Kathryn Hummel is a writer, researcher, multi-media artist and editor from Australia. Author of five books of poems, Kathryn’s creative and scholarly works have been internationally published/performed/translated/anthologised/recognised. Collections forthcoming in 2019: Lamentville (Math Paper Press) and splashback (2nd ed.) [Prote(s)xt Books].
Influenced by the writing and times of British novelist Rosamond Lehmann, ‘On Vintage Loneliness’ attempts a shorter, more contemporary narrative form and style.
ON vintage loneliness
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—
All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.
‘Tonight’, Agha Shahid Ali
Clare Hester had come to the dance with the Athertons, who said they were so happy to have her and predicted the party, with the addition of Miss Hester, would be a ripping good show. Clare wore a cherry-coloured frock and powdered her face with exquisite ease: she was smashing. Young men scrutinised her with suggestions of dancing and fetching lemonade fairly blazing from their eyes. It was quietly agreed among the same young men that the Atherton chaps were lucky devils: on the car journey to the Hall, they’d had the opportunity to reserve her first four dances. Standing tall beside Miss Hester as she pencilled their names into her programme, the Atherton boys were hopeful that these would be standard tunes, nothing complicated, nothing beyond the numbers they had practised together, whirling each other round the parlour, painfully close, handkerchiefs in their mouths.
More young men approached then retreated as Clare was engulfed by a brood of female Douglasses who gambolled about with their freshly-waved heads resplendent. Their exclamations, punctuated by streams of laughter, followed the form of an orchestral movement:
— Seeking our erstwhile hero, Clare? You are a scream. — I haven’t seen him since we arrived. — Hang on, I have. He was on the terrace. Catch a cold, but you never can tell him anything. — No, he was in the supper room, getting a drink. — He is a scream when he drinks. So dour. — Dour Douglass, guaranteed to make you die of laughing. — George Atherton is a card, isn’t he? Must dance with him. — See you at supper, adore your frock.
Moving amongst the bodies in the foyer, Clare batted out pleasantries, defended her conversation with hand gestures and raised her chin slightly when she laughed. She asked after Mrs Mead’s sciatica and agreed to foxtrot with Reginald Barkley, who crept up to stare thoughtfully at Clare’s legs before asking. Jane’s dress, concocted from layers of Parisian tulle, was sighed over and her brother asked after. Was Peter up at Cambridge? — Marvellous. Clare’s frock? Yes, she supposed scarlet was rather daring. — Thanks so much.
At the foot of the staircase, Neal watched Clare as she slipped free of the throng, worn slightly from polite extrication. He must remember to toast her one some occasion or other: his dear friend Clare Hester, always triumphant at games. Just now, she had the look of having come through a protracted session of chess. Long may she survive! He contented himself with raising his glass of champagne on a level with her eyes.
— Chin chin, Miss Hester.
Her stride broke at his words. Two steps and she was beside him, a smile flushing her face, though her voice was cool when she said:
— How do you keep, Neal?
— Abominably. My sisters causing trouble?
— Not yet. They look brilliant, don’t they?
— Not a bad-looking bunch. They’re all in love with me tonight because I played butler this afternoon. Buffed slippers and fetched tea, all of that.
— I think they’ve forgotten the favour. They were just telling me what a scream you are when you’ve been drinking.
Neal had decided against anything stronger than champagne this evening. Such a sunny, kindly liquid. On whiskey, which he predicted would not be as fine as his stash at home (what host worth his salt would waste his best Irish on a crowd such as this?), Neal found that Clare was apt to blur round the edges. He was able to watch her keenly as she sat down on the step beside him.
— Aren’t you tired, Clare?
— Idiot, I’ve only just arrived.
— Well, I’m rather worn out. I need a dance.
— Is there something rather intricate? Something the fledglings will keep away from. Are you free?
Clare laid her card gently against Neal’s knee and reserved the tango, writing his name in with care. Neal glanced down the columns of names, at every man’s claim to hold Clare close for just four minutes, and touched her warm cheek lightly with the tip of his finger.
A familiar tempo announced the start of the first waltz. William Grant was swift in taking Clare away from Neal Douglass.
— We can’t have you monopolise her all evening, can we, old boy? What? Not even dancing. I do call that a waste.
Clare Hester smelled of violets and delicacy. She was so soft and light in William’s arms that he felt he was dancing with just her dress. It was all he could comprehend: the bright colour beneath his fingers; below his gaze as he glanced down; the wave of silken fabric that flapped against his knee on the turns. He saw Penny Atherton laugh as St John Preston-Jones twirled her around and around, both of them out of step and very real in their ungainliness. He could only sense Clare. Naturally, William supposed he was in love with her.
Lorna Munstone, tall and fat and swathed in apricot-coloured taffeta, found herself paraded about by Neal Douglass, who never came to meets, couldn’t tell a horse’s flank from its fetlock, but still was not a bad sort. Just rather feeble. Lorna didn’t participate in gossip; all she wished for her fellow man, if she found him wanting in any capacity, was the correct helping of pluck. That was precisely what Neal Douglass needed.
He needed a drink.
Frank Hilary was at the bar with some fellows, carrying on much louder than necessary and casting frequent greedy glances in Clare’s direction.
— Douglass! Have a drink. This is Kimball and this is Lawrence. We came down together yesterday, having received our marching orders — How do you do? — How’s old Clare? Saw her out there, she’s smashing. — Oh, have another. Do.
Neal noticed Clare standing just beyond the bar, waiting at the entrance to the ballroom, though it seemed she was close at his side, ready to catch his fall from grace. There was never a question of his assuming the role of her saviour in turn—for the last eight months, a year since he came back from Berlin, it had taken all Neal’s concentration to gather himself up every morning and salvage what remained at night. In times of crisis, Neal remembered, women and children were supposed to come first; this was the natural order of things. Yet didn’t saving someone else involve saving oneself at the same time? Nil desperandum, after all. Although he couldn’t be sure if he had muddled the tenets of British decorum with those of Eastern philosophy, he nevertheless decided he would ask Clare if she wanted his help. Just after another bright swallow of wine.
— Not over-doing it, are you? — Clare had stepped forward as though she knew she was wanted.
— Just a fraction. Not to worry. It’s the fraction that separates euphoria from oblivion.
— I only ask because I want you to be as light on your feet with me as you were with Lorna. Tango’s next.
Neal laid his glass down tenderly, as though he were lowering it into a grave. It was mostly to have enough time to observe the slight but fascinating trembling of his hand; partly to be theatrical.
— Well come on, Hester, don’t stand there gaping at a chap. Last dance of the evening and then I’m off home. I’m feeling…
— I do wish you’d learn to finish your sentences. What are you feeling?
— As though I shan’t last much longer. And it’s really rather grand.
The ballroom was desolate, its gleaming parquet pocked with only half a dozen couples. Most of the guests had gone in for supper. Neal was rather good: he held himself upright, keeping his steps controlled, and looked beyond Clare to the mirrored walls behind her. The sharpness of their movements forbade the question Neal had planned to ask. It was not a moment to beseech; nor could he explain why he thought Clare required saving, and from what. Neal adjusted the set of his arms so that the distance between them narrowed.
— What are you feeling, Clare?
— Just now?
Clare laughed as one of the Douglass girls, who had taken the lead from a bewildered George Atherton, bumped into her back. When Clare smiled so, Neal imagined the silent cries escaping from the very fine lines between her teeth. She disregarded the question; he didn’t repeat it.
— Look out — he said instead. — I’m going to dip you.
The dip was successful; she stayed firmly in his arms. They danced on.
— Neal, what do you think of my dress?
— Highly distinctive.
— I wanted to wear green, a lovely Nile green, but the dressmaker muddled the orders and I didn’t discover the mistake till this afternoon. This one’s evidently meant for some other girl: the arms are too tight, and the waist. Crammed up in the car on the way here, I was terrified the seams would burst.
— Ah! — said Neal. — Most comfortable.
Clare gave another of her smiles. — Il faut souffrir pour être belle, as Aunt Edith would say.
The number drew to a close and the remaining couples applauded the band members, who would withdraw now to the balcony for a smoke and a bite. Then they would be back for another round of dances, sedate to lively then sedate again, though perhaps the last extra would be triumphant: a final bit of fun.
— I feel frightfully strained — Clare said. — But I’d rather just you and I know.
— Would you, dear? All right.
Neal took Clare’s arm and ushered her to the side, then stepped back to take the last shot of the evening at catching all he could of her in his gaze. He could not detect any significant cracks, though it was always possible she had spied them earlier, had smoothed over them herself with face powder and lipstick. All the same, he had better ask:
— Care to see me safely to my door? I ought to be going—no more fizz for me.
— I’m afraid not. I’d better go into supper, you know: the Athertons.
—Yes — said Neal.
A tight cut and stretched seams were frightfully uncomfortable, but not unbearable. It was game of her to stay, but still you had to see it through, didn’t you? Neal didn’t consider himself, his own steps making their way out, retreating, growing weaker: he was already lost. He turned and called out to her.
— Will you come and see me next week?
Clare nodded and waved, watching the back of Neal’s jacket as he retreated to the foyer, where the light dimmed in sympathy with advancing hours. Of course she would visit but of course she knew how it would be: not just Neal in his old flannels, nursing a bitter coffee and a literary magazine, but his sisters too; their dogs and their visitors and the old man in the wheelchair in a corner of the sitting room, watching the domestic spectacle through the glaze of his pale blue eyes.
Clare could see herself reflected in the mirrors of the ballroom: more than fifty times the image of her, gilded by the elaborate plasterwork, gleaming brightly. Clare didn’t recognise her face in the light: it was heavy and she was pale. Yet her dress and smile were brilliant. If that’s what counted, no-one would notice her falling. If that’s what really counted, she would ravish.