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Cotton Fields

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‘Have a drink with me, old boy,’ Reggie said to John. They were at Bratt’s.

John was happy. He barely had any money in his pocket and there were fifteen shillings against him in the barkeeper’s book. Reggie never bothered to buy anyone a drink unless he was tipsy. He was not tipsy now. He was drunk. Stinking, in fact. ‘Oh yes, I’d like a brandy and ginger ale please,’ John said.

When the drinks were brought (the waiter gave him a caustic look for obvious reasons), John thought of something to talk about. ‘I was here last Saturday,’ he said to Reggie. ‘You weren’t there. I reckoned you were out wooing a London belle. But you’re here now. Got chucked again?’

Reggie shook his head. ‘No,’ he burbled. ‘I had to go to Southampton to see my sister and my little niece off on the SS Bournemouth. They sailed for Buenos Aires.’

Reggie had two sisters. Marjorie, the older one, had no children because she and her husband could not afford any. And there was Brenda. Brenda who had been seen at Paddington earlier that year. So she had indeed been pregnant then.

John decided to feign ignorance. ‘You mean Brenda?’ he asked. Reggie nodded and then explained with some difficulty that she had finally divorced Tony Last and that she had taken on a position as a housekeeper in a village outside Bahia Blanca.

Thank goodness, John thought, Brenda and her baby are allright. They won’t be poor.

Reggie was stinking now. It was the easiest thing to pry more information from him.

And so John learned that Brenda was to be employed at an estate called Santa Clara. The family that owned it was English. Brenda would oversee the work of the many heads of house staff. She would learn some Spanish on the way over.

‘It’s all for the best,’ Reggie said. ‘Her latest lover was disastrous, old boy… I found out that one of my colleagues at the Old Bailey was treating his case. Conviction for distributing pamphlets glorifying the Third Reich. Good thing he’s not the baby’s father.’

‘A good thing,’ John agreed, feeling saved but also apprehensive. Poor Brenda must have gone through hell.

Reggie was rather loose with money and always paid his club bills straight away. Reassured by the latter, the waiters kept the brandy and ginger ale coming. The two men had a jolly time.

As John woke up the next morning, he found to his surprise that he was lying in his own bed. He had no recollection of how he had come home. Then he checked his alarm clock and saw that he had dreadfully overslept. Stinking. A stinking hangover, that was.

When he got to the bank shortly after eleven, barely feeling any better, he found a note from his manager on his desk in the counting room, telling him he had been given his notice as of November the first for repeatedly not adhering to his work hours.

By mid-afternoon, he felt his old spirits return. He let his eyes wander to the bills on his table and then to the safe. He knew the code. For some reason, he remembered his visit on Pendersleigh in April. Lady Pippa had treated him in a friendly, condescending way, obviously displeased with her husband’s habit of inviting anyone he’d met. The house had been full of noisy, unruly children. The two eldest daughters, one as thin and tasteless as a broomstick, the other chatty, myopic and horribly fat, had indeed been unattached, and it had taken him only a quick glance to understand why.

At four, he decided to call it a day and left the bank. He crossed the street and entered a travel agency. As he was waiting to be served, he admired the pictures on the wall advertising journeys to any possible destination.

A charming young clerk nodded in appreciation when John told him he intended to travel to the Argentine. ‘Where to?’ the man asked. ‘Single ticket, return ticket, one person only?’

‘Single, one person,’ John said. ‘And a stay at a seaside hotel in Bahia Blanca.’

The clerk let his calculating machine rattle and then said this would amount to roughly two-hundred and twenty pounds. A forty-pound deposit was required.

‘I’ll settle that tomorrow,’ John promised.

A little later, he walked down the street to the bus stop, thinking on what he would take along on the journey and trying to devise some method of concealing the truth from Mumsy until the day before he’d take the train to Southampton.