'We . . . we thought either the sixth or the seventh of this month. Whichever suits you better.’
'Just a moment, I'll have to find my diary.’ There followed a long wait. Alison's heart thumped. It was ridiculous to feel so anxious. At last Mrs Fairhurst came back on the line. ‘The seventh would suit us very well.’
‘ That would be perfect.’
'And I'll tell Henry to draw Mr Fairhurst a little map, so that you can find your way.’
‘That would be an excellent idea. We have been known to get lost’
They both laughed at this, said goodbye, and hung up. Instantly, Alison picked up the receiver again and dialled her mother's telephone number.
'A favour to ask. Could you have the children for the night next Friday?'
'Of course. Why?'
Alison explained. Her mother was instantly practical.
“I’ll come over in the car and collect them, just after tea. And then they can spend the night. Such a good idea. Impossible to cook a dinner and put the children to bed at the same time, and if they know there's something going on they'll never go to sleep. Children are all the same. What are you going to give the Fairhursts to eat?'
Alison hadn't thought about this, but she thought about it now, and her mother made a few helpful suggestions and gave her the recipe for her own lemon soufflé. She asked after the children, imparted a few items of family news, and then rang off. Alison picked up the receiver yet again and made an appointment to have her hair done.
With all this accomplished, she felt capable and efficient, two sensations not usually familiar. Friday, the seventh. She left the telephone, went across the hall, and opened the door of the dining room. She surveyed it critically, and the dining room glowered back at her. With candles, she told herself, half-closing her eyes, and the curtains drawn, perhaps it won't look so bad.
Oh, please, God, don't let anything go wrong. Let me not let Henry down. For Henry's sake, let it be a success.
God helps those who help themselves. Alison closed the dining room door, put on her coat, walked down to the village, and there bought the little notepad with pencil attached.
Her hair was dry. She emerged from the dryer, sat at a mirror, and was duly combed out.
'Going somewhere tonight?' asked the young hairdresser, wielding a pair of brushes as though Alison's head was a drum.
'No. Not tonight. Tomorrow night. I've got some people coming for dinner.’
'That'll be nice. Want me to spray it for you?'
'Perhaps you'd better.’
He squirted her from all directions, held up a mirror so that she could admire the back, and then undid the bow of the mauve nylon gown and helped Alison out of it.
‘Thank you so much.’
'Have a good time tomorrow.’
Some hopes. She paid the bill, put on her coat, and went out into the street. It was getting dark. Next door to the hairdresser was a sweet shop, so she went in and bought two bars of chocolate for the children. She found her car and drove home, parked the car in the garage, and went into the house by the kitchen door. Here she found Evie giving the children their tea. Janey was in her high chair, they were eating fish fingers and chips, and the kitchen smelt fragrantly of baking.
'Well,’ said Evie, looking at Alison's head, 'you are smart.’
Alison flopped into a chair and smiled at the three cheerful faces around the table. 'I feel all boiled. Is there any tea left in that pot?'
'I'll make a fresh brew.’
'And you've been baking.’
'Well,’ said Evie, 'I had a moment to spare, so I made a cake. Thought it might come in handy.’
Evie was one of the best things that had happened to Alison since coming to live in the country. She was a spinster of middle years; stout and energetic, and kept house for her bachelor brother, who farmed the land around Alison and Henry's house. Alison had first met her in the village grocer's. Evie had introduced herself and said that if Alison wanted free-range eggs, she could buy them from Evie. Evie kept her own hens, and supplied a few chosen families in the village. Alison accepted this offer gratefully, and took to walking the children down to the farmhouse in the afternoons to pick up the eggs.
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