Hot under the collar

Like a cheese souffle taken too early from the oven, Florence sank deep into an armchair next to her mother.

They were in the library, a room always kept to a pitch of subtropical temperatures by her father’s Sisyphean commitment to ‘a properly roaring hearth’. Yet even so Florence shivered. Curling herself around an embroidered cushion, she tried to ignore the chills running through her knees and elbows by looked around at the familiar scene, unchanged since her childhood.

The hothouse that was the library of Mr and Mrs Bleuthe’s late Georgian manor contained quite a collection of bibliographic fauna and flora. It spoke of years of university education and airport panic-buys — she saw The Riverside Chaucer nestled up to assorted editions of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles — of art exhibitions and National Geographic subscriptions.

A proud stretch of well-thumbed Penguin paperbacks stood darkly below a collection of obscure modernist novellas in brown paper dust jackets. Bookmarks dipped in and out of view on the shelves, like so many hummingbirds moving from one flower to the next.

In the depths of the shadows cast by the fire crouched tightly bound volumes of Arnold and Blake, daring to be pulled from the darkness. Others, mostly histories of Titian or Raphael, spread their glossy covers like fronds over the sleek walnut coffee tables arranged about the room.

A profusion of lamps, like sun-struck gardeners, cast lazy beams over the thick and gloomy carpet and silver candlesticks shimmered hazily on the marble mantelpiece above the fire. It being past five in late November, the shutters were closed, adding to the stifling atmosphere.

Everything about it was compendious, sedate, and, Florence thought, depressingly middle-aged.

It just sits there, like a group of fat men in a sauna, Florence thought, not a little petulantly, for she had been taught by extensive exposure to Noughties rom-coms that you could not have young love without sunshine, sadness without rain, or confusion without fog, and so naturally rankled that the room was so totally out of tune with her own feelings. As it was, the library’s coal-fuelled oppressiveness suggested perhaps an fist fight on a factory floor, or at best a lusty bedroom scene. Needless to say, both these were a long way off the blasted moorland Florence felt was her current emotional landscape.

It’s just not fair, she thought, picking at a stray thread on the cushion, to think I could right now be in his arms, and he in mine. It’s too awful.

Continuing in this rather sulky and melodramatic vein, Florence mulled over the last couple of weeks.

Two weeks ago last Monday (could it be so recent?) she and ‘Gorgeous George’ had called it off. They’d met in the queue at a farmer’s market in August and shared the stall’s last almond croissant. What a summer fling it had been! Champagne and strawberries under the dappled canopy of a wise old Cotswolds oak tree. A weekend trip to the Lyme Regis bay, where he had painted a miniature of her in watercolours. Three months later though, after the morning haze of eau de Sauvage and scribbled notes on the kitchen table had dimmed a little, it had become increasingly clear that she was more excited at the prospect of a relationship than he was.

Barely two days after that difficult conversation, Kate, the friend whose flat she rented a room of, had announced that her boyfriend was moving in, and thus that she, Florence, should start looking for alternative accommodation. Having had about enough of this romance lark, and being almost 4 months in arrears, Florence had nobly covenanted to ‘leave the lovebirds to it’ and left immediately.

Now she was at home with her parents, sleeping in her childhood bedroom, enduring long commutes, wet weekend walks and well-meant but agonising questioning about ‘her plans’.

Earnest newspaper agony aunts often advise, in times of strife, that ‘diamonds are made under pressure’. What they tend to miss out are the volcanic eruptions often attendant on the fiery creation of said girl’s best friends. Florence, too afraid of her parents’ judgement ever to explain to them about George, had been bottling her feelings up for weeks and was at the stage where almost anything might trigger an explosion.

It wasn’t, she reflected for the hundredth time, staring wistfully into the fire, so much what they’d said to each other. He’d remained wonderfully charming and honest even to the end; she could have no complaints.

Why then, she thought, glancing across at her mother who was flicking through a glossy society magazine as she tried to pull herself together, was she still wrestling with this insufferable feeling, this cold emptiness, returning again to worship at the sad little altar of disappointment?

Was it that she had hoped?

Maybe just a little. Even to herself she couldn’t deny it. He had been so kind, and handsome, and such fun. What, she’d thought to herself, was the harm in letting her mind run a bit free with the future?

She must stop. She couldn’t go on forever. She must control her feelings and put this behind her. George couldn’t have been right for her, lovely as he was — and he was lovely, wasn’t he? she sighed, before she could stop herself — or they’d still be together.

Somehow this wasn’t a particularly consoling thought, and she decided instead to list all the reasons George would never do for her. Finding the list didn’t stretch much beyond ‘prefers creme brulee to creme caramel’, she told herself she was being petty and contented herself with fondling the ears of her senile chocolate labrador, Bodhi. They’d been for a little toddle around the village earlier in the day, a little toddle being all that Bodhi, named after a sacred Buddhist tree and nearing ever closer to actual Enlightenment, was capable of these days. He smiled pacifically up at her, as if to say “Don’t fret my dear girl. No one else can make you happy or unhappy, so just keep stroking me and everything will be alright.”

A gentle warmth tingled down Florence’s fingers. She smiled and, putting George to one side, sat there almost happily, her faithful friend at her feet.

They sat there quietly for some minutes, listening to the crackle and pop of the fire and the rustle of her mother’s magazine. Her father come in with a fresh basket of logs for the fire and, drawing a pair of brass bellows from behind the coal scuttle, set to work building a truly formidable conflagration.

“Darling,” spoke her mother, breaking the silence, “have you ever met George Ponsonby?”

You would have been forgiving for thinking Florence’s father had been working his bellows on his own daughter, so quickly and absolutely red did her cheeks go.

“You see” she continued, totally oblivious to her daughter’s distress, “I’m reading this article here on this year’s Top 100 Most Eligible Bachelors, and I think he looks rather good for you.”

All at once the air seemed to press too hot on Florence. Her mother never took any interest in her love life. Hot thoughts flooded through her mind. What on earth was going on? Why was he in there? How had her mother known? This was too much.

Her mother read out that George, distant descendant of Sir Walter Raleigh, liked baking, painting and rugby sevens. Florence’s chest rose and fell more and more rapidly.

“Darling I really think you should get out more,” her mother concluded, “men like George don’t hang around forever.”

With a little scream, Florence leapt from her armchair and fled from the room.

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