Tuesday, 18 June 2013
By the time Hermione came to pick him up Arnold was ready to leave Bath. He'd strolled up to Victoria Park and had a coffee in the cafeteria above the tennis courts. There were a couple of games in progress but he hadn't paid much attention to them. All that perforated his bubble on the verandah was the noise of the ball hitting the rackets and he spent his time trying to work out how many bars there were in the railings surrounding the courts. Then an argument broke out in one of the games, and he found himself being dragged out of his calculations into the real world of frustration and anger. He drained his coffee and got up to leave. His whole visit had taken about two hours, so he thought that by the time he reached George Street he should be just in time for his lift.
As he rounded the corner he spotted Hermione's car next to the steps. The emergency lights were flashing and he hoped he hadn't kept her waiting. A traffic warden was taking an interest from across the street, so he quickened his pace. He got to the car, jumped in and they sped off towards the traffic lights, heading east towards the London Road.
'My word, you've been busy,' he declared when he saw what looked like bags from clothing shops piled high on the back seat.
'I know, it looks bad, doesn't it?' she agreed. 'But they're not all guilty pleasures, Arnold. Some of them are for Lucy. One of the advantages of having daughters. You can make guesses about styles and sizes for them. And if she doesn't like something, I can have it. How were the architects?'
'There was a lot to take in. On the whole, I like what they've done.'
'Tell you what, why don't you come and have lunch with me and give me the details?' she invited.
'Yes, I'd like that. Thank you.'
The thing he admired about Hermione was she always seemed to know what was needed at any given time. They'd become friends after her husband had left her for his secretary and she'd started helping him out at St. Tobias's. Lucy had been away at boarding school then, so she'd had plenty of time on her hands. From flower arranging to organising fetes, Hermione was able to turn her hand to just about anything and bring in results with a minimum of fuss, which was particularly what appealed to him. If there's one thing he abhorred in life it was fuss. If anything involved too much of it he could quite easily go without.
They pulled up outside her house and Arnold helped carry in the bags from the back seat.
'There, that's done. Now let's go to the kitchen and I'll make you something. Will an omelette do?'
Once he was seated at her pine kitchen table he was ready to tell her about what he'd seen. He liked sitting there talking to her whilst she busied herself preparing food. They'd done it many times, especially when there were important things to discuss concerning St.Tobias's. He watched her as she moved about the room, knowing exactly where everything was, bending down or reaching on tiptoe to open a cupboard for something she needed, a whisk, or an ingredient. Whenever he did the same thing at home it would take him forever to remember where anything was, with the result that his cooking was a painfully slow process. But he'd got used to the pace of that aspect of his life and was accustomed to remaining hungry for long periods of time.
He told her all he could remember of what he'd seen, and finished by telling how he'd been promised the scale model. She noticed the pleasure with which he said this and stopped to look at him for a few seconds.
'Dear, dear Arnold. Bless you', she announced before turning back to continue cooking.
After they'd eaten they sat and exchanged memories of some of their shared moments in the history of St. Tobias's. There were the awful storms in 1988 when a tall plane tree had missed the bell tower by a matter of inches, followed by the fund to raise money for the subsequent damage to the knave. Then the period in the mid-Nineties when it became clear someone was pilfering lead from the roof under cover of darkness, and the arrest of the gang responsible after a raid by police on a remote country pub. Hermione even recalled the first time she'd met Arnold, at a Women's Institute talk by a local stone sculptor in the library. He felt terribly ashamed to admit the details had slipped from his mind and she mockingly reprimanded him about it. He found himself accepting a glass of brandy from her and chinked glasses across the kitchen table. It was the first alcohol he'd drunk since their meal the week before at the Jaipur and it went straight to his head. Hermione put on some music and they started listening to Glenn Miller. She impulsively grabbed his hand and said
'Come on, up you get, sir. The lady wishes to dance!'
She led him through some steps but he was finding it difficult to keep up. Then a less frenetic number began to play and their pace slowed. She clung to him and continued to lead and he obediently followed her. It was the closest he'd ever been to her and he liked the way she smelt. It was comfortable and secure having her head resting there on his right shoulder blade. Then he felt her face turn towards his and she gently raised her mouth and kissed him on the lips. The music ended and they both stopped still in the silence. That brief period before the next number started was one of the longest passages of time Arnold had ever known. It wasn't unpleasant, but he had no idea what to do next. He began to feel embarrassed and drew away from her warmth, then instantly knew he'd done the wrong thing. He felt her body tense up and she looked unhappy, and all he could think of was to say,
'I'm sorry, Hermione. You must forgive me. I think I should go home now.'
By the time he'd walked home the effect of the brandy had worn off. He turned the last corner and managed to walk on the paving stones without touching any of the edges, and this made him feel more his normal self. He didn't know what had come over him. He'd never, ever, thought about Hermione in a sexual way in all the time he'd known her and he wondered if in some way he had accidentally given her the wrong impression. He spent the rest of that day going over and over the chain of events at lunch, trying to find something he'd done that could have sparked her behaviour. In the end, he concluded he hadn't done anything wrong and she had kissed him, not the other way round. As dusk fell, he began his familiar little rituals around the house in the hope it would make him feel better. The telephone rang several times but he didn't answer. If it was something important they would ring back, but then it occurred to him it may have been Hermione.
He made himself a sandwich and a cup of cocoa, and sat in his favourite chair in the living room to eat. Yes, it may well have been Hermione trying to call him. She'd realised she'd upset him and wanted to apologise. It had been a strange sensation, kissing on the lips. He tried to recall the last time he'd done it. Slowly he trawled back through his life and settled upon the girlfriend he'd began to see during his undergraduate days in Guildford in the late Sixties.
He remembered drinking pints of beer and sitting down by the river with her in the summer months, and kissing then. They'd seen each other for several months before she had broken it off, without them ever becoming intimate. The kissing had been quite passionate at times, he recalled, but his shy nature had prevented him from letting go and allowing his hands to explore her body. He remembered enjoying the kissing. The girl had introduced him to French kissing, with the tongue, and he'd found it rather novel. He started to look back objectively, almost as if he were thinking not about himself, but about another person entirely, it had been that long ago. He wondered if it had been his religious beliefs that had stopped him from becoming more adventurous with women. Carnal pleasures had never been directly condemned in his studies, just promiscuity. So he had to admit it was his own, introverted nature that was at fault. But blame was the wrong word to use, as that suggested a wrongdoing, and more than just the outcome of his inaction. There was no wrong or right about it.
He wondered if he would ever get to spend a night with a woman, and what it would feel like. He finished his cocoa and went to bed.
Soon after nine o'clock the next day, which was a Saturday, there was a knocking at Arnold's front door. He'd just finished his bath and was getting dressed, so he went down to see who it was. Trevor was standing on his doorstep.
'Morning, Arnold. Sleeping in at the weekend these days, are we? Tut, tut. Spoke with Hermione last night on the blower and she tells me you've been to see the plans at the architects'. Why don't you invite me in, old chap, and give me the gen? I wouldn't say no to a cup of tea if you were offering one.'
And with that he waltzed in past Arnold along the hallway. Arnold closed the front door and followed him into the kitchen.
Arnold had a love/hate relationship with Trevor, and always had done ever since they'd met. His first impression had been of a self-opinionated, conceited, thick-skinned, fanciful loud-mouth bore and he'd learnt nothing about him in the intervening years to change that. His area of expertise was mathematics, and he'd retired from teaching at Bristol University a good fifteen years earlier. He had bored his long-suffering wife to death in 1999, and Arnold had put her in the ground himself. They'd had no children and Trevor had taken it upon himself to dedicate his life to St. Tobias's, making Arnold's life insufferable in the process.
Over the years he'd given Trevor massive hints to find something else to occupy his time, but they'd fallen on deaf ears. Arnold and Hermione had grown to put up with him, and he had become an integral part of St. Tobias's survival. He had impressive contacts from his time at Bristol and they had utilised these in procuring services and favours in all manner of fields to keep St. Tobias's functioning. There was a limited amount of funding available from the Diocese and it had never been enough to tend to the old age of the church. It reminded Arnold of an old boat well past its prime, always springing a new leak, with them - the crew - managing to forever find some way to keep it afloat. It didn't seem that long ago when they were celebrating the 200th birthday of the founding in 1997, when Trevor and his wife had pulled out all the stops to make sure it had been a success.
But Arnold wasn't in the mood to entertain him that morning and pretended he was out of milk to avoid him prolonging his visit. He knew Trevor liked his tea in the morning, and if a cup wasn't readily available Arnold knew he'd be off visiting someone else in the neighbourhood to get one. Arnold gave him a truncated version of what he'd told Hermione the day before and sure enough Trevor started twitching and looking at his watch.
'Well, Arnold, it all seems tickety-boo. I've just recalled.... I promised to drop by a builder chappie's round the corner this morning to pick something up. So, must dash, I'm afraid. Suppose I'll see you tom....Ah, no, of course I won't, will I?....Righto, then. Speak soon.'
And he beetled off to the front door which Arnold held open for him, thanking him for the meal the week before, and Trevor scurried down the path to the front gate. Arnold closed the door on him with relief, and could still hear him jabbering on as he headed off down the road. Now he could enjoy his egg and soldiers in peace.