QuaranTime to Read. . . Chapter Nineteen


Chapter Nineteen

The day of the Summer Fete arrived all too quickly. Jane was cooking with two other mothers. She recognised their names but didn’t really know them. She had been told that everything would be provided, she just had to bring an apron.

Peter promised to take good care of Christopher and Abigail. He planned to bring them both later, and was now busy sorting money. He had emptied a huge jar of loose change, collected over several months, onto the table.

“Good opportunity this,” he remarked cheerily, making piles of pennies and two pence pieces, then putting them into sandwich bags when he had a pound of each.

Jane eyed the mass of coppers dubiously. She was not entirely sure that a pound’s worth of pennies would be welcome at each stall. She decided not to comment and rummaged in a drawer for an apron. It was green and flowery and had a hard lump of old pastry stuck to the pocket. She was late, it would have to do. She said goodbye and left.

***

The barbecue pitch was in the corner of the playground, next to an inflated pool of floating ducks. The ducks had small rings attached to their backs, ready for young children to fish them out with hooked poles. Many of them were floating upside down, and a rather harried mother was attempting to readjust their weights. It was not an easy task and the yellow ducks persisted in floating with their silly faces submerged. A football bounced across the playground and landed in the pool. The mother glowered damply. It was followed across the tarmac by a bouncy father.

“Sorry!” he yelled happily. “Nice warm day to get splashed though. I’ll return this to the ‘Beat the Goalie’ stall—maybe we should rename it ‘Beat the Ducks.’ Ha!”

He retrieved his ball and bounded away. Jane heard dark mutterings from the duck lady and smiled. She was busy weighing down paper napkins and plates on a table. It was breezy, and they fluttered as though trying to escape. There were several bottles of tomato sauce—the cheap runny stuff that tastes of acidic sugar—and a fat tube of mustard. Jane left her task and went to find the meat.

Sausages and burgers were stored in cool boxes beside the barbecues. Jane was working with May and Alice. Both wore smart navy-and-white striped aprons, and were brisk and well organised. May had attached the gas to the barbecues, and was now heating them. Alice was deciding how much meat to cook initially.

“You do the sausages Jane,” said Alice, glad to have someone to organise. “Start with about thirty and see how you get on. The barbecues should be ready in about ten minutes.”

Jane began counting sausages, pulling them from the box in strings.

“What are you doing?” asked May.

“Getting them ready…” hesitated Jane.

“Oh. Well, you could separate them I suppose” said May, sounding doubtful. “It is much too early to start cooking them though. And do try and keep them off the cloth, we need to keep raw meat away from where we’ll be serving. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” agreed Jane, coiling the string of meat onto a plate. She needed to separate them, but wasn’t sure how. Frozen sausages were already separated. She didn’t have a knife. She took the first sausage and pulled hard. It slithered, greasy, in her hand, depositing a blob of sausage meat on the tablecloth.

“Here.” May passed her a knife. Jane cut through the skin.

“You need to prick those,” said Alice.

“No, it’s best not to,” contradicted May.

Jane had no opinion at all, so covered them with a napkin and went to wash her hands.

To the left of the barbecue was a trestle table laden with mouldering books. The covers were faded and the pages brown, many showing unevenly at the sides where they had come away from their binding. Jane recognised some titles from the book stall at the Christmas Fair. The parent manning the stall was making neat piles of adult books, with children’s titles spread out at the front. He surreptitiously sidled one back into the box. Jane wondered if the title was deemed too racy or if he fancied reading it himself.

She passed a tombola, a bouncy castle, and a table spread with a treasure island. There was a candy-floss seller, signs beckoning her to guess the weight, guess the name and have a lucky dip. One mother had dressed as a gypsy with red headscarf and hooped earrings, and was offering to read palms. Another was busy arranging face paints on a small table.

There was a cake stall, laden with sponges sweating in cellophane and plates of smaller cakes ready to be eaten. Someone was unloading two grumpy donkeys from a horse box. Jane could hear the chairman of the governors testing the microphone as she entered the school and went in search of the girl’s toilets.

***

When she emerged from the school, people were beginning to arrive. Excited children hurried through the gate, followed by cautious parents who stopped to pay their one-pound entrance fee and collect a photocopied programme.

“Where have you been?” said Alice, as Jane arrived back at the stall.

“She washed her hands,” said May.

“Oh. We can’t keep disappearing,” said Alice, frowning. “Here!” She handed Jane a pack of disinfectant hand wipes.

“Of course,” said May, “those are only good for killing germs on clean hands. They will not actually remove any dirt. Proper dirt needs to be washed away with soapy water.”

“Better start cooking,” said Alice, ignoring her.

“Probably better to wait a while,” said May. “We’ll begin in ten minutes.” She looked at her watch, as if absorbing the time.

Jane decided not to point out that ten minutes would make very little difference. She spied Peter coming through the gate. He held a purple carrier bag and was laboriously counting pennies into the patient hand of the parent on the gate.

He saw her and hurried over. Alice and May were busy, placing meat on the barbecues.

“We made it!” said Peter, as if this was unexpected. He was not often in sole charge of the children.

“Yes, well done,” said Jane. She moved closer, “You will keep an eye on Christopher won’t you? Don’t let him wander off on his own.

“Abi does country dancing at two, so she’ll need to change into plimsolls before then. Listen for the announcement.”

“We’ll be fine,” said Peter. “We’re raring to go, aren’t we Chris?”

Christopher grinned up at his father. He was clutching an orange bag, which Jane feared was also full of pennies.

“Don’t let them eat too many sweets,” she pleaded. “And definitely nothing that’s not wrapped.” She lowered her voice again. “Some of the little cakes look a bit dodgy,” she said, “can you make sure the kids don’t buy them?”

“We’ll be fine,” repeated Peter. “Come on Chris, donkey ride I think before the queue gets any longer.”

Jane watched them walk away, then turned to the sausages and began to add them to the barbecue.

***

There was little time for conscious thought for the rest of the afternoon. The women had a steady stream of customers at their stall and Jane worked hard, turning sausages, placing them on the outstretched rolls, turning down the heat to a mere glow.

May was busy with burgers, flipping them every few minutes, then turning to check Jane’s progress with the sausages.

“These are a bit slow,” she worried, turning the heat up to full. “They need to be cooked quickly.”

Jane passed a sausage to a waiting child. Alice fished for change in her money pot. Then she moved back to check the meat.

“We don’t want them to cook on the outside before the middle is heated through,” she said, turning the heat back down to its lowest setting.

Jane saw Abigail arriving, laden with bottles.

“Dad’s on the tombola,” she informed Jane, passing her some olive oil and bright green bubble bath.

“It takes him ages to count out the money,” she giggled. “Can you hold these?”

Jane bent and hid them under the table. May leant over her and turned up the heat on the barbecue.

“Don’t forget it’s country dancing later,” said Jane, as Abigail skipped away. She returned to the sausages. A few were beginning to turn black.

“You must keep turning them,” chided May.

“That heat’s too high,” observed Alice, reaching to turn it down.

Jane began to slice a fresh batch of finger rolls. Abigail returned, this time carrying a bottle of rum and some cheap red wine.

“Dad says his luck is improving,” she told Jane, passing her the bottles.

“You can’t keep those here,” said Alice, “they’ll be in the way.”

“I thought they could go under the table,” said Jane.

Alice and May exchanged looks. Either one was helping to run a stall, or one was not. Bottles were an unnecessary hindrance. They said nothing. They didn’t need to—their expressions were eloquent.

Jane paused.

“They can go in your locker Abi,” she decided, “we can get them later.” She passed them back to her daughter.

“And don’t run with them!” she called, as Abigail hurried towards the school with her latest prizes.

May turned down the heat on both barbecues and began to move the cooked sausages to the edge. Jane handed two sausages to a parent, then tried to open a new sauce bottle. The foil seal under the lid was firmly stuck down and she could not lift it. She scratched at it for a while, then grabbed a fork and stabbed through it. Red sauce squirted out, splattering her fingers and the table.

“Well that’s one way of doing it,” said a familiar voice. Jane whirled around. There, standing behind her, was Matthew.

He stood close, smiling down at her. Jane felt herself blush with surprise as she returned his smile.

“What…” she began.

“I saw the posters,” explained Matthew, “wondered if you’d be here. Though not,” he admitted, “at this particular stall. Cooking..?” He raised an eyebrow.

Jane laughed, her heart singing. The whole world felt brighter.

“Be careful, or I’ll sauce you!” she threatened, wiggling her red-coated fingers towards his face.

“I need to wash these,” she said, and began to walk towards the school, ignoring Alice as she waved wet wipes at her.

Matthew followed, chatting easily. She didn’t look at him, but was aware of his proximity, aware that he was with her.

They went into the school, gloomy after the brightness of the sunny afternoon. The corridor was deserted, everyone outside at the stalls. Their footsteps sounded loud in the quiet building, it felt forbidden to be inside, as if they were breaking some rule. Still Jane did not look at him. She could feel her heart, was very aware of everything, especially how alone they were. How unseen.

Their feet were loud in the deserted corridor, clattering on the wooden flooring. Jane passed paintings of summer flowers, smelt the glue and paper smell of the school, the odour of stale air and many bodies. Her senses were alive, and she knew, without looking, exactly how close to her Matthew was walking, her ears attuned to the deep echo of his voice.

They reached the sinks, and she paused. She looked at her hands, red with sauce. Matthew reached down, over her, to turn on the tap for her. He was leaning very close, looking at her face. She could smell him now, that soapy smell she knew so well. She opened her mouth to thank him for turning on the tap.

“I missed you!” she blurted out, the tension of the moment controlling her words.

She was immediately mortified. What would he think of her? He would think she was some desperate, clingy housewife. She felt her face burn and thrust her hands under the water, washing them frantically, wondering what she could say to make it sound less odd, less blunt. Trying to make the moment casual, like it didn’t really matter.

“Hey,” he said softly, seeing her confusion. He was still looking at her, trying to read her expression, she could feel his gaze on her, almost feel his eyes burning her skin, searching her face.

“I missed you too,” he said, as if trying to take the tension from the exchange, to stop her embarrassment. “I used to enjoy chatting with you,” he said, “we had fun didn’t we?”

Jane nodded. She wanted so badly to salvage the situation, to turn this back into a light conversation between casual friends. But he was too close. She was too aware of him, her emotions were spinning, she could barely draw breath and she could feel tears welling behind her eyes. She folded her lips and bit down, trying to distract herself, to calm her feelings.

He paused, as though considering an idea. He moved even closer, they were almost touching, and when he spoke, Jane could feel his breath on her cheek. She thought, for one wild moment, that he might be going to kiss her.

“We could meet, if you want,” he murmured, so quietly that Jane could hardly hear him. He was still looking at her, an intense stare, holding her eyes with his own—eyes so bright that one could drown in them—a gaze so strong, he was seeing, Jane felt, into the depths of her.

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. The corridor where they stood felt full of electricity, all was fuzz and static, only this moment, the two of them, was real.

Jane broke his gaze and looked around. The sink had splatters of powder paint around the edges and smelt of damp newspaper. Everything looked normal. Nothing had changed.

She shook the drips from her fingers and turned off the tap.

“Okay,” he said. He reached up, tucked a stray hair behind her ear. Jane thought she might melt. She kept very still, not daring to breathe. Something had changed between them, unspoken but tangible.

“I’ll text you, in a few days, arrange something?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

Jane nodded, smiling now.

“I’d better go,” he said, “can I trust you not to kill anyone with that sauce bottle?”

The tension was gone, they were back in familiar territory.

“I think so,” grinned Jane.

She watched him leave. She stood at the small children’s sink, and watched this man, this man who she desired, as he walked the length of the corridor. Tall, broad shouldered, moving with fluid ease, looking as out of place in a primary school as a film star. Then through the door, and he was gone.

Jane dried her hands on the rough green paper towel, and dropped it into the open bin beside the sink.

“He came to see me.” Her thoughts were a whirl, tumbling in a muddle with her emotions.

“He still has my mobile number,” she realised. “He wants to see me. It was his idea, he suggested it, he wants to see me. I matter.”

Feeling somewhat shell-shocked, she returned to her stall. Along the corridor, back into the sunlight. No sign of him now, as she passed the cake stall, the books, parents queuing at the tombola. She walked, dream-like, through the crowd. Nothing felt real, it was as if Jane had evaporated, and some shell, which looked exactly like Jane, was now acting in her place. She was behaving like the old Jane, she spoke and responded like the old Jane, but it was all pretend. Jane, the real Jane, was somewhere else.

Several customers were waiting for sausages. Alice had taken their money but felt unable to serve them—for health and safety reasons, she explained. One should not handle both money and food. May had disappeared to use the toilet.

Jane screwed the lid onto the rather sticky sauce bottle and reached for the tongs. She lifted the sausages onto the waiting rolls with a polite smile, apologising for the delay.

Abigail appeared. She pushed her way through the queue.

“I’ve lost a plimsoll,” she announced.

Jane stopped, feeling confused, sausage suspended in midair.

“He must like me, really like me,” she had been thinking, “to risk coming to a school fair.”

“What?” she asked, slightly dazed.

“My plimsoll,” repeated Abigail loudly. “I have lost my plimsoll. And I need it for dancing. Now!”

Jane became aware of the voice crackling from the loud speaker.

“Could all our dancers please join Miss Mott next to class four, for the country dancing.”

“Oh, I see,” said Jane.

“It should be in my locker,” said Abigail, growing more agitated, “someone has stolen it.”

“I expect it’s there somewhere,” mumbled Jane, wondering if she could abandon Alice again to help her daughter. However, the decision was unnecessary as Hilary and George appeared in the centre of the playground.

“There’s Gran!” said Abigail, “She can help.”

She ran across to her grandparents, who looked relieved to see her.

“Ah, Abigail,” said Hilary, “we were wondering where you were. Your father said to come at two o’clock.”

“And we were here on time,” added George.

“I’ve lost a plimsoll,” Abigail said, “and I need it for country dancing, which is now. Can you help me find it?—Please,” she added, as an afterthought.

“Can’t you dance in shoes?” asked George. “It’s only skipping really.”

“Oh George, of course she can’t,” said Hilary. “Right, you go and find Peter,” she said to her husband. “Abigail, show me where your gym shoe should be, we’ll start there.”

“Plimsoll,” corrected Abigail as she led her grandmother into the school.

They passed a mother and child as they left the toilets but the rest of the corridor was empty. It seemed strangely dim without the strip lighting turned on, and Abigail felt it was a little frightening being here alone. Her grandmother’s heels clicked authoritatively beside her as they walked past giant collages of multicoloured birds.

They went to the cloakroom and she pointed to her locker. It was a red cubbyhole, one of several against the wall opposite the coat pegs. There was a number six painted above it.

“That’s mine,” she said, “but no plimsoll.”

Hilary opened the door, and decided the best method would be to empty it completely. It had the look of a cupboard that had been rummaged through. She began to remove items and pass them to Abigail. Navy blue shorts were tangled with a white tee shirt.

“That’s what we wear for PE,” said Abigail, being helpful. There was a pink folder with torn covers. “That’s History.” Next came a black plimsoll, with a white sock tucked inside. “That’s the one I already found,” she said, folding her arms.

Then, jammed safely at the back, were two bottles. The rum was standing upright, its lid nearly touching the top of the locker. The wine was on its side, wedged with a sock and a sweatshirt.

“Those are Mummy’s,” said Abigail. “She’ll get them later I expect.”

Hilary paused, said nothing. Instead, she knelt down and felt beneath the unit. Her hand closed around a soft shoe. She extracted the rather dusty plimsoll and handed it to Abigail, who beamed at her.

“Just in time!” she said, pushing it onto her foot.

“Thanks Gran,” she called as she ran back to the playground. Hilary folded the clothes and placed them tidily in the locker before closing the door and returning to her husband.

***

George was standing with Peter and Christopher on the edge of a ring of parents. A large space had been cleared in the centre of the playground, and the first class was skipping in pairs to their starting positions. Music, slightly off-key, was blaring from the loud speaker and a teacher was gesticulating wildly, trying to encourage the children to smile. They frowned back at her as they stood in lines, waiting to begin.

Jane hurried over as the dance started.

“You smell of sausage,” said Peter.

“Why is Chris eating a fairy cake?” hissed Jane. “You don’t know how many people have breathed on that. He’ll be ill.”

“He’ll be fine,” said Peter. “Look, here comes Abi. Dances like a donkey!”

It seemed to Jane that the dancing lasted a very long time. It consisted primarily of skipping in a circle, with the odd exchange of partner along the way. The music was unpleasant and jarred her nerves. Most parents were clapping enthusiastically whilst staring with unseeing eyes.

“What is this dance?” queried Hilary, “I don’t recognise it.”

“Gay Gordons, I think,” said Peter.

“Well, they are doing it wrong,” observed Hilary.

“Perhaps they tried to simplify it,” said Peter.

“No,” she said, “it’s not simplified, it’s just wrong. And that boy has his shoes on the wrong feet. I’m very surprised his teacher didn’t make him change them.”

“Perhaps she didn’t notice,” said George.

“It’s her job to notice,” stated Hilary.

“This music is giving me a headache,” complained George. “Can’t they turn it down a bit?”

Jane, who until this moment had also found it unpleasantly loud, felt irritated.

“I like it,” she said, “it’s happy.” She began to clap with renewed vigour. The children continued to skip, some of them frowning with concentration, some smiling at their parents. A few looking as bored as the audience.

“I might,” began Christopher, pulling at her sleeve with sticky fingers, “I might, be going to wet myself.”

“Right,” said Jane, glad to escape, “let’s go quickly. Hold it in until we get there.”

They pushed through the crowd and hurried into the school.

“Hold it in, hold it in,” chanted Christopher, enjoying the echo of the corridor. “Hold it in!”

They arrived in time. Jane rushed to wash his hands and get back to the dancing before she missed her daughter. She felt cross, now she thought about it, that Hilary had let her take Christopher rather than offering to help so that Jane could watch the dancing.

In the playground, Abigail was doing her final courtesy. She grinned up at her mother in triumph. Jane waved and passed Christopher back to Peter. He was chewing a hot dog.

“Bit crisp,” he said, “but edible.”

“I think we’ve finished,” said Jane, “I’d better help clear up. Can you take the kids?”

“Sure,” mumbled Peter through a mouthful of sausage.

***

Alice and May were removing the last pieces of meat from the barbecues. Alice flapped the wet wipes at Jane as she approached.

“Health and safety,” she said.

Jane failed to see how it mattered as they were clearing up but she wiped her hands obediently.

“We need to cool these grills and then scrub them,” said May.

“No,” said Alice, “better to shut them and turn up the gas to full. Burn off all the fat.”

Jane returned the bread rolls to their bags and began throwing away soiled napkins.

“I’ll count the money,” offered Alice. “It will take me a long time, thanks to that man.”

“Yes,” said May, her voice outraged, “while you were gone Jane, a father bought three hot dogs and paid for them in pennies.”

“Pennies!” repeated Alice, “Pennies! Can you imagine how long it will take me to count them all? Never mind the weight!”

“Thoughtless,” said May.

“Very,” agreed Alice.

“Oh well,” thought Jane, “at least they agree on something.” She decided not to reply.

***

By the time they had cleared up, most people had left. Peter wandered over to say that they were leaving and would see Jane when she got home. She nodded, pushing a paper table covering into a too full dustbin liner.

“Wait!” said Christopher, “My stuff—we mustn’t forget my stuff.”

“Oh yes,” said Abigail, “he did very well.”

He ran back towards a nearly empty stall and heaved two big bags from underneath.

“I gave him some money,” said Peter.

“He got some real bargains,” added Abigail proudly.

Jane’s heart sank. She knew from previous fetes that the second-hand toy stall was always left with broken, dirty toys. Things that people had discarded but did not want to throw away were regularly dumped at school fairs. Now, as she watched her son struggle excitedly towards her, she knew that much of this rubbish was heading towards her home. The mother manning the stall was sweeping up, determinedly not looking at Jane. She sighed.

“I’ll see them at home,” she said.

***

As she finally drove away from the school, Jane felt tired. It had been a busy day, but mainly emotionally draining. A new knot had formed in her stomach and she could feel the tension in her muscles.

“Matthew.”

She wondered when he would contact her, where they would meet. She felt excited, but not, if she were honest with herself, particularly happy. She knew there were thoughts at the back of her mind that she was refusing to face.

“I don’t need to think about this,” she decided, “I’ll just wait and see what happens.” She arrived home and opened the door. Grubby toys were strewn across the floor. Odd jigsaw pieces lay next to a doll’s head beside a plastic castle, which was missing a turret.

Jane stepped carefully into the kitchen.

“I need tea,” she said.

Peter looked up and grinned at her. He was at the kitchen table, reading the front of the local newspaper. He looked rather pleased with himself.

“Chris is happy,” he said. “Oh, and this came for you.”

It was a plain white envelope with her name handwritten across the front. She did not recognise the writing, nor was she expecting anything. She froze. Peter was watching her curiously. Was it from Matthew? Was it possible that he had gone to text her, realised he had deleted her number, and had written her a note instead? Would he be that stupid?

“I’ll open it later,” she said, keeping her voice flippant and filling the kettle with an unsteady hand, “I need some tea first.”

“Poor old thing,” smiled Peter. “Here, you sit down and open your letter, I’ll make the tea.”

Jane slumped in a chair. Peter was watching her; she didn’t really have a choice. She felt nauseous as she slowly tore the envelope, something cold and hard spreading through her stomach. Every nerve was screaming and she felt like her blood carried shards of ice. For the first time in her life she knew what it was to feel frightened. Peter, the boy she had married, laughed with, shared her life with; in one simple stroke, he turned from her best friend to her enemy. Instead of wanting to share everything, she wanted to hide, to deceive him.

“Actually, I’m desperate for the loo,” she said, standing up. “Be back in a minute”. She hurried from the room, knocking her elbow on the doorframe as she left, crumpling the letter in her hand as if distracted.

In the safety of the bathroom, with the door locked, she perched on the toilet and finished opening the envelope. She peered inside.

To be continued on Tuesday.

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