Pic­ture Per­fect

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A spite­ful reve­la­tion had shat­tered my life – and now, it was pay­back time. But could I go through with it?

The ta­bles have turned. Now it’s time to see how she likes be­ing on the re­ceiv­ing end of the sort of blow she dealt to me.

I study the pho­tos I took on my phone. There are two, but ei­ther of them will do. Slip­ping the phone into my bag, I set out for the party on foot.

It’s a beau­ti­ful day for a gar­den party. The sky is the sort of in­tense blue that makes drift­ing clouds daz­zle with white­ness. There’s warmth in the air, too, but a breeze keeps it de­li­ciously fresh.

My heart beats faster at the thought of what’s to come, but I know I’ll have to pick my mo­ment, so I take time to en­joy the gar­dens and hedgerows as I pass by.

In terms of beauty, West Blee­bury is idyl­lic – ex­actly what I’d craved when I lived in the city and longed for vil­lage life. We’ve had both rain and sun­shine in re­cent weeks, so the lawns are lush and flow­ers bloom brightly.

I in­hale the heav­enly fra­grance of yellow roses and dusky drifts of laven­der, watch bees buzz amidst tall, pink spires of fox­gloves. And, af­ter just five min­utes, I reach the vil­lage green.

I first saw it on the In­ter­net when we were re­search­ing where we might live. It looked charm­ing on-screen, and the re­al­ity hasn’t dis­ap­pointed.

It’s an ex­cep­tion­ally pretty green with Vic­to­rian-style lamp­posts sup­port­ing huge bas­kets of flow­ers. More flow­ers grow in semi-cir­cu­lar banks be­hind benches to make small bow­ers of tran­quil­lity.

The build­ings around the green are quaint and gor­geous. They in­clude the tim­ber­framed pub and the vil­lage store – and High Leigh, an achingly lovely house with arched win­dows, set in im­mac­u­late gar­dens of al­most an acre. This is my for­mer home. The Ban­crofts live there now – nice peo­ple.

‘Oh, dear. This must be hard for you, Catherine,’ Janet had said, when she learned why the house had been sold.

‘Don’t feel un­com­fort­able,’ I urged her. ‘I didn’t live at High Leigh for long.’

‘Even so…’

There was no need to state the obvious: that it was quite a climb-down for me to move from High Leigh to the cot­tage.

There’s noth­ing wrong with the cot­tage – it’s charm­ing. But it’s tiny, in­side and out. The front gar­den can be crossed in a sin­gle step and there’s just a nar­row strip of land at the back.

Af­ter ev­ery­thing went wrong, my in­ten­tion was to move away. Why would I tor­ture my­self with daily re­minders of how I’d lost both my home and my dreams? It wasn’t as if I’d lived here long enough to put down roots. Or so I thought…

West Blee­bury had other ideas. Hav­ing wel­comed me warmly when I first ar­rived, it wasn’t will­ing to let me go with­out a fight.

‘Do you re­ally want to re­turn to the city you were so glad to leave?’ one friend de­manded.

‘Or start over in a dif­fer­ent vil­lage?’ an­other asked.

The an­swer to both ques­tions was ‘no’. I liked the friends I’d made here. And, be­sides, my bud­get was lim­ited and the cot­tage was just about af­ford­able. It also had three tiny bed­rooms, which meant the kids could come and stay: Jack from his job and Alice from univer­sity.

Ma­rina’s home – an­other sub­stan­tial vil­lage house – is just along from the green. Strains of mu­sic reach me as I ap­proach. Walking round to the back, I pause to sur­vey the party: gaze­bos, chairs, ta­bles and peo­ple. Lots of peo­ple, rais­ing funds for vil­lage causes.

My gaze seeks out the red hair of one par­tic­u­lar per­son, but, be­fore I lo­cate her, a group of friends call to me to join them. I head for their ta­ble, only to be stopped half­way by Ma­rina swoop­ing in to kiss my cheek.

‘Ev­ery­one loves your idea of sell­ing off the ta­ble dec­o­ra­tions, Catherine,’ she says, smil­ing. ‘They’ll raise a lot of money, be­ing so beau­ti­ful.’

I’d used flow­ers and fo­liage from my lit­tle gar­den and the larger gar­dens of friends to make the dec­o­ra­tions on in­ter­est­ing pieces of bark and wood I’d found in nearby copses. Along with two rasp­berry pavlo­vas for the dessert ta­ble, they were my con­tri­bu­tions to to­day’s event, as I’m not in a po­si­tion to do­nate much money.

I al­ways do what I can to help our small com­mu­nity, whether I’m feed­ing peo­ple’s cats when they’re away on hol­i­day, or help­ing el­derly res­i­dents with gar­den­ing. I like to think I’m giv­ing back for the wel­come I’ve re­ceived.

Ma­rina spots an­other ar­rival and I move on to my friends. They find a chair for me, press a glass of wine into my hand. And, al­though my dress is old, they tell me how nice I look. It’s lovely to feel so pop­u­lar.

I fi­nally spot the red hair of Pamela King. Pamela is a tall, an­gu­lar woman given to voic­ing opin­ions and ad­vice.

‘Catherine, I hate to in­ter­fere,’ she’d said that aw­ful day, ‘but, in your shoes, I’d want to know.’

‘Know what?’ I’d asked, though sus­pi­cion was al­ready creep­ing up on me.

‘I’m afraid I saw James on a train, and he wasn’t alone. It was per­fectly obvious what was go­ing on. I’m sure you don’t need me to go into de­tail.’

Dark­ness stole in and squeezed my heart. Pamela

Pamela is a tall, an­gu­lar woman given to voic­ing opin­ions and ad­vice

pat­ted my arm, and I re­mem­ber look­ing at her scar­let-tipped fin­ger­nails as though her hand be­longed to an alien.

‘I do hate to be the bearer of bad news,’ she said smoothly. Sure, she did.

But I don’t blame Pamela for the fail­ure of my mar­riage. It was hardly her fault that James chose to have an af­fair, and he and I were drift­ing apart anyway.

Nor do I blame her for the fact that her bomb­shell launched me into a bit­ter con­fronta­tion with James, in which we lost any chance of the sort of am­i­ca­ble part­ing that might have re­duced the hurt to the kids, and the money we spent on lawyers. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for that is mine.

But I do blame her for tak­ing plea­sure in her mo­ment of power over me. I know spite when I see it, and, that day, spite had gleamed hun­grily in Pamela’s eyes.

Now it’s my turn.

I sit in the sun­shine, sip­ping my wine and plan­ning my ap­proach. Should I be­gin the same way she had – by say­ing that I hate to in­ter­fere? Why not? The irony is ir­re­sistible!

I bide my time through­out the bar­be­cue and wait un­til the queue for desserts has sub­sided. ‘Time for pud,’ I an­nounce. Pamela has been ‘su­per­vis­ing’ the dessert ta­ble. ‘To be sure ev­ery­one gets what they want,’ I’ve heard her telling peo­ple, even though Ma­rina has la­belled each dessert clearly.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to avoid any­one com­pletely in a small com­mu­nity like ours, so I’ve man­aged to co­ex­ist with

Pamela in the year since she dropped her bomb­shell. We’re not friends – we were never more than ac­quain­tances – but I’m sub­tle about melting away when­ever she’s near, as I don’t want to make other peo­ple feel awk­ward. I make ex­cuses about need­ing a cardi­gan or talk­ing to some­one about their cat.

Pamela ap­pears to be awk­ward around me, though. I suspect she isn’t as sat­is­fied with the out­come of her bomb­shell as she ex­pected. I’m not the only one who’s cool with her as a re­sult of it.

She shows tell­tale signs of awk­ward­ness as I walk towards her now. Her eyes blink quickly; her hands look like flip­pers she’s for­got­ten how to op­er­ate.

The closer I get to her, the more ap­pre­hen­sive she looks, and I won­der whether there’s some­thing in my ex­pres­sion that makes her fear me.

‘Catherine,’ she says, at­tempt­ing a smile. ‘There’s plenty of tri­fle left. I love tri­fle, don’t you?’

Pamela her­self con­tributed the tri­fle, and it isn’t prov­ing pop­u­lar with the other guests.

Be­fore I can an­swer, Mary Bridges comes up. ‘I was hoping for more of your de­li­cious pavlova, Catherine, but I see it’s all gone. Oh, well. Better for my waist­line, eh?’

She leaves us with a tit­ter of laugh­ter, but is im­me­di­ately re­placed by An­nie Fox and Jill

Her mo­men­tary spite doesn’t jus­tify un­kind­ness in re­turn

Camp­bell. ‘No pavlova?’ An­nie asks. ‘Pity.’

‘I love the ta­ble dec­o­ra­tions,’ Jill tells me. ‘I’ve got my eye on one for Tues­day, prefer­ably the one with the laven­der as it’ll go so well with my cur­tains. You’re still com­ing for din­ner?’

‘Of course,’ I as­sure her. ‘There’ll be eight of us. I’m plan­ning a casse­role.’ ‘Won­der­ful.’

Ma­rina glides past, but pauses to grab my arm. ‘You’ll stay for sup­per tonight? Once the hordes have gone?’

‘Love to,’ I re­ply warmly, then I no­tice Jim Thomas wav­ing and send him a smile. I walk his dog when­ever he’s away on busi­ness.

When I turn back to Pamela, I’m sur­prised to catch a look on her face that I haven’t seen be­fore. In­stantly, she tight­ens it to stud­ied in­dif­fer­ence, but by then I’ve al­ready reg­is­tered what it was. Long­ing…

Good­ness! Pamela has lived in West Blee­bury for more than 10 years, but re­mains on the out­side look­ing in when it comes to in­ti­mate friend­ships. I’ve al­ways as­sumed she prefers be­ing the vil­lage busy­body, but per­haps I’m wrong.

Maybe her in­ter­fer­ing ways aren’t ac­tu­ally in­tended to be in­ter­fer­ing at all. Maybe they’re just clumsy at­tempts to make her mark on vil­lage af­fec­tions be­cause she hasn’t the in­sight to see that it’s easy warmth that leads to friend­ships – and that in­ter­fer­ence merely gets on peo­ple’s nerves.

And maybe – just maybe – it wasn’t re­ally mal­ice, but a sud­den and much-re­gret­ted burst of jeal­ousy that sparked her mo­ment of spite against me, be­cause I came along two years ago and was wel­comed with open arms.

If that’s the case, Pamela isn’t re­ally bad at all, but sad.

‘Tri­fle would be great,’ I say, be­cause there’s no way I can show her the pho­tos now.

I can’t be the bringer of grief.

Pamela’s eyes light up in sur­prised de­light, and I find my­self more than a lit­tle moved by her obvious des­per­a­tion to please. I carry the dessert back to my ta­ble and force it down, al­though it’s not my favourite.

Later, I no­tice Pamela’s hus­band stand­ing alone. He’s a dis­tant sort of man and I’ve never spo­ken to him be­yond a po­lite ‘hello’. But I walk over to him now.

‘Isn’t Ma­rina’s gar­den look­ing beau­ti­ful?’ I ask.

He nods, bored – and he’s ar­ro­gant enough to see no rea­son to hide it.

‘I’ve seen lupins like those in Crox­ford Gar­den Cen­tre,’ I say. Now his face grows wary… ‘There was a fab­u­lous clema­tis grow­ing around their café win­dow,’ I tell him. ‘I took a pic­ture of it.’

It was in the café that I’d seen David hold­ing hands with a woman much younger than Pamela.

‘I got some glo­ri­ous shots of the hy­drangeas in the car park, too,’ I add.

It was in there that David and his woman had kissed.

I smile a mean­ing­ful smile, then walk away. I won’t ex­pose his af­fair, but I hope I’ve given him cause to think about the wisdom of con­tin­u­ing it.

How strange. Pamela’s pry­ing trig­gered the end of my mar­riage, yet here I am try­ing to prop up hers.

I sup­pose I feel that her mo­men­tary spite doesn’t jus­tify un­kind­ness in re­turn. In fact, maybe kind­ness is the very thing Pamela needs.

I see her sit­ting at a ta­ble, alone apart from an el­derly cou­ple who are talk­ing among them­selves. I walk up, smil­ing. ‘The tri­fle was de­li­cious,’ I say. ‘Re­ally?’ She blinks rapidly. ‘Thank you.’

‘I’ve got some peo­ple com­ing for a cuppa in the morn­ing, around 10am if you fancy it?’

‘Me?’ she asks, over­whelmed. There’s even a sheen of tears in her eyes. ‘I’d love to join you.’ ‘Great!’

Doesn’t ev­ery­one de­serve a sec­ond chance, af­ter all?

THE END

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