Authors: James Hilton
Charles stayed for a few minutes, then picked up his own bill and left. 'Just like April,' said the cashier as she gave him change. He was puzzled for a moment till he saw that the sun had gone in and another shower was beginning. He had to walk through it back to the Museum.
* * * * *
All afternoon, and during the train journey to Cambridge, and on and off during the days of work that followed, Charles found himself thinking of the girl in the Lyons teashop. Indeed, he had never thought so persistently of any girl before. Amorous adventure had so far in his life been of a kind to make him think its pleasures exaggerated, or at least over-compensated for by regrets and confusions; and the girls he met fairly often were mostly the daughters of Beeching neighbours, horsy or hockey- playing. They thought him shy, which he was, and dull, which he was not; he had sometimes hoped that one of them might discover this. As for the Newnham and Girton girls who attended the university lectures, he hardly knew any of them except by sight, and the sight was rarely blood-tingling. Perhaps, he feared, he was impossibly hard to please, since he did not seem to care for either the bluestocking or the sportswoman type.
One thing he did with a promptness that startled him; he bought Guy and Pauline at Heffer's and read it at a sitting. It was charmingly written, but he thought Guy was a bit of a prig, and an Oxford prig at that--which put him at odds with the entire idyll. His surviving interest, when he came to the last page, was with the girl in the teashop--why had she found the story so absorbing? Of course it was quite possible she hadn't. Maybe she merely preferred a novel--any novel--to reading a newspaper or chatting with the girls she worked with all day. And maybe she always read like that--with an air of having surrendered totally to a spell.
The following week term ended for the Easter vacation and Charles decided to put in another hour or so at the Museum on his way home. He planned to catch an afternoon train from Paddington to Stow Magna, which was the station for Beeching; but while he was making his notes, with one eye on the clock, it occurred to him that he needn't hurry unless he wanted to, since there were later trains and it was of small consequence when he arrived. Relaxing, he then forgot the time till he began to feel hungry. Of course he had known all along he would revisit the Lyons teashop.
He found a table near the one he had had before, but he could not see the girl anywhere, and while he watched the entrance the whole thing seemed to become both fantastic and of increasing importance. How absurd, he reflected; but WHAT was absurd? Was it not his own folly, if it mattered to him so much, in not speaking to her when he had had the chance? The thought made him decide not to repeat the absurdity if ever he were granted a second chance. An hour passed. The appetite he had felt at the Museum had deserted him; he could hardly finish his coffee and sandwich. He told himself he would leave at a quarter past two and that would be the end of it. Quarter past two came, and he still stayed. She walked in five minutes later.
The shop was half empty by then, and of course she went to another table, but not far away. She had a book which she began to read as before. The waitress knew her and they exchanged a friendly greeting. Her smile was somehow what he had expected, except for a little gap between one upper tooth and the next one, at the left side; this was pure caprice, unimaginable beforehand in any mind's eye. When the waitress had gone he left his table and went over to hers with a deliberation he knew would be hard to explain when she looked up, as she must; and almost in panic he realized he had no explanation at all except the truth which could not be spoken. For the truth was simply that he loved her, if ever the word had, or had had, or would have, any complete meaning for him. She looked up. He blushed, pulled a chair, and said with stammering inspiration: 'I wondered if you were still reading Guy and Pauline. . . . Why, yes, so you are.'
She stared for a few seconds, then glanced round as if to verify, without displeasure, all the vacant tables. 'Are you Ethel's friend?' she asked.
'Oh, then . . .' She looked apologetic, as if it were she and not he who had precipitated the encounter. 'You see, Ethel's friend lent it to her, and then she lent it to me--Ethel's MY friend--and I liked it so much she told him. He said he'd like to meet me and talk about it, so she said I was always here for lunch--well, nearly always. That's why I thought--but of course--if you're not . . .'
He said: 'No, no. I just happened to be here the other day and noticed what you were reading. You didn't see me. I was interested because--well . . .' He struck out for a reason like a swimmer for the shore. 'Well, I'd read the book myself and was interested.'
Her eyes widened and he had been right about them too--they were large. They were also a deep violet in colour.
'Oh yes, it's a lovely story, isn't it? Even my dad liked it. He said it was so good about gardens.'
Charles did not know what to say to this, but it was time to come to terms with her voice, which was not quite what he had expected. Or rather, perhaps, he had simply not used his brains about what to expect--for he had already deduced her as an office girl with not too good a job. If one didn't know English, he reflected whimsically, one would have found her voice as delightful as her eyes--soft and warm and altogether pleasing; but since one did know the language, one had to admit that her voice was also rather Cockney, and Charles wished it wasn't, a few seconds before he asked himself why it mattered. For he had been brought up with that crucial consciousness of accent which is so much in the air of English public schools that a boy with the wrong kind would feel outcast till, by conscious mimicry or slow absorption, he could conform to pattern. And the pattern, of course, was the clipped unregional utterance associated by name with Oxford rather than Cambridge, an utterance based on upper-class standardizations achieved over a period long enough to acquire tradition.
She went on, smiling now with complete friendliness: 'I've nearly finished it. Don't tell me how it ends.'
'It's a sad ending.'
'I don't mind sad endings if they're real. I mean, I don't like a happy ending to be dragged in.'
'Mackenzie wouldn't do that--he's too good a writer. But I don't think Guy and Pauline is his best book. You ought to read Carnival.'
'Carnival? I'll remember that. . . . Are YOU a writer?'
'Oh no.' But then he recollected what he was in London for. 'Not of novels, but at present I'm working on a thesis.' It was clear she didn't know what a thesis was, and he didn't hold it against her. 'Something I have to do at Cambridge.'
Her eyes widened again. 'Cambridge? You're at Cambridge College?'
The question hadn't been put to him before in that form, and because he didn't want to make her seem ignorant or himself pedantic, he answered: 'I'm a student at the University, but I come to London sometimes to look up things at the British Museum. . . . Now it's your turn. Tell me what you do.'
There was no check on the conversation from then on. She said she was a typist at a firm of importers with offices in Kingsway. She had a boss named Mr. Graybar. She was eighteen. She lived with her parents at Linstead, and Linstead, she explained, was near Chilford. (Charles had heard of both, but could only place them vaguely as northern London suburbs.) Her father was a superintendent of local parks. (She spoke the word 'superintendent' with pride.) She had two sisters and a brother. Another brother had been killed in the war.
That led him to tell her, with no reticence at all, about Lindsay. 'He was seven years older than I. He was going to have a wonderful career--everybody was sure of that--he'd already taken a brilliant degree. He was good at everything--games as well. He could ride beautifully--some of those big fellows that I was always scared of--'
'Where do you live?' she interrupted.
'In the country. Cheltenham's the nearest town.'
'What's your dad?' she then asked.
The question closed and barred the door that Lindsay had opened wide, for the thought of his father made Charles suddenly cautious. To discuss his family and Beeching might set a distance between them, and he could not take such a risk at this early stage of their relationship (for he knew already there must be later stages). He said guardedly: 'You mean his job? He doesn't actually have one, except . . .' And then he floundered because the words seemed ill-chosen--would she think he was telling her that his father was out of work? He went on, trying to correct the wrong impression, if any, without conveying the right one: 'We have a bit of land and he looks after it most of the time.'
'Oh, I think it's wonderful he sent you to college. My dad let Bert stay on at the grammar school till he was sixteen.'
So she HAD misunderstood? Charles couldn't be sure. Anyhow, it was as if she were pridefully seeking to match either her own father's financial sacrifices or his devotion to learning with anyone else's in the world, and this drew his hand across the table to hers in a warmth that made their first physical contact something to remember like all the other first things. He saw the colour spring to her cheeks, and she glanced at the clock while his hand was still on hers. 'Oh dear, I must run--Mr. Graybar will make such a fuss. It's our busy day with the Japanese mail going out.'
'Yes, we do a lot of business with Japan. AND China.'
'Are your hours long?'
'Nine till six.'
'Not so bad. It comes in rushes. That's why I'm so late today. I have to go, really. It's been awfully nice talking to you.'
'You say you always come here to lunch?'
'Well, sometimes I go to the A.B.C. in Holborn. But mostly here. It's nearer.' She picked up the bill.
'No, no, let ME . . .'
'Oh, I couldn't . . . no, really . . .'
The bill was only a few pence, and he thought it too unimportant to argue about, the more so as he didn't know whether she had protested conventionally or because he had said his father had no job. So he said, testing the matter from another angle: 'All right, THIS time--but I must see you again. Will you have lunch with me next week--one day?'
'I'll be here, yes. Every day.'
He followed her to the cash desk, paying his own bill. He still stayed with her when they reached the street. A clock outside was either five minutes fast or else the one in the teashop had been slow. She noticed it with alarm. 'Oh, look, I'm terribly late.'
So they scampered together, half running and half walking, along a zigzag of side streets to Kingsway, making plans meanwhile. When they reached the office doorway another clock, confirming the one in the teashop, seemed to give them a moment miraculously their own. He said: 'You won't be late--not now--and why don't I meet you HERE next week, instead of at the Lyons? We don't really have to go there at all, do we?'
'Here, then, next Wednesday, at one?'
'Yes.' She gave him a bright breathless smile. 'And I'll try not to be late, Charlie, but if I am, you'll know it's Mr. Graybar.'
She ran inside and he stood on the pavement, watching the swinging doors till they were still. She had called him Charlie, so promptly and easily, and no one else ever had--neither family nor friends. At Brookfield most boys used last names, except intimates, and those had called him 'Andy'--a nickname that had then been transplanted to his circle of Cambridge friends because one of them had also known him at Brookfield.
She had told him her name was Lily--Lily Mansfield, but he had not used it yet, aloud.
* * * * *
On the train from Paddington he could hardly find perspective in a world so changed. He ate the Great Western dinner, his appetite now briskly restored, and staring through the window was almost glad there was a full week before he would see her again--a full week to taste the new dimension of events. Towards the latter part of the journey night fell, and then he got out his notes and found to his relief that he could concentrate magnificently. She cosily made room for the Seljuk Turks in his mind.
At Stow Magna he took a taxi to Beeching. As the cab swung past the lodge gates into the half-mile of carriage drive he saw a tall figure pacing in circles on the front lawn at a rate that, with its lack of purpose, suggested frenzy rather than exercise. Charles knew it must be his father in one of his 'moods', though what kind of mood was not yet apparent. Maybe deep depression, or maybe a high excursion on the crest of a mind-wave; 'plunging' and 'vaulting' were the adjectives which, for want of anything more scientific, Charles gave to the two extremes. The difference between them and the quickened intervals of their recurrence had already become as obvious as the fact that Havelock's eccentricities were increasing as he grew older and as the years denied him more than they offered. It was as if the slowing tempo of a powerful physicality had liberated him for forays while it barred the grand offensives of earlier days.
Havelock stopped his pacing when he saw Charles arrive. The first words of greeting as they entered the house together revealed that the mood was 'vaulting' this time, which was certainly, of the two, more cheerful to live with. But not always more tranquil. During what was left of the evening Charles discovered the nature of the latest foray. Havelock, it seemed, had just contributed to The Times a letter that was not about birds or tombstones, but ventured into new territory--political. Beginning with a reference to 'my son, who is at Cambridge', it had gone on to mention an honorary degree recently conferred there on a leading politician (named) and the list of this man's virtues, as enumerated in the usual Latin speech delivered on such occasions in the Senate House. Havelock's contention was that the Latin had not been well translated, and after quoting it he supplied his own 'better' version as follows: 'Sagacity, Willpower, Integrity, Nobility, Experience'. All of which could have been called a piece of harmless pedantry till Havelock had gleefully pointed out (to friends, neighbours, and fellow members of his London club) that the initials of the enumerated qualities spelt the word 'swine', and that The Times editor had thus been magnificently duped. Havelock now expounded this crčme de la crčme of the jest to Charles in the real or assumed expectation that he would derive equal enjoyment.