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"She didn't mean it; it just comes out. And you know, it's funny, she can manage John. He takes things from her that he wouldn't from anybody else and she tells him the truth to his face. If I was to say half the things to him that Gran does he'd scalp me."
He said to her now, "How long has your mother been up?" and she answered, "Not long. She looked tired. Grandfather came in. He's not coming for Christmas after all, he's going to his friend in York. He said he's ill and wants to see him. It's the one he was in the Army with, I think. Mother was disappointed about that and all. He brought a lot of parcels. They're up in the attic." She hunched her shoulders and smiled at him.
"Come on," he said, tapping her leg.
She walked to the end of the table, then turning and looking at him where he was putting the tray on the draining board she asked, "What are you going to do about John? If it isn't cleared up he'll sulk all over the holidays and it'll be frightful. He can you know, I mean sulk for a long time."
"You leave John to me. Go on, get yourself up."
She made four tripping steps and came back to him and flinging her arms round his neck, she hugged and kissed him. Then in a manner that was individually hers she drooped her head to one side and smiled gently into his face and whispered, "You're nice, Mr. Blenheim. As a certain Gran O'Toole would say, you're a nice bloke."
"Go on with you." He rapped her buttocks smartly once and she ran towards the door her hands on her bottom. Then again hunching her shoulders, she adopted a stealthy attitude and crept out into the hall.
Esther was sitting up' in bed reading when he entered the bedroom. She didn't put down her book but looked over the top of it as she said,
Dutifully she now asked, "How did it go?"
"One pound, eight and threepence."
"One pound, eight and threepence!" She clicked her tongue "Yes." He began to undress, and she said nothing more until he was in his pyjamas and standing by the side of his bed. She laid down her book then and asked, almost in the same words as Gail had done, "What are you going to do about John?"
He had a sudden and unusual desire to turn on her and cry, "I'm going to let him get cold in the grease he got hot in," but that would mean that her face would tighten, then her eyes would take on that hurt look, and when she spoke there'd be that slight tremor at the end of her words, which indicated the effort she was making to remain calm.
Esther laid great stock on remaining calm. All the books she read, especially last thing at night, were to aid calmness. Waldo Trine's
"In Tune with the Infinite' was her second Bible. Daily she imbibed its philosophy. He had once said to her, jokingly, " I bet you could repeat that book backwards," and she had taken his remark as censure.
His thoughts darting off at a resentful tangent now, he said to himself, 'she even took the damn book on her honeymoon, and the second night she sat up reading it. " He shook his head at himself. He was tired, weary. That business with John had upset him, together with the lack of Christmas spirit emanating from the citizens of Fellburn. It was ludicrous, but if he hadn't stood outside each of the three pubs that lined the Market Square it would have been three and threepence he would have collected, not one pound eight and threepence. So much for Christian charity. God The felt tired and irritable, all at cross purposes with everything. It wasn't only the business of John, he had felt off colour lately. Some of the joy had gone out of life; there was a sameness about it. Why? Oh well, it was his age he supposed. They all said it happened to you as you neared forty.
Looking at it squarely he'd had a long run for his money. He'd known contentment for years, and that was taking into account the frustrations of the bedroom too. He glanced now at Esther. She was looking at him. Her fair hair was smooth' and shining. She hadn't a wrinkle on her skin. She didn't look thirty-seven, she didn't look the mother of three children. She was wearing a pink brushed-nylon nightdress; on someone else, like Gail, it would have looked cosy, cuddly, but on Esther it only looked warm and sensible.
He wanted to go to her now and snuggle down beside her and feel her arms going about him. He imagined her pulling his head down, pressing it in between' her breasts. He imagined himself pushing the cuddly nightie up to feel her flesh. He wanted comfort. Lord, how he needed comfort at this moment, wifely comfort, motherly comfort, mistressy comfort. The lot combined. His mouth was working and his hands moving against each other. He was sickening for something; the cold had got into his bones. He could see himself in bed with flu over the holidays
"I said are you going to him ... John?"
He stood up and looked at her. She was a good woman, Esther, a good mother, a good wife . But what made a good wife? There must be various opinions on that one. Some men had their wives every night, two and three times a night so he understood. Huh 1 From once a week, Esther had regulated it to once a month. But that was only up till Terry was born. From then it was once every time she felt like it, and Esther very rarely felt like it. It must be four months now since he had lain with her. He was only thirty-eight; he felt no different from what he had felt at eighteen. He wasn't, he supposed, what you'd call a passionate man else there would have been hell to pay, but he was human, natural; and besides he was considerate. He had always been considerate with her, too damned considerate
"What are you standing there for, like that? You're shivering. Either get into bed or go along and see him and get it over with."
He turned from her and went to the wardrobe and took out his dressing gown. He was putting it on as he went out on to the landing.
Harry opened his son's bedroom door and went into the room. The light was on and the lower bunk was empty. Terry turned from his back on to his side and looked from the upper bunk at his father. He looked wide awake as if he had been waiting for him coming. He said under his breath, "He's in his study." He motioned his head towards the wall and the box- room that his mother had turned into a workroom for his elder bromer ana given it the title of the study.
Harry put his hand out and ruffled Terry's already unruly bead, saying,
"It's time you were asleep, isn't it?"
Terry chuckled, then laughed softly before he asked, "Did you take much?"
"A mint, one pound, eight and threepence."
"Coo! Could they spare it?"
"That's what I've been asking. It wasn't worth it, was it? I mean standing out there all night."
"No, I should say not. Are you cold?"
"I was, but it's wearing off." Again Harry touched his son's head.
Terry was a nice boy. His character was akin to Gail's, kindly, thoughtful, just the opposite from John's. Who did John take after?
Not himself; nor yet Esther. His grandfather? Perhaps, for Dave Rippon had his own particular form of sulks.
"Get to sleep now," he said as he went out.
He did not knock on the door next to the bedroom but opened it quietly and paused as he saw his son sitting at the small desk in the corner of the narrow room. The boy did not turn his head to look at him. He had likely heard his voice from the other room and was waiting for him.
Perhaps he had been waiting for him all evening. This wasn't the first occasion when his son had remained stubbornly silent until he had gone to him and, if not actually apologised, made his peace. He stood by his side now looking down on his hair, but he had no desire to put his hand out and touch it as he had done a moment ago with Terry.
"Time you were in bed, isn't it?" he said.
There was no reply from John, no movement whatever.
"I'm sorry about tonight; we were both a bit hasty."
Still no reply, no movement.
"I know you don't like Robbie. I know you're an entirely different type from him, but that's no reason to call him names." Harry saw his son's jaw work, first to one side and then to the other, before his teeth came hard down on his lower hp. ^ / "It's Christmas and this is no time to have quarrels or disagreements.
Your mother's worried. Shall we forget it? " He put out tils tiana now anu gciiuy lolh. ucu nis 5011's suoluuer; uien, before the lack of response should make him angry, he turned about, saying, "Come on, get to bed. It's well past midnight." He paused at the door without turning round and added, "Good night."
He didn't even expect an answer to this, for this was John acting according to pattern, but tomorrow morning things would be as they had been before the incident at this evening's meal.
Esther was lying down when he returned to the room and she didn't speak until he had got into bed and put the light out, and then she said,
"Good night," and he answered, "Good night."
He hadn't kissed her good night for more than five years now.
It was almost half-an-hour later when he heard her give a genteel little snort which meant she was asleep, and he turned on his side and put his hand under his cheek and lay staring wide-eyed into the darkness. And it came to him that he was lonely.
"Good morning, Mr. Blenheim."
"Good morning, Mr. Blenheim."
The female voices of the packing staff chorused through the outer office of the first floor of Peamarsh's.
When Harry passed a little cubicle where an elderly man was sitting at a desk on which there were three telephones, he paused for a moment and said, "Good morning, Mr. Hogg'; and the man stood up quickly, saying,
" Oh, Good morning, Mr. Blenheim. And it is a morning, isn't it?
How did you manage to get the car in? Mr. Waters has just phoned to say he can't get his car out of his gate and if he could he wouldn't dare risk it down the hill. "
"Oh, I carried mine," said Harry laughing, and Mr. Hogg laughed too.
He was the only man in Peamarsh's who gave the outer clerk, as the man was called, the title of mister. To the other members of the staff, according to their positions, he was Hogg, Charlie or Dogsbody; the last, mostly from the men in the packing departments on the ground floor and in the basement.
Before he entered his office he had to pass a glass partitioned room which housed four typists and was given the glorified term of pool.
The members of the pool this morning weren't sitting industriously at their desks but gathered together in the middle of the room looking at something that one of them held in a small square box. A shadow passing their window brought their heads round apprehensively; then seeing who it was they smiled and nodded and mouthed, "Good morning, Mr. Blen heim." Ana J-iarry nuuucu ua>-n. >. >-> 1. 1. 1^111.
An engagement ring in that box, he bet; likely belonging to the tall blonde. Miss Rice, wasn't it. Yes, Miss Rice. Well, he hoped she'd keep house better than she took down dictation. He'd had her once when Ada was off sick. Which reminded him; he hoped Ada was in this morning. Although there wouldn't be much work done on the premises today, he had one or two things he wanted to get off, but if that cold of hers hadn't eased she would have likely taken his advice and stayed in bed.
She had. His office was empty when he entered and the door to the little cubby-hole which was his private secretary's domain was closed.
It was always open for the first half-hour of the day while she bustled backwards and forwards from his desk to hers.
He had hardly gofMiis coat off when the phone rang. He picked it up and heard his father-in-law's secretary, Miss Bate- man nicknamed The Paragon, say, "Mr. Blenheim?"
"This is Miss Bateman speaking."
"Yes ?" he said again.
"Miss Cole has phoned to say that her cold has got worse and she won't be in this morning."
"Thank you, Miss Bateman."
"I'll send someone from the pool."
"Very well. Thank you." He almost added laughingly, "But don't let it be the blonde, she'll be very preoccupied today." But he was dealing with Miss Bateman, and so, instead, he said, "There's no hurry, I haven't got much to go off."
"Very well, Mr. Blenheim."
He put the phone down and walked to the window. It was coming down harder than ever now; he couldn't see the clock on Howard's, the jewellers, across the street. If it wasn't for the party this afternoon he would have those letters off and get home while the going was good, for if this kept up till dinner-time all cars, those that had got in, would be bogged down.
He had just seated himself behind his desk when there came a tap on the door and he said, "Come in." And when he saw; Tim Whelan enter the room, he exclaimed on a surprised note, "Why, hello 1 What's brought you indoors without being dragged? Sit down, sit down." He pointed to a chair.
Jim Whelan was known as the outside man. His title was appropriate, for most of his work dealt with estimates and valuations. He was not quite a chartered accountant, not having stayed the course long enough to pass his exams; he was not quite an estate agent and valuer, having no private business of his own; but he was a bit of both, and a number of other things besides. He had been with Peamarsh's for thirty years and Harry had the idea that the longer he stayed the less he liked it.
As he had once said to Harry, "It was all right when they stuck to their own line but now you don't know where you are." Recently he had been dangerously loud in his condemnation of the firm when they had spread out another tentacle and embraced the building trade. Acting as middle men, they secured contracts, then passed them on, raking off a healthy percentage in the process.
"Something on your mind, Jim?"
"Yes, there is." Jim Whelan settled himself opposite Harry, then leaned forward and said, "You remember about two months ago I did an estimate on that job for Halliday, the man who took over Benson's garage down Cromwell Road?"