In the first of our seven short stories on the seven deadly sins which will run as parable-like meditations throughout the weeks of Lent, Rachel Billington tackles the theme of gluttony. A novelist whose best known works include "Loving Attitudes" and "Occasion of Sin", Rachel also writes plays and children's books.
when Colette met Harold Gibbon, she was 27, already older than she liked. But he was over 40, married and made
substantial by his formal suit, his neatly brushed hair. For six months they worked in the same office, an insurance agency where he was agent and she was secretary. Colette was hardly more than five feet tall but made in the shapely mode of an earlier age. She had soft white skin, dark bouffant hair and favoured suits of cherry red or apricot. She felt herself light up
the dark corners of the office and sensed Mr Gibbon felt it too.
One slack Friday afternoon, Harold Gibbon looked around the empty room and said, "How about a cup of tea, dear?"
"You mean outside?" responded Colette, not at all surprised.
Harold supposed he did, although a little amazed at his own daring.
It was geographical accident that they found their way to the Waldorf which happened to stand halfway between their office and Charing Cross station where Harold caught his train home.
"Of course my wife seldom comes to London now," said Harold as they pushed their way along the crowded pavements. He had not meant to say this, had merely intended to mention his wife as a precautionary measure — he was not a bold man — but the words took command. He frowned anxiously.
He need not have worried. "I don't blame her at all," replied Colette cosily. "Who would live in London if they didn't have to?"
Actually she loved London, even her part of it in a flat shared with her mother in Camden Town, but it was an engrained rule with her to agree with even the slightest indication of a man's views.
In fact, Harold loved London too, its energetic excitement cheering his dull life, and felt thwarted every day he caught his train back to Sevenoaks. It was at this moment of mutual misunderstood agreement that he indicated the entrance to the Waldorf. "We shall have tea here," he announced with the trace of a flourish.
"Oh, marvellous!" mouthed Colette, glad that she was wearing a new jersey two-piece.
Again it was chance that the entrance they had chosen led straight to the Palm Court. They were there at once — ushered in by bowing waiters in dress suits, overcoats removed graciously, seated at a little table near the dance floor.
"Not too near the band, madam," commented the waiter who was elderly and dignified.
Dazzled, Colette could only nod and blush. To step out of the dark, cold and busy streets of London into this large, brightly lit room where music played, was like stepping into the pages of the romantic novels she favoured.
"Oh, Mr Gibbon!" she breathed. "How can you find such a place?"
Harold, who had no plans for such luxury, looked modest and fingered his wallet. "Please call me Harold," he thought to say.
"The set tea or a glass of champagne first?" enquired the waiter.
A mood of rare recklessness took over Harold. Was not this the stuff of his dreams as he endured the suffocating train ride back to his not very well wife and his not very nice house in Oak View Road? He looked across the table at Colette who was glowing prettily in some soft red garment and gave her the smile usually reserved for his most important clients.
This is fun, their eyes said to each other, let us enjoy ourselves, for it is all not quite real and in an hour or two life will be back to normal.
"Oh, do look!" Colette's eyes widened charmingly.
"People are dancing." Up till then neither of them had taken in the significance of the music but now several couples had moved onto the shiny wooden floor and were executing wellturned quick steps.
"Dancing!" exclaimed Harold in a shocked voice.
"I don't expect you like dancing." Colette modified her enthusiasm for she loved dancing, she had even taken a few lessons a couple of years ago. "Very few men enjoy dancing."
But Harold's shock was due to the realisation that fate really did mean to give him a good time for up until the last five or six years when his wife had become not very well, they had regularly attended the Sevenoaks Ballroom and South American Dance Club. Harold Gibbon was confident in his quick quick slow.
Round the floor they went, Colette demure yet yielding, Harold assured yet protective.
When they returned to their table it was hard not to let happiness rip. Harold found himself thinking that it was lucky there was the weekend between this and their next meeting in the office. Colette did not think but merely existed.
"Tea?" she suggested, ready to pour.
"Cucumber sandwiches?" enquired Harold. "Or would you prefer to start with teacakes? Or perhaps even scones, strawberry jam and cream?"
They laughed together. It seemed such a lot but it turned out Colette had worked up quite an appetite with all that dancing and Harold encouraged her to eat.
"My wife, I'm afraid, does not eat much." Clearly this was a criticism and Colette, eager to please, ate his scone without too much pressing.
"You have so much life," commented Harold and Colette understood that again she was being compared favourably to his wife.
"I am so enjoying myself!" she cried girlishly and envisaged briefly her mother, of whom she was very fond, at this very moment preparing their solid supper of meat and potatoes. "When we dance I feel as if we're floating."
Harold was a little wary of this fancifulness and discreetly looked at his watch. Despite the fun they were having, he didn't want her to get the wrong idea. At once Colette caught his mood and withdrew a little.
"I mustn't be late or my mother will worry."
"And I must not miss my train."
"Oh, no. Your poor wife would worry."
"Poor Mrs Gibbon," agreed Harold.
Nobly, Harold paid the very large bill without a wrinkle and they found themselves on their way out via a man-sized potted plant. Colette's rosy lips, sweetened with strawberry jam and a bubble or two of champagne, were irresistable. "Oh, my dear" whispered Harold, bending to her, "you will make some man very happy."
Then they were out in the cold and the dark and the noise so that their farewells were brief. "See you on Monday!" cried Colette, suddenly not caring if this was indelicate. "And thank you!"
"Thank you," replied Harold gravely and was gone into the rush of hurrying people. Colette, who also caught her underground train from Charing Cross, followed slowly.
This should have been a single once in a life-time
occasion of fun. Neither Harold nor Colette had the will to deceive, nor did they feel a need to explore their sexual natures. In fact, quite the contrary. But it happened the following Friday that they found themselves once more alone and underworked and, at about four o'clock, they caught each other's eyes. Colette blushed because she was afraid Harold might have guessed she had bought a new skirt which was fuller than she usually wore and clasped her waist more tightly.
"I think we should have tea and take some exercise," said Harold soberly.
"Yes." Colette was docile. She tried not to smile just as she had tried not to show her disappointment when he had not mentioned the Palm Court all week.
That second afternoon, Harold, as if admitting it was to become a routine, laid down the rules even more clearly. "I met my wife when I was 16," he explained, "and she has been the only woman for me ever
Colette made sympathetic noises and daintily ate a fishpaste roll before intimating that her relationship with her mother came before everything. Harold seemed more relaxed after these declarations and when they took to the floor it was his confidence that led them to bring off a flamboyant glide and spin.
As before Colette found herself hungrier than Harold who admitted, touching lightly his waist-coated chest, that he suffered with his stomach.
"Oh, I have no problems like that!" cried Colette, enjoying his admiration. "What tiny pots of jam!" she added, showing off further her zest for life.
Their kiss was exchanged once more behind the man-sized plant and they parted as before.
Soon the week could not have existed for either of them without their Friday tea dance. Even if they could not get away early, they made time by discreetly ringing their separate homes with late working as an explanation for their delay.
Since the insurance agency was not a big organisation, Harold and Colette's colleagues soon discovered their secret but no-one was interested enough to do more than snigger behind their backs. They assumed, not without justification, that Mr Gibbon would be incapable of doing anything really exciting.
Yet •for Harold and Colette it was just the right level of excitement. Their hearts beat faster, their skin flushed, although Harold's was rather sallow owing to his bad digestion, and they kissed with champagne enthusiasm. No more, however. No further.
They were both amazed when they found they were celebrating a year's anniversary of their first meeting.
"Here's to the Palm Court!" Harold raised his glass. He only took a sip since it was by now established that it suited Colette's constitution better than his. He pushed it over to join the glass she'd nearly drained.
Colette, cheeks pink and eyes bright, toasted him back. Carried away, she moved her leg forward until it nudged his. Immediately, she felt his withdraw. Quickly, she snatched a tea-cake for, to her horror, she found a couple of tears were ready to drop from her eyes. She must not be so childish and spoil everything.
"The teas get better and better!" she cried gaily.
"And so do you." Harold took her hand across the table and gave it what she felt as a consoling squeeze. Occasionally he did this behind the potted plant instead of a kiss. Colette always felt a little cheated, although she tried not to mind.
"How is Mrs Gibbon?" she asked now with only the tiniest edge of malice.
"Not very well, I'm afraid." He paused. "When I look at you, your health and vitality, I can hardly believe you are both members of the same sex."
"1 am always well," agreed Colette proudly which was not quite true. Sometimes she suffered terribly from headaches and cramp. Some weekends just lately shed felt so drearily tired that she would hardly have got out of bed without her mother's goading. But she did feel wonderfully well on Fridays when she was at the Palm Court with Mr Gibbon.
"There's something I must tell you." Harold leant across the table.
For a moment Colette's heart jumped hysterically but then she knew it would be nothing like that.
"I'm leaving the company in the New Year. Last move before retirement. Lucky to get the chance, really."
Colette stared at him. Their relationship did not include the right to question.
Harold smiled. Again that reassuring squeeze of the hand. "But nothing could change our Fridays. I'll have it written into my contract."
"I see," responded Colette, not smiling, although it was the nearest Harold had ever got to making a joke. The pain of possible loss had been too great. Through a reassuring bite of scone she heard him continue, "Yes. My new office is just round the corner. Not far at all."
In a way, Harold's departure from Colette's working life made their Fridays easier. It had always been a little odd relating to her boss, Mr Gibbon, during the week and transforming him into the gallantescortofthePalmCourton Fridays. Now she only saw him in that context and could look forward to the end of the week without the deterrent of his pale working face.
On the other hand, it fixed their friendship in an unalterable groove for now they had nothing in common except the Palm Court and what little information they care to exchange about their women at home.
Love, about which Colette read and thought a great deal, was never mentioned between them. Harold, it had to be presumed, did not think about it, but Colette was romantic enough to believe, somewhere deep inside himself, he acknowledged they were soulmates. His wife, of course, made anything more than they had impossible ... some women did not have as much.
Colette dug into her second pot of strawberry jam. The waiter brought it now as a matter of course.
"I fear I'm getting quite plump."
"Nonsense, my dear. Not when you can do the rhumba as I, just beheld it. Besides, you know how I like something to get hold of."
Colette smiled demurely. He did get hold of her when they danced, pushing away her hips, swinging her round by the waist, so perhaps it really didn't matter that she was putting on weight. Her mother said she ate too much but her mother had become quite bad-tempered lately.
"You shouldn't let me eat your tea," she pushed back the plate of cakes flirtaceously. The trouble was she felt so happy with her mouth full of food.
Colette had begun eating so much to please Harold and now she did it to please herself. Vaguely, she knew it was linked to her relationship with Harold, because it had started with the Palm Court, but now, as three, four and five years passed, it was spreading through to the rest of her life.
In the evening she lay dozing in front of the television thinking of Harold and eating chocolate biscuits. In the morning she consoled herself for the long dreary day ahead by popping into the bakers on the way to work. They had profiteroles just like the ones in the Waldorf. They were extra, of course, but Harold never seemed to mind.
As the years passed, Colette's shape changed from something approaching a pocket Venus to something approaching a pillow tied in the middle. She was still soft-looking and she still had a waist but only by a considerable effort of will. Yet still basking in Harold's undiminished Friday admiration and relying on her light step on the dance floor which happily never failed her, she did not cut back. Indeed she wore wide pleated skirts that swirled round her hips in exuberant celebration and never in disguise.
"You are the best dancing partner in the Palm Court, bar none," averred Harold on their seventh anniversary. "Waiter! Another cherry tart for my lady."
By now they were well known in the hotel. They even rather patronised the waiters, most of whom were after their time. The band, too, played their favourite tunes and only smiled slightly at the seriousness with which the skinny old man and the plump woman in red took to the floor. It was heart-warming, however, the pleasure they took in each other's company — each week as if they were meeting for the first time.
It was in the ninth year of their meetings that Colette's mother died in the night of a stroke, and between her tears Colette realised that Harold had not kissed her for at least a year. The two things made her very unhappy and after the funeral, which was quite, she went out and bought herself an entire chocolate cake. It came from a French patisserie and contained so much alcohol that she felt quite tipsy, also sick. She cried some more and was glad that it was Wednesday so that she had time to recover for Friday.
"My mother passed away last Friday night," she informed Harold.
"Oh, my dear." He squeezed her puffy little fingers. "Should you be here ...?"
"Oh, yes. She would want me to ...." Colette knew her mother disapproved of her teas and dancing with a married man but was far less interested in the truth than concerned that Harold would think her complaining or depressed like his poor wife. To show her gallant cheerfulness, she immediately ate all the sandwiches.
"There is no-one like you!" Harold watched her and signed. He was thinner than ever, thinner, older, paler, balder. Colette felt sorry for him when she first saw him.
"Harold rolled his eyes and silently pushed away his plate. "When you have finished, I suspect it will be time for our waltz."
Colette had never thought she would miss her mother so much.
But somehow her Fridays had seemed to come between her and friends so now she found herself very much alone. Sometimes she hardly spoke to anyone all weekend. Once the week had started she could look forward to Friday again.
In the eleventh year of their meetings, Colette received a message at work that Mr Gibbon would not be able to meet on Friday. This happened so rarely that Colette was quite distraught and went a half hour early the following week. She had already eaten the scones by the time Harold arrived.
"My wife is seriously ill," he said. "In hospital."
"Oh, Harold. My dear Harold!" Colette felt blood suffuse her face. In a moment of honesty she acknowledged she wanted Mrs Gibbon to die and Harold to turn to her not just on Fridays but on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
"It is not critical, I'm glad to say," Harold continued, "but serious. I expect her out over the weekend."
Harold was right. Mrs Gibbon did not die but lived on, seriously but not critically ill, for the next few years.
Colette grew fatter. Harold grew thinner. Colette became 40 and Harold was nearly 60. Colette sensual life entirely revolved round food, which preoccupied her to a degree that sometimes terrified her. Yet still when she went to the Palm Court everything seemed to make sense. There, she did not feel greedy and disgusting but the woman who brought Harold Gibbon to life. Still, she whirled round the dance floor, even though she could no longer wear a belt and when women colleagues at work murmured "Weight Watchers" in her direction, she smiled mistily as if she had a secret and said, "i'm happy the way I am" and here she loweredher voice, "He is too". So she was left alone.
Fifteen years after Harold and Colette had first danced at the Palm Court when a complete redecoration had made the place vender than ever and rather more modern, Colette sat at their usual table waiting. She had taken to arriving early so that she could have a preliminary glass of champagne and cake before Harold joined her. The waiters co-operated, clearing it away
without trace. '
But this afternoon, Harold was a little early. He stood behind a potted plant — an exotic descendant of the one they used to kiss behind — and watched Colette. She had just finished a sticky cake and was dabbing her mouth and licking her fingers.
Harold was upset. Two days ago, Mrs Gibbon had finally died. Although she had been ill for so long, he had never thought she would die. Perhaps, just because she had been ill for so long it had stopped seeming a threat. He could not imagine how he could live without her. He had hung on, however, to the idea of Fridays. That was
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