Authors: Jane Yeadon
‘Art?’ Isobel murmured in a gentle tone of disbelief. ‘Well, folks, thanks for the company but I’ll need to let you two get on.’ She got up and drifted towards the door.
She looked so forlorn I blurted out, ‘If you’re not doing anything else, why don’t you come to Beth’s party with me?’
Isobel whirled round. ‘I couldn’t possibly.’ She didn’t sound convincing.
‘Och, you’d be welcome. From what I can gather, it’s pretty much open house.’
I hoped I was right and now, completely incapable of wiping out her happy look, I got hearty. ‘The more the merrier and you’d be company for me too.’
‘Well, if you’re sure.’ Isobel was already halfway down the corridor and calling back. ‘I’ll just go and throw on something and be ready in a jiff.’
‘You’ll need more of this stuff, Jane.’ Maisie returned the bottle. ‘Now for the big fight.’ She squared her shoulders and I left her advancing on the chair with the concentration of a sumo wrestler.
It was disappointing that Fantanstic had not, as yet, fulfilled its promise, so I put on more, hurrying now, for it was getting late. Beth might be wondering where we were.
As I knocked on Maisie’s door, two nurses passed; their conversation floated back.
‘Off on the ran-dan then?’
‘Aye. I’ve Sister Gorightly next week. I’m dreading the old bag. With a bit of luck tonight, I’ll be able to forget about her.’
‘Well, I hope you’ve a good time.’
The sound of their laughter faded whilst Maisie appeared, walking with care, her curves miraculously contained.
‘I can just breathe,’ she complained, ‘but I’ll never be able to sit down.’
Already she was heading for the stairs, ‘D’you think Isobel’s ready? If she is, I’ll get down in the bus to Union Street with you, come on.’
I was so impressed by her sashaying walk I didn’t look at her properly, and since my own mirror only showed the fire notice and Maisie wasn’t wearing her specs, Isobel would have to give us a sun tan progress report.
‘Maisie, have you heard of a Sister Gorightly?’ I’d to hurry to catch up with her.
She shook her head. Then, as if I’d been holding up the works, she said, ‘Come on, slow coach, Isobel’ll be giving up on you. You can ask her.’
She was waiting in the main hall. It may have been my red screaming with her pink and Maisie’s bright green, but as soon as she saw us she took a step back.
‘My height makes me feel like a maypole beside you,’ she explained, adding cautiously, ‘Do you think your tans will even up?’
Curiosity about Sister Gorightly was now replaced with a heightened anxiety, especially when, moments later, we caught the bus and the conductor, familiar from the interview day, took one look and started whistling
‘That bloke really fancies himself.’ Maisie’s tone was disparaging. She seemed unaware there was any connection between us and a song about a Red Indian. ‘It might be different if he could hold a tune.’ She squinted at me in the half light. ‘Hey, I think you’ve actually got a tan. What’s mine like?’
But she was getting off and I was too busy watching the cheerful cheeky conductor help her off with a care that suggested undue interest to answer.
‘Wish I was coming to the fancy dress with you.’ He laughed and tinged the bell three times.
We got to Mrs Ronces’. Isobel, as inconspicuous as a model on a catwalk, followed as I rattled the door knocker, its noise just audible above the noise of a party in full swing.
Beth let us in where the grandfather clock was holding his own but the rest of the house was rocking. Mrs Ronce was issuing dance floor instructions from the piano with a big crowd milling around her.
A tall chap helped me hang up my coat whilst a thin one with a predatory look took charge of Isobel and led her off to a dark corner of the sitting room where dancing appeared to be the last thing on his mind. Before I could thank my helper, Beth pulled me into the kitchen.
‘Who’s the dolly bird and what on earth’s that on your face?’ Beth sounded cross. ‘See if you can wash it off,’ she added, her attention beginning to wander in the direction of the sitting room, ‘you look as if you’ve got jaundice.’
Avoiding the amused look of passers-by, I hurried upstairs to the bathroom and stared in the mirror.
There was a huge gas geyser beside it: an ancient model with smoke marks surrounding the yellow-flickering pilot light. Every now and then, it would go out. There would be an ominous silence then there would be an explosion of flames so volcanic, strangers to its eccentric timing would flee in a state of deshabille.
In the mirror, a large patchy freckle with eyes looked back and rather like the geyser, and despite my best scrubbing efforts, the blob had all the frightening signs of further eruption.
Bleach might be an option but it wasn’t likely that Mrs Ronce had any. I didn’t want to go back into the kitchen where I could hear Sally’s bloke chatting to a girl, so I sat at the top of the stairs planning my exit strategy, hearing people having fun and remembering that Morag had a photo at least for company.
‘So who’s the ginger nut?’ The girl’s voice, sharp with curiosity, floated upstairs.
‘Came with that gorgeous piece of stuff everybody’s falling over. A wee scrubber – though plainly not scrubbed enough,’ came the laconic reply.
I thought that cheeky coming from someone with a tatty moustache and a greasy manner, but I didn’t care to eavesdrop on an exchange where the squeak of a chair and a giggle was followed by silence, so I crept downstairs and sneaked out into the garden.
A ragged moon enchanted the ancient apple trees into another life and turned the overgrown shrubbery into something more exotic than laurel, even the summerhouse looked exciting. I walked towards it, reckoning that with a face the colour of marmalade, I qualified to be the third outcast.
The cats were perfect hosts with one giving up his bed for my knee, whilst the other stretched out his head so that I could give his ears proper attention.
Time passed. We sat in the dark in a companionable way with the occasional bursts of music and laughter spilling out into the garden and telling me I was missing a good party.
‘Jane?’ The voice was unknown but someone was coming down the garden. I opened the door feeling a bit daft. It was the bloke who’d helped me hang up my coat.
His accent was as soft as Morag’s but at least he sounded happy to be here. ‘Hello, I’m Douglas. I’m in Beth’s English class and she’s asked me to find you. What are you doing out here? Hello, cats.’
He crouched in front of them, stroking their heads in the way that cats love, then straightened, looking round the garden in an appreciative way. ‘It’s nice out here but you’d barely arrived before you disappeared. Are you alright? As soon as I saw you come in I recognised you as Beth’s sister and wanted to say hello – but then you were off.’
‘I thought the cats might be lonely and wanted to check up on them, and then’ – I waved an arm at my surroundings – ‘it was so lovely out here, I thought I’d stay here a wee while.’ In the dark it was easy to lie.
‘Good! I’d hate to think it was because of the Fantanstic. Your pal Isobel was giving me a right laugh about it but I hardly noticed it. At least it’ll fade.’ He rubbed his legs carefully. ‘Know anything about psoriasis? Beth tells me you’re student nurses.’
‘We only started this week so we’re sticking to something simple like toenail extraction, basic of course.’ I stood up, careful not to fuss the cats. ‘And maybe I should have my head examined for missing all the fun.’
‘We both should. Alness is alright to grow up in but I wouldn’t be at this party if I’d stayed there, so come on back!’
In the hallway, Isobel’s skinny guy was helping her into her coat and tying up the buttons with the flying fingers of a pickpocket.
‘I thought you were lost, but obviously Douglas found you.’ She nodded towards the sitting room. ‘I think Mrs Ronce’s losing speed so if you want to dance, you should get in there now.’
Then she took me aside and whispered, ‘I’m getting a lift home.’
With a Presbyterianism worthy of Rosie or Morag, I said, ‘He looks a bit dodgy to me. Fast.’
‘That’s what I’m hoping. He’s got a sports car,’ said Isobel, giving a conspiratorial giggle. ‘Anyway, I can look after myself. He’s really good fun and makes me forget about bloomin’ kidneys. Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be ok,’ and she left in a flurry, door slamming. Outside, the sound of the engine revving must have done wonders for neighbourhood harmony.
Then I forgot about Fantanstic progress since Douglas’s dancing and mine needed more attention. Maybe his legs had been affected by psoriasis. I’d need to read up on it when I’d a minute, but after some toe crunching and inadvertent knee knocking, rest on the sofa monitoring the legs seemed safer. And when someone switched off the main light, recovery at some time in the – preferably distant – future seemed reasonable.
Mrs Ronce gave up to concentrate on some stock-piling whilst someone with an appetite for folk music took over with a guitar.
‘I love this kind of music,’ said Douglas, his arm carelessly slung over the back of the sofa. ‘I go to a folk club in Aberdeen. You might like to come with me.’
‘Sure.’ I was thrilled but tried to sound as casual as if my diary were crammed with social engagements. Then, since Douglas had a long lean form that looked as if it could do with filling, aimed for consideration, ‘Let’s go and see if there’s any food left.’
As we chewed some long-dead sausages in the kitchen, Sally joined us looking pale but brave.
‘What about a dance, Douglas? I could do with a good dancing partner. Mine,’ she bit her lip, ‘seems to have disappeared.’
Have a good time, I nearly said, but settled for clattering dishes into the sink instead.
The party was winding up and I was sorry. With a belated feeling of responsibility I started emptying ashtrays into a sulking fire. With a bit of luck they might even bulk up the heat.
Beth, ushering some people out, shut the door one decibel short of a slam. ‘Phew! What a work a party is – and now there’s the clearing up.’ Her sigh was about the same size as herself. ‘Has anyone seen Sally?’
‘She’s gone to bed. I think she’s upset that her bloke went off with someone else.’ Mrs Ronce poured something from her bar into a large glass, ‘Just a little reviver.’ She looked at the glass reflectively. ‘Never trust a man with a mouser, particularly one who cheats at Scrabble. Cheers!’
‘Well, Jane, you can’t go home on your own, there’s lions and tigers out there,’ Douglas was already putting on his anorak, ‘and they need protecting, so I’ll come with you, but by the look of things, we’ll have to hurry. You might get locked out.’
I didn’t ask how he knew about the Cinderella hours of the Nurses’ Home, but said, ‘Actually I’m staying here tonight. Mrs Ronce’s letting me stay.’
‘D’you sleep on the sofa?’ he asked hopefully and put down his scarf.
‘No, she’s upstairs in an attic bedroom in a single bed,’ said Mrs Ronce, handing him his scarf, ‘and it must be time for you to go to yours.’
‘So how did last night go?’ It was Sunday afternoon before I left Mrs Ronce’s, but as soon as she’d heard me, Maisie appeared. For once, curler free and with normal colour restored, her inspection was in the manner of a kindly G.P. ‘You’ll be sorry to hear you’re losing your sun tan. In fact you’re a bit pale. Lack of sleep I suspect.’
‘Come on in, Doctor, do. Yup, I’d a great time. What about you?’
Maisie gave a skittish laugh, threw herself into a chair, crossed her legs twice and rubbed her nose. ‘Inverurie was terrific. They’re not used to suntans so mine was something of a novelty. I suppose they didn’t know what to expect. I was popular alright, but not quite as much as Sheila. She’d disappeared for a while and I thought she’d gone, but she came back looking pleased, if dishevelled. I asked where she’d been and d’you know what she said?’
‘ “Ootside backit’ up against a lorry!’ ” Maisie giggled. ‘She suggested I stay overnight in Inverurie but I thought I’d better come back by bus, in the absence of any more lorries.’
‘So you got back alright?’
‘Yup – last bus. In fact, I could have been locked out if I hadn’t met Isobel.’
I was relieved that Isobel had made it back to the Home. ‘And was she alright?’
‘Och, fine! Said she’d met a bit of a lecher but he’d been good fun. Actually, we were both late but she’d arranged for someone to open a window so we could both get in. Her bloke had wanted to come back with her but I gather he got the elbow before his leg got over the windowsill.’
‘Goes to show what a live-in boarding school education teaches you, but what a good thing she did, you’d be in so much trouble if you’d been locked out.’
‘Yeah, well, that’s what friends are for. What are you looking for?’
I was thumbing through the Nurses’ Dictionary.
‘How do you think you spell psoriasis?’
I should think. Why?’
I attempted a careless shrug. ‘Chap I met last night says he’s got it. It’s a skin condition. Says he’s waiting to go into hospital to get treatment for it. He says he gets flare-ups when he’s been under stress.’
‘In that case, Jane, if he’s been near you he should be in intensive care.’ Maisie looked over my shoulder and continued with her jokey theme. ‘Try looking under mange. There might be a connection.’
I thought about someone cheerfully coping with an affliction and turned the pages.
‘You’ll never find it under
,’ said Maisie.
‘That’s because I’m looking up pest.’
‘Ooh! Puss Puss!’ She grabbed the book and slammed it shut, then put it with my other books, marshalling them into a neat row. ‘That’s better. You never know what you might discover. Actually, Isobel told me he’s a great looking bloke, nice – even if he’s keen on politics and likes Mr Wilson. I heard you were outside with him too, so don’t think you’ll get away with skinny little details.’
Annoyed at being a subject of gossip, I changed tack. ‘Have you seen Morag?’
Maisie looked remorseful, ‘Actually, no. I’d forgotten all about her. Maybe I should go and look for her,’ and with the strains of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ echoing flatly in her wake she left whilst, hugging the memory of last night, I hung up my red frock.