FICTION

A Week Away from it All

Elizabeth was a whiz at winning jingle contests but she had quite a time making freedom rhyme with happiness

MARGARET LEE RUNBECK January 1 1944
FICTION

A Week Away from it All

Elizabeth was a whiz at winning jingle contests but she had quite a time making freedom rhyme with happiness

MARGARET LEE RUNBECK January 1 1944

A Week Away from it All

FICTION

MARGARET LEE RUNBECK

WHEN SHE opened the telegrum and saw that her slogan had won the prize, the first thing she thought of was Carl Loganem. What

would he think now? Then she realized that her husband, good old George, was saying something very odd. George was saying, “Too bad you can’t go, darling.”

She was trembling with excitement. “But, of course, I’m going,” she said. “It’s just once in a lifetime. One thousand dollars! Of course I’m going.” George looked at her with his most owlish expression, the one he probably used on his patients when he didn’t want them to see behind his eyes. “1 was only thinking about the war,” he said in a mumble. His face was red with embarrassment, as it certainly should have been.

“The war!” she said bitterly. “Isn’t there anything in this world besides the war?”

They glared at each other almost like strangers, and t hen George, who never could bear to quarrel with her, came over and put his arm protectively around her, as if he would save her from something.

“Of course you’ll go,” lie said, “and you’ll have to

forgive me for being such a wet blanket. I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you,” she said happily.

That was the only time they discussed whether or not she was going to Montreal to be honored by the soap company. From the moment the telegram came she lived in a dream. And now in an extravagant beauty salon in Toronto, on her way to Montreal, she saw that she looked like a woman in a dream. She hardly knew herself when they put the mirror before her.

“Why, I look as if . . . as if there wasn’t any war in the world,” she thought. “I look as if I belonged where Carl lives . . . in that world of his.”

The three beauticians were standing around, deferentially pleased, like cooks who have created some new confection. A golden-skinned goddess approached with a lisping-tongued camel’s-hair brush and gave just one tiny emphasis to Elizabeth’s eyebrow.

“Much better,” she murmured, and Elizabeth, who hadn t been consulted through all this, had to agree. Breathlessly.

I he telegram was in her bag, and in two hours she

was taking the plane to Montreal. The round little Swiss who was responsible for the recontouring of her face was bumbling about like a bee. Her face felt like a vacuum between her shoulders and her hair. Tentatively she touched it with her finger, and it was soft and smooth and detachedly tingling, all its muscles so lulled by the Swiss fingers that they seemed not to exist.

Yesterday, when she had arrived from home, she had put herself boldly into the hands of a stylist, an expert she’d been reading about for weeks. Quite secretly, of course, as she did so much of her most delicious living.

Wartime, so hard on her, was George’s meat. Much as he hated the war, you couldn’t help seeing how he loved these times. They brought out the old pioneer in him. Hard as all his extra work was, he enjoyed himself; he loved the gumption and the work and the making-the-best-of-things, so much in evidence everywhere.

“You can tell what people are made of these days,” George said lustily. “You’re made of good honest gingham and durable wool, my dear.”

Elizabeth was a whiz at winning jingle contests but she had quite a time making freedom rhyme with happiness

Gingham and wool indeed! She knew what she was made of, inside. Moonlight and black lace, more like. Carl recognized that in her. Even though she kept it inside, hidden from other people, Carl Loganem saw it. But, now, in this mirror, it wasn’t hidden. It showed on the outside, now, for she looked like a woman in a man’s dream. A romantic man like Carl Loganem.

It was a miracle that he had recognized her under the disguise of her marriage to George. But he had seen . . . as no one else ever had, that all her sober work on the Red Cross Committee . . . and the victory gardening . . . and the being a mother of a 14-year old girl . . . and the wife of the town s doctor . . . were only masks trying to hide her real self.

Well, the disguise was to be off for a week. She was to forget it all and have fun, and come to life in a strange city.

This is what he had said when George told him about the prize. Of course, he’d said something conventional at the moment; Elizabeth didn t remember exactly what. But afterward, while George was listening to a news broadcast, he had leaned over

and said, ‘T shouldn’t be surprised if a curious coincidence would take me to Montreal while you’re there.”

He’d not mentioned it again, but he had written down the name of her hotel, and she knew. She knew as if she was already in the strange hotel, and the telephone was ringing and she was flying to answer.

The stylist, a blank-faced genial person who had unfalteringly prescribed all the right things . . .

girdle, shoes, frock and everything, including this faint sheath of perfume which enveloped her . . . shifted from foot to foot at the end of a job well done.

“We’ve quite completed you. You’re ready for anything now.” It was almost as if she knew, but of course she couldn’t. Except that an expert can almost tell by looking at a woman what kind of events happen to her . . . breakfast in bed or at six-thirty in a kitchen . . . whispers or shouts . . . love letters or household bills ... a man like Carl or good old George.

She remembered, then, something she had forgotten in the midst of leaving home. A letter ... a fattish letter from George thrust into her hand at the railway station. But what had she done with it, anyway?

She paid the lavish bill without more than glancing at it, for it was only a figure in the dream with all limits lifted.

“I’m not really such a fool as I sound,” she said rebukingly to her inner chattering. “It’s just that I’m so sick of war and seriousness and work. 1 need a holiday. Absenteeism . . . that’s it.” George had been asked to speak to the men at one of the big war plants about absenteeism. It was pretty serious to George, of course. People daring to stop work and think about their own pleasures! Well, she was guilty of it . . . plenty. But mostly she kept anyone from suspecting it.

A kind of absenteeism had always been her refuge from all that was humdrum. Her body had gone obediently about its daily business, but her mind and her imagination put on lipstick and stepping-out clothes and went on scandalous adventures. Carl, in a way, was absenteeism from the familiar facts of her marriage.

She was eager to be out on the street now, to see the admiration in strange eyes. She nodded blithely to the tall aristocrat of a doorman and swung through the grey and mauve door of the salon.

“I’ll have luncheon before I leave. Strawberries and sea bass . . . things I’ve never had enough of,” she said, gluttonously, and she knew she was talking about more than food.

But while she was lunching a long-distance call was trying anxiously to reach her. Ringing and ringing, in her hotel suite.

“Mrs. Portent’s suite doesn’t answer. L.D. operator will call you back when your party comes in,” the soothing voice of the switchboard said. Then the operator telephoned over to the clerk to ask if Mrs. Portent was coming back today.

“Her bill is paid. If she doesn’t get back by 2.1.4 we’re sending her bags to the airport,” the clerk said.

“Maybe i’d better relay the call to Malton,” the operator thought helpfully.

MEANTIME Elizabeth was enjoying herself alone.

She was often lonely, not because people weren’t around her, but because most of them spoke to her outside self, and not to her inner being. That sounded ungrownup and silly, she thought, guiltily, but it was true. Well, for a week, at least, she wouldn’t be lonely. She would have fascinating things to think about . . . and Carl. Just how he would be a part of this week she wasn’t sure, but she knew he would be there, in some sudden, mad, glorious way.

He had teased her about winning the prize. He pretended he couldn’t remember the slogan and kept making up parodies on it. But he did write down the name of her Toronto hotel, and the one in Montreal where she was to be the guest of Quicksem Soap.

Carl made fun of everything . . . even himself, a cosmopolite living in a suburb. He knew every glamorous place on earth, and he was waiting for the war to be over so he could travel again. Meantime he made everybody’s nice safe marriage seem pretty stodgy. Fat and stodgy.

That brought her back to her new figure, which seemed incredibly slim in its new girdle. Even sitting here at the table, her tummy was flat. Really wonderful what science can do. Science, not just reserved for grim things like war and medicine, but reaching out friendly, flattering hands to women who need love . . .

“How the gal talks!” she said to herself, companionably. But she did need love. Not just the love that keeps a roof over the head, so to speak. Love was more than that. Love was the life in the vine, the flame in the heart, the glimmer on the edge of an hour.

Suddenly, although she was thinking about Carl, she began remembering George. Not today’s George, but the one she had married. . She had thought he was offering her something beautiful and untellable . . . she thought she had something beautiful and untellable for him, too. But they had given each other only the good bread and butter of love. All right in its

way, but . . . well, fattening.

But Carl ... of course, she didn’t know much about him yet. But what she did know was exciting and daring. Whatever he did, however ordinary a thing it was, had an edge of excitement about it.

Like the night he had come over to bring her a wistaria vine which his mother had promised her for her pergola. He had it draped around his shoulders in a most fantastic way. He was carrying the snarl of roots in a bag, like some symbolic figure of the earth.

“You look like a snake charmer,” Elizabeth said.

“I am, if you happen to have any serpent in you.” He slid his gaze into hers in a teasing melodramatic way, as if he were both flirting with her and making fun of her.

“You working by moonlight?” he asked. “I thought people gardened in the sun.”

“Depends on the kind of garden they’re planting,” she said, not meaning anything in particular. It was just the kind ofthing one said to him, with his mocking grin and those sombre eyes of his.

They went down the mottled garden path, and somehow it was all unfamiliar and beautiful, an enchanted land of shadow and silver, not at all liko the garden George worked in.

“Merope, lost out of heaven,” Carl said, “gardening in moonlight. You’re always a little secret and mysterious, Merope.”

“Not to most people.”

“The blind see no mysteries,” he said.

“Put it down there, Mr. Snake Charmer,” alie said, as lightly as possible.

“On second thought, I’m not a snake charmer,” he said, “This is Eden, and Adam has slain the serpent. We’ll plant it, Eve, and when you see it flowering you’ll remember this moment. All right !"

George had dug a deep hole that afternoon; George had perspired over it. But now Carl shrugged himself free of the great vine, and laid the huge snarl of symbolic-looking roots in the hole. He unshouldered himself from the serpent, like a man resisting temptation, getting out of its toils . . .

“And now I’d like to kiss you,” he had said in a perfectly ordinary voice. She had felt a little spurt of flame run through her ... a spurt of joy and aliveness, tangible as pain. The memory, even here in this strange place, brought him close, and she thought, “I’ve always been aware of him, watching me. Understanding the things I’ve never said to anybody.” No matter how much she had pretended to be amused by him . . . spitefully as the other matrons in town protended . . . she had known under every calm,

Continual on page 33

Continued, from page 7

married thing she said, that some

day . . .

EVEN 14-year-old Marny, who hadn’t much use for her parent’s friends, thought he was marvellous. Marny, bless her, was even a bit romantic about him.

“He’s wonderful,” Marny said, after he had picked her up in his car once on the road from the country club. “There must be some reason he stays in this town, Mother. Do you suppose he’s in love with somebody here?”

Usually Marny didn’t speak gently about love. Love was just a not-veryfunny gag to the 14-year-olds.

For instance, she’d been quite disgusted with Babbs Mitten, who entertained a rather infantile weakness for good old George.

“I saw Daddy looking too idiotic at the ninth tee, Mother,” Marny had said. “He and that long-legged Babbs Mitten. Doing tricks with her hips. I think she’s got a crush on Daddy, the big galloping hyena.”

“Please, darling,” Elizabeth had said, “One must speak kindly of animals.” Truth was, she didn’t like Babbs Mitten much herself.

Marny was really the one who always encouraged her to enter the slogan contests.

“You’re too clever just to be a dumb mother,” Marny said. “You keep trying to amount to something, darling.” She was a funny child, hardheaded like George, and adorably softhearted besides. Suddenly she realized that she had dawdled so long over lunch that she wouldn’t have time to go to the hotel and take the airport bus that left from there. She paid her check and found a taxi.

Her shadowy reflection in the glass facing her was very reassuring. She wished now that she had had all this restyling of herself done before she visited Marny’s school yesterday. She had so entirely outgrown her home town clothes in the last 24 hours that she shuddered to think of herself ever being connected with them. If Marny could see her now !

She peeped at herself in the mirror of her bag, and then snapped it shut quickly. Heavens, here she was in a strange woman’s body. Absenteeism, sure enough, the whole way! Suppose she never got back from this week . . . What would that do to Marny, who was so proud of her?

She had stopped to see Marny at her school yesterday, and had read her the telegram, and told her all the wonderful plans.

“Oh, Mother . . . oh, Mother ...” Marny kept saying, “They’ll love you. They probably expect you to be a pudgy little matron . . . wait’ll they see you . . . Maybe the news reels will take your picture . . .I’d simply die with glee.”

Remembering that, she suddenly remembered how Marny had looked when she unlocked her door and found her mother standing there. She had looked as if she were going to weep. She couldn’t say a word.

She had a little pile of money on the table, and she had evidently been figuring, for the scribbled-over envelope was still in her hand. Now, Elizabeth realized that it was strange that the child had had her door locked. The thought had swept across Elizabeth at the time, and she had meant to speak of it, but then she had got so engrossed

in the good news that she had forgotten

Miss Webster had allowed Elizabeth to sleep in the other twin bed of Marny’s room. They had talked much too late. When they were nearly asleep Marny had said in a stifled little whisper, “Mother . . . would you let me have $100?”

“I’ll let you have $200,” Elizabeth said drowsily. “Imagine, darling. I’m going to have money of my own!” Then she had wafted off on that new dream of being able to turn around without bumping into the financial question.

She had waked halfway then. “What do you want $100 for, Pet?” she had asked.

“I just . . . need it,” Marny said, vaguely. Only now, here in Toronto, Elizabeth realized how odd that was.

“You never needed $100 in your life, darling,” she had muttered, sleepily. “Well, maybe I’ll make you a cheque in the morning.” She had shattered the sentence with a yawn. But Marny’s voice was tense.

“No . . . I’d like to have bills,” she had said.

“Bills, Precious?” Ho-hum, what a long exciting day this had been, and sleep had swished over her mind so that she scarcely heard what Marny said. She strained now to remember it, and the words, the incredible words, came back to her.

“Somebody . . . somebody’s in

trouble . . . I’ve got to help, Mother. I’ve got to . . . ”

She wasn’t sure now whether or not she had dreamed that preposterous thing . . . Marny wanting $100! And yet, that locked door, and that crumpled money, two or three bills and a pitiful pile of silver on the table. It was odd, wasn’t it?”

She was convinced now that something had been wrong at the school. She felt a sick lump in her stomach, under the new girdle. She tried to calm herself. George always said she let drama run away with her where her child was concerned. George in his slow way never worried about things, so that when they got around to happening he wasn’t all confused with worry as she generally was.

SHE began thinking about George, wishing she had him here to take care of this business with Marny, whatever it was. Her mind veered off that, as one’s mind does about husbands, and she thought, “The whole trouble with George is that down underneath he really resents my winning this prize.”

For a moment the disloyalty of that was spice on her tongue. George was always so good and so considerate; never anything at all you could criticize about him. One felt tempted occasionally to brew synthetic complaint against him. Matter of fact, George had seemed hurt all week, ever since the telegram came. She was dimly conscious, under all her excited preparations for going aw'ay, that George was getting stuffier and more masculine all the time, obviously expecting her to explain something and “take the first, steps.”

“Take the steps, indeed,” she said, indignantly, to herself. “As if I didn’t have enough to do this week.”

She wondered why they ever quarrelled. She supposed it had something to do with sex, and a shamefaced attempt to trump up some novelty of emotion.

“Marriage after 16 years is like that,” she said to herself. “Quarrels are a form of snuff for the happily married. Something to provoke a sneeze . .

Then, with a start, she remembered that she wasn’t happily married. Not this week, anyway. She might have gone on forever, not knowing any better, if this wonderful prize hadn’t come to her. She might have gone on half alive, thinking of Carl timidly yet unrestrainedly; the way one thinks of a character in a book. Carl, so exciting and worldly, whom one could never know to the saturation point, as one knew George.

Dear old reliable George, who said exactly what you expected. Who did just what you expected, like a moving picture you’ve sat through several times. She narrowed her eyes, picturing George as he probably was at this moment, reading his afterluncheon newspaper, safe and solid in Newton. She’d bet one million dollars that’s what he was doing . . .

All her friends . . . all except Carl himself . . . had come to the station to put her on that triumphal train. George had avoided her eye, and she had kept thinking, “Oh, why must he be childish now? Thinking how much he’s going to miss me . . . wishing I’d begged him to come with me . . . he’s hurt, and I think it’s just selfish of him to be hurt.”

A deserted husband, every inch. She had been very much irritated with him, so stiff and dignified. But now she found herself thinking with affection and annoyance about that silly, transparent side of George, so easily hurt,

and then so ravenous for reconciliation. He loved hearing her reassure him over and over that they were the happiest couple in town.

THIS last year there hadn’t, been very much of that sort of thing. George had been terribly busy, with several of the doctors gone into the service. There’d been time for very little emotion, and one’s work. No wonder she was sick to death of the war . . . guilty of absenteeism.

If George were a character in a play there would be another reason for this last year. The wife in the play would think it was the war, of course, but underneath there’d be another woman. But, of course, considering George, that was silly. Or was it?

Against her will, a clear vision of the Dramatic Club’s Christmas play floated across her mind. That Babbs Mitten hanging around George’s neck . . . much too long after the curtain had come limping down.

“They’re so good,” everybody had said. “By heck, they’re a little too good, don’t you think, Elizabeth?”

It had bored her at the time. Middleaged fauns, all of them, she had said to herself, scornfully. Poor paunchy fauns, capering in tired moonlight.

She realized that Babbs Mitten, who had certainly never been one of her friends, had been at the station to see her off. Very effusive about it, come to think of it. She had said, “Bettikins, dear, don’t think about coming home until you’ve squeezed all the juice out of it. We’ll take care of Georgie for you.” Bettikins indeed! and Georgie!

At the last minute, George, his face flushed with feeling, had taken her to one side. The friends had conspicuously withdrawn a moment to give him his chance.

“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you,” he had »aid.

“Not now, dear,” she had said in a jitter, hating husband-and-wife scenes at railway stations. “The train ia practically upon us now.”

“I’m . . . sorry about things,”

George said. “Things just seemed to happen, Elizabeth. I’ve written you a letter. You read it when you’re by yourself.” He wns thrusting a fattish envelope into her hands, nnd she saw his forehead was gleaming with earnestness and perspiration. Poor George always took his feelings so hard, and they usually made him look rumpled and somehow ridiculous.

What had he been trying to say? He had been agitated. And what ubout that letter? If George had any momentous decision to make, he’d go into great explanations about it. Suddenly, then, she remembered that it had been Babbs who had herded the friends to one side while George gave her the letter. They had both looked selfconscious, and worse. Her George. A woman like Bnbbs Mitten would enjoy getting him under her thumb. She was trembling now with rage and apprehension.

Why, he hadn’t even asked to come with her to Toronto! He hadn’t even said, “If it wasn’t for this beastly war, I’d like to go with you, darling.”

She had thought he was just too busy. And probably at this moment . She dabbed recklessly at her new mascara and a wave of weakness and fear swept over her.

“I’ve just not got the courage to read that letter,” she said. “I simply couldn’t bear it ...” She remembered stuffing the letter into her handbag. With its slippery satin compartments,

it was as alien to her as a new soul. It didn’t belong to her at all; it mocked her with its clever newness, and she felt bewildered and homesick. Where was it?

Then she remembered. It was gone. Forgotten in the old purse, which the stylist had discarded without comment.

“You won’t be wanting this,” she had said, serenely, and Elizabeth didn’t have the courage to protest. She had put the contents into her new handbag and, under the stylist’s eye, she had overlooked George’s bulky letter. Now it was gone, forever, sent in some bundle to a refugee who probably couldn’t read it. What had George said in that letter? Only his usual affectionate admonishing ... or something to change her whole life?

HPHE CAB was at the airport now, A and the great TCA plane was ready to leave. She heard a public address loudspeaker blaring her name, and she was sick and trembly all of a sudden.

“Mrs. George Portent wanted on the telephone. One minute before leaving. Mrs. George Portent wanted on the telephone ...”

A ground steward came hurrying up.

“Mrs. Portent? You’ve just time to make it.” He signalled for the plane to wait another moment. “Long-distance has been trying to get you,” he said, “We’ve got the call here in the booth, waiting . . . ”

Elizabeth, too frightened to speak, ran limply behind. Already she saw her bags being rustled into the impatient plane. Let them go ... to heck with new bags, which didn’t belong to her, anyway. They belonged to a woman in a mirror . . . and she herself was a woman in a life. In the life of a man, a good hard-working doctor . . .and of a child . . .

Another steward was holding the phone for her, and she sank into the booth, hardly able to hold the receiver.

“This is Mrs. Portent,” she said to the operator.

“I’ve a long-distance call for you,” the rubber-tired voice said pleasantly. “Your hotel has relayed it here for you.”

“Yes . . . yes . . . give it to me.”

The steward said, “You’ve only one minute, Madame. We can’t hold the plane any longer. We’re behind schedule now.”

“One moment, please,” the operator said, and there was a cavernous gurgling on the line, “There seems to be some mistake. Y our party is gone. Just one moment ...”

“Dear Lord,” Elizabeth said, and drummed her hand on the telephone box. Not her hand, surely, the one that dug the victory garden, and changed the canteen tires; this was a stranger’s hand with five unfamiliar mulberries gleaming on the nails.

“Never mind, I’ll put in the call,” she said, steadily. “It’s my little girl . . . Give me Vernon 874 ...”

HOURS of delay, and prayer, and that puckered face outside the gluss door signalling her to hurry. “Please forgive me, Lord, for thinking like a fool. I’ve acted all right, but I’ve thought like a fool ...”

Then a voice, and finally Marny, herself, cool and sweet.

“Hello?”

“Darling, did you telephone me?” “Mother? Hello. Where are you? I’ve been watching the sky to see you go over ...”

“You called me? Are you all right, dear?”

“Cert,” said Marny. “Perf. But bursting with pride.”

“You wanted $100. Oh, Marny, what for?”

A long pause, and then Marny’s voice, lowered for conspiracy.

“Well, you see, Jane borrowed her roommate’s evening wrap without telling her, and somebody spilled something, and Jane was practically suicidal. But it’s all right now ...”

“Oh.” Then it was George. George, and that Babbs woman who had got hold of him. “Operator, operator . . . get me Newton, Ontario.”

.There was that steward pecking at her elbow. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Portent. You’ve got to leave, if you make that plane ...”

Then, after a yawning eternity, George’s voice, deep and rich as one forgot it was, until one had been away from him for a while.

“Oh, George, what is it, darling?” “Why, Elizabeth . . . Where are you? Is this long-distance? Sounds like you’re in the very next room. Wonderful how good connections are, isn’t it?”

“George . . . did you call me? I’ve been so worried. I’ve missed you so . . .”

George sounding pleased in the silence. “Have you, Elizabeth? I told you in my letter how I would miss you. But it’s been worse than I expected, even. I guess we’re still the happiest couple on earth . . . doesn’t seem possible, does it? After all this time?”

“But . . . did you put a call through for me?”

“Who? Me? No. But I was going to wire you some flowers in Montreal. I was reading the paper, and I happened to think you’d like some flowers ...” Just as she thought, reading his afterluncheon paper. Well, she’d won her million dollar bet on George. She’d always win all bets on George. She was jittery with relief.

“And no Babbs, darling?”

“What d’you say? I can’t seem to hear you very well.”

“Well, listen. I’m . . . I’m not taking the plane. I want to come home. I don’t need any holiday. There’s a war on. I just want to be home, doing what I can.” She was crying now, with relief and good intent ions.

The steward was wigwagging to the pilot. Everybody was holding him responsible, and the dame was just dithering. She was out of the booth now, but still running in all directions.

Now the phone was screaming again. He snatched up the receiver. In another minute that gal would be back, and would start all over;

But Elizabeth was giving up her place in the plane to a man who had a war job. She heard the telephone ringing, but it didn’t matter to her.

“What’d you suppose that is?” she said, vaguely, to herself, forgetting there had been a call for her mislaid. There were only two important people in the world, and she had just reassured herself about both of them.

The steward was left, holding the long-distance bag. “Hello. She’s not here,” he shouted. “Yes, I’ll take the message sir. ‘Mr. Carl Loganem is flying to Montreal and will meet Mrs. Portent for dinner.’ Okay, I’ll tell her, sir.”

But he never had a chance to tell her, for Elizabeth, clutching that new handbag, was spinning off in the taxi, started back toward her marriage, all because of a romantic telephone call she never would receive.