Billy laughed, as he cycled about her on his bike, ‘You look nice.’
She smiled weakly from behind the collar of her coat.
‘You – gonna’ town?’
Emily just shook her head and gazed across the small village square where the sudden rush of excited school children had now evaporated into a sullen, still time of day.
‘Where is yer goin’ then?’
She remained silent, not wanting to encourage the boy.
‘Me Da’s takin’ me,’ the boy started, then did a complete circle on his bike before stopping right in front of her, ‘On, Monday.’
‘Yes— Monday,’ he replied, looking a little confused.
Emily, could not help feeling sorry for the boy; he was an unfortunate child whose father had fled the village long before he was born. She knew he was referring to Mr Richards, a large older man who had always lived on his own.
Suddenly the boy lifted his scruffy head of tangled brown hair and laughed, ‘You look nice.
She watched as he immediately twitched with some restless urge; his face tightened, then he was off, cutting across the village square with his mumblings.
Emily breathed a sigh of relief but then instantly cringed as the boy recklessly tore across the main road— without looking.
A few moments passed where her thoughts drifted to the enormity of her situation. Charlotte was her only hope; she was adamant her best friend would know what she should do for the best.
The old clock tower struggled to pass the half-hour mark; she still had fifteen more minutes to wait. Then, she noticed Laurel and Hardy, a name given to two older women by the children in the village.
She had never really noticed it until now, but there was an uncanny resemblance. They did not wear bowler hats; instead, they — wore black berets. One was taller than the other, who was, in fact, overweight. It seemed now to amuse her slightly. Each of them wore matching black overcoats, and from a distance, you could easily mistake them for men in their tightly wrapped long coats.
She watched as the two women hurried across the road, then began to make their way towards her. The tall woman was busy talking; the other just nodded now and then. Emily impatiently glanced up at the clock tower again. Only a mere four minutes had passed. Her gaze followed the ageing zig-zags of red bricks until the black wrought-iron fence ceiled in the columns. It was like a little square prison, she surmised.
‘It won’t be long now — dear.’
At first, Emily turned, thinking the woman was talking to her, but the taller woman was just attempting to console her friend.
After a few, almost hypnotic seconds of waiting, the taller woman turned to her friend and said, ‘You wouldn’t believe what little Davy Thomson did in the Co-op?’
Emily just caught her in the corner of her eye, glancing her over before she continued.
‘Well, I couldn’t believe it — with my own eye’s — I ask yer.’ she shook her head, ‘In the middle of the Co-op — of all places! Well, I just couldn’t believe it.’
‘Yes — ah-huh, ah-huh,’ nodded her friend, ‘— yes?’
‘You know where they keep the sugar and tins of plumbed tomatoes, right in the middle aisle — opposite the creamed rice on the middle shelf. Well, that’s where he stood. Screaming he was at his mother,’ she nodded. ‘Couldn’t get what he wanted, that’ll be it. Well — I ask yer? I couldn’t believe it. He just stood there and the next thing,’ she paused a second. ‘It must be running late then Dorothy.’
‘Yes, yes — ah-huh, ah-huh,’ her friend nodded again.
‘As I was saying — do you know what that little so and so did? He stood there right in front of her, and well — Oh Dorothy, I couldn’t believe it — with me’ own eyes an all. I’m tellin’ yer. He pulled down his trousers and — you’ll never guess what he did? That’s our bus now, Dorothy.’
‘Yes, yes — ah-huh, ah-huh,’ frantically her friend nodded until in the loud hiss of the bus she practically shouted, ‘Yes — s?’
Emily found herself on the brink of laughter; if not for her curiosity, she would not have been able to contain herself. She watched as each of them struggled with the first step onto the bus, both carefully assisting the other. It made her realise how much she had missed her closest friend, Charlotte.
Once the bus had pulled away, her attention flicked here and there, from one sound to another as she became more anxious. Then a sudden gust of oak leaves swirled up around her, only to settle at her side. That’s when it suddenly dawned on her; she already knew what she wanted, but — how could he forgive her?
Finally, a coach swung down onto the square. Emily found herself moving from one side to another, trying to anticipate precisely where it would stop. Her eyes narrowed as the driver brought the vehicle to an abrupt halt, in exactly the place she was standing in the first instance.
After an initial hiss of air, the door finally opened, and the driver turned to a sudden burst of repetitive clicking and clacking as Charlotte rushed down the aisle to greet her.
Emily’s face teetered on laughter when she saw her friend almost fall onto the bottom step; both her hands were full, one laden at her side with a small suitcase and the other held high with glamorous designer bags. Yet, she still managed to maintain some degree of elegance about her.
‘Emily!’ She gasped, ‘You just wouldn’t believe what sort of a journey I’ve had. Her eyes glanced back at the driver, disapprovingly, ‘to endure.’
She quickly helped her friend down off the bus with a smile, ‘You look amazing.’
‘Oh, do I — no thanks to my journey.’ Charlotte gave one final glance back at the driver, ‘that’s for sure.’ Immediately, she placed the small grey suitcase on the path and stretched out her arms; Emily embraced her friend without hesitation. Charlotte almost instantly took a step back. ‘My goodness, I’d swear there’s nothing left of you,’ she smiled.
Emily always felt a little embarrassed when her friend acted as a mother would to her child. Unlike Charlotte, she had always struggled to put weight on a much larger frame and often complained that she needed to lose a few extra pounds. Still, her size seemed to suit her maternal characteristics, which Emily found so endearing.
Charlotte took a deep breath, ‘Oh, just look at you, I just can’t believe he dropped you,’ she smiled sadly and pulled her close again, ‘How’s mother taken it?’
‘Oh, you know, mother, not very well.’ Emily replied, gently disentangling herself from the embrace, ‘It’s all she keeps going on about.’
‘Yes, I can imagine.’
Emily lifted the suitcase, ‘she’s looking forward to seeing you, though.’
‘It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’
‘Yes, but you’re here now, and that’s all that matters,’ Emily lifted the small suitcase,’ ‘How’s your family?’
‘All good, but never mind them. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and I just can’t wait to tell you all about my latest penguin. Come on. I’m gasping for a coffee.’
In unison, they both laughed, ‘Let’s go— p-p-p- pick up a penguin.’ Charlotte offered Emily her arm, and together they began to walk across the square. ‘You’ve not forgotten then?’
‘No, how could I ever forget.’
The image of her friend’s first boyfriend, Ben, was one she would never forget.
Charlotte had described her first night with him in a way the image was etched in her mind forever. The very notion of the boy with a Mohawk haircut and the sides of his head dyed white was so vivid Charlotte didn’t need to mimic his begging beeps, as well.
‘I’m telling you, Emi — seriously, that’s what it sounded like — they’re all the same, never found one that didn’t make the same blinking noise.’
‘You’re just so cruel; I thought he was lovely — I wonder if he’s still a punk rocker or ever settled down.’
‘I know — actually, he was quite cute, but what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and besides, it’s the only bit of enjoyment I ever got from him.’ She thought for a minute. ‘You know, I did hear he joined the navy. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he wanted to get back home.’
‘Charlotte! — I’ll be wetting myself if you don’t stop it.’
‘Well, it’s certainly brought some colour back into your cheeks. I’ve never seen you so down; it’s like you’re carrying the whole world on your shoulders. They’re not worth it, Emi.’ She stopped and looked Emily straight in the eye, ‘Steve must either need his eyes testing or needs some serious medical attention; you’re stunning.’
When they reached the corner of Sydney Street, Emily hesitated before crossing the road, ‘I’m glad you’re here, Charlotte, there’s something I’ve been dying to tell you — which I couldn’t tell you on the phone.’
‘Well, that’s why I’ve travelled, all this way.’ She paused after noticing a tiny glint in Emily’s eye. ‘You’re joking . . . the wedding is back on again, after all?’
‘No — well, I don’t know — it’s all a bit complicated, that’s why I needed you here.’ She went to cross the road, but Charlotte held her back.
‘Hang on a minute. There’s something else, isn’t there? That you haven’t told me — ’
‘Oh, Charlotte, it’s much, much more than that — I’m pregnant.’
‘What! And that bastard called the engagement off? You wait till I get my hands on that stinking little penguin. I’m going to make him — ’
‘He doesn’t know.’ Emily was quick to cut in.
‘He soon will do, by the time — I’ve.’
‘Charlotte — Please,’ she pulled at her friend’s arm to follow, ‘I will explain everything later — but not in the street.’
Charlotte took a glance around her, ‘I’m sorry, Em, I just couldn’t help myself.’
Emily laughed. ‘It’s OK; they probably think you’ve just got a thing about stupid little penguins.’
When they reached Potters, an old fashioned tea shop, a little bell rang just above the door as they entered; directly in front of them was old Mr Taylor sitting in his wheelchair, who had a devilish look of excitement on his face. His wife behind him seemed a little agitated as she smiled lamely and continued to manipulate the wheelchair past the last two remaining tables. Mr Taylor grinned from ear to ear as the girls were forced back out into the street. Mrs Taylor smiled in gratitude once she got the wheelchair out through the narrow doorway, and the old- man just flicked the peak of his cap with his hand.
Charlotte instantly leaned over and whispered in Emily’s ear, ‘You know, I’m sure that little old git was sniggering,’ She tugged her arm, ‘come — on.’
They made their way over to a table in the corner, next to the window. Charlotte glanced over to the back of the shop, she had hoped to see Lara, but it was Mrs Ramsey, the proprietor who was making her way down the narrow aisle of empty tables, towards them.
Mrs Ramsey was a short and rather stout lady. However, she was a kind, caring individual who had offered Lara a place to stay after her parents had decided to move to London. At eighteen and her brother studying at Cambridge University. Lara chose to remain in the village close to all her friends. Mrs Ramsey had never married and, after caring for her mother until she died, at the ripe old age of ninety-five, had inherited the large detached house, which stood adjacent to the entrance leading down to the old rectory.
Mrs Ramsey could not hide her delight in seeing the girls and smiled warmly, ‘What a lovely surprise, and I was just thinking to myself — I might as well close early. Well, I haven’t seen you two for some time — how are you both?’
‘Yes, fine, thank you, Mrs Ramsey,’ Charlotte replied while taking off her coat. ‘And you?’
‘Can’t complain, dear, been a little bit quiet of late, but I’m sure things will pick up, now the weather is improving, we’ve had nothing but rain for the past week — never mind.’
‘Well, it’s most definitely feeling a lot colder.’ Charlotte replied and then inquired, ‘How’s Lara?’
‘Oh, she’s off at the moment, dear, with one of those frightful colds. I swear it’s the worst thing about this job; you seem to pick up everything that’s going — dear. I’m almost certain she picked it up off little Davy Thomson. His mother should be ashamed of herself — bringing him out in this weather without him having hardly a stitch to wear — I ask you!’
‘Well, I hope she feels better soon. It’s just her brother asked me to give her this.’ Charlotte pulled out a neatly wrapped, brown rectangular package from one of her bags and handed it to Mrs Ramsey.
‘Thank you — dear. I’ll give it to Lara as soon as I get home. I’m sure it will make her feel much better.’ She then pushed the package into the pouch of her apron, then lifted her head, and inquired, ‘Are you still enjoying university, dear?’
‘Sort of, I guess, just finding it a little hard with the amount of studying that’s involved,’ Charlotte smiled.
‘Yes, well, I’m sure it will be well worth it in the end — dear. How long will you be staying this time, dear?’
‘Oh, not long, just for the weekend, Mrs Ramsey.’
‘That’s nice, dear. Well, I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do. No doubt, you’ll want your usual coffee then?’
Emily smiled and pulled out her chair, ‘Yes, please, that would be lovely.’
Mrs Ramsey immediately leaned over and gathered the unwanted cutlery off the table. ‘There you are. I’ll be right back in just a few ticks — with your coffees.’
Once they had sat down, Charlotte immediately leaned across the table and asked, ‘Are you sure you’re pregnant?’
Emily closed her eyes before she answered with a heavy sigh, ‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘Oh, Emi, why don’t you just get an abortion?
Emily’s face suddenly hardened as she snapped back, ‘No — It’s not the baby Charlotte.’ It caused Charlotte to sink back slightly into her chair. In an instant, her expression then seemed to soften as Emily stretched out her arm and offered her hand, ‘Oh, it’s all a bloody mess. I’ve made a mess of everything.’
Charlotte accepted her hand and leaned over the table, then gently she sealed the entwined promise with a kiss.
‘Well, I must say you can tell you two have certainly missed each other.’ Mrs Ramsey interrupted. ‘Come on — make some room.’ she smiled.
They turned, looked up at Mrs Ramsey, then almost at the same time began tittering as their eyes met again across the table.
Mrs Ramsey looked down at them fondly as she placed the coffee cups down, ‘I hope you two find the time to drink them.’ She smiled, ‘In-between all that catching up.’
Emily sighed and found herself relaxing into the shop’s ambience, which she had enjoyed so often in the past. With her old school friend for company, it began to make her feel as though all her innermost fears were gradually subsiding as she felt a sense of ease.
Charlotte quickly began to raid the sugar bowl, ‘You know I’ve missed these little sugar lumps, nowadays all I seem to get are those pathetic little sachets.’ She popped one into her mouth and then looked over at Emily and asked politely and correctly, ‘One lump or two — me, lady?’
‘Just one — please.’ Emily pulled herself up with a smile; her friend had not changed one little bit, she thought.
Charlotte held her cup with both hands and bought it up close to her mouth, allowing her elbows to rest on the table; she looked out of the window then back towards her friend, lightly blowing over the rim of the cup, ‘How’s mother, really?’
Emily had assumed the same posture at the table, ‘She’s fine, honestly. I’ve been avoiding her a bit, I guess — but you know, she just keeps going on and on about it. You know what she’s like.’
‘Is she excited — about being a grandmother?’
‘I’ve not told her yet — Charlotte, please don’t look at me like that; it’s because she will spoil any chance of Steve and me getting back together again, that’s why.’
‘Is . . . Steve, the father?’
‘Yes, of course, but you know what my mum’s like, with Steve, she treats him as though he was her son. She tells him everything before I get the chance.’ She turned, looked through the window and across the street, ‘I just couldn’t bear the thought of Steve wanting me back because he felt he had no choice, you know, doing what everyone expects of him. The right thing and all. I don’t want anyone’s pity and especially not his.’
‘Yes, I understand, but surely your mum would understand that too — how far gone are you now, anyway?’
‘Three months, but I only found out last week.’
‘Last week! Emily, what on earth have you been doing? You should have realised well before then.’ Charlotte shook her head in disbelief, ‘I just can’t understand this — so am I — the first person you’ve told?’
‘Yes — well — no — not exactly.’
‘Not exactly, well, who else knows? And what about Steve, is he still dating that floozy — what’s her name — Mary Lewis, Is he?’
‘I’m not sure — he keeps phoning me, but I haven’t spoken to him yet. Me’ mum said that he is missing me and is sorry. He admitted to her that he had made a big mistake and now really regrets it. And Lara told me she had heard that Mary had finished with him, but I don’t know if that’s true or whether he’s still seeing her.’
‘Crikey’s and I thought living in the country was dull. Why haven’t you spoken to him? Don’t you want him back?’
‘I suppose, but, I’m not sure anymore — I mean, well, you know, I don’t think I could ever trust him, ever again, and maybe if it weren’t for my baby, I wouldn’t. Oh, Charlotte, I just don’t know.’
‘The other week, you told me you would do anything to get him back, and now when you find out you’re carrying his child, you’re not sure? Emily, he has even been calling you and telling mother he wants you back.’ Her eyes opened wide in some way to emphasise the obvious. ‘Do you still love him?’
‘Yes, I think so. But, oh — Charlotte, I don’t know anymore. Maybe it’s because I have a part of him growing inside me now, which I know I love so very — very much. It’s just so hard to explain, but every time I think of him, I see her, the bitch laughing at me.
Charlotte smiled, took another sip of her coffee and placed the cup on the table. ‘You know, a few years back, I went through a similar thing Emi, and I understand entirely, except I wasn’t pregnant. You’ve got to think of the baby as well, and you’ll get over all that — in time, I’m sure of it, especially when the baby is born.
‘It’s not quite as straightforward as all that — and there’s something else —’
Charlotte cut in, ‘Oh, Emi, you take everything far too seriously. He probably just got cold feet being so close to the wedding and all. It will probably never happen again. But, you know it’s a big commitment, marriage.’
Emily drooped her head slightly, ‘Charlotte, please — there’s someone else.’
Charlotte stared at her in disbelief, her mouth opened to speak, but she remained silent. It was the first time she felt lost for words. A few seconds passed, and the only thing that came to mind was penguins. ‘It’s not Ben, is it?’
Emily instantly smiled and lifted her head, ‘No —’
Charlotte sighed and smiled warmly, ‘You know it’s not the end of the world, and just look at you, it’s not surprising; you’re beautiful Emi, and there’s bound to be thousands of those pesky little penguins, begging to get a date with you.’
‘Oh, Charlotte — I don’t know what I’d do without you; you always have a funny way of putting everything into its own, little box.’
‘Look, it’s getting late, and I’m sure Mrs Ramsey can lip-read,’ She glanced over at the shop counter, where Mrs Ramsey was standing, ‘See, she’s writing everything down as we speak. It’ll be all around town by morning. So come on, let’s drink up and see mother, she’ll be waiting, and then later, you can tell me all about this new — mysterious man.’ Charlotte pushed her chair back slightly and reached for her handbag. ‘It’s certainly been worth the train fare, that’s for sure.’
Emily lifted her cup, amused by her friend’s ability to make light of the situation and make her feel more optimistic that everything would eventually fall into place. Although even now, she found herself in some kind of trance, as though she somehow could not feel or hold onto anything her friend said. It was as if nothing seemed to matter, like floating through space and time. Suddenly it began to dawn on her that she had not stopped thinking about Joe, and funnily, it seemed as if he was always there — by her side.
Charlotte noticed the sudden glazed look in Emily’s eyes and muttered, ‘Aye, away with the fairies,’ She turned and looked over at Mrs Ramsey, who was putting the sweet delicacies from behind the glass shop display back into their boxes. Immediately Charlotte lifted herself and went over to the shop counter.
‘It’s been so lovely, dear, to have seen you both again,’ Mrs Ramsey smiled as she straightened herself up, ‘Oh, Charlotte, I’m sure I’m getting older by the minute.’ She wiped her brow, then sighed with slight exhaustion and smiled. ‘How is Emily? I couldn’t believe it when I heard — you know.’ She shook her head lightly and drew in a deep breath, ‘Well, if ever there was a wedding you could have been sure of, it was theirs. Shocked, I tell you, shocked. The poor girl must be beside herself.’ She paused for a few seconds. ‘That’s one pound and fifty pence, please, Charlotte.’
‘Thank you.’ Charlotte immediately handed her two crisp one-pound notes.
Over the ching of the cash register opening, Mrs Ramsey thanked her but then continued to say, ‘Heaven knows what he must have been thinking. I’m just so glad she has such a good friend like you to support her, dear. Lord knows what she’d have done otherwise.’ She handed Charlotte her change, pushed the cash register closed, then smiled.
Charlotte returned the smile, ‘Thank you, Mrs Ramsey, she seems to be coping very well, and I’m sure it will all sort itself out.’
‘Oh, I’m so glad to hear that, dear.’ She looked with pity at Emily sitting there all on her own. ‘She’s such a lovely young lady, and she deserves so much more — Oh — Charlotte, please forgive me. I just can’t help it. It brings tears to me’ eyes.’ She pulled her handkerchief out from her apron and then nodded with a straight smile.
Charlotte took a deep breath, smiled, and turned, ‘Please, don’t worry, Mrs Ramsey, everything will be just fine. She’s in good hands now. ’
‘Yes, yes — God bless you, dear.’
‘Emi, come on, let’s go — Em — Em.’ She persisted in a low, urgent tone, deliberately knocking the table as she pulled her coat up over the back of the chair.
It was as though Emily had not realised she had drifted off into a world of her own; she lifted herself out of the chair and immediately put on her coat.
Charlotte ushered her towards the door, ‘Goodbye, Mrs Ramsey.’ She waved and then held the door open for Emily, who said her goodbye in a more sedate manner. A cold evening breeze washed over them from the open doorway.
‘You’re both, more than welcome,’ Mrs Ramsey replied as she came up behind them. ‘Ooh, hasn’t it turned quite chilly all of a sudden? I’ll be locking up behind you, it’s a bit early, but I doubt there’ll be many folks out on a night like this.’
Charlotte smiled, watching Mrs Ramsey shake whilst rubbing her hands together in front of her. Then, after allowing her to take the weight of the door, she promptly replied, ‘Goodnight, Mrs Ramsey.’
“I hope you both have a lovely evening and don’t forget to give my regards to your parents.” She watched them with pride, as if they were her own, “Now mind how you go —”
Instantly they locked arms and continued down the street. ‘Well! Now I know why I prefer living in Cambridge,’ Charlotte was quick to declare. ‘Everyone knows everyone else’s business, down here. You can’t keep anything a secret, even if you tried.’
Emily turned and looked at her a little fearful, ‘I hope — you’re wrong about that, Charlotte.’
Charlotte looked across at Emily and laughed. ‘Sorry, Emi, I forgot.’
‘It’s not the fact I’m pregnant; I’m worried about.’
With intrigue, Charlotte looked at her friend with the cold autumn breeze against her face. The sudden need to seek shelter seemed to dampen her curiosity. She quickly pushed her head forward and encouraged Emily to quicken her pace.
Original short story by A I Moffat
Illustrations by justanemotion.com
Book cover illustration source Futurials.
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