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Authors: Margaret Kennedy

The Feast

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The Feast 

MARGARET
KENNEDY

To

MARGOT STREET

The Funeral Sermon

In September 1947 the Reverend Gerald Seddon, of St. Frideswide, Roxton, paid his annual visit to the Reverend Samuel Bott, of St. Sody, North Cornwall.

They are old friends and this holiday together is the greatest pleasure they know. For Mr. Bott, though he cannot afford to go away, allows himself a kind of vacation while Mr. Seddon is staying with him. He exchanges the cassock in which he is, at all other times, to be seen, for a pair of old flannel trousers and a pullover, and he goes for bird-watching expeditions along the cliffs. In the evening they play chess. Both are in the late fifties,
Anglo-Catholic
, celibate, and disconcertingly sincere. They like to be called Father by their parishioners, but they do not enjoy skirmishes with Protestants as much as they did when they were young. Father Bott is grey, stocky, and hirsute; he looks rather like a Scotch terrier and he is not popular in the parish of St. Sody. Father Seddon has the
dew-lapped
melancholy of a bloodhound; his life is harder and more unpleasant, but his parishioners appreciate him.

He arrives in time for supper and they get out the chess board as soon as the meal is over. In London his evenings are spent in clubs and missions, so that he looks forward to this relaxation very much indeed. And he was
consequently
somewhat aggrieved when, on the night of his arrival in 1947, he was told to put the chess board away.

‘I can’t play to-night,’ explained Bott. ‘I’m very sorry; I have a sermon to write.’

Seddon raised his eyebrows. It was a holiday rule that Bott should get all sermons written in advance.

‘It’s an unexpected sermon. I tried to get it done this afternoon. But I couldn’t think of anything to say.’

‘Very unusual,’ suggested Seddon unkindly.

‘Well … it’s a funeral sermon….’

Bott went across to his desk and took the cover off his typewriter.

‘Not even an ordinary funeral‚’ he complained. ‘Not a funeral at all, really. We can’t bury the deceased. They’re buried already. Under a cliff….’

‘Oh? Pendizack Cove?’

Seddon never had much time for reading the
newspapers
, but he remembered this incident because it had been in his friend’s parish. During the month of August a huge mass of cliff side had suddenly subsided. It had fallen into a small cove a couple of miles from St. Sody village, and obliterated a house which once stood on a spit of land on the east side of the cove. Every person inside the house had perished.

‘It was a mine, wasn’t it?’ he asked. ‘A mine, washed up into the cave behind the house?’

‘Partly. But that was months ago, the mine,’ said Bott. ‘That was last winter. It went off inside the cave and seemed to do no damage. We all thought what an escape the house had had. It was a hotel, you know. Used to be a private house, but they’d turned it into a guest house. The cave runs right under the cliff. The blast must have shattered the rocks in there and loosened a great slice of the cliff face. Later on, cracks were found at the top of the cliff, about a hundred yards inland. Humphrey Bevin, he’s the Survey man, you know, lives over Falmouth way, heard of it and came to have a look. He was in two minds about it; thought it would have been down already if it was going to fall. But, on
reflection
, he wrote to Siddal to say that if those cracks got any wider he didn’t think the house was safe and they’d better get out. Siddal owned the hotel. He never answered. Never did anything about it. And now he’s under the cliff.’

‘You mean they’re all still buried?’

‘No chance of getting them out. You should see the place; you wouldn’t know it. The cove is not there any more. Nobody would think a house and gardens and stables ever stood there. So now we’ve got to have a ghastly sort of ceremony…. Service in the church, and the rest of it as near as we can get to them … scrambling on the cliffs. I don’t like that sort of thing, but I can’t very well refuse, and we’ve got to give them as much of a Christian burial as we can. We’d have done it before, only there was some idea, for a time, of trying to get them out. It’s to-morrow. And if I were you I’d go off for the day. We shall have all the Press over, I
suppose
, and car loads of sightseers…. And I’m expected to preach about it!’

Bott addressed himself to his typewriter. He always typed his sermons because his writing was so bad that he could not read it. Nor could he always read his own typing, for that, too, was inexpert. He put a q at the top of a page, recollected himself, pulled out FIG. and put a 1. Then he pulled out GAP and made his first heading:

AGTOF GOD.

After that there was a pause of twenty minutes. Seddon settled down to a chess problem. The cheap alarm clock on the mantelpiece ticked hurriedly.

Bott drew pictures on his blotting paper. First he drew a dolphin. Then he drew some curved capitals of pillars. And then he drew Pendizack Point, standing out into the sea. That was still there. That was on the far side of the cove. It had been there for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. But the chaos of fallen rock and boulder, the new, raw cliff face, on the eastern side had only been there a month. He could not have drawn it; he could not accept it as having any shape at all.

For weeks that stony confusion had met him at the end of all his thoughts, blocking them with a kind of
shuddering
jar, as the road had been blocked on the night when
he ran down to see what had happened. For he had heard, everyone in the village had heard, the roar and rumble of the falling cliff. As they ran over the fields he met people shouting that Pendizack Hotel was ‘gone.’ He expected to find ruins, noise, confusion, screams, corpses—any horror but that which he found.

There was a choking pall of dust which met them as they came down the hill to the cliffs, and they could see little. The hotel drive plunged downwards in steep
zigzags
, through trees and shrubs beside a little ravine. The silence below had already begun to chill his heart before he turned the second bend and ran into a rock. A hill rose in front of him. There was no road down any more.

At first he thought that it was a barrier of loose boulders and tried to scramble over it. But at last he was driven back by the toppling, slipping rocks, and, returning up the drive, he took a side path, a little tunnel through rhododendrons, which led him out on to the open cliff. Here, in a moonlight still hazy with dust, he could see what had happened. The fallen cliff had filled up the entire cove. No trace was left of the house, the little platform of land where it had stood, or of anything else that had ever been there.

Already the tide was lapping gently round the
newly-fallen
boulders as if they had been there always. The coastline had settled itself to a new pattern and the cliffs had returned to their ancient and quiet solidity.

He sighed, crossed out his first heading, and typed a new one.

bE STILL ANDKNOW THAT i aM GOD.

‘You aren’t getting on very fast,’ observed Seddon.

‘I was frightened,’ said Bott.

He wrote:
Sudden
Death.
And added:

‘I’m still frightened.’

‘Nothing to North London in ’41 I should have thought,’ said Seddon.

‘I know.’

Bott rose and went to the window. It was a fine night
with a rising wind. He could see the trees waving about round the church tower, a dark and moving mass against a starless sky. Soon the leaves would blow down and lie scattered on the graves until they mouldered and went back to the earth. The bare branches would thresh round the church through the winter gales, waiting for the time of new leaves. With each week and each month this remembered night of summer would slip further into the past. He felt more sure of the future.
Nothing
is
certain
, he thought,
but
the
certain
Spring.

‘The survivors,’ he said, ‘came here. They came up here for shelter, that first night.’

‘There were survivors?’

‘Oh, yes. They came here and they talked. They sat here talking all night. You know how people talk when they’ve had a shock. They say things they wouldn’t say at any other time. They said the most astonishing things. They told me how they had escaped…. They told me a great deal too much. I wish they hadn’t.’

‘How did they escape?’

‘I don’t know what to say about it at all,’ said Bott, turning from the window. ‘I’m not sure what I think. They told a lot, but of course they didn’t tell everything. Nobody will ever know the whole truth. But what they did tell me….’

He came to the fire-place and took a chair opposite Seddon.

‘Now listen,’ he said. ‘See what you make of it….’

 

1. Letter from Lady Gifford to Mrs. Siddal

T
he
Old
House
,   

Queen’s
Walk

Chelsea
.   

August
13
,
1947.

Dear Mrs. Siddal,

I ought to have written before to tell you
how
much we are all looking forward to our holiday at Pendizack. But I wasn’t very well in the Spring, when my husband booked the rooms, and letter writing was forbidden. Much better now. Doctors, sharpening their knives, have promised to make me
perfectly
well
in the Autumn.

We shall be arriving on Saturday the 16th. The
children
will be coming by train and will need a car to meet them—my husband’s secretary will write about this—what train and what station, etc. I shall be driving down with my husband, and we hope to arrive between tea and supper. But if we are delayed will you very kindly see to it that the children go to bed
early
? They will be tired and excited after their journey.

Our mutual friend, Sibyl Avery, has told me a great deal about Pendizack and how delightful it is. So much nicer than a regular hotel, especially for the children. She says you have several boys but could not remember what ages. If any are still in the nursery stage perhaps Michael and Luke could have meals with them as they might be rather noisy in the dining-room, and I am afraid I shall have to have most of
my
meals upstairs, so cannot supervise. Will this be a great nuisance? My husband can carry the trays up, of course. I hate to give trouble. But my doctor is so very insistent upon tranquillity during meals—I get this terrible indigestion
and he thinks it is because my mind is too active—I
think
and
talk
too much while I eat, so it is really better to eat alone.

Sibyl tells me you have your own farm, which should make my regime fairly simple to manage. In a regular hotel it is difficult; they won’t put themselves out for an invalid. It’s really not anything much, but I will just jot down now (
a
)
what my doctor says I
may
eat, and (
b
)
what I may
not
eat.

A
.
Poultry, game,
fresh
butcher’s meat, liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, etc., bacon, tongue, ham, fresh
vegetables
, green salads, fresh eggs, milk, butter, etc. So you see there’s a wide choice.
B
.
Sausage meat, twice cooked meat, margarine, and
nothing
out of a tin, i.e. no powdered eggs, dried milk, etc., and
no
corned
beef.

I won’t go into boring details. It’s just that my
metabolism
has never been right since Caroline was born and the whole of Harley Street doesn’t seem able to get to the bottom of it. I wouldn’t mind it so much if it wasn’t such a
bore.
I do hate being a nuisance, and one can’t be ill without giving trouble to other people. But I know you will understand. Sibyl has told me what a wonderful person you are and how marvellously you look after your guests. She vows that I shall be a new woman after a week at Pendizack. And there is this about my having my meals upstairs: you cannot naturally, in these hard times, give everyone the food I have to have, so perhaps you would prefer that other guests do not see what I am getting. People are so selfish and inconsiderate sometimes.

I do so admire you for hitting on this means of keeping up your lovely old house. We had to give up our country home in Suffolk. No staff! All spaciousness and
graciousness
seems to have vanished from life, doesn’t it?

Oh, and do you mind a cat? Hebe insists on bringing hers, and I hadn’t the heart to say no. I’m afraid I spoil my family, but you will understand for I expect Sibyl will have told you my funny, sad little story! No more babies after Caroline, when I wanted a dozen! But I couldn’t bear to let Caroline be an only child, so the little sister and the two little brothers had to be sought
among the poor unwanted babes of this world, and I always feel that I have got to be
more
than a mother to them to make up for that first, dreadful misfortune. Hebe is ten, and the boys (twins) are eight years old.

I see I’ve said nothing about fish. I’m allowed
everything
except kippers, but I don’t think plaice agrees with me very well, nor haddock, unless cooked with plenty of butter. Grab and lobsters are not
verboten
which is very convenient, as I expect you get plenty of them and so many people can’t eat them.

It will be delightful to meet you. I shall insist that you don’t spend your whole time being a wonderful housekeeper but spare some of it occasionally for a good gossip with me, for I believe we have many friends in common.

I believe you know the Grackenthorpes. I’m so fond of Veronica, and miss her so much now that they have gone to live in Guernsey. But that’s where we’ll all have to live if income tax doesn’t come down soon.

With kindest regards,            

Yours very sincerely,        

E
LRENE
G
LFFORD.

 

P
.S.
—Is there any chance of golf for my husband?

2. Unfinished Letter from Miss Dorothy Ellis to Miss Gertrude Hill

P
endizack
Manor
Hotel
,            

Porthmerryn.
        

Saturday
Aug.
1
6,
1947.

Dear Gertie,

I got your P.C last night. Yes I did get your letter alright and do not blame me if I did not answer because I literally have not been off my feet since I came here. Well, for the question you ask in your letter, no, I do not advise you to come here if you can get any other
job—a cook can always get a job, not like poor I. If I could stand the heat of a kitchen I would not be where I am now—it is a rotten hole, the worst I ever struck—I shall not stay, not after I have found something else—I answered several ads—of course all the best jobs this season are gone due to me coming here—which I
consider
she got me under false pretences, it is not a
housekeeper
she needs but a maid of all work—If I was not pretty sharp at looking after Number One I should be doing every scrap of work in the place.

Well this is not a hotel at all, only a boarding house—all falling down and the roof leaking, you can see there has been nothing spent on it for years and only one
bathroom
. They have lost
all their money, so she got
the bright idea to turn this into a boarding house because of course her darling boys nave got to go to posh schools just the same—but she does not know the first thing about running a hotel and cant cater for toffee. It makes me mad to see her with this huge place—I could have made my tea shop pay if I had the chances some have.

He has never done a stroke in his life as far as I can make out, except get himself born—they have put him to sleep in the boot-hole and he does not count for anything more than a sick headache in this outfit. There was a family here last week, name of Bergman, not out of the ‘top drawer’—very common in fact—and Mr. Bergman was complaining the water was not hot—well, it never is—and she came floating along and said she would get Gerry, that is the eldest son, to stoke the boiler when he came in. Oh no, says Mr. Bergman, you will do it
yourself
right now, Mrs. Siddal It is nothing to me who stokes the boiler, he said. But I pay six guineas a week to give my bottom a rest not yours. Her face! You ought to have seen it. I do not often laugh—not much to laugh at—but I had a good laugh then—I was just outside in the passage. This Socialist Government does not look after poor people like they promised but they have brought rich people down, which is one comfort.

It is miles from Porthmerryn and the shops so of course she cannot get any staff. All she has got is a daily
housemaid
so called and a mentally deficient youth supposed to be a waiter. She has to do the cooking till they can
get
a cook. And they have not got any boarders just now, only a barmy old couple name of Paley—but there is supposed to be two families coming this evening.

Well Gertie I must finish this another time because it is getting on for 8 a.m. and I can see Nancibel, the said housemaid, coming across the sands and I must get after her or nothing will be done. No rest for the wicked! …

3. Extract from the Diary of Mr. Paley

P
endizack.
Saturday,
August
16.

 

I have been sitting here at my window since five o’clock this morning, watching the tide go out. I can see the pretty young chambermaid … I forget her name … coming down the cliff path from Pendizack Headland. She comes this way every morning, across the sands, whenever the tide is out. It must be later than I thought.

Christina is asleep. She will not wake until the maid brings in our tea and cans of hot water. Then a new day will begin. This respite will be over. When
Christina
wakes I shall no longer be alone.

She will not ask why I have been sitting here half the night. She no longer asks me questions: no longer cares to know how it is with me. She passes her life, at my side, in silence. It is, no doubt, a wretched life, but I cannot help her. At least she is able to sleep. I am not. The maid has reached the sand now, but she is walking very slowly. She is a graceful young creature. She walks well. She is, I believe, quite a favourite with Christina. But my wife is always inclined to be sentimental about young girls: for her they represent the daughter we lost. The maternal instinct is a purely animal affair. A cat which has lost its kitten will suckle a puppy quite
contentedly
, so I have been told.

I had a talk with Siddal, our host, yesterday. He told
me that Pendizack Cove used to be called Hell’s Kitchen and that his sons wished to call the house Hell’s Hotel. Since he seemed to regard this as a joke I made shift to laugh, and did not say, with Mephistopheles:
Why
this
is
Hell!
Nor
am
I
out
of
it.
But that line, that line, haunts me wherever I am. I can never escape from it.

Let me, if I can, think of something else. Of what shall I think?
Can
I think? Sometimes it appears to me that I have lost the power. Thought travels. I remain … where I was.

I will think of Siddal. He is a curious fellow. Were I able to feel for any other creature I should pity him greatly. For it appears that he has never been able to support himself. And now that he has lost all his money he must live on his wife’s labour—accept bread at her hands. He has no position here. He receives no respect. He lives, so they tell me, in a little room behind the kitchen, a room which, in the old days, was used by the boot-boy. All the best rooms in the house have, of course, been vacated for guests. Mrs. Siddal sleeps somewhere up in the attics and the Siddal boys in a loft over the stables.

How can Siddal endure such a life? If he must sleep in the boot-hole, why does he not insist that his wife sleeps there with him? I should do so. But then I could not have acted as he has, in any particular. I should have refused to allow my house to be exploited in this manner. It is done, so I understand, in order to pay for the
education
of the two younger boys. If education must be bought at such a price, then, say I, it has been bought too dearly. Moreover, these boys obviously despise and ignore their father.

Yet he is not without intelligence; was, I gather,
considered
brilliant as a young man. He went to the bar. Why he failed there I do not know. He had private means and this, coupled with indolence and a total lack of ambition, may have been the ruin of him.

I ought to be thankful that I never had a penny, that
I have never accepted help or support from anyone. I have always had to depend entirely upon myself.

I blush when I meet him. For the most part he is invisible. But sometimes he appears on the terrace, or in the public rooms, very ready to talk to anyone who will listen to him, ill-shaven and none too clean. He has three sons who despise him. I have no child. But I would not change places with Siddal….

4. One Pair of Hands

Nancibel Thomas was a little late, but she walked across the sand, as Mr. Paley had noticed, very slowly. It was the same every morning. She could not hurry over this last part of the walk. As soon as she came within sight of the house her spirits sank; they sank lower with every step she took, as though she were walking into a fog of misery and depression. And every day she felt a greater reluctance to go on.

She could not tell why this should be. For the work at Pendizack was not hard or disagreeable and everybody treated her well. She did not like Miss Ellis; but life in the A.T.S. had taught her how to get on with all sorts of people, including those whom she disliked. Miss Ellis could scarcely be responsible for this aversion which assailed her whenever she approached the house, this feeling that something dreadful, something indescribably sad, was happening there.

Sometimes she thought that it might merely be a
sadness
which she herself had brought back to this place, where she had once been a child and happy, running errands between Pendizack and her father’s cottage on the cliff. For she had come home with trouble in her heart and the winter had been a heavy one. But if it was me, she thought, as she dragged her feet across the sand, it would be getting better. Because I’m getting better.
I’m getting over it. I don’t think of it but two or three times in a week now. But the house gets worse.

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