With a heavy sigh Pauline took the letter with the American stamp out of her cardigan pocket. Jean would be here in five weeks. Jean who was now Jeanette. Jean who’d been her friend since schooldays. Jean who’d been engaged to Doug - until she’d run off with her handsome American. Jean who was newly divorced. Jean who’d be tanned and slim and glamorously foreign.
When she heard Doug’s car in the driveway, Pauline crammed the letter back into her pocket and took his meal out of the oven. It was on the dining table when he walked in.
He glanced at the plate suspiciously. “What’s this?”
“What happened to the batter?”
“It’s grilled. It hasn’t got any batter.” Pauline banged a bowl of salad defiantly on the table. A radish bounced out. She put it back and sat down opposite him.
“Where’s the chips and mushy peas?”
“We’re not having any. Too much cholesterol.”
“Cholesterol. It clogs up your arteries.”
“No chips,” Doug said in dismay, as though she’d told him Father Christmas had been assassinated.
The kitchen door burst open and Billy shouldered his way in, his gold earring glinting in the light. “Lend us a fiver, will you?”
“What for?” Doug’s hand was already in his pocket.
“I’m goin’ down the pub.”
“But your tea’s ready,” Pauline protested, hurriedly opening the warming drawer and taking out his plate.
“What is it?”
Billy stared accusingly at the naked slab of cod. “Who’s had the batter?”
“It’s diet fish. It hasn’t got any,” Doug told him.
“I’ll get a pie down the pub,” said Billy, unhooking his jacket from the nail on the back of the door and opening it.
“Hang on, son. I’ll come with you,” Doug called, shoving his plate across the table.
“But Dougie, what about your fish?”
“Give it to the cat.” The door banged shut.
Like hell, she would. They’d get it tomorrow – curried. She tipped some lettuce, tomato, and cucumber onto her plate and picked at it unenthusiastically. Salad was nothing without a dollop of salad cream. But she’d have to do without if she wanted to lose weight. Cholesterol was only an excuse. Doug would laugh and mock if he knew the truth.
Pauline read through the letter again before dousing the unappetising fish with vinegar. It wasn’t that she was fat, she told herself, chewing half-heartedly on a lettuce leaf. But she wasn’t exactly slim either. Tomorrow she’d walk to the shops, get some exercise, work off the fat. She spooned a generous portion of fruit salad into a dish, glancing longingly at the cream on the top of the milk.
It was 15 years since she’d seen Jean. And now she was coming home for her Mam and Dad’s golden wedding. Damn Jean, thought Pauline resentfully, why couldn’t her Mam and Dad go over to “The States” like they normally did, bringing back wads of photographs to be whipped out of her Mam’s handbag at the slightest excuse. This is our Jean next to her swimming pool, and this is our Jean on their friend’s yacht, and this is our Jean on their holiday in Hawaii. Just because she’d got divorced… would this mean another photograph – this is our Jean, on the prowl, looking for another man?
She was in bed when she heard the gate click. There was a muttered argument at the front door and then the bell rang. She knew it; they’d forgotten the key.
“Paulie,” shouted Doug through the letterbox. “Let us in will you.”
How many years was it since he’d knocked on her bedroom window and begged the same thing after Jean had told him their engagement was off and she was going to marry Ted? He’d climbed through the window. He’d been drinking. But he wasn’t drunk. He’d sat on her bed, hurt, sad, and vulnerable, pouring out his heart. And she’d comforted him.
… There’s comforting and comforting, her mother had said tweezer-lipped three months later, when Pauline had tearfully explained her sudden plans to marry Doug.
Pulling on her dressing-gown, she went downstairs. “Who is it?”
“It’s the milkman. Is your husband home?” sniggered Billy. She let them in, giggling like schoolboys.
The following morning she spooned a tiny amount of porridge into her dish and smeared it round to look as if she’d eaten.
“There’s no cream on this milk. Paulie, why is there no cream on this milk?”
“I shook the bottle.”
“Why? You know I always have cream on me porridge.”
“Cholesterol. You should really be having skimmed.” - Must keep up the pretense.
She cut up a grapefruit while Doug ranted on about how her daft ideas were taking away life’s small pleasures.
When Doug had left, grumbling and sour-faced, she ate the unsweetened grapefruit in shuddering disgust. Black tea, no sugar. It was awful.
She would do some spring-cleaning after the shopping – seeing that Jean was coming. The exercise would do her good.
While lugging a heavy shopping bag home she had to stop three times to rest her arms. Her own fault for buying 10 tins of Kit-e-Kat because they had 5p off.
By 11 o’clock, she was faint with hunger. She had another cup of tea and took down the biscuit tin. One Jaffa cake wouldn’t do any harm, would it? Her mouth watered for the familiar chocolate-orange taste. Sudden visions of Jean in a bikini. She returned the unopened packet of biscuits to the tin.
Shoving the furniture about was exhausting work, but she consoled herself that she was working fat off.
They had roast chicken for their evening meal, with cauliflower, carrots, and peas.
“No roast spuds! How can you have chicken with no spuds?” Doug sent Billy to the chippy for two packets of chips. It was hopeless putting them on a diet. She would simply have to eat less.
A week later and her waist was no smaller. Perhaps she needed more exercise. One night Doug came home to the sound of Twist and Shout blaring from the radio, a golden oldies request, and surprised Pauline twisting her way up and down the stairs.
“What the hell are you doing? You look like a duck with a bladder complaint.”
“The radio said we should get more exercise,” she improvised. “It’s the Government’s idea.”
Three days before Jean’s expected arrival Pauline had lost half a centimetre from her waist – if she breathed in. But her stomach was still the rounded lump it had been five weeks earlier.
A few days later the telephone rang. “Pauline is that you?” A slight American twang. “It’s Jeanette.”
“Jean. How are you?”
“I’m great. I’m dying to see you. When can we get together – just the two of us? How about tonight? We can go for a drink.”
“I’ve hired a car. I’ll pick you up. It’ll be like old times, you know, when we’d go to the pub looking for talent.”
“How’s Doug? Will he mind you going out with me?”
“I didn’t tell him you were coming.”
“Thought I’d surprise him.”
“Don’t tell him. See if he recognises me.”
“All right. See you about eightish then.”
Pauline replaced the receiver with a sigh. She wasn’t looking forward to the evening.
She was doing the dishes when she told Doug she was going out, clattering the plates into the rack with savage little jabs.
“Out. Out where?”
“With the girls.”
“Don’t buy anymore Tupperware?”
“It’s not a party. We’re going for a drink.” She dried her hands and left him filling in his lottery card.
He was asleep in front of the telly when the doorbell rang. She waited to see if he would answer it. She was standing at the top of the stairs in her new dress. It was cerise, in a thin shiny material that fell in soft folds, slimming her hips and disguising the slight bulge of her stomach. “Paulie. The door,” Doug shouted when it rang for a second time. She couldn’t keep Jean waiting.
“Paulie!” screamed Jean, stepping inside and engulfing her in a hug and a cloud of Je Reviens. The emerald green dress clung sleekly to her slim body, the low cut bodice revealing smooth tanned shoulders. Her hair was cut in a short neat style, its colouring a dark auburn Pauline didn’t remember. Beside Jean, Pauline felt like a jam jar.
“Come in, Jean. Doug’s watching the telly.” As Jean followed her down the hall Pauline was uncomfortably aware of grubby fingerprints round the light switch, and the stain on the carpet where the cat had brought up half a tin of stolen pilchards.
“Doug, look who’s here.”
Her heart thudded when she saw the look of delighted surprise on his face. He hadn’t even noticed her own new dress. She was glad she hadn’t mentioned Jean’s arrival. Serve him right that he was still wearing his grubby work clothes.
Jean advanced towards him, arms outstretched. “Well, aren’t you going to say hello, Doug?”
He slowly rose from his chair, his gaze wandering over the chic figure. “Hello, Jean.”
She flung her arms round him, laughing. “What! Don’t I even get a kiss?” His hands were on her hips, drawing her to him. A quick embarrassed peck.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?”
Her arms still round Doug’s neck, she glanced at Pauline. “Paulie wanted it to be a surprise.”
Pauline slung her handbag over her shoulder and headed for the door. “Come on, Jean. Let’s go.”
The pub was crowded and noisy. They had to sit close and shout to be heard. While Jean babbled on about America, Pauline studied her friend. The tan looked good, until you were close up and saw what harsh sun could do to fair skin. Leathery wrinkles were etched round her eyes, and lipstick crept into the whistle marks round her mouth. And her arms – where did slim end and scrawny begin? Would Doug notice – see that her own English rose complexion had only a few tiny laughter lines?
“And what have you and Doug been doing? Have you seen any of the old crowd from school?”
Pauline was startled out of her reverie.
“Nothing much. Our Billy’s training to be an electrician, second year. How’s your Valerie?”
For the first time a look of pain flashed in Jean’s eyes. “She’s staying with Ted. It’s the school holidays.”
Pauline hesitated, and then, “D’you think you’ll ever come back here to live?”
“No. It wouldn’t be fair to Valerie. She’s American, not English. Besides, I’ve been away too long to settle back.”
“Don’t you ever get lonely – miss your family?”
“Not really. I’ve lots of friends, and a part-time job to keep me busy,” Jean replied, a little too brightly Pauline thought.
Doug had waited up for them. “Staying for coffee, Jean?” he asked.
Pauline noticed that he’d made an effort and taken the posh wedding present cups and milk jug out of the display cabinet and set them on the coffee table. And the newspaper was neatly folded and the cushions plumbed up, and the cat’s blanket had been shoved under the telly table. He made a space on the settee for Jean to sit down.
“Aren’t you going to stay and chat?” asked Jean, noticing that there were only two cups.
“No. You two’ll have plenty to laugh and giggle about.” He turned to Pauline. “The kettle’s filled, love,” he said, heading for the door.
Ah, God love him, thought Pauline as she watched the loose heel of his slipper flopping on the carpet as he disappeared up the stairs.
It was after midnight when she slipped into bed, snuggling close to Doug’s warm body.
“Well?” he said.
“Was it worth all that dieting and exercise? That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it?”
“I didn’t want you making unfavourable comparisons, that’s all. I saw the way you were looking at her.”
He laughed. “You’ve nothing to worry about, love. She can never compare with you.”
“How d’you mean? In what way?”
He slid his hand over her shoulder and drew her to him. He smiled and winked. “You were always much better in bed. And hey, you looked dead sexy in that new dress,” he added, snapping off the light…