That’s the trouble, thought Angie with a tiny spasm of apprehension as she wriggled out of her knickers, far too much information. She was talking technology of course. In the forties and fifties nobody really gave a rat’s arse. Now, you couldn’t move without a grainy, distorted image of yourself sliding across a CCTV screen. Or enjoy a bag of chips for that matter without Pixie and the chap that looks like Doctor Spok off Embarrassing Bodies drilling you from inside the telly. Crikey, even last year dad had to send in a stool sample through the post. Honestly, how ridiculous.
Feeling horribly ventilated, Angie straightened up and stared at her reflection in the tiny chipped mirror, swivelling her chin from side to side. As usual she fixated on her nose which in her opinion was too big, (in spite of Matt kissing the end of it and telling her a hundred times how he loved it, and mum Bridie waxing on about the endless string of baby competitions she’d won (when in fact the sum total was two and only then did she come third and runner up).
Leaning closer, she had to admit that she did look a bit pale though.
Not surprising what she was about to do. Still it was silly to stress over something she frankly had no control over, she convinced herself comfortingly. And at the end of the day, at some point in their lives, everybody did it. Well not everybody of course. That was a bit of a sweeping statement. Men didn’t for starters. Or women over ninety—unless of course they’d had their reproductive organs soaked in formaldehyde for the last three decades. Come to think of it, did female vicars? Hm, that was a tricky one, and rather debatable.
Anyway, Angie compressed her knickers into a tight ball and poked them into the toe of her shoe. The point was, loads of women did it, every single day, and survived.
So, in light of this she would go in there guns blazing. Yes, absolutely. She, Angela Nightingale, was after all a woman of the twenty-first century. She was fit and young (thirty next birthday!!) and demographically whatever-they-called-it, and ate Gogi berries, and wore Kate Spade jeans (from a charity shop, admittedly) and was just as capable (at least one of these fine days) of going the whole hog and having a Brazilian. So stop fannying about! Get in there girl and get it over with. The sooner you’re out of there, the sooner you can get home and watch Homes Under the Hammer.
‘Are you going to be long in there?’
Angie almost keeled over with fright.
‘Only I’m running a bit late,’ continued the voice with forced cheeriness.
Angie stared blankly at the wall for a second then slumped wretchedly against the sink. Who was she kidding? She eyed the door. Oh God, the thought of being poked and prodded by someone with woolly eyebrows and tartan waistcoat...just bloody awful. Oh if only she could just melt and slither under the door like that chap in Terminator.
‘I’m going to have to rush you…’
Rush her? Who did he think he was, Dermot o’ sodding Leary?
Ooh, bloody fucking hell. Her eyes dropped miserably down to her goose-bumped legs.
Did she have a choice…?
She didn’t have a choice…
‘Coming,’ she called back feebly.
After this—never mind HUTH—she’d go and have a nice, civilized cappuccino and a bit of her favourite cheesecake. Yes, she decided with a determined nod and slid a starfish hand over the crack of her bum and scuttled into the next room.
Right, Angie rested her hands delicately over her tum and drilled the ceiling studiously. The key was to remain cool, calm and collected, and no eye contact with the enemy—no eye contact with the enemy no eye contact with—‘oh hi there,’ she grinned ineffectually at a pair of bandy legs in creased gabardines hobbling with a hup-one-two gait towards her. ‘Sorry about the delay, it’s just—’ she almost gagged as a cloudburst of Old Spice engulfed her. ‘I’m a bit nervous.’ she managed, twisting her head to one side, and landing boss-eyed on a poster of a fanny.
‘Tosh and nonsense, now try to relax.’
Oh really, easy for him to say.
‘Can you slide your bottom down a bit?’
Slide bottom down a…bit. Angie cringed, but did as she was told.
‘Good, now flop the old knees apart.’
A scream started to claw its way up her throat.
‘Oh dear, ha ha, a tad wider than that.’
Okay, stop! Stop right there! Floor I demand you swallow me whole! Oh God! Maybe now was a good time for a nice string of therapeutic four letter word.
A prayer would do just as good…
Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour---
‘So Angela, how are things in the upstairs department?’
Upstairs department…? Angie dragged her eyes off the poster. ‘Fine,’ she replied cagily.
‘Only my dear wife, God rest her soul, always used to say upstairs was the tricky part.’ The aforementioned eyebrows—more gingery than she recalled—debuted over the rim of her perineum. ‘We have these huge beams to contend with, you see.’
Beams…? Angie looked away horrified. Good God, someone here’s obviously been watching a re-run of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, honestly, what a cheek. Still, she supposed she ought to be just as flippant.
‘Well, um,’ she cleared her throat. ‘Matt and I do have a very healthy sex life ... obviously. I mean we’ve only been married a year, but you know how it is, pressures of life that sort of thing. Matt’s got his own business now you see.’ There was suddenly a creak and a crank then something icy slid between her thighs, followed by a muted slurp. ‘So um, we hardly get time to catch a cold, never mind...' she glanced down at the Einstein thatch hovering methodically back and forth between her thighs. What should she call it? He was very old, so fair to say he’d read a load of Jilly Cooper’s raunch. ‘…a bit of the old rumpy pump—’
‘Only the last time I saw you, you were as busy as a bee, telling me all about your renovations upstairs.’
Angie’s face froze. ‘Oh…right, those, yes, well actually they’re not finished yet?’
‘Not finished!’ exploded the doctor as if he was on a podium at a doctors’ convention, (endorsing much to Angie’s relief that he was more than a little hard of hearing). ‘Goodness me,’ he puffed up, sending tremors along the examination bed. ‘But that was well over a year ago.’
Was it? Angie’s eyes settled unwillingly onto a stack of sanitary towels, piled neatly on a nearby steel trolley. Yes, yes she supposed it was; she’d come in to see him about contraception. She couldn’t remember, but obviously she’d told him all about it. Good grief. If that was the case then they really did need to get a move on. Enthusiasm abound when they’d first moved into their cute-but-stuck-in-a-time-warp two-up-two-down, they’d ripped up all the vile, moth infested carpets in favour of bare floor boards. But since then the excitement had waned a bit, and the floorboards on either side of the bed looked a bit like Olympic flags, so stained were they from putting mugs and wineglasses down on them. Come to think of it, she’d even got used to taking a shower surrounded by cement.
‘Matt and I agree on most things I have to say, but I’m afraid we’ve hit a brick wall here,’ adding as a grave afterthought, ‘he can be very stubborn you know.’
‘Is that so?’ said the doctor, his tone conversational as he scribbled hieroglyphics on a glass slide.
‘The thing is,’ Angie eased up on her elbows and tossed her thick mane of toffee hair off her face. ‘Matt wants those diddy little white tiles—you know, the sort they have in the London underground. But I adore mosaic; I personally don’t think you can beat it. And then he wants boring old varnish on the floor, and I want blue wood-wash with perhaps a few clouds and doves stencilled here and there. ’
‘Sounds lovely…um...you can close your legs now Angela dear.’
‘Now everything appears in order, so run along.’ Doctor Heaton gave her upper thigh a congenial little pat which, in light of their prior intimacy, felt weirdly intrusive. ‘I’m running a bit behind this morning,’ he continued distractedly. ‘But I’m sure I can squeeze in a five minute chat.’
‘The thing is,’ Angie re-crossed her legs and shuffled even deeper into the recess of the desk. ‘It’s not the be all and end all, is it?’
Doctor Heaton glanced at his watch.
‘I mean the world’s so chocker full of humans, isn’t it? We’re like ants, bursting at the seams. I bet you by the year twenty-fifty we won’t be able to move for bodies, let alone feed them. I hate to say this,’ she paused, a tiny frown biting into her brow. ‘Actually no, that’s wrong. I’m proud to say this: Matt and I have made a decision, and you know what? I feel brilliant,’ marvelled Angie light-headedly. ‘I feel a bit like a foot-soldier actually, I mean it’s not every day you make such a momentous decision. I think more couples should take this approach and stop clogging up the arteries of society. Babies are cute, sure, but there’s more to life surely. ,So there you have it,’ her nostrils expanded. ‘Like it or not, we’re not having any. So what do you think Doctor Heaton? Doctor Heaton…?’
Doctor Heaton, who had slipped into a comatose repose, left pinkie resting delicately inside one nostril, jockeyed round with such a start his vast belly almost sent the computer keyboard flying.
‘Sorry?’ He looked at her uncertainly and then re-aligned his keyboard.
‘What about them?’
‘Well, like I said, we don’t want any.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘It’s not that we don’t like them!’ she added quickly. ‘It’s just…’ she reached across and set off an ornamental ball clacker. ‘Personally—and I don’t admit this lightly mind, I think I’d make an absolutely lousy mother.’
‘Nonsense,’ Doctor Heaton reached over and arrested the metronomic din.
‘Everyone thinks that, but it’s like riding a bike, it’s a bit wobbly at the start, but you soon get the hang of it.’
‘No, I’m serious doctor, I am such a dimwit. I’d probably leave it on a park bench or in shopping trolley, or something ridiculous like that. Once I left my laptop on the roof of my car,’ she recounted. ‘Thank goodness it was insured. So anyway, what do you think?’ No harm in getting a second opinion.
‘Oh…I see’ suddenly she felt horribly deflated.
‘Anyway, just in case you change your mind—’
‘I won’t,’ cut in Angie, this time though with a little less conviction.
‘Well if you do,’ the doctor paused and looked at her kindly then slid a pamphlet towards her. ‘There’s plenty of time.’
‘Until the eggs start to dwindle.’
‘When is that?’ asked Angie, suddenly alarmed.
‘Oh, it’s usually around thirty-six.’
Thirty-six! Good God. Angie quickly calculated the remainder of her childbearing years.
‘After that there is a slight risk, now if you’ll excuse me,’ Doctor Heaton pressed his palms on the desk to get up.
‘Risk of what?’ asked Angie, so loud the words started ringing in her ear.
‘Downs Syndrome mostly,’ said the doctor. ‘But there can be other factors.’
‘I see.’ Angie stared at Doctor Heaton’s nostrils, and couldn’t help likening them to wasps’ nests. ‘Well like I said,’ she smoothed her hair. ‘It’s of no consequence whatsoever, we’ve made our decision, and anyway,’ she added casually. ‘We’ve adopted.’
‘Yes, two adorable little dumplings from Africa. Only on paper of course; we got them through an agency. It’s ever such a simple process really, you set up a debit order and they take a little every month for their upkeep—and they keep you posted.’
‘I see,’ the doctor pulled at his nose. ‘Very commendable.’
‘Yes, yes, it is, plus, they send photos.’
‘That’s nice, now if you’ll excuse---’
‘Want to see?’
Whitewashed, the doctor plopped back down and watched with strained impatience as Angie delved inside her bag, pulling out a ribbon of foundation-streaked toilet paper, a leaking biro, crushed box of Tampax, Snoopy key ring.
‘Got them!’ she declared with triumph and quickly unravelled a bulging plastic folder. ‘Aren’t they adorable?’ Her eyes grazed over them like hot tinder.
The doctor glanced dutifully down at the sombre little faces. ‘Yes quite.’
‘I think everyone should do their bit, don’t you?’ Angie blinked back a well of wobbly tears. ‘What a better world it would be.’
‘Indeed, now I really must get on, I have a roomful of patients,’ he added, eyes straying longingly towards his plate of assorted bikkies and cup of tea.
Then without warning the chords of a mobile wound their way up from under the desk, melodious at first, but rapidly manifesting into the disenchanting chords of the Macarena.
‘Is that me? Good lord,’ Angie yanked her bag up off the floor. ‘So sorry about the hideous ringtone, Matt downloaded it for a laugh and I don’t have a clue how to get rid of it. Oh,’ she stared down at the name pulsing on the screen. ‘It’s my sister.’ She held the phone aloft. ‘Do you mind?’
‘Won’t be a sec, promise - hi Haze, I can’t really talk now I’m at the plumbers and—oh…’ She glanced over at the doctor worryingly. ‘What’s wrong? Hazel, calm down, I can barely hear what—oh forGodsake.’
‘Is everything alright?’ the doctor looked at her with concern as she scrambled to her feet.
‘Not sure,’ Angie unwound her handbag off the back of the seat and scampered towards the exit. ‘My phone died, I’m always forgetting to charge it, story of my life. It seems my sister has some sort of crisis--again another story of my life.’
Angie spun round and looked expectantly at the doctor.
‘Um,’ a look of painful constipation was rapidly spreading across his already florid complexion. ‘Do you think you um could um give you-know-who my best?’
Angie looked nonplussed.
‘You know…’ the grin widened, displaying a veritable expanse of metallic, pre-war fillings. ‘Ravishing good looks, flashing eyes…incomparable wit.’
Angie frowned. Did she even know anyone like that?
‘Your mother,’ said the doctor deflatedly.
‘Oh I see!’
Angie wanted to convulse, but kept a straight face; she’d forgotten about his little obsession with mum aka Bridie, or Briegeen as was her full Irish name and the one grandma insisted on using till the day she died.
Well she had news for him. Right now mum was probably stretched out on a sun-drenched beach in Benidorm somewhere, siphoned into that hideous green bikini she insisted on buying from Primark.
Oh Angie luv, he winked at me and I just knew…
Angie shuddered. Dad not even cold in his grave and she’d hooked up with the vile Gav through one of those computer dating sites. Still, no point spoiling poor old Doctor Heaton’s day, she decided, shaking off a disturbing Bollywood cinematic of mum frolicking coquettishly into the sea, chased by the vile, Speedo-clad Gav.
‘Absolutely, I’ll tell her next time I see her,’ promised Angie, nodding with mock gusto. ‘Okay. Well, cheery-doodle then,’ and with a salient grin she ducked through the door.
Shell-shocked, Doctor Heaton stared into space then finally turned, rubbed his temples wearily and leaned into his buzzer. ‘Send the next patient in will you Muriel, there’s a dear.’
‘THANK GOD!’ cut in a tinny voice, spiralling with hysteria. ‘Lucy Colepepper’s water’s just broken all over your brand new sofa, and Miriam Adebibi’s screaming the place down for her epidural!’
Brakes squealing, Angie slewed half onto the pavement outside Hazel’s place, cranked up the handbrake with a shivering hand and flopped back with a flood of relief.
Stupid bloody cyclist, honestly, she unpeeled her clawed fingers off the steering wheel and dropped them onto her lap. Thank Christ she’d spotted the black stretch of his spandex in the nick of time. Okay she was going it a bit, but he didn’t have to take up the whole bloody road.
Anyway, no big deal; she’d witnessed his wobbly recovery in the rear-view mirror, so everything was fine.
More worrying was the hail of gravel showered on her car, especially since it had just come out the panel-beaters after that little, no-fault-of-her-own incident last month outside Morrisons. Still, Angie swallowed hard and released the catch on the door, she wouldn’t think about that right now, she decided, stealing her eyes away from any perspective damage. She was on a much graver mission: her sister.
Hands still shaking but calmer now, she scrambled out the car and zipped up the path, and was just about to lift the knocker when she heard the melancholic creak of Hazel’s gate behind.
‘You’ll not find her in luv.’
Angie’s shoulders tightened. That voice. She’d recognise it anywhere: Hazel’s nosy neighbour Beryl (or Burial as she and Hazel privately dubbed her, not just because she had a face shaped like a coffin and talked non-stop about the purchase of one, but was the most morbid person on the planet).
Angie planted a smile on her face and twisted round.
‘Hi Beryl.’ She waited while Burial replaced the little bar over the gate and shuffled, slippers slapping, up the path.
‘I’ve been rapping for ages,’ she announced in a tone that might imply a world-wide ban on Bingo had just been announced.
‘Oh really and?’
‘Well I know she’s in,’ her dentures slipped revealing a glimpse of plastic gum. ‘I saw her putting the rubbish out earlier, which I thought were a bit odd, since she’s usually at work on Wensdi’, and I ain’t seen her since.’
How bloody creepy. She appeared to know Hazel’s full itinerary—still creepy it may be she did have a point acquiesced Angie. Hazel did work on Wednesdays, and surely she wouldn’t have blubbered down the phone like she did if she was at work, especially where she worked, at that prestigious private clinic.
Panic started to creep over Angie. Could Burial be right? After all Hazel’s life had gone a bit pear shaped in the last year, what with the split with Tony, her two-timing dog of a husband, the knock on effect meaning she had to sell her house because he’d gambled most of their savings and mortgage away, and end up here in what could only be described as a war-torn dump.
Angie’s eyes roved over the tired-looking one-bed-plus-box-room local authority bungalow Hazel had been hastily housed in. It was in fact purpose built for the elderly and/or infirm, the wheelchair ramp, white mobility handle at the front door and emergency pull cord by the high-level toilet pan clear evidence of this.
‘Temporary’, the council had stressed gravely (as though Hazel might be tempted to dig her roots in and stay there permanently). But that was at least eight months ago and it seemed, conveniently or inconveniently, they’d forgotten all about her.
Poor thing; a cloud of dismay washed over Angie, but rapidly dissipated. After all what was there to be miserable about? She had Duncan, didn’t she? She hadn’t been seeing all that long, but had gushed an awful lot about him, and he seemed particularly keen on her too. So what could possibly be wrong?
‘Shall I call the police?’ suggested Burial, her saggy face now pressed up hard against the glass pane.
‘Don’t be silly,’ scoffed Angie. Nevertheless, a tiny spike of fear shot through her. Why wasn’t she answering? Following suit, she nuzzled her face against the pebble glass and peered inside. A pair of muddy black wellies stood to formal attention at the bottom of the stairs, and her coat—a green quilted calf-length monstrosity—was slumped over the banister. Angie rolled her eyes sideways until they alighted bouncily onto her sister’s handbag on the half moon table by the door. She could also make out a set of keys. So she was in. Oh hell.
‘I’ll pop round the back,’ she suggested, fear mounting. ‘She’s probably in the shower.’
‘Shall I come with you?’ asked Beryl, already a shin’s length behind Angie.
‘I don’t think that’ll be necessary,’ said Angie pulling up short. ‘Was there something you wanted by the way?’
Beryl’s watery old eyes blinked behind pink NHS glasses. ‘Just a bi’ of advice that’s all.’
‘About mi’ hip replacement, I’m having it done next week.’
‘I know Hazel’s a nurse,’ and a bit of a know all, Angie wanted to add, but stopped herself in time. ‘But I honestly don’t think she’s qualified enough to answer anything too surgical.’
‘Oh I only wanted to ask her if they have tellies there—I can’t miss Corrie, I’d rather forfeit mi’ hip if the truth be known.’
Angie tossed her keys on the counter and surveyed the kitchen. Normally immaculate, it looked as though a bomb had exploded in it. There was debris everywhere. Toast crumbs littered the marble top, and a tub of marg was left open next to a bit of uneaten toast and cold cup of tea with the bag still floating in it. The radio was on, but turned down really low, the soft sibilant voices giving a disconcerting air to the place.
Angie’s heart skipped a beat. Could Burial have been on the right track?
Something really wasn’t right.
‘Haze…?’ she called out again, the thud of her heart amplifying in her ears as she pressed open to the door to the lounge. Scanning the living room, she suddenly spotted a shape huddled between the sofas.
Hazel lifted her head and stared up dully.
HOPE YOU ENJOYED. SHALL BE OUT ON KINDLE SOON!!
‘What’s wrong?! Angie dropped like a stone in front of her.