Stepping Back – Lou

“So, you and our Mark were clearing up broken glass in the middle of the night then?”  Lou raised her eyebrows at the thought, as she placed the picnic basket containing sandwiches and a flask on the kitchen table.  “He put a note through my door on the way to work. Mrs K has also just informed me that he came home late last night.”

“Yes.  News certainly travels fast round here,” said Rachel pulling a face. “You could have been a bit more honest in your description of him.  My vision of the elderly recluse has been blown right out of the water. Why didn’t you tell me about Mark before?”

“I didn’t know myself.  Mark is the result of my mother’s misspent youth. She was only fifteen when he was born, and he went off to live with his paternal grandparents.  His father disappeared into a commune in India and was never seen again.  My mother was kept out of the picture in case she was a bad influence on him. They called him Mark in order to dissociate him from any Afro-Caribbean heritage. By the time Mum had married my father and achieved a level of respectability, she had lost all contact with them. Mark did very well at school, then Uni, and into the police force.  As you may have noticed, he has the kind of appearance that can blend in with most nationalities. We only met up when his grandparents died and the solicitor told him that he had a little sister and three gorgeous nieces.  By that time Mark was married and working up in Edinburgh. He and I have inherited my mother’s curly hair and colouring, but he has his father’s eyes apparently. The girls will be pleased.  We can put the rest of his photos back on display now.”

“Lou!  What are you up to?”

“Look at it this way Rachel.  You’ve come down here to escape from a relationship that took over your whole life.  Would you have come if I’d offered you a room in the cottage of my extremely attractive and eligible older brother?  No.  You’d have thought that I was trying to set you up – which I’m not.  I’d have had you stay with us, but Jenny really needs a room to herself now she’s in senior school.  Besides, Mark is not the most sociable of characters.  You might have been staying here for months without setting eyes on him.  If he’s invited himself to dinner tonight it can only be because he approves of you.”

“We only talked for a few moments – and I wasn’t exactly looking my most glamorous – scruffy old nightshirt and plaits, blind as a bat and littering his hallway with broken glass – some first meeting!  What have you got me into Lou?”

“Nothing.  Even we don’t see that much of him, he seems to specialise in these undercover jobs where he’s gone for weeks on end.  You might not have met him at all so I didn’t see the point in giving him a big build up.   Hand on my heart Rachel.  I invited you down for a break, not to set you up with my big brother.  Having you here this week has brought back a host of happy memories for me, and to be honest, your being here is doing me the world of good too. Mark currently has a brainless beauty from the village hanging on his every word anyway. Her name is Damaris and her parents own that very posh restaurant on the High Street, as well as a number of other local businesses.”

“Damaris?”

“Oh, don’t ask!  She has extremely gormless twin brothers called Dickon and Dominic as well.  Probably saved them a fortune in Cash’s name tapes when Mummy packed them all off to boarding school.  Her mother is the ghastliest woman I’ve ever met; all fur coat and no knickers, and her father is a vague and chinless member of the local gentry.  If Mark thinks he’s going to clutter up our exotic family tree with that kind of dross, he’ll have to bump me off first.  He spends most of his time avoiding her and cancelling dates so I don’t think it’s at all serious.  Not that you’d care anyway because you’re still drooling over Sam the Man.”

Rachel took the picnic basket and smiled ruefully at her old friend.  Lou grinned back; the signs of worry and stress briefly stripped away by the twinkle in her eyes. For the moment the strain of bringing up three girls and running a business alone seemed to disappear, and they were both bright-eyed freshers in their first week of university again. 

Lou glanced down at her watch. “Time to go.  Melanie’s opening up the shop this morning and although she’s coming along, I don’t like to leave her on her own too much.  Where are you headed today?”

“My usual place.  Who’d have thought you’d end up living here all those years ago when we came down with the grotty yachties.”

“Steady on.  I married a grotty yachty.  Not that it did me much good.  The sea won.  The last I heard Pete was doing holiday tenders out in Portugal, and surrounding himself with bronzed bimbos.  Mark and I seem to have the most appalling taste in partners – and now you too.”

“How long has Mark lived here?”

“He and Sorrel moved down here a couple of years ago.  They used to live in a very posh part of Edinburgh where he worked on some rather nasty people smuggling rackets.  Sorrel was very beautiful but impractical, and completely wrong for Mark.  When he discovered that he had a younger sister that no one had told him about, he got a transfer South to help me with the girls and the shop.  One season of the high life here, and Sorrel was off with a handsome sea captain who promised a more entertaining future.  Our divorces came through almost exactly a year apart.  At least you and Sam never tied the knot.”

“If the subject came up, I received an eloquent speech on the importance of being a free spirit and how we didn’t need rules and regulations to keep us together.  Sometimes I think we only lasted as long as we did because I didn’t push him for commitment.  Good luck to his new lady anyway.”

“Do you know who she is?”

“Yes.  Her name is Adele.  She works for the paper as a fashion editor.  Saudi Arabia is her country of origin, but educated at the very best places in England and France.  Tall, elegant, immaculately dressed, and blessed with a very rich daddy.  He couldn’t have found someone more opposite to me if he tried. Don’t say it, Lou!   I may not be the shy specs-wearing mouse that you took under your wing any more, but Adele is not someone I could ever compete with.”

Lou hugged Rachel and shook her head. “You are worlds away from the little boarding school girl that you were and you know it.  You have brains and a huge amount of journalistic talent which I am constantly boasting about to anyone who will listen.  There are still people in the Village who remember us from Uni days and they often ask after you.  I’m glad you kept the specs though, always something to hide behind.”

“If you need a hand in the shop any time Lou, you only have to say?” said Rachel.  “You won’t accept any rent off me for your brother, and the little that you take for food wouldn’t keep a gnat alive. Let me help?  God knows I’ve nothing else to spend the money on.”

“You’re staying on for a while then?”

“My boss Tony texted to say that he’s got a commission for me to write a series of articles about our Village life – if I accept it.  He knew that I’d go to pieces if I had to see Sam and his new paramour every day, so I’ve been offered a kind of sabbatical. Initially for three months but if I turn in the work – who knows?”

“Great news!  Let’s talk about it later though.  Go and get your inspiration from the sea, and I’ll cater to the needs of my regulars, and the more pernickety tourists.  Just don’t make any hasty decisions Rachel.  Promise?”

“Yes, I promise.”

Rachel waved as Lou got on to her bicycle and rode off to her shop in the centre of the village.  Closing the door, Rachel finished washing up her breakfast dishes, dried up meticulously, and put them away together with the plate and glass that Mark had left on the drainer.  He’d left her a note too although she hadn’t told Lou about it.  The note was stuck to the inside of her door, so there was no doubt that it was meant for her and not Mrs Kneller.  She drew it out of her pocket and looked at it again.  It was very simple; just ‘Good Morning’ and a face with two long pigtails, but it made her smile inside and out for the first time in weeks.

She put it back, and sighing, picked up her mobile.  Tony had texted to see how she was; he’d promised not to phone unless there was an emergency, but this was his tenth text in four days so she felt it was time she replied to confirm his offer of the commission and sabbatical.  It was only just after half-eight but his response was swift, and she pictured him lounging in his office chair, huge mug of tea in one hand and iPhone in the other. The TV would be on, as would his radio, and the computer would have several different news channels up as he flicked from one to another, in case he missed anything.

Tony believed in straight talking, so Rachel wasn’t surprised to find reference to Sam in his messages. It appeared that Sam and Adele had gone off to Dubai for a holiday, leaving everyone fuming at the short notice.  Not that there would be any repercussions – Sam was too valuable to the paper for that and although Adele was only a junior fashion editor, no one would want to risk upsetting Sam or her father, by sacking her. 

The news of Sam’s latest exploits left Rachel with constricting lump in her throat that even another quick glance at Mark’s note couldn’t dispel.  It had been a month now since Sam had moved out and she wondered when, if ever, the pain of his leaving would ease.  His belongings had been removed very swiftly from her flat on the day that she received his letter; she’d been away at a conference that weekend and returned to find gaps in the bookcase, a half empty wardrobe, his letter, and a vase of white roses with a card saying ‘Sorry’ on them.

She’d spent most of that day in a daze induced by alcohol, and the final loss of his physical presence.  Walking in to this stark reality had almost pushed her over the edge; as it was the roses went out of the window, but not the vase.  Even in her rage and grief, Rachel still had consideration for her neighbours.  Sam had stayed away from the office for the rest of the week, emailing his pieces and ignoring her texts.  A call to Lou had brought her to her senses to some extent, and with it came the invitation to stay.  It had taken a while to tie up life’s loose ends sufficiently to escape from London, but now at last she was in a place that held no reminders of her life with Sam.

She could remember quite vividly when she and Lou had first discovered this village.  They were in their first year at university; two lonely girls in a busy hall of residence occupied by middle-class girls and boys who had never had to cope before without parents or staff to look after them.   They found themselves invited by accident to a very grand party held in the grounds of a nearby stately home, and met up with a group of hard-drinking, fast-living and devilishly handsome young men with sun bleached hair and real suntans. Footloose and fancy-free, the two girls were invited to more parties, and to the yachting weekends that led to both of them falling in love with this little village, and ultimately to Lou losing her heart to Pete, the most rakish and gorgeous yachty of them all.

Their romance continued to everyone’s surprise, and culminated in a glorious drunken wedding two days after Lou and Rachel’s graduations. Lou had a win on the new Lottery, and abandoning the career of journalism that she had been studying for, used the money to set up home with Pete in the Village.   They bought a share in a local boatyard for Pete, and Lou built up clientele in her little teashop, in between giving birth to her three beautiful girls.  Whilst Lou felt happy and settled with her life, Pete obviously didn’t and Rachel, though saddened, wasn’t surprised when he got the seven-year itch, voted with his feet and sailed off into the sunset six months after his youngest child was born. 

In the meantime, Rachel had worked her way up through regional newspapers and local radio until she had reached her current post on a national broadsheet.  She specialised in the slightly bizarre, rather than more traditional reporting, or women’s issues.  She had a knack for finding common ground with her interviewees, and it was this ease that had first brought her to the attention of Sam Miller, the newspaper’s headline reporter. 

His single-minded pursuit of her was the talk of the paper and a source of wonder to Rachel.  She considered herself to be forgettable; of average height and on the slim side, her hair had mellowed into a dark blonde, and the dowdy specs had been replaced by something more stylish once she could afford them. Sam was not attractive in comparison with Pete and his sun-bleached cronies, he was only a little taller than Rachel, with thinning brown hair.  His eyes were the stuff of dreams however, a deep, dark brown that twinkled and enchanted by turn.  He was the kind of man that knew everyone’s name, and his charisma usually gained him friends wherever he went.  When Sam decided to move in with her, Rachel felt that life was perfect.  It didn’t matter that he travelled extensively, or that she barely saw him, even when they went out together.  He always came back to her at the end of the evening, no matter how many attractive women – and men – had been hanging on his every word. Life with Sam was rarely dull and Rachel was aware that his reputation had helped her career along as well.

The arrival of Mrs Kneller interrupted these sad musings, and putting on the bravest of faces, Rachel picked up her basket and a waterproof jacket borrowed from Lou, in readiness for her trip down to the beach.

“You’ve met our Mark then?”  Mrs Kneller said as she hung her coat up under the stairs.

“Yes.  I broke a glass I’m afraid but I think he managed to pick up most of the glass.  He said he was going to vacuum later.”

Mrs Kneller peered over the top of her bottle-bottom thick spectacles.  “I’ll do the vacuuming.  He likes to think that I leave it to him but I still do it.  Don’t you tell him mind!”

“I won’t say a word.”  Rachel smiled conspiratorially, “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Good girl.  You go off and have a lovely day.  Lou’s getting some nice fish in for your dinner tonight.  I saw her having a word with Jeff from the Gun, he’s got a brother who brings in a lovely fresh catch every day.  Don’t tell Mark where it’s coming from though, there might be a problem with Jeff’s brother and his fishing quota.”

“The secrets in this village!   I never knew there was so much going on.”

“You don’t know the half of it my dear.  There are that many skeletons tucked away in cupboards and under patios!  You could write a book about it!”

“You’ll be the first person I come to then.  I’ll get out from under your feet now.  Don’t work too hard.”

Mrs Kneller smiled knowingly as she opened the front door and watched Rachel walk down the road with a lighter step than she’d seen before. “You’ll do my dear,” she said to herself.  “You’ll do very nicely.”

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