Headlamps (Part I)

I had just made up my mind to start getting ready when the tele-phone rang. Ellis – in that false over-polite way he had now said: “if it’s not too much trouble, Corda” – he over-enunciated the first syllable of my name in that American way he did now – “would you come and pick us up from the station? Our train came in early.”

As I hung up the receiver, I tried to put aside the feeling that I liked him a little less than before.

I dressed hurriedly in a not-quite-dry shirtwaister and low-heeled driving shoes. A gloom was setting in on the forest. The sound of the wipers scraping back and forth put me on edge. I steered with my fingers gripped tightly about the wheel. Ellis was engaged. Mother was unimpressed. Both he and his fiancée were coming to stay.

I loathe that time of year. When the gloom sets in on people too and they decide to be married in the summer.

*

Ellis was a surprise to our parents. They had not wanted children at all, and as soon as I was married off they emigrated, while I made a home for myself in the country. Father had worked for the university, and mother had set about retiring early to small city society. Then Ellis came, some time before my own child, and mother – aggrieved that society life had been taken from her so soon – sent him to live with me. Only until he was out of britches, my father promised. Or university, mother clarified. My father then said his favourite phrase, which he used whenever he was setting a task he knew I wouldn’t want to do. “It’ll set you in good stead”.

Yet, when Ellis was brought to me – freshly weaned and delivered by a chaperone, one of father’s many friends, no doubt – I was instantly smitten. He resembled nothing of my parents. Nor do I, even now, as I approach the age they were when they had him.

He was an amenable child who cried rarely and laughed loudly. It was almost as though he knew he was a guest, and was conscious not to outstay his welcome. I didn’t want to give him back, though.

Then my father died, and mother found herself bereft of her social life, so Ellis was summoned back to Anneston to keep her company.

I was perhaps a little too hasty to replace him. My husband and I shared an unsuccessful marriage, and apart from anything else the child would be a distraction. I fell with my own daughter within a few months. Ada, when she came, looked much like my father and had the temperament of my mother. As soon as she could walk I asked for Ellis to be sent to me twice a year. “To keep Ada company”.

I had no intention of having another of my own. Ellis had been everything Ada hadn’t. Shy, relaxed, kind and inquisitive, and ferociously interested in the commonplace. Ada, by contrast, was mean-spirited and had no interest in anything. After I was divorced she went to live with her father, and I didn’t think of her often.

I raked over all of this as I drove to the station. The forest gave way to the outskirts of town, and even then – after nearly twenty years – I had that silly rush of the feeling of being “in town”. I passed the café on the corner that I always dreamed of visiting. The florist that sold the most beautiful wreaths at Christmastime. One day I would set my mind to buying one. The postmistress was just reopening after lunch and I waved to her – though I seldom had need call for her services.

And there was the turning for Station Approach.

I wondered what Marianne would be like. Mother had called her “bold”. Ellis had called her “beautiful”. I tried to remember her last name. I felt uncomfortable about calling her Marianne. Miss whatever-it-was seemed to be more appropriate, given the circumstances.

There they were. Ellis had his back to me, his black hair slicked down by the rain and water wicking off of his mac. The girl was in a cream coloured fluffy coat and an outmoded cloche hat. She was standing in front of the doors to the ticket hall and smoking. Boldly. A train hooted as it departed behind them, and suddenly they were submerged by a flurry of people leaving the station. For a moment I prayed that she wouldn’t be there when they had all gone.

*

Marianne was “jetlagged” and quiet, and could barely muster a “hullo”. She slept on the backseat as I drove back, while Ellis made conversation and I gripped the wheel tighter still.

It’s so good of you to put both of us up’ he said in his new, falsely over-polite way. In person, the new, subtle twang to his voice was more pronounced. I wondered if it had been mother’s idea. To make him fit in with society.

Oh, it’s no trouble,’ I said, breezily.

I’ve told her all about you.’ He hesitated, and I glanced over in time to see him wrinkle his nose in that way he did as a boy, whenever he had been caught doing something he shouldn’t. ‘All good things,’ he decided, and nodded fervently.

The weather turned heavier as we entered the forest, and I told Ellis that I needed to concentrate. I was never any good in a storm. I thought about how awkward it might be with a stranger in my house. An unknown person always puts a dampener on group conversations, for you can never ask personal questions, you have to reign memories back, you have to make polite conversation. I didn’t have a television then. Without background noise, it would just be us – sitting politely uncomfortable together – because that was what sisters and brothers with new fiancées do.

As I was turning this over in my mind, the headlamps of the car lit up a small rabbit that had been hit. It quivered with the last gasps of life. Without thinking, I closed my eyes and swerved sharply.

Corda!’

Marianne woke up. ‘What? What is it?’ She was more softly-spoken than I had imagined.

I found myself driving past the turning for my road. We were headed into the village. ‘I – I thought we could go for a drink first.’

Gosh, Corda – you look like you need it. What was that?’

What was what?’ Marianne asked.

On the road. Did you hit something?’

Didn’t you see it?’ I said.

I wasn’t looking.’

I could do with a drink,’ Marianne said.

I glanced at her in the mirror, and something twitched inside. The streetlamps lit up her big eyes. She had one of those earnest faces that made me uneasy. I said – ‘and a cigarette, my dear?’ I smiled. ‘They have a lovely smoking room at the side.’

I can’t explain it. I just knew I did not want her in my house.

*

Cruelly, Ellis went immediately the lavatory – or “the bathroom” as he called it now. Marianne didn’t want a cigarette, so we were left together at the bar. It was a busy night – a Friday – and the chatter and jostle of the other customers filled our silence.

Ellis took his time. He always had a weak stomach.

I usually prefer one of the little rooms at the back of the pub, which a person can occupy alone and still look like a crowd, so that nobody else dare enter – and if they do they never stay. That evening, the only table available to us was right in the thick of it – squashed between the backs of the people at the bar, the door to the dining area, and a long right-angled bench filled with muddy farmers and men from the brewery. Unlike Ellis, Marianne was not the inquisitive type. She did not take in her surroundings, nor did she glance up at people who passed by. Instead she looked at her lap. I was accustomed to silence by then. I lived alone. Yet the company of the unfamiliar – other patients in the waiting room; would-be passengers waiting for the bus into town; Ada – left me uncomfortable in my silence. In such situations, I try to focus my mind on something to say. Invariably, I find myself thinking over and again – “think of something to say.” A patient might at least cough, a passenger might at least tut at the unpredictability of local transport and in doing so introduce conversation – but Marianne did not make a sound. She barely moved. I thought she might be asleep. “Jetlag”, I thought.

And I said – ‘The flight seems to have exhausted you, my dear.’

Marianne looked up. I noticed for the first time that she was older than Ellis – perhaps by five years. I found myself not wanting her to reply.

She did. ‘Oh it’s not that, Mrs Drab. It’s my clients. They take it out of me.’

Clients?’ I asked, with just a touch more incredulity than I had intended.

Yes. We’re supposed to call them patients, but that sounds so arms-length, don’t you think?’

Think of something to say! At such moments – when I flounder – I have learned it’s easier to cash in on your helplessness and admit that you have no idea where the conversation is going. But with Marianne I felt the need to be aloof. I was, after all, a matriarch of sorts. So I said – ‘yes, quite. I can imagine it does take it out of one.’

Ellis doesn’t help. He has insomnia now, on top of everything else, and he keeps me awake with his chattering.’ I expected her to chuckle, in an off-the-cuff, oh him!, sort of way, but she didn’t.

Insomnia. Another new facet to Ellis. On top of everything else. ‘How long has he been that way?’

What way?’ Ellis put his hand on the back of my chair.

I jostled for words. Marianne said, crisply – ‘Insomniac.’

Oh.’ He sunk into the chair between us. ‘Since I met Marianne, I expect.’ He laughed. Marianne didn’t. I took a long swig of my drink. They sat a good distance apart from one another and I thought it strange that Ellis had sat closer to me. Generally, the annoying habit of the newly betrothed is their inseparability.

To marriage,’ Ellis toasted of a sudden.

To marriage,’ I said without heart.

*

I was intent on staying for one, though Ellis went thrice to the bar for a top-up. I had water, which I drank quickly and pointedly, while Marianne sipped slowly. They spoke little to one another but plenty to me. Marianne was an assistant to a medical scientist who specialised in the research of epilepsy and its causes. How odd, I thought. A little too close to home.

Each told the story of how they met differently. Ellis said they met on campus, Marianne said they met when she was called upon after he over-indulged on alcohol and had a fit. My Gin and French tasted all the more sour after that. And how she studied him. She watched him – as many partners do – as he told me about his degree and how mother was and how she disapproved of the wedding. But it was not in the affectionate, do-go-on-dear sort of way that people in love watch one another. It was cold. Clinical, one might say. Ellis didn’t seem to notice. At one point, just before we gathered our things to leave, he joked that he was Marianne’s experiment. In return, he had decided on an experiment of his own, insofar as to say that he proposed to her. I didn’t like this new dark edge to his sense of humour, and neither, by the looks of things, did she. She showed the first real glimmer of emotion. Her eyelids flickered rapidly. She tucked her fringe under her cloche hat and sniffed. Despite myself, I began to feel a little sorry for her.

Read Part II.

Beren Reid | November 2017

Photo by Dmitry Bayer on Unsplash

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