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RUN AND ASK DADDY
IF HE HAS ANY MORE MONEY
An Exercise in Italics
Well now! It was Easter and my friend David was helping his wife Milly Frood in the shop when he heard a voice he recognised crying loud and clear across the crowded room, "Run and ask Daddy if he has any more money," and his blood ran cold.
Easter is upon us now. It is a season when we should reflect upon our sins and consider the pain we cause others, especially those who have no choice but to put up with us; this trauma of self-knowledge, self-revelation, culminating on Easter Friday, leaving us Saturday to shop and recover, so that on Sunday we can wake exhilarated to our new selves--and then have Monday to calm down a bit and prepare to get back to work. Should, should! Mostly we just give each other cards and Easter eggs and are grateful for the holiday.
David is in his early forties. He has not very much reddish hair and an abundant, very red beard. He wears a tweed jacket. He is now a professor. He used to be a mere lecturer but his Polytechnic turned into a University and voila! there he was, Professor Frood, a pillar of society: looked up to and trusted: a family man.
A really nice guy, too: the trustful kind, prone to loving not wisely but too well, as the best people are. But that is all in the past, of course. Professors can't muck about. There's too much at stake. All that a man can do is hope that the past, burrowing away like some mole through the pleasant green fields of his present, doesn't surface and spoil everything in an explosion of mud and dirt.
This particular Thursday before Easter, at two minutes past four in the afternoon, it seemed as if it very well might.
Milly Frood is sometimes spoken of by friends as Frilly Mood. They're being ironic. She's a really un-frilly, serious, nice, good woman. She has straight hair and a fringe and a plump, rather expressionless, round face and a body well draped in unnoticeable clothes. The Frood children, Sherry and Baf, now in their teenage years, have never wittingly eaten sugar or meat under their own roof: Frilly Mood has seen to that. The kids are healthy if a little thin, and very polite. Frilly Mood's done well by them. It is no crime to be serious.
The shop is between the Delicatessen and the Estate Agents, down the High Street. It's an upmarket gift shop, selling the kind of decorative things nobody needs but everyone likes to have, from papier-mache bowls (French) in deep, rich colours, at 65 [pounds sterling]; black elephant pill boxes (Malaysian) at 2.75 [pounds sterling]; fluffy rabbits (Korean) at 12.35 [pounds sterling]; little woolly lambs (New Zealand) at 8.50 [pounds sterling] and decorated Easter eggs (English) at 4.87 [pounds sterling], and so on. Pre-Easter is these days almost as busy a time as pre-Christmas. Everyone feels the need for a little unnecessary something extra, or what is life all about? Where are the rewards?
* * *
David was helping Milly out in the shop over the pre-Easter rush. And why should he not? The Poly (sorry, University) was closed for the holidays (sorry, vacation) and in Milly's words, David had "nothing better to do." His wage remained that of a lecturer no matter that he was called a professor. You can re-name everything you like, but harsh facts don't alter just because you've done so. In other words, money was tight and if Milly could do without extra staff so much the better. Nevertheless, David felt that helping out was a humiliation, and blamed Milly for it. In Milly's view a man was only working if you could see him working, and who can see a man thinking?
The voice he recognised was that of Bettina Shepherd; the voice had a most attractive actressy double timbre (that's in italics because it's French, not because it has significance for this story) and it was familiar because there'd been a time when it had spoken many words of true love, murmured many a sinful suggestion into his ear. But all that had been some seven years back, a long time ago: longer, surely, than was needed to make that man now feel responsible for the man then. Do we not all grow an entirely new skin every seven years? Should a man not be allowed to start anew; as with a driving licence, should the passage of time not wipe out past misdeeds?
Daddy was the man Bettina referred to: he was at the back of the shop where the inexpensive trinkets were. Bettina was looking peculiarly attractive in a cashmere dress, in seasonal yellow, belted by a linked chain which for all anyone could tell was made of pure gold; the whole setting off her bosomy figure, little waist and black hair to advantage. Daddy was gray-suited, good-looking, gentlemanly and wore a solid gold tie-pin. David thought he looked extremely boring and rather stupid, but David would, wouldn't he?
* * *
"David, this has to stop," Bettina had said to him in the History Tutorial Room one day, seven years ago. "You are a married man and I'm going to be married too. The ceremony is next week. I wanted to tell you earlier but didn't like to, because I didn't want to upset you. You are the only man I'll ever really love but I have to think of my future. We have to be realistic. You could never support two homes in any comfort and I'm just not cut out for employment. I'm not that kind of person." He'd thought his heart would break. He was surprised it went on beating. Later he'd told himself he was lucky to be out of a trivial, passing affair with such an unfeeling, whimsical person, but he'd never really believed himself. The truth was that he'd taken no real pleasure since in Milly's straight hair and earnest face. He could see Milly was good, but what a man wanted was something more than honest worth. Sometimes he felt guilty because others called his wife Frilly Mood, ironically, but then he'd tell himself she'd always been like that. Not his doing.
His blood ran cold--I say this advisedly. When David heard Bettina's voice--last heard on the floor behind the sofa in the History Tutorial Room--echoing through the shop at two minutes past four, he felt a chill strike down his head to his right shoulder, into his arm and down to his fingers, and he had the feeling that if that section of blood didn't warm up before it got back up to his heart, that organ would freeze and this time stop once and for all. So much a heart can stand, no more.
David turned his back on his customers, lest he be seen and recognised by Bettina, and busied himself looking for a Peruvian crucifixion scene, grateful that his heart had survived the shock. But not before he had seen the little girl obediently leave her mother's side and head through shopping bags and spring-clad elbows towards her father. Bettina, near the door, was clearly interested in purchasing the papier-mache bowl at 65 [pounds sterling]; Daddy flicked through Easter cards at the back of the shop.
The Peruvian crucifixion scene consisted of six pieces in brightly glittering tin--a crimson Judas, a gold Jesus, a navy Pontius Pilate, a scarlet Mary Magdalene, a pale blue Madonna, and a black cross.
The little girl had red hair like David's own. Bettina had black hair; Daddy's was fair and painfully sparse, as if responsibility had dragged a lot of it out. The little girl must be six years old. Her front teeth were missing, to prove it.
The Easter cards were the cheapest things sold in the shop. For 75p you could buy cards depicting bunnies and chickens; from there on up to 2 [pounds sterling] you could find anything an artist in a time of recession could invent. Milly and David Frood saw the innovation of the Easter card as one of the more sinister accomplishments of the Greetings Card Industry. Who ever in their youth had heard of an Easter card? All part of the commercialisation of religion, etc., etc. Obliged to live by commerce, the Froods despised commerce. Who doesn't?
Such things pass quickly through the mind when sights are seared into a man's heart, and he doesn't know what to think or feel, and he's gazing at a shelf.
David felt a familiar hand upon his arm. It was his wife's. "Perhaps we should have another baby," she said, to his further astonishment.
"Why now?" he asked. "Why mention it now in the middle of such a rush?"
"Because we're always in a rush," said Milly Frood, answering back, quite out of character, "as anyone not on the dole these days is. And I just saw a little girl in the shop with hair the same lovely colour yours was when you were young: and I thought, last chance for a baby. I'm nearly forty now." Before David could reply, a voice behind him said, "Is there no one serving here?" and Milly Frood turned quickly back to her work and David was let off the hook.
The familiar hand had cooked his food, burped his babies, returned the VAT, encouraged him in love and in illness, and it was a whole seven years since he had even been grateful for it, he realised. Now suddenly he was. But the habit of disparagement remained. "Why mention it now?" he'd said, discouraging spontaneity, being disagreeable. He was ashamed of himself.
Another baby. David had not really wanted children in the first place: he had not wanted to get married. He would tell me about it when he lamented the everyday ordinariness of his life. The college, the kids, the shops, the bills, and never anything happening. But a man's seed bursts from him here and there, unwittingly, and a good man settles down to his responsibility, sometimes with a good heart, sometimes not. Another baby? David felt all of a sudden Milly could have anything she wanted. Suppose Bettina saw him; recognised him, greeted him? Then everything could simply fall apart. Supposing Daddy looked from his child's hair to the red beard, and remembered some clue, some time, some place? It's a wise man doubts his child's paternity, if his wife is Bettina. Supposing this, supposing that?
Let off the hook--but of course he wasn't let off the hook. The past may be another country, but there are frequent international flights from there to here, especially over the public holidays, when everyone leaves their homes and mills about in search of objects, not caring who remembers what. A papier-mache bowl here, an Easter card there.
"Daddy," said the little piping voice: was it like Sherry's? Was it like Baf's? It was. "Mummy says do you have any more money?"
Silence fell upon the shop. All waited for the reply: mothers, divorcees, widows, working women, and their escorts, should they have them. It's mostly women who shop. Slips of girls. Redheaded six-year-olds with gap teeth looking trustingly up at alleged fathers. An honest question, honestly asked, in time of recession.
David turned: you cannot look at a single shelf forever. David caught Bettina's eye. Bettina smiled, in recognition, acknowledgement. Bettina's mouth was not quite as plump and full as once it had been. Everyone waited. A question publicly asked will be publicly answered.
"Tell your mother," said Daddy loudly, "the answer is no. My money's all gone and your mother has spent it."
Daddy tipped over the box of Easter cards onto the floor and, parting customers with grey-suited elbows and gold-ringed hands, made his way to the door and out of it. The little girl ran weeping after him. David saw Daddy take his little girl's hand as they passed the window: he saw her smile: evidently the little girl cried easily and cheered up easily. Sherry had been like that.
If a woman has no money left, perhaps she'll turn back to love? Bettina stood irresolute for a moment, all eyes upon her. She looked at Milly, she looked at David. Then she said to Milly, "I just love the shop," and followed her husband and daughter out. It was four minutes past four.
Bettina had found herself pregnant: perhaps by one, perhaps by another. Perhaps she had not been unfeeling, whimsical, in dismissing him, David, after all, behind the sofa in the History Tutorial Room. Perhaps the dismissal had been an act of love, to let the erring husband off the hook? Perhaps she had simply done what was right? In thinking better of Bettina, in forgiving her, David felt himself become quite free of her. And high time too. Seven whole years!
I just love the shop.
"What a nice woman," said Milly. "Saying that. Did she know you or something?"
"No, she didn't," said David. "And you're the nicest woman I know," and he found that, though the first was a lie, the second was true. Happy Easter, everyone! Which speaks for itself: no need for explanation, or excuse.