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'.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


From behind the tulip tree Constance saw all:  Philip laughing with Sarah, that hint of unqualified energy in both of them, unwatchfully themselves, rather more unusual in public, in Sarah, but always there behind the thumb-sucking.  They kissed lightly but definitely.  Sarah's silvery head thrown back, her beautiful mouth and nose distorted with laughing so much and the kiss.
         Philip kissing Sarah was nothing complicated.  Or, at least, you could say it had been happening for years.  More unexpected - this was Sarah kissing Philip, for she had put out her long thin arms and pulled his face down to her mouth.  Everyone doing it, kissing Philip, these days, public and private.  Philip had not sneezed at this capture, of course, but it was the laughing and talking that counted;  that, and Sarah examining his coat buttons;  the intimacy of it and the way it carried Sarah out of herself.
         Sarah had already walked off still laughing, swanking, very like Frances, with her bottom wagging, when Constance saw Camilla watching.  Philip, absentminded once more, had kicked the old deflated football flying.  Constance knew, sadly at last, he did not want girls.  Constance hurried to catch Sarah up, as if Sarah, having suddenly joined in proceedings, had now become vulnerable.
         "That'll give Camilla something to sulk about," said Sarah pleasantly.  Constance construed that.  That was:  one, taking Philip and his sister seriously as lovers;  two, attempting to admit impediment between them;  three, completely overlooking the position, expectations and possible rights going back now many, many months, of Frances in the question of Philip Harisonn's mature embraces;  four, being totally ignorant of how things had proceeded, had seemed to proceed, as between Philip and Constance;  five, underestimating the new Philip into the bargain.  Constance had a thrilling shock of pure isolation;  one sees not what another sees, even though this one was her sister Sarah, and she, Constance and all her cohorts, had her by the invulnerable arm.
         "Philip's got a new girl-friend, I think" said Sarah.
         For one delirious moment, Constance thought Sarah must be referring to her.  "Ah!  Look who comes.  I thought he would."  Sarah, standing stock-still, waited.
         Dr. Gerald Streeter joined them, a smooth and substantial man, with such a weary look.  Gerald never moved fast if slow would do, never answered quickly if an answer could be suspended while silence took place.  But it was deceitful of him because in the matter of a quick answer his thought-processes seemed well above average, and in the matter of questioning you, he could give you the impression you had been suddenly seized by a lie-detector.  Constance was wary of Dr. Streeter.  Not old.  Extremely well-dressed, in that quiet way doctors favour.  Straight grey eyes, clean-shape, doctor, friend.  At least, Constance had the impression that he occasionally noticed her.
         "Hello," said Sarah, and sucked her thumb.  "Gerald, when are you going to find that old case for me?  My paints will exactly fit it."  Sarah whined and sounded about ten years old, took Gerald's hand, and went on sucking her thumb.
         Constance was seeing something having to do with the fact that she herself could greet Gerald Streeter only far more gravely and, this afternoon, as it happened, meltingly, for she was tired of being unnoticed and Gerald had looked searchingly at her when she smiled at him.
         This time, however, she was disconcerted with being so melted.  She rushed off through the rose-hedge, round the rose-hedge, and back into the drawing-room diving between Matthew and Molly on their way out.
         She flopped into a puffy chair, conscious of behaving in a ridiculous manner for her age, and disappointed.  All this rushing about was not how she felt.  She discarded, as being all too likely to succeed, the idea of going home unnoticed, and substituted for it the idea of going out and getting thoroughly run over by a lorry.  From where she sat she could see Philip in the garden having a well-deserved bad time with Frances.  They were quarrelling were they?  Tom, who now couldn't leave Philip alone, or perhaps it was Frances in Philip's company he couldn't leave alone, was at that moment approaching them with his father.  Dull old Matthew.  Frances, recovering her glances from the trees and restraining certain admonitory gestures, instantly held court.  The Evanwoods had arrived out there, Sarah embraced Mervyn and ignored his father, John Evanwood, MP., to whom she had not spoken for years.  Constance envied her sisters their self-possession in the presence of men.
         But then, had either of them ever been, for instance, in the hands of a priest who for years had been feeling the cockles of their bottom on Wimbledon Common?  That little worrying secret had not yet come out.  It might and it might not.  What would Frances do in such a situation?  Constance would think up no circumstance which would find Frances wanting at least a word or gesture exactly appropriate to that circumstance's place in time, space and world thought.  Frances would have hit him perhaps?  Father Horbark, confessor, friend, and neighbour?  Nothing to Frances.  Minimally, you could say Frances would know exactly what she, Frances, thought.  Constance did not know what she, Constance, thought.  She had tried to be nice to Father Horbark at the same time as keeping him at arm's length and well out of the thickets on the Common through which for several years he had insisted on carrying her.  Until one day she simply couldn't help laughing.  Her great legs sticking out of his old puffing belly, his beard buried in her stomach.  Being nice to him was still especially difficult because on these occasions he was such a bore.  On, and on, and on, the same question:  ought she to be punished for being such a naughty girl?  On and on.  Only to change it, when she would not answer to:  if so, how?  Hand, brush, or ruler?  Always the same.  Why not lightning, fire, or boils?  For he was an intelligent and kindly man and a very interesting theologian despite his sadism.  The green and the yellow were always rinsed out of those afternoons, turning them grey all over with the boredom of all that thoughtful pain politely suffered.  Indifference without rudeness, very difficult.  Just as friendliness without sexual desires seemed rather difficult this afternoon.  Constance, with resignation, remembered that Father Horbark would want to take her out for a walk tomorrow afternoon after Sunday-school, and Aunt Molly would say how nice of course she must go, and extraordinarily, she would go, politely, unable to disappoint him.  As if she owed him something.
         Sarah had disappeared once more.  Lucky old Sarah.  Constance always missed her when Sarah followed her luck.  One could be quite sure that Sarah would come out of a Father Horbark encounter smiling.  Sarah would never get into it, of course.  Really, she seemed to have the most complete sense of self-preservation Constance had ever known.  Sarah had a self such as nothing in the world, with the exception perhaps of Gerald Streeter, could qualify against Sarah's will.
         Tom, deprived of a further private conversation with Philip, or, as it may be, Frances, was on his way in from the garden.  He stopped at the doorway.
         "And another thing," he called to his father and Aunt Molly behind, "you have to bear in mind that in another five years or so you're going to fall into the hands of a generation who want something different, who didn't go to the wars at all, and won't go, and who don't care for all this living in the gallant past...  "
         Tom's imitation of living in the gallant past, with that hair and those fat hips and lips wobbling and swaggering was ludicrous.  Constance burst out laughing.  He looked at her very sternly and winked. 
         "If you, dear Tom, are an example of those you refer to, I trust we shall all be dead," Aunt Molly said coming in as Tom and Philip left the room again.  "He's right, of course," she said, "and one welcomes it.  Freshness and zest."
         "But we are not to cramp their style, are we, by too ready an accommodation?" Laekia followed on.  Molly Absecond, who believed in the subversion of society under cover of manners and the conventions, beamed appreciatively.  Her two little soft chins, her little beak of a nose and her bright eyes.  She's like a sweet shiny little bird today, Constance thought.  It was reassuring.  Constance dozed.
         Laekia laughed and shook, and her bangles shook and tinkled.  Constance woke up.  "No, no, no.  I insist, you are a nation of worriers," Laekia said.  "That is my most useful sense of you.  Conscience-mongers," she added a little more tartly and with amusement to see them pay attention.  "Two sides to every question.  But rarely three, or seven, or seventeen sides.  Just two.  Good and bad, right and wrong, for and against, public and private, life and death, and never the twain to meet.  And those who do not work at their opinions monopolise one side of every question just the same.  Oh no, excuse me Geoffrey, pragmatists or not, you British are rarely free to celebrate your twenty-five experienced selves.  You have crumbs on your chin, Geoffrey."
         "Laekia, I shall miss you," Molly said.
         "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet," chanted Mrs. Penny Evanwood, bending her young bulk stiffly from the waist to secure a lonely cucumber sandwich from a low table.
         I don't know about that, Constance thought, sleepy and disgruntled, watching Camilla now on Philip's arm;  oh, I don't know. 
         "The North Korean Army crossed the parallel last Saturday the twenty-fourth of June," Geoffrey gulped his whisky ferociously, saying what apparently had to be said, was expected to be said, pleasant little gathering or no, to Molly Absecond who could not agree with him.  The aggressors, she said were the South Koreans.
         Constance dozed.
         Mrs. Sage entered noisily with refillings of water and a new brew.  Constance opened one eye.  How did Mrs. Sage figure as a British worrier?  She was a worrier, of course.  She was a British worrier of the class who worry about who they can get to do their worrying for them effectively;  as though Mrs. Sage did not feel herself, somehow, fully-fledged in her rights in the worrying respect.
         Sarah was back softly playing the piano, beautifully playing the Scarlatti Pastorale, despite Mrs. Penny Evanwood's weighty presence on the piano, her unsynchronized foot-tapping work.  Sarah paused in what seemed a flawless phrase, rearranged an emphasis, frowned ... 
         "Ah!  You know, you should take it up seriously.  Oh no, I quite mean what I say, you should take it up seriously.  Oh no, please, I must say what I think, I think you should take the piano up seriously, take music up seriously."  Mrs. Evanwood beamed on Sarah, who sat dumbly looking at her.  "You're a shy modest child.  I know.  And I know how well your teachers think of you, I've been talking to your Aunt, and you must overcome your reluctance.  You play divinely."
         "I don't play divinely.  I play seriously."
         "Naughty child," Penny Evanwood cooed, fluttering her fingers under Sarah's nose.  "You must make an effort.  Effort!  I know you young people.  You're all lazy.  Like my pretty one, Shirley.  Going in for nursing.  If she only took it seriously as she ought, she could be a doctor."
         "This piano is out of tune," Sarah said in a straight-eyed way that caused Mrs. Evanwood to place her point solely on one more flutter of her fingers and a bleat:  "Naughty girls.  Naughty girls."  Sarah excused herself and went back into the garden.
         Geoffrey Harisonn was explaining to Molly what a typical Hate Week in China was like.  Molly Absecond, on behalf, apparently, of the Chinese was resisting him.  Constance looked at them balefully.
         "What's the matter with you?"  Matthew bent down.  "Off your food?  Fallen in love?  I haven't seen a single smile the whole afternoon."  Matthew had just planted an avuncular rub on Constance's head when Camilla that tall and bronze young woman, not much older than Frances, came over to her mother bringing, very subvertly, Gerald Streeter's attention with her.  Constance was unmistakably excited and envious about that.  Leaving Camilla to take on her duties, Laekia came round the table to start leave-taking of her guests.  She asked first for news of Matthew's Patricia.  Constance sat by their standing figures with her eyes closed.
         "Patricia has taken a real fancy to Ludlow.  She's there now.  She means to renovate it.  I think I shall have to inhibit one or two of her more ambitious schemes," Matthew laughed, in a way most loving of Patricia and himself.  "It's needed a woman there for years.  I can't tell you how delighted I am."
         Ludlow!  Just the very name made her heart stop beating for a moment.  Arden.  Arcadia.  It was a loss very hard to bear and more powerful, for a moment, than the memory of the kisses Philip had given and forgotten.  She put her hands in her face.  Where the hell was Sarah?


Constance and her cohorts went in search of Sarah in the darker spaces of the house.  Funny word, go.  Many opportunities for remembering how funny it really was these days.  She shivered in the sunless interior.  Sarah was nowhere to be found.  Constance felt keenly, in the absence of Sarah, the pointlessness just under the surface of everything in life as she looked into and studied every empty room.  She was enthralled by the ludicrous inequality between the persistence of the ancient furniture and the life-span of a young woman measured out in sunny Saturday afternoons and she rejoiced in her vision.  Rejoiced, really, in the limitless freedom of those powers of human invention that the vision showed her.  I am the centre of the universe and without me nothing has meaning.  One-sidedness would do.
         However, Loverdale House was decidedly not, had never been, her favourite place.  In all the years she had known it, it had been a closed house, rarely lived in.  There was no life here, no family, no servants, and only Mrs. Sage helping out at the two-day visits.  In Loverdale she liked to keep to the public rooms.  Even for one accustomed, as she was, uninvited and at the smallest opportunity to study in strange houses - for there is always in human arrangements something to learn - what must be considered the strictly private, such as closed bookrooms, bedrooms overlooking gardens, planning of bathrooms, ingenuity of airing cupboards, coolness of larders, inclusiveness of dressing-rooms, the ventilation mechanisms of roof windows, space on high landings, light and air wells, places where the guns and boots and bicycles are kept, outbuildings with or without livestock (habit picked up first in Ludlow), there was no sacrifice in keeping to the public and peopled rooms of this familiar old house.  Yet she went bravely on her way until she came to Philip's bedroom, the one he usually used, and here she sat on the bed and took up his reading, complete with notes.  She turned to the notes, all dots, dashes and flashes, idly at first, not recognising them for what they were;  and even when she did she went on reading.  There was a quarrel here with someone called Richard St. Ains, last week, and a letter to that gentleman no less;  she turned quickly on.  Philip's ideas about staying in the Army as an instructor and what he would teach, there was a great deal about taking Frances up a mountain, none of which she stopped more than a few moments to read, on the grounds that that might fairly constitute not reading any of it at all.  But she then came to a riveting bit about a Diary.  `A reminder and record, rarely referred to, of mental and physical events.'  Not my idea of a Diary.  She looked up from her reading.  She was being watched.
         She went quickly into the corridor.  Nobody.  As she turned at the door, the white and crimson tiles in the fireplace winked at her.  The old yew cupboard and chest, yellow and glinting;  what there was of daylight reflected off the polish of these objects all-seeing stares of blank white light.  I.  See.  You.  Even the heavy old crimson bedspread;  she stood there mesmerised before it;  faceted with sheened quilting, it was a mass of eyes, alert little bright eyes.  We.  See.  You.  Everything stood around her accusing.  The whole atmosphere, eyes, conniving with her sixth sense, the activity of which she was inclined to discourage in timid moments - this being one.  Wracked with guilt - nevertheless despite it - perhaps because of it - not to pay the price of guilt for nothing - she decided in a sudden inspiration - in the name of creative interference - to borrow a book! - any book - take it - she took - not the one being read - but another, without looking at it - take it and leave - No - put the notes straight - how were they? - Leave - and do what with the book? - Put it where? - How leave the house with it? - She put it back and hastily left the room.

Thursday, 8 December 2011


In the garden, Camilla joined Tom and Philip, hanging on to her brother's arm, whispering.  Tom was pleased when Philip pushed her gently off and she went away.  Radiantly beautiful women embarrassed Tom, and demonstrations that were not girlish but assuredly womanly embarrassed him fearfully.  Besides, that sort of thing with his sister...  Tom caught Constance's eye.  She was doing overmuch beaming and grimacing in Philip's vicinity perhaps.
         Philip looked affectionately at Tom and Tom could not help feeling flattered and pleased as well he might.  "What are you going to do?  Have you decided?"
         Tom looked back at his graceful cousin in his old civvies and laughed excitedly.  "I know exactly, exactly."
         "Not much exactness ever comes out in your letters;  it's mostly waffle."
         The present-stated degree of exactness of Tom's knowing had much to do with his eagerness to engage Philip's whole attention again.  Tom had felt a distance between them over the last year.  "Brought up on Molly Absecond's Thursday Meetings," here Tom thrust back his head housewards, "you'd expect me to know wouldn't you?  You can't mix up poetry and philanthropy and conversation and kindness and Fabianism and communism and uninformed abuse and letters to the newspapers as she does and call that politics."
         "Don't be too sure about it," Philip said mildly after a moment.  "In any case, everything's not as sure as it was.  Anyway, I'm not really talking about your politics.  I'm talking about your imminent call-up."
         "Oh that!  I'll stay out of it as long as I can, completely if I can.  Anyway, come what may, I finish my degree and go dead seriously into politics.  Labour Party centre.  I've told you.  History of the working-class movement in this country to be properly interpreted.  Get a proper language.  Much overdue."  But he was at a loss to fill up the silence.  "Don't you agree?"  Even that remark about language failed to rouse.  As Philip said nothing, Tom took the opportunity to kick the very old football up the garden, watching it soar and land dead.  "You know, make the Labour Party real for us, work like hell...  "
         Constance sighed with a frustrated desire to shine in some way;  explode perhaps.  Bleak House.
         "No, I'm talking about your imminent personal fate.  You're going to be called up.  You never talk about that in your letters."
         "You seem to have...  I don't know, changed your attitude about a lot of things," said Tom, running out of ready talk.  "I wish you wouldn't keep on saying imminent.  Used to be a pleasure to talk to you!"
         "Are you going to be as much of a man as your father?" Philip teased.  Like Frances, Tom sometimes did not notice teasing.
         "My father?  Holy cows!  How does he come into it?"  Philip seemed to allow a lot of time for Tom to answer the question for himself - which Tom failed to do.  "What do you mean?" he asked piteously.
         "How are you going to find out anything about yourself?  Or your father?  By graduating and marrying Frances at twenty-one and going into politics?  Or what?"
         Constance flushed.  Now that was interesting.  Philip had noticed Tom had he?
         "I shan't be marrying anyone at the age of twenty-one I promise you.  And my warrior instincts are well in hand.  We don't all have to arrive at maturity through primitive heroism and killing.  Buzz off, Con.  Fran's too good for either of us."
         "That's something else you're quite sure about is it?  What war is?  What maturity is?"
         "You don't have to learn?  Luckily some of us are born mature with mature opinions on who should be fighting whom in Korea and everywhere else no doubt, as long as it's not you apparently, as you were telling your father the other night."  Oh good!  He remembered something from the other night.  "Some of us are born to be leaders of opinion?  Fine."
         You had to hand it to Tom that he remained cool and was able at this point to display genuine political subject-turning talent.    "You've got an old idea of war from the British Army," he said largely.   "Take Korea.  All you need these days is plenty of modern equipment and more firepower than they've got.  When the Americans really get started in there, they'll reduce the whole thing to law and order in no time.  Nothing to it.  As a matter of fact, I don't think I can possibly go into the Army.  Nothing to do with bravery.  I'd die of the tedium."
         "You've got a funny idea of war...  And who mentioned bravery?" Philip laughed.  "And who are you, not to die of tedium?  Better men than you have had much worse stretches of wilderness opened to them for their exploration, beyond anything you could imagine.  They learn to possess their own souls.  You have to be tough, of course."
         Tom was astonished.  "Well, bloody hell.  You have changed your mind about a lot of things.  And your vocabulary!  You're like the rest.  The Army will do me good, make a man of me, widen my outlook.  I know!  Those who can read are allowed to talk to those who can't.  Teach them the rule book.  Two solid years of time-wasting boredom and barbarism...  ."
         "Extraordinary ...   about barbarians," Philip said.  "There might not be any barbarians except for your snotty way of looking at things.  Your closed door.  I should have thought a couple of years in the democratic army would have fitted in well with your socialist principles.  Or don't other people, and variety, interest you?"
         "You don't fool me, Phil.  You've got the weight of the old traditional family skeletons.  Indian Civil Service.  Army.  Brigadier Barny Harisonn, VC.  Oh, I admire it," Tom said, fairly circumspectly, having in common with Philip another soldier grandparent on the Kellory side, "but it's over.  Honour, patriotism, colonial tradition.  Springs of glorious action they were, not springs of thought.  India's only a start Phil.  The Empire's going to come down round your ears.  And with it, the Army as we know it.  You must try to keep up with the new times as best you can."
         But it was Tom who seemed old-fashioned, so tremendously full of certainty, and closed-up;  and Philip who seemed, despite his desire to stay in the Army, modern, curious, tentative and uncertain.  Constance seemed to recognise Philip's uncertainty as not unlike her own.  It was that particular kind of uncertainty, she reassured herself, which came from recognising more about life, not less, than Tom did.
         The birds sang in the trees and in the silence there was no other sound and it was at this point that Tom first realised the obvious disconnection between his view that a war had to be fought in Korea for democracy and his own disinclination even to go into the Army.  (So far as Constance had taken pains to gather it seemed that despite their comfortable agreement on so much else, on Korea, Frances was with Aunt Molly for the North, communists;  while Tom, on balance was with his father for the South, democrats.  She kept trying to remember that.)
         "Look here," Tom said belligerently, "my believing in force in Korea and being bored by the Army is no contradiction.  There's the importance of political thought and political thinkers you don't pay attention to...  "
         "Ah!  I hoped you might get round to it.  Well then, the freedom of a country's thinkers depends on its armed services, on its being able to defend itself and its thinkers, that's you I suppose, when attacked.  I don't think that will change much in the near future.  You evidently consider your ideas are being attacked, at least?"
         Constance wondered how she would ever again be able to interest him.
         "You have to serve your time, so what are you going in for?  That's all I'm asking.  I'm trying to help."
         "It's all one to me.  You'll be back at Oxford.  Nothing for you to worry about."
         "I?  But you know I'm not going back."
         "Ah, but you're not serious.  What about your thesis?  Not going back at all?"
         "Probably not, unless they take me, or somebody will, as an old man!"
         "National Service rotted your brain, or something?  I don't believe it.  I thought you were supposed to be ambitious."
         "Oh, I'm ambitious!  My ambitions have changed.  I've started the first part of my new education where I hope to go on with it."
         "You must be out of your mind."
         "No.  I'm somewhere near speaking the truth."
         "Education!  Army!  You've just got a taste for bloody paradoxes, that's all.  Oh, it's well-known.  Frances always says that.  Have you actually signed on?"
         "It's in hand."
         "Are you bent on getting to this er..?"
         "Korea?  Not so easy.  Meanwhile I've been offered a job as Instructor at a battle school."
         "Oh fine, fine!  Marvellous news I must say.  Go on then.  Go!  And more fool you."


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.

Saturday, 24 September 2011


Up early, carefully dressed for school the next morning, a fragile, restrained breakfast (as befitted one's new status as a potential Tower), Constance, her mind as clear as the blue sky, just breathed the summer air on the way to school, smiling at strange old ladies, toddlers, policeman, practising road courtesy, so that when, two or three times, it came, during the day, to the homework question, a certain set of contradictions took up her mind.

The desire to, as it were, confirm the teachers in their life's work, to be that star pupil with whom they shared gladly their life's involvement with the subject taught, came into conflict with the necessity (in fulfilling the confirmation) to tell a number of lies about the failure to produce any homework. There was something here in this particular department of failure and bad faith, that Constance occasionally felt very bad indeed about, and because of that she did not normally persist in investigating it, in case she caused herself pain. Today, the lies did not feel good at all, did not cohere with the radiance of her feelings, the experience she had had of Philip, in fact. She felt unusually apologetic and ashamed of herself.

Rather surprisingly, the results of having gone too far with Philip - quite unlike the fantasies inspired by wanting to go too far with Matthew - were won entirely to the cause of virtue. (This always was to be the case. Constance wanted to be of good character for Philip, Matthew she just wanted.) Homework dedicated entirely to Philip Harisonn - at some cost to syntax and mathematical calculation - took place during the following days. Describe as accurately as possible the causes of the Asiatic monsoons. Darling Philip, when I think of your early childhood in India. India. (Your ghastly sister.) Ah, the onset of those delicious south-west winds at the beginning of June, the imprisoned heat of the land, the inthrust of sea air into the hot interior, the formation of the great ascending air-currents. Why is Carbon Unique? Dearest Philip, if I am to speak of covalent bonds and stable linkages, my thoughts inevitably, I will be graphite to your diamond. Describe in 500 words The Rout of San Romano, by Paolo Uccello. I cannot make up my mind whether I should want you to be on those magnificent chargers, thrusting your spear about, right and sinister, in front of the picture, or whether I should prefer you to be lying with me tucked away in that quiet empty field on the left under the hedge, under the sun. I say you should be with me. The picture says, No. You must have a front place, you must be a principal character. `The motion picture art of Charlie Chaplin will inevitably make a Japanese laugh as heartily as a Dane'. Is this true? Discuss. As my friend Lieutenant Philip Harisonn has often said, the Chinese sense of humour is very different from ours. There is no tradition of Socratic thought in Chinese history...

It was all good health, great efficiency, the longing for some virtuous but inarticulable consequence from having gone far too far. Desk-clearing, room-cleaning, book-checking, joyous song broke out. One joyous verse of song jazzed up a bit. "To-mo-row shall be my-y-y dancing day. I would my tru-ue lo-ove did so chance to-oo see the legend of my-y play, to-o call my true lo-ove to my-y da-ance. Si-ing O my love, O my love, my love, my love..."

This annoyed Frances. That kind of thing was bad enough at Christmas, and repetition upon repetition got her serial-time thoughts badly tangled.

As Constance explained, it was not she, the sympathetic complaint-receiver, who was making this disturbance, but an independent spirit, the song itself, perhaps, who kept it up, kept itself up, perfecting itself; sometimes without her knowledge, or indeed her permission. Frances's head and temper got worse. How, being the cause of what seemed a real nuisance and being contrite about that, one could still feel so virtuous and unremittingly full of song was a mystery, but the song went on through the delight of all the cleansing activities, frequent baths, manicures and the care of blouses.

Her somewhat advanced though frequently short-stopping plans to seduce Philip when next he should appear or she appear unto him, were firmly based on the image of his preliminary phone-call - where, that is, he had not time to write; although there was a chance he might have time, three days, well two days, but that chance not, as it were, being taken up by him, did not seriously undermine the firmness of the expectations that without delay, let him only set foot in London, the telephone would ring; a plan to meet would evolve - a little vague at the moment as to detail in the expectant imagination, not for a lack but rather a plethora, a superabundance of detail, which made it difficult to know where in time to allocate, to expect, what delicious and virile development of the passions. There would be, would there perhaps? that invitation to supper declined by Frances?
In the event, the call came from Philip's step-mother. They were invited, everyone, to Loverdale House to say goodbye to her and Philip's father before they left London to go to New York and the United Nations.

"You sure they said Loverdale?"

"Where else do you expect them to be?"

"I don't know. I hate that place. I don't know why. I just do. Philip won't be there, I don't suppose?"

"He'll be there all right. I've spoken to him on the telephone," Frances said.

So much for the letter from Philip followed by a phonecall. Constance had not, either, envisaged a crowd scene. She and Philip would have to manage as best they could. Obviously, he had to clear things up with Frances first. But after that.

Barny, the hungry cat had returned again, its third visit. Because she liked cats, man to man without loving them, and would have liked to have a cat, but mainly because it was, to her, Constance, Philip's cat, she had been surreptitiously feeding it with scraps under the hedge at the side of the front garden. Frances who claimed to hate the `vicious brutes' had noticed Barny first this evening, from the top window, and leaving her work, actually leaving her work to do so, had rushed down the house like thunderbolts pursued by lightning, and chased him away with curses.

Constance went out later to find him, but failed.