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Authors: Celia Fremlin

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“I’d stop going out with him, of course,” said Margaret firmly, as Helen had known she would. “After all, Helen, what’s the point?
not getting anything out of it; and what about him? I mean, dear, are you sure you’re being quite fair to him, going on with it like this? It’s obvious that he must be rather fond of you—”

“Oh, but Granny, he
! That’s the whole point! At least, I don’t think he is. I don’t see how he can be, I’m so
when I’m with him, really I am, you can’t imagine. I’m just as bad as he is. He keeps asking me because—well, because he finds it just as difficult not to say ‘Well, next Wednesday, then,’ as
find it not to say ‘All right, I’d love to.’ It’s something to say, you see, when we say goodbye. He can’t think of anything else, and neither can I.”

Margaret sucked the end of her cotton thoughtfully.

“Why don’t you bring him home sometimes?” she suggested. “Then we could all meet him, and perhaps we could help you to get some sort of conversation going. That’s what’s the trouble—you neither of you have any conversation. When I was young, girls were
to be able to make conversation. It was part of their education.”

“When you were young there weren’t boys like Clive,” said Helen confidently. “In those days, boys were all strong and masterful, and there were all those lovely Jane-Austen-y rules about how you had to behave, and how he had to behave, and everything. It must have been terribly easy for you.”

“Oh, but my pet, it wasn’t! You’ve no idea! We had
as many problems.” Margaret laid down her sewing, and frowned with the concentration needed to summon up some of those hideous episodes which would surely put her
’s troubles quite in the shade. “I well remember one boy—well, he was a young man, really, older than your Clive, just as I was older than you—we just
older in those days. Well, every time this young man came to call for me, he’d ask me what I wanted to do; and I never dared suggest anything,
because I didn’t know how much money he wanted to spend. So we’d just stand there, with me saying ‘anything you like’ and him saying, ‘No, I want to do what
like’, until… until…” Margaret shook her head helplessly, baffled across the vista of the years. “I can’t think, now, how it ever
end … looking back, I feel as if it had gone on for ever, standing there in my best dress, in the afternoon sun, and saying ‘Whatever you like’ while he fiddled with the latch of the front gate.”

Helen laughed. “But, Granny, why didn’t you suggest going for a walk, or something? Something that couldn’t cost any money?”

“Ah, well, dear. I suppose I was very silly and inexperienced at the time, and I thought he might think it rather fast—rather presuming—of me to suggest an amusement that meant we would be alone together all the time, with only ourselves for company. I thought it would sound as if I thought I was sufficiently entertaining company for him to enjoy walking around with me for a whole afternoon. I was afraid I’d bore him dreadfully if he really got to know me. Oh dear, how silly we both were!”

Margaret was smiling reminiscently. She had clearly forgotten all about the splendid way girls were brought up in her day, and how they could always make conversation with young men. Helen smiled too.

“Oh, Granny, I know just how you must have felt! I’d have been like that too, I’m sure. What was his name? What’s
to him?”

Margaret shook her head, smiling.

“I’ve forgotten, dear. I’ve absolutely forgotten. I wonder how long you’ll remember Clive’s name? Long enough to tell your children? Your grandchildren?”

Helen peered into the future, blank as a brick wall after
and the end of her school life. She would remember
, surely, for the simple reason that nothing beyond that wall would ever be so important again. She felt for a moment that she had only these three years left to live; she was older, far, than her grandmother who had at least ten, perhaps twenty, more years of living just as she did now. The terrible sadness, the shortness of life, of childhood, caught in her throat, and she felt that in her memories she would actually love Clive at last, awful though he was to live through here and now.

“I expect I’ll remember him,” she said. “But I must be sure and remember how awful he was, too. It’ll be such a comfort to
daughters when
have to go out with awful boys. Granny, shall I make us some tea? Or is Mummy in?”

Margaret knew exactly what Helen meant by these
disconnected alternatives; and for a moment she felt she should reprove the girl. Whatever unspoken understanding might flow between them, she and Helen should not put into words, ever, the fact that Claudia’s presence would utterly
the special quality of their evening tea-drinking. But she decided, thankfully, that it would be all right to let it pass, for really nothing had exactly been
—had it now?—not as a positive statement.

“No, your mother won’t be in till quite late,” said Margaret. “And nor will—er—Mavis.” For months Margaret had obstinately refused to refer to their visitor by her Christian name—she felt that all the while she said ‘Mrs Andrews’ she could feel that the woman was still a stranger, with no real place in the household. But what with Claudia accusing her of mealy-mouthed hypocrisy in using the title ‘Mrs’, and Margaret’s own feeling that the title ‘Miss’ was quite
ostentatious and flamboyant in calling attention to the girl’s unmarried state, she had finally given in. ‘Mavis’ seemed the only solution.

Helen soon returned with the tea things and a tin of biscuits, as they sipped and nibbled they talked some more about Margaret’s distant boy friends, and about Helen’s prospects of some time finding one that she actually liked. Margaret assured her that this would happen when she was nineteen, not before; and Helen found this verdict deeply consoling. It seemed to take a great weight of responsibility off her shoulders here and now.

After that they played records on the gramophone—
pop songs and sentimental Irish ballads as first Helen and then her grandmother made the choice. It was funny, Helen thought, that it was so much pleasanter to play pop music to her grandmother, who often protested acidly about various items, and even put her hands over her ears, than to her mother who approved of pop music enormously, and always
Helen to buy the latest hits. Another funny thing was that her grandmother, who so much disapproved of so much of it, could nevertheless recognise the voices of all the current
singers, and could often be heard humming the latest tunes as she went about her work, whereas Mummy, for all her
and approval, never seemed to recognise one single name or tune.

and clamouring of the birds woke Margaret even earlier than usual, and in a moment she was out of bed and flinging up the window. In her
she leaned out and drew in deep, long breaths of the misty, early summer dawn. Mist, silvery, golden mist was everywhere, promising heat, a real summer’s day, and as Margaret leaned her elbows on the sill, she planned her day’s programme so as to make the most of it. The chickens first, of course; by seven o’clock, before anyone else was awake, she would have carried their mash out to them through the virgin, untouched morning; and then, standing by the wire door of their run, she would watch them enjoying the food with greedy, frantic gulps, bulging and quivering right down their necks in their eagerness. All through the winter Margaret mixed their morning middlings with boiling water, so that they should have something warm and satisfying to start the day. She was still doing it now, even though it was May, partly because the mornings were still a little bit chilly, and partly, she admitted to herself, because she loved to do it for them, to give them this little extra bit of
from her hands. She loved, too, the nourishing, satisfying smell of the hot meal as she stirred it with a great wooden spoon, stirring and pounding, adding a few more drops of
water according to her practised eye, until the last powdery pale trace of dry meal was absorbed into the rich, dark mass. This morning she had an extra treat to stir in for them, some chopped bacon rinds; they went mad over those. Margaret could hardly wait to start the day, and in a very few minutes she was down in the kitchen, fully dressed and with
already on, stirring busily.

Her annoyance was intense when she heard footsteps on the stairs. This was
time, this early morning hour—the time when she could count on solitude, on being able to do things exactly her own way and in her own time, and when she could
revel in the company of her own contented thoughts and plans for the day ahead. And now here was a Person, coming
at barely a quarter to seven! Margaret turned and faced the kitchen door like an animal at bay. And the awful thing was that she would have no right to snap at them when they came in or ask them what their business was. For nobody knew that this was
bit of the day, her own private possession. It had never been allotted to her; whoever it was out there would think that they had just as much right to it as Margaret had—in fact they would probably be feeling positively virtuous at being up so early.

“Oh—Mrs Newman—!”

Mavis. Of all people. Mavis, who was never properly up before eleven! Sheer surprise took the edge of Margaret’s
, and she simply stared at the intruder, her wooden spoon, clotted with dark middlings, motionless above the pan.

“Oh, Mrs Newman, is Claudia—? I mean, I heard someone in the kitchen—I thought it was Claudia—?”

Mavis rubbed her eyes, looking childish and quite stupid. Why couldn’t she ever explain anything properly? Her words fell out over the edge of her thoughts quite at random, like rice shaken from a jar, and the hearer had to piece them together into sense as best he could.

“Claudia won’t be up for another hour at least,” said Margaret repressively. “Her alarm doesn’t go till half past seven even when Derek’s here.
the only one who’s ever down at this time. I do the chickens, you see, and then breakfast….”

Mavis wasn’t listening to a word, or course. She had evidently come downstairs with some single, fixed idea in her head, and there it would stay, leaving no room for anything else, no thought or perception of any kind, until Margaret had winkled it out and dealt with it.

“What is it, what’s the matter?” she asked resignedly. “What did you want Claudia for?”

“The ladder!” ejaculated Mavis, still looking as stupid as could be. “There’s a ladder leaning against the wall. It wasn’t there last night, I’m sure it wasn’t.”

Margaret wondered what she was supposed to do about it. And why? What was Mavis getting at?

“Well—I suppose somebody was using it for something,” she suggested unhelpfully. “Claudia will know. I don’t see why
have to be worrying about it, and at this hour in the morning! Why don’t you go back to bed? Excuse me,” she added “Do you mind if I come past … The chickens…” She edged her way past the inert figure of Mavis in the doorway, carrying her steaming pan. Really, the girl might be walking in her sleep, so stupid she seemed, and so slow!

But as the steam from the chicken food rose gently into her face, Mavis showed signs of life. She stepped aside quite smartly, blinked, and shook her straggly hair as if there were wasps in it.

“No—well—I’m sorry, I’m sure!” she said, apparently offended already by something in this short, futile conversation. “I just thought we should find out how it got there, that’s all. It’s right up against the window, you see, just as if someone had been climbing in in the night! Come and see, Mrs Newman. Come and see for yourself!”

Irritatingly, she accompanied Margaret along the passage and out through the back door. By going outside into the chilly morning Margaret had confidently expected to shake her off.

“Look, Mrs Newman!” she kept saying: “Look—along there—just under the landing window! Come along, I’ll show you…”

As if I was blind! thought Margaret crossly: I can see where the ladder is: and she watched sourly as Mavis stumbled off along the uneven brick path into the mist, her high-heeled mules, decorated with bedraggled fur, flapping and clapping unsteadily.

“Come—see, Mrs Newman!” called Mavis, with the
of a child. “Whatever do you think it’s doing here? Who do you think can have been trying to get in?”

Her fatuous alarm roused Margaret’s scorn to boiling point.

“I expect it was a vampire come to suck your blood,” she declared with gusto. “I expect he wanted to slit your throat from ear to ear…”

Mavis’ laugh tinkled almost immediately through the mist. She was getting quite quick at recognising jokes when she heard them, and she wanted Margaret to notice it.

“Ooo, Mrs Newman!” was the best she could do in the way of repartee, and she began picking her way back along the brick paving: but long before she had teetered the full distance, Margaret had escaped—down the garden, through the gate, and into the still, grey field, heavy with dew, waiting, with all its hidden flowers and insects, for the coming of the sun.

The subject of the ladder came up again at breakfast, and Claudia, to Margaret’s satisfaction, took the same attitude as she had herself.

“But, Mavis, I can’t see why you’re worrying about it,” she said. “It’s probably been there all along, ever since the men were doing the gutters that time.”

Margaret was a little surprised at this last remark. It was unlike Claudia to be so wrong about a simple matter of fact; and the ladder certainly
been there yesterday, or at any time previously this year.

“But, Claudia, it
there yesterday,” Mavis persisted. “I
it wasn’t, because—” and then she stopped dead, in mid sentence, with a suddenness that made everyone look up. Everyone except Claudia, that is;
eyes were fixed innocently on her plate, giving, Margaret thought, undue attention to her triangle of toast and marmalade. Had she kicked Mavis under the table to silence her? Just like Claudia—involving everyone in an exhausting and incomprehensible maze of diplomacy out of which she alone knew the way.

At this point Helen, seeming to come to a sudden decision, blurted out: “Mummy, I—it was—”

Like a flash, Claudia turned on her daughter with a dazzling smile, a huge, arresting glitter of white teeth. “What, dear?” she interrupted rapidly. “Helen, just look at the time! Surely you should be getting ready for school?”

“All right. Yes.” Helen, looking both relieved and surprised, left the table with alacrity; and before any of the remainder of the party had time to comment on the little episode, Claudia began to talk, in a loud, clear voice about the rise in the price of petrol and the effect it might be expected to have on the traffic blocks in the main road.

I wonder what she’s up to, Margaret mused. If it was Helen who put the ladder up, why is Claudia so anxious to prevent her saying so? Perhaps she thinks that Helen came in very late last night, after the doors were locked, and that I shall make a fuss about it? But Helen was in early—Ah, so
was it…! The real truth of the matter dawned on Margaret, and she nearly burst out laughing; but then, taking pity on her two anxious companions, she restrained her amusement, finished her breakfast as quickly as possible and went off upstairs, leaving
Claudia free to soothe Mavis’ nervous suspicions about the ladder in any way she chose.

The voices from the dining-room below went on for quite a while, rising and falling; then a door opened, and shut, and then another … footsteps were hurrying this way and that, voices were calling; the morning scramble for school and office was in full swing. The sounds rose to a peak, and then, suddenly, silence filled the house once more—a silence made more
even than usual this morning by the fact that Claudia, for some wonderful reason which Margaret hadn’t bothered to comprehend, was taking Mavis with her to the office for the day.

A whole golden morning stretched ahead, in which Margaret could get on with her work exactly as she pleased, without Mavis hanging around, muddling wetly about in the freshly tidied bathroom, dropping curlers all over the place, and feebly offering to help with things. While the sun broke slowly and gloriously through the mist outside, Margaret, as if in
with the summer day, set herself indoors to make the house shine in its fullest splendour. She rubbed up the brass ornaments and candlesticks in the dining-room; she polished the long table and the knobbly, carved backs of the chairs which had been old when she was a little girl; moving on into the hall, she washed the tiled floor, wiped down the banisters, and was just about to start on the red tiles round the front door, when the telephone rang.

It’ll be Claudia, she thought, with a sudden sinking of the heart; it’ll be Claudia saying that Mavis will be coming home for lunch after all. My day, my lovely day, will be spoilt. I shan’t be able to sit in the basket chair by the wallflowers with my coffee and my sandwich; I shan’t be able to listen to the bees, or read my library book, or lie basking in the long sunshine between lunch and tea….

Her relief at hearing a strange voice when she picked up the telephone was so great that it must have quite surprised her unknown caller. He sounded somewhat taken aback. “Is that Langley 2344?” he asked twice, each time more doubtfully, as if he could not really believe in her assent; and then: “Does a Mrs Claudia Wilkinson live there?”

“She does: but I’m afraid she’s not in just now. Can I give her a message?” asked Margaret, her heart still singing with
friendliness towards her interlocutor simply because he couldn’t possibly be anything to do with Mavis coming back for lunch. “Or can I do anything myself? I’m her mother,” she added chattily, in case it might be any help to him. “I live here.”

Oh.” The voice sounded young, awkward, unaccustomed to dealing with social complexities. There was quite a pause. Then: “Oh, well. Perhaps—er— Look, do you think I could come round and see her this evening? About eight thirty? Will she be in then?”

“Why—yes—I think she will—she hasn’t said anything to me about going out,” said Margaret uncertainly. “Shall I try to get in touch with her at the office—get her to ring you back?”

“No! Oh no!” The voice sounded quite agitated. “I—you see, I’m not really on the phone. No, I’d sooner just take a chance on it. Can I do that? Can I come at half past eight, and if she’s not there—well, I’ll just go away again? Is that all right?”

“Well, yes, we’d be delighted, of course,” said Margaret, somewhat bewildered. “That is, if
don’t mind the risk of wasting your journey. Do you live far from here?”

“Oh. Well.” Again he seemed a little flustered. “Not
. No, not all that far. It’ll be O.K.”

“Well, then, we’ll look forward to seeing you, Mr—er—” and it was only then, just as they were both about to ring off, that Margaret realised that she still did not know the young man’s name.

“Just a moment—what was the name?” she asked
; and then, when she couldn’t hear properly what he said, she asked again. Maurice something. Or was it something Morris? She couldn’t possibly ask a
time, so saying “
, Mr—er—” she laid down the receiver, trying to place either name among the business acquaintances of whom Claudia occasionally spoke; but without success. Oh well; she would soon know: lifting the receiver, she dialled Claudia’s office number.

Claudia’s delight at hearing of the arrangement seemed to Margaret excessive. It made her uneasy. Who
this person be who could put such a lilt of excitement into her daughter’s usually business-like voice?

“But who
he, Claudia?” she asked, at the risk of seeming inquisitive. “Have I heard of him before?”

“Oh—I can’t quite tell you over the phone,” Claudia answered rapidly, her voice still full of inexplicable excitement. “It’s a bit complicated, in a way … I’ll tell you all about it tonight. And, Mother—” her voice had changed now, there was a note of anxious sharpness behind the jubilation—“You
promise not to be difficult, won’t you? Please! Promise me!”

She means she’s going to invite him to stay the night, Margaret thought darkly; and he will never go away again, never. Like Mavis. Like that man two years ago, that PhD student with the stomach ulcer whose wife had left him for an actor, only by the mercy of Heaven she came back to him,
about actors, before his diet, and his insomnia, and his views on the American Way of Life had driven Margaret stark, raving mad. Why couldn’t Derek put his foot down? Was he a man or a mouse? A mouse, of course, was the answer, but
would have described it as ‘trusting Claudia absolutely’. And anyway he was away until at least the end of the month, which no doubt was why Claudia had schemed this up just now, so as to present him with a fait accompli. That the recent
-seeming telephone call had been part of some complex machinations on Claudia’s part, Margaret did not now doubt. Promise not to be difficult she would

BOOK: Prisoner's Base
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