The Third Voice (Part II)

It was just after nine, and the department store had a dusty, somnambulant feeling to it. The security man barely noticed his entrance, and a woman manning one of the cosmetics counters openly yawned. Francis looked for the sign for ladies accessories, and took to the stairs. His hand trembled as it brushed over the brass handle-rail, and he blinked as he emerged into the pristine white light of the first floor. He had never had cause to go into Chideman & Sons before. His uniform was provided, and through lack of exercise and nourishment he had not yet outgrown the clothes he’d brought from home at the end of his teenage years. As he walked, not daring to glance, through the lingerie department – placed cruelly as the first thing you’d greet at the top of stairs – it was thinking of home that gave him his idea. Something for Christmas. Something for my mother. No jealousy in that.

He went over to a cabinet of jewellery, which was placed against one of the pillars that framed the entrance to the “Leatherwear” section. As he studied its contents – a watch he could ill afford, a ring with a stone he had never heard of – a bead of sweat slid down his temple. It’ll have to be a cheap handbag. He moved slowly into the next department, his eyes not daring to look for the girl. The room was empty, and there was chatter from behind a pair of double doors.

‘Oh!’ he heard a voice say. ‘There’s somebody here.’ The girl came through the doors, her pale face wrought dead by the harsh white lighting. ‘Oh, hello.’

Francis gulped at the tone of recognition. ‘Hello!’ he said, with more excitement than intended. Then, with an attempt at casual – ‘Have we met before?’

The girl chuckled. ‘No, not exactly.’ Then, in hushed tones, she said – ‘Our eyes did.’

‘Of course!’ Francis laughed, his throat dry, and he glanced up at the windows in the double doors. He caught somebody’s eye. The eye narrowed, and the doors swung open.

‘Can I help you?’ the woman said in a grand, measured tone.

‘I’m already helping this gentleman, Mrs Betruthers.’

‘I very much doubt this gentleman requires a ladies handbag, Miss Betruthers.’

Francis wanted to laugh as much as he wanted to flee. Had they been a double act, he would have stayed for comic timing. ‘It’s for my mother,’ he said.

‘For your mother?’ the woman repeated. Francis thought he noticed – though surely he did not – the faintest echo of his accent in her repetition. ‘And whereabouts is she? A lady usually likes to choose her own gifts.’

‘She’s at home.’

At home? Or back home?’

‘Back home.’ His throat grew even drier, as he turned defiantly to the wares on offer. After a few seconds of browsing, he could hear the two of them bicker-whispering at the counter. He pinched at a dark brown leather bag, and imagined the older woman making some remark. “Did you see that? His hand simply disappeared into it.” What they were actually saying was inaudible, and after a time Mrs Betruthers retreated to the back room.

Miss Betruthers came over to where Francis was pretending to browse. ‘Sorry about that, Mr–.’

‘Small.’

Miss Betruthers laughed, and abruptly stopped when she looked down at his gaze. And how, she thought.

Francis smiled, used to this reaction. ‘Small by name,’ he said, and trailed off, embarrassed by his cheap gag. He glanced disinterestedly at a row of identical shoes in a variety of colours – realised he had no idea what size his mother took, and if even the sizes were the same here – and went instead to another rack of bags, the ramshackle presentation of which seemed more in line with his budget.

‘Oh, that’s our classic range. Something for everyday.’

‘Everyday – meaning, nothing so special?’

Miss Betruthers went red. ‘Well, yes, if one wanted to put it like that.’

A small group of women strode onto the floor, talking excitedly, and headed toward them. ‘You ought to go and look after them. I’m just browsing.’

‘You’re not looking for anything in particular, are you?’ she said, softly.

Francis’ temper rose a little, and he wondered if her mother had told her to watch him. “In case he steals something.” But the look she had in her eye was akin to  mischief than apprehension. He softened. ‘Something in particular.’

The group of ladies submerged them, and the group began to pick over the room enthusiastically. Miss Betruthers greeted them all, but stayed by his side.
‘You look like you’re on duty.’

‘I’m a conductor.’

‘I know – I recognise the outfit. How come I’ve not seen you?’

‘Which route do you take?’

‘The 7 in the morning and the afternoon, the 8A in the evening.’

‘I’m usually the 8 on mornings, and 7A on nights.’

‘Well, then you’ll have to swap.’

They laughed, and the double doors opened again. ‘Miss Betruthers, do see to it that these ladies are attended to?’ She raised her eyebrows at Francis, and went to speak to the loudest woman of the pack, who wished to try on the wonderful coloured shoes and yes – including dark brown.

*

At the start of his nightshift, Francis asked his manager if he could swap to the 8A that evening. Mr Brannigan, who regarded every request with suspicion, said – ‘What for, Francis? Have you had some trouble on the 7A? There’s always trouble on the 7A.’

Francis had never heard of any trouble on the 7A, and worried if one of his colleagues was causing havoc in the weeks he worked mornings. ‘No, no – I’m just getting tired of the route, that’s all.’

‘Tired? Of the route?’

‘Well– seeing the same sights every day. The same people.’

‘Is there a particular person you’re hoping of seeing, Francis?’

He went hot at the suggestion, and had no choice but to nod.

Mr Brannigan sighed. ‘Ah, well, I’ve always preferred love to war. I’ll speak to Joe and see if he’ll swap with you.’

*

Deborah waited at the bus stop for the first 7A service of the evening. As she paced up and down to keep herself warm, she thought of what to say to Mr Small. “Fancy seeing you here?” No, too obvious. “Do you come here often?” She had to stop herself from spitting out a laugh in the middle of the street. The bus came. Mr Small was not on board. She took a seat on a banquette at the back and glowered at her fellow passengers.

The next evening, she tried the 7A again. Then after that, she swapped back to the 8A. They kept missing one another for the next two weeks, until that Monday, when she found him on her usual route, sitting next to where she would be in the banquette. ‘Well, Mr Small – fancy seeing you here.’

‘Miss Betruthers.’ He got up, and rocked as the bus turned a corner. Without thinking, he reached out to her for stability, and pulled them both down onto the seat. The other passengers looked askance, and one man tutted.

‘What are you doing sitting down? Slacking off?’

‘No – I’m on mornings this week. I’d usually walk but it’s so cold.’

‘Isn’t it just?’ She rubbed her hands together to make the point. ‘So you live on this route too?’

‘Yes, I’m nearly at my stop, but since you’re here, I may as well stay on and walk you home.’

‘That really isn’t necessary, Mr Small,’ she said, sharper than intended.

‘Francis. And I suppose it isn’t.’

Deborah, unaccustomed to suitors retreating when she asked them to, nudged him in the side. ‘Go on then,’ she said playfully, though she glanced around to see if anyone was listening in. She looked at her watch. ‘Mummy and daddy will be just leaving now.’

They sat in silence for a few moments, then Deborah said – ‘so, shall we sit here in awkward silence, or shall we make awkward conversation?’

From then, they talked disjointedly, and mostly about work and their schedules. This set Francis on edge, as he wasn’t one for small talk, and would much rather have spoken about his love for books, or failing that – cricket. Deborah, on her part, found it fascinating to hear about all the places he saw every day, while she was stuck in a bright, stuffy old shop.

‘I don’t think I would ever tire of seeing outside. Watching the world go by.’

‘It gets tedious after a while. I prefer to watch the world go while I am still.’

‘Does your place have a good view?’

‘No, not really. The back of it overlooks the cemetery, the front overlooks an old greyhound track.’

‘Between the quick and the dead?’ she said, giggling. Francis joined in, but didn’t quite get what she meant. ‘And then there’s the café, I suppose,’ she said, sobering – adjusting to the sound of false laughter. ‘You can watch the world while you’re still there.’

‘Yes.’ He looked at her, thinking that must be the moment, but she was gathering herself to disembark.

Once they were off the bus, she said – ‘When will I find you at the café next?’

‘Well I’m on days again this week and next, so any time from about half past two til six. And then I asked to swap my next nightshifts, so I could be on the 7A.’

Deborah pulled away from him a little. ‘You swapped?’

‘Yes.’

‘So that’s why I didn’t see you.’

‘You swapped too?’

‘What about lunch? What time do you start?’

‘Two o’clock.’

‘Perfect. I’ll meet you at the café just after twelve. Say, Monday?’ She stopped abruptly, at the corner of a wide, leafy suburban street, with detached houses on either side which, before the war, would have been considered new.

‘I meant I’d take you to your door.’

‘You practically have. I’m next to that one,’ she said, gesturing to the house along from the one on the corner. ‘You’d probably do just as well to drop me here’ – her voice was quickening – ‘Mummy and daddy won’t be far behind and they only finish half an hour later than I do.’

‘Your mother doesn’t frighten me.’ His voice was soft and calm, and she felt embarrassed for sounding what her mother would deem to be hysterical.

‘Yes, but, in her own strange way I think my mother is frightened by you.’

‘Then let her be frightened.’

The front door of the next house opened, and a girl who looked not dissimilar to Deborah bellowed – ‘Come in, then,’ she said, in a voice not dissimilar to Mrs Betruthers’, ‘and hullo to your little friend.’

‘Hush, Diana.’ She turned to Francis and said – ‘She’s mocking mummy. They’re both always pretending to be somebody they’re not.’ She kissed Francis briskly on the cheek, and scuttled around the wall of the garden and up the path. He could hear the two girls whispering excitedly to one another. Diana stared over her sister’s shoulder and beamed, while Deborah did not look back. The door closed, and Francis turned to walk back to the bus stop heading down into town. When he got there, a bus was heading up, and he could see Mr and Mrs Betruthers gathering themselves to alight. His instinct was to duck out of the glare of the streetlamp, but a daring within him forced him to step further into it. No reason for me to hide.

The bus pulled away, revealing the pair of them, walking arm in arm – Mr Betruthers just noticeably shorter than his wife. Francis watched their profiles, as they turned the corner onto their road, and his heart bobbed and capsized almost at once.

Read Part I.

Read Part III.

Beren Reid | Feb 2018/Dec 2021

Photo from Pixabay

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