Authors: Roberta Latow
The Sweet Caress
Copyright © 1997 by Roberta Latow
In gratitude for the care and consideration given to me
by the nursing staff in the Renal Ward of the
Churchill Hospital in Oxford during those dark
and dismal days and nights.
Speak, memory, speak
Too faded, too far away, I hear nothing.
But in the night I sense the sweet caress
As it was then, as it is now.
What need I of memory if I have that.
The Epic of Artimadon
She had been perfectly calm and collected until she reached her destination, the small college town of Newbampton, Massachusetts, nestling along the Naraganset River in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains, picture-book New England.
True, she was somewhat traumatised by events that had driven her to break away from her former life and deliver herself to this place where she had never been before and knew nothing about. She had no luggage, having deliberately left everything behind.
Most everyone dreams, at one time or another, of a great escape from a life that has not so much gone wrong as has nowhere left to go, but that had not been her dream. Yet here she was, sitting on a park bench on a crisp, sunny, October morning, marvelling at the brightly coloured autumn leaves that adorned the trees.
Cissie Atwood first saw the young woman on the bench at about half past six in the morning when she sneaked out of the warmth of her boyfriend Harold’s bed and crossed the square from his house to her flat to bathe and change before opening the boutique. At half past seven she walked past her on the way to Ned Palmer’s luncheonette where she had breakfast every morning, along with most of the other shopkeepers who plied their trade around or just off the town square that the townspeople called the ‘quadrangle’.
Cissie always sat by the window facing the square. She never tired of the view: the white clapboard church with
its tall, slender bell tower, the library and the museum, white clapboard and black shutters. She especially liked the square at this hour when the female students on their bicycles had not yet arrived to criss-cross the square. The sleepy town of Newbampton was home to Wesson College, one of the finest women’s colleges in the United States.
Today the town square looked magical to Cissie, with its carpet of green grass and jewel-like coloured leaves: bright yellow, orange, rust, coral and various shades of deep red. The breeze carrying the autumn leaves in a dance of colour was a perfect curtain raiser to another day that very nearly sighed with contentment. Molly Curtis from the shoe shop, Abe Cravitz who owned the best hairdresser’s, and Dan Craven the dentist had joined her at her table but she hardly heard the gossip because she was too distracted by the stranger sitting on the bench.
Cissie worked in her mother’s dress shop, one of two of the best in town, which catered for the moneyed young women from the college and drew customers from as far afield as Springfield, a small city. Cissie knew about clothes and that was what fascinated her about the stranger. She was too well-dressed to be a student or even a graduate, too young to be a mother. She had an aura of beauty and sensuality, a mystery about her, a certain exotic quality that was out of place in Newbampton. And when Cissie had passed her this morning, she noticed something else about her, a sort of aloofness edged with fear – the look of the lost.
‘Who is that attractive woman sitting on the bench in the quadrangle?’ asked Dan the dentist.
‘More to the point, what is she doing sitting there at this time of the day?’ said Molly.
‘She’s been there since half past six this morning. I don’t think she knows where she is,’ said Cissie as she rose from her chair.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Molly.
‘My curiosity has got the better of me,’ replied Cissie.
She ordered a takeaway cup of black coffee and two glazed doughnuts and, watched by her friends, she left the luncheonette.
A feeling of dread came over the woman on the bench as she saw Cissie approaching her. She had not bargained on the kindness of strangers. Curiosity had a way of following on from friendliness and she was appalled when Cissie sat down beside her, pulled the lid off a Styrofoam cup and offered the steaming black coffee to her.
‘My name’s Cecile Atwood but everyone calls me Cissie. Born and bred here in Newbampton. I saw you this morning, twice, in fact. I thought you might like a glazed doughnut to go with your coffee. People come from far and wide for Ned Palmer’s doughnuts. They’re still warm.’
The woman on the bench took the doughnut and smiled. ‘Do you always feed strangers sitting in your park?’ she asked as she bit into the doughnut.
‘Quadrangle, we call it the quadrangle. Only the ones that look lost and just a tinge fearful. You needn’t be, we’re very friendly here in Newbampton. Where are you from?’
It was the most innocent of questions, but for the blonde-haired woman eating a freshly made doughnut and drinking black coffee, to answer meant acknowledging what she had run away from, and she had no intention of doing that.
She heard herself saying, ‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’ asked Cissie.
‘I have no recollection of where I came from or how I arrived here.’
It occurred to Cissie that the woman had answered rather too calmly. She sat in silence while the stranger finished her doughnut. Then Cissie opened the bag and offered the second one which the lady accepted and thanked her for.
‘Do you know your name?’ asked Cissie.
‘No,’ she answered and felt a strange kind of excitement
to think that she could so easily wipe out her past, that she could make Candia Van Buren and all the emotional baggage that went with being that person simply vanish off the face of the earth. She became suddenly frightened at the thought of being nobody. She had always been somebody – until now.
Candia could have pulled out of her lie but she didn’t want to. She wanted to begin again, to be born anew in this town. The police station – she would go at once to the police station and tell them that she was nobody, a missing person; that would establish her as having nothing to tell or live up or down to. She felt incredibly happy, more free than she had ever felt before.
‘Could you tell me where the police station is?’ she asked Cissie and rose from the bench.
‘I’ll take you there,’ offered Cissie.
‘You’ve been kind enough. If you just tell me where it is, that will do,’ she told Cissie and held out her hand.
‘No, it won’t do.’ Cissie ignored the proffered hand, slipped her arm through Candia’s and led her from the square.
By the time Cissie pushed open the glass door set into the eighteenth-century timber-framed building that the townspeople still called the old meeting house rather than the police station, Candia had taken on the persona of a woman with memory loss. She was nervous but the prospect of a new life unfettered by what had gone before was stronger than her fear of jumping off, as if naked, into no man’s land.
The green-shuttered police station was tomb quiet, except for the measured drip of a percolator. No one was at the reception desk, no telephone was ringing, the air was thick with the aroma of hot black coffee. The two women stood for several minutes wondering what to do, until Cissie suggested they take a seat, which they did, side by side.
‘I keep thinking how awful it must be not knowing who you are, where you belong, what you’ve left behind.’
Candia wanted to tell her good Samaritan, ‘It’s a merciful release that fills my heart with joy,’ but she did not. Her voluntary amnesia was not premeditated, it had come to her like a magnanimous gift, a protective measure against the kindly but intrusive Cissie. And now, as she thought of her past receding, getting lost in a hazy mist, she felt protected, too, from Pierre and their obsessive, erotic life together, his treachery and deceit, the tyranny of her success.
‘Yes, it is awful,’ she fibbed.
‘You mustn’t be frightened, we’ll help you find yourself. At least you’ve landed in a good town.’
‘And have been befriended by a good Samaritan. Thank you, Cissie.’
The two women fell silent. Cissie was intrigued by the mystery surrounding this beautiful woman and let her imagination take flight as to what sort of life she had lived. Candia used the silence to sense her new self: an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
It was several minutes before the glass door swung open and into the station walked the sheriff, Bridget Copley, followed by two tall, handsome, solidly built Massachusetts state troopers. At the same time, Sergeant Eamon Clancy appeared from the recesses of the station house to take his place behind the desk and, as if by magic, the place came alive with noise and activity. Mobile telephones bleeped on uniformed hips, voices rumbled, Charley the mailman greeted everyone and flipped through the day’s post, Malcolm the delivery boy arrived with the sheriff’s breakfast on a china plate covered with a silver dome in one hand and a bag of blueberry muffins and chocolate chip cookies in the other.
The two state troopers removed their wide-brimmed hats and greeted the desk sergeant. ‘Hi, Clance, come to pick up your joyrider. Thanks for keeping him for the night.’
‘No problem. The kid’s nothing more than a smart-ass cry baby. One night in the cells and a tearful reunion with his
distraught parents did the job, I think. Go easy with him. Being the big shot seems to have faded from his list of ambitions.’ Clancy handed the troopers the keys to the cells. The men laughed, shook hands with the sergeant and then disappeared through a door at the far side of the station’s entrance hall.
The sheriff noticed the two seated women and went directly to them. Bridget Copley was a dark-haired woman of fifty with a face more admirable than beautiful, whose uniform sat comfortably on her tall, slender body. Cissie and Candia stood up immediately, very nearly to attention, as she approached; Bridget Copley was a woman who automatically commanded respect.
‘Morning, Cissie. Funny to see you here, you were going to be my first call this morning. I need something special to wear for the State Troopers’ Ball. Would you take care of that for me? But, hey, what are you doing here at this hour? Here at all without a dress box, as a matter of fact? And who is your friend? I don’t think we’ve met.’ The stern face broke into a broad smile, and added something more to those handsome looks. There was warmth in the smile, it was sensitive and humane, and Candia realised Cissie was right, she had indeed landed in a good place.
Cissie returned the smile. ‘No, you haven’t met, and I can’t introduce you because not only do I not know who she is but neither does she. That’s the reason I’m here at this hour. We need your help, Sheriff.’
The sheriff put out her hand to Candia. ‘Hello, I’m Sheriff Copley.’
Candia shook her hand but said nothing. The two women gazed deeply into each other’s eyes. Candia was very much aware that Sheriff Copley was assessing her and it made her uncomfortable. But it was too late to turn back and confess that she knew exactly who she was and in a moment of calculated madness had decided to abandon her old self and allow the people of Newbampton to create a new one for
her. In fact she was enjoying being an amnesia victim: it gave her something to build on.
‘Let’s go into my office to discuss this,’ said the sheriff, her face once again stern.
At her desk Bridget Copley removed the silver dome covering her breakfast. ‘Sorry to eat in front of you while we talk but breakfast is the only hot meal I can be sure to have on any day so I never miss it. It sets me up for whatever crosses my desk,’ and with that she attacked her plate of ham and fried eggs on brown toast, hash browns and fried green tomatoes.
‘Now then, miss – I will assume you are a miss since I see no wedding band on your finger – tell me about yourself.’
Candia looked at her hand; it had not occurred to her that her appearance might reveal something about her. There had been no time to think how to handle this lie that was taking over her life.
‘Oh, Copley, she can’t,’ said Cissie. ‘She remembers nothing, not even how she got here.’
‘Now, Cissie, why don’t you let this young woman answer for herself. Be good and quiet until I ask
some questions. And don’t call me Copley. Sheriff or Sheriff Copley when you’re here in the police station will do.’ Turning to Candia she added, ‘Cissie is my daughter’s best friend as well as the mastermind behind my wardrobe and she sometimes forgets my working role in life and that she must respect it.’
This blunt chastisement washed right over Cissie and Sheriff Copley took another forkful of food. ‘Now tell me about yourself, miss,’ she repeated. ‘Or at least what you know about yourself.’
‘I found myself in the Pittsfield bus terminal and somehow knew that I was bound for Newbampton. I felt terribly strange, off kilter more than frightened. Even that was odd because I sensed I should have been very frightened. After
all, I had no idea how I got there, who I was, why I wanted to go to Newbampton. That was midnight last night. I inquired about a bus to Newbampton and was told it was not the company’s usual run. However I was in luck, a bus had been chartered by Wesson College and it was possible the driver might give me a free ride. He did and left me at the square where I sat down on a bench and waited for morning.’
‘Why didn’t you go to a hotel?’
‘I don’t know. Dazed, I think. Unable to comprehend what had happened to me.’
‘Cissie, tell me your part in this,’ demanded the sheriff.
Candia found it fascinating to hear Cissie tell how she appeared to her, how the young woman’s curiosity had been aroused. ‘I first saw her sitting on the bench at about half past six. A stranger, so well dressed, so very chic, she seemed to me to be out of place. I was in a rush to get home and bathe and change, get ready to open the shop, so she vanished from my mind until I passed her on my way for breakfast at Ned Palmer’s. I watched her through the window. She didn’t move and I wondered what she was waiting for. I became convinced that she was lost. On an impulse I took her a cup of coffee and some doughnuts. That’s it.’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Bridget. ‘You did speak. What did you say to each other?’
Cissie recounted their brief conversation. Then with a tinge of anxiety in her voice she said, ‘Copley, you will help her, won’t you? It must be dreadful to have your memory wiped out, not know who you are or where you’ve come from, where you’re going.’
‘Yes, it must, and yes, of course we will do what we can for this lady.’
Candia noticed that the sheriff said nothing this time about the way she was addressed. Bridget finished her meal and used the intercom to call in a police officer who took away the tray. Coffee for the three women was ordered and
the sheriff turned her attention to Candia. ‘Did you look for any clues to your identity?’ she asked.