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Authors: Rosemary Friedman

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BOOK: The Man Who Understood Women
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Abbie MacFarlane was a spinster for the simple reason that no man had asked her to marry him. She was quite pretty, although inclined to be a little stand-offish; had a lively mind and beautiful manners. The most important thing about her, in her own opinion and that of her friends, was that she was twenty-seven.

Beryl, married to an engineer and with three children, said that she was too reserved and frightened the men away. Mavis, wife of a brilliant archaeologist, advised her to appear more helpless and less intelligent.

Abbie herself gave the matter a good deal of thought. She was happy in her job, happy at home, where she lived with her parents, but realised that time was getting on, and that she had no desire to progress, with the years, from a young spinster to an old one. Abbie was basically a loving girl and, although she had never tried it, believed marriage to be a good idea.

She had never been short of boyfriends. At eighteen she
had met them at parties and dances, gone out with them a few times then lost them in the crowd; at twenty she had met them at home and abroad, and stood by while they married her girlfriends.

After twenty-one she found them in the interesting places to which her work took her, and left them abruptly when they began to tell her their wives didn’t understand them. Recently she had found them thrust upon her in an
embarrassing
though well-meaning way, and this was a situation she was determined to end. Her resolve was strengthened when the telephone rang late one night as she was about to get into bed. It was Marguerite, bubbling over with happiness because she was going to have a baby.

‘Darling,’ she said, ‘we’re having our last fling while I can still see my feet. Saturday at eight, only about twenty, cheese and wine. You will come, won’t you?’

‘What’s he like?’ Abbie said.

‘Who?’

‘The man you want me to meet.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Marguerite said. ‘It’s just some friends of Hugo’s and mine. I expect you’ll know nearly everyone. You’ll come?’

‘Yes,’ Abbie said, ‘I’ll come.’

Marguerite’s denial had not for one moment deceived her. She recognised the tone of voice too well. The man she was invited to meet was usually somebody’s cousin from Australia or long-lost schoolfriend or sister-in-law’s brother-in-law.

He was the survivor of an unhappy marriage and was now
looking for the right girl – what about Abbie? Or he had been too busy previously working on a thesis to meet any girls – Abbie’s intelligent; what about Abbie? Or else there just didn’t seem to be any girls good enough in Bonga-Bonga or Bangor or wherever he happened to come from – don’t you think that he’d be ideal for Abbie?

He was usually planted with dreadful cunning in the thick of somebody’s cocktail party, tennis afternoon or evening of serious music; once, even, he had been hidden among the daddies at a children’s party. No matter how neatly he was wrapped up, however, Abbie could spot him immediately. Always he knew, and knew that she knew, why they had been introduced.

Occasionally, she admitted, she had had fun for a few weeks after one of these meetings; more often than not, though, she found that she had nothing at all in common with the man she had been brought along to meet, and might just as well have spent the evening making polite remarks to the mantelpiece.

When she agreed to go to Marguerite’s cheese and wine evening there was the light of battle shining in her eyes.

The party was well under way when she arrived, a little later than she had intended, but with the aid of her private radar she spotted him immediately. Not that it was very difficult, for apart from the tall young man and a pretty girl in leopard trousers dancing together with expert abandon, she had met everyone else before.

As was the usual procedure, Marguerite introduced Abbie to the young man last.

She was then able to say: ‘You must excuse me, darlings, I have to go and do things in the kitchen. Abbie’s in advertising, Charles; I’m sure you’ll find heaps to talk about.’

Abbie waited for him to say: ‘Can I get you something to drink?’

‘Can I get you a drink?’ he said.

She sipped her wine cocktail and waited for the inevitable discussion on her name.

‘Did Marguerite say your name was Abbie?’ he said.

‘Yes. Short for Abigail.’

They agreed it was old-fashioned, rarely encountered
nowadays
. They discussed his job, her job, holidays abroad, the new films.

Then he said: ‘How do you come to be here? Are you a friend of Marguerite or Hugo or both?’

She replied: ‘You know perfectly well why I’m here, don’t you? Marguerite introduced us with a view to our getting married.’

His face remained serious. He was good-looking in a slightly rugged way; middle thirties, Abbie guessed. He had an
imperious
air, which was rather attractive. Abbie could imagine him directing some big project deep in the wilds of Africa.

‘Interesting,’ he said, and although his expression remained serious she detected a glimmer of humour in his eyes and felt that her direct and unusual approach had perhaps cleared the air.

‘Frankly, I find it most embarrassing,’ she said. ‘I know that people mean well when they ask me along to meet the only
unattached man they know but they don’t take the slightest trouble to find out whether we would have anything in
common
at all. Take tonight for instance,’ Abbie went on, ‘I
suppose
Marguerite said to herself: “Charles is a nice, sensible chap, about the right age, tall, intelligent; we’ll introduce him to Abbie. Mustn’t make it too obvious, of course; we’ll have a party; there are a few people we have to ask back, anyway.” So here we are, thrust together simply because we both happen to be unmarried.’

‘So?’ Charles said.

‘So I’m tired of it!’ Abbie said. ‘I’m tired of being thrown at everybody’s unattached male relations. Where do you come from, by the way? Bonga-Bonga?’

‘Holland Park,’ Charles said, ‘on the Central Line.’ And this time the twinkle in his eyes was unmistakable.

Abbie suddenly felt relaxed and happy. ‘Well, that makes a change,’ she said. ‘You won’t want to tell me how the natives wear rings in their noses or how many sundowners you had on the other side of the world.’

‘No, we don’t go in for that sort of thing in Holland Park,’ he said.

‘I expect you have exactly the same trouble as I do,’ Abbie said. ‘Wherever you go, your married friends probably dangle bachelor girls under your nose. I’m sure they simply don’t care whether you like them tall, short, fair or dark; they’ll put them all on the hook and hope that one day you’ll bite.’

Charles looked enigmatic. ‘Let me get you another drink,’ he said.

Abbie held out her glass. Marguerite swept in through the door with reinforcements of wine.

‘Come on, everyone,’ she said, ‘don’t be shy.’

Abbie finished her second drink and Charles excused
himself
to help Hugo bring in some chairs. Abbie found herself swept up in a group of old friends. After supper Charles stayed at the other end of the room. Feeling suddenly unaccountably flat, Abbie went to fetch her coat.

Marguerite was in the kitchen and turned to kiss her. ‘I’m sorry, darling, if you haven’t enjoyed it. I really asked you to meet Hugo’s cousin from New Zealand but he had to go away on business.’

‘I thought you asked me for Charles,’ Abbie said.

‘Charles?’ Marguerite said. ‘Darling, Charles has just got engaged. Didn’t he tell you?’

Abbie slowly buttoned her coat. ‘I don’t think I gave him a chance,’ she said. ‘Who’s his fiancée?’

‘The pretty girl,’ Marguerite said. ‘The one in the
leopard-skin
pants.’

Abbie’s cheeks were still burning when she got home. Never in her life had she felt so small, so stupid.

During the next months Abbie kept away from Marguerite and Hugo. In fact she kept away from almost everyone. She was convinced that if ever she met Charles again – perhaps now married to the girl in the leopard-skin pants – she would pass out on the spot. The mere mention of Holland Park was sufficient to upset her for days.

When Marguerite’s baby was born and Abbie was asked
to be godmother, she was unwilling to offend her friend by refusing. She bought a silver mug and presented herself at the christening.

When she caught sight of Charles in the church, she
wondered
whether she would be able to get through the afternoon. Of the leopard-skin pants there was no sign.

At the tea afterwards Abbie admired the baby, a dear little girl with Marguerite’s eyes and Hugo’s chin, chatted to
everyone
she knew and kept well away from Charles. She escaped as early as possible and, running down the garden path, whipped off her hat.

At the gate a car waited, the door open. An arm reached out and pulled her in.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ she said, shutting the door hurriedly, as Charles, his face impassive, drove off down the road. ‘And where’s your fiancée?’

‘I’m a nice, sensible chap, tall, intelligent,’ he said, taking a corner too fast, ‘and I have no fiancée.’

Abbie held on to the door handle. ‘What happened to the girl in the leopard-skin pants?’

‘She decided she’d like her freedom for a few years more. And don’t hang on to the door handle.’

Abbie let go the handle. ‘And where are you taking me?’

‘Holland Park,’ he said firmly. ‘With a view to marriage.’

Hubert Wilson, impeccably dressed, sixty-five but looking younger, held out a penny and a halfpenny to the conductor. About to turn the little handle smartly on his ticket machine, the conductor stopped and stared at him.

‘’Ow long since you bin on a bus, mate?’ he said.

Hubert thought. Eight, nine, possibly ten years. He opened his mouth.

‘Where yer going?’ the conductor said.

‘To the park.’

‘Frippence to the park. Frippence is the cheapest ’nless yer under fourteen.’ He zipped the handle round, tore off the length of flimsy paper and handed it to Hubert.

The two women on the opposite seat, clutching shopping bags to their bosoms, exchanged glances. Hubert was upset. He opened his newspaper.

It was all upsetting. For the first time in fifty years he had nothing in the world to do. Yesterday he had been Hubert
Wilson, head of ‘Wilson & Sons’, sitting in his pine-panelled office, Dictaphone at his elbow, directing a worldwide
organisation
. Today he was nobody: Hubert Wilson, man in the street, butt for bus conductors. He had been retired for less than twenty-four hours and already it was making him feel quite ill.

That it was not unjust, Hubert, who was a just man,
understood
. His three sons, fine men all of them, were perfectly capable of running the business between them. He knew also that they had meant it well and, backed up by his wife, had succeeded in doing him what they considered a good turn. Yesterday, on his sixty-fifth birthday, they had made him retire. They presented a number of irrefutable arguments: he had worked hard for fifty years and was entitled to some relaxation; he had sufficient money not to have to lower his living standards one jot; the business would continue to
flourish
equally well without him; he would at long last be able to spend more time with his wife. They were faultless reasons, all of them. All the time, though, while his retirement was under family discussion, Hubert had felt unhappy, vaguely
uncomfortable
. It wasn’t until this morning that he had understood why. They had taken everything away and given him nothing back. They had relieved him of twelve crowded hours and left him with as many interminably long, empty ones. It was unfair and it had upset him.

He would be able to spend more time with his wife! That had come unstuck at the first touch.

‘Muriel,’ he had said at breakfast, which, from habit, he
could not help eating hurriedly, ‘would you like me to take you out somewhere today?’

Muriel, drinking coffee in her quilted, peach-satin
housecoat
, had looked surprised. ‘Hubert dear, it’s the Bazaar. I promised to be on Fancy Goods until lunch; then I’m meeting Annabel at Fortnum’s to help her with a rug for the nursery. I’ve got my hair at three and then I promised Michel faithfully I’d go for a fitting today, so you see …’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘I suppose you could come to the Bazaar,’ she said
doubtfully
. ‘But it will be mostly women.’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll find something to do.’

‘It’s a lovely day,’ Muriel said, handing it to him like a
consolation
prize.

He looked out of the window at the tops of the trees washed with sunlight.

‘Yes. It’s a lovely day.’

Like a small boy on whom she had taken pity, Muriel had given him an errand to do. He was to go to the hand-
knitted
woollies shop that she patronised and enquire whether the pram-sets she had ordered for their twin grandsons had arrived. It had been a horrible experience. The girl in the shop had called him ‘dear’ before he explained who he was and she had gone to fetch ‘Madam’; with Madam he had had to enter into an embarrassing discussion about the babies’ latest
developments
; the pram-sets were not ready. Fed up, he had taken the bus for the park, only to be made a laughing stock by the conductor.

Hubert realised that he was out of touch. But it was hardly his fault. If he wanted any shopping done, his secretary had always done it, as she wrote his letters, arranged his travels, booked his theatre seats. If he wanted to go anywhere, he sent for his car and chauffeur. How was he supposed to know it now cost threepence to the park?

In the park he scrutinised the ducks, nodded approvingly at the neat rows of dahlias and looked at his watch. It was still only half-past ten. He felt he had been up for hours and was as weary as if he had done a day’s work. What did other retired men do? He looked about him. Nannies with prams, a few small children feeding the ducks, a tramp with a long, dirty-looking beard, muttering as he walked. The only
able-bodied
man appeared to be the park-keeper locking up his hut.

He sat down on a bench. It wasn’t kind and, what was more, he wouldn’t be able to stand it. The inactivity would kill him. He had heard of it happening. It was not even as if his health was bad, or his faculties were failing, or his business acumen. He was sixty-five, it was true, but he had never felt better. Suddenly he came to a decision. He was going to the office and would tell the boys that he had changed his mind. He was going back to his desk and would review the situation in ten years’ time when he might begin to be feeling his age; five if they liked, anything at all! But he must get back to work. Pleased to have come to a decision, he stood up.

‘Oh, please don’t move! Please.’

Hubert looked round. The voice had come from a girl, a
modern girl, wearing long black trousers and her hair tied back in a ponytail. Her hands were black from the charcoal with which she had been sketching him.

‘I’m awfully sorry,’ she said, ‘but I had practically finished. Couldn’t you sit down again just for five minutes? It’s a lovely day,’ she pleaded. Hubert sat down.

‘Would you like to see it?’ the girl asked, after a while. She handed her sketchblock to Hubert.

With a few black lines she had drawn a man staring into space; a man with lifeless eyes; an aimless, empty man who looked older than his years; an unhappy man.

He handed it back.

‘It’s good. Very good. I wish I could draw.’ There was
nothing
he knew how to do except to run his business.

‘Anyone can draw,’ she said, ‘but first they have to learn to see.’

‘How do you mean?’ he said.

‘Well,’ she was packing her papers into an old canvas satchel and fastening her tin of broken charcoal sticks with an elastic band, ‘you’ve got to look with more than your eyes. You have to put your heart into it.’

He waited for her to go on. She was very young but self-assured.

‘When I was drawing you,’ she said, ‘I saw more than a man with grey hair, an expensive overcoat, a pearl tiepin, and
handmade
, recently polished shoes. I saw a man with a look in his eyes as if he was lost – didn’t know where to go. I saw money in the bank, an elegant wife in an elegant home. I saw a pure
silk dressing gown with a monogram, a dressing room,
Mediterranean
cruises …’

‘Stop,’ Hubert said. ‘It’s uncanny.’

‘It’s not,’ she said. ‘It’s merely a matter of training oneself. I tried to put all that I saw into my picture.’

‘And was that all you saw? ‘Hubert said. ‘The shoes, the dressing gown …?’

‘I looked for happiness,’ she said carefully. ‘But it wasn’t there.’

‘You should have come a week ago,’ Hubert said, and sighed, then pulled himself together. ‘So you really think,’ he asked, interested, ‘that if I learned to see, really see, I too could learn to draw, to paint perhaps?’ It crossed his mind that here might be something he could do if they really wouldn’t let him go back to the business.

‘Why not?’

‘How do I start?’

‘Turn round,’ she said, ‘and look at me.’

Hubert turned sideways on the bench and looked at the girl. He had a granddaughter of her age. She came closer and, raising her chin, looked into his face.

‘Tell me what you see.’

Hubert was embarrassed. She was pretty. One of the
prettiest
girls he had seen. He waved his arms vaguely.

‘Hair,’ he said. ‘Hair. And eyes. Long eyelashes.’

‘All right,’ she said. ‘We’ll start with that. Describe in your own words my hair, my eyes, my lashes. Tell me what they look like to you.’

Hubert looked at her amber hair, soft and gleaming, drawn back from her face.

‘Moonlight,’ he said.

‘That’s good. And the eyes?’

It wasn’t difficult. He remembered them growing in the garden beneath the trees when he had been a boy.

‘Violets,’ he said firmly.

They smiled at him. She closed her eyes and the
unbelievably
long black lashes lay straight against her smooth cream cheeks.

‘Park railings!’ he said.

She opened her eyes and laughed. ‘You’re wonderful.’ Hubert laughed too. He was enjoying himself.

‘If you keep on at this rate,’ she said, ‘you’ll very soon be able to take one long look at me and say to yourself: ‘Eighteen, art school, bedsitter in Bayswater, engaged to be married.’ She waved the tiny stone on her left hand. ‘Lively disposition, flat broke.’ She looked at him, not smiling now. There was
something
very sweet about her face.

‘Why are you unhappy?’ she asked.

‘Because I retired from business yesterday and I’ve nothing to do. I’m not used to it.’

‘Are you rich?’

He nodded.

‘Not a care in the world,’ she said incredulously, ‘and plenty of money. Good-looking, too.’

He smiled at her youth. ‘What would you do? In my position.’

She took a deep breath and stared with her violet eyes towards the lake where a white swan glided silently by.

‘I’d go to Rome,’ she said, almost reverently, ‘and I’d look at the achievements of men who lived and died for their art. I’d stand in the Borghese Gallery before Pauline and her golden apple and stroke her gown to see if it was really marble; and I’d look upwards at the ceiling to which Michelangelo gave years of his life, working under the most trying conditions,
regardless
of himself, to leave something of his greatness to posterity. I’d look at all the wonder and the splendour and the majesty of art, which knew nothing of pleasing society but was an expression of the very soul of man. And I would probably cry.’

Hubert watched the violet eyes – gazing at the lake but,
seeing
the Sistine Chapel, fill with tears – and reached for his handkerchief. It wasn’t necessary because just then she smiled, and he almost looked for the rainbow.

‘And when I wasn’t doing that,’ she said, ‘I’d ride on the buses with the natives, breathing in the garlic, pushing back when I was pushed. I’d eat tagliatelle in the trattorias, where the menu would be written in ink on a piece of cardboard, and see moonlight silhouette the Colosseum; I’d put on my best dress and watch the smart women meet their lovers in the Via Veneto and at night dream by the fountain in the Barberini.’

Hubert thought of the countless holidays he and Muriel had taken: the luxury cruises with the deluxe cabins on A deck; the best hotels in Monte Carlo, Paris, New York, where the maîtres d’hôtel knew how Muriel liked her steak (
two-thirds
cooked) and that he always had two boiled eggs for
breakfast. Pushing on the buses, the girl had said, the menu written in ink; it might be interesting but …

‘I don’t think my wife …’ he began doubtfully.

‘Of course, you don’t have to rough it,’ she said. ‘It isn’t necessary, and you’re too old …’

Hubert winced.

‘… But I bet you’ve never even looked when you’ve travelled around. Not really looked. Have you? Take Paris,’ she said. ‘I’ve been there once.’

Hubert thought of Paris. All he could call to mind was the inside of Maxim’s and the suite they always had at their hotel.

‘Have you ever wanted to paint the children on a Sunday morning in the Parc Monceau? Listened to the
roadsweeper
’s brush against the cobbles as he swept the water from the early morning gutters? Felt the sadness of the Rive Gauche or watched the sunlight in the Champs Elysées sprinkle the tops of the cars with diamonds?’

He couldn’t in all honesty say he had, but he was suddenly excited. The girl made him feel that he hadn’t perhaps done everything, seen everything. She made him feel, in fact, as if he, Hubert Wilson, widely travelled, rich in worldly goods, was a small child standing naked before an undiscovered world.

The church clock struck one sombre note. He waited for the others. ‘Good Lord,’ he said. ‘It can’t be one o’clock!’

The girl laughed. ‘It is.’

‘Come and have lunch,’ Hubert said, wondering for a moment what Muriel would think, then not caring. ‘I’ll take you to the Ritz.’

She laughed. Her teeth were white, he thought, then checked himself. Not white. Like … well, like pearls; small, even pearls.

She showed him her hand, black from the charcoal and shook her ponytail. ‘You’re awfully sweet, but I’m sure they wouldn’t welcome me at the Ritz.’

He was determined not to let her go.

BOOK: The Man Who Understood Women
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