THE COLLECTED STORIES
William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, and spent his childhood in provincial Ireland. He attended a number of Irish schools and later Trinity College, Dublin. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.
Among his books are Two Lives (1991; comprising the novellas Reading Turgenev, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and My House in Umbria), which was named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year; The Collected Stories (1992), chosen by The New York Times as one of the best books of the year; the bestselling Felicia’s Journey (1994), which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the Sunday Express Prize; After Rain (1996), chosen as one of the Eight Best Books of the Year by the editors of The New York Times Book Review; Death in Summer (1998), which was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and most recently, The Hill Bachelors (2000).
Many of William Trevor’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker and other magazines. He has also written plays for the stage, and for radio and television. In 1977, Trevor was named honorary Commander of the British Empire in recognition of his services to literature. In 1996, he was the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction.
William Trevor lives in Devon, England.
THE COLLECTED STORIES
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in Great Britain by Penguin Books Ltd 1992
First published in the United States of America
by Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc., 1992
Published in Penguin Books (U.S.A.) 1993
17 19 20 18
Copyright © William Trevor, 1992
All rights reserved
These are works of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Most of the stories in this collection appeared in the following books by Mr. Trevor, all of which were published by Viking Penguin: The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories, copyright © William Trevor, 1967; The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories, copyright © William Trevor, 1972; Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories, copyright © William Trevor, 1975; Lovers of Their Time and Other Stories, copyright © William Trevor, 1978; Beyond the Pale and Other Stories, copyright © William Trevor, 1981; The News from Ireland and Other Stories copyright © William Trevor, 1986; and Family Sins and Other Stories, copyright © William Trevor, 1990.
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, The Ballroom of Romance, Angels at the Ritz, Lovers of Their Time, and Beyond the Pale were first collected under the title The Stories of William Trevor in Penguin Books, 1983.
Page 1263 constitutes an extension of this copyright page.
(CIP data available)
ISBN 0-670-84129-3 (hc.)
ISBN 0 14 02.3245 1 (pbk.)
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A Meeting in Middle Age
Access to the Children
The General’s Day
Memories of Youghal
A School Story
The Penthouse Apartment
In at the Birth
The Introspections of J.P. Powers
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake
The Hotel of the Idle Moon
Nice Day at School
The Original Sins of Edward Tripp
The Forty-seventh Saturday
The Ballroom of Romance
A Happy Family
The Grass Widows
The Mark-2 Wife
An Evening with John Joe Dempsey
A Choice of Butchers
O Fat White Woman
Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch
The Distant Past
Angels at the Ritz
The Death of Peggy Meehan
A Complicated Nature
Mrs Acland’s Ghosts
Matilda’s England1. The Tennis Court2. The Summer-house3. The Drawing-room
Death in Jerusalem
Lovers of Their Time
The Raising of Elvira Tremlett
Flights of Fancy
A Dream of Butterflies
The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs Vansittart
Downstairs at Fitzgerald’s
Beyond the Pale
The Blue Dress
The Teddy-bears’ Picnic
The Time of Year
Being Stolen From
The Paradise Lounge
The News from Ireland
On the Zattere
The Wedding in the Garden
Lunch in Winter
The Property of Colette Nervi
Cocktails at Doney’s
Her Mother’s Daughter
Two More Gallants
The Smoke Trees of San Pietro
Events at Drimaghleen
The Third Party
Honeymoon in Tramore
In Love with Ariadne
A Husband’s Return
Coffee with Oliver
Children of the Headmaster
A Meeting in Middle Age
‘I am Mrs da Tanka,’ said Mrs da Tanka. ‘Are you Mr Mileson?’
The man nodded, and they walked together the length of the platform, seeking a compartment that might offer them a welcome, or failing that, and they knew the more likely, simple privacy. They carried each a small suitcase, Mrs da Tanka’s of white leather or some material manufactured to resemble it, Mr Mileson’s battered and black. They did not speak as they marched purposefully: they were strangers one to another, and in the noise and the bustle, examining the lighted windows of the carriages, there was little that might constructively be said.
‘A ninety-nine years’ lease,’ Mr Mileson’s father had said, ‘taken out in 1862 by my grandfather, whom of course you never knew. Expiring in your lifetime, I fear. Yet you will by then be in a sound position to accept the misfortune. To renew what has come to an end; to keep the property in the family.’ The property was an expression that glorified. The house was small and useful, one of a row, one of a kind easily found; hut the lease when the time came was not renewable – which released Mr Mileson of a problem. Bachelor, childless, the end of the line, what use was a house to him for a further ninety-nine years?
Mrs da Tanka, sitting opposite him, drew a magazine from an assortment she carried. Then, checking herself, said: ‘We could talk. Or do you prefer to conduct the business in silence?’ She was a woman who filled, but did not overflow from, a fair-sized, elegant, quite expensive tweed suit. Her hair, which was grey, did not appear so; it was tightly held to her head, a reddish-gold colour. Born into another class she would have been a chirpy woman; she guarded against her chirpiness, she disliked the quality in her. There was often laughter in her eyes, and as often as she felt it there she killed it by the severity of her manner.
‘You must not feel embarrassment,’ Mrs da Tanka said. ‘We are beyond the age of giving in to awkwardness in a situation. You surely agree?’
Mr Mileson did not know. He did not know how or what he should feel. Analysing his feelings he could come to no conclusion. He supposed he was excited but it was more difficult than it seemed to track down the emotions. He was unable, therefore, to answer Mrs da Tanka. So he just smiled.
Mrs da Tanka, who had once been Mrs Horace Spire and was not likely to forget it, considered those days. It was a logical thing for her to do, for they were days that had come to an end as these present days were coming to an end. Termination was on her mind: to escape from Mrs da Tanka into Mrs Spire was a way of softening the worry that was with her now, and a way of seeing it in proportion to a lifetime.
‘If that is what you want,’ Horace had said, ‘then by all means have it. Who shall do the dirty work – you or I?’ This was his reply to her request for a divorce. In fact, at the time of speaking, the dirty work as he called it was already done: by both of them.
‘It is a shock for me,’ Horace had continued. ‘I thought we could jangle along for many a day. Are you seriously involved elsewhere?’
In fact she was not, but finding herself involved at all reflected the inadequacy of her married life and revealed a vacuum that once had been love.
‘We are better apart,’ she had said. ‘It is bad to get used to the habit of being together. We must take our chances while we may, while there is still time.’
In the railway carriage she recalled the conversation with vividness, especially that last sentence, most especially the last five words of it. The chance she had taken was da Tanka, eight years ago. ‘My God,’ she said aloud, ‘what a pompous bastard he turned out to be.’
Mr Mileson had a couple of those weekly publications for which there is no accurate term in the language: a touch of a single colour on the front – floppy, half-intellectual things, somewhere between a journal and a magazine. While she had her honest mags. Harper’s. Vogue. Shiny and smart and rather silly. Or so thought Mr Mileson. He had opened them at dentists’ and doctors’, leafed his way through the ridiculous advertisements and aptly titled model girls, unreal girls in unreal poses, devoid it seemed of sex, and half the time of life. So that was the kind of woman she was.
‘Who?’ said Mr Mileson.
‘Oh, who else, good heavens! Da Tanka I mean.’
Eight years of da Tanka’s broad back, so fat it might have been padded beneath the skin. He had often presented it to her.
‘I shall be telling you about da Tanka,’ she said. ‘There are interesting facets to the man; though God knows, he is scarcely interesting in himself.’
It was a worry, in any case, owning a house. Seeing to the roof; noticing the paint cracking on the outside, and thinking about damp in mysterious places. Better off he was, in the room in Swiss Cottage; cosier in winter. They’d pulled down the old house by now, with all the others in the road. Flats were there instead: bulking up to the sky, with a million or so windows. All the gardens were gone, all the gnomes and the Snow White dwarfs, all the winter bulbs and the little paths of crazy paving; the bird-baths and bird-boxes and bird-tables; the miniature sandpits, and the metal edging, ornate, for flower-beds.
‘We must move with the times,’ said Mrs da Tanka, and he realized that he had been speaking to her; or speaking aloud and projecting the remarks in her direction since she was there.
His mother had made the rockery. Aubrietia and sarsaparilla and pinks and Christmas roses. Her brother, his uncle Edward, bearded and queer, brought seaside stones in his motor-car. His father had shrugged his distaste for the project, as indeed for all projects of this nature, seeing the removal of stones from the seashore as being in some way disgraceful, even dishonest. Behind the rockery there were loganberries: thick, coarse, inedible fruit, never fully ripe. But nobody, certainly not Mr Mileson, had had the heart to pull away the bushes.
‘Weeks would pass,’ said Mrs da Tanka, ‘without the exchange of a single significant sentence. We lived in the same house, ate the same meals, drove out in the same car, and all he would ever say was: “It is time the central heating was on.” Or: “These windscreen-wipers aren’t working.’ ”
Mr Mileson didn’t know whether she was talking about Mr da Tanka or Mr Spire. They seemed like the same man to him: shadowy, silent fellows who over the years had shared this woman with the well-tended hands.
‘He will be wearing city clothes,’ her friend had said, ‘grey or nondescript. He is like anyone else except for his hat, which is big and black and eccentric’ An odd thing about him, the hat: like a wild oat almost.
There he had been, by the tobacco kiosk, punctual and expectant; gaunt of face, thin, fiftyish; with the old-fashioned hat and the weekly papers that somehow matched it, but did not match him.
‘Now would you blame me, Mr Mileson? Would you blame me for seeking freedom from such a man?’
The hat lay now on the luggage-rack with his carefully folded overcoat. A lot of his head was bald, whitish and tender like good dripping. His eyes were sad, like those of a retriever puppy she had known in her childhood. Men are often like dogs, she thought; women more akin to cats. The train moved smoothly, with rhythm, through the night. She thought of da Tanka and Horace Spire, wondering where Spire was now. Opposite her, he thought about the ninety-nine-year lease and the two plates, one from last night’s supper, the other from breakfast, that he had left unwashed in the room at Swiss Cottage.
‘This seems your kind of place,’ Mr Mileson said, surveying the hotel from its ornate hall.
‘Gin and lemon, gin and lemon,’ said Mrs da Tanka, matching the words with action: striding to the bar.
Mr Mileson had rum, feeling it a more suitable drink, though he could not think why. ‘My father drank rum with milk in it. An odd concoction.’
‘Frightful, it sounds. Da Tanka is a whisky man. My previous liked stout. Well, well, so here we are.’
Mr Mileson looked at her. ‘Dinner is next on the agenda.’
But Mrs da Tanka was not to be moved. They sat while she drank many measures of the drink; and when they rose to demand dinner they discovered that the restaurant was closed and were ushered to a grill-room.
‘You organized that badly, Mr Mileson.’
‘I organized nothing. I know the rules of these places. I repeated them to you. You gave me no chance to organize.’
‘A chop and an egg or something. Da Tanka at least could have got us soup.’
In 1931 Mr Mileson had committed fornication with the maid in his parents’ house. It was the only occasion, and he was glad that adultery was not expected of him with Mrs da Tanka. In it she would be more experienced than he, and he did not relish the implication. The grill-room was lush and vulgar. ‘This seems your kind of place,’ Mr Mileson repeated rudely.
‘At least it is warm. And the lights don’t glare. Why not order some wine?’
Her husband must remain innocent. He was a person of importance, in the public eye. Mr Mileson’s friend had repeated it, the friend who knew Mrs da Tanka’s solicitor. All expenses paid, the friend had said, and a little fee as well. Nowadays Mr Mileson could do with little fees. And though at the time he had rejected the suggestion downright, he had later seen that friend – acquaintance really – in the pub he went to at half past twelve on Sundays, and had agreed to take part in the drama. It wasn’t just the little fee; there was something rather like prestige in the thing; his name as co-respondent – now there was something you’d never have guessed! The hotel bill to find its way to Mrs da Tanka’s husband, who would pass it to his solicitor. Breakfast in bed, and remember the face of the maid who brought it. Pass the time of day with her, and make sure she remembered yours. Oh very nice, the man in the pub said, very nice Mrs da Tanka was – or so he was led to believe. He batted his eyes at Mr Mileson; but Mr Mileson said it didn’t matter, surely, about Mrs da Tanka’s niceness. He knew his duties: there was nothing personal about them. He’d do it himself, the man in the pub explained, only he’d never be able to keep his hands off an attractive middle-aged woman. That was the trouble about finding someone for the job.
‘I’ve had a hard life,’ Mrs da Tanka confided. ‘Tonight I need your sympathy, Mr Mileson. Tell me I have your sympathy.’ Her face and neck had reddened: chirpiness was breaking through.
In the house, in a cupboard beneath the stairs, he had kept his gardening boots. Big, heavy army boots, once his father’s. He had worn them at weekends, poking about in the garden.
‘The lease came to an end two years ago,’ he told Mrs da Tanka. ‘There I was with all that stuff, all my gardening tools, and the furniture and bric-à-brac of three generations to dispose of. I can tell you it wasn’t easy to know what to throw away.’
‘Mr Mileson, I don’t like that waiter.’
Mr Mileson cut his steak with care: a three-cornered piece, neat and succulent. He loaded mushroom and mustard on it, added a sliver of potato and carried the lot to his mouth. He masticated and drank some wine.
‘Do you know the waiter?’
Mrs da Tanka laughed unpleasantly; like ice cracking. ‘Why should I know the waiter? I do not generally know waiters. Do you know the waiter?’
‘I ask because you claim to dislike him.’
‘May I not dislike him without an intimate knowledge of the man?’
‘You may do as you please. It struck me as a premature decision, that is all.’
‘What decision? What is premature? What are you talking about? Are you drunk?’
‘The decision to dislike the waiter I thought to be premature. I do not know about being drunk. Probably I am a little. One has to keep one’s spirits up.’
‘Have you ever thought of wearing an eye-patch, Mr Mileson? I think it would suit you. You need distinction. Have you led an empty life? You give the impression of an empty life.’
‘My life has been as many other lives. Empty of some things, full of others. I am in possession of all my sight, though. My eyes are real. Neither is a pretence. I see no call for an eye-patch.’
‘It strikes me you see no call for anything. You have never lived, Mr Mileson.’
‘I do not understand that.’
‘Order us more wine.’
Mr Mileson indicated with his hand and the waiter approached. ‘Some other waiter, please,’ Mrs da Tanka cried. ‘May we be served by another waiter?’
‘Madam?’ said the waiter.
‘We do not take to you. Will you send another man to our table?’
‘I am the only waiter on duty, madam.’
‘It’s quite all right,’ said Mr Mileson.
‘It’s not quite all right. I will not have this man at our table, opening and dispensing wine.’
‘Then we must go without.’
‘I am the only waiter on duty, madam.’
‘There are other employees of the hotel. Send us a porter or the girl at the reception.’
‘It is not their duty, madam –’
‘Oh nonsense, nonsense. Bring us the wine, man, and have no more to-do.’
Unruffled, the waiter moved away. Mrs da Tanka hummed a popular tune.
‘Are you married, Mr Mileson? Have you in the past been married?’
‘No, never married.’
‘I have been married twice. I am married now. I am throwing the dice for the last time. God knows how I shall find myself. You are helping to shape my destiny. What a fuss that waiter made about the wine!’
‘That is a little unfair. It was you, you know –’
‘Behave like a gentleman, can’t you? Be on my side since you are with me. Why must you turn on me? Have I harmed you?’
‘No, no. I was merely establishing the truth.’
‘Here is the man again with the wine. He is like a bird. Do you think he has wings strapped down beneath his waiter’s clothes? You are like a bird,’ she repeated, examining the waiter’s face. ‘Has some fowl played a part in your ancestry?’
‘I think not, madam.’
‘Though you cannot be sure. How can you be sure? How can you say you think not when you know nothing about it?’
The waiter poured the wine in silence. He was not embarrassed, Mr Mileson noted; not even angry.
‘Bring coffee,’ Mrs da Tanka said.
‘How servile waiters are! How I hate servility, Mr Mileson! I could not marry a servile man. I could not marry that waiter, not for all the tea in China.’
‘I did not imagine you could. The waiter does not seem your sort.’
‘He is your sort. You like him, I think. Shall I leave you to converse with him?’
‘Really! What would I say to him? I know nothing about the waiter except what he is in a professional sense. I do not wish to know. It is not my habit to go about consorting with waiters after they have waited on me.’
‘I am not to know that. I am not to know what your sort is, or what your personal and private habits are. How could I know? We have only just met.’
‘You are clouding the issue.’
‘You are as pompous as da Tanka. Da Tanka would say issue and clouding.’
‘What your husband would say is no concern of mine.’
‘You are meant to be my lover, Mr Mileson. Can’t you act it a bit? My husband must concern you dearly. You must wish to tear him limb from limb. Do you wish it?’
‘I have never met the man. I know nothing of him.’
‘Well then, pretend. Pretend for the waiter’s sake. Say something violent in the waiter’s hearing. Break an oath. Blaspheme. Bang your fist on the table.’
‘I was not told I should have to behave like that. It is against my nature.’
‘What is your nature?’
‘I’m shy and self-effacing.’
‘You are an enemy to me. I don’t understand your sort. You have not got on in the world. You take on commissions like this. Where is your self-respect?’
‘Elsewhere in my character.’
‘You have no personality.’
‘That is a cliché. It means nothing.’
‘Sweet nothings for lovers, Mr Mileson! Remember that.’
They left the grill-room and mounted the stairs in silence. In their bedroom Mrs da Tanka unpacked a dressing-gown. ‘I shall undress in the bathroom. I shall be absent a matter often minutes.’
Mr Mileson slipped from his clothes into pyjamas. He brushed his teeth at the wash-basin, cleaned his nails and splashed a little water on his face. When Mrs da Tanka returned he was in bed.
To Mr Mileson she seemed a trifle bigger without her daytime clothes. He remembered corsets and other containing garments. He did not remark upon it.
Mrs da Tanka turned out the light and they lay without touching between the cold sheets of the double bed.
He would leave little behind, he thought. He would die and there would be the things in the room, rather a number of useless things with sentimental value only. Ornaments and ferns. Reproductions of paintings. A set of eggs, birds’ eggs he had collected as a boy. They would pile all the junk together and probably try to burn it. Then perhaps they would light a couple of those fumigating candles in the room, because people are insulting when other people die.
‘Why did you not get married?’ Mrs da Tanka said.
‘Because I do not greatly care for women.’ He said it, throwing caution to the winds, waiting for her attack.
‘Are you a homosexual?’
The word shocked him. ‘Of course I’m not.’
‘I only asked. They go in for this kind of thing.’
‘That does not make me one.’
‘I often thought Horace Spire was more that way than any other. For all the attention he paid to me.’
As a child she had lived in Shropshire. In those days she loved the country, though without knowing, or wishing to know, the names of flowers or plants or trees. People said she looked like Alice in Wonderland.
‘Have you ever been to Shropshire, Mr Mileson?’
‘No. I am very much a Londoner. I lived in the same house all my life. Now the house is no longer there. Flats replace it. I live in Swiss Cottage.’
‘I thought you might. I thought you might live in Swiss Cottage.’
‘Now and again I miss the garden. As a child I collected birds’ eggs on the common. I have kept them all these years.’
She had kept nothing. She cut the past off every so often, remembering it when she cared to, without the aid of physical evidence.
‘The hard facts of life have taken their toll of me,’ said Mrs da Tanka. ‘I met them first at twenty. They have been my companions since.’
‘It was a hard fact the lease coming to an end. It was hard to take at the time. I did not accept it until it was well upon me. Only the spring before I had planted new delphiniums.’
‘My father told me to marry a good man. To be happy and have children. Then he died. I did none of those things. I do not know why except that I did not care to. Then old Horry Spire put his arm around me and there we were. Life is as you make it, I suppose. I was thinking of homosexual in relation to that waiter you were interested in downstairs.’
‘I was not interested in the waiter. He was hard done by, by you, I thought. There was no more to it than that.’
Mrs da Tanka smoked and Mr Mileson was nervous; about the situation in general, about the glow of the cigarette in the darkness. What if the woman dropped off to sleep? He had heard of fires started by careless smoking. What if in her confusion she crushed the cigarette against some part of his body? Sleep was impossible: one cannot sleep with the thought of waking up in a furnace, with the bells of fire brigades clanging a death knell.
‘I will not sleep tonight,’ said Mrs da Tanka, a statement which frightened Mr Mileson further. For all the dark hours the awful woman would be there, twitching and puffing beside him. I am mad. I am out of my mind to have brought this upon myself. He heard the words. He saw them on paper, written in his handwriting. He saw them typed, and repeated again as on a telegram. The letters jolted and lost their order. The words were confused, skulking behind a fog. ‘I am mad,’ Mr Mileson said, to establish the thought completely, to bring it into the open. It was a habit of his; for a moment he had forgotten the reason for the thought, thinking himself alone.
‘Are you telling me now you are mad?’ asked Mrs da Tanka, alarmed. ‘Gracious, are you worse than a homo? Are you some sexual pervert? Is that what you are doing here? Certainly that was not my plan, I do assure you. You have nothing to gain from me, Mr Mileson. If there is trouble I shall ring the bell.’
‘I am mad to be here. I am mad to have agreed to all this. What came over me I do not know. I have only just realized the folly of the thing.’
‘Arise then, dear Mileson, and break your agreement, your promise and your undertaking. You are an adult man, you may dress and walk from the room.’
They were all the same, she concluded: except that while others had some passing superficial recommendation, this one it seemed had none. There was something that made her sick about the thought of the stringy limbs that were stretched out beside her. What lengths a woman will go to to rid herself of a horror like da Tanka!
He had imagined it would be a simple thing. It had sounded like a simple thing: a good thing rather than a bad one. A good turn for a lady in need. That was as he had seen it. With the little fee already in his possession.
Mrs da Tanka lit another cigarette and threw the match on the floor.
‘What kind of a life have you had? You had not the nerve for marriage. Nor the brains for success. The truth is you might not have lived.’ She laughed in the darkness, determined to hurt him as he had hurt her in his implication that being with her was an act of madness.
Mr Mileson had not before done a thing like this. Never before had he not weighed the pros and cons and seen that danger was absent from an undertaking. The thought of it all made him sweat. He saw in the future further deeds: worse deeds, crimes and irresponsibilities.
Mrs da Tanka laughed again. But she was thinking of something else.
‘You have never slept with a woman, is that it? Ah, you poor thing! What a lot you have not had the courage for!’ The bed heaved with the raucous noise that was her laughter, and the bright spark of her cigarette bobbed about in the air.
She laughed, quietly now and silently, hating him as she hated da Tanka and had hated Horace Spire. Why could he not be some young man, beautiful and nicely mannered and gay? Surely a young man would have come with her? Surely there was one amongst all the millions who would have done the chore with relish, or at least with charm?
‘You are as God made you,’ said Mr Mileson. ‘You cannot help your shortcomings, though one would think you might by now have recognized them. To others you may be all sorts of things. To me you are a frightful woman.’
‘Would you not stretch out a hand to the frightful woman? Is there no temptation for the woman’s flesh? Are you a eunuch, Mr Mileson?’
‘I have had the women I wanted. I am doing you a favour. Hearing of your predicament and pressed to help you, I agreed in a moment of generosity. Stranger though you were I did not say no.’
‘That does not make you a gentleman.’
‘And I do not claim it does. I am gentleman enough without it.’
‘You are nothing without it. This is your sole experience. In all your clerkly subservience you have not paused to live. You know I am right, and as for being a gentleman – well, you are of the lower middle classes. There has never been an English gentleman born of the lower middle classes.’
She was trying to remember what she looked like; what her face was like, how the wrinkles were spread, how old she looked and what she might pass for in a crowd. Would men not be cagey now and think that she must be difficult in her ways to have parted twice from husbands? Was there a third time coming up? Third time lucky, she thought. Who would have her, though, except some loveless Mileson?
‘You have had no better life than I,’ said Mr Mileson. ‘You are no more happy now. You have failed, and it is cruel to laugh at you.’
They talked and the hatred grew between them.
‘In my childhood young men flocked about me, at dances in Shropshire that my father gave to celebrate my beauty. Had the fashion been duels, duels there would have been. Men killed or maimed for life, carrying a lock of my hair on their breast.’
‘You are a creature now, with your face and your fingernails. Mutton dressed as lamb, Mrs da Tanka!’
Beyond the curtained windows the light of dawn broke into the night. A glimpse of it crept into the room, noticed and welcomed by its occupants.
‘You should write your memoirs, Mr Mileson. To have seen the changes in your time and never to know a thing about them! You are like an occasional table. Or a coat-rack in the hall of a boarding-house. Who shall mourn at your grave, Mr Mileson?’
He felt her eyes upon him; and the mockery of the words sank into his heart with intended precision. He turned to her and touched her, his hands groping about her shoulders. He had meant to grasp her neck, to feel the muscles struggle beneath his fingers, to terrify the life out of her. But she, thinking the gesture was the beginning of an embrace, pushed him away, swearing at him and laughing. Surprised by the misunderstanding, he left her alone.
The train was slow. The stations crawled by, similar and ugly. She fixed her glance on him, her eyes sharpened; cold and powerful.
She had won the battle, though technically the victory was his. Long before the time arranged for their breakfast Mr Mileson had leaped from bed. He dressed and breakfasted alone in the dining-room. Shortly afterwards, after sending to the bedroom for his suitcase, he left the hotel, informing the receptionist that the lady would pay the bill. Which in time she had done, and afterwards pursued him to the train, where now, to disconcert him, she sat in the facing seat of an empty compartment.
‘Well,’ said Mrs da Tanka, ‘you have shot your bolt. You have taken the only miserable action you could. You have put the frightful woman in her place. Have we a right,’ she added, ‘to expect anything better of the English lower classes?’
Mr Mileson had foolishly left his weekly magazines and the daily paper at the hotel. He was obliged to sit bare-faced before her, pretending to observe the drifting landscape. In spite of everything, guilt gnawed him a bit. When he was back in his room he would borrow the vacuum cleaner and give it a good going over: the exercise would calm him. A glass of beer in the pub before lunch; lunch in the ABC; perhaps an afternoon cinema. It was Saturday today: this, more or less, was how he usually spent Saturday. Probably from lack of sleep he would doze off in the cinema. People would nudge him to draw attention to his snoring; that had happened before, and was not pleasant.
‘To give you birth,’ she said, ‘your mother had long hours of pain. Have you thought of that, Mr Mileson? Have you thoughts of that poor woman crying out, clenching her hands and twisting the sheets? Was it worth it, Mr Mileson? You tell me now, was it worth it?’
He could leave the compartment and sit with other people. But that would be too great a satisfaction for Mrs da Tanka. She would laugh loudly at his going, might even pursue him to mock in public.
‘What you say about me, Mrs da Tanka, can equally be said of you.’
‘Are we two peas in a pod? It’s an explosive pod in that case.’
‘I did not imply that. I would not wish to find myself sharing a pod with you.’
‘Yet you shared a bed. And were not man enough to stick to your word. You are a worthless coward, Mr Mileson. I expect you know it.’
‘I know myself, which is more than can be said in your case. Do you not think occasionally to see yourself as others see you? An ageing woman, faded and ugly, dubious in morals and personal habits. What misery you must have caused those husbands!’
‘They married me, and got good value. You know that, yet dare not admit it.’
‘I will scarcely lose sleep worrying the matter out.’
It was a cold morning, sunny with a clear sky. Passengers stepping from the train at the intermediate stations muffled up against the temperature, finding it too much after the warm fug within. Women with baskets. Youths. Men with children, with dogs collected from the guard’s van.
Da Tanka, she had heard, was living with another woman. Yet he refused to admit being the guilty party. It would not do for someone like da Tanka to be a public adulterer. So he had said. Pompously. Crossly. Horace Spire, to give him his due, hadn’t given a damn one way or the other.
‘When you die, Mr Mileson, have you a preference for the flowers on your coffin? It is a question I ask because I might send you off a wreath. That lonely wreath. From ugly, frightful Mrs da Tanka.’
‘What?’ said Mr Mileson, and she repeated the question.
‘Oh well – cow-parsley, I suppose.’ He said it, taken off his guard by the image she created; because it was an image he often saw and thought about. Hearse and coffin and he within. It would not be like that probably. Anticipation was not in Mr Mileson’s life. Remembering, looking back, considering events and emotions that had been at the time mundane perhaps – this kind of thing was more to his liking. For by hindsight there was pleasure in the stream of time. He could not establish his funeral in his mind; he tried often but ended up always with a funeral he had known: a repetition of his parents’ passing and the accompanying convention.
‘Cow-parsley?’ said Mrs da Tanka. Why did the man say cow-parsley? Why not roses or lilies or something in a pot? There had been cow-parsley in Shropshire; cow-parsley on the verges of dusty lanes; cow-parsley in hot fields buzzing with bees; great white swards rolling down to the river. She had sat among it on a picnic with dolls. She had lain on it, laughing at the beautiful anaemic blue of the sky. She had walked through it by night, loving it.
‘Why did you say cow-parsley?’
He did not know, except that once on a rare family outing to the country he had seen it and remembered it. Yet in his garden he had grown delphiniums and wallflowers and asters and sweet-peas.
She could smell it again: a smell that was almost nothing: fields and the heat of the sun on her face, laziness and summer. There was a red door somewhere, faded and blistered, and she sat against it, crouched on a warm step, a child dressed in the fashion of the time.
‘Why did you say cow-parsley?’
He remembered, that day, asking the name of the white powdery growth. He had picked some and carried it home; and had often since thought of it, though he had not come across a field of cow-parsley for years.
She tried to speak again, but after the night there were no words she could find that would fit. The silence stuck between them, and Mr Mileson knew by instinct all that it contained. She saw an image of herself and him, strolling together from the hotel, in this same sunshine, at this very moment, lingering on the pavement to decide their direction and agreeing to walk to the promenade. She mouthed and grimaced and the sweat broke on her body, and she looked at him once and saw words die on his lips, lost in his suspicion of her.
The train stopped for the last time. Doors banged; the throng of people passed them by on the platform outside. They collected their belongings and left the train together. A porter, interested in her legs, watched them walk down the platform. They passed through the barrier and parted, moving in their particular directions. She to her new flat where milk and mail, she hoped, awaited her. He to his room; to the two unwashed plates on the draining board and the forks with egg on the prongs; and the little fee propped up on the mantelpiece, a pink cheque for five pounds, peeping out from behind a china cat.
Access to the Children
Malcolmson, a fair, tallish man in a green tweed suit that required pressing, banged the driver’s door of his ten-year-old Volvo and walked quickly away from the car, jangling the keys. He entered a block of flats that was titled – gold engraved letters on a granite slab – The Quadrant.
It was a Sunday afternoon in late October. Yellow-brown leaves patterned grass that was not for walking on. Some scurried on the steps that led to the building’s glass entrance doors. Rain was about, Malcolmson considered.
At three o’clock precisely he rang the bell of his ex-wife’s flat on the third floor. In response he heard at once the voices of his children and the sound of their running in the hall. ‘Hullo,’ he said when one of them, Deirdre, opened the door. ‘Ready?’
They went with him, two little girls, Deirdre seven and Susie five. In the lift they told him that a foreign person, the day before, had been trapped in the lift from eleven o’clock in the morning until teatime. Food and cups of tea had been poked through a grating to this person, a Japanese businessman who occupied a flat at the top of the block. ‘He didn’t get the hang of an English lift,’ said Deirdre. ‘He could have died there,’ said Susie.
In the Volvo he asked them if they’d like to go to the Zoo and they shook their heads firmly. On the last two Sundays he’d taken them to the Zoo, Susie reminded him in her specially polite, very quiet voice: you got tired of the Zoo, walking round and round, looking at all the same animals. She smiled at him to show she wasn’t being ungrateful. She suggested that in a little while, after a month or so, they could go to the Zoo again, because there might be some new animals. Deirdre said that there wouldn’t be, not after a month or so: why should there be? ‘Some old animals might have died,’ said Susie.
Malcolmson drove down the Edgware Road, with Hyde Park in mind.
‘What have you done?’ he asked.
‘Only school,’ said Susie.
‘And the news cinema,’ said Deirdre. ‘Mummy took us to a news cinema. We saw a film about how they make wire.’
‘A man kept talking to Mummy. He said she had nice hair.’
‘The usherette told him to be quiet. He bought us ice-creams, but Mummy said we couldn’t accept them.’
‘He wanted to take Mummy to a dance.’
‘We had to move to other seats.’
‘What else have you done?’
‘Only school,’ said Susie. ‘A boy was sick on Miss Bawden’s desk.’
‘After school stew.’
‘It’s raining,’ said Susie.
He turned the windscreen-wipers on. He wondered if he should simply bring the girls to his flat and spend the afternoon watching television. He tried to remember what the Sunday film was. There often was something suitable for children on Sunday afternoons, old films with Deanna Durbin or Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
‘Where’re we going?’ Susie asked.
‘Where d’you want to go?’
‘A Hundred and One Dalmatians.’
‘Oh, please,’ said Susie.
‘But we’ve seen it. We’ve seen it five times.’
He stopped the Volvo and bought a What’s On. While he leafed through it they sat quietly, willing him to discover a cinema, anywhere in London, that was showing the film. He shook his head and started the Volvo again.
‘Nothing else?’ Deirdre asked.
At Speakers’ Corner they listened to a Jehovah’s Witness and then to a woman talking about vivisection. ‘How horrid,’ said Deirdre. ‘Is that true, Daddy?’ He made a face. ‘I suppose so,’ he said.
In the drizzle they played a game among the trees, hiding and chasing one another. Once when they’d been playing this game a woman had brought a policeman up to him. She’d seen him approaching the girls, she said; the girls had been playing alone and he’d joined in. ‘He’s our daddy,’ Susie had said, but the woman had still argued, claiming that he’d given them sweets so that they’d say that. ‘Look at him,’ the woman had insultingly said. ‘He needs a shave.’ Then she’d gone away, and the policeman had apologized.
‘The boy who was sick was Nicholas Barnet,’ Susie said. ‘I think he could have died.’
A year and a half ago Malcolmson’s wife, Elizabeth, had said he must choose between her and Diana. For weeks they had talked about it; she knowing that he was in love with Diana and was having some kind of an affair with her, he caught between the two of them, attempting the impossible in his effort not to hurt anyone. She had given him a chance to get over Diana, as she put it, but she couldn’t go on for ever giving him a chance, no woman could. In the end, after the shock and the tears and the period of reasonableness, she became bitter. He didn’t blame her: they’d been in the middle of a happy marriage, nothing was wrong, nothing was lacking.
He’d met Diana on a train; he’d sat with her, talking for a long time, and after that his marriage didn’t seem the same. In her bitterness Elizabeth said he was stupidly infatuated: he was behaving like a murderer: there was neither dignity nor humanity left in him. Diana she described as a flat-chested American nymphomaniac and predator, the worst type of woman in the world. She was beautiful herself, more beautiful than Diana, more gracious, warmer, and funnier: there was a sting of truth in what she said; he couldn’t understand himself. In the very end, after they’d been morosely drinking gin and lime-juice, she’d suddenly shouted at him that he’d better pack his bags. He sat unhappily, gazing at the green bottle of Gordon’s gin on the carpet between his chair and hers. She screamed; tears poured in a torrent from her eyes. ‘For God’s sake go away!’ she cried, on her feet, turning away from him. She shook her head in a wild gesture, causing her long fair hair to move like a horse’s mane. Her hands, clenched into fists, beat at his cheeks, making bruises that Diana afterwards tended.
For months-after that he saw neither Elizabeth nor his children. He tried not to think about them. He and Diana took a flat in Barnes, near the river, and in time he became used to the absence of the children’s noise in the mornings, and to Diana’s cooking and her quick efficiency in little things, and the way she always remembered to pass on telephone messages, which was something that Elizabeth had always forgotten to do.
Then one day, a week or so before the divorce was due, Diana said she didn’t think there was anything left between them. It hadn’t worked, she said; nothing was quite right. Amazed and bewildered, he argued with her. He frowned at her, his eyes screwed up as though he couldn’t properly see her. She was very poised, in a black dress, with a necklace at her throat, her hair pulled smooth and neatly tied. She’d met a man called Abbotforth, she said, and she went on talking about that, still standing.
‘We could go to the Natural History Museum,’ Deirdre said.
‘Would you like to, Susie?’
‘Certainly not,’ said Susie.
They were sitting on a bench, watching a bird that Susie said was a yellow-hammer. Deirdre disagreed: at this time of year, she said, there were no yellow-hammers in England, she’d read it in a book. ‘It’s a little baby yellow-hammer,’ said Susie. ‘Miss Bawden said you see lots of them.’
The bird flew away. A man in a raincoat was approaching them, singing quietly. They began to giggle. ‘Sure, maybe some day I’ll go back to Ireland,’ sang the man, ‘if it’s only at the closing of my day.’ He stopped, noticing that they were watching him.
‘Were you ever in Ireland?’ he asked. The girls, still giggling, shook their heads. ‘It’s a great place,’ said the man. He took a bottle of VP wine from his raincoat pocket and drank from it.
‘Would you care for a swig, sir?’ he said to Malcolmson, and Malcolmson thanked him and said he wouldn’t. ‘It would do the little misses no harm,’ suggested the man. ‘It’s good, pure stuff.’ Malcolmson shook his head. ‘I was born in County Clare,’ said the man, ‘in 1928, the year of the Big Strike.’ The girls, red in the face from containing their laughter, poked at one another with their elbows. ‘Aren’t they the great little misses?’ said the man. ‘Aren’t they the fine credit to you, sir?’
In the Volvo on the way to Barnes they kept repeating that he was the funniest man they’d ever met. He was nicer than the man in the news cinema, Susie said. He was quite like him, though, Deirdre maintained: he was looking for company in just the same way, you could see it in his eyes. ‘He was staggering,’ Susie said. ‘I thought he was going to die.’
Before the divorce he had telephoned Elizabeth, telling her that Diana had gone. She hadn’t said anything, and she’d put the receiver down before he could say anything else. Then the divorce came through and the arrangement was that the children should remain with Elizabeth and that he should have reasonable access to them. It was an extraordinary expression, he considered: reasonable access.
The Sunday afternoons had begun then, the ringing of a doorbell that had once been his own doorbell, the children in the hall, the lift, the Volvo, tea in the flat where he and Diana had lived and where now he lived on his own. Sometimes, when he was collecting them, Elizabeth spoke to him, saying in a matter-of-fact way that Susie had a cold and should not be outside too much, or that Deirdre was being bad about practising her clarinet and would he please speak to her. He loved Elizabeth again; he said to himself that he had never not loved her; he wanted to say to her that she’d been right about Diana. But he didn’t say anything, knowing that wounds had to heal.
Every week he longed more for Sunday to arrive. Occasionally he invented reasons for talking to her at the door of the flat, after the children had gone in. He asked questions about their progress at school, he wondered if there were ways in which he could help. It seemed unfair, he said, that she should have to bring them up single-handed like this; he made her promise to telephone him if a difficulty arose; and if ever she wanted to go out in the evenings and couldn’t find a babysitter, he’d willingly drive over. He always hoped that if he talked for long enough the girls would become so noisy in their room that she’d be forced to ask him in so that she could quieten them, but the ploy never worked.
In the lift on the Way down every Sunday evening he thought she was more beautiful than any woman he’d ever seen, and he thought it was amazing that once she should have been his wife and should have borne him children, that once they had lain together and loved, and that he had let her go. Three weeks ago she had smiled at him in a way that was like the old way. He’d been sure of it, positive, in the lift on the way down.
He drove over Hammersmith Bridge, along Castelnau and into Barnes High Street. No one was about on the pavements; buses crept sluggishly through the damp afternoon.
‘Miss Bawden’s got a black boyfriend,’ Susie said, ‘called Eric Mantilla.’
‘You should see Miss Bawden,’ murmured Deirdre. ‘She hasn’t any breasts.’
‘She has lovely breasts,’ shouted Susie, ‘and lovely jumpers and lovely skirts. She has a pair of earrings that once belonged to an Egyptian empress.’
‘Flat as a pancake,’ said Deirdre.
After Diana had gone he’d found it hard to concentrate. The managing director of the firm where he worked, a man with a stout red face called Sir Gerald Travers, had been sympathetic. He’d told him not to worry. Personal troubles, Sir Gerald had said, must naturally affect professional life; no one would be human if that didn’t happen. But six months later, to Malcolmson’s surprise, Sir Gerald had suddenly suggested to him that perhaps it would be better if he made a move. ‘It’s often so,’ Sir Gerald had said, a soft smile gleaming between chubby cheeks. ‘Professional life can be affected by the private side of things. You understand me, Malcolmson?’ They valued him immensely, Sir Gerald said, and they’d be generous when the moment of departure came. A change was a tonic; Sir Gerald advised a little jaunt somewhere.
In reply to all that Malcolmson said that the upset in his private life was now over; nor did he feel, he added, in need of recuperation. ‘You’ll easily find another berth,’ Sir Gerald Travers replied, with a wide, confident smile. ‘I think it would be better.’
Malcolmson had sought about for another job, but had not been immediately successful: there was a recession, people said. Soon it would be better, they added, and because of Sir Gerald’s promised generosity Malcolmson found himself in a position to wait until things seemed brighter. It was always better, in any case, not to seem in a hurry.
He spent the mornings in the Red Lion, in Barnes, playing dominoes with an old-age pensioner, and when the pensioner didn’t turn up owing to bronchial trouble Malcolmson would borrow a newspaper from the landlord. He slept in the afternoons and returned to the Red Lion later. Occasionally when he’d had a few drinks he’d find himself thinking about his children and their mother. He always found it pleasant then, thinking of them with a couple of drinks inside him.
‘It’s The Last of the Mohicans,’ said Deirdre in the flat, and he guessed that she must have looked at the Radio Times earlier in the day. She’d known they’d end up like that, watching television. Were they bored on Sundays? he often wondered.
‘Can’t we have The Golden Shot?’ demanded Susie, and Deirdre pointed out that it wasn’t on yet. He left them watching Randolph Scott and Binnie Barnes, and went to prepare their tea in the kitchen.
On Saturdays he bought meringues and brandy-snaps in Frith’s Patisserie. The elderly assistant smiled at him in a way that made him wonder if she knew what he wanted them for; it occurred to him once that she felt sorry for him. On Sunday mornings, listening to the omnibus edition of The Archers, he made Marmite sandwiches with brown bread and tomato sandwiches with white. They loved sandwiches, which was something he remembered from the past. He remembered parties, Deirdre’s friends sitting around a table, small and silent, eating crisps and cheese puffs and leaving all the cake.
When The Last of the Mohicans came to an end they watched Going for a Song for five minutes before changing the channel for The Golden Shot. Then Deirdre turned the television off and they went to the kitchen to have tea. ‘Wash your hands,’ said Susie, and he heard her add that if a germ got into your food you could easily die. ‘She kept referring to death,’ he would say to Elizabeth when he left them back. ‘D’you think she’s worried about anything?’ He imagined Elizabeth giving the smile she had given three weeks ago and then saying he’d better come in to discuss the matter.
‘Goody,’ said Susie, sitting down.
‘I’d like to marry a man like that man in the park,’ said Deirdre. ‘It’d be much more interesting, married to a bloke like that.’
‘He’d be always drunk.’
‘He wasn’t drunk, Susie. That’s not being drunk.’
‘He was drinking out of a bottle –’
‘He was putting on a bit of flash, drinking out of a bottle and singing his little song. No harm in that, Susie.’
‘I’d like to be married to Daddy.’
‘You couldn’t be married to Daddy.’
‘Well, Richard then.’
‘Ribena, Daddy. Please.’
He poured drops of Ribena into two mugs and filled them up with warm water. He had a definite feeling that today she’d ask him in, both of them pretending a worry over Susie’s obsession with death. They’d sit together while the children splashed about in the bathroom; she’d offer him gin and lime-juice, their favourite drink, a drink known as a Gimlet, as once he’d told her. They’d drink it out of the green glasses they’d bought, years ago, in Italy. The girls would dry themselves and come to say good-night. They’d go to bed. He might tell them a story, or she would. ‘Stay to supper,’ she would say, and while she made risotto he would go to her and kiss her hair.
‘I like his eyes,’ said Susie. ‘One’s higher than another.’
‘It couldn’t be.’
‘He couldn’t see, Susie, if his eyes were like that. Everyone’s eyes are –’
‘He isn’t always drunk like the man in the park.’
‘Who?’ he asked.
‘Richard,’ they said together, and Susie added: ‘Irishmen are always drunk.’
‘Daddy’s an Irishman and Daddy’s not always –’
‘He’s Susie’s boyfriend.’
‘I don’t mind,’ said Susie. ‘I like him.’
‘If he’s there tonight, Susie, you’re not to climb all over him.’
He left the kitchen and in the sitting-room he poured himself some whisky. He sat with the glass cold between his hands, staring at the grey television screen. ‘Sure, maybe some day I’ll go back to Ireland,’ Deirdre sang in the kitchen, and Susie laughed shrilly.
He imagined a dark-haired man, a cheerful man, intelligent and subtle, a man who came often to the flat, whom his children knew well and were already fond of. He imagined him as he had imagined himself ten minutes before, sitting with Elizabeth, drinking Gimlets from the green Italian glasses. ‘Say good-night to Richard,’ Elizabeth would say, and the girls would go to him and kiss him good-night.
‘Who’s Richard?’ he asked, standing in the kitchen doorway.
‘A friend,’ said Deirdre, ‘of Mummy’s.’
‘A nice friend?’
‘I love him,’ said Susie.
He returned to the sitting-room and quickly poured himself more whisky. Both of his hands were shaking. He drank quickly, and then poured and drank some more. On the pale carpet, close to the television set, there was a stain where Diana had spilt a cup of coffee. He hated now this memory of her, he hated her voice when it came back to him, and the memory of her body and her mind. And yet once he had been rendered lunatic with the passion of his love for her. He had loved her more than Elizabeth, and in his madness he had spoilt everything.
‘Wash your hands,’ said Susie, close to him. He hadn’t heard them come into the room. He asked them, mechanically, if they’d had enough to eat. ‘She hasn’t washed her hands,’ Susie said. ‘I washed mine in the sink.’
He turned the television on. It was the girl ventriloquist Shari Lewis, with Lamb Chop and Charley Horse.
Well, he thought under the influence of the whisky, he had had his fling. He had played the pins with a flat-chested American nymphomaniac and predator, and he had lost all there was to lose. Now it was Elizabeth’s turn: why shouldn’t she have, for a time, the dark-haired Richard who took another man’s children on to his knee and kissed them good-night? Wasn’t it better that the score should be even before they all came together again?
He sat on the floor with his daughters on either side of him, his arms about them. In front of him was his glass of whisky. They laughed at Lamb Chop and Charley Horse, and when the programme came to an end and the news came on he didn’t want to let his daughters go. An electric fire glowed cosily. Wind blew the rain against the windows, the autumn evening was dark already.
He turned the television off. He finished the whisky in his glass and poured some more. ‘Shall I tell you,’ he said, ‘about when Mummy and I were married?’
They listened while he did so. He told them about meeting Elizabeth in the first place, at somebody else’s wedding, and of the days they had spent walking about together, and about the wet, cold afternoon on which they’d been married.
‘February the 24th,’ Deirdre said.
‘I’m going to be married in summer-time,’ Susie said, ‘when the roses are out.’
His birthday and Elizabeth’s were on the same day, April 21st. He reminded the girls of that; he told them of the time he and Elizabeth had discovered they shared the date, a date shared also with Hitler and the Queen. They listened quite politely, but somehow didn’t seem much interested.
They watched What’s in a Game? He drank a little more. He wouldn’t be able to drive them back. He’d pretend he couldn’t start the Volvo and then he’d telephone for a taxi. It had happened once before that in a depression he’d begun to drink when they were with him on a Sunday afternoon. They’d been to Madame Tussaud’s and the Planetarium, which Susie had said frightened her. In the flat, just as this time, while they were eating their sandwiches, he’d been overcome with the longing that they should all be together again. He’d begun to drink and in the end, while they watched television, he’d drunk quite a lot. When the time came to go he’d said that he couldn’t find the keys of the Volvo and that they’d have to have a taxi. He’d spent five minutes brushing his teeth so that Elizabeth wouldn’t smell the alcohol when she opened the door. He’d smiled at her with his well-brushed teeth but she, not then being over her bitterness, hadn’t smiled back.
The girls put their coats on. Deirdre drank some Ribena; he had another small tot of whisky. And then, as they were leaving the flat, he suddenly felt he couldn’t go through the farce of walking to the Volvo, putting the girls into it and then pretending he couldn’t start it. ‘I’m tired,’ he said instead. ‘Let’s have a taxi.’
They watched the Penrhyn Male Voice Choir in Songs of Praise while they waited for it to arrive. He poured himself another drink, drank it slowly, and then went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He remembered the time Deirdre had been born, in a maternity home in the country because they’d lived in the country then. Elizabeth had been concerned because she’d thought one of Deirdre’s fingers was bent and had kept showing it to nurses who said they couldn’t see anything the matter. He hadn’t been able to see anything the matter either, nor had the doctor. ‘She’ll never be as beautiful as you,’ he’d said and quite soon after that she’d stopped talking about the finger and had said he was nice to her. Susie had been born at home, very quickly, very easily.
The taxi arrived. ‘Soon be Christmas,’ said the taxi man. ‘You chaps looking forward to Santa Claus?’ They giggled because he had called them chaps. ‘Fifty-six more days,’ said Susie.
He imagined them on Christmas Day, with the dark-haired Richard explaining the rules of a game he’d bought them. He imagined all four of them sitting down at Christmas dinner, and Richard asking the girls which they liked, the white or the brown of the turkey, and then cutting them small slices. He’d have brought, perhaps, champagne, because he was that kind of person. Deirdre would sip from his glass, not liking the taste. Susie would love it.
He counted in his mind: if Richard had been visiting the flat for, say, six weeks already and assuming that his love affair with Elizabeth had begun two weeks before his first visit, that left another four months to go, allowing the affair ran an average course of six months. It would therefore come to an end at the beginning of March. His own affair with Diana had lasted from April until September. ‘Oh darling,’ said Diana, suddenly in his mind, and his own voice replied to her, caressing her with words. He remembered the first time they had made love and the guilt that had hammered at him and the passion there had been between them. He imagined Elizabeth naked in Richard’s naked arms, her eyes open, looking at him, her fingers touching the side of his face, her lips slightly smiling. He reached forward and pulled down the glass shutter. ‘I need cigarettes,’ he said. There’s a pub in Shepherd’s Bush Road, the Laurie Arms.’
He drank two large measures of whisky. He bought cigarettes and lit one, rolling the smoke around in his mouth to disguise the smell of the alcohol. As he returned to the taxi, he slipped on the wet pavement and almost lost his balance. He felt very drunk all of a sudden. Deirdre and Susie were telling the taxi man about the man in Hyde Park.
He was aware that he walked unsteadily when they left the taxi and moved across the forecourt of the block of flats. In the hall, before they got into the lift, he lit another cigarette, rolling the smoke about his mouth. ‘That poor Japanese man,’ said Deirdre.
He rang the bell, and when Elizabeth opened the door the girls turned to him and thanked him. He took the cigarette from his mouth and kissed them. Elizabeth was smiling: if only she’d ask him in and give him a drink he wouldn’t have to worry about the alcohol on his breath. He swore to himself that she was smiling as she’d smiled three weeks ago. ‘Can I come in?’ he asked, unable to keep the words back.
‘In?’ The smile was still there. She was looking at him quite closely. He released the smoke from his mouth. He tried to remember what it was he’d planned to say, and then it came to him.
‘I’m worried about Susie,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘She talked about death all the time.’
‘There’s someone here actually,’ she said, stepping back into the hall. ‘But come in, certainly.’
In the sitting-room she introduced him to Richard who was, as he’d imagined, a dark-haired man. The sitting-room was much the same as it always had been. ‘Have a drink,’ Richard offered.
‘D’you mind if we talk about Susie?’ Elizabeth asked Richard. He said he’d put them to bed if she liked. She nodded. Richard went away.
He stood with the familiar green glass in his hand, gazing at her. He said:
‘I haven’t had gin and lime-juice since –’
‘Yes. Look, I shouldn’t worry about Susie. Children of that age often say odd things, you know –’
‘I don’t mind about Richard, Elizabeth, I think it’s your due. I worked it out in the taxi. It’s the end of October now –’
‘Assuming your affair has been going on already for six weeks –’
He closed one eye, focusing. He felt his body swaying and he said to himself that he must not fall now, that no matter what his body did his feet must remain firm on the carpet. He sipped from the green glass. She wasn’t, he noticed, smiling any more.
‘I’m actually not drunk,’ he said. ‘I’m actually sober. By the time our birthday comes round, Elizabeth, it’ll all be over. On April the 21st we could have family tea.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘The future, Elizabeth. Of you and me and our children.’
‘How much have you had to drink?’
‘We tried to go to A Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it wasn’t on anywhere.’
‘So you drank instead. While the children –’
‘We came here in a taxi-cab. They’ve had their usual tea, they’ve watched a bit of The Last of the Mohicans and a bit of Going for a Song and all of The Golden Shot and The Shari Lewis Show and –’
‘You see them for a few hours and you have to go and get drunk –’
‘I am not drunk, Elizabeth.’
He crossed the room as steadily as he could. He looked aggressively at her. He poured gin and lime-juice. He said:
‘You have a right to your affair with Richard, I recognize that.’
‘I love you, Elizabeth.’
‘You loved Diana.’
‘I have never not loved you. Diana was nothing – nothing, nothing at all.’
‘She broke our marriage up.’
‘I love you, Elizabeth.’
‘Now listen to me –’
‘I live from Sunday to Sunday. We’re a family, Elizabeth; you and me and them. It’s ridiculous, all this. It’s ridiculous making Marmite sandwiches with brown bread and tomato sandwiches with white. It’s ridiculous buying meringues and going five times to A Hundred and One Dalmatians and going up the Post Office Tower until we’re sick of the sight of it, and watching drunks in Hyde Park and poking about at the Zoo –’
‘You have reasonable access –’
‘Reasonable access, my God!’ His voice rose. He felt sweat on his forehead. Reasonable access, he shouted, was utterly no good to him; reasonable access was meaningless and stupid; a day would come when they wouldn’t want to go with him on Sunday afternoons, when there was nowhere left in London that wasn’t an unholy bore. What about reasonable access then?
‘Please be quiet.’
He sat down in the armchair that he had always sat in. She said:
‘You might marry again. And have other children.’
‘I don’t want other children. I have children already. I want us all to live together as we used to –’
‘Please listen to me –’
‘I get a pain in my stomach in the middle of the night. Then I wake up and can’t go back to sleep. The children will grow up and I’ll grow old. I couldn’t begin a whole new thing all over again: I haven’t the courage. Not after Diana. A mistake like that alters everything.’
‘I’m going to marry Richard.’
‘Three weeks ago,’ he said, as though he hadn’t heard her, ‘you smiled at me.’
‘Like you used to, Elizabeth. Before –’
‘You made a mistake,’ she said, softly. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I’m not saying don’t go on with your affair with this man. I’m not saying that, because I think in the circumstances it’d be a cheek. D’you understand me, Elizabeth?’
‘Yes, I do. And I think you and I can be perfectly good friends. I don’t feel sour about it any more: perhaps that’s what you saw in my smile.’
‘Have a six-month affair –’
‘I’m in love with Richard.’
‘That’ll all pass into the atmosphere. It’ll be nothing at all in a year’s time –’
‘I love you, Elizabeth.’
They stood facing one another, not close. His body was still swaying. The liquid in his glass moved gently, slopping to the rim and then settling back again. Her eyes were on his face: it was thinner, she was thinking. Her fingers played with the edge of a cushion on the back of the sofa.
‘On Saturdays,’ he said, ‘I buy the meringues and the brandy-snaps in Frith’s Patisserie. On Sunday morning I make the sandwiches. Then I cook sausages and potatoes for my lunch, and after that I come over here.’
‘Yes, yes –’
‘I look forward all week to Sunday.’
‘The children enjoy their outings, too.’
‘Will you think about it?’
‘About all being together again.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ She turned away from him. ‘I wish you’d go now,’ she said.
‘Will you come out with me on our birthday?’
‘I’ve told you.’ Her voice was loud and angry, her cheeks were flushed. ‘Can’t you understand? I’m going to marry Richard. We’ll be married within a month, when the girls have had time to get to know him a little better. By Christmas we’ll be married.’
He shook his head in a way that annoyed her, seeming in his drunkenness to deny the truth of what she was saying. He tried to light a cigarette; matches dropped to the floor at his feet. He left them there.
It enraged her that he was sitting in an armchair in her flat with his eyelids drooping through drink and an unlighted cigarette in his hand and his matches spilt all over the floor. They were his children, but she wasn’t his wife: he’d destroyed her as a wife, he’d insulted her, he’d left her to bleed and she had called him a murderer.
‘Our birthday,’ he said, smiling at her as though already she had agreed to join him on that day. ‘And Hitler’s and the Queen’s.’
‘On our birthday if I go out with anyone it’ll be Richard.’
‘Our birthday is beyond the time –’
‘For God’s sake, there is no beyond the time. I’m in love with another man –’
‘On our birthday,’ she shouted at him, ‘On the night of our birthday Richard will make love to me in the bed you slept in for nine years. You have access to the children. You can demand no more.’
He bent down and picked up a match. He struck it on the side of the empty box. The cigarette was bent. He lit it with a wobbling flame and dropped the used match on to the carpet. The dark-haired man, he saw, was in the room again. He’d come in, hearing her shouting like that. He was asking her if she was all right. She told him to go away. Her face was hard; bitterness was there again. She said, not looking at him:
‘Everything was so happy. We had a happy marriage. For nine years we had a perfectly happy marriage.’
‘We could –’
Again he shook his head in disagreement. Cigarette ash fell on to the green tweed of his suit. His eyes were narrowed, watching her, seemingly suspicious.
‘We had a happy marriage,’ she repeated, whispering the words, speaking to herself, still not looking at him. ‘You met a woman on a train and that was that: you murdered our marriage. You left me to plead, as I am leaving you to now. You have your Sunday access. There is that legality between us. Nothing more.’
‘Please, Elizabeth –’
‘Oh for God’s sake, stop.’ Her rage was all in her face now. Her lips quivered as though in an effort to hold back words that would not be denied. They came from her, more quietly but with greater bitterness. Her eyes roved over the green tweed suit of the man who once had been her husband, over his thin face and his hair that seemed, that day, not to have been brushed.
‘You’ve gone to seed,’ she said, hating herself for saying that, unable to prevent herself. ‘You’ve gone to seed because you’ve lost your self-respect. I’ve watched you, week by week. The woman you met on a train took her toll of you and now in your seediness you want to creep back. Don’t you know you’re not the man I married?’
‘You didn’t have cigarette burns all over your clothes. You didn’t smell of toothpaste when you should have smelt of drink. You stand there, pathetically, Sunday after Sunday, trying to keep a conversation going. D’you know what I feel?’
‘I love –’
‘I feel sorry for you.’
He shook his head. There was no need to feel sorry for him, he said, remembering suddenly the elderly assistant in Frith’s Patisserie and remembering also, for some reason, the woman in Hyde Park who peculiarly had said that he wasn’t shaved. He looked down at his clothes and saw the burn marks she had mentioned. ‘We think it would be better’, said the voice of Sir Gerald Travers unexpectedly in his mind.
‘I’ll make some coffee,’ said Elizabeth.
She left him. He had been cruel, and then Diana had been cruel, and now Elizabeth was cruel because it was her right and her instinct to be so. He recalled with vividness Diana’s face in those first moments on the train, her eyes looking at him, her voice. ‘You have lost all dignity,’ Elizabeth had whispered, in the darkness, at night. ‘I despise you for that.’ He tried to stand up but found the effort beyond him. He raised the green glass to his lips. His eyes closed and when he opened them again he thought for a drunken moment that he was back in the past, in the middle of his happy marriage. He wiped at his face with a handkerchief.
He saw across the room the bottle of Gordon’s gin so nicely matching the green glasses, and the lime-juice, a lighter shade of green. He made the journey, his legs striking the arms of chairs. There wasn’t much gin in the bottle. He poured it all out; he added lime-juice, and drank it.
In the hall he could hear voices, his children’s voices in the bathroom, Elizabeth and the man speaking quietly in the kitchen. ‘Poor wretch,’ Elizabeth was saying. He left the flat and descended to the ground floor.
The rain was falling heavily. He walked through it, thinking that it was better to go, quietly and without fuss. It would all work out; he knew it; he felt it definitely in his bones. He’d arrive on Sunday, a month or so before their birthday, and something in Elizabeth’s face would tell him that the dark-haired man had gone for ever, as Diana had gone. By then he’d be established again, with better prospects than the red-faced Sir Gerald Travers had ever offered him. On their birthday they’d both apologize to one another, wiping the slate clean: they’d start again. As he crossed the Edgware Road to the public house in which he always spent an hour or so on Sunday nights, he heard his own voice murmuring that it was understandable that she should have taken it out on him, that she should have tried to hurt him by saying he’d gone to seed. Naturally, she’d say a thing like that; who could blame her after all she’d been through? At night in the flat in Barnes he watched television until the programmes closed down. He usually had a few drinks, and as often as not he dropped off to sleep with a cigarette between his fingers: that was how the burns occurred on his clothes.
He nodded to himself as he entered the saloon bar, thinking he’d been wise not to mention any of that to Elizabeth. It would only have annoyed her, having to listen to a lot of stuff about late-night television and cigarettes. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, he thought, Thursday, Friday. On Saturday he’d buy the meringues and brandy-snaps, and then it would be Sunday. He’d make the sandwiches listening to The Archers, and at three o’clock he’d ring the bell of the flat. He smiled in the saloon bar, thinking of that, seeing in his mind the faces of his children and the beautiful face of their mother. He’d planted an idea in Elizabeth’s mind and even though she’d been a bit shirty she’d see when she thought about it that it was what she wanted, too.
He went on drinking gin and lime-juice, quietly laughing over being so upset when the children had first mentioned the dark-haired man who took them on to his knee. Gin and lime-juice was a Gimlet, he told the barmaid. She smiled at him. He was celebrating, he said, a day that was to come. It was ridiculous, he told her, that a woman casually met on a train should have created havoc, that now, at the end of it all, he should week by week butter bread for Marmite and tomato sandwiches. ‘D’you understand me?’ he drunkenly asked the barmaid. ‘It’s too ridiculous to be true – that man will go because none of it makes sense the way it is.’ The barmaid smiled again and nodded. He bought her a glass of beer, which was something he did every Sunday night. He wept as he paid for it, and touched his cheeks with the tips of his fingers to wipe away the tears. Every Sunday he wept, at the end of the day, after he’d had his access. The barmaid raised her glass, as always she did. They drank to the day that was to come, when the error he had made would be wiped away, when the happy marriage could continue. ‘Ridiculous,’ he said. ‘Of course it is.’
The General’s Day
General Suffolk pulled on two grey knitted socks and stood upright. Humming a marching air, he walked to the bathroom, intent upon his morning shave. The grey socks were his only apparel and he noticed as he passed the mirror of his wardrobe the white spare body of an elderly man reflected without flattery. He voiced no comment nor did he ponder, even in passing, upon this pictured nakedness. He was used to the sight; and had, over the years, accepted the changes as they came. Still humming, he half filled the wash-basin with water. It felt keenly warm on his fingers, a circumstance he inwardly congratulated himself on.
With deft strokes the General cleared his face of lather and whisker, savouring the crisp rasp of razor upon flesh. He used a cut-throat article and when shorn to his satisfaction wiped it on a small absorbent pad, one of a series he had collected from the bedrooms of foreign hotels. He washed, dressed, set his moustache as he liked to sport it, and descended to his kitchen.
The General’s breakfast was simple: an egg poached lightly, two slices of toast and a pot of tea. It took him ten minutes to prepare and ten to consume. As he finished he heard the footsteps of the woman who daily came to work for him. They were slow, dragging footsteps implying the bulk they gracelessly shifted. The latch of the door rose and fell and Mrs Hinch, string bags and hairnet, cigarette cocked from the corner of her mouth, stood grinning before him. ‘Hullo,’ this woman said, adding as she often did, ‘my dear.’
‘Good morning, Mrs Hinch.’
Mrs Hinch stripped herself of bags, coat and cigarette with a single complicated gesture. She grinned again at the General, replaced her cigarette and set to clearing the table.
‘I shall walk to the village this morning,’ General Suffolk informed her. ‘It seems a pleasant morning to dawdle through. I shall take coffee at the brown café and try my luck at picking up some suitable matron.’
Mrs Hinch was accustomed to her employer’s turn of speech. She laughed shrilly at this sally, pleased that the man would be away for the morning. ‘Ah, General, you’ll be the death of us,’ she cried; and planned for his absence a number of trunk calls on his telephone, a leisurely bath and the imbibing of as much South African sherry as she considered discreet.
‘It is Saturday if I am not mistaken,’ the General went on. ‘A good morning for my plans. Is it not a fact that there are stout matrons in and out of the brown café by the score on a Saturday morning?’
‘Why, sure, General,’ said Mrs Hinch, anxious to place no barrier in his way. ‘Why, half the county goes to the brown café of a Saturday morning. You are certain to be successful this time.’
‘Cheering words, Mrs Hinch, cheering words. It is one thing to walk through the campion-clad lanes on a June morning, but quite another to do so with an objective one is sanguine of achieving.’
‘This is your day, General. I feel it in my bones. I said it to Hobson as I left. “This is a day for the General,” I said. “The General will do well today,” I said.’
‘And Hobson, Mrs Hinch? Hobson replied?’
Again Mrs Hinch, like a child’s toy designed for the purpose, shrilled her merriment.
‘General, General, Hobson’s my little bird.’
The General, rising from the table, frowned. ‘Do you imagine I am unaware of that? Since for six years you have daily informed me of the fact. And why, pray, since the bird is a parrot, should the powers of speech be beyond it? It is not so with other parrots.’
‘Hobson’s silent, General. You know Hobson’s silent.’
‘Due to your lethargy, Mrs Hinch. No bird of his nature need be silent: God does not intend it. He has taken some pains to equip the parrot with the instruments of speech. It is up to you to pursue the matter in a practical way by training the animal. A child, Mrs Hinch, does not remain ignorant of self-expression. Nor of the ability to feed and clean itself. The mother teaches, Mrs Hinch. It is part of nature. So with your parrot.’
Enthusiastic in her own defence, Mrs Hinch said: ‘I have brought up seven children. Four girls and three boys.’
‘Maybe. Maybe. I am in no position to question this. But indubitably with your parrot you are flying in the face of nature.’
‘Oh, General, never. Hobson’s silent and that’s that.’
The General regarded his adversary closely. ‘You miss my point,’ he said drily; and repeating the remark twice he left the room.
In his time General Suffolk had been a man of more than ordinary importance. As a leader and a strategist in two great wars he had risen rapidly to the heights implied by the title he bore. He had held in his hands the lives of many thousands of men; his decisions had more than once set the boundaries of nations. Steely intelligence and physical prowess had led him, in their different ways, to glories that few experience at Roeux; and at Monchy-le-Preux he had come close to death. Besides all that, there was about the General a quality that is rare in the ultimate leaders of his army: he was to the last a rake, and for this humanity a popular figure. He had cared for women, for money, for alcohol of every sort; but in the end he had found himself with none of these commodities. In his modest cottage he was an elderly man with a violent past; with neither wife nor riches nor cellar to help him on his way.
Mrs Hinch had said he would thrive today. That the day should be agreeable was all he asked. He did not seek merriness or reality or some moment of truth. He had lived for long enough to forgo excitement; he had had his share; he wished only that the day, and his life in it, should go the way he wished.
In the kitchen Mrs Hinch scoured the dishes briskly. She was not one to do things by halves; hot water and detergent in generous quantities was her way.
‘Careful with the cup handles,’ the General admonished her. ‘Adhesive for the repair of such a fracture has apparently not yet been perfected. And the cups themselves are valuable.’
‘Oh they’re flimsy, General. So flimsy you can’t watch them. Declare to God, I shall be glad to see the last of them!’
‘But not I, Mrs Hinch. I like those cups. Tea tastes better from fine china. I would take it kindly if you washed and dried with care.’
‘Hoity-toity, General! Your beauties are safe with me. I treat them as babies.’
‘Babies? Hardly a happy analogy, Mrs Hinch – since five of the set are lost for ever.’
‘Six,’ said Mrs Hinch, snapping beneath the water the handle from the cup. ‘You are better without the bother of them. I shall bring you a coronation mug.’
‘You fat old bitch,’ shouted the General. ‘Six makes the set. It was my last remaining link with the gracious life.’
Mrs Hinch, understanding and wishing to spite the General further, laughed. ‘Cheery-bye, General,’ she called as she heard him rattling among his walking sticks. He banged the front door and stepped out into the heat of the day. Mrs Hinch turned on the wireless.
‘I walked entranced,’ intoned the General, ‘through a land of morn. The sun in wondrous excess of light…’ He was seventy-eight: his memory faltered over the quotation. His stick, weapon of his irritation, thrashed through the campions, covering the road with broken blooms. Grasshoppers clicked; bees darted, paused, humming in flight, silent in labour. The road was brown with dust, dry and hot in the sunlight. It was a day, thought the General, to be successfully in love; and he mourned that the ecstasy of love on a hot summer’s day was so far behind him. Not that he had gone without it; which gave him his yardstick and saddened him the more.
Early in his retirement General Suffolk had tried his hand in many directions. He had been, to start with, the secretary of a golf club; though in a matter of months his temper relieved him of the task. He was given to disagreement and did not bandy words. He strode away from the golf club, red in the face, the air behind him stinging with insults. He lent his talents to the business world and to a military academy: both were dull and in both he failed. He bought his cottage, agreeing with himself that retirement was retirement and meant what it suggested. Only once since moving to the country had he involved himself with salaried work: as a tennis coach in a girls’ school. Despite his age he was active still on his legs and managed well enough. Too well, his grim and beady-eyed headmistress avowed, objecting to his method of instructing her virgins in the various stances by which they might achieve success with the serve. The General paused only to level at the headmistress a battery of expressions well known to him but new to her. He went on his way, his cheque in his wallet, his pockets bulging with small articles from her study. The girls he had taught pursued him, pressing upon him packets of cheap cigarettes, sweets and flowers.
The General walked on, his thoughts rambling. He thought of the past; of specific days, of moments of shame or pride in his life. The past was his hunting ground; from it came his pleasure and a good deal of everything else. Yet he was not proof against the moment he lived in. The present could snarl at him; could drown his memories so completely that when they surfaced again they were like the burnt tips of matches floating on a puddle, finished and done with. He walked through the summery day, puzzled that all this should be so.
The brown café, called ‘The Cuppa’, was, as General Suffolk and Mrs Hinch had anticipated, bustling with mid-morning traffic. Old men and their wives sat listening to the talk about them, exchanging by the way a hard comment on their fellows. Middle-aged women, outsize in linen dresses, were huddled three or four to a table, their great legs battling for room in inadequate space, their feet hot and unhappy in unwise shoes. Mothers passed unsuitable edibles towards the searching mouths of their young. Men with girls sipped at the pale creamy coffee, thinking only of the girls. Crumbs were everywhere; and the babel buzzed like a clockwork wind.
The General entered, surveyed the scene with distaste, and sat at a table already occupied by a youth engrossed in a weekly magazine. The youth, a fat bespotted lad, looked up and immediately grinned. General Suffolk replied in kind, stretching the flesh of his face to display his teeth in a smile designed to promote goodwill between them, for the pair were old friends.
‘Good morning, Basil. And how is youth and vigour today?’
‘Oh well, not so bad, General. My mum’s in the family way again.’
‘A cause for joy,’ murmured General Suffolk, ordering coffee with Devonshire cream and the fruit pie he favoured. ‘Your mother is a great one for babies, is she not?’
‘My dad says the same. He don’t understand it neither. Worried, is Dad. Anyone can see that.’
‘Well, it is a bit fishy, General. Dad’s not the man to be careless. It’s just about as fishy as hell.’
‘Basil, your mother needs all the support she can get at a time like this. Talk about fishiness is scarcely going to help her in her ordeal.’
‘Mum’s had five. Drops ’em like hot bricks so she says. Thing is, if this one’s fishy what about the others?’
The General placed a portion of pie in his mouth. Crumbs of pastry and other matter lingered on his moustache. ‘You are thinking of yourself, Basil.’
‘Wouldn’t you? I mean to say.’
‘I would attach no importance to such a doubt, I do assure you. Basil, what do you say we spend this afternoon at some local fête? It is just an afternoon for a fête. I will stand you lunch.’
The plumpness of Basil’s face sharpened into suspicion. He moved his large hams uneasily on his chair and avoided his companion’s gaze. ‘It’s Mum really, General. I’ve got to tend her a bit, like you say it’s a hard time for her. And with Dad so snappish and the kids all over the place I don’t think she’d take it kindly if I was to go going off to fêtes and that. Not at a time like this like.’
‘Ah, filial duty. I trust your mother appreciates your sacrifices.’
But Basil, not anxious to prolong the conversation in this direction, was on his feet, his right hand hovering for the General’s grasp. And then, the handshake completed, he moved himself clumsily between the tables and passed through the open doorway.
General Suffolk stirred sugar into his coffee and looked about him. A lanky schoolmistress from the school he had taught tennis at sat alone at a corner table. She was a woman of forty or so, the General imagined; and he recalled having seen her by chance once, through an open window, in her underclothes. Since then he had often considered her in terms of sex, though now, when he might have explored the possibility, he found himself unable to remember her name. He watched her, trying to catch her glance, but either she did not recognize him or did not wish to associate with so reprobate a character. He dismissed her mentally and surveyed the room again. There was no one with whom he could fall into casual conversation, except perhaps a certain Mrs Consitine, known in her youth as Jumbo Consitine because of her size, and whose freakish appearance repelled him always to the point of physical sickness. He dodged the lady’s predatory stare and left the café.
It was a quarter to twelve. If the General walked through the village he would be just in time for a morning drink with Frobisher. Frobisher always drank – sometimes considerably – before lunch. On a day like this a drink was emphatically in order.
Mrs Hinch, the General reflected, would be settling down to his South African sherry about now. ‘You thieving old bitch,’ he said aloud. ‘Fifty years in Their Majesties’ service and I end up with Mrs bloody Hinch.’ A man carrying a coil of garden hose tripped and fell across his path. This man, a weekend visitor to the district, known to the General by sight and disliked by him, uttered as he dropped to the ground a series of expletives of a blasphemous and violent nature. The General, since the man’s weight lay on his shoes, stooped to assist him. ‘Oh, buzz off,’ ordered the man, his face close to the General’s. So the General left him, conscious not so much of his dismissal as of the form of words it had taken. The sun warmed his forehead and drops of sweat glistened on his nose and chin.
The Frobishers’ house was small and vaguely Georgian. From the outside it had the feeling of a town house placed by some error in the country. There were pillars on either side of the front door, which was itself dressed in a grey and white canvas cover as a protection against the sun. Door and cover swung inwards and Mrs Frobisher, squat and old, spoke from the hall.
‘It’s General Suffolk,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ said the General. ‘That old soldier.’
‘You’ve come to see Frob. Come in a minute and I’ll fetch him. What a lovely day.’
The General stepped into the hall. It was cool and smelt rather pleasantly of floor polish. Daggers, swords, Eastern rugs, knick-knacks and novelties hung in profusion everywhere. ‘Frob! Frob!’ Mrs Frobisher called, climbing the stairs. There had been a day, a terrible sultry day in India all of fifty years ago, when the General – though then not yet a general – had fought a duel with a certain Major Service. They had walked together quietly to a selected spot, their seconds, carrying a pair of kukris, trailing behind them. It had been a quarrel that involved, surprisingly, neither man’s honour. In retrospect General Suffolk could scarcely remember the cause: some insult directed against some woman, though by whom and in what manner escaped him. He had struck Major Service on the left forearm, drawing a considerable quantity of blood, and the duel was reckoned complete. An excuse was made for the wound sustained by the Major and the affair was successfully hushed up. It was the nearest that General Suffolk had ever come to being court-martialled. He was put in mind of the occasion by the presence of a kukri on the Frobishers’ wall. A nasty weapon, he reflected, and considered it odd that he should once have wielded one so casually. After all, Major Service might easily have lost his arm or, come to that, his life.
‘Frob! Frob! Where are you?’ cried Mrs Frobisher. ‘General Suffolk’s here to see you.’
‘Suffolk?’ Frobisher’s voice called from another direction. ‘Oh my dear, can’t you tell him I’m out?’
The General, hearing the words, left the house.
In the saloon bar of the public house General Suffolk asked the barman about the local fêtes.
‘Don’t think so, sir. Not today. Not that I’ve heard of.’
‘There’s a fête at Marmount,’ a man at the bar said. ‘Conservative fête, same Saturday every year.’
‘Ah certainly,’ said the barman, ‘but Marmount’s fifteen miles away. General Suffolk means a local fête. The General doesn’t have a car.’
‘Of course, of course,’ said the man. ‘Marmount’s not an easy spot to reach. Even if you did have a car, sir.’
‘I will have a sandwich, Jock,’ said General Suffolk. ‘Chop me a cheese sandwich like a good man.’ He was beginning to feel low; the day was not good; the day was getting out of control. Fear filled his mind and the tepid beer was no comfort. He began to pray inwardly, but he had little faith now in this communication. ‘Never mind,’ he said aloud. ‘It is just that it seems like a day for a fête. I won a half guinea at a summer fête last year. One never knows one’s luck.’ He caught sight of a card advertising the weekly films at the cinema of the nearby town.
‘Have you seen The Guns of Navarone?’ he questioned the barman.
‘I have, sir, and very good it is.’
The General nodded. ‘A powerful epic by the sound of it.’
‘That’s the word, General. As the saying goes, it had me riveted.’
‘Well, hurry the sandwiches then. I can catch the one-ten bus and achieve the first performance.’
‘Funny thing, sir,’ said the barman. ‘I can never take the cinema of an afternoon. Not that it isn’t a time that suits me, the hours being what they are. No, I go generally on my night off. Can’t seem to settle down in the afternoon or something. Specially in the good weather. To me, sir, it seems unnatural.’
‘That is an interesting point of view, Jock. It is indeed. And may well be shared by many – for I have noticed that the cinemas are often almost empty in the afternoon.’
‘I like to be outside on a good afternoon. Taking a stroll by a trout stream or in a copse.’
‘A change is as good as a cure, or whatever the adage is. After all, you are inside a good deal in your work. To be alone must be quite delightful after the idle chatter you have to endure.’
‘If you don’t mind my saying it, General, I don’t know how you do it. It would kill me to sit at the pictures on an afternoon like this. I would feel – as it were, sir – guilty.’
‘Looking the Great Gift Horse in the mouth, sir.’
‘The –? Are you referring to the Deity, Jock?’
‘Surely, sir. I would feel it like an unclean action.’
‘Maybe, Jock. Though I doubt that God would care to hear you describe Him as a horse.’
‘Oh but, General –’
‘You mean no disrespect. It is taken as read, Jock. But you cannot be too careful.’
‘Guilt is my problem, sir.’
‘I am sorry to hear it. Guilt can often be quite a burden.’
‘I am never free of it, sir. If it’s not one thing it’s another.’
‘I know too well, Jock.’
‘It was not presumptuous of me to mention that thing about the cinema? I was casting no stone at you, sir.’
‘Quite, quite. It may even be that I would prefer to attend an evening house. But beggars, you know, cannot be choosers.’
‘I would not like to offend you, General.’
‘Good boy, Jock. In any case I am not offended. I enjoy a chat.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Not at all. But now I must be on my way. Consider your problem closely: you may discover some simple solution. There are uncharted regions in the human mind.’
‘You are a good fellow, Jock. We old soldiers must stick together.’
‘Ha, ha,’ said Jock, taking the remark as a joke, since he was in the first place a young man still, and had never been in the army.
‘Well, cheerio then.’
How extraordinary, thought the General, that the man should feel like that: guilty about daytime cinema attendance. As Mrs Hinch would have it, it takes all sorts.
The thought of Mrs Hinch depressed the General further and drove him straight to a telephone booth. He often telephoned his cottage at this time of day as a check on her time-keeping. She was due to remain at work for a further hour, but generally the telephone rang unanswered. Today he got the engaged signal. As he boarded his bus, he wondered how much it was costing him.
Taurus. 21 April to 20 May. Financial affairs straighten themselves out. Do not make decisions this afternoon: your judgement is not at its best.
The General peeped around the edge of the newspaper at the woman who shared his table. She was a thin, middle-aged person with a face like a faded photograph. Her hair was inadequately dyed a shade of brown, her face touched briefly with lipstick and powder. She wore a cream-coloured blouse and a small string of green beads which the General assumed, correctly, to be jade. Her skirt, which the General could not see, was of fine tweed.
‘How thoughtless of me,’ said the General. ‘I have picked up your paper. It was on the chair and I did it quite automatically. I am so sorry.’
He knew the newspaper was not hers. No one places a newspaper on the other chair at a café table when the other chair is so well out of reach. Unless, that is, one wishes to reserve the place, which the lady, since she made no protest at his occupying it, was clearly not interested in doing. He made the pretence of offering the paper across the tea-table, leaning forward and sideways to catch a glimpse of her legs.
‘Oh but,’ said the lady, ‘it is not my newspaper at all.’
Beautiful legs. Really beautiful legs. Shimmering in silk or nylon, with fine firm knees and intoxicating calves.
‘Are you sure? In that case it must have been left by the last people, I was reading the stars. I am to have an indecisive afternoon.’ She belongs to the upper classes, General Suffolk said to himself; the upper classes are still well-bred in the leg.
The lady tinkled with laughter. I am away, the General thought. ‘When is your birthday?’ he asked daringly. ‘And I will tell you what to expect for the rest of today.’
‘Oh, I’m Libra, I think.’
‘It is a good moment for fresh associations,’ lied the General, pretending to read from the paper. ‘A new regime is on its way.’
‘You can’t believe a thing they say.’
‘Fighting words,’ said the General, and they laughed and changed the subject of conversation.
In the interval at the cinema, when the lights had gone up and the girls with ice-cream began their sales stroll, the General had seen, two or three rows from the screen, the fat unhealthy figure of his friend Basil. The youth was accompanied by a girl, and it distressed General Suffolk that Basil should have made so feeble an excuse when earlier he had proposed an excursion to a fête. The explanation that Basil wished to indulge in carnal pleasures in the gloom of a picture house would naturally have touched the General’s sympathy. Basil was an untrustworthy lad. It was odd, the General reflected, that some people are like that: so addicted to the lie that to avoid one, when the truth is in order, seems almost a sin.
‘General Suffolk,’ explained the General. ‘Retired, of course.’
‘We live in Bradoak,’ said the lady. ‘My name actually is Mrs Hope-Kingley.’
‘Ha, ha. Though in a way it’s true. My husband is not alive now.’
‘Ah,’ said the General, delighted. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I am quite over it, thank you. It is all of fifteen years since last I saw him. We had been divorced some time before his death.’
‘Divorce and death, divorce and death. You hear it all the time. May I be personal now and say I am surprised you did not remarry?’
‘Oh, General Suffolk, Mr Right never came along!’
‘Attention! Les étoiles!’
‘Ha, ha.’ And to her own surprise, Mrs Hope-Kingley proceeded to reveal to this elderly stranger the story of her marriage.
As he listened, General Suffolk considered how best to play his cards. It was a situation he had found himself in many times before, but as always the game must vary in detail. He felt mentally a little tired as he thought about it; and the fear that, in this, as in almost everything else, age had taken too great a toll struck at him with familiar ruthlessness. In his thirties he had played superbly, as good at love as he was at tennis. Now arrogant, now innocent, he had swooped and struck, captured and killed; and smiled over many a breakfast at the beauty that had been his prize.
They finished their tea. ‘I am slipping along to the County for a drink,’ said the General. ‘Do join me for a quick one.’
‘How kind of you. I must not delay though. My sister will expect me.’ And they climbed into Mrs Hope-Kingley’s small car and drove to the hotel. Over their gins the General spoke of his early days in the army and touched upon his present life, naming Mrs Hinch.
‘What a frightful woman! You must sack her.’
‘But who would do for me? I need my bed made and the place kept clean. Women are not easy to find in the country.’
‘I know a Mrs Gall who lives in your district. She has the reputation of being particularly reliable. My friends the Boddingtons use her.’
‘Well, that is certainly a thought. D’you know, I had become quite reconciled to Hinch. I never thought to change her really. What a breath of life you are!’
After three double gins Mrs Hope-Kingley was slightly drunk. Her face flushed with pleasure. Compliments do not come your way too often these days, thought the General; and he ambled off to the bar to clinch the matter with a further drink. How absurd to be upset by the passing details of the day! What did it all matter, now that he had found this promising lady? The day and its people, so directed against him, were balanced surely by this meeting? With her there was strength; from her side he might look out on the world with power and with confidence. In a panic of enthusiasm he almost suggested marriage. His hands were shaking and he felt again a surge of the old arrogance. There is life in the old dog yet, he thought. Handing her her drink, he smiled and winked.
‘After this I must go,’ the lady said.
‘Come, come, the night is younger than we are. It is not every day I can pick up a bundle of charms in a teashop.’
‘Ha, ha, ha.’ Mrs Hope-Kingley purred, thinking that for once her sister would simply have to wait, and wondering if she should dare to tell her that she had been drinking with an elderly soldier.
They were sitting at a small table in a corner. Now and again, it could have been an accident, the General’s knee touched hers. He watched the level of gin lower in her glass. ‘You are a pretty lady,’ murmured the General, and beneath the table his hand stroked her stockinged knee and ventured a little beyond it.
‘My God!’ said Mrs Hope-Kingley, her face like a beetroot. The General lowered his head. He heard her snatch her handbag from the seat beside him. When he looked up she was gone.
‘When were you born?’ General Suffolk asked the man in the bus.
The man seemed startled. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘nineteen-oh-three actually.’
‘No, no, no. What month? When does your birthday fall?’
‘Well, October the 21st actually.’
‘Libra by a day,’ the General informed him, consulting his newspaper as he spoke. ‘For tomorrow, there are to be perfect conditions for enjoying yourself; though it may be a little expensive. Don’t gamble.’
‘I see,’ said the man, glancing in embarrassment through the window.
‘Patrelli is usually reliable.’
The man nodded, thinking: The old fellow is drunk. He was right: the General was drunk.
‘I do not read the stars every day,’ General Suffolk explained. ‘It is only when I happen upon an evening paper. I must say I find Patrelli the finest augur of the lot. Do you not agree?’
The man made an effort to smile, muttering something incomprehensible.
‘What’s that, what’s that? I cannot hear you.’
‘I don’t know at all. I don’t know about such matters.’
‘You are not interested in the stars?’
The man shook his head.
‘In that case, I have been boring you.’
‘No, no –’
‘If you were not interested in my conversation you should have said so. It is quite simple to say it. I cannot understand you.’
‘I’m sorry –’
‘I do not like to offend people. I do not like to be a nuisance. You should have stopped me, sir.’
The man made a gesture vague in its meaning.
‘You have taken advantage of an old warrior.’
‘I cannot see –’
‘You should have halted me. It costs nothing to speak.’
‘Think nothing of it. Think nothing of it at all. Here is my village. If you are dismounting, would you care to join me in a drink?’
‘Thank you, no. I am –’
‘I swear not to speak of the stars.’
‘I go on a bit. This is not my stop.’
The General shook his head, as though doubting this statement. The bus stopped and, aided by the conductor, he left it.
‘Did you see The Guns, General?’ Jock shouted across the bar.
Not hearing, but understanding that the barman was addressing him, General Suffolk waved breezily. ‘A large whisky, Jock. And a drop of beer for yourself.’
‘Did you see The Guns then?’
‘The pictures, General. The Guns of Navarone.’
‘That is very kind of you, Jock. But we must make it some other time. I saw that very film this afternoon.’
‘General, did you like it?’
‘Certainly, Jock. Certainly I liked it. It was very well done. I thought it was done very well indeed.’
‘Two gins and split a bottle of tonic,’ a man called out.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the General, ‘I think I am in your way.’
‘Two gins and a split tonic,’ repeated Jock.
‘And something for our friend,’ the man added, indicating the General.
‘That is kind of you. Everyone is kind tonight. Jock here has just invited me to accompany him to the pictures. Unfortunately I have seen the film. But there will be other occasions. We shall go together again. May I ask you when you were born, the month I mean?’
The man, whose attention was taken up with the purchasing and transportation of his drinks, said: ‘Some time in May, I think.’
‘But exactly? When is your birthday, for instance?’ But the man had returned to a small table against the wall, where a girl and several packets of unopened crisps awaited him.
‘Jock, do you follow the stars?’
‘D’you mean telescopes and that?’
‘No, no, my boy.’ The General swayed, catching at the bar to balance himself. He had had very little to eat all day: the old, he maintained, did not need it. ‘No, no, I mean the augurs. Capricorn, Scorpio, Gemini, you know what I mean.’
‘Lord Luck in the Daily Express?’
‘That’s it. That’s the kind of thing. D’you take an interest at all?’
‘Well, General, now, I don’t.’
‘When’s your birthday, Jock?’
‘August the 15th.’
‘A Leo, by Harry! It is quite something to be a Leo, Jock. I would never have guessed it.’
Jock laughed loudly. ‘After all, General, it is not my doing.’
‘Fill up our glasses. Let me see what tomorrow holds for you.’ But examining the paper, he found it difficult to focus. ‘Here Jock, read it yourself.’
And Jock read aloud:
‘You will gain a lot by mingling with friends old and new. Late evening particularly favours entry into new social circles.’
‘Hark at that then! Remember the words, my friend. Patrelli is rarely wrong. The best augur of the bunch.’ The General had become dishevelled. His face was flushed and his eyelids drooped intermittently and uncontrollably. He fidgeted with his clothes, as though nervous about the positioning of his hands. ‘A final whisky, Jock boy; and a half bottle to carry home.’
On the road from the village to his cottage the General felt very drunk indeed. He lurched from one grass verge to the other, grasping his half bottle of whisky and singing gently under his breath. He knocked on the Frobishers’ door with his stick, and scarcely waiting for a reply knocked loudly again.
‘For God’s sake, man,’ Frobisher demanded, ‘what’s the matter with you?’
‘A little drink,’ explained General Suffolk. ‘You and me and Mrs Frob, a little drink together. I have brought some with me. In case you had run out.’
Frobisher glared at him. ‘You’re drunk, Suffolk. You’re bloody well drunk.’
General Suffolk loosed a peal of laughter. ‘Ha, ha, the old man’s drunk. Let me in, Frob, and so shall you be.’
Frobisher attempted to close the door, but the General inserted his stick.
He laughed again, and then was silent. When he spoke his voice was pleading.
‘One drink, Frob. Just one for you and me. Frob, when were you born?’
Frobisher began to snort with anger: he was a short-tempered man, he saw no reason to humour this unwelcome guest. He kicked sharply at the General’s stick, then opening the door widely he shouted into his face: ‘Get the hell off my premises, you bloody old fool! Go on, Suffolk, hop it!’
The General did not appear to understand. He smiled at Frobisher. ‘Tell me the month of your birth and I shall tell you in return what the morrow holds –’
‘God damn it, Suffolk –’
‘One little drink, and we’ll consult the stars together. They may well be of interest to Mrs –’
‘Get off my premises, you fool! You’ve damaged my door with your damned stick. You’ll pay for that, Suffolk. You’ll hear from my solicitors. I promise you, if you don’t go immediately I won’t hesitate to call for the police.’
‘One drink, Frob. Look, I’m a little lonely –’
Frobisher banged the door. ‘Frob, Frob,’ General Suffolk called, striking the door with his stick. ‘A nightcap, my old friend. Don’t refuse a drink now.’ But the door remained closed against him. He spoke for a while to himself, then made his way unsteadily homewards.
‘General Suffolk, are you ill?’
The General narrowed his eyes, focusing on the couple who stood before him; he did not recognize them; he was aware of feeling guilty because of it.
‘We are returning home from a game of cards,’ the woman of the two told him. ‘It is a balmy evening for a stroll.’
The General tried to smile. Since leaving the Frobishers’ house he had drunk most of the whisky. The people danced a bit before him, like outsize puppets. They moved up and down, and from side to side. They walked rapidly, silently, backwards. ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ laughed the General. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Are you ill? You don’t seem yourself.’
The General smiled at some little joke. ‘I have not been myself for many years. Today is just another day.’
The people were moving away. He could hear them murmuring to each other.
‘You have not asked me about the stars,’ he shouted after them. ‘I could tell you if you asked.’ But they were already gone, and uncorking the bottle he drained the remains and threw it into a ditch.
As he passed Mrs Hinch’s cottage he decided to call on her. He had it on his mind to play some joke on the woman, to say that she need not again attend to his household needs. He banged powerfully on the door and in a moment Mrs Hinch’s head, rich in curling pins, appeared at a window to his right.
‘Why, General dear,’ said Mrs Hinch, recognizing immediately his condition. ‘You’ve been on the razzle.’
‘Mrs Hinch, when is your birthday?’
‘Why, my dear? Have you a present for little Hinchie?’
‘Give me the information and I will let you know what tomorrow brings.’
‘May the 3rd. I was born at two o’clock in the morning.’
But in his walk he had somewhere mislaid the newspaper and could tell her nothing. He gripped the doorstep and seemed about to fall.
‘Steady now,’ said Mrs Hinch. ‘I’ll dress myself and help you home.’ The head was withdrawn and the General waited for the company of his unreliable servant.
She, in the room, slipped out of her nightdress and buttoned about her her everyday clothes. This would last her for months. ‘Ho ho, my dear,’ she would say, ‘remember that night? Worse for wear you were. Whatever would you have done without your little Hinchie?’ Chortling and crowing, she hitched up her skirts and paraded forth to meet him.
‘Oh General, you’re naughty! You shouldn’t be allowed out.’
The General laughed. Clumsily he slapped her broad buttocks. She screamed shrilly, enjoying again the position she now held over him. ‘Dirty old General! Hinchie won’t carry her beauty home unless he’s a good boy tonight.’ She laughed her cackling laugh and the General joined in it. He dawdled a bit, and losing her patience Mrs Hinch pushed him roughly in front of her. He fell, and in picking him up she came upon his wallet and skilfully extracted two pounds ten. ‘General would fancy his Hinchie tonight,’ she said, shrieking merrily at the thought. But the General was silent now, seeming almost asleep as he walked. His face was gaunt and thin, with little patches of red. ‘I could live for twenty years,’ he whispered. ‘My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years.’ Tears spread on his cheeks. ‘Lor’ love a duck!’ cried Mrs Hinch; and leaning on the arm of this stout woman the hero of Roeux and Monchy-le-Preux stumbled the last few yards to his cottage.
Memories of Youghal
He did not, he said, remember the occasion of his parents’ death, having been at the time only five months old. His first memory was of a black iron gate, of his own hand upon a part of it, and of his uncle driving through the gateway in a Model-T Ford. These images, and that of his uncle’s bespectacled face perspiring, were all in sunshine. For him, so he said to Miss Ticher, the sunlight still glimmered on the dim black paint of the motor-car; his uncle, cross and uncomfortable on hot upholstery, did not smile.
He remembered also, at some later time, eating tinned tomato soup in a house that was not the house of his aunt and uncle; he remembered a tap near a greenhouse; he remembered eating an ice-cream outside Horgan’s Picture House while his aunt engaged another woman in conversation. Pierrots performed on the sands; a man who seemed to be a priest gave him a Fox’s Glacier Mint.
‘The gate was tarred, I think,’ he said. ‘A tarred black gate. That memory is the first of all.’
The elderly woman to whom he spoke smiled at him, covering with the smile the surprise she experienced because a stout, untidy stranger spoke to her so easily about his memories.
‘I recall my uncle eating the tomato soup,’ the man said, ‘and my aunt, who was a severe woman, giving him a disapproving glance because of the row he was kicking up with it. The tap near the greenhouse came from a pipe that rose crookedly out of the ground.’
‘I see,’ she said, smiling a little more. She added that her own earliest memory, as far as she could remember, was of a papier-mâché spotted dog filled with sweets. The man didn’t comment on that.
‘Horgan’s Picture House,’ he said. ‘I wonder is it still going strong?’
She shook her head. She said she didn’t know if Horgan’s Picture House was still standing, since she had never been to the town he spoke of.
‘I first saw Gracie Fields there,’ he revealed. ‘And Jack Hulbert in a funny called Round the Washtub.’
They were reclining in deck-chairs on a terrace of the Hôtel Les Galets in Bandol, looking out at the Mediterranean. Mimosa and bougainvillaea bloomed around them, oranges ripened, palm trees flapped in a small breeze, and on a pale-blue sky the sun pushed hazy clouds aside. With her friend Miss Grimshaw, Miss Ticher always came to Bandol in late April, between the mistral and the season, before the noise and the throbbing summer heat. They had known one another for more than thirty years and when, next year, they both retired at sixty-five they planned to live in a bungalow in Sevenoaks, not far from St Mildred’s School for Girls, where Miss Ticher taught history and Miss Grimshaw French. They would, they hoped, continue to travel in the spring to Bandol, to the quiet Mediterranean and the local bouillabaisse, their favourite dish.
Miss Ticher was a thin woman with a shy face and frail, thin hands. She had been asleep on the upper terrace of Les Galets and had wakened to find the untidy man standing in front of her. He had asked if he might sit in the deck-chair beside hers, the chair that Miss Grimshaw had earlier planned to occupy on her return from her walk. Miss Ticher felt she could not prevent the man from sitting down, and so had nodded. He was not staying in the hotel, he said, and added that his business was that of a detective. He was observing a couple who were at present in an upstairs room: it would facilitate his work if Miss Ticher would kindly permit him to remain with her and perhaps engage in a casual conversation while he awaited the couple’s emergence. A detective, he told Miss Ticher, could not be obvious: a detective must blend with the background, or at least seem natural. ‘The So-Swift Investigation Agency’, he said. ‘A London firm’. As he lowered himself into the chair that Miss Grimshaw had reserved for herself he said he was an exiled Irishman. ‘Did you ever hear of the Wild Geese?’ he enquired. ‘Soldiers of fortune? I often feel like that myself. My name is Quillan.’
He was younger than he looked, she thought: forty-five, she estimated, and seeming to be ten years older. Perhaps it was that, looking older than he was, or perhaps it was the uneasy emptiness in his eyes, that made her feel sorry for him. His eyes apologized for himself, even though he attempted to hide the apology beneath a jauntiness. He wouldn’t be long on the terrace, he promised: the couple would soon be checking out of the hotel and on behalf of the husband of the woman he would discreetly follow them, around the coast in a hired Renault. It was work he did not much care for, but it was better than other work he had experienced: he’d drifted about, he added with a laugh, from pillar to post. With his eyes closed in the warmth he talked about his childhood memories while Miss Ticher listened.
‘Youghal,’ he said. ‘I was born in Youghal, in County Cork. In 1934 my mother went in for a swim and got caught up with a current. My dad went out to fetch her and they both went down.’
He left his deck-chair and went away, and strangely she wondered if perhaps he was going to find a place to weep. An impression of his face remained with her: a fat red face with broken veins in it, and blue eyes beneath dark brows. When he smiled he revealed teeth that were stained and chipped and not his own. Once, when laughing over a childhood memory, they had slipped from their position in his jaw and had had to be replaced. Miss Ticher had looked away in embarrassment, but he hadn’t minded at all. He wasn’t a man who cared about the way he struck other people. His trousers were held up with a tie, his pale stomach showed through an unbuttoned shirt. There was dandruff in his sparse fluff of sandy hair and on the shoulders of a blue blazer: yesterday’s dandruff, Miss Ticher had thought, or even the day before’s.
‘I’ve brought you this,’ he said, returning and sitting again in Miss Grimshaw’s chair. He proffered a glass of red liquid. ‘A local aperitif.’
Over pots of geraniums and orange-tiled roofs, across the bay and the green sea that was ruffled with little bursts of foam, were the white villas of Sanary, set among cypresses. Nearer, and more directly below, was the road to Toulon and beyond it a scrappy beach on which Miss Ticher now observed the figure of Miss Grimshaw.
‘I was given over to the aunt and uncle,’ said Quillan, ‘on the day of the tragedy. Although, as I’m saying to you, I don’t remember it.’
He drank whisky mixed with ice. He shook the liquid in his glass, watching it. He offered Miss Ticher a cigarette, which she refused. He lit one himself.
‘The uncle kept a shop,’ he said.
She saw Miss Grimshaw crossing the road to Toulon. A driver hooted; Miss Grimshaw took no notice.
‘Memories are extraordinary,’ said Quillan, ‘the things you’d remember and the things you wouldn’t. I went to the infant class at the Loreto Convent. There was a Sister Ita. I remember a woman with a red face who cried one time. There was a boy called Joe Murphy whose grandmother kept a greengrocer’s. I was a member of Joe Murphy’s gang. We used to fight another gang.’
Miss Grimshaw passed from view. She would be approaching the hotel, moving slowly in the warmth, her sunburnt face shining as her spectacles shone. She would arrive panting, and already, in her mind, Miss Ticher could hear her voice. ‘What on earth’s that red stuff you’re drinking?’ she’d demand in a huffy manner.
‘When I was thirteen years old I ran away from the aunt and uncle,’ Quillan said. ‘I hooked up with a travelling entertainments crowd that used to go about the seaside places. I think the aunt must have been the happy female that day. She couldn’t stand the sight of me.’
‘Oh surely now –’
‘Listen,’ said Quillan, leaning closer to Miss Ticher and staring intently into her eyes. ‘I’ll tell you the way this case was. You’d like to know?’
‘The uncle had no interest of any kind in the bringing up of a child. The uncle’s main interest was drinking bottles of stout in Phelan’s public house, with Harrigan the butcher. The aunt was a different kettle of fish: the aunt above all things wanted nippers of her own. For the whole of my thirteen years in that house I was a reminder to my aunt of her childless condition. I was a damn nuisance to both of them.’
Miss Ticher, moved by these revelations, did not know what to say. His eyes were slightly bloodshot, she saw; and then she thought it was decidedly odd, a detective going on about his past to an elderly woman on the terrace of an hotel.
‘I wasn’t wanted in that house,’ he said. ‘When I was five years old she told me the cost of the food I ate.’
It would have been 1939 when he was five, she thought, and she remembered herself in 1939, a girl of twenty-four, just starting her career at St Mildred’s, a girl who’d begun to feel that marriage, which she’d wished for, might not come her way. ‘We’re neither of us the type,’ Miss Grimshaw later said. ‘We’d be lost, my dear, without the busy life of school.’
She didn’t want Miss Grimshaw to arrive on the terrace. She wanted this man who was a stranger to her to go on talking in his sentimental way. He described the town he spoke of: an ancient gateway and a main street, and a harbour where fishing boats went from, and the strand with wooden breakwaters where his parents had drowned, and seaside boarding-houses and a promenade, and short grass on a clay hill above the sea.
‘Near the lighthouse in Youghal,’ said Quillan, ‘there’s a shop I used buy Rainbow Toffees in.’
Miss Grimshaw appeared on the terrace and walked towards them. She was a small, plump woman with grey hair, and short legs and short arms. Generations of girls at St Mildred’s had likened her to a dachshund and had, among themselves, named her appropriately. She wore now a flowered dress and carried in her left hand a yellow plastic bag containing the fruits of her morning’s excursion: a number of shells.
‘At a later time,’ said Quillan, ‘I joined the merchant navy in order to get a polish. I knocked about the world a bit, making do the best way I could. And then a few years back I entered the investigation business.’
Miss Grimshaw, annoyed because an unprepossessing man in a blazer was sprawling in her chair, saw that her friend was holding in her hand a glass of red liquid and was further annoyed because of this: they pooled their resources at the beginning of each holiday and always consulted each other before making a purchase. Ignoring the sprawling man, she asked Miss Ticher what the glass contained, speaking sharply to register her disapproval and disappointment. She stood, since there was no chair for her to sit on.
‘I never went back to Youghal,’ the man said before Miss Ticher could reply to Miss Grimshaw’s query. ‘I only have the childhood memories of it now. Unhappy memories,’ said the man to Miss Grimshaw’s amazement. ‘Unhappy memories of a nice little place. That’s life for you.’
‘It’s an aperitif,’ said Miss Ticher, ‘that Mr Quillan kindly bought for me. Mr Quillan, this is Miss Grimshaw, my friend.’
‘We were discussing memories,’ said Quillan, pushing himself out of the deck-chair. ‘Miss Ticher and myself were going down Memory Lane.’ He laughed loudly, causing the teeth to move about in his mouth. His shoes were scuffed, Miss Grimshaw noted; the blue scarf that was stuck into the open neck of his shirt seemed dirty.
Again he walked abruptly away. He offered Miss Grimshaw no greeting and Miss Ticher no farewell. He moved along the terrace with the glass in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. His trousers bagged at the back, requiring to be hitched up.
‘Who on earth’s that?’ demanded Miss Grimshaw. ‘You never let him pay for that stuff you’re drinking?’
‘He’s a detective,’ said Miss Ticher. ‘He’s watching a couple for a husband. He followed them here.’
‘He’s in the investigation business.’
Miss Grimshaw sat in the chair the man had been sitting in. Her eyes returned to the glass of red intoxicant her friend was still holding. She thought to herself that she had gone out alone, looking for shells because Agnes Ticher had said she was tired that morning, and the next thing was Agnes Ticher had got herself involved with a bore.
‘He smelt,’ said Miss Grimshaw. ‘I caught a most unwelcome little whiff.’
‘His whisky,’ Miss Ticher began. ‘Whisky has a smell –’
‘You know what I mean, Agnes,’ said Miss Grimshaw quietly.
‘Did you enjoy your walk?’
Miss Grimshaw nodded. She said it was a pity that Miss Ticher hadn’t accompanied her. She felt much better after the exercise. She had an appetite for lunch, and the salt of the sea in her nostrils. She looked again at the glass in Miss Ticher’s hand, implying with her glance that the consumption of refreshment before lunch could serve only to fatigue whatever appetite Miss Ticher had managed to gain in the course of her idle morning.
‘My God,’ said Miss Grimshaw, ‘he’s coming back.’
He was coming towards them with another deck-chair. Behind him walked a waiter bearing on a tin tray three glasses, two containing the red liquid that Miss Ticher was drinking, the third containing ice and whisky. Without speaking, he set up the deck-chair, facing both of them. The waiter moved an ornamental table and placed the glasses on it.
‘A local aperitif,’ said Quillan. ‘I wouldn’t touch it myself, Miss Grimshaw.’
He laughed and again had difficulty with his teeth. Miss Ticher looked away when his fingers rose to his mouth to settle them back into place, but Miss Grimshaw was unable to take her eyes off him. False teeth were common enough today, she was thinking: there was no need at all for them to come leaping from the jaw like that. Somehow it seemed typical of this man that he wouldn’t bother to have them attended to.
‘Miss Ticher and Miss Grimshaw,’ said Quillan slowly, as though savouring the two names. He drank some whisky. ‘Miss Ticher and Miss Grimshaw,’ he said again. ‘You’re neither of you a married woman. I didn’t marry myself. I was put off marriage, to tell you the truth, by the aunt and uncle down in Youghal. It was an unnatural association, as I saw from an early age. And then of course the investigation business doesn’t exactly encourage a fellow to tie up his loose ends with a female. My mother swam into the sea,’ he said, addressing Miss Grimshaw and seeming to be pleased to have an opportunity to retail the story again. ‘My dad swam in to get her back. They went down to the bottom like a couple of pennies. I was five months old.’
‘How horrible,’ said Miss Grimshaw.
‘If it hadn’t happened I’d be a different type of man today. Would you believe that? Would you agree with me, Miss Grimshaw?’
‘Would I be a different type of man if the parents had lived? When I was thirteen years of age I ran away with an entertainments crowd. I couldn’t stand the house a minute more. My uncle never said a word to me, the aunt used look away when she saw me coming. Meals were taken in silence.’ He paused, seeming to consider all that. Then he said: ‘Youghal’s a place like this place, Miss Grimshaw, stuck out on the sea. You know what I mean?’
Miss Grimshaw said she did know what he meant. He talked a lot, she thought, and in a most peculiar way. Agnes Ticher was keeping herself quiet, which no doubt was due to her embarrassment at having involved them both with such a character.
‘I have another memory,’ said Quillan, ‘that I can’t place at all. It is a memory of a woman’s face and often it keeps coming and going in my mind when I’m trying to sleep in bed. Like the black iron gate, it’s always been there, a vague type of face that I can discern and yet I can’t. D’you know what I mean?’
‘Yes,’ said Miss Ticher.
Miss Grimshaw shook her head.
‘I told a nun about it one time, when I was a little lad, and she said it was maybe my mother. But I don’t believe that for an instant. Will I tell you what I think about that face?’
Miss Ticher smiled, and seeing the smile and noting as well a flush on her friend’s cheeks, it occurred to Miss Grimshaw that Agnes Ticher, having been imbibing a drink that might well have been more intoxicating than it seemed, was by now a little tipsy. There was an expression in Agnes Ticher’s eyes that suggested such a condition to Miss Grimshaw; there was a looseness about her lips. In a playful way, she thought, she would tell the story in the common-room when they returned to St Mildred’s: how Agnes Ticher had been picked up by a ne’er-do-well Irishman and had ended up in a squiffy condition. Miss Grimshaw wanted to laugh, but prevented herself.
‘What I think is this,’ said Quillan. ‘The face is the face of a woman who tried to steal me out of my pram one day when the aunt left the pram outside Pasley’s grocer’s shop. A childless woman heard about the tragedy and said to herself that she’d take the child and be a mother to it.’
‘Did a woman do that?’ cried Miss Ticher, and Miss Grimshaw looked at her in amusement.
‘They’d never bother to tell me,’ said Quillan. ‘I have only the instinct to go on. Hi,’ he shouted to the waiter who was hovering at the distant end of the terrace. ‘Encore, encore! Trois verres, s’il vous plait.’
‘Oh no,’ murmured Miss Ticher.
Miss Grimshaw laughed.
‘An unmarried woman like yourselves,’ said Quillan, ‘who wanted a child. I would be a different man today if she had succeeded in doing what she wanted to do. She would have taken me away to another town, maybe to Cork, or up to Dublin. I would have different memories now. D’you understand me, Miss Grimshaw?’
The waiter came with the drinks. He took away the used glasses.
‘If I close my eyes,’ said Quillan, ‘I can see the whole episode: the woman bent over the pram and her hands going out to the orphan child. And then the aunt comes out of Pasley’s and asks her what she thinks she’s doing. I remember one time the aunt beating me on the legs with a bramble stick. I used eat things from the kitchen cupboard. I used bite into Chivers’ jellies, I well remember that.’ He paused. He said: ‘If ever you’re down that way, go into Youghal. It’s a great place for fresh fish.’
Miss Grimshaw heard voices and looked past Miss Ticher and saw a man and a woman leaving the hotel. They stood for a moment beside the waiter at the far end of the terrace. The woman laughed. The waiter went away.
‘That’s the pair,’ said Quillan. ‘They’re checking out.’
He tilted his glass, draining a quantity of whisky into his mouth.
The man, wearing dark glasses and dressed in red trousers and a black leather jacket, lit his companion’s cigarette. His arm was on the woman’s shoulder. The waiter brought them each a drink.
‘Are they looking this way, Miss Grimshaw?’
He crouched in the deck-chair, anxious not to be observed. Miss Grimshaw said the man and the woman seemed to be absorbed in one another.
‘A right couple to be following around,’ Quillan said with sarcasm and a hint of bitterness. ‘A right vicious couple.’
Suddenly and to Miss Grimshaw’s discomfiture, Miss Ticher stretched out an arm and touched with the tips of her fingers the back of the detective’s large hand. ‘I’m sorry,’ Miss Ticher said quietly. ‘I’m sorry your parents were drowned. I’m sorry you don’t like the work you do.’
He shrugged away the sympathy, although he seemed not surprised to have received it. He said again that if his parents had not drowned he would not be the man they saw in front of them. He was obsessed by that idea, Miss Grimshaw considered. If the woman had succeeded in taking him from the pram he would not be the man he was either, he said: he’d had no luck in his childhood. ‘It’s a nice little seaside resort and yet I can never think of it without a shiver because of the bad luck that was there for me. When I think of the black iron gate and the uncle sweating in the Ford car I think of everything else as well. The woman wanted a child, Miss Ticher. A child needs love.’
‘A woman too,’ whispered Miss Ticher.
‘But the woman’s a figment of Mr Quillan’s imagination,’ Miss Grimshaw said with a laugh. ‘He made up the story to suit some face in his mind. Couldn’t it be, Mr Quillan, that the woman’s face was the face of any woman at all?’
‘Ah, of course, of course,’ agreed Quillan, glancing surreptitiously at the couple he was employed to glance at. ‘You can never know certainly about a business like that.’
The couple, having finished their two drinks, descended a flight of stone steps that led from the terrace to the terrace below, and then went on down to the courtyard of the hotel. The waiter followed them, carrying their luggage. Quillan stood up.
Miss Ticher imagined ironing his blazer. She imagined his face as a child. For a moment, affected as she afterwards thought by the red aperitif, it seemed that Miss Grimshaw was the stranger: Miss Grimshaw was a round woman, unknown to either of them, who had materialized suddenly, looking for a chat. Having no one’s blazer to iron herself, Miss Grimshaw was jealous, for in her life she had known only friendship.
‘In 1934,’ said Miss Ticher, ‘when you were five months old, Mr Quillan, I was still hopeful of marriage. A few years later I would have understood the woman who wished to take you from your pram.’
Miss Ticher’s face was crimson as she spoke those words. She saw Miss Grimshaw looking at it. She saw her looking at her as she clambered to her feet and held a hand out to the detective. ‘Goodbye,’ Miss Ticher said. ‘It was nice to hear your childhood memories.’
He went away in his abrupt manner. They watched him walking the length of the terrace. Miss Ticher watched his descent to the courtyard.
‘My dear,’ said Miss Grimshaw with her laugh, ‘he bowled you over.’ The story for the common-room was even better now. ‘A fat man,’ Miss Grimshaw heard herself saying on the first evening of term, ‘who talked to Agnes about his childhood memories in a place called Youghal. He had fantasies as well, about some woman pilfering him from his pram, as though a woman would. In her tipsiness Agnes entered into all of it. I thought she’d cry.’
Miss Ticher sat down and sipped the drink the man had bought her. Miss Grimshaw said:
‘Thank heavens he’s not staying here.’
‘You shouldn’t have said he made up that story.’
‘Why ever not?’
You hurt him.’
‘Hurt him?’ cried Miss Grimshaw.
‘He’s the victim of his wretched childhood –’
‘You’re tipsy, Agnes.’
Miss Ticher drank the last of her red aperitif, and Miss Grimshaw glared through her shining spectacles, thinking that her friend looked as if she’d just put down a cheap romantic novel.
‘It’s time for lunch,’ announced Miss Grimshaw snappishly, rising to her feet. ‘Come on now.’
Miss Ticher shook her head. ‘Near the lighthouse there’s a shop,’ she said, ‘that sold in those days Rainbow Toffees. A woman like you or me might have seen there a child who ran away from loneliness.’
‘Lunch, dear,’ said Miss Grimshaw.
‘How very cruel the world is.’
Miss Grimshaw, who in reply had been about to say with asperity that no one must let emotional nonsense play tricks on the imagination, instead said nothing at all. Three unnamed drinks and the conversation of a grubby detective had taken an absurd toll of Agnes Ticher in the broad light of day. Miss Grimshaw no longer wished to think about the matter; she did not wish to recall the words that Agnes Ticher in her tipsiness had spoken, nor ever now to retail the episode in the common-room; it was better not to dwell on any of it. They were, after all, friends and there could remain unspoken secrets between them.
‘It is all second best,’ said the voice of Agnes Ticher, but when Miss Grimshaw looked at her friend she knew that Miss Ticher had not spoken. Miss Grimshaw went away, jangling the shells in the yellow plastic bag and screening from her mind the thoughts that were attempting to invade it. There was a smell of garlic on the air, and from the kitchen came the rich odour of the local bouillabaisse, the favourite dish of both of them.
In a public library, looking through the appropriate columns in a businesslike way, Mr Jeffs came across the Hammonds’ advertisement in The Times. It contained a telephone number which he noted down on a scrap of paper and which he telephoned later that same day.
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Hammond vaguely, ‘I think this table is still for sale. Let me just go and look.’
Mr Jeffs saw her in his mind’s eye going to look. He visualized a fattish, middle-aged woman with light-blue hair, and shapely legs coming out of narrow shoes.
‘It is my husband’s affair, really,’ explained Mrs Hammond. ‘Or I suppose it is. Although strictly speaking the table is my property. Left to me by my grandmother. Yes, it’s still there. No one, I’m sure, has yet made an offer for this table.’
‘In that case –’ said Mr Jeffs.
‘It was foolish of me to imagine that my husband might have had an offer, or that he might have sold it. He would naturally not have done so without consultation between us. It being my table, really. Although he worded the, advertisement and saw to putting it in the paper. I have a daughter at the toddling stage, Mr Jeffs. I’m often too exhausted to think about the composition of advertisements.’
‘A little daughter. Well, that is nice,’ said Mr Jeffs, looking at the ceiling and not smiling. ‘You’re kept busy, eh?’
‘Why not come round if the table interests? It’s completely genuine and is often commented upon.’
‘I will do that,’ announced Mr Jeffs, naming an hour.
Replacing the receiver, Mr Jeffs, a small man, a dealer in furniture, considered the voice of Mrs Hammond. He wondered if the voice belonged to a woman who knew her p’s and q’s where antique furniture was concerned. He had been wrong, quite clearly, to have seen her as middle-aged and plumpish. She was younger if she had a toddling child, and because she had spoken of exhaustion he visualized her again, this time in soft slippers, with a strand of hair across her forehead. ‘It’s a cultured voice,’ said Mr Jeffs to himself and went on to believe that there was money in the Hammond house, and probably a maid or two, in spite of the protest about exhaustion. Mr Jeffs, who had made his small fortune through his attention to such nagging details, walked on the bare boards of his Victorian house, sniffing the air and considering afresh. All about him furniture was stacked, just purchased, waiting to be sold again.
Mrs Hammond forgot about Mr Jeffs almost as soon as his voice ceased to echo in her consciousness. Nothing about Mr Jeffs remained with her because as she had conversed with him no image had formed in her mind, as one had in his. She thought of Mr Jeffs as a shop person, as a voice that might interrupt a grocery order or a voice in the jewellery department of Liberty’s. When her au pair girl announced the presence of Mr Jeffs at the appointed hour, Mrs Hammond frowned and said: ‘My dear Ursula, you’ve certainly got this name wrong.’ But the girl insisted. She stood with firmness in front of her mistress repeating that a Mr Jeffs had called by appointment. ‘Heavens!’ cried Mrs Hammond eventually. ‘How extraordinarily stupid of me! This is the new man for the windows. Tell him to go at them immediately. The kitchen ones first so that he gets them over with while he’s still mellow. They’re as black as your boot.’
So it was that Mr Jeffs was led into the Hammonds’ kitchen by a girl from central Switzerland and told abruptly, though not intentionally so, to clean the windows.
‘What?’ said Mr Jeffs.
‘Start with the kitchen, Mrs Hammond says, since they have most filth on them. There is hot water in the tap.’
‘No,’ said Mr Jeffs. ‘I’ve come to see a table.’
‘I myself have scrubbed the table. You may stand on it if you place a newspaper underneath your feet.’
Ursula left Mr Jeffs at this juncture, although he had already begun to speak again. She felt she could not stand there talking to window-cleaners, since she was not employed in the house to do that.
‘He is a funny man,’ she reported to Mrs Hammond. ‘He wanted to wash the table too.’
‘My name is Jeffs,’ said Mr Jeffs, standing at the door, holding his stiff black hat. ‘I have come about the console table.’
‘How odd!’ murmured Mrs Hammond, and was about to add that here indeed was a coincidence since at that very moment a man called Jeffs was cleaning her kitchen windows. ‘Oh my God!’ she cried instead. ‘Oh, Mr Jeffs, what a terrible thing!’
It was this confusion, this silly error that Mrs Hammond quite admitted was all her fault, that persuaded her to let Mr Jeffs have the table. Mr Jeffs, standing with his hat, had recognized a certain psychological advantage and had pressed it imperceptibly home. He saw that Mrs Hammond, beneath the exterior of her manner, was concerned lest he might have felt himself slighted. She is a nice woman, he thought, in the way in which a person buying meat decides that a piece is succulent. She is a nice person, he assured himself, and will therefore be the easier and the quicker to deal with. He was correct in his surmise. There was a prick of guilt in Mrs Hammond’s face: he saw it arrive there as the explanation dawned on her and as she registered that he was a dealer in antiques, one with the features and the accents of a London Jew. She is afraid I am thinking her anti-Semitic, thought Mr Jeffs, well pleased with himself. He named a low price, which was immediately accepted.
‘I’ve been clever,’ said Mrs Hammond to her husband. ‘I have sold the console table to a little man called Mr Jeffs whom Ursula and I at first mistook for a window-cleaner.’
Mr Jeffs put a chalk mark on the table and made a note of it in a notebook. He sat in the kitchen of his large house, eating kippers that he had cooked in a plastic bag. His jaws moved slowly and slightly, pulping the fish as a machine might. He didn’t pay much attention to the taste in his mouth: he was thinking that if he sold the table to Sir Andrew Charles he could probably rely on a hundred per cent profit, or even more.
‘An everyday story of country folk,’ said a voice on Mr Jeffs’ old wireless, and Mr Jeffs rose and carried the plate from which he had eaten to the sink. He wiped his hands on a tea-cloth and climbed the stairs to the telephone.
Sir Andrew was in Africa, a woman said, and might not be back for a month. It was far from certain when he would return, but it would be a month at least. Mr Jeffs said nothing more. He nodded to himself, but the woman in Sir Andrew Charles’ house, unaware of this confirmation, reflected that the man was ill-mannered not to acknowledge what she was saying.
Mr Jeffs made a further note in his notebook, a reminder to telephone Sir Andrew in six weeks’ time. As it happened, however, this note was unnecessary, because three days later Mr Jeffs received a telephone call from Mrs Hammond’s husband, who asked him if he still had the table. Mr Jeffs made a pretence of looking, and replied after a moment that he rather thought he had.
‘In that case,’ said Mrs Hammond’s husband, ‘I rather think I would like to buy it back.’
Mr Hammond announced his intention of coming round. He contradicted himself by saying that it was really a friend of his who wanted the table and that he would bring his friend round too, if that was all right with Mr Jeffs.
‘Bring whomsoever you wish,’ said Mr Jeffs. He felt awkward in advance: he would have to say to Mr Hammond or to Mr Hammond’s friend that the price of the table had doubled itself in three days. He would not put it like that, but Mr Hammond would recognize that that was what it amounted to.
Mr Jeffs was in the kitchen, drinking tea, when they called. He blew at the mug of tea, not wishing to leave it there, for he disapproved of waste. He drank most of it and wiped his lips with the tea-cloth. The door-bell sounded again and Mr Jeffs hastened to answer it.
‘I am the nigger in the woodpile,’ said a Mrs Galbally, who was standing with Hammond. ‘It is I who cause all this nonsense over a table.’
‘Mrs Galbally hasn’t ever seen it,’ Hammond explained. ‘She, too, answered our advertisement, but you, alas, had snaffled the treasure up.’
‘Come into the house,’ said Mr Jeffs, leading the way to the room with the table in it. He turned to Mrs Galbally, pointing with one hand. ‘There it is, Mrs Galbally. You are quite at liberty to purchase it, though I had earmarked it for another, a client in Africa who has been looking for that very thing and who would pay an exceedingly handsome price. I am just warning you of that. It seems only fair.’
But when Mr Jeffs named the figure he had in mind neither Mrs Galbally nor Hammond turned a hair. Hammond drew out a cheque-book and at once inscribed a cheque. ‘Can you deliver it?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Jeffs, ‘provided it is not too far away. There will be a small delivery charge to cover everything, insurance in transit, etcetera. Four pounds four.’
Mr Jeffs drove his Austin van to the address that Hammond had given him. On the way, he reckoned what his profit on this journey of three-quarters of an hour would be: a quarter of a gallon of petrol would come to one and three; subtracting that from four guineas, he was left with four pounds two and ninepence. Mr Jeffs did not count his time: he considered it of little value. He would have spent the three-quarters of an hour standing about in his large house, or moving himself to keep his circulation going. It was not a bad profit, he decided, and he began to think of Mrs Galbally and Hammond, and of Mrs Hammond who had mistaken him for a window-cleaner. He guessed that Hammond and Mrs Galbally were up to something, but it was a funny way in which to be up to something, buying antique tables and having them delivered.
‘They are conducting an affair,’ said Mr Jeffs to himself. ‘They met because the table was up for sale and are now romantic over it.’ He saw the scene clearly: the beautiful Mrs Galbally arriving at the Hammonds’ house, explaining that she had come about the table. Perhaps she had made a bit of a scene, reminding the Hammonds that she had previously telephoned and had been told to come. ‘And now I find the table is already disposed of,’ said Mrs Galbally in Mr Jeffs’ imagination. ‘You should have telephoned me back, for God’s sake! I am a busy creature.’
‘Come straight in, Mrs Galbally and have a glass of brandy,’ cried Hammond in Mr Jeffs’ mind. ‘How can we make amends?’
‘It is all my fault,’ explained Mrs Hammond. ‘I’ve been quite hopelessly scatty, placing our beautiful table in the hands of a Jewish trader. A Mr Jeffs whom Ursula in her foreign ignorance ordered to wash down the kitchen windows.’
‘The table has brought nothing but embarrassment,’ said Hammond, pouring out a fair quantity of brandy. ‘Have this, Mrs Galbally. And have a nut or two. Do.’
‘I had quite set my heart on that table,’ said Mrs Galbally in Mr Jeffs’ mind. ‘I am disappointed unto tears.’
‘A table for Mrs Galbally,’ said Mr Jeffs to a woman with a shopping basket who was leaving the block of flats.
‘Oh yes?’ said the woman.
‘Which floor, please? I have been given this address.’
‘No one of that name at all,’ said the woman. ‘I never heard of no Galbally.’
‘She may be new here. Is there an empty flat? It tells you nothing on these bells.’
‘I’m not at liberty,’ said the woman, her voice striking a high pitch. ‘I’m not at liberty to give out information about the tenants in these flats. Not to a man in a closed van. I don’t know you from Adam.’
Mr Jeffs recognized the woman as a charwoman and thereafter ignored her, although she stood on the steps, close to him, watching his movements. He rang one of the bells and a middle-aged woman opened the door and said, when Mr Jeffs had inquired, that everyone was new in the flats, the flats themselves being new. She advised him quite pleasantly to ring the top bell, the one that connected apparently with two small attic rooms.
‘Ah, Mr Jeffs,’ said the beautiful Mrs Galbally a moment later. ‘So you got here.’
Mr Jeffs unloaded the table from the van and carried it up the steps. The charwoman was still about. She was saying to Mrs Galbally that she would clean out the place for six shillings an hour whenever it was suitable or desired.
Mr Jeffs placed the table in the smaller of the two attic rooms. The room was empty except for some rolled-up carpeting and a standard lamp. The door of the second room was closed: he imagined it contained a bed and a wardrobe and two brandy glasses on a bedside table. In time, Mr Jeffs imagined, the whole place would be extremely luxurious. ‘A love-nest,’ he said to himself.
‘Well, thank you, Mr Jeffs,’ said Mrs Galbally.
‘I must charge you an extra pound. You are probably unaware, Mrs Galbally that it is obligatory and according to the antique dealers’ association to charge one pound when goods have to be moved up a staircase. I could be struck off if I did not make this small charge.’
‘A pound? I thought Mr Hammond had –’
‘It is to do with the stairs. I must honour the rules of the antique dealers’ association. For myself, I would easily waive it, but I have, you understand, my biennial returns to make.’
Mrs Galbally found her handbag and handed him a five-pound note. He gave her back three pounds and sixteen shillings, all the change he claimed to have.
‘Imagine it!’ exclaimed Mrs Galbally. ‘I thought that cleaning woman must be your wife come to help you carry the thing. I couldn’t understand why she was suddenly talking about six shillings an hour. She’s just what ‘I’m looking for.’
Mr Jeffs thought that it was rather like Mrs Hammond’s au pair girl making the mistake about the window-cleaner. He thought that but he did not say it. He imagined Mrs Galbally recounting the details of the episode at some later hour, recounting them to Hammond as they lay in the other room, smoking cigarettes or involved with one another’s flesh. ‘I thought she was the little Jew’s wife. I thought it was a family business, the way these people often have. I was surprised beyond measure when she mentioned about cleaning.’
Naturally enough, Mr Jeffs thought that he had seen the end of the matter. A Louis XVI console table, once the property of Mrs Hammond’s grandmother, was now the property of her husband’s mistress, or the joint property of husband and mistress, Mr Jeffs was not sure. It was all quite interesting, Mr Jeffs supposed, but he had other matters to concern him: he had further furniture to accumulate and to sell at the right moment; he had a living to make, he assured himself.
But a day or two after the day on which he had delivered the table to Mrs Galbally he received a telephone call from Mrs Hammond.
‘Am I speaking to Mr Jeffs?’ said Mrs Hammond.
‘Yes, this is he. Jeffs here.’
‘This is Mrs Hammond. I wonder if you remember, I sold you a table.’
‘I remember you perfectly, Mrs Hammond. We were amused at an error.’ Mr Jeffs made a noise that he trusted would sound like laughter. He was looking at the ceiling, without smiling.
‘The thing is,’ said Mrs Hammond, ‘are you by any chance still in possession of that table? Because if you are I think perhaps I had better come round and see you.’
There rushed into Mr Jeffs’ mind the vision of further attic rooms, of Mrs Hammond furnishing them with the table and anything else she could lay her hands on. He saw Mrs Hammond walking down a street, looking at beds and carpets in shop windows, her elbow grasped by a man who was not her husband.
‘Hullo, Mr Jeffs,’ said Mrs Hammond. ‘Are you there?’
‘Yes, I am here,’ said Mr Jeffs. ‘I am standing here listening to you, madam.’
‘Well?’ said Mrs Hammond.
‘I’m sorry to disappoint you about the table.’
‘You mean it’s sold? Already?’
‘I’m afraid that is the case.’
‘Oh God in heaven!’
‘I have other tables here. In excellent condition and keenly priced. You might not find a visit here a waste of time.’
‘I do not as a rule conduct my business in that way: customers coming into my house and that. But in your case, since we are known to one another –’
‘It wouldn’t do. I mean, it’s only the table I sold you I am possibly interested in. Mr Jeffs, can you quickly give me the name and address of the person who bought it?’
This question caught Mr Jeffs off his guard, so he at once replaced the telephone receiver. Mrs Hammond came through again a moment or so later, after he had had time to think. He said:
‘We were cut off, Mrs Hammond. There is something the matter with the line. Sir Andrew Charles was twice cut off this morning, phoning from Nigeria. I do apologize.’
‘I was saying, Mr Jeffs, that I would like to have the name and address of the person who bought the table.’
‘I cannot divulge that, Mrs Hammond. I’m afraid divulgences of that nature are very much against the rules of the antique dealers’ association. I could be struck off for such a misdemeanour.’
‘Oh dear. Oh dear, Mr Jeffs. Then what am I to do? Whatever is the answer?’
‘Is this important? There are ways and means. I could, for instance, act as your agent. I could approach the owner of the table in that guise and attempt to do my best.’
‘Would you, Mr Jeffs? That is most kind.’
‘I would have to charge the customary agent’s fee. I am sorry about that, Mrs Hammond, but the association does not permit otherwise.’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’
‘Shall I tell you about that fee, how it’s worked out and what it may amount to? It’s not much, a percentage.’
‘We can fix that up afterwards.’
‘Well, fine,’ said Mr Jeffs, who meant when he spoke of a percentage thirty-three and a third.
‘Please go up to twice the price you paid me. If it seems to be going higher I’d be grateful if you’d telephone for instructions.’
‘That’s the usual thing, Mrs Hammond.’
‘But do please try and keep the price down. Naturally.’
‘I’ll be in touch, Mrs Hammond.’
Walking about his house, shaking his body to keep his circulation in trim, Mr Jeffs wondered if tables nowadays had a part to play in lovers’ fantasies. It was in his interest to find out, he decided, since he could accumulate tables of the correct kind and advertise them astutely. He thought for a while longer and then entered his van. He drove it to Mrs Galbally’s attic room, taking a chance on finding her there.
‘Why, Mr Jeffs,’ said Mrs Galbally.
‘Yes,’ said Mr Jeffs.
She led him upstairs, trailing her curiosity behind her. She is thinking, he thought, that I have come to sell her another thing or two, but she does not care to order me out in case she is wrong, in case I have come to blackmail her.
‘Well, Mr Jeffs, what can I do for you?’
‘I have had a handsome offer for the Louis XVI table. Or a fairly handsome offer. Or an offer that might be turned into an exceedingly handsome offer. Do you take my meaning?’
‘But the table is mine. Are you telling me you wish to buy it back?’
‘I am saying something of the kind. I received hint of this offer and thought I should let you know at once. “I will act as Mrs Galbally’s agent,” I said to myself, “in case she is at all tempted to dispose of the article at one and a half times what she paid for it.’ ”
‘Oh, but no, Mr Jeffs.’
‘You are not interested?’
‘Not at all, I’m afraid.’
‘Suppose my client goes up to twice the price? How would you feel about that? Or how would Mr Hammond feel about that?’
‘Well, I am not quite certain who owns the article. That is why I mention the gentleman. Perhaps I should have contacted him. It was Mr Hammond who gave me the cheque.’
‘The table is mine. A gift. I would rather you didn’t contact Mr Hammond.’
‘Well, that is that, then. But since I have acted in your interest in this matter, Mrs Galbally, thinking that I should report the offer to you without delay and involving myself in travelling expenses etcetera, I’m afraid I shall have to charge you the usual agent’s fee. It is the ruling of the antique dealers’ association that a fee be charged on such occasions. I feel you understand?’
Mrs Galbally said she did understand. She gave him some money, and Mr Jeffs took his leave.
In his house Mr Jeffs considered for a further hour. Eventually he thought it wise to telephone Mrs Hammond and ascertain her husband’s office telephone number. He went out on to the street with a piece of paper in his hand which stated that he was deaf and dumb and wished urgently to have a telephone call made for him. He handed this to an elderly woman, pointing to a telephone booth.
‘May I know your husband’s office telephone number?’ said the woman to Mrs Hammond. ‘It’s a matter of urgency.’
‘But who are you?’
‘I am a Mrs Lacey, and I am phoning you on behalf of Sir Andrew Charles of Africa.’
‘I’ve heard that name before,’ said Mrs Hammond, and gave the telephone number of her husband’s office.
‘You say you have been to see Mrs Galbally,’ said Hammond. ‘And what did she say?’
‘I don’t believe she fully understood what was at stake. I don’t think she got the message.’
‘The table was a gift from me to Mrs Galbally. I can hardly ask for it back.’
‘This is an excellent offer, Mr Hammond.’
‘Oh, I don’t dispute that.’
‘I was wondering if you could use your influence with Mrs Galbally, that’s all. If you happen to be seeing her, that is.’
‘I’ll ring you back, Mr Jeffs.’
Mr Jeffs said thank you and then telephoned Mrs Hammond. ‘Negotiations are under way,’ he said.
But two days later negotiations broke down. Hammond telephoned Mr Jeffs to say that the table was to remain the property of Mrs Galbally. Mr Jeffs, sorrowfully, decided to drive round to tell Mrs Hammond, so that he could collect what little was owing him. He would tell her, he decided, and that would surely now be the end of the matter.
‘I’m afraid I have come up against a stone wall,’ he reported. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Hammond, about that, and I would trouble you now only for what is owing.’
He mentioned the sum, but Mrs Hammond seemed not to hear clearly. Tears rolled down her cheeks and left marks on the powder on her face. She took no notice of Mr Jeffs. She sobbed and shook, and further tears dropped from her eyes.
In the end Mrs Hammond left the room. Mr Jeffs remained because he had, of course, to wait for the money owing to him. He sat there examining the furniture and thinking it odd of Mrs Hammond to have cried so passionately and for so long. The au pair girl came in with a tray of tea for him, blushing as she arranged it, remembering, he imagined, the orders she had given him as regards the windows. He poured himself some tea and ate two pieces of shortbread. It was very quiet in the room, as though a funeral had taken place.
‘Whoever are you?’ said a child, a small girl of five.
Mr Jeffs looked at her and endeavoured to smile, forcing his lips back from his teeth.
‘My name is Mr Jeffs. What is your name?’
‘My name is Emma Hammond. Why are you having tea in our house?’
‘Because it was kindly brought to me.’
‘What is the matter with your mouth?’
‘That is how my mouth is made. Are you a good little girl?’
‘But why are you waiting here?’
‘Because I have to collect something that your mother has arranged to give me. A little money.’
‘A little money? Are you poor?’
‘It is money owing to me.’
‘Run along, Emma,’ said Mrs Hammond from the door, and when the child had gone she said:
‘I apologize, Mr Jeffs.’
She wrote him a cheque. He watched her, thinking of Hammond and Mrs Galbally and the table, all together in the attic rooms at the top of the big block of flats. He wondered what was going to happen. He supposed Mrs Hammond would be left with the child. Perhaps Mrs Galbally would marry Hammond then; perhaps they would come to this house and bring the table back with them, since Mrs Galbally was so attached to it, and perhaps they would take on the same au pair girl, and perhaps Mrs Hammond and the child would go to live in the attic rooms. They were all of a kind, Mr Jeffs decided: even the child seemed tarred with her elders’ sophistication. But if sides were to be taken, he liked Mrs Hammond best. He had heard of women going berserk in such circumstances, taking their lives even. He hoped Mrs Hammond would not do that.
‘Let me tell you, Mr Jeffs,’ said Mrs Hammond.
‘Oh now, it doesn’t matter.’
‘The table belonged to my grandmother, who died and left it to me in her will.’
‘Do not fret, Mrs Hammond. It’s all perfectly all right.’
‘We thought it ugly, my husband and I, so we decided to be rid of it.’
‘Your husband thought it was ugly?’
‘Well, yes. But I more than he. He doesn’t notice things so much.’
Mr Jeffs thought that he had noticed Mrs Galbally all right when Mrs Galbally had walked into this house. Mrs Hammond was lying her head off, he said to himself, because she was trying to save face: she knew quite well where the table was, she had known all along. She had wept because she could not bear the thought of it, her grandmother’s ugly table in the abode of sin.
‘So we put in an advertisement. We had only two replies. You and a woman.’
Mr Jeffs stood up, preparatory to going.
‘You see,’ said Mrs Hammond, ‘we don’t have room in a place like this for a table like that. It doesn’t fit in. Well, you can see for yourself.’
Mr Jeffs looked hard at her, not into her eyes or even at her face: he looked hard and seriously at the green wool of her dress. The woman said:
‘But almost as soon as it had gone I regretted everything. I remember the table all my life. My grandmother had left it to me as an act of affection as well as generosity.’
Mr Jeffs reckoned that the table had stood in the grandmother’s hall. He reckoned that Mrs Hammond as a child had been banished from rooms and had been bidden to stand by the table in the hall, crying and moaning. The table had mocked her childhood and it was mocking her again, with silent watching in an attic room. He could see the two of them, Mrs Galbally and Hammond, placing their big bulbous brandy glasses on the table and marching toward one another for a slick kiss.
‘Once I had sold it to you I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I remembered that my grandmother had always promised it to me. She was the only one who was kind to me as a child, Mr Jeffs. I felt that truly I had thrown all her love back at her. Every night since I sold it to you I’ve had wretched dreams. So you see why I was so very upset.’
The grandmother was cruel, thought Mr Jeffs. The. grandmother punished the child every hour of the day, and left the table as a reminder of her autocratic soul. Why could not Mrs Hammond speak the truth? Why could she not say that the spirit of the old dead grandmother had passed into the table and that the spirit and the table were laughing their heads off in Mrs Galbally’s room? Imagine, thought Mr Jeffs, a woman going to such lengths, and a woman whom he had passingly respected.
‘I’m sorry I’ve burdened you with all this, Mr Jeffs. I’m sorry it’s been such a bother. You have a kindly face.’
‘I am a Jewish dealer, madam. I have a Jewish nose; I am not handsome; I cannot smile.’
He was angry because he thought that she was patronizing him. She was lying still, and all of a sudden she was including him in her lies. She was insulting him with her talk of his face. Did she know his faults, his weaknesses? How dare she speak so?
‘The table should have passed from me to my daughter. It should have stayed in the family. I didn’t think.’
Mr Jeffs allowed himself to close his eyes. She can sit there telling those lies, he thought, one after another, while her own child plays innocently in the next room. The child will become a liar too. The child in her time will grow to be a woman who must cover up the humiliations she has suffered, who must put a face on things, and make the situation respectable with falsehoods.
With his eyes closed and his voice speaking in his mind, Mr Jeffs saw the figure of himself standing alone in his large Victorian house. Nothing was permanent in the house, not a stick of furniture remained there month by month. He sold and bought again. He laid no carpets, nor would he ever. He owned but the old wireless set because someone once had told him it was worthless.
‘Why are you telling me lies?’ shouted Mr Jeffs. ‘Why can’t you say the truth?’
He heard his voice shouting those words at Mrs Hammond and he saw the image of himself, standing quietly on the bare boards of his house. It was not his way to go shouting at people, or becoming involved, or wishing for lies to cease. These people were a law unto themselves; they did not concern him. He cooked his own food; he did not bother people.
‘Your grandmother is dead and buried,’ said Mr Jeffs to his amazement. ‘It is Mrs Galbally who is alive. She takes her clothes off, Mrs Hammond, and in comes your husband and takes off his. And the table sees. The table you have always known. Your childhood table sees it all and you cannot bear it. Why not be honest, Mrs Hammond? Why not say straight out to me: “Jew man, bargain with this Mrs Galbally and let me have my childhood table back.” I understand you, Mrs Hammond. I understand all that. I will trade anything on God’s earth, Mrs Hammond, but I understand that.’
There was a silence again in the room, and in it Mr Jeffs moved his eyes around until their gaze alighted on the face of Mrs Hammond. He saw the face sway, gently, from side to side, for Mrs Hammond was shaking her head. ‘I did not know any of that,’ Mrs Hammond was saying. Her head ceased to shake: she seemed like a statue.
Mr Jeffs rose and walked through the deep silence to the door. He turned then, and walked back again, for he had left behind him Mrs Hammond’s cheque. She seemed not to notice his movements and he considered it wiser in the circumstances not to utter the sounds of farewell. He left the house and started up the engine of his Austin van.
He saw the scene differently as he drove away: Mrs Hammond hanging her head and he himself saying that the lies were understandable. He might have brought Mrs Hammond a crumb of comfort, a word or two, a subtle shrug of the shoulder. Instead, in his clumsiness, he had brought her a shock that had struck her a blow. She would sit there, he imagined, just as he had left her, her face white, her body crouched over her sorrow; she would sit like that until her husband breezily arrived. And she would look at him in his breeziness and say: ‘The Jewish dealer has been and gone. He was there in that chair and he told me that Mrs Galbally has opened up a love-nest for you.’
Mr Jeffs drove on, aware of a sadness but aware as well that his mind was slowly emptying itself of Mrs Hammond and her husband and the beautiful Mrs Galbally. ‘I cook my own food,’ said Mr Jeffs aloud. ‘I am a good trader, and I do not bother anyone.’ He had no right to hope that he might have offered comfort. He had no business to take such things upon himself, to imagine that a passage of sympathy might have developed between himself and Mrs Hammond.
‘I cook my own food,’ said Mr Jeffs again. ‘I do not bother anyone.’ He drove in silence after that, thinking of nothing at all. The chill of sadness had left him, and the mistake he had made appeared to him as a fact that could not be remedied. He noticed that dusk was falling; and he returned to the house where he had never lit a fire, where the furniture loomed and did not smile at him, where nobody wept and nobody told a lie.
A School Story
Every night after lights-out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial storytelling. One by one we contributed our pieces, holding the stage from the gloom for five or six minutes apiece. Many offerings were of a trite enough order: the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman on a series of desert islands, and what the drunk said to the Pope. But often the stories were real: reminiscences from a short past, snippets of overheard conversation, descriptions of the naked female body in unguarded moments. Only Markham deliberately repeated himself, telling us again and again, and by unanimous demand, about the death of his mother. On a night when no one had much to say, Markham would invariably be called upon; and none of us ever expected to hear anything new. We were satisfied that it was so; because Markham told his story well and it was, to us, a fascinating one.
‘It was like this, you see. One Sunday morning my father and I were walking up Tavistock Hill and I asked him to tell me about my mother. It was a good sunny morning in early May and my father looked up at the sky and started on about how beautiful she’d been. So then, when I could get a word in, I asked him about how she’d died and that. Well, he took an extra breath or two and said to prepare myself. I assured him I was well prepared, and then he told me about how they had been staying with these friends in Florence and how they had set out to the hills to do some shooting. They rode out in a great Italian shooting-brake and soon they were slaying the birds like nobody’s business. But in the middle of everything there was this accident and my mother was lying in a pool of blood and all the Italians were throwing up their hands and saying “Blessed Mother of Jesus, what a terrible thing!” I said: “Did her gun go off by accident? Was she not carrying it correctly or what?” And my father said it wasn’t like that at all, it was his gun that went off by accident and what a shocking thing it was to be the instrument of one’s wife’s slaughter. Well, sharp as a knife I could see the lie in his face and I said to myself; “Accident, forsooth! Murder more like.” Or, anyway, words to that effect. You’ll understand with a discovery like that fresh on the mind one is in an emotional tizzy and apt to forget the exact order of thinking. Why was I certain? I’ll tell you, boys, why I was certain: because within a six-month the father had married the dead mother’s sister. My stepmother to this day. And I’ll tell you another thing: I have plans laid to wipe out those two with a couple of swoops of a butcher’s knife. Am I not, when all’s said and done, a veritable pocket Hamlet? And isn’t it right that I should dream at night of the sharpening of the knife?’
Markham had a long, rather serious face; deeply set, very blue eyes; and smooth fair hair the colour of yellow terracotta. People liked him, but nobody knew him very well. His stories about his family and the threats they exposed were taken only half seriously; and when he talked in this way he seemed to be speaking outside his role. Markham was too quiet, too pleasant, too attractive to be mixed up in this way. There was something wrong, not so much with what he said – which we quite understood, whether we thought of it as fact or not – as with Markham’s saying it. That at least is how it appears in retrospect, to me and to the others with whom I have since discussed it. Then, we scarcely analyzed our feelings; after all, we were only fifteen at the time of the Markham affair.
‘I’ve got some bread from Dining Hall,’ Williams said. ‘Let’s toast it in the boilerhouse.’ He drew from beneath his jacket four rounds of hard-looking bread and a couple of pieces of straightened wire. His small red-rimmed eyes darted about my face as though seeking some minute, mislaid article. He held out a piece of wire and I took it from him, already recognizing its utter uselessness for the task in hand. One had to open the top of the boiler and toast from above, guiding the bread far into the bowels of the ironwork until it was poised neatly above the glowing coke. It was a business of expertise, and a single length of wire in place of an expanding toasting fork indicated rudimentary disaster.
It was mid-afternoon and, recovering from a cold, I was ‘off games’. Williams, who suffered from asthma, was rarely seen on the games field. He disliked any form of physical exercise and he used his disability as an excuse to spend solitary afternoons hanging around the classrooms or enjoying a read and a smoke in the lavatories. He was despised for his laziness, his unprepossessing appearance, and his passion for deception. I said I would join him on his expedition to the boilerhouse.
‘I’ve snitched some jam,’ he said, ‘and a pat or two of butter.’
We walked in silence, Williams occasionally glancing over his shoulder in his customary furtive manner. In the boilerhouse he laid the bread on the seat of the boilerman’s chair and extracted the jam and butter from the depths of his clothes. They were separately wrapped in two sheets of paper torn from an exercise book. The jam was raspberry and contact with the paper had caused the ruled lines to run. Fearing the effects of this, I said at once that as far as I was concerned the addition of butter was quite sufficient.
The toast was badly burnt and tasted of smoke. Williams ate his ravenously, wiping his fingers on his trouser pockets. I nibbled at mine and eventually threw it into the corner. At this Williams expostulated, picked up the discarded piece, wiped it and smeared on the remains of the jam. He made a crunching noise as he ate, and explained that his inordinate appetite was due to the presence of worms in his body.
There was a footfall on the steps outside and a moment later a figure appeared, sharply silhouetted in the doorway. We could not at first establish its identity, and Williams, speaking loudly, said to me: ‘It has been well worth while. The knowledge we have gained of our school’s heating system will stand us in good stead. It is well to put a use to one’s time in this way.’ The figure advanced, and Williams, seeing that it was not the headmaster, sniggered. ‘It’s only bloody Markham,’ he said. ‘I thought it was Bodger at least.’
‘I have come to smoke,’ Markham announced, offering each of us a small, thin cigar.
‘When I am fully grown and equipped for life,’ Williams said, ‘I intend to pursue a legal career. As well, I shall smoke only the most expensive cigars. One can well afford such a policy if one makes a success of the law.’
Markham and I, concerned with the lighting of our tobacco, heard this pronouncement in silence.
‘It may be,’ Williams went on, ‘that I shall learn in time to roll the leaves together myself. The female thigh, I understand, is just the instrument for such a chore.’
‘Williams will make an excellent lawyer,’ Markham remarked.
‘Certainly he will be splendid beneath his wig,’ I said.
‘And what,’ Williams asked, ‘do you intend to do with your years, Markham?’
‘Oh, they are well numbered. I shall hang quite soon for the slaughter of my father.’
‘Would you not wait a while that I might defend you?’
‘It is not an action you could readily defend surely? I am guilty already. I would prefer not to die, but I would not wish to dissociate myself from my crime.’
Williams, puffing hard and with the cigar clamped in the centre of his teeth, said:
‘Markham’s a bloody madman, eh?’
‘Damn it, isn’t it correct that I should be hatching schemes of vengeance? Wasn’t it my own mother? Would you do less, Mr Williams? Answer me now, would you do less?’
‘Ah Markham, I wouldn’t go about with the noose around my neck before it was time for it. I’d hold my peace on that account.’
‘Puny, Williams, puny.’
‘But wise, none the less.’ He kicked a piece of coke across the floor, following it with his glance. He said: ‘Anyway, Markham will never do it. Markham is all talk.’
‘This is a good cigar,’ Markham said. ‘May we enjoy many another.’
‘Yes,’ said Williams agreeably enough. ‘A fine drag.’
We smoked in silence. Looking back on it, it seems certain that it all began that afternoon in the boilerhouse. Had I not met Williams on the way to his toasting session, had Markham not later shared his cigars with us, how different the course of events might have been. My friendship with Markham might never have come about; Williams might never have been transformed from a cunning nonentity into a figure of mystery and power; and Markham, somehow, might have dodged the snare he had already set for himself.
Becoming friends with Markham was an odd thing, he being so silent, so unforthcoming on any subject except the death of his mother. Yet he was sunny rather than sullen; thoughtful rather than brooding. We walked together on the hills behind the school, often without exchanging more than a dozen words. In spite of this our friendship grew. I discovered that Markham’s father and stepmother were now in Kenya. Markham saw them only once a year, during the summer holidays; he spent Easter and Christmas with a grandmother on the south coast.
The other odd aspect of this new relationship between Markham and me was the attitude of Williams. He hung around us. Often, uninvited, he accompanied us on our walks. He took to sidling up to us and whispering: ‘Markham will never do it. Markham’s just a madman, eh?’ Markham rarely replied. He stared at Williams with a puzzled expression and smiled.
When he came on walks with us Williams would ask Markham to tell us about the shooting accident in Florence, and this of course Markham never tired of doing. He didn’t seem to resent Williams. I think he was more generous than the rest of us about people like Williams. Certainly he was more generous than I was. Frankly, Williams used to set my teeth on edge. I found him alone one day and asked him bluntly what he was up to. He sniffed at me and asked me what I meant.
‘Why do you follow Markham and me around?’ I said. ‘Why don’t you leave Markham alone?’
Williams laughed. ‘Markham’s an interesting bird.’
‘What are you up to, Williams?’
But he wouldn’t tell me. He said: ‘I’m an unhealthy personage.’ He laughed again and walked away.
This exchange had no effect on Williams. He still haunted our movements, chattering of his future in the legal world or retailing the fruits of an hour’s eavesdropping. When we were alone together Markham no longer repeated his famous story or made any allusion to this particular aspect of life. I came to realize that although he truly hated his father it had become a joke with him to talk about it. I was the first close friend Markham had known, and he was quite unused to the communication that such a relationship involved. It was only very gradually that new topics of conversation developed between us.
But there was always Williams, devotedly determined, it seemed, to wrap Markham and his story closer and closer together. We formed, I suppose, an odd kind of triangle.
At the beginning of the autumn term the headmaster, Bodger, addressed us at length about this and that, announcing the names of the new prefects and supplying us with fresh items of school routine. When he had finished this part of his peroration he paused for a suitable moment and then he said:
‘There are times, boys, in the lives of us all when we must display the ultimate bravery. When we must face the slings and arrows with a fortitude we may perhaps have never had call to employ before. Such a fearful moment has come to one of our number. I would ask you to show him kindness and understanding. I would ask you this term to help him on his way; to make that way as easy as you may. For us it is a test as it is for him. A test of our humanity. A test of our Christian witness. It is with the greatest grief, boys, that I must report to you the sudden and violent death of Ian Markham’s father and stepmother.’
Markham had not yet returned. During the fortnight of his absence speculation and rumour ran high. Neither Bodger nor his henchmen seemed to know about the threats he had been wont to issue. Only we who were in their care questioned the accuracy of the facts as they had been presented to us: that a Mau Mau marauder armed with a heavy knife had run berserk through the Markham farm in Kenya. Was not the coincidence too great? Was it not more likely that Markham had finally implemented his words with action?
‘Markham’s a madman, eh?’ Williams said to me.
When he did return, Markham was changed. He no longer smiled. Waiting expectantly in the dormitory for a new and gory story, his companions received only silence from Markham’s bed. He spoke no more of his mother; and when anyone sympathized with him on his more recent loss he seemed not to know what was being spoken of. He faded into the background and became quite unremarkable. Pointedly rejecting my companionship, he ended our brief friendship. Instead, he and Williams became inseparable.
It was, I remember, a particularly beautiful autumn. Red, dead leaves gleamed all day in the soft sunlight. On warm afternoons I walked alone through the gorse-covered hills. I did not make friends easily; and I missed the company of Markham.
As the weeks passed it became clear the murder of Markham’s parents by the Mau Mau was now generally accepted. It might be thought that against a background of Markham’s stories and avowed intentions a certain fear would have developed; an uneasiness about sharing one’s daily existence with such a character. It was not so. Markham seemed almost dead himself; he was certainly not a figure to inspire terror. The more one noticed him the more unlikely it appeared that he could possibly have had any hand in the events in Kenya, although he had been in the house at the time and had himself escaped undamaged.
I thought that only I must have been aware of the ominous nature of Markham’s association with Williams. Williams, I knew, was up to no good. He whispered constantly to Markham, grinning slyly, his small eyes drilling into Markham’s face. I didn’t like it and I didn’t know what to do.
One afternoon I walked into the town with a boy called Block. We went to a café with the intention of passing an hour over tea and cakes and, if the coast seemed clear, a surreptitious smoke.
‘This is an uncivilized place,’ Block remarked as we sat down. ‘I cannot imagine why we came here.’
‘There is nowhere else.’
‘It is at least too revolting for the Bodger or any of his band. Look, there’s our dreaded Williams. With Markham.’
They were sitting at a table in an alcove. Williams, talking as usual, was fiddling with the spots on his face. As I watched him, he picked a brightly coloured cake from the plate between them. It looked an uninviting article, indeed scarcely edible. He nibbled at one corner and replaced it on the plate.
‘Whatever does Markham see in him?’ Block asked.
I shook my head. Block was a simple person, but when he next spoke he revealed a depth I had not before had evidence of. He cocked his head to one side and said: ‘Williams hates Markham. You can see it easily enough. And I believe Markham’s terrified of him. You used to know Markham rather well. D’you know why?’
Again I shook my head. But there was no doubt about it, Block was quite right.
The nub of the relationship was William’s hatred. It was as though hatred of some kind was essential to Markham; as though, since he had no father to hate now, he was feeding on this unexplained hatred of himself. It all seemed a bit crazy, but I felt that something of the kind must be true.
‘I feel I should do something about it all,’ I said. ‘Williams is a horribly untrustworthy fellow. God knows what his intentions are.’
Did Williams know something we others were ignorant of? Something of the double death in Kenya?
‘What can you do?’ Block said, lighting the butt of a cigarette.
‘I wonder if I should talk to Pinshow?’
Block laughed. Pinshow was a fat, middle-aged master who welcomed the personal problems of his pupils. He was also a bit of an intellectual. It was enough to tell Mr Pinshow that one had an ambition to become a writer or an actor to ensure endless mugs of black coffee in Mr Pinshow’s room.
‘I often wonder if we don’t underestimate Pinshow,’ I said. ‘There’s lots of goodwill in the man. And good ideas quite often originate in unexpected quarters. He just might be able to suggest something.’
‘Perhaps. You know more about Markham than I do. I mean, you probably know more about what the matter is. He doesn’t seem much good at anything any more, does he?’
I looked across the room at his sad, lost-looking face. ‘No, I’m afraid he doesn’t.’
Block suddenly began to laugh. ‘Have you heard Butler’s one about the sick budgerigar?’
I said I didn’t think I had, and he leaned forward and told me. Listening to this obscene account of invalid bird-life, I made up my mind to see Pinshow as soon as possible.
The evening light faded and Mr Pinshow continued to talk. I tried in the gloom to take some biscuits without his observing my action. He pushed the box closer to me, oblivious, or so I hoped, of my deceit. ‘Out of the slimy mud of words,’ said Mr Pinshow, ‘out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions, approximate thoughts and feelings… there spring the perfect order of speech and the beauty of incantation.’ Mr Pinshow often said this. I think it may have been his favourite quotation. I drained my coffee mug, filling my mouth with bitter sediment as I did so.
I said: ‘There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love.’
‘Ah, Wilder.’ Mr Pinshow drew a large coloured handkerchief from his trouser pocket and blew his nose.
‘The only survival,’ I added, ‘the only meaning.’
Mr Pinshow replaced his handkerchief. He scratched a match along the side of its box and held the flame to his pipe. ‘Love’ he said, puffing, ‘or love? One sort or the other sort?’
‘The other sort, sir?’
‘You question such a division? Good. Good.’
I said: ‘I wanted to speak to you, sir.’
‘Quite right. Fire away, then.’
‘In confidence, sir, I think Williams is a bad influence on Markham.’
‘I think Markham may be very upset about his parents’ death, sir. Williams is the last person…’
‘Come now, in what way a bad influence? Speak freely, my friend. We must straightway establish the facts of the case.’
I knew then that the whole thing was going to be useless. It had been a mistake to come to Pinshow. I could not reveal to him the evidence on which my fears were based. I said nothing, hoping he would not press me.
‘I see,’ he said.
‘Perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill, sir.’
Mr Pinshow, however, did not think so at all. ‘This is a serious business,’ he said. ‘Though it is unusual in these matters, I am glad you came to me.’
Clearly, I had given the man a completely false impression. I attempted to rectify this, but Mr Pinshow waved me to silence.
‘Say no more, my friend. Leave the matter with me. You can rely on me to speak with discretion in the right directions.’
‘Sir, I hope I have not misled you.’
‘No, no, no.’
‘It is not a serious thing, sir. It is just that Markham was once a friend of mine and I am sure that now he…’
Mr Pinshow held up his hand. He smiled. ‘You are a good fellow. Do not despair. All will be well.’
God knows, I thought, what damage I have done.
‘Mind your own bloody business,’ Williams muttered to me. ‘Any more of this kind of stuff to Pinshow and I’ll have you for slander. Don’t you know that man’s a menace?’
‘Go to hell, Williams.’ And Williams, seeming a fit candidate for such a destination, shuffled angrily away.
After that, I decided to forget about Markham and Williams. After all, it had nothing to do with me; and in any case I appeared to have no option. I settled down to concentrating a little harder on my work and then, when I really had forgotten all about this strange alliance, I was summoned from class one day by the headmaster.
He stood by the window of his study, a terrible, sickly figure of immense height. He remained with his back to me when I entered the room and spoke to me throughout the interview from this position. ‘You will tell me what you know about Markham and the boy Williams,’ he said. ‘Do not lie, boy. I know a lie. I feel a lie on its utterance. Likewise, do not exaggerate. You will repeat to me simply and honestly all that is apposite. Unburden yourself, boy, that you may leave the room with your duty well done.’
I did not intend to lie. To conceal three-quarters of the story was not to lie. I said: ‘The whole truth, sir, is that…’ I paused not knowing how to go on. The headmaster said:
‘Well, boy, let us have haste with the whole truth.’
‘I can tell you nothing, sir.’
‘Yes, sir. I know nothing of Markham and Williams.’
‘They are boys in this school. You know that, I presume? You have associated with them. You have spoken to Mr Pinshow of these boys. If their relationship is an illicit one I wish to know it. You will achieve little by reticence.’
‘There is nothing illicit, sir, in their friendship. I spoke to Mr Pinshow merely because I felt Williams to be the wrong sort of friend for Markham at this particular time.’
‘That is a presumptuous decision for you to make, boy.’
‘Why, then, did you so perversely make it?’
‘I like Markham, sir.’
‘Why, then, did you not see to it that his days were made easier by persuading him personally against an ill influence?’
‘Markham no longer wished for my companionship, sir.’
‘You had harmed him in some manner?’
‘No, sir. At least not that I know of.’
‘Yes or no, boy? Do not leave yourself a cowardly loophole.’
‘No, sir. I had not harmed him.’
‘Well then, why did he not wish to converse with you?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know.’
‘You do not know. It is unnecessary to be afraid as well.’
‘You see, boy, that you have placed me in an intolerable position with your wild irresponsibilities? I am the fount of authority in this school. You have made me uneasy in my mind. You have forced me to pursue a course I see no good reason for pursuing. Yet because there may be one tittle of reality in your guarded suspicions I must act as I do not wish to act. Have you ever placed yourself in a headmaster’s shoes?’
‘No, sir. I had sensed as much. They are shoes that pinch, boy. It is well to remember that.’
‘Walk forward to my desk, boy, and press the bell you see there. We will order this affair one way or the other.’
Markham and Williams were summoned. When they entered, the headmaster turned from the window and faced us. He said to them:
‘Your friendship is in dispute. Your accuser stands beside you. Do not lie, boys. I know a lie. I can feel a lie on its utterance. Have you reason for shame?’
Williams, whose eyes were fastened on the legs of the headmaster’s desk, shook his head. Markham replied that he had no cause to be ashamed.
‘On what then is your relationship based? Have you like interests? Of what do you speak together?’
‘Of many things, sir,’ Williams said. ‘Politics and affairs of state. Of our ambitions, sir. And our academic progress as the term passes.’
‘We talk of one subject only, sir,’ Markham said. ‘The death of my father and stepmother.’
‘Yet you, boy,’ the headmaster said to Williams, ‘would claim a wider conversational field. The air is blackened with the lie. Which boy are we to believe?’
‘Markham is ill, sir. He is not at all himself. I give him what help I can. He does not recall the full extent of our conversation.’
‘We speak of one subject,’ Markham repeated.
‘Why, boy, do you speak of this subject to the exclusion of all others?’
‘Because I killed my father, sir. And my stepmother too.’
‘Markham is ill, sir. He…’
‘Leave the room, you boys. Markham, you shall remain.’
Neither Williams nor I spoke as we walked away from the headmaster’s door. Then, as our ways were about to divide, I said:
‘You know he didn’t. You know it is not true.’
Williams did not look at me. He said: That’s right. Why didn’t you tell Bodger that?’
‘You’ve made him believe he did it, Williams.’
‘Markham’s all talk. Markham’s a madman, eh?’
‘You’re an evil bastard, Williams.’
‘That’s right. I’m an unhealthy personage.’
He went on his way and I stood where he had left me, looking back at the closed door of the headmaster’s study. The little red light which indicated that for no reason whatsoever should the headmaster be disturbed gleamed above it. Within, I guessed that the curtains were by now closely drawn, since to do so was the headmaster’s practice on all grave occasions.
Suddenly I had the absurd notion of returning to this darkened room and demanding to be heard, since now I was free to speak. I felt for the moment that I could put his case more clearly, more satisfactorily than Markham himself. I felt that I knew everything: the horror of the thought that had leapt in Markham’s mind when first his father told him of the accident in Florence; the game he had made of it, and the later fears that Williams had insidiously played upon. But as I paused in doubt I heard the urgent chiming of a bell, and, like the object of some remote control, I answered the familiar summons.
That same evening Markham was driven away. He was seen briefly in the headmaster’s hall, standing about in his overcoat, seeming much as usual.
‘They’ve sent him up to Derbyshire,’ said Mr Pinshow when later I attempted to elicit information. ‘Poor lad; so healthy in the body, too.’ He would say no more, but I knew what he was thinking; and often since I have thought of Markham, still healthy in his body, growing up and getting older in the place they had found for him in Derbyshire. I have thought of Williams too, similarly growing older though in other circumstances, marrying perhaps and begetting children, and becoming in the end the man he had said he would one day be.
The Penthouse Apartment
‘Flowers?’ said Mr Runca into his pale blue telephone receiver. ‘Shall we order flowers? What’s the procedure?’ He stared intently at his wife as he spoke, and his wife, eating her breakfast grapefruit, thought that it would seem to be her husband’s intention to avoid having to pay for flowers. She had become used to this element in her husband; it hardly ever embarrassed her.
‘The procedure’s quite simple,’ said a soft voice in Mr Runca’s ear. ‘The magazine naturally supplies the flowers. If we can just agree between us what the flowers should be.’
‘Indeed,’ said Mr Runca. ‘It’s to be remembered that not all blooms will go with the apartment. Our fabrics must be allowed to speak for themselves, you know. Well, you’ve seen. You know what I mean.’
‘Indeed I do, Mr Runca –’
‘They came from Thailand, in fact. You might like to mention that.’
‘So you said, Mr Runca. The fabrics are most beautiful.’
Mr Runca, hearing this statement, nodded. He said, because he was used to saying it when the apartment was discussed:
‘It’s the best-dressed apartment in London.’
‘I’ll come myself at three,’ said the woman on the magazine. ‘Will someone be there at half past two, say, so that the photographers can set up their gear and test the light?’
‘We have an Italian servant,’ said Mr Runca, ‘who opened the door to you before and who’ll do the same thing for the photographers.’
‘Till this afternoon then,’ said the woman on the magazine, speaking lightly and gaily, since that was her manner.
Mr Runca carefully replaced the telephone receiver. His wife, a woman who ran a boutique, drank some coffee and heard her husband say that the magazine would pay for the flowers and would presumably not remove them from the flat after the photography had taken place. Mrs Runca nodded. The magazine was going to devote six pages to the Runcas’ flat: a display in full colour of its subtleties and charm, with an article about how the Runcas had between them planned the décor.
‘I’d like to arrange the flowers myself,’ said Mrs Runca. ‘Are they being sent round?’
Mr Runca shook his head. The flowers, he explained, were to be brought to the house by the woman from the magazine at three o’clock, the photographers having already had time to deploy their materials in the manner they favoured.
‘But how ridiculous!’ cried Mrs Runca. ‘That’s completely hopeless. The photographers with their cameras poised for three o’clock and the woman arriving then with the flowers. How long does the female imagine it’ll take to arrange them? Does she think it can be done in a matter of minutes?’
Mr Runca picked up the telephone and dialled the number of the magazine. He mentioned the name of the woman he had recently been speaking to. He spoke to her again. He said:
‘My wife points out that none of this is satisfactory. The flowers will take time to arrange, naturally. What point is there in keeping your photographers waiting? And I myself haven’t got all day.’
‘It shouldn’t take long to arrange the flowers.’
Mrs Runca lit her first cigarette of the day, imagining that the woman on the magazine was saying something like that. She had a long, rather thin face, and pale grey hair that had the glow of aluminium. Her hands were long also, hands that had grown elegant in childhood, with fingernails that now were of a fashionable length, metallically painted, a reflection of her hair. Ten years ago, on money borrowed from her husband, she had opened her boutique. She had called it St Catherine, and had watched it growing into a flourishing business with a staff of five women and a girl messenger.
‘Very well then,’ said the woman on the magazine, having listened further to Mr Runca. ‘I’ll have the flowers sent round this morning.’
‘They’re coming round this morning,’ reported Mr Runca to his wife.
‘I have to be at St Catherine at twelve,’ she said, ‘absolutely without fail.’
‘My wife has to be at her business at midday,’ said Mr Runca, and the woman on the magazine cursed silently. She promised that the flowers would be in the Runcas’ penthouse apartment within three-quarters of an hour.
Mr Runca rose to his feet and stood silently for a minute. He was a rich, heavily jowled man, the owner of three publications that appealed to those involved in the clothing trade. He was successful in much the same way as his wife was, and he felt, as she did, that efficiency and a stern outlook were good weapons in the business of accumulating wealth. Once upon a time they had both been poor and had recognized certain similar qualities in one another, had seen the future as a more luxurious time, as in fact it had become. They were proud that once again their penthouse apartment was to be honoured by photographs and a journalist. It was the symbol of their toil; and in a small way it had made them famous.
Mr Runca walked from the spacious room that had one side made entirely of glass, and his feet caused no sound as he crossed a white carpet of Afghanistan wool. He paused in the hall to place a hat on his head and gloves on his hands before departing for a morning’s business.
At ten to ten the flowers arrived and by a quarter past eleven Mrs Runca had arranged them to her satisfaction. The Runcas’ Italian maid, called Bianca, cleaned the flat most carefully, seeking dust in an expert way, working with method and a conscience, which was why the Runcas employed her. Mrs Runca warned her to be in at half past two because the photographers were coming then. ‘I must go out now then,’ replied Bianca, ‘for shopping. I will make these photographers coffee, I suppose?’ Mrs Runca said to give the men coffee in the kitchen, or tea, if they preferred it. ‘Don’t let them walk about the place with cups in their hands,’ she said, and went away.
In another part of the block of flats lived Miss Winton with her Cairn terrier. Her flat was different from the Runcas’; it contained many ornaments that had little artistic value, was in need of redecoration, and had a beige linoleum on the floor of the bathroom. Miss Winton did not notice her surroundings much; she considered the flat pretty in its way, and comfortable to live in. She was prepared to leave it at that.
‘Well,’ remarked Miss Winton to her dog in the same moment that Mrs Runca was stepping into a taxi-cab, ‘what shall we do?’
The dog made no reply beyond wagging its tail. ‘I have eggs to buy,’ said Miss Winton, ‘and honey, and butter. Shall we go and do all that?’
Miss Winton had lived in the block of flats for fifteen years. She had seen many tenants come and go. She had heard about the Runcas and the model place they had made of the penthouse. It was the talk of London, Miss Winton had been told by Mrs Neck, who kept a grocer’s shop near by; the Runcas were full of taste, apparently. Miss Winton thought it odd that London should talk about a penthouse flat, but did not ever mention that to Mrs Neck, who didn’t seem to think it odd in the least. To Miss Winton the Runcas were like many others who had come to live in the same building: people she saw and did not know. There were no children in the building, that being a rule; but animals, within reason, were permitted.
Miss Winton left her flat and walked with her dog to Mrs Neck’s shop. ‘Fresh buns,’ said Mrs Neck before Miss Winton had made a request. ‘Just in, dear.’ But Miss Winton shook her head and asked for eggs and honey and butter. ‘Seven and ten,’ said Mrs Neck, reckoning the cost before reaching a hand out for the articles. She said it was shocking that food should cost so much, but Miss Winton replied that in her opinion two shillings wasn’t exorbitant for half a pound of butter. ‘I remember it ninepence,’ said Mrs Neck, ‘and twice the stuff it was. I’d sooner a smear of Stork than what they’re turning out today.’ Miss Winton smiled, and agreed that the quality of everything had gone down a bit.
Afterwards, for very many years, Miss Winton remembered this conversation with Mrs Neck. She remembered Mrs Neck saying: ‘I’d sooner a smear of Stork than what they’re turning out today,’ and she remembered the rather small, dark-haired girl who entered Mrs Neck’s shop at that moment, who smiled at both of them in an innocent way. ‘Is that so?’ said the Runcas’ maid, Bianca. ‘Quality has gone down?’
‘Lord love you, Miss Winton knows what she’s talking about,’ said Mrs Neck. ‘Quality’s gone to pieces.’
Miss Winton might have left the shop then, for her purchasing was over, but the dark-haired young girl had leaned down and was patting the head of Miss Winton’s dog. She smiled while doing that. Mrs Neck said:
‘Miss Winton’s in the flats too.’
‘This young lady,’ explained Mrs Neck to Miss Winton, ‘works for the Runcas in the penthouse we hear so much about.’
‘Today they are coming to photograph,’ said Bianca. ‘People from a magazine. And they will write down other things about it.’
‘Again?’ said Mrs Neck, shaking her head in wonderment. ‘What can I do for you?’
Bianca asked for coffee beans and a sliced loaf, still stroking the head of the dog.
Miss Winton smiled. ‘He has taken to you,’ she said to Bianca, speaking timidly because she felt shy of people, especially foreigners. ‘He’s very good company.’
‘Pretty little dog,’ said Bianca.
Miss Winton walked with Bianca back to the block of flats, and when they arrived in the large hallway Bianca said:
‘Miss Winton, would you like to see the penthouse with all its fresh flowers and fruits about the place? It is at its best in the morning sunlight as Mr Runca was remarking earlier. It is ready for the photographers.’
Miss Winton, touched that the Italian girl should display such thought-fulness towards an elderly spinster, said that it would be a pleasure to look at the penthouse flat but added that the Runcas might not care to have her walking about their property.
‘No, no,’ said Bianca, who had not been long in the Runcas’ employ. ‘Mrs Runca would love you to see it. And him too. “Show anyone you like,” they’ve said to me. Certainly.’ Bianca was not telling the truth, but time hung heavily on her hands in the empty penthouse and she knew she would enjoy showing Miss Winton the flowers that Mrs Runca had so tastefully arranged, and the curtains that had been imported specially from Thailand, and the rugs and the chairs and the pictures on the walls.
‘Well,’ began Miss Winton.
‘Yes,’ said Bianca and pressed Miss Winton and her dog into the lift.
But when the lift halted at the top and Bianca opened the gates Miss Winton experienced a small shock. ‘Mr Morgan is here too,’ said Bianca. ‘Mending the water.’
Miss Winton felt that she could not now refuse to enter the Runcas’ flat, since to do so would be to offend the friendly little Italian girl, yet she really did not wish to find herself face to face with Mr Morgan in somebody else’s flat. ‘Look here,’ she said, but Bianca and the dog were already ahead of her. ‘Come on, Miss Winton,’ said Bianca.
Miss Winton found herself in the Runcas’ small and fastidious hall, and then in the large room that had one side made of glass. She looked around her and noted all the low furniture and the pale Afghanistan carpet and the objects scattered economically about, and the flowers that Mrs Runca had arranged. ‘Have coffee,’ said Bianca, going quickly off to make some, and the little dog, noting her swift movement and registering it as a form of play, gave a single bark and darted about himself, in a small circle. ‘Shh,’ whispered Miss Winton. ‘Really,’ she protested, following Bianca to the kitchen, ‘don’t bother about coffee.’ ‘No, no,’ said Bianca, pretending not to understand, thinking that there was plenty of time for herself and Miss Winton to have coffee together, sitting in the kitchen, where Mrs Runca had commanded coffee was to be drunk. Miss Winton could hear a light hammering and guessed it was Mr Morgan at work on the water-pipes. She could imagine him coming out of the Runcas’ bathroom and stopping quite still as soon as he saw her. He would stand there in his brown overall, large and bulky, peering at her through his spectacles, chewing, probably, a piece of his moustache. His job was to attend to the needs of the tenants when the needs were not complicated, but whenever Miss Winton telephoned down to his basement and asked for his assistance he would sigh loudly into the telephone and say that he mightn’t manage to attend to the matter for a day or two. He would come, eventually, late at night but still in his brown overall, his eyes watering, his breath rich with alcohol. He would look at whatever the trouble was and make a swift diagnosis, advising that experts should be summoned the following morning. He didn’t much like her, Miss Winton thought; no doubt he considered her a poor creature, unmarried at sixty-four, thin and weak-looking, with little sign that her physical appearance had been attractive in girlhood.
‘It’s a lovely place,’ said Miss Winton to Bianca. ‘But I think perhaps we should go now. Please don’t bother with coffee; and thank you most awfully.’
‘No, no,’ said Bianca, and while she was saying it Mr Morgan entered the kitchen in his brown overall.
One day in 1952 Miss Winton had mislaid her bicycle. It had disappeared without trace from the passage in the basement where Mr Morgan had said she might keep it. ‘I have not seen it,’ he had said slowly and deliberately at that time. ‘I know of no cycle.’ Miss Winton had reminded him that the bicycle had always had a place in the passage, since he had said she might keep it there. But Mr Morgan, thirteen years younger then, had replied that he could recall none of that. ‘Stolen,’ he had said. ‘I dare say stolen. I should say the coke men carted it away. I cannot always be watching the place, y’know. I have me work, madam.’ She had asked him to inquire of the coke men if they had in error removed her bicycle; she had spoken politely and with a smile, but Mr Morgan had repeatedly shaken his head, pointing out that he could not go suggesting that the coke men had made off with a bicycle, saying that the coke men would have the law on him. ‘The wife has a cycle,’ Mr Morgan had said. ‘A Rudge. I could obtain it for you, madam. Fifty shillings?’ Miss Winton had smiled again and had walked away, having refused this offer and given thanks for it.
‘Was you wanting something, madam?’ asked Mr Morgan now, his lower lip pulling a strand of his moustache into his mouth. ‘This is the Runcas’ flat up here.’
Miss Winton tried to smile at him. She thought that whatever she said he would be sarcastic in a disguised way. He would hide his sarcasm beneath the words he chose, implying it only with the inflection of his voice. Miss Winton said:
‘Bianca kindly invited me to see the penthouse.’
‘It is a different type of place from yours and mine,’ replied Mr Morgan, looking about him. ‘I was attending to a tap in the bathroom. Working, Miss Winton.’
‘It is to be photographed today,’ said Bianca. ‘Mr and Mrs Runca will return early from their businesses.’
‘Was you up here doing the flowers, madam?’
He had called her madam during all the years they had known one another, pointing up the fact that she had no right to the title.
‘A cup of coffee, Mr Morgan?’ said Bianca, and Miss Winton hoped he would refuse.
‘With two spoons of sugar in it,’ said Mr Morgan, nodding his head and adding: ‘D’you know what the Irish take in their coffee?’ He began to laugh rumbustiously, ignoring Miss Winton and appearing to share a joke with Bianca. ‘A tot of the hard stuff,’ said Mr Morgan. ‘Whisky.’
Bianca laughed too. She left the kitchen, and Miss Winton’s dog ran after her. Mr Morgan blew at the surface of his coffee while Miss Winton, wondering what to say to him, stirred hers.
‘It’s certainly a beautiful flat,’ said Miss Winton.
‘It would be too large for you, madam. I mean to say, just you and the dog in a place like this. You’d lose one another.’
‘Oh, yes, of course. No, I meant –’
‘I’ll speak to the authorities if you like. I’ll speak on your behalf, as a tenant often asks me to do. Put a word in, y’know. I could put a word in if you like, madam.’
Miss Winton frowned, wondering what Mr Morgan was talking about. She smiled uncertainly at him. He said:
‘I have a bit of influence, knowing the tenants and that. I got the left-hand ground flat for Mr Webster by moving the Aitchesons up to the third. I got Mrs Bloom out of the back one on the first –’
‘Mr Morgan, you’ve misunderstood me. I wouldn’t at all like to move up here.’
Mr Morgan looked at Miss Winton, sucking coffee off his moustache. His eyes were focused on hers. He said:
‘You don’t have to say nothing outright, madam. I understand a hint.’
Bianca returned with a bottle of whisky. She handed it to Mr Morgan, saying that he had better add it to the coffee since she didn’t know how much to put in.
‘Oh, a good drop,’ said Mr Morgan, splashing the liquor on to his warm coffee. He approached Miss Winton with the neck of the bottle poised towards her cup. He’ll be offended, she thought; and because of that she did not, as she wished to, refuse his offering. ‘The Irish are heavy drinkers,’ said Mr Morgan. ‘Cheers.’ He drank the mixture and proclaimed it good. ‘D’you like that, Miss Winton?’ he asked, and Miss Winton tasted it and discovered to her surprise that the beverage was pleasant. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I do.’
Mr Morgan held out his cup for more coffee. ‘Just a small drop,’ he said, and he filled the cup up with whisky. Again he inclined the neck of the bottle towards Miss Winton, who smiled and said she hadn’t finished. He held the bottle in the same position, watching her drinking her coffee. She protested when Bianca poured her more, but she could sense that Bianca was enjoying this giving of hospitality, and for that reason she accepted, knowing that Mr Morgan would pour in more whisky. She felt comfortably warm from the whisky that was already in her body, and she experienced the desire to be agreeable – although she was aware, too, that she would not care for it if the Runcas unexpectedly returned.
‘Fair enough,’ said Mr Morgan, topping up Bianca’s cup and adding a further quantity to his own. He said:
‘Miss Winton is thinking of shifting up here, her being the oldest tenant in the building. She’s been stuck downstairs for fifteen years.’
Bianca shook her head, saying to Miss Winton: ‘What means that?’
‘I’m quite happy,’ said Miss Winton, ‘where I am.’ She spoke softly, with a smile on her face, intent upon being agreeable. Mr Morgan was sitting on the edge of the kitchen table. Bianca had turned on the wireless. Mr Morgan said:
‘I come to the flats on March the 21st, 1951. Miss Winton here was already in residence. Riding about on a cycle.’
‘I was six years old,’ said Bianca.
‘D’you remember that day, Miss Winton? March the 21st?’
Miss Winton shook her head. She sat down on a chair made of an ersatz material. She said:
‘It’s a long time ago.’
‘I remember the time you lost your cycle, Miss Winton. She come down to me in the basement,’ said Mr Morgan to Bianca, ‘and told me to tick off the coke deliverers for thieving her bicycle. I never seen no cycle, as I said to Miss Winton. D’you understand, missy?’ Bianca smiled, nodding swiftly. She hummed the tune that was coming from the wireless. ‘Do you like that Irish drink?’ said Mr Morgan. ‘Shall we have some more?’
‘I must be going,’ said Miss Winton. ‘It’s been terribly kind of you.’
‘Are you going, madam?’ said Mr Morgan, and there was in his tone a hint of the belligerency that Miss Winton knew his nature was imbued with. In her mind he spoke more harshly to her, saying she was a woman who had never lived. He was saying that she might have been a nun the way she existed, not knowing anything about the world around her; she had never known a man’s love, Mr Morgan was saying; she had never borne a child.
‘Oh, don’t go,’ said Bianca. ‘Please, I’ll make you a cold cocktail, like Mr Runca showed me how. Cinzano with gin in it, and lemon and ice.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Miss Winton.
Mr Morgan sighed, implying with the intake of his breath that her protest was not unexpected. There were other women in the block of flats, Miss Winton imagined, who would have a chat with Mr Morgan now and again, who would pass the time of day with him, asking him for racing tips and suggesting that he should let them know when he heard that a flat they coveted was going to be empty. Mr Morgan was probably a man whom people tipped quite lavishly for the performance of services or favours. Miss Winton could imagine people – people like the Runcas maybe – saying to their friends: ‘We greased the caretaker’s palm. We gave him five pounds.’ She thought she’d never be able to do that.
Bianca went away to fetch the ingredients for the drink, and again the dog went with her.
Miss Winton stood still, determined that Mr Morgan should not consider that she did not possess the nerve to receive from the Runcas’ Italian maid a midday cocktail. Mr Morgan said:
‘You and me has known one another a number of years.’
‘Yes, we have.’
‘We know what we think of a flat like this, and the type of person. Don’t we, Miss Winton?’
‘To tell the truth, I don’t really know the Runcas.’
‘I’ll admit it to you: the whisky has loosened my tongue, Miss Winton. You understand what I mean?’
Miss Winton smiled at Mr Morgan. There was sweat, she noticed, on the sides of his face. He said with vehemence: ‘Ridiculous, the place being photographed. What do they want to do that for, tell me?’
‘Magazines take an interest. It’s a contemporary thing. Mrs Neck was saying that this flat is well-known.’
‘You can’t trust Mrs Neck. I think it’s a terrible place. I wouldn’t be comfortable in a place like this.’
‘You could report me for saying a thing like that. You could do that, Miss Winton. You could tell them I was intoxicated at twelve o’clock in the day, drinking a tenant’s liquor and abusing the tenant behind his back. D’you see what I mean, madam?’
‘I wouldn’t report you, Mr Morgan. It’s no business of mine.’
‘I’d like to see you up here, madam, getting rid of all this trash and putting in a decent bit of furniture. How’s about that?’
‘Please, Mr Morgan, I’m perfectly happy –’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said Mr Morgan.
Bianca returned with glasses and bottles. Mr Morgan said:
‘I was telling Miss Winton here that she could report me to the authorities for misconduct, but she said she never would. We’ve known one another a longish time. We was never drinking together though.’
Bianca handed Miss Winton a glass that felt cold in Miss Winton’s hand. She feared now what Mr Morgan was going to say. He said:
‘I intoxicate easily.’ Mr Morgan laughed, displaying darkened teeth. He swayed back and forth, looking at Miss Winton. ‘I’ll put in a word for you,’ he said, ‘no bother at all.’
She was thinking that she would finish the drink she’d been given and then go away and prepare lunch. She would buy some little present to give Bianca, and she would come up to the Runcas’ flat one morning and hand it to her, thanking her for her hospitality and her thoughtfulness.
While Miss Winton was thinking, that, Mr Morgan was thinking that he intended to drink at least two more of the drinks that the girl was offering, and Bianca was thinking that it was the first friendly morning she had spent in this flat since her arrival three weeks before. ‘I must go to the WC,’ said Mr Morgan, and he left the kitchen, saying he would be back. ‘It’s most kind of you,’ said Miss Winton when he had gone. ‘I do hope it’s all right.’ It had occurred to her that Bianca’s giving people the Runcas’ whisky and gin was rather different from her giving people a cup of coffee, but when she looked at Bianca she saw that she was innocently smiling. She felt light-headed, and smiled herself. She rose from her chair and thanked Bianca again and said that she must be going now. Her dog came to her, wishing to go also. ‘Don’t you like the drink?’ said Bianca, and Miss Winton finished it. She placed the glass on the metal draining-board and as she did so a crash occurred in the Runcas’ large sitting-room. ‘Heavens!’ said Miss Winton, and Bianca raised a hand to her mouth and kept it there. When they entered the room they saw Mr Morgan standing in the centre of it, looking at the floor.
‘Heavens!’ said Miss Winton, and Bianca widened her eyes and still did not take her hand away from her mouth. On the floor lay the flowers that Mrs Runca had earlier arranged. The huge vase was smashed into many pieces. Water was soaking into the Afghanistan carpet.
‘I was looking at it,’ explained Mr Morgan. ‘I was touching a flower with my fingers. The whole thing gave way.’
‘Mrs Runca’s flowers,’ said Bianca. ‘Oh, Mother of God!’
‘Mr Morgan,’ said Miss Winton.
‘Don’t look at me, ma’am. Don’t blame me for an instant. Them flowers was inadequately balanced. Ridiculous.’
Bianca, on her hands and knees, was picking up the broken stalks. She might have been more upset, Miss Winton thought, and she was glad that she was not. Bianca explained that Mrs Runca had stayed away from her boutique specially to arrange the flowers. ‘They’ll give me the sack,’ she said, and instead of weeping she gave a small giggle.
The gravity of the situation struck Miss Winton forcibly. Hearing Bianca’s giggle, Mr Morgan laughed also, and went to the kitchen, where Miss Winton heard him pouring himself some more of the Runcas’ gin. Miss Winton realized then that neither Bianca nor Mr Morgan had any sense of responsibility. Bianca was young and did not know any better; Mr Morgan was partly drunk. The Runcas would return with people from a magazine and they would find that their property had been damaged, that a vase had been broken and that a large damp patch in the centre of their Afghanistan carpet would not look good in the photographs. ‘Let’s have another cocktail,’ said Bianca, throwing down the flowers she had collected and giggling again. ‘Oh, no,’ cried Miss Winton. ‘Please, Bianca. We must think what’s best to do.’ But Bianca was already in the kitchen, and Miss Winton could hear Mr Morgan’s rumbustious laugh.
‘I tell you what,’ said Mr Morgan, coming towards her with a glass in his hand. ‘We’ll say the dog done it. We’ll say the dog jumped at the flowers trying to grip hold of them.’
Miss Winton regarded him with surprise. ‘My dog?’ she said. ‘My dog was nowhere near the flowers.’ Her voice was sharp, the first time it had been so that morning.
Mr Morgan sat down in an armchair, and Miss Winton, about to protest about that also, realized in time that she had, of course, no right to protest at all.
‘We could say,’ said Mr Morgan, ‘that the dog went into a hysterical fit and attacked the flowers. How’s about that?’
‘But that’s not true. It’s not the truth.’
‘I was thinking of me job, madam. And of the young missy’s.’
‘It was an accident,’ said Miss Winton, ‘as you have said, Mr Morgan.’
‘They’ll say what was I doing touching the flowers? They’ll say to the young missy what was happening, was you giving a party? I’ll have to explain the whole thing to the wife.’
‘What was I doing in the Runcas’ flat with the young one? The wife will see through anything.’
‘You were here to mend a water-pipe, Mr Morgan.’
‘What’s the matter with the water-pipes?’
‘Oh really, Mr Morgan. You were repairing a pipe when I came into the flat.’
‘There was nothing the matter with the pipes, ma’am. Nor never has been, which is just the point. The young missy telephones down saying the pipes is making a noise. She’s anxious for company. She likes to engage in a chat.’
‘I shall arrange what flowers we can salvage,’ said Miss Winton, ‘just as neatly as they were arranged before. And we can explain to the Runcas that you came to the flat to mend a pipe and in passing brushed against Mrs Runca’s flowers. The only difficulty is the carpet. The best way to get that damp stain out would be to lift up the carpet and put an electric fire in front of it.’
‘Take it easy,’ said Mr Morgan. ‘Have a drink, Miss Winton.’
‘We must repair the damage –’
‘Listen, madam,’ said Mr Morgan, leaning forward, ‘you and I know what we think of a joint like this. Tricked out like they’ve got it –’
‘It’s a question of personal taste –’
‘Tell them the dog done the damage, Miss Winton, and I’ll see you right. A word in the ear of the authorities and them Runcas will be out on the street in a jiffy. Upsetting the neighbours with noise, bringing the flats into disrepute. I’d say it in court, Miss Winton: I seen naked women going in and out of the penthouse.’
Bianca returned, and Miss Winton repeated to her what she had said already to Mr Morgan about the drying of the carpet. Between them, they moved chairs and tables and lifted the carpet from the floor, draping it across two chairs and placing an electric fire in front of it. Mr Morgan moved to a distant sofa and watched them.
‘I used not to be bad with flowers,’ said Miss Winton to Bianca. ‘Are there other vases?’ They went together to the kitchen to see what there was. ‘Would you like another cocktail?’ said Bianca, but Miss Winton said she thought everyone had had enough to drink. ‘I like these drinks,’ said Bianca, sipping one. ‘So cool.’
‘You must explain,’ said Miss Winton, ‘that Mr Morgan had to come in order to repair the gurgling pipe and that he brushed against the flowers on the way across the room. You must tell the truth: that you had invited me to have a look at the beautiful flat. I’m sure they won’t be angry when they know it was an accident.’
‘What means gurgling?’ said Bianca.
‘Hey,’ shouted Mr Morgan from the other room.
‘I think Mr Morgan should go now,’ said Miss Winton. ‘I wonder if you’d say so, Bianca? He’s a very touchy man.’ She imagined Mr Runca looking sternly into her face and saying he could not believe his eyes: that she, an elderly spinster, still within her wits, had played a part in the disastrous proceedings in his flat. She had allowed the caretaker to become drunk, she had egged on a young foreign girl. ‘Have you no responsibility?’ shouted Mr Runca at Miss Winton in her imagination. ‘What’s the matter with you?’
‘Hey,’ shouted Mr Morgan. ‘That carpet’s burning.’
Miss Winton and Bianca sniffed the air and smelt at once the tang of singed wool. They returned at speed to the other room and saw that the carpet was smoking and that Mr Morgan was still on the sofa, watching it. ‘How’s about that?’ said Mr Morgan.
‘The fire was too close,’ said Bianca, looking at Miss Winton, who frowned and felt afraid. She didn’t remember putting the fire so close to the carpet, and then she thought that she was probably as intoxicated as Mr Morgan and didn’t really know what she was doing.
‘Scrape off the burnt bit,’ advised Mr Morgan, ‘and tell them the dog ate it.’
They unplugged the fire and laid the carpet flat on the floor again. Much of the damp had disappeared, but the burnt patch, though small, was eyecatching. Miss Winton felt a weakness in her stomach, as though a quantity of jelly were turning rhythmically over and over. The situation now seemed beyond explanation, and she saw herself asking the Runcas to sit down quietly, side by side with the people from the magazine, and she heard herself trying to tell the truth, going into every detail and pleading that Bianca should not be punished. ‘Blame me,’ she was saying, ‘if someone must be blamed, for I have nothing to lose.’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ said Mr Morgan, ‘why don’t we telephone for Mrs Neck? She done a carpet for her hearth, forty different wools she told me, that she shaped with a little instrument. Ring up Mrs Neck, missy, and say there’s a drink for her if she’ll oblige Mr Morgan with ten minutes of her time.’
‘Do no such thing,’ cried Miss Winton. ‘There’s been enough drinking, Mr Morgan, as well you know. The trouble started with drink, when you lurched against the flowers. There’s no point in Mrs Neck adding to the confusion.’
Mr Morgan listened to Miss Winton and then rose from the sofa. He said:
‘You have lived in these flats longer than I have, madam. We all know that. But I will not stand here and be insulted by you, just because I am a working man. The day you come after your cycle –’
‘I must go away,’ cried Bianca in distress. ‘I cannot be found with a burnt carpet and the flowers like that.’
‘Listen,’ said Mr Morgan, coming close to Miss Winton. ‘I have a respect for you. I’m surprised to hear myself insulted from your lips.’
‘Mr Morgan –’
‘You was insulting me, madam.’
‘I was not insulting you. Don’t go, Bianca. I’ll stay here and explain everything to the Runcas. I think, Mr Morgan, it would be best if you went off to your lunch now.’
‘How can I?’ shouted Mr Morgan very loudly and rudely, sticking his chin out at Miss Winton. ‘How the damn hell d’you think I can go down to the wife in the condition I’m in? She’d eat the face off me.’
‘Please, Mr Morgan.’
‘You and your dog: I have respect for the pair of you. You and me is on the same side of the fence. D’you understand?’
Miss Winton shook her head.
‘What d’you think of the Runcas, ma’am?’
‘I’ve said, Mr Morgan: I’ve never met the Runcas.’
‘What d’you think of the joint they’ve got here?’
‘I think it’s most impressive.’
‘It’s laughable. The whole caboodle is laughable. Did you ever see the like?’ Mr Morgan pointed at objects in the room. ‘They’re two tramps,’ he shouted, his face purple with rage at the thought of the Runcas. ‘They’re jumped-up tramps.’
Miss Winton opened her mouth in order to speak soothingly. Mr Morgan said:
‘I could put a match to the place and to the Runcas too, with their bloody attitudes. I’m only a simple caretaker, madam, but I’d see their bodies in flames.’ He kicked a chair, his boot thudding loudly against pale wood. ‘I hate that class of person, they’re as crooked as a corkscrew.’
‘You’re mistaken, Mr Morgan.’
‘I’m bloody not mistaken,’ shouted Mr Morgan. ‘They’re full of hate for a man like me. They’d say I was a beast.’
Miss Winton, shocked and perturbed, was also filled with amazement. She couldn’t understand why Mr Morgan had said that he and she belonged on the same side of the fence, since for the past fifteen years she had noted the scorn in his eyes.
‘We have a thing in common,’ said Mr Morgan. ‘We have no respect whatever for the jumped-up tramps who occupy this property. I’d like to see you in here, madam, with your bits and pieces. The Runcas can go where they belong.’ Mr Morgan spat into the chair which he had struck with his boot.
‘Oh, no,’ cried Miss Winton, and Mr Morgan laughed. He walked about the room, clearing his throat and spitting carelessly. Eventually he strolled away, into the kitchen. The dog barked, sensing Miss Winton’s distress. Bianca began to sob and from the kitchen came the whistling of Mr Morgan, a noise he emitted in order to cover the sound of gin being poured into his glass. Miss Winton knew what had happened: she had read of men who could not resist alcohol and who were maddened by its presence in their bloodstream. She considered that Mr Morgan had gone mad in the Runcas’ flat; he was speaking like an insane person, saying he had respect for her dog.
‘I am frightened of him,’ said Bianca.
‘No,’ said Miss Winton. ‘He’s a harmless man, though I wish he’d go away. We can clean up a bit. We can make an effort.’
Mr Morgan returned and took no notice of them. He sat on the sofa while they set to, clearing up the pieces of broken vase and the flowers. They placed a chair over the burnt area of carpet so that the Runcas would not notice it as soon as they entered the room. Miss Winton arranged the flowers in a vase and placed it where the other one had been placed by Mrs Runca. She surveyed the room and noticed that, apart from the presence of Mr Morgan, it wasn’t so bad. Perhaps, she thought, the explanation could be unfolded gradually. She saw no reason why the room shouldn’t be photographed as it was now, with the nicely arranged flowers and the chair over the burnt patch of carpeting. The damp area, greater in size, was still a little noticeable, but she imagined that in a photograph it mightn’t show up too badly.
‘You have let me get into this condition,’ said Mr Morgan in an aggressive way. ‘It was your place to say that the Runcas’ whisky shouldn’t be touched, nor their gin neither. You’re a fellow-tenant, Miss Winton. The girl and I are servants, madam. We was doing what came naturally.’
‘I’ll take the responsibility,’ said Miss Winton.
‘Say the dog done it,’ urged Mr Morgan again. ‘The other will go against the girl and myself.’
‘I’ll tell the truth,’ said Miss Winton. ‘The Runcas will understand. They’re not monsters that they won’t forgive an accident. Mrs Runca –’
‘That thin bitch,’ shouted Mr Morgan, and added more quietly: ‘Runca’s illegitimate.’
‘Mr Morgan –’
‘Tell them the bloody dog done it. Tell them the dog ran about like a mad thing. How d’you know they’re not monsters? How d’you know they’ll understand, may I ask? “The three of us was boozing in the kitchen,” are you going to say? “Mr Morgan took more than his share of the intoxicant. All hell broke loose.” Are you going to say that, Miss Winton?’
‘The truth is better than lies.’
‘What’s the matter with saying the dog done it?’
‘You would be far better off out of this flat, Mr Morgan. No good will come of your raving on like that.’
‘You have always respected me, madam. You have never been familiar.’
‘I might strike them dead. They might enter that door and I might hit them with a hammer.’
Miss Winton began to protest, but Mr Morgan waved a hand at her. He sniffed and said: ‘A caretaker sees a lot, I’ll tell you that. Fellows bringing women in, hypocrisy all over the place. There’s those that slips me a coin, madam, and those that doesn’t bother, and I’m not to know which is the worse. Some of them’s miserable and some’s boozing all night, having sex and laughing their heads off. The Runcas isn’t human in any way whatsoever. The Runcas is saying I was a beast that might offend their eyes.’ Mr Morgan ceased to speak, and glared angrily at Miss Winton.
‘Come now,’ she said.
‘A dirty caretaker, they’ve said, who’s not fit to be alive–’
‘They’ve never said any such thing, Mr Morgan. I’m sure of it.’
‘They should have moved away from the flats if they hated the caretaker. They’re a psychological case.’
There was a silence in the room, while Miss Winton trembled and tried not to show it, aware that Mr Morgan had reached a condition in which he was capable of all he mentioned.
‘What I need,’ he said after a time, speaking more calmly from the sofa on which he was relaxing, ‘is a cold bath.’
‘Mr Morgan,’ said Miss Winton. She thought that he was at last about to go away, down to his basement and his angry wife, in order to immerse his large body in cold water. ‘Mr Morgan, I’m sorry that you should think badly of me –’
‘I’ll have a quick one,’ said Mr Morgan, walking towards the Runcas’ bathroom. ‘Who’ll know the difference?’
‘No,’ cried Miss Winton. ‘No, please, Mr Morgan.’
But with his glass in his hand Mr Morgan entered the bathroom and locked the door.
When the photographers arrived at half past two to prepare their apparatus Mr Morgan was still in the bathroom. Miss Winton waited with Bianca, reassuring her from time to time, repeating that she would not leave until she herself had explained to the Runcas what had happened. The photographers worked silently, moving none of the furniture because they had been told that the furniture was on no account to be displaced.
For an hour and twenty minutes Mr Morgan had been in the bathroom. It was clear to Miss Winton that he had thrown the vase of flowers to the ground deliberately and in anger, and that he had placed the fire closer to the carpet. In his crazy and spiteful condition Miss Winton imagined that he was capable of anything: of drowning himself in the bath maybe, so that the Runcas’ penthouse might sordidly feature in the newspapers. Bianca had been concerned about his continued presence in the bathroom, but Miss Winton had explained that Mr Morgan was simply being unpleasant since he was made like that. ‘It is quite disgraceful,’ she said, well aware that Mr Morgan realized she was the kind of woman who would not report him to the authorities, and was taking advantage of her nature while involving her in his own. She felt that the Runcas were the victims of circumstance, and thought that she might use that very expression when she made her explanation to them. She would speak slowly and quietly, breaking it to them in the end that Mr Morgan was still in the bathroom and had probably fallen asleep. ‘It is not his fault,’ she heard herself saying. ‘We must try to understand.’ And she felt that the Runcas would nod their heads in agreement and would know what to do next.
‘Will they sack me?’ said Bianca, and Miss Winton shook her head, repeating again that nothing that had happened had been Bianca’s fault.
At three o’clock the Runcas arrived. They came together, having met in the hallway downstairs. ‘The flowers came, did they?’ Mr Runca had inquired of his wife in the lift, and she had replied that the flowers had safely been delivered and that she had arranged them to her satisfaction. ‘Good,’ said Mr Runca, and reported to his wife some facts about the morning he had spent.
When they entered their penthouse apartment the Runcas noted the presence of the photographers and the photographers’ apparatus. They saw as well that an elderly woman with a dog was there, standing beside Bianca, that a chair had been moved, that the Afghanistan carpet was stained, and that some flowers had been loosely thrust into a vase. Mr Runca wondered about the latter because his wife had just informed him that she herself had arranged the flowers; Mrs Runca thought that something peculiar was going on. The elderly woman stepped forward to greet them, announcing that her name was Miss Winton, and at that moment a man in a brown overall whom the Runcas recognized as a Mr Morgan, caretaker and odd-job man, entered the room from the direction of the bathroom. He strode towards them and coughed.
‘You had trouble with the pipes,’ said Mr Morgan. He spoke urgently and it seemed to Mr and Mrs Runca that the elderly woman with the dog was affected by his speaking. Her mouth was actually open, as though she had been about to speak herself. Hearing Mr Morgan’s voice, she closed it.
‘What has happened here?’ said Mrs Runca, moving forward from her husband’s side. ‘Has there been an accident?’
‘I was called up to the flat,’ said Mr Morgan, ‘on account of noise in the pipes. Clogged pipes was on the point of bursting, a trouble I’ve been dealing with since eleven-thirty. You’ll discover the bath is full of water. Release it, sir, at five o’clock tonight, and then I think you’ll find everything OK. Your drain-away was out of order.’
Mrs Runca removed her gaze from Mr Morgan’s face and passed it on to the face of Miss Winton and then on to the bowed head of Bianca. Her husband examined the silent photographers, sensing something in the atmosphere. He said to himself that he did not yet know the full story: what, for instance, was this woman with a dog doing there? A bell rang, and Bianca moved automatically from Miss Winton’s side to answer the door. She admitted the woman from the magazine, the woman who was in charge of everything and was to write the article.
‘Miss Winton,’ said Mr Morgan, indicating Miss Winton, ‘Occupies a flat lower down in the building.’ Mr Morgan blew his nose. ‘Miss Winton wished,’ he said, ‘to see the penthouse, and knowing that I was coming here she came up too and got into conversation with the maid on the doorstep. The dog dashed in, in a hysterical fit, knocking down a bowl of flowers and upsetting an electric fire on the carpet. Did you notice this?’ said Mr Morgan, striding forward to display the burnt patch. ‘The girl had the fire on,’ added Mr Morgan, ‘because she felt the cold, coming from a warmer clime.’
Miss Winton heard the words of Mr Morgan and said nothing. He had stood in the bathroom, she reckoned, for an hour and twenty minutes, planning to say that the girl had put on the fire because, being Italian, she had suddenly felt the cold.
‘Well?’ said Mr Runca, looking at Miss Winton.
She saw his eyes, dark and intent, anxious to draw a response from her, wishing to watch the opening and closing of her lips while his ears listened to the words that relayed the explanation.
‘I regret the inconvenience,’ she said. ‘I’ll pay for the damage.’
‘Damage?’ cried Mrs Runca, moving forward and pushing the chair further away from the burnt area of carpet. ‘Damage?’ she said again, looking at the flowers in the vase.
‘So a dog had a fit in here,’ said Mr Runca.
The woman from the magazine looked from Mr Morgan to Bianca and then to Miss Winton. She surveyed the faces of Mr and Mrs Runca and glanced last of all at the passive countenances of her photographers. It seemed, she reflected, that an incident had occurred; it seemed that a dog had gone berserk. ‘Well now,’ she said briskly. ‘Surely it’s not as bad as all that? If we put that chair back who’ll notice the carpet? And the flowers look most becoming.’
‘The flowers are a total mess,’ said Mrs Runca. ‘An animal might have arranged them.’
Mr Morgan was discreetly silent, and Miss Winton’s face turned scarlet.
‘We had better put the whole thing off,’ said Mr Runca meditatively. ‘It’ll take a day or two to put everything back to rights. We are sorry,’ he said, addressing himself to the woman from the magazine. ‘But no doubt you see that no pictures can be taken?’
The woman, swearing most violently within her mind, smiled at Mr Runca and said it was obvious, of course. Mr Morgan said:
‘I’m sorry, sir, about this.’ He stood there, serious and unemotional, as though he had never suggested that Mrs Neck might be invited up to the Runcas’ penthouse apartment, as though hatred and drink had not rendered him insane. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ said Mr Morgan. ‘I should not have permitted a dog to enter your quarters, sir. I was unaware of the dog until it was too late.’
Listening to Mr Morgan laboriously telling his lies, Miss Winton was visited by the thought that there was something else she could do. For fifteen years she had lived lonesomely in the building, her shyness causing her to keep herself to herself. She possessed enough money to exist quite comfortably; she didn’t do much as the days went by.
‘Excuse me,’ said Miss Winton, not at all knowing how she was going to proceed. She felt her face becoming red again, and she felt the eyes of everyone on her. She wanted to explain at length, to go on talking in a manner that was quite unusual for her, weaving together the threads of an argument. It seemed to Miss Winton that she would have to remind the Runcas of the life of Mr Morgan, how he daily climbed from his deep basement, attired invariably in his long brown overall. ‘He has a right to his resentment,’ was what she might say; ‘he has a right to demand more of the tenants of these flats. His palm is greased, he is handed a cup of tea in exchange for a racing tip; the tenants keep him sweet.’ He had come to consider that some of the tenants were absurd, or stupid, and that others were hypocritical. For Miss Winton he had reserved his scorn, for the Runcas a share of his hatred. Miss Winton had accepted the scorn, and understood why it was there; they must seek to understand the other. ‘The ball is in your court,’ said Miss Winton in her imagination, addressing the Runcas and pleased that she had thought of a breezy expression that they would at once appreciate.
‘What about Wednesday next?’ said Mr Runca to the woman from the magazine. ‘All this should be sorted out by then, I imagine.’
‘Wednesday would be lovely,’ said the woman.
Miss Winton wanted to let Mr Morgan see that he was wrong about these people. She wanted to have it proved here and now that the Runcas were human and would understand an accident, that they, like anyone else, were capable of respecting a touchy caretaker. She wished to speak the truth, to lead the truth into the open and let it act for itself between Mr Morgan and the Runcas.
‘We’ll make a note of everything,’ Mrs Runca said to her, ‘and let you have the list of the damage and the cost of it.’
‘I’d like to talk to you,’ said Miss Winton. ‘I’d like to explain if I may.’
‘Explain?’ said Mrs Runca. ‘Explain?’
‘Could we perhaps sit down? I’d like you to understand. I’ve been in these flats for fifteen years. Mr Morgan came a year later. Perhaps I can help. It’s difficult for me to explain to you.’ Miss Winton paused, in some confusion.
‘Is she ill?’ inquired the steely voice of Mrs Runca, and Miss Winton was aware of the woman’s metallic hair, and fingernails that matched it, and the four shrewd eyes of a man and a woman who were successful in all their transactions. ‘I might hit them with a hammer,’ said the voice of Mr Morgan in Miss Winton’s memory. ‘I might strike them dead.’
‘We must try to understand,’ cried Miss Winton, her face burning with embarrassment. ‘A man like Mr Morgan and people like you and an old spinster like myself. We must relax and attempt to understand.’ Miss Winton wondered if the words that she forced from her were making sense; she was aware that she was not being eloquent. ‘Don’t you see?’ cried Miss Winton with the businesslike stare of the Runcas fixed harshly upon her.
‘What’s this?’ demanded Mrs Runca. ‘What’s all this about understanding? Understanding what?’
‘Yes,’ said her husband.
‘Mr Morgan comes up from his basement every day of his life. The tenants grease his palm. He sees the tenants in his own way. He has a right to do that; he has a right to his touchiness –’
Mr Morgan coughed explosively, interrupting the flow of words. ‘What are you talking about?’ cried Mrs Runca. ‘It’s enough that damage has been done without all this.’
‘I’m trying to begin at the beginning.’ Ahead of her Miss Winton sensed a great mound of words and complication before she could lay bare the final truth: that Mr Morgan regarded the Runcas as people who had been in some way devoured. She knew that she would have to progress slowly, until they began to guess what she was trying to put to them. Accepting that they had failed the caretaker, as she had failed him too, they would understand the reason for his small revenge. They would nod their heads guiltily while she related how Mr Morgan, unhinged by alcohol, had spat at their furniture and had afterwards pretended to be drowned.
‘We belong to different worlds,’ said Miss Winton, wishing the ground would open beneath her, ‘you and I and Mr Morgan. Mr Morgan sees your penthouse flat in a different way. What I am trying to say is that you are not just people to whom only lies can be told.’
‘We have a lot to do,’ said Mrs Runca, lighting a cigarette. She was smiling slightly, seeming amused.
‘The bill for damage must be paid,’ added Mr Runca firmly. ‘You understand, Miss Winter? There can be no shelving of that responsibility.’
‘I don’t do much,’ cried Miss Winton, moving beyond embarrassment now. ‘I sit with my dog. I go to the shops. I watch the television. I don’t do much, but I am trying to do something now. I am trying to promote understanding.’
The photographers began to dismantle their apparatus. Mr Runca spoke in a whisper to the woman from the magazine, making some final arrangement for the following Wednesday. He turned to Miss Winton and said more loudly: ‘Perhaps you had better return to your apartment, Miss Winter. Who knows, that little dog may have another fit.’
‘He didn’t have a fit,’ cried Miss Winton. ‘He never had a fit in the whole of his life.’
There was a silence in the room then, before Mr Runca said:
‘You’ve forgotten, Miss Winter, that your little dog had a bout of
hysteria and caused a lot of trouble. Come now, Miss Winter.’
‘My name is not Miss Winter. Why do you call me a name that isn’t correct?’
Mr Runca threw his eyes upwards, implying that Miss Winton was getting completely out of hand and would next be denying her very existence. ‘She’s the Queen Mother,’ whispered Mrs Runca to one of the photographers, and the photographer sniggered lightly. Miss Winton said:
‘My dog did not have a fit. I am trying to tell you, but no one bothers to listen. I am trying to go back to the beginning, to the day that Mr Morgan first became caretaker of these flats –’
‘Now, madam,’ said Mr Morgan, stepping forward.
‘I am going to tell the truth,’ cried Miss Winton shrilly. Her dog began to bark, and she felt, closer to her now, the presence of Mr Morgan. ‘Shall we be going, madam?’ said Mr Morgan, and she was aware that she was being moved towards the door. ‘No,’ she cried while the movement continued. ‘No,’ whispered Miss Winton again, but already she was on the landing and Mr Morgan was saying that there was no point whatsoever in attempting to tell people like the Runcas the truth. ‘That type of person,’ said Mr Morgan, descending the stairs with Miss Winton, his hand beneath her left elbow as though she required aid, ‘that type of person wouldn’t know the meaning of the word.’
I have failed, said Miss Winton to herself; I have failed to do something that might have been good in its small way. She found herself at the door of her flat, feeling tired, and heard Mr Morgan saying: ‘Will you be all right, madam?’ She reflected that he was speaking to her as though she were the one who had been mad, soothing her in his scorn. Mr Morgan began to laugh. ‘Runca slipped me a quid,’ he said. ‘Our own Runca.’ He laughed again, and Miss Winton felt wearier. She would write a cheque for the amount of the damage, and that would be that. She would often in the future pass Mr Morgan on the stairs and there would be a confused memory between them. The Runcas would tell their friends, saying there was a peculiar woman in one of the flats. ‘Did you see their faces,’ said Mr Morgan, ‘when I mentioned about the dog in a fit?’ He threw his head back, displaying all his teeth. ‘It was that amusing,’ said Mr Morgan. ‘I nearly smiled.’ He went away, and Miss Winton stood by the door of her flat, listening to his footsteps on the stairs. She heard him on the next floor, summoning the lift that would carry him smoothly to the basement, where he would tell his wife about Miss Winton’s dog having a fit in the Runcas’ penthouse, and how Miss Winton had made a ridiculous fuss that no one had bothered to listen to.
In at the Birth
Once upon a time there lived in a remote London suburb an elderly lady called Miss Efoss. Miss Efoss was a spry person, and for as long as she could control the issue she was determined to remain so. She attended the cinema and the theatre with regularity; she read at length; and she preferred the company of men and women forty years her junior. Once a year Miss Efoss still visited Athens and always on such visits she wondered why she had never settled in Greece: now, she felt, it was rather too late to make a change; in any case, she enjoyed London.
In her lifetime, nothing had passed Miss Efoss by. She had loved and been loved. She had once, even, given birth to a child. For a year or two she had known the ups and downs of early family life, although the actual legality of marriage had somehow been overlooked. Miss Efoss’s baby died during a sharp attack of pneumonia; and shortly afterwards the child’s father packed a suitcase one night. He said goodbye quite kindly to Miss Efoss, but she never saw him again.
In retrospect, Miss Efoss considered that she had run the gamut of human emotions. She settled down to the lively superficiality of the everyday existence she had mapped for herself. She was quite content with it. And she hardly noticed it when the Dutts entered her life.
It was Mr Dutt who telephoned. He said: ‘Ah, Miss Efoss, I wonder if you can help us. We have heard that occasionally you babysit. We have scoured the neighbourhood for a reliable babysitter. Would you be interested, Miss Efoss, in giving us a try?’
‘But who are you?’ said Miss Efoss. ‘I don’t even know you. What is your name to begin with?’
‘Dutt,’ said Mr Dutt. ‘We live only a couple of hundred yards from you. I think you would find it convenient.’
‘Miss Efoss, come and see us. Come and have a drink. If you like the look of us perhaps we can arrange something. If not, we shan’t be in the least offended.’
‘That is very kind of you, Mr Dutt. If you give me your address and a time I’ll certainly call. In fact, I shall be delighted to do so.’
‘Good, good.’ And Mr Dutt gave Miss Efoss the details, which she noted in her diary.
Mr and Mrs Dutt looked alike. They were small and thin with faces like greyhounds. ‘We have had such difficulty in finding someone suitable to sit for us,’ Mrs Dutt said. ‘All these young girls, Miss Efoss, scarcely inspire confidence.’
‘We are a nervous pair, Miss Efoss,’ Mr Dutt said, laughing gently as he handed her a glass of sherry. ‘We are a nervous pair and that’s the truth of it.’
‘There is only Mickey, you see,’ explained his wife. ‘I suppose we worry a bit. Though we try not to spoil him.’
Miss Efoss nodded. ‘An only child is sometimes a problem.’
The Dutts agreed, staring intently at Miss Efoss, as though recognizing in her some profound quality.
‘We have, as you see, the television,’ Mr Dutt remarked. ‘You would not be lonely here of an evening. The radio as well. Both are simple to operate and are excellent performers.’
‘And Mickey has never woken up,’ said Mrs Dutt. ‘Our system is to leave our telephone behind. Thus you may easily contact us.’
‘Ha, ha, ha.’ Mr Dutt was laughing. His tiny face was screwed into an unusual shape, the skin drawn tightly over his gleaming cheekbones.
‘What an amusing thing to say, Beryl! My wife is fond of a joke, Miss Efoss.’
Unaware that a joke had been made, Miss Efoss smiled.
‘It would be odd if we did not leave our telephone behind,’ Mr Dutt went on. ‘We leave the telephone number behind, Beryl. The telephone number of the house where we are dining. You would be surprised, Miss Efoss, to receive guests who carried with them their telephone receiver. Eh?’
‘It would certainly be unusual.’
‘ “We have brought our own telephone, since we do not care to use another.” Or: “We have brought our telephone in case anyone telephones us while we are here.” Miss Efoss, will you tell me something?’
‘If I can, Mr Dutt.’
‘Miss Efoss, have you ever looked up the word joke in the Encyclopaedia Britannica?’
‘I don’t think I have.’
‘You would find it rewarding. We have the full Encyclopaedia here, you know. It is always at your service.’
‘How kind of you.’
‘I will not tell you now what the Encyclopaedia says on the subject. I will leave you to while away a minute or two with it. I do not think you’ll find it a wasted effort.’
‘I’m sure I won’t.’
‘My husband is a great devotee of the Encyclopaedia,’ Mrs Dutt said. ‘He spends much of his time with it.’
‘It is not always pleasure,’ Mr Dutt said. ‘The accumulation of information on many subjects is part of my work.’
‘Your work, Mr Dutt?’
‘Like many, nowadays, Miss Efoss, my husband works for his living.’
‘You have some interesting job, Mr Dutt?’
‘Interesting, eh? Yes, I suppose it is interesting. More than that I cannot reveal. That is so, eh, Beryl?’
‘My husband is on the secret list. He is forbidden to speak casually about his work. Alas, even to someone to whom we trust our child. It’s a paradox, isn’t it?’
‘I quite understand. Naturally, Mr Dutt’s work is no affair of mine.’
‘To speak lightly about it would mean marching orders for me,’ Mr Dutt said. ‘No offence, I hope?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Sometimes people take offence. We have had some unhappy occasions, eh, Beryl?’
‘People do not always understand what it means to be on the secret list, Miss Efoss. So little is taken seriously nowadays.’
Mr Dutt hovered over Miss Efoss with his sherry decanter. He filled her glass and his wife’s. He said:
‘Well, Miss Efoss, what do you think of us? Can you accept the occasional evening in this room, watching our television and listening for the cry of our child?’
‘Naturally, Miss Efoss, there would always be supper,’ Mrs Dutt said.
‘With sherry before and brandy to finish with,’ Mr Dutt added.
‘You are very generous. I can quite easily have something before I arrive.’
‘No, no, no. It is out of the question. My wife is a good cook. And I can be relied upon to keep the decanters brimming.’
‘You have made it all so pleasant I am left with no option. I should be delighted to help you out when I can manage it.’
Miss Efoss finished her sherry and rose. The Dutts rose also, smiling benignly at their satisfactory visitor.
‘Well then,’ Mr Dutt said in the hall, ‘would Tuesday evening be a time you could arrange, Miss Efoss? We are bidden to dine with friends near by.’
‘Tuesday? Yes, I think Tuesday is all right. About seven?’
Mrs Dutt held out her hand. ‘Seven would be admirable. Till then, Miss Efoss.’
On Tuesday Mr Dutt opened the door to Miss Efoss and led her to the sitting-room. His wife, he explained, was still dressing. Making conversation as he poured Miss Efoss a drink, he said:
‘I married my wife when she was on the point of entering a convent, Miss Efoss. What d’you think of that?’
‘Well,’ Miss Efoss said, settling herself comfortably before the cosy-stove, ‘it is hard to know what to say, Mr Dutt. I am surprised, I suppose.’
‘Most people are surprised. I often wonder if I did the right thing. Beryl would have made a fine nun. What d’you think?’
‘I’m sure you both knew what you were doing at the time. It is equally certain that Mrs Dutt would have been a fine nun.’
‘She had chosen a particularly severe order. That’s just like Beryl, isn’t it?’
‘I hardly know Mrs Dutt. But if it is like her to have made that choice, I can well believe it.’
‘You see my wife as a serious person, Miss Efoss? Is that what you mean?’
‘In the short time I have known her, yes I think I do. Yet you also say she relishes a joke.’
‘A joke, Miss Efoss?’
‘So you remarked the other evening. In relation to a slip in her speech.’
‘Ah yes. How right you are. You must forgive me if my memory is often faulty. My work is wearing.’
Mrs Dutt, gaily attired, entered the room. ‘Here, Miss Efoss,’ she said, proffering a piece of paper, ‘is the telephone number of the house we are going to. If Mickey makes a sound please ring us up. L will immediately return.’
‘Oh, but I’m sure that’s not necessary. It would be a pity to spoil your evening so. I could at least attempt to comfort him.’
‘I would prefer the other arrangement. Mickey does not take easily to strangers. His room is at the top of the house, but please do not enter it. Were he to wake suddenly and catch sight of you he might be extremely frightened. He is quite a nervous child. At the slightest untoward sound do not hesitate to telephone.’
‘As you wish it, Mrs Dutt. I only suggested –’
‘Experience has taught me, Miss Efoss, what is best. I have laid you a tray in the kitchen. Everything is cold, but quite nice, I think.’
‘Then we will be away. We should be back by eleven fifteen.’
‘Do have a good evening.’
The Dutts said they intended to have a good evening, whispered for a moment together in the hall and were on their way. Miss Efoss looked critically about her.
The room was of an ordinary kind. Utrillo prints on plain grey walls. Yellowish curtains, yellowish chair-covers, a few pieces of simple furniture on a thick grey carpet. It was warm, the sherry was good and Miss Efoss was comfortable. It was pleasant, she reflected, to have a change of scene without the obligation of conversation. In a few moments, she carried her supper tray from the kitchen to the fire. As good as his word, Mr Dutt had left some brandy. Miss Efoss began to think the Dutts were quite a find.
She had dropped off to sleep when they returned. Fortunately, she heard them in the hall and had time to compose herself.
‘All well?’ Mrs Dutt asked.
‘Not a sound.’
‘Well, I’d better change him right away. Thank you so much, Miss Efoss.’
‘Thank you. I have spent a very pleasant evening.’
‘I’ll drive you back,’ Mr Dutt offered. ‘The car is still warm.’
In the car Mr Dutt said: ‘A child is a great comfort. Mickey is a real joy for us. And company for Beryl. The days hangs heavy when one is alone all day.’
‘Yes, a child is a comfort.’
‘Perhaps you think we are too careful and fussing about Mickey?’
‘Oh no, it’s better than erring in the other direction.’
‘It is only because we are so grateful.’
‘We have much to be thankful for.’
‘I’m sure you deserve it all.’
Mr Dutt had become quite maudlin by the time he delivered Miss Efoss at her flat. She wondered if he was drunk. He pressed her hand warmly and announced that he looked forward to their next meeting. ‘Any time,’ Miss Efoss said as she stepped from the car. ‘Just ring me up. I am often free.’
After that, Miss Efoss babysat for the Dutts many times. They became more and more friendly towards her. They left her little bowls of chocolates and drew her attention to articles in magazines that they believed might be of interest to her. Mr Dutt suggested further words she might care to look up in the Encyclopaedia and Mrs Dutt wrote out several of her recipes.
One night, just as she was leaving, Miss Efoss said: ‘You know, I think it might be a good idea for me to meet Mickey some time. Perhaps I could come in the daytime once. Then I would no longer be a stranger and could comfort him if he woke.’
‘But he doesn’t wake, Miss Efoss. He has never woken, has he? You have never had to telephone us.’
‘No. That is true. But now that I have got to know you, I would like to know him as well.’
The Dutts took the compliment, smiling at one another and at Miss Efoss. Mr Dutt said: ‘It is kind of you to speak like this, Miss Efoss. But Mickey is rather scared of strangers. Just at present at any rate, if you do not mind.’
‘Of course not, Mr Dutt.’
‘I fear he is a nervous child,’ Mrs Dutt said. ‘Our present arrangement is carefully devised.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Miss Efoss said.
‘No need. No need. Let us all have a final brandy,’ Mr Dutt said cheerfully.
But Miss Efoss was sorry, for she feared she had said something out of place. And then for a week or so she was worried whenever she thought of the Dutts. She felt they were mistaken in their attitude about their child; and she felt equally unable to advise them. It was not her place to speak any further on the subject, yet she was sure that to keep the child away from people just because he was nervous of them was wrong. It sounded as though there was a root to the trouble somewhere, and it sounded as though the Dutts had not attempted to discover it. She continued to babysit for them about once every ten days and she held her peace. Then, quite unexpectedly, something happened that puzzled Miss Efoss very much indeed.
It happened at a party given by some friends of hers. She was talking about nothing in particular to an elderly man called Summerfield. She had known him for some years but whenever they met, as on this occasion, they found themselves with little to say beyond the initial courteous greetings. Thinking that a more direct approach might yield something of interest, Miss Efoss, after the familiar lengthy silence, said: ‘How are you coping with the advancing years, Mr Summerfield? I feel I can ask you, since it is a coping I have to take in my own stride.’
‘Well, well, I think I am doing well enough. My life is simple since my wife died, but there is little I complain of.’
‘Loneliness is a thing that sometimes strikes at us. I find one must regard it as the toothache or similar ailment, and seek a cure.’
‘Ah yes. I’m often a trifle alone.’
‘I babysit, you know. Have you ever thought of it? Do not shy off because you are a man. A responsible person is all that is required.’
‘I haven’t thought of babysitting. Not ever, I think. Though I like babies and always have done.’
‘I used to do quite a lot. Now I have only the Dutts, but I go there very often. I enjoy my evenings. I like to see the TV now and again and other people’s houses are interesting.’
‘I know the Dutts,’ said Mr Summerfield. ‘You mean the Dutts in Raeburn Road? A small, weedy couple?’
‘They live in Raeburn Road, certainly. They are small too, but you are unkind to call them weedy.’
‘I don’t particularly mean it unkindly. I have known Dutt a long time. One takes liberties, I suppose, in describing people.’
‘Mr Dutt is an interesting person. He holds some responsible position of intriguing secrecy.’
‘Dutt? 25 Raeburn Road? The man is a chartered accountant.’
‘I feel sure you are mistaken –’
‘I cannot be mistaken. The man was once my colleague. In a very junior capacity.’
‘Oh, well… then I must be mistaken.’
‘What surprises me is that you say you babysit for the Dutts. I think you must be mistaken about that too.’
‘Oh no, I am completely certain about that. It is for that reason that I know them at all.’
‘I cannot help being surprised. Because, Miss Efoss – and of this I am certain – the Dutts have no children.’
Miss Efoss had heard of the fantasy world with which people, as they grow old, surround themselves. Yet she could not have entirely invented the Dutts in this way because Mr Summerfield had readily agreed about their existence. Was it, then, for some other reason that she visited them? Did she, as soon as she entered their house, become so confused in her mind that she afterwards forgot the real purpose of her presence? Had they hired her in some other capacity altogether? A capacity she was so ashamed of that she had invented, even for herself, the euphemism of babysitting? Had she, she wondered, become some kind of servant to these people – imagining the warm comfortable room, the sherry, the chocolates, the brandy?
‘We should be back by eleven, Miss Efoss. Here is the telephone number.’ Mrs Dutt smiled at her and a moment later the front door banged gently behind her.
It is all quite real, Miss Efoss thought. There is the sherry. There is the television set. In the kitchen on a tray I shall find my supper. It is all quite real: it is old Mr Summerfield who is wandering in his mind. It was only when she had finished her supper that she had the idea of establishing her role beyond question. All she had to do was to go upstairs and peep at the child. She knew how to be quiet: there was no danger of waking him.
The first room she entered was full of suitcases and cardboard boxes. In the second she heard breathing and knew she was right. She snapped on the light and looked around her. It was brightly painted, with a wallpaper with elves on it. There was a rocking horse and a great pile of coloured bricks. In one of the far corners there was a large cot. It was very large and very high and it contained the sleeping figure of a very old man.
When the Dutts returned Miss Efoss said nothing. She was frightened and she didn’t quite know why she was frightened. She was glad when she was back in her flat. The next day she telephoned her niece in Devon and asked if she might come down and stay for a bit.
Miss Efoss spoke to nobody about the Dutts. She gathered her strength in the country and returned to London at the end of a fortnight feeling refreshed and rational. She wrote a note to the Dutts saying she had decided to babysit no more. She gave no reason, but she said she hoped they would understand. Then, as best she could, she tried to forget all about them.
A year passed and then, one grey cold Sunday afternoon, Miss Efoss saw the Dutts in a local park. They were sitting on a bench, huddled close together and seeming miserable. For a reason that she was afterwards unable to fathom Miss Efoss approached them.
The Dutts looked up at her, their thin, pale faces unsmiling and unhappy.
‘Hullo, Miss Efoss,’ Mr Dutt said. ‘We haven’t seen you for a long time, have we? How are you this nasty weather?’
‘Quite well, thank you. And you? And Mrs Dutt?’
Mr Dutt rose and drew Miss Efoss a few yards away from his wife. ‘Beryl has taken it badly,’ he said. ‘Mickey died. Beryl has not been herself since. You understand how it is?’
‘Oh, I am sorry.’
‘I try to cheer her up, but I’m afraid my efforts are all in vain. I have taken it hard myself too. Which doesn’t make anything any easier.’
‘I don’t know what to say, Mr Dutt. It’s a great sadness for both of you.’
Mr Dutt took Miss Efoss’s arm and led her back to the seat. ‘I have told Miss Efoss,’ he said to his wife. Mrs Dutt nodded.
‘I’m very sorry,’ Miss Efoss said again.
The Dutts looked at her, their sad, intent eyes filled with a pathetic desire for comfort. There was something almost hypnotic about them.
‘I must go,’ Miss Efoss said. ‘Goodbye.’
‘They have all died, Miss Efoss,’ Mr Dutt said. ‘One by one they have all died.’
Miss Efoss paused in her retreat. She could think of nothing to say except that she was sorry.
‘We are childless again,’ Mr Dutt went on. ‘It is almost unbearable to be childless again. We are so fond of them and here we are, not knowing what to do on a Sunday afternoon because we are a childless couple. The human frame, Miss Efoss, is not built to carry such misfortunes.’
‘It is callous of me to say so, Mr Dutt, but the human frame is pretty resilient. It does not seem so at times like this I know, but you will find it is so in retrospect.’
‘You are a wise woman, Miss Efoss, but, as you say, it is hard to accept wisdom at a moment like this. We have lost so many over the years. They are given to us and then abruptly they are taken away. It is difficult to understand God’s infinite cruelty.’
‘Goodbye, Mr Dutt. Goodbye, Mrs Dutt.’
They did not reply, and Miss Efoss walked quickly away.
Miss Efoss began to feel older. She walked with a stick; she found the cinema tired her eyes; she read less and discovered that she was bored by the effort of sustaining long conversations. She accepted each change quite philosophically, pleased that she could do so. She found, too, that there were compensations; she enjoyed, more and more, thinking about the past. Quite vividly, she relived the parts she wished to relive. Unlike life itself, it was pleasant to be able to pick and choose.
Again by accident, she met Mr Dutt. She was having tea one afternoon in a quiet, old-fashioned teashop, not at all the kind of place she would have associated with Mr Dutt. Yet there he was, standing in front of her. ‘Hullo, Miss Efoss,’ he said.
‘Why, Mr Dutt. How are you? How is your wife? It is some time since we met.’
Mr Dutt sat down. He ordered some tea and then he leaned forward and stared at Miss Efoss. She wondered what he was thinking about: he had the air of someone who, through politeness, makes the most of a moment but whose mind is busily occupied elsewhere. As he looked at her, his face suddenly cleared. He smiled, and when he spoke he seemed to be entirely present.
‘I have great news, Miss Efoss. We are both so happy about it. Miss Efoss, Beryl is expecting a child.’
Miss Efoss blinked a little. She spread some jam on her toast and said:
‘Oh, I’m so glad. How delightful for you both! Mrs Dutt will be pleased. When is it – when is it due?’
‘Quite soon. Quite soon.’ Mr Dutt beamed. ‘Naturally Beryl is beside herself with joy. She is busy preparing all day.’
‘There is a lot to see to on these occasions.’
‘Indeed there is. Beryl is knitting like a mad thing. It seems as though she can’t do enough.’
‘It is the biggest event in a woman’s life, Mr Dutt.’
‘And often in a man’s, Miss Efoss.’
‘We have quite recovered our good spirits.’
‘I’m glad of that. You were so sadly low when last I saw you.’
‘You gave us some wise words. You were more comfort than you think, you know.’
‘Oh, I was inadequate. I always am with sorrow.’
‘No, no. Beryl said so afterwards. It was a happy chance to have met you so.’
‘Thank you, Mr Dutt.’
‘It’s not easy always to accept adversity. You helped us on our way. We shall always be grateful.’
‘It is kind of you to say so.’
‘The longing for a child is a strange force. To attend to its needs, to give it comfort and love – I suppose there is that in all of us. There is a streak of simple generosity that we do not easily understand.’
‘The older I become, Mr Dutt, the more I realize that one understands very little. I believe one is meant not to understand. The best things are complex and mysterious. And must remain so.’
‘How right you are! It is often what I say to Beryl. I shall be glad to report that you confirm my thinking.’
‘On my part it is instinct rather than thinking.’
‘The line between the two is less acute than many would have us believe.’
‘Yes, I suppose it is.’
‘Miss Efoss, may I do one thing for you?’
‘What is that?’
‘It is a small thing but would give me pleasure. May I pay for your tea? Beryl will be pleased if you allow me to.’
Miss Efoss laughed. ‘Yes, Mr Dutt, you may pay for my tea.’ And it was as she spoke this simple sentence that it dawned upon Miss Efoss just what it was she had to do.
Miss Efoss began to sell her belongings. She sold them in many directions, keeping back only a few which she wished to give away. It took her a long time, for there was much to see to. She wrote down long lists of details, finding this method the best for arranging things in her mind. She was sorry to see the familiar objects go, yet she knew that to be sentimental about them was absurd. It was for other people now to develop a sentiment for them; and she knew that the fresh associations they would in time take on would be, in the long run, as false as hers.
Her flat became bare and cheerless. In the end there was nothing left except the property of the landlord. She wrote to him, terminating her tenancy.
The Dutts were watching the television when Miss Efoss arrived. Mr Dutt turned down the sound and went to open the door. He smiled without speaking and brought her into the sitting-room.
‘Welcome, Miss Efoss,’ Mrs Dutt said. ‘We’ve been expecting you.’
Miss Efoss carried a small suitcase. She said: ‘Your baby, Mrs Dutt, When is your baby due? I do hope I am in time.’
‘Perfect, Miss Efoss, perfect,’ said Mr Dutt. ‘Beryl’s child is due this very night.’
The pictures flashed silently, eerily, on the television screen. A man dressed as a pirate was stroking the head of a parrot.
Miss Efoss did not sit down. ‘I am rather tired,’ she said. ‘Do you mind if I go straight upstairs?’
‘Dear Miss Efoss, please do.’ Mrs Dutt smiled at her. ‘You know your way, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ Miss Efoss said. ‘I know my way.’
The Introspections of J. P. Powers
J. P. Powers, big, forty-three, his face a mass of moustache, said: ‘You must depress the clutch, Miss Hobish. It is impossible to change from one gear to another without you depress the clutch.’
J. P. Powers was aware of his grammatical lapse. It is impossible to change from one gear to another unless you depress the clutch. It is impossible to change from one gear to another without depressing the clutch. Either variant would have done: both were within his idiom. Without you depress was foreign to him, the way the Irish talk. Despite the Celtic ring of his name, Justin Parke Powers was not Irish.
Miss Hobish drove the Austin in a jagged manner down Cave Crescent and into Mortimer Road. Ahead lay Putney Hill and an awkward right turn, across both streams of traffic. Powers prepared himself for the moment, feet ready for the dual controls, fingers poised to jab the starter when the engine stalled.
‘Slowing down signal,’ said J. P. Powers. Then: ‘Change to second, hand signal, indicator. Always the old hand signal: never rely on the indicator, Miss Hobish.’
Miss Hobish edged the car forward, aiming at a bus.
‘Wait for a gap, Miss Hobish. All that traffic has the right of way.’
He had said without you depress just for the novelty sound of it, because he had become so used to the usual patter of words, because his tongue grew tired of forming them.
‘Now, Miss Hobish.’ He seized the steering wheel and swung it, giving the engine a spurt of petrol.
The Austin bore to the left at the traffic lights, along Upper Richmond Road, and later turned right, into the quiet roads of Barnes Common. Powers relaxed then, telling her to take it calmly. Miss Hobish was always happy on Barnes Common.
He lit a cigarette and lowered the window so that the smoke would be carried away. He sat in silence, watching the road. Occasionally he glanced at Miss Hobish and occasionally at parts of himself. He saw his fingernails splayed on his two thick knees. He was not a particularly clean man, and this was a fact he now thought about. He visualized his grey-brown underclothes and the tacky yellow on the underarms of his shirts. Once his wife had commented on this yellow, saying he was a dirty man, running baths for him and pushing deodorants at him. She did all this no longer, only sighing when by chance she came upon his socks, stiff like little planks, in the big cardboard carton she used as a laundry basket. A complaint had come in one summer from a fastidious man called Hopker. Roche had had him in and told him about it, with the typing girl still in the room. ‘Wash out your armpits, old son. Get Lifebuoy and Odo-ro-no or Mum.’ Roche was a little fellow; it was easy for Roche, there wasn’t an ounce of sweat in him. Powers was fifteen stone: rolls of fat and muscle, grinding out the perspiration, secreting it in fleshy caches. To keep himself sweet he’d have to take a shower every two hours.
During his daily periods of boredom J. P. Powers was given to thought. It was thought of a depressing quality, being concerned with his uselessness. Fifty years ago there were no driving instructors in the world: what would he have done fifty years ago, how would he have made a living? The truth was he brought no skill to the job, he had no interest in it. How could one be interested in so unnecessary an occupation as teaching people to drive motor-cars? People could walk, they had legs. People could avail themselves of public transport. He gave no real service; better to be a booking clerk for British Railways. Not that people weren’t grateful to him. They waved to him afterwards, implying that he had helped them on their way. But J. P. Powers was thinking of himself; there was nothing expert in what he did, anyone could teach the gears and the knack.
‘Well, that was nice,’ said Miss Hobish. ‘I do enjoy it, Mr Powers. Now, will you take a cup of tea with me?’
Miss Hobish had been learning to drive for five years. It was an outing for her: Miss Hobish was seventy-three.
There was a job that was waiting for J. P. Powers, preserved for him by Ransome, with whom he had served in the Royal Air Force. ‘Any time you’re ready, J. P.,’ was how Ransome put it. Ransome with an amber pint in his paw, down at the Saracen’s Head on a Sunday morning. Ransome was sorry for him, remembering how he had driven a Spitfire during the war, thinking of him being driven by inept drivers now. Ransome felt he owed him something, some vague debt incurred in 1945. ‘Your day’s your own,’ said Ransome. ‘We supply the car.’ The task was to sell baby requisites from door to door: gripe water and talcum powder, disinfectant and baby oil: Ransome was expanding: he’d just bought up a concern that manufactured nappies; he was taking a look at the plastic toy business. ‘Let me ask you a question,’ said Ransome. ‘Doesn’t it send you up the wall hawking these learner drivers about?’ Ransome had a nice little patch keeping warm for Powers out Kingston way. ‘Look at the commission,’ said Ransome. ‘You won’t find commissions like that in your front garden.’
Justin Parke Powers, a man unclean and not entirely satisfied with himself, said yes to Miss Hobish; said yes, he would take the cup of tea, and held the car door open for her and followed her into her small house. Miss Hobish paid for her lessons in advance, by the quarter, but each lesson lasted only twenty minutes instead of the full hour: Miss Hobish at seventy-three could not sustain more.
Darker than the strands that crossed his scalp, softer than the bristle of moustache, was the mat of hair beneath the arms of J. P. Powers. ‘A growth that traps, a growth that sours’, said Roche, referring to the twin clumps and Powers’ perspiration. The hair overflowed from the armpits like stuffing from a mattress – yet his chest was naked as a girl’s. Smooth and white; a suggestion of breasts; pitted, if you cared to look, with blackheads. Earlier in his life J. P. Powers had been concerned about it: a big man like him with so unmanly an expanse. He had turned his back on the company in changing rooms, whistling to cover the gesture.
In the bath on Sunday mornings he washed this body with passing diligence, watching the milky scum form on the water, lathering himself with Lifebuoy as Roche had counselled. As he bathed he could hear the cry of the radio in the kitchen and the quarrelling sounds of his two small daughters. It was a Sunday ritual, accepted by his wife who took no part in it; ritual that the geyser should snarl and the water flow, that scum should form, radio play, daughters quarrel; ritual that at midday precisely J. P. Powers should emerge from the bathroom temporarily cleansed, should leave his rented house by the back door and board a bus to the Saracen’s Arms. It was ritual too that he should later return with four pints of beer in his barrel stomach and eat a lunch that had been kept for him in a low oven.
When he got going he couldn’t stop himself. The images of himself, of his daily work and of his body, rose often and unbidden before him. They bloomed in Mortimer Road and Cave Crescent, among the similar houses, detached or partly so. They hovered, then, over conversation and instruction; they were there in the Austin, like fog. He saw houses and roads being built and wished he had the courage to join a labour gang. He saw his big hands on the steering wheel and considered afresh their function.
On Tuesday September the 21st, Justin Parke Powers gave Miss Hobish her next driving lesson, her two hundred and forty-first. He sat beside her, feet and hands alerted.
‘We’ve had no summer, Mr Powers.’ She sighed, settling herself. ‘One, two, three, four, up and back for reverse. Are we ready, Mr Powers?’
She drove raggedly from Cave Crescent to Amervale Avenue.
‘Hand signals,’ said Powers, and Miss Hobish extended a scrawny arm and waved it arbitrarily about.
He fancied the typing girl in Roche’s office. When the weather was cold she wore knitted jumpers that shaped her breasts. They quivered as she typed, but there was nothing he could do about them now. Probably she’d giggled with Roche afterwards, about what fastidious Hopker had said, about Roche so bold as to recommend Odo-ro-no or Mum.
‘You’re forgetting those hand signals,’ said Powers.
‘So difficult,’ murmured Miss Hobish.
‘Come and have a drink,’ a woman had said to him once, at the end of a lesson; and his heart had fluttered in his naked chest, for he had heard from the other men of such approaches made. Nothing had come of it though, because with the drink in his hand he had laughed and been himself, had told her a few jokes and moved around the room so that he was positioned to give her an exploratory slap on the bottom. All this the woman had not welcomed, and had requested a different tutor for future lessons.
‘Slow down for the crossing,’ Powers said.
‘I beg your pardon?’ said Miss Hobish, turning to look at him, jerking the Austin onwards, missing a woman with a pram.
‘Turn right. We’ll go up Mortimer Road. Hand signal, indicator. Draw out to the centre of the road.’
Excited, Miss Hobish allowed the car to stall.
‘More gas, more gas,’ cried J. P. Powers, apologizing to the traffic.
‘Tell me about the RAF,’ said Miss Hobish in Mortimer Road. ‘I love to hear your tales.’
‘We must concentrate on our driving, Miss Hobish.’
‘Shall we have a cup of coffee afterwards and shall you tell me then?’
‘Yes, Miss Hobish; a coffee would be nice.’
He closed his eyes and within seconds Miss Hobish had driven the Austin into the back of a stationary van.
‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ said Miss Hobish.
Powers got out and examined the damage. Both wings and the radiator grill had suffered considerably. The bumper had folded like a length of cardboard.
‘I’d better drive,’ said Powers. ‘The steering may be wonky.’
He drove in silence, reflecting upon what the incident would cost in terms of himself. Then he wondered idly, as he often did, what it would be like to be a solicitor or a bank manager. He couldn’t fit himself into either role; he couldn’t hear himself advising on the purchase of a house, or lending money, or retailing the details of the divorce laws. It seemed a truth that his tasks were destined to be expendable; only in war had he established himself.
‘Coffee now?’ Miss Hobish asked with meekness.
He looked at the front of the car again. Both headlights were smashed.
‘I’m going to give you a cheque,’ said Miss Hobish. She handed him coffee, and biscuits with icing on them. ‘For that damage to your motor. I suppose it would be two hundred pounds?’
‘Two hundred,’ said Powers, falling in with the plan. ‘J. P. the initials are.’
‘Now we’ll forget about it?’ She was anxious, and he nodded, tucking the cheque away and thinking about it.
Ransome would be at the Saracen’s Head at lunchtime. He’d park the Austin round at the back where Ransome wouldn’t see it and wouldn’t guess anything. Two hundred: he could make it last a long time, nice to have it by him, nice to be able to draw on it now and again.
‘Lovely biscuits, Miss Hobish.’
‘So forgiving, Mr Powers! I thought you mightn’t speak to me, your beautiful motor broken up.’
‘Not at all –’
‘Have another of those biscuits, I know you like them. I get them at Sainsbury’s.’
He dunked the biscuit in his coffee and sucked off the coloured icing. It was a comfortable room. The armchair he sat in was large and soft. Once he had fallen asleep in it. Once Miss Hobish, recognizing his fatigue, had invited him to take off his shoes.
‘Goodbye, Miss Hobish.’
‘More coffee? Biscuits?’
‘I fear I must make my way, Miss Hobish.’
‘Goodbye then, Mr Powers.’ They shook hands as they always did.
It was the boredom, he thought; it was that that prevented him from being the easy extrovert he was born to be. The boredom of repeating, the boredom of talking in simple terms. Hand signals and gear changes: the boredom gave him time to think, it made him think. Powers did not employ these words in his survey of his trouble, but that was the meaning he arrived at. Thoughts ran around in his brain like hares. He didn’t know how to catch them.
‘I couldn’t be happier,’ said Ransome.
Powers examined the beer in his tankard. He nodded, smiling to display enthusiasm.
‘Do you know,’ queried Ransome, ‘what I’m going to do next?’
In three months’ time Powers knew he’d be beginning to think Ransome a swine. Ransome had the makings of another Roche; probably he was worse.
‘I’m going to fire Jack Clay,’ said Ransome.
It was one thing knowing the man in the Saracen’s Head, talking over a beer about their days in the RAF; it was rather different having him in charge of one’s daily life. I’m going to fire J. P. Powers. He could hear the man saying it, in this very bar, to some youthful figure who might make a better hand of distributing the requisites.
‘I’m going to fire Jack Clay and put J. P. Powers in his car. What d’you think of that, a big Consul?’
‘Fine,’ said J. P. Powers. ‘Fine, fine, a Consul’s lovely.’
‘I’ve got a concern making rubber sheets and hot-water bottles shaped like a bunny rabbit. I’d like to have the lot, you know; carry-cots, everything, a full service. I’ve got a fellow in Hoxton working on a wee-control.’
The old, tired thoughts began all over again. He couldn’t see himself clearly; he couldn’t see how his pattern was cut or what he was meant to do, or had ever been meant to do. He began to worry and he hated himself for it; because he didn’t want to worry, because the thoughts were forced upon him.
‘A pregnant woman,’ Ransome was going on, ‘will buy anything. Apples off a tree, old boy. Two days out and by God, you’ll know you never had it so good.’
‘Two pints,’ Ransome said to the barmaid.
If he worked on the public transport he’d be a cog in a big machine, getting people to work in the morning, taking them home at night. Otherwise they’d have to walk. He’d seen them during a transport strike, walking from Regent Street to Wimbledon. You couldn’t do that more than once a week.
‘Will I be all right?’
‘Will I fit the bill?’
‘Haven’t I said so? Haven’t I been plaguing you to come in for years? I mean what I say, old boy.’
It occurred to him that Ransome, far from being kind, was deliberately being cruel. Ransome was pointing the moral. They had walked out of the RAF together on the same day. They had gone their separate ways, he to teach learner drivers, Ransome to set up in business. And now Ransome was going to employ him. For years, all those Sunday mornings in the pub, Ransome’s persuasive talk had been designed to needle him. He had been Ransome’s superior in the RAF.
‘Drink to it.’
He raised his tankard to meet Ransome’s.
‘Get a nice new suit,’ suggested Ransome, smiling. ‘Spick and span, with a polish on the shoes. They’ll love you, old boy.’
He sat in the Austin, thinking about the last three hours. The pints of beer had darkened the hue of his face. He could feel them in his stomach, thick and comforting – a moat against Roche who was talking in his mind. He saw his flat mouth open and close, and the words lay between them, above Roche’s tidy desk, eaves droppings for the typing girl. So that was that: Powers must nod and understand, and go away and never return, must be forgotten by Roche, and by the typist whose breasts he had so much desired. Already he was a man of another trade, a good-hearted man who talked to the pregnant woman about what was to come, taking an interest and selling a requisite.
The sun was hot on his face as he sat in the Austin. His skin relaxed, that part of him happy in the heat. He closed his eyes and gave himself up to the tiny moment. The sun touched his hands on the steering wheel and warmed them too. Beer in his stomach, sun on his skin: he had felt such cosseting before. He had lain in bed, stretched and at peace, warmly covered. The warmth of his wife had welcomed him and given him another version of simple sensuality. Blearily, an awareness stirred in J. P. Powers. He did not think in so many words that the excuse for his life lay in moments like these: only in what he received, since he contributed nothing. He did not think it because it was absurd when it was put like that, clarified and clinical. The feeling hammered at his brain but no tendril stretched out to fashion it into thought. A cloud obscured the shaft of sunlight and the feeling evaporated, giving way to an afternoon depression. He switched on the ignition and drove the Austin for the last time, past Cave Crescent and Mortimer Road, out on to Putney Hill and into the stream of traffic.
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake
Garbed in a crushed tweed suit, fingering the ragged end of a tie that might have already done a year’s service about his waist, Swann de Lisle uttered a convivial obscenity in the four hundred cubic feet of air they euphemistically called my office. I had not seen him for some years: he is the kind of person who is often, for no reason one can deduce, out of the country. In passing, one may assume that his lengthy absences are due in some way to the element of disaster that features so commandingly in his make-up.
I should have known when I saw him standing there that I must instantly be on my guard. In my prevailing condition of emotional delicacy I could not hope to cope with whatever entertainment Swann had in mind for me. For, to give him his due, Swann never came empty-handed. Swann was a great one for getting the best out of life; and he offered one, invariably, a generous part of his well-laid plans. This time, he explained, he was offering me an attractive afternoon. In turn, I explained that I did not feel like an attractive afternoon, that I was too busy to gild the hours in the manner he was suggesting. But Swann was sitting down, well entrenched; and in the end he talked me into it.
I wrote a note and put it on my typewriter: Tuesday p.m. Am under surgeon’s knife. Then I made a telephone call.
‘How are you?’
‘Very well, Mike. How are you?’
‘Very well, too. Just thought I’d ring –’
‘Thank you, Mike.’
‘We must meet again soon.’
‘Yes, we must.’
‘I’d invite you to lunch only an old and valued friend has just transpired.’
‘That’s nice for you.’
‘Thanks for ringing, Mike.’
Swann was drawing designs on the varnish of my desk with a straightened-out paper-clip.
‘That wasn’t your wife,’ he said.
‘Wife? Far from it.’
‘You haven’t married or anything?’
‘Good. I’ve got a couple in a hostelry. They tell me they know you.’ We sauntered out into the September sun to meet them.
I have always wanted to invent pert shorthand typists with good figures and pretty lips whose heads may easily be turned by the crisp jingle of money, jolly girls who have done the stint at Pitman’s and do not believe in anticipating marriage. It might quite easily have been such companions with whom we found ourselves wasting away that afternoon. As it happened, it was Margo and Jo, a smart pair who drew pictures for the glossy magazines.
‘When I was eleven,’ Jo told me, ‘I wrote this children’s book and drew all the pictures. Somebody published it, and that of course made me unpopular with everyone.’
‘You must have been hugely clever.’
‘No, honestly. It was terribly bad, as you can imagine. Just chance that it got published.’
‘Words,’ said Margo, ‘mean a lot to Jo. She has a real sense.’
‘She’s bonkers,’ said Swann.
‘For God’s sake, Swann,’ said Margo.
Jo and Swann moved together. Swann was bored and he began to tell Jo a joke. Margo said, specifically to me: ‘Jo is the most talented person I’ve ever met.’ I nodded, not caring one way or the other. The bar was full of uniformed men: dark grey suits, waistcoats, white shirts, striped ties of some club or school.
‘Have a drink, Margo?’
Margo said that was a good idea and I squeezed through to the wet counter and floated a ten-shilling note on a pool of beer. When I returned to her Margo said:
‘Tell me straight, what do you think of Nigel?’
Nigel? Playing for time I sipped my beer, wondering why I drank the stuff since I disliked it so much. I said:
‘Oh, I like Nigel.’
‘Do you really?’
‘Well, he’s all right. I mean –’
‘Sometimes, Mike, I think Nigel is the most awful bore.’
I remembered. Nigel was plump and talkative. Nigel would tell you anything you might ever wish to know. When Nigel got going there was, in truth, no stopping Nigel. Nigel was Margo’s husband.
I drank some more beer. It was cold and tasteless. I said nothing.
‘Nigel and I had a barney last night.’
Margo told me about the barney. I listened dejectedly. Then I bought some more drink, and this time I changed mine to whisky. Someone had once told me that Jo had a husband too. Both marriages were considered to be heading for the rocks.
Suddenly Margo stopped about Nigel. She leered at me and said something I didn’t catch. From the next few sentences, I realized she was telling me I’d make a good husband.
‘I suppose I would,’ I said.
‘I’m not in love with you or anything,’ Margo said, swaying.
‘Of course not.’
After the pub we went off to have some lunch. All the way in the taxi I thought about Lucy.
We went to an Italian place in Soho that was too expensive and not particularly good. Swann told us the history of his life and ate only series of cassatas. I found a telephone on the stairs and rang up Lucy.
‘Hullo, Lucy. What are you doing?’
‘What d’you mean, what am I doing? I’m standing here talking to you on the telephone.’
‘I’m getting drunk with people in Soho.’
‘Well, that’s nice for you.’
‘Is it? Wish you were here.’
Lucy would be bored by this. ‘I’ve been reading Adam Bede,’ she said.
‘A good story.’
‘Have you had lunch?’
‘I couldn’t find anything. I had some chocolate.’
‘I telephoned to see how you were.’
‘I’m fine, thanks.’
‘I wanted to hear your voice.’
‘Oh come off it. It’s just a voice.’
‘Shall I tell you about it?’
‘I’d rather you didn’t. I don’t know why.’
‘Shall we meet some time?’
‘I’m sure we shall.’
‘I’ll ring you when I’m sober.’
‘Do that. I must get back to Adam Bede.’
I replaced the receiver and stood there looking down the steep stairs. Then I descended them.
‘What on earth shall we do now?’ Swann said. ‘It’s four o’clock.’
‘I want to talk to Mike,’ Margo announced. ‘Nobody’s to listen.’
I sat beside her and she began to speak in a limping whisper. ‘I want your advice about Nigel, Mike.’
‘Honestly, I scarcely know him.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Look, I think there’s something the matter with Nigel.’
I asked her to be specific. Instead she turned her assertion into a question. ‘Mike, do you think there’s something wrong with Nigel?’
‘Be frank now.’
‘I tell you, I don’t know him. For all I know he may have an artificial stomach.’
‘Nigel hasn’t an artificial stomach, actually.’
‘I don’t know why you should think that about him. He doesn’t even have trouble with his stomach.’
‘Well, then, what’s the matter with the man?’
‘I think he’s probably mental.’
‘Well, for God’s sake get him attended to, Margo.’
‘You think I should?’
‘Certainly I do. Unless you like his being mental.’
Margo giggled. She said:
‘He’s taken to doing such odd things. I mean, I don’t know where this is going to stop.’
‘Odd things like what?’
‘Like bringing home elderly women. He comes in with these women, explaining that he has been attending some meeting with them and has brought them back for coffee. It’s quite alarming – Nigel with four or five old ladies trailing behind him. They stay for ages. I’ve no idea where he gets them from. I think he imagines he’s being kind.’
‘What does Nigel say?’
‘He says they haven’t finished their meeting. They just sit around writing little notes. Nobody says anything.’
‘I think it’s all very interesting. I’m sure there’s some quite simple explanation. I don’t think you’ve really investigated the matter, Margo.’
‘Let’s leave this place,’ Swann said.
We went to another place, called the Blue Goat. It was one of those clubs where you can drink in the afternoon without having to watch striptease. Margo tried to go on about Nigel, but I said firmly that I didn’t want to hear anything more about Nigel. I talked to Jo.
‘Jo,’ I said, ‘do you know a girl called Lucy Anstruth?’
‘Small, plump, balding a little?’
‘No. Lucy is a very beautiful person.’
‘Not the same girl.’
‘Tall, fair, very blue eyes. Moves like a cat.’
‘Don’t know her.’
‘She says unexpected things. She’s half Swedish or something.’
‘Mike, would you guess I was half Welsh?’
‘No. I want to ask you about Lucy –’
‘But I don’t know her.’
‘I don’t know what to do about Lucy.’
‘You sound like Margo. Margo doesn’t know what to do about Nigel. Nobody knows what to do about anyone else. God! May I have some more vodka?’
‘Yes. As I say –’
‘I want a triple vodka.’
I ordered the vodka. Beside us, Swann and Margo were sitting in preoccupied silence; they weren’t even listening to what we were saying. Margo caught my eye and opened her mouth to speak. I turned my back and handed Jo her drink.
‘Something’s the matter with Margo’s husband,’ Jo said. ‘Poor Margo’s terribly worried.’
‘Yes, I know all about it. Margo has been telling me.’
‘I like Nigel, you know.’
‘Perhaps you can help him straighten himself out. We were talking about something else. I was telling you –’
‘Seems Nigel brings women home.’
‘Yes I know, Jo.’
‘Bit rough on Margo.’
Margo heard this. She shouted: ‘What’s rough on Margo?’ and then the conversation became general. I went away to telephone Lucy.
‘Hullo. Is that Mike?’
‘How are you?’
‘I’m feeling funny. But Lucy?’
‘I’m not trying to be funny. I’m not being amusing.’
‘Where are you?’
‘In the Blue Goat.’
‘It’s lined with leopard skin. Jo and Margo and Swann are here too.’
‘Who are they?’
‘Just other people.’
‘Nice of you to ring, Mike.’
‘Margo’s husband Nigel brings women home. I wondered perhaps if you had a word of advice I could give her. She’s worried about the women. They come in groups.’
‘Oh, Mike, I don’t know about things like that. I wouldn’t know what to do. Honestly.’
‘Sorry, Lucy; I just thought you might.’
‘The doorbell’s ringing. Goodbye, Mike. If I were you I’d go home.’
Swann said he wanted tea. We left the Blue Goat and walked in dazzling sunshine towards Floris.
Margo began again about Nigel.
Swann said he knew a man who would do Nigel a world of good. He couldn’t remember the treatment this man offered, but he said it was highly thought of.
I went away to telephone Lucy.
A man’s voice answered. I said: ‘May I speak to Lucy? Is that the right number?’
The man didn’t reply and in a moment Lucy came on. ‘Is that Mike again?’
‘Hullo, Lucy. How are you?’
‘I’m fine, Mike.’
‘Mike, you telephoned me at four fifteen. Do you know what time it is now?’
‘What time is it now?’
‘Am I being a nuisance, is that it?’
‘No, no. Just, is there anything I can do for you? I mean, do you want something and feel unable to express yourself?’
‘I’m bored. I’m with these people. Lucy.’
‘Who’s that in your flat?’
‘A friend called Frank. You don’t know him.’
‘What’s he doing there?’
‘What d’you mean, what’s he doing?’
‘Look, I’ll ask him. Frank, what are you doing?’
‘What’s he say?’
‘He says he’s making a cup of tea.’
‘I’m having tea too. In Floris. I wish you were here.’
‘Don’t go, Lucy.’
When I got back to the others I found them laughing in an uproarious manner. Swann said the cake they were eating was making them drunk. ‘Smell it,’ he said. It smelt of rum. I tasted some: it tasted of rum too. We all ate a lot of the cake, laughing at the thought of getting drunk on cake. We ordered some more, and told the waitress it was delicious. When the enthusiasm had melted a bit Swann said:
‘Mike, we want your advice about Margo’s husband.’
‘I’ve told Margo –’
‘No, Mike – seriously now. You know about these things.’
‘Why do you think I know about these things? I do not know about these things.’
‘All right, Mike, I’ll tell you. Margo’s husband Nigel keeps turning up with groups of old females. Margo’s worried in case the thing develops a bit – you know, tramps, grocers, one-legged soldiers. What d’you think she should do?’
‘I don’t know what Margo should do. Margo, I don’t know what you should do. Except perhaps ask Nigel what he’s up to. In the meantime, have some more cake.’
‘Now there’s an idea,’ Swann shouted excitedly. ‘Margo love, why don’t you ask old Nigel what he’s up to?’
Jo hacked affectionately at my face with her great spiked fingers. I guessed it was an expression of admiration rather than attack because she smiled as she did so.
‘But all Nigel says,’ Margo said, ‘is that they haven’t finished their meeting.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Swann, ‘but you don’t press him. You don’t say: “What meeting?” You don’t indicate that you are in the dark as to the nub of their business. Nigel may well imagine that you accept the whole state of affairs without question and expect little else of married life. When you were at the Gents,’ Swann said to me, ‘Margo confessed she was worried.’
‘She had previously confessed as much to me. I wasn’t at the Gents. I was making a telephone call.’
‘Shall I do that?’ Margo said. ‘Shall I ring up Nigel and ask him to explain everything?’
We all nodded. Margo rose, hesitated, and sat down again. She said she couldn’t. She explained she was too shy to telephone her husband in this way. She turned to me.
‘Mike, would you do it?’
‘Mike, would you telephone?’
‘Are you asking me to telephone your husband and inquire about his relationship with some elderly women who are entirely unknown to me?’
‘Mike, for my sake.’
‘Think of the explanations it would involve me in. Think of the confusion. Nigel imagining I was the husband of one of these women. Nigel imagining I was the police. Nigel asking me question after question. For goodness’ sake, how do you think I would get some kind of answer out of him?’
Swann said: ‘All you have to do is to say: “Is that Nigel? Now look here, Nigel, what’s all this I hear about these women who come to your house at all hours of the day and night?” Say you represent the Ministry of Pensions.’
‘I can’t address the man as Nigel and then say I’m from the Ministry of Pensions.’
‘Mike, Margo’s husband’s name is Nigel. He’ll be expecting you to address him as Nigel. If you don’t address him as Nigel, he’ll simply tell you to go to hell. He’ll say you’ve got a wrong number.’
‘So I say: “Hullo, Nigel, this is the Ministry of Pensions.” The man’ll think I’m crazy.’
Margo said: ‘Mike, you just do it your own way. Take no notice of Swann. Swann’s been eating too much cake. Come on, you know where the telephone is.’ She gave me a piece of paper with a number on it.
‘Oh God,’ I said; and unable to bear it any longer I borrowed fourpence and marched off to the telephone.
‘Hullo?’ said the voice at the other end.
‘Hullo. Can I speak to Lucy? Please.’
‘Hullo,’ Lucy said.
‘Well?’ said Lucy.
‘I know it’s Mike.’
‘They wanted me to telephone this man I was telling you about, but I can’t go telephoning people in this way –’
‘Why don’t you go home to bed?’
‘Because I wouldn’t sleep. Remember the man with the elderly women? Well, they wanted me to telephone him and ask him what he’s up to. Lucy, I can’t do that, can I?’
‘No, quite honestly I don’t believe you can.’
They told me to pose as the Ministry of Pensions.’
‘Just a – Lucy?’
‘Isn’t that man still there?’
‘Which man is this?’
‘The man in your flat.’
‘Frank. He’s still here.’
‘Who is he, Lucy?’
‘He’s called Frank.’
‘Yes, but what does he do?’
‘I don’t know what he does. Frank, what do you do? For a living? He says he’s a – what, Frank? A freight agent, Mike.’
‘A freight agent.’
When I arrived back at the tea-table everyone was very gay. Nobody asked me what Nigel had said. Swann paid the bill and said he was anxious to show us a display of Eastern horrors somewhere in Euston and would afterwards take us to a party. In the taxi Margo said:
‘What did Nigel say?’
‘He was out.’
‘Was there no reply?’
‘A woman answered. She said I was interrupting the meeting. I said “What meeting?” but she wanted to know who I was before she would answer that. I said I was the Ministry of Pensions and she said “Oh my God”, and rang off.’
We were hours early for the party, but nobody seemed to mind. I helped a woman in slacks to pour bottles of wine into a crock. Swann, Margo and Jo played with a tape-recorder, and after a time the woman’s husband arrived and we all went out to eat.
About eight, people began to arrive. The place filled with tobacco smoke, music and fumes; and the party began to swing along at a merry enough pace. A girl in ringlets talked to me earnestly about love. I think she must have been feeling much the same as I was, but I didn’t fancy her as a soul-mate, not even a temporary one. She said: ‘It seems to me that everyone has a quality that can get the better of love. Is stronger, you see. Like pride. Or honesty. Or moral – even intellectual, even emotional – integrity. Take two people in love. The only thing that can really upset things is this personal quality in one of them. Other people don’t come into it at all. Except in a roundabout way – as instruments of jealousy, for instance. Don’t you agree?’
I wasn’t sure about anything, but I said yes.
‘Another thing about love,’ the girl with the ringlets said, ‘is its extraordinary infection. Has it ever occurred to you that when you’re in love with someone you’re really wanting to be loved yourself? Because that, of course, is the natural law. I mean, it would be odd if every time one person loved another person the first person wasn’t loved in return. There’s only a very tiny percentage of that kind of thing.’
An aggressive young man, overhearing these remarks, began to laugh. He went on laughing, looking at the girl in ringlets and looking at me.
I went away and filled my glass from the crock, and asked a pretty middle-aged woman what she did. Her answer was coy; I smiled and passed on. Margo caught my arm and dragged me off to a corner. ‘Mike, you’ll ring Nigel again?’
‘I’ve been thinking about that,’ I said. ‘Honestly, I don’t think I can interfere.’
‘Oh but, dear, you promised.’
‘Promised? I didn’t promise anything.’
‘Really, the whole affair – oh all right.’
‘All right. Now.’
‘Is that Mike?’
‘Who indeed? Where are you now?’
‘I’m at a party.’
‘A good party?’
‘Yes, I suppose so. Why don’t you come along?’
‘I can’t, Mike. I’m doing things.’
‘With the bloody freight agent, I suppose.’
‘The what agent?’
‘Freight. Your friend the freight agent. Frank.’
‘He’s not a freight agent. He’s in publishing.’
‘What’d he say he was a freight agent for?’
A lengthy explanation followed. Calling himself a freight agent was a sample of Frank’s humour. I thought about this as I made my way back to Margo.
‘What’d he say, Mike?’
‘A woman said Nigel wasn’t in.’
‘Is that all?’
‘I said the house was being watched. I said the local authorities weren’t at all happy.’
‘What’d she say?’
‘She began to moan, so I said “I mean it,” and rang off.’
‘Thank you, Mike.’
‘That’s all right. Any time.’
Swann joined us and Margo said: ‘Mike’s been on to Nigel again. Mike’s being wonderful.’
Swann patted me on the back and said: ‘Any joy?’
Margo started to tell him. I went away.
Jo was pretending to listen to a couple of men who were between them retailing a complicated story. She said to me in a low voice: ‘Don’t worry about Margo. I’ll see she comes through the other side.’
I stared at her, wondering why she should imagine I was worried about Margo. ‘I’m sure you will, Jo,’ I said.
‘Trust Jo,’ she whispered.
I said I considered her a trustworthy person. I began to elaborate on the thought. One of the men said: ‘D’you mind, old boy?’
I shrugged and pushed a path back to the telephone. I dialled three times to be certain, but on each occasion there was no reply.
A ragged form of dancing was now taking place. Pausing by the crock, I found myself once again in the company of the girl with the ringlets. She smiled at me and in a boring way I said: ‘Do you know a girl called Lucy Anstruth?’
The girl with the ringlets shook her head. ‘Should I?’
‘I suppose not,’ I said. The girl examined me closely and passed on.
I went upstairs and discovered a quiet room with a bed in it. A lamp on a dressing-table gave out a weak light. The bed, which looked comfortable, was almost in darkness. 1 stretched out on it, welcoming the gloom. In a few moments I dropped off to sleep. When I awoke the luminous dial of my watch indicated that I had been asleep for two hours. Two girls were tidying their faces at the dressing-table. They drew head-scarves with horses on them from their handbags and placed them about their heads. They spoke in a whisper and left the room. I lay there considering the events of the day and wondering how I was going to feel about them at breakfast. How one feels at breakfast about the preceding day has always seemed to be important to me.
A man with a glass in his hand entered the room and placed himself before the mirror on the dressing-table. He combed his hair and tightened his tie. Then he took a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around his right forefinger. He inserted this into each ear, twisting his forefinger back and forth. He remarked to himself on the outcome of this operation, examining his handkerchief. I closed my eyes; when I opened them he was gone. I lit a cigarette and set off to the telephone again.
‘What is it?’ a voice said. It was the publishing man. I asked to speak to Lucy.
‘Oh, Mike, really –’
‘Lucy, that man’s there again.’
‘I know, Mike.’
‘It’s two o’clock in the morning.’
‘Two o’clock in the morning. I’m sorry, Mike.’ Her voice was so gentle that I said:
‘Stop trying not to hurt me.’
‘I think I’d better ring off.’
‘I’ll ring off, damn it.’
I stood by the telephone, considering, and feeling sick. I felt something between my fingers and looked down at the piece of paper with Nigel’s telephone number on it. I lifted the receiver and dialled it.
I waited almost a minute and then a woman’s voice said: ‘Yes? Who is that please?’
I think I said: ‘I want to know what’s going on.’
The woman said quickly: ‘Who is that speaking? You haf the wrong number.’
‘I do not,’ I retaliated briskly. ‘Please bring Nigel to the phone.’
‘Nigel is in the Chair. You are interrupting our meeting with this demand. There is much on the agenda. I cannot attend to you, sir.’
‘This is the Ministry of Pensions,’ I said, and I heard the woman breathing laboriously. Then she cut me off.
I walked back through the party and looked for the front door. I was thinking that everything had been more or less resolved. Margo’s grievance had had its airing; she felt the better for it, and all anyone had to do now was to ask Nigel what he was up to and press the point until a satisfactory answer was achieved. As for me, time would heal and time would cure. I knew it, and it was the worst thing of all. I didn’t want to be cured. I wanted the madness of my love for Lucy to go on lurching at me from dreams; to mock me from half-empty glasses; to leap at me unexpectedly. In time Lucy’s face would fade to a pin-point; in time I would see her on the street and greet her with casualness, and sit with her over coffee, quietly discussing the flow beneath the bridges since last we met. Today – not even that, for already it was tomorrow – would slide away like all the other days. Not a red-letter day. Not the day of my desperate bidding. Not the day on which the love of my life was snaffled away from me. I opened the front door and looked out into the night. It was cold and uncomforting. I liked it like that. I hated the moment, yet I loved it because in it I still loved Lucy. Deliberately I swung the door and shut away the darkness and drizzle. As I went back to the party the sadness of all the forgetting stung me. Even already, I thought, time is at work; time is ticking her away; time is destroying her, killing all there was between us. And with time on my side I would look back on the day without bitterness and without emotion. I would remember it only as a flash on the brittle surface of nothing, as a day that was rather funny, as the day we got drunk on cake.
One day Miss Smith asked James what a baby horse was called and James couldn’t remember. He blinked and shook his head. He knew, he explained, but he just couldn’t remember. Miss Smith said:
‘Well, well, James Machen doesn’t know what a baby horse is called.’
She said it loudly so that everyone in the classroom heard. James became very confused. He blinked and said:
‘Pony, Miss Smith?’
‘Pony! James Machen says a baby horse is a pony! Hands up everyone who knows what a baby horse is.’
All the right arms in the room, except James’s and Miss Smith’s, shot upwards. Miss Smith smiled at James.
‘Everyone knows,’ she said. ‘Everyone knows what a baby horse is called except James.’
James thought: I’ll run away. I’ll join the tinkers and live in a tent.
‘What’s a baby horse called?’ Miss Smith asked the class and the class shouted:
‘Foal, Miss Smith.’
‘A foal, James,’ Miss Smith repeated. ‘A baby horse is a foal, James dear.’
‘I knew, Miss Smith. I knew but –’
Miss Smith laughed and the class laughed, and afterwards nobody would play with James because he was so silly to think that a baby horse was a pony.
James was an optimist about Miss Smith. He thought it might be different when the class went on the summer picnic or sat tightly together at the Christmas party, eating cake and biscuits and having their mugs filled from big enamel jugs. But it never was different. James got left behind when everyone was racing across the fields at the picnic and Miss Smith had to wait impatiently, telling the class that James would have to have his legs stretched. And at the party she heaped his plate with seed-cake because she imagined, so she said, that he was the kind of child who enjoyed such fare.
Once James found himself alone with Miss Smith in the classroom. She was sitting at her desk correcting some homework. James was staring in front of him, admiring a fountain pen that the day before his mother had bought for him. It was a small fountain pen, coloured purple and black and white. James believed it to be elegant.
It was very quiet in the classroom. Soundlessly Miss Smith’s red pencil ticked and crossed and underlined. Without looking up, she said: ‘Why don’t you go out and play?’
‘Yes, Miss Smith,’ said James. He walked to the door, clipping his pen into his pocket. As he turned the handle he heard Miss Smith utter a sound of irritation. He turned and saw that the point of her pencil had broken. ‘Miss Smith, you may borrow my pen. You can fill it with red ink. It’s quite a good pen.’
James crossed the room and held out his pen. Miss Smith unscrewed the cap and prodded at the paper with the nib. ‘What a funny pen, James!’ she said. ‘Look, it can’t write.’
‘There’s no ink in it,’ James explained. ‘You’ve got to fill it with red ink, Miss Smith.’
But Miss Smith smiled and handed the pen back. ‘What a silly boy you are to waste your money on such a poor pen!’
‘But I didn’t –’
‘Come along now, James, aren’t you going to lend me your pencil-sharpener?’
‘I haven’t got a pencil-sharpener, Miss Smith.’
‘No pencil-sharpener? Oh James, James, you haven’t got anything, have you?’
When Miss Smith married she stopped teaching, and James imagined he had escaped her for ever. But the town they lived in was a small one and they often met in the street or in a shop. And Miss Smith, who at first found marriage rather boring, visited the school quite regularly. ‘How’s James?’ she would say, smiling alarmingly at him. ‘How’s my droopy old James?’
When Miss Smith had been married for about a year she gave birth to a son, which occupied her a bit. He was a fine child, eight pounds six ounces, with a good long head and blue eyes. Miss Smith was delighted with him, and her husband, a solicitor, complimented her sweetly and bought cigars and drinks for all his friends. In time, mother and son were seen daily taking the air: Miss Smith on her trim little legs and the baby in his frilly pram. James, meeting the two, said: ‘Miss Smith, may I see the baby?’ But Miss Smith laughed and said that she was not Miss Smith any more. She wheeled the pram rapidly away, as though the child within it might be affected by the proximity of the other.
‘What a dreadful little boy that James Machen is,’ Miss Smith reported to her husband. ‘I feel so sorry for the parents.’
‘Do I know him? What does the child look like?’
‘Small, dear, like a weasel wearing glasses. He quite gives me the creeps.’
Almost without knowing it, James developed a compulsion about Miss Smith. At first it was quite a simple compulsion: just that James had to talk to God about Miss Smith every night before he went to sleep, and try to find out from God what it was about him that Miss Smith so despised. Every night he lay in bed and had his conversation, and if once he forgot it James knew that the next time he met Miss Smith she would probably say something that might make him drop down dead.
After about a month of conversation with God James discovered he had found the solution. It was so simple that he marvelled he had never thought of it before. He began to get up very early in the morning and pick bunches of flowers. He would carry them down the street to Miss Smith’s house and place them on a window-sill. He was careful not to be seen, by Miss Smith or by anyone else. He knew that if anyone saw him the plan couldn’t work. When he had picked all the flowers in his own garden he started to pick them from other people’s gardens. He became rather clever at moving silently through the gardens, picking flowers for Miss Smith.
Unfortunately, though, on the day that James carried his thirty-first bunch of blooms to the house of Miss Smith he was observed. He saw the curtains move as he reached up to lay the flowers on the window-sill. A moment later Miss Smith, in her dressing-gown, had caught him by the shoulder and pulled him into the house.
‘James Machen! It would be James Machen, wouldn’t it? Flowers from the creature, if you please! What are you up to, you dozy James?’
James said nothing. He looked at Miss Smith’s dressing-gown and thought it was particularly pretty: blue and woolly, with an edging of silk.
‘You’ve been trying to get us into trouble,’ cried Miss Smith. ‘You’ve been stealing flowers all over the town and putting them at our house. You’re an underhand child, James.’
James stared at her and then ran away.
After that, James thought of Miss Smith almost all the time. He thought of her face when she had caught him with the flowers, and how she had afterwards told his father and nearly everyone else in the town. He thought of how his father had had to say he was sorry to Miss Smith, and how his mother and father had quarrelled about the affair. He counted up all the things Miss Smith had ever said to him, and all the things she had ever done to him, like giving him seed-cake at the Christmas party. He hadn’t meant to harm Miss Smith as she said he had. Giving people flowers wasn’t unkind; it was to show them you liked them and wanted them to like you.
‘When somebody hurts you,’ James said to the man who came to cut the grass, ‘what do you do about it?’
‘Well,’ said the man, ‘I suppose you hurt them back.’
‘Supposing you can’t,’ James argued.
‘Oh, but you always can. It’s easy to hurt people.’
‘It’s not, really,’ James said.
‘Look,’ said the man, ‘all I’ve got to do is to reach out and give you a clip on the ear. That’d hurt you.’
‘But I couldn’t do that to you because you’re too big. How d’you hurt someone who’s bigger than you?’
‘It’s easier to hurt people who are weaker. People who are weaker are always the ones who get hurt.’
‘Can’t you hurt someone who is stronger?’
The grass-cutter thought for a time. ‘You have to be cunning to do that. You’ve got to find the weak spot. Everyone has a weak spot.’
‘Have you got a weak spot?’
‘I suppose so,’
‘Could I hurt you on your weak spot?’
‘You don’t want to hurt me, James.’
‘No, but just could I?’
‘Yes, I suppose you could.’
‘My little daughter’s smaller than you. If you hurt her, you see, you’d be hurting me. It’d be the same, you see.’
‘I see,’ said James.
All was not well with Miss Smith. Life, which had been so happy when her baby was born, seemed now to be directed against her. Perhaps it was that the child was becoming difficult, going through a teething phase that was pleasant for no one; or perhaps it was that Miss Smith recognized in him some trait she disliked and knew that she would be obliged to watch it develop, powerless to intervene. Whatever the reason, she felt depressed. She often thought of her teaching days, of the big square schoolroom with the children’s models on the shelves and the pictures of kings on the walls. Nostalgically, she recalled the feel of frosty air on her face as she rode her bicycle through the town, her mind already practising the first lesson of the day. She had loved those winter days: the children stamping their feet in the playground, the stove groaning and crackling, so red and so fierce that it had to be penned off for safety’s sake. It had been good to feel tired, good to bicycle home, shopping a bit on the way, home to tea and the wireless and an evening of reading by the fire. It wasn’t that she regretted anything; it was just that now and again, for a day or two, she felt she would like to return to the past.
‘My dear,’ Miss Smith’s husband said, ‘you really will have to be more careful.’
‘But I am. Truly I am. I’m just as careful as anyone can be.’
‘Of course you are. But it’s a difficult age. Perhaps, you know, you need a holiday.’
‘But I’ve had difficult ages to deal with for years –’
‘Now now, my dear, it’s not quite the same, teaching a class of kids.’
‘But it shouldn’t be as difficult. I don’t know –’
‘You’re tired. Tied to a child all day long, every day of the week, it’s no joke. We’ll take an early holiday.’
Miss Smith did feel tired, but she knew that it wasn’t tiredness that was really the trouble. Her baby was almost three, and for two years she knew she had been making mistakes with him. Yet somehow she felt that they weren’t her mistakes: it was as though some other person occasionally possessed her: a negligent, worthless kind of person who was cruel, almost criminal, in her carelessness. Once she had discovered the child crawling on the pavement beside his pram: she had forgotten apparently to attach his harness to the pram hooks. Once there had been beads in his pram, hundreds of them, small and red and made of glass. A woman had drawn her attention to the danger, regarding curiously the supplier of so unsuitable a plaything. ‘In his nose he was putting one, dear. And may have swallowed a dozen already. It could kill a mite, you know.’ The beads were hers, but how the child had got them she could not fathom. Earlier, when he had been only a couple of months, she had come into his nursery to find an excited cat scratching at the clothes of his cot; and on another occasion she had found him eating a turnip. She wondered if she might be suffering from some kind of serious absent-mindedness, or blackouts. Her doctor told her, uncomfortingly, that she was a little run down.
‘I’m a bad mother,’ said Miss Smith to herself; and she cried as she looked at her child, warm and pretty in his sleep.
But her carelessness continued and people remarked that it was funny in a teacher. Her husband was upset and unhappy, and finally suggested that they should employ someone to look after the child. ‘Someone else?’ said Miss Smith. ‘Someone else? Am I then incapable? Am I so wretched and stupid that I cannot look after my own child? You speak to me as though I were half crazy.’ She felt confused and sick and miserable. The marriage teetered beneath the tension, and there was no question of further children.
Then there were two months without incident. Miss Smith began to feel better; she was getting the hang of things; once again she was in control of her daily life. Her child grew and flourished. He trotted nimbly beside her, he spoke his own language, he was wayward and irresponsible, and to Miss Smith and her husband he was intelligent and full of charm. Every day Miss Smith saved up the sayings and doings of this child and duly reported them to her husband. ‘He is quite intrepid,’ Miss Smith said, and she told her husband how the child would tumble about the room, trying to stand on his head. ‘He has an aptitude for athletics,’ her husband remarked. They laughed that they, so unathletic in their ways, should have produced so physically lively an offspring.
‘And how has our little monster been today?’ Miss Smith’s husband asked, entering the house one evening at his usual time.
Miss Smith smiled, happy after a good, quiet day. ‘Like gold,’ she said.
Her husband smiled too, glad that the child had not been a nuisance to her and glad that his son, for his own sake, was capable of adequate behaviour. ‘I’ll just take a peep at him,’ he announced, and he ambled off to the nursery.
He sighed with relief as he climbed the stairs, thankful that all was once again well in the house. He was still sighing when he opened the nursery door and smelt gas. It hissed insidiously from the unlit fire. The room was sweet with it. The child, sleeping, sucked it into his lungs.
The child’s face was blue. They carried him from the room, both of them helpless and inadequate in the situation. And then they waited, without speaking, while his life was recovered, until the moment when the doctor, white-coated and stern, explained that it had been a nearer thing than he would wish again to handle.
‘This is too serious,’ Miss Smith’s husband said. ‘We cannot continue like this. Something must be done.’
‘I cannot understand –’
‘It happens too often. The strain is too much for me, dear.’
‘I cannot understand it.’
Every precaution had been taken with the gas-fire in the nursery. The knob that controlled the gas pressure was a key and the key was removable. Certainly, the control point was within the child’s reach but one turned it on or off, slipped the key out of its socket and placed it on the mantelpiece. That was the simple rule.
‘You forgot to take out the key,’ Miss Smith’s husband said. In his mind an idea took on a shape that frightened him. He shied away, watching it advance, knowing that he possessed neither the emotional nor mental equipment to fight it.
‘No, no, no,’ Miss Smith said. ‘I never forget it. I turned the fire off and put the key on the mantelpiece. I remember distinctly.’
He stared at her, drilling his eyes into hers, hopelessly seeking the truth. When he spoke his voice was dry and weary.
‘The facts speak for themselves. You cannot suggest there’s another solution?’
‘But it’s absurd. It means he got out of his cot, turned the key, returned to bed and went to sleep.’
‘Or that you turned off the fire and idly turned it on again.’
‘I couldn’t have; how could I?’
Miss Smith’s husband didn’t know. His imagination, like a pair of calipers, grasped the ugly thought and held it before him. The facts were on its side, he could not ignore them: his wife was deranged in her mind. Consciously or otherwise she was trying to kill their child.
‘The window,’ Miss Smith said. ‘It was open when I left it. It always is, for air. Yet you found it closed.’
‘The child certainly could not have done that. I cannot see what you are suggesting.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I am suggesting. Except that I don’t understand.’
‘He’s too much for you, dear, and that’s all there is to it. You must have help.’
‘We can’t afford it.’
‘Be that as it may, we must. We have the child to think of, if not ourselves.’
‘But one child! One child cannot be too much for anyone. Look, I’ll be extra careful in future. After all, it is the first thing like this that has happened for ages.’
‘I’m sorry, dear. We must advertise for a woman.’
‘Darling, I’m sorry. It’s no use talking. We have talked enough and it has got us nowhere. This is something to be sensible about.’
‘Please let’s try again.’
‘And in the meanwhile? In the meanwhile our child’s life must be casually risked day in, day out?’
Miss Smith pleaded, but her husband said nothing further. He pulled hard on his pipe, biting it between his jaws, unhappy and confused in his mind.
Miss Smith’s husband did indeed advertise for a woman to see to the needs of their child, but it was, in fact, unnecessary in the long run to employ one. Because on his third birthday, late in the afternoon, the child disappeared. Miss Smith had put him in the garden. It was a perfectly safe garden: he played there often. Yet when she called him for his tea he did not come; and when she looked for the reason she found that he was not there. The small gate that led to the fields at the back of the house was open. She had not opened it; she rarely used it. Distractedly, she thought he must have managed to release the catch himself. ‘That is quite impossible,’ her husband said. ‘It’s too high and too stiff.’ He looked at her oddly, confirmed in his mind that she wished to be rid of her child. Together they tramped the fields with the police, but although they covered a great area and were out for most of the night they were unsuccessful.
When the search continued in the light of the morning it was a search without hope, and the hopelessness in time turned into the fear of what discovery would reveal. ‘We must accept the facts,’ Miss Smith’s husband said, but she alone continued to hope. She dragged her legs over the wide countryside, seeking a miracle but finding neither trace nor word of her child’s wanderings.
A small boy, so quiet she scarcely noticed him, stopped her once by a sawmill. He spoke some shy salutation, and when she blinked her eyes at his face she saw that he was James Machen. She passed him by, thinking only that she envied him his life, that for him to live and her child to die was proof indeed of a mocking Providence. She prayed to this Providence, promising a score of resolutions if only all would be well.
But nothing was well, and Miss Smith brooded on the thought that her husband had not voiced. I released the gate myself. For some reason I have not wanted this child. God knows I loved him, and surely it wasn’t too weak a love? Is it that I’ve loved so many other children that I have none left that is real enough for my own? Pathetic, baseless theories flooded into Miss Smith’s mind. Her thoughts floundered and collapsed into wretched chaos.
‘Miss Smith,’ James said, ‘would you like to see your baby?’
He stood at her kitchen door, and Miss Smith, hearing the words, was incapable immediately of grasping their meaning. The sun, reflected in the kitchen, was mirrored again in the child’s glasses. He smiled at her, more confidently than she remembered, revealing a silvery wire stretched across his teeth.
‘What did you say?’ Miss Smith asked.
‘I said, would you like to see your baby?’
Miss Smith had not slept for a long time. She was afraid to sleep because of the nightmares. Her hair hung lank about her shoulders, her eyes were dead and seemed to have fallen back deeper into her skull. She stood listening to this child, nodding her head up and down, very slowly, in a mechanical way. Her left hand moved gently back and forth on the smooth surface of her kitchen table.
‘My baby?’ Miss Smith said. ‘My baby?’
‘You have lost your baby,’ James reminded her.
Miss Smith nodded a little faster.
‘I will show you,’ James said.
He caught her hand and led her from the house, through the garden and through