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Authors: Celia Fremlin

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“My dearest Claudia,

“I was so glad to receive your letter this morning, and Helen’s too. It is delightful indeed to hear that she has been doing so well in Latin this term. To have come second in the recent test is an excellent result, when one remembers how difficult she found this subject on first going to the school.
you would convey to her my congratulations, and tell her I will be writing to her very shortly. Explain to her that we have a very tightly packed programme here, which leaves little time for letter writing; and though I, personally, would very willingly omit some of the more purely social occasions, I fear that our hosts might take this amiss.

“I was most interested to hear of this young writer you are befriending. From what you tell me, he would seem to be a most deserving person, in spite of his unfortunate start in life, and I can see no reason why he should not pay us a short visit some time this summer, as you suggest: that is, if you think we have room for him? As you know, dear, I leave these domestic decisions entirely to you!

“The weather here continues warm and very sunny, and I am told it is likely to continue thus for several weeks—a pleasant prospect if, as now seems likely, our stay here has to be extended. At this time of year the fjords—”

Each member of the family in turn had laid down the letter at this point: the last three pages were perfectly unread and smooth. Poor Derek’s painstaking and exact descriptions of the places he travelled in never received the interest they deserved,
and on this occasion there was even less attention than usual to spare for them. With tight lips, Margaret refolded the letter and handed it back to her daughter: and then the two faced each other across the breakfast table, both knowing that the battle had now begun in earnest; that Claudia’s handing round of Derek’s letter for general perusal had been the first move in what was to be a major campaign.

“For two pins,” began Margaret ominously “I’d write to Derek myself and tell him what’s really going on. I’d—”

“But of course, Mother! I’m sure he’d like to hear your news as well as ours,” cut in Claudia, her voice bland and yet steely: and with the tiniest lift of her eyebrow she managed to call attention to the fact that she, Margaret, was provoking a family row right under Helen’s nose. No doubt Claudia had
the whole scene, Margaret thought furiously, with this very object in view: that Margaret should be obliged to stifle her first, splendid indignation because of the unsuitability of the audience. And what made it doubly infuriating was that it was Margaret’s susceptibilities that were being employed to this end, not Claudia’s own: Claudia herself did not mind
was said in front of Helen, and was always pooh-poohing Margaret’s old-fashioned scruples.

Margaret finished her breakfast in silent fury, and afterwards she hung about the hall and stairs, trying to catch her daughter alone.

But Claudia was too clever for her. As she bustled about getting ready for work, she contrived to have Helen following her around discussing some problem about getting a skirt altered and back from the cleaners in time for the weekend: and after this Providence decreed that Mavis should take over—inept and half asleep, but still purposeful—about some setting lotion that she had bought last week and might have left on the back seat of Claudia’s car. By the time it had been established—quickly to Claudia’s satisfaction, and some while later to Mavis’—that the setting lotion was neither on, under, nor down the sides of any of the seats: and that Mavis had, in fact, come back by bus from that particular shopping expedition—by this time, it was no wonder that Claudia should have no time to do anything but drive swiftly away.

And so it came about that the showdown about Maurice was delayed: delayed through all the long, hot, sun-drenched day,
while Margaret’s first bright anger—and indeed her interest—waned hour by hour as she worked, and basked, and worked again, putting her multifarious tasks and enjoyments one after another satisfactorily behind her. By evening she was feeling too content, too pleasantly tired, to contemplate a quarrel with Claudia about anything.

And in any case, by then it was too late, for Maurice was already there.

Margaret had not heard him arrive. The first intimation she had that something was afoot came while she was out in the field, shutting up the chickens for the night; and it was less a sound than a sudden sense of urgency that made her look up from latching Claribel’s coop. There, at the gate from the garden into the field, stood Helen, gesticulating wildly and
to her.

Margaret did not call out in response. It was clear from Helen’s conspiratorial manner, as well as from her silent, frantic mouthings, that the matter was by way of being a confidential one; so Margaret simply gesticulated too, and waved; and finally, as no intelligible communication emerged from all this, and she was consumed with curiosity, she beckoned
to her granddaughter. And now Helen was bounding towards her, leaping like a wild creature through the long grass already grey with evening, although the sun was not quite gone, and the tops of the hedges were still touched with rosy light.

“Granny!” exclaimed Helen, as she came near enough for a breathless stage-whisper. “Such
things are happening! Daddy’s study is all full of luggage and things, and somebody’s pulled out the Put-U-Up! What on earth is happening? Who’s supposed to be coming?”

Helen seemed intrigued rather than dismayed by the news she was bringing, and Margaret recollected quickly that this was natural enough. She was of an age to enjoy excitements and upheavals, and so far she could have no reason to suppose that there was anything unwelcome about this particular
. Unwilling to damp the girl’s innocent anticipation, Margaret tried to hide her own vexation—indeed her horror. For she knew without any doubt who the visitor must be. It was too bad of Claudia; it really was. Shiftless unmarried mothers and neurotic nincompoops were all very well; but a self-confessed murderer was surely rather a different matter?

Margaret raised herself creakingly from her crouching
over the coop, stood up straight, and regarded her
helplessly for a moment. How much to tell her? The truth, her old-fashioned instincts told her, was unsuitable for Helen’s ears. The girl might be shocked and frightened beyond what was right—or, worse still, she might be evilly fascinated. On the other hand, ignorance might be dangerous—even more dangerous, that is, than the situation seemed likely to be
. Damn Claudia! She should be laid over a chair and spanked! Spanked and spanked until she shrieked for mercy! If only Derek had done just this right at the beginning of their marriage … or if only Margaret had done it a bit more when Claudia was a child…. Oh, well, no use bemoaning these lost opportunities. What had to be dealt with now was the
Claudia—clever, determined, and self-appointed now to a position of near-totalitarian bossiness and self-righteousness. And, more immediately, here was Helen, agog with curiosity, and already puzzled, no doubt, by her grandmother’s delay in replying. Pusillanimously, Margaret played for time.

“I suppose it must be something your mother is arranging,” she suggested, carefully off-hand. “She hasn’t told me about it. Why don’t you ask her? She’s somewhere about indoors.”

“I know. I did ask her, but she was being a bit snappy and mysterious about it, because Mavis was there. I don’t think she wants Mavis to know about it, or something. One thing and another, I thought I’d better disappear before I put my foot in it any worse. But I’ll tell you what
think it is, Granny. I think it’s another of Mummy’s Poor Things. A new one! Do you think it might possibly be the one Daddy was going on about in his letter—the writer person with the unfortunate past? He sounded as if he’d make the most marvellous Poor Thing, didn’t he?”

It was a splendid term, really, for Claudia’s assortment of spongers and derelicts, but nevertheless it was hardly a
one, and disrespect towards adults, however idiotic, should not, Margaret felt, be encouraged in the young. She felt in duty bound at least to make a show of disapproval.

“These people that your mother tries to help, do you mean, dear? You mustn’t forget, Helen, that it really is very kind—very charitable—of your mother, and she really
succeed in doing a lot of good—”

“Oh, I
Granny!” Helen flung her arms round her grandmother, half embracing, half impatiently shaking her, as if she was a tiresome child. “Of course I know. It’s marvellous of Mummy, and all that. But I hate it when you think you have to go all prissy like this, and stop some lovely conversation, when all the time you agree with me absolutely. Now, don’t you, Granny? Admit it! Admit that you think the Poor Things are as funny as can be. Remember the one who’d chucked up his job because he thought the end of the world was due, and then …”

In spite of her lofty principles, Margaret was soon laughing as heartily as her granddaughter. She finished off the last of her chores in the chicken run, refilling the water bowls and setting to rights the food-tray, trampled to a strange angle and half filled with mud, and then she and Helen set off for the house. Once there, Helen made straight for her father’s study,
to see if any clue as to its future occupant were to be extracted from the unfamiliar baggage therein, while Margaret set off, full of grim purpose, in search of Claudia.

She found her upstairs, in Mavis’ bedroom. Although the room faced due west, right into the glory of the sunset, Mavis had her curtains already drawn, shutting it all out. If it had not been for this—the first thing that she noticed as she came into the hot, cluttered room—Margaret might have felt a good deal of sympathy for Mavis’ woebegone looks as she sat on the extreme edge of her bed, arguing, tearfully and ineffectually, with Claudia. But a woman who could thus blot out the
splendour of that sky deserved all she got, Margaret decided; and thus it was with the feeling of the fight being a threesome, all against all, that she planted herself into the middle of it. Had she controlled her feelings, and diplomatically recognised Mavis as an ally (albeit a feeble one, sadly
by tears and lack of vocabulary) the outcome might have been different.

“Oh—Mother—I’m glad you’ve come!” declared Claudia unconvincingly, and with a brittle edge to her bright tones. “I’ve been trying to explain to Mavis that it’s going to be
all right having Maurice here—he’ll be no trouble at all—it won’t affect her in any way. Or you, Mother. It won’t affect either of you. He’s
will look after him.”

Margaret tried to remember just what she had been going
to say in that first, fine flush of anger this morning when she read the letter from the poor bamboozled Derek. But it was all gone: the whole, splendid tirade lost for ever. The arguments were blurred now, the passion ironed out by the soothing
of a single golden summer day. All that was left was a resentful, imprecise sense of outrage.

“Really, Claudia, I do think,” she began, trying, at short notice, to reassemble her point of view, “I do think you are being quite insanely rash in rushing into this. You don’t know the man: you don’t even know exactly what he’s done. It may have been the most dreadful kind of murder. And to have him
here—staying in the house! Inviting him in for a meal now and again would be another matter—though even that, I should have thought, with a young girl like Helen in the house—”

“For Heaven’s sake!” cried Claudia, as if already at the end of her patience. “Why does everyone have to drag Helen into it? Why should she be in any more danger than anyone else? Why?”

“Well—I should have thought it was perfectly obvious!” said Margaret impatiently. “A young, inexperienced girl—”

“You mean you think Maurice is going to rape her!” snapped Claudia, two spots of red appearing, bright and menacing, on her cheek bones. “Then why can’t you say so? Why can’t you put it into plain words instead of these
euphemisms—‘Young, inexperienced girl’!—” Claudia quoted Margaret’s phrase in a sort of clipped, nasal falsetto to indicate the ultimate in old-maidishness and repression. Not altogether realistically, Margaret thought: never in all her life had
come across an old maid with a voice anything like that at all. “Well, go on! Say it!” Claudia was challenging her. “Say: ‘I think Maurice is going to rape Helen.’ That’s what you mean, isn’t it? That’s what you think he’s going to do!”

“I haven’t the faintest idea what this young man is going to do or not do,” retorted Margaret. “And neither have you. That’s my whole point—
of us know what he might, or might not, do. All we know for certain is that he has been convicted of at least one crime of violence in the past. We don’t know what it was, exactly; we don’t even know—”

“Speak for yourself!” cried Claudia. “As it happens, I
know what he’s done. He’s told me everything—in confidence,
naturally, so I’m afraid I can’t satisfy your curiosity. But I can tell you, Mother, for a positive fact, that it wasn’t rape. That disappoints you, doesn’t it?”—she turned on Margaret
: “You think you’re frightened on Helen’s account, don’t you: but subconsciously you’re revelling in the idea! Women of your age always do. Fantasies of vicarious sexual assault are the commonest—”

“Shall we save the clinical diagnosis for another time?”
Margaret coolly. “Some time when there are more people listening, for example—eh, Claudia? It’s wasted on me and Mavis:
doesn’t understand your long words, and
don’t understand how you can be so stupid, so between us we make a pretty poor audience for you. But I must say I’m glad to know that you’ve at least exerted yourself to find out
about this boy before imposing him on us. Your folly has
bounds, after all! Perhaps—”

BOOK: Prisoner's Base
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