The long hot month that Roger had suffered, endured, and finally begun begrudgingly to accept had been no happier a time for Sarah. For her it had been bleak, bitter, and just as for Roger, exceedingly painful and loveless.
The trip back had nearly proved the undoing of her resolve to return to what she saw as her filial responsibility. It had been difficult enough to leave Roger, drunk and insensitive though he had been. She had wept quietly, from exhaustion as much as pain, as she boarded the train, thinking how he would awake to find her gone, not understanding at first, and then coming painfully — she could feel his pain, his astonished, indignant, deceived, abandoned pain — to the realization of what she had done. Hopefully that fool Ignacio would show up as he had promised and be of some help. Although on reflection she could not be sure that he had understood what it was she had tried so hard to explain to him.
“Sí, sí. Entiendo,” he had repeated, staggering backwards and forwards as she tried to place the envelope in his hands, “a Rrrocha le mostraré el camino hacía el pensión. ¿Usted volverá mañana, verdad?”
‘Rrrocha’ she understood. It was something to do with Roger, but the rest of the first burst made no sense. Then ‘volverá’ sounded disturbingly like ‘return’, and she knew for sure that ‘Usted’ meant ‘you’. So she repeated over and over: “I go to the station. Yo a mi casa — a Inglaterra.” But he smiled condescendingly, even in his drunkenness seeming to treat her like a child, and swayed away, shouting: “Mañana,” over his shoulder.
Equally hard had been the actual train ride itself. Without Roger by her side she felt as if she was regarded with disapproval and suspicion by everyone. Fool though he sometimes was, he had at least prided himself on his competency when it came to things such as finding the right train and addressing guards and porters in foreign tongues. He very often got the details wrong, but at least they made progress, even if only because people were always coming to his aid. He never noticed that he was cutting a ridiculous figure, and surprisingly, most people did not seem to mind. They came to his aid anyway. She had sometimes thought, with a certain guilty superiority, that they did it out of pity for her — his helpless victim. But now, without him, no one came to her aid. It almost seemed as if they were purposefully ignoring her, refusing even to acknowledge her existence, as if they all knew what she was doing. Not only was she so shamelessly travelling on her own, but she had also deserted her protector. It served her right if she became lost or worse.
She ignored them all in return, and spent the better part of a day hungry and uncomfortable, unwilling to attempt the now seemingly impossible task of asking where food or drink might be obtained. She had not wanted to participate in the revelry that had surrounded them when Roger was attempting to play the seasoned traveller, but realized now that at least it had kept her fed and unthirsty. She ended by regarding her present hunger as a form of penance.
When the time came to change trains at the French border she very nearly gave in and returned to Madrid. What she had done to Roger now seemed as egregious as what she had done to her father. Caught thus between two equally powerful feelings of guilt she had actually stopped and put her suitcase down on the long platform that led from the Spanish side to the French side of the station, exhausted and confused, when she was unexpectedly addressed by a stranger.
“Con permiso, Señorita, ¡dejame ayudarle!”
A grey-haired gentleman, a head taller than Sarah, despite a slight stoop, was pointing to her case and smiling kindly.
“Oh, thank you — gracias. It’s not heavy, I was just tired.”
“Ah! You are English?” he asked, with an unmistakable French accent.
“Then allow me anyway. It is still a long walk to the other side.”
Something about his polite consideration, his grey hair, so like her father’s, and the phrase ‘a long walk to the other side’ was all it took to drain away the last of her resistance. She had no more strength to wrestle with the problem of what to do. Whatever she did would be wrong, would be painful, would leave her feeling just as guilty. She simply could not think about it any more. Two large tears came quietly to her eyes and she murmured: “Thank you,” and continued on her way towards the French side, barely able to see where she was going. The elderly Frenchman picked up her suitcase with one hand and, with the other holding her lightly by the shoulder, steered her through the crowd.
“You have been very kind,” she said, hours later, sipping the last of her coffee in the dining compartment as they rode comfortably and efficiently through the orderly countryside of Poitou and Touraine. “I oughtn’t to have bothered you with my troubles.”
“Nonsense, my dear. You ’ave ’ad a difficult decision to make. And I ’ave enjoyed your company. An old man does not so often ’ave the opportunity to dine with such a nice young lady. I ’ope your father will be as reconnaissant as ’e should. I am only sorry for your young man.”
“He’ll forget me.”
“But not you ’im, I think.”
No, she thought. I shan’t forget him.
Tired, but calmer and filled with fresh resolve, she had arrived back in Wimbledon to be greeted by a terrible scene that nearly made her doubt her decision again. It was too soon after having read the letter that she had left for him for her father’s initial shock and anger to have abated. Far from being glad that she had changed her mind and given up the unbelievable folly she had described in her letter, he was still outraged that she had even considered such a scheme in the first place. What had she been thinking of? What could possibly have got into her? Had she completely taken leave of her senses? Who did she think she was — some mindless trollop from Wandsworth? It was scarcely to be believed that despite such utter recklessness he had been spared the humiliation of the disgrace and scandal that must surely have fallen on him had it become common knowledge that his daughter had gone abroad — absconded — with a disreputable wretch of a would-be musician whose family were rumoured to have been little better than tradesmen.
She endured the remarks concerning her own lack of commonsense and propriety, feeling that although her father was hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch regarding what was or was not acceptable behaviour in this day and age, she had indeed been foolish in thinking she could take off like a bohemian into the wild blue yonder without incurring a certain amount of opprobrium, but bridled and rose to Roger’s defence when he came under attack.
“Roger’s a serious composer, and it’s not fair to blame him for his family. He’s no more disreputable than you are.”
“Bah! You’re too young to understand. Even if he were a ‘serious composer as you maintain, that would by definition prove his disrepute. I should have thought you would have known better.”
She attempted to explain that she had returned for her father’s sake rather than because she had realized the foolishness of sacrificing her life to ‘that so-called musician’, but Norman Walsingham junior would have none of it, and continued to berate her for her shamelessness. She suffered most of his abuse in silence, trying mutely to convince herself that she was glad she had got back before her absence had begun to cause him the pain that would have followed the anger.
She was too old for him to punish her by restricting her movements or denying her support or the wherewithal to continue her studies, but punish her he did by making her aware of the embarrassment and disgrace she had so narrowly missed bringing down on him — ten times over. He wore her down so far that she no longer felt able to consider writing to Roger in good conscience. He made her realize that she had narrowly escaped irretrievable shame and disaster by putting herself into the hands of someone who was totally unable to provide for himself — let alone for her as well. She had to admit it was true that it was unlikely that Roger would have been able to support them both unaided. For the moment she felt too exhausted to consider setting out on her own, and for the time being decided to try and think less about herself and devote more time to providing her father with what he needed. It would come straight after a while. He couldn’t see that he was only asking so much from her because he was still feeling the loss of his wife.
In the meantime perhaps Roger would indeed write something and come back with sufficient achievement to earn some respect from her father. For her part she was in no state or position to help him further herself. She would write to him in a month — or what was more likely, he would write to her, sooner. But as the weeks passed and there was no word, she felt less and less able to write to him. He had obviously not cared as much as he had said he had cared, and she began to think that so long as she was not able to be by his side, supporting him, he had no time for her.
The more time that went by the more she missed him and also, sadly, the more she became convinced that he had not really loved her. It was a terrible price to have paid for doing what she thought was correct with regard to her father, but since it seemed to prove that she had been right she had to take comfort from the knowledge that if she had stayed with Roger not only would her father have suffered but she too would have ultimately suffered when Roger tired of her sufficiently to be no longer capable of pretending to love her.
Wimbledon tennis matches came and went, and summer faded. In the autumn she began to clerk for her father, unofficially at first, but after a while she went back to school and took some legal secretarial courses, abandoning her history degree, and returned as his permanent secretary. She thought no less of Roger, but had now become completely unable to consider writing to him. It had all been a foolish mistake. It was just that for a while it had held out such promise she had almost believed it. She would never again believe anything else, even if she were to have the chance. As time passed she began to think even this was unlikely; she was committed to her father now, for as long as he needed her. Her father, irascible and rancorous as ever, ceased mentioning Roger, and the shameful episode of that early summer became, by unspoken mutual agreement, another one of those things never referred to in polite families. Sarah’s brief adventure, a brave but short-lived dash for freedom, seemed to have ended, and Norman Walsingham junior continued his bitter rise to prosperity.
But the Frenchman had been right: she did not forget…
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as Book or Paperback from Blackburn Books