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Authors: Beryl Bainbridge

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An Awfully Big Adventure

BOOK: An Awfully Big Adventure
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CONTENTS
About the Author
Beryl Bainbridge
is the author of seventeen novels, two travel books and five plays for stage and television. The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure, Every Man for Himself and Master Georgie (which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Every Man for Himself was awarded the Whitbread Novel of the Year Prize. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize with The Dressmaker and the Whitbread Prize with Injury Time. The Bottle Factory Outing, Sweet William and The Dressmaker have been adapted for film, as was An Awfully Big Adventure, which starred Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. Beryl Bainbridge died in July 2010.

AN AWFULLY
BIG ADVENTURE

 

Beryl Bainbridge

Hachette Digital

www.littlebrown.co.uk

For Yolanta and Derwent May
Published by Hachette Digital 2010
First published in Great Britain by Duckworth in 1989
Published with minor revisions by Penguin Books in 1991
Copyright © Beryl Bainbridge, 1989, 1990
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Special Trustees of the Hospitals for Sick Children for their permission to quote from J. M. Barrie’s
Peter Pan
; to Faber & Faber Ltd for kind permission to reprint four lines from ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar’ from
Collected Poems 1909–1962
by T. S. Eliot; and to Peters Fraser and Dunlop for permission to reprint a quotation from
Dangerous Corner
by J. B. Priestley.
All characters in this publication other than those clearly in the public domain are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
eBook ISBN 978 0 748 12526 5
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire
Hachette Digital
An imprint of
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DY
An Hachette Livre UK Company
SLIGHTLY:
(
Examining the fallen Wendy more minutely
) This is no bird; I think it must be a lady.
NIBS:
(
Who would have preferred it to be a bird
) And Tootles has killed her.
CURLY:
Now I see. Peter was bringing her to us. (
They wonder for what object
).
OMNES:
(
Though everyone of them had wanted to take a shot at her
) Oh, Tootles!
TOOTLES:
(
Gulping
) I did it. When ladies used to come to me in dreams I said: ‘Pretty mother‘, but when she really came I shot her.
James Barrie,
Peter Pan
, Act Two.
0
When the fire curtain had been lowered and the doors were at last closed, Meredith thought he heard a child crying. He switched on the house lights, but of course there was no one there. Some unfortunate had left a teddy-bear perched on the tip-up seat in the third row.
The girl was waiting for him in the property room. At his approach she stepped backwards, as though afraid he would strike her. He didn’t look at her; he simply told her, in that particular tone of voice which in the past he had always used for other people, that he wasn’t interested in excuses and that in any case there were none that would fit the bill.
‘I was upset,’ she protested. ‘Anybody would be. It will never happen again.’
They both heard a door opening on the floor above, and footsteps as Rose clumped along the passage.
‘If it was up to me,’ he said, lowering his voice, ‘you wouldn’t get the chance.’
‘You’re wrong,’ the girl persisted. ‘He was happy. He kept saying “Well done”. I’m not old enough to shoulder the blame. Not all of it. I’m not the only one at fault.’
‘Get out of my sight,’ he said, and pushing past her strode up the corridor to waylay Rose.
‘I was encouraged,’ she shouted after him. ‘Don’t you forget that!’
He slashed the air with his hook.
‘You don’t want to be too hard on her,’ Rose said. ‘She’s young.’
He followed her through the pass door and across the dark stage into the auditorium. When Rose saw the teddy-bear she picked it up by one ear and walked on with it dangling against the skirt of her black frock.
‘Did you get through to the wife?’ asked Meredith.
‘I did,’ Rose said. ‘She’s coming up on the milk train.’
He climbed the stone steps after her, ducking his head beneath the singing gas mantles until they reached the top floor and the round window overlooking the square. Only the fireman and the rat-catcher came this far.
‘The note,’ he enquired. ‘Did it shed any illumination?’
‘Who can tell?’ she said. ‘Bunny saw fit to put a match to it.’
At this hour the square was empty. The flower-sellers had long since gone home, leaving the orange boxes piled up beside the urinals. Between the jagged buildings the lights of ships jumped like sparks above the river.
They stood in silence, looking down into the darkness as though waiting for a curtain to rise. There was a sudden seep of orange light as the door of Brown’s Café opened and the slattern in the gumboots staggered out to sling washing-up slops into the gutter.
Then the girl appeared from out of the side street and began to run in the direction of the telephone box on the corner. Once she looked back and up at the window as though she knew she was observed. At this distance her face was a pale blur. A man with a white muffler wound about his throat rolled from the black shadows of Ice Warehouse and the girl stopped and spoke to him.
He fumbled in his pockets and handed her something. He was holding a bouquet of flowers in a twist of paper.
‘The Board won’t like it,’ Meredith said. ‘Rushworth is bound to kick up rough.’
‘I’m a match for him,’ said Rose. She was holding the teddy-bear to her sequinned breast, circling with the pad of her finger the cold button of its eye.
‘I don’t suppose,’ Meredith asked her, ‘that we can keep it out of the newspapers.’
‘I could,’ Rose told him, ‘but I won’t. The orphanage has rung twice already. God forgive us, but it’ll be good for business.’
Directly below, where the branches of the lime trees bounced in the wind, sending the lamplight skeetering across the cobblestones, the man in the muffler stood relieving himself within the wrought-iron enclosure of the public urinal, one arm fastidiously raised above his head. They could see his boots, glossy under the street lamp, and that bedraggled fistful of winter daffodils . . .
1
At first it had been Uncle Vernon’s ambition, not Stella’s. He thought he understood her; from the moment she could toddle he had watched her lurching towards the limelight. Stella herself had shown more caution. ‘I’ll not chase moonbeams,’ she told him.
Still, she went along with the idea and for two years, on a Friday after school, she ran down the hill to Hanover Street and rode the lift in Crane Hall, up through the showrooms of polished pianofortes where the blind men fingered scales, until she reached the top floor and Mrs Ackerley whose puckered mouth spat out ‘How now brown cow’ behind the smokescreen of her Russian cigarettes.
She came home and shut herself in her bedroom off the scullery and spouted speeches. She sat at the tea table and dropped her cup to the saucer, spotting the good cloth with tannic acid, wailing that it might be a poison that the Friar Lawrence had administered. When Uncle Vernon shouted at her she said she wasn’t old enough to control either her reflexes or her emotions. She had always had a precise notion of what could be expected of her.
Lily had imagined that the girl was merely learning to speak properly and was dismayed to hear it was called Dramatic Art. She fretted lest Stella build up hopes only to have them dashed.
Then Stella failed her mock school certificate and her teachers decided it wasn’t worth while entering her for the real thing. Uncle Vernon went off to the school prepared to bluster, and returned convinced. They’d agreed she had the brains but not the application.
‘That’s good enough for me,’ he told Lily. ‘We both know it’s useless reasoning with her.’
He made enquiries and pulled strings. After the letter came Stella spent four extra Saturday mornings at Crane Hall being coached by Mrs Ackerley in the telephone scene from the
Bill of Divorcement
. Mrs Ackerley, dubious about her accent, had thought a Lancashire drama more suitable, preferably a comedy; the girl was something of a clown.
Stella would have none of it. She was a mimic, she said, and sure enough she took off Mrs Ackerley’s own smoky tone of voice to perfection. Admittedly she was a little young for the part, but, as she shrewdly observed, this would only stress her versatility. The audition was fixed for the third Monday in September.
Ten days before, over breakfast, she told Uncle Vernon she was having second thoughts.
‘Get away with you,’ he said. ‘It’s too late to change things now.’ He wrote out a shopping list and gave her a ten-shilling note. Half an hour later when he came up into the dark hall, jingling the loose coppers in his pocket, he found her huddled on the stairs, one plump knee wedged between the banister rails. He was annoyed because she knew she wasn’t supposed to hang about this part of the house, not unless she was in her good school uniform. She was staring at the damp patch that splodged the leaf-patterned wallpaper above the telephone.
He switched on the light and demanded to know what she was playing at. At this rate there’d be nothing left on Paddy’s vegetable barrow but a bunch of mouldy carrots. Did she think this was any way to conduct a business?
She was in one of her moods and pretended to be lost in thought. He could have hit her. There was nothing of her mother in her face, save perhaps for the freckles on her cheek-bones.
‘Carry on like this,’ he said, not for the first time, ‘and you’ll end up behind the counter at Woolworth’s.’ It was foolish of him to goad her. It was not beyond her to run towards such employment in order to spite him.
‘You push me too hard,’ she said. ‘You want reflected glory.’
He raised his arm then, but when she pushed past him with swimming eyes his world was drowned in tears.
He telephoned Harcourt and sought reassurance, in a round-about way. ‘Three bottles of disinfectant,’ he said, reading from the list in front of him. ‘Four pounds of carbolic soap . . . one dozen candles . . . two dozen toilet rolls . . . George Lipman’s put in a word with his sister. On Stella’s behalf.’
‘’Fraid I can only manage a dozen,’ Harcourt said. ‘And they’re shop-soiled.’
‘Am I doing the right thing, I ask myself?’
‘I don’t see what else is open to her,’ said Harcourt. ‘Not if the school won’t have her back.’
‘Not
won’t
,’ corrected Vernon. ‘It’s more that they don’t feel she’ll gain any benefit from staying on. And you know Stella. Once her mind’s made up . . .’
‘Indeed I do,’ said Harcourt. Although he had never met the girl he often remarked to his wife that he could take an exam on the subject, if pushed. His extensive knowledge of Stella was based on the regular progress reports provided by Vernon when making his monthly order for bathroom and wash-house supplies.
‘She caused an uproar the other week,’ confided Vernon, ‘over the hoteliers’ dinner dance: Lily got her hands on some parachute silk and took her to that dressmaker in Duke Street to be fitted for a frock. Come the night, with the damn thing hanging up on the back door to get rid of the creases, she refused to wear it. She was adamant. In the end none of us went. I expect you all wondered where we were.’
BOOK: An Awfully Big Adventure
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