The Memory of Us(12)

by Camille Di Maio

We were all crowded around in the back, hoping for glimpses of the progress of the auction. It provided juicy gossip, and everyone wanted to be the first to spread it.

I finally had my turn to peer through the curtain, just in time to see Lady Number Three, Miss Anne Murrish, daughter of a local solicitor, ready to take the stage.

“Do I have ten shillings?”

Thwarted by his last attempt, Charlie Franks was determined to win an evening with any girl, and was the first to acknowledge the ten shillings.

“Who will give me twelve?”

“Twelve!”

I looked to see who had bid next. I found the source of the voice, and nearly lost the contents of my stomach.

It was Kyle.

Dressed smartly in gray slacks and a herringbone jacket, he was even more handsome than I had remembered. And I had tried so hard not to remember. I must have been barmy to think I could. Why was he here tonight? Why was he bidding on a girl when he was heading back to the seminary? I thought he wasn’t allowed to like them.

He didn’t bid beyond the twelve, but that didn’t make me feel any better.

I gave up my spot at the curtain and laid my head against a tree. My perfect day, my perfect evening. Ruined by the very person that I had tried so hard to forget.

I could hear that Anne went for a respectable two pounds. I tried to summon up happiness for her, but it was beyond my abilities.

Five more girls before it was my turn. I checked my wristwatch and ran back to the hall to put myself back together.

Lucille saw me leave and ran after me.

“Julianne! Jul! Wait for me!”

I slowed a little so that she could catch up, but I kept moving forward because I had to get out of there.

“Jul, what happened?” Her words came out with labored pauses as she caught her breath, but it didn’t stop her from springing into action. She brushed my hair from my face and pulled out her powder to fix me up.

I hung my head and didn’t want to tell her at first, but I knew she’d get it out of me anyway. “It’s him, Lucille! He’s here, and he just bid on Anne!” I pointed a shaky finger in the direction of the stage.

“Him, who? Him him? Your priest?”

“Cut it out, Luce. Yes, him. And no, he’s not my priest. He’s not any priest. I told you that he’s not nearly done with school yet.”

I sniffed, and she pulled a handkerchief out of my handbag.

I asked her all of the same questions that I had agonized over myself. “Why is he here? Why is he bidding on Anne?”

She put her arms around me, rocking me a little and shushing me like a mother to a baby. “There, there. Calm down. I don’t know why he’s here, but it’s no concern of yours. Walk away from this. I’ve already told you that there’s no good end in it.”

“But why is he here?”

She sighed, resigning herself to my recklessness, and mustered the words to console me. “Maybe he’s just a horse’s ass.”

“Lucille!” I’d never heard an improper word from her. But my darling friend knew what it would take to make me smile.

“Well, sometimes you have to just say what you’re thinking. There’s another possibility, though.”

“I can’t wait to hear this one.”

“Maybe he plans to bid on you and he’s just practicing.”

I let this one sink in before dismissing it. “Practicing, huh? Not sure I buy that one.”

“Well, dear, you have to believe something, because you’re on shortly. There’s twenty thousand people waiting for you, and you’re a mess!”

Her urgency brought me back to the task at hand. Hastily, we reapplied the cosmetics and brushed my hair until it was shining. She grabbed my hand and led me back to the curtain, gave me a tight squeeze, and disappeared.

“Lady Number Seven is Miss Irene Bath . . .”

I paid no mind to the details, scanning the crowd for Kyle, and found him in the second row. My knees weakened at the sight of him.

“Do I have ten shillings?”

“Ten shillings.” From the back.

“Do I have fourteen shillings?”

“Fourteen shillings!” From the right side.

“Fourteen shillings. Do I have sixteen shillings?”

“Sixteen shillings.” It came from Kyle.

He didn’t bid any higher than that, though, and Irene went for two pounds, five shillings.

Maybe Lucille was right. Maybe he was just preparing to bid on me.

Melody Carlyle came and went for two pounds, seven. Kyle had bid at sixteen shillings again, and no more.

My turn.

Primp. Plump. Straighten. Pucker. Toss. I was ready.

“Lady Number Nine, Miss Helen Westcott.” I stepped through the curtains as he introduced me. “Miss Westcott will be attending a nursing college in London in September. She currently works with her father in Albert Dock. She enjoys reading, the movies, and fashion.”

Before he could get to the bidding, I stepped close to him and whispered in his ear.

“Excuse me, Miss Westcott has informed me that she is usually addressed by her middle name, Julianne. So, do I hear ten shillings for Miss Julianne Westcott?”

Several bids for ten shillings were shouted out, and the Lord Mayor quickly increased the ante, knocking out a few men at a time. By the time I had reached two pounds, four ardent bidders had walked away.

I turned and turned again, summoning all of the coquettishness I could muster, all the time scanning the crowd for one face. But Kyle had vanished from his seat. When we reached two pounds, six shillings, I finally found him. Or rather, his back. He had left the crowd altogether, and was walking, hands in pocket, past the dance floor until I couldn’t see him anymore.

I was infuriated. I had people in the crowd breaking previous records with their bids, and the one person that I had any interest in hadn’t even offered two pence. Well, even if he wasn’t around to see it, I was sure that he would hear how much I had gone for, so I waved and smiled, playing it up in the hopes of driving the bidding to unprecedented heights.

And I did. I garnered an astounding four pounds, six shillings, eliciting rousing cheers for several minutes. Whoops and handshakes came from the left corner of the crowd, and I was able to see that Roger Kline had won. I didn’t know him well, but he was the son of a member of Parliament and was said to have a bright political future ahead of him. I was sure that an outing with him would be interesting, at least. I waved to him and blew him a kiss of thanks before slipping back through the curtain. With the pageantry behind me, my chest began heaving and I gasped for air.