My Days with Millicent #32 by Gilmore Tamny

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCZzWQgrM7M

The author playing guitar with her band, Weather Weapon, on “Save Them (Chibok).” Ohio Edit is publishing Tamny’s British-ish whodunit, My Days with Millicent, in installments.

 

Ramona leaves London for aimless travel around the north of England, adopts a new name and impulsively finds a new home and a new career. 

 

I left London, and for a month I traveled around England as I’d always wanted and intended to when I came back from Nice: Brighton to Cornwall to Wales to Cambridge to Leeds, looping up to Edinburgh and down again to Manchester, and any village in between that took my fancy. I might stay over a night, perhaps two, investigating the shops or museums or ruins or castles if I had the energy and inclination, and then, soon enough, be on my way.

The end of my fourth week, I came upon Redding-On-Sea. I can’t say I felt any premonition or particular enchantment. Redding, larger than many villages, proved as quaint as the guidebook gurglingly promised. But I’d become rather inured to the quaint, and my urge to stay was born out of the fact that I could find more novelty at rest for a week than those same days traveling. I had wearied of packing and unpacking.

Redding-On-Sea was much larger than many of the other villages, and after the intense quiet I’d passed in the previous few nights, I liked its relative bustle. A fishing village for many centuries, as it still was, it has also turned to hospitality, with beaches and hotels for the holiday-goers, and along with a few other minor industries, made up the village’s income.

I found the Resplendent, the largest hotel in Redding, an old Victorian monstrosity of glass and iron which nearly did its name justice, almost managing to overbear the cliff it rested on, the hotel windows and the glassed-in rooms catching the overcast sky. The marble was stained with rust, glass whorled, brass pieces worn smooth with use, and this cozy combination of grandiosity and genteel decay reminded me, most pleasantly, of the ‘O.’ I engaged a room with a seaside view for the week, telling myself I might stay longer, if I liked.

I did little that week besides wander the village, visit shops, get my hair done and read. The hotel restaurant was rather good, if a little heavy on the local specialty, Redding Cod which appeared on every menu in any number of varieties: kedgeree, cod cobbler, smoked cod pie, little cod cakes and stew.

I had returned to my habit of reading the paper, something I’d avoided since the shock of seeing the scandal at Helvstead splayed out over the headlines. But my longing for that steady, bolstering march of information finally eclipsed any lingering dread, and I undertook the Telegraph and Times supplemented with the Resplendent assortment of Picture Post, Le Mode, London Illustrated News, and Tattler and even the local paper, the Redding Gazette. I bought every ladies magazine available, perusing the latest London, Paris and Milanese fashions with a beady eye. I did a good portion of this reading in the bathtub or in the warm, capacious downstairs rooms of the Resplendent, designed to hold the throngs of summer and now pleasantly empty, hours ticking by under the watchful eye of a cuckoo clock.

I might take a walk before lunch, or, when it wasn’t raining, down the promontory or on paths around the hotel. The sea shone blue on clear days, a chaste, tasteful sort of colour compared to the saturated turquoise of the Cote D’Azur, a depleted-looking slate on overcast and a boiling green-gray on stormy ones. When it grew blustery, and it often did, the wind seemed to hurdle from all directions, colliding into itself and the sea, pealing away again, like a plangent squealing of tires. After lunch I took aimless drives, sometimes stopping at one of the villages for tea, but mostly I relished the old-fashioned service at the Resplendent, which offered one seamless moment of well-attended comfort to the next. Dinner, and evenings spent by the wireless or the television room of the hotel, a place most often claimed by American tourists in season, but I most often had to myself.

I liked reading the local paper. I perused the news, glanced through the adverts, pausing to read Dear Auntie, the advice column. I’d seen it in several papers while up in the northern part of England. That day’s query came from a woman wondering if she ought to move to live with a rich cousin’s flat in London, a cousin whose bad temper frightened her a little, although she had a little choice considered her financial situation. I snorted and turned the page.

I stayed a second week at the Resplendent, for the somewhat absurd reason of finding a full set of Sasha Swindon novels at an antique shop, which is just more proof that forbidden fruit tends to age better than nearly everything else. As a schoolgirl, rootling about for a pen nib in my father’s desk, I had discovered confiscated copy of The Dellspate Affair, and, staring at the illustration of a governess gazing wistfully out the window in a manner somehow suggestive of one recently deflowered, instantly recognized I’d discovered something of interest. I don’t remember sitting down to read, but apparently I did, and that is where Father found me, curled up in the windowsill. He took the book, giving me a reproachful, sorrowful glance. Later I heard the authoress’ name much murmured amongst the girls, “Sasha Swindon—she’s ripping.”

On some level I suppose, I had always wondered how The Dellspate Affair had ended. I spent several days interred on the divan in my room, with the entirety of Miss Swindon’s oeuvre and a large box of praline chocolates. While no less absurd than I imagined, with mesmerists, secret drawers, lost treasure and wicked satyrs peppering the landscape, the character’s asides about religion, class or education had an uncanny ring of naturalistic truth, so at variance with the plot they hung on, it struck me as all the more curious. Odder still was the candor, the insight with which the romances and the affair came to pass; while wreathed in the usual euphemisms they really hid nothing, and I didn’t wonder at their conscription to teacher’s drawers everywhere. But it was her urgings for women and employment that struck me most; they were quite unusual for the time; discussing the sense of purpose, independence, personal strength and autonomy to be gained, even as the heroine was exposed to seductive counts and the like.  Heady stuff, even a few decades later than when I began.

Having finally come up for air, after this gorging on the past’s forbidden fruit, feeling most refreshed, I headed downstairs to avail myself of the Times and Post, which I’d been neglecting, and the Redding-On-Sea Gazette. Over a plate of toast, porridge, Redding cod fillets I polished off the national newspapers. At my second cup of tea, I was caught up short by an ad in the Redding-On-Sea Gazette.

WANTED

Redding-on-Sea Gazette COPY EDITOR/TYPIST

Ring Longref 5-8897

 

I stared at it for a moment, then turned the page. But the ad ran the next day, and the next, and after I finished the last of my breakfast on the third day, I motioned the waiter over, asking him to bring me the phone. I found it a bit strange to ring about a position when an elderly man in an even more elderly suit stood with a phone on a battered silver platter in front of me, but proceeded anyway. He bowed and left me to it. The brusque female voice on the other end of the line broke into my hesitant inquiries; the position needed to be filled expediently as possible and I must come in that day if my interest was more than the passing kind. That’s exactly the sort it was, but as I hadn’t anything else to do, I agreed, scribbling directions on a receipt pulled from the veriest depths of my pocketbook.

The drive, short, and rather glorious, followed a road that ran alongside the cliffs. Clouds as big as blimps hovered over a sea that shifted with methodical slowness, like some great enormous curtain. The starchy white light seemed to be switched on and off as one of these behemoths crossed the sun’s path, disorienting in the resulting darkness or dazzle.

The Gazette was located just south of a village of Redding-on-Sea and I turned off into the village center, and, after a few miles, arrived at a large brick building. I stated my name to the receptionist who pushed a button and a tall fair woman banged out of a swinging door, and without a greeting, motioned for me to follow her. Within moments she had led me to a narrow room, whisked away my gloves and hat, thrust me in front of a typewriter with a copy of Dante’s Inferno, set a battered egg-timer told me to begin and disappeared. As soon as it rang, she emerged, wrenched out the page, and shifted the typewriter to put an editing exam in its place. I made short work of it and wondered if I could be observed, for the moment I laid my pencil down she again catapulted through the swinging door.

“Right,” she said, eyes scanning the page. She seized the phone, murmured into the receiver and returned it. “Follow me, then,” she said.

A sensation of unreality took hold trailing her clapping heels on the linoleum, as if my imagination was conjuring up what lay behind each turn: the offices dotting either side of the winding hallways, the evidence of a much-used canteen, the gabble of voices followed by a rush of cynical-sounding laughter. She came to a sudden halt, rapped an office door marked Editor, and without waiting for a reply, opened it, gave me what could fairly be called a push, and promptly disappeared, never to be seen again.

A man with silky white hair and beard stood as I entered, wearing tweeds, a white shirt and a dun-colored argyle vest that made him look massive across the chest, which he was, and short, which he wasn’t.

“Good morning, Miss Bertram,” he said in a silky voice. “I’m Vernon Mochrai. Editor of the Redding-on-Sea Gazette.”

He motioned towards a scarred wooden chair. I sat and he launched into what must have once been part of a speech for a local history group, concerning the Gazette, its editors and awards. He held forth for nearly twenty minutes, then spoke of the war, which, I realized, was a segue to the subject of salaries. Even now, he said sententiously, we needed to do our bit with so many veterans on staff with families to support. He must be planning to offer me the position, I realized and wanted to establish it would be bad form on my part to question the pay. I began speculating, half-amused, on just how paltry this might be, when I had a bad start: references. How could I have forgotten? And how on earth would I explain being Miss Bright in London and Miss Bertram here?

“I trust you won’t get over-confident if I tell you you’re the first to have made no errors on our tests, Miss Bertram,” Mr. Mochrai interrupted these thoughts. “These tests—not really all that hard, are they?”

It had been far harder than the exams we had at the Foreign Office, and those hadn’t been exactly inconsequential. I kept my counsel, though.

Still,” he continued. “You wouldn’t believe the illiterate lot of females I’ve had swinging through these doors. So.” He cleared his throat, saying grudgingly. “If you want the position, it’s yours.”

I spoke for the first time since I arrived in the office.  “Thank you, Mr. Mochrai. I do hope you’ll understand if I need to think about it overnight.”

He looked at me with the sort of deliberate politeness one uses to reveal the effort that is being required of one to achieve it.  “I can’t promise you it will still be open tomorrow,” he smiled thinly. “There’s a good many ladies applying.”

“I do understand,” I said. “I shall let you know by noon,” I said, rising.

He got to his feet, the faintest bit sulky.

“Good day Miss Bertram.” He added, as I closed the door. “And mind you, don’t forget to ring.”

I felt the gazes of the employees as I emerged, but I doubt I gave them any sign of the outcome of our interview. I was beginning to think, I could hide most nearly anything.

Outside, I stood, blinking in the sun, hardly recognizing the lot before me; I had been so intent on being on time I hadn’t looked around properly. I glanced at my watch and gave an exclamation of surprise; only forty-five minutes had passed since I had arrived. It seemed like a half-day.

I started up my car, shaking my head, amused and aghast at what I’d done. How much pleasure I’d derived in the last weeks delaying any decisions, and here I seemed to be on the precipice of making them all at once. My gloved hands, as I made my way back to the hotel, looked willful, as if they had a life of their own, ringing about positions and driving me to interviews. A battle-ship sized cloud hovered in miniature in the side-mirror, and I kept sight of it, taking little glances till it slid out of the glass.

I pushed in the lighter, and considered my visit to the Gazette. I had disliked Mr. Mochrai holding forth, blocky as the desk he sat behind in his argyle vest. He bullied, more subtly than some, but bullying it unmistakably was. I’d have been quite helpless a few years earlier, especially before my bank account had grown so many wonderful nourishing layers.

Yet it I wouldn’t be required to see him often. And I had to admit the idea of working at a newspaper was appealing. Why this had never occurred to me before still strikes me as a willful obtuseness. The pay was nominal, yes, but I’d be earning. I braced myself, waiting for the idea of moving to Redding-on-Sea to fill me with alarm, but, instead, had only surge of mild uneasiness. Redding lacked the shops I had come to rely on, which would be a trial, but there were catalogs, as well as regular jaunts to the larger cities. After spending nearly three weeks in Redding, it hadn’t the hidebound, festering insularity of some villages, perhaps because of the regular influx of outsiders to its hotels and beaches. I found the continual shock of the ocean thrilling and soothing, expansive and containing, all at once. There wasn’t the slightest contamination of personal history or association.

But most of all I liked the idea of being somewhere I could leave as easily as I had decided to stay.

I took my lunch, ‘Cod in Coffins,’ cod in a very heavy white sauce, at the Resplendent, as I pondered it further. Two vicars next to me debated at length the merits of their housekeepers, one launching into a rhadpsode of a cauliflower cheese served the night before, they bickered if such base pleasures might be found in heaven. They were much in earnest, as if they discussed it long and soundly enough, with scriptural citations, they might settle the matter.

I left them, still at it, to take a stroll on the promenade. Rain seemed imminent, but a gentle rain, not the usual fitful squalls the cliffs seemed to attract. I strolled down the path, feeling the mist settle on my face. Perhaps the walk, perched as it was, on what seemed the exact horizon, hovering between sky and sea, or the vicars’ conversation provoked the recognition: I for one, didn’t believe in heaven or hell, and I found myself thinking with a surety I hadn’t known I possessed on the subject. And I hadn’t for a long, long time. Perhaps I never had. After the car accident of my parents, and in a fragile state, I’d tried to imagine Mother and Father looking down on me from heaven, but even then, my most fervent imaginings had felt flimsy, like when one daydreams of coming across a favorite film star with a car broken down on the side of the road. It occurred to me that all the references to the Heaven and Hell of the afterlife we hear of so much were only speaking of those here in the world not some other place.

By the time I returned to the hotel, I decided, in the end, to leave the question of Redding-on-Sea to chance. I’d look for a flat and if I found anything that suited, I’d stay.

That afternoon, I drove from the Resplendent to the office of the local house agent. Mr. Fortinbras Gull, a tall man of about forty, with mournful gooseberries eyes, a thick swatch of dark gray hair, an olive complexion, and a handsome, if lugubrious, face, who listened to my wants for a flat with funeral calm, commenting only when I had finished, that he believed he might have a place that suited. We took his automobile, and an incongruously jaunty affair compared to its owner and in a matter of moments arrived.

I recognized the building perched on a sudden rise, surrounded by a low stone fence, from my aimless drives. It stayed in the memory, resembling a house, a mill or a church depending on which angle one viewed it. Two roads below connected at a roundabout, and the sign out front read Valvent Galleries. The first floor, Mr. Gull explained, had been used by a couple as a gallery, selling paintings and souvenirs to holiday goers. They had retired two years previous and the place remained empty.

We climbed a set of stairs, to the front door, which gave an unpromising yelp of protest as Mr. Gull unlocked it, the smell of cold stone rising to greet us. We made our way up another flight of stairs, a metallic rattle from the many keys Mr. Gull sifted through echoing in the empty stairwell. With muffled screech of protesting hinges, like some long-sealed crypt, the topmost door opened.

After this dampening entry, the pleasantness of the flat surprised me with high ceilings, with plenty of windows and a flagstone floor. Several of the rooms were snug, but the front room made up for any smallishness elsewhere, easily twenty by thirty feet, the walls bedecked with uncommon, unsentimental paintings of the seashore. Peering out the windows that ran along the wall, I saw the turnabout and beyond that, the sea.

“I often have a difficult time leasing this,” he said. “Some are off-put by the building, funny old thing that it is, or the location, even if the village green’s not a mile away. Heating during the war was quite impossible; still could cost one a packet, you should realize. But all the same, I rather think it’s one of the nicest in Redding.”

Mr. Gull didn’t push, prod or goad; he pointed out the virtues and detractions of the place, and allowed me to come to my own conclusions. I poked around, returning to the front room to gaze out the window. The flat had a bit of the feel of a castle, perched there, in impregnable stone walls, the sea in the distance. I watched as a gray dot, a fishing boat, labored to cross the horizon. I had never known the luxury of impulse, of being as quixotic as any of the women that had dominated my life, and, if nothing else, for that reason alone, I chose to stay.

And the view. I rather liked that too.

I turned and found Mr. Gull’s mild, mournful eyes upon me. He looked a little like my icon of St. Aloysius, actually.

“All right,” I said. “Yes. I do believe I’ll take it.”

 

The first thing I did was to ring to see if arrangements for moving could be handled by Siegel and Siegel, and with remarkable little explanation on my part, or fuss on theirs, a clerk said he would oversee the business. A moving firm would extract my things from storage and the list of items I’d asked for from Helvstead, and in a week’s time, no less.

The furniture arrived Saturday, and while I knew what rested underneath each sheet-swaddled form, I still felt a surge of excitement pulling off their cocoons. One of Mr. Gull’s handymen hung my new oatmeal-coloured curtains, which looked like chic if subdued ball gowns. A few of my favorite statuettes from Helvstead now sat at aesthetic intervals: the Egyptian head on the windowsill, and the Indian goddess with the black tongue on the side table, a little white marble elephant. The preposterous cherry wooden brogues I’d purchased in Oxford I placed next to a plant stand with trailing ivy and the ugly little painting of the flowers in the kitchen. I’d asked for Millicent’s vanity from Helvstead, a large affair with three mirrors and as I mascaraed my eyes in the morning I saw a replica of my icon in every one. I had some of francs left over—now converted back into pounds—quite a lot actually, and that, as if the final touch of interior decoration, however invisible, I squirreled away in far corners, books, behind paintings. There was a pleasant security in knowing there were little caches about the place, in spots even a cleaning woman would be hard-pressed to find.

I turned on the lamps and surveyed the effect in the living room, lowering myself into the sofa. The silver cigarette box gleamed on the coffee table. I pulled one out, lit it, and sat back. No Millicent, no trials, no dead men, no London, no family, no Optomeyer, no ghosts or debts or obligations except those that I might chose. For good and for ill, there was only me.

 

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