James hilton collected n.., p.32
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       James Hilton: Collected Novels, p.32
 

           James Hilton

  They crossed the cobbled station yard and turned into the huddle of streets. A few other walkers passed or overtook them, even so late—men on their way to night-working factories, policemen, air wardens. George pointed out the stationer’s shop in Shawgate that had formerly been his Uncle Joe’s, and which still, after two changes of ownership, displayed the same mixture of leather-bound ledgers, morocco editions of the standard poets, Bibles, cookery books, and the works of Miss Florence Barclay. But as a concession to the day and age, and with that ironic innocence of which the English are so capable because they are unaware of it, a single modern edition occupied pride of place in the very center of the window—Mein Kampf in an unexpurgated translation. George did not point this out, because he saw in it nothing remarkable; but he did draw attention to the Mayor’s office in the Town Hall with its rather florid stained-glass windows that an earlier generation had considered stylish. He kept up a running gossip, also, about Browdley people whom Charles and Julie would probably meet in due course. “The Vicar—he’ll amuse you. He’s writing a book about Roman numerals—has a theory about them—been busy on it for years—he’s eighty-eight, I think…There’s a younger chap of seventy-odd—Catholic priest—Wendover, by name—my best friend—you’ll like him…That’s the new municipal swimming bath—just finished before the war began. Like a fool I said I’d make the first dive when it was opened—used to be quite a swimmer when I was a lad—but I hadn’t done any for years and I made a belly-flop that splashed all the other Councillors and their wives…it was the laugh of the place the day after…Here’s the real business center—the banks. Woolworth’s, Lipton’s. And down that street is where I managed to enter the world—the house isn’t there any more, and that’s another thing I managed.”

  Julie said: “You’d make a good guide, Mr. Boswell. Too bad there aren’t any Cook’s tours to places like this.”

  “Aye, it is too bad. Some of the London folks ought to come here once in a lifetime. They’d learn more than they would on the French Riviera—and about their own country at that…And don’t you go on calling me Mr. Boswell. Nobody here does.”

  Presently Charles remarked: “And you’ve never had a raid?”

  “So far, not a solitary bomb. They say you shouldn’t even whisper such a thing—but I’m not superstitious. All I sometimes wish is that I could clear everybody out of the town and organize my own raid. There’s still a few thousand folks living in houses that oughtn’t to exist, and it’ll take me ten years to finish ’em off—the houses, I mean—even when peace comes.”

  George was silent again, and for a rather odd reason; at the very utterance of the phrase “when peace comes” he had been swept by a sudden illusion that peace had come, and that Browdley under the moonlit sky was the most peaceful spot, just then, on earth.

  “Now you’ll have to let me make you some coffee,” he said, as they turned the corner from Shawgate into Market Street. “Because here we are—this is the old Guardian office—my printing works—this is where I live. You’ve seen most of the sights already—it’s only a small town.”

  “And. an honest one too,” Charles commented, as George opened the front door by merely turning the handle. “You live alone?”

  “There’s Annie comes in every day to clean up a bit. She’s an old woman now, but she’ll be glad to see you because—” He was on the point of saying “because she knows who you are but he changed it at the last moment to “because she’s got three nephews in the R.A.F.” Which was true.

  While George was ushering them inside, somebody passed along the pavement and called out the usual welcome. “’Owdo, George. Back again?”

  “Howdo, John. Aye, I’m back.”

  It was the fourth or fifth exchange of similar greetings on their way from the station. Charles laughed and commented that George certainly seemed to be well known. George laughed also and said Aye, he wasn’t exactly a stranger in those parts. The triteness of the remarks masked the tension they both felt as they entered the little house. George led the way along the hall and into his study, where he switched on a light after verifying that the curtains were drawn. Usually, on bringing anyone there for the first time, he watched for some sign of amazement at the shelves of books, but now he actually forgot to do so and was recalled from far different thoughts when Charles exclaimed: “Quite a library.”

  George then made his familiar boast that it was the best private collection in Browdley. But he added: “Not that I’d say the competition’s been very keen.” And then he heard himself launching into what now seemed just a ruefully amusing anecdote. “You know what your mother did once when I was away? Took off a lot of the paper covers and burned ’em…Thought she was making the place tidy for me…My, I lost my temper—and that’s a thing I don’t often do…Well, how about some coffee? Come in the kitchen—it’s easier…”

  George talked about the war and the postwar world; the news in the newspapers was very encouraging, and he found it hard as ever not to be optimistic, though after a lifetime of experience he could keep his optimism under wry control. He still had ambitions, dreams, plans, and hopes; and if a small portion of them came to anything, well, that was as much as a reasonable man could expect, but it was also as little as a patient man would accept. “It’s no good your people asking for the moon,” a testy political opponent had said at the last Council meeting; to which he had replied: “Nay, Tom—it’s the sun they’re asking for—the moon’s what I’ve promised ’em when the war’s over. And if you fellers have any sense ye’ll settle for that as a fair compromise.”

  So now, by an easy transition, his talk with Charles led back to Browdley again—its industries, homes, and people. “You’ll know what I mean tomorrow when you look over the place. The war seems to have solved our chief local problems—bad trade and unemployment—though it’s only a fake solution, we’ll have our troubles again later. But for the time being we’re better off, in some ways, than we used to be—everybody’s got money, the Council has a budget surplus, and as for jobs—why we’re even short of men to fill ’em.”

  “I suppose there’s a good deal of female employment then?”

  George began to laugh. “You mean, do the women work? Of course they do…And I’m laughing same as when I read in some of those shiny-paper fashion magazines what a marvelous thing’s happening in England because of the war—the women are actually not idling any more! But the women of Browdley never have idled. They’ve worked in their homes and in factories and in both together ever since the town began. Even when the men had nothing to do, the women had plenty. So don’t you go praising ’em in your speeches for the novelty of getting their hands soiled!”

  “You’re still dreaming, George. I shan’t make any speeches.”

  “Aye, I forgot…I was just the same when I was your age—I could talk, but I couldn’t make a speech. And even when I could I hated it at first…But you’re not such a fool as to do anything you hate.”

  “Who’s speaking now, George—the lion, the dog, or the dove?”

  The remark put them in a mood in which Julie told them to go back to the study and talk while she washed up in the kitchen; she insisted on this with such emphasis that George wondered if she were deliberately contriving a chance for him to talk to Charles alone. He was not sorry to have that chance, anyway. The boy entered the study first and was drawing the curtains aside before George could press the switch. The sudden flood of moonlight crisscrossed the rows of books; it lay on his desk, on the litter of papers and Council reports; full of gleams and shadows, it caught the glass in front of photographs on the mantelpiece.

  “Just wondered what sort of view you had, George.”

  “Not much, I’m afraid. That’s the wall of the bus garage.”

  “But the garden…Come over here!”

  George crossed the room, and as he approached the window, which was partly open, the scent of summer flowers came to him as he never remembered it before—geraniums, roses,
carnations, stocks, mignonette.

  “Aye, it’s nice this time of the year. I’m not much of a gardener myself, but Annie likes it and does a bit now and again…Livia’s garden, we still call it—used to be a piece of waste ground till she took it in hand.”

  At the word, uttered like a spell between them, Charles stirred uneasily. “Livia,” he muttered. “My father used to call her Livy…The lost books of Livy, he used to say, what wouldn’t I give to look into them!” He breathed deeply into the scented air. “So she planted the garden and burned your book covers? Anything else?”

  George did not speak.

  Charles went on: “My father used to say she made you into a nerve of her own body and let you do the aching instead of her…unless you were ill or a child, and then she took all the aches to herself and rocked you to sleep.” He sat on the arm of a chair, fidgeting nervously with his cigarette case. “But that wouldn’t suit me. I’m not a child, and I don’t expect always to be ill.”

  “You won’t be. You’ll get better.”

  “I want to work, too.”

  “You will.”

  “Mind if I smoke?”

  “Watch the light if you’re not going to pull the curtains.”

  “Good old warden. The moon’s so bright you could turn on all the street lamps.” He suddenly pointed to a photograph on the mantelpiece. “That her?”

  “Aye.”

  “And the baby?”

  “He died.”

  “She was young then.”

  “Aye. Nearly a quarter of a century ago.”

  “You make it sound a long time.”

  “It has been a long time.”

  “I feel so damned sorry for her, George. My uncle never liked her. Nobody seems to like her much, for that matter—not how she is now. And the chances are my father won’t come back. She thinks he will, but to me it doesn’t seem probable.”

  George exclaimed: “By God, though, if she thinks he will, he may. In fact he’d almost better!”

  Charles stared for a moment, then slowly smiled. “Yes, I know. She gets her own way as a rule. That’s why, when she learns about Julie and me—”

  “You haven’t told her yet?”

  “Not yet. Do you think I should?”

  George thought a moment, then said: “Aye, might as well get it over.”

  “I will then. I’ll write her tomorrow. Your advice has been pretty good so far.”

  “You mean you’re happy?”

  Charles nodded profoundly.

  “That’s good. I can see Julie is too. And don’t feel you ought to be looking after your mother. It’s she who feels she ought to be looking after you…but you’re against that, and so am I.”

  “I know. And she doesn’t really need me, she only needs me to need her.”

  “That’s not a bad way of putting it.”

  “Because she’s got a sort of secret strength to face things—and less fear than anyone I ever met—man or woman. I often used to think when I was sweating it out over Berlin—God, I wish I had guts of iron like hers…It was crazy, sometimes, the things she’d do. We were at a restaurant in Munich once and a crowd of army officers sat down at the next table. They were pretty drunk and high-tempered, started abusing a waiter for something or other. Eventually one of them struck the man, and my mother, who was closer than I was, leaned over and bopped the officer over the head with a Chianti bottle. Suddenly—quietly—without a word—just like that.” Charles swung his arm. “Pure slapstick comedy but for the time and place.”

  “What happened?”

  “Blood and Chianti all over everything. A riot. Amidst which I managed to get her out by a back door. The restaurant owner was as keen to save his premises as I was to avoid an international incident.”

  George laughed. “It wasn’t always so serious. Once she and I were arguing at dinner about something or other quite trivial when she picked up a piece of apple pie and threw it at me. And it happened that you could see in from the street and somebody had seen in—and also it was the middle of an election campaign. They called me Apple-Pie George after that for a time.” George laughed louder at the recollection. “I used to think it harmed my chances—maybe it did. But I’m glad to know about all this. I’d forgive her a lot for that.”

  “Didn’t you forgive her anyway?”

  “Aye, I always found it pretty easy.”

  “My father used to say it was easy to forgive her if she was wrong, but if she turned out to be right then you might as well never forgive yourself.”

  George said after a long pause: “I don’t want to send you away, but if you’re feeling sleepy…I’ve booked a room for you both at the Greyhound.”

  “The Greyhound?”

  “Just along the street. More comfortable than here.”

  Charles crossed the room and George put his arm round the boy’s shoulder as the two walked back to the kitchen. “Don’t you worry, lad. If I can help her I shall. It won’t all be your job. You can count on me for that.”

  “Seems to me I count on you for a lot of things, George.”

  George took them over to the Greyhound, said goodnight, and began the short stroll back to his house. But he felt so wakeful he made a detour past the Town Hall, his mind being still full of thoughts, strange thoughts, such as that Charles had actually been under his roof, and that Browdley in moonlight was really a beautiful place. Not only the Town Hall, but the main office of the Browdley Building Society, Joe Hardman’s fish shop, even Ridgeway’s garage on whose doors, as a halcyon reminder, there could still be seen the painting of a very gay peacetime charabanc for hire…all so beautiful…which was absurd, of course; yet even as he admitted it, beauty and a little sadness remained in what he felt. He could not hope for sleep in such a mood; but he could work, there was always that. As he entered his house the hall was bright as bars of silver; he could even read the headline of the Advertiser, and a typical one, even after five years of war—“Shall Browdley Have Sunday Cinemas?” So that was how his old journalistic rival still looked at the world, he mused, with extra irony because the Sunday cinema question had been debated in Browdley ever since he had campaigned as a young man for his first Council election…and now they were at it again!…No wonder Lord Winslow could remark that England didn’t change! But it did change, for all that, beneath the surface of dead issues regularly flogged to life. George slipped the paper into his pocket as he walked into the open study doorway.

  Suddenly he knew he was not alone. Someone was standing in front of the window, staring out—as Charles had done earlier—into the garden. The figure turned, offered a profile against the moonlight, was unmistakable…

  “Livia!”

  At the instant of recognition he felt his hands clench with shock for which he must brace mind and heart as well; and he did so, almost as instantly.

  “Where is he? He’s been here, George. I know that. I want to see him.”

  He answered in a level voice: “They’re not here now, Livia.”

  “They? Who’re they?”

  He answered because it was the way he himself thought of them: “Charles and Julie.”

  He caught his breath, having spoken the phrase; he would have expected a scene, but for knowing that with Livia one could never expect the expected. All she did was to cross the room and sit on the arm of his armchair, while he drew curtains and switched on the light. He saw then that she looked tired and rather pale, but not uncomposed. Because he wanted to give her time to grasp the situation, he did not speak, but went back to the curtains and pretended to be fixing them with especial care.

  “Julie,” she said at last, still quietly. “So that’s her name, Charlie and Julie. How sweet! Where are they?”

  “Why did you come here, Livia?” he countered. “What made you think it would help?”

  “I don’t want it to help. I mean to stop this nonsense. And I know they are here, now you’ve told me she’s with him, because I went to Cambridge first and talk
ed to his servant at the college…I know, it’s no use you denying it. Of course I know. And I know your part in it all. I always know.”

  “Aye, there’s not much misses you—or ever did. But there’s something extra to tell you this time.” He added, in a kindly voice, with no note of triumph in it: “I told you, Livia, my advice would be to let the boy live his own life. That’s what he’s going to do, and I’ll admit I’m all for it. So whatever you’ve come to stop you’re too late.”

  “I’m too late?” She stared at him with glazed eyes. “Oh no, no. You’re the one who’s late. You have been all along. And he’s where you put him because of that. You and your kind of people. You talk about letting him live his own life—why didn’t you, then, when he had one to live—not just half a one? That’s all he has now because of the mess you’ve made of everything. You said once my father’s victims were all over the town—but yours are all over the world—people like you who went on making speeches…speeches…you were making them before he was born—just as you still are—”

  “Livia, you surely haven’t come here just for an argument—”

  “I told you what I came here for. I want Charlie. I want him. What’s left of him, that is, after your kind have said all their prayers and made all their speeches—”

  “I don’t know what you’re driving at, Livia. If you mean that my generation’s largely responsible for the war, then I’ll agree with you. Charles and I once discussed the same point—”

  “Oh, you did, did you? Just a nice friendly discussion. And he forgave you, I suppose. Man to man and all that. With his shattered nerves and smashed legs and burned eyes he forgave you—because he too may need to be forgiven someday.”

 
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