Pedalling alone towards home, Hetty stopped beside the post office litter-bin, which was almost empty, litter being in short supply. The letter to Eustace, sealed and stamped among the empty Gold Flake cigarette packets, looked conspicuous. So she sighed, and took it out.
Hetty knew that this was the moment to abandon Eustace. If it was a novel, she thought, this is the perfectly appropriate, most natural development. At this point the heroine should have the courage to leave her grateful little-girl self behind and start again towards maturity. What’s more, she thought, to hell with novels, it was guilt about her false position with Eustace that was flooding and spoiling these days of glory.
But if this were a novel, she thought, it would be hard not to end it with Eustace. Everything about her meeting him had been so right, so perfectly timed. She had at 17 loved a man—a man of nearly 22—who had loved her, and was right for her in every way.
And except for the Adam’s apple he looked great. Such lovely hands, although they did hang down, a bit like seal’s flippers. And his nails were always so clean. And he sang so beautifully and his poetry was almost exactly like Walter de la Mare’s. And he had been so pleased when she’d agreed that he was like Sassoon, and often asked her if she still thought so, and she had always said yes; though somehow you couldn’t see Eustace tally-hoing on a horse. Or in the trenches, at ease with his men. And loving them. Deeply, deeply.
And Eustace thought she was wonderful. He had said so, which nobody else had ever done and maybe never would. There’d been plenty of kissing in Hetty’s life, at church socials and with soldiers in back streets after Saturday-night hops which her parents knew nothing about: but nobody had ever said anything. Just mauled and gobbled.
But there had been one moonlit night when she was 15 on the way home from a Bible meeting (Hosea) and in the local park, with the railings all gone to make Spitfires. She had been in the rose garden with a devout sort of boy from Corporation Road, and they had kissed and kissed to the accompaniment of the Messerschmitts rumbling overhead in the dark towards Tyneside. The park had stood open ever since 1941 when the firemen had not been able to get in to deal with an unexploded bomb that had landed in the bowling green and turned it to a pond. By 1943 every member of the Bible class came home along the park and melted into the bushes, except for Hetty, who wouldn’t go beyond the more conspicuous park benches. Other, notoriously sexy, Bible students had like nesting birds made the bushes heave and chirrup. A dirty girl from Muriel Street had once told Hetty, over school dinner, that Betty Grangely went on the sand-hills at night, and sometimes in the daytime, with soldiers.
‘She can’t! They’re mined.’
‘They’re mined all right, but I’ve seen them at it. Going at it like tortoises.’
Betty Grangely had disappeared in the Upper Fourth to become an usherette and was now to be seen walking slowly about the town with a big black pram.
‘God has answered almost every prayer I have ever made,’ Mrs. Fallowes said all through the war years, ‘except one: that we might somehow have afforded to send you to a private boarding school, Hetty. I know that your school is respectable and all-girls, and the only boys you know are the ones at the Bible class, but it is so very mixed. I’d like you to have met girls who had nannies and ponies, and to have sent you to school with them in the country. It is what I always expected. I’m afraid I was never good at finding money, and some such very extraordinary people are.’
In the early years Kitty had written all this to Josephine Dixon, the godmother, but it had appeared to hold no interest for her. She was at the time back in Windsor (Mr. Fallowes said in order to move in royal circles).
‘I went to a private boarding school in the country,’ said the grave-digger. ‘Look where it got me.’
‘It got you the confidence to do exactly what you wanted. Always,’ Kitty said. ‘Reflective idleness is what it gave you. But have I ever complained? I have not. I have never wanted money for myself. And I married a gentleman; and I never saw another man so—d’you know your father was beautiful, Hetty, beautiful. Most gloriously handsome. When he was a boy.’
‘You’ve told me, Ma.’
‘And I believe that the English country-gentleman has always been the backbone of the country. Look at Jane Austen.’
‘There were some poisonous country-gentlemen in Jane Austen,’ said Mr. Fallowes.
Hetty met no other country-gentlemen in Shields East except her father, however, and had made do with the Bible class on the park benches.
‘“Look thy last on all things lovely, every hour”,’ said her father, ‘and I do do a job. I am a grave-digger.’
‘But your father was a contented, delightful countrygentleman, Malcolm.’
‘My father was an old soak. I thank God he left me no money so that Het has been able to attend a good state school.’
Hetty sometimes wondered how much her father and mother knew about tortoises. She was aware that there had been difficulties in that area ‘because of the trenches’. She had met a few boarding-school girls in her time, when the little town was stiff with the gentry before the war, and they had always struck her as sly and lubricious, making mysterious allusions, despite nannies and ponies. They seemed to have slender home lives and to fester with grubby school secrets. And here she was. Here she was now. This red-gold day here she was in the warm wind, needing a sail no more, biking along beside the midsummer park, Eustace’s letter still in her bike basket and knowing she was as yet not even a beginner at love. She dropped the bike behind the park-keeper’s bothy and set off to wander the walks and borders of her schooldays, so hugely overgrown by the kind neglect of the war. Along the dark railside walk she went, beside the asters and purple heliotropes, through the rose gardens where some papery roses still swung heavy on almost leafless branches; past the peeling cricket pavilion to the ornamental lake that wound away out of sight beyond the boat-house. The park flower-beds had once held ranks of weedless wallflowers and antirrhinums and chrysanthemums, trussed tight with raffia. In the war they had been left to droop and slouch, die or survive, make countless common friends. Clouds of willow-herb and dandelion floated around them and the once-pruned ornamental trees had grown wild above. Lofty sycamores gloomed over the tennis courts, which had become a cracked green asphalt pool in a dark wood. Their surfaces were like creeping jenny lying treacherous on water.
There was nobody but Hetty in the park today. The old tennis nets were tightly rolled between the posts like rusted-through wire netting. The smell of lavender in the crazy flower borders beyond the courts was fit to make you weep. Tennis at 15 with semi-boyfriends in the twilight. Gone.
She walked along until she came to the boat-house. Two or three swans idled on the water behind it and watched her. She sat down on the jetty and the wood was warm against the backs of her thighs. She looked at her legs stuck out in front of her and wondered if they were improving. She would probably have to give up wearing flannel shorts in London. Beyond her quite nice feet lapped the artificial lake. Along the winding banks lay tumbling artificial rocks, like hard black sponges. The sun blazed, the old dinghies knocked exhaustedly against each other, their oars locked together at the gunnels with an iron handcuff.
The boatman was nowhere to be seen, for it was midday and he was Boozer Bainbridge who’d had a bad First War at Ypres. Peg-leg. Glass eye.
Hetty stepped into a boat, rattled its handcuff till it fell apart, shoved off with the brittle oar and drifted out on the lake. The swans turned calm backs.
It was a shallow lake and muddy, and she easily put the boat about, prow west-facing, and rowed quietly out of sight between the wilderness shores.
As far as she could see on either side showers of roses tumbled down into the water. Forests of dahlias imitated sunsets, phloxes shone like sweet fire among spikes of rosemary and buddleia dizzy with scent. As a child she had walked here sedate between the rows of labels and sticks.
‘I have adored the war,’ she thought.
She steered the boat towards an ornamental island, tied up and lay down. Oh this summer! So wonderful.
To be leaving it all.
Something had happened to Hetty here, on this little boating lake three years ago, and she had told nobody. It had been pre-Eustace, but Olivier’s film Henry V had set her upon Shakespeare and she was reading King John. The park had been silent, as now, and as hot. She had opened King John with pleasure, dreaming of plays, turned to Act I, Scene I, when the soldier appeared.
He was a regular in the Green Howards and nowhere near an officer. There was nothing of Siegfried Sassoon about him. He was a short, stocky chunk with tight curly hair in a mat and a medal ribbon on his pocket. His mouth was the mouth of Henry V. The soldier who will never take no. He stood above her in the rosemary and the roses, and jumped down into the boat, both feet together, steadying the rocking, making the water jump with little splashes, and then he came down on top of her and the boat rocked more. Some water, quite warm and pleasant, slapped in. She smelled his lovely skin and hair. The delight in him began to frighten her. And then the voice of Boozer Bainbridge came roaring over the water and the soldier disappeared.
Boozer had not seen him. He wasn’t seeing anything very straight that day. He was standing far across the lake swinging a chain and calling, ‘Number nine, come in. Come in this minute.’ He couldn’t remember if she had paid, or when she had taken out the boat, which had been only minutes before, and he was belligerent and uncertain. Up behind her on the bank there was the escaping crackle of bushes, and she shouted, ‘I’m just doing my homework. I’ve only been out ten minutes. You’ve forgotten. Again.’ Boozer Bainbridge grunted and slashed the chain on his tin leg. ‘I’ve got half an hour left.’ But she hadn’t wanted to stay longer. She had rowed in at once, faster than ever before, and at the boat-house she had hung about until she met some friends and gone home with them. Oh, how long ago it had been. And how young. And how dreadfully dangerous. She looked back with longing.
‘Did you pay the shillin’?’ Boozer Bainbridge asked today. ‘I don’t remember yer shillin’.’
‘I must have done. You wouldn’t have let me have the boat.’ He looked at her with loathing, ‘La-di-da,’ he said, ‘posh talk,’ and stumbled off into the boat-house. Hetty had a sudden memory of Lieselotte’s glare when anybody talked of ‘little Hitlers’.
Rape. You heard people say there had been none of it in Nazi Germany. Her father had listened to Lord Haw-Haw saying rape should be automatically punished by death. ‘Good thing, too,’ he had said. ‘There’s something to be said for Hitler.’ And her mother had said, ‘That’s enough, Malcolm.’
Hetty in the peacetime sunlight thought about Lieselotte and wondered where she was and if they would ever meet again. She felt that soon she might have been brave enough to ask Lieselotte some questions. She had the sense of Lieselotte now, quite close, beating down the horrible grey mackintosh with her fat hands. You knew that Lieselotte sat in private darkness. Even in the Quaker house.
But you’d have thought she might have left some message for her friends.
Well, I can be thought desirable, thought Hetty, which she isn’t. That soldier wouldn’t have jumped on her, even in Germany. But then, she decided, Lieselotte was probably too intelligent to feel the need to be desired. Too ancient and heavy with her past.
And I’ve got everything to start, thought Hetty. I’m going to be ruthless and positive and in charge of my own soul. And I’m going to have a good time. I think I’ll start smoking.
As she biked past the litter-bin for the third time that day, there were a few more cigarette packets in it. She took the letter out, then tossed it back.
Hetty had a capital sum of her own in the National Provincial Bank. It was one hundred pounds, and had been deposited there two years ago on the death of the outraged Josephine Dixon, who it transpired had been making many wills since meeting Hetty at six years old, all of them excluding her god-daughter. These wills, however, including the one in favour of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, had not been proved. They had grown ever stranger. Fur coats had been bequeathed to the Princess Marina of Kent and cigarette lighters to the Prince of Wales, though this particular will was superseded immediately when the prince took up with Mrs. Simpson. Thus, all these unsigned wills set aside, the one made soon after Hetty’s birth survived. She and the lady’s maid got a hundred pounds each and who knows how many millions went to a home for small dogs in Harrow. Hetty’s father had immediately put the hundred pounds in the bank in his name, in trust. She had not even seen the letter, but she had not forgotten her fortune.
‘Aunty Josephine’s money,’ said Hetty. ‘Could I have some now, d’you think?’
‘But you will soon have your scholarship.’
‘Yes, but I need some money now, Pa. I’ve been thinking of going for a holiday.’
‘I wouldn’t advise ever touching capital,’ said the gravedigger. ‘And you are going away altogether in October.’
‘I want to do some reading. By myself. People do.’
‘And leave your mother? You know how she’s going to be when you’ve gone.’
‘Couldn’t it make her get used to the idea? Pa, it’s my money. I’ve actually made some enquiries. Even before the exams, Miss Kipling at the library said I ought to get away. So did Hilda Fletcher.’
‘Childless women know so much,’ said her mother. ‘Oh, Hetty, this is the last chance you and I will ever have to be together as mother and child. Well, of course, I suppose I could come with you.’
‘No,’ said the grave-digger. ‘Who would look after me?’
‘Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s true. I never have left you. You can’t make a piece of toast. Well, shall we all go away together? Like before the war. We could go to Runswick Bay.’
Hetty’s sinking heart made a lump of her face.
Unexpectedly the grave-digger said, ‘No. She wants to go alone. How much of Josephine’s money will you need?’
‘Well, it’s six pounds a week and the fare. I’d only go for about three weeks.’
‘Three weeks! But you’ve never been away alone for a night even with the air raids, except to Granny when you were five and you cried all night and it was only Newcomen Terrace.’
‘The air raids are over and so’s Granny and, Ma, it’s only the Lake District. It’s not abroad. I’ll write. Every day, if you like.’
‘I should hope not abroad! There’s nowhere fit yet abroad, nor will there be for many years. Vera Robertson says there’s not a bite to eat in France.’
‘Actually, Ma, I have to go. I know I have. They’ve sent this huge reading list and I’ll never get it done here, with you and all the Lonsdale Café.’
‘Oh, but, just to Scarborough? For the last time? Just you and me?’
‘You make me do so many chores at home, Ma.’
‘Make? That I do not. That I do deny. I’ve never expected it. I know how I suffered myself. You have never got down to a floor in your life. Look at my hands. But I do think you could do the bathroom sometimes.’
‘I scrub the floors,’ said the grave-digger.
‘Well, I’m going. I’m nearly 18. All I want is about 20 pounds.’
‘It’s a boarding house near Ullswater.’
‘But whoever do we know in Ullswater?’
‘Nobody. Wordsworth. The reading list’s all about English radicalism. Wordsworth went there, so I’m going there.’
‘Yes, but he’d heard of it. He came from round there. It rains all the time, I do know that. I recited “The Daffodils” at school and won a certificate. I’m sure I’ve never been to the Lake District, and I’m over 50.’
‘You don’t have to kill the king to understand Macbeth,’ said the grave-digger. ‘I’m quite out of money at present.’
‘O.K., then I’ll earn it. I’ll work for Boozer Bainbridge at the boating lake.’
‘You’ll do no such thing. No member of this family has ever spoken to Boozer Bainbridge, he’s a drunk. And you wouldn’t be passed by the town council.’
‘O.K., then. I’ll borrow from Eustace.’
‘Now, that,’ said Kitty solemnly, ‘I will not allow. It puts a girl under an obligation.’
‘Borrow where you like,’ said her father. He was strange and furtive about money and was often seen slinking into savings banks.
‘I’ll borrow from the vicar,’ said Hetty, watching her mother.
‘You will not!’
‘And, Pa, you have got money. Plenty of money for beer and cigarettes.’
‘Apologise!’ shrieked her mother. ‘I will not hear this in this house. Very well. I’ll sell my cameo brooch. It was your Aunty Margaret’s.’
Mr. Fallowes whistled a tune from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and went out to dig over his allotment.
The next day he drew out 20 pounds of her money from the bank and put it before her, his hands hovering in the hope of getting it back.
The following day a volume of Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs arrived from Eustace in a good binding and Hetty flogged it in Middlesbrough for six pounds ten.
A week on, in the public library old Adelaide Kipling left the desk and slipped an envelope under Hetty’s book. Inside were two large squares of tissue-paper that turned out to be five-pound notes.
‘I couldn’t! Oh, Miss Kipling!’
‘I heard that you wanted to go to Grasmere. Poor Coleridge. D’you know, they papered his walls with newspaper? It was all they had. Just a little extra.’
From THE FLIGHT OF THE MAIDENS. Used with permission of Europa Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Jane Gardam.