Taking Mr Ravenswood
A Short Story from William Trevor's Last Stories
Belonging to her time on the counters—before they moved her upstairs to Customer Care—Mr Ravenswood’s easy smile stirred in Rosanne’s memory, the paisley handkerchief tidily protruding from the top pocket of a softly checked jacket, the tweed hat on the counter for the duration of whatever transaction there was. Stylish in his manner, Mr Ravenswood was friendly in a way the other men who came to the counters never were, and always asked her how she was. The cheques he regularly lodged were dividends, unearned income from inherited means, and you could sense from his manner a faint disdain of money’s self–importance.
On the screen in front of Rosanne a mass of further material gathered: Mr Ravenswood’s address—81 Radcliffe Square—hadn’t changed in the years that had passed; the balance in the current account—as carelessly large as she remembered it had always been—at present stood at £44,681.29, with £300,050 in his deposit account. The current account had been a joint one in the past, when Mr Ravenswood’s wife was alive, but that was before Rosanne knew him. Not that she did know Mr Ravenswood, not that she had ever thought of him like that. She’d been astonished when he invited her to have dinner with him.
He hadn’t pressed her. He’d watched her hesitating, then had mentioned the name of a restaurant, and she said she didn’t think she could. She changed her mind because she was on her own at the time and feeling low, Keith having packed his things after yet another quarrel. The Plume d’Or, the restaurant was called, in a street off Pall Mall. She had difficulty in finding it and felt awkward because she was late. But Mr Ravenswood shook his head and said the best people nearly always were.
The girls at the other desks were turning off their computers, a few already putting on their coats. ‘You’ll come to the corner, Rosie?’ one of them invited, referring to the bar where, on Friday evenings or when it was someone’s birthday, office workers gathered to celebrate for an hour or so. It was a birthday today, but Rosanne apologized, as so often she had to: there was her child to collect and she hadn’t said she’d be late.
She turned off her own computer, and stayed a little longer in the quiet room. Downstairs, the security man let her out.
The streets were crowded with office workers going home; so was the Tube. Sometimes someone trying to get off with her offered Rosanne his seat, but not this evening. Sluggishly, her journey took her out of the city, into the hinterland that was hers and had been all her life. Kensal Green, Willesden Junction, Harlesden, Stonebridge Park, Wembley Central: she knew the stations too well, not even looking when another one was reached. Her thoughts were full of Keith, as she had known they would be, his pale, sharp features, sandy hair drooping over a narrow forehead, his crooked grin. ‘You’ll take this guy?’ he’d said when, together again, she’d told him about her evening with Mr Ravenswood, the question casually asked, for Keith was good at that. The old guy had been whistled, he said when he heard more about the evening, of course he had. Stuff like that was what old guys got up to—getting whistled and getting girls whistled too, and afterwards nothing mentioned, nothing much remembered. Too late, Rosanne had realized she shouldn’t have said anything. Her mother, who considered Keith unreliable, referred to him as the unnecessary complication in her daughter’s life, at best a nuisance. Rosanne loved him.“Stuff like that was what old guys got up to—getting whistled and getting girls whistled too, and afterwards nothing mentioned, nothing much remembered.”
She did not deny that complication came into it: that Keith was a complicated person she accepted as the truth because he said so himself, and because it was so often confirmed by his decisions, the conclusions he reached, and his capacity for making the most of unpromising circumstances. It was almost perfectly exemplified by what became, in time, his obsession with Mr Ravenswood, when Rosanne’s stubborn resistance to suggestions of how they might take advantage of what Keith called a ‘weakness for girls’ strained the convoluted nature of their relationship. ‘No, no, I couldn’t,’ she had since continued to protest. ‘Not ever.’
Disagreement was fractious then, and bitter later. Why could she not? What was her trouble? When chance for once was offering so much, why couldn’t she see sense, since so often she had before? Rosanne had no answer to that, for it was true. The little Shrewsbury table, hardly bigger than a doll’s, lent to her by her mother, had not been theirs to sell yet she and Keith had sold it. The instruction as to how her father’s bequest of his savings account should be spent was ignored. A handbag found on the floor by a café table was picked up by Keith to be handed in. Rosanne wondered if it had been but didn’t ask.
She got a seat at Wembley Central and closed her eyes, Keith still there. He drove a van, delivering packages and parcels all over south-west London. He was in films, he said when he and Rosanne first met, on a Starbucks sofa one Saturday morning, and his claim was not entirely untrue: he’d once been a crowd-scene extra in a production that ran out of funds and was abandoned. He talked about the big-time, and when Rosanne accidentally became pregnant she allowed the baby to be born in the hope that this would bring him down to earth a bit, but it didn’t. In the end it was her continuing reluctance in their long dispute about Mr Ravenswood that caused Keith to leave for longer than usual. ‘You’re a loser,’ he’d said, his favourite comment on their relationship.
At the Underground station she picked up an Evening Standard and two packets of crisps, then walked in a gathering drizzle to Purse Street to collect her child from Nancy Pollitt, the child-minder whom she neither liked nor trusted. She felt drained by the day, although the day was not yet over. The walk took twenty minutes.
A van was drawn up at the post-box in Stanley Street, the driver collecting the handful of letters that had caught the late post. Sometimes he was there, or waiting in his van for time to pass. A notice in red, recently pasted, announced that from 1 September this last collection of the day would cease. ‘Evening,’ the van–driver said as Rosanne went by. Further on, although brightly lit, the Running Horse pub was silent. When it filled up later, people would complain about the noise.
Nancy Pollitt’s front door opened after a delay, and then there was the usual grim greeting, without a smile, a suppressed sigh to indicate disapproval. The hall smelt of cigarette smoke and stale food. ‘Fine,’ Nancy Pollitt said when she was asked how the day had been. ‘Fine.’
It was another walk of much the same length to 7A Tangar Street, where Rosanne lived, the entrance to her two-roomed flat in Tangar Passage. Her latchkey had to be adjusted in the lock it had been inadequately cut for, pressed down a little and not pushed too far in, all of which added irritation to Rosanne’s tiredness and her renewed doubts about Nancy Pollitt’s suitability as a child-minder.
In the hall, with one hand she folded the pushchair, holding her child, somnolent until now, in her other arm. She was not impatient and as best she could she soothed the crankiness that had begun. Upstairs, on what had been a landing until a chipboard partition had made it part of her accommodation, she mixed a jar of Turkey Casserole with Pure Vegetable and immersed the combination in a saucepan of boiling water. She warmed up the cod and mushroom bake from last night for herself, hoping it was all right, because you weren’t meant to.
Going to bed, when she had watched television and read the Evening Standard, when the flat had warmed up a bit, she felt less dreary. Sometimes it wasn’t bad, being alone, especially when she was tired it wasn’t, no effort made, none necessary, and the silence when the television was turned off came as a balm. But the silence could be a vacuum too, and often felt like that.
Her phone rang when she was brushing her teeth and for a moment she thought it might be Keith because this was a time he used to ring. But someone asked her if she was the Gas, and she said she wasn’t. She knew where to find Keith, even after not seeing him for so long: a couple of weeks ago she had heard her name on the street and saw his van moving slowly beside her as she walked, one of the front windows wound down, and then the door opened and she got in. There was no one else, he said. He’d gone back to his old room above the Indian takeaway, and it still was as it had been. He didn’t want there to be anyone else; twice he repeated that. They talked for ages, he called her a star. But then he had to go.
Undressing, she caught glimpses of herself in the mirror over the unused fireplace. Her wide blue eyes glanced back at her out of features that had lost nothing of the innocence which had always been reflected in them. Hollows beneath the eyes were what she dreaded, dark as graves they could be; thankfully, she didn’t have them. She turned her body so that it was in profile, one side and then the other. She was all right, she said to herself, she knew she was. All right to look at if nothing else.
In bed she lay awake, content to be there, her child quiet. A wind had got up and rattled the windows. She could hear rain too, and hearing it made being in bed a greater pleasure. She began to fall asleep but didn’t quite. Everyone would be a winner, Keith used to say, even Mr Ravenswood, lonely in his old age. You had to look at it like that, he said. You had to realize, too, that all of it was for her sake more than for his own. And, most of all, for their child’s sake. That day in the van he had said he understood why she hesitated, why it wasn’t easy for her. He had said it gently, the way he could. He’d asked about their child.
Rosanne allowed a week, and then another, and part of a third to go by: thirteen working days that weren’t much different from the working days that had preceded them, thirteen times to feel uneasy when she left her child with an unsatisfactory minder, and as often to resist her mother’s pleas to keep out of Keith’s way now that she was rid of him, to come back to Rickmansworth, which would always be her home and where everything would be easier for her.
“He didn’t ask her why she had come. But still, in the way he looked and the way he spoke, he put her at her ease, as he used to in the bank.”
Courage came and went on every one of the days that passed, and arguing with herself recurred on each, and in the end Rosanne went to Radcliffe Square. It was a pleasant walk one sunny lunchtime, with a sandwich in her handbag. Think of nothing, she kept telling herself. Go there, just do it, say it. Usually in her lunchtime she walked about the shops.
The square wasn’t hard to find. She knew approximately where it was, and asked and was given directions. Number 81 had a white front door, a fanlight above it, white also, white pillars on either side of the steps. The name was there, beside the bell at the top, above other names and a South American legation, and Ernst Kruger Designs. A dentist and R. C. Holdings were in the basement.
The square’s railings enclosed two plane trees, several clusters of shrubs, a sunlit lawn. Rosanne crossed the street to the gate and went in when she saw that no one was there. The box of a lawnmower was almost full of grass clippings, a baseball cap draped over the mower’s gear lever. There was a scattering of canvasseated chairs. She sat down on one of them and unwrapped her Sandwich King sandwich.
It was impossible, though, now that she was there, to think of nothing. Mr Ravenswood had been in the restaurant when she’d arrived, as she had guessed he would be, since she was late. A starchy waiter led her to his table, although she could have managed on her own. It was quiet, it being that kind of place. ‘I used to come here a lot once,’ Mr Ravenswood had said, and added that he hoped it wasn’t an embarrassment, his inviting her to have dinner with him. He was as polite as he was in the bank, his manner never less than considerate.
In the sunshine, eating her sandwich, Rosanne saw with sudden vividness the Plume d’Or’s well–separated tables and elegant chairs, its confident waiters, heard Mr Ravenswood asking her about herself, how she had come to work in a bank, if she had always wanted to do that. So long had passed, yet being close to the house he had taken her to later that same evening nudged all this back, which startled her, for she had not expected it. ‘You like our wine?’ he had asked in the restaurant, putting her at her ease, and recommending white chocolate and cardamom mousse for dessert. She told him about growing up in Rickmansworth, her mother on her own, struggling to make ends meet. He spoke of his own widowhood after a happy marriage, and two children who no longer lived in England but came back often to see how he was getting on. Rosanne didn’t say that for years she had been in a relationship that regularly fell apart.
From where she sat, through overhanging branches, she could see the white front door. No one came out of the house. No one entered it or rang one of the bells. She found a bin among the shrubs for the plastic that had wrapped her sandwich.
It hadn’t seemed surprising when Mr Ravenswood took her arm on the street. Being in a taxi with him hadn’t either, nor being in a room with quietly colourful pictures on all four walls, nor when they sat down and he poured more wine. He told her the name of the painter of the pictures. He said he collected objets d’art and pointed at some small bronzes on the mantelpiece. He said he hoped it hadn’t been an imposition, this evening, he hadn’t meant it to be that. He put on music: Brahms, he said. He asked her her other name, since only ‘Rosanne’ was on her plastic lapel–disc at the bank.
“Mr Ravenswood himself wasn’t different either. The smile that had come when he’d recognized her hadn’t flickered away. It didn’t now.”
A man started the lawnmower and then caught sight of her. He was about to come to where she sat, began to, but changed his mind. She looked away, as if at something that had caught her eye. She told herself she shouldn’t have come, that she shouldn’t even be sitting where she was, in a private place. In spite of all her preparations, of waiting while determination hardened, she couldn’t do what she had come to do.
She watched the grass being cut, the cumbersome machine turned in a wide curve each time another width was completed. ‘Just do it,’ she said aloud, the words lost in the noise, and when the lawnmower turned again she left by the open gate she had come in by.
She waited on the pavement for cars to pass. A taxi dropped children off several houses away from the one with the white front door. In the dark she hadn’t noticed that it was white, or even that she had been in a square.
She pressed the bell, trying not to hope there wouldn’t be an answer, then wanting there to be one when it seemed there wouldn’t be.
Mr Ravenswood paused before Rosanne saw him know who she was. He was dressed as she remembered, in similar clothes, including the paisley handkerchief and tie. The room he brought her to was as it had been when he’d taken her to it before, the pictures on its walls, the bronzes on the mantelpiece, the long blue curtains. The piano was open, as if someone had been playing it, music propped up.
Mr Ravenswood himself wasn’t different either. The smile that had come when he’d recognized her hadn’t flickered away. It didn’t now.
‘How have you been?’ he enquired, and gestured towards the sofa where she had sat before, where she sipped more wine and told herself she shouldn’t. ‘Say you were passing,’ Keith softly prompted. ‘You saw the house, looked in to say hello.’
Rosanne said nothing. Seeking courage where she had found it already, she forced into her thoughts how it would be: Keith making it in the big-time, doing what he had a talent for, her mother saying how different he was now that he didn’t have to drive a van about, now that they were settled at last. And being a mother herself, giving herself up to it, Nancy Pollitt relegated to a drab past.
Mr Ravenswood stood by the window, the light behind him, the blue of the curtains harsh where the sunshine fell on them. He didn’t ask her why she had come. But still, in the way he looked and the way he spoke, he put her at her ease, as he used to in the bank.
‘I didn’t look after you when you were here before,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’
She watched while in silence he slightly turned away and looked down into the square. And then the telephone rang, a faint sound, not in the room. It stopped, and then began again. Mr Ravenswood went to answer it.
Alone in the room, Rosanne said to herself she would be late. The girls would be back at their screens already, would glance up when she returned, assuming she had been delayed in some ordinary way. They didn’t know about Keith. They didn’t know that one of the bank’s customers had once liked the look of her. She had missed out, was what they thought. She knew they did, although they didn’t let it show.
Dimly and not for long, she heard Mr Ravenswood’s voice. But when it ceased he did not return at once and she remembered how, that night, the lights in this room had still been on when she woke up. Her hair had kept falling over her face, her clothes had been crumpled. She’d been asleep for hours, she’d thought, but when she’d looked at her watch she’d seen that she hadn’t. ‘Anything could have happened,’ Keith’s repetition echoed. ‘No way it couldn’t.’
She waited, looking at the pictures she hadn’t much bothered with when from politeness she had admired them. Two figures crossed a darkened road, caught by distant headlights. A woman ate alone at a kitchen table, an open book propped up against a jam jar of flowers. A man in an empty street lit a cigarette, examining suits in a shop window. The colours were muted, faded reds and faded blues, green almost grey, yellow nearly white. In Rosanne’s confused recollection of being here before, she and Mr Ravenswood might have been a picture too: her wine spilt, slopping from her glass, he talking all over again about his marriage and being widowed. ‘The Third,’ he said, referring to the music. ‘She loved it.’ Rosanne had wished he hadn’t put it on, had known as soon as it began that it wasn’t her kind of thing.
He had been angry: suddenly he’d said that. He had been driving too fast because he had been angry. There was a quarrel, nothing much, and Rosanne had realized he was talking about his wife’s death.
A Sunday afternoon, he’d said, summer. They were alone where it had happened, then people came, and cars drew up. The people—strangers—told him there’d been a death, although by now he knew there had been. He couldn’t speak, could only ask, and of himself, why it could not have been he? Since he had brought it all about, why could it not have been he who had to die?
Rosanne, listening, for a moment hadn’t known where she was. The music was soporific, the room was moving. The face of a man who often came to the bank was sliding about and overlapping itself; and she felt sick. ‘Guilt tells you about yourself,’ a voice was saying, and saying it again because she didn’t understand. ‘More than you want to know,’ was repeated too. ‘You’ve had a sleep,’ a man who often came to the bank said.
Her coat was on the floor, as if she had been cold, as if it had been brought from where she had left it and had slipped off her. ‘Well, there you are!’ Keith’s comment was when she told him about the coat.
From Last Stories. Used with permission of Viking. Copyright © 2018 by William Trevor.