Had he expected it? The poppy-reddened fields where he had played, half a century ago, unchanged? The lake in the disused quarry, the village hall at Benton crossroads, with flagstone roof and walls of Victorian brick, still standing? Looking rejuvenated, if anything, by the bright afternoon sun.
He drew up beside the wooden notice board nailed to its crumbling wall, grey-pasted with faded parish notices, and still hanging at that slightly misjudged angle, almost exactly as he remembered it the summer before university. He let his mind take him back, through those peeling doors that were just as he had thrust them open one Tuesday night, so many years before, and he remembered his dread as he sidled into the old brick building, oozing the furtive reluctance of youth, feeling the embarrassment of his tight, badly-cut jeans. Village hall melees were not for him, not then. Saturday night dancing was for him; local tribute Eddy Cochran (Ronnie Blass, baker’s assistant) tying himself in agonised knots on a creaking wooden stage. Three-four time – not always on time, but loud. Primal and wild.
Not the Women’s Institute.
They were all so old. Portly ladies in portly clothes; teacups and nudges, secret buzz. Contralto bees.
“What d’you want, love?” Annie Riley, her enormousness bulged beneath rose-print on white. “Did your mum send you?”
“Leaflets.” He had muttered unintelligibly.
“You what, dear?” Sherry Harbottle, as thin as Annie was fat. Shrunk shank beneath a black frock that hung about her like a shroud. “Oh, bless him! He’s shy!”
Beetroot soldiers shinning up their siege ladders. He could not stop them.
“Oh, he’s blushing now! Bless him!”
“I want the leaflets.” He said, oozing defiance. “My ma says I’m to deliver them tonight.”
“Oh, them!” Annie was already turning away. “I left ’em in the kitchen. Out there.” She waved at the door of a tiny room from which trays of tea were known, periodically, to erupt.
His path to the kitchen was long and circuitous because, like Kipling’s dormouse, he followed the wall, afraid to step into the middle of the room. He plunged through its closed door like a mariner abandoning a stricken submarine. Eyes glued to the floor, he took a moment to realise he was not alone.
“Oh goodness! Excuse me!” The owner of an exposed thigh hurriedly brushed her dress down to cover a refastened suspender. A young woman; a plain blue dress. She glared at him. “Couldn’t you knock, or something?”
“Sorry! Sorry!” He spluttered, vermillion rising. “I didn’t know… I got to take the leaflets, see?”
Severe eyes pinned him for long enough to be satisfied of his mortification. “That’s them.” She nodded towards a neat pile on a shelf.
“Thanks.” He made to take possession of the leaflets.
“I was making the tea.” She gestured towards a huffing industrial-sized urn. “Don’t drink it, whatever you do.”
“No, I won’t. I can smell it.” He glanced at her face, his skin alive with embarrassment. He looked long enough to see a strong jaw, a wide, rather thin mouth, and pale cheeks. Horn-rimmed spectacles disguised frank but nervous eyes.
“I got to deliver them, see?”
“What, the teas?” Her voice was edgy, quite deep.
“No, them.” He waved the leaflets. Then, in a moment of bravery: “What’s your name then?”
“Me?” She seemed genuinely unsure if there was someone else in the room; “I’m Mary. I make the tea.”
“Yeah? Hello Mary!” He felt suddenly confident. “Are you one of them, then?” He nodded at the door.
“Yes, I joined. The Women’s Institute’s a good way to get to know people.” She recited.
“I’m Malcolm.” He introduced himself. “I don’t remember seeing you around the village.”
“I don’t get out very often.” How old was she? She might be twenty-five or six; but she had the naiveté of a seventeen year old, and she was painfully shy. Two little pink blots had appeared on her cheeks. But then she had cause, he supposed. He had seen more of her underwear than was polite.
“You’re staring!” She accused.
“Sorry, Mary. So, how are you getting on with the old….with the ladies of the WI?”
“They asked me to make the tea. This is my third meeting and I’ve made the tea each time. That’s all they seem to want me to do. I think you’re leaning against the biscuits.”
“Oh sorry!” He said again, blenching at his oft-repeated apology. “Custard creams, eh?”
“They’re allowed one each.”
“Would you come out with me Thursday?”
She was waiting outside the little whitewashed cottage when he had called for her, blinking through those thick glasses, mousey brown hair drawn back in a modest bun, champagne-coloured frock and little brown handbag clasped before her. He spent the last of his weekly pay on a movie. Afterwards, as they walked back the mile from the late night bus, he had ventured to put an arm around her shoulder. She neither resisted nor broke her stride. At her door their eyes shared a silent moment.
“Well, thank you very much.” She said.
“Can I see you again?”
She seemed a little astonished. “If you like.”
Mary almost ran, slipping indoors by the doorjamb as if she was frightened to fully open it. The lock clicked behind her.
And this was the place. That was the door. As he had driven from the village hall another four hundred yards to her home the sky clouded over and rain began quietly. Wind-blown, it flecked the windscreen like tiny splinters. Malcolm tapped the wiper switch impatiently, as though to lose sight of those white cottage walls with their solemn brown front door even for a second would be too important. In his head he recounted each detail as if he defied it to be altered. It was not.
Sighing, he repeated a question he had asked himself so often down the years: why had he persisted in his pursuit of Mary, that summer when he was seventeen? And why had he never forgotten her? Was it the sight of a graceful leg that began an obsession in him? No, despite the gaucheness of his tender years, that was not the image of her that dominated his mind. It was the memory of a day, and a look.
They dated sporadically at first. His friends teased him.
“Did I see you out with your mum again last night, Malc? I can let you have a paper bag if you want one.”
At each meeting he learned a little more about her. She lived with her father, she spoke of her home life often. She told him about her cat, of the flowers she loved to grow. Were it not for the wooden set of her expression and a hint of cynicism in her voice he might have thought her happy in her world, but something nagging at his brain had persuaded him otherwise.
One hot sunny afternoon as they sat on a grass bank above the lake he turned his head to kiss her. She did not resist, nor did she respond.
“Why did you do that?”
“Because I wanted to. I still want to.”
Mary stared at her knees. “How old are you?”
“I’m – nineteen. How old are you?”
“You shouldn’t ask a lady her age.”
Thereafter a kiss became part of their ritual which they observed, routinely, whenever there was a private moment. As summer passed Malcolm became bolder until once, on the evening bus, he ventured to put his hand on that familiar leg. She seemed unmoved by his gentle grip, yet she allowed it. They walked the final mile to her home.
“My Dad’s going away on Wednesday.” She said suddenly. “Do you want to come round?”
By the Wednesday afternoon his hand was shaking so much he could hardly press her doorbell. She answered in her dressing gown, taking his hand to draw him into the subdued light of a living room heavily decorated in green patterned wallpaper and bluntly furnished. A fat, comatose cat stretched out on the windowsill, head against the nets.
“I don’t really know much about this.” She confessed, as if she was addressing a task – a challenge she had set herself.
In her tiny upstairs room with afternoon sun beating on the coverlet he taught her the little he knew. They were students in a shared experience, inexpert and mercifully brief; yet afterwards she clung to him as if he were life itself.
The rain on the car roof became a rhythm, a cascade of memories in heavy drops splashing, a milky mist rising from the warm road. Malcolm’s car’s wipers swept the windscreen in regular gestures. That had been the first time. Up there. The casement window above the brown front door. After so long, could those curtains really be the same?
When, as now, his imagination took him back to that summer he remembered it as a time of joyful nakedness and entanglement, of thirst and gratification. Only in times of sadness could he regret how few were those bejewelled afternoons when Mary’s father, a man he never got to meet, was away. And when their physical union happened it was frequently awkward, mannerly and restrained, but reflection had persuaded himself otherwise. He had always been ruled by passion, so the lie was important to him.
“Why do you like me so much?” Mary asked him once, on one of those glittering days.
“Because – because you’re beautiful.” He let his eyes feast on the slenderness lying beside him, because it was a question he had to answer in himself. “You’re just – beautiful.”
She reached for her spectacles from the bedside table, so she could see him better. She would squint without them. “I’m not beautiful. I’m plain. I’m ugly.”
The self-loathing behind the words shocked him. “No! No you’re not! Not to me.” He tried to kiss her, and she turned away.
“You’re seeing someone who isn’t there.” She told him.
“She’s there.” He insisted. “She’s buried deep, where maybe not everyone can see her. But I can; and when she’s happy and she lets it show – then her eyes shine like raindrops in the sun, and all the beauty spills out. Some people paint beauty on themselves each morning, but they’re really twisted and hideous underneath. Not you. You have loveliness written right through you.”
“Like a stick of Blackpool rock!” She laughed a rare laugh, then kissed him with rare spontaneity. “Remember you said that. Even if you didn’t really mean it, don’t ever forget it, alright?”
Had he really meant it? After summer was over and he had gone to his further education he frequently accused himself of using her, of blinding himself to truths she accepted only too easily. At university he found love that gave itself more freely, that possessed greater beauty, yet was never so profound. As other memories were made and afterwards faded, hers was constant. And with the years, yes, even through the married years, it survived.
So here he was, forty-two years later, parked on the road opposite her door. There, just there by the hollyhocks, they had said their goodbyes. There, on that precise spot, his heart had filled with sorrow at their parting and he had said the three words. One of a very few times in his life he had said them.
Mary had stared into his eyes with an earnest darkness that made his heart stop. “We’ll love a memory then. Keep it precious for us, yes?”
“I’ll write to you.”
“No, you won’t.” She would have turned away without so much as a farewell kiss had he not insisted. And he saw her reasons, saw the bitterness, the self-disgust – saw tears behind those heavy lenses. He felt the sob in her throat.
Malcom eased himself to a more comfortable position in his car seat. Rain thrashed the roof now. Accusation. A flagellation; a penance. She was right, of course. He never wrote to her, even when the nights were their longest and his loneliness at its most intense. Oh, how fresh were the images in his mind – of that look, of those tears! In all the time he had known her, she had been unable to give herself entirely to him. Only when it was too late had those magic words breached her defences enough to show how she had hoped, and striven, perhaps, to return his love.
He had no family now; here, or anywhere close. He thought of his wife, and the sad, lonely stone that was her final home. He thought of his children in their nests at the far corners of the big world, and then he thought of Mary, and how much of life he had missed. With a great sense of destiny, he opened his car door.
“Who the hell are you?” The man on the threshold stared at Malcolm as if he somehow recognised that face, but with the darkness and the rain he could not place a memory. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“I wondered if Mary Marshalsea still lived here?” Malcolm said.
“Mary?” The man pushed anxious fingers through a thinning head of hair. “You…you’re looking for Mary?” His eyes met Malcolm’s. How old would he be – about forty, or forty-two, maybe? “Yes, she still lives here. She’s not home, though, I’m afraid.”
A silence dropped like a curtain between the two men. Facing each other, each confused, surprised, a little frightened, each at the dawn of a truth in the raining night. Malcolm picked his words carefully. “And Mister Marshalsea? Is he at home?”
“Look, I don’t know where you got your information. There’s no Mister Marshalsea, never was, unless you’re referring to my grandfather. He died about twenty year ago.”
The man dredged up a few ingots of aggression. “See here, I ain’t going to stand in my door no longer. If you want my mother you’ll find her at the village hall. She goes up there early on Tuesday evenings. It’s Women’s Institute tonight, see? She makes the tea.”
His heart beating a little faster, his mind crowded with possibilities, Malcolm turned his car and retraced the road to Benton crossroads. Outside the village hall he drew to a halt. In his mind he saw her, as she had been in that distant time, busying herself among the cups and the custard creams. He saw the heavily rimmed spectacles, those earnest eyebrows, that firm, slightly too prominent jaw. And he remembered.
“We’ll love a memory then. Keep it precious for us, yes?”
He saw the peeling paint on the closed doors, the old notice board with its bleached messages. He might have heard or imagined the faint clink and rattle of crockery from within.
He slipped his car back into gear, and drove on.
© Frederick Anderson 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.