When disfigured soldier George Harding returns from the front, he moves a poor family into the servant’s quarters of his family’s South African estate, saving them from financial ruin—and initiating a series of events that will change all of their fates forever.
Among the new tenants at Harding’s Rest is Cressida, a young girl haunted by phantoms of World War II and the Holocaust, and terrified by Harding’s gnarled body. Invited to the main house to help bring Harding’s hopelessly timid nephew out of his shell, Cressida makes an impression on her family’s benefactor.
As she blossoms into womanhood, Cressida slowly becomes beguiled by what once repulsed her, in this strange and beautiful decades-spanning novel that “blends Dickensian musings on class with a Brontë-like love story” (San Francisco Chronicle).
“Cressida, a young girl who watches those around her patch up their wounds from the war and carry on with the weight of pretense, is as observant and as wickedly truthful as any Jane Austen character.” —Amy Tan
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If every family chooses someone to punish, I was the one chosen by mine. Mr. Harding, for instance. When he came to lunch, Ma always put him next to me. Why me? I wanted to know. Why not Miranda, she’s a freak herself? Every night Miranda woke up screaming that the Germans were coming for her over a wall. War I kept telling her, it’s war, not wall! But Ma just told me to keep my oar out of it, Miranda had a fixation, she said, and anyway, what would I know about the war, I hadn’t even been born until it was over. So it was hopeless. Every Sunday I was stuck next to Mr. Harding, and every night Miranda was allowed to go on screaming until Ma came down the passage with the DDT.
Nightmares and mosquitoes were the only reasons we were allowed to wake Ma up. If it was a nightmare, she’d just switch on all the lights and tell us to go back to sleep. But if it was a mosquito, we had to try to catch it and put it in a matchbox so that the man from the mosquito department could know just which sort it was and where to find its breeding ground — stupid, if you ask me, because the mosquito man himself said they can breed overnight in a wheelbarrow, or an upturned avocado-pear leaf.
At first I thought mosquitoes were the reason Mr. Harding wore a veil over his panama hat. But no, said Ma, he wore the hat because he’d been shot down by the Germans in a ball of fire and had had to drag himself, still burning, to hide behind a wall. It was men like George Harding, she said, who’d won the war for us, and if we thought hiding behind a wall had been the end of it, we’d be quite wrong, because then there’d been operation after operation without benefit of ether, and yet look how cheerful he was! Look how much he loved us children!
But he didn’t love us, I could have told her that. I did tell her. I said, “I don’t like him, and I hate his voice, and I don’t want to sit next to him anymore.” What I couldn’t tell her was that the war was becoming a terror for me, too — that it had taken the shape of Mr. Harding’s scarred, pink, dented head with its freckles, and its false eye, and its sprouts and tufts of hair. Just as I’d be squinting to block out the bad side of it, he’d twist the whole thing around to look down at me and say, “Would you pass the butter please, Cressida?”
When he came to the house, the dogs had to be locked in the sewing room, and even then they went wild at the sight of that hat and veil sailing along the crazy paving. At first he’d worn the hat inside, too, even to the table, and I’d try to keep my eyes on his hands, the way his fork disappeared under the veil without even touching it. His hands themselves were normal — large and straight and strong. As long as you kept looking at them, you could almost forget you had never seen his face.
But then, one day, just as we were settling into the lounge for coffee, a gust from the floor fan lifted the edge of his veil and he made a wild grab for it. The trouble was he grabbed too fiercely and pulled the whole hat askew. So then there he was, staring out at us like a Cyclops, and I turned to Miranda and squinted one eye, sucking in my lips hideously. And she ran out of the room like a baby.
“Oh George!” my mother said, trying to cover up. She waved her cigarette and looked straight at him in that way of hers. “Why not just take the hat off? You don’t need it here, with us.”
He hesitated for a moment, but then he did lift it off. He put it upside down on the arm of his chair, folding the veil neatly inside. Meanwhile, Ma herself couldn’t help staring. Everyone was staring, even Miranda from the other side of the French doors. Only Phineas remembered to take the sugar bowl over to him and keep the tongs towards him as he held it out. So why can’t you put him in the kitchen with Phineas? I asked Ma as soon as Mr. Harding had left. But she only turned on me as usual. “You’re a disgrace!” she said. “Whatever you did to send Miranda out like that! You’re a troublemaker! You’re a bad seed!”
She’d got the idea of the bad seed from a book she’d read. She often got ideas like this. After she saw The Children’s Hour at Film Society, she started asking whether Bunch had ever tried to kiss us on the lips. Whatever the case, Ma said, we were not to walk around in the altogether when Bunch was staying, and, if she forgot to take her towel to the bathroom again, we were just to leave it hanging on the doorknob. Never mind that Bunch was mad, never mind that she was our aunt, and old and fat and ugly, almost as ugly as Mr. Harding.
He lived with his mother at Harding’s Rest at the top of the hill. It had been built by his grandfather with sugar money, Ma said, and there was a lake in the garden with swans on it, and a grove of fruit trees as well. She loved words like “lake” and “grove” for anything the Hardings had, but I’d seen the garden through a gap in the hedge, and there wasn’t a lake there at all, just a pond with a flock of hadedahs pecking around it. There wasn’t a grove either. It was a measly stand of mango trees, with monkeys screaming out of them, and mangos rotting on the ground.
Ma had been up to Harding’s Rest only once, during the war. A troopship had stopped in South Africa on its way to Suez, and old Mrs. Harding had gone down to the docks herself to invite the soldiers up to the house for a party — never mind officers only, never mind four men to one woman for a change. The Hardings were old school, Ma said, a dying breed that didn’t stay home playing golf when the world was in a crisis. They mucked in, gave parties for men going off to die. The men themselves had toiled up the hill in rickshaws, or just trudged all the way on foot. And such laughter there’d been! Such dancing in the moonlight! Such a supper laid out in the grand hall!
But then Mr. Harding had come down in his ball of fire, and his older brother ran off to the war and got himself killed. And so that was that for parties, and also for old Mrs. Harding’s sanity, because why had she bothered to have sons in the first place if they were just going to be burned up and shot down? By the time Mr. Harding came home in his hat and veil, she’d taken to running out into the road with the silver, giving it to any old native who happened to be passing by. One day, she gave Phineas two forks and a serving spoon, and he brought them straight home to Ma. So up she went to give them back. But the housekeeper who answered the door was barely civil, just snatched them back as if Ma had stolen them herself.
And it wasn’t until Mr. Harding rang the doorbell months and months later that Ma realised how old school the Hardings really were. He’d just heard what had happened to my father, he said — they’d been trying to keep him from unfortunate things, which was rather unforgivable under the circumstances, but thank you for bringing the cutlery back, and if there was anything he could do, she need only ask, and so forth.
My father had known the Hardings before he’d even met Ma. They’d all been at Cambridge together, and when they’d come back they’d played golf at the Royal Country Club. My father had only been asked to join in the first place, Ma said, because he was the better sort of Jew. And from the way she said it, I thought that she herself must be a worse sort of Jew, which was probably the better thing to be in the end, because one day my father had been hit on the head by a golf club, and ever since then he’d been lying in his corner room, and Phineas had to feed and change him like a baby. And all that had happened only two months before I was even born.
Miranda was the only one who would tell me what my father had been like when he was normal, but first she had to look around to see if Ma could hear her. Miranda was dead scared of Ma. She was dead scared of me, too, although she was six and a quarter years older than I was. Once, when she’d left her secret drawer open by mistake, I found a photo of my father and her at the beach. She was on a pony, and he was standing next to her with one hand on the reins and the other at her waist to steady her. I stared at that hand, wanting badly to have it for myself. So I stole the photo and hid it under the house, where Miranda was scared to go, and when she found that it was missing, she couldn’t even tell Ma, because how could she have got that photo in the first place? All the albums were locked in the linen cupboard. Dwelling on the past would bring us nothing but grief, Ma said. We should take a leaf out of her book. Did she dwell on the past? Did she pine after a chimera?
Still, she herself kept a photograph of my father in a silver frame on the hi-fi. He was leaning forward, resting his chin on his hand, with a cigarette between his fingers, and a thin moustache. Every night she lifted her glass of brandy and ginger ale and said, Chin-chin! And when I asked why she never went up to his room to say Chin-chin! to him personally, she just said, What would be the point? He wouldn’t know her from Phineas.
But he did know. Phineas said you could tell by the fingers. He always laid my father’s arms over the sheet so that he could watch his fingers. They were smooth and square and dark, nothing like Mr. Harding’s, and sometimes I liked to hold them, just to think of what it would be like to hold a normal father’s hand. And sometimes, when Phineas wasn’t there, I’d lift the sheet to see what was going on underneath. But it was always the same — a smooth, dark body with a nappy pinned around it like an Indian’s. If I smelled the nappy, I had to ring for Phineas to come and change him. And then he’d chase me out because I wasn’t allowed to watch.
There were a lot of things in my father’s room I wasn’t supposed to look at — his silk dressing gown with the hanky in the pocket, his smoking jacket still smelling of cigars, and then, right at the back of the wardrobe, two concentrationcamp books in a brown paper packet. I found them anyway, of course, and took them out and looked at them. And soon Phineas was reading them as well. He would sit on the stool, moving his finger across the page, and then look up and say, “Hau, those bad peoples, Miss Cress! Hau, hau, hau!”
And the mad thing was that Mr. Harding himself must have given Ma the books in the first place, because in front of each was written TO MW FROM GH in dark blue ink. Inside were pictures of naked bodies heaped into piles, and also naked men just standing there, naked women too. I told Miranda all this, and sometimes I smuggled a book out to show her. She was allowed to wear lipstick now, and high heels, and often a boy would phone to ask her to the pictures or the ice rink. I told her that Germans made girls like her lie naked on beds all day whether they liked it or not, and what’s more, if she woke them up with her nightmares, she’d be off to the gas chamber in a minute.
“Miranda’s crying again,” I said to my father, “and I’m going to get the blame as usual.”
He never answered, of course; he never even moved his fingers for me. Still, if he’d been a real father, he’d probably have given me a scolding. So maybe it was better this way, although I longed for him to look up just once and say, You’re right, I’ll tell Ma she has to say she’s sorry.
And then one day, when I was in his room, the doorbell rang and Bunch made a mad dash for it. She was down for the Christmas holidays and had forgotten, as usual, that she wasn’t supposed to answer the door. Bunch loved answering the door. It gave her a chance to pretend the house was still her own, and to ask people into the lounge for tea, even if it was only the man from the mosquito department. Forgot? My toe! Ma said. Bunch was bent on making a spectacle of herself, and if she started up again at the table with “Is this a dagger that I see before me?” I was not even to think of joining in with my own knife or she’d have Phineas remove my place to the kitchen for the duration of the visit.
“Mr. Harding!” I cried. He was backed up against the front door, shouting “DOWN! DOWN!” although it made no difference, of course. The dogs were in a frenzy over the hat, jumping, barking, growling.
“Help!” Bunch squeaked. She was crouched out of sight, on the other side of the kist, holding the brass pestle at the ready.
Mr. Harding was thrashing hard now with his riding crop, shouting, “DOWN! DOWN, I SAY!” But the minute he hit one dog, the other would latch on to a trouser leg, and, in all the twisting and thrashing, his hat fell off, and Scylla got hold of it, shaking it by the veil as if it were a cat.
I grabbed her collar and dragged her into the pantry, then went back for Circe. “Here,” I said, panting, handing him back his hat.
He twisted around quickly to look down at me, his whole head roaring red, even the good eye. “Those dogs are a menace!” he shouted. “I have a good mind to have them put down!”
But who’d asked him to the house in the first place, I wanted to know? He only ever came when he was invited, and he was never invited when Bunch was with us.
“Where’s your mother?” he demanded, slamming the hat back onto his head. But it looked more ridiculous than ever because it was bashed and bitten now, with bits of veil hanging around it like a cobweb.
Bunch scrambled up and made a mad dash for the kitchen, still hanging on to the pestle.
“That’s my aunt,” I said. “She works as an usherette.” He looked down at me then with a twist of his head. “How old are you now, Cressida?”
“Nine and three quarters.”
“Ah yes!” he said, as if I’d given him the right answer.
“There’s going to be a boy about your age coming to live at Harding’s Rest and he’ll need someone to play with.”
I nodded, even though Harding’s Rest terrified me almost as much as the war. A boy there would only make things worse.
“And here” — he took a thick envelope out of his pocket — “make sure that your mother receives this as soon as she comes home please. Are the dogs properly secured? Good!”