Authors: Sarah Painter
After a mile or so of peaceful walking, the water lapping gently against the sides of the canal and the brightly painted boats, Bex felt some of the tension leave her shoulders. The path opened up with a gated trail leading up to the main road and a patch of grass and flowerbeds next to a small gravel car park. There was an ice cream van and Jon bounded up to its window. ‘All hail the magnificent van of iced treats.’
‘You what?’ the man inside said, frowning at them both.
‘Cornetto, please,’ Bex said, trying to look normal and non-threatening. ‘Strawberry.’
‘And a 99, oh King of Whipped Cream. Or cream substitute, whatever that stuff is made of. King of Cream Substitute doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?’
‘Are you being funny?’ The man looked like he’d reached the end of his tether some time during the nineteen-eighties.
‘He thinks so,’ Bex said. ‘Sorry.’ She passed across some money, waving away Jon’s offer to pay. She smiled at the still-frowning ice cream vendor. ‘He’s trying to cheer me up.’
‘Good luck with that one, love,’ he said as they walked away.
They sat on top of the picnic bench and Jon dug into his ice cream with impressive gusto. It was gone in a couple of bites. Bex wondered what it would be like to make love with a man like that, whether he’d consume the moment as quickly, as voraciously. Great. Now her head was on fire. She looked away, hoping Jon hadn’t noticed.
He finished the last bit of his cone and wiped his hands on his jeans. Which made Bex look at his thighs. Gah. Why had she ever thought this cosy little stroll could possibly be a good idea? Suddenly, the reason she had vowed to stay away from Jon came back with a thud; she was incapable of rational thought in his presence. She turned into a drooling, sex-obsessed idiot. And the need she felt when she was apart from him became utterly unbearable. Of course, the thought of walking away from the warmth of their friendship was like a knife to the gut.
‘Uh-oh,’ Jon said. ‘You’re thinking again. You need another ice cream.’ He jumped off the bench.
‘I haven’t finished this one.’ Bex held it up as evidence.
Jon stopped in front of her, his face almost level with hers, and Bex looked away to avoid gazing into his eyes, terrified that he would see the longing that lurked inside.
‘You going to tell me what happened?’
Bex concentrated on her ice cream. ‘They accused me of stealing.’
‘That’s outrageous.’ Jon was waving his arms around, emphasising his words. ‘Egregious.’
‘I know, but …’ Bex shrugged. ‘There’s not much I can do.’
‘But it’s unfair. They can’t do that, can they?’
Bex shrugged. ‘It’s their word against mine.’
‘I know what you should do,’ Jon said, his face lighting up. ‘You should go and see Iris Harper.’
That blinking woman again. It was as if she’d cast a spell over the whole town.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Yeah,’ he was nodding now. ‘She’s really good. She’ll sort this out.’ He clicked his fingers. ‘Like that.’
Bex pulled a face meant to convey deep scepticism. ‘She makes, like, face creams and stuff. From plants. My mum used to use her earache mixture on me. It was bloody disgusting.’ Bex didn’t want to admit that she’d already approached Iris and been turned down as a client.
‘Well, maybe. But she does other stuff, too. You know Bob?’
Bex shook her head. ‘I don’t think so’
‘Yeah, you do. At the pub. Owns it.’ Jon sat back on the bench next to Bex, his leg almost touching hers. ‘Well, he told me that she sorted out a problem with his lease or something. Or a public permit. Something legal, anyway.’
Bex had reached the solid chunk of chocolate at the bottom of the Cornetto. ‘That doesn’t sound likely.’
‘She did, I swear. Bob thinks she’s a superhero.’
An image of Iris Harper with a long flowing cape and spandex suit popped, unbidden and unwanted, into her mind.
‘I’ll come with you, if you like.’ Jon dipped his head to look into her eyes. ‘I don’t mind.’
‘That’s okay,’ Bex said, eating the chocolate and slipping off the bench. ‘I need to think about it.’
She put the rubbish in the bin and then headed to the canal path, which turned towards Pendleford. It was time to stop running away from the problem. She stopped when she realised Jon hadn’t followed. He was still sitting on the bench, ten paces away and frowning slightly.
‘I wish you’d learn to accept help sometimes.’
Yeah, well, Bex thought. I wish you’d rip my clothes off and ravish me right here on the lawn. Guess we’re both out of luck.
Back at home, Bex spent an hour phoning around the agencies for a new position. They all said the same thing – without a reference they wouldn’t put her on their books. Bex knew, from experience, that private clients who weren’t using an agency would be just as cagey. The only people who didn’t bother with references for their childcare provider were not the kind of people she wanted to work for. Catch 22.
She could start again, of course. Erase the last year of work history and pretend she had just taken a break after her college course. But it was a tough job market and there was a part of her that felt soured by the whole experience. How could they treat her so badly? She’d been part of their family and she hadn’t done anything wrong. What would stop another family from doing the same? Bex’s eyes felt hot and she blinked away the feeling.
If anyone had been in the wrong, it was Alistair Farrier, but she’d given him the benefit of the doubt, given him a second chance. Bex knew how easy it was to make a mistake, to do something stupid which you instantly regretted. When she’d turned her face away from Mr Farrier’s with a firm ‘none of that’, channelling her strict nanny alter-ego with all her being, his face had flushed bright red with embarrassment. She’d patted his arm and told him to think nothing of it, letting him know that she wouldn’t think – or say – anything about it, either. Bex had been given a second chance and she felt it was the least she could do to extend the same courtesy to others.
Much as it went against the grain, Bex decided that it would be better to ask Iris for help one more time. She had definitely reacted to the name Farrier, and Bex felt there was more to it than simply recognising the name. If Iris knew the family, she might be able to step in on Bex’s behalf. Besides, Jon seemed to think highly of the old bat, and that was more than enough of a recommendation for Bex.
At End House, she waited at the front door for a long time. She didn’t want to get caught in Iris’s garden again and she thought the polite, knocking-on-the-front-door method would be the best way to melt her heart of stone.
After ten minutes, however, Bex gave up and walked through the lavender bushes to the back door. She caught sight of Iris’s face at the window and waved before knocking on the peeling paint of the back door.
‘I heard you round the front,’ Iris said as soon as she opened the door. ‘Couldn’t get that far, though. My back has gone.’
‘Aren’t you a healer?’ The words popped out before Bex could censor herself.
‘Sort of,’ Iris said crossly. ‘It’s not that simple.’
‘Of course,’ Bex said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
‘Less of your cheek, child.’
Evidently she’d failed.
Iris was moving towards the table, very slowly. She lowered herself carefully into a chair and Bex felt guilty for having got her out of it. ‘Can I do anything to help?’
‘I’d offer you a cup of tea,’ Iris said, ignoring her. ‘But I just had one.’
Bex glanced around the kitchen. There was no used mug on the table, the counter or hiding in the sink. She touched the kettle. It was cold.
When she turned back, Iris was watching her with more interest than Bex had seen her exhibit before.
‘Did you want to something?’ Iris said, her head tilted. ‘Or is this bob-a-job week?’
‘What?’ Bex didn’t know why teens were always getting it in the neck for being incomprehensible; it was old people who spoke a different language.
‘Never mind,’ Iris said. Her face was paler than the day before and there was a layer of sweat on her forehead.
‘You’re in pain,’ Bex said. ‘Let me get you something.’
‘I’ve taken all the drugs I’m allowed,’ Iris said, grimacing. ‘Just need to let them work.’
‘What about a hot water bottle?’ Bex thought about how soothing that was when she had period cramps.
Iris started to shake her head then paused. ‘All right, then. If you insist. It’s on my bed. Third door on your left at the top of the stairs.’
Bex walked out of the kitchen to the sound of Iris telling her not to touch anything else. Bex was used to being in other people’s houses; she’d had cleaning and babysitting jobs before she’d started nannying, and she took the responsibility that the position conferred very seriously. She didn’t glance around any more than was necessary to locate the old pink hot water bottle, but she couldn’t help noticing that the whole place needed a good scrub. Iris seemed like the old school kind of woman, the type who would’ve counted cleanliness as next to godliness, but perhaps it was all getting a bit much for her in her old age. At the entrance to the kitchen, Bex almost stood in something that looked suspiciously like animal droppings.
‘Do you have family nearby?’ Bex said, filling the kettle.
‘Don’t you use that tone with me,’ Iris said.
‘The social worker tone. I’m not a pity case.’
‘I didn’t say you were.’ Bex filled a glass with water from the tap and put it in front of Iris.
‘I don’t like plain water,’ Iris said.
‘You don’t have to like it. It’s to take your next lot of tablets. So you don’t have to get up. Unless you’d prefer me to help you upstairs to bed.’
‘Or to the sofa, perhaps. You don’t look very comfortable there.’
‘I’m perfectly all right, young lady.’
‘Hey, I’m getting older,’ Bex said, hand on one hip. ‘That’s a good sign, right?’
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘Young lady. Older than “child”. That means you’re warming to me.’
Iris smiled without any humour. ‘You are a very irritating child.’
‘Fine,’ Bex said, giving up. ‘I’ll get out of your hair.’ She went to find the telephone so that she could put it next to Iris. There was one in the hallway, but it was the old-fashioned dial type with an honest-to-god cord. A cord which didn’t stretch more than a metre. There was a beige-and-red community-nurse-issued panic button sitting on the phone table, so Bex took that instead.
‘I don’t suppose you have a mobile,’ she said, setting the button in front of Iris. ‘But you can use this if you get into bother. You ought to wear it around your neck, you know.’
‘I’m not a fool,’ Iris said.
‘Right. I’m going.’ At the door she hesitated. The woman was a crusty old bag of wrinkled rudeness, but she was also a vulnerable member of the community. Bex had been brought up to believe that you looked out for people like that. No matter how annoying they were. ‘Is there someone I can call to check on you later? A family member?’
Iris shook her head, not able to hide the wince of pain the movement brought on.
Iris lifted her chin and didn’t answer.
Bex was going to ask about nieces and nephews, cousins, anyone, but it struck her that perhaps Iris was truly alone. It was a chilling thought and it softened her towards the woman. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I’ll call in later.’
‘You don’t need to do that,’ Iris said. ‘I’m never alone for long.’
‘That’s good,’ Bex said, trying to sound upbeat.
‘Someone will be along wanting help or a refill of their love potion.’ She smiled properly for the first time. ‘You’re never alone when you hold the keys to the town’s erections.’
Bex decided that she’d misheard the old lady. There was no way she’d just heard an octagenarian say ‘erections’.
Before her visitor, Iris had been happily dozing in her chair. When the door closed behind Rebecca, she allowed her eyes to drift closed again. She’d never had children of her own, but End House had been a family home once. When her sister had died, Iris had taken in her daughter, Gloria. For a while it had gone well, but as Gloria grew older, she’d grown angrier right alongside. Iris could still hear the sound of Gloria stamping along the landing, slamming doors and clattering down the stairs. Iris, the first to admit she wasn’t especially maternal, had been adrift. She had never been a teenager, either, as they hadn’t been invented when she was a girl. You were a child and then you were a young lady and that was that. Even if her mother hadn’t been spitting out diamond engagement rings at the breakfast table, there wouldn’t have been any room for nonsense.
Gloria, however, was all about nonsense. Boys and smoking and cheek and, worst of all, a total disregard for the old ways. She was a talented fortune teller, could read people’s future in just about anything she focused on, but she took it all too lightly. Didn’t have the gravitas necessary. Of course she didn’t, Iris chided herself now. She’d been sixteen. But it was too late to say those things to Gloria, too late to mend that particular bridge.
Iris felt herself nodding off, the pain in her back pleasantly receding to the background. At once, she was a young woman again. Still in her fifties and feeling strong. Gloria was on one of her rare visits with her girls and Iris was making skin softener and gout medicine. Gwen, the younger of Gloria’s girls, was hanging by the door of her work room. She’d been picking daisies in the garden and she offered a bunch to Iris. ‘Make yourself useful and collect me some chamomiles and marigolds,’ Iris said, holding up sample flowers. ‘I need a good handful more of both.’
The girl disappeared.
Iris continued pounding with her mortar and pestle and, after a few minutes, Gwen returned, staggering under the weight of an armful of greenery. Ten out of ten for effort, at any rate. Iris sifted through the plants, pointing out the stray weeds which had been picked by mistake and showing Gwen how to strip the petals from the flower heads and slice the stems, opening them down the middle with a fingernail and getting her to tear them into little pieces and put them in the mortar. She preferred a good sharp knife for that job, but things were strained enough with Gloria as it was without Iris arming her seven-year-old.