Mrs Wetherby

 For Boxing Day,  I post a short story set in the Gulf. It is in my Kindle Triplet, This Heat , and was story of the month in Ink Tears  earlier this year.

MRS WETHERBY

  

Mrs Wetherby teases me, I am sure she does. Her pristine white blouse is like a surgical tent rigged over her breasts. The lace along the vee of her neckline stands stiffly upright, in a tiny ruff. Her clothes always look freshly starched, even in the humid air of the Persian Gulf.

She says, ‘Mr Tupper, Archibald… I hope that this heat isn’t getting to you.’

She has her hands on her hips, and her feet placed slightly apart on the wooden floor of my classroom. She teases me, I’m sure she does.

‘You should take off that jacket, Mr Tupper. It’s no wonder you are hot. When I get home, I’ll be down to shorts and bikini top!’

She smiles with tangerine lips. Her pure white pleated skirt radiates from her sharp waist, and ends below her knees in a serrated line from which her sun-brown legs emerge, unstockinged. Her painted toes are squeezed to triangles in her open sandals. She is all menacing triangles is Mrs Wetherby.

The classrooms are arranged like railway carriages in parallel sidings across the packed dirt of the playground. Outside, the children are playing, their bright voices darting in through the opened windows like shoals of gaily-coloured fish.

The whiteness of Mrs Wetherby is dazzling in my gloomy classroom. She moves towards my desk, her skirt sawing the air like a concertina.

Mrs Wetherby wears a gold wedding ring given to her by Captain Wetherby, who is in the RAF. When they are together in public, Mrs Wetherby drapes herself on his arm like a soft white towel. At school, she stands in starched readiness in front of the classroom, as unbending as the wooden board ruler she uses to rap her desk to restore faultless silence.

‘You should take off that jacket, Mr Tupper. It will only make you sweat!’ She leaves as the bell sounds; my mouth is dry, and I won’t have time to go the staff room for a drink before Junior three return for General Science.

Experience has taught me that in every class there is a boy who breaks wind and someone who sniffs, and usually a fidgetter. Junior three has several candidates in each of these categories, as well as a girl who scratches and a number of other girls who whisper and giggle behind their upright text books. Mrs Wetherby would not stand for it and probably despises me for my lack of discipline. But today, despite all behavioural infelicities, Junior Three and I get through prisms and rainbows, learning Richard Of York Goes to Battle In Vain to remember the colours. We manage it slowly, but without tears. When the bell sounds at the end of the morning I have a sense of achievement.

Because it gets so hot in the afternoon in the Gulf, we start early and finish at lunchtime. I look forward to ham salad for lunch in my flat. My grey Austin A30 waits patiently in the car shelter. I put my jacket on the back seat. I see Mrs Wetherby climbing into a Land Rover with Captain Wetherby. As she climbs in, the wind picks up the zig-zag pleats of her skirt and I catch a glimpse of bright white knickers.

Captain Wetherby sets off with a roar of engine, raising dust in a cloud around him. He is through the gate before I have even started my car. Captain Wetherby will be at his destination long before I get home.

My flat is located, with other civilian dwellings, in a dusty plot just outside the military compound. It is small but has every necessary facility. After climbing the stairs to the first floor, I open a blue outer door and enter a narrow hallway, from which all other doors in the flat lead. On my right is a modest bedroom with a small double bed. The room is quite austere, but that does not matter. My bed creaks, but I am not a restless sleeper. Opposite, is the bathroom, which is surprisingly large – it has a bath and a separate shower. The living space is a lounge cum dining area with a small dining table and two chairs. At the other end of the room there are two square armchairs and a tiny coffee table. I have my own balcony leading from this room. Sometimes I go out onto my balcony and read, sitting on my spare dining chair. I look out to a hazy horizon over rooftops and the dusty crowns of palm trees. The chain-link fence of the compound threads into the distance, as fine and insubstantial as a woman’s stocking.

In my kitchen is a refrigerator large enough to hold food for a family of four. Inside it I have some ice cubes, a few bottles of soft drinks, some ham wrapped in plastic, half a dozen eggs, some cheese, six tomatoes, a cucumber, and part of a lettuce. On the label of the packet of ham, a smiling pink pig says ‘Remove from wrapper ten minutes before serving for best flavor.’ ‘Flavour’ is spelt without the ‘u’ as it is an American pig. I follow the instructions and take out two slices and put them on a plate. The orange-rimmed fat makes two upside-down smiles, one above the other.

I wash lettuce and two tomatoes. The cucumber, I peel, slicing off the thick green skin with a sharp knife.

Mrs Wetherby probably goes to the officer’s club for lunch with Captain Wetherby. I daresay she’ll eat something rather more sophisticated than this. She tells me, that in the afternoons, she sits by the swimming pool in her bikini. Sometimes she marks books, but often, she just sunbathes. From the bits of her I have seen, I can tell that Mrs Wetherby is very tanned. She teases me, I know she does. I dribble on salad cream. The warm sauce is runny, engulfing the lettuce like a beach at high tide.

Mrs Wetherby came into my class this morning notionally for a bottle of ink, and perched her white-clad bottom on the end of my desk. She picked up my ruler, which is very ink-stained, and she slid it between her fingers. ‘Mr Tupper.’ She said, ‘Do you ever take off that jacket?’

‘Mrs Wetherby, how can one maintain the respect of a class if one is not dressed smartly?’ I replied.

‘I don’t find the need for a jacket, Mr Tupper.’

‘But you’re a lady, Mrs Wetherby,’ I said. She just breathed in deeply, and flicked the wooden ruler on the manicured ends of her pointy little fingers.

I wanted to tell her to be careful of the ink, with her white pleated skirt, but Mrs Wetherby never gets ink on her skirt.

After break, I did, in fact, remove my jacket and hung it on the back of my chair. I felt oddly exposed with Junior Three watching me demonstrate prisms and rainbows on the blackboard with coloured chalk.

Mr Fleming, the headmaster, has a linen suit. He always looks very smart, as if his jacket has just been pressed. It’s true that he takes it off in his office. But he has a proper coat rack and a wooden clothes hanger. I’m sure it makes all the difference.

The ham is salty and soft, rather like cod roe. I am not sure that I actually like it. I think I prefer hard-boiled eggs and cheese.

When one is alone, a meal does not take long to eat. This afternoon I’ll do some washing.

It is now eight a.m., and the children, in blue and white uniforms, file into their classrooms. Junior Three waits for me, lined up along the walkway. Some are sniffing and fidgeting already. Miss Penny calls ‘Good morning, Mr Tupper,’ from the other side of the playground. I return the greeting. She has Junior Two, and her neat children follow her flowery skirt like obedient little ducks. Mrs Wetherby has already packed Junior Four into the dim enclosure of her classroom. But the line of Junior Three wavers and bends outside my classroom door, as if each child is covertly contemplating the possibility of escape, and cannot make up his or her mind. But, at last, I have them penned. All the other classroom doors are shut.

Junior Three watches me.

‘Tens and units,’ I say, hesitating; shall I take off this jacket or not? Sweat drips from my forehead. I slip the jacket off, feeling almost naked with my bare arms on show in my short-sleeved shirt. The jacket falls onto the floor. Junior Three laughs.

‘You are too soft on your pupils, Mr Tupper,’ Mrs Wetherby once said. ‘You let them get away with things…’

‘I have been teaching for fourteen years, Mrs Wetherby,’ I replied. ‘I am not without experience.’

‘I am sure you are not, Mr Tupper…’

Mrs Wetherby teases me, I know she does, but I try to ignore her.

This morning, the pupils of Junior Three are obdurate. By break time we are no further forward with the principles of addition of two-column figures. I am tempted to use Mrs Wetherby’s approach to discipline. A sharp reprimand comes first – Mrs Wetherby can slice open a child with her tongue. The next stage is a small ruler across the knuckles – and then, as the ultimate deterrent, she’ll take a child to Mr Fletcher for caning. Mrs Wetherby has no qualms about corporal punishment, but I can’t find justification for it. At breaktime, it is a relief to open the classroom door and let in some fresh air, even if it is a hundred degrees in the shade. It doesn’t bother the children, who spill out of the classroom like water down a plughole.

I go to the staff room for a drink, remembering my jacket. It feels damp when I put it back on.

Outside Mr Fleming’s office, Mrs Wetherby has a small boy by the ear. I remember the lad, Higgins, from last year. He was the wind-breaker. He also liked to belch, blaming it on his stomach. He had his mother write a note, but none of it seemed plausible to me.

‘Mr Tupper,’ Mrs Wetherby says, ‘This is how I deal with naughty little boys…’

Mr Fleming will be only too happy to cane the boy. He keeps his cane in the well of the coat stand intended for umbrellas.

There is something quite disagreeable about the sound of a cane on a child’s flesh. I imagine the sting felt through the shorts and underpants his mother lovingly washed and ironed for him. How does it feel in the hand of the deliverer? I have never asked Mr Fleming. But I thought that women would be more tender about such things, then Mrs Wetherby has no children, despite the attentions of Captain Wetherby. I expect they take precautions.

Captain Wetherby is a vigorous man. He’s tall and athletic. Then a man has to be athletic to get into the RAF. However, I did my National Service and was passed A1. My father said the Army would make me a man. And here I am at thirty-seven, a man. But with no wife. No doubt Mrs Wetherby has plenty of attention from her husband. With all her teasing, it would seem that Mrs Wetherby is an experienced woman.

Miss Penny is on playground duty. She has a clutch of little girls in her wake. She is very motherly, for all she is not married. Miss Penny is thirty and not married. It doesn’t seem to bother her.

In the staff room, Father Rattigan sprawls in the only comfortable chair. He is here to perform Mass for the Catholic children. The children like his impromptu conjuring tricks, where he takes a cigarette lighter or a comb from one of his long sleeves, or appears to remove the tip of his middle finger. He says it is a miracle; we know it is a trick. He must be hot in that black robe, but I notice his feet are bare in his sandals, but rather grimy.

‘Hello, Archibald,’ he says, leaning back into the squeaky plastic. I know what he will say next.

‘I’m sure that Miss Penny would go dancing with you if you’d give her the chance.’

‘Indeed, she might, Father.’

‘You’re not getting any younger, Archie. You should get yourself a wife.’ He has said this many times.

‘You manage well enough, Father,’ I say. ‘Chastity has done you no harm.’

‘But I’m protected and sustained by God,’ he replies, drinking out of a bottle of fizzy orange. He’s letting a draft rise up his soutane. I could wish for a draft up my trouser legs.

‘For a man like yourself, a wife’s the next best thing.’

I can hear crying from Mr Fleming’s office next door.

‘The priests believed in regular chastisement when I was at school,’ says Father Rattigan.

‘And did it encourage good behaviour, Father?’

‘Oh indeed, Archibald. But I learned that chastisement and chastity are not necessarily cause and effect.’

Father Rattigan belches slightly. ‘Oh, but the nuns could be worse, Archie, much worse. No children of their own to keep in order, they worked out their frustrations on small boys.’

There is the sound of sharp heels on the wooden verandah. In through the door from the bright outside comes Mrs Wetherby, gauzy-haloed in white linen and outlined in white corsetry beneath it. Mrs Wetherby seemingly has a solid chalk-white core.

‘You’ll be needing a drink after all that effort, Mrs Wetherby?’ Father Rattigan offers to open a bottle of mineral for her.

She flushes; I have never seen her flushed. ‘Thank you Father Rattigan, but I’ll just have water.’ She bends down to pick up a glass, and Father Rattigan is treated to a stockingless leg up to mid-thigh.

‘You’d have made a good nun, Mrs Wetherby.’ He winks at me and puts his empty bottle in a crate.

‘I’d better be off,’ he says, hauling himself to his feet. ‘Don’t forget what I said now, Archie.’

Then we are alone, and Mrs Wetherby asks, ‘Are you going to the staff meeting tomorrow, Mr Tupper?’ She sips her water.

‘Naturally,’ I say.

‘I wondered if I could ask you a favour, Archibald?’ She smiles at me, her teeth showing over her lip. They protrude slightly; just enough to stand out without it being obvious they protrude. Her light brown hair is tightly bound in a bun on top of her head. I imagine that her hair is long enough to reach halfway down her back.

‘Captain Wetherby is on duty tomorrow and I’ll not be able to get a lift as I hoped – I wondered if you’d be able to take me in your car?’

‘Of, course, Mrs Wetherby,’ I say, ‘I would gladly be of service…’

In my bachelor flat at one o’clock it is so hot and sticky, I cannot concentrate on making my cheese and egg salad and get salad cream all over the table. I take a cold shower.

Later I sit on my balcony attempting to mark thirty-two essays on the Spanish Armada. Queen Elizabeth the First would have recognised a kindred spirit in Mrs Wetherby. I always felt sorry for Walter Raleigh.

Outside some women are laughing. Miss Penny has friends with her. Miss Penny lives in a similar flat to mine on the ground floor at the other end of this block. I can hear the sound of a tennis racquet. They must be practicing service against the wall.

Mrs Wetherby has told me that tennis is very popular here. She says I should take it up – it would keep me fit. Captain Wetherby won the men’s shield last season. ‘He has a powerful service, Mr Tupper – but then he likes to practice a lot…’ I give up after the fifth essay. The women are still laughing.

I have attempted to press the creases out of my jacket, but I am not satisfied with it. It lies across the back seat of my car like a drunken missionary. In the tropical outfitters where I bought it I was assured that it would keep up its appearance under all expected conditions. It looked a little droopy even when new, but I thought it was the style of these things, that a certain droopiness was expected.

In assembly, Mrs Wetherby looks as if her white suit has been pressed and starched onto her shape. She looks very fresh, does Mrs Wetherby. I am sweating already.

The morning is interminable; Junior Three struggles with conjunctions and prepositions. I draw diagrams showing sentences joined like train carriages.

When the fire alarm bell sounds just before the end of the morning, I almost jump out of my skin, thinking that the school day has ended, but it is a routine test. The children are giggling because I dropped my board ruler. I slap the desk with it and shout at them to be quiet, and they are, which surprises me.

After school, Mrs Wetherby is waiting demurely at the end of the row of classrooms. She wears a filmy headscarf over her hair like a wimple, and has a small handbag with a gold clasp. Miss Penny is going to the meeting in a minibus with the gym teacher, Mrs Lark, and some other women. I wonder why Mrs Wetherby does not travel with them. Maybe there is no room.

The meeting is to be held in the hall on the military base. Teachers from other schools will be there. There will be quite a turn-out, I expect.

Mrs Wetherby and I walk to my car like a married couple. I open the door for her and feel hot air billow out. This morning, I covered the front seats with white sheets to keep them cool, but the leather is hot through the fabric of my shirt. I stall the car twice. Embarrassed, I over-rev the engine, and the car lurches forward. I apologise to Mrs Wetherby. There is no need to rush.

It is hard to concentrate on driving. I can’t help but touch Mrs Wetherby’s thigh each time I engage my lower gears. By the time I reach the main road I am sweating profusely, and drive quite slowly. We have plenty of time; the meeting does not start until three. Mrs Wetherby does not speak; it is unlike her not to speak. She looks out of the car windows at things as if they were not there.

A quarter of a mile from my flat she says. ‘Mr Tupper, I wonder if I could freshen up at your flat. We have plenty of time.’

I imagine that my driving makes her nervous. I am usually very careful, but today nothing goes right and I have been honked at on all sides.

‘By all means, Mrs Wetherby, but I’m afraid that my accommodations won’t be quite what you’re accustomed to as an officer’s wife.’

‘Don’t underestimate what you can provide, Mr Tupper.’ She does not look at me.

As I pull up outside the flat, I see the women in Miss Penny’s party climbing back into the minibus. I expect they’ll have lunch at the pool bar before the meeting.

‘Upstairs, Mrs Wetherby. The blue door on the right.’

And at the blue door Mrs Wetherby stands, a little out of breath. She takes off her scarf and some of her hair drifts into the light in golden threads, loosened from its pins. She says nothing. The clasp on her handbag has come undone.

Impulsively, I say, ‘I could offer you a ham salad, Mrs Wetherby.’

She looks at me with her head cocked to one side. ‘That would be most kind, Mr Tupper.’ We go in.

‘I take it that this is the bathroom?’ She pushes open the door and I remember that I have left my underpants on the clotheshorse in plain sight. I start towards them.

‘Don’t worry, Mr Tupper, I’ve seen a man’s underpants before…’

‘Of course you have…’ I blush at my ineptitude. But she merely laughs – a knowing chuckle I do not expect from her.

I am washing lettuce at the sink. I have the tomatoes washed and cucumber to peel. Two slices of ham smile upside-down on each of two plates.

She calls me from the bathroom, there is a note of urgency in her voice I think that maybe there is a centipede – the large ones can be quite frightening.

The door of the bathroom is ajar, I wonder about the centipede, and see no sign of one, but Mrs Wetherby is standing by the washbasin. Her starched white linen suit is draped over my underpants. She stands there in her underwear, and struggles to undo her brassiere.

‘I need your help, Archibald…’

Mrs Wetherby pads towards me across the stone floor of the bathroom in bare brown feet. The rest of her is brown too. It is clear that she sunbathes often and in skimpy apparel. Mrs Wetherby is no longer teasing me.

‘How may I help you, Mrs Wetherby?’ I ask, undoing her brassiere. I drape it over the clothes horse.

My bed creaks, but Mrs Wetherby doesn’t seem to mind. I do not rush, there is plenty of time.

We stand in the kitchen, having showered, each drinking a glass of water. The ham has curled on the plate, and the smiles now resemble the petals of wilted flowers. But we’ll not have time to eat it – it is a quarter to three. Mrs Wetherby is dressed again in her white suit. Now it looks ever so slightly rumpled. She seems to be wiping tears from her eyes with her fingers. I offer her my handkerchief.

She dabs her eyes. ‘Captain Wetherby and I shall be returning to the UK at the end of this term. He has not found that the hot climate suits his constitution.’

Mrs Wetherby does not sit next to me in the meeting hall, and I find myself seated next to Miss Penny, who is really quite pretty when she’s relaxed. She smiles at me and we strike up an amiable conversation. Miss Penny tells me that she is fond of dancing.

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