Lester eyes his skinny blueberry muffin with distaste. ‘We can’t keep meeting up in Starbucks. We need a proper office. I thought one of you was going to sort it out.’ He’s right. We need a new HQ. The Greenwood Park Estate is too anonymous; too remote. And it doesn’t suit our corporate image. We need to be more visible; more accessible; community-led developers. We need a presence in the town. We’ve been trying out the options. There’s the VIP room at Hardy’s Night Spot. It’s always empty in the daytime so you can hire it for a song. But it feels a bit too flash being up there in the Old Town, and in any case the glitter ball gets distracting when it glistens in the sun.
So here we are in Starbucks. By the station. It ticks a lot of boxes. Handy for the planning department. All the skinny macchiato you can drink. Free. If you disregard expenditure on coffee. But it has its limitations. Impossible to discuss anything controversial or contentious. There’s no privacy at all. And it’s tricky looking at drawings. The tables aren’t designed for it. Wrong shape; too small. And they’re never properly clean. It’s hard to feel professional when crumbs of skinny blueberry muffin are clinging to your plans.
We could find a derelict shop. God knows, there’s enough of them. Negotiate a twelve-month lease. We could. We probably should. Inject a bit of life into the High Street. Or we could set up shop on the site itself. Take over one of the abandoned buildings. One that still keeps the rain out and is structurally sound. The caretaker’s house at the bottom of the field? It’s newer than the other buildings; a 1950s bungalow. How much would it cost to spruce it up with a lick of paint and stick a sign outside? We’ve made a decision. We’re moving into Macey’s Lodge.
She hates this bit the most. The chats with Ellie-on-Reception that grow more awkward every day. She might have to make up something really serious. Fake a doctor’s note. Still, if she can keep it up ‘til Christmas he’s due a week off work.
She ought to go to Book Club. Act the same as usual. But she hasn’t read the book. She’s a fast reader. Always has been. But she can’t seem to settle. She needs to call the Bletchleys. To cancel Christmas drinks.
Irene is asking questions. She’s had to get a man in to look at her TV. She can stave the relatives off so long. But she can’t just cancel Christmas. What will she tell Billy? We’re skipping Christmas this year. Oh and there’s a message from your father. Sorry Billy, life’s a bitch. Life really is a bitch.
‘So,’ says Lester. ‘What’s the deal? How much are they asking for their house?’
‘I don’t think they’re serious about selling. It’s just something Linda Kirkby blurted out.’
‘What does Mr Kirkby say about it?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Jesus Christ.’ Says Lester. ‘Please don’t tell me you still haven’t spoken to him.’
I say. ‘I’ve tried. But he’s not well.’
‘I don’t care if he’s at death’s door. We need to sort this access issue and we need to sort it now.’
Bruno jumps to my defence. ‘Dee’s going down to talk to him this afternoon.’
He kicks me underneath the table.
I wasn’t. I was going to try to find a man to fix the washing machine. The household is in disarray. Even our white goods work against us. The boiler is temperamental. The washing machine won’t work at all. It’s as though they’ve seen straight through me. They know I’m not a proper housewife; that this is not a proper house. There is an air of mayhem, mischief, menace. A mechanical revolt.
The boys need clean school uniform. I guess they’ll have to wait.
‘How many times have you visited the house?’ Says Bruno thoughtfully.
‘Twice.’ I say decisively. Relieved that someone’s asked a question I can answer.
‘It’s odd she didn’t say. If he was upstairs all the time.’
She says ‘I’m sorry about last time. I shouldn’t have been so rude.’
I shrug. ‘I’m used to it. It goes with the turf. Being a developer is like being a tax inspector. Everybody accepts it’s a necessary job; nobody wants them around.’
I’m talking too much. I’m nervous. Lulling her into a false sense of security. Wondering how I’m going to work up to the question. Sod it. I’ll just ask.
‘Is your husband here?’
‘He’s at work.’
‘So he’s not off work sick’.
She is brusque, affronted, business-like. ‘Of course not. I’d have told you.’
Deep breath. ‘It’s just that his office told us he’d been off sick for quite some time.’
She casts a quick look at the mantelpiece. A wedding photo. Ornate silver frame. The bride and groom in focus. The edges fading to a dreamy haze.
She says ‘I’m not sure this is any of your business.’
‘It’s not. It’s just that seeing as we’re talking about issues that impact directly on your home we probably ought to speak to him in person.’
‘I admire your scruples’. Icy cold. Sarcastic. ‘Was there anything else at all?’
She holds my gaze. A stand-off.
I opt for friendly familiarity.
‘So can we assume that your husband shares your views?’
‘You can assume whatever you want.’
‘So you’re OK with the idea of us talking to him?’
‘I’m not OK with anything.’ She’s doing that regal thing again. ‘I’m not OK with you turning up from wherever it is you’ve come from to build your shitty little houses where they’ll block out all our sunshine and ruin our only view’.
Maybe I misjudged it. The whole friendly familiarity thing.
I need to close this down. Get back onto some sort of business footing.
‘Can we take it that we have your tacit permission to instigate discussions with regard to the potential purchase of part of your garden or possibly the property as a whole?’
Jesus. I sound like a junior civil servant. Or David Brent. Or someone who’s learnt business English from a CD.
Still, it’s calmed her down. Or bored her rigid. She’s eyeing up the junk mail on her table. She doesn’t look at me when she answers.
‘You can do whatever you want’.
I can find my own way out.
Elsie Tanner is standing by the bus stop.
She says ‘I’m Elsie Tanner. The Doctor’s Wife. You may as well remember. You’ll be seeing me a lot.’
‘I’m Dee Delaney.’ I wonder if she’s waiting for further qualification. Dee Delaney. The Photographer’s Wife. More or less. The long-term live-in lover of a man of uncertain employment and uneasy state of mind.
‘I know exactly who you are.’ She sniffs. ‘You’ve got time to visit Linda Kirkby, but you’re too grand to speak to us.’
There is an obvious reply. Linda Kirkby owns a ransom strip. I manage not to say it.
‘We’re doing our best to talk to everyone. We’re holding a public consultation on the Wednesday of next week.’
‘Nobody told me.’
‘We posted invitations through every letter box in Spring Vale.’
‘I’ve got better things to do than look at every piece of rubbish that gets posted through my door. When did you say it was?’
‘Wednesday of next week. At the Malcolm Hodge Memorial Hall.’
‘I can’t make it anyway. I’m at WeightWatchers on a Wednesday.’
She isn’t overweight. Not in the slightest. She is positively angular. Jagged. Perhaps she just gets off on making the others feel inadequate.
‘If you give me your contact details I’ll call you when we hold the next event’.
‘I can’t do Thursdays either. And Friday night’s the only night I get to spend with Colin’.
‘You’re welcome to pop in and see us any time you want to view the plans’.
‘I hear you’re moving into Macey’s Lodge.’
News travels fast.
‘We’ll be there every weekday from next Thursday.’
‘It’s a disgrace. There are plenty of people round here would kill to have a house like that.’
‘We’re not going to live in it. We’re using it as our office.’
‘Mmm.’ She snorts. ‘I heard you couldn’t afford a proper office.’
‘It’s not that we can’t afford it. It’s just that we think it’s more appropriate to be part of the community. To have a visible presence on site.’
‘And you’d rather save the money if you can.’
She issues her parting shot as I start to walk away.
‘You know they say it’s haunted?’
I didn’t. But I’m not at all surprised.
There’s a Selfridges Bag by the door. A big bold splash of Buttercup Yellow. He must have been to London. You’d have thought he might have mentioned it. Two days ‘til my birthday. It looks like he’s remembered.
This is how he shows his love. He has spent hours, days, weeks – untold amounts of money – choosing clothes. For the boys; for me. Expensive clothes. Chosen with care, with flair. He clocks new collections; follows fashions; shops at Selfridges and Savile Row. I dress the boys in cast-offs from their cousin. I wear old clothes, cheap clothes, Top Shop, GAP.
It’s what we argue about most. He can’t stand my slapdash attitude to clothes. My resistance to ironing; dry cleaning; folding; hanging up. The way I treat them. The way I throw them on the spare bed, and leave them in a heap. He finds it slovenly, careless, shoddy.
He is right to feel affronted. It is a quiet resistance. He is shopping for a woman I have long since ceased to be. Unconventional fabrics, asymmetric folds. A thinking woman’s wardrobe. Neither pretty nor seductive, but challenging, offbeat, strident. A challenge to expectations to be easy on the eye.
I feel desexualised; distorted. Dressing up; Fancy Dress. I have flab around my stomach, and bags under my eyes. I just want to look attractive. Or invisible at least.
Besides, they’re Dry Clean Only. It’s a wardrobe from another time, another life.
I know I shouldn’t but I can’t resist. I take a peek inside the bag.
Six man’s shirts. Same style. Different colours. Different shades of sherbet. Like a packet of Refreshers.
It’s just as well I looked. It’ll save me being disappointed on the day.