Louisa has obviously noticed me watching the time.
"You're the typical Londoner." she scolds me "Can't you spend some time without constantly checking the speed in which it is passing. It's not as if we have to be anywhere."
I clear my throat. I could tell her the true purpose now, but in a bit more than an hour she'll find out anyway, so I stay on safer grounds.
"Aren't the shops closing soon?"
"Don't be silly. This village is a tourist trap and they hardly let the milking of day-trippers slip through their fingers. Especially not during the summer."
"Stop worrying. We'll get you something. And even if the shops close before we've been there, I still can pull some strings. You'll get what you need."
I very much doubt that. What I need cannot be combined. I need Louisa happy and my job in London. There are not enough strings to pull to get that straight.
I am disturbed in my thoughts by a middle-aged woman who darts towards us to greet Louisa exuberantly. I've learned by now that there is only one way to survive situations like this – not to pay attention. It's not that these situations occur often in London. It is a blissfully anonymous city. However, Louisa managed even there to have a social circle too big to be completely safe anywhere. I will never understand how much women can talk when they meet when there is absolutely nothing worth discussing.
Louisa lights up like a Christmas tree and they both start talking and cooing in a completely unnatural voice that gets on my nerves.
I try to use this moment to make a mental list of all the things that need to be done today. Then I proceed to make plans of how to get the best out of this situation in case Louisa reacts to the news she is about to hear today as I expect her to. I even prepare for a possible meeting with Robert, my boss, on Monday and how to spill the beans.
Suddenly I notice that Louisa is looking expectantly at me. Has she included me in her conversation?
I am completely clueless about what is expected of me.
"Isn't it?" I hear Louisa ask this rhetoric question, which for a change does expect an answer. I mutter something that can pass as an approval with a lot of good-will, even if I don't have a clue to what I have just agreed.
At least it seems it has done the trick as Louisa continues chatting away and laughing with this other woman.
Meanwhile, James has looked for shelter behind me after being gawped at and inspected like some pet in a competition.
It seems he has the same wish as I have – just to get away. He tugs at my sleeve again.
"When can we go, Daddy?"
That is indeed a good question, but not one to be answered honestly.
"Your mother hasn't finished yet."
"How long will it take?"
"Shh, just wait, alright?"
"But it's boring."
"James," I need to get firm with him, even if I'm completely on his side, "we waited when you wanted to play, so now you have to wait when your mother wants to talk. It's just fair."
He harrumphs but seems to accept it.
Louisa is happily chatting away, completely unaware that my time schedule is running short.
Finally I subconsciously realise the cue that we can carry on.
"So good to have met you again, Pippa!" Louisa cheerfully exclaims.
"Yes, and maybe we'll bump into each other occasionally."
Louisa peeks towards me and then responds less enthusiastically: "I very much doubt that."
"What a shame." This other woman replies, and it obviously gets to Louisa. "Well, it was good to see you anyway. Best of luck."
This other woman trots away and Louisa turns towards us again.
"Poor Pippa." She sighs.
"Why?" I don't ask because I'm particularly interested, but because Louisa expects me to.
"Haven't you heard?"
Louisa looks towards me with a knowing look. She knows I am generally distracted as soon as she chats away with one of her friends.
"Her husband just ran off, leaving her with the twins. Now she also seems to have some trouble with her job, although I don't really get why the school isn't able to keep her. It was a bit vague."
"Well, maybe northing's settled then."
"Let's hope so."
We had started walking downhill again and are now reaching the little general store. We are hardly in the door, when the saleswoman shouts Louisa's name.
"Louisa! We haven't seen you for ages!"
"It's a long time, isn't it? But Martin is very busy in London, and I…"
"Yes, London. And how are you, dear?" She almost sounds as if I had dragged her into the dragon's den. We are not living at the South Pole, but in one of the most prestigious cities of the world.
Before I do say something dangerous, I take James by the hand and search the shelves for the products I need.
I had considered buying the optimum tooth paste and tooth brush at the pharmacy, but I'd rather settle for second best and avoid Mrs. Tishell.
I have the shopping basket in one hand and James at the other while picking up all the toiletry items I need. In between, I have to fend off James' wishes for unhealthy products and money-wasting gadgets.
In the background I keep hearing the conversation Louisa has with the woman at the counter and I have to give Louisa credit that she tries not to complain about her being in London. She really works hard to let it sound a mutual choice, although I don't think she is completely convincing.
I put my shoppings on the counter, but that doesn't prompt the woman to do her job. The shop is completely empty, so she can hardly claim that she is preoccupied with anything but snooping into our private matters. Nevertheless, completely unimpressed by me wanting to pay she keeps nattering on with Louisa. I look at my watch. It's past eleven and now I know that I have to get Louisa to the village notice board soon, otherwise this trip is completely useless. Not that this store had any underwear at all, reasonable or otherwise, but that has to wait. I have to get Louisa out of here soon and just across the street without many further disruptions.
"That's all." I say pointedly, pushing the basket a bit forward.
"Hasn't got any more patience than he used to have, has he?" The saleswoman laughs at Louisa.
"MARTIN!" She scolds me. "No not really, sorry." Louisa has again apologized for me. A habit of hers that I can't stand.
"How much is it?" I ask demonstratively.
"Well, let me see…" In a very complicated way the woman behind the counter starts to put every price into the cashing machine by hand. It seems no one here has ever heard of bar codes. Twice she has to correct herself. It seems to take ages.
Finally she can name the price and I pay, while Louisa is still chatting on. James looks up to me and rolls his eyes. I can't agree more.
"Can we go now?" I ask Louisa impatiently. Just 45 minutes to go.
"Martin, can't you be a bit more civil for once. These are my friends."
I suppress a moan. Good friends indeed. I can't remember them writing or phoning once during the last years.
It's James who saves me this time, as he urges Louisa that he needs to go to the loo. I volunteer to take him to the public facilities, so I have a good reason to excuse us. Before I go, I urge Louisa to meet us at the notice board and that she shouldn't be too long.
To be continued…