i 51ddca29df3edad1 (7 page)

BOOK: i 51ddca29df3edad1

Fancy doing a daft thing like that. And it's got me pay in it! " She pushed out her lips and blew the snow away from her face, then laughed before disappearing through the glass door. He went slowly down the steps into the street, and he had just reached the corner when she caught up with him again. , , " Dreadful, isn't it? It's getting worse. "

"Yes. Have you far to go?"

"Pullman Street." As she finished she slipped and one leg disappeared into what had been a gutter but was now an eighteen inch drift. As he steadied her he said, "I know Pullman Street. I can go part of the way with you; we could cut across the Market, they've likely cleared that a bit."

They had cleared the Market earlier in the day but the constant falling had beaten them for the Square was knee high in places. He said to her now, "They're going to find it difficult putting their stalls up tomorrow, and they generally do a roaring trade on Christmas Eve."

She'turned her face towards him as she laughed and said, "We always wait until the last minute and get our turkey at a throw-out price. My mother can remember getting one one

-. _, . ^ i-*^ uig iicc^crs then. But who needs a freezer in this?


When they had to step over a drift to get an to the pavement he took her arm and said, "Come on, jump it. One, two, three 1' She squealed as she landed on the other side, then cried, " I've lost me shoe! "

When he dug out the high-heeled shoe he said, "Why didn't you put on something sensible when you knew it. was like this."

"Oh, who wants to be sensible? Here, can I hang on to you while I put it on."

He supported her with his arm around her shoulders and she held on to him as she bent her leg back and put on her shoe. And she squealed again, saying, "Coo 1 it's freezing. Me other one is wet and warm but this is like ice now."

The further they got away from the centre of the town the deeper the snow. In the side roads nobody had bothered to clear it away as yet and when they came to Taunton Square, from where his road lay in the opposite direction from hers, he said, "You're never going to make this on your own, I'd better see you to your door."

"Thanks." She peered up at him through the falling snow.

"It's only about another five minutes' walk. At least it used to be; I don't know how long it will take us now."

"Come on, let's see then." And he laughed as he took her arm.

After they had gone a little way she pulled him to a stop and said,

"Listen 1 Isn't everything quiet, hushed like?"

He listened, then answered, "Yes, nice and quiet, hushed like." He was smiling down at her.

"Do you like things quiet?" They were trudging on again now.

"Yes, moderately so."

"Oh, I don't, I like bustle, plenty of people, talk, noise, laughter life. That's what I like, life."

Although he couldn't see her face he said, "Yes, I can see you do."

Her comment to this was cut off when they both slipped together and overbalanced in the snow. When they righted themselves they had their arms around each other, but only for a second, for, taking her arm again, he made the incident casual by saying, "It's treacherous; you could break your neck."

"We're nearly there; two more streets and up the cutting."

In the cutting they had to walk in single file, lifting their feet high to make progress, and when they came to the end of it she pointed to the first house at the end of a short street and said, "Well, we're here."

He raised his hat now and said formally, "Well, I'm glad you've made it. I think I'll make my way back into the Market and keep to- the main roads; they must have made some attempt to keep them open."

"But you're not going straightaway'--she was peering up at him again as she searched in her bag for her key" --You're wringing and frozen as much as me. Come in and have a cup of something hot. "

"It's very kind of you but..."

"Kind, me foot! Come on in."

He smiled to himself as he followed her into the house. She certainly was an uninhibited little miss, and she certainly had no respect for rank or class distinction.

"Take your coat and things 08." I'll switch the fire on. The house is warm, the boiler's always on, but we'll need something more than the boiler to thaw us out. " She had flung her coat and head scarf aside and now, balancing on one leg, she undid her stockings from her suspenders and dragged them from her wet legs.

"Here, give me your coat, I'll put it on the boiler."

"Oh no, no. It's perfectly all right, it's waterproof."

"Waterproof or not, it's soaking wet across the bottom. Here give it to me." She almost dragged it from him.

"There now, sit down an' make yourself comfortable."

As she went to go through a door she paused and, looking over her shoulder, laughed back at him, saying, "Make yourself at home; it's Christmas ... remember."

He found himself sitting on a very comfortable couch before an electric fire which flickered over artificial logs and smiling widely to himself. Make yourself at home. Make yourself at home, because it's Christmas. She was a little star turn.

"Tea?" Her voice was calling from the other room, the kitchen presumably.

iA. " ^^^^. ^..^ mti-iii-u lu'd kellie Deing nuea and the plop of the gas being lit, and when she came back into the room she said, " It won't be a tick. "

He looked at her standing in her bare feet, her dress coming just above her knees Miss Bateman wouldn't allow mini skirts she looked like a child, no older than Gail. For some thing to say he said, "It's a very comfortable room this." He spread out his hand.

"Yes, I like it." She came and sat on the sofa, not in the corner but not close to him.

"My mother did it up; she's a dab hand with paper and paint."

"Your mother does the decorations, not your father?"

"I haven't got a father."

"I'm sorry."

"Oh, don't be. I don't remember him; he died when I was young."

"Have you any brothers or sisters?"

"No, just me and me mother, two lone women." She laughed, and he laughed and said, "Woman indeed 1' " What do you mean? Woman indeed!

What do you take me for? A girl? "

"Well, yes, I would. I'd take you for a girl, a young girl."

"Coo 1 that's nice."

The kettle began to whistle and she jumped up and went into the kitchen, and from there she called, "How old do you think I am?"

He thought for a moment and said "Nineteen."

"Thanks very much; I'm twenty-four."

"You're not 1' " I am. " She came in with the tray and, putting it down on a pouf fe to the side of the fireplace, she said, " I'm shivering, I want something to lace this. How about you? "

"Oh, not for me, thank you."

"Oh go on." She went to a sideboard behind them and brought out a bottle of whisky.

"It's Christmas. Have you for gotten? It's Christmas, and we've just trekked through the Yukon, and you've saved me life and we've come to the log cabin and we're going to be marooned here for three weeks."

He was laughing loudly now; he couldn't help but laugh at her.

"There, get that down you."

He'd never had whisky in tea before and he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and said, "Hmm 1 very nice."

"I'll say it's nice; it's me life saver."


"Yes." She drew in a deep breath and lifted her legs and put the soles of her feet towards the fire. Then leaning back, she said,

"Everything's nice at Christmas; everybody's nice to everybody at Christmas. Have you noticed it? For a couple of days everybody's nice to everybody, and for the rest " of the year they're bitchy. "

"Is that how you've found life?"

"Mm I Well no." She shook her head.

"There are nice people. You're nice."

^"Thank you."

"But you are, seriously." She now sat straight up on the couch and turned her body towards him until her knees were within an inch of his.

"That's what they said the first day I came to Peamarsh's. You'll like Mr. Blenheim, they saidj he's nice."

"They didn't. You're teasing me."

"Honest, they did, all the girls in the pool. They said there were one or two not bad, Mr. Vosey and Mr. Whelan, and one or two on the bottom floor, but for the rest they were stinkers. Oh, you should hear what they say. And they know some things about a lot of them an' all, all the darling goodie-goodies. Make your hair stand up on end, it would.

But never about you. " She took another long drink from her cup, her eyes fixed on him all the while.

"A nice bloke, that's what they said you were, a quiet, nice bloke. And you know what else they say?"

His mouth was rightly closed, he was trying to stop himself from laughing. He shook his head.

"That you're above board."

He stared at her, his face bright. He felt warm inside, the whisky was seeing to that. Yet it wasn't the whisky alone, it was a good feeling to know that people thought you a nice fellow, a nice bloke. Gail had said that too. It was worth being above board after all.

"They think Rippon, your father-in-law's, a stinker."

"Oh, do they now?"

. "--- --,^ n^" i. m . "i-i juicy say ne's got more than j Mr.

Walters, or Mr. Hall or any of the others put together. | They say he's loaded down with shares in everything from oil : to ointment. "

He drooped his head on to his chest and bit on his lip. He should stop her talking but he couldn't; nor did he want to. It was all so good to hear that they thought Mr. Dave Rippon a stinker. It was good to know that some people could see' through his church facade.

"Have another sup?"

"Oh, no, thanks."

"Come on." She pulled the cup from him.

"You can only get really drunk once."

He was leaning against the back of the couch laughing loudly. He had never laughed like this in years. Suddenly he put his hand over his mouth and said, "Dear! dear! Have you got near neighbours ?"

"Only Ma Tarrant next door and she's stone deaf. We're lucky ..."

Half-an-hour later he had got through three cups of tea and almost die equivalent of three double whiskies; he had his shoes off and they were set at a safe distance from the electric fire drying. Betty was now in a knee-length, padded dressing gown because she had found that her dress was damp. She sat on the couch with her legs curled under her, her head and hands moving as she talked; and he lay back in bemused contentment and laughed at her. He had never met anyone like her. She was gay, happy, full of the joy of living and, strangely, she didn't make him feel old. He felt younger now than he could remember feeling in his twenties.

"Loosen your collar and tie."

"No, no. What do I want to loosen my collar and tie for?"

"Go on, make yourself comfortable, there's nobody'll come in. Me mother won't be back until nearly eight. Here." She had her hands at his neck, and they were struggling now; then she was lying across his knee looking up into his face, her hands still at his neck but quiet for a moment under his grip. He looked down at her in silence, and then he said thickly.

"You know, you're a naughty girl."

iviy ] you vc uccn i^uii-k. nnuuig mat out. Iou're snarp. ne tone, the deriding manner in which she said it, her candidness set him off laughing again. And now she had her head snugglec under his chin and his tie was off and the buttons of his shir were open.

"Have you any hairs on your chest?"


"Let's see if you have any hairs on your chest."

They were struggling again.

"Here, here 1 you little devil. Give over."

She gave over and lay back on his arm, her head on the en of the couch looking up at him. Then, her hand coming out she traced her red nailed finger gently around his mouth, sayinj softly, "You're nice, nicer than nice, sort of innocent nice."

"What I' He tried to pull himself up in mock indignation am she emphasised now, " But you are. Do you know what? If yoi weren't, you'd have had me clothes off afore now. "

"Oh, Betty. Really!"

"Oh, Betty, really!" She mimicked his voice, then tweaked hi nose.

As she lay gazing up at him, her big brown eyes mere slit now, his sanity, rising on a strong wave, told him to get out o here and quick, and he muttered thickly, "I'll have to be makin my way; it's getting on and it's going to take me some tim to ... to get back."

"Why go when you don't want to?"

"What do you mean, I don't want to?"

"You know what I mean. You don't want to go."

They were staring at each other again, and he said softly "You seem to know everything, don't you?"

"Pretty near everything." She was her skittish self again, he chin bobbing and her hand waving in the air.

"Anyway, know enough that you don't want to go."

"What if I prove you wrong?"

Her body became still for a moment. Then raising her hea from the couch, she brought her face close to his. Her eye: wide now, stared into his, and of a sudden she was kissing bin holding him and kissing him with such a ferocity that it was like an attack.

And it was seconds before he responded to her.

wnen she pm icu' ll1111 up from me coucn and led him across the room and into a bedroom he made no resistance. When she switched on the light, one thing his bemused mind did notice was that the curtains were already drawn; it was as if she had prepared for it.

He sat on the edge of the bed, as much from weakness at the knees as pressure from her hands, and when, slowly unbuttoning the dressing gown, she slid it from her and stood before him stark naked, he closed his eyes against the sight of her. He hadn't seen Esther naked more than half-a-dozen times in his life, and then only when he had barged into the bathroom, when she had been quick to cover herself up. Yet here was this girl standing before him without a stitch on. It was unbelievable. For a moment he thought that he must be dreaming, until her hands came on him again and she pulled off his jacket.

All his life afterwards he was to remember the next half- hour. Even when he hated the thought of it, every incident and happening in it was to remain clear before his eyes. At night when they turned the key on him and he was alone within those four cold, soul-crushing walls, he was to remember. Later, through ostracism and shame, the memory was still clear. Even when his life flowed through a channel that brought him a peace he had never known before, the memory remained vivid.

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