Absent in the Spring
‘Of course you always were as cold as a fish, Joan. But I should have said that husband of yours had quite a roving eye!’
Joan flushed angrily. A roving eye, indeed. Rodney!
And suddenly, discordantly, a thought slipped and flashed sideways across the panorama of Joan’s mind, much as she had noticed a snake flash and slip across the dust coloured track in front of the car only yesterday—a mere streak of writhing green, gone almost before you saw it.
The streak consisted of three words, leaping out of space and back into oblivion.
The Randolph girl …
Gone again before she had time to note them consciously.
Blanche was cheerfully contrite.
‘Sorry, Joan. Let’s come into the other room and have coffee. I always did have a vulgar mind, you know.’
‘Oh no,’ the protest came quickly to Joan’s lips, genuine and slightly shocked.
Blanche looked amused.
‘Oh yes, don’t you remember? Remember the time I slipped out to meet the baker’s boy?’
Joan winced. She had forgotten that incident. At the time it had seemed daring and—yes—actually romantic. Really a vulgar and unpleasant episode.
Blanche, settling herself in a wicker chair and calling to the boy to bring coffee, laughed to herself.
‘Horrid precocious little piece I must have been. Oh, well, that’s always been my undoing. I’ve always been far too fond of men. And always rotters! Extraordinary, isn’t it? First Harry—and he was a bad lot all right—though frightfully good looking. And then Tom who never amounted to much, though I was fond of him in a way. Johnnie Pelham—that was a good time while it lasted. Gerald wasn’t much good, either …’
At this point the boy brought the coffee, thus interrupting what Joan could not but feel was a singularly unsavoury catalogue.
Blanche caught sight of her expression.
‘Sorry, Joan, I’ve shocked you. Always a bit strait-laced, weren’t you?’
‘Oh, I hope I’m always ready to take a broad-minded view.’
Joan achieved a kindly smile.
She added rather awkwardly:
‘I only mean I’m—I’m so sorry.’
‘For me?’ Blanche seemed amused by the idea. ‘Nice of you, darling, but don’t waste sympathy. I’ve had lots of fun.’
Joan could not resist a swift sideways glance. Really, had Blanche any idea of the deplorable appearance she presented? Her carelessly dyed hennaed hair, her somewhat dirty, flamboyant clothes, her haggard, lined face, an old woman—an old raddled woman—an old disreputable gipsy of a woman!
Blanche, her face suddenly growing grave, said soberly:
‘Yes, you’re quite right, Joan. You’ve made a success of your life. And I—well, I’ve made a mess of mine. I’ve gone down in the world and you’ve gone—no, you’ve stayed where you were—a St Anne’s girl who’s married suitably and always been a credit to the old school!’
Trying to steer the conversation towards the only ground that she and Blanche had in common now, Joan said:
‘Those were good days, weren’t they?’
‘So-so.’ Blanche was careless in her praise. ‘I got bored sometimes. It was all so smug and consciously healthy. I wanted to get out and see the world. Well,’ her mouth gave a humorous twist, ‘I’ve seen it. I’ll say I’ve seen it!’
For the first time Joan approached the subject of Blanche’s presence in the rest house.
‘Are you going back to England? Are you leaving on the convoy tomorrow morning?’
Her heart sank just a little as she put the question. Really, she did not want Blanche as a travelling companion. A chance meeting was all very well, but she had grave doubts of being able to sustain the pose of friendship all the way across Europe. Reminiscences of the old days would soon wear thin.
Blanche grinned at her.
‘No, I’m going the other way. To Baghdad. To join my husband.’
Joan really felt quite surprised that Blanche should have anything so respectable as a husband.
‘Yes, he’s an engineer—on the railway. Donovan his name is.’
‘Donovan?’ Joan shook her head. ‘I don’t think I came across him at all.’
‘You wouldn’t, darling. Rather out of your class. He drinks like a fish anyway. But he’s got a heart like a child. And it may surprise you, but he thinks the world of me.’
‘So he ought,’ said Joan loyally and politely.
‘Good old Joan. Always play the game, don’t you? You must be thankful I’m not going the other way. It would break even your Christian spirit to have five days of my company. You needn’t trouble to deny it. I know what I’ve become. Coarse in mind and body—that’s what you were thinking. Well, there are worse things.’
Joan privately doubted very much whether there were. It seemed to her that Blanche’s decadence was a tragedy of the first water.
Blanche went on:
‘Hope you have a good journey, but I rather doubt it. Looks to me as though the rains are starting. If so, you may be stuck for days, miles from anywhere.’
‘I hope not. It will upset all my train reservations.’
‘Oh well, desert travel is seldom according to schedule. So long as you get across the wadis all right, the rest will be easy. And of course the drivers take plenty of food and water along. Still it gets a bit boring to be stuck somewhere with nothing to do but think.’
‘It might be rather a pleasant change. You know, one never has time as a rule to relax at all. I’ve often wished I could have just one week with really nothing to do.’
‘I should have thought you could have had that whenever you liked?’