As it was already turning to dusk, I was not expecting anyone to be at the door, but least of all was I expecting whom I saw there – so much so that the pause after my, no doubt astonished-sounding ‘Hello…’ , had to be filled by her:
‘Yes, of course: – Laura; it’s just such an utterly unexpected pleasure to see you I… – which is, of course, not a transparent attempt to make ‘Don’t come in’, sound like a polite brush-off – that I – and I wasn’t expecting anyone, but what an amazing surprise… Come in, come in; it’s getting dark and cold, and I’m keeping you here on the doorstep, in defiance of the meanest of manners, and wittering on randomly. Come in, come in do, and – and let me take your case.’ I had not initially seen on the step the small maroon travelling case she picked up, hoping hard that she had not seen what must have been a look of incredulity, verging on alarm, cross my face.
‘May I? Thank you.’ She smiled the gentle, uncomplicated smile that I remembered, and I first followed, then led.
‘Cambridge hasn’t spoilt you, I see.’ I noticed a tiny shiver. ‘Come into the only vaguely warm place in the whole barn.’ I said, putting down her case by the stand in the dingy hall, motioning towards the kitchen door with one hand and holding out the other for her coat.
‘Do you mind if I keep it on for a bit?’ There was something – timidity, was it?- certainly tiredness, I thought, in her face as well as her voice.
I switched on the light, and we headed simultaneously towards the kitchen-range. I drew forward a pine chair, dusting cat-hairs off its frayed and faded cushion, motioned her to sit down close to the warmth, and indicated the kettle with a raised eyebrow and a tilt of the head.
‘Oh, that would be marvellous, thank you.’ she said, glancing round the untidy room and out to the cavernous-seeming hall with its worn parquet floor and distempered walls, giving a characteristic tiny wrinkle of her nose, as if suppressing a smile.
‘Shabby.’ I said.
‘What – your home?’
‘Very much like.’
I filled the kettle at the Belfast sink, lifted a lid, and slid the kettle on to the hotter of the two plates, where it bubbled and crackled for a few seconds before settling down to a gentle sizzle, like a hive of bees at night. From a cupboard I extracted an aluminium tea-pot, whose crooked spout gave it a drunken appearance, and two unmatching cups with yet more disparate saucers. The tea-caddy was on the high mantel-shelf above the range, and the tea-spoon inside. I put two scant spoonfuls in the pot warming at the side of the ring, checked with another enquiring eyebrow and head-tilt for her approval and, again, that gentle, uncomplicated smile.
‘It’s just that, well: you said, once, and I expect you’ve forgotten it – perhaps you never entirely meant it – or rather, never expected it to be taken up – if ever one wanted to, or needed to: – to come and talk. You will let me know if it’s at all inconvenient, won’t you?’ She hesitated, wrapping her coat around herself again; hugging herself.
‘ My dear Laura, I admit that it was the greatest surprise to open the door to you just now – but it is, of course, the greatest pleasure to see you. Now had it been – a General’s widow, or -or an Admiral, a double-glazing salesman, an Undertaker, an Organ Tuner, a Knife-Grinder, or – or a tramp – , the surprise would have been far less: but then so would the pleasure. Why, it must be – what – two? – three years now?’
‘One and a half.’ – her correction was of the very gentlest.
‘You must tell me all about Cambridge. Milk?’
‘A little, please – hardly any, really. I thought I might perhaps have heard from you.’
‘Bless your heart, I only heard of your triumph so long after the event, it seemed silly to send a card or write a letter; and then I thought a visit to offer congratulations in person was the only thing, but I chose a day when you were away – a National Lacrosse competition, or something. Everybody said vague things –‘Laura? She was here at Breakfast…’ that kind of thing: not in the least interested, not in the least elated by your huge success.’
‘Nobody told me’, she said wanly.
‘Typical.’ I said, and we both nodded, and laughed a little. ‘Now, if you had written a pop-song, or got your name into a newspaper…’
‘Or my mother had…..
‘Yes, quite. You must be halfway through, by now.’
‘Almost exactly: I’ve had to come down a little before the end of Term. Rather like you, I had wondered about writing, but then …I thought a visit… and I thought I remembered something you had once said., and I’m sorry…’ She looked at her hands. Something was struggling to be said, and I did not know whether to keep up a busy prattle, until the time was right, or to fall silent, and force the silence to be filled with what, I sensed, was probably something fairly portentous – ominous, even. Wisely or not, I decided to prattle.
‘And I am very glad that you did: ‘should auld acquaintance’, and all that. Besides, this place can be eerily quiet and gloomy –‘
‘ I really ought to go, I didn’t know – I never realised – oh, what a mess, what a mess!’ For a moment, I thought she was going to cry. I put on a mock-stern face and voice:
‘ Now look here, young woman: you come barging in here at all times of night, when I’m overburdened with things to do and with things undone – look! I haven’t even finished today’s Crossword (I had slid the newspaper off my chair and on to the grubby rug). What do you think to mean by it, eh, eh? The least you can do is wait quietly there while I get on with these wretched Profile-things, whatever thy are. Oh well, you’d better come on in then…’ and more, in much the same vein, until at last we were both able to laugh reminiscently a little, at memories of the cluttered room, piles of books and papers everywhere. Yet I thought I caught a faint sigh, and, yes, a watery gleam of tear.
‘Cambridge…’, she said.
The long pause did not allow whatever it was that was struggling, to emerge; so I took up my prattle again.
The house had been built by one of those amazing early Victorians, brimful of energy, confidence, optimism, time, and money. It was grand only by far later standards, being large enough to be inconvenient without being sufficiently large to attract a really wealthy buyer. It would be silly to say it was ‘typically Victorian’: is there such a thing? And, in any case, its style was much more in decorous Regency or even Georgian vein than anthing more fancy; possibly the man who had had it built actually intended it to look older and more graceful than something of his own time; certainly, it was larger, lighter, more substantially built than its thatched predecessor, which engravings, possibly ‘picturesque’, delineated as being but little altered since the Middle Ages. During much of the eighteenth Century, it had stood empty, until a fire took hold in the thatch, rendering the whole building useless, by the standards of the time.
You approached the house by way of a short, curving drive, once gravelled, now mostly mud, potholes, and weeds, the house sitting in a little hollow and therefore inclined to be damp, but both protected from much of the wind, and screened from the outer world. A taxi could drop you at the gate, and just a few moments would bring you to the front door, which was double, panelled on either side and – furnished is the word – with both a heavy and now rusting iron knocker and a brass bell-pull. Above the door in a curved architrave was a decent lantern, now containing a miserable light-bulb, its well-proportioned 1840’s oil-lamp having been done away with in the unsentimental post-War years, when the newly-nationalised electricity was stretching its tentacles further and further into the countryside. On either side the door, flanking it and balancing, were twelve-paned windows of almost classical proportions; above, ran a narrow string-course, and further up still, three windows of proportionately smaller size; above them, cast-iron ogive guttering and then a steep-looking slated roof on slightly projecting eaves, in which the house-martins annually built their muddy nests. The downstairs windows were too large, really, to be curtained, so their panelled and grained pine shutters did duty both for shutting out noise, darkness, and cold, and for shutting in some vestiges of warmth; they also afforded at least a feeling of security, as no doubt they had been meant to.
A desperately awkward little path, mostly just ash and cinder, trodden in over the years, led around the left-hand side of the house to the back door (I used to complain that the boot-scraper by the front-door should really have been at the back ), a ground-floor window on this side having been either bricked in, or never provided for – perhaps, again, to suggest a house older than the Window Tax. In front of the back door was a small slated yard – perilous in the wet – and an ingenious contrivance of slate shelving, held together with iron, to form a kind of open-air larder. The windows at the back were far less large and well-proportioned than those at the front – just as well, since they faced almost due North. On one side was the tiny scullery and pantry, on the other the more amply sized kitchen; towards the front of the house was the Dining room, with its single window; on the opposite side the Sitting room, with its two windows, a splendid plaster ceiling-rose, and a handsome fireplace with marble mantel. A narrow passage-way led from the hall-way, which had been carved out of the two front rooms, and less than adequately lit by means of light-spill from the porch, a partly-obscured roof-lantern over the staircase, and (an afterthought, no doubt) glazed panels over the doors of the other two rooms, right through to the back door.
It was devoid of many of what are deemed the necessities of modern living, expensive to maintain, and almost impossible to heat; yet it was a house which seemed to have encapsulated and captured something of the optimism and generosity of spirit of its builder. Although I had quailed at my first sight of it, by now, I had become very fond of it, and protective of all its quirks (the outdoor privy opposite the slate larder; the unnecessarily large, musty and unlit cellar; the temperamental range; the immense bath and lavatory upstairs, both of which loudly – proudly – proclaimed their use. The garden was, at this dreary time of year, a wet wilderness which might well have roused Gerard Manley Hopkins to praise, but on which I just turned my back; in Spring and Summer however, it was a place of delicate magic and the perennially surprising: colour, scent, life everywhere. There would be frogs, spawning in the rill-fed pond, slugs, and snails with shells like humbugs in the grass and borders and on the paths, water-snails and water-boatmen, damsel-flies and dragon-flies, bees, bumble-bees and wasps, swallows, swifts, and martins, and bats at dusk. The old roses – Cabbage Roses, Damask Roses, I had been told – would heave themselves above their covering of grasses and nettles to make the summer air heavy with their rich, musky scent; lavender, thyme, and rosemary, sage, borage and chervil would add their piquancies; in May, the Wisteria’s gentle fragrance would waft right through the house, later in the Summer, the keen, cold scent of Honeysuckle would drift from the hedges in the evening; in September, apples would be reddening, misshapen windfalls of them and of pears providing feasts for blackbirds and wasps; spiders’ webs would glisten with jewelled drops in the misty mornings of Autumn, bird-song would be less clamant, and at night the owl would silently flit through the trees, or warble eerily from a tree-top. Sometimes, Summer weather would see me unable to resist the temptation to take my reading or my writing outside, away from the telephone, half-knowing that I would be able to give little concentration to the work.
It was to this place I had come when my post at The School had come to an end. I had been sorry to go and they were, I believe, for the most part sorry too. It was to this place that Laura had so unexpectedly come that dreary winter’s dusk.
The cat had come into the kitchen, stretched, unsheathing its claws, taken a look as if to say ‘Visitors!’, and gone out again, its tail held disdainfully high. We had long finished our tea, or finished toying with it, even my prattle had run out of steam, and a thunder-cloud of silence was beginning to loom.
‘Thank you so much for the tea, and – and for letting me sit here for a bit…’
‘I’m sure I’m quite refreshed now, after what was quite a tiresome journey, really…’
‘I wonder, do you think I should be able to get a taxi …?
Heartlessly, I said nothing.
‘I’m almost sure I had heard that Claire, or Alice, or Pru – or someone – had said you were married…’ she fiddled with her belt, trying to sound bright, but her voice was brittle and artificially high.
Still I said nothing.
‘Only it would be just too awkward, I know…’
‘What a mess, what a mess.’ It was a whisper, her eyes pleading with me to help her out: still nothing.
‘Is that really the time?’ (I had meant for ages to put a clock in the kitchen).
‘It’s probably not at all far, and I don’t think it will rain.’
‘I’m really so sorry to have just turned up like this and thoughtlessly taken up so much of your time. And all for nothing that matters, really’
‘So typical of me to take things absolutely literally…’
‘I am so sorry…’
On my first proper day there, as they had all begun to arrive at tea-time, I had walked along a corridor, turned left, but – momentarily distracted by loud voices – had looked right, and collided with a rather small girl- who had instantly apologised. I, in turn, had apologised to her, and seeing that she was about to apologise again, had said something like ‘I think you and I are going to get on famously, since we both believe so much in apologising. In any case, if it was – which I do not for a moment believe – your fault, I cannot think of anyone I would rather have been bumped into by.’ After Break the next day, in my first lesson, I had been going through the Register, trying to learn to put together faces and names: Octavia Adams… Hypatia Alexander…Samantha Benfleet… Laura Benjamin…Jasmine Bowers…Jane Bowes… Amber Boxall… Clarissa Catherwood… Sarah Clark …Antonia Constable – is that Constable, or Cunstable?…Laura Conyngham…yes, of course, we’ve already met. She had smiled gently as the entire class looked – crossly, as much as amazedly – at her and said ‘Yes Sir.’
‘Laura,’ I said very quietly at last: ‘why are you deliberately not telling me about Cambridge?’
With an air of desperation, she stood up wobbling a little as she did so, her coat slipping back.
‘That’s Cambridge,’ she said, looking down. ‘I’m half-way through, and I’m pr…’
And then the tears fell like rain.
It took some time for the tears to be stilled, and dried; I had given her a handkerchief, and an awkward, tentative, hug of sympathy, coming into contact with a bump, wishing desperately I knew something – anything – useful about pregnancy. The room eventually stopped wheeling, we both resumed our seats, sitting in a silence now far less, or possibly far more, ominous than before.
‘My dear girl – dear, dear, highly intelligent, very charming, former pupil: why ever didn’t you get in touch before? If I thought opening my door to find you there what seems minutes – or was it years – ago, was amazing, what can I say now? You haven’t told your parents, plainly; understandably. Have you had any University medical or pastoral care? (she shook a miserable head). You poor little soul: all alone with this secret, for how long? Weeks? (the miserable head, and indeed, the bump, said months). You know, I’ve been trying all the time to guess what brought you here: I was thinking you had, perhaps, gleeful news of a Travelling Scholarship – a Fellowship – a University Prize…’
‘I suppose it is a University prize – for stupidity.’ She was both crying and laughing as she said this.
‘Well, at least you weren’t reading Biology.’ I winced at my crassness and use of the past tense, and she tried to laugh and cry again. ‘Now: we must formulate a plan, we must find a modus operandi, a way forward’. I realised that I was pacing up and down as I stated the obvious as though it were Athenian wisdom, striding, like a hapless General who has no idea what to do next, thinking, if it may be called that, aloud. ‘You must obviously stay here, Laura, if you can bear to.’ Her questioning look impelled me on: ‘Don’t worry, I think that if word gets around the Parish that an exceedingly handsome, and, by all accounts, very well-bred young lady has turned up at the Vicarage, pregnant, they’ll all be delighted; I think they worry I’m peculiar! Now, let me see, tomorrow is Thursday, no – Wednesday: Mrs. Maggot comes in to do an hour or two’s cleaning on Thursday: would you mind frightfully becoming a Niece, perhaps, if necessary – or can we put her off for another week? I wonder if we can get in touch with Sister Jessop. – But your parents, Laura, your parents: we must let them know!’ I had sensed, from the very first Parent’s evening that I had met them, that Laura’s mother seemed to have the most active dislike of her daughter; I was almost prepared for what she said.
‘If I could talk to Daddy all on his own, it would probably be all right, insofar as anything can be all right now,’ she swallowed, ‘but Mummy, Mummy has always seemed to resent my very existence. She’s very conscious of ‘position’ and all that sort of thing – far more so than Daddy – and I know I just cannot, cannot, face her yet; she would be so hurt. It would seem to her a waste, a total waste, of such an expensive education, and of such an opportunity, an opportunity she never had…’ This seemed to me to be probably true – but also a desperate inversion of values. And Mummy hurt, I thought, would be Mummy even more wantonly hurtful.
‘Now look, Laura,’ seeing the little wrinkle of the nose again, ‘ – I know, I know: I must stop wagging a finger at you! But look: for the moment, what we must keep central – the only thing that matters to us is you, your health, your welfare, and the welfare of…that’s what we must be thinking about. And who says your University career is over? I’d like to meet him!’ The unexpected belligerence of this last bit of empty-seeming bluster so took me aback, that I stopped in my tracks. ‘And Laura Conyngham, you can just stop giggling!’ Again, we were on a knife-edge of tears and laughter; again, momentarily, we were back in the Classroom. ‘Whatever am I thinking of? It’s past nine, and all you’ve had is a mouldy cup of tepid tea – and that was hours ago! What shall we do about supper?’ I made towards the pantry.
‘It’s very kind of you to suggest it, but I still find food doesn’t stay down very well. Despite appearances, I’ve hardly eaten properly this last Term.’
I sank back into my chair, aghast at the thought of all this mental and physical anguish. ‘My poor, dear child, poor Laura.’ I roused myself, and turned earnestly towards her. ‘I am staggered by the news you have brought me, but even more staggered that you have brought it -’ Seeing her eyes begin to glisten again, I halted. ‘I am not staggered –(stupid word to use!): I feel immensely privileged, proud, and honoured that you have come to me with this news – and come to me first; it must have taken great courage and strength to decide to, and then to come all this very long way. I hope I shall prove worthy of your trust.’ I looked away, blinking myself. An almost soothing silence fell for a few moments. Then I got up and said, ‘Now here’s another amazing thing: there is a vaguely habitable spare-room, with a so-so-ish bed, and Mrs. Maggot, I know, will have aired it just last time she was here. I will fill a hot-water bottle and put in it, and show you to your ‘Dorm’ in a few minutes.’
The kettle came almost to the boil just in the time it took me to rummage around in the cupboard under the stairs and find an old-fashioned china hot-water bottle. I went upstairs with it, drew the thin curtains in the room, switched on a light by the bed, slipped the hot-water bottle between sheets that felt cold but at least not very damp, and returned to the kitchen.
Laura was at the sink, washing up the cups and saucers. ‘Miss Conyngham, I forbid you to do that.’ I said, leading her by one soapy little finger back to her chair, and drying her hands on the towel from the range, fervently hoping that the unspoken words ‘in your condition’ had not been sensed. ‘Well, if you can’t eat, do you think a very small glass of an indifferent sherry would be of use – permissible, even – , while we let the HWB do its stuff.?’
The gentle, uncomplicated smile again – ‘I’d love one.’
In the event, I had found an unopened bottle of Port, given me almost a year ago by the Admiral; this had seemed a much better idea at half-past ten than sherry, and proved to be much better than indifferent. Of course, I found that, although I had tried hard to make sure that I had the chipped glass in the only suitable pair, when I looked down at the one I held, it was the unchipped one. She had sedately sipped about two thirds of her glass, made apologies for being a nuisance ‘and bad company’, and gone up to bed: I saw, too late, that I had contrived to let her carry her own case upstairs. Despite a second glass of port, I couldn’t cudgel my brains into any kind of plan. Laura had managed to use the bathroom so discreetly, that I waited an absurdly long time before venturing up myself. I turfed the cat off my bed, thanking her for warming it; she purred at me (about three purrs) inscrutably, before pulling herself out of my arms and heading off, down the stairs, to the comfort of the kitchen range. All I had decided on, was to speak to Sister Jessop in the morning, and to pin a faint hope on my bemused brain coming up with something, while the rest of me slept.
© Jethro 2022