The following Thursday, Jane took Christopher to the park. It was a beautiful Summer’s day, with a high blue sky and a gentle breeze. She had parked in the small car park near the swings, and now they walked hand-in-hand across the grass. Max was in an ecstasy of sniffing under a wooden bench. The sun glinted off the paint of the large red slide, and she could feel Christopher skipping at her side. Her bag bumped against her hip. She needed to buy white cotton on the way home so that she could reattach buttons to Abigail’s school blouse.
School was not a happy thought at the moment. She had been summarily telephoned following her evening out and told: thank you for volunteering, you are manning the barbecue at the Summer Fair. Burgers! It was bad enough having to cook at home, now she would be burning food for the whole school. She sighed, at least she had nothing to prepare and it was only one day.
She lifted Christopher onto a swing and pulled it back. It was wooden and heavy, with a thick metal chain. She released it, watching it swing free, then braced for its return. Christopher wiggled his legs.
“Higher! Higher!” he chanted.
“That’s enough Chris,” she sighed after a few minutes. “You play on the roundabout; I need to find Max.”
She left her son climbing onto the orange wheel and went in search of the dog. He lumbered over when she called, tail swaying, stick in mouth. She obediently threw the stick a few times, watching her son as he played in the low-fenced enclosure. He too had found a stick and was poking beneath the roundabout. She walked over to where he was.
Red faced and frowning, Christopher was peering under the roundabout, making frantic sweeps with a thin branch.
“I can nearly get it,” he said in frustration.
At last, with one long swoosh of the stick, his prize was dislodged and tumbled over the grass in the sunlight.
“It’s magic!” he cried.
“It’s dirty!” she said.
It was a whiskey bottle, drained empty and flung under the child’s toy with drunken disregard. The golden label sparkled in the sunlight enticingly. Before she could stop him, Christopher had snatched it up.
“Can I keep it?”
“No,” said his mother, “it’s got germs on it. Don’t touch it.”
The boy inspected it closely. No germs could be seen. The glass was very smooth and the lid was made of gold. The label was beautiful, and seemed to have secret writing on it. It was clearly magic. He glanced at his mother. Her face looked cross and he could tell she did not understand the importance of his treasure. He felt his bottom lip begin to quiver.
“Please mummy, it’s mine now.”
Jane looked into the deep pools of his pleading eyes. ‘How am I supposed to not give in?’ she wondered. She knelt down and put an arm around his narrow shoulders. He gazed trustingly at her.
“Chris, it’s not clean,” she began. His eyes began to fill with tears. “Alright, we can take it home and wash it I suppose.”
She removed it from his grasp, deciding it would be easily disposed of later, when he had forgotten about it. She called the dog and clipped on his lead, then told Christopher that they needed to buy cotton before they went home. Not having a hand free to hold his, she sighed, and slipped the bottle into her bag, hoping it was not as dirty as she feared.
They moved to the road and stood waiting as traffic passed. Jane watched the cars impatiently, wanting to go home.
Suddenly, with heart-lurching familiarly, she recognised Matthew’s car. He glided down the road towards her. She searched for his face. He saw her, raised a hand in salute and continued past.
“That was Matfew!” announced Christopher.
“Yes,” said Jane, watching the car until it disappeared.
“Mummy, we can go,” said Christopher, waggling her hand so that she would notice the road was clear. Trance-like, she led him across.
She was a blur of emotion. She had seen him. He had waved. Their contact was not completely severed. Maybe she would see him again one day. Perhaps, now he knew they visited the park sometimes he would drive past again.
Or perhaps not.
She took a deep breath and gave herself a mental shake. This was silly. She was like a teenager with a crush on a celebrity. This obsession was getting out of hand.
“Come along,” she said and led the way to the hardware shop.
Leaving the dog tied miserably to the post outside, they entered the gloom of the shop. It smelt of glue and fabric. The floor was grey cement, and the air felt cold after the warmth of outside. Narrow aisles were precariously stacked to the ceiling with a jumble of products.
“Don’t touch anything,” Jane instructed.
She led him past cans of paint, a display of brushes perched above an array of door locks. Helpful signs warned of guard dogs, not to park in front of entrances, and a request to close the gate. Christopher put out a finger and traced their cold letters. They walked around stacked plastic buckets, and passed mops that bent shaggy heads towards them. His finger trailed across rough doormats, and onto shiny saucepans that stood in pyramids above his head. They passed boxes of electrical appliances, which nestled against a display of scissors. Bolts of coloured fabric were piled almost to the ceiling. He reached out and stroked pink fur, then poked a finger through some white lace.
“You’re touching!” his mother hissed, “Fold your arms.”
Jane had stopped beside a rack of coloured cottons. Selecting a reel of white, she guided him back towards the door to pay.
The counter was very high, much taller than his head. Behind it was a tiny man with a white beard. Christopher was fairly sure he was an elf. His mother seemed to have not noticed, and was searching for her purse. He moved behind her. There was an interesting display of tools hanging from the wall. Bright orange handles with comfortable grips, connected to grim looking blades. Saws of various sizes hung like crocodile jaws. He reached out a hand. His mother was busy paying. He pointed a finger and ran it along a blade. He snatched back his hand. Dark red blood oozed through his fist. It stung. He screamed.
Jane turned. She heard the cry, turned while pulling her purse from her bag, saw the blood and leapt towards her child. Off balance, her foot caught on the edge of a broom, which began to tumble, bringing another broom with it. She tripped. As she fell, she put out a hand to save herself, pulling a large tin of emulsion to the concrete with her. Jane, brooms, a brush and the tin all fell to the floor with a crash.
For a long second, all was still.
Jane was lying on the floor; Christopher standing above her, his crying suspended; the shopkeeper, watching.
Then they all moved as one. Christopher began to wail and Jane sat up, opening her arms for him. The shopkeeper hurried towards them, full of defensive concern.
“Madam, you really shouldn’t let your little boy touch things,” he clucked anxiously.
Jane ignored him and inspected the wound. It was very minor and had stopped bleeding already. She put his finger in her mouth and sucked to clean the wound. Then she wiped his tears with her fingers and kissed his nose.
“Stop crying, you’re alright,” she said quietly, reassuring him.
“It bit me,” he whispered.
Jane smiled, “You shouldn’t have touched.”
“I do think you should watch him more closely in future,” said the shopkeeper. “This is not a toy shop.”
Jane declined to comment and began to get up off the floor. All was fine—until she put weight on her right ankle. Pain shot up her leg. She sat again quickly, waves of nausea washing over her.
“Are you alright?” asked the man. “You really should have looked where you were going. Luckily, I do not believe anything was damaged, so I won’t have to charge you.”
He picked up a couple of brooms and replaced them on the stand, then retrieved the paint.
“It’s lucky this lid stayed on,” he said. “You would have made no end of mess if that had come off. You can’t rely on that you know. Manufacturers do not guarantee that lids won’t come loose. Paint should always be stored upright you know.”
The woman was still sitting on his floor. She did seem rather pale. He did hope she would not faint. It would not be good for business.
“I’m afraid I need you to move,” he said, his voice rising a pitch. “I will have other customers shortly and you are rather in the way.”
‘Customers,’ he thought, ‘who will buy more than a single reel of cotton and who will create a lot less fuss.’
Jane remained on the floor. She really was unsure if she could stand. Her ankle hurt a huge amount and she felt quite ill with pain.
Then, as if she were in some ludicrous farce, the shop door opened and in walked Hilary.
Her gaze swept across the tear stained child, the flustered shopkeeper and Jane, who was sitting on the floor.
“And what happened here?” she asked.
“This woman did not have her child under appropriate control and he handled the merchandise” the man hurried to explain. “Then she did not give due care and attention to her actions and she fell over. Nearly damaging more goods, may I add.”
“I see,” said Hilary. “Jane, can you stand?”
“It hurts,” said Jane, “I don’t know.” She looked at the shopkeeper. “Do you have a stick I could lean on?”
“She could purchase a walking stick,” he informed Hilary, deciding that Jane was best not spoken to and realising the two women were acquainted.
“Right, please fetch one,” the older woman commanded, “and Christopher, please sit on this chair and hold my handbag with both hands.”
Christopher obeyed. He was reassured by her presence, and now she was clearly in charge of the situation he was extremely interested to see what would happen. His finger only hurt a little bit now, the pain eclipsed by the excitement of seeing Jane on the floor. He wondered if Nana would tell her off for getting dirty. He clutched the bulky bag. It was shiny black leather and very full. He longed to peek inside and investigate the contents but felt sure someone would then tell him off. Instead, he held it close to his chest, feeling the hard shapes inside. He found he could make his finger bleed again if he pressed it very hard, and he amused himself creating a line of round red spots across the width of the bag.
The man reappeared with a selection of sticks.
“Which would madam prefer? Lightweight steel or more traditional wood? Or perhaps one with a seat incorporated into the handle?”
Hilary pointed at a wooden stick with a plain curved handle.
“That one is suitable,” she said. She looked at Jane, “You can reimburse me later.” She handed her credit card to the shopkeeper.
They both helped Jane to stand and she tested her weight on the stick. She could walk, but it was painful. Driving would be difficult, so Hilary agreed that she would drive them all home. When she realised that a dog was involved she bought a long length of thick polythene. She then spent several minutes lining the footwell of her car while Jane sat awkwardly in the shop, Christopher standing close.
Jane thanked the shopkeeper uncertainly.
“Yes, he responded, “well, I hope this has been a lesson to you, young lady. One needs to take more care in life if one is not going to be an inconvenience. Perhaps you will take better care of your child in future.”
The child in question gave him an angelic smile, and placed a tenth bloody fingerprint on an unseen white tea towel before following his mother out of the shop.
Hilary had driven round to the shop front, so Jane had to hobble only as far as the curb. She lowered herself into the passenger seat. Christopher climbed in beside her. There was no child seat, which worried Jane, but she decided the journey was short enough to merit risking an adult’s seat belt. She pushed her coat under him, to act as a booster seat. Hilary, sighing loudly, was loading the dog.
They drove to Jane’s house in near silence. At one point she tried to thank her mother-in-law and explain what had happened. Hilary waved a hand dismissively. Jane was unsure if this was at the thanks or the explanation.
When they arrived, Hilary leant across for Jane’s bag.
“Let me take that for you,” she said, “then I can unlock the front door and come back to help you.”
She walked down the path then stood by the door and unzipped the bag. There, at the top, was a bottle. Slowly, Hilary removed it. A whiskey bottle. An empty whiskey bottle. Her daughter-in-law had been at the park—with a bottle of whiskey—and then had fallen over. She looked back at the car. Mother and child were both watching her. With a frown she found the keys and unlocked the door.
“I think this discussion is best kept for another time,” she decided, placing the bag on the hall table. Then she went back to help Jane.
Later, Jane sat on the sofa sipping tea. Hilary had advised her to bind the ankle tightly, cover it with a bag of frozen peas and raise it on a cushion. She had collected Abigail from school and offered to help the following day if necessary.
“I hope it won’t be necessary,” thought Jane, “I feel such an inconvenience when she helps me.”
She smiled at the memory of her unexpected appearance. Then her thoughts wandered to her glimpse of Matthew.
“Of all the moments when he could have passed,” she thought, “it was just as we were crossing. It’s like it was fate, like our paths were meant to cross.” It was a comforting idea and she settled against the cushions. “I wish I could tell him what happened,” she yearned. “He would laugh with me, make me feel better about that horrible man.
“There’s no one to tell,” she realised. “Peter will just tell me I’m silly, and then rush to thank Hilary. Once he’s spoken to her, he’ll be convinced I’m inadequate. They will make me feel like it was my fault, they won’t be sympathetic. He never sides with me against his mother. He won’t defend me to her, he won’t laugh about her with me. I am the outsider.”
A shot of loneliness pierced her and she felt close to tears.
“Oh Matthew, I do miss you,” she thought, “when will I see you again..?”
To be continued on Sunday.
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