by Dawn Knox
tea with the tea bag left in, milk and two sugars (a bikkie if possible please)
Edna Harbottle liked to do her bit for charity. And since the main raffle prize was an enormous hamper, she bought ten tickets. The odds were that she would win something – and she did. Sadly not the coveted hamper but a complimentary voucher for a home manicure. She’d never been one for fussing about her nails but she thought it might be nice to have a bit of pampering – it would relieve the boredom – and quite frankly, the loneliness that Edna felt during the week while her husband, Roland, was at work. He was a bank manager in Basilwade and took his job very seriously. In two years time, he’d retire and she wondered how she’d cope with him under her feet for the rest of their lives although if the weekends were any indication of what her future might hold, he’d only be under her feet if she happened to be standing on his favourite armchair. Roland spent Saturdays and Sundays fast asleep in front of the television. After a few weeks of retirement, he’d probably have taken root in that chair. She would still be lonely – the only difference was that she’d have to be quiet about it so as not to wake him up. Yes, a beauty treatment was exactly what she needed to take her mind off the emptiness in her house and the emptiness of her future.
On the eagerly-anticipated day, Edna hovered by the front window, watching for the beautician.
“I don’t believe it!” she said when a young woman arrived at her gate.
Edna didn’t often swear but it seemed appropriate.
Ducking down out of sight also seemed a good idea.
The door bell rang insistently and Edna had the feeling the young woman wouldn’t go away until someone responded. With a sigh, she stood up and gritted her teeth. On the doorstep, was Bella Carrossetti, the young woman with the top-knot who’d insulted so many members of the Knit and Natter club that it had changed venue, meeting day and name.
‘Blankets and Blarney’ now took place in Florrie Fanshawe’s house on Friday morning which meant Edna had to wait the whole week for some excitement.
“Bella’s Beauty Box. Beauty in Basilwade or Wherever You Are,” Bella said in a sing-song voice, gripping a box with one hand and patting her top-knot with the other.
No, it was too late to cancel.
“Come in,” said Edna.
‘Oh my,” said Bella “what a… well… period room. I mean, how very Victorian.”
Edna looked round her living room.
Victorian? Well, it was a bit shabby, that was for sure. She’d begged Roland to redecorate but he was always too tired. Or asleep.
“It’s so very… brown. Not that there’s anything wrong with brown… or Victorian, of course,” said Bella when she saw Edna’s mouth opening and closing. No sound was coming out but even Bella could tell that as soon as Edna recovered her composure, the sounds would be indignant.
“Well, shall we begin?” asked Bella brightly. “By the way, you look very familiar, have I done your nails before?”
She peered at Edna’s fingers which were gripping the back of Roland’s armchair. “No, I can’t have. I wouldn’t have let them get in that state.”
After an unpromising start, Edna found the whole manicure experience quite pleasant. Bella chatted about men, nails, more men and more nails and Edna let it wash over her. It was nice to hear another voice in her living room – even if what it was saying wasn’t worth listening to.
“So, what d’you think?” asked Bella, “This one or this?” She put two bottles of nail varnish on the table – one pillar box red and one bright orange.
“Haven’t you got anything a bit paler?”
“This?” Bella replaced them with a pretty, shell-pink bottle.
“Oh, yes, that’s perfect.”
Bella held the bottle up and glanced round the room. “You know, it would be a really good colour in here. With matching curtains and cushions.”
Yes,” said Edna, “you’re right but unfortunately, my husband doesn’t have much idea about decorating.”
“Oh my! You don’t need to worry about that. I’ve just the person who could do it! My uncle’s a decorator and he’s between jobs at the moment. I’ll send him round later today.”
“Oh, no! Thank you but ̶ “
“It’s no trouble. I’ll text him now,” Bella said her thumbs a blur over her mobile phone. “There. He’ll be round in an hour.”
Edna sighed. Roland wouldn’t allow it. On the other hand, he couldn’t do much about it once it’d been started. And, it wouldn’t hurt to meet Bella’s uncle. It would fill the afternoon.
“How d’you do, Missus?” A large man held out a hand that resembled a pack of sausages. He had an enormous stomach that bulged out at the front, straining his overalls,. “My niece, Bella, said you was looking for a decorator. And here I am,” he announced proudly sticking out his stomach even further. “Here’s my card.”
“A Jugg?” she read.
“Yep, that’s right. That’s me. Anthony Jugg. But my friends call me Toby. At your service, Missus.”
And somehow, during that short exchange, Edna found herself showing him into the living room.
“Hoh, yes! I see what Bella meant. This is definitely in need of a makeover. And I’m just the man to do it. I’ll start tomorrow.”
“Don’t we need to discuss prices and things?” asked Edna quickly.
“Hoh no! I’m really reasonable. Tell you what. Gimme a ton and I’ll go and buy the paint and paper now.”
“A ton? A ton of what?”
“Hoh, bless you Missus! A ton, a hundred quid.”
“I don’t think so,” said Edna sharply, “and anyway, you don’t know what colour I want, nor what paper.”
“Hoh, it’ll be Alan Glupta for the walls. And for a colour… I’m thinking… hmm…” he splayed his hand, palm down on his chest like an artist, as he gazed about, “Yup, I have it. Mint pink.”
“Isn’t mint usually green?”
“Not when it’s pink, Missus, not when it’s pink. Here,” he said pulling a grimy piece of paper from his pocket and stabbing at one of the coloured splodges with a sausage-finger, “this one.”
It was very similar to the shell-pink varnish on her nails.
“It doesn’t say Mint Pink,” she remarked, “in fact, none of the colours are labelled.”
“I knows them colours off by heart. Now, if you can’t manage a ton, a pony’ll do and I’ll rush down to the suppliers before they close.”
“Hoh, Missus!” he said, “You crack me up. A pony, you know, twenty-five quid.”
“No,” said Edna firmly, “I’ll pay you when you’ve finished and not a minute before. That is, if I engage you at all.”
“Hoh, you drive a ‘ard bargain, Missus, and no mistake! Right, make it a tenner and I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
And for some reason that Edna couldn’t later justify, she handed over ten pounds.
“Put the kettle on,” he said as he swept out of the living room, “leave the teabag in. Milk and two sugars. And I wouldn’t say no to a bikkie.”
By the time Roland put his key in the lock that night, Edna had cleaned most of the mess. Of course, there was no hiding the half-wallpapered walls but she’d managed to wash much of the wallpaper paste off the carpet. Tins of paint stood piled high behind the sofa.
“Why did you buy so much?” she’d asked Toby when he’d returned earlier.
“It’s better than not having enough,” he said.
‘And how did you get so many for ten pounds?”
Toby tapped the side of his nose and winked.
“And how d’you know what colour they are?” Edna asked, noting that the tins were completely unmarked.
“You get a nose for it,” he’d said.
“You can smell the colours?” she’d asked incredulously.
Toby had vaguely waved a hand, and set about opening one of them with a screwdriver.
It was grey.
By the fourth tin, she realised why they’d been so cheap. “So you got this job lot of paint because you didn’t know what colour they were? How d’you know any of them are the right shade?”
“Trust me, it’ll be all right. Now, how about another cuppa?”
The afternoon had been quite amusing. Toby’s clumsiness increased with the number of jokes and stories he told. Well, she’d simply have to change the carpet once the decorating was finished. A leaky tin had resulted in a puddle of blue paint appearing from under the sofa, like a wave on a beach. It had only stopped when it encountered the rug.
But when Roland returned from work, he was less bothered with the mess and more with the paint fumes.
“It’s no good,” he gasped, clutching his throat, “I can’t sit in here. I’m going into the garden.”
Edna had expected him to shout or complain or even sulk, so she was rather taken aback when she saw him in the middle of the lawn in a deckchair. He never sat in the garden.
He hated the garden. It was alien territory.
Edna spent the rest of the evening scraping blue paint off the carpet and washing out more wallpaper paste. By the time she’d finished, the beautiful summer sunset had faded and stars were beginning to twinkle in the night sky. Thankfully, the oppressive heat of the day was replaced by a brisk evening breeze which helped to dissipate the fumes. It was completely dark when Roland came in and went straight to bed.
Toby arrived the following day with his apprentice, Shane, who obviously had more idea than his boss about wallpapering. Edna could hardly boil the kettle fast enough to keep the two men supplied with tea.
While Shane worked, Toby offered advice and told stories.
“Have you heard the one about…?” he asked, repeatedly.
Edna couldn’t remember when she’d enjoyed herself more.
“So, you’ll be finished tomorrow, Toby?” she asked with disappointment.
“Yup! Work fast, work tidy. That’s my motto.”
Shane’s eyes rolled upwards and nearly disappeared into his eye sockets.
Edna was thrilled with the redecoration. She’d bought new curtains and cushions and the carpet would be fitted on Monday. The days had been hot and still and the paint fumes hung heavily in the living room although thankfully, each evening, a fresh breeze had cleared the room. Nevertheless, when Roland returned from work, he sat outside in the deckchair, first watching the sunset, then the stars appear.
Edna felt guilty about forcing him out of the house after a day’s work. Should she buy a fan to blow the remaining fumes out of the house even though she could no longer smell them?
No, she decided. Enough was enough. He was being completely childish. Edna marched into the garden.
“Roland, I ̶ “
“Shh!” he said, “Listen!”
“What?” she whispered.
“It’s the stars. They’re tinkling! Isn’t it magical? I can’t believe I never heard them before…”
He’s flipped, thought Edna, the paint fumes have pickled his brain.
“Tinkling?” she finally managed.
“Yes, listen. Can’t you hear them?”
“Umm…How about a nice cup of tea?”
“That would be lovely. I’ll get another deckchair and we can listen to the stars together.”
“Umm…yes, all right.”
The fresh evening breeze sprang up and wafted the scent of the honeysuckle into the kitchen after her. And then she realised. Each evening, when the wind began to blow, it agitated the next door neighbour’s new wind chimes.
Did Roland really believe the stars were tinkling? Or was he just being poetic? He’d never been poetic before. But then, he’d once thought sparrows turned into robins in the winter, and that wasps were rogue bees, so anything was possible. But who cared? It’d be lovely to sit in the garden together and listen to the stars. And tomorrow, she’d contact Toby. The dining room could definitely do with a makeover.
About the authorDawn’s third book Extraordinary was published by Chapeltown in October 2017. She has stories published in various anthologies, including horror and speculative fiction, as well as romances in women's magazines. Dawn has written a play to commemorate World War One, which has been performed in England, Germany and France. www.dawnknox.com