Closer Acquaintance

bd79b61480baa0acdb1560cba8e62e62Ruth had never been to London before and felt very nervous. John helped her down from the carriage on to the platform and led her out of the station into the street. He had no luggage of his own, but carried Ruth’s bag in one hand and held Ruth’s dainty, gloved hand on the other. She held tightly and could feel that John was wearing a ring.

Not a wedding ring, thank goodness, it was the wrong hand for that.

When she looked, she could see that there was a strange design on the ring, like a snake eating its own tail.

“What does that mean,” she asked John pointing to his ring.

John pulled away. “Nothing,” he said. “Just a ring. Come on this way.”  John let go of Ruth’s hand and stuffed it in his pocket.

What’s all that about, thought Ruth? I wonder where he’s leading me now?

In the street, the first thing that struck Ruth was how busy London was. There were people everywhere rushing to and fro. The second thing that struck Ruth was how dirty the place was. If the streets are really paved with gold, then you’ll have to sweep up a lot of dirt  to get it first, she said to herself. It had been a fine summer’s day when they had travelled through the countryside, but here in the city, a dull hazy filled the sky, making it seem gloomy and dark. I’m not sure I like London, Ruth thought.

Ruth looked around and could see a line of Hackney cabs waiting for passengers. Perhaps we’ll take one of these to the Hotel, she thought. But John led Ruth across the road.

“In here,” John said, and opened the door to a tearoom. Ruth was quite hungry and would be glad of some tea. They sat together at a table by the window and Ruth watched as the Londoners hurried by on their business.

John motioned, and the waitress came over with a large pot of tea and  a tray of sandwiches. Ruth poured two cups and picked up one of the sandwiches and started to nibble it. She was hungry enough to swallow it whole. But, she told herself, one must always act like a lady.

John did not take a sandwich. He had two quick gulps of his tea and then stood up.

“Where are you going,” Ruth asked?

“I have to see someone,” said John. “You stay here and have something to eat. I won’t be long.”

Before Ruth could protest, John was gone. Well, what now, thought Ruth, he’s just gone and dumped me after all. I bet he’s going to stick me with the bill for the tea too. If he’s not back in an hour, perhaps I can  take a train back to Sowerby.

Ruth decided to make the best of it. If she was going to be stuck with the bill, she may as well eat as much as she could. After all, she was eating for two now. She ate the sandwiches and drank the tea and waited. She checked the clock on the wall. Two o’clock, she hadn’t been waiting long, but it seemed like ages. She just knew that John wasn’t coming back.

“Can I get you any more tea,” asked the waitress?

Ruth felt around in her bag. She probably had enough for the sandwiches and perhaps for a ticket back home.  She was still hungry, but she better not.

“The Gentleman left a sovereign at the counter,” said the waitress, when she saw Ruth checking her purse.

Oh, why couldn’t he have said, Ruth wondered?

“I wonder if I could have a scone,” Ruth asked? “And more tea, please?”

Even so, Ruth decided, if John’s not back here in half an hour, I’m getting the next train home. Part of her hoped that he would be late, but he wasn’t. John came rushing in the door just before half two.

“Sorry about that,” he told her. “That took a bit longer than I thought it would. Did you miss me?”

“No, not much,” said Ruth, looking everywhere around the tearoom except at John. Let him think I’m not bothered.

“Alright,” said John. Did Ruth detect a hint of disappointment in his voice?

“We better get going,” said John. “Did you get enough to eat?”

“Quite sufficient thank you,” replied Ruth. “Did you get something?” She already knew the answer to that; she could smell beer on John’s breath.

“I had some refreshment,” admitted John hesitantly. Ruth did not reply. Instead, she rose up and let John collect her bag. Then taking his arm, she went out on to the street.

“Will we take a cab to the lodgings,” asked Ruth.

“No, it’s not far,” said John, and he led her through a series of alleyways where the smell of boiled cabbage and the sound of drunken singing confirmed that the houses were mostly inhabited by Irish immigrants. They stopped outside a battered old door; John knocked loudly. Ruth noticed that the door knocker was shaped in a strange design that Ruth was certain she’s seen before. Above the door, it said Stanely Hotel in faded gold lettering.

The door was opened by fiercesome looking woman. She was not any taller than Ruth but much bulkier. She wore a scowl and had a single eyebrow that ran above her eyes like a strip of forest.

“Mrs Queervish,” said John. “Allow me to introduce my wife.”

Mrs Queervish stared at Ruth, and Ruth stared right back. I’ll show you I’m not afraid, Ruth thought.

“She’ll be an extra two shillings a week,” said Mrs Queervish. “And you’ll have to sign for her.”

“Of course,” agreed John, and he followed Mrs Queervish into the parlour. There he lifted a pen and wrote; Mr and Mrs John Edward Stewart in the register.

He’s got a middle name, thought Ruth. How posh.

“I’ll need her to sign it as well,” snorted the hotelier.

Ruth wrote, Ruth Maenad, in beautiful copperplate script.

“What’s that,” snapped Mrs Queervish. “Irish? I don’t take Irish.”

“Not Irish,” said Ruth and hastily corrected the signature; Ruth Maynard.

Mrs Queervish sniffed. By now it was getting late, and it would soon be time to retire. Mrs Queervish led them to their room. She pushed open the door, and a smell like dead cats hit Ruth straight in the face.

“I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone now shall I,” said the hotel owner.

Ruth gritted her teeth and forced herself over the threshold.

“Nice, isn’t it,” said John.

Ruth, who was always fastidiously clean, managed not to kick John. Even her mean little attic room at Godalming was nicer than this dirty, damp, shabby room.

It was too late to do anything about it now, but Ruth was determined she would be on the first train home in the morning. There is no way I am going to live like this.

“There’s only one bed,” said Ruth turning to confront John. “And you promised me a marriage licence.”

“Umm, I’ll sleep on the floor,” he said. You certainly will, thought Ruth.

John made a little pile of blankets on the bare wooden floor. It certainly never looked very comfortable. Well, he’s only getting what he deserves.

Ruth lay in the bed, and John squirmed around on the floor for a bit.

“We’ll get the licence tomorrow,” promised John.

Perhaps, thought Ruth, we’ll see. After all, he has been kind to me. And he’s not bad looking. And where else can I go? There aren’t many men who take on another man’s child. Am I too hard on him? The floor must be very uncomfortable. She put her hand on her swollen stomach. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s too late to worry about that.

“If you promise to behave, you can sleep in the bed,” said Ruth. Then much to her annoyance, she heard soft snoring noises coming from the floor.

Doesn’t he think I’m attractive? He’s not made much of an effort.

Ruth lay in bed and got angrier and angrier.

I’ll show him, she decided. She closed her eyes, concentrated on going to sleep, but somehow, completely by accident, the wash jug toppled of the washstand soaking poor John waking him with a start.

“Oh dear,” said Ruth. “You can’t sleep on the floor now, and you’d better get out of those wet things.”

John stood up, and  unbuttoned his nightshirt. The room was dark, lit only the street lamp outside. But Ruth could see his wet torso gleaming in the moonlight.

“Here,” said Ruth. “I’ll dry you down, with a towel.” She began to rub him down. Where did he get those muscles, she though. Not bulky and brutish like William, or pale and flabby like… Well, never mind about that now. Lithe, that’s the word.

“Like a greyhound, or race horse,” Ruth said.

“What,” asked John?

“Nothing,” said Ruth. “I guess you’ll have to sleep here with me. Now, this is your side, and this is mine.” Ruth drew an imaginary line down the middle of the bed.

“And remember; no hanky-panky.”

“Of course not,” said John.

But of course, there was.

The End

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