"The Regulars: Part II" by Tyler Baker
Priscilla closed the door to her flat behind her, the carpeted landing was silent save for the “tic-toc” of a grandfather clock. Letter in hand, Priscilla crept only halfway down the stairs leading to the flat below, before she came face to face with a very plump, middle-aged woman with the wide-eyed expression one has when they’ve almost been run over by an automobile.
“Priscilla, is everything alright? I heard a fit of crying from your floor,” her eyes fluttered down to Priscilla’s waist and locked on the letter in her hand. “Oh dear, is it from the War Office? Is Mr. Gilmour alright?” Priscilla froze. She hadn’t expected to see Mrs. Parsons on the stairs and wasn’t ready to perform after all. Priscilla opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t seem to form any words in her head--DING--struck the grandfather clock for half-past.
“--I’m terribly sorry Mrs. Parsons, it’s addressed to you.” Mrs. Parsons twisted her head and narrowed her eyes as though doubting Priscilla’s integrity.
“No it isn’t. I got a letter from Basil just yesterday. Give it here.” Mrs. Parsons snatched the letter from Priscilla, hastily tore it open and unfolded the paper inside. She studied it for a moment and her mouth fell open. “He’s going on leave. It isn’t possible!” Priscilla couldn’t manage tears as she had in front of the mirror; instead, she studied the laces on her boots and spoke.
“If there’s anything I can do for you--” SMACK. Mrs. Parsons raised her jiggling arm up above her head and struck Priscilla like a cobra. Hot rage flooded into every vein in Priscilla’s body. In less than half a second, she calculated the first two responses to hit her brain. In the first response she would shove Mrs. Parsons with all her might--the woman had an impressively low center of gravity but if Priscilla shoved with enough force, the large woman would certainly take a backward tumble down the steps-- in the flight response, she would cover the horrible stinging on her face with her hand and take a step back. Priscilla chose the latter.
“How dare you! How long have you been sitting on this?” Mrs. Parsons thundered before lowering herself to the floor. She struck the carpet like a sack of flour. She began inhaling and exhaling violently. The nature of her panting was to Priscilla, inhuman, like a wounded animal dying at the side of the road. Priscilla was still hot with rage but Mrs. Parsons looked so miserable that sympathy began to form. She inched toward Mrs. Parsons with the cautiousness of a stray dog. Her slender hand reached out and landed on her plump shoulder.
“Who will take care of me? Widow--widow--not a widow--can’t be a wido--” “Got to be on my way, Mrs. Parsons,” Priscilla went back to her flat, leaving Mrs. Parsons panting on the stairs.
At close to nine o’clock, Priscilla fell into a dreamless sleep and awoke early the next morning with raw, gouging pain in her lower abdomen. Outside the sweating bed-room window everything was blue-black. Priscilla yanked the chain hanging from the fixture over her bed and at once the flat burst with horrible yellow light. She went to the water closet and washed her face. She dried as well as she could with the already damp and nearly stiff hand towel. Priscilla’s left cheekbone shone blue-grey where Mrs. Parsons had hit her. Daft cow, she thought, daft, helpless, cow! She smeared a cream on both cheeks and began smoothing it. What disturbed her now was not having been assaulted--it was Mrs. Parson’s helplessness on the stairs. Widow. Can’t be a widow? Fool! Mrs. Parsons lived for her husband and nothing else. When she learned that her husband would not be returning, the woman practically ceased to exist before Priscilla’s very eyes.
Priscilla lightly powdered her face and began plucking her eyebrows with the care of a perfectionist. When Catherine from across the hall had introduced powder and lipstick to Priscilla, she’d begun wearing it for work, even though her shift-leader, Mr. Hodgens, under his grey-bushy brows and root vegetable nose barked things like “whore” or “prostitute.” Her punctuality, efficiency, and professionalism were not enough to remedy Mr. Hodgen’s perception of her. Priscilla was of the opinion that the man’s bias prevented him from proper evaluation in regard to her job performance or that perhaps he had a personal vendetta against her. Either way she knew she’d never earn his approval, though it didn’t matter-- Priscilla evaluated and scrutinized her own performance. She had given herself an unspoken directive to be the very best driver H.M. Farrell's possessed. Hodgens can shove off. I will turn heads. I will be perfect. S he mouthed her commandments in the mirror. Imagine poor Mrs. Parsons, she thought, under Mr. Hodgens. Ha! She would break apart....like a wet gardenia.
Once her brows were done, Priscilla laid her tweezers down on the edge of the sink and inspected herself for imperfection. The bruise Mrs. Parsons had left was nearly invisible. Priscilla found her white-enamel lipstick case, uncapped it and without blinking, began carefully drawing a dark matte red on her lips. Once satisfied she dabbed a red spot on both cheeks and smoothed it in. Priscilla turned her nose up and winked at her reflection, smiling slyly before going out into the green kitchen. The grandfather clock from the landing dinged once to indicate half past.
The cast-iron stove dominated the kitchen, looming over Priscilla like a giant. Priscilla flipped a switch, the starter clicked-- a sound like a miniature machine gun--and controlled tongues of blue flame rose up an inch. Priscilla put the key-lime kettle on and went to the bedroom to get dressed. Undergarments first, knickers next, then a discolored chemise over her breast. She put on a long, dark-blue skirt, and a matching blouse, which she buttoned up and tucked into her waist. She completed the uniform with a double-breasted wool overcoat reaching her ankles. Before the water could boil in the kitchen, she located her beloved boots and laced them up extra tight. The sound of the boots on the hardwood filled the room as she went to the kitchen.
Outside the window above the sink and past the open, green curtains, the sun had begun to show itself. Orange rays penetrated the grey skyline and even penetrated the fog, which was unusually thin this morning. Priscilla pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and put it in a beam of light that had begun to warm a spot on the hardwood. Her long fingers plunged into the inside pocket of her overcoat producing the fixings for a cigarette. She made one and stuck it under the kettle, the flame sparking it to life. She fixed tea and eased herself into the comfortable chair, cigarette jutting up between her red lips. Nigel’s chair sat cold and useless. The orange light from the window was blinding when she looked right at it so she closed her eyes and let it warm her for a while. A lazy euphoric smile soon filled her face. The grandfather clock dinged five times, telling Priscilla it was time to go. From her outer breast pocket, Priscilla produced a paper and unfolded it at the kitchen table.
My beloved Priscilla... I do not know how to start this letter. The circumstances are different from any under which I ever wrote before... We are going over the top this afternoon and only God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive... If I am called my regret is that I leave you... Oh! How I love you and as I sit here waiting I wonder what you are doing at home. I must not do that. It is hard enough sitting waiting. If the worst should happen, I have already arranged for mum to sell the flat and support you with father’s money. What a poor helpless thing you are. Goodbye,
Priscilla, I regret not saying enough that I love you... I love you forevermore, Nigel.
Priscilla laced her fingers together, shut her eyes and whispered a quick prayer before returning the paper to her breast pocket. She began singing quite loudly as she all at once frolicked toward the door: “And I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way, for I belong to the regulars I’m proud to say. And I’ll do my duty night or day. I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”