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The Collected Stories

William Trevor


antiqueWilliamTrevorThe Collected StoriesenWilliamTrevorcalibre 0.7.5517.4.20113940f826-ddf5-42d6-b993-c486062321741.0

PENGUIN BOOKS

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

WILLIAM TREVOR

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

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

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

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.

ISBN: 978-0-14-192570-7

Contents

A Meeting in Middle Age

Access to the Children

The General’s Day

Memories of Youghal

The Table

A School Story

The Penthouse Apartment

In at the Birth

The Introspections of J.P. Powers

The Day We Got Drunk on Cake

Miss Smith

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

Kinkies

Going Home

A Choice of Butchers

O Fat White Woman

Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch

The Distant Past

In Isfahan

Angels at the Ritz

The Death of Peggy Meehan

Mrs Silly

A Complicated Nature

Teresa’s Wedding

Office Romances

Mr McNamara

Afternoon Dancing

Last Wishes

Mrs Acland’s Ghosts

Another Christmas

Broken Homes

Matilda’s England1. The Tennis Court2. The Summer-house3. The Drawing-room

Torridge

Death in Jerusalem

Lovers of Their Time

The Raising of Elvira Tremlett

Flights of Fancy

Attracta

A Dream of Butterflies

The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs Vansittart

Downstairs at Fitzgerald’s

Mulvihill’s Memorial

Beyond the Pale

The Blue Dress

The Teddy-bears’ Picnic

The Time of Year

Being Stolen From

Mr Tennyson

Autumn Sunshine

Sunday Drinks

The Paradise Lounge

Mags

The News from Ireland

On the Zattere

The Wedding in the Garden

Lunch in Winter

The Property of Colette Nervi

Running Away

Cocktails at Doney’s

Her Mother’s Daughter

Bodily Secrets

Two More Gallants

The Smoke Trees of San Pietro

Virgins

Music

Events at Drimaghleen

Family Sins

A Trinity

The Third Party

Honeymoon in Tramore

The Printmaker

In Love with Ariadne

A Husband’s Return

Coffee with Oliver

August Saturday

Children of the Headmaster

Kathleen’s Field

Acknowledgements

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.

‘Madam.’

‘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.’

‘Please, Daddy.’

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.

‘Nothing suitable.’

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.’

‘It is.’

‘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 –’

‘Who’s Richard?’

‘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?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘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.

‘Yes.’

‘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.’

‘Death?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.

‘Well?’

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 –’

‘My due?’

‘Assuming your affair has been going on already for six weeks –’

‘You’re drunk.’

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.’

‘A right?’

‘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.’

‘No.’

‘We’re divorced.’

‘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.’

‘Smiled?’

‘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 –’

‘No.’

‘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 what?’

‘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 –’

‘No.’

‘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 –’

‘Not ever.’

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?’

‘Elizabeth –’

‘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.’

‘I see.’

‘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.’

‘Guilty, Jock?’

‘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.’

‘Sir?’

‘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.’

‘Cheerio, sir.’

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.’

‘Retired?’

‘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.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘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 guns?’

‘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?’

‘Well –’

‘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.’

‘Followed?’

‘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?’

‘What?’

‘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, sil 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.

The Table

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.’

‘No, no.’

‘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?’

‘Mr Hammond?’

‘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.’

‘Ah.’

‘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.’

‘Nothing?’

‘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.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘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.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘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.’

‘No, sir. I had sensed as much. They are shoes that pinch, boy. It is well to remember that.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘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.’

‘Ah, yes?’

‘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.’

‘Well–’

‘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.’

‘Your 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.’

‘Well –’

‘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.’

‘Well–’

‘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.’

‘Thank you.’

‘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.’

‘Of course.’

‘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.

‘Good afternoon.’

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.’

‘Yes, indeed.’

‘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.’

Powers nodded.

‘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?’

‘Old boy?’

‘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.

‘Lucy?’

‘Hullo, Mike.’

‘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.’

‘Well, yes.’

‘Thanks for ringing, Mike.’

‘Goodbye, Lucy.’

‘Goodbye, 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?’

‘No.’

‘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.’

‘Oh God!’

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.’

‘Yes.’

‘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.

‘Goodbye.’

‘Goodbye.’

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?’

‘Well –’

‘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.’

‘Good.’

‘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.

‘Lucy?’

‘Hullo. Is that Mike?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hullo, Mike.’

‘Hullo, Lucy.’

‘How are you?’

‘I’m feeling funny. But Lucy?’

‘Yes?’

‘I’m not trying to be funny. I’m not being amusing.’

‘Where are you?’

‘In the Blue Goat.’

‘Wherever’s that?’

‘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.

‘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.’

‘Good.’

‘Mike, you telephoned me at four fifteen. Do you know what time it is now?’

‘What time is it now?’

‘Four thirty-five.’

‘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.’

‘Yes?’

‘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?’

‘Well –’

‘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.’

‘Goodbye, Mike.’

‘Don’t go, Lucy.’

‘Goodbye, Mike.’

‘Goodbye, 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?’

‘Me?’

‘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.

‘Hullo, Lucy.’

‘Well?’ said Lucy.

‘It’s Mike.’

‘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.’

‘Goodbye, Mike.’

‘Just a – Lucy?’

‘Yes?’

‘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.’

‘Goodbye.’

‘Goodbye, Lucy.’

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.’

‘Oh Mike.’

‘Really, the whole affair – oh all right.’

‘Now, Mike?’

‘All right. Now.’

‘Lucy?’

‘Is that Mike?’

‘Who else?’

‘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.

‘Hullo, 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.

Miss Smith

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.’

‘Well then?’

‘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.’

‘Please –’

‘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?’

‘No, no.’

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 the gate into the fields. Hand in hand they walked through the grass, over the canal bridge and across the warm, ripe meadows.

‘I will pick you flowers,’ James said and he ran to gather poppies and cow-parsley and blue, beautiful cornflowers.

‘You give people flowers,’ James said, ‘because you like them and you want them to like you.’

She carried the flowers and James skipped and danced beside her, hurrying her along. She heard him laughing; she looked at him and saw his small weasel face twisted into a merriment that frightened her.

The sun was fierce on Miss Smith’s neck and shoulders. Sweat gathered on her forehead and ran down her cheeks. She felt it on her body, tightening her clothes to her back and thighs. Only the child’s hand was cool, and beneath her fingers she assessed its strength, wondering about its history. Again the child laughed.

On the heavy air his laughter rose and fell; it quivered through his body and twitched lightly in his hand. It came as a giggle, then a breathless spasm; it rose like a storm from him; it rippled to gentleness; and it pounded again like the firing of guns in her ear. It would not stop. She knew it would not stop. As they walked together on this summer’s day the laughter would continue until they arrived at the horror, until the horror was complete.

The Hotel of the Idle Moon

The woman called Mrs Dankers placed a rose-tipped cigarette between her lips and lit it from the lighter on the dashboard. The brief spurt of light revealed a long, handsome face with a sharpness about it that might often have been reminiscent of the edge of a chisel. In the darkness a double funnel of smoke streamed from her nostrils, and she gave a tiny gasp of satisfaction. On a grass verge two hundred miles north of London the car was stationary except for the gentle rocking imposed by the wind. Above the persistent lashing of the rain the radio played a popular tune of the thirties, quietly and without emotion. It was two minutes to midnight.

‘Well?’

The car door banged and Dankers was again beside her. He smelt of rain; it dripped from him on to her warm knees.

‘Well?’ Mrs Dankers repeated.

He started the engine. The car crept on to the narrow highway, its wipers slashing at the rain, its powerful headlights drawing the streaming foliage startlingly near. He cleared the windscreen with his arm. ‘It’ll do,’ he murmured. He drove on slowly, and the sound of the engine was lost in a medley of wind and rain and the murmur of music and the swish of the wipers.

‘It’ll do?’ said Mrs Dankers. ‘Is it the right house?’

He twisted the car this way and that along the lane. The lights caught an image of pillars and gates, closed in upon them and lost them as the car swung up the avenue.

‘Yes,’ he murmured. ‘It’s the right house.’

Within that house, an old man lying stiffly in bed heard the jangle of the bell at the hall door and frowned over this unaccustomed sound. At first he imagined that the noise had been caused by the wind, but then the bell rang again, sharply and in a peremptory manner. The old man, called Cronin, the only servant in the house, rose from his bed and dragged a coat on to his body, over his pyjamas. He descended the stairs, sighing to himself.

The pair outside saw a light go on in the hall, and then they heard the tread of Cronin’s feet and the sound of a bar being pulled back on the door. Dankers threw a cigarette away and prepared an expression for his face. His wife shivered in the rain.

‘It’s so late,’ the old man in pyjamas said when the travellers had told him their tale. ‘I must wake the Marstons for guidance, sir. I can’t do this on my own responsibility.’

‘It’s wet and cold as well,’ Dankers murmured, smiling at the man through his widely spread moustache. ‘No night to be abroad, really. You must understand our predicament.’

‘No night to be standing on a step,’ added Mrs Dankers. ‘At least may we come in?’

They entered the house and were led to a large drawing-room. ‘Please wait,’ the man invited. ‘The fire is not entirely out. I’ll question the Marstons as you warm yourselves.’

The Dankerses did not speak. They stood where the man had left them, staring about the room. Their manner one to the other had an edge of hostility to it, as though they were as suspicious in this relationship as they were of the world beyond it.

‘I am Sir Giles Marston,’ said another old man. ‘You’ve sustained some travelling difficulty?’

‘Our car has let us down – due, I suppose, to some penetration of the weather. We left it by your gates. Sir Giles, we’re at your mercy. Dankers the name is. The lady is my good wife.’ Dankers stretched his arm towards his host in a manner that might have suggested to an onlooker that he, and not Sir Giles, was the welcomer.

‘Our need is simple,’ said Mrs Dankers. ‘A roof over our heads.’

‘Some outhouse maybe,’ Dankers hazarded, overplaying his part. He laughed. ‘Anywhere we can curl up for an hour or two. We cannot be choosers.’

‘I’d prefer a chair,’ his wife interceded sharply. ‘A chair and a rug would suit me nicely.’

‘I’m sure we can do better than that. Prepare two beds, Cronin; and light our guests a fire in their room.’

Sir Giles Marston moved into the centre of the room and in the greater light the Dankerses saw a small, hunched man, with a face like leather that has been stretched for a lifetime and is suddenly slackened; as lined as a map.

‘Oh, really,’ Dankers protested in his soft voice, ‘you mustn’t go to such trouble. It’s imposition enough to rouse you like this.’

‘We’ll need sheets,’ Cronin said. ‘Sheets and bedding: God knows where I shall find them, sir.’

‘Brandy,’ Sir Giles suggested. ‘Am I right, Mrs Dankers, in thinking that strong refreshment would partly answer the situation?’

Cronin left the room, speaking to himself. Sir Giles poured the brandy. ‘I’m ninety years of age,’ he told his guests, ‘But yet aware that inhospitality is a sin to be ashamed of. I bid you good-night.’

‘Who are they?’ Lady Marston asked in the morning, having heard the tale from her husband.

‘My dear, they are simply people. They bear some unpleasant name. More than that I do not really wish to know.’

‘It’s a sunny day by the look of it. Your guests will have breakfasted and gone by now. I’m sorry in a way, for I would welcome fresh faces and a different point of view. We live too quiet a life, Giles. We are too much thrown in upon each other. It’s hardly a healthy manner in which to prepare for our dying.’

Sir Giles, who was engaged in the drawing up of his trousers, smiled. ‘Had you seen these two, my dear, you would not have said they are the kind to make our going any easier. The man has a moustache of great proportions, the woman you would describe as smart.’

‘You’re intolerant, love. And so high-handed that you didn’t even discover the reason for this visit.’

‘They came because they could move in neither direction. Trouble with their motor-car.’

‘They’ve probably left with all our little bits and pieces. You’re a sitting bird for a confidence trick. Oh, Giles, Giles!’

Sir Giles departed, and in the breakfast-room below discovered the pair called Dankers still at table.

‘Your man has been most generous,’ Dankers said. ‘He’s fed us like trenchermen: porridge, coffee, bacon and eggs. Two for me, one for my good wife. And toast and marmalade. And this delicious butter.’

‘Are you trying to say that an essential commodity was lacking? If so, I fear you must be more precise. In this house we are now past subtlety.’

‘You’ve made a fool of yourself,’ Mrs Dankers said to her husband. ‘Who wishes to know what two strangers have recently digested?’

‘Pardon, pardon,’ murmured Dankers. ‘Sir Giles, forgive a rough diamond!’

‘Certainly. If you have finished, please don’t delay on my account. Doubtless you are anxious to be on your way.’

‘My husband will attend to the car. Probably it’s necessary to send for help to a garage. In the meantime I’ll keep you company if I may.’

Dankers left the room, passing on the threshold an elderly lady whom he did not address, wishing to appear uncertain in his mind as to her identity.

‘This is the woman who came in the night,’ Sir Giles said to his wife. ‘Her husband is seeing to their motor-car so that they may shortly be on their way. Mrs Dankers, my wife, Lady Marston.’

‘We’re more than grateful, Lady Marston. It looked as though we were in for a nasty night.’

‘I hope Cronin made you comfortable. I fear I slept through everything. “My dear, we have two guests,” my husband said to me this morning. You may imagine my surprise.’

Cronin entered and placed plates of food before Sir Giles and Lady Marston.

Conversationally, Mrs Dankers said: ‘You have a fine place here.’

‘It’s cold and big,’ Sir Giles replied.

The Marstons set about their breakfast, and Mrs Dankers, unable to think of something to say, sat in silence. The smoke from her cigarette was an irritation to her hosts, but they did not remark on it, since they accepted its presence as part of the woman herself. When he returned Dankers sat beside his wife again. He poured some coffee and said: ‘I am no mechanic, Sir Giles. I would like to use your phone to summon help.’

‘We are not on the telephone.’

‘Not?’ murmured Dankers in simulated surprise, for he knew the fact already. ‘How far in that case is the nearest village? And does it boast a garage?’

‘Three miles. As to the presence of a garage, I have had no cause to establish that point. But I imagine there is a telephone.’

‘Giles, introduce me please. Is this man Mrs Dankers’ husband?’

‘He claims it. Mr Dankers, my wife, Lady Marston.’

‘How d’you do?’ Dankers said, rising to shake the offered hand. ‘I’m afraid we’re in a pickle.’

‘You should walk it in an hour,’ Sir Giles reminded him.

‘There’s no way of forwarding a message?’

‘No.’

‘The postman?’

‘He hardly ever comes. And then brings only a circular or two.’

‘Perhaps your man?’

‘Cronin’s days as Hermes are over. You must see that surely for yourself?’

‘In that case there’s nothing for it but a tramp.’

This conclusion of Dankers’ was received in silence.

‘Walk, Mr Dankers,’ Lady Marston said eventually, and added to her husband’s dismay, ‘and return for lunch. Afterwards you can leave us at your leisure.’

‘How kind of you,’ the Dankerses said together. They smiled in unison too. They rose and left the room.

Cronin watched and listened to everything. ‘Prepare two beds,’ his master had said, and from that same moment Cronin had been on his guard. He had given them breakfast in the morning, and had hoped that once they had consumed it they would be on their way. He took them to be commercial travellers, since they had the air of people who were used to moving about and spending nights in places. ‘You have a fine place here,’ Mrs Dankers had said to the Marstons, and Cronin had narrowed his eyes, wondering why she had said it, wondering why she was sitting there, smoking a cigarette while the Marstons breakfasted. He had examined their motor-car and had thought it somehow typical of the people. They were people, thought Cronin, who would know what to do with all the knobs and gadgets on the motor-car’s dashboard; they would take to that dashboard like ducks to water.

For forty-eight years Cronin had lived in the house, serving the Marstons. Once, there had been other servants, and in his time he had watched over them and over the house itself. Now he contented himself with watching over the Marstons. ‘Some outhouse maybe,’ Dankers had said, and Cronin had thought that Dankers was not a man who knew much about outhouses. He saw Dankers and Mrs Dankers sitting together in a café connected with a cinema, a place such as he had himself visited twenty-odd years ago and had not cared for. He heard Dankers asking the woman what she would take to eat, adding that he himself would have a mixed grill with chips, and a pot of strong tea, and sliced bread and butter. Cronin observed these people closely and memorized much of what they said.

‘Clearly,’ Dankers remarked at lunch, ‘we’re not in training. Or perhaps it was the fascination of your magnificent orchard.’

‘Are you saying you didn’t walk to the village?’ Sir Giles inquired, a trifle impatiently.

‘Forgive these city folk,’ cried Dankers loudly. ‘Quite frankly, we got no distance at all.’

‘What are you to do then? Shall you try again this afternoon? There are, of course, various houses on the route. One of them may have a telephone.’

‘Your orchard has greatly excited us. I’ve never seen such trees.’

‘They’re the finest in England.’

‘A pity,’ said Mrs Dankers, nibbling at fish on a fork, ‘to see it in such rack and ruin.’

Dankers blew upwards into his moustache and ended the activity with a smile. ‘It is worth some money, that orchard,’ he said.

Sir Giles eyed him coolly. ‘Yes, sir; it is worth some money. But time is passing and we are wasting it in conversation. You must see to the affair of your motor-car.’

The storm had brought the apples down. They lay in their thousands in the long grass, damp and glistening, like immense, unusual jewels in the afternoon sun. The Dankerses examined them closely, strolling through the orchard, noting the various trees and assessing their yield. For the purpose they had fetched Wellington boots from their car and had covered themselves in waterproof coats of an opaque plastic material. They did not speak, but occasionally, coming across a tree that pleased them, they nodded.

‘A lot could be done, you know,’ Dankers explained at dinner. ‘It is a great orchard and in a mere matter of weeks it could be set on the road to profit and glory.’

‘It has had its glory,’ replied Sir Giles, ‘and probably its profit too. Now it must accept its fate. I cannot keep it up.’

‘Oh, it’s a shame! A terrible shame to see it as it is. Why, you could make a fortune, Sir Giles.’

‘You didn’t get to the village?’ Lady Marston asked.

‘We could not pass the orchard!’

‘Which means,’ Sir Giles said, ‘that you’ll be with us for another night.’

‘Could you bear it?’ Mrs Dankers smiled a thin smile. ‘Could you bear to have us all over again?’

‘Of course, of course,’ said Lady Marston. ‘Perhaps tomorrow you’ll feel a little stronger. I understand your lethargy. It’s natural after an unpleasant experience.’

‘They have been through neither flood nor fire,’ her husband reminded her. ‘And the village will be no nearer tomorrow.’

‘Perhaps,’ Dankers began gently, ‘the postman will call in the morning –’

‘We have no living relatives,’ Sir Giles cut in, ‘and most of our friends are gone. The circulars come once a month or so.’

‘The groceries then?’

‘I have inquired of Cronin about the groceries. They came yesterday. They will come again next week.’

‘The daily milk is left at the foot of the avenue. Cronin walks to fetch it. You could leave a message there,’ Lady Marston suggested. ‘It is the arrangement we have for emergencies, such as summoning the doctor.’

‘The doctor? But surely by the time he got here –?’

‘In greater emergency one of the three of us would walk to the nearest house. We do not,’ Sir Giles added, ‘find it so difficult to pass one leg before the other. Senior though we may be.’

‘Perhaps the milk is an idea,’ Lady Marston said.

‘Oh no, we could never put anyone to so much trouble. It would be too absurd. No, tomorrow we shall have found our feet.’

But tomorrow when it came was a different kind of day, because with something that disagreed with him in his stomach Sir Giles died in the night. His heart was taxed by sharp little spasms of pain and in the end they were too much for it.

‘We’re going to see to you for a bit,’ Mrs Dankers said after the funeral. ‘We’ll pop you in your room, dear, and Cronin shall attend to all your needs. You can’t be left to suffer your loss alone; you’ve been so kind to us.’

Lady Marston moved her head up and down. The funeral had been rather much for her. Mrs Dankers led her by the arm to her room.

‘Well,’ said Dankers, speaking to Cronin with whom he was left, ‘so that’s that.’

‘I was his servant for forty-eight years, sir.’

‘Indeed, indeed. And you have Lady Marston, to whom you may devote your whole attention. Meals in her room, Cronin, and pause now and then for the occasional chat. The old lady’ll be lonely.’

‘I’ll be lonely myself, sir.’

‘Indeed. Then all the more reason to be good company. And you, more than I, understand the business of being elderly. You know by instinct what to say, how best to seem soothing.’

‘Your car is repaired, sir? At least it moved today. You’ll be on your way? Shall I pack some sandwiches?’

‘Come, come, Cronin, how could we leave two lonely people so easily in the lurch? Chance has sent us to your side in this hour of need: we’ll stay to do what we can. Besides, there are Sir Giles’s wishes.’

What’s this? thought Cronin, examining the eyes of the man who had come in the night and had stayed to see his master buried. They were eyes he would not care to possess himself, for fear of what went with them. He said:

‘His wishes, sir?’

‘That his orchard should again be put in use. The trees repaired and pruned. The fruit sold for its true value. An old man’s dying wish won’t go unheeded.’

‘But, sir, there’s so much work in it. The trees run into many hundreds –’

‘Quite right, Cronin. That’s observant of you. Many men are needed to straighten the confusion and waste. There’s much to do.’

‘Sir Giles wished this, sir?’ said Cronin, playing a part, knowing that Sir Giles could never have passed on to Dankers his dying wish. ‘It’s unlike him, sir, to think about his orchard. He watched it failing.’

‘He wished it, Cronin. He wished it, and a great deal else. You who have seen some changes in your time are in for a couple more. And now, my lad, a glass of that good brandy would not go down amiss. At a time like this one must try to keep one’s spirits up.’

Dankers sat by the fire in the drawing-room, sipping his brandy and writing industriously in a notebook. He was shortly joined by his wife, to whom he handed from time to time a leaf from this book so that she might share his plans. When midnight had passed they rose and walked through the house, measuring the rooms with a practised eye and noting their details on paper. They examined the kitchens and outhouses, and in the moonlight they walked the length of the gardens. Cronin watched them, peeping at them in all their activity.

‘There’s a pretty little room next to Cronin’s that is so much sunnier,’ Mrs Dankers said. ‘Cosier and warmer, dear. We’ll have your things moved there, I think. This one is dreary with memories. And you and Cronin will be company for one another.’

Lady Marston nodded, then changing her mind said: ‘I like this room. It’s big and beautiful and with a view. I’ve become used to it.’

‘Now, now, my dear, we mustn’t be morbid, must we? And we don’t always quite know what’s best. It’s good to be happy, dear, and you’ll be happier there.’

‘I’ll be happier, Mrs Dankers? Happier away from all my odds and ends, and Giles’s too?’

‘My dear, we’ll move them with you. Come, now, look on the bright side. There’s the future too, as well as the past.’

Cronin came, and the things were moved. Not quite everything though, because the bed and the wardrobe and the heavy dressing-table would not fit into the new setting.

In the orchard half a dozen men set about creating order out of chaos. The trees were trimmed and then treated, paths restored, broken walls rebuilt. The sheds were cleared and filled with fruit-boxes in readiness for next year’s harvest.

‘There’s a wickedness here,’ Cronin reported to Lady Marston. ‘There’s a cook in the kitchen, and a man who waits on them. My only task, they tell me, is to carry your food and keep your room in order.’

‘And to see to yourself, Cronin, to take it easy and to watch your rheumatics. Fetch a pack of cards.’

Cronin recalled the house as it once had been, a place that was lively with weekend guests and was regularly wallpapered. Then there had come the years of decline and the drifting towards decay, and now there was a liveliness of a different order; while the days passed by, the liveliness established itself like a season. Mrs Dankers bustled from room to room, in tune with the altered world. Dankers said: ‘It’s good to see you seeming so sprightly, Cronin. The weather suits you, eh? And now that we’ve made these few little changes life is easier, I think.’ Cronin replied that it was certainly true that he had less to do. ‘So you should have less to do,’ said Dankers. ‘Face the facts: you cannot hope to undertake a young chap’s work.’ He smiled, to release the remark of its barb.

Cronin was worried about the passive attitude of Lady Marston. She had gone like a lamb to the small room, which now served as her sitting-room and bedroom combined. She had not stirred from the top of the house since the day of the move; she knew nothing save what he told her of all that was happening.

‘The builders are here,’ he had said; but quite often, midway through a game of cards, she would pause with her head a little to one side, listening to the distant sound of hammering. ‘It is the noise of the builders,’ he would remind her; and she would place a card on the table and say: ‘I did not know that Sir Giles had ordered the builders.’ In the mornings she was well aware of things, but as the day passed on she spoke more often of Sir Giles; of Sir Giles’s plans for the orchard and the house. Cronin feared that, day by day, Lady Marston was sinking into her dotage; the morning hours of her clarity were shrinking even as he thought about it.

One afternoon, walking to the foot of the avenue to stretch his legs, Cronin found a small, elegantly painted board secured to one of the pillars. It faced the road, inviting those who passed to read the words it bore. He read them himself and expostulated angrily, muttering the words, repeating them as he made his way back to the house.

‘M’lady, this cannot happen. They’ve turned your house into an hotel.’

Lady Marston looked at Cronin, whom she had known for so many years, who had seen with her and her husband a thousand details of change and reconstruction. He was upset now, she could see it. His white, sparse hair seemed uncombed, which was unusual for Cronin. There was a blush of temper on his cheeks; and in his eyes a wildness one did not associate with so well-trained a servant.

‘What is it, Cronin?’

‘There’s a notice at the gate announcing “The Hotel of the Idle Moon”.’

‘Well?’

‘The Dankerses –’

‘Ah, the Dankerses. You talk so much about the Dankerses, Cronin. Yet as I remember them they are surely not worth it. Sir Giles said the man had repeated to him every mouthful of his breakfast. In the end he had to make short shrift of the pair.’

‘No, no –’

‘Yes, Cronin: they tried his patience. He gave them their marching orders, reminding them that the night was fine and the moon was full. There was a coolness between us, for I believed he had gone too far.’

‘No, no. You must remember: the Dankerses are still here. They’ve tidied up the orchard and now have turned your house into an hotel.’

Lady Marston made her impatient little shaking of the head. ‘Of course, of course. Cronin, I apologize. You must find me very trying.’

‘It has no meaning: The Hotel of the Idle Moon. Yet I fear, m’lady, it may in time mean much to us.’

Lady Marston laughed quite gaily. ‘Few things have meaning, Cronin. It is rather much to expect a meaning for everything.’

They played three games of cards, and the matter was not again referred to. But in the night Lady Marston came to Cronin’s bedside and shook him by the shoulder. ‘I’m upset,’ she said, ‘by what you tell me. This isn’t right at all. Cronin, listen carefully: tomorrow you must inform Sir Giles. Tell him of our fears. Beg him to reconsider. I’m far too old to act. I must leave it all to you.’

The house was busy then with visitors, and cars up and down the avenue. It thrived as the orchard thrived; it had a comfortable and sumptuous feel, and Cronin thought again of the past.

‘Ah, Cronin,’ Mrs Dankers said, pausing on the back stairs one day. ‘Tell me, how is poor Lady Marston? She does not come down at all, and we’re so on the go here that it’s hard to find time to make the journey to the top of the house.’

‘Lady Marston is well, madam.’

‘She’s welcome in the lounges. Always welcome. Would you be good enough to tell her, Cronin?’

‘Yes, madam.’

‘But keep an eye on her, like a good man. I would not like her upsetting the guests. You understand?’

‘Yes, madam. I understand. I don’t think Lady Marston is likely to make use of the lounges.’

‘She would find the climb up and down too much, I dare say.’

‘Yes, madam. She would find it too much.’

Cronin made many plans. He thought that one day when Dankers was away he would approach the orchard with Sir Giles’s rifle and order the men to cut down the trees. That at least would bring one part of the sadness to an end. He saw the scene quite clearly: the trees toppling one against the other, their branches webbed as they hung in the air above the fresh stumps. But when he searched for the rifle he could not find it. He thought that he might wreak great damage in the house, burning carpets and opening up the upholstery. But for this he found neither opportunity nor the strength it demanded. Stropping his razor one morning, he hit upon the best plan of all: to creep into the Dankerses’ bedroom and cut their throats. It had once been his master’s bedroom and now it was theirs; which made revenge the sweeter. Every day for forty-eight years he had carried to the room a tray of tea-cups and a pot of Earl Grey tea. Now he would carry his sharpened razor; and for the rest of his life he would continue his shaving with it, relishing every scrape. The idea delighted him. Sir Giles would have wished to see the last of them, to see the last of all these people who strayed about the house and grounds, and to see the orchard settle down again to being the orchard he had left behind. And was not he, Cronin, the living agent of the dead Sir Giles? Was he not now companion to his wife? And did she not, in an occasional moment of failure, address him as she. had her husband? Yet when he shared his plans with Lady Marston she did not at all endorse them.

‘Take the will for the deed, Cronin. Leave these people be.’ ‘But they are guilty. They may have killed Sir Giles.’

‘They may have. And does it matter this way or that – to chop off a few dwindling years?’

Cronin saw no reason in her words. He pitied her, and hardened himself in his resolve.

‘I am sorry to speak to you like this, Cronin,’ Dankers said, ‘but I cannot, you know, have you wandering about the house in this manner. There have been complaints from the guests. You have your room, with Lady Marston to talk to; why not keep more to the region we have set aside for you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Of late, Cronin, you’ve become untidy in your appearance. You have a dishevelled look and often seem – well, frankly, Cronin, dirty. It’s not good for business. Not good at all.’

The moon shall not be idle, Cronin thought. The moon shall be agog to see. The moon shall clear the sky of clouds that the stars may ponder on the pillows full of blood.

‘Mr Dankers, sir, why is this place called the Idle Moon?’

Dankers laughed. ‘A foible of my good wife’s. She liked the sound of it. Quite telling, don’t you think?’

‘Yes, sir.’ The moon shall like the sound of her. A shriek in a severed throat, a howl of pain.

‘See to it, Cronin, eh?’

‘Yes, sir.’

So Cronin kept to his room, descending the back stairs only for his food and Lady Marston’s. The weeks passed, and more and more he sat entranced with the duty he had set himself. Sometimes, as though drunk with it, he found himself a little uncertain as to its exactitudes. That was when he felt tired; when he dropped off into a doze as he sat by his small window, staring at the sky and listening to the faraway hum from the house below.

Then one morning Cronin discovered that Lady Marston had died in her sleep. They carried her off, and he put away the pack of cards.

‘It’s a sad day for us all,’ Dankers said, and in the distance Cronin could hear Mrs Dankers giving some brisk order to a servant. He returned to his room and for a moment there was an oddness in his mind and he imagined that it was Sir Giles who had said that the day was sad. Then he remembered that Sir Giles was dead too and that he was the only one left.

In the months that followed he spoke to no one but himself, for he was concentrating on the details of his plan. They kept slipping away, and increasingly he had a struggle to keep them straight.

When the razor was there the faces on the pillows were vague and empty, and he could not remember whose he had planned they should be. There was the pattern of moonlight, and the red stain on the bed-clothes, but Cronin could not often now see what any of it meant. It made him tired, thinking the trouble out. And when, in the end, the shreds of his plan came floating back to him he smiled in some astonishment, seeing only how absurd it had been that late in his life he should have imagined himself a match for the world and its conquerors.

Nice Day at School

Eleanor lay awake, thinking in advance about the day. The face of Miss Whitehead came into her mind, the rather pointed nose, eyes set wide apart, a mouth that turned up at the corners and gave the impression that Miss Whitehead was constantly smiling, although it was a widely held view among the girls whom she taught that Miss Whitehead had little to smile over, having missed out. The face of Liz Jones came into Eleanor’s mind also, a pretty, wild face with eyes that were almost black, and black hair hanging prettily down on either side of it, and full lips. Liz Jones claimed to have gypsy blood in her, and another girl, Mavis Temple, had once remarked to Eleanor that she thought Liz Jones’s lips were negroid. ‘A touch of the tar brush,’ Mavis Temple had said. ‘A seaman done her mum.’ She’d said it three years ago, when the girls had all been eleven, in Miss Homber’s class. Everything had been different then.

In the early morning gloom Eleanor considered the difference, regretting, as always, that it had come about. It had been nice in Miss Homber’s class, the girls’ first year at Springfield Comprehensive: they’d all had a crush on Miss Homber because Miss Homber, who’d since become Mrs George Spaxton and a mother, had been truly beautiful and intelligent. Miss Homber told them it was important to wash all the parts of the body once per day, including you knew where. Four girls brought letters of complaint after that and Miss Homber read them out to the class, commenting on the grammar and the spelling errors and causing the girls to become less carefree about what they repeated to their mums. ‘Remember, you can give birth at thirteen,’ Miss Homber warned, and she added that if a boy ever said he was too embarrassed to go into a chemist’s for preventatives he could always get them in a slot machine that was situated in the Gents at the filling station on the Portsmouth Road, which was something her own boyfriend had told her.

It had been nice in those days because Eleanor didn’t believe that any boy would try stuff like that on when she was thirteen, and the girls of the first year all agreed that it sounded disgusting, a boy putting his thing up you. Even Liz Jones did, although she was constantly hanging about the boys of the estate and twice had had her knickers taken down in the middle of the estate playground. There were no boys at Springfield Comprehensive, which was just as well, Eleanor had always considered, because boys roughened up a school so.

But in spite of their physical absence boys had somehow penetrated, and increasingly, as Eleanor passed up through the school, references to them infiltrated all conversation. At thirteen, in Miss Croft’s class, Liz Jones confessed that a boy called Gareth Swayles had done her in the corner of the estate playground, at eleven o’clock one night. She’d been done standing up, she reported, leaning against the paling that surrounded the playground. She said it was fantastic.

Lying in bed, Eleanor remembered Liz Jones saying that and saying a few months later that a boy called Rogo Pollini was twice as good as Gareth Swayles, and later that a boy called Tich Ayling made Rogo Pollini seem totally laughable. Another girl, Susie Crumm, said that Rogo Pollini had told her that he’d never enjoyed it with Liz Jones because Liz Jones put him off with all her wriggling and pinching. Susie Crumm, at the time, had just been done by Rogo Pollini.

By the time they reached Class 2 it had become the fashion to have been done and most of the girls, even quiet Mavis Temple, had succumbed to it. Many had not cared for the experience and had not repeated it, but Liz Jones said that this was because they had got it from someone like Gareth Swayles, who was no better on the job than a dead horse. Eleanor hadn’t ever been done nor did she wish to be, by Gareth Swayles or anyone else. Some of the girls said it had hurt them: she knew it would hurt her. And she’d heard that even if Gareth Swayles, or whoever it was, went to the slot machine in the filling station it sometimes happened that the preventative came asunder, a disaster that would be followed by weeks of worry. That, she knew, would be her fate too.

‘Eleanor’s prissy,’ Liz Jones said every day now. ‘Eleanor’s prissy like poor prissy Whitehead.’ Liz Jones went on about it all the time, hating Eleanor because she still had everything in store for her. Liz Jones had made everyone else think that Eleanor would grow into a Miss Whitehead, who was terrified of men, so Liz Jones said. Miss Whitehead had hairs on her chin and her upper lip that she didn’t bother to do anything about. Quite often her breath wasn’t fresh, which was unpleasant if she was leaning over you, explaining something.

Eleanor, who lived on the estate with her parents, hated being identified with Miss Whitehead and yet she felt, especially when she lay awake in the early morning, that there was something in Liz Jones’s taunting. ‘Eleanor’s waiting for Mr Right,’ Liz Jones would say. ‘Whitehead waited forever.’ Miss Whitehead, Liz Jones said, never had a fellow for long because she wouldn’t give herself wholly and in this day and age a girl had to be sensible and natural over a matter like that. Everyone agreed that this was probably so, because there was no doubt about it that in her time Miss Whitehead had been pretty. ‘It happens to you,’ Liz Jones said, ‘left solitary like that: you grow hairs on your face; you get stomach trouble that makes your breath bad. Nervous frustration, see.’

Eleanor gazed across her small bedroom, moving her eyes from the pink of the wall to her school uniform, grey and purple, hanging over the back of a chair. In the room there was a teddy-bear she’d had since she was three, and a gramophone, and records by the New Seekers and the Pioneers and Diana Ross, and photographs of such performers. In her vague, uninterested manner her mother said she thought it awful that Eleanor should waste her money on these possessions, but Eleanor explained that everyone at Springfield Comprehensive did so and that she herself did not consider it a waste of money.

‘You up?’ Eleanor heard her mother calling now, and she replied that she was. She got out of bed and looked at herself in a looking-glass on her dressing-table. Her night-dress was white with small sprigs of violets on it. Her hair had an auburn tinge, her face was long and thin and was not afflicted with spots, as were a few of the faces of her companions at Springfield Comprehensive. Her prettiness was delicate, and she thought as she examined it now that Liz Jones was definitely right in her insinuations: it was a prettiness that could easily disappear overnight. Hairs would appear on her chin and her upper lip, a soft down at first, later becoming harsher. ‘Your sight, you know,’ an oculist would worriedly remark to her, and tell her she must wear glasses. Her teeth would lose their gleam. She’d have trouble with dandruff.

Eleanor slipped her night-dress over her head and looked at her naked body. She didn’t herself see much beauty in it, but she knew that the breasts were the right size for the hips, that arms and legs nicely complemented each other. She dressed and went into the kitchen, where her father was making tea and her mother was reading the Daily Express. Her father hadn’t been to bed all night. He slept during the day, being employed by night as a doorman in a night-club called Daisy’s, in Shepherd Market. Once upon a time her father had been a wrestler, but in 1961 he’d injured his back in a bout with a Japanese and had since been unfit for the ring. Being a doorman of a night-club kept him in touch, so he claimed, with the glamorous world he’d been used to in the past. He often saw familiar faces, he reported, going in and out of Daisy’s, faces that once had been his audience. Eleanor felt embarrassed when he talked like that, being unable to believe much of what he said.

‘You’re in for a scorcher,’ he said now, placing a pot of tea on the blue formica of the table. ‘No end to the heatwave, they can’t see.’

He was a large, red-faced man with closely cut grey hair and no lobe to his right ear. He’d put on weight since he’d left the wrestling ring and although he moved slowly now, as though in some way compensating for years of nimbleness on the taut canvas, he was still, in a physical sense, a formidable opponent, as occasional troublemakers at the night-club had painfully discovered.

Eleanor knocked Special Κ into a dish and added milk and sugar.

‘That’s a lovely young girl,’ her father said. ‘Mia Farrow. She was in last night, Eleanor.’

His breakfast-time conversation was always the same. Princess Margaret had shaken him by the hand and Anthony Armstrong-Jones had asked if he might take his photograph for a book about London he was doing. The Burtons came regularly, and Rex Harrison, and the Canadian Prime Minister whenever he was in London. Her father had a way of looking at Eleanor when he made such statements, his eyes screwed up, almost lost in the puffed red flesh of his face: he stared unblinkingly and beadily, as if defying her to reply that she didn’t for a moment accept that Princess Margaret’s hand had ever lain in his or that Anthony Armstrong-Jones had addressed him.

‘Faceful of innocence,’ he said. ‘Just a faceful of innocence, Eleanor. “Good-night, Miss Farrow,” I said, and she turned the little face to me and said to call her Mia.’

Eleanor nodded. Her mother’s eyes were fixed on the Daily Express, moving from news item to news item, her lips occasionally moving also as she read. ‘Liz Jones,’ Eleanor wanted to say. ‘Could you complain to the school about Liz Jones?’ She wanted to tell them about the fashion in Class 2, about Miss Whitehead, and how everyone was afraid of Liz Jones. She imagined her voice speaking across the breakfast table, to her father who was still in his doorman’s uniform and her mother who mightn’t even hear her. There’d be embarrassment as her father listened, her own face would be as hot as fire. He’d turn his head away in the end, like the time she’d had to ask him for money to buy sanitary towels.

‘Lovely little fingers,’ he said, ‘like a baby’s fingers, Eleanor. Little wisps of things. She touched me with the tips.’

‘Who?’ demanded her mother, suddenly sharp, looking up. ‘Eh, then?’

‘Mia Farrow,’ he said. ‘She was down in Daisy’s last night. Sweetest thing; sweetest little face.’

‘Ah, yes, Peyton Place,’ her mother said, and Eleanor’s father nodded.

Her mother had spectacles with swept-up, elaborately bejewelled frames. The jewels were made of glass, but they glittered, especially in strong sunlight, just like what Eleanor imagined diamonds must glitter like. Her mother, constantly smoking, had hair which she dyed so that it appeared to be black. She was a thin woman with bones that stuck out awkwardly at the joints, seeming as though they might at any moment break through the surface of taut, anaemic skin. In Eleanor’s opinion her mother had suffered, and once she had had a dream in which her mother was fat and married to someone else, a man, as far as Eleanor could make out, who ran a vegetable shop.

Her mother always had breakfast in her night-dress and an old fawn-coloured dressing-gown, her ankles below it as white as paper, her feet stuck into tattered slippers. After breakfast, she would return to bed with Eleanor’s father, obliging him, Eleanor knew, as she had obliged him all her life. During the school holidays, and on Saturdays and Sundays when Eleanor was still in the flat, her mother continued to oblige him: in the bedroom he made the same kind of noise as he’d made in the wrestling ring. The Prince of Hackney he’d been known as.

Her mother was a shadow. Married to a man who ran a vegetable shop or to any other kind of man except the one she’d chosen, Eleanor believed she’d have been different: she’d have had more children, she’d have been a proper person with proper flesh on her bones, a person you could feel for. As she was, you could hardly take her seriously. She sat there in her night-clothes, waiting for the man she’d married to rise from the table and go into their bedroom so that she might follow. Afterwards she cleared up the breakfast things and washed them, while he slept. She shopped in the Express Dairy Supermarket, dropping cigarette ash over tins of soup and peas and packets of crisps, and at half past eleven she sat in the corner of the downstairs lounge of the Northumberland Arms and drank a measure of gin and water, sometimes two.

‘Listen to this,’ her mother said in her wheezy voice. She quoted a piece about a fifty-five-year-old woman, a Miss Margaret Sugden, who had been trapped in a bath for two days and three nights. ‘It ended,’ read Eleanor’s mother, ‘with two burly policemen – eyes carefully averted – lifting her out. It took them half an hour of gentle levering, for Miss Sugden, a well-rounded sixteen stone, was helplessly stuck

He laughed. Her mother stubbed her cigarette out on her saucer and lit a fresh one. Her mother never ate anything at breakfast-time. She drank three cups of tea and smoked the same number of cigarettes. He liked a large breakfast, eggs and bacon, fried bread, a chop sometimes.

‘History’s longest soak,’ her mother said, still quoting from the Daily Express. Her father laughed again.

Eleanor rose and carried the dish she’d eaten her Special Κ out of to the sink, with her cup and her saucer. She rinsed them under the hot tap and stacked them on the red, plastic-covered rack to dry. Her mother spoke in amazed tones when she read pieces out of the newspaper, surprised by the activities of people and animals, never amused by them. Some part of her had been smashed to pieces.

She said goodbye to both of them. Her mother kissed her as she always did. Winking, her father told her not to take any wooden dollars, an advice that was as regular and as mechanical as her mother’s embrace.

‘Netball is it?’ her mother vaguely asked, not looking up from the newspaper. There wasn’t netball, Eleanor explained, as she’d explained before, in the summer term: she wouldn’t be late back.

She left the flat and descended three flights of concrete stairs. She passed the garages and then the estate’s playground, where Liz Jones had first of all been done. ‘Good-morning, Eleanor,’ a woman said to her, an Irish woman called Mrs Rourke. ‘Isn’t it a great day?’

Eleanor smiled. The weather was lovely, she said. Mrs Rourke was a lackadaisical woman, middle-aged and fat, the mother of eight children. On the estate it was said that she was no better than she should be, that one of her sons, who had a dark tinge in his pallor, was the child of a West Indian railway porter. Another of Mrs Rourke’s children and suspect also, a girl of Eleanor’s age called Dolly, was reputed to be the daughter of Susie Crumm’s father. In the dream Eleanor had had in which her own mother was fat rather than thin it had seemed that her mother had somehow become Mrs Rourke, because in spite of everything Mrs Rourke was a happy woman. Her husband had a look of happiness about him also, as did all the Rourke children, no matter where they’d come from. They regularly went to Mass, all together in a family outing, and even if Mrs Rourke occasionally obliged Susie Crumm’s father and others it hadn’t taken the same toll of her as the obliging of Eleanor’s-father by her mother had. For years, ever since she’d listened to Liz Jones telling the class the full facts of life, Eleanor had been puzzled by the form the facts apparently took when different people were involved. She’d accepted quite easily the stories about Mrs Rourke and had thought no less of the woman, but when Dolly Rourke had said, about a month ago, that she’d been done by Rogo Pollini, Eleanor had felt upset, not caring to imagine the occasion, as she didn’t care to imagine the occasion that took place every morning after breakfast in her parents’ bedroom. Mrs Rourke didn’t matter because she was somehow remote, like one of the people her mother read about in the Daily Express or one of the celebrities her father told lies about: Mrs Rourke didn’t concern her, but Dolly Rourke and Rogo Pollini did because they were close to her, being the same as she was and of the same generation. And her parents concerned her because they were close to her also. You could no longer avoid any of it when you thought of Dolly Rourke and Rogo Pollini, or your parents.

She passed a row of shops, Len Parrish the baker, a dry cleaner’s, the Express Dairy Supermarket, the newsagent’s and post office, the off-licence attached to the Northumberland Arms. Girls in the grey-and-purple uniform of Springfield Comprehensive alighted in numbers from a bus. A youth whistled at her. ‘Hi, Eleanor,’ said Gareth Swayles, coming up behind her. In a friendly manner he put his hand on her back, low down, so that, as though by accident, he could in a moment slip it over her buttocks.

There’s a new boy in Grimes the butcher’s, Liz Jones wrote on a piece of paper. He’s not on the estate at all. She folded the paper and addressed it to Eleanor. She passed it along the row of desks.

‘Je l’ai vu qui travaillait dans la cour,’ said Miss Whitehead.

I saw him in Grimes, Eleanor wrote. Funny-looking fish. She passed the note back and Liz Jones read it and showed it to her neighbour, Thelma Joseph. Typical Eleanor, Liz Jones wrote and Thelma Joseph giggled slightly.

‘Un anglais qui passait ses vacances en France,’ said Miss Whitehead.

Miss Whitehead lived in Esher, in a bed-sitting-room. Girls had sometimes visited her there and those who had done so described for others what Miss Whitehead’s residence was like. It was very clean and comfortable and neat. White paint shone on the window ledges and the skirting-boards, lace curtains hung close to sparkling glass. On the mantelpiece there were ornaments in delicate ceramic, Highland sheep and cockerels, and a chimney sweep with his brushes on his back. A clock ticked on the mantelpiece, and in the fireplace – no longer used – Miss Whitehead had stood a vase of dried flowers. Her bed was in a recess, not at all obtrusive in the room, a narrow divan covered in cheerful chintz.

‘Le pêcheur,’ said Miss Whitehead, ‘est un homme qui… Eleanor?’

‘Pêche?

‘Très bien. Et la blanchisseuse est une femme qui…?

‘Lave le linge.

Liz Jones said it must be extraordinary to be Miss Whitehead, never to have felt a man’s hand on you. Gareth Swayles said he’d give it to her, she’d written on one of the notes she was constantly passing round the class. Imagine Swayles in bed with Whitehead!

‘La mère n’aime pas le fromage,’ said Miss Whitehead, and Liz Jones passed another note to Eleanor. The new boy in Grimes is called Denny Price, it said. He wants to do you.

‘Eleanor,’ said Miss Whitehead.

She looked up from the elaborately looped handwriting of Liz Jones. In their bedroom her father would be making the noises he used to make in the wrestling ring. Her mother would be lying there. Once, when she was small, she’d gone in by mistake and her father had been standing without his clothes on. Her mother had pulled a sheet up to cover her own nakedness.

‘Why are you writing notes, Eleanor?’

‘She didn’t, Miss Whitehead,’ Liz Jones said. ‘I sent her –’

‘Thank you, Elizabeth. Eleanor?’

‘I’m sorry, Miss Whitehead.’

‘Were you writing notes, Eleanor?’

‘No, I –’

‘I sent her the note, Miss Whitehead. It’s a private matter –’

‘Not private in my class, Elizabeth. Pass me the note, Eleanor.’

Liz Jones was sniggering: Eleanor knew that she’d wanted this to happen. Miss Whitehead would read the note out, which was her rule when a note was found.

‘The new boy in Grimes is called Denny Price,’ Miss Whitehead said. ‘He wants to do you.’

The class laughed, a muffled sound because the girls’ heads were bent over their desks.

‘He wants to have sexual relations with Eleanor,’ Liz Jones explained, giggling more openly. ‘Eleanor’s a –’

‘Thank you, Elizabeth. The future tense, Elizabeth: s’asseoir.

Her voice grated in the classroom. Her voice had become unattractive also, Eleanor thought, because she’d never let herself be loved. In her clean bed-sitting-room she might weep tonight, recalling the insolence of Liz Jones. She’d punish Liz Jones when the bell went, the way she always inflicted punishment. She’d call her name out and while the others left the room she’d keep the girl longer than was necessary, setting her a piece of poetry to write out ten times and explaining, as if talking to an infant, that notes and conversation about sexual matters were not permitted in her classroom. She’d imply that she didn’t believe that the boy in Grimes’ had said what Liz Jones had reported he’d said. She’d pretend it was all a fantasy, that no girl from Springfield Comprehensive had ever been done in the playground of the estate or anywhere else. It was easy for Miss Whitehead, Eleanor thought, escaping to her bed-sitting-room in Esher.

‘It’s your bloody fault,’ Liz Jones said afterwards in the washroom. ‘If you weren’t such a curate’s bitch –’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, shut up about it!’ Eleanor cried.

‘Denny Price wants to give you his nine inches –’

‘I don’t want his bloody nine inches. I don’t want anything to do with him.’

‘You’re under-sexed, Eleanor. What’s wrong with Denny Price?’

‘He’s peculiar-looking. There’s something the matter with his head.’

‘Will you listen to this!’ Liz Jones cried, and the girls who’d gathered round tittered. ‘What’s his head got to do with it for God’s sake? It’s not his head that’s going to –’ She broke off, laughing, and all the girls laughed also, even though several of them didn’t at all care for Liz Jones.

‘You’ll end like Whitehead,’ Liz Jones said. ‘Doing yourself in Esher.’ The likes of Whitehead, she added, gave you a sickness in your kidneys. Eleanor had the same way of walking as Whitehead had, which was a way that dried-up virgins acquired because they were afraid to walk any other way in case a man touched their dried-up bottoms.

Eleanor went away, moving through the girls of other classes, across the washroom.

‘Liz Jones is a nasty little tit,’ a girl called Eileen Reid whispered, and Joan Moate, a fair-haired girl with a hint of acne, agreed. But Liz Jones couldn’t hear them. Liz Jones was still laughing, leaning against a wash-basin with a cigarette in her mouth.

For lunch that day at Springfield Comprehensive there was stew and processed potatoes and carrots, with blancmange afterwards, chocolate and strawberry.

‘Don’t take no notice,’ Susie Crumm said to Eleanor. The way Liz Jones went on, she added, it wouldn’t suprise her to hear that she’d contracted syphilis.

‘What’s it like, Susie?’ Eleanor asked.

‘Syphilis? You get lesions. If you’re a girl you can’t tell sometimes. Fellas get them all over their equipment –’

‘No, I mean what’s it like being done?’

‘’Sail right. Nice really. But not like Jones goes for it. Not all the bloody time.’

They ate spoonfuls of blancmange, sucking it through their teeth.

‘’Sail right,’ Susie Crumm repeated when she’d finished. ‘’Sail right for an occasion.’

Eleanor nodded. She wanted to say that she’d prefer to keep it for her wedding night, but she knew that if she said that she’d lose Susie Crumm’s sympathy. She wanted it to be special, not just a woman lying down waiting for a man to finish taking his clothes off; not just a fumbling in the dark of the estate playground, or something behind the Northumberland Arms, where Eileen Reid had been done.

‘My dad said he’d gut any fella that laid a finger on me,’ Susie Crumm said.

‘Jones’s said the same.’

‘He done Mrs Rourke. Jones’s dad.’

‘They’ve all done Mrs Rourke.’ For a moment she wanted to tell the truth: to add that Susie Crumm’s dad had done Mrs Rourke also, that Dolly Rourke was Susie’s half-sister.

‘You’ve got a moustache growing on you,’ Liz Jones said, coming up behind her and whispering into her hair.

The afternoon of that day passed without incident at Springfield Comprehensive, while on the estate Eleanor’s father slept. He dreamed that he was wrestling again. Between his knees he could feel the ribs of Eddie Rodriguez; the crowd was calling out, urging him to give Eddie Rodriguez the final works. Two yards away, in the kitchen, Eleanor’s mother prepared a meal. She cut cod into pieces, and sliced potatoes for chips. He liked a crisply fried meal at half past six before watching a bit of television. She liked cod and chips herself, with tinned peas, and bread and butter and apricot jam, and Danish pastries and tea, and maybe a tin of pears. She’d bought a tin of pears in the Express Dairy: they might as well have them with a tin of Carnation cream. She’d get everything ready and then she’d run an iron over his uniform, sponging off any spots there were. She thought about Crossroads on the television, wondering what would happen in the episode today.

‘I’d remind you that the school photographs will be taken on Tuesday,’ Miss Whitehead said. ‘Clean white blouses, please.’

They would all be there: Eleanor, Liz Jones, Susie Crumm, Eileen Reid, Joan Moate, Mavis Temple, and all the others: forty smiling faces, and Miss Whitehead standing at the end of the middle row. If you kept the photograph it would be a memory for ever, another record of the days at Springfield Comprehensive. ‘Who’s that with the bow legs?’ her father had asked a few years ago, pointing at Miss Homber.

‘Anyone incorrectly dressed on Tuesday,’ Miss Whitehead said, ‘will forfeit her place in the photo.’

The bell rang for the end of school. ‘Forfeit her bloody knickers,’ said Liz Jones just before Miss Whitehead left the classroom.

The girls dispersed, going off in twos and threes, swinging the briefcases that contained their school books.

‘Walk with you?’ Susie Crumm suggested to Eleanor, and together they left the classrooms and the school. ‘Baking, innit?’ Susie Crumm remarked.

They walked slowly, past concrete buildings, the Eagle Star Insurance Company, Barclays Bank, the Halifax Building Society. Windows were open, the air was chalky dry. Two girls in front of them had taken off their shoes but now, finding the pavement too hot to walk on, had paused to put them on again. The two girls shrieked, leaning on one another. Women pushed prams around them, irritation in their faces.

‘I want to get fixed in a Saxone,’ Susie Crumm said. ‘Can’t wait to leave that bloody place.’

An Evening Standard van swerved in front of a bus, causing the bus-driver to shout and blow his horn. In the cab of the van the driver’s mate raised two fingers in a gesture of disdain.

‘I fancy selling shoes,’ Susie Crumm said. ‘Fashion shoes type of thing. You get them at cost if you work in a Saxone.’

Eleanor imagined the slow preparation of the evening meal in her parents’ flat, and the awakening of her father. He’d get up and shave himself, standing in the bathroom in his vest, braces hanging down, his flies half open. Her mother spent ages getting the evening meal, breaking off to see to his uniform and then returning to the food. He couldn’t bear not being a wrestler any more.

‘What you going to do, Eleanor?’

She shook her head. She didn’t know what she was going to do. All she wanted was to get away from the estate and from Springfield Comprehensive. She wondered what it would be like to work in the Eagle Star Insurance Company, but at the moment that didn’t seem important. What was important was the exact present, the afternoon of a certain day, a day that was like others except for the extreme heat. She’d go home and there the two of them would be, and in her mind there’d be the face of Miss Whitehead and the voice of Liz Jones. She’d do her homework and then there’d be Crossroads on the TV and then the fried meal and the washing-up and more TV, and then he’d go, saying it was time she was in bed. ‘See you in the morning,’ he’d say and soon after he’d gone they’d both go to bed, and she’d lie there thinking of being married in white lace in a church, to a delicate man who Wouldn’t hurt her, who’d love the virginal innocence that had been kept all these years for him alone. She’d go away in a two-piece suit on an autumn afternoon when the leaves in London were yellow-brown. She’d fly with a man whose fingers were long and thin and gentle, who’d hold her hand in the aeroplane, Air France to Biarritz. And after wards she’d come back to a flat where the curtains were the colour of lavender, the same as the walls, where gas-fires glowed and there were rugs on natural-wood floors, and the telephone was pale blue.

‘What’s matter?’ Susie Crumm asked.

‘Nothing.’

They walked past Len Parrish the baker, the dry cleaner’s, the Express Dairy Supermarket, the newsagent’s and post office, the off-licence attached to the Northumberland Arms.

‘There’s that fella,’ Susie Crumm said. ‘Denny Price.’

His head was awkwardly placed on his neck, cocked to one side. His hair was red and long, his face small in the midst of it. He had brown eyes and thick, blubbery lips.

‘Hullo,’ he said.

Susie Crumm giggled.

‘Like a fag?’ he said, holding out a packet of Anchor. ‘Smoke, do you, girls?’

Susie Crumm giggled again, and then abruptly ceased. ‘Oh God!’ she said, her hand stretched out for a cigarette. She was looking over Denny Price’s shoulder at a man in blue denim overalls. The man, seeing her in that moment, sharply called at her to come to him.

‘Stuff him,’ she said before she smiled and obeyed.

‘Her dad,’ said Denny Price, pleased that she had gone. ‘You want a fag, Eleanor?’

She shook her head, walking on. He dropped into step with her.

‘I know your name,’ he said. ‘I asked Liz Jones.’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m Denny Price. I work in Grimes’.’

‘Yes.’

‘You’re at the Comprehensive.’

‘Yes.’

She felt his fingers on her arm, squeezing it just above the elbow. ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said. ‘Come down by the river, Eleanor.’

She shook her head again and then, quite suddenly, she didn’t care what happened. What harm was there in walking by the river with a boy from Grimes’? She looked at the fingers that were still caressing her arm. All day long they had handled meat; the fingernails were bitten away, the flesh was red from scouring. Wasn’t it silly, like an advertisement, to imagine that a man would come one day to marry her in white lace in a church and take her, Air France, to Biarritz?

‘We’ll take a bus to the bridge,’ he said. ‘A thirty-seven.’

He sat close to her, paying her fare, pressing a cigarette on her. She took it and he lit it for her. His eyes were foxy, she noticed; she could see the desire in them.

‘I saw you a week back,’ he said.

They walked by the river, away from the bridge, along the tow-path. He put his arm around her, squeezing a handful of underclothes and flesh. ‘Let’s sit down here,’ he said.

They sat on the grass, watching barges going by and schoolboys rowing. In the distance traffic moved, gleaming, on the bridge they’d walked from. ‘God,’ he said, ‘you have fantastic breasts.’

His hands were on them and he was pushing her back on to the grass. She felt his lips on her face, and his teeth and his tongue, and saliva. One hand moved down her body. She felt it under her skirt, on the bare flesh of her thigh, and then on her stomach. It was like an animal, a rat gnawing at her, prodding her and poking. There was no one about; he was muttering, his voice thickly slurred. ‘Take down your knickers,’ he said.

She pushed at him and for a moment he released his hold, imagining she was about to undo some of her clothing. Instead she ran away, tearing along the tow-path, saying to herself that if he caught up with her she’d hit him with the briefcase that contained her school books.

But he didn’t follow her and when she looked back he was lying where she had left him, stretched out as though wounded on the grass.

Her father talked of who might come that night to Daisy’s. He mentioned Princess Margaret. Princess Margaret had seen him wrestling, or if it hadn’t been Princess Margaret it had been a face almost identical to hers. The Burtons might come tonight; you never knew when the Burtons were going to pop in.

Her mother placed the fried fish, with chips and peas, in front of him. She never really listened to him when he went on about the night-club because her mind was full of what had happened on Crossroads. She put her cigarette on a saucer on the draining-board, not extinguishing it. She remembered the news items she’d read at breakfast-time and wondered about them all over again.

Tomorrow would be worse, Eleanor thought. Even at this very moment Denny Price’s blubber lips might be relating the incident to Liz Jones, how Eleanor had almost let him and then had drawn back. ‘I went down by the river with a boy,’ she wanted to say. ‘I wanted to get done because it’s the Class 2 fashion. I’m tired of being mocked by Liz Jones.’ She could say it with her eyes cast down, her fork fiddling with a piece of cod on her plate. She wouldn’t have to see the embarrassment in her father’s face, like she’d seen it when she’d asked for money for sanitary towels. Her mother wouldn’t hear at first, but she’d go on saying it, repeating herself until her mother did hear. She longed for the facts to be there in the room, how it disgusted her to imagine her father taking off his uniform in the mornings, and Rogo Pollini doing Dolly Rourke. She wanted to say she’d been disgusted when Denny Price had told her to take down her knickers.

‘Extraordinary, that woman,’ her mother said. ‘Fancy two days stuck in a bath.’

Her father laughed. It could be exaggerated, he said: you couldn’t believe everything you read, not even in the newspapers.

‘Extraordinary,’ her mother murmured.

Her mother was trapped, married to him, obliging him so that she’d receive housekeeping money out of which she could save for her morning glass of gin. He was trapped himself, going out every night in a doorman’s uniform, the Prince of Hackney with a bad back. He crushed her mother because he’d been crushed himself. How could either of them be expected to bother if she spoke of being mocked, and then asked them questions, seeking reassurance?

They wouldn’t know what to say – even if she helped them by explaining that she knew there was no man with delicate hands who’d take her away when the leaves in London were yellow-brown, that there were only the blubber lips of Denny Price and the smell of meat that came off him, and Susie Crumm’s father doing Mrs Rourke, and Liz Jones’s father doing her also, and the West Indian railway porter, and Mr Rourke not aware of a thing. They wouldn’t know what she was talking about if she said that Miss Whitehead had divorced herself from all of it by lying solitary at night in a room in Esher where everything was clean and neat. It was better to be Miss Whitehead than a woman who was a victim of a man’s bad back. In her gleaming room Miss Whitehead was more successful in her pretence than they were in theirs. Miss Whitehead was complete and alone, having discarded what she wished to discard, accepting now that there was no Mr Right.

‘Nice day at school?’ her mother inquired suddenly in her vague manner, as though mistily aware of a duty.

Eleanor looked up from her fish and regarded both of them at once. She smiled, forcing herself to, feeling sorry for them because they were trapped by each other; because for them it was too late to escape to a room in which everything was clean.

The Original Sins of Edward Tripp

Edward Tripp had often noticed Mrs Mayben at her sitting-room window, putting bread on the window-sills for the birds. Her hair was white and she was dressed always in the same way, in several shades of grey. She had, he considered, the kindest face in all Dunfarnham Avenue, and when she saw him she would nod at him in a dignified manner, befitting a woman of her years. He had never rung the bell of Mrs Mayben’s house as he had rung the bells of the other houses; he had never held her in conversation on her doorstep, but he knew that the day would come when his sister would ask him to cross the road and speak to the old woman. Edward was notorious in Dunfarnham Avenue, yet he felt whenever he considered the fact that Mrs Mayben, who kept herself to herself and did not gossip with the other people, was perhaps – just possibly – unaware of his notoriety. He thought, too, that when the time came, when eventually he found himself face to face with Mrs Mayben, he would tell her the truth: he would speak to her bluntly, and Edward guessed that an old woman with Mrs Mayben’s dignity, who was a Christian and who never forgot the birds, would listen to him and would say a word or two of comfort. He imagined how things would be after that visit, he himself passing by Mrs Mayben’s house and the truth hanging between them, she nodding with a smile from her window and he giving thanks to God for her understanding heart.

On Sunday August 26th Edward Tripp’s sister, Emily, spoke of Mrs Mayben and Edward knew that on this morning he would hear himself protesting in a familiar way and that in the end he would cross the road to Mrs Mayben’s house.

‘We have watched the neighbourhood go down,’ said Emily. ‘Mrs Mayben was the last who was a decent sort of person. And now she’s gone too. In cold blood.’

Edward, slicing some ham that he had purchased the day before in Lipton’s, had been thinking to himself that the piece of gammon was not as satisfactory as usual: there was, for instance, a certain stringiness and a confusion about the direction of the grain. Before his sister had mentioned Mrs Mayben he had been allowing his thoughts to consider the meat as once it had been, an area of living flesh on the thigh of a pig. He imagined that something might have troubled that pig, some physical disorder that caused it to wriggle and dash about its sty, banging itself against the concrete sides and causing the stringiness to develop in its flesh.

‘In cold blood,’ said Emily again.

Edward looked up and regarded her back. He stared at the blackness of the material of which her long, old-fashioned dress was composed and at the roll of her hair, neat and formal on her neck.

‘No, no,’ said Edward. ‘Not dead, dear. Not dead.’

But his sister nodded, denying his denial, and Edward shook his head with firmness.

‘I remember when she came,’ said Emily. ‘Fourteen years ago. Her husband with her.’

Edward agreed with that. ‘Her husband,’ he said, ‘died in 1955.’

‘Death again,’ murmured Emily, and Edward sighed. His sister was standing by their dining-room window, observing through it the house of Mrs Mayben opposite. Her left hand gripped the grey curtain that had flanked the window for almost thirty years, her right hung limply by her side. Edward guessed what was in her mind and did not care to consider it, since soon, he knew, he would be obliged to consider it whether he wished to or not. Attempting to keep the workings of his sister’s brain at bay, he cut deeply into the ham. The image of the living animal appeared again before him. He said:

‘After lunch why don’t we try to repair the sitting-room carpet? It gets worse, you know. Quite a hole has worn through. It seems a pity.’

‘The carpet?’ said Emily, and Edward added:

‘Father used to talk about that carpet, d’you remember? About its quality. The years have proved him right.’

Emily, continuing to stare through the window, made no comment.

‘It’s lasted a couple of lifetimes,’ Edward said quickly. ‘It’s a shame to let it go.’ His eyes again travelled over his sister’s back, moving upwards, to the roll of her hair. Emily said:

‘There was a man here yesterday. Looking at Mrs Mayben’s windows.’

‘A robber,’ suggested Edward, again slicing the ham, and in an automatic way beginning to feel sick in his stomach. He said, in a slow, low voice, that Mrs Mayben was probably now in church, or else within her house, cooking a simple lunch for herself.

‘She hasn’t been about,’ said Emily. ‘I haven’t seen Mrs Mayben for four days.’

‘I thought I saw her yesterday. I’m sure, you know.’

‘He came,’ said Emily, ‘in a light-blue motor-car. The kind that’s called a tourer, is it? Out of that he stepped at a quarter to four and stood on the pavement gazing up at her house – returning to his scene, God knows. He was indecently dressed, Edward: canvas shoes and light-weight trousers that matched the blue paintwork of his motor-car, and nothing at all where a shirt should have been. He was like a lunatic, I’ll tell you that, walking on the edge of the pavement in the August sunshine, his eyes uplifted to the house. And I said to myself: “There’s evil there”.’

‘Mrs Mayben’s in church,’ repeated Edward, ‘or maybe home already, doing her Sunday chores.’

His sister shook her head. ‘It’s past her time for returning from church. She hasn’t returned today, for I have watched at the window, being worried about her. Mrs Mayben, as well you know, Edward, is by now in two places at once.’

Edward imagined old Mrs Mayben delayed in a traffic jam in the hired car that called for her every Sunday at half past eleven to take her to church. He imagined the chauffeur, the sallow-faced man who always came, with a green peaked cap, apologizing to her about the delay, apologizing about all the traffic, since she was the kind of woman who inspired apology, he imagined. Emily said:

‘You know what I mean, don’t you, when I say she’s in two places at once? In heaven and in some cupboard, Edward; strung to a hook.’

There was a look, Edward knew, that must be there by now in his sister’s eyes as she stared through the glass, ready to inflict her punishment. He thought, as he had thought before on similar occasions, that she was like a woman entering a fit.

‘Now, now,’ said Edward softly.

‘Read the papers,’ cried his sister, turning about to face him and speaking with emotion. ‘A man has killed eight nurses in Chicago.’

‘Oh no,’ began Edward.

‘Prize-fighters turn on their children. Mothers go out with the tide.’

Edward placed the ham knife on the polished mahogany of the dining-room table. Slowly, he raised his eyes to meet his sister’s.

‘An old woman living alone,’ said Emily.

Edward watched her tongue moving over her lips, begining at one corner and returning to it. The tip of her tongue protruded at that corner for a moment and was then withdrawn. Again he raised his eyes to hers and they looked at one another in silence for a while, a brother and a sister who had lived all their lives in this house in Dun-farnham Avenue, Number Seventeen. Edward remembered the past and he knew that his sister was remembering it too. In the past were the children they had been, two other people, a different relationship: a girl thin and tall, four years older than the brother, he a boy who had laughed and had had his way, who had grown to be a man of slight build, permitting a small moustache to accumulate on his upper lip. The house that had been the house of their parents had changed only a little over the years. Wallpaper, the colour of good oatmeal, had hung all over it for three decades, placed there one spring when Emily was fourteen. Large engravings that featured the bridges of London decorated the hall and the stairs, and in dark bookcases, dustless behind glass, were volumes by Sapper, and The Life of a Bengal Lancer, and poems by Austin Dobson, and the collected works of Kipling and Scott. Edward often felt strange in the house now, feeling the present dominated by the past, remembering everything. From her own private flowerbed he had pulled her pansies, roots and all, when he was five years old; and with a pair of scissors he had cut through the centre of the buds of her roses. ‘I have played a trick on you,’ he used to say, sidling close to her. He had given two of her books away to an old woman who came seeking alms at the door. He had lit a fire in a fireplace of her doll’s house, and had been punished because it was, so they said, a dangerous thing to do. He had taken one of her guinea-pigs and put it in her bed, where by mischance it had died. ‘I have played a trick on you’: he had said it repeatedly, bringing out her temper and her tears and running away himself. In middle age Emily was still taller than her brother, and had a hint of beauty about her features that was not reflected in his. Edward had developed a stoop in early manhood, and the child who had been bright with darting mischief became, in his own opinion, a shrimpish creature, fond of the corners of rooms.

On that Sunday morning, August 26th, Emily continued to speak about the man who had loitered in Dunfarnham Avenue in the sunshine. She spoke of the baldness of his head and the evil that she had recognized in the pupils of his eyes. He had worn no shirt, she repeated, emphasizing the fact, and she said again that his shoes, placed over bare feet, had been of light-blue canvas, the same colour as his trousers and his car.

Listening to his sister’s voice, Edward prayed in his mind. He prayed that she might turn from the window and walk away from the room, saying that she was going to the kitchen to make mustard, since mustard would be necessary with the ham. But his sister only stood before him, strange and thin as she had been as a child.

‘I wish you could have seen him,’ said Emily. ‘I think I dreamed of him last night. The man is on my mind.’

‘Why not sit down, my dear? Why not rest and try to forget?’ As he spoke, Edward prayed for a day that was to come, a day that God, he felt, had promised him. His sister said:

‘Perhaps on Wednesday night it was, or early on Thursday morning, that he slipped into the old woman’s house to do what he had to do. And in his madness, Edward, he could not resist returning later to the scene of all the violence. I have read of this kind of thing. It has happened with other men.’

‘Come along now –’

‘Not at all unusual,’ said Emily. ‘Criminal history is not being made in Dunfarnham Avenue, if that’s what you’re thinking. He came and acted and returned, as others have in a similar way. D’you understand? D’you follow me?’

What was there to follow? Edward thought. What was there to understand except the facts from the past? – the quiet child of four and the son who was suddenly born in the house and allowed to go his way. The son growing up and his sport becoming the game he played with her, until her days were filled to the brim with his cunning smile and the baby tricks that everyone excused. Wasn’t the simple truth that those cruelties in their thousands had fallen like a blight upon her nature in the end, wrenching some bit of it out of shape, embittering the whole?

When Edward was seventeen their parents had died, one after the other within a month. He remembered still standing at his mother’s funeral, the second funeral of the pair, and seeing on his sister’s face the look that by now he had become familiar with, a look of reproach and sorrow. They had returned together to the dark house with the oatmeal wallpaper and Emily had said: ‘There was a woman in a red coat, Edward. Did you see her? I thought it odd, you know, a woman dressed in red at the grave of another woman.’ Edward had seen no woman in red and had said so at once, but Emily, making tea, had continued about this figure, and then had ceased to make tea and had stood quite still, gazing at him and talking at length, on and on, about the woman. ‘What should we do?’ she said. ‘Shouldn’t we try to find out a thing or two?’ And then, in a moment, she had seemed to forget about the woman and had poured boiling water into a china teapot that both of them had known as a family possession all their lives. Afterwards, in the back garden, Edward had examined in detail his early sins against his sister, and he had closed his eyes and prayed to God. He prayed for forgiveness and he prayed that she in turn might forgive him and he prayed that the damage might not mark her for ever. From the garden, that day, he returned to the house, having found his duty, to live there with her, in that cool and silent place, to keep an eye on her for ever, and to atone as best he might. God had spoken harshly to Edward in the garden, and God had spoken harshly since. Every morning and evening Edward Tripp prayed at length, kneeling by his bed, and during the day he prayed as well, seeing her before him, she who never now walked out into Dunfarnham Avenue, who dressed herself in black and forgot her beauty. No longer children, they were reticent now in what they said one to another; they were polite in their relationship as their thoughts filled the rooms of the house and were not spoken. She played her game in a vengeful way, acting a madness and saying to him in silence that this was the state she should be in, warning him that her bitter nature needed his tenderness. And Edward prayed and often wept, accepting the punishment as his due.

‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ said Edward now. ‘Mrs Mayben is quite all right.’

‘You have a callous mind,’ murmured Edward’s sister, looking at him. ‘You can know of a thing like this and stand there cutting ham and saying it doesn’t matter that a lunatic has walked in Dunfarnham Avenue and brought an old woman to a grim full-stop. It doesn’t matter what’s in that house this morning, is that it? Edward, she has not come back from church because today she’s never been there; because she’s been dead and rotting for eighty-four hours. We have buried our parents: we know about the deceased. They’re everywhere, Edward. Everywhere.’

‘Please,’ muttered Edward. ‘Please now, my dear.’

‘Death has danced through Dunfarnham Avenue and I have seen it, a man without socks or shirt, a man who shall fry in the deep fat of Hell. For you, Edward, must put a finger on him.’

‘There’s nothing I can do,’ said Edward, feeling his size, five foot four, as his sister towered in the room with him.

‘Cross the road,’ said Emily, ‘and go to the back of Mrs Mayben’s house. Climb through some small window and walk through the rooms until you come to the woman.’

Edward sighed. He would cross the road, he knew, as he had known when first she mentioned Mrs Mayben, and he would tell Mrs Mayben the truth because she had a face that was kind. He would not stand on her doorstep and make some lame excuse, as he had with all the others. He would not today prevaricate and pretend; he would not dishonour the woman by meting out dishonest treatment to her. ‘I will ease your mind,’ he said to his sister. ‘I’ll go and see that Mrs Mayben’s quite all right.’

‘Carry that ham knife with you, that you may cut her down. It’s wrong, I think, don’t you, that we should leave her as she is?’

‘Stand by the window,’ said Edward, already moving to the door, ‘and watch me as I cross the road to ring her bell. You’ll see her appear, my dear, and if you strain your ears you may even hear her voice.’

Emily nodded. She said:

‘Telephone the police when you have cut the cord. Dial 999 and ask to speak to a sergeant. Tell him the honest truth.’

Edward walked from the room and descended the stairs of the house. He opened the front door and crossed Dunfarnham Avenue, to the house of Mrs Mayben. He rang the bell, standing to one side so that his sister, from the dining-room window, would be able to see the old woman when she opened the door.

‘I was trying to repair this thing,’ said Mrs Mayben, holding out an electric fuse, ‘with a piece of silver paper. You’ve been sent to me, Mr Tripp. Come in.’

Edward entered the house of Mrs Mayben, carrying the ham knife. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘to bother you.’ But Mrs Mayben seemed not to question his presence on her property. ‘My husband could mend a fuse,’ she said, ‘with silver paper; yet I can make no hand of this.’ Edward placed the ham knife on a table in the hall and took the ineffective fuse from her hand. He said there was stuff called fuse wire, and Mrs Mayben led him to a cupboard where the electric meters were and in which he discovered the wire he sought. ‘I was cooking a chop,’ said Mrs Mayben, a woman of eighty-two, ‘when all the heat went off.’

‘I was cutting ham,’ said Edward, ‘and I was interrupted too.’ He repaired the fuse and replaced it in its socket. ‘Let’s go and see,’ said Mrs Mayben, and led the way to her kitchen. They watched the chop for a moment, still and uninviting in the centre of a frying pan on the electric stove. In a moment a noise came from it, a spurt of sizzling that indicated to them that Edward had been successful with the fuse. ‘You must take a glass of sherry,’ said Mrs Mayben. ‘I have one always myself, on Sundays.’

Edward followed the old woman to her sitting-room and sat down, since she wished that he should, in a comfortable armchair. She poured two glasses of Dry Fly sherry and then, holding hers formally in the air, she reminded Edward that she had lived in Dunfarnham Avenue for fourteen years and had never actually spoken to him before.

‘I see you feeding the birds,’ said Edward, ‘from your sitting-room window.’

‘Yes, I feed the local sparrows,’ said Mrs Mayben. ‘I do my bit.’

A silence fell between them, and then Mrs Mayben said:

‘It is odd to have lived opposite you for all these years and yet not to have spoken. I have seen you at the windows, as you have seen me. I have seen the lady too.’

Edward felt the blood moving into his face. He felt again a sickness in his stomach and thought his hands were shivering.

‘You have heard of me,’ he casually said. ‘I dare say you have. I am notorious in Dunfarnham Avenue.’

‘I know your name is Tripp,’ said Mrs Mayben. ‘I know no more.’

‘She is my sister, the woman you see in that house. She and I were born there, and now she never leaves it. I go out to do the shopping – well, you’ve seen me.’

‘I have seen you, certainly,’ said Mrs Mayben, ‘returning from the shops with a string bag full of this and that, potatoes and tins, lettuces in season. I do not pry, Mr Tripp, but I have seen you. Have more sherry?’

Edward accepted another glass. ‘I am known to every house in the road,’ he said. ‘Parents warn their children to cross to the other side when they see me coming. Men have approached me to issue rough warnings, using language I don’t much care to hear. Women move faster when Edward Tripp’s around.’

Mrs Mayben said that she was not deaf but wondered if she quite understood what Edward was talking about. ‘I don’t think I follow,’ she said. ‘I know nothing of all this. Like your sister, I don’t go out much. I’ve heard nothing from the people of Dunfarnham Avenue about you, Mr Tripp, or how it is you have become notorious.’

Edward said he had guessed that might be so, and added that one person at least in Dunfarnham Avenue should know the truth, on this Sabbath day.

‘It’s very kind of you to have repaired my fuse,’ said Mrs Mayben a little loudly. ‘I’m most obliged to you for that.’ She rose to her feet, but did not succeed in drawing her visitor to his. Edward sat on in the comfortable armchair holding his sherry glass. He said:

‘It is a hell for me, Dunfarnham Avenue, walking down it and feeling all eyes upon me. I have rung the bells of the houses. I have trumped up some story on the doorsteps, even on the doorsteps she cannot see from the dining-room window. She always knows if I have talked to someone and have been embarrassed: I come back in a peculiar state. I suffer from nerves, Mrs Mayben.’

‘Thank you,’ said Mrs Mayben more loudly still. ‘And how nice to meet you after all these years.’

‘I am going to tell you the truth,’ explained Edward, ‘as I have never told a soul in my life. It is an ugly business, Mrs Mayben. Perhaps you should sit down.’

‘But, Mr Tripp,’ protested the old woman, greatly puzzled, ‘what on earth is all this?’

‘Let me tell you,’ said Edward, and he told her of his sister standing at the top of the stairs while their mother broke to her the news that her two coloured story-books had been handed out to a beggar at the front door. ‘He’s only little,’ their mother had explained to Edward’s sister. ‘Forgive an imp, my dear.’ But Emily had not found it in her heart to forgive him and he had sniggered at the time.

‘I see,’ said Mrs Mayben.

‘I knew you would,’ cried Edward, smiling at her and nodding his head several times. ‘Of course you see. You have a kindly face; you feed the birds.’

‘Yes, but –’ said Mrs Mayben.

‘No,’ said Edward. ‘Listen.’

He told her about the woman in red at the funeral of their mother, the woman his sister had seen, and how he afterwards prayed in the back garden and had been sternly answered by Almighty God. He explained how he had come upon his duty then and had accepted all that was required of him.

‘It has nothing to do with the present,’ said Edward. ‘Do not see my sister and myself as we stand today, but as two children playing in that house across the road. I sinned against my sister, Mrs Mayben, every hour of my early life. She was stamped into the ground; she was mocked and taunted.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Mrs Mayben. ‘I’m sorry there have been these troubles in your life. It’s difficult to accept adversity and unhappiness, I know that.’

‘I was cutting ham,’ repeated Edward, ‘when my sister turned to me and said you had been murdered by a man in canvas shoes.’

‘Murdered?’ repeated Mrs Mayben, opening the door of her sitting-room and appearing to be nervous.

‘She’s affected by the past,’ said Edward. ‘You understand it?’

Mrs Mayben did not reply. Instead she said:

‘Mr Tripp, you have been most gallant. I wish you would now return to your home. I have my lunch to prepare and eat.’

‘ “I saw a dog today,” my sister said, “a vicious dog abroad in Dunfarnham Avenue. Go to the houses, Edward, and tell the mothers to look to their children until the dog is captured and set to rest.” She talked for seven hours, Mrs Mayben, about that dog, one day in 1951, and in the end she watched me move from house to house ringing the bells and warning the people about a vicious animal.’

‘This is no concern of mine. If your sister is unwell –’

‘My sister is not unwell. My sister pretends, exacting her revenge. God has told me, Mrs Mayben, to play my part in her pretended fantasies. I owe her the right to punish me, I quite understand that.’

Mrs Mayben shook her head. She said in a quiet voice that she was an old woman and did not understand much of what went on in the world. She did not mind, she said, Edward ringing her doorbell, but she wished now that he would leave her house since she had much to do.

‘I have never told anyone else,’ said Edward. ‘Years ago I said to myself that when I had to come to your house I would tell you the truth about everything. How I have grown up to be an understanding man, with the help of God. How the punishment must be shared between us – well, she has had hers. D’you see?’

Mrs Mayben shook her head and was about to speak again. Edward said:

‘ “There’s a smell of burning,” my sister said to me in 1955. “It comes from the house with the three Indian women in it.” She had woken me up to tell me that, for it was half past two in the morning. “They are women from the East,” she said. “They do not understand about precautions against fire as we do.” In my dressing-gown, Mrs Mayben, I walked the length of Dunfarnham Avenue and rang the bell of that house. “May I use your telephone?” I said to the Indian woman who opened the door, for I could think of nothing else to say to her. But she said no, I could not; and rightly pointed out that she could not be expected to admit into her house a man in pyjamas at half past two in the morning. I have never told anyone because it seemed to be a family thing. I have never told the truth. It is all pretence and silence between my sister and myself. We play a game.’

‘I must ask you to go now. I really must. An old woman like me can’t be expected to take a sudden interest. You must do the best you can.’

‘But I am telling you terrible things,’ cried Edward. ‘I killed my sister’s guinea-pig, I pulled her pansies by the roots. Not an hour passed in my early childhood, Mrs Mayben, but I did not seek to torment her into madness. I don’t know why I was given that role, but now I have the other since I’ve been guided towards it. She is quite sane, you know. She plays a part. I am rotten with guilt.’

Mrs Mayben clapped her hands sharply together. ‘I cannot have you coming here,’ she said, ‘telling me you are rotten with guilt, Mr Tripp. You are a man I have seen about the place with a string bag. I do not know you. I do not know your sister. It’s no concern of mine. Not at all.’

‘You have a kind face to live up to,’ said Edward, bowing and smiling in a sad way. ‘I have seen you feeding the sparrows, and I’ve often thought you have a kind face.’

‘Leave me alone, sir. Go from this house at once. You speak of madness and death, Mr Tripp; you tell me I’ve been murdered: I am unable to think about such things. My days are simple here.’

‘Since I was seventeen, Mrs Mayben, since the day of my mother’s funeral, I have lived alone with all this horror. Dunfarnham Avenue is the theatre of my embarrassment. You feed the sparrows, Mrs Mayben, yet for me it seems you have no crumb of comfort.’

‘I cannot be expected –’ began Mrs Mayben.

‘I am forty-one this month. She is four years older. See us as children, Mrs Mayben, for it’s absurd that I am here before you as a small man in a weekend suit. We are still children in that house, in our way: we have not grown up much. Surely you take an interest?’

‘You come here saying you are notorious, Mr Tripp –’

‘I am notorious, indeed I am, for God is a hard master. The house is dark and unchanged. Only the toys have gone. We eat the same kind of food.’

‘Go away,’ cried Mrs Mayben, her voice rising. ‘For the sake of God, go away from me, Mr Tripp. You come here talking madly and carrying a ham knife. Leave my house.’

Edward rose to his feet and with his head bowed to his chest he walked past Mrs Mayben into her hall. He picked up the ham knife from the table and moved towards the front door.

‘I’m sorry I can’t interest myself in you and your sister,’ said Mrs Mayben. ‘I am too old, you see, to take on new subjects.’

Edward did not say anything more. He did not look at Mrs Mayben, but into his mind came the picture of her leaning from her sitting-room window putting crumbs of bread on the window-sills for the birds. He walked from her house with that picture in his mind and he heard behind him the closing of her hall door.

Edward crossed Dunfarnham Avenue and entered the house he had always known, carrying the ham knife in his left hand. He moved slowly to the dining-room and saw that the table was neatly laid for lunch. The sliced ham had been placed by his sister on two blue-and-white plates. Salt and pepper were on the table, and a jar of pickles that he himself had bought, since they both relished them. She had washed a lettuce and cut up a few tomatoes and put chives and cucumber with the salad. ‘I’ve made the mustard,’ said Emily, smiling at him as he sat down, and he saw, as he expected, that the look had gone from her face. ‘We might repair the sitting-room carpet this afternoon,’ said Emily, ‘before that hole becomes too large. We could do it together.’

He nodded and murmured, and then, although he was awake and eating his lunch, Edward dreamed. It seemed to him that he was still in Mrs Mayben’s sitting-room and that she, changed in her attitude, was murmuring that of course she understood, and all the better because she was old. She placed a hand on Edward’s shoulder and said most softly that he had made her feel a mother again. He told her then, once more, of the pansies plucked from the flowerbed, and Mrs Mayben nodded and said he must not mind. He must suffer a bit, she said in a gentle way, since that was his due; he must feel his guilt around him and know that it was rightly there. In Edward’s dream Mrs Mayben’s voice was soothing, like a cool balm in the sunshine that came prettily through her sitting-room window. ‘My dear, do not weep,’ said the voice. ‘Do not cry, for soon there is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ The birds sang while the sun illuminated the room in which Mrs Mayben stood. ‘I will go now,’ said Edward in his dream, ‘since I have mended your fuse and had my sherry. We’ve had a lovely chat.’ He spoke in a peculiar voice and when he rose and walked away his feet made little sound as they struck the floor. ‘Come when you wish,’ invited Mrs Mayben with tears in her eyes. ‘Cross the road for comfort. It’s all you have to do.’

Edward chewed lettuce and ham and a piece of tomato, staring over his sister’s shoulder at the grey curtains that hung by the window. His eyes moved to his sister’s face and then moved downwards to the table, towards the knife that lay now on the polished wood. He thought about this knife that he had carried into a neighbour’s house, remembering its keen blade slicing through the flesh of a pig. He saw himself standing with the knife in his hand, and he heard a noise that might have been a cry from his sister’s throat. ‘I have played a trick on you,’ his own voice said, tumbling back to him over the years.

‘A pity if that carpet went,’ said Emily.

Edward looked at her, attempting to smile. He heard her add:

‘It’s always been there. All our lives, Edward.’ And then, without meaning to say it, Edward said:

‘She was harsh in how she looked. Too old to take on new subjects: she was making excuses.’

‘What?’ murmured Emily, and Edward sighed a little, eating more of the food she had prepared. Vaguely, he told her not to worry, and as he spoke he imagined them that afternoon, sitting on the floor of the other room stitching the carpet they had always known, not saying much except to comment perhaps upon the labour and upon the carpet. And as they worked together, he knew that he would go on praying, praying in his mind for the day to come: a day when old Mrs Mayben and all the people of Dunfarnham Avenue would see his sister walking lightly in the Kingdom of Heaven. In their presence she would smile as once she had smiled as a child, offering him her forgiveness while saying she was sorry too, and releasing in sumptuous glory all the years of imprisoned truth.

The Forty-seventh Saturday

Mavie awoke and remembered at once that it was Saturday. She lay for a while, alone with that thought, considering it and relishing it. Then she thought of details: the ingredients of a lunch, the cleaning of the kitchen floor, the tidying of her bedroom. She rose and reached for her dressing-gown. In the kitchen she found a small pad of paper and wrote in pencil these words: mackerel, parmesan cheese, garlic. Then she drew back the curtains, placed a filled kettle over a gas-jet and shook cornflakes on to a plate.

Some hours later, about midday, Mr McCarthy stood thoughtfully in a wine shop. He sighed, and then said:

‘Vin rosé. The larger size. Is it a litre? I don’t know what it’s called.’

‘Jumbo vin rose,’ the assistant murmured, ignoring the demands of the accented word. ‘Fourteen and seven.’

It was not a wine shop in which Mr McCarthy had ever before made a purchase. He paused, his hand inside his jacket, the tips of his fingers touching the leather of his wallet.

‘Fourteen and seven?’

The assistant, perceiving clearly that Mr McCarthy had arrested the action with which he had planned to draw money from within his clothes, took no notice. He blew on the glass of the bottle because the bottle was dusty. Whistling thickly with tongue and lips, he tore a piece of brown paper and proceeded to wrap with it. He placed the parcel in a carrier bag.

‘I thought it was ten shillings that size,’ Mr McCarthy said. ‘I have got it in another place for ten shillings.’

The assistant stared at him, incredulous.

‘I buy a lot of vin rosé,’ Mr McCarthy explained.

The assistant, a man of thirty-five with a face that was pock-marked, spoke no word but stared on. In his mind he was already retailing the incident to his superior when, an hour or so later, that person should return. He scrutinized Mr McCarthy, so that when the time came he might lend authority to his tale with an accurate description of the man who had demanded vin rosé and then had argued about the charged price. He saw before him a middle-aged man of medium height, with a hat and spectacles and a moustache.

‘Well, I haven’t time to argue.’ Mr McCarthy handed the man a pound note and received his change. ‘Threepence short, that is,’ he said; and the assistant explained:

‘The carrier bag. It’s necessary nowadays to charge. You understand?’

But Mr McCarthy lifted the wine out of the bag, saying that the brown paper wrapping was quite sufficient, and the assistant handed him a threepenny piece.

‘I take a taxi,’ Mr McCarthy explained. ‘It’s no hardship to carry.’

In the flat Mavie laid two mackerel on the smoking fat of the frying pan and sniffed the air. A plastic apron covered her navy-blue, well-worn suit. Her fair hair, recently released from curling-pins, quivered splendidly about her head; her bosom heaved as she drew the tasty air into her lungs. She walked from the stove to the kitchen table, seeking a glass of medium dry sherry that a minute or two previously she had poured and placed somewhere.

‘Ta-ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta,’ tuned Mr McCarthy in his taxi-cab, trying to put from his mind the extra four and sevenpence that he had been obliged to spend on the wine. ‘A basement place,’ he called to the driver. ‘You’ll know it by a motor-cycle and side-car parked outside.’ The driver made no response.

‘Motor-bike and side-car,’ repeated Mr McCarthy. ‘Parked by a lamp-post, number twenty-one. D’you understand?’

‘Twenty-one, Roeway Road,’ said the driver. ‘We’ll endeavour.’

Mr McCarthy closed his eyes and stretched his legs stiffly in front of him. He thought of Mavie, as was suitable at that moment. He saw her standing by the edge of the kitchen table, with a cigarette protruding from the left-hand extremity of her mouth, and the thumb and forefinger of her right hand grasping a glass which contained sherry and which bore, painted around it on the outside, two thin lines, one in red, the other in gold. It was the forty-seventh time that Mr McCarthy had made this midday journey, in a taxi-cab with a bottle of wine.

‘Doesn’t he want you to dress up?’ the girls had asked when first she had told them. ‘Pith helmets, chukka boots?’ Mavie had found that funny. She had laughed and said: ‘Dress up? Rather the opposite!’ But that was at the very beginning of the affair, before she had fallen so deeply in love with him.

‘Hullo.’ Mavie, holding the sherry glass before her, struck a pose in the basement kitchen. She had taken off her plastic apron.

‘Hullo, Mavie.’ He held out the bottle, his hat still upon his head, his soft raincoat creased and seeming unclean. ‘I’ve brought some wine. A little wine. I thought it would cheer us up.’ He had let himself in, for the door was always on the latch. He had clicked the Yale catch behind him, as he had long since learned she liked him to do, so that no disturbances might later take place. ‘I don’t care for disturbances,’ Mavie had said on the fifth occasion: an embarrassing time, when a coal-heaver, mistaking the basement for the basement next door, had walked into her bedroom with a sack on his back to find Mr McCarthy and herself playing about on the covers of her bed.

‘My, my, you’re looking sweet.’ He removed his hat and overcoat and cast his eye about for a corkscrew. It was his policy on these visits to prime himself beforehand with two measures of brandy and, having made his entry, to take an immediate glass of vin rosé. He did not care for Mavie’s sherry. British sherry was how the label described it; a qualification that put Mr McCarthy off.

‘I love that costume.’ He had said this before, referring to Mavie’s navy-blue coat and skirt. In reply she had once or twice pointed out that it had been, originally, the property of her sister Linda.

Mr McCarthy could smell the fish. He could sense the atmosphere rich with mackerel and the perfumed mist with which Mavie had sprayed the room.

‘I’m doing a nice fresh mackerel in a custard sauce,’ Mavie announced, moving towards the stove. She had been closely embraced by Mr McCarthy, who was now a little shaken, caught between the promise of the embrace and the thought of mackerel in a sauce. He imagined he must have heard incorrectly: he could not believe that the sauce was a custard one. ‘Custard!’ he said. ‘Custard?’

Mavie stirred the contents of a bowl. She remembered the first time: she had made an omelette; the mushrooms with which she had filled it had not cooked properly and Mr McCarthy had remarked upon the fact. She could have wept, watching him move the mushrooms to the side of his plate. ‘Have them on toast,’ she had cried. ‘I’ll cook them a bit more, love, and you can have them on a nice piece of toast.’ But he had shaken his head, and then, to show that all was well, he had taken her into his arms and had at once begun to unzip her skirt.

‘Custard?’ said Mr McCarthy again, aware of some revulsion in his bowels.

‘A garlic custard sauce. I read it in that column.’

‘My dear, I’d as soon have a lightly boiled egg. This wretched old trouble again.’

‘Oh, you poor thing! But fish is as easy to digest. A small helping. I’d have steamed had I known. You poor soul. Sit down, for heaven’s sake.’

He was thinking that he would vomit if he had to lift a single forkful of mackerel and garlic custard sauce to his lips. He would feel a retching at the back of his throat and before another second passed there would be an accident.

‘Love, I should have told you: I am off fish in any shape or form. The latest thing, I am on a diet of soft-boiled eggs. I’m a terrible trouble to you, Mavie love.’

She came to where he was sitting, drinking his way through the wine, and kissed him. She said not to worry about anything.

Mr McCarthy had told Mavie more lies than he had ever told anyone else. He had invented trouble with his stomach so that he could insist upon simple food, even though Mavie, forgetfully or hopefully, always cooked more elaborately. He had invented a Saturday appointment at four o’clock every week so that no dawdling would be required of him after he had exacted what he had come to look upon as his due. He had invented a wife and two children so that Mavie might not get ideas above her station.

‘Brush your teeth, Mavie, like a good girl.’ Mr McCarthy was being practical, fearful of the garlic. He spoke with confidence, knowing that Mavie would see it as reasonable that she should brush her teeth before the moments of love.

While she was in the bathroom he hummed a tune and reflected on his continuing good fortune. He drank more wine and when Mavie returned bade her drink some, too. It could only happen on Saturdays because the girl whom Mavie shared the flat with, Eithne, went away for the weekends.

‘Well, this is pleasant,’ said Mr McCarthy, sitting her on his knee, stroking her navy-blue clothes. She sat there, a little heavy for him, swinging her legs until her shoes slipped off.

This Saturday was Mavie’s birthday. Today she was twenty-seven, while Mr McCarthy remained at fifty-two. She had, the night before and for several other nights and days, considered the fact, wondering whether or not to make anything of it, wondering whether or not to let Mr McCarthy know. She had thought, the Saturday before, that it might seem a little pushing to say that it was her birthday in a week; it might seem that her words contained the suggestion that Mr McCarthy should arm himself with a present or should contrive to transform the day into a special occasion. She thought ecstatically of his arriving at the house with a wrapped box and sitting down and saying: ‘What lovely mackerel!’ and putting it to her then that since this was her twenty-seventh birthday he would arrange to spend the whole afternoon and the night as well. ‘We shall take to the West End later on,’ Mr McCarthy had said in Mavie’s mind, ‘and shall go to a show, that thing at the Palladium. I have the tickets in my wallet.’

‘What terrible old weather it is,’ said Mr McCarthy. ‘You wouldn’t know whether you’re coming or going.’

Mavie made a noise of agreement. She remembered other birthdays: a year she had been given a kite, the time that her cake, its flavour chosen by her, had not succeeded in the oven and had come to the table lumpy and grey, disguised with hundreds and thousands. She had cried, and her mother had picked up a teaspoon and rapped her knuckles. ‘After the show,’ said Mr McCarthy, ‘what about a spot of dinner in a little place I’ve heard of? And then liqueurs before we return in style to your little nest.’ As he spoke Mr McCarthy nuzzled her neck, and Mavie realized that he was, in fact, nuzzling her neck, though he was not speaking.

‘Today is a special day,’ said Mavie. ‘It’s a very special November day.’

Mr McCarthy laughed. ‘Every Saturday is a special day for me. Every Saturday is outlined in red on my heart.’ And he initiated some horseplay, which prevented Mavie from explaining.

Born beneath the sign of Scorpio, she was meant to be strong, fearless and enterprising. As a child she had often been in trouble, not because of naughtiness but because she had been dreamy about her work. She dreamed now, dominated by an image of Mr McCarthy rushing out for flowers. She saw him returning, blooms everywhere, saying he had telephoned to put off his Saturday appointment and had telephoned his home to say he had been called away on vital business. She felt his hands seeking the outline of her ribs, a thing he liked to do. They lay in silence for a while, and increasingly she felt low and sad.

‘How lovely you are,’ murmured Mr McCarthy. ‘Oh, Mavie, Mavie.’

She squeezed the length of pale flesh that was Mr McCarthy’s arm. She thought suddenly of the day the coal-heaver had arrived and felt her neck going red at the memory. She remembered the first day, rolling down her stockings and seeing her lover watching her, he already naked, standing still and seeming puzzled, near the electric fire. She had not been a virgin that day, but in the meanwhile she had not once been unfaithful to him.

‘Tell me you love me,’ Mavie cried, forgetting about her birthday, abruptly caught up in a new emotion. ‘Tell me now; it worries me sometimes.’

‘Of course it does. Of course I do. I’m all for you, Mavie, as I’ve said a thousand times.’

‘It’s not that I doubt you, honey, only sometimes between one Saturday and another I feel a depression. It’s impossible to say. I mean, it’s hard to put into words. Have you got a fag?’

Mr McCarthy shook his head on the pillow. She knew he did not smoke: why did she ask? It was like the custard sauce all over again. When he went to the trouble of inventing stomach trouble, you’d think she’d take the trouble to remember it.

‘You don’t smoke. I always ask and you always don’t say anything and I always remember then. Am I very irritating to you, honey? Tell me you love me. Tell me I’m not irritating to you.’

‘Mavie.’

‘You don’t like me today. I feel it. Jesus, I’m sorry about the mackerel. Tell the truth now, you don’t like me today.’

‘Oh yes, I do. I love you. I love you.’

‘You don’t like me.’ She spoke as though she had not heard his protestations; she spaced the words carefully, giving the same emphasis to each.

‘I love you,’ said Mr McCarthy. ‘Indeed I do.’

She shook her head, and rose and walked to the kitchen, where she found cigarettes and matches.

‘My Mavie,’ said Mr McCarthy from the bed, assuring himself that he was not finished yet, that he had not fully exacted his pleasurable due. ‘Mavie, my young heart,’ he murmured, and he began to laugh, thinking that merriment in the atmosphere would cheer matters up. ‘Shall I do a little dance for you?’

Mavie, cigarette aglow, pulled the sheets around her as Mr McCarthy vacated the bed and stood, his arms outstretched, on the centre of the floor. He began to dance, as on many occasions before he had danced, swaying about without much tempo. When first he had performed in this way for her he had explained that his dance was an expression of his passion, representing, so he said, roses and presents of jewellery and lamé gowns. Once Mr McCarthy had asked Mavie to take the braces off his trousers and strike him with them while he acted out his dance. He was guilty, he said, because in their life together there were neither roses nor jewels, nor restaurant dinners. But Mavie, shocked that he should feel like that, had refused his request, saying there was no cause for punishment. Sulkily, he had maintained otherwise, though he had not ever again suggested chastisement.

‘How’s that?’ said Mr McCarthy, ending with a gesture. Mavie said nothing. She, threw back the bed-clothes and Mr McCarthy strode jauntily towards her, a smile shaping beneath his moustache.

‘I often wonder about her,’ Mavie said a moment later. ‘It’s only natural. You can’t help that.’

Mr McCarthy said: ‘My wife’s a hard case. She’s well able to take care of herself. I’m on a leash where the wife is concerned.’

‘I don’t even know her name.’

‘Oh, Mavie, Mavie. Isn’t Mrs McCarthy enough?’

‘I’m jealous. I’m sorry, honey.’

‘No bother, Mavie. No bother, love.’

‘I see her as a black-haired woman. Tall and sturdy. Would you rather we didn’t speak of her?’

‘It would be easier, certainly.’

‘I’m sorry, honey.’

‘No bother.’

‘It’s only jealousy. The green-eyed monster.’

‘No need to be jealous, Mavie. No need at all. There’s no love lost between Mrs McCarthy and myself. We never go together nowadays.’

‘What sign is she under?’

‘Sign, love?’

‘Sagittarius? Leo? When’s her birthday?’

Mr McCarthy’s small eyes screwed up.

He looked through the lashes. He said:

‘The 29th of March.’

‘You make an occasion of it, do you? In the home, with the children around? You all give her presents, I suppose. Is there a special cake?’

‘The wife likes a jam-roll. She buys one at Lyons.’

‘And the children get her little gifts? Things from Woolworth’s?’

‘Something like that.’

‘When I was little I used to buy presents in Woolworth’s. My dad used to take me by the hand. I suppose you did, too. And your wife.’

‘Yes, love, I suppose so.’

‘I often think of your wife. I can’t help it. I see her in my mind’s eye.’

‘She’s a big woman,’ said Mr McCarthy meditatively. ‘Bigger than you, Mavie. A big, dark woman – more than that I won’t say.’

‘Oh, honey, I never meant to pry.’

‘It’s not prying I mind, Mavie. No, you’re not prying. It’s just that I don’t wish to soil the hour.’

When Mr McCarthy had said that, he heard the words echoing in his mind as words occasionally do. I don’t wish to soil the hour. Mavie was silent, feeling the words to be beautiful. I don’t wish to soil the hour, she thought. She drew her fingernails along the taut skin of Mr McCarthy’s thigh. ‘Oh God,’ said Mr McCarthy.

She knew that when he left, at twenty to four, she would sit alone in her dressing-gown and weep. She would wash the dirty dishes from lunch and she would wash his lovingly: she would wash and dry his egg-cup and be aware that it was his. She knew that that was absurd, but she knew that it would happen because it had happened before. She did not think it odd, as Mr McCarthy had often thought, that she, so pretty and still young, should love so passionately a man of fifty-two. She adored every shred of him; she longed for his presence and the touch of his hand. ‘Oh, my honey, my honey,’ cried Mavie, throwing her body on the body of Mr McCarthy and wrapping him up in her plump limbs.

At half past three Mr McCarthy, who had dropped into a light doze, woke to the awareness of a parched throat and a desire for tea. He sighed and caressed the fair hair that lay on the pillow beside him.

‘I’ll make a cup of tea,’ said Mavie.

‘Merci,’ whispered Mr McCarthy.

They drank tea in the kitchen while Mr McCarthy buttoned his waistcoat and drew on his socks. ‘I’ve bought a bow tie,’ he confided, ‘though I’m still a little shy in it. Maybe next week I’ll try it out on you.’

‘You could ask me anything under the sun and I’d do it for you. You could ask me anything, I love you that much.’

Hearing this, Mr McCarthy paused in the lacing of a boot. He thought of his braces, taut now about his shoulders; he thought of a foot fetish he had read about in the public library.

‘I love you that much,’ whispered Mavie.

‘And I you,’ said Mr McCarthy.

‘I dream of you at nights.’

‘I dream of you, my dear,’

Mavie sighed and looked over her shoulder, ill at ease. ‘I cannot think of you dreaming of me.’

‘I dream of you in my narrow twin bed, with that woman in the twin beside it.’

‘Don’t speak like that. Don’t talk to me of the bedroom.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I can’t bear the thought of the twin beds in that room. I’ve told you before, honey.’

‘Oh, Mavie, Mavie, if we could be together.’

‘I love you that much.’

For a moment there was silence in the kitchen. Then, having tilted his cup to drain it of tea, Mr McCarthy rose to go.

As he crossed the floor his eyes fell on a birthday card propped up on the mantelshelf. It registered with him at once that the day was Mavie’s birthday, and for a moment he considered remarking on that fact. Then he remembered the time and he kissed her on the head, his usual form of farewell. ‘The forty-seventh time,’ he murmured. ‘Today was the forty-seventh.’

She walked with him along the passage to the door of the flat. She watched him mount the basement steps and watched his legs move briskly by the railings above. His footsteps died away and she returned to the kitchen and poured herself a cup of tea. She thought of him keeping his Saturday appointment, a business appointment he had always called it, and afterwards returning on a bus to his suburb. She saw him entering a door, opening it with a latchkey, being greeted by a dog and two children and the big, dark woman who was his wife. The dog barked loudly and the woman shrilled abuse, upbraiding her husband for a misdemeanour or some piece of forgetfulness or some small deceit discovered. Marie could feel his tiredness as he stood in his own hall, the latchkey still poised between his fingers, like a man at bay. Her eyes closed as she held that image in her mind; tears slipped from beneath their lids.

The bus let Mr McCarthy down at an Odeon cinema. He moved rapidly, checking his watch against a brightly lit clock that hung out over a shop. He was reckoning as he walked that there was time to have another cup of tea, with a Danish pastry perhaps, because he felt quite peckish. Afterwards, as always on a Saturday, he’d go to the pictures.

The Ballroom of Romance

On Sundays, or on Mondays if he couldn’t make it and often he couldn’t, Sunday being his busy day, Canon O’Connell arrived at the farm in order to hold a private service with Bridie’s father, who couldn’t get about any more, having had a leg amputated after gangrene had set in. They’d had a pony and cart then and Bridie’s mother had been alive: it hadn’t been difficult for the two of them to help her father on to the cart in order to make the journey to Mass. But two years later the pony had gone lame and eventually had to be destroyed; not long after that her mother had died. ‘Don’t worry about it at all,’ Canon O’Connell had said, referring to the difficulty of transporting her father to Mass. ‘I’ll slip up by the week, Bridie.’

The milk lorry called daily for the single churn of milk, Mr Driscoll delivered groceries and meal in his van, and took away the eggs that Bridie had collected during the week. Since Canon O’Connell had made his offer, in 1953, Bridie’s father hadn’t left the farm.

As well as Mass on Sundays and her weekly visits to a wayside dance-hall Bridie went shopping once every month, cycling to the town early on a Friday afternoon. She bought things for herself, material for a dress, knitting wool, stockings, a newspaper, and paper-backed Wild West novels for her father. She talked in the shops to some of the girls she’d been at school with, girls who had married shop-assistants or shopkeepers, or had become assistants themselves. Most of them had families of their own by now. ‘You’re lucky to be peaceful in the hills,’ they said to Bridie, ‘instead of stuck in a hole like this.’ They had a tired look, most of them, from pregnancies and their efforts to organize and control their large families.

As she cycled back to the hills on a Friday Bridie often felt that they truly envied her her life, and she found it surprising that they should do so. If it hadn’t been for her father she’d have wanted to work in the town also, in the tinned-meat factory maybe, or in a shop. The town had a cinema called the Electric, and a fish-and-chip shop where people met at night, eating chips out of newspaper on the pavement outside. In the evenings, sitting in the farmhouse with her father, she often thought about the town, imagining the shop-windows lit up to display their goods and the sweet-shops still open so that people could purchase chocolates or fruit to take with them to the Electric cinema. But the town was eleven miles away, which was too far to cycle, there and back, for an evening’s entertainment.

‘It’s a terrible thing for you, girl,’ her father used to say, genuinely troubled, ‘tied up to a one-legged man.’ He would sigh heavily, hobbling back from the fields, where he managed as best he could. ‘If your mother hadn’t died,’ he’d say, not finishing the sentence.

If her mother hadn’t died her mother could have looked after him and the scant acres he owned, her mother could somehow have lifted the milk-churn on to the collection platform and attended to the few hens and the cows. ‘I’d be dead without the girl to assist me,’ she’d heard her father saying to Canon O’Connell, and Canon O’Connell replied that he was certainly lucky to have her.

‘Amn’t I as happy here as anywhere?’ she’d say herself, but her father knew she was pretending and was saddened because the weight of circumstances had so harshly interfered with her life.

Although her father still called her a girl, Bridie was thirty-six. She was tall and strong: the skin of her fingers and her palms were stained, and harsh to touch. The labour they’d experienced had found its way into them, as though juices had come out of vegetation and pigment out of soil: since childhood she’d torn away the rough scotch grass that grew each spring among her father’s mangolds and sugar beet; since childhood she’d harvested potatoes in August, her hands daily rooting in the ground she loosened and turned. Wind had toughened the flesh of her face, sun had browned it; her neck and nose were lean, her lips touched with early wrinkles.

But on Saturday nights Bridie forgot the scotch grass and the soil. In different dresses she cycled to the dance-hall, encouraged to make the journey by her father. ‘Doesn’t it do you good, girl?’ he’d say, as though he imagined she begrudged herself the pleasure. ‘Why wouldn’t you enjoy yourself?’ She’d cook him his tea and then he’d settle down with the wireless, or maybe a Wild West novel. In time, while still she danced, he’d stoke the fire up and hobble his way upstairs to bed.

The dance-hall, owned by Mr Justin Dwyer, was miles from anywhere, a lone building by the roadside with treeless boglands all around and a gravel expanse in front of it. On pink pebbled cement its title was painted in an azure blue that matched the depth of the background shade yet stood out well, unfussily proclaiming The Ballroom of Romance. Above these letters four coloured bulbs – in red, green, orange and mauve – were lit at appropriate times, an indication that the evening rendezvous was open for business. Only the façade of the building was pink, the other walls being a more ordinary grey. And inside, except for pink swing-doors, everything was blue.

On Saturday nights Mr Justin Dwyer, a small, thin man, unlocked the metal grid that protected his property and drew it back, creating an open mouth from which music would later pour. He helped his wife to carry crates of lemonade and packets of biscuits from their car, and then took up a position in the tiny vestibule between the drawn-back grid and the pink swing-doors. He sat at a card-table, with money and tickets spread out before him. He’d made a fortune, people said: he owned other ball-rooms also.

People came on bicycles or in old motor-cars, country people like Bridie from remote hill farms and villages. People who did not often see other people met there, girls and boys, men and women. They paid Mr Dwyer and passed into his dance-hall, where shadows were cast on pale-blue walls and light from a crystal bowl was dim. The band, known as the Romantic Jazz Band, was composed of clarinet, drums and piano. The drummer sometimes sang.

Bridie had been going to the dance-hall since first she left the Presentation Nuns, before her mother’s death. She didn’t mind the journey, which was seven miles there and seven back: she’d travelled as far every day to the Presentation Nuns on the same bicycle, which had once been the property of her mother, an old Rudge purchased originally in 1936. On Sundays she cycled six miles to Mass, but she never minded either: she’d grown quite used to all that.

‘How’re you, Bridie?’ inquired Mr Justin Dwyer when she arrived in a new scarlet dress one autumn evening. She said she was all right and in reply to Mr Dwyer’s second query she said that her father was all right also. ‘I’ll go up one of these days,’ promised Mr Dwyer, which was a promise he’d been making for twenty years.

She paid the entrance fee and passed through the pink swing-doors. The Romantic Jazz Band was playing a familiar melody of the past, ‘The Destiny Waltz’. In spite of the band’s title, jazz was not ever played in the ballroom: Mr Dwyer did not personally care for that kind of music, nor had he cared for various dance movements that had come and gone over the years. Jiving, rock and roll, twisting and other such variations had all been resisted by Mr Dwyer, who believed that a ballroom should be, as much as possible, a dignified place. The Romantic Jazz Band consisted of Mr Maloney, Mr Swanton, and Dano Ryan on drums. They were three middle-aged men who drove out from the town in Mr Maloney’s car, amateur performers who were employed otherwise by the tinned-meat factory, the Electricity Supply Board and the County Council.

‘How’re you, Bridie?’ inquired Dano Ryan as she passed him on her way to the cloakroom. He was idle for a moment with his drums, ‘The Destiny Waltz’ not calling for much attention from him.

‘I’m all right, Dano,’ she said. ‘Are you fit yourself? Are the eyes better?’ The week before he’d told her that he’d developed a watering of the eyes that must have been some kind of cold or other. He’d woken up with it in the morning and it had persisted until the afternoon: it was a new experience, he’d told her, adding that he’d never had a day’s illness or discomfort in his life.

‘I think I need glasses,’ he said now, and as she passed into the cloakroom she imagined him in glasses, repairing the roads, as he was employed to do by the County Council. You hardly ever saw a road-mender with glasses, she reflected, and she wondered if all the dust that was inherent in his work had perhaps affected his eyes.

‘How’re you, Bridie?’ a girl called Eenie Mackie said in the cloakroom, a girl who’d left the Presentation Nuns only a year ago.

‘That’s a lovely dress, Eenie,’ Bridie said. ‘Is it nylon, that?’

‘Tricel actually. Drip-dry.’

Bridie took off her coat and hung it on a hook. There was a small wash-basin in the cloakroom above which hung a discoloured oval mirror. Used tissues and pieces of cotton-wool, cigarette-butts and matches covered the concrete floor. Lengths of green-painted timber partitioned off a lavatory in a corner.

‘Jeez, you’re looking great, Bridie,’ Madge Dowding remarked, waiting for her turn at the mirror. She moved towards it as she spoke, taking off a pair of spectacles before endeavouring to apply make-up to the lashes of her eye. She stared myopically into the oval mirror, humming while the other girls became restive.

‘Will you hurry up, for God’s sake!’ shouted Eenie Mackie. ‘We’re standing here all night, Madge.’

Madge Dowding was the only one who was older than Bridie. She was thirty-nine, although often she said she was younger. The girls sniggered about that, saying that Madge Dowding should accept her condition – her age and her squint and her poor complexion – and not make herself ridiculous going out after men. What man would be bothered with the like of her anyway? Madge Dowding would do better to give herself over to do Saturday-night work for the Legion of Mary: wasn’t Canon O’Connell always looking for aid?

‘Is that fellow there?’ she asked now, moving away from the mirror. ‘The guy with the long arms. Did anyone see him outside?’

‘He’s dancing with Cat Bolger,’ one of the girls replied. ‘She has herself glued to him.’

‘Lover boy,’ remarked Patty Byrne, and everyone laughed because the person referred to was hardly a boy any more, being over fifty it was said, a bachelor who came only occasionally to the dance-hall.

Madge Dowding left the cloakroom rapidly, not bothering to pretend she wasn’t anxious about the conjunction of Cat Bolger and the man with the long arms. Two sharp spots of red had come into her cheeks, and when she stumbled in her haste the girls in the cloakroom laughed. A younger girl would have pretended to be casual.

Bridie chatted, waiting for the mirror. Some girls, not wishing to be delayed, used the mirrors of their compacts. Then in twos and threes, occasionally singly, they left the cloakroom and took their places on upright wooden chairs at one end of the dance-hall, waiting to be asked to dance. Mr Maloney, Mr Swanton and Dano Ryan played ‘Harvest Moon’ and ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now’ and ‘I’ll Be Around’.

Bridie danced. Her father would be falling asleep by the fire; the wireless, tuned in to Radio Eireann, would be murmuring in the background. Already he’d have listened to Faith and Order and Spot the Talent. His Wild West novel, Three Rode Fast by Jake Matall, would have dropped from his single knee on to the flagged floor. He would wake with a jerk as he did every night and, forgetting what night it was, might be surprised not to see her, for usually she was sitting there at the table, mending clothes or washing eggs. ‘Is it time for the news?’ he’d automatically say.

Dust and cigarette smoke formed a haze beneath the crystal bowl, feet thudded, girls shrieked and laughed, some of them dancing together for want of a male partner. The music was loud, the musicians had taken off their jackets. Vigorously they played a number of tunes from State Fair and then, more romantically, ‘Just One of Those Things’. The tempo increased for a Paul Jones, after which Bridie found herself with a youth who told her he was saving up to emigrate, the nation in his opinion being finished. ‘I’m up in the hills with the uncle,’ he said, ‘labouring fourteen hours a day. Is it any life for a young fellow?’ She knew his uncle, a hill farmer whose stony acres were separated from her father’s by one other farm only. ‘He has me gutted with work,’ the youth told her. ‘Is there sense in it at all, Bridie?’

At ten o’clock there was a stir, occasioned by the arrival of three middle-aged bachelors who’d cycled over from Carey’s public house. They shouted and whistled, greeting other people across the dancing area. They smelt of stout and sweat and whiskey.

Every Saturday at just this time they arrived, and, having sold them their tickets, Mr Dwyer folded up his card-table and locked the tin box that held the evening’s takings: his ballroom was complete.

‘How’re you, Bridie?’ one of the bachelors, known as Bowser Egan, inquired. Another one, Tim Daly, asked Patty Byrne how she was. ‘Will we take the floor?’ Eyes Horgan suggested to Madge Dowding, already pressing the front of his navy-blue suit against the net of her dress. Bridie danced with Bowser Egan, who said she was looking great.

The bachelors would never marry, the girls of the dance-hall considered: they were wedded already, to stout and whiskey and laziness, to three old mothers somewhere up in the hills. The man with the long arms didn’t drink but he was the same in all other ways: he had the same look of a bachelor, a quality in his face.

‘Great,’ Bowser Egan said, feather-stepping in an inaccurate and inebriated manner. ‘You’re a great little dancer, Bridie.’

‘Will you lay off that!’ cried Madge Dowding, her voice shrill above the sound of the music. Eyes Horgan had slipped two fingers into the back of her dress and was now pretending they’d got there by accident. He smiled blearily, his huge red face streaming with perspiration, the eyes which gave him his nickname protuberant and bloodshot.

‘Watch your step with that one,’ Bowser Egan called out, laughing so that spittle sprayed on to Bridie’s face. Eenie Mackie, who was also dancing near the incident, laughed also and winked at Bridie. Dano Ryan left his drums and sang. ‘Oh, how I miss your gentle kiss,’ he crooned, ‘and long to hold you tight.’

Nobody knew the name of the man with the long arms. The only words he’d ever been known to speak in the Ballroom of Romance were the words that formed his invitation to dance. He was a shy man who stood alone when he wasn’t performing on the dance-floor. He rode away on his bicycle afterwards, not saying good-night to anyone.

‘Cat has your man leppin’ tonight,’ Tim Daly remarked to Patty Byrne, for the liveliness that Cat Bolger had introduced into foxtrot and waltz was noticeable.

‘I think of you only,’ sang Dano Ryan. ‘Only wishing, wishing you were by my side.’

Dano Ryan would have done, Bridie often thought, because he was a different kind of bachelor: he had a lonely look about him, as if he’d become tired of being on his own. Every week she thought he would have done, and during the week her mind regularly returned to that thought. Dano Ryan would have done because she felt he wouldn’t mind coming to live in the farmhouse while her one-legged father was still about the place. Three could live as cheaply as two where Dano Ryan was concerned because giving up the wages he earned as a road-worker would be balanced by the saving made on what he paid for lodgings. Once, at the end of an evening, she’d pretended that there was a puncture in the back wheel of her bicycle and he’d concerned himself with it while Mr Maloney and Mr Swanton waited for him in Mr Maloney’s car. He’d blown the tyre up with the car pump and had said he thought it would hold.

It was well known in the dance-hall that she fancied her chances with Dano Ryan. But it was well known also that Dano Ryan had got into a set way of life and had remained in it for quite some years. He lodged with a widow called Mrs Griffin and Mrs Griffin’s mentally affected son, in a cottage on the outskirts of the town. He was said to be good to the affected child, buying him sweets and taking him out for rides on the crossbar of his bicycle. He gave an hour or two of his time every week to the Church of Our Lady Queen of Heaven, and he was loyal to Mr Dwyer. He performed in the two other rural dance-halls that Mr Dwyer owned, rejecting advances from the town’s more sophisticated dance-hall, even though it was more conveniently situated for him and the fee was more substantial than that paid by Mr Dwyer. But Mr Dwyer had discovered Dano Ryan and Dano had not forgotten it, just as Mr Maloney and Mr Swanton had not forgotten their discovery by Mr Dwyer either.

‘Would we take a lemonade?’ Bowser Egan suggested. ‘And a packet of biscuits, Bridie?’

No alcoholic liquor was ever served in the Ballroom of Romance, the premises not being licensed for this added stimulant. Mr Dwyer in fact had never sought a licence for any of his premises, knowing that romance and alcohol were difficult commodities to mix, especially in a dignified ballroom. Behind where the girls sat on the wooden chairs Mr Dwyer’s wife, a small stout woman, served the bottles of lemonade, with straws, and the biscuits, and crisps. She talked busily while doing so, mainly about the turkeys she kept. She’d once told Bridie that she thought of them as children.

‘Thanks,’ Bridie said, and Bowser Egan led her to the trestle table. Soon it would be the intermission: soon the three members of the band would cross the floor also for refreshment. She thought up questions to ask Dano Ryan.

When first she’d danced in the Ballroom of Romance, when she was just sixteen, Dano Ryan had been there also, four years older than she was, playing the drums for Mr Maloney as he played them now. She’d hardly noticed him then because of his not being one of the dancers: he was part of the ballroom’s scenery, like the trestle table and the lemonade bottles, and Mrs Dwyer and Mr Dwyer. The youths who’d danced with her then in their Saturday-night blue suits had later disappeared into the town, or to Dublin or Britain, leaving behind them those who became the middle-aged bachelors of the hills. There’d been a boy called Patrick Grady whom she had loved in those days. Week after week she’d ridden away from the Ballroom of Romance with the image of his face in her mind, a thin face, pale beneath black hair. It had been different, dancing with Patrick Grady, and she’d felt that he found it different dancing with her, although he’d never said so. At night she’d dreamed of him and in the daytime too, while she helped her mother in the kitchen or her father with the cows. Week by week she’d returned to the ballroom, delighting in its pink façade and dancing in the arms of Patrick Grady. Often they’d stood together drinking lemonade, not saying anything, not knowing what to say. She knew he loved her, and she believed then that he would lead her one day from the dim, romantic ballroom, from its blueness and its pinkness and its crystal bowl of light and its music. She believed he would lead her into sunshine, to the town and the Church of Our Lady Queen of Heaven, to marriage and smiling faces. But someone else had got Patrick Grady, a girl from the town who’d never danced in the wayside ballroom. She’d scooped up Patrick Grady when he didn’t have a chance.

Bridie had wept, hearing that. By night she’d lain in her bed in the farmhouse, quietly crying, the tears rolling into her hair and making the pillow damp. When she woke in the early morning the thought was still naggingly with her and it remained with her by day, replacing her daytime dreams of happiness. Someone told her later on that he’d crossed to Britain, to Wolverhampton, with the girl he’d married, and she imagined him there, in a place she wasn’t able properly to visualize, labouring in a factory, his children being born and acquiring the accent of the area. The Ballroom of Romance wasn’t the same without him, and when no one else stood out for her particularly over the years and when no one offered her marriage, she found herself wondering about Dano Ryan. If you couldn’t have love, the next best thing was surely a decent man.

Bowser Egan hardly fell into that category, nor did Tim Daly. And it was plain to everyone that Cat Bolger and Madge Dowding were wasting their time over the man with the long arms. Madge Dowding was already a figure of fun in the ballroom, the way she ran after the bachelors; Cat Bolger would end up the same if she wasn’t careful. One way or another it wasn’t difficult to be a figure of fun in the ballroom, and you didn’t have to be as old as Madge Dowding: a girl who’d just left the Presentation Nuns had once asked Eyes Horgan what he had in his trouser pocket and he told her it was a penknife. She’d repeated this afterwards in the cloakroom, how she’d requested Eyes Horgan not to dance so close to her because his penknife was sticking into her. ‘Jeez, aren’t you the right baby!’ Patty Byrne had shouted delightedly; everyone had laughed, knowing that Eyes Horgan only came to the ballroom for stuff like that. He was no use to any girl.

‘Two lemonades, Mrs Dwyer,’ Bowser Egan said, ‘and two packets of Kerry Creams. Is Kerry Creams all right, Bridie?’

She nodded, smiling. Kerry Creams would be fine, she said.

‘Well, Bridie, isn’t that the great outfit you have!’ Mrs Dwyer remarked. ‘Doesn’t the red suit her, Bowser?’

By the swing-doors stood Mr Dwyer, smoking a cigarette that he held cupped in his left hand. His small eyes noted all developments. He had been aware of Madge Dowding’s anxiety when Eyes Horgan had inserted two fingers into the back opening of her dress. He had looked away, not caring for the incident, but had it developed further he would have spoken to Eyes Horgan, as he had on other occasions. Some of the younger lads didn’t know any better and would dance very close to their partners, who generally were too embarrassed to do anything about it, being young themselves. But that, in Mr Dwyer’s opinion, was a different kettle of fish altogether because they were decent young lads who’d in no time at all be doing a steady line with a girl and would end up as he had himself with Mrs Dwyer, in the same house with her, sleeping in a bed with her, firmly married. It was the middle-aged bachelors who required the watching: they came down from the hills like mountain goats, released from their mammies and from the smell of animals and soil. Mr Dwyer continued to watch Eyes Horgan, wondering how drunk he was.

Dano Ryan’s song came to an end, Mr Swanton laid down his clarinet, Mr Maloney rose from the piano. Dano Ryan wiped sweat from his face and the three men slowly moved towards Mrs Dwyer’s trestle table.

‘Jeez, you have powerful legs,’ Eyes Horgan whispered to Madge Dowding, but Madge Dowding’s attention was on the man with the long arms, who had left Cat Bolger’s side and was proceeding in the direction of the men’s lavatory. He never took refreshments. She moved, herself, towards the men’s lavatory, to take up a position outside it, but Eyes Horgan followed her. ‘Would you take a lemonade, Madge?’ he asked. He had a small bottle of whiskey on him: if they went into a corner they could add a drop of it to the lemonade. She didn’t drink spirits, she reminded him, and he went away.

‘Excuse me a minute,’ Bowser Egan said, putting down his bottle of lemonade. He crossed the floor to the lavatory. He too, Bridie knew, would have a small bottle of whiskey on him. She watched while Dano Ryan, listening to a story Mr Maloney was telling, paused in the centre of the ballroom, his head bent to hear what was being said. He was a big man, heavily made; with black hair that was slightly touched with grey, and big hands. He laughed when Mr Maloney came to the end of his story and then bent his head again, in order to listen to a story told by Mr Swanton.

‘Are you on your own, Bridie?’ Cat Bolger asked, and Bridie said she was waiting for Bowser Egan. ‘I think I’ll have a lemonade,’ Cat Bolger said.

Younger boys and girls stood with their arms still around one another, queuing up for refreshments. Boys who hadn’t danced at all, being nervous because they didn’t know any steps, stood in groups, smoking and making jokes. Girls who hadn’t been danced with yet talked to one another, their eyes wandering. Some of them sucked at straws in lemonade bottles.

Bridie, still watching Dano Ryan, imagined him wearing the glasses he’d referred to, sitting in the farmhouse kitchen, reading one of her father’s Wild West novels. She imagined the three of them eating a meal she’d prepared, fried eggs and rashers and fried potato-cakes, and tea and bread and butter and jam, brown bread and soda and shop bread. She imagined Dano Ryan leaving the kitchen in the morning to go out to the fields in order to weed the mangolds, and her father hobbling off behind him, and the two men working together. She saw hay being cut, Dano Ryan with the scythe that she’d learned to use herself, her father using a rake as best he could. She saw herself, because of the extra help, being able to attend to things in the farmhouse, things she’d never had time for because of the cows and the hens and the fields. There were bedroom curtains that needed repairing where the net had ripped, and wallpaper that had become loose and needed to be stuck up with flour paste. The scullery required whitewashing.

The night he’d blown up the tyre of her bicycle she’d thought he was going to kiss her. He’d crouched on the ground in the darkness with his ear to the tyre, listening for escaping air. When he could hear none he’d straightened up and said he thought she’d be all right on the bicycle. His face had been quite close to hers and she’d smiled at him. At that moment, unfortunately, Mr Maloney had blown an impatient blast on the horn of his motor-car.

Often she’d been kissed by Bowser Egan, on the nights when he insisted on riding part of the way home with her. They had to dismount in order to push their bicycles up a hill and the first time he’d accompanied her he’d contrived to fall against her, steadying himself by putting a hand on her shoulder. The next thing she was aware of was the moist quality of his lips and the sound of his bicycle as it clattered noisily on the road. He’d suggested then, regaining his breath, that they should go into a field.

That was nine years ago. In the intervening passage of time she’d been kissed as well, in similar circumstances, by Eyes Horgan and Tim Daly. She’d gone into fields with them and permitted them to put their arms about her while heavily they breathed. At one time or another she had imagined marriage with one or other of them, seeing them in the farmhouse with her father, even though the fantasies were unlikely.

Bridie stood with Cat Bolger, knowing that it would be some time before Bowser Egan came out of the lavatory. Mr Maloney, Mr Swanton and Dano Ryan approached, Mr Maloney insisting that he would fetch three bottles of lemonade from the trestle table.

‘You sang the last one beautifully,’ Bridie said to Dano Ryan. ‘Isn’t it a beautiful song?’

Mr Swanton said it was the finest song ever written, and Cat Bolger said she preferred ‘Danny Boy’, which in her opinion was the finest song ever written.

‘Take a suck of that,’ said Mr Maloney, handing Dano Ryan and Mr Swanton bottles of lemonade. ‘How’s Bridie tonight? Is your father well, Bridie?’

Her father was all right, she said.

‘I hear they’re starting a cement factory,’ said Mr Maloney. ‘Did anyone hear talk of that? They’re after striking some commodity in the earth that makes good cement. Ten feet down, over at Kilmalough.’

‘It’ll bring employment,’ said Mr Swanton. ‘It’s employment that’s necessary in this area.’

‘Canon O’Connell was on about it,’ Mr Maloney said. ‘There’s Yankee money involved.’

‘Will the Yanks come over?’ inquired Cat Bolger. ‘Will they run it themselves, Mr Maloney?’

Mr Maloney, intent on his lemonade, didn’t hear the questions and Cat Bolger didn’t repeat them.

‘There’s stuff called Optrex,’ Bridie said quietly to Dano Ryan, ‘that my father took the time he had a cold in his eyes. Maybe Optrex would settle the watering, Dano.’

‘Ah sure, it doesn’t worry me that much –’

‘It’s terrible, anything wrong with the eyes. You wouldn’t want to take a chance. You’d get Optrex in a chemist, Dano, and a little bowl with it so that you can bathe the eyes.’

Her father’s eyes had become red-rimmed and unsightly to look at. She’d gone into Riordan’s Medical Hall in the town and had explained what the trouble was, and Mr Riordan had recommended Optrex. She told this to Dano Ryan, adding that her father had had no trouble with his eyes since. Dano Ryan nodded.

‘Did you hear that, Mrs Dwyer?’ Mr Maloney called out. ‘A cement factory for Kilmalough.’

Mrs Dwyer wagged her head, placing empty bottles in a crate. She’d heard references to the cement factory, she said: it was the best news for a long time.

‘Kilmalough won’t know itself,’ her husband commented, joining her in her task with the empty lemonade bottles.

‘’Twill bring prosperity certainly,’ said Mr Swanton. ‘I was saying just there, Justin, that employment’s what’s necessary.’

‘Sure, won’t the Yanks –’ began Cat Bolger, but Mr Maloney interrupted her.

‘The Yanks’ll be in at the top, Cat, or maybe not here at all – maybe only inserting money into it. It’ll be local labour entirely.’

‘You’ll not marry a Yank, Cat,’ said Mr Swanton, loudly laughing. ‘You can’t catch those fellows.’

‘Haven’t you plenty of homemade bachelors?’ suggested Mr Maloney. He laughed also, throwing away the straw he was sucking through and tipping the bottle into his mouth. Cat Bolger told him to get on with himself. She moved towards the men’s lavatory and took up a position outside it, not speaking to Madge Dowding, who was still standing there.

‘Keep a watch on Eyes Horgan,’ Mrs Dwyer warned her husband, which was advice she gave him at this time every Saturday night, knowing that Eyes Horgan was drinking in the lavatory. When he was drunk Eyes Horgan was the most difficult of the bachelors.

‘I have a drop of it left, Dano,’ Bridie said quietly. ‘I could bring it over on Saturday. The eye stuff.’

‘Ah, don’t worry yourself, Bridie –’

‘No trouble at all. Honestly now –’

‘Mrs Griffin has me fixed up for a test with Dr Cready. The old eyes are no worry, only when I’m reading the paper or at the pictures. Mrs Griffin says I’m only straining them due to lack of glasses.’

He looked away while he said that, and she knew at once that Mrs Griffin was arranging to marry him. She felt it instinctively: Mrs Griffin was going to marry him because she was afraid that if he moved away from her cottage, to get married to someone else, she’d find it hard to replace him with another lodger who’d be good to her affected son. He’d become a father to Mrs Griffin’s affected son, to whom already he was kind. It was a natural outcome, for Mrs Griffin had all the chances, seeing him every night and morning and not having to make do with weekly encounters in a ballroom.

She thought of Patrick Grady, seeing in her mind his pale, thin face. She might be the mother of four of his children now, or seven or eight maybe. She might be living in Wolverhampton, going out to the pictures in the evenings, instead of looking after a one-legged man. If the weight of circumstances hadn’t intervened she wouldn’t be standing in a wayside ballroom, mourning the marriage of a road-mender she didn’t love. For a moment she thought she might cry, standing there thinking of Patrick Grady in Wolverhampton. In her life, on the farm and in the house, there was no place for tears. Tears were a luxury, like flowers would be in the fields where the mangolds grew, or fresh whitewash in the scullery. It wouldn’t have been fair ever to have wept in the kitchen while her father sat listening to Spot the Talent: her father had more right to weep, having lost a leg. He suffered in a greater way, yet he remained kind and concerned for her.

In the Ballroom of Romance she felt behind her eyes the tears that it would have been improper to release in the presence of her father. She wanted to let them go, to feel them streaming on her cheeks, to receive the sympathy of Dano Ryan and of everyone else. She wanted them all to listen to her while she told them about Patrick Grady who was now in Wolverhampton and about the death of her mother and her own life since. She wanted Dano Ryan to put his arm around her so that she could lean her head against it. She wanted him to look at her in his decent way and to stroke with his road-mender’s fingers the backs of her hands. She might wake in a bed with him and imagine for a moment that he was Patrick Grady. She might bathe his eyes and pretend.

‘Back to business,’ said Mr Maloney, leading his band across the floor to their instruments.

‘Tell your father I was asking for him,’ Dano Ryan said. She smiled and she promised, as though nothing had happened, that she would tell her father that.

She danced with Tim Daly and then again with the youth who’d said he intended to emigrate. She saw Madge Dowding moving swiftly towards the man with the long arms as he came out of the lavatory, moving faster than Cat Bolger. Eyes Horgan approached Cat Bolger. Dancing with her, he spoke earnestly, attempting to persuade her to permit him to ride part of the way home with her. He was unaware of the jealousy that was coming from her as she watched Madge Dowding holding close to her the man with the long arms while they performed a quickstep. Cat Bolger was in her thirties also.

‘Get away out of that,’ said Bowser Egan, cutting in on the youth who was dancing with Bridie. ‘Go home to your mammy, boy.’ He took her into his arms, saying again that she was looking great tonight. ‘Did you hear about the cement factory?’ he said. ‘Isn’t it great for Kilmalough?’

She agreed. She said what Mr Swanton and Mr Maloney had said: that the cement factory would bring employment to the neighbourhood.

‘Will I ride home with you a bit, Bridie?’ Bowser Egan suggested, and she pretended not to hear him. ‘Aren’t you my girl, Bridie, and always have been?’ he said, a statement that made no sense at all.

His voice went on whispering at her, saying he would marry her tomorrow only his mother wouldn’t permit another woman in the house. She knew what it was like herself, he reminded her, having a parent to look after: you couldn’t leave them to rot, you had to honour your father and your mother.

She danced to ‘The Bells Are Ringing’, moving her legs in time with Bowser Egan’s while over his shoulder she watched Dano Ryan softly striking one of his smaller drums. Mrs Griffin had got him even though she was nearly fifty, with no looks at all, a lumpish woman with lumpish legs and arms. Mrs Griffin had got him just as the girl had got Patrick Grady.

The music ceased, Bowser Egan held her hard against him, trying to touch her face with his. Around them, people whistled and clapped: the evening had come to an end. She walked away from Bowser Egan, knowing that not ever again would she dance in the Ballroom of Romance. She’d been a figure of fun, trying to promote a relationship with a middle-aged County Council labourer, as ridiculous as Madge Dowding dancing on beyond her time.

‘I’m waiting outside for you, Cat,’ Eyes Horgan called out, lighting a cigarette as he made for the swing-doors.

Already the man with the long arms – made long, so they said, from carrying rocks off his land – had left the ballroom. Others were moving briskly. Mr Dwyer was tidying the chairs.

In the cloakroom the girls put on their coats and said they’d see one another at Mass the next day. Madge Dowding hurried. ‘Are you OK, Bridie?’ Patty Byrne asked and Bridie said she was. She smiled at little Patty Byrne, wondering if a day would come for the younger girl also, if one day she’d decide that she was a figure of fun in a wayside ballroom.

‘Good-night so,’ Bridie said, leaving the cloakroom, and the girls who were still chatting there wished her good-night. Outside the cloakroom she paused for a moment. Mr Dwyer was still tidying the chairs, picking up empty lemonade bottles from the floor, setting the chairs in a neat row. His wife was sweeping the floor. ‘Good-night, Bridie,’ Mr Dwyer said. ‘Good-night, Bridie,’ his wife said.

Extra lights had been switched on so that the Dwyers could see what they were doing. In the glare the blue walls of the ballroom seemed tatty, marked with hair-oil where men had leaned against them, inscribed with names and initials and hearts with arrows through them. The crystal bowl gave out a light that was ineffective in the glare; the bowl was broken here and there, which wasn’t noticeable when the other lights weren’t on.

‘Good-night so,’ Bridie said to the Dwyers. She passed through the swing-doors and descended the three concrete steps on the gravel expanse in front of the ballroom. People were gathered on the gravel, talking in groups, standing with their bicycles. She saw Madge Dowding going off with Tim Daly. A youth rode away with a girl on the crossbar of his bicycle. The engines of motor-cars started.

‘Good-night, Bridie,’ Dano Ryan said.

‘Good-night, Dano,’ she said.

She walked across the gravel towards her bicycle, hearing Mr Maloney, somewhere behind her, repeating that no matter how you looked at it the cement factory would be a great thing for Kilmalough. She heard the bang of a car door and knew it was Mr Swanton banging the door of Mr Maloney’s car because he always gave it the same loud bang. Two other doors banged as she reached her bicycle and then the engine started up and the headlights went on. She touched the two tyres of the bicycle to make certain she hadn’t a puncture. The wheels of Mr Maloney’s car traversed the gravel and were silent when they reached the road.

‘Good-night, Bridie,’ someone called, and she replied, pushing her bicycle towards the road.

‘Will I ride a little way with you?’ Bowser Egan asked.

They rode together and when they arrived at the hill for which it was necessary to dismount she looked back and saw in the distance the four coloured bulbs that decorated the façade of the Ballroom of Romance. As she watched, the lights went out, and she imagined Mr Dwyer pulling the metal grid across the front of his property and locking the two padlocks that secured it. His wife would be waiting with the evening’s takings, sitting in the front of their car.

‘D’you know what it is, Bridie,’ said Bowser Egan, ‘you were never looking better than tonight.’ He took from a pocket of his suit the small bottle of whiskey he had. He uncorked it and drank some and then handed it to her. She took it and drank. ‘Sure, why wouldn’t you?’ he said, surprised to see her drinking because she never had in his company before. It was an unpleasant taste, she considered, a taste she’d experienced only twice before, when she’d taken whiskey as a remedy for toothache. ‘What harm would it do you?’ Bowser Egan said as she raised the bottle again to her lips. He reached out a hand for it, though, suddenly concerned lest she should consume a greater share than he wished her to.

She watched him drinking more expertly than she had. He would always be drinking, she thought. He’d be lazy and useless, sitting in the kitchen with the Irish Press. He’d waste money buying a secondhand motor-car in order to drive into the town to go to the public houses on fair-days.

‘She’s shook these days,’ he said, referring to his mother. ‘She’ll hardly last two years, I’m thinking.’ He threw the empty whiskey bottle into the ditch and lit a cigarette. They pushed their bicycles. He said:

‘When she goes, Bridie, I’ll sell the bloody place up. I’ll sell the pigs and the whole damn one and twopence worth.’ He paused in order to raise the cigarette to his lips. He drew in smoke and exhaled it. ‘With the cash that I’ll get I could improve some place else, Bridie.’

They reached a gate on the left-hand side of the road and automatically they pushed their bicycles towards it and leaned them against it. He climbed over the gate into the field and she climbed after him. ‘Will we sit down here, Bridie?’ he said, offering the suggestion as one that had just occurred to him, as though they’d entered the field for some other purpose.

‘We could improve a place like your own one,’ he said, putting his right arm around her shoulders. ‘Have you a kiss in you, Bridie?’ He kissed her, exerting pressure with his teeth. When his mother died he would sell his farm and spend the money in the town. After that he would think of getting married because he’d have nowhere to go, because he’d want a fire to sit at and a woman to cook food for him. He kissed her again, his lips hot, the sweat on his cheeks sticking to her. ‘God, you’re great at kissing,’ he said.

She rose, saying it was time to go, and they climbed over the gate again. ‘There’s nothing like a Saturday,’ he said. ‘Good-night to you so, Bridie.’

He mounted his bicycle and rode down the hill, and she pushed hers to the top and then mounted it also. She rode through the night as on Saturday nights for years she had ridden and never would ride again because she’d reached a certain age. She would wait now and in time Bowser Egan would seek her out because his mother would have died. Her father would probably have died also by then. She would marry Bowser Egan because it would be lonesome being by herself in the farmhouse.

A Happy Family

On the evening of Thursday, May 24th 1962, I returned home in the usual way. I remember sitting in the number 73 bus, thinking of the day as I had spent it and thinking of the house I was about to enter. It was a fine evening, warm and mellow, the air heavy with the smell of London. The bus crossed Hammersmith Bridge, moving quite quickly towards the leafy avenues beyond. The houses of the suburbs were gayer in that evening’s sunshine, pleasanter abodes than often they seemed.

‘Hullo,’ I said in the hall of ours, speaking to my daughter Lisa, a child of one, who happened to be loitering there. She was wearing her nightdress, and she didn’t look sleepy. ‘Aren’t you going to bed?’ I said, and Lisa looked at me as if she had forgotten that I was closely related to her. I could hear Anna and Christopher in the bathroom, talking loudly and rapidly, and I could hear Elizabeth’s voice urging them to wash themselves properly and be quick about it. ‘She’s fourteen stone, Miss MacAdam is,’ Christopher was saying. ‘Isn’t she, Anna?’ Miss MacAdam was a woman who taught at their school, a woman about whom we had come to know a lot. ‘She can’t swim,’ said Anna.

Looking back now, such exchanges come easily to my mind. Bits of conversations float to the surface without much of a continuing pattern and without any significance that I can see. I suppose we were a happy family: someone examining us might possibly have written that down on a report sheet, the way these things are done. Yet what I recall most vividly now when I think of us as a family are images and occasions that for Elizabeth and me were neither happy nor unhappy. I remember animals at the Zoo coming forward for the offerings of our children, smelling of confinement rather than the jungle, seeming fierce and hard done by. I remember birthday parties on warm afternoons, the figures of children moving swiftly from the garden to the house, creatures who might have been bored, with paper hats on their heads or in their hands, seeking adventure in forbidden rooms. I remember dawdling walks, arguments that came to involve all of us, and other days when everything went well.

I used to leave the house at half past eight every morning, and often during the day I imagined what my wife’s day must be like. She told me, of course. She told me about how ill-tempered our children had been, or how tractable; about how the time had passed in other ways, whom she had met and spoken to, who had come to tea or whom she had visited. I imagined her in summer having lunch in the garden when it was warm, dozing afterwards and being woken up by Lisa. In turn, she would ask me how the hours had gone for me and I would say a thing or two about their passing, about the people who had filled them. ‘Miss Madden is leaving us,’ I can hear myself saying. ‘Off to Buenos Aires for some reason.’ In my memory of this, I seem to be repeating the information. ‘Off to Buenos Aires,’ I appear to be saying. ‘Off to Buenos Aires. Miss Madden.’ And a little later I am saying it again, adding that Miss Madden would be missed. Elizabeth’s head is nodding, agreeing that that will indeed be so. ‘I fell asleep in the garden,’ Elizabeth is murmuring in this small vision. ‘Lisa woke me up.’

My wife was pretty when I married her, and as the years passed it seemed to me that she took on a greater beauty. I believed that this was some reflection of her contentment, and she may even have believed it herself. Had she suddenly said otherwise, I’d have been puzzled; as puzzled as I was, and as she was, on the evening of May 24th, when she told me about Mr Higgs. She sat before me then, sipping at a glass of sherry that I’d poured her and remembering all the details: all that Mr Higgs had said and all that she had said in reply.

She had been listening to a story on the radio and making coffee. Christopher and Anna were at school; in the garden Lisa was asleep in her pram. When the telephone rang Elizabeth walked towards it slowly, still listening to the wireless. When she said ‘Hullo’ she heard the coins drop at the other end and a man’s voice said: ‘Mrs Farrel?’

Elizabeth said yes, she was Mrs Farrel, and the man said: ‘My name is Higgs.’

His voice was ordinary, a little uneducated, the kind of voice that is always drifting over the telephone.

‘A very good friend,’ said Mr Higgs.

‘Good-morning,’ said Elizabeth in her matter-of-fact way. ‘Are you selling something, Mr Higgs?’

‘In a sense, Mrs Farrel, in a sense. You might call it selling. Do I peddle salvation?’

‘Oh, I am not religious in the least –’

‘It may be your trouble, Mrs Farrel.’

‘Yes, well –’

‘You are Elizabeth Farrel. You have three children.’

‘Mr Higgs –’

‘Your father was a Captain Maugham. Born 1892, died 1959. He lost an arm in action and never forgave himself for it. You attended his funeral, but were glad that he was dead, since he had a way of upsetting your children. Your mother, seventy-four a week ago, lives near St Albans and is unhappy. You have two sisters and a brother.’

‘Mr Higgs, what do you want?’

‘Nothing. I don’t want anything. What do you want, Mrs Farrel?’

‘Look here, Mr Higgs –’

‘D’you remember your tenth birthday? D’you remember what it felt like being a little girl of ten, in a white dress spotted with forget-me-not, and a blue ribbon tying back your hair? You were taken on a picnic. “You’re ten years old,” your father said. “Now tell us what you’re going to do with yourself.” “She must cut the chocolate cake first,” your mother cried, and so you cut the cake and then stood up and announced the trend of your ambitions. Your brother Ralph laughed and was scolded by your father. D’you remember at all?’

Elizabeth did remember. She remembered playing hide-and-seek with her sisters after tea; she remembered Ralph climbing a tree and finding himself unable to get down again; she remembered her parents quarrelling, as they invariably did, all the way home.

‘Do I know you, Mr Higgs? How do you manage to have these details of my childhood?’

Mr Higgs laughed. It wasn’t a nasty laugh. It sounded even reassuring, as if Mr Higgs meant no harm.

On the evening of May 24th we sat for a long time wondering who the odd individual could be and what he was after. Elizabeth seemed nervously elated and naturally more than a little intrigued. I, on the other hand, was rather upset by this Mr Higgs and his deep mine of information. ‘If he rings again,’ I said, ‘threaten him with the police.’

‘Good-morning, Mrs Farrel.’

‘Mr Higgs?’

‘My dear.’

‘Well then, Mr Higgs, explain.’

‘Ho, ho, Mrs Farrel, there’s a sharpness for you. Explain? Why, if I explained I’d be out of business in no time at all. “So that’s it,” you’d say, and ring off, just like I was a salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness.’

‘Mr Higgs –’

‘You was a little girl of ten, Mrs Farrel. You was out on a picnic. Remember?’

‘How did you know all that?’

‘Why shouldn’t I know, for heaven’s sake? Listen now, Mrs Farrel. Did you think then what you would be today? Did you see yourself married to a man and mothering his children? Have you come to a sticky end, or otherwise?’

‘A sticky end?’

‘You clean his house, you prepare his meals, you take his opinions. You hear on the radio some news of passing importance, some bomb exploded, some army recalled. Who does the thinking, Mrs Farrel? You react as he does. You’ve lost your identity. Did you think of that that day when you were ten? Your children will be ten one day. They’ll stand before you at ten years of age, first the girl, then the boy. What of their futures, Mrs Farrel? Shall they make something of themselves? Shall they fail and be miserable? Shall they be unnatural and unhappy, or sick in some way, or perhaps too stupid? Or shall they all three of them be richly successful? Are you successful, Mrs Farrel? You are your husband’s instrument. You were different at ten, Mrs Farrel. How about your children? Soon it’ll be your turn to take on the talking. I’ll listen like I was paid for it.’

I was aware of considerable pique when Elizabeth reported all this to me. I protested that I was not given to forcing my opinions on others, and Elizabeth said I wasn’t either. ‘Clearly, he’s queer in the head,’ I said. I paused, thinking about that, then said: ‘Could he be someone like a window-cleaner to whom you once perhaps talked of your childhood? Although I can’t see you doing it.’

Elizabeth shook her head; she said she didn’t remember talking to a window-cleaner about her childhood, or about anything very much. We’d had the same window-cleaners for almost seven years, she reminded me: two honest, respectable men who arrived at the house every six weeks in a Ford motor-car. ‘Well, he must be someone,’ I said. ‘Someone you’ve talked to. I mean, it’s not guesswork.’

‘Maybe he’s wicked,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Maybe he’s a small wicked man with very white skin, driven by some force he doesn’t understand. Perhaps he’s one of those painters who came last year to paint the hall. There was a little man –’

‘That little man’s name was Mr Gipe. I remember that well. “Gipe,” he said, walking into the hall and saying it would be a long job. “Gipe, sir; an unusual name.’ ”

‘He could be calling himself Higgs. He could have read through my letters. And my old diaries. Perhaps Mr Gipe expected a tip.’

‘The hall cost ninety pounds.’

‘I know, but it didn’t all go to Mr Gipe. Perhaps nobody tips poor Mr Gipe and perhaps now he’s telephoning all the wives, having read through their letters and their private diaries. He telephones to taunt them and to cause trouble, being an evil man. Perhaps Mr Gipe is possessed of a devil.’

I frowned and shook my head. ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘It’s a voice from the past. It’s someone who really did know you when you were ten, and knows all that’s happened since.’

‘More likely Mr Gipe,’ said Elizabeth, ‘guided from Hell.’

‘Daddy, am I asleep?’

I looked at her wide eyes, big and blue and clear, perfect replicas of her mother’s. I loved Anna best of all of them; I suppose because she reminded me so much of Elizabeth.

‘No, darling, you’re not asleep. If you were asleep you couldn’t be talking to me, now could you?’

‘I could be dreaming, Daddy. Couldn’t I be dreaming?’

‘Yes, I suppose you could.’

‘But I’m not, am I?’

I shook my head. ‘No, Anna, you’re not dreaming.’

She sighed. ‘I’m glad. I wouldn’t like to be dreaming. I wouldn’t like to suddenly wake up.’

It was Sunday afternoon and we had driven into the country. We did it almost every Sunday when the weather was fine and warm. The children enjoyed it and so in a way did we, even though the woods we went to were rather tatty, too near London to seem real, too untidy with sweet-papers to be attractive. Still, it was a way of entertaining them.

‘Elizabeth.’

She was sitting on a tree-stump, her eyes half-closed. On a rug at her feet Lisa was playing with some wooden beads. I sat beside her and put my arm about her shoulders.

‘Elizabeth.’

She jumped a little. ‘Hullo, darling. I was almost asleep.’

‘You were thinking about Mr Higgs.’

‘Oh, I wasn’t. My mind was a blank; I was about to drop off. I can do it now, sitting upright like this.’

‘Anna asked me if she was dreaming.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Playing with Christopher.’

‘They’ll begin to fight. They don’t play any more. Why do they perpetually fight?’

I said it was just a phase, but Elizabeth said she thought they would always fight now. The scratching and snarling would turn to argument as they grew older and when they became adults they wouldn’t ever see one another. They would say that they had nothing in common, and would admit to others that they really rather disliked one another and always had. Elizabeth said she could see them: Christopher married to an unsuitable woman, and Anna as a girl who lived promiscuously and did not marry at all. Anna would become a heavy drinker of whisky and would smoke slim cigars at forty.

‘Heavens,’ I said, staring at her, and then looking at the small figure of Anna. ‘Why on earth are you saying all that?’

‘Well, it’s true. I mean, it’s what I imagine. I can see Anna in a harsh red suit, getting drunk at a cocktail party. I can see Christopher being miserable –’

‘This is your Mr Higgs again. Look, the police can arrange to have the telephone tapped. It’s sheer nonsense that some raving lunatic should be allowed to go on like that.’

‘Mr Higgs! Mr Higgs! What’s Mr Higgs got to do with it? You’ve got him on the brain.’

Elizabeth walked away. She left me sitting there with her frightening images of our children. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Lisa was eating a piece of wood. I took it from her. Anna was saying: ‘Daddy, Christopher hurt me.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know. He just hurt me.’

‘How did he hurt you?’

‘He pushed me and I fell.’ She began to cry, so I comforted her. I called Christopher and told him he mustn’t push Anna. They ran off to play again and a moment later Anna was saying: ‘Daddy, Christopher pushed me.’

‘Christopher, you mustn’t push Anna. And you shouldn’t have to be told everything twice.’

‘I didn’t push her. She fell.’

Anna put her thumb in her mouth. I glanced through the trees to see where Elizabeth had got to, but there was no sign of her. I made the children sit on the rug and told them a story. They didn’t like it much. They never did like my stories: Elizabeth’s were so much better.

‘I’m sorry.’ She stood looking down on us, as tall and beautiful as a goddess.

‘You look like a goddess,’ I said.

‘What’s a goddess?’ Anna asked, and Christopher said: ‘Why’s Mummy sorry?’

‘A goddess is a beautiful lady. Mummy’s sorry because she left me to look after you. And it’s time to go home.’

‘Oh, oh, oh, I must find Mambi first,’ Anna cried anxiously. Mambi was a faithful friend who accompanied her everywhere she went, but who was, at the moment of departure, almost always lost.

We walked to the car. Anna said: ‘Mambi was at the top of an old tree. Mambi’s a goddess too. Daddy, do you have to be beautiful to be a goddess?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Then Mambi can’t be.’

‘Isn’t Mambi beautiful?’

‘Usually she is. Only she’s not now.’

‘Why isn’t she now?’

‘Because all her hair came off in the tree.’

The car heaved and wobbled all the way home as Christopher and Anna banged about in the back. When they fought we shouted at them, and then they sulked and there was a mile or so of peace. Anna began to cry as I turned into the garage. Mambi, she said, was cold without her hair. Elizabeth explained about wigs.

I woke up in the middle of that night, thinking about Mr Higgs. I kept seeing the man as a shrimpish little thing, like the manager of the shop where we hired our television set. He had a black moustache – a length of thread stuck across his upper lip. I knew it was wrong, I knew this wasn’t Mr Higgs; and then, all of a sudden, I began to think about Elizabeth’s brother, Ralph.

A generation ago Ralph would have been called a remittance man. Just about the time we were married old Captain Maugham had packed him off to a farm in Kenya after an incident with a hotel receptionist and the hotel’s account books. But caring for nothing in Kenya, Ralph had made his way to Cairo, and from Cairo on the long-distance telephone he had greeted the Captain with a request for financial aid. He didn’t get it, and then the war broke out and Ralph disappeared. Whenever we thought of him we imagined that he was up to the most reprehensible racket he could lay his hands on. If he was, we never found out about it. All we did know was that after the war he again telephoned the Captain, and the odd thing was that he was still in Cairo. ‘I have lost an arm,’ Captain Maugham told him testily. ‘And I,’ said Ralph, ‘have lost the empire of my soul.’ He was given to this kind of decorated statement; it interfered so much with his conversation that most of the time you didn’t know what he was talking about. But the Captain sent him some money and an agreement was drawn up by which Ralph, on receipt of a monthly cheque, promised not to return to England during his father’s lifetime. Then the Captain died and Ralph was back. I gave him fifty pounds and all in all he probably cleaned up quite well. Ralph wasn’t the sort of person to write letters; we had no idea where he was now. As a schoolboy, and even later, he was a great one for playing practical jokes. He was certainly a good enough mimic to create a Mr Higgs. Just for fun, I wondered? Or in some kind of bitterness? Or did he in some ingenious way hope to extract money?

The following morning I telephoned Elizabeth’s sisters. Chloe knew nothing about where Ralph was, what he was doing or anything about him. She said she hoped he wasn’t coming back to England because it had cost her fifty pounds the last time. Margaret, however, knew a lot. She didn’t want to talk about it on the telephone, so I met her for lunch.

‘What’s all this?’ she said.

I told her about Mr Higgs and the vague theory that was beginning to crystallize in my mind. She was intrigued by the Higgs thing. ‘I don’t know why,’ she said, ‘but it rings a queer sort of bell. But you’re quite wrong about Ralph.’ Ralph, it appeared, was being paid by Margaret and her husband in much the same way as he had been paid by the Captain; for the same reason and with the same stipulation. ‘Only for the time being,’ Margaret said a little bitterly. ‘When Mother dies Ralph can do what he damn well likes. But it was quite a serious business and the news of it would clearly finish her. One doesn’t like to think of an old woman dying in that particular kind of misery.’

‘But whatever it was, she’d probably never find out.’

‘Oh yes, she would. She reads the papers. In any case, Ralph is quite capable of dropping her a little note. But at the moment I can assure you that Ralph is safe in Africa. He’s not the type to take any chances with his gift horses.’

So that was that. It made me feel even worse about Mr Higgs that my simple explanation had been so easily exploded.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘and what did he have to say today?’

‘What did who say?’

‘Higgs.’

‘Nothing much. He’s becoming a bore.’

She wasn’t going to tell me any more. She wasn’t going to talk about Mr Higgs because she didn’t trust me. She thought I’d put the police on him, and she didn’t want that, so she said, because she had come to feel sorry for the poor crazed creature or whatever it was he happened to be. In fact, I thought to myself, my wife has become in some way fascinated by this man.

I worked at home one day, waiting for the telephone call. There was a ring at eleven-fifteen. I heard Elizabeth answer it. She said: ‘No, I’m sorry; I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong number.’ I didn’t ask her about Mr Higgs. When I looked at her she seemed a long way away and her voice was measured and polite. There was some awful shaft between us and I didn’t know what to do about it.

In the afternoon I took the children for a walk in the park.

‘Mambi’s gone to stay in the country,’ Anna said. ‘I’m lonely without her.’

‘Well, she’s coming back tonight, isn’t she?’

‘Daddy,’ Christopher said, ‘what’s the matter with Mummy?’

I’m not very sure when it was that I first noticed everything was in rather a mess. I remember coming in one night and stumbling over lots of wooden toys in the hall. Quite often the cornflakes packet and the marmalade were still on the kitchen table from breakfast. Or if they weren’t on the table the children had got them on to the floor and Lisa had covered most of the house with their mixed contents. Elizabeth didn’t seem to notice. She sat in a dream, silent and alone, forgetting to cook the supper. The children began to do all the things they had ever wanted to do and which Elizabeth had patiently prevented, like scribbling on the walls and playing in the coal-cellar. I tried to discuss it with Elizabeth, but all she did was to smile sweetly and say she was tired.

‘Why don’t you see a doctor?’

She stared at me. ‘A doctor?’

‘Perhaps you need a tonic’ And at that point she would smile again and go to bed.

I knew that Elizabeth was still having her conversations with Mr Higgs even though she no longer mentioned them. When I asked her she used to laugh and say: ‘Poor Mr Higgs was just some old fanatic’

‘Yes, but how did he –’

‘Darling, you worry too much.’

I went to St Albans to see old Mrs Maugham, without very much hope. I don’t know what I expected of her, since she was obviously too deaf and too senile to offer me anything at all. She lived with a woman called Miss Awpit who was employed by the old woman’s children to look after her. Miss Awpit made us tea and did the interpreting.

‘Mr Farrel wants to know how you are, dear,’ Miss Awpit said. ‘Quite well, really,’ Miss Awpit said to me. ‘All things being equal.’

Mrs Maugham knew who I was and all that. She asked after Elizabeth and the children. She said something to Miss Awpit and Miss Awpit said: ‘She wants you to bring them to her.’

‘Yes, yes,’ I shouted, nodding hard. ‘We shall come and see you soon. They often,’ I lied, ‘ask about Granny.’

‘Hark at that,’ shouted Miss Awpit, nudging the old lady, who snappishly told her to leave off.

I didn’t quite know how to put it. I said: ‘Ask her if she knows a Mr Higgs.’

Miss Awpit, imagining, I suppose, that I was making conversation, shouted: ‘Mr Farrel wants to know if you know Mr Higgs.’ Mrs Maugham smiled at us. ‘Higgs,’ Miss Awpit repeated. ‘Do you know Mr Higgs at all, dear?’

‘Never,’ said Mrs Maugham.

‘Have you ever known a Mr Higgs?’ I shouted.

‘Higgs?’ said Mrs Maugham.

‘Do you know him?’ Miss Awpit asked. ‘Do you know a Mr Higgs?’

‘I do not,’ said Mrs Maugham, suddenly in command of herself, ‘know anyone of such a name. Nor would I wish to.’

‘Look, Mrs Maugham,’ I pursued, ‘does the name mean anything at all to you?’

‘I have told you, I do not know your friend. How can I be expected to know your friends, an old woman like me, stuck out here in St Albans with no one to look after me?’

‘Come, come,’ said Miss Awpit, ‘you’ve got me, dear.’

But Mrs Maugham only laughed.

A week or two passed, and then one afternoon as I was sitting in the office filing my nails the telephone rang and a voice I didn’t recognize said: ‘Mr Farrel?’

I said ‘Yes’, and the voice said: ‘This is Miss Awpit. You know, Mrs Maugham’s Miss Awpit.’

‘Of course. Good afternoon, Miss Awpit. How are you?’

‘Very well, thank you. I’m ringing to tell you something about Mrs Maugham.’

‘Yes?’

‘Well, you know when you came here the other week you were asking about a Mr Higgs?’

‘Yes, I remember.’

‘Well, as you sounded rather anxious about him I just thought I’d tell you. I thought about it and then I decided. I’ll ring Mr Farrel, I said, just to tell him what she said.’

‘Yes, Miss Awpit?’

‘I hope I’m doing the right thing.’

‘What did Mrs Maugham say?’

‘Well, it’s funny in a way. I hope you won’t think I’m being very stupid or anything.’

I had the odd feeling that Miss Awpit was going to die as she was speaking, before she could tell me. I said:

‘I assure you, you are doing the right thing. What did Mrs Maugham say?’

‘Well, it was at breakfast one morning. She hadn’t had a good night at all. So she said, but you know what it’s like with old people. I mean, quite frankly I had to get up myself in the night and I heard her sleeping as deep and sweet as you’d wish. Honestly, Mr Farrel, I often wish I had her constitution myself –’

‘You were telling me about Mr Higgs.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘You were telling me about Mr Higgs.’

‘Well, it’s nothing really. You’ll probably laugh when you hear. Quite honestly I was in two minds whether or not to bother you. You see, all Mrs Maugham said was: “It’s funny that man suddenly talking about Mr Higgs like that. You know, Ethel, I haven’t heard Mr Higgs mentioned for almost thirty years.” So I said “Yes”, leading her on, you see. “And who was Mr Higgs, dear, thirty years ago?” And she said: “Oh nobody at all. He was just Elizabeth’s little friend!” ’

‘Elizabeth’s?’

‘Just what I said, Mr Farrel. She got quite impatient with me. “Just someone Elizabeth used to talk to,” she said, “when she was three. You know the way children invent things.” ’

‘Like Mambi,’ I said, not meaning to say it, since Miss Awpit wouldn’t understand.

‘Oh dear, Mr Farrel,’ said Miss Awpit, ‘I knew you’d laugh.’

I left the office and took a taxi all the way home. Elizabeth was in the garden. I sat beside her and I held her hands. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a holiday. Let’s go away, just the two of us. We need a rest.’

‘You’re spying on me,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Which isn’t new, I suppose. You’ve got so mean, darling, ever since you became jealous of poor Mr Higgs. How could you be jealous of a man like Mr Higgs?’

‘Elizabeth, I know who Mr Higgs is. I can tell you –’

‘There’s nothing to be jealous about. All the poor creature does is to ring me up and tell me about the things he read in my diaries the time he came to paint the hall. And then he tries to comfort me about the children. He tells me not to worry about Lisa. But I can’t help worrying because I know she’s going to have this hard time. She’s going to grow big and lumpy, poor little Lisa, and she’s not going to be ever able to pass an exam, and in the end she’ll go and work in a post office. But Mr Higgs –’

‘Let me tell you about Mr Higgs. Let me just remind you.’

‘You don’t know him, darling. You’ve never spoken to him. Mr Higgs is very patient, you know. First of all he did the talking, and now, you see, he kindly allows me to. Poor Mr Higgs is an inmate of a home. He’s an institutionalized person, darling. There’s no need to be jealous.’

I said nothing. I sat there holding her two hands and looking at her. Her face was just the same; even her eyes betrayed no hint of the confusion that held her. She smiled when she spoke of Mr. Higgs. She made a joke, laughing, calling him the housewife’s friend.

‘It was funny,’ she said, ‘the first time I saw Christopher as an adult, sitting in a room with that awful woman. She was leaning back in a chair, staring at him and attempting to torture him with words. And then there was Anna, half a mile away across London, in a house in a square. All the lights were on because of the party, and Anna was in that red suit, and she was laughing and saying how she hated Christopher, how she had hated him from the first moment she saw him. And when she said that, I couldn’t remember what moment she meant. I couldn’t quite remember where it was that Anna and Christopher had met. Well, it goes to show.’ Elizabeth paused. ‘Well, doesn’t it?’ she said. ‘I mean, imagine my thinking that poor Mr Higgs was evil! The kindest, most long-suffering man that ever walked on two legs. I mean, all I had to do was to remind Mr Higgs that I’d forgotten and Mr Higgs could tell me. “They met in a garden,” he could say, “at an ordinary little tea-party.” And Lisa was operated on several times, and counted the words in telegrams.’

Elizabeth talked on, of the children and of Mr Higgs. I rang up our doctor, and he came, and then a little later my wife was taken from the house. I sat alone with Lisa on my knee until it was time to go and fetch Christopher and Anna.

‘Mummy’s ill,’ I said in the car. ‘She’s had to go away for a little.’ I would tell them the story gradually, and one day perhaps we might visit her and she might still understand who we were. ‘Ill?’ they said. ‘But Mummy’s never ill.’ I stopped the car by our house, thinking that only death could make the house seem so empty, and thinking too that death was easier to understand. We made tea, I remember, the children and I, not saying very much more.

The Grass Widows

The headmaster of a great English public school visited every summer a village in County Galway for the sake of the fishing in a number of nearby rivers. For more than forty years this stern, successful man had brought his wife to the Slieve Gashal Hotel, a place, so he said, he had come to love. A smiling man called Mr Doyle had been for all the headmaster’s experience of the hotel its obliging proprietor: Mr Doyle had related stories to the headmaster late at night in the hotel bar, after the headmaster’s wife had retired to bed; they had discussed together the fruitfulness of the local rivers, although in truth Mr Doyle had never held a rod in his life. ‘You feel another person,’ the headmaster had told generations of his pupils, ‘among blue mountains, in the quiet little hotel.’ On walks through the school grounds with a senior boy on either side of him he had spoken of the soft peace of the riverside and of the unrivalled glory of being alone with one’s mind. He talked to his boys of Mr Doyle and his unassuming ways, and of the little village that was a one-horse place and none the worse for that, and of the good plain food that came from the Slieve Gashal’s kitchen.

To Jackson Major the headmaster enthused during all the year that Jackson Major was head boy of the famous school, and Jackson Major did not ever forget the paradise that then had formed in his mind. ‘I know a place,’ he said to his fiancée long after he had left the school, ‘that’s perfect for our honeymoon.’ He told her about the heathery hills that the headmaster had recalled for him, and the lakes and rivers and the one-horse little village in which, near a bridge, stood the ivy-covered bulk of the Slieve Gashal Hotel. ‘Lovely, darling,’ murmured the bride-to-be of Jackson Major, thinking at the time of a clock in the shape of a human hand that someone had given them and which would naturally have to be changed for something else. She’d been hoping that he would suggest Majorca for their honeymoon, but if he wished to go to this other place she didn’t intend to make a fuss. ‘Idyllic for a honeymoon,’ the headmaster had once remarked to Jackson Major, and Jackson Major had not forgotten. Steady but unimaginative were words that had been written of him on a school report.

The headmaster, a square, bald man with a head that might have been carved from oak, a man who wore rimless spectacles and whose name was Angusthorpe, discovered when he arrived at the Slieve Gashal Hotel in the summer of 1968 that in the intervening year a tragedy had occurred. It had become the custom of Mr Angusthorpe to book his fortnight’s holiday by saying simply to Mr Doyle: ‘Till next year then,’ an anticipation that Mr Doyle would translate into commercial terms, reserving the same room for the headmaster and his wife in twelve months’ time. No letters changed hands during the year, no confirmation of the booking was ever necessary: Mr Angusthorpe and his wife arrived each summer after the trials of the school term, knowing that their room would be waiting for them, with sweet-peas in a vase in the window, and Mr Doyle full of welcome in the hall. ‘He died in Woolworth’s in Galway,’ said Mr Doyle’s son in the summer of 1968. ‘He was buying a shirt at the time.’

Afterwards, Mr Angusthorpe said to his wife that when Mr Doyle’s son spoke those words he knew that nothing was ever going to be the same again. Mr Doyle’s son, known locally as Scut Doyle, went on speaking while the headmaster and his small wife, grey-haired, and bespectacled also, stood in the hall. He told them that he had inherited the Slieve Gashal and that for all his adult life he had been employed in the accounts department of a paper-mill in Dublin. ‘I thought at first I’d sell the place up,’ he informed the Angusthorpes, ‘and then I thought maybe I’d attempt to make a go of it. “Will we have a shot at it?” I said to the wife, and, God bless her, she said why wouldn’t I?’ While he spoke, the subject of his last remarks appeared behind him in the hall, a woman whose appearance did not at all impress Mr Angusthorpe. She was pale-faced and fat and, so Mr Angusthorpe afterwards suggested to his wife, sullen. She stood silently by her husband, whose appearance did not impress Mr Angusthorpe either, since the new proprietor of the Slieve Gashal, a man with shaking hands and a cocky grin, did not appear to have shaved himself that day. ‘One or other of them, if not both,’ said Mr Angusthorpe afterwards, ‘smelt of drink.’

The Angusthorpes were led to their room by a girl whose age Mr Angusthorpe estimated to be thirteen. ‘What’s become of Joseph?’ he asked her as they mounted the stairs, referring to an old porter who had always in the past been spick-and-span in a uniform, but the child seemed not to understand the question, for she offered it no reply. In the room there were no sweet-peas, and although they had entered by a door that was familiar to them, the room itself was greatly altered: it was, to begin with, only half the size it had been before. ‘Great heavens!’ exclaimed Mr Angusthorpe, striking a wall with his fist and finding it to be a partition. ‘He had the carpenters in,’ the child said.

Mr Angusthorpe, in a natural fury, descended the stairs and shouted in the hall. ‘Mr Doyle!’ he called out in his peremptory headmaster’s voice. ‘Mr Doyle! Mr Doyle!’

Doyle emerged from the back regions of the hotel, with a cigarette in his mouth. There were feathers on his clothes, and he held in his right hand a half-plucked chicken. In explanation he said that he had been giving his wife a hand. She was not herself, he confided to Mr Angusthorpe, on account of it being her bad time of the month.

‘Our room,’ protested Mr Angusthorpe. ‘We can’t possibly sleep in a tiny space like that. You’ve cut the room in half, Mr Doyle.’

Doyle nodded. All the bedrooms in the hotel, he told Mr Angusthorpe, had been divided, since they were uneconomical otherwise. He had spent four hundred and ten pounds having new doorways made and putting on new wallpaper. He began to go into the details of this expense, plucking feathers from the chicken as he stood there. Mr Angusthorpe coldly remarked that he had not booked a room in which you couldn’t swing a cat.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ interrupted Doyle. ‘You booked a room a year ago: you did not reserve a specific room. D’you know what I mean, Mr Angusthorpe? I have no note that you specified with my father to have the exact room again.’

‘It was an understood thing between us –’

‘My father unfortunately died.’

Mr Angusthorpe regarded the man, disliking him intensely. It occurred to him that he had never in his life carried on a conversation with a hotel proprietor who held in his right hand a half-plucked chicken and whose clothes had feathers on them. His inclination was to turn on his heel and march with his wife from the unsatisfactory hotel, telling, if need be, this unprepossessing individual to go to hell. Mr Angusthorpe thought of doing that, but then he wondered where he and his wife could go. Hotels in the area were notoriously full at this time of year, in the middle of the fishing season.

‘I must get on with this for the dinner,’ said Doyle, ‘or the wife will be having me guts for garters.’ He winked at Mr Angusthorpe, flicking a quantity of cigarette ash from the pale flesh of the chicken. He left Mr Angusthorpe standing there.

The child had remained with Mrs Angusthorpe while the headmaster had sought an explanation downstairs. She had stood silently by the door until Mrs Angusthorpe, fearing a violent reaction on the part of her husband if he discovered the child present when he returned, suggested that she should go away. But the child had taken no notice of that and Mrs Angusthorpe, being unable to think of anything else to say, had asked her at what time of year old Mr Doyle had died. ‘The funeral was ten miles long, missus,’ replied the child. ‘Me father wasn’t sober till the Monday.’ Mr Angusthorpe, returning, asked the child sharply why she was lingering and the child explained that she was waiting to be tipped. Mr Angusthorpe gave her a threepenny-piece.

In the partitioned room, which now had a pink wallpaper on the walls and an elaborate frieze from which flowers of different colours cascaded down the four corners, the Angusthorpes surveyed their predicament. Mr Angusthorpe told his wife the details of his interview with Doyle, and when he had talked for twenty minutes he came more definitely to the conclusion that the best thing they could do would be to remain for the moment. The rivers could hardly have altered, he was thinking, and that the hotel was now more than inadequate was a consequence that would affect his wife more than it would affect him. In the past she had been wont to spend her days going for a brief walk in the morning and returning to the pleasant little dining-room for a solitary lunch, and then sleeping or reading until it was time for a cup of tea, after which she would again take a brief walk. She was usually sitting by the fire in the lounge when he returned from his day’s excursion. Perhaps all that would be less attractive now, Mr Angusthorpe thought, but there was little he could do about it and it was naturally only fair that they should at least remain for a day or two.

That night the dinner was well below the standard of the dinners they had in the past enjoyed in the Slieve Gashal. Mrs Angusthorpe was unable to consume her soup because there were quite large pieces of bone and gristle in it. The headmaster laughed over his prawn cocktail because, he said, it tasted of absolutely nothing at all. He had recovered from his initial shock and was now determined that the hotel must be regarded as a joke. He eyed his wife’s plate of untouched soup, saying it was better to make the best of things. Chicken and potatoes and mashed turnip were placed before them by a nervous woman in the uniform of a waitress. Turnip made Mrs Angusthorpe sick in the stomach, even the sight of it: at another time in their life her husband might have remembered and ordered the vegetable from the table, but what he was more intent upon now was discovering if the Slieve Gashal still possessed a passable hock, which surprisingly it did. After a few glasses, he said:

‘We’ll not come next year, of course. While I’m out with the rod, my dear, you might scout around for another hotel.’

They never brought their car with them, the headmaster’s theory being that the car was something they wished to escape from. Often she had thought it might be nice to have a car at the Slieve Gashal so that she could drive around the countryside during the day, but she saw his argument and had never pressed her view. Now, it seemed, he was suggesting that she should scout about for another hotel on foot.

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘There is an excellent bus service in Ireland.’ He spoke with a trace of sarcasm, as though she should have known that no matter what else he expected of her, he did not expect her to tramp about the roads looking for another hotel. He gave a little laugh, leaving the matter vaguely with her, his eyes like the eyes of a fish behind his rimless spectacles. Boys had feared him and disliked him too, some even had hated him; yet others had been full of a respect that seemed at times like adoration. As she struggled with her watery turnips she could sense that his mind was quite made up: he intended to remain for the full fortnight in the changed hotel because the lure of the riverside possessed him too strongly to consider an alternative.

‘I might find a place we could move to,’ she said. ‘I mean, in a day or so.’

‘They’ll all be full, my dear.’ He laughed without humour in his laugh, not amused by anything. ‘We must simply grin and bear it. The chicken,’ he added, ‘might well have been worse.’

‘Excuse me,’ Mrs Angusthorpe said, and quickly rose from the table and left the dining-room. From a tape-recorder somewhere dance music began to play.

‘Is the wife all right?’ Doyle asked Mr Angusthorpe, coming up and sitting down in the chair she had vacated. He had read in a hotelier’s journal that tourists enjoyed a friendly atmosphere and the personal attention of the proprietor.

‘We’ve had a long day,’ responded the headmaster genially enough.

‘Ah well, of course you have.’

The dining-room was full, indicating that business was still brisk in the hotel. Mr Angusthorpe had noted a familiar face or two and had made dignified salutations. These people would surely have walked out if the hotel was impossible in all respects.

‘At her time of the month,’ Doyle was saying, ‘the wife gets as fatigued as an old horse. Like your own one, she’s gone up to her bed already.’

‘My wife –’

‘Ah, I wasn’t suggesting Mrs Angusthorpe, was that way at all. They have fatigue in common tonight, sir, that’s all I meant.’

Doyle appeared to be drunk. There was a bleariness about his eyes that suggested inebriation to Mr Angusthorpe, and his shaking hands might well be taken as a sign of repeated over-indulgence.

‘She wakes up at two a.m. as lively as a bird,’ said Doyle. ‘She’s keen for a hug and a pat –’

‘Quite so,’ interrupted Mr Angusthorpe quickly. He looked unpleasantly at his unwelcome companion. He allowed his full opinion of the man to pervade his glance.

‘Well, I’ll be seeing you,’ said Doyle, rising and seeming to be undismayed. ‘I’ll tell the wife you were asking for her,’ he added with a billowing laugh, before moving on to another table.

Shortly after that, Mr Angusthorpe left the dining-room, having resolved that he would not relate this conversation to his wife. He would avoid Doyle in the future, he promised himself, and when by chance they did meet he would make it clear that he did not care to hear his comments on any subject. It was a pity that the old man had died and that all this nastiness had grown up in his place, but there was nothing whatsoever that might be done about it and at least the weather looked good. He entered the bar and dropped into conversation with a man he had met several times before, a solicitor from Dublin, a bachelor called Gorman.

‘I was caught the same way,’ Mr Gorman said, ‘only everywhere else is full. It’s the end of the Slieve Gashal, you know: the food’s inedible.’

He went on to relate a series of dishes that had already been served during his stay, the most memorable of which appeared to be a rabbit stew that had had a smell of ammonia. ‘There’s margarine every time instead of butter, and some queer type of marmalade in the morning: it has a taste of tin to it. The same mashed turnip,’ said Gorman, ‘is the only vegetable he offers.’

The headmaster changed the subject, asking how the rivers were. The fishing was better than ever he’d known it, Mr Gorman reported, and he retailed experiences to prove the claim. ‘Isn’t it all that matters in the long run?’ suggested Mr Gorman, and Mr Angusthorpe readily agreed that it was. He would refrain from repeating to his wife the information about the marmalade that tasted of tin, or the absence of variation where vegetables were concerned. He left the bar at nine o’clock, determined to slip quietly into bed without disturbing her.

In the middle of that night, at midnight precisely, the Angusthorpes were awakened simultaneously by a noise from the room beyond the new partition.

‘Put a pillow down, darling,’ a male voice was saying as clearly as if its possessor stood in the room beside the Angusthorpes’ bed.

‘Couldn’t we wait until another time?’ a woman pleaded in reply. ‘I don’t see what good a pillow will do.’

‘It’ll lift you up a bit,’ the man explained. ‘It said in the book to put a pillow down if there was difficulty.’

‘I don’t see –’

‘It’ll make entry easier,’ said the man. ‘It’s a well-known thing.’

Mrs Angusthorpe switched on her bedside light and saw that her husband was pretending to be asleep. ‘I’m going to rap on the wall,’ she whispered. ‘It’s disgusting, listening to this.’

‘I think I’m going down,’ said the man.

‘My God,’ whispered Mr Angusthorpe, opening his eyes. ‘It’s Jackson Major.’

At breakfast, Mrs Angusthorpe ate margarine on her toast and the marmalade that had a taste of tin. She did not say anything. She watched her husband cutting into a fried egg on a plate that bore the marks of the waitress’s two thumbs. Eventually he placed his knife and fork together on the plate and left them there.

For hours they had lain awake, listening to the conversation beyond the inadequate partition. The newly wed wife of Jackson Major had wept and said that Jackson had better divorce her at once. She had designated the hotel they were in as a frightful place, fit only for Irish tinkers. ‘That filthy meal!’ the wife of Jackson Major had cried emotionally. ‘That awful drunk man!’ And Jackson Major had apologized and had mentioned Mr Angusthorpe by name, wondering what on earth his old headmaster could ever have seen in such an establishment. ‘Let’s try again,’ he had suggested, and the Angusthorpes had listened to a repetition of Mrs Jackson’s unhappy tears. ‘How can you rap on the wall?’ Mr Angusthorpe had angrily whispered. ‘How can we even admit that conversation can be heard? Jackson was head boy.’

‘In the circumstances,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe at breakfast, breaking the long silence, ‘it would be better to leave.’

He knew it would be. He knew that on top of everything else the unfortunate fact that Jackson Major was in the room beyond the partition and would sooner or later discover that the partition was far from soundproof could be exceedingly embarrassing in view of what had taken place during the night. There was, as well, the fact that he had enthused so eloquently to Jackson Major about the hotel that Jackson Major had clearly, on his word alone, brought his bride there. He had even said, he recalled, that the Slieve Gashal would be ideal for a honeymoon. Mr Angusthorpe considered all that, yet could not forget his forty years’ experience of the surrounding rivers, or the information of Mr Gorman that the rivers this year were better than ever.

‘We could whisper,’ he suggested in what was itself a whisper. ‘We could whisper in our room so that they wouldn’t know you can hear.’

‘Whisper?’ she said. She shook her head.

She remembered days in the rain, walking about the one-horse village with nothing whatsoever to do except to walk about, or lie on her bed reading detective stories. She remembered listening to his reports of his day and feeling sleepy listening to them. She remembered thinking, once or twice, that it had never occurred to him that what was just a change and a rest for her could not at all be compared to the excitements he derived from his days on the river-bank, alone with his mind. He was a great, successful man, big and square and commanding, with the cold eyes of the fish he sought in mountain rivers. He had made a firm impression on generations of boys, and on parents and governors, and often on a more general public, yet he had never been able to give her children. She had needed children because she was, compared with him, an unimportant kind of person.

She thought of him in Chapel, gesturing at six hundred boys from the pulpit, in his surplice and red academic hood, releasing words from his throat that were as cold as ice and cleverly made sense. She thought of a time he had expelled two boys, when he had sat with her in their drawing-room waiting for a bell to ring. When the chiming had ceased he had risen and gone without a word from the room, his oaken face pale with suppressed emotion. She knew he saw in the crime of the two boys a failure on his part, yet he never mentioned it to her. He had expelled the boys in public, castigating them with bitterness in his tone, hating them and hating himself, yet rising above his shame at having failed with them: dignity was his greatest ally.

She sat with him once a week at the high table in the dining-hall, surrounded by his prefects, who politely chatted to her. She remembered Jackson Major, a tall boy with short black hair who would endlessly discuss with her husband a web of school affairs. ‘The best head boy I remember,’ her husband’s voice said again, coming back to her over a number of years: ‘I made no mistake with Jackson.’ Jackson Major had set a half-mile record that remained unbroken to this day. There had been a complaint from some child’s mother, she recalled, who claimed that her son had been, by Jackson Major, too severely caned. We must not forget, her husband had written to that mother, that your son almost caused another boy to lose an eye. It was for that carelessness that he was punished. He bears no resentment: boys seldom do.

Yet now this revered, feared and clever man was suggesting that they should whisper for a fortnight in their bedroom, so that the couple next door might not feel embarrassment, so that he himself might remain in a particularly uncomfortable hotel in order to fish. It seemed to Mrs Angusthorpe that there were limits to the role he had laid down for her and which for all her married life she had ungrudgingly accepted. She hadn’t minded being bored for this fortnight every year, but now he was asking more than that she could continue to feel bored; he was asking her to endure food that made her sick, and to conduct absurd conversations in their bedroom.

‘No,’ she said, ‘we could not whisper.’

‘I meant it only for kindness. Kindness to them, you see –’

‘You have compensations here. I have none, you know.’

He looked sharply at her, as at an erring new boy who had not yet learnt the ways of school.

‘I think we should leave at once,’ she said. ‘After breakfast.’

That suggestion, he pointed out to her, was nonsensical. They had booked a room in the hotel: they were obliged to pay for it. He was exhausted, he added, after a particularly trying term.

‘It’s what I’d like,’ she said.

He spread margarine on his toast and added to it some of the marmalade. ‘We must not be selfish,’ he said, suggesting that both of them were on the point of being selfish and that together they must prevent themselves.

‘I’d be happier,’ she began, but he swiftly interrupted her, reminding her that his holiday had been spoilt enough already and that he for his part was intent on making the best of things. ‘Let’s simply enjoy what we can,’ he said, ‘without making a fuss about it.’

At that moment Jackson Major and his wife, a pretty, pale-haired girl called Daphne, entered the dining-room. They stood at the door, endeavouring to catch the eye of a waitress, not sure about where to sit. Mrs Jackson indicated a table that was occupied by two men, reminding her husband that they had sat at it last night for dinner. Jackson Major looked towards it and looked impatiently away, seeming annoyed with his wife for bothering to draw his attention to a table at which they clearly could not sit. It was then, while still annoyed, that he noticed the Angusthorpes.

Mrs Angusthorpe saw him murmuring to his wife. He led the way to their table, and Mrs Angusthorpe observed that his wife moved less eagerly than he.

‘How marvellous, sir,’ Jackson Major said, shaking his headmaster by the hand. Except for a neat moustache, he had changed hardly at all, Mrs Angusthorpe noticed; a little fatter in the face, perhaps, and the small pimples that had marked his chin as a schoolboy had now cleared up completely. He introduced his wife to the headmaster, and then he turned to Mrs Angusthorpe and asked her how she was. Forgetfully, he omitted to introduce his wife to her, but she, in spite of that, smiled and nodded at his wife.

‘I’m afraid it’s gone down awfully, Jackson,’ Mr Angusthorpe said. ‘The hotel’s changed hands, you know. We weren’t aware ourselves.’

‘It seems quite comfortable, sir,’ Jackson Major said, sitting down and indicating that his wife should do the same.

‘The food was nice before,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe. ‘It’s really awful now.’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say awful, dear,’ Mr Angusthorpe corrected her. ‘One becomes used to a hotel,’ he explained to Jackson Major. ‘Any change is rather noticeable.’

‘We had a perfectly ghastly dinner,’ Daphne Jackson said.

‘Still,’ said Mr Angusthorpe, as though she had not spoken, ‘we’ll not return another year. My wife is going to scout around for a better place. You’ve brought your rod, Jackson?’

‘Well, yes, I did. I thought that maybe if Daphne felt tired I might once or twice try out your famous rivers, sir.’

Mrs Angusthorpe saw Mrs Jackson glance in surprise at her new husband, and she deduced that Mrs Jackson hadn’t been aware that a fishing-rod had comprised part of her husband’s luggage.

‘Capital,’ cried Mr Angusthorpe, while the waitress took the Jacksons’ order for breakfast. ‘You could scout round together,’ he said, addressing the two women at once, ‘while I show Jackson what’s what.’

‘It’s most kind of you, sir,’ Jackson Major said, ‘but I think, you know –’

‘Capital,’ cried Mr Angusthorpe again, his eyes swivelling from face to face, forbidding defiance. He laughed his humourless laugh and he poured himself more tea. ‘I told you, dear,’ he said to Mrs Angusthorpe. ‘There’s always a silver lining.’

In the hall of the Slieve Gashal Doyle took a metal stand from beneath the reception desk and busied himself arranging picture postcards on it. His wife had bought the stand in Galway, getting it at a reduced price because it was broken. He was at the moment offended with his wife because of her attitude when he had entered the hotel kitchen an hour ago with a number of ribs of beef. ‘Did you drop that meat?’ she had said in a hard voice, looking up from the table where she was making bread. ‘Is that dirt on the suet?’ He had replied that he’d been obliged to cross the village street hurriedly, to avoid a man on a bicycle. ‘You dropped the meat on the road,’ she accused. ‘D’you want to poison the bloody lot of them?’ Feeling hard done by, he had left the kitchen.

While he continued to work with the postcards, Mr Angusthorpe and Jackson Major passed before him with their fishing-rods. ‘We’ll be frying tonight,’ he observed jollily, wagging his head at their two rods. They did not reply: weren’t they the queer-looking eejits, he thought, with their sporty clothes and the two tweed hats covered with artificial flies. ‘I’ll bring it up, sir,’ Jackson Major was saying, ‘at the Old Boys’ Dinner in the autumn.’ It was ridiculous, Doyle reflected, going to that much trouble to catch a few fish when all you had to do was to go out at night and shine a torch into the water. ‘Would you be interested in postcards, gentlemen?’ he inquired, but so absorbed were Mr Angusthorpe and Jackson Major in their conversation that again neither of them made a reply.

Some time later, Daphne Jackson descended the stairs of the hotel. Doyle watched her, admiring her slender legs and the flowered dress she was wearing. A light-blue cardigan hung casually from her shoulders, its sleeves not occupied by her arms. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, to be married to a young body like that? He imagined her in a bedroom, taking off her cardigan and then her dress. She stood in her underclothes; swiftly she lifted them from her body.

‘Would you be interested in postcards at all?’ inquired Doyle. ‘I have the local views here.’

Daphne smiled at him. Without much interest, she examined the cards on the stand, and then she moved towards the entrance door.

‘There’s a lovely dinner we have for you today,’ said Doyle. ‘Ribs of beef that I’m just after handing over to the wife. As tender as an infant.’

He held the door open for her, talking all the time, since he knew they liked to be talked to. He asked her if she was going for a walk and told her that a walk would give her a healthy appetite. The day would keep good, he promised; he had read it in the paper.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

She walked through a sunny morning that did little to raise her spirits. Outside the hotel there was a large expanse of green grass, bounded on one side by the short village street. She crossed an area of the grass and then passed the butcher’s shop in which earlier Doyle had purchased the ribs of beef. She glanced in and the butcher smiled and waved at her, as though he knew her well. She smiled shyly back. Outside a small public house a man was mending a bicycle, which was upturned on the pavement: a child pushing a pram spoke to the man and he spoke to her. Farther on, past a row of cottages, a woman pumped water into a bucket from a green pump at the road’s edge, and beyond it, coming towards her slowly, she recognized the figure of Mrs Angusthorpe.

‘So we are grass widows,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe when she had arrived at a point at which it was suitable to speak.

‘Yes.’

‘I’m afraid it’s our fault, for being here. My husband’s, I mean, and mine.’

‘My husband could have declined to go fishing.’

The words were sour. They were sour and icy, Mrs Angusthorpe thought, matching her own mood. On her brief walk she had that morning disliked her husband more than ever she had disliked him before, and there was venom in her now. Once upon a time he might at least have heard her desires with what could even have been taken for understanding. He would not have acted upon her desires, since it was not in his nature to do so, but he would not have been guilty, either, of announcing in so obviously false a way that they should enjoy what they could and not make a fuss. There had been a semblance of chivalry in the attitude from which, at the beginning of their marriage, he had briefly regarded her; but forty-seven years had efficiently disposed of that garnish of politeness. A week or so ago a boy at the school had been casual with her, but the headmaster, hearing her report of the matter, had denied that what she stated could ever have occurred: he had moulded the boy in question, he pointed out, he had taken a special interest in the boy because he recognized in him qualities that were admirable: she was touchy, the headmaster said, increasingly touchy these days. She remembered in the first year of their marriage a way he had of patiently leaning back in his chair, puffing at the pipe he affected in those days and listening to her, seeming actually to weigh her arguments against his own. It was a long time now since he had weighed an argument of hers, or even devoted a moment of passing consideration to it. It was a long time since he could possibly have been concerned as to whether or not she found the food in a hotel unpalatable. She was angry when she thought of it this morning, not because she was unused to these circumstances of her life but because, quite suddenly, she had seen her state of resignation as an insult to the woman she once, too long ago, had been.

‘I would really like to talk to you,’ Mrs Angusthorpe said, to Daphne Jackson’s surprise. ‘It might be worth your while to stroll back to that hotel with me.’

On her short, angry walk she had realized, too, that once she had greatly disliked Jackson Major because he reminded her in some ways of her husband. A priggish youth, she had recalled, a tedious bore of a boy who had shown her husband a ridiculous respect while also fearing and resembling him. On her walk she had remembered the day he had broken the half-mile record, standing in the sports field in his running clothes, deprecating his effort because he knew his headmaster would wish him to act like that. What good was winning a half-mile race if he upset his wife the first time he found himself in a bedroom with her?

‘I remember your husband as a boy,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe. ‘He set an athletic record which has not yet been broken’

‘Yes, he told me.’

‘He had trouble with his chin. Pimples that wouldn’t go away. I see all that’s been overcome.’

‘Well, yes –’

‘And trouble also because he beat a boy too hard. The mother wrote, enclosing the opinion of a doctor.’

Daphne frowned. She ceased to walk. She stared at Mrs Angusthorpe.

‘Oh yes,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe.

They passed the butcher’s shop, from the doorway of which the butcher now addressed them. The weather was good, the butcher said: it was a suitable time for a holiday. Mrs Angusthorpe smiled at him and bowed. Daphne, frowning still, passed on.

‘You’re right,’ Mrs Angusthorpe said next, ‘when you say that your husband could have declined to go fishing.’

‘I think he felt –’

‘Odd, I thought, to have a fishing-rod with him in the first place. Odd on a honeymoon.’

They entered the hotel. Doyle came forward to meet them. ‘Ah, so you’ve palled up?’ he said. ‘Isn’t that grand?’

‘We could have sherry,’ Mrs Angusthorpe suggested, ‘in the bar.’

‘Of course you could,’ said Doyle. ‘Won’t your two husbands be pegging away at the old fish for the entire day?’

‘They promised to be back for lunch,’ Daphne said quickly, her voice seeming to herself to be unduly weak. She cleared her throat and remarked to Doyle that the village was pretty. She didn’t really wish to sit in the hotel bar drinking sherry with the wife of her husband’s headmaster. It was all ridiculous, she thought, on a honeymoon.

‘Go down into the bar,’ said Doyle, ‘and I’ll be down myself in a minute.’

Mrs Angusthorpe seized with the fingers of her left hand the flowered material of Daphne’s dress. ‘The bar’s down here,’ she said, leading the way without releasing her hold.

They sat at a table on which there were a number of absorbent mats that advertised brands of beer. Doyle brought them two glasses of sherry, which Mrs Angusthorpe ordered him to put down to her husband’s account. ‘Shout out when you’re in need of a refill,’ he invited. ‘I’ll be up in the hall.’

‘The partition between our bedrooms is far from soundproof,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe when Doyle had gone. ‘We were awakened in the night.’

‘Awakened?’

‘As if you were in the room beside us, we heard a conversation.’

‘My God!’

‘Yes.’

Blood rushed to Daphne Jackson’s face. She was aware of an unpleasant sensation in her stomach. She turned her head away. Mrs Angusthorpe said:

‘People don’t speak out. All my married life, for instance, I haven’t spoken out. My dear, you’re far too good for Jackson Major.’

It seemed to Daphne, who had been Daphne Jackson for less than twenty-four hours, that the wife of her husband’s headmaster was insane. She gulped at the glass of sherry before her, unable to prevent herself from vividly recalling the awfulness of the night before in the small bedroom. He had come at her as she was taking off her blouse. His right hand had shot beneath her underclothes, pressing at her and gripping her. All during their inedible dinner he had been urging her to drink whiskey and wine, and drinking quantities of both himself. In bed he had suddenly become calmer, remembering instructions read in a book.

‘Pack a suitcase,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe, ‘and go.’

The words belonged to a nightmare and Daphne was aware of wishing that she were asleep and dreaming. The memory of tension on her wedding-day, and of guests standing around in sunshine in a London garden, and then the flight by plane, were elements that confused her mind as she listened to this small woman. The tension had been with her as she walked towards the altar and had been with her, too, in her parents’ garden. Nor had it eased when she escaped with her husband on a Viscount: it might even have increased on the flight and on the train to Galway, and then in the hired car that had carried her to the small village. It had certainly increased while she attempted to eat stringy chicken at a late hour in the dining-room, while her husband smiled at her and talked about intoxicants. The reason he had talked so much about whiskey and wine, she now concluded, was because he’d been aware of the tension that was coiled within her.

‘You have made a mistake,’ came the voice of Mrs Angusthorpe, ‘but even now it is not too late to rectify it. Do not accept it, reject your error, Mrs Jackson.’

Doyle came into the bar and brought to them, without their demanding it, more sherry in two new glasses. Daphne heard him remarking that the brand of sherry was very popular in these parts. It was Spanish sherry, he said, since he would stock nothing else. He talked about Spain and Spaniards, saying that at the time of the Spanish Armada Spanish sailors had been wrecked around the nearby coast.

‘I love my husband,’ Daphne said when Doyle had gone again.

She had met her husband in the Hurlingham Club. He had partnered her in tennis and they had danced together at a charity dance. She’d listened while he talked one evening, telling her that the one thing he regretted was that he hadn’t played golf as a child. Golf was a game, he’d said, that must be started when young if one was ever to achieve championship distinction. With tennis that wasn’t quite so important, but it was, of course, as well to start tennis early also. She had thought he was rather nice. There was something about his distant manner that attracted her; there was a touch of arrogance in the way he didn’t look at her when he spoke. She’d make him look at her, she vowed.

‘My dear,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe, ‘I’ve seen the seamy side of Jackson Major. The more I think of him the more I can recall. He forced his way up that school, snatching at chances that weren’t his to take, putting himself first, like he did in the half-mile race. There was cruelty in Jackson Major’s eye, and ruthlessness and dullness. Like my husband, he has no sense of humour.’

‘Mrs Angusthorpe, I really can’t listen to this. I was married yesterday to a man I’m in love with. It’ll be all right –’

‘Why will it be all right?’

‘Because,’ snapped Daphne Jackson with sudden spirit, ‘I shall ask my husband as soon as he returns to take me at once from this horrible hotel. My marriage does not concern you, Mrs Angusthorpe.’

‘They are talking now on a riverside, whispering maybe so as not to disturb their prey. They are murmuring about the past, of achievements on the sports field and marches undertaken by a cadet force. While you and I are having a different kind of talk.’

‘What our husbands are saying to one another, Mrs Angusthorpe, may well make more sense.’

‘What they are not saying is that two women in the bar of this hotel are unhappy. They have forgotten about the two women: they are more relaxed and contented than ever they are with us.’

Mrs Angusthorpe, beady-eyed as she spoke, saw the effect of her words reflected in the uneasy face of the woman beside her. She felt herself carried away by this small triumph, she experienced a headiness that was blissful. She saw in her mind another scene, imagining herself, over lunch, telling her husband about the simple thing that had happened. She would watch him sitting there in all his dignity: she would wait, until he was about to pass a forkful of food to his mouth and then she would say: ‘Jackson Major’s wife has left him already.’ And she would smile at him.

‘You walked across the dining-room at breakfast,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe. ‘An instinct warned me then that you’d made an error.’

‘I haven’t made an error. I’ve told you, Mrs Angusthorpe –’

‘Time will erode the polish of politeness. One day soon you’ll see amusement in his eyes when you offer an opinion.’

‘Please stop, Mrs Angusthorpe. I must go away if you continue like this –’

‘ “This man’s a bore,” you’ll suddenly say to yourself, and look at him amazed.’

‘Mrs Angusthorpe –’

‘Amazed that you could ever have let it happen.’

‘Oh God, please stop,’ cried Daphne, tears coming suddenly from her eyes, her hands rushing to her cheeks.

‘Don’t be a silly girl,’ whispered Mrs Angusthorpe, grasping the arm of her companion and tightening her fingers on it until Daphne felt pain. She thought as she felt it that Mrs Angusthorpe was a poisonous woman. She struggled to keep back further tears, she tried to wrench her arm away.

‘I’ll tell the man Doyle to order you a car,’ said Mrs Angusthorpe. ‘It’ll take you into Galway. I’ll lend you money, Mrs Jackson. By one o’clock tonight you could be sitting in your bed at home, eating from a tray that your mother brought you. A divorce will come through and one day you’ll meet a man who’ll love you with a tenderness.’

‘My husband loves me, Mrs Angusthorpe –’

‘Your husband should marry a woman who’s keen on horses or golf, a woman who might take a whip to him, being ten years older than himself. My dear, you’re like me: you’re a delicate person.’

‘Please let go my arm. You’ve no right to talk to me like this –’

‘He is my husband’s creature, my husband moulded him. The best head boy he’d ever known, he said to me.’

Daphne, calmer now, did not say anything. She felt the pressure on her arm being removed. She stared ahead of her, at a round mat on the table that advertised Celebration Ale. Without wishing to and perhaps, she thought, because she was so upset, she saw herself suddenly as Mrs Angusthorpe had suggested, sitting up in her own bedroom with a tray of food on her knees and her mother standing beside her, saying it was all right. ‘I suddenly realized,’ she heard herself saying. ‘He took me to this awful hotel, where his old headmaster was. He gave me wine and whiskey, and then in bed I thought I might be sick.’ Her mother replied to her, telling her that it wasn’t a disgrace, and her father came in later and told her not to worry. It was better not to be unhappy, her father said: it was better to have courage now.

‘Let me tell Doyle to order a car at once.’ Mrs Angusthorpe was on her feet, eagerness in her eyes and voice. Her cheeks were flushed from sherry and excitement.

‘You’re quite outrageous,’ said Daphne Jackson.

She left the bar and in the hall Doyle again desired her as she passed. He spoke to her, telling her he’d already ordered a few more bottles of that sherry so that she and Mrs Angusthorpe could sip a little as often as they liked. It was sherry, he repeated, that was very popular in the locality. She nodded and mounted the stairs, not hearing much of what he said, feeling that as she pushed one leg in front of the other her whole body would open and tears would gush from everywhere. Why did she have to put up with talk like that on the first morning of her honeymoon? Why had he casually gone out fishing with his old headmaster? Why had he brought her to this terrible place and then made her drink so that the tension would leave her body? She sobbed on the stairs, causing Doyle to frown and feel concerned for her.

‘Are you all right?’ Jackson Major asked, standing in the doorway of their room, looking to where she sat, by the window. He closed the door and went to her. ‘You’ve been all right?’ he said.

She nodded, smiling a little. She spoke in a low voice: she said she thought it possible that conversations might be heard through the partition wall. She pointed to the wall she spoke of. ‘It’s only a partition,’ she said.

He touched it and agreed, but gave it as his opinion that little could be heard through it since they themselves had not heard the people on the other side of it. Partitions nowadays, he pronounced, were constructed always of soundproof material.

‘Let’s have a drink before lunch,’ she said.

In the hour that had elapsed since she had left Mrs Angusthorpe in the bar she had changed her stockings and her dress. She had washed her face in cold water and had put lipstick and powder on it. She had brushed her suede shoes with a rubber brush.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘We’ll have a little drink.’

He kissed her. On the way downstairs he told her about the morning’s fishing and the conversations he had had with his old headmaster. Not asking her what she’d like, he ordered both of them gin and tonic in the bar.

‘I know her better than you do, sir,’ Doyle said, bringing her a glass of sherry, but Jackson Major didn’t appear to realize what had happened, being still engrossed in the retailing of the conversations he had had with his old headmaster.

‘I want to leave this hotel,’ she said. ‘At once, darling, after lunch.’

‘Daphne –’

‘I do.’

She didn’t say that Mrs Angusthorpe had urged her to leave him, nor that the Angusthorpes had lain awake during the night, hearing what there was to hear. She simply said she didn’t at all like the idea of spending her honeymoon in a hotel which also contained his late headmaster and the headmaster’s wife. ‘They remember you as a boy,’ she said. ‘For some reason it makes me edgy. And anyway it’s such a nasty hotel.’

She leaned back after that speech, glad that she’d been able to make it as she’d planned to make it. They would move on after lunch, paying whatever money must necessarily be paid. They would find a pleasant room in a pleasant hotel and the tension inside her would gradually relax. In the Hurlingham Club she had made this tall man look at her when he spoke to her, she had made him regard her and find her attractive, as she found him. They had said to one another that they had fallen in love, he had asked her to marry him, and she had happily agreed: there was nothing the matter.

‘My dear, it would be quite impossible,’ he said.

‘Impossible?’

‘At this time of year, in the middle of the season? Hotel rooms are gold dust, my dear. Angusthorpe was saying as much. His wife’s a good sort, you know –’

‘I want to leave here.’

He laughed good-humouredly. He gestured with his hands, suggesting his helplessness.

‘I cannot stay here,’ she said.

‘You’re tired, Daphne.’

‘I cannot stay here for a fortnight with the Angusthorpes. She’s a woman who goes on all the time; there’s something the matter with her. While you go fishing –’

‘Darling, I had to go this morning. I felt it polite to go. If you like, I’ll not go out again at all.’

‘I’ve told you what I’d like.’

‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ He turned away from her. She said:

‘I thought you would say yes at once.’

‘How the hell can I say yes when we’ve booked a room for the next fortnight and we’re duty-bound to pay for it? Do you really think we can just walk up to that man and say we don’t like his hotel and the people he has staying here?’

‘We could make some excuse. We could pretend –’

‘Pretend? Pretend, Daphne?’

‘Some illness. We could say my mother’s ill,’ she hurriedly said. ‘Or some aunt who doesn’t even exist. We could hire a car and drive around the coast –’

‘Daphne –’

‘Why not?’

‘For a start, I haven’t my driving licence with me.’

‘I have.’

‘I doubt it, Daphne.’

She thought, and then she agreed that she hadn’t. ‘We could go to Dublin,’ she said with a fresh burst of urgency. ‘Dublin’s a lovely place, people say. We could stay in Dublin and –’

‘My dear, this is a tourist country. Millions of tourists come here every summer. Do you really believe we’d find decent accommodation in Dublin in the middle of the season?’

‘It wouldn’t have to be decent. Some little clean hotel –’

‘Added to which, Daphne, I must honestly tell you that I have no wish to go gallivanting on my honeymoon. Nor do I care for the notion of telling lies about the illness of people who are not ill, or do not even exist.’

‘I’ll tell the lies. I’ll talk to Mr Doyle directly after lunch. I’ll talk to him now.’ She stood up. He shook his head, reaching for the hand that was nearer to him.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

Slowly she sat down again.

‘Oh, darling,’ she said.

‘We must be sensible, Daphne. We can’t just go gallivanting off –’

‘Why do you keep on about gallivanting? What’s it matter whether we’re gallivanting or not so long as we’re enjoying ourselves?’

‘Daphne –’

‘I’m asking you to do something to please me.’

Jackson Major, about to reply, changed his mind. He smiled at his bride. After a pause, he said:

‘If you really want to, Daphne –’

‘Well, I do. I think perhaps it’ll be awkward here with the Angusthorpes. And it’s not what we expected.’

‘It’s just a question,’ said Jackson Major, ‘of what we could possibly do. I’ve asked for my mail to be forwarded here and, as I say, I really believe it would be a case of out of the frying pan into nothing at all. It might prove horribly difficult.’

She closed her eyes and sat for a moment in silence. Then she opened them and, being unable to think of anything else to say, she said:

‘I’m sorry.’

He sighed, shrugging his shoulders slightly. He took her hand again. ‘You do see, darling?’ Before she could reply he added: ‘I’m sorry I was angry with you. I didn’t mean to be: I’m very sorry.’

He kissed her on the cheek that was near to him. He took her hand. ‘Now tell me,’ he said, ‘about everything that’s worrying you.’

She repeated, without more detail, what she had said already, but this time the sentences she spoke did not sound like complaints. He listened to her, sitting back and not interrupting, and then they conversed about all she had said. He agreed that it was a pity about the hotel and explained to her that what had happened, apparently, was that the old proprietor had died during the previous year. It was unfortunate too, he quite agreed, that the Angusthorpes should be here at the same time as they were because it would, of course, have been so much nicer to have been on their own. If she was worried about the partition in their room he would ask that their room should be changed for another one. He hadn’t known when she’d mentioned the partition before that it was the Angusthorpes who were on the other side of it. It would be better, really, not to be in the next room to the Angusthorpes since Angusthorpe had once been his headmaster, and he was certain that Doyle would understand a thing like that and agree to change them over, even if it meant greasing Doyle’s palm. ‘I imagine he’d fall in with anything,’ said Jackson Major, ‘for a bob or two.’

They finished their drinks and she followed him to the dining-room. There were no thoughts in her mind: no voice, neither her own nor Mrs Angusthorpe’s, spoke. For a reason she could not understand and didn’t want to bother to understand, the tension within her had snapped and was no longer there. The desire she had felt for tears when she’d walked away from Mrs Angusthorpe was far from her now; she felt a weariness, as though an ordeal was over and she had survived it. She didn’t know why she felt like that. All she knew was that he had listened to her: he had been patient and understanding, allowing her to say everything that was in her mind and then being reassuring. It was not his fault that the hotel had turned out so unfortunately. Nor was it his fault that a bullying old man had sought him out as a fishing companion. He couldn’t help it if his desire for her brought out a clumsiness in him. He was a man, she thought: he was not the same as she was: she must meet him half-way. He had said he was sorry for being angry with her.

In the hall they met the Angusthorpes on their way to the dining-room also.

‘I’m sorry if I upset you,’ Mrs Angusthorpe said to her, touching her arm to hold her back for a moment. ‘I’m afraid my temper ran away with me.’

The two men went ahead, involved in a new conversation. ‘We might try that little tributary this afternoon,’ the headmaster was suggesting.