Pack of Cards
And Other Storiesby Penelope Lively
“One of Britain’s most imaginative and important contemporary writers.” –Library Journal
In Pack of Cards, Penelope Lively introduces the reader to slivers of the everyday world that are not always open to observation, as she delves into the minutiae of her characters’ lives. Whether she writes about a widow on a visit to Russia, a small boy’s consignment to boarding school, or an agoraphobic housewife, Penelope Lively takes the reader past the closed curtains, through the locked door, into a world that seems at first mundane and then at second glance, proves to be uniquely memorable.
“Inspired . . . entertaining . . . an abundantly rich collection . . . Penelope Lively writes beautifully with meticulous detachment.” –The New York Times Book Review
“The extraordinary power of Lively’s writing is such that these small intrusions upon small lives take on a nearly surreal clarity and sense of horror. . . . Nearly every tale is flawless; nearly every one depends upon some sly or uncanny revelation.” –The Washington Post Book World
“The precise image, the unexpected detail, compassion without sentimentality, are only a few of the elements that make these stories a celebration of narrative art.” –Publishers Weekly
“These witty, profoundly civilized stories display Lively’s compassion, intelligence, and versatility. . . . This captivatingly intelligent collection confirms Lively’s place as one of Britain’s most imaginative and important contemporary writers.” –Library Journal
“Pack of Cards confirms her as the most original and piercing writer now working in that most unsparing of genres [short stories]. . . . She leaves her characters sustaining each other precariously, connected by familiarity, if not emotion. However wicked her insight into pretension, her compassion always rules. These vignettes of the human condition and of very human responses to it are absorbing, caring, and careful.” –The Times (London)
Nothing Missing but the Samovar
IT WAS July when he went to Morswick, early autumn when he left it; in retrospect it was to seem always summer, those heavy, static days of high summer, of dingy weather and outbursts of sunshine, of blue sky and heaped clouds. Of straw and horseflies. Blackberries; jam for tea; church on Sunday. The Landers.
Dieter Helpmann was twenty-four, a tall, fair young man, serious-looking but with a smile of great sweetness; among his contemporaries he seemed older than he was, sober, reserved, the quiet member of a group, the listener. He had come from Germany to do his post-graduate degree – a thesis on nineteenth-century Anglo-Prussian relations. His father was a distinguished German journalist. Dieter intended to go into journalism himself; he was English correspondent, now, for a socio-political weekly, contributing periodic articles on aspects of contemporary Britain. His English was perfect: idiomatic, lightly accented. His manners were attractive; he held doors open for women, rose to his feet for them, was deferential to his elders.
All this made him seem slightly old-fashioned, as did his worried liberalism, which looked not shrewd nor edgy enough for a journalist. His gentle, concerned pieces about education, industrial unrest, the housing problem, read more like a sympathetic academic analysis of the ills of some other time than energetic journalism.
It was 1957, and he had spent eighteen months in England. The year before – the year of Suez and Hungary – he had seen his friends send telegrams to the Prime Minister fiercely dissociating themselves from British intervention; he had agonised alongside them outraged both with and for them; he had written an article on “the alienation of the British intellectual” that was emotional and partisan. His father commented that he seemed deeply committed – “The climate appears to suit you, in more ways than one.” And Dieter had written back, “You are right – and it is its variety I think that appeals the most. It is a place that so much defies analysis – just as you think you have the measure of it, you stumble across yet another confusing way in which the different layers of British life overlap, another curious anachronism. I have to admit that I have caught Anglophilia, for better or for worse.”
He had. He loved the place. He loved the sobriety of the academic world in which he mostly moved. He loved all those derided qualities of reserve and restraint, he loved the landscape. He liked English girls, while remaining faithful to his German fiancee, Erika (also engaged on post-graduate work, but in Bonn). He liked and respected what he took to be a basic cultural stability; here was a place where things changed, but changed with dignity. To note, to understand, became his deep concern.
All that, though, took second place to the thesis. That was what mattered at the moment, the patient quarrying into a small slice of time, a small area of activity. He worked hard. Most of his waking hours were spent in the agreeable hush of great libraries, or alone in his room with his card index and his notebooks.
He had been about to start writing the first draft when it happened. “I have had the most remarkable piece of luck,” he wrote to Erika. “Peter Sutton – he is the friend who is working on John Stuart Mill, you remember – is married to a girl who comes from Dorset and knows a family whose forebear was ambassador in Berlin in the 1840s and apparently they still have all his papers. In trunks in the attic! They are an aristocratic family – Sir Philip Lander is the present holder of the title, a baronetcy. Anyway, Felicity Sutton has known them all her life (she is rather upper-class too, but intelligent, and married Peter at Cambridge, where they both were – this is something of a feature of the young English intelligentsia, these inter-class marriages, Peter of course is of a working-class background), and mentioned that I would be interested in the papers and they said at once apparently that I would be welcome to go down there and have a look. It certainly is a stroke of luck – Felicity says she got the impression there is a vast amount of stuff, all his personal correspondence and official papers too. I go next week, I imagine it will all be rather grand “”
There was no car to meet him, as promised. At least, he stood at the entrance to the small country station and the only waiting cars were a taxi and a small pick-up van with open back full of agriculture sacks. He checked Sir Philip Lander’s letter: date and time were right. Apprehensively he turned to go to the telephone kiosk – and at that moment the occupant of the van, who had been reading a newspaper, looked up, opened the door and stepped out, smiling.
Or rather, unfolded himself. He was immensely tall, well over six foot. He towered above Dieter, holding out a hand, saying my dear fellow, I’m so sorry, had you been there long – I didn’t realise the train was in – I say, is that all the luggage you’ve got, let me shove it in the back ”
Bemused, Dieter climbed into the van beside him. It smelled of petrol and, more restrainedly, of horse.
They wound through lanes and over hills. Sir Philip boomed, above the unhealthy sound of the van’s engine, of topography, of recollections of Germany before the war, of the harvest. He wore corduroy trousers laced with wisps of hay, gum-boots, a tweed jacket. He was utterly affable, totally without affectation, impregnable in his confidence. Dieter, looking out of the window, saw a countryside that seemed dormant, the trees’ dark drooping shapes, the cattle huddled in tranquil groups, their tails lazily twitching. The phrase of some historian about “the long deep sleep of the English people” swam into his head; he listened to Sir Philip and talked and had the impression of travelling miles, of being swallowed up by this billowing, drowsy landscape.
Once, Sir Philip stopped at a village shop and came out with a cardboard carton of groceries; the van, after this, refused to start and Dieter got out to push. As he got back in, Sir Philip said, “Thanks so much. Very old, I’m afraid. Needs servicing, too – awful price, nowadays, a service. Oh, well “” They passed a pub called the Lander Arms, beetle-browed cottages, an unkempt village green, a Victorian school, turned in at iron gates that shed curls of rusting paint, and jolted up a long, weedy, rutted drive.
It could never have been a beautiful house, Morswick: early seventeenth century, satisfactory enough in its proportions, with a moderately ambitious flight of steps (now cracked and crumbling) to the front door, but without the gilding of any famous architectural hand. The immediate impression was of a combination of resilience and decay: the pock-marked stone, the window frames unpainted for many years, the pedestal-less urns with planting of woody geraniums, the weeds fringing the steps, the rusted guttering.
They went in. Dieter had a muddled impression of welcoming hands and faces, a big cool hallway, a wide oak staircase, perplexing passages and doors culminating in a room with window looking out on to a field in which a girl jumped a large horse to and fro over an obstacle made from old oil-drums. He changed his shirt, watching her.
Only later, over tea, did he sort them all out. And that took time and effort, so thunderstruck was he by the room in which it was eaten, that bizarre – preposterous – backdrop to brown bread and butter, Marmite, fish paste and gooseberry jam.
It was huge, stone-flagged, its exterior wall taken up with one great high window, as elaborate with stone tracery as that of a church transept. There were family portraits all round the room – a jumble of artistic good and bad – and above them jutted banners so airy with age as to be completely colourless. The table at which they sat must have been twelve feet long; the wood had the rock-hard feel of immense age; there was nothing in sight that was new except the electric kettle with which Lady Lander made the tea. (“The kitchen is such miles away, we do as much as we can in here “”)
He stared incredulously at the banners, the pictures, at pieces of furniture such as he had only ever seen before in museums. These, though, were scarred with use, faded by sun, their upholstery in ribbons: Empire chairs and sofas, eighteenth-century cabinets, pedestal tables, writing desks, bureaux. Bemused, he smiled and thanked and spread jam on brown bread and was handed a cup of tea by his hostess.
She was French, but seemed, he thought, poles removed from any Frenchwoman he had ever known – there was nothing left but the faintest accent, the occasional misuse of a word. And then there was the mother-in-law, old Lady Lander, a small pastel figure in her special chair (so fragile-looking, how could she have perpetrated that enormous man?) and Madame Heurgon, Lady Lander’s mother, and the two boys, Philip and James, and Sophie, the old French nurse, and Sally, who was sixteen (she it was who had been jumping that horse, beyond the window).
He ate his tea, and smiled and listened. Later, he wrote to his father (and forgot to post the letter): “This is the most extraordinary family, I hardly know what to make of them as yet. The French mother-in-law has been here twenty years but speaks the most dreadful English, and yet she never stirs from the place, it seems – I asked her if she went back to France often and she said, “Oh, but of course not, it is so impossibly expensive to go abroad nowadays.” The boys go away to boarding school, but the girl, Sally, went to some local school and is really barely educated at all, daughters are expendable, I suppose. And they are all there, all the time, for every meal, the old nurse too, and in the evenings they all sit in the drawing-room, listening to the wireless – comedy shows that bewilder them all, except the children, who try to explain the jokes and references, all at once, so no one can hear a word anyway. The old ladies, and the nurse, are in there all day, knitting and sewing and looking out of the window and saying how hot it is, or how cold, and how early the fruit is, or how late, day after day, just the same, there is nothing missing but the samovar ” Sir Philip is out most of the time, in the fields, he is nothing if not a working farmer, tomorrow I shall help him with some young bullocks they have up on the hill.
I have not yet looked at the papers.”
That first day there had been no mention of the papers at all; and he had not, he realised, as he got into bed, given them so much as a thought himself. After tea he had been shown round the place by Sally and the boys: the weedy gardens where couch grass and bindweed quenched the outline of tennis court, kitchen garden, and what had once been a formal rose garden with box hedges and a goldfish pond. From time to time they met Lady Lander, hoeing a vegetable bed or snipping the dead heads from flowers; she worked with a slow deliberation that seemed appropriate to the hopeless task of controlling that large area. To go any faster would have been pointless – the forces of nature were winning hands down in any case – to give up altogether would be craven. There was no gardener, Sally said – “The only men are Daniels and Jim, and Jim’s only half really because he’s on day release at the Tech and of course Daddy needs them on the farm all the time.”
They toured the stables (a graceful eighteenth-century courtyard, more architecturally distinguished than the house) and admired the Guernsey cows grazing in a paddock nearby. Sir Philip came down the drive on a tractor, and dismounted to join them and explain the finer points of raising calves to Dieter: this was a small breeding herd. “Of course,” he said, “it doesn’t really make sense, economic sense, one never gets enough for them, but it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing.”
Sally broke in, “And they look so nice.”
He beamed at the cows, and his daughter. “Of course. That’s half the point.”
A car was approaching slowly, taking the ruts and bumps with caution, a new model. Sir Philip said, “Ah, here’s George Nethercott, we’re going to have a chat about those top fields’. He moved away from them as the car stopped, saying, “Good evening, George, very good of you to come up – how’s your hay going, I’m afraid we’re making a very poor showing this year, I’m about three hundred bales short so far. I say, that’s a very smart car ”
His voice carried in the stillness of the early evening; it seemed the only forceful element in all that peace of pigeons cooing, cows cropping the grass, hypnotically shifting trees.
Sally said, “Mr Nethercott’s land joins our farm on two sides. Daddy may be going to sell him the three hill fields because we’ve got to have a new tractor next year, it’s a pity, you oughtn’t to sell land ” Her voice trailed away vaguely, and then she went on with sudden enthusiasm, “I say, do you like riding? Would you like to try Polly?”
“You will never believe it, I have been horse-riding,” he wrote to Erika. “Not for long, I hasten to say – I fell off with much humiliation, and was made a great fuss of. They are such a charming family, and have a way of drawing you into everything they do, without ever really bothering about whether it is the kind of thing you are fitted for, or would like ” So that I find myself leading the most extraordinary – for me – life, mending fences, herding cattle, picking fruit, hay-making.
Next week I must get down to the papers.”
Sir Philip had taken him up to the attics. “I really don’t know what we shall find,” he said. “Things get shoved away for years, you know, and one has very little idea ” I’ve not been up here for ages.”
There were pieces of furniture, grey with dust, and suitcases, and heaps of mouldering curtains and blankets; a sewing-machine that looked like the prototype of all sewing-machines; gilt-framed pictures stacked against a wall; a jumble of withered saddlery that Sir Philip picked up and examined. “I wonder if Sally mightn’t be able to make use of some of this.”
Dieter, looking at an eighteenth-century chest of drawers pushed away beneath a dormer window, and thinking also of the furniture with which the rest of the house was filled, said, “You have some nice antique pieces.” Sir Philip, still trying to unravel a harness, said, “Oh no, Dieter, not really, it’s all just things that have always been here, you know.” He put the harness down and moved away into another, inner attic room with a single small window overlooking the stable-yard. “I have a feeling the stuff we’re looking for is in these boxes here.”
Later, Dieter sat at a small folding green baize card table he had found in a corner, and began to open the bundles of letters and papers. It was much as Felicity Sutton had predicted: there were family letters all mixed up with official correspondence both from and to the Sir Philip Lander of the 1840s. It was a research worker’s gold-mine. He glanced through a few documents at random, and then began to try to sort things out into some kind of order, thinking that eventually, before he left, he must suggest tactfully that all this should be deposited in the Public Record Office or some other appropriate place. In the meantime it was just his own good luck ”
Curiously, he could not feel as excited or interested as he should. He read, and made a few notes, and yawned, and beyond the fly-blown window small puffy clouds coasted in a sky of duck-egg blue, the garden trees sighed and heaved, and if he lifted himself slightly in his chair he could see down into the stable-yard where Sally was in attendance on that enormous horse of hers, circling its huge complacent rump with brush and comb. Presently Sir Philip drove the tractor into the yard, and, with one of the boys, began to unload bales of hay. Dieter put his pen down, tidied his notes into a pile, and went down to help.
He had never known time pass so slowly – and so fast. The days were thirty-six hours long, and yet fled by so quickly that suddenly he had been there for two and a half weeks. Much embarrassed, he went one morning to find Lady Lander in the kitchen and insist that he should pay for his keep.
She was making jam. The room was filled with the sweet fruity smell; flies buzzed drunkenly against the windows. Astonished, she said, “Oh, but of course not, we couldn’t hear of such a thing, you are a guest.”
“But I am staying so long, originally Sir Philip suggested a few days, and with one thing and another it has got longer and longer. Please, really I should prefer “”
She would have none of it.
He hardly knew himself how it was that his departure was always postponed. Of course, he had done no work at all, as yet, on the papers, but he could get down to that any time. And always there was something that loomed – “You must be sure to be here for the County Show next week,” Sir Philip would say. “You’ll find it amusing if you’ve not seen that kind of thing before – do you have the equivalent in Germany, I wonder?” Or Sally would remember suddenly that the first cubbing meet was in ten days’ time. “You’ll still be here, won’t you, Dieter? Oh, you must be – honestly, if you’ve never seen a meet ”
He protested to Lady Lander – “Please, I would be happier”, but could see that there was no point in going on. “In any case,” she said, turning back to the pink-frothing pan on the stove, “you have been most helpful to my husband, he is always short-handed at this time of year, I am afraid only that we drive you into things you would never normally dream of doing. You must say, you know, if it bores you – we tend to forget, down here, that not everyone lives this kind of life.”
And she, he wondered, had she not once been someone quite different? On Sundays, both she and her mother appeared for church in quite unfashionable but recognisably expensive clothes – silk dresses and citified hats of pre-war style. In these incongruous outfits, they walked down the lane to the village church. The family filled the whole of the front pew; Sir Philip’s confident tenor led the sparse congregation; afterwards they would all stand, every week, for the same amount of time, chatting to the vicar. Then back to Morswick, stopping again from time to time to talk with village people.
He had thought, when he first came, that it was feudal, and had been amused. Now, his perceptions heightened, he saw otherwise. “It is not that they are not respected,” he wrote to his father. “Far from it – people are deferential to them – a title still means something, and they have always been the big family in these parts. But it is as though they are runners in a race who are being outstripped without even realising it. I think they hardly notice that their farming neighbours have new gadgets they have not – washing machines, televisions – that theirs is the shabbiest car for miles around, that the Morswick tractor is so out-of-date Nethercott (the neighbour) declined the loan of it when his broke down. And why? you will be saying, after all they have land, a house, possessions. But the land is not good, a lot of it is rough hill-grazing, I suppose that is at the root of the problem – and a mansion and a family past are not very realisable assets. I certainly can’t imagine them selling the furniture. But when you come down to it – it is as though there is also some kind of perverse lack of will, as though they both didn’t know, and didn’t want to know.”
The children were where it most showed. Beside their contemporaries – the sons and daughters of the local farming families (many of them at private schools, their country accents fast fading), they seemed quaint, too young for their ages, innocent. Sally, talking to other adolescent girls at an agricultural show, was the only one without lipstick, a hair-do, the quick glancing self-consciousness of young womanhood. She seemed a child beside them.
At the cubbing meet – held outside the village pub – he found it almost unbearable. Standing beside Lady Lander, he watched her. Lady Lander said, ‘she’s not well mounted, I’m afraid, poor darling – we’ve only got old Polly these days.”
It was a huge horse, with a hefty muscularity that suggested carthorse ancestry. Seated on it, Sally towered above the dapper ponies of the other children. Beaming, unconscious of the vaguely comic figure she cut, she yanked the horse’s head away from a tray of glasses that was being carried around, and waved at Dieter. She wore her school mack over grubby breeches and a pair of battered hunting-boots. The other girls were crisp in pale jodhpurs, tweed jackets and little velvet caps.
Dieter was wrenched by pity, and love.
He adored her. With horror he had recognised his own feelings, which smacked, it seemed to him, of paedophilia. She was sixteen; her rounded features, her plump awkward body, were raw with childishness. He was obsessed by her. He forced himself to contemplate her ignorance, her near-illiteracy. He thought of Erika, of her sharp clever face, the long hours of serious discussion, the shared concerns, and it did no good at all.
And Sally had not the slightest inkling, nor ever would, of how he felt. She jostled him in puppyish horse-play; she worked beside him in the harvest field, her breasts straining at her aertex shirt, her brown legs as shiny with health and vigour as the rump of that incongruous horse she rode; he could hardly take his eyes off her, and was appalled at himself.
In the evenings, he played board games with the two boys, held skeins of knitting wool for old Lady Lander as she wound the balls. Sometimes, he took a book from the great high cases that lined the walls of the drawing-room. They held an odd assortment: bound volumes of Punch, row upon row, Edwardian books about hunting and fishing, the classic Victorian novelists, books of humorous verse, Henty and Buchan and Rider Haggard. He read with perplexity novels like The Constant Nymph, Precious Bane and Beau Geste that seemed to fit not at all with the concept of English twentieth-century literature that he had formed after two years’ carefully selective leisure reading. Scanning the titles on the shelves, he had a confusing impression of being presented with a whole shadow culture of which he had been unaware. Yet again he felt his own judgements and perceptions to be hopelessly inadequate. Sir Philip, standing beside him at the book case one evening, said, “Glad to see you’re making use of the library, Dieter – I’m afraid none of us get much time for reading.” There was hardly a single recent addition, not an untattered dust-cover to be seen.
On a day of sullen rain clouds, when the whole landscape seemed sunk in apathy, the old tractor broke down with more than usual finality. For hour after hour, Sir Philip and Daniels crawled around it, oiling and adjusting; Dieter, on edge with vicarious anxiety (it was needed for several urgent jobs), watched in frustration, cursing his lack of mechanical know-how. The worry on Sir Philip’s face distressed him greatly; he longed to help. Eventually, the tractor sputtered into fitful life, and everybody stood back smiling. Sir Philip said, “Well, Daniels, we shan’t have any of these crises next year, when we’ve got the new one, I hope.” And Daniels said, “That’s right, sir, we’ll be in clover then”, and added, looking down the drive, “Here’s Mr Nethercott now.”
Nethercott had come, though, to talk not about fields but to look at the bull Sir Philip proposed selling. It was a young bull, whose performance was proving unreliable. Daniels was in favour of going over to artificial insemination. Sir Philip had reluctantly concurred, as they stood side by side at the gate, a few days before, watching the bull at work among the cows in a steeply sloping field opposite. Sir Philip said, “You’re right, Daniels, I’m not too happy about him either.”
“Silly bugger don’t realise he got to do it downhill.”
Sir Philip turned away. “Oh well, there’s nothing to be done – he’ll have to go. Now, George Nethercott’s wanting a bull, I know – I’ll give him a ring tonight.”
And now Nethercott too stood at the field gate, studying the bull. Other matters were talked of for a while, then he said, “How much were you thinking of asking for him?”
Sir Philip named a price.
Nethercott nodded. There was a brief silence and then he said with a trace of embarrassment, “He might well work out more satisfactory than he looks just now – but the fact is, what I’m looking for’s going to cost a fair bit more than that. Thanks for letting me have a look at him, though.”
A week or so later, they heard through the postman that Nethercott had paid five hundred pounds for a bull at the Royal Show. Sir Philip said, “Well, good heavens! Lucky fellow.” He was standing with Dieter in the front drive, the two or three brown envelopes that the postman had brought in his hand. “I really don’t know how people manage it, these days. He’s a good chap, Nethercott – they’re a nice family. His grandfather used to work here, you know, for mine – stable-lad he was, I think. Well, I suppose we might get on with that fencing today, eh?”
Up in the attic, the sun striking through the window had browned Dieter’s single page of notes; there was a faint paler stripe where the pencil lay.
At the beginning of September, the boys went back to boarding school. The corn was down, the blackberries ripening, the green of the trees spiced here and there with the first touch of autumn colour. Since he had come here, Dieter realised, the landscape had changed, working through its cycle so unobtrusively that only with an effort did one remember the brimming cornfields of July, the hedgerows still bright with wild flowers, the long light evenings. Now, the fields were bleached and shaven, the hedges lined with the skeletal heads of dried cow-parsley and docks, the grass white with dew in the mornings. It came as a faint shock to realise that the place was not static at all, that that impression of deep slumber was quite false, that change was continuous, that nothing stood still. That he could not stay here for ever.
There was a dance, in the local market town, in connection with some equestrian activity, to which he went with Sally and her parents. It was the first time, he realised, that he had ever been anywhere with them when the whole family had not come, grandmothers and all. Sally wore an old dress of her mother’s that had been cut down for her; it did not fit and was unbecoming, but she shone with excitement and anticipation. In the hotel where the dance took place, the other young girls were waiting about in the foyer in sharp-eyed groups and he was stricken again at Sally’s frumpish looks in contrast to their fashionable dresses, their knowingness. But she was quite happy – laughing, greeting acquaintances.
He danced with her once at the beginning, and then left her with a group of her contemporaries. But later, the evening under way, whenever he saw her she was dancing with friends of her parents, or sitting alone on one of a row of gilt chairs at the edge of the room, holding a glass of lemonade, but still radiant, tapping her foot in time to the music. After a while he went over and sat beside her.
“Are you having a good time, Sally?”
“Let’s dance, shall we?”
She was clumsy; he had to steer her round the room. She said, ‘sorry, I’m hopeless. We did have dancing lessons at school but it’s quite different when it’s a real man, and anyway I always had to take man because of being tall, so I’m no good at being the woman. I say, Mummy says perhaps I can go to the hunt ball this year – will you still be here?”
He said, “I’m afraid not. I have to go back before the term begins in October.”
“Oh, what a pity.” They danced in silence for a minute or two and then she said suddenly, “What are you going to do after you’ve finished your – your what’s-it, the thing you’re writing?”
“I shall go back to Germany and get a job. I expect I shall get married,” he added after a fractional pause. He had never spoken of Erika at Morswick.
“Will you?” she looked amazed. “Gosh – how exciting. Do write and tell us, won’t you, so that we can send a present.”
She beamed up at him; she smelled of toothpaste and, very faintly, of a cheap scent that she must have acquired in secrecy and tentatively used. He had seen, once, into her room; there had been a balding toy dog on the pillow, photographs of horses pinned to the walls, glass animals on the windowsill. She said, ‘do you know, they want me to go to a sort of finishing school place in Grenoble next year.”
“I should think you would like that.”
She said, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly go. I couldn’t bear to leave Morswick. No, I can’t possibly.”
Dieter said, ‘sally, I think you should, I really do.”
She shook her head.
Later, back at Morswick, he sat with Sir Philip in the drawing-room; Sally and her mother had gone to bed. Sir Philip had taken a bottle of whisky from the cupboard and poured them both a glass: it was almost the first time Dieter had ever seen alcohol produced at Morswick, except for the glass of sherry offered to their rare visitors. Sir Philip said, “Quite a successful evening, I thought. Of course, you get rather a different kind of person at this sort of do now – it’s not really like before the war. I daresay my father would be a bit taken aback if he was still alive.”
He began to talk about his war-time experiences in Italy and France: he had been with the Sicily landings, and then in Normandy shortly after D-day, advancing through France and into Germany. Remembering suddenly the delicacy of the subject, he looked across at Dieter and said, “I hope you don’t ” of course, one realised at the time how many people like yourself, like your father ” What a wretched business it all was, so much worse in many ways for you than for us.”
Dieter said, “I think you would be interested to see Germany now. I wish you would come to visit us – my father would be so delighted to make arrangements, if all of you could come, or perhaps at least the boys and Sally.”
“How awfully kind. We really must try to – you know, I can’t think when we last had a holiday of any sort. Yes, we really must.” He swilled the whisky in his glass, peering down into it. “Yes. Of course, one is so awfully tied up here, being pretty short-handed nowadays. I daresay things will pick up in time, though. I must admit, it is getting a bit hard to manage just at the moment – still, we keep our heads above water. Anyway, I really mustn’t burden you with our problems. By the way, I hope you didn’t mean what you said earlier about leaving us next week – I’d imagined we’d have you with us for some time to come. There’s the harvest festival on Sunday week – I’m sure Jeanne was intending to rope you in for one thing and another.”
“I have to get back – the term begins soon, you see. My supervisor – well, they must wonder what on earth has become of me. And in any case, you’ve been far too kind already, too hospitable. I don’t know how to thank you enough.”
“I’m afraid what with one thing and another you’ve not had all that much time to put in on those papers. They’ve been of some interest, I hope?”
Dieter said, “Oh yes, extremely interesting.”
The day before he was to leave he went to the attic to clear up the green baize table. His note-pad, with its single page of notes, was curled at the edges now, and dusty. Insects had died on the opened bundles of letters. Beyond the window, the landscape had slipped a notch further into autumn: there was a mist smoking up from the fields, and long curtains of old man’s beard hanging down the wall beside the stable-yard. He tied up the letters again and put them away in the trunk, folded the card table, gathered up his things. He opened the window for a moment, with some vague notion of airing the place, and heard, faintly, Sally whistling as she did something out of sight in one of the loose boxes.
His departure for the station was delayed for a few minutes by the arrival of Nethercott. Sir Philip stood with him at the field gate nodding and listening. When at last he finished, and Nethercott, apologising for turning up at what was obviously an inappropriate moment, had driven away, the whole family was gathered on the steps to say goodbye to Dieter. He had shaken hands with them all, several times; everyone was smiling and interrupting. Sir Philip came across the drive to them and said, ‘sorry about that – had to have a word or two since he’d taken the trouble to come up.”
Lady Lander said, “What was it about?”
“Oh, just the fields – you know, the hill fields. He’d like to make an offer for them but I’d got things a bit wrong, I’m afraid – they’re worth rather less than I’d imagined, on the current market. Rather a lot less, I’m afraid. George was awfully apologetic – you’d have thought it was his fault.
He’s a good chap.”
“Oh dear, does that mean no new tractor?”
“I suppose it does. I don’t know how I’m going to break that to poor Daniels. Well, anyway,” he went on cheerfully, “we’ll be able to send the old one for a thorough overhaul, we’ll have to make do with that. Now, Dieter, we’d better be on our way, hadn’t we, where’s your case ”
He saw them like that, in his mind’s eye, for long after – the women – standing on the front steps waving and smiling. “It’s au revoir, anyway,” Lady Lander had said, “because we shall see you again, next time you’re in our part of the world, shan’t we?” And her mother-in-law, that frail old lady in her pale floppy clothes and regimental brooches, had piped up, “Oh yes, we’re always here, you know, you’ll always find us here”, and Sally was calling out not to forget to let them know about the wedding. She had given him a hug and a kiss; the feel of her arms, her warm soft face, the smell of her, stayed with him all the way to the station, and beyond. And the sight of them, and of the house behind, frozen in the furry yellow light of the September morning, like an old photograph – the figures grouped around the steps, the house with its backdrop of fields and hills and trees.
At the station, Sir Philip shook him by the hand. “We’ve enjoyed having you, Dieter. You must get down to us again sometime. You’ll find everything goes on much as ever at Morswick. And the best of luck with your doctorate.”
In the train, Dieter began a letter to Erika, and then sat staring out of the window at that placid landscape (the landscape of Constable, he told himself, of Richard Wilson, of the English novelists) and saw only the irresistible manifestations of change: the mottled trees, the tangle of spent growth in the hedgerows.
The Voice of God in Adelaide Terrace
MISS AVRIL Pemberton, in her fifty-seventh year, suffered from insomnia. She did not consider this an insupportable affliction; she would lie with her eyes open in the protective darkness of her bedroom, think her thoughts, and listen to the nocturnal London sounds. These were not many, for Adelaide Terrace was a quiet and respectable neighbourhood, its inhabitants given to early nights and not inclined to car ownership.
It was on such a night, in that static tract of time between three and five in the morning so familiar to insomniacs, that Avril first heard the voice.
She was a devout woman and a regular churchgoer. Even so, she did not regard herself as blameless; merely as a reasonably proficient Christian, given to occasional error rather than deliberate transgression. She had certainly never expected to be singled out in this way.
The voice said, “Avril?”
She sat up, and stared into the dusky cavern beside the wardrobe from which it seemed to come; later, she recalled its curious sexlessness, the voice of neither man nor woman.
“Avril,” it said, “are you listening carefully? There is something I want you to do.”
Avril, wide awake, more interested than awed, said, “What would You like me to do?”
“I shall explain,” said the voice. “Pay attention. I wish you to make a start with the attic room “”
Avril listened, with mounting astonishment.
It should be explained at this point that Avril Pemberton let rooms. She let rooms because her mother had done so before, ever since, indeed, Mr Pemberton had died in 1951, because the house was too large for her own needs and because the money came in very handy. Without it, she would have found it difficult to manage on her salary from the part-time secretarial work for a local firm of accountants. She let the first-floor front and back (single, with washbasins) and the large attic room (own bathroom). Cooking facilities for the tenants were provided in the small scullery on the first floor. Avril herself occupied the ground floor, using the second-floor front as her bedroom. The two small back rooms on the second floor remained empty, in use as boxrooms. Her mother had not liked the house to become overcrowded.
Mrs Pemberton had died four years before, irascible in extreme old age. To the bitter end, she had exercised her powers of discrimination over would-be tenants, vetting them, finally, from her bed. Avril had found it all extremely embarrassing; so, presumably, had the tenants. Two of the present three, Mr Harris, the bank clerk in the first-floor front, and the nursing sister in the attic had been her mother’s choices. Sandra Lee, the student from the teacher training college around the corner, Avril had admitted a year or so ago, irritably aware that the pasty girl, with her total absence of personality, opinion or discernible tastes, was exactly the kind of person of whom her mother would have approved as a tenant.
There had never been any shortage of people wanting rooms. Adelaide Terrace was conveniently near bus routes and a tube station, not too far from central London, but quiet. The area was something of a buffer state; to the east, middle-class ‘reclamation” had sent prices rocketing and let loose a tide of primrose and terracotta front doors, bay trees in tubs and petunia-crammed window-boxes; to the west, quite other things had been going on. There, Indian take-aways alternated with Chinese, the market stalls were piled high with garish and glittery stuffs, peculiar vegetables and cut-price carpets and pop records. The streets ran with black school children and the pubs blared forth unfamiliar music. The inhabitants of Adelaide Terrace kept their eyes turned resolutely to the east, and hoped for the best.
And, where possible, played a part. Many of the tall terrace houses, like the Pembertons’, belonged to elderly people and diminished families who let out rooms; others were divided, rather inefficiently, into flats. The long-term inhabitants, such as Mrs Pemberton and her immediate neighbour, Mrs Fletcher, knew one another well and were resolute as to certain matters, though divided about methods of exercising that resolution.
Mrs Fletcher sported, for many years, a small notice stuck to the inside of a glass panel in the front door. It said “No coloureds’ and had been nicely lettered, with stencils, by her niece who had done a year at art college.
Mrs Pemberton thought this silly and unnecessary. It was a simple matter, she said, to make one’s position perfectly clear without that. Occasional small unpleasantnesses might arise, but could be quickly dealt with: front doors open, but they also close again. It was with a certain satisfaction that she had pointed out to Mrs Fletcher, in 1965, that the notice would have to be removed.
“Who’s to make me?” said Mrs Fletcher, bristling.
“Well, dear,” said Mrs Pemberton, “you’ll have to do as you think best, but I wouldn’t like to see you get had up, and personally I’ve never found the need in the first place.”
Mrs Fletcher went on at some length about individual liberty and diabolical interferences therein and how you couldn’t pass laws to make people think differently to what they always had done. Mrs Pemberton pointed out, smoothly, that all this was true enough but what was clear as day was that you could pass laws until you were blue in the face but there would still be ways and means.
Mrs Fletcher removed the notice and took instructions from Mrs Pemberton as to ways and means. There were seldom, if ever, misunderstandings or unpleasantnesses, and Adelaide Terrace remained much as it had been before. At the far end, where Mrs Pemberton’s influence was weakest, there was a certain falling-off. An Indian family took one of the flats and were to be seen, on Sunday’s immaculately dressed, pushing a pram in Adelaide Gardens. Their eldest son, in grey flannel trousers, navy blazer, spotless white shirt and puce turban, cycled down the street to school every day. Avril, watching once from the window, was misguided enough to say that they seemed quite nice people; her mother was unmanageable for a week.
And now, lying there in the dark, she listened to the voice – a little hectoring in tone – as it went on and on. Instructing. Lecturing. ‘remember the Bishop?” it said. “Now supposing he had come to the door “”
“I know,” said Avril. “I said as much to mother at the time.”
The Bishop of somewhere in Africa, he had been, but you couldn’t tell that at once from the name. He had come as visiting preacher to St Bartholomew’s, one autumn Sunday. They had been invited to the Vicar’s after the service, for coffee, because Mrs Pemberton was treasurer, then, of the Mothers’ Union. And he had been as black as your hat. Big and black and beaming. Avril had thought, at first, seeing him climb into the pulpit, that her mother wouldn’t go to the vicarage. But she had. She had gone, and sat there, and drunk coffee and eaten biscuits. And afterwards she had said that she wouldn’t have Mrs Brinton’s job, not for the world. Mrs Brinton was the Vicar’s wife. And Avril had said what she had said and there had been unpleasantness between them. And now here was the voice, harking back.
“I spoke my mind,” said Avril sulkily.
She had never taken up arms against her mother lightly: the cost was too high. As the years went by, she did so less and less, the instinctive resistance of her youth snuffed out by her mother’s more implacable temperament. She ceased to counter Mrs Pemberton’s vaunted opinions and preferences, ceased to say, from time to time, “There are two sides to everything, mother,” and “Well, personally, I do think ” She took to silence.
By and large, she conceded Adelaide Terrace as Mrs Pemberton’s territory and guarded jealously the privacy of her life beyond it, what little there was – the voluntary evenings at the Scout and Guide hut, her Red Cross afternoon, and her job at Hackle and Starbuck.
Never, for instance, would she have told Mrs Pemberton about Gloria.
Gloria came to the office as a temp when the senior, and permanent, secretary, had to have several weeks’ sick leave after an operation. She was seventeen, fresh from school, an indifferent typist, as noisy as a puppy, and West Indian. Her abundant, frizzy hair was worn in two huge puffs elaborately teased out at either side of her head; she had wide, flat features with large brown eyes, big lips delicately painted; there was a bloom to her skin that entranced Avril. Surreptitiously she kept glancing at Gloria; bewildered, she realised that she found the girl beautiful.
Gloria bounced and giggled her way through the days and played merry hell with the filing system. The office was torn between amusement and irritation; Mr Hackle, who had been as startled as Avril when Gloria appeared from the agency, grumbled at the mangled letters with which Gloria presented him, and enjoyed, like Avril, the throaty laughter that brightened office hours. Gloria teased the office boy, charmed clients, bungled every telephone message, and spent much time in the washroom attending to her appearance. At the typewriter, she moaned and whimpered and, every now and then, leaned back to indulge in a huge luxuriant stretch that made it seem as though her plump rubbery young body might spring apart entirely, like an over-ripe pea-pod.
One day, looking across at Avril, she said, “Hey, that’s nice.”
“What?” said Avril.
“That sweater you got on. It suits you – it’s your colour, blue. You look really good today.”
Avril had flushed and muttered something and gone back to the letter she was typing. Later, tidying her hair before she left the office, she stared at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that, adjusting the collar of her jacket.
She had been sorry when Gloria left, and Maureen Davidson returned, with her migraines and her proficiency and her faint odour of Lifebuoy soap.
Guiltily, she dismissed recollections of Gloria and returned to here and now, and to the voice, which seemed to be concluding its homily.
“As quickly as you can, with the normal period of notice to the present tenants.”
As she listened, the corners of Avril’s mouth turned up in an incredulous smile.
“All black?” she said.
“Every one of them,” said the voice sternly.
There was not a great deal of difficulty with Mr Harris, Sandra Lee and the nursing sister. Since she gave formal notice to all three at once, it was simply assumed that she wished to reclaim the house for her own occupation. Mr Harris, who had been there for nine years, was clearly a little put out, but gave her a large box of chocolates as a parting present and made over to her the tradescantia in the scullery, which he thought might not take kindly to a move. The nursing sister asked if she wasn’t going to rattle around rather, all on her own. Sandra Lee vanished, wordless, into the obscurity from which she had come.
The process, allowing for the correct periods of notice, took nearly four months. Not until the last tenant had departed did Avril place her advertisement in the Gazette; she had decided to deal with the attic room first, and retained her usual wording, except that she added ‘married couples not objected to’.
There was a flood of responses. Avril, turning away, with her mother’s murmured formula of regret – “so sorry ” already taken “person who called last night” – first a young Irish couple, and then a Scottish nurse and another girl of indeterminate extraction, realised that covertly exercised discrimination is indeed extremely easy.
The Singhs presented themselves at the door on a Tuesday morning. By Friday they were installed in the attic.
On Saturday morning, returning from the shops, Avril was halted, key in the lock, by Mrs Fletcher, springing from her own door at the sound as though released by an elastic. “I been wanting to have a word with you, dear,” she said. “I must say I couldn’t hardly believe my eyes, seeing them pull up in the taxi like that, with all their stuff. I said to myself what old Mrs P. would say I don’t even like to think”
Avril stood there, her foot inside her own door, half-listening, and it came to her with sudden welcome clarity that, in nearly thirty years of enforced congress, she had never really liked Mrs Fletcher. It was as though you might discover that tea, bread, or some other unconsidered object of routine was not really to your taste. She stared at her opening and closing mouth, the tuft of hairs that crowned a surface irregularity on her chin, the cameo brooch that puckered the neck of her blouse, and thought: silly old bag.
“Seen some perfectly nice people come to the door, Sunday and Monday, after you put your ad in,” concluded Mrs Fletcher, ‘so I don’t know what to think, I simply don’t.” She stared at Avril. “And who are they, one would like to know?”
“They’re my new tenants,” said Avril coolly (she liked that: my new tenants). “They’ve taken the attic room.”
There was a silence. In Mrs Fletcher’s face, whole volumes of analysis, speculation, and adjustment to circumstances were written, revised, rewritten; granite assumptions crumbled to dust, and were reconstructed in other forms. When she spoke again, it was from twenty miles away, and ten years on. She said, “That girl’s expecting. I daresay you’ll not have noticed that.”
Avril, who had not, flushed a little, and went into the house.
The Singhs were quiet tenants; they pattered up and down the stairs like well-behaved children, talking to each other in low tones if at all. Occasionally, radio music, turned low, seeped from beneath their door, and with it, culinary smells.
With complete detachment, Avril considered the smells. She had once taken a meal in an Indian restaurant with two girls from the office and had not, in fact, much cared for it. The smells, at first, raised a whisker of alarm. And then, considering over a day or two, she decided that they were no more, indeed rather less, disagreeable than the bacon (cut-price, she had always suspected) Mr Harris used to do himself for breakfast every day. In fact, they grew on you.
Over the next three weeks she filled the first-floor front and back.
The front went within three days to a bescarved and bespectacled student from Nigeria. The back was less straightforward; there was a tussle of wills with a forceful woman who refused to believe that the room had already been taken within an hour of the advertisement (the “occasional small unpleasantness’ that old Mrs Pemberton had grown accustomed to) but Avril held her own, then and for a further day and a half until the arrival of an immensely fat black dental nurse called Brenda.
In the silence and darkness of her room she said, “All right?” There being no reply, she assumed that her arrangements had met with approval.
The house was no longer so quiet. The Nigerian student turned out to have many friends, some of whom, Avril suspected, were not entirely transitory visitors. Having always respected the privacy of her tenants (unlike her mother, who kept duplicate keys and made forays into their rooms in their absence) she made no comment. He and Brenda struck up a friendship, conducted for the most part rather noisily on the stairs. Both, though, were unfailingly genial; the Nigerian cleared a blocked sink in the kitchen and Brenda, when Avril took to her bed with a throat infection, plied her with hot drinks laced with suspect but delicious substances. She would stand at Avril’s bedroom door, entirely filling it, brandishing a thermos and shouting encouragingly, as though to a slightly deaf child; she was a maturer and more strident version of Gloria.
Avril felt a greater affinity with the Singhs, their deprecating smiles and self-effacing comings and goings. Mrs Singh – Kamala, as she whispered once, in a rare moment of intimacy – was indeed swelling week by week, as Avril had now to observe and admit. Nothing was said, until one day Brenda, in raucous progress up the stairs, said casually, “That Kamala, she goin’ to have it any day now”, which alarmed Avril but left her better prepared for contingencies. When, a week or so later, she heard Mr Singh come down the stairs with more than usual haste, and then his soft voice on the telephone, asking for the doctor, she was calm and indeed quite excited. Being familiar with the processes of childbirth from her reading of novels (though the kind of novel, admittedly, in which the narrative tended to shift, at the crucial moment, to the role of non-participant characters such as husbands and sisters) she amassed all the kettles and saucepans she could find and set them to boil. Only as they began to hum, did it occur to her that she really did not know for what all this boiling water was required: the novels never went into that. And when she came out into the hall to find Kamala, smiling weakly, coming down the stairs on her husband’s arm, suitcase in hand, she was distinctly disappointed. The birth was to take place in hospital, apparently. She went rather glumly back into her room, and forgot the saucepans, which were boiling briskly ten minutes later, when Brenda returned, filling the house with steam and prompting much noisy comment and enquiry. Avril, who suspected that she might have been rumbled, gave some sheepish explanations about sterilising jam jars.
Kamala returned, after what Avril thought a surprisingly short period, with a tiny, fragile baby (a boy, apparently) cocooned in yards of shocking pink blanketing. The Nigerian produced a couple of bottles of wine for the household to drink the baby’s health; everybody gathered in the kitchen, the Singhs silent but beaming, Brenda and the Nigerian loudly talkative, Avril, who had seldom in her life touched alcohol, feeling increasingly unstable, but stimulated. It was all rather enjoyable; afterwards, she watched television, a little restlessly, and tried not to pay attention to the curious sounds from the Nigerian’s room, where he and Brenda were completing the evening on their own.
Mrs Fletcher, tight-lipped, had complained a number of times about the pitch of Brenda’s transistor radio. She spoke seldom to Avril, but was frequently to be seen in the street, in eloquent discourse with one or other of the neighbours. They are talking about me, Avril would think, and found that she did not care at all.
It was curious: she was a person who had always been deeply sensitive to the opinions of others.
At night, in the privacy of her room, she checked with the voice for approval and encouragement, and received it. Her life, in every other respect, continued much as it always had done: she went to the office, on Monday and Tuesday mornings and Thursday and Friday afternoons, to the Scout and Guide hut on Monday evenings, the Red Cross on Thursdays, St Bartholomew’s on Sunday for communion and again for evensong. She was not entirely surprised when the Vicar called one day. He was a man easily swayed by others (an opinion she seemed always to have had, though only now did it express itself – tacitly – with ease and conviction) and she heard in his voice the conspiratorial tones of Mrs Fletcher. He sat uneasily on the edge of a chair and asked Avril if she had been keeping well lately; afterwards, the two indentations of his behind remained for some while on the upholstery, prolonging the tension of the visit. When Avril replied, shortly, that she had, he hummed and hawed, reflected on the weather, the new block of flats springing up alongside the churchyard, and his summer holiday plans, before hoping that if she, er, ever felt at all, er, in need of a chat she must remember that she had many good friends in the neighbourhood, many good friends. There was a silence, at the end of which the Vicar made the proposition that some people find living alone a bit of a strain, especially after the sad loss of a dear relative, that sometimes possibly, er, a chat with a sympathetic friend ”
Avril said that she did not live alone.
The Vicar, with some eagerness, said that yes, quite, and since she’d mentioned it he wondered if ”
Avril asked what he wondered. And the Vicar’s voice had trailed off, and with it the Vicar, till all that was left of him were those two dents in the chair seat.
Avril wondered if the voice had ever addressed the Vicar, in the darkness of his nights.
The Singh baby prospered. Mr Harris’s tradescantia in the scullery died; the Nigerian presented Avril with a rather violent oil-painting attributed to his brother which she felt obliged to hang on the stairs. She did not like it and indeed had asked the voice for guidance over the matter, and the voice had suggested the darkish corner on the first-floor landing. She frequently asked the voice for guidance, these days, and was frequently given it.
When Brenda, coming in from work one evening, heard her in one of the boxrooms, she peered inquisitively through the door.
“My, you got a lot of stuff in there, Miss Pemberton. You havin’ a tidy-up, then?”
“The room’s going to be used,” said Avril. “I have to clear it out.”
“You expectin’ a visitor, then?”
Avril, distracted by the problem of a broken table-lamp, replied that she was making room for a further lodger. Brenda did not receive this news with the enthusiasm Avril had expected: she said it was enough hassle getting that Pius to hurry up with the bathroom in the mornings and the shelves in the scullery were cram full as it was. She implied a fit of profiteering on Avril’s part. Avril ignored this, with dignity.
She got rid of the first two applicants for the room, who were unsuitable; the third threw her into a quandary. He stood before her on the doorstep, small, slight, brown, and almond-eyed. Avril had little idea from which part of the world he hailed, but knew on which side of the dividing-line her mother would have placed him. She hesitated, showed him the room, and succumbed.
In the night she was woken by the voice (she had been sleeping much better of late). It was displeased.
Avril said defensively, “Well, mother wouldn’t ever have taken him.”
The voice continued, didactic in its assertions as to what was what. Avril, lying there in the dark, felt a twinge of resentment: there was a note, a distinct note, of Mrs Pemberton’s hectoring dogmatism. She pointed out, sulkily, that it was too late to do anything about it now, and Mr Lee had looked a good dark brown to her. She did not say that in any case she had rather taken to him, a nice-spoken boy who had stood aside to let her come down the stairs first.
The voice, unmollified, issued further instructions.
“Both the boxrooms?” said Avril. And then, thoughtfully, “very well, then.”
The Health Visitor sat at the kitchen table and said that she had just thought she would pop in, since she was in the house anyway to see Mrs Singh. She said the baby was coming along nicely. Avril agreed. She said you must miss your mother a lot, I gather it’s three or four years since she died. Avril agreed, wondered from whom the gathering had been done, saw Mrs Fletcher pass the window, bundled against the spring wind, and shoot a quick glance sideways. Looking after yourself all right, are you? said the Health Visitor. Avril said she was, and observed the Health Visitor’s quick, surreptitious professional examination of the room.
The Health Visitor believed that Avril was thinking of letting another room. Avril neither confirmed nor denied this; with a spurt of indignation she thought, nosey thing. The Health Visitor made some enquiries about toilets, and washbasins, which Avril answered with restraint. The Health Visitor left. Through the window, Avril watched Mrs Fletcher’s interception of her, in Adelaide Terrace.
Mr Lee had been installed for a week when she put her second advertisement in the Gazette. She had cleared out and prepared the second boxroom during the daytime, in the absence of all the other tenants except Mrs Singh and the baby, who kept themselves to themselves on the top floor. Consequently, the first they knew of her new arrangements was the arrival of the new tenant.
There were comments, amounting to open hostility. The Singhs said nothing, but pattered with a little more assertion in their journeys up and down stairs. The Nigerian grumbled, outside Avril’s kitchen door, about the additional strain on the resources of the scullery: he had quite a nasty temper, Avril realised. Brenda said, ‘she stayin’ here, that Chinese girl? You running some kind of United Nations in this house, Miss Pemberton?”
A sour expression replaced her normal grin.
The voice, too, had its say.
“I will choose my own tenants,” said Avril, in the darkness of her bedroom. “I will use my own discrimination.” She lay there, these nights, with the house silent around her, and contemplated the filling of it, and the nature of the filling of it, and her part therein, and experienced the most satisfactory feeling of having created. The house was a kaleidoscope, but the jugglings of its occupancy were no longer random: they had form. She ceased to pay much attention to the voice, which nagged on irritatingly from beside the wardrobe.
The atmosphere of the house was no longer harmonious, but Avril did not notice; she was preoccupied with her own plans.
She transferred her possessions from the second floor to her ground-floor sitting-room by degrees, those that she could handle on her own. The bed, which presented too great a problem, she left where it was, and ordered a new one for herself from the furniture shop in the High Street. It was its delivery that alerted Brenda; she stood, hands on massive hips, at the turn in the stairs and said, “You not letting another room, Miss Pemberton? This house getting too full by half, you know, that lavatory up here’s only working half-cock again, you’re going to have the health people after you, you not careful.” Avril went into her room and closed the door, intent upon the phrasing of the advertisement for the Gazette.
After she had installed Mr Achimota in what had been her bedroom, she locked herself into her sitting-room, whenever she was in the house. She did not really feel like talking to people, and was dimly aware of unrest around her. People whispered on the stairs, and sometimes did not whisper: on one occasion she heard Brenda’s raised voice saying, ‘she barmy, I’m telling you, she not right in her head any more.”
The Health Visitor hammered on the door, once. She said, “I’d like to have a chat with you, dear, just for a few minutes.” Avril ignored her.
At night, she held dialogues with the voice, but nowadays it was she who did much of the talking: the voice had grown feebler and feebler and as it whined on, asserting and instructing, its tones had become more and more like those of Mrs Pemberton, but diminished, and susceptible to counter-arguments in a way that Mrs Pemberton never had been. “Nobody’s right all the time,” said Avril, “not even You. Not on every subject. Now in my opinion “”
Mrs Fletcher had avoided her for months, crossing the street when they happened to coincide in Adelaide Terrace. Now, Avril noticed, other neighbours did the same, or observed her furtively, in shops or from adjacent pews in St Bartholomew’s. Hurt, though not greatly so, Avril maintained a lonely dignity. She missed, more, the convivial atmosphere that had prevailed in the house during the early months of its reorganisation. Nowadays, there were arguments on the stairs about the bathroom and the scullery, complaints about the lavatory and the telephone, noise and contention. Moreover, it seemed to her that her tenants did not like her, which distressed her more than anything: they were, after all, her chosen people, each and every one of them. Thus isolated, she was prepared even to relinquish the upper hand and mention this to the voice, to seek, maybe, its advice and guidance as in the old days; the voice, disconcertingly, was silent. She lay alone in her bedroom and brooded on what had come about.
And so, when next she heard the Health Visitor in the hall she opened her door.
The Health Visitor did not mince her words. She said there were too many people in the house, too few lavatories, and a smell of drains from out the back somewhere that must be investigated forthwith. She was brisk, but not unpleasant. Avril, less disposed to hostility than on the previous occasion, promised to summon a plumber. The Health Visitor, studying her intently across the table, said, “And another thing, dear, it’s neither here nor there but you do seem to go in for coloured people as tenants, don’t you? You’ve got some of your neighbours properly upset, I can tell you, though as I say that’s neither here nor there.”
And so it came about that Avril, because she never had anyone to talk to these days, and because the Health Visitor seemed really quite a nice little body after all, began to tell her about the voice. And as she talked, the Health Visitor, who had been gathering her belongings and indeed had got up from the chair to go, sat down again, and let her bag slither to the floor, and listened with an expression that grew more and more alert and more and more unfathomable. She said, “Yes?” and “I see, dear” and nodded and smiled her nice professional smile; it was quite impossible to know what she thought. ‘so you see,” Avril concluded, “it wasn’t altogether my choice, though I’m not saying I wasn’t perfectly willing to go along with it, more than willing.” And the Health Visitor said yes, she quite understood that, and then she patted Avril on the hand and said she’d look in again, quite soon, in a few days’ time maybe.
The conversation, Avril found, had been a release. She’d been keeping herself to herself too much, she realised, no wonder people had been behaving as though she were a bit peculiar or something. And, thinking things over, and remembering the Health Visitor’s sympathetic, encouraging interest, it came to her that her experience had been a singular one and, as such, should be shared, not kept from others. And the one person, she reflected (though with slight regret, for she had never really cared much for the man), with whom it should be shared, whose professional concern, after all, it was, was the Vicar. She telephoned the vicarage, and made an appointment to call that evening.
Later, she mulled over her disappointment in the privacy of her room. She had not, before her visit, speculated much if at all about what kind of response she would get: she had expected professional interest, that was all there was to it. And what she had met with had been something quite different.
It could most nearly be described, she thought with anger, as embarrassment. He had sat there, that rather colourless man (even her mother, she now recalled, used to describe him as wishy-washy), and avoided her eye and leapt with alacrity to the phone when it rang and eventually, it seemed to her, cut short the visit and bundled her from the house. There had been a look on his face of alarm, no less. He had said not one thing that had been in any way appropriate. And, Avril thought with bitterness, which, if any, of his parishioners can ever before have come to him and told him, in cold blood and in all humility, what I told him?
She went about her affairs, but in a state of some cynicism. The voice remained silent, though she made tentative overtures, in the privacy of her nights.
The Health Visitor returned, bringing with her another woman, described as Mrs Hamilton who would like a little chat with you, dear. Mrs Hamilton had the same quality of attentive, sympathetic and yet non-committal interest as the Health Visitor. She wondered if Avril would like to tell her about this voice she sometimes heard and Avril, with the bitter taste of the Vicar’s inadequacy still in her mouth, was glad to do so. Mrs Hamilton asked if she still had conversations with the voice and Avril explained that a coolness had arisen, but she hoped in time to put that right. She might possibly, she realised now, have been a bit assertive with it, a bit forceful; she would make amends for that. I like, Avril said, talking to it, even if it was, to begin with, on the bullying side, inclined to order people around, if you see what I mean. I don’t mind telling you, she went on confidingly, it reminded me of my mother, there was quite a resemblance there.
Mrs Hamilton listened and nodded and smiled. She asked Avril some questions, questions that were maybe a bit personal, Avril thought, and that did not have anything to do with what they had been talking about, or not in any way that she could see. But she seemed a nice enough person, and Avril did not really mind; nor did she mind, though she was surprised, when Mrs Hamilton asked if she would come and have a chat (everybody seemed to want to chat “) with a colleague of hers, a Doctor someone, at a place where Mrs Hamilton worked, called the Clinic.
It was nice to have people taking so much interest in you.
And at the Clinic they took even more interest. They nodded and listened and from time to time jotted down a few words on a little white notepad. They seemed to have nothing to do but listen, these people. Avril began, at their suggestion, to pay regular visits to the Clinic; the visits became part of the cycle of her week, like the Red Cross, and the Scout and Guide hut, and evensong. And as the visits went on the voice was heard once more, in the solitude of the nights. And Avril, pleased to have something more substantial and up-to-date for her new friends reported everything it said, though what it had to say was sometimes embarrassing. For it evidently distrusted these people. Don’t, it said. Don’t go there. Don’t talk to them. Don’t talk to them about me.
They won’t understand, it said. It spoke sulkily. It knew what it was talking about, it said. It had come across all this before. If you knew what I know, it said darkly, if you’d seen what I’ve seen. They’re what we’re up against, it said, people like that.
Avril answered conciliatingly. She placated. She tried to conceal her visits to the Clinic.
The voice, of course, knew.
She thought the voice a little uncompromising; the people at the Clinic, after all, displayed no such unswerving prejudice, where the voice was concerned. They were interested, not hostile.
The situation in the house deteriorated; the drains flooded again, Brenda and the Chinese girl, at loggerheads, had a scrap on the stairs in which blood was shed.
At the Clinic, they wondered, in their quiet friendly voices, if Avril would like to come in for a few weeks. For a rest, they said, for treatment. They used the expression in-patient, which startled Avril. She had not realised how things were, until it was put like that, and now it seemed too late to turn back.
But it’s not that I ” she wanted to say, there’s no question of ” But there, now, were the little white notebooks, and the filing cabinets and her name on a pink form, and it seemed so much easier to go along with them, be obliging, and in any case it was not all that disagreeable a place, the Clinic, and the problems of the house, its drains and its plumbing and its tenantry, hung round her neck like so many albatrosses.
She did not tell the voice. She packed her small case that very afternoon and left. Neither did she tell the tenants. With sudden detachment, she thought, well, they will have to sort things out for themselves, I have played my part, I have arranged the house, as I was told, now they must take care of themselves. I have myself to think of.
And in a different bed, that night, she waited for the voice. And presently, in the populated gloom of the ward, it manifested itself. Now look where you have got us, it complained, now look where you have landed us.
Listen, it said, craftily, listen and do as I tell you. Tell them that this is what I said to you ” Tell them that this is what I told you to do ”
It lectured on, with renewed confidence, so loudly that she thought it impossible that she alone could hear.