Chapter 3

Gap Year
Chapter 3


St Matthew’s Church straddled the border between Upper and Lower Bratchley.  These twin communities – five miles north-west of Dudley, as many miles south of Wolverhampton – comprised its parish.

Veering left out of the lychgate, Church Road sloped downhill into Lower Bratchley – colloquially ‘Lower B’ to villagers.

Fields, poster-paint green and un-desecrated – as yet – by bulldozers, surrounded the village.  The Staffordshire-Worcestershire Canal, whose bridges had provided a handy canopy to many a teenage deflowering, ribboned through it.

Other Lower B features were snaky, pavementless lanes; farm shops; the Women’s Institute (whose cake and jam stall was the inevitable hit at every fete); a tiny primary school; two buses a day; a community centre whose noticeboard displayed a roster typed by an apostrophe-abuser: Wednesday’s: line dancing with Robyn, Thursday’s: WI, Friday’s: bum’s n tum’s.

A corner shop, Pyke News, stocking the full gamut from newspapers to su-doku books, fluffy hair slides, voluminous jars of sweets, out of date cup-a-soups, birthday cards that bore pastel glitter and pictures of puppies – and always a healthy top shelf of farmer-titillating porn.

Three pubs (in which, yes, horse brasses formed the prominent décor) frequented by ale-dribbling pensioners, who dealt the kind of glares that could administer curses upon newcomers who dared encroach a buttock on to ‘their seats.’

A thousand villagers, who all knew each other – be it by heart, sight or reputation.  Amongst whom it was difficult – to paraphrase a certain Emily – to keep so much as a fart secret.

Meanwhile, at Church Road’s upmarket summit, cliques did thrive but neighbours in the main scarcely knew – still less conversed with – one another.  ‘Next door’ meant the house an acre away, and a fart could waft unnoticed through one’s own kitchen. 

Youngsters here were in the main privately educated, and thus seldom interacted with their Lower B contemporaries, who bussed it daily to Edgecliff, a comprehensive in neighbouring Kinver.

Judges, surgeons, entrepreneurs like Warwick and Heidi’s fathers, and even the odd celebrity (emphasis, in some cases, on the ‘odd’) populated ‘Upper B,’ which was not really so much a village as a glorified estate. 

But what an estate.  One of the most aspired-to addresses in Staffordshire.  ‘An exclusive leafy heartland,’ according to Country Life, whose property column carried regular blurbs about colossal pads for sale there.  Its copy gushed of swimming pools, stables, six-car garages, and gated junctions to some of the more select Crescents and Drives.

Lower Bratchley residents who liked walking took frequent strolls there – strolls which gave rise to ‘If I win the Lottery, I’m buying that one’-style fantasies.

******

Lionel Chance and Ronnie Poole’s abodes were not the fruits of Lotto booty but business reapings.  The men were Rotary Club acquaintances, whose offspring had become intimate since meeting at Ronnie’s birthday party almost two years ago.

Ronnie Poole’s bashes were legendary.  This wasn’t even a landmark age – he hired Upper Bratchley Golf Club (the estate boasted golf, tennis and squash clubs) the first Saturday in every February.

‘It’s recompense,’ he would justify, in a Black Country brogue which if anything he’d broadened in correlation with his snowballing wealth, as though to bolster his Dudley-lad-made-good credentials, ‘Mom never let me have no birthday parties as a nipper.  I’d do well to gerra card out of that old cow – her wun’t have gid me the ice out of her gin glass.’

Ron coarsened his dialect when it suited him – equally, he knew when to speak like a duke – and his sob-story childhood hadn’t hampered his evolution into the steely frozen food king of the Black Country.  He was no miser, though – there was always a free bar and a charity raffle at these dos, to prove just what a magnanimous chap he was.

To Warwick, these schmooze-a-thons were annual purgatory; their guests shared so little common ground with him, beneath a superficial plane, as to compound his loneliness.  So when he encountered a tall babe in a napkin-sized lemon dress, who asked for directions to the toilets, the word ‘Bingo!’ pinged across his brain like a luminous sign.  Warwick would joke – for his sense of humour was not the sharpest – that it was ‘literally a Chance meeting.’

His conversation with Heidi advanced beyond ‘Through the double doors and turn left,’ and for once he didn’t spend the old man’s party wishing he was home, cosied up with a Jack Daniel’s and Who Wants to be a Millionaire (he’d never have applied for the show himself – he could have donated prize money – but he liked to slake his thirst for general knowledge).  This time, he had someone with whom to get soused and scoff at the black-tied arse-licking.  Or rather, now Warwick came to think of it, he did all the scoffing while Heidi contributed little beyond compliant giggles.

He was smitten, though – and not only by her two conspicuous assets.  She knew no-one there, except her parents (her dad, Lionel – ‘Chancey’ – owned Chance Autos, a sports car showroom on the way to Bridgnorth) and kid brother Dale, a gawky youth in an outsized tuxedo – and this lent her a lost quality which appealed to Warwick’s knightly side.

Though it helped too that she was very shapely and personable – and appeared not allergic to his company. 

Plus – though he was not so ungallant as to learn this on that first night – she was a proper little hotty in bed. 

Warwick’s own horizontal experience was sketchy and tame, but Heidi soon schooled him and was so gymnastically supple that he sprained muscles he’d never so much as flexed before.  He soon learned too that not every position required him to remain horizontal.

Best of all, Heidi tottered into his life when his younger brother, The Great Ben, was newly married – to Erin, a New Zealander generally acknowledged to be the embodiment of perfect womanhood – and militant pressure was on Warwick to follow suit.

There was a gloating element to their early relationship; an element of ‘I’ll show ’em, I can get a stunner too.’  In restaurants, at functions, and when Warwick introduced her as ‘My girlfriend Heidi,’ he clocked the impressed leers and was bolstered.  You’ve done well there, my son, they said – and shy Warwick was for once The Man; target of laddish envy and approval.

But now he was marrying her – and would forever associate that appalling thought with the huge photo of Rev Crisp with Bruce Forsyth, on which his eyes were currently transfixed.  Like all Ellery’s pictures, it was draped with tinsel, giving his front room a snug, twee feel that somehow heightened Warwick’s claustrophobia.

‘Yes, I won a fortnight in St Lucia on The Price is Right,’ the little vicar regaled, as though Warwick had begged him to relate the quiz-show-anecdote-behind-the-picture.  He’d followed Warwick’s gaze as he bustled back in with his diary, for which he’d just exited in quest.  Ellery now opened this diary on his knee and thumbed efficiently through to late summer.

The book, and Ellery’s pen, poised above it like the Grim Reaper’s scythe, became Warwick’s new focus.

It’s official now then, son.  Your date.  Our date.  No escape.

‘Right, so it’s the twentieth of August you want – ’ an enquiring pause, an affirmative yap from Heidi, and Ellery started to biro their details on the appropriate date – ‘at half-two?  And it’s…let me see…Warwick Ronald Poole and Heidi Estelle Chance?’

Warwick could feel Heidi’s puppy gaze on him and unromantically avoided looking at her.  His eyes rested sardonically on Ellery.

Not married yourself, are you, vicar – smart bloke!

******

Two roads away, Emily was back.  Asian scenes were fanned across the Smeed breakfast bar.  She’d fetched her eight films – and a box of Greggs cakes – that morning, the day after landing.

Mom – Thelma – wisely had the day off work.  She’d been talked through the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, up the Petronas Tower – the world’s tallest building – and was now in the unforeseen ‘Dominic’ phase.  Another hour of this, and she’d need a lie down.

‘Kris and Chantal sent their love, of course.’

‘They set a date yet?’

‘No, they’re saving like mad, planning to look at venues when they get back after the contract ends.  Chantal’s been eyeing up dresses over there on the sly, though – she’d quite like an Oriental style.  Here’s another one of Dom and me at the Botanical Gardens…oh, and this is the day we popped over to Sentosa – a gorgeous island off Singapore – they have these amazing sculptures of dragons – but to get there you have to go in a cable car – I felt ever so vulnerable, literally hanging by a thread like that and wobbling.’

Emily was close to her mother, and had envisaged more of a giggle today.  Thelma’s sole comment on the fabulous Dominic was: ‘He looks a bit older than you.  Nice eyebrows, though!’  She seemed nonplussed about the pictures, which were way off her usual ‘holiday snap’ scale, and all she could do was Ooh, Aah, or use them as tenuous cues to impart village chitchat.

‘Ooh, talking about heights – Mike the Wipe fell off his ladder the other week, while he was doing the hairdressers.  Luckily he landed on a bin bag, Geoff said, so didn’t hurt himself, just twisted his ankle a bit, but couldn’t come and do our windows for weeks.  We could hardly see out of them ’til – ’

‘Singapore’s only as big as the Isle of Wight,’ Emily bowled on, thinking the analogy with Thelma’s preferred holiday haunt might grab her, ‘but with about three million more people.  And it’s so clean, Mom, you’d love it.  No litter or graffiti, you can’t smoke or eat in public – you get an on-the-spot fine – and chewing gum is banned.’

‘Ooh, talking about the Isle of Wight – d’you remember that couple from St Matthew’s Close, the Carrolls, had a holiday cottage in Shanklin?’  Emily devoured some custard slice.  ‘Elaine – used to go to aerobics, had a tattoo on her ankle?  Well, by all accounts, she’s been – ’ Thelma mouthed, as though the house was bugged, the words ‘having an affair’ – ‘with her next door neighbour, Dennis somebody or other.  And he’s had a hip replacement!  Twice her age, he is, some bigwig businessman.  Sylv was telling me Joy Pincher saw him sneaking that Elaine into their conservatory.’

‘Really?  Now this is Dominic next to the Mer Lion, it’s the emblem of Singapore, and it’s – ’

‘What’s he do, this Dominic?’ 

‘Teacher.   Well trainee actually.  In his first year of a three-year B.Ed.’

‘So he’s a student.’  Thelma took a measured nibble of doughnut.  ‘Where at?’

‘Birmingham.’

‘University?’

‘Yes.’

‘I thought you said he was twenty-nine.’

‘He’s a mature student, Mom.’

Noodles, the family cat, chose that moment to pad in from his late-morning nap.  ‘My furry boy,’ Emily baby-talked, gratefully scooping up the tabby pom-pom, ‘I’ve missed you.’

‘He’s missed you too.’  Thelma sagely surrendered to the subject change – for now.  ‘He’s slept on your bed a lot, and kept mooching about with nobody to play with.  And I’ll tell you someone else who’ll be glad you’re home – Rob.’

‘Yeah, I know.’  Emily pulled a guilty face.  ‘It’s not always been easy to keep in touch – I sent a couple of postcards, and some e-mails – but I’m really looking forward to seeing…in fact, I’ve got a present for Rob.  I shall go round there now.’  The idea perked her back up, and she determinedly licked the final gloop of custard, still cradling Noodles in her other arm.  ‘Yes,’ she addressed the cat, ‘I shall finish my coffee and go to Rob’s.’

‘Good idea.’  Thelma smiled at her daughter’s diversion from Dominic.  ‘Fetch me a carton of semi-skimmed while you’re out, would you, bab?’

******

Warwick had drifted back into the gallery of game show hosts while Heidi listened captivated to Ellery.

Yeah, like you’re so religious!  He glowered, despising her exposed belly stud (topaz, naturally) and the cleavage holding the reverend in surreptitious but decidedly Ten Commandment-bending fascination.

The idea of a church ceremony was all hers.  Agnostic Warwick had in mind a civil do, at Alveley Manor, a lavish country hotel six miles away.  But Heidi prevailed – though she wouldn’t have known the Scriptures from the Cosmopolitan problem page.

‘The church will look prettier on the photos,’ she insisted, ‘and I’ve always wanted a choir to sing at my wedding.  Just think of it, Wozzy – a choir of angels!’

Chancey and his wife Sue, funding the nuptials, concurred with their daughter – they seldom did otherwise – though Heidi met Warwick halfway by agreeing Alveley Manor for their reception. 

Has it really been only five weeks since I wanted this wedding enough to care about its venue?  Just five weeks since the proposal?

Warwick recalled it now – unbecomingly in these holy surroundings.  For some reason, her nipples were the looming image.  He mentally bloated them to cherry-tomato dimensions, so they expunged everything else out of the memory.  Yet when they tickled his face during that last stretch of bedroom Olympics, he’d whooped ‘Marry me Heidi!’

Even as she was wriggling on top, repeating ‘Yes!’ between elated kisses, he felt he was in one of those nightmares, where you try to scream but can’t force your mouth to produce sounds.  He lay static and passive as she yattered about bridesmaid dress shades until dawn.

It was an emotional proposal, Warwick decided, borne of final passion and the hunger for a companion ‘on his side,’ so to speak, in life.  He was departing next day, for the annual Poole winter pow-wow at the family villa.  Which, by unspoken – and resented – convention, included Warwick’s sister-in-law Erin but, pointedly, not Heidi.  Any lover would be an ally in that bear pit. 

Or perhaps it was a subliminal attempt to compete with Ben?

Benedict Walter Poole: cherubic baby; dimply toddler; impish kid; school stud; college stud; dynamic.  Whom their parents had never quite forgiven Warwick for not being.

And now husband to the exquisite Erin too.  A girl whose gorgeousness was not of the cheap and cheerful variety like Heidi’s: well-to-do, designer-clad, but with hooker dress sense; all flesh and hair extensions, getting pissed on two Martinis before going home to screw like Playmate of the Month.  Erin oozed grace, understatedness – and qualifications from every orifice.  When Ben met her, during one such villa vacation, she was teaching English as a foreign language.

To be pedantic, at the precise moment of meeting she was in the Hyatt bar, sipping white wine (Erin sipped – in contrast to Heidi’s drinking technique, which had more swig-ish overtones) with some teacher friends, the focus of men’s lust and every girlfriends’ loathing. 

In an ivory trouser suit incandescent against her tan, she was the most modestly clad woman in there, but easily the sexiest.  She looked supermodel untouchable – to all except Ben, the only guy with the chutzpah to approach her that night.  He netted her with his easy humour and general Ben-ness, and two years later they were spliced in a showy Christchurch ceremony.

They’d dwelt in her homeland ever since, where Erin was now wet-dreamed about by the English Lit scholars at a boys school, and Ben – inheritor of all the Poole enterprise wanting in his brother – had opened a restaurant. 

Warwick still had to stomach him every winter, though.  So, going back to the proposal, maybe he’d just wanted an anecdote to take to the villa.  The family duty reunion, where they had to be entertained by the adventures of Ben and Erin, before squeezing five minutes for ‘So how are you getting on with that bird – Heidi, isn’t it?’

A fortnight into this latest holiday, Warwick called her.

‘Ooh, I’m so glad you’ve rung, Wozzy,’ Heidi squealed before the final syllable of ‘Hiya chick’ escaped him, ‘I couldn’t wait to tell you – I’ve booked an appointment with the vicar for the twenty-first.’

‘You’ve – what – but – ’

‘December twenty-first.  One o’clock.  At St Matt’s.  You can get an hour or so off to come over, can’t you?’

‘But – I thought you – don’t you want to wait ’til Christmas is out the way before we start making wedding plans?’

‘Not getting cold feet on me, are we,’ she tinkled obliviously, ‘we’ll have to get a wriggle on if we’re looking at next August.’

Next August?’  The date was news to Warwick.  ‘But – ’ 

‘We ought to get a photographer sorted soon as well, y’know.  This chap Daddy knows – one of his customers – says he could do it for us, with a bit of discount.’

I can’t do it to her.  Not yet.  Not over the phone.  Warwick shut his eyes and let her blather on, his mobile feeling as heavy as a cosh.

‘I hope you’re bringing me back something sparkly,’ she flirted.  This time she was not joking.

‘I don’t like to, without you here,’ Warwick hedged, ‘we really ought to shop for it together.  Don’t want to get the wrong sort, see.’

Heidi tittered, imagining him twiddling with a ring box and smirking even as he spoke.  His excuses were sappy.  He might have figured she’d want a topaz – and he even knew her ring size, L, as she told him it three times the night he proposed.

But Warwick wasn’t having her on, and Heidi was fated to be disappointed, her L-sized third finger bare.

******

After twenty-two English Decembers, Emily felt silly to be jarred by the chill as she stepped outside.  Two days ago, so acclimatised to winter Far-Eastern style, she was in denim shorts and a tie-dye crop top from a Hong Kong market.

There was one thing guaranteed to steam her.  Thumbing through her mobile as she walked, she reread his five-day-old text.

EM, MISSING YOU ALREADY.  DREAMING ABOUT OUR SINGAPORE SUNSET WALKS.  HAVE A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS.  CAN’T WAIT TO MEET AGAIN IN NEW YEAR.  WILL CALL SOON, LOVE DOM XXX

Had Byron himself wooed via Vodafone, he could have scarcely had a soppier effect.  Emily stroked the tiny screen with her gloved thumb, cringing even as she did it.  Anyone else would have used abbreviations: ‘U’, ‘2’, ‘XMAS’, ‘LUV,’ maybe ‘GR8’ in lieu of ‘WONDERFUL.’  But even Dominic’s starchiness was sweet; the implication that textspeak was beneath him.  His way was so alien and gallant after years of pubescent testosterone. 

Corny grin restored, Emily snapped the little phone shut and stowed it in her pocket.  She swung a left out of her road, Danks Avenue, into High Street, at the point it bridged the canal. 

A disorientated duck skidded and flapped up the iced waterway.  Emily sighed, recalling the last waterway she’d crossed, Boat Quay in Singapore.  Boat Quay’s only ducks graced the menus at the string of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian and Italian restaurants that offered such romantic views across the harbour.  Emily enjoyed many an alfresco dinner there, with Kris and Chantal, and latterly Dom.

Emily muzzled her nose into her scarf – the air was acrid with oven-chip manufacture from McCain’s on Wombourne Industrial Estate, where her dad Brian worked.  Even comparing this greasy stench of home with the Singapore spice brought Dominic to mind: the proximity of their homes, yet the dreamworld in which they’d met.  Emily pondered how what they’d started might adapt and blossom in, so to speak, their real world.

For now, however, there were friendships to catch up on.  It was true she’d missed Rob, and was avid for a chinwag.  Robyn Moss was Emily’s inseparable cohort all through school.  They’d drifted slightly during Emily’s uni years, though would reunite joyously: gassing non-stop and over each other, their conversations shorthand and in-jokey the way only longstanding pals’ were.

Emily passed the row of retirement bungalows – little tableaux she took for granted, with their frosted elfin gardens – crossed the junction where High Street met Steptoe Road, and in two minutes was flitting up the flagstone steps to the shops.  No boutiques here, of course, just Hair by Geoffrey, Bostin’ Batter the chip shop, Pyke News, a Total petrol station, and Moss & Petals – the tie that precluded Robyn from being Emily’s backpack mate.  She’d been a florist since she was sixteen, a shop-owner since just eighteen – three-month holidays weren’t an option.

Emily waved to Geoff, who was perming a pensioner, and tinkled into the florists.  Jennie, one of Robyn’s numerous siblings, was on a stool and thrust her sandwiches under the counter when the door went.  Seeing it was Emily, she smiled animatedly and the girls nattered for a few minutes about her trip.  Jennie was just like her sister, quizzy and ravenous for every taste, colour and scent.

‘You just missed Rob, though, I’m afraid.  She’s gone out in the van, got quite a few deliveries so probably won’t be back for hours.’ 

‘Aw, that’s a shame.’  One day back, and Emily was impatient for a rapt confidant like Rob, who would re-animate her already melting memories.  Robyn was one of the few people with whom even Emily’s exhaustive travelogue wouldn’t pall – nor would she keep digressing to the window cleaner, or hip-replaced men having bits on the side in their conservatories.  ‘S’pose I can’t really be disappointed she’s going about her daily business.  Lower B can’t stop what it’s doing just cuz Emily’s back!’

‘She’ll be dead gutted she didn’t get to see you too, though.  We were only saying this morning how we thought as you were due home today.’

‘I got in last night.  Fourteen hours – via Frankfurt!  Oh well, I’ll catch up with Rob soon enough.  Can I just leave this for her in the meantime?’  Emily handed Jennie a carrier containing the silky skirt and beaded elephant necklace she’d bought her sister in Malaysia.

‘Course you can.  And I’ll get Rob to give yer a phone when she’s back.’

‘Cheers.  Have a good Crimbo, Jen, if I don’t see you before.’

‘You too, Em.  You’ll be over New Year though, yeah?’

‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’

Emily advanced to Pyke’s, in quest of milk.

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