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THE STORY I shall tell begins like this.
Once upon a time, in the year of Our Lord 1954, a woman known as Aunt Irene, who insisted on being pronounced `Irina' and spelled as I have spelled her, received a letter. It was headed `The Feast of Blessed Julie Billiart'. Enclosed in its folds was a card with a picture on it of a nice old lady in a wimple, beaming.
Aunt Irene found it irritating. She herself possessed a number of icons, but they represented proper saints, correctly dressed with haloes, long-robed mussel-shell-shaped thighs and angular fingers raised in benediction. Moreover her sister had probably despatched this portrait of a Blessed old girl as a reproach, a reminder; for she feared that Aunt Irene was backsliding, and frequently wrote to say so.
Long ago, in the last century, in the old country, the state had put out an edict that confession should be obligatory in the Slavonic rite, and that any admission of subversive political tendencies should be reported by the priests forthwith to the state officials. Aunt Irene's ancestors, who actually stood to gain by this ploy (for they were great boyars, and revolution would not have been at all in their interests), had nevertheless so resented this high-handedness that they had converted to Roman Catholicism and thereafter been harrassed and hunted until they were forced to leave their ancient estates and flee to the Ukraine. This had given them a taste for travel, and each generation had gone further and further away — to Lithuania and Austria and Turkey and Finland and places like that, or, as thestory-tellers would have it, across 27 lands and 30 countries until they came to the 27th kingdom — and at last Aunt Irene had come to rest in Chelsea and her sister in a convent in Wales.
Aunt Irene had no desire to visit the land of her fathers, which was now run by insensitive people in heavy overcoats and homburg hats, but she believed that her genes had somehow become imprinted with intangibles, that even her retina was designed to appreciate vast melancholy spaces and beautiful, strange artefacts; and when she closed her eyes she would sometimes see the fretted wooden balcony of a dacha overlooking a grey garden hung with tangled vines. She claimed to be able to smell snow long before it was observed preparing to precipitate on Dogger, Bight and Finisterre; and in her ears sometimes sounded the doomed wails of beribboned brides flung from troikas to distract and temporarily assuage the ravening wolf packs roaming the steppes and forests in search of honeymoon couples.
She was slothful and generally cheerful, but when her depression threatened to become depthless she would go not to Holy Redeemer (the Church the Catholics had to make do with since the sycophantic followers of Henry VIII had had the chutzpah to annexe the church of St Thomas More, who had been murdered by that same king) but to the Orthodox establishment, conveniently situated in Ennismore Gardens. There, at the appropriate moments, she would beat her forehead on the floor, and her dessicated ears would swell with the splashing syllables and deep tones of the chanting priests, and she would emerge refreshed.
She read her letter again, and because it made her cross she ate another piece of toast, reflecting that it was always one's family who annoyed one most and made one fat. Simply that her sister was now called `Reverend Mother' made Aunt Irene cross and inclined to put too much butter on her toast. As far as she was concerned, her sister was a naughty girl called Berthe, with dark flying hair and a dipping hem to her dress. She hadn't agreed particularly well with that girl, but she had forgotten; and she resented her transformation into the stately virgin in the stiff robes that were so alarmingly clean. Aunt Irene herself was clean, but her clothes were soft and scented.
`Kyril,' she called to her nephew, wishing to know what he would think of his Aunt Berthe's latest idea. `If you don't come now you'll have no breakfast at all. Read this,' she added, as he appeared in the doorway.
Kyril kicked the cat, who was sitting in front of his chair gazing hopefully up at the table, and sat down.
`Don't be rude to Focus,' said Aunt Irene automatically, passing over the letter.
`I can't be bothered to read it,' said Kyril. `Tell me what's in it.' He was small and graceful and the working-class neighbours described him as "ahn'some'. His mahogany-coloured hair was parted in the middle like the hair of a Greek or Russian patriarch, and his eyelids were short, falling straight down from his brows like blinds. When he raised them, his eyes were clear blue and pupilless. His upper lip, too, was short, causing him to lisp very slightly. Most women and some men found him irresistible, which had proved bad for his character. Men who didn't find him attractive often wanted to beat him up; but Kyril had had TB, which had saved him from serving in the armed forces but deprived him of a lung, and these men were therefore morally bound to stay their hands. This was just as well for them, in fact, for Kyril had learned at school to be an accomplished and unscrupulous fighter, not above biting bits off his assailants. He had a long scar on his back where his lung had been removed, and like St Thomas More favoured one shoulder, which gave him the seeming of a king's youngest son — beautiful, innocent and unjustly dealt with. In truth his psyche resembled more that of a witch — sardonic and very old.
`Your Aunt Berthe wants me to take in some girl called Valentine from the convent. I can't imagine why. It'll be such a nuisance,' whined Aunt Irene.
`Then don't,' said Kyril, who was a total hedonist.
Aunt Irene, who was only a partial, or flawed, hedonist, was surprised. It hadn't occurred to her to refuse. People who refused were unlikeable, costive and mean. `How,' she said, not in the spirit of enquiry.
`Just say no,' said Kyril.
`I can't,' said Aunt Irene. `Berthe says she comes from some island miles and miles away. Much too far to go to!'
Kyril shrugged. `Then take her,' he said.
Aunt Irene thought Kyril remarkable. It was he who had defined her: at his birth she had become an aunt, and his mother's prompt death had ratified and strengthened her position. Her two short marriages had done nothing to change this. It was as her nephew's aunt that she existed, and she was quite content that this should be so. Nevertheless Kyril could be exasperating.
`I do wish you'd read it,' she said. 'You might see something I've missed.'
`There's a picture of an old lady in a tent,' said Kyril, picking up the card.
`It's not a tent,' protested Aunt Irene, moved to defence. `It's her wimple. I want you to read the letter, and see if you can tell whether there's something wrong with this girl.'
`If it doesn't say so,' said Kyril, `there's absolutely no way of knowing, because neither of us has second sight.'
`I have,' claimed Aunt Irene at once.
`Then you should know,' said Kyril. `Or perhaps you'd like me to cut up Focus and you can read his entrails?'
Focus was as white as frost. He had long floating fur and eyes the amber of the unclouded peat-stained streams of early spring bearing the late winter's floods — like whisky and water — as though to warm the pale mist of the fur that surrounded his Persian person. He had a flat, rather foolish, face, like a flower, which belied the intelligence and strength of purpose that lay behind it between his symmetrical ears. His appearance was against him, for it is difficult to take seriously something that looks like a down pillow turned inside out. Despite the apparent diminution in size consequent to a cat upon total immersion, Focus looked more formidable when he'd been for a dip. He was unusual in that way. He enjoyed swimming — in the sea.
He and his owner glared at Kyril.
`Don't be horrible,' said Aunt Irene, `and drink your coffee.'
* * *
Reverend Mother was frowning. Instead of studying the week's accounts she was sitting at her desk staring at the door. She hadn't wanted to dismiss Valentine, who was a most promising postulant and had come over the seas with radiant recommendations from the nuns who had taught her; but one of those undeniable convictions which seldom trouble the non-religious had arisen in her consciousness as clear as a great fish from the nebulous waters. She had tried to ignore it, but her relationship with God was intimate, domestic; and she had finally conceded, as any woman concerned with keeping the world going must concede, to an autocratic master, since argument would be useless, time-wasting and ultimately detrimental to her dependants. She gazed at a view of the Resurrection placed, cheeringly, to the right of a great crucifix. `You must go,' she had said to Valentine. `You have tested your vocation here, and for a while you must test it in the world.'
She opened the drawer of her desk and looked at what it contained, wondering why she hadn't mentioned it to Valentine. It was, after all, the real reason for her decision. Then she wondered why people thought the conventual life so simple and straightforward. The problems of the world were as nothing compared with the problems of the Enclosure.
She was glad she had thought of Irene, since Valentine now had no family. At least, reflected Reverend Mother, she would be safe there; for as far as she was concerned her sister was still the lazy generous girl she had known in their father's house, lying under the lilac, cushioned on the clover.
* * *
Kyril finished his coffee and rose. `Little Mr Sirocco will have to go,' he said. `They can hardly share a bedroom.'
`It's time he went anyway,' said Aunt Irene. `He smokes in bed. He's a fire hazard. You'll have to tell him.'
`All right,' said Kyril, quite pleased with this chance to be legitimately unkind. He was fed up with little Mr Sirocco, who had turned out to be resolutely virtuous and very earnest in a dim and blundering fashion, and had quite refused to produce any free samples from the firm of wine shippers where he worked. `You must give up taking in deserving cases,' he said. `They're boring.'
Aunt Irene refrained from pointing out that most of the people who came to stay in Dancing Master House were people with whom Kyril had got drunk, who had had to spend the night and who then had seen no immediate reason to leave, since Aunt Irene's domestic regime was comfortable beyond the expectations of most of the indigenous population. They had once had a refugee to stay — a middle-European relation — but had hastily got rid of her when one day, as they drove from Middlesex into Kent, she had insisted on stopping the Morris and running backwards and forwards over the boundary, waving her arms — because, she explained, she had never before been able to cross a border without interrogations, passports and papers.
As Aunt Irene said, there were limits. It wasn't kindliness that led her to house and feed people; but nor was it the motive of the witch who had hoped to eat Hänsel and Gretel — she wasn't very interested in anyone except Kyril. It was more that she was an artist, that she needed an appreciative audience, and since her skill lay in cooking and housekeeping people weren't merely her audience but in a sense also her raw materials, to be disposed and manipulated as the fancy took her.
`This girl will need feeding up after the convent,' she said. `Those nuns eat lentils all the time. This will be a nice change for her.'
`It certainly will,' said Kyril.
`I don't know why you say it like that,' said Aunt Irene, who had also realised offendedly that her house wasn't an entirely suitable place for a good girl. `You talk as though we were a brothel.'
`We are,' said Kyril thoughtfully; `we are.'
* * *
Valentine woke early to the cry of a bird calling on a single note — a mournful desultory cry in the clear unfurnished dawn of early spring, echoing like the cry of someone in intolerable grief alone in an empty house. It went on calling, high on the vaulted morning, until Sister Ann came by with the waking bell.
Valentine joined the silent nuns in chapel.
`Introibo ad altare Dei,' said the priest. `Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.'
Breakfast was sad; the bread dry, the salt savourless. The refectory shadows seemed more like the final darkness of night than the boundaries of morning, and the windows were grey with hopelessness. Even the matutinal smells of baking and washing and fruit and guttered candles held not hope but memories and the implication that what had been would continue to be, but just for a while, for experience was finite, and all things but night must end.
Only Valentine liked that morning: the long sweep of sisters dressed in the brown of old leaves, their banded foreheads white as the walls, and the grave fall of scapulars to their sandalled feet. But then it was easier for her, for she wouldn't be tormented by the marriage of memory with things, by the emptiness of chairs and beds and rooms and gardens — and besides, she knew beyond all doubt that she would come back. The sisters would have understood this if she had been permitted to tell them, for they themselves viewed with tranquillity the prospect of their own departures through death, secure in the sure and certain hope of resurrection. It was temporal departures that saddened them, for they were unattended by the comforting glory of ritual and not distinguished by the certainty of return. Valentine said none of this, but smiled as well as she could, for to leave even for a little while was not without pain.
She went through the convent gate, where the winter-flowering jasmine threw a few chill drops of old rain on her, and the portress at the Turn wept as she left.
Sister Ann drove her to the station in the convent brake and said goodbye.
`Goodbye,' said Valentine, alone on the platform. `I am Eve, great Adam's wife,' she said, regretting sin, who had never committed it.
The train was hot and unclean. It took her swiftly under the tumbling skies of the border and into the Midlands where the spring sky was beast-grey and the hedgerow blossom, white as death, danced against it. The banks sped by, arrowed like Crecy, until all the trees and the fields were left behind and the train came to London.
* * *
Aunt Irene spoke firmly to her cleaning lady. `Mrs Mason,' she said, `we must clean out little Mr Sirocco's room and make it ready for a ...' She paused. How to describe Valentine? A nun? No. `For a girl,' she concluded.
`A girl,' said Mrs Mason, with ironic intent. `Well, well.' Neither of these ladies was satisfied with the other, each being aware with a different degree of resentment that Mrs Mason was not designed by nature or nurture to be a char.
Mrs Mason was the widow of a major — or rather the wife, for her husband wasn't actually dead. Major Mason spent most of his time in a pub on the Kings Road and the rest of the time either going there or coming back, and nobody had ever seen him sober. He was invariably the first to arrive and the last to leave. At precisely 10.45 a.m. he would rise from the leather armchair in his basement sitting-room and ascend the area steps, his eyes set implacably in the direction of the Bunch of Grapes, and as the barman drew the bolt on the door of the spit and sawdust he would enter, silently. He seldom spoke. Sometimes, very rarely, he would engage in speech with a passing stranger and tell anecdotes which, being at once both scatological and sentimental, were highly repulsive to most people. He would describe how, when he had really overdone it, his wife (who, he averred, devotedly loved him) would undress and wash him as though he were a baby. At this point the unfortunate stranger would understand that the Major was in some sense mad and hasten away.
Mrs Mason had just seen her husband off. With her dustpan and brush she had swept up the mound of greyish, evil-smelling flakes which fell from him and covered the ground wherever he sat. She had polished the regimental cigarette box and straightened the net curtains, which were still redolent of dust and the winter's fog, though she had just washed them. The windows were fast shut with years of paint, and the flat was stuffy, as well as dingy and dark. Outside, bars were set to discourage the casual thieves who sometimes nipped down the area steps to see what they could see.
Mrs Mason looked now through Aunt Irene's rich windows, sparkling like spring water and framing fat pink shrubs that grew with child-like health in the tiny London garden. It was a backyard, really, but as unlike her own, which contained all the dustbins from the flats above, as she herself was unlike Aunt Irene — and yet she lived only a few minutes' walk away and their early circumstances had been surely not dissimilar.
It was money, thought Mrs Mason with dull despair, as she put aside her high-heeled pumps and pulled on her comfortable shoes preparatory to hoovering the bedrooms. Money. The war had ruined so many lives while enriching the unworthy and the unscrupulous — the Major had been all right until a small error of judgment had caused a number of his men to be blown to gobbets before his eyes — and even now she deeply distrusted people with money, especially foreigners. The words `fifth column', `profiteer', `black market', `spiv' still played a large part in her mental vocabulary.
She ran her tongue over her front teeth, which were waxed with lipstick. `Has Mr Sirocco gone then?' she asked.
`Yes,' said Aunt Irene, rather inaccurately since, although it was true that he wasn't here, he didn't yet know that he wouldn't be allowed to return.
`A girl,' mused Mrs Mason. `Goodness.'
After a while she leaned over the banisters, hoover flex in hand. `Your nephew will be sleeping in the same room?' she enquired above the loud susurration.
`The same room as what?' asked Aunt Irene.
`The same as the one he's in now,' enunciated Mrs Mason, who hadn't meant that at all.
Aunt Irene was amused at this clumsy demonstration of spite. `But of course,' she said smoothly, gazing upwards, her kitten-eyes wide.
`Ah,' said Mrs Mason, nodding.