TUESDAY – NARRATTED BY NELL
I spend far longer at the salt mine than planned; then over to the Miller place; then the Jones’ place (not THAT Jones, obviously). Everything takes longer than planned.
If Mister Smith calls – IF – I will not be there. At this rate I will be lucky to make it home in time for dinner.
As I walk home, I run through my week. Tomorrow evening is booked with Ann. So, if he calls, I will not be there AGAIN. Thursday there is a meeting of the Ladies Committee and I stay over at the Coopers. Friday is the School Exhibition and Louise will be hurt if I do not attend. So will the lad who dreams of being a doctor and who I help with extra studies after class twice a week. That brings us round to the weekend, when he can call on my Aunt and make conversation without us actually having a chance to talk properly…
I realise just how lucky we were those three weeks in May. I suppose I also realise how lucky I am to have fought to earn my keep. Most women from my background have little choice but to marry a virtual stranger around whom they spin a consoling romantic image. How can you get to know someone with whom it is a struggle to find opportunity for private converse?
I think about tomorrow night with Ann. I suppose I could… Would she mind if…? She wouldn’t mind – would she? We could rearrange…
I am heading past the turnoff to the Foster place. I slow. It is nearly three weeks since I visited. I do not WANT to go. There is the smallest chance if he HAS called, he is still with my aunt. If I go see how Mrs. Foster is doing, I will definitely miss him. I am under no obligation to the Fosters. I am not expected. They have had so much of my time over the year – all free since Mister Foster drinks more than he works – they have no cause for complaint.
There is nothing to stop me walking straight past.
Nothing except my conscience.
D*mn and blast and bloody hell!
As I stomp, grumpily, towards the tumble-down shack I wish EITHER I was one of those heroine types in books who seem to actually find virtue to be its own reward and perform good deeds all the while wreathed in a sweet angelic smile; OR one of those real life women who never seem to feel their ‘duty’ includes things they dislike and who confine their charity accordingly.
After spending time with Mrs. Foster – exhausted and ill from fifteen pregnancies and tied to a man who is within his legal rights to risk it becoming sixteen anytime he chooses and, if she leaves, to stop her seeing her nine living children ever again and to have her dragged back and thrown in jail for stealing the clothes on her back – I relinquish any idea of giving in to temptation and postponing the work Ann and I have planned for tomorrow. It is too important. I have just been reminded how important.
More important than Joshua Smith.
More important than – well, more important than me being happy.
By the time I trail wearily away, I feel so wrung out I do not even want to see Joshua Smith.
Anyhow, there will be other days.
BUT, when I approach home, a slim figure rises, stiffly, from the rock it is sitting on and, leading the horse which had been peacefully grazing, comes forward to meet me.
And I know I was lying to myself before. I do want to see him. I do. I do.
“How long have you been waiting there, Mister Smith?”
“Feels like hours. And hours before in your aunt’s parlour. Not that I was the only one. Will Rutherford sat there until five thirty, both of us watching the door and each other like cats at a mouse hole.” Pause. “He gave up when your Aunt dropped a hint by asking if her clock was right as it sometimes gained.”
“And you clung on? Poor Aunt Miriam. She only says that when she is quite desperate for visitors to leave!”
“I guess Rutherford has better manners, huh?” Pause. “He seems a nice fella.”
“He is. Very nice. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say a mean word about anyone.” A qualm shakes me. Surely Joshua does not think… There is nothing between Will Rutherford and me. Unless… Will Rutherford does not like me THAT way, does he? I thought he was just being friendly. Surely he must realise I would never be interested in… The thought ‘I am too good for him’ (by which I really mean too intelligent; no way am I too ‘good’ for Will, if anything he is too ‘good’ for me) is terribly arrogant. But – you know what I mean.
“Will Rutherford,” I blurt, “You do know I’m not… We’re not…” I stop myself. I should not have said that. Will IS nice and it is not fair to talk about him. I should not assume he is interested – though, now I think about it, I guess I kind of realise he IS.
HE grins. It would look smug if he did not have that extra helping of charm. “Sure I know! You’re far too busy being – whatever it is you were going to say – about this Joshua Smith fella.”
I should look affronted, but I don’t. I can’t! It’s true! I am!
“Which just goes to show, ma’am, there’s no accounting for taste. NOW, since this Joshua Smith fella hung about for hours just to spend five minutes or so walking you home, he better get on and do it!”
“I was thinking the same thing!” I say. “Of course, I thought it first – because this Joshua Smith fella can be slow on the uptake!”
“I don’t know what you see in him, ma’am.”
“Me neither. Yap, yap, yap… And have you tasted his coffee? Mind you, his friend is charming.”
“He once stripped the willow with me…”
“HEY! Anyhow – what the Sam Hill IS that?”
When we reach the gates, he asks, “Can we… can I come in?”
I hesitate. Hannah would talk. She will anyway about yesterday. But two evenings running and him waiting for ages in the road just to see me… If it was not for my work I would not care. But I do care. I DO!
“Okay, that’s a no,” he says. “Can we stroll back and then walk home again?”
I can’t! It is getting dark. If I am seen walking AWAY from home… Over by the stables a couple of the men are still working. A head turns towards us; a friendly hand is waved in greeting to me. I cannot just turn round and walk away again without raising comment. The wish to be alone with Joshua is so sharp it hurts. I do not want to go in. But, I have to! I have to.
“I have to go in. I’m sorry. I have to.”
“When can I see you again?”
He knows Friday. And he knows I’ll get Ann to invite him again. And he knows…
“I’ll show up at all the town events and supper with your friends and make calls on your aunt and I’ll quit with all the dumb sulking. I don’t wanna do anything stupid to ruin things. I just wanna… Come on, ma’am, throw me a bone here. When can I SEE you?”
He means alone. I know that. He knows I know that.
“I don’t know.”
He catches the edge of distress in my voice. “I’m not trying to push you into anything you don’t want. I only wanna – y’know – talk and be together.”
Ask me to marry you, then! Ask me now and I’ll say ‘yes’ however stupid and impossible it is. Ask me. Once we announce it, we can see each other almost alone. Ask me, get a steady job and let’s get married. Any job will do. Together with my salary it would be enough. I’ll forget all the things I have ever said about marriage being the biggest risk a woman ever takes. Ask me.
Good heavens! Did I just say all that out loud? To you I mean. I am not yet so far gone I would say it to him!
“Will you let me walk you home tomorrow?”
What use is that? I am not coming home tomorrow!
By the time I finish work on Friday I am almost screaming with the frustration of not seeing Joshua Smith. Well, I am SEEING him all the time. He drank coffee with me at Ann’s place – and Charles talked to him about the paper ALL the time. He carried my and Jenny Cooper’s parcels from the general store. He held an umbrella over Ann and me as we came out of the Ladies Committee in the rain last night. He and Mister Jones joined Sally Cooper, her fiancé and me for lunch at the hotel. Now we and Thaddeus Jones, who I suspect is no longer surprised at all the stuff he is being roped into, are helping Louise Skinner and her pupils set out chairs for the school exhibition.
I would cheerfully accept an invitation to hang upside down in a dung-strewn dungeon swarming with rats, if I could only do it as a twosome.
“Miss Skinner,” I say. (Pupils present, I do not say ‘Louise’.)
“That map would be much more effective if you could pin it higher.”
“I’m on a table and stretching now!”
“All the same. Mister Smith?”
“Would you fetch the stepladders from the outside storeroom, please?”
“Er…” He glances at the map which, to tell the truth, looks fine.
“They’re very heavy and I’m sure very dusty,” demurs Louise. “Is it worth it?”
“Yes!” I say, firmly.
“No problem, ma’am,” accepts Joshua Smith.
Once the door closes behind the slim figure. I tap something metallic – actually a stray medicine spoon – in my skirt pocket. “Oh! He’ll need the key!”
I do not say I HAVE the key! That would be a lie, since I hung it back on the hook where it belongs when we fetched the extra chairs. I scamper out before Louise can open her mouth.
The brown eyes widen when I bounce into the storeroom and shut the door behind me, leaning on it to stop us being disturbed.
“This following the rules is no use at all,” I explode. “I want to BE with you! If we can never be alone for more than a few moments together I shall… I shall… I shall simply burst!”
He blinks, then grins, “Sounds messy…”
“Shut up. We’ve only got a minute. I cannot be seen to engineer opportunities to be alone with a man. The people who oppose the work I try to do for the WSA would simply make too much capital out of my being caught in an improper position. We’ll have to meet alone by happy co-incidence.”
“I’m not sure trappin’ me in a storeroom’s gonna look real co-inciden…”
“Shut up and listen! I haven’t finished! I always take a brisk walk before breakfast. People know that because it’s one of the things I recommend to patients. Slipping out at night would be stupid, but morning is different. It ISN’T something anyone could say started because of you. If I set out earlier I doubt anyone would even notice. Hannah’s busy. Aunt Miriam’s never up with the lark. I’d be walking BACK to the house the same time as …”
“I get the gist. Where and when?”
“Tomorrow. By the lake. If we are unlucky enough to be seen, well, I go there anyway. You spotted it as a good place to exercise your horse. There’s a boathouse on the edge of …”
“Don’t forget to bring the steps! Now I mean. Not tomorrow.”
“Nah. Hefting them along tomorrow’d kinda cramp my style.” I turn to leave, he catches my wrist. “You’re sure? It won’t seem – improper?” He uses my own word with a smile, but there is a serious edge. He really does NOT want to spoil things for me.
“How can a coincidence be improper, Mister Smith?” I deadpan. “Impropriety postulates intention, which coincidence precludes.”
A moment passes. His smile broadens, dimpling his cheeks, “I love it when you talk dirty, ma’am.”
VERY EARLY SATURDAY MORNING
Waking up extra early was no problem at all, mainly because I did not sleep last night!
I must have been MAD yesterday!
Did I really tell him I’d burst if I didn’t see him?
I did, didn’t I?
Have I NO shame?
More to the point, have I no vocabulary? Burst, forsooth!
What was I thinking? What must HE be thinking?!
Suppose I embarrassed him so much, he does not come? How will I ever look him in the face again?
He will come – won’t he?
He will. I know he will.
I want to say ‘he loves me’, but…
Sometimes I am very, very sure it is true. Sometimes not.
I am almost sure he will come. That is not my main worry. Though when I picture myself waiting and waiting and waiting, watching the hands of the watch pinned to my dress creep slowly round, waiting and…
My MAIN worry is what will happen when – if and when – he DOES show up!
I shut him in a storeroom, then I asked him to…
Asked him? Ordered him more like! I ordered him to meet me at a secluded boat house!
What will he think? Suppose he thinks…
IF I have led him to anticipate more than – well, conversation – I must correct that immediately.
As I hurry along, trying to avoid breaking into a trot in case he is there first and sees me looking indecently keen…
Not that he will be there first. I am FAR too early.
Where was I? Oh, yes.
As I hurry along, I put the finishing touches to my opening speech.
“Mister Smith, I may have inadvertently misled you as to…”
“Mister Smith, I would like to make it clear that while I do want us to have a chance to become better acquai…”
“Mister Smith, I trust you have not misunderstood the purpose of this meeting…”
No. No. NO!
“Mister Smith, noli me tangere!”
For heavens sake!
“Mister Smith. Let me ramble at you in convoluted and pompous sentences which completely fail to express my meaning and, when I have finished being inarticulate in English, let me switch to being appallingly clichéd in Latin!”
I will forget the speech and simply make it clear by my behaviour that we are there only to talk, I am not wanting him to – well – to kiss me, or – or anything.
Suppose he does not even show up?
He will not be there yet, that is for sure.
If only I had not set out SO early.
He will not be there.
I round the corner and…
There he is.
My breath catches. Standing there, in the hazy dawn light, silouhetted against the glimmering lake behind him, jacket off, hands on those slim hips, face breaking into a beam of pure pleasure when he sees me…
He is the most beautiful man I have ever seen.
For what seems ages, but can only be seconds, we stare, frozen, at each other.
Then, forgetting everything – because in that moment nothing else matters – I break into a sprint and run straight to him, to be folded safe in his arms.
“I thought you wouldn’t come…”
“‘Course I came. I thought you might not…”
“Don’t be silly… I promised…”
“I thought you mighta changed your min…”
“I should have. I never should have… Oh, Joshua…”
And THAT, believe it or not, probably reads as more articulate than it sounds. Partly because I have omitted most of my unforgivably wet ‘ohs’ and his comforting ‘heys’ and, partly because my voice is all muffled by my face being nestled into his shirt and his obscured by the fact he has already tossed aside my hat and has his lips buried in my hair, nuzzling me in between every word he says.
The grip hugging me relaxes just a shade, one arm is brought around the front. Those finely tapered fingers take gentle hold of my chin and raise it. He searches my face, reading what I want, checking that I do want…
He is going to kiss me.
He would stop if I gave any sign I did not want him to…
Any of the draft first lines of my prepared speech would do.
A simple ‘no’ would do.
A shake of the head.
I say nothing. I do nothing.
Unless you count the trembling. I am trembling all over, quivering against the hard wall of his chest and there is no excuse, none; it is not cold.
Please let him be going to kiss me… Please.
Perhaps he won’t. Perhaps he will be too chivalrous.
His forefinger is stroking my cheek; the caress so soft my skin is not touched, only the fine down upon it stirred. Gentle, slow strokes as the dark eyes question mine. His thumb traces the line of my chin, an almost imperceptible pressure parts my lips. I can feel the warmth of his breath as…
The most delicate, featherlight brush of his mouth on first my bottom lip, then top, then both.
The brown gaze checks this is what I want.
His face dips again.
I am kissed – and kissed – and kissed…
A whimpering, thankful sound gurgles in my throat. I fling my arm around his neck and kiss him back, all the pent up frustration of those waiting weeks spilling out, pressing closer and closer and harder and…
“Hey,” he breaks away, “…Steady. I bruise like a peach you know.” There is laughter in his voice but I do not think that is the only thing making it shake as he smiles down at me. “Do you always risk knocking men over backwards?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never kissed a man befo…”
Oh! Is he saying I am bad at this?!
“So, dumb-dimples, this implication that I’m bad at kissing – do you take it back?”
“I never SAID that!”
“Hence my careful choice of the word ‘implication’.”
He is laid on his back, hands linked behind his head, grinning up at me. I sit beside him, on the discarded jacket to avoid any tell-tale stains.
“Would I, under any circumstances, imply any beautiful woman – or even you… Ow! Would I imply you were bad at kissing?” Perfectly timed pause. “I mighta implied you needed a few lessons from an exp… Ow!”
I lean forward, push back a straying lock of dark hair, slip my fingers behind his head and kiss him. A proper, long, lingering kiss.
“Any complaints about that?” I breath into his ear, letting my lips tickle the lobe.
“Not one. But I’d never deny you were a quick study. OW! Which bit of ‘bruise like a peach’ did you need help with?”
“The bit where I was supposed to give a…”
A pause. He smiles up at me. I smile down at him.
The sun shines. Bees buzz. Birds twitter. I am so happy I could burst into song.
I do NOT burst into song.
I check my watch. Oh no! Time cannot have flown so quickly!
“I have to go.”
He rolls over, props himself up on one elbow. “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day. It was the nightingale and not the lark. No, strike that. Rewrite for lake side. It was the bullfrog and not the ruddy duck …” Tanned fingers reach out, catch my wrist, “Don’t go. Not just yet.”
“I have to.”
“Five more minutes?” He pulls my hand toward him. “Five…” A kiss is dropped on the palm. “More…” His mouth moves to the delicate hollows where the thumb meets the wrist. “Minutes?”
I weaken, let my other hand stroke the nape of his neck, that place where the silken hair is so soft, so beautiful. I let my touch stray beneath the ink-blue collar…
“Joshua, I ought to go…” Good heavens! I sound assertive as a piece of wet lettuce.
He undoes a sleeve button, lets his nose nudge aside the material, lets his lips brush the sensitive flesh of my inner arm. I…
I want to write ‘I melt’, which would be the romantic way of putting it. Certainly parts of me are already melted, liquid with longing, damp with desire.
“D’you really want me to stop? Really?” The exploring mouth whispers this against my skin, his warm breath tickling the…
“It’s not fair!” I explode, pushing him away. “You know perfectly well I don’t WANT you to stop! I WANT you to carry on. I WANT you to peel off my clothes, push me back onto the grass and for us to have mad, passionate, unbridled…” I hiccough over the right word, guilty indulgence in cheap fiction at bath time colliding with medical texts. “Congress,” I finish, limply.
A pair of brown eyes look up, laughter already beginning to chase away his surprise.
“Well, I was planning on joining Thaddeus in time for breakfast, but – if you insist…” A pretend puzzled frown, “Congress does mean what I’m guessing? You’re not asking for some kinda political debate?”
“I find you madly, ridiculously, unbelievably physically stimulating…”
“Guess you’re only human, ma’am…”
“Is there any chance of you wiping off the smug look and listening for ten seconds together? You’re the most exciting man I have ever met in the whole course of my life…”
“Can’t say that’s gonna be much help in wiping off the smug look…”
“Consider your masculine pride stroked. Let’s both take it as read you probably COULD seduce me if you wanted to. Probably. Now, since I’m designating you officially irresistible, you can stop trying so hard to prove it. Instead, since I appear to be so ineffectual at the task working alone, why don’t you help me out on the self-control front?” Pause. “Please.”
His eyes soften. Then, an exaggerated sigh as he struggles to his feet and picks up his jacket, tossing it over one shoulder. The other arm goes around MY shoulders. “C’mon, I’ll walk you to the end of the trees then make myself scarce in the opposite direction.”
Silent companionable walking for a few moments. I let my head rest against him. He smells of – of grass and clean cotton and warm skin and morning and sunshine and – and himself. Ambrosia.
“I hope you didn’t think I fell for any of that guff you were giving me back there. Like I could silver tongue YOU into anything you didn’t choose to do. Yeah right! I have played against a weak hand bluff before, y’know.”
“I wanted to let you down easy. I hate hearing a grown man beg.”
He grins. “You’re all heart.” Pause. “Same time tomorrow?”
“Maybe. If nothing better turns up.”
“I’ve lost the novelty factor now, huh?”
“Same old, same old.” Pause. No teasing in my voice now. “Thank you, Joshua. I mean it.”
Silence. We are nearly at the end of the trees.
“You don’t think…?” I stop. I want to ask and do NOT want to ask at the same time.
“Was there a question coming – or was ‘you don’t think’ a finished sentence? If so, I hafta say it’s kind of a rude observation, ma’am.”
I spit it out, “Me letting you kiss me like that and – and touch me – you don’t think I’m a – a hussy, do you?”
“Sure do. A brazen hussy.” Perfectly timed pause. “Can’t believe my good luck.”
I do not laugh. He looks down, frowns. My chin is caught, my face lifted so I meet his eyes. “Hey. Y’know half of that was a joke, right? The other half was perfectly serious. I’ll say the serious part real slow so it sinks in. I. Cannot. Believe. My. Good. Luck.” A stray curl is tucked behind my ear. “Did you get that, Helen?”
Rather misty-eyed, I nod.
“Then put your hat back on straight and go finish your morning walk. Okay?”
ANOTHER MORNING – NARRATTED BY NELL
“Surely the FACTS ought to speak for themselves…?”
“For a smart woman, you sure are dumb sometimes.”
“According to you, you and Ann’ve been trying to whip up publicity for this cause of yours for months. And it don’t work ‘cos the only ones reading what you put together are other folk already campaigning on the same sorta thing. They send pamphlets to you. You send pamphlets to them. You don’t need me to tell you that’s preaching to the choir, huh?”
“We don’t only send the information to each other! Of course we distribute it more widely and we bombard – BOMBARD – the major journals with letters and articles…”
“Sure you do. But, for all you know, they don’t even read ’em. They sure don’t print ’em.”
Silence. I want to say something really clever back, but since he is absolutely right, nothing springs to mind.
“Now, every piece you send, you’ve been loading ’em up with facts and figures, huh?”
“And because it’s worked so well to date, you’re gonna re-run the same tactics one more time?”
The logic of this sinks in. “I suppose you have a better plan?”
“Yup. Much better. It’s the masculine brain, y’see,” One finger taps at the dark hair. “Twelve percent larger, on average, so we’re better fitted for thinking.” Pause while my mouth falls open. “Has anyone ever told you, you look gorgeous when you gape like a fish?”
“Do I look gorgeous when I do this?” I thumb my nose and stick my tongue out at him.
“Yup. So gorgeous that I’m gonna hafta…” I let out a yelp as a hand slips under me and I am pulled hard against him.
“Let me g…” I shut up. It is hard to speak articulately when you are being thoroughly kissed. Even harder if you feel it only polite to show appreciation by joining in. Well! He may be flippant, but you cannot deny the man is punctual and not one to complain about a little early rising.
“…That could work,” I admit. We are both on the blanket he brought to leave in the boat-house. He is propped on one elbow, smiling down at me. “It seems a shade – disingenuous.”
“Is that Nell-speak for sneaky?”
He is right. I can see that. What is needed is ‘human interest’ – immediate, happening NOW, human interest – behind which a few facts can be smuggled through. Ann and I have tried to pull together suitably anonymous case studies, but they lack the immediacy of proper news.
A plan begins to form in my brain. He gave me some ideas – but this would be even better! This would be superb! If I dare… If…
Silent pondering. More silent pondering. Despite the ever-present danger of wrinkles, my forehead puckers up. I need to talk to Ann.
“Nell?” There is hair nuzzling going on.
“Uh huh?” I grunt, absent-mindedly. I say ‘uh huh’ all the time now! I must be careful. It must be so obvious where I have picked it up.
“Nell, are you listening?”
I drag myself back, I can work on my plan anytime. “Sorry, I was miles away. Uh huh?”
“Am I still supposed to be helping out on the self-control?”
Er. Yes, I suppose so.
I do not know.
If anyone sees us, arms wrapped around each other, my reputation is gone. I may not agree with the rules, but I cannot claim ignorance. Kissing a man to whom I am not officially betrothed – we are not talking a quick peck under a handy sprig of mistletoe here – brands me as a cheap little tart. No arguments. No excuses. No mitigation.
Part of me thinks, since I would be utterly ruined anyway, I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
“Why do you ask?” I murmur, once again doing my imitation of a wet lettuce.
If Joshua really, really wants me – maybe…
I will own up. I am wearing – something. Just in case. NOT planning. Just in case.
My neck is being kissed. I have not put on my starched collar yet, he can reach the curve of my throat.
Tiny nibbling kisses work back up to my ear. A curl, dangling over the lobe is softly blown aside to let his mouth move…
“Because, if I’m still expected to be all self-controlled…”
Nuzzle. Tiniest touch of tongue tip in my ear. Gentle nip to a lobe. A shiver runs down my spine. My heart pounds. Literally. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? It is busy sending blood to all the parts of me currently throbbing with eagerness.
If this IS love – and whatever love means, I believe myself in it – should I not care more about making HIM happy than about myself? If the theory is you would happily lay down your life for the man you truly love, hesitating to lay down your – well – your chastity, seems a tad contradictory.
“IF that’s what you want…” he murmurs.
Yes! I mean, no. No – yes. Er…
“…I’m gonna hafta ask you to move your hand.”
What? I drag my gaze away from those melting brown eyes, look down at my right hand which is absent-mindedly resting on…
I snatch it away. The pounding blood diverts to my flaming face.
“Sorry!” I blurt. “I am SO sorry!”
“Not a problem, Helen.” A wicked grin, “Believe me, it was my pleasure!” He sighs, once again searching my face, “I take it that pole-axed expression means you had no idea what you were doing and I DO hafta stick with the self-control?”
You see the thing is; a woman deciding marriage is tainted with the whiff of a commercial transaction and concluding she believes in free love can be seen (I suppose) as an admirably emancipated radical, risking all for her principles.
At any rate, it is the kind of argument a hypothetical over-educated, self-excusing, throbbing with frustration, female doctor could make.
A man deciding marriage is not for him is merely – and I do know this is not exactly fair –looking for a little no-strings sex and risking absolutely nothing.
I want him to ask him to marry me.
However foolish it is, I will say yes SO quickly it will make his head spin!
I am so very, very, very nearly sure he loves me and wants to spend the rest of his life with me.
If only he would SAY so.
He is smiling down at me, stroking my face in the way I absolutely adore.
Please ask me. Please.
He does not. He kisses my forehead, helps me to my feet, walks me to the edge of the trees, says good-bye.
YET ANOTHER MORNING – NARRATTED BY NELL
“…Oughta make some story over the arrival of this new automated band saw and shifting lumber edger. Me and Charles have been trying to get an angle on it – Hey! There’s a pun in there somewhere, ‘cos one of the things the edger’ll do is work on any angle. Anyhow, by itself it’s kinda dull even though it cost…”
“Joshua…” I loose my stone. One – two – three – four – five skips across the water. I am getting better at this.
“Uh huh?” His stone leaves his hand, smooth as silk. Five – six – seven – eight. Eight! EIGHT! “Count ’em and weep. That makes fourteen thousand dollars you owe me! Like taking candy from a baby!”
We have decided it is not wise to – you know – embrace all the time. Pleasant, sure; wise, no!
“Do you ever think about…?” I take a breath. I really want this to come from him, but… Well, I suppose I can drop a feminine hint or twelve? “Do you ever think about the future?” Skip – skip – oh!
“Two!” he scathes. “TWO! There’s critters living under stones can throw better’n that!” Six – Seven – Eight! Again! He was lulling me before! “That’s twenty thousand dollars you owe me! The future?”
“Yes. The future. It comes after the present. I know it can be a difficult concept to grapple with, but try and keep up. By the way, I’m calling a smug smirk penalty on that last stone – that’ll be twenty thousand dollar fine – so it’s back to all square.”
“Do you want to incur an arguing-with-the-permanent-referee-penalty? Do you? I thought not.” I take another breath. “We were talking about the future. We can’t keep on meeting like this forever. Enjoying the dawn is one thing in midsummer; it’s not going to be so much fun once winter comes round.”
“Reckon not. ‘Course, by the time winter comes you mighta won so much money off me, you’ll be managing this hospital of yours in some big city. AND running for President. AND…” He skips a stone across the water, watches it closely. “…DEFINITELY not needing a man to complete you, because you’re already a complete human being.”
Did I say that? Good heavens, I am pompous! Perhaps I had had a glass or two of wine at the time. That is my excuse anyhow!
“I may not need anyone to complete me,” I say, quietly, “but that does not mean my life cannot be made still richer by sharing it with someone special.”
I feel my cheeks burn as he plucks another stone from the ground and skips it. If he does not respond to that I will… Well, I suppose I will carry on, but with a paper bag over my head to hide my embarrassment.
The pause goes on. And on. He skips another stone. This time it is HIM taking the deep breath, as if he has finally made up his mind about something.
He turns to look at me. The face I have come to adore has no trace of the teasing look. He is about to say something. Something really serious. I can see it in his eyes. Is this going to be it?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
“There’s something you oughta know.”
Oh. That does not sound as if what is coming is him popping the question.
“Uh huh?” I encourage.
The silence lengthens. At last, he says, “I told you I lost my folks during the war.”
“Yes,” I say, softly. He’s mentioned his mother since. Not about losing her. About how she loved to read. What she loved to read.
“After that, I got sent to a home. It was…” Pause. “There were a lot of kids orphaned round about the same time. A lot of kids, not a lot of folks left to care for them. Those that were left… Well, I guess, looking back, they had their own problems. You don’t see that when you’re twelve. You just see, so far as they’re concerned, you’re nothing more than one more annoying little snot-nose. Money was scarce. Food was scarce. And what there was, you never knew but what it might get requisitioned by one side or another.” Pause. “There came a point when… I dunno. I guess I’d had enough of following orders, keeping quiet and chores that just got harder an’ harder on the back as I got older. Anyhow – I ran off.” Pause. “I was so cocky, so sure I could make it by myself.”
“How old were you?”
“Too dang young to make it by myself. I – I hadta do stuff that…” Pause. “Times were pretty tough. Half the country licking its wounds, glowering at the other half. Lots of folk feeling cheated and… I wasn’t…” A tiny return to the usual Joshua Smith. “I wasn’t the suave, debonair, self-possessed charmer you see today. I was scrawny and stroppy and sulky and ’bout as pleasant to be around as any other scrawny, stroppy, sulky fifteen year old boy.”
“Fairly ghastly then?” I smile. I press his hand. My brow puckers. “Wasn’t Thaddeus with you then? I had the impression you grew up together?”
His eyes meet mine. They have an arrested look. Why? It seems an innocent enough question. When his answer comes, his voice is – I do not know – almost careful.
“Uh huh. We grew up together and were together in the home. Like I say, we – I did stuff that… We – I – we…” More than a pause. Silence.
“Are you saying this is why you started drifting job to job? You were running away, so at first you couldn’t settle and apply yourself – and by the time you could, you’d become used to a roving life? Perhaps even trapped in it, as you had no respectable references?”
He is looking at me, searching my face. “Calling it a roving life might be kinda underselling it, Helen. I did a lotta things which, looking back, I’m not exactly proud of. I…” He stops. Eyes still fixed on me. A frown creases his forehead. It is as if he cannot make up his mind. About what? Is there more to come? Or is he worrying how I will react? Do I look too censorious? I do not mean to!
“Oh, Joshua,” I – I cannot help it – I raise his hand to my lips, kiss the palm, hold it against my cheek. “I did guess that your past wasn’t… I did realise you’d probably been guilty of…” I do not want to hurt his feelings by making it sound worse than it was. They were so young when they were left alone. “Of gambling and drinking to excess and…” I blush, “…exploiting disadvantaged women forced by circumstances into a life of prostitution. I can’t help but realise that, at some point, you’ve become so used to the reaction a tied-down gun stirs, that walking around armed seems routine. Perhaps, at times – at first, there was even a little petty dishonesty…” I break off. His expression looks… I don’t know. Perhaps disappointed? Or, more than that. Dejected? Oh, please! If my big mouth has ruined everything… “I am so sorry!” I blurt. “Joshua, I should never have said that. I only meant that when you first cast yourself adrift in the world, maybe you had to manoeuvre ways of getting a meal and avoiding the bill. I didn’t mean to imply anything worse… ” I take a deep breath. “Consider it my turn to apologise unreservedly. I should not have presumed.”
“Helen. You’ve got nothing to apologise for. Sheesh. I wish the worst thing I ever did at fifteen WAS skip out without paying a bill, or rustle a chicken or liberate the odd apple pie left on a window ledge to cool.”
“Joshua, you were still almost a child! What matters most is not what kind of youth you had, it’s what kind of man you became.”
If he looked dejected before, now he looks almost desolate. I see this only for a second. Then he sits up, turns away from me, stares over the lake. When he turns back, the dimpled smile has returned. He gets to his feet, holds out his hand. “C’mon. Time I walked you to the edge of the trees.”
We walk. I slip an arm around his waist. I look up. Still smiling, but it does not fool me.
“Are you worrying that …” deep breath, “What you were saying earlier; are you trying to tell me you’re not good enough for me?”
IS that what is holding him back?
“I don’t need to tell you. It’s pretty dang obvious. I’m a no-account drifter, you graduated medical school fourth in your…”
“Third equal in your year. A man good enough for you’d hafta be – what – some fancy-pants lawyer, a professor, another doctor…?”
“Pfffttt! What would be the point of THAT?” I hug his waist, “Now, if you’d said, someone with a flair for using the written word persuasively, or a superlatively silver-tongued fund-raiser, or someone capable of swaying a crowd, or someone with a real flair for organising…”
He gets the gist. I hope.
“I guess that kinda fella’d be more use to you, huh?” Pause. “‘Course, IF you found anyone that good – why the Sam Hill would HE settle for YOU?”