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At intervals—a week, three days, a fortnight, as long as a month—Miss Friendly-wise would remove her elegant, high-heeled shoes from her elegant pink desk in the offices of that snappy little publication, Girls Together; and, softly closing her pinkly painted office door behind her, would walk down the long corridor to the pinkly painted office door of Miss Let's-be-Lovely and, throwing it open, announce with steadily increasing drama as the intervals went by: "Another letter from Amista!"
Miss Let's-be-Lovely would be lying on her back on the carpet, pedalling vigorously with her legs in the air; or lathering her charming round face with aromatic mud, or struggling, lace panties and all, into a highly complicated elastic belt. "No!" she would say with her own particular inflection of impersonal excitement and interest; and, immediately desisting in her pursuit of loveliness on behalf of the readers of Girls Together, would advance with hand held out for Amista's letter. And she would perch herself, swivelling gaily, in her office chair and, black face, outsize girdle and all, give herself up to the contents of the scrawl before her. But over the signature she always said the same thing. "Oh, hell—nothing's happened yet!" Only one thing happened to the correspondents of Miss Friendly-wise that really interested and amused Miss Let's-be-Lovely; and Amista's case, in that respect, was certainly one of hope deferred.
Amista had originally graduated from Miss Let's-be-Lovely's department. She had written for a sunburn lotion that would whiten her hands. It was a hesitant letter, in writing obviously disguised and usually illegible, and requesting a reply in the care of the Post Office, Swansea. The envelope had been sealed with a fancy red sealing-wax, flecked with gold; and across the seal had been cut her name, "Amista."
Miss Let's-be-Lovely had sent off the regulation reply, beginning with, "My dear—" and recommending a lotion, "easily obtainable at any good chemist's." Since this information always seemed a little bald, she had recently taken to adding coyly: "I hope he will be satisfied! I am sure there is a 'he'!" Miss Let's-be-Lovely's correspondence abounded in such gay little exclamations, with lots and lots of exclamation marks.
Amista's next letter had promoted her straight to the department of Miss Friendly-wise. She sent grateful, if illegible, thanks for invaluable advice. The sunburned hands were already responding to the easily obtainable lotion, and, "How right you were—or how wrong?—about a 'he,'" wrote Amista. "And I think he has noticed already how nice my hands were looking, indeed I do think that he smiled on me today." And then, bursting out with it, in timid desperation: "Your letter was so kind—and I have nobody I can talk to. I wonder if you could advise me? Do you think that a great disparity in age between a man and a woman really matters? As much as ten years? Because, you see, the man I love is over thirty—perhaps thirty-two, or three."
Miss Let's-be-Lovely passed the letter across the pink corridor. "Here you are, Tinka, this is your department. Some idiot girl from Welsh Wales—you can read about one word in four. And I really must give up making cute remarks about their boy friends. This is the fifth that's whizzed back with impassioned confidences."
Miss Friendly-wise took the letter in her stride. "... A disparity-in-age letter, Miss Brown, please. To: Amista, Care of the General Post Office, Swansea, South Wales. Got it? Er—My dear, Your letter has been passed on to my department. Of course I will do all I can to help you. For a young girl to be in love with a man ten years older than herself isn't in the least unreasonable; but since you appear to be rather uncertain of his returning your love, don't you think that perhaps some boy nearer your own age ... And then the rest as usual." Like Miss Let's-be-Lovely and the easily obtainable lotions, Miss Friendly-wise had her standard letter for young ladies in love with men older than themselves—for young ladies in their teething teens in love with old, old gentlemen of over thirty....
Miss Friendly-wise herself was an old lady of thirty—or at least very nearly thirty; an old, old lady of very nearly thirty, grown tough and cynical in the service of her profession. This year, sob sister on Girls Together, but last year, and the year before that and the year before that and for more years than she cared to remember, the slow ascent of the ladder to go-getting girl reporter for the Consolidated News Service. More go than getting, unfortunately, for after all Consolidated's trouble in wangling an interview for their Miss Jones with the fabulous Angel Soone, Miss Jones had turned in half a column of ta-ta-ta about Angel's new signature tune (Oh, what a minx—the Sphinx was....), played that night for the first time, and failed to discover that it was also for the last. Angel had gone off next day on a protracted honeymoon tour and had appeared no more before her inconsolable public, and Miss Katinka Jones (plain Catherine Jones would have made little mark in the journalist world of Fleet Street!) was free to accept the solicitations of Girls Together that she should become their fourth—or was it their fifth?—Miss Friendly-wise. She had grown, over the long years, very cool, very unsentimental, very insouciant. She was everlastingly gay. Wemust have Tinka Jones, people said, arranging their parties; she's always so gay. And she would arrive, trotting in in her high-heeled shoes, dressed in the height of the moment's fashion (you had to, on Girls Together), dark hair piled high or looped low in the latest new hair-do by the latest new hairdresser, "doing it cheap" for the advertisement; and popped on top of the hair-do would be a wild, brave hat—three yards of this year's veiling tying next year's trimming onto last year's summer straw. Thank God, here's our Katinka, the men would say, and in one of her Hats. Now the party'll get going! All men looked upon Tinka Jones as the best, the best, of pals.
"Only who the hell wants to be a pal?" said Miss Friendly-wise crossly to Miss Let's-be-Lovely.
"You can't have everything," said Miss Let's-be-Lovely.
"I don't want everything: just a bassinet like other girls and to have to live with my mother-in-law."
"Trouble with bassinets and mothers-in-law," said Miss Let's-be-Lovely, "is that you have to have a man for them. And men are so short these days."
"I'd settle for a dwarf," said Katinka.
"It's the war, I suppose, darling. Yours and my chaps were killed off—I mean the ones of a reasonable age. We'll have to live in sin with other peoples' husbands, that's all. I do think the haves ought to share with the sex-starved have-nots."
"Perhaps Amista will divvy up on her Carlyon," said Miss Friendly-wise.
"I don't think we'd be very rich on one third of a Welshman each. They're mostly little men to start with."
"He may not be Welsh of course."
"Well, she writes from Wales."
Amista wrote from Wales, it was true. Carlyon, her guardian, had brought her to a house there in the stark coal-mining district of the South, a house built upon land nibbled out from the rugged mountainside in a long-abandoned search for yet more coal. Whence he had brought her, why he had taken her there and when, Amista did not say; only that it was lonely, lonely, lonely—herself and Carlyon and two servants, divided off from the little mining town across the valley by the river creeping sluggishly between. Amista wrote of it in different words, and yet in words oddly tinged with magic for Miss Friendly-wise. "There is an old quarry, cut into the side of our mountain—the Tarren Goch, we call it. Red Precipice, that means. I sat there for a long time today, looking down into the valley and thinking of Carlyon.... It is raining today again—soft, silver rain. Everything is grey and silver in the mist of the rain. Carlyon has a Siamese cat with great big slanting blue eyes. Today, the eyes of the cat and Carlyon's own blue eyes seem the only colour in the grey world...." And again: "Today the first spring green is fighting for its life on our grim old mountain. It's lonely here. All day I've spoken to nobody but the servant, Dai Jones, and the little woman who brings the milk. Nobody else comes up our mountain path. But now that the spring is here ..."
Now that the spring was here, the drains went wrong and there was quite a little excitement because a man came across the river to deal with them. "Miss Evans brought him across in her boat: that's the milk-woman. The river is lovely today, shining silver now that its banks are green...."
And in Katinka Jones, the Welsh blood of her father's family rose up and painted for her mind's eye, a scene she loved: the grey valley where the brave green struggled through the earth's scarred surface under the soft Welsh rain: an old house, clinging to its hard-won foothold on the stony breast of the mountain; the river lying like a silver sword between a young girl and the companionship of men—of all men but Carlyon. "Yesterday Carlyon smiled at me ... Today Carlyon has only frowned...." But as the spring advanced and summer trailed her dusty green across the grey valley, Carlyon grew kind. "This morning Carlyon kissed my hand—I felt I was a queen. Today Carlyon, for the first time in all our lives, took me in his arms. But suddenly he thrust me away from him and walked quickly out of the room...." And at last: "Oh, dear Miss Friendly-wise, Carlyon has asked me to marry him! He came up abruptly and took my hand and said: I have decided. Money, age, birth—none of these things should be allowed to count when a man loves a woman and a woman loves a man. We must be married as soon as I am free to arrange it. Not very romantic, Miss Friendly-wise, was it? But I didn't care. I wanted to fall on the ground and kiss his feet, I felt absolutely sick with the longing to reach up and brush his hair across his forehead, out of his eyes. Carlyon has such soft, sort of spikey hair, and it's always falling across his forehead. It makes him look like an unhappy little boy."
"Why unhappy?" said Miss Let's-be-Lovely, shown this effusion.
"I don't know. Perhaps because he can't get his hair to lie flat. It seems a most peculiar proposal, I must say."
"I always said he would take advantage of her."
"Well, he hasn't. At least not in the way you meant—not to say hoped!"
"I know: it's jolly boring," said Miss Let's-be-Lovely. "However, there's time yet for Worse than Death to befall Amista. Personally, I don't think this is a marriage at all. Probably a plot to get hold of her fortune."
"The worst of that idea is that marrying her would be the best way to get hold of her fortune."
"But why does he say so darkly, 'when he is free'? You see what it is, he's ten years older than Amista and he's sure to be married already. It's what we were saying the other day—all the thirties are. He probably keeps a mad wife in the attic, a la Jane Eyre. And then the reference to 'birth.' It's all there, clear before our eyes. Amista is the orphaned heiress of some great nobleman, destined—but for Carlyon's villainy—to have become the bride of a suitable young marquis."
"On the other hand, it may be poor Carlyon who's 'marrying down.'"
"Well, all right, have it that way," said Miss Let's-be-Lovely generously. "Amista is 'the natural daughter of Somebody,' and Carlyon has been left in charge of her and her fortune."
"Nobody can say he's spending it in riotous living. They never seem to see a soul."
"He's been hoarding it up for Amista's twenty-first birthday, which has probably just happened; and now that she's free to marry—let alone making a will and all that—he wastes no time in proposing."
"I wonder how wrong we are," said Miss Friendly-wise, laughing. She stood on tiptoe to look into the office mirror and skewered two preposterous roses into the crown of her hat. "I'll have to go and look her up if I spend my holiday in Wales this year...."CHAPTER 2
Whether the correspondence with Amista had wakened vague old longings in her, or whether it was merely coincidence, Katinka Jones had been seized with a sudden desire to see again the land of her fathers where her earlier childhood had been spent. Nobody remained but Great-Uncle Joseph, known in the Welsh idiom as Jo Jones the Waterworks, because of the proximity of his home to the giant reservoir—the nearest he's been to water for a long time, thought Katinka, eyeing with disfavour his unattractive person. He lived some miles out of Swansea and considered that blameless town no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. He spoke little but Welsh and as he affected also to be stone deaf, conversation with him was hardly riotous. Tinka's red fingernails shook him to the core. "He says how do you get them that dreadful colour?" asked the housekeeper, a fearsome old woman dressed from head to foot in mauve. "I dabble them in the blood of unhallowed babes," said Katinka. But her feelings were hurt: she had taken advice from Miss Let's-be-Lovely's column in the Holiday number and considerably toned them down for country wear. "Better than nasty black rims, anyway," she said to the fearsome housekeeper. Great-Uncle Joseph's hearing took a sudden turn for the better and he hid his gnarled hands under the rug across his knee.
So she moved into Sodom and Gomorrah and took up her residence in a gloomy little hotel. She bought a picture postcard of the lovely Mumbles coast and marked it with a cross. "This is where I am not staying," she wrote to Miss Let's-be-Lovely, who was stewing away in the London office, having taken her holiday in June. "Uncle Jo Waterworks thinks I am the Scarlet Woman and I have left under a cloud. By no means the only cloud, as it does nothing but rain." All round the edges and upside-down across the top she added: "Wrecked my holiday, because now it's too late to book rooms anywhere else, and I don't know a soul here." Miss Let's-be-Lovely sent back an aerial view of London and wrote simply upon it: "Well, why the hell don't you go and call on Amista?"
So Katinka told her hotel that she wouldn't be in to tea and caught the brown bus that rattles out into the beauty of the valleys, leaving the town and the docks and the sea behind. The rain continued to fall as they chugged up the interminable hill, the stout Welshwomen in their Sunday-best black dresses voluble after their excursions from the mountain villages to the grand Swansea shops, the miners weary and silent, looking down at their boots, their eyes pink-rimmed in faces black with coal dust. The bus conductress poked at her bushy curls with bunched fingers and called out: "Pentre Trist! Here you are, then, girl—didn't you want Pentre Trist?"
"Oh, thank you," said Katinka. Her voice, usually so high and gay, sounded flat against the shrill upward inflexion. She gathered her smart tan handbag and matching leather gloves, and jumped down into the road. The bus rolled on.
A formless village street, straggling without pavement edges through the huddle of little shops, branching off now and again into subsidiary streets that climbed away from it up the steep hillside or tippled over the edge and ran down like streams of lava from a volcano, ran into the valley half a mile below. Katinka noticed little ugly grey houses, an ugly tin-roofed Methodist chapel, a flaring billboard across the dingy façade of the single cinema; and across the valley was the mountain—the great, solid, splendid bulk of it, heavy and grey beneath its mantle of softly, ceaselessly failing rain.
And high up on the mountain, crouching like a bird against its rugged breast, a house. Katinka pointed it out to one of half a dozen men who lounged, cigarette on lip, against a wall.
"Would that be Mr. Carlyon's house over there?"
The man took the stub from his mouth with thumb and forefinger and looked over at the house. He had a deep scar running down one side of his face. "Well, properly speakin' now—no, it wouldn't he Mr. Carlyon's house."
A second man detached himself from the group and came towards her. "Don't let him pull your leg, my girl. It's old Mrs. Williams's house, but she's been dead ten year, and now Mr. Carlyon's rented it for a bit. Dai Jones Trouble came down and took it for him, a few months back. Eh, boys?"
Excerpted from Cat and Mouse by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1950 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 28, 2014