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Short Stories

Our Polly by Anna Jacobs, pub Hodder & Stoughton UK, paperback out October

2001

 

CHAPTER 1

 

November 1919

 

Polly stumbled along the track to the farm, her feet slipping in the mud.

She should have changed into stouter shoes. She still forgot sometimes how

muddy the countryside could get because she'd been brought up in the

terraced streets of Overdale, not here on the slopes of the Pennines. She

hoped she could find her son before she had to ask for help; she was still

regarded as an outsider in the village of Outshaw, and her husband, Eddie,

was pitied for having married a townie.

He was a little devil, her Billy was, always into things, often going

missing, but you couldn't help loving him. When a child smiled like that and

gave you smacking great kisses, you knew you were lucky. Polly jumped up and down to look over the drystone wall. He was nowhere in the village, but

surely he couldn't have come so far? What if he'd gone the other way and

wandered on to the moors?

This would give Hilda Scordale yet another reason to criticise her. Polly

had tried hard to get on good terms with Eddie's mother, but had slowly come

to realise that the older woman was jealous of his love for his wife.

Whoever he'd married, it would have been the same. And Eddie worshipped his

mother, so could see no wrong in her. Hilda was the only reason he and Polly

ever quarrelled, because his mother was always telling them what to do -

well, telling Eddie and expecting him to convince his wife.

Things had improved a little after Billy's birth, but had started going

downhill again once he began toddling and getting into mischief. Mrs

Scordale said it was up to a mother to keep an eye on her children, but

Polly defied anyone to keep Billy in check all the time. He was not only

adventurous but clever enough to figure out how latches worked. They'd

thought they'd got him safely penned in the garden with the new latch Eddie

had fitted to the gate, but obviously he'd figured that one out now and you

couldn't keep your gate padlocked when so many things had to be delivered to

this isolated hamlet.

Just before she got to the farm she saw her husband walking towards her with

Billy in his arms, and stopped to clutch her side and sigh in relief.

Eddie grinned at her as he held their son up in the air and gave him a mock

shake. "I think we need a cage for this one!"

Billy crowed with laughter.

Polly tried to look severe, but could not help smiling at Billy's rosy

little face with its mop of soft brown hair, like her own in colour but with

a rebellious curl to it when you tried to comb it neatly for church. "Have

you time to come back for a cuppa, love?"

"Nay, lass. Farmer Snape wasn't best pleased with our Billy turning up like

this. I'd best get straight back to work."

She nodded and took Billy from him. The child flung his arms round her neck,

planting a wet kiss on her cheek with wind-chilled lips. "You're a naughty

boy, Billy Scordale!" Polly scolded.

"Naughty boy," he echoed solemnly, peeping sideways at her. "See the

horsies."

Eddie kissed her other cheek. "You don't even sound angry with him, Pol."

She smiled ruefully. It was true. She did find it hard to stay angry with

her son - with anyone, in fact. She knew she was too soft, but there was

enough unhappiness in the world without creating more. Setting the child

down, she took his hand firmly in hers and led him home.

Her mother-in-law was standing at the door of their house opposite and

greeted her with, "Have you given him a good smacking?"

Polly suppressed a sigh. "You know I don't believe in hitting children."

"He'll never learn to behave if you don't chastise him."

"I'll find other ways." She waited till Hilda had gone inside, then let out

her breath in a long sigh that turned into a near sob. Once inside her own

home, she changed Billy's muddy clothes and set his little boots to dry in

front of the fire, tears filling her eyes. If only there was someone her own

age here, someone to talk to. Eddie worked such long hours at the farm, and

the other women in the hamlet were all Hilda's age and cronies of her

mother-in-law.

When Billy fell asleep on the rug in front of the fire, Polly tiptoed out

into the kitchen to stare blindly out of the window. There wasn't enough to

keep her occupied in one small house. She'd been a maid at Mrs Pilby's

before her marriage, working in a large house with several other staff

members to chat to, lots to keep them busy and all the gossip from the town

filtering through the kitchen. Here in Outshaw nothing much happened from

one day to the next and she couldn't think what her mother-in-law did with

herself once Jim Scordale had gone to work in the quarry.

Polly went to glance into the front room. How could she get angry at Billy

who was the only small child in Outshaw and had no one to play with, poor

little soul? Clicking her tongue in annoyance, she told herself not to brood

on things, just get on with her life. And she'd certainly be busy for the

next few days because as soon as she got word that her sister Lizzie's baby

had been born, Polly was going to stay with her for a week. She brightened

at the thought. There'd be plenty going on at Lizzie's. The Deardens lived

in busy York Road over the large grocer's shop they owned, one of the posh

shops which served the gentry.

***

The Dearden's delivery van turned up the very next morning with old John

calling out before he even got out, "The babby's arrived!"

"What is it?" Polly asked eagerly.

"A little girl. Hadn't been born when I left work last neet, an' your Lizzie

sitting packing sugar in t'back room. But when I got in this morning I heard

a babby skriking upstairs. Eh, it's got a right pair of lungs on it, yon

has."

It only took Polly a few minutes to get ready. As she had arranged, she took

Billy across to her mother-in-law's and for once was not greeted with a sour

face. Mrs Scordale would enjoy having her son and grandson to herself for a

few days. She'd soon find out what a handful Billy was. Polly smiled as she

got into the van. Maybe then she'd be more understanding. And maybe not.

In the living quarters above the Dearden's, Lizzie greeted her sister with,

"Come and meet your new niece."

Polly hung over the cradle. "Isn't she pretty? And you look well, too."

"This one was much easier than the first." Lizzie stretched. "In fact, I'm

already fed up of lying in bed."

"You enjoy your rest."

Lizzie pulled a face. "Who wants to rest?"

With Peter and his mother busy in the shop below, the two sisters were

looking forward to a few days together. Beth was a placid baby and her

brother Matt was an easy child to look after compared to his cousin Billy,

playing quietly with his toys while the two sisters talked for hours.

"What's up?" Lizzie asked after a while.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean what's making you look so unhappy underneath?"

Polly sighed. "It's just - well, it's a bit lonely at Outshaw and try as I

will, I don't really get on with the Scordales - especially her."

"There's something wrong with anyone who can't get on with you, my girl. You

'd be better moving away from there and so would Eddie. In fact, it'd do you

both a world of good."

"Eddie wouldn't go. His mother was so upset when his sister went to

Australia, he promised her he'd never leave Outshaw. Besides, the house goes

with the job and there aren't many farms which would take on a lame man."

Polly shrugged. "Any road, I manage. I have Billy, which makes up for a lot.

Eh, I'm missing him already."

The next day a letter arrived from the middle Kershaw sister, Eva, who was a

school mistress over near Rochdale where she lived with her friend and

former teacher, Alice Blake.

"Eva says Alice hasn't been well, so she can't come over this weekend to see

her new niece." Lizzie pulled a face. "Oh, dear, they've had to have the

doctor in again."

"Poor Alice. She's having a bad year of it, isn't she?"

"Yes, poor thing! But me, I'm having a good year. Never been so happy in my

life."

"So you should be with Peter doting on you like he does." Polly felt her

sister deserved her happiness because she had had a bad time with her first

husband, Sam Thoxby, who had been a wife-beater and a thief. Even when

Lizzie had run away from him during the war, he'd found her and dragged her

back. It had been a relief for them all when he'd been killed in an accident

towards the end of the war, though you ought not to be glad of such a thing.

Then Lizzie had been able to marry Peter Dearden, whom she'd known for a

long time and they were so happy together it did Polly's heart good to see

them.

And though her own Eddie was not the most lively person to live with, he was

a kind husband, a good father and a loving son. She had nothing to complain

of, really, and didn't know why she was letting things get her down.

"Are you two going to have any more children?" Lizzie asked idly one day.

"You're leaving it a bit late if you want them to be friends."

Polly could feel herself blushing. "We've been trying, but no luck so far."

"Well, you've proved once that you can do it, so there's no need to worry."

Lizzie grinned. "You just have to keep practising till you get it right."

Polly could feel her face heating up still further. She didn't tell her

sister that Eddie was often too tired to love her. That sort of thing was

private as far as she was concerned and she'd never been able to discuss

intimate things in the casual way Lizzie did.

Polly was sorry when the week came to an end, despite all the interrupted

nights, and was thoughtful as she packed to go home. She had enjoyed the

bustle of living above the busy shop and got on well with Peter Dearden and

his mother. And, eh, the new baby was a pretty little thing, with a look of

her Auntie Eva.

Polly would have loved a daughter. But if she had one the baby would no

doubt have its mother's mid-brown hair and plump, placid face. Polly knew

her own shortcomings only too well. She had never been able to sparkle with

life like Lizzie, or talk intelligently about the world as Eva did - nor was

she as pretty as her clever sister. She was just ordinary. And so was her

husband. She should be ashamed of herself for finding him rather dull, but

she did - and was dreading going back to Outshaw.

***

Two months after the birth of Lizzie's child, the Mercer family gathered in

a small village on the north Fylde coast to mourn the death of old James

Mercer with due pomp and circumstance, though with little real grief.

Indeed, there were expectations in more than one breast that there might be

something to celebrate after the will had been read, so the gathering had a

cheerful undertone to it.

Richard Mercer, who attended the funeral at the tiny church of St Paul's

with his wife Florence, was one of the few to feel genuinely sad because he

had liked his Uncle James for all the old fellow's fussiness. After the

service they walked from the church back to the house along the sea front,

pausing for a moment to look back towards the eastern end of the village,

where the only hotel stood. It had changed its name since his last visit and

was now Hotel Bella Vista, a stupid name for a hotel in Lancashire. They

passed the long row of boarding houses or large private homes that graced

the foreshore. Poorer people lived at the rear of the village in rows of

cottages. The older ones were whitewashed and had thatched roofs, the newer

ones were built of brick and tile but were still small.

As they turned from the shore down Seaview Close, with its select group of

seven houses, Florence grumbled about the loose gravel path and the lack of

amenities in Stenton-on-Sea, but Richard let her complaints wash over his

head. Instead he breathed deeply, enjoying the bracing sea air and wishing

they lived in a place like this instead of a grubby little town like

Overdale.

Seaview House was at the end of the short close, looking down to the sea

from a slight rise. It was one of the largest houses in Stenton and had a

new wing at the rear where the servants were housed because old James had

valued his privacy.

Richard gave his coat and hat to Doris who had been his uncle's maid for as

long as he could remember and whose eyes were reddened from weeping. He

joined the other mourners in the sitting room, but went to stand on his own

in the big square bay window with a glass of his uncle's fine dry sherry in

his hand, staring out towards the water. He did not feel like chatting to

his relatives. His parents had died while he was fighting in France and he

had lost touch with most of the rest of his family.

His cousin George was fussing over the ladies as usual. It always upset

Richard to see the old aunties simpering at the handsome young man and

watching him fondly as he moved on, because he knew what his cousin said

about them afterwards and it was never flattering. He touched his cheek,

feeling the scar, knowing it gave him a sneering expression these days which

made people wary of approaching him. There were other scars on his body,

because he'd copped a few minor wounds over the long years of combat, and he

felt sometimes that there were scars on his mind, too. But George seemed

untouched in any way by the fighting and muck and deaths, even boasting of

having had a "good war". Trust him to come through unscathed!

"Well, at least old Georgie livens things up," Florence muttered, waving and

smiling brightly across the room. "I hate funerals. Still, this one might be

worth coming to. I expect your uncle's left you something - you and Georgie

are his only nephews. He was a funny one, though, old James, and you could

never count on him doing the right thing. I'm not surprised he never

married."

A minute later she was off again. "You know, he refused to let me live with

him while you were away and yet there was only him in this big house. It'd

have been so convenient to have servants to help me look after Connie. It's

not even as if I'd have been here all the time."

Richard replied when he had to and felt only relief when she left his side,

though he was not pleased to see her gravitate towards George. Those two

were birds of a feather, he thought glumly. He should never have married

her, but she'd been expecting his child, so what else could he have done?

Back in 1910 you did not even try to get out of doing your duty. He'd often

wondered since what had attracted him to Florence - or her to him - for they

were an ill-matched couple.

He now realised that their brief affair had been the result of sheer lust on

Florence's part. She was the first for him, though he was clearly not so for

her. He had believed her to be a friend in need after she had listened so

patiently to his ramblings about the boredom of figures and office work when

his father had forced him to become an accountant. He had been too naïve in

those days even to know that women like her existed: decent to all

appearances, but with the hearts and bodies of whores. He was quite sure

Constance, whom they always called Connie, was his child, however, because

his daughter had the fair Mercer hair that was neither brown nor blond, and

she looked very like photos of his mother as a child.

He sighed and took another sip of sherry as he sifted through memories of

coming here to Stenton-on-Sea as a child: paddling happily in the tranquil

water, cycling along the rutted country lanes in a world without the hills

of his home town. The Fylde coast could be bleak in winter, though, with the

wind tossing white foam off the waves and howling across the flat land. But

the air was always clean and tangy and he couldn't seem to get enough of it

after the stink of the trenches.

A burst of laughter made him twist round and scowl at these vultures who had

descended on Seaview House and who cared nothing for James Mercer. He'd be

relieved when today's fuss was over. There had been too many deaths and

funerals in the past few years - and he had had to stand there in his

Captain's uniform without betraying his emotions at the loss of another

young life. Since the fallen comrades were men from his company, the least

he could do was offer them the outward trappings of military respect, but

sometimes, when it was a particularly young lad in the simple coffin, some

of whom he guessed to be well under the age of enlistment, it had been hard

to suppress his own grief and bitterness at the waste. Many a time he had

gone back to his bunker and sat there with tears in his eyes as he wrote to

tell the usual lies to their families about a quick and painless death.

There were only a few men left now from the original "Hellhounds", as the

men of his company had called themselves in those early, enthusiastic days

when he became first their Lieutenant, then their Captain. He might have

left the Army now, but he hoped the few remaining Hellhounds wouldn't lose

touch - hoped they knew they could always turn to him if they were in

trouble. And if that was blindly idealistic, as Florence had told him

scornfully, he didn't care. She simply could not understand how little class

and money had mattered out there, or how important such camaraderie had been

in seeing you through. Still was. Peace wasn't proving easy after so many

years of war, and Richard had been in the Army from the very beginning.

Someone cleared their throat and he jerked back into awareness of where he

was to find his Uncle James's lawyer standing next to him. They shook hands

and exchanged a few platitudes then Richard fell silent, waiting to see what

Quentin Havershall wanted.

"Your uncle asked me to read the will in his study. Just you and your cousin

George involved. Would now be convenient?"

Richard could see Florence watching eagerly from a few feet away, her lips

parted avidly, showing the line of pink gum behind the bright red lipstick

he hated so much. "Yes, of course."

"I'll find your cousin, then."

When the old lawyer had moved away, she darted across and hissed, "What's he

want?"

Suppressing a sigh he told her. She beamed up at him, her dark bobbed hair

swinging forward over her cheeks, the glossy strands touching a corner of

the garish mouth beneath a small feathered hat that was pulled right down to

her eyes when all the other women were wearing broad-brimmed hats. Even her

skirts were shorter than theirs, coming only to mid-calf, and the material

of her dress was too shiny. "Art silk, my dear," she had said when he'd

mentioned that. "It washes much better than the real thing. I'm going to

trim this one up afterwards and use it for an evening gown." She looked like

a painted doll, he thought in disgust. Not even a soft, cuddly doll nowadays

for she had lost a lot of weight since they first married - no, a wooden,

peg-top doll come to life, with that cropped hair and over-thin body.

His wife made a little noise of satisfaction in her throat. "That must mean

your uncle's left you something. How much do you think he was worth? He

certainly lived comfortably here." She stared round covetously. "It'd be

wonderful if he'd left you this house, wouldn't it? Not that I'd want to

live here but we could sell it and get out of Overdale, buy one of those

smart new villas in London, perhaps."

He stared at her bleakly. She had not uttered a single word of regret since

they'd heard the news of his uncle's death, just gone on and on about money.

He was relieved when Havershall beckoned from across the room. "Excuse me."

He joined the lawyer, walking in silence across the big rectangular hall

behind the fussy little man who barely reached his shoulder. As they passed

a mirror, Richard grimaced at the sight of himself. He looked gaunt still

after the years of privation and was beginning to wonder if he'd ever flesh

out again. Beside him walked George, six foot three to his own six foot, and

a bit beefy now, though he had been a scrawny child. They had always hated

one another, right from the first time they'd met. George, the younger by a

year, had been spoiled rotten by his elderly parents while Richard had been

very strictly brought up - which he now considered preferable.

In the study Havershall took the big leather chair behind the desk, then

reached into his briefcase and brought out some papers which he set out in

precise piles. George plumped himself down in one of the two other chairs

which had been arranged in front of the desk, sprawling like a schoolboy.

He grinned sideways at his cousin. "The moment of truth, eh?"

Richard could not return his smile. Uncle James had hinted that he would be

left something, but not what.

"My client asked me to give you these letters to read before I go through

the will."

George snatched his envelope and tore it open, dropping the pieces on the

carpet.

Richard stared at the one in front of him, reluctant even to pick it up. The

spidery handwriting had always been difficult to read and yet Uncle James

had been a faithful correspondent throughout the war. His letters had

brought a welcome breath of sanity into the filth and mayhem. Florence had

written very infrequently, mostly just postcards sent from so many different

places that he'd wondered what she was doing travelling around- and what she

'd done with their daughter.

And after a while, he'd started to wonder who she was with, as well.

He reached out to pluck the letter opener from the stand, but even before he

'd inserted it into the corner of the envelope, George was cursing beside

him.

"Mr Mercer, please! This is hardly the occasion for - "

Ignoring the lawyer, George turned to glare at his cousin, flicking one

finger at the piece of paper in Richard's hand, still folded and unread.

"You needn't bother with that. Our dear departed uncle says in mine that he'

s left you everything so your years of toadying have been richly rewarded!"

They stared at one another, Richard with a vivid memory of how things had

been when they were children. George had always mocked him for his

bookishness and quiet ways. They'd fought several times, once because George

had taken all the eggs from a bird's nest, leaving the poor mother

fluttering around in blind panic. And although Richard had won that fight,

George had stamped on the eggs - and then laughed uproariously until his

cousin's fist smacked into his mouth again. That blow had given Richard

immense, savage satisfaction, and he didn't care that his parents had

punished him afterwards for fighting. They hadn't been able to make him

apologise.

Nowadays George contented himself with patronising Richard and flirting with

Florence, who had once been his girl and who still called him 'Georgie-boy'

in caressing tones. Neither of them seemed to realise that this flirting

meant less than nothing to Richard; that the only thing which did matter

nowadays was his daughter - and to a lesser extent his men.

With a sigh, he unfolded the single piece of paper, sure that this was going

to cause trouble.

 

My dear boy

I've not been noted for my bluntness in the past, but this time there is no

other way than to say it straight out. I'm leaving everything to you because

George has turned into a gambler and would only waste it, as he must have

wasted his inheritance from his father. All he gets is my gold watch. The

rest is for you.

I've been careful over the years, invested my money prudently - and I hope

you'll continue to do the same. It's not a huge fortune, but there will be

enough to allow you to live comfortably if you are not extravagant - and

maybe even write that novel you were always talking about.

Do not, if you care at all about my wishes, let George get his hands on the

money. Do not even lend him any, whatever tale he spins you. He will not

repay it, for he has not proved trustworthy in his dealings with me.

I have not been feeling well for a while and shall not be sorry to go, my

dear nephew. I've enjoyed life in my own way, but I don't fit in with this

scrambling modern world. I'm pleased that we've beaten the Hun at last -

though I never doubted we would - and am greatly relieved that you've

survived that dreadful carnage.

Havershall will advise you about the money. I'd be happy to think of you

living in Seaview House, but that's your choice. If you sell it, please make

sure that the servants are looked after. I've left Mrs Shavely and Doris

small bequests and they have agreed to stay on with you. Indeed, this is as

much their home as mine now.

Yours affectionately

James Mercer

 

Richard stared at the heavy silver desk fittings and the inkstand blurred

into a gleam of light against a dark background. He blinked furiously to

clear his eyes, for he did not wish to weep in front of George and made a

mental resolution to do exactly as his uncle had wished, even to living in

this house for this quiet, windswept village would suit him very well. It

would be good for his daughter, too. Connie needed somewhere settled to

live. Florence had dragged her hither and thither while he was away, often

dumping her with relatives or neighbours for days on end, and the child

seemed very fretful and anxious. And, of course, the accident had left her

lame and even more reluctant to face the world.

Richard was grimly determined on the need for these changes, no longer the

malleable young man who had married sophisticated Florence Hawley, as she

would find out during the next few weeks. He had been forged in the flames

of war and as an officer had been responsible for other men's lives - and

deaths. Did his wife really think she was going to lead him around by the

nose? Villa in London, indeed!

***

As soon as the lawyer had handed over James's gold watch, George left the

library without another word, slamming the door behind him.

Havershall and Richard exchanged glances, then the lawyer began to explain

the practicalities of obtaining probate and taking up the inheritance.

When Richard returned to the drawing room half an hour later, conversation

faltered and he found himself the focus of a battery of disapproving gazes.

Clearly George had wasted no time in spreading the word that Richard had

wormed his way into James's good graces and stolen his cousin's inheritance.

However, his wife positively beamed at him across the room and hurried

across to join him, threading her arm through his and giving it a quick tug

as he lingered to speak to his second cousin Jane.

"You don't mind if I steal my husband away, do you?"

"Oh, no, no! Of course not." Jane moved back to her mother's side.

"There was no need for that," Richard protested.

"There was every need! I can't wait a minute longer to find out exactly what

happened."

"Uncle James has left everything to me - except his gold watch, which George

gets."

Florence threw back her head and laughed, laughing again even more loudly as

a shocked murmur arose from those standing nearby.

Her jubilation was as hard to bear as George's jealousy and Richard took her

away soon afterwards, first promising Mr Havershall he would return the

following week to take formal possession of the house.

The village's one cab, an elderly horse-drawn vehicle, was waiting outside

to take them to the station in Knott End.

"We could almost have walked," he said. "Knott End is only a mile or so down

the road."

His wife looked at him incredulously. "You might have walked, but I am not

dressed for the country. This skirt is too tight for walking and these," she

waggled her feet in their high-heeled shoes, "are too high."

"Then why do you wear them? Why not choose something more sensible?"

Florence gave a trill of laughter. "Because I believe it's a woman's duty to

look smart." She looked back at the house as the cab turned on to the sea

front. "How much do you think the place will be worth? Oh, Richard, isn't it

wonderful?" When he didn't answer, she nudged him. "What's the matter, you

old sobersides? The funeral is over and we've left all the fuddy-duddy

relatives behind so we don't have to pretend to be sad any longer."

He could only stare at her in disgust at this crass speech.

"Aren't you even glad you've inherited?" she demanded.

He would have preferred to wait until they got on the train to say it, but

she was tapping her foot impatiently. "Let's get two things straight,

Florence: I am genuinely sad that my uncle has died and I'm not going to

sell the house. I love the place and always have done. I shall be happy to

bring up our daughter here."

For a moment her smile faded and her hand tightened like a claw on his arm,

then she took a deep breath and said in a toneless voice, "No need to make a

decision yet. We'll have lots to discuss."

"I shan't change my mind." But as he listened to her humming a few minutes

later, he realised she was still confident of being able to get her way.

Well, once she might have done, but not now. Unfortunately for him and

Connie, until Florence resigned herself to the situation, life was going to

be uncomfortable for everybody. She had a gift for creating a bad atmosphere

in a house and it made him sad that even at the age of nine, Connie tried so

hard not to upset her mother.

 

 

 


Top

 

PANDORA'S GIRL is a November Release by Robert Hale (UK)ISBN 0-7090-6942-1

CHAPTER ONE-PANDORA'S GIRL

 

The phone rang.

 

"Pandora Rossiter."

 

"It's me, your grandmother."

 

The silence lasted almost a quarter of a minute, then Pandora proceeded with

caution. It might be something completely different to what she feared. "Why

have you called?"

 

"I need you. I'll expect you after the weekend."

 

Pandora's breath expelled in a sigh. Typical Emily Dysart. Straight out with

it and with no regard for another person's convenience or sensibilities. She

ignored the emotion churning in her chest. Her grandmother wouldn't welcome

it. "I see."

 

"You'll come then?"

 

"That goes without saying."

 

"The will1s written up. You'll inherit everything."

 

Pandora didn't ask about her aunt Lottie and grandmother didn't mention her.

There was no need. She would never leave the estate to poor Lottie.

 

After she replaced the receiver, she stared unseeingly out into the garden.

Finally, she'd been forgiven for disgracing the family name. She felt like

crying, but didn't. Emotional outpourings had always been frowned upon when

she'd been growing up. She gave a faint smile. Even if she'd decided to cry,

the tear ducts would probably have atrophied through disuse by now and all

she'd cry was dust.

 

Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

 

Emily Dysart was dying. She'd told Pandora a little while back, but it had

taken her three years to get to the actual point of inviting her

grand-daughter to visit her. She must be close to the end. With her passing

Pandora's life would change - and so would Gerald's.

 

She pressed her face against the cool glass pane. Today was her husband's

fiftieth birthday. The predictable surprise party had been arranged - the

cake with candles, the champagne in ice buckets and the barbecue in the

garden.

 

The neighbours had arrived, eager to make an occasion of it because most of

them were retired, and the village of Cedarbrook in the county of

Gloucestershire offered little in the way of excitement except for an

eagle's nest high on an outcrop of rock, and the dubious and infinite drama

of other people's lives.

 

Friends weren't noticeable by their absence. Gerald didn't have any close

friends and had discouraged her from forming any friendships herself.

 

There had been the usual elaborate charade that morning, pretending the

postman was late, forgetting to wish Gerald a happy birthday before he left

for the office, and making out a shopping list to delay his arrival home

whilst the guests assembled.

 

The boys were already home from school for the weekend. They were almost men

now. Adrian was captain of the cricket eleven, and destined for Oxford next

year. Michael was in his penultimate school year and set to follow in his

brother's footsteps.

 

They were Gerald clones. Tall, their hair light-brown, they were quietly

good mannered and already showing signs of stuffiness. Both would become

accountants and join the family firm. It was hard to believe she was their

mother, or that enough passion had been generated in her to conceive them.

 

When Gerald's car edged into view she pasted an automatic and dutiful smile

on her lips. She'd miraculously produced his heirs from their sporadic

copulation, now that part of her marriage was temporarily shelved.

 

Gerald wouldn't dream of having sex with her when he was in the middle of an

affair. She was his wife, and relegated into the pending basket until it was

over. Then she was serviced out of a sense of guilt and duty, as if Gerald

was charging the battery of the classic car in the garage - which he took

for a spin now and again just to keep it ticking over.

 

He'd just started an affair with his latest secretary. Pandora had

considered divorcing Gerald several times over the past few years, and for

exactly the same reason - until she'd realised she just didn't care.

 

She watched him alight from the car. He was handsome, with just the right

shades of silver in his hair to make him look distinguished. Then there was

the touch of boyishness in the curve of his smile - and smugness too, the

smile of a man who knew his worth, his rightness, and his place in the

world.

 

His glance wandered to where she stood at the window, his ego needing the

reassurance of knowing she was waiting for him to come home.

 

She was perfectly groomed, as always, as he expected her to be. Her hair was

fashioned into a chignon, her straw-coloured linen dress was immaculate, her

feet were encased in brown leather sandals with small heels.

 

His smile expanded with practised ease and confidence, and he raised a hand

in greeting.

 

She returned the smile, the curve of her mouth a perfected exercise. Her

green eyes feigned a welcome. What hypocrites they both were!

 

She was thirty-eight years old. Shed stood at this window every week night

for nineteen years. It was the last time she'd do so.

 

There was an air of secretive excitement about him when he approached the

house - like a child who knows he's won a prize, and pretends ignorance.

Stupidly childish really, for a man who'd passed his prime.

 

His lips brushed her cheek. She could smell his secretary on him. Duty free

Chanel from the trip to France. Each time he started an affair he took them

to the same hotel in France for the weekend, and bought them Chanel.

 

She always did rather better than them with her conscience gift.

 

"Darling, they're perfectly lovely," she said, clipping the diamonds into

her ears. She tied a silk scarf around his eyes and led him towards the

garden - part of the charade.

 

"Surprise!" everyone shouted - and Gerald managed a perfectly unbelievable,

totally amazed smile, which faltered for a moment when he set eyes on his

secretary.

 

Pandora didn't usually invite his secretary, but she thought it might prove

to be fun this time. It was going to be more so, on this, the last time she

would host Gerald's birthday party.

 

His secretary's mouth was a tangerine gash, her hair was a smooth, hennaed

bob, her body angular. She looked frighteningly efficient and fit - not one

to settle for being the other woman.

 

The secretary's eyes ran speculatively over the house, then lit on Gerald.

His eyelids flickered as he consciously avoided her gaze. The tips of his

ears turned red and he sucked in his stomach.

 

As the evening progressed he became slightly over-animated - like a youth

trying hard not to show off, and nearly succeeding.

 

Pandora's eyes flicked from one to another, watching, assessing, trying not

to give the game away by letting her amusement show.

 

The secretary's smile was brittle, her eyes adoring and possessive of

Gerald. She looked about eighteen, was actually twenty-two. Nothing of the

bimbo in this one, though.

 

What was her name ... Anne ... Jean? Something short. Pandora smiled

apologetically at her. "So sorry, I have a terrible memory for names."

 

"Mare, without the I."

 

Mare-without-the-I couldn't meet her eyes. "As in female horse? It must be

a nuisance, having to explain the pronunciation all the time."

 

She felt a twinge of conscience when Mare suddenly looked unsure of herself.

 

"I don't, usually. Gerald ... Mr Rossiter said it's better not to."

 

Pandora knew what it was like to be in love with Gerald, she'd been in love

with him herself at that age - and still loved him, in a sanitised, habit

sort of way, because she'd learned to ignore his faults over the years.

 

She decided not to tell him today. Today was his birthday, today the boys

were home. No - today was not the day to tell Gerald about the property she

was about to inherit - or that she was going to leave him.

***

She told him about the inheritance on the Sunday night, after the boys had

gone back to school.

 

"Let me get this straight," he said, buttoning up his blue-striped pyjamas.

"You're going to Dorset to look after your grandmother."

 

"That's right." She applied moisturising cream to her neck and massaged it

in. "Will you mind?" Say you do, and I'll forgive you the secretaries and

I'll stay. She could see his face in the mirror, his brow wrinkled in

thought. Her mind jettisoned a second, contradictory thought. Say, go!

 

"The alternative would be a nursing home, I suppose?"

 

Her fingers strangled the neck of the cosmetics jar, and she slowly screwed

the lid on tight. Did he have to deliberate when the fate of their marriage

hung in the balance? "She doesn't want that ... there's Lottie to consider

as well."

 

"Ah yes, Lottie." He sighed rather heavily, as if Lottie was his burden to

bear. "I've got no objection if thats what you want to do."

 

"It's not that I want to, Gerald. It's my duty." Gerald understood words

like duty.

 

"Yes ... yes, of course. And once it's over, you can put Lottie in a home

somewhere." He yawned, closed his eyes and turned on his side. "That's

settled then."

 

Not as far as she was concerned. "I asked you if you'd mind."

 

"Of course not. The boys and I will be all right," he said sleepily. "And it

won't be for long. As soon as you get the inheritance we can sell the house.

Marianna must be worth quite a bit. The money can be ... invested ..."

 

She stared at the mound under the covers. Gerald always fell asleep swiftly

after he took his sleeping pill, and started to snore exactly thirty seconds

later.

 

The second hand on the crystal mantle clock ticked off the seconds. Five ...

six ... seven ... How could she have ever married a man who wore

blue-striped pyjamas? Fifteen ... sixteen ... seventeen ... How could she

stay married to a man who invested her money without consultation, and

before she'd even got it? Twenty-three ... twenty-four ...

 

"I'll never sell Marianna, and if I go, I won't be coming back," she

whispered. Twenty-nine ... thirty ...

 

A snore gently burrowed into his pillow.

 

"I gave birth to a daughter when I was fifteen," she said aloud. "If she

hadn't died she would have been twenty-three years old now."

 

He kept snoring. It was odd how used she'd become to carrying on a

conversation with herself. Perhaps she was going mad!

 

"Her father was a family member. He didn't hurt me. He made me enjoy it,

even though I was under age."

 

Sparks flew from her hair as she swooshed the brush through it. "Grandma

wouldn't believe he was the father, and I didn't understand then that he was

just a dirty old man. I hope you're not going to be a dirty old man too,

Gerald."

 

He mumbled something that sounded like a name.

 

She stared over at him, eyes narrowing. "How long have you been screwing

your secretary?"

 

The snoring stopped and she grinned. "You didn't think I was capable of such

language, did you? You think I'm made of plastic, that you wind me up with a

key and I perform for you. Well, not any more, Gerald."

 

A series of bubbling snorts danced from the side of his mouth.

 

"I know all about your affairs." Throwing the brush amongst the various pots

of cosmetics littering her dressing table, she strolled across the room and

slid into bed beside him. "Poor Gerald. You're such a fool."

 

He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath and started snoring again, deeply and

evenly. Her lips brushed against his cheek in a goodbye kiss. "Sweet dreams."

***

Emily Dysart watched her granddaughter through lowered lids.

 

Pandora was sitting in a cane chair gazing out over the garden, her eyes

dreamy and retrospective, as if she was remembering the past.

 

The girl was a paradox. To anyone who didn't know her, she had an air of

unruffled serenity. They didn't sense the churning undercurrents of

wilfulness. Pandora bestowed the sweetest smile even when she loathed the

recipient. She disguised her insults, the victim left unaware - though it

might occur to them sometime afterwards that they may have been insulted.

 

Emily had loved her to distraction once. But that was before she'd driven

her grandfather into his grave. Pandora should have kept her counsel.

 

"I'm not going back to Gerald," Pandora suddenly said, and turned to smile

at her. "He has affairs."

 

"No one has ever been divorced in the Dysart family. One puts up with things

and turns a blind eye." Emily might as well not have spoken, and wished she

hadn't when an accusatory glance was flicked her way.

 

Pandora folded her hands in her lap. "I'm going to live here. If I go back

to Gerald he'll sell Marianna and put Lottie in a home."

 

Pandora had always had a soft spot for Lottie, and she loved Marianna. Emily

had counted on that, but she hadn1t considered the girl might leave her

husband. Her frown was intercepted by a level gaze. "The boys don't need me

now - and they'll love visiting me here."

 

Emily didn't want to be fussed with problems - and she didn't want to

quarrel. She didn't have the strength. Pandora would do what she wanted to

do - she always had.

 

The breeze coming through the window was perfumed with lavender and

sunshine. It wasn't the sort of day one should talk about such things. It

was a day to drift, something she'd just learned to do.

 

A musty, decaying smell wafted up from her body, which was as dry and as

folded as old flannel. Death was a step away, waiting for her to trip -

waiting to catch her. She made a strangled sound in her throat, refusing to

take that step.

 

Her granddaughter came to place a wrap round her shoulders. Pandora's

fingers drifted gently over her hair and she sighed. "Why did you send me

away?"

 

"Oh, God, why rake that up?" Emily whispered, when what she really wanted to

say was, Why dredge up the guilt I've been living with all these years?

 

Pandora's eyes were as green and as brilliant as emeralds when she turned,

and her smile was serene. "It was cruel to send me away when I was grieving

for my baby."

 

She should have known Pandora wouldn't let her die without punishing her.

Emily rallied her remaining strength. "How could you grieve? You hardly saw

her."

 

Pandora's eyes softened. "The nurse let me hold her. Her skin was like silk

and her hair was a wisp of gold. When you told me she'd died I felt as if my

heart had been ripped out."

 

A tear gathered at the corner of Emily's eye, a tiny, crystalline drop.

Although she tried to stop it, it was followed by another, then another.

Embarrassed by this show of emotion she gave an anguished cry.

 

"It's all right, grandma." Gathered into Pandora's arms, she was rocked

gently against her chest, as if Pandora was the mother figure, she the

child. It felt comforting.

 

Why hadn't she ever rocked Pandora in her arms and comforted her when she'd

been troubled? Why hadn't she taken her side when it became obvious she'd

been telling the truth and why had she closed her eyes in Lottie's time of

need?

 

Because she'd mistaken her own stubbornness for strength and her stupidity

for pride. She'd loved her husband too much to see his faults. As a

consequence, she'd allowed her own beloved daughter and granddaughter to

suffer.

 

There was no time for pride now. She should tell Pandora she loved her, tell

her she'd lied. And although the words trembled on her lips they were too

hard to say and were pulled back into the knot of misery lodged tight in her

chest. It was too late - too late to tell her the truth. She couldn't

jeopardise Pandora's love now, and ignorance wouldn't hurt her.

 

Yet she needed to be forgiven. Her chest constricted around her sob, as

though it was being squeezed in someone's fist. "I'm so sorry, Pandora."

 

"I know, grandma," she said soothingly, "I know ..."

 

But Pandora didn't know - and death was just a tiny step away ...

Top


 

George Greenway Thornton

by Jill Baggett

 

George Greenway Thornton was my grandpa from 1942 till 1958, then he died without letting me know. I was at boarding school and my teacher simply said to me one morning, "Your grandpa died." I never said goodbye.

My grandpa taught me how to find the little seahorses that clung to the piers under Lavender Bay Wharf. He took me to meet the Negro seamen repairing the cargo ships at the old boathouse. Big transparent jellyfish with three eyes swam near the boathouse and he showed me how to scoop them into a bucket with a stick. He took me to the wharf and let me drop them into the water to swim with the seahorses.

My grandpa taught me how to suck the sweetness from honeysuckle. We sat under the big jacaranda trees in the park and he made me floral necklaces from lantana blossoms. One day crowds of white butterflies surrounded and frightened me. My grandpa shooed the butterflies away.

My grandpa took me to his secret cave in the cliff at Lavender Bay. He showed me how to catch the tadpoles that lived in the rock pool. We carried them home in a jam jar and he laughed when I cried because they turned into frogs and hopped away.

My grandpa told me never to talk to a man with a sack. He told me they carried little girls away in their sacks.

My grandpa told me scary stories of what school would be like until Grandma told him to stop teasing me.

My grandpa worked in a bank. He went to business every day when I was very little. Grandma always starched and ironed his shirts. She'd do up the Little mother of pearl collar stud and say, "Now George, don't mess yourself,

you're going to business."

My grandpa snored and he rolled his own cigarettes. Tobacco fell out of the cigarettes onto his shirt and that made Grandma cross.

My grandpa took me to see the big furnace in the rock behind the flats where he and Grandma lived. He lifted me up to look into the fiery depths and it scared me. I held him tight.

My grandpa taught me how to drink from a bubbler without putting my mouth on the spout. He gave me sips of tea from his cup on a spoon.

My grandpa too me to Circular on Sundays to see the Salvation Army Band. He took me to Manly on the ferry and held my hand tight while we walked up the gangplank.

My grandpa would never push me high enough on the swings at the park because he thought I'd fall off. My grandpa slept with Grandma on a mattress filled with horsehair. It had to pummeled and aired every day.

My grandpa would sit on my bed and stroke my forehead till I fell asleep. George Greenway Thornton, I didn't know that grandpas could die. "Goodbye".

Top


dpriol@dingoblue.net.au

 

Beneath the Edge of the World

by David Priol

 

Harkness thought himself a bird - an eagle flying on the crest of the rippling wind. In less than three months, he had turned from a callow boy into a suntanned mariner. All eyes on deck could see the world darkly through his blue cornflower eyes. It was to him they would call and shout; ready to dance a sailor's jig when and if the time came. They had all said their prayers and kept faith in their Captain.       

Four months ago he'd been one of a thousand Bristol boys awaiting his fourteenth birthday and the call to put away his books and all the maritime yarns his grandfather had nightly spun. His father had been lost during a voyage to the Indies when a typhoon had flattened Port-of-Spain. Benjamin Harkness had perished with his two feet still touching the shore - a twisted fate for any self-respecting sailor. Although the widow Harkness had not received the news until many weeks later, second sight had carried the albatross home - merciless death the constant friend to any sailor's wife. She mourned alone and then tendered her family's needs, not a grey hair out of place.

Mrs Harkness, the sombre woman to whom fate had inflicted seven children living - three others blessed by the pox - grievous reminders of her lover's wintry landfall. For her, the widow's mark - a blackbird perched above the grey hearth of her eternal lament.

That Mrs Harkness, despite her sorrow, would deny William his ticket was inconceivable; the family was seven generations of seafaring madness. Blood spake better than mothers' milk and their salted lips had tasted the ports of every nation, even if their hard hearts had curdled at the teat. The curse of never belonging would be William's mock inheritance.

They were merchantmen - not for them the King's crown - well, excluding great-uncle Harry. He was the family eccentric, a trick of thin blood, hanged in the end for striking an officer a fatal blow amidships. He died a venerated man, did old Harry.

Old salts, coddling pewter mugs in the Chain and Anchor, still bragged of the day Harry Harkness struck a blow for the common man.

Mrs Harkness cried the day William came home in his freshly trimmed uniform, 'signed for the duration, mother. I'm heading for adventure,' was how he had answered her tears - the words gratuitous solace. Thirty was much too young an age for a mother to be sending her oldest over the edge of the world. Bathed in the ken that he would soon be supping with those heathen Orientals before waking in the arms of the devil's kin would surely break her sturdy heart.

Nevertheless, she packed his kit with all the love she could muster, packing a little bread for the first week, a little salted pork for the second. 'What more could a mother do,' she cried? 'No,' she said. 'I'll not be seeing you leave.'

William gave his mother a last fumbling hug, kissed each of his three sisters, and split his meagre belongings between his three young brothers. 'Listen to your grandfather,' he warned them and ducked through the door before he could espy the sad same look his mother always treated his dear father's frequent departures.

Now he was perched aloft in the narrow confines of the crow's nest, his muscles cramping against the damp timbers, the tropical heat a penance for he knew not what. His last watch had tolled through seven bells. The sun was shifting over the yardarm and already he had finished his measure of water and would not drink again until the sounding of eight bells when Alfie Woodward took the second watch.

On the main deck below, he could see the doctor hard at work with pencil and pen. Nearby the Captain was issuing orders, his economic Yorkshire accent slipping beneath the freshening breeze. Gazing at the two men, he could not think of more disparate gentlemen. The good doctor with his toffee London manners and his love of plants and the captain all quiet dignity and cool reticence.

William had spoken to the doctor a time or two, but dared not address his Captain; knowing he should wait until the Captain called for him by name.

His orders were simple; report any sightings of birds or land. And for the last month, he had done as bid, diligently; his eyes busily scanning the white tops, the flashing blades of waves breaking over the horizon. Then the long hours recovering from cramp as he rested in the narrow bunk below-decks; the darkness, a solitary relief against the unrelenting blaze of sun-drenched days without end.

In his dream, he saw a strange bird rising from the sea, long white feathers tipped yellow like a jaundiced child carried off in the arms of an angel. Dizzily, he stood and yelled. In his fevered excitement, he nearly overbalanced, but vaguely managed to hold tight to the iron loop jutting out of the mast. Men left their stations and cocked a weathered-eye to him, wondering if the boy had become wall-eyed under God's sky.

To him, they were only enraged ants as they surged over the deck and fo'c'sle, until, as if divining his truth, their hats suddenly lifted - confetti in the married air, as they waved and pointed - comprehending his frenzied call.

The Captain and the Doctor stood side by side, their calm certainty delivering him from his indolent trance. Someone else pointed to the great soaring bird and a song broke out. William saw the doctor smile as he spoke to the Captain. All ice-blue eyes and iron-grey hair, the Captain doffed his black hat for a moment; his signal for William to make his report. Taking a last look at the horizon, the boy stopped, startled at the awesome sight. This was the miracle for which they had been praying.

Indifferent to danger and all good sense, William descended monkey-fashion down the mast to the deck below.

My Captain, he said, removing his cap and barely remembering to salute God and country. Land, Sir. Yes sir, land Sir. From the north to the south, Sir . . . and the south to the north as far as my eyes will ever see.

The Captain gripped the lad's shoulder as if he were imparting the whole crew's exuberance. Well done, Master William. Turning, he smiled warmly to his friend. 'Well Dr Banks, it looks as if our search is almost over.'

The good doctor laughed like a giggling child as he pointed to his equipment. 'Dear James, I think my work has only just begun.'

The Captain allowed himself a brief grin before turning to address his crew. 'Double rations for everyone tonight. God has taken us to the ends of the earth, but still, his bounty is plentiful.'

William Harkness saluted his Captain, dreamily wishing his mother could see him now - the boy who had found the great land at the edge of the world.

 

 

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Letters

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Articles

 

How to Get Published

by Walter Vivian.

I would like to know how to get my work published? I have done two creative writing courses and have been writing for seven years.

This plea is typical of letters received from time to time, by writers' organisations and journals like PixelPapers.

There is, of course, no universal royal road to great success in any human endeavour requiring skill and judgement. Success requires not only work and application, but also aptitude for the task, that may be developed but is usually innate.

Also, we may hold unreal expectations and expect to be the prima ballerina of our chosen artform, when the reality is that reaching the level of a thumping member of the corps de ballet is probably a remarkable enough achievement.

Writers' organisations and centres provide some help for the aspiring writer, especially in interaction with other strivers, but they may also provide an excuse for not writing if you are drawn into hazy literary ambience and find yourself as a sort of literary groupie!

Taking courses in creative writing can be a great help, especially if your tutor is competent, knowledgeable and well connected, but such people are rare, probably as rare as billionaires running courses to teach people how to be billionaires! Success in writing depends very much on yourself and whether you have what it takes to put in the vast amount of time and effort to develop your talent.

Read widely and critically, especially in the genres that you prefer.

Learn what the accepted forms of your genre are. You can be a brave soul and innovator and strike out with you own unorthodox structures, but this is not a clever thing to do if you wish to be published as the weight of editorial assessment will be against you and your chances will be diminished. Innovation by the unknown writer is hard to distinguish from unskilled ignorance! I doubt whether Peter Carey, to cite a contemporay case, would have dared to write a novel without any punctuation at the beginning of his career!

Write your stories. It is good to model yourself to some extent on admired authors but it is foolish to attempt to write their stories. Do your own thing and make it as interesting and accessible as possible to others. If you know your subject matter well you can devote more brain power to the way you present it, to elements of style and language. The way you write is probably more important than what you write about.

Try the market, by matching what you have written to what has been previously published, instead of aiming carelessly at the top. Send your work away (see WRITERS PROTOCOL - Walter Vivian a (PP7) for guidance) and be prepared for rejection and criticism. Acclaimed writer Elizabeth Jolley had scores of rejection slips before success. When I first met Sherry-Anne Jacobs, she had about ten unpublished manuscripts instead of her present record of twenty four books published by major publishers. If your rejections have comments, note them carefully, especially if they point to crass errors, but be mindful that your work requires your judgement.

You must develop a thick hide and learn to use criticism positively, even if it seems to be cruel. I once had a rejection with a scrawled comment about trying Wild and Woolley and was somewhat miffed until I discovered, some time later, that that was in fact the name of another publisher and the comment was offered in good faith!

Sometimes it helps to put a manuscript away for a month or two, so that when you come to it afresh, you are able to see what is actually on the page, instead of in your head. Look at your work as an editor and craft it. Make sure that there are no grammatical or typographical errors.

Using the ability of your computer to create extra copies, (see Writing with a Computer - Walter Vivian a (PP1) try working over different versions according to different ideas. For instance, Hemingway is said to have hunted down and purged adverbs and adjectives from his stories. You could try ensuring that you use active verbs (or verbs!) or limit your adjectives or enrich them, and so on.

Perhaps the main thing about writing is to have enjoyment from it and this requires that you be realistic. If you do your best and only manage a piece or two in the local newspaper, then so be it. If your work is only of interest to your family, then self-publishing a score or so copies via photo copier is appropriate. There is, too, a real bonus in becoming a much better reader and appreciative judge of the fine writing of the masters.#

For some cynical observations on the process:-

(Crafty Fiction - Walter Vivian p (PP2) (A Poet's Work - Walter Vivian p (PP9)

(OBSERVATIONS ON THIS THEME FROM ESTABLISHED WRITERS WOULD BE VERY WELCOME.)

 

 

Book Review: The Hunter by Julia Leigh

Julia Leigh's first novel, The Hunter, is an impressive debut. In a prose of sustained engagement, she narrates the quest of M, her central virtually sole character, a professional albeit buccaneering naturalist, in the Tasmanian wilderness, to find and kill a surviving thylacine, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger. The true story of the tiger's uncertain, still debated fate is tantalising and Leigh does not often falter in her sense of its narrative possibilities.

The uncertainty surrounding the tiger's continued existence is something of a find for Leigh, enabling her to pace the actual search for the tiger simultaneously with another level of psychological significance traced through the insistent consciousness of M. The tiger lurks uncertainly in the wilderness but like a life's purpose in M's conscienceness. In a passage reminiscent of David Malouf's deer drinking from a pool of water sequence in An Imaginary Life, the narratives paces towards the tiger's actual appearance:

His eye closes. Eye open, and he thinks he sees the tiger, standing over in the shadows, studying him, and then he watches as she slouches towards him, curious, one step at a time, until she is so close he can feel her warm breath on his cheek. But her breath is sweet, and she does not guzzle at his throat, and that is when he realises he must be dreaming, or hallucinating, and that something strange is going on.

Now M hears his mother's voice, her gentle voice: "Time to go now, time to go." (pp. 96-7)

The wilderness through which character and narrative travel is complete and unremitting, but Leigh does not lose her artist's footing.

Out of the forest he follows a pad that runs, speeds, through the tussock green until it comes to a white sandy cove and drowns itself in a lake. The lake is braceleted with dark pines, and rising beyond them is a thin and austere dolerite ridege, a giant semi-circular wall. (p. 89)

The actual setting of the narrative in the wilderness acts alxso as a metaphor, with which Leigh explores her character's consciousness:

Nearby a devil snorts and grunts. But M is unperturned. He moves closer and closer towards the precipice of sleep, moving with the same determination seen in the faces of sleep's emissaries, the night-walkers, and he lets the night-noises guide him there. (p.146)

Leigh uses a staccato, facing style to convey M's urgency and drice, his self-berating and insistent interiority:

He is bomeward bound and empty-handed. He never wants to travel the plateau again and he wonders if this is what it means to fail, to be a failure. He never wants to spend another day walking with the rain blowing in his face; he nevger wants to eat cold food; he never wants to sling on a pack or peg down a tent. (p.47)

This style delivers many flukes of thought, showing Leigh's idiosyncratic independence of mind; a metaphoricity that is wometimes vivifying or strikingly illuminating; and some cogent, often suavely proficient, writing:

Do you remember, tiger, when you were young and used to follow your mother down the escarpement onto the verdant plains? Do you remember how the sheep would mill around in clusters, doing bnothing all day but fattening themselves? An how, when they first smelt you, they would tremble and start, push against one another, bleat? (p.47)

Leigh's primary concern in the novel appears to be the nature, or the substance, of life iself. Towards the novel's conclusion M stands over the tiger he has just killed:

There is an impassable, unimaginable gulf between life and death, so that even life at its lowest ebb, lying ill or morose, barely moving, such life is utterly vibrant when compared to death. Now, her stillness is obscene. (p.164)

The novel;s conclusion is not without its interest, but there is a sense in it, once an actual tiger has been actually tracked and killed, of Leigh being no longer entirely sure of really what she is looking for. The novel deteriorates somewhat in its later parts. And although Leigh pulls no punches to the end, in her last paragraph allowing her hero solipsistically to contemplate how he will shortly reward himself with his "buried coffee", the tiger now killed and the mystery dead, it is conjectural by what except a spectre of greed or simply of self-deulusion her hero has been so driven, even when for the most part so captivatingly led in fancy.

Michael Haig.

 

 

 

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