Read an Excerpt
The Dreaming Suburb
The Avenue Book One
By R. F. Delderfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 R. F. Delderfield
All rights reserved.
In the spring of 1947 the bull-dozers moved down the cart-track beside Number Seventeen and deployed across the meadow to the fringe of Manor Wood.
The grabs and the bull-dozers ravaged the Avenue and despoiled its memories. In the first week they clawed down the tiny greenhouse, where Esme first kissed Elaine, and Elaine's father, Edgar, had tended his hyacinths, and planned to abandon his family; it was not long before concrete-mixers were set up on the very spot where Judy Carver had pledged her soul to Esme Fraser and later, when the first Dorniers droned overhead, Elaine Frith had lain with her Polish lover in the long, parched grass. The Clerk of Works himself set up his office in the abandoned sitting-room of Edith Clegg, where, long before, she and her sister Becky had played Horsey, Keep Your Tail Up on the cottage piano during the evening soirées with their lodger, Ted Hartnell. Workmen flung their tools into the half-ruined hall of Number Twenty-Two, scratching the primrose paint that Harold Godbeer had lovingly spread at the behest of the pretty Mrs. Fraser. These, and many other desecrations were performed briskly and cheerfully, for everyone was shouting for houses, more and more houses, and the Manor Estate was wide. It was merciful that the families whose homes these had been for so long were dispersed when all this took place.
This was the first movement in the south-easterly assault on the suburb's surviving area of wild wood. Soon the axes rang, and the double-handed saws whined among the aged beeches and oaks, and huge piles of scythed brambles made a pyre of the suburb's salient along the Kent-Surrey border. By late autumn the last clump of manor beeches had been thrown, and the salient, of which the Avenue had been the advanced line for so long, existed no more. Soon the Avenue itself was swallowed up in a tangle of new roads, new crescents, new avenues, each lined with semi-detached houses, quite unlike the terraced houses of the original curve. The odd numbers still looked across at the even numbers, but for the even numbers the old outlook was entirely altered, for they could see, through gaps torn by bombs, acres of new-looking houses, and pegged-out sites stretching to the horizon.
This is the tale of an Avenue in a suburb and of some of the people who lived in that Avenue between the long, dry summers of 1919, when one war had just ended, and 1940 when another had just begun, a tale of what they did, and what they dreamed.
About the time the story starts the word 'suburban' was beginning to acquire the meaning it has today. It is never said without a sneer or a hint of patronage. This is curious, for three-quarters of our population continue to reside in suburbs of one sort or another; they are not unlike other folk, and quite capable of extending their dreams beyond the realms of the 8:25 out and the 5:48 in. They dream, in fact, as consistently, and as extravagantly as anyone else.
This story is an account of the lives and the dreams of five families of the Avenue, four on the even side, one on the odd. The Avenue is not any particular Avenue, and might exist in any suburb of Greater London. The time is important, not the place, for every decade has its own fads, fashions, hopes, and fears, just as it has its own dance-tunes and screen favourites, its own terms of approval and condemnation. That is why this is a story of boom, slump, full employment, unemployment, new freedoms, new restrictions, hope, faith, and despair; a tale of the Charleston, the General Strike, the hunger-marchers, the amateur Blackshirts, the Peace Ballot; of Amy Johnson, Al Jolson, and a strident Austrian comedian, who was said to gnaw carpets but wasn't so screamingly funny after all.
The Avenue's real name was "Manor Park Avenue" but nobody who lived in it ever used the words "Manor Park". They simply called it the Avenue, taking the Manor Park, which they could see across the buttercup meadow, for granted.
The Avenue ran in a scimitar curve from Shirley Rise, off the Lower Road leading to London, to the eastern entrance of the Recreation Ground, known as "The Rec", and was thus the southernmost rim of the most southerly suburb. It remained so for a long time because nobody could build on the Rec at one end, or the golf-links in Shirley Rise at the end. Behind it lay the older, more sedate section of the suburb, a dozen or so roads built in the eighteen-sixties, and named after generals and incidents of the Indian Mutiny. In front of it lay the Old Manor, and its surrounding woodland, that held out against the developers (no one ever discovered why) for more than a quarter of a century. Because of this the odd numbers had open views at the back but, by another happy accident, the even numbers enjoyed a similar privilege, for between their gardens and the Mutiny roads lay an abandoned Nursery, long since given over to briar, thistle, and dock.
This is not a complete story of the Avenue or anything like it. There were over a hundred houses in the crescent and approximately four hundred dwellers therein, so we shall hear only of the Pirettas, the Cleggs, the Carvers, the Frasers, and the Friths, respectively, of Numbers Two, Four, Twenty, Twenty-Two, and Seventeen.
The tale of these twenty-odd people as a group may be said to have commenced in the middle of the First World War, when the last of them settled in the Avenue; it ended, again as a group, when the sun was high over the beaches of Dunkirk, and dreams were cast out by stark incredulity and fear.
I did not know the Avenue until the Spring of 1918, so my story begins shortly after that season, when men like Jim Carver were drifting home from hell to look for work.
Some of the people I have written about I understood. All of them I knew, and knew well. Most of them I loved much more than I knew, and when I left the Avenue I missed and remembered them.CHAPTER 2
More than a dozen people in the Avenue caught Spanish 'flu in the Spring of 1919, but only Ada Carver died of it.
Four years' struggle on a low diet, stints of charring between pregnancies, and, on Christmas Eve, the news that her quiet, loose-limbed husband, instead of being demobbed within weeks of the Armistice, had now been posted off to Germany with the Army of Occupation, had combined to rob Ada of the will to combat the virus. She collapsed at the copper, and died within three days of tottering to bed, a few hours before Jim Carver could get home from Coblenz.
Jim came as quickly as he could, standing nine hours in the corridor on the Monday leave train, and another seven in the Ostend boat queue. The appalling discomfort of the journey did not worry him. Three years on the Western Front had made him indifferent to the lack of sleep, and extreme temperatures. His long, lean, slightly-stooping frame, on which his new uniform hung loosely and awkwardly, had been thumped by innumerable army doctors since that day in the autumn of 1914 when he walked into the Hammersmith recruiting office; but his category was still A.1, despite odd whiffs of gas, and several pieces of shrapnel, one of which was still "travelling" between knee-cap and thigh.
He did not know what to expect when he turned in at the gate of Number Twenty. Louise, his eldest daughter, had wired "Mother critically ill. Asking for you", but this was a prearranged exaggeration on Louise's part, and was written in obedience to Jim's instructions during his last leave. Ada Carver had not asked for him, or for anyone or anything except, perhaps, to lie still, and float away from muddle, and backache, and the eternal washing of nappies, and amateur endeavours to repair children's shoes. The Doctor had paid her but one visit. Doctors were grossly overworked in the Spring of 1919.
On the morning of the fourth day Louise had gone into the porch bedroom (the large front bedroom was occupied by the three boys) and found that Ada had died during the night. Jim arrived the following afternoon.
Sergeant Carver had never been to the Avenue. The Carvers, Ada, Louise, Archie, Judith, and "Berni" and Boxer, the elder twins, had moved into Number Twenty of necessity during the previous August, when Ada was quite certain that she was pregnant again. The rent was fifteen shillings a week, inclusive of rates, and although three of them were earning, the money was very difficult to find, particularly when Ada ceased to work, and the second twins were born on New Year's Day.
All through the war the Carvers had been a bare inch or two above subsistence level. Soldiers' wives, and 'teenage girls like Louise, could earn good money in munitions, but if they had gone into factories there would have been no one to care for the younger children, and Archie, now turned seventeen, was himself at work all day as a shop assistant.
So Louise and Ada took shifts of part-time domestic work, office-cleaning, milk deliveries, and long hours at the camouflage-net yard. The war seemed to go on for ever and the children, apart from Archie, seemed never to grow beyond the jam-smearing stage. The moment Ada returned from her stints Louise began hers, and she took over the cooking and housework. Usually, her day began at dawn, and ended around midnight.
Under these conditions it was not surprising that she succumbed so swiftly to the epidemic. What was surprising was that she had held out for more than four years. Even the veterans of the front-line trench system were pulled out every now and again, and sent into to rest billets. There were no rest billets available to women like Ada Carver in 1918—just Spanish influenza, at the end of the line.
Jim Carver, having no key, had to ring the front bell. While he was waiting for one of the children to let him in, his eye took in the house that Ada had written so much about. Its general appearance surprised him. The Carvers had never yet lived in a house with a front garden, or a festoon of dropping chains between front door and the pavement. They had never occupied a house with three bedrooms and a bathroom, or a house that was within easy reach of open country, and they had never expected to move into a neighbourhood where some of the houses had names as well as numbers.
Studying the multi-coloured panes in the upper half of the front door, Jim thought he could appreciate Ada's references in her letters to the cost of living back home. He found it difficult to understand why she had moved the family right out here, and into a neighbourhood so obviously superior to the one they had left behind in Bermondséy.
Louise let him in, her plain, pale face pinched with anxiety, and lack of sleep; Louise, the patient, the stand-by, the uncomplaining, her protruding blue eyes clouded with grief, her loose mouth, as always, slightly open, and her big, ungainly feet planted at a near-Chaplin angle, as though better to take the weight of family cares that had been piled on her shoulders since Jim went to war so long ago.
He smiled at her absent-mindedly, for everyone was absent-minded towards Louise, and dumping his kit-bag beside the hallstand, said:
"How is she, Lou? I'll go right up, shall I?"
She called out to him before his long legs had covered three stairs.
He turned then, and knew on the instant. At all times Louise found difficulty in expressing herself. Now, she was hopelessly out of her depth.
He came back to her, and stood holding the newel-post of the banisters. He made no outcry. He was very familiar with death.
"When did it happen?" he asked, very quietly.
Louise moistened her lips but said nothing. At that moment Archie came out of the kitchen.
"Yesterday," he said, and left it at that.
Jim went slowly upstairs, his clumsy boots skidding on the polished linoleum. Dear God, he thought, over here the people still polish floors, even while they're dying.
He went in, and lifted the patched sheet from his wife's face, wondering as he did so if her angular features would touch him, as the dead boy's face had touched him, opposite the machine-gun nest outside Mons last November. When he found it did not, a tiny spasm of guilt gripped him, and then went away again. After all, Ada had lived over half the normal span, and that boy, sprawled on the clay bank, had hardly lived at all.
He replaced the sheet and went over to pull up the blinds. It occurred to him then that the customs of a dead world, the world of Victorian and Edwardian England, were still practised here—blinds drawn for death, sheets laid across the faces of the newly-dead. It seemed to him incredible that people still did this sort of thing, almost as though they had never heard of places like Passchendaele and Messines Ridge, where the bones of the dead were welcome landmarks to the ration parties, and stretcher-bearers coming up from supports.
He went back to the bed, and sat beside it, touching his dead wife's hand through the thin blanket. The vague sense of guilt returned, demanding that he should experience grief, but he felt none. Instead, his mind returned again to the dead boy at Mons, perhaps the last casualty of the war—and if not the last, then certainly the most pointless, for when the bullets cut him down, German emissaries were already driving to a rendezvous, with the white flag flying on the car bonnet.
Perhaps it was this knowledge, acquired by Sergeant Carver during a call on Signals, the previous evening, that made the memory of the boy's death so poignant and bitter. The order to attack that particular post had been an act of murder. The two gaunt Bavarians manning it would have retired, Armistice or no Armistice, long before dawn. Yet, despite Carver's protest, despite his pointing this out to the pot-bellied Major, fresh from base, and thirsting for blood, the attack had been ordered. A few grenades had been thrown, there was a thin spatter of fire from the gun, and the section had crossed the bank with a single casualty—the kid.
When the gun had been dismantled Carver went back over the captured ground. It was fortunate for the Major that he had returned to battalion headquarters immediately prior to the skirmish. If he had come upon "B" platoon sergeant when he was engaged in removing the kid's identity disc he might have been the final British casualty of the war.
Carver never saw the Major again but he remembered what was inscribed on the discs— "Private Barnes, J. T. Number 2727650. C. of E.". He remembered his face, too, and would always remember it, as a symbol of crass stupidity, and of a scheme of things that made such sacrifices possible.
For more than four years Sergeant Carver, tanner, meat salesman, and trench veteran, had fought the German Kaiser. On the final day of the war he changed sides. From now on he was to fight his own people.
The wail of a cornet from the road brought him out of his reverie. From the bay window he saw one of the ex-Serviceman's street bands moving slowly along the Avenue. The cornet player, and a one-armed banjoist, his instrument buckled to his chest, were playing Tipperary, while a third member of the team knocking on the doors, and jingling a cap in front of anyone who passed.
He saw young Archie go out and point upwards, towards the porch window. The man with the cap looked confused and hurried away. The music stopped, to start again further down the Avenue.
The incident helped Jim to concentrate on the present. The habit of discipline, of the will to survive, reasserted itself, and he began to grapple with immediate problems. Had anyone done anything about the funeral? How soon could he get demobilised? What kind of job could be found in a strange district? How were the eight of them going to fit into a three-bedroomed house, and what had happened to the latest twins, the girls he had never seen?
He kissed Ada on the brow and went out, locking the door. Before going downstairs he toured the upper floor, noting that a reshuffle of bedrooms would be necessary, now that there were four of either sex living in the house.
Louise called him from the kitchen.
"I've made a stew, Dad. You must be hungry!"
He clumped into the tiled kitchen, and found the children crowded round three sides of the table, with Louise already ladling from the saucepan.
Excerpted from The Dreaming Suburb by R. F. Delderfield. Copyright © 1964 R. F. Delderfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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