Linda does everything the way Irene expects it to be done. Milk in a milk jug; sugar in a sugar bowl; tea in a teapot; biscuits on a plate. Jammy Dodgers. Presented in a perfect flower pattern on a Royal Doulton plate. Irene has definite ideas about the way to arrange biscuits. Pink Wafers as the rays in a sunset-coloured sunburst. Jammy Dodgers as the petals of a classic English rose.
She didn’t mean to visit quite so soon. She only popped to the shop for a pint of milk. But Mr McGinty got her talking. Said ‘How’s Irene? How’s the Queen?’ Before she’s had a chance to answer he’s saying he knows how much Irene likes Jammy Dodgers. Did she know they’re on offer? In fact, here’s a packet on the house. Silly, really, to take it as a sign. It’s not that she’s superstitious, just a bit suggestable. In any case, she took them. And here she is.
Irene says ‘Shouldn’t you be getting Billy’s tea?’
‘He’s not at home. He’s having tea at Dee Delaney’s house.’
‘Why on earth has he gone there?’
‘He’s made friends with her two boys.’
‘He’ll be missing his father.’ Says Irene. As though it’s not surprising that he’s keeping the wrong company. Falling in with a bad crowd. Without a male role model. Without a father’s guiding hand.
Linda isn’t going to rise to it. Not this time. Not now.
Irene says ‘Alan says they’ve had some good chats on the phone.’
Linda takes a moment to allow this to sink in.
Irene looks coy. As though she’s realised too late that she’s said something that she shouldn’t.
Linda wants to shout ‘When did you speak to him? What did he say? What do you know that I don’t? How come you didn’t tell me? Where in God’s name has he been?’
Instead she says. ‘They chat a lot. He phones up every Thursday evening.’
Casual as you like. As though this arrangement is the outcome of a civilised negotiation. Not ‘He only calls on Thursdays because he thinks I’ll be at Book Club.’
‘Does he?’ says Irene with exaggerated innocence. ‘Is that because he knows you won’t be in?’
Really, Irene is insufferable. With her insinuations and her secrets and her silly snide remarks.
Linda has had enough. It’s time for some straight talking.
‘When did you speak to Alan and what exactly did he say?’
‘We talked about all sorts of things. He was in a chatty mood. He looks much more relaxed.’
‘You’ve seen him?’
‘He came for tea on Monday.’
‘Why? Why did he come round?’
‘He came round to see his Grandmother.’ Irene says imperiously.
‘You’re not his grandmother. You’re mine.’
Irene gives a look that says this is a minor technicality. That if Linda will insist on being petty, being pedantic, then that’s entirely up to her.
Linda tries again.
‘What exactly did my husband want?’
Irene gives her a level stare.
‘He wanted to see me.’
Linda tries not to say ‘Did he mention me and Billy?’ She is bursting with the effort.
Irene is busy with the tea tray. Rearranging teaspoons. Adjusting jammy dodgers to disguise the gap where Linda’s scoffed a biscuit. Another perfect flower, just with slightly bigger gaps between the petals.
‘And he wanted to borrow some money.’ She adds absent-mindedly. As though it’s neither here nor there. Purely incidental. A secondary motive to his desire to see his Grandmother.
His Grandmother-in-Law thinks Linda. Perhaps not even that. His former Grandmother-in-Law. Status to be confirmed pending further clarification.
‘It isn’t cheap you know.’ Says Irene sternly. ‘Living in a B&B.’
As though it’s Linda’s fault. As though Linda kicked him out.
Irene is doing her mysterious expression. Holding a finger to her lips.
Linda tries a different tack.
‘And did you?’
‘Did I what?’
‘Did you give him any money?’
‘It wasn’t a gift. It was an advance on his inheritance.’
It has never occurred to Linda that there is anything to inherit. Beyond the fur coats and the stagey faux French furniture. And the over-ornate cocktail cabinet that’s hardly ever used. It has never crossed her mind to ask Irene for money. Not even in her darkest hour. She’s pretty sure she would have been summarily dismissed. Sent packing. With a lecture on the merits of thrifty household management.
And somehow Alan has asked for money with his dignity in tact. Defined it, not as begging, but as a business transaction. Not an admission of profligacy or an inability to cope, but a request for an advance on payment due. Almost as an entitlement. She is dizzy with the injustice. The double-crossing, the disloyalty, the deceit.
‘Technically’ says Linda, with slow deliberation. ‘Alan should be giving money to me.’
Irene eyes her granddaughter with a mix of pity and disappointment.
‘Darling, no-one wants to be a drain.’
‘I had to sell my furniture.’ Says Linda. Plaintive. A little dazed.
Irene doesn’t reply.
‘We eat our dinner sitting on a bean-bag.’
Irene looks a little quizzical. ‘What about the dining room table? Or did you sell that as well?’
Linda admits defeat. She tries not to sound defensive, but her voice gives her away. Negligent mother; naughty child.
‘We’ve been eating in the living room. So we can watch TV.’
‘Mm,’ her grandmother says thoughtfully. ‘I thought as much.’
Linda picks up the silver tea tray. Dislodges the jammy dodger flower display. She’d like to throw the whole lot at her grandmother. Use the round tray as a discus. Spin it sharply at Irene’s scrawny neck. Decapitate her. Watch that over-painted head roll across the deep-pile carpet. Watch that pristine pressed-linen trouser suit get spattered by blood and guts and gore.
She is shocked by the violence of her own thoughts. She feels a blush of hot red shame rising to her cheeks.
Irene says ‘Not to worry, dear. They’re going back in the tin.’ As though Linda’s evident embarrassment is an apology for her inherent clumsiness; her inability to keep the jammy dodgers in perfect order on the plate.
Linda smiles apologetically.
It won’t happen again.