A Marriage of Inconvenience
Tracy got off the bus with a child on each hand, lightheartedly ignoring the fact that most people would have considered those hands to be full.
Six-year-old Micky was screeching. There was no other word for it. He wanted to go home to watch Blue Peter, and although he had been repeatedly assured that Nanny had a television set in full working order, he refused to believe that it would have the same programmes as his own. There was a precedent for this (Grandad was a football fan), but even so, Tracy felt his behaviour to be unreasonable, and so did not give it the dignity of parental attention.
Candy, two years his junior, was more devious. Unlike her brother, she had learned early that although tantrums were treated with the contempt that they deserved, there was nothing like a good whinge for wearing an adult down. Therefore, although she had no particular end in view herself, she had come out in sympathy with her older sibling, maintaining a persistent, monotonous grizzle calculated to try the patience of a saint. Candy liked attention. She had no particular preference between admiration or sheer fury, so long as it was directed at herself. It was therefore sad for her that her mother's attention was directed entirely at the contents of the letter in her bag, successfully obliterating more familiar problems.
If it was a problem. Tracy, who lived firmly in what her husband, Tom, liked to call the Real World, believed that if her younger sister, Cheryl, and her boyfriend, Jonathan, chose to live together without getting married, that was nobody's affair but their own. Her father emphatically didn't agree. Their mother hovered uneasily between a sneaking feeling that Dad was right and a strong wish not to be branded as a pre-flood fossil. Thus, whenever anything that touched the subject came up, family life became an uneasy battleground where neither side was likely to be victorious. The only consolation was that the south coast town of Embridge was a long, long way from the Suffolk village of Whytham St. Giles.
But this time, Cheryl at least seemed to have made it into the national press, and although Jonathan wasn't obviously involved, there was no doubt in Tracy's mind that he was at the bottom of it. It had the words "popular journalism" plastered all over it, even before Cheryl's cheerfully unrepentant letter of explanation that had accompanied That Photograph. Dad was going to love the idea of his youngest child displayed all over the tabloids in the arms of a complete stranger!
Somebody shouted out 'the shot needs a pretty girl', Cheryl had written, and Tracy could almost hear her giggle as she wrote it. Jonathan just picked me up and threw me - it was a very good thing that he caught me, or I might have fallen into the sea! And after that they all took pictures. It was tremendous fun, you've never seen such an atmosphere - people waving and cheering, and a whole flotilla of boats and things churning along beside us - quite mad!
Like Cheryl, reflected her sister, who appeared to think that atmosphere was visible. At home, at this moment, it could very likely be cut with a knife, so perhaps she had a point.
The thing that bothered Tracy, although not seriously, was the fact that, so far, there had been no repercussions on the home front, whereas Cheryl's letter had been written nearly a week after the event. Tracy herself didn't take a lot of notice of newspapers and considered the television news one of the most boring programmes on the box - but her father did. Both read newspapers and watched television news, and with almost the same dedication that he brought to football. So why had there been no reaction? It couldn't be shame. This was the nineties, for heaven's sake! And Cheryl, mercifully, had been fully clothed. There was yet something to be thankful for.
'I want to go home!' wailed Micky, hauling back on her arm as hard as he could.
'I want to go home!' echoed Candy, standing still in order to stamp her feet. A woman coming out of the village shop gave Tracy a sympathetic grin.
'Got yourself a full-time job there, Trace,' she said, in passing.
Tracy returned the grin wryly, and gave Micky's dragging arm a tug.
'Shut up Micky, you're too young for Blue Peter anyway!'
'Not!' he yelled, and echo answered,
'It could be worse, Mrs. Peasgood, there could be three of them.'
'And when's that sister of yours going to settle down and start producing?' asked Mrs. Peasgood, artfully twisting the conversation to where she wished it to be. 'Saw her picture in the papers the other day. Well, when you're young's the time for having a good time, but what I say is, there have to be limits.'
'Oh, it was just a picture,' said Tracy airily.
'Starting up as one of them models, is she? She'd better be getting married. There's that nice young man she brings up here now and then, when's they going to tie the knot and make it right?'
Villages! thought Tracy. Mind your own business, you silly old bat!
She put her hand on the side gate beside the shop wall.
'I mustn't keep you, Mrs. Peasgood. Got to get these two indoors before they scream the place down.' The gate stuck, it always did. She gave it a shove. Micky and Candy, sensing something interesting going on, had gone quiet. Candy stuck her thumb in her mouth, eyes round as saucers, drinking everything in and no doubt, even if subconsciously, filing it for a suitable awkward moment.
'You can see your Dad's none too pleased about it,' said Mrs. Peasgood, with a satisfied nod. 'Flaunting herself all over the papers like she has, I'm glad she's no daughter of mine! You'd best get in and talk to your Mum.'
She sniffed, disappointed at not getting a rise out of Tracy, and stumped off down the street. Tracy sighed. She wondered if the picture in the papers had been the same as the print that Cheryl had sent to her. Even by Peasgood standards you could hardly call that one flaunting. She hustled the children along the narrow path to the back door, her head full of alarming possibilities, and with a terrible desire to laugh. Real storm-in-a-teacup stuff, this, but in a small community, mortifying for everyone. Thank goodness she and Tom didn't have to live here any more.
Marilyn Wainwright was at the sink, peeling potatoes, when the children burst through the door. Micky ran to her and clutched his arms around her legs.
'Nanny, Mum won't let me watch Blue Peter!'
Tracy sighed. Marilyn bent to disentangle herself.
'What's this, Trace, censorship?'
'I told him your telly still worked. He wouldn't believe me.'
'Naughty Mummy tells porky-pies!' cried Candy, and flung herself, too, on her grandmother, making her reel on her feet.
'That I'm sure she does not, miss!' Marilyn stooped and swung the child onto her hip, taking Micky's hand with her own spare one. Her eyes met Tracy's. 'You get on with those spuds, Trace, and I'll get these two settled. Dad's in the shop. You could slip through and say hullo first thing.'
Tracy tossed her bag onto the worktop and went through into the passage, pushing open the door that led into the rear of the shop. The familiar shop scent, compounded of fruit, flowers and bakery goods, with faint savoury undertones of cheese and bacon, reminded her of her own childhood, and later years spent working behind the counter before she married Tom. Cheryl had escaped that, lucky Cheryl, gone to secretarial college, then fled south to train in hotel management at a big seaside hotel. She was still there, chief receptionist and trainee manageress. And, apparently, photographer's model.
Bob Wainwright was slicing cheddar for a customer when his elder daughter came through the door at his back. He grunted, but in a friendly way. The customer, yet another of the gossipy village women, greeted her with a bright smile.
'Hullo Tracy, what you doing here then? And what's all this about your sister? Given up on her young man, has she?'
Tracy saw her father's neck go red, and made herself laugh lightly.
'Nothing like that, he just took her on the assignment with him - for the fun of it, you know - they went down to Falmouth for the weekend. And then the photographer wanted a girly shot, and she volunteered - or Jonathan volunteered her, more likely. Good picture of her, wasn't it?'
She heard Bob mutter girly shot, is it, indeed? but his neck was going back to a more normal pink, and the customer, like Mrs. Peasgood, looked disappointed.
Such a lot of fuss over one little picture! She kissed her father's ear.
'I'm out the back with Mum, Dad. Tom's working overtime, so we can stay on for tea, he's picking us up later.'
Bob gathered up the wedge of cheese onto some waxed paper.
'Just serve Miss Wallis will you, while I take for this at the till.'
Peel the spuds, serve Miss Wallis, no wonder Cheryl ran for it! Old Miss Wallis took simply ages to choose between smoked and unsmoked bacon, and then bought two rashers of unsmoked streaky. The potatoes were finished by the time Tracy escaped back into the house, and Marilyn was pouring boiling water into the teapot. On the kitchen table, a newspaper was folded back at the offending picture, ready for discussion. It wasn't the same one, Tracy noted, by this time without surprise. It was a lot worse. Cheryl had her arm firmly round the man's neck, and the expression on her face, frozen in time by the brief exposure, was one of utter delight. Her legs kicked in the air like a can-can dancer's. No wonder Dad's neck was red. She picked up the paper and studied it. Marilyn watched her.
Behind the entwined pair could be seen what were presumably bits of yacht, or catamaran, or whatever you called it, and a distant vista of boat-scattered sea and a lighthouse. The predictable caption, Home is the Sailor, Home from the Sea - and Wouldn't You Come Home for a Welcome Like This? headed a brief paragraph that Tracy didn't bother to read. Cheryl had put it all in her letter anyway. Heroic stuff, round-the-world yachtsman braving terrible dangers to raise funds for hospital back in his home town. Wonderful, up-to-the-minute new spinal injuries unit to be built with sponsorship money contributed by grateful townsfolk. Records smashed in all directions. Local boy makes good, blah blah blah. The lighthouse, Tracy noted in passing, was St. Anthony's. She put down the paper and Marilyn passed her a mug of tea. Their eyes met as they sat down at the table.
'Dad raising a riot?' asked Tracy, sympathetically.
'A bit. Cheryl's always been his special pet, as you know. She could of warned us.'
'She didn't know,' said Tracy. 'She wrote to me. She thought it was just for the local rag, silly fun stuff. She didn't expect Jonathan to syndicate it, or whatever the word is. And perhaps he didn't - he says he didn't. There were other photographers there, too, not just the Herald.'
'It might have helped if you had warned us, then.'
'I only got the letter this morning. She hadn't heard from you. She wondered if she ought to throw her hat in the door, first.'
Marilyn primmed her lips together to hide a smile.
'Your Dad was fairly foaming at the mouth! Why didn't she warn us? Or at least ring to explain.'
'She was down in Cornwall for the weekend. She didn't see a paper until they got back home. And then there was no message from you, so she thought... well, that she'd better keep her head down for a bit. She wrote to ask me to explain and make her peace, and she'll ring Sunday, when Dad's not busy in the shop. You better see the letter.' She reached for her bag and took out the envelope. Marilyn pulled out the two closely-written sheets of Cheryl's explanation and the photograph, which Tracy had temporarily forgotten, fell onto the table. It lay there between the two of them, and they looked at it. Transgression in full colour.
The picture showed a slender young woman with long, curling, red-gold hair, apparently in mid-air. She wore close-fitting jeans and a tight, boat-necked T-shirt neither of which left much to the imagination, and her arms were flung up in the air, her legs flying, her midriff bare. She was laughing. Beyond her, a man stepped forward to catch her. Not much of him was visible behind Cheryl's levitating torso, but he was obviously young and handsome, dark, bearded and sunbrowned. He, too, was laughing, white teeth startling in the close-trimmed black beard. Tracy imagined trying to explain a picture like that over the phone to an irate father, and her sympathies, on the whole, were with Cheryl. She looked at her mother.
'Come to that, why didn't you phone me? That letter was the first I'd heard of it.'
'I didn't want to make too big a thing of it, I suppose.'
'It's hardly the crime of the century, is it?'
'It was a bit of a shock, even so, suddenly seeing our own daughter all over the tabloids.' Marilyn had unfolded the letter to read it, now she laid it down on top of the photo. 'It isn't just that. It's everything. Your Dad grieves over Cheryl.'
Marilyn propped her elbows on the table and lifted her mug in her hands, but held it there, not drinking.
'You know why. Living with Jonathan without being married. It's not your Dad's way.'
'She doesn't live with him. She has a room in the hotel, she lives in that.'
'No,' said Marilyn. 'Her clothes live in that. Cheryl only sleeps there if your father or me goes down to see her. Don't try to kid me, Trace. I'm not a fool.'
'She doesn't want to hurt you... and it's her life, Mum.'
'I just wish she'd marry him, and be done with it. There's no reason why not. We all like Jonathan.'
Tracy was following a line of thought.
'She doesn't actually live with him, Mum. If she's on duty, or he's on an assignment, she sleeps in the hotel.'
'You're splitting hairs, Trace. Lives with or sleeps with, is there that much difference?'
Tracy thought that there was, but this wasn't the moment to argue about it. Micky burst through the door, wailing.
'Mum, Candy keeps playing with the thingummybob and I can't watch My Programme!'
Candy tumbled through behind him.
'Mummy, Micky pulled my's hair!'
Tracy scooped her up and sat her on her knee.
'You're a naughty girl, and you deserve everything you get. Now you stay here, and leave your poor brother in peace - off you go, Micky, or you'll miss it all.'
Micky dived purposefully out into the passage, and Candy wriggled and tried to get down.
'Want to go too.'
'Well, you aren't.' Tracy took a firm grip. Marilyn had picked up the letter again, and Candy's eye was suddenly caught by the photo, still lying on the table.
'That's Auntie Cheryl!'
'It certainly is.'
Candy lunged and grabbed her aunt's picture, holding it in both hands to peer at it.
'Auntie Cheryl's flying, Mummy. Nanny, look at Auntie Cheryl, flying!'
Marilyn raised her eyes from the page and gave a quick look, although she would sooner not.
'So she is, isn't that clever?'
'I 'spect the man threw her,' said Candy, studying the possibilities. It was an option, Tracy conceded, looking over her shoulder. Throwing her overboard, perhaps. But no. No such luck.
'Who's him?' Candy demanded, pointing.
Marilyn had come to the end of the letter. She laid it down.
'It sounds quite reasonable as Cheryl puts it,' she said.
'It is quite reasonable, Mum.'
Candy stabbed with an imperious finger.
'Him, him, him!' she insisted. 'Who's him?'
'Can I keep this and show it to your Dad? It might cool him down a bit.'
'I should hope so! It was only a bit of harmless fun, after all.'
'It's got the whole village talking. It's hard for Dad, in the shop all day.'
'He should learn to laugh about it. You can't blame poor Cheryl. Anyone would think she was starting on a rip-roaring affair, not just being a fill-in! She doesn't even know the man!'
'WHO'S HIM?' roared Candy, tired of being ignored. She poked the photo so hard that she bent it. Tracy removed it from her hand, not without difficulty.
'Careful pet, you'll tear it! He's nobody. Just a man.'
'He must be somebody,' objected Candy, with unimpeachable logic. 'He's throwing Auntie Cheryl. Mummy, why's he throwing - '
'He isn't throwing her,' interrupted Tracy, firmly. 'He's catching her. And a very good thing too, or she'd have fallen into the sea.'
Candy pushed her thumb into her mouth and stared solemnly at the laughing dark face in the picture.
'Who threw her then?' she asked, indistinctly.
'Jonathan threw her. And before you ask why, he threw her for a joke.'
Candy removed the thumb.
'Why? Why for a joke?'
'Ask no questions, hear no lies!' said Marilyn, adding, with a rueful laugh, 'I always swore I'd never say that to a child.'
'Candy makes a business of breaking good resolutions for people,' said Tracy.
Candy returned to her original question with the persistence of a thrush murdering a snail.
'Who's him then?'
'Who's he,' Tracy corrected, automatically. 'His name is Oliver Nankervis, and he sailed a big boat all round the world. Does that answer your question?'
'Why?' demanded Candy. 'Why did he sail - mmph!'
Tracy placed a gentle hand over her small mouth and kissed her forehead.
'I should know better, after all this time,' she said.
'You should, too,' said Marilyn.
Later, much later, when she woke, as she often did, in the early hours of the morning, Marilyn reflected that even nine-day wonders ended sooner or later, and Cheryl's letter had at least managed to soothe her father's ruffled feathers. He had even laughed, reading her account of her day spent in a small boat with a crowd of journalists, Cheryl had a knack with words. The story ended with the climax of her unexpected flight through the air. The remainder of her letter dealt with her weekend in Cornwall with Jonathan, with particular attention paid to the scenery. The scenery had had a calming effect on Bob, too.
'A pity she didn't tell us all this before,' he had said, folding the sheets and putting them back into the envelope. 'She might have known it'd be easier for us to explain if we knew the explanation in the first place.'
Which was true, but you could hardly expect a giddy girl like their Cheryl to think of that. Her concern had been, quite simply, that they might have been upset by the pictures in the paper. Marilyn was fairly certain that she had never given village gossip a second thought. She had been away too long.
And if she married her journalist, she would be away for ever.
Marilyn turned over, facing the window, a pale square against the dark wall. There was a good moon outside, bright as day it would be in the garden. Children did leave home, it was the natural thing for them to do. There was Richard, married and living up north, and Michael in the army going all over the place... but it was different with the youngest, and a girl at that. The darling of her father's heart... so easy to hurt the people who loved you best.
Jonathan was a nice young man. They had been together for eighteen months now, and whatever Tracy said, they did live together. Bob knew it too, although he liked to pretend that he didn't. But Jonathan took care of her. He loved her. When they married, as eventually they would, of course, the whole family would be pleased as well as relieved. Jonathan fitted in.
Beside her, Bob snored gently, mind now at ease. Now that the drama was over, they could all relax, and Cheryl would ring on Sunday... that was the day after tomorrow. Bob could never resist Cheryl, wind him round her little finger, she did.
Funny how it was different with daughters. Richard and Michael had both had live-in girlfriends, and if Bob had disapproved, he had never said so. Trusted the boys, but it was different with girls... girls were more vulnerable, that was it. But it would be all right. Wedding in the village church, Bob smiling, Cheryl radiant in white... little Candy as a bridesmaid and Micky, bless him, would make a lovely page boy. Dippy old Auntie Maudie reading the tealeaves and munching wedding cake, just like when Trace and Tom got wed... her eyelids were growing heavy, the fabric of the pillow was cool under her cheek. Marilyn smiled, planning, drifting into sleep.
Cheryl was safe with Jonathan, married or not. He worshipped the ground she walked on.
Three o'clock in the morning, and all's well... Marilyn slept.
It was a very good thing for her peace of mind that she had no idea what Cheryl was doing at that precise moment.
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