|Vast: A Novel
Ch. VIII: Headaches
by Nicolas Travers ©
Colin sleeps the sleep of the just in his homeward bound train. He has worked hard, massively outperforming his norm, set up a string of good things promising juicy fruit for the future, and prospects are rosy. He walks home from Windsor station feeling tired but triumphant, a man to whom a reward should be due, perhaps a big steak and a good bottle of claret, followed by an hour or so of admiration, some gentle sex, and a couple of climaxes without hardly having to try at all. But he stands back from counting, because life is always full of disillusion, and he thinks he is rather more likely to get a nut cutlet and a flea in his ear.
His homecoming shakes hands with his worst expectations. Sarah is slumped in front of the television, and barely grunts an acknowledgement as he returns. Colin watches her for a moment, and sits down on the sofa to wait, because he really does not feel like kowtowing. A grumpy eye deigns a sidelong glance of curiosity, and then Sarah suddenly remembers her schooltrip money and turns from the television to face him, eyes fiercely interrogating and demanding.
"Daddee?" Her voice is questioning, and a touch querulous. She knows that Colin has promised payment, and she expects to receive. But she also knows that life in the real world can never be quite so certain.
Colin smiles faintly, and she is immediately up on her feet and alert, eyes demanding, right hand extended like a church collection plate.
Colin inspects his daughter, thinks of Dorothy, and wonders where he has gone wrong. Sarah is now poised like a young vulture hungry for carrion, collection hand quivering with barely controlled greed as he takes out his wallet and counts out five ten-pound notes. She snatches at the money, mumbling a curt formality of gratitude as she stuffs it into the pocket of her school blouse, and is back in front of the television before he can even slip the wallet back into his hip pocket.
Colin sighs, though he knows the sound will bring him no good, and hauls himself slowly back up onto his feet. He needs a cup of coffee, and must gently break the news of Bat Group's Sunday working to Jane. But the kitchen is empty, and he returns to the drawingroom, where Sarah is now curled into a foetal ball.
"Where's your mother?"
Sarah is engrossed, and he has to repeat his question.
"Mum's upstairs." Sarah's voice is surly. Her task is done, she has achieved her goal. Now she wants to be left alone.
Colin feels he deserves better for fifty pounds. "Upstairs?"
"Upstairs, in bed." Sarah momentarily forsakes her screen to cope with this interruption, inspects her father grumpily, and decides to protect her peace with a detailed statement. "She's got a migraine. She said you made so much noise snoring last night that she couldn't sleep a wink, and now she's trying to catch up. She said to tell you to cook supper, she's got me a TV chicken dinner, and she's left you another veggie bake."
Colin tracks back to the kitchen in defeat. He starts to make himself a pot of coffee, but a weak voice, a remarkably penetrating wisp of sound, calls his name, and then calls again, and he must leave his coffee and climb the stairs.
Jane Vast is propped up on a heap of pillows in a darkened room. She smiles a smile painfully pitched somewhere between the gladness of welcome and the suffering of the damned, and pats the bed beside her, but Colin stays in the bedroom doorway. He knows his wife's migraines, and he is wary. Jane is generally a strong woman, accustomed to living life her own way, and beholden to none. But she can also crumble to dust when in pain, spreading agony in an aura around her, and Colin consequently fears closeness in darkened rooms, and keeps his distance.
"How are you, dear?" Jane's voice is weak, a mere breath of sound.
Colin wants to answer buoyantly, but senses that somehow this might be deemed unfeeling, and replies in the same soft way, colouring his words with just a touch of jubilation. "I've had a pretty good day."
"Oh, good." Jane manages a shadow of a smile, and winces with the pain. "Were you able to get some money for Sarah?"
Colin nods. "I've paid her."
"You have?" Jane's voice is suddenly rather stronger, but then she relapses, sinking back on her pillows. "I feel dreadful." She massages her eyes with a hand that quivers with bravely suppressed stress. "I've had an awful migraine ever since you left this morning, I've been in bed all day."
Colin makes soothing, sympathetic noises, and wonders how best to broach Bat Group's Sunday working plans. But Jane has begun to speak again, giving instructions.
"Sarah's having chicken. Just pop the pack in the oven for twenty minutes..." Her voice gathers strength again, and Colin suspects that her head has begun to mend. But he says nothing, because Jane's migraines react badly to inspection. "... and I've baked you another slimming supper." She stares at him sternly, and then falls back on her pillows, quite spent.
Colin decides to launch a frontal attack. "I've got to work on Sunday."
Jane is buried in her pillows, and does not seem to hear. He is about to repeat himself when she sits bolt upright, grimacing with the effort.
"Someone's flying in from the Far East to look us over, his boss might be prepared to bid for the group." Colin can hear the whine in his voice, but he is determined.
Jane's mouth tightens. "But Mum and Dad are expecting us." Now her voice is hard and sharp, all weakness quite gone. "We're going for Sunday lunch."
"We're all getting a week's extra money for turning up." Colin notes her new strength, but digs in his heels. He has promised, and he will not go back on his word.
"Oh." Jane digests this news, and relapses, falling back again. She is silent for a moment, weighing the weekend up. "Is that how you got the money?"
"I asked Twister ..." Colin suddenly remembers that the fifty pounds he has just given Sarah is supposed to be a loan repayment, and stalls. "Er, he paid me back."
"I see." Jane misses his fluff in her hurry to hear good news. "What happens if things go well? Will it help us?"
Colin relaxes, and beams. "My job will be safe."
Jane peeps out at him over the edge of her pillow: suddenly she seems very much better. "Will they give you the raise they promised you?"
"Twister said he'll give me a company car as well."
"Oh." Now her voice sounds really quite mended. "Shall I come down and heat up your bake for you?"
But Colin is already in retreat. He feels drained, and he needs to escape, to find some privacy, and some peace, and to eat something tasty for a change. He stops at the top of the stairs to reply, out of reach, but still within earshot.
"No, it's alright, sweetheart." His tone is caring, but also more than a little sugary. "I'll bring you a cup of tea, and then I'll fix myself something."
He hurries downstairs without waiting for a reply, and barricades himself in the kitchen. His stomach needs filling, and demands something better than bland reheated vegetables. He thinks fondly of an omelette, possibly stuffed with slices of cooked potato and a grating of garlic in the Spanish style, and smiles to himself.
The next twenty minutes keeps him busy, first ferrying a cup of tea upstairs, where Jane has slumped back into her pillows, and might almost be sulking, then heating Sarah's chicken and carrying it, cloaked in beige sauce dotted with islets of red and green pepper, nestling up against a mound of powdery mashed potato, and smelling vaguely of detergent, into the drawingroom.
Then he is free to cook for himself. Colin is far from being a chef, for cooking generally bores him. But he can feed himself well enough when pushed, and now he quickly mobilises olive oil, and garlic, salt and cayenne pepper, some eggs and caraway seeds and leftover potatoes into a neat little corral next to the cooker. Then he sets to work with a will, grating garlic, slicing potatoes and beating up three eggs with a little salt and cayenne, caraway and water as the grill heats up and his olive oil starts to spit, tossing his chopped potatoes and garlic before covering them with beaten egg and frying one side of his omelette to a crisp golden tan, before slipping his frying pan under the red hot grill to round his supper off to a turn.
The smell is delicious, and the finished tortilla quite puffs up with satisfaction. Colin deftly whisks it onto a warm plate, pours himself a fresh cup of coffee, and sits down to eat.
The kitchen door opens a fraction as he is finishing, and a sharp little nose appears. Sarah is carrying her empty plate and looking hungry.
"You didn't heat up Mum's bake." Her voice is an accusing mix of envy and condemnation.
Colin smiles. He has eaten well, and he is content.
Sarah eyes his empty plate with disappointment. "Did you eat the lot?"
"I made myself an omelette."
"It smells a lot better than chicken." Now her jealousy is plain.
"It was." He pats his stomach, and watches his daughter tramp round the kitchen, nose twitching, to inspect a frying pan now empty barring a few omelette and potato crumbs.
She sniffs pointedly. "You could have made me one as well."
Colin shrugs. He keys his smile low, but his triumph is complete. "You wanted chicken." He pushes back his chair, gets to his feet, and carries his plate to the kitchen sink, turning on the tap to wash up.
This signal works like a charm. Sarah - who has a total aversion to housework - vanishes instantly, and Colin is left to finish his coffee in peace.
But peace is not really enough. He is done for the day, but Jane and Sarah both know that he is still within earshot, and knowledge is control. He must escape, find space and fresh air, and Dorothy may be out with Prince. Colin decides to stroll up to the church garden to seek a sympathetic ear: he needs to talk, and communicate, to express himself without guile. He needs a friend.
The evening is warm, and much less stuffy. He takes off his jacket and tie and lays them neatly at the bottom of the stairs. A movement makes him look up: Jane is on the landing at the top of the stairs, propped against the wall and looking down at him.
She smiles wanly. "How was the bake?"
He shakes his head slightly. "I made myself an omelette."
Jane's smile stiffens a little, though Colin is sure that she must have smelled his cooking.
"Sarah's chicken made me want something fresh. It was the smell."
Jane's lips tighten. She stares down at him for a moment, her face a mask of pain and aggrieved suffering, and then turns on her heel to stalk stiffly back into their bedroom.
A moment later Colin is out in the street, and he is free.
However the church garden is empty. Colin sits on the bench for about twenty minutes, waiting hopefully, but remains all alone. An elderly woman passes with a small dog on a lead, and he smiles politely, just in case she is a member of the Church Guild, but she quickens her pace, obviously considering him suspect, and he is alone again.
The garden is peaceful, and very pretty, massed with shrubs in delicate summer tints set around a small neatly trimmed lawn. But loneliness is a boring mood for passing the time, and Colin begins to wonder whether he dare stroll to the poor end of his road, past Dorothy's house, just in case she might be playing with Prince on the pavement again.
The thought tempts him, and he toys with it. But it is also a potentially perilous lure, flagging all kinds of possible embarrassments, and even dangers, for eyes may spy, and tongues might wag, and he therefore attempts bravely to turn seduction away, and tries to divert his thinking to Sunday prospects and future plans, a fatter pay packet and a shiny new company car.
However temptation remains insistent, and will not be banished, growing progressively stronger in his mind until finally it shoulders everything else aside. Colin gets to his feet, and hesitates, and makes a decision. What harm can lie in a mere stroll along a road, when a road is a public highway, open to all? What fault can lie in innocence? He pictures Dorothy smiling, and imagines her voice, and decides that he will be brave, and rejects all thought of cowardice.
So he leaves the sanctuary of the church garden, and walks to the end of the road, slowing as he passes the shabbiest cottages, until he is merely drifting along the pavement, and then walks slowly back again. But the road is quiet and empty, quite dead to the world, and Colin feels his hopes and dreams wither and die, and in the end he gives up and limps home.
However although Colin may not have found Dorothy, Dorothy has in no way missed Colin, for she is sitting with her sister watching the road from her bedroom window, nestling in a collection of dolls and soft toys ranged neatly to share their view, and she is taut with excitement as he passes.
"Sandy, look!" Her voice is a shrill whisper. "There he is." She cups her hand under her sister's chin in lieu of pointing, and the two girls watch, side by side.
Colin passes quite close to them, less than a stone's throw away, and Alexandra Sorrow cranes forward to get a better view. But Dorothy holds her back.
"Don't let him see you staring, he musn't know we live here." Her voice fills with anxiety, for she is very conscious of the cottage's shabbiness, all peeling paint and rotting woodwork.
They watch Colin stroll on, and Alexandra sniffs doubtfully. "I don't know."
Dorothy bridles a little. "What don't you know?"
"He looks like a middle aged man to me. They're all the same." Alexandra's voice has a hard edge: she is eighteen, and a willowy blonde with pretty blue eyes; she knows from experience that men are all trouble, and middle-aged men the most trouble of all.
"He looks like Dad." Dorothy's voice softens. "He's ever so nice and kind and gentle."
"Not really." Alexandra is used to Dorothy discovering surrogate fathers in friendly strangers, and practiced in bringing her younger sister gently back to earth: for Dorothy's enthusiasms are fierce and immediate, but they can sometimes lack judgement.
She smiles protectively, and rests her hand gently on Dorothy's arm in a gesture of support. But she also feels a pang of concern, for Dorothy is now some way past her fifteenth birthday, and growing up fast, and increasingly looking to escape for salvation, for a dream man capable of spiriting her away to a dream home, and she fears that Dorothy's dreams may contain the makings of nightmares.
She herself is more level-headed. It is now nearly five years since a massive family row led to their mother moving to Windsor, but she still remembers her father as a big bull of a man, a million miles distant from Dorothy's icon, a man keen on drinking and fighting and making money in mysterious ways, more wideboy than dream lover.
She also remembers his women, a string of chubby blondes no older than herself, and understands why her mother walked out, though not why she moved in with Evelyn Weiss, a small-time villain better known to local police and teenagers as Evil Vice. But Dorothy guards a different icon, and Alexandra knows that she has to protect her.
"Well, I think he does." Dorothy is wistful. She can sense instinctively that Colin is a caring man, a refuge to hide in, surrounded by love and soothed with caresses, a safe world away from the thrusting impatience of teenagers, and she wants only support and approval. "He was ever so good with Prince, he likes cats ever so much."
Alexandra watches Colin's paunchy figure pass, and sighs. "You don't judge men by whether they like cats, silly."
Dorothy is defiant. "He likes me as well."
"Does he?" Alexandra's tone is a reproof. "What do you think you're going to do with him?"
"He'll make a lot of money and take me away with him, we'll go and live somewhere ever so smart." Dorothy has started daydreaming again. "We'll leave Mum with old Evil, and take you too, if you like."
Alexandra is doubtful. "He don't look like a lot of money to me."
"You wait and see. He's a journalist, he'll come good." Dorothy smiles happily. Coming good is one of her father's favourite expressions, a foretaste of wonderland hiding just around a corner. Her imagination starts to build castles. "He'll do a big deal, and he'll scoop a big pool."
"But he's married, and he's got a girl about the same age as you."
"Pooh." Dorothy sharply exhales derision. "Have you looked at them, from close up? They're both really manky, bossy looking sluts. He won't want to stay with them, when he comes good."
"He probably won't want to run away with you, either." Alexandra doubts her sister's conviction, for it is only a dream. But she also takes a second look at Colin, now on his way back past their house, and wonders. Perhaps Dorothy has second sight.
"He will, because he'll fall in love with me." Dorothy closes her eyes in ecstasy. "He won't be able to resist me."
Alexandra looks at her sister, and is a little shocked. Escape is tempting, but now Dorothy's imagination has begun carrying her along a perilous path. "He's also a man, Dot, and you know what men want."
Dorothy is silent for a long moment, and her face becomes very serious. "And I'm a woman." She says the words quietly, but with great decision, and her will is a force to shape her future.
Alexandra feels herself floundering, and is lost for a reply. "I don't know." She finds her words hesitantly, and is filled with doubt. She attempts one last lame rejection. "He may find somebody else."
"I'll make him want me." Dorothy's voice is very certain.
It is a prediction, and also a command, and Alexandra nods uncertainly. She has a steady boyfriend of her own, who can be counted on to disapprove, and she has no wish to be torn. Dorothy is steering her into deep water, and she is not sure, if the boat they share is breached, whether they will both be able to swim to safety. She starts to massage her forehead gently with her fingers, and closes her eyes. Protective anxiety is giving her a headache.
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