The Blind Daffodil (Part III)

Katherine, breathless from running, was stopped short by the sight of The Paragon. The columns that framed the entrance, the high arches – atop which sat elaborate bronze figures of dancing women – the gleaming brass door handles, and the smartly-dressed doorman who visibly took a double take and looked away. She stood still and listened to the swell of jazz pulsing from within, while a party of about a dozen people overtook her, and the doorman swung open the door. The music grew louder, calling her inside, and she hurried up the steps after them. They appeared to be a cluster of local dignitaries; the mayor, his livery chain echoing through the corridor, was leading them all to the ballroom. He opened the double doors with a flourish, and a rush of warm air and music swept over her. Her fringe fluttered out of place. The mayor seemed quietly alarmed as she peered down at him. She smiled weakly, and stole away to the bar. It was there she decided to stand for the rest of the evening.

From most angles she appeared an attractive prospect. Fine figure. Fine posture. Fine hair. A fine dress, one of Mrs Sayers’ old numbers that she had altered to fit both her body and the bias cut she had seen in a magazine. And so, from time to time, between dances, men approached to offer their hand, but she appeared shorter from a distance – and neither she nor Mrs Sayers had accounted for men looking up; up and under her new fringe. A couple of them visibly balked and politely made their excuses. One claimed mistaken identity. One was crass enough to tell her that he needed the lavatory, but that he would be “back directly”. She watched him slope off and rejoin his group of friends. But Katherine was not put out by how men received her. No man’s revulsion, she thought, as she watched the dancers, could match the opinion she held for herself. By her third glass, she began to find it amusing. She would anticipate their reactions as their frames came into focus, and settled in to the role of the solemn young woman clasping a glamorous cocktail, tapping her heel to the music, alone. After a while, she began to make conversation with the barman between songs. He was immaculately dressed. Pinstripe suit, golden yellow bow-tie. Tall and lean with a bouncy expression.

‘I like your scent.’

‘Can’t you smell the vinegar?’

‘Vinegar?’

Katherine laughed at his rumpled face. ‘I’ll have another.’

He mixed another Aviation, all the while looking at her, smiling. ‘Don’t you want to dance?’

‘My mother never taught me that.’

‘It’s easy,’ he said, putting the glass down in front of her. The band started up again, and he was called away by the music. Katherine turned to watch him; a spectre on the edge of her vision. There was something mesmerising about him, as he danced by himself in the middle of the crowded ballroom, his moves not at all in time with the rhythm.

*

The evening grew thin, and it became clear to Katherine that someone would have to escort her home. She closed her eye, swaying slightly, as she listened to the last song fading away, and when she opened it again the band were already packing up, and the barman had left the room. She found him in the lobby, humouring a group of drunkards. Before she opened her mouth he said – ‘Well chaps, I’m spoken for’ – and he placed his hand on the small of Katherine’s back. The group of men laughed – she was unsure if this was at her or at him – and he led her across the lobby as though he was leading her onto another dance-floor. He winked at the doorman as they glided out onto the street. ‘So,’ he said, ‘What brought you here alone?’

‘My mother,’ Katherine said, breathless from running; breathless from the thrill. She looked up at him just as a tram turned onto the street; its headlamps lighting up her face through her fine hair. For a moment she held his gaze, and then she looked down.

He gasped, and her heart beat a pace. ‘You still owe me for all those drinks.’ He gave her a serious look, then collapsed into giggles and reached to take her hand again.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, laughing on the brink of crying. ‘My mother didn’t–.’

‘No need,’ he said. ‘Just don’t tell anybody or you’ll have me sacked.’ He gestured for a cab, and when it came he opened the door for her with that same flourishing motion the mayor had had.

She sat down on her hands in the back seat. ‘Where are we going?’

The barman grinned. ‘To my place.’

‘To your place?’

He closed the door. ‘Take us to the back of the hotel, would you?’

Katherine guffawed. ‘But we could have just as easily walked–.’

‘Be that as it may, I couldn’t very well kiss you on the street now, could I?’

*

Mrs Sayers poked her nose out into the night air and sniffed. ‘It doesn’t take five hours to walk home from the Paragon.’

‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever walked it yourself.’

Mrs Sayers sniffed again. ‘What’s that smell?’

‘Vinegar, I shouldn’t wonder.’ Katherine gave a wry smirk, and swayed a little on the threshold.

Mrs Sayers hauled her inside and swept shut the door. ‘Cigarettes. And alcohol.’

‘Blind drunk, one might say.’

Mrs Sayers hard eyes loosened. ‘Did some fool–.’

‘No, mother, I came up with it myself. You’ve taught me very well.’

Mrs Sayers’ eyes flashed hard again, and she struck Katherine across the face with the flat of her hand. It was then that some distant memory was dislodged in Katherine’s mind. Nothing, she thought, feels quite like a slap. For a moment, she could see the floor turning over into the ceiling, and had she been sober she may have settled on the memory. Mrs Sayers looked up through the window above the door, and slid a hand into her housecoat to retrieve her last packet of cigarettes. Moonlight shone through, illuminating her face. It glistened, and Katherine sobered a little then. In a small voice, Mrs Sayers bid her goodnight. Her heeled house shoes made the familiar, urgent click as she went up the stairs, across the landing and out of earshot.

*

Katherine turned over her egg and gazed into its broken yolk. Mrs Sayers entered, with an air of restraint. She set about making tea for herself and placed a kettle on the stove. As she worked she hummed, and in the confines of the music she made up her mind to speak.

‘I’ve decided to go away for a while,’ Katherine said, beating her to it.

Mrs Sayers stopped mid-crescendo, and turned to see if she was serious.

Katherine let her fork slide into the yolk of her egg.

‘Away?’

‘Yes.’

‘But where? You have nowhere to go to.’ Mrs Sayers gave a panicked little laugh. ‘Nowhere.’

‘The Paragon Hotel is taking on staff. The boy who runs the bar is going to put in a good word, and he says they’ll give me a room of my own.’

‘My girl! A chambermaid? A waitress?’

‘A telephonist, to make all the connexions for the rooms. Quite moderne. Quite as you said.’

‘You were meant to find a good match, Katherine, not a job, and certainly not “the boy who runs the bar.” My god. You’re not good enough to work. Why do you think I tried so hard to make you something worthwhile? Fine comportment, and you pick “the boy who runs the bar”.’ Mrs Sayers rubbed her forehead with one hand and reached into her housecoat pocket with the other. The packet was empty. ‘Oh, hell. I’ll have to go into town.’

‘We can take the tram together. I’ll only be a few minutes.’

The kettle screeched. Mrs Sayers gritted her teeth. ‘Not with you looking like that – your hair is a mess. And where is your eye-patch?’

Katherine’s hand fluttered up to her face. ‘I forgot to put it on. Well, I didn’t need it last night; why should I need it today?’

Their eyes met. Mrs Sayers grimaced, and turned away to make her tea. ‘“The boy at the bar”,’ she repeated, with the sound of spit. She laughed. ‘“The boy at the bar.” No doubt you’ll need some money. There’s a five-pound note in a box in my tallboy. Don’t you dare touch anything else.’

*

Katherine chose to pack first. She filled a battered old valise with the clothes and shoes that had been passed down to her from Mrs Sayers, and collected the perfume, the cheap vanity case, and, somewhat automatically, her eye-patches. “One for every occasion”, she remembered Mrs Sayers saying. She had one in every colour, except blue – for Mrs Sayers hated the colour blue. Katherine put the eye-patches back, then doubted herself. “You’re not good enough to work”. Well, she thought, what if I’m not? Her hand alighted upon the hand mirror. She picked it up and stared at the back of it. The daffodil stalks were less defined than before, as though they had begun to wilt. She threw the mirror down, snapped shut her valise and took it through to Mrs Sayers’ room, taking care to step over the broken floorboard in the doorway.

The curtains were drawn. Katherine stepped cautiously to the window and drew them open. To the tallboy. Her heart was beating, as it always did when she was in Mrs Sayers’ room alone. Whenever she was sent to fetch something – that something, and nothing more. She had always done as she was told, but as she went through the drawers of the tallboy she came across an unopened letter.

Mrs Sayers took the stairs. She found Katherine, framed by the sunlight, squinting at the faded ink on the front of an envelope. ‘What are you doing?’

Katherine jumped. Absorbed by curiosity, she had not heard her approaching. She dropped the letter.

Mrs Sayers picked it up and threw it back into the tallboy. She stooped down to the bottom drawer and brought out her box of money, and pressed some coins into Katherine’s hand.

‘But you sound five pounds.’

‘That’s what one gets for snooping.’

Katherine, reddening, took up her valise and moved toward the door. Mrs Sayers caught her arm and squeezed it firmly, her nails pressing into the skin. ‘You have neither the skill nor the co-ordination to work.’

‘How else am I to make money?’

‘By finding yourself a husband. A husband, Katherine, not some lackey from the local hotel.’

‘Geoffrey isn’t a–.’

‘Geoffrey, is it? Who are his people? What is his education, his prospects, his upbringing?’

‘A damn sight better than mine, I expect.’

Mrs Sayers let go of her arm. ‘After everything I’ve done for you.’

‘After everything you’ve done to me, mother.’ Their eyes met. Katherine shook her head and left the room. She began her descent, unsteady with the bulk of her valise. Her balance was skewed, and she stumbled down the stairs – uneven and worn as were the rest of the floors. Mrs Sayers called after her, but Katherine kept on going; out of the gate, onto a tram, into town and to The Paragon.

Read Part I.

Read Part II.

Read Part IV.

Beren Reid | Mar 2017/Sept 2018

Photo by Beren Reid, April 2022

3 thoughts on “The Blind Daffodil (Part III)

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