To say that Paul was excited at the prospect of getting his new leg was an understatement of huge proportions. He talked happily all through dinner about how much he was looking forward to being able to walk again in a few weeks’ time and making jokes about being back on his feet rather than his foot.
Listening as he talked about making a bonfire out of his walking sticks as soon as he was able, Elsie found that she couldn’t take it anymore and getting to her feet, she grabbed Marcia’s empty plate, despite the fact that Paul was still eating, piled it on top of her own and walked out of the dining room without another word. Slamming the plates down in the sink, she stared out of the kitchen window, gripping the draining board hard and willing herself not to cry.
It was not long before the door opened and Evadne came into the room.
“I’ve cleared the rest of the plates,” she said, setting them on the kitchen table. “Even your slowcoach of a husband has finished at last!”
Elsie turned to face her. “You see what I mean now? He just won’t listen!”
Evadne nodded, and tears sprung to Elsie’s eyes at the look of sympathy on her friend’s face. Evadne hurried forward to comfort her, but Elsie held out her arm to keep her at bay.
“Don’t, Evvy, please. I’m okay,” and stepping aside, she picked up the oven gloves and bent to take a pie from the oven.
“Elsie you don’t have to-”
“Make yourself useful and take this through for me,” Elsie interrupted, a no-nonsense tone in her voice. “I’ll just heat up the custard. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
It was clear that she was not willing to discuss things any further, and not knowing quite what to do, Evadne picked up the second pair of gloves, took the cherry pie from her friend and made her way back to the dining room. Elsie bit her lips and turned towards the stove. A saucepan full of custard stood on one of the back rings, and after lighting the gas, she picked up a wooden spoon and began to stir, staring out of the window as she did so. Her mind was miles away, as she absently dragged the spoon through the thick, yellow liquid, and before long before the smell of burning reached her nostrils. Hurriedly, she took the pan off the heat, scalding her hand as she did so, and scraped the spoon along the bottom, watching as chunks of brown rose to the top. It was the final straw, and as a tear ran down her cheek, followed swiftly by another, she turned off the ring, pulled out a chair, sat down and put her head in her hands.
She had no idea how long she had been sitting there before the kitchen door opened again and Lily burst into the room.
“Mummy, Daddy sent me to ask what was taking so…” She broke off as she caught sight of her mother hurriedly wiping her eyes, and stopped and stared, open-mouthed. “Mummy, why are you crying?”
Her daughter’s sudden appearance served to stem Elsie's tears, and giving the young girl a smile, she held up her right palm. “I just burnt my hand, sweetheart, that’s all.” A look of horror crossed Lily’s face – she knew only too well how painful burning yourself could be, having touched a hot plate the week before. “It’s alright, Lily, it’s only a little one. I’ll be okay.” Elsie held out her arms. “Come here and give me a hug. That will soon make it better.”
Lily ran across the room, into her mother’s arms, and squeezed her hard. “Is that better?”
“Much!” Elsie grinned down at her concerned little face and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “Let’s keep it our secret though, shall we? Otherwise Daddy and Tom will just say I was being silly. You know what boys are like.”
Lily nodded earnestly, knowing just what boys were like. “Secret.”
“Good girl. Now, you run back in and tell them I’m just coming, and I’ll pop the custard into a bowl.”
Lily skipped off to relay the message, happy now that her mother was smiling again. As the door closed behind her, Elsie sat for a moment, deep in thought. Then, heaving a huge sigh, she made her way over to the stove and stared down at the custard. It didn’t look all that nice, if she was honest, and a quick mouthful confirmed her suspicions – the burnt taste had permeated all the way through. ‘Well that’s that, then,” she thought to herself, as she emptied the congealed mess into the sink and turned on the tap to wash it down. ‘Edgar and Paul will have to do without their custard. Ice cream it is, and if either of them complains, they’ll get it straight in their lap!’
With dinner over, Paul poured himself and Edgar a small brandy and the two of them retired to the terrace. It was a balmy summer’s evening; the air heavy with the scent of sweet peas and lavender, butterflies and bees flitting from bloom to bloom, the sun just beginning to set in a golden haze behind the tall trees that framed the garden. At the end of the long lawn, the elder children were playing with badminton rackets and a shuttlecock, shrieking with laughter as they tried to keep the shuttle in the air for as long as they could.
Looking around, taking all of this in as he packed his pipe, Edgar heaved a sigh of satisfaction. He loved evenings like this, when despite one’s troubles, simple acts of nature made the world seem like a joyous place to be. Striking a match against the small silver match-case that Evadne had bought him for his birthday, he lit his pipe and then turned his attention away from the garden and towards his friend. Talking of troubles…
“So, this leg of yours…”
Paul looked up from the rosebush that he was examining for greenfly and gave him a smile. “What about it?”
Edgar paused for a moment, taking a puff and exhaling before he replied. “Well…you do know it might not all be plain sailing, don’t you? It’s going to take some getting used to before you’re up and about properly.”
Paul turned his chair back towards the house and frowned. “Aren’t you just a regular mother’s comfort?”
“I’m just being realistic, Paul, that’s all.”
“Oh come off it, Edgar, it’s a leg. I’ve been walking most of my life, for goodness sake, and I manage just fine with the other one. How hard can it possibly be?”
Edgar opened his mouth to answer this, but deciding that he meant it to be a rhetorical question, Paul hastily cut him off.
“Now, how about I go and see to another tot to go with our coffee?” he asked, hastily downing what was left in his glass. “The girls’ll be out any minute and they’ll be chomping at the bit for their own. Same again?” and not waiting for Edgar’s reply, he picked up his friend’s empty tumbler and wheeled himself back towards the house.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Evadne was finishing the last of the drying up while Elsie filled the kettle for a pot of coffee. They had gone about their chores more or less in silence; Elsie not wanting to talk, embarrassed as she was about her earlier outburst, and Evvy not wanting to intrude on her friend’s train of thought.
Elsie lit the hob and put the kettle on to boil. Then, picking up the dishcloth, she began to wash down the sink, watching Evadne from the corner of her eye as she did so.
“Evvy, I’m sorry about earlier.”
Evadne looked up with a heartfelt smile. “You don’t need to apologise, Elsie. We’ve known each other long enough by now.”
They relapsed into silence, as Elsie stared down at the sink, swishing the cloth half-heartedly around the edges. “Life seemed so simple back then, didn’t it?” she said eventually. “When the most we had to worry about was another school turning up at the lake or a fluffy-headed matron who needed taking down a peg or two.”
Evadne nodded, not quite sure what to say, and Elsie threw the dishcloth down on the draining board and turned to face her.
“I just want him back the way he was, Evvy. You remember how he used to be?”
“He’s almost there.”
“I know, but if he doesn’t stop this stupid carry-on about his leg, he’s going to go right back down again.” Pulling out a chair, she sat down, indicating for Evvy to do the same. “You know,” she continued, once Evadne was seated, “I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but when I first met him, he was so cocksure that I really couldn’t abide him.”
Evadne looked surprised. “Really?”
“I know, can you believe it? Clare, his sister, was one of my friends at Royal Holloway, and she more-or-less dragged me along to this cocktail party one night. She had rather a crush on her brother's handsome best friend, as it happens, and was trying to impress him, even though he was already taken.” Elsie smiled. “You know that Edgar and Madeleine met when they were still at school, don’t you?”
“Yes, he’s told me before. They were married almost as soon as he left Oxford.”
Elsie nodded, more to herself than to her friend – she seemed to be in a dream world of her own, her voice distant as she continued. “Yes, that’s right. I suppose he never needed to worry about building up an income to support his future family so they just went ahead and did it. Anyway, we arrived at this party and Claire introduced me to her brother and then disappeared to find Edgar, leaving me alone with Paul. It was just awful, Evvy. I didn’t want to be there as it was, and then the only person I knew had run off and left me with the village idiot!” She laughed as she remembered. “He was the life and soul of the party, of course, charming everyone and making them laugh, but for some reason it didn’t work on me. He just seemed thoroughly over the top, as if he was trying to make himself out to be something he wasn’t. I thought he was a complete and utter fool, and I told him so too!”
Evadne grinned. “What did he say?”
“Nothing! Can you believe it? It just went in one ear and out of the other. I found out later that he liked me from the moment he saw me and he suddenly felt shy, which wasn’t exactly something he was used to. And he didn’t know what to do with that, so he became a larger than life version of himself. I didn’t know that at the time, of course. It just felt like complete and utter torture to me. In the end I left and went home. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do. It didn’t put him off though and he spent the next few days turning up everywhere I went. It only took him a week to wear me down and then that was it - I was smitten! Suddenly all those things that had annoyed me at the very beginning just made me love him all the more. I was so proud that he had chosen to be with me and I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else ever again. I still can’t.” She paused for a moment, staring down at her hands and twisting her fingers together. “I can’t bear to see him broken again, Evvy.” Her voice cracked as she continued. “It’s just not him at all.”
Pushing back her chair, Evadne jumped to her feet and hurried around the table, putting her arms around her friend and giving her a hug. Elsie reached up and took hold of her hand, and Evadne squeezed it in return.
“You won’t lose him again, I promise.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because we won’t let it happen, that’s why.”
The kettle suddenly whistled, making them both jump, and pulling out of her friend’s embrace, Elsie got to her feet, her manner suddenly brisk and falsely-jolly. “Grab those coffee cups and take them out for me, will you?” she asked, pouring boiling water into the pot.
Evadne placed the cups and saucers on a gaily-painted tray, her eyes never leaving Elsie for a second as that lady bustled around the kitchen. Reaching out, she grabbed her friend’s arm as she passed, stopping her in her tracks.
“For what it’s worth, Elsie, he’ll always be that person. If he got through last year then it will never go away.” She looked Elsie straight in the eye, and Elsie dropped her gaze to look down at her feet. “You just need to chip away some of the other stuff sometimes, that’s all. And we’ll do all we can to help you do that.”
There was a long, heavy pause, and then Elsie reached out, collecting her friend in a hug. “Thank you.”
Evadne smiled as she returned the embrace. “Anytime. Now come on,” she said cheerily, as she pulled back, “let’s go join our husbands before they send out a search party. They’ll be chomping at the bit for their coffee by now!”
Later that night, Evadne perched on the edge of the bed next to her husband, a troubled look on her face. Edgar placed his book down on the nightstand and rested a hand on her knee.
“You alright there, darling?”
Evadne stared back at him, placing a hand over his. “Edgar, I think Elsie’s rather worried about Paul.”
Edgar frowned. “Yes, I know. And with good reason too.”
“Do you think it’s going to be awful?”
“I hope not.” He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I think he’s going to be in for a bit of a shock, though.”
Evadne looked a little sheepish. “I promised her we’d pull him through it. We will be able to, won’t we?”
Edgar smiled again and clasped her knee. “If I have any say in the matter we will. I’ll do everything I can, sweetheart, I promise you.”
“I know you will.” Leaning forward, she pecked him on the lips and then got to her feet to go and open the curtains, now that they were both changed for bed. “So I have a question…”
“What is it you do exactly?”
“Hah! I knew you didn’t know!” She stuck her tongue out at him and he gave a deep, rolling chuckle. “Do you really want me to tell you?”
“I just said so, didn’t I?”
“Okay.” Edgar spoke slowly, raising a doubtful eyebrow.
Evadne sat down on the vanity stool looking eager, however, so he launched into an explanation of what his job entailed. It took him precisely two minutes to realise that his doubt had been well-founded, as he watched her picking at a knot in her hair, her eyes glazing over as they nearly always did when he talked in any great detail about his work. Grinning, he began to add in some rather spurious details here and there, such as the three Jersey cows that he kept in a room off his office, the remote African tribe who had made him their king, and his twice-yearly visits to New Zealand to help out with the sheep-shearing.
Evadne nodded absently, picking up her hairbrush to try and get rid of the troublesome knot, and it was a few seconds before she realised that he had finished speaking. She sat up straight and tried to give the impression that she had been listening all along.
“So you got all that?”
Evadne nodded, as she rose to take off her robe. “Yes, now I know.”
Edgar smirked. “Jolly good.”
Catching his expression, his wife frowned. “What?”
“Nothing, darling.” He grinned at her and she shot him a suspicious look. Edgar patted the bed beside him “How about you turn out that light and come here.”
Doing as he suggested, she crawled up the bed until she was lying on her stomach beside him. “What are you grinning at?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does! Tell me!”
Edgar laughed as he stared into her eyes, lifting his hand to play with her curls.
“What? Edgar stop be-”
Before she could finish her sentence, he pulled her head down towards him and planted a kiss square on her lips. Pulling back again, he grinned up at her. “You were saying?”
Evadne narrowed her eyes for a second, and then returned his grin with a mischievous smile. “Never mind,” and lowering her head towards him, she covered his lips with her own.