Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dear Frederica---a short story

Dear Frederica

    `Just get up, will ya!’
    God, that voice of hers really gets to me, first thing in the morning. It’s like a cross between a chainsaw and a cat. You’d think after all these years that I’d have some smart reply, but the fact is, we’ve got used to each other, like a favourite chair or well-worn slippers.
    I pulled the pillow over my ears, another failed tactic that endless failures had not changed my feeble efforts to placate her.
    `Garry--- we have to be at Tania’s by mid-day.’
    `I know Jean. Since when have I ever caused us to be late?’
    `Now don’t you go bringing that up. I know where this is leading. I’m ready now.’
     I pushed the pillow away and tumbled out of bed. So much for a good old sleep-in. Mind you, around here, anything after seven constitutes a sleep-in. I could hear Jean making coffee in the kitchen. She was getting quite good at making a good flat-white on her new machine.
   `Make me one honey---- I’ll be showered and dressed in a jiffy. Can you chuck some porridge in the microwave too hun? I need something sticking to my ribs eh.’
    `I hope you’re not referring to Tania’s cooking again Garry. You know she does her best.
    I took her silence for a “yes.”  True to my word, I was out and dressed and in the kitchen within ten minutes.
    `Oh Garry--- you’re not wearing that are you?’ Jean was referring to my top, a black lightweight knit I’d brought from the op-shop. I knew she hated it, but hey--- who was wearing it--- me or her?
   `Can’t you get a bit of colour into your wardrobe dear? It makes you look old or like you’re going to a test match.’
    `Ah---- I am old, sweetheart.’
    `More like you don’t care, you mean.’
    Rather than prolonging the inevitable argument, I simply returned to the bedroom and came back with my favourite cardigan, a colourful relic from the past. Jean’s face said it all, but she too knew when the game was up.
    `I suppose if you really have to, it will do, but honestly dear---- why can’t you spend a bit of money and get some nice clothes?’
    ‘What for?--- When did we last go anywhere that needed flash clothes, apart from the odd funeral--- well you know my views on dressing for the dead.’
    `Garry---have your breakfast and lets get out of here. I’ll feed the children----oops----the pets. How about we stop at that herb place for a coffee on the way through to Hamilton eh?’
     `Fine by me,’ I mumbled through the hot porridge. I liked the place jean was talking about. It had special memories for me. My mum had loved to go there on the way to “wherever,” as she put it.
     Ten minutes later we had packed the food we were taking; a whole marinated chicken and prepared veggies, along with the apple crumble I had cooked the previous evening. On arrival at Tania’s in Hamilton, we would add our lot to what she had cooked. That was the sticking point. How does one find the balance between bringing too much food and possibly insulting the efforts of our hostess, and having to put up with what we had come to expect; food that was either over-cooked, under-spiced or downright horrible? Both Jean and I considered ourselves to be good cooks and we usually avoided eating anywhere that didn’t meet our standards. Naturally this stance had its consequences--- we didn’t get invited out a lot. Tania was a special case. She had no qualms about us bringing food. In fact she boasted to her friends about our efforts.
    Over the years, we had met a number of her friends. In fact the  ”gatherings” as she put them, had become quite popular. Some of them had caught on to Tania’s lack of culinary skills and approached the occasions in much the same manner we did. Tania was a fabulous hostess in other respects. She always invited a mystery guest, some of whom leaving us wondering where she dragged them up from.
   `I wonder who she’s gonna spring on us this time,’ Jean said, as the car sped past the Waikato River near Meremere.
    `It’ll take a bit to beat the last one. Damn--- that guy could spin a yarn eh. Buggered if I believed him though.’
    A few minutes later we pulled off the main drag and entered an entirely different world. The small car park only had one car, parked in the middle, making it difficult for me to wedge my little Hyundai in.
    `Selfish bastard--- where’d he learn to drive?’
    `Come-on Garry---- lets not spoil a nice day.’
    The sound of someone laughing assailed us as we entered through the old-fashioned hallway. I admired the art-work the owner had on display; some local artists used the place to show their works. The laughing appeared to be coming from a middle-aged lady, only slightly younger than Jean and I.  She was dressed as if she had stepped into a time machine, way back in the 1950’s and then transported herself back to the early twenty first century. Floral artistry--- and then the hat. Jean managed to get to me before I broke out in obvious laughter. Luckily the owner of the establishment came to my rescue.
    `Come in--- Nice to see you again. I hope things are going well for you. You’ve arrived just in time for the date scones. They’re still hot.’
    `You’re on,’ I replied, thankful for her timely offer.
    `Just go on through then--- I take it you want a flat white and tea for your lovely lady?’
    Jean almost purred as we found a seat facing the herb garden. We were followed through onto the deck by the lady. She sat at the next table, eyeing the extra seat at ours. Jean kicked me ever so lightly under the table as if to say----`go on---- invite her to join us.’ The look she used to back up her plea, did not give any room for argument. I gave in.
    `Would you like to join us?’ I said in my best manner.’
    `Oh---- so kind of you. Most people try to avoid me. Yes I will join you.’
    `I’m jean, and this is my husband, Garry.’
    `Frederica---So nice to meet you. It’s a beautiful day. I always stop in when I’m travelling to Hamilton---- breaks the journey up wonderfully and I can’t resist a nice cup of herbal tea.’
    `It’s the date scones that do it for me,’ I said, as the owner approached with a tray and the coffee, tea and dripping scones.
    `Mmmm--- don’t think the butter will do you any good,’ Frederica said condescendingly.’
    `What the----‘  I didn’t finish as yet another kick cut off my reply
    `Yes---- he will have to take an extra turn around the bay when we get back to Onehunga,’ Jean said.
    `All that butter will clog your veins and you don’t look like you need it if you ask me.’ This woman was treading on thin ice. Like I didn’t know?
    By way of rebelling, I deliberately took another swipe at the extra butter accompanying the scones and added to the already over-the-top mixture and then manoeuvred a huge mouthful of scone, butter and jam into my waiting mouth. Frederica looked the other way, clearly trying to ignore my gluttonous behaviour.
    `You know what the doctor said,’ Jean intoned. I ignored them both and completed my task and then looked at Jean’s scone to emphasise that I wasn’t finished. `Don’t you dare!’ she almost shrieked.
    Frederica’s tea arrived--- no scones for her. It was then that I noticed her make-up. One could only use the word---layered. Jean was watching my face, as she knew something I didn’t and also to pre-empt anything unsavoury from me. Too late.
    `Yes--- I suspect I need the scones and butter as much as you need a good make-up artist,’ I said, glad to be able to reply to the lady’s taunts.
    `Well I never,’ Frederica harrumphed. `I think it’s time I left. I shall go to my friend Tania, in Hamilton. At least there, I know I shall be treated with acceptance.’
    `Is everything alright?’ the owner said, approaching the table with extra water for jean.
    `It will be,’ Frederica said haughtily. ‘I’m sure I have plenty to look forward to. I’m the mystery guest at a soiree in Hamilton at my friend Tania’s place. I bid you all good bye.’
    She gathered her handbag and headed down the corridor to her car, casting one last glance towards me.
    `Strange lady,’ I offered.
    ‘You are not the most observant are you dear?’ Jean said. `That was no lady, if you know what I mean, and I think she’s headed to exactly where we are going--- Long day ahead, eh?’