Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, My Days with Millicent, in serial form.
” Well, then,” Millicent said, plopping down on the couch in a sleek hounds tooth pantsuit that showed off her oft-mentioned wasp waist, a few mornings later. If Millicent possessed the Clive propensity to slenderness, she never looked simply gaunt as did I. “You settling in? Like your room all right?”
I had thought it was small. “It’s quite nice.”
“Well, I know it’s on the small side, Ramona but it’s the warmest,” she said.
“I’d have been glad for anything, Millicent.”
“Mmm. God bless the excellent British woman,” Millicent said.
This chastisement, as usual, was delivered in a mocking, indulgent tone, and I found it, as much of Millicent’s remarks, unanswerable. I tried to remain unruffled, though; her inability to provoke me pleased her, and she found my reserved facade in the face of her remarks amusing, as it exaggerated both her candor and my forbearance.
“I always thought it a wonder, Ramona, you managed at the ‘O’ all those years. I couldn’t bear living with all those women, in constant ferment over who left a facecloth in the sink.”
“It’s wasn’t like that, Millicent,” I said, although in a way, of course, it was.
“I don’t believe you, Ramona.”
“Yes, well, perhaps you’re right. I’m not very observant.” I saw she was about to mock me for the immediacy of my acquiescence and hurried along. “So, I’m settling in most comfortably. Lucy and I have discussed a few things already.”
“Yes? Good. I thought that—goodness, how has that cardigan has managed to survive all these years? It is a favorite isn’t it? What can one call that color? Not brown. Nor…khaki… rather a withered shade of…taupe?”
“One might call it dun,” I suggested.
“Ah. ‘Dun.’ ”
The weight of my mother’s brooch pinned on the lapel as it always was, listing. True, I wore the cardigan more days than not, but had it been so long? I paused, recollecting and, indeed it had been ten years since I’d found its shapeless folds at a jumble sale.
“It’s quite comfortable.”
“I should hope so. And imminently suitable habit for our St. Ramona, eh?”
This moniker had come apropos at one of our teas when, I’d knocked my pocketbook, and the day’s post had swirled to the carpet. Millicent picked it up.
“The Royal National Mission of Lost Fishermen,” Millicent had read from the leaflet, adorned with a poignant illustration of small boy staring towards the sea. “What else here? Braeburn Home for the Aged. National Society for Cancer Relief. Episcopalian Missionaries in Rhodesia. The Invalid Children’s Association. The Shipwrecked Mariners Society. Bombay Babies Relief Society. Oxford Committee for Famine Relief…” she turned the pamphlet over. “Your discarded garments and footwear urgently needed.”
For several years I’d entertained a fantasy of just such a thing happening; Millicent somehow discovering, without my engineering, my charity giving, and admiration extinguishing her mockery. Perhaps she’d even mention it to her friends, Well, my cousin Ramona, she hasn’t a farthing, gives more than anybody. So don’t complain to me about the symphony’s latest charity drive.
“ ‘Dear Miss Bright,’” she read. “ ‘Thank you for your gift of half a crown. Every shilling counts to build our new orphan school home for the blind …’ Ramona is this how you spend your money?” her eyes unmistakably drifted to my clothes. “Tithing shilling here and a pound there to every charity that exists?”
I resisted the urge to snatch the pile out of her hands, reaching for my tea instead, murmuring we must all do our part.
“That old bromide,” she said. “Really. But there’s been some scandal recently, yes? The London Home for the Aged—didn’t the director scarper away with the funds?”
I felt a blush rise torturous and painful from my neck to cheeks.
“Oh,” she said, grinning. “I see. How much then?”
“Not so very much,” I said, smoothing my napkin.
“Bloody liar. Red Cross? Surely, you must plague them with your five and ten pence as well. Thought so. This is fascinating. Oxfam? The Salvation Army?”
“Yes. And well, I volunteer,” I said.
“Don’t tell me you are in one of those dreary soup kitchens?”
“Well, yes. Three nights a week.” I had sighed, thinking of a old man I’d seen that week, his hands encrusted with something not quite dirt, nor dust, but some specialized form of London grime, shaking for want of drink. I had felt no urge to ameliorate his suffering only for him to go away and quickly. If I’d had a bottle of rye as a bribe to do so, I would have.
“Sometimes it seemed rather hopeless,” I said I’d no idea I’d been having this thought and was unsettled by the way it had come out without warning.
“What seems rather hopeless?” she asked.
“The efforts one undertakes, trying to make the…world a better place. There are times, I know one shouldn’t say so, but well, I feel a bit…well…a bit doubtful if it’s of any use.”
“Only ‘sometimes’? I’d have thought there was no doubt about it, any time of day or night. Best not to fall on the comfort of half-truths, Ramona. The world is rack and ruin. A real goddamned bloody horror show. No need to delude yourself. Now, you really must tell me about this Distressed Gentlewomen. How screamingly funny.”
That had been some at least four years ago, but ‘St. Ramona’ had stuck, although to be fair Millicent used it very judiciously. But I did dislike it rather, as a matter of fact.
Millicent, that third morning at Helvstead, look at me over her paper and I had a flare of the most awful longing, thinking how much I would love to own, just once, something as wonderfully cut as that hound’s-tooth pantsuit.
She smiled. “I know you do hate it, St. Ramona. All right, so you and Lucy have spoken? Good, good. Before I know it you shall have Helvstead running like a perfect top. Shouldn’t be so difficult.”
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com