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Sometimes I wondered whether he had not chosen the Merry Widow because she had crinkly red hair, freckles, a bony face, and small dark eyes, the same as he–just as people choose dogs whose masks resemble their own features. But I knew this was an idle conceit of mine. He had obviously wanted a mature, well-bred, and decorous woman for the job, and he could not have taken anyone else from our crowd, because the Merry Widow was the only one of us who, owing to a perverse whim during one phase of her life, had learned to be competent in shorthand and typing. The Merry Widow was also known as the Secretary, because she was the Brigadier General's secretary, and the Brigadier was the only one in the Office of the Chief Surgeon, U.S. Forces, who had a personal secretary to himself. According to the law of irony, which states one thing while implying its opposite, the Merry Widow was neither merry nor a widow; she was married and grieved for her absent husband, who was doing service overseas, and in this she was the exception in our crowd, who were none of us single and had all a history of ill-starred marriage behind us.
It was fortunate for all of us women who worked in the U.S. War Office in Bathdale in those days of the war that Claudia Carter and the Merry Widow were both "old girls" of the Bathdale Ladies' College, and had been in the same house at school. Thus, through Claudia, we were guaranteed our supply of the very best quality gossip, fresh and untainted by later distortions. The Merry Widow, sitting in the anteroom of the Brigadier General's office, was not easily accessible; she did not take her tea break, nor was she given to dawdling in the ladies' rest room. Yet there were certain occasions when she could be drawn into talk, because it was she who dished out the remedies for hangovers, coughs, and headaches. With the cough mixture–a sinister-hued, muddy green liquid of early Victorian vintage–she had the greatest success, because she never failed to comment, "Only a teaspoonful, mind you. It's got real dope in it–it's dangerous, you know. It beats me how they allow it to be sold across the counter."?
In the beginning, I had made attempts to draw out the Merry Widow–like, "I say, Gwendolyn threw a frightful tantrum and weeping fit in the ladies rest room again. Is it true that the General took the Osborne woman to a party?" And she would reply, "Never you fear, Prescott-Clark; he's merely widening his field of operations." This was quite witty, because he was, like most of the officers in the department, a doctor, and he was a Regular Army man, too, but it was an unsatisfactory reply, and I resigned myself, like the others in our crowd, to leaving it to Claudia, whose claims to intimate gossip were further strengthened by the fact that both she and the Merry Widow were natives of Bathdale and had remained in that town. We, the others who were employed as civilian labor in the U.S. War Office, had merely happened to be living there at the outset of the war, owing to various circumstances in our lives.
While the Merry Widow dealt with such unspectacular complaints as coughs and headaches, it was Sergeant Parsons who was called in on those dramatic occasions when it was imperative to remove grit from under the eyelid or a splinter embedded in the hand. He was the only man who was allowed to enter the ladies ' rest room, where, on an electric hot plate, he boiled his surgical implements in a tin that had once contained condensed milk. He had "golden hands " and a way of saying, "Don't worry, ma'am. I won't do anything yet. I'm only going to have a look-see," while adding, a few seconds later, "Here, that's what's been bothering you, isn't it?" To shrieks of "It's not possible. I never felt a thing," he would reply, "Do you want me to put it back again, to convince you?"
He was a short, narrow-chested man with graying hair, rather older than the other soldiers, with deep-set eyes of the same muddy greenish color as the cough mixture. He came from somewhere in the South—Arkansas or Texas, I think. He had a small, thin mouth, and when pondering important decisions he would compress his lips, making them still thinner. His other features were small and thin, too, as though his Creator had applied the mold in a hurried, slapdash way, intending to finish the job more thoroughly at a later date. It was not only in applying first aid that he was remarkable. In emotional upheavals, too, he was excellent—better than women friends, who found nothing better to say than, "Pull yourself together, Gwendolyn—the General is too old for you anyway," or, "Don't be silly; no man ever is worth it," or, in an affected stage accent, "Men are deceivahs evah." Whereas the Sergeant would remark, "You women are so stupid. When will you understand that because a man prefers another girl to you it doesn't mean that the other girl is prettier or wittier or smarter. It doesn't mean anything at all." I thought how this was exactly the right kind of comfort for Gwendolyn, because in her case it was not a matter of sensuous desire but of vanity and ambition.
Gwendolyn was a young girl and not a part of our crowd, and the Sergeant dealt with her for soothing purposes only. He had to deal with us all the time, because he was responsible for our work and responsible to the Colonel, who was the chief of our department. He was efficient in this, too, probably because in civilian life, before the war, he had been a schoolteacher, and his manner of treating us certainly was flavored by his peacetime calling. When trouble arose, he never interfered straightaway. He approached the offending person about an hour later, for a quiet talk: "Now, ma'am, I thought you'd like to know, I used to know a little girl called Claudia—isn't it strange? Claudia, just like you—and little Claudia never could be bothered to check over her work and always relied on other people to pull out her mistakes, although her father and mother . . . ," and thus he continued, relentlessly, toward the final catastrophe of fire or drowning, till Claudia grew suitably remorseful and promised not to be slapdash in future.
It was Sergeant Parsons, too, who improved my manner of dress: "A nice girl who works in an office, now, she doesn't slop about in odd skirts and woollies and cardigans. She shows her respect for her work by wearing a coat and skirt and a blouse, and the blouse is always freshly laundered, and she presses her skirt every night. And a very nice girl wears shoes that match her purse, but being English she'll call it 'handbag.' I thought you'd like to know."
"And how does the nice girl manage with the clothes rationing?" I asked.
The Sergeant said, "She doesn't get herself evening dresses for parties, because that would look bad in these days of austerity, and she spends all her coupons on good tailor-mades and doesn't worry, because the war will be over before her suits wear out."
He did not drink and he did not smoke. He had no favorites among us and seemed to have no friends among the army personnel, either. When we received visits from the Big Bad Wolves, he tolerated their presence without joining in the horseplay. Sergeants Kelly and Danielevski, the Big Bad Wolves, were greatly liked by us. They were a couple of highly intelligent young men who, in guarded isolation, in rooms situated at the end of a separate passage, serviced the mechanical tabulators and the coding machines, which trans- formed long medical histories into rows of ciphers for the records. The Wolves came to pay homage to us, to offer the incense of flattery, to bear gifts, and to spread the spirit of peace and goodwill among men. Each of them had a permanent joke, like a leitmotiv in an opera. When Kelly entered our room, he did the rounds, saying, "Do you still love me, Buttercup? Give your daddy a kiss." Danielevski displayed his "tidiness." "Allow me, ma'am," he would say as he approached the woman nearest the door. "I perceive you have a speck of fluff on the front of your dress. May I dust it off?" and he fluttered his hand against her breast. "There, ma'am." Then, approaching the next one, "Now, you, ma'am. I perceive that you, too, happen to have a tiny speck . . . ," and by the time he had "dusted off" each of us, the office resounded with shrieks and giggles. Then the two distributed cigarettes and spilled onto our tables those flat round American sweets that look like the coins of an exotic country, and Kelly would remark, "No girl nowadays needs to go hungry, because there is always a wolf at the door." It was mainly from them I learned American army slang, like "wolf," which meant seducer of women, or "goldbricking," which meant avoiding work, or "polishing the apple," which meant currying favor.
If Sergeant Parsons tolerated these uproars, the Colonel pretended to ignore them, though he could hear them, working as he did in an office opposite ours, across the passage. I think he ignored them partly from weakness and partly from laziness and partly out of solidarity—because two of our crowd, June and Betty, were united in ties of close friendship with two officers, both doctors like himself. Claudia's lover, whom she hoped to marry after the war, was an officer in our department, too, though, not being a doctor, he belonged to Medical Administration. He was said to be rich, and managed to look it, despite being in uni-form. The Colonel contented himself to show his zeal by making us assemble from time to time with the entire staff of the department in a vast, unused ballroom, where we had to listen to talks that sounded like a course in idiomatic English for the benefit of advanced students; we were urged to pull up our socks, pull our weight, toe the line, pep up our work, show our mettle, show the stuff we were made of, and, once having seen daylight, consider this a feather in our cap.
Usually after such a talk, the Big Bad Wolves entered our office with a look of worry and preoccupation. "Ladies," one of them would announce, "the Colonel wants you to know there is just one obscure but vital point he did not touch upon . . . No, not what you think. Quiet, please . . . It has now been put down in this memorandum, which you will please read and sign and return to us." We never showed Sergeant Parsons the yellow paper slips they distributed. One, to give a sample, read, "This young lady got out of bed in the morning, put her robe and slippers on, pulled the curtains, took the cover from the parrot's cage, and put the coffee on the boil. Then the telephone rang and a voice said, 'Honey, I'll be over in ten minutes.' So the young lady takes the coffee off, draws the curtains, puts the cloth on the parrot's cage, takes her robe and slippers off, and just as she gets back into bed she hears the parrot mutter, 'Christ, that was a short day.' "
When the Colonel was posted away and the new Major arrived to take his place, we all took pains to assure him how fond we had been of the Colonel and how we regretted his departure. This was untrue. It was because malice, even senseless malice, is the luxury of underlings, and we thought this an easy opportunity to distress the new Major. We were not easy to deal with. We were women, and we reveled in the knowledge that it is embarrassing for a man to be the head of a female staff. And though this was also the case with the other civilians in the Office of the Chief Surgeon, we were a choice collection of troublemakers, more unpredictable and harder to control than those in the other offices—docile young girls who would have gone into employment in any case, war or no war, and who did not feel they were doing anyone a favor by going to work. Whereas we in the medical coding department had never had to earn our living. We all had that expensive education which, being useless for monetary gain, is meant to be, like virtue, its own reward, and we had been chosen for our familiarity with medical terms. We were doctors' wives, doctors widows, doctors' divorcées. In my own case, though I was married to a nonmedical husband, I had been recruited because I had studied medicine for two years. I was by far the youngest of our crowd—twenty-four as against their forties. Yet I was accepted as a full member because I could say with the best of them, "Aren't husbands ghastly?" and "It doesn't matter whom you are married to—after a year, you feel like kicking him down the back stairs." I could also remark pleasantly upon the Merry Widow's plaint of not having seen her husband for the last two years, "That won't keep you warm in bed."