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Worldly Duty

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Whatever he did, Ralph considered, there was likely to be some embarrassment. Best never to mention it, probably. He startled even himself with his violent recoil from the thought.  It would be creeping out of things, behaviour he loathed in others and would never had countenanced had Rowan been a man.

Finding the opportunity was tricky.  She was only in college two nights a week, and her day job meant she knew everyone and was obliged to maintain friendly relations with them all.  Had she been a man, he could simply have waited outside the theatre for the Ag. Sci. crowd to leave—excuse me, Marlow, have you a moment?  It was bloody ironic.  By the second to last week of term, he was beginning to think that was what he was going to have to do—damn it all, he only hesitated out of consideration for her, having to live in this valley of squinting windows—when she approached him.   She pulled a couple of textbooks—Happell and Hesselberth, Dow—from a tattered music case. 

‘Jerry Holden asked me to give you these back, and say thanks.’

‘He’s definitely chucked it, then?’

‘I think so.  With the old man pretty much bedridden after his heart attack—he’s lucky to be with us, but he’s never really going to be right, and they only have one full-time hand up there.’

‘Shame. He was one of the competent ones. Nothing exceptional, but he actually liked it.’

‘That must be nice.’

‘It certainly makes the job easier—oh, I see.  Really?  I thought it was in the blood.  Marlows at Trennels since before the Conquest and so forth.’

‘Mmm.  Mustn’t grumble.  But one does rather wish—never mind.’  

‘Look, Rowan, there’s actually something I wanted to talk to you about.  Not here.  Could you meet me in the Lord Harry after your lecture? Half past eight? I suppose it’d better be the lounge bar?’

‘No—it had better not be, actually.’  She grinned.  ‘If you think about it for a moment.  It’s okay. Farmer's prerogative: That Terrible Tweedy Type, you know. I have a way of stamping in as if I'm wearing gaiters.’

She was, however, an exactly-calculated seven minutes late.  What an infernal nuisance it must be, he thought, having to consider things like that. He bought her a whiskey mac and sat down.  She, already smoking, offered a cigarette, and pushed her heavy brass lighter, engraved G.A.M, quickly across the table. He nodded his thanks.

‘Good health,’ she drawled. ‘If you’re proposing something shady with red diesel I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline, but the six brace of black grouse are yours regardless—’

He laughed.  ‘Well, damn it.  This feels queer. But I felt I ought to say thanks, first of all.’

‘Whatever for?’

‘You got my contract renewed, didn’t you?  I mean, you got someone to put in a word.  I know what Upstairs thought of me, especially after the fracas with that RAF chap.’

‘Oh, hell.  How shy-making. I should’ve remembered what they say you did in the war.’

‘I didn’t follow it up.  Not like that.  I mean, I guessed.’

‘Oh, well I daresay it involves a fair bit of guesswork as well.’

‘It’s the sort of bloody fool thing I do for people myself—Christ, I’m sorry.  You know what I mean.’

‘Yes, I quite see.  And you rather loathe it when people try to do things for you.’

‘As you do too.’ 

‘Spot on.  I always have rather thought—can’t think why—we’re matched, somehow—oh, God, no, that came out completely wrong.  I hope you don’t think I—not my style.  In much the same way it’s not yours.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘Can’t believe I just told you that.  My inhibitions usually stay good till—oh, a much later stage.’  Rowan looked ruefully into her glass.

‘You can tell me about it.  If you like.  Mightn’t do any good, of course.’

‘Nothing much to tell.  Someone at college.'

‘Doesn’t know and mustn’t?’

‘Engaged.  To a person I see rather often in the day-to-day line of things.’

‘Bloody, isn’t it? I’ve been caught up in something like that once or twice.’

‘Worse for men, I daresay.’

‘Don’t see why.  Oh, that.  Oddly, it’s often the last thing you think of.  Even when someone you know gets his collar felt.’

Rowan nodded sympathetically but matter-of-factly, no recognition there at all.  So Nicola hadn’t mentioned Anquetil.  The bloody little amazon.

‘It’s hell while it lasts, my dear,' he said lightly, easily.  'You do get loose of it, one way or another, though.'  He recalled a face from a dozen years ago.  He’d looked like Laurie; he’d recognised that at the time.  Similar build, though different colouring; dark, soft, wavy hair that Ralph envied nearly as much as he found it attractive; the kind of clean-looking face that people, on the strength of its mouth and eyes, were apt to describe as nice.  Laurie wasn’t, as a matter of fact, nice.  Sub-lieutenant Richard Vincent had been nice: eager and efficient, with an unlikely but effective manner of command, a mild, slightly governessy appeal to nursery good-will to which the depth-charge crew responded with charmed alacrity. Ralph had never quite freed himself of the conviction, powerful as only the entirely irrational can be, that he’d murdered him.  

‘The thing is, Rowan, I thought I ought to let you know before I turn it down.’

‘What?’

‘The new contract.  I’m not taking it.’

‘Oh, I see.’  She was, he saw, angry and humiliated.

‘I’m sorry.  I understand it’s a bit awkward for you.’

‘Well I do feel rather a flat, and you know, people with obvious minds will think the obvious thing.  Though probably not for long.  That’s the good thing about obvious minds.  Always plenty of obvious things for them to think.  And if one’s in the habit of doing things for people one should probably expect that sometimes they'll balk.  But I’m not, as it happens.  That’s my sister Ann’s department.  Drives everyone barmy.’

‘You took on the farm.’

She shrugged.  ‘Not quite the same.’

‘Isn’t it? Nursing's pretty gruelling, but she has a town life, friends, all that. And you’re out clamping mangels twelve hours a day.’

‘The ponies have been quite successful. I like that bit of it. And one clamps mangels in the autumn, by the way.’

They raised their wrists in hostile unison.  Ralph looked through weathered, thread-veined cheeks to her nineteen years and said gently, ‘You put a lot on yourself, Rowan.  You’re only human.’

‘I think I’m owed an explanation of why not, the contract. If you don’t mind.’

‘Yes, of course. Shall I get another in before I do?’

‘Well…’

‘I’ve a Thermos of coffee in the car. Black and cold as hell.  You’ll be fine.’

‘All right. But allow me.’

He felt a ridiculous chivalrous jolt at that, but acquiesced.

‘Well,’ he said, when she came back with the drinks, ‘I could say something very pious, that people who behave irresponsibly have to be got rid of.  And I did.  That poor bloke was always going to be unsettled and unhappy around me, and he wouldn’t have done well even if he had stuck about.  I deserved the sack for my judgement of character if nothing else.’

‘Oh for pete’s sake, Ralph.  You don’t think I did it out of espirit de corps, do you?  You’re good.  I mean, everyone I’ve spoken to says you’re a good instructor.  Clear and cogent and all that. But what matters is that you care about people.  Damn it, do you know how rare that is? Staff who care if you pass or fail?  If you bloody well live or die?’

Her voice was fervent but low. He looked around. How desperately young she was. Had she been a man—oh hell. Well, there was a blessing.

‘Yes,’ he said, deploying his most devastating social art exactly where it was needed least.

‘I never had anyone like that. At school, I mean.’  She said it without bitterness, and he felt quite fond of her for it.

‘No, me neither.  Rowan, look here.  The real reason hasn’t much to do with that, though I mean it, above and beyond the piety.  I still can't fancy myself quite shorebound. We—I—why should I lie to you, of all people? Laurie thought we should go abroad, and then I took this post. So now it’s his go round. I don't know where we'll end up. At this stage it's anywhere but England.’

She lit a cigarette, offered him one, and a light.  He bent across the table to it, wondering but not much caring if rest of the pub saw.  She clearly knew some of the people in here by sight; she had nodded around as she came in. No-one he knew. She was smiling like an archaic kouros, wise and inscrutable, maybe, or stupid and blank.  Then she said, ‘I was wrong, I think.  It’s not worse for men.’

‘Just different, I suppose.’

‘No.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh, nothing.’  She drained her drink.  ‘I’d better go.’

He saw the pinioned misery of her situation, the relative freedom of his, and that he was entirely powerless in the face of it. 

‘Look, if you like, write to me. Tell me how you get on.  Bush telegraph up at that bloody shop'll let you know where I'm going before I know myself. Drop a line Poste Restante.’

It was a feeble gesture.  Had she been a man, he would've asked if he might write.  More irony.  She saw it, was gracious enough not to try to be gracious.  ‘No, I don’t think so, do you?’ 

Ralph finished his drink. ‘No, probably not.  I won’t forget you, though.’

‘Likewise.’ 

He saw there was nothing more to be said. ‘D’you want to—or should I?’ He inclined his head to the door.

‘Nay,’ she said, ‘we’ll go together down, sir. It'd look all the more remarkable otherwise. Did you say you had coffee in your car?'

And they strolled casually out into the drizzly March night, close as you could be to another person without touching, but not, thank God, in step.