Ellen Bairstow was determined not to make an issue of it, and she never mentioned it first, but she was also determined that she wasn’t going to be a hypocrite – not only, or perhaps not primarily, because she had an aversion to hypocrisy, but because, as her mother had once (more than once, come to think of it) said, lies have legs and she had no wish to embroider or elaborate on a throwaway remark made for the sake of it and to fit in.
“And what are YOUR New Year’s Resolutions, Ellen?” asked Priscilla Carpenter, who wanted to be called Prisca but was nearly always called Cilla, and who had already decided that she was going to spend less time playing online Solitaire and less money on sandwiches when it would only take a few minutes to make her own, and in flavours she preferred, too. I could just say something like that, thought Ellen. But she didn’t. “I’m not making New Year’s Resolutions,” she told Priscilla, as they went through the motions of tidying things up at Benson and Brierley’s Insurance Brokers. Oliver was the kindest of bosses, and even hated the word boss, but he did have a bit of a bee in his bonnet about what he called random bits of paper. “Oh, come on, you must be! I mean, even if you don’t keep them, and I doubt I’ll keep mine, and they can be as trivial as you like, you know.”
“I’m really not making any, Prisca,” she said at least remembering the preferred abbreviation.
“You’re a funny one,” Priscilla said, not unkindly, but plainly trying to weigh up whether Ellen was so sure of her own virtue that she felt no need to improve anything or even intend to, or whether she simply didn’t care about weight, and learning to play the piano, and eating “clean” and all the other various bits and bobs that were bandied about at this time of year.
Time was, Ellen would have asked the once original question of “Funny Peculiar, or Funny Ha-Ha?” But she didn’t. That would have furthered the conversation, and that was the last thing she wanted to do.
Well, far from the last, of course. But there were degrees. Priscilla had one last try. “Not even one of those – back to front ones, like not cutting your hair despite people saying you should – and by the way, I don’t think you should. Even though I envy you like hell!” She said that even less unkindly.
“No, ‘fraid not,” Ellen replied. She was not exactly vain about her hair, which she always thought was her one claim to beauty, though some would have said her deep-set, greenish-grey eyes certainly arrested people’s attention. But she knew her near waist-length , wavy, shining, blue-black hair, which she sometimes wore loose, sometimes in a long French plait, and occasionally in what Prisca called an “up-do” was the kind of thing people noticed.
Prisca evidently decided either to give her up as a bad job, or to bide her time, and anyway, there was a client.
Monty had always had a “thing” about her hair. Even now she didn’t want to call it a fetish, that was the kind of loaded word that led to paths that really, honestly, weren’t appropriate, even when it came to Monty. He liked to braid it (and was frankly better at it than Ellen herself) and to stroke it, and just to wax lyrical about it. There had been something undeniably romantic, and perhaps even erotic about feeling him braid her hair. Even now, though she thought the memory should make her shudder, it didn’t. And yes, she had been tempted to have it cut short and dyed blonde. But she hadn’t. And she wouldn’t. And no, that DIDN’T count as a resolution.
She used to make resolutions, just the usual kind, and usually broken as quickly as they were made, though she did once survive without Werthers Caramels until half way through February – admittedly the fact that for a lot of that time she had a toothache helped. But the previous year, she had made what she thought of as a grown-up, serious, “mean it” resolution, and that was to make things work with Monty, and to stand by him, and to defend him if people criticised him. When she married him, it was with open eyes. Well, with half-open eyes. She knew he was regarded as a “bit of a lad” but that was the kind of things folk said almost affectionately. And her own Dad, who was one of the most decent men in the universe, had been seen as a bit of a lad in his youth. That was a bit ironic as he was one of the ones who had been most anxious about Monty, though in the end, he gave them his blessing, as he didn’t want there to be any distance between him and Ellen. The thing was, Monty wasn’t in his youth, even in the most extended sense of that term. He was in his thirties. But, perhaps because she’d always regretted not having a brother, although she and her sister Hazel were close, Ellen found boyishness rather appealing. No matter how often she heard it, she thought that the line “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy” was funny. Or she did once.
She knew he liked a drink, but she was no teetotaller herself, and even now she had to admit, he had never been an aggressive drunk. He had never raised a finger to her, nor shown the slightest sign of so doing, and his opinion of men who did was that they were beneath all contempt. She soon realised that though health experts might have begged to differ, in itself, his drinking wasn’t a problem – but what he decided and what he promised when he HAD been drinking was another matter. Not that it was as simple as that. Some of his most stupid decisions – and even now, some prick of obstinate loyalty made her feel a pang at the word stupid – had been made when he was stone cold sober. He always liked to say that “I’m not like Gary, and you should be grateful for that, I’m not a gambler.” Unfortunately, and certainly for his family, Gary the Gambler was not just alliteration. He would have placed a bet on which raindrop would be first to descend a window, never mind a fly, but modern technology meant that wasn’t necessary, and he spent hours at the Fixed Odds Betting machines at the local bookies. Monty was quite right in one sense. Apart from an odd scratch card and a flutter on the Grand National, he didn’t gamble. Did he? But there’s more than one way of gambling, and they don’t all depend on a roulette wheel or a slot machine or a horse.
Monty was in work when Ellen first met him. In fact, as he said with that boyish look of his, he was the boss! He had inherited his father’s furniture shop in the town about 50 miles from Ellen’s parents’ home, when he passed away three years ago. They rented what Monty called a “snazzy little apartment” there. So far, the shop had managed to “wipe its face” despite the competition from the furniture warehouses and the internet. They had suppliers and craftsmen who knew what they were doing, and were long-standing friends of the family. But Monty was growing increasingly frustrated and impatient at the life of a furniture shop manager. “I just can’t see my spending the rest of my life explaining to some old dear why we can’t turn a rocking chair into a rise and recline, or giving myself jaw-ache with a fixed smile while one of Dad’s old cronies drones on about grains and grooves and all that grind.” Ellen was not unsympathetic, and had to at least half-agree when he said, “It might not have suited my old man, bless him, but I reckon it’s had its day. I’ve been talking to Hal, and he reckons that with a bit of conversion it would make a brilliant wine bar.”
“But there are already two wine bars in town, not to mention the pubs,” Ellen said.
“Oh, come on, love! What was it Old Boris said about Doomsters and Gloomsters?” Ellen knew for a fact that Monty had never voted for Boris Johnson, so wondered why he was quoting him. Still, it saved him having to find his own snappy phrase.
One of the “old cronies”, a quiet, serious man called Fred, whose face could crinkle up with an unexpected lovely smile, felt he had to have a word with Ellen, whom he liked very much and had hoped would be good for his old friend Adam’s son. “Look, Ellen, though I’d be very sorry, I could see the point if he wanted to sell the property to one of the chains – even Adam talked about it, though perhaps it’s as well he never lived to see the day. But – and I know it’s none of my business, and Monty would tell me if you’re too polite to – this wine bar idea is just plain crazy! I’m not against wine bars as such by any means – for heaven’s sake, my daughter works in the Purple Parrot! But she’s told me even they can go for hours on end without a customer. And – well, I’m not sure about that Hal. It’s only rumour, and I’m not going to speak ill of anyone not here to defend himself but – for both your sakes, I wish he’d be careful.”
For someone who prided himself on being unpredictable, Monty’s reaction, when Ellen, taking a deep breath told him what Fred had told her about the Purple Parrot (she decided, at least for the time being, not to mention his suspicions about Hal). “He should keep that out,” he tapped his nose. “And it strikes me he’s worried about the Purple Parrot having competition. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
Monty had no need to ask a bank manager for a loan, or even to fill in one of those online calculators. He still had money his father left him, and poured them into converting the shop into the Magenta Macaw. “Don’t you think that’s a bit – obvious?” Ellen asked. Her own notion, though she was still far from confident about the venture, was calling it something that reflected the property’s previous purpose – something like Couch Potatoes (fair enough, that didn’t exactly ring right, but she could work on it). Monty and Hal would have none of it. Hal was becoming – she couldn’t get rid of the furniture allusions – one of the fixtures and fittings both at the business and at home. “Clean Break, Ellen, Clean Break,” Hal said. “Time’s well past when hostelries had sawdust on the floor!”
“That’s a good one, Hal!” Monty chuckled.
Though flu is never anything to be pleased about, Ellen was half-relieved that she was stricken with it on the opening night of the Magenta Macaw. Monty did not go out of his way to persuade her. “You rest up, love, best thing for you. And we don’t want you infecting the customers, do we?”
In passing, she was glad to hear that the opening night had apparently been a roaring success. I have my faults, she thought, but I can admit when I’ve been wrong, and OF COURSE I want it to do well. It wasn’t long before she found out that though it may, indeed, have been full, very little money had been taken. She told herself that all establishments had opening offers, it was nothing to get het up about. But opening offers don’t generally go on for weeks that segue into months. She knew that she would, eventually, have to show her face there, though Monty still didn’t seem heartbroken that she hadn’t. Still, one balmy early spring evening, she let him braid her hair, and felt that familiar frisson, and put on her crimson cocktail dress, as Monty still called them, and hoped that the heels she hadn’t worn for months wouldn’t leave her hobbling.
It wasn’t wildly busy, but to her initial relief, as she sat sipping a glass of (not brilliant) Merlot, some business seemed to be going on. That relief faded as she realised that it wasn’t all to do with the sale of wines and spirits. The music (which sounded like a 70s mixtape) was loud, but Ellen had keen hearing, and even half-hearing told her enough.
She went behind the bar, called Monty to one side, and said, “You must do something about the men at the table by the window. They’re dealing in – illegal substances.” Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to say the D-word.
He went through the motions of looking worried, but said, “Let’s not blow this up out of all proportion, eh? They’re hardly advertising the fact to the world, only to folk like you who can hear the grass grow, and don’t come over all moralistic, you’ve said yourself you think cannabis should be legalised.”
She had, and she did. But at the moment it was still illegal, and she was pretty sure that they weren’t just talking about a bit of “whacky backy”.
“Well, I’d still prefer it not to happen.”
“Don’t worry, old girl, we’ll see to it,” said Hal, who had a disconcerting habit of popping up, if not from the woodwork, then from wherever he’d been going through the motions of trying to find something.
Still, when the first knock on the door came, it wasn’t from the drugs squad, it was from the far less dramatic, but no less consequential planning department. Apparently full permission hadn’t been sought for the Magenta Macaw with all the relevant forms and checks. She had to admit that they were reasonable folk. “Despite what people think, we’re not in the business of shutting places down and prosecuting the owners because they accidentally missed out one bit of paper or the like,” the man Monty referred to as “the head honcho” said. “But this goes well beyond that.”
“We’ll see to it, chief,” Monty assured him. He firmly believed that addressing someone as “chief” (if, of course, they were male) was like a magic charm that disarmed them. It didn’t work.
That was when she began to think seriously about the future of their marriage. He is involved in criminal activities, she thought. But though, of course, that mattered, it wasn’t all. It was becoming clearer and clearer that her opinion didn’t matter to him. Oh, he still ACTED as if it did. He never, even in private, said that she was thick or that he was the boss or anything like that. But he might as well have done. When she did put her foot down, or tried to, he didn’t burst into tears, but looked as if he might, and told her that he knew he had made mistakes, but he loved her so much, and things would work out.
So she made that Resolution about sticking by him. At least for a year, to see how things panned out. It was only fair to give him a chance. And there was no denying he could be very good company.
He assured her that the Magenta Macaw was being fixed up properly to “satisfy the fusspots”. He seemed to be spending most of his time there, and the trouble was, yes, she missed him. But she still didn’t especially want to be involved.
That was a terrible, mistake, she realised too late, when she was arrested to, as the police (and she couldn’t blame them) found it hard to believe that she hadn’t known what was going on there. The trouble was, inside, she had. When you have been interrogated (even though, she had to admit, it was not done nastily) and spent a night in a police cell, it never leaves you. In the end, character witnesses and, thank goodness, alibis, just about convinced them that they wouldn’t charge her, though she knew they – and quite a few locals – still had their doubts. Monty was sent down, and didn’t contest it when she filed for divorce. She did not know if that caused her relief or an even greater sense of betrayal.
Her true friends stuck by her, but she felt as if she could constantly see eyes on her, hear whispers about her. In the earliest light of a spring morning, she left her home town, and lived on her savings for a while. The savings ran out. She ended up in a shelter for the homeless, and then had to leave there, because she wasn’t local to the area, and spent three nights on a station platform.
In the end, she did what she knew she had to do. She phoned her parents. She had kept in touch by good old-fashioned postcards to tell them she was safe, but now she felt like a little girl who was lost and frightened and had been let down by everyone else. It all came out in a rush. “Will you have me?” she asked. She feared the answer, but had no need to. “Oh, sweetheart, of course we will,” her Mum said, “This is the best news we’ve had in years. “
Before evening fell that day, she had collapsed, sobbing, into her parents’ welcoming arms, and she slept that night in the room where she had slept when she was a child. For a few days, they understood that she just wanted to stay in the house, but then, gently, encouraged her to at least take a walk, to at least join the library again. They did not mention money, but she knew she could not live on their charity forever, and she was the one who brought up signing on, though she hated the thought.
“If you feel up to it, love, I may be able to help out,” her Dad said, “I know they’re recruiting at the insurance brokers, and you’ve done that kind of thing before.” It was true. In what sometimes seemed like another life before she had met Monty, she’d worked in an insurance office. And she still had a reference – though it was out of date, and now she – NO, she told herself, firmly. She DIDN’T have a criminal record. She accepted she was lucky to have avoided one, but it was time to come out of the shadows, though she didn’t have high hopes about getting the job.
She did, and she loved it. In the end, she supposed, things had worked out, if not well, then better than she deserved.
But she would have a life-long aversion to Resolutions!