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On the peach side of apricot
This short story accompanies my blog post for 24th August which describes how eavesdropping is a source for my own (and surely also Jane Austen’s) writing.
August 5, 2019
7:58 AM
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Austen Authors
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July 10, 2019
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Plain-Ann takes the seat next to the window. She is a neat, bird-like body of a woman, with bright eyes like jet beads. She wears a grey gabardine, all buttoned up, and a soft-brimmed hat against the winter rain. She gathers her shopping around her feet and settles herself for the journey as the bus lurches from the station.

Only Greta prefixes Ann’s name with Plain, to differentiate her from Princess Anne and another Anne (scarcely less august, sharing the regal and all-important ‘e’) who presides over the Townswomen’s Guild, both frequent points of reference in Greta’s conversation. The jolt of the bus causes Greta to fall into the seat next to Plain-Ann; she had not been prepared for it. She had not been prepared for the rain, either, defying it to fall in spite of the weather forecast and the dark, threatening clouds which had boiled overhead as she had left the house. Plain-Ann’s umbrella, commandeered earlier, has protected her jacket and stiffly-set, brassy hair-do but from the knee down her easy-iron trousers are soaked. She is a large woman, an imperious presence designed to dominate any proceedings. Her girth and an excessive number of shopping bags mean that she occupies more than just her section of the bus bench; she spills over into Plain-Ann’s territory and onto Plain-Ann herself, distributing carriers and parcels as though the seat were vacant.  It is always thus, on these bus trips back from town on Thursday mornings. Plain-Ann has decided it is better to be wedged in against the window than left perilously perched on the aisle-side where a sudden swerve could see her on her thrown onto the grimy, litter-strewn floor.

The two women are not friends. They live on the same road and catch the same buses to town and back on Thursdays, which is market day. Their daughters, however, had become friends at school, forging a connection which would not, otherwise, have existed. The older women had been coerced into co-ordinating lifts to Brownies and, later, cinemas and discos. Even though both the girls now live and work in distant counties, the Thursday bus trips are largely occupied with news of them; a subtly sparring, slightly competitive exchange of conversational one-upmanship, a rivalry not shared in any degree by the girls themselves, who have, more or less, lost touch.

Although the women travel together, they do not shop together. The first few moments of the journey are taken up with a desultory exchange of their mornings’ doings; a cookery demonstration in the market hall, the scandalous rise in cost of the M & S café coffee and scone combo.

Then Greta introduces the topic upon which, from the heights of her exhaustive experience, she is determined to pour all knowledge and sagacity. ‘Tell me,’ she says, like a priest inviting confession – there is nothing which can possibly surprise, shock or offend – but at the same time like an oracle, fore-knowing and pre-judging all that will ensue, ‘where are you up to in the wedding arrangements? Invitations all in hand, are they?’

There is nothing that Greta cannot tell Plain-Ann about weddings; her own daughter Diana having been married, with great formality and style, the previous year. She can declaim – and has done so – with informed authority upon any aspect Plain-Ann may care to name; the venue, the menu, the role and function of the usher. She is thoroughly mistress of every wedding-related thing, necessity and nicety alike ad infinitum.  And yet so far Plain-Ann has stubbornly refused to ask so much as an opinion. Her lips have been hermetically sealed.  They remain sealed now.

‘Yes thank you,’ Plain-Ann nods, gazing out of the window.

Irritation overwhelms Greta. What’s the matter with the woman? Surely everyone can benefit from a little advice? She decides on a prod. ‘Home-made aren’t they?’ she enquires witheringly. 

Her jibe finds its mark ‘They’re not ‘home-made’, they’re ‘hand-made’,’ Plain-Ann corrects her sharply. ‘There’s a world of difference.’

Greta rummages in her bag for a tissue to cover her little smile of satisfaction. ‘I stand corrected,’ she says tartly.

‘Zoe came over at the weekend and we turned the dining room into a craft-centre. It was rather good fun. You’d be amazed how many processes are involved…’ Plain-Ann’s enthusiasm neutralises her annoyance. She speaks at some length, a sort of flood-gate having been, at last, opened up, although, up to this point, wild horses wouldn’t have dragged the smallest detail out of her; she knows better than to bore other people rigid with arrangements for events in which they will have no participation.

In celebrating this release, Greta is only dimly conscious of the detail, catching odd phrases, ‘calligraphy …lace trimming…origami… individually appliqued…’

We had proper printed ones,’ she puts in quickly when Plain-Ann stops to draw breath, eager to re-establish herself as the Fount of All Wisdom. ‘Embossed, gilt-edged, with ribbon trimmings. I found a printer in…’ and she is off, back on track, centre-stage.

Diana’s wedding had been, probably, the happiest day of Greta’s life. ‘We only have one daughter,’ she had told her husband, ‘she shall have everything of the very best.’

There had followed a year of exhaustive researches, trips to out of the way suppliers of wedding favours, cut-throat negotiations with outfitters and photographers, florists and car-hire companies. Bridesmaids had been chosen, and screened, rigorously rehearsed, decked-out and meticulously accessorised. Ushers, likewise, had been drilled and bullied until able to fulfil their function with military efficiency. The wedding had absorbed all Greta’s waking hours; her other interests – the Townswomen’s Guild, the church flower rota, the whist club – had been sacrificed in its cause and all of this – every obstacle negotiated, every difficulty overcome – had been minutely related to Plain-Ann, week-by-week, as the bus trundled them to and from town.

The day itself had been a triumph of fluttering finery, opulent and flower-scented, the men top-hatted and grey-gloved, the women splendid, gorgeously outfitted in their very, very best and conscious of the honour they had been shown in being invited. Even Anne Barclay (President, Townswomen’s Guild) had gone all-out for the occasion in a large-brimmed hat, her MBE proudly on display. The slow progress of the wedding limousines through the busy high street had brought commerce to a halt; every eye had turned upon them. Greta herself rigged like a galleon and escorted down the aisle by the best man had been only marginally outshone by the bride who followed seconds later. Afterwards, the peel of bells had reverberated across the vale to the farthest-flung farm.

‘This is my moment,’ she had whispered to her husband from the top table dais at the reception. Below them their guests were seated, strictly arranged as to due precedent, awed by wave upon wave of perfect gastronomy, overwhelmed by the class, by the style, by the expense.

Plain-Ann had not been invited. There had been no question of it. She and Greta were only passing acquaintances, after all, and their girls had lost touch.

Life, since Diana’s wedding, has turned a little flat for Greta. News that poor, homely little Zoe is to tie the knot has reignited a spark. Perhaps she can, by a process of careful suggestion and judicious influence, manoeuvre herself into a prominent position in the limelight? Plain-Ann, after all – timid and retiring, socially inept as she is – will only benefit from Greta’s hard-won experience. Without Greta to guide her she’ll be overwhelmed before she even gets going, won’t she?

But no. It seems not. Plain-Ann has her own ideas and has consistently resisted any friendly in-put from Greta. ‘That’s nice,’ Plain-Ann interrupts now. The whereabouts of the printer is irrelevant, the whole topic of Diana’s wedding of no possible moment. ‘Zoe wanted something more personal.’

Greta puts the topic of invitations to one side. She casts about for an alternative outlet for her vast reservoir of experience. ‘So the guest list is complete, then? Now there are a few pitfalls here; let me advise you, first of all, not to let the groom’s people take too many liberties. Diana’s mother-in-law claimed thirty seven first cousins, if you can believe it! I soon put a stop to that, as you can imagine. They were only stumping up ‘a contribution’ for the evening buffet so they had no room to dictate terms.’

Plain-Ann says ‘I don’t think that will be an issue, Chris hasn’t much family.’

‘And neither have you!’ Greta says, as though acknowledging a delicate social failing. ‘But don’t be dismayed.  Quality is much more important than quantity. We had an MBE, an MD and two JPs among our guests, not to mention a woman who had been at school with Princess Anne…’

 ‘I got my outfit at the weekend,’ Plain-Ann bursts out, sacrificially. Anything to ward off a roll-call of Greta’s guest list.

‘Ahh.’ Greta nods sagaciously. At last; here’s a topic on which she can pronounce with authority. ‘I hope you went to Debenhams. It’s where I got mine. They had the best range, I found. Now if you ask, they have a private room with accessories that you can hire. Not everyone knows about it.’

‘Thank you,’ Plain-Ann shifts Greta’s insulated Iceland carrier bag a fraction, away from her arthritic knee, ‘but in fact, we went to a boutique which specialises in Mother of the Bride outfits. All their ensembles are on-offs. There’ll be no possibility of any of the guests turning up in the same thing. They had a huge range of accessories, all co-ordinated, of course.’

Greta bridles, stymied again, but allows herself only to observe, ‘I hope they included coats. Take my advice and wear a coat for the church. I only had a jacket and I was perished, even in July. I wore…’

The bus pulls up at a stop and two ladies in traditional Indian dress climb aboard. Greta reprises her mother of the bride outfit in wearying detail.

‘There’ll be no need for a coat at all,’ Plain-Ann says at last, in a quiet voice almost drowned out by the roar of the engine as the bus draws away from the kerb. ‘Everything’s happening at the hotel.’

Greta is aghast. ‘Even the ceremony?’

Plain-Ann nods. ‘Yes. They’re licensed for wedding ceremonies.’

Greta’s expectations undergo a seismic shift. So this isn’t going to be a proper wedding at all! It is going to be modern, alternative, a no-frills, package-deal of an affair. No wonder Plain-Ann has been so tight-lipped. No church ceremony? Greta cannot prevent a sigh. What a disappointment! The wedding processional reduced to a quick scurry down a carpeted corridor, the lofty groins, quatrefoils and crocketted pinnacles of St Michael’s replaced by the beige blandness of a hotel function room or, worse, the registry office at the town hall.

‘I think it’s much more honest,’ Plain-Ann retorts. Greta’s silence has been loud with disapproval. ‘They have been living together for eighteen months. And neither of them are church-goers.’

‘But what about the ph…’

‘Zoe said it would be hypocritical to have a church wedding just so that the photographs will look nice, and I agree with her.’

Greta swallows back any further comment. The bus descends a slip-way onto a dual carriageway; they will soon be home.

Diana’s photographs certainly look splendid, against the backdrop of the church tower, a mullioned window, the bride and groom illuminated by a rainbow of light as it filters through the stained glass. Greta keeps the album on her coffee table, and shows it to guests when they call. But in point of fact the vicar had been very awkward over the fact that Diana and Bruce weren’t regular congregants.

‘She’s a member of this church,’ Greta had insisted. ‘You christened her yourself. Look! Here’s the certificate!’

In the end, only a significant donation to the heating fund had swung it.

Then there had been all the difficulty over the hymns. ‘Do we have to have songs about God?’ Bruce had wanted to know. He’d wanted ‘you’ll never walk alone.’ Diana had wanted to walk down the aisle to an Elton John song. Neither of them had been happy about the bible reading. ‘We wanted that passage from Captain Corelli,’ they’d said, ‘and a Celtic blessing.’

Really, what with the reluctance of the vicar, and the foot-dragging of the bride and groom, and the parsimony of her husband (‘two lots of fees – the church and the Registry – two lots of  flowers, double the distance for the limousines – where will it all end? Wouldn’t a ladder and two tickets to Gretna have been better?’) she had wondered, sometimes, if anyone really appreciated all her efforts?  The weeks before the wedding had been embittered, the bride and groom raising objections over the least sugared almond, attending suit and frock fittings with extreme ill-grace, becoming sullen and unco-operative as though the wedding was an ordeal they were being forced to undergo, like the vicar’s prescribed marriage-preparation classes, rather than something they had chosen.

Last time Greta heard from Diana there had been the suggestion of a separation in the offing. ‘All the stress of the big day,’ she had moaned, ‘Bruce and I have never really got over it. It’s all taken its toll, Mum.’

Greta’s husband is still working extra shifts, to pay off the credit cards.

Greta shifts her feet. They are as cold as ice, the damp from her trousers like corpses’ hands clamped to her ankles. Next to her, Plain-Ann looks warm and dry; her gabardine might be drab, but it is efficient. The bus exits the dual carriageway and negotiates a roundabout. Not far now.

Perhaps, after all, Greta thinks, Plain-Ann’s is a more sensible approach.

‘What colour is it?’ Greta asks, ‘your outfit?’

Plain-Ann eyes her, narrowly. She knows that the mother of the groom should wear beige and keep her mouth shut. Is there, she wonders, some similar received wisdom for mothers of the bride which Greta is about to impart? She steels herself. ‘Hard to say, orangey.’

Unusually, there seems to be no hidden agenda, no right-or-wrong answer to Greta’s question. It appears that she is only interested.

‘Like a tangerine?’ Greta asks conversationally.

In her own surprise, Plain-Ann finds herself being more forth-coming. ‘Oh no! Not so vivid. When I say orangey, really it’s more orangey-pink.’

Greta lifts her Iceland bag off Plain-Ann’s lap. It is heavier, and much colder than she had appreciated. ‘Orange blossom, then? That’ll be nice, for a spring wedding.’

‘N.. no, not really. That’s really pale, isn’t it?’

‘More of an apricot?’ The bus slows and stops. The Indian ladies get off. Greta and Plain-Ann’s stop is next.

‘Mmm. But pinker.’

‘Shrimp?’ it is a deliberately facetious suggestion. They both laugh.

 ‘No! Not as pink as that.’

They are gathering their parcels. The bus slows for a pedestrian.

‘Coral, perhaps?’

‘No. Not so bright.’

Greta reaches up and presses the button. At the front of the bus a bell alerts the driver. The woman sitting in front of them mutters ‘Peach?’

Greta snatches it from the air. ‘Peach?’

The bus begins to indicate and pulls into the kerb. Greta and Plain-Ann rise.

 ‘On the peach side of apricot,’ Plain-Ann concedes.

Greta nods. Behind her tightly-clamped lips a torrent of good advice seethes and jostles; the importance of contrast – in a scarf or the trimming of a hat – to set off the whole ensemble, the usefulness, on the day, of a capacious handbag, the absolute necessity of comfortable shoes. ‘Sounds lovely,’ is all she says.

They make their way towards the doors.

‘See you next week, then?’ Greta says as she descends.

‘See you next week,’ Plain-Ann replies.

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