ROUND THE BEND
ROUND THE BEND
Phillip decided to buy her the Indian brooch. Julia loved jewellery, and had gazed at this particular piece through the mullion windows of the local jeweller’s shop many times. Its design was unusual, with an eye-catching iridescent moonstone at its centre. Phillip made himself believe that this lovely bauble would ease the tension between them and bring peace – for a while at least. He knew it would delight her, and looked forward to the cheerfulness such a gift would produce. He would try not to annoy her again, for despite all he loved her. Even when angry Julia was very beautiful.
It had not been a happy marriage. Julia’s outbursts of temper had proved impossible to handle. The knowledge that he had not come up to her expectations in the business world, unhappily failing to get the promotion they had both counted on, weighed heavily. Her reaction on hearing of his failure had been an outburst of such ferocity that he had had no option other than leaving the house in great distress. He hoped, as he left the jeweller’s shop, that the brooch would ease the agony of the situation, for Phillip was a quiet man who felt an intolerable sadness at his own inability to achieve the loving atmosphere he needed so much.
His job was unrewarding and his office bleak. His elderly secretary approached life with an air of barely tolerated boredom, and managed to kill off any pot plant he dared to try to grow, so even that small effort of colour, so effusive in other offices, was denied him. Home meant a lot to him, his wife had good taste, and he took pleasure in his comfortable surroundings. The office filled him with unutterable gloom.
For a while there was an uneasy peace. The eye-catching moonstone had delighted her, and although the subject of the promotion was never dropped, it had been softened. Then came the day of the Tennis Tournament. Julia was very good at tennis. She knew she was attractive, and she had lovely legs (like Betty Grables someone had said) so chose her short, expensive tennis skirts with the greatest care.
All her natural aggression came to a satisfactory conclusion on the tennis court. Julia usually won, and she intended to do so today; the excitement of the occasion ensuring that her temper was on a dangerously short fuse, so when Phillip told her she couldn’t have the Company car as he needed it on Company business, her rage knew no bounds. She would not, under any circumstances, take a taxi. They were grubby, unreliable and uncomfortable. Her dress would get dirty and she would be late, taxis never came on time and so she must have the car. In the end she won the argument. Phil suffered the taxi and she, flushed, angry and late, got the car. She flung her racquets into the boot, slammed the car door and grated into gear. The car rocketed down the drive, around the corner onto the untarred road that led through the new housing estate, with its neat little bungalows and semi-detached houses, huddled under the heavy shade of overhanging chestnut trees – before brilliant sunlight blinded her – shining straight into her face.
One minute Julia’s vision was of deep green trees – the next - caught in the flash of full afternoon sun - a hand flew into view and two terrified blue eyes froze above a soundless scream – then vanished.
There was a grating, bumping flurry beneath the wheels. Fighting to keep control of the car and her own panic she accelerated wildly,, just catching out of the corner of her eye the glimpse of a young man running towards the tangled heap of long blonde hair and a blue dress lying in the middle of the road.
Breathing hard, she eventually slowed the car down to enter into the town’s traffic. Her heart was beating savagely. Gripping the wheel with hands that were white and shaking, she had kept her wits about her enough to feel assuredly confident that the running man had not managed to get her car number – or even noticed what type of car it was. His eyes were only on the still figure lying on the road.
The tennis match was a great success, and she won with greater ease than usual. Whether or not the stimulation of her escape, or the titillation of the girl’s terror had heightened her competence she didn’t know, but she drove home pleased with herself. She had no conscience, just a rather pleasurable tingle of fear. The new trophy was placed with the rest of the ugly silver cups on the dining-room sideboard, to be admired by all. The next few months brought no recriminations. The morning paper had briefly mentioned a ‘hit and run’, but the story was never followed up. The car had not been too badly dented and with the excuse of visiting a friend a good few miles away , she took the damaged car to be repaired at a small disinterested garage that asked no questions. Phillip, not a great car lover, had never noticed anything amiss.
In the autumn some changes were unexpectedly made in the main Office. Old faces went. New arrived. Long overdue painting and refurbishment took place. One morning Phillip entered his office to be greeted by a young woman with russet curls and smiling eyes watering his one remaining pot-plant. She laughingly told him that she was now part of his office furniture, her name was Beryl, and would he like some coffee. Before the week was out he was working in an office he looked forward to entering. His pot-plant was flourishing, there was a colourful tin for biscuits, and a cafetiere on a small green tray.At the end of the day he would sometimes walk Beryl home through the park. They would contentedly discuss the world at large, and on warmer evenings sit on a park bench and chat. Once or twice he asked her out to lunch. The following month a sparkling afternoon made Phillip think of spring-cleaning his car, which was wheeled out of the garage onto the drive-way. While he was washing the outside Julia attacked the inside with the vacuum cleaner. As she pulled the carpet out from under the front seats a dainty pearl ear-ring tumbled into view. It was, without doubt, not hers.
In the terrible row that followed many things were broken, and with cold rage Julia flushed every piece of jewellery he had given her down the lavatory – even the lovely Indian brooch. Something snapped in Phillip that day, and he suddenly knew that all he wanted out of life was a gentle lady with russet curls and laughing eyes – who loved him. Before the sun had set he had left the house forever.
Julia, now bereft of a live-in punch-bag sold the house soon after Phillip’s departure to spend many years in irritable conflict with new neighbours. At the tennis club she still acquired large silver trophies – but few friendships. There was a shadow over her life. Perhaps with blue eyes, fair hair and a crumpled dress. Who knows. Only Julia herself and she was silent.
The house was empty for many years. A ‘For Sale’ sign leant wearily on the overgrown hedge in the neglected garden. Flowerbeds became barely visible and a once velvet lawn housed happy moles and rampant dandelions. Then one day it all changed. Several properties in the area were bought by a local firm for its middle management.
Painters and workmen came. Weary hedges gave way to perky little picket fences. Grass was re-sown and ‘Welcome’ mats appeared outside brand new ‘executive’ front doors. A Middle Management family moved into the newly decorated house. A family with two children, a budgie, and a dog called Spencer. A sign appeared on the gate which read – in Gothic script -“Potters Bar”.
The only thing needed now was the jacuzzi . All the Middle Management houses had been promised one. The firm had apologised for the delay- but now it seems the problems had been solved, and a large lorry and three plumbers arrived to install it.
There followed a lot of banging and heaving. Several buckets of plaster, a bath and a basin had been carried into the garden with considerable huffing and puffing and now it was lunch time. Two of the plumbers took their sandwiches into the garden to eat in the sunshine. The third wasn’t keen on hot sun so he stayed to eat his pizza in the ravaged bathroom. The sunshine made his friends sleepy and before long they had taken off their shirts – in the interest of a macho tan - and nodded off. The third, having devoured his pizza, and in a hurry to get the job done, started flexing his muscles in order to remove the old lavatory. He had to break it in order to remove it and his hefty hammer soon reduced it to had it to manageable pieces. Something caught his eye amongst the debris, and he pulled a large Indian brooch from under the dusty pieces of porcelain. He looked around to make sure no-one was looking and quickly thrust it into the deep pocket of his overall. He thought his wife would love it. He was right, she did. She had never had anything so beautiful before. The moonstone gleamed in sunlight and she wore it on every possible occasion.
The late summer days were hot that year. Trees were heavy with darkening leaves, and gardens displayed thick clusters of michaelmas daisies, ensuring that the air was laden with pollen and the contented hum of well-fed bees. A late summer laziness prevailed those last idle days before the first brisk snap of autumn.
Towards the town, half-way down a shady street, a garden gate shuts behind a tall, elderly man. An accountant by profession he has a great sadness in his life. Every day, almost without fail, he visits the Barton Home for Incurables to talk to his beautiful brain-damaged wife. She sits, smiling faintly, her blue eyes unfocused. Her slim fingers twist and untwist in her lap, she makes no sound. There are very few golden strands now in the long silver tresses, tied so neatly back with velvet ribbon.
Every day he tells her the details of his simple life. There are times when it hurts so much he has to stand behind her chair, and he gently strokes her hair as he speaks. Every day he hopes some little word will trigger a reaction – though he knows in his heart of hearts that it will not. He kisses her softly and walks home – alone.
This particular day he reaches the top of his street as usual and turns the corner, out of the shade of the chestnut trees into the sunlight. What he sees he can hardly believe. It momentarily paralyses him. His heart gives such a lurch his whole body aches with the pain. Blood pounds in his head. He leans for a moment on the wall, eyes closed, taking long, slow breaths.
The next day at the Home, for the first time in twenty years he has nothing to tell her. He just sits holding her hand. Loosening the velvet ribbon in her hair he combs it gently, the way he used to do, so it falls in soft curves on her shoulders. He gazes at her for a few minutes, then quickly leaves.
He has always been a quiet neighbour, so when his semi-detached other half hear excessive bumping and banging in the attic next door they notice it and mention it to each other. They remember his young wife before the tragedy. The following day they see him leave the house in the late afternoon, the time he is usually seen coming home. He stops when he reaches the chestnut trees and waits in the shadows. He knows everything everywhere will be the same tomorrow. The trees will still be green, the sun will shine through the branches and the soft early autumn breeze will blow. Yet he knows that in a few minutes nothing will ever be the same again. He steps into the road at the very moment a car comes around the corner. The driver, a plump middle-aged woman of indeterminable features just has time to wonder – in terrified surprise – why a strange man should want to shoot her – a simple plumber’s wife – before she dies. Her blood splashing over the Indian moonstone brooch she wears so proudly.
Even after the echo of the shot dies away nothing seems to happen, all sound suddenly suspended. The man walks steadily on, and when he gets to the Home for Incurables he kneels before his wife, takes both her hands in his and looks straight into those impassive eyes.
“She is dead my darling. It is my present to you. It is all I can give you. If I can’t visit you again remember that. And that I love you. Never forget that.”
The plumber’s wife is cremated, the moonstone brooch pinned upon her shroud to be consumed by flame. Years ago it had glinted in the sunlight and was the only thing a young husband saw as an erratic car drove all reason from the mind of his happy, laughing wife. It was something he never forgot.
The plumber does not know it was his greed that killed his wife.
The husband does not know that the brooch once belonged to someone else.
The middle management couple certainly don’t know that the story headlined in all the papers started in their U-bend.
A peaceful, middle aged man called Phillip reads the story in his evening paper, but in his happy, comfortable life makes no connection. He smiles at Beryl and says “How sad”.
Julia? She has to play in a tennis match for senior citizens today. She never reads the papers. She will, of course, win.
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