The meeting with Miss Beaumont
There were many characters in our town that I remember from my youth, all, no doubt if truth were told, had their own story to tell. Many seemed a sad representation of folk in their appearance. Some had their obvious poverty imposed on them through no fault of their own. Never the less we didn’t pay much attention to what you might call these colourful individuals; they were a part of the life around us. In fact it was customary, and perhaps wise for some reason or another to give them a little distance on the pavement. These days there are probably medical explanations, but you will find on your travels, no matter which town or city you visit in any part of the world those same characters.
The tale I recollect started on one winter’s day, and concerned one of those perhaps unfortunate people that attracted a little pity by some folk in the town. A lady, and she was, or had been a lady, there being no doubt about that when I met her, or realistically became acquainted with would be a better description of my encounter and subsequent friendship in a small sort of way. Upon reflection, we would today call her melancholy in her demure behaviour, and would probably feel a little sorry for her ourselves and walk away if circumstances had been different.But then, because being so young I didn’t understand the rigors that life could throw at you, to call her anything other than what she really was, a fine and upstanding lady who had fallen from grace from her family and friends, which I found out later, because she wanted and did follow the ambition of her youth decades previous to when I became au fait with her.
It must have been a mid term holiday of some sort, because we were off school in the middle of the week. It was without doubt a very cold, wet and windy day and we had taken shelter in our usual coffee shop. When I say we, I had my girlfriend with me at the time. Everybody in the town seemed to have the same idea that day and the place was full; all the tables had somebody sitting at them. The only seats were at a table right in the front looking out onto the street with a lady sitting on her own. After purchasing our beverages we approached her table and Jessie politely asked if she wouldn’t mind us joining her. There wasn’t any answer to our request, just a distant look as her eyes scrutinised the two youths in front of her. After what seemed an age she raised her arm and with an outstretched hand that had two enormous rocks on two of her fingers beckoned to the two empty seats in front of her.
Around her neck was a fox fur stole, and underneath many large pearls in numerous strings. The fur was wet through and bedraggled and must have been cold and damp around her neck. I thought then it was strange she had journeyed out in the squally weather without an umbrella. I had taken one from the hallstand from home, and I opened it up to dry and placed it in the corner out of everybody’s way.
“Bad luck, tch’ tch’ bad luck, my, my such bad luck, shouldn’t open it indoors, very bad luck, have to go now, bad luck.” Came the response from this lady, her hand noticeably shaking holding her half full cup of tea as she said it.
I glanced at my companion, “Close it Al’, close the umbrella, please.” she pleaded, which I instantly did, and she turned to the lady and said;
“Please forgive my Al’, it was very thoughtless of him, he should have known better, please don’t go, it’s quite awful out there this afternoon.”
I sat down again, quite humbled by both my female companions, not really appreciating the error of my ways, but submissive never the less.
Taking a little more notice while my Jessie consoled her, the dress and clothes she had on had at some distant past been very fine, in fact quite expensive. But as I sat there scrutinising this lady’s appearance it was obvious to me she had fallen on hard times. Her dress wasn’t moth eaten but in places very threadbare, but obviously costly at the time of purchase as was her numerous items of jewellery. She held herself upright and proud with eyes that seemed to take in everything in the angle of her vision without moving one millimetre to either side of her sockets, a bit unnerving to anyone caught in her gaze.
Both of us had been providential over the past few years we had known each other to hold a dialogue with dignitaries and people well above our situation in life without being ‘tongue tied’ so to speak, with the many functions that we had attended and been to. As I have said on many occasions Jessie could hold her own with the best of them, and as I sat there nurturing my wounds from the rebuff I had just been given, the two of them were deep in conversation over something or other that didn’t involve me at all.
Her black woollen wrap that covered all of her upper frame was obviously damp and clung to her shoulders and arms and had been no protection for her from the inclement weather that was now lashing intensely against the glass frontage of the coffee shop. I started to feel a kind of warmth and a little sorry for this lady sitting next to me. Her little hat matched her swathe, with what had once been fine black lace, but in a couple of places the thread to the lace was coming undone and hung down over the fox stole in a wet tangle of fur. I realised just in time my eyes began to portray my feelings for this grand old lady and excused myself as I asked if another cup of coffee was wanted, turning to her with a little trepidation of her answer, asked if I could perhaps get her another cup of tea and perhaps a cake.
Her gaze as she looked up from her seat at me I will never forget, so sad, so full of emotion, seemingly astonished that someone could offer with so much respect to join her in tea and cakes. Once again she didn’t answer me, just handed me her empty cup with the faintest of smiles that had a profound effect on me, seeming to strangle something inside of me.
The relief to get away from the table and talk to the chap behind the counter was I remember, a saving grace for the way I was starting to feel. One of my faults, and perhaps still is, that I have a very inquisitive mind and so many questions were forming in my head, why was this lovely lady so sad in her manner as well as her attire? Why did everybody ignore her presence?
I asked the guy serving for a pot of tea and cakes, and could he put them on a tray with plates and cake forks and bring them over to us. I’d seen him do this quite often when we had called occasionally on a Saturday afternoon.
“Sure I can sir, didn’t know you knew Miss Beaumont.” I paid him and went back to my seat. Jessie looked up with a quizzical look wondering where her drink was; I just winked at her and in no time at all this chap was fussing over us with the tray full of goodies. He had done me proud, a proper milk jug and sugar bowl with sugar lumps and tongs. Plates were placed in the correct manner as if he was waiting-on in some fine restaurant.
“Shall I pour for you Miss Beaumont, or would you rather…..?”
She didn’t bat an eyelid, just waved him away with those rocks I first mentioned and continued with an air of grace that obviously she was, or had been accustomed to, pouring the tea in a manner that surprised even me. Her hands didn’t shake this time as she raised her cup to her lips, and for the first time that afternoon her demure carried a smile that spoke volumes. I had touched the heart of this lady’s reason for living. Fine manners and etiquette had surfaced from her past to put her in charge of entertaining, albeit two youngsters she had only just met, but she was in her element and revelling in it.
“Miss Beaumont is a dancer in the theatre Al’” Jessie informed me.
“Was my dear, was a dancer a long time ago.” She corrected her new friend.
“At the Palace theatre, just up the road here,” she continued.
I knew the Palace principally as a cinema although in the past I had been to the Christmas Pantomime with my parents quite a few times, so I knew there was a stage behind the screen. I ventured “In the Pantomime’s at Christmas?”
“No, long before that young man, many years have passed since I danced on that stage, there were no pantomime’s in those days, it was Opera and Drama and sometimes the Circus, then Variety Shows took over just after the first war. Her face changed to a distant look that can only be described as serene and beautiful, her youth, long gone, briefly returned, as the lines of age seemed to disappear. A slight smile appeared and there was a look of striking serenity on her face. Her eyes began to glass over with moisture forming in the corners, nodding her head slightly there was a whisper, barely audible “They were the good times” as her hand, thin and full of veins that protruded above the bones and skin reached out to touch my girlfriend that held her coffee. She turned and looked up at a picture on the wall above the counter, and stared for a while as the sun began to burst through the glass of the front doors. The rain had stopped; the thought then occurred to me she knew who we were. We were not the strangers we thought we were to her.
“Treasure your memories my dear, when you get to my age that is all you have left. Remember these times, remember the beauty that shines in the sunlight there above the counter for all the world to see, because you can never go back to recapture that magic in later life.”
Our newfound friend gently touched my hand as she stood up to depart our company. What seemed to be an after thought when reaching the door that I held open for her, she turned back to face Jessie sitting there in her usual engaging manner, bent over and kissed her on the forehead;
“I would have loved to see you dance my dear.”
Turning back to me, there was a smile on her face, those staring eyes looked at me for a moment and I saw a twinkle of humour, “Thank you.” Were her passing words and she swiftly disappeared into the street joining the many shoppers trying to catch a glimpse of the sun on that cold winters afternoon.
So, that was how we met Miss Beaumont, the meeting in the coffee shop all those years ago with that lovely lady who everyone seemed to ignore and avoid had a profound affect I think on both of us. We sat there talking about her for a long time afterwards, sipping a lot more coffee than normal. There were periods that afternoon when we fell silent, the lovely face of my partner deep in thought reflecting upon our short journey through life up until then. What it all had meant to us, how each day our characters and opinions were developing in a way that would never have come to the fore of our personalities if either of us had taken a different course. The people that we met who were willing to talk to us both, because of our prominence in the town where we lived, everyone seemed to know who we were. The joy and thrill we both experienced in each other’s company, doing things not even our friends could ever hope to achieve began to dawn on our young minds that afternoon in our favourite coffee shop. Looking out at the rain pouring down again outside, holding hands across the table watching the glass frontage of Pellosi’s steam up, the smell of peculating coffee bubbling away on the counter behind, gave both of us a sense of belonging to something bigger than what all of our friends at that time had any hope of seeing. Both of us coming from working class backgrounds, we had moved into the realm of opulence and luxury, mixing with people who had obvious wealth from one source or another and been accepted as their equal, in fact they seemed to want our company.
A couple of weeks later coming home from practice late one night I saw Miss Beaumont struggling up Victoria Road as I was cycling down, carrying what seemed to be two heavy bags. As you know doubt know Victoria Road is very steep and it took me all the effort I could muster to stop my cycle from shooting across the lights at the bottom that were actually on Green. But stop I did with the back wheel locked, it spun furiously round to face the opposite direction as I slammed on the brakes making her jump.“They look heavy Miss Beaumont, may I assist and carry them for you, at least to the top of the hill?” I enquired pulling up beside her. It was quite dark but fortunately we had both stopped underneath the street light, never the less she had to peer quite close to see who had made her jump and was offering some assistance.
“Oh, . . . . Hello young man, you are out late! . . . . But that is my good fortune, my good fortune it is, you are so kind, so kind, thank you so much, thank you so much.”
She handed me her bags to balance on the handlebars, they were heavy too, but I didn’t look to see what was making them so weighty, and we started our climb up that steep gradient of one in five that I had previously flown down in just a few seconds. Turning into Arklow Square just before we reached the top of that steep hill she stopped and offered to take her bags back off me, “You have been so kind young man, so kind, so kind. Thank you, thank you so much.” As she opened a gate at the top of the steps to one of the basements, “I can manage now, thank you so much.” And she went to take them from me holding out that hand again. The rings were still on her fingers, the numerous strings of pearls were still around her neck and that little hat was exactly in the same position as when we met her that past fortnight, nothing had changed, not one iota of apparel even the fox fur stole, although dry now, draped round her neck had changed. I propped my cycle up against the kerb and lifted her bags off the handlebars, they were heavy, very heavy. “Can I carry them in for you?” I asked, “It will be no trouble because they are very heavy.” She stopped, pondering on my request, as if she was weighing up a situation that was concerning her if she accepted. “It’s alright young man, I can manage now, I can manage.” and she took one of the bags from me using both of her hands, the other one I placed on the top step for her to collect. As I put it down the weight made the contents flatten the bag and the top gaped open. It was full of coal.
My good deed done I turned around and bent down to switch my back light on I remember, the damn thing must have had a faulty switch or something because it was always turning itself off. As I stood up it was my turn to jump, standing in front of me was one of Ramsgate’s finest. He didn’t come out with the now familiar opening we laugh about today, namely ‘Hello, hello, hello, what are you up to?’ or something like that. But instead, “That was a commendable thing you did there son, but I was surprised she let you do it, do you know Miss Beaumont?”
After gathering my composure, which I can tell you was in somewhat of a state, I proceeded to inform this ‘Officer of the law’ who towered above me and was shining his torch in my face, how I had become acquainted with Miss Beaumont, and I had seen her struggling at the bottom of Victoria Road with her bags.
“Yes, I saw you and have followed you up that hill. What are you doing out so late.”
Another explanation followed, but he stopped me with a hand held up in front of him when I was half way through my reason to his question.
“You’re Harry’s lad then, mmmm… well be on your way then, and be careful going down that hill.”
As I reached the corner I turned and saw him carrying the second bag I had left at the top of her steps down into her little flat.
To put into context how we found out what had happened to Miss Beaumont is another story (perhaps tomorrow). But first of all when I told my parents about our encounter, what I had done that night and my brush with the local law they were, to say the least, very displeased, in fact quiet angry and I was torn off a strip for consorting with strangers of her kind. I was forbidden in no uncertain terms to ever go near her again. I went to bed that night very confused I remember, my parents reaction had upset me and I couldn’t understand, and neither of them gave me an explanation, why. What had I done that was so wrong?
From that day on, I became very cautious, and for some time afterwards quite secretive in some of the events that happened to me, not telling them anything that was out of the ordinary everyday goings on. Sometimes feeling guilty, and very often sad I couldn’t share with them the thrills of growing up just in case it met with their disapproval.
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