An Episode of Sparrows | Chapter 15 of 35

Author: Rumer Godden | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1204 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER VI

NO ONE knew when Mrs. Mason would appear in Catford Street; a postcard or a telegram would come, and next day she would arrive; once she had come without telling anyone. It might be at any time, but in March or early April she always came. “She comes to see me,” said Lovejoy, “before she goes where we’re booked for Easter.” Lovejoy still said “we.” “It might be any day now,” said Lovejoy.

Mrs. Combie spring-cleaned the house, and Lovejoy helped her; last of all they turned out the Masons’ room, the first floor back. The walls were swept down, the linoleum scrubbed, the brown rugs washed, the fireplace black-leaded round the gas fire, the heavy curtains beaten and shaken, the armchair beaten too. On the armchair was a stain from some scent Mrs. Mason had spilled; the smell of it still lingered and when Lovejoy was more than usually lonely she pressed her nose against it and sniffed; as she sniffed she conjured up her mother. The brass rails of the big bed were polished; soon I won’t be sleeping in it alone, thought Lovejoy, and she thought of the big mound her mother would make in it, a lazy mound but warm and soft to be against.

When everything in the room was clean, a fresh starched tablecloth was put on the table, a clean white honeycomb counterpane on the bed—Mrs. Combie did not know how fashionable those had become—and a white crocheted runner on the dressing-table, and it was ready. “Now don’t you dirty anything,” said Mrs. Combie. She said it as a matter of routine because Lovejoy was a child, but she knew Lovejoy would not dirty anything; far from it; the room would be dusted every day, the brass rubbed up, and Lovejoy would hardly dare to sleep in the bed for fear of rumpling it.

Even in Catford Street there were signs of spring; spring sun shone on the pavements, windows were opened, and front doors were sometimes left wide; there was a strong smell of spring greens cooking, of soap and dampness from spring cleanings, of new paint. People bought bunches of primroses; they were only threepence a bunch on the barrows in the High, but the pale yellow of the flowers soon got sooty. The smoke from the chimney pots eddied this way and that as the breeze changed. Children, playing, left their coats open and they seemed to have a new energy; they played hopping games in squares and oblongs chalked on the pavement; they skipped—skipping ropes were suddenly fashionable this year—and some of the boys had scooters, painted scarlet. Cats lay out on the sills, and Mrs. Cleary’s and Miss Arnot’s cats had two litters of kittens. The birds were working, sparrows and starlings flying with wisps of straw and fluff and feathers to make into nests that no one ever saw. From the broken masonry of the Catholic church came a continuous soft deep coo, a pigeon brooding, and Father Lambert heard it as he went into his makeshift church below the aeroplane, which had not moved an inch. Young girls who had kept with other girls as if they were glued all winter, suddenly broke away and went with boys. Older girls announced their engagements; both Mr. Wix and Father Lambert had banns to announce.

Lovejoy’s wardrobe was spring-cleaned too, at least as far as she was able; she let down the hem of her plaid coat, though it took her a long time; the hem looked a different colour from the other plaid but at least it was respectable; she cleaned the plimsolls with whitening, though she could guess what her mother would say when she saw them. “Never mind; she’ll buy me some shoes,” she said. She asked Mrs. Combie to wash her hair with her last remaining bit of green soap and brushed it for an extra five minutes every day, and every day she did her nails. “Anyone would think the queen was coming,” mocked Cassie. Then one afternoon Lovejoy came in from school and found a letter on the mat.

Before she picked it up and turned it over she knew it was to say her mother was not coming. “She never writes, not a letter,” said Lovejoy, looking at the writing on the envelope. Slowly she carried it to Mrs. Combie.

“Well, it’s nice to change your plans and let other people know,” said Cassie when Mrs. Combie had read the letter out. “I suppose you’ll go on looking after that child?”

“She says they don’t finish till the tenth and then go to Clifton for Easter,” said Mrs. Combie, troubled. She appealed across the tea table to Vincent. “She says the time’s too short for the fare. Well, Scarborough is a long way,” said Mrs. Combie.

“If I had a little girl,” said Vincent, “I’d come from John o’Groat’s to see her.”

Lovejoy had retreated to the shadow of the stairs. Vincent had seen her standing out there in the side passage and had meant to show he sympathized, but when Lovejoy heard what he said she leaned her head against the banister knob and shut her eyes; she shut them tightly, but two small fierce tears came spurting out. Vincent saw the tears and turned his head away.

In the four years since the Masons had come to Catford Street, Vincent had come to like and respect Lovejoy. Can one respect a child? Yes, one can, thought Vincent. Respect and like. “She’s as hard as nails,” Cassie said of Lovejoy; Vincent knew she was not.

At first all that he had known of her was that Ettie’s new and abundant-looking lodger had a little girl of whom he caught glimpses when she passed the restaurant on an errand or on her way to school and back; a child in a plaid coat—“Yes, I had it even then,” said Lovejoy—so quiet he hardly noticed her; after a while he noticed the quietness. “Ettie, should a child be as silent and still as that?”

Mrs. Combie had not thought about it. “She’s no trouble,” she said uncertainly.

Vincent thought vaguely that a child ought to be a trouble. “There’s something wrong,” he said. Then one afternoon he had come out of the restaurant and found Lovejoy sitting on the stairs.

It was three o’clock and the restaurant was closed; in any case there had been no one in for lunch and the kitchen was empty and tidy; this was the time Mrs. Combie did the washing or changed her slippers for shoes, took her purse and a black oilskin bag, and slipped out to the house shops while Vincent made up his accounts at the desk in the restaurant, wrote the evening menus, and perhaps dozed off in the quiet. It was uncommon for him to stir, but that day he had left an account book in his room and came out to fetch it. He had opened the glass door from the restaurant quietly and came lightly up the first flight of the stairs and along the landing to the second flight; there he almost stepped on Lovejoy.

It was always twilight in that dark house, and Vincent had not seen much of her; there was only a glimmer of paleness from her hands and face, but he made out that she was sitting with her elbows on her knees, her chin on her hands; the way she sat was patient, patient and brooding. She looked small against the height of the stairs, and Vincent was moved in a way he was not usually moved with children. “Hello,” he said.

She lifted her head and said, “Hello.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Waiting.”

“Is your mother out?”

“No, she’s in.” And she went back to her waiting in a way that prohibited further talk. Vincent went on upstairs.

He saw her there once again—on guard? thought Vincent. He knew there was a man there in the room and he knew that Lovejoy knew he had guessed it. “Who are these gentlemen who come and take your mother out?” he heard Cassie ask her.

“Gentlemen,” said Lovejoy and walked away.

“I believe they go into her room,” said Cassie.

“That they don’t do.” Mrs. Combie flared up.

“You don’t know,” said Cassie, “and Ettie, I think you don’t want to know.”

Vincent opened his mouth to say, “It’s only twice,” then shut it. Was it only twice? thought Vincent. Still, even if they were in the room I don’t know they did anything wrong, he argued, and kept quiet, but he did not like it for the little girl. There were other things he did not like. Her mother sent her to the Crown; Vincent knew nothing about children, but he thought a child, especially a little girl, should not be sent even into an off-license. He watched Lovejoy more than he knew; when her mother went out, which was almost every night, Lovejoy waited up; she turned down the bed and put a glass of orange juice beside it, and waited. Sometimes Vincent was moved to take her a glass of hot milk. “You go to bed,” he said. “She’ll come.” Sometimes, if he were there, Lovejoy did go to bed, but Vincent knew that when Mrs. Mason came in she would make a noise, and laugh and flash on the light, while he had seen Lovejoy steal out of the room in the mornings with her shoes in her hand so that she would not wake her mother. “She’s not the one who is hard,” said Vincent.

Now when Vincent had gone into the restaurant Lovejoy came and stood by Mrs. Combie. “I should only be half fare,” she said. “Couldn’t I go to Scarborough and see her?”

“Dearie, she’s staying with a friend,” said Mrs. Combie.

“Friend in trousers,” said Cassie.

Lovejoy had turned away to the sink, where they had been peeling potatoes for the dinners. She picked up the potato knife and threw it at Cassie.

“I couldn’t blame the child,” Mrs. Combie told Vincent. “Cassie shouldn’t have said that”; but, at the time, she did blame Lovejoy sharply and sent her to bed.

Lovejoy lay in the double bed, trying not to look at the room, its immaculateness, its starched covers, the vase she had put ready for the left-over flowers from the restaurant tables; Vincent had promised them to her. She had had no tea and she was cold and presently she crept out of bed and fetched her coat and huddled it round her. As she lay, she let her fingers go over its warm wool roughness; it was familiar, friendly, her own, and mysteriously it made her heart a little less sore. Then her fingers met something stiff in the pocket; it was the packet of cornflowers.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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