1 Denise had been having a 'difficult' afternoon, which was now drifting effortlessly into a miserable evening.
The children were playing up worse than usual, grizzling and moaning and indulging in the endless name-calling and spiteful pinches and proddings so beloved of bored children down the ages.
'It's mine mummy, tell her it's mine! She can't have it, can she? Not if it's mine....See? Mummy nodded! It's mine well it is now you get off you just get off...'
Loud thumps from the back of the car, followed by the inevitable wail and the equally inevitable flurry of thumps and kicks and the nerve-wrenching sound of flesh being smacked.
Oh hell, thought Denise as she peered through the flapping windscreen wipers at the gusts of chilly rain. This means the shopping will be murder.
'Shut up you two!' she called automatically, as her eyes raked the supermarket car park for a precious parking space.
Why was it that thousands of extra people seemed to always want to do their shopping on rainy autumn evenings?
She was sure that on those warm spring and summer nights there was always plenty of room, no matter what day or time. But autumn and winter were beastly.
Cold, wet, miserable, and - worse than everything else - crowded to suffocation...
Ah, there was a space.. No! Some stupid idiot had managed to park across two bays... Exactly half way across.
An ancient black Riley, old enough surely to have been around since long before the supermarket - perhaps it had been there since before the parking bays were marked out...
her mind wandered idly down such paths as she peered into the murky wall of water.
Oh didn't it make you want to scream and scream! As if to encourage such an effect, the noise from the back of the car got louder.
Then there was a moment of relative calm, followed by the awestruck announcement...
'Mummy she's broken it! Look! (a rattling clanking sound) the leg's come off!'
More scuffles and a loud shriek which seemed to pierce a soft vulnerable point in the very middle of Denise's brain...
'Shut up can't you?' she shouted. 'I'm trying to park the car! Honestly you two, it's worse than the zoo!'
Dreary crying from both children greeted this (grossly unfair to both of them) attack.
'It's not fair! It's not my fault. Tell her...'
'It is! It is too your fault. I didn't break your rotten horse. Anyway it isn't a horse, it's a donkey.'
'It isn't, it's a horse'.
'Horse! Horse! It's a HORSE!..' shrilled the outraged voice of the horse/donkey's owner and unsuccessful protector..
Thank heavens, someone pulling out. Painfully slowly though, why couldn't people learn to drive? Come on come on.. there's masses of room...
Denise tapped a tattoo on the steering wheel as the big green car, packed to the roof with huge bulging packages and staring alsatians and children,
manoeuvred its way with extreme delicacy into the central lane between the serried ranks of dark wet cars.
2 The children kept it up in the supermarket.
'Can we have one of these Mummy? Oh why not?... Please Mummy, just one of these, I shan't ask for anything else... David's pulling me tell him to stop pulling me Mummy, stop it stop it stop it..'
'Oh come on you two, you're not helping, and the list is enormous. We've only got four things on it so far, and we'll never get done if you don't help.
Look Janet, you go and get the cornflakes (no sense in asking her to get anything that had to be weighed, she always got too much), and the... the toothpaste'.
'But Mummy, it's right down the other end! It's miles away, why can't David get the toothpaste? I always get the rotten jobs, it's not fair.'
Denise couldn't raise her voice, there were eyes all around, and already she could hear disapproving murmurs and tutting noises from her fellow shoppers '...who can't control children...' ... a voice floated by.
Then a more friendly voice interrupted her tense deliberations as to which errands would create the least friction among her fractious offspring and pass their stringent 'fairness' test most successfully...
'Hello Denise! Murder isn't it?'
Margaret. What was her other name? Richards? Roberts?
Reynolds, that was it. Married to a sculptor or somesuch.
Always pleasant and cheery anyway. Certainly a tonic on days like this.
'Hello Margaret! Yes, these two are certainly giving Mummy a run for her money today, aren't you darlings? Both doing their best to be a bit of a pain really...'
'Oh we're not, that's not fair is it David?
' A temporary truce was silently declared among the combatants, but the sentence was mumbled among blushes as the bright unfamiliar adult smile beamed down.
'They are pets though, aren't they?' said the bright smile. 'Children, I mean'.
Denise wasn't really convinced, but let it pass. They chatted for a couple of minutes about the usual supermarket topics...
The state of the weather - wasn't it awful - the price of things - going up by leaps and bounds, you just couldn't keep pace with it all...
accompanied by the traditional wry smiles, and of course polite enquiries about the condition of absent husbands and children. All the time Denise was keeping an eye on her charges.
'No dear..' she said absently as David put six tins of dog food in the trolley with a burst of muffled giggles, and 'Mind the eggs!' as Janet dropped a tub of margarine in from a height.
Then a new topic presented itself for inspection.
'Isn't that Miss, er, oh what is her name? Finch or Flinch or somesuch..?' stage-whispered Margaret. 'Yes it is.."
('I thinks it's French' whispered Denise in a lower key)..
'Now there's a saint if you like.' Margaret carried on, ignoring the technicality.
'Geoff knows her quite well, she works in the library doesn't she? He's always in there checking reference books..."
(That was it, thought Denise, writer of scientific text books, not a sculptor...) "..and he says he doesn't know how she copes. Invalid mother and all.
Honestly it makes you count your blessings.Imagine having to look after an aged parent - completely bed-ridden Geoff says - and keep up a full-time job too..
My dear parents are both in the rudest health in faraway Tenerife, thank God.
Miss What's Her Name's marriage prospects must be just about nil, I would think, men aren't keen on taking on senile relations are they?"
(Was anyone? wondered Denise)...
..."She must be about 45 wouldn't you say?'
Denise nodded - at least 45 she thought; both of them were too polite to observe that the lumpy figure in the mud-coloured cardigan and shapeless raincoat probably wouldn't have been much of a catch at 35, or even 25...And apart from the totally style-free clothes..
having her hair in a tight bun like that and dispensing completely with makeup that might have softened those rather severe features weren't going to get any of the town's eligible middle-aged bachelors beating a path to her door..
Still, Denise reflected, having such a responsibility as Margaret's graphic description spelt out must be an awful cross to bear, with no hope of escape except the passing of the 'loved one'.
These rather gloomy thoughts made her look more fondly at David and Janet, quiet for once and peering intently - together- at the rules of a complex game on the back of a muesli packet.
Margaret went on. "I wonder if I should go and have a word? Trouble is, if I do, I'll have to ask.. 'How's your mother?', and I don't honestly think I'm really in the mood to know..
And I must get this shopping finished - Geoff will strangle me, I've been hours already. Wasn't the parking hateful tonight? Anyway, you and Jim must come round for drinks soon.
Really soon mind.. Bye! Bye bye you two - give Mummy a hand won't you?"
They nodded silently, and scuffed the ground idly, waiting for the trolley to start moving again.
Just as well she hadn't named a definite evening for those drinks, thought Denise as she studied the respective merits of thin cut versus thick cut orange marmalade (which one was it that Jim couldn't stand? She could never remember).
It was much better to keep such possible meetings vague - after all, they didn't really know each other that well, and what with her parents' prospective visit and David's school pantomime rehearsals looming she wasn't really in the mood for extra social activities..
As she trundled the trolley round the store she nearly bumped into Miss French.
They smiled at each other, the slightly guilty smile of people who know they're supposed to know each other, but can't really remember how well..
well enough for a proper chat? Or perhaps just a 'Hello, how are you these days?' 'Oh, mustn't grumble.. busy today isn't it?' exchange. Or just a smile?
They both settled for just the smile - for which Denise was grateful as the children were beginning to act up again..
Janet had been staring very fixedly at Miss French, and didn't wait till they were quite out of earshot before remarking piercingly..
"Wasn't that lady ugly Mummy?"
3 Miss French finished her shopping in her usual purposeful, methodical way, and pushed her trolley through the automatic doors into the car park. Her clumsy parking of the old Riley, right across two bays, had the advantage of giving her plenty of room to park the trolley next to the easily-opened back door and put the bags on the back seat.
She’d never been able to park very well. As well as her ‘two spaces’ talent, when only one space was available she always thought the car was lined up correctly, but as she drove into the required space her hands on the wheel pulled the car over to the left.
Although this gave her plenty of room to get out on the driver’s side, the manoeuvre frequently made it impossible for the owner of the car next to her to open their door at all..
Several times on emerging from the supermarket she’d been greeted by such exasperated drivers longing, but quite unable, to drive off – sometimes failing in basic politeness while making her aware of the ‘problem’. End of Part 1