The Memory of Us(11)

by Camille Di Maio

Appearing to grudgingly accept the validity of Lotte’s bulletin, Lucille added, “Well, if that’s so, that means that Maude can’t be in the auction now. You can’t be in the auction if you are engaged or married. Couldn’t they have waited until after the festival?”

“Oh, I asked her sister that very thing. I know how much she had been looking forward to the auction. But, she is ever so much more looking forward to showing off her ring, especially with so many people in one place!”

Something told me that it was Lotte who was ever so much more excited. Maude was not one to relish attention, a quality as foreign to Lotte as kangaroos and courtesy. In fact, I was sure that Maude was quite relieved to be out of the auction spotlight. Still, I was going to chide John for taking away such a valuable commodity at the last instant and call upon his honor to make up for it with a hefty donation.

Despite Blythe’s request to join us, Lotte grabbed her companion by the sleeve and rushed off to break the news to her next unsuspecting target.

Romance flourished for more than John and Maude.

Boys of all descriptions were traveling in packs, whistling at the girls and making ardent attempts to pair off with some of them. I wasn’t interested, since I was still smarting from the ridiculous infatuation that had swindled me out of my perfect summer. But for Lucille’s sake, and that of the event, I finally acquiesced and let one boy buy a glass pendant for me. His friend won a stuffed puppy for Lucille. Bolstered by these cracks in our resolve, we had offers from others to win bigger prizes, but we declined and stole around to the food booths, where we split an undercooked Welsh cake with blackberry jam.

At five o’clock we made our way to the check-in at the lodge.

We were a few minutes late, and about forty girls had already gathered. Only sixteen were in the auction, but everyone liked to participate in the revelry. Some were reminiscing about their past auction years, and the rest, like Lucille, were giddy about their upcoming ones. We were engulfed in a sea of corsets and cosmetics.

After I’d washed my face, Lucille gently lowered my dress over my head and zipped the back. We powdered our noses, rouged our cheeks, smacked our lips, and darkened our eyelashes with mascara. She refreshed my curls and stepped back, looking at me with one finger over her mouth before smiling in approval.

The last touch was our jewelry. Earrings and bracelets on first. Lucille clasped my necklace for me, and I did likewise for her.

We waited our turn for a mirror.

“Julianne, you look like a starlet, straight from the screen,” Lucille said.

“You sound like Lotte.”

“Well, at least I mean it. And it’s true. I pity the rest of the girls. They might as well concede now.”

I was about to repay the compliment when Mother entered. I did a little pirouette for her, and she told me that my earrings were crooked. Then she spotted a friend and left with a pat on the cheek.

Lucille compensated me with a warm squeeze, and we walked out to the makeshift stage. We were again surrounded by fussing and flattery, girls complimenting one another lavishly while each covertly wondering how she measured up. The auction wasn’t really a contest, but there was an undeniable cachet in being the one to raise the most money.

We drew numbers to settle the order of the auction, after which lists of all the contestants were distributed to the crowd outside so that they could make plans for their bids. Mine was number nine.

The emcee for the event was Lord Mayor William Denton, whose term was soon to expire. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” His booming voice must have sounded impressive in the halls of city government. Cheers erupted from all sides. “I hope that you have all been enjoying the festival so far.”

More applause. Behind the stage sixteen girls fidgeted and adjusted their gowns.

Lord Mayor Denton gave a little speech on the importance of the auction’s two causes tonight, drumming up enthusiasm and priming the crowd to loosen their purse strings.

“Remember,” he thundered. “This is all in good fun for not one but two worthy causes. Tonight, you are bidding the opportunity to escort one of these lovely girls to the Ladies’ Society Autumn Picnic. Let’s remember that they are volunteering for this to help the cathedral building fund and the children of the Seaman’s Orphanage. Remember as well that you may bid on a young lady for someone else. So, mothers out there, tonight is the night to win the girl that you’ve always had in mind for your sons!”

That got a chortle from the spectators, though it wasn’t in the least facetious. Four years ago Mrs. Hawthorne won a bid on behalf of her visiting nephew, and he married Grace White a year later.

“And so, without further ado, let’s bring out our ladies!”

The crowd applauded—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends, and potential suitors alike. As with all past auctions, this was sure to be talked about for the next few months.

“Lady Number One is Miss Penelope Cumberland. Miss Cumberland has been attending the University of Edinburgh, studying music. She enjoys playing the piano and helping her parents breed spaniels.”

Penelope and I had been in school together for years. Plump and pretty, she was a sweetheart if there ever was one, and I hoped that her auction went well. She walked out onto the stage confidently, turning this way and that.

“Do I have ten shillings?”

“Ten shillings!”

“I have ten shillings. Do I have twelve?”

“Twelve shillings!”

And so on and so forth. Penelope went for a respectable one pound and two shillings, and was bought by her beau of seven months, Nigel Gray, who had worked overtime pumping petrol to make sure that no one else took his girl out. He hopped onstage after he’d won and planted a big kiss on her cheek. Together, they shuffled through the crowd toward the band, waiting for the auction to end and the dancing to begin.

“Lady Number Two is Miss Rose Smith. Miss Smith moved to Liverpool from Swansea only two years ago, and is employed as a seamstress. She enjoys seeing movies and going on picnics. Do I have ten shillings?”

Rose Smith went for one pound, seven to Mrs. Tabitha Brewer, her employer. I knew that Rose wanted to participate but really didn’t want Charlie Franks to win her. He had asked her to step out with him several times, and obstinately didn’t believe that her no was firm. When it appeared that he was going to be the winner, Mrs. Brewer threw out a mercy bid and won Rose herself. No doubt she intended to let Rose select her own escort for the picnic.