Sarah watched as John took a second big gulp from the glass. “This tastes a bit funny.”
“Oh get that one down your throat and I’ll pour you another,” said Sarah.
John carefully stretched out his long legs into the confined space in the crowded sitting room. He held the glass up before him. “What is it, anyway? Where did you get it from?”
“We did a mini booze-cruise last month.” Sarah’s mind was elsewhere. Still some arrivals to come and it’s a bit cramped in here already. Mum looks happy though, she thought.
John hunched his shoulders down and nestled further into the armchair. “That big shopping place in Calais? Foreign rubbish, then. You cheapskate!”
Sarah curled a strand of mouse-brown hair around her finger. She was listening for the doorbell and still had only half of her attention on John. “No, we went into Calais itself. Had some lunch and then we went to a supermarket there – you get a better range of wines. I know you’ve no time for the French: neither the people, nor the language. Anyway, the lager you usually drink is ‘foreign’, as you put it, it’s certainly not made in Britain.”
“Perhaps I ought to change over to some wine, then?”
Sarah looked pointedly at the shirt stretched and clinging to her brother’s midriff. “Stick with the beer. You’re a beer man, brother dear, as your belly proves!” John laughed.
Sarah bustled into the kitchen to get another beer from the fridge. They were very cold, as she knew he liked them. The only trouble with John is that he always has so many on these occasions, and then he gets rude and starts shouting and spoils it for Mum, but perhaps not today.
Sarah glanced around the sitting room again: doing a quick check on space. Since their mother had been widowed, she had arranged these little family occasions for their mother’s birthday. Everyone always contributed something towards them, and turned up with an offering of food or drink.
The bell rang and she edged her way through the maze of legs and side-tables to open the front door. She greeted the last arrivals: her sister Judith with husband David and their little girl.
Judith took the lid off a tin to reveal with a flourish a decorated birthday cake.
“Looks superb. Love the icing,” Sarah said.
“The little hearts and roses took ages, but it was fun doing it.” Judith put it down on the breakfast table in the kitchen, and they all trooped back into the narrow hallway to hang up their coats. “It’s pelting down out there. Hope we haven’t put muddy, wet prints all over your carpet. New, isn’t it?”
Sarah smiled as Katie ran past Judith towards the sofa, where her grandmother was sitting with her legs up. Katie snuggled up tightly under her grandmother’s arm. Looking sleepy, Katie put a strand of hair into her mouth and began to suck it. Sarah just caught her mother mutter, as she pulled Katie in even closer, “If they all start to bicker later, I’ll let it all roll over me as usual. They mean well, my little pet.”
“I’ll have another slice of that cake, Judith, if I may. Lovely and moist. One of your best – not that they aren’t always special.” Judith took the plate from her mother’s outstretched hand.
Sarah grinned; she’d seen her mum carefully gathering up all the cake crumbs with a wet finger. Judith would be pleased. Katie looked so contented with her granny.
Sarah skirted the room carefully again to reach the window and opened it a fraction to let in a bit of air. It was a miserable day: rain sleeting down and the light already going. John caught her eye, raised his empty glass, and made to get up out of the chair.
“Coming John, I’ll get it!” Sarah rushed towards him. His cheeks are a bit red but that’s just the heat in here, she thought. She gave him another quick glance of appraisal as she took his glass. Although he’s put on a lot of weight, he’s still an attractive looking man: thick, wavy, black hair, not receding yet, and heavy-lashed brown eyes. I wish he could find another woman: that might stop the drinking. He was once pretty near to losing his driving licence.
Peter wanted to make a little speech. They had already toasted her mother when they cut the cake, but Sarah rapped a spoon on a wine glass and a hush gradually spread around the room. “Don’t worry, I won’t go on for long,” said Sarah’s husband, with a throaty laugh.
“That’ll be the first time, then,” said Judith cheekily, but she gave Peter’s arm a squeeze as she passed by him to perch on the arm of the sofa next to their mother.
It all passed cheerfully enough and the party began to disperse.
John, as usual, had been the last to go; still intent on having just one more beer. Sarah finally saw him out the door towards mid-night. He was perfectly amiable though, and had enjoyed a long talk with Peter. They seemed to get on very well.
It was lunchtime the following day when John appeared again on Sarah’s doorstep. She took a step back in surprise before beckoning him into the hallway. “I’ve just put the kettle on, John. I think sometimes you men can smell it!”
John stooped to peck at her cheek. “I’ll join you in a cup-pa.”
Sarah led the way into her kitchen and made tea. She put the biscuit barrel on the table and took off the lid. “What are you doing round here on a workday?”
“I’m in my lunch break really. I just wanted to come and tell you what happened last night. Quite a story! I have to tell it to someone.” He rolled his big, brown eyes in a mysterious fashion.
Sarah smiled. “Don’t tell me you’ve found the love of your life!”
John lowered his head to take a sip of tea and muttered, “No, not that.”
“Well?” Sarah pushed the biscuits towards him.
“You know how wet it was when I left here after Mum’s party?”
“I had a big, black brolly, you remember? I only brought the car to your place because it was raining so hard, but I never intended to drive home; it’s only ten minutes and I had the brolly for that.”
Sarah’s eyes widened in horror, “I’d have phoned a cab otherwise!” She had no idea where all this was leading.
“Trouble was I had to stop and get something out of the car. Well, I nearly slipped on the kerb – it was teeming down out there. But I never intended to drive,” he emphasised again.
“You’re not a fool, John, and you’d had a few, hadn’t you? Not that I’d been counting, of course.”
“I got in the car and leaned over to get my job sheet out of the glove compartment. An old girl I needed to phone first thing … the part I ordered hadn’t arrived, so there was no point in going there until later this week … but she was expecting me first thing, so I had to let her know. Had to get her phone number, you see, and that was on the job sheet.”
Sarah picked up her mug of tea and took a mouthful. John would tell this in his own way, and her impatience was being over-ridden by a sense of intrigue.
“I was just looking at the bit of paper. Found the number. Then there was a tap on the window. Driver’s side, of course. I looked up and, well, it was sheeting down, but there was this copper standing there and another one behind him. She was a woman though.”
“Don’t tell me … they’d seen you slip on the kerb and thought you were drunk!”
“Exactly. Well I’d had a skin full, too. But I wasn’t going to drive; I’m not that daft, am I? You just said.”
“So, what happened?”
“Showed them all my papers. No problem there. He’d put his nose in the car window and had a good sniff at the beginning – the copper – and could smell the booze; you couldn’t miss it. But I hadn’t even put my keys in the ignition! I told them I had no intention of driving!” John slammed his tea mug down on the table.
He sighed heavily. “Apparently, you can be drunk in charge of a car. Drunk in charge of a car even if you aren’t driving. Just sitting in it!” John was almost shouting now.
Sarah showed no alarm. “Did they breathalyser you, then?”
“Yes, of course they did! But that was the funniest thing … “
“Go on. What then?”
“No problem. Negative. I don’t think they could believe it. I couldn’t believe it; I know that!” said John, his mouth gaping in amazement. “Do you know, they even talked me into having a second one? Negative! I tell you, Sarah, cats have nine lives they say, but I think that must be my ninth. Can you imagine what would have happened to the business if I’d lost my licence? And I wasn’t even driving the car!”
Sarah got up and put a little more hot water into the pot. She had to turn away so he couldn’t see her broad smile. When he had calmed down, she would tell him what she had done. “Another cup, John? There’s more in the pot.”
John isn’t a fool and he would never drink and drive. He’ll be even more careful now. Might even change his habits. She tapped the box full of empty bottles with her foot, and pushed it further into the corner by the sink. She looked slyly at all John’s beer bottles clustered together in the centre.
When he finally got the chance to pour out a beer for himself from my fridge yesterday, thank goodness John hadn’t a clue that the words on the bottles – ‘sans alcool’ – meant non-alcoholic.