The next day Mary and Ralph slept in late, well past breakfast. Neither of them minded although it did strike them as funny that here they were on the second day of the all inclusive break and they had yet to find out where the hotel dining room was. The night before they had picked up some odds and ends from a small supermarket that they passed when walking back to the hotel. Since it was way past breakfast time, they made love again, enjoying each other as if for the first time until at last Ralph volunteered to go out on search of a pot of tea, or some coffee, allowing Mary to use the bathroom while he was gone.
Ralph, good old dependable Ralph, came up trumps. He returned thirty minutes later with a tray he had persuaded the kitchen to prepare for him. There was a pot of tea, some fresh orange juice and milk in a small jug, some rounds of toast with tin foil wrapped oblongs of butter, a few small jars of preserves and two individual packets of Corn Flakes. He unlocked the door and backed in, careful not to spill anything. Mary was still in the bathroom. It had been a long time for Ralph since he experienced a lady's time scale when using a bathroom, but not so long as to make him forget. She emerged fully dressed as he finished setting out the tray on the table that stood on the balcony.
"Oh Ralph! That's perfect!", she explained, leaning forward to kiss him, not a quick peck on the cheek but a full on meeting of their lips.
"You look perfect", he replied, "if you want to start I must go and have a quick shower too".
He rejoined her ten minutes later having shaved (wet with a razor and soap), showered, and changed into some fresh clothes. When he first got up he had just pulled on the clothes that were laying on the floor. This time he picked up each soiled item, folded it, and placed it in a large plastic bag, ready for the return journey. It was a minor detail but one not missed by Mary who hoped that he was just tidy by nature and not obsessive about it. Not for the first time she found herself wondering what his house was like. ‘It was strange' she thought, ‘they were lovers now and at this moment in time were both in love, of that she was very sure, but it was only now that she would begin to learn about the real Ralph'. She already had one very pleasant surprise and that was that Ralph was a good and considerate lover, very good. She warmed a little inside at the thought of their recent lovemaking, the musky smell of sex was still in the air. She noticed how closely shaved he was, something she liked, and realised that she had not heard an electric razor, nor had she noticed one in the bathroom so he probably used a good old wet razor - they always cut the closest, she thought.
"I was just noticing how tidy you are", she said to him as he towelled his hair dry.
"Just a habit. We don't have a lot of room in here".
"But you don't go running around your place making sure everything is in the right place then ?", she said with half a laugh, and half a serious question.
"I need to talk to you about that", he replied with no laughter at all on his face, his expression suddenly very serious.
‘Oh God!', she thought, ‘what have I said ? What have I done?'. "Talk about what Ralph?"
"My...err...home, as it were."
"There is no need to look so serious about it. I like a tidy man and I was only joking."
"There is something I haven't told you, and I am very sorry I didn't. Now, I think I must."
Mary felt a tingle of fear, of disappointment. What on earth could it be ? What could Ralph be hiding from her that was so serious, and why, why now ? "You had better tell me then".
"I don't actually have a house you see. My first wife cleaned me right out, took the lot and the house we were buying, I thought, together. She left me homeless."
"Well why are you so bothered ? So what, do you live in a flat or what? Why should it mater to you where you live ?"
"I live in an old caravan in a field that belongs to a mate of mine. Its all I can manage. That's why I never asked you round you see, I was ashamed. I thought that if you knew you might think that I was just trying to get my feet under your table."
Mary smiled again, a warm loving smile and put her arms around him, "Ralph Jennings, sometimes you are a very silly man, but most of the time you are a very lovely man. I don't care if you live in a tent."
"I did for a while until the caravan came up. Luckily it was summer."
"Maybe you won't need to live in your old caravan too much longer then. Now, have some breakfast.
Was she rushing into things ? She did not want to rush him in any way, or herself for that matter. She had known him over a year - now there was a first; going out with a man for a year who had not so much brushed her breast by accident and whose kisses never went further than the very occasional touch of his tongue. When that happened the first time he had even drawn back from her to apologise which had broken the moment that she would have welcomed much more - still, it had been worth the wait in the end. They finished breakfast and the sombre mood that Ralph had fallen briefly into was gone, forgotten. He was doubly relieved, first because he had been hiding something from her, and second because it never was a problem. ‘No secrets' they had agreed over the last tea in the pot, and from then on, nor would there be.
They still had five full days of their holiday to go and so they spent the first day at the side the Hotel's swimming pool. When they first arrived at the pool they saw that every sun bed was taken, and all the best places too, but that was no problem. Ralph disappeared for no more than five minutes and two waiters set up a table with parasol, and two chairs. There were a few look from the occupiers of the sun beds who thought it rather irregular, but Ralph and Mary were unconcerned. It did not take her long to realise that Ralph had another talent that he never wore on his sleeve - he was good at getting things done. No breakfast, Ralph could fix that, no sun bed, leave it with Ralph - it seemed that whatever the problem, somehow he could sort things out, which Mary found rather reassuring, if not sweet. By the end of the day during which they spent most of the time reading a book each, just happy to be with each other, the hot sun had penetrated the sun-block they had so carefully applied and they were both a little bit red. That evening they ate in the hotel dining room for the first time and were pleasantly surprised that it was an enjoyable meal. They went from the dining room to one of the hotel bars, intending to take a quiet drink together. Unfortunately a group of young lads aged about eighteen or twenty were engaged in a serious drinking competition, egged on by a handful of girlfriends who seemed to be working their way through each of the boys. It was all a bit too noisy and rowdy for Ralph and Mary so they finished their drink and returned to their room.
"I'm glad you get on so well with Daniel", said Mary over breakfast the next day. They had made a point of getting up in time to enjoy the breakfast they had paid for and were pleased to find that it was every bit as good as the evening meal, "I was wondering how you found the other kids at the school ?"
"In some ways it can seem a bit spooky", replied Ralph as he took the top off a boiled egg.
"Spooky ? How do you mean?"
"Well you can talk to a kid there that is say eleven or twelve years old, but it seems as if he his say twenty years old. They are so intelligent, after all that's why they are there, but sometimes you just want them to be kids."
"Hmm, yes, that's what I was wondering about. At least Daniel has found himself a friend."
"Daniel and Jonathon you mean ? Some days its a delight to see those two whizzing off all over the place on their bikes."
"Daniel does seem to have filled out a bit since he has been there and my God, how he is growing!"
"They all do at that age thought, don't they."
"I wonder what the two of them are up to now. When I spoke to him on his birthday, Daniel was so pleased that he had learned to swim, and so was I. I wish it had been his father who taught him but...", Mary's sentence trailed away, unfinished. Ralph caught a flicker of sorrow in here eyes, no more than a fleeting shadow.
"You still miss him, your husband, don't you ?", he said softly.
She held both his hands and looked at him, her eyes locked to his, "I will always remember him Ralph, you must know that. Daniel is the image of his father so I see a part of him every time I see Daniel, but he is just a happy memory now, somebody I loved and is now gone. I love you now, this is real. Do you understand that ?"
"Of course I do Mary, I should never had said anything. I love you too, and I think Daniel is a great kid, even if I will never be able to help him with his homework!", he said trying to lighten their mood.
"Homework! You're not kidding. Before he went to Ashwood he used to do his homework in about twenty minutes and then sit and read a maths book that was way beyond me", she said with a laugh.
"I was looking at the excursions, a bit expensive I thought but one or two won't break the bank. I wondered if you might like to go and see the Caves ?"
"I didn't know there were any caves here. Where are they ?"
"On the other side of the island, at a place called Porto Cristo, look, I picked up a leaflet". Ralph unfolded a piece of paper and passed it to Mary who looked at it for a minute or two. "They look amazing! Yes, let's do that. Are we in time for today's trip ?"
Ralph looked at his watch and said, "we have twenty minutes so there is just time for me to get some tickets. You finish eating and I will see you in reception", and with that he was gone.
The Caves of Drach (Caves of the Dragon) are located on the opposite side of the island from the resort that Mary and Ralph were staying in, so the visit was a full day out. The walk through twelve main caves is over a mile long and the caves contain amazing limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites. At the end of the ‘tourist walk' is the beautiful Lago de Martel, one of the largest underground lakes in the world. Here, a classical music concert is provided by musicians floating across the lake in boats, and the caves are illuminated by cleverly placed lighting. Ralph and Mary were not particularly great fans of classical music but like many people, enjoyed some of the better known pieces. On the way back to the hotel the tour coach stopped at Menacor which is the centre of the world famous Majorca cultured pearl industry. They wandered around the display cases that were carefully laid out to display different items of pearl jewellery. Mary admired a pearl necklace - she had never owned any ‘good' jewellery other than her engagement and wedding rings. She had only stopped wearing them two years ago. It hurt her terribly when she took them off, but it was the first step for her of moving on having grieved for so long. She treasured them both and they sat in their original boxes on the side of her dressing table. She excused herself when she spotted a ‘Ladies' sign and left Ralph to wander on his own.
The rest of the week seemed to pass by much too quickly. It rained on one day which they spent most of in the hotel lounge reading, relaxed, and on all the other days it was hot and sunny. On Friday evening they had packed and were waiting for the coach to take them back to the airport. The journey home was set to be as fraught as the trip out had been. They had to vacate their rooms by five ‘o' clock that day which meant they ended up taking their last meal in the hotel with their suitcases by their table. Ralph thought that it was a bit cheeky of the hotel to do this since the last day was all part of the whole deal, but he did not make a fuss because he wanted nothing to spoil the great week he had spent there, with Mary. By the time they finished their meal it was just after seven, but the coach was not due until eleven so they had another few hours to sit and wait. When the coach did arrive it was very different to their arrival. They had assumed that because they had been the last people to be dropped off, they would be the first to be collected for the return trip. Wrong!
They heard the noise from the coach before it pulled up at the hotel. It looked pretty well full already and yet there were a number of guests from the hotel who had to board, along with Ralph and Mary. The back third of the coach looked like a mini-riot was taking place. There were half-dressed bodies everywhere. A few couples were wrapped around each other, oblivious to the chaos. One girl sat astride her boyfriend ?, and from her bouncing up and down it was pretty clear that they were having a good time. The coach stank of vomit and there was a nasty slimy pool of it on the floor. The stale sour smell was mixed in with the smell of San Miguel lager Beer. Mister and Mrs Baggage (who now looked even fatter) took the first row of seats and "Dwayne you little sod" was halfway down, with his raucous family. There were a number of souvenir stuffed donkey toys being hurled up and down and it seemed that those not wearing a huge straw sombrero were the minority. Many of the people had angry red tans, their skin flaking, peeling and blistered. Mary and Ralph edged their way along the narrow aisle as the other passengers boarded, forcing them deeper towards the back of the coach. Overloading warnings and ‘maximum permissible passenger' signs seemed to be irrelevant to the less than jovial driver who began to move away even as the last couple were climbing up the boarding steps. There was no jolly rep at the front of the coach, although the more observant might have noticed that the girl bouncing on her boyfriend's lap was Tracy from the Hotel Sol Arenal.
Ralph and Mary were very relieved to reach the airport again. The had expected to at least be able to get off the coach quite quickly since they were standing in the aisle but they had totally under-estimated their travelling companions. The two couples nearest the doors were off the moment the doors opened. Mister and Mrs Baggage stood up and forced their way into the aisle. Each one of them was partially wedged between to two rows of seats as the lumbered down the steps. A number of other people had trailed in behind them, pushing their way out of their seats and in front of anybody who happened to be in the way. By the time Ralph and Mary were able to disembark, the whole front half of the coach was empty. The reason for this frenzied rush became clear when the entered the terminal building. If Gatwick had been bad when leaving, Palma departures was a nightmare. Those who had made the trip before were wise to this and occupied the front of a very long queue. Most of the people from the back of the coach had gone straight to the airport bar and Tracy had adjusted her skirt before getting ready to welcome the next lot of guests.
Once again, Ralph did his ‘magic'. He left Mary at the check-in and said he would be back in a few minutes. The queue was moving at a painfully slow pace but that did not matter because the flight did not leave for three hours anyway. True to his word, Ralph was back five minutes later. He was carrying two teas in Styrofoam cups that had sealed tops, and a bottle of clod mineral water in each pocket. Mary did not ask him how he had made his way through the packed throng of travellers, how he somehow got past the queues that snaked away from every food or drink counter, or how he then made his way back - she was just glad that he did and sipped her hot tea while they waited.
Eventually it was their turn, ‘did you pack you bag yourself?', ‘has it been left unattended?', ‘are you carrying...?', all the questions that everybody answers but never hears, ‘are you a known terrorist ?', "yes". ‘Here are your boarding cards. Have a nice flight. Next!' Ralph looked at the seat numbers, he and Mary side by side, and was pleased to see proof of the old saying, ‘lightning never strikes twice'. They boarded the plane home and saw that it was marginally cleaner than the coach had been, but smelled about the same, with an additional layer of stale urine which didn't bode well if they wanted top use the lavatory. Once seated, at last, Ralph squeezed Mary's hand and said, "we'll soon be home now", and she smiled back at him, which is when lightning struck twice. Mister Baggage slumped down into the empty seat next to Ralph, broke wind very noisily, and called for the hostess - he needed a belt extension so that he could fasten his seat belt. There was a sudden cracking sound and the only thing that was keeping his bulk away from Ralph gave up. The seat arm snapped. Mister Baggage grinned and kicked it under the seat, out of sight, and then a large part of his gut spread over, pushing against Ralph. The fat man looked again at Ralph and said, "'Ello again ! Fancy that. It were you I sat with on t'way out weren't it ?"
"Was it ? I'm sorry, I don't remember."
"Aye, it were you lad, wi' that pretty lass there too", he said nodding at Mary.
"Oh", said Ralph hoping to end the conversation as soon as he could - it was going to be bad enough jammed into his seat for nearly three hours let alone have to sit and chat with him."
"Having a break wi' the wife then were it ? That's what me and Pauline, the wife across the aisle were doin'. We go every year. Always t'same week. Me name's Norman by the way, Norman Little. Pleased t'meet ya", and he offered at fat sweating hand.
"Ralph Jennings, and Mary", he said shaking the hand briefly.
Norman carried on a very one-side conversation for the next hour, stopped only by something that was called in in-flight meal. Ralph seized the chance to go to sleep, or at least close his eyes and pretend. He leaned over and rested his head on Mary's shoulder and she managed to get her arm around him. A few minutes later they were both fast asleep while Norman and Pauline champed noisily on their food, slapping their lips with each slobbering bite. The aircraft touched down at Gatwick at four ‘o' clock Saturday morning. There was a problem with the hard standing and they were confined onboard for another hour before the plane could at last connect to the terminal. Mary and Ralph were woken by Norman who was already forcing his way out into the aisle. They left the aircraft and collected their bags, this time not having to wait until last. As they left, taking the green channel because they had no goods to declare, they passed Norman and Pauline who were standing angrily while a customs officer searched their suitcases. By the time they had made their way back to the car park it was half past six as they left the airport.
"I'm glad that journey is over, aren't you ?", said Ralph as he drove away.
"Glad and sad. Its back to the real world now, but it was lovely Ralph".
"It was very special for me Mary."
"Me too. Look, I was thinking...", she had been for the last two days, thinking a lot about Ralph and she knew what she wanted next.
"Thinking what ?", he replied, hoping she would say what he wanted her to say but scared she might too.
"Would you like to move in with me ? I know its not very grand, but you, me, I love you Ralph Jennings. What do you say ?"
"Are you really sure Mary ?"
"You know I am".
"I guess you have a lodger then", he grinned.
"A lodger! I don't think so - you aren't sleeping in Daniel's room and mine is the only other bedroom in the house", she said grinning back at him.
"Right then, that's sorted. We'll soon be home now."
"First thing I want is a nice cup of tea", she replied.
"Funny you should say that", said Ralph fishing around with one hand whilst he steered the car with the other, "I picked this up at the airport", he said producing a carton of milk. Good old Ralph, sorted it again.
On the Monday of their return it was work as usual. Ralph had a pick-up to do and Mary was on her way back to the shop in which she worked. Daniel was still on holiday but she had been thrilled to find a postcard from Rome on her doormat. There was a letter waiting for her too which she found a bit ominous because it advised her, in very neutral tones, that she was to attend a meeting with the Regional Manager, upon her return to work. It had added that there was no need for her to feel any concern, but then that kind of letter always did. As the bus rattled along the High Street she felt butterflies fluttering inside her stomach as she wondered what the meeting was all about. At the same time she thought how strange it was going to be to go home that night and cook a meal for the two of them, strange but wonderful. It was with mixed emotions that she arrived at her workplace. As she crossed its car park she saw the gleaming Jaguar that was parked, and knew that the Regional Manager was already there, waiting for her. She checked her watch in a panic but she was not late, it was five minutes to nine as she opened the door and went in.
"Mrs Preston, my what a sun tan you have there! Had a good holiday I hope", came the deep booming voice of Gerald Walker the Regional Manager.
"Oh! Good morning Mister Walker. I'm not late am I ?", replied Mary.
"Not at all. Traffic was a lot lighter than I expected. Shall we...?", he inquired opening the door to the manager's office to usher her inside. He followed her in and closed the door, taking the seat behind the desk while Mary sat in front, wondering where the Manager was and what was going on. Had the firm gone bust ? Was that it ? Was this the big redundancy thing, the fashionable ‘down-sizing' as everybody called it these days?
"I'll come straight to the point Mrs Preston..."
Mrs Preston. It sounded like somebody else to her now. Should she use her maiden name again now, with Ralph?
"The thing is", continued Gerald, "a vacancy has arisen in this store. You will be pleased I am sure to hear that David had moved on to our new superstore at the edge of the town."
She quite liked her Manager, David Meadows. He was fairly easy going and very pleasant to everybody, never patronising, always willing to help with any problem. When she had needed time now and then for appointments with Doctors when Daniel was ill, or for the Dentist, he let her take them but never stopped her the hours he knew she needed to support her son. He had been the first to congratulate her when Daniel had been chosen for Ashwood. She would miss him. Although Paul Steele had a hand in the promotion she was about to be offered and would help her out in subtle ways for some years to come, it was in fact fortuitous that he made his call. The superstore was in need of Manager and David was in the frame for the job. David had also suggested that Mrs Preston might be right for his job.
"...so this leaves us with an empty chair here, and I would like to offer you the job Mrs Preston - you come highly recommended", he added, and how true that was - who on earth did she know he wondered, that could cause the Chairman to ring him at home on a Sunday afternoon ? No matter, she was right for the job, but just the same, he would love to know where that phone cal came from.
Mary was taken aback. "Me, as branch Manager ?"
"Starting now. What do you think ? Are you up for a challenge ?"
She didn't need to be asked a second time, "I would be delighted, Mister Walker, thank you. What else can I say ?"
"Jolly good! Here is an official letter of appointment. You will notice the salary is rather more attractive. Just need you to sign the bottom, if you will."
Mary read the letter and yes, the salary was very attractive, no more overtime for her. She had an awful deja-vu moment when she thought of the excitement Philip had when his promotion came out of the blue, ten years ago. As she read on she reached a part about a company car. It was all a bit eerie, like a repeat of Philip and for a second she wondered if maybe he was being a guardian angel and that somehow this and Ralph even were the result of something way beyond ordinary understanding. "I am afraid I don't drive", she said.
"No problem. We will arrange for you to have lessons, if you want to", said Gerald, another small detail the Chairman had mentioned, remove all obstacles if you can, he had said, but within reason, if you get my meaning.
Gerald stayed at the branch for the rest of the day. He introduced her to the staff (all of course she knew) as the new Manager and then spent the day helping her ease into her new responsibilities. His last words to her as they were leaving was to remind her that he was always at the end of the phone if she had a problem - he better be, the Chairman had told him so but that was fine by Gerald who quite liked Mrs Preston anyway. On the way home she stopped off to buy something for dinner and picked up two nice pieces of Steak and a bottle of wine too; this would surprise Ralph!
Mary had only been home for half an hour when she heard her doorbell ring. She opened it and there was Ralph. "Oh Ralph! I am so sorry ! I never thought about you having a key", she said to him, leaning forward for a kiss.
He just smiled and said, "that's okay. So how was your day then ?"
She couldn't hold it back, tease him even, "I got promoted! I am branch manager. More pay, a car..."
His face was beaming with delight for her, "A car ? But you can't drive".
"They're giving me lessons. First one in on Wednesday!"
"That's wonderful. I am really proud of you ! Well done!", he said with undisguised pleasure, "and what's that I can smell...?"
"I though as I am now the Boss I would splash out a bit so I got some Steak and there is a nice bottle of red on the table."
There was a mischievous glint in his eye as he said, "my dream, to be beneath a bossy woman".
"Well we'll see about that later, because I am not letting those steaks burn."
"I like mine bloody, if that's okay."
"Then you have ten minutes, so you can open the wine please", she said.