Middle-aged widow Matilda Poliport has decided to end her life. She puts her papers in order and gives away her beloved pet goose, Gus. She packs a picnic and heads off to the beach to drown herself.
But her plans are interrupted by Hugh Warner—wanted by the police for bashing in his mother’s skull with a tea tray. Hugh has the same idea as Matilda: to end his own life. But Matilda foils Hugh’s suicide, inadvertently saving them both, and the unlikely pair finds itself launched on an adventure.
The sparkling Jumping the Queue overflows with wit and wry humor as Mary Wesley examines the hidden costs of love and death.
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Jumping the Queue
By Mary Wesley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Mary Wesley
All rights reserved.
All week Gus had been fussed by Matilda's unusual activity. He stomped round the house peering in through the French windows, craning his neck through open doors, eyes bright, head to one side, listening. She could hear his feet slapping on the brick path as he moved from the kitchen door to the window. Soon he would leap onto the garden table, look in, try to catch her eyes. He did this inelegant jump flapping his wings, hitting them against a chair as he strained for the table. His blue eyes met hers.
'Gus, I have to make this list, it's important.'
The gander throttled gentle anxious noises in his throat, flapped his wings, raised his head, honked.
'Shut up.' She tried to ignore him, concentrating on the list: any trouble with the pump Peake's garage they know its vagaries. For ordinary electric work Emersons in the High Street, telephone in book in kitchen table drawer.
Gus honked louder, slapping his feet on the wooden table.
'Shut up!' Matilda shouted without looking up. Butcher, baker, post office, garage, doctor, dentist. They won't want those. Vet—they won't need him, solicitor, bank, police. They would perhaps only need these. She checked the telephone numbers, put down her pen and went to the window.
He nibbled her ear, making crooning noises as she stroked his cool neck sliding her hand from his head to his breast, feeling the depth of his feathers, their beauty and strength, parting them with her fingers until they touched the warm breastbone. Affected by her touch Gus excreted onto the table.
'What a way to show love.' Matilda moved away to the kitchen. Guessing which way she was going the bird jumped off the table and half ran, half walked to the kitchen door where he stood peering in, knowing he was not allowed inside the house.
Matilda ran water into a bucket. The telephone rang. Gus honked.
'Hullo, hullo, I can't hear you.'
'This is Piers.'
'Yes, John, how are you?'
'Haven't you had your phone mended yet?'
'You should. It's months since that dog bit it, broke it.'
'I said it's months since—'
'He hated the bell, the noise hurt his ears, so he jumped at it, bit it.'
'You should get it mended, it won't cost you anything.'
'Oh.' Matilda ran a finger over the sellotape holding the machine together.
'He's dead anyway.'
'I can't hear you.' She smiled at Gus in the doorway shifting from foot to foot.
'I said he's dead.'
'I heard you. What do you want?'
'I want to know how you are.'
'I'm all right, John.'
'All right, Piers. It's awfully silly to change your name at your age.'
'It's always been Piers.'
'John to me. This call's costing you a lot. What do you want?'
'Are you coming to London?'
'Do you good to have a change.'
'I'm going to have one.'
'Going somewhere nice?'
'I can't hear you.'
'Get the phone mended.'
'What?' She waved to Gus.
'Heard from the children?'
'Yes, no, fairly lately.'
'Get the phone mended, it's dangerous, you might need it urgently.'
'Mind own biz.'
'All right, Piers.' She replaced the receiver, lifted the bucket out of the sink and sloshed water over the table stained by similar previous events. The wet wood steamed in the sun.
'Like some maize?' She stood looking down at Gus. 'Come on then.' Gus followed her while she fetched the maize. She threw a little on the grass. The gander ignored it.
'Gus, you must eat.' She sat down and the bird climbed onto her lap. 'Eat, you fool.' She held the bowl. Gus ate a little, pushing the corn about with his beak while she stroked him, pressing her hand along his back then curving it round his breast. 'You must keep up your strength for all those pretty ladies. You will like them, you know you will. You won't be lonely with them.'
Gus got off her lap to stroll about cropping grass before coming back to stand behind her, leaning his neck over her shoulder, twisting it to peer up into her eyes.
Matilda sat looking down the valley, tired, trying to think whether there was anything left undone.
The house was scrubbed, polished, hoovered, the beds made up with the best linen. Silver, brass and copper shining. Stores in the cupboards and larder. Bills paid, desk tidy, list of the whereabouts of people and things they would need all written, every spider captured and put outside before its web was destroyed. All done. Only the picnic basket and bathing things to get now. And Gus.
'Such a betrayal. I can't help it, Gus. Geese can live to be thirty or more. I can't wait. You will be all right.'
A landrover drove up the lane, stopped by the gate. A man got out. Matilda stood. Gus honked angrily, the rims of his eyes showing red. Matilda shook hands while Gus hissed and threatened the man's ankles, his neck stretched out, head low.
'Good afternoon. He's a fine bird. I brought a sack.'
'Oh yes, you said. You said that would be the best way. Would you like a drink?'
'No thank you, I'd better not. If I get this fellow loaded up I'll be on my way, then he'll have time to get to know his harem before dark.'
'They won't hurt him?'
'No, no, no, a gander rules his geese. They haven't heard of women's lib.'
'He rules me—' The man nodded, unsmiling, looking down at Gus.
'Your other gander?'
She glanced away. 'A fox got him. I think I told you.'
'Yes, of course you did.'
'Gus, don't!' The man sidestepped as Gus pecked his calf. 'I'm so sorry.'
'That's all right. Thick trousers. I keep them all shut up at night now. He'll be safe.'
'He's always slept in the scullery.'
'Well yes, but he will get used to his shed, stable actually, stone floors, geese are messy birds. I hose them down, the stables.'
'I slosh water over the scullery floor, it's got a drain in the middle, a sort of grating.' What a stupid conversation. Couldn't he get on with it and go? 'Shall we get him into the sack?'
'Okay. You pick him up as you know him, put him in. That's right. I'll tie this round his neck so that he can't hurt himself. Ouch! That was sharp.'
'Yes, of course. There we are. I'll take him now, he'll be all right, don't worry. Soon he'll be with his harem. Six of them.'
The man carried Gus to the landrover, put him over the tailboard. Gus did not stop honking as the man drove away.
'Fucking harem. I must be mad.' Matilda went indoors, poured herself a stiff whisky, switched on the radio for the weather report. High pressure continuing over the Atlantic, very hot, very dry.
The telephone began to peal again. Matilda went up to the instrument and pulled off a strip of cellophane, letting it ring until it tired. Now the picnic. She took a basket and put in butter, rolls, a slab of rather runny Brie, some peaches, a knife, a corkscrew, a bottle of Beaujolais.
'Right,' she said out loud. 'Right, I'm ready then.' A final look round the house, appallingly clean, strange. She shut the windows and the front door, picked up the basket. A spider of vast size scurried in at the kitchen door across the floor and under the dresser. 'You win.' Matilda stepped out carrying the basket, locked the door, put the key under the bootscraper where only a fool would leave it for any fool to find. Into the garage, into the car, start it up, drive off. 'If you exist keep an eye on Gus. See that he is all right. Please.' Matilda prayed without faith as she drove fast down the lane which led to the main road. A god with wings was a credible God but not in the guise of a man driving a landrover. Matilda trod hard on the accelerator. The noise of the engine failed to drown the sound in her mind of betrayed honking.
In the empty house the telephone rang to an audience of one spider.CHAPTER 2
She switched on the car radio to drown the sound in her mind. I will not think of it. I will suppress it, forget it, bury it as I have done with other things all my life. Go away Gus, go away. She turned up the sound.
For many days now she had carried her transistor about the house and listened as she scrubbed, swept, hoovered, polished, dusted. As she worked she had heard Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, pop and pop and pop, the news. Rumours of war, violence, here, there and everywhere, only it isn't war now, she had thought, it is Guerillas, often pronounced Gorillas, who bomb, shoot or kidnap, hijack planes and trains. An active lot these Guerillas/Gorillas, forever in the news, by no means unsympathetic, full of ideals and always on the hour every hour between quiz games or music, Woman's Hour, Listen with Mother, the news and weather imperceptibly changing as the days passed and she startled spiders, catching them in a tumbler, putting them out of doors before destroying their webs. The weather hot, continuing hot, traffic jams on the motorways, the French industrialist kidnapped from his home, the vanished bride on her honeymoon—perhaps she had realized her error, fled—and the Matricide. The police hunt for the Matricide and the Vanished Bride followed her upstairs and down as she dusted and swept, lifting the transistor from one piece of furniture to the next.
She had considered matricide. Why was killing your mother so special? Worse than killing your wife? Your child? Worse than being a Guerilla/Gorilla? He looked quite nice in the photo they showed on the box. Six foot two, they said, brown eyes, fair hair, large nose, speaks with an educated accent. One would hope so from a person who had weathered Winchester, Cambridge and the Sorbonne. One would hope so but just as able to kill his mother as the Guerillas were able to blow people up, shoot them down. A lot of Guerillas had also been to the Sorbonne or Harvard or Oxbridge.
Matilda had thought, as she put clean sheets on the beds, that anyone with any gumption was capable of anything if brave or annoyed enough. She, when she had a mother, had often longed to kill her to stop the incessant prying and interfering, the possessiveness. Poor Matricide she had thought vaguely, her mind turning to her own children. Did they? Would they? They would like to, she decided, noticing that there was now a talk on roses purring out of the radio. They would like to but they were not among the brave—possibly Claud. Yes, Claud—
He had, this Matricide, killed his mother with a tea-tray. Marvellous! A heavy silver teatray. How nice to be rich. Had he when a child toboganned down the stairs on a tea-tray? Perhaps people who went to these posh educational establishments didn't.
The spiders were a great worry. Old cottages were full of spiders of all sizes, some as large as a mouse when they scurried across the floor at night, others tiny, found in the mornings in the bath with wistful legs. Anyway, it being August and the Silly Season, the media babbled on about the Matricide every day, though it was true not quite so much latterly, rather favouring the Bride. He had not been seen since he left his mother's house after banging her on the head with the tray, not been seen so not been caught.
'Makes the police look silly,' Matilda had said to Gus feeding him his midday mush. 'Makes the police look idiotic, doesn't it?' Gus had made his throttling noises and Matilda had gone back to sweeping away her house's character. 'Dirt of ages,' she had hummed to a religious programme. 'Dirt of ages made by me! Oh, how filthy I do be.' Well, it was all clean and tidy now, Matilda thought, as she drove, and although it's latish, not sunset yet. Not quite yet, time enough for my picnic. I have tidied myself out of my house with the spiders. I betrayed Gus. Now I can have my picnic in peace, delicious Brie and Beaujolais unbothered by God in trousers. Petrol. It would be stupid to run out of petrol. She drew in at a garage and waited. No attendant came.
'It's self-service,' a man called to her, easing himself into the driving seat of his car and adjusting the safety belt across his stomach.
'Oh hell!' Matilda felt shame. 'Bloody hell!' She got out of the car flushing with hate.
'Excuse me, could you—I can never manage, would you fill her up for me, please?'
The man there to take cash, give change, watch that there was no hanky panky came slowly out of his glass box. He exuded contempt, the chauvinist swine.
'Fill her up, please.' Matilda waited by the glass box watching the man jiggle with the petrol pump, push the nozzle roughly into the tank, stand idly as the liquid gurgled in. Sexy in a dreary way, she thought. Inside the glass box the man's radio was playing. 'Here is the news.' She listened to the weather, still fine and hot. The Prime Minister—the Common Market—the airport strike—the bomb alert—the hijack in Italy—the kidnapping in France—the five sightings of the Matricide seen in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Bermondsey, Brighton and Kampala. High pressure over the Atlantic would continue for some days—
'Any news?' The man came back.
'Only the usual stuff. What do I owe you?'
The man named the price. Matilda paid exactly counting out the change, which seemed to irritate the man.
'Sorry. I thought it would help.'
'Ah, you remind me of my mother, she's pernickety too.'
Matilda felt insulted. There was something bourgeois about being pernickety.
'Do you want to murder her?'
'Sometimes.' The man laughed. 'Only sometimes.' He was counting the money. 'Guess he did away with himself. Here, you gave me 10p too much. Got remorse poor sod.'
'Your loss not mine.'
'Not quite as pernickety as you thought.'
'No.' The man grinned. 'Did they say what ransom those French kidnappers are asking?'
'I didn't hear. I don't think it said. Why?'
'Good way to make a packet.'
'Yes, I suppose so. Well, goodbye. Thank you.' Matilda got back into her car, leaving the safety straps unused. They hung dusty and twisted. She was afraid of them, afraid of being tied down, tied in. She checked that her picnic basket and bag were safe—bathing suit, lipstick, comb, pills for hayfever, pills.
'The Pillage'. Rather a bad pun but it had been funny in the context he had used it in. 'Now then,' Matilda muttered, starting the engine, 'don't think of him, don't think of Stub and don't think of Prissy, think of anything else, Gus, no, not Gus. That fat man tying himself in so carefully. Did he feel loved and wanted? For crying out loud, how could he be wanted, so fat and ugly?' She drove fast but carefully, not wanting an accident. The radio was playing pop. She turned it off and began to sing:
'Pop, pop, poppity pop
They all pop in and
They all pop out
Pop is the name of the girl inside
She sells the ginger pop you see!'
Why had her grandmother told her not to sing it? Was it vulgar or was there some hidden indecent Edwardian meaning? What silly things she remembered from childhood. She went on singing, 'Pop, pop, poppity pop. Must pay attention here, not miss the turning'— which led by devious lanes to the cliffs from where she would walk to the beach.
'They all pop in and—' here was the turning, a lot of cars waiting to get out onto the main road, people hot and sunburned, tired after too long a day on the beach, on their way home to supper, tea or the pub.
As she swung the car into the lane she caught the eyes of a holiday dog hanging his head out of a car window.
'They all pop out
Pop is the name of the girl inside
She sells the ginger pop you see!'
Matilda didn't want to think about dogs. Suddenly she realized why her grandmother did not like her to sing the ditty. Miss Renouff, blue eyes and shingled hair, had taught it to her. Grandpa had cast an appraising eye in that direction. All dead now of course. All popping over for that lot.
The lane twisting between tall banks led to the cliffs. She parked the car in the cliff car park, took out her picnic basket, swung her bag over her shoulder, locked the car.
All round her families with children were packing into their cars, getting ready to leave. Matilda picked her way past waste paper, lolly sticks, torn cellophane and remains of picnics, tipped—but not into the wire baskets provided. She wondered whether to pause, collect a few Coca Cola tins and beer cans and put them into the basket, but the jibe 'pernickety' still rankled. She kicked a can with her espadrille and watched it merrily roll.
All the way along the cliff path she met weary holidaymakers returning.
'Pop, pop, poppity pop, I shall have the beach to myself,' she hummed, strolling neither fast nor slow, carrying the basket with the Brie, the rolls, the peaches and the Beaujolais swinging along downwards, twisting and turning down from the top of the tall granite cliffs to the beach and the sea sighing gently over the sand to stroke the line of pebbles until they rattled. The tide was up, would soon turn and drag itself out across the sand leaving it clean and smooth for her feet.
Matilda paused at the bottom of the cliff path. Three lots of people were getting ready for the long climb up. One group was having a last swim. Matilda had seen them before, knew their routine. They would soon be gone. She walked along the stones enjoying her rope soles. At the far end of the beach she stopped by the favourite rock. Here she would sit in the sun and wait. She put the basket in the shade and undressed, pulling on the bathing suit, deciding to swim before the picnic. It was early yet. It would be light for a long time.
Excerpted from Jumping the Queue by Mary Wesley. Copyright © 1983 Mary Wesley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Humorous and sad all at the same time. This is one book I would love to rewrite, just to make the ending happier.