I was up pretty early, used the outdoor privy and the scullery sink so as not to disturb the sleeper, went off to Church, collected the paper on the way back, spoke as jauntily as I could to the few people about (it was drizzling), and was back in the house before eight. For a second or so, as I pushed open the front door, I imagined that last night had all been a dream, but there it was: two chairs drawn forward in the kitchen, and an opened bottle of Port; two glasses on the draining-board, and two cups and saucers still in the sink. Even the cat, I thought, looked knowingly at me as she stretched and began to strop her claws on the rug. I shooed her off into the passage-way and out of the back-door, despite her purely formal protests; a few minutes later, she was sitting on the kitchen window-sill, washing with, I thought, exaggerated care and completeness, and visibly ensconcing herself, so as not to miss anything: was there, I wondered, a feline equivalent of a Mothers’ Union, a Cats’ W.I. where gossip could be traded for gossip? I began to think I should have called her Tobermory, rather than Bathsheba. I disposed of the incriminating evidence in the sink and on the draining-board, returning the port to the dining-room, making a mental note not to leave it to spoil, now it was opened: my memory told me it had been far too good for that. I wondered about putting on a kettle for some tea, compromised by putting fresh water in the kettle and putting the tea-pot (a brown earthenware one this morning!) to warm on the range, and getting out two cups and saucers. I put my tongue out at the cat, who still had that knowing air, and went into the study end of the sitting room, closed the door, and tried Sister Jessop’s number. I was just beginning to think I’d missed her and she was out on her rounds already, when she answered.
‘Yes, fine, thank you, and you?
‘Do I always and only come to you with problems?
‘All right, fair enough! Can I call on your experience, expertise, and discretion?’
‘Yes, I know, and I do appreciate it; that’s why I never like to presume on it. Is today possible at all?’
‘Well, later would probably be best here, too.’
‘ Bathsheba? She’s – unbelievable! A few minutes ago she was agog at the kitchen window, pretending to wash, and now she’s here, eavesdropping by the study window! Please, don’t spoil her by bringing her…’
‘Oh, all right then: all you females can just gang up on me!’ I regretted the last cheerful, mock-self-pitying raillery the moment I had let the words out of my mouth. Laura was already in the kitchen, when I got back there, but showing no sign of having overheard anything; she had put the kettle on the hob, the cups and saucers on the kitchen table, and was beginning to find cereal bowls and cereal packets in the kitchen cupboards. She looked anxiously at me, to check that she was not overstepping any invisible mark. I started with my trade-mark
‘Dear child…’ before stopping myself, ‘Laura, this is no good! I don’t know how to address you any more – not that I ever really did: do you remember I used to call you all ‘children’, to your irritation, if not fury; how I then tried ‘Ladies’ – which someone – was it Claire? – , said ‘makes us sound like Public Lavatories’ – then I tried ‘Little Ladies’ for a while but you all took against that; one of you told me ‘Miss Edwards always just calls us ‘Girls’’and I said, ‘Yes, but I’m not a Gym Mistress!’. I said I can’t call you ‘Guys’, although I know that’s how you address yourselves collectively, and I daren’t call you ‘Dolls’. After much almost serious discussion, we decided that I could call you ‘Dear Children’, and ‘Dear Child’; we all agreed that it had sufficient formality, combined with decorous affection, and echoes of The Catechism, as to be entirely fitting and suitable. But it seems wrong to keep harking back to a kind of ‘Golden Age’ of The School. You know I’ve never been very good at protocol and titles: I can’t, surely, start to call you ‘The Honourable Miss…?’
‘What, now I’m dishonoured?’
‘Oh, Laura! Why do I always suffer from ‘foot and mouth disease’? You must, surely, know that I never dreamt of meaning that. There is obviously one person who is entirely without honour in this. Not you, but…’
‘And who, from whom, rather, do you think I learned the art of gentle teasing?’
I found myself blinking again, and said, rather gruffly, ‘Well, I suppose I must just call you ‘My Good Woman’.’
‘My Good Woman’, Laura savoured the words. ‘I do think I heard Daddy call someone that: once. – Or MGW, for short! – Or, then again, you could just call me Laura.’
‘Shall we settle on it, then, my good woman: MGW, for short, or ‘Laura’: but you won’t incandesce if I sometimes lapse into ‘Dear Child…?’
She gave one of her inimitable, uncomplicated, smiles and said, looking down once more, ‘But I think ‘Little Lady’s’ entirely out of the question now.’
After considerable coughing, I ventured, rather croakily, ‘Such a wise head…’
‘On such young shoulders? That one so wise, should win The University Prize…’
I placed a forefinger on her mouth, forestalling ‘for Stupidity’. It only came to me long afterwards, how I had at that instant touched her lips.
‘Miss Conyngham -’, said I, trying to clear the air of an intangible aura of something beyond seriousness, ‘Laura; there are things that have to be done: things practical, perhaps awkward – disagreeable – for you. Won’t you sit down?’ Amid the as yet untasted Breakfast clutter we sat down at the kitchen table, at right angles one to another. ‘Now first: will you agree to meet Sister Jessop, here, for instance this evening?’
‘Is she a Nun? Are you going to send me to a Convent?’ Laura’s eyes were wide.
‘No, no, no, no, no: Sister Jessop is an almost-retired Midwife whom I know – though she’s as good as a Nun, because she actually worked as a midwife in the days when the Church still ran virtually all of what we call the Social Services nowadays. She’s straight as a die, silent as an Oyster, much more confidential than many of my clerical colleagues, some of whom are terrible gossips; at first sight, she might seem a bit Dragonesque, but, Bark and Bite, and all that. You will always be the first to know of her disapproval, if she disapproves, she is so direct; you have to gather her approval from the slightest and often most oblique of signs: she spoils my cat, and that is as near as I seem to get to any sign of approval.’ Laura took this in with nods, and I reckoned that, having survived her Mother thus far, she would be well able to cope with this formidable-sounding woman. ‘Now, Laura,’ I said, banging my index finger into the table, ‘she will probably cross-examine you quite a bit – dates are, I believe, quite important. It might all feel quite hideously embarrassing, but – we’ve got to do it!’ It was only as I jabbed my finger again into the table, that I realised that for all this time I had been – not holding but crushing her hand, as well as waving it about. I let her hand go, smoothed it once or twice, shook my head, and whispered ‘Sorry’. The shake of her head, and little smile indicated that no apology was necessary, although I did later notice that she took her hand to her lap where, beneath the table, no doubt she eased it further.
‘I expect it will be rather awkward,’ she said,’though it can hardly be worse than when I did try the University’s Pastoral-Medical Centre. This dreadful woman sent me away saying I looked far too healthy to be bothering them – before I could get a word out!’
‘So you didn’t go again?’
‘I did go again, about a month later, hoping to see someone more civil – but it was the same beastly woman. It was then that I definitely knew I was pregnant.’
‘How…?’ I was getting lost.
‘I think you mean cur, not quomodo, although the difference here is microscopic. Suddenly, it was like my Mother talking, not me: ‘Not only do you get my Christian Name wrong – I am not, and have not the slightest intention of ever being a Rita – do I look like a Rita? In addition, you mis-pronounce my Surname.’ I believe I might even have called her ‘my good woman’ Something far nastier was going through my mind.’ The voice was so, Duchessy is, I think the word, I sat up straight at it. ‘I knew then that I could have no advice from her, and I had, in any case, gained the information – or confirmation – from within myself: obviously my hormones really were as awry as I had thought they were, for me to act and talk like that.’ Her infectious laugh – between a giggle and a chuckle – had me laughing, as I tried to envisage the Laura I thought I knew, transformed briefly into the Mother I had once or twice met. What came next took my breath away: she looked coolly and levelly at me and said with the utmost simplicity, ‘I trust you; I trust your judgement; I believe you have no ulterior motives; I think you – and she – will work together in my – our – best interests. I – we – are in your hands’ Hers, and the child’s, I thought; hers, and the child’s.
Silly though it was, for why should I need to feel so conspiratorial?, I was grateful that it was dark when Sister Jessop’s Morris Minor turned in at the gate, its lights, like wartime searchlights, seeming to probe the whole house; I was grateful when, and that, she came. She never trifled to knock, Bathsheba always met her long before the front door (how is it that cats can materialise through shut – locked – doors, when it suits them, yet at other times will sit by a door, crying to be let through?) the latter part of their conversation being sometimes caught by me:
‘So you say that wicked old master only feeds you once a day?’‘Mrow.’ –‘and then it’s only old fish-heads or bits of conger?’
‘And he puts you out of the house when any visitors call?’
‘I bet he doesn’t even let you sleep on his bed!’
‘I don’t know: what are we going to do about him?’
By the time they’d got to the hall, however, Bathsheba was always ready to be dropped by Sister Jessop, and would usually, with barely a disdainful glance at me, head for the sitting room, where she would normally vex me by ripping her claws into any upholstery that looked inviting, or even better, rub off a swathe of hairs on a freshly-laundered Surplice, or a Cassock back from the Cleaner’s. Sometimes, she would play dangerously with the heap of tangled phone cable, once frightening us both by pulling the whole thing off my cramped desk, in a ringing crash to the floor.
I was grateful, moreover, because I had felt quite overwhelmed by the last twenty-four hours: there was shock there, as well as surprise; there was also another component to it all, which I could not yet identify, and which therefore worried me.
To my surprise, Laura was not in the kitchen when Sister Jessop and I got there, and I began to wonder if she was perhaps upstairs, furiously packing her bag, desperate to get away from this attempt to take over her life. Sister Jessop and I were making halting attempts at normal conversation, when the door opened and Laura walked almost serenely in.
‘I’m so glad to meet you (pause), Sister Jessop (question-mark: hand outheld). I thought it would be sensible to leave a space, in case you needed to discuss anything in my absence.’ I was not able to respond, but, bless her, Sister Jessop was. She took Laura’s hand, looked at her for a second or so, then turned to me, and said, ‘It’s always the same: they go for the really good girls, and see if they can ruin their lives.’ I had never before seen her have to wipe the inside of her spectacle lenses. ‘Shall we go upstairs, dear?’ She and Laura went off quietly out of the kitchen.
I knew little about Rosemary Jessop (she often said that, had she ever had a pug-dog, she would have called it Lavender, just for the pleasure of hearing on ‘some grand occasion’ an M.C. announcing ‘Miss Rosemary Jessop, and Miss Jessop’s Lavender’.). I was not at all sure of her age: people spoke of her as having had her fiancé killed in the Great War, but that would have made her much, much too old, surely. I knew she befriended all cats; I knew also that she was used to keeping the secrets that came the way of her profession: the village might ‘know’ that little Sarah X from the Council Estate had ‘got into trouble’, ‘and who d’you think the father is…?’ but Sister Jessop always ‘knew nothing’. She had once or twice complained to me about being ‘pumped’ and had said, quite angily, ‘They expect me to tell them things they’d never expect to find out from Dr. Morrison, or from Mr. Finch (the Solicitor): how dare they? Is it because I’m a mere woman, or because midwifery is not thought to be really a Profession? And what about them, when they, or their daughters, are in labour? Oh, they expect me to be able to keep all the secrets then!’
Alone in the kitchen for what seemed like hours, I was quite unable to guess what was going on a mere floor above, any more than I could guess what instruments were in the black bag.
I was just on my third cavernous yawn, when Sister Jessop came into the kitchen alone. She shoved her black bag down on the table, walked across to the sink, wetted her hands from the tap, wiped her forehead, sighed, dried off the excess (on the tea-towel), sat down at the table, and growled, ‘I’ve put her to bed, poor mite; she’s exhausted, utterly exhausted. She says I can talk to you: I think I – and you – are going to need some Scotch.’
There was no Scotch, so we settled on the remains of the Admiral’s port. (‘I’m educated: I never knew Port could be so good: always thought it was just sickly and sweet. And, by the feel of it, this isn’t far short of Scotch…’)
Laura’s pregnancy was, it seemed, very far advanced; there was no question of a termination (not that there was, in any of our minds, I think); she needed some rest and feeding; there didn’t seem to be any complications (I didn’t ask); she didn’t think there were twins – though she had been wrong once; the foetal heart-beat was sound, head engaged, so no problem about turning, although… all her instincts told her it would be a boy (something to do with the sickness). Being a primap. (or something) meant that labour could be long, but as the baby seemed not to be very large, it might not be.
Then she said, ‘Only a child herself, really, and so sweetly innocent: when I said, I’d better give you a shave, dear, she said, ‘Oh, do my legs really matter just now?’ Still a child, really.’
It took quite a little while for me to work out the significance of this interchange.
A long silence developed before she said:
‘What an oddity: here’s a maiden-lady of advanced years, a single Cleric – who’s old before his time -, and upstairs is a lovely young girl, shortly to be brought to bed of a boy!’
‘Shortly?’ I was shocked.
‘Matter of days, Vicar!’ she said, ‘Could even be tomorrow!’ smacking the back of my hand, in a way that almost mimicked the way I had unwittingly harshly dealt with Laura’s earlier. Then, re-filling both our glasses with my Port, she asked, quite quietly: ‘I feel I’ve got to ask this: you’re not the father, are you?’
I was so silenced by this, until then, unimaginable question, that she was able to answer for me: ‘No, of course not: if so, you’ld have had a glib answer off pat; you couldn’t answer, because the mere thought of it was beyond you. And in any case, I think you were here, not in Cambridge, at the critical time. And, if she had been here those gossips I despise so much would not have been able to keep quiet about it. Besides, if you had been, she’d never have come here, or if she had, you’d have sent her packing yesterday.’ This last bit took my shell-shocked brain some time to work out.
‘But, watch out for ‘the strife of tongues’: there’ll be cruel and wicked things said.’
Another silence fell, and then we said, almost in unison: ‘Her parents must be told.’ Agreeing on that, and that she would come in on a daily basis from now on, and would bring in ‘some things’ tomorrow, but to ring her if things got serious, we parted, the cat coming in (as Sister Jessop went out), fur wet with drizzle, and seeming to place the blame on me. I knew to whom would fall the task of telling.
With a part of me hoping that her light would be off, so that I could postpone it, I went upstairs: her light was on. I tapped, very timidly, at her door.
The room smelled of Sister Jessop’s carbolic soap and other medicinal smells, but underlying it was a sweeter more floral smell, a perfume of some kind.
‘Lau-. Oh this is so awkward and embarrassing!’
‘Only if you make it so. You don’t have to stand in the doorway, you know; I’m quite decent, really.’
She was indeed: propped up in the bed, the covers pulled up pretty high so that very little of a quite demure night-dress in a pale blue, patterned fabric was visible, and very little of her. I followed her indication and perched myself rather gingerly on the very edge of the bed, near her feet.
‘Will you agree to my ringing your parents?’
Sorrowfully, ‘I’ve been wondering about that; I know I ought to do it, really, but I become such a coward every time I try to steal myself to it! It’d be a tremendous kindness if you would. I’ve written out the ‘phone number – it’s on a piece of paper on the dressing-table. And I’ve also thought, now-ish might be quite a good time to get Daddy: Mummy’ll probably be in her room, asleep or with the telly on, but Daddy usually sits and reads downstairs for a bit, with a whisky, before checking everything and going up’
I picked up the piece of note-paper with its neatly-written eight digits on it and returned to sit on the edge of the bed again.
‘And then, there’s someone else…’
‘Not now, not tonight: – please!’ Tears were welling up in her eyes. ‘ I’ll tell you all about it –about… him… – in the morning: promise.’
‘You’re all right?’
‘Yes, I’m all right.’
At the door, I turned back, but she was facing away, so I gently closed it, tiptoing back downstairs to make my call.
‘Fotheringham 234? Richard Conyngham.’
‘Oh, it’s you Padré; what an agreeable surprise: how very kind of you to ring; good to hear your voice; you’ve been much missed, y’know – but I’m sure you know that.’
‘No, no, no: not a bit. I’m usually up at this time. Just sitting enjoying the quiet with a small whisky and a bit of reading.
‘Laura? What about Laura?’
‘She’s what? – staying with you for a few days? How odd! Well, what I mean is, odd she didn’t let us know, and – and it’s not the end of Term for a week or more, surely?’ A note of anxiety was creeping in.
‘My God! (Sorry, Padré!) Good job I’m sitting down.’
‘So she just turned up on your doorstep this evening –‘
‘Two nights ago?’
‘Oh, I see, last night. This is pretty rum, isn’t it?’
‘My God: what a father that makes me feel, that she couldn’t – (a nose was blown vigorously). Sorry. Mind you, I can see exactly why. She and her Mother have never really got on: she’s convinced I’m disappointed not to have had a boy. She also has a tendency to make the most of any awkward situation, whereas Laura and I try and make the least.’ Nose-blowing again. ‘Hrrhm. Poor Loz must be at her wits’ end: doing so well, by all accounts. Look, Padré, it’s awfully good of you to take all this on: mind, people will begin to think and say all sorts of ugly things. I’m just relieved that she’s been able to confide in you, and that you’re able to help – that she’s in safe hands. We’ll come down, if we may, and see her – tomorrow?’
I had barely put the phone down when he rang back ‘I think we’d better come by train to be as anonymous as possible. Tell me, is it far from the Station?’
I said I’d easily be able to slip out and collect them from the London traihe said he’d give me a call before they boarded, just to give me an e.t.a., and to see how Laura was. A slight movement in the doorway made me look up: there she was in an old dressing-gown that usually hung in the cupboard of the spare room, looking anxious. I pointed to the phone, but she shook her head, mouthing ‘Tell Daddy I love him.’ He’d just hung up.
We went into the kitchen again, and sat in the same two chairs while I relayed to her what her father had said, what he sounded like, how he’d taken it. When I got to his words about poor Loz being devastated the tears began to pour again, running down her face, wetting locks of hair, dribbling off her chin on to the rough material of the dressing-gown (it looked, felt, and I think smelt, like cold burnt toast), making her nose run, and all the while she made hardly a sound. I stood and then knelt in front of her as she began to shiver, holding her damp cold hands, trying to reassure her, to calm her, wanting the tears to stop before I too began to welter in woe. When at last she had run the pools dry, had most unladylike wiped her nose with the heel and then the back of her hand, with a wet snuffle – ( my hastily-fetched handkerchief was too late) and had stopped shivering, except for occasional single shudders that seemed to go right through her (worrying me hugely) and was able to speak she said, ‘And… poor old Daddy’s got the worst job of all. I expect he has been trying to stop Mummy from bouncing off the walls more or less ever since he hung up. She’s bound to have heard the phone, come downstairs and has been hurling abuse at him, me, you, God, the dog, everything! I’ve been nothing but trouble, since I was born.’ This last was said so bleakly and unemotionally, and seemed so very far from what I knew of the truth, that something told me that this was what ‘Mummy’ had told her from a very early age; it even sounded like a quotation. Then in a very different tone, she said, standing up, ‘I do hope she’s all right.’
‘Your Mother?’ Incredulity rang in my voice.
‘No: her.’ Laura’s left hand was moving gently over her bump. ‘It’s bound to be a her, a she, rather: Mummy can only produce a female and I’ll be the same. Poor Daddy won’t even have a base-born Grandson. I’ll be the only Conyngham for this generation and written out of the books. She’ll be Adopted – ’ turning to me, ‘- they’ll force me to give her up, won’t they? And I – I’ll just be ‘damaged goods’ and die an old maid, … except I can’t even be that…!’ I could see that floods more of tears were imminent so what else could I do but take her very gently in my arms, bump and all, stroke her tear-damp hair, and murmur: ‘Laura, if it is a she, and if you do want to keep her, we’ll – I’ll – fight them all the way, and force them to accept both you and her. If you want, once the child has been born, and you’ve got –‘
She interrupted me ‘…my figure back? I might just about get that back, but what about my reputation: everybody will know…’ she tailed off, utter dejection in every fibre.
Taking gentle hold of her head, I lifted her face, so that I could look – sternly, I hoped – into her eyes and say very quietly but with utter certainty: ‘If you want all this to be kept as a secret for all our lives, we can do it: we’re here as far from your home as from Cambridge, at least ‘four miles to the nearest lemon’. You must know you can trust me, else why did you come; I know we can both trust Sister Jessop, and the two of us are both used to taking secrets with us to the grave. I am becoming surer by the minute, that we can get your parents– yes, your Mother- to keep this all unknown and unknowable: if that’s what you want.’ For several seconds we stood together like that. I could see something like uncertainty in her face. Letting my hands drop and gently moving away, I said ‘I’m sorry, Laura.’
‘The way I keep – manhandling you: it’s not right. I am allowing myself to get carried away by my feelings.’
‘Yes: like Sister Jessop, I just feel that a terrible wrong has been done you – someone who least of all deserved it; and I feel determined that so far as possible, we’re going to see this wrong righted.’
‘It’s good of you – to be so kind.’ The word ‘kind’ seemed oddly out of place.
‘Perhaps I’m trying too hard to be a knight in shining armour.’
‘Then I shall have to start calling you ‘Sir’ again!’ At least there was a hint of a smile now: she was remembering how, when she first arrived at The School, all male teachers at her Prep. School having been called ‘Sir’, it had taken a good two weeks – and no doubt continuous teasing by the others – to get her into calling me by name.
Once she had gone back again to bed, I stood with my thoughts – about tomorrow, about the birth, about how Lady Conyngham would be, about how and whether all these comings and goings would mesh in together; for some reason, I was absurdly confident that I would be able to deal with any difficulty Laura’s mother might present.
All these rushing thoughts were, however, slowly but insistently moved aside: I could, so easily, have kissed her. Should I have kissed her? Of course not. But why not? Because that would have been merely taking advantage of an already very emotional situation. Or because you’re not very expert at kissing? That’s true, but no: because one doesn’t get into entanglements with pupils. She’s not in statu pupillari now, though. Well, similarly, one doesn’t go kissing Parishioners. But she’s not a Parishioner. All right! Not because she’s pregnant with someone else’s child: does that revolt you? No; oh, I don’t know. So you don’t find her at all attractive? Of course she’s attractive: she’s quite lovely, in fact she’s beautiful: but she’s young, so young…But why did you want to kiss her? Did I say I wanted to? You said how easy it would have been to have kissed her. It would have been – like a Mother ‘kissing it better’ for a child. I see – Father! Well, like a Father kissing his daughter – on the top of the head – to congratulate or console her. Were you thinking of kissing the top of her head, then? No! Oh, HELL! I don’t know, I don’t know, I DON’T KNOW!
I gave up, and went to bed.
Sister Jessop was in and out before I got back with the paper, giving me a toot and a cheery wave as she shot off down the road. Bathsheba was not visible, neither was Laura. I started getting some breakfasty things together and Laura appeared, fully dressed (looking much better than when she had gone up last night, positively abubble). She was holding a bag of some sorts and Bathsheba followed her into the kitchen looking very knowing. She sat down, and then began to giggle.
‘I know it’s not really very decorous, but I must show you: just look what Sister Jessop has brought me!’ The giggles were genuine: real Laura. She put a hand into the bag and slowly drew out a tangle of bits of something complicated and huge in white fabric: ‘A Nursing Bra! Very useful. Look, little compartments for pads in case of leakage, and bits to open and shut…’ ‘And –’ the giggles were helpless now and infecting me. ‘-and three pairs of – of these!’ She held up a pair of white bloomers – the sort Grandmothers – old-fashioned Grandmothers, mind – probably used to wear.
When I had recovered from the giggling too, I said, before I could stop myself:
‘But Laura, even in those, you’ll contrive to look quite lovely.’
She put them away and turned very serious: ‘I will keep my promise, really, I will, but – I’m suddenly starving – ravenous: do you mind if I have some Breakfast, and do you also mind if we then go somewhere else for me to do the telling?’
I could see the point in that; the kitchen was redolent of too many bouts of tears to be the place. We ate some toast with home-made marmalade I had bought from the W.I. stall, and drank some tea. She asked if there might be any cheese, which there was and which she ate, all on its own, as if it had been the finest ever – and, of course, apologised for being a nuisance. Sister Jessop, I reasoned, must have given her something to staunch the nausea. After a little silence, we got up together, went into the hall and she chose the sitting room, a room she had not yet been in. All this was done without a word being spoken.
‘It was near the end of Hilary Term and I was at a low ebb: it had been work, work, work, nothing much but work for four whole terms. I was actually missing The School – no-one else up at Cambridge – and because, in any case, I’d always been rather on the sidelines there, I’d never felt able to keep up with anyone: I disliked the cliques and sets, had no particular friend, just several not much more than acquaintances, really. I was even beginning to wonder about the whole academic thing. Cambridge was cold, very cold; I realised that for weeks I had not touched another human being, and you know how very effusive and tactile The School was: even I used to get my fair share of huggings and ‘Mwa’s’ there: to think I used to feel it was all rather tiresome! I was longing, longing for something – friendship, warmth, contact? Coming out of the Library one day, I was stopped by someone blocking my way on the pavement: he looked me up and down, his arms outstretched towards me and said I looked so forlorn and cold, he’d love to buy me a drink. He seemed quite genuine, and he’d found the two things I really was feeling – cold and forlorn. We went to a pub nearby; he bought a couple of drinks. It was the first time I had been asked out by a boy. I said a glass of white wine would be nice – he was elaborately courteous, gazing at me as he asked me questions, who I was, where I lived, what school I’d been at, what I was reading, whether I had any favourite authors, what music I like (it was all church music, which amazed him: as a family, we’re not very musical – just about all the real music I know is what Mr. Franklin taught us.). I suppose I basked in all this attention: I never asked him any questions, beyond establishing that he was Roderick. He bought two – perhaps three – more glasses of wine for me – they were small: his pint seemed enormous, and I hadn’t really registered that he wasn’t drinking it very much. He asked if he might see me back to my College; I said I was in digs. He escorted me back, came up the dark stairs with me in what I thought was a protective way – so polite, waited while I opened the door: it seemed only manners to ask him in. He said he hadn’t dare hope as much, and kissed my hand in an operatic kind of way. I hadn’t even time to offer some coffee, before he was embracing and kissing me: and I just let it happen. The warmth of the wine, and the warmth of another human being seemed good. After a little while, he led me to the bed, still so chivalric. He didn’t even undress me, only the bits that would get in his way, nor did he, other than unzipping himself.
People used to come back after an exeat and regale us with tales of what they and their boyfriends had got up to, and it was always, of course! – ‘absolutely marvellous’. Once or twice they’d set on me: ‘Laura hasn’t done it.’ ‘I wonder if she ever will?’ ‘She hasn’t got a boyfriend.’ ‘Do you think she’s one of those?’ ‘No, she’s just too good…’ ‘Laura’s not interested in sex.’ ‘She probably believes in storks and gooseberry bushes.’ That kind of thing. But whether it was all real that they recounted in graphic detail, or half made up, or completely made up, I didn’t know: I just knew it ought to be exciting and rather blissy. It hurt at first – not tremendously, but quite a bit – ; then it began to be rather nice, in an unusual way – mostly, it was just nice, I thought, to be wanted even in this rather undignified manner. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over. What hurt more than anything, though, was the way he just got up, tucked himself in and together, turned on his heel, and went! No kisses, no caresses, no words, no affection; I just felt wet, messy, uncomfortable, and so cold – colder than ever: used, and discarded – like a crisp-packet or a cigarette end! It was all so trivial, so inconsequential, and yet so nasty. I remember I ran a bath, and lay in it until my finger-tips went wrinkly, trying to wash out the memory, looking at my wrists, and wondering…
Several times after that I saw him, but he was either crossing the road to avoid me, or hurrying past, blotting me out. I had thought him quite nice-looking when he first stopped me; looking at him subsequently, I saw – melodramatic I know – evil: lust, greed, pride, even anger.
‘How could anything as significant as this’, she was stroking her abdomen, ‘as this, result from something so insignificant, so unmomentous? The first and only time: and I had thought that the females in our family were not tremendously fertile! Naturally, it took a couple of months for me to begin to realise, to think… I did try to track this ‘Roderick’ down. I looked at all the College lists, but there was only one Roderick in the whole University, and he was at Magdalene; more than once, I walked through Magdalene, trying to look very casual, trying to spot him, or his name on a staircase. I once even asked for him at the Porters’ Lodge, but the Porter – ‘Excuse me a minute, Miss.’- had to answer the phone, and my courage ‘ran out at the soles of my boots’, and I fled, while his back was turned. And since then I have been hiding myself, trying to keep the work up, being sick – with worry, as well as pregnancy-sick. I got through the Easter vacation all right: Mummy’s always thought me plump, unlike herself – I think she was secretly quite pleased; bless him, Daddy never noticed, even though I didn’t ride once. The Long Vacation was more difficult, but I decided I’d do a retro-Laura-Ashley phase, with voluminous, floaty skirts, and try and match them with a sort of hippy thing: rather they began to fear I was into drugs, than scent the truth. That, and working, working, working. It was a relief, at first, to get back to Cambridge for Michaelmas: no more fear that I should have to get on a horse’s back, and that Jodhpurs would give the game away. One of the strange things is, that absolutely no-one – in College, in the Faculty, in Seminar, Tutorial, Lecture – no-one took any notice. If some complete stranger had come up to me and said, ‘Are you all right?’, if the merest acquaintance had said, ‘Are you sure you’re not pregnant?’ or, less directly, ‘You seem to be putting on weight.’, I should have welcomed the intrusion –seen it as an opportunity – and blurted it all out. But no-one did! Then, out of the blue, out of the recesses of my memory, came your voice: ‘Never feel that there is anything too awful to tell a Priest… never feel that there is something you must try and hide from God… if there is ever anything you need – or just want – to ask or tell me – no matter how silly it might seem at the time, or how terrible – do just come to my room, or stop me in a corridor, after a class, coming out of Lunch – whenever you see me, and come and talk. And if you cannot bring yourself to come to me, go to another Priest…’ I think that was it; it was just after one of the sixth-formers had ended up, first in the local A & E, and then in The Priory. It took days and days and days for me to get up sufficient courage, and days more to find out where you were; then, as I finally dithered, wondering if I could last out until the end of Term, I recalled Miss MacKnight’s slogan – do you remember, the Head when you first came to The School? – ‘Just do it!’ The train-journey was a bit complicated – running late, missing connections – and that’s why it was so late when I got here: I’d thought, if I get there about tea-time, and it’s obviously no good, I can pretend I was just passing, stopped to look in, and would be on the next train. Once I’d paid the taxi-man, and walked up to your front door in the growing dark, it seemed less and less an inspiration, much more a totally idiotic idea. I stood there for at least a minute, before trying the knocker (which wouldn’t budge), and then the bell-pull. Then you opened the door. I was hoping your wife, or if not wife, your housekeeper would let me in, and I could sidle up to the subject obliquely and through a third party, carefully paving the way all the time. But it was you, and you seemed flabbergasted – absolutely horrified, when you saw my case.’
There was a very long silence after this, before I said, rather unsteadily,
‘What can I say, Laura?’
‘I don’t know; but a little hug might be good – if you can bear to. I don’t think there’ll be many on offer when my parents are here.’
© Jethro 2022