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A backward and dilapidated province

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‘Giles, I think you’re making rather a fuss over nothing.  Yes, if it were Peter, and on his own, I might have qualms, which is not to credit your insinuations in the slightest, just that—’ Not quite sure what it was just, Pam Marlow continued firmly, ‘it’s not Peter, it’s Nicola—’

‘And the Merrick boy—’

‘Who is not my responsibility, and if Helena and Anthony don’t object to him calling on Mr Odell and Mr Lanyon it is most impertinent for you to do so. I trust you’ve not mentioned—’

Giles shook his head. ‘God, no. What do you take me for?  I just think it would’ve been better not to let her from the start—I daresay there’s not much we can do without tremendous awkwardness.’

‘Well, quite.  And they seem—perfectly normal. They aren’t at all what you would expect—even if what you’re implying is true, which it may not necessarily—’

‘Oh, for goodness sake, Ma. They might as well have a brass plate up.’

Pam’s first thought was of the terrifying brilliance to which Ralph Lanyon would polish such an article, and to suppress this flippancy she snapped, ‘I didn’t bring you up to have a horrible mind.  I—look—that was a bit sharp.  I do think it’s shabby when people a bit older—pull rank on those your age, but you must see—I mean, you must know—that service throws up some peculiar associations—and in the War it was practically everybody.’

‘As far as I—and the science of psychology—know, Mother,’ Giles said coldly, ‘getting out of Dunkirk more or less intact doesn’t turn a chap queer.’

‘That was some very considerable distance beneath you, Giles, and I’ll do you the courtesy of forgetting I heard it.  Anyway, I understand that Ralph Lanyon will ride to the New Year Meet—he’s borrowing the Reynolds’s Vulcan—and that they’ll both be at the Merricks’ Twelfth Night party. Just to give you fair warning.  Speaking of contributions to general gaiety, I believe you volunteered to run that case of sloe gin over to Major Clavering?’

Giles, rather regretting more or less, which was unquestionably low, and recognising his mother’s method of issuing incontrovertible orders to her grown-up children, unfolded himself from the sofa and sloped out to the estate car.

*

‘I suppose you have accepted accepted, have you?’

‘Well, I—there are two plus-ones, of course.’ Laurie inclined his head in the direction of the invitations propped on the mantelpiece.

‘Of course.’ 

‘I wrote saying I’d be there on my own, and Helena Merrick asked the other day if you were too, and I said as far as I knew, the same, and she said splendid, because we’ve the usual shortage. So you can probably still skip it, but only at the cost of going to town or something.  I can’t; I can scarcely take advantage of their library and refuse their hospitality. You’re quite happy to hunt—’

‘Yes, but I like hunting, my dear.  The thought of clodhopping round that old left-footer’s musty ballroom with each of the Misses Marlow in strict rotation, on the other hand—’

‘The sentiment might just be mutual, in re digging foot, you know.  And I’m sure they’ll air it.  The ballroom, that is, not the—’

‘They’d hardly let Patrick come here, if it were, would they?’

‘I think it’s less a question of what they suspect about us than what they don’t about him.’

‘Oh, Spud. What oft was thought.’ In another man it might have been sarcasm, but long experience told Laurie to accept the compliment in good faith. ‘It might have been better not to—’

‘Too late—and we couldn’t have known, could we?’ 

Suddenly impatient, Ralph uncrossed his legs and stretched. ‘To hell with it. Weren’t we supposed to stop having conversations like this?  Don’t take any crap from the little twirp, you hear me?’

Laurie, having long since successfully deflected any emanation of that commodity forthcoming in his direction from Patrick, accepted this in the character of one of Ralph’s personal memoranda.

*

Lanyon was undeniably impressive, Giles thought, and he bloody knew it, too. How old had Nick said, twenty-six—so—thirty-seven?  He seemed older, but despite faded hair and weathered complexion, it was authority, not any hint of incipient decrepitude, made him appear so.  He looked hard as rivets, pretty damn indestructible, actually, a semblance only given the lie by the rather Hollywood-looking arrangement he had found for the reins.  (Giles cringed anew at more or less, recognising matter for wee-hours sheet-kicking remorse for some time to come.) Vulcan was a black, slightly shaggy, high-strung beast that Giles, though a largely nerveless horseman, didn’t envy his rider a bit.  Lanyon bestowed a light, easy but entirely correct good morning, Master upon Anthony Merrick and joined some velvet-capped company which, Giles saw for the first time, included Rowan.  Of course, she would know him from college as well.  Giles realised he was staring, but so was everyone else, it didn’t much matter.  His sister laughed and accepted the hipflask Lanyon held out.  Giles could join that crowd, made up of people he’d known, if casually and with long hiatuses, for most of his life, and there was a part of him that felt the imperative force of Lanyon’s arrogance.  But he was also genuinely repelled by it, by something it answered in himself. 

His reverie was broken by Shavian Cockney.  ‘Cor, the swank of that, eh?’

‘What the fuck—Lawrie?’

‘Did you say—’

‘No—yes. It won’t be the last time you’ll hear it.  It would be feeble beyond belief to tell Ma, so don’t.’  Something about his youngest sister periodically made Giles revert to the stage of life at which one’s address concluded with The World, The Solar System, The Universe.

‘Not the first time either,’ declared the heroine of the Thuggery Affair, ‘and not likely.’ (Though it was the first time she had heard it in Received Pronunciation, and it carried a very agreeable charge that way.) She followed his gaze thoughtfully.  ‘You don’t like him, do you?’

There was no point in dissembling with who? ‘Don’t be ridic., Lal.  I don’t even know him except to see, and only that since the other day.’

‘I don’t like him either.  Nick. Is. Cracked.’

With sudden and hideous mortification, Giles realised the source of their mother’s exasperation, which had only been compounded, not occasioned, by his ungentlemanly sneer.  If even Lawrie had put two and two together and come up with (admittedly, a plausible) five, then God only knew what the rest of them thought.  He felt an absurd impulse to announce to the coffeehousing company: that isn’t it, that isn’t it at all.  If it had merely been that what Kay had once termed Nick’s Organ of Veneration had found a new object, Giles could easily have suppressed any atavistic twitch of jealousy—she was fourteen—no, fifteen? after all, and a girl’s idolatry of an older brother at that ripe age had its uncomfortable aspect.  This was completely different, and much, much more complicated.

*

Laurie was almost sure he hadn’t been asleep, but he’d also undeniably woken up, to urgent tapping on glass and a muffled feminine voice.  He raised himself onto his elbows, groggy and blinking.  A wheyish, open-mouthed ghost was peering in at the leaded pane.  He pointed around to the kitchen door, and once it was certainly departed into afternoon mirk, applied himself to the ungainly task of rising. 

‘Nicola.  How delightful.  Come in.’

‘I can’t—sorrow, Mr Odell.  I knocked, and there wasn’t an answer, so I just happened to glance in at the window, and I thought you’d had a nasty accident—’

‘I—um, find it comfortable.  Excessively so, since I seem to have done a Father Gilligan.’

Nicola looked over his shoulder as if the clerical gentleman might be present.

‘Yeats.  If you could stop I’d read it to you in the ancestral brogue. Pull out that door behind you at least.’

‘Sorrow. You see, my—not mine—a livery screw—is tethered up front.  He got himself a bit of a knock—Lawrie—’

Still too dopey to realise that Nicola was the last child on earth to presume on first-name terms, he responded automatically, ‘Mmm?’

‘What? oh—no!’  Her pinched face coloured; she found the coincidence embarrassing as only an adolescent could. ‘My sister Lawrie—won the toss for Blackleg—we share him— and I got the hired hack and we were going over really quite a little fence but he walloped it awfully so I wondered if I might phone the stables from here because I don’t want to walk him too far and they might send a box around or at least say it’s all right to walk him.  He really is lame, not malingering, that happened to L—my sister at the New Year Meet two years ago, a malingerer I mean, but he’s got an absolutely fearful limp—’ she ground to an aghast halt, then caught Laurie’s mild, amused look, and began to giggle.

‘Of course, my dear.  Bring him round; that loosebox arrangement out there is a bit broken down, but it will just do, won’t it? and I’ll make you some cocoa.  Medium, strong or Navy?’ 

*

‘—Had pity on the least of things / Who slept upon a chair.’

Nicola, disinhibited by an open fire and the sort of measure of rum poured by the regular companion of a committed drinker, clapped as if she were Chas’s age.  But he did do it awfully well—not acting, like Lawrie would have, but narrating—the thought trickled into her brain like icy water—like Lois Sanger. She hoped her dismay didn’t show, and to cover it asked, ‘Did you ever do any acting?’

He started to shake his head.  ‘Well, at school. The School Cert. form produced whatever Shakespeare was set that year, to the mock and fleer of all the other blokes in the place, as you can imagine.’

Nicola, who couldn’t, thought Patrick probably could, and nodded by proxy.

‘We did Hamlet—’

Nicola had prepared herself elaborately for reading Hamlet in Eng. Lit., finding the speech Foley had quoted, learning and then running it over and over in her head, reasoning that the only thing worse than being taken wholly by surprise was the shock you knew was coming but hadn’t got ready for, and when it came, in Jean Baker’s soft, low, girlish voice, she wondered why she had ever worried at all.  She’d taken Kempe’s brisk gloss— ‘a sapper blown up by his own mine’—in her stride too.  But unexpected mentions of the play could still unnerve her a bit, even at this distance, which was just too goopy for words.

‘W-hat—who did you play?’ she said, steadying her voice, and rather fearing the next-to-worst.  Unless he’d faded a lot since he was sixteen, and it was a frightful long time ago, before she was even alive—she thought it was unlikely he’d been cast as Hamlet—he didn’t have that sort of face.  But he might very well have been one of—

‘Laertes.  It was quite a joke.  I was perfectly useless, actually.  I can’t act for nuts, only recite.  But I looked like a Laertes in those days, if you know what I mean.’ Nicola nodded with the vigour of relief; his compact solidity and distillate of good looks still rather did. ‘Did learn to fence a bit though.’  Something more than firelight flickered across his face.  A car drew up in the lane.  ‘Speak of—excuse me, Nicola,’ 

Nicola wanted to take advantage of his absence to scrutinise the tightly-packed side-on tea-chests that served as bookshelves, but to be discovered in this activity would be mortifying beyond belief.  She rejected the cloth-bound Yeats draped on the other chair-arm as impossible—it was poetry.  

With nothing to read, she attended to the details of the spartan surroundings: bright fender and pocked, polished lino, an incongruously thick and cosy-looking sheepskin hearth rug; a blanket bearing a label from Halifax, Nova Scotia, folded to pad the sunken cushion of her armchair; the faded print of HMS Phoenix; typewriter on a makeshift desk which at the turn of the century must have held ewer and washbowl; an elderly portable gramophone perched on another tea-chest, this one holding a handful of records.  She was suddenly overtaken by certainty: this was what she wanted for herself, what, she realised, she had always wanted, beneath her increasingly jokey assertion of six sons, and all in the Service.  When people asked her what she would like to do when she left school, she usually said something sensible about joining the WRNS, though the more she thought of it, the more she felt she’d rather not have the Navy at all than only the bit of it permitted to women—and she had her daydreams, a solo round-the-world voyage, not for the heroics, just for the doing of it—but that was not what this was. This wasn’t what she wanted to do, it was what she wanted: the simplicity of a life without family, without fuss, with only the belongings one absolutely needed, able to up sticks at a moment’s notice, with—she forced herself to think it—a chosen companion, who in turn had chosen you. 

Not so long ago, it would of course have been Lawrie, but she saw now that the time when she and her sister shared a life would come to an end—there was still rather ages to go, but it would end—when school was over, they would do quite different things.  Patrick—but that was like thinking of marrying Patrick, and that wasn’t what she meant at all—odd, she was able to think that without a scrap of embarrassment, even after the Ginty huha of, well, it was more than a year ago now.  Because of it.  Perhaps Miranda, now unquestionably her closest friend at school—she nearly laughed out loud at the thought of Miranda roughing it in Stable Cottage, washing her hair and her stylish supper dresses in the big Victorian sink and cursing the range in exactly Mr Lanyon’s merchant-marine lexicon.  Nicola had clearly not met her person yet.  The sobering thought that by the time they were her age they had, whether they knew it or not, was interrupted by the gentlemen in question.  Nicola stood and stammered a good evening, impossibly convinced that that they had heard her thoughts.

‘—by the time the stablehand came round with the horsebox, it was rather late to set Nicola loose on her own across the fields.’ (Nicola, who retained the vestiges of a kiddish fear of the dark outdoors, had enthusiastically agreed.)

‘Oh, come on then, Nick, I’ll run you back to Trennels. There wasn’t much sport, as it happens.  Do your people know you’re here?’

‘Well, I phoned, but no-one answered.  So I suppose not.’

‘Well, no point now, we’ll only be ten minutes.  If the search parties aren’t out, we’ll presume you got away with it.’

It was about three miles across the Crowlands, but much further by meandering road and Nicola thought ten minutes a severe underestimate.  But she had not reckoned with Mr Lanyon’s driving, which was a good deal more thrilling than his account of what indeed sounded like a rather confused, inconsequential day.  Nicola rather enjoyed the way he told stories; he had such marvellous ones, and his crisp professional manner meant you could visualise everything in its proper place and sequence. Patrick said there was no cure for a bloke who could make even man-eating sharks off Mombasa sound rather nine-to-five.

*

‘Good God, Nick.  You might have phoned, you revolting little prodigal. Sorry, Ralph, good evening.  Did she put you to awful trouble?’

‘Not a bit. And I believe you did telephone, didn’t you Nick?  But no-one was in.’ 

Nicola nodded, rather dumbfounded by Rowan’s easy tutoyer.

‘Well, you must come in for a drink—’ 

‘No, thank you, Rowan.’

‘Right you are.  See you sometime.  Thanks again.’  Nicola added her thanks.  Lanyon smiled and tapped Nicola’s right shoulder in quick, affectionate farewell.

‘Well I never,’ said Rowan, shunting Nicola into the scullery, where Ginty and Ann were sitting with cocoa, bread and dripping.  ‘You’ve got yourself a pal for life there.’

Nicola blushed. ‘What—I—’

‘Oh Nick, don’t say you didn’t notice.’  (Nick indeed didn’t, and it was not until the next morning, when she was making her bed, that it occurred to her, and even then, it didn’t seem of any consequence.  He knew she wasn’t a baby to be thrown by a little thing like that.)  She shrugged in what she hoped was an informed manner.  

‘Never been known to refuse a drink before, either,’ Rowan added.

‘Who? What?’ said Ginty.

‘Oh, dearie me, aren’t we a little pitcher?  And I’m not talking about your pretty face. Ralph Lanyon ran Nick home, that’s all.’

‘Is he a very heavy drinker?’ Ginty asked.

Rowan looked amused.  ‘Couldn’t say.  I don’t have anything much to do with him.’

Her Ralph rather indicated the reverse, Nick thought, silently torn between fascination and misery.

‘He seems a quite a—sensible person to me,’ said Ann, stiffly, for gossip made her genuinely uncomfortable.

‘Oh, yes, in the normal course of things, perfectly.  Just occasionally, though, from what one hears, he drops in flaming like a salamander and treats the infant sparks to a filthy great slice of tramp steamer life circa nineteen thirty-five.  They love it.  Except this one little ex-RAF W.O., some sort of temperance chappie—got riled and—’

‘Was there a fight?’

‘Crikey, Gin.  Didn’t Crommie ever point out the differ. between legit. and morbid? No, he just made a complaint.  And so Lanyon’s non grata with the brass.  One feels it’s a trifle last chance saloon.’

‘Oh, how sad,’ Ginty said, ‘he must be most dreadfully unhappy, don’t you think?’

Ann and Nicola caught Rowan’s face assuming its dangerously impersonal expression; Ginty, applying herself to the sugar bowl, missed it.

‘I mean, he’s rather dashing, isn’t he?  I’d say at one time he just about had the world at his feet.’

‘Mmm, one half of it, d’you mean?’  

‘No, but Ro—well, actually, sort of, yes.  And there he is holed up in that horrible shack with an old school chum.  They must—both of them, have lost a lot of self-confidence—because really, they’re quite presentable despite—’

‘I wouldn’t go spilling too much feminine pity in that quarter, sis.  Waste of a finite resource.’

‘You mean they do have girl friends?’

‘Well, no.  Just the opposite.  If you don’t know it doesn’t matter.’ 

‘Rowan, really—’  Ann said, quite sharply.  ‘You’re upsetting Nick—’

But Nicola was already on her feet.  ‘No she’s not, Ann.  But—I think it’s pretty grotty, actually,’ she struggled out.  And then she realised couldn’t say any more, and bolted.