Authors: Mary Wesley
EBE,’ THE OLD MAN
‘Take these letters to the post for me.’ He had sat in his room writing his letters as if nothing untoward was happening, filling in time usefully while waiting for the arrival of his elder granddaughters and their husbands. With a flip of his hand he indicated the pile of letters. Hebe took them. He did not look up.
‘Close the door.’
All her life he had said, ‘Close the door,’ driven mad by people who left doors open.
Picking up the letters Hebe viewed his profile, the profile worn by various ancestors hanging in the hall, the dining-room and up the stairs. She wondered whether he would be surprised if she said ‘I love you, I am sorry for you, I understand how you feel, could you try just once to understand me?’ Or, she thought, gripping the letters between nervous fingers, I could just hit him, hit him as hard as I can. She left the room, closing the door. Her grandmother, resting on the sofa in the drawing-room with the door open so that she could see what was going on, heard the door close, did not look up.
Hebe ran down the steps into the garden, turned left across the grass burned khaki by the hot summer, walked away from the pink brick house with its kindly windows to the orchard where she would be out of sight. Here she took off her shoes to walk barefoot, pushed her hair back behind her ears and followed the path which led to the churchyard and beyond the church to the post box set in the wall.
In the churchyard she stopped to watch Tortoiseshell butterflies clustering on moon daisies growing in the uncut grass and sunning themselves on headstones. Some headstones lurched sideways. ‘Your parents would turn in their graves,’ her grandfather had said several times. He had a habit of repeating himself. Had the people under those stones turned in their graves because they, too, had a troublesome female relation? Troublesome was a mild term compared with whore, liar, disgrace, slut. Hebe stared at the headstones. She felt numb, exhausted by the row which had raged off and on ever since she had come back from the doctor and broken the news which had led to the long interrogation, the painful remarks, the accusations. Hebe wriggled her toes, drew her long hair forward to screen her face. Here in the churchyard, if one sat long enough, it was sometimes possible to see a hedgehog and quite often toads. In her misery Hebe picked off the heads of daisies, stuck them between her toes and viewed the effect. It gave no comfort. Peering through her glasses at an inscription beside her she traced with her finger, ‘Died in the course of duty’. The poor sod, she thought, making use of one of her brothers-in-law’s expressions. She took the daisies from her toes and laid them on the grave. So much for duty. She heaved herself up and began a circuitous return to the house through the stable yard. From the only occupied loose box her grandfather’s brood mare whickered. Hebe went to stroke the soft nose, sniff the animal’s sweet breath. She blew into the horse’s nostrils. ‘How are you, then?’ The horse fidgeted, kicking out with a hind leg. In the corner of the box a goat eyed her with its strange split eyes.
‘She’ll get used to it. Company for her.’ The odd job man came up beside her, carrying a pail of fresh water.
‘What happened to her foal?’
‘It was a little mule. Your grandfather wasn’t pleased.’
‘How did it happen?’
‘Ran off, didn’t she, broke through the fence. Met one of they Forest donkeys, I’d say.’ He laughed, putting the pail into the corner of the box. The mare laid her ears back. ‘Now then,’ he said, coming smartly out of the box and bolting the door. ‘She’ll soon forget.’ Hebe watched him walk away, loathing him. ‘Here,’ she said to the goat, ‘post these.’ The goat snatched at the letters and started to munch. ‘So he murdered your foal,’ Hebe said to the horse. ‘He’s arranging an abortion for me.’
From the drive Hebe heard the sound of cars. Her brothers-in-law would be arriving, Robert, Delian, Marcus, married to her sisters Ann, Beata, Cara, driving their Jaguar, Range Rover (must buy British) and Alfa Romeo (all right to have a foreign car if you worked in Brussels). Hebe left the stable yard and slipped back into the house to position herself in the hall, to listen to her elders’ and betters’ discussion, a formality to ratify a conclusion already reached. Drawing her skirt about her knees she sat on the stairs. All her relations articulated clearly—it had never been necessary to tell them not to mumble—and since both grandparents were slightly deaf they made a point of speaking up.
They were having a drink. She heard the clink of glasses, shuffle of feet, the chair creak as her grandfather sat. ‘Well, then.’
Her grandfather’s old dog came in from the porch where he had lain all afternoon, crossed the hall and scratched at the drawing-room door. ‘Let the dog in.’ The door was opened and the dog went in. Grandfather waited until the door closed and repeated, ‘Well, then,’ and Robert, married to the eldest granddaughter, started the proceedings.
Firstly the family name must be protected, he observed. He suggested a private clinic. Though expensive, the cost was an investment as the matter would be dealt with immediately, no messing about.
Secondly, though of course of less importance, the sooner they acted the less chance, Robert cleared his throat, of his constituency getting wind or Marcus Bank (boards of directors were conventional people). Hebe heard Delian chip in. ‘Shouldn’t we consider other ways?’ His tenor voice was hesitant. ‘This situation does occur in families, in the arts, even in politics.’
‘We’ve been into that, Delian. If we knew the man, if he were, as it were, all right, we could get a settlement. As it is, we haven’t a clue. There is no hope of her getting support. Letting the situation go on as it is is simply not on.’
‘It’s obvious it was some sort of hippy, most probably black. That is why she will not tell us who the man is.’ Hebe had heard variations of this theme for days.
‘Most families have skeletons.’ Delian tried again. There was a teasing note in his voice. ‘I mean look at the Bible, look at poor old Joseph.’
‘He knew who it was!’ cried Cara, interrupting.
‘Delian, keep blasphemy out of this.’ Grandfather was crushing. ‘Please keep to the point. This is no time for bad taste jokes.’
Suddenly, like a pack of hounds finding a fresh scent, the decibels rose. Ann’s voice soared above the others. ‘We have to think of our children, Delian. I don’t want some funny sort of cousin for mine, I am sure Cara doesn’t and your wife Beata is having her first baby at any moment. You must consider her.’
Hebe felt a wild desire to laugh. She took off her spectacles and polished them with the hem of her dress. ‘And who,’ continued Ann, ‘who on earth would want to marry Hebe, if she’s burdened with this multicoloured child? We really must think what is best for her. We are not selfish, uncaring people. Let Robert decide what is best for the family, best for Hebe.’
For a few minutes the assembled relatives voiced their views. Hebe heard yelped half-sentences containing the words careless, selfish, liar, not too late, soon be over, forgotten in no time. Then Robert quelled the chorus, shouting them down, using the knack learned to quell hecklers at political meetings. ‘Let’s stop nattering, shall we? I shall ring Doctor Armitage now. I must get back to London tonight. I am flying to New York tomorrow.’ The ration of time he was prepared to give was up. The voices stilled. Hebe heard him use the telephone, make the arrangements. A room in the clinic. Operation in the afternoon. Home next day. Splendid.
Listening to Robert’s civilised voice buying freedom from embarrassment, eliminating a social nuisance, she thought, I love those people, they are my family, they are not casting me out, they are just making sure I fit into their scheme of things. A puff of wind blew in through the open door. The sky was lurid, long-hoped-for rain on the way. It was growing dark and chilly. On the other side of the door she heard Robert again.
‘That’s settled, then. Can you drive her up in the morning, Delian?’
‘Good, good.’ Robert’s dry hands rustled as he rubbed them together. ‘Right then, we should be off. Ready, Ann?’
‘Time for one more drink?’ Her grandmother’s voice.
She is afraid of being left alone with me, thought Hebe, but she has not lifted a finger to help me.
‘No, no thank you, we should be on our way.’
Hebe raced up the stairs, forcing leaden legs to work, reached her room above the porch and shut the door. They would not come near her tonight, they thought she would have gone to bed. Shivering with anguish she pulled on a cardigan, changed her shoes, took from the dressing-table drawer her mother’s pearls and rings—Ann, Beata and Cara had the best pieces—stuffed them in her bag, counted her money, seventeen pounds, turned off the light, stood listening by the open window. Rain was beginning to tap on the Virginia creeper. Below, the front door opened, light blazed into the drive. Cheerful voices bidding a goodnight chorus. ‘Goodbye, then, goodbye,’ ‘Glad that’s settled.’ ‘Very grateful.’ ‘Not at all.’ ‘See you soon.’ ‘Drive carefully.’ ‘Lovely night.’ ‘If you call rain lovely.’ ‘We need it for the crops.’ ‘Goodnight, goodnight, God bless.’
She watched Robert and Ann kiss the grandparents, get into the Jaguar, drive away.
Next, Marcus with Cara climbed into the Range Rover, then Delian alone in the Alfa Romeo.
‘Give our love to Beata,’ they called. Beata, being pregnant, had not attended the conference; she might have been upset; must not risk a miscarriage.
The cars, their headlights probing through the summer rain, streaked down the drive to the main road.
‘Time for bed.’ Grandfather turned to go in. ‘It’s been a tiring week.’
Had the nightmare only lasted a
‘That such a thing should happen to us!’
‘Good chap, Robert. Head screwed on. He’ll go far, mark my words.’
Hebe waited while her grandfather let the dog out for his run, standing in the porch calling to him in tender accents not used for any other creature. The front door slammed. The kitchen door closed on the dog as he went to his basket. Stairs creaked as the old man climbed up to bed, switching off lights as he went. The long-case clock in the hall struck eleven.
‘It’s late.’ Grandfather’s bedroom door closed. The house grew quiet. Hebe waited.
She felt infinitely tired, sleep an overwhelming temptation. Would a couple of hours matter? But if she failed to wake? The child in her womb kicked out for a swim. She crept down the stairs, felt among the coats slung across the hall table, found her coat, went into the kitchen. The dog in his basket wagged his tail. She bent to stroke his head, feeling the silky ears. The dog mumbled and chop-chopped his jaws. ‘Bye, Smut.’
Out in the rain she hesitated. Above the porch her grandfather threw up the sash window.
‘Splendid downpour. Just in time to stop those silly buggers on the Water Board banning the use of garden hoses.’
Her grandmother answered something inaudible.
‘Astute fellow, Robert. Settled that hash in no time. Can’t think why the little fool couldn’t be like her sisters—’