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Most of Margaret’s family is graveside when they lay her grandfather to rest. Although everyone is in the same place, they are not really together. Margaret descends from Yorkshire coal miners, stoic people who have mastered the art of burying their feelings deep underground. Her relatives may be content to live this way, but Margaret yearns for something more. A secretary at the Coal Board, she gets a glimpse of another life when she visits her brother at his university and a fair-haired art teacher catches her eye. The teacher’s name is Howarth; he is married, but that does not stop Margaret from risking everything she has in order to be with him. To escape the oppressive presence of her family, Margaret and Howarth flee to London. At first intoxicated by love, Margaret is soon shocked by what she finds in the city, and by how impossible it is to truly leave home.
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Flight into Camden
By David Storey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1960 David Storey
All rights reserved.
We buried my grandfather the second week before Christmas. It wasn't cold, but there was a light drizzle and all of us had come in thick clothes. My mother and I shared an umbrella.
The priest from the Old People's Home stood on a small board at the end of the grave. The rain blew in his face and gathered in fine drops on his forehead.
'Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery,' he said, then screwed up his eyes as he began reading through the cellophane cover on his prayer book.
My father stood with Michael.
Not all of my father's family were there. My grandfather, in spite of silicosis and a severe spinal injury, had had nine children in his eighty-six years; two had died. But the family didn't keep in touch. It might be Christmas itself before they'd all heard of his death. As it was I hadn't seen my grandfather since I was a girl, when he'd lived with us for a year at the beginning of the war.
We gathered round the hole like workmen. It was difficult not to push one another off the boards, which had been laid unevenly over the yellow clay. The spaces between the plots were only broad enough for people to walk in single file.
No one looked grieved, except my father and perhaps my Uncle Jack. None of the men wore full black, but had black silk triangles or armbands on their overcoat sleeves.
Michael merely watched the coffin. It was poised at the lip of the grave, and the four bearers held the ropes lightly, as if it contained no weight. They stood with their feet wide apart, avoiding the clay. The rain had collected in small pools on the waxed lid and round the name-plate, on which was engraved: 'Arthur Frederick Thorpe. 1871–1957.' I wondered how I might have guessed that Michael was the only man there who was not a workman. With his hands clenched and hanging in front of him, he had the same stiff miner's stance as my father. But he was not as stocky, and was taller. His was the only face that bore no apparent emotion. My mother watched him, even during the prayer. She was content with him, that her son was so apart.
The others had their eyes on the coffin waiting for it to be lowered. After leaving the children behind at the church, some of them had relaxed, and now they began to move restlessly as the box disappeared into the cavity and the priest bent down, reciting, and picked up the trowel. The soil drummed on the lid.
Beyond the grave was a privet hedge, then a large compost heap with dead chrysanthemums sticking from it, then an old brick wall, whitened with salt, leaning in towards the cemetery. Above it, banked up on shale, was the beginning of the goods yard, whose tall wall we'd passed flanking the lane up to the cemetery.
'I heard a voice from heaven,' the priest murmured, 'saying unto me, "Write: from henceforth blessed are the dead ..."'
It was a line of trucks, being released one by one, that Michael was now watching. His eyes followed the journey of each one until it disappeared beyond the high wall. But his head didn't move. His body was still and rigid. A group of men, shrouded in heavy macintoshes, stared down at us between the actions of releasing each truck. Above their heads was the top half of the Lazenby mill chimney. It was black and very tall, one side glistening like steel in the wet.
The priest looked at us, then said, 'Lord have mercy upon us.'
'Christ have mercy upon us,' some of us answered.
'Lord have mercy upon us.' He began the Lord's Prayer.
At the end of the drive the four black-coated taxi-drivers were waiting round the bonnet of the hearse, their hands pushed deep in their pockets. For a minute brown smoke came out of Lazenby's chimney, then suddenly stopped. The detached cloud floated like a sail over the yards and then the cemetery.
Two graves away, behind my father's back, a blackbird was standing in a puddle on the grass verge, its feathers puffed up, raising a small flurry of water. Its body seemed to spin round in its cloud of spray. Suddenly it stiffened, its feathers like quills, its head bobbing up, and its beady eye darting. Then its feathers collapsed, and it hopped on to the far grave. Looking round, it turned its eye up towards the sky; then crouched and flung itself into the air, flying low over the gravestones with its warning chatter. The small crowd broke up.
I walked between the graves to where Michael was already waiting on the gravel footpath.
'Our Alec should have been here,' he said. 'My dad feels let down about it.'
'Why didn't you sprinkle some soil on the coffin?' I asked him.
He didn't answer. We waited silently. The others threaded their way towards us, the women swiping the yellow clay off their shoes against the grass verges. My mother's umbrella waved from side to side as she tried to keep her balance in the narrow grooves between the plots.
'There you are, Margaret,' she said, and came to hold the umbrella over me as though it were she who were seeking some protection.
'What did you think to it, Michael?'
'I'm glad it's over,' he told her, smiling.
'Well, it's over,' she said, wondering at him. 'I only wish our Alec had been here. It doesn't look right – just one of us missing like that.'
'I don't know why you should want to force him to come,' I said, but she didn't reply. She turned to listen to one of my aunts speaking to her over the heads of the family.
'Come on,' my father said.
My Uncle Jack came to join us. He was the only one at the funeral who had come alone: he was separated from his wife. My mother put her arm in mine.
My father walked in front, with Michael and Jack. For the first time they were all talking. The priest walked alone near the front of the group. The bearers were returning to the hearse to collect the wreaths and when we reached the ornamental gates a screen of sacking was being put round the grave by two men in overalls.
At the other side of the lane was a children's playground. It was nearly dinner time, and strangely quiet, full of boys in school uniform, sitting or standing still on the swings and roundabouts, all of them still, smoking. They talked quietly, leaning earnestly over their cigarettes. We got into the second taxi. I watched the boys now through the rain-marked window. A cousin I hadn't seen for several years walked by and got in front beside the driver. Somebody said, 'Come on, then. We mustn't be late for it.'
'Where's your Alec, then?' my uncle asked.
'He couldn't get.' My father shook his head apologetically. 'It took Michael, you know, all his time to get leave from the university. And our Alec lives at Maudsley now. It's near thirty miles away.'
'And Nora's got two kiddies,' my mother said. Alec was the youngest, and the only one to be married and living away from home.
'Aye. You lose contact when you're away. I know it only too well.' He looked with curiosity at Michael, and spread his hands over his knees to keep his balance on the fold-up seat.
'Oh, we see him often enough,' my father said. 'It was just one of those days. He's working up to be a chemist. At that big works there. ...' He tried to remember the name.
'Aye,' Jack said. He was a bricklayer. He glanced again at Michael. 'How do you like it, then? A college professor and that.' He laughed awkwardly. His emotions quickly replaced one another.
'I'm not a professor yet,' Michael said. 'I doubt if I get paid three-quarters of what you do.' He smiled at my uncle. My mother watched us carefully, half smiling.
'Nay, you can come off that.' My uncle turned his hands palms upwards, but still pressed to his knees to keep his balance, his elbows drawn into his sides. 'You don't get hands like that, for a start.' They were big and thick, and scarred. 'Aren't I right, Reg? Thy can ask your dad.'
My father didn't say anything. He nodded absent-mindedly at his brother.
'If thy's got any brains in your body you won't work like us,' Jack said. 'Me and your dad – we were wukking six days a week at fourteen.'
Michael nodded. For the first time he looked tired.
'You like it then, at the university?' Jack asked. He couldn't accustom himself to his nephew being a teacher.
'This is only my first term,' Michael told him.
'Nay, you mu'n ony read out on a book at them,' Jack said. 'I don't reckon there's much learning needed for that. What were you doing down south afore you came back up home?'
'Research work in a factory.' He said it clumsily. He hated the conversation.
'He's taking our Margaret to the university's Christmas dance this evening,' my mother said. Jack looked at me, his red, jowelled face unsmiling. 'It's the end of term, you know. I don't think their grandfather'd want them to give that up. ... You're looking forward to it, aren't you, Margaret?'
'Well. It's something.'
Jack looked strange now, and unwanted. 'Yon's a sensible lass,' he said, and nodded at me. 'Not wed or ought. That's the road to live. Are you still typing, Margaret?'
'She's a secretary now,' my mother said. 'At the N.C.B.'
'At the coal-hole! If that isn't something.' Jack laughed. 'Well, you couldn't drop on a better number than that. There can't be much rushing about up yonder, thy can bet. I don't know, Reg. What with thy Michael, and Margaret. They more brains a piece than any four on us put together. If I had my time o'er again I know damn well where I'd mek a start ... I'd be at school till I could grow a beard to begin wi'.'
'You've to have the brains first,' my mother said.
'A'd find the brains all right.'
He looked at my father. He wanted badly for him to talk. 'He was a good un to all on us,' he said, trying to read his thoughts.
'We never knew where he wa',' my father said, 'not for these last five years. We didn't even know he'd gone into the Home.'
'Well ... you know how it is when you get to that age,' Jack told him. 'When we had him living wi' us he could only mope about the place, saying how he wished he were on his own. You know what it's like.'
The car went on softly through the wet streets. A glass partition divided us from the driver and my cousin – I'd even forgotten his name. The taxi had become separated from the others. The streets were full of traffic, then as we turned round Albert Square we could see the tall Victorian tower of the university.
'They're a couple o' quiet uns,' Jack said, looking at Michael and me. 'What d'you do wi' both on 'em at home?'
'They can be noisy enough when they get arguing,' my mother said contentedly, as if we were children again. She looked at me as if to warn me against showing any resentment.
When we reached the Golden Dragon the other three taxis had already arrived and some of the relatives were waiting for us outside.
'Come on, Reg!' someone shouted.
'I'll gev you two guesses where all the rest on 'em are,' Jack said. 'I' the bar. Knocking it back. A never saw a family like'n ours for funerals. ... Dos't remember when Mother died, Reg?'
My father didn't answer. He was looking at Michael.
'I'm not feeling too well,' Michael said. 'I think I'll go on home.'
'Nay, you'll feel better, lad, when you've had a drop to warm you,' Jack said. He clapped his hands together and rubbed them against the cold.
'Aren't you staying to the lunch, then?' my father said.
'No. I don't think I will. I tell you, I couldn't face a meal.'
'All right, then.' He avoided Michael's eyes.
'You're coming in, Margaret? Aren't you?' my mother said. She'd put her arm in mine.
'Oh, I'll come,' I told her. She watched Michael.
'I'll be going then,' he said.
He shook hands with my uncle. He'd flushed. For a moment we watched him as he walked down the hill towards the bus station, his figure seemingly folded up against the weather, and everything. My mother held my arm tightly.
'Well, let's be getting in, then,' Jack said. 'I'll tek this branch of the Thorpe family to show 'em how to behave properly, I've no doubt at all.'
My father followed us in. I could hear his heavy breathing close behind me.
The broad steps up to the large university entrance arch were crowded with students. Michael guided me through them without actually touching my arm. The road outside the university had been deserted and dark, and the sudden burst of life and light startled me.
Inside the entrance hall decorations had been hung up across the ceiling and on the walls were sheets of paper with clowns and pierrots roughly painted on them. Michael waited while I took my hat and coat to the cloakroom. It was very crowded.
'We'll go up to the Prof's room, first,' he said.
He led the way up a flight of steps from the main assembly hall. The noisy dancing seemed to follow us up to the first floor. At the end of a dark, panelled corridor a door was open, and from its beam of light came the sound of conversation and glasses. Michael stepped behind me. 'Go on. Straight ahead, Margaret.'
Although he was behind me I knew how aggressively he entered. The room was like a large and well-kept sitting-room: its dull blue haze was lit only by reading lamps and curtains in a contemporary design covered the windows. For a while no one spoke to Michael. We went to a table in the corner where a girl in a black dress and white apron gave us our drinks. He stood close beside me while we looked round the room. The people were packed in the large central space between three long bookcases, and were busily talking.
His Professor saw him and, excusing himself, came across. He was scarcely middle-aged. He greeted Michael without feeling. 'You've got drinks, Thorpe?' he asked, looking at our glasses. He smiled unseeingly at me.
'This is my sister, sir,' Michael said.
'It's very good of you to come.' He looked round the room to see where he could attach us. 'You've met Jenkins, from Physics. Physicist ...' he said. He had a slight stammer.
'Yes. I know him.' Michael nodded at a thin man, with a narrow, consumptive face, who came over almost immediately.
'I'll leave you to it, then,' the Professor said, smiling at us again, and touched Michael's back before he went away.
'Why didn't you introduce him to me?' I asked. He looked blank, then surprised.
Jenkins came. He held his glass in both hands, his fingers tightly interlocked. He spoke quickly and eagerly to Michael, and swilled the red drink round in his glass. Across the room a man with fair hair watched me.
Michael talked about the Professor. A young man in a corduroy coat joined us. His collar-button was undone behind his tie, and there was a thin sweat on his forehead. His eyes could only turn slowly. He and Michael started laughing. Then Jenkins.
The fair-haired man lit a cigarette, watching it intently as he took his first puffs. He'd been talking to someone but now he stood alone by a long cabinet. On it were a skull and two pieces of sculpture. He saw me looking at him.
'Do you want another drink, Margaret?' Michael asked. I was unused to him using my name. I smiled at him.
'Just stay there,' the man in the corduroy coat said. 'I'll get you one. What're you having?'
'It's a gin and it,' Michael said, and looked at Jenkins. 'She wouldn't know.' They laughed and I protested. Michael was happy.
'I'll tell him it isn't one and see what he says,' I said.
'I shouldn't do that,' Jenkins answered. He didn't look closely at me. 'It would be just the thing he wanted. He'll spend all night having it analysed.'
The man came back with the drink. Jenkins watched me taste it, then repeated what he'd said. Soon they were laughing again, Michael almost with his back to me.
At home were my Uncle Jack, my Aunty Dot, and Uncle Phil, talking about the funeral.
The fair-haired man stood in a space now. He was broad shouldered; but it might have been the effect of his Harris tweed jacket. His trousers were unpressed. He'd picked up one of the pieces of sculpture and was looking at it. But not intently. He held it in both hands, sceptical, with his cigarette; and the smoke curled round it. The light behind him glowed through the fringe of his hair. It was luminous. Behind him was the skull, white and yellow.
I went and stood by the cabinet.
'Who's it by?' I asked.
Excerpted from Flight into Camden by David Storey. Copyright © 1960 David Storey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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