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Authors: Rosemary Friedman

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BOOK: The Man Who Understood Women
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They had lunch at a coffee bar where it was he, in his too well-cut overcoat and his pearl tiepin, and not the girl with her trousers and her suede jacket, who looked out of place. She taught him to see that the bearded man in the corner was
for his girlfriend because every time the door opened his eyes grew wide, expectant, then disappointed, sad again, and that the waitress snapped at them because in all probability her feet hurt. Hubert had never, ever, considered such matters.

In the afternoon they wandered round London. She laughed because he wasn’t used to strolling in the streets and got cross when people bumped into him. She showed him a woodcut in a shop window, a patch of sunlight on a street corner, a Titian in the National Gallery. He bought her an ice-cream cornet and, because she insisted, ate one furtively himself.

Before he realised it, it was five o’clock. She had to meet her fiancé and he had to go home. She gave him her address, which he asked for and, lifting her face to his, thanked him for her lunch and tea.

He dropped a kiss on the smooth forehead, then watched her disappear in her flat-heeled shoes, straight-backed, into the tube station.

Hubert went home.

The next day he got out of bed with the same sense of urgency as he had had before his retirement. Feeling like a naughty schoolboy, and as young, he kissed Muriel goodbye. He stopped at a stationer’s where he bought pencils and a drawing block, then took a bus for the park.

‘Lovely mornin’!’ the conductor said, taking his threepenny piece.

‘Lovely,’ Hubert said confidently, and smiled. He even hummed a little tune.

In the park he drew a small child with eyes like black
, a nannie with a hatchet face, and a boat. When he turned to the dahlias and noticed for the first time that they were royal scarlet or tender blushing apricot, he wished he had paints.

At lunchtime he thought about the Ritz, his club, the office. He had lunch in a coffee bar.

On the way back to the park he stopped at a flower shop.

‘Yes, sir?’ the lady in the floral overall asked. She had a
tic. He wondered what was worrying her.

‘Some flowers for a young lady.’ He looked round the shop, the tall roses, carnations, orchids. None of them seemed right. Then he saw them in a corner, just as he had remembered them as a boy. They were the exact colour of her eyes beneath the hair that was moonlight.

‘I’ll have those,’ he said, pointing, ‘and I want them sent right away.’

‘Violets, sir?’ the woman said.

He understood that they would hardly cover the cost of
transport to the bedsitter in Bayswater. He ordered two dozen of the best roses to be sent to Muriel. Red, to contrast with their French-grey walls. He wrote out two cards, paid the bill and went back to the park.

By the time the light began to fail, the nannies had taken their babies home to bed and the scarlet dahlias were turned almost to black, his sketchbook was full. The drawings were atrocious, barely recognisable, in fact, but Hubert was happy. He had seen a child’s ribbon fly as she bowled a hoop, two
kiss, a young tree bent by the wind. He hoped that
it wouldn’t rain.

In the drawing room at home the drinks were ready on the silver tray. He had just poured one for himself when Muriel came in. He looked at her, puzzled, then thought that perhaps it was because of his newly opened eyes. He saw for the first time that her hair was like silver smoke, her skin delicate as the petals of a pale rose, and her eyes the same blue, he could almost swear, as the summer sky.

But perhaps she was different. She was looking at him strangely.

She came towards him.

‘Hubert,’ she said, and her voice was softer, gentler, ‘you sent me violets!’

He followed her eyes towards the mantelpiece. There, in a tiny vase, against the French-grey walls, were the violets he had sent the girl. Taking his drink with him he went over. She had propped the card behind them. He picked it up. ‘For your kindness, sweetness and patience,’ he read.

‘You don’t know how happy you’ve made me,’ Muriel said. ‘All the years that you’ve been sending me flowers, or rather your secretary has. The roses, the orchids, whatever was out of season, regardless of cost … or thought. These are the first flowers for more years than I can remember that are really for me, from you. Thank you.’

He looked down at his sherry.

‘Muriel,’ he said, ‘I was thinking of going to Rome …’

Muriel said: ‘Oh! We’ve missed the spring collections and we’re too early for the autumn!’

‘For what we’re going to see it’s certainly not too early and I hope it’s not too late,’ he said.

Muriel bent her head and smelled the violets. ‘I’ll do
you like,’ she said. ‘You know, Hubert, you’ve made me feel like a young girl.’

I should have been at a board meeting, but I was standing in the graveyard, the wind like a pain round the neck and ankles, staring at the fresh mound. There was only one other mourner. Two quick and row after row of dead. Another day there might have been children, but it was too cold. The swing park was empty.

Heatherington was already there when I arrived. We hadn’t spoken. I didn’t think he’d recognise me. The twenty years had turned what I could see of his hair beneath the black Homburg grey, and made him appear shorter and wider – unless it was his heavy coat – than I had remembered. They had changed me from a boy into a man.

He was still looking at the brown, unrevealing earth.

He said, ‘Hello, Dawson,’ and I, surprised back into the
of youth, replied, ‘Hello, sir.’

‘Just the two of us,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t seem much. Not after a lifetime. What brought you here?’

‘I read the announcement in
The Times

‘I mean why?’

‘He saved my life.’

‘Old Partridge! What was it, drowning? Partridge couldn’t swim. Death on the road? He could hardly see an inch in front of him.’

‘Not from death,’ I said. ‘Deformity. I was thirteen at the time.’

The brief business at the grave being over, we fell into step and walked away from the brown hump beneath which lay old Partridge, and circled the cemetery, the leaves snatching angrily at our shoes. As we walked I told Heatherington my story, about old Partridge and the ink.

‘It was soon after you became Head,’ I said. ‘About a year, I suppose, because that was the time it took to get the new floor in the library. We all subscribed, if you remember, boys, old boys, parents, masters, everyone. We’d all loved Mr Potter and when he retired we were glad to do something practical so that the school would remember him.

‘The new floor for the library was decided upon. By the time it was ready we’d got used to you, as Headmaster, and almost forgotten Mr Potter, so perhaps it was just as well about the floor. Every one of us was proud of it and small boys are not very house-proud. Each time we went into the library we’d walk gently, trying to make ourselves lighter, as it were, our black lace-ups seeming clumsy on that pale gold surface. It was parquet, a great smooth expanse of it replacing
the uneven stained boards we had always tramped upon unheedingly. We talked about it, gloated over it. For a few weeks it gave us something to write home about. Then there were other things to think of: maths and history and,
important, cricket. It was the summer we were to play Lakeside. Our heads were crammed with these and other small-boy thoughts and gradually we forgot about the new floor in the library. We grew accustomed to walking on it. Perhaps it did still give us a tiny surge of pleasure just to see it as we opened the glass swing-door, but after that it was as though it had always been there. Except for the Rule. That reminded us. You had made it up, signed it, and attached it to the door. “No ink may be taken into the library under any circumstances.” I can still see the signature: “VS
”. It took up the width of the page and the sight of it struck terror into us all.

‘On the evening that it happened I hadn’t been thinking. I really hadn’t. We were rehearsing a play to be presented on Speech Day. I had two lines to say at the end of the last act. They wouldn’t be wanting me yet, they said, so I thought I might as well get on with my prep. There was no one about in the school wing. Only those who had stayed behind for the play. The others had gone over for tea. It was terribly quiet.

‘I took my books into the library and spread everything out on one of the round tables – physics, I think it was – and
down to work. I remember a last ray of sun low down in the long window picking out a white rhomboid on the floor. It was as I went back to the physics from noticing the sun that
I spotted the bottle of ink. I had set it neatly on the table with my books and my ruler and things. You see I hadn’t intended coming into the library. It was because of the rehearsal and they didn’t want me yet. It was silly to hang around doing nothing. I did weigh it up for a moment in my mind. I knew it wasn’t allowed but there was no one else in the library and I had no intention of opening the bottle. My pen was full. What harm could it do?

‘I suppose I had been at the physics for about half an hour, because the sun had disappeared and the floor gone back to unlit amber, when I thought I’d better hurry, they must be getting near the last act, and started to clear my possessions.

I don’t know what I tripped over. Perhaps the leg of the table. Possibly the chair. I didn’t fall, but everything went
out of my arms. My books, pencils, ruler, compasses,
, everything that had been in my satchel. I couldn’t say exactly what was there. All I was aware of was the sea of deep, permanent blue spreading over the floor. Our floor.

‘It was as though I were dying. I had the sensation that my heart had stopped beating from pure fright. I would never have dreamed there could be so much ink in one small bottle. I had some blotting paper but it was soon blue and saturated. I used my handkerchief, some pages from my rough-book. My hands screamed out murderer. On the way to the cloakroom to wash them I met nobody. I managed to take a towel from the roller, squeeze it under the tap, run with it to the library and clean up, what still remained on the surface of the ink. I hid the towel, the handkerchief and the pages from my rough-book in
the boiler room. Through the open doors of the Hall I heard Johnson Minor announce that they were about to start Act Three. I went back to the scene of the crime.

‘The ink had seeped in, stained and roughened the shiny surface. On our golden carpet was a hideous and unsightly patch. I, out of nine hundred possible small boys, had been the one to do it. I blamed God for allowing it to be me.

‘They would have to do without their Third Courtier. I told them I had a headache and they sent me to Matron. It was the spring, she said, and gave me an aspirin. All night I lay with my foul deed.

‘Next morning, solemnly, at Assembly, you told the whole school what had happened. There was a stirring of horror. They loved their floor. Not only was it a crime, you said, but one to which no one had had the decency to confess. Would the boy who had committed the heinous offence report to your study before noon. It was a dastardly occurrence. There must be shame, you knew, in the breast of some coward who stood before you, damning his fellows by his reticence.

‘It wasn’t cowardice. It was the foolish hope that by keeping it to myself some magic wand might be waved and it would turn out to be no more than a figment of my imagination, a bad dream, a boyish fantasy from which I might shortly be released. No punishment could bring more suffering than that which was within me.

‘“Before noon,” you said. At break I wandered off to where the willows leaned towards the brook and daffodils and grape hyacinths interrupted the greenness of the bank. I wanted to
think. I didn’t hear old Partridge, he must have followed me, until he said, “How did it happen, Dawson?”

‘“How did you know it was me, sir?” I said. It was my
speaking, gently.

‘“I,” he corrected me automatically. “There were ink stains on your Unseen.”

‘He stood there in that ancient suit of his, his hands
with arthritis, waiting for me to answer.

‘“It just happened,” I said inadequately, and again he waited.

‘It was like that in the Latin lessons. He had all the patience in the world, old Partridge. He knew that you could make no impression upon small boys’ brains with a steamroller. If he was teaching us a verb that we had difficulty in memorising, he would demonstrate it in such a way that it would stay with us for ever. Until my death I shall remember
, to marry, and the sight of poor old Partridge pacing before us with the blackboard duster on his head to represent a wedding veil. At the time we laughed, of course. With old Partridge there were so many causes for amusement. His misshapen fingers, how painful they must have been; the pebbly glasses through which we liked to imagine he could not see us in our mischief; the bushy eyebrows, each one like a small moustache.

‘He stood there by the brook, his cracked shoes shabby on the tender grass, waiting for me to explain.

‘When I didn’t, he said, “It isn’t the end of the world, you know, Dawson.”

‘“Our worlds are not the same,” I said, for I was on the threshold and he an old man.

‘He put a thin, almost weightless arm round my shoulders and said, “There is only one reality. If the whole of mankind were to perish tomorrow, it would remain.”

‘“The floor was so beautiful,” I said. “Why did it have to be me?”

‘“Life is beautiful, Dawson,” Partridge said. “Nobody’s sheet remains clean.”

‘“What can we do?”

‘“Only our best. Inflicting the least pain.”

‘“The others will hate me.”

‘“Never do anything worse, Dawson, and you will be a man.”

‘As he went up the bank he stumbled over a root of the
. I didn’t laugh. I think the growing process had already begun.’

We had by now made three turns of the graveyard. Or perhaps it was four. I had been talking all the time.

Now Heatherington spoke: ‘And at noon you came to my study and confessed.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Could you distinguish my knock from the beating of my heart?’

‘You were pale, but I expected it. Old Partridge was a wise man.’ Heatherington, his chin huddled into his scarf, looked sideways at me. ‘You don’t know how wise.’

I raised my eyebrows in query and clapped my leather gloves together against the cold.

‘We knew it was you who had the accident with the ink.’

‘You did, sir?’

‘Partridge saw it happen. He was passing the library and saw it through the door. He told me immediately. I was
. I wanted to come down straight away. Catch you
as it were. Try to do something about the stain before it was too late. Partridge wouldn’t let me. He said, “If you go down now, the blot will never come out.” He wasn’t referring to the floor.’

We had come round to the grave again and this time we stopped. I knew that both of us were for the last time seeing the shiny suit, the kind face that radiated love of a humanity that was not easy to love. The rare genius of a man who could put first things first in a topsy-turvy world.

‘What about a headstone?’ I glanced at those about us in varying stages of neglect and decay.

Heatherington fixed me with the flint-blue,
glance born and bred in all headmasters. ‘Partridge has a hundred living monuments.’

I took out my wallet. ‘Nevertheless, I’d like to do something.’

‘It’s very kind of you.’

‘I can afford it.’

He took the money I held out and folded it neatly. ‘Any particular wording?’

‘Just “A wise man”,’ I said. ‘In Latin, of course. I’m afraid I don’t remember the exact words.’

‘Chisellings on stone,’ Heatherington said. ‘Partridge would forgive you.’

He turned up the collar of his coat and looked at his watch.

We shook hands, stamping our feet, cold in thin shoes, and said goodbye. It was unlikely that our paths would cross for a third time.

Heatherington, head down against the wind, set off across the park. I looked after him. I had meant to ask if, after twenty years, the blot had faded.

BOOK: The Man Who Understood Women
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