We Learn about Ramona’s Brief and Amorous Engagement to a Bounder of the Name of Ralph
“What a day I’ve had,” Millicent said a few afternoons later, flopping into her seat and picking up the paper. “Boring, boring, boring. Jock Myerson—the biggest idiot in Parliament—proposed to me—again—if you can believe it. Third time! Over pamphlets he had made up on the perils of venereal disease, which he has some mad interest in, the old weirdie. Ha! I believe I may have laughed in his face. Not quite the groom of a girl’s dreams.”
The face of Ralph Arbuthnot came to me unbidden.
“Now you had a fiancé once, Ramona,” Millicent said, rattling past the front page. “And no, I didn’t forget; you’ve wanted me to, but I haven’t. Scarpered off with all your inheritance—no—just most of it. Good gracious what was his name. Ralph something or other. Oh, yes. Ralph Arbuthnot. Am I right?”
I murmured something vague.
“Why haven’t you ever told me about him? Oh God, look Lord Cramley at it again, shouting about the peerages,” she turned another page. “What a bore he is. Come on, Ramona. Why haven’t you dished it up?”
“Oh,” I said, turning to the desk. “Well, I don’t believe you’ve ever asked.”
“Mmm,” she replied, a very Millicent sort of noise that managed to communicate that while she recognized the essential falsity of this statement, she would resist challenging me on it as she refused to be distracted from her original purpose and I ought to know better than to try.
“Well go on, then. And no holding back, Ramona. Tell me everything.”
There it was, finally: Ralph Arbuthnot. Millicent was the last person to know him by name, and the only one to have known his perfidy. It would be disingenuous to say I didn’t have regrets about the business, especially after a good portion of my inheritance indeed had disappeared as a result. But I didn’t regret it entirely. Ralph’s very existence in my life had worked as proof that I wasn’t so far outside the normal tides of men, marriage and babies as other women. But the unvarnished truth about Ralph, one that I held close over those years, is that I barely knew him. That fact isn’t so unusual in those urgent days before the war, but, all the same, I’d never spoken of it; it was too close to the sham that was rest of the story.
Is it an indulgence to speculate what might have happened, if a brick hadn’t fallen out of a workman’s trough and landed on my toe that day that Ralph and I met? Undoubtedly, but I had done so many times. There is nothing like romance to make one want to start plucking apart the seams of fate.
I had emerged out into the shock of London traffic to hear the chime of church bells and after the tense, carefully tended quiet of the Foreign Office, the streets seemed fractious, crowded, pulsing with fear and excitement. War had been declared a few weeks earlier and after days of steady work, I’d been told I looked knackered and shooed home with orders to get a decent meal. People were so often saying such things to me, I’d become rather inured to such admonishments, but feeling unusually done in, I agreed.
While I debated which mode of public transport was cheapest, cupid, in the guise of a whistling builder in overalls, passed, and, turning to call to a colleague, tilted his wheelbarrow, causing the fateful brick to topple onto my foot. A smarting toe seemed a very silly thing to mind with the imminent perils of war, but it hurt, and I felt, as one often does when tired, very ill-used. Feeling my chin start a dangerous quiver, I hobbled to the Red Lion, the nearest pub, and found a stool where I might wait for the throbbing to cease. My stomach though seized as the smell of sausages registered in my nostrils. Perhaps, I really ought to eat something, I thought, a little surprised. A meal out was a rare splurge, but it had been longer than I could remember, I ordered a plowman’s lunch and a pint of cider.
I’d finished the last of my sandwich when I noticed a tall young man in uniform coming towards me, his wavy hair shining half-way between brown and gold. He’d seen me limp in, he said. To my surprise and embarrassment, he bent down, took off my pump and examined my foot, pronouncing the toe unbroken. This diagnosis proved incorrect, as I found out when I went to the doctor three months later after it had turned a rather fearful shade of purple, but I couldn’t quite entirely think badly of Ralph Arbuthnot. I never could somehow.
After that intimacy, conversation came easily; or that is to say Ralph held forth and I listened. It must have been a few days since I’d eaten anything substantial, and fortified by food and drink, and an attractive young man sitting unaccountably by my side, I hummed with unaccustomed well-being. Ralph gave an exhaustive inventory of budding friends and enemies within his regiment and their derrings-do; the cars he’d owned and the scrapes he’d gotten in driving them, much the usual sort of thing, but struck me, even through my willingness to believe him perfect, as a bit fatuous, and involving a good-degree of self-aggrandizement. Yet it was a bit more subtle than one might expect for a forward young man; his stories demonstrated his good judgment, superior discernment or bravery, in implicit rather than explicit ways, and I wonder, if he had lived longer, just how subtle he’d have been able to become. Half-way through this monologue I realized he thought himself older than me. People were often making this mistake and in humiliating ways. Ralph would later inform me rather proudly he had turned twenty the month before. I was twenty six.
As the pints were consumed, my one to his three, we moved to a booth. Ralph spoke more seriously, about his life’s dreams, still a good deal more about cars, and his eyes, the mildest of blues with pale lashes, paler, strangely, than his hair, never left mine.
“Ramona, Ramona, it’s wonderful I’ve found you. You’re marvelous. So many girls just squawk away.” A sulky look crossed his face. “Flirting with all the boys and teasing a fellow for minding. Or saying a man talks too much—well, girls like that don’t know how important it is to listen to what a fellow really thinks.” He drank the dregs of his glass and gave a gusty sigh of beer. “I think I’m falling for you.”
I managed some womanly murmur.
“I’ll have another,” he said. He rooted in his pocket. “I say, I’ve lost my fiver. Damn.”
“Oh, dear.” I fished through my pocket book and pulled the pound note I’d placed in an envelope for the Anglican African Babies Relief.
“Let this be my treat,” I said.
He pushed it aside with an air of affront, one that soon had me insisting.
“Well, all right,” he conceded taking the pounds. “But this is the first—and last—time you pay for a pint of mine.” He looked into my eyes. “There will be many more.”
I waited till he was leaning in to the bartender before I hustled with unladylike urgency to the lav, inconveniently located in a dark corner in the back, from which the muffled sound of copious vomiting was emitting. I leaned against the door, aware of the moments passing, the girls that might be in dangerous proximity, the friends that might come in and whisk Ralph away.
“New one for Arbuthnot?” I heard a voice say from one of several high-backed booths which showed the gleaming tops of the briliantined male heads, overhung by a curtain of smoke. “You see her?”
“ ‘I say, I’ve lost my fiver. Damn!’ ”
“Works every time, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve seen him do it at least three times, boys. Give me a ciggie.”
“Piss off, Easterbrook. But gentlemen, I ask you, why the plain ones?”
“Easier to get in the sack?”
“Are they? I should give it a try.”
“Marrying up, that’s what he’s got his eye on. Thinks it’s easier to bag.”
“I think you’re right.”
“I know I am.”
“That Sophie though—”
“Not the hoi-polloi.”
“Looked like my Aunt Jane’s Persian, with that squashed nose..”
“I thought she was a bit sexy.”
“The tits were nice.”
“The tits were very nice.” A low whistle and a guffaws.
“So how soon till the sob story, gents, do you think? Half hour? Hour?”
“She’ll be eating out of his hand within minutes”
“That’s not all she’ll be eating.”
More hearty guffaws.
“Steady on, Favel. He might punch you in the teeth if he heard you say it,” said another.
“Arbuthnot goes prudish at the oddest times. Moody fella. Damn easy with the ladies though. Wish I had his touch.”
Reluctant and envious agreement all round.
A younger voice piped up: “Now, he really did like that Sophie. Was done up when she threw him over for that posh lad. And she’s engaged to him now.”
“Well Arbuthnot got his own back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Pinched her Mum’s cigarette case.”
“Not really? That pilfering bastard!” a voice said admiringly.
“Pawned it yesterday for 10 quid.”
Hearty exclamations all round broken by: “I’ve heard he’s been in gaol.”
“Yes, mates, passing bad checks. Or—wait!—was it leaving the site of an accident?”
“They are rather different, Easterbrook,” a voice said ironically.
“Don’t think he could have signed up if he’d been gaol.”
“Well, he’s been in some kind of trouble. I’m dead certain about that lighter anyway.”
“He’ll just spend the money on another girl.”
“Haven’t you been attending? She’ll be paying for the pints.”
“They always do.”
The toilet flushed and a tiny, red-haired woman, glasses askew, appeared, gave me a blank drunken look, and staggered away.
I ducked in, locking the door behind me and after I used the w.c. turned round to face myself in the mirror. I felt no tears, no hysteria, not even great surprise. I smoothed my hair and reapplied lipstick, my hands quite steady. Pride was a luxury and not one I was particularly accustomed to and at that moment my curiosity, the chance to know something else, was more important. I gave a final pat to my skirt and left.
By midnight Ralph had asked for my hand. He’d become quite cheerful, after three pints of cider and the relief that follows confidences. It required only a little hinting on my part to hear the story of being cast over by the traitorous Sophie, who he talked about at a length that if I’d been inclined, I could have found very unflattering.
The proposal came sometime after I’d let slip my connection to Millicent, which I made a great show of reluctance, probably the one and only successful act of coquetry of my adult life. He’d claimed to be jealous when I told him I couldn’t meet the next day, and accused me of having a secret boyfriend. His eyes had glowed with interest when I told him about tea with Millicent at the Drake and Royale.
“That’s wonderful,” he breathed, more dazzled by the name, I think, even, than any visions of potential prosperity.
I don’t remember agreeing to his proposal; it was taken as a given in any case. Everything felt unreal, but at the same time, had a curious and inevitable logic that evening. By one a.m., we adjourned to a hotel. I lay in that strange bed, thinking that not twelve hours before I had been in the Foreign Office, a virgin, typing my way through a mountain of shorthand, my greatest hope that I had a tin of baked beans in my cupboard for dinner.
“My shy thing,” he called me, and I refrained from pointing out going to bed with a man one had met five hours ago could hardly been considered demure behavior.
After making love a third time, he talked, his eyes on the ceiling. It didn’t take him long to get to it, one might say, but that was an accelerated hour in England’s history. In retrospect, I can see Ralph’s ambition—perhaps it isn’t quite fair to call it avarice yet, mitigated as it was by his youth—more clearly. He was a bounder, but not far out of boyhood, and his yearnings strike me not without their own touching naiveté. He had a certain wistfulness, almost as if longing to be the person he presented himself as, who wanted nothing so much but a bicycle shop and a nice wife and kiddies, if only he had the money.
His set up was quite simple: a building just opened up down the street from a chum’s flat. It was perfect, price, size, layout, all of it, but he was skint. A man and wife might open up a bike shop, wife doing the figures, the husband the repairs and selling. It was a lengthy speech and we had both dozed off by the end of it. My acquiesce once more was taken as inevitable; it’s funny how tacit agreements can take hold between two people, as much as antipathy or lust. When we woke in the morning, as he dressed, whistling, there was a purposefulness to his movements, the security of a man who knew a deal had been finalized.
A cheap and hastily bought engagement ring was placed on my finger before he dashed home to say goodbye to his parents. These too were a contrivance, I found; and his actual antecedents would remain forever a mystery. In any case I found myself wondering, when we parted, if I would see him again. But I underestimated Ralph. He returned, and we spent the better part of an afternoon trying to find someone to marry us. In the crush of similarly intentioned couples, it proved impossible, so Ralph contented himself with promises of the future and taking a hotel room under Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Arbuthnot. For the first time, I missed work, pleading a headache, rather ironically, considering. The next day I shifted funds to his account.
The day he shipped out, Ralph insisted we arrive early at the station, a prospect that, for all my willingness to go along with his every whim, made me uneasy, recognizing the illusion could fray under the duress of protracted goodbyes. Perhaps he realized it too; mercifully, in the second increasingly awkward hour, Ralph said he didn’t want to part in the train station after all, insisting we return to the Red Lion, where we’d met.
The pub, just opened, had a powerful smell, mop water, sausages, spilt beer and stale smoke. Ralph pressed his cheek to mine and began talking: how the Krauts would be licked and Hitler humbled like a dog, how marvelous old England would rise to greatness because it was the most magnificent nation in all the world, how I would be waiting for him and the marvelous cozy life we had in front of us. Ralph had a starry-eyed look about him, like someone about to break out into song in a musical, and even I, whole-heartedly embarking on this charade, found myself having a stir of consternation.
He was so young, and in retrospect I can see now, whatever his dawning caddishness, terribly frightened. He kissed me then, without calculation, and our eyes met afterwards. It was the only true moment between us; two people peeping up from behind the screens of mutually agreed upon reality. He gave me a bemused, hesitant look, surprised as I, and kissed me once more, this time in a movie-star manner, as if to repair the rupture of intruding reality. Then he picked up his rucksack, and whirled, waved and made his way to the train station.
Ralph died the first few days his ship set out; an improbable accident of a faulty bunk, to what seemed to be little effect besides a nasty lump on the head, but caused some gathering of brain fluids difficult to detect and by the time they had, too late. My address and a note I’d written to him had been in his pocket. I’d sat at my kitchen table staring at the notice dry-eyed, uncertain of what to do or how I might feel.
I recognized I’d been spared by his death; our marriage had every indication of being a dreadful business. Still, for all that, I’d like to have gone through with it. I’ve tried to imagine the letters Ralph and I had would have exchanged, and have often come up short; as to what sort of mélange of various pretense might have been exchanged in the name of getting better acquainted.
Eventually I managed to track down his “parents,” a couple who owned a bike shop themselves and were of mysterious relation. They’d discovered the money I’d transferred to Ralph’s account, and seemed to feel it was restitution, as apparently Ralph had “owed them,” which is to say, stolen, rather a lot. That it had been my inheritance, that Ralph and I had never married, moved them little, only bringing forth further gusts of belligerence over the duplicity of a boy “they’d not wanted, but taken in anyway.”
But I had a strange lack of firmness on the matter. I felt guilty, I suppose for the illicit days in the hotel, but conversely, in some superstitious manner, I was afraid if I pressed them, I’d have to return the experience. And so I left it, the last of my parent’s inheritance going to a disagreeable couple in Kent, whose surrogate child I had barely known.
Over the years, the engagement ring I wore around my neck, became rather a talisman, a warding off the word “spinster” as it came circling ever closer to a place of permanence. I was glad not to be a virgin; after a certain age it becomes more burden than virtue. That was the part I remembered best; our strange fevered few days, my feelings of astonishment as we made love in what seemed like every conceivable manner; the twisted hotel sheets, the sheepskin condoms, the way his eyes traveled over me as I stood there emerged from the bathroom, shivering in my slip.
I don’t remember what I told Millicent; enough of a combination of truth and lies to make it sound credible.
“Ah…nothing so refreshing as a story of young love. Let me see that ring,” she said when I finished.
I pulled the necklace out from under my collar, and she took it in her fingers. She dropped it, gave me a knowing smile, aware as anyone that I could have bought it myself.
“ ‘Bought at a two penny shop by he, I’ll wager, but worth all the tea in China to she, can you blame her,’ ” she quoted from a popular crooner. But there was no sting in it; if Millicent had an ability to say ordinary things in hurtful, mocking ways, she could also make mocking remarks in a curiously friendly manner.
“A cad, your Ralph. But so is every one of them,” she said turning a page. “Predation is most of what passes for wooing.”
Her voice lacked bitterness or even the urge to persuade that such a remark might carry.
“I didn’t know you felt that way,” I hesitated. “About…about men.”
She looked up, faintly surprised.
“Oh, well, that’s true about everybody, Ramona. I thought that much, at least, was obvious.” She turned the page. “Your Ralph was just a baby shark; who knows what he might have grown into, eh? A great white? You have to wonder.”
I smiled and paid a great deal attention to stirring my tea.
“Well, I suppose I’ve tormented you with the subject enough. Anyway, must change—that gruesome dinner party at the Hathberts. Speaking of predators. No one is safe from a bored London housewife stuck in the country, not even the servants. Especially the servants. Well, then,” Millicent said, rising, with a smile, one that indicated she was fully aware of my relief at her leave-taking, and found it amusing. “Toodle-pip, darling.”
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com