It would, of course, happen that the new tenant should arrive at exactly the moment when Mark got back from work, tired and irritable. And it was equally inevitable that this moment should be the very one when Louise had at last decided to bring the howling Christine indoors, and both prams were now wedged across the narrow hall, locked by their mudguards in a dismal and indissoluble embrace. This was the moment, too, chosen by Margery to sit on the bottom step of the stairs and pick bread and jam off her socks – the result of Harriet’s Teddy bear’s tea having been laid out in its usual place – on the floor just inside the kitchen door. What with one thing and another, Louise could hardly wonder that Mark should give her one hunted glance, and disappear headlong into the kitchen. She had only time for a fleeting, desperate hope that he had not landed, as Margery had done, in the middle of Teddy’s bread and jam, before she had to turn and greet the tall figure silhouetted in the doorway.
‘Mrs Henderson?’ the figure was saying, in the clear, decisive tones of one used to commanding attention. ‘I’m Vera Brandon. I telephoned yesterday—’
‘Yes. How nice. I mean, do come up. Come and see the room—’ Exerting what felt like a degree of physical strength equal to throwing a sack of coal across the hall, Louise radiated silent will-power in four directions at once:
to Margery to get herself and her jammy socks off the stairs without any of that laboured discussion with which Margery always liked to surround herself and her doings: to Harriet to keep her shrill argument with her father well behind the closed kitchen door: to Michael to slobber over his sodden rusk for a few minutes longer before dropping it through the bars of the playpen and screaming: and to Christine to remain in the state of stunned silence to which the appearance of so many strangers at once had fortunately reduced her.
The will-power worked – as it always does, thought Louise, when you put every ounce of strength you’ve got into it, and leave yourself weak and empty – and she conducted the visitor upstairs to the vacant room – the Rubbish Room as the children still persisted in calling it, in spite of the fact that it had been cleared out some days since and furnished in readiness for its new occupant. And, as it happened, this title turned out to be a good deal more appropriate than Louise could have wished, and she began to apologise to her rather disconcertingly silent visitor:
‘I’m sorry we haven’t quite got the shelves cleared yet,’ she explained nervously. ‘Those are my mother-in-law’s books, she’s fetching them at the week-end. And of course the dolls’ pram will be gone, too, and that – that—’ Louise sought for the right word to indicate the swaying structure of cardboard grocery boxes in which Harriet had spent a happy afternoon last week being a Tiger in its Den. Mark had been quite right, of course. He had always said that she shouldn’t let the children come up here and play while there was no tenant. They’d only get into the habit of it, he’d said, and there’d be an awful job keeping them out
after the room was let. But it was such a temptation, especially at week-ends, when Mark himself wanted some peace and quiet in the sitting-room. And she’d been so sure that she would remember to clear everything away before anyone came to look at the room. She would have remembered, too, if only it hadn’t been for Mark dashing home unexpectedly for lunch, today of all days, just when she had to be at the clinic by half past one. And then Christine this evening . . . Oh, well, it couldn’t be helped now; and if this woman didn’t like it, there were plenty of other people looking for rooms nowadays.
But Miss Brandon didn’t seem to care at all; nor did she show any dismay at learning that there was only a gas ring to cook on, and that she would have to do all her washing-up at the minute hand-basin on the landing. Louise was a little surprised. Miss Brandon, in both voice and appearance, gave the impression of being a successful woman of the world, both critical and self-assured; not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house. Louise felt suddenly ill at ease. She had expected a different kind of applicant altogether – a young art student, perhaps, who would giggle happily about her hardships, and boast to her friends that she was starving in a garret. Or one of those silent young men whom you never see on the stairs, who never have any washing, and who have all their meals out. Or maybe someone elderly – this was what Louise had visualised when this woman had spoken to her on the phone, and told her that she was a schoolteacher. Someone past middle-age, Louise had thought, perhaps on the verge of retiring. Someone who had learned slowly and
painfully – or maybe proudly, and with undefeated courage – to accept without complaint all the numerous small discomforts that life brought her way.
But Miss Brandon did not fit this picture at all.