A Novel The Size of an Ocean

After the publication, in 1965, of 'Mrs Bratbe's August Picnic', my mother started work on a new novel. It grew into a leviathan of unmanageable proportions, and was never finished. It "shattered in my hands" she wrote to Dan Jacobson. However, there is some remarkable writing in it, and I have decided to put at least the first volume, 'Act of Go', into the wider world. The copyright of course remains with me and my sisters.

You may find more information about my mother, Jacqueline Wheldon, here.

Blogs being what they are, you must read bottom up, from 'Post 1' upwards. The novel begins with a letter from a character, Susan Sage, to a prospective editor, 'Tom'.




Thursday, 8 December 2011

POST 19

The Kensington side-road was white and still;  one or two parked cars, nothing moving.  The sky was deep blue.  The house was surrounded by ancient trees and grown over by dusty shrubs.  It had for an entrance twelve-foot wrought-iron gates of oriental design set crookedly open in rust between pillars of stone with lamps on them.  For aesthetic reasons they had never gone the way of less imposing ironworks into the war effort.  This house had no glare on it.  The dark brick soaked up light.  The sun inflittering through old lime trees revealed now an unexpected window, now a broken sill, now the crutches on which this stout looking though clearly fragile house was propped at one side.  Loverdale House.  Sad lovers.  Constance, with a cohort of her Presences, as many as had ever assembled, stood there and they could not make up her mind to go in.  It reminded her of landmines and bombs.  Frances, when she caught up, had no inhibitions.  She flounced forward up and round the drive between banks of overgrown shrubs, some in half-hearted and dusty flower, and made her way to the front door.

    "Molly!  Down the side, my dear.  Front is all nailed up."  Philip's father, Geoffrey Harisonn, muffled in foliage at an upstairs window shouted down.  The side! 

    Choked with weeds and where the props were.  It was dark there, not a shaft of a glare.  Frances, after her confrontation with the nailed-up front door, came purposefully round the side after them.  She passed them, delicately swinging for speed round the props, and led the way.  All right for her.  She was going to confront Philip now.  It was well-known, in that devious way Frances had of making things well-known, that she was at last and once more in the relationship of masterful altercation with Philip Harisonn since last Thursday.  It was Constance now whom the idea of Philip made very nervous.

    She slipped straight into the nearest seat which happened to be the long stool of the grand piano by the garden window.  On the piano was a huge bowl of fleshy flowers.  Cover!  Sarah put her hand briefly on Constance's neck.  "It's all right," she said. "the house isn't going to fall down.  You can stop crouching!"

    The house of course is going to fall down.

    Greetings exchanged.

    "Hello, Mrs. Harisonn," said Frances, looking into those deep violet eyes.

    "Philip is in the garden," said Laekia Harisonn, although Frances had not asked her.  Frances did not budge.  "He's a fool.  See if you can get some sense out of him, Frances."  Constance craned her giveaway feet onto the piano stool as Frances went seriously to get some sense out of Philip.

    "Hello Constance," Laekia called.  "I can see you!"  Laekia fluttered her spiky fingers, silver nails;  "Well, the Evanwoods to come;  and Dr. Streeter.  You, please dear Molly, speak to Geoffrey.  Father and son.  They've just had a quarrel here.  Philip has been very bad to his uncle Matthew.  Geoffrey's disappointed and worried about Philip.  We expected him to go back to the University.  And it's all come to it that he shall stay in the Army.  And now war in Korea!"

    Constance suddenly remembered, with astonishment at forgetting, that Philip, of course, had connections with the Army and World Affairs.  It now seemed a very good thing that none of them had any idea of that scene in her bedroom.

    "He's certainly chosen his moment, just as you're off.  And what will happen to the house?" said Molly.

    "Lap of gods," said Laekia.

    "It's always been in the lap of the gods," said Aunt Molly, "At the moment it looks to me as if they've stood up and dropped it."  She had never been able to associate Laekia with possession of Loverdale House.

    Sarah and Frances gone, Molly off to greet Geoffrey, Constance examined, under the piano, the gold-threaded design round the bottom of Mrs. Harisonn's yellow silk sari, paid minute attention to the beautiful gold sandals, the painted pointed toenails and was not in the least surprised that Philip should be in love with his half-sister Camilla who was as dark and beautiful as her mother.  Laekia rustled out through the sitting-room door.  Constance put away Army and world affairs and prepared to let passion and love take their place;  as how could they help it? 

    In the garden there was no Philip, but there was Tom, and what Frances did,  possibly as her first move in the coming encounter with Philip, was to greet Tom extravagantly, and rear about, like a bolting lettuce in a high wind, at his very first remark.  Manfully resistant to this girlish play, Tom stood there, his unignorable chest and stomach thrust out, smirking.

    The room to herself.

    Constance scrutinised it;  the inside less prone to collapse than outside.  The puffy deep armchairs had pale dimpled cushions with bits of looking glass embroidered into them, the melon silk lampshades like faded footballs;  carpet and curtains alike ballooned here and there dinged with yellow and gold.  Safe.  Constance breathed more easily, walked about the spacious room awfully gently.  She was saving herself for the first sight of Philip when, hearing she had arrived, he rushed in to find her alone.  On the mantelpiece, marble and white, stood a gold stopped clock and a few carvings of pillow-fleshed gentlemen in the lotus position with tiny maniacal grins on their shiny bald heads.

    "Hello, Mrs. Sage."  A woman bumping a trolley over the carpet which had swollen under and behind the door came awkwardly into the room.  A strand of Mrs. Olive Sage's suspiciously orange-black hair, which was not plentiful, fell forward as a hairpin pinged over the sugar bowl.  The sugar tongs plong-ed to the floor and disappeared under the table.

    "Have a crawl and pick them up, there's a dear girl," said Mrs. Sage straightening up breathlessly.

    "Have you seen their teeth?  Come and have a look," said Constance fingering a navel reflectively.

    Mrs. Sage stood undecided.  She was the victim of an easily-roused curiosity and very responsive to tried friendship.  Shedding and cursing another hairpin she came where she was bidden and examined the little fat thing under Constance's hand.

    "Showin his pearlies, isn't he?"  Mrs. Sage moved along, not too fast.  "This one's my favourite."  A larger piece, something spikily different in copper gilt and jewels, all four arms and ferocious private parts.  "He's a bit thinner, which I prefer," said Mrs. Sage.  "He's their God of Love you know.  He's the Dancer.  All that stomach muscle.  He gets more exercise I suppose.  Mr. Philip showed me."  Constance transferred her finger.  "Have you seen Mr. Philip's new Chinese pictures?"

    "No, what are they like?" asked Constance, face to face with a rare copy of a rare print from the Palace Museum Collection, Taichung.  She watched Mrs. Sage being pleased with the picture.  It was pleasing;  both Mrs. Sage being pleased, and the picture.  One pale plump young man playing a Chinese-type mandolin, one pale plump one, his instrument laid by, listening, one arranging flowers, all equally engaged in the pursuit of Being, as were also and very much, the banana palms.  "Ch'in Ying," Mrs. Sage read out, setting back her head to get the reading distance, "Passing A Summer Day Beneath Banana Palms."

    "I know why he likes that."  Constance was full of insight and therefore happiness.

    "He told me" Mrs. Sage dropped her voice, "before they had the you know quarrel about the war business.  Everything is of the same, all the people, all the plants, and all the musical instruments, everything equal."

    Oh yes, poet's eye and everything equal value.  But there was something else as well, and Constance knew what it was.  His taste for an intense and unearthly quality of spiritual outback that Camilla's great beauty also suggested.  That she was his half-sister was for Philip only one thing about Camilla, and not the most important, the picture said.

    "He's a great duck anyhow," said Mrs. Sage, perhaps feeling from the silence that Mr. Philip needed defending.  "Even if he do give them the dickens sometimes.  Very rude to his uncle, Mr. Kellory.  I was surprised.  Both such nice-natured people.  Still, they never did get on, those two."

    "Is Susan here?" Constance said, distantly - partly because she had come over feeling plainfaced, solid of flesh and unbeautiful;  partly because Mrs. Sage's whispering disturbed her.  I hope Susan is not here.  Constance admired Mrs. Sage, but Mrs. Sage's daughter Susan she did not.  At the end of the long garden rose up a lixiodendron tree with its pretty summery leaves.  Something funny had come over Mrs. Sage's voice.

    "Naughty girl wouldn't come.  Too high and mighty and with good friends too.  Charity this and condescension that.  I'm going to have explanations with her when I get back.  Your sister Frances is very upset."  All this savage and distant, came to Constance from under the table-cloths.  Mrs. Sage after the sugar-tongs.

    "Aah!  It's easy to upset Frances," said Constance.

    "Suz better mark my words."  Mrs. Sage spoiled the room coming out backwards, crawling with a lock of hair over her face.  "I don't know why your Aunt Molly or anyone else takes any notice of her."  Mrs. Sage checked the trolley and went out muttering.

    Poor Susan, life spent having explanations and marking her mother's words.  Serves her right.  Constance looked away up the garden, not quite so secure in her own lovely fate as she had been.

    Behind her, in the sitting-room, Mrs. Laekia Harisonn lifted the lids of two massive silver pots and stood praying, or sniffing, in the way of the rising steam.

    "Modest, well modest," she said.  Her violet eyes were steamy pools.  "Before the war, you know, never less than five kinds."

    "What were they?" asked Philip.

    "Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiris my favourite, Malacco...

    "Earl Grey, Queen Mary Blend," put in Mrs. Sage.

    "But here just two pots of plain ration tea, infused in silver, but democratic for all.  Democracy its best flavour in the end, eh Mrs. Sage?"  Mrs. Harisonn seemed wistful.  She asked Mrs. Sage to join them in their leave taking.

    "I had better clear up here quickly so I'm ready to go early, Mrs. Harisonn, thank you very kindly," said Mrs. Sage.  "Susan just a bit off.  Nasty headache.  Working hard."

    "Give my love to Susan," said Philip.  "I'm sorry to have missed her.  I'll have to come down and see her and Robert before I go back.  I particularly want to see Robert.  He missed his call-up, didn't he?"

    "For which I am truly grateful poor lad.  I lost his father.  One's enough," said Mrs. Sage, coming out rather strongly, though quietly and privately, considering company.

    "How's Terminus?  I haven't been in Terminus for ages.  Is it still a great place?"

    "Oh, it's not um" said Mrs. Sage, pleased.

    "It's a great place if you can afford to be spiritual about it.  You don't have to live there," said Laekia.

    "Perhaps" said Philip stiffly, as if he'd said enough to Laekia for one day.

    "Yes.  You can practise more-spiritual-than-thou", said Laekia, obviously not under the same inhibition.

    Regulating her breathing, smoothing her hair, encouraging anodyne thoughts like stop grimacing to assuage the pain of her smile, which had got stuck, Constance was getting over the shock of Philip's sudden appearance in the flesh of open neck, old tweed trousers, not quite such a flawless appearance.  He had smiled and nodded to her and put his hand on her head certainly, but Sarah was there by his side at the time.

    "I like Terminus too," Constance said now;  though how to dissociate this remark from looking as if she was condescending to Olive Sage and resisting Laekia when she was only encouraging Philip to look at her, she did not know.  She did like Terminus, although it was very wrong to do so.  It was something she and Philip had always had in common.  He had never avoided the Old House.

    "Little volcano you have there, Mrs. Sage," said Laekia in reference to the recalcitrant Susan.  "Have two of my own."  Laekia addressed herself to Philip.  "They are forces of nature, the young.  Philip and Camilla, do they belong to us I ask myself."

    "They don't," said Molly Absecond.

    Laekia's fine plump fingers pointed their way through the five hundred little links of a gold collar.  Philip was not amused.  "Going to the war!" said Laekia.  "His poor father!"

    Mrs. Sage, safely generalising, knew so very exactly what was meant.  She lost the run of a couple of plates and caught them in time.  The three ladies departed in a not very business-like manner to the kitchen.  Philip took himself off without a word.

    It was going to be one of those days when absolutely nobody paid any attention whatsoever to Constance Yokeham.  Might as well be invisible.

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