Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, My Days with Millicent, in serial form.
We emerged out of the querulous tangle of traffic, passed the crowded tenements to the London purlieus, and the same tidy narrow house with garden repeating itself many times over they grew farther apart and the countryside expanded around us. I’d never been in a convertible, so open and low to the ground, and I found my eyes trying to capture the sights as we sped by: a tree stump sitting in a field; a red-brown calf nuzzling its mother; a tangle of wild roses, shaking itself like a wet dog in our wake; a rotten log with a monstrous toadstool. But one thing collapsed fleetingly into the next, until I stopped bothering and sunk into the seat, letting it wash over me.
Autumn had always been my favorite season, but that day, the air soft and smelling of grass and flowers and freshness, the clouds bright and white as new paper, I understood the sweetness, the exuberance of spring. The uncertainties of my situation were much on my mind, yet while we drove, they couldn’t cast a shadow long enough to darken my enjoyment. A robin flew beside the car, wings pumping, our directions converging, till it the wind changed and it whirled off in the direction of a green field.
“Nearly there,” Millicent said, pulling onto a yew-lined lane, and glancing at her watch. “Reservations aren’t for another quarter hour. Do you like lobster? Newburg is famous. I had it last time, and even imagined to enjoy it although, Charles, friend of mine—and Reggie’s—kept remarking how it’s like eating a large beetle.”
I did know who this Charles was—Commander Charles, a war hero who was one ‘handsome commander Charles’ often mentioned in the columns, and a friend of Reggie and Millicent’s. Reggie, Millicent’s brother, had been killed in the war.
“But,” she continued. “After grasshoppers in the Gobi, I’m not unduly upset at the idea. Christ, Ramona, do you remember, how mad Reggie was for collecting beetles and things?”
“Of course. All those jars.”
“And God forbid anyone touch them,” she waved away the valet and parked under a mulberry tree in full delicate flower. “Yes—Reggie must have had fifty of those jar, all with the labels in Latin. The bloody crickets got loose one night—found their way under my bed, too, chirping madly, till Molly came by and hammered them all to death with her shoe.”
“Ah,” Molly was the ‘emeritus housekeeper’ as Millicent said, at Helvstead. “Well. And he had the butterfly net, too.”
“Oh, yes!” she said. A petal fluttered down to the seat, between us. “And that ridiculous magnifying glass. He practically had it glued to his eye during the summer.”
“I remember.” Reggie had been a sturdy boy, studying ants on the peonies in the garden, with the magnifying glass with an adult, business-like absorption.
“Did you hear about the time he incinerated one of his beetles by accident with that glass?” Her voice became muffled as she gathered the pocketbook at her feet. “Reggie was beside himself, ran to Mother. Her face was an absolute picture. Can you imagine?”
But I could: my aunt, wreathed in annihilating silence, watching me and my parents with the tiny bored smile of one battling intense revulsion.
“Daddy was horrified. This was just before Reggie went off to Eaton, and Daddy was afraid he’d be labeled a weepie and that’s certain death with those beastly boys. Ah Daddy, consumed by sentiment over his public school years—hi-tiddly-hi-ti-pom-pom all that nonsense. He talked of these wretched boys tormenting each other so fondly, and if anyone dared suggest we might change the subject, he’d get so very wounded and rattle off the friends he’d made—well, I suppose he had his point there—any other number of England’s muckety-mucks. So I imagine Reggie crying seemed rather ominous. But really he was a little stoic. Even when he broke his arm, the unflappable little beast. If Daddy had been around he might have known that. That beetle, though, undid Reggie’s manly little soul. He put it in Mother’s hand.” she chortled. “Well, there aren’t words, are there. Poor Reggie—he was in a state. He knew how she was.”
“It’s funny to think of it, when he became such a man of the world,” I said.
Reggie had evolved, at a juncture that I hadn’t witnessed, from a somber child to dashing fixture in London society. The pugnacious roundness of his face had squared off, the aristocratic Clive nose appeared, and with the addition of a thin moustache, he’d transformed into an exemplar of the blandly handsome young aristocrat. We ran into each other in the West end, right before the war, as I emerged out “The Mummy Returns” which I seen, deplorably, for the fourth time, and I was mortified to have him find me there, although of course he had no way of knowing my excess. He was escorting a platinum blond in a fox stole who stared at me, I decided, unkindly. If hadn’t seen his picture in the society pages dining at Lucianato’s a few weeks earlier, I might not have even recognized him.
“What do you mean?” Millicent said, frowning. “Man of the world?”
“Well, with his picture in the papers.”
“Oh, that. Yes, well. I suppose it might seem that way. The usual stuff and nonsense.” She was glanced at her watch. “Are you going to keep me here all afternoon plaguing me with questions, Ramona? Because really, I’m famished.”
The maître de, a tall sallow gentleman, with a set of mournful ginger mustaches, showed us through to the terrace, and handing us large red leather menus with a sorrowful yet somehow solicitous tilt of the head.
French had been one of my best subjects in schools and I was relieved to be able to read the menu. Everything appeared hideously expensive, although, of course, no prices were attached. The Newburg at the next table appeared almost cravenly delicious but after our conversation—more to do with my lack of funds than lobster’s insect like properties—I resisted, deciding on the roast chicken, and perhaps a pudding if Millicent ordered one too. I glanced over at her bent head, her fingers curled round the sides of her menu, her nails a glossy carmine.
I suppose it was a result of studying her so intently over the years that Millicent’s features had become so familiar; sometimes it seemed, more familiar than my own, as if I had been born knowing their configurations. She studied the menu with a frown—Millicent, French duke for a husband or not, had never quite learned the language—and I found myself regarding her, in these new surroundings, with a uneasy sort of partnership ahead of us, with a fresh eye.
Millicent as always, seemed to inhabit her skin effortlessly. She was fair, although not so pale as most of those with auburn hair, and that hair, “the envy of every woman in London” as some gossip columnist had fulsomely burbled, lay hatless in a thick gleaming reddish-brown swathe around her shoulders. She had a heart-shaped face, the long, thin Clive nose, but rounded cheeks, belying the general leanness of her frame and sharpness of her features. Her mouth was just shy of fullness, more wide than perhaps is considered ideal, and colored the usual shade of carmine. Her eyes, a very dark brown, were surrounded by dense, black lashes, so lengthy they brushed her cheeks as she read her menu; her mother, I remembered, had these same lashes, only surrounding glacial blue eyes. But it was her eyebrows that gave her face its distinction, two thin arched slashes, and actually more a result of nature than art than one would imagine, in the portrait gallery there other such Clives with just those brows. A few lines radiated around her eyes and mouth, and a faint purplish smudges under her eyes, but at thirty-six she otherwise appeared as she always had.
I found myself thinking, as I had before, that for possessing a reputation as a beauty, and much having been made about her ‘fabulous’ and ‘breath-taking’ looks, Millicent didn’t have a technically beautiful face—too idiosyncratic, too knowing, too intelligent. Perhaps it was all the more compelling for its idiosyncrasies, shifting from aristocratic hauteur to Helen of Troy-like perfection to conventional prettiness, in the space of seconds. The shrewd, foxlike features, with the touch of girlishness and the elegance of those slashing brows, merged together into something more potent even than beauty: charisma or sex appeal one might say. I had never, for a moment, doubted her attraction to men.
Millicent dropped her menu, and pulled out a cigarette. It would be an interesting question of nature or nurture as to what had brought about Millicent’s ability to express discontentment: never have I met anyone quite so capable of appearing bored. She sighed, put her sunglasses on, yawned, and cocked her head to the right, smoking, and regarded me.
“We really must do something about your hair,” she said. “Garcon!”
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.