d forgotten. You were so young when you married Ralph.’

Florence lifted the cafetière, finding it empty.

‘Oh, dear, all finished,’ she said.

‘As you say, most women have careers. With or without husbands. Look at your own daughters…’

‘All right, Kate, I can see you are touchy about it. It’s not surprising. But don’t worry, I won’t abandon you.’

Florence looked at her gold bracelet watch and said ‘Oh dear me, is that the time? Forgive me Kate, I have the church garden party meeting this afternoon. I need to get the sandwiches ready.’

She put Kate back into the front seat of her car and reversed through her gateway, quite quickly, narrowly missing one of the posts. They drove back the way they came and Kate saw how the stone blocks of the wall had been re-cemented – but the newly-mortared joins were obvious, and fresh surfaces of stone had been exposed.

 

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