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Also by Fay Weldon

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1

Understand, and forgive. It is what my mother taught me to do, poor patient gentle Christian soul, and the discipline she herself practised, and the reason she died in poverty, alone and neglected. The soles of her poor slippers, which I took out from under the bed and threw away so as not to shame her in front of the undertaker, were quite worn through by dutiful shuffling. Flip-flop. Slipper-slop. Drifting and dusting a life away.

There is a birth certificate in Somerset House – where all our lives and deaths are listed, and all our marriages and our divorces too – which describes me as Evans, Chloe, born to Evans, Gwyneth, née Jones, and Evans, David, housepainter, of 10 Albert Villas, Caledonian Road, London, N1, on February 20th, 1930. Evans, Chloe, female. There is as yet, no death certificate there for me, though looking through the files which now crowd those once seemingly endless Georgian rooms, I shocked myself by half expecting to find it there.

Sooner or later, of course, that certificate will be added.

Understand, and forgive, my mother said, and the effort has quite exhausted me. I could do with some anger to energize me, and bring me back to life again. But where can I find that anger? Who is to help me? My friends? I have been understanding and forgiving my friends, my female friends, for as long as I can remember.

Marjorie, Grace and me.

Such were Chloe’s thoughts, before she slept.

2

‘There is no point in raking up the past,’ Chloe’s husband Oliver says to her the next morning, as she sits on the edge of his bed and watches him pour coffee from a French pottery jug. This is the day Chloe’s life is to change – in the way that the lives of calm people do change, through some alteration of attitude rather than of conduct. To Chloe, it seems an ordinary enough morning, except that she woke with a feeling of cheerfulness, conscious of the notion that she was finally to be allowed out of mourning for her mother’s death; and that now, when Oliver says that there is no point in raking up the past, she quite violently disagrees with him.

As for Oliver, he is glad that the night is over, not because he has slept badly but because he has slept too well, and been savaged by nightmares. They hover permanently round his brass bedstead and if he sleeps too deep, or too trustfully, they pounce.

Oliver wears no pyjamas. He is a slight, muscular, hairy man and the hairs on his chest are turning grey. Once he sat up in bed against brave white sheets, shiny black body hairs lying smooth against an olive skin, and thick dark head hair springing up in tight curls from his temples, stimulated, Chloe used to think, by the passion of his opinions and the fury of his dislikes.

Now Oliver props himself against brown easy-care Terylene and cotton pillow-slips, and his grey chest gives him a dusty and defeated look, and even his furies have mellowed, and the hair on his head, now sparse, falls downward in a perfectly ordinary way. His family do not notice the change in him. They imagine he is still king in the outside world, as he is in his own territory; but in fact he abdicated from that empire long ago. He rules at home and nowhere else.

Oliver has breakfast brought to him on a tray. He does not eat breakfast with his family. His nerves shrink from noise and good-humour first thing in the morning. When the thoughts and feelings of the night are still with him, the shriekings and posturings of the children – so many of them not his own – seem like some horrific charade especially set up to mock him.

So while Françoise prepares the children’s breakfast, it is Chloe’s custom to take Oliver his tray. After breakfast he will go to his study to write, or try to write, his novel.

‘No,’ agrees Chloe, lying in her teeth, ‘there is no point in raking up the past.’

He is not to be placated even by instant agreement.

‘Then why,’ he asks, ‘do you suggest I have nightmares because of something which happened to me in the past? It’s much more likely to be Françoise’s dinners. She will cook with butter. Instead of offering me psychological platitudes, why not try getting her to cook in oil?’

‘Françoise comes from Normandy,’ Chloe says. ‘Not the South. The butter habit is very deep.’

‘You don’t think she’s trying to kill me off with cholesterol?’ He is half joking, half serious. The nightmares have not yet fully retreated.

‘If she wanted to kill anyone,’ says Chloe, ‘surely it would be me.’

But Oliver is not sure. There is a coldness in Françoise’s eyes, as she lies beneath him, which belies the obliging languor of her limbs and the sweet moanings of her breath. He says as much to Chloe, but this time Chloe does not reply at all.

‘You’re not in a mood, I hope,’ says Oliver, meaning that he himself trembles on the verge of one.

‘No,’ says Chloe, kindly. She pulls the blind high and looks out across the garden. It is March. The winter weather has broken: the sun shines on the green tips of the daffodils, just beginning to show through the black earth. Beyond the green wall of the yew trees she can see the copper spire of the village church, brilliantly tipped with green verdigris. She is elated.

But now the sun is shining into Oliver’s eyes. He protests, and Chloe lowers the blind again to save him discomfort, but not before she has seen, on the blank pillow next to Oliver’s, a long dark hair, Françoise’s. Chloe removes the hair, and drops it in the wastepaper basket. Oliver does not like untidiness.

‘I’m sorry if I was bad-tempered,’ says Oliver. ‘If you mind about Françoise, you know you only have to say.’

‘Of course I don’t mind,’ says Chloe, and as far as she can tell she doesn’t.

But something has changed in her. Yes it has. Listen to what she is saying.

‘I think I shall go up to London today,’ says Chloe, who hates cities, crowds and cars.

‘What for?’

She has to think before she can reply.

‘To see Marjorie and Grace, I suppose.’

‘What for?’

‘They’re my friends.’

‘I am very well aware of that. Why do you choose such odd friends?’

‘One doesn’t choose friends. One acquires them. They are as much duty as pleasure.’

‘You don’t even like them.’ He is right. Chloe sometimes dislikes Marjorie, and sometimes Grace, and sometimes both at once. But that is not the point.

‘How do you know they’ll be free to see you?’ he goes on. ‘Other people won’t just drop everything because you happen to remember they exist. You’re very egocentric.’

‘I’ll have to take that chance.’

‘The fare is monstrous.’ Oliver says. ‘And who will look after the children?’

‘Françoise will.’

‘You mustn’t impose on Françoise. Her function is to cook and clean and run the home. It does not include childcare.’

He waits for his wife to say what else it does not include, but Chloe merely says, mildly, ‘The children are old enough to look after themselves.’

And so they are.

3

At half past nine Chloe suffers a spasm of fear at the prospect of going to London, and annoying everyone, and by five past ten, with the assistance of some inner fairy godmother, finally stirring from sleep, has regained her courage. She telephones.

Inigo, Imogen, Kevin, Kestrel and Stanhope are out on the lawn, marking up a badminton court for the season’s playing. Chloe’s fleshly children are the youngest and eldest. Inigo is eighteen, Imogen is eight. Chloe’s spiritual children, Kevin, Kestrel and Stanhope, come in between. Their cheerful, easy profanity drifts across the garden as Chloe tries to get a line through to London, and once in London to the BBC, and once at the BBC, through a succession of receptionists and secretaries, to Marjorie.

Who’d have believed it, thinks Chloe? That these children can use the words so lightly, which once were hurled, with such malignant ferocity, across their cradles. Bitch and bastard, Christ and cunt.

Although Chloe is fleshly mother only to Imogen and Inigo, all the children, she likes to feel, owe their existences to her. Four of them, Kevin, Kestrel, Stanhope and Imogen, share a common father – one Patrick Bates. Inigo has Oliver for a father. Stanhope has Grace for a mother. Kevin and Kestrel’s mother Midge (Patrick’s legal wife) is dead. Imogen supposes, wrongly, that Oliver is her father. Stanhope is not told, for reasons clear to his mother Grace but no-one else, the true identity of his father. And as guilty adults have a way of protecting children from truths which are probably less painful than the lies, the children live in supposedly blissful ignorance that Stanhope and Imogen are not only half-brother and half-sister to each other, but to Kevin and Kestrel as well.

Or so Chloe believes they live.

Eventually the voice at the other end of the line is Marjorie’s.

‘Why are you ringing?’ asks Marjorie. ‘Are you all right? What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing,’ says Chloe.

‘Oh,’ says Marjorie. Is there a faint disappointment in her voice? ‘Did you have trouble getting through? I’ve been in four different offices in four weeks. If I was a man they wouldn’t dare. Do you know what they’re making me do now? The most boring series they can think of. Whole departments have toiled weeks to produce it. They told me so. A thirteen-part adaptation of a novel about the life of a middle-aged divorced woman, victim of modern times and a changing society. It is my punishment for asking to do Z-cars for a change. I like cops and robbers so they give me human suffering, not to mention staff directors who’re so permanent they can’t fire them.’

Chloe has little idea of what Marjorie is talking about, but is obliged to admire her for her capacity to cope with, and earn money in, the outside world. Marjorie, however, has neither husband nor children, which to Chloe seems a great misfortune, and emboldens her to ask, insignificant though she feels she is, a housewife up in London, knowing nothing of directors or contracts, if Marjorie will have lunch with her that day.

‘Is that French girl still with you?’ inquires Marjorie.

‘Yes,’ says Chloe, as one might say, and what of that?

‘In that case I’ll have lunch with you,’ says Marjorie, ‘and put off two bad directors and a worse writer. Because you know what will happen. She won’t just be content with your husband. She’ll want your children and your house as well. You’ll be eased out within the year and end up with nothing.’

What a simple view of life, Chloe thinks, the unmarried have. What can Marjorie know about it? She says as much.

‘I read scripts all day,’ Marjorie replies, ‘and it is the kind of thing which always happens in them. You might say I knew life well by proxy. And fiction, or so my writers swear, is nothing compared to real life. Watch out for poison in the soup. The Italiano, then, at twelve-thirty.’

She rings off, with that talent she has for giving with one hand and taking away with the other, without telling Chloe where the restaurant is.

4

Marjorie, Grace and me.

Who’d have thought it, when we were young, and starting life together, that Marjorie could ever have taken charge, would ever have stopped crying, fawning, placating, and would have developed these brisk satirical edges? Let alone earned £6,000 a year.

Poor little Marjorie, with her pear-shaped body, her frizzy hair and oily skin, her sad, astonished eyes and her sharp mind, sawing raggedly through illusion like a bread-knife through a hunk of frozen fish. Battling through rejection after rejection, too honest ever to pretend they were not happening.

Marjorie has not cried, she tells me, for twenty-five years. She got through all her tears in childhood, she explains; she used them all up then. (Grace, on the other hand, dry-eyed then, is tearful now. Perhaps we all have our quota to get through. My mother would say so.) Along with Marjorie’s tearducts, it seems, the rest of her dried up too. Womb, skin, bosom, mind. She shrivelled before our eyes, in fact, after her Ben died, the love of her life, long ago. Only once a month, punctually with the full moon, she practically bleeds to death, all but soaking the ground where she stands.

Poor little Marjorie, obliged by fate to live like a man, taking her sexual pleasures if and when she finds them, her own existence, perforce, sufficient to itself. Childless, deprived of those pilferings into past and future with which the rest of us, more fertile, more in the steady stream of generation, enrich our lives. Yet still with her woman’s body and her rioting hormones to contend with.

5

It is ten-fifteen. If she means to get to the Italiano by lunchtime, Chloe will have to catch the eleven-fifteen to Liverpool Street Station. And before she can leave the house, thus unexpectedly and disturbing the smooth running of its routine, she must pay the expected penalties.

First she must explain her actions to the children, who will want to know where she is going and why, and with what gifts she will return, before giving her their spiritual permission to leave. Thus:

Imogen (8) London? Can I come too?

Chloe No.

Imogen Why not?

Chloe It’s boring.

Imogen No, it’s not.

Chloe Yes, it is. I’m only going to talk to my friends.

Inigo (18) If it’s boring why are you going?

Chloe It’s nice to get away sometimes.

Stanhope (12) It’s nice here.

Kestrel (12) Will you bring something back?

Chloe If I can.

Kevin (14) Male or female friends?

Chloe Female.

Inigo I should hope so too.

Imogen Why can’t I come? There’s nothing to do here. The others are only going to play boring badminton.

Chloe You can help Françoise.

Imogen I don’t want to help Françoise. I want to go with you.

Stanhope If you see mother, send her my regards. Is that who you’re going to see?

Chloe Your mother’s moved house you know. She must be very busy.

Imogen If you’re going, can we have fish and chips for lunch? From the chip shop?

Chloe It’s very expensive.

Kestrel So’s going to London.

Chloe Very well.

Inigo Will father drive you to the station?

Chloe I shouldn’t think so. He’s working.

Inigo I’ll run you down, then.

Oh, lordly Inigo. He passed his driving test a week ago.

Then there’s Françoise, muttering into the marinade. She’s a stocky, hairy, clever girl, not so much pretty as lascivious looking. The look is an accident of birth, more to do with a low brow and a short upper lip than a reflection of her nature.

Françoise What about the children’s lunch?

Chloe They want fish and chips.

Françoise It is very extravagant.

Chloe Just for once. Inigo can take you down to the village in the car.

Françoise aquiesces. She even smiles.

Chloe The marinade smells lovely.

Françoise The meat will be only soaking for four hours. This is not sufficient. It should have been immersed last night, but I am fatigued, and in consequence forgetful.

Chloe If you like to have tomorrow off—

Françoise Tomorrow I must prepare the lièvre for Sunday’s dinner. It is Oliver’s favourite dish. What is lièvre in English?

Chloe Hare.

Françoise has done an advanced English course but never stops learning.

After Françoise there is Oliver. But Oliver has hardened his objections to her going into indifference. He is working in his study and actually, for once, typing. Usually, should she disturb him in the middle of the morning, he is merely contemplative, staring out of the window.

Oliver So you’re off, are you?

Chloe Yes. Is it going well?

Oliver I’m writing a letter to The Times. They won’t print it.

Chloe Why not? They might.

Oliver No they won’t, because I won’t post it.

Chloe You won’t want to read to me today? Because I can always put off going.

It is Oliver’s custom to read completed passages aloud to Chloe, before making a second draft of what he has written.

Oliver Don’t be silly.

He turns back to his typewriter. It is not encouragement to go, but it is permission.

While Inigo takes the mini from the garage Chloe rings Grace at her new Holland Park number and asks her where the Italiano is.

‘You’re much better off not knowing,’ says Grace.

‘Please. I’m in a hurry.’

‘Up a concrete walk-way at Shepherd’s Bush. Stick to the pasta and avoid the veal.’

‘And Grace, would you please speak to Stanhope. It’s school holidays. Easter. He arrived yesterday. Shall I bring him to the phone now?’

‘I’m busy packing,’ says Grace. ‘I’m going to Cannes with Sebastian this evening. I’ll send Stanhope a postcard. He’ll like that. He doesn’t really want to speak to me, you know he doesn’t. I embarrass him dreadfully on the telephone. We really don’t have anything in common. You do nag, Chloe.’

‘He’s your son.’

‘You only ever say that when it suits you. I suppose you’ve got Kevin and Kestrel there too?’

‘Yes.’

There is a pause. Many people hold Grace responsible for Midge’s death. Midge, who was Kevin and Kestrel’s mother.

‘What a martyr you are,’ is all Grace says. ‘And I suppose the French girl is in Oliver’s bed by now?’

‘Yes. As it happens.’

‘Congratulations. So now’s your chance. You can throw Oliver out of the house and divorce him and live off his money for ever.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘What? Divorce him or live off his money?’

‘Either. I really must go. I’ll miss my train.’

‘I think it’s all rather sick,’ says Grace. ‘Do they make you watch?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ says Chloe, shocked.

Grace has a passion for detail. She will probe into tragedy and atrocity and insist on full details of childbirth, rape, heart-attacks, road accidents, suicides and murders, long after the teller is sick of the tale. ‘Yes, but what did he say? Did she scream? Did the eye-balls burst too? Where did he put it, exactly, and how? Did the steering-wheel show through his back? Yes, but where did they burn the after-birth?’ Grace knows all about after-births and how, by law, they have to be burned. And how if the mid-wife at a home delivery can’t find a suitable fire, she must carry it off to a hospital incinerator. Otherwise witches might get it.

‘If they don’t let you watch,’ says Grace, ‘it’s not just sick, it’s boring. Can you come round this afternoon after your lunch?’

‘Yes,’ says Chloe, though her heart sinks. Why? Grace is her friend.

‘Who are you having lunch with?’

‘Marjorie.’

‘I thought as much,’ says Grace. ‘Only Marjorie would be seen dead in the Italiano, and dead she will be if she touches the minestrone. Give her my regards and say I hope she keeps her moustache out of the soup.’

And she gives Chloe her new address and puts the phone down.

Grace, who is well over forty, lives with Sebastian, who is twenty-five. Chloe feels herself to be morally superior to Grace.

6

Grace, Marjorie and me.

Who would have thought it, when we were young.

Grace, so talented, so bold and desperate, now lives off men. Well, it is the way the world was arranged, most women do, and we all have to live somehow.

Grace complains of debt and recalcitrant lovers, but always seems to have a house to sell, a Rembrandt print to pawn, someone to take her out to dinner or fill her bed for the night. The rest of us fear poverty, deprivation, abandonment, separation, death. Grace fears the lack of a good hairdresser. She has no doubt been trained to this end, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, by a series of unpleasant experiences, but she was, I suspect, a more than willing victim in the experiment.

Grace is beautiful and frequently disagreeable and it is the latter quality, I sometimes think, which is more of an attraction than the former.

Grace remains beautiful as she grows older – it is as if she gains nourishment from her temper tantrums and her tears. She looks dreadful when she cries. I have seen her many times, her eyes red and swollen and ugly: her mouth swollen by blows, her neck marked not with love bites but the strangle marks she no doubt provokes. See her the next day, and who would have thought it. All is smooth and glossy again: a necklace round the firm white neck, the eyes clear, mocking and indifferent.

Grace wounds easily, but heals suspiciously quickly.

7

Marjorie, Grace and me. How foolishly we loved.

Grace loved her Christie, arch-villain of a decade, and after that herself (and she is, as they say, her own worst enemy).

Marjorie loved and still loves her mother, who frequently forgot not just her name but her very existence.

I, Chloe, loved Oliver.

We all, at one time or other, loved Patrick Bates, and Marjorie still does, much good may it do her.

These days I hardly know what the word love means. My mother, I remember, once told me it was the force which keeps people revolving round each other, in fixed orbit, and at a precise distance, as the planets revolve around the sun; and the moon, that cold creature, around the earth.

My mother, poor dead soul, loved her employer, in secret, for twenty years, and he never once made physical love to her, so such a vision of love came easily to her. And it is certainly true that with the force which attracts us to other people comes a force which similarly repels – keeps us forever dancing and juggling in our inner spaces, like motes in a sunbeam, never quite close enough, always too near, circling the object of our affection, yearning for incorporation and yet dreading it.

I remember love’s enchantments. Of course I do. Sometimes something happens, like the sun across the garden in the morning, or a song, or a smell, or the touch of a hand – and the body remembers what love was like, and the soul lifts itself up. certain once again in the knowledge of its Creator; and the whole self trembles again in the memory of that elation, which once so transfigured our poor obsessed bodies, our poor possessed minds.

It did us no good.

8

Marjorie, Grace and me. How foolishly we loved, and murderous we are. We have had six children between us, but have done to death, as if to balance the scales, some six of our nearest and dearest. And though the world does not acknowledge such deaths as murder, we know in our hearts that they are. No-one lies dead in a coffin but that our neglect has sent them there, or else it was our death wishes, sickening the air about them while they lived. Or perhaps we have overlain them with the great weight of motherly or wifely love, and crushed the life and spirit out of them.

Our fault.

Grace killed her Christie. It was the morning after his third marriage, to California: Grace had kept him awake all night by first telephoning, then ringing his front door bell, then shouting obscene instructions to California through the door, until the police removed her. The next morning, exhausted, he drove his new Maserati off the M1 and was killed, not instantly, but horribly. The alimony stopped with him, and Grace was left with nothing (in Grace’s terms) but a run-down house in St John’s Wood. California, that flower child, had shrewd lawyers and a marriage settlement which withstood almost instantaneous widowhood, and was overnight a millionairess.

Marjorie killed her Ben, with whom she was living (in the terminology of those days) in sin. Ben, changing a light-bulb one evening, reached out to take the new one from a slow-moving Marjorie, fell off his chair, hurt his neck, and later went down to casualty to see why it was hurting.

He’d been there three hours when the hospital rang and asked Marjorie to collect him, so she went along and was met by an old man in broken shoes and a white coat, who led her into a chilly tiled room, where the full moon glittered through opaque glass. He pulled out a drawer from the wall and there was Ben, lying dead. He’d cracked a vertebra when he fell, they told her later, and by some remote chance the two pieces of bone, grating together as he waited in the queue for attention, had snipped some vital nerve.

Marjorie was six months pregnant and it was her clumsiness, undoubtedly, which had caused Ben to stretch too far and fall. The baby was born prematurely, and died.

Two deaths to Marjorie’s account. She wasn’t even asked to Ben’s funeral – his family, too, assumed it was all her fault, murdering seductress that she was. And the baby didn’t have one. The doctor just wrapped it up and took it away, as the vet does with a dead animal.

As for me, Chloe, I killed my mother, sending her into the hospital to have a hysterectomy she never really wanted. The womb, that little organ, so small when not in use, in her case past functioning, was cancerous after all and not merely, as I insisted, plugged with fibroids.

And it is amazing how once the word is said, the disease, dormant until the moment of recognition, proliferates and spreads. It is as if the body catches an idea and then can’t get it out of its mind. Mother didn’t want to go into the hospital: it was my idea. I was irritated by her passivity; I felt it must have a physical cause, somewhere in the roots of her female nature. If they’d only cut it out for her. I thought, excise it once and for all, she would be better, would look after herself, stop suffering, stop forgiving and understanding me. my children, my husband, and my friends, and her own oppression.

But all my mother did was die, as if that tiny, useless organ was the very mainspring of her being.

9

Inigo drives his mother Chloe to Egden station. He drives without hesitation or fear, calmly and sensibly, clearly regarding the machine as a useful tool and not as an outlet for any suppressed and disagreeable aspects of his personality.

She cannot think what she has done to deserve this paragon, with his broad shoulders and friendly eyes, smooth olive skin and glossy black springing hair, so like his father in looks but so unlike in temperament, who deals with her affectionately, and his father with a respectful deference only slightly tinged with mockery: who passes his exams, takes drugs in moderation, avoids his enemies and understands his friends, who are multitude; and now not only drives her to the station, but offers to.

Perhaps, she thinks, out of the flat Essex countryside, which to her is featureless to the point of oppression, ripe only for cabbage-growing, air-fields and urban development, Inigo has wrung whatever is calm and good: or else, more like it, has made his own pocket of grace and beauty in which to grow, since God has declined to do it for him.

Even the hedgerows of her childhood have gone now, uprooted in the cause of progress and cabbage-cropping machinery. The sun has gone in. The early promise of the day has gone. The few trees left stand brown and crusty with old creepers: the fields are untidy with the winter’s debris.

What fate, Chloe wonders, has condemned her to live her life in these few square miles of England? First, long ago, as Gwyneth’s daughter, in Ulden, with Marjorie and Grace for friends. Then, after a brief respite, as Oliver’s wife in Egden, ten miles down the railway line.

And where the Egden supermarket now stands, was the cottage-hospital where Grace was born, first and only child of Edwin and Esther Songford. Or so they assumed – Grace had a tendency to deny their parentage, and with it her duty towards them. And not without a withered shred of justification too – for a year or so after Grace’s birth the market town of Egden and its outlying villages rocked to a scandal which closed the cottage-hospital entirely, the elderly and eccentric matron having conceived a fresh scientific system of tagging new babies according to their toe prints, which resulted in confused nurses and almost certain mis-identification of the infants, and the necessary reallocation, more than three years later, of six children amongst six couples, on the strength of blood-tests, physical appearance, established temperament and, of course, parental instinct. To the delight of the press, both national and foreign. Six for sure, and how many others not for sure? It was Grace’s fancy to allocate herself in her mind, throughout her childhood and afterwards, to many a rich and noble couple. The belief that one has been switched at birth is common enough in little girls – and give Grace an inch, like a mad matron, and she’d take an ell, and never wash up for her mother, not even on the help’s day off.

The Songfords lived in Ulden, in a solid Edwardian house called The Poplars. It had a good-sized garden, a wind-break of poplar trees, a swing for the children, a tennis court, large attics. a gardener, a daily, a pantry full of bottled fruits and jams, living rooms with chintzy curtains and squashy sofas, Persian rugs, Chinese carpets, much bamboo furniture, Eastern bric-à-brac, mementos of the Indian army from which Grace’s father had been cashiered, and one small bookcase containing the Encyclopaedia Britannica in twelve volumes, some guide books, an atlas, two novels by Dornford Yates, and three thrillers by Sapper and the Light that Failed by Rudyard Kipling.

It was to this house that Marjorie was evacuated, in 1940, coming on a train which stopped in Ulden by mistake. As for Chloe, she was on the train by mistake and it was only by this first fortunate accident that she and her mother Gwyneth, on her way to a domestic job at the Rose and Crown, were able to alight at Ulden.

When we are children, so much happens by mistake. As we grow older, and see a pattern to things, we are obliged to agree that there is no such thing as an accident. We make tactless remarks because we wish to hurt, break our legs because we do not wish to walk, marry the wrong man because we cannot let ourselves be happy, board the wrong train because we would prefer not to reach the necessary destination.

As for a train which stops at the wrong station, disgorges sixty children at the wrong place, and changes the course of all their lives, what are we to say to that?

10

Picture the scene now, that autumn morning in 1940, as the train which carries Marjorie and Chloe approaches Ulden. Grace is waiting at the station with her father who is uncrowned king of the village, a princess dressed like a prince, in trousers and sweater, contrary to her mother’s spoken request, but in accordance with her mother’s deepest wishes. Her mother wanted a boy.

Chug-chug, puff-puff, across the flat fields. It’s like a scene from Toy Town. The day is hot, and calm, and blue. There’s panic in London, but not here. War clouds may be lowering somewhere over to the South East, but here they’re nicely silver-lined with protected farm prices and agricultural subsidies. Full employment in the area at last, laying run-ways for Spitfires on Ulden Common. And out of that cloud, clear into the sunshine, comes the train with two coaches. Its white smoke drifts prettily over the fields, where they’re taking out the daffodil bulbs and laying down potatoes.

Inside the Toy Town train, the picture is not so pretty. The coaches (all that could be spared) are crowded with terrified, weeping, rioting, vomiting and excreting children. There are no WCs. The floors are aswill. These are the evacuees from London. They have been briskly labelled and sent off for their own safety, out of the way of Hitler’s bombs. Many haven’t been able to say good-bye to their parents, most don’t know what’s happening to them. Quite a few would certainly rather be dead than here.

Little Chloe, of course, sits well-behaved and upright amidst the uproar, with her hand firmly in her mother Gwyneth’s. Mothers are clearly a precious commodity on this particular train. And as for Gwyneth, she is feeling quite faint with distress. She is surrounded by misery and filth and deprived of her usual tools for coping – water, soap, bucket, and cloth.

Moreover, being on this train by accident, having mistaken Platform 7 for Platform 8, Gwyneth has been separated from two trunks in which are all her worldly possessions, neatly packed, folded, and interlarded with tissue. What now most preoccupies her is that in the elasticated silk pocket of the smaller trunk, along with the birth certificate and the careful roll of her husband’s tiny landscapes, is his medical record card. This she stole from the hospital where he died, and this she is always fearful will be discovered by someone in authority and used as evidence of her crime. All the same, she has not been able to bring herself to destroy it. Now she wishes she had. Supposing the trunk is searched, the card found, and herself sent to prison? What will happen to Chloe?

What will happen to Chloe? It has been the theme song of Gwyneth’s life for the past ten years.

Gwyneth resolves to destroy the card the minute the trunk reaches the Rose and Crown. She is starting a new life as barmaid and general domestic help, in return for board and lodging for herself and Chloe, and five shillings a week pocket money.

It is as well Gwyneth is so fond of cleaning, for being a widow with a child, this is the direction in which her future clearly lies.

11

Opposite Chloe and Gwyneth, sits a plain, thin, tearful child, with pale, deep-set, slightly squinty eyes peering out from beneath a creased brow. Marjorie. She has a mass of frizzy hair, which is kept back from her forehead by a battery of brown metal hair clips. She is not accustomed to the language and behaviour of the other children in the coach. Until recently Marjorie has lived a protected life. Then her father Dick upset everyone by volunteering for army service and her mother Helen took her away from her private school in the country, and enrolled her in the local state school which promptly closed. Now, re-opened for just one week, the school has been evacuated, and Marjorie with it.

Or, as the lovely, highly-principled Aryan Helen, Marjorie’s mother, wrote to her handsome, tormented, highly-principled Jewish husband, Marjorie’s father, only the night before:

‘We’re all in this together. It’s best for Marjorie to take her chance with the others. I believe she’s going somewhere in Essex. The country air should be good for her spots – I’m afraid London aggravated them shockingly. I’ll be down to see her as soon as possible, though you know what the trains are like, and actually I’ve offered the house as a hospitality centre for Polish Officers and am acting as hostess, so you can imagine how busy I’m going to be. Don’t worry – I’ve packed all your books and papers safely away in the attics – and cleared the library for the dancing. Poor fellows – what a dreadful business this war is: they deserve all the relaxation they can get.’

Dick, posted somewhere in Scotland to supervise the manufacture of Wellington Boots for the WRAC (the Women’s Royal Artillery Corps), can hardly object to anything. If Helen did not consult him before removing Marjorie from her school, neither did he consult Helen before joining the army. He just came home one evening, late at his own party, and said, ‘I’ve done it’ and the next day he was gone. What kind of conduct was that?

If Helen has put his books and papers up in the attics, where the roof leaks, then it is his fault for not attending to the attic roof (as she has repeatedly asked him to do) but going to political meetings instead. If she wants to be unfaithful on the library floor (dancing always makes her sexy, and they both know it) or even on his bed, or even in the corridors in front of the very servants, then she will, and he deserves it, and he knows it. For Dick slept with a friend’s wife – the second woman he’d ever made love to – the night Marjorie was born, and the friend’s wife, in a flurry of either guilty malice or boredom, told Helen. All this Dick knows, and so is helpless.

Dick scarcely knows his daughter Marjorie. First she had a nanny, then she went away to school. He assumes she will be all right. She is not pretty, and he is sorry for her, but now the Army is his life. He can fight Hitler. Helen he cannot fight.

As for Helen, she simply cannot think what she did, during all those lovely laughing years of childless marriage, to deserve Marjorie. Who is plain and who fawns, and at whose birth she lost her husband.

Now little Marjorie, labelled, rejected and forlorn, sits and stares at Chloe’s small gloved hand lying so securely in Gwyneth’s, and starts to cry. Chloe, longing for the safety of a label round her neck, sickened by the noise and the smell of vomit and worse, begins to cry as well.

Gwyneth begins to cry too. She takes her spotless handkerchief from her pocket and dabs her daughter’s face, and her own, and Marjorie’s too, seeing it to be there.

And so the train arrives in Ulden. It was, as we know, meant to go on to Egden, and only the relief train on Platform 6 to stop at Ulden, but the driver has misread his instructions.

12

On the platform, Grace’s father Edwin heads the welcoming committee. He is a stout bald man with a braying laugh and what used to be known as a fine military bearing. That is, he stands with his shoulders back and rigid, and his chin high. Thus bold and brave, properly pulled together, showing no sign of weakness and distress, he held out his hand for the cane his father wielded when his school reports were bad – as they always were – thus standing he took the proud parades of his later life, and thus he stood when the Court Martial dismissed him from the Service he had been born and bred to. It is an unhealthy way to stand, thus rigidly, and his back is often bad.

Edwin is nearing fifty now, and has made, he believes, a good adjustment to civilian life, although still, sometimes, even after fifteen years, he finds it strange to wake in a chintzy house to soft female voices, and not to the clanking of boots and the rattling of weapons and commands. Then he will lie late in bed, desperate, waiting for death, with Esther clattering the breakfast dishes more and more frantically below.

His eyes are blood-shot, hooded and close together in a narrow face. His nose is long and thin: he has a handle-bar moustache which bisects his face with its sprouts of coarse reddish hair, and droops to hide the sensitivity of his mouth.

He is a busy man, though he is unemployed. Cashiered he may be – and the village knows it – but gentry he is, and he has his village obligations to fulfil. The flower shows, the fêtes, the sense of service, principles uttered in the pub. He has endless trips to London to make, to see the London lawyers who stand between him and an inheritance. He has his badly invested capital to worry about, and the problem of never eating into it, in the face of his wife’s alleged extravagance. He has his own quite violent fits of anxiety and depression to cope with. Now he has the Home Guard to organize. And every night, he has the Rose and Crown to visit, where he holds court in the Cosy Nook from eight-thirty to closing time. He holds his liquor well, like a gentleman. Or so he believes.

His wife knows otherwise, but says nothing. Grace is Edwin’s only child. It is a source of sorrow to both of them that there are no more children, but they have reached, these past years, such a state of sexual deadlock, so how could there be?

As for Grace, standing on the platform, she is in a bad temper.

13

Grace does not want to share her home with an evacuee. And she is disappointed in her father for so meekly succumbing to the authority which says this is what she must do. She had hoped, moreover, to be sent away to boarding school when she was twelve. Now, with the advent of the war, and her father’s inheritance even less likely to materialize, and his shares tumbling, it seems she will never be allowed to leave home.

And if she has to attend the village school – and it looks as if she will – her humiliation, she knows, will be profound. She doubts her own scholastic capabilities, not without reason, and suspects the grubby riff-raff may well do better than her at sums and spelling.

Grace is a lean, pretty, arrogant child, with a wide face, regular features, green eyes, silky red hair and the creamy matt complexion which sometimes goes with it. She resembles neither her father nor her mother. Nervousness makes her rude, and frustration makes her desperate, and for as long as she can remember, she has felt nervous and frustrated.

Thus the conversation goes that morning, at The Poplars, over a breakfast lovingly if clumsily prepared by Esther Songford, Grace’s mother, Edwin’s wife. Esther serves porridge, eggs, bacon, kidneys, toast, mushrooms – she was up early picking them so at least they are fresh, even though they are over-cooked – and Jackson’s Breakfast Tea.

Rationing, of course, so far, affects only the mass of the urban proletariat. The well-to-do find their eating habits unaffected. It takes more than a paper war to alter the servile habits of grocers. The real one, presently, is to turn them into all-powerful tyrants, only too happy to be revenged upon their once mean and arrogant betters. In the meantime, it is not shortage of food but short tempers which makes breakfast at The Poplars an uneasy affair. Grace is pink with fury.

Edwin Stop sulking, Grace. We’re having an evacuee and that is that. We have to set an example.

Ester She’s not sulking, Edwin. She’s just a little quiet. Please don’t shout at her. Grace dear, eat up your porridge and don’t aggravate your father.

Grace It’s burnt.

Esther Only a little bit, dear.

Edwin (Sneering) Like the curate’s egg, I suppose. Good in parts.

Esther I’m afraid it’s the saucepans, Edwin. They’ve worn so thin. They really must be replaced. I’m ashamed to ask Mrs Dover to clean them.

Esther has been asking for new saucepans for seven years, in vain. Edwin controls the household money flow with stringent care. He is not so much mean, as fearful of sudden penury; living in dread of military, social or natural cataclysms which will sweep away pension, profits and property overnight. He fears the working classes, and the creeping evil of socialism, seeping under the doors of privilege like flood water.

And as Edwin walks the country lanes, swinging his blackthorn cane, the very model of a healthy-minded Englishman, he is not raising his face to meet God’s good sun, as you might think, but sniffing the air for the first scent of the enemy’s Poison Gas – expected to envelop Britain at any moment.

Edwin A bad workman blames his tools, Esther. I’m afraid new saucepans are out of the question now, of course. There’s a war on. The metal is needed for guns. I’m surprised you should be so unpatriotic as to suggest it.

Esther Oh dear. I didn’t think of it like that. I’m so sorry. I’ll eat your porridge, Grace.

And Grace pushes her plate over, without gratitude. Mothers, in her view, are born to scavenge, to incorporate the evidence of their culinary shortcomings.

Grace Me? Share with some snotty-nosed urchin from the East End! Molly (a friend) says they had evacuees at her aunt’s and they brought fleas and nits and wet the bed and never take off their vests at night and smell. You can’t, daddy. Not in my house.

Esther Our house, Grace. We’ll manage somehow. Think how much you’ve got to teach them. You must pass on your good fortune. Poor little things, separated from their mothers. Some of them have never even seen a sheep or a cow, let alone a farmyard, in all their lives. Daddy’s quite right. We must all pull together, Grace dear, even the children.

Grace Why?

Esther To defeat Mr Hitler.

Grace Well I hope he wins.

Has she gone too far? Yes.

Edwin Grace, go to your room.

Grace But I haven’t finished my breakfast.

She goes, all the same. She is frightened of her choleric father, especially at breakfast time. So’s Esther.

Edwin Esther, you have let that girl get totally out of control. Let’s hope an evacuee brings her down a peg or two. I’ve put your name down for a girl.

Esther Oh. I was rather hoping for a boy to help with the garden.

Edwin Garden! There isn’t going to be a garden from now on. There’s going to be a vegetable patch. I’m afraid this war’s put paid to your flower shows and your prizes, Esther. No time for your frills and fancies any more.

Esther reels.

For Esther, having more sense of future than her husband, spends much time working in the garden, which flourishes in her care. The soft lawns, the neat flower-beds, the many roses – which make Edwin wheezy – have been her concern, her territory, for many years. Now it seems that Edwin feels at liberty to invade it.

Invasion is most surely in the air. And indeed, throughout the war years, the battle is to rage to and fro across the garden, sometimes Edwin’s onions and carrots winning, sometimes Esther’s herbaceous borders.

Esther, this first morning of declared hostilities, is most upset. She goes into the kitchen and tries not to cry into the washing-up water as she scrapes the burnt porridge saucepan clean.

Who is this Esther, Edwin’s undoubted wife, Grace’s alleged mother, Marjorie and Chloe’s second mama? She is a vicar’s daughter. She has a sense of service, and the feeling that for the children’s sake, at least, she should remain brave, cheerful and uncomplaining. And like her husband she suffers from a sense of loss. He lost his pride and his career. She lost her faith, waking up one morning to the dour sense of her father’s dislike of her, the knowledge of his preference for his sons, and the feeling that God, even if He did exist, was certainly not good. These days it is Edwin, and only Edwin, who makes her unhappy, but he, like her father, is the fact of her existence, and she has become used to it.

She married late, at thirty, after her parents died and left her a little money. She has a faded prettiness, rather large, rather popping eyes, a lot of rather wispy hair, a lax skin. She works unceasingly, and inefficiently, about the house.

She sleeps apart from her husband because after Grace was born (and it was a difficult birth and she had hoped for a boy) intercourse was painful. Their physical union had been, at the best of times, distasteful to her, and difficult for him.

These days, just sometimes, when Edwin has drunk rather more than usual at the Rose and Crown, he will come into her bedroom and face both her distaste and his own probable inadequacy, and despise himself afterwards for his animal nature, and hardly be able to look her in the eye in the morning; the mother of his child so abused and debased, and he himself responsible for it. He would knock himself down, if he could, for the cad he is, and failing that, is ruder than ever to her.

Such a morning is this, and he hates her, and will grow carrots in her flower-beds, yes he will.

And she will not fight him, she will merely weep into the washing-up water. There is such a virtuous obstinacy about her, such a gentility in her bulky tweed skirts and shapeless twin sets, such an unawakened beauty in the body beneath them. This sense of his wife, so unused, drives him to great heights of irritation. He is apopleptic, sometimes. He thinks his heart will stop. As for her, she knows perfectly well that she wrongs him with her niceness, her sweetness and her moral supremacy. But what can she do? Sink to his crude masculine level? Never. She is too angry with him on such mornings.

She will grow roses and make him sneeze and wheeze.

So the day does not start well for Grace, or Edwin, or Esther. Now, at the station, Grace holds her father’s hand – not because she has forgiven him, but because, amongst so many milling women and children, any male is valuable and must be seen to belong to her.

14

Ulden station is usually a quiet and orderly place. It seldom sees more than five passengers at a time, and the station master, Mr Fell, a patient and domestic man, has both time and inclination to cherish it. The platform is clean and tidy, the name of the station is spelt out in flowers against a well-trimmed, grassy bank, and the Victorian waiting-room is lit by gas and warmed by a coal fire. Technically, the waiting-room is for the convenience of First Class passengers only, but in the winter months Mr Fell opens it to Third Class passengers as well.

Today the station is noisy, crowded and confused, and Mr Fell is suffering from an attack of asthma and gasping for breath in his office. The church bell rings out a kindly and welcoming peal – the last one for some time, since the Government is the next day to ban all bell ringing in case it assists the Germans in some way; the train which should never have stopped (as only Mr Fell knows, and he is too breathless to say), lets off steam; the Evacuation Officer reads out, undaunted, the names of children who do not exist.

Children cry, adults protest, dogs bark.

Edwin Songford, as is his custom, takes over. He silences the Evacuation Officer, the bells and the steam. He administers brandy from a hip flask (silver and leather, lined with glass) to Mr Fell, and establishes what is long since obvious, that either the train has stopped at the wrong station or contains the wrong children.

Evacuees had been expected from Hackney, in the East End. These children come from Kilburn, in West London.

Undaunted, indeed encouraged – for the reputation of the East End evacuees, who cannot tell an armchair from a WC, and who are followed everywhere by cunning, foul-mouthed, ferocious mothers, whom neither manners, lack of a bed, nor Government decree can keep away, has already spread amongst the more respectable classes of England – Edwin instructs the assembled villagers and gentry to select their own West London children according to taste. There is a rush for the strongest boys, and the most domestic looking girls.

Marjorie is left.

Grace, looking at her, sees the child most likely to depress her mother and irritate her father. She tugs Edwin’s arm.

‘Let’s have that one,’ says Grace.

‘We’ll have to,’ says Edwin. ‘It’s the only one left.’

And wham, bam, so our lives are ordered.

But perhaps, if we look deeper, people are nicer and fate is kinder than we at first assume. Perhaps Grace did not choose Marjorie from spite, but because she perceived a child who expressed outwardly what she herself felt inwardly, and she wanted to help.