A cold silence had mastered itself in two beings when Esme pushed open the double mahogany doors and led herself, exhausted from sleep, into a highly organized breakfast room. A razoring of sunlight had risen with her and now fell hopelessly from a defrocked window bay across her slumber unoccupied eyes. She drew back the uneasy chair that rubbed annoyingly over the thick red carpet and flummoxed herself on her cozy-comfy backside. She yawned a half-smile at her mother, but it died from a responding expression and buried itself face down in the cream porridge now place in front of her by Emily.
‘Would you like bacon and chops, Miss Esme? Cook say’s they are the best the butcher has sent for weeks.’ She smiled from the face of a young animated female in her early twenties, with sumptuous curls of rich raven hair that tucked with trust under her neat white parlour cap and her slender flesh sat correctly within her black and white pinafore dress. She was expertly fond of Esme. Some five years earlier, in those first chosen days of engagement, their friendship had grown; a friendship that had seeded into a rich bloom; a friendship that would breed readily at the end of each school term. They would take long walks across the soft summer grasses of Regents Park and sometimes visit the zoo. Emily particularly liked the aviaries of wild tropical birds, but was always saddened knowing all their lives they would remain caged. They would sit upon a park bench, unpack thick delicious sandwiches of tongue or ham, thoughtfully wrapped by cook, and wash them down with gulps of ginger beer. Emily for her part would talk of the latest turns appearing at The Empire, or a silent movie star she liked at The Majestic.
“You must take me on your night off?” The thought crossed Esme’s mind as she stared hard at the porridge and remembering they had never gone. Mother would never allow it. She looked up at her friend’s hovering crystal gaze; ‘The chops please.’ she said retiringly.
‘I have been thinking about your friend, my dear.’ Her mother spoke almost in a whisper; then continued with a little more pace. ‘He seems an unusual friend for you to have. I mean…he’s not like your other friends is he? She was charmingly malicious and watched Esme curiously; like the tight wound coil of an over-patronized clock.
‘My friend? Charles I suppose you mean. Well, he’s not like my other friends…he’s a man for a start!’ She flung the words out recklessly knowing her mother would want a showdown. She knew too, that the words leaving her lips would fuel her mother’s indignation.
‘There is no need to be clever!’ I am simply concerned over your choice, that’s all.’ Her mother’s face darkened to a pitch and her eyes narrowed over her tiresome offspring. Her jaw axled. Her throat paused…Esme had continued. ‘You mean you don’t approve of my choice. Or do you mean, you don’t approve of my choice…because he’s a man?’ She had decided to attack and take no quarter.
Constance said nothing at this licker-spit disobedience. Her eyes reached out into the air of the room for some hand-picked words, but fell hopelessly over her devaluing daughter.
‘I see…’ Esme pushed, ‘so you’ve been sitting here chewing over the cud…and what earth shattering conclusions have you reached?’ She would thrust forward while she had the advantage. A complacent expression had settled on her face like someone in a sudden and unexpected doable position.
For some moments a cold silence prevailed between the two females. Esme knew her mother was waiting for any further act of defiance. Then surprisingly her mother said; ‘I gather you have telephoned this Charles several times?’ She hesitated her words, choosing with some restriction. Esme looked at her with disbelief and leveled once more on her mother with a courtly, reddening astonishment. She must have heard talk on the hallway phone from the sanctum of her sherried afternoons in the sitting room. Esme was rapidly indignant and appalled at this ruin. How conspiring of her mother. Perhaps the woman had opened the ponderous door a little and listened. Esme cursed herself for being so stupid. Then without holding, and from a discipline that only comes from a hastened mind and a sudden calmness, she said; ‘he wants to see me…wants to take me to dinner!’ She coiled respectively at her own words and gazed downwards once more at the unresponsive, unimpressive, milky-grey oats.
‘Over my dead body!’ Her mother’s voice broke over her like a dozen drops of poison. She added crudely; ‘eat your breakfast!’
Grown-up anger rose in Esme. It hurried up; scarlet red through her veins; paced through her soul and pulsed her head in titanic torment.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ She threw back her mother’s plague with an equal venom force. Cushions of air jumped wildly from the polished table and settled carefully about the women like ring-side judges. There was to be a showdown.
‘How dare you tell me not to see him? How dare you!’ I shall see him if I want to. Despite any of your objections.’ Her voice rained in furious continuation: ‘my god…we are hardly living in the Stone Age! This is the twentieth century, you know!’
I will not tolerate this radical talk at the breakfast table!’ Her expression was wide. Her mouth rugged. She was case hardened and her daughter would not speak to her in that way.
‘You will go to your bedroom. Emily will serve your breakfast there!’ Her face was raw, and bagging, and damaged.
‘I beg your pardon!’
‘I said; No!’
‘I’m aware of what you said…how dare you!’ her mother’s eyes were an iron-grey cold.
‘I won’t be treated like a child anymore – by you or anyone else!’ Esme flickered with an urban elegance. She looked at her mother with an edict that was unshakeable.
‘I will not have you picking up with any fleeting social riff-raff that just happens to come along. No, I will not. Certainly not! Constance pushed her shoulders back, forcing her head to greater haughtiness.
‘Charles is not social riff-raff!’ Esme’s voice exploded with such force over her mother that the haughtiness vaporized like some magician’s trick. ‘For a start his family is well-off! They are financiers and well respected.
‘Money lenders!’ scoffed her mother. Back-street tally-men; preying on the weak and unfortunate. I knew it! And us with only your poor father’s army pension to live on. He’ll drag us down to his level; you mark my words!’
‘Oh, for goodness sake! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Where do you get these silly ideas from? And as for thinking the working class is unfortunate: you’ve never held that view before.’
‘I’ve been around a lot longer than you, my girl! You’ve had a privileged upbringing; an indulged schooling. I won’t allow…’
‘It certainly was an indulged schooling’ interrupted Esme, ‘it came with down to earth sex lessons!’
‘There is no need to be disgusting. That’s all in the past now…and that episode in your life is best buried and forgotten.’ Her mother twitched nervously and looked very keenly at her daughter. Esme wondered if she had ever been told the real truth about the Deans’ affair; perhaps not, anyway, it was a meaningless pursuit by now. To win against her mother she would have to add a sweetener.
‘Charles has a motor car. An old Rolls Royce.’ Her words were pointed and humanitarian enough, she thought, to stir an interest.
Her mother was only mildly interested, and added with some venom; ‘he probably stole it!’ It was not going to be easy. Pretty was perhaps profane. Her mother was forming her own style of palsy.
‘He looked Bohemian to me. Almost certainly doesn’t wash his neck.’
‘A bohemian…washes…don’t be ridiculous mother!’
‘What’s his family name?’ her mother was rounding on another tack; observing her daughter’s belligerence with a careful eye.
‘Hepworth…he is Charles Hepworth!’ Esme replied decorously.
‘Never heard of it…he can’t be very well known!’
‘You’re being hideous mother. He wants to take me out. Show me his studio in Bayswater…and I shall go. There is nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me, so there!’ She slammed her glossy spoon into the simple fat porridge and pushed the bowl away in time for Emily to put down a plate of two small pork chops. She had remained settled in her work, knowing the fruits of Wentworth Hall were beginning to ripen in her friend.
‘You will only see him with my approval!’ fired Constance, but she realized she was going under. In her daughter’s eyes – George stared out at her with lovely captivating witchery.