MDwM #1: A Telegram Presages a New Life for Ramona Bright

Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, My Days with Millicent, in serial form.
Part 1

I sat on the bench outside the Optomeyer, and shifted my watch away from sun’s glare: nearly ten past eleven. A telegram had arrived the previous week:

HEVLSTEAD BOUND STOP

BE READY NEXT TUESDAY HALF PAST 10 STOP

PICK YOU UP OUTSIDE THE ‘O’ STOP

SHIP ANYTHING IN BOXES AHEAD STOP

M

P.S. NO MOPING STOP

Nibbling my thumbnail, I scanned the traffic, feeling the weight of the Optomeyer, or the ‘O,’ as we called it, behind me. I watched the doorman, Cleavus, who was keeping me company while I waited, help an elderly resident in a cab. The ‘O,’ my home for the last thirteen years, had been posh enough at one time for the gentry to keep a flat in town. But the elegance had long since deteriorated, no more so than on the top floors, where I resided, in what used to be small flats, carved by the present management into a rabbit’s warren of even smaller. The first floor contained the last vestiges of the ‘O’s’ grandeur, occupied by wealthy and elderly inhabitants, and certain niceties, like a doorman, continued, even after the carpet became threadbare and the wood paneling split.

Cleavus was hoping, I think, as I launched myself into a new life living at my cousin Millicent’s estate, to glean more morsels of information to bring to Mrs. Cleavus, a sprightly woman, but an invalid, who thrived on these things. I could hear the echo of Mrs. Cleavus, as he paused, squinting, as if recalling something he had been prompted to ask:

“Is it a very big estate then? Ah…Helvstam?”

“Helvstead. Yes. It’s the Clive family manor.”

“And…your mother…”

“Millicent’s father and my mother were both Clives, you see.”

“Must be a something like a palace, then.”

“Mmm,” aware anyone but Cleavus might be aware of how non-committal my voice was. “Ah. Not as such. A fire burnt down the largest wing. But the grounds are considered very fine. Of course the army requisitioned it during the war, but it had already been unoccupied for some time.”

“Your cousin—her husband was at the House of Lords?”

“Her first husband was an ambassador, and Minister of State. Lord Von Favre,” I pulled out a confectioner’s bag from my pocketbook. “Would you like some? Candied orange peel.”

“Don’t mind if I do. Haven’t had this in ever so long.”

“My mother used to get it for me before we went on trips as a child.”

“So you must have visited Helvstead often,” sighed Cleavus.

“Well. There were times.”

“Such lovely times you had, I’ll wager.”

I thought of my mother’s frantic unhappy whirl of packing and my father emerging from the study with a smile so artificial it was almost a grimace, I dreaded it even more than the paddle at school.

“Yes,” I said. “Lovely.”

Cleavus nibbled his peel. “You were saying. Your cousin. Her first husband, died in the war, did he?”

“That was her second husband. A Frenchman. And a Viscount,” I added knowing this the plum detail. “They were divorced.”

He absorbed this, the top half of his face reflecting the pleasure it would bring Mrs. Cleavus; his own feelings habituating the bottom, lips pursed in disapproval. After one of our occasional teas in their cellar flat of the ‘O’, Cleavus booming out hymns doing the washing up, Mrs. Cleavus relayed how he’d come under the spell of a visiting revivalist as a young man and was apt to take a harsh view on things as divorcees, idleness, dancing and champagne. In some remote corner of myself I sheltered a small flame of hope that my new life, if not exactly encompassing these things, it might bring me in closer proximity.

Well past six feet and nearly as broad in the shoulders as the doorway that was his post, Cleavus possessed an ugly—there is no other word for it, although ugliness doesn’t mean it was without dignity or even charm—and memorable face: shrewd, gray eyes, broad colorless cheeks; massive eyebrows, jutting chin, and a smile populated with small yellow teeth. His enormous nose had a pulverized look to it, but that had not come about, as was speculated, by prize fighting, but, as I later discovered, in an earlier incarnation as ice dancer one half of the ‘Loch Learnie Lovers’ with Mrs. Cleavus, and broken it innumerable times. Even though he must have been over sixty, he was still formidable, massive shoulders crowned by epaulets, wide broken face underneath the gold-brimmed hat schooled in a stern expression. Several ladies on my floor complained that prospective admirers had been met with a discouraging tone by Cleavus. This caused me a private smile; women came to London to find work and some small degree of freedom and here, to their chagrin, was Cleavus, as severe as any country papa, standing at their thresholds. Cleavus was a bit of a mother hen and never so happy as when he’d managed to see all of the ‘O’s inmates safe in their beds by ten o’clock.

An Austin careened by, and I stood, then sat, feeling foolish. I tugged at the hem of my linen suit, hoping I wasn’t crumpling it unduly. It was by far the nicest thing I owned and several hours worth of ironing had gone into it. Clothes had been much on my mind that week. Millicent had declared, to my infinite relief, she would do little entertaining at Helvstead, but still, imagining myself on the Chesterfield antique sofa in my ancient skirt and scrofulous tights, the panic was acute. Two of my three frocks could be hemmed no further, my pullovers had all been heavily darned, and my summer frocks were in an even shabbier state. But Helvstead, shaded by towering oaks, and chilled by a stone foundation that spread the cool of the earth throughout, wouldn’t require much in the way of light clothes. Attending an ungodly number of jumble sales, I managed to curry together a serviceable wardrobe of superannuated cast-offs. And then, the suit, which I’d obtained through underhanded means.

One morning, I’d arrived at St. Christopher’s jumble sale to find it empty, except for the confused tangles of recently disgorged wardrobes, emitting the ghostly scent of mothballs. Puzzled by the lack of sharp-elbowed ladies crowding the place, I glanced at the announcement: I was a day early. I hesitated, hearing tinklings of tea being prepared in the canteen, but as I’d been undetected, decided to make a quick inspection, perhaps even tuck a few finds at the bottom of a pile to ‘discover’ the following day. Then, peeking amidst the browns and grays of threadbare tweeds and worn hound’s-tooth, glowed a shade between periwinkle and turquoise. I extracted the arm, and discovered it was a suit, of thick twill, with a label from a Piccadilly shop, and, unusual for my gaunt frame, didn’t look like it might swim around my person. My heart seized. A voice came floating in from the hall.

“Damn! I can’t believe Agnes put it in the jumble pie—such a stupid girl. And the Whitehall tea tomorrow…do you have any idea how hard it was to find a handbag that matched that color?!”

It could have been any number of things, but somehow I knew they spoke of what I held in my hand. I whirled, searching for a hiding place. Another voice murmured placatingly, but was interrupted.

“Well, I know ‘you’ve only just begun,’ but really! You ought to be more organized! Yes, well, I must worry about it, if you don’t mind.”

I slid behind the alcove, watching a woman appear from the canteen, face creased with curiosity, and, I slipped out, hurrying down a path, and collided into a broad chest. I found myself facing a clerical collar and watery green eyes.

“Miss Bright!” he said. “Have a care for the rest of us.”

“I’m so sorry, Reverend Foyle.”

“But whatever are you doing? Not time for shift at the soup kitchen I don’t think?”

The mountain of withered onions I’d spent the better part of the previous evening chopping floated before me. “Not till Tuesday.”

“Not slacking on your charity work, I hope?” he said with a jocular air, but I knew to be serious.

“Oh, no! Four nights out of a week isn’t as much as I’d like, of course, but I have the Red Cross restoration fund on—

“Good, good,” he said, already having had lost interest. “Well. Must be off. Good afternoon, Miss Bright.”

“Good afternoon, Reverend Father,” I said in my most unctuous voice.

It took nearly an hour of careful ironing—I was terrified I might scorch it—to get the suit to rights. I hung it in my closet, and, tired from these machinations, collapsed on the bed, but left the door open, so as I pottered about, I could see it, flickering in my peripheral vision.

 

Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com