Tom Drew strode purposefully down the road and turned right into the fashionable High Street. Windchimes tinkled softly as he opened the door of the Specialty Dry Cleaners carrying a hastily wrapped package under one arm. It was 9.15 a.m. He had allowed 15 minutes for the shop to be opened and for Miss March to be sitting at her work table in the window. Elspeth March looked up and smiled as Tom entered.The assistant on the Dry Cleaning desk leaned on the counter and regarded him expectantly.Tom wished she would find some work to do, preferably elsewhere.
” I have brought something in for repair.” he said fixing his gaze on Elspeth March.
Tom ran his free hand through his thick dark hair in the characteristic gesture of someone who remembered he had made only the most cursory glance in the mirror to check his appearance before leaving the house. There was a nervous intensity about this gesture that was not unattractive. Still smiling, Miss March held out her hand for the proffered package and looked inside. As she smoothed out the folds and laid the contents carefully on her work table Tom noted her finely tapered fingers, smooth perfectly manicured nails and the paleness of her skin. The graceful curve of her neck above the bow carefully tied on the Lavallière blouse she was wearing made him forget he was supposed to say something.
“Er, the linings torn” he began hesitantly, wondering how to plunge into his real reason for coming.
Miss March looked up at him, her blue-grey eyes held a sparkle betraying the quiet smile she gave him.
Tom found the contrast; her seriousness and that sparkle in her eyes immensely appealing.
“But this is your mothers jacket” she said.
For a moment Tom was completely taken aback. How on earth can she know he thought, instantly realizing his own foolishness. His mother would have been bound to use this place. She loved fine things, had always worn carefully chosen and expensive clothes. As with everything she owned, beautifully finished in fine materials and made to last more than a season she had taken good care of them over the years.
“I know,” Miss March was saying, “because it originally had a little mink collar, she asked me to remove it. She said it was not fashionable or politically correct to wear fur any more.’
She smiled, fondly remembering and then noticing Toms expression, mistaking the emotion she saw in it she said quickly ;
” I am so sorry, you must still miss her very much.”
“I had not thought about it, but of course you must have known her” he said not answering her question.
“Oh yes” said Miss March ” She used to talk about you all the time. Oh I am sorry” she went on seeing Toms confusion, “It is so embarrassing when people say that, you wonder what on earth they have been saying about you.She was just so proud of you, you’re a writer aren’t you?”
Here it was; the perfect opening.When he had woken that morning Tom Drew had one thought on his mind. How could he ask Miss Elspeth March, someone he barely knew to his book review party? He had asked himself why it should even be a problem as he had hunted around the untidy flat looking for a decent shirt, preferably one he did not have to iron. Although the flat was spacious he had taken over his mother’s bedroom rather than what had once been his own room because of the high Georgian windows. They faced south, let in lots of light as well as a faint rosy glow from the cherry trees when they were in bloom in the walled gardens of the mews cottages below. This was the image he had of her, always seeing ‘la vie en rose’ despite tragedy. His gay laughing mother smiled up at him from one of the photographs he had left as she had placed them. Why, he had thought then, couldn’t he be more like her? Instead he was reserved, shy even, certainly devoid of social skills and the ease with which his contemporaries all seemed to be endowed. Like his father, his mother had always said. Still waters and all that.
It was then that he hit on the idea. In his haste he knocked over a silver framed portrait of a young officer. The father he had never known, smiling with his mouth but not with his eyes, killed in the Irish conflict. He had been sent with the Security Forces in 1972 after Bloody Sunday and never returned to see his son born the following year. Hurriedly setting the picture straight he crossed the room to the large fitted wardrobe and went quickly through the rails. He really must give them to some charity shop or something. There were several jackets, he swished the hangers along the rails untill he found one that would do. He had run out of things of his own to take for repairs, a pretext he had used on several occasions to talk to her. He couldn’t just bowl in and ask her outright for goodness sake.
In the shop all he now said was; ” I really have to sort out her things you see, give them to a charity shop, it’s been almost a year.”
Miss March said quickly ” How kind, of course It will be a pleasure to repair it. It is a beautiful jacket.”
She wrote out the repair slip and handed it to him, Tom muttered his thanks and left the shop without a backward glance.
Tom did not pass that way again for two days. He was on his way home in a hurry. The book review party was tonight, he was late and he did not have the time to go the long way round in order to avoid passing the window of the Specialty Dry Cleaners.
He had resigned himself to going alone and convinced himself that he was perfectly happy that way. Alone, so just why he felt the need to avoid seeing Miss March and had decided not to even return to collect the jacket in the forseeable future he couldn’t say even to himself. Perhaps, he though now hurrying on, it was his new life.
Due to the small but adequate inheritance he had received, as well as ownership of the flat at his mother’s death he had been able to give up his monotonous job at the library. The value of the property was soaring although he had no intention to sell. Instead he had moved in, happy to make it his home after the cramped bed sit he had occupied in Fulham to be both affordable and close enough to walk to the library just around the corner. Most of all it enabled him to concentrate on writing and now it looked as if at last success had come, an agent had finally accepted his first full length novel and it had been sold to a publisher with what Tom considered a fair advance.
I should be more than happy to stay as I am, content in my bachelor life he decided and yet he could not deny he wanted to share it all. The elegant flat, his money,the luxury the advance would bring, not to have to subsist on his small salary and so enjoy eating out, going occasionally to concerts or the theatre, to enjoy life and its pleasures. The problem, that he wanted to share it with Miss March had the unfortunate habit of recurring as often as he tried to push it away.
That morning he decided to let the whole thing drop. He could not ask her now at such short notice and besides having noted there being no ring on her finger, there was in every probability already a man in her life. She was far too pretty to be single.
Pulling his thoughts back to the present Tom noticed the area seemed more than usually crowded for the time of day. He reached the wide bend in the road before he saw the cordon. Two police cars were parked horizontally across the street their blue lights slowly rotating. A taxi driver held up in the growing line of traffic leaned out to get a better look. Tom asked him what was going on.
“Another bomb scare mate.” he said shaking his head.
Quickening his pace Tom hurried on. A palpable atmosphere of tension had settled over the crowd, snatches of conversation reached him, the low murmur of their voices betrayed an undercurrent of fear. A police man was telling everybody to move back. Another two were signalling the traffic to take the residential road that ran parallel with the high street. In one glance Tom took in the area cordoned off. The church, the silversmiths, a row of three antique shops and in between them the Specialty Dry Cleaners.
A feeling he knew to be cold fear started in Toms gut and rose up to contort his throat as he searched the crowd in vain for Elspeth March. He pushed his way to the cordon and ducked under it.
“I am sorry Sir but you will have to take another route, we have evacuated the area.” said the policeman coming quickly over.
Are you sure you have everybody evacuated?” said Tom following the man back under the cordon still searching the rapidly increasing crowds.
“Ah, well Sir that’s the problem.” he said.
Tom had never known exactly how his father had died. When he had been a small child his mother told him that he had died in the service of his country.Tom grew up imagining his father a hero of war, dying for his friends and fighting in combat, a valiant soldier. As he got older his mother refused to be questioned. She always said she wanted to remember him living, the way she had last seen him. The fact that his mother had never remarried, told Tom more than she herself admitted and he respected that hers was a deeply personal tragedy she could, or would not share even with her only son.
‘He was an artist’, she told him once when pressed, he knew this from the water colours of ships that still hung on the walls of the flat along with an unfinished portrait of his mother. ‘Your grandfather got him the commission, he went in as an Intelligence Officer.’ she said it with a trace of bitterness and Tom had wondered if it explained why his mother always avoided their spending holidays at his grandfathers place. “It was an accident, simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time , nothing heroic, a stupid waste he should never have gone. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Tom wondered now if his father had felt fear, this cold evil fear that turned the blood to ice in your veins. If he had walked into a trap, realizing at the click of a detonator in the split second before the explosion that he was about to die . The police man was answering his question.
“There’s a young woman from the dry cleaners with the owner of the premises. We’ve sent for the special bomb squad to get them out. The old lady lives in the flat upstairs, an invalid and it seems the young woman is refusing to leave her there alone.”
The fear in Tom evaporated, it was as if he came in that instant from a turbulent storm into an immense calm. While he could feel his heart beating and the pulse in his veins sounding loudly in his ears, he was at the same time calmly aware of hearing a distant siren, the clamour of the crowds and the pigeons cooing as they gathered innocently on the church roof. It seemed to him that he heard his own voice oddly detached, as if coming from a distance authoritatively telling the officer what to do.
“Stand back let me through, I am a personal friend we cannot wait for anyone to arrive. I am going in.”
Before the surprised officer could object Tom had dodged under the cordon and sprinted the 50 yards to the Dry Cleaners.
The door was open. At the back of the shop along a passageway he found the stairs. A door stood open on the first landing.
“Elspeth!” he called passing and seeing the room empty.
Miss Drew appeared in the doorway at the far end of the landing her face even paler than usual.
” Mr Drew!” she exclaimed in surprise.”Its Mrs Gerrard thank goodness you have come!”
Tom reached her in an instant and clasped her shoulders, he could feel her trembling with fear.
“My dear Elspeth,” he said his face close to hers,” You silly brave, wonderful angel!”
He took her hand and led her hurriedly into the room. Mrs Gerrard was lying helplessly in her bed.
” She is paralyzed from a stroke” explained Miss March.
The nurse had left only an hour before the alert had been given and was not due to return untill evening.
“I simply could not leave her here all alone” she explained.
Tom smiled down at the old lady clasping her hand. Her eyes were wide with fear as she tried desperately to articulate. The stroke had impaired her speech and Tom tried to calm her.
“Everything is alright now” he said gently, ” You and I are going to take a little walk that’s all, absolutely nothing to worry about.”
In the next instant he lifted her frail body easily into his arms. He instructed Elspeth to lead the way down and to hurry.
Tom was only partially aware of the cheers that went up as they appeared in the doorway. An ambulance had arrived along with the bomb squad men who were swarming over every building and rushing past him into the cleaners. He carried Mrs Gerrard to the waiting ambulance safely outside the cordon. Miss March climbed in with her holding her hand.
It did not seem to take much time before the all clear signal went up. The squad men ambled out of the buildings muttering into walkie talkies and generally dispersing towards their waiting vehicles. The police officer Tom had spoken to strolled over, a smile on his face.
“It’s all clear then Sir” he said not without respect.
“False alarm, it’s happening all the time as you know Sir, of course we have to take all precautions, just in case like.”
Tom nodded and made no comment. He was thinking of Miss March.
“Still it was brave of you Sir , rushing in like that, but next time Sir if you’ll take my advice, you’ll leave it to the experts.”
Tom stared at him. What an idiot, he thought, rushing in like a fool revealing my feelings like that, it had nothing to do with Mrs Gerrard or heroics. The photograph of his father flashed momentarily through his mind. What on earth must she think? He had panicked and now he felt a fool and worse had acted like one. To top it all it was a false alarm.He knew he should be thankful, he thought again of his father suddenly feeling close to him in a way he had never felt before. His mother had often said they were alike in more than looks. His father had not been so lucky if it had indeed been something like this that had cost him his life. He suddenly decided to approach the war office, he could find out. Now his mother was no longer here to be hurt by it, perhaps she would feel that he had at least earned the right to know because of today.
“It’s alright Sir” the police man was saying, “Expect it’ll be the shock setting in” he added looking at Tom with an air of concern.
“Best get on home now and get yourself a nice cup of tea, take it easy for a couple of hours like.”
As Tom hurried away he looked back over the heads of the dispersing crowd to see Miss March returning with the ambulance men carrying Mrs Gerrard on a stretcher back into the building. He quickened his pace but Miss March looked up just in time to see him turning left into the street where his mother had lived.
Tom had reached the top step to the front door and was searching in his pockets for his keys when he heard his name called. It was Miss March.
“Tom,” she said “Mr Drew, I’ve left the neighbours with Mrs Gerrard untill the nurse comes, she will be returning any minute.”
She was looking up at him from the bottom of the steps. She was perhaps breathless from hurrying to catch him or perhaps from excitement Tom could not tell. He realized he had never even seen her outside of the specialty Dry Cleaners untill today. In the late afternoon sun he saw that her hair was not light brown but the colour of wheat, it fell loosely around her shoulders not tied back as she normally wore it.
“I wanted to thank you Tom, that is Mr Drew. You were so wonderful just carrying poor Mrs Gerrard out like that.”
” You could have walked out the front door instead of insisting on staying with her, it seems to me you are the one who deserves credit. As for me, well as it turned out I need not have disturbed her or made such a drama out of it, it was all a hoax.” he laughed, an abrupt laugh running his hands through his hair and shrugged in a gesture of deprecation.
“That changes nothing, we did not know that, it was very brave and,” she paused suddenly, flushing slightly.
“Actually I have come for your jacket.”
” My jacket?” said Tom looking down at it in surprise.
” Yes,” she said starting to climb the steps towards him.” I noticed as you put her on the stretcher when we reached the ambulance. You caught your sleeve on the door into the passage and it’s torn.”
” It’s nothing.” he said noticing the torn cuff.
“No, please I want to. That is, I want to repair it, for you.”
Tom looked up, noting the softness of her voice he felt rather as he had when the officer had told him that she was inside the building. A calm assurance, so unlike his usual self and with it a flush of pleasure and the same sudden confidence.
“I’ll return it first thing tomorrow morning, I can do it tonight you will never even miss it.” she said coming up a second step.
“I have something better for you to do tonight” he said coming down the few steps that now separated them.
He knew by the way she was looking at him that she would accept. Even at such short notice Miss Elspeth March would come with him to the book review party and what was more, given a little time she may even accept to come into his life and stay forever.