A Village Affair
On the day that contracts were exchanged on the house, Alice Jordan put all three children into the car and went to visit it. Natasha made her usual seven-year-old fuss about her seat-belt, and James was crying because he had lost the toy man who rode his toy stunt motorbike, but the baby lay peaceably in his carrycot and was pleased to be joggling gently along while a fascinating pattern of bare branches flickered through the slanting back window of the car on to his round upturned face. Natasha sang Ten Green Bottles' to drown James and James amplified his crying to yelling. Alice switched on the car radio and a steady female voice from Woman's Hour explained calmly to her how to examine herself for any sinister lumps. Mud flew up from the winter lanes and made a gritty veil across the windscreen. James stopped yelling abruptly and put his thumb in his mouth.
'You are an utter baby,' his sister said to him disdainfully. He began to cry again, messily, round his thumb.
Alice could see his smeary wet red face reflected in the driving mirror. The voice on the wireless said that if you disliked touching yourself, you should get someone else to feel for you. The interviewer said - perfectly reasonably, Alice thought - how would anyone else be able to feel what you could feel, not being, as it were, on the inside of yourself?
'Crying like that,' Natasha said to James, 'makes people think you are a girly.'
James let out a wild squeal and flung his motorbike-clutching fist out sideways at his sister, just able to reach her cheek. Eyes wide with outrage and turned at once upon her mother, Natasha began to cry. In the very back, conscious of an atmosphere he didn't like, Charlie's soft round face gathered itself up in distress. He opened his mouth and screwed his eyes up tight. Alice stopped the car.
The lymph nodes-' said the Woman's Hour woman into the racket.
Alice turned her off. She undid her seat-belt and twisted herself around.
'Be quiet!' she shouted. 'You beastly, beastly children. I won't have this. You are not to quarrel in the car. How can I drive? Do you want me to drive you into a wall? Because that's what will happen.'
Natasha stopped crying and looked out of the window for walls. There were none, only a hedge and a hilly field and some black and white cows.
She said, There aren't any walls.'
Alice ignored her.
'Where did I say we were going?'
'In the car,' James said unsteadily.
His sister looked at him witheringly.
To our new house.'
'Yes. Don't you want to see it?'
'Yes,' Natasha said.
James said nothing. At that moment he didn't want anything except to put his thumb back in, which he dared not do.
Then,' Alice said, 'nobody will say one single word until we get there. Otherwise you will have to stay in the car while I get out and look at everything. Is that clear?'
She buckled herself in again and started the car. Natasha watched her. She was the only mother Natasha knew who had a pigtail. It was very long. It started high up, almost on top of her head, and ended up half-way down her back. It was fat, too. Usually, she pulled it over one shoulder. Natasha wanted one like it, so did her friend Sophie. Sophie's mother had sort of ordinary hair you couldn't really remember, like mothers usually had.
Looking at her mother's pigtail made Natasha suddenly feel affectionate, out of pride.
'I'm sorry,' she said, in a minute voice, because of the ban.
Alice beamed at her quickly, flashing the smile over her shoulder.
Alice had always wanted to live in Pitcombe; everybody did, from miles around, and if a house there was photographed for sale, in Country Life, the caption always read, 'In much sought-after village'. It was the kind of village long-term expatriates might fantasise about, a stone village set on the side of a gentle hill, with the church at the top and the pub at the bottom, by a little river, and the big house - baroque - looking down on it all with feudal benevolence. Sir Ralph Unwin, who owned the big house, three thousand acres and two dozen cottages still, was tall and grey-haired and an admirable shot. He drove a Range Rover through the village and waved regally from the elevated driving seat. He allowed Pitcombe Park to be used constantly for functions to raise money for hospices and arthritis research and the church roof, though he drew the line at the local Conservatives. 'I'm a natural cross-bencher,' he would say, knowing he would be admiringly quoted. Alice had only met him once, introduced by John Murray-French from whom they were going to buy the house, and he had said, 'You are more than welcome to Pitcombe, Mrs Jordan, particularly if you have children.' She had wondered if he was well aware of how charming he was. Lady Unwin was charming too, in that capable, administrative way that women acquire after long practice on councils and committees. Lady Unwin chaired the county's St John's Ambulance Brigade and the local hospice committee and saw it as her duty to attend PCC meetings and NADFAS outings and the village over-sixties jaunts. She had grasped Alice's hand in her own large and flexible one with its pink painted nails and peerless Georgian rings and said, 'Oh my dear, hooray. Just what we need, some new young blood to liven us all up.'
And Sir Ralph, taking his wife by the arm in one of those public displays of proud affection for which he was liked as much as for the independence of his politics, said with a warm smile, 'Don't trust her an inch, Mrs Jordan. She'll have you on every rota and committee in sight, within minutes.'
Everyone round them had laughed. Alice had laughed too. She had liked it. She had felt welcomed and included, almost part of the life that she was quite certain she wanted to live in Pitcombe for. When they had heard, at a dinner party, that John Murray-French was selling up, privately, she and Martin had hardly slept for excitement. His was not just a house in Pitcombe, but one of the houses in Pitcombe, half-way down the hill, with the beeches of the Park above it and the river three fields below it, at the end of a little cul-de-sac which ran from the main street between pretty, low, haphazard rows of cottages. There was an orchard beyond it, and a paddock where the children could have a pony and, on top of the garage, a wonderful high beamed room with north light where John Murray-French carved the ornamental decoy ducks for which he had become mildly famous and which Alice could use as a studio. She hadn't painted since James was born, more than four years ago. But she would be able to now, she knew it.
She swung the car in off the main street and drove carefully down between the cottages. It was early afternoon and the lane was quite empty except for a crumpled old face at a ground-floor window between a spider plant and a begging china dog in a large green hat. Alice waved and smiled. The face took no notice at all. A black cat on a garden wall didn't even stop washing to watch them go by. At the end of the lane were the two slender weathered stone pillars that announced the entrance to The Grey House. They had stone bobbles on top, smeared with ochre and greenish grey lichen. Beyond them, two clipped deep green rows of hornbeam marched towards the house. Alice stopped the car, suddenly exultant. Everything was going to be all right, it was, it was.
'Help yourselves,' John Murray-French had said on the telephone that morning. 'I'll be out but Gwen will be around somewhere supposedly packing books but probably swilling my gin in the broom cupboard. She knows you're coming.' He paused. He was very fond of Alice. So had his son been, but too late, when she was already married. 'I'm so pleased it's you,' he said.
'I've lived here for thirty-five years. Can't believe it. I'd hate it to go to a stranger.'
'I promise we'll love it. I mean, we already do. In fact, I think it's the answer-'
'The answer? To what?'
There had been a tiny pause.
'Oh,' she said, in a more matter of fact voice, 'three children, more space, studio for me. You know.'
She let the car creep between the hornbeams. The children, sensing the drama, began to give little squeals of excitement in the back. Natasha had already written, in all her books, partly from pride, partly to prevent James ever claiming them:
This book belongs to:
The Grey House
And there it was. Long, low, grey, with its pretty sashed eighteenth-century windows reaching almost to the floors, its heavy panelled door with pediment and lion's-head knocker, its three brick chimneys, its terrace over the valley, sitting so beautifully in its pleasing sweeps of golden gravel and green grass. Sinuous grey arms of wisteria twined up over the pediment and along the facade, and either side of the front door a bay tree grew glossily in a Versailles tub. It was perfect.
Alice climbed out of the car and released the children. They raced down the lawn at once, still squealing, to climb the iron park railing that separated the lawn from the paddock below. Alice opened the back and picked up Charlie. He was very pleased and beat about in the air with his hands and crowed. She went up to the front door and rang the bell. John had said not to bother but she didn't want to alienate Gwen in any way, hoping she would stay and clean the house for her, as she had done for John for a decade.
Gwen opened the door after a very long time, clearly meaning to upstage Alice, but was undone in an instant by the sight of Charlie in his blue padded snowsuit.
'Ah. Bless him. Isn't he lovely? Come in, Mrs Jordan. The Major said you'd be over.'
Alice turned to shout for the children. They were still on the railings.
'I'd leave them,' Gwen said. 'Can't come to no harm. Who's a lovely boy, then?'
Charlie regarded her impassively.
'He's very good,' Alice said, anxious to be friendly. 'The best of the three, really. But he weighs a ton.'
'Would he come to Gwen, then?'
She held out her arms. Charlie allowed himself to be transferred without protest. He examined Gwen's face solemnly for a while and then her pink blouse and her maroon cardigan. Finally, after long scrutiny, he put a single shrimp-like finger on her crystal beads.
'Aren't you gorgeous?' Gwen said to him, quite melted. 'Aren't you and Gwen going to have a nice time, then?'
Alice felt a rush of gratitude towards Charlie.
'Actually, I was going to ask you-'
Gwen turned a beaming face on her.
'I thought you might be. Course I'll help.' She turned her face back to Charlie. 'Gwen's not going to turn down an old heart-throb like you, now, is she. I'll take him into the study, Mrs Jordan, and you just poke about. The Major said to. I'll keep an eye out for the children. Now then,' she said to Charlie, 'I wonder if we could find a biccy?'
Alice said faintly, 'He's only got two teeth. He's only eight months. Perhaps-'
'Who's a big boy?' Gwen said moving off rapidly. 'Who'd have thought it? Eight months-'
The drawing room ran for twenty-five feet along the front of the house to the right of the door; the dining room rather less to the left. Behind them were a study for Martin, a room for a playroom, and a kitchen which opened with a stable door on to a wide brick path and then grass and then the eastward view. The stable door had seized upon Alice's imagination when she had first seen it; she had visualized a summer morning, with the sun streaming in through the opened top half, and herself up a ladder, surging while she stencilled designs her head was full of round the tops of the walls. She could feel how happy she would be. The kitchen was rather grim now because John was only concerned with it as a place to open tins in, but she had known the moment she saw it how lovely it could be. Looking at it now, darkly cream painted, shabby linoleum floored, with its scrubbed centre table cluttered with half-empty marmalade jars, and corkscrews and newspapers and ripped-open brown envelopes, she suddenly had a tiny twinge.
It was very tiny, but it was there. It was like a sudden, faint, malicious little draught of cold air on a golden summer day, or a wrong note in a melody, very transient in itself but leaving something unnerving behind it. Alice shook herself, took hold of the comforting end of her plait, and looked sternly at the kitchen. Pale yellow walls, she had settled on that, white woodwork, strip, sand and polish the floor, scented geraniums along the windowsills, dried hops along the ceiling beams, jars of pulses and spices on the dresser, a rocking chair, patchwork cushions, a cat . . . She began, without warning, to cry. It was horrifying. Why was she crying? Huge sobs, like retching, were surging up brokenly inside her and these vast tears were spilling over and she couldn't see. She fumbled frantically for a handkerchief, scrabbling in the pockets of her coat and her skirt, up her sleeves, in her bag. She found a crumpled tissue and blew her nose violently. She never cried. Strong Alice who hadn't cried since after Charlie which was obviously post-natal. She sat down in one of John's scuffed kitchen chairs and bent her head. She was frightening herself.