"Don't worry" I said as we got into my car, "She'll be OK."
We sat there with me looking round, and her quietly sitting and staring out of the windscreen. I had no hope of reversing out of my space for several minutes; the small car park was a chaos of cars and anxious proud parents and nervous college kids and computers and suitcases and kettles and posters and toasters and, very occasionally, a few books.
"I thought her room rather nice, or it will be once she has made it her own. And that little bathroom was a lot better than I ever had at college." I said, watching my wife sitting next to me and still looking anxious.
She turned her head and looked at me and gave me a half smile, but still managed to look anxious "Oh, I know." She sighed, "Penny will be OK once she's settled in. She'll make friends; she was already chatting happily to that slightly Asian looking girl in the kitchen area." She sighed again.
We sat in the silence of our own thoughts for a couple of minutes; then I looked around. The chances of being able to reverse out and get to the exit seemed to be improving.
I glanced across at her; she was looking sad and tense.
"Cheer up. Look at how Tom settled into army life. Two years ago he was a nervous 18 year old, now he is a confidant young man, not that we ever see him these days, he's far too busy enjoying himself to want to come back to see his Mum and Dad." I said cheerfully, and then added as an afterthought "Unless he is looking for something, like a non-repayable loan!"
"Yes, I know. We're empty nesters now. Just you and me and the rest of our lives." She responded.
"I think I'll set the satnav. That road is one-way, and I don't know my way out of town to get back on the ring road and on our route home. I can turn it off once we get to the motorway."
"Back to Carlton Close." She said as a matter of fact. "We've lived there 14 years now. I only know that because Penny was four and Tom six when we moved in"
"It's a nice house. I like it, I always have. And I think it's a great house to bring up kids in, a great family house. I stopped and looked at the tree-house the other day. It wouldn't take much to repair and restore it. Both our two loved it." I put the car into reverse and started inching backwards.
"Penny certainly loved it, and has been loved in it." For the first time I heard a certain lightness in her voice.
"What do you know that I don't?" I asked.
"Only that I don't think I was meant to see, but in June on the shortest night I saw her taking some candles and a blanket and some wine up to the tree house. I think Jonathon got lucky that night, probably for the first time. Penny is a romantic like you, she would have chosen something special for her first time." She laughed as she spoke, probably enjoying my emotional shock.
Every father of a daughter knows that there is going to be a first time with some lucky guy. And if they love and know their daughter then they can probably guess who the lucky guy is. I just wasn't so sure I needed to know the time and place.
I recovered and covered myself with "The shortest night? I guess there is a joke in there somewhere and probably at Jonathon's expense. Do you think those two will still be together this time next year?"
"I wouldn't have thought so. She's here, he's up at Durham, and there are too many boys here and too many girls there. Just too many distractions to worry about someone 300 miles away."
"Yes. You're probably right" I said as I turned right in accordance with my satnav's instructions. "Pity, I rather liked him."
After that we fell into silence for some time, and I was settled to cruising on the motorway when I began to find the silence a bit oppressive. So I broke the silence "I see that Bob and Alice have finally sold No 12. When did that happen?"
She sat up more alert and I suspect grateful for something neutral to talk about. "About a week ago it was finally agreed. I think the new people had made a low offer and there has been weeks of negotiation."
"So Bob and Alice are off to a happy retirement in Devon, well it's taken long enough, it must have been on the market for nearly a year. What did they eventually get for it? Do you know? I guess ours is worth about the same, maybe a bit more, we have a bigger garden."
"Alice wouldn't tell me the actual figure. She did say it was over £400,000, but I guess it was only just over."
"£400,000? Not bad in these troubled times."
Again we fell into a slightly tense silence for a couple of minutes, only this time it was her who broke it.
"Did you see that that Julie Dawson at the end house, No 1, has put her house up for sale; a board went up on Friday. She's only lived there for a couple of years." She said.
"Yes, I saw the board when I drove in on Friday night. It's only three bedrooms, but I guess she'll get what she paid for it."
"Maybe. I wonder why she ever bought it; she isn't a Carlton Close sort of person. And she's hardly done a thing to improve the place. Alice and I were talking about it on Friday after the board went up, we think all she's had done is the outside has been painted exactly the same colour as it was when she bought it..."
"Maybe she liked the colour." I interjected in Julie's defence.
She ignored me and just continued " ... and that mysterious gate on the side fence as it goes down Cheviot Road that she had put in about a year ago now. What is the point in that? It really annoys Alice that none of us can see who comes and goes using that gate. You certainly can't see it from our house; it's around the corner and out of sight. But why would she want a gate direct onto her back patio, she's already got the side entrance on the front, down the side of the garage?"
I did not answer; I felt there was more to come. My lack of response obviously annoyed her
"You must have noticed the new gate. You pass it every night with the dog. And on your way back, even after you've dropped into the King's Head. Yes, I know your secret..."
My heart missed a beat, and I waited for her to continue.
"You tell me that you are walking the dog, but I can smell the alcohol on your breath when you get back. And that's on the few occasions I've stayed up for you to come home. You get back so late."
I smiled to myself, "Well sometimes I get wrapped up in everything, the conversation, the interaction and the coming and going, and yes I admit it, sometimes I have had a glass or two of wine."
"I knew it. You go down to the King's Head. Why lie about it?"
"I don't lie. I do take Bobby for a walk, just not as far as you may have thought. I think I've been lucky that one of your gossiping cronies hasn't spotted me and told you before this. You all seem to decide everything, irrespective of the facts. Like your decisions about poor Julie."
"Well we won't miss her. She never really fitted in. And her lifestyle! We don't need that in the Close."
"What about her lifestyle? What has she done to upset you? Or the rest of the Close's coven?"
"Well, for a start, no one knows what she does or where she gets her money from. She obviously isn't short of money, that BMW is brand new. So that raises questions for a start..."
"She owns Oak Tree People, the job agency in town. You know the one; they have those smart offices next door to the bank. They do permanent and temporary placements for management executives, from middle managers right up to quite senior people. It's quite a successful business."
"How do you know that?"
"Oh, days and weeks of complex research and investigation. Actually, I asked her when John Weaver introduced me to her at the Weaver's summer party over a year ago, probably nearer 15 months ago. I find that actually talking to people tells you a lot more about them than just gossiping about them with your cronies."
"Well, she is still a lesbian, and both Alice and Pam Weaver think she's pregnant. One of those militant lesbians I guess, the sort that insist they are entitled to IVF irrespective of their lifestyle. Typical!"
"How do you come to that conclusion? I'm pretty sure she would have got pregnant in a more traditional way. Why do you think she's a lesbian?"
"Well you never see any man visiting. The only regular visitor you ever see is a dark haired girl, maybe a few years younger than her who arrives sometimes. And they greet each other with big hugs and kisses, quite brazenly for all to see, on the front porch. It's very distasteful. Sometimes her parents visit, I feel so sorry for them, they look a lovely couple and they have to greet their lesbian daughter and her girlfriend. And now she's pregnant! Poor parents ... But I guess they may like being grandparents, but I bet they wish it was some other way."
"Why do you think she's pregnant anyway, has she told you?"
"No, she never speaks to me. But I see her, you don't. In the morning you take the damn dog out for his morning walk and you always turn right at the end of the Close, towards the Common. Not long after you she runs out in her running gear. I'll give her her due, she's got great legs, but she looks like a teenager, with her hair in a pony tail and her little firm perky tits. Don't tell me you haven't noticed, she must pass you as you walk the dog, she always seems to be heading for the Common as well."
"Oh Yes! I've seen her. You didn't mention her butt; she's got a great butt."
"Trust you to notice that! But you say she is a serious business woman, and yet she's jogging around looking like some sexy twenty year old."
"You still haven't explained why you think she's pregnant?"
.... There is more of this story ...