WRITTEN BY JAN SNOOK
Something about this wonderful country made Helen more daring… but what would the consequences be?
Helen walked out onto the balcony of her daughter’s flat and breathed in the warm Malaysian air. The sun was dazzling, and she looked down at the gardens below, which were lush with banana plants, passion flowers, bougainvillaea, hibiscus and exotic plants that Helen didn’t recognise. Golden Orioles flitted from tree to tree, and somewhere frogs were croaking. In the far distance the iconic Petronas Towers were glinting in the sun.
“Oh, you’ve woken up, then? I thought you might still be suffering from jet lag.”
Helen’s daughter Lizzie had joined her on the balcony and was holding out a welcome cup of tea.
“I thought we’d go to the orchid park this morning. Orchids really grow like weeds out here. Of course they might make you cross,” Lizzie added, her eyes laughing, “they’re absolutely beautiful, and they’re dirt cheap, nothing like the prices you pay in the UK!”
Helen smiled. “I’d like to go and see them all the same.” Her face clouded. “Your father did love his orchids.”
Lizzie squeezed her arm, and Helen gave a wan smile…
“Most of the time I’m fine. Really, I am,” she added, seeing the doubt in her daughter’s eyes. “Your father’s orchids are still doing well. I honestly thought I was bound to kill them off after he died, but it’s been three years, and they’re still thriving. They just don’t look like the orchids here… The airport was awash with them! But are you sure you’ve got time to do things with me today? Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“Well I wasn’t going to abandon you the minute you arrived,” Lizzie said, “and I do get holidays, you know. I will have to go to the office some of the time, I’m afraid, but once I’ve shown you where the shops are you’ll be fine, won’t you?”
“Of course I will. I’ve got my e-reader with me, absolutely loaded with books I want to read, and I intend sitting by that gorgeous pool for hours on end.”
The pool was on the roof, and offered even better views of Kuala Lumpur than from this balcony, Helen reflected.
“Well, good,” Lizzie said. “When I first got here I went for a swim every day, but after a while you get so used to having it that you don’t use it. And at weekends I’m quite often in Redang, diving. In fact, hardly anyone uses the pool – you’ll have it to yourself.”
Which would be just as well, Helen thought. She hadn’t been seen in public in a swimming costume for quite a while, and she wasn’t sure the public was ready for it.
“So you’re still diving, then?” she enquired. “It must be a bit different diving here – not like Swanage.”
Lizzie laughed. “You could say that. The fish are wonderful, and there are so many islands you’re spoilt for choice.”
“And you do all this with… friends?” Helen asked, even though she had promised herself she wouldn’t pry. Not, of course, that this was prying, she corrected herself hurriedly. You were allowed to ask your own daughter a few questions, weren’t you? But she transferred her gaze from the view back to her daughter and was met with an amused silence.
“Well your emails aren’t very informative,” Helen said, half apologetic, half accusing. “I worry about you, being out here all alone.”
“I can assure you that I don’t spend much time ‘all alone’,” Lizzie said. “And yes, I go diving with friends most weekends. But not while you’re here, obviously,” she added quickly.
“And do you go in a… large group?”
“Mum! Yes! There are usually about half a dozen of us, but not everyone goes every weekend, OK? And if you really want to know, there are two couples, and six or seven singletons. Including one gorgeous man, who concentrates on his diving, and isn’t remotely interested in me. OK? Satisfied?”
Helen said nothing, but smiled expectantly, eyebrows raised.
“And his name’s Tom, OK? That’s it. All you’re getting!”
The orchid park was certainly beautiful, as was the bird park which they visited the following afternoon. Huge gaudy hornbills and toucans swept overhead, while green peacocks strutted around the visitors, unconcerned.
It was a particularly hot day, and at four o’clock Helen and Lizzie stopped for a glass of iced tea at The Coffee Bean which was quite close to Lizzie’s flat. Lizzie’s mobile rang and she glanced at the screen and frowned.
“I ought to take this, sorry…”
She got up and walked a short distance away. Helen sat sipping her drink, fanning herself and covertly watching her daughter.
She could read her like a book
Her face when she’d seen who was calling had registered shock, then something very like hope, and now… now she looked anguished. There could be no doubt that the caller was important to her daughter.
Lizzie looked across at her at that moment, and Helen looked away quickly. A man was sitting at the next table – unmistakably a Brit.
“You’re so lucky to live here,” Helen said loudly. “The weather’s just beautiful. And the whole place is so immaculately clean!”
What was she doing, striking up a conversation with a total stranger? But out of the corner of her eye she could see that Lizzie looked relieved.
“I don’t live out here, actually,” the man said pleasantly. “I’m visiting my son. And daughter-in-law,” he added quickly.
“Snap!” Helen said, “Except that I’m visiting my daughter. No son-in-law.”
The man smiled and lowered his voice:
“Truth to tell, I’m out having tea so as not to be under my daughter-in-law’s feet all day. I mean, she’s a sweet girl, but my son’s at work a lot of the time, and – well, we all know that having guests in the house can be exhausting! So I take myself out quite a lot. I have tea here most afternoons. It’s nice and close. They live on the very top floor of that high block over there – the yellow one.”
“Do they? My daughter lives in the one next door. She’s just over there, on the phone,” Helen said, trying not to point, “and I know what you mean – I’m here for three weeks, and I think I may be cramping her style…”
The man, who’d introduced himself as Robert, laughed, and shortly afterwards paid his bill. “Perhaps I’ll bump into you again,” he said as he left.
Lizzie was very quiet for the rest of the afternoon, and Helen had the greatest difficulty in not asking who had been on the phone.
The next day Lizzie, still looking rather forlorn, had to go into work. Helen went for a swim and then sat on the balcony writing postcards. She was about to go and make herself a cup of coffee when the phone rang.
“Hello?” she said.
“Oh good, you’re in. I tried your mobile but got no answer. It’s about the weekend…”
If the voice was anything to go by, the man on the other end of the phone must be very attractive, Helen thought, and it was with some reluctance that she interrupted.
“I’m not Lizzie, I’m afraid, I’m her mother. She’s at work.” Her next words made a bid for freedom before she could stop them. “And you must be Tom.”
“Oh, you sound exactly like Lizzie. She told you about me, then,” Tom said, sounding pleased. “I was only ringing her to say that I’m sure there’ll be another weekend when we can go to Pete and Sarah’s beach house, she shouldn’t worry. I thought she sounded a little bit disappointed. Anyway, I’ll try her at work. Thanks.”
It clearly wasn’t her day for not prying…
“Wait,” she said. “Hang on a second. Lizzie was meant to be going away with you this weekend? Did she say she couldn’t go? Oh dear, that must have been because of me, but the thing is…” Helen hadn’t got a clue what the thing was. She looked hastily around and her eye lit on the New Straits Times. President opens new hotel in Kuantan, the headline read.
“The thing is, Tom, I’ve just this minute booked to go away myself this weekend. I’d like to see a bit more of the country while I’m here. There’s a new hotel in Kuantan. So you see, Lizzie will be all alone this weekend…”
When she’d put the phone down, Helen went back into the kitchen and put the kettle on – she still hadn’t had the promised coffee, and she’d probably need it. To fortify herself against the irate (and perfectly justified) phone call she’d soon be getting from Lizzie, concerning meddling mothers.
On an impulse, Helen switched off the kettle, picked up her bag and went out into the hot sunshine, walking the short distance to The Coffee Bean. She sank into a chair and picked up the menu. It was getting a bit late for coffee. Perhaps she’d have lunch here as well.
“May I join you?” Robert said, sitting down a minute later.
“Oh!” Helen felt instantly flustered, and was annoyed with herself. She was pretty sure she was blushing as well. “I thought you usually came here in the afternoons.”
“I do. But… well, I have to confess that I saw you from our flat. Up there,” he said, pointing to a plant-festooned balcony at the top of the yellow building. “And I rushed out. I hope you don’t mind.”
Helen gave a deep sigh.
“I don’t mind at all. I’ve just done something dreadful. I’d like to tell someone…”
By the time Helen had finished her confession, their lunch had arrived and Robert was roaring with laughter…
“So next time your phone rings, you think you’ll be for the high jump, do you?” he asked, grinning.
“And have you booked to go to this hotel yet?” he continued.
She shook her head dolefully.
“Do you even know where Kuantan is? Or how you’re going to get there?”
More agonised head-shaking.
Robert instantly got out his phone and found the hotel on the internet.
“It looks great. Just look at that beach! I have a confession too: our flat overlooks your pool. I’ve seen you there – looking very glamorous – so I know you like swimming.” He hesitated. “I know this is very forward of me, Helen, but… would you like some company this weekend? We could hire a car. And I’d really like to get to know you better…”
Before he’d finished his sentence, Helen was nodding gratefully, and they’d both started to laugh. At which point Helen’s mobile rang.
“Better answer it,” Robert said, pulling a mock-frightened face.
“Mum!” Lizzie said so loudly that they could both hear her, “What is this all about? Tom says you’re going away for the weekend.”
Helen took a deep breath.
“I am,” she said calmly. “I have found that you should grab every chance of happiness that comes your way.” She paused, then smiled. “We all should.”
Our My Weekly Favourites series of lovely short fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
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