BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE
“Yes yes yes!” Sheila punched the air, then kissed the letter repeatedly. Unable to keep the good news to herself a second longer, she snatched up the phone and rang Graham.
“Sorry,” said his secretary, “your husband’s in an all day meeting. I’ve got instructions not to disturb him unless it’s an emergency.”
Damn! thought Sheila. She tried her sister’s number, but there was no reply.
“Blast!” Sheila put down the phone. Who else could she try? Not her daughter – she was sunning herself in Spain. And her friends were in jobs where private calls were frowned on. But she had to tell someone before she exploded. There was always her aunt, but…
What the heck, Sheila decided. Aunt Hester would be proud of her. And the chances of her ever reading it were zero. She picked up the phone again.
“Hi Hester, it’s Sheila. How are you?”
There was a gasp, a brief pause, then a whisper in her ear. “Shirley? Is that really you? What’s it like there, dear? Is it really like the vicar says?”
Sheila was speechless for a second. Hester, hard of hearing, normally shouted down the phone. And who on earth was Shirley? Then she remembered. Shirley had lived in the sheltered flat next to Hester’s, until she’d passed away last month at the ripe old age of a hundred and two.
“It’s Sheila, your niece!” she yelled.
“Sheila!” Hester’s voice flooded with relief. “Why didn’t you say so?” she shouted. “You frightened me half to death.”
“Turn up your hearing-aid, Hester. I’ve brilliant news – I’m almost a published writer.”
“Hold on a minute, Sheila – hearing-aid’s playing up again. For a minute there I thought you said you were a published writer, hahaha!”
Sheila ignored Hester’s guffaws. “A women’s magazine’s publishing one of my stories next month.”
“Oh…! Oh, how lovely. Which one? Your Woman? Woman’s Monthly?”
“Er, not exactly... It’s Women’s Whims.”
“Women’s what…? Hold on, I’ll fetch my pencil.”
“No, no, don’t worry, it’s not your kind of thing.”
But Hester had gone. Sheila chewed her nails while she waited, beginning to wish she’d curbed her excitement. This wasn’t turning out to be such a good idea.
The handset clattered at the other end and Hester was back. “Tell me again, Sheila. Women’s what?”
“Um, it’s really not your cup of tea. I just wanted to share the news with you.”
“Don’t be silly. You know I read anything.”
“Yes, but... it’s a little bit... naughty.”
Hester roared with laughter. “Sheila, I’m a spinster, not a nun!”
“Sheila, I’m proud of you and I want to read it. Now stop stalling, and give me that name again.”
Sheila gave up. It didn’t matter anyway. Her aunt’s memory was almost as bad as her hearing. She’d have forgotten all about it in a day or two. “Women’s Whims,” she said resignedly. “W-H-I-M-S.”
A complimentary copy of the magazine arrived a month later. Sheila tore off the wrapping and flicked through it in a frenzy of excitement. There it was, on pages nineteen and twenty, complete with photos. Before she could begin to read, the phone rang.
“I’m at the hospital,” said a familiar voice. “I want you here right now.”
“Hester? Are you all right?”
“Now, Sheila!” Her aunt slammed down the phone.
Panic-stricken, Sheila grabbed her jacket and purse, and dashed down to the bus-stop, praying it was nothing serious. Hester had never been in hospital. What if it was life-threatening…? Since Sheila’s parents had passed away, Hester had been like a mother to her.
The bus arrived belching diesel fumes. Sheila paid the driver and, once in her seat, took a few deep breaths and began to calm down. Hester had sounded as loud and as well as ever on the phone. If she was seriously ill the warden in her sheltered housing complex would have called, surely.
The bus dropped her outside the hospital and she hurried inside. There was a shop selling cards, flowers and gifts just off reception. The flowers looked as if they’d been caught in last night’s frost, so she picked up a box of chocolates instead. Dark chocolates with soft centres, Hester’s favourites.
She gave the receptionist her aunt’s name. The woman ran a finger down her computer screen and shook her head. “No-one here with that name, I’m afraid. I’ll just scroll down again to make sure.”
From the corner of her eye, Sheila saw a white-haired figure plodding through a set of double doors. “Hester!” She rushed towards her and threw her arms around her, almost dropping the chocolates. But she might as well have hugged a block of wood. A shiver ran through her. She stepped back quickly and looked into her aunt’s watery eyes. “What’s wrong? Are they keeping you in?”
Hester pushed her aside and turned up her hearing-aid. Her face creased in grief. “Mabel’s dead! And it’s all your fault!”
“Mabel? Who on earth’s Mabel? I don’t know any Mabel.” Bewilderment always made Sheila gabble.
Hester was crying now. “You’ve killed her, Sheila!”
The double doors swung open again, and a young nurse hurried towards them. “There you are, Miss Gillgrass.” She smiled at Hester and took her hand. “We wondered where you’d gone in such a hurry. Don’t you want to see your friend?”
“No.” Hester wiped her eyes with a crumpled tissue. “I just want to go home and remember her as she was.”
The nurse looked at Sheila with questioning eyes, then, seeing she’d find no answer there, turned back to Hester. “But she wants to see you. We’ve arranged an ambulance to take you both home, once Mabel’s feeling up to it.”
Hester stared. “You mean... she’s not dead?”
The nurse laughed and patted her hand. “Of course not, silly. She passed out, that’s all. She has a pacemaker so the paramedics were right to bring her in. But we’ve checked her heart and it’s fine.”
“But the doctor said... he said he couldn’t save her...”
“I think you must have misheard. He said he’d given Mabel an injection to stabilise her.”
Sheila sighed with relief. “Come on, Hester. Let’s have a cup of tea. We’ve both had a shock.”
They sat down in the hospital’s cafeteria and sipped sweet tea in silence for several minutes. The colour slowly returned to Hester’s cheeks, and Sheila reached for her hand.
“What did you mean about me killing Mabel? I don’t understand.”
Hester smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry, Sheila. It was as much my fault as yours.”
She nibbled her chocolate biscuit, and Sheila waited, trying to hide her impatience.
“I’d forgotten all about it, you see.”
“Forgotten what, Aunt?”
“Our newsagent said he’d never heard of it but he’d try to get it for me. I forgot all about it.”
Light began to dawn in Sheila’s confused brain. “Are you… are you talking about Women’s Whims, by any chance?”
“Of course I am! I was proud of you. But it went straight to our dayroom, along with the daily papers. I’m possibly the only one who hasn’t read it.”
Sheila’s breath whooshed from her lungs and she grabbed the table for support, afraid she might faint. She visualised the story pages and the photo on the front cover – the one of the hunk wearing nothing but transparent boxers. And she visualised a room full of elderly ladies with weak hearts. Somehow she managed to string together a coherent sentence. “But I thought your own papers were delivered direct to the flat," she squeaked.
“They are, but I must have forgotten to give my name and flat number when I ordered the magazine.”
Dear God! thought Sheila, dragging a hand through her hair. Was the newsagent out of his mind? Still, at least it meant her aunt hadn’t read the story; Sheila knew she'd have heard about it by now if she had.
Hester took another sip from her tea-cup. “I saw the ambulance pull up by the dayroom from my kitchen window and went to see what the commotion was. It was coffee morning so the dayroom was packed. I couldn’t see a thing. Then they brought in a stretcher, forcing everyone aside, and there was Mabel, lying on the carpet.”
Sheila closed her eyes. Visions of a frail old woman, unconscious on the floor, Women’s Whims open in her limp hand at page nineteen, hurtled into her mind in glorious technicolour. Her dream of being published had been realised, but it was fast becoming a nightmare.
Hester’s cup chinked against her saucer and Sheila reopened her eyes. Hester answered her burning question before she could articulate it.
“It was lying underneath her. I saw what it was as soon as they moved her, and stuffed it in my bag.”
Sheila’s heart plummeted as Hester patted the handbag on the seat beside her.
“In all the excitement,” continued her aunt, “I don’t think anyone noticed.”
Sheila decided there was nothing she could do but grin and bear it. “I should have been honest with you from the start, Aunt. I should have told you what sort of magazine it was.”
But she couldn’t quite pluck up the courage to tell her the rest. Not yet.
Hester struggled to her feet. “It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But never mind. Let’s go and see Mabel.”
Sheila would have preferred not to, but Hester was already dragging her along the corridor towards Casualty.
They found Mabel sitting on a trolley in a curtained cubicle. Her pale face lit up. “Hester! They told me you were here.” She examined Sheila with interest. “Who’s this?”
Sheila smiled back weakly. “I’m Sheila Platt, Hester’s niece.” She remembered she was still clutching the chocolates she’d bought for Hester. After a brief hesitation she handed them to Mabel. Hester nodded approvingly.
Mabel looked pleased but confused. “Thank you, Sheila, but it wasn’t necessary.”
A blush rushed up Sheila’s neck and into her cheeks like a tidal wave.“It’s the least I can do. Hester tells me it’s my fault you’re here.”
Mabel frowned. “Your fault…?”
Hester smiled an apology. “I’m sorry, dear. It’s my fault too – I forgot to give the newsagent my name when I ordered that magazine. Or my flat number. I’m getting more and more forgetful these days.”
Mabel giggled through her fingers. “Hester Gillgrass,” she whispered, “I’m so glad you did. It’s the most excitement I’ve had in years. I’ll order it myself from now on!”
Sheila couldn’t stand it any longer. She had to know. “Mabel, did you read the story?”
“Of course! That’s why I fainted. It’s the most stimulating thing I’ve ever read.”
Sheila groaned inwardly. She had to get out of there.
Mabel selected a chocolate, savoured it for a few seconds then swallowed. “Some daft woman on the telly said eating chocolate is the same as having sex – something to do with it triggering the same brain chemicals. What a load of hooey. She should take a look at Women’s Whims!”
Beads of sweat had formed on Sheila’s forehead. Her heart thudded like a jackhammer and it was getting hard to breathe. She checked her watch. “I ought to go. Graham will be home soon and wonder where I am.”
Mabel beamed at her. “You get along, dear. We’ll be fine. While we’re waiting for the ambulance, I’ll get Hester to reveal a few trade secrets.” She winked conspiratorially. “A dark horse, your aunt!”
Hester’s benign expression changed to one of deep suspicion. “What’s going on here...?”
Sheila hastily kissed her cheek. “I’ll ring you later. Must dash.”
As she hurried from the cubicle, she caught a glimpse of Hester reaching for her handbag. If I’m very quick, she thought, I’ll be out of here before she finds my story…
No such luck. As Sheila dashed through the double doors into reception, Hester’s voice boomed down the corridor behind her. “Sheila! Get back here, my girl! Right now!"
Sheila told herself she really had been incredibly stupid to use that pseudonym. But how was she to know that a friend of the real Hester Gillgrass would read Women’s Whims…?
© Rosie Rose 2012