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Author's Chapter Notes:

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The pub was long and narrow, and had a sort of snug bar at the back, divided from the street end by a step and a curtain: she had sat in there once, young and belligerent, but it was years since she had been here and she knew better, was too world-weary, to tread on anyone's toes tonight. Arriving not long after eight o'clock, on a rainy evening during the oppressively-familial season of goodwill, Rhyll had plenty of choice for a seat, settling for a small table halfway down the dingy room from which she could watch idly, her thoughts elsewhere.

She supposed she knew what she had come for, since she hadn't found herself a room anywhere. It wasn't only that, though: it was the freedom of these four grubby walls and the dark low ceiling, the simultaneous sense of novelty and coming home. Her train had limped into Temple Meads at half-past five, not as far behind schedule as she had anticipated, and as she left her big bag at the left-luggage office she had considered picking up some bottles from the off-licence and knocking hopefully at a handful of familiar doors; but that could all wait until tomorrow. The first thing she had wanted to do, the thing she had come here for, was to sit and watch and breathe more easily, at least for as long as she stayed inside here, and it wasn't only that, it was to finish the occasion properly by going home with somebody else.

Somebody who wasn't Peggy.

Rhyll had thought it through over and over; had written, in her mind, a hundred thousand more letters to follow those three she had dropped carefully into the coal fire on Boxing Day morning. She knew what to do, knew Peggy was just too dangerous, knew she needed to stop all contact bar the most innocuous: if she wouldn't say it to Hilda Annersley, she shouldn't say it to Peggy, was the pleasingly-simple solution she had come to. Peggy, warm sinewy arms clutched tight around Evvy in guileless affection, right there in the staff-room with no regard for who else was there or how cynical, how un-Peggy-like they might be in their thoughts, could not be trusted. So Rhyll knew what to do, and going home with somebody else would be the way to do it.

(How tawdry it sounds; how unthinking towards the other party. But, Rhyll reasons with herself, the 'other party' will be pursuing an agenda equally tawdry. In the end, this is an unspoken meeting of secret needs by accident more than design; it is the mutually-recognisable desire to prolong the novel-familiarity of this pub beyond the time they call for last orders; it is a desperate - measured - indifferent grappling for some moment of connection, no more or less than two amiable strangers making polite conversation on a train station platform.)

Rhyll had thought it through over and over, and didn't know what to do; she saw little sense in resolving once again to pull back, to do nothing with Peggy that she wouldn't do with her Headmistress, and she saw even less sense in not making such a resolution. She must speak to Peggy - writing was even more dangerous, she had realised that on Christmas night as she lay in bed eyeing the screwed-up letters anxiously, pulling them right under her pillow before she could relax enough to sleep - and she must make her understand. Understand what? Rhyll remembered Peggy leaning into her, warm sinewy arms clutched tight around her, such guileless affection - not only affection - and glanced blankly down at her glass. Maybe Peggy was the one who understood. Rhyll sighed: she didn't know what to do, but going home with somebody else would help her work it out.

"Penny for 'em?"

Rhyll looked up, putting a face to the woman she had only been aware of as a vague shape moving decisively towards her. She was tall and handsome, with coppery red hair pinned loosely back from her face. She was definitely not Peggy. Rhyll smiled. "They're not worth it. As a matter of fact, they're all gone..."

The tall woman grinned, exposing slightly crooked teeth. They suited her, Rhyll thought. "What're you drinking?"

Familiarity. Rhyll retraced the steps she had made time and again before as they sought refuge in a conversation which was both scripted and truthful, the clichèd lines a shorthand for truths they both recognised and understood, giving away much but confirming little. It was more than an hour later, emerging from the pub doorway after a tentative glance to see who might be nearby, that her companion leaned confidentially towards her to ask her name. "After all," she muttered below the steady patter of rain, "I'll be needing to call it later..."

Rhyll laughed automatically, delighting in such an explicit exchange after the stifling silence of the time at her parents, but struck again at how very emphatically this woman was not Peggy. She felt a wistful pang even as she answered, tucking the other woman's arm more tightly through her own. The name she gave was not her own; she wondered whether her companion's answer was any more truthful.

The flat was not far away. Ten minutes, if that. Five corners, Rhyll mapped them in her mind as they walked, deep in superficial conversation. Her host flicked the lights on impatiently as she closed the door behind them, and Rhyll could not help but pick out the little traces of male presence in the small sitting room. The tall woman with the red hair followed the direction of her gaze, landing squarely on a small bottle of aftershave tucked away on the dresser.

Her face set. "Not here. Not been here for a long time. Korea. You can just go if you want-"

Rhyll interrupted gently, laying a soothing hand on a willowy, agitated arm. "Navy? My brother, too."

The woman gave her a look, as if to check she had really understood, was not imagining that the man missing from this flat was merely another brother. Rhyll nodded and she seemed to relax again. "Let me get you a towel."

She ducked through another door into a dark hallway beyond, reappearing seconds later clutching a grey towel which had clearly seen better days. With a sudden shy smile she stepped close and rubbed at Rhyll's drenched hair. "You'll catch your death like that..."

The unexpected husband had not perturbed Rhyll, but this small tenderness somehow did. Apologetically, she edged backwards. "I'm sorry - I can't - I have to go now, Jean. I'm sorry-" 

Her face fell. "No! Oh, look, I'm sorry, I should have said something sooner. I didn't expect you to notice - people don't, as a rule - oh, at least stay and have some tea. You can't go back out in that, and where are you going to go at this time of night anyway? Stay here, sleep on the sofa."

"It's not that - it's really not that. Not at all. I just - I shouldn't be here."

Her host looked at her consideringly, eyes narrowed in thought. "Oh, you too? Well. Let's just have a pot of tea, then. Nothing else. You shouldn't be out in that so far from home, and I'll be glad of the company - even if it's a touch different to what I'd been expecting."

Rhyll stood for a moment in thought, caught off-balance by this unexpected frankness. Had she been quite clear enough? She didn't want to have to go through this again later; she felt bad enough for doing it once. But perhaps this woman who strolled confidently from her marital home to the Radnor and back again would be as good as her word; in spite of a rather glaring omission, she had shown herself formidably plain-speaking thus far. Tea sounded appealing, and all the more so for watching the cold rain outside trickle down the window-pane. And it was true: where else, at this hour of the night, could she go?

So she turned gratefully to her companion for the night and nodded. "Tea would be very nice."

Chapter End Notes:

Some of the detail here - including the opening sentence - has been lovingly borrowed from the fabulous OutStories Bristol website: http://outstoriesbristol.org.uk/places/pubs-clubs/radnor-hotel/




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