Authors: Joan Lingard
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
It is raining, on a November afternoon, and cold. The woman standing in the shadows of the laundry doorway feels the chill of the pavement creeping up into her feet and ankles. From time to time she moves them, just a little, but otherwise she remains still, her bony hands clasped in front of her. Her eyes stay fixed on the large doors opposite. Her gaze is steady, except when a vehicle passes between them, and then it flickers. Occasionally a small cough grazes her throat.
The afternoon wears on, the light fades early, and the gas lamps splutter into life, making her draw further back into her refuge. Now the puddles on the pavement shine. She can hear faint music coming from the building across the street. Someone is playing the piano. It will
be warm in that high-vaulted room, with the stove billowing forth heat to the assembled company; he will be there surrounded by women fawning on him, hoping for his favours. Once she, too, was made welcome at these Saturday afternoon receptions, but then she annoyed him and she could not bear the attention he gave to the other women. The attention he gave in particular to
of the glaring hair and the terrible hats calling herself his inner voice. As if he had need of any voice but his own! She looks like a painted weasel, this American, who has ordered all his other models from the studio. His friends detest her. But he appears to be bewitched.
A man stops. His shadow falls across hers and she can smell his breath, heavy with cigar smoke. ‘
?’ She shakes her head and he hesitates for only a moment before moving on. She is often bothered by
, men who follow her, who sit at café tables beside her; and she cannot understand why. She does not believe she is flirtatious. Her affections are already engaged.
Across the road, the wide doors suddenly burst open, spilling out yellow light and men and women with flushed faces and ringing voices calling out farewells. Faces turn up to the sky. Umbrellas are unfurled. The women embrace their host; the men wait and idly chat.
Two carriages turn into the street and pull up, and when they have moved on there remains only one person on the pavement opposite. Even in this poor light one can see that he has a presence, this broad, well-built man, with the powerful head and full beard streaked with white. He may no longer be young but he emits energy. She can feel his energy in her hands when she holds them out. They tremble as if shot through with a lightning current.
Hesitantly, she moves out of the shadow. Alerted, like an animal sensing another presence, he turns his head. She steps over the flowing gutter and crosses the road. She hears him sigh.
‘You’ll get your death, standing in the cold and wet like that. How many times do I have to tell you?’
She is encouraged. He is not angry; she may walk with him. He unfurls his umbrella and she falls in beside him. Before they reach the corner she manages to slide her hand into the crook of his arm. She loves the smell of his bulky coat and the warmth of it against her fingers. It is a fair step to the station, and of that she is glad, and would willingly walk with him all the way to Meudon, if that were possible. This is her time. She will have him to herself; the red-haired witch cannot claim him now, nor any of his other admirers or former lovers. She is glad, too, of the rain, for it is like a curtain
cocooning them from the rest of the world. She finds its gentle patter on the dark arch covering their heads soothing to her nerves. They skirt the edge of the Place de la Résistance and arriving at the Avenue Bosquet turn north into it.
He continues to scold her a little. ‘Are you eating enough? You’re looking thinner again. You must eat. You can’t paint if you don’t eat.’
She is trying, she responds, though often she forgets.
‘Are you still reading?’ He wants to know; his interest is more than passing. She is able to please him there, telling him that she reads every day. He is a keen reader himself though it is a wonder to her that he can find time in his overflowing life. He likes to read the English authors Fielding and Richardson, and is deeply interested in classical Greece. He has been encouraging her to read Greek poetry and drama. Sometimes she retells stories from mythology to him that she hopes might give him ideas for his sculpture. She speaks now of Euripides.
‘Like you,’ she says, ‘he believes that everything has beauty.’
Too soon, they are in the Boulevard de Montparnasse and the station looms ahead. She longs to go home on the train with him, to prepare his evening meal, to sleep with him, to wake with him and rise to warm
his morning milk. But there is another woman waiting there for him, his Rose, a peasant woman who has been with him for forty years and has borne him a son. She stays out there, beyond the confines of the city, awaiting his return each evening, stirring her cooking pots.
They enter the gloom of the station. Smoke hangs in the air; on the ground, travellers hurry to their platforms. He must leave her.
‘Will you come to visit me soon?’ She holds her breath. She has hardly dared to ask.
‘I can make no promises,’ he says.
She stays in most mornings sweeping and cleaning her room, going from time to time to the window to look down on the street. Sometimes he does come but she knows not to press him or to rail against the American duchess who distracts him and keeps him from his work. If she does she will only make him angry and her time with him will have been spoilt. She has made a fuss in the past about the woman and after one occasion he told her not to come to his studio again. Now she waits outside and he does not chase her away.
‘Remember to look after yourself,’ he tells her and with a glancing kiss on either cheek he has gone, into the moving mass.
She waits till his train steams out of the station, even though she knows that he will not pull down the
window and lean out to wave. In the early days, not so long ago, only a few months, when they were first lovers, he would sometimes come to the window and then she could go home with a smile inside her. Her eyes ache with staring but the train is no longer there; its red rear light has dwindled into nothingness. She turns and makes her way back out of the station, stumbling a little, head bowed, bumping into hastening passengers, having to apologise.
She returns to her quiet grey room in the Hôtel Mont Blanc on the nearby Boulevard Edgar Quinet. She is shivering. She peels off her damp coat, walks out of her shoes. She goes to the table by the window and lights the lamp. Her notepaper is waiting there, the pen is lying where she left it earlier. She lifts it, plunges the nib deep into the inkwell and begins to write.
‘Is that it?’ he asks.
‘Seems to be,’ she says.
Together, they take a last look at the bare hall, at the grimy-edged spaces where the pictures used to hang; they glance up the uncarpeted stairs, hear the eerie silence. She moves first, turning her back. He tugs the door shut behind them. The damned thing has always been inclined to stick. They’ve been meaning to do something about it, for months. Years.
She holds up the keys. ‘Will you take them or shall I?’
He shrugs. ‘Doesn’t matter. I could put them through the solicitor’s letter box, if you like.’
‘You won’t forget? You know what you’re—’
‘For Christ’s sake!’
The air between them has become charged, in that split second, has swollen up like a balloon. Then her shoulders slacken.
‘Sorry.’ She tosses the two sets of keys, he catches them against his chest.
He follows her down the path. The street is quiet. Few, if any, will witness their departure. Between drawn curtains the excesses of Old Year’s Night are being slept off.
He goes round to the driver’s side of the self-drive rental van, she makes for the family saloon parked behind it. It is stuffed full with bedding, downies and pillows, still slightly dented, showing where heads have rested, dragged from beds only this morning.
‘See you there,’ he says.
In the back of the truck the two children sprawl amid brown grocery cartons. The girl is no longer a child, really, and would resent being called one; she has passed her fifteenth birthday. The boy is seven years her junior.
‘Last run,’ says their father breezily.
He edges the high-sided vehicle out from the kerb, away from the tall, terraced house. Desirable family residence, two reception, four beds, two baths, large
kitchen, scullery, laundry room, large attic which may be used for storage or a studio. Garden front and rear. Mature trees. Good neighbourhood. Convenient for schools. Their ad said it all.
The girl, positioned by the window, lifts her head. The boy does not. He continues to gaze at his bunched up knees.
There is almost no traffic. The city seems unnervingly quiet.
‘Fantastic day,’ says the father. The sun is shining out of an ice-blue sky after days of hectic rain and wind. ‘Good day for a walk on the Pentlands.’
There is no response from the back.
The trip takes only five minutes, as the driver is keen to point out. No distance at all. It isn’t as though they’re moving miles away.
‘That’s scarcely the point,’ says the girl, silencing her father.
They are heading for a small enclave of Victorian artisans’ houses known as the Colonies which lie alongside the Water of Leith. He rounds the clock at Canonmills, then swings across into Glenogle Road.
‘You know the Colonies were built by the Co-op in the second half of the nineteenth century? Workers who had never expected to own their own houses were suddenly able to do it on a mortgage-type basis.’
‘You’ve already told us,’ says the girl. ‘What’s so marvellous, anyway, about owning your own house?’
Her father concentrates on the road. Flipping on his indicator, he turns sharply right into one of the short, narrow streets. The road is little more than two car-widths wide, which means that he has to mount the pavement to ease the wide van past the line of parked cars on the left-hand side.
The houses here are terraced, too, but on a different scale; they were built in cottage-style architecture, consisting of an upper and a lower flat, the upper being reached by an outside stone stair. The stair is a distinctive feature of the Colonies, he is about to remark, then closes his mouth.
He pulls up. ‘Well, here we are!’
The girl wrenches open the back door and vaults out, as light as a young roe deer. The boy stays in the van. The following car has stopped behind them.
‘Four of the boxes are yours, I think,’ says the father, heaving them out. ‘Want a hand up the steps?’
‘We can manage,’ says the mother. She ducks her head inside the van and kisses the boy. ‘See you soon, Davy love. OK?’
The father kisses the girl. ‘We’ll just be along the road, Sophie, old pal.’
‘It’s all right,’ she says. ‘I don’t
. Really I don’t.’
He waits until they have climbed the steps to their upper flat, then he jumps back into the driver’s seat and begins to back up, which takes all his attention, with so many cars parked, and space being so tight. The streets are cul-de-sacs, running into the river.
Their upper flat – his and Davy’s – is but two streets away and virtually identical to the other one.
‘Well, son,’ he says as he parks, having managed to squeeze into a space, just, ‘this is it!’ He hears his voice coming over as far too hearty. ‘Our new abode.’ Their flat is close to the river end.
At the top of the stair, he pauses to look over at the Water of Leith, Edinburgh’s waterway. He can smell it, a damp, muddy smell. ‘We might go fishing.’
‘The water’s yucky,’ says Davy.
His father opens the door. The flat has a rather mouldy smell, well, of course it would, wouldn’t it, as he says to his son, since nobody has been living in it for some time and in winter it doesn’t take long for buildings to cool down and the damp to seep in. He is talking too much and his son too little. He wonders if he has talked too much all his life. If he had kept his mouth shut more when conducting his art classes he might not have ended up in this mess. He wishes he could go to the pub.
There are two rooms on the main floor, a sitting room at the front and a dining/kitchen to the rear. The lavatory is under the stairs in what once would have been a cupboard. The ceiling slopes perilously low over the bowl; he will have to mind his head when he gets up. There is no wash-hand basin, no room for one.
‘We’ll just have to wash our hands in the kitchen or nip up the stairs,’ he says jocularly. There is a wash-hand basin and a bath up there, but no lavatory.
They go up the narrow stairs. One bedroom has a dormer window, the other a skylight. Both rooms are small. All the rooms in the flat are small. He wants to kick out the walls but he tells himself that the place will be easily heated which means they can save on fuel bills. One must look on the bright side! The jingle runs through his head, annoying him. He intends to take the dormer window for himself, having reasoned, to himself, that kids don’t notice whether there is a view or not. He’d go nuts if he couldn’t see out.
Davy throws his bag on the bed in the skylight room. The glass is grubby; the sky cannot be seen. They’ll clean it, says his father, once he buys some Windowlene, and then Davy will be able to lie in bed and look at the stars. ‘When “midnight’s all a glimmer”,’ he quotes. ‘Famous Irish poet wrote that.’
Davy shrugs, though his father knows that he likes
poetry, but today he is not going to like anything and who could blame him? His father swallows. He sure as heck could use a drink. They didn’t drink much last night, he and Rachel, in spite of it being Hogmanay. They were busy and not in the mood, and old friends stayed away, trying to be tactful, or else just embarrassed. Not that they were doing anything unusual, in this day and age, except in the eyes of a few elderly people like his mother. Ah, yes, his mother. He puts the thought of her out of his mind. He has enough to cope with at the moment.
‘Where will you do your work, Dad?’ asks Davy. ‘There’s no place for a studio here.’
‘We’ll have to see,’ says his father. He hasn’t done anything, anyway, for a long time, forever, so it seems, not since the day he was called into the head’s office.
‘Sit down, Cormac,’ said Archie, without lifting his head. He was fussing about with some papers on his desk, which Cormac could see he was not looking at. They were friends, he and Archie; they’d known each other since their student days, had shared a flat for a while. They often had a pint in the pub together after school and they went to international rugby matches together, enjoying pleasant rivalry when Scotland played Ireland. They ate in each other’s houses. Nothing
fancy, no fuss. Kitchen supper, kedgeree, fish pie, that kind of thing. There was no formality between them or their wives. There was no formality between Archie and any of his staff. He was a casual, pullover-wearing, no-standing-on-ceremony head. Popular with both staff and pupils, which took some doing. He had been popular as a student, too. His prowess on the rugby field had contributed to that; he’d played for the university’s first fifteen and represented Scotland in its under twenty-one team. He helped coach the school team and could outrun most of them still. Cormac had never been much of a rugby player himself, had played at school when he couldn’t avoid it but had preferred football which he found less brutal. As for other sports, pool was the only game he occasionally indulged in, whereas Archie played a good game of golf and tennis and was a competent skier. On the surface, then, it did not seem as if he and Archie would have much in common. At university, Archie was studying mathematics; he was doing sculpture. But from the first moment the two men met they hit it off; they seemed to complement each other and there was no element of competition between them since their sights professionally were set on different things. Cormac found Archie’s easy, open manner and self-confidence engaging. He may not be very deep, he had said once to Rachel, but he’s sound.
And how reassuring it was to be in the company of someone who was sound, who wasted no time in self-doubt and looking back.
Cormac did not feel happy in Archie’s company now. He edged his chair a little closer to the desk.
‘What’s up, Archie?’ he asked.
Archie sighed again. ‘This isn’t going to be easy for me, Cormac.’ He was twiddling a pen between his thumb and forefinger. He dropped it and had to look Cormac in the eye. ‘We’ve had a complaint made against you, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh no.’ Cormac groaned. ‘Not Clarinda Bain’s mother!’
‘So you know what it’s about then?’ Archie looked taken aback, as if he had expected Cormac to plead total ignorance.
‘I suppose I can guess. Clarinda’s been behaving like an ass so I called on her mother who went on to make wild accusations about the visit to Paris.’
‘They were fairly wild.’ Archie sounded glum.
‘A load of old cobblers. You didn’t believe her, did you?’
‘It’s not up to me to believe or disbelieve, Cormac, not at this juncture. That’ll be for other people to decide. I’m not even allowed to discuss it with you. But why didn’t you come and talk to me about it before?’
‘I did try to, the day after we came back from France, in the pub, after school.’
‘You mentioned Clarinda’s name, I remember that. You said what a keen pupil she was and eager to see everything in Paris, but you didn’t make it
, at least I didn’t pick up that there were, well,
‘Maybe I didn’t,’ said Cormac. He’d thought Archie had almost been trying to ward off his confidence, as if he’d heard rumours and didn’t want or didn’t need them to be spelt out. Or maybe he’d thought he’d been going to hear an admission of guilt? It had been an awkward meeting and Cormac had been aware of his own reluctance to spell everything out. Then Ken Mason, another member of staff, had come in and joined them, and so the subject had changed.
‘You should have come back to me on it,’ said Archie.
‘I suppose I thought it would blow over. You know how it is when you don’t quite want to face up to something?’
‘Yes.’ Archie nodded. ‘Yes, I do know. Sometimes life takes odd directions, doesn’t it, when you least expect it?’
Cormac had never known Archie take an odd turning, or act out of character. His very stability was like a rock for school life to revolve around, and he was a sympathetic listener.
‘It wouldn’t have made any difference even if you had talked to me. I’m bound by a set of rules, Cormac, you know that. I have no option but to suspend you, as from now. On full pay of course.’
‘This very minute?’
‘I’m afraid so. There’ll be an inquiry. It has to go through the proper channels. Oh, and by the way, you’re still under contract to the Education Authority so you are obliged to stay put, to be available if called upon.’
‘So there’s to be no skiving off to South America?’ His attempt to make a joke stuck at the back of his throat.
‘I am sorry, Cormac. Deeply sorry.’
‘And I won’t be able to see you socially, either, you realise that, don’t you, until this business is sorted out?’
Cormac sat for a moment, then he stood up, and putting one foot before the other moved as if in a dream from the quiet of the headmaster’s room into the corridor which was alive with the surge of young, vigorous bodies heading for the freedom of the open air. It was the start of morning break. He banged into some of the bodies, did not even hear their yowls of protest. ‘Watch where you’re going, Mr Aherne!’ He should have done that years ago. That’s what his
mother would have said to him, had she been there.
It was break-time, for which he was grateful. His art room was empty. Someone had tipped a chair on its side in their hurry to get out. Automatically, he picked it up and set it to rights. He’d been teaching a first-year class when he’d been summoned, trying to enthuse them about Art. Commitment, he had been telling them, that was the key; no artist had ever achieved anything without commitment. And passion. The ultimate stage was obsession. You had to be obsessed, seized by the throat. They had listened to him, mesmerised, or so it had seemed, though perhaps they had just been puzzled. Some of them were obsessed by football, weren’t they? That had got them, the boys who’d been shuffling their feet; that had helped to focus them. They were beginning to see a glimmer of light when the door had opened to admit Miss Dunlop, the school secretary, with her spectacles dangling from a chain around her neck, come to summon him. ‘Mr Aherne, Mr Gibson would like a word.’
Ah, the power of a word. It could change a life.
He would be summoned again, to make his case, perhaps even at the High Court, where he would be compelled to listen to a flow of words, of evidence against him, if, after investigation, it was thought that he had a case to answer. Did he?