- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
An Avenue At War
The avenue stretched in a wide curve from Shirley Rise, just off the Lower Road, to the gates of the Rec', at the junction of the Avenue, and Delhi Road. Its pre-war trimness had disappeared with the summer. People had been too busy, and too distraught, to use shears on the privet hedges, and long shoots were already straggling over and through the lengths of looped chains, that had formerly swung clear of the hedges connecting the dwarf pillars that separated the houses. Over at Number One Hundred and Twelve, for instance, the lilac now covered the entire front garden, and almost opposite, at Number Ninety-Seven, a 'To Let' notice was lashed to the trunk of the familiar laburnum.
There were other 'To Let' and 'For Sale' notices along the Avenue, nearly a score of them, and some of the boards had been there for the better part of a year. There was, as yet, no grass in the street, but there would be before very long, and weeds too, from seeds blown south from the old Nursery, behind the even numbers, or north from the meadow, that separated the backs of the odd numbers from the Manor Wood, where the old white mansion, empty and desolate these thirty years, was crumbling to final decay.
Very few children were seen in the avenue these days. Almost all of them had left more than a year ago, before the first siren wailed out from the A.R.P. Centre, in Shirley Rise, of the smug Baskervilles, of Number Eighty-Four, had scuttled into their bomb-proof shelter, excavated by Mr. Baskerville during the Munich crisis.
Most of the children had crept back in the New Year, their parents fearing no retaliation to the R.A.F. leaflet raids over Berlin, but by the late summer of 1940, they had all hurried away again, some of them as far away as Canada, and the United States, but the majority not quite so far, to Somerset, like Archie Carver's family, of Number Two, or to a thatched cottage, on the Totnes Road, like Eunice Godbeer, of Number Twenty-Two.
The adults left in the Avenue missed the noise of the children playing in the street after tea, and on Saturday mornings. When dusk fell there was nobody to knock at their doors and run away, as the elder Carver twins, 'The Unlikes', had done so long ago, when people in the Avenue were making crystal-sets, and Avenue daughters, in cloche hats, and knee-length frocks, were known as 'flappers', not 'judies', and young men who took their wooing seriously were invariably known as 'Sheiks'.
Apart from the evacuation of school children most of the young folk of the Avenue had dispersed, and some would never again turn into the Avenue from Shirley Rise, to pass along the crescent to their front-gates. Casualties, so far, had not been heavy. There was silent grief at Number Six, where Mrs. Hopper had lost her only son on the Royal Oak, and in lesser degree at Number Seventy-Eight, where Grandpa Barnmeade had managed, despite his advanced years, to die for democracy.
Grandpa Barnmeade had surprised everybody along the Avenue, in September, 1939. Up to that date nobody had paid much attention to his secondhand stories of the Battle of Ishandhlwana, or the camel charge at Omdurman, but when the call went out for air-raid wardens, the old man had somehow contrived to get himself appointed. Throughout that first winter, when everyone was unfamiliar with the art of blacking-out, his neighbours had been obliged to take him very seriously indeed. Night after night he had pounded the pavements, his service respirator at 'the ready', his mace-like torch directing a powerful beam on odd and even numbers alike, and he himself poised for a panther spring at every chink of light that winked along the crescent.
Whenever he saw such a gleam he charged, uttering high-pitched howls of rage, and promising to fill fleets of Black Marias with Avenue folk who, judged by their behaviour, had arrived at a covert agreement with Goering, and his Luftwaffe squadrons.
In late September Grandpa Barnmeade died at his post, just like the Roman sentry at Pompeii, just like 'Boy' Cornwell, at Jutland.
Scrambling on to the porch of Number Four, at 2 a.m., with the intention of smashing the windows of Becky Clegg's bedroom, and extinguishing the glow that leaked from behind her lath and paper black-out screen, he had slipped, and fallen headlong on to the flagged path, ten feet below.
Edith Clegg, hearing the impact, and the warden's final yell of indignation, had run out, and found him lying there. He was unconscious, and she had hurried along to fetch Jim Carver, of Number Twenty; there was little Jim could do but telephone for the ambulance from the Post, and sweep away the fragments of Grandpa Barnmeade's huge torch. The old veteran had broken his neck.
They gave him a spectacular Avenue funeral, and Edith Clegg wept when the hearse passed the house, for she recalled, with a wave of self-reproach, that Becky's light had caused the tragedy and that she had once called the old hero 'Little Hitler'. He was buried in Shirley Churchyard, and Jim was one of his bearers. That night everyone along the Avenue was very careful about their black-outs, reasoning, perhaps that from his new vantage point, the old warden could see chinks that were invisible to his easy-going successor.
The residential rump at the Shirley, or golf links, end of the Avenue, had remained much as it was throughout the 'twenties' and 'thirties'.
Little Miss Baker, the semi-paralysed spinster of Number One, still peeped from her downstairs window at the even numbers opposite, and could still tell you what was what, and who was who. She had been sitting there a long time now— since the middle of the First World War—and had resisted all endeavours, on the part of good-intentioned relatives, to evacuate her to the country. She reasoned that she had little enough to lose, for she had to be carried to and from her room on the rare occasions she left it. For the greater part of her adult life this end of the Avenue had been her window on the world. She was a patient and reserved little body, friendly with all, but intimate with none, except, possibly, Edith Clegg, who sometimes crossed the road, and took tea with her, at the three-legged table in the window.
Miss Baker remembered most of the neighbours moving into their houses, and she was quite determined to sit this second war out. Her range of vision reached as far as Number Twenty-Four, and she could have told you, at any particular time, where any of the people in the twelve houses opposite were, and usually, what they were doing at a particular time of day.
Across the road, at the corner shop that had once been Toni Piretta's, but was now A. Carver Ltd., Archie Carver appeared from time to time, opening and closing the double doors, that he had caused to be cut in the garden wall of Number Two.
Archie was forty now, and acquiring a paunch, but he was an extremely active man, and set out on his rounds before most of the Avenue families had finished breakfast, or emerged from their front gates, to hurry down to Woodside Station, for the 8.45 to town.
Archie was obliged to start early. He now had nearly twenty businesses to attend to, and trade was very brisk indeed, for Archie was one of the few along the Avenue who had profited by the respite offered by Mr. Chamberlain's umbrella. From September '38, onwards, Archie had bought wisely and very extensively. Three rented houses in the area were stacked with tinned goods, that were becoming scarcer every day, and in his store behind Number Two, were dozens of racks, each supporting a crate of sugar, tea, coffee, or some other rationed commodity. The racks represented more than a thousand pounds of Archie's ploughed-back capital.
Nor did the crates constitute the sole treasure in Archie's storehouse. Under the floor, in a specially hollowed-out cavity, that dated back to Archie's private declaration of war—his war against the Inland Revenue—were Archie's oil-drums, holding his Floating Reserve.
Once upon a time these drums had contained mere half-crowns, and florins, the gleanings from Archie's tills, after the blinds were down, and new and fictitious till-rolls were made out, but now with trade booming, Archie could ignore half-crowns, and was collecting paper gleanings, to put into fire-proof tin boxes, which he buried in the oil-drums, and covered over with sawdust.
He took up his floorboards once a week, and only one other person knew of the existence of the vault. That person was not Maria, the Italian-born daughter of old Toni, who had persuaded Archie to marry her, and come into partnership with him in the mid-twenties. The other person who knew all about the oil-drums was Archie's elder son, Anthony, now in his final term at public school, in Somerset. Anthony had been told because he was the Crown Prince to the Empire of Twenty Pop-Ins.
Archie Carver had spent the greater part of his life forging his chain of pop-ins—small, undistinguished little grocery shops, scattered about the new housing estates, along the Kent-Surrey border. In the beginning the pop-ins had been a means to an end, that end being a bank balance just large enough to enable Archie to live the sort of life he had planned to live, since he was a grocer's errand boy, during the First World War. Today, however, the shops, and their turnover, were ends in themselves, for he had forgotten almost everything else, and his wife and family hardly ever saw him, not even when one or other of them returned to the Avenue from the comfortable Georgian house he had found for them in Somerset.
So, in the very early hours of each successive Sunday morning, when the Avenue was very still, and the double gates giving access to his yard had been bolted and padlocked from the inside, Archie selected a yale key from the huge bunch he carried everywhere he went, and let himself into the store behind the house. It was the store where his mahogany-faced father-in-law had once played so many games of bears with the children, when they were tiny. Here Archie began at once to drag crates of expensive camouflage from a furthermost corner, and lay bare the cunningly-fitted floorboards that led down to his Floating Reserve. Edith Clegg, at Number Four, beyond the wall, sometimes heard the muffled thumps of the crates he moved, but she was a very uncomplicated person, and did not connect them with buried treasure. Instead, she reflected: "That poor Mr. Carver does work hard! He never seems to go to bed at all, poor, dear man!"
Yet Archie sometimes did go to bed, went, in fact, the moment he had relocked his store. Had Edith been a prying woman she might have considered it very odd that Archie did not spend Saturday nights in his own home but went, instead, out into Shirley Rise, and through a gap in the hawthorn hedge, that led to the meadow immediately behind the odd numbers.
Once here, he slipped along the path in the shadow of the boundary fences, crossed the open track that was the sole break in the even sweep of the crescent, and let himself in at the back gate of Number Forty-Five, the home of Elaine Fraser, whose husband, Esme, was away serving with the R.A.F., in the Midlands.
Archie's regular Saturday night call, at Number Forty-Five was the nearest he ever came to taking a holiday. He seldom stayed more than a few hours, preferring to leave again before it was light. He had many customers in the Avenue, and his presence at Number Forty-Five, during the hours of darkness, might be commented upon, and ultimately affect his business. There had been a time when Archie had made a habit of combining business with pleasure, but that was long ago, before one of his assistants had robbed him of nearly a hundred pounds, and laughed in his face when he had discovered the theft. Nowadays Archie took his fun more soberly, and paid for it on the nail, or rather on Elaine Fraser's bow-fronted dressing-table, where he left his keys, loose change, and gold cigarette-lighter, after he had undressed.
Their relationship was a very business-like one, and both of them preferred to keep it so. This was easy enough to achieve now that Esme Fraser had joined up, and was considerate enough to 'phone his wife whenever he managed to wangle a forty-eight hour pass, and hitch-hike home from the Midlands.
Prior to that it had meant they had to meet far afield, and rent a room, which wasn't easy these days, with London so full of homeless foreigners, and uniformed wayfarers.
Archie had grown fond of Elaine. In addition to possessing striking good looks, and a sturdy, but pleasing figure, she had the enormous advantage of being without a conscience. She solaced him and took his money, without commenting upon their association. She was as brisk and as business-like as was he himself, when handing groceries over the counter. She was always there waiting for him when he arrived, and she never committed the error of trying to elevate their association to an emotional plane, as so many of Archie's women had tried to do in the past. She was not out to snare him, enslave him, or compromise him, merely to accommodate him, at the agreed price. Between his visits, if he thought of her at all, it was with mild gratitude. It was a great pity, he reflected, that there were not many more women like Elaine, and an even greater pity that he had not made her acquaintance years ago, when she was growing up, and cloistered with her family, at Number Seventeen, just across the road.
Apart from Archie's occasional visits Elaine led a solitary life. There was no contact these days between her and her mother, or her brother Sydney, who still occupied Number Seventeen, a few doors away. It was now more than seven years since she had walked out of the house, and followed her father, Edgar, to Wales, where he was now living over a little antique shop with Frances, the 'other woman', and Frances' daughter Pippa.
Edgar had found Elaine a nice, steady job as a hotel receptionist, but she had not stayed there very long, for during her early adolescence Elaine Frith had dreamed a dream, and the dream had shaped her life for many years now, driving her out to tour the country in the company of a second-rate illusionist, and after that to cross to the Continent, as the mistress of a middle-aged variety agent.
Neither of these haphazard partnerships had breathed reality into her dream, for it was a lavish and extravagant dream, involving a terrace, with a swinging hammock, a flock of male courtiers, wardrobes full of expensive clothes, a yacht that dropped anchor in Monte Carlo, and Majorca, and, above all, a Great Provider.
Her brief and painful liaison with Tom Tappertitt, the proprietor of the circus that she had joined after leaving Benny Boy, the agent, had been equally unprofitable. That ridiculous episode had ended face down on a bed, in a small, private hotel, with an irate Mrs. Tappertitt, who happened to be a professional strongwoman, enthusiastically tanning her bare bottom, while husband Tom moaned from the confines of the shallow cupboard, into which his energetic wife had thrust him while she administered justice on Elaine.
After that Elaine had renounced hit-and-miss tactics, and had married young Esme Fraser, the boy who had been mooning after her since the late 'twenties.' There were two reasons for this decision. First the necessity of acquiring a base from which she could sally out to search for the Great Provider, and secondly because of Esme's modest fortune, which turned out to be more modest than she had been led to believe.
Up to the moment of the outbreak of war Elaine had been ready to write off her marriage as yet another false start, but now she was not so sure. Their child, born on the actual day of the declaration of war, had been taken off her hands, and now Esme too had disappeared from the scene, and only appeared in the Avenue at irregular, and widely-spaced intervals. In view of all this there was still something to be said for a husband with a small unearned income.
Meantime, there had been Stevie, the big Polish airman, since posted overseas, and later Archie, who, carefully handled, might yet provide the terrace hammock, and yacht, notwithstanding his Italian wife, and young family down in Somerset.
Excerpted from The Avenue Goes to War by R. F. Delderfield. Copyright © 1964 R. F. Delderfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.