He wasn't sure if it was the cold or the worry, either way Colin was denied sleep. Fitful, he tossed one way then the other. Beside him Izzy slept. Judging by her deep rhythmic breathing she was in a far better place. The clock had moved on fifteen minutes since he last looked--Five-o-clock dead on. If I get up now I'll have my VAT tax return done by breakfast. Not an exciting thought but one that came around every three month, accompanied by I hate doing VAT returns. Pulling the covers over his head challenged the cold--it was bitter in their bedroom, but did nothing to drive away his angsts. I can't disturb her, that's not fair. But she is my business partner and better with numbers. He leant over to shake her. Watching her sleep he couldn't bring himself to do it. The conversation in his head played out. OK, I'll creep down stairs, do the return and come back with a cup of tea: a plan. His body took over from his thought. First one foot, closely trailed by a second, emerged from the covers. Before his body had time to follow his feet re-joined him back in bed.
'My it's cold out there.' The shock caused him to blurt out the words. Realising, he shushed himself, 'Don't wake her.' Are you a man or a mouse? He was back in his head. Hesitating before answering, it was dependent on who was asking. He dwelt on his response. Colin, get a grip; slippers and socks are by the bed, your dressing gown's on the back of the door. Quickly and quietly gather them up then head for the landing. His thoughts and actions were in sync. He made his way down stairs even remembering the third from the top produced a loud squeak. Stepping over it to avoid waking her, he stumbled over the next two treads. In the dark he'd misjudged the distance. The bottom step came quicker than anticipated but at least he was down in one piece, and more importantly, without waking Izzy.
Passing the coat stand he grabbed a scarf, matching bobble hat and fingerless mittens. The central heating wouldn't come on for a couple of hours. It was so dam cold. The wind, blowing in from a north-easterly direction, made feel like Siberia. Poor buggers he thought, they have to live with this most of the time. Slipping into the sanctuary of the kitchen he dressed for warmth. The Rayburn offered some solace; against the pernicious gusts growling in around the window and door, it was all but useless.
He pulled the table and chair close to the cast iron structure. Pen at the ready and tea in hand he settled into the task. Henslow church bell rang 6 times, the wall clock confirmed it. He'd sorted his input taxes from his outputs but he wasn't ready to complete the form. He wanted Izzy to check his workings. She must have sensed his needs.
'Are you in there Colin?' Her head came around the door, 'I wondered where you were.' She fully entered the room. 'How long have you been here?'
He realised he'd nearly got away with it. 'Only a few minutes.' She didn't like it when he couldn't sleep.
'Cup of tea? I'm just going to make one for myself.' She pulled a chair out from the table, 'You doing the VAT return? I hope you've not filled in the form.' She didn't trust his mental arithmetic nor his ability to use a calculator. 'Show me what you've done.'
He didn't know if it was his maths teacher or mother speaking. Either way he felt better she was there to confirm his calculations--a visit from the HMRC was the last thing he needed. He passed her his papers, silence prevailed.
'I think you'd better go over some of the maths. These sales invoices need checking.' She pushed a bundle towards him. 'Porridge and toast?'
How do women do that from VAT calculations to breakfast needs in the same breath without batting an eyelid? He didn't ask her. 'Yeah, great. Thanks.'
Watching dawn break was one of the few pleasures Izzy got from standing at the kitchen sink on a cold frosty February morning. The Griggs farm, exposed to the north easterlies, took the brunt any bad weather. The meter thick stone walls of the farmhouse proved more than a match. She always felt comforted by knowing the house had stood for the last couple of hundred years. The various trees, shrubs and saplings scattered around the yard were bent, near double, with the weight of the hoar frost. Glistening white, water vapour crystal covered branches, formed magnificent structures. Devoid of foliage, the tendril like twigs, covered in this thick coating lost their individuality of species, all assuming uniformity of colour. Nature, despite the efforts of man she thought, is responsible for extraordinary feats, and a blanket of hoar frost is one of them.
'Have you looked outside Colin?' Lost in paperwork, a necessary by-product of running your own business, he didn't answer.
'What? No, sorry. What did you say?' Despite it being Saturday, he had no time for resting. Managing the business, following the successful completion of the high profile job for Lady Wills, kept him extremely busy.
'Oh nothing love, just looking at the hoar. Wondered if you'd seen.' The view from the window captivated her.
'What? Whore, in our yard. Who is she?' He didn't look up being too busy ensuring he caught all costs for an accurate return.
'What are you on about, who is she?' I'm talking about the hoar frost. Anyway that's a horrible expression. If any girl has to do that sort of thing for money I feel very sorry for her. It must be dreadful, all those stinky men grouping and slobbering. Now you've ruined it for me. I was just thinking how amazing Mother Nature is till you filled my head with disgusting thoughts.' Her diatribe ceased at the sound of mail being pushed through the letter box: 'Oh I wonder what exciting offers we'll be unable to resist today?' Sarcasm didn't become her. With that she scurried out to the hall. Returning, she plonked a stack of letters in front of him: 'Here.'
He was too engrossed to notice. Remaining focused on his calculations he crossed through a page of workings muttering something about 20% is no easier to calculate than 17.5%, and anyway, what does the Government do with all that money.
'You need a spread sheet.' Izzy said helpfully, 'or a book keeper.'
'We can't afford one.' As he said it, he slapped his pen on the table and flopped in his chair. 'I stopped traditional farming because of paperwork, hole farming is no better.' Frustration sounded in his voice.
While he'd been talking Izzy'd sorted the post; most went to recycling. One in particular caught her eye. 'I think you'll want to see this.' She pushed the envelope towards him.
The hand written address, with its large expressive curls and preponderance of arcade type letter connections, suggested confidence, creativity and attention seeking in the writer. It worked. Colin took it for a closer inspection. He recognised the handwriting.
'It's from Lady Wills.' His face showed anticipation.
'Go on then, open it.' She was just as keen.
Picking up his knife he licked off residual marmalade, before placing the tip in the envelope seal. With a single incisive movement the contents were revealed. The letter, accompanied by two additional inserts, was laid on the table; each had their draw. Izzy's eyes landed on the gold embossed writing of the invitation; Colin's on the cheque for fifteen thousand pounds. Simultaneously they looked at each other, broad grins filled their faces.
'Tell me, what does she say?'
Colin flicked open the folded sheet. He turned towards the light and cleared his throat.
'Dear Colin and Isobel ...' He read aloud.
'Isobel, that's sounds a bit formal. I wonder why she calls me Isobel?'
'It's just the way she is, now shush, let me finish.' With that he flexed his arm holding the letter high so not to cast a shadow across it.
'Dear Colin and Isobel, I know the recent past has been difficult; starting a new business, the various accidents befalling Colin, the incidence with the geese, Mr Pryor, the Major, and stockings to name but a few, but throughout this time you have shown dedication and commitment to your business, and more importantly, your customers, namely me.
I want to thank you personally for your efforts and show you my appreciation by extending the hand of friendship. Accordingly I invite you both to my house warming party. Your contributions have been significant in getting the magnificent gardens to their former glorious state with the added feature of a series of ornate ponds which now adorn the Long Walk. I'm planning to incorporate the ponds into the party with a torchlight parade so everyone will get the opportunity to wonder at your achievements.
I do hope you will accept my invitation. As you will notice from the enclosed invite, it is a fancy dress "Come as you are" party. A prize will be awarded to the couple who most closely resemble their picture. See the invite for details. For now, yours sincerely. Diana.'
'Oh Colin fancy that, a personal thank you.' She spoke as she thought, 'extending the hand of friendship, and featuring your holes in a torchlight parade.' She was gushing. 'When is the party?' Reaching across him she retrieved the invite. 'Look at this.' Holding it up for him she ran her fingers over the embossed writing. The cream card featured an ink drawing of the manor, subtle done, it had sufficient depth to be recognisable but not to overwhelm the writing. Their names had been handwritten in by Diana herself. 'Look it's the same writing as the envelope.' She placed them side by side to check. 'Such a distinctive hand; she is a woman of class.'
Colin watched her intensity. Her eyes were wide, dating across the words rereading them again and again. Her lips curled, the smile grew to fill her face. In her mind she was far away, not in the kitchen of the old farm house but walking gracefully, elegantly down the Long Walk of Henslow Manor. She imagined all the other party goers admiring, pointing, commenting at Colin's holes. As she contemplated the text she chewed on her lip. He waited for her to speak; he didn't want to break the spell. Lost in the moment it dawned on her.
'It's a come as you are party: pictures, prizes. Colin you know what that means--where's the camera?'
The puzzled look on his face told her he'd not been listening.
'The invite; it's a fancy dress party with the theme of come as you are. That means come dressed in the clothes you're wearing when you get the invite. And she's asked for a picture to be sent with the RSVP to prove it.'
'What me? In my blue striped winceyette PJ's with knitted bobble hat and matching scarf. Izzy...!' He shivered to emphasise how he felt.
'Look here,' she ran her fingers over the text again, 'It clearly says come as you are. It's just a bit of fun; everyone's in the same boat. Can you imagine Steve Pryor in his pyjamas, with his fat belly?'
'I'd rather not thank you.' He looked down at his own, not insubstantial stomach and sighed.
'Do we have to...?'
She glaring at him in disbelief, her eyes followed his but didn't stop at his paunch. Instead hers were drawn to the fly of his pyjama trousers. 'You'll have to wear underpants; you can't walk around Henslow Manor like that.' Colin's manhood was clearly visible.
'You shouldn't be looking.' He blushed. It was an automatic response.
'We've been married for 40 years, there's not much left to shock me.' She made a playful grab at his masculinity.
'Izzy, no...not now. I've got to work out the VAT for this invoice. Anyway, we're in the kitchen, that sort of thing remains in the bedroom.' He brushed her hand away.
'I'm only teasing. We still need a picture. Have you seen the camera?'
Colin wasn't listening. He'd gone back to his calculations, he didn't answer her.
'Colin, camera, have you seen it?' She rested her hand on his shoulder.
'Umm...yes, no, I don't know.' He didn't look up. 'What's 20% of 3,670?'
'I don't know, you've got the calculator; is it in old Alfred Mac?'
'What?' He still refused to participate in the conversation. Rather he punched numbers into the Texas calculator he'd owned since school.
'What, you know what--the camera. You took it with you to get some pictures of the ponds in the Long Walk, remember? Did you take it out of the lorry?'
'Look, I need to concentrate, can you just be quiet for a minute.' He pressed the calculator's clear button for the umpteenth time.
'Seven hundred and thirty four; now, did you leave the camera in the lorry?' She felt pleased with herself.
'You just made that up.' He pressed the equals key, the display changed to 734. 'How did you do that?' He looked at her and back at the calculator. 'You're a genius.'
'That's as may be but where's the camera?' She was getting fed up with the sound of her own voice.
He was fed up with hearing the same question. Pushing back his chair the legs scraped across the kitchen flagstones. The noise of their protest drowned out his mutterings. He slammed the back door in annoyance. She watched him through the window. It was still dark, in his haste he'd not put anything on his feet. To abate the cold of the frozen ground he was on tiptoes. The gait of his strides reminded her of a praying mantis. His steady progress faltered as he trod on a large stone obscured by detritus. An interlude for toe rubbing accompanied by a stream of expletives followed; as quick, he was back on track towards the lorry cab.
She used his absence to make herself more presentable, running a comb through her hair, removing her gilet and donning a cardigan and a pair of shoes--nothing too partyish but certainly more becoming than her faded pink lamb's wool slippers.
'Here.' He thrust the camera at her.
'Look Colin, I don't like paperwork anymore than you do, but it has to be done. Anyway you were the one who went out without anything on your feet. You can't blame me for that.' She took the camera.
'Go on then, take your ruddy picture, I need to get on.' He held a false smile--the grin was so wide it almost hurt.
'I can't take it yet, the camera's cold.' She held it up for him to see. The lens was misty coming from the unheated lorry cab into the warmth of the kitchen. 'Give it a few minutes.'
He dropped his smile and flopped back into his chair. The fly on his pyjama bottoms gaped. There was nothing to see; it must be cold out there she thought. It crossed her mind to warm him up but given his foul mood and how he had reacted to her earlier advances, she thought better of it.
'OK, it's ready now.' She waved the camera under his nose, he grunted some sort of response.
'Come on, the sooner we do this the sooner you can get on.' At that Colin pushed back his chair, to the accompaniment of irritating scraping sounds of legs on flagstones.
'Do you have to?' He was behaving like a petulant child.
'You know very well what; come over here.' Izzy had the camera sat on top of the refrigerator with the timer set. 'Stand there,' she pointed towards the sink, 'and smile.' She depressed the shutter release button before scurrying back to join him. The ten second timer seemed to take forever.
'Are you sure it's...' He was interrupted by the flash.
'You ruined that; we'll have to do it again.'
'You think so?' He wasn't convinced. She showed him the image in the review screen. 'Is this how you want Henslow to see you?' The camera caught him in mid-sentence. He looked more like a goldfish than her Colin. He said nothing; she set up the camera again.
'Right, ten seconds.' In a trice she was back by his side, 'Smile.' They waited.
'It's funny, you think ten seconds is such a...' Once again he was interrupted by the flash.
'Oh for pity's sake Colin, just shut up and wait. Ten seconds is ten seconds. Try counting elephants... Here we go again.' She was back by his side.
'One elephant, two elephants...'
'Not out loud you...' She was thwarted by the flash. 'Now look what you've made me do. Count in your head.'
After repeated attempts she was successful. She reviewed the image.
'It's no David Bailey but it'll do.' Colin took the camera from her. He studied the image. 'Have you looked at this?'
'Yeah, it's not great but it's recognisable as us, and Diana can see what we're wearing, why?'
'Before emailing it, you need to study it more closely.'
She snatched the camera back. 'What do you mean?' Her intense scrutiny produced a result. 'Oh my God...we can't send that, it's pornographic.' She flushed bright red.
'I thought after 40 years of marriage nothing could shock you.' He couldn't help smiling to himself.
She fired up the computer. 'I'll upload the image and crop it from the waist down, no-one will know.'