The Shriving of Miss Esme Stamp...

Serialized by Patrick George Callaghan                                                    Part Six

The journey from Primrose Hill had not been without a great deal of apprehension and aside from Constance’s concern over her daughter’s visit to Bayswater, to which Charles had given her every assurance of behaved conduct, she waved the car away with the overbearing worries of a fussy hen. Soon Charles and Esme were easing themselves along the Bayswater road – a busy arboreal road edged on one side by the grandeur of Hyde Park and high black oaks, and where rich green grassy acres ran down to blue glittering waters. The striking gothic beauty of many Georgian villas rose up along its north side, while Charles chatted with gentleness; fully aware of the importance of his passenger’s nervousness and mounting excitement. A fading Costa man waved some pots and pans from a painfully dry looking hand cart; for profit or protest – Esme was not sure. Then Charles slid the hushed motor car into Bayswater’s celebrated Queensway with its shops of colourful awnings and a thousand purposes of trade. To the left ran Moscow road and here shops mingled with grand white-pillared villas and small hotels. Charles slowed the car for the stretch-laded walk of a coal man’s horse and cart, and then glided to the kerb beside a grim looking building that occupied a corner site running into the cul-de-sac of Hammond Place.

The street level floor of this establishment was simply a double windowed shop above which there was a studio and living quarters. Well known theatre and music hall faces peered cautiously out from the dusky brown downstairs windows in a bevy of photographs hung with oddly radiating emplacement. Above the declining doorway and between the grey netted windows of the first floor and in bright gold lettering were the words: Charles Hepworth. Photographer to the Arts. Facing this emporium stood The Kings Head Hotel, of grander geometry, with refined and structured architraves and tall smoke-black chimneys of understanding. It trailed an air of wise well-being and flaunted its fine cellar and enticing pig roasts. To Charles – their lark pie was worthy of special merit.
He opened the door to a shop of golden dark. A dust hounded counter of  mahogany drawers scattered with old frames and discarded pictures ran some way along a frail oak paneled wall; ending by a small open door that appeared to have stairs going up.

Beside the window that looked into the eddy of Hammond Place; a parrot gnawed idly on the thin silver chain that bound him to his raised perch. He plucked shabbily and effortlessly at his brown and yellow feathers then pointed his rotund head once more at the greenery of a thoughtless aspidistra plant and watched Esme close the shop door behind her.

A figure rose silently from a deep corner. In the dim light he had been watching the parrot. In his hand was a small black bible. The boy was no older than seventeen with a crop of pitch-inky hair that tousled over his forehead awkwardly.

‘You must be Esme,’ he said without formality. His voice creaked feebly, as if unsure of her. He was smallish and thin, with piddling frangible hands, and his cheeks sallowed when he spoke.
‘I’m Tobias,’ he furthered. ‘Toby to anyone who knows me.’ He grinned, forcing himself for his guest. ‘I assist Char… Mr. Hepworth.’ For a fleeting moment there was a preventative tone to his words and he held out bunched fingers of his pinched palm towards her.

‘You already know my name.’ She smiled back; took his colourless hand, and drifted out the words; looking acutely at the boy. With keenness her eyes quickly roamed this strange and cluttered room, and then rested back on this young man’s face. He was watching her carefully; as if making some study of her features. He turned at her look with a twitching awkwardness and stared at the parrot. ‘Wake up!’ he said sternly, ‘this is Miss Esme.’

The parrot seemed to understand him. It opened one eye and made no sound. Its head turned in the direction of the voice. It looked at the boy with suspicion.

‘They understand one another,’ prompted Charles. ‘I’m glad you came. You’ll find it fascinating.’ His voice was pleasured and interesting, somehow magical. Seemingly he fitted this strange new world and his chestnut-brown eyes raced over her with a swallowing delight.

‘Come on, come and have a look at the studio and darkroom. I’ve new photographs to show you, and I would like your opinion.’

There was a learned vacillation, something that had become visceral. She considered him with a gentle novel doubt. She turned her head brightly to a window; her eyes fixed between the profanity of the grey dust shop and the sanction of a stale dung-ridden road. Had it been a mistake in coming here?

‘Toby is here.’ he broke into her thoughts, ‘nothing for you to worry about.’ He looked as if he might have said the wrong thing.

‘Impertinence is hardly a virtue,’ she replied. Her words were mechanical; blurted out thoughtlessly. She closed her mouth almost at once.

‘Look,’ he said carefully, ‘you wanted to come here…and I wanted you here that’s for sure…and we can’t stay in this room forever can we? And if it helps for me to say I won’t take advantage of you while you are here, then I will.’ His eyes claimed a dare from her, and his voice custody.

She drew herself reluctantly, and tried to hold the images of the street for as long as she could in her mind, but they faded like a passing ghost in a dawn twilight. He might silently take her soul; her self determination; not ask anything more of her…but he would. She looked at him; her eyes saturnine; discretionary to his word. She would only be weak. It this place insular freedom would take her soul.
‘There is no need.’ she said.

He looked pleased. Pleased that her words were important to him. She was sure he was gratified, humbled in his consideration of her.

Perhaps his desire for her had hurried him awkwardly.

‘Before lunch,’ he announced. ‘I shall take you shopping!’

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