© Claire Whatley
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© Claire Whatley
Three words are in italics, marked by **
Thumbs. A lot of people don’t do thumbs. Tash makes sure the anti-bacterial liquid soap goes all over them. Each finger; in between fingers, palms of hands; backs of hands; wrists; fingers again. Hot water streams steadily from the gleaming chrome faucet, and Tash ensures not a microbe of dirt survives as her hands become lathered in bacteria-zapping white foam. She places her hands in the hot cascade and watches the soap bubble around the plughole, like the froth on a skinny latte against the spotless enamel of the butler sink Satisfied, she dries her hands with today’s clean towel, then reaches for the anti-bacterial hand cream, applying a smidgen to each palm and rubbing in, carefully.
She turns to open one of the many light oak cupboard doors surrounding her to reach for the tins containing the cookies and biscuits she baked yesterday, especially for today’s coffee morning. Gluten-free for Rachel, of course; and now suddenly Maureen alleges she is lactose intolerant – at her age! - so Tash had to use dairy-free margarine in all the recipes, a bit of a risk as most of them specified butter, not to mention dairy-free chocolate chips. And just to be on the safe side, everything is nut-free.
She takes the plates from another cupboard and inspects each one closely for any smears or hardened specks of debris. They look fine, but she wipes each one with today’s clean tea towel, just to be sure. At Rachel’s coffee morning last month, Tash had spotted a hair on one of the plates. A hair - imagine! She’d nearly thrown up! Tash always ties back her own long hair when she’s baking. She’s scrupulous about that sort of thing. It’s surprising how many people are slapdash about hygiene, and Rachel is just about the worst. Well, those dogs of hers don’t help. Tash knows Rachel will turn up today in those maroon trousers, covered in Labrador hairs. Why she insists on wearing maroon anyway, Tash would never know. People with red hair don’t do themselves any favours, wearing maroon.
Barely breathing, and with the delicacy and precision of an eye surgeon, Tash places each biscuit on its correct plate, creating a pleasing design. There are star shapes, crescent shapes, circles with iced spider’s web patterns, gooey chocolatey rectangles, and homely, irregular cookie shapes. Each type of biscuit has its own painstakingly selected plate from Tash’s collection of antique shop finds. The result is an aesthetic delight. She carries the plates, two at a time, into the orangery.
The orangery. The builders left two weeks ago and still, every time Tash steps into the orangery, every time she thinks of the orangery, or even says that sublime word, ‘orangery’, she feels a welling up of happiness that she hasn’t experienced since Ian bought her that sapphire-and-ruby eternity ring on their first wedding anniversary, eighteen years ago. She says the word silently to herself, practising, ‘The orangery. Do come into the orangery. Come through to the orangery.’ She rolls the word around her tongue and chews on it like a spoonful of dark, organic, thick-cut marmalade.
Needless to say, Ian’s being utterly ungracious about it. Tash heard him talking to Alec, Maureen’s husband, the other day, ‘…paid an arm and a leg for her bloody glorified conservatory…’ Moron! He wouldn’t recognise good taste if it leapt up and gave him a gentlemanly biff on the nose. Anyway, it’s not Tash’s orangery. Ian’s happy enough to lord it in there on Sunday mornings with his papers and his dark roast Java. And their two hulking great teenagers, Simon and Jonathan, lounging in there as well, I-Pods super-glued to their ears. Mainly though, it’s ideal for coffee mornings. The girls in the village will love it. Tash has been fantasising about their compliments all week.
Tash is about to carry through the last plate, when she pauses in the doorway. An ugly red and black packet on her silver-grey granite worktop catches her eye. Her heart rate accelerates. The packet’s crude illustration of an ant revolts her. Must put that away. She looks up at the clock. They’ll be here in ten minutes. Hastily, she takes the plate through, placing it on the new rectangular oak table according to her pre-arranged design, creating an almost random look. She regards the diverse chairs around the table for a moment: some antique, some country cottage kitsch, some ultra contemporary; and pulls them away a little so they look more inviting. Then, suddenly, she descends to all fours and crawls with feline stealth around the edge of the room, her face about six inches from the skirting board. Searching every inch. At this range she can still smell the nose-wrinkling aroma of the super-strength disinfectant she used after the ant powder had done its job. The vast porcelain bowl of dried lavender on the tallboy in the corner should mask that. Anyway, no ants. Definitely. She stands up and smoothes down the knees of her black linen trousers as she leans towards her bowl of lavender and breathes deeply.
It was so nearly a catastrophe. Her precious orangery, only a week old; newly, expensively furnished, and infested with ants. Armies of them, marching with that relentless, sinister purposefulness. And she’d already sent out the coffee morning invitations. So she’d gone to the Garden Centre first thing that morning and bought the stuff to bring about their destruction. She used double the recommended amount. You can’t be too careful.
The sudden alarm of the doorbell pushes up her heart-rate like a washing machine entering the spin cycle. She must wash her hands again; the urge to do so is a nagging pain at the back of her head as though her hair is in a pony-tail pulled too tight. She hurtles to the kitchen sink and repeats the process: fast but thorough. The bell rings again as she re-applies hand cream. Satisfied, her pulse resumes a steady speed and she strides to the front door. The opaque window of the door bears a stained glass fleur de lys, but even through this, Tash can still tell that her first visitor is Lucie. For one thing Lucie is taller than anyone else. And blonder. Of course, it’s so rude to arrive – Tash peeks at her watch – three minutes early, but she can forgive Lucie. Lucie will offer the best compliments about the orangery and enthuse for as long as Tash’s heart could desire. Lucie has a way with words. And she always seems so interested in people, even really boring people, like, well…like Maureen.
Tash opens the door and breaks into a joyful grin, reflected in the magnifying mirror of Lucie’s warm and entrancing smile.
“Lucie! How lovely! Oh, that pale pink really suits you,” she blurts, “especially with that beautiful necklace! Come in.” Tash doesn’t mean to flatter Lucie. She’s just the kind of woman who drives you to it. And she is looking divine in pale pink.
As Tash looks at Lucie, there is an overwhelming need bubbling up inside her. She feels unclean, unkempt. She must go and wash her hands. Her breath is too fast. No! She pushes the thought down, forcing herself to breathe out slowly. Does Lucie notice?
“Hi, Tasha, how are you? Thanks so much for inviting me. Can’t wait to see the orangery!”
They air-kiss twice and hug; Lucie managing an elegant, one-armed embrace as she holds her raffia-tied spring posy at arm’s length. They release each other and she hands the flowers to Tash.
“Oh, thank you, Lucie – that’s so kind of you - they’re beautiful! Let me put them in water right away.”
As they enter the kitchen, Tash talks on. “We really missed you at the wine tasting on Thursday night. We were doing Australian reds. It was a really good evening.”
One of Lucie’s eyebrows arches. “Yes, I was so sorry I couldn’t make it. Something came up at the last minute.”
She’s smiling but it isn’t a smile of regret. It’s more the smile of someone who has just remembered something amusing.
“What a shame! Ian couldn’t make it either. Had to work late - again. Anyway, do come through to the orangery.”
But Tash’s moment of glory is not yet. She has to leave Lucie in the kitchen to make her own way to the orangery as the doorbell is ringing again. Tash leaves the posy on the worktop and hurries back to the door.
All but one of the remaining visitors arrive in quick succession: Rachel, who is indeed in maroon, dog-haired trousers, Maureen, complete with her supposed dairy allergy, Paula (from next-door), and Samantha, who owns the stables on the edge of the village. Kirsty, the village newcomer with a deliciously broad Scots accent, phoned earlier to say she would be arriving late.
By the time Tash has greeted everyone, a little horde enters the orangery in a rush. There is a Babel of oohing and favourable remarks, but the loudest is from Maureen who says in her strident voice, that is so reminiscent of a former prime minister, “Well, Natasha, I have to say this is the nicest conservatory I’ve ever seen—”
“Oh, it’s not a con…”
The phone rings.
“Excuse me, a moment,” Tash says, covering her fury at Maureen with emphatic politeness, “do please help yourselves to coffee and biscuits, won’t you?”
She bounds up the stairs to take the call in the bedroom. She hates being overheard on the phone. She darts into the bedroom and grabs the receiver. But would you believe it – it’s that foul automated voice offering free credit *again*. She has just missed half the approbation she has been dreaming of for the sake of a robotic voice telling her, please, not to hang up. She replaces the phone and is about to dive downstairs when a white envelope on the bed calls her attention.
She leans over to pick it up. There is her name in Ian’s spindly hand. For some reason, her hand is shaking as she tears it open. What the hell is he playing at?
On their expensive, personalised notepaper is the following letter:
I’m sorry. I just can’t take this life any more. I’m going away and you won’t find me. I’ve taken most of my clothes and personal stuff and I’ll collect the rest after we’ve spoken on the phone. Don’t try to contact me. I’ve got a new mobile number. I’ll be in touch with you in a few days. It’s for the best. You don’t need me and the boys don’t need me. I’ll send money – don’t worry.
Please believe me, this is nothing to do with Lucie. She doesn’t even know I’m leaving you. She is not to blame. It’s us.
Believe me, this is for the best.
Tash reads it twice. Her eyes return repeatedly to one word. Lucie. *Lucie?*
The bloody bitch. Lucie. Tash had always hated the pretentious way she’d spelled her name, L.U.C.I.E. Why couldn’t she spell it ‘Lucy’ like everyone else? And all those pastel colours she wears – pathetic. What is she trying to be? The fairy on top of the Christmas tree? Is that what turns Ian on? A bloody Christmas fairy? Down there, drinking her coffee, eating her lovingly made gluten-free biscuits, in her orangery. Ha! It is Tash’s orangery now! But, what did Ian mean, ‘this is nothing to do with Lucie’? Did he think Tash knew there was something going on between them? Did he think someone had told her? God! Does everyone else know? Are they even now laughing about her downstairs?
What did he mean, ‘I can’t take this life any more’? What was wrong with it? OK, they had the occasional row, but no more than anyone else. The yelling match last Sunday had been just plain stupid. All that had happened was Ian had found Tash’s store of twenty-four bottles of multi-surface anti-bacterial cleaner in the cupboard under the sink and thrown a hissy fit over it. She told him, she’d only bought them because the supermarket kept doing three-for-two offers, and so she’d been stocking up. Saving money. Nothing wrong with that, was there? Plus, he liked a nice clean house, didn’t he? Anyway, he then implied she had some kind of mental health issues! That she should see someone about it - just because she liked to be hygienic!
She tosses the letter away in disgust.
The letter whirls back to the Egyptian cotton duvet in a slo-mo clockwise spiral. As she watches it, her own thoughts take on a new trajectory. The house would stay a lot cleaner without Ian around. How she had put up with him all these years she’d never know. Nineteen years of breakfasts in which he always took the toast to his plate - never his plate to the toast – despite her heavy hints, dropping crumbs across the floor all the way. God! It was no wonder they had an ant problem…*used* to have an ant problem. Plus, she’d be able to watch whatever she wanted on T.V. – even ‘How Clean is Your Home’ instead of having to feign interest in the bloody boring History Channel every night! His interest in the Second World War was unhealthy to her mind.
Is this, she wonders, what they call an epiphany? How long has he been cheating on her, and with how many women? Women who knew he was married. Women she’s known for years. In all these years, it wasn’t the dirt she needed to get rid of at all…
Tash ambles, smiling, from the bedroom and adopts an almost regal air as she steps down the staircase, like an A-list celeb about to read out this year’s Oscar nominees. She can hear Maureen relating the story of her lactose intolerance in minute detail to some poor soul, probably Paula, “Well, my dear, the naturopath knew instantly – but instantly – just by looking into my irises…”; she can make out the charming Scottish brogue of her new neighbour, Kirsty, telling some hilarious self-mocking anecdote – someone must have let her in while Tash was upstairs; she can hear Samantha and Rachel laughing. The coffee morning is going well.
Tash enters the orangery. She breathes in the clean scents of old lavender and new furniture; scents that blend happily with the exclusive aroma of rich, shade-grown, single-plantation coffee and the sweet vanilla of home-baking and announce to the world, ‘I’ve made it’.
“Anyone for more coffee?”
There are yes, pleases from Maureen, Samantha, Kirsty and Lucie. Paula has to rush off soon and so declines – Tash can’t blame her as she hears Maureen’s unceasing monologue, “So the amazing thing is I’ve had a geographic tongue all my life and I never knew it! I know, my dear, it’s unbelievable, isn’t it! The naturopath said…” And Rachel says she’s fine, thank you, and by the way, she must have Tash’s recipes for the gluten-free biscuits. Tash observes silently that Rachel could usefully try a biscuit-free diet, but says, “Yes, no problem. I’m so glad you like them. I’ll photocopy the recipes for you before you go.”
She takes the cafetiere from the orangery table and rinses it out at the kitchen sink. Strangely, she does not wash her hands before boiling the kettle. The nagging, needling urge to do so has gone. The place where those feelings used to reside is now inhabited by a bubble of lightness and freedom. When the coffee is made, Tash pours it in the kitchen, giving everyone clean cups and saucers – a good opportunity to show off her collection. Maureen: white with soya milk, one sugar; Samantha: white, no sugar; Kirsty and Lucie, black, no sugar. Tash takes through Maureen’s and Samantha’s. She is interrupted by Paula, who really has had enough of Maureen’s droning, “Tash, I really must go – it’s been lovely – thanks so much – you must be so thrilled with the orangery, it’s perfect. I adore the floor-tiles – you must tell me where you got them. Listen, I’m so sorry I’ve got to go – we’ve hardly spoken! Pop in for coffee tomorrow morning if you can.”
She loves the floor-tiles! Paula is such a nice person.
“Oh, I’m so glad you like the floor – we spent ages choosing,” she hesitates as that “we” causes an unpleasant jarring sensation in her head. “I’ll show you some of the brochures if you like. Anyway, lovely to see you, Paula – we’ll catch up tomorrow. I’ve got a supermarket delivery at ten, so half-past?”
Tash takes Paula to the front door, and hugs her as they twice repeat the valedictory phrases that they have just exchanged, adding a few more to ensure protocol is fully observed, and then Tash finally returns to the kitchen to take the last two coffees through.
She looks at the two cups of black coffee for a moment. She picks up Kirsty’s and takes it through. She comes back to the kitchen and takes a clean coffee spoon from the drawer. She takes the red and black packet from the worktop. She delves quickly into the packet with the spoon and pours the greyish powder into the last cup. She puts the packet away. She stirs the coffee well.
Tash sits next to Lucie, handing her the cup and saucer.
Lucie begins, “Tasha, I really love this room – it’s so light and spacious and the colours you’ve chosen are exactly right. I love the floor-tiles.” She pauses to take some sips of coffee. Tash watches with interest. Lucie makes a sweeping gesture towards the window sills. “And I think sticking to plain, simple terracotta pots with geraniums on the window sills is so nice - so unpretentious - and gives a lovely old-fashioned cottagey feel, doesn’t it?” She drains her coffee. Tash smiles, looking at her pots of geraniums, her head a little on one side and says quietly, “Thank you. I’m so glad you like it.”
After a few more accolades, Tash’s visitors take their leave. Lucie is the last to go. After closing the front door, Tash watches from the sitting room window as Lucie walks down the path. Lucie stops for a moment and clutches her stomach, then continues. Just before she opens the door of her 4x4, she leans forward a little and coughs. Tash shakes her head sadly. Poor Lucie - it looks as though she’s caught a bug. You just can’t be too careful, can you?