Authors: H.E. Bates
By the time she had finished it was half-past eight. Very shortly Albert would come. She went upstairs to change her dress and, coming to the head of the stairs, looked out of the window across the park. She could see no sign of Albert, but as she lowered her eyes she noticed something else. The grapes were ripening on the wall of the house. Surprised, she leaned out of the window and broke a single grape from a dark pink bunch. It was sweet and warm as it broke on her lips. The discovery that the grapes were eatable astonished her so much that she ran up to her bedroom and fetched a pair of scissors and cut two of the largest bunches she could reach from the window.
Then she put the grapes in a dish on the supper-table and waited for Albert to come. She thought of the boarding-house. In a good summer, the old proprietress said, you would get as many as thirty people in at a time. You had them sleeping on couches and in the bathroom. Your takings were a hundred a week. There were people who came back year after year. Families came, children grew up, and in time came with their families. The house had been built up by thirty years of recommendations.
It was a rosy picture, and she sat thinking of it for a long time. She sat thinking of it until the grapes lying on their leaves grew colourless in the twilight, until she fancied she could smell the odour of sea-wet sand, of drying bathing costumes, of fried plaice cooking on sparkling summer mornings.
Thinking, she did not bother to put on the light. It was easier to think in the dark; but gradually her fear of time, increasing in turn her fear about Albert, began to come back. About her the great house became in the summer darkness a huge empty shell in which she cheated herself there was an echo of footsteps. Finally she switched on the light.
It was ten o'clock. She was afraid; but the light and a sudden realization of how late it was gave her an idea. She found the telephone directory, looked up the number of the house where Albert worked in the evenings, and dialled the number from the kitchen extension. A man's voice answered her.
âIs that Mr. Hardy?' she said.
âYes, Mr. Hardy, yes. Who is it?'
âThis is Mrs. Ashton,' she said.
âMrs. Ashton. Has my husband left? Is he still working?'
âWho? Has who left? Who?'
âAlbert Ashton. My husband. I want to know if he's gone home.'
âWho are you?' the voice said.
âI'm Mrs. Ashton,' she said. âMy husband works for you sometimes, doesn't he?'
âI can't hear very well. I'm not clear who you mean. Who?'
âAshton. Albert Ashton,' she said. âMy husband. Doesn't he work for you sometimes?'
The voice seemed suddenly to understand. âWork here? Ashton,' it said. âNo. No one of that name works here.'
She could not speak.
âI'm afraid you've made a mistake,' the voice said.
The following afternoon, because it was Friday, she walked to the village, across the park. Beyond the iron gates, in the avenue of chestnuts that ran along that side of the park, a girl in a pink linen frock was walking up and down. Mrs. Ashton, thinking that she was late, that she had little time to spare, hurried past.
An hour later, when she came back, the girl was still there, but now she had stopped walking up and down. She was standing by the gates, looking across the park. She turned suddenly as Ellen Ashton approached and without warning began to ask if she knew where Albert was. Suddenly Ellen remembered the shoeless feet on the stairs, the tray laid for two people, the bunches of crimson rhododendrons.
She did not speak. She stood in a dazed way listening to the voice of the girl, rising slightly now with agitation. Ellen Ashton listened while staring at the grey dry dust at her feet. When at last she looked up the girl was crying; she did not know what to say and made no movement to stop her. âHe promised, he promised. He keeps promising!' the girl said.
Promising? The word seemed to wake Ellen Ashton up. She felt her head rock in the hot sunlight. She thought of her mother, the dying words that reflected the stupid devotion that could see no wrong in Albert. She remembered the sound of feet. She remembered the years of lying and cheating and lying in bed in the mornings after the wild nights. She recalled the boarding-house with steps as white as the icing on the birthday cake, and realized suddenly that there would be no boarding-house. There would be no guests, no painted umbrella stand, no brass to polish on summer mornings; there would be no future.
She began to walk away in a mood of trembling anger and bewilderment. She walked a few steps and then turned back. âWhat's your name?' she said. âIn case I see him.'
âJoyce,' the girl said. âHe'll know.'
âAre you going somewhere now?'
âNo,' the girl said. âNo. I've nowhere to go. I'm just waiting.'
âWhy don't you walk round to the gate by the spinney?' Mrs. Ashton said. âHe always comes in that way. And if he's at home that's the way he'll go out.'
She walked rapidly away across the park, not speaking again and only once looking back, to see that the girl had gone. She felt the heat of the afternoon alternately oppress and blacken her brain. By the time she reached the house she saw objects begin to swim before her eyes in the bright sunlight. She saw yuccas, now in cream flower, rock momentarily in their stone vases on the terrace below a swaying grape-vine.
As she went indoors the impact of sudden shade brought on a great pain in her head. She stopped thinking. The house was empty. The pain in her head brought her to a standstill, her power to see or recall things cut out. Then slowly she realized where she was, what was happening and what she was going to do.
After some minutes she found Albert's gun in the cloakroom. She had seen him load it once or twice, and now she broke it and put one cartridge in the gun and another in the pocket of her costume. She had never before fired a gun in her life and she carried it awkwardly, barrel upward, in a dream.
As she crossed the park in the direction of the spinney the sun struck the back of her head. It seemed to obliterate for a moment or two, like the pain, her power to see or feel or remember. Then quite suddenly she felt the restoration of all the obliterated part of herself. She could see quite clearly. She remembered the boarding-house, and why, now, all that part of her life was dead. She became aware, as it were for the first time, of the beauty of the park.
As she walked down the parched slope of grass towards the spinney she was aware that the year was already turning. Stains of sepia and yellow showed in sombre columns of elm, and here and there rings of brittle leaves had fallen on parched grass. Pale green husks were shining on chestnut trees, and on the edges of the spinney hawthorn trees were a warm claret in the sun.
She stood at the gate of the spinney and looked down the path, under the almost unbroken shadow of closely-planted trees. A hundred yards away the girl's dress looked less like a target than a fragment of pink sunlight. Ellen Ashton looked at her for a moment quite calmly, feeling that she knew quite well and quite clearly why she was going to shoot her. She stood for a few seconds very still, thinking with strange clarity, as if she were lightheaded. She thought again of the boarding-house; of the white steps, the brasses, the smell of fried plaice, how she would enjoy racing against time in the warm sea-laden days in a house of her own.
She lifted the gun to her shoulder. There were many questions people would ask. Yet they were nothing to the questions she had asked herself and as she looked for a single second down the barrel of the gun she wondered who would answer them now.
As she stood there the girl in the spinney seemed to wipe her face with her hands and then walk slowly away.
Ten seconds later Ellen Ashton began to walk away herself. She walked quickly across the parched grass, head down, as if she had forgotten something. It was as if she were suddenly being driven by her fear of time; as if she had remembered that there were steps to be scrubbed, silver to be cleaned, the dust of days to be rubbed away.
No one would ask questions now; there would be nothing to talk about. She lifted her face for a second to the great empty unwanted house across the park. Somehow or other they must try to work things out. Tears began to fall slowly and heavily down her cheeks. Somehow or other she would go on forgiving the worst and hoping, in a muddled way, for the best that could be.
My uncle silas had a little mare named Jenny, warm, brown and smooth-coated, with a cream arrow on her forehead and flecks of cream on three of her feet. She was a very knowing, friendly creature, and took sugar off the top of your head. âGoo anywhere and do anything,' my Uncle Silas would say. âOnly got to give her the word. Goo bed wi' me.'
âUpstairs?' I said.
âUpstairs, downstairs,' my Uncle Silas said. âAnywhere. Where you like. I recollectââ'
âStart some more tales,' my grandmother would say. âGo on. Stuff the child's head with rubbish. Keep on. Some day he'll know the difference between the truth and what he hears from you.'
âIs the truth,' Silas said. âShe came to bed with me arter the 1897 Jubilee. Over at Kimbolton. I oughta know. There was me and Tig Flawn and Queenie Whiteââ'
âThat's been a minute,' my grandmother said. She was very small and tart and dry and disbelieving. âHow old's Jenny now? Forty?'
âWell, she's gittin' on,' Silas said. âI recollect that day Queenie had a big hat on. We got the hat off her and put it on Jenny and she come up to bed with me just like a lamb.'
âWho was Queenie White?' I said. âDid she come to bed too?'
âI'm only tellin' on you about the horse,' my Uncle Silas said. âQueenie was afore your time.'
âPity she wasn't before yours,' my grandmother said.
âAh, but she wasn't. Course,' he said to me, âI could tell you a lot about her. Only you wanted to know about the horse. Well, she came to bed wi' meââ'
âDid she?' my grandmother said. âWell, I warn you here and now she'll never come to bed in no house of mine.'
Some time later my Uncle Silas came down to Nenweald Fair, on the second Sunday in August, about the time the corn was cut and the first dewberries were ripe for gathering, with Jenny in a little black trap with yellow wheels and a spray of ash-leaves on her head to keep the flies away. There was always a wonderful dinner for Nenweald Fair and Silas always kept it waiting. There was always roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce and chicken to choose from, and little kidney beans and new potatoes with butter, and yellow plum pie and cream with sugar on the pastry. There were jugs of beer on the sideboard by the clock with the picture of Philadelphia. The batter of the Yorkshire pudding was as buttery and as soft as custard and all over the house there was a wonderful smell of beef burnt at the edges by fire.
But my Uncle Silas was always late and my grandfather, an indulgent, mild-mannered man unaccustomed to revelry and things of that sort, was always full of excuses for him.
âVery like busted a belly-band coming down Longleys Hill or summat,' he would say.
âStart carving,' my grandmother would say. âI'm having no dinner of mine spoilt for Silas or anybody else.'
âHold hard a minute. Give him a chance.'
âThe meat's on the table,' she would say, âand if he's not here that's his lookout,' and she would plant the meat before my grandfather and it would sizzle in its gravy.
It was my Uncle Silas's custom, and my grandmother knew it and knew it only too well, not only to arrive late for that dinner but never to arrive alone. He had a habit of arriving with strange men with names like Tig Flawn and Fiddler Bollard and Slob Johnson and Tupman Jarvis. That day he arrived, about two o'clock, when most of the meat had gone and the last of the yellow plums were cooling in the dish, with a man named Ponto Pack. I always wanted him to arrive with Queenie White and see what my grandmother thought of that, but he never did and I was always rather disappointed. Whenever he did arrive my grandmother always looked as if she could hit him over the head with the pastry-board or some other suitable instrument, and that day, when I looked out of the window and saw Silas and the man Ponto, like
some gigantic blond sow, falling out of the trap, I felt the carving knife would hardly have been too much.
âLet 'em all come!' my Uncle Silas roared and gave prodigious beery winks from a bloodshot eye that was like a fire in a field of poppies.
âYou're late,' my grandmother said. âGet your dinner and stop shouting as if you were in Yardley Open Fields.'
âGot hung up,' Silas said. âBelly-band broke.'
My grandmother gave my grandfather such a killing and merciless look that he went out at once to give Jenny a rub down and a drink of water, and Ponto made strange strangled noises with whole potatoes, and said for the first of several hundred times:
âOnaccountable. Most onaccountable.'
He was so large a man, bulging flesh as tight as bladdered lard into his suit of green-faded Sunday black, that when the rest of us had left the table it still seemed full. His eyes, pink-edged, beery, almost colourless, were uncannily like the eyes of a blond and farrowing sow. He had nothing to say all day but:
âOnaccountable, George,' or âOnaccountable, Silas. Most Onaccountable.'
In the afternoon it was very hot and everyone, including Silas, went to sleep in the front parlour or under the laurel trees, and I played giving Jenny lumps of sugar off the top of my head in the little paddock at the back of the house. I was giving her the seventh or eighth lump of sugar and wondering whether she ever did go to bed with my Uncle Silas or whether it was just another story, when my grandmother rapped on the window and said:
âCome you in out of that sun. You'll never stay awake tonight without you get some rest.'