Authors: H.E. Bates
âI'd nothing to tell.' His voice was quiet; he could hear the tide slowly coming in across the sand.
âWell, thenâwho should care?' She moved in the sand again, supple and astonishingly quiet, and in distraction he found her body once again in long deep curves; the flash of the lighthouse fell on her mouth, making it glisten and then leaving it wonderfully dark again as the light swung out to sea.
âWe're just two people,' she said. âPeople get so messed up about the right and wrong of things. We're just two people. What do we want with rights and wrongs? All we want is here.'
No: not here, he thought. Vainly he tried to listen to the tide; but he was distracted by the feel of her soft body into agonies of mind that flung up thoughts of Ella and the lighthouse. He determined not to be afraid of the lighthouse any longer, and now, too, he remembered the girl, high up there, leaning over.
âCome on, kiss me; it's nothing,' she said. âCome on; just once more like the lighthouse. In case it cures you. You never know.'
She folded him down into a body that had lost the last of
its rigidity and seemed now to have the quality of burying him into itself, like the sand. The lighthouse flashed several times, across the shore and across the long, oblivious kiss, and then she freed her face and said, smiling:
âWhen do we go up again?'
âTomorrrow?' he said.
âWhen do you suppose they'll put up the new lighthouse?' she said. He did not answer. His heart, at that moment, seemed to stop beating. His body lay imprisoned in its hard chrysalis of jealousy and weakness and fear. He could not look at her face; and down on the shore there was no movement but a small wind eating at the sea and innumerable small waves casually consuming what remained of the waste of sand.
Joe johnson, who never hurt a soul, wore white overalls in summer and extra-weight woollens in winter, and in very cold weather a kind of Balaclava helmet. For some years he had kept an open-fronted fruit shop with a small trade in flowers. In winter it was often so bitterly cold in the unprotected shop that Joe, having once put on the Balaclava helmet, was afraid of leaving it off again for fear of catching cold in his ears. One spring he began to notice a young girl who went by the shop two or three times a day. She had bright, careless black eyes.
Up to about that time the shop was doing well. âEat More Fruit,' the notices said. âSay it with Flowers.' At the weekends Joe took a risk on specialities that were just out of season, asparagus, peaches, roses and such things. It was a luxury trade, but there were always customers. It had not always been so. For five years Joe had been in the street trade, pushing a barrow; for nearly another ten still in the street trade, with a horse and cart. He had struggled up. Now he was heard to complain of âthe caterpillarists of the trade.' He would say, âTake bananas. Bananas are a monopoly. If they wasn't a monopoly they'd be four a penny. It's the caterpillarists. They keep you down.' Apart from this he was well satisfied with himself. He was a man of forty who did not know what it was to be unhappy except when he caught cold in his ears.
All that spring the young girl went by the shop. The weather was warm and Joe put on his white overalls. Tulips stood in vases among the first boxes of hot-house tomatoes and Joe stood in front of the fruit, passing the time of day with people he knew.
The only person who passed regularly by the shop and to whom he never spoke was the young girl. When she came along something in him went cold and contracted; he began trembling and picked up a tomato or an apple and hastily
rubbed it with a cloth. He wanted to look at her, but his eyes remained downcast. Always, after she had gone, he would look up; his blood would run hot and the palms of his hands were greasy with sweat.
This repeated phase of emotion astonished and baffled him. He felt himself rock on his feet, slightly giddy, whenever he saw her coming. He went through this same state of feeling four times a day. She went by at nine in the morning, and back at the lunch-hour; she went by again about two o'clock, and back again about five. One morning he was delayed down at the banana depot; the fruit had not arrived. When he reached the shop it was nine-thirty and he knew that the girl had gone. For some time he felt ill, with a clot of nausea and disappointment in his throat, and all that day he complained of âthe caterpillarists, who think you got all day to wait. The caterpillarists, who keep you down.'
One morning as the girl came by she lifted her bright casual eyes and looked at the shop. Among the fruit stood a vase of red carnations. He saw her eyes rest on it, hesitate for a moment, and then swing away. Almost as soon as she had gone he got on the telephone and ordered six dozen red carnations.
When they came he arranged them in big conspicuous bunches along the front of the shop. When she came past at the lunch-hour it was as he hoped. Seeing the flowers, she was held in a moment of agreeable surprise. In that moment, too, she must have caught sight of his transfixed and in some way transfigured face. And as if she saw the meaning of the face and the flowers she stopped and spoke.
âNice,' she said.
âVery nice. Fresh in too,' he said. âFresh in.'
âDo they smell?'
âOh! yes,' he said. âYes, they smell. Clove-scented. See.' He picked up a vase and held it down towards her face. She took a deep breath, and he said: âNice, ain't it? You like the colour?'
âWell, yes, and no.'
His heart beat heavily, âNo?'
âWell, really, they're not my colour,' she said. âI like pale pink. The sort of shell-pink sort. Powder pink.'
âI know,' he said. âI know. I can get 'em if you like 'em.'
âI tell you what,' he said. âI'll get a few in. If you like 'em, have 'em. If you don't, it's all right, it don't matter.'
When she came back that afternoon he had the pale pink carnations tied in a cover of tissue paper, but now he did not wait for her to speak. âI'd like to make a present of them,' he said.
âOh! but that's very nice of you,' she said, as if taking it for granted.
Under the pressure of great embarrassment he gave her the flowers, and then stood locking and unlocking his empty hands.
âIt's all right. I like doing it,' he said. âI just like doing it.'
âI just hope you like them, that's all,' he said. âI just hope they're the right colour.'
âThanks,' she said. âYou've got a nice little shop here.'
âYes?' he said. âYou think it's all right?'
âBit of a struggle at first,' Joe said. âBut I got over that.'
âWell, thanks for the carnations,' she said.
âThat's all right, it's nothing,' Joe said. âAny time you want something particular and you don't see it, just ask. I can get it. It's no trouble. Anything. Any time.'
âI'll remember,' she said.
As the days of the spring went past she would remember it quite often. When strawberries were five shillings a pound, Joe had a punnet put away for her at the back of the shop. Soon there were long pink stalks of gladioli, early Napoleon cherries. Joe talked to her every day.
These things were presents. At first, when she tried to pay, he said, âI couldn't. Not from you. I couldn't take money from you.' After that she did not offer to pay; it became as if she expected these things.
Joe, discovering that she worked in a printing-works office, wondered what she did with her evenings. A terrible sickness of fear took hold of him when he thought that she might have boy-friends, young men of her own age. A sense of heavy embarrassment depressed him when he remembered how old
he was. He felt among other things that there were between them awful spaces of age that could never be made up.
He began to be stupefied by a great sense of devotion. After the shop was shut at night he went into one of the two rooms at the back. He would lie down on the bed or the sofa and think of her. In anxiety he would rub over his face his large clammy hands that smelt of fruit. Late at night he would remember that he had not made up the books for the day. He would get out the books and try to enter up the figures. It was no good. The anxiety of thinking of her, of wanting her, jumbled his brain. He would realize finally that he was hungry. He would go down into the shop and bring back handfuls of fruit. Lying in bed, eating it, he would look up at the stars and try to measure what he felt and wanted and feared.
âI'm surprised you don't have a car,' she said. âWith your business.'
âI'm getting one,' he said. âThere's a fellow trying to do a deal with me. Keeps bothering me every time I see him.'
He wondered why he had not thought of it before. That evening, instead of sitting behind the shop, he went round to the nearest garage and bought a second-hand coupÃ© for two hundred and thirty-five pounds, taking an evening's driving lesson at the same time. On other evenings he took more lessons; by the weekend he could drive.
Polished up, the car stood outside the shop. Because it was Saturday there were many customers. To Joe they were momentarily of no importance. The girl came and stood for a long time by the car, her manner idle and cool. As Joe stood talking to her, turning his back on the shop, a few customers walked away.
âWhat about a drive now?' Joe said. âJust when you like. You just say when.'
âWell, what's wrong with this afternoon?'
âBut I got the shop,' he said. âI don't shut.'
âIt's Saturday, you see, it's Saturdayââ'
âI know it's Saturday. But you said any time. You shouldn't say any time if you don't mean it.'
âAll right, all right,' he said. âI do mean it. I can shut. I can go. I'm sorry. I meant any time. Where can I meet you?'
âPick me up outside the post office at two,' she said.
Joe drove the car to the post office about a quarter to two. The girl did not come until almost three. Dispirited and nervous, Joe was afraid of reminding her she was late. It was a warm day and the coupÃ© was stuffy from standing in the sun. Joe wore a brown suit and a trilby to match. âTake your hat off,' the girl said. She put the side window down. âIt's so hot and you look so much better with it off.'
Joe put his hat in the back seat. Though he was pleased, he was afraid also of catching cold in his ears.
All that afternoon he felt emotion simmering like something about to boil in his throat. Eyes hard on the road, he was aware of the girl as something not quite positive. Fear of her being bored made him talk a lot. He wondered why he had not thought of a car before, why such days as this had never happened. As he looked at the sun on the young corn and the cherry orchards, it seemed to him that life, in a way to him not fully expressible, was only just beginning.
The girl did not like the country. âAnother time let's run down to the sea.'
âThat's sixty miles,' Joe said.
âWell, the sea won't come to us, will it?' she said.
After that, on Sundays, they drove to the sea. Joe brought with him baskets of fruit, which they ate as they drove along or as they sat on the beach, watching the sea. Later they had lunch at one of the hotels on the sea-front. Joe was aware of these visits costing him money. In the past he had straightened up the weekly accounts on Sundays. Now he left them. They would do some other time. Life was beginning and he did not care.
Yet in a strange way the girl did not come to life. It seemed to him that she remained shut away from him, in a cool compartment of youth. He felt that he could not touch her. He used her Christian name, Myra, uneasily, with a sense of sharp embarrassment. It was almost three weeks before he took her with great clumsiness into his arms and kissed her. âYou don't mind?' he said when it was done. âYou don't mind?'
âWell, I like that!' she said.
Presently he rushed forward in a series of heavy attacks, caressing her body with his large uneasy hands. After a
week or so of this the girl began to hold him away, slightly mocking.
âKiss me,' Joe would say. âKiss me.'
âI just kissed you.'
âAgain. Come on, again.'
âYou'll wear it out,' she would say. âYou'll make it stale.'
âNo,' Joe would say. âIt'll never be stale. It'll never wear out. Not what I feel for you. It never will. My God, no.'
âYou've got it bad,' she would say.
Sometimes she held away altogether. The more she held away the more deeply he felt he wanted her. Her lips became small and hard in resistance. He wanted to break them down. With his eager fleshy lips he tried to drive response and warmth into her mouth; his hands wandered over her body.
âOh! stop mauling me,' she would say. âFor God's sake stop mauling me.'
âI love you,' he would say. âI want you.'
âWell, if you do that's not the way to get me!'
âI'll buy you something nice.'
âI don't want anything nice. Let me alone, that's all.'
âLet you alone? You mean not come out with you?'
âI don't know!' she would say. âI don't care!'
The next time he saw her Joe would have a little present for her: chocolates, a bottle of expensive perfume. Once he dared to buy her a silk house-gown. After these gifts she would be more warm towards him. âI like nice things,' she would say. âI'd love to be able to dress well.'
In the car Joe caught a slight cold in his ears. âYou're like me,' she said. âYou feel the cold quickly. All last winter I was perished. Before next winter I want to get a good thick warm coat.'
Joe told her soon how he would like to buy her a coat: not an ordinary coat, not a tweed or even a camel-hair, but a fur coat. He did not mind how much the coat cost. Thirty or forty pounds, perhaps. He did not mind. Only, by means of it, he felt that he could break down the cool resistances, the slight barrier of mockery that kept him apart from her.