O Caledonia (10 page)

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

During the next few months a dreadful thing happened. Knobby protrusions appeared on Janet's chest. They hurt. The boys noticed them through her jersey and liked to punch them. Then they hurt seriously. ‘Show us your tits, Janet,' became their new taunt. These bumps felt like the tender horn buds on calves' foreheads. If only they would produce horns, short, spiky stabbing ones. What a surprise that would be for the boys. She prayed for this without much hope. It was not to be. She went about with her arms permanently folded across her chest. Vera, exasperated by her new stooping posture, explained to her that there was nothing to be embarrassed about: ‘It's just part of growing up. A bosom is a beautiful and natural thing.'

Hector and Vera went away on a spring holiday, leaving Janet a small book to read. It was an account of more of the beautiful and natural things which lay in store for her. Janet was appalled. This meant that all the peculiar jokes the boys told – jokes she had thought were just part of the whole oddity of being male, like obsessions with war and Meccano and cars and tearing wings off insects – were based on truth. She had known how animals procreated of course. The feral cats coupled all over the washing green and she had often seen the dogs locked together, straining in a union which seemed painful and protracted; only buckets of water could separate them. But she had assumed that people were different, metaphysical. After all there had been the Angel Gabriel. No wonder God had driven Adam and Eve out of Paradise. What a disgrace. It was lucky that she had never had any intention of having babies; now she would certainly never marry either. She would live out her days at Auchnasaugh, a bookish spinster attended by cats and parrots, until that time when she might become ethereal, pure spirit untainted by the woes of flesh, a phantom drifting with the winds. What fun she would have as a ghost. She could hardly wait.

But then it was summer and a rare, most exquisite summer. The honeysuckle which drooped down the terrace wall scented the air all day and all evening, the azaleas lingered on and on, wood pigeons throbbed and cooed, and only the softest of breezes stirred the pines. Janet forgot her earthly doom and rose before light to ride bareback up the grassy tracks through the woods to the moors. She watched the sun rise over the far hills, the mist float in steamy filaments off the glen and the silent golden day bring glory to the sombre pines. She was the first person in the world; only she disturbed the dew. Riding back she saw secret wonders: three baby hedgehogs feasted on a rotten chestnut husk; a doe and her fawn moved across her path, unafraid, absorbed in their separate world. Once she came upon an avenue of
Phallus impudicus,
gleaming white and joyous in the fresh grass, an elfin priapic festival or a tribute to a fairy queen. She thought of True Thomas' faery queen, with her grass-green dress and the silver bells on her horse's mane; fifty silver bells and nine. She would be her for a while. When she reached the glen she galloped the length of the meadows by the burn, wild with glee, the pony wild too, until they skidded to a panting stop at the gate to the stable drive.

She stood on the terrace shaking the wet honeysuckle over her face, breathing its perfume, a creature momently compounded of dew and air and fragrance. There was still not a soul about. The great windows shone and flashed in the rising sun but the curtains hung black and motionless behind them. All this early morning belonged to her alone; she need share it with no one. She thought of Christmas and the thrilling parcels addressed to her which turned out to contain board games or jigsaws or boxes of crystallised fruits to be shared with her siblings. ‘Mine, mine, mine,' she said to herself. Twice only was her solitary triumph marred by the sight of Jim moving furtively about on the small lawn near Lila's room, apparently uprooting daisies. She pretended not to see him and when she turned again he had vanished.

The pleasures of the day continued. Lessons were conducted outside. They were reading
Macbeth
and it was clearly set at Auchnasaugh. Lying on the warm grass, Janet watched the house martins skim and hover about the battlements.

 

Where they most breed and haunt I have observed

The air is delicate

 

She was usually given the part of Lady Macbeth to read and this was deeply satisfying. There were also some lines of Macbeth's which she coveted, especially

 

The multitudinous seas incarnadine

Making the green one red

 

but these she swiftly learnt by heart. The dark night of the Macbeths' souls was the dark night of Auchnasaugh in winter. She felt that Shakespeare couldn't have liked babies either. Later they read
The Tempest
and Janet was Miranda. She imagined Lila as the witch Sycorax and Jim as Caliban, but Caliban was too robust and talkative. Hector could be Prospero and Auchnasaugh could be adapted to island form.

In the afternoons they took a great picnic into the hills, where there was a brimming deep brown pool and dam; the burn cascaded down a steep fall into a dark mossy ravine and wound its way past rocks towards the glen. High grassy banks and groves of pine surrounded the pool and beyond in all directions massed the hills; the shadows of clouds moved over them, their colours changed from minute to minute, now crowding near, now withdrawn and remote. This was Janet's favourite place on earth, the place where she wished to be buried.

She would ride up there and set the pony loose to graze the delicate forest grass. In a glade nearby she could change unseen and slip through the trees into the icy waters of the pool. When the shock had gone she swam lazily about, watching the sunlight probe the pebbles on the muddy floor, the trout flicker under the banks, listening to the boys splashing and shouting far on the other side. When she came out she would creep through the bushes to the place where the capercailzies had their nest and watch the astonishing huge green and black male bird stamping about his little clearing while his dim wife crouched in admiration. The cock was less impressive when he tried to fly, veering and tilting from side to side, brushing branches, narrowly missing tree-trunks. His wings droned as he went.

When the sun sank behind the hills they returned to Auchnasaugh down paths fringed with campion and foxgloves and fresh bracken. Once Janet came upon Lila in the midst of a thicket of wild raspberries. She was wearing her wide-brimmed straw hat with its faded wreath of flowers and her bare arms glimmered through the green gloom of the flickering leaves and the pendant fruits. When she saw Janet, she smiled her rare sweet smile and Janet knew that she too was happy and recognised for the first time that Lila had been beautiful, at this moment was beautiful. She felt deep shame at having imagined her as Sycorax. The scent of raspberries was poignant as the sound of pipe music, the scent of romance, of loss.

Late into the evening they lingered out on the terrace. So rare a summer must not be wasted. The boys vanished into the rhododendrons or down to the burn. Francis and Rhona went fishing, Janet sat on a rug reading Tennyson. They had given up trying to make her go and build a dam or play tennis. The grown-ups wandered back and forth with glasses in their hands. Even Lila was there, mothlike in her long old-fashioned white dress, with its flounces around the hem. The drawing-room windows were wide open and the plangent tones of the Papal Count drifted out into the tranced dusk. He was singing ‘The Last Rose of Summer'.

 

So soon may I follow, when friendships decay

And from Love's shining circle, the gems drop away

When true hearts lie withered...

 

Looking back on this summer in later years, Janet saw it as the happiest time of her life, its intensity deepened by an elegiac quality. For who knew if ever such a season would come again to that northern land, and for Janet it could not. In the autumn she was to go away, to a girls' boarding school.

 

*

 

In August the weather broke. Thunder rumbled through a leaden sky, sheets of rain obliterated the hills, the burn burst its banks and flooded the meadows. When the sun shone it shone weakly, the ground steamed and the air was dense with swarms of midges. Vera's friends the Dibdins came to stay. Hector was annoyed. ‘You know I can't be doing with them. They never stop talking, especially Melanie. Typical English.' Like Hector and Vera, the Dibdins had been blessed with several daughters and only one son. The youngest girl was about Janet's age, the others older. They had jolly English names – Jill, Raymond, Gail, Hilary – and they were very good at sports. ‘And not only are they good at sports,' said Vera, looking hard at Janet, ‘but they are also something more important. They are good sports.' Francis sided with Hector, ‘They needn't think I'm going to help entertain them. You'll have to do it, Janet. Anyhow Hilary will be a nice friend for you. After all she's going to be in your form at school. I bet they love Enid Blyton books.' Francis and Janet had only one bond these days: it was their scorn for Enid Blyton, and particularly for the Famous Five. They would stagger about convulsed with mirth, clutching each other, vying in quotations, ‘“On the rocks,” said Bill grimly', ‘“Food always tastes so much better out of doors,” said Dinah' and best of all, ‘Julian was pulling on his bathing drawers'. ‘What a pity Master Dibdin isn't called Julian,' mused Francis. ‘And do you know where they live? A place called Dymchurch. Can't
you just imagine it? Thatched cottages and crematorium-style rose beds, I bet. And what a surname. The Dibdins of Dymchurch.
Mon Dieu
!”

While Janet agreed that the Dibdins had a ridiculous surname she had nothing against the English
per se.
After all, most of her favourite poets were English. And she thought that she might like people who talked a lot. No one talked much at Auchnasaugh, except about dogs, cats and cars. She often felt that they all led such separate lives that any one of them could have been a murderer or a god come down to earth and not one of the others would have known. Besides, it would be interesting to meet some girls; she didn't know any, apart from her sisters, who didn't count. She had secretly started reading girls' school stories, including (too shameful to admit to anyone)
In the Fifth at Malory Towers
and
Summer Term at St Clare's,
and she had hopes of being the madcap of the Fourth, or at least of having a friend or two. No one there would call her ‘Sissy', or lie in wait for her in dusky corners, intent on rape or at any rate carnal knowledge. Janet had dealt with this new hazard in her life: she had perfected a technique of simultaneously seizing the assailant's hair, walloping him on the nose and kneeing him between the legs. Her virtue had remained intact.

The Dibdins duly arrived. Francis and Rhona vanished up a tree. The grown-ups and Jill drank sherry in the drawing room, while Janet was left to show Raymond, Gail and Hilary around. It had stopped raining, so they braved the midges and she took them to the Heracleum grove. ‘This is
Heracleum giganteum
,' she said proudly. ‘But I call them the Lords of Luna. You mustn't touch them, they are poisonous.' There was an uneasy silence. They all stared at her with their identical frank blue eyes. Then Raymond laughed. ‘It's giant hogweed, isn't it? My word, your father ought to get rid of them. They spread like nobody's business. They're a really pernicious weed.' Janet began to hate him. ‘Let's have a look at the tennis court,' suggested cheerful Hilary, pushing her smooth blonde
hair off her smooth pale brow.
‘
There
'
s enough of us here to have some really good doubles tournaments.
'
Oh God, thought Janet, I should have known. It hadn
'
t occurred to her that they would wish to be sporty even in this rain-sodden weather. Besides, the tennis court at Auchnasaugh was a parody of a tennis court. Its aged surface was pitted and cracked and willow herb and nettles grew out of the cracks. The net sagged and had holes in it. When you hit a ball out, as most people did most of the time, it sped off for ever into the encroaching jungle of rhododendrons. It was the worst place for midges and Janet had rarely played more than a couple of games before she was forced to withdraw by a hideously swelling eyelid. Again there was a silence as they looked at it. Again there was a spurt of boyish laughter.
‘
Well, it will certainly give a new meaning to the word

challenge

,
'
said loathsome Raymond, tossing his head back and exposing his sharp, wolfish teeth.
‘
Gosh, it
'
ll be really good fun,
'
said Gail.
‘
Anyone can play on a slick modern court. This will sort us all out.
'
The rain began again. Janet saw no end to the tedium of this visit. If the sun shone there would be sporting activities. If it rained she would not be allowed to read because of Hilary. What on earth would they all do?

In the event it went on raining. Everyone except Janet went for a drive up the glens in the afternoon. Janet was excused because she would only be sick. Blissfully, she retired to her room and copied David
'
s Lament for Jonathan into her special book. In the evening the Dibdins announced that they always enjoyed a good sing-song around the piano. Hector choked and went out of the room, muttering something about checking a gasket. Francis rushed after him. Mr Dibdin sat at the grand piano in the drawing room, his family gathered about him in a statuesque group. He played
‘
Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill
'
, nodding his head from side to side and casting roguish glances over at Janet
'
s family who were gathered in an implacable huddle by the fire. His children sang the song in parts, pro nouncing the
‘
i
'
of
‘
hill
'
as if it were a double
‘
e
'
and beaming and nodding and twinkling like their father. Encouraged by fervent applause they went on to perform madrigals and then a couple of German
Lieder.
Worse was to come. The following evening they pushed the furniture back and gave an exhibition of morris dancing.
‘
You
'
re all so brainy you should be interested,
'
fluted Melanie Dibdin.
‘
They
'
re based on ancient fertility rituals. You know, earth mothers, the king must die, stag dances, all that sort of thing.
'
Janet thought they looked more like Little Noddy or Andy Pandy. It was shocking to see grown people behave in this ludicrous way. Only Lulu and Caro joined them; it seemed a suitable activity for the very young.

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