Epic. Enthralling. Evocative.

The following story won an Honourable Mention in the Canadian Authors Association short story contest, and appears in the Winners' Circle 5 Anthology

Mrs. Beresford's Disgrace
by Gabriele Wills

I watched the old arena crumble under the wrecker's assault, leaving a strange void. Now you could see clear across to the vulnerable backs of the Main Street stores.

And the site of Mrs. Beresford's disgrace was fully exposed.

Mr. Beresford was our English teacher the year that I was a budding fourteen. It was his first year at the high school, unlike the other teachers who had educated and bored our older siblings or even our parents. He had a refined English accent and a beautifully cultured voice. My best friend, Dot, and I thought he must surely have attended Oxford. We could never figure out what had brought him to our dull and ordinary Ontario town.

He was tall and handsome in an ascetic way, with a shock of black hair that was never quite tamed, a beaky, aristocratic nose, and piercing blue eyes that could rivet you to your seat if you spoke out of turn or skewer the hearts of infatuated students. He had a wry, almost melancholic smile -- a smile that suggested he was worldly-wise and world-weary.

A lot of us were a little in love with him. Guiding us through the Romantic poets and Victorian novelists, he was our Byron. My Heathcliff.

We'd found out that Mr. Beresford's Christian name was Geoffrey, and we'd chant it over and over as if it were a magic spell. We never shortened it to "Geoff". That wasn't dignified enough for him.

Dot and I wove fantasies around him. One time he'd had a passionate affair with an Indian princess, but her father had forbidden them to marry and threatened him with horrible torture if he didn't disappear to the other end of the earth. Another time, he was mourning the beautiful and brilliant young student he'd fallen in love with at Oxford, who had died (beautifully, of course) of a lingering disease.

And he was the hero of my own, private fantasies. In my daydreams he confessed that he found me irresistible, and promised to marry me when I finished school. Then he would whisk me far away from this stuffy old town, and show me the wonders of the world. In the meantime we would be friends, platonic lovers, who shared their passion for English literature. I held weighty discussions with him, which he silenced with a chaste kiss that made me yearn for more.

Sometimes I'd blush when I entered his classroom, certain that he could read my wicked thoughts, for his smile hinted that he knew your secrets. And sometimes I'd feel just a little guilty when I saw his wife.

Cynthia Beresford was our figure skating coach, and I admired her tremendously. I just couldn't think of her as Geoffrey's wife. She was surely an American. While he seemed deep and brooding and brainy, she was effervescent and energetic. She did everything with such gusto that you could get tired just watching her.

She wasn't classically beautiful, Dot and I decided, but she was pretty, with bouncy blonde hair, sea-green eyes, and a warm, oft-used smile. And she had a terrific figure. We couldn't believe she was nearly thirty.

In the splintery, blade-scarred dressing room, she behaved like one of the girls, joking and teasing, but on the ice she was coolly competent. Even then her exuberance would sometimes break through, and she would fly across the ice in an elegant leap for no particular reason.

She'd been with the Ice Capades, and we could easily imagine her bespangled and glamorous. What was harder to imagine, though, was how Geoffrey and Cynthia had ever met and married.

That Dot and I wanted to be like Cynthia Beresford had nothing to do with Geoffrey. We decided to grow our hair long so that ours, too, would cascade to our shoulders and then curl upward in a voluptuous wave. Our mothers would have had fits if we'd coloured our mousy hair blonde, but we did try to bleach it with lemon juice -- to no avail.

Our skating improved though. Sunday evenings were our favourite times -- two hours of lessons with Cynthia. She made even the tedious figure eights fun, and our dancing became more than mechanical strokes to tinny music.

"Come on, girls, put some feeling into it," she'd say. "Imagine you're in the arms of a handsome prince at a glorious ball." And the spotty-faced boys, who always seemed at least two inches shorter than we were, would titter.

"Come on, boys, you're not holding a broom and sweeping the ice! Relax. You're partnering these lovely ladies in a romantic waltz. Let's see some fluid motion, some grace. You have to feel the music and translate your emotions into movement."

That was something that Cynthia was particularly good at, I thought, for I had many chances to observe her -- and Geoffrey -- unnoticed.

We lived on a fashionable street of mostly grand old mansions on oversized lots. Our house -- an early '50s Cape Cod -- rubbed shoulders with two fanciful Edwardians that wore their capacious verandas like proud bosoms. Our little house, tucked away in the cranny between them, was often overlooked. On our side of the street there were many small houses sprouting up like weeds between the old ones. But on the north side of the street it was the houses that had been divided, not the lots.

The Beresfords lived on the ground floor of a triplexed Victorian directly across from us.

I spent much of my evenings in my dark bedroom, curled up in the seat of the dormer window which looked out onto the lamplit street and into the lives of the Beresfords.

Cynthia didn't usually draw the drapes. She invited the night in through the tall French windows that opened onto the veranda. She often stood there, gazing out at the long sweep of lawn and the towering maples that lined our street. She would turn, probably to direct a comment at Geoffrey, who was doing what -- marking papers, planning lessons? -- in some invisible part of the room. Sometimes he would appear, encircling her from behind with his arms, and nuzzle her hair. And she would turn to meet a demanding kiss that left me breathless and tingly. Then they would disappear, and I would feel bereft.

I loved our street best of all in the autumn when the massive maples, their branches mingling high up over the roadway, created a glorious crimson and gold canopy that eventually sprinkled the lawns and sidewalks with knee-deep leaves. I loved scooping up handfuls of the crinkly leaves and burying my face in their earthy fragrance, but I figured I was too old to throw myself into the mountains that Dad raked up, as my younger sisters did.

But I saw Cynthia doing it one evening. A hired boy had raked the lawn, which stretched nearly a hundred feet from the house to the sidewalk, leaving piles scattered like haystacks. I saw Cynthia and Geoffrey ambling home, arms entwined. As they started up the long drive to the house, Cynthia suddenly broke away from Geoffrey. She leapt into the air, twirling and prancing her way across the lawn, and landing artfully in a soft mound. Laughing, she threw handfuls of leaves into the air, where they fluttered and danced and drifted down to tangle in her hair.

I have to admit that I felt embarrassed for her, and certainly for Geoffrey, who pulled her out of the crushed heap and brushed her off. But he gave her a furtive kiss.

It was only a few days later, a bitter and blustery Friday night, that I saw Geoffrey walking alone. It was late, and most of the houses were already shrouded in darkness. I, barefoot and shivering in my nightgown, had gone to glance out the window once more. What I saw made me momentarily weak-kneed. There was Geoffrey, looking lost and lonely, as if he were wandering on a Bronte moor.

I stood boldly at my dark window -- brazenly, my mother would have said -- for once not caring if he noticed me. In fact, I willed him to look up at me, to see a sympathetic soul, perhaps the only person awake and caring. Not for a moment did I think of Cynthia. The night held only Geoffrey and me, separated merely by a fragile pane of glass and a few yards of insubstantial space.

But he didn't look up. With his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his collar turned up against the chill wind, he shuffled away.

I sat there for hours, my quilt wrapped around me, but I didn't see him return. I dozed off and awakened in the middle of the night, stiff and cold, and climbed gratefully into my bed.

I spent a lot of that year ensconced in my window seat. I didn't think of it as spying or voyeurism. I was simply intensely curious about these two fascinating people. I wanted to understand them. And like any love-struck teen, I wanted to see the object of my passions as often as possible. The best times were when Geoffrey was alone and seemed to need me, not when he and Cynthia were happy, and oblivious to the rest of the world.

That was how they looked that softly snowy night in December, when I suppose Geoffrey disappointed me a little. They were strolling home through the deepening snow, waving their arms in strange gestures as if in animated conversation. (Maybe they were a little drunk.) Cynthia reached into a snowbank, scooping out a handful of snow which she tossed at Geoffrey. Then she ran, slipping and sliding, up the drive. Instead of following her in a dignified manner, Geoffrey grabbed a mitfull of snow and chased her. He threw; she stopped and retaliated, and it soon became a full-fledged snowball fight on the lawn. And all the while they laughed. Geoffrey finally tackled her, and they collapsed onto the fluffy, new-fallen snow. He lay on top of her, kissing her quite openly -- and scandalously. In the snow-reflected brightness, they might as well have been spotlighted. But perhaps no one else noticed them, for it was past midnight and I may have been the only watcher.

Of course, I soon forgave Geoffrey his lapse. And I became even more smitten on the day he accompanied me home from school.

I'd often wondered what I would do -- what he'd do -- should we find ourselves heading home at the same time. I'd longed for, yet dreaded, the encounter.

As it turned out, it seemed quite natural for us to fall into stride, and for Geoffrey to talk to me as one of his students and a neighbour.

"I really liked your essay on the Brontes," he said, and I flushed with pleasure. He had given me an A+ on it, though it had been so easy for me to write. The look he gave me then -- an appraising, probing scrutiny -- made me blush even hotter. "I think you have a talent with words, as well as a love for them. Don't lose that."

As he looked ahead, I sensed a tinge of sadness and regret in him, as if he had lost and mourned that ability.

"You read a lot, don't you?" he asked, still focussing his gaze ahead. "I often see you curled up in your window-seat with a book in your lap."

I stumbled on an icy patch and would have fallen had Geoffrey not grabbed my arm so quickly. I could feel the strength of his grip, and my flesh was seared by his, even through all those thick winter layers of cloth. "Steady on," he said.

I was sure he could feel the quaking of my limbs, not only from his touch but from the shock of his words. To be noticed by him -- and not even be aware of it! -- set me reeling. Did he also know that I sat in the window long after I had turned out the lights? Could he see into my soul with those incisive blue eyes and know my secret thoughts?

I was so stunned that I was speechless for a moment until, embarrassed, I realized that I hadn't answered his question. Now he would think me stupid. "I...I do spend a lot of time reading. I'm working through Jane Austen just now."

I caught him suppressing a smile, but in his teacher voice he said, "Most commendable."

As we turned down our street, he asked, "What are you planning to do when you finish school?"

"Go to Oxford," I replied without hesitation, as if merely attending that distinguished university were my main ambition in life. "Did... you go there?"

"Oxford?" He smiled. "Oh, I was there for a while."

I wondered later -- much later -- if that was just one of his convenient lies. But at the time I thought only that he must have been "sent down", as they say in Victorian novels. I thought that pretty exciting, and even began to wonder if he was the (slightly dissolute) younger son of some aristocratic family.

He paused outside our house and said, "Have you lived here long?"

"All my life." How short that suddenly seemed, even to me. He was at least twice my age.

Geoffrey grinned wryly and said, " I'm sure you're destined for greater things." It could have meant that he thought I would be beautiful and desirable and worthy of his admiration one day, that he would wait for me and, as in my fantasies, show me the world. But he spoiled it by adding the teacher's admonition, "Just keep up the good work."

I spent the rest of that day in a daze, and I didn't even share the experience with Dot. To have done that would have cheapened it somehow.

Whenever he looked at me in class after that, I was sure he acknowledged a secret bond between us. And when I sat in my window-seat reading, I was never unaware that his eyes might be upon me. It became harder to lose myself in novels.

And I was more careful than ever when I turned out the lights, and it became my turn to watch.

I suppose I was jealous of Cynthia, and yet I couldn't dislike her. She was so warm and friendly, and seemed to truly care about us awkward girls.

She was almost as excited as we were when it came time for the annual skating carnival. She enjoyed choreographing the different routines to lively, jazzy music, not the staid, classical stuff we usually got. And she designed the costumes -- fanciful, sequined delights that tested our mothers' needlework skills and tried their patience.

"Such extravagant costumes!"

"A bit daring even, don't you think?"

"After all, it's not as if it's a professional production."

It was alright to have a bit of a performance at the end of each season, just to show what the skaters could do, but our mothers would have balked at any of us taking up show business professionally. Only "certain kinds of girls" did that. Well, it wasn't quite respectable, was it?

This deeply ingrained Victorian attitude toward thespians and entertainers in general gave Mrs. Beresford a slightly bruised reputation. Which made her all the more interesting to us girls.

She was as excited as we were on the night of the performance, and the dressing room was a chaos of jittery girls. Cynthia dispensed advice and reassurance.

"Don't forget to smile... Not so much blusher. You don't want to look like a clown... Now go and create your magic, girls!"

It was our best show ever, my dad said afterwards. Cynthia gave a stunning solo performance that left no doubt of her talent and professionalism. We were so proud of her.

Strangely, we didn't see Geoffrey there. None of us was quite daring enough to ask Cynthia why her husband had not come. Her sadness, as she ushered us out the door, was surely because the season had ended. "You were marvellous, girls! And I expect to see you all in the fall."

But she was gone by then.

It was only a week after the carnival, Mrs. Beresford's disgrace.

Initially we heard it in hushed snatches between parents, and then louder condemnation throughout the town. We didn't believe it at first. It was shocking and hilarious at the same time.

Mrs. Beresford had been caught, virtually naked, in the back seat of an old Chev, making out with a nineteen year old hockey player. One of Mr. Beresford's worst students. They had been parked in the public, but secluded lot nestled between the arena and the Main Street buildings. A police officer had just happened to peer in as he strolled by.

She was going to be charged with indecent exposure, with immoral conduct, with public mischief, with cradle-robbing. And even if that part wasn't true in the legal sense, in the social sense she had already been tried and convicted.

"The hussy! What can you expect of a showgirl?"

"Shameful, I call it. With a boy young enough to be her son!"

"Disgraceful!" A giggle. "It must have been terribly cold!" Naughty laughter.

"Well if you ask me, Mr. B. deserves better. Such a nice man, a real gentleman, if you know what I mean."

Our mothers watched us carefully for signs of contamination or corruption by Cynthia.

We didn't blame her for leaving town, but we felt desolate.

Red-faced, we trooped into Mr. Beresford's class. But he was so dignified and noble that he seemed above it all. He ignored the sniggers of the boys and the compassionate, melting looks of the girls. Dot and I felt achingly sorry for him, and yet we couldn't hate or condemn Cynthia. They were such disparate personalities. They didn't belong together. I wondered if Geoffrey could feel me reaching out to him, as I -- having given up all pretense of reading in my window -- watched and waited for a glimpse of him. How desperately I wanted him to know that I cared.

But then he, too, was gone. Being the laughing-stock of the town must have been too much for his sensitive soul to endure.

I was devastated. He didn't even see me waving tearfully from my window when he drove away, behind the moving van.

It wasn't until after his departure that rumours about his conduct surfaced. Dot's second-cousin's-friend's-brother had seen Geoffrey Beresford leaving a motel room with a voluptuous red-head, a grade thirteen student who soon left town.

Maybe Cynthia had been indulging in revenge on Geoffrey, that night she'd been caught in flagrante delicto with Moose Henderson.

But speculation was soon forgotten, just as the Beresfords were. The Beatles were the latest Brits to invade out town (via the airwaves), and Dot and I devoted ourselves to idolizing them. Quite sensibly, I transferred my affection from a somewhat tarnished hero to a young, fresh-faced superstar.

Years later, when I was working in the city, I saw the Beresfords leaving a performance of Swan Lake. He looked less tragic and more fleshy. She looked more painted and less bubbly. But I was sure it was them.

I felt that same childish rush of blood to my cheeks on seeing him, that same breathless hopefulness that he would notice me and marvel and admire.

I could have caught up to them if I'd hurried. But I reined in the impulse. What was there to say? That I hadn't lived up to Geoffrey's -- or my own -- expectations?

But a thought that had never crossed my mind at fourteen sprang into awareness then. Perhaps they had known of each other's infidelities, even approved. It appeared that Cynthia had not left Geoffrey after all, just the town that would never have let her live down her "disgrace". Probably he had stayed on only to wind up their affairs.

I felt oddly, irrationally betrayed. Having thought them a tragic, mismatched couple all those years, I was perturbed to see just how wrong I had been. And what else had I misjudged? Had Geoffrey, the misunderstood hero, been merely the creation of my romantic teenage yearnings? I felt like the victim of a hoax.

My companion eyed me questioningly, for I had stopped and stared after the Beresfords until they were lost in the crowd. With a shock, I realized what a strong resemblance my friend bore to the younger Geoffrey.

In fact, all the boys and men I had dated had been cast from the same mould. None of them had lived up to Geoffrey's standards. Not even Geoffrey.

Copyright © 1996 Gabriele K. Wills

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Copyright © 2008 Gabriele Wills, Photos Copyright © 2008 Melanie Wills