Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 20
In the corner of one eye he could see one of the girls laid out on the grass at his feet. She was wearing a loose top revealing more flesh than he cared to see although he couldn’t help looking. He’d never liked joining in conversations but he wasn’t averse to overhearing other people’s chitchat and he pricked up his ears when the girl at his feet was joined by a pimply youth who lowered himself beside her and said, ‘Hi Karen.’
The girl half-opened her screwed-up eyes but made no attempt to sit up. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she said. ‘Hi.’
‘All right then?’
‘All right till you turned up.’
‘Work’s work innit!’
‘Just wondered. Do you still see Jason?’
‘What’s it to you?’
At this point the youth broke off a stalk of rye grass and chewed the end before spitting it out. ‘Hey, watch what your doing!’ Karen flicked away the chewed end that had landed in the corner of her eye.
‘I should think so!’ She turned over and noticed the youth staring down her blouse. John was shocked but Karen took it in her stride. ‘Had a good look then?’
‘Yeah, not bad.’
‘Dirty sod.’ The lad started tickling her chin with the grass and slowly moved it down towards her cleavage. ‘Hey! Get off!’
‘Okay, keep your hair on.’
‘Dirty sod!’ she repeated without seeming too upset. It was only when she glanced up and saw John looking that she showed any real sign of anger. She hurriedly pulled her skirt down over her knees and shouted, ‘What are you looking at, pervert?’
John shrank behind his newspaper in horror and pretended he hadn’t realised she was speaking to him. If only she knew how he felt about girls like her flaunting themselves. He had a sudden flashback to Henrietta standing outside the bathroom in her flimsy nightie. Nothing changed. Everything he’d heard and seen confirmed his view of how banal young people’s conversations were and how blatantly they flaunted their bodies with the sole aim of seducing the opposite sex. Thankfully the girl said no more and marched off with the lad following. John kept his eyes on the newspaper but the glare of the sun made it impossible to read so he laid it aside and sat for a while looking round.
At first he was hardly aware of the young woman carrying a basket and walking slowly along on the far side of the churchyard. He might have looked more closely had he not been distracted by a Jack Russell terrier that appeared from nowhere and began jumping up at him, barking and demanding attention. It was only after he’d managed to shoo it away that he noticed the woman with the basket was getting closer. She was crossing the grass and gliding towards him almost as if she were floating. She wore a pink blouse and long, black skirt which trailed along the ground covering her feet. Alarmed by the way she was heading straight for him he thought for a moment it might be Karen’s mother coming to remonstrate with him for daring to look at her daughter. Determined not to attract her he ducked behind his paper and hoped she would walk straight past. Instead she stopped right in front of him, sighed, unfastened her top button and placed the basket on the ground. What happened next astounded him. She actually spoke.
‘Good Lord, it’s sweltering!’ she said and without a by your leave she moved his flask and sat down beside him. ‘I’ll faint if I go another step carrying this lot.’
John assumed she was talking about the shopping basket not that it looked particularly heavy. He coughed nervously and pretended to read his paper. ‘Not the best time of year to be lugging this around, is it?’ she said patting her belly. ‘Not in this heat.’
‘No,’ said John still clutching his paper in a state of disbelief praying she’d go away. But the woman seemed quite relaxed and began talking as though he were one of her closest confidants.
‘You don’t have any kids yourself do you love?’
‘No, I don’t,’ he said recoiling at her use of the word love.
‘I thought not, more sense you. They’re not worth all this I can tell you.’
‘I’m sure they’re not.’ John wasn’t sure what to think. He disapproved of women as young as her being pregnant but something about her intrigued him.
‘It’s too late for second thoughts now though. No use crying over spilt milk is it?’
‘No, it isn’t.’ Acting out of character he was beginning to feel honoured to think that she wanted to talk with him. With no idea where it would lead he was content to sit and listen, at least for the time being.
‘What do think of this? Pretty isn’t it?’ She was holding out a heart-shaped locket on a gold chain dangling from her neck.
He inspected it briefly. ‘Very pretty, yes, very pretty.’ He could answer questions but lacked the ability to develop conversations never knowing what to say next.
‘Said it was token of his love,’ she sighed before adding cynically, ‘What a laugh!’
John’s new-found confidence was growing by the minute. He folded the newspaper, put it on his lap and looked at her carefully for the first time. His initial irritation at having his personal space invaded had mellowed into cautious acceptance. The woman looked no older than seventeen and apart from the bulging belly was slightly built. Her innocent face was keen and alert, her complexion soft and peachy and her dark brown eyes were alive and intelligent. There was something disarmingly open and vulnerable about her. Her clothes were dated compared with the casual styles of the day. Her long, black skirt was decidedly old fashioned and totally unsuitable for a summer’s day. Wet with perspiration her blouse clung to the contours of her body and accentuated the curves of her breasts which looked large enough to feed an army. He glanced at her hands and noticed there was no ring on the wedding finger.
‘I’m Sarah,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
He hesitated for a moment unused to receiving personal questions from anyone let alone strangers. He was about to say Mr. Smith but as she’d given him her Christian name he said, shyly, ‘John’.
‘John, what a sweet name. You don’t mind me calling you John, do you?’
‘No, please do.’
‘What kind of work do you do?’
‘I’m a retired architect.’
‘An architect!’ She seemed impressed. ‘Did you enjoy the work?’
‘I did but what about you? You’ve told me nothing about yourself.’ He surprised himself not only for asking the question but for wanting to hear the answer. He rarely if ever asked people to talk about themselves. It was easier to prejudge them and make assumptions. Most of the people he met were tediously predictable. He could guess what they were like from a quick glance especially women in her condition, pregnant without a ring and young enough to be his granddaughter. But Sarah seemed different from other girls and he was curious to know how she came to be in her present predicament.
‘Me?’ she said. ‘There’s little to say but I will when you’ve told me about yourself. There’s more to you than meets the eye I can tell.’
He suspected she was teasing him but was flattered to think she might be genuinely interested. His only problem was that he couldn’t think of anything interesting about himself to tell her. ‘Well, as I said, I was an architect.’
‘And what did you do? I don’t much about architecture.’
‘I designed things, mostly buildings - office blocks, sports complexes, supermarkets, all sorts of things.’
‘Did you do anything before you were an architect?’
‘Nothing apart from learning to play the piano and going to university, studying, qualifying and getting a job. I worked at the same firm for my entire career. Rather boring really.’
‘Anything but, I’d say.’ She looked impressed. ‘Not like me. I never settled down to any job and there isn’t mu
‘Not far from here, a mile or so out of town.’
‘Are you married?’
‘No. I live alone, always have done. I’m happier on my own.’ John was beginning to bore himself with this arid account of his mundane existence. There must be something exciting to tell her about the last forty years not that he could think of anything.
‘Happier on your own? That’s sad.’ A look of disappointment crossed her face. ‘But you won’t be alone for much longer. You’ll soon have company.’
‘I doubt that. I can’t imagine anything changing.’
Sarah was listening to every word and looking at him as though she knew he was hiding something. Her next question threw him. ‘Are you happy?’ she asked.
‘Happy as most, I suppose. Is anyone always happy?’ He turned away but not before noticing her worried expression.
‘I can read you like a book,’ she said staring straight at him. ‘You aren’t happy are you?’
‘Why should it matter to you whether I am or not?’
‘Because it does,’ she said. Her eyes dropped and she once again patted her tummy. ‘All I want is for him to be happy, that’s all I want.’
John overcame his earlier embarrassment about the pregnancy and his reluctance to mention the baby. He’d learned enough about mothers-to-be to know they loved nothing more than talking about their forthcoming offspring. He’d also noted her reference to the foetus as him. ‘How do you know it will be a boy?’ he asked. ‘It might be a girl.’
‘It is a boy,’ she asserted with absolute certainty.
John decided not to challenge her. ‘How long have you got to go?’
‘Not long. He’s due early September.’
‘September? That’s when I was born, September the fourth.’
She showed no surprise. ‘Yes, you’re a typical Virgo.’
Astrology to John was unscientific nonsense akin to black magic but he played along. ‘Are you a believer in the stars?’ he asked.
‘I am, enough to know a Virgo when I see one.’
‘And how would you know I was a Virgo apart from me telling you when I was born?’
‘Because you’re a typical Earth sign - intelligent, organised, practical and hardworking. You enjoy art, science and mathematics which accounts for you being an architect and a musician. Does that sound right?’
‘You could have guessed that from what I’ve told you.’
‘True, and that’s another thing about Virgos. They’re sceptics.’
‘I see. So I’m not all good!’
‘Oh no, far from it. Virgos have their negative side.’
‘Such as - other than being a sceptic?’
‘You’re shy. You hate being the centre of attraction and you can be detached, judgemental, even cold when it comes to any kind of emotional involvement.’
For someone he’d only just met she’d summed him up accurately. ‘Guilty as charged!’ he admitted. ‘Is there anything more I should know about myself?’
‘Only that because you’re a perfectionist you tend to look down on people who aren’t as clever as you.’
John couldn’t argue. Everything she’d said about him was true. He decided to get her to focus on someone other than him. ‘What about your son,’ he said. ‘Do you think he’ll be influenced by the stars and turn out like me?’
‘So you agree he will be a boy?’
‘Possibly. I meant to say your child.’
‘I think he’ll turn out to be exactly like you. The stars never lie. They have more influence people imagine.’
The one person John had been dying to ask about was the father of the child. ‘A child’s personality is influenced by both parents,’ he said. ‘What about your child’s father? Are you married?’
Sarah gave him derisive look. ‘What do you think?’
‘Probably not,’ he confessed regretting having asked. It was none of his business as Karen had informed the pimply youth when he asked about her boyfriend.
‘All you will ever see of my man is this,’ she said, prising open the heart-shaped locket she’d shown him earlier. ‘Do you want to look?’
John leant over and peered at the tiny photograph. It was too small for him to pick out any detail but he managed to decipher the face of a young man standing next to her. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Billy, but he’s not like you in any way although there’s a likeness around the eyes and the shape of his nose.’
John was puzzled by the remark. Why did she think it mattered whether the lad resembled him or not? He hoped she wasn’t suggesting that he should be some kind of substitute or stand-in for her lost lover expecting him to support this unfortunate, unborn child. He dismissed the thought. ‘Where did you meet Billy?’ he asked.
‘Here on this very bench.’
‘Here? Really?’ So that was why she had chosen to sit there. ‘What was he like?’ John’s thoughts returned to the pimply youth. He couldn’t imagine Sarah being so blantantly available to any man as the foul mouthed Karen. Sarah had pride. She possessed a raw, untutored intelligence that in different circumstances could have been nurtured.
‘What was Billy like? He was a one-off, funny, full of mischief and he made me laugh. I fell head over heels for him and thought he loved me as much as I loved him. I should have known better. One thing led to another. The relationship developed and we did what most young people do when they’re in love. But as soon as I told him I was pregnant...’
‘He left you in the lurch.’
‘That’s about it. Typical of men don’t you think?’
‘Not all men.’
‘Not men like you John. But you’d never have been in the same position as Billy would you?’
‘No, probably not.’ His mind went back to his avoidance of Henrietta and the female students at university. Looking at Sarah and pitying her position he wondered if that had been a mistake. He was growing fond of this sad young woman. Perhaps if he’d found the right partner it wouldn’t have been so bad after all but it was too late to think about that now.
‘So here I am but I wouldn’t change anything, even if I could. The baby is all that matters and I’ll give him the best possible life I can.’
‘What about your mother?’
‘She died and my father doesn’t want to know. He always said if you make a hard bed you must lie on it.’
John felt sorry for her. It was all he could do to stop himself from offering to look after her and the child. There was more than enough space in his home. She and the baby could sleep in any of the spare bedrooms. And what would happen if he did? He allowed himself for a moment to imagine living with her. He wouldn’t be the first man of his age to end up with a girl young enough to be his daughter or even granddaughter and he couldn’t help finding her attractive. But that was pure fantasy. If he were to take her home it would be for protection and companionship only. There was no mortgage and his pension was more than adequate to provide for three. He pictured the warmth of family life. He imagined himself coming down from his study and seeing Sarah feeding the baby in front of a blazing fire with his slippers in the hearth and his dinner waiting in the oven. There would be someone to share the evenings with talking or listening to music. He almost convinced himself that it could really happen until a sudden shout from Sarah brought him back down to earth. ‘Ouch! You little devil!’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘It’s him. He’s kicking again. Do you want to feel?’
John could barely believe his ears. The girl he’d just met was actually inviting him to place his hand on her belly and feel a baby moving about in her womb. And yet it felt completely natural.
‘Yes, yes,’ he blurted out overcome with emotion. ‘Yes, I can feel him. It’s marvellous, wonderful!’ There were tears in his eyes. He was lost for words to express his delight. It was overwhelming. What moved him as much as the child’s kicking was feeling Sarah’s hand on his. Her touch was as soft as snow and surprisingly just as cold. Her flesh was distinctly icy which seemed odd on such a hot day. ‘Are you feeling all right?’ he asked.
‘Yes I’m fine. Why?’
‘Your hand is so cold.’
She smiled. ‘You know what they say, cold hands, warm heart.’
‘I don’t doubt your heart is warm. I can sense it.’
‘Good, I hoped you would. It’s been lovely to meet you John but I have to go.’ She stood and smoothed down her skirt.
‘Why so soon? Can’t you stay for a while? I’m only just beginning to get to know you.’ He couldn’t believe what he was saying.
‘I’m sorry but I have to leave.’
‘Can I see you again?’
‘Oh yes and that’s a promise. You’ll see me again, sooner than you think.’
She picked up her basket and started to walk away then turned and said, ‘On New Year’s Day. I shall come on New Year’s Day,’
‘Where? Where will you be?’
‘You’ll know when the time comes.’ She walked on a little then turned once more and said, ‘Look in the tin, John! Look in the tin!’ Those were her last words as she went gliding over the grass before she disappeared into the crowd.