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"Pick a card, any card,"
said Norris, fanning out the deck and offering it to Mr. Pigshearer.
"Oh," laughed Mr. Pigshearer
jovially, "alright then, Norris. Got something up your sleeve have you?" He
picked the queen of hearts.
"Right, show it around but don't let me see it." Norris took back
the card and shuffled it into the deck. He had even managed to gain the
attention of Sally Corminder, the village gossip and a notorious chatterbox.
Norris moved the pint
glasses out of the way and started dealing out the cards face up on the table,
launching into a patter along the lines of being able to read Mr. Pigshearer's
mind. Mr. and Mrs. Pigshearer and Sally all leant in over the table
suspiciously, keeping rapt eyes on Norris' hands to make sure he wasn't pulling
"Now, don't any of you say a
word, I have to concentrate," said Norris mysteriously. He laid down three more
cards. Mr. Pigshearer looked vexed. "The next card I turn over," continued
Norris with his hand on the remainder of the deck, "will be your card."
"No it won't, Norris," said
Mr. Pigshearer with gruff conviction.
"I'm sure it will!" smiled
Norris. "I'd put money on it. Tell you what, I'll bet you a fiver."
Mr. Pigshearer's ruddy face
stretched into a wide grin, exposing his yellowed teeth. He rubbed his
strawberry nose. "Five English pounds, eh? Hmm." Mrs. Pigshearer looked like
she wanted to tell him something, but didn't.
"Sounds like a good deal to
me," confided Sally. She could clearly see, as could the Pigshearers, that
Norris had already laid down the queen of hearts, so the next card couldn't
possibly be the right one.
"Like taking candy from a
baby," grinned Mr. Pigshearer confidently as he shook Norris' hand. He was
mortified when Norris ignored the remainder of the deck, picked up the queen of
hearts from the table, and turned it over.
"That wasn't the next card!"
said Mr. Pigshearer.
"It was the next card he
turned over," Sally pointed out, "the young lad's got you there." The two
ladies at the table burst out laughing, and Mr. Pigshearer just gaped at the
cards in disbelief as his wife removed a five pound note from his wallet and
handed it to Norris.
Satisfied, Norris walked off
and wandered over to another table in the bustling pub. The Farmworthys were sitting
"Would you like to see a
card trick?" asked Norris.
The Bantling-in-Bourne pub
was packed, with almost the whole of the small village of Colling Brook sitting
and chatting over a couple of drinks, as was the custom on a Friday evening. In
one corner, the old farm hands were hidden in a mist of smoke; next to them
Jill and the parishioners were singing tipsily and trying to get one of the old
widows to dance. On the other side, Jim and Mark were playing darts.
Norris moved from table to
table, picking up another fiver each time until he was twenty pounds up.
Eventually he sat down next to Roma at the bar. He ordered two drinks, and gave
"That's terribly generous of
you, Norris," giggled Roma. "What brought this on?"
"I've been betting with the
elders," Norris answered, sweeping his hand in a gesture that encompassed
everyone in the pub that was older than him and Roma, which was everybody.
"You and your money making
schemes," smiled Roma, rolling her eyes endearingly. "Well, thank you very much
all the same."
"What were you betting on?"
Norris pulled out his pack
of cards and fanned it out. Roma's eyes lit up. "Oh, how exciting!" she said as
she picked a card.
"Now put it back in and I'll
give it a shuffle," explained Norris, sliding into his practised patter. He
started dealing out cards face up onto the bar, looking deeply into Roma's eyes
on the pretence that he was reading her mind. He watched her curiosity peak as
he laid down the card he knew was hers, then laid a few more on top of it.
"Now I'll bet you a fiver
the next card I turn over will be your card," said Norris, with an air of mock
"The next card you turn
over, eh?" Roma repeated, her eyes flicking to the table, then back to Norris'
face. She took his hand gently and shook it. "It's a deal." With that she swept
all of the face-up cards from the table, including her card, and challenged
Norris to turn over the next card in the deck.
She had foiled the trick of
course. Norris sighed and handed over a fiver as Roma burst out into a musical
cascade of laughter. He should have known she was too clever for such a ruse.
They slowly finished their
drinks, chatting merrily until Ben Bathbridge, the pub landlord, flashed the
lights behind the bar, which meant he wanted to go to bed. Norris said his
goodbyes and left ahead of the rush so he could get a good night's sleep. He
had to get up early the next morning to go to work.
Norris awoke as soon as the
sun rose over the village hall and glared through his window. He dragged
himself out of bed and splashed some water on his face. He started humming
himself a tune, All You Need Is Love, while he dressed and wandered into
the kitchen to make breakfast. Funny that was in his head, he thought, he hadn't
heard it since the last village fair.
When breakfast was prepared,
he put it all neatly on a tray and carried it through into the next room. He
knocked, out of habit, and burst into his father's room beaming.
"Good morning, dad!" he
roared enthusiastically. "How're you doing today?"
Mr. Hardy rubbed his eyes.
"Same old, same old."
"I've got one Colling Brook
breakfast deluxe for you this morning, with bread made from a sheaf of our
finest wheat, and eggs from the bums of our best hens."
"That's lovely, thanks,"
grunted Mr. Hardy as he hefted himself into a sitting position. "Are you seeing
the old widows today?"
"Yep," Norris replied. He
did occasional work at the local rest home, looking after all of the ‘old
widows' of the village, whenever they needed extra help or whenever he needed
Mr. Hardy started eating his
breakfast in bed, pausing every now and then to emit a series of hearty coughs.
Norris prepared to get up and leave. "It won't be long before you have to move
in with them, then the nurses can help me look after you," he joked.
Mr. Hardy did not seem to
take this comment so lightly. Norris was stopped in his tracks by his father's
sudden grave expression. "Norris… son," growled Mr. Hardy in his gravely voice.
"You don't see yourself staying here, forever, on my account, do you? This
dismal little hamlet is no place for a young lad like yourself. There's more to
life than looking after your sick old dad."
Norris' smile melted. He
left without turning around. It didn't upset him, or frustrate him; he really
didn't know any other way of life. He just wanted his dad to be happy, and he
couldn't afford to leave the village and start up his own life as much as he'd
like to, so what more could he do?
He went to work with mixed,
On Sunday afternoon, Norris
planned to meet Roma at the Bantling-in-Bourne for a pub lunch. She hadn't yet
got there when he arrived; he presumed the church service had overrun. Sure
enough, when Roma eventually turned up, she was complaining that Mary Vickers,
the preachy old hag, never stopped talking. Norris laughed, though he knew that
Roma secretly held a deep respect for her religion.
Over lunch, Norris found
himself admitting to Roma that his father's comment had been preying on his
mind. He explained what his dad had said.
"How could I possibly earn
enough money to make sure dad can stay with the old widows, and still be able
to afford to leave Colling Brook?" he finished.
"Your little money making
schemes won't be enough," said Roma lightly.
"I can't go off and join the
army or something, what would I do with dad in the meantime?"
"You need to think bigger,"
"Bigger money making
schemes?" asked Norris, eyebrows raised.
Roma giggled. "Why not?"
Norris paused to chew on
some steak. "Like what?"
"Well," said Roma
thoughtfully, "you have to work out what the people of Colling Brook want, what
they need, then give it to them. It's a question of supply and demand." Roma's
eyes betrayed a playful glint.
Norris took the question
seriously. "Something everyone wants, but can't easily get."
"Money," joked Roma.
"Not books, or music,"
thought Norris. "Not television."
"A game of some sort,
perhaps? An event?"
"No," countered Roma, "you
want something that will make people want to keep coming back for more."
"Sex!" declared Norris. Roma
looked at him for a brief moment with an expression of mock horror, then burst
into a fit of laughter. Norris' face stretched into a wide beam, but he did not
laugh. He looked inspired.
"That's it!" Norris
announced. "Everybody in the village has sex!"
"Except Mary Vickers,"
"And the old widows, but
even most of them must have done it before."
"Eeurgh! What a thought,"
Roma squirmed, still chuckling. "What are you going to do? Open a sex shop in
"Yes," asserted Norris,
"only not a seedy one. I think between us we probably know just enough about
each person in the village to offer a tailored service. It'd have to be very
discreet, we'd sell them only what they want without showing them a load of
other stuff that might embarrass them."
"We?" Roma chortled.
"Yes, help me; together we
might be able to make enough money to get away from here. Come on, I'm sure we
can work out what people would want. The Bathbridges have been trying for kids
for ages now, and everyone knows why they haven't succeeded. Poor Ben could use
some Viagra or something!"
"Ha ha! Yes, and Mark could
use some fluffy handcuffs to keep Jill from straying," said Roma, "she'd sleep
with anything with two legs. Poor Mark."
"Didn't Sally Corminder say
Jason had a bit of a thing for leather?"
"Sally could do with a gag…"
The conversation went on
like this, with the two of them deducing the entire village's sexual habits.
Before long, Roma realised that Norris really was serious about following
through with this crazy idea. It seemed like a great game to her, so she played
Norris had a reputation in
the village for being slightly naïve, but it was a naivety with such momentum
it was persuasive. He believed his innocent convictions so strongly that they
tended eventually to come true. And right now he believed that this idea was
the one way he would be able to raise enough money to keep his father well
looked after, and to get Roma to come away with him.
Norris knew that Roma longed
to leave the village, but her parents kept holding her back for fear of losing
her. They didn't want her to end up like her sister. Roma was Norris' best
friend, he confided her deepest fears and desires to her, and she to him. He
yearned to have enough money to whisk her away from Colling Brook and start a
happy life elsewhere. And so he was determined that this idea would work.
On Monday morning, bright
and early, Norris knocked on the door of Mr. Lugano's office in the village
"Come in," called Mr.
Lugano. "Oh, young Norris Hardy, what business can I help you with?"
Norris strolled in and sat
down opposite Mr. Lugano's desk. "I'd like a favour, please, if possible."
Mr. Lugano smiled. "One of
your money making schemes by any chance?"
"How'd you guess?" Norris
grinned sheepishly. "Yes. If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to rent a
shop. I can't afford much, mind you. Something out of the way, like the old
"Certainly. May I ask what
"A sex shop."
Mr. Lugano paused. "A sex
"A sex shop."
Mr. Lugano's face changed
from bemused to amused. "And what, pray, do you think the people of Colling
Brook will buy from a sex shop?"
"Sex aids," replied Norris
matter-of-factly. "What else can you buy from a sex shop?"
"Quite, quite," Mr. Lugano's
expression made him look like he was humouring a foolish child. "Well in that
case, you'd better have it. The old school shed at, say, half price. £20 a week
for the first two months, if you last that long."
"Oh, thank you very much,"
beamed Norris. "I'll get to work right away."
"It's settled then," said
Mr. Lugano, getting up to open the door for Norris.
Norris got up. "Roma will be
Mr. Lugano's mood suddenly
changed. With an imperceptible movement, he blocked Norris from leaving the
office. He spoke levelly. "What does my daughter have to do with this?"
Norris retreated slightly
from Mr. Lugano. "She's helping." He didn't feel as if he should say anything
Mr. Lugano eyed him
suspiciously, started to say something, and then decided against it. He sighed
audibly, and his brow furrowed deeply. Finally, he stood back and let Norris
Just as Norris was painting the finishing touches onto the sign
above his shop, Sally Corminder strolled up the lane. Roma, who was holding
Norris' ladder steady, greeted her cheerily.
"Hello Roma, Hiya Norris. So
what's this all about, then? All the villagers have been asking me what you're
up to. ‘Personal Touch', eh? What's that, a shop?"
"Sort of," said Roma.
"You'll have to come in and
see for yourself when it opens tomorrow," called Norris as he started climbing
down the ladder.
"Yes, and spread the word,
will you Sally?" asked Roma.
"Ha ha, you can count on
that, duck, it's what I do best. Talking about spreading the word…" Sally took
on a conspiratorial tone and leant in closer to Roma and Norris as if she were
huddling to discuss tactics in a soccer game. "I've heard there's a new face in
town. A young bank manager has come to modernise our bank.
He's staying with Daniel Farmworthy for a couple of months before he moves on.
They say he's quite a charmer, you know!" She winked and stood up straighter.
"Well, I'll see you later then. Good luck with your shop!"
That night in the pub,
Norris sat down to chat with Roma, but he couldn't get a word in edgeways
because she wouldn't stop talking about the dashing young bank manager whom
she'd met earlier that day. Norris just sighed heavily and heard her out, then
eventually slinked off for an early night.
The next morning, bright and
early, Norris leapt out of bed and rushed to the kitchen to make his dad's
breakfast. He didn't rest for a second until he was out of the house and
half-walking half-skipping towards his new shop. He was very pleased to see
Roma waiting for him, just as excited, when he arrived, and together they
announced to each other that the shop was officially open.
Their excitement slowly
waned as they sat behind the counter, and their conversation soon lapsed. They
watched the clock, and were beginning to get impatient, when Jill, the
postwoman, poked her head around the door.
"Hello! Welcome! Come on
in!" Norris rushed over to open the door for her.
"Welcome to Personal Touch,"
"Good morning, Norris;
morning, Roma," Jill said as she inspected the shop. There was nothing on
display, nothing at all. The room was a plain wooden box with a counter built
along the back wall and a sofa shoved in the corner.
"Have a seat, Jill, I'll
just go and put the kettle on," with that, Roma disappeared into a back room.
Norris made conversation.
"How's Mark?" he asked.
"Mark's fine," she answered,
disinterestedly, "Norris, have you met the new bank manager?"
"No… I haven't."
"He's real suave. It's so
refreshing to have someone from out of town around. Someone worldly-wise, like.
He's young too; he's probably only got a couple of years on yourself. Between
you and me, I fancy the pants off him! And our Roma has the hots for him, too.
I don't blame her!"
Norris looked disappointed.
Roma came in with cups of tea. Jill changed the subject.
"This is all very well and
civilised," commented Jill as she sipped her tea, "but it doesn't look like
much of a shop to me. I hope you know what you're doing, because I certainly
Roma laughed. "You'll see."
"Did you have any mail for
us?" asked Norris, indicating Jill's postbag.
"No, I've finished my
rounds. I told old Sally I had a letter for you, but it was only an excuse to
come and see what you were up to."
Jill finished her tea and
got up to leave. Roma told her to wait a minute and disappeared into the back
room again. Almost immediately, she returned and handed Jill a plain brown
"Now if you don't mind, you
can leave a deposit on that," explained Roma, "and when you open it at home you
can decide if you want to keep it or not. If you do, you can pay the balance;
but if not, come back and we'll square up and forget about it. Have fun!"
Jill was clearly intrigued.
She laid a ten pound note on the counter and bid Norris and Roma farewell.
Later that day, while Mark
was at the grocer's, Jill opened her package in their bedroom. Her eyes lit up
with unbridled delight when she pulled out an impressively knobbly eight-inch
Personal Touch was the talk of the village in the Bantling-in-Bourne
the following Friday evening. Norris overheard a dozen different conversations
about how the sex shop was apparently doing a roaring trade, and was probably
well worth a visit, although no-one would actually admit to having visited it themselves.
Norris and Roma had a secret package for almost every person in
Colling Brook. Ben Bathbridge got a remarkable range of erection aids, for
which he and Jenny were very grateful; Jason got some leatherwear; Mark, being
bookish, enjoyed his pile of pornographic literature; Mr. Pigshearer got an
inflatable ‘Love Ewe', and ordered another one before a week was up. Even Mary
Vickers had a package. Norris put it together as a bit of a cruel joke, with
bondage gear, whips, handcuffs and suchlike in it, but to his immense surprise,
she kept and paid for it.
It wasn't long before they
were getting a handful of repeat customers ordering more as well. It was as if
the village had undergone a sexual revolution, as if it had rained pheromones,
but really nothing had changed. Personal Touch had just made sex the
fashionable topic of conversation.
Roma wasn't interested
though. She had been doing fewer and fewer shifts in the shop and spending more
and more time with the bank manager. The two of them were hiding away in the
smoky corner of the pub, chatting and flirting. Norris found himself disgusted,
although he was surprised at his feelings. Why shouldn't Roma flirt with the
bank manager, whether he deserved her or not?
Norris sat down with the
Farmworthys and asked them how the bank modernisation was going.
"Fine," replied Daniel
Farmworthy, the village banker. "We've got the computers in at last. There was
so much stuff to put in; the young bank manager has had to go to Jill's almost
every day to pick up more packages. He seems happy with the way things are
running now, anyway. He's a nice chap, you know, very… urbane. Although, to be
honest, we haven't seen much of him. He only comes to work for a couple of
hours a day, and we made up the guest room for him specially, but he's only
used it three times since he's been here. I don't know where he's been
sleeping. Maybe he's been staying at the Portmans' in their B&B; they've
got a much nicer room, and they'd have more time to wait on him. They'll be
glad to be doing business again."
Norris felt uncomfortable.
He changed the subject and got more than a little drunk that night.
Norris opened the shop early
the following Monday. Again, Roma didn't show up. He sat on the sofa reading a
newspaper when an unexpected visitor showed up.
"Hello," said a tall,
smart-looking man from the doorway. Norris looked up at his piercing blue eyes,
framed by waxed black hair. It was the bank manager.
"Hi," replied Norris after
some hesitation. There was a momentary impasse.
"Is this Personal Touch?"
the bank manager asked.
Norris caught himself and
got up, welcoming the man and offering him a cup of tea.
"No, that's fine, I can't
stay long," said the bank manager, still in the doorway.
"OK. Was there anything I
could help you with?" asked Norris, trying to sound professional, his eyes
involuntarily scrutinizing the bank manager's lithe form as if they were
conducting a remote cavity search. "We haven't prepared a package for you, I'm
"I'm after condoms.
Strawberry flavoured if possible."
The bottom of Norris'
stomach fell out. His skin flushed, his diaphragm fluttered, his heart felt
like it was swelling to breaking point. Some words left his mouth without any
thought, for his thoughts were elsewhere. "We don't have any strawberry flavoured
condoms in stock, sir. We'll have to order them for you."
Norris watched the bank
manager say something and then leave. Terrible images flashed through Norris'
mind. Images of Roma, naked and vulnerable, being touched and used by this
insidious, egregious, alien man. Of Roma being sullied and spoiled. An anger
welled up inside him. Roma must not make the same mistakes as her sister.
Immediately he knew he was
overreacting. The bank manager was doing nothing wrong, and Roma was doing
nothing wrong. Roma's sister had gone off the rails, but Roma was wiser than
that. Roma knew what was best.
He spent the rest of the day
embroiled so deeply in thought that he acted like an automaton.
The bank manager returned
often to buy a small pack strawberry flavoured condoms. Sometimes once a week,
sometimes twice. Norris' anger was quickly replaced by feelings of loss and
resignation. But his disappointment stabbed cruelly whenever he overheard
someone say they were very happy for Roma, then whisper their secret suspicion
that Roma might be seeing the bank manager for the wrong reasons. Had she let
her overwhelming urge to break away from her parents and the village cloud her
vision, and convince her that a mere crush was love? Norris tried to deny it.
She was surely wiser than that.
Yet as the weeks went on,
and even Personal Touch became routine, it became clear that Roma was
determined to be in love with the diffident bank manager. Norris' feelings
became a weight in the back of his mind, throbbing less and less, but always
Eight weeks passed, and
there was only one week left before the bank manager was due to move on. The
modernisation had gone smoothly, so there was no reason for him
to extend his stay. Norris didn't seem to be able to accept that Roma would be
going with him, but he knew, deep down inside, that he was running out of time
to talk to her about it. So he arranged to meet her, alone, for a Sunday lunch
at the Bantling-in-Bourne.
For the first ten minutes
they spoke of nothing of substance. Then Norris, although it pained him to talk
about it, tried to steer the conversation towards the bank manager.
"Are you going with him?" he
"Yes! Oh yes. Isn't it
wonderful? I'm going to be free at last. Saved by my knight in shining armour!
"Roma," Norris interrupted,
"do you really love him?"
"Why, of –"
"Roma," Norris cut in again.
"Does he love you back? I'm not trying to split you up, or put doubt in your
mind; but isn't there already some doubt in there? Are you really, truly doing
this for all the right reasons?"
A flash of surprise, perhaps
with the slightest intimation of fright, passed over Roma's face. Her
expression turned serious. "Norris, don't be silly," she said, uncertainly.
"It just doesn't seem like
you," asserted Norris. "Letting yourself be pulled in like this. Two months ago
you didn't even know he existed, yet you were so ready to let him punch his way
into your life, and stay with you day and night, and take you over…"
"He hasn't taken me over. I
still have my own life, just as much as I did before. He hasn't even been
staying with me."
"But you've been having
sex!" Norris spluttered, his face reddening. Roma looked shocked. "Two months
ago you didn't even believe in sex before marriage!"
Roma's expression changed.
"So that's what this is all about. You can't let me make my own decisions. All
that talk, all those accusations, just to hold me back. You're even worse than
my parents. How did you know we were planning to get married, anyway?"
Norris dropped his fork.
Roma looked suddenly
worried. She nodded. She put her cutlery down and dabbed her mouth with a
napkin. "I think I should leave."
Norris couldn't think of
anything to say to stop her.
Norris was late opening the
shop the next day. He almost didn't bother at all. The popularity of the shop
itself seemed to be losing momentum, and Norris was feeling less motivated than
ever. He sat on the sofa despondently, staring into middle space, thinking in
circles for hours. There were only two customers that day.
At a quarter past two, Sally
Corminder burst into the shop, brimming with the latest gossip. Roma and the
bank manager were getting married on Saturday morning, and then he was whisking
her off for an exotic honeymoon weekend abroad. Norris nodded his head
intermittently to keep her happy, and nodded goodbye when she burst out of the
shop on her way to tell her joyous news to someone else.
Soon afterwards, Jill showed
up. Norris was surprised, as she hadn't visited the shop for a while. She also
looked slightly dejected, and Norris politely asked her if she was OK.
"I'll survive," she said,
looking at the floor.
"Did you hear the news about
Norris faltered. He felt
like he should check that she had understood. "Are you happy, about them
getting married I mean?"
Jill didn't say anything.
"Sit down," frowned Norris,
"let me get you a drink."
Jill didn't move, she opened
her mouth to say something, changed her mind several times, looked at the
floor, then said:
"I just wanted to get some
She looked embarrassed.
Norris instinctively tried to be tactful. "Funny you should ask; I happen to
have some in stock. The guy who usually buys them hasn't shown up. I'll just
get them for you."
Norris disappeared off to
the back room, and returned with a pack of strawberry flavoured condoms. "Will
these do? They're all I've got. Not much demand for condoms in this village."
Jill silently handed him
some money for them and left.
Norris found this exchange
very odd, and a niggling prickle at the back of his mind grew and fought
against his depressed, introspective thoughts. Something he couldn't quite put
his finger on.
The itch in his mind
remained for the rest of the week, as he waited for customers in Personal
Touch, as he visited the old widows to help look after them, as he cared for
his father. He didn't go to the Bantling-in-Bourne that Friday night; it was
the first time he'd missed a Friday night there for years.
He didn't sleep that night.
He counted down the hours in his head until it was time for Roma's wedding. And
still this itch, something drastically important, plagued him. But he couldn't
figure out what it was.
Soon after dawn, Norris got
up and prepared a hearty breakfast for his father. Mr. Hardy would need the
energy if he was going to leave the house to attend Roma's wedding.
Mr. Hardy was awake when
Norris entered his room.
"Breakfast time," Norris
"How are you?" asked Mr.
"I didn't sleep last night."
Mr. Hardy coughed painfully,
then paused to gather his composure. "Me neither," he admitted.
Norris watched his father
start to eat. "The wedding starts in an hour and a half," he said, looking
down, "so eat up quick".
"Oh, I'm not going."
Norris looked up at his
father again. "Why not?"
"I don't want to watch her
marry that scamp. From what I've heard, I wouldn't trust him as far as I could
throw him." Mr. Hardy stopped eating and looked meaningfully at his son. "She
deserves someone with more integrity."
"I know, dad," sighed
Norris, "I know."
"All the same, you've got to
move on, son. With no more Roma to keep you company, you're going to have to
look for love elsewhere."
Norris met his father's eyes
and felt full of love and respect for him.
"You must leave this place,
Norris." Mr. Hardy enunciated his words very deliberately. "I will not hold you
back any more."
Norris looked down again.
"I'll try, Dad. First I've got to say goodbye to Roma."
Mr. Hardy's body shuddered
as it was racked with coughs once more.
"Go and make your peace with
her, son," Mr. Hardy croaked. "Go and tell her everything one more time while
you still can."
Norris wanted to stay with
his father. He wanted to explain how many emotions he had gone through in the
last few weeks; he wanted to tell him that he loved Roma; he wanted to ask him
about the nagging doubt that was mysteriously itching the back of his mind. But
he felt he had to be strong. He had to face the wedding, and saying goodbye to
Weddings were very rare
occasions in Colling Brook, so they were always swamped with enthusiasm,
celebration and goodwill. The people of the village all turned up wearing
bright colours and bearing lavish presents and carefully prepared food, all
gossiping and laughing loudly.
A long row of tables had
been laid out on the street in front of the church, laden with a spectacular
array of snacks, appetisers, nibbles and refreshments, all meticulously wrapped
in plastic or stacked under the table, ready to be opened and consumed as soon
as the service was over. Confetti was already being thrown about with abandon
and the church bells were pealing as if they were striving to be felt as well
Norris kept his distance
from the crowd, trying not to get involved in any conversations. At one point
he overheard Mr. Lugano boasting about his daughter being a wholesome Christian
girl who held her faith close to her heart, and then he made a joke about her
marrying the bank manager just to get away from Mary Vickers. His listeners
laughed, but to Norris the comment had a threatening resonance. Could it be
that Roma was only marrying to get away from Colling Brook?
The mysterious itch at the
back of his mind flared up strongly as he entered the church. He looked around
the congregation. Almost everyone was there. Mrs. Lugano, the bank manager, the
Pigshearers and Farmworthys, Sally Corminder, Ben and Jenny Bathbridge, Jim and
Mark, the Portmans, parishioners, old farm hands and most of the old widows.
As Mary Vickers silenced the
crowd to announce the order of service, Norris noticed Jill enter the church
and sit at the back, out of the way. She seemed to be crying. The itch in
Norris' mind expanded. He slowly assimilated various pieces of the puzzle that
had been pricking at his mind. The melodic notes of the organ filled the room dramatically
as the bank manager got up and stood in front of the congregation, and Roma and
her father appeared and walked slowly up the aisle. Roma looked striking in her
simple white wedding dress.
"Dear friends," started Mary
Vickers when Roma and the bank manager were stood together on the pulpit. "We
have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining
together of this man and this woman in holy matrimony."
Norris' mind was racing. He
could tell that Roma was hanging on to every one of Mary Vickers' words. Norris
knew that her religion was so important to her, yet she had given herself away
to the bank manager so easily. Surely if she intended to marry him, she would
have waited until then to sleep with him? It seemed so out of character that
she hadn't. Norris thought Roma would never have slept with anyone outside of
marriage, let alone someone she'd only known for a few days.
"There are many elements
necessary in a good relationship, such as communication skills, mutual consideration,
and providing a space for each party to grow and fulfil him or herself. Love
alone will not sustain a marriage, but it must never be neglected. Love is
Maybe she hadn't yet slept
with him, Norris thought. After all, she'd said in the Bantling-in-Bourne last
Sunday that he hadn't even been staying with her. Where had he been staying for
the last two months, then? Not with Daniel Farmworthy, apparently. More
importantly, whom had he been using the condoms with?
"Sometimes the chemistry of
love works explosively, like dynamite; other times it works gradually, like
oxidation. It depends on the temperament of the individuals and the
circumstances of their romance. But it doesn't matter how or when it happens,
so long as that miraculous sensation, that authentic ardour, is really
Only one other person had so
far bought condoms from Personal Touch. Jill, the postwoman, last Monday. And
Norris had had some condoms in stock because the bank manager hadn't collected
them as usual. Norris remembered Daniel Farmworthy mentioning that the bank
manager had been visiting Jill almost every day. And Jill had even admitted to
Norris directly that she fancied the man. Of course! That's why Jill's so upset
today, thought Norris. Roma and the bank manager hadn't had sex before
Mary Vickers' voice drifted
back into Norris' consciousness. "If any of you can show just cause why they
may not lawfully be married, speak now, or forever hold your peace."
"No!" yelled Norris almost
instinctively. He stood up and spoke before he had a chance to think about it.
"He's been having an affair!"
The congregation fell
deathly silent, and all eyes turned to Norris. He hesitated, his face flushed,
then he sat down. The first sound was that of Jill leaving the church, sobbing
Norris looked up and his
eyes met with Roma's. For a moment Roma's expression betrayed no emotion at
all, then her chin puckered and she ran down the aisle and out of the church,
hiding her face.
The talking started. Everybody
was whispering to their neighbour and casting sly glances at Norris. Norris
looked up and saw Mary Vickers standing dumbstruck at the pulpit, then he
noticed that the bank manager was stomping angrily towards him.
Norris flinched, preparing
to shield his face if the bank manager intended to hit him. Instead the bank
manager leant over and said, quietly so only Norris could hear him, "I was
going to stop for Roma. I loved her. I would have treated her like a princess."
With that, the bank manager
turned and ran after Roma. Norris didn't know what to think. He hated the bank
manager more than ever, yet at the same time he wished that he had let the
marriage go ahead so it would all be over.
The congregation started
filing out of the church, curious to see what would happen to Roma, and eager
to gossip and find out if the bank manager really had been unfaithful. Everyone
shot disapproving glances towards Norris, who felt utterly mortified.
"You shouldn't have said
anything," said Jenny Bathbridge as she passed. "All Roma ever wanted was to
get away from here. She would've had a better life with him."
Jason Farmworthy was
especially venomous. "Why don't you make everyone's sexual habits public
knowledge you evil pervert? That's what your sleazy little sex shop's for,
isn't it? So you can intrude on everyone's most intimate secrets. I hope you
and your stupid money-making schemes all fail."
Mark looked livid as he
walked past Norris. He briefly stopped and put his face right up close to
Norris', threateningly. "I hope for
your sake it's true, that my Jill is having an affair with him. Because if you
made it up to get to Roma, I'll make your life a misery. I'll kill you."
That was the last straw.
Norris ran straight home. He
burst in and ran to his room, past his father who was sitting slumped on his
bed, obviously sleeping because he did not seem to notice Norris' noisy
entrance. Norris drew the curtains in his room, shut his door and sat on his
bed, not crying but feeling like he might.
He sat in bed the rest of
the day, curled up in the dark as if he was scared of attracting undue
attention. His mind felt heavy but vacant, as if all his thoughts had blown up
like a balloon, leaving a tense space, pushing against his skull.
By the time the sun was
setting, his thoughts slowly began to disassemble. He felt guilty. He felt like
he needed to go and apologise, as soon as possible; yet he didn't feel like
being seen by anyone.
He waited until it was quite
dark, but not too late, and slipped out of the house. He slinked through the
shadows around to the village hall. Roma and her parents lived on the first
floor. There were still lights on. Norris grabbed a handful of pebbles from the
roadside, interspersed with confetti, and started throwing them one by one at
Roma's bedroom window.
After a few throws, Norris
was ready to give up. He released a despondent sigh and turned away, just as
the front door of the village hall cracked quietly open. Norris whirled around
"Hi, Norris," said Mr. Lugano.
He stood in the doorway in a blue and white pinstripe dressing gown, holding a
candle against the night. He rubbed his eyes. "Come in."
Norris didn't think of being
sorry that he woke Mr. Lugano up, and followed him in and up the stairs to the
living room. They sat down on opposite sides of the table.
"You OK?" asked Mr. Lugano,
Norris was quiet for a
minute, looking at the table.
"I – I'm sorry. I'm so
"Don't be," said Mr. Lugano
in an avuncular tone. "He's gone, you know. I don't think we'll be seeing him
again," assured Mr. Lugano, in reference to the bank manager. He paused for a
moment. "It must be difficult for you. I can only thank you, myself."
Norris looked up, confused.
"Well, if he really was
having an affair then you've done Roma a great service by saving her from a lot
of hurt in the future. We all thank you for that. I'd hate my daughter to marry
into a relationship wracked by doubt." Mr. Lugano leant closer to Norris and
dropped his voice. "But above all I'd like to thank you, on a personal level,
for protecting her from what she thought she wanted. She wasn't ready to marry.
He wasn't the one. She must be more careful with her decisions than Michelle
Norris shuddered at the name
of Roma's sister. Then Mr. Lugano's expression suddenly changed. He sat bolt
"How long have you been
standing there?" he asked, his eyes focused some distance past Norris' head.
Norris looked over his
shoulder to see Roma standing in the corridor by the living room, shaking with
"You really don't think I
can make my own decisions, do you?" she growled in a trembling voice. "I've
just watched the man I love accused of infidelity, at our wedding, for
Christ's sake, and you don't care at all! You think that if you let me fall in
love I'll end up like Michelle!" Roma started crying. "Well I didn't run
away, and I'm not going to marry some wasted stoner who promises me the
world! I tried so hard to be everything you wanted and –"
Her voice broke up and she
ran back along the corridor. Mr. Lugano hurried after her. Norris looked down
at the table again, eavesdropping on their heated exchanges in the next room,
although he couldn't make out exactly what they were saying.
Five minutes later, Roma
stormed back through the living room in floods of tears, with a packed sports
bag over her shoulder. She ran downstairs with her father in hot pursuit,
trying in vain to reason with her.
Norris listened to the
arguing voices, and noticed through the window that some bedroom lights were
being turned on in the village as people were woken up by the angry words. A
car engine spluttered and failed. Mr. Lugano was shouting now, and Roma was
trying to yell over the top of him. The noise of the engine resumed, then died
Norris chose this moment to
slip downstairs and out of the house as invisibly as possible, scurrying back
to his own front door. The car engine started. He looked over his shoulder
briefly to watch Roma drive jerkily onto the road, with Mr. Lugano pleading at
her through the car window, then he went inside. He couldn't face his father
right now, so he ran straight into his room and locked the door. He looked out
through his bedroom window just in time to see Roma drive away.
The next morning, Norris
stayed in bed much later than he normally would. He wasn't eager to face the
outside world. Eventually, his sense of duty took hold and he sneaked to the
kitchen to make his father breakfast. While the sausages were cooking, he
formulated in his head what he would say to his father, and imagined what his
father would say back.
He need not have worried.
When Norris skulked into his father's room with the breakfast tray, he found
Fletcher Hardy sitting in a slouched position on the bed, stone dead.
It was clear to Norris, at
the funeral, that the village's attitude towards him since the thwarted wedding
had softened. They were eager to forgive him, but he still felt like he wanted
to talk to as few people as possible.
The ceremony was thoughtful
but brief. Afterwards Norris stood there, expressionless but cloudy-eyed, while
the village filed past him, each taking their turn to say, "I'm sorry, Norris,"
"I really am sorry." After the fourth or fifth, it started to lose meaning.
Soon the one or two
hangers-on got the message that he wanted to be alone, and left him. Norris
watched his father's grave, allowing himself to entertain thoughts of guilt,
anger and desolation for just a moment before reasserting his resolve. His
thoughts settled towards a mildly aching grievance, which he tried to focus and
transform into determination. He turned and marched away. He was going to find
He clambered into the old
jalopy Mr. Lugano had lent him. All his worldly possessions were packed into
the trunk. He started the car, allowed himself a parting glance at his father's
grave, which lingered for a moment more than he intended, then he set off for
It was a two-hour drive.
Norris had only been this far from Colling Brook two or three times in his
life, and they were too long ago to remember properly. Driving the car was very
different to driving a tractor, and he stalled and swerved several times before
he got the hang of it.
Roma and Norris had spent their childhood
as friends and confidantes, so he knew as much as she did about her sister,
Michelle. Michelle had run away to the city in a fit of teenage rebellion
nearly a decade ago, at the tender age of sixteen. Living in Colling Brook had
proved too claustrophobic for her. Of course, there was nowhere for her to run
to, and she had only taken enough money for a couple of nights at a youth
On the third day of her
absence, with less than £5 left in her purse, she called home in floods of
tears and apologies, and promised to return. That would have been the end of
it, but on her way back she was picked up by a man who took a liking to her. In
the space of an hour's drive, he persuaded her not to go back to her limited
life in the village, and promised to put her up and even loan her a small
allowance until she could fend for herself in the city.
She was captivated by this
romantic proposal of adventure and spontaneity; she was taken with the idea of
struggling and making it in the big city rather than going back to Colling
Brook and being able to predict the rest of her life. She was fleeced by his
He made good his promise,
and more so. He gave her a spare room in his city flat, although he never
seemed to be in himself so she had free reign of the place, and he gave her a
generous regular allowance. She spent her time flitting from one part-time
low-pay job to another, and soon became disillusioned and dissatisfied, but
felt she had to carry on to try and pay back her generous, charismatic and
They started having a
relationship in the second month, and he could no longer hide his dark secrets.
He got through a surprising amount of cocaine each day; it didn't take Michelle
long to work out that he was supporting his habit by being at the head of a
small prostitution racket.
By that time she was
pregnant, having never learned much about safe sex back in Colling Brook, and she
finally phoned home again for the first time in nearly three months. Mr. and
Mrs. Lugano had naturally been worried sick about her, and demanded to know
where she was and what she was doing. Understandably, Michelle didn't want to
divulge the situation she had got herself in, and instead she cried
inconsolably down the phone. Her parents were distraught, and insisted that she
tell them what had happened. She hung up.
The next time she called, a
few days later, Roma happened to answer. Roma didn't ask any questions, she
just listened to her sister cry for a long time. After that, Michelle called at
a certain time each day so that Roma knew it was her and she could talk with
her sister in secret.
And so Michelle pulled
through an incredibly difficult time thanks to her baby sister. The first and
only time Michelle's family saw her since she ran away was in hospital when she
gave birth to her daughter Lily. By that time, the child's father had been
arrested and was starting a long prison sentence, and Michelle seemed to be
making a life for herself independently.
Mr. and Mrs. Lugano finally
let go, and tried to put the matter behind them. They concentrated on lavishing
attention on Roma, terrified that she might feel unloved and run away as well.
Norris shuddered at the
recollection of Michelle's sad story. It reconfirmed in his mind that, as the
person who knew her best in all the world, Roma would surely have run to
After a lengthy search,
Norris pulled up across the road from the building that he felt sure housed
Michelle. Roma had told him Michelle's address once in the strictest
confidence; her parents must never know, she said. It was fairly late, nearly
eleven o'clock, too late to find accommodation for the night, so he decided to
try Michelle's door.
As he walked towards the
block of flats, he became very nervous. He hesitated for a few minutes outside
the door, waiting for the knot in his stomach to disperse. Thoughts of giving
up and leaving Roma to it flashed across his mind, but then he tightened his
resolve. Eventually, he swallowed at the lump in his throat, and pushed the
After a second the door
buzzed, making him jump slightly, and he pushed it open. He wandered in through
a dark corridor and around a corner. There was a lady sitting at a
receptionist's desk, filing her nails. A modest sign above the desk depicted a
silhouette of a woman lying underneath the word ‘Mermaids'.
"Can I help?" she said
coldly, not looking up. She inspected her nails. Norris' heart was beating
"I'm looking for Michelle
The receptionist looked up
suddenly, as if Norris had said a password, and smiled ambiguously. "I'm sorry,
sir, Miss Lugano is busy with another client at the moment. Would you like to
see someone else?"
Norris stumbled. Was this
Michelle's house? Was this where she worked? What was it? The receptionist
picked up on his bemusement, and half-smiled at him again. She pulled out a
little booklet with passport-style photos stuck in it.
"Paula's available," said
the receptionist, pointing at the booklet, "or Rene. She's a bit more…
adventurous if that's what you're into."
Norris was horrified. He
clawed for something to say, but his voice caught. He glanced helplessly at the
little booklet again. In the top left corner, the word ‘Michelle' had been
written in a neat, italic hand, and below it was a picture of a smiling
brunette. Norris hadn't seen her since she was sixteen, but it was
Norris left silently. The
receptionist raised her eyebrows and went back to filing her nails.
He started crying as soon as
he left the building. He climbed back into his car and sobbed himself to sleep.
He slept very badly, waking up at least every half an hour to see a man
surreptitiously going into Mermaids, although he was never sure if it was real
or a dream.
The next morning he got up
very early, feeling stiff, cramped and cold. He got out of the car and went for
a brisk walk to warm himself up and get some breakfast. He bought a newspaper
and some lemonade as well, anything to stall having to look for Roma again.
He called Mr. Lugano, and
lied, saying that he hadn't started searching for Michelle's flat yet, that
he'd stayed in a youth hostel last night.
The time seemed to be
passing so slowly. At first he thought he had better wait until at least half
past ten before going to see Michelle, but he soon got impatient and decided
that nine o'clock would be appropriate, then even that seemed too long a wait
and he started wandering back to Mermaids at eight twenty-five.
Having reached it, he
reluctantly rang the doorbell again. He really didn't want to believe that
Michelle worked in a brothel. That she was a prostitute. He knew such things
existed, but he hadn't ever wanted to be faced with them and have to accept the
fact. As if they didn't really exist as long as he never thought of them.
He rang the doorbell again,
and again. Eventually the letter slot in the door flicked open and an
irritated-looking woman peered through it.
"Whaddya want?" she drawled.
"I need to see Michelle
"We're closed," snapped the
lady, "she's asleep." The letter slot clicked closed.
Norris opened it from the
outside and called through it, "I'm a personal friend. I need to speak to her."
There were a few moments of
silence. The lady appeared through the letter slot again, looking tired. "How
am I meant to believe that?" she yawned.
"Her sister is visiting. Her
sister's name is Roma Lugano. Their parents live in Colling Brook. She has a
daughter, Lily. How would I know those things unless I knew her?"
The lady behind the door
sighed. "I'll get her for you." The letter slot shut.
Norris waited ten minutes.
The door cracked open, and Michelle Lugano poked her head through. She had
hardly changed, although her face was more sullen, and her eyes were greyer
than they had been.
"Norris Hardy…" she paused
contemplatively, then stiffened. "She doesn't want to see you."
"I've come to take her back
to Colling Brook."
"She doesn't want to go
back. She's happy here."
That made Norris angry. "How
can she be happy here, living among you and your… your –" He stopped and
flushed red. He gathered his thoughts. "Why don't you come with her instead of
living this life?"
"There's nothing wrong with
"You sell your body for
money. You have an eight-year-old daughter whose father has been in jail all
her life. You haven't seen your parents since she was born."
"Listen, my parents don't
want to see me, or the kid, or her dad. They don't want me to remind them that
they never gave me a chance in life. That they expected me to want to
become a parishioner in a town so small you can stand at the limits and spit
right over the top of it, just like my mother, and her mother, and hers. I had
bigger dreams. Any dreams would be bigger than that. And I did it. I made a
life for myself. Lily and me, we get on just fine."
Norris got on the defensive.
"Are you telling me it's fine to lock your eight-year-old child in the lounge
while you're selling sex from the bedroom?"
"You don't know anything
about my life!" Michelle yelled heatedly. "And look who's talking; you sell sex
yourself! You thought it would be funny to stir up Colling Brook by leeching
money off old folk by slick-talking them into buying dildos and pornography.
Now tell me the moral virtue in that, then you can slag off my life."
Norris recoiled. He felt
badly hurt by that remark, it was unfair, but he couldn't articulate why. His
mouth opened and closed like a goldfish for a moment, then he swallowed his
"I'm sorry," he started. He
took a deep breath. "You're right, I don't know anything about your life,
except that it must have been a difficult one. There are people out there who
want to help you; I mean, it's not too late to make friends with your parents
again. They miss you, Michelle, they only want to see you happy. However,
that's your choice. Right now I'm only asking that you don't hold Roma back
from them too. Please."
"I'm not holding her back.
Roma needs to make her own choices, away from Mum and Dad."
"I love her, Michelle. I
want to help her."
Michelle seemed taken aback
by this comment, then she seemed to soften slightly. She paused, watching
Norris' pleading eyes.
"What are you going to do?"
Norris looked down for a
moment. He didn't know. He didn't want to go back to Colling Brook either, but
he couldn't think of anywhere else to go. It wasn't right for Roma to stay here
with her sister; he knew that Roma wouldn't be happy here. Roma wasn't judgmental
of her sister, but she couldn't stay here while Michelle worked; it would
destroy her. How Michelle lived was Michelle's business, Roma always believed
that even if their parents didn't; that's why Michelle trusted and confided in
Roma so much. The last thing Roma would want is to intrude on Michelle's
"Are you and Lily truly
happy here?" asked Norris.
"Yes," answered Michelle.
"Roma isn't. I know her. She
won't be and she can't be."
Michelle sighed. She knew it
"Are you happy, Norris?" she
Norris hesitated. "I need to
Michelle nodded and pulled
open the door. She beckoned for him to follow her up the corridor.
They walked past the empty
reception desk and up two flights of stairs. Michelle stopped outside a door
with a little wooden woodpecker doorknocker and a Barbie sticker stuck to it.
She unlocked the door and Norris followed her in. Her flat was large and
homely; the lounge had a beanbag and several oversized cushions strewn around a
television, a bookcase stuffed with children's books and toys, and a yucca
growing in the corner. Norris was surprised. He had pictured Michelle's home to
be a cubicle with a tattered old bed in it and thin satin curtains to pull
across when a customer was in.
"Roma," called Michelle.
"Yeah?" yelled Roma from an
adjacent room. Norris' heart leapt.
Roma walked in, holding
Lily's hand. On seeing Norris, she let go and ran up to him. She hurled
half-hearted abuse at him, hitting him ineffectively on the chest, then hugged
him tightly and started crying.
"I missed you so much," she
whispered through her tears.
Norris started driving. He
took the route back towards Colling Brook; he didn't know where else to go.
Roma sat beside him, quiet and pensive. They didn't exchange a word for twenty
minutes, with only the rumble of the engine filling the silence.
Norris' mind was churning,
going over the events of the previous few days, and wondering what to do next.
He was so deep in thought he nearly ran a red light. The jerk from the sudden
braking brought him back to the present world for a moment, and he quickly felt
uncomfortable with the protracted silence. He filled it.
"My father died."
"I know," said Roma. "I
called my dad this morning while Michelle and Lily were asleep."
The silence fell again. Then
Roma spoke: "I'm sorry."
"I guess it was inevitable,
he was very ill."
"No, I mean I'm sorry for
what I did, Norris. I'm sorry I neglected our friendship while I was infatuated
with a guy I'd only just met. I'm sorry I was so angry with you after the
wedding; you were only the messenger, trying to protect me. I'm sorry I ran
away. I was angry with myself."
"You didn't do anything
"But I did. You saw it; you
tried to warn me. I knew you were right. I knew everyone in the village had
their doubts, and I ignored them. It seemed to make so much sense. He was so
perfect, and he offered me the world. But it didn't feel right. You saw that. I
just didn't want to accept that I was making a mistake; the momentum had built
up too much."
Roma's chin puckered, but
she held back her tears. "I hated the thought that I really had been prepared
to follow through with it, even when I knew deep down inside that there was
something wrong. I didn't want to have to admit it to anyone, that I wasn't in love
She stopped for a moment,
catching her voice and blinking to stop herself from crying. Her voice
steadied. "I'm so glad you came to rescue me, my knight in shining armour.
Thank you." She smiled emotionally through cloudy eyes.
"I saved some money from
Personal Touch," said Norris. "It's our money. Maybe we can use it to make a
start somewhere. Together." Norris stopped the car for a set of red lights. He
turned his head to Roma.
"I love you, Roma."
Roma couldn't hold back her
tears anymore. She cried freely, looking upset at first, then beaming widely
through her sobs. She leaned over and put her head in Norris' chest.
"I love you, Norris."
She kissed him on the cheek,
then wept happily on his shoulder. Norris found himself blinking back tears. He
didn't cry; it came out as a kind of stifled joyous laughter instead.
"I don't understand sex, you
know," he said as the lights turned green and he accelerated. "It seems so
complicated. Your bank manager treated it like a gift to be shared around; Mary
Vickers says it's a sacred and secret thing; your sister thinks as much of it
as she would of cutting someone's hair. Mark lets Jill stray, yet he's still so
protective of her. The Bathbridges just want children out of it. It's so
confusing and contradictory. How can sex be something so unifying and so
destructive at the same time? So loaded with joy and jealousy, comfort and
doubt, satisfaction and guilt, happiness and contempt? How can you ever
possibly have sex without risking so much of yourself?"
Norris drove in silence for
a few minutes. Roma cuddled her head against him and closed her eyes.
"Depends who you're risking
it for," she said quietly, with a mischievous smile, and she fell asleep on his
A few people looked through
their windows to see Norris and Roma drive into Colling Brook. People whispered
and pointed. Mr. Lugano smiled as the car approached the village hall, and he
prepared himself to go down and greet them, but they drove straight past.
He watched through the
window as Norris pulled up to the old school shed up the road that had once
housed Personal Touch. Norris got out of the car, disappeared into the
building, and emerged a few moments later with a plain brown package. The last
box. Roma's box. Norris hopped back into the car without looking up or waving,
started the car up again, and just kept on driving up the road, out of the
village, and over the horizon.
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