“They are good value, are they?” the blonde girl said. She spoke with a foreign accent, German or Dutch, something like that. Her voice had a smoky quality Brenda found intriguing.
“Very good value,” Brenda said.
The girl’s blue eyes held Brenda’s for a moment before they looked away. The conversation was over, a commonplace exchange between shoppers.
Later, Brenda wanted a cup of tea. She had been to the store restaurant before, and had a favourite table, or line of tables, next to the windows overlooking the High Street, several storeys below. She sat down; the waitress came; Brenda ordered a pot for one.
“Would you like anything to eat, madam?”
“No, thank you. Just the tea.”
She had nearly finished the first cup when she saw the blonde girl again, at the top of the short flight of wide steps leading down to the restaurant. The girl casually surveyed the room. Brenda felt her heart beating faster as she began to approach.
Brenda looked up and made herself smile. “Did you buy that slip?”
The girl patted her shopping bag. “May I join you?”
“Yes, of course. I’d be glad of some company.”
She put her bags on a vacant chair on her side of the table and sat down. Again their eyes met.
“Coffee,” the girl told the waitress. “Black. No, nothing to eat.” To Brenda she said, “I like this shop, do you? Everything so smart and nice.”
Brenda smiled her agreement.
“Do you live at Swaseley, may I ask?”
“Yes. Well, just outside it, really.”
“I live at Dever. Such a dull place. At least, that is how I find it.”
Brenda poured herself a second cup of tea, making herself concentrate on the task. With every husky syllable she uttered, with every animation of her hands or body or head, the blonde girl \was fitting more closely the new ideal of allure which, in her presence, Brenda had already begun to construct.
They talked aloud of superficial things, but their eyes were conducting another conversation altogether. By the time the girl had finished her coffee, Brenda was in no doubt of what the afternoon had so surprisingly offered her.
“I think I’ve done enough shopping for one day,” Brenda said.
“Yes? What will you do now?”
“There’s quite a good film at the Gaumont. Clark Gable and Lana Turner. I’ve been meaning to see it.”
“Ah, Betrayed. I have heard it is a good film, also.”
With the barest hesitation, Brenda said, “Shall we go together?”
Triumph gleamed for a moment in the blonde girl’s eyes. “Yes, why not?”
“I’d better introduce myself. Brenda. Vale.” She held out her hand, which the girl took.
“How do you do. Grete Schneider.”
Brenda’s hand was released. “Greta?”
“G-r-e-t-e. I am German. From a little town in Westphalia. Alack, much like Dever.”
Walking the short distance to the cinema, Brenda learned that Grete lived and worked at the Feathers Hotel.
The auditorium was almost deserted. They arrived towards the end of the first picture and settled into a nearly empty row of the stalls, Grete on Brenda’s right.
Brenda began to wonder if she had made a mistake. This would deflect her yet further from her ambition: to find and marry some pliable man with money. So far she had met plenty of men, but few had been pliable, and even fewer had had any money. She liked going to bed with them, perhaps too well; but always there was something else, something better, out there, waiting for her, just as Grete had been waiting today.
It had started at school, at home in Norfolk, with a girl in her class. On a hot afternoon’s outing to the emptiness of Holkham Bay they had swum in the freezing North Sea, then retired to the dunes to dry off and sunbathe. There, in a private hollow sparsely littered with pine cones, accompanied by the dreamily soughing trees, Brenda had tasted her first consensual kiss.
The lights in the cinema came up. An usherette walked past with an illuminated tray of fruit drinks and ice creams. She reached the bottom of the aisle, under the screen, and turned to face the audience. A small queue formed. A second usherette, with a similar tray, had taken up the corresponding station at the bottom of the other main aisle.
Grete leaned closer. “Would you like something?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Willpower, yes? Your figure shows it.” She touched Brenda’s lapel. “I love this jacket. How do you say? Stylish?”
Brenda felt doubly flattered.
“It looks very cool.”
“Yes. I’ve had it ages.”
“‘Ages’? I am sorry.”
“A long time.”
“Ages. I will remember that. I must improve my English. That is only why, since two months, I am working at the Feathers.”
“Don’t you like it?”
“I was engaged for one duty, and I must do another. They said I would be on the reception desk and so on. Instead I am a … how did he say it? Dogsbody.”
“The barman. He says they took me because I am cheaper. To get my work permit, they tell to the authorities they cannot find anyone to speak fluent German. Since April we are having three German tourists only in the hotel.”
“How long is your visa for?”
“Can’t you get another job?”
“I must have a new permit for that.” Grete opened her handbag. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Would you like a cigarette?”
Grete lit one and gave it to her. At this Brenda became more excited still. The fluttering in her stomach had grown. Seen at close range, in the low lighting of the auditorium, Grete was more than merely attractive. She smelled good, too. Brenda gazed at her thickly braided hair. She had always wished that she could have been born blonde instead of brunette.
“What do you do, may I ask, Brenda?” Grete said, using her name for the first time.
“I’m a nurse.”
“That is very humane. In a hospital?”
“No, in a private house. I’m looking after an old lady.”
“Is she ill?”
“No. Just old. She’s ninety-four.”
“Do you enjoy this work?”
“It’s easy. The house is enormous. Lots of staff. There’s a swimming pool. I use it all the time. Have it to myself.”
“That sounds nice.”
“It’s a bit lonely.” Brenda inhaled more smoke. “You must come over some time and have a swim.”
“I would like that.”
The lights went down. They sat in silence during the advertisements and trailers. At last the screen filled with the censor’s certificate and the film began.
Brenda could not concentrate on the story. It had something to do with the war, and Holland, and spies. Lana Turner was a spy.
Grete put her face close to Brenda’s. “She is gorgeous, do you think?”
After another line of dialogue, Brenda felt Grete’s hand touching her own. Looking straight ahead, she returned the pressure. More words boomed from the huge and incomprehensible faces on the screen.
Grete whispered, “Do you find the film interesting?”
“Shall we bother to stay?”
“I don’t mind.”
“Would you like to see my room?”
The next Dever bus was a double decker. They sat upstairs, their bodies in contact, Brenda next to the window. The swaying motion of the bus, the frequent stops and starts, the short-lived accelerations, the waits while passengers got on or off: all this paralleled and reinforced the sensations going on in Brenda’s mind and below her waist. How long had it been? Three whole years. How many men since? How many obtuse, careless and perfunctory men?
As usual on her weekend off, she had told the butler that she might visit her “cousin in London”, twenty miles away. Her absence overnight would cause no concern.
After Lymperne the top deck emptied of other passengers altogether. Grete spoke in a low voice. “You are so lovely.” Her pupils had dilated. She too was experiencing this breathlessness, this anticipation, this tingling suspense. Had it not been for the angled mirror, so placed at the top of the stairs that the conductor could see, Brenda felt that Grete might not have been able to wait.
They alighted almost outside the hotel, a former coaching-inn. An archway led into the mews. From here Grete proceeded at a normal pace, turning right and through a heavy black door, which stood open on a cobbled floor. To the left rose a flight of stone steps with an iron handrail.
They encountered no one on the way up to the staff quarters, nor in the long, stuffy corridor, near the end of which was Grete’s door. She took out a latchkey. Brenda preceded her, received an impression of a cramped room almost filled by a broad bed upon which lay, forlornly, a teddy-bear, and, as the door clicked shut, let herself be swept at last into Grete’s embrace.
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