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Babes

Chapter I

IT was a gloriously sunny mid-March day. Along the high street, the ornamental trees were budding with blossom and though it was bright, there remained a chill in the air — as if it was the end of winter rather than the beginning of spring. A woman, dwarfed by the shop window into which she was looking, was examining a coat she had been mulling over for too long. Made in heavy, tightly-woven wool, it was deep maroon with a broad collar and plain shoulders — so many coats these days had epaulettes that created a military look she feared would turn her into an aging majorette. Shortening her focus, she regarded her reflection and imagined herself in the coat. Perhaps it would give her more substance. At a fraction over five feet tall, she had always been slight. “Boyish” was how the glossy magazines would describe her. Or perhaps “elfin”. Joanne did not like the term — however kindly it was intended. “I’m a woman, not a bloody elf.”

“Good bone structure will get you a long way,” her husband used to say. He left her for a young primary school teacher from Essex, so bone structure clearly wasn’t everything.

She settled for the house and a sizeable settlement and he took the car. Joanne didn’t drive anyway. On her return from the solicitors after signing the decree nisi, she changed the locks and paid some men with a van to empty the garage. Within a matter of hours, there was nothing to suggest that Gerard Huntley had ever lived there.

Moira was sitting outside Starbucks but gathered up her coffee and free biscuit when she saw Joanne approaching. “I thought with it being sunny, it would be nice to sit outside, but it’s bloody freezing!”

The usual crowd was in, reading their phones — at least it looked like the usual crowd. Perhaps there was a completely different crowd every day, but since they all dressed more or less the same and did more or less the same things, it was hard to tell. Waiting to be served, Joanne took a mental snapshot of the scene so that she could check the following day, but then dismissed the idea as pointless. What difference did it make if they WERE the same people or not?

“Are you going tonight?” asked Moira.

“Yes — who’s the speaker?”

“Dunno,” said Moira, through a mouthful of biscuit, “no, wait…I think it’s a painter…” she was looking at the ceiling, her eyes roaming from left to right, “it might be a painter.”

“Boring,” said Joanne. “The only reason painters come, is so they can flog some of their daubs at the end. That’s all it is. He’ll be a friend of someone on the committee.”

“Cynical,” said Moira. “Anyway, I think ‘he’ is a ‘she’. You have to approach these things with an open mind. She might be interesting. All depends on the subject matter. If she paints…I don’t know…twisted murder victims that stare out from a bloody canvas, it might be quite gripping.”

“Twisted murder victims?” said Joanne, an eyebrow raised. “What made you think of that?”

“I wasn’t thinking of that,” said Moira, “I was just saying that it might not be landscapes and bowls of fruit.”

“If it is landscapes and bowls of fruit,” said Joanne, “you can buy one as punishment for talking me into going.”

“I didn’t talk you into going. You said you were going.”

“Then I asked who the speaker was, and you said you thought it was a painter and I said ‘boring’. So, while I HAD been intending to go, I had then changed my mind.”

“Okay, you’re on. I’m willing to bet this one’s interesting. And if she’s not, if it is landscapes and bowls of fruit, I’ll buy one, but only if it’s not too expensive. I’m not paying £50 for a picture of some apples.”

“Have you decided what you’re going to do yet? The teaching, I mean.”

Moira tipped her head to one side: “Worried I haven’t got the £50? You can lend it to me if you like.”

“Seriously.”

“I may go back. They want me to, but I’m not sure. It’s been a long time.”

“Only a few years. What’s changed? Shakespeare and Dickens are still dead, aren’t they?”

Moira laughed: “Dickens hasn’t been on the curriculum since WE were at school — god, that would put the kids off reading for life.”

“Don’t you want to go back?”

Moira brushed the crumbs from the front of her cardigan. “When I went to see the head the other day, it felt . . . I thought I’d left it all behind — the classrooms, the noise and the smells; to be back just felt…pointless. I think I need to move on.”

“You don’t need the money?”

“No, not really. It would be nice to have more — I’m not as fixed as you, probably, but my pension’s enough. God, I’ll never get used to saying pension. Makes me feel ancient!”

Outside, shoppers were hurrying past, laden with bags, rushing back to work before their lunch hour was up.

A year younger than Joanne, Moira was taller and heavier-set and somehow “busier”. Controlling classrooms of boisterous children came easily to her. Perhaps they mistook her bustling for aggression. Though Moira didn’t like casino şirketleri to hear people say it, she was every inch the school teacher.

Gerard hadn’t taken to her at all. “Talks to me as if I’m a child,” he said.

“I think that’s just how she is with men,” Joanne said, “treats them like naughty boys.”

“That’s why she hasn’t got a fella,” he snorted.

“Oh, do fuck off,” Joanne thought, angry that her attempt at playful humour had been turned into something nasty. Gerard would do that. If he thought of something clever to say, out it would come. Never mind how cruel it was.

In truth, and without being cruel to her oldest friend, it was easy to understand why Moira didn’t turn heads. While she was not wholly unattractive, she was in the habit of cutting her hair far too short and even then, it seemed to collect in clumps. And the constant “bustling” aside, she also stamped when she walked, as if angry — which couldn’t be more misleading. Moira laughed at everything and everyone and was an absolutely fearless tease — no one was safe; the more important the target the better. Joanne wondered if she hadn’t spent too much time around children. While men don’t like women who look as if they might shout at them, they are even less fond of women who might make them look foolish.

Walking back along the high street, Joanne paused again at the boutique window. The coat was gone. “Probably too big for me anyway,” she muttered. Besides, it was March. Winter was over. Who buys a winter coat in spring? Next to the boutique was a charity shop. She took a few deep breaths and then pushed through the door, brushing quickly past the racks of musty clothes towards the bookshelves lining the back wall. Thinking she was alone, she let out a loud gasp, like an oyster diver finally reaching the surface.

Chapter II

SHE startled him with the sudden gasp and he startled her with his reaction — an involuntary jump. Not quite jazz hands, but nearly.

“Sorry,” Joanne said quickly, “I was holding my breath.”

“Oh,” he said. Smiling politely, he turned his attention back to the books.

“It’s the smell in here,” she said in a low voice so that the volunteers couldn’t hear. “I don’t like it. That’s why I was holding my breath.” He deserved an explanation.

He nodded and smiled again: “I know what you mean.”

Joanne felt very uncomfortable. She wanted to look at him, but it felt improper. There was tension in the air. No, that’s wrong. Joanne was tense. There is no such thing as “tension in the air”. The only thing in the air was the awful musty smell. Perhaps he didn’t feel tense at all. Perhaps he felt irritated by her sudden and alarming intrusion.

She tried to focus on the shelves but couldn’t. He was moving further away, book by book, holding two paperbacks, looking for a third. Every charity shop in the high street was offering the same deal. Three for £1 or 50p each. Finding two books worth reading is hard enough — finding three can be a test. But having found two, the third is effectively free, so how can you leave without it?

Without looking at him directly, she was aware of his every movement. His weight shifting from foot to foot. Crouching now to look at the next shelf down. Coming back this way. Shuffling along on his haunches. Book by book. If I stay here, he’ll reach me, eventually.

“It’s always tricky finding that third book,” she said, her voice louder than she had intended having taken so long to get the courage up to speak again.

“I know,” he said, without looking up, “there’s no point just picking one for the sake of it. I’ll never read it.”

He was younger than her. Much younger. And there was an accent that Joanne couldn’t identify. Northern. Just a lilt. Something in the vowels. But he spoke clearly and read books. Why did he make her feel so bloody uncomfortable? Afraid, but not afraid. Almost giddy. As if standing on a precipice.

“It’s a chance to try something new,” she said, “someone you might not have thought of before.”

He stood up and held the two books he had chosen to his chest. “Hmmm…” he said nodding slowly, before walking towards the till.

Her heart was beating like a humming bird, her senses bristling. “A chance to try something new.” Where had that come from? “Someone you might not have thought of before.” Holy mother of god…had she really spoken those words to a complete stranger? What was happening? Her brow was prickly with perspiration and her stomach was turning over like a tumble dryer.

He was at the till. One of the volunteers was telling him about the three books for £1 deal. Just in case he had missed the signs. Or couldn’t read. The customer who was buying books.

“That’s okay,” he said softly. By the time Joanne decided it was safe to turn around to get a proper look at him, he was gone.

What just happened? She had met men before. Many times. She had been married for more than thirty years. Fifty-five and giddy. Making a fool of casino firmaları herself over a man she hadn’t even had a real conversation with. Or even SEEN. What colour hair did he have? Did he even have hair? What kind of shoes was he wearing? Shoes? Bloody shoes?

Outside the shop, she looked up and down the street, filling her nostrils with cleansing spring air. But he was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter III

AFTER the encounter in the charity shop, Joanne had returned home not quite herself. She was off balance. Out of kilter. Arriving at the front door, she stood for several moments, staring at the lock, trying to remember what it was she had to do next in order to open it. She knew exactly what had just happened; the problem was admitting to herself that after all these years, a man (a YOUNGER man) could have such an effect on her. As she ran back over the events, there was nothing she could put her finger on. After all, he had said very little. She had done most of the talking. Shuddering with embarrassment, she put a finger in each ear and shouted out loud: “No no NO!” But embarrassing memories — the ones that haunt; the ones that draw an involuntary yelp — those ghosts can wait.

“A chance to try something new.”

“Someone you might not have thought of before.”

“Perfectly innocent conversation,” she said aloud, snapping the switch on the kettle. “I was talking about books. It’s only a chat-up line if you want it to be a chat-up line.”

Did she want it to be a chat-up line?

He was turning to her: “Are we still talking about books?”

“Would it trouble you if we weren’t?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“No,” he said, turning away to hide his embarrassment. “It wouldn’t bother me at all.” Was he trembling?

“Do you like older women? Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.”

“Yes,” he blurted, his voice becoming stronger, as if he had made a decision, “yes I do.” But still he wouldn’t look at her.

She walked slowly towards him, her patterned stocking tops rasping beneath her tight black skirt as her thighs rubbed together with each lazy stride, while her vertiginously high heels clicked and clacked on the wooden floor like a clock ticking and tocking, counting down to rapture.

“There’s a lot to be said for older women,” she breathed, reaching towards him and touching his shoulder, her bright red nails scraping gently over the material of his jacket as she moved around in front of him with a slow scraping click of her heels. He stared at his feet, blushing. “There’s nothing sexier than experience,” she whispered, gazing up at him through her blonde fringe, their faces only inches apart, her mouth widening into a hungry crimson smile. He was still too shy to look into her huge blue eyes. Instead, he continued to look down, but couldn’t ignore the cleavage that had just come into view. He gasped, his warm coffee breath bathing her face as his widening eyes took in the taught swell of her milky white breasts and the edge of her lacy black bra…

The kettle rumbled, and the switch snapped off at the same moment the fantasy petered out like steam dissipating into a cold, empty kitchen. Joanne came to a decision. She would not be embarrassed by the memory of the strange man in the charity shop. Check that. He wasn’t strange. It was the reaction he triggered in her that was strange or rather, it was unexpected — unexpected because nothing like it had happened in such a long time that she had no ACTUAL recollection of it ever happening before. The thrill of an instant connection with a man after so long felt like coming back from the dead. Then she thought the thought; the one that she had been avoiding — the thought that this might never happen again. What if the stranger in the charity shop was her last chance? What if he was her final spring?

MOIRA was standing in the foyer, examining a painting of moorland, with mountains in the background. Seeing Joanne, she smiled: “I actually quite like this one. And it’s only £25.”

“Really? You’re going to buy it?” said Joanne.

Moira frowned. “We had a bet, remember? Not pictures of fruit, but close enough.”

“Oh yes, sorry. I forgot.”

“You okay?”

“Yes. Sort of. Had a bit of a funny turn earlier. I’ll tell you about it later.”

“A funny turn?”

“Sort of.”

Moira was looking at her intently. “Do you want to skip this — go for a drink?”

“No, it’s all right. Maybe later. We’re here now. And you have a painting to buy.”

WHILE she may have been an artist of some talent, Emily Turner was certainly no public speaker. A twenty-something hippy with pigtails, bad skin and a floral print dress, she had been at the lectern no more than five minutes before she was inviting the audience to ask questions.

Moira raised her hand.

“Yes?” said Ms Turner, looking rather relieved, probably concerned that she hadn’t imparted enough information to arouse the audience’s curiosity.

“Did your name play any part in güvenilir casino your deciding to become a painter?”

“My name? Oh, I see. Turner. No, at least I don’t think so. Turner is quite a common name. If my surname had been a bit more unusual, like Gauguin say, then I suppose it would have been more likely to influence me and make me think of taking up painting. But I don’t think the name Turner did.”

“But now that you are a painter, has your name pushed you towards landscapes?” Moira was like a dog with a bone.

“I truly can’t answer that,” Ms Turner replied. “Why something appeals and something else doesn’t is one of life’s mysteries, don’t you think?”

“YES,” said Joanne, out loud. All eyes in the hall turned to her, pushing her towards an elaboration: “If something is pleasing, then there is no need to dig any further. Why is it pleasing? That doesn’t matter, it just is.”

There were a few nods of agreement and murmurings adding to the debate. Eileen Fox, the chairwoman, held up her hand, fingers wiggling, and spoke into the air in a firm voice: “Ladies, if you have something to add can you please address the speaker. Manners. Thank you.”

She was glaring at Moira. They had taught at the same school but sharing the same profession had created no camaraderie between them. Moira and Eileen (it was difficult for Joanne to think of her as “Eileen” — she was very much Mrs Fox and using her first name seemed disloyal to Moira) were as different as two people could be.

Mrs Fox was rake thin, whereas Moira was heavy set. Mrs Fox was married with four grown-up children and six grandchildren, whereas Moira had never married. Mrs Fox had taught maths and Moira had taught English. Blonde. Dark. Relaxed. Fidgety. Slow moving. Quick. Conservative. Liberal. But the biggest difference between the two women was their humour. Mrs Fox was serious about everything, which left her completely defenceless.

When Moira made everyone laugh, it had become second nature for them to then turn to Mrs Fox to see if this time, finally, she understood the joke. So every joke became, in an indirect way, about Mrs Fox. And it was all Moira’s fault.

Another hand went up: “Do you like Turner? They’ve just made a film about him. It’s very good.”

Ms Turner was clenching her jaw, her patience wearing thinner than any canvas.

“You started this,” Joanne whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

“Perfectly sensible question,” Moira hissed back. “If I was writer called Shakespeare or a sculptor called Michelangelo, you’d ask the question, wouldn’t you?”

“Shall I…” Ms Turner interrupted before anyone could ask another Turner question, “shall I…tell you how I started out as an artist?” Before anyone could answer she began talking about her childhood and her first set of paints, her voice a little high-pitched at first, but gradually settling down as her calm returned. The shit you have to put up with to sell a few pictures.

Moira was looking at the £25 landscape, coffee in hand.

“You don’t have to buy it,” Joanne said. “I was only joking.”

Ms Turner saw them looking at the picture and started to approach before she recognized Moira and paused, like a soldier’s halting step in a funeral procession. Then she realized she had been spotted and continued.

“It’s from near where I grew up,” she said. “Do you like it?”

“Yes I do,” Moira said, “those twin hills in the background remind me of my younger days.” With that, Moira threw back her shoulders and thrust out her chest and to everyone’s surprise, Emily Turner let out an enormous roar of laughter. It was the kind of deep-throated belly laugh you might expect to hear in a rugby bar. She put her hand over her mouth and flushed red — all eyes were on her.

“Everything all right?” Mrs Fox enquired, arriving among them with her hands clasped together.

“Yes,” said Joanne, “Moira was just saying how this picture reminded her of her younger days.”

“Did you grow up in the dales, Moira?”

“No,” said Moira with a completely straight face, “I was born in a forest. With mountains above it. Two of them.”

Ms Turner’s eyes were beginning to bulge, while Joanne was frozen in horror. Please don’t go any further Moira.

“I’ll take it I think,” she said, reaching into her coat pocket for her purse, “it’s the breast painting I’ve seen in ages, don’t you think so, Eileen?”

“Yes, it’s lovely,” said Mrs Fox, certain that once again she was the butt of one of Moira’s childish jokes, but not sure how. And did she just say “breast” instead of “best”? Too late to chuckle at her now. Damn, that was an opportunity missed. How lovely it would have been to turn the tables on her by highlighting the Freudian faux pas. Smiling sweetly, Mrs Fox wheeled away and headed for a group of ladies gathered around another easel.

Ms Turner had been holding her breath and let out a long gasp. Her eyes looked almost bloodshot. Looking at Joanne, she nodded at Moira: “Is she always like this?”

“What..? Oh, you mean incredibly immature, mischievous and silly with a tendency towards crudity? Always.”

“That’s not fair,” said Moira. “Sometimes I’m a bit rude, which is not the same thing as crude at all.”

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