Tasting Strangers, perhaps you agreed with the reviewer who said that some of the stories could have been longer.
Well, if you remember 'A Merry Dance', which related the tale of sisters Betty and Pauline and their adventures at sea on the Marianna Grande, I hope you enjoy Part Two of the story, shared below.
Betty Takes Another Trip
It was one of those early April days when the weather had forgotten it was supposed to be spring. Drivers inching their way along Victory Way were undecided about whether or not it was raining enough to warrant turning on their windscreen wipers. The road was slick with grease and leaves.
As the lights changed to amber, an overcautious driver at the head of the line of cars stopped instead of trying to beat the red. As the vehicles behind it came to a standstill like a loose-coupled train, Andy tapped an impatient paradiddle on his steering wheel. He watched as a woman walking along the pavement overtook him, then smirked as she skipped over one puddle but landed in the second, her feet now wet in ill-judged sandals, and her day spoilt before it had begun.
The lights changed to green and the queue began to inch forward again. For the fourth time since he’d pulled off his drive, Andy’s phone rang, jostling in the car’s centre console alongside several open packets of mints. For the fourth time he ignored it, but when the persistent caller tried yet again, Andy gave in. With a sigh and an expletive, he turned left into an unfamiliar side street to find somewhere safe to stop.
Trafalgar Road was a curious mix of Victorian terraced houses that opened straight on to the street and modern bungalows that looked as though they had been dropped at random into gaps. Had bombs fallen here during the war? Andy neither knew nor cared, but it was outside one of these bungalows that he found a space to park. Set back from the road, it had room for a tub of daffodils either side of the blue front door. By now his phone had stopped ringing, so he switched it to silent.
A few minutes earlier inside the bungalow, Betty had been holding back one of her sitting-room curtains to get a clear view up and down the street. She was wearing her second-best coat, bought in Warwicks’ sale this time last year, a teal wool mix with silver buttons shaped like roses. It hadn’t seen much wear because the weather had turned warm almost before she’d got it home. Now, with the unexpected cold snap, she was pleased to give it an outing. She loved its vibrant colour. It was smart enough for the day ahead, but not too smart.
In her hand she clutched her rainbow umbrella, and over her shoulder she had a cheery yellow bag in which were stowed the papers she had been asked to take with her.
She let the curtain fall back and checked the time again. Where was he? She’d said half past and it was now quarter to.
She resumed her lookout. Damn this fine drizzle slowing everything down. She should have told him twenty past. At that moment a Mars-red hatchback pulled up outside her front dor. Finally! She hurried out, pulled the door to with a slam, gave it a double-handed shove to be sure it was shut, then scuttled over to the car trying to dodge the rain. She jumped into the passenger seat, arranged her bag and brolly in the footwell and patted her damp hair back into shape.
‘Right, let’s go,’ she said to the driver. ‘I don’t want to be late, and you know what it’s like down Waterloo Street at this time of the morning.’
Only then did she turn and look at the driver.
‘Close your mouth, there’s a bus coming,’ she said to an astonished Andy. ‘What are you waiting for? Come on!’
Now Andy spoke, slowly as though he knew at least one of them was in the wrong place, but he wasn’t sure who.
‘Who the hell are you?’ he demanded. ‘And who do you think I am?’
‘I’m Betty and I’m going to be late. Call yourself a taxi driver?’
‘No, I’m not a taxi driver. Get out of my car.’
Betty was thrown by this revelation, but only for a moment.
‘Well, I’m in now,’ she said. ‘I don’t suppose…?’
Andy raised his hands to ward off the rest of her question.
‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘Sorry, but I’ve got stuff to do. Anyway, I might be a crazy man.’
‘Are you?’ asked Betty.
‘Well, no, but that’s not the point. Out you get.’
Betty gave him her best endearing old lady smile and brought her hands together in supplication.
Andy opened his mouth to repeat his refusal, but to his surprise he heard himself say, ‘All right then. Where do you want to go?’
‘You’re a star. Thank you,’ said Betty. ‘Anywhere in the town centre would be fine. My appointment’s in the pedestrian precinct.’
Andy drew away from the kerb, executed an immaculate three-point turn and re-joined the main road. In spite of himself he was curious about his passenger.
‘Nothing medical, I hope?’ he asked.
‘Why would you automatically assume that?’
‘Appointment usually means doctor, and you’re…’ Andy petered out.
‘What? Old enough to be your mother and then some?’ Betty feigned indignation. ‘Got me pegged as a little old biddy off to have her bunions seen to, have you?’
‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend,’ said Andy, then added, ‘Hang on: why am I apologising? I’m doing you a favour.’
‘I’m just teasing you – what’s your name?’
‘I’m just teasing you, Andy. But if you must know – and I suppose the least I can do is to tell you why you’re driving me there – it’s a legal matter.’
Andy was curious now.
‘Oh? Been left a fortune by an anonymous benefactor, have you?’
‘No, just the opposite actually,’ replied Betty.
She tugged at a loose thread on her sleeve while she considered if she should tell him more.
‘Let’s call it repercussions of an episode a couple of years ago,’ she said. ‘Now me and the law like to keep in touch. Well, they do. There, that’s surprised you.’
‘You’re right,’ replied Andy. ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’
The traffic was building up now, stop start all the way into town. A young woman on an e-scooter wove a dangerous path between the slow-moving cars. They travelled in awkward silence until Betty, keen to find out a little about her impromptu chauffeur asked,
‘So where were you going? No, let’s go back a bit: why were you parked outside my house posing as a taxi driver?’
‘I wasn’t posing as a – oh never mind,’ said Andy. ‘My phone kept ringing and I didn’t want to answer it, but then I thought I should, so I parked up to take the call, but then decided not to after all and put it on silent.’
‘Sounds like you’re in a tizzy before you even get to the office,’ said Betty. ‘I presume you do work in an office, given you’re wearing a suit and there’s a laptop on the back seat?’
‘Yes. I’m a data analyst, which is as boring as it sounds.’
‘So you must be in need of the distraction of an unexpected passenger. Who was ringing?’
‘Is that any of your business?’
Betty ignored him and continued, ‘Mind you, if you didn’t answer perhaps you don’t know who it was.’
‘Oh, I know all right. Hang on, stop talking a minute while I get round this roundabout.’
‘Well, if you must know,’ said Andy, ‘it was my sister.’
‘Your sister? Why would you not want to talk to your sister? You don’t want to lose that connection. Believe me, I know.’
She shook her head at a distant memory.
‘It’s complicated,’ said Andy.
‘Families are always complicated, but that’s no excuse for not picking up the phone to your sister. What if it’s important?’
‘Oh it is,’ said Andy. ‘I know that. That’s why I don’t want to talk to her. Why am I telling you this?’
‘Because people say I’ve got one of those faces that makes them think they can talk to me and they can trust me – and at least one of those is true.’
Andy let that go. The rain had started to come down with more determination, so he turned his wipers up a notch. He drove on past a line of kebab shops and burger bars where the debris of last night’s food frenzy was evident in the gutter. He picked up his story again.
‘I don’t know how it started. I said something about Tom – that’s my sister’s boy – and to be honest I can’t even remember what. But she didn’t like it and she said something back and off we went. It was a storm in a teacup really, but it’s got out of hand.’
‘That sounds like something you could sort out, if you wanted to.’
‘But it’s not down to me. She started it.’
‘Good grief,’ said Betty. ‘How old are you?’
Andy had the grace to look sheepish.
‘Not seven? Isn’t it time you stopped saying things like “she started it” – which she didn’t anyway, from what you’ve said.’
‘Yes, I know. I’m old enough to know better. I’ll think about it, but big sisters are bossy. I might ring her, but I might not.’
On any other day, Andy would have been grinding his teeth by now at the slow progress into town, but today he didn’t mind. He was enjoying Betty’s company in spite of himself, and wanted to know more about her criminal past.
‘Come on, then,’ he said. ‘Why are you in trouble with the law?’
‘I won’t go into details,’ said Betty, ‘but funnily enough it involves my sister. We went on this cruise and I got beguiled by the glitz and the glamour of it all. It had been a long time since I’d let my hair down. Anyway, we were on this holiday of a lifetime and I was in the mood for a bit of fun. Pauline – that’s my younger sister – is so staid. I just wanted to show her it is possible to have a good time, that we’re not past it. One thing led to another, what with the men’ – she ignored Andy’s wince – ‘and the dancing, the drinking and the gambling – especially the gambling. I got a bit carried away. I borrowed some money off my sister without telling her and…’
‘Hang on. You stole money from your sister?’
‘I suppose I did, yes,’ Betty admitted. ‘Long story short, I got caught. Now the police like me to check in from time to time.’
‘So you’re on probation?’
‘Like you said, it’s complicated.
‘Do you still see your sister?’ he asked.
‘We don’t speak unless we have to, like if there’s a family emergency or something. I really messed things up. We were so close as girls.’
Andy let this sink in as he paused at a pelican crossing to let a crocodile of children in hi-vis bibs trot over the road.
Then he said, ‘I should have asked for the fare up front! So have you gone straight?’
Now it was Betty’s turn to look sheepish.
‘I have, yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve well and truly learnt my lesson.’
They reached the town centre and Andy turned into the council car park.
‘Will this do you, Betty?’
‘That’s perfect, thank you.’
She peered through the window.
‘Looks like the rain’s easing off. I needn’t have brought my brolly. Thanks again for the lift. Can I pay you?’
‘No, you’re fine. Just keep out of trouble.’
Betty gathered her things and clambered out with a cheery ‘Mind how you go – and ring your sister!’
He watched as she walked away. You’d never know she was a hardened criminal, he thought. He picked up his phone: another missed call from his sister. He looked after Betty, but she had disappeared.
Andy moved his car into a marked parking space and tapped a number into his phone.
‘Hello, sis. I think we need to talk.’