“Christina, will you do me a favour?”
“Yes, of course, Ellie. Anything you like. Anything at all!”
“I want you to lie to my husband.” It’s hard to hear my voice saying this. I’ve always thought of myself as a straightforward, open sort of person. Now it seems I’m not only capable of deception, I’m totally immersed in it. Dragging my friend into the sticky mire too. Honourable. Admirable. Nice one, Ellie.
“Sorry, the line’s bad. Did you say you want me to lie with your husband?”
This is deliberate but I’m not in the mood for her messing around. “No, Christina! Lie to my husband. Lie to Clive.”
“Lie to Clive? Certainly. It’ll be my pleasure. What about?”
“It’s to do with the harp-playing. I’m afraid I was put in a bit of a spot yesterday.”
I outline Dan’s mad heroics for the sake of a pheasant. I describe my trip to the hospital and the flustered excuses thrown at Clive.
“Wonderful!” she cries. Christina is a vegan and animal rights campaigner. Her idea of heaven would be to live in Donkey Sanctuary or Lost Panda’s Home or suchlike. In the past she’s owned rabbits, chickens and a colony of guinea-pigs (all classed as dearly beloved family members), but now there’s just her and Miaow. “I like this Dan guy more and more!” she declares. “He risks his life to save a pheasant, he’s creative and he’s good-looking. You’ll really have to introduce me to him. Unmarried you say?”
“Yes, but with a girlfriend. My harp teacher, remember?”
“Oh yes. And you say she’s a sex-bomb?”
“Shame. Oh well. If he shows any signs of getting tired of her, just send him along to me, will you? Or have you still got designs on him yourself?”
“Christina, I’m a respectable married woman!”
“Sorry, the line’s buzzing again. What was that about being a repressed married woman?”
I snort. “Trouble-maker!”
She cackles at me. At least one of us is having fun.
“Have your birch trees grown yet?” she asks.
“No, of course not! They take time to germinate. But Dan and I do go and look at them most days just in case. That is, we go and look at the seed trays and the compost and we hope that the seeds are OK. And we keep them well watered.”
“We, we, we!” she chants. “Dan and I this, Dan and I that!”
“Christina, stop it!”
“OK, OK! Untwist your knickers! I’ve stopped. So you want me to lie to Clive. So I’ve cut my hand on a tin-opener, have I?”
“Yes, you slashed it really badly. Just in case he ever answers the phone and asks how you are.”
“Can I elaborate? Say I got gangrene and nearly went for amputation - ”
“This is serious. I’m relying on you,” I tell her.
“Calm down, Ellie! Clive won’t suspect anything. What sort of tin was it?”
“I don’t know. Baked beans?”
“No, let’s go for chickpeas. More realistic.”
“Chickpeas it is, then! And Christina, something else. You find it really difficult to manage shopping bags and stuff like that. So I have to come and visit you and help out with things every day, OK? Saturdays and Sundays included.”
“Right you are. It’ll be nice to see you.”
“But actually I’ll be at the Harp Barn, helping Dan.”
“Message received and understood. It would be nice to really see you sometime though.”
Christina can put on a good act but I sense a bout of depression looming. I gather Alex has stopped coming home every weekend and when he does his treasured visits are mostly used up in phone-calls to his new girlfriend rather than quality time with his mother.
“We’ll get together soon, I promise. So sorry to put you in this position. Sorry about everything. And Christina - thanks for being such a star.”
When I replace the receiver I feel urgently in need of fresh air. I scramble into my jacket and pound along the road. At the far end I veer off onto one of the footpaths that leads steeply up the fields alongside the wood. A strong wind is buffeting the trees and scooping leaves up from the ground. I can’t take my eyes off those frantic leaves. They’re scurrying like gnats, spinning wild patterns with every gust.
Oh what a tangled web we weave
When we first practise to deceive.
I just can’t shake those lines out of my head.
I’m kicking myself. Why didn’t I just tell Clive how much I wanted the harp in the first place?