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Bell Timson
 


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Bell Timson


  Bell Timson

  Marguerite Steen

  © Marguerite Steen 1946

  Marguerite Steen has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

  First published in 1946 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.

  This edition published in 2017 by The Odyssey Press, an imprint of Endeavour Press Ltd.

  Table of Contents

  PART I – Bell Timson

  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  Chapter IX

  PART II – Kathleen Timson

  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  Chapter IX

  PART III - Bell Timson

  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  PART IV – Kathleen and Jo Timson

  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  PART I – Bell Timson

  Chapter I

  HE SAID TO ME, “Well now, Bell, the trouble’s over, and we’re all clear.”

  I remember his saying that, although I was not paying much attention. We were having a cup of tea in a little shop off the Strand, and I’d been rather wishing George had made it a port. I’d have preferred a nice glass of port in the comer of a quiet saloon bar, where ladies are made comfortable, but that was not George’s way. He was a delicate-minded fellow, with a great respect for the conventions, and it struck me that in spite of the piece about being “all clear” he was treating the occasion rather like a funeral. I hoped I wouldn’t giggle and upset his feelings.

  George had a set of nice manners for every occasion, and he had obviously thought this up very carefully; it was a new one on him, but, bless his heart, he wasn’t going to put a foot wrong! He had on his best suit and the overcoat I had helped him to choose in the gents’ tailoring at Berridge’s. Partial to a buttonhole, George was, but there was no buttonhole this morning. A nice, quiet gray tie, and socks and handkerchief to match; very gentlemanly. Poor old George. It’s terrible how I remember his clothes, and so little of the man inside them. For George was true blue; make no mistake about that. It still makes me laugh when I think that one little glass of port might have made all the difference: warmed the air, made George not so much of a gentleman and me not so much of a lady.

  George might be sitting beside me now, in the other comer of the Rolls ... Wait a minute. If I had married George it wouldn’t have been a Rolls. It would have been a little place at Purley or Hendon, with the garage built on, and dear old George coming and going as regular as clockwork, pottering about the garden on Saturday afternoons and going off for his round of golf on Sunday mornings; it would have been a girl for the housework, and me looking after the mending and seeing to the dinner. Well, why not? I’d have fitted into that life well enough — better than George would fit into our lives today. And let’s face it: that life of George’s would have represented something near paradise to me, on that morning when we sat in the Copper Kettle, down Buckingham Street, drinking China tea and being genteel over hot buttered scones.

  The other customers looked at us quite a lot: taking us for married, I expect — George in his best suit, and me ... well, I dare say I was worth looking at, from the men’s point of view, anyhow. The funny thing was, women liked me as well; they trusted me. They still do. And women’s trust has been worth a lot more to me in the last thirty years than anything I’ve picked up from the men. I’ve still got a skin like a baby’s, and I have to clip my eyelashes because they get in the way of my glasses, but I haven’t got the figure I had in 1912, when I hadn’t had my thirty-fifth birthday, and I was still as vain as a peacock of my fine bust and narrow waist. I’d dressed myself carefully that morning, too: a dark blue tailor-made — off the peg, but I had the figure for it. I could walk into any shop those days, and the things fitted as if I’d been measured for them. I remember the head saleswoman at Berridge’s asking me if I’d ever thought of becoming a mannequin! And, believe me or not, I was shocked at the idea. That’s the way we were in 1912. I took Kathleen into Le Sage’s the other day; there was a royal-blue-and-cherry cocktail outfit that I thought would suit her. The girl showing the gown winked at me, and it was little Valerie Pollock, the admiral’s daughter. Nice child. I’d like to know what her grandmother would have thought of that.

  I’d got on a little black hat with dark blue wings and a tucked muslin blouse. I still keep to those quiet styles. When Kathleen wanted a mink coat I gave it her, but I didn’t let them tempt me with one for myself. Seal or a smart astrakhan are all right, but you’ve got to be careful; they’ll just swallow the Rolls, but it wouldn’t do for me to start cutting a dash; people would begin to wonder.

  Anyhow, there was I, in my black and dark blue, which brought up my pink-and-white skin and dark blue eyes, and I could see the women’s looks, friendly, half smiling, thinking to themselves, That’s a really nice woman. It made me laugh inside to think how they’d alter their opinion if they knew I had just come out of the divorce court. For divorce, in 1912, was still supposed to be disgraceful. It was all right if you belonged to the fashionable upper set — although they were said to be feeling the draft since Queen Mary came on the throne; but the middle classes were all solidly Victorian, especially the women. One and all, they set their faces against divorce, for the sake of religion, of the home, of the children — any old thing they could think up, that would make them feel safe and justify their behavior. For when it came to reasoning — well, they didn’t. It made no difference if one was the divorcer or the divorcee; the woman who had the courage and the common sense, for her own sake and that of her children, to get rid of some drunken, lecherous pig of a man shared the ostracism of one who was thrown out for taking half a dozen lovers to her bed.

  You couldn’t blame them. It was — and is still — just a state of society. In a country where there’s man shortage, like England, women are natural enemies from the cradle. When a woman gets married, apart from the envy she rouses, there is plenty of good feeling, because that means one less in the competitive ring. But the woman who gets rid of her husband is cheating; instead of being safely locked away inside the bonds of holy matrimony she’s prowling round again, getting in the way of other women who haven’t made their kill. It’s no use telling them that, having once known what marriage is like, one would sooner swallow prussic acid than try it again; and that, if you ask me, is what the average woman feels like after she has got her divorce. They don’t believe it, and they don’t want to believe it. And why not? Because women are not fools, because they know that, where men are concerned, a widow or a divorced woman is like a carrot hung before the nose of a donkey. They’ll follow it for miles. “The woman with experience”: that was the draw in the old days. Of course today, when chits of fifteen know more than I knew after ten years of marriage, it’s not the same; and wives, too, are different in these days. But before the last war, when husbands went roving off, they were generally on the track of some easygoing female, to whom they could tell the funny stories they had to water down for their wives, who liked the company in a bar and didn’t mind a fellow slipping his arm round their waists when they were riding home on the bus. These were the things widows and divorced women were supposed to enjoy, although, if you ask my opinion, a good many only pretended to enjoy it be
cause it was a way of escape from the loneliness and emptiness of their lives. If a woman has been quiet and respectable in her married life she doesn’t alter from the minute the burial certificate is signed or the decree nisi pronounced. But it’s no use expecting a man to understand that.

  Well, that is how those nice, friendly-looking women in the Copper Kettle would have thought if they had known about me. I could picture how their eyes would close down and the corners of their mouths tighten, and how careful they would be not to look at our table as they went out. I would be the Scarlet Woman, and George — I hate to think what poor old George would have been, sitting there as good as gold, remembering his manners and speaking in a sort of muffled voice, as if the corpse was in the next room! I really hardly dared to smile at him, in case he were shocked; and this in spite of the fact that George knew — none better! — what I had been through in the last ten years. If he had used his brains for a moment he must have known I was ready to kick up my heels and dance the cakewalk along the Strand! Oh dear, how that would have shocked him — the thought, I mean; so far as the act went, he’d have dropped dead. My imagination was getting too much for me; I had to smother a giggle in my handkerchief, and George, bless him, thought I was crying, and leaned forward, so that other people should not see me. Any other man would have taken my hand or given me a pat on the knee, but George was always a gentleman. He seemed to have become more of a gentleman since we sat together in the law courts and heard the judge read out the absolute. Anyhow, here was I, Bell Timson, free at last, after ten long, miserable years.

  I pulled myself together, filled our cups again, and passed the muffins to George, who took one reverently. He reminded me of the chief mourner, sitting there with his head slightly lowered, his jaws champing and his face carefully solemn, as if he had been reading a manual on the proper behavior for getting a friend divorced. I hadn’t seen much of him since the case came on, because one has to be careful between the nisi and the absolute, and I knew Harry would just like, out of spite, to trip me up. But my solicitor hadn’t seen any harm in his going down with me, as an old friend of the family, to hear the “all clear.” How one slips into modern expressions! The words “all clear” had no special meaning in 1912, when the Kaiser hadn’t started to make trouble and the lights of Piccadilly showed in the sky halfway to Kensington.

  I thought George was looking older, and there were lines round his eyes that you don’t expect to see in the face of a man in his middle thirties. Perhaps the business was worrying him. He was a manager of one of the chain stores in our suburb, and did very well, with salary and commission. It must have been difficult for him to get off this morning; perhaps he was worrying about the shop. He asked me what I was thinking.

  “It’s time I was getting over to fetch the children from Stanley’s.”

  I started to put on my gloves. Stanley is my brother — one of them. They were all horrified about the divorce of course. I’d had a taste from my sisters-in-law of what I might expect, when I scandalized them by breaking up my marriage. Nora, Stanley’s wife, was the most vicious of the lot. I didn’t quarrel with her, poor thing; I knew half of it was envy. She hated Stanley, and I think she would have poisoned him if she could have got away with it, but she couldn’t face what it would mean to get rid of him by law. Still, they’d got a house at Streatham Common, and it was a good place for the children to go to. Give her her due, Nora was always kind to them and as determined as I was that they should not know what had happened between their father and me. A thing like that puts a kink into a child’s mind and sets it at a disadvantage among its school friends. That was one of the first things I had to do: find a new school for Kathleen and Jo.

  George said, “But you’ve not told me any of your plans yet.”

  “I’m waiting for someone to tell them to me,” I was beginning, and then knew I’d said the wrong thing. I could have bitten my tongue out when George jerked his head up, his face all shining like the full moon, no more funerals about him. It was as if he got outside his best suit, that was strangling him, and I remember thinking that, considering the sedentary life he led, George was a fine figure of a man, well set up, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, flat back and front, and nice straight carriage — the type that would have made a guardsman, with some army training to tone up his muscles and give him that extra bit of chest expansion that his height required. You couldn’t call him handsome — his face was a bit puggy, and there wasn’t enough brow to balance the jaw — but all the time the proposal was pouring out of him — I should say, dripping, for George was never fluent, and it was more like a tap that needed a new washer — I was thinking:

  Bell Timson, you must be mad; many a woman half your age would jump at George Glaize — which, of course, was an exaggeration; I was only thirty-four, and George didn’t care for “flappers,” as we called them then; but what I had been through had made me feel more than my age, though I didn’t look it. It flashed across my mind that this was the sort of thing I might expect for the next few years, if I kept my looks and my figure. Even when I was in my teens I seemed to be the type that made people think about home and marriage, goodness knows why. Watching other girls enjoying themselves, I used to wonder why I never seemed to get the chance of a good flirtation with nothing serious at the back of it. It was no use; just at the height of the fun it was sure to pop out. A girl can’t be thinking about matrimony all the time. Still, that’s the way it was, and goodness knows I paid for it.

  Well, I let George drip himself to a finish, and by then I may say I was feeling a bit ashamed of myself. I had been letting old George hang around all these years, without the least intention, apart from getting all I could out of him. I don’t mean material things — although I did very handsomely at Christmas out of the shop where George was salesman before he got to be manager of the chain store. There was always a box of sugared biscuits or crystallized fruits for the kiddies and a big canister of tea for me. I was ashamed to accept them sometimes, knowing what a little order ours was, and how the bills went trailing on from week to week. But he treated me like a gentleman, the same as he treated people who spent ten or twelve pounds a week in the shop. It seems nothing now, when people give me jewelry now and again, or a set of furs, or a fiver’s worth of orchids: a woman of my age can take presents of that sort from her gentlemen friends without being misunderstood. They think they owe me something; I bet they do! Perhaps I smile, when I look at young Beetle Curzon’s platinum wrist watch, and remember George’s canisters of tea! But it’s only kindly; for you were true blue, George, and the salt of the earth; and the Best Indian (that came out of your boss’s pocket, not yours) was worth any present I’ve ever had since.

  Besides George would not have felt it was right to give me presents; it would not have fitted in with his morality. Me, a married woman! The few times he brought me a bunch of flowers he was careful to explain they had come out of his own garden, and he had really only brought them along to show me how well the sweet peas were doing on that new artificial manure they were running as a special line in the shop.

  It would be hard to explain what I really got out of George. We didn’t have many opportunities of meeting, and we never got further than a bottle of Guinness or an occasional sherry at the Haymakers, which was a quiet little house kept by a friend of George’s. She was a nice woman, and I like to think I’ve been able to do her a good turn since. She used to let us have her parlor, and we would sit and talk — I expect I did most of the talking — with nobody to spy on us or gossip. And, believe me or not, in all those times we never once held hands or had a kiss. I must have known, in the back of my mind, what George wanted, but I was so sick of everything to do with sex that I wouldn’t admit it. Yes, I know what I got from George: the friendship of a decent, honest fellow, who respected my womanhood and was too unselfish to remind me he was a man.

  So when George had finished speaking I waited a moment, then I said, “George. If ever you wa
nt a housekeeper” — I knew this was a safe one, because he lived with his mother, and when the old lady died there was an elder sister waiting to whisk him safely out of the way of designing females like me! — “I’ll come to you. I’ll nurse you if you get ill, and if you marry I’ll look after your children. But marry you I won’t; not you or anybody else, ever again — so help me God!”

  It was pitiful to see the light die out of his face and the way he shrank back into his suit, like a snail withdrawing into its shell. You see, being such a gentleman, it had never occurred to him that a woman could behave the way I had done. I mean, the sort of woman George took me to be: what he would have called a lady. I’d “led him on”; for nearly six years I’d encouraged him to hang after me — neither of us saying anything, certainly, but what are words anyhow? I’d let him see I valued his company, and this, for a simple creature like George, was quite enough. Whatever he expected when he ‘popped the question” (perhaps at rather an ill chosen moment), it was not to be turned down flat, without even a word of hope for the future.

  I saw the sweat running down his forehead. At that moment I could have taken him in my arms. Looking back, I think it was a mercy we were at the Copper Kettle. If this scene had taken place in the landlady’s parlor at the Haymakers there might have been a different ending, disastrous to us both. For I felt so tender about him that I’d have said anything; I’d have rocked him like a baby, I’d have let him kiss me, I’d have said, “Oh, George, I’ll do anything for you — I’ll sleep with you if you like — anything, so long as I don’t have to marry you.” Perhaps this would have been a good thing to say: it would have destroyed his illusions about me; it would have prevented his walking about for thirty years with me enshrined in his heart, and he might have found somebody who lent herself to the enshrining business better than Bell Timson! I don’t know; after all these years I still don’t know. But it still upsets me to think about it, and I never get over the shame I felt at the time or the way I lost face with myself for my behavior to George.

 
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