not because his father-in-law would want it like that but because Esther would want it tike that. But what did he himself want? Well, it didn't matter what he wanted, did it? He was fast stuck under Dave Rippon's thumb. Everything that came his way would come via Rippon, that is, as long as he remained in this firm. And being Esther's husband, he couldn't see himself leaving it ever. He took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face, he was sweating.
It was as he returned from lunch that he came face to face with Betty Ray. She stopped on the bend of the stairs. Standing above him and her eyes wide and bright, she looked into his face and said, "I'm so glad you're better, Mr. Blenheim."
His answer to this should have been, "Thank you," but all he could do was to swallow and stare at her.
"It was the snow; it was dreadful wasn't it?" Her eyes were swelling over with laughter; he could almost hear her gurgling inside. He couldn't believe that she was the same girl who had acted like that.
His mind interpreted, in a flashing picture, the words "like that', and he saw her naked, savage and writhing, totally uninhibited.
"Did you get my card?"
He heard himself repeating dully, "Card?" at the same time seeing Esther holding out a card to him, saying, "This one's got no name on.
Gaudy looking thing; it must be from one of the choir boys. Very nice though to think of you. That makes thirty-one altogether. You're doing well. "
"Yes, I sent you a get-well card. I didn't sign it." Her voice was a mere whisper now.
"I thought I'd better not ... By the way, I have your watch ..." She stopped abruptly. She was looking over her shoulder at someone coming up the stairs and she finished in a clear voice, "I'm so glad you're better, Mr. Blenheim."
As Miss Bateman came abreast of them he said, "Thank you, than fe you,"
then followed the stiff trim figure up to the landing. When they reached the hallway Miss Bateman turned to him and, smiling quite genially for her, said, "I endorse that, Mr. Blenheim, it's very nice to see you back again."
"Thank you, Miss Bateman. It's good to be back; you get very bored at home."
Then they went their separate ways.
Standing at the window of his room he looked down on. the street and breathed deeply. The pattern was set; she wasn't going to blab. She had taken the incident like a night out at the theatre say. He looked unseeing now across the street and wondered how many men she had practised on to become so proficient at her hobby, for likely that was what it was with her. During the days around Christmas when he was at his lowest he had thought the whole thing was a nightmare and had been relieved at the idea, but his temperature, returning to normal, had brought with it the unpleasant fact that it was no nightmare. Well, it was over, and there'd be no repetition, not if he knew it. Although it was a pretty uncomfortable feeling
to nave the awareness of this thing between them he imagined that he wasn't the only man that shared such a secret with her. He supposed he really should be getting a kick out of the incident. Many men would, but it held no kick for him, only revulsion; and this was mainly created by the thought that one so young could be so damnably knowledgeable, and, moreover, had used him and made him feel like a schoolboy fumbling at his first affair.
She had mentioned his watch. He was relieved about that. Now he was back she'd likely send it to him here at the office. Esther, fortunately, hadn't missed it. That was something.
But Betty Ray didn't return his watch; instead, she sent him a letter.
Ada usually left his mail, the envelopes slit open in a pile to the right of his blotting pad. But the next morning on top of the pile, lay an envelope with the words "Private and Personal' printed in bold letters above the address. As he picked it up he looked at Ada Cole standing in front of the desk, then said aloud, " Private and Personal, huh! " He was smiling as he slit the envelope open. There was a single. piece of paper inside and on it he read simply, " I have something belonging to you, don't you want it? " He had no power to stop the blood rushing to his face. He folded the letter in four again, crumpled up the envelope and dropped it into the waste paper basket; then looking up at Ada Cole he remarked with as much casualness as he could muster, " Something silly; I'll deal with this. "
"Yes, Mr. Blenheim." And on this she turned and went into her room and, being a woman, she thought. Now what could be in that letter that would make him look like that, absolutely startled, and red to the ears?
Harry did a lot of thinking during the day. Should he ignore the letter and wait until he met her, perhaps by chance on the stairs again, and ask her point blank if she would kindly return the watch.
But remembering her volatile personality he could see her marching into his office, a wide grin on her face, and slapping it down on his desk and in front of Ada Cole, or anyone else" who might be there. One thing he decided he wasn't going to do, and that was write to her and ask her to return it by post, for if she was nettled in any way she was just as likely to send it to his home address. And then how would he explain it away? Finally, he knew that the only thing was to do what the letter suggested and go to the house for it.
Having made up his mind on what course to take he knew he mustn't put it off; that would just be piling up the agony; he must settle this business tonight. So he phoned Esther and told her not to hold up the meal as he had some outdoor business to attend to and would be a little late.
The staff left the office at five o'clock but he didn't leave until a quarter to six, gauging that this would give her ample time to get home. One other thing he was careful not to do, and that was to drive up to her door. He left the car at the bottom end of Carey Street, then went through the Cut, no longer knee deep in snow but brittle underfoot now with ash.
When, following his knock, he heard one female voice call out and another answer he hesitated whether to turn and run into the darkness.
But tooJate; the door opened and a woman said, "Yes?"
He was standing in the shadow and she in the light. He took her to be about forty, and she was as fair as her daughter was dark, and instantly he summed her up.
"Yes." Her tone was intended to appear refined but resulted in being mincing.
"I would like to have a word with your daughter if I may."
"Oh. Oh, come in. Come in. You're Mr.... ?"
"Oh yes, yes. Betty's told me about you, lots. Come in, Mr.
Oh, come in. Betty I Betty dear, here's Mr. Blenheim. "
After closing the door she went before him along the passage, her arm extended, ushering him into the room like a stage servant before a personage.
Betty was standing at the bedroom door. She had a comb in her hand and after looking at him for a moment she began combing her hair, then said casually,-Be with you in a tick. Sit down. "
"I ... I can't stay."
As he spoke the bedroom door closed and Mrs. Ray, smiling with every feature of her over-made-up face, said, "Oh, do sit down for a minute, Mr. Blenheim. She always likes to tidy up
o^^. oi^ o u^u'll1 me uiiii. c. jlou get sucKy, aon't your' So do sit down; you might as well get off your feet. " She was wagging her head at him.
"You're quite better now? Betty told me you had been ill. It was the day in the snow. You had a time of it, hadn't you? It was very good of you to bring her home. She told me all about it."
Did she? he thought. I wonder. And yet he wouldn't put it past her.
He could see them sitting on this couch here roaring their heads off.
He stared at the woman. He knew the label Esther would put on her after just one glance. Common. And if Elsie saw her she would go further.
"Common as muck, Mr. Blenheim," she' would say.
"Common as muck. An old tart." Like mother, like daughter. They were a couple of tarts. Yet Betty had a better camouflage . as yet.
Anyway, she had deceived him. But perhaps in a way he was easily deceived.
Mrs. Ray was now adjusting an ear-ring the size of a walnut; she was looking into the mirror above the mantelpiece and talking to him through it.
"We don't see much of each other, Betty and me; it's lonely for her.
I'm so happy when she gets a nice friend." She paused here and let her eyes rest on his before going on, "You see, I'm on twelve till seven one week and six thirty till midnight, or sometimes later, another. I'm at the Three Dolls, you know, on the main road.
It's a restaurant like, and does a night show. Very popular. Very popular with motorists. I don't mind the twelve o'clock shift but I always feel a bit worried about the late shift, leaving Betty you know.
But when she has a friend, I don't worry. It's a comfort.
There was a solo he sang with the phrase repeated throughput "Holy, holy, holy. Lord God of Hosts', now he found himself saying just that
" Holy, holy, holy. Lord God of Hosts . " It was strange. Although he went to church every Sunday he had never prayed very much, and of latter years not at all. When the prayers were being said he was thinking of the next hymn and hoping yet once again that Robbins would not drag the end out; or he was going over his solo, singing it in his mind. But now he was praying, actually praying; " Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, get me out of this. "
"Oh there you are, dear. Oh, that's nice. I always say you suit red. "
Out of habit Harry had risen to his feet when Betty entered the room, and now he stared at her in the tight fitting red woollen dress and red mules as she came towards him. She didn't speak as she sat herself on the couch, but her mother said, "Well, I'll have to be away; time's flying, as the man said as he threw the, clock at his wife." This quip was followed by a high kick of a laugh; then hurrying across the room, she added, "It'll never do if I miss that bus." She was going into the bedroom when she swung round.
"Wait till we get that car, eh Betty?
And we will, won't we, girl? "
"We will, Main." Betty jerked her head towards her mother and smiled;
then she turned and stared at Harry. She stared at him for a full minute, during which he could find nothing to say. Her scrutiny unnerved him; and when at last she spoke, she said softly, "It's nice seeing you again," he was more unnerved still.
Mrs. Ray came hurrying back into the room. She was wearing a short green coat with a fuzzy fur collar turned up high and over her bouffant hair was lightly dragged a chiffon scarf.
"Well, I'm off, so I must say good-bye, Mr. Blenheim. It's been very nice meeting you."
He was on his feet once more, watching her pulling on a pair of fur-lined gloves, and when she smiled widely at him and said, "Now, don't you be a stranger, just pop in when you feel like it. I know our house must appear homely and not what you're used to, but you're very welcome to' what we have," he groaned to himself. And following on
"Glory, Glory, Glory," he added "Oh Christ 1' and the exclamation now had no connection with prayer..
"Bye-bye, Mam ... Be good."
"Well, you know your main." Mrs. Ray went out laughing. And when the front door closed Betty looked up to where Harry was standing some distance away on the hearth rug, and her face unsmiling and tight now, she said, "You didn't think much of her, did you?"
'. What do you mean? "
"Just what I say. You almost turned your nose up at her."
"xouve got a vivid imagination. Mow do you know what I think.?"
"I happen to know men, that's how I know. And you dubbed her straightaway as a cheap piece, didn't you?"
"I did nothing of the sort," he lied firmly.
"Well, you could have fooled me." She uncrossed her legs, then re-crossed them, then said almost vehemently, "She's been good to me, has Mam. She's worked for me all me life until I could do it for me self She could have let me go into a factory as soon as I left school and that would have made things easier for her, but no, she wanted something different for me, so she sent me to the typing college and I passed out top. Do y'know that? Top! And if it wasn't for all the old frozen-faced nits in this town, especially in Peamarsh's, holding down the good jobs I'd have an office of me own instead of being in the blasted pool. But once the Miss Coles and Batemans get, in they're there for life; old maids' last hope."
He didn't see what all this had to do with his visit, but one thing was evident, she was bitter about her position. He said, "You could always move; there are always vacancies of the kind you're after in Newcastle."
"Yes, I know I could, but I don't want to leave me mam; this is her home, she's made it."
"It's very commendable of you."
"Oh, come off it." She swung round, turning her head fully away from him and looking across the room, leaving him feeling bewildered. She was talking from such a personal plane that one would have imagined that they had known each other for years. She turned her face towards him again, and now she was smiling, and her whole attitude underwent a lightning change as she said softly, "Come and sit down, I'm being naggy."
"I... I can't stay."
"You can for ten minutes." She patted the couch.
"Just ten minutes.
Some on, sit down. "
It was impossible to refuse her request, and when he took a seat once again on the couch she curled her legs up under her as she had done on the first occasion they had sat together, but she didn't snuggle up to him or tease him; her tactics were different tonight. She kept her distance as she said, still softly, "It's
78 nice seeing you again. "
"Now, Betty." Her name had a strange sound on his lips, and as he paused she put in, "Now, now, don't get panicky, relax. I'm not going to eat you, you know." She gave a little giggle.
"You're scared stiff of me, and it's funny."
"I'm not scared stiff of you." He jerked his head to the side.