The Summer of Fire And Drought
The Summer of Fire and Drought
In her mind, she is still twenty-five so catching sight of her faded blonde hair, the blurring of the contours of her face in the hall mirror is often disconcerting. Today she doesn’t notice as she walks past, heading for the sun lounger under the old apple tree. She lies back, staring at the cloudless sky through dappled leaves, sighs. Peace. Exactly what she needs after the last ten days. She sips her gin and tonic, the ice melting rapidly, condensation slowly slipping down the cut glass tumbler. The heat has silenced the birds, but the wasps are still busily feeding on the soft flesh of the fallen apples, their buzz echoes the faint hum of a nearby lawnmower. The scent of the roses drifts towards her and she closes her eyes, thinks back thirty-five years: to the summer of heat wave, drought and water shortages: the best summer of her life: the summer she met Peter.
It had been a quiet afternoon, the heat keeping the tourists from the town centre, sending them scurrying like ants to the beach. The man had wandered into her shop and they began chatting; before she knew it, it was closing time. She went outside to bring the tubs of roses, carnations, lilies, gypsophilia in from the pavement. Peter helped, the heat sticking his white cotton shirt to his back, his hair, a shade darker than coffee, flopped over his forehead. Let’s go for a drink, he said, selecting a pale pink rose and handing it to her as she shyly agreed, her cheeks turning the same shade as the flower. They walked, fingers cautiously entwined, to a pub perched beside the river. Sitting outside, they sipped cold white wine, watching the water glide slowly past. Brown trout darted over the pebbled bottom, weaving in and out of the willow leaves dripping into the water on the opposite bank. The music from the jukebox drifted across the garden, Elton John and Kiki Dee pleading not to break each other’s hearts. It became their song, singing to each other every time it came on the radio. She can’t bear to listen to it now. They chatted as the evening darkened, the air still warm. He put his arm round her waist, pulling her close, as they walked back, and when they reached her flat he kissed her gently, taking her breath away. He said no to her suggestion of coffee, promised to phone her the next day. She went to bed in a daze, running her finger across her lips where she still felt the wonderfully gentle pressure of his mouth.
After that first evening, they spoke to each other every day, although didn’t meet as often as she would have liked. Peter was so gentle and kind, he made her feel special in a way no-one had before. She didn’t know he had a wife. He did tell her, before they made love for the first time; it was too late by then – she had fallen head over heels, truly, madly, deeply, totally, completely in love with him to care. Yes, it was clichéd, but it was how she felt – she lived and breathed for him, thought of nothing else, was consumed by him. Oh, she knew it was wrong; normally practical, for once she followed her heart. It seemed dreadfully unfair that something so wonderful could be wrong.
The lawnmower stops, the sudden silence dragging her back to the present, still smiling at memories she has suppressed for years. She knows what people think – hindsight, rose-tinted spectacles – but her mind is clear. She can remember everything; the touch of his hand on her skin; his green eyes, flecked with brown like a cat’s; every place they went; every word they said, as if it were yesterday.
The sun has moved slightly, the tree casting a longer shadow over her and she pulls her skirt higher, studies her legs. They have always been her best feature, long slim, athletic and are still shapely, even if the skin on her knees is a little saggy now. And not just her knees, she thinks, her stomach and breasts are losing their battle with gravity as well. She had been so confident that summer, adoring Peter’s appreciation of her body, discovering a freedom she’d never felt before – or since. It wasn’t only the lovemaking. Lazing in the heat, sipping iced tea, they talked incessantly, often finishing each other’s sentences. The time they spent together, whether a few snatched minutes or a rare whole day were the best and she hated being apart.
‘If I was free, I’d ask you to marry me,’ he would say.
‘If you asked, I’d say yes,’ she would reply, flinging her arms around his neck, holding tight, never wanting to let him go.
They occasionally drove down the coast for a meal, or went to a pub on the other side of town but usually he came round to her flat above the florist’s shop. It was small; one bedroom, a kitchen/living room and she would throw open the windows, trying to encourage any breeze in as by evening it would be stifling. She bought some fans, drowning their whirring with music on the record player, Abba, the Beach Boys, and Elton John of course: the soundtrack to their summer. Her friends thought she was mad, told her he would never leave his wife; she should have stayed with Trevor. She assured them this was the real thing, he was her soul mate, and he would leave when the time was right, she was happy to wait. She gradually spent less and less time with her friends, waiting by the phone each evening, desperate not to miss his call. She would hug his pillow to her face, inhaling the fading memory of his spicy aftershave, clinging to the hope he would be able to get away as the minutes ticked by until darkness crept upon her, and she knew, with sinking heart, he wasn’t coming.
She gets up slowly, her back stiff, and puts her ancient straw hat on as she walks barefoot across the brittle grass. His wife had been a shadowy figure, stalking them in the background. He talked about his plans to leave, never mentioning her by name. One day, in mid-June, Peter had taken his wife to Royal Ascot. He said she had bought the tickets months before and he couldn’t get out of it, didn’t want Carol to suspect anything. He kept reassuring her and she said she understood, kissed him goodbye the night before, wished him a lovely day. She convinced herself it meant nothing. She spent the afternoon glued to the television, trying to spot him amongst the thousands in their peacock bright outfits and flamboyant hats, desperate for a glimpse, wondering if he was bored or angry at having to be there. Part of her wanted to see his wife as well, convinced she would be a middle-aged frump, terrified she would be tall, slim and glamorous, wanting to know what she looked like and not wanting to either. She didn’t see them.
She walks into the kitchen, looking at the stacks of dirty plates and cutlery. Later, she thinks, opening a window to release a fly ricocheting against the glass.
Now the memories are finally freed, she remembers the day Peter had taken off from work. She didn’t want to know what excuse he had given; the travel agency was part of his other life. She had left her assistant running the florist’s and Peter came up to the flat. They had made love slowly, relaxed and happy, for once no need to worry about the time. He had brought croissants and fresh peaches and she made her speciality – eggs benedict. She can’t bear to cook it anymore. They had carried her small dining table onto the balcony overlooking the High Street, feeding each other, as the smell of fresh coffee drifted up from the cafetière. Later, they had driven to the New Forest, following a sign pointing down a long gravel track full of potholes to a thatched pub. They ordered lunch and took their glasses of cider outside. Sitting in the shade of the thick-trunked oaks, they watched the wild ponies standing head to tail, swishing flies off each other’s faces, their foals laid on the browning grass nearby, stubby tails flicking and twitching. Holding hands while they ate the sandwiches filled with thick slices of rare roast beef smeared with mustard, they were oblivious to everything around them. They had gone for a walk, staying in the woods where it was a little cooler, arms around each other’s waists, making plans for the future. The day went far too quickly; it was wonderful to pretend they were a proper couple, not having to worry about being seen. Driving back to the real world, they saw clouds of dense smoke in the distance as yet more heathland caught fire in the endless searing heat, leaving ragged black scars across the countryside, a sad symbol of the drought-ridden summer.
The drawing room is cool and dim, filled with Trevor’s heavy old furniture they somehow never got around to changing as they coasted through their life. She pours another drink, watching the tonic water fizzing and bubbling as it mixes with the oily gin, and glances briefly at the many condolence cards propped among the ornaments of a lifetime. The weather is too lovely to dwell on death – funerals should be held on cold, grey grizzly days. She feels a sadness, as she takes her gin back to the shade of the tree, a sadness not so much for losing her husband, she realises, but for what could have been. She sits down, stroking the ginger cat that has joined her, seeking respite from the sun. How different would her life have been if Peter’s wife had let him go? Carol had known about them, of course she had known. When Peter told Carol he wanted a divorce because he had never loved her properly, had never experienced the kind of love he now knew existed, she had ranted and raved, first pleading then screaming at him. Carol threatened to tell his employers he was fiddling the books, swore she would take the house, leave him with nothing. Threats, threats, and more threats, a constant tirade. It had desired the effect; he couldn’t leave then, he said, not until Carol realised he was serious. Perhaps they should cool things for a while, he said, until Carol finally accepted the situation, until Carol understood. What about me, she had wanted to scream, but didn’t, feeling she had no right to interfere in his other life.
She still can’t bear to think of the pain of those weeks. The weather had finally changed, although rather than clear the air, it had made her feel the spell was broken, as if she had been living in a dream, smashed by the first clap of thunder. She had never felt so lost, so utterly desolate as she had then. Waiting by the phone, snatched conversations becoming fewer and fewer until finally they stopped. She heard Peter and Carol had moved away, Carol was pregnant.
It was then Trevor came back into her life; she suspected her best friend, worried about her despair, had alerted him. Trevor phoned, confessing he had always loved her and couldn’t live without her. Trevor understood she had needed some time to herself, hoped now things could go back to the way they were. He proposed and in her turmoil, terrified of a future alone, she said yes. She wasn’t entirely sure if Trevor realised the circumstances behind her acceptance as they never discussed it, one of many topics they politely skirted around. Although he was older, they’d had a good life, she couldn’t complain. Whether he guessed her true feelings she never knew, but they had been … comfortable with each other. Yes, that was the right word, comfortable. No passion, none of the highs of the true love she had known with Peter but she was grateful to Trevor. Does that sound selfish? She isn’t sure. She watches the cat washing, licking his paw then rubbing it over his ears - a sign of imminent rain, apparently, some old-wives’ tale. Looking at the clear blue sky, she doubts it, although a thunderstorm would clear the sultry air and her roses desperately need help. She’s getting too old to carry watering cans up and down from the house.
She heard, many years later, Peter and Carol finally had divorced – because Carol had met someone else. The news had re-opened the wound in her heart that would never heal, increased the pain she carried. Why hadn’t he been brave enough to walk away? Or had she not been good enough? She wished she had fought for him, gone to his home, shouted, argued, although it wasn’t in her nature, as it wasn’t in his. The very things she loved about him; his kindness, gentleness, had ultimately been what had driven them apart, what had caused him to choose Carol over her. Did she hate him? She didn’t think so. Many times, she had thought about trying to contact him again, but she’d watch Trevor, reading The Times across the breakfast table from her, munching his toast, crumbs catching in his moustache and dropping down his shirt, and think, how can I hurt this gentle man by trying to recreate an ephemeral past? She would sip her coffee, smiling as Trevor indignantly read out an article about some political scandal, glasses slipping down his nose as he became more animated, and push thoughts of Peter from her mind.
She closes her eyes and gives in to the sun and gin-induced drowsiness, dozing for a while, enjoying the quiet until a voice rouses her.
‘Nana, nana. Where are you?’ She sits up and waves at the small figure in pink shorts and white t-shirt, racing across the grass.
‘Hello my darling,’ she hugs the girl, covering her with kisses, making her giggle. ‘How lovely to see you, have you come for tea?’
‘Mummy said you might be sad so we made you a cake.’
‘Scrummy, let’s go and see if there’s ice-cream as well.’ She stands up and takes her granddaughter’s hand, walks to where Summer is waiting on the patio. A striking woman of thirty-four, she has her mother’s blonde hair, grey eyes and sharp cheekbones. She searches her daughter’s face, as she always does, for a trace of him, hoping one day a look, a gesture will appear. They hug silently, no need for words. Then she picks up her granddaughter, gazes at her beautiful green eyes, flecked with brown like a cat’s, shining with love, and smiles.