The Roaring Twenties

“Isn’t he coming to collect you?” her mother asked with a troubled glance that betrayed how much she had aged these last years.

She answered with a pained smile.  Young men did not ring at the door and politely introduce themselves to concerned parents any more.

“You look lovely dear,” mother rallied, attempting to disguise a banknote shoved into her worn satin clutch. “Have a lovely time. You’ll be late back, I imagine?”

“It’s their New Year’s Ball, mummy. It won’t get going much before midnight.”  She was dressed to a kill. Tonight, at last, she was going to live and paint the town red.

Mother nodded with mixed anxiety and relief and produced from somewhere an antique pearl brooch which she pinned to her low-cut gown.  It was so lovely it made her look like a tart.

“Mummy…” She stifled the impatient rebuke she had come to know would only lead to tears.

They had sold almost anything of value to get through these last years, so she accepted with good grace this fatal injury to her pizzaz, as her father would have called it. “It’s beautiful!”

“Your grandmother’s.  My wedding present.  She’d want you to have it.”

Granny had not long survived her son, who had made safety recommendations to the government never followed, only to be blamed for the resulting mess, after which he returned to doctoring and salved his wounded pride on the frontline, much like Churchill after Gallipoli, for which Winston had actually been responsible – so she had once read – but with immediately fatal results, which seemed extremely unfair.

It mattered not that they were making a new start, finally moving on from a chapter of disasters, and her generation which had suffered so much was called upon to put the world back on its feet.  They were also called upon to respect the bozos who had made such a hash of it.  Bye bye to her acting career, theatres had been closed for four years. Retraining as a nurse had sapped her spirits and she knew it. This evening she would throw off the blues and start again.

He was half an hour late at the station and seemed not to have noticed, so she decided not to have noticed either, it would only have spoiled the evening and she knew he was under pressure, strung up between his final year medical studies and practical work mopping up the remaining casualties on the wards, where they had met.  He was brave, like her father.  It had taken months to elicit this invitation and she wasn’t going to spoil it.

“Shall we get something to eat?” he asked vaguely, as they sped into town and she felt her face brighten.  “Yes of course,” she beamed, loving him even more.

He took her to a golden-tiled, green-cupola Turkish-looking pleasure dome near his university which had apparently just re-opened and was having trouble ‘bringing them in’, as he nonchalantly commented while surveying the menu in a distracted sort of way that confirmed her suspicions that his family was an awful lot better off than hers. “We used to come here on Sundays, when… before…”  The sentence died on his lips and he returned to the menu.

They had not eaten out since daddy left them. His widow’s pension had been terminated with all other state support and her nurse’s training was unpaid and indeed repayable, since she would work many years at a reduced salary to pay back the costs to her struggling country.

She ordered discreetly, to save his purse, as she had been taught, and smiled brightly while he engaged the aproned maître d’hotel in sympathetic banter about his desultory trade.  “New here?  Just acquired the lease? Good luck, mate!” His language was a curious mixture of very rich and very slummy and she wasn’t quite sure which applied but she wished he would notice the waiter was staring down her cleavage.

The Maytree Dee, as her father had pronounced it on their summer holidays to the continent, told them he had come over in a dinghy from the ravaged low countries and would be returning that way as soon as they let him back in, he implied with a soft Flemish-ish accent that seemed to cast a pall over the over-lit dining room and drew disapproving glances from the only other diners, an ageing couple opposite who had conceived a deep dislike for their youth, as far as she could judge.  She waved brightly with her fingers but they turned away, affronted. Young people were to blame: one encountered that everywhere.

The food was good but not ample and the wine he ordered was double the old price, not counting devaluation. It tasted sour and strong. She realised she had got out of the habit.

“…anyway he came a terrible cropper, sliced at it with a squiffy bat.  Mind you it was a blinder of a ball, so no wonder really…”

He was nervous, she could tell, and was trying to impress her, which she found touching.

“Did you always want to be a doctor?” she asked, trying to sound coquettish, but this seemed to throw him off course, as he glanced up at the wall clock, whose hand was just approaching the hour, muttered “Suppose they’ll be starting by now” and waved for the bill.

The bill was clearly more than he had expected.  He halved it and told her what she owed.

With a sudden hardening in her stomach she felt her mouth go dry and a sweat break out on her pallid forehead.  He had to be kidding.  This was his invitation.  Wasn’t it?  She rummaged in her clutch and found the note.  It wasn’t enough for a tip.

“Ah,” he said, in that same roundabout way, and summoned the Maytree Dee. “Sorry old chap we haven’t enough. Can we wash up?”

A terrible transformation stole over the waiter’s face. “Wash up?” he echoed, not understanding, his soft accent grating into a hideous roar. “I wash up. You pay up.”

She glanced round and realized he was indeed chief cook and bottle-washer.

“I need to eat.  I need money!”

“We’ll come back tomorrow if you like?”

“Tomorrow?” he hissed, as if there would be and never could have been any such thing. “No, you pay!  Now!”

He was clearly about to turn violent and they were preparing to leave when his hand shot and ripped the pearl brooch from her dress. “Tomorrow, you pay.  I give you this back.”

She screamed, her theatre training at last of use, but the Maytree Dee merely laughed.  He was not as tall as her chap, who could have felled him with one blow, she thought, rather wishing he would, but strength seemed to drain from him as he vainly attempted to re-arrange the gashed fabric just above her breast – the first time he had paid her any attention, she realized bitterly – muttered “Well that’s all right then” and dragged her to the door.

“What a bastard!” he raged outside, his speech deteriorating as his courage returned. “I’ll show him, I’ll show him!” Seizing her hand, he dragged her blindly onwards, gnawing at his grievances till shadow land turned into theatre land, its quaint hoardings announcing shows long forgotten and never replaced, its bright lights as dark as the Christmas decorations strung across the streets, illuminated for one hour a day to avoid power cuts.

She took his hand and he shoved it deep into his coat pocket, hunching his shoulders. “D’you know I hate people, I can’t bear to see them die. There was this girl…”

“Yes?” she asked warily but he just stared round at the dead theatres. “Maybe I’ll be an actor, I can’t stick medicine.”

She smiled but he didn’t like it.  “You think I can’t act?”

She shrugged mildly, thinking of her three year acting course.  “I think you’re a doctor.”

“My dad owns theatres,” he added, peculiarly evasive and tore at a flapping poster.

“Oh well then!” she retorted, more mocking than she meant.  “He can get me a job too.”

This went almost unnoticed, as they had reached the night club where his Union had booked the evening’s festivities. It was nearly midnight and the basement dive was heaving, a jazz combo aped New Orleans and a few couples were dancing but mainly the young men stood round drinking and roaring at each other above the music, ignoring the girls who gaggled by the loos and occasionally flung arms and legs at each other like ostriches attempting a Charleston, as if half a decade of deprivation had left the genders strange to each other.

She was wildly overdressed, even without the brooch, though her torn dress was vaguely suggestive of impatient male passion and she ripped it a little further for dramatic effect.  Only a dance would do, but he seemed uncomfortable as soon as she eased up to him. She sighed, but this didn’t help. “Will you take me home please?” he said with a weird, angry stare that might betoken sudden libido or something much more dangerous. But she was not to be frightened off.  The New Year came in amidst maudlin auld lang syne-ing as they left.

His home was the basement flat he shared with two other lads who were already drunk when they arrived and needed careful handling to stop them getting frisky. Finally she was in his bedroom, where she had wished herself many times before.

He seemed reluctant to undress her so she made a start with her torn dress which fell from her shoulders like silken snow.  His hand ran down her arm, more in wonder than desire, and she helped him with his shirt, his belt. A flash of apprehension crossed his face so she laid her face on his chest with a soothing murmur that came from some deep hollow inside her. He put his hand behind her head but didn’t try to kiss her so she tipped her face upwards and drew his face gently downwards.  He shuddered as their lips met, which she hoped was a precursor to wild passion, but his whole body stiffened and her breasts against him only seemed to freeze him further. She took his hand and led him places he might venture and a flicker of longing ran through him, mixed with despair.

Gently she drew him down to the unmade, unwashed bed and he neither resisted nor complied, trapped somewhere inside that came from a different time and place, perhaps that fake restaurant or the ghastly dive or who knows maybe the wards he was called to serve. Not for one moment did his eyes leave hers but it was the gaze of a drowning man pleading to be rescued, and she felt her own desire drain through her limbs as he struggled again and again to rise to her but found no strength, no foothold on a slope that should have been so simple.

She tried everything she had heard of but her invention only alienated him further, her tenderness seemed to lock him in, his efforts to respond became ever more helpless and undignified.

“Sorry old girl,” he muttered, hunched over an unlit fag. “I can’t act, you’re right.”

It was almost funny and was maybe meant to be, and certainly a fair apology, had one been needed, but that was not what it unlocked. Instead of reassurance something hideous rose from a chasm deep inside her and laughter gushed unstoppably from her cunt to her gullet.  She giggled, she laughed, she roared, the stifled hopes and suppressed ambitions finally released.  And as she laughed, she knew it was wrong, fatal, murderous, and she laughed on till she knew that finally she was acting, as she had been trained.

He cracked. “Well fuck off then if that’s what you think! Get out of here, get the fuck out!”

She grabbed her clothes, backing away from his flailing arms, tripped over his comatose flatmates and finished dressing on his doorstep in a light drizzle, dawn still hours away.

She waited on the platform for the first train home, along with exhausted revellers too tired to give up who insisted on draping themselves round complete strangers to show they weren’t afraid any more. A dank morning was breaking as she left the station and made her way home barefoot, clutching to her breast the high heels which had pinched her toes since that dance she had flunked. She was twenty-three, as old as the millennium, and still a virgin.

“You’re early,” said her mother in a strange, husky voice, wrapping her dressing gown tighter as she noticed the torn silken dress. “Where’s the brooch?”

“Left for safe-keeping,” she lied, having forgotten the brooch entirely but reverting seamlessly to old appeasements and distracted by a pair of trousers descending the stairs with a man she had never seen before.

Without pausing he placed a couple of banknotes on the hall table and left without a word.

Her mother silently checked the notes, folded them and put them away in her lap pocket, then  quietly closed the front door and met her daughter’s stare with a sad smile.

“No it was no trouble mummy,” she heard herself say, as she handed back the brooch a little later the same day. “He was very sweet really.  I didn’t want to lose it, that’s all.”

Her mother wept with relief but it was no use.  All was lost.

She had spotted the headline on the way home. Medic hero, son of bankrupt theatre moghul, found dead.

There was something wrong with that sentence, she thought, before her mind went blank.

© Gareth Jones 18/10/20

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