Sunday, February 14, 2021

 An Imperfect Life

Chapter 44

A Near Miss

  "Pat - Mary's on the phone!"

  "Hi Mary!  What's up?"

  "Great news!  Spats has just phoned and Mr Cartier has accepted us as tenants."

This was the news we had been waiting for and we had had five replies to our third partner advert but when we saw Jan walking up the path of Mary's house we both felt she could be the one.  She was younger than us, petite with short brown curly hair and a slightly worried expression which vanished when a smile lit up her face and revealed her sparkling white teeth.  She told us she was married and although she and her husband had hoped for children it hadn't happened.  She had worked in offices all her life and had lot of book keeping experience but felt like a change and would be happy to be working part time.  She had beautiful pink painted nails I remember.  Over a cup of tea Mary and I exchanged one of our looks which meant we both were agreed and to snap her up at once ignoring the usual "We'll be in touch." How right we were.

The next week-end we were all in the shop - as we now called it - the three  of us and our families - some of us painting and some amusing the children: fortunately there was a park close by.  Even Mary's old father came along and stuck an axe at the top of the stairs - in case of fire he said.  I never did work out what we were to do with it but fortunately the need never arose.  We just had one hanging rail to start with and almost enough clothes to fill it.The main room looked a trifle bare so Mary- who was quite artistic, filled the gaps with large flower arrangements. 

The drill was Mary and I would open  the shop at 9.30 am having taken our children to school and then Jan would relieve us at 3pm when we picked the children up from school.  The  intention was for Mary and me to do two days each whilst Jan did the late afternoons and we took turns with Saturday.  It was only necessary for one person to be there in the early days but Mary and I - in the first flush of new love were there most days. 

One day I was hanging out of the window feeling rather like the ladies in Amsterdam must do, wondering how I could entice shoppers to come up and see me, when to my horror I saw someone trying to get into my car.  In those days one could park in the High Street all day.  I tore down two flights of stairs, rushed up to the man and yelled,

"What are you doing with my car?"

"I'm trying to stop it rolling down the High street, Ducks.  You must have left the hand brake off and when I moved my van it started to roll.

Embarrassing - but at least I learned always to leave the car in first gear from then on. 

We had fun thinking up ads in the local paper to announce the various school uniforms we were gradually stocking.  This resulted in a visit from a rather pompous Head Master who told us his school didn't need any advertising thank you and would we desist.  Did he think we were doing it for his benefit?  We had started selling all sports gear, lacrosse, hockey sticks and cricket bats etc.  Then we discovered the sports shop on the other side of the road was owned by him.  In the end we refused to be intimidated and carried on.  We worked like beavers - spreading the word and our Beauty Counsellor experience proved very useful.  The big problem was to overcome the snobbishness regarding second hand clothes.  We had to convince people it was the smart thing to do.  That meant the shop should always be pristine  and the clothes immaculate  Easier said than done when someone would bring in a garment, swathed in polythene, with a cleaner's ticket pinned to it but when one examined the garment it would be grubby and obviously had never been near a dry cleaner.  The trick was to tell them that  unfortunately the cleaners hadn't made a very good job of it and advise them to complain.  Mary was much better at this  than I - with my Lancashire frankness - but slowly I learned- the hard way.

"The shop's great - if it weren't for the ****** customers I once remarked.

  Slowly but surely the word spread about our shop - The School Budget Shop as we christened it - and when we started to make money we got an accountant in addition to  our solicitor.  We wanted to do things properly- stay solvent, pay taxes etc so Dave the accountant gave us an Analysis Book with columns for everything that was paid out.  With his help we worked out our annual expenses with a bit extra for contingencies and divided that by 12 to estimate our monthly expenses.  Dave suggested an approximate figure for the partners to withdraw each month but I had a better idea.  To make it more interesting and fun, I suggested that whatever the takings were each month we would subtract the monthly expenses and whatever was left over would be our salary.  If we didn't clear expenses we would take nothing.  Dave thought this was unnecessarily complicated but the other girls recognised what fun it would be each month to see what we'd get.  I was happy to do the work.  I still remember our glee when we had a bumper month in the school holidays and the resigned shrugs when it was peanuts.  Dave never understood.

  Every year William and I took the boys on typical children's holidays to Devon, Cornwall, Wales and the Lake District, Southwold, Frinton and sailing on the Broads.  There would be Easter visits to cousins in Gloucestershire, weekends with Wallace and Fleur and trips to my parents in Lancashire.  Fortunately William had six weeks holiday each year.  Apart from this William and I had widely varying interests.  That's just how it was.  I was something of a social butterfly and he was content with his books and music.  We got into the habit of one of us baby sitting the children, whilst the other went off and did their thing  When I saw an advertisement for a drama course for acting or producing I asked if he would mind if I went away for a week to do the production course.  He was happy about it and we agreed he would go sailing with his brother later in the year. 

  A week later driving in my little car to the country town where the college was situated I felt a rare thrill of delight.  A week's freedom!  I felt so euphoric I was tempted to waltz the car from side to side as Yves Montand did in "The Wages of Fear" just before he drove his truck over the cliff.  Common sense prevailed and I reached the town where the college was situated.  It was very busy.  The traffic crawled and I saw an old man motionless on the pavement.  There were people standing round him and I wondered if I had been there, would I have had the courage to do mouth to mouth?  

At the college I was given a schedule for the week and shown to a block which housed single rooms, a kitchen and showers.  I was early and the only one there.  I had brought a pile of books in case I didn't find anyone to talk to but I was too excited to read..  The first person to arrive  was a middle age Irish woman.  I made us some tea and made my first friend.  Gradually more students drifted in and by supper time I had met lot of them and began to relax.  We were divided into two factions; those like me who were doing a production course and the acting group.  You could tell from the look of the two main lecturers who was doing what- Hugh the actor's lecturer with floppy hair, an aesthetic face and wearing a beautiful shirt, sweater and cords whilst Gary the producer's lecturer, wore old jeans and a fade blue aertex shirt which I noticed matched his eyes.  He had an old ARP canvas bag which looked as if it had been through two world wars.

During supper I found some of the students were old hands and had brought with them all the requirements for  a bar which they ran- very efficiently- each night throughout the week.  Beside the Irish lady I got friendly with a white American male, a black American male and a young Malaysian boy.  I began to feel at home and at ease.  We could see from the schedules we were going to be busy and were working towards a production of Lady Windemere's Fan at the end of the week.  We all met up in the library to introduce ourselves and get to know each other.  Gary came and stood next to me and said he'd been cramped against a book-case.  I pointed out there was lots more room down the other end and he wandered off.  I don't know why I behaved like such a klutz  unless it was an innate instinct for self preservation.  He told me afterwards he felt intimidated by me.  Great!  

Thankfully next day I was more relaxed and started to enjoy the classes.  The cast of the play was chosen and the production side were divided into lighting, wardrobe, make up, set design and stage management. We would all have time with each but had just one responsibility for the play.  I was going to be in the lighting box with Gary.

The casting was interesting; Charles - the black American was to play Lord Windemere - he was both thrilled and terrified.  Gary was a great teacher, sitting casually on a Meccano -like structure on stage, immensely practical - the ARP bag contained bits of wire and screws and various implements which he used to adjust lights, scenery or anything that required it.  He radiated amiability and everyone liked him.  He had recovered from our initial brush and went out of his way to make me feel I had something valuable to contribute.  There were two Cambridge graduates in our group and their knowledge of literature in general was bottomless and they could quote reams of Christopher Fry at the drop of a hat.  Gary convinced me that all the knowledge in the world didn't amount to a can of beans if one didn't have a sense of theatre.  He said I had this and wanted to see me put it in action.  Men!  You know what Shirley Valentine said about them?  The fellowship and camaraderie reminded me of my training days in hospital.

One day William and the boys called in to see me en route to Wallace and Fleur's.  William said he had never seen me so relaxed and I should try and stay like that when I came home.  It was lovely to see the boys and gave me a reality check: like most of the female students I was getting rather fond of Gary.  At one session a group of us were sitting on a broad shelf and Gary took off his tie before demonstrating something and draped it over my bare ankle.  It felt such an intimate thing to do; I could feel my cheeks aflame.

We went to the theatre and saw a great production of "The Royal Hunt of the Sun".  Sheila - the Irish girl knew the star Colin Blakely and took me back stage after the show.  We met the wonderful Robert Stephens and then Colin, who arranged to meet us for a drink before the evening show.  All very exciting and the pressure was building as we prepared for our own production.  I was thankful to be working back stage and didn't have to worry about learning lines.  Bed-time got later and later and we stayed up talking and putting the world to rights as students have done since time immemorial.  One beautiful moonlit night a gang of us drove to the beach and lit a fire. Sitting round it in the firelight we all took turns to sing or tell a story.  I sang La Miserere from  Il Trovatore in faux Italian.  It was actually gibberish but I'd been doing it for years with family and friends so many of them - including Gary were fooled.  The darkness and the wine gave me courage.  A couple of the group decided to go swimming although the tide was way out.  As it got later and later we decided , reluctantly, it was time to return to the college and discovered the swimmers were missing.  Suddenly the beautiful evening became a nightmare.  We split up into search parties and combed the enormous beach.  We were all silent - apart from calling the names of the two missing students.  I think we were all feeling the same emotion - dread.  I was walking with two others along the coast and at last we found two bedraggled figures huddled in the dunes.  They had had a long walk out to sea, had swum for a while and then were completely disorientated when they came out.  The current must have swept then up the coast.  We hugged them. wrapped them in towels and rugs and made our way back to college; many of us sending a silent prayer of thanks that a disaster had been averted.

The day of the show- our final day- was a mad flurry of dress rehearsals, lighting, plotting and last minute costume adjustments.  We all worked hard and although the dress rehearsal didn't go without a hitch that probably boded well for the actual performance.  Charles - my black American friend gave a natural dignity to his part of Lord Windemere and fortunately the director saw the folly of giving him white gloves to  wear- shades of Al Jolson.  Being in the lighting box with Gary was a piece of cake as he was very hands on but I had studied the lighting plots and felt I knew a little more than the useful snippet that Strand pink was the most flattering light for women.  Fascinating how one could lift or darken the mood with light and music.  I couldn't wait to get back to the theatre club and do my own production.  I knew from  the people  I worked with on "The  Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" that I could get together that all important back stage team - so vital before one thinks of the  actors.

In one part of the play Gary wanted a black-out and it was dependant on the timing of what was happening on stage; he said that he would keep his eye on the action with his arm raised and at the right moment would drop his arm and I would pull the lever that would plunge the stage into darkness.

Meanwhile we had a couple of hours before the show and I planned to crash and try to catch up with all the late nights I had been having.  However Gary said he wanted to speak to me alone, and as we were all leaving tomorrow this was the last chance we would get so I agreed to meet him in the pub when I had changed.  The pub was empty when I got there apart from Gary sitting by the window looking concerned - very unusual for him.  We had soft drinks because of the show and I asked Gary what he wanted to talk to me about.  The evening sun shining through the window gave him a golden glow and although he wasn't conventionally handsome I found his titian hair and freckles and above all his sunny disposition immensely appealing.  I was aware of the woman behind the bar who seemed very interested in our conversation.  I realised there had been a mutual attraction between us but was also conscious that he was a very popular guy and had young women constantly asking for his help, advice or opinion on all sorts of things.  I'd had a fantastic week with a great bunch of people from all over the world and Gary had made me feel a desirable woman for the first time in years.  But this was time out from my real life;  I would keep in touch with some of the students but I knew the friendship with Gary had to end here.

Gary said he had had a chequered career and although married had been a bit of a philanderer, but this was the first time he felt really serious.  Neither of us were free but he knew I wasn't happy and that probably nothing would come of it for years.  Even though we lived far apart he wanted to keep in touch.  I was in turmoil.  It sounded so reasonable but I had never imagined continuing after the course and tried to explain why I couldn't keep in touch with him.  We were going round in circles and it was time to get back to the college.  In the lighting box I tried to concentrate on the play which seemed to be going well.  It went so much better with an audience and I could see the actors upping their game as each burst of laughter and applause gave them fresh impetus.  But my mind was whirling - Gary's words ringing in my ears.

"We must see each other again Pat."

I vaguely saw Gary lift his arm in the air and when he dropped it I froze.  Whether it was a combination of exhaustion and stress I don't know but I was paralysed.  Gary hurtled towards me, grabbed the lever and saved the day.  After the show it was party time with everyone on a high  I apologised to Gary for letting him down but he said it was his fault for bringing up such a difficult topic at the wrong time.  Knowing that most of us would never met again we partied for the last time, till the early hours.  The next morning I packed the car with my luggage and the unopened tomes.  Gary looked on as I hugged and said  goodbye to my new friends.  Just as I was about to drive off he came over, hugged me and said.

"See you next week!"