MDwM #12: Ramona Discovers a Very Big Secret about Her Cousin, Millicent’s Brother, Reggie

IMG_1467

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

 

“Ramona,” Millicent drawled one day, sitting down to read the paper, as I moved to the desk and began to open drawers industriously. “If you don’t stop that, I will ask you to leave.”

I froze.  “I’m sorry, Millicent. But…I’m sorry…I don’t…what am I doing?”

“This scurrying to seem busy every time I come in the room, moving papers about with such ostentatious industriousness. Fantastically annoying.”

“Oh, I’m not pretending to be—I…I do have things to do, Millicent, I—”

“Ramona I don’t care if you count blades of grass, if the bills get paid. Are they?”

“Yes, yes!” I said eagerly. “Everything is in perfect ord—“

“Well, do stop it, then,” Her eyes rested on my hands, which seemed, of their own account, to have picked up a fountain pen and turning it top over tail. “Isn’t there anything else you’d like to do besides fiddling so very irritatingly with that fountain pen?”

“Well,” I hesitated. “I do like to read the papers.”

“For god’s sake, read the papers then,” she tossed one to me.  “Go on then.”

I opened it, stiff and miserable, staring unseeingly; a minute passed, then ten, then twenty. I glanced at Millicent, reading, head resting languidly on her hand, and realized what I ought to have all along: her indifference to my purposeless afternoons was neither trap nor pose. She was accustomed to idleness. She found nothing strange in it at all.

 

Reading the papers would take up much of my time at Helvstead. There were no less than six, as the Clives through their position (a few had held important government stations) or inclination, had always been newspaper readers, one of the few actual Clive traits I possessed.  I had loved reading the paper since I was a girl, more so than books, much to my father’s chagrin. The smell of newsprint; the excitement as one opened those first pages, of never knowing what you might find, railway accidents, missing children, storms, draughts, absurd new fashions. Reading the entirety of the Times and the rest of the other papers, every day, I believe I became as au currant in world news as possible for someone isolated in the country to become.

But, some days I still ran out of newsprint, I took to prowling Helvstead’s library that housed an enormous, if indifferent, collection, the requisite ‘slim volumes’, sermons, travelogues and history. One afternoon, I found a softbound book, buried behind the sermons, with a sketch of an unnaturally broad-shouldered man on the cover. Inside, more sketches of grinning sailors, navy officers, and something about the elaborate casualness of the jackets tossed over their shoulders, the thickness of their bodies, the tightness of their trousers, seemed to me familiar, but at the same time, tantalizingly remote. Millicent found paging through as such as she came in to make herself a drink.

“Lord, Ramona. What are you looking at that for?”

I must have regarded her blankly. She gestured with the ice tongs.  “That book.”

“I found it. In the library,” I said.

“It’s Reggie’s.”

“Is it?” I said.

“Well, yes.” She paused. “You knew he was a poofter, didn’t you?”

“Pardon?” my face froze.

“God, Ramona. He and Charles—you’ve heard me mention him—the Commander Charles I lunch with in town? They were ‘great friends’ for, oh, ten years. Till Reggie died.”

“I see…I never would have…well, one doesn’t—but…I…I wouldn’t have guessed…”

“Was a homosexual? Mmm, no, ‘spose not. Some, good lord, you can spot twenty leagues away, but others, well…Reggie was one of those.”

“And this is…?” I said turning over the book.

“For men like Reggie. Who like to look at big thick boys.”

“Oh. Oh. I thought there was something…well…afoot.”

“ ‘Afoot.’” She snorted. “I never thought I’d see you sitting on the sofa, neat as a pin, looking at thinly veiled poofter pornography.”

“Did…did your…mother…or father…know? About Reggie.”

“Mmm…no. Those endless debutantes were a sort of Burnham wood. Reggie was letting a friend have a ‘boys only’ party when the east wing burnt down. One of the guests got pissed and dropped a cigarette and whoosh, there went the only part of Helvstead that wasn’t completely hideous. The newspapers hinted—with the guest list you could hardly blame them—but no one picked it up. Poor Reggie. Poor old poofter. Thank heavens Molly never found out, not even the title could have saved him. Boy’s n’ bugs, as Charles used to say—that was all that interested Reggie.”

 

I returned this book with care the next day, as if Reggie were still alive and might notice it had been moved and be embarrassed. But then I upended my tea as I moved away, and, blotting energetically at the carpet, I noticed a knob on the window seat, which gave an exhalation of must when pulled. Inside lay a bounty that had somehow eluded the war’s paper drives: stacks of The Strand, London Illustrated News, TATTLER, the LADY, PUNCH, Ladies’ Forum starting in 1850. I lingered over the advertisements, the oft unintelligible household suggestions, the advice columns, the fashions considered au currant, now hopelessly out-moded, gossip about those whose fame had gone by way of their death, and read serials, aware I needn’t wait for the next installment, and finding it a little eerie to be able to hurdle past that collective anticipation.

Growing up around schoolmasters, I developed a horror of being discovered with less than edifying reading. A classics headmaster had been especially humiliating about an Elinor Glyn, and as a child acutely attuned to the necessity of appearances, I begun keeping one book behind another, more favorable title. Aurelius’s Meditations served this purpose at Helvstead for when Millicent came in unexpectedly, and there really wasn’t any other way she did appear those first months. One day I’d picked up the New Testament by accident, of similar dimensions and Millicent had been spurred to such sarcasm about my piety, I had smiled.

“What are you grinning about, Ramona? God whispering sweet nothings in your ear? Listen, I simply forbid you to become a religious maniac. Molly’s more than enough. Honestly. What I have to put up with.”

I believe it was then I began to feel more at home, if only a little, at Helvstead.

 

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