The Third Voice (Part III)

At lunchtime the next Monday, Deborah took Francis to Steppleton Park. Amazed that he had not yet visited it in his nine months in England, she gave him the tour – from the gates of the old south drive, to the ice house in the far left corner of the park, then past the temple and the coach houses and the ruins of the orangery. She presented each with the subtle reverence of a person who has known these things all their life. Francis, who would have preferred to sit still and look at her better, noticed a bench by the lake, and without speaking he began to edge them toward it.

‘I could do with a sit down, after that,’ she said.

‘What time do you have to be back?’

Deborah checked her watch. ‘In about twenty minutes.’

‘And what do you intend to do after that?’

‘Well, I intend to keep on working in leatherwear, until such time as I can afford a room of one’s own.’ She glanced over at the lake and said without thinking – ‘Or until such time that someone proposes to me.’

They looked at one another. She took in a breath and said – ‘Quite honestly, that wasn’t a hint. Not at this stage, anyhow.’ Francis made to reply, but she touched his hand and changed the subject. ‘It’s probably best if we meet on your terms, so to speak.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean – the café. What about a restaurant? Next Thursday evening, after work? Campbell’s? Anywhere that isn’t the shop. Mummy is rather pally with Mr Chideman, and ultimately he has the final say vis-à-vis my employment.’

‘So I can’t even set foot?’

‘Not on the ladieswear floor, at any rate. Mummy manages that whole thing.’

‘But that’s silly. I could very well be a customer.’

‘Silk stockings? A camisole?’ She tittered, but her eyes were hard.

‘Something for my girlfriend,’ he said, shifting a little as the word left his mouth.

Deborah let go his hand. ‘Please don’t call me that.’

‘I didn’t say–.’

‘So there are others?’

‘No.’ He was looking directly at her, and she calmed a little and touched his hand again.

‘Mummy named us after the Mitford sisters,’ she said, unbidden. Seeing that the reference didn’t land in Francis’ expression, she coughed and said – ‘Terribly well-to-do, society girls, you know the sort. One of them was in love with Hitler, another married Oswald Moseley–.’

‘That crook in Kensington?’

‘Now you see my mother’s standpoint.’ Deborah sighed and stared into the lake, wondering – for a curious moment – what it would be like to be at the bottom of it.

‘And yours, too?’

She laughed, and squeezed his hand. ‘No, but it’s terribly difficult to entirely remove oneself from the shadow of other people’s opinions.’

‘You mean, there’s a part of you that still doesn’t approve?’

‘It means there’s a part of me that my mother doesn’t approve of, which means my father won’t approve, and my sister always takes my father’s side – which is, invariably, my mother’s side.’

‘You have a rather convoluted way of explaining things.’

‘Nobody will approve,’ she snapped, ‘so really, what is the point?’ She got up and Francis tried to grab her back. She marched over to the edge of the lake and Francis followed. A pair of stray dogs ran over to sniff about her legs, until their owner caught up with them. The owner smiled and nodded to them both. But Deborah wasn’t looking. She didn’t see that it wasn’t true that nobody approved.

*

When Deborah got back to work, her mother called her into the back room.

‘“It’s for my mother”,’ Mrs Betruthers said, in a dreadful accent. She leaned back against her desk with a questioning look on her face.

‘That really isn’t cricket, mummy.’

‘No, I suppose not. I really must work on that impression. But one doesn’t come across many coloured people, does one?’

‘Yesterday, you were complaining that they’re everywhere.’

‘Yes, dear – but not in the places I go to.’

Deborah cleared her throat. ‘You wanted to speak with me?’

‘Yes, Miss Betruthers. Geraldine went for a walk in the park at lunchtime, and said she saw you with a man.’

‘Yes?’

‘A coloured man.’

‘Yes. He’s becoming a friend of mine.’

‘Men like that don’t become friends with girls like you, Miss Betruthers.’

‘No, Mrs Betruthers.’

‘So you will decline his offer to be his – girlfriend, is it?

‘How did you know about that?’

‘I didn’t. But now I do.’ Mrs Betruthers smiled, and sent Miss Betruthers back to her work.

*

On Thursday afternoon, Francis didn’t go to the Giddy; he went home – to change. He put on a white shirt, a tobacco brown sweater-vest over the top, and a dazzling tie of yellow gold and green between them. He dabbed some oil over his cropped hair, and a spritz of the dregs of his father’s old bottle of Russian Leather. He checked different segments of his reflection in his shaving mirror twice – once for the restaurant, and once for Deborah. Satisfied, he took up his coat and started to walk into town.

He arrived with twenty minutes to spare, so he walked around the block – past the narrow street where he’d almost followed Deborah to the theatre, past the big hotel, round along the perimeter wall of the preparatory school (across from the old east drive – if he remembered rightly – to Steppleton Hall), and by the time he got back he was still five minutes early. He wished, then, that he smoked.

Standing outside Campbell’s, a fine rain began, and it wicked off of his oiled hair and onto his shoes. His shoes which he’d forgotten to polish. No matter, if they’re getting all wet. At ten past, he began to fret. He had not known Deborah long enough to think of her punctuality – but she had finished work over two hours ago, and had had plenty of time to get home, change, and come back again. What if she wasn’t going to get changed? he thought, with a churning sensation. What if she just went home?

At half past, a black waiter came out of the restaurant to ask if he needed assistance.

‘You haven’t seen a girl come in, have you? Pale and tall?’

‘Her name?’

‘Deborah Betruthers.’

The waiter stifled a smile. ‘No, I haven’t seen Miss Betruthers this evening. She works at the department store, yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘And her mother is the manageress, yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’d go home. She probably isn’t coming.’

‘How do you know?’

‘She wouldn’t let me serve her.’

‘Deborah?’

‘Deborah? Is that her name?’

‘Th e daughter.’

‘Oh.’ The waiter’s face crumpled. ‘No, no the mother. But, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?’ The waiter went back inside.

The rain eased off a little. Francis decided to wait until he would allow himself to leave.

*

After his daytime shift the following day – a Friday – two weeks since he’d met Deborah – he stopped off at the station on the way to the café to use the telephone.

‘Good morning, Chideman & Sons, Geraldine speaking.’

‘Good morning. I wish to speak to Miss Betruthers.’

‘Is it urgent, sir?’

‘Yes, I suppose it is.’

‘Who may I ask is calling, sir?’

‘Mr Small,’ he said, after a moment.

There was the sound of a receiver hitting a surface, and the clack of heels. After a few moments, the line seemed to crack and then recover itself, and Deborah said – ‘Hello, Francis. Look, I’m sorry about last night – I got – waylaid, at the house.’

‘Waylaid?’

‘Well. Look, I’m not supposed to take personal calls like this. Geraldine said it was urgent.’

‘It is urgent. I was worried about you. I wanted to know that you were alive, at least.’

Silence on the other end of the phone,  then a long sniff. ‘That’s very kind of you,’ she said, in a taut voice. Then, in a much clearer, slightly more mature tone, she said – ‘I shan’t like to see you again, Mr Small. Good day to you.’ There was a sharp intake of breath, almost a gasp. A swift click. The dialling tone. Francis put down the receiver and leaned against the wall. He wanted to die. For the first time since coming to England, he wanted to die.

‘Excuse me, chap, are you finished with the telephone?’ A handsome, moustachioed man was behind him, peering down with an air of contrition. ‘Sounds like a rum do. I’m sorry, chap, but I must call my wife.’

Francis moved out of the way, and after a few minutes of hesitation he walked out of the station and to the café.

‘What’s eating you, Francis?’ Iris asked, as he took his seat. ‘I’ve never seen you look so glum.’

Francis shook his head.

Iris sat next to him, her hand resting on the table with a cloth clenched in her first. ‘C’mon Francis, you can tell me. I’m your friend, amn’t I?’ There was a pause, and she smacked her lips in a tut. ‘It’s the girl, isn’t it? Well, she’s a fine thing and all that – but her family, well. Her grandfather – her mother’s mother, so it was, stood for parliament around here.’ She smacked her lips again. ‘He lost, mind,’ she said, and scrubbed pointedly at an invisible blemish on Francis’ table. ‘Good to know the whole town isn’t full of Fascists like him, eh?’

‘Deborah wasn’t a Fascist.’

‘No, I expect she wasn’t, but the apple doesn’t fall far.’

Francis grew hot, determined to defend her. He was about to speak, but found nothing to defend. She had been the one to throw him over, after all.

*

Across the street, Mrs Betruthers was basking in her work. She hummed as she took a tube that had just arrived, and began to count the notes within it. She pretended – half-pretended? – to stow some of the money away in her blouse, and muttered under her breath – ‘“It’s for my mother”. Yes, I’m getting better at it. She laughed, until Geraldine came into the room. She stopped, opened her mouth to speak, smiled widely, and pretended not to notice what was poking of of Mrs Betruthers’ bosom.

‘Good work, Geraldine, Mrs Betruthers said, clasping her breast. ‘You were quite right to tell me first.’

Geraldine nodded, and went to continue on through the room.

‘Oh, and Geraldine?’

‘Yes, Mrs Betruthers?’

‘You were also quite right’ – she gestured to the telephone – ‘To get an extra one installed in my office.’

Geraldine nodded again, and went on toward the lavatories, where Miss Betruthers waited to be comforted.

Read Part I.

Read Part II.

Beren Reid | Feb 2018/Dec 2021

Photo from Pixabay

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