Out of the blue

Richard Craywick. I remember how tanned his arms were, when I first saw him in the Travaile Farm Shop. It was a converted outbuilding. There was a campsite in woodland clearings alongside the farm, and he was selling organically grown vegetables and local honey to the yummy mummies who had brought their families ‘glamping’. I hated their four-wheel-drives and their flowing Monsoon dresses and sequinned flip-flops, and the way they delivered well-spoken instructions to their horrid brats.
‘You have to apologise to Christian, right now, or we aren’t going to leave the shop. And then we won’t be able to go to Flambards. And it’s no good just saying sorry, you have to mean it.’
Just go, I thought, please go.
I never got leave in the summer.
‘It’s the school holidays,’ said my manager, ‘so people with children have to take priority.’ So, perspiring in my polyester skirt suit on the only hot day of the whole year, and covering my colleagues’ work, I’d driven from the office in Exeter to try and sort out Mr Craywick’s books before the taxman finally lost patience. He’d already had payment demands from three different tax offices.
He made me wait.
‘I’m on my own in the shop today. I’ll be with you directly, Miss…’ He pronounced it ‘dreckly’.
It was a two-hour drive to the Lizard, and I’d been rushing all morning, was still full of the urgency of the A30, of dodging between the holiday makers’ people-carriers and the damned caravans, and the old people in the outdated bangers they drive down in the South West, taking all the time I hadn’t got. I’d accelerated like mad in the gaps between traffic calming devices, overtaken all manner of hay-wains and milk tankers on country lanes and got there on the dot of twelve, as arranged. Now I just stood at the side of the shop watching him as he weighed potatoes and filled egg-boxes for his customers. Cash went into an old grey till, the sort where a bell rings when you press the keys. No EPOS system, then. I just hoped he kept a record of his takings. My feet were aching in patent leather court shoes, pressed into the cobbled floor.
rosebay‘Morning, mate.’ One of the locals had come in, an old man with a walking stick and a vinyl shopping trolley. His Rottweiler sniffed at my handbag, so I lifted it out of range. The dog’s deep, questioning brown eyes looked up, and his ears twitched. There was a brief wag of the tail, and then he dipped his nose to the floor. I moved my feet backwards.
‘Hey, Lex,’ said Craywick, and the dog turned to him and wagged his tail more vigorously. ‘He don’t hurt,’ Craywick said to me. His eyes were deep, like the dog’s, his skin browned by sun, his hair brown.
’Aye, don’t be afraid, my lover,’ said the old man, to me. ‘He’s small for a Rottweiler, good as gold.’
‘Well, Harry, what can I get you?’ Craywick was tall; he looked down at the old man.
‘Dozen eggs,’ said Harry. ‘Two pound of onions, bag of potatoes, pound of tomatoes, packet of butter. Omelettes and mash all week, my mate, wife’s broke her front tooth.’ He grinned; his own teeth were gapped and stained brown.
Craywick put the potatoes and onions, the eggs and the butter into the vinyl shopping trolley. ‘Have to go a bit easier on her, Harry, eh? You don’t know your own strength.’
‘She bit on one of your apples!’ retorted Harry. He sighed. ‘It’s one of them things, out the blue. You never know what’ll happen, do you?’
Craywick filled a brown paper bag with tomatoes and spun it between big fingers to twist the corners. He pencilled a column of numbers on the top of the empty bag pile. He gave me a slow, square-jawed smile. Had I been staring? I gave him a polite smile back, the sort that does not reach the eyes, and indicates that one is there on business, and is being kept waiting.
‘Five-seventy-eight,’ said Craywick.
‘Oh, put it on the slate if you don’t mind,’ said Harry. ‘Draw my pension Thursday, I’ll pay you then? Heaven knows how we’re going to pay the dentist. It’ll be hundreds.’
Craywick scrawled something on the empty bag, and pinned it to the edge of a shelf. ‘See you down the Shipwright’s, then.’
‘Aye. Pint of ‘Harbour’, eh?’
Heaven knows how I’m going to get a sense of the income and outgoings, I thought.
The shop door closed behind Harry and Lex, and Craywick stepped up to it and turned the sign round, so that it read ‘OPEN’ from the inside.
‘A drink before we start?’ he offered, indicating a shelf at the back of the shop.
I looked at the rows of brown bottles. ‘Is there any chance of a coffee?’ I hazarded.
‘Scrumpy, or apple juice.’ He reached up to the shelf.
‘I’m driving,’ I said.
He took a bottle of apple juice from the shelf and banged off the cap against the edge of the counter with the heel of his hand. He passed it to me and I sipped from the bottle neck. It was sweet and fragrant. He opened a bottle of scrumpy for himself, and took a swig. ‘The books are up in the house. It’s not far.’
I followed him across the gravel, towards a gap between massive rhododendrons. I was holding the bottle, and my bag and the papers, my ankles turning in my unsuitable shoes; his feet were planted sturdily in walking boots. He heard me stumble, and turned.
‘Here.’ He put his arm out to support me. ‘Pretty shoes,’ he murmured.
I took his arm, and looked sideways at him. He was studying me closely. Our eyes met and skidded apart; I laughed, nervously. ‘Rather unsuitable, I’m afraid.’
A breeze rustled in the leaves and lightened the midday heat; the air smelled fragrant, the sky was a luminous turquoise blue. I’d left my sunglasses in the car. My sweat stung my eyes, and my mind filled with the pressure of his biceps locked against mine.rosebayBeyond the rhododendrons was a crumbling tarmac area. An old Defender was parked up; rosebay willow-herb, seeded from nowhere, grew in cracks amongst rusting machinery and brambles. Bees browsed in the pink-purple flowers. Boston ivy had overgrown the farmhouse and twined its way under the eaves and behind the top windows.
‘Needs a lot of work doing, eh?’ The front door of the farmhouse was sticking; he gave it a nudge with his boot and it scraped open. It was cool inside, and dark after the blinding sunshine; the walls were thick granite and the floor was slate. There was a faint rancid smell from the kitchen. In the dining room, books and papers were strewn across the table; he pushed them back to clear a space for the bottles.
‘Sorry about the mess. Its’s a busy time of year.’ He pulled the curtains back to let in more light. ‘I’ll just have a look for the paperwork.’ He started to rummage amongst piles of papers. I took a swig of the apple juice. This time it tasted bitter, but I was thirsty. I took a few more mouthfuls.
Craywick obviously lived alone; I had no sense that the house belonged to a family. On the walls were some ugly Victorian watercolours, that seemed as though left behind by previous owners; no-one would want them. And here was a man whom no-one would have, a man who didn’t pay his taxes. He was going to be a nightmare to deal with. And yet, I felt myself relaxing. I leaned back in my chair and drained the bottle, listening to him cursing the mess on the table, and watching his muscles move beneath his t-shirt. He put in front of me a bundle of ledgers held together with an elastic band, and reached for his drink. He turned those deep eyes on me again.
‘You’ve drunk my scrumpy!’
I looked at the label on the bottle. No wonder I felt relaxed. I rested my hands on the ledgers, picking at the elastic band with my thumb. The alcohol drifted through my mind.rosebay‘Have you always lived here?’ I asked. And: ‘where are you from originally?’
‘It’s a long story,’ he said, and leaned, half sitting, against the edge of the table.
I shrugged. Those questions are my two conversation prompts. With these, and their variations, I can find out almost everything a person can tell me about their life history and ancestry. I’ve a cold nature, or so my mother says, but I can get people to talk for twenty minutes at a time.
He said he was born in Bideford, started off on a misfit council estate, and then was moved into foster care. He didn’t know, or care, what had happened to his birth parents. He had two sisters and a brother. His brother was in prison and his elder sister was an alcoholic. He had passed through several foster families and eventually was adopted by a childless couple. The Craywicks had been his only true parents; he had inherited Travaile a few years previously. He’d been lucky.
‘But I don’t deserve to be here,’ he said. ‘I don’t really belong. I’m not cut out for it, either.’
‘What else would you do?’
He shrugged. ‘And you, Miss, Whitebait…’
‘Vainwright. Helen.’
‘Helen. From Exeter, are you?’
He was using my opener, on me.
‘No, Taunton. My mother still lives there. I studied accountancy in London.’
‘She must be fair proud of you.’ He seemed to be weighing me up; I felt myself flushing.
‘Not really.’ I pulled the elastic off the ledgers and opened the first one. ‘She’s a bit funny about my career. You know, grandchildren and such like. Anyway…’
I skimmed through the ledgers looking for the right fiscal year. Mum had never forgiven me for divorcing Adam.
‘It’s not as if he was violent,’ she had said. ‘After all the money I spent on your wedding, on the dress, and having to tell my friends. I don’t know what to say.’
And then she kept talking about how all her friends had grandchildren and wasn’t it lovely? How to have a grandchild makes one feel complete, that the cycle of life is continuing, that one’s child has become a parent. And so forth. It just made me cringe to think of those cohorts of yummy mummies. In the end, I yelled at her to leave me alone. I stopped phoning her. I was busy anyway, and it seemed too much of a trek across to Taunton to see her. She didn’t like that. When I did eventually ring her, and said hello, there was a silence.
‘Mum, it’s Helen?’
She put the phone down.
I vowed to keep trying. I put it off, and put it off again. In the end I didn’t do it. Maybe…
I told myself to concentrate, and focused back on Craywick’s accounts. At least I had now found the year I wanted. And some evidence of record keeping in the ledgers.
‘Have you any bank statements?’ I asked. He pulled an overflowing box file from a pile of papers. And, what a gift! Amongst old bank statements, insurance quotes and electricity bills, was a letter from a fourth tax office about a direct debit. It seemed that he, or perhaps the Craywicks’ estate, had been paying a monthly instalment to the tax man for the last five years. It had to be going to the wrong tax office.
‘Have you got anything I can use to access the internet?’
He shook his head.
‘I’m sure I can sort this out. I need to go back to the office and access your tax account online. Can I borrow your files for a few days? I’ll bring them back. And, um, I shall have to bring my firm’s invoice.’
He grinned. ‘Do you accept payment in kind?’
I laughed it off, but I had a feeling he was serious. It wasn’t just the cider.Rosebay seedsOver the next couple of days, I couldn’t get Richard out of my head. Perhaps it was my hormones going into mid-cycle overdrive. Even sober, in the nasty environment of the open-plan office where I worked, I kept thinking of the whisper of leaves in the breeze, the heat of midday, the pink-purple blaze of willow-herb, and the pressure of his arm. There was a dull pounding in my blood whenever I replayed his image in my mind. I kept wondering about the yummy mummies, and whether they bought vegetables more often than was necessary during their holidays. I allowed myself a little jealousy. But I knew it wasn’t love.
I completed the tax return, and rang Richard’s number.
‘They owe you,’ I told him over the phone. ‘You’ll get a rebate of a few thousand.’
He chuckled.
‘I’ll lend Harry the money for the dentist.’
I told him I’d bring his books back on Friday afternoon. ‘You need to sign the tax return, and then it has to be in by Monday. I’ll file it online on Monday morning.’
‘I’m looking forward to it.’ There was a definite warmth in his voice.
I left the office on Friday afternoon, early enough to have a shower at my flat, and a change of clothes before the drive down to Travaile. All the way down, I kept wondering what we would say. It took ages getting past Bodmin, and it was after four o’clock when I parked the Golf on the crumbling tarmac, leaving my weekend bag in the boot, and stepped carefully up to his front door in my high heels. He tugged the door backwards when he came to open it, but it stuck, as before. I gave it a kick; he noticed the shoes. He held the door open just enough, so that I brushed past him as I went inside, conscious of the heat radiating from his orbit.
‘I got you some coffee in Helston,’ he said, taking the bundle of papers from my hands.
I followed him into the farmhouse kitchen and watched him fill the kettle. He ran a dirty thumbnail around the foil that sealed the instant coffee jar.
‘So, how was your journey?’
I could barely speak, let alone turn my mind to platitudes.
‘I want to spend the weekend here,’ I said.
‘What are you saying?’ His back was turned to me, as he reached mugs down from a cupboard. I heard him put the spoon down. ‘What are you saying?’
‘I want to…I need you.’
He spun round, his brown eyes huge, his face soft with recognition. ‘I knew it,’ he said. ‘I knew that’s what you’d come back for.’
‘I’m not staying though,’ I said. ‘Just the weekend.’ I was about to say that I had to get to the office on Monday, but he just said:
‘I know. I know that.’
The electric kettle boiled and clicked off. He stretched his hand out to me, I took it, and we drew together.
I followed him up the stairs. His bedroom was clean and airy. The windows were open and tendrils of Boston ivy twined around their frames. A blackbird sang outside, and fluffy seeds of rosebay drifted in a blue sky.
‘I changed the sheets, just in case,’ he said, ‘so as I could have you in a clean bed.’
It was a strange encounter. We were so unsuitable for each other. I could never imagine living in that remote place, dusting the ugly pictures, weeding the broken tarmac, sorting the books and papers, disinfecting whatever awfulness was in the kitchen. But his body drew me; it was as strong as the cathedral arch of trees above a woodland clearing. His kisses scoured my mouth; his arms went around me so tightly, that when he released me I felt suddenly unbound. Every look and every touch was sheer, heaven-sent joy. Rosebay seedsI drove away on the Sunday night, making vague promises, knowing I wasn’t going back. Prepared and yet unprepared, we had not used any contraception.
I spent the first weeks of my pregnancy telling myself I was imagining it; life went on as normal in the office routine. When I felt the first flutter of movement I wondered whether to phone Richard. My friends told me I should, but I just didn’t want to get involved with him. The baby’s warmth kept me company enough. But they persuaded me I would need some support. Eventually I made a phone call.
My mother answered.
‘You’re going to be a grandmother,’ I said, all in a rush, ‘and I’ll need you to help with the baby so I can go back to work. Please.’ I breathed out. I had got to the end of the sentence without her hanging up. There was a silence. I waited.
‘Oh, Helen …’ she said weakly. ‘That’s … wonderful, darling. So out of the blue …’
Rosebay Willow herb CREDIT Paul Lane compressed
© 2015 chateauxenespagne.com
All characters are fictional. Apart from Lex the Rottweiler, who actually lives in Bruges, Belgium, and doesn’t belong to Harry!

4 thoughts on “Out of the blue

    1. Thanks Peter, I didn’t like Helen that much, and she might not be a maternal type, but I felt she was getting to the stage when the alarm had gone off in her biological clock. And it may not be typical, but I have witnessed a pattern of grandmother behaviour whereby they disapprove strongly of their own offspring but the adored grandson or granddaughter can do no wrong. Dreckly is a personally witnessed West Country-ism, ‘I’ll do it dreckly’ being a rather tongue-in-cheek phrase indicating the speaker will do whatever it is in their own sweet time. Mellors was from Nottinghamshire wasn’t he? I don’t know what they say in Notts apart from ‘me dook’ (my duck)!
      – Giselle

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