by Ian S. Thompson
They had been walking along Oxford Street. Now they stopped, Greg's hand on her arm.
"This is the place," he said. "I thought you might get the sort of thing you liked here."
Helen nodded, but there were tears in her eyes as she looked through the shop-window. The new hat had been his idea, not hers.
"What about the black one?" He pointed. "It would go with your suit!"
Her lipstrembled. One of the little things she loved so much about him was the really genuine interest he had always taken in what she wore. It had made you feel young, somehow, loved, though in your heart you knew you were young no longer.
"Yes. Yes, it would, wouldn't it?" She carefully avoided meeting his eyes, because there was so much in her own eyes that he must never see.
They went into the shop. Aclerkappeared to wait on them.
Helen described the hat. It was in the window.
She was wishing now that they had never come into the shop. But Greg had been insistent. He wanted to give her something. A parting gift, he had called it.
He was smiling now out of blue, untroubled eyes. Which surprised her. And yet why should it, she asked herself, as she took the hat from the clerk and placed it on her blue-gray hair?
She had always tried to be modern, and part of modernity was to see these things through bravely, when and if they came.
Her mind turned back. And she saw herself in the hat shop mirror, not as someone in a black tailored suit, but as a bride. Smiling,radiant, on Greg's arm. At least they had said she had looked like that. She had never thought of it, never cared. She had been so completely, so blindly happy.
Five minutes later they were out again in the sunshine of the street and Greg, after looking at his watch, suggested tea.
"I know a place-" There was an expression of excitement in his eyes which she could not understand. "You'll like it there."
It was a small, very ordinary café in one of the side streets off Oxford Street. He ordered for them both, and then leaned back.
He didn't speak, but his hand came out across the table and took hers.
"Please, God, don't let me cry," she prayed. "Not now. Not so long as he's with me."
The tea arrived. He drank one cup quickly, lit himself a cigarette, and then said:
There was one thing, but it would have been hysterical weakness to have suggested it. She shook her head. She didn't want him to have any feelings of regret, any pains of conscience. It had been wonderful having him for all those years.
"No, really," she said. "It'll be all right."
But he still didn't seem satisfied.
"There's another thing I'd like to mention," he said. "I didn't say anything about it before because I know- well, I know how sensitive you are about that sort of thing-" He broke off and then went hurriedly on, his eyes avoiding hers. "It's money. I've arranged with the bank..."
The color came at once to her cheeks. Not because of any false pride. That was a luxury you couldn't afford if you had no one to support you. But- "Oh, Greg, you shouldn't," she said with embarrassment.
He brushed that aside. Angrily almost.
"Why not? It's something I want to do. And Sandra-" He mentioned the girl's name- "She agrees. We were talking about it last night."
Sandra.... We.... How easily, familiarly, he spoke of her. Helen thought with an ache. And yet two months ago they hadn't even met. Two months.... Was it really only that time since he'd gone up to London on that business trip?
She had realized, of course, after he came back, that there was something, although he hadn't actually said a word then. Some deep-rooted woman's instinct had warned her that he wasn't all hers any longer, that she was sharing him with someone else.
A girl. Young, fresh, and lovely. The imagined picture had filled her with a sense of panic. He had changed his job for a better one and gone up to live in London. For a month she hadn't seen him. And she had never met the girl.
Sandra... She worked in the advertising business, he had told her. And very clever. But that didn't matter to Helen. When you have loved somebody with every part of you, you did not think of cleverness in considering that younger person to whom you were losing him.
Was she really nice? Would she work to keep him happy as you had tried to do?
But Sandra,... The name had a sharp quality. You couldn't imagine a girl with a name like that being- Helen's eyes were drawn to a girl who had just walked into the café, who was looking around hesitantly- well like that, for instance.
Then the girl turned. She was beautiful, with a shy, sweet loveliness that caught at your heart. Helen stayed, quite unconscious that she was staring. And then her eyes widened in surprise as she saw Greg rise to his feet. The girl was hurrying towards their table.
"So you were able to get here, darling!" She heard Greg's voice and then he had turned, was smiling down at her. "A little surprise," he said. "This is Sandra, Mother. Tomorrow's happy bride!"
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