Friday, April 12, 2013

Tuesday night. Linda's 35th birthday. Harold was taking her out on Saturday. A gin and bitter lemon and a shandy in the Flintock Arms and then dinner in the Brewer's Fayre. They did this every year. He supposed she enjoyed it. Every year, he bought another necklace that he supposed she liked from M&S, presented it to her on her birthday morning with a card with a cat on it and said "you'll be able to wear it on Saturday night when we go out for tea". That was about the only airing it got.

She wondered about asking one year if he minded if she took it back and bought some pretty underwear instead. She didn't suppose he could actually tell one necklace from another. And didn't suppose he would notice if her body was encased in lace instead of stretch cotton but she would like to know she looked pretty, even if she was the only one that would ever see it, when she stepped out of the house. That would be a birthday present.

Peter pried it from her at work. "You're looking very fetching this morning, Linda Fawcett" he offered. And she thought it didn't seem too immodest to confess that it was her birthday. She was wearing a new top from Dorothy Perkins in honour of the occasion.

Peter was new to the office. Her fellow Senior Community Liaison Officer. He was the only man under 50 and over 22 in the office these days. Council cut backs. He was a couple of years older than her but they seemed to have a lot in common. Both married, both enjoyed the re-runs of The Good Life on TV, neither had kids. Peter's wife seemed to enjoy painting and they'd both enjoyed a few giggles at the thought of Patsy painting the great and the good of Flintock in the "life studies" class she attended on a Thursday night.

"What are you up to tonight?" said Peter. She had nothing planned as Harold was role-playing so she usually sat up in their bedroom with the spare TV to keep out of the way. "You can't be hiding out in your own bedroom on your birthday," said Peter. And right enough, she thought, it is my birthday. I am 35. I should really be doing something a bit more exciting. So she accepted his offer of a couple down the Cooper's Arms after work and phoned Harold to warn him she'd be a bit late.

A couple turned - somehow - into a bottle of Cava ("You can't celebrate a birthday without cava" said Peter) and then a large glass of Rose wine. She was feeling quite giddy. The bubbles had gone straight to her head. And the time had flown.

They'd been joking about Pat Pickles and his ongoing battle with his garden. Ever since the shed episode, he'd been hard at work getting his extensive garden coated in concrete so no-one could steal his rhubarb again. And when Peter suggested they get a couple of Aftershocks, she was laughing too much to pay much attention. He slid back into the seat opposite her, flicked back his fringe - he had this rather fetching floppy haircut - and said they should toast concrete and rhubarb thieves.

"Did someone mention rhubarb?"

A shadow fell across her. She turned, still laughing. And it was him. The highwayman.

"Well, if it isn't the foul-mouthed Linda Fawcett? 'Owsever are you, lovely Linda?" said Johnny Byron.

She hadn't seen his tattoos before. And she was sure it was just the bubbles talking but they looked strangely attractive.

"Marky," she spelled out.

"S'my son," said Byron. "Six years old, or is 'e eight? Lovely little lad. Means the world to me."

"You have a son?" she managed. This had not featured in her picture of Johnny Byron's life. Not that she's spent any time thinking about him.

"Who's your friend, Linda? Are you going to introduce us?" abandoned Peter chirruped across the table.

"Peter, this is Byron. Sorry, Johnny. Sorry, John" stuttered lovely Linda, wishing that she was somehow a bit more composed. "John, this is Peter. He's married."

She didn't know why she added that last piece of information. Irrelevant. She blamed the bubbles.

"This is your husband?" quoth Byron, threw back his head and uttered his yuk yuk yuk. " 'Andsome fella."

She felt absurdly pleased. But corrected him hastily. "Oh no, he's not my husband. We're just friends. Well, we work together."

"And how do you two know each other?" Peter nudged her arm to attract her attention.

"Linda and I? Oh we go back a long way, don't we lovely? I could tell you how we met but - I don't want to embarrass her. Suffice to say, once encountered, never forgotten. Eh, lovely?" and his yuk yuk yuk.

"Byron? Is that Rooster Byron?" The harried tones of hen-pecked landlord Wesley drifted across the room.

"What's'up, mate? Run out of whizz?"

"You know you're barred from here, Rooster?"

"Again, mate, again? I was just passing some time with the only lady this little rural idyll has ever set eyes on. Pardon me, mate. I'll get out of your way. But bring this lady - the lovely Linda - another of whatever she's havin'. On the 'ouse. It's lovely Linda's birthday."

And with that, the highwayman turned on his heel and he was gone.

"However did you meet, Linda? He looks like an eccentric character," said Peter, slurring slightly as the complementary Aftershock took hold.

"He's a highwayman, Peter," she said, slightly dazed. Slightly pink Aftershock drunk. "He appeared one day in Salisbury Magistrates Court and then, with a flick of his cloak, he was gone."

"A highwayman??" said Peter, with a snort of derision that sealed her disinterest for ever. "But they don't exist."

She staggered home shortly afterwards, peering for a flash of a cloak in amongst the trees, smiling slightly because she knew that Peter was wrong. The highwayman was alive and well and living up the road from her in Rooster's Wood.


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