Read an Excerpt
By Beryl Bainbridge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Beryl Bainbridge
All rights reserved.
Harriet said: 'No you don't, you keep walking.' I wanted to turn round and look back at the dark house but she tugged at my arm fiercely. We walked over the field hand in hand as if we were little girls.
I didn't know what the time was, how late we might be. I only knew that this once it didn't really matter. Before we reached the road Harriet stopped. I could feel her breath on my face, and over her shoulder I could see the street lamps shining and the little houses all sleeping. She brought her hand up and I thought she was going to hit me but she only touched my cheek with her fingers. She said, 'Don't cry now.'
'I don't want to cry now.'
'Wait till we get home.'
The word home made my heart feel painful, it was so lost a place. I said, 'Dad will have got my train ticket back to school when I get in. It will be on the hall table.'
'Or behind the clock,' said Harriet.
'He only buys a single. I suppose it's cheaper.'
'And you might lose the other half.'
'Yes,' I said.
We stood for a moment looking at each other and I wondered if she might kiss me. She never had, not in all the years I had loved her. She said, 'Trust me, I do know what's best. It was all his fault. We are not to blame.'
'I do trust you.'
'Right. No sense standing here. When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don't stop running, just you keep going.'
'Yes,' I said, 'I'll do that, if that's what's best.'
'Run,' said Harriet.
So we ran over the last stretch of field and Harriet didn't tell me to scream, at least I didn't hear her, because she was really screaming, terrible long drawn out sounds that pierced the darkness, running far ahead of me, tumbling on to the road and under the first street lamp, her two plaits flying outwards and catching the light. I hadn't any breath to scream with her. I was just wanting to catch up with her and tell her not to make that noise. Somebody came out of a house as I went past and called to me but I did not dare stop. If I couldn't scream for her then I could run for her. A dog was barking. Then we were round the bend of the lane and there were lights coming on in the houses and my mother on the porch of our house with her fist to her mouth. Then I could scream. Over her head the wire basket hung, full of blue flowers, not showing any colour in the night.
I did notice, even in the circumstances, how oddly people behaved. My mother kept us all in the kitchen, even Harriet's parents when they arrived, which was unlike her. Visitors only ever saw the front room. And Harriet's father hadn't got a collar to his striped shirt, only a little white stud. Harriet could not speak. Her mother held her in her arms and she was trembling. I had to tell them what had happened. Then Harriet suddenly found her voice and shouted very loudly, 'I'm frightened,' and she was. I looked at her face all streaked with tears and I thought, poor little Harriet, you're frightened. My father and her father went into the other room to phone the police. My mother kept asking me if I was sure, was I sure it was Mr Biggs.
Of course I was sure. After all I had known him for years.CHAPTER 2
When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time. She said that Mr Redman had died and that she had spoken to him only a few days previously. He had inquired what she was going to do when she left school. She said she might go on the buses. 'Likely you'll get more than your ticket punched,' he had replied. It was a nice farewell thing to say. Harriet said we should bow the head at the passing of landmarks.
His was one of the earliest faces Harriet and I remembered patrolling the lane down to the sea; in company with the Tsar, Canon Dawson from St Luke's and Dodie from Bumpy field.
Mr Redman, to be specific, never went into the lane. In winter he stayed in his bungalow and waved from the window, in summer he bent down to his garden. We talked to him a little, either over his hedge or his gate, about his nice flowers or his nasty weeds.
The Canon rode a bicycle, a big one with two back wheels and no crossbar. Typical, as Harriet said, seeing he was such a Child.
Dodie always walked down the lane, swollen ankles in apricot stockings, dressed forever in black. She would cry out to us as she passed our fence, 'Hallo Pets ... How's my Pets?' She lived in a bungalow next to the lunatic asylum, handy for Papa, her husband, as Harriet said.
The Tsar had been walking down to the sea the first evening that Harriet and I had gone to collect tadpoles from the ponds below the pine trees. Slightly unsober, slightly dishevelled, always elegant, he swayed moodily past us through all the days of our growing up. We acknowledged him briefly, as indeed we acknowledged the Canon whom we detested, and Mr Redman and darling Dodie. But it was only twice he spoke to us: once to admire our captured tadpoles that he said were like prehistoric embryos, and another more memorable time when looking away from us toward the sea, he had said,
'Years ago I visited Greece ... beautiful beyond compare.'
Harriet, watching his face and perceptive to his mood, had cried, 'What were the statues like, all those lovely statues?'
It was then the Tsar looked at me, not a shadow of doubt, though it was her he answered.
'Scarred beauties, Harriet, chipped no end. Figures with noble noses and robust limbs, but beautiful.'
Harriet stood on one leg when he had gone, pointing her finger and hopping in a circle round me. 'He thinks your nose noble,' she sang, 'noble and robust, but beautiful, my dear, so beautiful.'
I said I did not care to be compared to Grecian ruins, then ran away among the trees, delighted with myself.
Later Harriet said his name was Peter Biggs and we should call him Peter the Great. But I thought the name Peter was daft so we called him the Tsar.
Without Harriet I was irritable and bored. I did not have any other friends, partly from inclination and partly because none of the families I knew sent their children to boarding school. I was a special case, as Harriet observed. I had gone when younger to a private school in the district, but I was a disgrace owing to the dirty stories found written in my notebook, and everyone agreed I was out of control and going wrong and in need of supervision. I did know, even without Harriet to tell me, that I had learned the shameful stories at school in the first place, that I did not have an original idea on the subject and that really they were scared of me and Harriet being so intimate. We were too difficult. Nothing else. So I was sent to boarding school and heard new dirty jokes which I learnt by heart instead of committing them to paper. After a time I did not mind being away from home but it was a dreadful waste of money and my parents were not rich, not even wealthy. However I did speak nicely and I had a certain style.
The third morning I was home my father offered to drive me in his car to see the grave of Mr Redman. He was being kindly, but Harriet always said it was an insult the way he bought black-market petrol when other people suffered deprivations. However, she was not there to observe me.
When I entered the graveyard of the small Norman church there was the Tsar, head inclined a little to one side as I approached. A gentle breeze blowing from the pines lifted the thin hair on his head as he turned to greet me. My father sat in the car in the toad and watched us shake hands in the sunlight.
'Ah, my dear child ... Harriet said you were due home.'
'Why hasn't Mr Redman got a head stone?'
'It's expensive, you know.'
'More like no one's bothered.'
Later, returning to the house, my father drove angrily, curving the car viciously round corners, asking, 'What did you say to him, eh? What did you find to say to the blighter?'
'Only that I had not seen him for years.'
'He's a scoundrel. Nothing but a damned scoundrel.'
He hunched his back in wrath over the wheel. He thought most people were scoundrels for one reason or another, mostly that I knew them. Burying my face in the warm leather seating I murmured to myself, 'A damned scoundrelly Tsar,' and thought complacently how fine it sounded.
That evening after my tea I went out in the rain to walk to the pines. There were two ways to the sea. One was straight down the lane past Harriet's bungalow on the left and the Tsar's house on the right, over the railway crossing and on to the cinder path leading directly to the pines with the ditch to cross. Once there had been a stream, but now it was just a cut in the ground, choked high with weeds and grasses.
Or you could go by the park bordered by privet, very neat with its clock-golf course and bowling green, two hard tennis courts, a wooden pavilion with thatched roof, and up the hill to the station. That was nice because there were railings and you could drag a stick across them all the way down the other side of the hill until you came to the Sunday school hut made out of tin with a bell on the roof; some ponies in the fields to the left, the Barracks away to the right and a single line of pines turning a corner of the road to the church fence.
It was a longer route but a good one.
I climbed over the stone wall, crossed the graveyard and went through the gate into the woods. I sang as I began to climb the slope among the trees, 'All through the night there's a little brown bird singing, singing in the hush of the darkness and the dew ...' It was practically the only song I knew all through and it had the right note of melancholy suitable to a summer evening. The ground was nut brown with needles, but further along the sand had blown up from the dunes over the years and slid along the rise, a second sea, seeping in a white pool amongst the second row of trees. There were potholes in the earth left by the soldiers training there during the war. Once by mistake the Germans dropped a bomb, but the sand soon filled up the crater. On the other side of the road the woods covered the ground from the railway crossing to the beach. Here, at the end of the ridge, the ground dropped abruptly away to a flat hollow of grass and water. Behind that another rise of trees and then the dunes, half a mile of them, undulating up and down till they pushed the shore and the flat edge of sea.
I rolled all the way down the slope and reached the bottom covered with sand, breathless, not from exertion but because the Tsar was sitting by the tadpole ponds with his back to me. I was shy.
The ponds were no more than long puddles of rainwater set in the grass. In winter the rain fell endlessly, the pools thickened, mud formed. When the frost came, the ground hardened, the edges of the pools shrank, the ice pinched closer; the low bushes snapped at a touch, the tall dune grasses froze in clumps. Once, in the centre of the largest pool, Harriet and I saw two frogs, dead, bloated with water, floating, white bellies upward, like pieces of bread. Now in summer the water was warm to the touch. I crouched down in the sand and trailed my fingers back and forth waiting for him to speak first.
'Aah,' he said, letting out a sigh, as he lay back with his head in the grass, his trilby hat, which he never wore, beside him, its brim dipping in the water.
I said, 'Look there's a swallow,' as a bird plunged down to his hat and rose on the instant to fly upwards and away into the trees.
He, lazily turning his head, replied, 'Nonsense, girl, more likely a sand martin,' and lay back again.
I could not argue with him because, though I spent a great deal of time in the woods and considered myself a naturalist, I never truly knew one bird from another. Harriet with passion collected ferns and leaves and wrote down migration months in her scrap book, referring to flowers by dear latinic names, but I never remembered.
'What's your school like?' he said, 'not too bad?'
'Not bad. I've got used to it.'
'Being away from your parents will do you a power of good in the end. Develops your sense of identity.'
'It's jolly expensive.'
He asked how long were the holidays and spoke conventional platitudes about my missing Harriet, and the mischief we would get up to on her return. I said, Yes, I did miss her, and Yes, no doubt we would get up to one or two larks. I was filled with distaste as I spoke; not at my sentiments but at the restraint that made me couch them so childishly. While I talked uneasily I watched the bird's skull of his head nestle a space for itself in the sand. The time might come I felt when I would be moved to stretch out a hand and cradle his head against my palm. Softblown hair drifted over his skull, so vulnerable in its fragility. My hand in the pool opened and curled upwards. After an hour he sat up and said, 'I'd better be going.' But he did not move, only peered upwards at the sky. 'She'll be wondering where I am. It's not easy to fool someone you've lived with for so long. It's difficult for me to face her sometimes.'
I had to ask him questions. It was too good a chance to miss. Harriet would be delighted when I told her.
'What do you mean, fool her?'
'Oh, you know ... don't disappoint me, child. Fancy me going home and telling the wife I had been in the woods with you.' I said nothing and he continued, 'Will you tell your father you've been talking to me? No, of course not.'
I said for him, 'It doesn't do to tell them too much.'
He began to shake the sand from his clothes, swishing his trilby hat about in the air to dry it.
'They always know there's something up,' I said. 'They know there's something, but if you don't tell them they can't be sure. But they do know. What will you tell her?'
'Oh, I don't know. She has such a dull life somehow. She belittles my coming down here to the shore, says I'm too old for that sort of thing any more. She doesn't know what sort of thing she means. Neither do I. I do no harm. I just walk down here and back again.'
'That's all Harriet and I do,' I said, not quite truthfully.
He was straightening the strands of his hair now, passing his hand restlessly over his skull. 'She'll be sitting in the dark listening to the wireless when I get in. I'll just pause in the hall, just for a moment to get my face right, even though she's in the dark. When I open the door she'll say, "It's a wonderful invention this you know, me sitting here with Max Jaffa playing just for me ..." and I'll see how empty the room is except for her sitting on the sofa in her cardigan and sandals and the room in darkness but for the orange dial on the wireless. And you see,' he looked at me now, 'she'll know I've been talking to someone. I won't be able to hide it. It will put her out.'
'Quite,' I said, thinking how feeble he was worrying about what she thought and what she might think. It was all right me and Harriet having such qualms about our parents, we did have to pretend to conform, but at his age it was awfully flabby. I wished I could convince him of his weakness but he was already standing up, holding his hat in both hands ready to go, if not eager then anxious to get back to her. I knew he had to walk home on his own, I knew that. My father might come to meet me; she might be at her gate; but it was soft of him not daring to. I said good night and we shook hands and he began to climb the hill slope to the pines. He stumbled, nearly fell, as I watched him. I wondered if he were old. He had never looked any different even when we were children. Was he old? I lay flat in case he turned to wave to me, covering my face with my hands. I shut my eyes tight and tried to see his face in the darkness. But I could not see him clearly. I saw his head and his trilby hat, but the face was blank and smooth as glass.
Excerpted from Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge. Copyright © 1972 Beryl Bainbridge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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