UPWARDLY MOBILE

 

It was Saturday and Barbara found herself once again anxiously peering out of her living room window looking for him. She ached to see her postman, with his chiselled jaw and firm thighs, standing at her front door holding out the promised brown paper package. Staring out at the car choked street running past her terraced house down to the seafront she was conscious of her curtains dangling precariously from the broken plastic tracking above. She shuffled in threadbare slippers to the middle of the small bay, craning her neck. The only movement to be seen was litter in the wind.

She wrung her chubby hands together. Loneliness, she pondered, gifted some strange cravings. Maybe she'd got the wrong end of the stick from the telephone call. After all, she'd now stood at this window every day for the last week in excited anticipation of seeing him swagger along the street, only to watch him go by without even a sideways glance. Why would she think today would be any different? She looked at her cuckoo clock on the wall. Eleven o'clock had passed by in silence: the cuckoo's verdict on her dream. Barbara fidgeted impatiently in her moccasins, tugging at the tea stained army surplus blanket hanging about her shoulders. Reluctantly she resigned herself to facing yet another day of disappointment.

* * *

Sixty miles away Kathleen turned down the volume on her Bang and Olufson stereo system. It had been John's absolute pride when they purchased it and, whilst she'd been reluctant to spend the money, she'd had to admit Karen Carpenter did sound so much better. A shame he'd only had a few weeks to enjoy it before his heart attack. She caught herself contemplating the photograph above the fireplace. Taken on their 30th wedding anniversary on the shores of Loch Lomond. It had been a glorious day. He'd looked so handsome, having shed a few pounds. Who'd have thought two years on she'd still be struggling to sort out their financial affairs.

"You stupid old fool," she said to his picture. "How could you go and leave me behind like this? It's such a mess!" With aching heart, she placed her fingertips against the image of his face. Her reverie was disturbed by the grandfather clock striking noon.

"Best get on, dear. Robert and the others will be here soon and I still need to make my chocolate sauce. You know how the grandchildren love it." With mixed emotions she refocused her energies on getting ready for her visitors. She switched on her hostess trolley in the dining room first, then headed off to start cooking.

* * *

At the sudden buzzing of her doorbell Barbara jolted, tea spilling down her housecoat and onto the kitchen floor. She'd already had six mugs, but it gave her something to do. It buzzed again, impatient. Dabbing at some droplets on her bosom with a scrappy piece of paper towel she bustled along the narrow hallway, oblivious to its peeling wallpaper and slight musty odour, to open her front door.

"Miss Stannard? Miss Barbara Stannard?" said the slender, balding gentleman before her liveried in a brown uniform dappled with rain spots.

"Yes," she replied, still distracted by the tea stains.

"Could you sign here please?" The courier handed her a small black console with a stylus. "Sorry for the delay, but someone had put the wrong postcode on it. Only came into our office this morning otherwise you'd have had it three days ago. Good job we can track stuff, eh?" He chuckled awkwardly, fidgeting.

Barbara signed in the little box and returned the console, still bewildered. "Sorry, the signature isn't quite right. They're such silly little boxes."

"Oh, don't worry about it. There you go. Have a great day." He thrust a modestly sized brown paper package into her apprehensive hands and disappeared back into the street.

Barbara froze, reality suspended; the world around her forgotten, invisible. The sound of her heart's palpitations tripped in her ears. She stared at the parcel, hands shaking. When she reflected on that moment, during the following months, all she could remember was the smell of cigarettes and Old Spice which had shrouded the courier.

* * *

"Any more carrots or roast potatoes anyone?" asked Kathleen, brandishing a serving spoon. "There's plenty, so please just help yourselves."

"We're all good for now," said Robert. "Need to balance ourselves out for pudding, don't we?" he continued with a grin. "I've been meaning to ask you, Mum, if you still read as much. There's a book out just now that's set back in the days when you and Dad used to work for the council. Think it's called 'Upwardly Mobile'. It's caused quite a stir apparently. Something to do with wife swapping parties and a Right to Buy Scheme fraud. Of course, it's purely fictional. People just wouldn't get away with that sort of thing, lining their own pockets from the public purse, but I wondered if you'd heard about it?" He forked some roast chicken and mashed potato into his mouth before raising his bushy eyebrows at her.

Kathleen pulled a face. "Sounds fascinating, if a little trashy. Yes, I do still read a little but nothing like as much as I used to. Without your Dad around I just don't seem to have the time." She paused to take a small sip of her Rioja. "Can't say as I've heard of this book, but I'll look out for it, if you think it'd be interesting."

"It's been written by someone called Stannard. The name is what struck me. Wasn't Aunt Barbara's surname Stannard?" asked Robert reaching for some more wine.

"Yes, it is. Though where she is, or if she's even still alive I have no idea. We haven't been in touch for nearly twenty years. You're not suggesting she's written a book, are you? I'd find it hard to believe. She could barely string two sentences together at school." Kathleen twisted her slender fingers through her Tiffany necklace as she answered, a slight quiver to her voice.

"Oh, right," said Robert somewhat disappointedly. "And there was I thinking I had a claim to fame at last. Some tenuous connection to a best-selling author. Never mind." He turned his attention to one of the twins, their peas and gravy perilously close to spilling off the plate.

"You never have told us. What happened with your sister, Kathleen?" asked Susan.

If anyone was going to ask the awkward question it would be her stepsons pinch faced wife! Kathleen had never taken to her. There was something unsavoury and judgemental in everything she said. She'd always set her distaste aside for the sake of the twins, and John when he was alive, attempting to endure her. Especially as they were all the family she had left.

"Oh, it was one of those things. Barbara had asked us to lend her some money to pay off a roof repair. Back then we couldn't afford it, so she fell out with us. Never spoke to us again," she concluded. Kathleen ruminated. She'd not thought about Barbara in a long time. She wouldn't even know where to start looking for her. Surely she wouldn't still be in the same hovel? How Barbara might laugh now, if she but knew. Would she think it Karma?

"I don't understand, Kathleen. You must have both been earning quite well, working for the Council." continued Susan. "Roberts always told me you were reasonably comfortable, even back then. She must've asked you for a fair bit,if you didn't feel you could help her out." Like a heat seeking missile programmed to target scandal Susan sensed her mother-in-law's reticence.

"Goodness, have we finished that wine so soon? You do like a drink don't you Susan! I'll just pop and get another," Kathleen smiled briefly, before scooping up the empty bottle.

In the sanctuary of the kitchen she could hear the terse voices of Robert and Susan.

"I told you not to go and upset her. She's enough on, still sorting out Dads will," Robert was saying.

"I'm not upsetting anyone. I didn't bring her sister into the conversation. You did," responded Susan. "And watch what you're doing with Daniel, he's got gravy all over the tablecloth."

Kathleen tuned them out, trying hard to steady her nerves. Reaching into the fridge for a second Pinot Grigio she saw a bundle of letters stuffed down the side of the microwave.

Damn! Her mouth went dry. She had meant to hide those. It'd be just like Susan to 'accidentally' discover them under the pretext of tidying up after lunch. Kathleen pulled them out, paling at the sight of all the red lettering. What was she supposed to do with this stuff? On impulse, she opened the freezer and pushed them inside.

* * *

Barbara sat cradling the package for an hour or more before plucking up the courage to unwrap it. Taking a pair of kitchen scissors she carefully sliced through the tape holding down the folds of brown paper. It crackled as she folded it back, peeling away the layers to reveal a stout cardboard box, also sealed. On top lay a stark white envelope. Her name typed clearly in black ink. With trembling fingers she picked it up. Her heart felt like she was running a marathon as she opened it, her brow beaded with perspiration. Squeezing her eyes shut she teased out the single sheet of A4 paper and unfolded it flat to the kitchen table. She left her hand pressed upon it, as if she could absorb the information it contained through osmosis, draw the ink into her bloodstream and let it wash through the neural circuits of her brain.

On a count of three she opened her eyes. Then she cried. She cried for over half an hour, tears of sheer relief and joy. A copy of her book sat before her, cushioned on translucent bubble-wrap. A first class ticket to London for the publicity trip was inside. Her publisher had confirmed their first payment into her bank account. She'd known it would be a risk signing the contract as she had, but they'd come good in the end. The aroma of crisp creamy pages flooded with words, her words, filled her nostrils. At 57, she finally felt her life could begin.

* * *

"Can you see who that is?" called out Kathleen as her doorbell rang three times in succession, followed by repeated loud knocking.

"Not sure who they are, Mum, but there's three burly blokes on your driveway, and they've brought a van," answered Robert from the dining room. "Not expecting a delivery today are you?"

"No, not at all," she replied "See what they want, will you. Maybe they're lost. I'm just filling the dishwasher before dessert."

"Kathleen, the twins are getting restless and looking for some ice cream. I know you've made chocolate sauce - that smell is divine," Susan simpered, "but do you mind if I help myself for them just now? Is that OK?"

"Mum!" Robert appeared in the kitchen doorway, ashen faced. "You'd best come quick. I think there must be some mistake."

"In the freezer, dear," Kathleen said to Susan, looking at Robert. "What is it?"

"Bailiffs! They say they're bailiffs!" Robert replied.

* * *

Shadows haunted the hallway, clinging to walls, defending corners; finding refuge among dust encrusted cobwebs they rippled across the ceiling. A tap dripped in the kitchen, marking time like a pulse. The phone receiver rattled in its cradle; calling, calling, calling.