A Tangled Web
Daisy Buttermilk and Cynthia Higgins would have described themselves as best friends, but it might be more accurate to say that they habitually went about together. They had been class mates at school, and had since spent much time in each other's company - at the cinema, to dances, in the tea shop - but in truth they had no real interests in common. As is often the case in such circumstances, they were dissimilar in many ways. Daisy was animated, pretty, and blonde; Cynthia was serious, plain, and dark. Daisy had not done well at school, and now worked in a florists; Cynthia had passed seven subjects in the GSC and now worked in a chemists. Daisy dreamed of becoming a film star; Cynthia was going to night school studying to become a pharmacist. Daisy had a boyfriend; Cynthia had none.
Daisy often spoke of her boyfriend - too often for Cynthia's liking, and at too great a length - so that although Cynthia had never met him, she had heard a great deal about him. She had learned that he was good looking, intelligent, witty, kind, and courteous. She had learned that his name was Gerald Nettles and that his aunt Rhoda was the matron at the Felsham Academy for Boys. For that reason, when she heard a customer say that his aunt was matron at the school, it piqued her interest. She did not think that the man could be Gerald. He was too old - about forty she guessed - and, judging by his regular purchases which required the male assistant to serve him, was a man of the world. He must, she thought, be Gerald's brother or cousin, perhaps a black sheep of the family, which might explain why Daisy had never mentioned him.
The man was Fred Atkins. He was not related to the school matron, indeed he had no idea whether there was such a person. He had simply invented the relationship to explain his purchase of a large quantity of castor oil. Cynthia had no reason to suspect his story, and thought that she was now in possession of information which might embarrass Daisy.
When they next met, therefore, she asked,
Has your Gerald got a brother or a cousin?
Daisy laughed condescendingly.
Why, are you hoping to get one like him for yourself? Sorry to disappoint you, dear, but he hasn't got a brother, and his only cousin is a girl. He's an only child and lives with his widowed mother. His aunt Rhoda has one child, a girl, Geraldine. She teaches at the school where her mother is matron. Gerald has no other family.
Are you sure? Because we had a customer in the other day who said that his aunt was the matron at the school.
I'm quite sure. It must have been Gerald.
Cynthia considered this possibility for a moment, then gave a little shudder, and drew away from her companion.
Why, Daisy Buttermilk! Who'd have thought it? You of all people! Why, you're no better than a . . . How could you?
How could I what? asked a baffled Daisy.
You know what I mean! How could you, you know, do it? Before you are married! Before you're engaged even!
Cynthia Higgins! Are you implying what I think you are implying? You know very well I am not that sort of a girl!
Oh, don't come the innocent with me, Miss. It just so happens that your Gerald comes into our shop every Friday at half past four to buy the thingies.
The thingies? What thingies? What are you talking about?
In a low voice Cynthia replied,
You know - the rubber goods, the johnnies, the Durex.
Cynthia Higgins, don't be so disgusting! I'll have you know, I've never seen my Gerald with any such things.
In that case, you'd better ask yourself who is seeing him with them, Cynthia said pointedly, adding to herself,
That's wiped the smile off your smug face, my lady.
On her next afternoon off, a perturbed Daisy went to the Felsham Academy to see Rhoda. Gerald had introduced them weeks ago, and Daisy now took advantage of the acquaintance to ask Rhoda if she had any nephews other than Gerald. Rhoda did not much like Daisy, but thought that there was no harm in Gerald's amusing himself with a silly bit of fluff until something better came along. She found Daisy's curiosity as to their family unwelcome, and informed her curtly that Gerald was her only nephew. Daisy's reaction to this apparently innocuous information was to break down into tears.
Between sobs, she told Rhoda what she had learned from Cynthia. Secretly, Rhoda was both amused and reassured. She had been worried that Gerald was something of a milquetoast, and was gratified to hear that she had underestimated him. To get rid of Daisy, she promised to have strong words with Gerald. She felt that she should, in any case, have a heart-to-heart with him concerning matters of hygiene.
After Daisy had left, Rhoda had second thoughts. Where would she stand if Gerald denied everything? She had no direct evidence of his sexual activities, and come to think of it, neither had Daisy. She did not wish to face Gerald with third-hand gossip. She would, she thought, be on firmer ground if she could establish the truth for herself. She decided, therefore, to try to catch Gerald at the chemists with the conclusive evidence in his hand.
The following Friday at four twenty-five she was lingering in a shop doorway across the road from Timothy White and Taylor's. Four-thirty came and went, and Gerald had not shown up. Neither had Fred, as he had been delayed. Not wishing to lurk any longer, Rhoda crossed the road and went into the chemists.
I am Mrs Sessions, the matron of Felsham Academy, she told the girl behind the counter.
I believe you know my nephew by sight. Cynthia signified that she did.
When he comes in, would you please tell him that I would like to speak with him. I shall be waiting in the ABC tea-rooms.
She had not been gone two minutes before Fred entered the shop. After he had made his purchase from the male assistant, Cynthia beckoned to him.
Your aunt was in just now. You only missed her by a minute. She wants to see you, and is waiting in the ABC tea-rooms.
Fred did have an aunt, Ernestine, who lived in a cottage a few miles outside Nutchester. They did not see much of each other, but got on well enough when they did meet. Fred thought that Ernestine was
a bit of a queer stick, an opinion which many shared. During the war she had served with the Women's Land Army as reception officer for the county, a role which she had thoroughly enjoyed. She still retained more than a hint of the uniform in her usual civilian attire - stout brogue shoes, knee length socks, jodhpur style trousers, knitted sweater, tweed hacking jacket with leather patches, and a flat brimmed hat atop of her Eton-cropped hair. She was a familiar sight around Nutchester, riding her army surplus BSA M20 motorcycle, or driving her MG TA Midget sports car. Fred thought that she probably wanted him to do some work on one of her vehicles.
On her way to the ABC, Rhoda had stopped to buy four ounces of scented cachous from Larkins sweet shop, and so entered the tea-rooms only just ahead of Fred. They crossed the floor to two adjacent tables in the window. Two elderly waitresses came forward and requested their orders.
I'm waiting for someone. I'll order later, thank you.
At the same time Fred said,
I'll order later, please. I'm expecting someone to join me.
They looked at each other and laughed at the absurd coincidence. They continued chatting after the waitresses had left. Ten minutes later, neither of their companions having arrived, they had tea together. After tea, they went together to see Kind Hearts and Coronets at the Premier Cinema across the street.
When she finished work, Cynthia wondered how the interview between Gerald and his aunt was going. Daisy had told her that Rhoda had promised to
tear him off a strip. Curiosity led her towards the ABC tea-rooms. She was in time to see Fred and Rhoda going towards the cinema arm in arm, laughing and joking. When she next saw Daisy, she made sure to apprise her of this event.
Laughing, they were, she informed her, adding,
They must have been talking about you. She smiled inwardly to see Daisy shrink two sizes smaller.
The next day, Fred sent a postcard to his aunt.
Waited, but you didn't turn up. I'll be in the ABC again next Friday 4.35. Yr loving nephew, Fred, it said.
On receiving this cryptic message, Ernestine presumed that a previous postcard, making the original appointment, had gone astray.
Rhoda called round to Gerald's house to find out why he had missed their appointment. Gerald was not at home, so she left a message with his mother, saying that she would wait for him in the tea-rooms at the same time the following Friday.
By the following Friday, however, she had once again changed her mind. What business was it of hers what Gerald did with his life? She would be glad to see Gerald break with Daisy. Why should she help her keep hold of him? At four twenty-five on Friday afternoon she went into the chemists and asked Cynthia to tell her nephew, when he came in, that she would not be able to meet him after all. Five minutes later, Fred received this message and so did not go to the tea-rooms to meet Ernestine.
In the tea-room, Ernestine and Gerald sat at nearby tables waiting, respectively, for a nephew and an aunt. Gerald was feeling sorry for himself. For two weeks Daisy had been avoiding him without explanation, and now Rhoda was summoning him to a mysterious meeting, with an implied rebuke for missing an appointment he knew nothing about. Why, he wondered, was the world ganging up on him?
Seeking to get a better view of the doorway, Ernestine swivelled and leaned back. Her chair, made of bentwood with a cane seat, was not used to such contortions from so sturdy an occupant. It groaned, creaked, cracked, and snapped. Ernestine fell to the floor onto her fortunately well upholstered behind. She was helped to her feet by Gerald and an elderly waitress. She was not physically injured, but annoyed at the quality of assistance on offer. Why were there no pretty young waitresses any more, she wondered crossly. She sat cautiously on a fresh chair, and accepted a complimentary cup of tea from the manageress.
As he left the tea-room, Gerald became aware of a stinging pain in the middle finger of his right hand. Examining it, he could see that he had picked up a splinter from the broken chair. He was accustomed to referring such minor injuries to his mother for attention, and he felt peculiarly vulnerable to be without her maternal ministrations.
With a tear gathering in the corner of his eye, he entered the chemists, held his finger out towards Cynthia, and wailed tremulously,
I've got a splinter.
Cynthia suppressed the laugh that rose within her. He was quite a good looking young man, and it would not hurt, she thought, to humour him.
There, there, never mind, she said.
Let Cynthia make it better.
She took his hand in hers. The splinter was easily visible, but she could not tell which way it ran. She raised his finger to her mouth and softly ran the tip of her tongue over it. Having thus detected which end was uppermost, she gently squeezed the finger to extrude the end, and removed the splinter with a pair of tweezers.
There we are, all done. I'll just kiss it better, and she kissed the tip of his finger.
Immediately she feared that she had gone too far, and that he would be angry to be so patronised. She flushed at the thought. Gerald, however, was gazing at her in adoration. His mother could have done no better than this angel of mercy, who looked so pretty when she blushed.
Thank you so much, he stammered.
How much will that be?
Oh, no charge, said Cynthia, adding with a laugh,
Have that one on me.
You've been so kind. I must repay you somehow.
Suddenly bold, Cynthia said,
Tell you what, Lady Godiva Rides Again is on at the Premier. You can take me to see that if you like.
Gerald gratefully accepted this unexpected offer. Cynthia collected her hat and coat, and they left laughing, arm in arm.
Ernestine left the tea-room, still regretfully pondering the dearth of pretty girls. How different it had been in the war! In charge of all those fresh-faced young city girls, willing, eager even, to learn country ways. And with so many men away fighting, there were fewer of the beasts to lead her charges astray. As she emerged onto the street, Fate intervened to give her the lie. A lovely young girl, blonde and blooming, was stepping lively along the way, a summer dress tight around a trim waist, flaring out at her hips to a bouffant skirt, the epitome of femininity. As Ernestine eyed her with interest, the girl glanced across the street, stopped in her tracks, gasped
Oh! and burst into tears.
As closing time at the florists approached, Daisy had felt the need for something to cheer her up. The pain of learning that Gerald was a cad had been increased by his aunt's cynical pretence of sympathy. It had occurred to her that if she hurried she could catch Cynthia before the chemists closed, and they could go and see Lady Godiva Rides Again, which she had heard spoken of as a cheerful comedy. On her way she glanced towards the cinema to see if it was busy, and was surprised to see Cynthia already going in that direction. She was more surprised to see that Cynthia was not alone. She was with someone. She was with a boy. She was with Gerald!
Oh! gasped Daisy, and burst into tears.
A strong arm wrapped around her shoulders, and pressed her to a tweed-clad bosom.
There, there, my dear! Don't take on so. Things are never as bad as they seem. Tell me all about it.
Unaccountably, she found herself pouring out her woes to Ernestine, how her boy friend was a sex fiend, his aunt a hypocrite, her best friend a Jezebel, and nobody cared if she lived or died.
Oh, you poor girl. All men are brutes. We women have to learn how to cope with that. Never despair, dear. Love can be found in unexpected places. Come home with me, and we'll see what we can work out.
She ushered Daisy to her car. Daisy had expected a more commodious vehicle than the low slung two-seater, but Ernestine held open the vestigial door, so she sat on the seat and swung her legs into the MG. Her full skirt was somewhat problematical, but Ernestine thoughtfully held it down and smoothed it over her thighs, humming approvingly.
Did you say something? asked Daisy.
I was just thinking, dear, that it does not do to dwell upon the past. Just think of this as a new beginning.
She inserted her large frame into the driver's seat, started the car, and drove off cheerfully towards the future.