by Robert Barnard
EQMM February 2010
It was in June 1948 that Mrs. Cynthia Webber and her son Simon came to lodge in the Princes Hotel, Pixton. They were well received by the rest of the guests, all of whom were virtually residents. The country had just suffered one of the worst winters Britain had ever known: months of snow-covered land and roads, which, added to the regime of rationing and shortages that the nation had endured since 1939, brought many to the edge of despair. Most of the residents at the Princes blamed the government for the winter, and for everything else. “What did we fight the war for?” was a common wail. “We’d have been better off if we’d lost it.”
What was still called the Princes Hotel was in fact a mere wing of the splendid Edwardian structure that overlooked the town from a vantage point that had once seemed to square with the social status of its guests. It was now run by Mrs. Hocking, who was more a housekeeper than a manager. She had been put in mainly to keep the old place open. She didn’t want casual guests, which was lucky because few were to be had. She took residents at reasonable rates, commandeered their ration books and used them cunningly, and took the burdens of effort and decision from their shoulders. That was what the middle-aged and elderly residents wanted, particularly after the privations of the terrible winter. And when Mrs. Webber and her son arrived, they were welcomed as a new source of interest.
“She’ll do,” said Major Catchpole, a man of few words.
“Such a nice sort of person,” said Mrs. Forrest, meaning “so obviously a gentlewoman.” She added that it was lovely to see a mother and son who were such good friends.
Their arrival had been well signalled in advance because they had taken the suite. All the residents being, by chance or circumstance, single, “the suite” was the one area in the wing that was not let out. It had been used by families before the war, many of whom came to the Peak District for the sake of a disabled or invalid child, hoping the famous Pixton waters would do them good, if a cure was out of the question. It had two bedrooms with a sitting room between—not large rooms, but providing a degree of comfort and privacy unknown to the other residents. Mrs. Hocking, when she had received the inquiry had been dubious whether the suite was habitable, but with the help of an army of hotel and hospital cleaners, all resident in the town and experienced from the Old Days, the dusty old rooms were smartened up. Even the residents pitched in, with Miss Rumbold volunteering to wash up all the ornaments and crockery in the suite, and old Mr. Somervell, a traditional and sentimental soul, buying a bouquet with his own money to decorate the sitting room on the day of their arrival.
They fitted in at once. Mrs. Webber, though not unduly confidential, was frank about their situation.
“Simon is going up to Oxford in October. He has a place at Lincoln, to read history. He was found unfit for National Service—lungs, you know—but his education was very disturbed in his last years, when the old teachers returned from the war and wanted all the old ways back. He’s going to do a very stiff course of reading—the car is full of books—so that he can go up with the best possible basis for study.”
The car was a basis of wonder, Mrs. Webber being a widow lady, and she explained it readily.
“It was my husband’s car. He died last year—old war wound from the Somme. He was in the Civil Defence and had an extra petrol ration due to the driving. I’ve had to give that up, of course, but we just about make do. Simon will take his licence soon.”
Their devotion to each other made Cynthia and Simon objects of great interest to the residents. To play some part in their little personal drama the residents often appealed to them, their judgment and experience seeming to put them on a higher plane than the rest. Simon was appealed to on questions relating to The Younger Generation, Cynthia on matters of fashion, the royal family, etiquette, genealogy, and even correct English.
“I was always taught at school,” began Mrs. Phipps, in the manner of all linguistic bores, “that it should be ‘ett,’ the past tense of ‘eat,’ not ‘eight.’ Don’t you agree, Mrs. Webber?”
Mrs. Webber wiped her mouth with her napkin, perhaps to conceal a smile.
“So often what one was taught at school is either wrong or has changed with the times. I think either pronunciation is acceptable these days.”
“I happen to know,” said Miss Rumbold, welding together two of the residents’ obsessions, “that the dear Queen says ‘eight.’ She visited the British Restaurant in Pimlico when I was doing war work there in 1944. ‘Eight’ she said, definitely.”
“I expect the Queen speaks the language of upper-class Britain a generation or two ago,” said Mrs. Webber, who must have been about the same generation as the Queen. “I know she says ‘lorss’ for ‘loss,’ and I think only cockneys and upper-class speakers do that.”
This remark was found daring, but because it was Cynthia, it was acceptable.
Mother and son made little excursions in the car on as many afternoons as had sun and as they had petrol for. They didn’t ask anyone to go with them because as Cynthia whispered to Mrs. Hocking, if they asked one they’d have to ask them all, at least once. They valued their privacy. In the lounge before lunch Cynthia would sometimes talk about where they planned to go.
“I know the area from my childhood,” she explained. “So many of these lovely little places have memories for me. I always wanted to come here on holiday in the years before the war, but Frank, my husband, never cared for it. He was quite rude about it. one bloody peak after another,’ he used to say.”
“Fancy!” said Mrs. Forrest. “I can’t imagine anyone disliking the Peak District.”
“I can, when I’m toiling up to the King’s Head,” said Major Catchpole. “Pixton has hills that would defeat a Sherpa.”
“To me, Derbyshire beats even the Lake District,” said Miss Rumbold. “And it’s much more undiscovered.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Webber. “Wordsworth has a lot to answer to.”
By mid July the Webbers were accepted, admired, even loved, particularly for their devotion to each other, which all the women found “lovely” and “so nice to see,” and which both the men kept quiet about. Their position was as part of the community at the Princes, yet somehow slightly above it. Mrs. Webber reinforced this primacy by announcing that she didn’t need her sweet ration because she had never had a sweet tooth, and saying that she would use it to buy sweets for general consumption—a box of chocolates if one could be found, Turkish Delight or Liquorice Allsorts if one could not. All the residents at the Princes were enthusiastic in acclaiming her generosity, though in truth it created little pockets of animosity when one or other of them was thought to be taking more than their fair share.
It was bound to end in tears. The tabloid press understands that there is nothing the general public likes more than the building up of a popular idol—nothing except its bringing down. The Webbers had been supplied with a pedestal. By late July it was time to blow it up from under them.
It was Mrs. Phipps who provided the explosive. She had, as everyone at the Princes knew, a weak bladder, and at some time during the night she could be relied on to get up and go to the bathroom in her corridor. As she went past the Webbers’ suite one night she heard a sound and stopped. It was, she felt sure, the inner door to Mrs. Webber’s bedroom. She stood for a second or two, waiting; then from further away she heard another door shutting—the door, it could only be, to Simon Webber’s bedroom on the other side of the sitting room. She scurried along to the bathroom, switched on the light, and looked at her watch. It was half-past three.
Mrs. Phipps was not an ill-disposed woman, and not any more of a tittle-tattle than anyone else at the Princes. She nevertheless found it impossible to keep her information to herself. She confided the substance of it to Mrs. Forrest and together they talked to Miss Rumbold, who had the reputation of being a bit of a radical, having voted Liberal several times, though of course at the last election she had voted for dear Mr. Churchill. To Mrs. Forrest she was a woman of standards, though when she had listened twice to the story she still felt quite troubled—her cheeks were high pink in colour, and she had to struggle to find a way through her uncertainties.
“So what you are—no, you are not implying anything—what the sounds you heard seem to suggest—”
“That’s better,” said Mrs. Phipps. “I should hate it if—”
“Of course you would. What those sounds suggest is that the pair of them have imposed themselves on us as mother and son, whereas in fact they are . . . she is . . . he is . . . Oh dear. I don’t know the word.”
“No,” said Mrs. Forrest wistfully. “When an older man has a younger woman for his . . . you know . . . there are quite a lot of words and phrases, some of them quite vulgar, to describe the situation.” Mrs. Forrest’s voice sank to a whisper. “But this . . . Would the world ‘gigolo’ describe him?”
“I don’t know,” confessed Miss Rumbold. “It brings to mind someone like Rudolph Valentino. Do you remember him? How my heart used to flutter! It suggests someone Latin. Someone like—would Tyrone Power fit the bill?”
“Yes, I think so,” said Mrs. Phipps. “Someone like that. I believe he’s Irish. He’s quite unlike Simon Webber.”
“If that is his real name. Oh, I agree. He’s so tall and regular featured and fair. One would say the Aryan type if it hadn’t been made a dirty word by those dreadful Nazis.”
A thought struck Mrs. Forrest.
“But what about his ration book? How would he get one in the name of Simon Webber?”
“I worked in London during the war,” said Miss Rumbold darkly. “In London you can get anything at a price. And though Mrs. Webber says she only has the normal petrol ration, they do get around a lot, don’t they? Could they have . . . contacts?”
“What sort of contacts?”
“People with a husband in Civil Defence could still have contacts that he made in the war. Where I worked, CD officers were notorious.”
It might have seemed that guilty verdict had already been passed, but in the end they lacked courage and decided they had to consult with someone, preferably another of the guests, so that the thing would be kept within the four walls of the Princes. Pixton was a traditional, elderly, straight-laced town, and nothing could damage the residents more than a sex scandal centred on what was now their home. In the end they decided to talk to Major Catchpole, whose first reaction was not unlike Miss Rumbold’s: Where she went pink, he went scarlet.
“We thought,” said Mrs. Phipps carefully, winding up her tale, “that you with your greater experience—”
“Experience, dammit! I don’t—” But he quietened down almost at once. It would strain belief if he denied ever having had contacts with adultery. “But of course it’s sometimes known. When I was in India there were cases of officers’ wives with subalterns, even with one of the dusky-faced johnnies, damn them. And during the war, with couples separated, and many women becoming widows . . . Stuff happens that it’s better not to talk about.”
“Oh, we do agree!” said Miss Rumbold. “We are so uncertain that we couldn’t put a name to what he is.”
“What who is?”
“Simon. We finally fixed on the word ‘gigolo,’ but it doesn’t seem quite right.”
“No, it doesn’t. Some of the young chaps in the mess had a word for it—toyboy. But that doesn’t seem quite right either. Seems a serious young man, this Simon.”
“It’s the uncertainty that makes it so troubling,” said Mrs. Forrest. “There might be other explanations.”
“The question is, even if it were certain, would it be for us to judge?” asked Major Catchpole, whose military career had left him with a life’s motto: Anything for a quiet life.
“But if we knew, and did nothing, and it got out around the town!” said Mrs. Phipps. “The reputation of all of us would be at rock bottom! We have a certain reputation because the Princes has a certain reputation. The townspeople respect us, the spa patients and their relatives respect us. We have a position in the community out of all proportion to the rent we pay.”
Major Catchpole was quick to placate Mrs. Phipps.
“Of course, of course. I’d be the last one to throw that away. But the thing is, we must be sure. We must think up a plan of campaign and when we are sure, and only then, we can decide on a strategy, think up a course of action and stick to it.”
Major Catchpole was not the only person who was decisive in theory but inconsistent in practice. That same evening he invited Mr. Somervell to have a beer with him in the King’s Head, and in a corner of the saloon bar he confided in him the gist of the two ladies’ story. From that moment, the battle for secrecy was lost.
When everyone in the Princes except Mrs. Hocking knew what was suspected of the Webbers they became grateful for the afternoon excursions of Mrs. Webber and Simon (they were no longer referred to as mother and son). That was when the rest could talk the situation over. The thing that was most difficult for most of them was the injunction that, until they were sure, no change should come over their behaviour to the pair.
“I just hate having to talk to them,” said Mrs. Matthews, a roly-poly widow with strong opinions. “Just smiling and pretending it’s all right.”
“It’s the same for all of us,” said Mr. Somervell.
“Oh, I know, but I just have this strong feeling, this thing. After all, this has always been a respectable spa town—not like Harrogate, where all sorts of things were going on. Pixton has always had genuine invalids, not people sneaking away from their families in order to have a dirty time. And an older woman, much older, and a very young man. My blood freezes—it really does. I can hardly stop shivering.”
The atmosphere had definitely changed, but subtly at first. The moment of transition was symbolised for Mrs. Webber in the spa’s conservatory—a glass attachment to the theatre, depleted by war and the terrible winter but still a gracious and heartwarming place to be as the summer sun streamed in. It was here that Cynthia Webber, strolling through on her own (Simon was at his books) and looking at plant labels and descriptions, was cut by Mrs. Phipps and Mrs. Forrest. She had seen them coming from the next room and prepared herself (for she was far from unobservant, and had seen how things were going) for a frosty nod or a distant “Good morning.” In fact, the two ladies, faces set firmly ahead, their steps proceeding to the tea room, ignored her entirely and did not even look away but stared straight through her. Mrs. Webber did not enjoy the experience but she joked about it to herself. When, that evening, she told Simon he said, “Vicious old cows,” and, “It’s time we moved on.” She did not disagree with him.
It was two mornings after this, at breakfast, that the next change began. Mrs. Hocking brought in the post when it was nearly nine and Simon had already gone on a long walk “to think things over,” he said, and was heard to say. The Webber package included a bulky, official-looking envelope which Mrs. Webber opened. It was addressed to Simon, but she knew what it must be.
“Oh good,” she said brightly (she hardly ever spoke now at meals, and never initiated a conversation). “It’s Simon’s passport.”
There was immediate silence, and Mrs. Forrest got up. She had been feeling guilty about the brutal cutting of her fellow guest, because she was not a vicious woman.
“Oh, what a good likeness,” she said, looking at the first page of the stiff blue booklet with the royal arms on the cover.
“Yes, a friend took it, and we insisted the main thing was the likeness. Travelling in Europe is pretty problematic still, and Simon still isn’t sure where he wants to go. Ah—they’ve got everything right: ‘Webber, Simon Marius, born 11th March, 1928.’ ” She looked up at her fellow lodgers. “All absolutely correct. Simon will be pleased.”
Mrs. Forrest retreated, feeling somehow ashamed. Later, when she knew Cynthia (as she now again called her) had gone out, she talked the matter through with Major Catchpole and Miss Rumbold.
“It’s the fact that it’s a passport,” she said. “A ration book or a driving licence wouldn’t be at all the same. There wouldn’t be a photograph for a start, and they’re easily forged or transferred. But a passport. Everyone knows they don’t make mistakes with those. It’s as clear as clear, he is her son.”
“They’re very careful about passports,” agreed Miss Rumbold, “as they have to be. All those Poles staying on after the war, and all those displaced persons coming from Central Europe. The riffraff of the world wants to come here. The authorities need to be careful, and they are.”
Miss Rumbold’s radicalism, if it ever existed, did not run to showing the hand of friendship to foreigners. She even distrusted the Welsh.
“And when it comes down to it, the ‘evidence’ was very thin,” conceded Major Catchpole, who had always exercised a restraining influence. “The woman could have had a migraine, and the boy was getting her aspirins.”
“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Forrest. “I’ve been very foolish.”
“Not at all, not at all. But I think, on the whole, Mrs. Phipps would have done better to hold her tongue. But we should have thought that older women with lovers—”
“Let’s say men friends.”
“—with men friends half their age and less are not frequent, not in this country. I believe such . . . liaisons were common in France between the wars, and very probably are still common today. We do things differently here.”
And so opinion swung round. Mrs. Forrest was crucial, since she had been the first one Mrs. Phipps confided in. Everyone agreed it was a storm in a teacup. Mrs. Phipps, however, was wistful about the change and said she was never going to be quite sure.
The change in atmosphere did not alter the decision of Mrs. Webber, who had not at all liked the days of ostracism after her weeks of preeminence. She went to Mrs. Hocking and said they would be leaving the next day, though they had paid up to the end of the week.
“I have no idea what silly story was put around,” she told the temporary manager, “and I don’t want to know. But I do know that for nearly a week we couldn’t get a civil word out of anyone. I’m not used to such foolishness, and the fact that they’ve had second thoughts does not change my mind one little bit. I’m not used to mixing with people so feeble-minded that they alter with every change of wind. Ah—my ration book—” and indeed Mrs. Hocking was handing it to her with a wistful expression, clearly wondering when next she was going to be able to let the suite. “Please don’t think I have anything to complain about with you. You may put any story about you like.”
So the next day, while Simon was stacking the suitcases in the car, the story was going round that Cynthia’s father-in-law, who had never recovered from his son’s death, was very poorly indeed, and they were anxious to see him one more time before . . .
On their way down towards Derby, where they had booked two single rooms, there was, for a time, silence in the car.
“I was not deceived for one moment by the little party waving us fond fare-wells,” said Cynthia eventually, knowing Simon was thinking of the same things. “One or two of the wavers must have been the ones that started it all off.”
“Of course they did. I couldn’t stand the atmosphere at the place, whether they were with us or against us.”
“They were a poor lot,” agreed Cynthia. “Sheep led by donkeys. With hindsight we were bound to find the company unsuitable: Narrow people with attitudes stuck in the Victorian age gravitate to little one-horse towns like Pixton.”
“They certainly could be vicious, though,” said Simon.
“Ignorance is always vicious. I certainly didn’t go through the business of doing away with your father to be treated by them as a scarlet woman.”
“They never even made up their minds, though—never took a line and stuck to it. One minute we were mother and son, next minute a middle-aged woman and her much younger lover.”
Cynthia laughed merrily.
“Typically provincial,” she said. “It never occurred to them that we could be both.”