Boil egg (4½ mins)
Toast (2 slices)
Prepare packed lunch.
In a housewife’s champion finish, Flora slapped fish paste onto thin white sliced, clattering and see-sawing the knife’s serrated edge on the glass jar. Sounding busy was her speciality. She squashed the sandwiches into an old Stork margarine tub on top of a slice of fruit loaf and jammed the lid on. After pouring tea into a thermos and hurling a banana into John’s briefcase, she grabbed a slotted spoon to hook his breakfast out of boiling water. She eyed the kitchen clock with a sense of satisfaction; it had taken years of practice to shave one minute, twelve seconds off his precious schedule.
As usual, John ate his all-too-snotty egg, drank his tea and left for work without a word. The sound of the front door closing heralded a certain calm that left Flora feeling ever-so-slightly lighter. She tuned in to Wake Up to Wogan just as Terry was saying ‘Did you know cows moo in regional accents?’ As on most weekday mornings, he was the first person to speak to her. She hummed along to Bananarama while beating her own breakfast egg, throwing in a wiggle here and there. ‘It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That You Do It’. French toast with sugar sprinkled on top. It was amazing what she could make with John’s prescribed breakfast ingredients.
Back in 1970, as a newlywed, she had followed his written instructions to the letter. ‘So you don’t need to think,’ he’d said and, in case she was in any doubt, presented her with Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, with ‘To my wife’ inscribed inside. Mrs B was John’s second-in-command, unless you counted his long-deceased mother, who still held sway over the decor and furniture.
Over the years, in order to cope with a disappointing husband, she had turned to various sources for advice that was often conflicting and therefore confusing – romantic novels and Ladies’ Circle versus daytime telly and whatever women’s glossy was in the doctor’s surgery. Yes, she was her own woman, but thanks to John, Mrs B’s bulky authority and old Mother Marshall’s ghost, she only truly triumphed during office hours, home alone in the Coventry suburbs.
Moving on to the next of her daily tasks, she wrestled the old twin tub out from under the worktop and forced its hose nozzle onto the kitchen tap. She left the water running and raced upstairs to strip the bed and bring the fully-loaded laundry basket down before the tub was full. She’d only once flooded the kitchen, the day she had stopped to rescue a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web.
Coming back down the stairs with a week's worth of washing obscuring her vision was a skill in itself. She concentrated on counting the steps. Terry Wogan was wrapping up his show with a closing pearl of wisdom. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘everybody else thinks they are better looking than they are as well.’ Not everybody. She had no illusions about her looks: mousy hair, a few freckles, overweight. It didn’t matter anyway. She passed the hall mirror, avoiding eye contact.
First into the machine were her all-too-familiar skirts and blouses, a tangle of American tan tights and a nightie so washed and worn the pink roses were barely discernible. After a ten-minute swish around, she transferred them to the smaller tub for a rinse and spin. The bedding and towels could be washed in one go, but they had to be divided into two separate loads to fit in the spinner. A minor inconvenience compared to the old mangle, now rusting in the back yard.
Finally, it was the turn of John’s shirts, socks and pants to struggle and drown in the murky beige sea, and time for her next challenge. She arranged four Jelly Babies on the lid of the washer and watched them trembling in their sugary overcoats. Far below, with each judder, water dribbled from the undercarriage of the ancient machine and puddled across the honeycomb-patterned lino. Swish-churn, swish-churn. There were so many ways to eat Jelly Babies, other than just biting off their heads. She hovered her face a few inches above the dusty little bodies, enjoying the soft, candy-floss scent of icing sugar, then gently licked the nearest one until its tummy turned green before sucking it into her mouth.
Another hexagon of lino succumbed to the soapy flood. It was like a slow game of Blockbusters – ‘Can I have a P please, Bob?’ She stuffed a rolled-up newspaper under the fridge; if the water got that far she’d leave it for John to see. Maybe then he’d agree to buying another new-second-hand ‘bargain’. She reached for the next sweet without looking and tasted the colour. Red? She took it out to check, then gave the machine a nudge and watched soapy water ripple towards yesterday’s crossword.
With the final rinse and spin dealt with, Flora carried John’s collection of muted mixed fibres out to the back yard where the sun was yet to shine. Given the time of year, it would be close to two o’clock before the grey concrete turned a few shades brighter. While pegging out the last of the eleven socks, she planned the rest of her day. Saving up things to think about helped to pass the time, made her feel busy. Next on the agenda: choosing lunch. As per John’s instructions, she was supposed to be finishing up the jar of fish paste. She pictured him tucking into his sandwich of squashed, sweaty bread with fishy-scented fruit loaf for afters. More fool him. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten one of those lifeless grey rectangles.
John maintained that anything more than one filling per sandwich was an unnecessary extravagance. In a satisfying act of defiance, Flora always created her own sandwich with a minimum of three. Today she’d have cheese, salad cream and grated carrot. Nice and colourful. And instead of sitting at the kitchen table, she’d have it in front of Judge Judy, followed by a little something from the treat tin stowed behind the ironing board. A French Fancy perhaps, with The Flying Doctors. Having lunch to look forward to was an incentive to get on with the rest of the morning’s chores; carpets and lino, according to John’s rota.
After mopping the kitchen floor, skirting around the now soggy barricade in front of the fridge, she hurried upstairs to wipe down the bathroom lino. She would leave the stairs and landing for another week and make do with a speedy hoover around the visible areas of carpet in the rest of the house. Finally, she began to line up lunchtime ingredients. Why have an ordinary sandwich when, for just an extra slice of bread, you could have a toasted club sandwich? A top deck of grated carrot and salad cream sprinkled with salt and pepper, toast buttered on both sides and cheese down below. She was weighing up the merits of triangles versus squares when she heard the unmistakable sound of a key in the lock. The front door opening.
Quick! Switch off the radio, hide the salad cream.
‘Eh?’ He never called her ‘love’. She prepared for the worst.
‘Something wonderful’s happened.’ He plonked a bottle of Lambrusco down on the kitchen table, followed by a blue-and-white striped bag from the butcher. Chops, by the look of it. ‘Have a guess.’
‘I can’t imagine—’
He pulled her towards him, planted a quick, dry peck on her cheek. ‘As of now and for the rest of my life I’m to be a gentleman of leisure. Retired.’
While she half-listened to what he was saying, a shroud of despair was already creeping over her like a cold, wet floorcloth. Everything would have to stop. Dancing to the radio, the stash of Mills & Boon, daytime telly, Gail’s Cafe where the girls were so friendly. ‘But you’ve only just turned sixty-three. Surely you’ll want another job, something to keep yourself occupied?’ Even the Jelly Babies were at risk.
‘Don’t you understand? They’re paying me not to work! They don’t want me going to the competition; insurance is very cut-throat these days. And I can’t start a new career, not at my age. So, from now on, I’ll have the life of Riley.’
What about Riley’s wife? Presumably she fried a couple of chops and drowned her sorrows in cheap fizzy wine.
John said he’d taken to early retirement ‘like a duck to water’. He especially enjoyed digging the allotment on a weekday, while everyone else was at work worrying about the Millennium Bug and the havoc it would wreak on the new computerised system. Flora’s ability to adapt was far less gainly. The age gap of seventeen years had hardly been noticeable in the early years, but now it became a yawning chasm; still waiting for her life to begin, it felt as though she were lying in a coffin with John sitting on the lid.
The only benefit of a househusband was having a second pair of hands to carry the weekly groceries home on the bus. Soon they developed a routine: John waited in the newsagent, reading Gardeners' World without having to pay for it, while Flora followed the shopping list unencumbered, skimming a few pennies off the housekeeping and wrapping them in a hankie for later.
On a day much like any other, after the usual Wednesday breakfast of a fried egg on toast, they caught the number twenty-three to Coventry South Retail Park, chosen for its convenient triangle of bus stop, bargain-priced groceries and free reading matter. They stepped off the bus into a light drizzle. As Flora was about to rummage in her bag for an umbrella, a coin glinting on the pavement caught her eye.
‘Ah, finders keepers,’ said John, swooping down to claim it.
‘I saw it too,’ she said.
‘But you didn’t pick it up, did you?’
‘Shouldn’t we give it back to whoever—’
‘And who’s that, exactly?’ He gestured at the empty pavement ahead.
‘Then we should share it, buy something for both of us.’ As they approached the newsagent, she pointed at a pair of giant-sized crossed fingers. ‘How about one of those?’
‘What, a lottery ticket? I don’t think so – gambling’s a mug’s game.’
‘It isn’t actually gambling because some of the money goes to charity.’
The discussion went on for some time, but Flora knew if she kept it up, he’d eventually see his way to spending someone else's money on a chance to win even more. She clinched the deal by agreeing he could choose the numbers.
‘Alright then, one pound can’t hurt, can it?’
John’s numbers were random, not the birthdays or anniversary dates she would have picked. No matter, they were in with a chance, and for the rest of the week she daydreamed about winning the big prize. The usually silent mealtimes became more animated. In between snorts of ridicule at her hopes for a new three-piece suite, John let slip he would like to spend the jackpot on a geography field trip, and left a copy of National Geographic magazine featuring the Jurassic Coast on the coffee table.
By Saturday evening they were equally keen to watch the live draw on television. No matter that John insisted on holding the ticket; she had already memorised the numbers and written them on a slip of paper that she wrapped around her lucky four-leaf clover keyring.
Spooky music and a swirl of studio fog heralded Mystic Meg’s arrival in a full-length, purple cloak. Flora crossed her fingers on both hands. The fog lifted to reveal a crystal ball.
‘What a load of old codswallop,’ said John.
As the music stopped, Meg made meaningful eye contact with the camera. And then she began.
‘I see a house,’ she said in a spooky voice, ‘with a blue door.’
‘Get on with it, you daft woman!’ John shouted.
‘Lucky numbers are one and seven.’
‘Hang on,’ gasped Flora, ‘that’s us; we’ve got one and seven!’
‘. . . a lady with long hair,’ Meg gazed into her crystal ball, ‘brown in colour.’
‘What a load of bunkum. Complete waste of time and money.’
‘Well, it’s not your money,’ Flora murmured as Meg disappeared behind a velvet curtain.
The drum roll for the draw made her heart beat faster.
John was supposed to cross off the numbers but he wasn’t ready when number seven was the first to be drawn, and he was still putting his reading glasses on when the next number was announced.
‘That’s us!’ shrieked Flora.
When the final number was called, she jumped up and hugged John. She’d already checked the rules – three numbers were a win.
‘Calm down,’ he said, ‘it’s only a fixed prize of ten pounds.’
First thing the next morning he went to the corner shop to claim their winnings. Flora had suggested a takeaway. Finally, she might persuade him to try something different. Chinese. Even fish and chips would be nice.
‘Why waste money when you can cook a perfectly good meal at home? No, we’ll reinvest our original fund,’ he said, putting a pound coin on the mantelpiece and pocketing the rest of the winnings.
And so they began a weekly routine, taking it in turns to pick numbers for a single ticket and then sitting together to watch the draw. Their hopes for a big win were occasionally fuelled by another ten-pound prize. On one memorable occasion, Flora’s numbers won fifty pounds, after which John poured her a glass of leftover Christmas Baileys and opened a can of John Smith’s for himself. At last, they had a shared interest.
Hitting the jackpot would put an end to dreary old Grove Road; number ninety-three was the only house in the entire street without double-glazing, or a patio in place of the old outdoor privy. Flora searched the property pages until she found the ultimate dream – an executive home on Miller’s Reach Estate. She would have animal print soft furnishings, a marble bathroom suite and a luxury fitted kitchen. Going to London for a makeover, like a woman in a before-and-after magazine feature, would also be a must. While she was there, she’d have tea at the Ritz with Barry Manilow – but she kept that to herself.
John said if she wanted to waste her winnings on bricks and mortar when they already had an adequate house, it would have to come out of her half. His share would be spent on a global adventure. Geography was his passion, but apart from a long weekend in 1959 when he had joined an excursion to Hadrian’s Wall, he had never travelled. Everything he knew about the world had been gleaned from books and his annual subscription to National Geographic. His share of the winnings was destined to bring those pages of colour photographs to life. He drew up a list: the island of Molokai, the Salinas Grandes of Argentina and New Zealand’s Punakaiki Rocks were just the beginning.
John seemed to enjoy the list for its own sake. Keeping it folded inside his pocket diary, he carried it with him at all times, handy for adding snippets of information. On the evidence of geographically fascinating criteria, a new destination would be added.
‘I’ll show you one of the most amazing sights you’ll ever see when we go to Belize,’ he promised. He spoke with so much familiarity and confidence, an eavesdropper would have believed they were heading off the following week. Occasionally, Flora suggested they should redouble their efforts with another ticket if they were ever to see such ‘geographically fascinating’ places, let alone know the comforts of a Parker Knoll in Maple Blush, but John was resolute.
‘No need to go spending something we haven’t got.’
‘But that original pound wasn’t ours and we won with that so—’
‘Exactly, so we’re ahead of the game.’
In the six years that followed, Flora encouraged John to embellish his list with extensive research. By arming him with a packed lunch, he’d go to Coventry’s central reference library with a list of diverse questions – visa requirements, the national living wage, local delicacies – she could keep him out of the house for the best part of a day. John’s fully informed world tour grew into the retirement hobby they both needed.
‘I’m off to the allotment.’ John buttoned his jacket and checked for his bus pass. ‘I’ll sort out those spring greens and be back at six.’
Take as long as you like, thought Flora. It was always a welcome sight, him putting his coat on and leaving the house. She watched the front door close, waited to hear the gate clang shut, then filled the kettle and turned on the radio. Contact with the real world was music to her ears.
It had been years since she had referred to John’s old school exercise book; she knew the housework timetable by heart and could cook the meal plan without needing to weigh or measure. Very occasionally the menu had been amended, but only when the cost of ingredients went up or there was a shortage of something. She had fond memories of the 1988 salmonella scare – with eggs off the menu she was able to come up with several ‘emergency’ dishes. But once the crisis was over it was back to John’s boring routine. ‘So we know where we are,’ he’d said.
As it was Thursday, Flora quickly prepared the batter for toad-in-the-hole and fried the sausages to a pale golden brown, then emptied a tin of rice pudding into a saucepan for afters. With the basics done, she could settle down to a nice cup of tea and do the quick crossword in the free newspaper. At a quarter past five, she popped a heatproof dish in the oven with a dollop of lard. The trick with toad-in-the-hole was to pour the batter into boiling oil so that it began cooking from the get-go.
The next part of the afternoon’s routine depended on where John was. Since he had gone to his allotment, she could catch up with Home and Away. Otherwise, if he was somewhere nearby, she would have had to stay in the kitchen and carry on with the crossword – it really wasn’t worth being caught ‘polluting the airways with inane chitter-chatter’. With the remote control in hand, perched on the edge of the sofa where she could keep an eye on the front gate, she tuned in to watch a heated altercation between Sally and Shauna. Other people’s domestic disharmony often cheered her up. It was also reassuring to know that even in the eternal sunshine of Summer Bay, where parakeets were as common as sparrows and barbecues were an everyday occasion, people still had problems.
She gradually relaxed into a soapy haze, enjoying the nuances of yet another petty scandal in Sally’s unfortunate life. The front gate clanging shut alerted her to John’s return. In a well-practised move, she zapped the remote and hurried through to the kitchen. Instantly, she knew something was wrong; the customary warm, soft smell of baking sausage and batter was missing. She opened the oven door to see what looked like albino moles peering out of gluey, lukewarm batter.
‘What are you playing at, woman? It’s almost six o’clock.’ John was washing his hands at the sink.
‘It’s not me. It’s the oven. It’s on the blink again.’
‘You’d best fetch my toolbox.’
John had repaired virtually every appliance in the house. Some of them, like the vacuum cleaner, had been practically rebuilt, which thwarted Flora’s dream of ever having a Dyson. The cooker had been second-hand from Buy and Sell in the local paper several years ago. The fact it had only cost ten pounds was a source of pride to John. He loved a bargain.
Flora returned with the toolbox just as he was spreading newspaper on the kitchen floor – something he did for virtually all repairs.
‘Now, get out of my way while I sort this out.’
‘Shall we have fish and chips? I could get some while you—’
‘And let this perfectly good dinner go to waste? Over my dead body.’
Flora knew better than to argue about the batter being unlikely to rise and crisp up, let alone the toad’s chances. She would dish it up regardless and see how he liked being right all the time. She’d refuse to eat hers and then have a quick cheese sandwich later, when he wasn’t looking.
She sat on the sofa, itching to put the television back on, but picked up her latest library book instead – The Tumbleweed, a gloriously bulky romance following the trials and tribulations of Jericho Blake, a swarthy, broken-hearted man who travelled the world selling household items door to door. Flora knew if he offered her clothes pegs or a feather duster she’d swoon on the spot.
Just as Jericho was rescuing a drowning puppy, she heard a loud clatter in the kitchen.
‘You alright?’ she called, with a finger marking her place on the page. She read the next paragraph while she waited for an answer.
She reluctantly put the book down and went to investigate. John was stretched out on the floor, staring at the ceiling with a shocked expression.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ She dropped to her knees and shook him. No response. She leaned closer to check his breathing, then laid her head on his chest. Nothing.
She sat beside him on the lino for a while, not sure if she should dial 999. It wasn’t an emergency now. The house was perfectly still. Until then she hadn’t noticed how loudly the clock ticked on the mantelpiece in the front room. There was a strong smell of acrid smoke and something that looked like scorch marks around the cooker socket. The old screwdriver was still in his hand.
His glasses were askew, so she took them off and smoothed down his hair. A pointless demonstration of affection, John would have said. She took his bony hand in hers. It was still warm. Why wasn’t she crying?
Later that evening, after the ambulance had left without the need for blue flashing lights, Flora remembered what John had said and put her coat on. Although she didn’t fancy fish and chips anymore, she would have her own way, just for once.
Waking up on the sofa wasn’t new to Flora; whenever John’s snoring became too much, she would creep downstairs and watch a late film. Lying full-length under an old eiderdown with a cup of tea and a packet of Rich Tea was a secret time of night she cherished. In the morning, a stiff neck would be compensated for by John’s almost apology when he’d blame the snoring on his excessive nasal tissue and offer to take the eiderdown back upstairs.
A stiff neck was normal, but the thudding rhythm in her head was a new experience. Still lying down, she tentatively reached for a bottle of Baileys on the coffee table and held it up to the light. She shook it from side to side, trying to see how much was left through the thick brown glass. Empty. At least the Bristol Cream was still half-full. The crumpled remains of a packet of biscuits explained the sandy crumbs squashed into the carpet.
She vaguely recalled playing Jim Reeves and Val Doonican at full volume. John’s entire record collection was strewn all over the floor; some discs were out of their sleeves. The static would be attracting carpet fluff. He would be furious. She propped herself up, momentarily confused; she still had her clothes on. Something was different.
No. Everything was different.
A pile of crumpled tissues. Bouts of wailing and blubbing. If only she didn’t have a headache, she was sure she would feel better for letting off steam. There were more tears to come, she knew that. Thirty-five years of being Mrs Marshall had created quite a build-up.