A Charlie Bellman story
The Parting of the Ways
“Saunders, Consular Section. Oh, hello Charlie. I wasn't expecting you until next week.” Saunders started scribbling a memo for the files. “Missed the boat so they shoved you on a plane? Yes, I rather like the Rain Islanders. Look, you've reported in to your boss. Go and have fun. One of the South Island hotels. You can wander around, and see something of the real Spontoons. Yes, of course it's a tourist trap, but they're not Potemkin villages. No, there hasn't been a telegram yet.” He listened. “Oh boy, you lucky dog. Lady Helen went to school with the Brigadier's daughter; of course I knew about them. She did? Well, good for her. Oh, I forgot. You poor bugger.”
Madge had come in with the tea trolley. He held up a cautionary hand. “Charlie, you are a fine fellow. You're not old, just aged in the cask. Yes, I think they impressed the Brigadier. Now, go and have your holiday. Give me a call Monday, about this time.” He laughed. “They did, did they? Well, you're Charlie Bellman. Yep, Monday.” He put the handset back on the 'phone base.
“Your friend, Mr. Saunders?”
“Yes.” Saunders looked at the telegram on his desk. “Train got delayed in Canada, missed the connection with the Joe Hill, and so they found space on the mail plane.”
“All that fuss this morning?”
“Food poisoning, he reckons. And, being Charlie, he was able to render disgustingly competent assistance. “
“So the locals will like him.”
“He's a good man,” said Saunders. “And they know about him now.” He smiled. “Any squashed flies?”
“Just for you, sir.” Madge produced a packet of biscuits from her caddy.
“Good oh.” He paused. “You can let the Ambassador know about Mr. Bellman.”
“But not the First Secretary. Of course, sir.” She poured tea. “Monday night is the Anglo-Spontoonie Trade and Friendship Association, isn't it.”
“Yes, I shall take Charlie.” Saunders grinned. “Share the friendship.”
don't think hangovers work like that, Mr. Saunders.”
Bellman put down the telephone. “Nothing until Monday. Saunders is up to something.”
“Your boss?” Carol was drinking tea, from a most unladylike large mug
“My friend,” said Bellman. “One of the best.” He shrugged. “Maybe not quite the same as somebody I was in the war with, but we've had our moments. Any problems, you can trust him.” He paused, and decided to mention it. “Brigadier Donovan mentioned you to him.”
“So you're more than a diplomat, Charlie.” She took another mouthful of tea. “He has some particular friends. People such as myself. Not Helen, but since she was at school with his daughter, he knows her, and he'd listen to her. But keep her out of that game.”
“I'm not sure I could, if she wanted to be in it.”
“I know. That's the one thing that scares me about you.”
“I'm married, remember.”
She set the mug down, empty now, and wiped her mouth. “I was an actress, Charlie, before I met the man I married. I hung around with some pretty low types. But I know how it feels when you meet the right person.”
“Damn right, Charlie. And my stepdaughter is one heck of a girl. I don't know if she's as certain as I was, but...” She shruggeed. “Forget the teasing. And Helen doesn't need anyone's permission. But you have mine.”
“Not a joke, Charlie. It's her choice, not mine, but you'll do.”
He stood and looked out of the window, hands thrust into his trouser pockets. “Your Grace,” he said. “It would all feel terribly wrong. My wife is still alive, I'm flattered, even tempted, but it would all be wrong, whether it was your daughter or yourself...” He looked back at her, over his shoulder. “If I start, I'm scared how far I might fall.”
“Don't get all formal on me.”
Carol said nothing for a moment. “She'd be willing to fall with you. So would I. It wasn't all teasing.” She turned to the door. “I'd rather you didn't fall.”
“Then you'd both better stay away from me.”
She made no answer as he looked back to the window. All he heard was the door opening and closing again. He felt ashamed, and knew there was no right answer. He could break his vows to Alice, and she would never—could never—know. But he would. It wasn't like that Hay fellow, but... He closed his eyes, shutting out the view, and wept in silent frustration.
Outside, there was sunlight, and open water, and the green of a living world. And how could he believe in that if he did this. Where would his anchor be?
Not England. He'd seen it happen once, and the same signs were there. He couldn't stop it. He wasn't sure that anyone could. Maybe if people started laughing at the parades?
And what answers were out here? If there was war, this place would fall. It would be fought over, and smashed. No more calendars, no more smiling faces.
His smile was grim, but it was a smile. He'd be here. He'd do something, even if, in the end, all he could give was one old man with a rifle, and fifteen rounds, rapid fire. He hardly knew the place, why was he willing to fight for it?
Well, Saunders had told him to disappear until Monday, and he coud do that. He'd walk away from Carol. He'd walk away from Helen, and without looking back. That he could do. And, given half a chance, he could vanish completely.
No, that would be wrong too. Nothing was right. Except, maybe, to endure what was coming. And, oh God! why did he want Alice to die? What had he become, to want that?
He left the office, almost like a ghost. An hour later, he walked out of the office of the North Pacific Credit Union, pockets filled with cash. It wasn't really hiding to turn up with that Letter of Credit, and set up an account, And there was Western Union. From where he sent a telegram to his brother Albert.
“Arrived safe place like movies.” Five words, they would have to be enough. for a long moment, he wished Joe were here, and then a local woman, an otter, almost naked, walked past. She had some complicated pattern brushed into her fur, and carried an oddly-decorated staff, something she didn't need for walking. Yeah, right, bring Joe to this place.
He turned away a little too hastily, and just walked, trying not to think about the mental image of a near-naked Helen. Or was it Carol? Not that either of them would be like that. They were respectable women.
Though perhaps, in private...
No! Don't think it, Charlie! Neither of them would do anything like that. Even if they had a real mashi, no way were they nautch-girls. And as for Armentieres—forget it! Try that and they'd lock him up and throw away the key.
Maybe especially here. If they let a naked woman walk down the street, they had to have rules.
Now that looked like a bar, and it looked open. Get drunk now, or later? He walked on. Saunders had said South Island. According to the brochure, you could almost go native, probably in a very unreal way. Did people wear grass skirts for real, or was it grass skirts for the tourists, and Manchester cotton the rest of the time?
It never crossed his mind that he didn't look very English, just a scruffy black dog, a poshteen draped over one shoulder and a pakol on his head. And he never even thought of how his accent shifted until, at a guest-house on South Island, he looked and sounded more like an educated pathan than one of the sahib-log.
Bellman had disappeared.
(continued in Charlie Bellman: stories)