MDwM #6: The Horrors of Genteel Poverty: How Exactly Did Ramona Wind Up at Helvstead; Discrepancy Between the Cousin’s Lives Quite Marked

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

Of all the possibilities of my life at that juncture, taking up residence at Helvstead, six months earlier, would have been as likely as living in San Paolo. I had not expected to see Helvstead again.

But in January I received the first in a series of bad blows. A letter was slipped under my flat door: the ‘O’ had been purchased, and I must vacate. This shock was followed with the news two branches at the Foreign Office were merging, as they had been threatening for so many years it had long seemed it would never come to pass, and many clerks and typists, including myself, would be loosing our positions. Perhaps the ensuing worry is what caused me to catch influenza and miss the last week of salary I could have earned. I grew frightened as miserable, feverish days then a week passed; I couldn’t seem to get well. Finally, on shaking legs, I managed to dress. And, as I regarded my bare cupboard, calculating the cost a tin of beef broth, it occurred to me: if I hadn’t given away most of what had been left of my inheritance after my fiancé had absconded, I might not be in this situation. I squashed this train of thought, like one might a fly, using reminders of the sorrows I witnessed in the soup kitchen as a swat of a sort. Still, the thought persisted, and while I did my best to ignore it, I recognized that, like when one puts up flypaper, it only reveals how many flies, there were.

So: I did what needed to be done, thinking of my father’s edicts, steadily, quietly, without complaint. I applied for positions, conscious of eyes lingering on my worn clothes and frail papery hands, for despite my efforts, I knew I gave off the unpalatable scent of desperation. I scoured the classifieds, wrote inquiry letters, tacked a notice at the ‘O’ offering my services as typist. But after a brief flare of business, enthusiasms quelled; and I found it a misery to get paid; the elderly ladies could be close or forgetful with their pocketbooks, and I hadn’t the temperament to press.

Visions of the dismal, slightly sinister boarding house I had been dreading for years floated by my mind’s eye at regular intervals. Things grew more steadily more depressing: one day I was mistaken for an applicant to a charwoman’s position, and an on another, was startled by the exclamations of alarm my appearance solicited as I passed a former colleague. The ‘O’s lift had been out for nearly a week, and it seemed I was climbing a mountain. I’d come into the flat, and, whatever its shabby cramped dilapidation, I knew leaving was going to be a terrible wrench. One day, hot breath of despair on my neck, I went out, spending the last of my loose change on movie star magazines and candied orange peel. Then, with further reckless abandon, I drank the entirety of the cocoa I’d been parsing out so carefully from its tin.

Perhaps, I found myself thinking, fate would intervene. A rich man observing some kindness, would discover my identity and send a large anonymous check. I’d assist one of the ‘O’s elderly, and be left a legacy. Or I might even save a child from being run over by a lorry; that always seemed to happening and surely something could come out of it—a reward, a marriage proposal?

These last wild hopes, seemed to signal the end of my reserves. I found myself beyond fear of the ignominy of my situation, to a sort of mental aridity where time passed without notice. The days lengthened, repeated. I went through the motions of what needed to be done, dutifully. I wasn’t well, I had never fully recovered from being so ill. One day, on the tube, I imagined Millicent’s brisk voice coming over the line: “So, how is London’s busiest do-gooder? Doing her marvelous good?” so vividly I had thought it had happened.

I’d no memory of getting in bed after an afternoon trolling for work, but I woke up in the middle of the night, still in frock and shoes. I’d dreamt an American millionaire had given me a thousand pounds. I kicked off my oxfords, turning over, and laughed weakly. Whatever I had to do next, I thought as I closed my eyes, I would, but I no longer cared particularly what it was. I could only swim upstream so much longer and then I’d be spent and it would be over.

 

I’d already signed on to be a waitress at a tea house and found a tiny room in a Kensington boarding house, with a startling resemblance to my earlier imaginings, when a telegram appeared under my door: a summons to Millicent’s flat. There she made no comment on my appearance except to ask if I’d started frequenting opium dens, and told me she was sick of London, moving to Helvstead for the time being and wondered if I’d consider coming with her. I had protested volubly, calling this charity.

“Don’t be tiresome, Ramona. No, I don’t know your ‘circumstances.’ Now, what have you been doing with the income you hadn’t chucked at that useless young man, I can’t imagine. Probably gave it all away. What, the Fisherman’s Foundling Fund perhaps? The Society for Female Impersonators of Burma? Thought as much. Look, Ramona. I’m not offering you a stay at the Savoy, you know. You haven’t been to Helvstead in ages, have you? It’s worse than ever, especially after that idiot friend of Reggie’s burned down the only half-way decent part. And the army didn’t exactly do it any favors during the war. It’s cold, it’s damp, and really very ugly and it’s out in the middle of the country, with few neighbors, and all of them fantastic snobs, so what you’ll do with yourself I don’t know besides, darning socks for the poor or whatever it is you do. God knows, I’m not the easiest person to live with, but still, better than a grim little flat in who-knows-where. I won’t be keeping you company, you know; best have that said up front. I’ll come and go as I please. I want to do some riding, and there’s no place better. I’ll be asking you to help out with the bills, mine and the household. Oh, you knew there had to be a catch, didn’t you? There always is. Well, it isn’t so terrible, I don’t think. I need someone to manage, and you’re the only person I can possibly imagine not getting on my last nerve. Well, not too often, anyway. There’s a new housekeeper…Lilly?—no, Lucy. Yes, Lucy. Molly still comes and goes as she pleases—which may very well be a deterrent in and of itself—but Lucy seems not completely useless.” She squashed out her cigarette. “It’s not a great offer, Ramona, but it might work to our advantages. One can’t help but wonder exactly what your options are. A flat—no, a bed-sit—in some grim boarding house? I thought so,” she said, although I hadn’t made a sound. “In any case, Ramona, take a look at yourself. You’re an absolute ghoul.”

Her tone was blasé, bored. I thought of the tiny room I had rented, the café with its smells of grease, scorched egg and wet mop. I heard my father’s insistence on duty, not taking the easy route, and I waited for the resolve this recollection usually invoked. But he had always been rather vague, for all his ideals, and none of it had great conviction, as I sat looking at a dismal future, borne under by Millicent’s will, which I was unable to resist during the best of times.

So I agreed. And, leaving, fortified by sandwiches and a pile of bank notes, she spoke the kindest words she’d ever said: “And Ramona, don’t worry about it too terribly much, will you? You can stay as long as you like.”

 

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