As a young girl, Rosamond is sent to Shropshire to escape the Blitz. Here, in the countryside, she forms a close bond with her older cousin, Beatrix, a young woman haunted by anger and resentment.
Sixty years later, just before her death, Rosamond records her memories on cassettes, addressing them to a distant cousin—a near stranger-named Imogen. As Gill, her beloved niece, listens to these tapes, a heart—stopping family saga is revealed. In this masterful portrait of three generations of woman, Jonathan Coe exposes the profound reserves of hope and loss within the lives of ordinary woman.
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Jonathan Coe has received the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, the Prix Médicis Etranger, and, for The Rotters' Club, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for the most original comic writing. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Number three: the caravan.
I have not yet described Warden Farm–the house itself–in any detail, but I think I will talk about the caravan first. It was one of the first things that Beatrix showed me in the garden, and it quickly became the place where we would retreat and hide together. You could say that everything started from there.
Aunt Ivy gave me this photograph herself, I remember, at the end of my time living at her house. It was one of her few real acts of kindness. Beneath her warm and welcoming exterior, she turned out to be a rather distant, unapproachable woman. She and her husband had built for themselves an active and comfortable life, which revolved mainly around hunting and shooting and all the associated social activities which came with them. She was a busy organizer of hunt balls, tennis-club suppers and the like. Also, she doted on her two sons, athletic and sturdy boys–good-natured, too, but not very well endowed in the brains department, it seems to me in retrospect. None of these things, at any rate, made her inclined to expend much of her attention on me–the unwanted guest, the evacuee–or indeed on her daughter, Beatrix. Therein lay the seeds of the problem. Neglected and resentful, Beatrix seized upon me as soon as I arrived, knowing that in me she had found someone in an even more vulnerable position than her own, someone it would be easy to enlist as her devoted follower. She showed me kindness and she showed me attention: these things were enough to win my loyalty, and indeed I have never forgotten them even to this day, however selfish her motives might have been at the time.
The house was large, and full of places we might have made our own: unvisited, secret places. But in Beatrix’s mind–though I did not understand this until later–it was “their” place, it belonged to the family by whom she felt so rejected, and so she chose somewhere else, somewhere quite separate, as the place where she and I should pursue our friendship. That was why we spent so much of our time, during those early days and weeks, in the caravan.
Let me see, now. The caravan itself is half-obscured, in this picture, by overhanging trees. It had been placed, for some reason, in one of the most remote corners of the grounds, and left there for many years. This photograph captures it just as I remember it: eerie, neglected, the woodwork starting to rot and the metalwork corroding into rust. It was tiny, as this image confirms. The shape, I think, is referred to as “teardrop”: that is to say, the rear end is rounded, describing a small, elegant curve, while the front seems to have been chopped off, and is entirely flat. It’s a curious shape: in effect, the caravan looks as though it is only half there. The trees hanging over its roof and trailing fingers down the walls are some kind of birch, I believe. The caravan had been placed on the outskirts of a wood: in fact the dividing line between this wood–presumably common land–and the furthest reaches of Uncle Owen’s property was difficult to determine. A more modern caravan might have had a picture window at the front; this one, I see, had only two small windows, very high up, and a similar window at the side. No surprise, then, that it was always dark inside. The door was solid and dark, and made of wood, like the whole of the bottom half of the caravan–even the towbar. That’s an odd feature, isn’t it?–but I’m sure that I am right. It rested on four wooden legs, and always sat closer to the ground than it should have done, because both the tyres were flat. The windows were filthy, too, and the whole thing gave the appearance of having been abandoned and fallen into irreversible decay. But to a child, of course, that simply made it all the more attractive. I can only imagine that Ivy and Owen had bought it many years ago–in the 1920s, perhaps, when they were first married–and had stopped using it as soon as they had children. Inside there were only two bunks, so it would have been quite useless for family holidays.
How many weeks was it, I wonder, before Beatrix and I set up camp there together? Or was it only a matter of days? They say that split seconds and aeons become interchangeable when you experience intense emotion, and after my arrival at Warden Farm I was soon feeling a sense of loneliness and homesickness which I find it impossible to describe. I was beside myself with unhappiness. I would sob quite openly in front of Ivy and Owen–at the supper table, for instance–but never once, to my knowledge, did they think of telephoning my parents to tell them how miserable I was. My distress was simply ignored, by them, by the two boys–by everybody, in short, apart from the cook (who was a kindly soul), and of course by Beatrix. Even she was cruel to me at first. And yet I do think that when she finally took me under her wing, it was because she felt sorry for me, not simply because I was weaker than her, and easy to manipulate. She was lonely, too, remember, and she needed a friend. Beatrix could be a selfish person, at times, there is no doubt about that: I was to see it proved again and again over the following years and decades. But at the same time she was quite capable of love. Rather more than capable of it, I should say: she was vulnerable to it–that would be a better word–deeply, fatally vulnerable. And certainly, I think, during my time at the farm, she came to love me. In her way.
Her way of loving me, in fact, was to try to help me. And her first attempt to help me involved our drawing up a ludicrous plan–a desperate plan–which we resolved to carry out together. We decided that we were going to escape.
During the long afternoons, the lawn stretched out, billiard green, at the front of the house. A narrow, gravelled drive cut through it, but no cars ever used this drive. Almost nobody used the front door at all: only the children–and Beatrix and I especially. It was the back door where the men came to do their business, and so it was the back door that was watched. The cook watched it, from her kitchen, and Ivy watched it, from her bedroom, and Uncle Owen watched it, from his tiny, benighted study. There could be no escape that way. Even at dusk it would be risky–and it was at dusk that we had decided to leave.
That afternoon, sitting alone beneath the low roof, the crazy angles of my bedroom, while Beatrix was downstairs, taking food from the kitchen, waiting until the cook’s back was turned, I thought once more of my own mother and father, at home in Birmingham, going about their ordinary lives. My father riding to work on his bicycle, a gas mask slung over his shoulder. My mother pinning out washing on the line in the back garden, just a few yards from the entrance to the air-raid shelter. These things, I knew, had something to do with danger, with the danger I had been brought here to escape from, the danger that they lived within, now, every minute of every day. And all I could think was that it was not fair. I wanted to share in that danger. It frightened me, yes, but nowhere near as much as this absence, nowhere near as much.
That evening, we waited until the house was quiet, until Ivy and Owen had settled down to a drink after dinner, and the boys had gone upstairs to play, and then we put on our coats and pulled back the heavy latch on the front door and we slipped outside.
She was eleven years old. I was eight. I would have followed her anywhere.
There was a thick dampness in the air, somewhere between mist and rain. The rising moon was three-quarters full, but screened by clouds. There was no birdsong. Even the sheep had fallen silent. We made no noise as we stepped out on to the grass.
Still wearing our school shoes, we scurried over the spongey moistness of the front lawn. We jumped down, over the ha-ha and on to the lower level of the garden, and made for the overgrown gap in the hedge, the opening that led to the secret path; the path that led to the secret place.
She ran ahead; I followed. Her grey school mackintosh, appearing and disappearing between the leaves.
At the end of the path was a clearing, tangled and overgrown with hanging branches and trailing ivy, and within this clearing was the caravan. The cold gripped you the moment you opened the door and stepped inside. The net curtains hung grey and filthy over the windows, ragged with moth holes, blackened with the corpses of flies. There was a small table which folded out from the wall, and two bench seats on either side of it. Nowhere else to sit down. A kettle on the stove, but the gas cylinder was long since empty. From the farmhouse, Beatrix had carried with her a brown bottle, a cork wedged loosely at the top, filled to the brim with cloudy lemonade, and over the last few days, she had been hiding further provisions here. A half-loaf of bread, solid as masonry. A wedge of cheese, Shropshire blue, crusty at the edges. Two apples from the orchard. And three biscuits, shortbread, baked by the cook, and filched from the biscuit tin in the larder at the risk of God knows what dreadful punishment.
“Let’s eat some of this now,” she said; and we set to it, quietly and with great deliberation. I had not been able to eat much dinner and was hungry now even though my stomach was so tightened with fearful anticipation that I could barely force the food down.
There were a few items of cutlery still in one of the drawers, and Beatrix used a fruit knife to cut the bread and the cheese. When we had finished eating, without saying another word, she took my hand, turned it palm upward, and drew the blade of the knife along my tiny forefinger. I cried out, and hot salt tears sprang up in my eyes. But she took no notice. Calmly, she did the same to herself and then pressed her finger against mine, so that the two pools of blood mingled and coalesced.
“There,” she said. “We ’re sisters now. Together. Whatever happens. Agreed?”
I nodded, still without saying a word. What I felt–the thing that robbed me of my voice–was either terror, or love. Or both. Probably both, I think.
“Come on,” she said. “We ’ve got a long way to go tonight.”
We had already packed our clothes and brought them to the caravan the day before. Mine were squashed tightly into the small dun-coloured suitcase my mother herself had first packed a few weeks ago. It was not a practical arrangement, for an escape across countryside. My little knitted woollen toy, a black dog called Shadow, would not fit into the case. I was going to have to carry him. When I picked him up he gazed at me inscrutably, without expression. He was the thing I loved fourth best in the whole world, after my mother, and my father, and now Beatrix.
The light died quickly that night. When we left the caravan and closed the door behind us, the darkness was already absolute. We turned our faces away from the farmhouse and set off into the woods, leaving it behind for ever. Beatrix held my hand. The only sounds were the sounds of our footsteps, the clumsy snapping of twigs.
I know now–at least I think I know, insofar as one can ever know these things–that it was never her intention to take me home. She was old enough to know that two little girls could never walk all the way to my parents’ house. But I did not know that, and I trusted her. And besides, we were blood-sisters now.
We came out of the woods and crossed the last of Uncle Owen’s fields. After that we walked for perhaps no more than an hour, but to me it seemed a hundred lifetimes. Beatrix knew that country well and she chose her route with cunning, describing an almost perfect circle. When we reached the glade where I begged her to rest, we must have been almost back at the farmhouse, but for all I knew, we could have been anywhere.
We lay down, and I clutched Shadow to my chest. The clouds had parted and the moon bathed everything in a quicksilver light. I could not stop shivering. Now I was more tired than scared, and gripped with a clinging despair, but still, there was a kind of beauty all around us. I was aware of that, even then. Beatrix put her arm behind my neck, and I pressed myself tightly against her, and we lay like that, on our backs, staring up at the stars.
“Do you think we’ll get there?” I asked. “Do you think we ’ll get there tonight?” And when she didn’t answer, I framed another question, the one that had been puzzling me the most: “Why do you want to come? Why do you want to leave home?”
“I don’t like my mother and father,” she answered, after a long time. “I don’t think they love me.”
“Are they cruel to you?” I asked.
Again, she didn’t answer.
In spite of myself, I began to grow sleepy. A barn owl was hooting, crying out in the night, very close to us. The trees rustled, the undergrowth was restless with hints of subtle, mysterious life. I could feel the warmth of Beatrix’s body, the pulsing of blood through the arm at the back of my head. Her sensations became mine. The moon continued to rise, and with a flurry the owl launched into sudden flight, skimming away beneath the branches of the trees. The dampness had left the air. The goal I had fixed upon–reaching the city, knocking on the door of my astonished parents’ house–receded and vanished. Despite the cold, I was happy here.
When I awoke, Beatrix was no longer with me. I sat up and looked around me, my heart pounding.
I could see her standing at the edge of the glade, looking out over the moonlit field. Her fragile silhouette. And I could hear voices. Human voices, although they sounded as desolate and unearthly as the low wail of the barn owl. Human voices, calling our names: her name, and mine.
Figures–a whole row of tiny black figures–appeared in the distance, coming towards us across the field. In defiance of the blackout, some of them were carrying torches, and these needles of bobbing light danced like sad fireflies as they made their inevitable progress towards Beatrix, who stood and watched, impassive, trembling slightly, but only with the cold, never thinking to turn and run, as I wanted to. And why should she? She had provoked this moment. She had intended it.
They were coming to find us.
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