Review of Lulu (Lou Reed/Metallica) including discussion of little dogs, riffage, bitterness, toxic masculinity, Oscar Wilde, guitar face, workshopping, et al. Big thanks to George Luke for all his assistance. Boston Hassle for the platform.
How Ramona came to be Dear Auntie, sees the breadth and width of human pathos/bathos, and learns the machinations and techniques of the advice, columnist and strikes up an affair
It would be difficult to find anyone in Northern England hadn’t heard of Dear Auntie in 1954. Syndicated in fifteen papers, it ran three times a week as it had been for nearly sixty years. It was referred to in films, and wireless and telly programs, and a song had been written in the dancehall days, “Dear Auntie, Do Tell Me What to Do About My Dear!” that still could occasionally be heard on wireless on the “Golden Favorites” program.
Dear Auntie had originated at the Gazette by Viola Cremspartan, the unmarried sister of the editor of the paper, who kept house for her brother. Several diverging accounts of Dear Auntie’s inception existed: one, with Viola as some sort of Richelieu-like figure running the newspaper for years in the background, and simply willed Dear Auntie into existence as she had everything else; the second, that, bored with the Gazette’s lack of female interest, she had blackmailed her brother into the column by feeding him cold mutton every night for a month; or finally, she had put down her needlepoint one night and gently suggested Dear Auntie, and, as he recognized this to be a fine inspiration springing from her essential Christian goodness, he had agreed. And if it was not exactly inspired, artistically or divinely, it at least proved to be quite popular: Dear Auntie started in 1890 and still had yet to miss a week in print, even after the demise of the Women’s Page.
Viola had passed Auntie’s mantle in 1912, and a rather more stringent voice emerged, one that admonished readers for the triviality of their concerns. While not entirely without basis, it seemed of questionable practicality when reliant on a public’s participation. Still, the column prospered; peacetime, wartime, as Aunties came and went, readership steadily swelled, creeping west and then south. At the time I came to it, another London-based advice column, Let’s Ask Hubert! was ascending in popularity. While it would be wrong to say I vanquished Hubert, I do like to think I was able to keep his invasion in check.
However popular, giving voice to Dear Auntie had never been a hotly contested position at the Gazette. The reporters considered it at best uninteresting, and at worst, small-minded, generally ridiculous and embodying much of the worst of England. Some of this was the trivializing these men did of nearly anything related and of interest to women, and really quite de rigueur of that time, but I do understand some of their reluctance. Although not traditionally educated men, many were quite clever, and passionate on the subject of national and local politics, and found Dear Auntie’s relentless urgings to conventionality part and parcel of the country’s ills.
In any case, as a result of this, Dear Auntie fell to the lowest on the Gazette’s totem pole, for however populist or socialist the sentiments expressed in the canteen, the world of the journalist was strictly hierarchical. The Gazette’s last Dear Auntie, a young man with a braying laugh—in all honesty, a most unlikely person to dispense advice—had left abruptly to a much coveted position in the still-new and somewhat exotic realm of television. Word had it that the wellspring of completed Dear Auntie columns was nearly run through, and the editor was about to give way to reprinting old ones, something that would cause a howling flood of protest from readers and advertisers. There were murmurings in the canteen, suggestions of Machiavellian politics going on in junior editor’s offices. The Haddlesomes and I, I remember, were a bit bemused by this atmosphere of fermenting disquiet, the meetings held behind close doors, rooms thick with cigarette, pipe and cigar smoke.
“It’s like someone is getting elected pope,” said Beryl and we had all laughed.
“Only nobody wants it,” I had added.
So I expect it shouldn’t have been entirely a surprise that Mr. Mochrai bustled in one Thursday afternoon at tea time to blurt:
“You. Miss Bertram. You’re to be Dear Auntie,” he had said. “Look there’s no one else who can be bothered. And you’ve done all matters of fluff by now. Come on, then.”
I must have looked very blank. Ethel Haddlesome’s coiffure, newly reinforced by her weekly visit to the salon, swiveled in in my peripheral vision as she turned to look at him.
“I don’t have all day Miss Bertram,” Mr. Mochrai huffed. “Let’s get on with it.”
True, my unassailable appetite for newsprint and magazines had lead me to read many such agony columns, but they’d never been and favorite; and, further still, it had never, ever, occurred to me to write one myself; nor can I state, at that moment, with the opportunity in the air, did I feel any long-dormant desire to do so come to life.
“Well, come on then,” he said.
I exchanged a glance with the Haddlesomes, pulled the cover over my typewriter, stood, and followed Mr. Mochrai. He bustled down a corridor that narrowed and he took an unfamiliar turn to what I had thought a storeroom, but proved to be a staircase. I’d never been in this part of the building. There were a few offices, mostly the accounting department installed down the hall. We arrived at an office door which he flung open.
By the light of the hallway, I could see letters pouring out of the drawers of a desk and file cabinet, littering the floor, scattered across every surface; they looked as it they were making a bid for escape. Mailbags curled up like large sleeping cats on top of a second desk; more lay in a row against the wall. It smelled of dust and ink and well-handled paper.
“Good gracious,” I exclaimed. “But there must be thousands.”
“No one has sorted things in, well, since that young ass left. He didn’t like come here much. I suppose he thought it would interfere with his ‘career’ that he was always whinging about.” He sneered: “Television! Good riddance”
A little dazed, I said. “How does one choose which ones to answer?”
Mr. Mochrai leaned to a bag, pulled out a fistful of envelopes, and handed them to me. “As long as there’s nothing indecent, there you are.”
“But—” I protested.
“Well, I’ve never written it, have I, Miss Bertram.”
“I do understand that, Mr. Mochrai,” I said. “But—”
“You make it up, Miss Bertram.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. I simply hoping that you might—”
“Now really! Come on then. You’ve shown an awful lot of push to start behaving the quavery female now. You must have some notion.” He glanced around. “No one really reads this nonsense anyway.”
I opened my mouth to point out the largesse of mail seemed to indicate otherwise, but stopped. Why not? Why ever shouldn’t I? I took the letters from his outstretched hand, and without another word, sat down, and set to work.
I often felt I on an archeological dig that first week, excavating postcards, letters and the occasional package from the mass of letters, that, like an iceberg, had become densely packed under its own weight. The discovery of an unopened letter from six years previous surprised me until I found one from ten years before, then twenty; eventually I would find letters from as far back as 1894, ghostly and yellowed with age. The Haddlesomes arrived in shifts to assist.
“Whatever am I going to do?” I said bringing Ethel and myself cups of tea which nearly cooled in the trip to the canteen. I made a note to get an electric ring.
“You can’t keep it all.” Ethel had a way of stating the obvious that was strangely useful.
I sighed. “I’ll have to throw out half, at least.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Two thirds, then. But how? It’s so…personal.” I caught her glance. “All those clamoring voices, you know. Summarily tossed out with the rubbish.”
“There is the furnace out back.”
I considered if for a moment. “That would be better. A bit more…ceremonial, perhaps.”
A few days later, after everyone but the charwomen had gone home, Ethel led me down the through the cellar, the squeaking of our bin’s wheels, echoing and multiplying in the empty tunnels till it seemed we were pushing five not two bins. She leaned against what looked like a wall, but proved a door, and we emerged to a moonless sky. The incinerator sat black and glowing at the seams of it’s doors. Ethel opened the door and we tossed in the letters, the sparks floating like seeds till they faded into the darkness.
At the end of the week, I felt ready to make a report; I tapped on Mr. Mochrai’s door.
Through the haze of pipe smoke, he squinted at me, his hand with the usual red pencil, frozen in mid-motion over a sheet. “Miss Bertram. Yes? What is it?”
“I thought I’d tell you of my progress.”
He gave me a blank stare.
“Downstairs,” I said. “With Dear Auntie.”
“Well.” His voice did nothing to hide his reluctance to give his full interest. “All right.”
“Mr. Mochrai, were you aware that Dear Auntie is getting nearly a fifty letters a week?”
“There’s no accounting for the idiots of the world, is there?”
“No, I suppose not. But—”
He circled his hand for me hurry up. “Yes, Miss Bertram? What is it you wanted?”
“Nothing Mr. Mochrai,” I finally said, standing up. “Just thought you might want to know.”
While the sheer volume had staggered me, I was relieved there would be such a boon of material. I found this outpouring to an old-fashioned, and rather questionable source of advice fascinating, for what sort authority did Dear Auntie—even if Dear Auntie had indeed existed—demand really? Plenty, apparently.
Dear Auntie, like all advice columns perhaps, served many purposes separately and as the sum of its parts: diversion, oracle, court of last appeals and universal confidant. Its anonymity made it a place where one might have the curiously reassuring experience of reading the most private problems, one they might not even tell their closest friends, chewed over by the public along with their morning corn flakes. Advertisers often said they never did so well as when placed next to Dear Auntie. The column had been used for propaganda during both wars, chock full of suggestions to make rationing a less onerous business. In some ways it seemed like this was Dear Auntie at best; helpful information during times where any scrap of helpful information was precious.
It’s probably true such a column was taken more seriously then than such a thing is today. Some would attribute this to a more ‘innocent’ time, something that strikes me as ill-considered, for how much innocence, really, could be retained after that war? If by innocence we mean a time where troubles often went without being named, where generations had used ‘never complain’ as credo, then I suppose innocence it was. All the more need, then, for a place where the troubles of life might exist. There, they could be addressed with the bracing, unfailing Dear Auntie formula: exhortations to duty, an in-depth knowledge of stain removal, receipts for everything from sherry trifle to boiled cabbage, a no-nonsense comprehension of etiquette, odd scraps of domestic wisdom, proverbs, and the occasional quotation from a) Shakespeare, b) Churchill or c) scripture. All of this wisdom wreathed in vivacious adverts for nerve pills, tweezers, nostrums, garters, lip rouge, candy thermometers, brassieres, tooth whiteners, commerce solving any further problems for the Dear Auntie reader.
It occurred to me occasionally that the letters, were prayers, really. And the prayer most often was that great prayer of all of Britain: please, dear Lord, deliver me from embarrassment.
These prayers arrived typewritten, in longhand, conceived with great care, or dashed off in an unintelligible rush. The stationary, too, ran the gamut of the finest linen to the back of crumpet wrappers, and, once, butcher’s paper, still smelling faintly of sausage. Occasionally they arrived in shorthand, as well as French, Gaelic, German, Greek, Italian, Russian, and, what I believe might have been Turkish. Some of envelopes had only Dear Auntie scrawled across the front, rather like letters to Father Christmas.
Queries arrived from those who, while on the tram or peeling the dinner’s potatoes pondered questions better undertaken by a 18th century salon in France. And while Dear Auntie herself would never have doubted her abilities to respond to such questions, I certainly did. There were older letters which seemed to indicate the writer knew the person behind Dear Auntie of that moment, and had great fun creating grotesque or obscene problems for them to tackle. And there were some letters, that I found by far the oddest, as they seemed to indicate the most fundamental misunderstanding of Dear Auntie’s utility, soliciting opinions: which of General Allenby’s campaigns proved the biggest success in 1912? What did Dear Auntie foresee in the future of the Canadian relations vis-à-vis England’s sheep export industries? What reforms would she suggest for the current parliamentary system? And so on and so forth.
But these were the exceptions. The bulk, really, of the correspondence, fell into three categories: household remedies, questions of etiquette and counseling of the lovelorn which found there way into baskets marked “H”, “E” or “LL” respectively. These categories often bled into one another: suggestions on stretching coal supplies was really a probing for Auntie’s opinion on the nascent alliance between a widowed sister-in-law and her furnace repairman; an inquiry about queuing at the chemist’s revealed the author’s devouring curiosity about a neighbor’s method of family planning and how that curiosity might be exercised without appearing vulgar; a request for Dear Auntie’s best lemonade receipt as confirmation of housewifely superiority over an unnamed and shadowy rival.
I had a large cork board where I tacked letters under consideration. Sometimes, I tried to envision the authors: they made their children fish fingers, rang their mother-in-laws, or exchanged pleasantries with a neighbor over the fence, then, finding a quiet moment, a furtive glance over the shoulder, picked up their pens:
My fiancé came home from the war with a tattoo (on his shoulder) of another woman’s name (Lydia). He says it was a just a lark between him and his mates (on leave in Italy), but as the years pass (we are married now), it troubles me more and more. It’s always there, isn’t it, whether I’m doing the washing up or making the mushy peas (for our kiddies). It’s gotten so I can barely stand to look at him any longer and he is quite handsome (even if he is loosing his hair) …
How do you best get jam stains out of wool? My granddaughter knocked almost an entire jar of my elderberry jam into my lap teatime yesterday. And shouldn’t my son be expected to replace it? He hasn’t offered, despite several hints, but really, such things are not inexpensive…
Last week Frank lied and told everyone down at the Cock and Robin he killed the fox that has been giving us worries in the valley. He’d a few too many and was trying to top Hamus Scranton’s story about a badger. Men! Useless, as you well know. Well, two days ago, my best friend’s chicken house was near done to ruins by that fox. Since Frank had to open his gob, they hadn’t bothered keeping watch. They’ve had an awful time of it, practically been living off her egg money since the rains have been so bad for the barley. I can’t tell her the truth—the men would get into it and it’s not worth the trouble— but I was wondering if there was some way I could pay back for her troubles on account of my husband’s braggery, real subtle-like…
There’s no use beating around the bush: Teddy Timmons is running with a bad lot. I’ve tried talking to his mother but she says he is just ‘being a lad.’ I’ve seen him with the local doxy, a good ten years older than him, on more than one occasion, coming out of her flat. In my day…
I have a most awkward question. It concerns my neighbor, a pleasant fellow with whom my flat shares a rather thin wall. The trouble is he snores very loudly, and I’ve barely slept since his arrival! I’ve even moved my bed across the room but it hasn’t helped a whit. Really, the air raids were less noisy! I might have mustered up my courage to speak to him if I hadn’t heard him shouting over the telephone—“and it became all too apparent that his wife ran off because of this snoring!
Well, I don’t want to move, but I can’t imagine how else I will be able to get a good night’s sleep ever again, for I certainly can’t bring it up now, can I? All the other ladies of the building have been very unsympathetic, for he is a most attractive creature, but…
Heaven help us, my brother has got it into his head to marry MY MOTHER-IN-LAW, twenty five years older if she’s a day. He is so pigheaded and never listens to a word I say not even when we were children and I told him to stay out of the well and just as I said he would he fell in and broke his leg, and you’d think he might have learned his lesson …
Imagine my surprise to find out that my husband has hired a young African as his new secretary! She came to London a few years ago, he tells me, from Senegal. I admit I haven’t known very many of the blacks, and it sounds foolish, but I wasn’t aware the girls could be quite so attractive. He says she is respectable, and a church-goer, and more to the point, takes flawless dictation, which was indeed a great bother with his last secretary. The girl dresses quite modestly, I’ll give, and has been very nice, but I’m still rather uncertain if it’s quite, well, the thing. And what about when the holidays come round? Am I supposed to ask her to my home?…
My god-daughter has stolen my Chinese cookery book. I know it is her, although she denies it, as she served me some of the hideous stuff last Tuesday when I came over to dine. Dear Auntie, what does one say…
And so on and so on they went into some sort of querulous infinity, filled with the sort of quotidian irritations and concerns I’m not sure even death can vanquish.
There were other more serious or unsuitable matters and despite the tag at the end of the column Remember—there’s no problem too difficult for Dear Auntie—write today! indeed much arrived that was impossible for even the redoubtable Auntie to tackle, and unpublishable besides.
I am fourteen. Dad beats us me and Daisy something awful. We best run away, I say. Do you reckon it be all right if we take his stash from the cellar? My sister says we can’t, but I don’t know how we’ll get to Manchester otherwise. Please answer as soon as you can. Next week’s payday and that night for certain he comes home from the pub we’ll be catching it…
I am a retired military man, living in London. Near Christmastime last year I found a lump on one of a man’s most private areas. There’s no question of the hospital—doctor’s are full of nonsense. I haven’t wanted to worry my wife. But now (as we no longer have personal relations)(which were quite rigorous, as I understand it, for people of our age), the idiot woman has gotten the notion I am not behaving above-board. She weeps and goes through my things and if I’m not mistaken, last month, has hired a private detective. Considering this, and that I think this lump may be growing bigger, I may take the gentleman’s way out and end it now, to spare her any further upset…
Last year my son Bill, 15, was killed, by a copper in Whitehall. I find myself thinking it isn’t right that little Jared is here when there’s no Bill. I could take us both to him. I know how to do it; my Dad was a pig farmer. It isn’t so hard. I do miss my boy…
Please help. I have had “impulses” for many years—I had hoped marriage might cure me. A young man has moved to the village. I believe he is following me sometimes. It frightens me, and I know it revolting, but I am in the grips of some very strong temptations. The vicar tells me I need only to pray, but that seems to have done little good …
I’m quite ill, I’m afraid. The doctor’s aren’t sure how long I’ve got, although they have tried to be kind and not say quite so frankly. The trouble is my husband is angry as I no longer have the energy to fulfill the usual duties of a wife. I have tried to speak to him about it, but he seems to think it only selfishness on my part. I blush to say this, but I even suggested he might go elsewhere for his needs, but as he is a parson, he was offended by the suggestion and also pointed out the practical difficulties.
I thought perhaps if you could write to him personally you might help him to understand…
These generally I didn’t address; I had no succor no real advice and although eventually the boundaries of propriety would be pushed by future editors, most of them certainly could not be published.
But it did remind me that if Ramona Bright had been offered the opportunity to be Dear Auntie it would have been a chance to do good, ameliorate the suffering of others, point to some distant star of Christian goodness in the night sky and point all of life’s traveler’s to it. I had no such aspirations. I used the Hippocratic oath as a model, but beyond that, unless under dire circumstances of deadline, I would try not to give out what I thought to be actually bad advice. Besides this, there was only pleasing the advertisers, the public and the editors.
Growing up in the poor branch of a rich family with inherited furniture and odds and ends to keep in order, I knew a surprising number of simple tricks for household remedies. Questions of etiquette and the lovelorn were slipperier, but even those succumbed without too much trouble to Dear Auntie’s formula. But I had disliked Dear Auntie’s reliance on model behavior—a son seeing his elderly mother regularly, for instance—being attributed to a better, earlier day. I recognized this generated a coziness, but I found it rather distasteful or dishonest and a bit cheap, really. I would try not to be so reliant on the power of nostalgia.
I perused the bookshops looking less for wisdom than trivia as nothing is quite so leavening as the stray fact, an apt detail about the Japanese tea ceremony, the mores of the Russian courtier’s, an Ancient Egyptian law concerning the keeping of livestock. The bookshelves next to my desk came to hold Etiquette the World Over, History for Housewives Vol. I, II, and III, Self-Improvement through Literature, Bartlett’s Quotations, Armchair Anthropologist’s Guide to the Tribes of the Southern Hemisphere, Notable Philosophy—Condensed!, Recipes of the Ancient World, Great Sermons of the Anglican Church, Witty Remarks of the 18th Century and the like.
So, over the months, I developed my own Dear Auntie, a less strident voice perhaps than the earlier Aunties, but not, I like to think, unperceptive. I came into the canteen one day to see one of the older reporters reading my column give a shout of laughter, and he looked up, pointing his cigarette at me.
“Bit of a subtle one, aren’t ya love?”
I only smiled but returned to my desk feeling very pleased indeed.
It was around this time I had begun settling in as Dear Auntie that Mr. Gull entered my life. I’d had a few momentary affairs over the years: a village councilman and one of the former editors of the paper, back in town for a month to train the new. They’d both married, and had no more interest than I in making our liaisons regular things. Having affairs, I realized, like anything else, was a habit, and for a single woman, not a particularly bad one, and the resulting from a convergence of means, motive, opportunity and a great deal of hotels in the area. I wondered if the councilman had a certain predilection for Dear Auntie; he did probe me an awful lot about the letters, particularly the naughtier ones. That ended just as I was really beginning to weary of it.
And then, Fortinbras.
It began, as many things did, with an article for the Gazette. An editor suggested a piece following a set of young marrieds in the tribulations of buying their first house. Mr. Mochrai loathed the idea, but couldn’t deny the appeal, and immediately designated it to my watch, for I still wrote the occasional article. I rang Mr. Gull, who agreed to assist as house agent, and after a bit of a search, a couple was located, lured by the idea of having their picture in the paper.
After a fruitless hour of waiting on the appointed day, however, I watched the Gazette’s frantically busy photographer hurry off to mayoral meeting with his usual hounded expression.
“How awful,” I said to Mr. Gull. “I am sorry to have taken up your time like this.”
“Happens often enough,” he replied. “As you’re here, would you like to see the house? It’s just a quick ride.”
“Yes, I suppose we might as well.”
Besides glimpses of him motoring through the village, I hadn’t seen Mr. Gull since he’d showed me my flat. He was as I remembered him, only more so: taller, grayer, his skin more olive, his expression even more resigned. We found two bicycles and the door open when we arrived.
“A visitation by some of Redding’s extreme youth,” he said.
Fortinbras had me wait in the study doors and strode into the living room where giggling emerged abruptly ceased. The two rushed out, the girl’s pullover only half on, and hardly giving me any notice.
“I did try not to frighten them unduly,” he said. He watched the boy depart and said with little expression. “I believe that is the Lutheran minister’s son.”
“Now let me show you about. They’re too young to have the ‘Redding advantage,’ ” he said opening the door to a study. “The eaves here are very nicely built.”
“What do you mean?”
“The eaves are oak—oh, the ‘Redding advantage,’ you mean? Well. Bit of a local joke. So many of the villagers either worked at the hotels or have family who still do. Tend to know the side entrances, schedules, where key passes are kept, rooms likely to be empty and so forth, etc. Hence its an advantage in assignations and whatnot.”
“Good gracious. Redding is an adulterer’s paradise, then?”
“Perhaps,” He smiled.
A week later, we stood outside another, similar, cottage, waiting for the couple who had begged for another chance in sweet young chirping voices, to arrive.
“Where can they be?” I said with a glance at my watch, the photographer hasten to his car again, late now for the opening of a new tea room. “They promised they’d be here. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mr. Gull replied.
“I do appreciate that. But it is annoyance,” I said.
He smiled. “Would it be rubbing salt into the wound to see the place?”
This time, as we walked through the empty house I found his eyes on me, a watchfulness overlaying his usual funereal expression. I knew him to be unmarried and from the village gossip, presently unattached. I leaned in and kissed him, tasting his lips. He regarded me for a moment, giving me a chance to change my mind, or perhaps waiting to see if I’d do it again.
We moved to a bed that had been left behind. He smelled wonderful, tea, wool, and soap, and his own personal smell, something close and warm and sweet, but still somehow very much a pleasing male scent. We would never be much for compliments, much less endearments, and I kept such thoughts to myself.
“So how did you come to Redding? You’re not from here are you?” I asked, tugging a sheet closer against the draft. We lay on a mattress on a floor, in yet another empty house. We had been scrupulous with each other’s privacy until we’d established that neither of us angled for a more public or personal involvement, an understanding which became a very particular sort of intimacy in and of itself. Even so, we rarely spoke of the personal and I half-regretted the question as soon as I asked, but he replied with his usual calm.
“Unadulterated passion for cod.”
I laughed. “You rather left the impression that you hate the stuff.”
“Oh, yes that’s right. No, I suppose it’s more a matter of why I left my village.”
“All right, then. Why did you leave?” I asked.
“You might say I was run out.” He said pulling a pack of cigarettes from his trousers.
“Really! Why ever—” I stopped myself.
“You can ask, if you like. But only if you really want to know,” he offered me the pack. “And I’m not angling for a declaration of interest. It’s just not worth telling otherwise.”
I pulled out a cigarette. “I would like to know. If you’ll tell me.”
He flicked his lighter and lit my cigarette. “My homosexuality.”
I was too relaxed to prevent my face from stiffening into a confounded stare.
He said: “My brother, actually. A letter to his lover mislaid—initials are the same as mine. Farrar is his name, although everyone calls him Jackie.” He lit his own cigarette taking a deep inhale. “There had been another…incident…some years earlier. If I hadn’t had ‘taken the credit,’ well, that would have been that.”
“Rather noble of you, don’t you think?” I said.
“We both got what we wanted.”
I shook my head to indicate I didn’t understand.
“Ah. Well. I wanted to leave,” he said. “I promised my father I’d stay as long as mother was alive. Dad was quite ill for most of my life—cerebral palsy—do you know of it?”
“Unhappy business. And Mother would insist on doing the care for him herself. He felt terrible about the burden he’d been, especially as it was felt she ‘married down.’”
“She sounds like a saint.”
“Hmm, a difficult person, really, and the local gossip, but she was devoted to him.” He tucked his arm under his head, settling in. “To have her Jackie cast aspersions on would have too been too much to bear.”
“But not those same aspersions on you?” I said.
“Well, less than desirable, but Jackie’s the favorite. Jackie is everyone’s favorite.”
He said this without a hint of rancor. I thought of a boy from fourth form in schools.
“One of those fair boys with perfect marks and angelic behavior?” I asked.
“Hmph!—No. Dark as I am—and always did dreadfully in school, I’m afraid, except for maths. And the mischief he caused in the first ten years of his life alone is quite staggering.”
“Legendary. Still can see him coming down the beach with our neighbor’s cows—wearing mother’s best sheets—as capes, I think was his intention. He was only five, and not even his biggest scrape that year. And nothing compared to wind-ups later. But he was good with Dad. No one was so good with him, not even Mother, really. He always could cheer Dad up.” He took a long draught of his cigarette. “I certainly couldn’t.”
“So what does Jackie do now?”
“Oh, bit of this and that. Came back with all kinds of medals—you know I didn’t go? Yes. Ticky heart. Jackie’s a bit of a mechanical genius, flourished around those tanks and jeeps and what not—they wanted him to design the things. But he stayed in the village. There he fixes up furnaces, cars, toasters, wireless, rabbit snares.”
“Handsome?” I said absently, imagining this in my mind’s eye.
“Jackie? Oh. Not really. But looks aren’t so important when you’re like that.”
I looked at him, puzzled. “A homosexual?”
“No, no—when you’re that lively, I suppose. Can make anybody laugh.”
“Well. How did you manage it, then?” Curiosity had crept into my voice. “Get them to believe it was you, not him?”
“I made a rather clumsy pass at one of village councilmen.”
This knocked a laugh out of me. “I take it he refused?”
“With a look of the most amazed incredulity. It took me two tries before he realized what I was getting at. I suppose I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Always a decent sort, Hal. I thought I’d just make the pass, establish I was the homosexual in their midst, Q.E.D. But he asked me if I was feeling all right, gave me a pat on the shoulder and told me to get a pint.”
I laughed. “He didn’t say anything?”
“I’d managed to find the only man decent enough not to mention it.”
“What did you do?”
“I tried it again.”
“Who was it this time?”
“One of my clients,” he said. “I’m a solicitor, actually.”
“Really?” I sat up a little straighter. “I didn’t know.”
“Yes. Quite helpful, now, with being a house agent.”
“He nearly broke my jaw, called me any number of vile names, and promptly went about decrying me as a menace.”
“So it worked.”
“Yes. For the time being.” He leaned over to flick his cigarette. “The way Jackie is drinking, he may very well do something indiscrete.”
“You really don’t mind your village…thinking you’re a…homosexual?”
“No. Not much. Anyway there was something else. Another reason. A woman.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Marilyn,” he exhaled, regret, resignation and fatigue intermingling.
“Ah,” I said.
“My affianced at the time, I’m afraid. Yes. What would Dear Auntie say.”
“Is that so hard to imagine?” I smiled, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
“No, I suppose it isn’t.”
“So rather than break the engagement, you…” I prompted him, rolling my hand.
“Pretended to be a homosexual. Cowardly, I know. But I don’t imagine I’d have been able to manage it otherwise. The irony is of course I rather don’t think I am the marrying kind. That, among other things, lends a certain neatness to all this. But I’m afraid Marilyn’s gotten rather obsessed. Sends me all sorts of books from Vienna, the address of analysts.”
“At least you didn’t scarper with the better part of her savings.”
He looked the question but I waved it away:
“So what did you do?” I said. “When it all came out?”
“I went to London, the closest to Sodom and Gomorrah I could think of, to add some credibility to the story. But I missed the sea. I’d heard of Redding from an old friend at university, sounded reasonably comfortable.”
“Do you go home then?”
“Once a year, around Christmas.” He added unexpectedly: “I have an outfit.”
“For when you go home?”
He nodded. “The most shocking colored pants. And a scarf with begonias on it.”
“It seems to do the trick,” he said.
“I imagine so.” I thought of him, zipping around Redding. “That flashy little car of yours? Is that part of the disguise?”
“Oh, that,” he said, his face bland and somber as ever. “No. That’s mine.”
I laughed and he gave me one of his rare smiles. His eyes roamed my face and for a second I believe he was considering returning the question of how I had come to unlikely rest at Redding-on-Sea. But it passed, as such moments do, and, never quite returned.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here.