Saturday, 14 April 2007

Mrs Roland Baines 'At Home'

In all the flurry of meeting Frances Fanshawe, and visiting her in her big, chaotic house (and watching Mr Porteous pass by of course, with all its implications of interesting things to come), I have forgotten to mention anything about my new little dog, Florence. Florence is the name that was just discernible on her collar when the Rescue people found her sitting beside a lamp-post in Putney a month ago; and since it is her only worldly possession, and the only word in any language to which she seems able to respond, I have not felt able to deprive her of it. She’s a woe-begone little creature still, it has to be said. She spends most of her time shivering on the edge of the basket I have put under the kitchen table for her, or attaching herself to my lower legs like a second skin when I drag her out for a walk in the mornings. She trembles violently, poor little thing, at sight of every cat or quirrel that passes - and is in mortal terror of Bill’s good-hearted Monty, who would befriend her if he could.

I mean to persevere with her though. I’m convinced there’s a lively, happy dog inside her somewhere, and it’s up to me now, to try to bring her out. It took me a month to acquire her after all; the adoption procedure for stray dogs being every bit as rigorous, it seems, as that for human children. She is here to stay - though Bill takes a very dim view of her I’m afraid. It’s his opinion that if I had been going to get a dog, I might at least have tried to find one that actually looked, and sounded, and conducted itself like a regular dog. I think he fears that the Brigadier’s mastiff might actually eat her (he has established fairly cordial relations with the Brigadier by now); and that he and Monty would lose any credibility they might have established on the common, were they to be associated with a dog that cringed and cowered as my poor Florence does - and that bore, moreover, so entirely un-doglike a name. It does seem to me to indicate a certain smallness of spirit on Bill's part. I’d have expected the survivor of so many war zones to have exhibited just a little more valour. But canine credibility must be taken seriously, I daresay, when so many of a man's usual props in life have been summarily removed. Bill is struggling still, I know, to come to terms with what he calls being permanently 'grounded'. It's a very different kind of battle that he's involved with now. And so just for the moment, I'm taking a different route from Bill's across the common, when I go out with Florence for her walk.

It was on my return from one of those still very half-hearted excursions with Florence yesterday, that I learned from Bill that I'd had another visitor in my absence. A large woman in some kind of outlandish get-up with a hat attached, was his first rather discouraging description of her. And it wasn't improved by his adding, when pressed, that for him she had resembled nothing so much as an armoured vehicle advancing; and that he and Monty had kept their heads down in the attic, until she had posted her note and rumbled away again. “She didn’t ring the bell then?” I asked. To which he replied that she had rung repeatedly; so often and so long indeed, that he and Monty had positively begun to fear for their lives. “I think you’ll find that she’s a very emphatic kind of woman” was his next observation. “There was something about the particular angle of her hat that bespoke emphasis . There was the mark of the dowager about every inch of her, what’s more – and believe me, she covers a lot of inches! So that if you’re absolutely determined to make a friend of her (and I beg you in advance to think very carefully about it before you do) , you’ll be so good, please, as to leave Monty and me out of it.”

He then handed me her note, which was written on a card of cream vellum, and bore a printed inscription at the top that read “Mrs Roland Baines, 3 Willow Cottages, The Common”; beneath which was scrawled, in a large hand, the rather cryptic message “At home Tuesday April 17th at three thirty. Do come and meet some of your neighbours.” This was unfamiliar territory for me, and I was at a loss to know quite how I ought to respond. How long ago was it, I wondered, since women had abjured the tradition of describing themselves by their husband’s name? How long since I had received the kind of invitation which spoke of being “at home”, come to that? And what, precisely should it be taken to mean? My only resource seemed to be phone Frances Fanshawe again, in the hope that she too might have received an invitation to the mysterious repast. Thankfully, Frances was in, and was, as always, wonderfully accommodating.

“Oh yes, it’s to be a little tea-party” she explained. “I’m to go too, and Mr Porteous I believe – and even Rose perhaps, who has returned a day or two ahead of the Macauleys in order to open up the house for them, and see that everything is in perfect readiness for their return. It’s a little service she always performs for them - she’s so obliging. And don’t worry about what to wear, dear – Pamela’s perfectly informal: just a little silk tea dress will do…………”

“So that’s all right then!” I remarked to Bill later. “Just a little silk tea dress – the very sort of thing, of course, with which my wardrobe is simply overflowing!”

Bill's comment about tea dresses is unprintable here, I'm sorry to say. But since it is one of the besetting problems of my life that I never have anything to wear to any occasion that ever presents itself, I have more or less made up my mind to go into John Lewis at the first opportunity, to see what they have in the way of little silk tea dresses.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Enter Mr Porteous

I was making coffee this morning, when Bill called down to me from his little bolthole in the attic. “Good lord, Bea” he roared; “Come and have a look at this!” I rushed upstairs, fearing to find a burst water tank or a missing slate at least, but all I saw, on looking through the window as directed, was the perfectly ordinary spectacle of a man walking in all innocence along our little footpath below. Nothing so very remarkable about that, I thought: people walk along our little footpath at all times of the day and night, and the only thing we have to wonder about them is, how much of our daily lives, and our two little back gardens are they able to peer into, as they pass? This man of Bill’s wasn’t even peering; he was walking with a measured stride, his rather fine, silvering head facing straight ahead, and held at the angle not so much of inquisitiveness, as of a rather quiet contemplation.

“So?” I said. “There’s a man walking along the footpath. I don’t know who he is, and nor, I suspect, do you?” But Bill did know who he was: that was the point. “It’s that parson all the women were in love with back in Stroud!” he explained. “Are you expecting a new vicar? You’ll like this one if so. He’s a splendid example of the type – St Paul himself incarnate, I always thought.”

It would have been vain in me to have pointed out that I was in no position to be looking for a new vicar, since I hadn‘t yet taken the trouble to make myself acquainted with any of the existing ones. But I was just a little intrigued nonetheless; not least by the fact that in his former domestic existence, Bill had evidently taken at least a passing interest in members of the clergy. I thought his metaphor smacked of impiety however, and said so. To which he replied “Oh come, Bea, you know my views on parsons - that they are of all categories of persons probably the most expendable. But this one loomed so very large in my ex-wife’s pantheon, and in that of all her friends, that I was obliged to take some heed of him , whether I would or no.”

I do indeed know Bill’s views on the clergy, having been subjected to an exposition of them on more than one occasion. And though I am not a regular church-goer myself, I have to admit that his remarks about clergymen have sometimes provoked me to indignation on their account; and that there was a moment, in the anxious hours that preceded his open heart surgery, when I went so far as to suggest to him that a quiet half hour with the hospital chaplain might have helped to set his mind at ease. I remember only too well what his reply was then. He had seen the hospital chaplain, and he knew the type; which was that of the gentleman priest wearing the velvet jacket. Of all the possible variants of the class, that was the one he disliked the most. His trouble might be deep, he said, but he was not yet reduced to mouthing platitudes he’d never pretended to believe in. He had seen horrors in his time; too many, and not all of them perpetrated by benighted foreigners living in far-away places. He took my point, but all the same, and my obviously sincere concern for him notwithstanding, he thought it unreasonable of me to ask him to start putting his faith now in parsons.

There had seemed to be no answer to that at the time; any more than there was reason to suppose, now, that Bill could be persuaded to take any other than an ironic view of passing clergymen. I did feel a degree of curiosity about the man myself, though; and when once Bill had drunk his coffee and set off with Monty for his morning walk, I phoned Miss Fanshawe – or Frances, as I really must steel myself to begin to call her. I mentioned to her in passing that we had seen a rather distinguished-looking man walk past, and that Bill had claimed him as a clergyman he’d once known; which prompted in her, just as I had hoped, a little torrent of pertinent information.

“Oh, that must have been Mr Porteous!” she eagerly exclaimed. “He has just moved into old Miss Porteous’s house – you know, the rather dilapidated one, with the broken front gate, that’s next-door but one to Rose Mountjoy's. The old lady died last winter – such a fearsome old thing she was, especially after she took to getting about in that motorised chair of hers. There was simply no avoiding her, if you met her on the street - dogs and children could be seen to scatter, ahead of her! She left the house to Mr Porteous, who is her nephew, and has taken early retirement from his parish in Gloucestershire, to come down here and devote his life to writing books. Very much the same thing as my father did, in fact – it seems to me it will make a connection between us. He has two daughters, one of whom has just opened a little handicrafts shop on the corner of the Common. Such pretty hand-made things she has – such a pretty creature she is, herself, come to that, with a little fair head like a buttercup’s. You must call in to see her…….. Her name is Anne Porteous, and he has another daughter, whose name is Julia, but I don’t know where she lives at present. I daresay you wonder how I know so much about him, since he’s only been here a week. But you see, Mrs Baines and Roland have already called on him, and had him round to tea – and they told me all about him over lunch, yesterday. They were most agreeably impressed with him. He’s everything one expects of a clergyman, Pamela says (that’s Mrs Baines, you know; her name is Pamela); and yet so very easy, and really quite amusing, conversationally. He and Roland took to one another at once, apparently. I’m wondering if perhaps I might send Mr Jessop round to him – with a little basket of fresh things from the garden, you know. It would be a welcoming gesture, don’t you think…..? Though of course Pamela is already planning a little evening party for him, and she does that sort of thing so very much better than I could……….”

So there it is. Mystery solved, clergyman’s identity established. And it’s pleasant to me to know that there’s someone come to live here who is even newer than Bill and me. It makes me feel quite the old hand indeed - what with Miss Fanshawe’s friendship, and the promise of an altogether admirable Mrs Baines and Roland in the very near future. I don’t expect I’ll call on Mr Porteous myself; I’ll leave that to Frances, who is certain to discover everything one needs to know. I might call at the daughter’s shop, though. I have always been very fond of needlework, and it would be good to get some new ideas.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Miss Fanshawe's account concluded

The days are passing, and still the story of Theodora has not been completed. That’s the trouble with trying to tell it in instalments, on a blog – three days can pass between postings and in the blink of an eye, the story line has become disjointed, the original impetus been lost! Without further ado therefore, I take up the story again, as nearly as possible at just that point where Miss Fanshawe left it the other day.

“ Lady Macauley has her little circle of friends of course” was the way I seem to remember her proceeding. “People she has known for many years, and can depend upon – ‘the Faithful’, her daughter calls them; so touching, I’ve always thought…”

For more intimate knowledge of the Macauleys we would need Mrs Mountjoy however, as Miss Fanshawe next explained. “Dear Rose", she called her; “who lives in the little house with the green gate in the wall, on the high street. It’s connected to the Macauley garden directly at the back by way of another little gate, and Rose is in and out of the Macauley house by that route at all times – the old lady can hardly do without her for an hour, or so I believe. She’s away in Italy with them at present, for example – she goes everywhere with them; and is of all the people in the village, the one who most of all has Lady Macauley’s ear. She is an old school-friend of Belle Macauley the daughter; she stepped in one day to rescue her from bullies in the playground of the little local school, and was taken up by the family on that account….”

“She was Rosemary Betts, then” Miss Fanshawe continued; “ She started to call herself Rose much later, after she had married her third husband, who was Curtis Mountjoy of the Foreign Office – she became quite grand herself, after that. There was talk of Curtis’s receiving his knighthood at one point, but alas, he died before it could be accomplished, and Rose never did quite become Lady Mountjoy.. Such a pity; she’d have liked that. In those days though, she was plain Rosie Betts, from the little brick council house on the wrong side of the road … Rose likes to joke about it now, that long walk of hers, across the road to the Macauley house. It was only a matter of fifty yards or so, she says, but it might have been the other side of the world, for all the difference it made to her. Poor Belle had a hard time of it at that school, from all accounts. Being the little girl from the big house, you know, and very tall and awkward, for a girl. In person she resembled her father, you see, who was always thought rugged, rather than handsome. Tall, and strong-boned - which were excellent things in a rich and powerful man, of course, but rather less effective in a young girl…….. Poor Belle suffered at the hands of the bullies, anyway - but Rose was always there, to step in and help her when it was needed.. Sir Jack believed in state education for his daughter, you see; it was a part of his socialist principles. Though they didn’t seem to have extended to his son – the younger Jack Macauley attended Westminster School, his mother having drawn the line at letting him go away to Eton………..”

Miss Fanshawe made quite a long digression at this point, being eager to tell us something more about the younger Jack Macauley. She remembers him most vividly from the time when she was in her early teens, and he several years older, and just down from Oxford. She only ever saw him from afar, but even she had been able to see what a very special kind of glamour he'd had. What was it, she wondered, that very special quality of his? She hardly knew how to express it for us. Except to say that, for her, he had seemed to be the Young Lochinvar, and Sir Lancelot, and even King Arthur himself, all rolled up in one young man – and that where he was, the wide exciting outer world had always seemed to her to be, also. All the girls were in love with him, anyway. Even Rose herself, at one time. There had been some little romantic incident, at a ball in the Macauley garden (the Macauleys threw the most magnificent parties in those days!). Rose had fancied herself in love with him at any rate, and he with her. But it scarcely lasted for more than an hour,the poor little affair, before Lady Macauley herself had stepped in to put an end to it.

That was the thing, didn’t we see? Rose could be family pet, and Sir Jack Macauley’s ‘pretty, feisty little Rosie’ as much as she would – but when it came to marrying the son and heir, she just wasn’t the right sort. It is Miss Fanshawe’s private opinion that Lady Macauley had received her come-uppance over the affair later, for all that. Since in no time at all after Rose had been dispatched, Jack had taken up with the girl his mother called his ‘fine cold Alice’; a Scottish land-owner’s daughter who had married him, and borne him away, the day after the wedding, to some castle her family had up near Caithness, from which she had seldom permitted him to re-emerge.

Miss Fanshawe had become very pre-occupied with her own thoughts by that stage in her story. Her recollections seemed to have taken her to some place far away in the depths of her memory, from which it was difficult to extract herself. And when she did, it was only to tell us, all in a rush, that nothing had ever been quite the same for Lady Macauley after her beloved Jack had married and gone away. Sir Jack himself had died, as a matter of fact, not so very many years later, and Lady Macauley been rendered desolate by it. She had dressed herself in widow’s weeds as black as those of Queen Victoria herself, a century earlier; had closed the house and gone away, not returning for any length of time for more than twenty years. It had been only two years ago in fact, that she and Belle had permanently returned. Lady Macauley had let it be known at the time that she had come home only to die in her husband’s bed. She was old, and she was tired, she said; she had lost both her Jacks, and she didn’t see what else there was to stay on for. But of course not even a Lady Macauley could die to order, no matter now hard she tried – and to the best of Miss Fanshawe’s knowledge, she continued still in excellent health…

Miss Fanshawe suddenly remembered, then, that she must hasten away herself. She had rambled on far too long already; she must have quite worn us out with her chatter! She had friends coming to lunch, besides – Mrs Baines and Roland, from the pretty cottage beside the pond on the Common. Such very good friends of hers, such charming people; she would arrange to have us come and meet them as soon as it could be arranged. Having said which, and thanked us warmly again, she took her leave, hurrying away along our little garden path, her last words fluttering behind her as she went.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Theodora's story, as told by Miss Fanshawe

I have become fond of Miss Frances Fanshawe over the past few days. I have been to the manor house, and seen the kind of mild domestic chaos in which she lives. I have also seen Mrs Meade the housekeeper; who, possible tipsiness aside, seems a slovernly woman, and not at all the sort to whom one would wish to see Miss Fanshawe’s domestic arrangements entrusted. They seem to have established a kind of equilibrium however, in which everything which needs to be is somehow done, and nothing old or precious there (of which there are many objects, large and small) ever quite gets lost or broken. Far be it from me therefore, especially at this early stage, to make judgments too hastily. It seems to me there will be a new kind of happiness anyway, in simply in getting to know Miss Fanshawe as she is. I call her Frances now, because she asked me to. But the name still comes awkwardly, and in my thoughts she remains,unalterably, Miss Fanshawe

Bill has filled me in a little on her background and present way of life. The thing one has to remember most about her is her extreme unworldliness, he tells me. She grew up as a lonely child in a big house filled with books; in the care of a father whose mind was on higher things than little girls (he was some kind of ecclesiastical scholar, so far as Bill can gather), and a grandmother whose mind was on higher things too; only in her case they were stern, external things, like duty, and decorum, and having an eye at all times upon maintaining one’s position in society. So that a day-dreaming little girl had never quite been able to measure up. Somewhere, between the scholastic father and the severe and worldly grandmother, the little girl Frances had managed to tumble up. That was Bill’s way of putting it, and I am happy to accept it from him, since he seems to have developed a peculiarly tender regard for Miss Fanshawe, and must be taken, at least at this early stage, to be her best-informed and most sympathetic advocate.

What he further tells me is that, Miss Fanshawe’s universe being peopled largely by the characters she has met between the covers of the books in her father’s library, I should expect to find a certain ‘other-worldliness’ in her, too. And since this is so very much what I did find, when, as if at the pressing of a switch, I drew her on the subject of the Macauleys the other day, I feel I can do no better than reproduce her narrative for you here, as far as I can recall it and more or less verbatim. It does seem likely to run to several thousand words however, for which I apologise in advance. But since she knows so very much more about the Macauleys than I do myself, and is prepared moreover to be so very much more discursive about them than I would dare to be, I'll go ahead anyway. I shall simply try to ease the load a little, by putting it out in one or two manageable instalments…

“I’m not on personal visiting terms with Lady Macauley myself, of course…” was the way Miss Fanshawe began her account. “She’s rather exclusive you know - I wouldn’t put it more strongly than that. And who would blame her in any case, at her age, and with all the curiosity that has always surrounded her? There was a great deal of talk at one time, but I expect you know all that……. She was so very young, you see, and Sir Jack so very much older, and married, and in the public eye to such a large extent … He was a member of parliament at the time, I believe - though I was a young child myself at the time, and much of it came to me from hearing my grandmother talk about it……She was very disapproving of Sir Jack, and I was never allowed to associate with Belle Macauley or her brother, even though they were much the same age, and looked such fun, and our gardens actually abutted, at their farthest points…….. Sir Jack gave up everything anyway - he was obliged to resign his seat I believe - just to marry Theodora… There were some who said it was almost as great a sacrifice as the king’s had been, a decade earlier ……I expect it was a bitter pill indeed for her parents to have to swallow, though .. The Thanes were very grand, you see, for all that their estates were crumbling and the money running out…. They believed they occupied the very highest plane of the nobility; they recognised few equals in the land, and probably no superiors. I think they hoped that Theodora would have married well, and somehow shored things up for them - though they can hardly have enjoyed being rescued by the man they called the jumped-up shopkeeper……. ‘Sir Nobody from Nowhere’ was the way I think they were accustomed to describe him. Still, there wasn’t a thing they could do about it, when once Theodora’s mind was made up. She was a strong-willed sort of girl, you see – and Jack Macauley’s stores and factories covered five counties by then... He had been knighted by the king besides, the year before, for all manner of philanthropic enterprises in the north; and his wealth, and the range of his influence, must have seemed to that really rather modest rural lord, her father, to extend into regions quite imponderable …….This was not at all the sort of man an outraged father could ‘take out’ in any way; nor one from whom he might seek redress. So they had little alternative but to grit their teeth, and consent to attend the wedding….. And then of course Sir Jack pulled them right back from the brink, afterwards; restoring, unentailing everything ... Though I believe that relations between them never became entirely cordial, and that Theodora herself never forgave them for their condescension towards Jack…..”