Two nights after my meeting with Jane, when I passed Hannah’s room on my way to bed, stifled moans came from inside. I pressed my ear against the door. It couldn’t be…
Fuck Charles! He’s pleasuring himself with a wanton servant!
Had I not been engrossed with Jane and her baby, I might have crumbled. My eyes watered, but more for an uncommitted love.
But I couldn’t tolerate it. Hannah would have to go — Charles, too, if he had a mind. I set my alarm for first light, at a time when Hannah commenced duties.
My confrontation with her in the kitchen, short-lived. I made an obscene gesture with my fingers and named Charles -- her tears, sufficient confirmation of misconduct. I paid her three months’ severance pay, told her to pack her bags and leave.
Of course Charles was overly late for breakfast. His eyes had grey rings round them -- as if I needed evidence of lost sleep.
‘You’ll need to make your own,’ I said. ‘Hannah’s gone.’
He blinked at me, dazed.
‘Gone? Gone where?’
‘I sacked her.’
‘You can’t do that.’
‘I just did… and you know why.’
His downcast face reminded me of a little boy with his fingers caught in the sweetie jar. Only it was not his fingers -- nor his body — but more his blatant treachery that upset me most.
He raised his head. ‘Delcie…’
My upheld hand made him pause. I wished to wave him away, away from me, away from the House. Inside, a band of pain tightened across my chest. My breath choked on hot bile, and my body shook with a gamut of emotions; anger, revulsion, disgust, and hatred.
‘We’re finished, Charles. You’ve betrayed me.’
His face reddened, but he didn’t say a word. Turned on his heel and walked out. Out of my life, I hoped.
I collapsed into my chair. The tears I’d been holding back now flowed. I picked up my serviette and pressed it against my face; held it for a long time until my mind cleared.
I needed help.
Next to the open marmalade pot was my Nokia; I shooed away a fly, picked up the phone, and dialled.
Jane answered almost at once, as if she’d been anticipating my call. Her insight appeared psychic.
‘Auntie, what’s wrong?’
‘Everything,’ I said. ‘I want…’ My voice must have sounded despondent because Jane interrupted.
‘I can take an early lunch…where do you want to meet? Majestyk’s?’
I wasn’t hungry, but my stomach also betrayed me by rumbling. ‘If it’s quiet,’ I said.
When I arrived, Jane was waiting outside the Bakery. Her bump protruded outside her t-shirt. It wouldn’t be long.
Jane linked her arm in mine. She nodded towards the door. Inside, packed full of Aid Agency staff. ‘Big pow-wow, today. I hoped we would miss the rush, but…’
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Where to now?’
Jane smiled. ‘I’ve requisitioned a vehicle...one of the perks of being pregnant. Shall we take a drive into what’s left of the countryside and see what turns up?’
Already she made me feel brighter. ‘Sounds like a good plan,’ I said.
The devastation south of Aceh still evident, although swampland was being drained and new houses were being constructed by an army of Aid workers — we passed dozens of Land Cruisers and trucks.
Jane tooted the horn at several, clapped one hand to her brow. ‘Everyone’s out to lunch today, but I remember there’s a quiet little restaurant not too far from here with a scenic view of the mountains. How does that sound?’
‘Idyllic,’ I said.
While we meandered around roads no more than dirt tracks, I spilled out my feelings. At first my bitterness about Charles and his betrayal tested Jane’s counselling skills. ‘How did it make you feel?’
‘Like falling down a black hole,’ I said.
Jane laughed, gave the horn a friendly toot. ‘I know that feeling. When Adil left me up the spout, my world collapsed. But not for long.’
I frowned. She hadn’t shown any sorrow at her partner’s leaving.
Jane sensed my concern. ‘Auntie…one thing about Aid Agency work is a hell of a lot of people are worse off than you. Bad hair day, it isn’t.’
My smile, more a grimace. I had an appointment at the beauty salon; my hair, a mess. I still persisted. ‘Losing Richard was one thing, but now also Charles. I’m on my own, Jane.’
‘Auntie, soon I’ll be moving into the House -- and so will junior. We’ll keep you occupied, believe me, and you won’t be alone.’
While I gave that some thought, Jane turned into a side road leading to nowhere -- until a sharp bend in the road led us uphill along a few shacks with tin roofs, and we reached our destination. We parked up alongside a mud-encrusted Jeep and two motorcycles that had both seen better days. As Jane stretched, her face tightened. She rubbed her stomach.
‘Only a twinge,’ she said.
I hoped so.
The open-air restaurant, with a wooden veranda viewing out over the far-off mountains, had a couple of unoccupied tables. At two larger ones were four aid workers, all smokers whom Jane was on nodding terms with, and four locals — also smokers — who noisily consumed their food. Luckily, our small table was away from the fumes.
‘Couldn’t have chosen better,’ I said, now far more composed after our little chat. For the moment Charles was forgotten, and my stomach was empty enough to order what looked like — from the faded photos on the laminated menu — chicken goulash.
We settled into a reflective silence, with both of us admiring the view. While we waited for our food, I took a few pictures, the aid workers paid up and left, and the locals appeared to be deciding whether to answer a call to prayer.
With Jane relaxed into eating a seafood salad and sipping iced tea, I seized the opportunity to ask her about Mary. Her eyes closed, seemingly recalling her childhood, before she opened up.
‘Auntie, you were also a socialite, like mother.’ She smiled as if she understood I wasn’t an innocent, reached out and touched my arm. ‘Mother was... well, nowadays it would be called promiscuous. I soon cottoned on that the ’60s and ’70s were liberal times. I didn’t really know my father—Jamie died of cancer when I was two—and mother lost her sparkle. Her affairs—at one time the talk of society--vanished like morning mist.’
Jane brushed away a tear, and my thoughts turned back to Henley…
‘…Having fun, ladies?’
Jamie, hand on Richard’s shoulder and waving several five-pound notes, had the same sparkle. No wonder he and Richard had hit it off — they could have been best mates, even brothers.
Mary giggled. ‘Too many glasses of Poo, petal.’
‘Don’t forget the Pimms,’ I said.
Jamie punched the air. ‘We won loads of lovely loot. Party time.’ He gave Richard a friendly clout on the arm. ‘Isn’t that so, Dickie?’
Mary shrieked with laughter. ‘Jamie and Dickie, how amusing.’ She gave me a knowing smirk, hand aside her cheek in a dramatic whisper. ‘I hope he lives up to his name, then, Delcie.’
‘Delcie and Dickie,’ I spluttered, and both of us giggled our way into the fresh bottle of Poo.
Richard appeared to be enjoying the company — his stage-whispered, acerbic remarks about other people had us in hysterics. Mary had a gleam in her eye, and I wasn’t sure if she was taking an interest in him, but it could have been my intoxicated state…
…Jane coughed -- it sounded more like choking on a fishbone. ‘Sorry, dear,’ I said. ‘Merely reminiscing. The aftermath of the war -- baby-boom and all that in 1945. In the 60s, youngsters were free spirits, and—’
At that moment Jane arched her back and clutched her stomach. ‘Oh, my God, there’s something wrong.’ Her eyes watered. ‘Can you drive?’
Her alarmed look made my stomach tense up. I shook my head.