West Riding strange
Short story, 982 words
Gladys’s mother turned at the door: “I’ll say good-night to you both.”
I bid her good-night.
“Night, mum,” Gladys called from the kitchen.
The door closed behind Mrs Baxter. I said, “Was your mother’s ‘you both’ significant?”
Gladys came in from the kitchen casually holding a tea-towel, she being too magnificent for such an accessory. “I’m thirty-one. My mother thinks I'm near dead as a woman. She’d match me with the milkman. Not that he isn’t ruddy-cheeked; not that he hasn’t got designs.”
“Ruddy-cheeked? Better looking?”
“Than you? No.”
A judgment delivered dismissively. But then Gladys could do that.
I asked, “Is that your mother’s opinion?”
“This week she asked about the age difference between you and me. Could it be overlooked? I kidded her; said you were already doing that.”
An unlikely image arose; she statuesque on my arm, walking down the aisle of a Noncomformist church in, say, Wyke. The image faded. Out of pure mischief she might take that walk. What was unlikely was the sequel.
She tossed the tea-towel into the kitchen, let it fall where it might. “All that walking. I’m knackered. And for no great reward. I was out of place along the canal towpath.”
“It was the towpath that was out of place."
She smiled. “Clever with your la-di-dahs.”
“You inspire me. Why not stretch out on the couch.”
“I might doze off,” she said.
“No you won’t.” I said. “I’ll see to that.”
She liked me to be ambiguous; hated direct references to her looks. As a reward she sat on the couch and tucked up her feet.
I said, “Can I slide this chair nearer? Your hair fascinates me, always has. I need to work out how you do it.”
“You’ve had plenty of time. All those bus trips up from Forster Square. Peering like a schoolboy.”
“I’ve never been this close.”
She turned her head from side to side to show the arrangement. Said, “I could never understand why it took you so long to ask. It’s not as if you haven’t the gift of the gab.”
“I think you’re a looker, you don’t. But there’s a point where your sort of looks go contrary and become forbidding.” She opened her mouth but I was ahead. “Ironically you’re not remote. You just hate being bored.”
She nodded and had the hair to do it well - as high as the crown the Queen wore for her coronation. Tall yet dignified.
“Have you worked out how?” she asked.
“I might have. Your hair’s pretty long; you probably let it down in the evening. Too spiffy for a solicitor’s office, hence the upsweep. But there’s none of those tight plaits German women used to go in for. You brush it as a vertical column, give it two loose twists, then coil it using pins.”
“One partner said it was too seductive. Having it long.” she said, po-faced.
“Not surprised. Might pervert the cause of justice. It took time to realise you use a very fine net. Even more surprising, the net itself – or rather, its effect – is also stunning.”
“Really!” Her eyebrows rose.
“A reassurance. That the hairdo will survive.”
“You’ve earned yourself a finger-tip tour.” She took my hand and touched it against the side of her head. “You may be surprised.”
“It’s so thick, so springy.”
We were alarmingly close, I could feel her breath. “You consider yourself intelligent,” she murmured. “You’re only inches away. Ask me something else.”
“That pale pink lipstick.”
“Any idea why?”
It was a privilege to be so close. “The shape of your lips. Too much colour and you’d be gilding the lily.”
“Congratulations. But there’s one other question. An oddity.”
Giving me licence to rove the contours. The heavy bones and square chin she so detested, the earlobes with their tiny studs “I’ve always thought…” I broke off, not wanting to find fault.
“Go on. You’re on t’ right track.”
“A lot of make-up?”
She squeezed my hand. “How clever. The price I pay for being brought up close to Lister’s Mill. Underneath, my complexion isn’t anything to boast about.”
“You didn’t have to tell me.”
“Your last opportunity to show how clever you are.”
It wasn’t a mocking smile – my first reaction - it was an expression of affection. I moved fractionally nearer; her lips parted, her head tilted back. I drew away and bowed down.
“Nay then,” she whispered, slipping back into Bradfordian.
“I’ve teased, played the joker, tried to be what you want. But I’m still one of the extras, no star.”
She raised my chin. “You remember seeing me on the bus? Of course you do. Always on the upper deck. Pretty horrible up there, it’s where the smokers went. My mother told me to stop smoking, it made me look like a man. My knobbly face. She made me cry and I don’t often do that.”
I could smell her perfume, I touched her hair again, knowing I was entitled to that, at least.
“It’s not knobbly,” I said.
“Then what is it?”
“Strong. Capable. The way women need to be in the West Riding. Noble even.”
We both straightened up, apart now. She smiled lopsidedly. “There are admirers; most irritate me. They can’t choose their words. I’m not beautiful, certainly not pretty. Perhaps I’m sexy but that’s a condition, not a description. Only you tried.”
She stroked my cheek as if she were my mother. “That thing about the canal bank. You have the feel for what touches me.”
“It’s what touches me.”
“There! You did it again. But…”
“Aye, there’s always a but.”
She kissed me on the cheek - the first time and I knew I’d have to make it the last. She said, “I’m twelve years older and it feels strange.”
“West Riding strange?”
“Aye love, West Riding strange.”
READER'S NOTE. The woman (name unknown) existed, as did her hairdo. So did the bus trips she took. I existed, albeit two years younger. The rest is fantasy. Nothing happened before or since.