No. of words: 3,172 Beryl Ensor-Smith
THE COLOURS OF LOVE
When Des accepted my proposal of marriage I was over the moon. If you knew Des youd understand why. Shes a gorgeous, green-eyed red head full of warmth and vitality. I was so filled with wonderment that she could love me, a conservative, rather serious stock broker, that it dawned on me only slowly that marriage meant not only adapting to a new woman, but also to members of her family. This point was brought home to me rather forcibly once we were engaged, when I was about to turn thirty-five and received a birthday present from Dess mother, Carole.
Until then Id considered Carole (when I considered her at all,) to be a rather flashy extrovert. When we met, my first impressions were of short, spiky, ash blonde hair obviously aided by chemicals, exaggerated gestures in which blood red talons played a big part and a husky voice. She had, I was to learn later, many flamboyant and equally startling mannerisms that she paraded whenever the fancy took her. With the wisdom of hindsight, I realise that I should have known from the first not to dismiss Carole lightly. Any woman who names her daughter Desdemona and her son Pliny has to be pretty unusual or one stroke short of midnight!
This wasnt so bad for Des. People assumed from her nickname that it was a contraction of Desiree. But Pliny? What could the poor sod do with that? It hardly comes as a surprise that hes grown into a reclusive mumbler who prefers dogs to people. Trying to have a conversation with Pliny is nearly impossible. What little he says is well nigh unintelligible, uttered as it is sotto voce and with eyes fixed on the floor so that one cant even resort to lip-reading. He certainly does not take after either of the men who inspired his name. Pliny the Elder was a distinguished writer and Commander of the Misenum Fleet. Pliny the Younger was also a writer and a pleader in Roman courts. Both of necessity had to be good communicators. The only creature Dess brother is able to communicate with is Bertie, his bad-tempered bull terrier!
I digress. Back to Caroles birthday gift. Des was with me when I opened the garishly wrapped parcel. Inside was a garment so horrible it defies accurate description. Hand knitted in yellow, brown and red stripes, when held up for further inspection, it proved to be a lopsided pullover. One arm seemed to be longer than the other. Inside was a note saying that Carole had knitted it herself. Fortunately I was stunned into speechlessness or I would no doubt have offended my beloved by exclaiming aloud in dismay. At this juncture I should perhaps explain that I have a reputation for sartorial elegance. In fact, Des says that what first drew her to me was my appearance. I realise how boastful that must sound and hasten to assure you that I am really quite a modest man and well aware that without the fine feathers, I am a very ordinary bird indeed! I just happen to enjoy good clothes and my income fortunately allows me to indulge that weakness.
Des was the first to respond to the contents of the parcel with an outburst of unrestrained laughter.
Oh, dear, she said finally, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. If its any comfort, Allan, my mother must think very highly of you. She has never in all these years knitted a jersey for either me or Pliny. Not one. Nor for my father when he was alive. We would have died of cold if wed had to depend on mother for jerseys.
But what am I supposed to do with it?
Wear it, she said heartlessly, laughing again.
I cant, I said with anguish. Id rather go naked.
Taking mercy on me she patted my hand. I was only teasing. Hide it in the top of a cupboard and after a suitable length of time, when it would normally have aged, give it to the poor. Mother wont know any better, living miles away.
I wouldnt do that to the poor, I replied, kissing her fondly. Their lot is hard enough as it is without casting this monstrosity their way.
Ungrateful, she chided. Just hope my mother doesnt decide visit.
Prophetic words! I made the mistake of mentioning, in my letter of thanks to Carole, that I would be celebrating my birthday by inviting a few friends and colleagues round for drinks. This prompted her to telephone me immediately she received it.
Is that my son-in-law to be? playfully.
Er, yes. Carole, how are you?
In the pink, and Im so excited to hear about your birthday party, Allan.
Its hardly a party, Carole. Just a few friends for drinks. Alarm bells were ringing!
Well dear, well turn it into a party! Im flying up for the occasion. I wouldnt miss it for anything. Besides, things here are pretty dull at present. Grans living with me now that shes no longer able to take care of herself and while shes no trouble, life can hardly be described as a bowl of cherries.
The bells were no longer ringing. They were clanging!
Carole, youve got altogether the wrong idea. This wont be a swinging affair; just the CEO of my company, a few work colleagues and two good friends, both male. Apart from Des, therell be only two other women.
How nice! she purred. Too many women vying for attention can be such a drag. Des and I will make some tasty eats and Ill provide the champagne.
That wont be necessary, I said hastily, trying to imagine James Herrington, our CEO, being offered bubbly instead of Chevas Regal. He would not be impressed. Carole mistook this as insistence that I supply the champagne.
Well, if youre sure dear? Im coming a day early and will be staying with Des, of course. You two havent shacked up together yet?
Er, no. I had, in fact, implored Des to move in with me but she said she didnt think it a good idea. That Carole was more amenable to the idea than Des was par for the course. Most mothers would balk at the thought of their unmarried daughter living with a man, never mind take it for granted!
I look forward to seeing you again, Allan, and the weather being what it is, you can wear your jersey at your party. I cant wait to see you in it. I love the way you dress, of course, but a little more colour in your outfits wouldnt go amiss. See you soon!
I replaced the receiver in a stupor. Not only wear the jersey, but in the presence of my CEO and colleagues? It would be the end of my credibility and any hope of advancement in the company.
Des was as aghast as I was when I told her that her mother was coming to stay with her and that I was expected to wear the jersey at my birthday celebration.
Well think of a way round it, she said comfortingly.
I could say I had a burglary and it was stolen. She heard the desperation in my voice and said sympathetically:
No go. Why would a thief steal your pullover and leave all the silver and antiques?
What then? There has to be a way out of this. I cant possibly wear it Des!
How about making it a fancy dress do? You wouldnt even need to hire a costume. You could wear the jersey and pretend youre a demented football supporter, she suggested, giggling.
Very amusing, Des. At times my fiance lacked sensitivity. How could she laugh in the face of such disaster?
Or even a bee with a very high temperature, which would account for the red stripes, she continued heartlessly, then seeing my face, apologised.
Sorry darling. Its just that the mere thought of you in that jersey brings out the worst in me. She smiled lovingly at me and I forgave her on the turn.
Des is a journalist and on the day her mother was due to arrive, had to work late. I offered to fetch Carole from the airport. Always full of surprises, she arrived with a little old lady in tow.
Allan darling, she kissed the air on either side of my face. Youve not met gran, have you? Her voice dropped to a throaty whisper. I couldnt find anyone to look after her. Shell be no trouble. On the night of your party, Ill tuck her into bed at Dess and shell be safe and sound until we get back.
I looked at gran. The poor old dear seemed frail and drained. Her eyes flitted hither and thither and she seemed unaware of my presence.
Were meeting Des at my flat. Shell join us a little later for take-aways, I told Carole.
All the way home I kept glancing uneasily in the rear-view mirror at Dess gran. She had not said a word since arriving and was breathing shallowly. Carole didnt seem to notice anything amiss and once inside my penthouse went exploring, with Ohs and Ahs of delight, leaving both the luggage and gran to me. I dumped the cases in the hall and helped the old lady into the nearest comfortable chair in my sitting room. She seemed very disorientated.
Would you like tea? I asked anxiously, then decided instead to pour her a small brandy. When I handed it to her, her eyes settled on me for the first time.
Thank you, Ned, she said gratefully. As she sipped it, colour and life seemed to return to her, much to my relief. Carole had joined us by then and accepted a gin and tonic with alacrity. Des arrived soon after, bringing chicken and salad, which she, Carole and I ate. Gran had nodded off and we decided not to wake her. I found an old knee rug and tucked it round her. She was still asleep two hours later when Des decided it was time to leave. Carole wakened her gently.
Mum, were off. Its time to get you to bed.
The old ladys eyes went from Carole, to Des and then to me.
Im staying with Ned, she said.
Carole and Des exchanged puzzled glances.
I think she means me, I said apologetically. Shes been calling me Ned.
We have to go home, Gran, Des said kindly.
I want to stay with Ned. The old ladys voice became tremulous.
Seeing an old woman in tears would reduce me to rubble; an embarrassment to all.
Why not, Des? We can soon make up the beds in the two spare rooms and both your gran and Carole can stay here. In fact its a good idea seeing you have to work tomorrow morning and I dont, being Saturday.
Before Des could reply, Carole broke in: That would be lovely. I can pop off in the morning and buy gorgeous food for the party at those marvellous shops we saw, you can work without worrying about us and gran can keep Allan, that is, Ned,
company. (After that she teasingly started calling me Ned too.) Her eyes twinkled with delight. A room each, what luxury! Her voice dropped to a mischievous whisper. Gran snores to beat the band!
So it was that I found myself alone with Dess gran on the morning of my birthday. She was in good spirits and a lot less confused than she had been the previous night. To my surprise I found her good company as she chatted away about the past and a lifestyle I could only imagine. I was the only child of ageing parents, who, not knowing what to do with me, had packed me off to boarding school at an early age. When I was sixteen they died within months of one another, leaving me well provided for but with few familial memories. Dess gran, whose name I learned was Louise, spoke about her childhood, her married life, her daughter Carole and her difficult marriage, while I sat opposite her polishing drinking glasses and listening in fascination.
Caroles marriage was a mismatch, unfortunately. They stayed together but he was an academic and she, well, shes a butterfly and they had nothing in common. She must have loved him in her way as she was distraught when he was killed in that car accident.
So Des took after her father, I thought with relief. It was from him that she obviously inherited her intellect and her good sense.
Just before Carole returned from her shopping, I took out the jersey and carried it through to the sitting room. Not having arrived at a solution and the weather remaining cold, I would have to wear the blasted thing! I had hoped that Carole would have forgotten her expectation to see me in it at my party, but she had reminded me again at breakfast. I held it up to Louise, thinking she must have seen Carole working on it.
Do you remember this?
You dont want to wear that, she said. Its not very nice.
Carole knitted it for me.
Did she? She looked bewildered again. What a pity.
Come evening and the arrival of my guests, all was ready. The table bore the results of Caroles and Dess afternoon labours, practically groaning under the weight of good food. We were all dressed for the occasion but I still could not bring myself to wear the jersey and draped it over the back of a chair.
Now that the fires going, its a bit warm in here, I explained to Carole. Once it dies down a bit, Ill put it on.
Thats fine, Ned. Ive brought some of my favourite CDs. Ill put one on, shall I?
When James Herrington and the other guests arrived, they were greeted by the sight of Carole sashaying across the room to a booming beat and some female vocalist screeching Ive got the Power! at the top of her voice. Carole looked good, I must say. She was dressed in body-hugging silver and as she shimmied and shook, she looked about sixteen and radiated fun. James was quite taken with her and inclined to overlook the fact that this annual get-together lacked its usual decorum. My other
guests, after a few questioning glances, soon adapted to talking above the clamour of Caroles choice of music and started enjoying themselves. Louise sat in a chair by the fire looking a bit overawed, but after a brandy or two seemed more relaxed.
All went well for a few hours. Then, just after ten the fire died down and I could no longer put off the evil moment. Besides, I was feeling decidedly chilly.
Wheres my jersey? I said to Carole with feigned jollity, hoping my guests would be too caught up in social converse to notice my sudden change in appearance. We turned to where it had been draped over the back of Louises chair, just in time to see her hurl it onto the fire. The sudden flare-up caught the attention of the others. Louise became aware of their eyes fixed on her.
Its the cats blanket. Full of flees, she said pitifully.
What cat? Allan hasnt got one, from Bruce, one of my friends.
Its Neds pullover, Carol replied dully.
Well, said James Herrington who had by this time downed quite a few whiskeys, its no great loss. Ghastly garment. Whoever this Ned is, you should take him in hand, Allan. Introduce him to that chappie who supplies your clothes and teach him a bit about style. He laughed gustily, the sycophants from my company soon joining in. Carole looked stricken. I could have strangled him. My guests got back to the business of enjoyment, unaware of the drama of the moment. I went over to Carole. Im so sorry, I said quietly, and I was. Id happily have worn that pullover every day for the rest of my life if it could wipe the misery from her face.
Its all right, Allan. (She was never to call me Ned again.) I think Ive had enough for tonight and so, obviously, has gran. Her minds wandering again. She helped her mother from the chair. Time for bed, dear. We fly home tomorrow. Wont that be nice? Louise nodded and they slipped quietly away.
Once everyone had left, Des and I cleaned up, saying little. I was too disgusted with myself to want to talk. If only I had worn the jersey from the start of the evening this
would never have happened. Stupid arrogance! My pride had exacted a cruel price, and from Carole, who least deserved it.
The next day she was her old self again. Dressed in a fetching orange pants suit with nails to match, she was as eye-catching as ever.
Thank you for having us, Allan dear. It was so kind of you.
I hugged her, feeling an utter heel.
Oh, Ive left my make-up case in the bathroom. Cant do without it; Id scare people to death. She trotted off, her mothers eyes fixed on her. Louise also seemed better after a nights sleep.
I do so love my daughter, she told me simply. Ive been so happy these past months since Ive lived with her. Shes brave and warm and funny and I never know whats coming next!
We travelled to the airport in Dess Toyota, with her at the wheel. I sat in the back with Louise while Des and her mother exchanged banter and laughter all the way. Listening to them it dawned on me that Des takes after Carole, not her father. She has the same big heart and innate joy. How lucky I was to have these two women in my life. No, three, counting Louise, who is also a gem, if a somewhat unpredictable one!
When we were saying our goodbyes, while Des was hugging her grandmother, Carole spoke softly to me. Its sad about your pullover, Allan.
Yes it is. Impulsively I added, Will you knit me another, exactly the same?
She looked delighted. Do you really want me to?
Yes please. Im counting on it.
It arrived only just in time for my next birthday, Carole not being an experienced knitter. Its exactly the same as its predecessor with red, brown and yellow stripes, but with one improvement in that both sleeves are of equal length. I wear it often and with passing time have become very fond of it despite the odd looks I get from the general public. When I see amusement in their faces I smile complacently, for they have no idea that this jersey is symbolic of the three ladies who light up my life; one bold colour for each!