A Presumption of Death
By Jill Paton Walsh, Dorothy L. Sayers
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Jill Paton Walsh and The Trustees of Anthony Fleming
All rights reserved.
It is through chance that, from among the various individuals of which each of us is composed, one emerges rather than another.
Henry de Montherlant, Explicit Mysterium, 1931
'Whoever, for example, Lady Peter,' said Miss Agnes Twitterton, 'is that?'
'You do have a point, my dear,' said Mrs Goodacre, the vicar's wife, who was standing with the two women behind a trestle table at one end of the Village Hall, pouring out Miss Twitterton's parsnip wine into rows of assorted sherry glasses. 'There was a time, as you say, and not so long ago, when we would have known everybody we could possibly meet here — when any stranger was a seven-day wonder — and now here we are organising a village hop, and we don't know half the people here. They could be anybody; indeed I expect they are.'
Harriet looked around. The shabby little hall, with a dusty dais at one end, had perhaps fifty people in it. About half were young men in uniform, rather outshining the youthful farm workers and shop-boys in civvies. The uniform blotted out whatever they may have been like in peace-time; no better than the rest of the company, most likely, and possibly much worse, but khaki and air-force blue gave them now the status of heroes.
It's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'
But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot.
ran through her mind. The notorious land-girls were much in evidence, with their city skills in make-up and nice dresses. Harriet did not in fact know everybody, far from it. Had the assembly gathered the older people of the village she might have done better; she had spent long enough here to know most of them. But unlike the true villagers she didn't expect to know everybody; she was used to the crowded anonymity of London.
'One shouldn't think the worst of newcomers,' she said mildly. 'You don't want to sound like Mrs Ruddle.' She smiled to herself at the memory. 'When Lord Peter and I rolled up here on our very first night as man and wife she took one look at us, and declared we were no better than we should be!'
'You must have been wearing that magnificent fur cloak of yours,' said Mrs Goodacre. 'One associates fur with loose morals very easily these days, because of the cinema.'
'Yes, I was,' said Harriet. 'And I'm glad to say I can tell you who that is, Miss Twitterton. That is Flight Lieutenant Brinklow.'
'Well, if you say so,' said Miss Twitterton. 'But that's just it! We know his name, but we know nothing about him. He could be any sort of villain, for all we know — he could even be a German spy!'
'As a matter of fact I think he's a war hero,' said Harriet. 'He is here recuperating. His fighter plane was shot down and he baled out and was injured slightly. He can't go back on active duty until his shattered ankle has mended, so he has taken Susan Hodge's cottage — the one just opposite the churchyard gate — for a month of quiet in the country.'
'He's very good-looking,' said Miss Twitterton dubiously, as if the officer's looks made this history improbable. She was certainly right in that. Flight Lieutenant Brinklow was tall and blond, with brown eyes and a candid manly address. He was not dancing — presumably his ankle made that impossible — but was standing surrounded by a group of pretty girls and brother officers, looking perfectly at ease.
'You are very well informed, Lady Peter,' said Mrs Goodacre. 'As the vicar's wife I am not often pipped at the post with the gossip. You are becoming quite a villager!'
'You forget I was born here,' said Lady Peter mildly. 'But there's no mystery about it. The poor man is on sticks, and so he needed a bed brought down the stairs to the dining-room, and Susan Hodge asked a couple of the land-girls at Bateson's farm to help her do it, and it got stuck halfway down, and they had to heave it back upstairs again, and take it apart. One of them told Mrs Ruddle all about it, and what Mrs Ruddle knows is soon common knowledge.'
'One of those airmen,' observed Mrs Lugg, who was making up the fourth hand at the refreshment table, 'is even better looking.'
'That,' said Harriet with a mildly triumphant note in her voice, 'is Peter's nephew, Gerald Wimsey, home on leave for three days, and staying with us.'
'Do you mean Lord St George?' asked Miss Twitterton. 'The one who will one day be a duke?' A maiden lady somewhere in her forties, Miss Twitterton had become acquainted with the Wimseys on their very first evening in the village, and was almost too interested in the family, including those she had heard mentioned only once or twice.
'Yes, the very man. But he likes to be plain Flying Officer Wimsey for the moment. He tells me everyone in the RAF just mucks in without distinction. Nothing counts but your service rank. So plain Jerry Wimsey it is.'
At that moment the band-leader struck a chord, and plain Jerry Wimsey stepped up to the microphone, as the band — a rather under-rehearsed group, including most of the Salvation Army's brass players from Pagford — broke into 'Dreamshine'. Jerry began to sing in a light tenor voice of great sweetness, sounding so like his Uncle Peter that Harriet flinched inwardly.
Under a shining moon,
And to a tender tune ...
Harriet watched the couples foxtrotting round the floor, holding each other as closely as lovers, in an aura of yearning which surely had something to do with the times as much as the people.
...We danced the night away,
And at the break of day
We found the world had changed ...
She was aching to be dancing herself, provided only that she could be dancing with Peter — Peter somewhere far away and in danger — and, cross with herself for being so easily touched by a trivial tune, but Jerry was singing beautifully, she sternly turned her attention to sandwiches and the tea-urn. Obviously yearning made young people hungry, for the plates were emptying fast. The little cornflour cakes that Mrs Trapp had provided had already gone. And now Harriet felt touched by that: all these grown-ups eating cakes like children at a birthday party, when the times ensured that it was only too likely to be a wake for some of them, especially those in uniform, and you could hardly blame them if they snatched things — cakes, girls — while they had the chance.
'Fancy a turn about the room, Aunt Harriet?'
Here was Jerry, having resigned the microphone to a sexy-looking young woman, holding out his arms to her. She allowed herself to be steered away from slicing dense and rubbery fruit cake, and propelled into the throng. Jerry held her just a little too close, pressed his cheek against hers a little too much — the gesture was pointless without Peter there to be stung by it — but Jerry was always living on the edge, pushing his luck.
One more dance before we part ...
Suddenly singer and band both were drowned out by a horrible cacophonous wailing, eliding sickeningly between two notes. The air-raid warning! The band came to a ragged note-by-note stop. The singer faltered and fell silent. The band-master took the microphone.
'Now don't panic, everyone. As you probably know this is a planned rehearsal to see how quickly we can all get underground. Our friends in uniform must decide for themselves whether to join the civilians in the exercise, or return to their base; but I'm afraid the dance is over. If you are disappointed to miss the last waltz, don't blame me, blame the ARP officer, he's a little quick off the mark. Don't forget your gas masks, everyone. Just make your way quietly either to the cellars of the Crown, or to the Paggleham Cave. If you have left your children at home with Gran, go and fetch them now, exactly as you would do if this were a real emergency. Thank you and goodnight.'
There was a jostle of people in the doorways as everyone took coats and gas-mask holders off the hooks. 'I suppose we can't clear up tonight,' said Mrs Goodacre. 'We'll have to come back in the morning.'
'That's all right, missus,' said the caretaker. 'I'll lock up. Just get yourselves under cover before that blinking Hitler gets to you.'
'Oh dear, are you sure?' said Miss Twitterton. 'Only since it's only a practice, you know, we certainly could stay back and see to things ...'
'No, you don't, Aggie Twitterton,' said the caretaker. 'You'll spoil the whole thing if you don't co-operate, and it'll have to be done again. Off you go with everyone else.'
Standing in the moonlit road outside the hall, listening to Miss Twitterton apologising repeatedly and explaining that she only thought ... Harriet found Jerry at her elbow.
'I'll walk you home, Aunt Harriet,' he said, smiling at her from a face half moonlit, half in darkness, 'and help you round up all those kids.'
'There aren't so very many,' said Harriet. 'Only five. But they do seem like a multitude at times!'
They walked towards Talboys under the brilliant light of a full moon. All the warm comfortable lights that used to shine from cottage windows were now blacked out, and the street lamps, all seven of them, were extinguished, but this icy light was bright enough to show every house and tree, every bridge and pillar-box to anyone who had been looking down on it, taking aim.
'We've certainly got a bomber's moon tonight,' Jerry said.
As they passed the church the moonlight showed them, clearly pencilled in silver, the silhouette of Mr Lugg the undertaker perched on the tower under his tin hat, doing his turn at fire-watching. Harriet waved at him, and then felt frivolous. But he briefly waved back.
'Aunt Harriet, I suppose you haven't thought of taking that houseful of yours up to Denver, have you?' asked Jerry.
'We were there at Christmas,' Harriet said. 'We're only just back.'
'I meant have you considered moving there for the duration?'
'No!' she said. 'I have not.'
'There's such a lot of room up there,' he said. 'Bredon Hall is genormous.'
'But they've got an entire boys' school billeted on them,' she said.
'Even so. And Grandmama would be so pleased to have you; I know she would!'
'I'm very fond of my mother-in-law, Jerry,' said Harriet, 'but as to uprooting myself from my own establishment, and plumping myself and all these other people on hers ...'
'I just thought you might be safer there.'
'But we're as safe here as anywhere. Hasn't the government just billeted several dozen evacuees in the village?'
They walked a few paces further in silence. 'This entire county is covered in airfields,' Jerry said. 'They've got to be a target of attack.'
'But so is the district round Denver,' protested Harriet. 'I can't make any sense of this, Jerry. Are you trying to tell me something?'
'I ought not to be,' he said dejectedly. 'I haven't said a word. I just wish you'd think about it, Aunt Harriet.'
'Think about what you haven't said?'
'Think about moving to Denver.'
'Oh, look,' said Harriet, with some relief, 'here are Sadie and Queenie now, with the children.'
The two maids from Talboys were coming towards them, leading Bredon by the hand, and carrying Paul. Charlie and Polly skipped along beside them. Little Harriet Parker, who was only three, was asleep in the pram.
'We heard the siren, my lady, and we thought best to come along without waiting for you,' said Queenie.
'Quite right,' said Harriet, taking her son by the hand. 'Is Mrs Trapp coming?'
'Not her!' said Sadie. 'She said as she didn't get out of bed for the Kaiser, and she isn't going to do so for Hitler, no matter what that ARP warden says.'
Jerry took his nephew Paul into his arms, and they all turned back towards the village centre.
'Which is the nearest shelter?' asked Jerry. 'Do say it's the Crown, so I can have a pint of beer to drown my sorrows.'
'What sorrows are those, Jerry?' said Harriet. 'Yes, let's go with the sinners to the Crown, rather than with the heathen Methodees in the cave.'
'Are Methodists heathen?' asked Charlie. 'Only I thought —'
Heavens, what am I saying? thought Harriet. 'That was a joke, Charlie,' she said solemnly. 'Methodists are perfectly good Christians.'
'Mummy, will we be allowed to get up in the night all through the war?' asked Bredon. 'I'm in pyjamas under my coat and scarf,' he added. 'A bit like dreaming. Sadie did put on her gas mask, Mummy, like you said, but it frightened Paul so she took it off again.'
But when they reached the village High Street, the people streaming into the Crown were mostly wearing their gas masks. It gave them a horrific appearance, with socket eyes like skulls and black skin and wide snouts. Firmly holding on to his uncle's jacket, Paul appeared not to mind it this time.
'But what are we actually going to do down here?' enquired Archie Lugg.
Everyone was just standing around on the dusty floors of the crypt. A single electric bulb dangled from the ceiling of each of the four huge rooms. There was nothing to sit on, and the air smelled dusty and cold.
'Well, what would you be doing if you was in your own little dugout, Archie?' asked George Withers.
'Don't ask,' said Mrs Ruddle, sniggering.
'I've got a magazine showing how you make an Anderson shelter really cosy,' said Mrs Puffett. 'With bunks and little curtains, and a cribbage board and a paraffin heater.'
'I seen an Anderson over at Broxford the other day,' someone said. 'All fixed up like as Ma Puffett says. Only that were a foot deep in water what had drained in off the garden. Quite all right apart from that. Bloke has a stirrup pump fixed up to bail her out. They don't say about that in the magazines, I'll be bound. Deep enough to drown a cat that was, being as you had a cat.'
Constable Jack Baker stood up on an orange crate, and clapped his hands for silence. 'I need a bit of a head count,' he said, 'to see how many people got here. We closed the doors eight minutes after the siren; we'll have to do a bit better than that in future. Could everyone stay right where they are while I count you, and then I'll come round and you can let me know if there's anyone you think ought to be here, and who hasn't showed up.'
'Fred Lugg isn't here,' offered someone.
'Well, he's fire-watching, isn't he?' said Archie Lugg. 'Can't spot a fire from down here, can he?'
'He could be anywhere, if you ask me,' said Mrs Hodge.
'He's on the church tower,' said Harriet. 'We saw him there.'
Slowly an atmosphere of dismay was seeping through the company. They stood around with hands in pockets, or leaned against the stone walls. A few people had brought blankets or folding stools, and could make themselves a corner to sit down. A wormy old settle long cast out of the snug and thrust into a corner accommodated a row of three very old gentlemen, and someone had brought a folding table and a pack of cards. But it was plainly going to be very uncomfortable and very boring to stay for long.
It wasn't much consolation, thought Harriet, that this was only practice, when the real thing was looming over them all.
'Tell you something,' said George Withers suddenly. 'Just as soon as we got a thaw, I'm going to put up me own Anderson, and not have to hang around here with all you lot!'
He had caught the mood, and Harriet suddenly became concerned — a whole group of people in the grip of misery locked up together for hours would certainly be bad for morale and could turn really nasty — when, as often happens in this tight little island, a man for the moment, a woman for the moment emerged.
The chairman of the Paggleham Women's Institute got up on Constable Baker's orange crate, and began to speak.
'Well, as you can all see, we've got to do something about this,' she said. 'Even if it's only for a few weeks, and as a matter of fact I don't see why we shouldn't settle in here for the rest of the war, and not bother with Anderson shelters. As some of you already know, I've drawn up an outline plan. We need bunks. People can bring their own blankets. We need a few trestle tables and a primus stove to make tea and hot soup, and some paraffin heaters to get a bit of a fug in here on a cold night. We need coat hooks for all those gas-mask holders, and perhaps the schoolchildren can paint some pictures to cheer up the walls a bit. We need volunteers. Lots of volunteers.'
'Bert Ruddle is doing bunks for the Methodists,' said George Withers.
'I could fix up some bunks,' offered Archie Lugg, 'if I had some help. I've got a lot of spare timber from that row of sheds we took down when they put an airfield on a bit of Datchett farm.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh, Dorothy L. Sayers. Copyright © 2002 Jill Paton Walsh and The Trustees of Anthony Fleming. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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