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Torfaen Tales

The Lure of the Lemon Curd

Elaine sees life from a different point of view ...

I watched the band through the smoky haze and interruption of people coming and going. The singer looked somehow familiar. As I watched her shake her blonde hair and pout into the microphone I dredged the corners of my memory.

I felt a bit out of place on my own in a pub, and took care to avoid eye contact with anyone who might think I was on the look-out for male company. In any case, I wasn't staying long.

I was doing my best. It wasn't much fun, but I was keeping my promise to myself to get out more after Mum died. This wasn't my first weekend away, but it seemed much the same as the others. I didn't know what to do with myself now that the endless demands of looking after Mum had come to an abrupt end. The thought of a whole week off work stretching ahead of me wasn't exactly thrilling. Hours and hours of time to kill. What had possessed me to choose this town I didn't really know. With any luck the weather would be awful and I'd have a good excuse to go home early.

I pushed my half-eaten tuna salad to one side and headed for the ladies. As I combed my hair the band's singer appeared in the mirror behind me, and something clicked in my brain.

I turned without hesitation. "It's Cathy, isn't it?"

She looked at me blankly and I felt foolish.

"Collis and Dennison in London," I mumbled, feeling my face redden awkwardly. "You filled in for our receptionist while she was on holiday last year."

The woman laughed. "Oh yes! Sorry, I don't remember your name."

"Elaine. Elaine West."

As we walked back into the noisy hubbub of the lounge I established that Cathy had left London and now lived here in Devon, near Totnes, with Ron, the bass player.

"Come and join us," she urged. "We're taking a break."

She introduced me to Ron, Wayne and Speedy, the other members of her band. Speedy didn't look very speedy at all. Small and rat-like with slow-lidded eyes, he resembled the dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea party. Ron nodded gravely in acknowledgement of our introduction and promptly left the table. At least Wayne made some attempt to join the conversation when Cathy occasionally drew breath.

She chattered at break-neck speed, filling me in on the details of her latest passion, the music business. Most of it was in musician-speak and I could only hazard a guess as to the meaning.

Ron returned with a tray of drinks. I felt awkward accepting hospitality from someone I'd only just met, but Ron didn't look like a man you could cross and come away unscathed. He was quite tall and well-built, with the menacing face of a prize fighter. I sipped my drink and nearly choked.

"What is this?" I whispered to Cathy when Ron wasn't looking.

She smiled. "Southern Comfort, I expect. It's what I like to drink."

It was quite a generous measure, and I resolved to sip it slowly as I wasn't sure how it would react with the glass of wine I'd had with my salad.

Cathy's brand of instant friendliness was a little unnerving, considering we'd hardly talked at all during her brief sojourn with Collis and Dennison. I could only assume she was grateful for female company in the male-dominated environment of her band, or that she was pleased to have a new audience to regale with the delights of life as a small-time rock star. Nevertheless her enthusiasm for life was refreshing and enviable.

Ron laid his battle-scarred paw on Cathy's shoulder. "Time we was up again, babe," he grunted.

Cathy smiled and downed the last of her drink. "Stay right here," she ordered. "We'll be back soon."

I stayed till the end. I enjoyed their performance even though I didn't know very many of the songs they played. I'd hardly listened to any music for years for fear of disturbing Mum's sleep. Here was a glimpse of the new world of rock music, loud and demanding. It stirred my blood, or maybe that was the Southern Comfort. I applauded loudly at the end of each song, along with everyone else.

Cathy's eyes shone with triumph as she made her way back to the table, leaving the boys to pack up their equipment.

"That was great," I enthused. "Well, I'd better get back to my B&B."

"Don't go yet!" she begged. "Come back with us for a nightcap. Hey, why don't you stay the night?"

I tried to protest that I'd already paid for my accommodation at The Oaks, and that I shouldn't drive after drinking, but Cathy swept me along with her enthusiasm. There was no stopping her. I could come in the van with them, Speedy hadn't been drinking so he was driving. One of them would drop me back in town tomorrow.

"Just give in, lass," said Wayne with a grin.

While they loaded their van I slipped round the corner to The Oaks, scribbled a note for my landlady and packed my bag. It wasn't like me to do things on the spur of the moment, but it felt liberating. I chided myself that I was in danger of becoming a fussy old maid at the age of 34, and here was an opportunity to break out of the rut.

Back outside the pub they were ready to leave. I climbed into the front seat next to Cathy. Speedy seemed to have woken up sufficiently to drive, and Ron and Wayne were sitting in the back of the van with the amplifiers and things.

I had no idea where we were once we left the town. The country road was in complete darkness except for the searching eyes of the headlights. We turned left and right so many times I would never have found my way back on foot, and all the trees and hedgerows looked the same.

After about twenty minutes we turned into a rutted lane and pulled up outside a cottage. The headlights glinted off a myriad of window panes but I could see little else. Cathy took my arm and dragged me into the sitting room where a long-haired young woman sat with a toddler in her lap.

"Hello, I'm Elaine," I ventured as Cathy didn't seem inclined to introduce us. She had busied herself lighting candles and fetching glasses from the kitchen.

The girl smiled. "I'm Melody, and this is Jasmine."

It seemed way past bedtime for one so young, but it was not my business to say so. Little Jasmine peered shyly at me from behind her mother's hair, and she didn't seem at all tired or fretful.

Cathy put a CD on, something mellow with cymbals and chanting. Ron, Wayne and Speedy joined us, having unloaded the van and fetched themselves a few beers from the kitchen. Cathy unearthed a bottle from a cabinet in the corner of the room, poured a measure for herself and one for me.

"What is it?" I enquired, sniffing the contents of the glass suspiciously.

"Home made damson liqueur, courtesy of Melody's mother. Tastes wicked!"

Indeed it did. I settled myself on the sofa, slipped off my sandals and relaxed. Speedy was performing some kind of yoga exercise, sat on a cushion with his eyes closed and his hands folded in prayer. Cathy arose trance-like from the floor and began to dance to the music. She swayed and swirled, her hair and clothing following the complicated rhythms of her body. Her dress was made up of pieces of multi-coloured chiffon, like the dance of the seven veils all sewn up together.

"Oh aye, she's off," commented Wayne, rolling his eyes.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Never stops performing," shouted Wayne over the music. "She'll carry on until she drops. Crazy lady."

I could see what he meant. This was all very odd, sitting about watching Cathy dance. We couldn't really carry on a conversation as she'd turned the music up quite loud.

Next thing I knew Cathy grasped my wrists and was hauling me to my feet.

"Come and dance with me, Elaine! Don't be dreary like the others!"

Reluctantly I struggled to my feet. She pulled my arms this way and that, entreating me to follow her gyrations. Then suddenly she left the room, to return moments later grinning with a bottle of champagne in each hand. She twisted and popped the corks out of both bottles and handed one to me, dancing all the while. I sipped the tingly liquid straight from the bottle, not sure where I'd put my glass of damson liqueur. We danced out into the garden, twirling across the patio and out under the trees. The moon shone overhead, its silver beam catching the movement of Cathy's dress and hair. It was a magical night, and I realised I was feeling quite intoxicated. So I took another sip of champagne and giggled like a child as I twirled around the trunk of a tree.

I felt less magical when I awoke the next morning. The daylight hurt my brain. I winced from recollection of the night before as I dressed and went in search of the bathroom.

Having tried to make myself look a bit more presentable I made my way to the kitchen. Speedy was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and Jasmine was on a blanket in the corner of the room, contentedly playing with a set of coloured plastic cups.

"I expect you feel as rough as you look," said Speedy with a sly grin as he poured me a mug of coffee from the pot.

"Oh dear, I'm sorry if I did or said anything "

"Don't worry, you collapsed like a lady."

"Where's Cathy?"

"She and Ron rarely show their faces before midday. Wayne and Mel have gone for a walk."

Speedy turned his attention to his Sunday paper. I picked up my mug of coffee and made my way into the garden, settling myself on a large stone slab which was already warm in the late morning sun. The back wall of the cottage was a tangle of climbing roses, their overblown blooms shedding petals in the soft breeze. I wondered whether the perfect garden was a matter of happy accident or whether someone spent hours weeding and planting. I could hardly imagine Cathy doing so.

The creak of the back door disturbed my ponderings. I looked up to see Cathy walking towards me, her face framed by a straw hat. She certainly looked none the worse for the night before, whereas I was still feeling fragile.

"Good morning Elaine! We're going for a picnic by the river. Bring your swimming things."

She seemed about to join me on the stone slab, but Ron called from within. With a theatrical roll of her eyes she was gone. It seemed unfair that she should emerge golden and fresh-faced, while I looked pale and peaky. It seemed Cathy had a constitution to be reckoned with.

The picnic was a relaxed affair, totally unlike the events of my childhood when my mother had baked and buttered herself into a frenzy. We walked a mile or so along a tree-lined lane and climbed down beside a bridge to the river bank. Ron and Speedy carried an old picnic hamper between them. We came to a clearing on a bend in the river where the clear, brown water meandered around well-worn boulders. The hamper was dumped in the shade as everyone stripped off in a race for the water.

I hung back, overcome by a wave of feeling that I didn't belong. I went in search of shelter to change, being too self-conscious to strip publicly. When I reappeared they were all leaping and splashing in the middle of the river, and I was alarmed that little Jasmine had been left by herself at the edge of the water. But she sat contentedly, digging a hole in the gritty sand. I squatted beside her, and she turned up her little face with a winning smile.

"Diamonds!" she gurgled, showing off the wet grains of sand gleaming in her chubby palm. I didn't have the heart to tell her that they were simply pieces of quartz.

The water lapped appealingly at my toes. I slipped into its cool embrace, wincing as the cold shock met the remains of my hangover.

After a rowdy game of water polo Wayne declared it was time to eat, and we all made our way to the shore. I had to admit I felt hungry also. The hamper was a treasure chest of assorted items: it was as though someone had tipped the contents of the cupboards and fridge willy-nilly into a basket. Half a chicken, assorted bread rolls, a jar of beetroot, a few remnants of cheese, biscuits that looked home made

Speedy opened a bottle of champagne and passed it round. I shook my head firmly.

"Not after last night!" I said firmly.

He grinned sympathetically.

The meal was a leisurely affair. Nobody panicked when ants were discovered in the lemon tart.

"What a way to go!" said Ron, carefully picking the struggling insects out with the point of a knife and placing them gently in the grass. It seemed ridiculous that someone who looked like a gangster could treat little ants so gently.

Cathy was sunbathing bare-breasted, and I averted my eyes with embarrassment as she rolled over to help herself to strawberries.

"Where are we playing tonight?" she asked.

"We're not," replied Wayne, apparently unconcerned by her near-nakedness.

"Oh goody! A night off," said Cathy, popping another strawberry into her mouth. "We could go to the Wild West Night at the Barley Barrel. What do you reckon, Elaine?"

I floundered awkwardly. "Er, thanks, but I'd better be getting along. I'm supposed to be in Torquay tomorrow." I knew my face was unbecomingly red.

"Are you meeting someone?"

"Well, no "

"Then what's the problem?"

"I, er, don't want to overstay my welcome "

Cathy laid a cool hand on my arm. "I'll be very sorry if you go, Elaine," she said, suddenly serious. "Just when we're getting to know you. Promise you'll stay the rest of the week. Hell, why not stay all summer? Much better than sweating it out in a stuffy old solicitor's office!"

All eyes were upon me. I smiled awkwardly. "Oh, all right. I'll phone the other places I'd booked up to stay and let them know I won't be coming. You're all very kind," I said, looking around the circle of happy, relaxed, tanned faces.

They all cheered, and Jasmine clapped her hands happily. Despite my firm intentions I had to admit that cool champagne on a hot afternoon went down very nicely. Cathy was a strange and complex person, but her natural sincerity and generosity made it easy for me to overlook what was perhaps a vain, shallow and hedonistic outlook on life. I could see the hedonistic way of life was dangerously infectious. I could feel it calling to me, telling me to stay, stay. To enjoy my freedom while it lasted, while the sun shone. The champagne on my tongue was seducing my brain. One only had to look at Cathy. A picture of health, and she wallowed in the stuff! It was time to lay down my inhibitions. Of course I'd only stay for the rest of the week. I couldn't possibly leave the house unattended any longer, and besides, Mr Dennison would have a lengthy report ready for typing on my return. I was alarmed that I suddenly felt little desire to return to the world of public transport, navy skirts, sensible shoes. Coronation Street in the evenings, fish fingers and peas on a tray on my lap. I was overcome by the memory of the smell of the house as I returned each evening, sweet and musty, an old-lady smell that had lingered long after my mother's death.

The abundance of this rural time-warp was encouraging me to spread my wings, to explore life to the full, to indulge. I peered down at the grass, at an ant struggling feebly in a blob of lemony sweetness. What a way to go, indeed!

By Karenne Griffin

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