It was just one of those traditions, one of those little catchphrases that develop over the period of time and become part of the language of a certain environment, and barely comprehensible to anyone outside it. 

     In the computer and mobile phone shop where I worked, if we heard the kind of little noises that you do hear in old buildings, especially when the weather is capricious, and when we were having our tea break (as we still called it, though most of us preferred coffee) then it’s a fair bet that at some point somebody would say, “Tabitha’s come for tea!”

     Tabitha Bacon (I often thought she deserved a more elegant surname, with no disrespect to any of her namesakes!) had worked at the shop when it first opened in the early 1960s. Oh, it wasn’t a computer and mobile phone shop then, of course, though it did sell phones – as well as radios, and TVs and an occasional typewriter and the kind of things that never seem to go out of fashion like plugs and adaptors. It also had a spell as a video rental and then a DVD rental store. And there was a photo of Tabitha in a little silver (well, I don’t think it was really silver!) frame among the various items of memorabilia that, now the shop’s 60th anniversary was approaching, we were glad hadn’t been thrown out or fallen by the wayside.

     Tabitha was what would probably have been called a bit of a dolly bird in those days, though the photo is only a head and shoulders one and it’s impossible to tell if she’s wearing a mini skirt or a longer one, more in the style of the 1950s. She was quite modestly dressed – the photo was black and white, but we had decided her blouse was a pastel colour rather than white – and had her hair in a beehive style, a bit like those photos of Dusty Springfield, though Tabitha had dark hair. She was quite voluptuous but if it was before Twiggy set a new fashion, that would probably have been admired. She had quite a distinctive necklace on – it was a locket, but on a string of beads, rather than a chain, the beads in different, graduating sizes from tiny little ones to chunky ones. Sometimes we said she had a bit of a come hither look, but she wasn’t tarty. There was a twinkle in her eyes that made me wish I’d known her.

     And a legend had developed that Tabitha had met a Tragic End. That always sounded as if it deserved capitals. There had been, so it was said, a jealous boyfriend and a blazing row and – Tabitha was in the shop no more!

     That was spoilt rather when we had a temporary staff member who had known someone who was there in Tabitha’s time. She said she was pretty sure that Tabitha had left under entirely happy circumstances, to get married to an entirely agreeable boyfriend, and so far as she knew she had lived to a ripe old age, and might still be alive now.

     Well, to tell the truth, we were torn about that. OF COURSE, we told ourselves, it would be a good thing if Tabitha hadn’t met a violent death, you’d have to be a pretty contemptible person to think differently but – well, human nature is human nature, and somehow it wasn’t quite as romantic. 

     And we weren’t sure, of course!

     I was alone in the office at the tea break, and feeling a bit lonesome, even though I always claimed I never minded my own company. Two of my colleagues were sensibly self-isolating as it was the time of that horrible virus pandemic, and they were playing safe. Pete had come in, but had gone out again; to deliver a printer. We weren’t especially busy. I made my solitary mug of coffee and faced the onerous decision of doing a crossword, reading a couple of chapters of my book, or just chilling out. 

     I had finally plumped in favour of the crossword, when the newspaper fell off the desk. But did it fall or was it pushed? I would have blamed a through draught, but only a couple of minutes ago had shut the window precisely because of the through draught – it was a blustery day. Tabitha’s come to tea, I thought automatically, with a smile.

     “Sorry about that. Always was a bit clumsy.”

     Tabitha had, indeed, come to tea. And I felt a certain smugness that my own guess about her blouse being pale blue was right. The beads on her necklace were blue, too – probably turquoise or imitation turquoise.

     Sometimes it can take a few minutes for things to sink in. Then several things did at once, chief among them being that I was, indeed, running a fever, and had been too complacent about my own health whilst sympathising with my ailing colleagues! 

     “It’s okay, you know. You’re not going doo-lally, and you haven’t got that virus thingy.”

     Absurdly, I tried to place her accent. It was slightly cockney, even though we were more than a hundred of miles from London, but it was like that posh cockney you sometimes hear in war films. 

     So I was not going doo-lally, and I was not afflicted with the virus. So that was fine, wasn’t it? Well, actually, no, it wasn’t. Or not in the generally accepted sense of the word. 

     “You must be – er …..”

     “You can say the word, you know. A ghost. It’s oversimplifying the whole business a bit, but it’s not one of those forbidden words. “

     “Oh – er – thanks …..” There ought to be some kind of manual for this, I thought. Come to think of it if you went to the right bookshop, or more likely website, there almost certainly was. How to Handle Your First Meeting with a Ghost

     “You can relax, Sandra. I’m perfectly harmless. I always was. Well, unless I was provoked. But I know this anniversary thingy,” (she seemed fond of the word thingy) “is coming up, so I thought you might want to fill in a few details. Put the record straight and all that. “

     “So you did – pass – when you were – young?” 

     “Oh, good Lord, no. I thought you’d recognise me best if I came like this. It’s fab to have a choice, though some say you tire of it. I didn’t make absolutely ancient bones, but I got well beyond the three score and ten. Barry died – it’s absolutely okay to say the word, by the way, in fact we prefer it, rather than pussyfooting about! – two years ago. I didn’t make a song and dance about mourning him, but he was a good man and I was lucky, even if he could be a bit of a boring old bugger at times. Not one of life’s great romances, but we were happy and I’d had enough of life’s great romances.” She paused. “God, I could do with a smoke! But that’s not allowed now, is it? Not in offices! I mean, I promise you you wouldn’t smell it, and nobody else would, but one of the rules – mind you, I’ve never been one for keeping to the rules – is that we don’t do anything that’s illegal down below.”

     “Down below?” I asked, reminding myself that I wasn’t prudish.

     “Oh, lawks, not THAT!” I had a feeling that she was using the expression “lawks” for intentionally comic effect. “Though that as well, I suppose. But down below as in on earth, get it? Not that it’s that simple of course, but you know what I mean. Mind you, I daresay these bans are right. It’s a filthy habit and no mistaking. Did for my poor Barry. He admits as much himself now. He was a twenty Woodbine a day man. I was never like that, just an odd Consulate here and there. Geordie now, he liked the posh ciggies. Or even a cigar. I used to like the smell of cigar smoke.” I realised she was going to carry on unprompted, and she proved me right. “He was really called George. George Smith, of all the boring names. But he thought that Geordie sounded more – with it, more unusual. So far as I know he had no connections with Newcastle or that neck of the woods. He came in here to buy a new TV. Oh, they were pieces of proper furniture back then! Mind you, took up a heck of a lot of space and I still can’t get my head round how much cheaper they are now. And all those channels! We only had two and them not on air half the day. Anyway, Geordie asked me to show him one of the real top of the range ones. I got the impression he could flash the cash. Talking of flash, he was a flashy dresser, too. Looked like his suits were made for him, and he had these silk cravats. Well, we fell to talking with each other. It was a quiet time of day and The Dragon – that’s what we called Mr Burns, the boss, though he was a good sort, really – was out. He asked me if I liked my job, and I said, yes, I did, though I would have preferred to be on the cosmetics counter in one of the department stores, or even an announcer on the radio. He said I would be brilliant at either as I was a good advert for any make-up even though I didn’t need it, and I had a lovely voice. And if you’re thinking he was a bit smarmy, you’d be right, but I fell for it. I asked him what he did and he said he was in sales but couldn’t tell me any more at the moment. I’d like to tell you I didn’t really believe he was involved in some kind of top secret government project or the like, but, well, it crossed my mind and I certainly needed a bit of a thrill in my life. We started going out with each other. I don’t think Mum and Dad ever really quite approved, but they also knew I was getting nearer twenty five than twenty, and I know that sounds absurd to you now, but that more or less counted as over the hill when it came to getting spliced. Mind you, they were in their thirties, but there were reasons …. the war and all that. I was their only child and they were desperate for grandkids. He gave Dad some of his favourite tobacco – a pipe man, my Dad – and Mum some of her favourite scent. She always called it scent, not perfume. He – Geordie, I mean, not Dad – called me his little Tabby-Cat. Normally I didn’t like having a name folk think of as more of a cat’s name, and would have given short shrift to anyone who called me Tabby-Cat, though I’m fond enough of cats, but it was different when Geordie said it. He knew how to give a girl a good time, as we said, then.” She looked thoughtful, a curious expression, as if half angry and half nostalgic.

     “He took me dancing, and to clubs where they served cocktails. Truth to tell, I never liked them that much. I prefer to be sure what I’m drinking! But I didn’t say so. He got me a cigarette holder, looked like tortoiseshell, though I don’t suppose it was. He didn’t seem to lack a bob or two, though he never did get round to buying that telly. He said it would probably be a waste of money as he was out most nights, not sitting in front of the box. But he still came into the shop. Mr Burns had something to say about that, and at first he came over all stern and said, “Miss Bacon, please may I remind you you don’t come to work to conduct your personal life,” and I said, “Sorry, sir,” but then he looked as if he couldn’t make up his mind whether to say anything or not, and in the end he did, and he sounded kind, not stern any more, “Tabitha, you’re of age, and I have no right to act like your father – you have a fine father of your own. But if I were you I’d be a bit wary of young Mr Smith. He strikes me as – well, a bit of a wide boy.” Well, I don’t need to tell you that if your boss tries to put you off a young man, that’s more likely to well – put you on him, though that certainly wasn’t his intent! And it turned out to be – what’s that expression – counter-productive. Always struck me as odd using the word counter, specially if you work in a shop!”

     Normally I’d have been more than happy to be sidetracked onto a discussion about words, but this was an exception and I waited for her to pick up her narrative, which she did. I noticed she was elegantly wafting a couple of fingers in front of her face, and realised she probably was smoking, though I could neither see nor smell the cigarette. “It was Sheila who took me to one side. Sheila who had been one of my friends at school, though we hadn’t kept in touch that much after, though she was a nice enough girl. She was the kind that was in the Girl Guides and liked knitting bootees for her nephew. Bit of a stick in the mud. But not an ounce of malice in her. So I knew that when she came in to buy batteries for her radio – truth to tell it took me buy surprise a bit when I discovered she had a transistor! – and said, “Tab, I hate saying this, I genuinely do, but you do know that Geordie Smith is seeing another woman!”

     “I wouldn’t have had you down as listening to gossip!”

     “Honestly, it isn’t gossip! I’ve seen him.”

     “You’re just jealous then. Seeing you in a whole new light, I am!” Thing was, even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. I had smelt scent on him and he said it was aftershave, but knew it wasn’t. Well, perhaps he’d been with his Mum or his sister – except the trouble was, his Mum was dead, had been for five years, and his sister lived in Glasgow.

     She sighed. “Tab, I’ve always liked you and thought you were smart and interesting and honestly, I want you to be happy with a good man.”

     “Here are your batteries,” I said, all cool, like. 

     You know that saying it never rains but it pours, Sandra. Or had Sheila just opened my eyes, whether I wanted them opening or not? It turns out he had quite a harem. And – it wasn’t just that. He was more than what Mr Burns called a wide boy – he was an out and out crook, dealing in stolen goods and even – well, drugs. And I decided I’d had enough. It wasn’t easy, because he did have that way of smiling that made me forget all about being sensible. But we went out for a walk in Spendlove Park – I think it was a crying shame when they concreted that over for the new estate, even though houses were needed. In those days, you really could imagine you were in a little wood, but it hadn’t been one of our special places – he wasn’t much of one for the outdoors, unless it was at a football match. Still, he agreed, humouring me and saying there had better be a special kiss at the end of it. I didn’t say anything to that. And I might as well tell you it had already gone beyond kissing, but I’d just had my monthly visitor, so I didn’t have to worry about that, thank God! I told him, quite frankly, that it was best we finished with each other. We came from different worlds. And yes, I did know about his other women. “There are some folk who are fine with that, Geordie,” I said, “And I daresay they’re more broadminded and modern than I am, but it’s not how I’m made. I don’t care about you having had other girlfriends before, but – well, at the same time, it’s another matter. And you’re involved in things that – well, I don’t want the man in my life to be involved in.”

     “Don’t want the man in my life to be involved in,” he imitated me in a horrible, sneery way. “Oh, what a tedious little prig you are. An old tabby cat. You have lines round your eyes already you know. I look at you, I see your Mum, and that’s not a pretty sight.”

     Well, all ways round, something snapped in me. I pushed him against a tree and said, “Don’t you insult my Mum!”

     We started fighting – I mean, really fighting, not just with words. And I’ll admit I was a bit scared. He was bigger and stronger than I was and – I’d already realised he wasn’t a gentleman. But – I’m not going to lie to you, Sandra. When I picked up that branch and caught him unawares, it wasn’t self defence. It was because I was bloody angry. Something had snapped in me. All the same, I didn’t think I’d killed him.” 

     Those last two words made me almost choke on my coffee though I suppose I should have seen it coming. “I got away with it. Nobody suspected a thing, well, not of me. They thought one of his criminal contacts had caught up with him, though nobody was ever accused – it’s an unsolved mystery to this day!” 

     I suppose I must have seen one of those movies where someone confesses to murder – isn’t there one where Montgomery Clift plays a priest? – but I’d never especially troubled myself wondering how I’d react if such a thing happened to me. I supposed that the fact that the confessor was already dead put a different complexion on things.

     When Peter came back in, he said, “You’re looking troubled, Sandra. Hope there were no awkward customers!”

     “None at all, Pete,” I assured him. As I spoke, the fluorescent light overhead flickered off and on. “Tabitha’s come to tea!” he said. I nodded. And as I did, I realised that there was a tortoiseshell cigarette holder on the desk in front of me.

March 12, 2020 09:15

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