13. "Don’t Sleep In The Subway"
With everything that had been going on, Christmas had crept up without me noticing. It struck me somewhere in the middle of that Saturday morning that it was December the 22nd and I hadn’t even got anything for my parents. Mr Stephenson helpfully suggested cigars and chocolates, both of which the shop sold. Not knowing when I might have a chance to do any shopping, I followed his advice.
I began to wonder about Caro. I realised I’d forgotten to ask her whether she wanted to spend Christmas Day with us. There hadn’t been much opportunity to talk during the party, and although I’d stayed overnight – sleeping on her bed, but there were six of us in the room – I’d had to take off pretty smartly in the morning to avoid being late again.
The sight of her in that black dress was easily the most indelible image from the party. As someone who’d always had a suspicion that parties were never as much fun as people made out, I’d actually found it a relatively painless experience. After a few attempts at general mingling I’d got into a conversation with Roxie and Vee about the relative merits of Tolkien and Peake – Roxie preferred Tolkien, Vee was with Caro in thinking Peake to be less irritating, if less accessible. My acquaintance with Peake was limited to one dash through Gormenghast years before, but once we moved onto other authors I was on firmer ground. Vee had read some of Wilson’s work. In the early hours of the morning I came to the conclusion that they were both delightful, although the sight of them nuzzling each other was something it took me a little while to get used to.
So that was my brush with swinging sixties; tolerable, but not something I was desperate to repeat. The most notable occurrence was an exchange with Vee while Caro and Roxie were dancing together (something else that took some adjusting to). Both of the girls had completely confounded my expectations of lesbians, but of the two Vee was the nearest to being ‘butch’, having an athletic figure and close-cropped black hair. While we were watching the other two, she turned to me and said quite unexpectedly:
‘You’re all right. I was afraid, when she said you wanted to write, that you be another one of these art school tossers, but…well, you’re bearable.’
‘Well, thanks. I can just about cope with you, too.’
‘Oh, I’m giving you a compliment, believe me. So is she. She’s kept herself very much to herself – hasn’t let anyone near her. And there’ve been plenty of interested parties…specially with all that money in the background.’
I tried to keep my face blank but I must have given myself away. Vee gave me a pointed stare, then grinned lopsidedly. ‘You don’t know who she is, do you? That’s even more impressive.’
‘Uhhh….’ I tried to think of something to say that wasn’t a direct request for information.
‘I wonder if I should tell you,’ said Vee, seemingly almost to herself. ‘If she hasn’t…’
‘I can pretend to be surprised later – trust me. Who is she?’
Vee was shaking her head. ‘I don’t think I can do this. Besides, you’ve got all the clues. You’ve met Guy, right?’
‘And what’s their surname?’
I tried to think. Did I know it? George Harrison had said something…Blackman, that was it. I hadn’t given it any thought. Blackman? I said the name out loud and it still didn’t mean anything to me.
‘Robert Blackman..?’ coaxed Vee gently.
Now that name did ring a definite bell. I tried to remember where I had seen it. I shook my head. ‘Sorry. I know I’ve seen the name, but I can’t place it…’
‘Wherever you’re standing in central London,’ said Vee, ‘you’re probably within sight of a building he owns.’
It still took me another minute to make all the connections, but finally I recalled seeing Blackman’s name and photograph all over the business pages, and occasionally even beneath the main headlines. So that was it. Caroline Blackman; daughter of one of ten richest men in the country. I wondered if Dennis and the others knew who she was. I doubted it; I couldn’t see Dennis keeping something like that to himself. But what did it mean for me? And what the hell was she doing living the way she was?
These questions distracted me for the rest of the night; fortunately Caro was under the influence of several different intoxicants by this time, and she hardly noticed my preoccupation. I was impressed that she managed to rouse herself in time to see me off in the morning; she was a little pale, but quite awake.
‘When will I see you again?’ she asked. All I could do was stand there wondering why this rich girl was bothering with me. I began to wish Vee hadn’t told me. And in my confusion I didn’t think about Christmas and invitations. The only thing that was clear in my mind was that I was seeing Barbara that evening.
‘I’ll ring you tomorrow morning.’
She looked at me as if sensing there was something she was not being told. I decided to risk trusting her maturity. ‘I’ve got to see Barbara tonight. I did ask if you could come, but she said not this time. She sounded a bit…anxious.’
Caro nodded. ‘Okay. Don’t go getting into any strange spaceships, though.’
Was I imagining the slight reserve in her kiss when we said goodbye?
Mrs Muller asked after Barbara when I got in from work and seemed very interested when I said I was going to see her. She asked me to repeat her invitation, to say that Barbara could come any time. I assured her I would convey the message; it occurred to me that Barbara might be quite glad of somewhere to go if she was out of work.
On the way over I kept thinking about Caro and her money. I told myself over and over that she didn’t seem the type who’d allow something like that to make any difference, and nor was I – so why couldn’t I get it out of my head? In the end I decided that it was another deficiency in me, another thing that she had and I didn’t. I already felt unequal to her in terms of experience and courage. The world that had seemed so full of possibilities twenty four hours earlier seemed suddenly to be a long obstacle race with no prize in sight at the end of the run. In my coat pocket I had the paperback Harrison had given me, but when I got it out I found that my whirling thoughts made reading impossible.
The day had turned chilly and there were a few flakes of snow drifting through the darkness as I came up the steps to Barbara’s place. I stopped in sudden confusion at the top; I realised I’d never been here except with Barbara and I had no idea whether there was a separate bell for her flat.
I had only been looking around for a few seconds when the door opened. It was her; she was in her coat and gloves and she took my arm and hurried me down the steps. ‘Come on; we’ll go along the road.’
I looked back. The curtain in the front window flopped back into place. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Not now,’ she muttered. ‘Let’s sit down somewhere first.’
I allowed her to lead me along the streets until we came to the small café we had visited three nights earlier. We went inside; seeing the state she was in I insisted on paying for the teas and sent her to sit down. The radio was on again: Petula Clark singing
…You’d change your life without much hesitation
But would you if you really had to choose?
Swap my obstacle race for something smoother? I decided, looking at Barbara as I took over the teas, that I probably wouldn’t.
She took hold of the tea and wrapped both her hands around it as if it was giving her strength. Then she looked up at me. ‘Thank you for coming. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do, but I needed to talk to someone…’
‘All right. So tell me…what the hell is it that’s got you so shaken up?’
She took a deep breath. ‘I’ve been given notice to leave the flat.’
She took a gulp of her tea. Her hands seemed to be shaking slightly. ‘Mrs Cordell knew you stayed all night. She remembered I’d told her the age of my sister’s boy.’ She closed her eyes and lowered her face. ‘She…she practically accused me of…’
‘What?’ The moment I asked I knew the answer. ‘But she’s seen me several times. She can’t think—’
‘You’re one of my regulars.’ Her voice was a bitter whisper. ‘God knows who the others are, because I’m sure I don’t.’
‘This is ridiculous! She can’t do this! I should go and talk to h—’
Barbara’s head came up. ‘Nothing would make me stay there now!’ She looked immediately ashamed. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be shouting at you. I just don’t know what to do.’ She gave me a wry little grimace. ‘I know there’s nothing you can do; I just didn’t know who else…’
her eyes closed again. ‘I can’t. I know he’d drop everything to help me, but I can’t be dependent on him now. Not at the moment. Not yet. I need…I need to go to him on my own terms.’
She nodded. ‘I did phone her. Then I remembered…Mike’s taking her up north for a long weekend.’ A faint smile curved her lips. ‘I think spending time with Dennis did the trick for her. Poor Dennis.’
‘Never mind Dennis,’ I said, reaching out to squeeze her hands. ‘At least he’s got a roof over his head. What are we gonna do about you? When do they want you out?’
‘I’ve been given until Monday.’
‘What?? That’s fucking obscene! Who does she think she is?’
Barbara shook her head. ‘I think, technically, she could get away with it. I’m a little behind on the rent; she could claim that as the reason she gave me notice and date it from when the money was due. It’s supposed to be a week on either side, and this would make it look like she gave me ten days.’
‘Surely she has to have something in writing?’
‘She could write something and have it witnessed by her brother.’
‘I thought he was supposed to be your friend.’
Her face seemed to quiver. I looked at her enquiringly but she made no response. ‘What is it?’ I asked softly.
‘There is a way I could stay there,’ she muttered stonily. ‘He…promised to intercede for me. Talk to his sister.’
‘Well…if it gives you a few days to find somewhere…’
She gazed helplessly at me. ‘You don’t understand…’
She swallowed. ‘There was a price for his help.’
I felt a fool. ‘Oh Christ.’ I grabbed her hands again. ‘Sorry. I’m a bit slow today.’ An idea that had been creeping forward from the back of my mind now pushed itself firmly to the front. ‘Look – sit tight. Don’t go away. I’ll only be a minute.’
I got up and went straight to the counter. I offered the bloke there half a crown to use the phone; he insisted on taking the money first but then let me through to the back quickly enough. I rang Mrs Muller.
‘Ja?’ She still occasionally slipped into German if she was distracted.
‘Mrs Muller, it’s me – Conrad. I’m…I’m with Barbara. She’s…well, she’s been evicted. It’s not her fault – they’ve been very unfair. I know it would be difficult, but—’
‘Of course she must come and stay with us, if she has nowhere else to go. Will you bring her tonight?’
‘Er, I don’t know. Maybe. Would that be too—’
‘I will prepare the small room.’
‘Thanks. Thanks a lot.’
‘I am glad to be of service. I will see you later, then. And do please impress upon Barbara that this is no imposition. I will be delighted. Please tell her this.’
‘I will. Goodbye. Thanks again.’
Barbara looked at me curiously as I sat down. Her mouth moved as if she wanted to say something, but no sound came out.
I smiled. ‘All fixed. Mrs Muller’s sorting out her small room; you can come tonight if you want.’
Her mouth fell open. ‘Oh, no. No, I couldn’t possibly…’
‘Look, it’s no trouble. She told me specifically to say that to you. C’mon, she’s practically made the bed already.’ I leaned forward. ‘Look, I’m indirectly responsible for this business, anyway. If I hadn’t been there…’
I could see her fighting with herself. ‘It…it’s very tempting. If you’re sure…if she’s—’
‘D’you want to come tonight? We should go now, if so.’
She gave a little shudder, then nodded. ‘Yes. All right, yes. I’ll need to collect a few things. I’ll have to go back to the flat, of course. Would you…?’
‘You don’t think I’d let you face them alone?’
She smiled her first real smile of the evening.
She collected a few clothes and other things very quickly, but the first thing she did when we entered the flat was walk over to the desk and hand me Religion and the Rebel.
‘You forgot to take this last time.’
I stood there, so amazed that she could think of me in the midst of all her troubles that I forgot even to thank her.
We saw no sign of the landlady or her brother; Barbara said she would ring them sometime later to arrange the collection of the rest of her things. She filled an old suitcase and we made a hasty exit. I kept a careful eye on her; she seemed calm enough now, although she was a little pale and she spoke infrequently.
We said very little on the journey. For myself, I was thinking about Caro and what her reaction to this was likely to be; I couldn’t begin to guess what was going through Barbara’s mind. At one stage I put my hand out to press hers reassuringly, and she took hold of my fingers and held onto them.
I couldn’t work out quite what my feelings were. I was shocked at what had been done to her, and the brother’s counter offer, but my sensations at the prospect of being under the same roof as Barbara were decidedly mixed. I was having some difficulty remembering the sense of mystery that had accom-panied her when I first saw her. That was what had first brought her to my attention, and then her reticence had continued to intrigue me through our first couple of meetings. Now I knew her better than I could ever have imagined I would do. The mystery had evaporated, and left with me with a very real woman. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do about it.
As we got off the train she stopped and faced me. ‘I hope you understand just how much this means to me…how difficult my position would have been—’
‘All I did was make a phone call. Mrs Muller’s the one you can thank.’
She just shook her head slightly and we walked to the house without speaking.
Mrs Muller continued to rise in my estimation. Although she was obviously delighted to welcome Barbara – which she did handsomely with soup, rolls and cakes – she retired to her own room very early, clearly divining our need to talk privately.
We sipped hot soup for a while in comparative contentment in front of a well-stoked fire. I watched Barbara carefully, and when I judged her to be recovering from the day’s events, I said:
‘You’ll probably throw this suggestion back in my face, but I don’t think there’s any point trying to look for a new place before the New Year.’
‘I can’t possibly impose on Wiltrud for—’
‘Oi!’ I rapped out. ‘You haven’t been paying attention. You’re welcome as long as you need a bed. You know that, really. Don’t let your old-fashioned sense of propriety stop someone from taking pleasure in giving you exactly what you need.’
Her face shifted uneasily as she faced me. ‘It’s…difficult. I’ve always prided myself on my independence, and I don’t want to take advantage of the kindness you and Wiltrud have shown…’
‘I keep telling you not to call me kind.’
‘Well, what would you call it?’ she said seriously. ‘I don’t imagine you arranged this in the hope we could sleep together again.’
For a moment all I could do was stare at her. Then I managed to mutter, ‘Of course not.’
Her gaze dropped. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that. I’ve done quite a few things, these last few days, that I don’t really understand. I…I wonder if I wasn’t actually hoping for something like this to happen, when I…well, when I practically forced you to stay that night. I’ve wanted to get out of there for quite a while, but it wasn’t until I met you that I realised how much I hated the atmosphere of that place. Mrs Cordell has been quite unbearable since the first time I brought you back.’
‘How..? You didn’t say anything.’
‘It wasn’t anything obvious. Little things…her manner, odd messages she’d leave, stupid new rules she seemed to make up on the spot…’ Barbara shook her head.
‘I bet you’ll be glad to get away from her brother, anyway.’
She simply nodded, and I decided not to press her on that subject. Neither of us spoke for a few moments, until she let out a kind of choked laugh. I looked at her with an enquiry on my face, and she sat back in her chair and smiled tiredly. ‘I was just thinking…this all started with me picking up your book, and seizing the faint hope that you might be interested in what had happened to me, that you might be prepared to listen without judging me…How long ago all that seems now – and how unimportant, at the moment.’
I felt myself flushing slightly. I wondered how honest I should be. Before I’d made a conscious decision I found myself speaking. ‘That wasn’t quite where it started.’
‘Oh?’ She sat up slightly.
I found it difficult to speak. ‘The books were…bait. I wanted to pique your interest.’
‘Really? My interest? But why on earth—? and what made you think I would be interested?’
I shrugged. ‘I spoke to Dennis. He mentioned that you’d been asking about space travel, the possibility of life on other planets – that sort of stuff.’
She sat back again, her brows drawn together. ‘Yes, I gathered you’d heard something about my background, but I didn’t realise you’d gone out of your way…So what prompted this interest in me?’ As she finished speaking she suddenly looked at me in a very particular way and said; ‘Or perhaps I shouldn’t ask. Suddenly I feel I’ve been wilfully blind to certain…undercurrents that were there from the beginning. I wonder if you were ever actually interested in my stories…’
I was grateful that most of the illumination was coming from the fire; she wouldn’t be able to make out the colour of my face. I couldn’t meet her gaze as I went on. ‘I…found you fascinating. There was something in your face…’
‘So all that about wanting to discuss the books was just…chat up talk, was it?’
I risked a look at her face. She seemed wryly amused now. She seemed to sense I needed reassurance and reached out, laying her hand on mine. ‘Don’t worry. It’s all very flattering, really. Especially because I think that since then…you have become interested in me for other reasons.’
I nodded vigorously. I was very tempted to take hold of her hand but I let her draw it away. She smiled at me and shook her head again. ‘I don’t know…and here I was blaming myself for leading an impressionable young man astray. Now I find you had designs on me all the time.’ Another smile, then her face was serious again. ‘So where was Caro in all this? Oh, that’s right – you said you met her at about the same time. No wonder you’ve been confused.’
I bowed my head, my eyes on the floor. ‘Sorry if I—’
‘No. Don’t apologise. Even if you did mislead me slightly, you never misbehaved. And I’m pleased that you’ve told me this now. In a very short space of time, we have become quite good friends.’ She paused, and I looked up. She seemed to be hesitant about saying what was on her mind. ‘I would like to know one more thing, though.’
I shrugged to indicate that I was willing to answer.
She sat forward, resting her elbows on her thighs. ‘Thursday night…did you— were you hoping that something would happen?’
I took a deep breath. ‘I don’t know. I…I think if you had started something, I would probably have…well, I suppose I would have…’
She laughed and sat back, waving a hand to cut off my stumbling sentence. ‘All right, I’m sorry I asked. It was an odd situation. I don’t think I was quite sure of my own feelings. But I’m sure it was best that things didn’t get out of control. There’s Caro to think of, after all.’
I nodded. ‘That reminds me – I told Caro I’d ring her tomorrow. She knows I went to see you tonight, but I’m not sure how she’ll take this.’
‘Does she see me as a rival?’
‘I’m not quite sure. If she does, she treats it as a sort of joke. She certainly doesn’t seem to be threatened by you.’
Barbara was looking at me intently. ‘I’ve just remembered – you said you were going to tell her about my past. Did you? How did she react?’
‘Predictably. I managed to convince her that it was worth hearing some of it from you. I was…I was wondering if we might do that tomorrow.’
Barbara smiled. ‘Well, I don’t think I have anything else planned…’