Relighting the spirit-lamp blown out by an especially vehement draught, Pam Marlow identified the hollow, suspenseful feeling that had possessed her for weeks. She replaced the tray of bacon and eggs over the flame. It was loneliness. She thought she had experienced it before, but now began to suspect that she had confused it with boredom, frustration or suppression of anxiety.
Her early married life had contained the repetitive privations that came with an income sufficient to bring up two, three or even four children, but was inadequate to six, eight: if often dull, it was crowded. A renovated financial settlement following her mother’s remarriage increased Pam’s yearly income, and Geoff’s promotion to Lt. Commander eased matters a little more, enabling them to buy the house in Hampstead, but then came the war. Worry sometimes proved a more stimulating companion than the ladies who had turned their attentions from bridge and golf to volunteer work, especially in their Maidenhead manifestations. There had been that terrible time, waiting to hear if Geoff were among the survivors from the bombed Calcutta; but though she had very nearly capitulated to a perfectly disgraceful bargain with God―or rather with His Adversary―she had not felt alone, just numb and nerveless as she watched the four younger ones race in circles about the garden. (Seven years later, distorted hospital echoes in her ears and carbolic in her nostrils, she would wonder in a delirium of superstition if she had truly resisted that unspeakable wager.) Shame, too, lurked in the shadows as she packed trunks for Dartmouth, for Kingscote, for Peter’s prep school, as she nursed the twins through their various maladies: to whom could she speak of her fears for their grandmother in occupied Paris? And worse, in liberated Paris? But Mme Orly had survived her traitor, as Ginty, Binks and Nicky had survived theirs. And then, just as they’d begun to settle back to something like normality, Jon’s crash had parachuted them into the sort of County milieu that had Pam checking the looking-glass each morning to make sure she hadn’t actually turned into Margaret Rutherford.
‘I’d say a penny for them, Mum, but you’re giving that coffee-pot at least ten shillings worth.’
‘Oh! Rowan―there you are. I was miles away. Here.’
Rowan took the warmed plate with a deprecating grimace that reminded Pam of Molly. Not that Rowan looked anything like her aunt: Pam had somehow evaded the long, heavy-jawed Anglo-Irish countenance bequeathed all her siblings by both parents; her high, slightly bulbous brow, which overbore delicate features like a fifteenth-century Madonna’s, had combined with Geoff’s square ruggedness to produce seven variations on the theme of easy, open good looks, of which Rowan’s, people came eventually to notice, were a good deal less blunt than her manner. But there was something in the set of her shoulders and jaw (goodness, how thin she had become) that spoke of Molly’s empty attempts at sororal bonhomie, which had always seemed to say I suppose you expect girlish gossip, don’t you, but I’m dashed if I know how. Pam frowned at the memory of her sister’s conviction that big feet and buck teeth somehow put her in touch with a superior masculine world of practical work and abstract ideas, from which a slim waist and lipstick likewise debarred one.
Rowan, adding toast to her full plate, looked up half-apologetically. ‘Ramsey’s strenuous compensation for the weaknesses of the flesh at early service gives me a reliable appetite. More than any amount of mangel-clamping. Exhausting just to listen to the man.’
‘Darling. Have as much as you like. I was just thinking how much weight you’d lost. And no-one could begrudge you a lie-in on Sunday if you liked.’
‘Mm. I’m afraid then Evensong would go the way of all good intentions. At least if it’s more or less show a leg as usual I might―never mind.’
‘Well, get something out of it. Like pretending to enjoy coffee,’ (she gulped some) ‘until you actually can’t do without. It’s all very well, a Marlow or two in the same pew since before there were pews, but I can’t help feeling―oh lor’, I sound like―’
‘―Like Ann? I don’t think so.’ Flustered at transgressing her rule against discussing one member of the family with another, Pam was surprised by the further thought that it was one of those made to be broken. ‘It reminded me of your father, in an odd way. Go over it until the physical response―’
Speaking the last two words aloud conjured a different meaning for them: the texture of Geoff’s skin, growing ribbed and inelastic with middle age, the comical abruptness of his sunburn-lines, the smell of his pipe tobacco and the putty-coloured, utilitarian soap from which none of Pam’s hopeful excursions into Floris or Penhaligon’s could part him. He was still trim and in good training, but now when she put her arms around him and squeezed his buttocks, she lifted slack flesh where all had once been taut density; the crease running under his abdominal muscles was blurring into a small paunch, which had not in any way diminished her desire to press a series of teasing kisses along it, making him groan in anticipation of―mildly horrified at the ease with which her breakfast-table thoughts had darted down that path, she pulled herself up. But it had been months.
‘―is automatic and it’ll buy you a moment to think in an emergency,’ Rowan finished, with a grin. ‘Did he teach you to drive too?’
‘No, that was Jon, as a matter of fact. Quite a different style.’
‘Well, I only learned properly during the war. But he did try, the summer your father and I met. His way was relax, try everything until you find the knack, which wasn’t as entirely lethal on the empty roads of the Twenties as it would be now. Poor Jon, I don’t think he ever really understood that most people can’t live their whole lives upon instinct.’
‘I hadn’t realised you knew Jon so early on. I thought you only met him after you and Daddy were married.’
‘No, sort of the other way round. Jon’s sister Katharine was a schoolfriend of Molly’s―’
‘Hang on―more relations we’ve never heard of?’
‘She―well, then she was an undergraduate. She became a pathologist and went to Malaya to work in an Institute of Tropical Medicine. It vindicated all Great-Uncle Lawrence’s misgivings about women’s education, and he cut her off, never answered her letters, refused to see her when she came back to England on leave. If she couldn’t have the decency to marry, she was supposed to hang around and be his unpaid housekeeper. I think she and Jon tried to stay in touch, but she was understandably bitter, he was always an intermittent sort of correspondent, and then came the war. She was interned by the Japanese, and I think she took the view that since she made it through that, she couldn't imagine her future being anywhere else. She's still there.’
‘Interesting times, from what one reads in the paper. I say, may I―’ Rowan nodded towards the remaining food on the sideboard.
‘Of course. Turn off the warmer, and pass my cigarettes, please.'
‘But do tell,’ Rowan said, returning to her seat. ‘About meeting Daddy, and knowing Jon, and Katharine―she sounds like a pretty unlikely friend for Aunt Molly, if I may say so.’ She spread mustard on a lukewarm rasher and folded it into a slice of toast.
Pam reached for the coffee-pot, absurdly indignant on her sister’s behalf, then smiled. ‘Molly used to have a bit more―initiative herself, despite everything. She was kept at home until she was sixteen; it was only when Maunsellscourt was burned out―’
‘Mum, honestly. You don’t tell us anything.'
‘Nothing to tell. We lived in London; the house in Ireland was mostly shut up and practically falling down. Papa let the wing that was more or less habitable to the district RM: he was the IRA's target, I suppose. But its loss seemed to give Papa the idea that Molly and I might one day need to know the sorts of things they teach at school. She blossomed; not intellectually, of course, but she mucked in cheerfully with bazaars and concerts and volunteer work, and she had a lot of friends. She was sorry to leave in a way I certainly wasn’t when my time came. Anyway, looking back on it, I think perhaps that summer was when she first started to lose heart. Katharine invited us both to stay at Trennels. At first Mother wasn’t at all happy; she thought it'd be a bluestocking affair. But when Molly explained that it would be perfectly ordinary: riding, tennis and croquet, the Regatta in Mulcross Bay, plenty of young men to go round, she became much more eager for us to go. It sounds dreadfully silly now, things have changed so much for young women, but Mother was very worried about Molly: she’d been out for three years and there hadn’t been a flicker.’
‘But you didn’t come out, did you?’
‘No. The simple explanation was that after Papa died we couldn’t afford it. I told everyone who would listen, but mainly myself, what an impossibly dusty pre-War relic the whole thing was, that no modern girl would be seen dead―I suppose I was a bit hurt, not so much because I wouldn’t have a season; we couldn’t conjure the money for dances and gowns out of nowhere, after all, but that Mother so obviously thought I didn’t need one. She had a fixed idea that I would marry a family friend, the youngest brother of a man whom Papa had helped with his business back before the First War. Noel was a pleasant fellow, six years older than me, a gifted engineer and a good businessman―his firm supported Frank Whittle, later on, and without Noel, everyone said, that would have been even more of a mess than it was. But it was obvious to everyone but Mother he wasn’t interested in marriage, certainly not to me and probably full stop. He never did, anyway. He was taken prisoner during the war and died in Burma. The queer thing was that I don’t think Mother would at all have approved of Molly―or the boys, if they’d lived―marrying someone―oh, dear, it sounds frightful, but someone more or less in trade. But for me it was all right, as if I wasn’t quite―’
Not knowing how to finish the sentence without exaggeration or self-pity, Pam opened her cigarette case and offered it.
Rowan hesitated. ‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’
‘Well, really, there’s not much future in pretending you don’t, though you were a fool to start in the first place,’ Pam said with a crispness that she hoped adequately concealed her discomfort at giving her daughter a light. ‘This story is going to seem a dreadful damp squib after all my build-up. One of the other guests was a young man called Truscott. He was the sort of person whom everyone simply accepts as marked for great things, which then, of course, never happen. But at the time, he did show a lot of promise. He was private secretary to a rich industrialist―Sir Magnus Donners, who founded Donners Brebner, you know, and that was the sort of job that led to a career in politics. Even then, people talked about him―Truscott―as a future lord chancellor or Prime Minister. He was fairly handsome, I suppose: tall, with dark wavy hair and even features. I didn’t like him awfully: charming, certainly, but he was always scanning the room for his next opportunity. But Molly was smitten, and he seemed to like her too. I was glad for her, but, to be absolutely honest, a small bit dismayed, because it had the potential to be one of those house parties where people pair off rather early on, and I wasn't used to being the unpopular one. But the next day your father came home on leave and joined the company, and that was very much that. The day before the party was due to break up, Truscott and Molly went for a ride, and they stopped for a picnic tea on the edge of Copton Wood. I’m not sure what he actually said, of course, but it became mortifyingly clear to Molly that he’d brought her out to pump her about me―whether I was serious about Daddy, had he a chance, and so on. And it might just have been very shy-making, except at that moment Jon fell out of a tree on top of them.’
Rowan laughed hoarsely. ‘Not funny if you were actually there, I suppose.’
‘He’d been waiting for the rabbits to come out on Copton Plough, climbed a tree to get out of the sun, and fallen asleep. I suppose he’d been up since dawn; the hawks were in moult, of course, but Lawrence had a full mews, there was still a fair bit to do. And Jon was still young enough to nod off in the improbable places that schoolboys contrive to. He always said he hadn’t heard a word, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have gossiped if he had―’
‘Mum. You must be kidding. The local line was if you wanted something to get around, you told Group Captain Marlow in strictest confidence. The information exchange is much missed.’
‘Rowan!’ But the rebuke lacked all conviction, as the nihil nisi bonum sort tend to. ‘It wasn’t at all his sort of gossip,’ she relented.
Rowan smiled hazily, narrowing her eyes. ‘Mm. Makes sense. Conventional boy-meets-girl manoeuvres weren't quite his thing, were they?’
It was, Pam realised without surprise, an admission as much as an observation, and she appreciated her daughter’s courage in making it. ‘Trennels seems to grow unorthodox types. Or exerts a fascination. To go on, anyway: when they’d all dusted each other off and Jon had gone after his rabbits, Molly’s way of saving face was to pretend that naturally she knew all along that Truscott was keen on me, and to encourage him. There was a little supper dance that evening, and Truscott made a nuisance of himself, trying to cut Daddy out.’
Pam cringed across a quarter-century at the memory of Geoff’s rigid posture and callow reprimand: I think you’ve mistaken Miss Maunsell’s courtesy for interest in your line-shooting, Truscott. Truscott, insouciant scorn slightly belied by tight high colour, had replied: And you’ve confused me with a rating on a charge. I suggest you see to the telescope in your own eye before you cast out the lens in mine, but either way, the light outside is better for that sort of thing.
‘It’s not at all romantic to be fought over, whatever the pictures might try to tell you. I felt like a bag of scraps between two tom-cats. And then, to make it all a thousand times worse, Molly burst into noisy tears, called us all beasts, and fled upstairs. I suppose at least it distracted the men from actual violence. But it was ghastly―’
The hall-clock chiming ten―no, it must be eleven―brought her to her senses. Pam hastily stubbed out her cigarette.
‘I can’t imagine why I’m telling you all this ancient history. You must have far better things to do.’
‘Not a bit. I’ll be in the estate room most of the day form-filling and log-writing. Mark 2:27,' Rowan sighed, taking a last, workmanlike drag. 'I’ll even help you stack the trolley to postpone it.’ She got up, plates in hand, and, apparently addressing the sideboard, remarked, ‘Truthfully, Mum―we should do it again sometime: it's like Children's Hour for grown-ups. And really, we don't know anything about your past―’
‘And I think I’d rather keep it that way!’
Rowan’s back was eloquent enough: Pam was glad she had not seen her face at the moment of impact. She had promised herself she would not connive in the family fiction that Rowan was seventeen-pushing-forty, but that moment of gauche enthusiasm for snippets of parental history had embarrassed her to an extent which demonstrated that she, too, had unreasonable expectations of Rowan's maturity.
‘I, no―look, that was uncalled-for. But we never wanted to be the sort of parents who were forever jawing about the Golden Age of their youth.’
‘You weren’t,’ Rowan said, turning. Her cheeks were very pink. ‘You wouldn’t be. I’d actually like to hear.’
‘Well, we’ll see. I’m sure there's not much of any real interest there.’
But there was a lot more than she thought, and over dinners with rain lashing the dining-room windows, suppers huddled by the range after a spectacular display of non-compliance by the boiler, and even the occasional nightcap, one by one, the tales were told. Pam had never expected to talk so openly to any of the children, but had she been asked to choose a confidant, she would probably have nominated Giles. She preferred to talk to men, and she thought she would find his wardroom reserve soothing, as she did Geoff's. She was mildly astonished to find herself glad it hadn’t turned out that way, and reflected that other aspects of officerly bearing, inculcated in Giles, were native to his favourite sister. She still felt that it was a mistake to have allowed Rowan to leave school, but she was aware of a new sensation alongside it: positive gratitude, not on Geoff’s or Giles’ account, but on her own. And she was no longer lonely.