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From the author of Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat
It is the summer of 1946, a time of clothing coupons and food rations, of postwar deprivations and social readjustment. In this precarious new era, three young women prepare themselves to head off to university and explore the world beyond Yorkshire, England. The bookish Hetty Fallowes struggles to become independent of her overbearing mother, Una Vane embarks on a bicycle trip around the countryside with a young man ...
From the author of Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat
It is the summer of 1946, a time of clothing coupons and food rations, of postwar deprivations and social readjustment. In this precarious new era, three young women prepare themselves to head off to university and explore the world beyond Yorkshire, England. The bookish Hetty Fallowes struggles to become independent of her overbearing mother, Una Vane embarks on a bicycle trip around the countryside with a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, and Liselotte Klein, a Jewish refugee taken in by a Quaker family, heads to London in search of her only relatives to survive the Nazis.
As the three struggle to find meaning and love in a new world, they realize that they still have much to learn, and that their friendship is perhaps the only constant in an ever-changing world.
Three girls in a graveyard. Four feet on a tomb. Tall, burnt-up grasses. The late summer of 1946.
`From now on I'm Hester,' said Hetty Fallowes: `Hestah.'
`Well, you always were Hester, weren't you?' said Una. `Weren't you? Christened?'
`"Hestah". My mother saw it in a book.'
`Well, she'd have seen it in the Bible, wouldn't she? Being your lovely Ma?'
`"Hester" is OT. Ma's pretty hard-line NT. Jesus first and always. New Testament. Book of Common Prayer. Anglo-Catholic. When I get to London I'm "Hester Fallowes". I shall start as I mean to go on.'
`Not for the first time,' said Una. `It's Lieselotte who should be Hester. You're the Jew, Lieselotte.'
The third girl, whose feet were neither bare nor propped higher than her head against the flank of the table-tomb, but neatly side by side in the grass in laced-up shoes and fawn lisle stockings, continued with her knitting.
Una and Hetty but for their feet and legs lay almost hidden in the neglected grasses among the tombstones that looked down on them from every side. Stone faces of angels, balloon heads of grinning rustics with medieval ear-flaps, the odd crumbling skull watched them like crouching tribesmen. Behind stood the church and its mausoleum, a few stones lying around in the grass. Plants bloomed and straggled from its cracks and a small mountain ash flourished from a quoin. The spire seemed to be toppling across the cobalt, un-Yorkshire sky. High up in a different air stream, clouds as light as cheesecloth skirmished. The end of the summer. Exactly one year ago this week the atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki.
Una and Hetty lay in exhausted bliss, eyes closed, while Lieselotte sat in a hump like unrisen dough. Una and Hetty were skinny. Lieselotte was pasty, boneless and fat, her hair in a scant little colourless bun, her eyes myopic behind thick glasses. When she at length looked up at the spire and the sky she continued to knit, but only as part of some long reverie. The air-force blue knitting wool was emerging from a coarse little bag made of something she called `crash', embroidered with yellow and purple woollen daisies. She came from Hamburg and had arrived in England in June 1939, on the last train full of refugee children, the Kindertransport. She now sat silent in the sunshine, like a woman of sixty.
All three had heard that morning that they had won state scholarships to the University in October. All three had known since Christmas that they had been awarded a place, but without a state award none of them could have taken it up. State scholarships were rare, and rarer still in the small seaside school they had attended since the war began, distracted by air raids and the news on the wireless, always hungry and six years without a holiday. They were all seventeen years old.
Una and Hetty had known the churchyard for over a year. They had come to it to lie in the grass to do their revision. But Lieselotte had been introduced to it only that morning after they had all come out from the headmistress's study basking in the glorious news. Una and Hetty had been friends since they were five, but Lieselotte had been a solitary. She had not been ignored but, rather, never befriended, nobody being sure of her because she was German. Nobody at the school had ever explained Lieselotte. The teachers had perhaps smiled at her more often than at the others, but never suggested why she might need smiling at. It was taken for granted in some symbiotic way that Lieselotte was dreadfully poor, but through no fault of her own.
All three girls were poor anyway.
Hetty was poor because her father, who had been four years in the trenches in the First World War, had returned miraculously unscathed in body but shattered to bits in mind. It had once been a remarkable mind but now it hid itself, looking out only now and then like sunlight between tree trunks. Malcolm Fallowes had elected to live out the rest of his life without gainful employment, as an intellectual on a small pension. By profession now he was a grave-digger and occasional washer of the town's windows, though since the beginning of the Second World War the fenestral part of his income had dwindled as most windows were immediately criss-crossed with strips of brown paper to counteract bomb blast, and quite a few were simply boarded up.
Hetty's mother, child of a profligate father long dead, had married young and for love and had never done any sort of work in her life. She hadn't a penny. To have worked for money would have been unthinkable and destroyed the last barrier between herself and her maid, who lived-in, and was paid five pounds a year and her keep. At one time to do without a maid would have been as unthinkable to Mrs Fallowes as to do without soap. Now she was having to do without both. The maid had melted into munitions, the soap dwindled into transparent strips that were rendered down with other remnants and squeezed up again into secondary greyish dollops that soon turned to jelly, and disappeared. When the last maid had departed, like the last king, into the dark, the Fallowes were richer by five pounds a year but poorer by the loss of a ration book and identity. `Look at my hands!' Mrs Fallowes would cry. `Just look at all our hands!' she and her friends would say in the Lonsdale Café. They had all been careful of their soft hands. Now there was scrubbing of floors.
Mr Fallowes, brooding on the News, beset by dreams of France and hints in the paper of what was going on in Europe, sometimes came down early in the morning to wash the kitchen floor. `For my wife,' he said to himself, though neither of them told anybody about it. Sometimes in the past years, especially after the Blitz of '41 was over and in clement weather when deaths hung fire, Mr Fallowes' grave-money had dwindled. He got seven-and-sixpence a grave (lined out with laurel or privet, an extra one-and-six) and relied upon it for cigarettes and beer. At these times he had grown morose and said he felt like swinging a torch about at night to lure some passing Messerschmitt, like a Cornish wrecker on the beach. `There's quite a few I could do without. Most of the Church. What good, for example, is a pope?'
`The Pope doesn't live here,' said Hetty, `and without the Church you couldn't dig the graves and toll the bell.'
Mrs Fallowes would shriek and cry, say that Hetty was a heartless cynic just like her father, and that she personally didn't know what she would do without the vicar. Then she would rush about and bake little cakes with a view to putting them out for sale in the sitting-room window and there'd be no marge or sugar left. She made wonderful cakes and had a multitude of friends, and she could have done well.
But somehow the cakes never made it to a trading area. Kitty Fallowes, between kitchen and sitting-room, would falter into shame. The cakes, unpriced, were left on a little bamboo table just inside the vestibule, and when friends came for tea, which meant of course that at least one cake had to be cut into, they'd say, `You know, Kitty, you really could sell these cakes. You'd make your fortune in these hard times,' and Kitty at once would look thrilled and say, `Would you like one, Mrs Brownley? Let me wrap it up for you. No, of course not. I wouldn't think of it. Not from you.' Some of Mrs Fallowes's friends suspected that the Fallowes were hungrier than most and brought them offerings, like turnip jam or a tin of something from America.
Once there had been the promise of something more. Hetty's godmother, a rich woman with no family, who later passed the war in hotels and spas one step ahead of the bombs, had often remembered Hetty's birthday with a pound note but had only once met her.
Before the war she had written to say that she would like to come for an afternoon visit. A cake-of-cakes had been made and Kitty Fallowes, to show that although she had married a gravedigger she was acquainted with respectable people, had invited little six-year-old Una Vane to tea. Una was a doctor's daughter. Josephine Dixon was the godmother's name. She hailed from Windsor and her hobby was royalty.
The visit was a spectacular failure. Una, an owl of a child with sober manners who always had clean finger-nails, as behoved somebody with a surgery in the house, who always said `please' and `thank you' and spoke only when addressed, behaved like a drunken clown. She rocked her chair, blew crumbs across the table, made noises like a wild beast. Hetty had been embarrassed and rather frightened by this unrecognisable friend.
But loyal, ever loyal, to Una, Hetty had joined in. She had blown crumbs about, too. She had made noises like a different wild beast. She had squeezed bread-and-butter in her fingers and watched it come out through them like worms. She had spilt jam. Excited tears she did not understand had stood in her eyes.
`You had both better get down,' Kitty Fallowes had said between nervousness and fury; but the little girls were already down, rolling about beneath the table, giggling.
`Una is never like this,' Kitty Fallowes told the godmother. `She's from such a nice family. I can't understand it.'
The godmother had pressed her lips together and then the crumbs on her plate and deposited them upon the drawn-threadwork serviette. `Is she a foreigner? She is rather dark.'
The little girls had at last run up to Hetty's bedroom, where the steady Una had continued to cavort and fool about, and then had flopped to the floor and made herself insignificant with a book.
Hetty had circled round her, and then, for the first and last time in their lives, she had put her arms round Una, there on the floor. Hetty did not ask: What was it? Why did you do it? You knew my mother wanted to show you off so she'd see how nice we all are and worth giving money to. She did not say this, because she had no need to do so. Una had tears on her face, although it wasn't a sad book. Hetty said, `It's all right, Una. It doesn't matter.'
Una then had howled aloud and had not said, then or ever: How could you and your mother make such a parade? Just to get money? You are you. Why should you beg? One day you will be beautiful and famous and you will marry a prince, I wouldn't wonder, and give palaces to your parents.
She had no need to say any of it, nor could she have done so with a six-year-old's vocabulary, but she got it across somehow. She could sense a mother trading her child.
Una, at six, had been obscurely aware of dangers and deceit. Three years later her father, the doctor, walked out of the house before morning surgery and never came back. He had been a wonderful father. He had taken Una and Hetty on cliff-top walks and shown them wild flowers and birds. He had told them stories from The Arabian Nights. Wherever he went Dr Vane had seemed to bring lightness of heart. He had sung jolly music-hall songs quietly to himself on his rounds. He went everywhere on foot and twirled a walking-stick. People felt better for seeing him walk by, so cheerful and handsome, with his military moustache. A family doctor, a flower in his buttonhole. Then, one day when Una got up for school, he wasn't there.
For several weeks after that, Una had come to live with Hetty and it was soon in the papers that Dr Vane's body had been found down on the rocks below Boulby Head. Someone had seen a man walking proudly along the cliff-top, his walking-stick across his shoulder like a rifle. He had been a gunner in the First World War. How Una and Hetty giggled and sang at Hetty's house during the weeks after his death. Nobody told them anything. Neither child asked. Both somehow knew that, like Hetty's father, Dr Vane had suffered from something known as The Somme. Deep in Hetty there was a fear for the grave-digger's safety, even though she once heard the grave-digger say, `Vane was a bloody clot.'
So Una and Hetty were cemented together by disappointment and woe and it was thought rather peculiar that they were so often laughing.
They had laughed together from the start. After the disinheriting tea-party, the godmother had been heard by the two girls on the doorstep as she said goodbye — the girls hanging invisible over the stair-rail — `Please don't worry about it, Kitty. The friend is certainly rather droll.' They had howled with glee.
But birthday presents stopped after that, and at Christmas there was only a printed card, even the signature printed and the address, which, when war came, changed from one hotel to another until it steadied at the great hotel on the Yorkshire Wolds. `Prime funk-hole for the rich,' said Hetty's father.
The funk-hole received a direct hit and blew Miss Dixon to the skies. She'd gone peculiar by then anyhow and left all her money to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.
And now Una was off to Cambridge to read Physics and Hetty off to London to read Literature, and Lieselotte, who had joined their sisterhood really seriously only today, this great day in the churchyard, was off to Cambridge too, to read Modern Languages.
There had been no surprise about the achievement of Una and Lieselotte, who had swum through every school examination from the start, salmon breasting the rapids. It was Hetty — `Hester' now — who was suddenly the amazement of the world, for she'd been thought of as only a minnow splashing in a pool.
Hetty's academic bombshell was wonderful for her. Most of all she was enchanted by the incredulous faces of her teachers. She had never been thought clever, and for years had played up to their modest expectations. Recurrently she had been labelled unsteady, self-conscious and a tiresome show-off. Vaguely it was known that she came from a difficult background. Her parents' oddness and intensity and, for all the background of the Great War, their immaturity and provincialism had been a hindrance. They were known to be `not quite normal', and her mother `very religious'. Hetty had discovered that their undoubted love for her had been only the extension of their love for themselves (`She has my eyes') and she had been disturbed by her comprehension of them as they swam through their lives in total incomprehension of her. They loved her, but as a dear liability. They expected no talent in her. Her father demanded that she draw no attention to herself and her mother that she strove after a stringent goodness, the moral rectitude which she herself had always been expected to achieve as a child and in which, filled with High Church guilt, she felt she had failed. Hester, under Kitty's surveillance, was to be Kitty perfected.
Neither parent had ever given any thought to how Hetty would pass her life. Being Hetty was enough for them. After school there would of course be a job somewhere local, a job of some nondescript kind until she married somebody nice, for ever and ever. A young man of her own class. She herself knew that other things were to be. She loved her parents even as she drifted away. From term to idle term at school she had frolicked, whistling out of tune and in the dark.
But she had one asset, the primitive gift to the timid: the ability to identify with anyone she met, to see inside their head and hear their thoughts and to imitate and, when passion struck, even to become them.
At sixteen she had met a man. He was not a boy. He was a man. He was twenty-one, and a lance-corporal in the Army Pay Corps, stationed locally. After two meetings he had told her that he loved her and that he believed she had the most unusual mind. He already had a place at the University and would be released from the Army at the same time as she would be leaving school. They must go up together.
She had met him at the vicarage over a glass of sherry when she had been wearing a pale-green dress of Mrs Brownley's cousin's. It was old, but of heavy silk. She was tall. Rationing had kept her figure thin. She had good legs. Skirts were still short. She looked languid and romantic and vague. She was dying of shyness.
It was the first time she had tasted alcohol and she had gulped down a couple of glasses of sherry before her mother's disapproving eyes had noticed, so that by the time she was introduced to the man she was able to blot out a rather terrible name and notice only that he was slender as a wand with gigantic eyes and very fair. She heard herself say, `How tall you are,' and he had said, `Yes. I'm said to look like Siegfried Sassoon.' She thought he had a dry wit and only later realised that he was stating simply what he thought to be true. Hetty had been reading Sassoon and other poets of his ilk, some sad, some dead. Sassoon belonged to the world her mother loved: the old century, hunting, hoar frost, early mornings in the unknown south of England countryside, timelessness, an ordered world.
Eustace asked her to go for a walk with him, and for a number of Sunday afternoons they would walk demurely along the lanes and over the fields, sometimes to the village of the country church and ragged mausoleum, and the peeping-tom tombs. Soon they held hands.
He talked always about books and sprang about on his toes with delight when he found that she was well-read, and she was warmed through with gratitude, for it was the first time anyone had noticed. He began to kiss her soon. She had been kissed before, often, at sweaty school dances and was becoming good at it. Eustace was not adept. He kept his eyes open throughout, looking over her shoulder, often breaking off to point out a feature of the landscape above her ear. He kissed her as if he was writing it all down. The air Eustace breathed, every leaf, every twig and hedgerow was, she discovered, an index for literary allusion. `Oh!' he would cry, breaking away from her. `Come quickly. Look at this little glade.' She felt Dorothy to brother William, never his woman. But it was new.
And she admired him. His perfect French, his Cambridge scholarship, his voice without a trace of Yorkshire in it, his excellent hands, and his belief in her. To please him, she read more and more, found herself discussing, analysing. She adored his astonished eyes when she told him she had read the whole of Shakespeare and that, no, she had never seen a play. She had read Shakespeare in the public park on Saturday afternoons, which were her father's drinking times, though she didn't tell Eustace that. She wrapped herself up in his admiration. She even managed to subdue the recent regret that he never laughed. He could titter and sort of hiss through his teeth, but he was a stranger to the guffaw. Hetty had not yet grown out of the guffaw.
And she had to stop herself imagining what he would look like in the nude. His Army uniform lay in thick folds over what might well be a concave stomach. He never ate anything. He pecked like a bird.
But he was interested in religion, and so was she, and he loved music and so (she found through him) did she. They attended Church together, which delighted her mother, and he sang like an angel. At the Church porch the blunderbuss of a rowdy vicar pumped Eustace's ethereal hand up and down, with commendation.
To keep him, she flung herself into work and found that she could almost inhabit, almost become, Eustace. As she wrote and read, it was Eustace's passion and precision that began to appear in her essays, Eustace's intelligent choice of source material and criticism that began to find its way to the public library, Miss Kipling the librarian watching her at first with disbelief, then helping her. Her handwriting became Eustace's handwriting, minute, tight-packed, most wonderfully level. Eustace was a classicist and effortlessly now Hetty's Latin began to flow, and, a year before she needed to, she gained the qualifications to try for a university scholarship. Eustace had changed her very nature. He had given her the chance of her life. How amazingly lucky to have found the man of her life so young. What a perfect life must lie ahead.
But how strange that she didn't feel happier. Why was it that in his presence Hetty had become so quiet and receptive and respectful, yet when he wasn't there, even in her letters to him, the Hetty she knew, the true Hetty, burst forth? She reverted to her natural huge scrawl in these letters to him, aggressively left misspellings uncorrected, defiantly wrote nonsensical rubbish.
And he corrected her spellings.
At the beginning of Hetty's last year at school there was a change of staff and a mad little woman with haunted eyes and blotches was appointed to teach General Studies. She took Hetty — who seemed to be her only pupil — aside to tell her that she knew nothing of early English literature. `It wasn't my period,' she said, blushing carmine at the phrase. `I'll have to ask you to get up The Nonne's Priest's Tale by yourself. Please tell no one.'
`Help!' wrote Hetty to the Salisbury Plain, where Eustace was now counting out the King's shillings. `There's no hope now. I'll never do it by myself in a term. Might as well not apply.'
And back came the pages of hem-stitched excellence and an analysis of every Canterbury Tale.
Yet how can he like me, she thought, when I can't somehow stop myself writing to him like a shrieking ingénue? Why don't I write like the sort of girl he really wants?
She saw this girl: cool, elegant, bossy, brisk and cutting. A woman of experience. Why had he gone for Hetty? Because, she knew, she had been the only girl available.
Oh — the awful dead kisses!
When Eustace had been drafted to Salisbury Plain he had had to leave behind at a local watchmaker's a watch strap that was being repaired, and he had asked her to collect it for him. After she had collected it she wore it. She wore it every day. She wore it at school and in bed. It was broad, black hard leather, an unlikely possession for Eustace, and it made her somehow see him with new eyes. The watch strap was the only thing about Eustace that gave her any sort of thrill, and she fastened it painfully tight around her wrist. She had no idea why.
`Have you hurt your wrist?' asked Una.
`Who is he?'
`Oh, I just met him somewhere.'
`What's his name?'
`Oh, nothing special.'
`What's his name?'
`It's ... Eustace, actually.'
But, unbelievable to Una, Hetty hadn't laughed.
Excerpted from The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam. Copyright © 2000 by Jane Gardam. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.