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Girls Fine as Beeswing

For my fifteenth birthday, Granddad took me to Brown's. Brown's is a special occasion. I'd always wanted to go with Granddad, to have him see me dressed up like a young woman.

He handed in his derby and the hat-check girl gave him a smile. She was pretty, also very young, like me. He told me the girl was a rare thing, fine as beeswing.

We sat down and Grandpa ordered a drumkilbo for me and whiskey-smoked salmon for himself. He ordered a Pouilly-Fuissé. "What's a beeswing?" I asked.

He patted my hand. "The thin crust on old port. Tell me about school."

I told him. I told him about our art projects, Klimt, Giacometti, everything to do with a plastic cup. I told him about my Van Gogh essay. Granddad made short order of the Pouilly-Fuissé. When I was little, he'd sit me on his lap, stroke my hair and asked if I wanted to ride a horse or a gentle beast of the forest? A unicorn? And he would burst into gales of hearty laughter, and tell me I will become someone awfully special someday.

In the vast mirror hanging on one wall, I could see myself, sitting so primly with a ribbon in my hair. Am I someone special now?

"Tell me about your friends."

I told him about Pasquale, Ella, Roberta, Minerva and Wilhelmina. How Pasquale was spending her summer vacation with her family in Rimini on the Adriatic Coast, so romantic, I sighed, and Ella was spending it traveling down the Serengeti with her boy cousin and an African guide. How Roberta was affianced to a boy named Hithem, whose father was a fur-coat manufacturer, and Minerva was walking out with a boy named Edward Talbot, whose family were furriers, and wouldn't it be a lark if those two boys knew each other, and Grandfather put out his hand, which trembled in the air like a divining rod.

The Bordeaux arrived. Beef Wellington for me and pigeon from Bresse with Savoy cabbage for Granddad who was slurring his words, "Tell, just tell about the girls."

So I told him. I told him what he wanted to hear. I told him all about Martha's strand of Tiffany pearls, given for her 16th birthday party and how it bruised her around the neck. I told about Chiara's horse riding lessons and how the reins made her fists blue and the horse's flanks made her thighs hurt. Granddad snorted. He was enjoying himself. I liked that he was enjoying himself at our luncheon.

Granddad loved tobacco. He used to let me hold his pipe as he tamped in the powder. He'd let me smell his fingers afterwards, and I thought there was nothing as fine as that cindery, smoky smell. It smelled of class, of dignity, of chivalry. He loved hearing about my friends and about our pyjama parties. Mother said I wasn't to talk about how we plaited each other's hair and made daisy chains for each other or how we took baths together, soaped and scrubbed each other's backs until our skin glistened, alabaster.

Then, I told him all about Timothy. How I kissed Timothy after Sunday service as he walked me back, in a deserted garden leaning against the bird-bath.

Grandfather thunked a fist on the table. The Bordeaux was half gone. "You stay away from the boys, you hear? I don't want to hear any of this kissing malarkey." He was shouting now. People at the other tables craned their heads.

I immediately apologised. I hadn't meant to upset him, I thought he'd have wanted to hear about the kissing. It distressed me that I'd guessed wrong.

"Just tell about the girls," he mumbled.

When the bill came, it was well over two hundred pounds. Grandfather signed the bill with a flourish.

He got up to use the gentleman's and swayed. He steadied himself and gave me a wink. "If I stand up too quickly, blood rushes to the head, and I might fall over," he said. "Will you wait for me in the lobby?"

I watched him as he walked from the toilet. One foot swung in front of the other, his broad shoulders swaying. He gave the ticket to the hat-check girl and stooped to whisper something in her ear. She giggled.

On the way out of Brown's, Grandfather said, "I've got a present for you, pet."

"You do?" A flush rose into my cheeks.

"The kind of gift young ladies go mad for," he said. His shaking hand pulled out a box from his tweed coat inner pocket. The box was embossed in fine papyrus; inside lay a quill ink-pen. The feather was long and elegant, speckled with daubs of brown. The pen's body was a rich mahogany red, the nib a dull gleam of gold. I looked at it, and I couldn't help myself, tears pricked my lashes, tears I didn't want to fall.

"I hope you like it."

"I do love it, so so much." I gave him a tight hug. Grandfather's shoulders, broad as they were, sagged under the force. "You're sure you like it?"

I nodded vigorously.

"You're a good egg, Georgie love."

Grandfather left for Algarve a week later. Mother said the hatcheck girl at Brown's left recently too. She said she wouldn't call Grandfather and she wouldn't invite him to come for Christmas. She said she was deeply ashamed. I hid the quill pen deep in my drawer with all my girlie hair things and never looked at it again. When I thought of him, if I dared think of him at all, I imagined him standing on a bluff, gazing out to sea, the breeze ruffling his sparse strands of hair. Star-thistles pollening by, sticking to it. Holding one shaking palm out, feeling for moisture, waiting for the wind to change.