Camellia moved away and stood watching The Common. Cars were threading themselves smoothly between the avenues of trees, sunshine glancing off their windscreens. An old man and a little boy were throwing bread to geese gathered near a pond. Every so often, the boy ran off, opening his arms to rush at pigeons. Further away, a fair was being set up, with a gang of men pulling a ferris wheel upright, while others were lifting painted horses out of a truck. Next to Safehaven, rush-hour traffic was slowing into the Wandsworth bottle neck. Camellia wrinkled her nose at the smell and watched as the heads and shoulders of drivers bobbed up and down when they searched for tapes or switched channels on their radios. They doubted they'd move much in the next hour.
Robert followed a little way. He wanted to reassure her, tell her everything would be alright once they'd seen their rooms and met other residents. But he thought too that he should rescue Mrs Bendicks who clearly wasn't inclined to be friendly with Hugh even though he was enthusiastically making bold attempts to grab her hand and shake it.
“Mrs Bendicks!" he was exclaiming. "How kind of you to have us to stay! And in such a wonderful location! A hint of the country side,” (he swept his arm theatrically across the view of the Common) "combined so enticingly with the promise of City life!” And he swept his arm back towards the east until a grimy index finger was pointing in the direction of central London.
“I hope you realise, Mr Thorncombe," replied Mrs Bendicks, coldly. "That this is a Rest Home, not a Hotel.”
He shuffled his feet and dropped his shoulders into a posture reminiscent of respect.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, in a low voice. “I’ll try to be quiet. That’s the trouble with young people, one little illness, one broken leg and the whole world has to be hushed on their behalf. You should work with older people Mrs Bendicks! Far less trouble. Especially deaf ones. Then you can sing as much as you like and be happy!" His voice had risen once more. Camellia walked back. Hugh had become so animated she wondered if he might break into a dance. Whatever was he doing? "There's not much to mind, is there, once you get old? Glad to hear anything I should think. How long is it before you retire?”
Camellia smiled. No. Not smiled. It was a smirk. A suppressed delight. Almost a giggle.
Hugh smiled back. “Camellia! Come on my dear," he shouted. "Don’t keep Mrs Bendicks waiting! Our holiday (Oh!)" he turned apologetically to Mrs Bendicks who had taken a couple of paces sideways. "Ah! There you are. I mean our 'REST' . . . Is about to begin.”
Camellia grasped the iron hand rail, lowered her head and walked slowly up the steps, as if taking care on each one.
Mrs Bendicks tried to look sympathetic. After all, a ‘relative’ was looking on and 'relatives' were, in her experience, generally the ones who paid. At the very least, they were the ones with influence; the ones in charge of money, even if it wasn't actually theirs.
Not only that, Mrs Bendicks had decided there were only three kinds of people in the world. There were old people who needed to be looked after. There were children - who also needed looking after. And there were the people in the middle who did the looking after - either by themselves or with the paid help of people like her. She certainly knew who was important and who wasn't!
"Mr Symmonds!" she said, extending her hand warmly towards Robert as he arrived at the top step with Camellia. "How nice to meet you again! And in the company of your charming parents."
Robert said "My," and Mrs Bendicks leapt in to finish for him.
"Ah, yes, your wife's! Come in, come in! It's won't be long until tea. You must be tired after your journey.”
“Indeed we are,” said Hugh.
“I was thinking of the driver,” said Mrs Bendicks coldly - with a smile that was directed sweetly, complicitly and exclusively at Robert.
“Thank you," he said. But he wasn't looking at her. He was trying to catch Hugh's eye; to communicate his alarm . . . to apologise - but Hugh turned his back and walked in through the front door. Camellia took one last look at the life of The Common - the children, the fair, the pigeons, the geese and the traffic - and followed him into the deadly quiet of Safehaven.
Robert began to go in too.
"No!," said Mrs Bendicks, "You must move the car first. You're on yellow lines."
“Right,” said Robert, seeing this might be a chance to escape. “I’ll just bring the suitcases up, then I'll . . . ." He could go home! "I'll tell Rosemary you're here,” he called. His voice shook. He was suddenly struck by the idea that there might well be a different world beyond that door, a world he should be glad he wasn't entering, however expensive it was, however 'comfortable' it might be. But Hugh and Camellia didn't hear him for they were being assaulted, once again, by brightness - except this time it was worse because it was in a confined space, horribly clean and smelled of polish.
For The Next Post - Thirty-Five
For the post before this - Thirty-Three