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Miss Best and Mr. Marvel

(From Small Displacements)
Vanessa Furse Jackson

“I saw a thrush this morning,” Mr. Marvel said.

“A thrush?” Miss Best exclaimed. “You didn’t!”

“I did,” Mr. Marvel said, with some satisfaction. “On the bank at the far side of the lawn, hopping about on the grass.”

“Looking for snails?”

“And finding one, too,” he said. “Bang-banging it on one of the big grey stones by the ornamental bridge.”

Miss Best looked out of her window. There were no lawns or ornamental bridges to be seen, just the wide concrete path between her building and the building next to it, which had quite nice brickwork, but no windows. “How fantastic!” she said. “And I was just watching a television show about the disappearance of native birds. Thrushes are getting so rare.”


“And house sparrows,” added Mr. Marvel.

“Oh, I do hope robins are safe,” Miss Best said, anxiously. “I couldn’t bear it if robins disappeared.”

“Christmas cards would never be the same.” Mr. Marvel shook his head. “It doesn’t bear thinking of,” he said.

They sat there for a moment in a silence.

“Still,” Miss Best said. “You saw a thrush. We must remember that and rejoice.”

Mr. Marvel puffed out his moustache. “Beautiful breast. Quite beautiful. I remember once . .” His eyes grew dreamy.

Miss Best sighed with pleasure. He’d brought her a story. “Yes?” she breathed.

“It was a summer at Ashenleigh, right at the end of the war,” he began. “I’d brought Ada down to meet my parents. Well, to meet my father, really, I suppose. Ma would have loved anyone who loved me, but the old boy could be prickly—thought all modern girls were light-skirts, only after one thing.”

“Your money?” hazarded Miss Best.

“No, no, my honor, my manhood—love you and leave you—that sort of thing.” Mr. Marvel looked a bit pink.

“Goodness,” said Miss Best. “I thought parents only worried about that if they had daughters. My father wouldn’t have any young man in the house after ten p.m.”

“Well, Ada was allowed to stay, but she was put in the bedroom next to my parents. Thin walls between. Made it quite a challenge.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, that wasn’t what I was remembering.”

Miss Best tilted her head to one side, raised an eyebrow.

“Not all I was remembering, damn you, woman.”

She laughed. She still had a pretty laugh. “Go on.”

“It was one of those gorgeous days that one recollects when one thinks of past summers,” Mr. Marvel went on, “but that are, in meteorological fact, comparatively rare. Golden sun, fresh morning, green world, birds singing—you know the kind of thing. It was after breakfast, and Ada and I were sitting on the terrace outside the French windows, looking out over the garden. Only of course my father wouldn’t call them French windows after Dunkirk—not very charitable towards the French, my father—refused to eat anything containing garlic or olives for the same reason. He called them the door windows instead.”

“Door windows—how very fascinating,” said Miss Best, entranced.

“So there we were, Ada and I, sitting on the old wooden seat outside the door windows, looking out over the lawn at those circular rose beds dotted everywhere—big blowsy tea roses, all those reds and yellows floppeting about, you prob’ly know their names. My father never knew the names of anything, but that’s what his father’d planted back in 1908 when they bought the place—great one for tradition, my father. So he entrusted the care of the garden to Ma and she left it all to old Jamieson to do. Had a son killed at Arnhem, poor old man, never really regained his strength after the war, but he was a wizard gardener—everything bloomed for him. I always thought those rose-beds looked a bit thorny and unfriendly myself—all that bare earth, if you know what I mean. But the great blooming heads, how pretty they were that day—oh, I can see them now.” Mr. Marvel sighed deeply.

“Why after Dunkirk?” asked Miss Best.

“Ha! What? Well, after Dunkirk, you see, Father washed his hands of the French—said it was typical of them to let the devil in and the angels out—wouldn’t have any doors in his house called French windows, no, by God. Bit of a Wogs begin at Calais sort of chap, my old dad. Sorry.”

“No, no, don’t be sorry,” said Miss Best. “Go on. You were with Ada on the terrace.”

“After breakfast.”

“After breakfast, yes. What age would she have been as she sat beside you on the old wooden seat?” Miss Best was there, in the sunshine, on the terrace. She smelled the roses.

“Hmm, let me see, she must have been, yes, she’d just have turned twenty-three. I was a little older, of course—felt I could protect her—little Ada.” He cleared his throat.

“Twenty-three,” murmured Miss Best, remembering the combs with which she used to sweep back her hair, so it fell in curls behind her ears.

“Well, then,” said Mr. Marvel, picking up his tale. “There we were, sitting in the sunshine, full of eggs and bacon and the joys of young love. Holding hands discreetly, ahem, so no one could see from inside the house.”

“Fresh eggs, not dried?” asked Miss Best. It was important that the story be historically accurate.

“They had eggs at Ashenleigh all through the war. Rhode Island reds. My mother kept them.”

“Your father didn’t mind Americans, then?” said Miss Best, twinkling.

“Americans? Oh. Yes, ha! Very good. No, he always said he’d have married Mary Pickford if he hadn’t met my mother first. Though he couldn’t stand Roosevelt, of course—bolshy socialist pinko, he called him. Bit unfair, I always thought, but there. Where was I?”

“On the terrace,” said Miss Best. “I do apologize. The eggs distracted me.”

“Holding hands, yes. We had our own pigs, too, by the way. Jamieson dealt with those, though. Lovely animals. I always used to go straight to the sties when I came home on leave. One could lean over the low wall for hours scratching a bristly pink back with a stick—you relaxed, pig relaxed, it was a wonderful way to wind down before tea and questions in the drawing-room.”

“From your parents, yes.” Miss Best nodded, sympathetically.

“Bit like coming home from school, coming home on leave,” said Mr. Marvel. “Same inquisition or so it seemed to me. What have you been doing since we last saw you? Are your superiors pleased with you? When can we expect your promotion? Have you made any nice friends? That sort of thing. Couldn’t stand it sometimes.”

“You poor man,” said Miss Best, with deep sympathy. “Mine was always that last question. Have you made any nice friends? Meaning men friends. Meaning, when are you going to catch yourself a husband and get married? Infuriating when I longed to have what other girls did, wanted so much to love. To be loved. I would have given anything.” She stopped, out of breath from the shock of anger that had blown through her.

Mr. Marvel took one of her hands in his and held it gently.

“What they were really asking was why do we have a poor virginal failure for a daughter?” Miss Best took a tissue from a box next to her chair and wiped her eyes. She looked out at the concrete wall and brick path outside. Mr. Doughty was taking his regular afternoon constitutional, leaning heavily on his walker, taking tiny steps on feet he kept so tightly clamped together, it was as if he wore invisible leg-cuffs. I used to be able to do that, thought Miss Best.

“I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t—well—you know,” said Mr. Marvel.

“Like me,” said Miss Best and smiled a watery smile. “If you didn’t like me. I know.”

“Well, I jolly well do,” he said. “Now where was I?”

“I like you, too,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without you. I know exactly why I named you Mr. Marvel, you dear man.” She blew her nose.

Mr. Marvel (and it was true that this was not his real name) whiffled deprecatingly through his moustache. “Well,” he said, “with a name like Best, you needed the illusion that I was on your august and elevated level, perhaps. Ha!”

“Such a silly name, Best,” she said. “It simply had the effect of making me aware I wasn’t.” She shifted slightly in her chair.

“Hurting?” he said.

“Go on,” said Miss Best. “You were sitting on the old wooden seat on the terrace with Ada. What was she wearing?”

Mr. Marvel thought for a moment. “Good question—what would she have been wearing?”

“Did she have combs in her hair?” asked Miss Best.

“No, no, wait now. She had a straw hat with a wide brim, I remember. Got in the way a bit. And her frock was white, that’s it. A white frock with three-quarter length sleeves. What else? A round collar like a blouse, you know. Buttons, I think, some buttons down the front. And a narrow, blue leather belt around her waist. By Jove, yes, it was pretty. That little waist, could put both hands around it, and all that white stuff falling from the line of blue. Fresh as the springtime,” he added, originally.

“Made from an old sheet probably,” said Miss Best. “Linen, if she was lucky. Or perhaps butter muslin. We had to make do and mend in those days.” But in her mind the exquisite Ada was attired in couturier perfection, a vision of the kind of loveliness that Miss Best remembered so well sighing over in dark cinemas. A dream heroine, unsuitably but immaculately dressed and coiffed for every scene.

There was a thumping knock on the door. Miss Best, her mind’s film un-spooling, started slightly. Mr. Marvel withdrew his hands tactfully as a nursing aide bustled in with Miss Best’s afternoon cup of tea. “Hello, Angel,” Mr. Marvel said. “How opportune—just what we need, a nice cup of tea.”

“Angela to you,” said the woman, tartly.

“'A ministering angel shall my sister be,’” rhapsodized Mr. Marvel, with an expansive sweep of his arms.

“Here you are then, ducks,” said Angela to Miss Best. She removed the box of tissues from reach and plunked down the cup of tea on the small table by Miss Best’s chair, so that some of the liquid rocked into the saucer. “Need the potty before you drink that, do you, lovie?”

“I do not,” Miss Best said, stiffly. “Thank you.”

“I suppose you’re going to want yours in here, too, aren’t you?” Angela said, slipping both her arms under Miss Best’s and giving her an expert pull up.

“If it would not be too much trouble,” Mr. Marvel said, inclining his head.

"And perhaps a couple of biscuits to go with the tea?” Miss Best added, but her suggestion was made to Angela’s retreating back as she whisked out of the room in a haste that clearly signified the trouble to which she was being put.

“Hamlet,” said Mr. Marvel.

“That woman,” sighed Miss Best.

“About Ophelia. After he’d driven her to kill herself, naturally.”

“A ministering angel?” said Miss Best. “That hardly describes Angela.” She had needed pulling up in her chair, but her back was protesting at Angela’s brisk methods.

“She’s in such a hurry, that one, she won’t stay around long enough for her own funeral,” said Mr. Marvel.

“Well, she won’t be missed,” said Miss Best with asperity, and the two of them broke into peals of laughter. 

There was a frenzied wail from the next-door room. “There they are again. The flies have got in. The flies have got in. Help me. The flies have got in.”

“Oh Gawd,” said Mr. Marvel. “We’ve woken up Miss Cuckoo.”

“Shhh,” said Miss Best.  “You mustn’t call her that.”  She put a hand up to her mouth to stifle her laughter.

They listened to Angela go into the room, heard the steady murmur of her voice, and the wailing slowly died down again.

“Poor old thing,” said Miss Best.

“We’re lucky, you and I,” said Mr. Marvel.  “We still have our faculties.”

“We may not be able to walk,” agreed Miss Best, “but at least we can still think.”

“Slight loss of legs but all our marbles,” said Mr. Marvel, and they were still laughing, though more quietly this time, when Angela returned with a second cup of tea, disapproval radiating from her like disinfectant. 

“You’ll have to balance it on your lap,” she said, handing the cup and saucer to Mr. Marvel.  “And mind you don’t spill any on your rug.  We’re much too busy to be cleaning up after you today, so just you be careful, you hear me?”

“Yes, Mummy,” said Mr. Marvel.

“Bloody cheek,” said Angela as she swept out.

“And no biscuits, of course,” said Miss Best.

“I wonder why they work here, these women,” said Mr. Marvel, raising his tea and sucking it carefully through his moustache.

Miss Best put both hands round her cup and managed a tremulous sip, but the cup was such an awkward shape and her hands so clumsy today that she put it down again.  “Potty, indeed,” she said, still outraged that the question should have been asked in front of a gentleman.  “Have they no manners?”

“You notice that we may take no liberties,” said Mr. Marvel.  “Yet we are ducks and lovie to them.”

“Children.”

“Children,” he agreed.

“Oh dear,” said Miss Best.  “I’ve spilt some on my lap.”  She looked around for a tissue, then dabbed with her thumb.  “I shall be in trouble, I suppose.”

“Serves the silly cow right for slopping it in the first place,” said Mr. Marvel, with sudden viciousness.  He drank his tea, fulminating.

“We mustn’t complain,” Miss Best said, after a pause.  Her back ached, and she thought how nice it would be to lie down for a while.

“Why bloody not?”  

Miss Best looked over at the corner of her room where stood the enormous hoist with which she was moved from chair to bed.  Like some obscene dowager’s carriage, she thought, waiting motionless for the horse to be buckled into its slings and harness.  By Angela, the coachman with the reins and whip.  She chuckled at the picture then looked over at her friend.

He glanced up from his cup, caught her eye, and smiled unwillingly.  “All right, all right,” he said.  “No complaining.  No point anyway.  No damn point.” He leaned sideways with some difficulty and set his cup and saucer down on the floor with a clatter.  “That’ll give her something to suck her teeth about,” he said with satisfaction.  “Now, where was I?”

“On the terrace,” said Miss Best.  “On the old wooden seat, with Ada.”  She shut her eyes to retrieve the picture.  “Who is in a white dress with a blue belt and a cartwheel straw hat with long blue ribbons.  Her eyes match the belt and the ribbons, and her lips are the color of the red roses at which she is looking.”

“By Jove,” said Mr. Marvel.  “You’re absolutely right.  Blue ribbons on the hat, yes, I’d forgotten that.”

“Ada is twenty-three and quite lovely,” Miss Best went on.  “She is also very much in love with you.”

“Very much in love,” he repeated.  “Yes.”

“Are you about to propose, by any chance?” asked Miss Best, delicately.

“Ah,” said Mr. Marvel.  He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair, brought his hands together in a praying shape, and rested his chin on the tips of his fingers.  “I was just getting to that.”  He thought for a moment, his brow furrowed.

“Are you in uniform?” Miss Best asked, giving him time to collect himself.

“No, I’m not in uniform.”  He corrected himself.  “Was not in uniform.  Wouldn’t have done to wear it around the house, you know.  I was in a pair of pre-war flannels, unfashionably wide, white shirt, no tie.”

“And a cricketing jersey?” suggested Miss Best.

“Too warm.  Sleeves rolled up.  Jacket hung over the arm of the seat, that kind of thing.”

“All right,” said Miss Best.  “Carry on.”

“It was the thrush that got me started,” Mr. Marvel said.  “Seeing that thrush this morning.  There were thrushes at Ashenleigh, too, many, oh many thrushes.”

“On the lawn that morning?”

“On the lawn that very morning!  Questing in the earth beneath the rose bushes, bringing their snails to the bottom of the terrace and breaking the shells on the stone steps there.”

“And singing that wonderful, glittering song from the surrounding trees,” said Miss Best.

“Alas, I don’t remember that,” Mr. Marvel said.  “But I do remember my father on the subject.”

“Elms and limes and willows and a great spreading cedar of Lebanon,” said Miss Best, rapt.

“Called ‘em those damned Frog birds.  Frog birds because they ate snails, you see.”  Mr. Marvel raised up his head and guffawed with laughter.  “Frog birds, oh lordy.”

Miss Best opened her eyes.  “You’re not concentrating,” she said.

Mr. Marvel wiped his eyes.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Sorry.  Lost my train of thought there for a moment.”

“The thrushes are questing.  The smell of roses is overpowering.  You are about to propose,” said Miss Best, closing her eyes again.

“I couldn’t go down on one knee or anything,” said Mr. Marvel.  “Because of the possibility that we were being overlooked from behind the door windows.  I couldn’t even turn to her properly because of that damned hat she had on.  So I clasped her hands a little tighter in mine, and I think she knew I was about to speak.”

“Yes,” whispered Miss Best.

“Would you do me the honor?”

“Yes?”

“The honor of becoming my wife?”

“Yes, oh yes.”

“That’s exactly right—exactly what she did say.  No need for anything else, you see.”

“How wonderful!”

“I was bold enough to lift her hands to my lips.  I was overcome, quite overcome.”

“I understand completely.”

“No more words.  So I reached over to my jacket pocket and got out my cigarette case—gave us both one, and we lit up and sat there in the sunshine smoking.  Oh, those were the days,” said Mr. Marvel, with longing in his voice.

Miss Best had never smoked.  “Cigarettes?” she said.  “At a moment like this?”  She opened her eyes and looked over at Mr. Marvel.

He caught her glance, guiltily, then rallied.  “At that very moment,” he cried, “my father came lunging through the door windows like a rogue elephant in must, galloped around the old wooden seat, and stood before Ada and me gobbling like a turkey in his incoherent rage.”

“Either an elephant or a turkey.  Not both, surely?” said Miss Best.

“Trumpeting and gobbling his displeasure,” continued Mr. Marvel, magnificently.  “I could feel Ada’s little hands trembling in mine.”

“Where are the cigarettes?” hissed Miss Best.

“We had pitched our cigarettes over the front of the terrace at the first sound of movement from within.”

“I hope you didn’t hit any thrushes,” said Miss Best, but she was thrilled nevertheless.  
“And then?” she urged.

“And then,” said Mr. Marvel, “before he could get a word in edgeways, I stood up (I was taller than he) and, looking down at him, said quietly but firmly, ‘Father, I would like to present to you my affianced bride.  Ada has done the honour of accepting my hand in marriage’.”

“Bravo!” exclaimed Miss Best.

“That was it,” said Mr. Marvel.  “The poor old boy caved in immediately, still red in the face and sputtering, but quite defeated.  Bowed before her.  Kissed her hand.”

“Oh, how marvelous,” said Miss Best.  “How marvelous.”  She closed her eyes and leaned back into her chair.

“It was rather, wasn’t it?” said Mr. Marvel.  “A damned good story, though I say it as shouldn’t.”

Miss Best smiled.  “Mmm,” she murmured, contentedly.

“You’re tired, dear lady.  Time for me to be taking myself off.  What a pleasure this has been.  Many thanks for putting up with me.”

Miss Best tried to beg him to stay longer, but she was indeed tired.  It was almost time for the dowager’s carriage.  “Thank you, dear friend,” she said.  “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Mr. Marvel leaned forward, took one of her swollen, twisted hands in his, and kissed it gallantly, as he always did before leaving.  “Till next time, then, my beauty,” he said, and took the brake off his chair.  Reversing carefully, he felt a wheel run over something hard.  There was a jolt, a loud crack, and “Oh damn,” said Mr. Marvel.  “I’ve just run over the cup and saucer.”

The two friends looked at each other in consternation.  He sighed and then shrugged.  “No use crying over spilt china,” he said.  “I’ll tell them as I go past the nursing station.”

“That’ll be the last cup of tea you’ll ever get from Angela,” said Miss Best.

He rolled his wheelchair backwards to the doorway.  “Goodbye my dear Miss Best,” he said.

“Goodbye Mr. Marvel,” said Miss Best.  “Come back soon.  I want to hear all your stories, and we don’t have much time, do we?”

Mr. Marvel spun his chair round expertly in the wide corridor.  “We have the rest of our lives,” he said, and he laughed—a boy’s laugh—as he rolled away, rubber wheels squeaking on the polished linoleum.  

Miss Best laid her head back in her chair and closed her eyes.  Beginning to drift into sleep, she was dimly aware of song glittering through the great spreading cedar above the scent of roses and, farther off, the bumbling, narcotic buzzing of a trapped fly.

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