Sunday, 20 February 2011

Preserving Passion Chapter 4

In the interests of preserving family harmony rather than passion (because my mother rings me up and says 'have you written another chapter yet? Write another chapter!' as if I were not trying to make the garden habitable and make enough money to live on as well chiz chiz), here is chapter 4 of Preserving Passion. It is a chapter with a strong moral tone and a warning to those of you who mix your drinks, and if Kahlua and Barley Wine becomes fashionable I would like you to remember that you read it here first.

‘I’m back, I’m back’ Gertrude called out, opening the door of the cottage with a swing of her hip and bustling in with her arms full of tupperware and bottles. ‘Right. I’ve found more sloe gin, a bottle of wine someone bought me last Christmas, a bit of Kahlua, half a bottle of brandy, a four pack of barley wine and some Snowballs. And I’ve got some biscuits left over and a couple of brandy snaps. What shall we start with?’.

‘Cocktails! Yum!’ said Kayleigh, enthusiastically, running a finger through her lank blonde hair. She was sitting on the sofa clutching a furious-faced Henry, who was patting Toto rhythmically with an open hand. Pat. Pat. Pat. ‘Oh, if only I could drink’ she said, sadly. ‘But I’m still feeding Henry. Would you like some Kahlua, sweetums? Would you now?’. She pinched Henry’s fat cheek and he paused briefly to turn his head and look at her and then resumed his patting. Pat. Pat. Pat.

‘Well, that won’t stop me!’ Chardonnay’s mother said, cheerfully, her smile illuminating her round face. She was sitting on a kitchen chair which she’d dragged through into the lounge, in a whirl of patchouli and cheesecloth. ‘My baby feeding days are over. Go and get some plates, Char, and stop moping. Honestly. I leave you for half a day and you’ve alienated all the neighbours and now you’re having a crisis, and we all have to come round and have a party to take your mind off it. Gertrude must have warned you about Old Miseryface, surely?’

‘It won’t stop me, either’ said Chardonnay, miserably, reaching across for a barley wine, cracking it open and drinking it straight from the can. It joined the white wine she had been drinking all through lunch and was quite the taste sensation. She winced involuntarily. ‘Because I’m going to die alone. I alienate men. I even alienate random men in shops who I don’t like anyway. I’m a man-alienator. I’m rubbish. Probably even the postman hates me. Probably he’ll put notes through my door saying, you’re a rubbish man-alienator. I…’ she paused in her rather spirited waving about of the barley wine can, and focussed carefully on her mother’s face. ‘What did you say? Old Miseryface? What’s he got to do with it?’.

‘That’s who you had the argument with in the shop’ Gertrude said, opening the tupperware, adjusting her woolly hat and handing Chardonnay a brandy snap. ‘One for Henry, Kayleigh? Here we are, duck. He’s a miserable old bugger, in’t he, Chardonnay? I did warn you. There’s no wonder everybody hates him, is there? Everybody apart from Araminta and she’s only got an eye to t’main chance. Well she’s welcome t’him, that’s what I say’. She poured a half inch of Kahlua into a glass and tasted it thoughtfully before passing it to Chardonnay’s mother. ‘You might want to mix that with a bit o’barley wine, duck’ she said. Chardonnay, who was lying down on the rug – because she just felt a bit tired, for some reason – opened her eyes. ‘That was old Miseryface?’ she said, astonished. ‘But I thought…’ ‘Ha!’ said Chardonnay’s mother said. ‘Did you think he would be older?’ Chardonnay blushed. ‘Possibly’ she said. ‘And not quite as…’ Chardonnay’s mother exploded into a piercing laugh. ‘Don’t you go getting ideas, Char!’ she shouted. ‘I don’t think he’s your type at all!’ Chardonnay pouted slightly. God, she thought. How had this day gone so wrong? She’d managed to alienate the most attractive man she’d met since Todd – and to be honest she hadn’t been that attracted to Todd in the end, never had that lurch right down in her gut that she got every time she thought of her encounter in the shop earlier, awful though it had been – and now here she was, drunk on the carpet with Gertrude feeding poor old Henry something she was sure wasn’t good for babies, Kayleigh being corrupted, and her mother bulldozing all over her, as per usual. She opened her eyes.

‘I’m not interested in men at the moment’ she said, firmly. She could see her mother waggling her eyebrows humorously at Gertrude in the background, and this stiffened her resolve. ‘I’ve been… I’ve been too burned emotionally’ she said, only slurring slightly. Good! She thought. Well done Chardonnay! Make them realise the gravity of the situation! ‘And now I’m going to concentrate on my career’.

‘Oo, fantastic!’ said Kayleigh, encouragingly. She and Henry both turned to look at Chardonnay. ‘What is your career, Char? What do you do? Have you got a job lined up here? Are you going to be really important?’.

There was an expectant pause during which Chardonnay closed her eyes again, briefly. Excellent question, well done Kayleigh, she thought. She waited for her mother to laugh or for Gertrude to make fun of her but there was no sound. Surprised, she opened her eyes. Her mother was sipping her barley wine and Kahlua cocktail and looking at her, thoughtfully, twisting her mood ring around her finger.

‘Good plan, Char’ she said. ‘Why don’t you have a fresh start? I know you were earning all that money as a paralegal before, but why don’t you take a bit of time out? You could do something a bit different, take your mind off things. Something a bit more creative’. ‘A paralegal!’ said Kayleigh, impressed. ‘I bet you’ve got lots of transferable skills. I bet you could do anything’. Suddenly, Gertrude held up a brandy snap and began choking. ‘I know!’ she spluttered. ‘I know! Chardonnay! Kountry Kreations! Kountry Kreations!’. Chardonnay looked at her carefully. Ignoring her mother’s reframing of her previous job – she hadn’t been a paralegal, she had been a legal secretary – she tried to focus on Gertrude. ‘What’s Kountry Kreations?’ she asked, reluctantly. ‘It’s my business!’ Gertrude said. ‘It used to be quite successful, but it’s difficult doing it all by yourself and I’ve let it slide a bit. I make jams and chutneys and sell them at farmers’ markets. It’s loads of fun. You could come on board! You could be a partner!’

‘You could have a website!’ Chardonnay’s mother said, enthusiastically. ‘You know how to make a website, don’t you, Char?’

‘You could supply posh shops!’ said Kayleigh, thrilled. ‘Oo, it’d be fantastic! Do it, Char! Sod him and his Tesco! You could be there with your posh preserves and next time you meet him you could say, actually I wouldn’t spit on your value-range mixed-fruit jam because I’m supplying Harrods with gooseberry conserve! Oo, go on, do it! I’ll be your first customer!’.

Chardonnay considered. The room was still spinning a tiny bit but she was starting to think more clearly. It did sound fun. Actually, she had made jam before, on occasion, and funnily enough she was quite good at it. ‘We could forage for elderflowers!’ she said. ‘We could use all organic ingredients! Go on then, Gertrude, if you’ll have me, I’ll give it a go. It’ll be something different at least’. Gertrude was thrilled. The tupperware with the biscuits was cracked open, snowballs were poured, and Chardonnay’s mother had just gone to put the kettle on to wind down the festivities when there was a knock on the door.

‘I’ll get it’ said Chardonnay, resignedly. She walked, rather carefully, to the door, and opened it wide.

Jack Carter was standing there.

Instantly Chardonnay flushed, and took a step back. A lump had risen in her throat and she was finding it difficult to breathe. He wasn’t looking too confident, either, although, not having spent the afternoon consuming barley wine and brandy snaps he did slightly have the edge on Chardonnay. He was leaning on her door frame with a slight frown, his hair windswept and pale violet shadows under his eyes. Chardonnay fought the urge to trace them with her finger.

She stepped outside, quickly, to hide the conversation from the others. Who knows what they might say to embarrass her. Her mother had been embarrassing her deliberately since she was 12 so was quite proficient at it. She stared at Jack Carter, who stared back. ‘I came to apologise’ he said, in an irritated, clipped tone. ‘I thought I was a bit short with you in the shop. I’m sorry’.

Chardonnay was taken aback. She took a step back slightly and hoped he couldn’t smell the barley wine. ‘Oh’ she said. ‘Oh. Well. Thank you. That’s kind. I was a tiny bit shocked’.

‘Well. Can’t imagine why you’d be shocked’ he said, irritably. ‘Can’t imagine why you thought you could pop off down a little shop and patronise the locals without upsetting anybody, but there we are’.

Chardonnay frowned and shook her head. ‘I’m sorry? What?’ she said, firmly. Had she not been buoyed up on barley wine and the thought of being a partner in Kountry Kreations she might have been more conciliatory. ‘I wasn’t patronising anybody. I thought you’d come to apologise? Because you certainly needed to. But you sound like you’ve come to tell me off again!’ Jack Carter held one hand up, dismissively. ‘Fine!’ he said. ‘Fine! I shan’t bother. It looks like I was right the first time’. With Chardonnay still staring at him astonishment, he turned his back on her and started off down the steps. ‘I heard you’d actually moved here. I imagine I’ll have you sitting in my office at some point, wanting a job’ he said, as an afterthought. ‘I hope you’ll be a lot more polite when you come begging me for work. There aren’t many jobs around here, you know’. This was the wrong thing to say. Chardonnay drew herself up to her full five feet four and a half inches, and her blue eyes flashed. ‘Mr Carter’ she said. ‘Mr Carter’, sweetly. He turned round. She was smiling, prettily. ‘Hell, Mr Carter’ Chardonnay said, careful to avoid slurring, ‘will have frozen over before you ever find me in your office – whatever and wherever that might be - wanting anything from you at all. I already have a job. I am a partner in an entrepreneurial and innovative business start up, and we are going to – no, we have a contract to - provide Harrods with high-quality organic preserves. So you, Mr Carter, might be sitting in my office one day asking me to pay you minimum wage to wash out my preserving pans. And on that day, unfortunately, I shall be compelled to say, no. Because, Mr Carter, you can take your value-range mixed-fruit jam which you’ve sold out this village for, and you can shove it right up your…’

‘Char! Cup of tea!’ said Kayleigh, firmly, taking Chardonnay by the arm and pulling her inside the house, slamming the door right in Jack Carter’s astonished face. Henry, for the first time that afternoon, took his hand away from the dog and clapped, furiously, and beamed at Chardonnay. The others looked at her in silent astonishment. ‘Well, that’s done it, Char’ said Kayleigh, finally. ‘We’d better get you that contract to supply Harrods as soon as we can. We can’t lose face to Old Miseryface. Gertrude! Go get those preserving pans out of your loft. Kountry Kreations lives again!’.