An excerpt from A Summer in the Twenties

Thu 17 Jul 2014 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Novel Excerpts | Leave a Comment

Read the first three chapters from A Summer in the Twenties by Peter Dickinson:

1
Hendaye, 6th April, 1926

A Summer in the Twenties cover‘EVERYTHING’S CHANGING so fast,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it stunning to wake up every morning and feel that the whole world’s brand-new again, a present waiting for you to unwrap it?’
For emphasis she stabbed her foot-long cigarette holder towards the Pyrennees, to declare them part of the present, with the snow-glitter along the peaks a little tinsel to add glamour to the gift.
‘It’s all yours,’ he said, generously including in his gesture not only the mountains but the nearer landscape, and the cubist spillage of roofs down the slope below the terrace and the two crones in black creaking up a cobbled alley, and nearer still the elderly three-piece band nobly attempting a Charleston while their souls still pined for the Vienna Woods, and even the braying group of young French rich, already into their third cocktail at half past three.
She threw back her head and laughed like a boy. Her teeth flashed like the sudden glimpse of brilliance along the wing-front of a White Admiral when it snaps its wings open and shut again. He felt woozy with love for her. Three days ago, when he had first met her, she had seemed to be just the kind of pretty flibbertigibbet you would expect Bertie Panhard to fill his villa with for Easter. Then chance had paired them in the foursomes against the great Joyce Mallahide and Bertie himself—Mrs. Mallahide aging now but implacably steady, and Bertie wild with his drives but deadly with his putter. Incredibly the match had gone to the twentieth, with side-bets accumulating which would bite deep into next quarter’s allowance. Then she had sliced her drive into the rough, leaving him a foul lie, but he had swung with a sudden exhilarated ferocity as though past and future were pivoting around the instant when the niblick shaft whipped between the coarse tussocks, and he had watched the ball climb endlessly into the blue, curve, fall, bounce twice on the green and trickle over the far lip. She had nodded approval, pursed her lips a little when they found the ball bunkered, but without fuss put him within nine inches of the hole. And at the same time laid Bertie a perfect stymie.
From that moment she had been Artemis, even when her hunting-spears—the golf-clubs—were put away and she had only her cigarette holder to brandish like a ritual dart. And now here they were, the impetus of celebration having lasted through the hours of sleep and whirled them up in her rowdy Frazer Nash to see the famous sunset, alone together all afternoon apart from the waiters and the band and the braying French.
‘But I’m serious,’ she said. ‘About things changing, I mean. Don’t you feel it—since the War, I suppose—how old were you when it ended?’
‘Fourteen.’
It seemed another measure of their intimacy that he could answer without stiffness or shame at the introduction of this half-tabu subject, which so permeated the ideas and talk of Father’s generation, and his brother Gerald’s too, but was so deliberately ignored by his own.
‘I was twelve,’ she said.
‘You don’t think people our age have always felt the world was changing, even when it wasn’t?’
‘Of course they have. But really they knew what was going to happen next week, next year, next . . . what’s the word for ten years?’
‘Decade.’
‘I never went to school, you know. Yes, they knew what was going to happen next decade, who they were going to marry, which house they were going to live in, how they were going to die, even. We don’t.’
‘I don’t care. Now’s enough.’
(Oh, the talks with Father over the cigars, and the mapped future, and the painstaking staff-work to ensure that the long campaign of a career should trundle victoriously forward, and produce and rear a fresh generation of Hankeys to inhabit Sillerby and maintain it!)
‘That’s what I mean,’ she said. ‘That’s what’s so stunning. If there’s no point in worrying about tomorrow, then you’ve got to squeeze everything you can get out of today. Thou shalt not waste one instant—that’s the first commandment. I bet you hadn’t guessed Daddy’s a parson.’
‘Great Scott!’
‘Mummy inherited a shipping line, luckily for me. It’ll be mine one day I suppose, and I shall have to start grinding the faces of the workers, except that I’ll copy Mummy and pay people to do it for me.’
‘But that’s tomorrow.’
‘Exactly. As a matter of fact I do know who I’m supposed to marry, and where I’m supposed to be going to live, but I bet I don’t. So now I’m not even going to think as far forward as the sunset. What shall we do now? What would you do, supposing you were alone up here?’
‘Climb further up the hill and look for butterflies.’
‘All right. I don’t know anything about them. You’ll have to tell me.’

There were clouds of them in the warmth of the western slopes. The fine spring must have brought on the hatchings. They flickered among the scrub and over the slants of shale like flakes of light. He told her their names—only the common sorts, various blues and coppers and some early orange-tips and painted ladies, and a surprising number of pearl-bordered fritillaries—nothing that was needed for the Collection. Suppose there had been . . . he had his net and bottle in his satchel and could have taken specimens, and so far he had done only one afternoon’s hunting since coming to France. But he sensed her mood, that the butterflies were a part of the whole ecstasy of living in the instant, and that to touch or kill one would have blurred its purity. For once the notion did not seem to him sentimental.
They wandered to and fro along goat-tracks, then sat on a bank of nibbled grass to watch the sunset. It performed for them as promised, like some grand old actor dying on his sword for the thousandth time in bronze and blood. Then they climbed back down the hill and drove towards the sea down steep white tracks. The air still prickled with the aftersense of heat, but dusk and nightfall drew out fresh scents of growth from the barren-seeming hillsides, Twice she pulled into caves of shadow under pine trees so that they could kiss and fondle for a while, lightly, skimming above the surface of their sensuality like martins fly-catching along a river-reach. They timed it all well and got back to the villa as the gong was sounding.
‘That you, Tom?’ called Bertie from his “study” at the foot of the stair.
‘Hope we’re not late. That was only the first gong?’
‘Simply stunning sunset,’ she added. ‘We had to see it all, really we did.’
Bertie lounged out into the hall, already dressed for dinner in the purple jacket which added a characteristic note of near-caddishness to his persona, a conscious assertion that he could afford to take the risk, thus making it no risk at all. Despite his taste for rather loud clothes Bertie always looked preternaturally neat and clean, especially when he had changed for dinner. Snub-nosed, large-mouthed, black hair slicked back, skin so smooth and creamy that it might have been painted, he had the perky look of a ventriloquist’s dummy or the hero’s asinine friend in a comedy thriller.
‘Wire for you, Tom,’ he said, his grin somehow incorporating both malice and benevolence.
The envelope refused to tear tidily. Minutes seemed to pass before he could scrumple the message free and unfold it.
CAN YOU PLEASE COME HOME STOP SORRY STOP FATHER
He stared at it, quite dazed, so that he was not conscious of having handed it across to her. Bertie craned, unabashed.
‘Oh,’ she said tonelessly.
‘That’s a bit rough,’ said Bertie. ‘Rows with the parents must be hell—we orphans have all the luck. What about it? Going to do what Daddy tells you?’
‘Asks, not tells,’ she murmured.
(Cyril dead at Polygon Wood, Gerald still quite unpredictable eight years after the Armistice.)
‘’Fraid I must,’ he said.
‘Right-oh,’ said Bertie. ‘Too late to book a sleeper, but there’s no point—you’ll only be two hours later at Dover if Fletcher drives you in to the 6.20 tomorrow morning. I’ll fix that now.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, and went up to dress, not daring to look at her.

He lay in the dark, rotating excuse after excuse to send home, but knowing he would have to go. It had not crossed his mind, even as a wish, let alone a hope or possibility, that she should come to his room, but she did.

2
Sillerby, 8th April, 1926

‘MORNING, MASTER TOM,’ said Stevens, holding the front door. ‘Don’t you bother about your traps. Pennycuick and me’ll get that lot in.’
‘Thanks. Where’s the General?’
‘In the Collection Room. We got your wire yesterday, so he’ll be expecting you. Good journey, Master Tom?’
‘Fine, thanks.’
In fact in the undiminishing daze of love Tom had barely noticed the battering French trains, or the crossing, or the somehow less heavy-breathing English engines. The only part of the last two days that had been free of the unreality of dream had been the evening in the Smoking Room at the United University, spent writing a nine-page letter to Judy. He didn’t go in at once but stood under the portico looking round. Even Sillerby was less solid than usual. The first faint bloom of weeds was beginning to show in the sickly rose-beds that ringed the turning-circle of gravel. The paint was flaking on the billiard-room window. Usually these dilapidations, and the difficulty of getting them all attended to with Sillerby’s diminished and increasingly arthritic staff, oppressed him; but in this glittering noon they became part of his mood, symbols of growth and of transience, of the need to snatch the instant.
‘Any news of Master Gerald?’ he said casually.
‘Not that I have heard, Master Tom. Still with Miss Nan, I believe, and doing well as can be hoped.’
‘Oh . . . Right, I’ll go and find the General, That middle-size case is all laundry so it might as well go straight out to Mrs. Bird. And I’ve torn my green plus-fours, so don’t hang ’em up.’
‘I have a suit of the General’s to go to London. I’ll send the plus-fours with them.’
‘Right oh.’
Climbing the stairs Tom began to realise a mild unease, almost shock, at the news that Gerald was ‘doing well’. This was the family euphemism for his not having broken out into some drunken uproar to offend yet another unwilling host, and perhaps even get into the local papers, but being still with his sister Nan in the isolation of her Scottish island. Tom had assumed all through the last two days that the message from Father meant that Gerald had got loose, but now he saw that his reasons for this belief were concerned not with its probability but with the level of family duty involved. It had to be a need of that order to make the parting from Judy tolerable, reasonable, inevitable. As he stood and held the handle of the great mahogany door a weird horror flowed through him—he had been sent for for no reason at all, other than to separate him from happiness. He shook the nightmare from him and pushed the door open.
Like an enormous egg perched on an intricate brass stand, Father’s bald and freckled cranium floated above his microscope, exactly as Tom knew from experience he would find him. Lieutenant-General Lord Milford, CB, DSO, at work on his Collection.
‘Tom? Be with you in a brace of shakes.’
Nothing seemed changed. Sillerby continued to drag itself out of the dream-world, to assert its absolute and independent reality, by presenting Tom with objects and facets he had known and accepted as the one reality since childhood. Father’s tone was exactly what it always was, very level and soft. The Collection Room too had its usual air of permanence. It was a Long Gallery with black linen-fold panelling and diamond-paned windows and the portraits of ancestors staring, heavy-eyed with brooding ennui, from beneath obscuring layers of varnish and candle-smoke; but before Tom had been born the collection cabinets had been moved in, fifteen blocks of pale mahogany running down either side of the gallery beneath the portraits, each containing its eighteen glass-topped drawers, four feet wide. Sixteen thousand dead butterflies had taken over from the dead ancestors as the primary occupants of the room.
‘Well?’ said Father, straightening from the microscope. ‘Any luck?’
‘Not much, sir. The hatchings were early, but . . .’
‘So were you. Quite, quite. Nothing at all, then?’
‘Zerynthia rumina—two very nice ones.’
‘A bit out of their range, weren’t you?’
‘That’s what I mean, sir. I was surprised to find them over there at all. And I’m not sure there isn’t something a little unusual about the dots on the hind wing.’
Father was a very old-fashioned collector, displaying only perfunctory interest in matters such as the range and habits of specimens, but any hint of a variation—which might indeed be associated with an unusual locality, was the breath of life to him.
‘And I took half a dozen of the spring form of Pontia daplidice,’ said Tom. ‘Isn’t one of ours a bit rummy?’
‘Yes, I believe you’re right. Let’s see . . .’
Father moved a few paces down the gallery, did a full knees bend by Cabinet H and pulled out a drawer.
‘I think it’s the one below, sir.’
‘Of course, of course, I’m getting old. Yes, you’re right, Tom. One little beggar here’s thoroughly strafed. A good ’un would make the set. Excellent!’
He was genuinely pleased—pleased as much at Tom knowing the Collection so well as at this new specimen—but he was also play-acting. If he had nothing on his mind it would be inconceivable that he should pick the wrong drawer. Of course there had been an element of play-acting about the whole expedition—it wasn’t a sensible season for bug-hunting in the Pyrenees, but Tom’s allowance wouldn’t have stretched to the trip, and it was understood that he didn’t ask for anything extra. So Father had saved face by forking out from the Collection fund and pretending that Bertie’s invitation fitted in neatly with his needs, though they both knew the money was really a reward for Tom’s success at Oxford, giving him a chance of a brief holiday before the Finals term. Still, that bit of play-acting was over. There was something else in Father’s manner as he brooded for a little at the Pontias, then rose, reflexively sliding the drawer shut with his knee.
‘Bit early, of course,’ he said. ‘A lot of ’em won’t be hatching for a month. Nothing else?’
‘Nothing much, sir. I was planning to wait for a few more days before I started in earnest, but . . .’
‘Yes. Sorry about that. Having a good time of it?’
‘Oh yes, sir, Very.’
‘Ah . . . Met someone?’
(‘The trouble with Father,’ Gerald had once said, ‘Is that you keep forgetting how bloody sharp he is. Most of the time you chat away and he’s a harmless old buffer who’s mad on bugs, and then he lets something slip and you realise he knows exactly what you’re thinking about, and like as not every damn thing you’ve done since he last saw you. We all ought to go down on our knees at night and thank God for putting bugs into the world. If Father had been as interested in us as he is in them we’d be living our lives in glass cases with pins through our abdomens.’)
‘Well . . . as a matter of fact, yes,’ said Tom.
‘Care to tell me her name?’
‘Judy Tarrant.’
‘Of course. Pretty little piece, eh?’
‘You know her!’
‘Went to her christening. Parents set on having a boy, I remember, but they were issued with a girl. Some reason or other they knew they couldn’t produce another one, so they made the best of a bad job by calling her Julyan, with a Y—show she was almost a boy but not quite. Don’t know who had the wit to start calling her Judy.’
‘She did. She insisted when she was four, she told me.’
‘Lot of will-power there—on the mother’s side, of course—the father’s a holy worm.’
‘Judy seems quite fond of him.’
‘Of course, of course. Shouldn’t have said that. Probably a much more interesting fellow than meets the eye. Often happens when one of a couple makes all the running, you know—turns out the other one’s much more worth study.’
‘It’s extraordinary you should know them, sir.’
‘Not as rum as you think, Admittedly that’s a cut-off bit of country down in the Wolds, but it’s still no more than the next Riding. If your mother had been alive you’d have been meeting young Judy at dances these last couple of years at least. My fault you don’t go to that many, I suppose.’
(There was something unspoken here. It had been Gerald’s behaviour, far more than Mother’s death, that had caused dance invitations to the youngest Hankey to be less than automatic.)
‘But still . . .’ said Tom.
‘Staying with young Panhard, weren’t you? First ran into him at one of Belford’s shoots, eh?’
‘That’s right. I knew him by sight at Eton, but he must have been three years ahead of me.’
‘Well, Panhard’s land marches with Rokesley, so it’s natural he should be at the shoot. And Belford’s some kind of cousin of the Tarrants, I seem to remember, and they live only a dozen miles further on, so it all hangs together. Things mostly do . . . Tell me, what do you make of Panhard?’
‘He’s all right.’
‘Brains?’
‘I don’t know. He pretends to be a bit of a silly ass, but he isn’t. Not like Woffles Belford, I mean. He often says quite sharp things, but usually he sounds surprised about it, as if he’d said them by accident.’
‘Interesting you should say that. Try watching him when other people are talking . . . In my opinion he’s got more than his share of brains. Not your kind, Tom. He’d never he in line for a Double First—not the application, but . . . pity in a way he came into all that money so early.’
‘He’s very decent about it, sir. Generous, I mean, and he doesn’t put on side at all.’
‘Glad to hear it, but that’s not what I meant. Hardly know the fellow, of course, but the couple of times we’ve met it’s struck me that he’s got ambition—more than his share—and nothing to grind it on. He’s not the sort to make a go of politics. Wilmington collared me last year to meet him in York. Idea was to sound him out about standing as Member for Weighton, but Panhard turned us down. Gave very good reasons, no hard feelings, made out he was very flattered and not up to the job and so on—but my guess is his real motive was he wasn’t prepared to start as low down the ladder as an ordinary County Member. Supposing he’d needed to make his own way a bit more from the beginning . . . see what I’m driving at?’
‘You may be right, sir.’
As the words hung in the air Tom realised that he had allowed a note of detachment to infect them. Father of course perceived it at once.
‘Don’t like me putting your cronies under the lens, Tom?’ he said, his voice softer than ever.
‘It’s all right, sir. We’re used to it—and there’s no way of stopping you.’
(And better you should be sectioning Bertie’s character than Judy’s.)
Father loosed the sudden, direct blaze of his stare—a mannerism that often startled strangers—then smiled and glanced down at the twinkling tubes of the microscope. There was no telling whether the smile was an acceptance of Tom’s mild impertinence or an intuition of the thought about Judy. Tom waited. Interviews with Father did not normally end in the air.
Behind Father’s left shoulder a window opened onto the familiar but always to Tom heart-tightening view of the Home Farm, the line of willow and alder which showed where the river twisted along the valley, the rising fields of Gatting Farm and Hatchers (so disastrously sold by Grandfather) and beyond them the sharp-edged moor. One evening, when Gerald was fresh out of hospital for the first time, Tom—only fourteen then—had found him standing at this window in the dusk with an empty tumbler in his hand.
‘Tom? Glad to see you. You’ll be able to help me down. Got to get back to bed before Birdie brings my tray up and finds I’m missing.’
‘You shouldn’t have come up . . .’
‘Tosh. What I shouldn’t have done is brought the brandy with me. Thought I’d need it. I’ve been saying good-bye.’
Tom had followed the half-gesture and seen the decanter on Case F.
‘I thought you were staying for weeks, Ger.’
‘Good-bye for old Cyril. That’s what he died for, you know. You don’t die for England. You die for a few fields and a slice of hillside. Less, much less. There were chaps in my company who died for one of those bloody little strips of back garden, all dahlias and cabbages, you see from the railway. Question is, can I even stand without something to lean on? No. Put the glass down—don’t forget to come back for it or Stevens will lose his rag. And the decanter, of course. Now, if you can get me to the banisters I’ll go down the stair on my bum . . .’
To Tom at the time the scene had been mainly embarrassing. He had cringed partly at having to cope with Gerald half-drunk, and partly at hearing speech about the unspeakable. Now the shyness was gone, overwhelmed by the knowledge of tragedy—Gerald’s even more than Cyril’s—and the tragedy had been given its Sophoclean dimension by the slow discovery that this view—farms, river and moor, represented the England that he too would die for, if the moment came.
‘When are you planning to go up?’ said Father suddenly.
‘Full term starts on the twenty-fifth. I’d meant to settle in on Monday—that’s the nineteenth—until . . .’
‘Until you met young Miss Tarrant. Sorry about that, Tom. If I’d known, of course, I wouldn’t have wired. Any good if I called it off and you went straight back?’
‘No, sir. She’s got to drive across and join her parents at Marseilles the day after tomorrow. They’re on a cruise.’
‘Ah well, there it is. She’ll be in London for the season, presumably, and then she’ll be coming up to Yorkshire I should think. You ought to be able to see quite a bit of her one way and another when you’re through your Finals. Meanwhile, if you still go up on the nineteenth that gives us a bit over a week, eh?’
‘Yes, sir. What do you want me to do?’
‘I want you to learn to drive a train.’
Tom managed to keep his mouth from gaping but he felt his eyes widen. Father looked up, rubbing his hands like a pawnbroker as if to emphasise the profit in his scheme.
‘Been reading the papers?’ he asked.
‘Hardly at all, sir.’
‘Coal,’ he prompted.
‘Oh, I know about the row between the owners and the miners. Didn’t the Government hold a Commission or something and get them to agree?’
‘Yes and no. Herbert Samuel made some recommendations which the miners would have accepted, but the owners dug their heels in. The whole industry’s a bloody great potmess, with a lot of ramshackle old mines which can only keep going if they pay the men starvation wages, and those owners are the ones who’ve got the whip hand. The Government bought a bit of time with a subsidy to keep them going, but Samuel’s plan would have meant closures and amalgamations. I met Ducky Gowling in the Club last week and he told me the owners aren’t going to budge, and the subsidy’s due to run out at the end of the month.’
‘So there’ll be a strike.’
Tom was used to Father’s precise knowledge of the shifting currents of politics and business, though he appeared to sail those waters hardly at all. It was as though influential men, burdened with secrets, tried to bury some of their hoard in the mind of the eccentric old bug-hunter, knowing that he would not bother to spend it. So Lord Gowling would have told Father what the owners planned, and furthermore Father would have judged correctly whether Lord Gowling was right, and whether the owners would stick to their guns without their nerve breaking.
‘Not a strike, a lock-out,’ said Father. ‘The owners want the men to work longer hours for less pay, and if they refuse they’re going to close the mines. That’s important, because it’s where the trains come in. Last year the Trades Unions got together and passed a resolution that if the miners were locked out the railways wouldn’t move any coal. I think they’ll stick to that—in fact I think they’ll go a good deal further and there’ll he a General Strike and nothing will move at all. Steed Maitland tells me that a lot of the Cabinet are spoiling for a fight—Churchill and Hicks, of course, and haIf a dozen of the others longing to strafe the Bolshie. They’ll tie Baldwin hand and foot, so that he can’t come on with his famous man-of-peace turn, and that’ll force the unions into an all-out strike. I’ve got a bit of sympathy for the miners and not much for the owners—after all, I know quite a pack of them—but if we let the unions close the country down and keep it closed for a month, we’re done for.’
‘Bad as that, sir?’
‘I think so. On the other hand, I don’t think they’ll last a month, not once they see the strike isn’t working. They’ve got to be shown we can get along without them. It doesn’t matter so much what happens in the factories—takes a long time for people to realise how that kind of strike is affecting them—but if a fellow can look up from his allotment and see the six-twenty steaming through . . . you follow me?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘This is your chance, Tom.’
The words were almost inaudibly soft, but carried compressed layers of meaning. Cyril was dead, Gerald ruined. The entail by which Gerald would inherit Sillerby would cost too much to break, but it was accepted by all the family, Gerald included, that he would have no children and the male line would continue through Tom. Tom was untested. He had been too young for the war. His achievements—the scholarship to Trinity, the Blue for boxing, the First in Mods—were not the same thing. Father’s argument was on the face of it absurd. Tom knew that one or two chaps at Oxford had volunteered last year for some kind of training scheme in case there was a General Strike, but his impression was that it had been what Father would call a potmess. So unless ten thousand fathers were having similar talks with their sons this week only a train here and there would be able to run when the railwaymen withdrew their labour. The banner of civilisation would not be the smoke of the six-twenty as it thundered past the allotments but a few rare-seen puffs half way across the county. Still, the emotional logic was too strong for reason. Your Country Needs You. The foreshortened index finger pointed straight at Tom’s heart.
‘Right oh,’ he said, ‘I’ll drive a train. When’s my first tutorial?’
Father rubbed his hands again. Clearly he had it all worked out, and even arranged. Grandfather had spent twenty years on the board of the N.E.R., and Father, though having no official connection, still retained a good deal of family ‘pull’. In particular the Shed Manager at Middlesbrough was a chap called Douting, whose sister Rose had been in service at Sillerby until she went into munitions in ’sixteen . . .
Tom divided his mind, as he often did in the duller type of lecture. He was able to absorb what he was told and recall it when he needed to, but at the same time he could think remoter thoughts, thoughts that had the wandering quality of dream.
He remembered Rose, a fierce and dumpy girl who cleaned the first-floor bedrooms and carried on a niggling war with Mother’s own maid, the famously neurotic Dora, who had eventually taken one of Father’s guns and tried to shoot the butcher’s boy at Diggleton for not joining up . . . His eye was caught by an April cloud-shadow swooping along the rampart of the moor. In August he would take Judy up there on the pretext of walking up grouse (they were still too scarce to be worth beating). They might even get a few—she was certain to be a corking shot—she could use Mother’s twenty-bore Purdy . . .
‘Douting says you’re going to have to be a bit canny,’ Father was saying. ‘He’ll pick a fellow who’s not that keen on striking to give you a ride or two on the footplate. You won’t have to lie, not if you manage it properly. Just don’t give your reasons. People don’t expect reasons, you know. Much happier without them.’
There was a pause as though the interview had ended and was only waiting for its closing formality—some remark about the weather, or the Collection, or Stevens’s latest fit of temper. It came, but in an unexpected form.
‘Packet of money there,’ said Father broodingly. ‘Just the girl, and it’s all coming to her.’

3
Market Weighton, 16th April, 1926

‘I’M SO GLAD YOU COULD COME,’ she said, separating the words a little as though speaking to a foreigner. ‘I was afraid you might have gone up to Oxford already.’
Her postcard throbbed in his breast pocket. His whole urge was to pick her up, to hold her close, to feel their bodies seeming to melt into a unit, but she had taken precautions against such a move. He was ten minutes earlier than she had suggested, but he could see from her half-emptied tea-cup and the subsided centre of the untouched buttered toast that she had already been here some time, and had moreover chosen a place in the almost empty tea-room at which he could only sit opposite her, with the stodgy black oak of the table between them. There was nothing for it but to fall in with her mood. He touched the back of the empty chair.
‘May I?’ he said.
There was relief as well as formal permission in her smile. As he sat down and looked at her—looked at something other than her eyes and face—he perceived that she was dressed and made up in a deliberately subdued and old-fashioned style. Without quite knowing where the differences of fashion lay he was aware that these were last year’s modes, or even the year’s before. No doubt some of the cause lay in her having driven over from home; her mother sounded the sort to have intransigent views on how the modern girl should dress; but still she wore the clothes, and was now taking a stubby cigarette holder out of a plain crocodile handbag in a deliberate manner, as though they were aspects of a role she had herself chosen.
‘And what have you been doing?’ she said brightly.
‘Learning to drive a train.’
That made the mask slip, but before he could explain the waitress was at his side.
‘Er . . . tea and toast, please. Would you like some fresh tea, Judy?’
She was in profile now, staring through the window at a lorry stuck and throbbing while a drove of sheep from the market surged round it. She shook her head.
‘No tea-cakes, sir? Baked on the premises—very naice indeed.’
‘No thank you.’
‘You ought to have a nice cake, Tom,’ said Judy, still looking out of the window. ‘I want you to.’
‘Oh . . . right oh. I’ll have a squint at the cake-tray, please.’
The waitress withdrew.
‘Father wouldn’t have sent that wire if he’d realised I might be doing anything . . . except collecting butterflies for him,’ he said in a low voice.
She swung round from the window and faced him, recovered now, but a little mocking.
‘When she’s brought your naice cake,’ she said, ‘we’ll talk about that then. Tell me about the trains. Which ones were you driving?’
‘Usually the ten-twenty-three from Middlesbrough to Scarborough and the three-oh-nine back. You weren’t one of our passengers, were you?’
‘That would be one of Worsdell’s oh-six-ohs, with Tubby Drake or old Hackby driving,’ she said.
‘Harry Hackby . . . How on earth . . . ?’
‘Daddy’s loony about railways. All the parsons I’ve met are loony about something. You couldn’t have known. He’s got his own locomotive—an incredibly ancient Whitby Bogey four-four-oh built by Fletcher—you’re supposed to say Great Scott!’
‘Great Scott! Why?’
‘It’s the last one left. It should have gone to the breakers years ago. It’s had about three new boilers.’
‘Does it still go?’
‘Oh yes. There’s a private spur line in the valley which used to serve an old gravel pit. He keeps it in the shed there and drives it up and down the spur. The choirs in our churches come for outings and he takes them for rides, but what he really ioves is a dock strike, because then there aren’t any goods trains running on the main line between the midnight mail and the milk train, and he goes for what he calls night runs, all the way up to Selby.’
‘They let him?’
‘It’s a wangle. Mummy’s got a lot of shares, you see. She’d be on the board if she was a man. Daddy pulls a van with some instruments in it and pretends he’s testing the track, but I don’t think they pay any attention, really, when he sends the reports in. Anyway, that’s how I know about trains. You see, he always rides on the footplate of any train he catches if the drivers will let him, and they usually do, even the London expresses. He used to take me on the local stoppers when I was little. He loves your line—all that reversing at Guisborough and Whitby, and the bell on the Staithes Viaduct. That’s where I met old Hackby.’
‘I see.’
It seemed incredible that she should have ridden on the same juddering footplate. He wasn’t at all sure that the coincidence was a good omen. It seemed such a world away from the hill above Hendaye, and the butterflies.
‘Did you do any shunting?’ she said.
‘I watched it being done. I didn’t do much driving, as a matter of fact—I couldn’t afford to seem too anxious. I think I could take a train out now along a fairly straightforward line, but shunting looks tricky.’
‘Yes, it is. Daddy does it, down in the docks, of course, where the tracks belong to us and they can’t really stop him.’
‘He must be good.’
‘Qh, yes, he’s good at that. Of course, that’s why they both wanted me to be a boy, Mummy because of the ships, and Daddy because of the railway engines.’
The waitress came back with a pot of tea, a plate of steaming toast sliced into triangles, and a wickerwork tray of fancy cakes for Tom to choose from. Without thought he reached for the least fanciful, a plain rock cake knobbed with a few charred raisins.
‘No,’ said Judy. ‘They’re quite good but ordinary. Is there one of those yellow ones with a twirl of cream and a nut on top. Yes, there! Have that one, Tom. They’re special.’
‘Why don’t you have it?’
‘I daren’t any more. It’s so unfair. When I was fourteen I could have eaten six of them and not got any fatter, but now . . . I ordered toast because I knew I wouldn’t want to eat it. It doesn’t seem fair just to order tea. No, really I won’t.’
She smiled with such friendliness at the waitress that she conjured an answering smile from the drawn and listless face. The girl poured a cup of tea for Tom and moved away, going out through the shadowy door beyond a rank of gleaming brass bed-warmers that ornamented the inner wall.
‘That’s a good omen about the cakes,’ she said. ‘I was worried because the waitress is different, but the cakes are still the same. I haven’t been here for . . . What’s fourteen from twenty-six?’
‘Twelve.’
‘Twelve years then. A bit less than that, I suppose, because the War had just begun so it must have been autumn. I had a new Nanny who’d come to us from a family near Haughton. Mummy would never let any of my Nannies stay for more than a couple of years in case I got too fond of them. This one was young and pretty, and once a week when she was supposed to be taking me for a walk a car would be waiting at the bend of the road where it couldn’t be seen from the Lodge gates and we’d get in and the man would drive us down here and he and Nanny would hold hands and whisper while I ate as many cakes as I could stuff into myself. I sort of half understood, but not really. I knew he wasn’t a servant, or anything like that. In fact he was the father of the family she’d come from—she’d had to leave because his wife had found out about them and made him sack Nanny and promise never to see her again, but he’d managed to find her this job near enough for him to drive over once a week. It didn’t last, of course. His wife found out again. She must have been a silly woman because she forced him to choose and he chose Nanny. He was going to marry her, but he got killed somewhere before he could. That’s how I know it must have been just when the war was beginning. The wife had written to Mummy of course, so Nanny had left us by then. I don’t know what happened to her. She was only with us a few months, but . . . I’m telling you this, Tom, because I want you to understand. This is a between place for me.’
‘Between?’
‘There are places where you do your living, where things happen that belong together and add up in a way you can’t get away from. Most places are like that. But there are a few between places, which aren’t part of that sum at all. Do you see?’
‘I half see, I think. I’m not sure I live my life quite like that.’
‘But you understand that I do? It’s important, Tom.’
‘I understand that it’s important. But you’ll have to explain a bit more. For instance, was Bertie’s . . . ?’
‘Oh no! If you thought that you wouldn’t understand at all! Hendaye wasn’t, even before . . . They aren’t like that, you see. They’re small and secret and either nobody knows you’re there or nobody knows who you are. You can’t make them up. You can’t say “This is going to be a between place from now on.” You can only find them by accident and realise what they are. This one . . . perhaps it was because it mattered so much to Nanny Brice and the man, it can’t matter to anyone else . . .’
‘Yes, I see. But I know who you are. Why did you ask me to meet you here? Hasn’t that got to be part of the sum?’
‘I don’t know—I haven’t tried this before—using one, I mean—taking it out of between . . . oh, Tom, I wanted to talk to you, but it had to be outside anything that’s happened, or anything that’s going to happen.’
‘Do you want to tell me you made a mistake?’
‘Oh, no! But Tom, I want . . . I want to change the rules of the game. I know that’s cheating when we’ve already started, but . . . you do see, don’t you?’
‘What are the new rules?’
‘Well . . . we met at Bertie’s. We won the foursome. We drove up into the hills and watched the sunset. We canoodled a bit in the car coming back. Perhaps we’d have fallen properly in love in a few more days, but you got a wire from your father and had to come home. That’s all. They’re quite easy rules.’
‘Easy to understand. Difficult to play.’
She did not answer. He looked at her, but though she met his gaze directly he could read nothing in her eyes, nothing but candour, colourless as air. Her brow was perfectly smooth—what he could see of it under the dark brown cloche—and her lips were a little open, but not to speak or smile. His own mouth, though empty, seemed coated with greasy pulp, and as he looked away he saw that he had been absently munching at the toast the waitress had brought him. One triangle was gone, and the next was in his hand with a moon-shaped bite chewed from it. He put the fragment back on his plate and fretted the tips of his fingers together to rub the melted butter away. Beside that plate was the cake she had made him choose. The crinkled paper cake-cup held a little turret of amazingly yellow sponge, roofed with a baroque twirl of cream with a filbert for finial. It seemed to bulk very large in his vision, though at the same time he was seeing it from a distance as remote as lies between mountains. A hand, his own, moved into the patch of vision, picked up a knife and neatly cut the cake in two. Normal seeing and feeling came back to him as he pushed the plate across to her and raised his eyebrows.
‘I think Nanny Brice’s dead friend would like you to have some,’ he said.
‘That’s not fair, bringing him in! . . . But all right. You can keep the nut. It’s the way the cream goes with the sponge that matters.’
They ate their halves in silence. The sponge was flavoured with orange and with something else he couldn’t put a name to, and was extraordinarily light. Without the cream it would have been textureless. She tilted her head to one side as she ate her last mouthful, waiting for his judgment.
‘I’d never have guessed to look at it,’ he said.
‘You haven’t eaten the nut.’
‘No. If you don’t, I don’t.’
‘All right.’
They were silent again. She began to smile in what he was learning was a characteristic way, self-pleased but oddly mocking—so characteristic, indeed, that it was hard to tell whether it was a signal of some inward thought or a meaningless mannerism. He guessed that the main purpose of their meeting was over, that the ‘rules’ had been amended and agreed, and that to ask or even to hint at asking whether what the rules governed was no more than a game would be to break those rules. This did not seem to him unfair. If Father had not sent that wire, forcing her hand . . .
‘Why trains?’ she said, suddenly.
He felt his eyes widen.
‘Oh, you mustn’t think I’m loony about trains too,’ she said. ‘In fact I think they’re rather a bore. I just know about them because I can’t help it, Daddy being Daddy. It seems a funny thing to come home for. I suppose it’s so you can help when they have this strike Mummy keeps talking about.’
‘That’s right. That’s why I had to make out to Harry Hackby and the others that I wanted to ride on footplates for the thrill of it. I don’t think Harry believed me, but he’s not that keen on a strike so the pretence was enough.’
She nodded.
‘How soon is all this going to happen?’ she asked.
‘Next month, if it happens at all.’
‘You’ll have to come back from Oxford.’
‘I don’t know. I might find something useful to do down there. I must say, I hope it doesn’t happen. With a bit of luck I’m in line for a First and I want to try and make sure of it. Time’s awfully short, and I’d planned to use every minute of it, working like blazes.’
‘But you’ll get it easily, won’t you? You’re the cleverest person I’ve ever met!’
She was staring at him, almost amazed. Her reaction seemed wholly straightforward, with none of the play-acting the ‘rules’ had seemed to demand. For the first time he realised that despite the glamour of her life—travel, and the smartest dances in the season, and familiarity with a dozen night-clubs in London and Paris, and clothes that would have cost him a whole year’s allowance—her world was in other ways extremely limited. He did not think of himself as specially clever. In his first year at Eton he had been sent up to the Lower Master for Good Work, He could remember now the long pale face under the mortar-board scanning in a few seconds down his carefully re-copied set of elegiacs, and the rather automatic nod of approval. ‘Boys are learning-machines, and you seem to be an efficient one,’ the Lower Master had said. Tom still thought it a fair summary, if brusque. When he considered the brilliant men he met every day at Oxford . . .
‘That can’t be true,’ he said, laughing because the idea was too absurd even to be embarrassing. ‘You’ve met Bertie Panhard, for instance.’
‘He’s not clever!’
‘He only pretends not to be, and I must say he took me in. But Father said something and since then I’ve been thinking . . . Bertie’s a good bit cleverer than I am in a lot of ways.
‘Will your father drive a train?’ he asked. ‘If there’s a strike, I mean?’
Evidently she did not like the idea. She frowned, poured herself another cup of tea, tasted it, made a moue, put the cup down.
‘Oh no. He might do some shunting down inside the docks, hut he wouldn’t dream of doing anything to upset the N.E.R. drivers. They really hate strike-breakers, even the men who didn’t want to go on the strike in the first place. I’m afraid old Hackby won’t speak to you afterwards if he learns you’ve been a black-leg.’
‘I’m not going to let on I drove his line, so with luck I won’t get sent there. You know a lot about the working classes, Judy.’
‘Oh, I have to. It’s the docks, you see. We’ve got a real gang of Bolshies down there, and a lot of rows between union men and the others. They’ll go on strike about anything, and what’s more their women will back them up. There’s an extraordinary girl called Kate Barnes who’s as red as red can be. She goes to the mass meetings and climbs onto the platform and yells at the men to fight the bosses, and they cheer her like a football crowd. She’s only a few years older than me, too. I’ve never been to a meeting, but I admire her like anything. Mummy won’t let us mention her name at home, you know.’
While she was speaking she pushed her crockery a little to one side, stubbed out her cigarette in the ash-tray and put the holder away.
‘Shall I see you?’ he said.
‘This is a between place, Tom. You don’t make plans here.’
‘Let’s go outside.’
‘Remember we’ve changed the rules. A chap in your position would probably write to a girl he’d met and ask her to a Commem Ball, don’t you think? I went to the House last year—it was fun.’
‘What would the girl do?’
‘She might say yes at once. But if she’s got any sense she’ll wait a couple of weeks and see what other invitations she gets.’
‘Not very sporting.’
‘Very sporting indeed. For all the chap knows she may have had some invitations already.’
Her eyes flickered a little to one side. He turned and saw that the waitress was hovering by the bed-warmers. At his nod she came over with the bills.
Outside on the pavement the afternoon was bright and warm, the air still faintly scented with the passage of the sheep.
‘I didn’t spot the Frazer-Nash,’ he said.
‘Oh, I leave that in France. It’s such a bother taking it to and fro. That’s mine. It’s a bit staid, because sometimes I have to take Mummy for drives.’
She pointed to a silver limousine parked in the shadow of the church—a Lagonda two-litre, he thought, the rectangular propriety of windscreen and roof at odds with the dashing length of bonnet.
‘Where are you?’ she asked.
‘Over there.’
Suddenly and for the first time with her ill at ease about such matters, he pointed at the Daimler.
‘Heavens!’ she said. ‘That! I thought somebody must have come with a choir outing!’
‘Choir outings seem to play a big part in your life.’
‘Of course they do. We’ve got four churches in Hull, as well as Brantingham. Did it get you here all right, Tom? It looks antediluvian!’
‘Oh, it purrs along—Pennycuick looks after it beautifully, and really it’s not all that old—Father bought it just before the war. I don’t have a car of my own. My grandfather made a complete mess of things, so now there isn’t all that money to spare.’
‘What rotten luck . . . That could make things a little bit dicey, Tom.’

From A Summer in the Twenties by Peter Dickinson. Published in trade paperback and ebook by Small Beer Press in July 2014.

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