Tell me what you thought
Tom thought of himself as a average sort of person, indeed everyone who noticed Tom thought of him as uninteresting. As it happened not many people paid attention to him, mainly because there was nothing at all noteworthy about him. He was perhaps a stone or two over weight, bald, two inches shorter than average height and not particularly good looking. He did not even think of his body as extraordinarily unprepossessing and this itself probably added to his lack of charisma.
He was by no means exceptional in that the most interesting time of his life had been the war years. He had been a clerk in the pay corp. and for what ever reason never left British shores. At the same time that millions were dying or living in terror he met the only girl he ever took dancing. Two years after their first meeting they married. Called Elsie, she thought it was remarkable that they were born and grew up only one mile apart but their first meeting happened on his first night in a strange town thirty miles from 'Home'.
After the war Tom managed to land a job with a company that sold fruit and veg. Recently it had expanded and had moved into groceries and seemed to be opening retail outlets in most large towns. Even the companies good fortune seemed to have no effect on Tom's life. He was given a small promotion, large enough to please him but not large enough to bring him to the attention of those he referred to as 'the high ups'.
This arrangement seemed to please everyone as he was able to get on with his work without anyone looking over his shoulder and yet he never had to make any important or difficult decisions.
Elsie also worked at the same place although in what she saw as a much less elevated position and only on Wednesdays and Thursdays. If any one had asked her she would have said that she had a good life, a husband who loved her, a pleasing if small house, good friends and enough money to enable her to go on holiday once each year without having to scrimp and save any more than most.
"It wasn't as if Tom was a drinking man." she would explain to her friends. "The only time I ever saw him drunk was the night before our wedding. I wasn't supposed to see him," she would confide "but Betty and me, we peeped in through the window of the King's Head for a bit of a lark."
Tom was always faithful to Elsie even though there had been a few temptations. For six months, about five years after the war ended, he found himself working in the same office as a woman seven years his junior but far more experienced than he in sexual matters. On more than one occasion he took her to the cinema albeit with the rest of the office staff. He knew that she liked him because she put her arm in his at any opportunity and gave him a very tender kiss (in front of his wife) at the Christmas party.
He thought that if he had had more experience he might have had a full flown affair. Certainly it seems that this girl, Eve by name, told her best friend that she had found a married man and was in love with him. Those of an analytical frame of mind might like to know that she left her boy friend three weeks after starting work with Tom.
After about six months of unconsummated lust Eve was if anything more in love than ever but by coincidence the managing directors son, who took up his seat on the board at that time, had taken a liking to her and she gladly accepted the promotion he offered.
She was surprised to find that she could live without the older married man. Indeed she soon confided in her friend that she felt she had had no idea of 'how to live' before she met her latest beau.
Tom was upset for a few weeks after she left and in a way this was the most difficult time for Elsie who had got used to her husbands dreams but found that without them he was inclined to be irascible and moody. Within a couple of months the couple were back together happy in the knowledge that they once again, as it were, shared the same rut.
They never had any children but probably neither thought much on this. Tom did not want his tranquil existence spoilt and Elsie (who he suspected of being sterile) never brought the subject up.
Although she sometimes felt left out of conversations by the very fact that she could not speak with any authority on the subject of child rearing, Elsie was often asked for advice on what to give as presents to nephews nieces and new babies, for she was one of those remarkable people who could always buy the 'right thing.. She had an intuitive understanding of the size of people's pockets as Tom would proudly tell anyone who cared to listen. She was moderately frugal in her habits without being miserly. Eventually, the death of their parents brought them some money, consequently some of the women in the factory thought of her as having 'a bit of class'.
Tom did not go out much after he married and within a few years the only people he considered to be friends were the people he worked with. The only exception to this was his oldest friend, Jim Clewy.
Jim worked as a sales rep. for a plumbing company and always seemed to have much more money to splash about than Tom. Once a month on the first Tuesday of the second week the two old classmates would meet up in the local pub. Tom always walked but Jim invariably came in a taxi. Sometimes they would meet at one another's houses and their respective wives would try to out do one another in generosity and culinary surprises. The two women would not meet at any other time so the two old friends suspected that their wives did not really like one another but could not understand why neither women would ever admit this.
Elsie had not been as faithful a partner as Tom. Every week on Wednesday evenings she attended an art class in the local school. The only visible result of these studies was the growing number of poor water-colours. Year after year the pile of paper and drawings grew. Year after year she attended the same functions, exhibitions and opening nights. Once she had to go round to her tutors house to discuss some forth coming exhibition. She probably was not too surprised when the teacher, wordlessly, put his arm round her waist. She did not resist when two minutes later he kissed her and within ten more minutes they arrived in bed. After this her life did not alter in the least. She attended her next class with rather more apprehension than usual. She was not distressed when he made no allusion to their lovemaking. They never talked of this act and did not make love again for many years. The second and final time they had sex was a number of years later; three weeks after the death of her mother. She arrived in tears on his doorstep. Again wordlessly he took her in his arms and passionately kissed her within the sight of any who cared to look. Fortunately no one saw. Fortunate too, perhaps, his new bride had recently started an evening job.
Once again they never referred to this episode. This is not to say, however, that Elsie ever forgot about it. Often she would slip into a day dream and build castles around the teacher. This was the basis of her lifelong secret world.
The only other extraordinary sexual episode in her life was in some ways similar. She had a good friend of many years standing and they often used to shop together or pop round to one another's houses for a cup of tea. So familiar were they that they never knocked and always walked straight into one another's kitchen. On one such occasion, as they were reading one of those magazines exclusively aimed at women and without thought, Elsie blurted out:
"Sue, teach me what it is like. Lets go to bed. Lets do it now."
They were woken at tea time by Sue's eldest shouting up from the kitchen:
"Mum are you here? What's for tea?"
Shouting down the stairs both women hastily dressed and somewhat unable to hide their flustered state they hastily parted.
After this Sue and Elsie quickly drifted apart. It was not mutual embarrassment that caused this. It was partly fear. The moment had been so beautiful that they felt that they could not do it again; not without knowing the end. Possibly they did not seek out one another's company so much because somehow they had fulfilled their relationship. At any rate they never talked of love again.
On one occasion, when Sue's husband asked her if she ever thought about having a lesbian relationship, she angrily retorted that she knew she wasn't a lesbian. That was just before the divorce and he never dared mention it again.
Tom's hobby, as you might expect, was as mundane as his life. Long ago as a child he collected stamps. His collection was large but he never seemed to have anything worth looking at. All swaps, all unwanted.
Now he played golf. He was almost always the first to point out that he was no good at it. "Really I just collect excellent golf clubs." He would say. "I have so many clubs that we have a special hut in the garden for them but I can't really play". This was true, The cost of the extravagant clubs was inordinate.
He was only in one golf club: "The nearest and the cheapest." he occasionally boasted to Elsie as if to make up for his extravagance.
"Is it dear? Yes, dear, yes I suppose it is." Elsie always said.
One day Tom was walking from his car to work, angry as usual because he had just missed a parking space next to the office when he heard a voice.
"Please Mr. Give us a quid for a meal; please?"
Turning round he saw a remarkably pretty teenager covered in grime and looking ever so sorry for herself.
"What's wrong with you lass? Where do you live? What are you doing here?"
The girl who was becoming more upset by the moment told him some of her story. Most of the time she spent weeping. At first he intended calling the police but as he listened with a blend of fascination and horror he found himself first believing and then being drawn in to her story. He sat her down on some near-by stone steps and then sat next to her.
The gist of her story was that she had smuggled her boyfriend into her bedroom. They were kissing on the bed when her father walked in. Without further ado he set about the boy. Finally and almost miraculously the boyfriend managed to escape from the house. Screaming that he was going to call the police and that she was a whore her father raped her.
"There that will show you what you are good for." he said as he walked out of her room.
Shortly afterwards the police came in. She did not hear what was said except that everyone was shouting and a fight seemed to have broken out. She crept onto the garage roof and slipped into the night.
Later she tried to phone her boyfriend but his mother answered and cried down the phone: "Look what you have done to him. Look what you have done to him." and slammed the receiver down.
She climbed across the tracks and got on the last train, sat in the toilet all the way and got out at a stop where no one would check her ticket. For three days she had wandered around with no where to live and had only eaten twice. The last time she had stolen some food from a small supermarket prepacked sandwich counter and had been chased out of the shop and half way down the road by a man.
As she was telling him this a policeman appeared in front of them and asked what the trouble was.
"Oh nothing, officer, nothing. Just a family row." Tom said without thinking. At that moment a police car drew up and both civilians were immediately bundled into the back without any formality or explanation.
After what seemed to Tom as rude but, he presumed, correct treatment he found himself in a cell waiting. He could hear the young girl's shouts and screams and on one occasion thought, with a shiver, he heard someone say "Attempting to procure a minor.."
After what seemed like months of fear he was taken to an interview room 'to answer some questions, sir'. After telling them all he knew they sat him back in the cell. Twenty minutes later they released him.
"You were lucky this time, sir." said one policeman.
"How is the girl? Can I see her?" he asked.
"Oh she will be all right now, sir. I don't think you can see her now, sir. I don't think that will be a good idea. Do you, sir? She will be all right. You had better go."
"But I don't know her name. Even her name..." he muttered lamely as he left.
A week later the incident had not played out in his mind. His attempts to find out what had happened to the girl had all come to naught except that every one assured him that 'she would be all right now'.
His wife was heartily sick of hearing about it and it came as some relief when he sat down in front of the tv and glowered at the screen. There was a big famine story at the time. She did not notice when it started but saw that he was sobbing huge silent sobs in his arm chair. With a sigh she rose and pushed him to the side of his chair. Half kneeling on him half sitting by him she started to cuddle him.
"There, there, she will be all right. The police will look after her, they will." she cooed.
"It's not that." he wailed. "Its the poor and homeless. They are starving. Look at them." he indicated towards the tv. "Can we send them some money? Please, can we?" he begged.
She looked at the tv and saw the usual pictures of poverty and flood. A child with legs like sticks and a huge fat belly popped into view seconds later to be replaced by another one and then a pretty bare breasted woman came into view apparently trying to feed a two year old child.
"Please?" he whimpered.
"Yes, my love, yes. You can go to the bank tomorrow and give them what you like. Give them what you like." she whispered.
"All of it." he sobbed.
She did not like the idea of this at all. They had saved quite a lot of money for their retirement.
"Yes, if you want, love." she crooned.
She held him tight for at least an hour before he stopped sobbing. They turned over to the other news and she comforted him all the way through it, watching each starving child as if for the first time. She even turned over so they could watch it all again on 'Newsnight' which they had never seen before.
As the sobbing stopped she watched the pictures moving past almost without meaning. She knew at that moment that she loved him, knew that even if he gave away the house and everything else she would always love him.
"Yes, yes, give it all away, my love, all away. I love you. I love you." she murmured.
In bed, comforted now, he wanted to make love. She felt that it would be the most beautiful and tender ever. In his dreamy state he called her 'Kay my love' and later 'Elsie my love'. She had to think who Kay was and it was some while before she remembered his old post war fantasy.
"The girl from the office." she thought, surprised that she did not mind in the least." I'll be Elsie and Kay for him." she promised. "I love you. I love you." she murmured.
The next morning almost solemnly he took the long term saving book out of the draw and kissed his wife goodbye. They did not speak but she knew she was having second thoughts about it.
"All of it?" she thought. "All." She went to the toilet and was sick.
He went into the bank alone. The girl reminded him that he had to give seven banking days notice. She was terrified when the usually mild mannered customer of many years standing shouted at her. Eventually, quivering, she called the manager. This was unnecessary as he had set off as soon as he heard the commotion start.
After half an hour of arguing and shouting the manager finally agreed to let him have the money and Tom ran out of the bank with it in a carrier bag.
It is not relevant, but it is diverting to report that the bank was robbed half an hour later by a man who eventually ran out carrying a similar carrier bag containing considerably less cash than Tom took out.
Outside in the car was Elsie. "The bank called me." she said. She was pale and was noticeably shaking.
They drove in silence to the Oxfam shop and Tom parked the car outside on the pavement.
Inside, Tom said "You give it to them."
"How much is there?" She asked.
"Twenty thousand pounds." he said proudly.
"Can we see you count it?" Elsie stuttered to the shop girl who looked like she was going to have a fit.
"Yes. In the back of the shop." she said grabbing the carrier bag from Elsie's hand. "In the office."
"At least its not all of it." thought Elsie. "There is some left."
Thinking better of it the girl in the shop asked them if they would mind following her across the road to the bank. Having agreed, the trio set off across the road almost with ceremony. The other people in the shop all watched anxiously.
The manager sat them in his office and sent out for tea. When the girl brought it in he surreptitiously gave her a list of five or six bank note numbers and whispered something about checking to see if they were stolen. Later he asked if he could have their name and address for the receipt.
"Please just put 'Elsie and Tom'." Tom said after some thought.
Afterwards Tom phoned work to say that he would not be in and bought a cheap plastic frame for the receipt.
"Let's put this in the bedroom." he said.
"Why didn't you give them the lot?" said Elsie
"Because the rest is your money; from the sale of mother's house and I couldn't let you starve. Could I?" grinned Tom.
Later at home Tom put Elsie and his two best sets of golf clubs in the car. He drove them to the most snobbish restaurant for miles around. During the meal Elsie told him she felt that she was in love for the first time again. Next Tom drove the twenty miles to the big country golf club and spent thirty minutes chatting to the professional. Elsie knew that he had sold his clubs when the shop assistant opened the car boot and took them out.
When he was back in the car Tom told Elsie that he was going to sell his other three and a half sets of clubs. "Let's give the money to the soup run." he said as they drove back home. "We have lived in this town all our life and I didn't know that there was one until the other day."
"Where is it?" said Elsie shocked at her ignorance of this local amenity.
"By the library. Its been there for years. They can only afford to open three days a week." answered Tom. "I want to give them some money and they need people to give out the soup too."
"All right, yes let's." said Elsie, already creating a romantic world of make believe men of the road.
Elsie and Tom told no one about their trip to Oxfam. They felt that it should be their secret. By coincidence however, the girl who had taken the money visited her father at work for the second ever time only three weeks later.
The following Wednesday at eight thirty in the morning the factory PA system announced, to Tom and Elsie's' surprise, that there would be party for them in the afternoon. It transpired that the shop girl was the only daughter of Kay and her ex-husband, by now the Managing Director. Kay was there too with her second husband (a local journalist) and her daughter. For what ever reason Tom felt no rekindling of his past desire even though Kay was obviously trying to flirt with him. Afterwards he wondered if it was because he was scared of, once more, feeling the pain unfulfilled love brings. Elsie felt that she could treat Kay almost like a child.
Elsie and Tom did the soup run for a number of years. Eventually when they were too old to push the trolley they gave up but Elsie still sat on park benches from time to time and chatted to the men. Tom had tried to sell all his clubs but for what ever reason he could never find a buyer for the set Elsie bought him on their tenth wedding anniversary.
"Maybe I have priced them to highly," he would say; "but I might as well carry on using them until I find a buyer."
After living to a great age Tom died of a heart attack. Three months later Elsie died in her sleep. The art teacher, who had visited Elsie twice a week since her bereavement, died in a fall the day before her funeral.
The Aid Worker remembered how eager he had been to start work in the third world . Now he was fed up with poverty and squalor. That was all there was to think about. He had just taken out a lump of shrapnel from a seven year old girl's thigh without anaesthetic and was now handing out rice to her family. He wondered what the point was. "They will probably all starve to death soon anyway." he thought. They are probably better off dead. Who wants to live like this?" he said to no one in particular. Later he flipped out and they shipped him back home.
The girl whose leg he saved did not die. She grew up to be beautiful and clever. At 15 she was married to a rich man from the city and almost immediately she bore him a daughter who they named Sylvie. Eventually he took them to England.
When Sylvie was pregnant herself she got a job as a home help. It was pleasant if hard work. One of the old couples she looked after had a faded receipt in a cheap plastic frame above the bed. From time to time they used to tell her how they had given £20,000 to Oxfam. One day, thinking that the old couple were rich she kept back £5 from the shopping money. Afterwards she regretted this and perhaps foolishly, with floods of tears, gave the money back and told them what she had done.
Elsie said: "Yes love. We thought you might need it more than us, with the baby and everything."
"I wanted to tell your boss," said Tom; "but Elsie wouldn't have it."
"Yes love. It can't be easy what with the baby and all. I'm glad you gave it back. I knew you would. You are a good girl."
Elsie and Tom often remarked to one another that their lives were so much better now that they did not need to worry about the house work or the shopping.
"She's like the daughter we never had" said Tom.
After the baby was born she gave up her job but often took the child round and would do odd bits of the house work. After Tom died she even moved in for a few weeks. When Elsie died Sylvie and the child were the only mourners.
Elsie left Sylvie and the child £5,000 each. One day Sylvie was watching a telethon for Children in Need. She sent them half of her share. She was happy when they read out her name on the air. She never did tell any of her friends about what she had done. For the rest of her life she felt it would not have been possible to spend her money in a more enjoyable way. "For a while I was so rich I could give it away! Thank you Elsie." she said to her self.
© John 1994
Tell me what you thought
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