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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

A Sophisticated Lady
by Thomas Baines

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Maud Leighton was not one of those people who considered herself a snob - indeed not! She did however have certain fixed views that, though mostly running in accordance with accepted criteria, did make some people judge her with reservation. Paramount amongst these was the oft expressed view that those who considered themselves sophisticated were more often than not living a sham existence - for it is in reality a state achieved by a comparative few, it being an elite club with a strictly limited membership, whose members readily recognise that rare virtue in others fortunate enough to also possess the blessed superiority.

She was convinced that she had become a member of that select society, not only by natural inclinations but also by a disciplined approach to all things that are considered ordinary and mundane, these two unwelcome facets being readily evicted from her make-up before their association could become readily recognisable. She was justly proud of not only being a sophisticated woman, but more importantly, being recognised as one. She was not just content to protect her achievement, but did her best to dissuade her similarly gifted friends from committing any indiscretion that could be judged by her as being a heretic slur on their society and its ways. Therefore she had high standards to guard and maintain. These were safeguarded even though it meant enforcing a strict moral discipline - not only on herself, but also on all who came under her influence. Yes! Under her influence - for she tended to guide those fortunate enough to be classed as her friends or acquaintances.

Maud had a full calendar of social engagements. But regretfully, as is often the case, not all those present were up to her own high standards. She was not such a fool as to snub such unfortunates - that could create unnecessary hostility. Besides, she, like most of her type who are prone to narcissism, wished to be universally liked, even by those whom she had little time for.

She was of an age and appearance where she still attracted attention from the opposite sex. This pleased her greatly. Though the only encouragement she ever gave was guarded, dignified and limited to the strictly eligible ones - that is, gentlemen who were both unattached and sophisticated. Her enjoyment of them was however strictly confined to gentle encouragement only - any thoughts of the physical act filled her with abhorrence. In addition, attachments of any kind, however desirable, would most certainly interfere with her most satisfactory way of life - and that had to be protected at all costs.

She of course counted herself as being a readily acceptable person in all the right social circles. She had attended the right schools, read the right books, engaged in the correct social and cultural activities, and above all else had the kind of family background that was considered essential in order for her to talk and act as an equal on all the required social occasions.

Maud was particularly proud of her writings. Not that she had ever written anything for publication - she considered that was below her dignity, and should be left to people who wrote for financial gain or had a psychological need to be recognised in that way. She was however a prolific letter writer, and was justly proud of the quality of the contents - people were always complimenting her on them. In addition, she kept a diary, and no matter what time of night or early morning it was, religiously added details of the day's events - she often reading through the various past entries, and deriving great pleasure from doing so. Not only were they a factual record of her way of life, but were liberally sprinkled with her own delicately phrased personal observations on people and events.

Stephanie Woodthorpe started it all. Though to be fair to her, what she had said merely echoed the thoughts of many others.

It was during one of the weekly afternoon tea sessions at the Stanhopes'. The talk had been of nostalgic memories of the past, especially regarding some of the beloved characters who were no longer with them - that is, they who had passed on or had merely moved away from that close knit circle of really nice people.

Maud prided herself on her excellent memory, and used it to good effect whenever the occasion arose. She not only readily recounted past happenings, but also was able at will to recall a vast treasury of anecdotes - occasionally referring (from memory) to entries in her diary. It was on such occasions that she often quoted actual passages from that revered record of the happenings in their exclusive society. She was justly proud of her masterpiece, it being a source of envy to the fortunate and captivated listeners. People quite often mentioned it with the kind of respect that is reserved for the published works of universally acclaimed diarists. This of course made Maud feel very proud.

She resisted the occasional suggestion that she should consider having it suitably edited and published, with a hint that her social conscience seemed to indicate that any such venture should be a posthumous event. As a matter of fact, she had made such a provision in her will, going so far as to actually suggest which person, if still alive, should be approached with a view to editing it.

Maud had just amused everyone present with an extract (of course quoted from memory) regarding a happening that took place a little over six months before. It related to the Reverend Harold Watkins' lapse in quoting a harmless passage from a sexually explicit work by D. H. Lawrence. This was made all the more poignant by the fact that he was in the pulpit delivering a sermon at the time. He had been singularly unfortunate in that Maud with her excellent memory was in the congregation on that particular Sunday morning. Nobody else there, including the Reverend himself, would have known the origin of his faux pas. She had wasted no time in informing everyone that mattered, of her knowledge - including a very embarrassed Reverend Watkins.

In quoting from her diary, she normally was careful to omit anything that could be classed as indelicate, offensive or too controversial - but on this occasion it was not necessary. The fact that the Reverend Watkins had been clearly shocked and made to look foolish in front of others did not offend the upholders of good taste amongst the hierarchy of the circle. For he was not one of their closer intimates, and like many others on the periphery was considered fair game.

The extract that Maud had quoted was rather brief. As a result, some, wishing to savour the memory in more detail, demanded a fuller account - not really demanded - that would have been counted as an uncivilised action.

It was then that Stephanie said, "Do you know, Maud. You are always quoting from your diary, and of course we all find it absolutely delightful and thoroughly entertaining. However, I, along with some others, feel that not only does your memory enable it to be quoted very accurately, but your brain at times edits out things that you do not wish us to hear."

Maud was more than a little surprised, though she did her best not to show it. "Oh, really!" she exclaimed, "I-I didn't think that it really mattered. After all, one's diary is a very personal thing, and in quoting from it one has to take into account an allowable degree of circumspection. It is not in any way a savage exposé of my life or the doings of my friends. I, of course, record happenings as I view them, and am not such a prude as to imagine that my entries do not contain the normal degree of personal opinions together with mild criticisms where I feel that they are deserved. However, I quite naturally try to avoid putting myself in a position where my privately recorded thoughts are put to you in their totality."

"Oh, goodness, Maud!" exclaimed Stephanie, "No one is suggesting that you should bare your innermost thoughts, but it would be rather ni-"

"Come on, Maud!" interrupted Connie Cassell. "Just for once let us know how really personal your views of people are. I'm sure that nobody here could take offence - not in the least way."

"Well, I don't know," edged Maud, "I would prefer not t-"

"Maud!" said Arthur Stanhope as he interjected in a firm but kindly voice, "That thing about the Reverend Watkins - it must have been a Sunday!"

"Y-Yes, as a matter of fact, it was."

"Well then, since nothing much happens on Sundays, why don't you give us the complete entry for that day? I'm sure that everyone will enjoy it. After all, we are all great friends who would readily respect and understand the views and feelings of one of the cleverest and most respected members of our circle, who in addition is a very gifted writer!"

Maud immediately felt confused, but at the same time rather proud. For here was a great tribute from a renowned author, who had on occasions been classed as a literary giant by critics in the more responsible journals and newspapers. She hesitated while her memory quickly searched back to the entry for that Sunday "Arthur was quite right, nothing much else had happened on that day, and there should be nothing controversial which would be revealed."

"Come on, Maud!" "Please, Maud!" "You owe it to us, Maud!" These were the pleading cries that were in her ears as she came to her decision.

"Very well, then!" she said in a rather relieved way.

There were sighs and murmurings of contentment from most of the others.

"I'll tell you what!" said Arthur, "Why don't you bring the diary with you next Wednesday and read it to us?"

"Well, em - yes! All right, then."

There followed a buzz of warm conversation. Maud did not immediately join in, being busy thinking about the next Wednesday. As she did so, she felt a tinge of excitement - it would be an unusual but thrilling occasion - it would be her day!

Maud of course went straight to her diary the moment she got home. And what she read then, and many times on subsequent days, confirmed to her that there would be nothing wrong in divulging the complete entry for that Sunday. Everyone would find it a delight and would not hesitate to lavish praise on her.

The Wednesday afternoon tea session began as usual in a most cordial way, with people talking about things in general.

As the time went by Maud was beginning to worry, for nobody had mentioned her diary. Then with a mischievous smile, Arthur Stanhope suddenly said in a mock-puzzled voice, "And what is that impressive-looking volume that you are holding in your hand, dear Maud?"

Maud gave a little embarrassed smile as everyone else joined in the ensuing burst of polite laughter. "Well, em, it's - you all know what it is!"

"Come, Maud!" exclaimed Arthur, "It is now time for you to entertain us with the promised rendering."

Maud braced herself as she opened the diary at the book-marked place. She then looked round the room in an uncharacteristic demure way. Her audience responded with smiles and looks of encouragement.

Her entry for that particular Sunday was quite long, it almost filling its allocated page with her small neat handwriting. It started by recording the time of Maud's arising and the state of the weather. This was followed by a few short sentences regarding the main aspects of certain items in the Sunday Telegraph. The part regarding the episode in the church was soon reached. It began with some minor and mildly amusing comments about the dress sense of some of her fellow worshippers. Maud was well known for her views on such etiquette, and this caused a few titters amongst the listeners - especially when she read out, "Mary 'D' should know better than to wear such high-heeled shoes in the house of the Lord."

She had merely written what she would have said, if not quite in those terms, in the course of friendly general conversation with that person present. Normally, nobody ever took offence, for she had a way of saying such things that was ever so light-hearted, and more often than not caused a degree of amusement, which the victim herself invariably enjoyed. After all, Maud was Maud!

However, on this occasion it was different. For even though Mary Douglas gave a pleasant self-conscious smile in return to the kind and knowing looks from Maud and the others, she felt rather hurt. It was one thing to put up with Maud's minor critical observations during the course of normal conversation, for everybody had a good laugh over them. But it was a different matter to hear them read out, especially with so many others present. It seemed to her that Maud had rasped out the words in such a manner that they appeared to constitute an indictment. This of course was not the case, for Maud was an accomplished orator and her delivery had been given in a most decorous and light-hearted manner - nevertheless, Mary was not alone in feeling uncomfortable and more than a little resentful.

Maud then read out some light-hearted criticisms about the flower display in the church. It was indeed unfortunate for her that it had been the turn of Elaine Shepley and Florence Stanhope to carry out the flower arrangements for that particular Sunday. To be fair to Maud, she did not know this. If she had, she would have not read out that particular extract. The two ladies were regarded as the leading lights of their society - it was one thing to comment on the dress sense of people like Mary Douglas, but to criticise the efforts of such opulent dignitaries was a completely different matter.

Maud was suddenly conscious that all was not well. Elaine was blushing a deep red and Florence was staring at Maud in a vexed way. She was also only too aware of the knowing looks being exchanged by many other members of the circle.

She at once tried to make light of the matter, and in doing so deviated from the diary. But was stopped by Arthur Stanhope, who said in a mock-stern way (at least, Maud thought it was 'mock'), "Maud! Please keep to the written word!"

Maud blushed, being conscious of what could have been cynical smiles appearing on some faces. She hesitated, cleared her throat then carried on reading. From then on she tried to avoid looking up from the diary. This, and the fact that her voice seemed to have lost a great deal of its sparkle, was noticed with some satisfaction by one or two of the more cynically inclined people present.

Then came the part about the Reverend Watkins quoting D. H. Lawrence from the pulpit. It was only a few lines, not being written as a heretical criticism, but more of an amusing passing comment. The trouble was that Maud's mind wasn't completely on her reading, she being only too conscious of the fact that things were not going as expected. She could not help but hear the occasional murmurings from different parts of the room, also sensing the knowing looks that followed them in her direction. As a result, her oratory suffered. It wasn't the enunciation that was at fault - it was as though all the pleasure had gone out of her presentation, and this, coupled with the lack of sparkle, seriously affected the sense of the reading. What was meant to be amusing and trivial now appeared to be offensive and sardonic. Phrases such as, 'a minister of the church should know better', and, 'a congregation should not be treated to such words from a risqué source without the prior blessing of the dear bishop himself', seemed to jar on people's sensibilities.

Maud sensed that feelings of hostility were developing, and as a consequence lost no time in looking up from the diary and saying in a rather tense voice, "I think that I have read more than sufficient for you to glean those parts that my brain usually edits out."

"Please continue," requested Arthur. "I feel that I am not alone in saying that I find it totally absor-"

"I, for one, don't wish to hear any more!" exclaimed Florence Stanhope in a loud truculent voice as she glared at her husband.

There followed a few moments of shocked silence, during which a red-faced and very embarrassed Maud glanced apprehensively round the room, trying to assess the general feeling. She gave an inward gasp of horror, for apart from Penny Northwood, who gave her smiles of encouragement, the others avoided her eyes, or stared at her with looks of smug hypocrisy or obvious distaste. The nervous glances that most gave in the direction of Florence was a ready indication of the power that that woman held over them.

The silence was broken by Arthur, who said, "Very well, then. I would like to thank Maud -" A determined glance from Florence was all that was necessary for him to rapidly drop the idea of thanking Maud - he instead quietly said, "Perhaps we should move on to some other subject. Now, who would like to -"

"Please! Please!" Interrupted Maud in a very tense voice. "It isn't as it sounds. I have written about the happenings from a personal point of view, and the criticisms included are not in the least way intended to be offensive!"

She paused for breath, but as she did so Florence Stanhope took immediate advantage to exclaim in an angry voice, "How dare you! How could you say those things? You knew perfectly well that dear Elaine and myself did the flower arrangements on that Sunday. It isn't that I mind what you say about me or my efforts, but it's poor Elaine that I feel for."

At that point "poor Elaine" produced a small handkerchief and used it to dab her eyes - searching for hidden tears that weren't really there. This was much more effective than resorting to sobbing and all that it entailed.

Immediately, Maud knew where most other sympathies lay. She was upset as she spluttered, "But-but, honestly, I didn't know tha-"

A grim-looking Mary Douglas didn't have any hesitation in rudely interjecting, "Really, Maud! How could you be so bitchy about my shoes? I've never been so embarrassed in the whole of my life!"

Then another voice said, "I think it borders on being blasphemous to say such things about the Reverend Watkins!" This last utterance really shocked Maud, for it was Penny Northwood who had spoken - her best friend had joined the pack!

All this was too much for Maud - she jumped to her feet in an alarmed way, looked round the room at the smug and startled faces, then shouted in a voice of great despair, "Oh, my God! What have I done to deserve all this?" She buried her face in her hands and started to sob in a hysterical manner.

As poor Maud carried on sobbing, an air of uncertainty settled on some - the spectacle before them touching their hearts. Though certain others watched with feelings of great satisfaction.

Eventually, Arthur got up and went over to comfort her. He tried to place his hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it away. Florence was about to say something to him, but then thought it prudent to desist from such a course.

It was then that Penny came across and said in a sorrowful voice, "Maud! Maud! Please forgive me - I don't know what made me say those things. Please, Maud. Please!" This appeared to have the desired effect. Maud raised her face and accepted the handkerchief that Penny held out to her.

As she continuously wiped her eyes the sobbing gradually ceased. Then with an occasional sniff and further use of the handkerchief, Maud braced herself, and initially looking at nobody in particular, said in an emotional voice, "I-I have upset everybody. I'm very sorry. It was not my intention to hurt anyone. I should have never agreed to read. I didn't realise that things written as a good-humoured and witty attempt to record a day's happenings would sound so sinister and vile when read out aloud. Florence! Elaine! On my honour, I didn't know that you were responsible for the flower arrangements. Mary! You should be used to my particular brand of humour by now. I have said far more derogatory things to you in the past, and you have always taken them in the spirit that was intended by joining in the ensuing repartee. With regard to the Reverend Watkins. I told him exactly what I had written, and even though he was embarrassed, he took no offence - on the contrary, he became very amused."

She paused, and looking directly at Arthur and Florence, said in a quiet and dignified voice, "I think I have said more than enough. Therefore if you will excuse me, I will be on my way." Then addressing everybody, "Good-bye, everyone. Please don't try to get in touch with me, I think that I will spend the next few weeks abroad."

There was a stunned silence as she slowly made her way to the room's door. As she reached it, she was halted by a strained voice pleading with her, "Please don't go, Maud! At least not before you give me the chance to apologise." Maud was very surprised, for the words were spoken by Florence.

"Please, Maud! Stay, Maud! You mustn't go!" Were the cries of others as they beseeched her to stay.

She hesitated. But it was the voice of Arthur that made her comply with the popular will as he said, "Maud! I think that we all owe you a deep apology. And if you don't think it will embarrass you too much, I ask that you come back and bear with us as we make amends."

With that, she gave a shy-like smile, and after saying in a demure voice, "Very well, then," returned to her chair and sat.

Arthur spoke first, saying, "I blame myself, I should never have insisted that you read. As a fellow author, I should have remembered the golden rule - when giving voice to your personal thoughts, never quote directly from the written word, for the ear is more readily deceived than the eye."

Florence deliberately humbled herself in her apology. Mary was so tense with hers that she could speak no more than in a whisper. Penny repeated her previous apology in a faltering voice, being clearly upset. "Poor Elaine" tried to speak, but could not find the words. She instead had once again to resort to the use of her handkerchief - but this time it absorbed real tears.

Maud had listened with Penny's handkerchief held against her mouth as she stared through moistened eyes at the floor. There was an anxious silence as the tense assembly waited for her response.

She finally looked up, and looking at no one in particular, said in a quiet and calm voice, "I'm very touched by what has just been said - I really am!" Then looking at Arthur, she carried on, "You were quite right, it was an embarrassing experience - but at the same time a very rewarding one." Ignoring the many surprised looks, and glancing at various people in turn, she added, "Yes! A very rewarding one. For in spite of what has happened, it has made me realise how very fortunate I really am to have such wonderful friends, who are to prepared to take the blame on themselves, when in reality the fault was mine. I blame myself alone for being conceited enough to think that the record of my selfish and trivial thoughts would entertain you. I should have remembered that personal means 'belonging to one person', and that is where such second-rate assessments should have stayed. I ask that you all find it in your hearts to forgive me and count the matter as being closed from now on." She then stared at the floor in an anxious way as she fought back the tears.

The response was unanimous and overwhelming. Many women were openly crying as everybody rose and showed their support and appreciation. Maud became overcome with happiness - not only had she salvaged her prestige, but she was being treated as a heroine. However, the occasion became too much for her - she started to feel giddy, and then everything went blank.

She later vaguely remembered coming-round and seeing a sea of faces looking down at her. On being helped to her feet, she started to recover, assuring everyone that she would be all right and a doctor would not be required. Everybody was very concerned about her, and when she asked to go straight home, Florence insisted that she and Arthur should take her in the Bentley.

It was only when she woke up the next morning, that she felt her old self again.

She lay there recounting the traumatic happenings at the Stanhopes'. It was as though she was reliving all the trials and tribulations. But in the end she had a nice warm satisfied feeling, for in spite of everything, she had completely exonerated herself with her pious show of self-guilt - they had believed her. As a result, all the damage that had been done was quickly repaired, and she had re-established, or possibly enhanced, her position in society.

She put on her dressing gown and went down to the kitchen. She felt very happy as she prepared her breakfast, and was humming to herself as she buttered the toast - but suddenly she went cold and rigid - a dreadful thought struck her. "The diary! The diary! Where is it?" She couldn't clearly remember, but had the feeling that she did not bring it home with her. "Oh, my God!" she exclaimed, dropping the knife in order to dash and search for the book. After a few minutes of frantic searching she trembled as she realised that it was most likely at the Stanhopes'.

She sat down, and with feelings of great trepidation, tried to take stock of the situation. What she had read out at the Stanhopes' was very mild compared with many of the other entries. As an example, the entry for day after the episode in the church contained some very caustic comments about Arthur Stanhope's latest book, which was reviewed in that morning's papers. She was beginning to get the shakes, but almost at once controlled them by telling herself that she must act quickly, for there was a slight chance that all was not lost.

Maud dialled the telephone number, and was relieved when it was Arthur who answered. He immediately expressed concern about the state of her health, and seemed relieved when she assured him that she felt fine.

She then asked if Florence was available, and was pleased when Arthur replied, "You should know better than to ask that at nine o'clock in the morning - she never rises before eleven!"

After a short period of general chit-chat, Maud tried to sound very casual as she asked, "Oh, by the way, did I leave my diary there? I seem to have lost it."

Arthur said that he didn't think so, but told her to hang on in order that he could look round the room. The search did not take long, but proved to be without success. He courteously assured Maud that all was not lost. He would go and look in the car, then phone her back in a few minutes time.

Maud, still very worried, put the receiver down.

It seemed to be an eternity as she stood there waiting for the phone to ring. At last, it did - she had to check herself from grabbing the receiver too hastily.

Yes! Arthur had found the diary on the back seat of the car. She expressed relief at the news. He offered to fetch it round to her. But she declined, not wanting to appear too apprehensive, especially when he said, "Don't worry about it. I promise that we won't open it, for I am one who also believes that personal means 'belonging to one person'. After all, a diary is the most personal of one's possessions."

They carried on talking about things in general for a couple of minutes. Before they said their good-byes, Maud said, "Since it's such a lovely morning, I think I will walk into town and collect the diary on my way. I trust that is all right with you - say, in an hour's time?"

Arthur assured her that it would be fine, and after telling her not to worry, said au revoir! As he put down the receiver, Florence exclaimed in a loud and shocked voice, "Good God! Listen to this!"

She had come down in order to find out whom Arthur was speaking to. On seeing the diary laying on the table, and despite having clearly heard the promise Arthur had made, had picked it up in order to read it.

Maud felt very relieved as she replaced the receiver. Everything was going to be all right - life would go on as normal.

She resumed her humming, and felt really contented as she went back to the kitchen. Looking at the toast, she debated whether to have it or not, telling herself, "Arthur is sure to ask me to stay and have a snack with him. It would be a good opportunity to have one of those interesting discussions about books. Oh, I am so looking forward to it."

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