Time and time again, p.6
Time and Time Again,
Her eyes widened again. 'Cambridge? You're at Cambridge College?'
The question hadn't been put to him before in that form, and because he didn't want to make her seem ignorant or himself pedantic, he answered: 'I'm a student at the University, but I come to London sometimes to look up things at the British Museum. . . . Now it's your turn. Tell me what you do.'
There was no check on the conversation from then on. She said she was a typist at a firm of importers with offices in Kingsway. She had a boss named Mr. Graybar. She was eighteen. She lived with her parents at Linstead, and Linstead, she explained, was near Chilford. (Charles had heard of both, but could only place them vaguely as northern London suburbs.) Her father was a superintendent of local parks. (She spoke the word 'superintendent' with pride.) She had two sisters and a brother. Another brother had been killed in the war.
That led him to tell her, with no reticence at all, about Lindsay. 'He was seven years older than I. He was going to have a wonderful career--everybody was sure of that--he'd already taken a brilliant degree. He was good at everything--games as well. He could ride beautifully--some of those big fellows that I was always scared of--'
'Where do you live?' she interrupted.
'In the country. Cheltenham's the nearest town.'
'What's your dad?' she then asked.
The question closed and barred the door that Lindsay had opened wide, for the thought of his father made Charles suddenly cautious. To discuss his family and Beeching might set a distance between them, and he could not take such a risk at this early stage of their relationship (for he knew already there must be later stages). He said guardedly: 'You mean his job? He doesn't actually have one, except . . .' And then he floundered because the words seemed ill-chosen--would she think he was telling her that his father was out of work? He went on, trying to correct the wrong impression, if any, without conveying the right one: 'We have a bit of land and he looks after it most of the time.'
'Oh, I think it's wonderful he sent you to college. My dad let Bert stay on at the grammar school till he was sixteen.'
So she HAD misunderstood? Charles couldn't be sure. Anyhow, it was as if she were pridefully seeking to match either her own father's financial sacrifices or his devotion to learning with anyone else's in the world, and this drew his hand across the table to hers in a warmth that made their first physical contact something to remember like all the other first things. He saw the colour spring to her cheeks, and she glanced at the clock while his hand was still on hers. 'Oh dear, I must run--Mr. Graybar will make such a fuss. It's our busy day with the Japanese mail going out.'
'Yes, we do a lot of business with Japan. AND China.'
'Are your hours long?'
'Nine till six.'
'Not so bad. It comes in rushes. That's why I'm so late today. I have to go, really. It's been awfully nice talking to you.'
'You say you always come here to lunch?'
'Well, sometimes I go to the A.B.C. in Holborn. But mostly here. It's nearer.' She picked up the bill.
'No, no, let ME . . .'
'Oh, I couldn't . . . no, really . . .'
The bill was only a few pence, and he thought it too unimportant to argue about, the more so as he didn't know whether she had protested conventionally or because he had said his father had no job. So he said, testing the matter from another angle: 'All right, THIS time--but I must see you again. Will you have lunch with me next week--one day?'
'I'll be here, yes. Every day.'
He followed her to the cash desk, paying his own bill. He still stayed with her when they reached the street. A clock outside was either five minutes fast or else the one in the teashop had been slow. She noticed it with alarm. 'Oh, look, I'm terribly late.'
So they scampered together, half running and half walking, along a zigzag of side streets to Kingsway, making plans meanwhile. When they reached the office doorway another clock, confirming the one in the teashop, seemed to give them a moment miraculously their own. He said: 'You won't be late--not now--and why don't I meet you HERE next week, instead of at the Lyons? We don't really have to go there at all, do we?'
'Here, then, next Wednesday, at one?'
'Yes.' She gave him a bright breathless smile. 'And I'll try not to be late, Charlie, but if I am, you'll know it's Mr. Graybar.'
She ran inside and he stood on the pavement, watching the swinging doors till they were still. She had called him Charlie, so promptly and easily, and no one else ever had--neither family nor friends. At Brookfield most boys used last names, except intimates, and those had called him 'Andy'--a nickname that had then been transplanted to his circle of Cambridge friends because one of them had also known him at Brookfield.
She had told him her name was Lily--Lily Mansfield, but he had not used it yet, aloud.
* * * * *
On the train from Paddington he could hardly find perspective in a world so changed. He ate the Great Western dinner, his appetite now briskly restored, and staring through the window was almost glad there was a full week before he would see her again--a full week to taste the new dimension of events. Towards the latter part of the journey night fell, and then he got out his notes and found to his relief that he could concentrate magnificently. She cosily made room for the Seljuk Turks in his mind.
At Stow Magna he took a taxi to Beeching. As the cab swung past the lodge gates into the half-mile of carriage drive he saw a tall figure pacing in circles on the front lawn at a rate that, with its lack of purpose, suggested frenzy rather than exercise. Charles knew it must be his father in one of his 'moods', though what kind of mood was not yet apparent. Maybe deep depression, or maybe a high excursion on the crest of a mind-wave; 'plunging' and 'vaulting' were the adjectives which, for want of anything more scientific, Charles gave to the two extremes. The difference between them and the quickened intervals of their recurrence had already become as obvious as the fact that Havelock's eccentricities were increasing as he grew older and as the years denied him more than they offered. It was as if the slowing tempo of a powerful physicality had liberated him for forays while it barred the grand offensives of earlier days.
Havelock stopped his pacing when he saw Charles arrive. The first words of greeting as they entered the house together revealed that the mood was 'vaulting' this time, which was certainly, of the two, more cheerful to live with. But not always more tranquil. During what was left of the evening Charles discovered the nature of the latest foray. Havelock, it seemed, had just contributed to The Times a letter that was not about birds or tombstones, but ventured into new territory--political. Beginning with a reference to 'my son, who is at Cambridge', it had gone on to mention an honorary degree recently conferred there on a leading politician (named) and the list of this man's virtues, as enumerated in the usual Latin speech delivered on such occasions in the Senate House. Havelock's contention was that the Latin had not been well translated, and after quoting it he supplied his own 'better' version as follows: 'Sagacity, Willpower, Integrity, Nobility, Experience'. All of which could have been called a piece of harmless pedantry till Havelock had gleefully pointed out (to friends, neighbours, and fellow members of his London club) that the initials of the enumerated qualities spelt the word 'swine', and that The Times editor had thus been magnificently duped. Havelock now expounded this crčme de la crčme of the jest to Charles in the real or assumed expectation that he would derive equal enjoyment.
Of course Charles thought the whole thing preposterous and a disturbing symptom of his father's heightened irresponsibility. He could not decide on the motive; whether Havelock by the completely unnecessary reference to 'my son' had sought deliberately to involve him in unpleasantness; or whether he had merely surrendered to some euphoria in which his mind (not for the first time) operated without judgment. Charles told him frankly that if the story got around it couldn't exactly help a budding diplomatic or any
Suddenly deflated, Havelock then claimed that this had never occurred to him, and that in any case the risk of real harm was trivial. Perhaps it was, Charles admitted; only time would show. When later the whole incident seemed without result of any kind, Charles could only conclude that the letter had attracted absolutely no attention, and that people to whom his father had talked had merely disregarded him as a crank. Full relief came later still, when The Times proved its unawareness by printing Havelock's next letter, which was innocuously concerned with the migratory behaviour of the green sandpiper.
But for the time, during that first week of the Easter vacation, it was only behind a curtain of exasperation that Charles could savour his own private happiness--the thought of the Wednesday ahead, the Wednesday he had chosen as just a random day for meeting Lily again, but which already he wished had been Monday or Tuesday.
* * * * *
As soon as he saw her pushing through the swing-doors of the Kingsway office he knew she had dressed up, and though she would have looked just as well to him in what she had worn at their first meeting, he was touched. Naturally, as a man, but still more as a man of his class, he had not thought to do anything similar. There were certain things one wore in the country and slightly different fashions at Oxford or Cambridge, and a third set of rules for London--none of them more difficult than the task of choosing a good tailor and paying his bills. Charles had indeed been in a state of high excitement as he dressed at Beeching that morning, but so far as clothes were concerned, he was just going up to town for the day, and anyone who saw him waiting on the platform at Stow Magna would have known exactly that.
They shook hands and for a moment were both of them nervous and almost speechless till he raised his arm to halt a passing taxi. 'We'll decide where we'll go while we're going,' he said gaily. And then to the driver: 'Trafalgar Square, to begin with.'
But he found she had very few ideas about lunch. It seemed that on certain gala occasions she had been to the Strand Palace and the Regent Palace, which she had thought very splendid; but they were not his style, and since he could not afford Claridge's or the Ritz, he wondered if she would be disappointed with the kind of restaurant that suited both his tastes and his pocket pretty well. There was one he and Brunon had discovered, called Le Beau Soleil, in Soho--a small foreign place with no marble and gilt about it, just a few tables in a plain room, rather grubby menus, and a good cuisine for the price. So he said, taking her arm in the taxi: 'Let's go somewhere I once went to--nothing much, but at least it's quiet and we can talk.' It wasn't even quiet; what he meant was that there was no six-piece orchestra booming out popular tunes to drown conversation or to fill the gap of silence between people who had nothing to say.
It troubled him to think that Le Beau Soleil might disappoint her; but soon he realized how willing she was, at all times beginning with that first one, to go where he took her and to be actively, not merely passively, happy about it. There was a sense, indeed, in which everything that ever happened to her was a gala occasion, needing no particular background to make her enjoy it to the full.
They had the plat du jour and she refused wine but drank several cups of coffee. The room was downstairs from the street level, in a sort of semi-basement whose windows looked up beyond a railed area to the pavement. One saw the legs of people passing continuously, but no more of them than that without craning one's neck. Sometimes a pair of legs would stop--perhaps to rest, or during the lighting of a cigarette, or for no special reason at all-- and then proceed again. Sometimes a pair of legs would stop close to another pair of legs--a meeting. It was amusing to guess, and then to lean sideways to verify. Once a man stooped and stared, presumably to see if the restaurant was full; it was the only outside face they saw, and behind the railings it looked like that of some strange crouching animal in a cage. 'But HE sees US through the bars,' she said. 'Maybe to him it looks as if WE'RE in the cage.'
'I've often had the same thought at the Zoo. . . . You like the Zoo?'
'I've never been,' she answered.
That seemed to him quite amazing. 'You've never been to the Zoo?'
'I've never been anywhere much--except round about where I live.'
He found, by closer questioning, that this was true--she had visited hardly any of London's famous sights; all she really knew of the city was the daily route by bus or tube from the station to the office, plus a few jaunts to cinemas and theatres. She had never been to the British Museum, though it was only a short stroll from where she usually had lunch. But she had been to Madame Tussaud's, and Charles hadn't. 'Reg took me. He wanted to see the Chamber of Horrors.' She didn't explain who Reg was, and Charles didn't ask; but the mere existence of a Reg stirred in him a desire to be the first to take her to all the places that Reg had so far neglected.
He got an impression that she had lived a very sheltered life at home--and of course there had been the war years during which sightseeing wasn't easy or always possible. She said she had reached the top class at Linstead High School for Girls, and had gone straight to an office job on leaving. 'We learned French at school,' she said proudly, 'but I don't remember much now.' This came out when the proprietor greeted them at their table and Charles addressed him in fluent French, resulting in the discovery that Le Beau Soleil was owned and managed by a Greek, and Charles did not know any modern Greek. He realized then from his dismay how much he had been wanting to show off in that particular fashion.
Suddenly, over a third cup of coffee, she noticed the clock. 'Oh, my goodness--a quarter to three. I'll have to run. Mr. Graybar . . .'
'May I say damn Mr. Graybar?'
She giggled. 'I've said that many a time. . . . It's all right, though--we're not so busy today and I'll work late tonight to make up for it. . . . But whatever could we have been talking about all this time?'
And that was a question hard to answer. For they had talked unceasingly, yet not about anything important. Just their own everyday affairs, which interested each other the more they were revealed, though Charles was still reluctant to be as frank as she was. It was strange; he did not mind impressing her with news of Cambridge, and the work he was doing, and his fluent French, but he did not want her to know much about Beeching. Yet perhaps he had been less reticent than he supposed, or else she had intuition about it, for in the taxi on the way back to Kingsway she said: 'Your family are rather well off, aren't they?'
'Oh no, not really. You can be poor nowadays if you own land. My father often has trouble paying his bills.'
'Do you own a lot of land?'
'Just farmland. All of it wouldn't be worth as much as a few square feet round here.' That was an exaggeration, but he wanted to minimize certain differences between them. Other differences he didn't mind--some even amused him. Her naďveté, for instance, and her lack of the pseudo-sophistication that most girls had--a lack which he knew had nothing to do with primness or being straitlaced. He noticed this when she declined a cigarette. 'You don't smoke or drink, Lily?'
'Well, I've tried them both, but dad doesn't like me to, till I'm older. And it costs money.'
'How much do you earn--if it isn't something I oughtn't to ask?'
'Why not? . . . Two pounds fifteen a week.' Charles was shocked; he had no idea that wages in offices were so low. But she seemed to think she was well paid. 'I'll say that for Mr. Graybar, he's not mean if you can do your job. He gave me the extra five shillings last New Year without even being asked. Of course I live at home, that makes it easy. I give my mum thirty shillings--she won't take any more. She's awfully good to me.'
He was beginning to realize already that Lily found most people 'awfully good' and therefore easy to excuse, forgive, appreciate, and love. And if love were too strong a word, surely any other would not have been strong enough for the emotion that radiated from her in all human directions. She loved her mother and
'No, no, let ME. . . .' He managed to find a shilling in his pocket and dropped it in the man's cap.
'You shouldn't have done that,' she said, when the cab moved away.
'Why not? YOU were going to.'
'But a SHILLING!' she protested. 'They don't expect that much. Goodness, nobody could afford to, if it had to be a shilling.'
'So you always give to them?'
'If I'm passing I sometimes do. Some of them are really good singers, and if they aren't you feel sorry for them. . . . Only a few coppers, of course.'
'I'll bet that fellow didn't need money as much as you do. I'll bet he makes more in a day than you earn in a week.'
'But if people always thought like that they'd never give anything to anybody.' The cab was making the turn into Kingsway. 'Oh, Charlie, I've had such a wonderful time. I can't remember when I've talked so much. Next time I'll try not to.'
He took her hand in an uprush of exultation that gave his voice a tremor. 'Well, when shall it be--NEXT TIME? TONIGHT? What time do you leave the office?'