"Only there's no point in going on with this."
"Why?" The question was quiet.
"Because'--he brought his head round to her again" --I'm a married man with three children, the eldest one not much younger than you. "
"Are you happily married?"
"Yes, I'm happily married."
"I don't believe you. You've got a son seventeen, so you've been married eighteen years or more. It doesn't last that long, not eighteen months in some cases. You prove to me one middleaged man in this town who's happily married and I'll enter a convent. And look, I'm tellin' you I'm not talkin' from hearsay, I'm talking from know say I know a lot of men in this town, and I could spill some beans if I liked. But there's one thing about me, I'm not spiteful, I never have been. I don't want to cause trouble for anybody, but what I do want'--she paused, and, her hands gripping her forearms across her chest, she repeated, " But what I do want, Harry she drew out his name, paused again, then ended, 'is a bit of happiness. That's all I'm asking, just a bit of happiness. "
What could he say to this? For a moment he felt sorry for her, in sympathy with her, and he wished, he wished deeply that it was in him to make her happy, but he knew that if he was going to have an affair it wouldn't be with someone like her.
She was compelling him to look into her eyes as she went on talking.
"I liked you from the first time I clapped eyes on you, but mind, mind, I never planned anything, I just thought it was heaven sent that snow and you bringing me back, like an answer to a prayer that you didn't know you had prayed. You know ... sort of. After you had gone that night I knew I'd frightened you. You had never been with a woman had you, except, well, your wife? You knew nothing about it. To all
. ---- "-- -" ^^. An*^ ^^aj. aA otKiigii*. uul ui a monastery. I know I'm a bit wild when I get going but that's me. I'm warm inside, hot, boiling in fact, like them volcanoes, just like them, burstin' out every now and again. " She shrugged her shoulders now and grinned slyly at him.
"But I don't need to tell you, do I?
Anyway, there it is. " She leaned back from him and now stated flatly,
" I like you; I want to be friends with you. "
He turned from her and, leaning his elbow on his knee cupped his forehead; and from this position he muttered, "It's impossible, quite impossible."
"Are you afraid your wife might get to know?"
When he didn't answer she went on, "Nobody would ever see you come here; we're very fortunately placed in this house. You just need nip through the Cut and you're in. There's only six houses in the row and from when they come in at half-past five until they start to go out to the clubs or some place at half-past six the street's empty. And in front there's only a warehouse. It's a hundred to one chance you'd ever be seen, so what are you frightened of? And look, look, don't think me mana would say anything; me mam's the soul of discretion as they say."
He almost sprang to his feet now and, looking down at her, said, "It's impossible. You must take this for final. Apart from being a married man, we work in the same office. Then besides being a member of the church I'm in different societies in the town. What you're offering is most generous, I realise that, but I just cannot accept, I cannot be a hypocrite. You know for a fact that if I hadn't drunk so much on Christmas Eve the ... the incident would never have happened.
Now'--he undid the top button of his waistcoat, then did it up again, before adding, "If you'll be good enough to return my watch I'll be grateful, and ... and we can ..."
"And we can forget it ever happened." She was on her feet confronting him now, her eyes almost black, her mouth tight. "
"You know what you are, you're a weak-bellied, pious bastard. That's what you are. Now you listen to me, Mr. Blenheim. What if I have a baby?"
He had heard about people blanching, but now he was experiencing it.
He felt the blood draining from his face down
through his stomach. Even his words seemed white as he whispered,
"I don't know yet. It could happen quite easily; I wasn't prepared.
I'm over me time, so I don't know. "
Holy, holy, holy. Lord God of Hosts . "As things stand I think I'll just hang on to your watch, sort of mind it for a little while longer."
"I want my watch, and I want it now."
"Oh, Mr. Blenheim, stop shouting; somebody might hear you next door. I know she's deaf but she has friends come in."
He was no longer feeling blanched; the blood was pounding in his head.
This was the kind of situation that other men got themselves into too.
From his own experience he had known of a number in his time; one had been a close friend, a churchgoing man and a visitor to the house.
Esther had liked him; she always thought Bill Caldwell such a genuine man. That was until he had got himself mixed up with a young married woman and the affair had ended in divorce. After that his name had never been mentioned again. Esther didn't hold with divorce; what God had joined together was a holy law with her. He had the wild idea of thrusting this blackmailing little tart aside and dashing into the bedroom and searching for his watch, and he might have done just that except that he knew that to prevent him she would come to grips with him, physically and he wanted no more of that.
He picked up his hat and, without looking at her again, made for the door; and when he reached it she called, "I'll write to you when I want to see you again."
As once before he had stood at the end of the Cut and wiped the sweat from his face, so now he stopped at the same spot again and stood gasping as if he had sprinted from the house. What was he to do? He should get advice, tell someone . and make himself out to be as she said, a weak-bellied pious bastard. And what if she should be .
He couldn't even think the word pregnant. He saw his whole ordered world in fragments about him. He saw the chaos after exposure. He saw the reactions of the individual members of his family. First Esther; the ground cut from beneath her, her ideals and lofty thinking sullied by the sordid affair. But the reaction he knew
vv llctL WUU1U U be? Wrath, yes, indignation, and of course the demand that the whole affair be hushed up for his daughter's sake; and for the remainder of his life he'd be under his thumb. And all this because he took a girl home in the snow. It didn't seem possible. If someone had put the situation to him as a hypothetical case he would have said the whole thing was highly improbable.
He got into his car and drove home . The house was quiet when he entered the hall and after he had hung up his things in the cloakroom he went into the sitting-room, where Esther was sitting reading. She laid down her book and stared into his face, saying, "You're looking pea ky again. Why did you work so late when you're not feeling too fit?"
"Oh, I'm all right." He went to the fire and held out his hands to the flames and asked, "Where's everybody?"
"Terry's gone to his piano lesson, John's doing his homework, and Gail's having tea with Anna Birkett. By the way, are you going to choir practice?"
"Yes, yes, I suppose so. I'd forgotten about it for the moment."
"I told Gail you might pick her up and bring her home before you went, but then I didn't know you were going to be so late."
"I'll go straight off after I've had a bite and fetch her," he said flatly.
"Good, I hate her to be out alone in the dark. I'll get your meal now, I've kept it hot."
As she brought his meal into the dining-room, she said, "Father rang a short while ago. Colonel Callow's housekeeper had just been on the phone to him. The Colonel wants him to go through again for the week-end, so he won't be coming into the office tomorrow and will likely stay in York until Monday night. He said he thinks the old fellow's lonely."
"Hasn't he any relations of his own?" Harry asked, and she answered,
"No; I understand not. He's lived with the old house keeper and a man-servant for years."
"Is he wealthy?" Harry asked this question thinking it might give the reason for his-father-in-law putting himself out for an old man.
"I don't really know. But he must have some money although 82 HE
He's a bit of an eccentric I think, won't have the phone in, no television. The housekeeper's got to use a call box. Father said this was the third time she had phoned in the last three weeks, so he felt he was obliged to go. He's silly like that, about wartime loyalties.
He seems to forget that the war's been over more than twenty years.
When you enjoyed the war, as much as Dave Rippon did on his own saying, you didn't forget it easily. He could hear his father-in-law leading forth, his back to the fire, swaying on his toes as he regaled him with his wartime activities.
"Best years of my life, grand days, great days. Such comradeship 'll never come again. Oh boy I did we have fun." And all this from a training camp in a corner of the country where the nearest bomb had been dropped twenty miles away.
"What's on your mind?"
"I said, what's on your mind? You've been staring at your plate for the last five minutes."
"Oh. Oh, I was just thinking."
"Can't you scrap the choir practice tonight?"
"No, Gregory's got the idea that the TV might do a service from the church. As far as I know he's written away asking someone to come down and hear us."
"I ... I knew nothing about this." She looked slightly affronted, and he said, "Well, it's the choir business."
"Well, the choir business is also the church committee business and nothing was said at the last meeting."
"Oh, I think what he's done he's done since then."
"I should hope so."
She certainly was affronted. As he watched her taking some empty dishes out of the room, her back very straight and expressive, he thought. I wish to God that was all I had on my mind at the moment, whether or not Gregory had taken too much upon himself.
Fifteen minutes later when he was on the point of leaving her to pick up Gail, she said to him, apropos of nothing that had been mentioned since she showed her displeasure of the choirmaster's initiative, "Does Father know of this?"
^. u i^u a uii face to her and asked, "Know what?"
"What's the matter with you tonight, Harry, you're miles away? What were we talking about just a short while ago. Gregory writing off to the BBC. on his own?"
He stared her full in the face, then said loudly, "I don't know, Esther, if your father knows about it or not, but if someone has omitted to inform him is that going to be looked upon as. a crime?"
"Harry!" She spoke his name in a tone that was weighed with censure; then she waited. But on this occasion he didn't, as was usual when he had raised his voice to her, apologise immediately by saying, "Oh, I'm sorry, dear' and so preserve the tranquil atmosphere of the home. On this occasion he just walked out.
Ten minutes later, when he reached the Birkctts' house, he got the impression that Gail, for once, wasn't overjoyed to see him, and the reason was presented to him when Paul Birkett came out of the garage, where he had obviously been tinkering with a motorbike, and joined his sister Anna who was seeing her friend off at the gate.
When he started the car up and the waving had stopped Gail said to him,
"That was Paul, Dad."
"Yes." He raised his eyebrows and nodded at the windscreen "Yes, I think I saw him." When she took her elbow and dug him in the side he cried, "Careful, careful I That's a police car just passed us; they'll have me up for drunken driving."
"Do you like him, Dad?"
"Do I like Paul? Well, I hardly know him. I don't come across him much, him not being in the choir."
"Well, he sits in the third pew on the left ... no, on your right, and in the end seat; you can't help but see him."
He was forced to chuckle. So this was it. He was glad. She was nearly sixteen and she hadn't had a boy friend yet. Some of them at the church were going strong at fourteen. He wondered if young Paul, like himself, could detect the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis.
He doubted it. He said teasingly now, "Oh yes, I remember seeing him.
He's lanky, isn't he? "
un, ua. a, ne's not; not lanKy, tall. "
"Oh, perhaps I haven't got the right one. Has he got red hair?"
He could hear her swallowing.
"It isn't red, it's auburn, and it's lovely hair."
They stopped at the traffic lights and he cast a glance at her as he asked softly, "You like Paul?"
She dropped her head just the slightest as she answered "Uh-huh!"
"Does he like you?"
"Yes, Dad." She was looking at him squarely now, but he kept his eyes on the road as they moved over the crossing;
then he asked casually, "He's told you so?"
"Well... well, not exactly. He wrote me a letter."
"Oh, he did, did he?"
"He ... he didn't give it to me himself, he gave it to Anna to give to me. He wondered if I would go out with him."
"And what did you say?"
"Well, I haven't said anything yet. I'll write the answer tonight and give it to Anna tomorrow."
He bit on his lip. For all the talk of being with it, of being groovy, of LSD. and free love, for some youngsters love still started like this. He could understand young Birkett writing, he was a shy lad in spite of his red hair, or perhaps just because of it. The Birketts were a nice family. A bit starchy he thought, at least the parents were, but nevertheless nice.
Out of curiosity now he said, "Have you just got to know him, I mean well? Doesn't he go to the Youth Club?"
"Not very often, and then he plays chess most of the time."
They were about three minutes' ride from home when after a thoughtful silence, she suddenly asked, "What's it like, Dad ... I mean marriage?"
He actually grazed the kerb, and when he straightened out again he didn't know whether to laugh outright at her question or to treat it seriously. It was natural, he supposed, she should be thinking of marriage, even at fifteen, well near sixteen, but this was jumping the gun a bit. And what a question to tackle, and coming from her. Had it come from either of the boys he would have dealt with it in a straightforward manner; but