The Broken Chariot, p.1Alan Sillitoe
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The Broken Chariot
Housemartins swooped to neat mud nests under eaves because the young were always hungry. It was unlucky if they didn’t trail back every spring. Last year none came, and her mother had died, though in their innocence they were not to be blamed.
Maud looked on with pleasure, fascinated by such graceful devotion, pale and vibrant bellies in curving flight again and again above the window. She could almost hear the sound they made in their passage through the air. It was industry of a Darwinian sort, and the fact that they would still search out the house when all who lived in it were dead was merely a reflection on countryside life.
The gilt-bordered mirror above the fireplace reflected her straight nose and blue eyes, and she did not know whether she liked what was there, though wasn’t disturbed that no alternative could be expected. The lines of her mouth showed a determined spirit that had so far found little to brace itself against.
At twenty-one she was tall and robust, with a fine sweep of brown hair descending along both sides of marble-smooth skin. Such a pre-Raphaelite profile had the usual masculine aspect that put off most men except the weakest and those – given her congenital sense of self-preservation – could never be interesting.
The eldest of four daughters from an East Anglian clerical family, her father had wanted a first born son and, rather than not forgive her for having wilfully refused to be one while in the womb, treated her as soon as she left the arms of her mother as if she was. For reasons which would have been laughable if known, she secretly enjoyed trying to be a boy, which pleased her father who, however, expected that she would resume her female identity in time to find a husband.
A year after his wife died the vicar gave up his rattling velocipede and bought a Daimler touring car. How the wish for one came to him when there were so few in the district was hard to say. Perhaps an advertisement in The Graphic or Bystander had changed from the sketchy drawing and become in his eyes a monument of colourful utility. Or maybe the death had been a liberation, and the motor a consolation in his grief.
The vehicle was brought over from Coventry by two men in long pale dust coats one Thursday morning, and they sat in the study with a satchel of papers, a bottle of Sandeman sherry, and a packet of cigars on the table. The pony was sold, its cart hauled through the orchard by the gardener and left to decay in the paddock.
Maud turned from the mirror and saw her father’s surprising acquisition on the gravelled space before the front door of the rectory. The book fell closed, her place in The Old Wives’ Tale lost at the sight of what couldn’t come to life without human hands to move it, the strange agglomeration between four wheels calling to her as if every metal part was magnetized.
After several slow pacings around the pristine machine she knelt to peer at its inner mechanisms, stroked the tasteful leather seats, opened the tool box, dipped her fingers in the petrol container, tried its perfectly fitting doors, ran a hand along the sturdy mudguards, and felt an insane wish to put her lips to the steering wheel. The whiff of oil and fuel excited her, the whole lovely beast in tune with her heart and her future perceptions of the world. A friendly hand at the shoulder signified her father’s gratitude for such approval. ‘I’ve always wanted one,’ he said, ’and we can certainly afford it.’
She had regarded him as a cheerful bigot, but should have known he was prone to accept more items related to the changing world since having a telephone installed. She asked if he would call the garage in Yarmouth, for someone to come and show her how to drive about the grounds. She sensed he was half afraid of what might become a Trojan horse brought into his household, and was surprised when he agreed.
In a few weeks she was taking him on excursions to his favourite Norfolk places, becoming more and more competent with each meandering circuit. He took great pains, with a tinge of malice, she thought, in fussing with the map to choose parallel routes and keep her from the better roads on which he said she drove too fast. Yet she noted the faint pleasure in his fear when, along the occasional straight stretch, she wondered at her reckless dishonesty on topping the twenty mile an hour limit.
The sandy highway south of Yarmouth, scattered with loose stones, laid traps for cartwheels and the vulnerable tyres of automobiles. Inclement rain increased the peril and the motor, of which she felt herself the captain, stalled by a hedge. At steam clouding out of the radiator her father went into a spinsterish panic – though she wouldn’t dare tell him so – not knowing whether to go for help and leave her at the mercy of straying wayfarers, or send her on alone to face the danger of ambush by uncouth holiday-makers from London while he guarded the machine. He need not have worried, for Maud in her leather driving coat, hat and goggles, could stare down any potential molester.
They sat in the high seats, taut and silent with indecision, she unwilling to speak, and wondering if her father ever would. A light rain drove against them, and with it over the sandbank came a line of men in khaki, advancing towards the road in skirmishing order. ‘We’ve been for a swim in the sea,’ the young officer with his platoon of Territorials explained.
‘Must have been cold,’ Maud said.
‘Freezing, actually,’ he laughed. Seeing their plight he and his men piled arms and thought it unusually good fun to manoeuvre the motor towards the town. Maud suppressed her chagrin so as to enjoy the encounter, and honour was appeased when after half a mile the handsome young officer suggested that his men empty their regulation water bottles into the radiator, so that she was able to drive the car at little beyond walking pace to the garage, where a mechanic was soon labouring over the trouble.
‘Hugh Thurgarton-Strang.’ The dark-haired lieutenant gave his card to the vicar. Maud noted how he had studiously taken in the situation, as well as his easy confidence and humour, unlike the waffling young men she sometimes met with. She also saw that he was taller, which few men were, and how impressed he was with her presence and the proud way she had looked at the landscape, pretending not to notice any of his qualities, hat in hand and hair blowing about her face.
The vicar, who thought it his best adventure for years, asked Thurgarton-Strang to tea at the Queen’s Hotel. ‘It’s just along the road,’ and promised a pint of beer for each of his men at the neighbouring public house.
‘Sorry, sir.’ Thurgarton-Strang refolded his map into a neat calico case. ‘I’d jolly well like to, but we can’t stop now. We have to surround Blue Force by morning.’
Maud’s invariable response to her sisters from then on, when she was asked to do something, was a shake of the head, and laughter as she replied: ‘Can’t do it. So sorry. Got to surround Blue Force by morning!’ a new catch phrase in the family which recalled the young man’s intelligent and amusing features.
She became adept at learning from such breakdowns. Fitting the spare wheel with jack and spanner after a puncture passed an enjoyable half hour. Every part of the frame and engine fascinated her by the obvious way each could be put together if she looked long enough at the manual. After a while she was allowed to drive her sisters to the beach at Cromer.
She waited every Tuesday for the Financial Times because Mr W. G. Aston, the well-known motor expert, wrote an article and responded to queries on the problems of the road. Maud wrote him a letter comparing the difficulties of fitting the bolt valve to ordinary valves, and telling what was likely to happen if certain precautions were not taken. She explained the problem cogently and with some wit, under the signature of M. Holt, so that
A greater adventure for the vicar came about on Maud suggesting that all five should go on a tour to the Continent. They would drive around Flanders and Northern France, and visit cathedrals. His bald pate turned pallid as she spread a map over the library table. ‘We’re in the Association, and they’ll take any trouble off our shoulders. We’ll get the magic triptych fixed up, so there’ll be nothing to pay on the motor at the customs.’
The French drive on the wrong side of the road. What about petrol? How would they find their way? Foreign maps weren’t the same as English. Then there was the problem of different money, apart from the fact, he concluded, knocking the ash from his pipe on the dogs in the fireplace, ‘that my French isn’t proficient.’
‘Well,’ Maud said, ‘my French is all right, if I shout it loud enough,’ and she convinced him on all issues, though without mentioning the attraction for her of there being no speed limit: gendarmes with stop-watches didn’t hide like sneaks at bends in the roads.
Extra tyres were strapped on the footboard, the locker topped up with spare parts and sparking plugs. A leather satchel bulged with maps and documents, a phrase book with Baedekers and Michelins in the glove box.
Maud and her sisters stood on the top deck, and sang most of the way across the Channel, while their father was silent with anxiety and scepticism. When the car was swung off the steamer in Boulogne he suggested putting up at the Hôtel du Pavilion Imperial et Bains de Mer for a couple of days so as to recover from the crossing, but Maud was adamant for driving out of town. ‘We must do at least a few miles today,’ and they passed the first night in the Hotel de France at St Omer.
‘Got to surround Blue Force by morning!’ her sisters let out in their shrill voices, while Maud paid off the porters for taking in the luggage.
After a minute examination of the church of Notre Dame they struck south for Amiens, so that the vicar could read his Ruskin in the cathedral. ‘You’re the captain of the ship,’ her happy father said a few days later, ‘so we’ll go to Beauvais and then to Reims,’ at which place she stood on the pavement to take off her dust coat and said to herself: ‘Not another blasted cathedral!’
After a round of the ecclesiastical gems of Belgium they were rewarded at the end of their three-week tour by a few days at Ostend. The girls drank coffee and ate ices in the cafés, and made fun of common tourists coming off the boat from Dover, while the vicar, between walks up and down the beach, sat in the hotel lounge collating his notes.
When war began in 1914 Maud put on coat and goggles, and drove to Norwich, giving a lift to half a dozen volunteer soldiers on the way. Her experience and mechanical skill left no alternative, she said, but to enrol in an ambulance unit, but she fumed and brooded when no one wanted her, or she was sent from place to place, and felt herself sinking into an impossibly complicated maze of offices and organizations.
In six months she was driving an ambulance in France. From dressing stations near the front line to base hospitals she transported her cargoes of pain and misery, and sometimes death, and wept inwardly at the awful tribulations of the wounded, and swore with the sulphurous colour of any trooper at whoever mishandled them in or out and made their plight worse. A staff officer wanted to marry her, but she believed in love at first sight, deciding it was better to live an old maid than fall prey to whoever had the same idea.
She refused work in the administration of the ambulance service because it would take her away from motors, in spite of the hardship and the miserable squalor of stoppages on broken rainswept roads. In October 1918, resting one morning between goes at the starting handle, she recognized Colonel Thurgarton-Strang. His horse drank at a village trough, and when he mounted, his dressage was perfect. ‘I’ve seen you before,’ she called, above the boom and crack of distant gunfire. ‘Yarmouth, when my father’s car broke down. Long time ago, now. Don’t suppose you recollect.’
He saluted and smiled. ‘Of course I remember. Always hoped I’d see you again.’
‘Well, now you have.’
‘I’m astounded and delighted.’
‘Got to surround Blue Force by morning!’
‘We most certainly will!’
They laughed together, then he led his battalion of mainly eighteen-year-olds towards the German rearguards, whose machine gunners could not prevail against his enthusiastic young, who knew nothing of muddy stalemates in the Salient or on the Somme.
They met on the Rhine six months later, and Maud realized his place in her heart since their first encounter. ‘You’ve hardly been out of my mind,’ she said. They strolled the balcony of the hotel at Bad Godesburg while the orchestra played the old familiar tunes in the dining room. Maud smoked a cigarette, and Hugh took her statement as flattery, thinking that you ought not to believe a woman when she said something good about you. ‘There’s nothing I’d like better than to believe you.’
She put a hand on his. ‘I never say anything I don’t mean. I wouldn’t know how.’
All he wanted was to be the husband of this delightful woman. ‘I’m quite sure’, he told her, ‘that I shall love you forever – if you’ll have me.’
They were married at St Mary’s-All-Alone by an ex-chaplain uncle of Maud’s, the ceremony as much a regimental as a Christian affair, with an arbour of glistening swords to walk under, and so many dress uniforms that to Maud the gathering seemed like a scene of peace after a rabid and pyrrhic war.
In India the Thurgarton-Strangs avoided the oven heat of the plains by renting a house in Simla, living in a style helped by Maud’s thousand a year on the death of her father. Hugh expected their first child to be a girl, given the family from which Maud had come. This would not have disappointed him, but the dark-haired ten-pound baby, sound in wind and limb, was a gift for both, and they were pleased that he was stoical enough to make no sound at the font when he was christened. Their happiness was so intense – undeserved and precarious, they sometimes felt – that they could not resist doting on Herbert who, being new to the world, and having nothing to compare it with, thought such treatment normal.
His earliest memory was of being pushed in a large coach-like perambulator by a uniformed ayah along a track flanked by poplars. The continual trot of horses going to the polo ground was counterpointed by monkeys and birds performing an opera in the Annandale gardens. Above his cot he heard the clatter of raindrops on rhododendrons, violent splashes suppressing the voices of birds, and even his own when he gurgled for his nurse. Thunder gods growled among the deodars, then played to such a climax as seemed to burst the biggest granite globe asunder, sliced clean in two above the earth by a blade of lightning, which set him screaming.
The nurse was familiar with infants who were frightened, so he rarely wailed for long before she carried him – like a precious melon, Maud once said – to the covered terrace of the bungalow.
On calmer days, teething fractious hours, when he grizzled at the miasma of inherited dreams, his ayah laid him by the edge of a stream and, snapping off a hollow reed, directed the water from a few inches above, so that drops coming out of her home-made conduit on to his forehead with such gentle regularity soon put him to sleep. ‘You must have been too young to remember,’ Maud said in later years. ‘Or we told you about such incidents.’
He may also have imagined them, or they were culled from his dreams, the worst of which was of the nightmare meteor cleaved in half by an enormous blade of white fire. ‘The splintering of monsoon artillery,’ his father laughed.
Self-sacrifice was at its most poignant when Maud and Hugh took him to England, and left him in a boarding school which had everything to recommend it for a boy of seven except pity.
The prospectus which moved Hugh and Maud to banish Herbert read: ‘Clumpstead, Sussex. Preparatory for the Public Schools and the Army, situated in a most healthy position on the summit of Clumpstead Downs. Climate most suita
No sooner was Herbert left – abandoned, was the word he used – than the description seemed to be of some other establishment altogether. As for the healthy position, the climate was one to kill or cure, autumnal mist preceding rain that swept icily in from the sea, and snow whitening the school grounds before any other place in the area. The rifle range was in the dead end of a sunken lane and mostly unusable due to mud, and the ponies for riding must have been retired from some coal mine in the north after being worked almost to death. The swimming pool was a hole in the dell, and physical development meant little more than running and jumping whenever no time could be given to mediocre lessons due to the masters being either blind drunk or in bed with a cold.
Most of the teachers behaved when sober as if children had been put on earth to be beaten and terrified, while the boys had only each other to abuse for entertainment. Herbert, controlling his misery, learned to hold the first at bay by guile, and the latter by more violence than any among them could equal.
Apart from cricket, the only sport the boys were encouraged in was boxing, and Herbert’s instinct told him that subtlety of manoeuvre was unnecessary if you forced a speed out of yourself which no defence could hold back. They said he had a black speed, a devil’s drive, a killer’s fist, but the skill Herbert even so developed made his attacks deadly. A not quite matching adversary blooded Herbert’s nose but he bore on in, scorning all cheers at his courage, learning that whoever drew blood first was three-quarters the way to winning.
He loathed boxing, but endured it by making his opponent pay for the inconvenience, fighting ruthlessly only so as to get more quickly out of the ring. He discovered the joy of being someone previously unknown to himself, vacillating between imagining he would either murder such a stranger if or when they became properly acquainted, or accept him as a friend for making him feel better able to survive. Who he really was, or wanted to be, he couldn’t say, though he secretly liked the sportsmaster’s remark that: ‘You must have been born with the soldier in you,’ a quality Herbert showed only when necessary.
The Broken Chariot by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes