Friends

15 November 2012

TEA FOR TEA, PART 3 (repeat)

George arrived punctually at five o'clock, carrying a colossal bouquet of bronze carnations. He presented them with a slight bow which generated another fracas in the pit of Gentle's gut. She stuttered her appreciation and prayed they weren't a precursor for some sort of declaration. Perhaps she shouldn't have worn a dress with a plunging neckline, but it was the only one that complemented the decor, a blend of sage and cream with a dash of subtle orange at the neck.
           
After putting the gorgeous blooms in w
ater, she led the way to the library, intact still with her benefactor's books, where she intended to serve tea. The same autumn-like flavour had been accomplished by filling an array of ceramic vases with more preserved foliage and roping in some yellow ribbon. The log fire was blazing, its flames reproduced in two glass decanters on an Italian escritoire. A low varnished table, identical in length to the two beige couches either side, was already laid. Neatly folded Irish linen napkins indicated the seating arrangement. Scents of firewood, pot pouri, and lavender polish gave the setting a homely quality. Dimmed lighting hid the stains on the wallpaper that came with the house, a predisposition to redecorate having fully eluded her.
           
George's outfit: taupe cords and polo neck shirt, and a rust-coloured suede jacket, perfectly fitted the room. Remarkably at ease, he warmed his backside in front of the fire before sliding to a place at the table. He unfurled his napkin and planted it on his knee with enviable aplomb. 'This is exceedingly civilised,' he remarked as he dug the salad servers into the bowl and transferred a bundle of lamb's lettuce and spinach to his plate.
           
'I thought salad would be safest, not knowing your preference.'
           
'My preference, dear Gentle, is for simple fare.' George aimed his fork at the cornflower dish. 'And I'm rather partial to home-baked goodies like those delectable scones.' He stabbed the fork into a slice of ham, then helped himself to a segment of pork pie.
           
'Would you like pickles with your meat?'
           
'No thanks, m'dear. I like them, but they're not overly fond of me. Pickles, particularly onions, give me a gippy tum.' George speared a cherry tomato and viewed his surroundings, taking in the magnificent portrait of an elderly man above the mantelpiece. Gentle tracked his glance and denigrated the artist again for not signing his work; a signature might have solved the secret of the estate. Ethel Rhodes said the portrait had always been there, but she didn't know the subject.
           
Ethel was Gentle's immediate neighbour. A middle-aged widow who had lived in the area for twenty years. When her husband was alive, they often visited the house. It was she who unveiled the owner's identity: Gilbert Mellish, describing him as an elderly bachelor who had chosen to take more modest accommodation. No, she did not have the address. No, she wasn't aware that Mr Mellish had any family. Gentle had striven to trace the man, but the solicitor declined to divulge any more. Mr Mellish, he said, was entitled to do what he liked with his personal domain. He was also entitled to his privacy. Miss Appleyard must either take it or leave it. Goodbye. Gentle shook her head at the memory of the man's curtness and recalled Polly's reproof that she hadn't thought fit to shove a fist in his scowling face.
           
'Is something wrong?' George asked.
           
'Just me and my pointless thoughts,' she said, and wondered if she should explain about the house. She decided against it. It was such an improbable tale, he wouldn't believe a word of it. Seeing that George had finished his salad, she passed him the dish of scones. 'Can I tempt you?' she enquired.
           
'Definitely, m'dear.' George attacked a scone with his knife, his gleeful expression as he spooned the jam and piled on the cream akin to a child let loose in a sweet factory.
           
Like Dad, Gentle thought. The same Cheshire cat grin that stretched from ear to ear whenever he got his hands on the cream. She said as much to George. 'Honestly,' she said, 'you look just like my father. Without exception, when he -'
           
A loud clunk cut her short. George had dropped his knife. Moreover, in an attempt to rescue it, he nudged his plate into his cup and the lot went down in hot pursuit. Dollops of jam smeared the Axminster. Milky tea dribbled down the leather couch. Crimson-faced, he eyed the mess, tugging his beard in his agitation.
           
Gentle shot up. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'I'll soon have it cleaned up.' She loped towards the kitchen, side-stepping an ivory jardiniere which accommodated a giant weeping fig. Dodging a king-size, circular pouffe she raced through the kitchen door, gathered the necessary accoutrements, and hurtled back.
           
George was still sitting on the couch, plainly crestfallen. His complexion had resumed its natural wanness, but the way he shredded his beard, separating strands and entwining them around his index finger, laid bare his nervousness. Gentle rested on her heels and stared at him. Why was he so flustered over a minor casualty. It wasn't as though he'd smashed the Royal Doulton.
           
'I'll go, m'dear, before I do more damage.'
           
'But…'
           
'I must. I don't feel so clever.'
           
Certainly, he was not his regular happy-go-lucky self. 'I'll see you home, George.'
           
'No, really, I'd rather walk alone. The fresh air will do me good.' George advanced towards the hall and the cloakroom where he had installed his coat and trilby.
           
Gentle trailed after him. 'If you're absolutely sure…'
           
'Yes, m'dear. I am. A decent sleep will see me right for tomorrow's trip to the park.' He swivelled to face her and then did something altogether unexpected. He put his hand on her shoulder and kissed her cheek. 'Shall I see you tomorrow?' he asked in a low voice.
           
Gentle nodded. 'I'll be there,' she said as he scurried into the night, but she didn't think he could have heard for he peered straight ahead as he hurried along the gravel drive. Watching from the doorway, Gentle raised her arm to wave, but George carried on and all she could do was retreat into the house. Tears were looming as she attached the brass door chain and slid home the top and bottom bolts. Severe sadness had superseded her contentment. The pleasant evening she had carefully and so delightedly prepared for had crumpled like the debris in Bridget Road. She felt as if she, too, had been demolished.

The following morning, still mentally damaged, Gentle busied herself in the house. To prevent further morose thoughts maturing she toiled like a Trojan at her chores. She changed and washed the bedclothes, tidied the wardrobe, ironed her blouses and stored them on hangers, and polished the bath until it shone. Then she embarked on a ground floor vacuuming session, whirring round like a crazy woman. Which she was. After a turbulent night spent constantly brooding and trying to interpret George's hasty withdrawal she was, to some degree, unhinged.
           
Library cleaning concluded, she wheeled the machine into the hall and steered it towards the cloakroom. She was in two minds about going to the park, anticipating that the afternoon would be futile. George would probably shun her, granting that he showed up at all, while she would be at a loss for words. Tweaking the arm of the red coat she wore most and redressing the shoulders on the hanger, Gentle persuaded herself that the black one would be more suitable today.
           
Chastising herself for being a fool, she switched on the vacuum and proceeded to clean under the padded bench that lined the wall. A chat with Polly would improve her mood; on the other hand, consultation might return her to the fathomless doldrums. Gentle propelled the vacuum so vigorously under the bench that it became wedged behind one of the support posts. Exasperatedly, she flicked off the machine and  stooped to free it. Trying to manoeuvre a hefty machine in such a confined space wasn’t easy and eventually she lay on her belly so that she could use both hands. Her fingers touched a number of lost items which she pulled out of the way: a brown glove, a pad of  yellow post-it notes, and a leather purse she had discarded and then mislaid.
           
The appliance finally detached from its restraint, Gentle finished cleaning the void beneath the bench then started to pocket the things she had fished out, intending to put them in the bin. However, what she had taken for a purse was, in fact, a wallet, a grey leather wallet with initials in the corner. Distinctly baffled, she stood for some moments staring at it, running her fingers over the embossed letters: G.G.M. It was, it must be, the property of Gilbert Mellish. She collapsed onto the bench as comprehension developed and with it a certainty that enlightenment was near.
           
The tremendous excitement that surged through her body clouded the belatedness of her find and the fact that in three years it had not earlier emerged.
           
Eagerly, she opened the notecase. One side contained assorted papers, the other was designed to accommodate credit cards: American Express, Barclaycard, and an RSPB visa. The papers were purely scribbled notes and exhibited not one useful iota. Not an address or telephone number or a receipt containing a clue. Impatiently, she unzipped a bulky compartment and discovered a set of sepia snaps secured by a rubber band. Suspecting she was about to unearth some long-awaited answers, she withdrew the pack and hurriedly removed the band.
           
Outside, a gang of refuse collectors bombarded each other with friendly abuse as they slung the rubbish into the cart. Ethel Rhodes would soon be there, gathering and folding black plastic bags and posting them like letters through various doors. It was Gentle's custom to invite her in for morning coffee; she would have to give it a miss today.
           
She laid the photographs on the bench, equidistant like the line-up for solitaire. One was of a wedding group in twenties clothes and another, taken on a riverbank, was of the blonde bride and her poker-backed groom. The couple were captured again, this time with an infant in knickerbockers. They looked frightfully posh. The man held a splendid cane and his wife wore a disgusting fox fur. In the hall, the letterbox rattled. A faint plop signified the arrival of the plastic bag. Gentle held her breath, presuming Ethel would ring the bell. When no sound came, she reverted to the photographs, selecting a puckered one from the other end of the row, the result of endless handling. A more up-to-date snap, conceivably the fifties, a different woman gazing at the child in her arms, her features hidden by a curtain of dark hair.
           
As she restored the picture, Gentle's eye took in the next one. She lifted it, incredulously beholding it. How like George the man was. Same build, same Assyrian beard, though naturally darker considering the difference in the generation. Gentle examined the man's face, noting the jutting eyebrows and distinctive Roman nose, and she knew suddenly that it was definitely George. More youthful, but undeniably him. An involuntary cry escaped her lips. Her hands flew to her mouth. The snapshot fluttered to the bench. Gentle trembled, fearing the concept of uncharted territories. She swept the snap aside, then, as abruptly, she retrieved it. Her discernment had been ousted by overwhelming consternation. She skimmed the reverse for an inscription, but there was none, not even a date. Disheartened, she sifted through the outstanding snaps, but they were of no help.
           
What should she do? How should she deal with the bizarre enigma. Gentle was interrogating her reflection in the bathroom mirror where she was sluggishly titivating in readiness for the outing to the park. Like yesterday, her nerves were in shreds. Polly would know what to do. She'd have it sewn up in seconds. Don't know what you're worrying about, she'd say. It's not as though you've unlocked the secrets of the grave. Challenge him. Maybe he'll disentangle the riddle. But Polly wasn't at home. Even the answering machine was unavailable.
           
Gentle's only recourse was to tackle George outright about his relationship with the mysterious Gilbert Mellish. It was vital she determined the connection between herself and him. She teetered between forgetting the whole affair and grubbing about until she unearthed the truth for herself, but why should she do either when the facts were a mere half-an-hour away. By evening, like it or not, by diplomatic confrontation, the history of Tensing House and its master could be resolutely established. George, she would say, lightly so as not to alienate him early on, I have come across a picture of your double, a veritable effigy of yourself.
           
She fixed her make-up with loose powder, dabbing an extra bit on her nose to reduce the shine, then deftly applied the merest smear of coral lipstick. Her hair was tidy, it having been so recently shampooed, and the style was intact. An extra quantity of ultra-firm hair spray had competently done its job. A modicum of Poison behind the ears and on the lapel of her heather and navy dress and she was set to go. She cleared the shelf of cosmetics, stuffing them in a rattan box, and dropped the dross of cotton wool and sodden tissues into a raffia bin. Occasionally, when she was late, she left the mess until she came back; today, the chore was a stalling ploy, only when the glass shelf was spotless did she go downstairs to procure her black coat.

(to be continued)

4 comments:

DeniseinVA said...

Ah Valerie, a lovely read as always. I always enjoy coming here and reading your lovely stories. Thanks for stopping by today on my Dad's post, and for the very kind words. I also wanted to let you know that I have had to put the comment moderation on as all of a sudden I have had an overwhelming influx of spam recently. I have already delted a couple of blogging friends comments by mistake :( I will get the hang of it soon I suppose. Have a great day!

HermanTurnip said...

"taupe cords"

Had to Google this one. Had no idea they were pants. Heh...

And the thought of a confrontation over a photo is very intriguing.

When did you last post this story? I wonder if it was very long ago?

Valerie said...

Hi Herman, the last time this story was posted was 10 Oct 2011. Cord trousers are very popular over here, especially for the older man.

Mr. Shife said...

I checked the first rate box Val because ... well you know why ... your stuff is first rate. Thank you once again for sharing your wonderful words with us and entertaining me on a Friday evening. Take care.