The Shriving of Miss Esme Stamp...
Serialized by Patrick George Callaghan Part Ten
It was a subdued event. They sat facing each other across a table of mixed silverware. Their differing views reflected in its elbow- polished surface. The table lengthened to a darkening abyss at the far end of the room. Lost and empty. Barren of its worthiness. Washed over with dusted respectability.
Her mother’s conversation was of the stilted kind. Made up of awkward sentences of kindness and firm intention. She risked outburst; weighed only by sensible words – a woman was tied to a man lest she starve or end in the workhouse – best she coupled to the richest on offer – aside from the most agreeable in looks and romance. Those who worked at money rarely had to prove much of their appearance and yet like to possess things of beauty…things that are costly. The more costly to them…the more desirable they become. A woman presented with the opportunity for such fortune could soon amass her own security…and in return for her simple pleasantness and company…and the odd occasion to the bedroom. She would be wifely in all outward appearance and if love did not strike – then for all intention she must assume the role of respectability that concerns a woman of wealth and domesticity. As for Charles; this must end! It has no future. She has no particular dislike of the man, only of his ways and lifestyle; the music halls and theatre people he enwrapped himself in; were for the better part; doubtful members of society whose fortunes were made and lost on the unpredictability of their popularity. No! This nonsense had to stop before it went too far! Nipped in the bud. Charles may seem to offer all she wanted in a man…but it was not enough. Tomorrow, he may be broke…a victim of indifference! She finished: ‘the world is full of haves and have nots, my girl. Best you be a have!’
Esme listened like a child and said nothing. She would have to be cunning, she thought. Her mother had the sword edge – the upper hand. Esme sat; her face soaked in disdainful looks, withdrawn, without a single reason to agree.
Emily brought in a dish of faggots; of rich liver, chopped apple and red onion, seasoned with herbs and spices. ‘Cook’s done a special madam,’ she announced with an interested eye. Her steadiness had a marked respect for her employer, and she knew too, that the dish had been prepared particularly to cheer Esme.
The meal tried to raise her spirits, but her thoughts remained locked in the dark valleys of her despair. Her mother’s views; valued in upright sanity…could only serve to torment her soul and cast her life to a raging and depressing air. She wished he would come to her. He must soon. He would stop her mother in her tracks. He would remove her from her glare. He would take her in his arms and make her whole again. In that moment…that was no more than a pin-prick in time…her skin gleamed with the pastel tinted hue of a summer flower; her eyes darted with pulsing racing blood, and her ears became fine and delicate…and listening.
She ate the food in slow delicate mouthfuls, each one full of parading thoughts. Her mother’s mouth was still talking but the sounds became slowly distant and decaying.
At half-past two, Charles was turned away from the front door, by Emily in the least heartless way, and his car slid like a whipped animal away from the kerb and headed south towards Bayswater. He had made no fuss. No scene. He had felt guilty; as if some secret had been made public. He would collect his thoughts, he told himself. He would return.
Esme raged and smashed things; having returned from the bathroom to see his car in closing fragments pulling away. She regaled into a stormy distress and was only restrained with care and understanding by her mother and Emily. She was ugly this way. Drained and retreated. The slam of her bedroom door was heard by cook. ‘Surely there is something they can do?’ she wailed to herself. Esme fell to her bed. Her clenched fists clung at the eiderdown quilt; ringing it to tight balls. Her anger rolling in tears of desperation and her mouth in wide gasping taunts.
‘It’s not for me to say, madam,’ remarked Emily, her body gripped with apprehension, ‘but I can’t bear to see Miss Esme this way…perhaps you ought to let her see the young gentleman,’ she was careful, frightened at her own words.
Constance almost gave in to this fervor, but did not. ‘You’re quite right…it is not your place to give me advice,’ she snapped with entire indignation and Emily shrunk back at once like a wounded rabbit. ‘Go about your chores…I will attend to my daughter!’ Emily scuttled away in parlour maid fashion – safe in earth’s embracing maintenance.
By four o’clock Esme was calm. Her tantrum had ebbed and dark placid depression was feeding its own intensity. She had cursed a thousand times that she would not be kept from her beloved Charles…that she would find a way. That she would escape from her prison and live with him! She would find work scrubbing dishes or washing floors; and worship his beautiful soul for all eternity! They would never be apart. Never!
Her mother left her to rest in the curtained numbness of her room and kept a watchful ear for the sounds of movement and a watchful eye on the front door. In this defiant air of martyrdom and misplaced loyalties…her daughter was capable of all! In the lounge Constance poured herself a large Scotch and stared hard into the glass as if it were full of nettles…and found no reason to drink it. She sat back on the large crystal-green sofa. George was on her mind. He had been there from the moment the first flickers of grey dawn crept in through the half open window of her spring morning bedroom. He was there…placing images in her mind. Images she loved. Thoughts she treasured. Her mind ran with pleasures – of when he first came calling to take her out; and her mother’s dismay and distaste at their mention of marriage. ‘He’s the third son of a village doctor,’ she had ranted, ‘so you won’t inherit much there!’
But they had married despite disapproval and made a few wonderful years together before that fateful day on the Somme. Esme was the fruits of their union. The result of their emotion. She was possessed of their fire and passion and tenderness and hope.