In early June, Miss Caruthers invited me to one of a Ladies Lecture’s series at Oxford, a result of a whim of the Dowager’s, who liked Miss Caruthers to attend these things, take copious notes, and undertake some Herculean list of errands.
I’d finally met Miss Caruthers’ employer a few Sundays previous, when a Bentley had drawn up beside us after church, as Miss Caruthers and I chatted with a few of the ladies about the alter arrangements. The window rolled down and with little preamble a voice began talking intently to Miss Caruthers. She was known in the county as the Dowager Bales; nee Lisette Marie Cherbourg. I’d been imagining a plump whey-faced Victorian invalid in a mourning dress. Instead, I saw an exquisitely dressed woman in her late 60’s, with startling green eyes in a fierce tanned face. I’d heard from the ladies at St. Anne’s she hailed from an aristocratic, and rumor had it, deeply depraved, old French family and had been widowed after six months in England. Four decades later, she showed no signs of turning the ancestral home over to her stepson Lord Bales, a demonstration of selfishness considered as monstrous although it was a little admired.
The black ostrich feathers sprouting from the Dowager’s hat quivered urgently as she gave her instructions for some sort of meat pie to be waiting for her on return. Watching the Dowager’s preternatural green eyes bore into Miss Caruthers, it occurred to me, even with a great deal of errands, it might not be unpleasant for her to get out of the Dowager’s orbit, if only for a day.
I crept down the stairs in my blue linen, listening intently, the morning of the lecture. Millicent had been in London at a house party, and might reappear at any moment, and I had hoped to avoid seeing her as I left. Hearing Miss Caruthers’ Daimler gurgling in the driveway, I propped a note explaining my whereabouts on the hall table, and my best pumps making an unfamiliar clatter in the foyer.
“I’m off!” I called in the general direction of the kitchen, and Lucy emerged. “I’ve left the lists, Lucy, right here, so if Lady Von Favre needs anything.”
My eyes darted down the driveway, imagining I heard the MG. Millicent wouldn’t have objected to my leaving, but all morning incipient guilt had been worked like a gravitational force, slowing my movements, nearly flummoxing my progress out of the house. I dreaded Millicent sensing this, mocking me for it, and in doing so, exposing how little I was actually needed at Helvstead.
“Don’t you worry, Miss Bright,” Lucy said. “And going through the contingencies at tea yesterday, truly, I don’t think frogs raining from the sky would trouble us untoward. Now, here’s something for you,” she handed me a thick white-papered square. “Mum always insisted a on bringing a sandwich when traveling. There’s two ham and cheese, with mustard. Will make for a nice tuck-in later.”
I took them, a little wonderingly.
“Thank you, Lucy,” I said, thinking my voice sounded somber, and not a little ridiculous, like a soldier off to war in a film. Hastily I tucked the bulky square into my pocketbook, taking up the considerable empty space. I pulled on my gloves, keeping my eyes averted, near to thanking her Lucy again, but hesitated, aware my tone might reveal just how unused to such kindnesses I was.
Miss Caruthers, as expected, possessed a staggering list of things to acquire in Oxford: face powders, notepaper, books, pens, ribbon, lampshades, obscure jams and even a fitting for one of the Dowager’s frocks. Miss Caruthers, with her willowy figure, often did this, as while the years had worn the once famously and lusciously plump Dowager to relative elderly sinewiness, apparently it wound up being nearly the same thing as far as inches.
We arrived at Oxford at nine, and made our way to the hall where a cacophonic tide of female voices pouring out from the double doors. With the twinkling of the rhinestones in her glasses, a woman handed me a program:
Professor Tilman Y. Grolme
“Earthly Heaven, Earthly Hell”
I’d read a review in Illustrated London Times of Professor Grolme’s book, described enthusiastically by the reviewer in a manner like an advertisement for a theologically nourishing drink. Miss Caruthers and I jostled, and were jostled in return, as we made our way through the crowd to seats. A telegram carrier in uniform passed by, wedging his way down the aisle.
“Oh dear,” Miss Caruthers said. “I wonder if he is looking for me.”
“You! Whatever for?”
“The Dowager. Sometimes she sends me telegrams when I’m out.”
I paused to look at her. “Really.”
“Oh, yes. When she’s forgotten something. Or changed her mind. They’ve come to the tea shop, the bank, Royal Opera house, Harrods’s. She once had a constable on motorbike looking for me.”
“You’re not serious?” I would remember this when I found Millicent trying.
“I was to buy an ottoman she saw in an auctioneer’s catalogue near Valleysdale. The minute I drove into county lines I heard the siren. I pulled over, of course. The constable asked—quite politely—if I was Miss Caruthers, handed me an envelope, tipped his hat. Turns out I wasn’t to buy the ottoman after all, you see, only bring home several jars of pickled walnuts.”
I paused trying to imagine to gently phrase the question, but curiosity got the better of tact: “Do you—do you mind terribly much?”
“Oh. Oh, no! Anyway, I suppose we all have times when we are trying to others. Well, I best go see what it is.”
She put aside her gloves and bag, and I watched her doughty, determined figure track him. Relief crossed his face, he handed her a telegram., and she returned, opening it. Her shoulders slumped fractionally.
“Oh, dear,” she said, pulling out her list, and setting to work with a fountain pen.
The lights dimmed, a microphone tapped experimentally, squealed, and a slide projector whirred to life. A somewhat confused introduction was made by the woman in the rhinestone glasses, who seemed to have a great deal of impassioned ideas on the importance of Modern Jazz that did or, more likely, didn’t have any application to the topics at hand, I couldn’t quite tell, but was politely applauded in any case, and finally Professor Grolyme came out to a bevy of applause.
Our seats lay in one of those acoustic pockets and the Professor’s voice fell as a sharp glancing blow on the ears and then, after a querulous complaint arose from an elderly lady in front, the volume rose, doubling the effect. It was a bit strange to have upsetting quotations from the Bible, the Torah, Hindu and Buddhist texts read in a calm voice. I concentrated instead on the slides: depictions of heaven and hell, heaven almost universally a clean tidy well-lighted place, hell, dark sprawling disorder with much writhing of limbs. These were followed by more exotic examples—from India, Polynesia, South America peoples—including a sculpture which I thought rather surprisingly obscene, and then something like the black-tongued lady squatting on Helvstead’s parlor, a ring of bleeding skulls around her waist.
But I found the noise so unpleasant, and feeling a headache coming on, I gave up any pretense of following, and watched the ladies around me: some taking notes, some with furrowed brows, some with the politely schooled expressions of great interest that connote minds far away on other things. I studied their hats, stoles, frocks, scarves, shades of lipstick, trying to envision what the choices of these things revealed about their lives, if Professor Grolyme would think they revealed a decision to heaven or hell. Red lipstick heaven, coral lipstick hell? Or perhaps the reverse?
A startling round of enthusiastic applause flooded the hall and suddenly it was over, the crowd gathering their stoles and muffs and hand bags, and began shuffling their way out, the occasional remark bobbing over the throng of voices:
“Most interesting. Now aren’t you glad you missed bridge just this once with your precious Vicar?”
“Don’t be odious, Suzette. Where can we get a cup of…”
“Wonder what Grolme thinks of C.S. Lewis,” an elderly voice cut in.
“Rather dislikes him I gather.”
A high-pitched education voice: “…was quite the scandal…he and the ambassador’s wife, ten years older…”
“Citations are very well indexed indeed! I hate to say it but scholars are so often sloppy and—”
“But is he married?”
I turned to Miss Caruthers to find her rising on tiptoe craning for a look at the refreshments.
“I do hope they’ll be something left. I suppose I should have breakfasted properly,” she said. “I almost managed a piece of toast, but the Dowager does so dislike yellow roses, and the florist has been very unreliable since his wife died, the poor dear, I had to check. Anyway, let’s see what’s there, shall we?”
It appeared, however, we’d followed those hoping for an audience with Grolyme and by the time we found our way to the victuals, it was empty but for a few crumbs on grease stained doilies. A harassed-looking woman clutching a silver server muttered something about the descending of vultures and hastened away. Miss Caruthers looked so woebegone I had a difficult time not smiling.
“Perhaps they’ll bring out more cakes and things,” I said.
“No, no!” She said cheerfully. “Mother always did say an empty stomach is the best reminder of God’s bounty. And I really must get started on my errands. Well, let me see,” she said, eyeing the list. “¾ inch French piquet ribbon in blue, green and red, the lemon curd, the King Charles serving spoon, the mink muff relined, her new black frock…heaven and hell don’t seem so terribly important with all that to do.” She looked at me, aghast.
“Oh, but I’m ashamed of myself. I do so admire Professor Grolyme—such persipience! I hope you will excuse me, Miss Bright.”
“Really, I must not be myself.”
Looking at her distressed, peaky face, I added gently. “Perhaps we really ought to have some luncheon.”
“What an idea!” she fluttered. “I’m tempted, of course—but I must get started straight away, if I’ll be back by six-thirty. Oh, how dreadful,” she stopped, registering my surprise. “I told you we’d be back by tea time, didn’t I? Oh dear, oh dear…”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Please don’t worry.”
“But what will you do?” Her squint became more pronounced. “You are welcome to come on my errands,” she added, doubtfully. “Of course, they may be rather—”
“I’ve some shopping to attend to myself,” I said firmly.
“If you don’t mind too terribly.”
“Not at all. A real treat, a full day out for me.”
“If you are absolutely sure. What time shall we meet—dear me, look at this list. I don’t think it could be before five, and in frankness, five-thirty would be much more likely.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ve got lots to do myself—and if I get it all done I’ll just pop in to the cinema.”
Her squint grew slightly more pronounced.
“But only if it lets out in time,” I amended. “I’ll be most careful to check with the clerk at the ticket booth. But, Miss Caruthers,” I said, seeing her slide on her gloves. “You really must have something to eat.”
Her mouth opened in protest.
“Ham and cheese,” I said, pulling out Lucy’s paper bundle from my pocket book.
Miss Caruthers looked it wonderingly.
“And this,” I said, adding a Choc-o-Block I’d bought leaving London and had lain forgotten in a pocket till now. “I think even the Dowager must realize you cannot do your best for her when you’re peckish.”
“But Miss Bright isn’t this your luncheon? I wouldn’t dream—”
“I’m going to find café for a hot meal. I insist.”
“Are you quite sure.”
“I am. Please, Miss Caruthers.”
“I suppose…oh! Perhaps at the dressmakers! Sometimes the others have tea in the back, near the mannequins, always seems a bit strange, you know as if they are joining us. Makes me think of Alice in Wonderland, don’t you know. Well, I do thank you. So kind. You’re absolutely sure you’ll be all right?”
I assured her and, watching her disappear around the corner; how very glad I was not to be not in the Dowager’s employ. I found a café, and eavesdropped on a mix of civil servants, dons, and pairs of shopping ladies while I lunched on beef stroganoff, mixed salad, rolls, Stilton, a glass of red wine, with a slice of cherry tart and coffee to finish. I hadn’t eaten so much in years, even since I’d arrived at Helvstead, and emerged luxuriously bloat.
I made my way to the square where I window-shopped, for some time, finally buying a box of talc, smelling of hyacinths, at the perfumier’s. A hat I’d seen in a shop window driving by at Miss Caruthers’s snail-like pace that morning, still sat and I found myself staring at it, a small but undeniably smart blue cloche with five feathers on the crown. It, four scarves and a pair of gloves, were soon tissue wrapped purchases under my arm.
I found an antiques shop, promisingly dusty and crammed to its very limits. The shopkeeper, a stooped bespectacled gentlemen in a moth-eaten pullover, exactly the sort of proprietor one imagined from the outside, stood with to a lady in tweeds and eccentrically cut hair, discussing which rather alarming practices in Roman antiquity yielded which basins and bowls she collected for planters. I trolled about, poking here and there, until idly opening a dilapidated steamer trunk, I found myself regarding a pair of enormous brogues carved out of cherry wood, perfect in every detail. The shopkeeper, detecting my interest from across the room, shuffled towards me: they’d come in with things from an estate in Kent ten years previous, and had become a fixture of the place, one he would be glad to be rid of for a reasonable price.
As he rung them on what must have been one of the very first cash registers in existence, my eyes latched onto a painting wedged on the window sill. White and yellow daubs sat atop a flaccid green background, perhaps to indicate flowers in a field. There was something in its crudeness or simple ugliness that held me: it could have been painted a hundred years or a week earlier, and struck me, as the work of an invalid, why I’m not sure, except the determination and the unhappiness of those hasty, ill-considered daubs bespoke of an impoverished and conscribed life. I made an offer for it, which the shopkeeper accepted. As he shrouded my them in brown paper, we agreed I might pick them up a little later, as I already had my hands full of purchases.
I emerged, glanced at my watch, and abandoned the idea of the cinema. A rumble of thunder overhead hastened my decision to find tea. Earlier, I’d passed a teashop that reminded me of a fortune teller’s parlor, windows shrouded with fluffy lace curtains and a rather modern sign. It took me ten minutes to find it, thunder grumbling ever more loudly, passersby hurrying to find cover. Fat, hard raindrops had just begun to fall when I saw the curtains and the bohemian air of The Speaking Rose Café. I ducked inside.
The interior was crammed with mismatching antique tables and chairs, the walls papered in a pattern of large, vigorous pink, yellow, lavender and orange roses. I saw a free table in a nook, placed my purchases on the chair, heading to the w.c., signaling to the waitress I’d return. Refreshed, my chignon smoothed into place, I threaded through the tables. It seemed a hallucination, the figure sitting in neatly pressed housekeeper uniform, voluminous white hair trapped in a bun.
I came to a halt.
“Why, Molly!” I said. “Whatever are you doing here?”
“Having tea, you idiot girl, what do you think?”
“I mean—in Oxford.”
“Lady Mycroft brings me. And I’ve an old friend retired around these parts.”
“How nice.” I sat down, still at sea, then remembered Millicent mentioning she’d helped out the Mycroft family over the years.
“You’ve been round to the shops,” Molly’s eyes roved assessingly over my parcels. “What a lot of purchases.”
“For Lady von Favre,” I said, without missing a beat. I forgot sometimes, what an easy liar I was. I had the unfamiliar sensation as her eyes boring into mine of her gaze being level with my own. The mismatching chairs, I realized, compensating for the usual height difference.
“Did Lady Mycroft bring you to Oxford then?” I asked.
“Oh, she sent her car round for me,” Molly said.
“How kind,” I smoothed the tablecloth. “I don’t suppose you’d like to join me?”
“‘Don’t suppose you’d like to join me?’ I’m sitting, aren’t I? Now, I’ve no need for cake. Just the tea. Don’t like the Indian. Get the China. And they better do it right this time.”
The waitress arrived, giving a puzzled and unenthusiastic glance in Molly’s direction, but refrained from comment as I placed our order, which arrived quickly. I asked after Molly’s children, unsuccessfully hoping to distract her from criticizing how I poured. All of them seemed to be inhabitants of Australia, America or Ireland.
“I thought a couple mightn’t be completely useless, but that’s not to be the case. Wastrels and morons every last one of the lot. And now little Ruth is fat as a house! Shouldn’t be surprised—always was a greedy girl. Sent a picture from Australia last week,” she gave a merry laugh. “Now, you, you’re the opposite, aren’t you? Puny little thing. You don’t look much better fed than you did as a girl. Nibble here, nibble there. Look at your seedcake—barely a dent.”
“I’ve never been a good eater, I’m afraid.”
“You were a nervy thing. Always going off sicking things up, too. Tried to hide it in the planters now, didn’t you?”
I flushed scarlet; I’d forgotten that Molly might have seen evidence of the terrible stomach I’d had as a child, easily upset.
“Someone had to clean it now, didn’t they?” Molly asked, eyes boring into mine with hostile cheerfulness. “You still do that sleepwalking as well? Up and down the halls you’d go. We used to watch and laugh and laugh. Oh, it was amusing.”
I flushed deeper.
“You do!” she cried triumphantly. “Here comes ‘The Phantom’ we used to say.”
“Not quite anymore, Molly.” I cleared my throat and sought for a distraction. “Has your family always been in service?”
“My Mum worked at the Tarris’ for a good forty years. Then she got so ill and I had to attend to her, god rest her soul. The pain of it. Still hear her wailing in my dreams sometimes.”
I felt my eyebrows raise.
“That was before all the children. I delivered of most her babies you know, after I was eleven.”
“Goodness,” I said. “What an…an awful lot of responsibility.”
“Nine I brought into this world. Of the nineteen she bore,” she said with a nod. “Not all of them made it much past christening, of course.”
“And all of your family…came in to service?”
“One way or another. I went to one of the estates nearby. But I lost my post there–one of the gentleman put a hand on me—oh, I was a pretty girl when I was young!—and my Rob—wouldn’t stand for it, no, he wouldn’t. Your Mum was gone by then to one of her schools.”
“I had forgotten you knew my mother, Molly.” I cleared my throat. “You know, you were quite right about the China tea. I think it extremely nice.”
This successfully pulled Molly’s attention to the tea, which further had her launching into the perils of the Yellow Menace. But it was difficult not to think of our visits to Helvstead, and my mother. How increasingly unhappy she became as each day passed, and how she seemed to tuck into herself further when she saw me return cheerful from an outing. Despite the inevitable humiliations on these excursions with Millicent and Reggie, there remained much for me to enjoy; the carpet of pansies outlining the garden, sitting on the stone fence watching Millicent gallop around the fields; a picnic on a golden afternoon. I learned to hide my pleasure, earning myself a reputation as dull and difficult to please from my cousins in the process. Eventually, the act of disguising my feelings produced the same result as having them; and I no longer had to pretend. I avoided the outdoors, no matter how enticing the weather or days’ activities, willing myself to stay close. But, even so, I would recognize my presence wasn’t the balm my mother needed. For one, Mother didn’t seem to notice these sacrifices or even specifically crave my company. She would sit, in her best frock, on the divan in the downstairs parlor, staring out the window to the rose garden smoking the inevitable cigarette.
“Hello, darling,” she might say, when I came to stand beside her, her voice curiously flat. Her eyes would return to the window, smoke curling round her like a veil.
I don’t know when I understood that much of the time she wasn’t aware of my presence. She looked at me vaguely, sometimes, as if I were a stranger to her, or past me, as if I weren’t there at all. She might say a few quiet words to herself, and strain as I might, I could never hear what she said. The whole mystery of my mother I imagined lay in those few murmured phrases.
Molly broke into my thoughts. “…those from the East will take us over mind my word. Miss Bright! Miss BRIGHT! You aren’t attending, are you!?”
“I’m sorry Molly, Ceylon vs. China tea, the menace, indeed…”
She waved this transparent effort to appease her away.
“I hope you’re not so vague as you mother. At least you aren’t so unglued, I can see that. Such a troublesome nature she had—could work herself into such fits—I never saw the likes of them—cried so stormy-like. Make herself sick, she did. Did strange things to herself, too. Not quite right in the head, we all thought. Never was, probably.”
I paused. It was difficult to tell if—or perhaps merely, to believe that—Molly could be as oblivious to her rudeness as she behaved.
I cleared my throat. “You do believe in the virtue of candor, don’t you Molly?”
“But then,” she continued, as if I’d said nothing, “I’ll be the first to say it, Lady Clive was hard to please. Your mum did try I suppose but oh, Lady Clive, she had an exacting nature. ‘Whatever has the ‘Little Scrap’—that’s what she called your mum.”
I could feel the last lingering vestiges of the ease, the pleasure of the day draining away. I urged myself change the subject, excuse myself to the w.c., claim a headache.
“How the parlor maids whinged about Lady Clive! I always said, ‘If you’d just do it right they’ll be no troubles!’ Still, such excuses you’d hear. Thick as trees! And Lady Clive knew there wasn’t anything like a good slap to make ‘em get it right—oh, their faces when it happened!—it was a caution, I tell you,” she chuckled. “The cook would have a poultice ready whenever Agnes from the village came in—she never could remember a thing—she got the sack soon enough. Well, truth told, your Mum never could please Lady Clive either. Although she tried a full shade harder than Agnes and her lubbery ilk. Pretty little thing your mom was, but weepy, weepy, always bleating for her Mummy, oh, Lady Clive would get so angry, send her straight up to the nursery, she would! Lord Clive couldn’t stand it either now, could he? Sometimes your mum would be up their for whole days. And no one was to visit her till she stopped her whinging.”
“Now Master David—he was bit older that your mum, of course. Big brother through and through, wasn’t he? You can’t help but indulge the boys. But, how he and his friend Tabitha—Duchess Milgrim now, if you didn’t know—my, is she fine lady, I see her from time to time—oh, they were thick as thieves when they were young, larking about the place, playing tricks on the chamber maids, causing trouble in the stables—quite unnerved one of the foals. Oh, and set a kite on fire once, caught the Quackenbush side of the woods. I never knew how the master did it, getting it up in the air like that. Took some smoothing over from Lord Clive to get them out of that scrape.”
“But, oh how those two used to bedevil your Mum! Tied her to a chair and left her in the Clive mausoleum for the night, can you believe it? Was a hunting day—and don’t tell me they didn’t know it!—the dogs found her the next morning, didn’t they? Barking and carrying on.”
“Surely you must be…” My eyes sought hers. I thought of the squat stone shape of the mausoleum, forlorn in the distance from the morning room, near the pond. “They couldn’t have, not really? Left her there?”
“She was supposed to have her own Nanny, but often as not they were needed by the housekeepers, and no one noticed the little thing wasn’t in bed.”
I fell into an appalled silence.
“Oh those two were just the very limit!” She chortled. “Now that I think of it, they may have left her in the attic as well, once or twice. I tell you I’d never put up with such nonsense from my brood, not having ten of them blubbering around. All I had to do was point to the strap and they knew to behave. Well, Lord Clive finally did take Master David to task. But he had a soft spot for him. Reminded of himself as a lad, I’m sure. And really, Master was so amusing, we had a terrible time keeping a straight face when we heard about his scrapes.”
“Oh, but Miss Tabitha was angry at your Mum for tattling! She cut off your mum’s hair right before a party—I think she was a bit jealous of her curls—and told everybody your mum had done it herself. I’d have believed that girl—my, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, I tell you—if I hadn’t a seen it with my own eyes. Lady Clive was breathing fire, and your Mum had to wear a wig, like a little doll, for the dance, only of course Master Clive plucked it right off her head. Oh, he was the limit, I tell you. Those were the good old days.”
“Now a boy like that, even an upright boy, he’s going to get into some scrapes, but he’ll be right in the end. But your mum! Such a weak, weak girl! A wet mess. Lady Clive couldn’t bear the sight of her half the time. Nothing like Master David or his daughter, my own Millie; Millie’s a bad lot, no mistake about it, but at least she’s got a bit of gumption. Your mum—nothing you can do for someone as weak as that. And when she got older—well, one can’t discuss the things she did in decent company. Easy for a weak girl like that to turn harlot.”
It took me a good moment but finally I managed to speak.
“Would you like some more tea, Molly?” I asked.
“I do believe I will. Talking can parch a person.”
My hands, I noticed, with a certain dispassion, had begun to tremble but I managed to pour. A dark-suited man threading his way to our table, and gave a polite, professional bow, introducing himself as the Darvers’ secretary.
“Mrs. Ryerson, the car’s here, but if you’re enjoying yourself—”
“No, no, best to go now,” Molly said. “This lady isn’t exactly lively company. Might as well be sitting talking to myself. ‘Why, yes, Miss Molly, ‘Is that so, Miss Molly?’”
She was a good mimic; it rather shocked me recognizing myself in her words. Did I really sound so docile, so half-witted?
“That’s a nice way to talk about someone who’s kept you company this afternoon,” said the secretary indulgently, with a wink to me, as he helped her up.
“I’ll be round next Thursday, Miss Bright. Young man, do you know what this foolish woman does all day? Reads old magazines! And smokes cigarettes, playing at lady of the house while my mistress is away. Is that the sort of life for a grown Christian woman, I ask you?”
I sensed the secretary’s sympathetic look as he led Molly away, and ducked my head, too shamed to find any comfort. I motioned for the check, tucking pound notes I hardly counted under the saucer. The Rolls Royce the secretary had bundled Molly into had pulled way from the kerb. I gathered my purchases, wallpaper roses swimming before my eyes as I stood and hurried outside, desperate suddenly to get away from that cacophony of flowers.
I glimpsed myself in the tea shop window; my crumpled suit, two high pink spots of color on my cheeks, a miserable social smile that had must have frozen since Molly appeared. I turned away, not wanting to see what replaced it when if faded. At the end of the cramped cobblestone street stood a tower with a clock on it it’s enormous black arms pointing to twenty-five past five. Miss Carruthers would be anxiously waiting.
“Oh no!” I cried.
I began shuffling in a half-run, half-walk, bags rocking against the ballast of my body, my gait unfamiliar in the narrowness of my skirt, hardly knowing where I went. The square I urged myself, the square. My pumps clapping on the cobblestones, the rhythmic rustle of tissue paper in parcels, the loudness of my breath, seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
I had managed with a few wrong turns to progress half-way to the square, when I felt a hard sharp smack at my right temple, so shockingly without warning, it knocked sense, breath, reason out of me. I must have spun round, reeling at the sharpness of the blow; the cobblestones flashed and then suddenly I lay upon them, in an unsightly sprawl of legs and bags. I heard a childish cry of dismay and then a woman’s voice from a window:
“Ralphie Tiggs, you stupid boy! What had you done? Are you hurt, miss?!”
Stupefied, I sat staring at my torn stockings, dimly aware my right temple throbbed. I touched my hand to it: blood. I noticed a rough nugget of hard plaster, about the size of a walnut, next to me; I must have stared at it for some seconds, bewildered, before I recognized it as the instrument of destruction.
“You wait right there, Miss,” the woman shouted. “Ralphie, you little blighter, look what that catapult’s finally done! I told you! You could have killed the poor woman! I’m coming right down, Miss. Don’t you move.”
I began to gather my scattered parcels, which seemed to be inching away from me like escaping turtles, and then lurched to wobbling feet. Orienting myself took a few moments, but finally my eyes latched on to a familiar street that I knew led to the square. A door opened and shut. I heard the woman’s voice call after me.
“Miss! Miss! Please! Have a care! Please…”
Her voice carried away as I turned the corner. I could feel a thin, hot trickle of blood down my neck as I gained a speed, one of my heels nearly turning on the cobblestones. The tower gonged the half hour and I began to run in earnest now, my legs nearly weaving out from underneath me, but I caught myself and pressed on, passed a woman pushing a pram who watched my progress, her mouth open in astonishment. A man turned saying something to me I couldn’t hear. I saw the square, Miss Caruthers waiting by the car.
“Hello, Miss Bright, I hope you—oh, Miss Bright, you’re bleeding! What’s happened?”
“It’s perfectly all right,” I panted. “Absolutely fine. Just a scratch. Only I—” my knees melted, but I recovered. “Need to place my parcels in the bonnet if I could. They’ve become awfully—heavy.”
“Oh, dear. Sit down, sit down.”
She opened the passenger door and settled me in, whisking away my parcels. Studying my temple, her eyes dark with concern, she pulled out a handkerchief.
“The cut’s not very deep,” she said. “But you’re going to have quite an egg. Already started. Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’ve just remembered! There’s a first aid kit in the boot.”
She darted away and I heard the dull thud of things being shuffled, the car bobbling slightly in efforts.
“Found it!” she shouted. “Oh dear—stuck!—I won’t be but a moment.”
A group of boys in school uniform came round the corner and slowed, regarding me. I inched away into the car, sliding the handkerchief so it covered more of my face.
“Christ, that lady’s been coshed!”
“Perhaps someone took her pocketbook.”
“Good amount of blood.”
“You going to faint, you poofter?”
“Same thing happened when Parker tried shaving with his Da’s—”
“Shut up you bastard! I never—“
“Enough of that.” An authoritative voice broke in. “Shut it now, will you.” A dark-haired man peered into the car. “Are you all right? Has anyone called a doctor?”
I kept my head averted. “Oh, no, I’m all right, just a bit of a—”
I heard accelerating footsteps then another voice, this from one the woman from earlier.
“Thank heavens, we’ve found you! You had such a start—oh, your poor head! Do let me see.” She bent towards me. “Imagine your tearing off like that. I’ve never seen the like.”
“Oh I’m fine,” I said and smiled feeling the tightness of drying blood on my cheek. “I was late for an appointment and—”
“My son nearly took your head off,” she gestured to a small indistinct shape behind her. “No wonder you went running! I imagine you thought I was coming after you to finish the job.”
“No, no,” I demurred.
“Well,” said the teacher. “Is there anything I can do?”
I stilled, willing him away.
“You go on,” the woman said, adding grimly. “It’s my Billy—he is a blight sometimes.”
“Boys often are,” he said, “If you’re quite sure. Parker! Burton! Come along then!”
I felt more than saw him retreat in the distance.
“We should be getting you to a doctor,” said the woman as she regarded my temple.
“Miss Caruthers,” I said, vaguely gesturing to where she was still struggling to dislodge the first aid kit. “She must be getting back. I couldn’t possibly make her wait.”
The woman raised her eyebrows, and called to Miss Caruthers:
“You don’t mind do you, miss, if we stop for a just a moment to make sure this poor woman is all right?”
She made no effort to disguise the sarcasm in her voice.
“Oh no of course not, I was just…” Miss Caruthers words trailed off uncertainly. I realized the woman had mistaken Miss Caruthers for a bullying employer.
The woman returned her to me. “Right. I’ve got a cloth right here with ice—”
“You’re too kind, really you mustn’t—” I started.
“Funny definition of kind you’ve got. That son of mine! Target practice near the street, the young idiot. Ooooo, I could just kill him. There now. Hurt too much? No? Good. I nursed during the war, I swear I was practically a doctor by the end. I’ve seen a lot uglier, although this it isn’t exactly a love tap either.”
I felt her fingers gently moving the cloth away, I couldn’t remember ever being touched so gently, her fingers probing my scalp and head, and then lifted a flashlight to my eyes, checking my pupils. She returned the ice and stood, wiping her hands on a towel.
“You’ve got a class-A lump. You might need to get that cut stitched. Best go to hospital.”
I demurred and she pressed, till grudgingly she let me go, but only after a last check, and an apology from the boy who emerged from behind his mother, and so obviously stricken by my bloodied visage I rather wondered if it might be appearing in his dreams for some years to come.
After I settled myself in the car I understood why the woman had mistaken Miss Caruthers for my employer. Her usual hideous cloak and obfuscating hat had been banished and wore one of the Dowager’s new suits, black, form-fitting, covered in jet beads and very chic. She noticed my glance as we pulled out of village.
“She sometimes likes me to wear her things,” she said, rather helplessly.
“Oh, are you sure you can make it back, I’d never forgive myself if—”
“Why?! Because of your poor head. Oh, I do think you might let me drive you to—”
“No, why does the Dowager want you to wear her things?”
“Oh.” She paused. “I don’t know,” she admitted.
“She didn’t say?”
“Perhaps to…to test them out?” she tried, doubtfully. “Sometimes the seamstresses do forget to take out a pin or two. ”
“Oh.” I watched the darkened mesh of trees pass by. “But not all that often, I wouldn’t imagine.”
“Oh, well, often enough,” she sighed then added, confidingly. “She has a lot of very particular requests—about her food, of course, the temperature of her bath, the size of the napkins. I do have the most cunning little thermometer. But then some of the others, well, perhaps they are rather odd. Not unpleasant…but perhaps a bit peculiar.”
It was a good indication of my exhaustion that this only caused a faint swell rather than a tidal wave of curiosity.
“Perhaps she wants to know what they would look like if she were young,” I offered.
“Oh, Miss Bright, I’m middle-aged,” she said comfortably.
“That may be, Miss Caruthers, but—” I began, but stopped, feeling a stab at my temple as we jounced over a pothole.
“Oh dear, Miss Bright, it’s bothering you terribly isn’t it?”
“I think I’ll just be quiet for a time.”
We arrived at Helvstead and only at my insistence did I prevent her from escorting me inside.
“Well. All right,” she said. “But do promise me you will call a doctor if you start feeling worse. Or ring me, any hour, phone is in my room, shan’t disturb anyone, and I certainly know all the Dowager’s doctor’s number by heart,” she said.
“I promise,” I said. “And now, I’m off. Straight to bed.”
“If you’re very sure. Would you be so kind as to call me tomorrow. I will worry.”
I agreed, and, with great effort managed to get my limbs out of the car, up the stairs and in the door. I headed straight for the morning room intent on the decanter of sherry on the sideboard, unaware of Millicent lounging with the Times on the sofa, till I was half-way in the room.
“Good God! What’s happened to you?”
I started and turned to see her, paper lowered, her face equal parts alarm and distaste.
It took a moment to find my voice. “I had a spill, I’m afraid. Rather clumsy of me.”
I still clutched Miss Caruthers bloodied handkerchief; I slid it in my pocket. It took me a moment to identify the cool roundness therein as the piece of plaster. I’d forgotten I’d picked it up.
“Good lord, more than a spill, I’d say. I’ll have Lucy call Dr. Burnham—he’s out at the Quigson’s this weekend for some shooting, I think.”
“No, please I’d really rather not have any more fuss.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I’m fine,” I said then added distractedly. “A woman gave me a check up. Said she’d seen much worse, nursing in the war. She was practically a doctor by the end of the war.”
Millicent smiled sardonically. “Well, I suppose it’s all right then. Look, I’ve been around the stables enough— I’ve seen—and had—my share of accidents. No, there’s no getting out of it—I won’t leave you alone until I do. Sit down. Pull your hair away. You didn’t lose consciousness?”
I could feel her eyes on me, the faint stirring of her breath.
“That could use a stitch or two,” she said.
I had a ghastly ignominious vision of Millicent and I, her stitching me shut like one of her horses, a gleaming needle on an endlessly long piece of black string.
“No,” I said. “I’d much rather not bother—”
“I wasn’t offering, Ramona,” she said. “I was going to say I think you want a doctor.”
“No, no—please, Millicent. I’m so tired—I would just like to go to bed.”
She gave it another doubtful glance. “Well, I suppose a doctor isn’t absolutely necessary if you’re so dead set against it.”
“I really would rather not.”
I got up, poured and drank two glasses of sherry in rapid succession, feeling Millicent’s watchful gaze.
“Well, I’m not sure that was the brightest idea,” Millicent said.
“No, perhaps it wasn’t.” My eyes roamed around the room, as if they had a will, an agenda of their own, mindlessly searching for something, nothing, anything.
“I think I’ll go to bed.” I said abruptly.
“Fine. But if you start feeling horrid, for god’s sake, don’t be an idiot. I don’t want a corpse on my hands. Wake Lucy or me and we’ll call the doctor.”
“Good night. And Ramona,” she added just as I neared escape from the room. “Where’d you get that suit?” She eyed the suit I’d stolen from St. Christopher’s jumble with something like admiration. “It’s really rather nice. I mean, without the gore.”
“It was my mother’s,” I said, and headed up to bed.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com