This story is based around two of the characters from my series of novels, currently entitled Tea And Militancy, set in 1925-27. Susie Smith is the wayward art mistress of a school named St Cecilia’s, on the Dorset coast, and has become close friends with the Meredith siblings, Rosalie, who teaches modern languages at the school, and Ambrose, who is head of the music department. Susie is everything that a 1920s girl should be, though even she admits that she is ‘rather fast’, while Ambrose is very much out of step with the modern world and, socially awkward as he is, finds Susie’s teasing a little hard to understand – a fact which she exploits to the full whenever possible.
This scene is not from the novel, but is something I wrote specifically for the latest post on my main blog, Outskirts Of The Twenties. I hope it is enjoyable even to those who have not read any of my other work.
It Started With Harper’s Bazaar
It all began one afternoon in May, when Susie Smith, art mistress of St Cecilia’s in Holcombe Magna, Dorset, caught hold of her colleague Ambrose Meredith as he was on his way out of the front door and asked an unusual question.
‘Ambrose, do you have a razor?’
Ambrose’s hand went to his chin and stroked the slight stubble that had grown since that morning.
‘I do,’ he said, bemused. ‘Why?’
‘Oh,’ said Susie, a bewitching grin breaking out, ‘I only wanted to know what sort it was, that’s all.’
‘A very ordinary sort.’ Ambrose’s puzzlement was growing rapidly, and the teasing light in Susie’s eyes was not making him any the more comfortable. Maybe there was something wrong with his chin. He tried to remember whether he had looked properly in the mirror that morning, but could not succeed in bringing his face to mind. ‘Perchance it is not quite as sharp as it could be, but it is generally quite adequate. Pray, is there something…wrong?’
‘Oh, my dear!’ Now she was laughing at him, and he felt his cheeks flush – a dramatic flush, such as she always inspired. ‘No! Nothing wrong at all with your face – delightfully smooth.’ She rubbed his cheek, inflaming the blush and disproving her words in one gesture. ‘No, I only wanted to know if it were a safety razor, or a straight one, or what?’
‘It is a cut-throat.’
Susie’s face fell.
‘Bother,’ she said.
Ambrose frowned. He was quite accustomed to being bewildered by Susie, but he was distinctly confused as to what she was about this time – nor did she seem inclined to enlighten him, for she squeezed the arm she was holding and bounced away in the direction of the art room. Ambrose sighed, resigned himself to bafflement and donned his hat, but he turned back on hearing his voice called a second time.
‘Yes?’ he said, as Susie danced towards him.
‘Will you come with me into town this Saturday?’ she asked. ‘I want to ask your advice about something.’
‘I will,’ he said, feeling slightly trepidatious. Susie was up to something, and he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted a part in it, for Susie’s ideas seldom brought him any comfort of mind. But she was smiling that sweet smile he adored and he could not stop himself from assenting, however much he doubted his wisdom in doing so – and he could not help himself smiling as she squeezed his arm another time and skipped back into the school. He would have to wait until Saturday to find out what she was up to this time.
‘Susie, what is this about?’ asked Ambrose as they turned into the high street, such as it was, of Holcombe Magna. ‘You have told me nothing of our mission, and I am at a loss to understand you.’
‘Now, or in general?’ said Susie with a grin, but he was saved from answering by a nursemaid with a perambulator who came bowling towards them and had them skipping to opposite sides of the pavement to avoid her. When she had passed and they had returned to each other’s side, Susie fished in the basket she carried and drew out a rolled up magazine.
‘You want to know what this is about,’ she said. ‘Well, it’s this.’
She unfolded the magazine and smoothed down the page, and proffered it to him. He took it and looked at the advertisement.
‘Ovaltine cold drink…’
‘Not that one – the other page!’
‘Oh! My apologies.’ He turned his attention to the second advertisement, which bore a large drawing of a curly haired woman reclining backwards, hands resting on the back of her head. The headline of the advert ran, in large font:
and, below that:
‘An Intimate Talk To Women.’
‘Without embarrassment?’ he asked, not wanting to read any further for fear of what he might see.
‘Well, exactly,’ said Susie. ‘Only I won’t be without embarrassment, soon, if I can’t sort myself out, and you can’t get it for love nor money round here, for some reason, which is absurd because of the beach, but honestly, you have to go all the way into Chilcott, and it’s coming up to summer and I shall be wanting my sleeveless frocks, and that’s not even counting my legs. Which is why I want you.’
‘Susie, I have not the pleasure of understanding you,’ said Ambrose, handing back the magazine, ‘and I cannot possibly help with your dresses. I know nothing of fashion.’
‘I don’t want help with my dresses!’ said Susie indignantly. ‘I can manage that perfectly well without involving someone who’s a century out of date. No, I want your help over choosing a razor, that’s all. It’s the only solution I can think of.’
He ignored the slight, though it had stung, for he had always thought his suit to be perfectly acceptable – true, it had belonged to his father, but he had been a man of sense and discernment, and there had been no sense in discarding such well made items of clothing when there were still many years of wear in them. He resisted the urge to sulk and concentrated on Susie’s request for help.
‘A razor? I shall certainly give all the assistance I can, but is not your brother better positioned to choose his own razor?’
‘No!’ She rolled her eyes – rolled her head, in fact, for she raised her eyes heavenwards in such evident frustration that he began to be rather concerned for her sanity. ‘Ambrose, darling beloved, you are not listening to me! I cannot find even a granule of depilatory powder here in Holcombe, and I don’t have time to go all the way to Chilcott, and I want to wear my sleeveless evening gown this weekend, and if I am to do that and not look a total embarrassment I need a wretched razor!’
‘Why?’ She was looking at him with complete incomprehension in her lovely face. ‘To get rid of my underarm hair, of course – why else would I want a razor?’
His face must have showed his astonishment, for she squinted up at him and gave a laugh.
‘Do you mean to tell me you’ve never heard of underarm hair?’
‘I…’ He could barely keep his countenance. What a matter to be discussing – such a private matter, and in the middle of the street! ‘I had never considered it,’ he managed, in a hasty burst, hoping they might cease this uncomfortable discussion immediately. But Susie never had care for anyone else’s scruples – she threw back her head and laughed at him, and he felt his face grow ever more heated and wished, not for the first time, that she was not so impossible.
‘I do believe you’re blushing!’ she laughed. ‘There’s no need, darling, it’s not a dirty word any more. Why, even quite respectable magazines talk about it nowadays – as you can see,’ she added, brandishing the advertisement at him once again (oh, of course it was about hair removal – how could he not have seen that before?). ‘What does your sister do about it?’
‘I…I could not say.’ He’d never thought about it. Oh, and now he was going to, all the time. Thank you very much, Susie Smith.
‘I suppose she generally wears sleeves,’ said Susie. ‘Well, I don’t, not in summer. But I’ve never used a razor before – only powders or creams – and I’m really not sure what to do about it. What do you think is best, Ambrose, darling?’
He was about to answer when, in one of his rare flashes of insight, he observed something in the way she was standing, the posture of her head, the half-smile that played about her lips – a provocative something, a challenge. This was a test! She was not asking him to help her, she was daring him to.
And as this sudden understanding sank into him, his own stance changed and he drew himself taller, his embarrassment subsiding so swiftly it left no trace behind it. After all, this was a challenge he could rise to quite easily – for it was something he knew all about.
‘I understand,’ he said with a nod. ‘Come, let us to Follett’s. I will assemble all the things you will need.’
Having very helpfully put together a suitable shaving kit for the young lady, Ambrose thought that his task was at an end. He was certainly not expecting her to invite herself back to his house and then to ask for his help with the…process.
‘But I cannot come in!’ he called through the bathroom door, trying to keep the anguish from his voice.
‘Because…’ Try as he might, he couldn’t prevent his voice from squeaking. ‘Because you are in your slip!’
‘I can’t very well wear my frock to do this,’ Susie called back, and he had to admit that she had a point. ‘Please, Ambrose! I have no idea what I’m doing. Do come and help me, won’t you? I promise I won’t tell anyone that you saw me in my slip.’
Ambrose leaned his head against the bathroom door and closed his eyes, summoning up strength from the very earth beneath his feet, but he almost lost his countenance when she added, ‘And I promise I won’t try to seduce you this time.’
‘Shall I describe the process?’ he gasped, when he could manage speech once again. ‘You need…let me see, you require hot water – and have you a towel?’
‘Soak it in the hot water,’ said Ambrose, ‘and put it on…on the…area.’
A muffled snort from behind the door, which he did his best to ignore, and then the sound of water sloshing. Ambrose glanced down the corridor, hoping that his sister would not return from her walk unexpectedly and catch him, alone, leaning on a door behind which was a young woman clad only in her underwear and stockings…
‘I’ve done that,’ said Susie, bringing his attention back. ‘Now, what do I do next? Make a lather?’
‘Yes, with the brush,’ said Ambrose. Silence fell within the bathroom, sporadically broken by clinks and bumps.
‘It’s not very good,’ came Susie’s complaint. ‘Not really lathery at all. Matty makes a much better job at it.’
‘Your brother has a great deal more practice,’ observed Ambrose. ‘Circular motions – with the brush, I mean.’
‘It’s still not working,’ she said after a few moments, and he sighed.
‘I do not know what you might be doing wrong,’ he said.
‘Oh…oh, very well. Open the door a fraction and I will demonstrate.’
She opened the door rather more than a fraction and he kept his eyes averted as he showed her the correct method of making a lather of shaving cream, carefully not noticing how lovely she looked in her light blue slip with its criss-cross pattern of pale flowers, and the narrow straps, and the lace trim at the bust…oh, Christ, stop looking!
He could not, however, avoid the bold grin she gave him as she retreated back inside and it was with relief, and a shaking heart, that he pulled the door closed and waited for his breathing to subside.
‘So I put the lather on and…’
‘Be very careful with the blade.’ He cleared his throat and spoke at a more ordinary pitch. ‘Make sure you see which way the hair grows before you shave it, so you know when you need to change your stroke with the razor.’
‘But I’ve put the lather on,’ said Susie, and Ambrose sighed again.
‘Then you must do as best you can. The first time, go with the direction of the hair, the second time against it. Remember – be careful with the blade. It is very…’
‘…sharp. Have you cut yourself?’
‘Of course I have, idiot!’
‘Badly?’ he enquired, ignoring the rudeness.
‘I don’t know, I can’t see through all this lather. Oh, this razor is too big! I thought they made small razors for women to use.’
‘If they do, I have never seen one,’ said Ambrose – not that he’d ever looked for one. ‘Will you continue?’
‘Oh, yes, I’m still going. I’m determined to wear that frock.’
‘Then proceed with more care.’
‘Right,’ said Susie after a few minutes. ‘I think that’s done it. What should I do now?’
‘Rinse off the lather and make sure you’ve got all the hair,’ said Ambrose. ‘And then…well,’ he said, frowning suddenly, ‘I use an aftershave, but that would not be suitable for a lady.’
‘I’ve some perfume in my bag,’ said Susie. ‘Would that do?’
‘Quite possibly,’ he agreed. ‘We can but try.’
There was a rustling as Susie rummaged in her bag, and then a spritz, and a scream.
‘Argh! Oh! Oh, God, that hurts! That hurts so much! Ambrose, you utter…’
The epithet was drowned in the creak of the door hinges as he dashed into the bathroom, to find Susie crouching on the floor, clutching her underarm and squeaking incoherently.
‘The alcohol in the perfume!’ he cried in sudden understanding. ‘Oh, that will not be pleasant in your cut…’
He stopped and his lips twitched. He bit them and reached for the damp towel Susie had used earlier.
‘Try this,’ he said, and his voice squeaked for quite a different reason from earlier. As she reached for the towel, Susie’s eyes caught his and a suspicious look came over her.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘You are – oh, you are! You utter beast! You…you…’
‘Stop abusing me and wipe away that perfume,’ he said, taking hold of the fists that flailed in his direction and holding them easily. ‘Here, give me the towel…is that better?’
‘Yes, but it still stings, you wretch.’
‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘I’ll fetch you some talc and…and…’
He broke off and let go of Susie, who looked up in some surprise before her gaze followed his to the doorway of the bathroom.
‘It may be rather an unimaginative line,’ said Rosie Meredith, who was standing in the doorway, ‘but what on earth is going on in here?’
‘It is…um…that is, I…’ Ambrose floundered, unable to explain in terms that would satisfy his sister precisely why he might have been manhandling a scantily clad young woman in their bathroom. But Susie was, as ever, quite ready with her words.
‘Oh, hallo, Rosie! Nothing sinister at all – quite the opposite. You see, it all started with Harper’s Bazaar…’