Camomile lawn, p.1
Camomile Lawn, p.1Mary Wesley
The Camomile Lawn
to James Hale
About the Author
HELENA CUTHBERTSON PICKED UP the crumpled Times by her sleeping husband and went to the flower room to iron it.
When she had suggested they should buy two copies of the paper, so that each could enjoy it in its pristine state, Richard had flared into rage and his accusations of extravagance had gone on for weeks, made worse when she had pointed out that it was her money that paid the paper bill.
Ironing the paper, a self-imposed task, she inclined to regret her period of widowhood after the war when she had read The Times whenever she pleased and not had to wait. Replacing the sheets in their proper order, she considered it ironic that any man could take so long reading the leaders and the Hatch, Match and Dispatches and reduce the paper to hopeless disorder. She looked round the flower room; it was far from tidy. Something should be done about it, but not now. Helena let herself into the garden, walked round to the camomile lawn, sat down in a deck chair and settled to read the paper. Richard would sleep for another hour before fussing as to whether he or she should meet the evening train, and to which bedrooms his nephews and nieces should be assigned, as though they did not always decide for themselves. Richard attributed his temper and fussiness to being gassed in the trenches. Turning the pages of the paper, Helena rather wondered. She laid the paper down and, closing her eyes, lifted her face to the sun. There was no good news these days and although Richard had touching faith in Mr Chamberlain it looked as though Calypso, Walter, Polly and Oliver were in for the next bout of gas. Sophy, too, of course. She tended to forget Sophy, so small, so quiet, so young compared with the ebullient others. Helena knew she should make an effort about Sophy. She had never had a child of her own, neither had Richard. Calypso, Walter, Polly and Oliver were Richard’s siblings’ children. Calypso was the only child of Richard’s elder brother John Cuthbertson, a dim country solicitor with a vapidly pretty wife. Polly and Walter were the children of his younger brother Martin Cuthbertson, a surgeon and rising star, and Oliver only child of Sarah, his elder sister, married to George Anstey, a prominent civil servant.
Richard resented clever Martin’s success, felt contempt for John, and was not only rather afraid of his sister Sarah but also jealous. Poor little Sophy was his half-sister’s child, an error which had killed the half-sister, leaving Sophy solo. Helena admitted to herself that had she known about Sophy when Richard had pressed her to marry him she would have thought twice. The others were all older and only came for visits, whereas Sophy of necessity was always there, though thank God fairly invisible.
Lying on her stomach along the branch of the Ilex tree overhanging the camomile lawn, Sophy looked down on her aunt. She was trapped until Helena chose to move. She had a foreshortened view of Helena, relaxed, legs apart, cotton dress riding up her thighs, lolling. A perfect view across the lawn to the cliff running down to the cove, and of the path winding along the contours of the coast a few feet from the drop to the sea, calm this hot August day. She wondered whether Oliver would have the Terror Run as he had for the last three summers and whether she would be old enough to join in. The Terror Run was run by moonlight along the path from the headland below the coastguard station. The first year Walter had sprained an ankle and last year Polly had been badly scratched by brambles. Oliver so far held the record. Calypso always came in unscathed, her exquisite face no pinker than usual, her breath only lifting breasts the better for the boys to gaze at. As Sophy watched the coastguard walk along the cliff path, going on duty, she wondered what it would be like to have breasts, what it would be like to be loved as Calypso was loved. Aunt Helena’s breasts were packed into a garment called a bust bodice which made Calypso and Polly laugh. They wore Kestos brassières.
The coastguard reached his station. Uncle Richard limped through the French windows saying ‘Ah, there you are’ in a surprised voice, as though his wife never sat on the lawn. Helena pulled down her skirt.
‘Would you like some tea?’ She wished he would not limp so obviously. There was no need.
‘Yes indeed, why not? Shall I ask Betty?’
‘It’s Betty’s day out. I will get it, it’s all ready.’
Helena sighed and rose to her feet. Above them Sophy edged backwards along the branch to her window.
‘I’d get it if it weren’t for my leg.’ Richard Cuthbertson always said this. The leg was somewhere in Flanders, a place he talked about with nervous affection.
‘You rest it.’ Helena always said this. Oliver had once been heard to say: ‘When I drove through the battlefields of Flanders with Mother the thought of Uncle’s leg double-trenched among the beet made me give up sugar with my tea.’ That Helena had overheard him he was unaware. Calypso had laughed her chuckling laugh.
‘Imagine in bed! Poor Helena! I mean, as they, well—as they—there it is, the false one, propped against the wall, as often as not still in his trousers. I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t.’
Oliver and Walter had laughed too and increased their laughter when Calypso had added: ‘They don’t, of course. It was twin beds and now he sleeps in the dressing room.’
When Sophy asked, ‘Don’t what?’ Walter had cried: ‘Sweet innocence of youth’, and Sophy had angrily blushed.
As Sophy eased herself over the sill into her room she saw Jack from the post office pop up the path leading to the lawn.
‘Telegram, Major, for you.’ She watched Uncle Richard tear the envelope with his thumb, read, then glare at Jack. ‘Damn the boy!’ he exclaimed, staring at Jack, who retreated a couple of steps and asked: ‘Any answer, sir?’
‘No, no thank you. Damned inconsiderate.’
Jack disappeared down the path to his bicycle.
Uncle Richard shouted, ‘Helena, Helena, I say.’
‘What is it?’ Helena came through the French windows, pulling a trolley. ‘I thought tea out here would be nice. What is it?’ she asked, bringing the trolley up to the deck chair. ‘I’ll get another chair,’ she added, as her husband sat in the one she had vacated.
‘It’s Oliver. Has an appointment in Harley Street, isn’t arriving until the midnight train. He is inconsiderate. It’s inconvenient, means meeting two trains. I ask you.’
‘Calypso can meet him, she can drive.’
‘Not my car.’ Uncle Richard helped himself to a scone. ‘Any cream?’
‘On your left.’ Helena poured tea. ‘She can take mine, then.’ Helena passed her husband his cup. She seldom allowed herself to refer to the fact that not only the car but the house and nearly all their possessions were hers. It was a pity Army pensions were so small, a good thing her first husband had left her well off.
‘Oliver has been wounded in Spain. I expect George wants to make sure he is all right.
‘George is a fool. Why did he allow the boy to get mixed up with those dagos?’
‘I don’t suppose Oliver asked, he just went. They are lucky he has come back. The Turnbulls’ son has been killed.’
‘At least he was fighting on the right side.’
‘Do you mean right or Right?’ Helena spread jam on her scone.
‘If you are going to start up again with that attitude I refuse to discuss this—this scuffle in Spain. Where is that child Sophy? Should she not be here for tea? Sophy?’ He raised his voice to shout as he would have liked to shout at his wife if he had not been afraid of her.
‘Coming.’ Sophy wiped the tear she had spilled in disappointment, combed her hair and called again, ‘Coming.’ Perhaps Calypso would let her go to meet Oliver, although it was all too probable that she would be sent to bed long before midnight. That she loved Oliver with all her heart and always would was Sophy’s burden.
HELENA MET THE LONDON train, taking Sophy, who seemed quieter than usual. Sophy was small, ten, and her appearance had a touch of the Orient, not what Richard would call the Tarbrush, but the Orient. Her cheekbones could be called Slav but not her eyes. Helena hoped that she would improve. She had never enquired precisely what and who Richard’s half-sister had been up to with or where.
The London train snaked into Penzance. Calypso, Walter and Polly sprang from it with zest, kissing Helena, hugging Sophy and crying, ‘Well, well, how are you? Isn’t this lovely? Isn’t this wonderful? What air after London!’ Let’s grab the luggage, find a porter. Where’s the car? How’s Uncle Richard? How’s his leg?’ Their anxiety always seemed to be addressed to the artificial limb, which indeed went wrong oftener than the active member.
Calypso was breathtaking. Helena was freshly surprised. At nineteen she was still gangly. Her dreadful red mouth and nails and excess face powder could not spoil her beauty. Walter at eighteen had broadened. He was a dark version of his father and uncle except for his nose, which he had broken when small. Polly, on the other hand, favoured her mother with a square jaw and startling green eyes with long lashes. Her teeth slightly out of kilter, like a false step in a chorus line, gave her smile a particular gaiety. At nineteen there was already beauty.
‘Did you hear about Oliver?’
‘Oliver is coming on the late train.’ Helena watched the young people pile into the car. ‘And nobody is to mention General Franco.’ She settled herself at the wheel.
‘Oh, Aunt Helena, you spoilsport. Here, Sophy, sit on my knee.’ Calypso clasped Sophy round the waist and kissed the back of her neck. ‘Nice to see you.’ She squeezed the child. ‘Come and meet Olly with me? May I meet him, Aunt?’
‘If you like, but Sophy should be in bed.’
‘Oh, Aunt, just this once.’
‘She’s a growing child, she needs her sleep. She can see Oliver tomorrow.’
‘Mother talked to Uncle George and he said Oliver had a near miss. The bullet grazed the side of his head.’ In the back with Polly, Walter leant forward to talk to his aunt, who was driving recklessly. ‘What do you think of the war, Aunt?’
‘Which?’ Helena jammed on the brakes to avoid a van. ‘What your uncle calls “the scuffle in Spain” or the coming one?’
‘The coming one. I shall join the Navy.’
‘But you are always sick.’ Polly closed her eyes as Helena increased speed. ‘Even in a dinghy.’
‘I shall get into submarines. You can’t be sick under water.’
‘You are too young,’ said Helena.
‘I am eighteen, I’ve left school.’
‘What about Oxford?’ Helena changed down and set the car up the steep hill out of the town.
‘Either it will have been destroyed or it will wait. Besides, I haven’t got a place like Oliver. I wonder whether he will go now.’
‘Uncle George didn’t at all like him using his waiting year to fight in Spain. He wanted him to learn German.’
‘He wouldn’t have liked Germany. I was there at Easter. It was vile. All those Sieg Heils and Juden verbotens. A filthy Brownshirt was rude to me in Munich because I was wearing shorts.’ Calypso flinched as Helena rasped the gears at the top of the hill.
‘Let’s not discuss politics or war. This may be our last summer holiday ever.’ Polly spoke with urgency. ‘We can’t stop it now.’
‘Your uncle does not think there will be a war. I would rather you did not discuss it in front of him.’
‘Oh, Aunt, really!’ Calypso threw back her head and laughed, then, seeing Helena’s face, stopped abruptly.
‘He wants the last one all to himself,’ Polly muttered to Walter, ‘and Aunt lost her first husband completely not just a leg and an eyeful of gas.’
‘Here we are.’ Helena swung the car into the drive, which led to the back of the house and the entrance protected from the prevailing wind. ‘When you’ve seen Richard will you choose your rooms?’
‘Shall you get full up with evacuees, Aunt?’ Walter hefted the suitcases.
‘Uncle’s leg will prevent that.’ Polly slid out of the car. ‘Oh damn, I’ve laddered my stocking.’
‘Polly, please—’ Helena felt inclined to slap.
‘Sorry, sorry, Aunt. Hullo, Uncle Richard, how are you? Father and Mother sent their love.’
Polly and Calypso kissed their uncle. Walter held out his hand, too old now to kiss and comment on whether or not his uncle had halitosis.
Waiting for the midnight train, which was late, Calypso shivered as she walked along the platform. She remembered Polly’s suggestion that this might be their last holiday. She and her cousins had been coming every summer for ten years, ever since Helena married Richard and bought the house, square and ugly but in a marvellous position.
Every August since she was Sophy’s age she had come with Polly, Walter and Oliver to bathe, climb cliffs and over-eat at Helena’s expense, treating the house as their own, then vanish like a flock of starlings, leaving the house for Uncle Richard and Helena and, for the whole year, Sophy, who could speak of winter storms and violent seas, of driving rain, wind she could not stand up against and fog. Calypso hugged her cardigan close and hopped from one foot to another. ‘Come on, train, come on, Oliver.’ Would he be changed? Would beautiful funny Oliver, who planned all the games, be the same? What had he seen and done in Spain in this war people felt so passionately about?
Oliver stepped stiffly from the train and looked about him. Calypso ran.
‘Oliver, darling, how brown you are! You look like Suzanne Lenglen. Does it hurt?’ His head looked strange bandaged. Oliver put his arm round her shoulder. It was all exactly the same, nothing changed, same porters, same ticket collector, same cab rank, harbour, water lapping at high tide, tired train.
‘Does it hurt?’ she repeated.
‘No, I can take the dressing off tomorrow. Are you driving? Where’s the car?’
‘D’you think there’d be a pub open?’
‘It’s far too late. Have you taken to drink?’
‘Just wanted to delay arriving.’
‘All the questions.’
‘There won’t be many. Helena says we are not to talk about Spain or the war. How soon will it be, Oliver? How long have we got? They are all in bed by now.’
‘Could we stop on the cliff before we get to the house?’
‘Of course.’ Calypso, vaguely embarrassed, drove fast through the sleeping town on to the cliff road. ‘Will this do?’ She stopped the car. Oliver got out, walked across the rough ground and stood looking down at the sea. He seemed to have forgotten Calypso, who sat in the car watching him. He did not move so she joined him.
‘The Terror Run.’ She pointed to the cliff path. ‘Shall we run it this year? Polly says this may be our last holiday.’
‘May I fuck you? Now, at once? Calypso, I want to marry you.’ She said nothing. ‘Well?’ Oliver looked down at the se
‘No, darling. I’m a virgin. I’d have a baby. I can’t marry you. I want to marry somebody rich, you know that.’
‘To keep you in the state to which you wish to become accustomed?’
‘Yes. I do love you, Oliver, you know that. Besides, we are only nineteen.’
‘Nineteen is too young for a man to marry. You have to go to Oxford.’
‘Don’t spoil our holiday.’
‘All right, we will have the Terror Run.’ He walked back to the car. ‘God, I’m tired.’ Calypso got in beside him. ‘The smell. I can’t tell you what it’s like.’
‘What smell?’ She started the engine.
‘Bits of people, like Uncle’s leg?’
‘Exactly. The poor sod, and we mock him.’
‘You have changed.’ She tried to speak lightly.
‘I’ve only come out of my shell, woken up, grown up.’
‘Here we are.’ Calypso stopped the car by the house. ‘I’m so sorry, Oliver.’
‘Goodnight. Which room am I in?’
‘The red room.’
‘Thanks.’ Oliver went up the stairs without looking back and into his room. He undressed without putting on the light, pulled on pyjamas, crossed to the window to pull back the curtains, found Sophy.
‘Sophy, what are you doing here?’
‘Aunt Helena wouldn’t let me meet you. Calypso wanted to take me to the station.’
‘Yes, she suggested it, but Aunt Helena said I must go to bed and could see you in the morning. Are you cross?’
‘No. You are cold. Come here.’ He picked her up. ‘Let me warm you.’ He carried the shivering child to his bed. ‘Let’s warm each other. Get in with me.’
‘Does your head hurt? How did you get shot?’
‘No, it doesn’t. Lie quiet. Perhaps we can hear the sea.’
‘Oliver, you are crying.’ She touched his wet face. He held her close in her Viyella pyjamas. She smelt of soap.
‘Just let me cry—’ He wept for the horrors in Spain and Calypso’s rebuff.
Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes