Song of songs, p.49
Song of Songs, p.49Beverley Hughesdon
No, because Papa was my father, and I took after him – I was a coward and dared not challenge Mother. At ten the next morning I tapped on the door of my mother’s sitting room, my writing case in my hand. She dictated rapidly as she leafed through her correspondence, and I was glad of the chance to put my pen down when Mrs Hill came in for her daily orders. As Mother consulted with the housekeeper I sifted idly through my own letters, and found Ben Holden’s invitation. He had written and offered me three dates; I felt a momentary pang as I noticed that the first had already gone – I hoped he had not waited too long on the draughty platform at Ainsclough. I put the piece of paper down again as Mother turned back to me. ‘You can arrange the bedrooms for the guests arriving tomorrow, Helena – but bring the plan to me so that I can cast an eye over it before you give it to Mrs Hill.’
I had forgotten there were more guests coming tomorrow – or, more probably, I had simply failed to listen when she told me. I allocated the bedrooms, and Mother rearranged them. Then I drew up a seating plan for dinner as she had told me to do – and she tore that to pieces as well. It seemed to give her some satisfaction; and I could scarcely bring myself to care.
The new guests were young and smart: the women narrow elegant tubes, brandishing elongated cigarette holders and wearing thin arched crescents where their eyebrows had been. I moved amongst them narrowest of all – but I did not smoke, and I saw Mother glaring at my unplucked brows. Chameleon-like, my mother had adapted to the fashions around her – I wondered wherever she put her bosom these days. It was a relief when Letty bounced in, plump calves quivering, hair tossed carelessly up. I played my own part dully, only waiting until the hour when I could escape to the empty loneliness of my room.
At dinner the next day I was beside Rory Foster – I knew him slightly, as I had met him several times in the company of Conan the previous summer. They had both trained as pilots together in the RFC, and he had flown in France for two full years before the crash which had broken his nose and stiffened his leg. ‘Rory had the luck of the devil,’ Conan had said, and he certainly looked devilish tonight in the yellow glow of the candles – his dark curls tumbling and his full lips twisted in a cynical smile. ‘Come, Lady Helena – you must enter into the spirit of the party! I’ve watched you sipping tamely at the same glass through the last three courses – it won’t do, you know.’ He deftly switched his own full glass with mine and tossed off the wine I had left. The glass was instantly refilled and his dark eyes dared me. ‘Drink, Helena, drink.’ I reached for his glass and drank. He threw back his head and laughed – he was already a little tipsy. ‘There – that’s the way to do it. When I squatted in that sandpit on the Peninsula, parched with thirst and waiting for Johnny Turk to take a potshot at me every time I twitched a muscle, why, then I swore that if I ever got out alive I’d drain every glass I could lay my hands on. It’s the only way – the only way.’ His curved mouth mocked me, yet I saw the sympathy in his dark eyes and recklessly I raised the glass again and drained it.
When I stood up after the dessert my legs were trembling; I swayed towards Rory and felt his strong hand grip my elbow. Someone cried, ‘To the fern house – and we’ll settle that bet once and for all.’ I did not know what bet they were talking about, but I was relieved that the younger men were leaving the table with us – I doubted whether I could have walked unaided.
Outside on the terrace it was suddenly cold; I shivered, and Rory took off his jacket and threw it round my shoulders. I held its warmth to me, and then there was a shout of ‘This way!’ and as the noisy crowd took to their heels Rory seized my hand and dragged me after them. Inside the fern house the heavy air smelt of greenery – warm and exotic. Voices rose in heated argument and Rory pulled me into a side aisle and held me to him. I leant against him, careless of who might see us. But the noisy mob were intent on their own affairs: they turned together and surged past us, out of the conservatory, and all at once we were alone, safe behind a rampart of green foliage. A voice called, ‘Everybody out?’ Neither of us spoke. A switch clicked and we were enfolded in soft darkness. Without thought I moved into his seeking arms and pressed myself against his hard chest. His lips found mine and we swayed together in common need. His hands were urgent on my body and as the excitement rose within me I opened my mouth under his. But as I clung to him mindlessly, his head jerked away and sudden light beat against my closed lids. We stood frozen in our green hide until a woman’s silvery voice called, ‘Rory darling, are you lost in there?’ His arms fell away from me and I staggered back. With a shrug and a rueful grin he scooped up his jacket and moved smoothly forward. ‘Margot, my dear – I’ve been waiting for you - we planned to jump out and surprise you in the dark – Helena here swore you’d never be able to find the switch, but you were too clever for us.’
Margot, Margot Janes – Mrs Margot Janes: ‘Denny Janes won’t be coming, of course,’ my mother had said, ‘Margot has other fish to fry.’ And I remembered her rapid alteration of the bedroom plan. Now as I stumbled towards Margot Janes her eyes narrowed under fine arched crescents – and the painted mouth curved into a thin contemptuous smile as she wriggled her sharp white shoulders into Rory’s black jacket. He bent over her in an exaggeratedly protective gesture, and they left me without a backward glance.
The bile rose in my throat and I tripped and almost fell as I ran across the dark lawn until I could collapse, retching, on the cold stone seat. I hated her, I hated him – but, most of all, I hated myself.
When I got up to my bedroom I sat before the mirror and tried to pull and push my disordered hair into some sort of shape – I tried not to look into my eyes – my eyes that were ringed with dark shadows, and dulled with pain and grief. And now I had to go downstairs again, and face the man who had discarded me – and his clever, confident mistress.
I tried to walk in casually, as though I did not care, but I felt myself cringe at the drawing-room door – the air was thick with cigarette smoke and malice. I caught snatches of screeched protestations: ‘My dear, you should have seen her!’
‘It’s too bad the way Ossie watches her every move…’
‘A private detective – oh, that’s not cricket…’
‘And her eldest daughter – like a great fat lump of lard – knocked down to the highest bidder…’
‘If only Papa had been a war profiteer…’
As I listened I knew I had no place here – I could not stay. I threaded my way through to where Mother held court and blurted out, ‘I must go upstairs now – I don’t feel very well – I think I’m starting a cold.’
As I spoke, the words seemed to catch and stumble on my tongue, and Mother leant back against the cushions and blew a perfect fragile smoke ring before saying in reply, ‘Nonsense, Helena, you’re merely drunk.’ Alongside Mother Margot Janes’ lip curved, and she gave a small, malicious titter – beautifully timed, impeccably executed. I stood defenceless before her, then I turned and walked from the room, my head bowed and my cheeks flaming.
Back in my room I tried to take comfort from the fact that they were all leaving tomorrow – and only four of them would be staying to luncheon; but because of my unwilling servitude I knew the names of the four who were staying. I could not, I would not face them – but there was no escape; Mother had so cleverly pre-empted any false appeal to ill health. If I pleaded a headache tomorrow and stayed in my room I would be a laughing stock, and I had nowhere else to go. It was then I remembered Ben Holden’s invitation.
I fumbled desperately in my writing case – when was the next date? I was not sure – then, in blessed relief, I saw that it was tomorrow’s. I had my excuse.
I could not face my mother again, so I wrote a hurried note: ‘Forgotten prior engagement’ – ‘an acquaintance made in France’ – ‘some distance north of Manchester’ – ‘must leave on an early train’. Ben Holden, like the footplateman he was, had given the times of the suitable Blackburn trains, had made everything so easy for me – kind, simpl
I rang for Norah and asked her to deliver the note to my mother in the morning – ‘After I’ve gone, please.’ She took it from me with a small understanding smile.
I slept restlessly, and woke in the night to the sound of tapping footsteps and stifled giggles going past my door. I shrank back under the bedclothes, then remembered with thankfulness that for tomorrow, at least, I had an escape. I clung to that thought gratefully as I fell into a dreamless sleep.
I did not wake again until Norah came in with my early-morning tea, and as she drew back the curtains the sunlight streamed into the room. She turned to me with a smile. ‘It’s a beautiful day, my lady.’ I smiled back, drowsy from the comfort of a good night’s sleep. ‘Such nice weather for your day out with your friend.’ My friend? Of course, I was going out today – I was going to walk on the breezy hills with Ben Holden. Not a friend, exactly – more a comrade – yes, that was the word; we had been comrades together. Ben would escort me, steady and patient and undemanding, and Emmie, cheerful Emmie – how lucky it was a Saturday, she would be able to come with us too. And I would listen gladly to their strong accents and clumsy grammar and occasional dropped aitches: I had had enough of clever, sophisticated people who tied my tongue in knots – and humiliated me. And when I got back to Hatton this evening Rory and his painted mistress would be gone.
I thrust the thought of them away and ordered, ‘My tweeds, please, Norah. I shall be going walking. And just bring me a tray with toast after you’ve run my bath – that’s all I need.’
But when I came back from the bathroom the sun was still shining and my tweeds looked sober and dull. I would dress up more smartly today. I sat planning my costume as I ate my toast, and it was good to be thinking of something frivolous again. I became almost excited, like a young girl once more – just like Emmie must be in Clegg Street at this very moment, thinking of her afternoon with her beau. I laughed, and said to her in my mind, ‘Emmie, you must share your beau with me today!’ Emmie was loving and generous; she would not mind, just for today. Between us we would make Ben proud to be our escort, because Emmie would have fine clothes to wear too – Letty’s clothes. How lucky that my sister had ‘rationalized’ her wardrobe in Paris: Emmie’s plump figure would never have been able to squeeze into any of my old frocks. And thinking of what Letty had bought in Paris reminded me – if I wanted to be truly frivolous today then there were those absurd garments she had brought back for me to wear. I felt a little spurt of rivalry with Emmie – Emmie who was so young and who saw me as a woman past thirty. I would show her: in one of Letty’s flimsy chemises no one could class me as middle-aged!
I found them tucked into the back of my underwear drawer, and my hand touched the pink one first, so I picked it up and shook it out and felt very daring as I dropped my nightgown and wrap to the floor and slipped the smooth satin over my bare breasts. I buttoned up the narrow flap but the satin strip swung so loose and low that the soft damp warmth between my thighs was free and open. I stepped back, and as I moved, the satin lightly brushed my skin, and then fell away again. Excitement rippled through me – I would be a Parisienne today. Recklessly I reached for the black lace garters and pushed my suspender belt to the back of the drawer – and the touch of it reminded me of Conan; it was Conan whose skilful hands had removed my last corset – I had never worn one again since that night in his rooms. The hot blood flowed into my cheeks and I was giddy with the memory of his lean male face above mine, of his warm lips and probing, darting tongue. My whole body flushed hot and heavy in longing for him – then there was a tap at the door; it was Norah, come back to do my hair. I called hastily that I was not ready yet, and pulled the sheer silk stockings up my legs and slipped the black lace garters on to hold them in place. I did not want my maid to see me in my scanty underwear so I ran to the wardrobe and took out the costume I had decided on: a dark brown cashmere dress with a matching jacket trimmed with tan – it would go with my tan calf brogues. I did not really like wearing brogues, but I supposed I would have to today, and being my brogues they were lightweight leather, with a definite heel. I would look smart, even if we were only walking ‘on tops’.
I went to my dressing table and sat down and called Norah in. While the curling tongs were heating up she put away my discarded tweeds, then with deft fingers combed and coiled and teased out my fine hair until it was soft and full around my face. Finally she gently positioned a small tan toque far back on my head, and I was ready.
‘You look lovely, my lady – I do hope you enjoy your day out. Are you going far?’
‘Thank you, Norah. Not too far – only to Ainsclough.’ But as I spoke that name the memories came crowding in on me: I remembered the concert before the war – and my brothers, so young and carefree – and my singing, singing of Gerald’s love. I battled with the memories, and forced them back into their cage – for this one day I would escape. But the face that looked back at me from under its fine hairstyle and smart hat was shadowed and drawn – Emmie was right, I was young no longer. I felt suddenly very foolish in my black lace garters and scanty Parisian underwear – but there was no time to change, the car was at the door, and besides, no one would ever know that I was wearing it.
As I sat on the train to Manchester I told myself again that for this one day I would escape, and live only in the present. I caught my connection easily at Victoria, and relaxed in my seat as we rattled northwards – but at the great yellow-brick cavern of Bolton the memories attacked me again, and I had to suppress them ruthlessly to prevent weeping at the memory of the mother with her child, on that terrible morning – but no, I would not remember. I forced myself to stare out of the window and study the high square mills with their towering chimneys, the grimy gasworks, and the crowded rows of soot- blackened terraces.
It became easier as we ran into open country, because these were not the lush green pastures of Cheshire – this was a different landscape, with its rough tussocky fields and low grey walls. The wayside stations were built of square-hewn stone now and they looked like nursery toys. Far below me a wide sheet of water shone in the sunlight as the train clattered on, ducking under small stone bridges and panting up the steady climb into the hills.
Soon I would be walking on those hills with Ben and Emmie – bright sweet Emmie with her bubbling voice that dropped from time to time into words quite unfamiliar to my ear. She would amuse Ben and leave me free to be quiet – but then I thought, it does not matter anyway, Ben does not expect me to entertain him – I can speak or not as I choose. While for Emmie my presence is enough – to her I was a heroine – ‘He said as you saved his life!’ – and I wanted that simple uncomplicated admiration today: I needed it.
I watched the grubby sheep feeding in the fields, and saw how the trees had bent before the wind, and noticed the way the small stone cottages took shelter in the hollows of the hills. I too would take refuge in these hills today, and escape for a little while. Suddenly we ran into a tunnel and as I travelled through the dark heart of the hill it seemed as though I were shedding my old life, like a snake shedding its skin. I had left it behind on the other side of the tunnel – I knew inside me that I would have to put it on again when I returned this evening, but for the moment I had escaped and become another person. Who should she be, this new Helena?
And I knew the answer at once – for she was going to meet a man: a sturdy, well-set-up man who was a native of this foreign town, a man who had invited her to spend the day with him. But he was a working man, so she would have to be a working girl – a mill girl from one of those big square buildings in Bolton, a mill girl going on a Saturday afternoon to meet her sweetheart. And then I could be young and silly again and pretend to be in love. And no one would ever know – Ben Holden would never guess – to him I would always be ‘Lady Helena’: but secretly I would play my part. I would pretend that my satin chemise was a petticoat of cheap artificial silk, that my fine cashmere jacket was a knit
Now black terraces huddled close to the railway line, crammed into the narrow valley and clinging tightly to the steep sides where the hills rose up. Today I would walk between those small houses, and up those steep streets, hanging on the strong arm of my sweetheart – a man with a good steady job, – on the footplate even – while I, I was only a poor mill girl. I laughed softly to myself as the train slowed down for Ainsclough.
I looked out at the platform eagerly, just as a little mill girl would have done – and he was there, waiting at the barrier. He was talking to the ticket inspector, but all the time his eyes were scanning the carriages, searching for me. I felt a surge of triumph as I saw his smile of satisfaction; I had given no pleasure to anyone these past weeks – but he, he was pleased that I had come today.
I jumped down from the compartment and almost ran to meet him. ‘Good morning, Ben.’
‘Morning, Lady Helena.’
His large hand was warm as I shook it. The sun was shining and I was a new person, in a foreign country, so as I smiled back at him I slipped my hand through his arm. I felt his start of surprise, and laughed a little to myself – he did not know that I was his mill girl sweetheart; he only saw a lady in fine cashmere, but I knew better. We passed through the barrier and on to the ramp sloping away from it, and I held his arm tightly and leant against him as he strode down.
As we came out of the ticket office he suggested a cup of tea. I smiled again, ‘That would be lovely, Ben.’
Song of Songs by Beverley Hughesdon / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes