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Going Out: Chip Tolson

Champagne flowed late into the night; Jane did without and slipped away as dawn broke and the others slept in the sumptuous hotel suite. The Saab convertible’s comfortable purr eased her regrets, the keen morning air massaging her hair in the slipstream. Approaching Stonehenge she caught up slab sided supermarket lorries slowing on the incline, the Saab responded stretching its stride to pass the wagons. The bye road junction was in a mile or two.
Would Great Aunt Susan remember her? It had been two years.

My dearest Ian,
I should have written earlier. Now you’ve come here it’s wonderful. These people see everything, they read my letters, search my cupboards; it isn’t as if I’m a risk. I have top security clearance and you can vouch for that.
I saw you across the mess hall: tall, smartly dressed out of your uniform. I hadn’t expected you to find me. I hate going into that mess hall. I eat my meals quickly and get back to my room.
You probably didn’t see me, but I knew it was you sitting by the French window, the sun shining in and you not looking a day older. Are you still ‘Lieutenant Commander’ now it’s been over for so many years? I heard you’d been knighted. Can that be true? ‘Sir Ian’, I like the sound of that: ‘Sir Ian and Lady Latimer…’ if only. Perhaps I made it up. The tablets do that to me.
I’m in Room 19. They permit visitors, but I don’t get many. They allow me to go out if I’m accompanied, but at the front door I have to be signed out in a book, like a parcel. I try to get out without signing.
Remember the evening we sneaked out for a picnic high on the hills looking down on the sea loch, the depot ship fast on her moorings. We raced up the hill; you struggled lugging the picnic basket.

Tall trees flickered sunlight into the lane as Jane eased the car watching for the gates. Had she missed them before the bye-road narrowed into this winding lane?

Tinned salmon and mayonnaise: we made sandwiches folded in slices of newly baked bread and we drank chilled champagne liberated from the wardroom, no glasses we took turns to slurp it down from the bottle. It fizzed over my face tingling down my neck; you unbuttoned my blouse to kiss it from my breasts until we shivered in the evening dew, a pale sun setting over Argyll’s silent hills standing guard over a gathered convoy.

The signboard was masked with clinging ivy. Jane used the width of the lane to turn in through iron gates the drive curving up a gentle hill until it swept round in front of a white-stuccoed portico too grand for the house standing behind it. Cars were parked nose-in to a wall. Jane sat flicking her hair into place the electric roof unfolding from its storage locker cutting out the sunlight. Eyes watched her from the house.

I wish I still lived at home. I could walk around my own garden, sit in my old chair, sleep in my own bed for as long as I wanted, and most of all not take these bloody tablets.
Sorry, I shouldn’t swear.
I hate the tablets.
I’ve missed you, Ian.
Your letters gave a hint of where your ship was bound; the censors never finding our hidden messages. Then no more letters.

Jane took a deep breath, pushed through the front door to the wood panelled hallway greeted by a smell of furniture polish and disinfectant. A bell and a book for visitors rested on the counter. She pressed the bell and waited.

I’m expecting another trip soon; last time it was a troopship sailing at speed changing course to zigzag our way across. I was stuck in the signals shack, feeling sick for days de-coding reports from the Admiralty about U-boats, passing their position fixes to nearby convoys, but the merchantmen were still picked off, blown apart as they wallowed on the bitter Atlantic swell.
It will be refugees and wounded outward bound for The States, homeward a full ship of GIs, young boys who haven’t a clue where they’re going, but they’re sweet; they look up to our deck blowing kisses and call me “Ma’am”. New York is wonderful: shops full and no rationing. I’ll bring back a suitcase of silk slips and nylons for the girls.
Last night a doctor came to my room; I hadn’t sent for him. He said I wasn’t taking my pills; they stand over me at pill time. I try to keep them under my tongue and spit them out when they’ve gone.
I almost forgot. Thank you for the carnations. Were they for my birthday? I didn’t think you’d remember, not after so many years.
Thank you, my sweetheart; I am forever yours, Susie.

‘I haven’t been to a public house for a long time, dear.’
‘Will you be all right under the sunshade, Aunt Susan?’
‘I’m indoors all day, dear. It’s fun to be outside in fresh air away from the smells.’
‘Dad thought you might want to go shopping.’
‘There’s nothing to buy, everything is provided. Could you put my drink down for me? They didn’t give me a tablet this morning.’ The plastic garden chair shook as the old woman gripped its arm. ‘How’s your mother?’
‘Fine, she’s lived in America since their separation. She must be enjoying herself or she’d be on the phone every day.’
‘I wondered why she hadn’t been to see me. Did she go with an American?’
‘Dad doesn’t know it, but she has a new partner.’ Jane felt easy telling her great aunt this gossip, a frisson of excitement in sharing the secret.
‘Partner: that’s what it’s called now; they were GI brides in my day.’
‘Did you have an American boyfriend, Aunt Susan?’
‘Not me, but I went to New York. Twice, on the Queen Mary as a troopship.’ The fragile old lady sat hunched under the sunshade beaming at the memory gazing out over the pub garden, her suit baggy on her now small frame. ‘Ian was my paramour, a young Scots naval officer. His ship was lost.’
‘That’s awful.’
‘It happened. It wasn’t an easy time to be in love: best just to be friends. Do you know what they said about the GIs and British girls’ knickers?’
Jane raised an eyebrow.
‘One yank and they’re off.’
‘Aunt Susan.’ There was a flickering smile on her great aunt’s lips, her watery eyes blinking. Was it her quip or the memory of her naval beau of so long ago? Jane reached across to hold the quivering hand, slack skin papery to her touch.
Your top’s too short, it doesn’t tuck into your skirt.’
‘It’s fashion, Aunt Susan, cropped tops to show your hips.’
‘You take after your grandmother even with your belly button on display. She and I had figures like yours when we were young, but navy issue undergarments were passion killers. Anyway, I’m your Great Aunt.’
‘Great Aunt Susan, then. I’ve seen pictures of you in your WRNS uniform. You looked gorgeous.’
‘Undo this brooch, dear, it keeps coming loose.’

The waitress placed laden plates on the table.
‘Is it too much?’
‘Real food, I’ll eat the fish and a little piece of vegetable. Will you have another glass of wine, dear?’ The waitress hovered.
‘I’m driving, but you have one, Great Aunt.’
‘Just call me Susie, dear. I’ve spilt most of this drink with this stupid hand.’
‘And a slim-line tonic, please.’ The waitress smiled acknowledgement.
‘I like your car, dear. Shall we put the top down this afternoon? Ian had a sports car, an MG, a 1933 J3, he was so proud of it. We used to fly through the lanes when he could wangle the petrol.’ There was a twinkle in the old woman’s eye, a hint of colour on her cheek.
‘I love my car, Susie. It’s the best thing I ever bought.’
‘You’re doing well; your father told me you earn stacks of money in the City.’
It still hurt. For a moment Jane wanted to say yes, but why pretend to this frank old lady?
‘I was made redundant, Susie. It’s all over now.’ Jane picked at an imagined hair on her lapel. ‘I haven’t told Dad; he always asks, every time there are cuts in the City. I tell him it’s going well, but I haven’t got a job, I haven’t been in work for ten months.’
‘You have a fine car, and smart clothes.’
‘I’m living each day as it comes. It’s the twenty-first century; a girl has to do whatever she can with whatever she has to earn money and… what the hell; I’ve got used to a life of plenty.’ Why was she saying this to her great aunt? Susie was bound to tell her father.
‘Why is your father in America, dear?’
‘He isn’t. It’s Mum who’s gone to the States.’
‘I saw Ian last night.’
‘Your Ian?’
‘He’s come to take me away from that place.’ For a while her hand didn’t shake; Susie took up her wine glass, sipped from its edge, a gentle glow in her complexion, her pale eyes looking at Jane. ‘You’re right, dear; live as you can, but look after yourself, don’t get hurt.’ The glass shook as she took another sip. ‘My excitements all happened long ago and I missed my chance. I didn’t realise it at the time and then it was too late.’
Jane watched swifts arcing across the sky, screaming as they swept over the weathered stone buildings. A column of midges spiralled in the sunlight.
‘The fish was good, I can’t eat any more, dear.’
Jane wanted to lean across and pick a crumb of fish off her great aunt’s blouse. ‘Did you get the flowers, Susie? Dad sent them for your birthday.’
‘I was surprised Ian remembered.’

‘You were not signed out, Miss …’
‘Never mind that. I’ve had a good day out and I don’t want you spoiling it. I have been out driving with Lieutenant Commander Sir Ian Latimer. He’s a friend of mine. He will be calling again tomorrow.’
Jane lingered in the hallway; her great aunt disappearing along the corridor, pursued by the care assistant.
‘You’ll need to find someone else for my room tomorrow; I’ll not be coming back. Sir Ian will be taking me home.’

The car seat was hot from the sun. Jane unclasped the brooch Susie gave her, a gold navy crown picked out in small diamonds, a worn inscription on its back. Susie had laughed and waved as they’d driven with the roof down through summer villages, her thin white hair ruffling in the wind.
The hands-free mobile on the dashboard rang.
‘Magenta, you left early this morning. You’ll be back in time, won’t you?’
Jane sat in her car looking at the railings along the garden paths and the wheelchair ramp up to the front door. She traced the pattern of the warm brooch, sensing the little diamonds with her fingertip.
‘Magenta, are you there? Don’t let me down. You must get back; I’ve promised them you’ll be here; they took a shine to you and it’s a good payday for all of us.’
‘Yes, Chloe, I’ll be there. Give me an hour.’ Jane revved the engine pulling- on a pair of calfskin gloves.

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