by Elizabeth Taylor
On Wednesdays, after school, Sylvia took the bus to the outskirts of the nearest town for her music lesson. Because of her docile manner, she did not complain of the misery she suffered in Miss Harrison's darkened parlour, sitting at the old-fashioned upright piano with its brass candlesticks and loose, yellowed keys. In the highest register there was not the faintest tinkle of a note, only the hollow sound of the key being banged down. Although that distant octave was out of her range, Sylvia sometimes pressed down one of its notes, listening mutely to Miss Harrison's exasperated railings about her - Sylvia's - lack of aptitude, or even concentration. The room was darkened in winter by a large fir-tree pressing against - in windy weather tapping against - the window, and in summer even more so by holland blinds, half-drawn to preserve the threadbare carpet. To add to all the other miseries, Sylvia had to peer short-sightedly at the music-book, her glance going up and down between it and the keyboard, losing her place, looking hunted, her lips pursed.
It was now the season of the drawn blinds, and she waited in the lane at the bus-stop, feeling hot in her winter coat, which her grandmother insisted on her wearing, just as she insisted on her music lessons. The lane buzzed in the heat of the late afternoon - with bees in the clover, and flies going crazy over some cow-pats on the road.
Since her mother's death, Sylvia had grown glum and sullen. She was a plain child, plump, mature for her eleven years. Her greasy hair was fastened back by a pink plastic slide; her tweed coat, of which, last winter, she had been rather proud, had cuffs and collar of mock ocelot. She carried, beside her music case, a shabby handbag, once her mother's.
The bus seemed to tremble and jingle as it came slowly down the road. She climbed on, and sat down on the long seat inside the door, where a little air might reach her.
On the other long seat opposite her, was a very tall man; quite old, she supposed, for his hair was carefully arranged over his bald skull. He stared at her. She puffed with the heat and then, to avoid his glance, she slewed round a little to look over her shoulder at the dusty hedges- the leaves all in late summer darkness. She was sure that he was wondering why she wore a winter's coat on such a day, and she unbuttoned it and flapped it a little to air her armpits. The weather had a threat of change in it, her grandmother had said, and her cotton dress was too short. It had already been let down and had a false hem, which she now tried to draw down over her thighs.
"Yes,, it is very warm," the man opposite her suddenly said, as if agreeing with someone else's remark.
She turned in surprise, and her face reddened, but she said nothing.
After a while, she began to wonder if it would be worth getting off at the fare-stage before the end of her journey and walk the rest of the way. Then she could spend the money on a lolly. She had to waste half-an-hour before her lesson, and must wander about somewhere to pass the time. It would be better to be wandering about with a lolly to suck. Her grandmother did not allow her to eat sweets - bathing the teeth in acid, she said it was.
"I believe I have seen you before," the man opposite said. "Either wending your way to or from a music-lesson, I image." He looked knowingly at her music-case.
"To", she said sullenly.
"A budding Myra Hess," he went on. "I take it that you play the piano, as you seem to have no instrument secreted about your person".
She did not know what he meant, and stared out the window, frowning, feeling so hot and anguished.
"And what is your name?" he asked. "We shall have to keep it in mind for the future when you are famous."
"Sylvia Wilkinson," she said under her breath.
"Not bad. Not bad, Sylvia. No doubt one day I shall boast that I met the great Sylvia Wilkinson on a bus one summer's afternoon. Name-dropping, you know. A harmless foible of the humble."
He was very neat and natty, bus his reedy voice had a nervous tremour. All this time, he had held an unlighted cigarette in his hand, and gestured with it, but made no attempt to find matches.
"I expect at school you sing the beautiful song, "Who is Sylvia?" Do you?"
She shook her head, without looking at him and, to her horror, he began to sing, quaveringly, "Who is Sylvia ? What is she-he ?"
A woman sitting a little further down the bus, turned and looked at him sharply.
He's mad, Sylvia decided. She was embarrassed, but not nervous, not nervous at all, here in the bus whit other people, in spite of all her grandmother had said about not getting into conversations with strangers.
He went on singing, wagging his cigarette in time.
The woman turned again and gave him a longer stare. She was homely-looking, Sylvia decided - in spite of fair hair going very dark at the roots. She had a comfortable, protective manner, as if she were keeping an eye on the situation for Sylvia's sake.
Suddenly, he broke off his singing and returned her stare. "I take it, Madam," he said, "that you do not appreciate my singing".
"I should think it's hardly the place," she said shortly. "That's all," and turned her head away.
"Hardly the place!" he said, in a low voice, as if to himself, and with feigned amazement." On a fair summer's afternoon, while we bowl merrily along the lanes. Hardly the place - to express one's joy of living! I am sorry," he said to Sylvia, in a louder voice. "I had not realized we were going to a funeral."
Thankfully, she saw that they were coming nearer to the outskirts of the town. It was not a large town, and its outskirts were quiet.
"I hope you don't mind me chatting to you", the man said to Sylvia. "I am fond of children. I am known as being good with them. Well known for that. I treat them on my own level, as one should".
Sylvia stared - almost glared - out of the window, twisted round in her seat, her head aching with then stillness of her eyes.
It was flat country, intersected by canals. On the skyline, were the clustered chimneys of a brick-works. The only movement out there was the faintest shimmering of heat.
She was filled by misery; for there seemed nothing in her life now but acquiescence to hated things, and her grandmother's old ways setting her apart from other children. Nothing she did was what she wanted to do -school-going, church-going, now this terrible music lesson ahead of her. Since her mother's death, her life had taken a sharp turn for the worse, and she could not see how it would ever be any better. She had no faith in freeing herself from it, even when she was grown-up.
A wasp zigzagged across her and settled on the front of her coat. She was obliged to turn. She sat rigid, her head held back, her chin tucked in, afraid to make a movement.
"Allow me!" The awful man opposite had reached across the bus, and flapped a crumpled handkerchief at her. The wasp began to fuss furiously, darting about her face.
"We'll soon settle you, you little pest", the man said, making matters worse.
The bus-conductor came between them. He stood carefully still for a moment, and then decisively clapped his hands together, and the wasp fell dead to the ground.
"Thank you," Sylvia said to him, but not to the other.
They were passing bungalows now, newly-built, and with unmade gardens. Looking directly ahead of her, Sylvia got up, and went to the platform of the bus, standing there in slight breeze, ready for the stopping-place.
Beyond the bus-shelter, she knew that there was a little general shop. She would comfort herself with a bright red lolly on a stick. She crossed the road and stood looking in the window, at jars of boiled sweets, and packet of detergents and breakfast cereals. There was a notice about ice-creams, but she had not enough money.
She turned to go into the empty, silent shop when the now familiar and dreaded voice came from beside her. "Would you care to partake of an ice, this hot afternoon?"
He stood between her and the shop, and the embarrassment she had suffered on the bus gave way to terror.
"An ice?" he repeated, holding his head on one side, looking at her imploringly.
She thought that if she said 'yes', she could at least get inside the shop. Someone must be there to serve, someone whose protection she might depend upon. Those words of warning from her grandmother came into her head, cautionary tales, dark with unpleasant hints.
Before she could move, or reply, she felt a hand lightly but firmly touch her shoulder. It was the glaring woman from the bus, she was relieved to see.
"Haven't you ever been told not to talk to strangers?" she asked Sylvia, quite sharply, but with calm common sense in her brusqueness. "You'd better be careful," she said to the man menacingly. "Now come along, child, and let this be a lesson to you. Which way were you going?"
Sylvia nodded ahead.
"Well, best foot forward, and keep going. And you, my man, can kindly step in a different direction, or I'll find a policeman".
At this last word, Sylvia turned to go, feeling flustered, but important.
"You should never", the woman began, going along beside her. "There's some funny people about these days. Doesn't your mother warn you?"
"Oh, well, I'm sorry about that. My God, it's warm." She pulled her dress away from her bosom, fanning it. She had a shopping-basket full of comforting, homely groceries, and Sylvia looked into it, as she walked beside her.
"Wednesday's always my day", the woman said. "Early closing here, so I take the bus up to Horseley. I have a relative who has the little general store there. It makes a change, but not in this heat"
She rambled on about her uninteresting affairs. Once, Sylvia glanced backed, and could see the man still standing there, gazing after them.
"I shouldn't turn round," the woman said. "Which road did you say?"
Sylvia hadn't, but now did so.
"Well, you can come my way. That would be better, and there's nothing much in it. Along by the gravel-pits. I'll have a quick look round before we turn the corner".
When she did so, she said that she thought they were being followed, at a distance. "Oh, it's disgraceful", she said. "And with all the things you read in the papers. You can't be too careful, and you'll have to remember that in the future. I'm not sure I ought not to inform the police".
Along this road, there where disused gravel-pits, and chicory and convolvulus. Rusty sorrel and rustier tin-cans gave the place a derelict air. On the other side, there were allotments, and ramshackle tool-sheds among dark nettles.
"It runs into Hamilton Road" the woman explained.
"But I don't have to be there for another half-hour," Sylvia said nervously. She could imagine Miss Harrison's face if she turned up on the doorstep all that much too soon, in the middle of a lesson with the bright-looking girl she had often met leaving.
"I'm going to give you a nice cup of tea, and make sure you're all right. Don't you worry."
Thankfully, she turned in at the gate of a little red brick house at the edge of the waste land. It was ugly but very neat, and surrounded by hollyhocks. The beautifully shining windows were draped with frilly, looped-up curtains, with plastic flowers arranged between them.
Sylvia followed the woman down a side path to the back door, trying to push her worries from her mind. She was all right this time, but what of all the future Wednesdays, she wondered - with their perilous journeys to be made alone.
She stood in the kitchen and looked about her. It was clean and cool there. A budgerigar hopped in a cage. Rather listlessly, but not knowing what else to do, she went to it and ran her finger-nail along the wires.
"There's my baby boy, my little Joey" the woman said in a sing-song, automatic way, as she held the kettle under the tap. "You'll feel better when you've had a cup of tea", she added, now supposedly addressing Sylvia.
"It's very kind of you"
"Any woman would do the same. There's a packet of Oval Marie in my basket, if you'd like o open it and put them on this plate"
Sylvia was glad to do something. She arranged the biscuits carefully on the rose-patterned plate. "It's very nice here", she said. Her grandmother's house was so dark and cluttered; Miss Harrison's even more so. Both smelt stuffy, of thick curtains and old furniture. She did not go into many houses, for she was so seldom invited anywhere. She was a dull girl, whom nobody liked very much, and she knew it.
"I must have everything sweet and fresh", the woman said complacently.
The kettle began to sing.
I've still got to get home, Sylvia thought in a panic. She stared up at a fly-paper hanging in the window - the only disconcerting thing in the room. Some of the flies were still half alive, and striving hopelessly to free themselves. But they were caught forever.
She heard footsteps on the path, and listened in surprise; but the woman did not seem to hear, or lift her head. She was spooning tea from the caddy into the teapot.
"Just in time, Herbert", she called out.
Sylvia turned round as the door opened. With astonished horror, she saw the man from the bus step confidently into the kitchen.
"Well done, Mabel!" he said, closing the door behind him. "Don't forget one for the pot!" He smiled, smoothing his hands together, surveying the room.
Sylvia spun round questioningly to the woman, who was now bringing the teapot to the table, and she noticed for the first time that there were three cups and saucers laid there.
"Well, sit down, do", the woman said, a little impatiently "It's all ready."