Tuesday, December 6, 2011

King's Road

Sarah knew that Jack would not agree; he had made his opinions clear and their dispute had settled as a new distance between them.  She regretted this, regretted the loss of his friendship more than his bed; sex had never been a strength of their marriage; but this regret was not enough to keep her at home.  Having eaten a simple tea, therefore, she dressed in her most sedate of costumes, left word with the maid that she would be late, and set off on foot for Whitechapel.
A young woman alone at night brought glances and occasional remarks from the men who gathered beneath the gaslights.  Sarah hardened herself against these, pleased that her plain outfit added to the dowdiness of her slight form.  She continued on her way, maintaining her steady, determined steps as she turned from Whitechapel Road unto dingier, narrow streets behind.  The air was thick with smoke and smell, adding to the feel of decay.  She looked about for Jessica’s building.
Seventeen was no different to the others.  It rose to four floors, set back from the pavement with a basement showing beneath; the heavy, worn door opened at her touch and she climbed in the dark.  Jessica’s flat was on the second floor to the rear; she had two rooms, one a clutter of curtained beds, the other slightly larger, set out as a kitchen and living room.  Jessica’s daughter made her welcome, responding to her attention; her son observed.  Mr Clarke sat by the stove with his paper.
            “There’ll be no time for tea,” Jessica commented, “though yeh’d be welcome if yeh wanted one.”
            “No, thank you,” Sarah responded; “we’d better be going.  The meeting starts at eight, and I promised Mrs Lowndes we wouldn’t be late.”
            “Right yeh are, Sarah.”
Whilst Jessica fetched her hat and coat, similar in style to Sarah’s, yet less expensive, Sarah took the opportunity to look around.  The room was tidy, its spare furniture scrubbed and neatly arranged, and the only evidence of the squalor suggested by the building was a slight odour of damp.  It felt homely, lived in with care.  Jessica clearly noticed her study.
            “It’s not much,” she said.
            “It’s lovely.”
            “No, Sarah.  It’s a slum, and we’d get out of it if we could.  But we can’t for now, so we’ll make do.”
            “Of course.”
            “Now, Billy;” Sarah turned to her husband, raising her voice so that he knew he was included; “are yeh up for it?”
            “Do I have a choice?”
            “Then I’ll do me best.”
            “Just you do it well, Billy.”
Jessica followed these words by leaning in to the man.  Their kiss was brief, tender and full.  Sarah could not see the touch of lips, but she sensed the pleasure of the sound; it told her of the passion the couple shared.  She thought of her own chaste marriage; though they had been friends she had never desired Jack and she wondered what it would be like.  The image seemed wrong, his stiffness and reserve unappealing.
            “Just you remember us, Mrs Knightley,” Billy said, standing from his chair, “when yeh get the vote.  If Jess here is to be associatin’ with you new women I’ll not have her thinkin’ she can leave me in this shite-hole every night.”
            “Watch yehr language, Billy; Sarah’s a guest.”
This rebuke, accompanied by a slap, showed no offence despite its tone.  Sarah was tempted to offer a further defence, she knew how hard Jessica worked at the hospital, but the words that suggested themselves were too strong.  She held her tongue as Jessica completed her preparations, smiling briefly at the husband then following her friend as Jessica gave final instruction to her two children.  The boy resisted the offer of a public kiss.
            “We’ll be off now, Mr Clarke”, she said, in an attempt to compensate for her silence.
            “Good night now, Mrs Knightley.  And don’t you be too long, Jess.”
            “No, Billy.”
The District Route would take them straight to Sloane Square.  In an arrangement neither of the women bothered to question Sarah paid for the two-penny tickets and the pair made their way down to the crowded carriage.  Jessica undid her coat as she entered the warmth, and showed no surprise when a young man stood up, tipped his hat and offered her his vacant seat.  She simply smiled, slightly coquettish, and accepted the offer, settling into the comfort.
The man’s friend, also a student Sarah guessed, then followed suit.  He became immediately unsure, however, when Sarah refused the offer; she too smiled, but her look said that she was happy to stand.  She found a place where she could wait, upright, her gloved hand keeping her steady as the electric train began its way across the city.  She kept her eyes neutral, refusing to stare, and noticed, despite herself that Jessica had started to chat to her new neighbour.
The pleasure of her conversation caused Jessica to laugh repeatedly, a low laugh barely audible beyond the chair on which she sat.  As she did so wisps of untamed, russet-brown hair leaked from beneath her hat.  She forced these back into place, the movement adding to the attraction she was already claiming.  Sarah, whose own appearance, was designed for the opposite effect, was surprised as usual by the indifference of her friend; such behaviour seemed natural to Jessica.
In this manner they continued their journey.  When seats became available Jessica offered quick apologies to her companion, and beckoned for Sarah to join her.  The attention brought a blush to Sarah’s pale features, but she took her place, straightening her coat and long skirt as she did so.  She said nothing to Jessica’s attempts at further conversation, and her friend got the message, though she kept her head high and her expression open, her looks returning any that came her way.
“I don’t know how you do it”, Sarah confided as they reached the square.
“You show no shame at all.”
Jessica held Sarah beneath the elbow, guiding her through the traffic onto the pavement of King’s Road.  Though she liked control, determining her own thoughts and actions, Sarah knew that she did not possess this extraverted display.  She was unsurprised at the defence Jessica gave for her actions.  Her friend had leaned into her shoulder in an intimate exchange.
            “Why should I show shame, Sarah?” Jessica said; “the men stare so I stare.  It’s not as if I’m gonna give ‘em anything.”
            “I’m not.  I’m married to a man who keeps me more than happy.  Too happy sometimes for the cotton wool.”
Despite the crudeness Sarah laughed, though she had only read of such contraceptives.  This encouraged Jessica to continue.
“And you, Miss Prissy, might have been left to stand for forty minutes if I hadn’t found yeh a seat.  All because it was offered by a young man.  Yeh’re failin’ to make the most of the gifts that God gave yeh.”
            “I’d prefer men to see me as an equal.”
            “And that they won’t, Sarah.  Men look because it’s in their nature, ours too.  And yeh can have some fun sometimes, havin’ a look back.”
            “And Mr Clarke?”
            “Billy’s not the jealous type; he’s no need.”
            “I see.”
            “Yeh don’t Sarah.  Do yeh?”
Jessica was right, and the squeeze she gave to Sarah’s arm told Sarah that she knew.  This brought a new embarrassment.  Despite her university education it was Sarah who was naive.  She would have minded admitting it in other company.
“No you’re right, Jessica; I know little of men.”
“I know.”
“But I know what should be ours.”
The women progressed thus down King’s Road.  As they approached the Palace of Varieties Sarah noticed the waiting crowds, mostly men, and made to cross unto the other side.  Jessica held her firm, though it was clear they were being watched.
“You hold yehr head high,” she whispered; “yeh’re a pretty woman.”
“Evening ladies.”
“How would you know,” Jessica replied; “I’ve never met yeh”.
“And would you want to?”
“Not likely.”
The other men laughed and no further words were offered.  Sarah was uncertain how to feel; the put-down had given her a momentary thrill, yet it also felt uncomfortable sizing up to strangers in that way.  She was pleased when they turned off the road into a lane leading to the studio at the rear of a residential house.
“It’s Billy that taught me to be so bold,” Jessica said; “he says I’m not to hang me head for any man or woman.  And I’ll not.”
In demonstration of this, though Jessica was a guest, Jessica knocked whilst Sarah was still confirming the number of the door.  The door opened immediately, a woman Sarah recognised as Mrs Hampton, and Sarah watched her pause, studying Jessica with a quaint disregard.  Jessica showed her usual indifference, offering a confident hand and smiling.
            “Jessica Clarke”, she said.
            “Mrs Hampton, Mrs Clarke.”
            “Yeh’re one of them, then.”
©2011 Padraig De Brún

To read Chapter 1 click here.

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