The park gates swung open in a flurry of rust flakes. Sarah wandered tiredly through them, oblivious to the sights, sounds and scents of a beautiful summer’s day. The sun was glazing the trees honey-gold, which in turn dappled the pavement with butterfly shadow. Families ambled contentedly in the ice-cream melting warmth and all around was the aroma of baked earth and new mown grass. It was an afternoon plucked from a Manet canvas and enlarged to fill the vision of all who were experiencing it.
“Hi, Sarah. How’s it going?”
“Oh! Hi Helen,” answered Sarah in a voice barely above a whisper. “Reasonably well, thanks. How are you?”
“Fine. Tell me, is that husband of yours behaving himself?”
“Stephen? He doesn’t get any better, I’m afraid.” Sarah shrugged. “He took Rebecca out again last week.”
Helen blinked disbelievingly. “Never! What did you do about it?”
Sarah shrugged once more. “Nothing much I could do. I didn’t know he’d done it until afterwards.” She narrowed her eyes. “He won’t be doing it again for a while, though. I’ve seen to that!”
“I should think so, too. Mind, I don’t know how you can stand it, day in, day out, like this. You need a break.”
Sarah nodded in agreement. “I must admit this constant rowing is taking its toll. We don’t talk, we don’t even argue. We just row. Virtually every day, too. Just yesterday, Stephen was going out with his best friend, Craig, and asked if I wanted to come along. I said I didn’t mind as it would make a change, but I ended up shouting myself hoarse at both of them!”
Helen looked more closely at her friend. The tiredness had darkened her eyes and the pain had lined her brow and though only thirty-six, she looked at least five years older. “Come with me this afternoon. We’ll hit the shops,” urged Helen. “That’ll make you feel better.”
“I can’t, Helen, I’m sorry. I’m here to meet Stephen. We’re going to spend a couple of hours on the river, see if we can work out what’s going wrong.”
Helen sighed. “Well, good luck. You’ll need it!”
“Thanks Helen,” said Sarah with an air of resignation. “I really hope we can sort out the problem soon. If we don’t, I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to call it a day.”
Helen looked shocked. “It would be a shame to finish it now after all the time and effort you’ve both put into making it work.”
“True,” Sarah agreed, “but the time has come to face facts. I’m sure Stephen believes our partnership is just not working. That’s why he’s spending more and more time with Craig instead.”
“How about you?” Helen asked warily. “Do you think it’s time for a change?”
“If today’s no better, then… perhaps.” Sarah turned her head slightly and was now looking past Helen at a figure some fifty metres distant. “Here comes Stephen now,” she whispered nervously.
A stirring wind arose, cooling the brow of this August day. Stephen walked slowly and easily in the mild afternoon. His blond, sun-bleached hair contrasting starkly with his bronzed face, hands and forearms that glistened shamelessly in the bright sunlight. He greeted the two women with a relaxed smile, then fixed his ice-blue eyes onto his wife.
“Craig will be along later. I hope you don’t mind,” he announced. “I’ve brought this for you, it might make things easier.” Stephen handed his wife a loud hailer.
“Well, thanks very much.” The words arrowed out of Sarah’s mouth. Stephen took a step back, but could not evade them. “I thought we were spending the afternoon together,” Sarah continued. “We were supposed to be ironing out our problems.”
Stephen dropped his gaze and eyed his feet sheepishly. “I thought you’d be pleased. I know how tired you’ve been after the rowing we’ve done recently. This way you can take it easy, and with that,” he pointed to the loud hailer, “you might just save your voice.”
Sarah’s eyes flashed fiercely. “Are you trying to be funny?” she croaked. Again Stephen stepped to one side, but again Sarah’s words speared into him. “The Regatta’s next week. How on Earth are we going to be ready if we don’t pract… Oh! I get it!” Sarah reeled momentarily with the realisation. “You’ve got it all planned, haven’t you? You and that usurper, Craig, were going to enter and leave me standing on the riverbank looking like a fig! How could you do that, after all the hard work I’ve put in? Out on that river, rowing my heart out. I’ve got hands like a navvy and I’ve broken two nails, all for nothing.”
Stephen hesitated, not knowing if he should venture some sort of explanation.
“Not denying it, I notice,” prompted Sarah.
“Well, we -”
“Don’t even think about trying to worm your way out of this one.” Sarah’s final thrust finished off her husband. “I’ve had enough. Here, you can have this back for a start.” She jammed the loud hailer into Stephen’s hand. It hung limply at his side. “I hope you and Craig are pleased with yourselves. Oh, and if you think you’re taking Rebecca out again, forget it. I’ve padlocked her onto the trailer and locked her in the garage, so think again.”
Stephen’s lifeless eyes stared blankly after his wife as she looked to her best friend. “Right then, Helen. I believe you, my joint account cheque book and I have an appointment in town. Shall we go.”
Smartly they turned to face the groaning park gates and, without looking back, strode briskly away. It was a perfect summer’s afternoon. The beaming cadmium yellow sun shimmered in the cobalt blue sky highlighting the laughing, tag-playing children and picnicking couples. The air was rich with the scent of lilac and wallflower, tulips and pansies and stippled olive green leaves trembled on the branches of gently swaying trees. While floating on the lazy, languid breeze and sounding very far off could be heard the faint rasping, metallic voice of an abandoned loud hailer seeming to sigh with every breath of wind, “in, out, in, out…”