Authors: Kate Riordan
“Why don't you try for work in there?” she said, nodding towards a girl behind the cafÃ©'s plate glass, pert in her smart uniform with its starched white collar.
Shifting the bags I was carrying to my other hand, I couldn't rouse myself to reply.
“I know you're a typist in an office in town, and that's all very fancy,” my mother continued, “but May Butler's daughter Lillian met her husband when she was waitressing, and look at her now, with a house in Finchley and a little one on the way.”
Lillian had left school at fourteen and eventually got a job as a Nippy in a Lyons Corner House on the Strand. According to my mother, Lillian had been admired half a dozen times a day by her male customers, solitary men in suits who'd come in for a plate of chops or some tea and toast. Eventually, apparently without much ado, she had married one of them.
“I don't want to be a waitress,” I said wearily.
“You shouldn't turn your nose up at it. You don't earn much more than the ones in the nice places do.”
“I know, but Iâ”
“Oh, I know you think you're meant for better things, but it hasn't happened yet, has it? And it won't while you're stuck up there with old Mr. Marshall.”
What she could not have possibly known was that only a week after that desultory wander around the shops I would at last meet a man I actually desired, someone who would bring the world to life for me, at least for a time. In fact, the circumstances that would throw us together were already in train: an appointment made, a crucial hour already approaching. For it was in Mr. Marshall's officeâthe obscure, dusty office my mother believed had already sealed my spinsterhoodâthat everything was about to change for me.
As if to further dramatise this episode, to darken the line that marked before and after, he arrived towards the end of a particularly silent, stultifying day. I remember that he was a little out of breath after climbing the stairs up to our small office. A late summer shower was flooding the pavements outside, and he brought with him the smell of damp wool and cologne as he came noisily through the door. Mr. Marshall heard it crash back on its hinges and came rushing out of his tiny room to greet the new arrival, who he had obviously been expecting. They made a curious pair: Mr. Marshall, an inch shorter than me and probably half a stone lighter, only came up to his visitor's chest.
“Who was that?” I said to Miss Cunningham after they had gone out to lunch, Mr. Marshall not having thought to introduce us. Miss Cunningham was the senior typist and didn't like me very much, perhaps because she knew I didn't aspire to her job.
“Mr. Elton? He's too old and too married for you to concern yourself with,” she replied crisply.
After I had made her a cup of tea she relented, unable to resist demonstrating that she knew more about things than I did.
“He's the new accountant, if you must know. The old one's retired, and now we've got him. Bit too sure of himself, if you ask me.” She sniffed and went back to her work.
They didn't return from lunch for two hours, and when they did, Mr. Marshall was uncharacteristically flushed, eyes glazed behind his spectacles. Miss Cunningham got up and pointedly opened a window, though I couldn't smell any alcohol on them; only the rain and the new accountant's cologne.
While she was at the window, he crossed the room towards me, and I realised that his eyes were the same shade of deep brown as his hair. He didn't have a single feature that stood out as exceptional, but they combined in such a way as to make him handsome.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, his voice low and unhurried. “I'm James Elton.” He shook my hand; his was warm and dry. “I've met the lovely Miss Cunningham, of course, but you are?”
“Alice,” I said, more bluntly than I meant to; I was thinking about my hand being cold. I was forever cold in that office, regardless of the season. “Alice Eveleigh.”
When I left work a couple of hours later, he was waiting for me in the cafÃ© that I had to pass to reach the underground. I spotted him before he saw me: sitting up at the window on a stool that looked silly and feminine beneath him. If he hadn't looked up from his paper at that moment and raised his hand with a smile, I would certainly have walked on. It would never have occurred to me to tap on the window.
Of course I didn't know then that he'd been waiting for me; he didn't tell me that until later. Instead, he smiled his easy smile and, when I hesitated, gestured for me to come in and join him. We had some tea, and he tried to persuade me to join him in ordering
a slice of sponge cake. We talked about this and that: London, the weather of course, and what I thought of my job in Mr. Marshall's quiet office. I said, rather primly, that I was very grateful to have it, and he grimaced, which made us both laugh.
That was the beginning. Shared pots of tea became habitual until one fog-bound autumn evening he appeared out of the shadows as I left the office for the day and suggested we have dinner together. It was too filthy a night for a paltry cup of tea, he said. Perhaps we might try this little restaurant he had discovered down a nearby backstreet.
Afterwards, on the way to the underground, he stopped and pulled me towards him. I would like to say I resisted, but I simply couldn't. In truth, my face was already tilted up towards him before his lips touched mine. You find that once something like that has happened, it's very hard to go back to how it was before.
He was almost fifteen years older than me. When I was eight or nine, a schoolgirl with pale brown hair cut to the jaw, he was a newly minted accountant. Each morning he took the Metropolitan line into the City, his briefcase unscuffed, his newness such that he had not yet earned a regular seat on the carriage he always boarded.
His wife, when she came along, was a pretty, suitable girl called Marjorie. His domineering mother apparently approved; she and Marjorie's mother played bridge together, I think. He once mentioned in passing that Marjorie was an excellent tennis player, and I found that intimidating and fascinating at the same time.
When I met him he was thirty-six, already eleven unimaginable years into his unhappy union. He once said that you would imagine time spent like that would crawl byâthe inverse of it flying when you are enjoying yourself. But in fact those years, packed tight with obligationâthe tennis doubles and dinner parties and whist drivesâhad been compressed instead.
Once, when I think he must have been rather drunk, he confided that Marjorie didn't like the physical side of marriage much. He was so desperately unhappy, he told me, time and time again. They had made a terrible mistake when they got married; they had never really loved each other; their mothers had engineered the whole thing.
After that first kiss, I went around in a fug of guilt and excitement. I didn't confide in anyone, not even Dora. I knew that, despite all her casually knowledgeable talk of men, she had never gone beyond a certain point and would never dream of doing so with a married man. You simply didn't do that, and the boys we had grown up with knew it as well as we did.
When I wasn't with James I thought about him constantly, indulging myself in the delicious agony of it all and mooning about like a girl in a sentimental song. Precisely like that, in fact: it was around that time that Dora bought a gramophone record of NoÃ«l Coward's new song, “Mad About the Boy,” which she played endlessly. Every day I felt queasy as I walked past the cafÃ© on my way home from workâin case he was there, waiting, and in case he never was again.
He didn't appear for three weeks after the kiss, and I felt eaten away by misery. When I finally saw him in the cafÃ© one evening, head bent over his newspaper, it was as though the whole worldâthe sour breath of London's air, the hollow clip of women's heels, and the rumble of the Piccadilly line's trains far belowâceased to be. I knew that nothing would have persuaded me to keep walking. I had been a nice, bookish sort of girl, and now I was someone different. I felt as though my life was out of my hands. It was like an attack of vertigo.
I only went to bed with him once. Of course that's all that's required, as anyone with their wits about them knows. Although it didn't occur to me at the time, I'm fairly sure I wasn't the first. No
doubt there had been dalliances, illicit kisses stolen, hotels booked for a couple of hours, even. He once took me to a nightclub tucked down an obscure lane behind Oxford Street that was so suitable for the jobâwith its shadowy corners, unobtrusive waiters, and melancholy jazz musicâthat he must have discovered it in the course of some other liaison. I don't think I'd have minded that though, even if I had realised it at the time. I think his attraction lay in his worldliness, his very grown-upness, so different from my own despised girlishness.
It was Dora who guessed the truth; I suppose I wasn't facing what was obvious at all. It was April by then, and the weather had abruptly turned into something that felt like summer. One Sunday she rang the doorbell. I hadn't seen her in weeks, just as I hadn't seen Jamesâwho had disappeared without a word after our visit to the hotel. I stood at the top of the stairs and heard my mother asking her in. When she called me, I went down reluctantly, knowing I looked pale and that my hair needed a wash.
“Dora's come to see you,” said my mother. “She thought you might go to the lido together.”
I smiled wanly at Dora, who looked strangely back at me. “I don't think I will, if you don't mind. I don't feel very well.”
“You don't feel well because you're either at work in that office or cooped up in here,” retorted my mother. “Go and get your things. Dora's come specially to see you; where are your manners?”
I found I did feel a bit better out in the air. The lido was thronged with people; it was the first really warm day of the year, and every last deck chair had been taken. Dora looked lean and golden in her bathing suitâmine felt tight and uncomfortable, even though I'd been eating little. Before anyone could look at me, I jumped into the unheated water, the shock of it dissolving the lead weight of my misery for a blissful few seconds.
After we'd swum, Dora wanted a drink. With our towels wrapped around ourselves, we wandered into the relative gloom of the cafeteria. It was almost empty: everyone was sitting outside on the viewing terrace. I can't think why anyone would have wanted hot food on a day like that, but they were frying something in the kitchen, the cloying smell of stale oil wafting through a hatch. I had hardly eaten that day, but what little I had came up in my mouth. The thought of swallowing it back down made me retch again, and I heaved into my cupped hands.
“Oh,” I said, and began to cry.
Dora took me to the ladies' lavatories and washed my face and hands for me as if I were a child.
We looked at each other in the mirror. Her face looked sharp and tanned; I was pallid and blurry-looking next to her, my brown hair lank on my shoulders.
“Please tell me you're not, Alice,” she said. “Not you.”
“Not what?” I said, but even as I did, I knew.
“How long?” she said.
“I don't know it's thatâyou know I miss a month here and there. I always have.” My voice sounded desperate to myself. “Besides, it was only once.”
Dora simply stared back at me. I tried to think of another excuse but instead hung my head, the tears silently dripping off my nose and into the basin. A woman about my mother's age came out of the farthest cubicle and washed her hands next to me. In the mirror I saw her eyes flick over to my left hand, her lip curling with disapproval when she saw it was bare. She bustled out with her hands still wet.
“Will you get rid of it?” Dora said softly.
My stomach churned with fear at the decisions that had materialised from nowhere but now lay ahead, inescapable. “It's against the law,” I whispered.
“I know that. People do, though.”
“I don't know. I can't bear to think about it. I wish I could just lock myself in my room and never come out.”
“Why on earth did you let him?”
“He's getting a divorce. He said that he wanted to marry me.”
“What?” I said sharply. “What do you know of it? You're perfectly content to go to the pictures with a different man each week, and you don't care about any of them. I suppose one day you will just marry whichever of them happens to be taken with you at the time. I'm not like that. James and I love each other.”
Dora dried her hands on the roller towel. “Have it your way, then. You obviously don't need my shoulder to cry on.”
She pulled open the door of the lavatories and looked back at me.
“I think you've been a perfect fool,” she said. “I don't understand you, Alice, not anymore.”
After she went I stood for a time, looking at myself in the mirror. I couldn't quite make myself believe yet what now seemed glaringly obvious.
When I got outside, Dora had gone, leaving my clothes and shoes in a neat pile. Feeling limp and dazed, I sat down and stayed there in the spring sunshine for an hour or more, watching the mothers and their children in the shallow end of the pool. The sound of the nearby fountain was soothing, and I think I must have dozed for a while. When I woke, there was a wonderful second before I remembered the awful, incomprehensible fix I had got myself into. I sat up and tried to hug my knees close to myself, noticing with a shudder that it was now uncomfortable to do so. I stared down into the turquoise depths of the lido's perfectly oval pool until my vision swam with tears, which I blinked surreptitiously
into my towel before any well-meaning person asked me what could be wrong on such a lovely day.
Of course, there was no conceivable way I could become a mother out of wedlock. Not just because I was woefully unprepared for it, but because it would ruin my reputation. Needless to say, my parents would be mortified. I had been allowed to stay on at school because I was good at my books. That would count for nothing now. I would lose my job and the wages that had made my parents' lives more comfortable. I had always been such a sensible girl. At the grammar, our teachers had told Dora's parents that I was an excellent influence on their more impetuous daughter, who hadn't got a scholarship like me and whose bank clerk father paid fees to keep her there.