Thursday, 7 June 2007

Not quite Sir Lancelot or the King

Pamela has evidently conferred with Roland on the subject of the party I am to hold for Frances, and has decided that on the whole they think they will probably attend. Not that Pamela herself quite sees the point of it, mind! She says - or rather Roland does - that it will turn out be just another in a long line of carefully constructed prevarications.

“It will be just one deferral after another, don’t you see?” is the way Pamela sees it. “Oh, he is nothing if not ingenious with his reasons, I’ll give him that! He’s had years of practice in prevaricating from the pulpit for a start – and what better preparation for an indefinitely prolonged engagement could there possibly be than that? But Roland says – and I’m inclined to agree with him – that when it comes to actually marrying Frances, there’ll always be just one more important thing to be accomplished first.”

These remarks came as something of a shock to me, I have to admit it. It seems to me that Pamela must be nursing a bruised spirit indeed, when she can talk about clergymen prevaricating from the pulpit! There was a time, and not so very far distant at that, when no such anti-clerical aspersion would have passed her lips. Nor do I give any credence to the idea that Roland could have soared to such conversational flights as the ones she attributes to him: it’s very much more likely that Pamela herself has sat down to prepare them for my benefit in advance.

No, I think that what Pamela actually sees in the party is a genuine hat opportunity. A sunny afternoon in a garden after all – and in my garden at that, where no dress code prevails, and there are no unwritten rules. What better opportunity could there possibly be for her to sally forth in her largest and best? And who would I be to deny her the joy of it, after her humiliation at the hands of the Macauleys? She does just wonder if Lady and Miss Macauley will be attending the pre-engagement party though? But on that score I have had to disappoint her; the old lady and Belle having all inconveniently gone away to their place in the country for two weeks.

My own little garden is meanwhile in process of being transformed into something resembling the Vauxhall Gardens – or a stage set for the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Frances’s grandmother’s tables and chairs arrived yesterday; and very pretty indeed in the Edwardian style they look, arranged at intervals all the way down the lawn. An arbour of roses is just about to be constructed, too. Some men arrived with a lorry-load of trellis panels early yesterday – I awoke to hear Bill in altercation with them at the gate. ”Over his dead body”, I heard him bellow, was any such contrivance going up in either of our gardens! And where was their written authority anyway, for delivering trellises at such an ungodly hour?

Going up they are, nonetheless. Frances herself arrived all pink and apologetic hot on the heels of the delivery men, and somehow managed, if not entirely to silence, then at least to mollify Bill’s loud explosion of wrath. The idea had been all her own, she hurriedly explained. She had hoped to be able to warn us before the delivery men arrived; and in her failure to do so hardly knew how to apologise enough! But she had had this little idea, you see - or rather, David had had it: he was so original when it came to matters of this sort… Between them, at any rate, they had come up with the idea of making the garden look like the old Orchard at Grantchester - where David had been so fond of sitting to meditate, in his Cambridge undergraduate days.

She was sure Bill would be glad when he saw how entirely charming it would look when completed. They had had this vision of the garden as a series of extended vistas, culminating in a rose arbour, didn’t he see? So pleasant for people to wander about in, they’d thought - taking their refuge beneath the roses in the arbour when they would. And of course Bill could always have it pulled down afterwards if he wished. Frances would undertake its demolition herself indeed: he would have nothing whatever to worry about on that score.

I could see only too clearly what Bill thought of the idea of David Porteous’s taking it upon himself to recreate the Old Orchard at Grantchester in my garden. Further even than that, I could see that the unpleasant suspicion must have arisen in his mind that he and David Porteous had probably been undergraduates at Cambridge at roughly the same time – so that he might actually be expected to sit down and engage in reminiscence with the man! But Bill’s rages tend to be short-lived, and in any case he has never been able to refuse Frances anything. She asks for so very little after all; and so he finally gave way gracefully enough. He only turned to mutter, as he went off to collect Monty for his walk, that we could what we would with the garden (I noted that I had become complicit in its transformation now.) We could erect a full-blown fantastic Victorian conservatory plumb in the middle of it if that was what we wished. Just so long as we didn’t ask him to stand round to watch it going up!

I went off with Frances to the manor house after that; she wanted me to see all the 'little improvements’ that David has instituted there. David himself was absent at the time; having gone up to London to visit his elder daughter Julia, who has moved into what her father considers a thoroughly unsuitable flat. “She’s a rather wayward girl apparently” Frances explained as we went. “Inclined to be confrontational you know. So different from gentle Anne, who has never given him a moment’s trouble in her life. But poor David finds Julia quite a trial. And the flat, you know – above a shop in Baker Street; what could possibly be noisier, or more impractical than that?”

I rejoiced, I confess it, at the idea that there was a confrontational daughter who would now and then stand up to Mr Porteous; there seemed a kind of justice in the idea that he had produced a sprig quite as high-handed as himself. But my joy was short-lived; it quite evaporated indeed, when I saw the range and scale of Mr Porteous’s ‘little improvements’ at the manor house. It had possessed an endearing shabbiness before, but it shone now with the kind of magnificence that suggested many expert hands had been at work. “How has all this been achieved in so short a space of time?” I wondered aloud. And was not surprised when Frances told me that they had more or less dispensed with the services of Mrs Meade; who had not been dismissed, so much as gently pensioned off…

“We have a team who come in once a week now” Frances explained. “They undertake everything, French polishing and all – and of course it’s so much pleasanter for David, not having to encounter Mrs Meade in corridors, when he’s coming from the bathroom and that sort of thing..”

I wondered where Mrs Meade had actually gone; and was reassured to hear that she had not quite been cast alone into a hostile world, but set up with a nice little flat in Brighton, and what Frances described as “quite enough to live on, for the rest of her life.” The transformation seems to be complete therefore; and Mr Porteous has established himself on a footing at the manor house that can’t conceivably be undone.

The real surprise came for me right at the end of the visit however, when Frances remarked that of course she quite saw why everyone thought she had acted rather precipitately in all this.
“They think it won’t last, I know that.” she all unaccountably confided. “ But after all I don’t see why not. It’s not as if I expected his undying passion, you know. I think we’re both too old for that. But so long as he’s happy to stay with me - well it will be enough.”

I can’t quite explain why it was that I drew comfort from this little chance remark. There was sadness in it, as well as resignation. But there was a kind of wisdom too, that I hadn’t looked for in Frances. She seemed to have accepted her lot, yet kept her girlish dream intact. And one thing I knew for certain, that whatever else Mr Porteous might or might not be, for Frances he was neither quite Sir Lancelot nor the King.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

To hear a nightingale

I was wakened at first light yesterday by a bird call of such piercing sweetness – such a joyful crescendo of rising and falling notes - that I rose at once and rushed out into the garden to see what bird it was that made it. It came from high in the banches of a tall conifer where squirrels nest, so I thought it must be a large bird indeed that would dare to linger there. Its song was loud too – louder by far, than any average garden bird could make. I stood perfectly still to hear it as on it sang, a full five minutes of matchless sound. Before a pair of magpies landed with a squawk nearby, and drove it off.

And did I catch a glimpse of it before it flew away? No I did not. Since even with my glasses on, I’m unable to identify disappearing birds at such a distance. And could it have been a nightingale? I like to think it could, though I’ve never heard one, and can’t say for sure. Nightingales sound rather like blackbirds, people say: the difference is, they sing at night, when other birds are silent. This nameless bird of mine was like no blackbird I have ever heard though, nor any thrush. So I have told myself it must have been a nightingale - having long dreamt that I might hear one before I die.

I’m feeling the need for a little solitude just at present. And had been enjoying several days of it, until Frances came yesterday with her rather extraordinary request. Before that, Bill and I had been staying quietly at home, unwilling for the moment to be involved in neighbourhood activities. Flawless summer days have returned, and we have been spending them in our gardens; finding respite there perhaps, from Rose’s conversations, and Lady Macauley’s secrets - and the nagging little anxieties about Frances herself. Our two little gardens are long and narrow; each more or less a replica of the other, and straggling, low-hedged, for fifty yards or so on either side of the little public path.

Bill’s has been given over mostly to his vegetable plot, where everything flourishes so admirably now that he has lately been able to turn his attention to mine. Here, there are neglected borders to be cleared and re-planted; and the remains of an ancient pergola have given Bill the idea of constructing a flowering, fragrant walk. It was there, beneath the half-constructed pergola, that Frances came upon us unexpectedly at three o'clock yesterday. Bill was tying rustic poles together with willow for the framework, and I struggling with the tangled lengths of rose and jasmine that are to climb its poles and make a flowering canopy above.

“How very industrious you look!” Frances gaily cried. But her demeanour somehow belied her words. There was very little of gaiety about her; she looked vaguely troubled, if anything, and this despite the fact that her hair was arranged in a new and rather becoming way, and that she wore a crisp linen dress and a neat little pair of matching shoes. Frances’s shoes had tended to be rather boatlike in the past, making a kind of flapping sound when she walked. I remembered it now as a friendly sound, and wished that it hadn't gone away.

She seemed happy to linger a while with us in the garden, admiring our efforts. She thought the pergola an enchanting idea - and would have Mr Jessop look out for sturdy climbers of theirs that would assist us in our enterprise. She had clearly come here with a definite idea of some sort however; she fairly seemed to quiver with it, and so I soon found reason to suggest she come up with me to the house, while I prepared a jug of iced lemonade for us all.

What she wants of us is on the face of it perfectly simple and straightforward – yet it took the breath from me momentarily just the same. She wants us to ask David and her to come to tea here one afternoon, in company with half a dozen other invited guests. She thinks it important they should be seen together in public as a couple at last: it would 'seem to put the formal seal of approval on their union’, didn’t I see? And she can think of no happier way of accomplishing it than through the sort of little informal party that might seem to have happened just by chance. She had thought that my nice little sitting room would provide the perfect backdrop – but now that she had seen Bill’s pergola, she wondered if tea beneath the roses wouldn’t perhaps be better still?

She wouldn’t think of imposing on me to provide anything of course – she would have Mrs Meade make sandwiches and cakes. She had a number of small chairs and tables stored in one of her outhouses, besides; they were remnants from the days when her grandmother had used to hold little musical soirees in the garden, and were rather pretty, in the Edwardian style. She would have Mr Jessop fetch them out of storage; he would spruce them up, as she put it, and see that they were delivered here in plenty of time.

It occurred to me that it had evidently been planned ahead in perfect detail, this apparently spontaneous little party of theirs. I saw the mind and hand of David Porteous at work here; and was angered by it, feeling an almost irresistible impulse to protest. I didn't protest of course. Though I did go so far as to suggest that her own garden (for the life of me I couldn’t also call it his!) might provide a more fitting backdrop for the occasion? But this she waved aside in a manner which was, for her, almost peremptory. That was just it, didn’t I see? They might entertain in their own garden every day of the week - they would certainly do so, would hold a great party, when the moment to announce their engagement finally came. But until somebody else had done it for them first, they wouldn’t be seen formally as an acknowledged couple, nor be able to feel that they had been accepted, and 'arrived'.

There seemed to me a deal of sophistry in this view of the situation, and I knew for sure that Frances hadn’t reasoned it out for herself. I wished that Bill had been with us – I had a feeling that he would have known how to parry and deflect. But in presence of Frances alone – of Frances standing there in mute appeal before me; not quite meeting my eyes, but with every ounce of her rather grotesquely duped good faith somehow shining in her own – I confess that I took the line of least resistance. I said that of course I would arrange her little party for her – it was only a question of our deciding between us when, and with whom, and how.

So there it is. I am to arrange a carefully choreographed yet apparently extemporaneous little party – and set the seal of approval upon a union I more and more dislike. Bill exploded later when I told him about it. He’ll be damned if he’ll be there himself, he said! Though I know that when the moment comes, he will.

I heard my unknown bird singing again in the conifer this morning. But there was a note of sadness in its song this time – and I no longer believe it is a nightingale