An Old Schoolfriend

There had been a loud rapping on the front door, which had caused them to look at one another in surprise. Only strangers used the front door rather than the one at the side of the house and they usually rang the bell, not assaulted the wood with their knuckles.
“The bell must be broken again,” Frances had said. “Probably it’s Jehovah Witnesses.” She went to investigate.
Julia had crossed to the kitchen window and watched as her father dead-headed a rose bush. He looked up, saw her, smiled and raised his left hand to his mouth a couple of times, indicating that he could do with a cup of tea. She filled the kettle and switched it on, before going to find out who on earth it could be who had called and been shown, ceremoniously, into the front-room. She could hear a man’s voice, loud and confident, assuring Frances that she was as pretty as ever. The visitor was sitting in an armchair with his back to the sunlight, which was flooding in through the bay window. He stood as Julia entered, laughing boisterously at her lack of recognition.
“Don’t you remember me either, Julia?” and, immediately, she did.
“Bruce Burns,” she said faintly in disbelief and without pleasure.
“The one and only,” he asserted shaking her hand vigorously. He looked from her to Frances and laughed again, delighted with their air of bemused amazement.
“Do let’s sit down,” Frances said. She was going to enjoy this. Julia subsided into the nearest chair as if gravity had suddenly become too great to resist. Bruce Burns dropped back into the shabby armchair with total disregard for its ageing springs and Frances perched herself daintily on the edge of the sofa, looking eager.
“You look well,” Julia said because she had to say something, it was only polite.
“Fit as a fiddle,” he declared with relish. “I make a point of walking as much as possible and visit the gym at least once a week.” This last boast proved to be untrue. He was tall and heavily built, much as they remembered him at school, but there was a suspicion that beneath the light grey suit, which seemed to Julia to be too formal for the occasion, he was fleshy rather than muscular. “Still living at home, then?” he remarked, glancing round the faded room, which Julia considered comfortable, but her sister, with a grand home of her own, would describe as badly in need of a make-over. “What do your husbands do?”
So they were to be defined by their husbands’ jobs. How typical of him, he had always been a male chauvinist. Julia raised her eyebrows and chin in haughty defiance, aware that Frances was waiting with interest for her reply. “Frances’s husband has his own electronics business and she works part-time in his office. I’m a teacher. I never married.”
Julia could tell that he knew. In fact his smug air of interest gave her the impression that he knew all about them, that he had made it his business to find out. When he had made the remark about living at home, he had been looking at her, not Frances.
“What about you, Bruce?” Frances asked, much to his gratification.
“Divorced, I’m afraid. A year ago. One son, Malcolm, sixteen, divides his time between his mother and me. I’ve decided to come back to Dorset to live, been away far too long. I’m opening a restaurant here, my third. The other two are in Brighton.”
That was his prepared potted history and they could glean no more, or rather, Frances was able to glean no more, it was beneath Julia’s dignity to try. Except for the fact that he was well-off, he actually admitted, with a complacent smile, that he was “doing very nicely, thank you”.
Julia and Frances were just as cagey. Neither of them talked about their children, because to mention Amelia could be embarrassing and to mention Max without mentioning Amelia was unthinkable. Frances did recall a couple of their school contemporaries, of whom she had fairly recent news, but he showed little interest and dismissed them swiftly and cruelly, remarking that one had been a bit of a snob and the other fat and lazy. Julia and Frances with two years between them had not had the same friends and neither of them had shared their friends with Bruce Burns. In fact, thinking back, Julia could not remember any friends he had been able to call his own. He had existed on the edge of various groups, but had not really belonged to any of them, yet he had not been disliked; tolerated, but not disliked, except by her, because he had pestered her to go out with him.
The conversation had been jumpy and uneasy, with their unexpected visitor providing all the heartiness. Julia could not bring herself to be as attractive as he insisted that she used to be and Frances, having given up trying to get any more information out of him and becoming aware that it was Julia he had called to see, found herself obliged to compensate for her sister’s stubborn silences by constantly making remarks about the weather, the sorry state of the gardens due to lack of rain, the traffic congestion in the town due to hosts of day-trippers, while they both willed him to get up and go so that they could discuss him and his possible motive for coming. Then Julia suddenly remembered with relief that her father, working away in the garden, had asked for tea ages ago and she went to make it, leaving Frances to continue practicing her considerable social charms on him. She brought them in a cup each and a plate of biscuits and, no sooner had he drunk his, than Bruce Burns decided to take his leave. They went to the door with him, mentally pushing his large frame through it and on to the garden path. “I’m looking around for somewhere to live down here,” had been his parting remark as he headed towards the gate. “I fancy a view of the sea.” They watched as he drove away in his expensive car.
“There’s no poetry in that man’s soul,” Frances said with a sigh, as she shut the door.
Julia turned towards her, the polite smile of goodbye changing to a more familiar look of exasperation. “For heaven’s sake, Frances, what do you know about his soul? What do you know about him at all, for that matter?”
“More than you do, I should think. He was in my year at school, not yours.”
“That was ages ago. No doubt he’s changed as much as we have.”
“He sounded the same,” was the truculent response, as Frances followed her into the kitchen. “Loud, full of his own importance. Older and heavier, of course, but aren’t we all?” He had remained impervious to her pretty smiles when Julia was out of the room and she remained as baffled as she had always been by his preference for her plainer, rather too serious, younger sister, who had always treated him, as far as Frances knew, with cool disdain.
“We aren’t heavier,” Julia protested. “Well, not much, anyway.”
“We’re no longer size ten”, Frances reminded her as she tipped the few biscuits left on the plate back into the tin, bashing the lid shut with the palm of her hand as if defying them to leap out and tempt her. “I never liked him,” she added for good measure.
“Well, neither did I, that’s why I never went out with him. He asked me often enough, even though I used to be quite rude to him. He never got the message.” Julia used to think it was because he was thick-skinned, now she wondered charitably if perhaps she had wronged him and that it was because he had been so besotted with her that even her heartless rebuffs had been better than total loss of hope. She wondered how she could ever have been so unfeeling; having suffered so much herself from unrequited love, she could at least sympathise.
“How cruel we were in those days,” Frances said, as if reading her thoughts and they smiled at each other mischievously, recalling the power of their youthful charms, when they could pick and choose amongst their many suitors and not lose a wink of sleep over the tender feelings they had bruised. Frances sighed nostalgically with memories of her popularity and wondered again how Bruce Burns had managed to remain outside the orbit of her vivacity.

From the novel Cross Currents by Barbara Masterton, Il Moscardino 2012

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