“The thing takes shape, Watson. It becomes coherent.” ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’
Harvey’s homecoming turned out to be less golden than he had expected. Every day on his journey east, and even during his Australian days, he had always felt that England was there. He knew that that rainy little island in the North Sea was waiting for him. His journey was like a savings scheme; it could always be cashed in when he wanted. He could always go home. Somerset would be there. His village, Wilcombe, would be there with its fields and the cider apple trees in the orchards.
The old church was always there with its square tower looking over the fields and its path winding past the mossy gravestones to the porch where people left their umbrellas on the sleeping stone statues before going in for the service at 11 o’clock and then forgot them when they came out, exuberant to be leaving the church and being able to step out into the air. The Reverend Allen was there, walking up the aisle towards the chancel, rolling slightly from side to side which was the way he always walked up the aisle on Sunday, giving quick glances to each side like a mother hen counting her chickens. At a glance he knew who was present and who was not. The congregation was there and everyone sat in the same pews every Sunday and woe betide the unfortunate stranger who wandered in and took someone else’s well-worn seat, and the morning service on Sundays started at 11 o’clock on the dot.
The Post Office and General Stores would be there with Mrs James, the Postmistress, retailing all that was happening and not happening in the village, and where old Mrs Cave bought packets of Senior Service cigarettes and collected her pension and some carrots and a jar of plum jam because last year she hadn’t been able to make any because the plum crop was so poor, do you remember, and that was always the way with plums, you either had a bumper crop and you couldn’t give them away or you had none at all, not even a few for jam.
But never mind the plums. When Harvey did come home, reality was a little different, as reality always is.
He landed at Heathrow. It was late evening on the 25 November. The last hours of the flight had been cloudy and dark, and he had seen nothing from the plane. His first view of England, of the fields and the hedges, of all the houses with gardens, of the wooded hills, would have to wait till next day. He was so tired that he went directly to one of the airport hotels and slept for over twelve hours. Next morning he went to Paddington to take the train back to Bristol. As he walked to Paddington he felt special. He was back after so many adventures. He had finally come home. Yet everyone in the street went about their business without paying him the least attention. People were bargaining at market stalls, mothers were telling their children to keep quiet, old people were walking slowly to keep their appointment at the doctor’s and young people were hurrying to a job interview. It was as if he did not exist. He went into Paddington Station and looked up at the great roof that had seemed so enormous to him as a boy when he had come up to London with his mother at Christmastime in the 50s to see the Christmas lights and all the shops on Oxford Street. One Christmas they had gone to the theatre to see ‘The Mousetrap’. You can still see it today. It has changed theatre once, but it is still playing to full houses! Go to London and see ‘The Mousetrap’ as Harvey did so many years ago! He climbed on the Bristol train, the last train that he would have to catch for some time. ‘Sit down, wait for the train to move, finally relax!’ It was the train home. As always when he went back to Somerset from London by rail, the last stretch, the line downhill from Bath Spa to Bristol Temple Meads, those happy fifteen minutes, made him feel that he was really back once more. Of all his many arrivals over the last three years, this was to be his last. For now at least.
He was still trailing clouds of glory from India and Australia. To his eyes the world outside the train seemed unreal. The brown fields and the dark trees were merely a series of pictures framed in the window of the carriage. The hedges looked sad and cold, and the grey clouds were dull and lifeless after the bright blue of Australia. At Bristol Temple Meads his parents were there to meet him. He noticed that they looked a little older. In his memory of them, which he had carried for three years, they had not aged. His father drove and they left Bristol, went over Bedminster Down and down the Bridgewater Road to Somerset and towards the sea. The shops in Bedminster looked tawdry. He hadn’t noticed that before. Then from the top of Redhill he saw the line of the Mendip Hills, as fine as ever, and then he knew that he was back. The Mendips were the same as always. Twenty minutes later they reached Wilcombe and home.
There he was introduced to all the local concerns; the recent heavy rain, the neighbours’ bonfire party, the hedge which caught fire during the bonfire party, which was strange as it had rained so much the day before, the effect of the first frosts, the health of Pawson, the dog, and the new people who had moved into Colonel Lance’s old place. All this was important in the life of a small village that was a world away from Australia. Harvey tried to focus on these concerns and to remove the dusty roads of Afghanistan and the crowded temples of India from his mind, but it was very hard for him to take interest in the life of his village again. His body was in Somerset but his mind was still on the road to India and under the bright blue sky of Bondi. He slept marvellously in his own room once more, and then little by little, day by day, he acclimatised. His conscious mind gradually drifted back from the other side of the world. It re-joined him in Somerset, and he began to go about the business of getting a job as a teacher in a comprehensive school, and finding somewhere to live.
As Harvey landed on the wet runway at Heathrow, Anne was walking up Whiteladies Road, which was equally wet, in Bristol to meet Quentin. She was gloomy, dreading their conversation, but it had to be gone through, and she had to tell him face to face.
It had been Wednesday when she had said yes to Quentin and had accepted the challenge of living with him for life. Thursday had felt strange and Friday had felt totally wrong. She could go on with it no longer. Saying yes had shown her that the answer was no, just as when we toss a coin, the way it falls tells us exactly what we had really wanted all along.
“How could a barrister like me with a growing reputation for clear-sightedness and common sense, say one thing on Wednesday and the opposite on Friday of the same week? And on a matter of some importance, too.”
“A barrister with a growing reputation”. Yes, Anne was right absolutely right. She was a very good barrister. But that doesn’t make life any easier. A desk, a chair and an office can help us play to perfection our role of doctor, lawyer or whatever. We are so impressive and efficient in our office suit in our office chair behind our office desk.
“But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little, brief authority…
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep”
Catch us in our kitchen wearing an apron or in our bathroom with a towel round our waist, and we are as weak and wayward as the rest of mankind. There were, Anne supposed, many teachers whose love lives were more uncertain and prone to accidents than those of their own students. There were many accountants whose own finances were a mess. Though not Quentin, of course. His finances were perfectly clear and up to date. She had made a mistake, and she knew she could not go on week after week, from Monday morning to Sunday night, from New Year to Christmas, year in year out, with Quentin.
They met on the Downs once more and as they walked together, she told him that she couldn’t marry him, (and every word felt so right to her as she said it), and he was remarkably understanding. In fact, he was so understanding that Anne wondered whether she had ever meant much to him. He remained in command of his feelings. He did not lose his temper. If he had lost control and shouted at her, she thought she might have begun to love him. Might have.
They walked back to the top of Whiteladies Road in silence. The cold November mist grew colder minute by minute. It was becoming dark, and they said goodbye. Anne walked home, made a cup of tea (the process of making a pot of tea is always comforting, almost more than drinking it) and sat in her armchair with the mug of tea warming her hands, alone.
She felt so drained after all her preparation for the conversation with Quentin that she looked at the blank TV screen for several minutes, unable to take any positive action. Then she turned it on and tried to lose herself in the local news. Unsuccessful at that, she turned off the TV, resisted the temptation of comfort from The Archers, took out her work for Monday’s case and kept at it for an hour. Then she went methodically to bed (thank goodness for routines, thank goodness for the need to brush our teeth).
‘Nil Desperandum’. In bed she remembered a short story she had read at school. Years ago it was. She must have been seven or eight. But those early memories stay. They stay right through your life and become even clearer and nearer from sixty onwards. ‘Nil Desperandum’. ‘Never despair’. That had been the motto of the school in this little story. She couldn’t remember exactly what had happened. What was it? A group of school friends had had some little adventure and they had managed to come out on top against all the odds by following their motto? Was that the story? It was something like that. And Anne had remembered ‘Nil Desperandum’ ever since.
So, never despairing, she would devote herself to work and to studying Spanish in evening classes and to keeping fit and to playing the piano and to being more beautiful and to doing two PhDs at once and to having nothing more to do with marriage.
It was a very good plan, but the best laid plans of mice and young women gang oft awry.
Quentin went home too, and he too made himself a cup of tea, and drank it calmly and thought how well he had behaved. He was pleased at how he had not become angry. Yes, he had taken it very well. Only then, after some time of self-congratulation, did he begin to feel that he had lost something. He undressed, carefully folded his clothes and placed them on the chair and went to sleep.
“A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.”