THE ADVENTURE OF THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER

Georgina sighed again and squeezed the two pouches of fat that rolled over her hips.  She was watching herself in the wardrobe mirror, so she could see her bulging midriff as well.  She wondered if she should get a long-line bra.  She could certainly do with plenty of support.  If only she hadn’t been so greedy for so many years.  All those sandwiches and ice creams and slices of fruit cake.  All that lemonade and ginger beer and orange squash.  She groaned.

Her husband had explained to her so many times that it wasn’t a healthy way to eat, that you needed less food as you got older, that she should give up cream and butter.  He of course was as slim as a whip and lived on salads and yoghurt and wholemeal bread.  Oh it’s not fair, she thought rebelliously, I can’t be like that, I just can’t.

The phone rang, and she jumped guiltily and looked at the clock.  That would be him, and he’d ask if she’d been to the bank.  She hadn’t, and now she only just had time to collect the children from their after-school activities, and then after that the bank would be shut.  She thought of not answering, and then decided she’d rather have her telling off over the phone, and so picked up the receiver.  To her surprise, there was just silence.  Nothing.  Or maybe someone was breathing?

‘Hello?’ she said.  There was a noise like a sudden intake of breath, and then, unmistakably, a deep sigh.  She slammed the phone down.  A sex maniac! Gosh, how exciting!  I must phone Anne and tell her she thought.  She started to dial the number, and then stopped.  She had a vision of Anne’s face, lips pursed, rigid makeup, with its halo of starched hair.  Call the police, she would say, I don’t know what the world is coming to.  She decided not to tell Anne, suddenly remembered the time and hurried to get dressed so she could collect the children.

Later, in the evening, she told her husband about the call.  He wasn’t terribly interested.

‘I shouldn’t worry about just one, old girl,’ he said, ‘if it gets to be a regular thing, then we’ll sort it out.’

‘But I’m alone in the house,’ she said miserably, ‘if he got our number he’ll have the address too.  And he’ll know I’m here because I answer the phone.’

‘Well don’t answer it then,’ said Julian in his aren’t-I-wonderfully-patient tone.  Georgina’s eyes filled with tears.  If only dear old Timmy were still alive.  You didn’t have to be afraid of anything when he was around.  Julian wouldn’t let them have a dog now.  Too much trouble he said, Timmy had been disgusting and smelly towards the end, and the vet’s bills were enormous.

The phone calls did in fact continue.  Every day that week at exactly the same time, just before she dashed out to collect the children.  Julian still wasn’t very interested.  He told her to keep a whistle by the phone and blow it when the breathing started.  She didn’t want to because she thought it would be a bad idea to upset the man.  No telling what he might do.

Then on Friday a terribly exciting thing happened.  After the phone call she rushed out as usual and there was a man loitering – yes definitely loitering – just opposite the end of their cul-de-sac.  It must be him!

Georgina hurried on.  She would have to pass him.  Would he say anything?  He was a dirty shifty looking man, with his hands in his pockets and his shabby coat collar turned up round his neck.  As she drew level he glanced furtively at her and with a terrible shock she realised she knew him.  Yes!  She had seen that mean face and sideways glance somewhere before!

The man looked quickly away as she passed him.  That type can never look you straight in the eyes she thought.  But who was he?  And was it even him making the phone calls?  She hurried on.  She felt a surge of the old excitement.  If she’d had Timmy she’d have spoken to the man, oh yes she would!

Julian was so late home from work she didn’t have a chance to tell him that evening.  He spent most of Saturday at the golf club and Georgina was busy with the children.  Jane had ballet in the morning and Tim was going to a fancy-dress party in the afternoon.  In fact what with one thing and another she didn’t get a chance to mention it till Sunday lunchtime.

They were round at Anne’s.  Anne was a wonderful cook and Sunday lunch was the one full  meal Julian permitted himself each week.  Anne was so efficient she could sit with them all sipping a small sherry from a lead crystal glass while the dinner cooked itself.  Georgina’s Sunday lunches were never so well behaved!

Georgina was looking through the French windows watching the children play.  Anne’s three were so polite, so beautifully dressed and so totally characterless.  Even their names were virtually indistinguishable – Larry, Carrie and Harry.  Her own two at least had some personality.  The oldest, Jane, was an eight-year-old version of her father – supercilious and too clever by half.  Most of the time she treated her mother as if she were invisible.

Tim, who was five, was a sweet cuddly curly-haired little boy.  Julian said she babied him but he was her baby, and the only one in the family who seemed to care about her at all.  The five children were playing some silly cops and robbers game, racing round the garden shouting ‘bang’ and making machine gun noises.  No real-life adventures for them.  Anne wouldn’t let her three go to the corner sweet shop alone, even though Larry was nearly twelve.  Her thoughts were interrupted by Anne’s hearty husband James slapping her on the back.

‘Come on old George,’ he said, ‘can’t have you glooming by the window.  Come and tell us your news.’  It seemed to be an ideal opportunity to tell her story so she launched into it.  She kept glancing across at James.  It didn’t seem right for him to be there in Dick’s place.  Julian was reading a Sunday colour supplement but Anne was listening avidly.

‘Disgusting,’ she said at the end, ‘another filthy pervert. They should lock him up and throw away the key.’

‘But why should I recognise him?’ Georgina said excitedly, ‘it felt so queer somehow.’

‘Skeletons in the cupboard eh?’ said James jovially, ‘secrets from your murky past?’

‘I say,’ said Georgina excitedly, ‘do you think it could be someone from one of our adventures?  What do you think Ju?’

Anne blushed and glanced at her husband.  She hated to be reminded of their past.  Julian looked up in annoyance.  He hated being called ‘Ju’, and Georgina always forgot when she was excited.

‘I shouldn’t think so for a moment,’ he said abruptly, and went back to his magazine.  The awkward silence that followed was broken by the sound of the doorbell.  James went to answer it and they heard his loud voice say ‘Dick old chap, this is a nice surprise.’

‘Oh no,’ gasped Anne, the potatoes will never stretch to another.’  She had stood up, about to rush off to the kitchen, when Dick appeared and grabbed her round the waist.

‘Couldn’t wait for the brotherly greeting eh?’ he said, and kissed her on the cheek.

‘Will you want lunch?’ asked Anne anxiously.  He grinned at her.  Still the same old boyish grin the made the skin round his eyes crinkle up.

‘Gosh Anne,’ he said, ‘is that one of your marvellous roasts I can smell?’

‘You greedy thing,’ she said, but in a softened tone.  Few women could resist Dick’s grin.

‘I didn’t have time to eat breakfast this morning,’ he went on ruefully, ‘I was too busy doing the decent thing by an airhostess I met on the flight home yesterday and I’m knackered.  Then I realised I was going to pass your place on the way back from her flat so I thought I’d call in.’

Anne blushed and pulled away from him.  She knew that what he called the decent thing was anything but.  He was a salesman who travelled all over the world and he rarely spent the night alone.

All this time Georgina had been gazing up at him.  Dick!  Good old dear old Dick!  He’d understand, he hadn’t changed.  She watched him pour himself a large whisky and swallow it in a single gulp.  She couldn’t wait to tell him all about it.

In fact she had to wait till after lunch, when the children were sent to watch TV in their playroom.  Anne came back from loading the dishwasher carrying a tray of black coffees.  She wasn’t going to have any of them falling asleep and snoring the afternoon away.  Dick was halfway there already, all full of food and wine and brandy.

‘Gosh,’ exclaimed Georgina, ‘that was marvellous Anne.  I don’t believe I’ll ever be hungry again.’

‘You will, never fear,’ said Julian sourly.  Anne primped her lips a pintuck higher.  She disapproved of couples who niggled at each other in public.

‘Well I want to tell Dick my story,’ said Georgina sulkily, putting several lumps of sugar in her coffee.

‘Wassat old girl?’ said Dick muzzily from the depths of his armchair, ‘Goldilocks an’ the three bears?’

‘No you silly goose,’ she answered, and proceeded to tell him the whole thing.

‘You do understand, don’t you Dick,’ she said at the end, imploringly.

‘Yes I think so,’ said Dick thoughtfully, rubbing the stubble on his chin, ‘you think this chap has popped up out of one or our adventures and he’s up to something now.  Could be blackmail I suppose.  He must know we’d all prefer to forget those days.’  Georgina blushed bright red.

‘I wouldn’t,’ she cried, ‘they were wonderful times, we…’  Before she could go on, James stood up and spoke.

‘I want it made quite clear,’ he said solemnly, ‘that my wife and I will have nothing to do with this.  She was never a willing part of your silly goings on, and I’m certainly not having my name dragged into it.  No doubt you have things to do in the kitchen Anne, and I have things to do in the greenhouse.  I leave it to you three to sort this out with the minimum of fuss.’

‘Pompous twit,’ muttered Georgina crossly after they’d gone.

‘Be quiet,’ said Julian curtly, ‘he is actually quite right.  The golf club committee elections are due soon.  I’m not having my chances spoilt by this ridiculous business.  But what can we do about it?’

‘Look,’ said Dick, ‘I’ve got a few days off.  I’ll hang about tomorrow afternoon and if he turns up I’ll tackle him.  I’ll find out what he wants and square it with him one way or another.  You know me, I can usually get round people.’

‘OK,’ said Julian, not without some resentment.  Dick’s easy way of making friends galled him.  ‘Just be careful on the money side will you?  It’s lettuce to you, but I’ve got a family to feed.’

‘Sure,’ said Dick with a grin, ‘trust me.’

And for once Dick kept his word.  He turned up in the morning and took Georgina for lunch, a ploughman’s.  Lovely fresh bread, mature cheddar and pickled onions, washed down by Coke for Georgina and several pints of beer for Dick.  Then they went back to the house and waited for the phone to ring.  Georgina was so worried about the whole thing she had arranged for the children to go to a friend’s house after school.  She sat on the sofa biting her nails anxiously.

‘Lost your bottle old thing?’ asked Dick cheerfully.  She could only nod in agreement.  The phone rang.  She answered it while Dick sauntered off to the end of the road.  He didn’t come back for over an hour, by which time Georgina was frantic with worry.

‘Where on earth did you get to?’ she asked as she let him in, ‘I thought you must have been murdered or something?’

‘My word, you’ve turned into a poor specimen and no mistake,’ said Dick in surprise, ‘pour us a whisky, there’s a good girl.  Make it a large one.’  Her hand shook as she obeyed him.

‘What happened?’ she asked.

‘Well our friend was a pretty poor specimen too actually,’ he said, ‘turns out we sent him to prison in one of our little adventures.  Insists he was innocent of course.  He was phoning to ask for help but kept losing his nerve.  He thought you’d be the softest touch I suppose.  Anyway I gave him fifty quid and the name of a bloke who might give him a job.  That’s the last we’ll hear of him.’

‘How can you be so sure?’ aske Georgina miserably, ‘he must realise I haven’t got old Timmy any more.’

‘Oh trust me,’ said Dick, ‘I’m a fair judge of people.  I made it clear we wouldn’t come up with any more lolly.  Well, must be off old girl.  Got a date with a lovely lady.’

After Dick left, Georgina wandered aimlessly through the empty house.  The children weren’t due back for hours.  She went to the kitchen and cut two – no four – thick slices of crusty bread.  Spread them with butter and layered them with ham, sliced tomatoes, cheese and chutney.  Took a packet of crisps and a large slice of fruitcake.  Made a mug of cocoa and loaded her snack onto a tray.

She took it into the lounge and sat down to eat it.  On the coffee table was one of Jane’s library books. She leafed through it.  It seemed to be about a group of children on holiday who set out to catch some smugglers who were using a ruined old castle as their headquarters.  Taking a large bite out of a sandwich, Georgina settled down for a good read.

 

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