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Harriet and Vesey meet when they are teenagers, and their love is as intense and instantaneous as it is innocent. But they are young. All life still lies ahead. Vesey heads off hopefully to pursue a career as an actor. Harriet marries and has a child, becoming a settled member of suburban society. And then Vesey returns, the worse for wear, and with him the love whose memory they have both sentimentally cherished, and even after so much has happened it cannot be denied. But things are not at all as they used to ...
Harriet and Vesey meet when they are teenagers, and their love is as intense and instantaneous as it is innocent. But they are young. All life still lies ahead. Vesey heads off hopefully to pursue a career as an actor. Harriet marries and has a child, becoming a settled member of suburban society. And then Vesey returns, the worse for wear, and with him the love whose memory they have both sentimentally cherished, and even after so much has happened it cannot be denied. But things are not at all as they used to be. Love, it seems, is hardly designed to survive life.
One of the finest twentieth-century English novelists, Elizabeth Taylor, like her contemporaries Graham Greene, Richard Yates, and Michelangelo Antonioni, was a connoisseur of the modern world’s forsaken zones. Her characters are real, people caught out by their own desires and decisions, and they demand our attention. The be-stilled suburban backwaters she sets out to explore shimmer in her books with the punishing clarity of a desert mirage.
At first, the younger children were pleased to foil them, but soon grew bored, sitting up in the branches of oak-trees, or crouching among bales of scratchy hay. Their whispers and giggles would grow into talk and laughter; they would examine their gnat bites, pick at their scratches and soon begin to sing taunting songs and cry out in mockery. Though they did not care to be caught, they were vexed when after so long nothing happened. Sometimes they would see Harriet and Vesey coming across the fields, their long shadows going before them. Then they would quicken with excitement and call out in disguised voices or imitate a cuckoo. But mostly they were silent. They watched the shadows thinning and lengthening and the cows moving indifferently through the grasses.
'One should go one way and one the other,' Joseph would say, but Deirdre knew that they would never part.
At the beginning of the holidays Harriet played with the children to humour them, hiding always in the loft as though it would please them to have the game made easier. Vesey would not play at all. He sat on his bed writing a story. Then one evening he decided to join in. He became robust, avuncular, patronising. He and Harriet would lead them a fine dance, he said. As usual, Harriet hid in the loft and Vesey squeezed down behind the old swede-mincer in the barn. But more recently, Deirdre noted, they had both been hiding in the loft. She wondered why she continued the game, which had become, for her, so unexciting. She, at ten, was not so innocent as Harriet and Vesey at eighteen. She imagined a guilty but simple intimacy up there in the loft; her childish mind could not envisage the confusions of shyness, pride, self-consciousness, fear of rebuff or misunderstanding, which between childhood and maturity cloud and complicate that once so simply-imagined act. So Vesey and Harriet sat in that dusty stuffiness, among old pots of paint, boxes of bulbs, stacks of cobwebbed deck-chairs, rather far apart and in silence. Harriet would peep from the smeared window; Vesey would sit, hunched up, his hands round his knees, staring at a leaning tower of flower-pots. The only interruption was when one of them timidly swallowed an accumulation of saliva. The ticking of each heart, which they believed the other must hear, was like a pendulum rocking in a hollow case. What they thought was heaven, would seem like hell to them in later life.
Harriet, seeing Deirdre cross the yard below, would whisper 'They are coming,' her face quite strained as it could not have been, at her age, over a game. Vesey would move his eyes towards her, as if to move his head, too, would betray them. Without breathing almost, they would await the appearance of Joseph's head above the ladder; (for, though Deirdre knew where to find them, she sent little Joseph up to do the hauling in).
A different hiding-place would have prolonged the search and their exquisite stay in heaven or hell; but neither could suggest what might mean their betrayal to one another. Both upheld the pretence that they played the game for the children; they could not reveal what they had scarcely acknowledged in secret, their real reasons or their need.
Vesey's aunt, the mother of Joseph and Deirdre, was Harriet's mother's closest friend. As young women (a smudged photograph recorded this) they had once been hustled, gripped above the elbows by policemen, up the steps of a police-station. In the background, shop windows showed great holes like black stars. Harriet, not able to bear this picture nor to ignore it, heedless of former sacrifice, as history makes all of us, saw only that her mother had exposed herself to mockery and ridicule, that she looked ugly, wild, a little mad, her mouth darkly open, her hat sideways. And Vesey's Aunt Caroline the same. She had no inkling of what had flowered there in that police-station, the hating eyes of the women outside, the laughter of the men, at last excluded. The doors swinging shut obliterated the street. Harriet's mother began to cry softly. She had not slept for two nights, contemplating her first, dreaded act of violence. Caroline's look of compassion and encouragement across that dingy room steadied and emboldened her. It was a look which went from one to the other many times in the years which followed: years during which history gave in. They wondered sometimes if their courage had been wasted; if time would not despite them have floated down to them casually what they had almost drowned in struggling to reach. Soon feminism became a weird abnormality; laughter was easily evoked at the strange figures of suffragettes with their umbrellas raised, their faces contorted and, one supposed, their voices made shrill with fury and frustration.
Lilian, Harriet's mother, married early and was soon widowed. Harriet herself fulfilled none of the ambitious desires of the older women. An only child, she spent much of her energy in filling in the gaps of her life with imaginary characters. She showed no inclination to become a doctor or a lawyer, still less to storm some still masculine stronghold, the Stock-Exchange or holy orders. Through inattention, she lagged behind at school; facts she only feebly retained; loneliness, and the imagination needed to combat it, tired her. She could not pass an examination. 'What brilliant career to choose for her' became 'what to do with her at all', when she left school. The famous look passed from Caroline to Lilian. Although they never mentioned that room at the police-station, it was not forgotten and they were always closer because of it.
Until they could think of something better, Harriet would go to Caroline each day, to help with her committee work and give lessons to the children. Only a couple of miles lay between the two houses and bicycling to and fro Harriet felt sometimes like a shuttle being passed from one to the other; felt, as she had often been made to feel, that she was nothing very definite herself. She worried about her future, for she knew that she was only marking time, teaching Joseph to read, mending Deirdre's clothes, brushing the dogs, clacking out on the old typewriter with two fingers badly-spaced letters (the carbon round the wrong way so that at the end the letter would be on both sides of the paper), waiting for Vesey to pass the window.
She took refuge even more in day-dreaming, in flamboyant situations which she mastered. Her inclination at this time was only to lie and think of Vesey at night before sleep, but day-dreaming of an exhausting and routine kind must set to some sort of rights the world from which she might approach him. Until she had (although only imaginarily) made a place for herself in which she was no longer alien, useless, she could not go to meet him even in her dreams, and before she had solved that first problem she would fall asleep. So Vesey was seldom reached. She did not come to the point of enhancing those still scenes in the loft, nor did she put any words to them.
Vesey was an only child, too. His mother was not widowed, as Harriet's was. She was merely too busy to have more children. She did much more like to go out to work and, sitting at her lacquered desk beside perfectly arranged flowers and two white telephones, received, although without rising, clients at a salon for beauty treatment.
Vesey meanwhile slid about London, swung on to buses, hung about railway-stations, trying to stave off boredom. He found a way of passing time by frightening the housekeeper, would lie on the sofa in the pale, satiny flat trying to detain her while he described anything horrid he could remember or invent. 'For instance, when people are flayed,' he would begin, as she stood with a tray at the door ... 'Ah, yes, flayed' ... dreamily he lengthened the vowel of this word ... 'a small incision at the roots of the hair, say ...'
'How dare you think up such wickedness!'
His way of beginning always with 'For instance' or 'However', as if some sort of conversation had gone before, trapped her again and again.
'Nevertheless, should you find yourself passing Madame Tussaud's the woman with a hook through her stomach is quite an unusual little tableau ...'
Before she could shut the door, he would manage to add, flicking over the pages of a magazine: 'For those, of course, who like that sort of thing,' as if he merely catered to her own sick fancies or love of the bizarre.
But when she had gone, the clock began to tick again. The light through the organdie curtains seemed stifled. The blond furniture and carpet (for rooms of that kind were all off-white in those days) could, when viewed through half-closed eyes, suggest dust-sheets and drugget and everyone gone away. If a petal fell from a flower, he was startled, as if he had seen something which, like the progress of the clock's hands, should be accomplished when no one is looking.
He read a great deal. He wrote stories in the styles of Wells and Tchekhov, Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe. He was bored at school, bored at home, bored on his country-holidays with Aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo. His stories of flaying, of stomach-hooks, were here suppressed. Joseph and Deirdre may not be told stories of buryings-alive: ghosts, Caroline said, were not frightening, only silly; in the way that some words were not clever, but silly; and some anecdotes not funny, not in the least rude, only silly. Vesey and the children did notice that 'silliness' was what made Caroline's neck redden most of all; more perhaps than rudeness or obscenity; but that they could never prove, for nothing was obscene or rude. 'Sensible' was Caroline's favourite word. 'There's a sensible girl' was the highest praise Deirdre received. To be silly was to be not sensible. As time went on, Deirdre began to wonder if her mother had been altogether sensible on all occasions, to suspect that she herself had come into the world because of silliness. Try as she would, Deirdre could not regard the sexual act, with which she was at this time rather taken up, as sensible. As she had observed it in animals, it seemed at best ridiculous, at worst daunting and frantic. She could regard it in either light. Relating it to her own parents, as children must and will, she did not retract in horror; but laughed. Strictly utilitarian as she believed the act to be, she limited Caroline's occasions of being not sensible (in fact, of being utterly and frivolously and fantastically silly) to twice – herself and Joseph. It was strange that the very thing her mother hated most – not being sensible – had given her what she loved the best; her two children. Deirdre did not doubt that she and Joseph were loved most. She had a happy childhood and when she grew up she had many a happy surprise.
Caroline was rather torn in two about Vesey's mother's attitude to her son. That women should be emancipated she had fatigued herself in her youth and endured mockery; but Vesey had not grown up a robust or happy child and she could not but lay blame for his paleness on the London flat, or his boredom and restlessness, upon lack of attention. 'If it were for something worth while ...!' she hedged. As far as she could imagine, nothing could be less worthwhile than pandering to the vanity of rich London women, the idle, the predatory (who had once cut her, or laughed at her as she marched in processions). Picturing the smooth flattery of Vesey's mother, she could only think the child (even her own ideals) sacrificed for nothing. But, white-skinned, even in the country he never tanned or coloured. Early in September he would return to London like a ghost, faintly mauve across his brow and his sharp shoulders; (for, stripped to the waist, as Caroline would have him, he would only, week after week, become more and more gnat-bitten: his chest remained white; the bones showed in rows). She never managed to send him back looking like a reproach.
In the flat, while the housekeeper was out shopping, he made one or two experiments at his leisure. Every opened bottle in the cupboard he had tried from time to time. He would smoke with his head out of the bedroom window. In his mother's room one day he put on her jewellery, sniffed at her scent, varnished his nails, read a book on birth control, took six aspirins, then lay down like Chatterton on the window-seat, his hand drooping to the floor.
When the housekeeper returned, he had half-opened his eyes. 'I am doing away with myself,' he had said. 'I have supped my full of horrors.' When she had rushed out for salt-and-water, he had turned his head to the pillow to stifle his giggles; but, strangely, some tears had fallen upon the oyster satin.
His love of teasing and sensationalism was thwarted somewhat in the country. Caroline and Hugo scorned such nonsense themselves and were vigilant over their children. Harriet alone was susceptible, but only to more literary or romantic horrors. The stomach-hook made her laugh, but the story of Mrs Rossetti's exhumation she listened to chin in hand.
They – she and Vesey – had known one another since early childhood; but his return this summer of their eighteenth year brought to her own knowledge her love for him. His personality had for long influenced hers, as the moon influences the sea, with an unremitting and inescapable control. Her mother had seen that influence and thought it not always for the good. She found motives for Vesey's exuberances and, threaded through these motives, disquieting traces of cruelty and cynicism.
Caroline's house was Victorian and nondescript, surrounded by worn lawns, ramshackle outbuildings, lurching rose arches. Inside, although threadbare rugs lay crooked on rather dusty floorboards and curtains were bleached by sun and rain, the first impression was of comfort and friendliness, that people mattered more than houses, that children were more important than the covers of the chairs, that dogs were, too. Spaniels flopped up and down the stairs; lay on beds and turned bloodshot and reproachful eyes as doors were opened; stretched out and suckled their young across the hearthrug.
Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking-tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war – a tremendous achievement – and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a tetchy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who had come after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free enough to adopt (and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.
The time before the war had been so idyllic to him that he measured everything against those days; he could not feel at home among so much that seemed spurious. If we do not alter with the times, the times yet alter us. We may stand perfectly still, but our surroundings shift round and we are not in the same relationship to them for long; just as a chameleon, matching perfectly the greenness of a leaf, should know that the leaf will one day fade.
Hugo saw little change in himself, could beat Vesey at tennis and swim faster, took his cold bath each morning, loved his wife as dearly now as at the beginning of their marriage, on their honeymoon in the Forest of Fontainebleau after that First World War. (He had taken her to see some battlefields.)
Vesey constantly irritated and surprised him: his lack of gallantry towards Harriet, his laziness, his cynicism, the gaps in his knowledge. 'Who in the world is Edward Carpenter?' he had asked, lolling as usual on the sofa with the wireless on too loud, and had not seemed impressed by Hugo's exasperated answer.
On the other hand, Hugo did not know that to Vesey he seemed more old-fashioned than his grandfather. His grandfather would certainly not have spoken of taking a glass of ale at an inn, and those Chestertonian phrases had, to Vesey, such a period flavour as to seem deliberately affected.
The antagonism Hugo felt for his nephew, although it was in reality impatience with another person's youth heightened by nostalgia for his own, was fogged by nobody's having a good word for Vesey. Caroline, Lilian, Vesey's own father all combined to disapprove. Even Harriet, Hugo noticed, turned her head when he came in and affected to read her book.
Hugo was fond of Harriet. Although not clever, she was not meretricious. Her silky brown hair was tucked back with childish artlessness behind her ears, her face was innocent of make-up, her clothes were boyish and practical. When she walked, as she sometimes did, with him and the children, she knew the old English names of the wild-flowers; she shut gates; carried waste paper home from picnics. Vesey, on the other hand, had been seen walking across a field of winter wheat and was always careless of other people's property; had left a copy of The Roadmender (moss-green suede) out on the lawn in a thunderstorm, had found the book, he explained, too little worth reading to warrant carrying it indoors.
Excerpted from A GAME OF HIDE AND SEEK by ELIZABETH TAYLOR Copyright © 2012 by Caleb Crain. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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