“Hello, Jane? Robert here.”
“Robert! Where are you?”
“In Paris. How`s everything? How`s Bobby?”
“All fine, thank you, quite under control.”
“Well, yes, a bit.”
“Oh dear, I was afraid of that. Bed time I expect. Perhaps it would be
better if I didn`t speak to him now, it might start him off. Your mother?”
“Better, thank you.”
“No…I mean… good! But… how did she take to Bobby?”
“Oh, wonderfully, thank goodness. By the way, Aunt Georgina ‘phoned. She said the Douglas’s have left.”
“That’s what she said.” There was a silence while Robert digested the news. “Is there anything you’d like me to do?”
“No, my dear, no. I gave you her address, didn’t I?”
“Yes, I have it here. How’s Violet?”
“Enjoying every minute of Paris. She’s taking a bubble bath just now. Listen Jane, I’ll give you the telephone number of our hotel, just in case and I’ll call again in a couple of days time.”
Jane noted down the number he dictated to her.
“Bobby’s fine, Robert, really,” she assured him.
“Give him an extra kiss from us. Look after yourself, Cinderella.”
Nelly, who spent most of the day talking about Bettina to Albertina, was looking a little less haggard. She decided to read a story book to Bobby while he ate his supper.
“How did you get on at your mother’s this afternoon?” she asked one evening
“Apart from knocking over the umbrella stand, spilling our milk, turning on the T.V. and having a tantrum over putting on our anorak when we left you mean?” Jane said, exaggerating a little.
Despite herself Nelly laughed.
“Actually it’s all working out far better than I expected,” Jane grinned. “Mum shows him her cast, and they watch the cartoons on the T.V. together.”
“We saw Mickey Mouse,” Bobby said. “And Jewwy an’ an’ …”
“Eat up poppet. A big mouthful for Mummy, and then another for Daddy and you’ll have finished. It’s strange how, when I’m at home I keep falling into my old role of being Mummy’s-obedient-little-girl. I have to keep making a conscious effort to be aware of the fact. The thing is I’ve changed, but my mother still remembers the relationship we had when I left and it’s hard for her to realize that she can’t order me around and treat me like a child any more.”
“Bettina and I never had those problems. We were so close,” Nelly said wistfully.
Hastily, Jane steered the conversation into clearer waters by suggesting that Nelly accompany her to watch Bobby have his bath. Nelly made vague gesture of assent and rose to her feet. Bobby`s expression became mutinous.
“No,” he said firmly. “Don’ wanna baf.”
“How many boats do you have?” Jane asked. “A whole lot. What about having boat-buses? In Buenos Aires, at a place called the Tigre, right by the river, they have lots and lots of boat-buses.”
“With boat bus-stations?” Bobby asked as she took his hand.
“Of course, and all the houses by the side of the river have a pier made of wood like a balcony which is over the river with steps and the boat-bus stops wherever someone wants to get on or off. The water makes the boat go up and down, up and down. Hey, you forgot to give Albertina a good night kiss.”
Bobby ran to the kitchen dutifully and ran back, full of questions.
In the bathroom Nelly sat on the bathroom stool and watched Jane washing Bobby and playing with him, with sad remembering eyes.
“Bettina was always such a wee, little thing,” she said. “But how she loved her baths. She used to stay there for hours until the water was nearly cold, she didn’t seem to notice though, and she never caught a cold. Well, of course, I always had the bathroom nice and warm in winter.”
“How come Violet is your cousin?” Jane asked, to change the subject. “She’s much younger than you, isn’t she?”
“Only six four years. But I married at eighteen and I had Bettina when I was just twenty, and Violet was married for seven years before she had Bobby. She was really desperate, she kept having miscarriages. I thought, once she had had Bobby, she’d have no more trouble, but up to now nothing’s happened. Perhaps this trip to Paris will help. Violet is my mother’s sister’s daughter. She was always very highly strung, very nervous, a bit given to having her own way too. My aunt had another little girl, Rosie, but she was backward and died when she was twelve, so you can imagine how she doted on Violet. Poor little Rosie, she was such a loving little girl, but backward you know, she could hardly speak. She wasn’t mongolic or anything, just ungainly and difficult to understand.”
“Out now, Bobby,” Jane said at last.
“D’you know something, Bobby? You’re magic. I’m going to stand here and shut my eyes and count up to three and when I close the towel you’re going to be inside! Now! One – twooooo – “
Jane stood by the bathtub, her eyes screwed shut, the towel held open expectantly. Bobby, his defiance forgotten, scrambled quickly out of the bath and stood in front of her.
Jane closed the towel around his plump little body and opened her eyes, laughing. “I told you were magic, didn’t I?”
“No not tonight, tomorrow. Time to go to bed now.”
“How good you are with children, Jane,” Nelly said. “You’ve no idea what an uproar it is here usually. Violet angry, Bobby crying, the bathroom awash because she lets him get away with murder and then, of course, he goes too far and she gets angry. She spoils him one minute and then she’s either very strict or she just goes off and leaves him with the nurse-maid for hours. Robert is very good with him, he just adores him you know, and Bobby is crazy about his daddy. I think that makes Violet a little jealous at times too, and then she buys him toys and sweets. Bettina …. “
At that moment Albertina appeared at the bathroom door. “Está la Tia Geogina,” she said. “Aunt Georgina is here.”
“Aunty,” Bobby cried delightedly. “Aunty’s come!”
Before Jane could stop him he had flashed out of the room and was racing downstairs clad only in his pyjamas. Aunt Georgina was standing in the hall, bending talking to Bobby in her gruff, booming voice when Jane, carrying Bobby’s dressing gown and slippers, joined them. She straightened and eyed Jane in astonishment. Jane looked at her with interest, taking in her fly-away grey hair, jangling silver bracelets, bright red jacket, wide grey skirt, and large, imposing presence.
“And who are you, may I ask?” She demanded, glaring at Jane as keenly as Jane was studying her.
“I’m Jane Rowan. How do you do. You’re Robert Gregory’s aunt, is that right?”
“And where is Violet?”
“She went to Europe with Robert.”
“And left Bobby here? Alone?”
“Well, not all alone. With me.”
“Are you the new nurse-maid, then?”
“No. I’m a qualified nurse.”
“Where did you study?”
“At the British Hospital, in Buenos Aires.”
“Dreadful place. I went in for an appendix and they took out my gall bladder!”
“And did they leave the appendix?”
“I expect so. When are Robert and Violet coming back?”
“In ten days time.”
“Well, some pipe has broken and my bathroom ceiling is dripping. The porter says it’s something he can’t fix.”
Jane squatted down and helped Bobby put on his dressing-gown and slippers. “You`ll have to get a plumber then,” she said.
“The Douglas’s had a very good one, but they’ve gone. Lock, stock and
barrel. They even took the electric light bulbs.”
Aunt Georgina adjusted her hearing aid which had begun to whistle.
“Robert left me a list, I’ll get it. Won’t you come into the sitting room and sit down?”
They walked into the sitting-room, Jane lit the lamps while Aunt Georgina took off her coat and sank into an arm chair.
“A swan, a swan Aunty,” Bobby begged, jumping up and down and holding out a minute piece of paper.
“What do you want? Oh, a swan! But I need a bigger paper, Bobby.”
Jane went to fetch the list Robert had left her and a sheet of paper, which she gave to Bobby to give to Aunt Georgina while she telephoned the plumber and arranged for him to go and find out what the trouble was in the old lady’s bathroom. While she was still speaking Albertina appeared and said, “A señor called Torres Hidalgo is at the door.”
“Oh, let him in Albertina, he’s a friend of mine.”
Albertina wheezed off to open the front door as Jane dictated Aunt Georgina’s address and asked the plumber to telephone her and give her an estimate of what it would cost.
Javier was waiting for her in the hall. Jane welcomed him happily and asked after María Paulina.
“She studies interior decorating and some days her classes are very late in the evening,” he explained. “So I thought I’d pop round and visit you.”
“Wild. Come on in. Robert’s Aunt, Mrs. Irwin, is here and Nelly, Bettina’s mother, but I think she’s still upstairs.”
They went into the sitting room where Aunt Georgina had just finished fashioning a delightful swan out of the piece of paper Jane had produced. It was a miracle of folds, plump and graceful, and when its tail was pulled its head and neck bent towards the imaginary water it swam in with unbounded dignity.
When Aunt Georgina saw Javier she patted her hair into place and her eyes sparkled. “Who is this?” she asked.
“Javier Torres Hidalgo, a friend of mine. His step mother, Soledad, is one of Violet’s best friends,” Jane replied.
“A relation of Violet’s did you say?” Aunt Georgina asked, holding out a hand and fiddling with her hearing aid with the other.
“No, his family…”
“Sit down young man,” Aunt Georgina waved vaguely towards the sofa. “Do you speak English?”
“Very little,” Javier apologized, sitting down. “But I understand everything you say.”
“Javier, look, look at the swan. It moves its head and it’s swimming. Look how it’s swimming!”
Bobby, enthralled with his swam, pushed it gently over the blue-grey velvet sofa cover.
“I’ve called the plumber,” Jane said.
“The PLUMBER. He’s going to go to your place tomorrow.”
“Your FLAT I mean, TOMORROW, at TEN thirty.”
“Nothing. The plumber is going to your flat at ten THIRTY.”
“How frightfully early. Well, I suppose that can’t be helped. The porter has the key to the Douglas’s flat so he’ll be able to get in there and see what the matter is at least. Water,” she clarified to Javier. “Dripping all over the place in my bathroom.”
“Bobby, bed time.”
“No,” Bobby cried in protest.
“Let him stay a little while,” Aunt Georgina said quickly. “Hardly ever see the child.”
Jane relented with a smile. “What chaos,” she thought as Nelly walked into the room.
“Hello Nelly,” Aunt Georgina exclaimed. “I was very sorry to hear about your daughter. Very sad, very sad. Come in and join us, dear. Sit down.”
“Look at my swan, “ Bobby shouted. “Isn’t my swan magfinicent?”
They all laughed and Nelly bent and kissed Aunt Georgina and sat down, inspecting the paper swam with all the right exclamations. Albertina appeared.
“Una señorita Antonia,” she said.
“Tonia,” Jane exclaimed, jumping up. “I’ll go Albertina.”
“The only people missing are my parents,” she thought as she ushered Antonia into the sitting room and introduced her. “Or Violet and Robert!”
“Look at my swan,” Bobby shouted over the introductions. “Aunty made it for me. Look, its head moves.”
“What about a drink?” Aunt Georgina suggested and Albertina was summoned. She returned after a little while with soda, tonic water, ice, glasses and an assortment of biscuits in a silver dish.
“Drink,” Aunt Georgina boomed. “Bebida. Vino, whisky.”
Albertina indicated an ornate, antique cabinet. It was locked.
“How ridiculous,” Aunt Georgina exclaimed. “What on earth did they leave it locked for?”
“Jane is a secret DRINKER,” Javier teased, laughing.
“Are you?” Aunt Georgina asked.
“Well then, how are we going to open that cabinet?”
“I know where the key is,” Bobby said. “It’s in the lady’s bowl.” He pointed a chubby finger towards a bronze statue of a half-naked woman, carrying a bowl on her head.
The key found and the gin and the whiskey produced, Aunt Georgina leaned back happily in her arm chair and, holding up her glass, cried, “Cheers.”
They all followed suit and she went on, “This reminds me of a time when Robert was a little boy, just about Bobby’s age… I was living with Brick at the time.” Her eyes danced. “What a marvelous man he was…”
Two hours later Javier and Tonia went to buy pizzas while Aunt Georgina launched into yet another chapter of her long and varied life.
“I hate to miss it,” Tonia said. “Don’t forget one detail Jane. Come on Javier, let’s hurry!”
Bobby had fallen asleep on the sofa and Jane took him up and tucked him into bed. When she returned to the sitting room Tonia and Javier had already returned and the room was redolent with the aroma of pizza. Elegant occasional tables were drawn up, the cardboard boxes opened, paper table napkins distributed and they all helped themselves. The portions, already cut at the pizzería, steamed appetizingly and dripped with melted cheese. Javier opened a bottle of wine.
“Delicious,” Aunt Georgina cried, helping herself to another portion. “Where did you get them?”
“Quite near here. Pizzería La Romana,” Tonia said.
“Never heard of it, it must be new. But they make very good pizzas, you must remember to tell Robert, Elsie.”
In the ensuing silence they all looked at her questioningly. At last Nelly shouted, “She´s called Jane.”
“Well, Jane then,” Aunt Georgina said, waving her hand dismissing the subject. “You look so very like a great friend of mine called Elsie. She’s dead poor thing. Died when she was forty one, of cancer. Has the wine finished? Open another, young man, one wasn’t enough for all of us!”
Javier looked at Jane, who shrugged. He fetched another bottle and pulled the cork.
“Who,” Jane wondered, “is going to take Aunty home tonight?”
After a while Aunt Georgina cried. “I think a little music would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
Without more ado she went to sit at the upright piano on the other side of the room. It was locked, but the statuette’s bowl delivered up the required key and she was soon playing Chopin with more gusto than style, her many bracelets tinkling up and down her arm as she played.
“If Violet were to see all this she’d have a fit,” Nelly said. “You’ve no idea the pride she takes in all her antiques or pseudo antiques. I’m sure they’re not all genuine.”
“But how has she managed to collect so many?” Jane asked. “All this represents quite a fortune.”
“Oh, most of it she has inherited from her family. Her mother and father went to live in Spain and just left her the house. She has always lived here, ever since she was a child.”
“Why Spain of all places?” Jane murmured.
“The south of Spain is usually warm and they had lots of friends there, and they can go to England easily where they have family, and Violet wanted the house… so…”
“Heaps of money, obviously.” Javier said.
“Tell us the story we missed,” Tonia demanded. “While we were getting the pizza.”
“She didn’t finish it. She was telling us about a boyfriend she went sailing with in Greece and they got stranded on some island… ”
“She’s wonderful, isn’t she? So full of fun. I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in ages, you know,” Tonia giggled. “How many boyfriends has she had d’you think?”
“Dozens by the sound of it, but she’s probably made up most of them,” Jane grinned. “When you’ve got a good audience anything goes.”
“Telephone,” Javier said.
“Oh, my goodness, it’s probably Robert,” Jane said and rushed to answer, shutting the door behind her. It was Violet.
“Jane, dear, Violet here. How’s everything?”
“Very well and quite happy at the kindergarten now. He’s asleep.”
“I’m so glad to hear he’s happy at Candy’s, that’s wonderful. And your mother?”
“Oh, that’s going well too. They watch the cartoons on T.V. together.”
“But how marvelous. Listen, Jane. Robert has to stay on another week and I’m going to take the opportunity of visiting my parents in Spain. They’ll have just returned from a trip to Hong Kong. That won’t be a problem for you, will it?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Jane replied, her mind swooping forward over the next few weeks.
“Is someone playing the piano?” Violet asked suddenly.
“No,” Jane said, feigning surprise.
“I’m sure I can hear a piano.”
“Really? It must be some interference on the line then. I can’t hear anything,” Jane said firmly, crossing her fingers.
“Please remember that Bobby is not allowed in the sitting room.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Jane had completely forgotten. “Is Robert there?”
“There’s a leak in his aunt’s bathroom which the porter can’t fix. I think it’s from the flat upstairs; I’ve arranged with the plumber to go tomorrow.”
“Can’t it wait till we get back?”
“She says the ceiling is dripping.”
“Oh, she would! It’s just an excuse to get attention. Robert will see to it when we get back, she’s the sort who turns a drop an hour into the Niagra Falls. Is it true the Douglas’s have left?”
“Well, we’ll be back on the twenty first or the twenty second. Give Bobby my love. Tell him I’ve bought him lots of presents. ‘Bye then.”
Violet cut off and Jane returned the receiver to its cradle reflectively. She glanced at her watch. That meant it was about one or two a.m. in Paris. Where was Robert? And that lilt in Violet’s voice? She felt uneasy. At last she shook her head and was about to return to the sitting room when the telephone rang again. When she answered, a voice she thought she had forgotten, had left behind together with all her seventeen-year-old dreams and illusions, spoke to her out of the receiver. A rush of emotion flooded her and her heart began to beat painfully.
“Excuse me; am I speaking to Violet Gregory’s house?”
“This is Kevin Plath here. Would you know where I could get in touch with Nelly Simonds, please?”
“She’s here,” Jane said in Spanish. “Just a minute, I’ll call her.”
It took all her self control to return to the cheerful, noisy atmosphere of the sitting room and tell Nelly that Kevin wanted to speak to her. She collected the empty boxes of pizza and crumpled paper napkins and took them to the kitchen. Albertina was sitting patiently in her chair.
“Albertina! Why are you still up?” Jane exclaimed.
“In case you need me, Señorita Jane. The niña Violeta does not wish me to retire before guests leave. I have made fresh coffee.”
“Oh, how nice. Well, perhaps…”
Albertina was already on her feet fussing over the tray, tastefully prepared with porcelain coffee cups and sugar bowl.
“ … perhaps you could bring it, then.” Jane said lamely, having been about to say that she would take it herself. Poor old Albertina. But that was how she wanted it. All her life she had served, first Violet’s parents and then Violet and Robert. Jane knew she had to respect her habits and customs. She returned to the sitting room, thinking that this was perhaps the first time that such an informal party had taken place in this house. Just as well Bobby had fallen asleep before it had really got going. Albertina was trying to keep the family flag flying by serving the coffee in dainty cups on a silver tray. Mugs would probably have been more appropriate!
Aunt Georgina had switched to popular songs of her day and was singing, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,” to her own accompaniment. Tonia was singing along with her, and Javier was waving his arms imitating a conductor.
Nelly walked back into the room, her face chalk-white, followed by Albertina and coffee. They all looked at her in the sudden silence and she stopped and stared into nothingness.
“Nelly,” Jane said. “Are you all right?”
Albertina laid the tray on a coffee table and began to empty cigarette stubs into an ashtray in her hand. The others gathered round Nelly as Jane helped her to sit down.
“He asked me who the hell I thought I was for spreading the rumor that he had run out of the house and abandoned Bettina,” Nelly said in a flat voice. “That he had thought Bettina was outside. The door had shut before he realized he had made a mistake. That I was slandering him and his family, accusing him of cowardice which was untrue because he had suffered severe burns trying to save Bettina. That I’m doing my best to drive him crazy with all my lies… I don’t know… he went on and on…”
She covered her face with her hands.
“What? Who’s telling lies?” Aunt Georgina asked.
“Pay no attention, Nelly. He’s the most selfish of people! I know; I was his girlfriend for a time,” Jane said, trying to control the anger and horror which filled her. “Have some coffee.”
While Tonia poured out the coffee and Jane stroked Nelly’s hair, Javier drew Aunt Georgina aside and explained to her in a low, clear voice what had happened. Adjusting her hearing aid, she walked over to Nelly and barked, “Don’t you pay any attention to that whipper-snapper, good-for-nothing young so-and-so. Fancy speaking to you like that! He should be ashamed of himself! No sort of gentleman. You’re lucky you won’t have him as a son-in-law.”
“How could he have thought Bettina was outside?” Nelly went on. “Didn’t he say he’d gone out to get sand or earth or something?”
Jane stared at the floor, trying to remember exactly what Kevin had said in the ambulance. It had all been so confused but one thing she was certain of and that was that Kevin had run out knowing that Bettina was in the house. However, she could not remember his words, what he had actually said…
“He said such terrible things,” Nelly whispered. “That I’m a bare-faced liar, that… that Bettina had hated me and only wanted to get away and live with him in peace because I was such a possessive, selfish person. That instead of thinking of his pain and his grief I had only thought of myself and made it look as if everything had been his fault. That Bettina hated me… that she hated me. Oh! My God, no, NO… but I’ll never know now, I’ll never know… ”
“You’d better take her to bed,” Aunt Georgina said. “Will you find me a taxi, young man?”
“No Mrs. Irwin, I’ll take you home in my car. Tonia, can I take you home too?” Javier finished the wine in his glass. He felt thoroughly shaken. Nelly’s anguish upset him and he wanted to get away as quickly as possible.
Jane saw them out quietly, refusing Tonia’s offer to stay and help her.
“Albertina’s here,” she said. “We’ll manage. Thanks very much, all the same.”
She waved as they drove away and leaned against the door after she had shut it, trembling. Was it possible that Kevin had worked out a version of the accident which cleared him of all guilt? He had thought Bettina was outside and so he had followed her. He probably even believed it himself now. And in the twisted labyrinth of his mind, his one thought was to attack and confuse Nelly; if possible, to eliminate her in some way. Her suffering meant nothing to him, nor how much his attitude might add to it. All he wanted, now, was to clear his name.
Breathing deeply, Jane returned to the sitting room. Albertina was sitting beside Nelly, holding her hand. Nelly was trembling violently and icy cold.
“I will make her a herb tea to calm her nerves,” Albertina offered.
“Yes, that will be very good,” Jane said briskly, slipping into her role as nurse. “And heat water for a hot water bottle too, please. Come, Nelly, drink this.” She poured out a tot of whisky. “It will do you good. Take it as a medicine.”
Somehow, through chattering teeth, Nelly swallowed the whisky and then, leaning heavily on Jane’s arm, she tottered to her room and permitted herself to be put to bed. Albertina brought the herb tea and she sipped it while it was still very hot. Gradually her shivering eased and after a while she fell asleep.
“I mixed a sleeping pill into the tea,” Albertina confessed. “I have some. They are not very strong. Sometimes I do not sleep so well and a doctor prescribed them for me.”
Jane nodded. “That’s alright Albertina. Go to bed now. I’ll go and tidy the sitting room.”
Once the sitting room was tidy, the piano and the cupboard which housed the drinks had been locked and the keys returned to the statuette’s bowl, Jane gave a final glance around, flicked off the light and walked wearily up to bed. She was worried about Nelly. Was it possible that she would believe Kevin and think that Bettina had hated her?