The Heart Of The Mat­ter by Jan Snook

The jig­saw was prov­ing dif­fi­cult, yet Anya wasn’t will­ing to give up . . .

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WHERE are you?” Toby called from his par­ents’ kitchen. “I’ve made us some cof­fee.” “Din­ing-room,” Anya an­swered, and heard the clink­ing of mugs as Toby ap­proached.

“I didn’t know I’d mar­ried a closet jig­saw fan,” he said.

“There are lots of things you still don’t know about me,” Anya replied, smil­ing up at her hus­band. “It would be a pity if there weren’t.

“After all, if you knew ev­ery­thing after only two years of mar­riage, what would we talk about for the next fifty or so?”

“Fair point.” Toby nod­ded, look­ing fondly at his wife, her eyes now scan­ning the scat­tered loose pieces of the half­com­plete jig­saw cov­er­ing the ta­ble.

“I have some­thing I want to talk to you about, ac­tu­ally,” Toby went on, sit­ting down op­po­site her.

Anya pounced on a piece and moved her hand to­wards its likely home.

“As it hap­pens,” she said as if he hadn’t spo­ken, “I haven’t done a jig­saw puz­zle since I was about ten. So I’m not a closet jig­saw fan, but I could get hooked quite eas­ily.”

“Not on this one,” Toby said firmly. “My fa­ther gives my mother a jig­saw ev­ery Christ­mas and no-one else is al­lowed to touch it. In fact, I’ve been told off in the past for just sug­gest­ing where a par­tic­u­lar piece might be­long. She’s rather posses­sive about her jig­saws.”

Anya thought of her rather for­mi­da­ble moth­erin-law and smiled. Her be­ing posses­sive about a puz­zle was only too easy to imag­ine.

“She won’t re­mem­ber ex­actly how much of it she’s done, though, will she?” Anya said rea­son­ably. “By the time they get back she’ll have for­got­ten where she’s up to, surely?”

They both gazed at the jig­saw: the pic­ture was a tan­gled mass of flow­ers, all pinks and mauves and yel­lows and blues – and a great many dif­fer­ent greens.

“She must have spent hours on it al­ready,” Anya de­cided.

“Most of her waking hours since Box­ing Day, I should imag­ine,” Toby agreed.

“Three whole days?” Anya shook her head in dis­be­lief. “She won’t no­tice if I just put this one lit­tle piece in.”

Anya jammed the piece in her hand into po­si­tion be­fore Toby could stop her.

“Oh.” Her face fell. “It doesn’t quite fit. I was so sure it went there.”

Toby was shak­ing his head.

“It’s a good thing they’re not com­ing back till the day after to­mor­row. But as I was say­ing –”

“You’re go­ing to tell me you want a dog,” Anya in­ter­rupted, smil­ing. “How did you know?” “When your par­ents asked us to come and dog-sit for the week­end, you said yes in­stantly, and you’ve been grin­ning like a Cheshire cat ever since.

“And from the mo­ment we ar­rived you’ve been spoil­ing that dog rot­ten!

“She’s had more walks and treats and pet­ting than she’s prob­a­bly had in her whole life. Why would I be sur­prised you want a dog?

“You’re be­sot­ted with her. It’s no won­der I’m think­ing of tak­ing up jig­saws!”

“So get­ting a dog isn’t out of the ques­tion, then?”

“It’s a def­i­nite maybe.” Anya smiled. “Let’s see how you feel about it to­mor­row. It’s sup­posed to be pour­ing with rain all day, and Poppy will still need you to take her for a cou­ple of long walks.”

“Why? What will you be do­ing?”

Anya looked at him in sur­prise.

“I’ll be slav­ing over a hot stove get­ting the four of us a New Year’s Eve din­ner, re­mem­ber? I’m still try­ing to con­vince your mother that I’m wor­thy of you, and that I can cook.”

“But you can do that on Mon­day. You don’t have to spend Sun­day do­ing it,” Toby ob­jected.

“I’m try­ing to be or­gan­ised and I don’t want your mother to ar­rive back and find her kitchen in a mess and me in a panic.”

“Right. Any­way, my mother adores you,” Toby added rather be­lat­edly, and not sound­ing, Anya thought, al­to­gether con­vinc­ing.

“On that note, I’d bet­ter go and give Poppy her sup­per,” Toby said, get­ting up. “And Anya? Leave that jig­saw alone.”

He dropped a kiss on the top of her head and left the room.

Anya turned her at­ten­tion back to the jig­saw. She would just re­move that piece she’d wedged into the wrong place and then . . .

“Toby!” Her shriek brought Toby run­ning in, white-faced.

“What on earth . . .?” “Get a cloth!” Anya shouted, “Quick!”

“I don’t know where –” “Get some­thing! Do some­thing!”

They both stared at the cof­fee, which was spread­ing re­lent­lessly

over the jig­saw, pool­ing here and there and drip­ping off the edge of the ta­ble.

“How did it hap­pen?” Toby asked, be­wil­dered.

“Never mind that,” Anya said crossly, dab­bing at the pieces with a stray tis­sue, “I need a cloth or a paper towel. Some­thing!”

Toby ar­rived back in the din­ing-room armed with a roll of kitchen towel, and they both started fran­ti­cally mop­ping up the hot cof­fee.

“How can one mug of cof­fee spread this far?” Anya wailed, tear­ing off yet more paper towel.

“How did it hap­pen?” Toby asked when they had at last got the jig­saw as dry as pos­si­ble, and wiped the ta­ble and car­pet.

Anya looked at him help­lessly and be­gan to cry.

“I was just pulling the jig­saw piece out – the one I’d put in the wrong place – but it was stuck. Then it came out very sud­denly and my el­bow knocked the cof­fee over.

“What on earth is your mother go­ing to say? She’ll be fu­ri­ous.”

“I’m sure she won’t,” Toby said sooth­ingly.

Anya tore off an­other bit of towel to dry her eyes.

“The cof­fee doesn’t seem to have stained the puz­zle, does it? It’ll be fine by the time it’s dried,” Toby went on. “And the car­pet’s cof­fee-coloured in any case. Ev­ery­thing will be fine.”

Anya touched one of the pieces ten­ta­tively, and she and Toby stared as the pic­ture of half a daisy came off in her hand.

Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­firmed what they had both just re­alised:

“The cof­fee has melted the glue! The pic­ture’s just laminated on to the card, and now . . .” Toby stopped, his mouth open in hor­ror.

He waved a hand to­wards one cor­ner of the puz­zle.

“The pic­ture’s peel­ing off all over the place. We’re go­ing to be left with a plain brown card­board jig­saw in a minute.”

“Maybe when the pic­ture’s dry, we could glue the bits of paper back on,” Anya suggested in a whis­per.

But they could both see that wasn’t go­ing to work.

“We can’t do any­thing about it tonight,” Toby said brac­ingly. “Look­ing at it, I think we’re just go­ing to have to con­fess. I’ll say I did it.”

“But you didn’t. And you’re hope­less at ly­ing,” Anya re­marked. “Your mother will know.”

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, in the pre­dicted teem­ing rain, Anya and Toby drove into town, armed with the ru­ined jig­saw’s empty box.

They walked into the toyshop where, Toby as­sured Anya, his fa­ther al­ways bought the Christ­mas jig­saws.

There was a queue of peo­ple chang­ing un­wanted Christ­mas presents, and it was some time be­fore Toby could ex­plain to the woman be­hind the counter what had hap­pened.

“I’m not sure we’ve got any of that one left,” she said, peer­ing at the pic­ture on the box. “I’ll go and look in the store room.”

She came back a few min­utes later, beam­ing.

“No, sorry, we’ve sold out of that one, but we’ve got sev­eral other flo­ral pic­tures. I’m sure your mother would love one of these.”

She put down a pile of boxes, none of which would do.

“Thanks,” Toby said, pay­ing for a new jig­saw, “I’ll take this one in case we can’t find the one we want. A sort of peace of­fer­ing.”

After trudg­ing round the town, be­ing splashed by the many pud­dles, and with rain pour­ing off their um­brella, they found the right jig­saw in the fourth toyshop they vis­ited.

“I’m sorry, the box is a bit bro­ken. I ex­pect that’s why no-one bought it,” the shop­keeper apol­o­gised.

“Not a prob­lem,” Anya said quickly, look­ing at her watch and hur­ry­ing Toby out of the shop.

“What’s the rush?” he asked once they were out­side. “We’ve found it now. We can go and find a pub for lunch.”

“Don’t be ridicu­lous,” Anya snapped. “It’ll take us for ever to do the half your mother had done. I thought that if we marked where the orig­i­nal jig­saw was on the ta­ble, we could get the new one to ex­actly the same stage.”

Toby was star­ing at her as if she were mad.

“We’re not go­ing to try to do the jig­saw, are we?” he asked. “I thought we were just go­ing to give her the new one and apol­o­gise. Pro­fusely.”

It was Anya’s turn to stare.

“We could have bought any old jig­saw if that’s what we were go­ing to do,” she said im­pa­tiently. “We’ve got to do it, any­one can see that.”

“Anya,” Toby said gen­tly, “what’s got into you? You’ve got a pos­i­tively manic gleam in your eye, and you are usu­ally so calm.

“My mother’s not a mon­ster, you know. She’ll un­der­stand.”

But he was over­ruled. Poppy was bark­ing de­light­edly when they ar­rived back at the house, and Toby pulled an apolo­getic face.

“I’ll make us a sand­wich, shall I? Then I’ll have to take her out,” he said, “rain or no rain.”

Anya, though, was al­ready run­ning up­stairs to the bath­room. She came back down a sec­ond later, tow­elling her drip­ping hair dry.

“Fine,” she said, “but don’t come any­where near me, OK?”

“What have I done?”

She looked at him in amaze­ment.

“You’ll be drip­ping wet! I can’t risk any wa­ter get­ting on to the new puz­zle, can I?”

She marched into the din­ing-room and was soon sort­ing out cor­ners and edge pieces.

“Your mother must be a real whizz at jig­saws,” was the first thing Anya said when Toby came back in an hour later.

She sounded as if she might be on the verge of tears again.

“How are you get­ting on?” he ven­ture hes­i­tantly. “Badly!” Anya wailed. “It will be quicker if there are two of us,” Toby pointed out, frown­ing at how lit­tle of the pic­ture had taken shape in his ab­sence.

They sat in near si­lence for a very long time, but still only a frac­tion of the puz­zle was done.

Toby got them both a cup of tea, but drank his in the kitchen. Anya didn’t drink hers at all.

“We’re go­ing to have to give up, dar­ling,” Toby said. “It’s nearly sup­per time and you look ex­hausted.”

But Anya stared stub­bornly at the jig­saw and car­ried on, while Toby went into the kitchen and started mak­ing an omelette, which he in­sisted she ate.

As soon as she’d fin­ished, she went back into the din­ing-room and they both set to once more.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing Toby woke up to find Anya’s side of the bed empty.

He went down­stairs and found her back at the puz­zle, look­ing white and drawn, a piece of dry toast in her hand.

“OK, this is ridicu­lous,” he said, sound­ing an­noyed. “I don’t know what time you came to bed last night, but you look dread­ful, and my par­ents will be back in just a few hours and we have a meal to pre­pare.”

Anya looked up at him and he in­stantly put his arms round her.

“Anya, dar­ling, this isn’t

Even now, only a frac­tion of the jig­saw was com­pleted

like you,” he said, stroking her tear­ful face. “You never cry. You’re just over­tired.

“Not sur­pris­ingly,” he added, look­ing bale­fully at the jig­saw.

“How much of the night were you up?” he said more se­ri­ously. “You’ve nearly done as much as Mum had, haven’t you?”

He screwed up his eyes, study­ing the puz­zle more closely.

“Anya? Look, you’ve done more than she had.” Anya nod­ded.

“I was too tired to keep track, I just hope she doesn’t no­tice,” she said wearily. “We can break up the old one now.”

“I can break up the old one,” Toby said firmly. “For heaven’s sake, go back to bed.”

For once Anya did as she was told, and was feel­ing al­most hu­man by the time her par­ents-in-law ar­rived home at teatime.

“So,” Ja­cob, Toby’s fa­ther, asked ge­nially, “what have you two been up to? Poppy kept you busy, I ex­pect.”

“Well, I hope Anya has man­aged to have a bit of a rest,” his wife Linda said, sound­ing more than usu­ally con­cerned.

“You were look­ing quite peaky, dear, when we ar­rived,” she con­tin­ued, giv­ing Anya a quizzi­cal look. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to go for a rest be­fore sup­per?

“I thought I’d just rus­tle up some­thing sim­ple. Ja­cob and Toby could take Poppy out for her walk.”

The men, Anya thought, rounded up Poppy and left with in­de­cent haste.

“There’s a casse­role in the fridge,” Anya be­gan. “And I made a crum­ble. But I am very tired. Would it be aw­ful if I . . .?”

“You’ve made a casse­role? And a pud?” The older woman was look­ing at her as if she was from an­other planet. “That’s great. Yes, you go and have a rest. I’m not sur­prised you’re tired.” Anya made her es­cape. By the time Anya came back down­stairs she could smell the casse­role in the oven, and Linda was pour­ing cream into a jug.

Ja­cob was putting peanuts into a bowl and Poppy was at his feet, look­ing hope­ful.

“Ah, you’re down, Anya,” Ja­cob said hap­pily, “I’ll go and get the cham­pagne.”

“Can I do any­thing?” Anya asked.

“Maybe you could help Toby,” Linda suggested. “He’s in the din­ing-room, lay­ing the ta­ble.”

“Lay­ing the ta­ble? But your jig­saw . . .?”

Toby came into the kitchen at that mo­ment and put his arms round Anya’s waist.

“Mum’s fin­ished her jig­saw,” he said, giv­ing Anya a mean­ing­ful glance. “It’s all done and put away.”

“Oh, well done!” Anya said, re­lief flow­ing through her.

“Oh, yes, I love my puz­zles,” Linda be­gan, “but I can’t deny that it’s great when I fin­ish one. And that one was par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult. All those dif­fer­ent pinks!”

“Yes, and the greens were all so sim­i­lar,” Anya replied with­out think­ing.

She felt Toby’s hand tense on her waist and felt the blood rush to her face.

“At least that’s what it looked like,” she fin­ished lamely.

Linda looked amused.

“Ac­tu­ally,” she said, “I was find­ing it so dif­fi­cult that I’d de­cided while we were away that I was go­ing to give up on it. But I’d done more than I re­mem­bered, and now it’s fin­ished.”

“Fin­ished?” Ja­cob said, com­ing in with a bot­tle. “But it can’t be. You must have missed a bit, Linda. I’ve just found this on the floor.” He held out a jig­saw piece. “You must have dropped it.”

They all stared at the frag­ment of card­board clema­tis, then Linda took the piece and turned it this way and that, nar­row­ing her eyes.

“The paper’s peel­ing off it, look,” she said, “and it’s an edge piece, so I couldn’t pos­si­bly have missed it.”

There was a mo­ment’s deathly si­lence.

“Toby?” She looked at her son ac­cus­ingly.”

“Ah,” he said. “Yes. I’m afraid I had a bit of an ac­ci­dent.”

“No, Linda, it’s my fault,” Anya said very qui­etly. “I spilled a cup of cof­fee over your jig­saw. Toby told me not to touch it, but I couldn’t re­sist.”

The whole sorry tale came tum­bling out.

“But you must have been up all night,” Linda said, hor­ri­fied. “How could you let her, Toby? Poor girl! No won­der you were shat­tered.”

“Not just shat­tered,” Toby mum­bled. “Ratty and tear­ful as well.”

But Linda’s lips had be­gun to twitch.

She be­gan to gig­gle, and very soon all four of them were laugh­ing.

“This calls for a toast,” Ja­cob said, hand­ing each of them a glass. “To the ex­tra piece! The un­ex­pected ad­di­tion!”

“I nearly for­got,” Toby put in. “Mum, we bought you an­other jig­saw to say sorry in case we couldn’t re­place the first one. I’ll go and get it.”

“I didn’t know you liked jig­saws,” Linda said to Anya while Toby was gone.

“Nei­ther did I,” Anya said rue­fully. “But I found it strangely ad­dic­tive.”

“I’d bet­ter buy one for you as well, in that case,” Toby said, com­ing back into the room and hand­ing his mother the new puz­zle.

“Maybe she’d bet­ter have this one,” Linda said.

“This might be the last time for quite a while that Anya will have time to do a jig­saw.

“You’re go­ing to be busy. Am I right, Anya?”

“Is there any point try­ing to keep any­thing a se­cret round here?” Toby asked, rolling his eyes. “How did you know?”

“Mostly be­cause of you, Toby. Your face is such a give­away,” his mother said fondly. “But Anya? Tear­ful and ratty?”

“And not touch­ing her glass of cham­pagne?” Ja­cob added with a mis­chievous smile. “Your mother’s sus­pected it for weeks!

“A baby! What a happy new year this is go­ing to be! So here’s an­other toast. To Anya and Toby. Plus one!” ■

The whole sorry tale came tum­bling out

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