Authors: Sarah Painter
Bex was still standing on the street outside Jon’s house, unable to walk away. She took a deep breath. Maybe she should just tell him how she felt? She could knock on the door and, when he opened it, say: ‘I want to be more than friends and it’s killing me.’
Bex’s insides had gone liquid at the thought. Besides, it would only cause heartache and embarrassment. Bex wasn’t a fool and she’d had boyfriends in the past. You could tell when there was a spark, when someone was attracted to you. If Jon felt the same way, he’d have shown some sign by now. Bex imagined Jon’s expression if she declared her feelings; horror, quickly followed by deep discomfort. Pity.
‘Are you going to stand there all night?’
The voice seemed to be right next to Bex’s ear and she jumped, looking around the previously deserted road.
Iris Harper was standing a few feet away, leaning on a stick. She had a bulky bag slung across her body and her coat was buttoned up to the neck, even though it was a warm night.
‘You startled me.’
‘You’re a very nervous person,’ Iris said. ‘I’ve got a good tonic for that.’
‘Were you looking for me?’ Frankly, Bex was amazed to see Iris up and about after yesterday. She was a tough old bird, that was for sure.
‘I thought we could visit your erstwhile employers. Together.’
‘I don’t think it will help,’ Bex said. ‘Thanks, though.’
Iris smiled. ‘Humour a tough old bird.’
Bex fell into step with Iris. ‘It won’t do any good,’ she said. ‘They won’t listen.’
‘You’re too young to be so defeatist,’ Iris said. ‘Block Despair for as long as possible. If you let it in, you invite its friends, Apathy, Anger and Ague.’
Bex stomped on the urge to tell Iris not to speak to her like a fortune cookie. ‘Mr Farrier has really got it in for me.’
‘And why is that?’
Bex shook her head. ‘No reason. I don’t know.’
‘Lying is a very bad habit, you know,’ Iris said. ‘Especially to me.’
‘It’s not important,’ Bex said. She felt stupid for protecting the man who was accusing her of theft, but she knew what it was like to have your bad behaviour aired in public. She still felt the slap of shame whenever she thought about that horrible time. Only Nicola had stood by her, supporting her through her day in court and not listening when their other friends called Bex a pikey and a loser, whispering and laughing behind her back. Bex was in the right here, she knew, but she didn’t feel qualified to dispense judgement. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d given up that right on the day she’d decided to take something that wasn’t hers, stressing out her parents so badly that she’d hammered the final nail in their divorce.
‘I wouldn’t be helping you if you didn’t deserve it, you know,’ Iris said. She was looking at Bex as if she could see right into her heart.
‘What are you going to do?’ Bex managed to say around the lump that had appeared in her throat.
Iris gave her a wide smile, showing her grey-ish teeth. ‘We’re going to drink my famous elderflower wine and become the very best of friends.’
Bex wanted to tell her that it was going to take a lot more than a social drink, but it was too late; Iris was already ringing the Farriers’ doorbell.
Mrs Farrier opened the door, her expression guarded. ‘Who are you?’ Mrs Farrier was looking past Bex.
‘Iris Harper.’ Iris stepped forward and held her hand out. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
Bex felt like a terrible person for enjoying the way the colour drained from Mrs Farrier’s face, but she couldn’t help it. Being unceremoniously fired had a detrimental effect on your empathy.
‘I see you’ve heard of me. That’s good,’ Iris said. ‘We need to talk. The grown-ups, at any rate.’ She stepped smartly past Mrs Farrier and into the hallway.
‘It’s late,’ Mrs Farrier said. ‘The children are in bed.’
‘Sorry,’ Bex said, reflexively, but Iris was saying, in a much louder voice: ‘Perfect. Is it this way?’
She took off down the hall at an impressively fast pace and Mrs Farrier had no choice but to follow. Bex closed the front door and trailed after them.
Mr Farrier was in the formal living room, the one the children weren’t allowed to play in, sitting on the cream brocade sofa with the television remote in one hand. He clicked a button and the widescreen mounted above the gas fireplace went black.
He was staring at Iris as if he couldn’t believe such a creature existed. His lip was actually curled and Bex felt a rush of protectiveness towards the older woman.
‘You can’t just walk into my home,’ Farrier was saying.
‘You’d be amazed at what I can do,’ Iris said. She smiled, as if to soften the words, but it had the opposite effect. More like a shark than a dolphin.
Iris turned to Mrs Farrier. ‘Well, dear. You may not know this, but it’s customary to offer people refreshment.’
Mrs Farrier had started to sit down on the sofa next to her husband, but she jumped up as if electrocuted.
Mr Farrier raised his voice. ‘You will not speak to my wife in that tone.’
‘We’ve popped round for a nice chat about Rebecca’s future; there’s nothing to be concerned about. But, if you prefer, we could have a more intimate conversation,’ Iris said. ‘The sort which invites confidences. Secrets.’
Mr Farrier flushed red. ‘You witch. I’ve heard about you. You’re nothing but a –’
‘Dear me.’ Iris shook her head. ‘The lack of manners in this household is truly shocking. Rebecca, I hope you’ve been providing a better example to the younger members of the family. There’s still time for them to learn.’
Bex didn’t know whether to smile or not, but she opted for something halfway.
‘Don’t smirk, child,’ Iris said. ‘It makes you look sly.’
‘She is sly,’ Mr Farrier said, seizing on the word. ‘She’s a thief. And we are completely within our rights to terminate her employment.’
‘Well, since you’ve raised the subject,’ Iris said, settling down into the armchair, ‘we may as well get on.’ She looked forlornly at the coffee table. ‘Especially since it doesn’t appear we’re going to be given anything to drink this evening.’
Mrs Farrier rose again, only for Mr Farrier to pull on her arm sharply, dragging her back down to a sitting position.
‘As I understand it, you have dismissed Rebecca and are refusing her a good reference, upon which her future employment depends.’
‘She stole from us. It’s only because my wife is so soft-hearted that we haven’t called the police.’ He fixed Bex with a stare. ‘There’s plenty of time for us to press charges, though, and this little adventure isn’t doing you any favours.’
‘And what is Rebecca supposed to have stolen?’
‘Cufflinks,’ Mr Farrier said, stiffly. ‘Gold. Very valuable.’
‘Perhaps Bex could recompense us for the value,’ Mrs Farrier said brightly. ‘Then we could take it as an honest mistake and write the reference –’
‘Sentimental value,’ Mr Farrier broke in, throwing a sharp look at his wife.
‘Oh, yes,’ Iris said. ‘They belonged to your father, James, I believe.’
‘How did you know that?’ Mr Farrier gawped at Iris. ‘How on earth –’
‘Because you threw them away,’ Iris said. ‘About twenty years ago, in fact.’
He opened his mouth and, for moment, no sound came out. Then he rallied with: ‘Why would I do that?’
‘Because they reminded you too much of him, I would imagine,’ Iris said. ‘He wasn’t a good man. I’m sorry for that.’
Farrier had gone red and he was blinking furiously. ‘I don’t know … How –’
‘I knew him a long time ago,’ Iris said. ‘He wasn’t very nice then, and I think he only got worse. He was that sort. Mean through to the core. Nasty in his bones.’
She fixed him with a glare that made Bex shrivel inside. She hated to think how it would feel to have the full beam. ‘Your father was bad deep down in his blood and I wonder, now, whether he passed that on to you? It was very wrong of you to blame Rebecca. Wrong to dismiss her. Wrong to accuse her.’
‘Alistair?’ Mrs Farrier was gazing at her husband as if she’d never seen him before. ‘What is she talking about?’
‘Get out of my house,’ Farrier said, but his voice was weak.
‘Not yet,’ Iris said, opening her bag and pulling out a glass bottle filled with pale liquid and a stack of clear plastic wine glasses. ‘Rebecca, would you do the honours?’
Bex obeyed automatically, setting the glasses out onto the table and fiddling with the stopper that was like the opening on a Grolsch bottle.
‘Don’t worry about putting the kettle on,’ Iris said to Mrs Farrier. ‘We brought you a gift. A toast to friendship and to better times and to sorting this out in a civilised manner.’ She looked at Mr Farrier. ‘A discreet manner. Bex has no intention of causing trouble for you or your family. She is very fond of you all, although I am at a loss to know why.’
‘Most of you,’ Bex said, for the sake of honesty.
Iris nodded. ‘So. We’re going to have some of my famous elderflower wine, and we’re going to have a conversation and come to a mutually beneficial agreement.’
‘We don’t want any trouble,’ Mrs Farrier said, looking a little dazed. ‘This is all very odd. People said this town was odd, but I didn’t really listen.’
Bex poured a small measure of the pale yellow liquid into each glass.
‘I’m not drinking that,’ Mr Farrier said.
‘It’s a gift,’ Iris said.
Mrs Farrier put a hand on her husband’s arm. ‘Alistair, please.’
‘One drink and we’ll leave,’ Iris said, putting a glass into his hand.
Mr Farrier’s frown deepened. ‘How did you know my father?’
‘We were engaged. A very long time ago.’ Iris smiled at the sudden stunned silence. ‘Needless to say, it didn’t work out.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Mrs Farrier looked bewildered.
‘I wasn’t always eighty-two, you know,’ Iris said, sharply.
‘That wasn’t what I meant –’
Iris raised her plastic glass. ‘A little elderflower makes everything better. It’s summer captured in a glass.’
As if hypnotised by British politeness, everyone lifted their glasses and drank. The wine was delicious. Fresh and floral with a dry undertone.
‘I’m not taking part in this,’ Mr Farrier said, lowering his glass after one sip. ‘I don’t care who you are or what you’re dragging up from the past. It’s ancient history.’
‘It isn’t though, is it?’ Iris said. ‘I think he is still influencing you. The fact that you pretended to have lost his cufflinks, something you haven’t possessed for many years, speaks volumes. It’s almost as if he is still influencing you from beyond the grave.’
‘Well, that makes more sense,’ Mrs Farrier said to her husband, after a second gulp of her wine. ‘I was wondering why I’d never seen the cufflinks. I didn’t even know you had any gold ones.’
Iris didn’t glance at her. She kept staring at Mr Farrier, leaning in his direction as she lowered her voice. ‘You don’t have to be like him, though. You can be better.’
‘You can’t speak to me like that.’ Mr Farrier’s face had moved on from red to blotchy purple. Bex was starting to worry that he was going to have a heart attack. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘All you have to do is give Rebecca her job back.’ Iris took a sip of her wine and smiled. If Bex didn’t know better she’d have thought Iris was enjoying herself.
‘I don’t want it,’ Bex said.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ Iris said, glancing at her. ‘I thought you wanted my help?’
‘I want my reference. A fair reference. I deserve that,’ Bex said, looking at Mrs Farrier. ‘And I want a chance to say goodbye to the children, because it’s not fair on them. I don’t want you to hustle me out of the door like a criminal. That’s not right. But I don’t want to work for you any more.’ Bex hadn’t known the truth of the words until she’d spoken them out loud, but they felt right. She didn’t want to work for the Farriers. A thought came to her, golden and true; they didn’t deserve her help. And she didn’t have to pay penance by working for them.
‘Don’t listen to anything she says. She’s a thief and a liar,’ Mr Farrier said, standing up.
‘I’m not saying anything else,’ Bex said. She spread her hands, trying to reassure Mr Farrier, although, God knew, he didn’t deserve her kindness. The wine had warmed Bex right through and she felt a bolt of happiness. ‘I’m done.’
‘You’re definitely that,’ Mr Farrier said. ‘You can’t make demands; no one will believe a single word out of your mouth –’
‘Just stop,’ Mrs Farrier said. Half of her wine had already gone. ‘I know what you’re frightened of, but I already know. I didn’t know about you and Bex, but I can guess. I know about the others.’
‘What?’ Mr Farrier sat down, like someone had just cut his strings.
‘Oh, please,’ Mrs Farrier said. ‘How stupid do you think I am?’
‘I don’t know what –’
‘Just don’t.’ Mrs Farrier held up her hand. She took another slug of the wine.
Mr Farrier picked up his own glass and downed it.
‘There is no “me and him”,’ Bex said. It was important to her that Mrs Farrier knew. ‘I swear to you. There is nothing going on between me and your husband and there never has been.’
Mrs Farrier looked at her over the rim of the glass. ‘He tried something, though. Didn’t he?’
‘I don’t think this is going to help anybody,’ Bex said. ‘Can we get back to my innocence, please?’ She tried some more of the wine. It really was very good. And clearly alcoholic. She took a bigger drink.
‘How do you know I don’t have those cufflinks?’ Mr Farrier said suddenly, pointing at Iris. ‘What makes you so sure I threw them away?’
‘Because my mother spat them out shortly before she died.’
‘Don’t point at me, please. It’s very rude,’ Iris said. ‘Things that were thrown away, they came to my mother. It was her gift. Mine is to give people what they need. It’s easier in some ways.’ Iris looked at her wine glass as if surprised to find it empty. ‘Damn stuff is too tasty,’ she said. ‘Gave me quite a shock, I can tell you. I recognised them. I was still,’ she hesitated, ‘holding a candle for him.’
‘I thought you broke off the engagement,’ Bex said.
‘Didn’t say what kind of candle,’ Iris said. ‘You can know something is wrong and still mourn its passing.’