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Money is tight

What can You afford?

Short Stories by George Donald

Best Friend

Sitting at the small table by the rain soaked window, Susan stared out into the car park and sighed with relief when at last she saw Janet's old Ford Mondeo slide into a parking bay. Why they had to meet in this hovel, as she glanced around was beyond her. She watched her friend struggle against the fall of rain and shrug into her well-worn overcoat, wrenching open the rear door and with some difficulty, pull out a folded buggy that she banged against the door of the car parked alongside the Mondeo. Susan saw Janet furtively glance about her, the evident relief on her pale face believing that no one had seen her. With some effort, she managed to open the buggy and at last plonked two-year old Jamie into the seat. Even from a distance, Susan could see the little horror was crying, but what's new, she mused? Mentally, Susan prepared herself and took a deep breath, watching as Janet laboured with the front door of the cafe, one hand pushing to open it and the other forcibly scraping the pushchair through the narrow space. A scowling waitress, pretending to wipe clean a recently vacated table, watched her struggling with disinterested eyes.

Janet steered the buggy and the crying child through the tiny gaps between the tables, apologising with a half smile to each customer whose toes she narrowly missed or whose chair she banged the buggy against. Jamie, his eyes red and nose running, sobbed constantly. "Sorry I'm late," she gasped breathlessly to Susan, "the bus was early and the other two missed it. Meant I'd to run them to school and you know what the traffic is like on Duke Street, this time of the morning."
Susan nodded tolerantly, turning her head to catch the waitress's eye. "Have you had breakfast or do you just want a coffee?" she asked.
Janet exhaled slowly, her stomach churning as mindful of its emptiness, it begged a roll and bacon, while her conscience reminded her that she still had almost a stone and a half to lose.
"Bugger it," she replied, "roll and bacon please, with a coffee. Oh, and can Jamie here have something to shut him up, maybe a doughnut?"
Some superglue on his whining mouth might be better, thought Susan unkindly. "No problem," she smiled tightly and then to the waitress, "one bacon roll, a doughnut and a juice for the wee one and two latte's, please."
The teenage waitress painstakingly wrote the order in her well-thumbed notebook and glanced evilly at the sniffing child. "D'you want a straw with that juice?" she asked.
"No, you're all right," smiled Janet, reaching into her old shoulder bag, "I've got a plastic cup here with me."

"So," said Susan brightly, her stomach turning as she tried to ignore the glistening bubbles that erupted with regular sniffs from Jamie's red nose, "I've not seen you for nearly two weeks. What's new?"
Janet interrupted her drying of the toddler's nose with a tissue and stared at her best friend. "Things haven't been …well, not too good, to be honest." Her eyes started to fill with tears and Susan frowned, her showing full of concern as she reached a hand across the table to comfort her.
"What's wrong Janet? Come on, you can tell me. Is it the kids, are they okay?"
"The children are fine, nothing bloody wrong with them," she burst out in a murmured whisper.
"You then, are you okay? I mean, healthwise?"
"I'm fine. It's…...it's, well. There's something just not right between Raymond and me at the moment."
Susan sat back and stared at her.
"What do you mean, something not right? Is he all right?"
"It's not a health thing, Susan," she hissed back, casting a furtive glance at the two old biddy's sitting at the table to her right and guessing they would be straining to hear every word.
"Well, whatever it is, you can at least talk to me. My God, we've been friends since primary. There's nothing you can't tell me Janet Lawson."

Janet smiled at the uncommon use of her maiden name and took a deep breath, dabbing at her eyes with the paper tissue so recently used to wipe Jamie's snotty nose. "It's just that in recent months…..."
"One bacon roll, two latte and a doughnut and juice for the wee yin," drawled the waitress in a bored voice. Edging the chipped plastic tray onto the small round table, her actions pushed the condiments to one side and knocked over the saltcellar, spilling its contents in a neat little snowy white pile.
"Thanks," said Susan irritably, annoyed the waitress had interrupted Janet in mid flow while, with visible distaste, sweeping the salt onto the floor with her hand.
When the waitress had gone, she passed the roll and sugar coated doughnut to Janet, watching as her friend tore the doughnut in two and handed a piece into Jamie's grubby hand, then emptied the juice into a red coloured plastic cup upon which she snapped a top. That done and the toddler for the time being satisfied, she doused her roll in brown sauce and took a bite.
"For Gods sake," snapped Susan, "tell me what's happening Janet! You were about to say that for the last couple of months…?" She curled her upraised fingers at Janet, urging her friend to relate the story.
Chewing thoughtfully, her eyebrow's knitted together, Janet lifted a forefinger in restraint and nodded for Susan to wait a few seconds, and then choked down the food. "Sorry, I needed that. Didn't have time for brekkies, what with getting them other two dressed and out to school and this wee tearaway," she grinned theatrically down at her son, his mouth now sugar coated and his tears temporarily subsided. "Besides, this diet I'm on is wicked. Won't allow me any treats at all." Guiltily, she took another bite from her roll.
Susan twisted her mouth and rolled her eyes, her fingers drumming a tattoo on the table. "Am I ever going to learn what's bothering you?" she asked, her voice dripping with exaggerated sarcasm.
Janet stopped chewing and swallowed hard, then turned her sad, grey eyes towards Susan. "I think he's seeing someone else."
Susan frowned, her face full of disbelief. "Don't be ridiculous," she snapped. "Raymond? I can't believe that."
Miserably, Janet laid her half eaten roll on the plate, her hands twisting together on her lap. Beside her, Jamie whined for the second part of the doughnut that she absent-mindedly passed to him. She sipped at her coffee, suddenly conscious that her mouth was very dry. "It's true. He's been keeping all sorts of odd hours. Staying out sometimes overnight and arriving back in the morning. Claims to have been too drunk to drive and stayed with a pal. That Ernie guy. You know him, the divorced one. Backs Raymond up no matter what he says. If Ernie told me today was Tuesday, I still wouldn't believe him!" she spat out, her dislike for Raymond's friend clear and apparent.
"But that doesn't mean he's having an affair," burst out Susan with a short laugh. "He might be telling the truth Janet. I mean, staying out a few night. It's hardly grounds for accusing him of seeing another woman, is it?"
"There's been other things as well," she replied mournfully. "I found lipstick on his shirtsleeve the other day. And sometimes he's been smelling of perfume. Never buys me perfume, I can tell you! Never buys me any –fucking– thing!" she cried out, her face twisted in anger. "That, and he's been drawing more than just pocket money from our account. I think he's been wining and dining this bloody floozy, whoever she is!" Janet exploded. "And we haven't, you know…...done it, for ages."

Startled, Susan stared at her friend, her eyes blinking rapidly as if for once, she seeing her as she really is. When had the once pretty and vivacious Janet with her slim figure, curly dark hair and bright-eyed smile become this dowdy and overweight woman? She glanced behind Janet. The old beige coat tossed across the back of her chair was worn and outdated. Her blouse, straining tightly across her heavy, maternal bust had been washed so often the colours were fading. The stain of Jamie's handprint from that morning's breakfast was clearly visible on her right shoulder. Her eyes were weary, with dark shadows indicating the recent sleepless nights, her dark, now greying hair, limp and lifeless. While Janet tended once again to Jamie's belligerent cries, Susan glanced in the window at her side, studying her own refection that revealed her neatly coiffured hair and stylish top, slim face and athletic figure, a testament to her three times weekly fitness regime. But then again, as a single, professional woman at the height of her accountancy career, she had but herself to care for and, blessing her own good fortune, neither desired nor could bear the responsibilities of a family and shared home.

"Look," she patiently began, "I can only guess what's going through your mind. But you're obviously at a low point and your self-esteem has taken a knock because of this…...this diet thing that you're doing. I'm certain you're wrong. Raymond loves you, we all know that. Maybe he just needs some time to himself and perhaps he needs to get out more with his friends. Be patient with him. I'm sure it's all in your imagination. After all, he's got a loving wife, three smashing kids," she smiled, while pointedly ignoring Jamie, who was examining a mass of foul debris that he had just picked from his nostril.

Janet slowly breathed out though her mouth and returned Susan's smile, eager seizing upon the explanation and her face briefly lit up, reminding her best friend of the lovely young woman she once was. "I'm sure you're right. It's just…...just that recently," her eyes filled again as she sniffed back the tears. "Maybe it's me that should be getting out more," she snivelled, choking back the sobs. Beside her, Jamie's eyes opened wide and as if realising his mothers sorrow, he began to wail in sympathy. Janet reached down to awkwardly lift him from the pushchair and placed him upon her lap where he took an immediate interest in her empty cup, turning it over to watch the dregs soak the tablecloth. "Listen," said Susan, reaching for her trendy handbag as she stood up, "I've got to get back to work. I'm already ten minutes late. Stay where you are till you get your breath back and I'll get the waitress to send another latte over… and a juice for, eh, Jamie," she said, raising her hand to stifle any protest. Leaning across very carefully in an effort to avoid the small sugar coated fingers from staining her chic jacket, she pecked Janet on the cheek and - hesitantly - patted the toddler on top of his wispy blonde head.

Walking through the car park to her Mini Cooper, she reflected on her meeting with Janet. She felt dreadfully sorry that her friend was so worried and wished there was something she could do to reassure her. And that wee one, she grinned mirthlessly. If ever there was an argument for contraception! Her mobile phone beeped and she groped in her handbag, finding it and flipping open the cover. Her face lit up with pleasure as she recognised the caller. She glanced about her before replying.
"Hello darling," she coyly replied, "there's something we'll have to discuss, something important. My place Raymond, right now."