Janet helped him into his coat, and she pushed his fumbling fingers aside and tucked his scarf over his chest, then buttoned the coat. He said to her too, "I'm sorry, Janet." And her voice brusque now, she replied sharply, "Don't be silly Harry. What have you got to apologise to me for? I'll remind you that I've had to hold your head before the day when you were sick. Do you remember the night we went to the fair and you went on the shoggies."
He had a faint recollection of the event and he smiled at her weakly.
And she went on, "And that wasn't the only time. There were school treats when you stuffed yourself and got it up in the bus coming back."
He could remember one such occasion.
"I must have a weak stomach," he said.
"There." She handed him his hat.
"Now when you get in go straight to bed and have a rest over the holidays. It isn't only today that has caused this stomach upset, it's doing that Father Christmas stunt.
That Market Place is a death trap any day in the winter, even without snow. I don't know how Robbie escaped. "
As he looked down at her part of his mind registered the fact that Janet Dunn in twenty-three Baker Street was a different creature from Janet Dunn when she came to help out in Holly- tree House, Holt Avenue.
This was the Janet he remembered from years back, and he had never seen her for a long time because their meetings were always in his own home, with Esther in either the foreground or the background.
He said, "Perhaps you'll invite me to dinner some other time, Janet?"
and she answered, "Any time. You know you're welcome in this house any time, Harry. And you don't need an invitation. Dear, dear I you should know that."
He looked at her face. It was plain, homely and good. Her 0 .
her skin had an olive tint; her nose was not large but it was the nose of a Jewess. Yet somehow he had the impression she had just missed being a beautiful woman. She had a good figure, and as his grannie had said, she had a presence, a sort of dignity. She was a good woman altogether was Janet. He took her hand and nodded at her but said nothing, then they went into the passage where Robbie was waiting. She opened the door and let them out, saying, "Go careful, the both of you mind. Go careful." She spoke as if they were of one family.
As he went down the street with Robbie supporting him by the arm he thought, It's been the strangest day of my life.
Robbie left him at the bottom of the steps, saying, "Now you do what Mam said and go straight to bed. And if I were you I'd stay there over the holidays; you're right down low if I'm any judge."
"I'll see to it, Robbie." He tried to smile.
"And thanks for your help, for everything."
"You're welcome. There's nobody I'd rather give me shoes to, you know that."
They peered at each other through the snow, then Robbie turned away and he went into the house.
When he reached the hall they all gathered round him, all talking at once, until Esther, her voice raised unusually high cried, "Stop it!
Be quiet, I can't hear myself think. Now'--she looked at Harry--'you might tell me where on earth you've been. They said you left the office before four, your car's still there. We couldn't find out anything from anyone with Father gone to York. "
Before he could answer Gail said, "Let me get. your coat off, Father.
Oh I it's wet. And your shoes and trousers, look. "
"Well, don't stand there," said Esther; 'the carpet will be filthy.
Go in to the cloakroom and take them off. Get your father's slippers, Terry. And stop dancing about, Gail. John, put the kettle on. "
As she gave her orders she pushed Harry towards the cloakroom, and there he sat down and pulled his shoes and socks off and turned the bottom of his trousers up. When she bent down and felt them she said,
"They're absolutely wringing," and at
this he was forced to retort snarply 'well perhaps you haven't noticed, Esther, it's snowing outside. "
She answered this with a stiff silence for a moment; then she asked in her usual controlled tone, "Where have you been?"
He bowed his head and rubbed his brow with his hand as he said, "After the party some of the staff couldn't get home, I ... I helped one or two on their way, then I got sort of lost and found myself round by Janet's, and I was so exhausted I went in ..."
"You mean to say you've been at Janet's all this time!" Her voice was indignant now.
"Not all the time; I don't know how long." He couldn't say not more than twenty minutes.
"But I just had to call in, I was dead beat.
You've got no idea what it's like outside. "
"She could have sent Robbie to say you were there. That's the least she could have done."
"I wouldn't let her," he lied.
"She wanted to but I wouldn't let her.
Now if you don't mind, Esther, I want to get near the fire. " He got to his feet and pushed past her in the narrow space and went out into the hall, there to see John standing with his slippers in his hand. He took them from him, saying, " Thanks';
then still in his bare feet he went into the sitting-room, and as he dropped on to the couch Gail took the slippers from him and slipped them on to his feet, then said, "You should go upstairs, Dad, and change your trousers, they're very wet."
"I will in a minute, dear." He nodded at her.
"Do you want anything, a hot drink or anything?" Esther was standing before the couch, and without looking at her he shook his head and said, "All I want is to get to bed."
"I'll go and put your electric blanket on." Gail ran out of the room and he pulled himself to his feet again, saying, "I'll be all right tomorrow, I just want to sleep." He had not looked Esther straight in the face yet.
When he entered the room Gail was turning down his bed, and when she came at him and flung her arms round his waist, saying, "Oh, Dad, I was worried; I thought you had dropped into a drift or something," he felt his whole body. stiffen. She was the same size, the same height as Betty Ray. Her body felt like Betty Ra^'s. When she put her hands up on. to his lapels to 67
ncip nun on wun nis coat ne cnrust ner rrom mm, and, tils voice rough, almost a growl, he said, "Don't. Don't do that."
It was the first time in his life he had repulsed her. Always he had opened his arms wide to her; always he had hugged her close. She stepped back from him, her hand up to her cheek, her eyes wide and slowly filling with tears, and then she was running from the room.
He followed her swiftly towards the door but when he reached it he stopped abruptly and closed it and leant his back against it. This was only the beginning.
It was three weeks before Harry returned to the office, and if he was grateful for anything during that time it was for the respite.
When, on Christmas Eve, his temperature having risen with alarming rapidity, Esther sent for the doctor--who pronounced a severe dose of influenza--the one clear thought in Harry's' mind was. Thank God I won't have to go in on Wednesday.
Looking back he didn't remember much about Christmas Day or Boxing Day, only that he had made his peace with Gail. She had 'come into the room several times and stood at the foot of the bed and asked politely, "How do you feel now, Dad?" until he had made the effort to put out his clammy hands to her and croak, "Come here." And when she had stood at the bedside he had said, "I'm sorry, pet. I'm sorry," and she had answered without her usual gusto, "It's all right, Dad." He had moved his throbbing head slowly and said, "No, I was rough with you but ...
but I felt ill, more so than I do now; I'd ... I'd had a trying day, and the snow."
"It's all right, Dad," she had answered, and again he had moved his head. Then pulling her down to the side of the bed he had whispered,
"Listen, pet. If ever again I'm bad-tempered and beastly take no notice, just tell yourself that I love you better than anyone else in the whole wide world, will you?"
On this she returned to the daughter he knew and she threw herself on his neck, crying, "Oh, Dad 1 Dad I' " There now. There now. Look, you'll catch this cold. But remember what I. said. "
She had lifted her head and looked at him and dropped it to one side, saying, "You never could be bad tempered or beastly, not you. "
"I was last night."
"It wasn't you, it was the flu."
"Get up out of that, child!" Do you want it too? " Esther's command had brought Gail to her feet, but she had smiled lovingly at him before leaving the room.
After this little incident he let himself dissolve into the sweating depths created by a hundred and four temperature.
But now the time of the respite was over and Esther was at the door to see him off, driving in her father's cast-off Jaguar. Under other circumstances he would have got a thrill out of driving the Jaguar.
Who wouldn't? But passed over as it had been, almost in the nature of a gift, the joy of possession was tainted somewhat. He knew that his father-in-law wouldn't have let him have a smell of the car if it hadn't been that he wanted to please Esther. That was the only good point in his father-in-law's favour; his constant aim to please his daughter.
But the business of the car. was not really bothering him at the moment. What was tensing the muscles of his stomach and bringing his jaw rigid was the uncertainty of what attitude Miss Betty Ray would take towards him. Remembering her brashness he shivered with apprehension.
But he needn't have worried. After Mr. Hogg had greeted him warmly there came the chorus of, "Good morning. Nice to see you back, Mr.
Blenheim. You feeling better?" To all of which he had said, "Yes, yes, thank you very much." And then he was passing the window of the typing pool, and the girls inside, having heard the chatter in the hallway, all had their faces turned towards him, and they smiled at him. And among the smiling faces was Betty Ray's. He did not let his eyes linger on her but nodded through the glass to them as a whole.
Then he was in his office and Ada Cole was taking his coat and saying,
"Oh, I am glad to see you back, Mr. Blenheim."
"Sure you're feeling fit now?"
"Fit as a fiddle, Ada. Well'--he paused--'not quite. Let us say, I don't feel like dying any longer." ^ Her round face smiling, she looked at him kindly, saying, "It's an awful thing, flu. It gets you down. It's left its mark on you; you've lost weight, and your tan's gone."
"Tan? I never knew I had a tan, Ada."
"Oh, well, you know what I mean, you were a bit brow ny
"Well I suppose the snow bleached me."
"Eeh I it did that. Wasn't it dreadful? A number of old people in the town died, and no wonder. We've never had anything like it for years;
and we don't want it again, do we? "
"No, Ada." He took his seat behind the desk, drew in a deep breath, then asked, "Anything new?"
"One or two small jobs have been completed. Bradley's doing the alterations in Temple Street and Kershaw has finished the Council job.
There have been some enquiries in, estimations . And Halliday, you remember, he accepted the quotation. "
"Halliday?" He lifted his chin upwards.
"Oh yes; I was dealing with that just before we broke up, at least I went to see Mr. Rippon about it. There was a muddle about prices."
"Well, they accepted the stated price."
"And what was that?"
"Oh." She screwed up her face.
"I can't think off-hand. I'll get it."
On her way to the filing cabinet she turned round and said, "I've just remembered, we haven't got it. I had orders to pass on all that correspondence to the upper office." She jerked her head towards the ceiling.
"Was it six thousand, five hundred?"
"Oh no, more than that, I'm sure. Now I remember. That was the estimate Mr. Whelan put in but Miss Bateman told me they'd worked it out upstairs and that wouldn't cover it.. It was over seven thousand.
Yes, it was over seven thousand. " She was nodding her head now.
He looked down at his desk for a moment, then bit on his lip and asked,
"Who's to do the work?"
"Bradley's as far as I can make out. They're starting this week. Their estimate is likely in. It's bound to be, but I haven't seen it.
Everything's been mixed up lately, hasn't it, Mr. Blenheim? I mean not just lately, for months now. You don't know where you are, do you
"No," he said slowly; 'you don't know where you are. " She looked at him for a moment longer. He was vexed. She could always tell when Mr.
Blenheim was vexed. She turned 71
ana garnered up some papers from a side desk and went into her cubby hole.
Harry sat staring at the phone. He had a desire to pick it up and say what was on his mind, but he knew that he daren't;
not if he wanted to remain in Peamarsh's. But it was damnable, damnable. Bradley's estimate would be in the region of five thousand five hundred, give or take a pound or two. When Jim Whelan had put the job down at six thousand five hundred he was giving Peamarsh's a good percentage for the small amount of negotiating work they were doing, but that didn't suit Mr. Rippon. He had to put it up another seven hundred and fifty. And who would get a cut of that? Would it be ploughed back? Not if Dave Rippon had anything to do with it, it wouldn't; it would be fiddled into the directors' pockets . But how?
Yes, how? There was Miss Bateman to get over. She must know a lot, Miss Bateman.
As bad as old Walters was, this kind of robbery hadn't been so blatant when he was active. Their percentage had never been moderate but they had usually stuck to Jim Whelan's figures.
What would happen when his father-in-law became head of the firm, which was very much on the cards? Would he be able to work directly under him? When Dave Rippon moved into Peter Walters' office, Frank Nolan, Arthur McMullen and Tom Vosey would all move up a step and there would be a vacancy on the directors' board, arid that vacancy would come to him;