Read a Story
Miss Best and Mr. Marvel
From Small Displacements
Vanessa Furse Jackson
“I saw a thrush this morning,” Mr. Marvel said.
“A thrush?” Miss Best exclaimed. “You didn’t!”
“I did,” Mr. Marvel said, with some satisfaction. “On the bank at the far side of the lawn, hopping about on the grass.”
“Looking for snails?”
“And finding one, too,” he said. “Bang-banging it on one of the big grey stones by the ornamental bridge.”
Miss Best looked out of her window. There were no lawns or ornamental bridges to be seen, just the wide concrete path between her building and the building next to it, which had quite nice brickwork, but no windows. “How fantastic!” she said. “And I was just watching a television show about the disappearance of native birds. Thrushes are getting so rare.”
“And house sparrows,” added Mr. Marvel.
“Oh, I do hope robins are safe,” Miss Best said, anxiously. “I couldn’t bear it if robins disappeared.”
“Christmas cards would never be the same.” Mr. Marvel shook his head. “It doesn’t bear thinking of,” he said.
They sat there for a moment in a silence.
“Still,” Miss Best said. “You saw a thrush. We must remember that and rejoice.”
Mr. Marvel puffed out his moustache. “Beautiful breast. Quite beautiful. I remember once . .” His eyes grew dreamy.
Miss Best sighed with pleasure. He’d brought her a story. “Yes?” she breathed.
“It was a summer at Ashenleigh, right at the end of the war,” he began. “I’d brought Ada down to meet my parents. Well, to meet my father, really, I suppose. Ma would have loved anyone who loved me, but the old boy could be prickly—thought all modern girls were light-skirts, only after one thing.”
“Your money?” hazarded Miss Best.
“No, no, my honor, my manhood—love you and leave you—that sort of thing.” Mr. Marvel looked a bit pink.
“Goodness,” said Miss Best. “I thought parents only worried about that if they had daughters. My father wouldn’t have any young man in the house after ten p.m.”
“Well, Ada was allowed to stay, but she was put in the bedroom next to my parents. Thin walls between. Made it quite a challenge.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, that wasn’t what I was remembering.”
Miss Best tilted her head to one side, raised an eyebrow.
“Not all I was remembering, damn you, woman.”
She laughed. She still had a pretty laugh. “Go on.”
“It was one of those gorgeous days that one recollects when one thinks of past summers,” Mr. Marvel went on, “but that are, in meteorological fact, comparatively rare. Golden sun, fresh morning, green world, birds singing—you know the kind of thing. It was after breakfast, and Ada and I were sitting on the terrace outside the French windows, looking out over the garden. Only of course my father wouldn’t call them French windows after Dunkirk—not very charitable towards the French, my father—refused to eat anything containing garlic or olives for the same reason. He called them the door windows instead.”
“Door windows—how very fascinating,” said Miss Best, entranced.
“So there we were, Ada and I, sitting on the old wooden seat outside the door windows, looking out over the lawn at those circular rose beds dotted everywhere—big blowsy tea roses, all those reds and yellows floppeting about, you prob’ly know their names. My father never knew the names of anything, but that’s what his father’d planted back in 1908 when they bought the place—great one for tradition, my father. So he entrusted the care of the garden to Ma and she left it all to old Jamieson to do. Had a son killed at Arnhem, poor old man, never really regained his strength after the war, but he was a wizard gardener—everything bloomed for him. I always thought those rose-beds looked a bit thorny and unfriendly myself—all that bare earth, if you know what I mean. But the great blooming heads, how pretty they were that day—oh, I can see them now.” Mr. Marvel sighed deeply.
“Why after Dunkirk?” asked Miss Best.
“Ha! What? Well, after Dunkirk, you see, Father washed his hands of the French—said it was typical of them to let the devil in and the angels out—wouldn’t have any doors in his house called French windows, no, by God. Bit of a Wogs begin at Calais sort of chap, my old dad. Sorry.”
“No, no, don’t be sorry,” said Miss Best. “Go on. You were with Ada on the terrace.”
“After breakfast, yes. What age would she have been as she sat beside you on the old wooden seat?” Miss Best was there, in the sunshine, on the terrace. She smelled the roses.
“Hmm, let me see, she must have been, yes, she’d just have turned twenty-three. I was a little older, of course—felt I could protect her—little Ada.” He cleared his throat.
“Twenty-three,” murmured Miss Best, remembering the combs with which she used to sweep back her hair, so it fell in curls behind her ears.
“Well, then,” said Mr. Marvel, picking up his tale. “There we were, sitting in the sunshine, full of eggs and bacon and the joys of young love. Holding hands discreetly, ahem, so no one could see from inside the house.”
“Fresh eggs, not dried?” asked Miss Best. It was important that the story be historically accurate.
“They had eggs at Ashenleigh all through the war. Rhode Island reds. My mother kept them.”
“Your father didn’t mind Americans, then?” said Miss Best, twinkling.
“Americans? Oh. Yes, ha! Very good. No, he always said he’d have married Mary Pickford if he hadn’t met my mother first. Though he couldn’t stand Roosevelt, of course—bolshy socialist pinko, he called him. Bit unfair, I always thought, but there. Where was I?”
“On the terrace,” said Miss Best. “I do apologize. The eggs distracted me.”
“Holding hands, yes. We had our own pigs, too, by the way. Jamieson dealt with those, though. Lovely animals. I always used to go straight to the sties when I came home on leave. One could lean over the low wall for hours scratching a bristly pink back with a stick—you relaxed, pig relaxed, it was a wonderful way to wind down before tea and questions in the drawing-room.”
“From your parents, yes.” Miss Best nodded, sympathetically.
“Bit like coming home from school, coming home on leave,” said Mr. Marvel. “Same inquisition or so it seemed to me. What have you been doing since we last saw you? Are your superiors pleased with you? When can we expect your promotion? Have you made any nice friends? That sort of thing. Couldn’t stand it sometimes.”
“You poor man,” said Miss Best, with deep sympathy. “Mine was always that last question. Have you made any nice friends? Meaning men friends. Meaning, when are you going to catch yourself a husband and get married? Infuriating when I longed to have what other girls did, wanted so much to love. To be loved. I would have given anything.” She stopped, out of breath from the shock of anger that had blown through her.
Mr. Marvel took one of her hands in his and held it gently.
“What they were really asking was why do we have a poor virginal failure for a daughter?” Miss Best took a tissue from a box next to her chair and wiped her eyes. She looked out at the concrete wall and brick path outside. Mr. Doughty was taking his regular afternoon constitutional, leaning heavily on his walker, taking tiny steps on feet he kept so tightly clamped together, it was as if he wore invisible leg-cuffs. I used to be able to do that, thought Miss Best.
“I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t—well—you know,” said Mr. Marvel.
“Like me,” said Miss Best and smiled a watery smile. “If you didn’t like me. I know.”
“Well, I jolly well do,” he said. “Now where was I?”
“I like you, too,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without you. I know exactly why I named you Mr. Marvel, you dear man.” She blew her nose.
Mr. Marvel (and it was true that this was not his real name) whiffled deprecatingly through his moustache. “Well,” he said, “with a name like Best, you needed the illusion that I was on your august and elevated level, perhaps. Ha!”
“Such a silly name, Best,” she said. “It simply had the effect of making me aware I wasn’t.” She shifted slightly in her chair.
“Hurting?” he said.
“Go on,” said Miss Best. “You were sitting on the old wooden seat on the terrace with Ada. What was she wearing?”
Mr. Marvel thought for a moment. “Good question—what would she have been wearing?”
“Did she have combs in her hair?” asked Miss Best.
“No, no, wait now. She had a straw hat with a wide brim, I remember. Got in the way a bit. And her frock was white, that’s it. A white frock with three-quarter length sleeves. What else? A round collar like a blouse, you know. Buttons, I think, some buttons down the front. And a narrow, blue leather belt around her waist. By Jove, yes, it was pretty. That little waist, could put both hands around it, and all that white stuff falling from the line of blue. Fresh as the springtime,” he added, originally.
“Made from an old sheet probably,” said Miss Best. “Linen, if she was lucky. Or perhaps butter muslin. We had to make do and mend in those days.” But in her mind the exquisite Ada was attired in couturier perfection, a vision of the kind of loveliness that Miss Best remembered so well sighing over in dark cinemas. A dream heroine, unsuitably but immaculately dressed and coiffed for every scene.
There was a thumping knock on the door. Miss Best, her mind’s film un-spooling, started slightly. Mr. Marvel withdrew his hands tactfully as a nursing aide bustled in with Miss Best’s afternoon cup of tea. “Hello, Angel,” Mr. Marvel said. “How opportune—just what we need, a nice cup of tea.”
“Angela to you,” said the woman, tartly.
“'A ministering angel shall my sister be,’” rhapsodized Mr. Marvel, with an expansive sweep of his arms.
“Here you are then, ducks,” said Angela to Miss Best. She removed the box of tissues from reach and plunked down the cup of tea on the small table by Miss Best’s chair, so that some of the liquid rocked into the saucer. “Need the potty before you drink that, do you, lovie?”
“I do not,” Miss Best said, stiffly. “Thank you.”
“I suppose you’re going to want yours in here, too, aren’t you?” Angela said, slipping both her arms under Miss Best’s and giving her an expert pull up.
“If it would not be too much trouble,” Mr. Marvel said, inclining his head.
"And perhaps a couple of biscuits to go with the tea?” Miss Best added, but her suggestion was made to Angela’s retreating back as she whisked out of the room in a haste that clearly signified the trouble to which she was being put.
“Hamlet,” said Mr. Marvel.
“That woman,” sighed Miss Best.
“About Ophelia. After he’d driven her to kill herself, naturally.”
“A ministering angel?” said Miss Best. “That hardly describes Angela.” She had needed pulling up in her chair, but her back was protesting at Angela’s brisk methods.
“She’s in such a hurry, that one, she won’t stay around long enough for her own funeral,” said Mr. Marvel.
“Well, she won’t be missed,” said Miss Best with asperity, and the two of them broke into peals of laughter.
There was a frenzied wail from the next-door room. “There they are again. The flies have got in. The flies have got in. Help me. The flies have got in.”
“Oh Gawd,” said Mr. Marvel. “We’ve woken up Miss Cuckoo.”
“Shhh,” said Miss Best. “You mustn’t call her that.” She put a hand up to her mouth to stifle her laughter.
They listened to Angela go into the room, heard the steady murmur of her voice, and the wailing slowly died down again.
“Poor old thing,” said Miss Best.
“We’re lucky, you and I,” said Mr. Marvel. “We still have our faculties.”
“We may not be able to walk,” agreed Miss Best, “but at least we can still think.”
“Slight loss of legs but all our marbles,” said Mr. Marvel, and they were still laughing, though more quietly this time, when Angela returned with a second cup of tea, disapproval radiating from her like disinfectant.
“You’ll have to balance it on your lap,” she said, handing the cup and saucer to Mr. Marvel. “And mind you don’t spill any on your rug. We’re much too busy to be cleaning up after you today, so just you be careful, you hear me?”
“Yes, Mummy,” said Mr. Marvel.
“Bloody cheek,” said Angela as she swept out.
“And no biscuits, of course,” said Miss Best.
“I wonder why they work here, these women,” said Mr. Marvel, raising his tea and sucking it carefully through his moustache.
Miss Best put both hands round her cup and managed a tremulous sip, but the cup was such an awkward shape and her hands so clumsy today that she put it down again. “Potty, indeed,” she said, still outraged that the question should have been asked in front of a gentleman. “Have they no manners?”
“You notice that we may take no liberties,” said Mr. Marvel. “Yet we are ducks and lovie to them.”
“Children,” he agreed.
“Oh dear,” said Miss Best. “I’ve spilt some on my lap.” She looked around for a tissue, then dabbed with her thumb. “I shall be in trouble, I suppose.”
“Serves the silly cow right for slopping it in the first place,” said Mr. Marvel, with sudden viciousness. He drank his tea, fulminating.
“We mustn’t complain,” Miss Best said, after a pause. Her back ached, and she thought how nice it would be to lie down for a while.
“Why bloody not?”
Miss Best looked over at the corner of her room where stood the enormous hoist with which she was moved from chair to bed. Like some obscene dowager’s carriage, she thought, waiting motionless for the horse to be buckled into its slings and harness. By Angela, the coachman with the reins and whip. She chuckled at the picture then looked over at her friend.
He glanced up from his cup, caught her eye, and smiled unwillingly. “All right, all right,” he said. “No complaining. No point anyway. No damn point.” He leaned sideways with some difficulty and set his cup and saucer down on the floor with a clatter. “That’ll give her something to suck her teeth about,” he said with satisfaction. “Now, where was I?”
“On the terrace,” said Miss Best. “On the old wooden seat, with Ada.” She shut her eyes to retrieve the picture. “Who is in a white dress with a blue belt and a cartwheel straw hat with long blue ribbons. Her eyes match the belt and the ribbons, and her lips are the color of the red roses at which she is looking.”
“By Jove,” said Mr. Marvel. “You’re absolutely right. Blue ribbons on the hat, yes, I’d forgotten that.”
“Ada is twenty-three and quite lovely,” Miss Best went on. “She is also very much in love with you.”
“Very much in love,” he repeated. “Yes.”
“Are you about to propose, by any chance?” asked Miss Best, delicately.
“Ah,” said Mr. Marvel. He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair, brought his hands together in a praying shape, and rested his chin on the tips of his fingers. “I was just getting to that.” He thought for a moment, his brow furrowed.
“Are you in uniform?” Miss Best asked, giving him time to collect himself.
“No, I’m not in uniform.” He corrected himself. “Was not in uniform. Wouldn’t have done to wear it around the house, you know. I was in a pair of pre-war flannels, unfashionably wide, white shirt, no tie.”
“And a cricketing jersey?” suggested Miss Best.
“Too warm. Sleeves rolled up. Jacket hung over the arm of the seat, that kind of thing.”
“All right,” said Miss Best. “Carry on.”
“It was the thrush that got me started,” Mr. Marvel said. “Seeing that thrush this morning. There were thrushes at Ashenleigh, too, many, oh many thrushes.”
“On the lawn that morning?”
“On the lawn that very morning! Questing in the earth beneath the rose bushes, bringing their snails to the bottom of the terrace and breaking the shells on the stone steps there.”
“And singing that wonderful, glittering song from the surrounding trees,” said Miss Best.
“Alas, I don’t remember that,” Mr. Marvel said. “But I do remember my father on the subject.”
“Elms and limes and willows and a great spreading cedar of Lebanon,” said Miss Best, rapt.
“Called ‘em those damned Frog birds. Frog birds because they ate snails, you see.” Mr. Marvel raised up his head and guffawed with laughter. “Frog birds, oh lordy.”
Miss Best opened her eyes. “You’re not concentrating,” she said.
Mr. Marvel wiped his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. Lost my train of thought there for a moment.”
“The thrushes are questing. The smell of roses is overpowering. You are about to propose,” said Miss Best, closing her eyes again.
“I couldn’t go down on one knee or anything,” said Mr. Marvel. “Because of the possibility that we were being overlooked from behind the door windows. I couldn’t even turn to her properly because of that damned hat she had on. So I clasped her hands a little tighter in mine, and I think she knew I was about to speak.”
“Yes,” whispered Miss Best.
“Would you do me the honor?”
“The honor of becoming my wife?”
“Yes, oh yes.”
“That’s exactly right—exactly what she did say. No need for anything else, you see.”
“I was bold enough to lift her hands to my lips. I was overcome, quite overcome.”
“I understand completely.”
“No more words. So I reached over to my jacket pocket and got out my cigarette case—gave us both one, and we lit up and sat there in the sunshine smoking. Oh, those were the days,” said Mr. Marvel, with longing in his voice.
Miss Best had never smoked. “Cigarettes?” she said. “At a moment like this?” She opened her eyes and looked over at Mr. Marvel.
He caught her glance, guiltily, then rallied. “At that very moment,” he cried, “my father came lunging through the door windows like a rogue elephant in must, galloped around the old wooden seat, and stood before Ada and me gobbling like a turkey in his incoherent rage.”
“Either an elephant or a turkey. Not both, surely?” said Miss Best.
“Trumpeting and gobbling his displeasure,” continued Mr. Marvel, magnificently. “I could feel Ada’s little hands trembling in mine.”
“Where are the cigarettes?” hissed Miss Best.
“We had pitched our cigarettes over the front of the terrace at the first sound of movement from within.”
“I hope you didn’t hit any thrushes,” said Miss Best, but she was thrilled nevertheless.
“And then?” she urged.
“And then,” said Mr. Marvel, “before he could get a word in edgeways, I stood up (I was taller than he) and, looking down at him, said quietly but firmly, ‘Father, I would like to present to you my affianced bride. Ada has done the honour of accepting my hand in marriage’.”
“Bravo!” exclaimed Miss Best.
“That was it,” said Mr. Marvel. “The poor old boy caved in immediately, still red in the face and sputtering, but quite defeated. Bowed before her. Kissed her hand.”
“Oh, how marvelous,” said Miss Best. “How marvelous.” She closed her eyes and leaned back into her chair.
“It was rather, wasn’t it?” said Mr. Marvel. “A damned good story, though I say it as shouldn’t.”
Miss Best smiled. “Mmm,” she murmured, contentedly.
“You’re tired, dear lady. Time for me to be taking myself off. What a pleasure this has been. Many thanks for putting up with me.”
Miss Best tried to beg him to stay longer, but she was indeed tired. It was almost time for the dowager’s carriage. “Thank you, dear friend,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
Mr. Marvel leaned forward, took one of her swollen, twisted hands in his, and kissed it gallantly, as he always did before leaving. “Till next time, then, my beauty,” he said, and took the brake off his chair. Reversing carefully, he felt a wheel run over something hard. There was a jolt, a loud crack, and “Oh damn,” said Mr. Marvel. “I’ve just run over the cup and saucer.”
The two friends looked at each other in consternation. He sighed and then shrugged. “No use crying over spilt china,” he said. “I’ll tell them as I go past the nursing station.”
“That’ll be the last cup of tea you’ll ever get from Angela,” said Miss Best.
He rolled his wheelchair backwards to the doorway. “Goodbye my dear Miss Best,” he said.
“Goodbye Mr. Marvel,” said Miss Best. “Come back soon. I want to hear all your stories, and we don’t have much time, do we?”
Mr. Marvel spun his chair round expertly in the wide corridor. “We have the rest of our lives,” he said, and he laughed—a boy’s laugh—as he rolled away, rubber wheels squeaking on the polished linoleum.
Miss Best laid her head back in her chair and closed her eyes. Beginning to drift into sleep, she was dimly aware of song glittering through the great spreading cedar above the scent of roses and, farther off, the bumbling, narcotic buzzing of a trapped fly.
From What I Cannot Say to You: Stories
Vanessa Furse Jackson
Mr. Darrell only had one arm. He’d lost the other in Burma, so we knew he’d been a soldier like Daddy, but less said soonest mended was all he’d tell us, so we talked to him about his car instead. Quite unlike the sedate Morris Oxford that we were used to, Mr. Darrell’s turquoise and chrome-winged car came straight out of the future, which in our case meant America. The steering wheel was on the left-hand side and the car changed gear by itself with little clicks and surges that never failed to give me butterflies of pleasure. The front seat was so wide it could fit the three of us on it and still have room for another, and it was covered with leopard skin, soft and furry. Mr. Darrell had a glowing red lighter in the dashboard to light his cigarette, which he did while steering with his knee, and then he would whistle with the cigarette alight in his mouth. There were mysterious dials on the dashboard and switches that we weren’t allowed to touch, and our endless questions and his brief, incomprehensible answers would form our conversation with him. We listened to the purr of the car, we listened to his slow, masculine voice, and when we reached the little lane that climbed up to our house, we listened to the hedgerow grass slap like hair against the wing mirrors on both sides of the car.
“How’s your ma today, then?” was the only question he’d ask us, and the faint smell of motor oil that came from his overalls would mingle with the smell of his cigarette smoke in the car.
Mackenna and I would look at each other quickly to see who should answer, then one of us, usually me, would say, “she’s all right, thanks,” and the ritual would be over.
He’d grunt, shift in his seat a little, and settle his stump along the edge of the window. He wore an oil-flecked white shirt under his overalls, and the left sleeve was folded into a neat cylindrical package that was held fast with an expandable metal bracelet. It was odd to see this package lift and move by itself.
Mum still drove us to the bus-stop every morning to catch the scarlet, double-decker, Thames Valley bus into Reading, where we’d change onto a maroon city bus that took us to school. But in the evenings, we’d get off at the stop outside the pub, The Cunning Man, go next door to Darrell’s Garage (Frank Darrell, Sole Prop.), and sit in the car on the furry leopard-skin seat until Mr. Darrell could get away from Old Ernie, his assistant, or from whichever customer it was who was engaging him in head-shaking, cigarette-dragging conversation. Mackenna and I would watch him impatiently in the rear-view mirror. When at last he walked over to the car and sunk into his seat so that the car rocked over to the left, he would shut his door with that deep hollow thunk, start up the low growl of motor, readjust the rear-view mirror with a sideways glance at us, then push in the choke halfway, and back slowly down the forecourt and onto the road. It was the best moment of my day.
We didn’t fully understand why Mum could take us in the morning but was always too tired to come for us in the evening, but I don’t remember asking her about it. We never asked her much about herself. We just assumed it was something to do with her being pregnant, an event we knew would bring us another brother or sister in September, though we had no idea exactly how. We vaguely disapproved, having believed for years that she loved the two of us exclusively, and anyway considering thirty-four too old for babies, so we talked about it as little as possible.
I didn’t mind that her tiredness meant us riding home in Mr. Darrell’s car, though, even if somewhere in a cloudy unformed thought I inextricably linked the baby’s coming (a gift, Mum said) to the joy of riding in his leopard and turquoise monster.
As we climbed the hill to the house, he would allow the car to slow until he could swing it smoothly and with one-handed ease through the shaggy gap in the privet hedge where there’d once been a gate. Then he would roll her carefully up the chunky gravel and sand of the driveway and onto the turnaround at the back of the house, so we could get out right beside the back-door. “Your Highnesses,” he’d say, leaning across us to open our door with a strong hand that was black in the lines over his knuckles and behind his fingernails, and that smelled so beautifully of garage. And we’d slide out, Mackenna first, then me from the middle, trying to hold onto my satchel and my panama hat and keep my cotton uniform dress decent across the furry cling of the leopard skin, trying at the same time to say thank you very much before I scrambled to overtake Mackenna round the side of the car, reach Mum first, get kissed first, get into the house first, run upstairs to our bedroom, tear off the wrinkled school dress, and scramble into the airy lightness of shorts.
Sometimes Mr. Darrell stayed for tea, but we took very little notice of him once our journey was over and we were safely delivered. We left him to Mum to entertain, while without time or breath to respond to questions about what we’d done in school that day we ate raspberry jam or meat-paste sandwiches, home-made ginger cake or Victoria sponge, digestive biscuits, and on a good day chocolate bourbons or pink wafer biscuits. We drank milk, wiped off our moustaches on the backs of our hands, mumbled pleasemayigetdown rather as the nuns had taught us to mumble the Hail Mary at school, and fled for the garden, which was where, in the early summer of 1959, we preferred to live.
Our favorite place was a secluded spot as far away from kitchen eyes as we could get, a patch of rarely mown grass between the shed and the privet hedge, which had an old apple tree growing in it and a low wall at its end. We could lie in the grass with our noses at ladybird level, and create whole grass kingdoms to reign over, sweet grass kingdoms with beckoning earthen tracks running away through rain-forests of grass stalks, and us the same size as the ants and beetles that scurried along them. Or we could sit cross-legged with our faces in the peppery poison smell of the privet hedge, and spy through at passers-by: the milkman with his rattling crates of milk bottles; the baker in his scarlet and gold van and the meat-faced butcher in his white van; people from the nearby village cycling home up the hill, delightfully red and out of breath; people walking with fat white legs in Wellington boots or brown lace-ups or Clark’s sandals and short socks, maybe pushing a pram, and all unaware of our disparaging whispers. Only if other children passed did we retreat--they always knew that we were there. Often, we just leaned back against the little wall and talked, told stories, read books, smoked a cigarette stolen from the box in the sitting-room. We’re twins, Mackenna and I, and back then before Francis was born, we would have thought it odd to do anything separately from each other. My little dark-haired, blue-eyed brother, who competed from the start for our love and attention, radically altered our small family. But something else had begun to change that summer of our eleventh year, and it’s no good now wishing I’d been quicker to see it.
We’re not identical. Far from it. Mackenna’s hair was thick and fair and straight, like Daddy’s had been, while I had Mum’s floaty mouse hair that curled in the rain and the kind of skin that went pink if someone looked straight at me. But Mum made us both black velvet Alice-bands that pulled our hair off our faces, and our eyes were the same brown with green bits in them, so that people did muddle us up sometimes, to our pleasure.
“Do you like Mr. Darrell?” Mackenna asked me one afternoon, as we were leaning back against the low wall, letting school soak out of us through the soporific heat of the sun.
I took a careful puff of my cigarette. I wasn’t as good as Mackenna at getting just the right amount of smoke into my mouth, then blowing it out down my nose without getting any into my eyes. Blinking a little, I said, “Why?”
“Oh, I just wondered,” she said, and blew a perfect smoke ring. It was the best one she’d ever made, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.
I thought for a moment, and through our cigarette smoke I could faintly smell that perfumed motor oil. “Yes, I do,” I said. “He’s nice to us. He doesn’t fuss us. And I like his voice.” I knew my answer sounded a bit lame, but I couldn’t find any other words to explain to her why I liked him so much. It was something to do with his soft Berkshire accent, something to do with the expert care with which he drove us, something to do with the sad package resting against his window. And it wasn’t quite any of that.
“I’m not sure,” Mackenna said.
“About what?” I asked. I was annoyed, but I didn’t want her to know I was.
“He looks at me funnily,” was all she said.
“He does not,” I said. “What d’you mean, looks at you?”
“When he gets in the car,” she said. “And sometimes when you don’t notice.”
“What d’you mean?” I said again.
“And when he leans over to open the door,” she added.
“You’re nutty,” I said. “He’s looking over to see the door handle. He’s not looking at you.” My skin felt hot and sticky in the sun, and I stubbed my cigarette out carefully in the little Blackcurrant Pastilles tin we kept hidden in the shed for the purpose. Then I wiped my hands in the grass. “I like him,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Look,” Mackenna said, holding out her arm.
“Look what?” I said. I couldn’t see anything on it.
“Here,” she said, pointing to a faint dirty mark on the white skin above her elbow. “He touched me today when he opened the door.”
“Bosh,” I said. “You’re making it up. And anyway, so what?”
“Smell,” she said, sticking her arm across into my face. I caught just the faintest whiff of the oil on her skin, and it smelled good.
“He brushed against you,” I said. “He couldn’t help it if you were in the way. Now stop being so dopey, and let’s go to London. Come on.”
We had never been to the real London, but we’d given its name to our make-believe land because that’s where Daddy had died in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine when we were three and a half. London was inhabited by a mix of imaginary characters and real people in our lives who we either admired or hated. Those we hated (most of the village children, the butcher and all of the nuns at school) were relegated to the Nip Side where they experienced terrible catastrophes, while we ruled over the Allies Side with benevolence and profit. I was twenty-four minutes older than Mackenna, so I was Lord Lieutenant and the King’s favorite, and she was my trusted Helmsman. She picked that title. We had always been able to enter London at will, whispering our way in after we were supposed to be asleep at night, sitting upstairs at the back of the bus, or lying on our magic patch of grass beneath the apple tree. On our rambles in the countryside between our house and the village, every piece of which we had named, we were invariably engaged upon London business.
“Okay,” Mackenna said, scrambling up. “I won’t talk about it any more. But I’m glad I don’t have to sit next to him, that’s all. Mr. Greasy Darrell.” And she took the tin, and went into the shed to hide it in the spidery saddle-bag of Daddy’s old bicycle, which was one place we were sure Mum would never think of looking.
I knew that if I tried to defend him, I would start to cry. I’d been certain that she looked forward to the ride home every day the same as I did. It hadn’t occurred to me that we would ever differ over anything. How could she not like him? She was my twin.
When she came out of the shed and stood in front of me waiting for me to get up, I said, “I don’t want to go. Let’s stay here,” but I didn’t look up at her face.
“You just don’t want to see it,” she said, and walked away without another word.
I sat on the warm grass after she had gone, and remembered the last time I had waited here without her, though shivering that time with cold. It was on a Saturday afternoon last January, when we had found a bonfire burning at the edge of the Wild Wood with not a grown-up in sight. It was a large bonfire, whose smoke rose so thinly and reluctantly into the gray air that we might not have realized it was still going had it not been for the magnetic scent of wet oak burning as we headed for the dark mouth of the woods. In fact, the fire had an almost white-hot heart. Someone had expertly packed a thick pile of branches and rotting leaves to burn on its own for days. To us, it was one of those open gateways to London that we never turned down, and as we began to circle the live pungency of fire on a cold afternoon, poking the sluggish middle with sticks that immediately glowed, we became irresistibly caught in the ancient seduction of fire.
When it was over, I couldn’t remember exactly how I got us into it. I started acting the part of some sacrificial volunteer about to save my people through immolation, but became so quickly mesmerized by my own heat that the Helmsman left Mackenna and she began to plead with me not to do it. As I listened to her start to get genuinely frightened, I found my determination rising in me like a physical force until I wanted to jump into the fire so badly that I think I nearly did. Mackenna was sobbing and pulling at me, and I could hear the ring of certainty in my voice as if it was coming from someone else. There was real exhilaration in the power I felt, and it must have been exhaustion that finally brought me to my senses, rather than sense itself, for Mackenna’s distress merely egged me on to ever greater heights of conviction.
At last, reluctantly, I came to a stop, and she disappeared into the Wild Wood while I was still blinking at the misty, unfamiliar landscape. I walked home alone and hid in the shed to wait for her, so that we could come in for tea together as normal, though as it turned out Mum was late back herself that day, and wouldn’t have noticed our separation anyway. Crouching in the almost-dark by the barrel that held our winter potatoes and carrots, I had to inhale deeply the sandalwood smell of the peat they were packed in to try and slow down the beating of my heart.
And now she’d walked away from me again, and this time I wasn’t sure why. I felt my world become as strange and misted as it had on that darkening January day, and the hot sunshine still beating down on me felt odd, as if an electric fire had been plugged on in the garden.
Eventually, I went back into the house without Mackenna, and found Mum in the kitchen making us a salad for supper. I lolled against the sink watching her chop mint and snip chives, and felt comforted by her busy, familiar hands, though part of me was still traveling after Mackenna, trying to get her to come back and tilt my world onto its axis again.
“What have you done with Mackenna?” Mum asked after a while.
“What d’you mean, done?” I said.
She looked at me and smiled, but she didn’t say anything else. I knew she assumed that whatever had happened between us was my fault, and I suddenly felt better because this time I hadn’t done anything.
“Mum,” I said, “do you like Mr. Darrell?”
She stopped snipping and looked at me. “Do I like him?” she said.
“Yes.” I said. “Do you?”
“He’s a good man,” she said. “And he’s very good to you girls.” She put a hand to her back and straightened herself, and the bulge of the baby stuck out behind her apron. I tried not to look. “He’s a good man,” she said again. “Better than most around here.”
“But do you like him?” I insisted.
She took the bowl of salad and plunked it down on the table, next to a little vase of clover and ragged robin. “Of course I like him,” she said. “Don’t be silly. Now move.”
I shifted away from the sink, and went outside to wait for Mackenna.
I wasn’t quite sure what Mum meant by “better than most around here,” but I thought it had something to do with the fact that she was a widow, and that we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t mix much with people in the village, and though that never bothered Mackenna and me, I knew that Mum felt lonely sometimes because she told us. We tried to feel sorry for her, but although we often fantasized about what it would be like to have Daddy alive, I’m not sure we really wanted a fourth person in our lives. Poor Mum. She tried so hard to bring us up right in a world that was less sorry for than suspicious of widows living on small incomes and keeping to themselves, and it can’t have been easy. When I defied her, she sometimes boxed my ears, and said the dreaded, “if your father were alive, you’d never have dared to do this,” and worse, she sometimes cried, but she also allowed us a sensible balance of freedom. We knew exactly which lanes and fields around the house we were allowed to roam over, and which we weren’t, and we rarely crossed the line. We knew we weren’t allowed to talk to strange men, and I hadn’t done so since the summer when Mum took my bicycle away for six weeks because I persisted in talking to the stubbled old hedge-cutter who intermittently worked in the local lanes. Mackenna was terrified of him and wouldn’t go near him, but I felt sorry for him always being alone. He had a strange, pudding-basin hat, stiff with grease, incomprehensible speech, and a very unsavory reputation, though Mum found it hard to explain exactly what this was.
But along with her encouragement to put on Wellington boots and go out in any kind of weather came her unflagging desire to bring us up as young ladies. That was why we went to the convent in Reading, instead of to one of the other local schools. We weren’t Catholics, but she felt that the nuns would continue to uphold her standards when we were out of her sight. If that meant eating up everything on your plate because of the starving children in Africa, not wearing patent-leather shoes because men could look down and see your knickers reflected in them, always wearing a hat and gloves (brown wool in winter, white cotton in summer) out of doors, and never, ever eating in the street, even if your bus-stop was right outside the best ice-cream shop in Reading, then I suppose they were doing a good job. They certainly insulated us from much in the world of which either they felt young ladies shouldn’t know or of which they knew little themselves: science, prejudice, poetry, history (other than the history of Reading), athletics, music, sex, were all things we had to find out for ourselves.
On the Sunday afternoon after Mackenna had walked away from me, she and I were reluctantly doing homework in our bedroom, shut upstairs by Mum until we could honestly promise we had done everything we were supposed to. I worked faster than Mackenna and cared less about what Sister Mary Magdalene thought, so I was trying to help her finish her report on our recent school trip to the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory, hurrying her along so we could escape into the hot sunshine outside our window. All that summer term, it seems to me now, the sun shone in a pure blue sky, and day followed day so long and hot that I think we even stopped turning on the big wireless in the kitchen each morning for the weather forecast.
“What does it matter how the machine got the swirls to come out evenly onto each Iced Gem?” I asked her in exasperation. “They just did, and we saw them do it. That’s all you need to say.”
“Ssssh,” Mackenna said. “I’m thinking.”
I hated it when she said that. Shutting me out as if her thinking moments were sacred and I was the despoiler of her temple. “You’re keeping me locked up here,” I said, “when we could be outside doing something fun. Why don’t you let me finish it for you, and then we’d be free?”
“You go ahead without me,” she said. “I won’t be long.”
I didn’t say anything, but walked over to the open window, my bare feet sticking to the polished green linoleum at each step. I stood and traced the willow-leaf pattern on the curtains over and over with my finger to clear the blur of tears. Why did she keep doing that?
I could feel my pulse beating uncomfortably over my left eye. I didn’t say any more, but I knew she would know how I was feeling, and I hoped she would feel bad enough to finish her stupid composition, and let us out of this stuffy room and into the grass scents outside. But she didn’t say any more either, and I could hear her pencil slowly begin to travel across the scratchy paper of her exercise book. I hated her.
So I didn’t tell her what I saw.
Our bedroom window was at the side of the house, and overlooked the fields beside it that furrowed their way up to the village, which was just over the horizon. But if you stood in the shadow of the curtains, and squinted out sideways, you could also see the shed and our patch of grass and a little bit of the lane through the privet hedge at the front of the house. For a moment, as I looked out that way, I was confused, as if Mackenna’s remark had affected my ability to perceive familiarity. The privet hedge was still its untidy green self, but through it I saw blue, as if it now bordered on water of some kind, or onto a sheer drop-off that left only the sky beyond. I put my hand over my left eye, and tried looking again. Not sky color. Turquoise.
Then, though I couldn’t see her, I heard Mum come round from the back door, and scrunch her way down the drive. I was slow to connect the sound with the color through the hedge because I was used to Mum’s afternoon walks. She always lay on her bed for an hour after lunch, and then she went out for a walk up the lane. We knew she liked to be by herself during those times, and that was all right by us as it allowed us free and untrammeled access to London, and also to the cigarette box in the sitting-room. While she was out walking she’d pick flowers that grew beside the lane, snowdrops, primroses and violets, and at this time of year campion, ragged robin, herb Robert and Queen Anne’s lace, and she’d snip bits out of the hedges too, hawthorn and honeysuckle, or bright green furry beech leaves, out of which she’d make haphazard flower arrangements for the middle of the kitchen table. In autumn she’d fill her pockets with conkers, at Christmas she’d take a sack and stuff it with holly and ivy, and in the early spring she’d come home clutching armfuls of catkins and pussy willow. She was just that kind of walker.
I heard the scrunching cease as she reached the end of the drive and turned into the lane. Then I heard the familiar hollow thunk of the car door closing, followed by a second thunk, and then the blue moved away from behind the privet hedge with a low growl, and disappeared up the lane where she usually walked. Where on earth was she going? I thought. And why did she need Mr. Darrell to take her? I turned to see if Mackenna had heard anything, but the tip of her tongue was out, and her head was practically down on her exercise book as she followed the laborious loops of her pencil from left to right. I don’t think she was even aware I was still in the room, and after a moment I remembered that we didn’t talk about Mr. Darrell any more, so I said nothing.
Mackenna finished her report eventually, and we went for a walk across the fields to the Wild Wood, but we didn’t try to go to London, and I remember feeling as if I was walking on my own. When we got back for tea, there was a bunch of lupines in the middle of the kitchen table, and I wasn’t quite brave enough to ask Mum if lupines grew wild along the lane to the village.
That night I had a strange dream about Daddy that seemed to go on and on, and I kept trying to escape from it, but I couldn’t wake myself up. I dreamed about him quite a bit, though he rarely looked like the photograph of him by Mum’s bed. Mostly he looked like other people I knew, or like a picture in one of our books, or sometimes like Mackenna, but I always knew it was him, and I was glad every time he appeared. This time was different. There was a pervasive feeling of menace, and while Daddy looked almost uncannily like his photograph, his left arm was cut off and the stump wrapped up into a neat package held with a metal bracelet. Something was pursuing me that kept following me from scene to scene, but I wasn’t sure if it was him or not because he was also at my side. I wanted him to rescue me, but I couldn’t tell him why in case he was, in fact, after me. When I finally woke up, I was sweating, and the white package kept lifting itself up into my mind’s eye, and I kept saying No! and Mum was in the room with Mackenna standing by her and I didn’t know where I was for a moment and that was the scariest thing of all. Mum gave me a long hug and a couple of soluble aspirin, and she was still sitting on my bed when I went back to sleep, though I never told her what the dream had been about. I just said I’d forgotten, which was a big lie, as it was one of those dreams that I never forgot.
In the morning, I was still hot, and yesterday’s headache was beating over my left eye, so I was allowed to stay at home while Mackenna had to go off to school without me.
“You shouldn’t do this to me,” she said, when she came upstairs after breakfast to get her panama and gloves.
I was listening to the comforting buzz of aspirin in my head, and wishing she would go away and just let me sleep in the deep quiet of the morning.
“You’ll be sorry,” she said.
“For what?” I asked drowsily.
“For making me go by myself when you know it’s not safe,” she said.
“What’s not safe?” I asked.
“Motor oil,” she said, and clattered off down the stairs.
For a moment the white package surfaced again in my mind, and I stuffed it back hurriedly. Nonsense, I said to myself. Complete nonsense.
Over and over to myself that day, I said the word nonsense as I woke and slept and woke again, but as five o’clock approached, I realized that I was straining to hear the sound of the car coming up the lane, and that I wanted very much to have Mackenna here with me in the room, her usual Helmsman self and nothing between us at all.
I listened to the sounds as she arrived, acutely conscious of what each one signified. The car approaching, the hoarse squeaking of its brakes (he must have been going faster than usual), the sound of its tires on the driveway; her door opening (did his hand brush her arm?) then closing; his door opening then closing as she ran round the car and into the house; her footsteps on the stairs as his followed my mother’s into the kitchen. The faint sound of the kettle being filled with water as Mackenna banged the bedroom door open and then slammed it shut again.
“Well?” I said, sitting up in bed.
“Well what?” she said, from between muffling folds of dress.
“You know,” I said. “Motor oil. Him.”
“Oh, that,” she said, and after a pause, “you weren’t worrying about that, were you?”
“You said it wasn’t safe,” I said.
“Well, it was,” she said, dragging on her shorts. “It was boring, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“About what?” I asked. I was quite sure she was hiding something.
“You think I can’t cope with him?” she said, and she sounded quite cross. “We had nothing to talk about worth mentioning, and I stared out of the window at cows. It’s so stupid Mum not coming to pick us up any more. And now I suppose I have to go and have tea with him.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?” I said.
“He’s common, that’s the problem,” she said, and disappeared downstairs again.
Mum had always been adamant that we shouldn’t associate with, or talk like, anyone who was “common,” and we had always accepted this without question, so Mackenna’s remark had the ring of final judgment about it. I’d never thought of Mr. Darrell as being common. He’d been in Burma like Daddy. A soldier.
By Wednesday, I was well enough to go back to school, and everything seemed to have returned to normal. I’d had no more bad dreams, my headache was gone, and we began to study the Roman history of Reading. After school, we sneaked into the ice-cream shop before our bus came and each bought a ninepenny cornet with a chocolate flake in it, so that our gloves were a slimy brown and white by the time we got to the garage.
Mr. Darrell seemed glad that I was back, though he didn’t say much.
“How’s your ma today, then?” he asked.
Mackenna dug me in the ribs. “Motor oil,” she whispered.
I cleared my throat to cover up the sound of her voice. “She’s all right, thanks,” I said.
“And you’re all right?” he said.
I looked up at him, surprised, and he smiled down at me briefly. “I’m all right,” I said. “I’m much better.”
“That’s good, then,” he said, and lapsed into silence as he drove on up the lane and through the gap in the privet hedge.
“Hello, Frank,” my mother said, watching us all get out of the car, and Mackenna turned and looked at me with her eyes crossed and her tongue out.
He smiled at Mum as he’d smiled at me, and when we got upstairs and Mackenna had firmly shut the bedroom door, she swung round to me and said triumphantly, “There! You see?”
“See what?” I said, though I suppose I knew what she was going to say.
“He’s a creep,” she said fiercely. “A stupid, common creep. And I’m never going to ride in his stupid car again.”
“You’ll have to. Don’t be so daft. Mum’ll make you,” I said. I kept seeing the turquoise color of the car through the privet hedge. The lupines on the kitchen table.
“If we refuse to ride in his car any more, then he won’t be able to come to tea any more,” Mackenna said, stubbornly.
“How would you get home?” I asked, but I was arguing without heat or conviction. I felt as if time was speeding past me, leaving me no quiet place in which to think. Lupines on the kitchen table. The white package. Daddy.
“Frank!” she said, angrily. “Oh, Frank, do come in and have some tea. Dear Frank, so kind to the girls. If she only knew.”
“Sssh,” I said. “They’ll hear.”
“Let’s just get some milk and sandwiches, and go outside to London,” Mackenna said. “I’m not having tea with that creep.”
So we did, and I must say that Mum didn’t seem to take much notice of us collecting our picnic and disappearing out into the garden, which was unusual, as she was a stickler for sitting down at the table and eating like Christians as a rule. But it was a curious thing. We never did get to London that afternoon. We tried, but we just couldn’t get there. It refused to become real for us, and the more we tried, the less it would come into focus. As it turned out, that was the beginning of the end of London. During the summer, we did sometimes manage to go back to it, but it began to fade for us on that Wednesday afternoon, and it got progressively less and less bright, until by the winter it had disappeared for good.
The next day, Mackenna woke up with a temperature and a headache over her left eye, so I went reluctantly to school by myself. It felt odd, and I spent the whole day looking around to tell her something, and feeling disturbed when she wasn’t there.
“Be careful,” she’d said sleepily, as I was collecting my hat and gloves from our room.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
“Just be careful,” she said. “I know.”
“You know what?” I asked.
“Good-bye,” she said, and shut her eyes.
As I clambered down the steep stairs of the bus that afternoon, hanging on tight to the slippery metal rail as the bus slowed and lurched round the final bend to the garage, I was looking forward intensely to getting home and seeing if Mackenna was all right. “Cunning Man,” shouted the bus conductor, up the well of the stairs. “Anyone for The Cunning Man?” But there was only me. I walked along to the garage and up the forecourt to the car, thinking about the end-of-term trip to Reading Cemetery that had been announced today, imagining Mackenna’s delight at the prospect. We both loved history, particularly real history like you could read on gravestones. I opened the heavy, wide door of the car and slid onto the leopard skin seat. It was another boiling day, and inside the car it was almost unbearably hot, the air stale and the chrome around the windscreen winking and dazzling my eyes.
I was grateful that Mr. Darrell came over and got into the car almost the moment I’d shut the door. There must have been no other customer there that day, so we set off for home without the usual wait, and the green smell of June came in through my open window, smelling fresh and good. I could also smell Mr. Darrell’s motor oil quite strongly, and another smell that it took me several moments to realize was his sweat. There were beads of it along his upper lip and round the edge of his dark, curling hair, and the white shirt underneath his overalls had wet patches below his collar and underneath his right arm. It was very hot, but I was hardly sweating at all, and I felt sorry for him, soaked and oily like that. I wondered if his left armpit was also wet, and if the stump minded feeling the sweat trickling down inside the white package.
Then he caught me looking at him, and I had to turn and stare out the front at the long bonnet of the car jigging up and down as it slowly ate up the lane, and at the black and white cows grazing like toys in the fields on either side of us. I could feel my whole face going pink, and then all of a sudden he put his foot on the brake, and made an unexpected right-hand turn into the lane that led to Thelford, so that, holding on to nothing but my satchel, I fell sideways along the furry seat into his hard right arm. He straightened the car up, put his left knee up to steer, and put his hand over my arm to place me upright again. I sat there, and looked down at the faint oil mark on my skin, feeling flushed and a bit confused.
“Hang on,” he said. “I need to get some cigarettes, all right?”
There was a shop that sold cigarettes over the road from the garage, right by the stop where we caught the bus into Reading in the morning, and there was The Cunning Man next door to the garage. I wondered why he had to go to Thelford, but of course I didn’t say so. It was nothing to do with me, and besides, I was beginning to feel shy being alone in the car with him, and I wished with all my heart that Mackenna had been sitting beside me. I rubbed the smudge of oil into my skin, and didn’t say anything.
Thelford was about three-quarters of a mile off the lane that led home, an ugly village of unpainted council houses and uncared-for gardens that we hardly ever went near. Not a nice place, my mother said. Common, I supposed. Mr. Darrell stopped at the Post-Office and General Stores, a tiny dark shop with enamel signs for Ovaltine and Players Navy Cut and Camp Coffee stuck on the front wall of the building. I sat alone in the car while he disappeared, trying to slide down in my seat as passing children on bicycles slowed down to get a closer look at the car, all of them, it seemed to me, staring directly at my convent uniform as they did so.
After a thankfully short period of time, he came out of the jangling doorway, opening a packet of ten Woodbine with his right hand as he got into the car. He started her up, and we drove on through the village while the cigarette lighter heated up in the dashboard.
I was feeling peculiar, as if my world had tilted off its axis again, but I don’t think I was seriously disturbed by any of this. It was a kind of dream that I could watch unfolding, but that wasn’t really happening to me, any more than my dream about Daddy had really happened to me. I found that we were driving along a lane I didn’t recognize, and I was quite interested to see where it came out.
Mr. Darrell was whistling softly, but today the smell of oil and cigarette smoke sank heavily down through the stifling air in the car, and I shifted surreptitiously over to my right to try and catch the June green out of my window again.
When he turned sharply to the right for the second time, I was hanging onto the door strap, and I didn’t fall into his arm.
He had turned onto a little track about 500 feet long that had a field on one side of it, a dark little copse on the other, and a gate at its far end that I assumed led into another field. I had no idea where I was.
The car rolled to a stop, and he switched off the engine. I could hear its tick in the hot, still air, and somewhere a bird started singing the same song, over and over again. The tick, tick, and the sweet, frail song made the silence almost unbearable.
“Smoke?” he said, holding out the Woodbines.
I took off my white gloves and stuffed them into the top of my satchel. “Thank you very much,” I said politely, taking a cigarette and pushing in the lighter as if I had been doing this all my life. -
He lit my cigarette and said, “Your ma’ll kill me.”
“She won’t know,” I said instinctively. I was still convinced she didn’t know we smoked.
“That wasn’t . . .” he said, and took a long drag of his cigarette.
I puffed mine carefully, and blew smoke out cautiously through my nose. The silence thickened again. I felt a bit dizzy, and my stomach growled. It was getting to be tea-time.
I took another puff, blew the smoke out of the window, and listened to the bird singing. I felt wriggly with shyness. I took another puff, and finally I said, “Mr. Darrell?”
“Frank,” he said quietly.
“Frank,” I said, blushing uncomfortably. “Shouldn’t we go home now?”
The springs twanged under him as he turned in his seat to face me, but I just went on looking out of the window at the spindly clusters of young hazel in the copse. I thought perhaps he was waiting for me to finish my cigarette, so I took another puff that I didn’t really want, and blew out an almost perfect smoke ring. I wished Mackenna was here.
“Jilly,” he said in his soft voice.
I put the cigarette out in his crowded ashtray.
“Jilly, do you know how pretty you are?”
My heart started beating very hard suddenly, and I knew I was afraid, but it still seemed impossible to be afraid of Mr. Darrell. Frank.
He cupped his hand round my chin, and turned my head towards him, so that I had to look at him. His eyes were very blue, and sweat was running down the sides of his face and round his ears. “Come over here,” he said, and I slowly slid across the leopard skin seat. He took off my panama and laid it on the seat beside my window, then he put his arm gently around me, and pulled me over until my head was resting against his shoulder. We sat like that for a moment, me stiff and unable to move, the shoulder button of his overalls digging into my ear, him stroking my right arm and the hands that were clasped in my lap. The black lines across his knuckles made his hand look old, yet it felt warm and strong against my bare skin.
“I won’t hurt you, Jilly,” he said, and his voice sounded shaky. “Do you understand that I won’t hurt you?”
“Yes,” I whispered, my heart beating so fast I felt sick. Yet I still wasn’t truly afraid of him, just afraid that my world was tilting so far from its center that I might soon get dizzy enough to tip off from it altogether.
He was so gentle that I had no defense against him. Of course there was a part of me that wanted to scream and thrash and beat him aside and wrench myself out of the suffocating oil and sweat of his embrace and throw myself through the open window and run and run and run until the fields became familiar and I was running up the drive and up the stairs at home and into the bedroom where Mackenna was waiting and everything was just as it always had been. But another part of me could see out of my half-shut eyes the white package of his stump on his other side, his empty side, could see it move in sympathy as he stroked me with his right hand, and that part of me couldn’t bear to leave him sitting here in the car alone.
And after all nothing really bad happened.
He made me roll up my dress to my waist so he wouldn’t get oil on it, and then he stroked me between my legs till I wanted to wee, and I shifted under his hand because my knickers were wet, and then he kissed me on the mouth, which felt so strange and made it so hard to breathe that I really forgot where I was for a while. I forgot to be afraid, too, until suddenly he let go of me, put his hand inside his overalls and doubled over, groaning, as if he was about to be sick, and then I was suddenly very afraid indeed.
Wondering if I was going to be sick too, I put out a tentative hand, and touched him for the first time. “Frank,” I said. “Frank, are you all right?”
“Oh God,” he said, still groaning, and then he lay back against his seat with his eyes shut and was still, sweat pouring down his face.
I pulled my dress down over my knees, hoping Mum wouldn’t notice the motor oil on my knickers, and trying stupidly to think of excuses for its presence. We sat there for what seemed like ages, and I remember noting carefully in some lucid recess of my mind that the car’s engine was no longer ticking, nor was the bird singing its thready repetition. I knew something had happened that was very wrong, and I thought it must be my fault, but I wasn’t even sure what it was yet, so I put it away like a film to be developed later, and stared out of my window at the little sunless hazels in the copse.
He started up the car, and we drove home.
I didn’t kiss Mum as I went into the house, and Frank didn’t stay to tea. I went upstairs to our bedroom, and started ripping off my dress and socks and sandals, and Mackenna knew straight away that something had happened. I had never been as good at hiding things as she had. She sat bolt upright in bed, hugging her knees, her face flushed and her voice conspiratorial.
“Where were you?” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, and was surprised at how difficult it was to get my voice to come out right.
“You came home from the wrong direction,” she said.
“He bought some cigarettes,” I said, hoping she’d assume he’d bought them in our village.
“What happened?” she said.
“Nothing,” I said. “What did you expect to happen?” The lino felt cold under my feet, and I put my socks back on.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
“Just because you don’t like him,” I began, but then I didn’t know how to go on.
She lay down again, and looked up at the ceiling. “I bet you’ll never ride in his car again,” she said.
“Silly,” I said, but of course she was right.
I didn’t tell her what happened, either then or later, because I knew she wouldn’t understand why I hadn’t struggled, hadn’t said no, hadn’t screamed, hadn’t done anything. I knew she’d always hate Frank, and I didn’t want to be the one to betray him. So however much she asked, I kept quiet, and I think that was another reason we couldn’t go to London any more.
But I did tell Mum. I didn’t mean to, but when I went downstairs for tea, I started crying, and I couldn’t stop, and the dark film came spooling out in a tumble of distress. She asked me once if he’d put anything in me, and I didn’t know what she meant, but I said no, he hadn’t, just the oil stains on my knickers. She didn’t say anything else, but went on hugging me over the curve of the baby until I’d told her everything, and was leaning into her, drowsy with crying. There was a long silence then, and finally I took the hanky from her apron pocket, and looked up at her.
“Are you very cross?” I asked.
“Not with you,” she said, and I saw that she was crying too, which I hated.
“Don’t cry, Mum,” I said. “I’m all right. Here, have your hanky.”
“I hope you two girls get married, have lots of lovely children, and live happily ever after,” she said fiercely.
“What do you mean?” I asked, upset by her voice and her shaking hands.
“I hope you never have to face being alone,” she said, and after a moment she added through her teeth, “the bastard.”
I’d never heard her say anything as strong before, and I was rather shocked, though I wished I could follow her train of thought better. Poor Mum. It was only much later that I realized what I’d done to her.
For the rest of the summer term, we used the bus stop beyond The Cunning Man, which meant a longer drive for Mum in the old, black Morris Oxford, but she never complained of feeling tired. From the top of the bus, I occasionally caught sight of him on his garage forecourt, peering into a sick engine with Old Ernie, chatting to a customer, filling a car up with petrol, or rolling a big tire along with his right hand, the stump as neatly secured as ever in the white package with the metal bracelet.
I missed him, but I didn’t tell Mackenna that. We never talked about him again.