This is Kenneth, 45 years old, 2 stone (14 pounds) overweight; with a pronounced beer belly, not so much from drinking and eating as lack of exercise. Not that he is totally unfit, he enjoys walking when he gets the chance. He lives with his mother, moved out when he was 21 (after attending the University of Winchelsea from home and seeing how much more fun the people in accommodation had) for an all-to-brief ten years of freedom. Freedom that he admits quietly, in the privacy of his own head, in the privacy of his own room, in the dark, admits that he wasted. He would bitterly regret those wasted years if he was that kind of person, but he sees things as they are, ‘what is, is’, and moves on. When he was 31 his father had a heart attack and then a stroke. His mother became overwhelmed with the work of looking after him. The whole family rallied round of course; but, having families themselves, the other three (two brothers and a sister) visited less, stayed for shorter periods, arranged holidays far away so they were out of phone range, and quietly distanced themselves after a while. Kenneth found himself one day with a new job near ‘home’, in his old room again and, as his mother said ‘no need to try and keep up his other house when he spends so much time here’. So the house was sold. He would have rented it out, but he was pressured to sell. Even as he did it he knew (and he suspected his mother – a very intelligent, if manipulative, woman – knew too) he was cutting off a possible retreat. The money at least he was sensible with. Well, not sensible, more adventurously careful; he invested in stocks and shares and this proved one of his enduring hobbies. No-one asked, they all assumed that Sensible-Ken as his family nicknamed him (and it stuck) put the few thousand profit in the bank at 3% and left it for ever. In fact his adventurously careful approach managed to match the housing market most of the time, and avoided the property crash – when sister Adele and brother-in-law Mike found themselves in 30% negative equity and stopped boasting about how their property was worth so much.
Kenneth, named after Grandad Ken (who died the year he was born, so Kenneth never benefited from the nomenclature; no doting grandad to give him an extra 50p when he visited), hates his name with a vengeance. A middle-aged name for a child. Kenneth McKellar, Kenneth MacAlpine – okay, Kenneth Branagh pretty cool – immediately shortened to Kenny for boys and then Ken for men. Kens meet people down the pub and play golf and are boring. Trouble was (he knew), he was not the scintillating company, the brilliant raconteur, he would like to be. Damn! He was probably a Kenneth. Did the name make the man? Was his future mapped out for him when the vicar poured water over him and named him Kenneth Winston Mandey (father had been a great fan of Winston Churchill, hence the middle name)?
Life, then, consists of daily visits to the office of “Burgeon & Bland” (an appropriate name for a fairly successful, nondescript company, no-one planned their career around joining this office, it was for the flotsam that washes out of the ratrace), gardening at weekends (one bright spot, his mother had never liked gardening, though she liked sitting in the garden; he had taken the garden and moulded it to his dreams, perhaps there was something in him after all), and two weeks in some remote part of the United Kingdom with his mother – they tried Calais once, she didn’t like it, Ireland was okay though, so Galway or Cork featured occasionally. On these holidays he was allowed, like a dog let off the leash, to go for long walks for a day or two before the martyred sighs ‘oh, you, know, I was alright on my own, I just sat in the hotel and looked at the view’ pulled him back into line.
The garden was quite large, he’d taken his father’s passion for huge lawns, mown into perfect stripes, and slowly modified it, a shrub here, a patch of crocuses in the grass there. It had taken years, but the result had become a delight – they’d even been part of the local open gardens day for church funds last year, though the grotto at the end of the garden with a naked Venus in the fountain (which resulted people noticed, and pointedly did not comment on, in a flow of water from her groin not unlike the effect of the pissing boy in Brussels) had caused a minor shock to Mrs Depret (and a minor delighted shock to Mr Depret – 80 years old and still able to smile at a girl in a short skirt, if his wife wasn’t around). Here Kenneth could disappear, no, escape, from the controlling demands of his domineering mother.
His father had died after 5 years of invalidity. Unable to talk or feed himself (or wash or clean himself), in fairness, Mrs Mandey had taken on this task willingly and done her best. She genuinely believed in her marriage vows – in sickness and in health, till death do us part – and she nursed him at home until his final death – not with a bang but a whimper, that was how it had been; one morning he had just let out the first sound for 2 years, a whimper, and died. He had watched apparently unmoved as his wonderful lawns were slowly rearranged by his son. In truth, in his head he was screaming at Kenneth to stop; he had been so proud of those stripes. And he was screaming at his wife by the end to let him die. But, unable to speak or express himself, they did their best for him and for two weeks each year a respite carer came in and he would be left out late (his wife wouldn’t in case he ‘caught a cold’) and could smell the hay from the fields, and he would be lifted onto a toilet and left for an hour to have a long leisurely shit (his wife of course could not lift him, so just cleaned him up regularly). The lack of so much smothering care for two weeks was delightful and he looked forward to the holiday too. Then he died, and Kenneth’s mother verbally made it clear that he should leave if he wanted to and by body language made it clear that she would die, waste away, if she was deserted, if nobody (Kenneth) loved her enough to stay. He stayed of course.
Kenneth’s life since then has not been particularly exciting, he has made modest progress at work, he has transformed the garden, he has arranged for (and paid for) redecoration of the house, and he has maintained his secret investment portfolio with some success. Sometimes they have gone to the theatre, on one occasion leaving early after an actor said the ‘f-word’ (his mother didn’t like that); mostly they went to safe musicals or light opera; never Gilbert and Sullivan because Mrs Mandey thought they might be a bit ‘racy’. Once a month Kenneth would steel himself and treat himself to a film that he wanted to see – ones that Mrs Mandey would not approve of, but nevertheless objected to being excluded from. This always resulted in a silence for a day, but if you want to see a remastered copy of Fahrenheit 451 or Fantastic Planet then you had to take the pain. You will see from this that Kenneth’s preferences are for older, interesting science fiction. Not in a geeky dressing up as Star Wars characters kind of way, he found the predictions and the morality in-built in these stories fascinating. He also quite liked the old style of special effects. He had the extended version of Metropolis in pride of place in his shelves.
This then is Kenneth, and it doesn’t look like anything will change in the near future. His mother is fit and healthy; she, at least, has a good circle of friends (Church, Womens’ Institute, Mothers’ Union); but sees no irony in her sulking if her son wants an occasional night out. He is too nice to want to create the storm that would result in him admitting to himself he wants more and then acting on it.
Today is Monday 12th June. Kenneth arrives at work as usual at 9am with his Americano and almond croissant (this may also explain the 2 extra stones of weight).
“Morning Kenny, did you hear about Swinton?” says a woman of about 40, she too has worked for ever for this company, she is one of the few people allowed to call him Kenny rather than Ken, longevity has such small perks.
“I’ve just arrived, what do you mean?”
“Swinton had a massive coronary” (she liked using ‘big’ words) “on Saturday at the football match”
‘I’ve never been to a football match’ Ken thought for the umpteenth time; every time Swinton described, blow by blow, the play of his beloved Raith Rovers in fact. “Is he alright?”
“No, that’s what I’m saying. Massive it was, down and out. Dead. Quite a shock.”
So it was that the office talked for some time. People like a good crisis to talk round and round the subject, shedding little light and no knowledge.
“Did he have family?”
“Oh, was he married? I didn’t know”
“I don’t know, that was what I was asking”
Kenneth ruminated that there was an irony in the company by-line “ ... because we care...” when they knew next to nothing about someone they worked with every day.
And so on, until Mr MacIntyre came in
“Errm, Ahem! Can I have your attention! You will no doubt have heard of Mr Smith’s sad demise” Mr MacIntyre always called people Mr, Mrs, or Miss, he wasn’t old, just very formal; but it seemed to work well enough when he sold the services to companies. “He will be sadly missed. The funeral is arranged for next Thursday I understand – the 22nd. It will be in Morpeth, where Mr Smith came from. Unfortunately I can’t go because of a prior engagement I am unable to change” Golf in Antibes, skiing in New Zealand, wondered Kenneth; this was partially the secret of his – Donal MacIntyre’s – success, his customer experience days with prospects. “So I was wondering if anybody else would be prepared to go”
In the slight pause that followed it became obvious that a day in Morpeth was not a sufficient attraction to avoid work; Kenneth surprised himself. He started to raise his hand, realised that looked like a schoolboy and kept it half raised, like he was just attracting the bosses attention. “I’ll go if you like; I’ve got time to move some appointments round” Did that sound like a criticism? Wasn’t meant to, it was meant to sound like he was busy enough not to be able to drop everything at a moment’s notice. Mr MacIntyre relaxed, clearly he had not taken offence.
“Thank you, umm, Mr Mabey” ‘Hrrmph, he doesn’t even know my proper name’ “I’ll forward the details when I get them” Luckily everybody knew that meant his secretary would, he would never get round to something that didn’t involve business (or his pleasure). “Yes, sorely missed” And he walked out.
Kerry walked over “Why did you volunteer? Did you know him?”
“No, it just seemed that someone should go. There’s something rather sad about someone dying and nobody noticing any difference. His family should at least think he was liked ... Well, he was liked, or not disliked anyway, I mean we, well...”
“Yes” said Adrian Moke, joining in “It’s probably good that someone goes. And you get to see Morpeth!”
“Is it worth seeing?”
Adrian again : “My grandparents used to go there for their holidays. Of course that was in the days when Blackpool was the height of sophistication”
Kerry : “Was Blackpool ever that?”
Adrian : “around the 1950s I think, maybe earlier. Coffee?”
They all laughed and went to the kitchen, which was already crowded with people taking the opportunity of this upset to the usual rhythm of the office to make an extra coffee and have a good natter about everything.
Kenneth found himself wondering why he had volunteered. Was it for Swinton’s family or was it for the chance of a night away? Who knows? Maybe both. ‘Still, not like me’ to be spontaneous he thought. The last spontaneous thing had been to jump in the sea at Kingussie, and look how that turned out! (Cramp, blue toes and a lecture from his mother – he was 41 for God’s sake!). No, this wasn’t the same, he was taking an opportunity to be noticed (even if MacIntyre had got his name wrong, he might not mention that at home).
That evening the conversation went :
“Hi Mum, fancy steak pie for dinner? There’s one in the freezer”
“Oh, that would be nice. How was your day dear?”
“Interesting. One of my colleagues died suddenly over the weekend and I’ve been asked to represent the company at the funeral” Okay, so the truth gets bent a little, where’s the harm?
“With Mr MacIntyre? Oh, that’s good”
“No, he can’t make it. He has a very important appointment that can’t be broken, so he asked me as a senior member of staff to go instead” (Careful Kenneth, don’t over do it)
“Oh I see, well, that’s still good I suppose. Is it at the crematorium?”
“No, the funeral is to be where Swinton came from, Morpeth. The family are mostly still there. They might have a family plot or something” Embellishment for no purpose, but he wasn’t saying anything definitive. “I have to travel up next Wednesday, I think there has to be a post-mortem first, for the funeral on Thursday”
“I’ve never been to Morpeth” said his mother, fishing for an invite.
“Oh really? I understand it isn’t that scenic, I’ll let you know when I get back” Kenneth replied, determined not to slip into any misunderstanding (deliberate or not) about them both going. ‘I should have let her think MacIntyre was going’ he thought ‘then she wouldn’t have thought about going with me.’
“That will be a long journey, pity no one else is going for the company” she doesn’t give up too easily
“I suppose, but no, actually I have loads of work that the quiet will be good for me to get on with. Did I tell you about my idea about reorganisation?” Reorganisation, which to Mrs Mandey always meant redundancies, was always a source of interest to her. It signalled drama, crisis, distraction. Which was exactly Kenneth’s intention. The subject of travelling companions was forgotten and Kenneth was careful that it didn’t crop up again until all the arrangements had been made. It meant Kenneth had to come up with some rubbish about merging departments and the like, but it got him free of being blackmailed into a corner.
“It’s sad really, I’m actually looking forward to going to the funeral” Kenneth was talking to the curate after the church service. Coffee had now become the tradition after morning service. They went nearly every Sunday at his mother’s behest, Kenneth felt, on the whole, taking it all in the round, weighing it all up, considering all the evidence, that he wasn’t really sure he believed in an all-powerful being that was content to let humans destroy what He (She or It) had taken so much trouble over creating. Even accounting for the deaths of humans (and maybe we get what we deserve, he thought), the unwarranted torture of innocent animals in experiments and hunting and the rest just seemed to suggest either a more old-testament cruel God or no God at all. But the curate and he got on well enough, they understood each other.
“It’s a day away from the routine, we all welcome that sometimes. Don’t tell anyone, but I quite enjoy taking the occasional funeral too. Though the hypocritical tears and sadness get me sometimes. I’ve probably said too much there” The curate remembered that there had been a funeral that week; Mrs Antrovers, a stalwart of the church, 93 years old and people still said ‘how sad’ and ‘why is it the good people who die?’ He had a flash of the sight of her great granddaughter inelegantly getting out of the hearse again, flashing most of her underwear, top and bottom; he was finding that memory of a 16 year old nymphet hard to dislodge. The curate was a normal man, not a pervert or anything, like any heterosexual man he noticed a thigh being partially covered by yellow knicker, or a small breast bubbling out the top of a wired support bra (also yellow! Yellow, at a funeral! Ah well, he thought, I suppose she hadn’t reckoned on them being visible. But then she clearly hadn’t reckoned on keeping them that well hidden either. Back to the conversation Colin... ). “Perhaps ‘enjoy it’ isn’t the right thing to say, but make the most of the break anyway” he cast a glance across at Mrs Mandey “You deserve it”. One day he would be a really good vicar, a people’s vicar, someone who could read people and understood their pain and trouble. Mrs Mandey was Kenneth’s pain and trouble.
“I understand” agree Kenneth. “It was the same at the office, people who didn’t even know him happily – happily? Well you know what I mean – talking about how sad it was. On other matters, I heard a rumour Father Chalmers is moving on?”
“Really? I hadn’t heard that; ah, but then you have a more direct line to the Catholic gossip” He looked at Mrs Mandey again. Father Chalmers was the Catholic priest, and their next door neighbour, Mrs McIlvaney, was a stalwart of St Francis’s flower committee.
The following days were unremarkable, although the absence of Mr. MacIntyre did at least mean things ran a little smoother; he had a way of somehow adding grit to the well-oiled machinery of the office. His attempts to provide enthusiastic encouragement seemed to invariably result in a lessening of team order. The team was happy not knowing each other and occasional sudden influxes of free pizza for lunch simply made people regret having wasted time in the morning making sandwiches that day.
Wednesday came and Kenneth decided not to go in, he phoned to say he had to get an early train, which wasn’t entirely true; but he did catch one from Kings Cross at 12:00 having discovered that a midday train enabled him to go first class for less than the second class full fare. He enjoyed the slight benefits this offered: free bad coffee, a sandwich and a free glass of warmish white wine. The journey to Newcastle was uneventful and relatively unattractive, the line only became one of the scenic wonders of the UK after Newcastle; but he had to change for the local train at that city and the Metro train was not one to write home about; nothing wrong with it, just not exciting either. Arriving at the station he caught a taxi to his hotel, having politely rejected the offer from the taxi driver to be taken to some of Morpeth’s hot spots for the evening. He was pretty sure in any case that Morpeth’s hot spots were probably as exciting as over-80s bingo. Getting the obligatory phone call home out of the way (“yes, arrived; yes, train was fine; yes, weather is dry; yes, very tired; night”), he went for a walk, had fish and chips cooked in fat instead of ‘fish burger and fries’ from the burger bar at home. They really did taste better in newspaper with a North East wind off the sea; then a couple of pints in a pub that may once have been a Victorian marvel and was now peeling wallpaper and brown ceilings; but the beer was good and the people were friendly. And so to bed.
Breakfast was what the landlady (for he had deliberately opted for a guest house on the front rather than one of the boring concrete boxes masquerading as hotels – Vacation Express or FirstInns or whatever), supplied what she called an “Ulster Fry, so it is”. She was broad Ulster, ended ever sentence with ‘so it is’ or ‘so you do’ or ‘so... ‘ something. An Ulster Fry is a coronary surgeon’s nightmare – sausage, bacon, fried egg, black pudding, white pudding, fried bread, grilled tomato (don’t overdo the vegetables now). It set you up for the day and that was good, the funeral was at 11am, but had been arranged with elaborate care by a doting mother who insisted on a cortege, a long funeral ceremony and then a trip to the crematorium (not the nearest, the one he ‘really liked’ – do people really like crematoriums?), all in all it took several hours before they returned to the house for a cup of tea and sandwich. Swinton Smith’s mother had insisted they be hand-made too. She had had all the female members of the family hard at it to do her son proud. She had supervised very effectively, whilst not actually ever picking up a knife to butter even one piece of bread.
Even before he arrived back there Kenneth wished he had not agreed to come back to the house, he knew no-one. So he stood in a corner and ate his sandwich and drank his tea and took another sausage roll (which were really rather good) and wished he had hired a car for the afternoon. Maybe tomorrow, he thought; could he stretch out the visit to the weekend? What excuse would he give work? What excuse would he give mother?
“ ... sorry, I’m disturbing you”
“What? Oh, no, I was a million miles away” Kenneth replied
“Or wished you were? I wouldn’t blame you. I do, and I’m Swinton’s sister.”
“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss, yes, I saw you at the front of the church. It was a lovely service”
“Did you think so? The minister didn’t even get his name right, he was Derek Swinton Smith, not Swinton Derek”
“I didn’t know that. I worked with him and always thought he was called Swinton”
“He hated his first name; named after Uncle Derek who died in the war. But he always thought Derek an uninspiring name, so he opted to use his middle name instead. I suppose he was right, he did well for himself managing the company didn’t he?...”
“Umm, well, ahh, yes” Kenneth floundered a little at how to prevaricate without actually lying.
“ ... but he wasn’t really the manager was he? I can see it in your eyes. Would you mind not mentioning that to mother? She still thinks he ‘made good’ in the South. He always was a bit of a dreamer.”
“I suppose we all like to pretend we are a little better than we are” Kenneth responded, trying to make light of the discovery that Swinton Smith had been pretending to be a managerial biggish-shot. ‘Swinton had as much management potential as my big toe’, he thought, ‘or me I suppose’ he added gloomily in his head. For the first time he observed this sister, she was plump, but not hugely overweight, just comfortably rounded (that’s what he called himself too). Her face was less rotund, still carried the shape of the bone structure beneath rather than many of the ladies in the room for whom the skeleton had become a clothes horse from which to hang excessive fat. She had grey-green eyes and a broad nose, her high cheek bones gave her just a hint of an oriental look, which was lessened by the light brown hair. Not cut into a short bob like many woman of that age – 40-ish he estimated – her hair carried a gentle wave and extended over her shoulders. That very morning her mother had once again suggested that a woman of her age should have it styled and cut or wear it ‘up’. That was partly the reason it was still long and loose; a small revolt against the oncoming future of age and bingo. She reached out to take his cup and he noticed the lack of bingo wings that even several of the younger North-Eastern mourners had. She went to get him more tea, and stayed to talk more when she came back. Kenneth found that he was pleased she had opted to stay with him. Probably just sorry for me, he thought, but still he was pleased, she was easy to talk to.
“So,” she asked, “what do you do?”
“Hard to explain the detail, mostly moving paper, well, electronic paper, around from one metaphorical pile to another”
“You make it sound boring”
“It is really”
“So why stay?”
“I’d like to say that I stay for mother, she likes a stable life. But really I suppose I’m unadventurous. I don’t have many ambitions on the work front; I’m happy with my garden, I couldn’t move away from that so that limits my options too”
“You like gardening? You should visit Alnwick, I’ve heard they are fantastic gardens there”
“You haven’t been?”
“Mother doesn’t like gardening, she likes towns, and churches. I prefer the outdoors but I don’t get away much”
‘Mother’ called her over at that moment. She had been invited for tea the following day by Mrs Baxter. She was about to suggest what time they should both go when Andrea spoke up.
“Oh, that’s fine. I was just talking to Kenneth, who worked with Derek and has had some lovely things to say about him. I suggested he go to Alnwick, to the gardens, but he doesn’t know the way. I can show him now”
Her mother was dumb-founded, nonplussed and on the back foot. She had already been thinking of the two of them having tea and cakes with May Baxter; it would never occur to her that younger (not young) people might have more active relaxation than tea and cake. She glowered at Kenneth across the room, who found himself withering under the gaze; what had he done?
“I’m sorry” Andrea said to Kenneth when she returned with two sausage rolls, one each, “I’ve just used you as an excuse not to go for tea tomorrow. I said I was going to show you the road to Alnwick. I apologise for the lie I’ve dragged you into” ‘the second one’ he thought, but he said “well, let’s make it not a lie. Let’s go to Alnwick tomorrow. If you would like to that is; or maybe you have other plans? By the way, these are excellent sausage rolls”
Andrea was taken aback, she hadn’t had a date for many years, she was the unmarried daughter who stayed behind and looked after the ageing parents. She was the dull one who (in the still, small hours of the night) wondered where her life, her potential, her dreams had gone. Yet she hesitated, ‘no’ she thought, ‘don’t be silly, this is just a trip out. Nothing more’ “That would be lovely, shall I make a picnic? Thank you, I made the sausage rolls, one thing I seem to have inherited from my mother - pastry”
Now both mothers were similar in their parsimonious ways, Andrea always had to make a picnic wherever they went, she didn’t think anything of it now. Kenneth always had to make a picnic wherever they went too, and hated it. He hated the fact the sandwiches had to be boring (flan was okay, quiche was fancy foreign food – he had been known to buy an M&S quiche and take it out of the box and rename it ‘flan’ for a quiet life), that the cake has to be Swiss Roll and the tea had to be stewed from a flask. That was another reason for the morning routine of Americano and Almond Croissant from Caffe Nero. “No, let’s get something out and make a good day of it. Oh, though I’m sure your picnics are lovely. I didn’t mean umm well you know” He was not gifted with a smooth tongue was our Ken.
The only obstacles were that he was due back at work and home. He chose the easy one first. “Hello? It’s Kenneth, look, I’ve nothing urgent on tomorrow, so I think I’ll make a long weekend of it and stay up in Northumberland tomorrow. I’ll book the holiday retrospectively” The company was one of the few left that allowed people to carry over holiday, Kenneth had plenty of holiday, he never took his full allowance – something to do with not wanting to spend more time away with Mother he realised several years ago, but never would admit it. Pressure of work was the excuse he gave.
“Hello Mother? Yes, oh, yes, the funeral went very well, lovely service. He seemed a well-liked person in these parts, yes, always sad when a church is half empty for a funeral isn’t it? Anyway, the reason I’m ringing, What? Yes, the minister was good. As I was saying the reason ... pardon? Oh, Umm ‘Abide With Me’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. He was a Liverpool supporter [now Kenneth was just making it up and laughing quietly]. Yes but what I rang for ... The flowers? Oh lovely, huge floral bouquet from work of course, hope they give me something like that when it’s my turn, and there were some telegrams from family who couldn’t get there, Uncle Ted was shooting lions in Australia I think. Anyway! As I was saying something has come up. I’ve just spoken to the office [which was true] and we have a customer up here [also true], I’ve been asked to check how they are doing tomorrow since I’m up here [okay, not true at all]. What? Oh yes, I’m sure that means I can claim the travel as expenses. I think I could do that anyway since I’m here on behalf of the firm.” Actually it hadn’t occurred to him at all, he had to give it to his mother, she had all her marbles and then some, he had to be careful. “Yes, I’ll ring tomorrow to let you know. Everything all right at home? Good, good” she was just building up to explaining how she’d hardly eaten a thing and was lonely but fine – this was a complete lie of course, and he would know that, but it would put the guilt trip on him, he was prepared for that “well, I have to go, I have to check up on a couple of details on where I’m going tomorrow [which was true]. Love you [probably true, even now], bye”
And it was done, at least for one more day. By now, of course Kenneth, was planning to stay for the weekend, he’d have to think up a new excuse. Or maybe not, maybe he’d just tell her and face the music on Sunday night.
So the next day, after yet another heart-attack inducing breakfast, and yet another mental promise that he would cut back on the fried food (starting tomorrow, or Monday, or at least very soon); and having dressed in what he hoped was both smart, casual, easy-going, debonair, yet impressive clothes – in short a pair of jeans and a check shirt, he drove round to collect Andrea. She had spent even longer wondering what to wear. They were both clear this was not a date, yet both felt a lightness at heart at escaping their respective dragon’s dens and were determined that everything should be right. Andrea especially was excited at the prospect of a lunch in a café. That alone shows how circumscribed and reduced her ambitions had become. The day was a typical Northumberland day, not actually raining, but threatening to if you took off your coat, and light breeze (which to anybody from south of Birmingham would be described as a gale). Kenneth dressed warmly, Andrea, as befitted her status as a near-Geordy, dressed in a light top and commented on how hot it was. ‘Tough cookies these people’ thought Kenneth and apologised for being a wimp.
“That’s okay, if the temperature goes above 15 degrees I start to melt” laughed Andrea as they drove through the back streets towards the A1. Both felt suddenly free. So free in fact that they opted to take the coast road instead and seeing Alnmouth at the river mouth they both thought how nice it would be to visit. So they did, calling into the hotel for coffee.
Kenneth’s mobile buzzed “Hello mother. Oh, no, not sure yet. Look you have your tea when you feel hungry, I can get something on the train, it will be quite late I’m sure.” He smiled at Andrea “The name of the customer?” He looked at the plate before him “Éclair Enterprises. Yes, look got to go, just about to have a meeting with someone quite big in the business”. They had already joked about about their respective somewhat cuddly sizes, this comment caused them both to collapse in teenage laughter. The barman looked bemused at two middle-aged people enjoying themselves so much, and wished he knew their secret. Their secret of course was many years of pent-up boredom.
“I couldn’t think what to say, Éclair Enterprises sound okay? I love chocolate eclairs, always have.” he patted his stomach. “They like me too”
Then they drove round to the gardens, which were, as Andrea had suggested, fantastic. By now he was getting into the way of things and insisted over Andrea’s objections that he pay for the entrance and the lunch. It never dawned on him (though it did to her) that this subtly turned it into something more similar to a date.
“These gardens are amazing, I never realised walking round a garden could be such fun. I’ve always assumed it would be like a glorified garden centre” she said
“I suppose it is, there’s bound to be a shop, yes, there it is, that sells all this stuff so you can pretend you live on an estate and ... oh, that’s a beautiful Berberis”
“What? You mean that bush? It is pretty”
“Sorry, I like gardening, it gets me quite excited to see what people have done with their gardens. You’ll have to see my garden sometime. Well, technically it’s mum’s I suppose, but I took it on when Dad got sick and it’s not big headed to say it’s my creation” Unconsciously he had actually asked her to visit. She recognised that, but didn’t respond, perhaps it was just a figure of speech. “We can get lunch soon if you like”
“Really no hurry, I’m enjoying myself”
They walked and talked and walked some more, finally ending up with lunch – a healthy salad was spoiled by the indulgent cake that followed. Meanwhile they jokingly competed over who had the worst mother.
“Mine expects me to go to all her boring church meetings” He explained
“It’s bingo with me, I hate bingo” She countered “If I hear Two Fat Ladies one more time I think I’ll scream, I never do of course, just grin and bear it. I actually won three weeks ago. God help me I was excited. Oh, where’s my life gone?”
“I quite like bingo, but then my mum always falls asleep at bingo, so I get to talk with Mrs Fathers – she’s a rip-roaring socialist, always good fun”
“You political then?”
“Oh not really. Mum’s Conservative Blue right through like a stick of rock.” He lowered his voice, like she could hear even up here “Sometimes I vote Liberal!”
“I know! But Mrs Fathers, she’s great. She can argue black is white, or red I suppose. She has all the facts and figures. Completely deluded, but really well-read, and, well it’s good to have a challenging conversation rather than hearing about Mrs McIlvaney’s ingrowing toenail for 15 minutes”
“Who? Oh, no never mind. I understand completely. My mother goes to bed at 10, she always says ‘don’t stay up late’ but that’s when I start watching recorded stuff like ‘The Bridge’ or ‘Borgen’ or, oh, there was a brilliant film on a little while ago. Silent it was, oh, what was it called? Metroland? No”
“YES! How did you know, did you watch it? Radio Times said it was one of those films to watch before you die. So I did, it was stunning! I tried telling Mother the next day. She just said ‘why would you watch something in black and white with no sound?’”
“It’s one of the best films ever, I have it on DVD. I’ve watched it at least 5 times, I love the imagination, the guy with the huge dial pointlessly moving the pointer”
“I feel like him sometimes” He said, the mood changed, down a bit.
“I’m sure your job isn’t that pointless.”
“I’m not, I sometimes think I only stay there to get out of the house.” Kenneth said
“What would you do instead?”
“Gardener. I love it. What about you?”
“I don’t know anything about gardening” she said, not understanding
“No, what would your dream job be?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I could run a café maybe, nothing fancy. Yes, I think I’d like that”
And so on, it doesn’t matter who said what, they probably came up with a draw in the competition, and the cake was too good (even if, as Andrea said “How Much! That’s very expensive”) to spoil with negative comments; they carried on talking about dreams and hopes, and how the siblings had got away. Not resenting it so much as wishing they had too.
Driving along the coast a bit more, there it was – Lindisfarne
“Wow, Holy Island, you know how often I’ve been there?” said Andrea
“Once, on a school trip. Mum said she’d never go there in case we were cut off”
They drove to the causeway and read the tides table. It would be wrong to suggest that they both actually planned to get cut off. It was more a piece of wishful thinking which they did nothing really to prevent. Driving over, Kenneth realised that this would be a great excuse, but of course they would get back before the tide covered the causeway at 6pm. Andrea thought ‘Mother would believe it since she’s always been afraid of it happening, but of course we’ll be back long before 6pm. Surely Ken has to get the train tonight’. After an early tea by the old church they drove quickly back to the causeway, to see the tide covering the middle of the road.
“We can probably drive through that” Andrea observed “It can’t be that deep”
But the tide comes in fast, and they watched as a foolhardy soul made a dash for the island and then abandoned their car and waded back. They were lucky not to be stuck in the refuge tower. The car wasn’t so fortunate. So that was it. They were quite genuinely stuck.
Kenneth’s office skills came to the fore, make a plan, itemise, prioritise.
1) Find accommodation. Pub was full, hotel was full, but helpfully rang some B&Bs, the third one had rooms.
2) Ring car hire and extend rental until Sunday – he was determined now that the weekend would last until then.
3) Ring ‘the oldies’. Andrea’s mother was so pleased to have all her fears confirmed that she forgot to ask where they were staying, how many rooms. That interrogation, Andrea knew, would come later. Mrs Mandey smelled a rat. Kenneth, she was now convinced, had planned this all along, she was being excluded from a holiday, she was resentful, spiteful and bad tempered. However even she could not deny she had heard of the causeway and the tidal island. It turned out she and Mr Mandey (senior) had been there in the halcyon days when they travelled Britain on coach holidays together. Kenneth may have forgotten to mention his companion.
4) Ring his guest house in Morpeth and explain that he wouldn’t be back tonight – in fact he had already extended until tomorrow (that morning), he just hadn’t yet broken that news to his mother, now events or a fairy godmother had meant he didn’t have to lie to her (yet).