Thursday, 24 September 2020

 

EPISODE FIVE

 

Leslie came straight from work and she found him waiting for her at the station entrance. He greeted her with a smile and her heart leapt when he kissed her cheek. This time she didn't draw away. After a quick meal of fish and chips in a seafront restaurant, they took their seats just as the concert was about to begin.

'I know you're going to enjoy this,' whispered Leslie, taking her hand in his.

Thelma felt as if she were in a dream. For the first time in her life, she was out on a date with a man. During the interval, Leslie bought her a drink at the bar. Thelma wasn't used to alcohol and despite Cora's liking for a glass of Guinness, she had never felt the urge to imbibe.

'I've brought you a Dry Martini,' he said, returning with two glasses, 'I hope that's all right.'

Thelma hadn't the least idea what a Dry Martini was. She had heard the girls from Cosmetics talking about the drinks they had tried in the pub but no one had ever explained what the ingredients were.

'It's very nice, thank you.' And she really meant it.

As they made their way back to their seats, she began to feel slightly light-headed and was grateful for Leslie's steadying hand on her arm.

The concert ended before ten so they had another drink in an adjacent pub before catching the train home. The alcohol soothed away any inhibitions Thelma still harboured. She felt deliriously happy and didn't mind when Leslie placed his arm around her waist while they were walking to the train station.

This time they went into the house together because Thelma knew that Cora would be in bed. Nonetheless, Thelma took off her shoes and carried them as they crept upstairs. Leslie followed suit.

'It's been a lovely evening, Thelma,' he whispered when they reached the landing. 'Would you care to come in for a nightcap?'

'Oh, I don't think I should.'

'I would really like you to; it would round off the evening.'

Thelma giggled. 'Another Martini?'

'I'm afraid not. I haven't got any gin or vermouth but I have got some sweet sherry.'

He put a finger to his lips and opened the door, ushering her into his room. It seemed strange to Thelma to be in a gentleman's bedroom but she reminded herself that this was her mother's house and Leslie was only the lodger. She sank down into the armchair to wait for him to pour their drinks.

'Here you are, my dear,' he said handing her one of her mother's tumblers. 'I haven't got any sherry glasses either so these will have to do.'

Drinking from Cora's tumbler made the illicit drink taste even more daring. How shocked her mother would be if she could see her now!

Leslie sat on the edge of the bed and raised his glass - another of Cora's tumblers. Fleetingly, Thelma wondered how they came to be in Leslie's room. Usually, her mother noticed if anything went missing from the kitchen.

'Come and sit next to me, it's more comfortable.'

Thelma obediently joined him to sit on the edge of the bed, experiencing a warm glow when he slipped his arm around her. She continued to sip her drink, vaguely wondering which was nicer: the Dry Martini or the sherry. Sliding closer, Leslie took her empty tumbler and put it on the side table.

'Did you enjoy the concert, my dear?' he asked and, responding to the warmth of his presence, she leant her head on his shoulder and whispered, 'Oh yes, thank you for a lovely evening, Leslie.'

Thelma would never understand what made her do it but, all at once, her need for affection overwhelmed her. Impulsively, she turned her head and kissed Leslie on the lips. For a fraction of a second, he was taken by surprise and in that tiny moment, Thelma lost her nerve. Drawing away, she stammered, 'I…I don't know what came over me… I must go.'

She went to stand up but lost her balance, collapsing down onto the bed and in an endeavour to cover her embarrassment, giggled, 'Goodness, just look what the drink has done to me!'

Leslie took her hand. 'There's no hurry, Thelma, stay a little longer.'

She hesitated. 'Erm, all right…'

'Can we repeat the kiss, Thelma?'

She gave a nervous nod and let him remove her glasses. This time the kiss took longer, allowing a myriad of sensations to swamp her: the prickly sweep of his moustache, the faint aroma of Capstans on his breath, the moisture on his lips. She felt mesmerised and encouraged by her compliance, Leslie's kiss became less tentative. No one had ever tried to kiss her before. She was sure Leslie must be able to hear her heart beating against her ribcage. The heat rushed to her cheeks and unnerved, she shrank back. Without her glasses she couldn't read his expression as he murmured, 'Why are you trembling, my love?'

'Oh Leslie…' With a sob she pressed herself close to him, seeking his mouth again.

What remained of the evening would forever be a haze to Thelma but at six o'clock the next morning she woke up to find herself lying on Leslie's bed while he was slouched in the armchair covered by a blanket.

Thrown into panic, she sat up and stared at the wall opposite as if pleading for support. Her head throbbed and she couldn't focus properly. What had happened? Had Leslie made love to her? She looked down at herself and saw that her skirt was caught up revealing her navy blue knickers. Surely that meant nothing could possibly have happened! Nonetheless, overwhelmed with embarrassment, she tugged down her skirt, cringing at the thought that Leslie had seen her old-fashioned underwear.

Had she passed out? Seized by shame, she got to her feet and picked up her glasses. An inspection in the mirror showed an ageing face with heavy bags below the eyes. She raked her fingers through her hair in an attempt to tidy it but the result wasn't encouraging. Reaching for her bag, she tried to make her escape before Leslie or her mother woke up and then she remembered her shoes. Where were they? She couldn't see them so she dropped to the floor and on hands and knees began to grope around for them.

'What are you doing down there?' Leslie yawned and sat up.

'Where are my shoes?' she gasped hysterically. 'I must get out of here.'

'Why? Am I such a tyrant?'

Leslie's jocular tone calmed her and struggling up from the floor, she sat down on the bed. 'I'll just have to leave without my shoes.'

Leslie took her hand. 'Nothing happened, you know. You fell asleep. I would never take advantage of you, my dear.' He looked at her earnestly. 'You do believe me, don't you?'

Suddenly, it all seemed too much. Lowering her head into her hands, Thelma burst into tears. Leslie went to sit beside her. 'Don't be upset,' he said. 'Go and get some sleep. I'll find your shoes and return them to you.'

Thelma crept along to her own room and quickly undressed. Her emotions were in turmoil. She had spent the night in Leslie's bed. He had assured her that nothing untoward had happened but how could she be sure? And her shoes were still there, kicked into a corner or under the bed. Could she trust Leslie to be discreet about returning them?

Tiredness overcame her and she fell into a deep sleep to be woken at eight o'clock by her mother's angry shout from the bottom of the stairs.

'Thelma, where are you?'

'Coming Mother,' she called.

'Are you going to stay in bed all day? Hurry up!'

She stumbled out of bed pulling her dressing-gown around her. Reaching the top of the stairs, she saw Cora standing below looking irate and brandishing her walking-stick. She hurried downstairs and followed her mother into the kitchen.

'I'm making breakfast, do you want eggs and bacon?' grunted Cora.

'No thank you, toast will do.'

'Are you ill?'

'I'm not ill, Mother, just tired.'

'You look like something the tide washed up.'

Thelma's heckles rose. That was exactly what she didn't want to hear but she felt too exhausted to retaliate.

'Was it a good film?'

'What?'

'The film you went to see, was it good?'

Thelma blinked then hastily adjusting her thoughts, said, 'Oh yes, quite good.'

'What was it about?'

'Good morning, ladies.' Leslie stood in the doorway. Thankfully he was not holding her shoes. 'Eggs and bacon, that smells nice.'

'Good morning, Leslie, would you care to join us for breakfast?'

'Thank you, Cora, that's very kind of you.'

'Take a seat in the dining room and I'll bring it in.'

Leslie's timely appearance saved Thelma from further interrogation. She sat at the table between them nibbling at a piece of toast and feeling ill at ease in her pink quilted dressing-gown when the other two were fully dressed. Both Cora and Leslie enjoyed a full English breakfast and while Leslie tucked in to his eggs and bacon he somehow managed to keep Cora off the subject of the film Thelma was supposed to have seen.

On returning to her room, Thelma found her shoes placed neatly beside the chest of drawers. It troubled her that Leslie had taken the liberty of entering her room without asking permission but she decided that discretion had prompted him to do so. Throughout the rest of the day, she analysed her motive for not wanting to tell her mother about their growing relationship and she always came back to the same conclusion: if Cora found out and disapproved she might terminate Leslie's tenancy. At all costs, that mustn't happen.

 

A week passed. Leslie returned from work each evening, greeted his landlady and her daughter in his habitually polite manner and after preparing his meal, he retired to his room to play his music.

Thelma had never been troubled by insomnia. She would retire to bed with one of her Mills and Boon novels and after a couple of chapters, the book would slip from her fingers and she would drift to sleep dreaming of love and passion. Thelma was a romantic and in rare moments of self analysis, she knew this characteristic was the only thing that had kept her sane throughout the years of co-habiting with Cora. But after the concert outing, her sleep pattern changed and she would toss and turn all night fearing that Leslie was deliberately avoiding her. She tortured herself by re-visiting the events of that Friday night. Had she made a complete fool of herself? Had she said things she shouldn't have said? That must be why Leslie wanted nothing more to do with her.

After only a few hours sleep, she would wake at six o'clock to the rattle of the milkman's float as he trundled along the road delivering milk. She would drag herself out of bed, feeling tired and ill-tempered. This would lead to squabbles with Cora and to avoid this constant bickering, she endeavoured to get out of the house as much as possible. But autumn had turned to winter and the weather was too cold for lonely seaside walks.

One evening, a week later, after Cora had gone to bed, she bumped into Leslie on the stairs. She was on her way up, he was coming down.

'I was just going to make a cup of tea, Thelma,' he said, 'would you care to join me?'

She nodded and turning round went ahead of him into the kitchen where he took the initiative, striking a match to light the gas under the kettle and taking cups and saucers off the dresser shelf. When he opened the larder door and took out her mother's biscuit barrel, it crossed Thelma's mind that to a fly on the wall observer Leslie would seem to be the landlord, she the lodger.

While they were waiting for the kettle to boil, Leslie asked, 'Are you and your mother getting along all right?'

'Why?'

Leslie warmed the teapot and went on casually, 'No reason really except that you seem a bit upset lately.'

Thelma forced a laugh. 'We've always quarrelled. I'm sorry if it disturbs you.'

'It doesn't matter to me but I think it must be upsetting for you. Hmm, I get the impression that Cora isn't easy to live with.'

Thelma hesitated before replying. Would it be disloyal to discuss her mother with Leslie? 'She's not the most easy-going person in the world,' she confessed.

'I thought not.' Thelma wondered where the conversation was heading but, thankfully, Leslie changed the subject. 'Look, I'm sorry I haven't seen much of you this week but I've been very busy at work because a colleague's been off sick.'

'I understand,' she replied.

'Would you like to come with me to the pictures next week?'

'Well, er, I don't know what's on.'

He smiled as he poured out the tea. 'I'll find out and let you know. Shall we take our tea upstairs?'

Thelma found a tray and Leslie arranged the tea and biscuits on it. 'Right, after you,' he said with a slight bow.

So once again, Thelma found herself in Leslie's bedroom. This time, she made a point of staking her claim of the armchair, leaving him to perch on the edge of the bed.

'Is that a photo album?' she asked, pointing to a glossy-covered scrap book on the table.

'No, it's my stamp collection; would you like to have a look at it?'

'Yes please. Are you a philate…?'

'Philatelist...yes I suppose I am.' He proceeded to flick through the album pointing out various stamps, murmuring wistfully. 'One day, I might hit on the big one.'

'The big one…?' Thelma pushed up her glasses to settle more securely on the bridge of her nose.

'Yes, one day I'll come across a really valuable stamp and then I'll make my fortune…' His eyes glazed over for a moment as he said with vehemence, 'then I'll be able to thumb my nose at the boss and say goodbye to that stuffy office.'

Taken aback by his outburst, Thelma asked. 'Could that really happen? I mean could you make a lot of money with the right stamp?'

'Yes, indeed,' replied Leslie quietly, clearly realising that he'd let his excitement run away with him.

'What would you do if that ever happened?'

'I'd buy a boat and sail the seven seas. Thelma, just imagine being able to go where you liked, stop off where you liked…' Leslie drew in his breath and exhaled slowly, 'ah…the joy of freedom!'

'That sounds lovely,' said Thelma, quite captivated by Leslie's yearning tone. 'It's good to have a dream. Everybody should have a dream.'

Undoubtedly feeling coy after his show of enthusiasm, he brushed a hand over his receding hair and laughed. 'Of course, it's only a pipe dream but I play my records and amuse myself for hours just studying the stamps and sometimes I come across a new one. I often browse the stamp shops; there are a lot of interesting ones in Brighton. I'll show you one day.'

Thelma felt flattered that she had been privy to Leslie's secret dream. She had read many romantic novels and shared the protagonists' innermost desires but she had never before met a real life person who, like her, let their imagination steer their life. She had been fascinated too by his knowledge of stamps as he explained their origin and their geographical importance. No wonder he spends so much time looking through them, she thought.

 

From then on, Thelma spent many happy evenings in Leslie's company. She felt safe in the knowledge that, due to her nightly intake of Guinness, her mother was a sound sleeper, although occasionally a creak in the woodwork on the stairs or the landing would make her stiffen with alarm.

'It's only a ghost, Thelma,' teased Leslie.

'…a ghost?'

'Come here, my love.' He wrapped his arms around her and gently kissed her lips.

'It might be mother checking up on me,' she protested.

Leslie laughed and Thelma was seized with embarrassment. She was behaving like an adolescent. 'I'm sorry,' she whispered, resolving to rid herself of Cora's shadow.

That night, she slept with Leslie, waking in the early hours wrapped in his arms. Her emotions were in turmoil. At the age of fifty-six she had at last lost her virginity. She felt young again and wanted to shout to the world that somebody loved her. Recalling the latest Mills and Boon novel which lay open on her bedside table, she reflected that real life was quite different to the paradigm portrayed in the story. In fiction, Chapter Five ended with the bedroom door firmly closing on the lovers, leaving the reader to imagine the rest. It didn't describe the fumbling under the bedclothes, the shock of that initial penetration and then the ecstasy of release.

She studied Leslie's sleeping form. He was no Adonis, rather weedy actually, but he had a certain charm and the more she got to know him the more she liked him. Could this be love? Thelma, the middle-aged spinster - reader of romantic novels - turned her face into the pillow to hide her tears of happiness.

 

Cora began to notice the change in Thelma. Her daughter no longer reacted when she made scathing remarks. In fact, it was getting more and more difficult to ruffle her feathers.

'Thelma, are you listening to me?' she snapped on one occasion when she had been blowing off steam about the lights being left on and had received no response from her daughter.

'Yes, Mother.'

'Really Thelma, you must speak to Leslie about leaving the light on in the hall.'

'All right, Mother.'

Cora felt irritated. Ever since her daughter was old enough to talk she had faced up to her. Battles had raged and Cora had always won but until now she had not realised how much she enjoyed Thelma's opposition. She missed her daughter's cutting retaliation to her own spiteful remarks. Nowadays Thelma seemed to live in a bubble. She spent most of her time in her room, only coming downstairs at meal times when she would gobble up whatever was on her plate, dutifully do the washing-up and hurry back upstairs.

'What do you do up there all day, Thelma?' Cora demanded one afternoon.

'Read.'

Cora snorted. 'Have you still got your nose stuck in those silly romantic Mills and Boons novels?'

'No, Mother as a matter of fact, Leslie has leant me some classics…'

'Classics - like what?'

'Jane Austen, the Bröntes…' Thelma reeled off the titles.

'Oh I see all that high-brow stuff.' Cora's heart was racing and she knew that she ought to calm down but when Thelma didn't rise to the bait she felt propelled to provoke her. 'What nonsense that man is feeding you!'

'It's not nonsense,' replied Thelma patiently.

Cora clenched her fists, aware that a vein was throbbing at her forehead. 'Maybe it's time he moved on. What do you think about that, Thelma dear?'

This did provoke a reaction. 'You can't do that,' replied Thelma hotly, 'not while he pays his rent on time and keeps his room tidy…'

'How do you know he keeps his room tidy?'

A flush spread over Thelma's cheeks. 'You've never had cause to complain about it,' she retorted.

Cora's eyes glinted wickedly. 'And how do you know?'

'I…I don't but I'm sure he keeps it clean. If you don't mind I want to get back to my book now.' Thelma turned and left the room.

After she'd gone, Cora sank down onto a chair. Pressing a hand to her chest, she tried to catch her breath. This breathlessness was happening more and more often although she hadn't mentioned it to Thelma. Maybe it was time to play the invalid?

 

Thelma stomped upstairs in a fury. Over the past few weeks she had been patience personified, ignoring Cora's moaning, refusing to react to her sarcasm. But criticism of Leslie was a step too far. And what if she actually did ask him to leave?

She threw herself onto the bed, thumping the counterpane and shedding tears of frustration. It was only when she heard the front door open and Leslie's footsteps on the stairs that she pulled herself together. There was a gentle knock on her door and, quickly drying her eyes, she went to open it. Leslie stood on the threshold looking animated and before she could say anything, he took her arm and pulled her into his room.

'What's happened?' she cried.

'My love, you'll never guess.' His voice was hoarse with emotion.

'Don't tell me you've come across a valuable stamp in your collection?'

'No even better than that.'

Thelma had never seen him so excited. 'Don't keep me in suspense, what's happened?' Selfishly, she hoped it wasn't something that would entice him to move out of Number Seven.

'Thelma, I've won the pools.' Thelma's mouth dropped open. 'What do you think of that?'

'That's wonderful, Leslie. Is it a large amount?' She remembered one of the assistants in Furnishings winning a hundred pounds. He had invited everybody to the pub for a drink after work.

Leslie laughed and squeezed her hands. 'Yes rather.' His grip tightened and for a moment, Thelma thought he was going to take her in his arms and waltz her round the room. Enunciating every word, he said, 'One hundred and seventy thousand pounds.'

Thelma was speechless. She just couldn't imagine that amount of money. Leslie let go of her hands and took off his glasses, cleaning them with a handkerchief. As he looked at her with wide eyes, she noticed what a strange colour they were: a mixture of brown and green.

'That's an awful lot of money, Leslie.'

He placed his hands on her shoulders. 'My dear, do you see what this means?'

She shook her head, still unable to comprehend what he was saying to her.

'We can go away together, Thelma…'

'Me and you?'

Doubt cast a shadow over his enthusiasm. 'Don't you want to, am I being too hasty?'

'It's...it's a bit sudden.'

'Don't you want to escape?'

'Escape from what; you mean from Mother?'

'Yes, my love, she treats you like a skivvy…'

Thelma felt a twang of conscience. 'Mother's not that bad; she's ailing and she needs me.'

Leslie looked at her in astonishment. 'Thelma, you've been under her thumb all your life, this will give you the chance to break away. I'll give in my notice and buy a boat and we can go and live on it, sail away to far off lands. I can already smell the salty sea, feel the spray of the waves as they lap the hull; Thelma, you'll love it.'

'Wait a minute!'

'What's the matter?'

Backing away, Thelma stuttered, 'It's too sudden, Leslie, I need time to think.'

Opening the door, she rushed back to her own room.

 

Over the next few days Leslie seemed preoccupied and Thelma saw little of him. She couldn't believe he had actually asked her to go away with him. Had he really won that amount of money on the pools? If he had, why weren't there hoards of reporters banging at the front door?  On the other hand, maybe he had put a cross in the privacy box.

Concern for her mother took her mind off it. On several occasions, after a bout of coughing she had seen Cora gasp for breath and lean against the wall for support.

'Perhaps you'd better go and see the doctor, Mother,' she suggested.

'There's no need,' snapped Cora.

'You don't seem very well.'

'What do you care? I'd be all right if you'd stop going around with that love-sick look on your face.'

Thelma gasped. 'What do you mean?'

Cora gave a sly grin. 'I know you're hankering after Leslie.'

'I am not!' her daughter hotly denied.

'So why do you go all gooey-eyed when he looks your way?'

'Don't talk rubbish, Mother,' retorted Thelma, striding out of the room.

But the exchange sobered her and, by the end of the week she had persuaded herself that Leslie had been teasing her, that the big pools win was a joke. Next time she saw him he'd tell her he was only kidding. Whenever she caught glimpses of him he looked rather down in the mouth. Either he had been joking or he had made a mistake when checking the coupon. Perhaps he was feeling depressed. She decided to seek him out and, the next day, an opportunity presented itself. On her way to post a letter she came face-to-face with him in the street. They both stopped in their tracks.

'Thelma, you seem to be avoiding me. Why?'

'I thought it was the other way round,' she said.

'I've been busy arranging things. Have you decided, Thelma?'

'Decided?'

'You know, about coming away with me?'

So he had been serious. 'Well…no,' she mumbled, 'to tell you the truth I didn't think it could be real…winning the pools, I mean.'

He threw back his head and laughed. 'You thought I was joking! It's no joke, Thelma; Littlewoods have been in touch and the money's in the bank.' She stared at him in stunned silence, as he went on, 'Well, my dear, have you decided? Will you come with me?'

Thelma couldn't think straight. The whole adventure seemed like a scene from one of the novels she loved to read. With a jolt she realised that Leslie was giving her a means of escape from the monotonous existence she had hitherto endured. Leaving with him would mean freedom from Cora's domination; Leslie was right, her mother had treated her like a skivvy over the years. She had never tasted freedom and it was tantalising to imagine it.

'Thelma?' Leslie's quiet voice broke into her thoughts.

'Give me time,' she said at last, 'it's a big decision to make.'

'I know that but I would love you to come. It's going to be so exciting. Just imagine, we can visit all those wonderful places in my stamp collection.'

'So you're really going to buy a boat?'

 'Yes, did you think I wouldn't?'

'No…but…' She turned away from him.

'Please decide, Thelma.'

'It's the biggest decision I've ever had to make,' Thelma murmured.

Leslie touched her arm but she drew away. For years she had longed for something to change her life but now the opportunity had come along she wasn't sure she was brave enough to take advantage of it.

Leslie waited patiently, than said, 'I shall have to give Cora my notice soon so please think about it Thelma, then we can break the news to her together. Don't you want to get out from under the old witch's feet?'

'She's not an old witch.'

Leslie gave an awkward laugh. 'I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that.'

'No you shouldn't.'

'I didn't mean it.'

'I don't know how she would manage without me,' muttered Thelma as if she were thinking aloud. Glancing at her watch, she excused herself with, 'I must post this letter; it's nearly time for the collection.'

Spinning round, she hurried off leaving Leslie looking after her.

 

During the following couple of weeks, Thelma avoided Leslie as much as possible and, out of consideration or indifference - she wasn't sure which - he didn't approach her. In bed at night she lay awake tossing the alternatives over in her mind and she came to realise that for the first time in her life she would have to make a life-changing decision. Until now her life had followed a pattern: school, then the job in the department store arranged for her by the headmistress, resignation from the job brought about by Cora's decision to move to the coast. When had she ever made a decision for herself? On top of this was Cora's failing health. How could she abandon her mother when she needed her most?

She tried burying herself in one of her Mills and Boon romances but these days the stories seemed tedious and unrealistic, featuring good-looking men and attractive women falling in love and living happily ever after; not like real life at all.

After three weeks Leslie told her he was going to tell Cora he was leaving.

'I'm sorry you can't make up your mind, Thelma dear,' he said, 'because I think we could have been happy together.'

'I haven't ruled it out,' she objected, 'it's just that mother…'

'I understand,' he said quietly. 'Your mother must come first.'

'I…I…' It was no good she couldn't bring herself to break away.

The next day, Thelma listened as Leslie broke the news to Cora.

'I'm sorry to hear that,' replied Cora. 'I hope we haven't done anything to upset you. I mean, Thelma can be a bit moody sometimes…'

Thelma's hackles rose. 'What are you talking about, Mother?' she demanded.

Cora ignored her. 'Is your room comfortable, Leslie? If you would prefer the other bedroom I am sure Thelma would be only too willing to do a swap with you.'

Her daughter could hardly believe her ears. Was she nothing more than a pawn on a chess board? She opened her mouth to protest but Leslie spoke first. Shaking his head he said, 'Dear lady, my stay with you and your daughter has been most enjoyable. As a matter of fact, I am going to buy a boat.'

Cora raised a surprised eyebrow. 'A boat! Why?'

'I've always been drawn to the sea and I've decided to take the plunge…' Leslie chuckled at his own pun. Yes…' he continued jovially, 'from now on it's a life on the ocean waves for me. '

'My, my, that does sound exciting,' Cora sucked in her lips and cocked her head to one side. Clearly she didn't believe him. 'You wouldn't be keeping a secret from us, would you Leslie? You're not getting married by any chance?' She chuckled. 'Have you got a lady friend hidden away somewhere?'

Thelma felt the colour rise to her cheeks as Leslie jokingly replied, 'No nothing like that…' He gave a chuckle and winked at Thelma. 'After all, who would have me?'

Cora glanced at her daughter. 'What do you think, Thelma, is Leslie holding out on us?'

Thelma was thrown into panic. Did her mother suspect anything? Were her jibes deliberately directed at her or was she just being facetious?

Cora turned back to her lodger. 'You're an excellent catch, Leslie, a man like you in the prime of life, why… you must have had plenty of opportunities.' She heaved a sigh. 'Of course, it's different for you, a man can marry at any age, but sadly a woman…' She glanced pointedly at Thelma, '…is on the shelf once she passes thirty.'

'Really, Mother…' Thelma fought the urge to stamp her foot.

She wanted to march out of the room but shame rooted her to the spot. She longed for Leslie to announce his feelings for her, for him to say, Cora, as a matter of fact I've asked your daughter to marry me. But he didn't and all at once she realised that although he had suggested she move in with him the word marriage had never passed his lips. She blushed even more. What a fool she was!

She hardly slept that night. Once, in the early hours she got up and, wrapping her dressing-gown around her, went out onto the landing with the intention of knocking at Leslie's door. But with her hand raised she heard Cora's hacking cough echoing along the landing. How could she abandon her? Wasn't it a daughter's duty to care for her mother? Swivelling around, she scurried back to bed and howled into the pillow.

 

On the evening before his departure, Leslie came to her bedroom. She ushered him in and quickly closed the door. They stood opposite one another, neither knowing how to reach out to the other.

Then without making a move to touch her, Leslie said, 'Well, Thelma, can I get you to change your mind?'

Thelma's legs felt as if they had turned to jelly. Without uttering a word, she sat down on the bed, tears welling in her eyes.

Leslie sat down next to her. 'I have to go, my dear,' he said, taking her hand in his. 'The offer is still there, if you want to come with me it would make me extremely happy. The reason you haven't seen much of me lately is because I've been taking sailing lessons. You should just see the boat I've bought. You'd love it. It's called, 'The Skylark'. It's moored in Portsmouth Harbour.'

Thelma gave a sniff into her handkerchief. 'It sounds lovely,' she muttered.

'Go and tell your mother now.'

'How can I leave her all alone?'

'It's time you broke free, Thelma,' retorted Leslie, 'I can tell you really want to.'

'Thelma, where are you?' Cora's voice reached them from downstairs, 'I need you to help me up the stairs.'

Thelma snatched her hand away from Leslie's and jumped to her feet. 'Coming, Mother.'

 

Leslie moved out and Thelma sank into depression. Cora on the other hand seemed to take on a new lease of life. The day after their lodger's departure, she started giving orders.

'Thelma dear hadn't you better clear out the spare room' - she seemed incapable of referring to their former lodger by name - 'ready for our next tenant?'

'There's no rush, Mother.'

'We'll miss the money.'

Thelma gritted her teeth. How could her mother talk about money when her daughter's heart was broken! She recalled the number of times she had empathised with a Mills and Boon heroine never imagining that she would one day find her own emotions in such turmoil.

Forcing herself to regain control, she said, 'We can manage, after all we managed before.'

'Just the same,' sniffed Cora, 'next time you go shopping place an advert in the newsagents and I think we should insist on a lady this time.'

But Thelma was in no hurry to prepare the room or to place an advert in the newsagent's window and she deliberately put off doing both. Their relationship grew progressively more antagonistic as she began to suspect that Cora was not as ill as she had made out.

Their rows became bitter, laced with sarcasm and once again, Thelma began taking long walks along the promenade. She strode out at a brisk pace, head down, shoulders hunched. If a passer-by greeted her she grunted a reply and hurried on. Again, her imagination ran riot and she re-ran her conjured up plots to dispose of her mother. Leslie had been right, Cora was an old witch.

Time passed and mother and daughter settled back into their former life pre-Leslie. Despite the fine weather, Thelma couldn't summon up any interest in the garden. It had been fun digging and trimming with Leslie by her side but now she could see no point in tending flowers he wouldn't see and cutting a lawn that no one would sit out on.

'Why haven't you cleaned the spare room, Thelma?' Cora demanded again, 'someone might answer our ad and the room won't be ready.'

'All in good time, Mother,' snapped Thelma.

'You did place that ad, didn't you?' her mother asked suspiciously.

'Of course I did.' Thelma had no compunction about lying. She couldn't bear the thought of someone else taking up residence in Leslie's room.

Her resentment grew. One night she got up and went to her mother's bedroom. Opening the door quietly she went to stand by her bed. Cora's mouth hung open and a dribble of saliva trickled onto her pillow. She gave a reverberating snore making Thelma jump back in alarm. For several seconds, she froze but once she was certain Cora was still asleep, she again approached the bed. A cushion had fallen off the Lloyd loom basket chair and lay on the floor. Out of habit she picked it up and shook it into shape. Standing there with the cushion in her hands, she recalled her plot to finish off Cora, to do away with her moaning and nagging. How often had she wanted to change the daily routine her mother insisted upon! Would it matter if the washing was done on a Tuesday instead of a Monday, if the sheets were changed on a Wednesday instead of a Saturday? What difference would it make if they ate sausages instead of fish and chips on a Friday and if the Sunday roast was replaced by lamb stew? She gripped the cushion tightly.

 

She got up the next morning and went downstairs. Cora wasn't in the kitchen. Normally, she rose early and started on the breakfast before Thelma got up. Feeling concerned, she hurried upstairs and knocked on her mother's door. There was no reply. After a second knock, she went in. Cora looked to be asleep.

'Wake up, Mother,' she said in a loud voice.

Cora didn't stir so Thelma shook her arm. It slipped limply from her hand. She gasped and stepped back then remembering that you were supposed to feel for a pulse, she held her mother's wrist, but she had no idea how to check. She felt her neck and leant close to her slightly parted lips half expecting Cora to snap open her eyes and shout at her. But this didn't happen.

Thrown into panic, she shook her by the shoulders but Cora slumped back lifeless. Bursting into tears, Thelma threw herself over the bed, beating at her mother's body. 'Wake up you old witch, wake up!'

Ten minutes later, when the truth had settled into her consciousness, she went downstairs and phoned for the doctor.

 

Still numb with shock, Thelma went about the business of arranging the funeral, even going to the expense of buying a smart black suit and cream silk blouse to wear. She chose the Crematorium in favour of having to stand around a hole in the ground while the coffin was lowered into it. To her surprise, several of the neighbours attended the service, even Mrs Wilton, mother of the boy who was always calling to ask for his ball back, put in an appearance. Everyone greeted her sympathetically with assurances that she only had to call if she needed any help.

'I expect you'll miss your mother, my dear,' said Mrs Wilton, 'it will be very quiet without her.'

'Yes,' agreed Thelma although she wasn't quite sure what that meant. She had often wondered whether the neighbours had been able to hear Cora's ranting through the walls.

She was just about to make her departure from the Crematorium when she spotted a man's figure some distance away. She frowned and adjusted her glasses. Was it? Could it be? The man was the right build but, wearing slacks and a sports jacket with an open-neck shirt he was dressed quite differently to the way Leslie habitually dressed.

At that moment, another neighbour touched her arm. 'Perhaps when you are feeling rested and things have settled down, you might care to come and have tea with us. My sister and I would love to see you.' The Misses Turpin were two ageing spinsters who lived at Number Three.

'Thank you very much,' replied Thelma, nervously trying to look back over her shoulder. By the time she was able to get away, Leslie - if it had been Leslie - had gone.

'The car's ready for you, Miss Stokes.'

She turned to find one of the funeral attendants gently prodding her into the limousine and, as they drove her home, she wondered guiltily whether she should have arranged tea and sandwiches for the people who had taken the trouble to attend the funeral. Then she comforted herself with the thought that their attendance had been totally unexpected because the only people she had invited were Cora's erstwhile friend, Betty, Nora, the woman who had taken over her job at the department store and Ellie from the canteen. None of them had come, although Betty had sent flowers.

 

Over the next few weeks, Thelma discovered how friendly the neighbours were but she also realised that her mother's demise had evoked a great deal of pity. At first she thought their pity was related to her loss but, after a while, it dawned on her that it was, in fact, a form of commiseration for what she had been obliged to endure during Cora's lifetime. It had never occurred to her that anyone would understand her ongoing predicament.

She experienced a mixture of gratitude and shame when they tentatively commiserated about how much she must miss her mother, how quiet the house must seem without her. Even the genteel Misses Turpin looked at her with unguarded sympathy. And it was quiet but it was a quietness which, to start with, Thelma welcomed. However, once she had disposed of Cora's clothes, given her blankets and sheets to the Salvation Army and forced herself to clean Leslie's room, time hung heavily on her hands.

At night she suffered pangs of conscience when she remembered the ridiculous plots she had conjured up in order to see Cora off, and she sometimes wondered whether she had actually committed the crime. At these times she longed to talk to Leslie and, yes, to have his scrawny arms encircle her while he uttered words of comfort.

She got up one morning having made a firm decision - probably the only one she had ever made in her entire life: she would sell the house. After all, she told herself, a three bedroom house plus an attic room was too big for one person. It would be much better to move somewhere smaller and have a nice little nest egg to stow away in the Bank.

Several months later, one sunny August day in 1962, Thelma closed the front door of Number Seven for the last time. She stood for a couple of minutes on the doorstep, her suitcase at her feet. Would she regret her decision? She shook her head, picked up her case then went out to the waiting taxi. Her destination: Portsmouth.

 

Next up: ‘THE SWINGING SIXTIES’

 

 

 

Even though the rules are getting stricter I am pleased to say that I am getting out and about more these days. I’m going to my ballet lessons and I am meeting up with my Spanish Group each week, both with restricted numbers and safe-distancing of course! At the moment I’m not sure whether I can continue holding my fortnightly Writers’ Group.

I finished my memoirs (for family reading only) and sent out copies to far-flung family members. Of course, as soon as the book was finished I remembered lots of things I should have included. Isn’t that always the way?

I'm using this time to market my books because I have stumbled on a writer's block with my current novel even though I've already written 60,000 words. With the help of my daughter, I’ve been busy designing my Instagram logo and we’ve taken lots of photos of my novels in all sorts of weird and wonderful places. 


Finally, please catch up with the next episode of ‘Footprints on my Doorstep’ which I am putting on my Blog right now!

Monday, 14 September 2020

 

EPISODE FOUR

 

The Cold War

 

After the bleak years of the War, the 1951 Festival of Britain lifted the country's' spirits. The following year saw the sudden death of King George VI and brought a young queen to the throne. Winston Churchill's prediction of an Iron Curtain dividing Europe proved true but perhaps the greatest shock to the nation was the soviet spy scandal of the mid-fifties.

During this period the town saw an influx of royal visitors. In May 1951 the then Princess Elizabeth paid a visit, in 1956 the Duchess of Kent attended the opening of a new technical high school and in 1959, Princess Margaret came to visit a special school in the area.

Housing estates were built and the population increased to over 77,000. Due to the demand for new style housing, it was months before a buyer was found for Number Seven, which fell into disrepair. Weeds sprang up and apples and plums were left to rot where they fell. This was a sad time. I missed the aroma of Daisy's baking, Hetty's tuneful singing, Walter's sweet-smelling pipe tobacco for despite the tragedy of Teddy's death, Jack's suicide and Walter's heartache, both the Websters and the Parkers had brought joy to Number Seven.

Finally, mother and daughter, Cora and Thelma Stokes moved in. Their relationship was contentious; they were always quarrelling. If Cora liked something, Thelma disliked it and I wondered what was in store for me.

Cora was in her late seventies, Thelma in her mid-fifties. Cora's husband had deserted her after her daughter's birth and, from then on, she had played the martyr. Self-pity and bad-temper had etched lines into her features giving her a permanently disgruntled expression. In addition, she had unfortunately broken her left leg while running for a bus during the Blitz, resulting in a stiff knee which meant she had to use a walking-stick.

From the age of sixteen, Thelma had worked in a West End department store. Never having married, it had not occurred to her to leave her mother. She was ungainly with mousey hair, poor eyesight obliging her to wear thick lens spectacles which often slipped down her nose. Had fate decreed to remove her from Cora's influence, her life might have been happier.

They had lived in rented rooms since being bombed out of their London home, and now that Cora was 'getting on a bit' she had decided they should move to the coast. They were a far cry from my previous occupants and my walls were to echo with their discontent.

 

 

Cora and Thelma were at each other's throats from the moment they moved in. They squabbled about how to arrange the furniture, they fought about who should have the front bedroom, they argued about how much they should tip the removal men. If there was nothing to argue about they would invent something.

'I really like this house, Mother,' said Thelma after the removal men had departed. 'Just think, this will be our first real home since we were bombed out.'

'It's too big,' sniffed Cora.

'No it isn't.'

'It is. I said as much when the estate agent showed us round.'

'I don't remember you saying that.'

'You've got a short memory when it suits you.'

Determined to be positive, Thelma persisted, 'The garden's lovely, you'll be able to sit out there in the summer.'

'It's too big.'

'No it isn't. Don't forget now I've left work I'll have plenty of time to look after it.'

'The downstairs badly needs decorating.'

'I can do that too.'

'You don't know one end of a paint brush from the other,' scoffed Cora.

Thelma weaved her way between the piles of boxes cluttering the floor. 'I'll start decorating this room next week,' she declared. Looking around, she pushed her glasses further up her nose and added, 'Yes, I'm looking forward to getting started.'

'Hadn't you better get unpacked first,' snapped her mother, waving her walking-stick in the air and narrowly missing the centre lamp.

'Mind the light, Mother,' warned Thelma.

Cora looked up and pulled a face. 'That awful thing must go for a start.'

It was a Tiffany lampshade chosen by Hetty in her first flush of enthusiasm on moving in to Number Seven.

'I like it.'

'It's hideous it makes the place look like a bordello.'

Thelma gave a laugh. 'Really, Mother, you do exaggerate.'

Cora pointed at the boxes piled up in the kitchen. 'Start in there. Do you know which box the kettle is in?'

'How would I know? You were the one who packed the kitchen utensils,' retorted her daughter.

After a five-minute search she found the kettle and returned with teapot and cups balanced on a small tray. 'Mother, make a space for the tray please.'

Using her walking stick, Cora swept aside a pile of papers from the table and for a little while a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit restored peace.

 

Thelma was true to her word and the following week she started stripping off the wallpaper ready to redecorate.

'I think the funky yellow and red pattern or the terracotta lion design would be nice in here, don't you?' she said, flicking through a wallpaper pattern catalogue.

Cora disagreed. 'I want flowered wallpaper, Magnolias.'

'Flowers are old-fashioned, Mother.'

'Well what's wrong with old-fashioned?' argued Cora. 'And what are you going to do about that silly little cupboard over there?'

Thelma stood back to study it. 'It's rather sweet,' she said, 'but it's locked and there doesn't seem to be a key. We'll have to get a man in to chip it out of the wall.'

'Get a man in! I'm not paying someone to do that job you'll just have to paper over it.'

'It'll leave a bulge in the wall.'

'We can hang a picture over it.'

'All right, I'll do my best to disguise it,' said Thelma. 'I'm looking forward to trying my hand at decorating, you know.'

'Huh!' Cora was scathing. 'You'll mess it up. Don't expect me to pay for someone to come and clear up after you.'

'Oh ye of little faith,' declared her daughter, for once choosing not to take offence.

In the end the pattern they agreed upon featured little green birds which would be easy to match up. Thelma bought a book of instructions on home decorating and she turned out to be quite a dab hand at wallpapering. Even the bulge made by the little cupboard wasn't too unsightly.

Winter was approaching and Cora was impatient to get the rest of the house decorated.

'Are you going to do my bedroom next?' she asked.

'It's cold upstairs Mother, can't the rest wait until the spring?'

'You should have thought of that and done upstairs first.'

'You said you wanted the front room done before the winter,' protested Thelma.

'I don't remember saying that,' grunted Cora, 'and by the way, isn't the coalman supposed to be delivering today?'

'Yes, this afternoon.'

'Well, just make sure you count the number of bags he carries round the back. Last time we were a bag short.'

'That was ages ago, Mother, when we were still living in London.'

Cora gave a dismissive shrug. 'They're all the same so keep an eye on him.'

 

When she'd left work the company had presented Thelma with a wooden mantel clock and a card signed by all the staff. Mr Bateman, the Managing Director, gave a speech commending her on forty years service, forcing Thelma to stand through it all, red-faced with embarrassment. Shuffling from one foot to the other, she longed for the ground to open up and swallow her. As Mr Bateman finished speaking everybody clapped and wished Thelma well, with one or two declaring that she must stay in touch.

'Keep us up to date with all your news, Thelma,' said Nora, the woman who was taking her place, 'and don't forget to give me your address.'  She thrust a piece of paper into Thelma's hand. 'Here's mine.'

Some of the girls from Cosmetics invited her to join them in the pub for a drink after work but she knew they didn't really want her. They were in the habit of going to the Black Horse on a Friday evening to meet up with some of the boys from SportsandLeisure and they had never included her before. But she was touched when young Ellie from the canteen came up to her just as she was leaving the building and handed her a pack of embroidered handkerchiefs tied up with a pink ribbon. 'You've always been kind to me, Miss Stokes,' she said, looking tearful, 'I shall miss you.'

On the train going home, Thelma couldn't help thinking about the genuine sadness in Ellie's eyes as she had handed her the gift. Ellie had always greeted her with a cheerful smile and often added an extra scoop of ice cream when dishing out the apple crumble. As the train passed through a tunnel, she stared at her own reflection in the window wondering dolefully why, after forty years, she had made so little impression on her workmates. She was sure that by Monday Ellie would be the only one to give her a passing thought.

 

Cora grumbled incessantly: the house was too cold; the newspapers never arrived on time; there was too much passing traffic.

'I can't open the windows because of the noise,' she declared. 'It keeps me awake at night.'

'It's your own fault, Mother,' replied Thelma, resolutely adjusting her spectacles to sit on the bridge of her nose, 'you shouldn't have insisted on taking the front bedroom.'

'Hmm, and those kids from next door are always throwing their ball over the wall. You must go round there and complain to their mother, Thelma.'

'I'll do no such thing,' retorted her daughter although, privately, she was finding it rather tiresome having a grubby-faced eight-year-old constantly knocking at the door with, 'Can we have our ball back, missus?'

While she had been working, Thelma had put up with her mother's whining with stoicism but now they were together all day long, she was becoming more and more irritated. She began taking long walks along the beach, hands thrust in pockets, toeing pebbles as she allowed her imagination to run riot. Thelma had a vivid imagination and she enjoyed conjuring up ways of silencing Cora's moaning: stealing into her bedroom at dead of night and smothering her with a pillow; lacing her bed-time drink with arsenic so that she'd never wake up; pushing her down the stairs. She brightened up. Yes, that was the best way. She could say her mother had tripped over that damned stick she always carried. Of course, she knew she would never put any of these plots into practise but it was comforting to imagine them.

 

Cora's discontent stemmed from a broken heart. Alfred, the husband she adored, left her for a Tiller girl.

Betty, her best friend at the time, had commiserated with her. 'Don't worry Cora dear he'll tire of her in next to no time, you mark my words.'

'She's so glamorous,' lamented Cora, 'how can I compete? Why, she's got legs up to her armpits!'

Betty smothered a giggle. 'She's common. Your Alf will come to no good playing around with the likes of her.'

'But if he divorces me…'

'He can't do that, you're the injured party, he's the one in the wrong,' protested Betty. 'Anyway, look on the bright side, you're still young and if he doesn't come back to you, there are plenty more fish in the sea.'

This was no comfort to Cora who had set her heart on hanging onto her man and when Alfred did not tire of his long-legged Tiller girl, shamed by his desertion, she refused to file for divorce. Instead, she sneaked away and found digs on the other side of London, bringing up Thelma all by herself. A skilled seamstress she managed to keep body and soul together with the help of the small amount of money which, during the early years, Alfred provided. He never enquired about his daughter so Thelma grew up without knowing her father. It was hard-going but somehow mother and daughter won through and once Thelma left school and started working at the department store, things improved. By then, Alfred had disappeared.

'Your father's gone forever and ''good riddance'' I say,' proclaimed Cora when, on one occasion, Thelma became curious and plucked up the courage to ask about her father.

Betty kept in touch with Cora for a while but eventually gave up trying to pull her friend out of her poor me frame of mind. Working from home meant that Cora had very little contact with the outside world. Over the years, Thelma did all the shopping and most of the cleaning despite working a forty-hour week at the department store. No one ever visited them and since Cora was always dissatisfied with their rented accommodation, they had frequently moved house.

When, at the age of fifteen, Thelma started work, she would obediently hand over her pay packet to her mother. Every Friday evening Cora would count out the pennies to go into the appropriately labelled jam jars she kept on the kitchen shelf. There was one for coal, one for electricity, another for the gas meter and, of course, one for a 'rainy day'. Having performed this weekly ritual, she would hand back a modest amount of pocket money to her daughter. Cora appeared not to care that their lives were so predictably monotonous but Thelma never ceased to dream of something better.

On one occasion, while they were living in a rather seedy area of North London, she had challenged Cora. 'What's the point of saving for a 'rainy day', Mother we both need a holiday, why don't we go to the seaside for a weekend: Folkestone or Eastbourne?'

Cora's lips tightened. 'What nonsense, my girl, we might need that money for something important.'

'Like what?'

'How will you manage if I fall ill?'

'The NHS will take care of you.'

'Tch, the NHS is nothing more than charity.'

'No it's not, mother,' cried Thelma indignantly, 'it's there for everybody.'

Then their luck changed. The authorities got in touch with Cora to tell her that Alfred had died of a heart attack. Apparently his liaison with the Tiller girl had ended when he lost most of his money on the horses, prompting her to make off with a bookmaker from the betting shop. Over the years he had become a habitual gambler, his fortune vacillating from race to race. As luck would have it, his heart attack occurred when he was riding high, thus his winnings passed to Cora as his next of kin, making it possible for her to purchase Number Seven. Thelma never dared ask her mother how much money was involved and despite being better off, Cora continued to moan about their living expenses.

'I always said this house was too big for us,' she grumbled, 'we would have been better off finding a two bed-roomed flat.'

'We could rent out a room,' said Thelma, half joking.

To her surprise, Cora nodded her head. 'For once, you've come up with a good idea, my girl.'

They placed a card in the local newsagent's window and received a number of applicants. Cora insisted on showing them round despite her difficulty in getting about.

'Why don't you let me show people the room?' suggested Thelma, 'it would save you having to struggle upstairs.'

'I go upstairs to bed, don't I,' snorted Cora, 'so who says I can't manage? Besides, I don't want some stranger poking his nose into the other rooms up there.'

'I wouldn't let anybody do that, Mother.'

But Cora couldn't bear to relinquish authority to her daughter.

Then Leslie Dempster answered the advertisement and arrived on their doorstep looking dapper in a dark grey pin-striped suit and a trilby hat. He sported a narrow moustache over thin lips and wore tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles. When Cora answered the door, he took off his hat to reveal sleek black hair smoothed across his head as if to hide his receding hairline.

'Good morning, Mrs Stokes, I believe you have a room to let,' he said politely.

One glance at him convinced Cora that the fifty-something man standing in front of her was respectable. This impression was further confirmed when he explained that he was employed by the Tax Office. Anyone working for the local council must be trustworthy.

She went ahead of him up the stairs; her visitor followed at a discreet distance in order to avoid a brush with her rather large rear which tended to swing out as, encumbered by her stiff left knee, she made her shambling progress upwards.

Leslie Dempster liked the room. 'Well, Mrs Stokes,' he said with a little bow, 'this will suit me admirably. How much will you charge for it?'

Cora quoted a figure half expecting her prospective lodger to shake his head and barter but he agreed immediately. They made their slow progress downstairs to where Thelma was waiting expectantly.

'This is our new lodger, Mr Dempster,' said Cora triumphantly. Leaning her hand on the table for support, she beamed at her daughter and waved her stick saying, 'Thelma dear, show Mr Dempster the kitchen and bathroom.' She turned to him. 'By the way, did I mention that I cannot allow any form of alcohol on the premises?'

'Of course not,' replied Leslie. 'I myself was brought up in a strictly teetotal environment.'

Thelma smothered a smirk knowing that her mother was in the habit of drinking a pint of Guinness each evening before retiring to bed. Forcing herself to keep a straight face, she escorted their prospective lodger through the kitchen to the bathroom.

After glancing around he made Thelma blush by saying, 'Thank you, young lady, this seems eminently suitable for my needs.'

They returned to the dining room where Cora was waiting. She cleared her throat. 'Mr Dempster, in order to reserve the room for you I shall need a deposit.' To justify this request, she burbled on, 'We've got several other people interested in the room, you know.'

'No problem,' he replied, taking out his wallet and extracting the required number of notes. 'I shall arrive on Monday afternoon at around five o'clock if that's convenient.'

'That is most convenient, Mr Dempster. By the way, if I am to be cooking your meals, I shall need your Ration Book.'

'There's no need for that, Mrs Stokes, I prefer to cater for myself.'

'Of course, of course,' said Cora.

Thelma wasn't very happy about this arrangement. It was she not Cora who cooked most evenings and as the kitchen wasn't very big two people using it at the same time could cause a problem.

However, Cora seemed pleased. Waddling ahead of Leslie Dempster to the front door, she said, 'It will be so nice having a man in the house again.'

After he'd left, Cora's eyes glinted with satisfaction. 'Isn't it lucky I thought about taking in a lodger?' she said.

'Mother, it was my idea,' protested Thelma.

Ignoring her, Cora continued to enthuse about their lodger. 'Such a well-educated gentleman,' she said, 'and he's got a really important job on the Council.'

'Mother, he's a clerk in the Tax Office,' Thelma pointed out.

Her mother wasn't listening. 'Thelma dear, we've got the weekend to get the house spick and span. You must start spring-cleaning first thing tomorrow morning.'

Thelma could hardly stop herself from hitting Cora. Why did all the chores fall to her? Resorting to sarcasm, she said tartly, 'You can't spring-clean in the autumn. Besides he's only paying for the use of one room not the whole house.'

 

Leslie Dempster moved in on a damp October morning. He didn't have much luggage, just a suitcase with his clothes and several boxes. For the first few days, Cora was in her element. 'It's so nice having a man in the house again,' she gushed, giving the impression that her husband's demise had been only recent. Thelma found it difficult to hide her giggles but her mother's glowering frown warned her not to spoil the cover-image she was so carefully creating.

During the ensuing days she watched her mother's antics with amusement. Cora fussed over her lodger as if he were a member of the gentry. On the first Saturday after his arrival she invited him down for tea and cake and although Leslie was extremely polite, Thelma detected a hint of hesitancy before he accepted the invitation.

At the appointed time, Cora directed him to an armchair by the window, and on the pretext of giving him a place for his cup and saucer she cleverly arranged an occasional table in front of him. This made it difficult for him to stretch out his legs thus preventing a quick get-away once the tea had been drunk and the cake eaten.

'Dear Mr Dempster,' she began after pouring out the tea, 'have you been employed by the Council for very long?'

'I've been in local government all my life, Mrs Stokes,' explained Leslie, taking a sip of tea and dabbing his lips with Cora's floral napkin. 'But as I told your daughter, I lived in Salisbury until I was transferred down here.'

All smiles, Cora leant forward. 'A great career if I might say so and tell me, how do you find this part of the world?'

'Very agreeable, I love the sea. Have you and your daughter been living here long?'

Cora conjured up an air of sadness. 'Alas we were bombed out in the Blitz but fate smiled on us and found us this charming house by the sea.'

Thelma, who had taken a back seat so far, couldn't help saying, 'But Mother, I thought you didn't like it here. You're always moan…'

Cora flicked a hand at her. 'Nonsense dear, what put that idea in your head?' She went on. 'Tell me, Mr Dempster…'

'Please call me Leslie.'

Cora beamed at him. 'I'm Cora and my daughter's Thelma.'

'You were saying?'

'Oh yes, do you come from a large family, Leslie?'

'No, I'm an only child. Sadly, my parents died some ten years ago so now I'm all alone.'

Cora raised her eyebrows. 'No aunts, uncles, cousins?'

'Unfortunately, not. '

Thelma listened to their conversation without contributing much. She was embarrassed both by her mother's fawning tone of voice and by her probing questions. She wanted to put an end to them but didn't know how to change the subject.

An hour and a half later and after several more cups of tea, Leslie made his escape. On his way out of the room, he passed Thelma who caught a fleeting expression of sympathy in his eyes. She stood still for a moment, thinking about him and came to the conclusion that there was more to Leslie Dempster than met the eye.

 

Over the winter, Cora and Thelma had little contact with their new lodger. He never again accepted Cora's invitation to tea, cleverly finding an excuse each time she asked him. Returning from work he would cook a hasty supper before shutting himself away in his room. Sometimes, Thelma could hear him playing classical music on the gramophone he had brought with him but, for the most part, he seemed to be engrossed in his books. He never had visitors except for the man from Littlewoods Football Pools. Thelma couldn't help sniggering because, despite Cora's fortunes being changed by Alfred's race winnings, her mother despised gambling and would give a huff of disapproval whenever the collector came to call. In Cora's eyes, this was the only black mark against Leslie until one day he approached her asking if she could arrange for some shelves to be put up in his room.

'I would be most grateful,' he said in his quiet, polite manner, 'I have rather a lot of books and they are in the way on the floor and they may get damaged.'

'Well…' Cora pursed her lips, 'calling in a joiner will cost money; you know how expensive carpenters are these days.'

'Oh dear lady, I didn't mean that you should pay for it. I'll foot the bill if you would kindly arrange it.'

Cora's expression softened; smiling she said, 'Of course, Leslie, I will see to it at once. Run down to the corner shop, Thelma and make enquiries; that Mr Royston knows all the local handymen.'

As Thelma went to collect her coat from the peg in the hall, Leslie tried to stop her. 'There's no rush, tomorrow will do.'

'Thelma doesn't mind, do you dear?' insisted Cora.

When Thelma looked undecided, Leslie said, 'In that case, my dear, we'll go together. Please wait while I get my coat.'

As Leslie mounted the stairs, Thelma caught her mother's glance and knew that Cora wasn't happy. 'Mother, we can't let him pay for the carpentry,' she said.

'Of course we can, after all he knew there were no bookshelves when he took the room? I'll have to put his rent up if he keeps asking for extras.'

Thelma looked aghast. 'You can't do that, Mother!'

Their argument was interrupted when Leslie appeared wearing his hat and coat.

'We won't be long,' called out Thelma as they left the house.

While they walked along, Leslie said, 'Do you like to read, Thelma?'

'Yes I do.'

'What sort of books do you like?'

Thelma coloured as she replied, 'I love a romance but I don't suppose you would be interested in those.'

'Do you read Daphne du Maurier?'

'Yes, and Barbara Cartland and Catherine Cookson,' replied Thelma, spouting the names of famous romantic novelists she had heard of. She didn't want to admit that she only ever read Mills and Boon.

 

When March drew to a close and spring sunshine brought out primroses and daffodils, Thelma resumed her walks on the beach. Since leaving work she was obliged to spend a great deal of time with her mother and walking on the beach was a means of escape.  One Sunday afternoon she was surprised to come face to face with Leslie on the promenade.

'Well I never,' he said, 'I didn't know you were a keen walker too.'

To her chagrin, Thelma found herself blushing. 'I've always loved walking by the sea,' she said.

'In that case, do you mind if I join you?'

After half an hour they ended up in a seafront café. 'It's getting a bit nippy now,' said Leslie, hugging a beaker of tea. 'But perhaps we can do this again.'

'I'd like that.'

'Tell me about yourself, how long is it since you left your job?

 'Eighteen months. I used to work in a big London department store.'

'That must have been interesting.'

'It was sometimes,' fibbed Thelma, unwilling to tell Leslie how much she had hated the job.

'Your mother is a very stalwart lady.'

'Stalwart?'

'She tells me she was inconsolable when your father died and you must miss him too. Was his demise recent?'

Thelma almost burst out laughing. So that was the story her mother had fed their lodger! 'I never knew my father, he died several years ago.' Taking pleasure in disproving her mother's version of events, she added, 'He left us when I was a baby.'

'But I was under the impression…'

'I know, mother makes everything into a sob-story.' Thelma lowered her gaze feeling a twinge of guilt at her unkind words. She tried to rectify the situation. 'I mean, she tends to be melodramatic.'

'I see.'

They fell silent and Thelma's gaze fastened on the salt-sprayed café window. The sky had clouded over and the wind had picked up so that white crested waves splashed against the breakwaters lining the beach. Seagulls screeched overhead and both she and Leslie drew back as one soared close to the window.

'I thought it was coming in for a cup of tea,' joked Leslie.

The incident broke through their awkwardness and, after paying the bill - Leslie insisted that he did it - they left the café and walked towards home. As they passed the newsagents, Leslie slapped his pockets. 'I need some cigarettes,' he said, 'you go on ahead.'

Thelma was grateful for his discretion. It wouldn't do for her mother to think that she had been having a tête-a-tête with their lodger.

 

The Sunday afternoon walks became regular and by tacit agreement they met at the entrance to the pier. Thelma felt comfortable in Leslie's company and found herself opening up to him. They exchanged confidences, describing their lonely childhood. Like Thelma, Leslie had only ever had one employer: the Council. He explained how he had been exempted from call-up during WWII due to a heart condition brought on by an attack of rheumatic fever when he was eleven.

'I wanted to do my bit,' he said, 'but they wouldn't have me. In any case, my job in the Council was granted exemption.'

'If I had been younger, I would have joined up,' said Thelma, 'although it would have been difficult leaving mother.'

'Have you ever thought of moving, striking out on your own?'

Thelma recoiled with shock. 'Oh, I don't think I could.'

As time passed she learnt that Leslie was fifty-one and that he was dissatisfied with his job.

'Have you got any hobbies?' she asked him.

'I collect stamps,' he replied, 'I'll show them to you one day.'

'Sometimes I can hear you playing music,' she said.

'Oh dear, I hope it doesn't disturb you.'

'Not at all, I like it.'

'What about your mother. Does she mind?'

Thelma laughed. 'Mother's a bit hard of hearing so you don't need to worry about her.'

In fact, most evenings Cora retired to her room early armed with her bottle of Guinness. She always got Thelma to discreetly dispose of the empties while Leslie was at work.

'Do you like classical music?' asked Leslie.

'I don't know anything about it,' she confided.

Leslie smiled at her. 'In that case, I shall invite you to a concert one of these days.'

 

As the summer progressed, Thelma and Leslie grew closer. They even took to walking arm-in-arm which, for Thelma, was a strange experience. She had never been close to another person. On thinking back, she couldn't remember a single moment when anybody had hugged her. She supposed that as a baby her mother must have nursed her but during her toddler to teenage years she could not recall Cora ever comforting her when she fell over or sympathising when something went wrong at school. In fact, Cora had never attended any of Thelma's school plays or sports days.

Thus displays of affection were alien to Thelma, and when one day while they were sitting in one of the promenade shelters Leslie drew her into an embrace and gently kissed her cheek, she froze.

'I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that,' he muttered, sliding sideways along the narrow bench so that there was a gap between them.

The incident spoilt their afternoon and they returned home with Leslie carefully keeping his distance. As they walked close to a shop window, Thelma caught a glimpse of their reflection: a stout soberly attired woman and a spruce middle-aged slightly-built man. She was a head taller than Leslie and probably weighed twice as much as him. All at once, she felt ridiculous and resolutely vowed to curtail their walks. It would be easy to do that without giving offence because autumn was approaching and the weather was not conducive to walking.

 

'Will you be going for a walk today, Thelma?' asked Leslie when he met her on the landing the following Sunday morning.

She shook her head. 'No, there's a lot to do in the garden at this time of the year; you know, cutting back and clearing up leaves.'

'I'll give you a hand.'

Thelma was stunned by the offer. 'That's very kind of you but I can manage,' she said.

'I'd like to help you.'

'No really, I can manage.'

'Manage what, dear?' Cora appeared at the foot of the stairs.

'Oh, I was just saying that I can manage the garden, Mother.'

Leslie started walking downstairs, a smile on his face. 'And I was offering to help.'

'Why, Leslie, that's very kind of you. After all gardening can be strenuous work and I'm sure Thelma could do with some assistance.'

Thus Thelma and Leslie set to work pruning, cutting back and sweeping up leaves. She tried not to appear too friendly but Leslie's eagerness to help and his cheerful manner soon melted her resolve and she felt comforted to have someone working alongside her.

Leslie stopped to remove his pullover and roll up his shirt sleeves. 'It's hot work,' he said as he took a packet of Capstan Navy Cut out of his pocket. 'Do you mind, Thelma?'

'Not at all,' she replied. It pleased her to see that he was a smoker, simply because she knew her mother disapproved of smoking.

Leaning on his spade, he removed his glasses and wiped the sweat from his brow. When he replaced his spectacles and started digging again, his bare arm brushed Thelma's hand and she experienced a frisson of excitement. She could smell him too: besides the cigarette, he carried the aroma of a working man, something that would have disgusted her had she come across it on the underground or in a bus. Something strange stirred inside her, something she had never quite been able to conjure up from all those Mills and Boon novels she had read.

Anxious to dispel these embarrassing feelings, she said, 'It's hard work and I'm grateful for your help, Leslie.' Just using his name made her blush but she knew he wouldn't notice because they were both quite red in the face from their exertions.

He grinned and replied, 'Actually, it makes a change from sitting at an office desk all day.' Then he sprang a surprise on her. 'Hmm, Thelma, would you like to come to a concert with me next Friday evening? It's a programme of light classics and I think you'd enjoy it.'

Taken aback, Thelma pushed her glasses to the bridge of her nose, mumbled her acceptance and went back to raking the lawn with added vigour.

 

The following Friday Thelma broke the news to her mother that she wouldn't be in for supper.

'Where are you going?' asked Cora. It was after all unknown for Thelma to go out in the evening.

Crossing her fingers behind her back in a bid to fend off the anticipated barrage of questions, Thelma replied, 'I'm going to the pictures, there's a film I want to see.'

'What's wrong with a matinée performance? We could go together tomorrow afternoon.'

'I'm sorry, Mother but I've decided to go this evening.'

'Which film is it?'

'It's one you wouldn't like.'

'How do you know? What's it called?'

'Rebel without a Cause,' mumbled Thelma, knowing that it was currently showing at the Odeon. 'It's not your sort of film.'

Cora gave a sniff of disapproval but, much to her daughter's relief, she didn't persist with the argument. Thelma took a long time deliberating on what to wear. The decision shouldn't have been difficult since her wardrobe was limited. Even when working at the department store, she had seldom spent money on new clothes and never bothered to follow the latest fashions like the other women employed there. In the end she chose a calf-length navy blue pleated skirt topped by a pale blue lambs-wool twin-set and once ready to leave, she crept downstairs and through the front door, calling out a hurried goodbye to her mother.