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Authors: Celia Fremlin

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I
N
THESE DAYS
there are few sights more terrifying than that of a well-dressed man with a notebook looking at a piece of land.

As Margaret stood watching him from the upstairs landing window, she kept telling herself that it was of no significance; that she was just a suspicious old woman to be giving it a thought. Why shouldn’t he just be a passer-by, happening to pause at the gate to enjoy the sight of a field of buttercups under the morning sun? Admittedly, he didn’t look the sort of man who would enjoy anything, least of all a field of buttercups; but there, you shouldn’t really judge a man by his looks; who knows how many a joyous soul may lurk gleefully behind a lined and miserable face?

But what about that dark, neat suit—a suit of ill-omen, if ever there was one? Why, poor fellow, perhaps he had just escaped from his office for an hour; and the notebook?—why, it might be
anything
—a diary … a record of the wild flowers of the neighbourhood … and all the while Margaret’s heart was thumping, deep down inside her, the dark, unmistakable rhythm of disaster.

The field was going to be built on. The man had not yet so much as lifted the latch of the gate; he had not yet taken his horrible measuring implements from about his person, but Margaret felt already that the field was doomed. Doomed now, in the glory of the year, with the buttercups just out and the blossom still pink on the two gnarled old apple trees; now, when in their domain of sun and straw Margaret’s Rhode Island Reds were enjoying their first dust-baths of the year; when Claribel had gone properly broody at last and was settling down beautifully on her clutch of eggs after all the trouble and the worry…. It was now …
now,
in the time sacred to the sunshine and to new life, that this black, starched, polished monster had chosen to come and look at her field with his small, cement-mixer eyes….

Her
field! Yes, of course it was hers really … they couldn’t
do a thing without consulting her, of course they couldn’t …! In one swift movement, quick as a girl in spite of her sixty-odd years, Margaret drew in from the window and whirled herself across the landing to lean over the banisters.

“Claudia!” she called—annoyed, as she heard the urgent syllables echoing round the draughty passages downstairs, that she had allowed her dismay to sound in her voice. She had meant to sound calm, authoritative, right from the beginning. “Claudia! Are you there?”

Footsteps from the dining-room, brisk and irritable already, clicking with the ostentatious patience of the one who has to humour a sentimental old fool. So she knows, reflected Margaret shrewdly, listening to those footsteps: she knows just what it’s all about; let her not try any wide-eyed surprise on
me
…!

“What is it, Mother?” Claudia, looking both striking and competent in a pair of dark slacks and a loose, brilliant
shirt-blouse
, leaned against the mahogany spiral of the banisters, staring upwards. “What’s the matter
now
?”

The last word, wearily emphasised, suggested that Margaret had already made a dozen unreasonable complaints this morning; Claudia’s whole stance was that of one braced ready for the last straw. Claudia had always been an adept at putting you in the wrong before you had so much as opened your mouth; Margaret had been waiting for her to grow out of this unlovable talent ever since she was thirteen: but she never had. Indeed, she was getting better at it, and now, at nearly forty, she could switch off most family arguments before they began at all; like turning the water off at the main in some depressing outhouse to which she alone had access.

But she wasn’t going to switch off
this
argument; Margaret swooped to the attack.

“Who’s that man in the field? What’s he supposed to be doing?”

“What man?” But Claudia herself must have felt this to be pointlessly unconvincing—pointlessly, since her mother would certainly have to be told in the end—“Oh—do you mean Mr Marvin?” she amended, with slightly forced guilelessness. “Oh, he’s just the man from Thoroughgoods’.
You
know,
Thoroughgood
and Willows. You pass their office every time you go down the High Street! You
must
know them!”

Of course Margaret knew them; and of course Claudia knew
that she knew. The barely veiled suggestion that her mother had grown so forgetful as not to recognise the name of the chief estate agent in the district was a typical Claudia-ism—a
calculated
manoeuvre to belittle and undermine her opponent on irrelevant issues before the real argument had even begun. This was to be a real fight, then. All right: if Claudia was going to deploy all
her
best weapons, then Margaret was going to deploy hers too; the chief of them being, of course, the fact that the field was hers.

“And what, may I ask,” she enquired, with as much dignity as was compatible with making sure that Claudia could hear her over the banisters—“What is the man from Thoroughgood and Willows doing in my field? What possible business can he have there?
I
didn’t ask him to come!”

“Now, don’t panic, Mother. Just relax. Why is it that women of your generation always have to be so tense? Naturally, the field has to be valued; and to be valued it has to be looked at. Doesn’t it? Surely that’s common sense? They have to send a
man
along. To
look
at it.” Claudia was emphasising the simplest of the one-syllable words as if she was hoping that these, at least, might come within the range of her mother’s intelligence.

“What do you mean—‘naturally’? There’s no ‘naturally’ about it. I never asked to have it valued. I never for one minute …”

“Oh, Mother, we don’t have to go into all this
again,
do we?” Claudia’s air of embattled boredom seemed to Margaret overdone in view of the fact that the subject had never
previously
been mentioned between them. Claudia continued, with exaggerated forebearance:
“Surely,
Mother, you must remember that piece in the paper about the new road proposed along Haddows Bottom? And how it would add enormously to the value of all the adjoining property? Goodness knows you made enough fuss about it at the time—you
can’t
have forgotten!”

Claudia shook her head wonderingly, and gave the little laugh with which she was apt to conclude arguments. The little laugh indicated to her opponent that Claudia was not only right, but was magnanimous enough to tolerate
good-humouredly
the stupidity of the person who was wrong. It wasn’t their fault, said the little laugh; they couldn’t help it: they weren’t wicked at all, just funny. Margaret controlled her momentary desire to take Claudia by the shoulders and shake her till that little smile rattled on her face. Instead, she endeavoured to
think, quickly and calmly, what would be her best course now.

For it was clear that something serious was afoot.
Underneath
Claudia’s familiar ploys, Margaret could detect a
defensive
wariness: Claudia was bracing herself against an
expected
explosion. Clearly, she had already taken some step which was going to rouse her mother’s fury. But what, exactly, was it? Had she actually put the field up for sale already? But how could she? It wasn’t hers, it was Margaret’s. Even though they had all lived here together all these years, and naturally Derek and Claudia had always acted as master and mistress of the house, as became the married couple—nevertheless, it
was
all Margaret’s really; it was in her name, it was hers by law—though naturally you wouldn’t want to bring the law into a family argument. Still, there it was, you didn’t have to forget it entirely. Claudia certainly hadn’t, as you could tell by all this defensive needling and sneering. If Claudia had had a legal right to sell the field, she wouldn’t waste time being nasty to people; she would simply sell it.

“You see,” Claudia was explaining carefully, as if to a child, “when something like this happens, the value of a property
changes.
It becomes more
valuable.
I’d have thought that was so obvious—I can’t really see your difficulty?”

“But you can see
yours,
I hope!” snapped Margaret, her temper and her courage mounting together
“Your
difficulty is that the field doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to me, and so you can’t do anything with it whatsoever without my approval. It’s my field, and I’m not selling, whatever its value is. So you’re wasting your time finding out about it, you and Derek. I don’t care if it’s worth ten million pounds, I’m not selling it. So go and tell that black creature out there to go and crawl back into his underground office, switch on the strip-lighting, and stop
wasting
his precious time out here in the sunshine! Tell him you made a stupid mistake, that you had no business to ask him to come, and if he’s still there in five minutes’ time I’ll have him up for trespassing! Tell him that!”

For a few seconds mother and daughter faced each other, measuring one another’s strength. They had done this at
intervals
, Margaret reflected, ever since Claudia was five months old, and the texture of the feeling hadn’t changed at all. As she looked at her daughter down the length of the stairs, it seemed no time at all since she had looked under the hood of
the pram into those same imperious blue eyes; had watched those same lips quiver, poised for action, seeming even then to be assessing the exact moment at which it would be profitable to split open in ear-shattering howls. The fact that the howls had been replaced over the years first by shrill argument and then by caustic innuendo seemed to make absolutely no difference at all.

The fact that she could remember Claudia in her pram whereas Claudia couldn’t gave Margaret a sudden irrational feeling of vast power. Age, for all its weaknesses,
did
give you the upper hand, somehow. Why, she could remember a world that had kept ticking over perfectly satisfactorily without Claudia in it at all! She almost laughed in her relief.

“Well, that’s all I wanted to say, dear,” Margaret concluded —gently, as becomes the victorious one. “I just thought I should let you know that I’m
not
selling the field, not at any price at all. So you and Derek can put the whole thing right out of your minds and not worry any more about it!”

She turned to make a fittingly dignified escape back into her bedroom. She was determined, if Claudia’s voice should pursue her, flinging at her some final cutting remark, she would pay no attention; she would not give Claudia the satisfaction of knowing that she had even heard.

But trust Claudia to think of the one thing—the one and only solitary thing—that could make her mother break this dignified resolution.

“I’m glad Helen’s not here,” said Claudia—not loudly, but with a bitterness that carried up the stairs better than any angry shouting. “I’d hate her to know that her grandmother can be like this. I’d hate her to have heard the megalomaniac way you’ve just been talking. I think she’d have been shocked; I really do!”

The words were just missiles, of course, empty of any factual significance; but nevertheless Margaret found herself strangely shaken.

“You’re jealous!” she cried incautiously over the banisters. “You’re just jealous, because you know Helen’s going to take my side!” and so saying she swept back into her bedroom and slammed the door.

That was a mistake, of course, and Margaret realised it at once when she heard how quietly, how composedly, Claudia was shutting the dining-room door downstairs. The one who slammed the door lost a lot of points in this sort of thing; it at
once brought their point of view down to the level of a childish tantrum. It had been a mistake, too, to let Helen be brought into the dispute. This was Claudia’s doing, of course, but all the same, Margaret should have simply not answered. In the course of her long life Margaret had learned that by not
answering
a remark you can make that remark not have been made, practically. It not only takes two to make a quarrel, it takes two to let a communication take place at all.

They ought to be more careful, she and Claudia, not to use Helen like this, as a stick with which to beat each other; the more so because, in a sense, their roles in respect of Helen were reversed. It was Margaret, the grandmother, who had
really
brought up Helen—or so at least it seemed to her. For surely it is the person who once washed the nappies and sieved the spinach, who later had the toast and tea ready by the fire at the end of a long school day—surely
this
is the person who can be said to have brought up the child? Not the one who had always been at work all day, pursuing an absorbing career, and whose relationship with her child seemed to Margaret to have consisted largely of flinging theories of child-psychology, like monkey-wrenches, into the otherwise smoothly running household.

This was how it seemed to Margaret when, as now, she was feeling angry with her daughter. But there were other times, friendly, good-humoured times, when Margaret wondered guiltily whether she was, perhaps, deliberately stealing Helen’s affections from where they rightfully belonged—with her own parents. This delicate moral issue was further complicated by the fact that Margaret couldn’t—she simply
could
not
—approve of Claudia’s methods with Helen—particularly now that the girl was growing up, just on fifteen, and surely in need of guidance and gentle discipline as never before? In vain Margaret told herself that this was a typical grandmother’s reaction; that times change, methods change, children
themselves
probably change, are different in their very souls, ever and anon breathing the air of a new, strange decade. Why, it was almost axiomatic that the grandmother must be wrong; and at spasmodic intervals Margaret made the most
conscientious
and sustained efforts to consider herself wrong about Helen. It never worked, but the effort in itself did seem to make her feel better in some indefinable sort of way, and more tolerant towards Claudia. After all, Claudia, though irritating,
did
have
a lot of good qualities. Leaning her elbows on the windowsill, and feeling it hot through her cotton blouse with the first real sunshine of the year, Margaret set herself, systematically, to make a list of Claudia’s good qualities. She often did this after a quarrel, as a sort of spiritual exercise.

BOOK: Prisoner's Base
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