Sundays were always terribly dull. It was always expected that we would go to Grandmother's and take tea, listen to interminable stories about the war, and then walk in the rose garden until dusk. Grandmother often invited single male distant relatives or family friends to join us, which we were then expected to entertain, being the only single young ladies left in the family. I had the distnct feeling she was trying to marry us off. Victoria, my sister, two years my junior, would flirt co-operatively with these young men, and seemed to enjoy it immensely, while I found them all quite boorish. In my opinion there was a reason they needed family help in matchmaking, and nothing would persuade me to even consider them, despite much encouragement from my mother and aunts. So I usually spent as much time as possible reading grandmother's books.
"Put that away" chided my mother "You'll get a reputation for being bookish"
Well that would never do, now would it. No suitor would consider an educated girl, she might make him look foolish. But I would sigh and go back to my reading, and eventually they would ignore me. We were quite different, my sister and I. Often Victoria would take a real liking to one of these young fools, and she had even agreed to go to a dance with one of them.
"You should come too Penny," she pleaded "We'll have such fun, and just because I'm going with Henry doesn't mean I can't look at the others! Everyone will be there, and I'll so want someone to talk to, oh please Penny, just this once."
I depised those silly dances. It was all a show of dresses, if you ask me, not a sincere conversation in the place. Times had changed since their day, this was the 1970's for heavens sake, but somehow our family had been left in the 19th century! Still, I love my sister very much and would do anything to make her happy. So I agreed to attend, on condition she didn't try to hook me up with Giles again like last time. That had been an unmitigated disaster.
Much as I expected, it was the same old faces, although some we hadn't seen for a while, distant cousins who had grown up, and it was these who Victoria seemed most interested in. All the while dancing with Henry she was studying others around the room. No stone unturned. I did the usual round of greetings and polite smiles, and decided that this was the last time, the very last time I was being paraded like this, not even for Victoria could I go through this again. The air was thick with repugnant cigar smoke, and I longed for the days when men withdrew to smoke, for the sake of the ladies. Ironic how, in a pathetic nod to modern times, they had only managed to makes the ladies' lives more uncomfortable than they already were. I went outside for fresh air.
The garden was never lovelier. It was the part of Grandmother's house I loved the most, and always had. Heady camelias and honeysuckles wound up the latticework of the gazbeo and the exquisite colors of the formal beds created a living tapestry. Lost in this idyll I barely noticed a young man standing by the greenhouse, until he moved. He was tall, of an athletic build, and immediately stood out from the scrawny specimens my social circles generally offered. He was also wearing glasses, something quite frowned upon in my family.
"Hello there," I called, "I see I'm not the only one who finds the garden more exciting than the gossip."
Not realizing that he wasn't alone he the garden he startled. But instead of responding, he hurried inside and disappeared. I didn't see him again all evening, until just as we were leaving.
"Who is that?" I asked Victoria.
"Oh that's just Charles. I didn't know he was here tonight, he never comes to dances."
"So how do you know him?"
"Well, he's Louisa's bother, you know?"
That explained it. Lousia had been Victoria's best friend in prep school but her family had been abroad. They only returned a couple of years back, but now lived in London. Victoria had stayed with several times when she'd been in town.
"He seems very shy."
"Well, who wouldn't be, surely you've seen those horrible glasses?"
They did look very strong, but I hadn't noticed at first. I certainly didn't find them horrible, quite intriguing actually. Altogether he had a very handsome face, I was quite taken with him.
A few weeks later I found a good reason to go into London myself, so I called Louisa to ask if she'd mind me coming by. She seemed rather surprised at this request, probably as I'd often been quite spiteful to her in years gone by, but time heals, and she only said that she looked forward to seeing me Friday evening. When I arrived, Charles answered the door.
"Oh HELLO!" I said trying to best to look totally shocked to see him "What a small world!"
He looked at his feet, whispered to come in so quietly I hardly heard him, and then made himself very scarce. I spent a tediously dull evening listening to Louisa's gossip, which I'd already heard before several times from my sister, and retired to bed early. Luckily Charles was at breakfast the next morning. I couldn't place just what it was I found so appealing in him, perhaps his shyness, but I also liked the way he looked. I couldn't take my eyes off him, unfortunately this just seemed to make him more uncomfortable.
"What exactly are you in London for Penelope?" asked Louisa's mother.
This I had worked out carefully.
"I'm going to see the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum"
Charles looked like he was going to die.
"Why! How perfect! Charles studied in Alexandria, he's a qualified Egyptologist!"
I knew that of course, I'd been doing my research.
"I'm sure he'll be your personal guide, won't you Charles?"
Charles had gone the same color as the tablecloth, and appeared to be trying to climb under same"
"Yes...yes...of course" he whispered, eventually.
Never once looking at me, or making any attempt at conversation he strolled with me the short walk to the BM. It was a beautiful autumn day and London had that glow cast over it that only London can. Russell Square was full of pigeons, litter, and Japanese tourists. It was a world away from my rambling Somerset home. But all I could look at was Charles, and wishing he wasn't trying so hard to be invisible.
It was a good thing we set of early, the queues for the exhibition were already awfully long, and I resigned myself to standing outside the better part of an hour at least. But suddenly, unexpectedly, and without looking round at me, Charles spoke.
"We can avoid the crowds. There's a side door."
I followed him into a door marked "Private". There was a man stationed inside, but on seeing Charles he just smiled and waved us in. Wonderful!
The public were already filing slowly around the exhibits, following the designated route, but we went a different way. I found myself in a room of small pieces laid out on simple tables without the explanatory plaques. These just had numbers. Charles, gestured for me to have a closer look.
"Why are these not on display?"
"There isn't room for everything. Besides, these pieces are still being studied. We don't even know what this is."
He carefully picked up a small oddly shaped piece of carved stone.
"Some sort of amulet." I offered, and he seemed quite taken aback.
"You know about these things?" he asked.
"Oh yes! I've read everything I could lay my hands on about Egypt ever since I was a child."
For the first time since I'd met him, he made eye contact, just a glance sideways, and the slightest hint of a smile flashed across his face. He began to speak more openly too, of his studies, and his obvious absolute passion for the subject. We examined a number of pieces, I offered my thoughts, he offered his, and I actually felt he relaxed and began to enjoy himself. His voice, ever soft and quiet, had a beautiful tone, and when he finally called me by name I felt quite giddy.
"Penny, look at this".
It was a piece of papyrus, just a small piece, quite faded, but some writing was still legible on it. He read aloud, translating directly from the hieroglyphs, and when he hesitated I finished it for him. He looked stunned. He was looking directly at me, and I could see his beautiful face properly.
"You learned Egyptian....by yourself?"
"Yes, totally by myself. Didn't even tell anyone I was doing it. My parents would have a fit if they knew. They already think I'm a terrible swot, and that it's not at all ladylike."
"How ironic," and he actually laughed "I'm always being told it's not very masculine. I wonder who they DO want to do this work?"
It was a good question.
Having overcome his initial shyness, I found him to be quite talkative. We spent the entire day in the musuem and finally, after the exhibition closed to the public, we saw the main exhibits in peace. Charles had obviously spent a lot of time studying these, he seemed to know them intimately.
"They've taken some X-Rays," he confided in me "Of the mummy, there's evidence of foul play. May explain why he died so young. He married, of course, a half-sister as was the custom, they were very young, it was ceremonial. But he didn't have time to leave an heir. So that Dynasty ended. Lots of motives, lots of intrigue."
Now he smiled really broadly and his whole face lit up. I was totally bowled over by this. I couldn't remember ever having seen a nicer face. An urge to kiss him came to me, but knowing how disastrous that would be, I resisted and simply smiled back with a mock conspiratorial wink.
"We'll never really know, will we?"
We left the museum and walked back to his parents' home. This time we chatted on the way, mostly about the exhibition, but I also asked him about his stay in Egypt and he was happy to tell me about it. When we arrived at the house we were actually laughing together, and Louisa and her mother both seemed totally taken aback. We both excused ourselves for showers before dinner, and while I was dressing in my room Mrs Wilmot came in, smiling.
"I don't know what you did to Charles today, but I'd rather like to thank you!"
"Thank me? He was so interesting, I feel like I've been back in time. He really knows his stuff."
"He doesn't get a lot of fun time, with girls his own age Penny, he's usually shunned because of his heavy glasses. I think he's got a lot to offer, but nobody ever bothers to find out."
His glasses yes, of course. I had almost forgotten. All I could see when I pictured him was a handsome young man, a FASCINATING young man, with so much life in him. Yes, he needed more fun.
He was quieter again at dinner, as if it was expected of him, but we exchanged a couple of smiles. Louisa gave me some very odd looks, not at all friendly, but I assumed it was just protectiveness for her brother. Obviously she thought his fragile ego could be so easily broken. She wasn't to know I wouldn't break him.
Sunday morning breakfast was very leisurely and Louisa's father made us all laugh by reading from the newspaper aloud. He seemed, like his wife, to be a very warm person, foreign travel softening his attitude compared to most people I usually found myself with. He and Charles seemed to have an especially close relationship, and every so often he'd nudge his son and point to something in the newspaper. Then to my delight Charles called to me.
"You'll appreciate this Penny, look!"
It was an article on an archaelogical dig in Turkey. It showed evidence of a city older than any known before. Definitely my cup of tea. Mr Wilmot relinquished his newspaper to us and Charles spread it out on the table so we could both read it together. He stood very close to me and I could feel the warmth of his body next to mine. Aware of heat from another direction I could feel Louisa's eyes burning into me. Now I couldn't resist, I smiled at her deliberately and leaned towards Charles so that my head was directly under his. She looked angry. Some mischief took hold of me. Now I turned round to face him so that there was no space between us at all and said,
"Charles! Do you have any books on this?"
Our eyes met and he flushed, but there was no fear. What I saw was absolute delight and enthusiasm. And something else.
"Yes! Yes! Follow me!"
Giving her a smirk as I turned I joined him in the family's comfortable library.
I am happiest in a library. There is an atmosphere in a room of books that is somehow solid and real, and brings the past into the present. An author never really dies, and his words are moments in time that last forever. This was a particularly impressive library, clearly a much-loved collection, carefully chosen to include classics and the very best modern works also.
Charles browsed quietly for a while and then excitedly showed me the book he'd found.
"Here it is, I knew we had something on this."
We both sat down on the comfortable deeply-buttoned leather couch and he told me how he had suspected that more would be found when he first read the book.
Sitting so closely beside him, I could feel his heartbeat, and smell him - he smelled wonderful. I was more intent on watching him than reading, if I were honest, but I paid attention closely and he seemed so relaxed sharing this with me that I could feel a tangible bond growing between us rapdily. Was this romance? Not how anyone had ever described it to me. They had always told me that men were put off by women who liked books. Clearly, this one wasn't. As deeply into his subject as he was, every so often he turned to look at me, and saw I was hanging on his every word. Oh! He had beautiful eyes, the deepest blue I had ever seen. Yes, of course, they seemed a little smaller behind the strong lenses of his glasses, but as they were so large to begin with, it didn't seem to matter. And, yes, his eyes were obviously very bad. Even with those strong glasses he seemed to want to hold the book quite close, and then seemed aware he was doing this, and would back it off a little, glancing at me as did so. I was certain he felt very self-conscious about this.
We studied all morning, and at lunch Charles' father announced that the family were going shopping and I'd be welcome to join them. I looked at Charles, who immediately seemed to know what I was thinking. I was quite taken aback in fact, as he told his parents in a quite matter-of-fact way that we had made other plans, which wasn't true. But my mind was racing at what he had planned.
Once we were alone in the house I was slightly disappointed to see him return to the library, but, happy just to be with him, I followed smiling.
He sat down, picked up the book........and then put it back down again. He sighed deeply, then laughed. I must have looked very puzzled.
"Penny you are a delight" he said at last. "Are you real?" and he laughed again. He was a beautiful, beautiful man. When he laughed it was as if his pure soul filled the room. I assured him I was quite real, and, deciding my smile was not enough to assure him of my feelings towards him, I reached for his hand and squeezed it gently. He looked down at it, and then at me, and then at the celing.
"I am a normal man Penny," he said "With normal feelings inside. Everyone assumes I'm some sort of robot because I seem to live my life in books and artefacts. Sometimes it's easier to let them think that. But you.............you seem to see inside of me, I feel you searching my soul."
I loved listening to his voice, but at that point there were no words. My feelings were too powerful to explain anyway, and there was only one way I could express myself. So, very slowly, to ensure that if - somehow, impossibly - I was picking up the wrong message, I could backtrack, I unbuttoned my blouse. Watching his face, with no hesitation on it at all, I knew I was doing the right thing. His face lit up even more as he saw I was wearing nothing under my blouse, and he needed very little encouragement to place his hand on my breast. Doing so, he kissed me gently, then looked at me again and smiled. Suddenly, he took the lead. Expertly, as if he were Don Juan, he undressed me, caressed me, and made exquisite love to me. Throughout the entire beautiful experience he never spoke a word, nor did he go more than a few moments without smiling. And when it was over, I was satisfied, and surprised, and I had to ask..................
"Where did you learn...............?"
He looked delighted at my acknowledgement of his expertise. He was not only the most intelligent man I had ever met, but the best lover. He hid that light under a bushel, and no mistake. But he wasn't telling me much....
"I spent several years abroad, you know that. Women overseas are different to English women, they see things differently."
The explanation would have to do for now, it was not my business anyway, but as we held each other close, never wanting to let go, I suddenly realized that without comment he had done something quite strange - not that I was complaining. Throughout our love-making Charles had continued to wear his glasses. Yes, I understood he needed to see, but I was also quite sure that normally people did not do this. Was he really so shy of them? Or at all? He hadn't mentioned them, hadn't nervously played with them. It was as if they were a part of his physical body, and not a separate thing at all. But, oh how I wanted to ask. I had so many questions, I didn't know where to begin. I wanted him to broach the subject, but would he? Whether because he was very comfortable about them, or very uncomfortable, would he say anything?
In my family glasses were looked down on as a flaw. People couldn't have flaws. And thinking of my family, I suddenly had a delicious thought....what would they say when they found out about me and Charles! I couldn't wait to find out. And what was it between me and Charles anyway? Is that how a relationship customarily begins? With sex on the library couch? Hardly a courtship!
When Charles' family returned we had made ourselves look decent, and were sitting reading, but I had the feeling that they knew. Even Louisa, yes, mostly Louisa, and her eyes blazed with resentment. She knew.
When I left, Charles slipped a note into my hand, and it was easy to leave knowing I was taking this with me. Returning home I was quiet and secretive. I didn't want to speak to Victoria until I'd read my letter, and I didn't want to read my letter until I reached my tree.
I had sat under my tree reading throughout my childhood. It was the place I would go to be me. To learn about the world, especially the ancient world, and to just....get away. This was my special place, so it was fitting that I should sit there to read my special letter.
"Dear Penny, I feel I should thank you for the wonderful weekend we spent together. I have, as I confessed, been with other women, and I have loved them for their minds or their bodies, but in you I have found someone who I can love for both. I realize that perfect weekends cannot always be repeated, but I hope, and believe that this is just the beginning of our relationship, and I know you plan to return next week, which I look forward to. But there is something I should tell you, which I couldn't say out loud.
Everyone sees me as a big pair of thick, heavy glasses first and a man second. I'm used to this, and most of the time I am past caring. But for the first time in many years, when I saw you in your Grandmother's garden I felt self-conscious, and this feeling prevailed when you surprised me with your visit. And yet, in spending time with you, you are the first person in a very long time who has in fact seen past my glasses. You may find this surprising but most people don't make eye contact with me. Maybe they feel they are staring more than they ought at something strange, or the lenses in my glasses are too distracting, I don't know. But you looked at me properly, which nobody else does. You never wavered. You looked INSIDE. Thank you for doing that, it means a lot to me. It makes me feel like a real man.
You are probably wondering about my glasses though. It's only natural, you're a curious person. When I see you next week, I will talk to you about them, get it out in the open. See you then. Love, Charles"
I held that note to my heart, and I even cried a little. It was sp precious and special. My God, I was in love! Yes! Me! And not with the type of man they expected either, I had found a REAL man..............
Victoria was chatting on the telephone when I went in, and not surprisingly, it was to Louisa. My news was not so new. Pity, I was looking forward to breaking it to her, but as it was she only had Louisa's version. I continued in to the dining room and sat down for supper, and as expected, she accosted me with questions.
"Are you quite mad?" she asked me.
"To do what?"
"Louisa knows what you and Charles did you know. I'm telling Father."
"Oh PLEASE Vicky, I'm 22 years old, and he's not my first."
"Oh I know that! But I mean, this is Charles we're talking about! You can't play around with men like THAT!"
"Eccentric? He's your best friend's brother!"
"Well, yes but you know what I mean. He's.........different."
"Yes, yes, he is. He's sincere, and deep, and funny. He's the nicest man I've ever met."
"You just took advantage of him because he's desperate."
I couldn't believe I was hearing this. It had to have come from Louisa. How could she have such a low opinion of her brother? Maybe she was jealous.........
"Well, I'm sorry if other people don't like it, but Charles and I are getting along extremely well, I'm going to see him again next week. Consider us a couple, take it or leave it."
"Look, Penny, OK, maybe it's none of my business, but...........Lousia has told me how badly hurt he's been before. What will he do when you decide to stop seeing him? You'll break his heart!"
"Why would I stop seeing him?"
"I mean when you are looking for a serious relationship...you know! When you're looking for a husband!"
Poor old-fashioned Victoria. What would I do with her. Right then, driving her crazy was enough........
"Perhaps he will be my husband? You never know........"
And my sister was speechless. Locked in her own little world of do's and don'ts, of traditions and taboos, I had broken every "rule" in her book, all in one go. It felt awfully good actually. All week I tortured her by telling my family openly and delightedly about my weekend, missing out the part on the couch of course, and ignoring their less than enthusiastic responses. My parents were tactful, they thought the Wilmots to be very respectable, if slightly Bohemian by their standards, and I had always been a puzzle to them. Perhaps they expected me to end up with an academic. Anyway, it was Victoria who was scheming to cause trouble, and Friday afternoon my Grandmother appeared unannounced. Quel surpris.
"I'm sure he's a very nice young man Penelope, but you must consider bloodlines. If you marry him, your children will inherit his disability and his unusual intellect, this isn't good for the family. Bad enough that you are a girl, and cannot carry on the family name. Quite beyond the pale to marry a mad scientist. Whatever next."
And having said her piece, she left.
I got the train to London anyway, ignoring all this nonsense. Charles met me at the station. He looked happy and so different to the way he's greeted me the week before. After dropping my bags off he suggested a walk to his favourite park, and I happily agreed. As little time spent with Louisa giving me the evil eye as possible.
"I promised to explain to you Penny..........."
Already he was feeling a little awkward, but he fought on. He took off his glasses and handed them to me. I didn't know what to do or say. I held them up, didn't actually put them on, it was enough just to look through the lenses from there - I could tell they were very strong indeed, and I wouldn't be able to see through them myself. I turned to look at him, to see what he looked like without them, that handsome face naked. He looked lost, obviously unable to focus on me, he seemed to be looking right through me, it was quite distracting. His unfocussed eyes seemed to turn in very slightly, and he obviously knew this as he broke the silence with,
"I look a little cross-eyed without my glasses on, don't I?"
It was hard to answer. Did I say 'yes' to demonstrate that I wasn't bothered? Or dismiss it for the same reason? He was expecting honesty, to say 'no' would be to insult his intelligence.
"Very slightly Charles, yes, but that's what I would expect."
Well it was a good guess anyway. Obviously I was right, as he was nodding and smiling. I handed his glasses back to him carefully, really unsure if he could see me giving them to him, but he was ready to explain that too.
"I can only see things a few inches from my face. Everything else is a blur of colour. But I see close up very well. When I'm working I see detail better just my removing my glasses, then many of my colleagues do using magnifying glasses. So, in a way, in my chosen field, there is an advantage to my eyesight. In other ways, it's a bit of a handicap, but I'm used to it. I got my first glasses when I was 5. I didn't even mind then, I adopted the brainy owl image quite happily. But I must confess, there have been times that I thought my glasses might put off a woman, or a woman worth having anyway..........but you.........they don't seem to bother you at all. Why is that?"
"Well.....for one thing, I'm not shallow, I hope..."
He nodded, and smiled.
"For another, well, they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You are beautiful to me Charles, glasses and all. You have a handsome face, and lovely eyes and they don't succeed in detracting from that. In fact they make you stand out, and I like that. I'm so tired of the dreary sameness, I think, of the men my family think make good suitors for me. What appeals to me is a man who thinks, and you do. I like your whole look, your image. It shouts "thinker"! I know it's a tired old stereotype, but there it is."
It was books and the love of learning that brought us together. It was perfectly appropriate that he should look like that, of course. But more, I really did like the way he looked, with no provisos. I still do, 30 years later, after 3 children and many homes in many places. I messed up my family bloodlines with myopic, bookish children but I never broke Charles' heart.
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