On rainy days, when the clouds drove across on a westerly wind, the signs of fine weather came from over the Railway Embankment at the bottom of the garden. Many a time, when Mrs. Stevens specially wanted it to clear up, she would look round the corner of the side door and search along the horizon of the Railway Embankment for a streak of lighter sky.
The Embankment—stretching without break to right and left—divided the world for Mrs. Stevens. On her side was Dulwich and her home: long friendly roads, dotted here and there with the houses of people she knew. On her side, too, half a mile across the housetops, loomed the Crystal Palace, which sometimes in the autumn flashed golden squares of sunset over to them. Away beyond lay the open country and the trees—green corners of heathland where they used to go for picnics when Dick and Mary were children.
On the far side of the Embankment lay the other half of Mrs. Stevens’s world: the half she scarcely knew. Herne Hill, Camberwell, and the lights of London that shone in overcast skies like sulphur candles in a dark, disused sick-room—that washed away, on fine nights, a little of the deep blue of the starlit heavens.
At the end of Corunna Road an asphalt footpath dived under the Embankment and emerged on the other side, but Mrs. Stevens seldom penetrated far into this other part of the world. She shopped in Dulwich, and had her friends there. Fine Saturday afternoons called them south, to the open fields and trees, out Bromley way.
Although she had lived at 22 Corunna Road for all her twenty married years, Mrs. Stevens had little idea of what lay directly opposite the end of their garden—beyond the Embankment.
Sometimes, when they passed in a train, she had tried to find out. But the train was always full, and she could not run quickly from one window to the other to take in both sides as they passed their house. She had never, therefore, been able to solve the mystery of what lay exactly on the other side although one thing she always noticed because it made her proud. As the train rattled along the Embankment a strip of thirty gardens would pass in panorama before her eyes: the thirty which made up the even numbers of Corunna Road. None of them showed up to greater advantage than No. 22, with its close-clipped lawn, neat borders, and its lilac tree. No. 22 alone had no half bricks or disused slop pails on the tool house roof.
But the garden looked sad and sorry this dripping September afternoon. It had begun to rain quite early in the morning: it was spotting when she came out of the butcher’s, soon after eleven; and now, at five o’clock, a silent, listless rain was filling the hollows of the paths. She was distressed and miserable. The night before they left home for their holidays was always one of family celebration. When Dick and Mary had been children it was a night that rose almost to the height of Christmas Eve: a night voted sometimes as the best of all the holiday, although it was spent at home and the sea was still sixty miles away.
But the sea would always be calling them that evening; and when Mr. Stevens took his after-supper stroll in the garden he could almost taste the saltiness in the air. It was a habit of Mr. Stevens to linger in the garden longer than usual on that night before they went away: the Office was behind him: he had slammed the lid of his desk for fifteen splendid days, and he liked to feel the holiday had begun that evening. On the little lawn outside—in the dusk—he would open his chest and breathe the air. Then he would go to his bedroom and lay out the clothes he would wear at the sea, his gray flannel trousers, tweed sports jacket, stout brown boots, and soft tweed cap. But he would seldom wear the cap. For a whole fortnight his thin brown hair would blow in the sunlight and the breeze.
Again Mrs. Stevens peered out. If only the rain would stop! The whole holiday would be damped if they were cheated out of this first evening—sweet because it was stolen: because it was not, officially, a part of the holiday at all.
A special supper always marked the evening, too. This year it was boiled beef, because it made good sandwiches for the train journey, and was easy to wash up, giving more leisure for the final packing afterwards. Then there were apple dumplings, Mr. Stevens’s favorite sweet.
It was past five o’clock. In an hour the family would be coming home. Mr. Stevens first (he always left sharp on this particular evening), then Dick, and then Mary. By seven they would all be home. Supposing it rained like this for the whole fortnight? It had once: years ago. She had never forgotten the evening they trailed up Corunna Road from the station, in the twilight, through the endless rain—Dick with the bucket he had scarcely used, and his little sodden dripping spade.
But it wouldn’t—couldn’t happen this time: she prayed for it to clear up, and her prayer was answered. For now, as she peered round the corner of the kitchen door, she was conscious that it was lighter: the gravel path glistened: the drips in the puddle outside were fewer and farther between— and there—over the Embankment a tiny strip of blue sky was rolling up the heavy clouds.
She returned to the kitchen with a burden lifted. It would be all right now. If you had asked Mrs. Stevens why she was so happy, she would never have been able to explain: she would have shrunk from saying “Because the others will be happy”—it would have sounded noble, and silly. If you asked her “Do you enjoy your holiday?” she would have flinched at a question she had always feared, but which had never come. Nobody ever asked her. The family assumed she did: and her friends confined their question to “Have you had a nice time?” to which she had replied “Lovely” for twenty years. It had always been Bognor— ever since, on her honeymoon, her pale eyes had first glimpsed the sea. Her father had had a sister who lived on a farm, and scorning holidays himself, he had sent the children there—year in, year out—until this daughter had met her man and married him.
The sea had frightened Mrs. Stevens, and she had never conquered her fear. It frightened her most when it was dead calm. Something within her shuddered at the great smooth, slimy surface, stretching into a nothingness that made her giddy. For their honeymoon they had taken apartments with Mr. and Mrs. Huggett in St. Matthews Road— called “Seaview,” because from the lavatory window you could see the top of a lamppost on the beachfront.
They had answered an advertisement, and discovered Mr. and Mrs. Huggett to be a strangely assorted couple. Mr. Huggett was stout and jovial. He had been a valet to a man who left him some money, and he had bought Seaview. He was easygoing, slightly patronising, and drank. Mrs. Huggett was thin, and anxious to please to the point of embarrassment. They had a small servant girl called Molly, who, being squat, bow-legged, and red-haired, had remained with them faithfully throughout the years.
But the house had been well done up and was scrupulously clean. The Stevenses had returned the following year, and they had returned ever since, for twenty Septembers, wet and fine, hot and cold.
They had often talked of a change—of Brighton, Bexhill—even Lowestoft—but Bognor always won in the end. If anything it held them stronger every year. There were associations: sentiments. The ink stain on the sitting-room tablecloth which Dick made as a little boy: the little ornament that Mary had made by glueing seashells on a card, which had been presented to Mrs. Huggett at the end of one holiday, and was always on the sitting-room mantelpiece when they arrived each year. There was the stuffed barbel on the landing which they called “Mr. Richards” because it was like a milkman they once had in Dulwich— and many other little ties that would be sadly broken.
But Seaview, silently, relentlessly, had changed with the passing years. Mr. Huggett, originally blooming like a ripe plum—had begun to shrink. His crimson cheeks began to fade—leaving a network of tiny purple veins. One September the Stevenses had noticed how thin his hands had become, how the skin sagged round the knuckles, and how his hand had shaken as he signed the receipt.
Each year Mrs. Huggett had come one night into the Stevenses’ sitting room, when the children had gone to bed, and told her lodgers in an anxious undertone, with frequent glances at the door, what a terrible winter Mr. Huggett had had—on his back on and off all the time, with bronchitis and other, more mysterious troubles which Mrs. Huggett could never properly explain.
Each year the recital had grown longer and more awesome, till at Easter one year the Stevenses had received a black-edged letter. It came from Mrs. Huggett to tell them that on the previous Tuesday night, at ten o’clock, her husband had passed away.
The following September they found Mrs. Huggett in black. She’d told them how wild it had been on the night that her husband died: how the sea had roared, how crumbs of snow had circled in the road; and although she described her husband’s death as a happy release, she had worn mourning ever since.
Mr. Huggett had never been much use in the house towards the end. He had to give up his one definite job (the changing of the electric light bulbs) some years before, because looking up made him giddy. But that did not alter the fact that their landlady’s partner had gone: that through the long winter she was alone.
The Stevenses had not definitely noticed anything amiss with Seaview in the years that followed. Mrs. Huggett remained as flustered, as tremblingly anxious to please as ever. Molly seemed on the go all day—and yet—there was just something different: some little thing each year. A few years back the bath plug had broken from its chain: it had never been recaptured, and lay each year in freedom at the bottom of the bath. Year by year the sheets grew more cottony and frail: and Mr. Stevens, happening one night to have a sharp toenail, slit his top sheet down the centre, and enlarged it accidentally with his foot each night as he got into bed.
The Stevenses never complained or pointed out these things. Their years of association with Seaview—their fear of harassing Mrs. Huggett—and perhaps a little pity for her—kept them silent. After all, they were out all day.
But to Mrs. Stevens, Seaview was only the background of a fortnight in each year which troubled and disturbed her. She hated herself for not enjoying it as the others did. It made her unhappy to pretend she was enjoying herself, because it was a sham: somehow dishonest. Dick, round about fourteen—digging in the sand—his sunburnt legs bare to his tucked-up shorts—would run to her suddenly with “Isn’t it lovely, Mum!” and she would say “Lovely” and smile, and hate herself for the lie.
Only the honeymoon had been lovely: the coming of the children had made the fortnight a burden—sometimes a nightmare. At home the children were hers: they loved her: came to her in everything. At Bognor, somehow they drew away from her—became different. If she paddled, they laughed at her: saying she looked so funny. They never laughed at her at home.
When she was younger she had tried to play cricket with them on the sands, but she had no eye for a bouncing ball, and could not stoop quickly to stop it. They would laugh—and soon she would go and hide in a deck chair behind a magazine—while the hot sun brought on her headache.
But the journey was worst of all; for although the burden should have grown lighter as the children grew up—she had never conquered her dread of Clapham Junction, where they always had to change.
The rumble of porters’ trucks: the wrong platforms: the shrieking trains: the losing of her husband once, when he came out of the wrong hole after getting the tickets—Hell, to Mrs. Stevens, would be a whitehot Clapham Junction with devils in peaked caps.
But if Clapham Junction marked the summit of her panic fears, the journey in the train reached the limits of patient endurance. The carriage was invariably crowded on the first Saturday in September when they always went away. On one occasion someone was taken faint and called in a hollow voice for the window to be let down. Once—some years back—a lady in a corner had had a kind of fit, and tapped her heels on the ground and moaned. It had turned Mrs. Stevens cold with terror. She still dreamed about it sometimes: and ever since, her first anxious duty on getting into the carriage was to scan the faces of her fellow passengers, hoping against hope that all would look robust and at ease. If anyone were pale and delicate she sought to hide them from view with another passenger between, despising her cowardliness for doing it.
One trouble at least had been removed by the growing up of the children, for Mary, as a child, was always sick in the train: sick with unerring regularity, just after the curve that took them out of Dorking. Mrs. Stevens had tried starving the child: she had tried strong peppermints— to no avail. Ultimately she learnt of a good plan from her neighbor Mrs. Jack, whose little Ada was just the same. Mrs. Jack always carried on railway journeys, in her purse, two or three small paper bags. They could be quickly opened—easily applied and conveniently dropped out of the window. So adept had Mrs. Jack become that she boasted sometimes of getting the whole incident over before her surprised fellow passengers knew what had happened.
But Mrs. Stevens hated that journey. She had never been a reader. She could not lose herself in a book or magazine. She came away with the luggage rack and the ominous red communication cord burnt upon her aching eyes.
Yet now, as she busied herself with the supper, as she lifted the saucepan lid and forked the boiling beef, she was happy—almost elated at the unexpected sunlight of the evening: happy because the holiday brought such joy to the others. She looked forward to their coming home this evening: bursting to be off next day, yet reluctant to leave home now that it had become for one night the anteroom to freedom.
There was another reason, too, why she looked forward to the holiday this year with less reluctance than in the past. Dick and Mary were growing up now. Dick was seventeen and Mary nearly twenty. Once or twice in the past year Dick had spoken vaguely of a camping holiday with some friends, and Mary had talked of the jolly time some girls in the shop had had together on a farm.
Dick and Mary went out a good deal in the evenings now. There was the Thursday Dance at St. John’s Hall—and things like that. Home was not quite the same these days, and the holiday, instead of separating them, seemed likely to bind them together. Last year Dick had still been at school: now he had started work. He did not seem very happy in his work. The holiday would do him good, and settle him, perhaps. Only Ernie, the third and youngest child, was still at school: for Ernie was only ten, and although he did not know it, he had set the spirit of the holiday in the last two years as far as the gaiety and horseplay went.
Luckily the hints of separate holidays had come to nothing, for when the day came to book the rooms, no other plan was raised. Dick seemed in fact more anxious than ever for Bognor since he had started work: which seemed to Mrs. Stevens a little strange.
The rain had quite stopped now: the sun was shining. Mrs. Stevens took the tablecloth from the kitchen drawer and went into the dining-room.
Ernie, released from the house, was playing with a tennis ball against the wall.
“You’ll get your feet sopping,” called Mrs. Stevens.
“It’s dry,” shouted Ernie.
Six o’clock was striking from St. John’s Church up the road. The others would soon be home now. It was lucky they had all managed to get their holidays together. It would be lovely if it kept fine, the whole fortnight, and everybody enjoyed it like they always had before.
Excerpted from The Fortnight in September: A Novel by R.C. Sherriff. Copyright renewed © 1959 by The Estate of R.C. Sherriff with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.”