|Last Taxi to Kensington, by Helena O'Rall
This short novel, purportedly written by Ellen Hall, one of the last family residents of Stoney Grove is presented here in 14 parts.
"Yes, of course." She nodded to the chair across from her. He sat down, placing a brown-paper package on the table between them.
It had been months since she had seen him. His face was roughened by days outdoors in the chill spring, his hair more unruly than ever. She studied him as he summoned the waitress and ordered more tea, and found what she saw to her liking.
"How have you been keeping?" he asked, when the business at hand was complete, and they were alone. "Iím surprised to see you in Puckering."
"Why is that?" she asked.
"I heard youíd gone back to London with your friends." He shrugged.
"No," she replied, " I decided to stay."
"Iíve been away myself," he added, "looking after another of our farms up East Imbiben way until we could find a manager." He looked at her. "I wouldnít have thought there was much happening here to keep you," he said carefully. "Still, I suppose that Londonís not safe these days."
"No, I suppose not. It doesnít seem like many places are."
"Thatís the truth. Still, I fancy Puckering will be all right. Nothing here of much value to anyone else."
She shook her head in disagreement. "Puckering is a marvellous place," she countered, surprised at the warmth of her feeling. "Aunt Beatrice loved it, and I had a wonderful childhood here."
"You remember it then?" he asked, teasingly. She blushed, recalling an earlier meeting.
A smile lit his face. "I had a wonderful childhood, too," he replied.
Their eyes met, and Lorettaís heart fluttered at the intensity of his gaze. What did he want with her? Last fall she had felt the look impertinent; now she welcomed the suggestion of passion that lay behind it.
"And now?" she teased back, wanting to draw him out.
He paused, considering the question, and frowned. The moment had passed. "A man cannot be happy with the world as it is," he replied.
"Youíve no part in that," she said soothingly.
He glared at her, suddenly angry. "Youíve no need to remind me," he barked. "I wake knowing the truth of that every morning. Iím here, mucking out cow sheds, instead of in Europe or Africa fighting alongside the rest of the boys. I couldnít go, though, and leave the farms. There was nobody else to manage them."
"You have important responsibilities too," she countered. "Not everyone has to fight."
"No," he responded bitterly. "The granddads and the boys have to stay behind. And myself with the cows."
"A pot of tea and toast for you, love," cried the waitress, placing the steaming pot between them. "And another pot for you. Is there anything else, then?"
Loretta smiled and dismissed her. She reached for his teapot, and poured him out a cup.
"Used to drink coffee, but I canít face the stuff now that thereís no sugar to be had," he grimaced, raising the cup to his lips. "At least with the herd I can get a drop of milk now and again." Loretta helped herself silently. She nibbled on a piece of toast, waiting for Arthur to regain his temper.
"Iím sorry," he sighed, placing his cup on the table and running a hand through his hair. "I shouldnít have become cross with you. It was wrong of me. Can you forgive me?"
"Of course," she smiled at him. "I understand how you feel."
They passed a few minutes in silence. Then Loretta glanced at her watch. It was time to go.
"Excuse me," she said, reaching for her purse. "Iím terribly sorry, but I must be off."
"Can I give you a lift?" Arthur began to rise as well.
"No, no, please, finish your tea. Iíll be all right to walk."
He reached for her hand as she turned to leave the table.
"May I see you again?" he asked softly. "Iím not always this ill-tempered. I could come Ďround tomorrow and prove it to you."
She looked down for him. "Iím afraid not," she said kindly. You see, Iím leaving town for a few weeks."
"Leaving town," he repeated.
"Yes, Iím going up to London. I haveÖbusiness there."
His features hardened and his voice grew cold.
"I understand," he said stiffly. "Enjoy your trip then."
Loretta stood, baffled by his changing moods. She had upset him, that was clear. It was also clear that she really must hurry if she were to catch her train.
"Goodbye," she said, and left the shop.