OF HALDEN, IV
It was the worst of times. Already it had been
going on for five years: an exile from all that made life worth living,
an exile from the centre of life to a place so far out on the periphery
that it was barely life at all. The distant past had taken on
a rosy glow: the best of times, lost but never to be
forgotten. The loss of London had destroyed their hopes,
their futures, their very lives; and their only hope was to return, to
retrieve the shattered shards, to reconstruct a simulacrum of what
their lives might have been.
Their mother’s illness had been the start of their
downfall. Dr Stephenson, despairing of her health, had begun
to console himself with the odd glass of whisky. The children
pulled together. Olivia cooked and Maria shopped.
Andrew cleaned shoes, ran errands and made himself as helpful as he
could, and little Irene, too, swept and dusted under Olivia’s
Mrs Stephenson grew worse, went into hospital, then into a
hospice, from which they knew she would never return. After
her funeral they did their best to carry on as usual, but Dr Stephenson
fell into a depression from which the only respite was to be found in
alcohol. The household soldiered on under Olivia’s
direction. All four children worked hard at school,
faithfully did their homework, performed their allotted chores without
complaint, and still found time to go to the cinema or out and about
with their friends.
The trouble lay with their father.
From occasional medicinal glasses he graduated to regular,
solitary imbibing. His partners became concerned for his
health and his competence. No longer could he unerringly
identify the underlying causes of his patients’ symptoms and
prescribe the appropriate cure. His diagnostic skills were as
shaky as his hands, and his prescriptions were often unreadable and
sometimes dangerously unsuitable.
His partners began to fear that he might possibly kill
instead of curing, which would reflect badly on the practice and might
lose them influential patients. After two or three near
misses the senior partner called him in for a private
discussion. Dr Stephenson denied that his drinking affected
his work in any way and refused to consider early retirement on health
grounds. He was, after all only in his forties and had many
years in which to contribute to the health of the British
people. However, after another near miss and further
pressure, he was forced to agree to resign from the practice and move
to a quieter part of the country where he could recuperate and where
any slight miscalculations he made in his prescriptions would not
affect people whose premature deaths would be front-page news.
They had moved, then, from Highgate to Ulverthwaite in
Swardale, a place of which none of them had ever heard, and Dr
Stephenson joined a small practice in Geddonby, covering that little
town, the villages of Ulverthwaite and Geddonthwaite, and the
Olivia was given a place in the upper sixth at Halden
Girls’ High School, and Maria was put in the fifth
form. So deep was their depression that Olivia, who should
have been Oxbridge material, barely scraped good enough grades to
attend the local training college for primary school teachers, while
Maria did so badly at O-levels that it was quite impossible for her to
study at sixth-form level, and so she took a job as a counter-clerk in
the employment exchange in Halden, a dead-end job with no prospects of
advancement. Irene’s life was blighted
too. She went to Geddonby junior school, joined the 11-plus
class, and failed miserably.
Things went better for Andrew, though he would probably not
have agreed at first. He joined Halden Grammar School for
boys in the second form. His classmates welcomed him, glad to
have a new friend, but, when they asked him how he liked the school,
his answers were so full of contempt and hatred that they soon turned
After his third or fourth debagging he learned that the only
way to keep his trousers was to keep his feelings to himself.
He was tolerated, he submerged himself in the mainstream of boys who
had no particular peculiarities, and his initial hostility was
eventually forgotten – but he himself did not forget what he
had lost, and, though his sisters were condemned to vegetate in
Swardale instead of enjoying the brilliant careers they would
undoubtedly have achieved in London, he determined to work hard, get
good O- and A-level results and make his escape to a good university,
and, from there, fight his way to prominence. Unlike his
sisters, who had moved at crucial points in their school career, Andrew
had time to overcome his despair and so he became the pride and joy of
his family, the one who would get to the top and rescue his sisters
from their provincial exile. They would return to London.
Olivia, meanwhile, had become a school-teacher and found a
place, rather against her will, at Geddonby. She would have
preferred to go south, but Dr Stephenson, after heroic attempts at
teetotalism, had, through a combination of loneliness and boredom, once
more succumbed to the comforts of the bottle, and his new partner was
beginning to feel concern for him and for his patients.
Olivia felt she was needed to keep an eye on things, to cajole her
father into some semblance of sobriety, and, if necessary to support
the family financially until Andrew could effect their rescue.
Maria had married a slightly more senior civil servant and
was living in a smallish house in Geddonthwaite. She was
bored. Her husband, who had at first seemed a good catch, had
little prospect of further advancement, and showed no interest in her
frequent suggestions that he should apply for a job in London.
“Why should I want to move to London?” he
asked. “I’m happy here. All my
family and friends are here – and you’d miss your
He laughed at her certainty that moving to London would bring
all sorts of opportunities for advancement and friendship with
“We’d meet the same sort of people we
meet here,” he said, “people that are out of work
and looking for jobs – ordinary jobs. You
don’t get important people queuing up in labour
Irene left school and started work in the post office in
Geddonby. She had become by far the prettiest of the three
sisters, and had a couple of suitors, though, seeing Maria’s
plight, she was determined not to marry a local man unless he promised
to take her back to London. Still, it was entertaining to
have two suitors, and she played them off, one against the other, while
they both made quite a game of their deadly rivalry, threatening to
murder each other one dark night, or to fight a duel to decide which of
them should have the fair Irene.
As for Andrew, he achieved respectable results and won a
place at the University of Leeds. The three sisters were
ecstatic. Three years at Leeds, then Andrew would get a job
in London. He would rise rapidly: the chances for an able
young man in the metropolis were immeasurable. Within a few
years he would send for them. Once there … well,
anything was possible.
It was Irene’s birthday. It fell in
vacation, so Andrew was home. Dr Stephenson was in jovial
mood: he had drunk a couple of glasses of his favourite whisky but was
by no stretch of the imagination inebriated. Maria was
present too, but her husband was on duty. Olivia brought a
special guest: the new headmaster of her school – a
Londoner. The sisters crowded round to hear his news of the
capital, and his views on Geddonby, and to let him know that they too
were of metropolitan origin and not mere country girls with limited
He seemed especially taken with Maria, not, apparently
realising that she was married, and when they sat down at the table he
contrived to sit next to her.
“I often feel,” she said, “that
people with wider cultural vision are a dying breed.
You’ll find the people of Geddonby very dull, Mr Marshall,
and I feel that under their stifling influence we too will lose all our
interest in life and become just vegetables, potatoes perhaps, or
“I don’t think you could ever be dull,
Miss Stephenson,” he replied. “I think
the existence of people like you and your family will always have an
influence for good. One day, perhaps, everyone in
Ulverthwaite will be like you – and your descendents will
lead them on to still higher levels.”
She would have replied, and replied very wittily too, you may
be sure, but Dr Stephenson was tapping his teaspoon on his saucer as a
sign that he wanted to make a speech, which he then did, praising his
youngest child, Irene, to the skies, while she sat blushing with
pleasure between her two suitors. Kevin Barron took one of
her hands and pressed it to his lips. Immediately Tony Stone
seized the other and implanted upon it an audible kiss.
“Silly boys,” she said, blushing adorably
while they exchanged a glance across her, simultaneously divided and
united in their rivalry.
The doorbell rang at that moment, loud and long.
“Who can that be?” murmured Olivia as she
rose to answer it, but before she got as far as the dining room door it
“A patient probably,” said Dr
Stephenson. “Lost his aspirins and wants an urgent
prescription for new ones. We doctors get this all the
time. A friend of mine told me he was called out in a raging
storm in the middle of the night to an isolated farm, and when he got
there the woman said she was down to her last few indigestion tablets
and wanted to be sure she had a prescription with her when she went
into Halden next morning. He wrote her a prescription, he
said, and told her that from that moment she was off his panel and
would need to find herself a new doctor.”
A raised voice was heard in the hall, the door was flung
open, and Bill Johnson came in, dragging his daughter Nancy by the arm
“My Nancy’s pregnant!” he
“Well,” said Dr Stephenson, “I
don’t know whether you expect congratulations or
commiseration, but it doesn’t look as if she’s in
urgent need of medical attention, so perhaps you could make an
“She’s pregnant,” roared
Johnson. “He’ll have to marry her!
“Undoubtedly,” said Dr
Stephenson. “Of course he should. I take
it Nancy can identify the father.”
“It was him,”
shouted Johnson, and
pointed at Andrew.
There was consternation around the table. Mr
Marshall took Maria’s hand and held it
comfortingly. Kevin and Tony clutched Irene. Olivia
grabbed the back of a chair and stood trembling. Andrew paled
and gasped. Dr Stephenson opened and closed his mouth like a
“It was him!”
repeated Bill Johnson.
“Andrew?” said Dr Stephenson.
“Impossible,” gurgled Andrew.
“It just isn’t possible.”
“You didn’t have intercourse with this
young lady?” his father asked.
Nancy burst into loud and accusatory weeping.
“It was him!” thundered Bill Johnson.
“Well, Andrew?” said Dr Stephenson
“She can’t … I mean
… it’s not possible … everybody knows
… and she told me herself … she said she
couldn’t get pregnant if we did it standing up.”
“You … stupid little fool!”
roared Dr Stephenson.
“He’ll have to marry her!”
shouted Bill Johnson.
“Yes, of course he will. Don’t
worry about that, Mr Johnson,” said Dr Stephenson.
“A’ll see t’vicar and get
t’banns read,” said Johnson.
“Do that, do that … yes … do
that,” said the doctor. “Yes, do that
… thank you for letting us know.”
The Johnsons withdrew and the family and their guests sat in
“You realise,” said Dr Stephenson to
Andrew, “that this puts and end to your studies.
The university couldn’t possibly have you back in the
circumstances, and, besides, you’re going to have to find a
job to support your new family. How you could possibly have
been so ignorant as to believe that vertical intercourse was safe I
cannot imagine, and you the son of a doctor too.
Don’t they teach you anything at school.”
“Not about … that,” muttered
Andrew. “I’ve heard lads saying
it’s safe, and Nancy said it was. She said
that’s what we both wanted. She said
there’d be no baby …”
“You’ve been conned, cozened, deceived,
inveigled and entrapped,” said the doctor. That
little minx sees you as a meal-ticket for life. I need a
Thus it was that Andrew passed from being the
family’s great hope for deliverance from its long exile in
the back of beyond, its hope of reintroduction to metropolitan life,
and became a further millstone, bound for life to a country lass
without two words to say for herself, a girl who could barely speak a
single passably grammatical sentence, and whom, even if their own
return had been possible, they could never present in London society.
Readers from a later age, in which single mothers whelp
without a care in the world, in which certain strata of society regard
illegitimate children as a source of income from state benefits, in
which some communities regard fatherhood as limited to impregnation,
after which the male moves on leaving taxpayers to fund his
offspring’s upbringing, in which government ministers in
association with the media regard it as their duty to undermine the
traditional family structures in pursuit of some form of libertarian
multicultural relativism – such readers may find it
surprising, even shocking, that Andrew’s studies should be
curtailed after he had simply followed his instincts, or that he should
have had to marry Nancy, but that is how things were then: unmarried
motherhood was a disgrace and an honourable man was expected to
shoulder his responsibilities and pay for his wild oats.
Andrew married Nancy, and within a few months their first
child was born. Nancy had him christened Robert, after her
favourite film star, though she usually called him Bobby, or even
Bobbikins, for she had developed a maddening, constantly babbling
Andrew found a job in an office in Halden. The work
was boring, the pay was poor, the prospects negligible. He
took to smoking cigarette after cigarette. The house stank of
stale tobacco smoke. He drank too, but unlike his father he
stuck to beer: it was cheaper.
Dr Stephenson had moved on from Glenfiddich and Laphraoig to
cheaper whiskies which he could afford to consume in greater quantities.
Olivia taught still, and found her work tiring. She
suffered from frequent headaches. Maria still lived with her
husband in Geddonthwaite, and found him unbearably dull. She
was a frequent visitor to her father’s house, as too was
Olivia’s headmaster, Mr Marshall.
“If only we could have got back to
London,” Maria said to him. “We could
have been happy there.”
“There’s no such thing as happiness
anywhere,” said Mr Marshall. “We live, we
work, we do our best, we leave children to succeed us, and then we
die. Swardale or Siberia, London or Liberia, what does it
matter. Misery is misery.”
“True,” said the doctor.
“My only consolation is to believe that this world of ours is
only a sham. You, my dear Marshall, are merely a figment of
my imagination, or possibly I am a figment of yours. I
suppose it all depends how you look at it, not that it matters
really. I say to myself, whenever I hear that woman
at that infant of hers – my grandson I suppose, though
I’m not allowed anywhere near him – I say to
nothing but a figment, not real at all, if I
wished I could obliterate her jus’ like that.
obliterate her too, most of the time, thanks to this: the cup that
inebriates but does not cheer. Cheers!”
“My only consolation” said Mr Marshall,
“apart from my conversations with you, Maria, are my two
little girls. I try to do my best for them in spite of my
wife, and I think, thank God – if he exists, which, given the
misery in which he makes us live, I take leave to doubt –
that they take after me rather than their mother.
She’s in hospital again, you know. Another
overdose. Three times she’s tried to kill herself
since we moved here. One of these days she’s going
to succeed, I suppose.”
“Unlikely,” interposed the
doctor. “I’ve had one or two patients
like that – in London rather than up here. They
time it so that they’ll be found. It’s a
sort of cry for help, or a means of imposing their will on their
families. I suppose your wife wants to go back to
“She does,” said Marshall.
“She can’t understand why I took a job up
here. I’ll go back eventually I suppose, when the
right job comes up. I keep telling her, I wouldn’t
have got a headship in London, not for years. This is just a
“Cheers! said the doctor.
Irene came in just then.
“God!” she said. “I
feel old! My life is seeping away. I hate that post
office. I hate just standing behind a counter selling stamps
and giving out pensions. I was actually rude to some old
biddy today. Told her to make up her mind and stop wasting
everybody’s time. She went out muttering like a
poisonous old witch – but I’m not like
that. If only I were in London, even a London post
office. There might be film stars. Perhaps the
Queen might come in to post a letter … perhaps not the
Queen, but Princess Margaret might and I could get into conversation
with her and be invited to one of her soirées.”
“I know what my husband would say,” said
Maria. “He’d say, really
don’t come into post offices and post things
He’d say, you should be happy
Irene, just like Maria and I,
oh yes, he’d say like Maria
tried to explain to him when to say Maria
and I and when to say Maria
but he says his teachers taught him
you always have to say Maria and I.”
“Thank God, if he exists,” said Marshall,
“for teachers like Olivia. I know it’s an
uphill struggle, and I know she’s not in the right place, not
in the place she belongs, but she’s not wasted
here. Thanks to Olivia we’ll have a generation in
Geddonby of people who know when to say Maria and I
and when to say
“I doubt it,” muttered the
“So do I,” said Olivia.
“I try to correct their grammar but they just tell me their
mothers tell them this is right, sometimes even their other
teachers. It’s no wonder I have this
“Where are your suitors, dear?” Maria
“Not sure,” she replied.
“They went off into the wood together yesterday, and when I
saw them today they both had black eyes and bruises.”
“Fighting for your hand,” murmured Dr
Stephenson. “Modern equivalent of a duel.
Has a victor emerged yet.”
Irene. “I suppose it’s amusing to have
them at daggers drawn, but I won’t just be spoils to the
victor, as if two dogs were scrapping for a bone.
I’ll make my choice when I’m ready.”
“Bravo!” said the doctor, pouring himself
Months passed. Nancy gave birth to a second healthy
child, this time a daughter. She insisted that Bobby should
move to Irene’s room – a child needed a bright
sunny room, she said, and Irene could easily share with Olivia or move
to one of the attic rooms. Irene tried to resist, but Nancy
argued that as Irene and Olivia were out at work all day, leaving the
management of the house to her,
she should have a right to decide who
slept where and how each room should be used. Irene, she
said, was being totally unreasonable. All the household
duties fell on her
shoulders and it really was too much if people who
played no part in the management of the house should now take it upon
themselves to criticise her arrangements when she tried to do her best,
and, God knew, it was difficult, and besides Bobbikins needed a bright
and airy room, and how could an unmarried, childless woman like Irene
possibly understand the needs of toddlers, and Bobbikins was such a
sweet child that surely any reasonable person would have to see that
his needs should take precedence over the whims and fancies of those
who should be old enough to know better than to jeopardise the health
of such a dear little boy and she really didn’t see why she
should have to put up with such obstructive selfishness.
Her new position as self-declared mistress of the house had
given her an unchallengeable volubility and so Irene eventually gave up
and moved to the attic, complaining bitterly to Olivia and Dr
Stephenson that she was maltreated and wishing she were in London.
“Take the train,” said Dr
Stephenson. “Bus into Halden, then the train to
“How can I go, just like that?” Irene
“Marry one of your suitors,” suggested
Olivia, “then you can go together.”
“Has either of them actually asked you
yet?” asked Dr Stephenson.
“Not in so many words,” said
Irene. “I’m beginning to get a little
tired of this everlasting courtship. I think I’ll
choose Kevin and tell him we’re getting married and moving to
“Do,” said Olivia, “then at
least one of us can escape this dreadful exile – and if one
of us escapes, she can rescue the others when she’s made her
way in the world. At least we women aren’t likely
to jeopardise the family fortunes by sowing wild oats like some men
“Talking of wild oats,” said Dr
Stephenson, “I suppose you’ve noticed that
Nancy’s baby has brown eyes.”
“Yes,” said Olivia, “what of
“Nancy and Andrew both have blue.”
“Yes, but you’ve got brown eyes and some
of us have got brown and some blue.”
“Blue is a recessive gene,” said the
doctor, “and brown is dominant. Your mother had
blue eyes, so she had two blue-eye genes. My eyes are brown,
but I’ve obviously got one brown gene and one blue, because
some of you have inherited my blue-eye gene and some my
brown. You, Olivia, with your brown eyes, have one blue gene
from your mother and one brown gene from me, and, as brown is dominant,
your eyes are brown. Andrew inherited blue from both parents,
and so, obviously did Nancy, but the father of that baby of hers has
cried Olivia and Irene
“She’s always been far too friendly with
Paul Potter, said Olivia.
“People have seen her going into his house while
Andrew’s at the pub,” said Irene.
“What about Bobbikins?” Olivia
demanded. “I suppose that little snake is
“Blue eyes,” said the doctor,
“but, if Paul Potter is carrying the recessive blue gene,
Bobbikins could be his.”
“So Nancy tricked Andrew into marrying
her!” cried Irene. “She tricked him and
condemned us all to stay here instead of going back to
“It’s possible,” said Dr
Stephenson, “but it’s not certain, and
we’ve no way of finding out. Best not to say
“Do you think Andrew knows?” Olivia asked.
“I don’t think he paid much attention in
biology classes,” said her father.
“Anyone who believes that if you have intercourse standing up
you’re in no danger of getting your girlfriend pregnant is
unlikely to have considered the genetics of eye-colour.
Don’t say anything. The poor boy’s
miserable enough as it is, tied to that woman. Thinking his
children aren’t his own might just tip him over the
Nothing was said to Andrew or to Nancy, but Olivia and Irene
decided they had to tell Maria.
“Such shocking behaviour,” she
said. “It’s so typical of these peasants
among whom we’re forced to live. They fornicate
like the beasts of the field, while we live by a totally different,
higher, more civilised morality. Nancy produces bastards by
her paramour, and poor old Andrew stands by her and supports
her. She can manipulate him because she knows he lives by a
code of honour that she wouldn’t consider for herself
– and because of her
we lost our chance of going back to
They agreed and sympathised, then, suddenly, Maria said:
“I’ve got an admission to make.
It’s no secret that I can’t stand my
husband. He’s boring. He’s
happy living here. He refuses to take me to London, even
though I’ve told him that the opportunities there would open
the way for us to advance. He says we’d miss our
family and friends.
“Well, none of that’s new to
you. What is,
is that I love Peter Marshall.
He’s always been so sympathetic. He’s
always understood that we three are different from the women that live
here. I’ve talked with him often, and
I’ve gone for long walks with him, and I’ve even
kissed him. I long to be with him completely and utterly,
but, unlike that woman,
I have never shared my lover’s bed
– and I never will … unless … unless by
some miracle we were both to find ourselves free.
“Then I’d go with him to London
… but … as things are …”
Dr Stephenson’s reliance on whisky to make his life
at all bearable, increased. Sir Richard Robson of Geddon Hall
called Dr Thompson, worried about Dr Stephenson’s diagnosis
and prescription for his son Lionel, who had picked up some illness
during his post-university travels abroad. Dr Thompson
swiftly identified the trouble, re-prescribed, assured Sir Richard that
the medicine prescribed by Dr Stephenson would have done no harm,
whatever the local chemist said, then went straight to see Dr
Their conversation was long and bitter. Dr Thompson
reminded Dr Stephenson that this was far from being his first mistake,
and pointed out that while his other errors might have given the odd
patient a headache or an upset stomach, he had on this occasion come
within a whisker of killing the heir to Geddon Hall, and that he would
undoubtedly have done so but for the vigilance of the Geddonby
Dr Thompson offered to certify Dr Stephenson unfit for work
and eligible for a disability pension – and Dr Stephenson
agreed to take early retirement. His partnership was sold,
which gave him some capital, and his pension would have allowed him to
live in frugal comfort, if only he could have forsworn
whisky. He could not.
Nancy was not pleased to have her father-in-law at home,
around the house, always under her feet. He got the sharp end
of her tongue. It wasn’t as if he were supporting
his family any more. He had only that pitiful pension, and he
spent most of it on drink. He was a liability, a useless,
inconvenient, drunken old man, and she thought it appalling that he
should be living in the same house as her darling Bobbikins and
Dr Stephenson took long walks in Geddon Woods and tried to
convince himself that Nancy was just a figment of his imagination, a
being whose existence he could simply annul, but, as usual, he found
that the only way to blot her out was to drink himself into a stupor.
Olivia became deputy head of the school in Geddonby and
resigned herself to spinsterhood. One day, perhaps, she would
apply for a headship or deputy headship in London, but she would have
to prove herself in her new post before she could think of moving on.
Then there was bad news for Maria: Mr Marshall had applied
for and secured headship of a school in outer London. He and
his wife and children would be leaving at the end of the school
would have to stay in Swardale with her husband and
without the pleasure of cultured conversation with her friend.
That left only Irene. She alone could break out of
their exile. She alone could claim her place in London, make
the most of the opportunities offered by the greatest city in Europe,
and eventually throw a lifeline to her family.
Her two suitors still courted her assiduously and each still
threatened the other with assassination should he succeed in claiming
for himself their joint inamorata. She had for some time
found Tony Stone’s courtship both creepy and inclined to
sudden accesses of near-violence. Kevin Barron, she decided,
was the man for her, and so she contrived to see him without his
constant shadow and announce to him that she had decided to marry him
and that, immediately after their wedding, they would move to London,
where they would find greater opportunities of developing their talents
and advancing in the world.
“Wonderful, darling!” he cried and
pressed her hand to his lips.
A couple of weeks passed. Olivia secured a small
flat in Geddonby, which would be much more convenient for
school. Irene would have staked her claim on
Olivia’s room, but, now that her marriage and move to London
was only a short way off, she simply acquiesced when Nancy claimed it
for Babykins. In a few weeks she would be out of that dingy
attic room with its low, sloping ceiling, and on her way to the bright
lights of London and the bright future that the capital held in store
for people of culture and ability.
“I haven’t seen your suitors for a
while,” Olivia remarked one day.
Irene hadn’t seen them either. Tony Stone
was probably heart-broken at having lost her, but where was
Kevin? Surely they couldn’t have fought
seriously? Surely Kevin couldn’t be so badly
injured that he was unable to leave his house, or so badly disfigured
that he was afraid to let her see him. Anything, they
concluded, might be possible, though it was more likely that Kevin had
a slight cold and did not wish to pass it to his beloved Irene.
“What are you three talking about, then?”
said Nancy, clutching her brown-eyed Babykins.
“Still dreaming about going to London? I
don’t know why you don’t just go – and
take that disgusting old drunk with you.”
“As it happens,” said Olivia,
“we were talking about Irene’s forthcoming
marriage, after which she will
be going to London.”
“Huh! Fat chance!” said
Nancy. “Not seen your boyfriend all week, have
you? And I’ll tell you why not.
He’s run off to London with the other one.
There’s more scope for their
sort down there.”
“What do you mean their
“Did you really
not know,” Nancy
jeered. “They’re queers
them. Well, we’re well rid of them,
that’s what I
say. I wouldn’t have had
them in the house meself, but that father of yours is just too soft
– brain softened by whisky, that’s what I
say. They weren’t interested in you at
all. They were just using you as a decoy so people
wouldn’t suspect – but people knew. Why
d’you think they went into the woods? Not to fight
duels for which of ’em would have you. Naw, they
went in for a bit of whatever that sort do. It’s
disgusting that’s what I
“But they often had black eyes and
bruises,” Irene protested.
“Because the other lads knew what they were up
to,” said Nancy. “They won’t
stand for that sort of filth round here, and quite right too,
that’s what I
say – so you won’t be
getting married, miss, and you won’t be going to London now
after all – not unless you want people to think
you’ve gone off to join the queers. You and your
dreams! Well, London’s a filthy sort of place if
it’s full of people like that, that’s what I
but if you want to go then get on with it. There’ll
be one less mouth to feed and one less person to clean up after, and
good riddance, too, that’s what I
And Nancy swept out in vindictive triumph.
“She’s lying!” said Maria
“Obviously,” Olivia agreed.
“She’d say anything to hurt us.”
“Because we’re different,” said
“But why hasn’t Kevin come?”
Dr Stephenson came in.
“I’ve been hanging about outside until
woman left,” he
They told him what Nancy had said.
have to know,” he sighed. “It’s
all only too true. Since I’ve been retired and
forced to spend my days walking round the village and in the woods to
I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t know
before. Yes, Barron and Stone are both homosexuals.
They were just paying court to you as a cover for their real
inclinations. Their trips into the wood were for sexual
assignations and their black eyes were not mutually inflicted but
resulted from confrontations with other local youths. Your
announcement that you had decided to marry young Barron threw their
arrangements into disarray, and they fled to London, where, as Nancy
has said, they can disappear into the anonymous flotsam and jetsam of
homosexuals, tarts, and drug-addicts that congregate in the
“We never knew that London was like
that,” said Maria.
“We thought it was full of the most wonderful
opportunities,” said Olivia.
“You thought,” said Dr Stephenson,
“that the streets were paved with gold. Many, many
people have gone to London driven by that illusion, and many of them
have drifted into poverty and into that underworld.
Don’t pin your hopes on London. You can be as
miserable there as anywhere else, and it’s as full of people
like Nancy as Ulverthwaite.”
The doctor went out again, leaving the three sisters alone,
sitting in silence for a while. Then Irene said,
“Will we ever
go to London?”
“If we do, would we be happy?” said
“Would we be happy anywhere?” said Maria.
“Have we been out here in exile too long?”
“Are we too old to make our way in the
“Are our dreams just dreams?
“Is it all an illusion?”
“If only we knew.”
“If only we knew …”
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