Absent in the Spring
It was the sudden illness of her younger daughter that had brought her post haste out from England, her realization of William’s (her son-in-law) impracticability, and of the chaos that would arise in a household without efficient control.
Well, that was all right now. She had taken charge, made arrangements. The baby, William, Barbara convalescent, everything had been planned and set in good running order. Thank goodness, thought Joan, I’ve always had a head on my shoulders.
William and Barbara had been full of gratitude. They’d pressed her to stay on, not to rush back, but she had smilingly, albeit with a stifled sigh, refused. For there was Rodney to consider—poor old Rodney stuck in Crayminster, up to his ears in work and with no one in the house to look after his comfort except servants.
‘And after all,’ said Joan, ‘what are servants?’
‘Your servants, Mother, are always perfection. You see to that!’
She had laughed, but she had been pleased all the same. Because when all was said and done one did like appreciation. She had sometimes wondered if her family took a little too much for granted the smooth running of the house and her own care and devotion.
Not really that she had any criticism to make. Tony, Averil and Barbara were delightful children and she and Rodney had every reason to be proud of their upbringing and of their success in life.
Tony was growing oranges out in Rhodesia, Averil, after giving her parents some momentary anxiety, had settled down as the wife of a wealthy and charming stockbroker. Barbara’s husband had a good job in the Public Works Department in Iraq.
They were all nice-looking healthy children with pleasant manners. Joan felt that she and Rodney were indeed fortunate—and privately she was of the opinion that some of the credit was to be ascribed to them as parents. After all, they had brought the children up very carefully, taking infinite pains over the choice of nurses and governesses, and later of schools and always putting the welfare and well-being of the children first.
Joan felt a little gentle glow as she turned away from her image in the glass. She thought, Well, it’s nice to feel one’s been a success at one’s job. I never wanted a career, or anything of that kind. I was quite content to be a wife and mother. I married the man I loved, and he’s been a success at his job—and perhaps that’s owing to me a bit too. One can do so much by influence. Dear Rodney!
And her heart warmed to the thought that soon, very soon, she would be seeing Rodney again. She’d never been away from him for very long before. What a happy peaceful life they had had together.
Well, perhaps peaceful was rather overstating it. Family life was never quite peaceful. Holidays, infectious illnesses, broken pipes in winter. Life really was a series of petty dramas. And Rodney had always worked very hard, harder perhaps than was good for his health. He’d been badly run down that time six years ago. He hadn’t, Joan thought with compunction, worn quite as well as she had. He stooped rather, and there was a lot of white in his hair. He had a tired look, too, about the eyes.
Still, after all, that was life. And now, with the children married, and the firm doing so well, and the new partner bringing fresh money in, Rodney could take things more easily. He and she would have time to enjoy themselves. They must entertain more—have a week or two in London every now and then. Rodney, perhaps, might take up golf. Yes, really she couldn’t think why she hadn’t persuaded him to take up golf before. So healthy, especially when he had to do so much office work.
Having settled that point in her mind, Mrs Scudamore looked across the dining-room once more at the woman whom she believed to be her former school friend.
Blanche Haggard. How she had adored Blanche Haggard when they were at St Anne’s together! Everyone was crazy about Blanche. She had been so daring, so amusing, and yes, so absolutely lovely. Funny to think of that now, looking at that thin, restless, untidy elderly woman. What extraordinary clothes! And she looked—really she looked—at least sixty …
Of course, thought Joan, she’s had a very unfortunate life.
A momentary impatience rose in her. The whole thing seemed such a wanton waste. There was Blanche, twenty-one, with the world at her feet—looks, position, everything—and she had had to throw in her lot with that quite unspeakable man. A vet—yes, actually a vet. A vet with a wife, too, which made it worse. Her people had behaved with commendable firmness, taking her round the world on one of those pleasure cruises. And Blanche had actually got off the boat somewhere, Algiers, or Naples, and come home and joined her vet. And naturally he had lost his practice, and started drinking, and his wife hadn’t wished to divorce him. Presently they’d left Crayminster and after that Joan hadn’t heard anything of Blanche for years, not until she’d run across her one day in London at Harrods where they had met in the shoe department, and after a little discreet conversation (discreet on Joan’s part, Blanche had never set any store by discretion) she had discovered that Blanche was now married to a man called Holliday who was in an insurance office, but Blanche thought he was going to resign soon because he wanted to write a book about Warren Hastings and he wanted to give all his time to it, not just write scraps when he came back from the office.
Joan had murmured that in that case she supposed he had private means? And Blanche had replied cheerfully that he hadn’t got a cent! Joan had said that perhaps to give up his job would be rather unwise, unless he was sure the book would be a success. Was it commissioned? Oh dear me, no, said Blanche cheerfully, and as a matter of fact she didn’t really think the book would be a success, because though Tom was very keen on it, he really didn’t write very well. Whereupon Joan had said with some warmth that Blanche must put her foot down, to which Blanche had responded with a stare and a ‘But he wants to write, the poor pet. He wants it more than anything.’ Sometimes, Joan said, one had to be wise for two. Blanche had laughed and remarked that she herself had never even been wise enough for one!
Thinking that over, Joan felt that it was only too unfortunately true. A year later she saw Blanche in a restaurant with a peculiar, flashy looking woman and two flamboyantly artistic men. After that the only reminder she had had of Blanche’s existence was five years later when Blanche wrote and asked for a loan of fifty pounds. Her little boy, she said, needed an operation. Joan had sent her twenty-five and a kind letter asking for details. The response was a postcard with scrawled on it: Good for you, Joan. I knew you wouldn’t let me down—which was gratifying in a way, but hardly satisfactory. After that, silence. And now here, in a Near Eastern railway rest house, with kerosene lamps flaring and spluttering amidst a smell of rancid mutton fat and paraffin and Flit, was the friend of so many years ago, incredibly aged and coarsened and the worse for wear.
Blanche finished her dinner first and was on her way out when she caught sight of the other. She stopped dead.
‘Holy Moses, it’s Joan!’
A moment or two later she had pulled up her chair to the table and the two were chatting together.
Presently Blanche said:
‘Well, you’ve worn well, my dear. You look about thirty. Where have you been all these years? In cold storage?’
‘Hardly that. I’ve been in Crayminster.’
‘Born, bred, married and buried in Crayminster,’ said Blanche.
Joan said with a laugh:
‘Is that so bad a fate?’
Blanche shook her head.
‘No,’ she said seriously. ‘I’d say it was a pretty good one. What’s happened to your children? You had some children, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, three. A boy and two girls. The boy is in Rhodesia. The girls are married. One lives in London. I’ve just been visiting the other one out in Baghdad. Her name is Wray—Barbara Wray.’
‘I’ve seen her. Nice kid. Married rather too young, didn’t she?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Joan stiffly. ‘We all like William very much, and they are happy together.’
‘Yes, they seem to be settling down all right now. The baby has probably been a settling influence. Having a child does sort of steady a girl down. Not,’ added Blanche thoughtfully, ‘that it ever steadied me. I was very fond of those two kids of mine—Len and Mary. And yet when Johnnie Pelham came along, I went off with him and left them behind without a second thought.’
Joan looked at her with disapprobation.
‘Really, Blanche,’ she said warmly. ‘How could you?’
‘Rotten of me, wasn’t it?’ said Blanche. ‘Of course I knew they’d be all right with Tom. He always adored them. He married a really nice domestic girl. Suited him far better than I ever did. She saw that he had decent meals and mended his underclothes and all that. Dear Tom, he was always a pet. He used to send me a card at Christmas and Easter for years afterwards which was nice of him, don’t you think?’
Joan did not answer. She was too full of conflicting thoughts. The predominant one was wonder that this—this—could be Blanche Haggard—that well-bred, high-spirited girl who had been the star pupil at St Anne’s. This really slatternly woman with apparently no shame in revealing the more sordid details of her life, and in such common language too! Why, Blanche Haggard had won the prize for English at St Anne’s!
Blanche reverted to a former topic.
‘Fancy little Barbara Wray being your daughter, Joan. That just shows how people get things wrong. Everyone had got it into their heads that she was so unhappy at home that she’d married the first man who asked her in order to escape.’
‘How ridiculous. Where do these stories come from?’
‘I can’t imagine. Because I’m pretty sure of one thing, Joan and that is that you’ve always been an admirable mother. I can’t imagine you being cross or unkind.’
‘That’s nice of you, Blanche. I think I may say that we’ve always given our children a very happy home and done everything possible for their happiness. I think it’s so important, you know, that one should be friends with one’s children.’
‘Very nice—if one ever can.’
‘Oh, I think you can. It’s just a question of remembering your own youth and putting yourself in their place.’ Joan’s charming, serious face was bent a little nearer to that of her former friend. ‘Rodney and I have always tried to do that.’
‘Rodney? Let me see, you married a solicitor, didn’t you? Of course—I went to their firm at the time when Harry was trying to get a divorce from that awful wife of his. I believe it was your husband we saw—Rodney Scudamore. He was extraordinarily nice and kind, most understanding. And you’ve stayed put with him all these years. No fresh deals?’
Joan said rather stiffly:
‘Neither of us have wanted a fresh deal. Rodney and I have been perfectly contented with one another.’