Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, “My Days with Millicent,” in serial form.
Millicent swung the convertible onto the road. The breeze that had gently whorled the perfume of Quai’s hyacinth borders, had gained purpose and nudged an army of roiling clouds over the line of the treetops. A hard drop of rain wet my palm.
“Perhaps we should get the top up?”
“No, no,” Millicent replied. “Only a sprinkle.”
I glanced at the curls round her shoulders: a trip to the salon was obviously not an investment to be shielded with an arsenal of rain bonnets, newspapers and umbrellas. I tied my scarf under my chin, my hair beginning to dishevel as if in anticipation of the breeze. I was naturally fair, an odd ashy colorless shade, and coarse. No matter the number of hairpins employed it frayed like rope. I did my best to smooth the nape; it felt brittle and strange under my hand, like a wig: too much hair spray.
A hard, cold droplet fell, then another and another. The rain began in earnest.
“Good Christ,” Millicent said. “Next time I’ll listen to you, I think.”
“Lovely luncheon,” I cleared my throat. “Such a treat.”
“I wasn’t thanking you, Millicent, only saying I enjoyed it.” I had, too. Never had beans on toast seemed so far away.
“Tolerable. Bit over-reaching, but that’s the Quai—and the Frenchies—for you. Molly’s toad-in-the-hole trumps that Frenchie nonsense any day, but there you are.”
I toyed with the handle. “Handsome gentleman,” I said. “Sitting off to the right.”
I hesitated. “Did you think so?”
”What makes you ask?”
“Just noticed him I suppose. I only meant—”
“Yes,” she said. “What do you mean? Are you saying I was going in for a pickup?”
Millicent, for all her irritability, was an unlikely person to seek this sort of affront. And I had the further sensation that while the defensiveness was genuine, the source wasn’t. And as a red herring, it worked.
“Of course not, Millicent! I don’t know, I suppose I…I don’t know what made me bring it up.”
“Of course you don’t, Ramona,” she said with a sigh.
I heard the weariness in her voice, originating from the same, somewhat perverse complaint she’d been making since childhood: I never gave offense. A show of a spine, even misplaced, by way of deliberate rudeness, would be preferable to none. She was in a difficult mood, or really, all of her difficult moods had converged at once. But I wasn’t as disturbed as I might have been, when far less might have seemed to be portend of the days ahead, perhaps because her irritation served as a familiar thing on such an unfamiliar day.
But I did know why I mentioned the man at the Quai. I had been keeping a sharp eye on the other diners, as not two days earlier I’d seen a picture of John Gielgud lunching on lamb at our exact table. This man was somewhat unremarkable, fair hair with some gray and the thick dark horn-rims he wore made it difficult to really get much of a sense of his features besides being not unpleasant. The two hadn’t done much more than say hello. But when I returned from the washroom, Millicent had turned around quickly as had he and I wondered if they had been communicating in some way. I could have been inventing intrigues. I had spent so much time trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone of glamour that was Millicent’s life, that on several occasions, I’d been so very wrong, I was always very glad I hadn’t anyone to confide these things.
But what made me think I might be right was her gaze, as she turned to check traffic. For a second, I saw the mask of the sophisticate drop, her eyes flatly assessing as they flickered on my own, to see how much I believed her, till the mask returned, and she sat drumming her fingers irritably on the dash, waiting for an elderly driver to turn.
Three quarters of an hour later, rain drumming on the car roof, Millicent turned, the headlights revealing a stone gate and tree trunks dark with rain. Another minute passed as we jostled up the road, past hawthorn hedge and yew, until Millicent braked. I squinted out the window.
“We’re here,” Millicent said.
I should say that Helvstead, at that time in my life, had sat distantly on the far shores of memory, beyond even the usual borders of child and adulthood, like something I had seen in a film or half-remembered from a book. My family had an annual visit for some of my early years, but I had really spent very little time there. Yet, it would be wrong to say it had disappeared from my memory: hurrying past a bed of hyacinths on the way to the tram, I might remember the drowsy perfume arising from the gardens; or seeing a cake smothered in jam, recall the loganberry preserves served at tea; or, at the soup kitchen, when the stove was lit, remembering one of the under maids slipping into light a fire. After Millicent’s offer such childhood memories had a way of tumbling out, erratically, like hatboxes out of a closet: Reggie looking up from his butterfly collection as he watched me creep out from underneath a table where I had been hiding; taking a wrong turn to find my uncle fast asleep over a tray of half-eaten sandwiches, knowing my Mother had been he was much too busy to have luncheon with us; the marvel of an unexpected treat—an éclair—which I’d never seen before. And then there was the nacreous gleam of a turquoise box on Millicent’s bureau that caused my heart to tighten with covetous longing. I had such a particular feeling attached to these recollections, concomitant with awe, terror, emptiness, pleasure and envy, and so thoroughly stewed, I could have scarce teased apart its components.
And of course, Millicent, herself, like some ancient god, to be feared, marveled at and given tribute. Since childhood Millicent had loomed large in my mind, larger than our infrequent visits, and the lack of attachment between our families would suggest. But I think she may have loomed for a lot of people, for there were few more sensational figures than the adventurous doyen of society Millicent Von Favre. How hungrily I had searched for her name in the society columns! I cut out articles, press them into a scrapbook and soon had many, as they weren’t hard to find; among Millicent’s many blessings, she was immensely photogenic, and her picture peppered the dailies as well as Tattler, London Illustrated, LOOK, Picture Post, and National Geographic. I’d glued a map that had developed what appeared to be a rash from the pen tip pressed to signify her visits to foreign cities. I collected mentions like others might stamps, pouring over them, no detail too small to hold my interest: from the color of nail varnish to whether cream puffs or crème brulee had been served, things she herself, would have been hard-pressed to recollect if she could have been bothered to do so. I’d have been mortified for her to know about these scrapbooks, but I couldn’t seem to part with them. I had packed them with me far, far, well wrapped, at the bottom of my trunk.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.