Authors: Norman Collins
Frank and Vera
They were Tudor, pure Tudor, the whole double row of them. In the afternoon sun, which had just begun to flicker a little doubtfully as it was only May, they stretched, like a misplaced page in a history book, from the tennis courts at the corner down almost to the tram-stop. Indeed, to a stranger alighting at Boleyn Cornerâthe names were in period as wellâthe effect was almost magical. It was like an experiment in Time. In one direction, past the shining countenance of this,
civilisationâthe multiple stores, the cut-price tobacconists, the wireless shops, the Babylonian cinemas and the six-foot faces on the hoardingsârushed the traffic; and at right angles to it ran Boleyn Avenue with its black-and-white timbering, its leaded panes and its dormer windows. Even the little garages were Tudor, too.
After the long sleep of Sunday morning there had been a general re-awakening. Every householder in the place was doing something to his corner of England. Admittedly, the corners themselves were not largeâa twenty-five-foot frontage by an eighty-foot depth was about the size of most of them; but within those corners revolutions were occurring: rockeries were being raised, sundials erected, fish-ponds sunk. The common quality was the undefeatable optimism of it all. It was landscape gardening in a plot no bigger than a large drawing-room.
In one of these a man was standing, not working. He was leaning up against the wooden fence that enclosed the whole garden like a loose-box, lighting a cigarette. When he had lit it, he tossed the match irritably awayâthe ground around him was littered with dead matches and the stubs of cigarettesâand stared at the patch he had been digging. It looked an extraordinarily small patch. Indeed, it seemed remarkable that a grown man could have sweated so hard and have achieved so little. The fault, he told himself, lay in the spade; if only he had spent a little more on it, the garden would have been half-finished by now. As it was, he saw an endless succession of navvying week-ends in front of him; he couldn't look forward to a single peaceful Sunday until that jobbed-off piece of wasteland had been cultivated.
He dislodged the spade from the sticky socket of clay that was holding it and inspected it closely.
“Damn thing hasn't got any edge,” he said. “I'm just wasting my time doing this.”
He straightened his back and ran his hand over his hair. In his yellow pullover and pale flannel trousers, he looked out of place for the work he had been doing. Even his shoesâthey were thin, fashionable brown onesâwere all wrong for gardening. The spade cut into them every time he leant on it; and his socks, which had once been smart with an air of the West End about them were ruined already.
“It's a mug's game,” he said at last. “Can't think why I started it.”
He turned and walked up the garden. The house looked pleasant and inviting enough as he approached it. The contractor had eased up a little on antiquity by
the time he had got round to the back, and the garden face was simply a plain rough-cast wall with four square windows in it. It might have been the rear aspect of a dolls' house. Only the black and branching drain-pipes down the side served to remind that it was human beings and not dolls who lived in it. Yet it was something to be proud of. In an old and dirty world it was still clean. It was a gleaming seven-hundred-and-fifty pound citadel against the seamy side. And simply by living in it for sufficiently longâeighteen years the Building Society made itâit would miraculously become his.
But it was the prospect of those eighteen years that frightened him. He had seen other men flatten out under the strain of it; and he didn't mean to become like the rest of them. There seemed to be no sense in being alive at all if you arrived at fifty with only a sedate and uneventful past to look back on.
Not that it had always been uneventful. Before his marriage he had been one of the freest men he knew. In those days he had only to get out of his little yellow sports carâto have the world at his feet.
He still had the car, but it was now in the garage mostly; and the girls whom he had once known waited in vain for him to telephone them.
In a sense, he no longer minded. They had all been so much alike, those girls; so ready to go out with him when he asked them, and so ready to go out with anyone else who asked them the next night. He wasn't sorry that he probably wouldn't see any of them again: he'd even forgotten the names of most of them.
The only one whom he hadn't forgotten was Celia; and he could hardly have been expected to forget her. If things had worked out only a little differently it might
have been Celia and not Alice that he would have married. But as it was, their two lives had converged and run parallel at just the wrong moments. When he had first met her, a tall, fascinating stranger in a fur coatâshe was a mannequin and dressed the part even at week-endsâshe had been Rex's young woman; and by the time Rex had thrown her over and married a fair, plain girl from the Midlands, Gerald himself had already become engaged to Alice. What made it so difficult for Celia was that she knew that Gerald didn't regret it.
It had been typical of her, he felt, that she had accepted the situation so gracefully. There had been no trying to get him away from Alice. Indeed, she had only referred to it once. That had been on a Sunday morning at The Spaniards. There were quite a lot of the bunch there that morning and for once he had gone along without Alice. Celia was sipping a gin-and-lime in the corner when he got there. He went over and sat by her and they held hands. She admitted, then, that she still loved him a bit. But she told him that the one thing she wanted was to see him happy. Then, when the rest turned up, she didn't move away but stayed by him. She even kept her leg pressed up against his to show that she really cared.
He couldn't help remembering those poignant few minutes. It was something sad and beautiful and uplifting. And Alice to this day didn't know that Celia had ever meant so much to him. It was his secret and Celia's; and it was going to remain so. For Alice's sake he had even given up seeing Celia altogether. After promising her that marriage wasn't going to come between him and his friends, he had dropped her, suddenly and completely.
Somehow he hadn't trusted himself with doing anything less.
When he got inside he found that Mr. Biddle, Alice's father, had arrived.
Mr. Biddle was a round, mildly prosperous-looking man. He wore a heavy suit of dark grey tweed and a striped Sunday tie that Gerald disliked. But it was the waistcoat that Gerald disliked more even than the tie. It was a fancy one; and fancy waistcoats, he was aware, mark a man down as much as his accent or the way he does his hair.
But Mr. Biddle was oblivious to such things. He was very fond of his waistcoat and wore it whenever he was going out. Across its middle there stretched a heavy gold watch chain from which hung a small anchor and sextant, the insignia of the Venerable Order of Mariners. He had brought his dog with him. An elderly, loutish animal, it lay, woolly and nondescript, on the floor at his feet.
Mr. Biddle got up when Gerald entered and held out a plump, clumsy hand.
“Been doing a bit of digging?” he asked.
Gerald nodded. He resented the question. It was at once patronising and mildly offensive. It was as though he had walked in and, going up to Mr. Biddle, had said: “Been doing a bit of sitting?”
But Mr. Biddle did not seem to notice any coldness.
“I've just been hearing about your gardening,” he continued. “Alice says you're coming on.” Every time he mentioned his daughter's name he did so very possessively; there was a note of the past proprietor in his voice. It was this sense of ownership, coupled with a
natural fullness of vowel, that made him refer to her as “Allus.”
Gerald went over and stood against the mantelpiece.
“Will you stop and have some tea?” he asked. It was a foolish questionâMr. Biddle always stopped and had teaâbut it gave him a certain pleasure to ask it. It reminded him that it was Sunday and that he was standing up in his own drawing-room being hospitable to Alice's father.
“Thanks,” said Mr. Biddle. “Don't mind if I do.”
“Where's Alice?” Gerald asked.
“She's just gone out to see if her little kettle's boiling,” Mr. Biddle replied.
He always spoke of domestic duties as if they were a kind of play. Long experience in the homeâhis own wife was dead and her unmarried sister now kept house for himâhad convinced him on no evidence at all, that women liked to be treated as rather foolish children. During all those lingering weeks of her last illness Mrs. Biddle had been awakened every morning by the inquiry, kindly and well meant: “Getting up to-day, dear?”
As soon as Mr. Biddle was seated again (it was Gerald's chair he always sat in) Gerald excused himself.
“Just going upstairs to change,” he said. “Can't sit about like this all the evening.”
“Carry on,” said Mr. Biddle in his most friendly fashion. “I'm one of the family.”
When he had changed, Gerald felt better. It was queer what a difference clothes made to a man. In his light checkâhe had bought it just before the wedding and it still had a gay, holiday air about itâhe felt twice the creature who had shuffled into the drawing-room,
his socks and trouser legs caked with mud. And glancing into the mirror he told himself that there was really nothing much wrong. Perhaps the hair was a shade thinner in front: but the high forehead suited him. It gave him an impressive, almost a commanding, appearance. And even if he were putting on weight a little, he could afford to do so; he had been almost too much in training at twenty. Altogether, he looked what he wasâan Englishman about to enter upon the prime of life. He went downstairs whistling, feeling superior to circumstances.
Alice had got the tea things together by then; they were ranged out on the trolley in front of Mr. Biddle. She herself was already pouring out the teaâit seemed that she did not like to keep her father waiting.
Gerald looked from one to the other. It never ceased to surprise him that the two of them should be so little alike. Alice was dark and slim. She looked delicate, even fragile. She had small, tapering hands and little, clear-cut features. In short, she had class. Beside the blunt, corpulent mass of her father, the effect was ridiculous.
Mr. Biddle was engaged in the one occupation that never failed to amuse himâfeeding the dog with lumps of sugar. He reached out for a further handful as Gerald came in.
“Daddy's saying we ought to have this grate seen to,” she greeted him. “We may have a fire if we don't.”
Mr. Biddle made a point of dropping that kind of remark. A builder, he referred to his trade with the craftsman pride in the mysteries. He spoke as though the whole secret of craftsmanship had been vested in him; as though, in a world in which skill and culture were dying, it had been left to him to hold the torch.
“I wouldn't let a grate go out of my place without a double thickness of firebrick,” he said slowly, “not if you were to bribe me.”
Gerald said nothing. He had heard Mr. Biddle's opinion of the house before. The fact that his daughter had moved into a house not of her father's building still rankled with him. It seemed to him not far, certainly not far enough, removed from suicide. Whereas he could have provided them with an unimpeachable red brick villa with a painted wood porch and a stained glass front door, they had deliberately chosen this timbered bag of tricks out of Wardour Street. He felt as humiliated as if they had elected to live in a caravan or up a tree.