Absent in the Spring
‘Oh no, my dear. I’m a very busy woman in my small way. I’m the Secretary of the Country Gardens Association—And I’m on the committee of our local hospital. And there’s the Institute—and the Guides. And I take quite an active part in politics. What with all that and running the house and then Rodney and I go out a good deal and have people in to see us. It’s so good for a lawyer to have plenty of social background, I always think. And then I’m very fond of my garden and like to do quite a good deal in it myself. Do you know, Blanche, that there’s hardly a moment, except perhaps a quarter of an hour before dinner, when I can really sit down and rest? And to keep up with one’s reading is quite a task.’
‘You seem to stand up to it all pretty well,’ murmured Blanche, her eyes on the other’s unlined face.
‘Well, to wear out is better than to rust out! And I must admit I’ve always had marvellous health. I really am thankful for that. But all the same it would be wonderful to feel that one had a whole day or even two days with nothing to do but think.’
‘I wonder,’ said Blanche, ‘what you’d think about?’
Joan laughed. It was a pleasant, tinkling, little sound.
‘There are always plenty of things to think about, aren’t there?’ she said.
‘One can always think of one’s sins!’
‘Yes, indeed.’ Joan assented politely though without amusement.
Blanche eyed her keenly.
‘Only that wouldn’t give you occupation long!’
She frowned and went on abruptly:
‘You’d have to go on from them to think of your good deeds. And all the blessings of your life! Hm—I don’t know. Might be rather dull. I wonder,’ she paused, ‘if you’d nothing to think about but yourself for days and days I wonder what you’d find out about yourself—’
Joan looked sceptical and faintly amused.
‘Would one find out anything one didn’t know before?’
Blanche said slowly:
‘I think one might …’ She gave a sudden shiver. ‘I shouldn’t like to try it.’
‘Of course,’ said Joan, ‘some people have an urge towards the contemplative life. I’ve never been able to understand that myself. The mystic point of view is very difficult to appreciate. I’m afraid I haven’t got that kind of religious temperament. It always seems to me to be rather extreme, if you know what I mean.’
‘It’s certainly simpler,’ said Blanche, ‘to make use of the shortest prayer that is known.’ And in answer to Joan’s inquiring glance she said abruptly, ‘“God be merciful to me, a sinner.” That covers pretty well everything.’
Joan felt slightly embarrassed.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, it certainly does.’
Blanche burst out laughing.
‘The trouble with you, Joan, is that you’re not a sinner. That cuts you off from prayer! Now I’m well equipped. It seems to me sometimes that I’ve never ceased doing the things that I ought not to have done.’
Joan was silent because she didn’t know quite what to say.
Blanche resumed again in a lighter tone:
‘Oh well, that’s the way of the world. You quit when you ought to stick, and you take on a thing that you’d better leave alone; one minute life’s so lovely you can hardly believe it’s true—and immediately after that you’re going through a hell of misery and suffering! When things are going well you think they’ll last for ever—and they never do—and when you’re down under you think you’ll never come up and breathe again. That’s what life is, isn’t it?’
It was so entirely alien to any conception Joan had of life or to life as she had known it that she was unable to make what she felt would be an adequate response.
With a brusque movement Blanche rose to her feet.
‘You’re half asleep, Joan. So am I. And we’ve got an early start. It’s been nice seeing you.’
The two women stood a minute, their hands clasped. Blanche said quickly and awkwardly, with a sudden, rough tenderness in her voice:
‘Don’t worry about your Barbara. She’ll be all right—I’m sure of it. Bill Wray is a good sort, you know—and there’s the kid and everything. It was just that she was very young and the kind of life out here—well, it goes to a girl’s head sometimes.’
Joan was conscious of nothing but complete bewilderment.
She said sharply:
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
Blanche merely looked at her admiringly.
‘That’s the good old school tie spirit! Never admit anything. You really haven’t changed a bit, Joan. By the way I owe you twenty-five pounds. Never thought of it until this minute.’
‘Oh, don’t bother about that.’
‘No fear.’ Blanche laughed. ‘I suppose I meant to pay it back, but after all if one ever does lend money to people one knows quite well one will never see one’s money again. So I haven’t worried much. You were a good sport, Joan—that money was a godsend.’
‘One of the children had to have an operation, didn’t he?’
‘So they thought. But it turned out not to be necessary after all. So we spent the money on a bender and got a roll-top desk for Tom as well. He’d had his eye on it for a long time.’
Moved by a sudden memory, Joan asked:
‘Did he ever write his book on Warren Hastings?’
Blanche beamed at her.
‘Fancy your remembering that! Yes, indeed, a hundred and twenty thousand words.’
‘Was it published?’
‘Of course not! After that Tom started on a life of Benjamin Franklin. That was even worse. Funny taste, wasn’t it? I mean such dull people. If I wrote a life, it would be of someone like Cleopatra, some sexy piece—or Casanova, say, something spicy. Still, we can’t all have the same ideas. Tom got a job again in an office—not so good as the other. I’m always glad, though, that he had his fun. It’s awfully important, don’t you think, for people to do what they really want to do?’
‘It rather depends,’ said Joan, ‘on circumstances. One has to take so many things into consideration.’
‘Haven’t you done what you wanted to do?’
‘I?’ Joan was taken aback.
‘Yes, you,’ said Blanche. ‘You wanted to marry Rodney Scudamore, didn’t you? And you wanted children? And a comfortable home.’ She laughed and added, ‘And to live happily ever afterwards, world without end, Amen.’