Augusta Merton ordered a pot of tea, refused cakes with a firm shake of the head and settled in her chair with the sensation that she was indulging in a great luxury. It was so long since she had allowed herself anything beyond absolute necessities that it seemed almost decadent to be sitting here in the quiet wood-panelled tea-room, with its comfortable Windsor chairs and pretty flowered china, watching the busy shoppers beyond the window hurrying along in the blowy golden April afternoon. She smiled at the waitress who unloaded the tea things onto the table, glanced a little anxiously at the bill which was tucked under the water jug and patted at her gingery grey hair which was twisted back into a wispy knot. Her eyes kept straying to her belongings and to one bag in particular and, succumbing at last to temptation, she picked up the plastic carrier and peeped inside before depositing it on the chair beside her with a sigh. She noticed with pleasure that there was a tea-strainer placed in a slop bowl – Gussie disliked tea bags – and, giving the contents of the pot a stir, she gazed about her as she waited for the tea to draw. At the next table a striking-looking young woman was drinking coffee. She had an exhausted, flattened look about her as if even the act of raising the cup to her lips were almost too much for her. She looked faintly familiar and, catching her eye, Gussie smiled encouragingly.
Nell Woodward was surprised out of her weariness by the quality of understanding in Gussie’s smile. It seemed that this stranger had grasped the fact of her inability to deal with life at the moment and was offering both sympathy and strength. Well, she was certainly tired. As a naval wife of ten years’ standing Nell had done her share of moving house but now she realised that it was even more difficult to cope when one’s heart and head were absolutely set against the move. During those ten years she had trailed from Gosport to Faslane, from Faslane to Chatham and then back again to Gosport with only the minimum of fuss. It was to be expected if you married a naval man: it was all part of the job. You may not want to go, you might hate the married quarter but there would probably be old friends to meet up with and the framework of the Navy was in the background to support you. The move to Bristol had been something else again. John’s decision to leave the Navy was, in Nell’s opinion, nothing short of madness. What if he had been passed over? He’d still had a worthwhile job, with a good salary, amongst people he knew. Now they were living in a rented flat in Bristol with nearly all his gratuity used up to buy a partnership in a friend’s estate agency. What did John know about selling houses? Nell felt the now familiar thrill of anxiety at the thought of their future. She drank some more coffee knowing that she must pull herself together and go back to finish the unpacking. The flat still looked like a furniture depository despite the fact that they had been in now for more than two weeks. Nevertheless Nell sat on, unable to find the energy or willpower to move.
Gussie began to pour tea. Her thoughts, distracted for a moment by Nell whom she simply couldn’t place, returned to the contents of the plastic bag. Of course, paisley was always suitable and if the hem were to be let down . . . Her mind wandered a little as she sipped. How good it was of Henry to remember his elderly second cousin and invite her to his wedding. So kind. And an invitation to stay the weekend at Nethercombe. It would be wonderful to see the old place again. It must be years, oh at least fifteen, since she’d been there. Henry’s mother, her cousin Louisa, had been alive then. Now, Louisa and her husband James were both gone and Henry had inherited Nethercombe Court with its farmland and its famous Devon Red herds. And now he was to be married.
Gussie set her cup back in its saucer and her face fell into its usual pattern of worried lines: a furrow between the sandy brows, a gathering and puckering around the lips. It was becoming more and more difficult to live on her tiny pension and her small capital was nearly all gone. She had already moved from the large airy flat, near the Clifton Suspension Bridge and just a step from the Downs, to a smaller apartment in Tyndalls Park Road. Her heart gave a frightened bump and her hand shook a little as she poured her second cup of tea. Really, she shouldn’t be here. A pot of tea or a cup of coffee in a café was such a luxury but the arrival of the invitation and the luck of finding the dress, combined with the idea of the wedding, had been so exciting that a little celebration seemed in order. The dress had been an extravagance, no doubt about it, but certain standards must be maintained and she couldn’t go to dear Henry’s wedding in her old blue. She mustn’t let him down. If she had to make one or two sacrifices during the next few weeks it would be worth it.
‘Soldier’s daughter, soldier’s sister,’ she reminded herself, straightening her thin shoulders more firmly, and smiled again at Nell.
Something in the old lady’s movement pierced the fog of Nell’s exhaustion and touched her heart. She felt that some conversation was expected of her although she longed to remain cocooned within the peace of her isolation.
‘Shopping’s so tiring,’ she said at random, too tired to think of an original remark. ‘Unless, of course, one’s buying something special.’
‘Buying something new to wear is certainly a treat.’ Gussie felt an overwhelming need to share her own excitement with another woman. ‘I’ve been invited to my cousin’s wedding and I’ve just bought myself a new dress.’
‘How wonderful.’ Nell responded instinctively to Gussie’s barely repressed happiness. ‘What sort of dress?’
‘Well . . .’ Gussie eyed the bag with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. ‘I think it’s quite suitable, given my age. It’s a paisley. Navy blue.’
‘Sounds just the thing,’ said Nell encouragingly, noticing that the bag bore no shop name and had a well-used look. She also noticed, without appearing to, Gussie’s threadbare, if well-cared-for, appearance. ‘May I see it?’
Flushed and a little embarrassed, Gussie shook the dress free and displayed it rather shyly.
‘Not too fussy, you see. But smart.’ She looked anxiously at Nell. ‘Will it do, d’you think?’
‘I think it’s just right.’ Nell’s suspicion was confirmed. The dress was secondhand but it had been expensive once and its classic cut would stand the test of time. ‘The colour will be very flattering on you. Shall you wear a hat?’
The worried look returned as Gussie carefully folded the dress and returned it to its bag.
‘That’s rather a problem,’ she admitted. ‘My felt’s a little heavy for a May wedding but I’m afraid it will simply have to do.’
‘I was just wondering,’ Nell listened to her own voice in surprise, ‘I’ve got a navy-blue straw. You’d be most welcome . . .’
It must be exhaustion, she thought. Getting involved and offering to lend a hat to a complete stranger! I’m going mad. Maybe she doesn’t live round here . . .
But Gussie was looking at her in delight and gratitude and Nell found herself exchanging names and addresses and arranging for Gussie to come for coffee and a hat-trying session.
What have I done? she asked herself as she collected her things and headed for the door. What made me do such a stupid thing? And the flat’s such a mess. Oh hell!
Gussie watched her go before squeezing a third cup of tea from the pot. She felt quite exhilarated by their exchange. She had made a new friend. And a really very beautiful one. Gussie wrinkled her brow a little. Nell’s name hadn’t been familiar but she certainly reminded her of someone. But whom? She sipped thoughtfully and happily: a new dress, a wedding to go to and an invitation to coffee. Life could still be very good.
back at the flat, Nell stared around her in despair. She simply couldn’t shake off this terrible lassitude, this feeling that, in leaving the Navy, John had made a terrible mistake. Yet John himself was full of optimism and was happier than he’d been for months and months. It was tremendous luck that his old friend, Martin Amory, was prepared to take him into his business and at such a time. Ever since the stock market crash the year before, people had been putting their money into property and the estate agents were enjoying the boom. The fact that John had no qualifications in this field was, apparently, unimportant and Martin and John were quite sure that they would make their fortunes.
Nell set to work, the thought of Gussie arriving for coffee the next morning spurring her on. The flat, large and pleasant though it was, was a temporary measure until they could afford to buy. After all, John was in a prime position now to find a bargain and that must be their priority. It had been with only the greatest reluctance, and after some unpleasant scenes, that Nell had finally agreed that most of the gratuity should go into Martin’s business to pay for John’s partnership. She held out for one proviso. Enough must be kept back to pay the fees for the next year or two at Jack’s preparatory school. Nell, who feared that their passage outside the Navy may well be a rough one, was determined that their eight-year-old son should have some stability in his life. He was already happily settled at his school in Somerset and she had no intention of disrupting him any further. Without the naval grant towards the fees, and without the generous salary, Jack’s schooling might be at risk and she was adamant on this point. John, relieved that she was ready to capitulate, was only too happy to agree. Even with two years’ fees set aside there would be enough left to buy his partnership, pay the advance rent for the flat and have a small sum left over.
By tea-time the flat was looking more like home. Never had Nell taken so long to get herself straight. Yet the place was no worse than some of the married quarters she had lived in. In fact the furnishings were a great deal better. The few pieces of furniture that Nell had collected lovingly over the years were in the tiny cottage at Porlock Weir that she and John had bought at the end of an idyllic leave on Exmoor. How Nell loved that little retreat! Often, when John had gone to sea for months on end, she and Jack would set off in a loaded car to this beloved spot where she was happiest. At all times, the knowledge of it was a warm refuge from the storms and upheavals of life. Even as she finished Jack’s bedroom, sitting his soft toys on the ugly wardrobe and setting his model tanks on the bookcase shelves with his well-read books, she was wondering whether she could escape with him at half-term for a few days at the cottage.
She was well aware that part of her dismay at the idea of John coming outside was that much of her precious privacy, her closely guarded seclusion, must be lost. She was still getting used to having John there every day; seeing him off in the morning, welcoming him home in the evening with regular meals. Many naval wives hated the loneliness of their lives with husbands away at sea, nevertheless one became used to the independence and Nell knew that she would find it hard to give it up. She had never minded the separations; rather the contrary. It was relationships and other people that she found so wearing and demanding even to the extent that, once she knew she was pregnant, she had been afraid at the thought of the responsibility of a child. The idea of a tiny, helpless human being, absolutely dependent on her, filled her with terror. Yet when Jack was born and laid on her breast, the wide blue eyes gazing unwinkingly into her own, she had felt a great rush of identification with this scrap of humanity which stifled her fears. They had become friends at once; not just as mother and son, but real friends and, as he grew, this feeling strengthened. She saw into his heart and mind, divining his psychological needs with far more accuracy than she ever recognised his physical ones. He, in his turn, sensed her need for seclusion and was able to give her a companionship that still allowed her freedom. Neither of them really thought about their relationship, they simply acted on instinct and out of their love for each other. This became doubly precious to Nell after her parents emigrated to Canada to live with her younger sister who, after several miscarriages and a difficult birth, was a semi-invalid. Nell had felt hurt and resentful. After all, Pauline had chosen to marry a Canadian and live abroad yet, at the first cry for help, they had sold up and gone and Nell had learned to fend for herself and manage without them.
Nell glanced around the bedroom, shut the door behind her and went down the long passage to the kitchen. It was time to think about supper. Gone were the happy days of solitary meals with a book propped open on the table. Boiled eggs and cheese on toast were simply not sufficient for John at the end of a long day’s work. Nell sighed and tried to bring her mind to bear on supper. She attempted, without success, to visualise the contents of the fridge. First, she decided, she would make herself some coffee and perhaps that would stimulate her culinary instincts. Whilst the kettle boiled she started to put away some books, left in a pile on the kitchen table, and paused with a volume of Browning in her hand. It opened at ‘Pippa Passes’ and she turned the pages and began to read a little. The kettle started to sing. Presently she sank down into a chair, still reading. The kettle boiled and switched itself off. The bright spring afternoon lengthened into evening but Nell sat on, still reading.
‘ . . . so i went straight home,’ said Gussie, ‘and took down my art encyclopaedia and there you were. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Sibylla Palmifera. The likeness is quite startling. Has no one ever mentioned it before? Your hair is much darker but it really is quite uncanny. I understand that he often used his wife as a model.’
‘I like his sister’s poetry.’ Nell poured tea and ignored the pain in her heart, hoping that Gussie would be distracted and not hurt by the indirect change of subject. One other person had likened her to Rossetti’s painting.
‘Goblin Market,’ mused Gussie, taking her cup. ‘It’s some years since I read it but I learned it at school. “For there is no friend like a sister, In calm or stormy weather.” I never had a sister. I had a brother who was killed in the war. He was in the Army. A regular. So was my father. He was too old to fight in the second war but he was at the War Office in London. He and my mother were killed in the Blitz.’ She sipped at her tea. ‘I lost them all within a year. I was out in France driving an ambulance.’
She shook her head, more in surprise at her sudden burst of confidence than at the tragedy that she described. She wasn’t given to making people a present of her history. She disapproved of self-indulgence and emotional outbursts. So did Nell who stared at her in dismay.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she began. And stopped not knowing what to say.
‘My dear, it was forty-five years ago. I can’t imagine why I should have mentioned it. This is delicious tea. Dear old Earl Grey. How amazing that your hat should fit me so well and should match with the dress. I do call that a splendid piece of luck. It really is very kind of you. I shall take great care of it.’
Nell accepted the change of subject with relief and agreed that the whole thing was providential. They talked about the coming wedding, the relative merits of flats – with and without gardens – and Nell, voluntarily, explained her naval background and John’s new venture. When they finally separated, both women were surprised at how far the friendship had developed given that they each had a natural tendency to reticence. Neither felt her privacy had been violated and both felt a little glow of kinship. Nell saw the thin, angular figure out to the gate, promised to go for coffee the following week, and went back to clear up the tea things.
‘My little Pre-Raphaelite . . . how’s Sibylla today?’
Rupert’s voice, tender and teasing, echoed in her thoughts; a ghost raised by Gussie’s acute observation. Nell put the cups into the sink and wrapped her arms across her breast. Rupert: whom she had loved since she was a little girl, whose younger brother she had married when she knew Rupert would never take her seriously. Rupert: who had been her idol and who had been blown to pieces in the Falklands War. By the time he had realised that she had grown up, it had been too late. She was his brother’s wife. John was so like him physically. They had been difficult to tell apart except that Rupert had all the fire, all the charm, and John was so quiet, so reserved. Was it cheating to pretend quite so often as she did that he was Rupert?
Of course it was. Nell pushed back the heavy mass of dark red hair and ran water into the sink. But John would never know that she did it. Rupert had been the clever one: brilliant at school, honours at Sandhurst, a crack regiment, knee-deep in pretty women. John had plodded behind, never quite achieving a similar standard: failing Perisher – the submariners’ Commanding Officers’ Qualifying Course – and then being passed over. Only Nell knew how bitter he was, how determined to redress the balance. Nell had helped to do that. To capture such beauty had been a tremendous feather in his cap. Nell felt it was a poor return for the deception that she often practised in her heart. She began to wash up, trying to still the ghosts that Gussie had raised, trying not to think of Rupert, dead. She thought of other lines written by Christina Rossetti: ‘Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land.’
It was six years now, since he had gone into the silent land, but he still lived on in her memory and in John. And in Jack.
Nell dried the cups and saucers and put them away. John would be home soon and tonight she really must make an effort about food.
Copyright © 1995 by Marcia Willett. All rights reserved.