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The Chimney Sweeper's Boy
By Ruth Rendell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Kingsmarkham Enterprises, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
It is an error to say the eyes have expression. Eyebrows and eyelids, lips, the planes of the face, all these are indicators of emotion. The eyes are merely colored liquid in a glass.
—A MESSENGER OF THE GODS
"NOT A WORD to my girls," he had said on the way home from the hospital. My girls, as if they weren't also hers. She was used to it, he always said that, and in a way they were more his. "I'm not hearing this," she said.
"You're going to have major surgery and your grown-up children aren't to be told."
"'Major surgery,'" he said. "You sound like Staff Nurse Samantha in a hospital sitcom. I won't have Sarah and Hope worried. I won't give them a day of hell while they await the result."
You flatter yourself, she thought, but that was just spite. He didn't. They would have a day of hell; they would have anguish, while she had a little mild trepidation.
He made her promise. It wasn't difficult. She wouldn't have cared for the task of telling them.
The girls came down as usual. In the summer they came down every weekend, and in the winter, too, unless the roads were impassable. They had forgotten the Romneys were coming to lunch, and Hope made a face, what her father called "a square mouth," a snarl, pushing her head forward and curling back her lips.
"Be thankful it's only lunch," said Gerald. "When I first met the guy, I asked him for the weekend."
"He refused?" Sarah said it as if she were talking of someone turning down a free round-the-world cruise.
"No, he didn't refuse. I wrote to him, asked him for lunch, and said he could stay at the hotel."
Everyone laughed except Ursula.
"He's got a wife he's bringing."
"Oh God, Daddy, is there more? He hasn't got kids, has he?"
"If he has, they're not invited." Gerald smiled sweetly at his daughters. He said thoughtfully, "We might play the Game."
"With them? Oh, do let's," said Hope. "We haven't played the Game for ages."
Titus and Julia Romney were much honored by an invitation from Gerald Candless, and if they had expected to be put up in the house and not have to pay for a room at the Dunes, they hadn't said so, not even to each other. Julia had anticipated eccentricity from someone so distinguished, even rudeness, and she was pleasantly surprised to encounter a genial host, a gracious, if rather silent, hostess, and two good-looking young women who turned out to be the daughters.
Titus, who had his naive side, as she well knew, was hoping for a look at the room where the work was done. And perhaps a present. Not a first edition, that would be expecting too much, but any book signed by the author. Conversation on literary matters, how he wrote, when he wrote, and even, now the daughters had appeared, what it was like to be his child.
It was a hot, sunny day in July, a few days before the start of the high season at the hotel, or they wouldn't have gotten a room. Lunch was in a darkish, cool dining room with no view of the sea. Far from discussing books, the Candlesses talked about the weather, summer visitors, the beach, and Miss Batty, who was coming to clear the table and wash up. Gerald said Miss Batty wasn't much of a cleaner but that they kept her because her name made him laugh. There was another Miss Batty and a Mrs. Batty, and they all lived together in a cottage in Croyde. "Sounds like a new card game, Unhappy Families," he said, and then he laughed and the daughters laughed.
In the drawing room—so he called it—the French windows were open onto the garden, the pink and blue hydrangea, the cliff edge, the long bow-shaped beach and the sea. Julia asked what the island was and Sarah said Lundy, but she said it in such a way as to imply only a total ignoramus would ask. Coffee was brought by someone who must have been Miss Batty and drinks were poured by Hope. Gerald and Titus drank port, Julia had a refill of the Meursault, and Sarah and Hope both had brandy. Sarah's brandy was neat, but Hope's had ice in it.
Then Gerald made the sort of announcement Julia hated, really hated. She didn't think people actually did this anymore, not in this day and age, not grown-ups. Not intellectuals.
"And now we'll play the Game," Gerald had said. "Let's see how clever you are."
"Would it be wonderful to find someone who caught on at once, Daddy?" said Hope. "Or would we hate it?"
"We'd hate it," said Sarah, and she planted on Gerald's cheek one of those kisses that the Romneys found mildly embarrassing to witness.
He caught at her hand briefly. "It never happens, though, does it?"
Julia met Ursula's eye and must have put inquiry into her glance. Or simple fear.
"Oh, I shan't play," Ursula said. "I shall go out for my walk."
"In this heat?"
"I like it. I always walk along the beach in the afternoons."
Titus, who also disliked parlor games, asked what this one was called. "Not this Unhappy Families you were talking about?"
"It's called I Pass the Scissors," said Sarah.
"What do we have to do?"
"You have to do it right. That's all."
"You mean we all have to do something and there's a right way and a wrong way of doing it?"
"How will we know?"
"We'll tell you."
The scissors were produced by Hope from a drawer in the tallboy. Once kitchen scissors had been used for the Game, or Ursula's sewing scissors or nail scissors, whatever came to hand. But the Game and the ascendancy it gave them afforded so much pleasure that, while his daughters still lived at home, Gerald had bought a pair of Victorian scissors with handles like a silver bird in flight and sharp pointed blades. It was these that Hope now handed to her father for him to begin.
Leaning forward in his armchair, his feet planted far apart, his back to the light, Gerald opened the scissors so that they formed a cross. He smiled. He was a big man, with a head journalists called "leonine," though the lion was old now, with a grizzled, curly mane the color of iron filings. His hands were big and his fingers very long. He handed the scissors to Julia Romney and said, "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
Julia passed the scissors to Hope as she had received them. "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
"No, you don't." Hope closed the scissors, turned them over, and put them into the outstretched fingers of Titus Romney. "I pass the scissors crossed." Titus did the same and handed them to Sarah, saying with a glance at Gerald that he passed the scissors crossed.
"Wrong." Sarah opened the scissors, held them by one blade, and passed them to her father. "I pass the scissors crossed, Dad."
He closed them, turned them over twice clockwise, and passed them to Julia. "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
Dawning comprehension, or what she thought was dawning comprehension, broke on Julia's face. She sat upright and turned the scissors over twice counterclockwise, handed them to Hope, and said she passed the scissors crossed.
"Well, well," said Hope. "But do you know why?" Julia didn't. She had guessed. "But they're crossed when they're closed, aren't they?"
"Are they? You have to pass them crossed and know why, and everyone has to see. Look, when you know, it's as clear as glass. I promise you." Hope opened the scissors. "I pass the scissors crossed."
So they continued for half an hour. Titus Romney asked if anyone ever got it, and Gerald said yes, of course, it was just that no one ever got it at once. Jonathan Arthur had gotten it the second time. Impressed by the name of the winner of both the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Somerset Maugham prizes, Titus said he was really going to concentrate from now on. Sarah said she wanted another brandy and what about everyone else.
"Another port, Dad?"
"I don't think so, darling. It gives me a headache. But you can give Titus one.
Sarah replenished the drinks, then sat down again, this time on the arm of her father's chair. "I pass the scissors uncrossed."
"But why?" Julia Romney was beginning to sound irritated. She had gone rather red. Signs of participants beginning to lose their tempers always amused the Candlesses, who now looked gleeful and expectant. "I mean, how can it be? The scissors are just the same as when you passed them crossed just now."
"I told you it was unlikely you'd get it the first time," said Hope, and she yawned. "I pass the scissors crossed."
"You always pass them crossed!"
"Do I? Right, I'll pass them uncrossed next time."
As Titus was receiving the scissors, opening them and turning them clockwise, Ursula came in through the French windows. Her hair, which was fair but graying, and very long and wispy, had begun flopping down out of its pins and she was holding it up with one hand. She smiled, and Titus thought she was going to say, "Still at it?" or "Have you found the secret yet?" but she said nothing, only passing on across the room and through the door that led into the hall.
Gerald looked around and said, "Shall we call it a day?"
The way the girls laughed, Sarah leaning over to look into her father's eyes, told Titus this must be the phrase, rather dramatically delivered, he always used to terminate a session of the Game. Probably the injunction that followed was also requisite at this point.
"Better luck next time."
Gerald rose to his feet. Titus had the impression, founded on nothing that he was truly aware of, that the old man (the "Grand Old Man," he almost was) had been disturbed by the return of his wife, deflected from his pleasure in the Game, and was displeased. His face, though not as gray as his hair, had lost its color and grown dull. The daughter, Sarah, the one who looked like her mother, saw it, too. She glanced at her sister, the one who looked like her father, and said, "Are you all right, Dad?"
"Of course I am." He made a face at his glass but smiled at her. "I don't like port, never have. I should have had brandy."
"I'll get you a brandy," said Hope.
"Better not." He did something Titus had never before seen a grown man do to a grown woman: He put out his hand and stroked her hair. "We stumped them again, my sweethearts. We boggled them."
"We always do."
"And now"—he turned to Titus—"before you go"—a bright gleam in his dark eye—"you said you wanted to see where I work."
The study. Did he call it that? The room, anyway, where the books had been written, or most of them. It was stuffy in there and warm. You could see the sea from here, too, and more of the long, flat half-mile-wide beach, the water's edge almost invisible in the distance. Sky and sea met in a blurred dazzle. The closed window was large, stark, with black blinds rolled up, and the sun poured in. It flooded the desk and his chair and the books behind him and the book in front. Gerald Candless used a typewriter, not a word processor, quite an old-fashioned one, and had a bunch of pens and pencils in an onyx jar.
Proofs of a new novel lay to the left of the typewriter. A stack of manuscript about an inch deep sat to its right. Several thousand books filled the shelves ceiling to floor, dictionaries and thesauruses and encyclopedias and other reference works, and poetry and biography and novels, hundreds of novels, including Gerald Candless's own works. The sun bathed their leather and cloth and colored-paper spines in brilliant light.
"Do you feel all right?"
Titus had echoed Sarah's words, because the grayness was back in Gerald's face and his big gnarled right hand was gripping the upper part of his left arm. He made no answer to the question. Titus thought he was probably the sort of man who never said anything unless he had something to say, made no small talk, answered no polite questions as to his health.
"Are you really called Titus?"
The abrupt inquiry disconcerted him. "What?"
"I didn't know you were deaf. I said, Are you really called Titus?"
"Of course I am."
"I thought it must be a pseudonym. Don't look so peevish. Not all of us are really called what we're called, you know, not by a long chalk. Now take a look around. Look your fill. Have a book. Help yourself, and I'll sign it. Not a first edition—I draw the line at that."
One of the things Titus looked for was a copy of his own book. It wasn't there, or if it was, he couldn't see it. He stood in front of the row of Gerald Candlesses, wondering which one to pick, then finally chose Hamadryad.
"Read Finnish, do you?"
Titus saw that he had chosen from the section of translations, so he made a second attempt, but was forestalled by being handed a book club edition of the same novel.
Gerald signed it. Just his name, no good wishes or kind regards. Sunlight fell on his hands, which, if they didn't tremble, weren't quite steady.
"And now that you've had your lunch, seen my room, and gotten a book, you can do something for me. One good turn—or rather, three good turns—deserves another, wouldn't you agree?"
Assent was expected. Titus nodded. "Anything, of course, if it's in my power."
"Oh, it's in your power. It would be in anybody's who happened to be here. You see that stuff?"
"The page proofs?"
"No, not the page proofs. The manuscript. I want you to take it with you. Just take it away. Will you do that for me?"
"What is it?"
Gerald Candless didn't answer. "I'm going away for a few days. I don't want it left here in the house while I'm away. But I don't want to destroy it, either. I may publish it one day—I mean, I may finish it and publish it. If I have the nerve."
"What is it, your autobiography?"
The sarcastic reply came: "Of course. I haven't even changed the names." Then he said, "It's a novel, the start of a novel, or the end—I don't know which. But he is not he and she is not she and they are not they. Right? I don't want it left here. You were coming, I'd met you in wherever it was ..."
"Right. You were coming, and it came to me that you'd do. Who else is there down here?"
"I wonder you didn't put it in a safe-deposit box somewhere."
"Oh, you wonder that, do you? If you don't want to take it and look after it for me, just say. I'll give it to Miss Batty, or I'll burn it. Come to think of it, burning might be best."
"For God's sake, don't burn it," said Titus. "I'll take it. How do I get it back to you? And when do I?"
Gerald picked up the pages and held them in his hands. Underneath them, on the desk, was a padded bag already addressed to Gerald Candless, Lundy View House, Gaunton, North Devon, and stamped with £1.50 postage.
"Do you ... Do you want me to ... Do you mind if I read it?"
A gale of laughter greeted that, a strong, vigorous bellow, incompatible with those tremulous hands. "You'll have a job. I'm the world's lousiest typist. Here, you can put it in this."
"This" was a cheap-looking plastic briefcase, the kind of thing that, containing the requisite brochures and agenda, is given to delegates at a conference. Titus Romney wouldn't have been seen dead with it normally. But he had only a short distance to carry it to the hotel. They found Julia in the drawing room, carrying on a stilted conversation with Gerald's wife. Titus had already forgotten her name, but he didn't have to remember it, because they were going. It was 3:30 and they were leaving. The daughters had disappeared.
"I'll walk with you to the hotel," Gerald said. "I'm supposed to walk a bit every day. A few yards."
Julia gushed, the way she did when she had had a horrid time. "Goodbye. Thank you so much. It's been lovely. A lovely lunch."
"Enjoy the rest of your stay," Gerald's wife said.
They set off across the garden, Titus carrying the briefcase, at which Julia cast curious glances. The garden extended to about ten yards from the cliff edge, where there was a gate to the cliff path. From this path, all the beach could be seen, and the car park, full of cars and trailers. The beach was crowded and there were a lot of people in the sea. Somewhere Julia had read this described as the finest beach on the English coast, the longest, seven miles of it, with the best sand. The safest beach, for the tide went out half a mile and flowed in gently over the flat, scarcely sloping sand, a shallow, limpid sea. It was blue as a jewel, calm, waveless. "You must love living here," Julia said politely.
He didn't answer. Titus asked him if he didn't like walking. The way he talked about it implied he didn't like it.
"I don't like any physical exercise. Only cranks like walking. That's why a sensible man invented the car."
A gate in the path bore a sign: THE DUNES HOTEL, STRICTLY PRIVATE, HOTEL GUESTS ONLY. Gerald opened it, then stood aside to let Julia pass through. The hotel, Edwardian red brick with white facings, multigabled, stood up above them, its striped awnings unfurled across the terrace. People sat at tables having tea. Children splashed about in a swimming pool that was barely concealed by privet hedges.
"Your children enjoying themselves?"
"We haven't any children," said Julia. "Really? Why not?"
"I don't know." She was very taken aback. That should be a question people didn't ask. "I I don't necessarily want any."
Excerpted from The Chimney Sweeper's Boy by Ruth Rendell. Copyright © 1998 Kingsmarkham Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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