Chapter 4

Gap Year
Chapter 4

Robyn vaulted from the Berlingo outside Church View Court, and tugged out a bouquet the size of a rainforest.  She adored creating the wild designs favoured by her present lavish crop of customers.  They were welcome blasts of colour in this endless holly-and-ivy season. 

Robyn was not enamoured with wreaths, which tended to put her in mind of funerals, preferring the jazzier spring stock to these spiky monsters festooning doors this time of year.  Still, the general public’s diverse floral tastes had earned her a fair living for four years.

At least this was her last delivery, and in ten minutes she’d be defrosting her fingers around a voluminous mug of tea.  Also, her best mate Emily was finally home – three months of postcards and e-mails having proved no compensation for their all-night chat-and-chickflick marathons.

Robyn pinged the bell to Apartment 5.  ‘Gloria – it’s Robyn.  More flowers for you, love.’

‘Ooh, smashing.  Come on up, bab.’

The old lady buzzed her in, and Robyn lugged her rainforest to the second floor of this new luxury block next to St Matthew’s.  Even the lobby, carpeted and light, reminded her of a hotel.  Each call this last fortnight had fired her aspirations to move here.  In fact she was saving, in the hope of renting her own place out and upgrading herself here. 

Gloria Corns, all twinkly in bunny slippers, was already in her doorway.  Apartment 5 was a reluctantly-accepted gift from her only son.  Home prior to that was the old family terrace in Dudley, and for years pride thwarted Melvyn’s efforts to re-house her.  He wanted to set Mom up in an Upper B palace, near his, but she scoffed that she’d ‘rattle in anything that vast.  One of them could billet a family of thirty.  Don’t you gooo a-spending on me, our Mel, it gives me more pleasure to see you doing so well.’

‘Someone’s popular,’ Robyn said now.  This was her fourth order this week from a well-known sender for Mrs Corns, who was convalescing from a gall bladder op.  ‘You’re causing quite a stir in the shop, you know.’ 

‘That lovely Richard and Judy,’ the old lady murmured, reading the card.  ‘Our Mel’s mates are so generous.  He only has to tell ’em I’ve been poorly, and they’re all for turning me flat into Kew Gardens.  What’s these ones?’  She inhaled the flamboyant scarlet scent.

‘Amaryllis.  These take quite some looking after, y’know.  You’re s’posed to keep the stems full of water – pour some in when you change your vase water and pop a little cotton wall ball in the end to stop it trickling back out.’

‘Ever so technical, int they?  I thought flowers was just flowers.  None of those adorable kiddies with you today?  That little girl yesterday was a poppet and a half, eh?’

‘Our Nigella?  Mom’s got her back today.’

‘I don’t know how you do it – running a business and caring for such a big family.  Does your hubby help out much?’

‘Oh, the littl’uns aren’t mine,’ Robyn chuckled at the very idea she looked old enough to have a ‘hubby’ let alone have spawned the brood her parents, Eileen and Neville, had, ‘they’re my brothers and sisters.  Me and our Jennie, who helps me out in the shop, look after them quite a bit, to help Mom and Dad out.’

‘I’m that sorry, bab,’ Gloria tittered at her error, ‘bet you think I’m awful.  They’re a credit, though, to whosever they are.  Bet it’s cosy in your house!’

‘I moved out when I was eighteen – got the flat above the shop, see.  And our Rowan’s in his own place down Bowen Road.  That still leaves five at home, though.  Christmases are a laugh!’

‘And I hope you all have a smashin’ one.’

‘You too.  Not off on a cruise this time, I take it?’

‘Nah, got no truck with all that snooty nosh.  I’ve insisted on cooking for me boy this year.  Besides, he’s got the panto, so we’re having to stick close to home anyway.’

‘I’m taking the kids to see it.  S’pose you’ll be there on the front row?’

‘Every night.  I saved you that article I was on about, by the way.’  She handed Robyn a What’s On guide, whose cover star was her son in Widow Twankey drag.  ‘Keep it – I’ve got ten.  Now watch how you go, young Robyn.’

Robyn resisted the banister as a means of transport, though childishly jumped the bottom two stairs, impatient for that tea.  Zapping her key to unlock the van, she became aware of an odd sound, midway between sobbing and a seal bark, outside Church View Court’s fence.  Since the region boasted few seals outside Dudley Zoo, she surmised either a grizzly child or a wounded dog must be its source.

A village girl through and through, there was no way Robyn could stroll indifferently away.  Prudently relocking her van, she headed off for a recce up Church Road.  Scouring instinctively downwards, for canines or tiny folk, she encountered Ugg boots and a pair of svelte orange legs.  Their owner, the seal impersonator, was perched (she had to perch – sitting fully would have hitched her skirt to a height providing fatal distraction to passing drivers) on the little church wall.  Robyn thought she had never seen anyone so stunning or so mournful.

‘Hey what’s up, lovey, don’t cry.’  Robyn, so long the big sister, was in awe of no-one.  Not even this stranger, who was of unmistakable Upper B stock.  Aside from the mere fact she was a stranger to Robyn, the girl had that general gloss about her – and then there was the way she stared.  Not snobbishly exactly, but with faintly sniffy curiosity, as though she’d never seen an anorak before.  Or certainly never been comforted and offered a tissue by a girl wearing one.

‘Thanks.’  She accepted the Kleenex graciously enough and blew her nose with inelegant force, buffing away patches in her rind of make-up. 

Robyn drew no glee from this wealthy babe mewling like a six-year-old – despite last summer witnessing how vile her ilk could be.  The two braying bitches at that gymkhana had smirked on the other side of their haughty, inbred faces when Robyn’s sister Siobhan and her ‘mangy old nag,’ Merit, vaulted their way to first prize.  Robyn couldn’t quite picture this girl on horseback, though.  She seemed more the party type; she’d be the one howling in the toilets at two in the morning – legless without dignity.

She was squeaking some baloney now that appeared to contain the words ‘ozzy’ ‘dumped’ and ‘weddingoff.’

‘What’s that you’re saying, my love?  Take a deep a breath, it can’t be all that bad.’

It was pretty dismal, Robyn had to concede once she’d heard the whole, intelligible version.  ‘What a shit, doing that to you at Christmas.’

‘My heart’s trashed to bits.’

‘Still, perhaps it’s for the best.  Better to split now than after the honeymoon.  You’ll move on from this and meet someone worthier of your wedding ring.’

‘Ring!’  The girl’s voice was of the type Robyn’s mother would say ‘went right through her.’  She produced a tiny bag from her pocket and flipped open the box within.  ‘I bought him his Christmas pressie this morning.’ 

Robyn goggled.  The onyx knuckleduster – which she estimated would have cost her a month’s takings – was set in a diamond bed whose dazzle was hazardous to the naked eye.

‘Had he seen it yet?’ Robyn asked politely.  It would take a devout fiancé to sport that thing in public.

Heidi shook her head; earrings swished.  ‘It was his surprise.  I was hoping for one too.  Not much chance of that now.’  She clapped the box to with saddening finality.

Hope you kept the receipt, Robyn nearly said.

‘He fancies his sister-in-law, you know.’

‘Come again?’ 

‘She’s his brother’s wife, but him and his folks are always banging on about her, especially the dad.  “Erin’s our angel, our princess, our number one; she wears such stunning clothes, she’s got a fantastic degree, she and Ben had the most spectacular wedding, no other daughter-in-law could ever match up.”  I’ve never met the girl, and I already felt like chicken-shit alongside her.’

A dart of wind nipped at Robyn’s face, and suddenly this weather and tea-deprivation was too much for her. 

‘Look – sorry, what’s your name?’

‘Heidi.’

‘And I’m Robyn.  Look, Heidi, I’ve got to get back to work – the florists – why don’t you come with me, I’ll make you a cuppa and we can have a little chat.  Unless you need to get off, er, anywhere?’  It didn’t seem likely this yellow vision would have a job.  Not with those nails. 

‘Yes, that’s very kind of you, Robyn.  Hey, I know him,’ Heidi pointed at Melba Most on the What’s On cover, ‘or her!  He’s my next door neighbour.’

‘Wow!  You live in Abbiss Cross then?  Very nice!’  Abbiss Cross was a gated cul-de-sac of only four homes, which sloped off Bratchley Road towards the canal.  ‘His place has got a massive wall round, hasn’t it?  Saw a photo in the Sun once.  I’ve just delivered some flowers to his mom, would you believe.  Lovely old duck, she is.’

‘Really?  I did hear she’d got a flat here actually.  I don’t see much of Mel – Daddy doesn’t exactly hang out with drag queens – though he did speak to me once.  He said: “Heidi was my first stage name – I used to call myself Heidi Sausage!”  I don’t get what he meant, though.’

No, Robyn thought wryly, you wouldn’t.  ‘Still, even that’s a tad more glam than his real name – Melvyn Corns!  He’s mates with the vicar, isn’t he?  They were at school – oops, sorry, guess you don’t want to talk about the vicar right now?’

Then Heidi mewled afresh, prompted of another link to her now ex.  ‘Gloria Corns used to be Ronnie’s boss.  At Teddy Gray’s – y’know, the sweet factory in Dudley.  That was his first job.’

‘Ronnie?’

‘Wozzy’s dad.  Before he made his money.’

‘Really?  Anyhow, come on,’ she shooed Heidi off the wall, ‘I’m dying for that of thirst here.’

‘You’re a bossy one, aren’t you?’  Heidi’s tone wasn’t sharp, though – she rather enjoyed the ‘mothered’ feeling.

‘I’ve got six brothers and sisters, run my own business – guess I’m just used to being in control.  Wanna lift down in the van?’

‘No thanks, I’ll be OK driving.’  Heidi nodded to her car.  Even that – a Mazda MX5 – was a virulent shade of custard.  It had scorched Robyn’s eyes when she turned up Church Road earlier.

‘You sure?’  In heels like that, never mind with tears in your eyes.

‘Yeah.  Only about half a mile, isn’t it?’

‘If that.  See you there then.’

Heidi was nonplussed by her own ready assent to tea in a flower shop backroom, which was hardly her typical lunch engagement.  She had intended calling one of her pack this afternoon.  She’d parted from many a man before – a bawl with the girls and a gallon of sweet wine had always put her right.  Yet something told her that this girl with a chap’s name and fingerless gloves would be a more consoling presence at present.

Warwick used to grouse about her friends, with references she couldn’t follow, about how her ‘lost’ quality vanished in their company.  ‘Those cackling cows are the ultimate fair-weather mates, and their boyfriends are every bit as insufferable.  Posey wankers who descend on the squash club every Friday night without ever picking up a racquet.’
For the first time, it occurred that he might have a point.  She couldn’t somehow see Cassie and Zara and the rest offering her a shoulder pad to cry on.

They’d certainly seemed disappointed she hadn’t turned up modelling a rock the size of Ayres when she first squealed her engagement news to them.  Not like Zara, whose own showstopping nuptials were next June.  With no ring to corroborate Wozzy’s love, their initial faff of congratulations had fizzled out.

They wouldn’t understand.  I don’t think they’re convinced we were truly engaged.  In fact, now I’m not sure I am either. 

Heidi scraped away fresh tears and zapped her car open to follow Robyn.