“This is Robert Gregory speaking. May I speak to Jane Rowan, please?” Robert’s voice was, as usual, warm and friendly.
“Hello, Robert,” Jane replied, surprised.
“Cinderella, I have something to talk over with you. May I offer you a drink down town this evening?”
They arranged to meet at a luxurious, well-known cafè.
“Who was that?” Nelly asked.
“Robert. Do I look very puffy about the eyes, Nelly? Will he realize I’ve been crying?”
“By the time you get there you’ll look alright. I’ll give you some covering cream for your nose if you like!”
Jane was still feeling drained and exhausted from her interview with her father. She washed her face yet again in cold water, changed into fresh clothes and brushed her dark curls vigorously. Nelly made some coffee and brought her a cup.
“This will help pull you together, darling,” she said sinking down on Jane’s bed.
“I’ve been invited out to dinner this evening.”
“A date! Nelly! How super! And I’ve been so wrapped up in boohoos I never gave you a chance to tell me about it. Who with?”
“Leandro Martinez. He’s one of my colleagues at the office. His wife died of cancer about two years ago and he was dreadfully depressed about it. He’s not young. I mean, he’s well over fifty, he has two married daughters with children and he’s not particularly good looking or anything, but he’s a good man. You know what I mean.”
“Oh, Nelly, I think it’s wonderful!”
“Of course! You must enjoy every minute of the evening and choose all the most expensive dishes to go with your new clothes and the new Nelly. Your hair looks terrific, by the way. Sorry I didn’t mention it before.”
Nelly laughed and patted her hair lightly. “I can’t make up my mind what to wear,” she said.
“The rust coloured, wool dress. I love it. Do wear that one. Look, I’ve got a necklace which will look wild with it.”
Jane scrabbled about her night table drawer and drew out a charming necklace of white shells.
“How sweet of you, darling,” Nelly said, taking it from her with a smile. “Very well, I’ll wear the rust wool and this necklace.”
Jane glanced at her wrist watch and finished her coffee. “I’ll have to go. How do I look?”
“Quite all right.”
“Have a lovely time, Nelly.”
“He’s asked me before you know, but I never accepted.”
“Why ever not?”
“I don’t know… yes, I do. I didn’t want to listen to him talking about his wife. I felt I’d be bored. Can you imagine such selfishness?”
Jane hugged Nelly and said softly, “Perhaps it’s better this way, in every way. Have a lovely evening.”
Robert was waiting for her.
“Am I late? I’m sorry,” Jane apologized.
“No, not at all. I arrived early. How are you? What’ll you have to drink?”
“May I have a beer?”
“Certainly. And how about a couple of toasted sandwiches?”
“Mmmm. Sounds great.”
Robert smiled, nodded and gave the waiter their order. “Now then,” he said. “We’ll get down to the reason for this get-together right away. The apartment recently vacated by the Douglas’s will soon be habitable. I would very especially like you to live there and keep an eye on my somewhat unpredictable Aunt for me. You seem to get on well together; at least she appears to like you very much indeed, so I thought that, perhaps, it might be a solution for you and it would certainly be a solution for me. I wouldn’t charge you any rent. You would just have to pay the expenses and the rates. Aunt Georgina is far too spry to have a companion, but I feel someone must be near at hand should the need arise, and you, as a nurse, would be ideal. How about it, Jane?”
Jane stared at Robert with wide, incredulous eyes as different scenes flashed through her mind. Her father in the lift. Her evening at Aunt Georgina’s with Nelly. Estela Rodriguez, with her name of black hair and full, sensous mouth, living on the fourth floor. Her father’s face that afternoon at Tonino’s. Augusto’s catalogue. A home of her own ….
“What is it, Cinderella? Non ti piacci?”
“It’s wild. I just can’t believe it… I…”
Jane fell silent. A home of her own. A place where she could invite her friends. Somewhere which wouldn’t smell of stale cigarette smoke and where the T.V. wouldn’t be clattering away all evening every evening. A home of her own… but…
“I often work on night duty, Robert. And anyway, if I work I wouldn’t really be able to keep much of an eye on Aunt Georgina.”
“I don’t expect you to be a watch dog! I just want someone I know living in that flat so that Aunt Georgina, subconsciously, knows that she is not alone. Eusebio and Ema are very good, but I feel it’s not quite the same. I’d be really happy if you… like the idea.”
Jane began to fiddle uncertainly with some crumbs from her sandwiches which had fallen onto the table-cloth. She didn’t know what to think, let alone say. At last Robert suggested that they go and see the apartment and visit Aunt Georgina at the same time. Jane agreed with relief. Her emotions were in a whirl.
“My only concern is that you won’t get much peace with Aunty living in the flat below yours. She’s rather an extreme sort of person, all or nothing. She’s my mother’s aunt and has been my family ever since my parents died.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
“My mother died when I was seventeen and my father was so, heart broken would be the expression, I suppose, that he drank himself to death three years later.”
Jane shook her head commiseratingly. She ate her sandwiches while Robert chatted about Europe and described the loveliness of France and Italy in spring.
“To think we’re all shivering here and there they are all sweltering,” Jane grinned “How’s my small friend Bobby?”
“Absolutely delighted with the bus station we brought him. What a child! D’you think he’ll be a bus driver when he’s grown up? I’ve never known a child with such a passion for buses!”
It was well after eight o’clock when they reached Aunt Georgina’s apartment building. Jane felt anxious and confused. At least the old lady knew about Estela and her father, but how could she, Jane, possibly agree to live in the same building where her father kept his mistress? Would he give her up after their conversation today? She doubted it. What did this strange twist of fate mean? The whole arrangement would have been so perfect if… But how could she live here, knowing… ? And if he came at mid-day they might meet in the hall or in the street…
“Would you like to see the flat first, or Aunt Georgina?” Robert asked as he opened the door into the foyer.
“Could we see the flat first?” Jane said.
Her heart hammering, they stepped into the lift and joggled noisily up to the third floor. Robert lit the hall light and unlocked the front door.
“Are there any light bulbs?” Jane asked.
Robert laughed. “They’ve been replaced. Well, here we are.”
He flicked on the light in the living room. Jane stared around at the peach coloured walls, the spacious room, the same little alcove for a dining room. It was like a dream. All this… hers… and all she would have to pay were the expenses and the rates…
“Come along and I’ll show you the bedrooms. There are three and two bathrooms. Then there’s the kitchen and the maid’s quarters. It’s quite big really.”
Robert led the way to a small inner hall off which the bathrooms and bedrooms opened. All the doors had small glass panels in their upper halves, presumably in order to give light to the hall. A pile of paint tins and brushes stood in a corner and paint-spattered overalls hung in the main bathroom. Their footsteps resounded in the empty rooms.
“I thought I’d have the living room and this hall carpeted, wall to wall. I could even have the bedrooms done too, for that matter. Do you like it?”
Jane stepped into the main bedroom, empty of furniture, and thought of her father upstairs. Not right on top of this one because Estela’s flat was A not B. She thought of her father undressing and undressing Estela… every Friday night… Again… again that wretched man was interfering in her life, spoiling it, making it impossible for her to have what she wanted, what she really wanted and needed. Everything, everything spoiled by him… What would he say to her mother tonight? She was sure that he would find an excuse to stop her, Jane, from going to look after her any more.
She swung round and stared up into Robert’s eyes. Surprised at her expression he said gently,
“What is it, Jane?”
“My father’s mistress lives on the fourth floor. He visits her on Mondays and Wednesdays at mid-day and on Fridays at night.”
“Oh, my dear!”
He caught her to him and she pressed her face against his breast and felt the world reeling and tumbling about her. It was the first time she had been embraced by a man since she had broken up with Kevin.
“Come,” Robert said. “There’s a table in the kitchen.”
He accompanied her to the kitchen and they sat on the table. He put his arm around her and said. “How long have you known about this?”
Brokenly she told him about her visit to Aunt Georgina with Nelly and her conversation with her father that afternoon.
“It’s all such a mess, Robert,” she sighed. “I’d adore to live here but I just don’t know if I could. Perhaps if you could give me a little time to… to get used to the situation. I know it’s very old fashioned to feel as I do… but, well, it’s a long story. My father was always so insistant on being truthful and honest and all that, and all the time… D’you think you could let me have a little time to think it all over?”
“But of course, Jane. I can quite understand. It must have been a hell of a shock.”
Jane would have liked to remain in the comforting curve of Robert’s arm but she forced herself to straighten up and give him a rueful little smile. “Let’s go and see Aunt Georgina and tell her. She knows about my father. She’ll see everything quite dispassionately and that’ll help,” she said.
Robert leaned towards her and kissed her very lightly on her cheek.
“The wing of a butterfly,” she thought and wondered fleetingly if she had a karmic relationship with Robert and if so, what it was.
Aunt Georgina greeted them with unfeigned delight and when she heard of Robert’s suggestion that Jane should live in the flat upstairs she turned sparkling eyes towards her and exclaimed, “Now, I hope you have agreed, young lady. I couldn’t think of a better arrangement myself! Couldn’t stand the Douglas’s. But it would be splendid if you were to live there.”
“But my father…”
“Pish with your father! He’ll take his hussy off to some other place soon enough when he gets to know you’re living here. Don’t worry about him. Don’t let all that worry you. In fact, I’ll tell Ema to drop Estela a hint. She won’t want your father to find out about that painter friend of hers anyway, and with you here…”
“What painter ?” Robert asked, mystified.
“That hussy is two-timing Jane’s father with a penniless artist,” Aunt Georgina explained with glee. “Place won’t be quite the same without all this scandal. But never mind. Now then, wine or coffee?”
“Wine,” said Robert.
“Coffee,” Jane decided. “With milk.”
“Right, come along to the kitchen, Jane. You know where the wine and the glasses are Robert, so help yourself.”
They sat in the living room and talked about the days in the Gregory household while Robert and Violet had been away in Europe. Robert was appalled to hear of Nelly’s suicide attempt.
“Keys to the drink cabinet and the piano still safe in Belinda’s bowl?” crackled Aunt Georgina in order to change the subject.
“The statuette,” Jane clarified.
“Ha! Yes, most certainly. And how did you find that out?”
“Bobby told us.”
Jane described the pizza party. “And Violet rang up in the middle of it all and there was Aunty banging away on the piano and Violet asked if someone was playing and I said ‘no, I couldn’t hear anything’!”
They rocked with laughter. Jane felt more and more relaxed as the time sped by. Aunt Georgina was right. Her father would move or Estela would make him. It would be alright. She didn’t have to worry. She could move as soon as the painters had finished. Nelly was quite well now, she could leave her on her own and anyway, with this new friend…
“Nelly went out to dinner with a man from her office this evening,” she said.
“There you are,” cried Aunt Georgina, adjusting her hearing aid. “We’ll be invited to the wedding next, you’ll see. Just as well you’ve decided to come and live here.”
“Oh, Aunt Georgina you’re…”
A violent commotion in the building cut Jane’s exclamation short. Screams, shouts and banging doors, raised voices and more screams could be heard.
“What’s going on?” Robert said, jumping to his feet. Jane followed him out into the passage outside. There screams and confusion reigned.
“Qué pasa?” Robert shouted to a man running downstairs.
“No sé, están matando a una mujer,” he panted. “I don’t know, they’re killing a woman.”
“Estela,” Jane gasped, and dashed up the stairs with Robert following her.
They arrived on the fourth floor as a young man clad only in under pants and clutching an anorak, staggered out of Estela’s flat. His face was bloodied and disfigured from the cruel beating he had received. Choking screams followed him. A group of goggle-eyed residentes, some in dressing-gowns, pressed towards the door of the flat.
“Robert, if that’s Augusto, take him to Aunty’s,” Jane gasped. “My father’s in there.”
She forced her way through the cluster of bodies and ran into the flat. Her father was beating Estela, holding her arm in a vice-like grip and hitting her face with brutal punches. Without stopping to think, Jane flung herself at him, gripped a handful of his hair and pulled his head back. Caught by surprise he let Estela go and she ran, screaming, into the bedroom. Eusebio, the porter, pushed his way into the room followed by Ema and several residents, avidly enjoying the whole affair.
Eric slumped onto the sofa, he was trembling violently. Eusebio sent Ema to the bedroom, pushed the neighbours back into the hall, assuring them that there was nothing more to worry about, and closed the door.
“Where’s that fellow?” Eric demanded.
“He left, señor.”
Eric nodded towards the bedroom where they could hear Ema calming the hysterical Estela.
“Tell her to pack her things and to get out,” he said.
“The bitch,” Eric said, in English. “She’s been double-crossing me, the fucking little bitch.”
Jane felt as if she were in a time warp. Unconsciously she raised her hand and touched her mouth with her fingers. Her father’s violence, Augusto’s bruised and battered face, spots of blood on the floor and on the sofa. For an instant she felt she was going to faint, then her training came to her rescue and she pulled herself together and said firmly, “You stay sitting there. I’ll go and see to Estela.”
“What the hell are you doing here anyway? Spying on me?”
“No! I was visiting a friend downstairs when all this hullaballoo started. What an incredible way to behave; you must be mad! You’ll be lucky if someone hasn’t called the police.”
She hurried to the bedroom where Estela, covered only with a bath robe which Ema had laid over her, lay sobbing on the bed. Augusto’s clothes were lying on the floor. Jane picked them up and gave them to Eusebio.
“The young man is on the second floor in Mrs. Irwin’s flat,” she said softly. “Could you take these to him please? And if you have any card-board boxes in the basement they might come in useful for Estela.”
Turning to Ema she said. “Would you go and make some tea, Ema. Plenty of it.”
Glad to have someone in charge, Eusebio and Ema hurried to do as Jane bid. Jane turned her attention to Estela and then fetched a bowl of cold water and a towel. With gentle hands she applied cold compresses to Estela’s swelling bruises, remembering only too well how she had felt in similar circumstances.
“You must pack and leave right away,” she said when Ema returned with a cup of steaming tea. “Ema will help you.”
She dragged down two large suitcases from the top of the wardrobe. “Eusebio is also bringing some boxes. Drink your tea; it will help to calm you. Sugar?”
Estela nodded, sat up and helped herself. Jane went back to the sitting room where she found her father lying back on the sofa, looking grey. Quickly she took his pulse and was shocked by its irregular beat.
“Drink some tea,” she said. “You’re suffering from shock.”
She handed him a cup and he sipped it without arguing. After a moment he said, “What will your mother say?”
“Doesn’t she know you’re going to be late?”
“No, I forgot to tell her.”
“I’ll call her.”
Jane dialled the number and her mother answered at once.
“Mum, Jane here. Dad’s with me. He forgot to tell you. Don’t worry about him, just go to bed. He’ll be along in a little while. ‘Bye now.”
She hung up before her mother could ask any questions. “I must go and get my things from downstairs,” she said to her father.
“Who is that?”
“The old lady?”
Eric shrugged. “So long as that bitch leaves soon,” he growled.
Robert opened Aunt Georgina’s front door. “Are you all right?” he demanded anxiously.
“Yes, thanks. How’s Augusto?”
“Suffering from shock. He’s dressed and band-aided and drinking tea in the kitchen just now. Was it really your father?”
“Yeah. He must have come here and caught Estela with Augusto or something. He had the keys, of course. He’s not well, his heart is jumping about all over the place. He wants to see that Estela leaves tonight so please don’t wait. I’ll take him home in a taxi.”
“Certainly not. I’ll take you both home.”
Aunt Georgina sailed into the room, the sparkle in her eyes betraying how much she was enjoying being at the centre of things.
“How’s you father?” she trumpeted. “And the hussy?”
“She’s O.K. A bit battered. He’s kicked her out.”
“Good thing too. Told you something like that would happen, didn’t I?”
Jane smiled a lopsided little smile and said. “Tell Augusto that Estela is leaving as soon as she has packed all her things, will you?”
She picked up her bag and coat and returned upstairs.
When Estela was finally ready, Eusebio carried her cases and boxes downstairs and she crept away wearing her fur coat, hoping that Eric would not drag it off her. Eric watched her impassively and when she had gone he pushed himself to his feet and stood swaying. Jane caught his arm.
“I’ve got the car,” he said.
“Robert Gregory will drive us home,” Jane replied firmly. “He’s waiting downstairs. You’re in no state to drive the car.”
“I’ll go home in a taxi,” Eric declared angrily. “There’s nothing the matter with me. D’you think I want the whole British Community to know about this?”
“They will, anyway, very likely,” Jane said acidly as she dialed Aunt Georgina’s number. “Robert, we’re ready. We’ll meet you downstairs, O.K.?”
Eric found he was feeling too unwell to argue. The room wavered about him as Jane helped him put on his overcoat and wrapped his scarf around his neck.
“Come on,” she said, picking up his attachè case.
Eusebio put out the lights and between them they helped Eric to shuffle out of the flat and into the lift.
Dora was waiting anxiously for them when they arrived. “What happened?” she gasped.
“We met at an art exhibition and when we left we got caught in a… a street fight,” Jane prevaricated hastily. “Dad’s suffering from shock. I took him to a friend’s flat. I rang you from there.”
Jane accompanied her father upstairs and into the bedroom. “Can you manage now, or do you want me to stay?” she asked.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Eric said testily. “You go on home with your friend.”
He sank down onto the bed. She took his pulse and found it quieter.
“You’re to rest tomorrow. No going to the office, is that clear?” she said. “Take the whole day off.”
“All right, all right.”
“I’ll be here at nine,” Jane said to her mother as she left. “Dad should stay in bed and rest.”
“But what happened?” Dora repeated.
“I can’t remember; it was all a mess. Dad’ll tell you,” Jane said, unwilling to add any frills to her hastily invented explanation. She kissed her mother goodbye and ran to the car where Robert was waiting for her.
“Violet will be wondering what’s happened to you,” she said as she leaned back and relaxed.
“I ‘phoned her from Aunty’s,” Robert reassured her.
“What an evening!” Jane murmured.
“Is your life always as eventful as this? You seem to have packed more into it these last three months or so, than most people experience in a lifetime!”
“Yeah,” Jane agreed wearily. “But don’t think I was looking for it!”
After a pause she said, “I’d love to go and live in that flat and keep an eye on Aunt Georgina, Robert.”
“Good,” he smiled. “That takes a load off my mind. We’ll talk about furniture and furnishings another day.”
“But won’t Violet… ?”
“Her taste is rather special. She likes everything to be very formal and elegant. But I feel that this apartment should be more cottagy, more informal and comfortable, or homey if you like. Really comfortable sofa and arm chairs, lots of light, all that sort of thing, and not too many, you know, ornaments. We’ll talk about it. Thanks very much for accepting, I’m very grateful.”
He drew up in front of Nelly’s apartment building and kissed Jane’s cheek lightly.
“Have a good night’s rest,” he said. “You need it!”
Jane let herself into the flat and shivered. It was cold. She lit the gas heater and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of hot milk and honey. When it was ready she returned to the living room and sat hunched beside the heater, nursing the steaming cup of milk in her hands. What had happened? Everything seemed to have changed. In a few short hours her whole life seemed to have been turned upside down and inside out. She had been offered a home of her own, she had been instrumental in destroying her father’s affair which had been going on for seven years and her relationship with her father… that was the strangest thing! From being the injured, furious, ill-treated daughter she had become the stern, competent, elder sister, shielding him from her mother’s wrath, an accomplice, in fact. What did she feel for him now? The need for revenge seemed have vanished. Did she feel sorry for him? Had he loved Estela? What would be his attitude towards her, Jane, from now on? What were the karmic bonds which tied her to her parents? What was the lesson to be learned from all this?
Nelly opened the front door and walked in. “Hello, are you feeling all right?” she asked, looking surprised.
“Sure. How did your date go?”
“Lovely, darling. We talked for hours all about his wife and Bettina. And about his daughters too, and the office and oh! I don’t know. We also had a delicious meal. My first ‘date’ in years! How strange.”
“Robert asked me to live in the flat above Aunt Georgina’s when it’s ready, to keep an eye on her and to be around in case of need.”
“You’re going to leave?”
“I only came until I found somewhere to live. I’ve been here over a month already.”
“How the time has flashed past! I shall miss you terribly, darling.”
That night Jane’s prayers were jumble of thanks, and earnest pleas, for a true healing of her relationship with her father; for Nelly; for her mother; for her child; even for Estela and Augusto.