Authors: Penelope Lively
To Joy, Max, Tim and Nick
About the Author
“ALL RIGHT, BACK there?” said Maria's father.
“Not much longer now,” said Maria's mother.
Neither of them turned round. The backs of their heads rode smoothly forward between the landscapes that unrolled at either side of the car; hedges, trees, fields, houses that came and went before there was time to examine them. Fields with corn. Fields with animals. From time to time, on the left, snatches of a milky green sea bordered with a ribbon of golden sand or shingle. That is the English Channel, said Maria, inside her head, to the ashtray on the back of the car seat, the sea. We have come to spend our summer holiday beside it, because that is what people do. You go down to the beach every day and run about and shout and build sandcastles and all that. You have blown-up rubber animals and iced lollies and there is sand in your bed at night. You do
that in August. As far as I know everybody in the world does.
The car slowed down and turned into the forecourt of a garage. “Q
!” screamed the garage, “W
REAT PAINTING OF THE WORLD
“Just short of three hours,” said Mr Foster. “Not bad.”
“Quite good traffic,” said Mrs Foster.
They both turned round now to look at Maria, with kindly smiles.
“You're very quiet.”
“Not feeling sick or anything?”
Maria said she was quite all right and she wasn't feeling sick. She watched her father get out of the car and start to fill it with petrol from the pump. He was wearing a special, new, holiday shirt. She could tell it was a holiday shirt because it had red and blue stripes. His shirts for ordinary life were never striped. On the far side of the petrol pump another car drew up. It was full of children, most of them small and several of them wailing. A boy of about Maria's age looked at her for a moment through the window, his expression irritable and bored. A woman got out of the car, saying loudly, “Now just shut up for a moment, the lot of you.”
Maria stared at the face of the petrol pump. It had a benevolent face, if you discounted a bright orange sticker across its forehead, which referred to the Wineglass Offer.
“Noisy lot,” said the petrol pump. “You get all kinds, this time of year.”
“I expect you do,” said Maria. “It'll be your busy season, I should imagine.”
“Too right,” said the petrol pump. “It's all go. Rushed off my feet, I am, if you see what I mean.” In the other car, the two youngest children had struck up a piercing argument about who had kicked whom, and the petrol pump spluttered as it clocked up the next gallon. “Excuse meâ¦ It goes right through my head, that racket. Personally I prefer a nice quiet child. You're just the one, are you?”
“That's right,” said Maria. “I'm an only.”
“Very nice too,” said the petrol pump. “I daresay. Had a good journey down?”
“Not bad,” said Maria. “We had quite good traffic.”
“I'll tell you where you get good traffic,” said the petrol pump with animation. “The coast road on a Saturday night. Nose to tail all the way. Spectacular. Now that's what I call traffic.”
“We get good rush-hours,” said Maria, “where we live. On the edge of London.”
“Is that so? Jammed solid â that kind of thing?”
There was no time for more. Maria's father got into the car again and started the engine.
“Cheerio,” said the petrol pump. “Nice meeting you. All the best. Take care. Don't do anything I wouldn't.”
“Right you are,” said Maria. “Thanks for the petrol.”
Back behind her parents' travelling heads, with Dorset unrolling tidily at each side of her, Maria hoped there would be something to talk to at this holiday house her parents had rented for the month. You can always talk to people, of course. It's usual, indeed. The trouble with people is that they expect you to say particular things, and so you end up saying what they expect, or want. And they usually end up saying what you expected them to. Grown-ups, Maria had noticed, spent much time telling each other what the weather was like, or wondering aloud if one thing would happen, or another. She herself quite liked to talk to her mother, but somehow her mother was always about to go out, or into another room, and by the time Maria had got to the point of the conversation, she had gone. Her father
when she talked to him would listen with distant kindliness, but not as though what she said were of any great importance. Which, of course, it might not be. Except, she thought, to me. And so for real conversations, Maria considered, things were infinitely preferable. Animals, frequently. Trees and plants, from time to time. Sometimes what they said was consoling, and sometimes it was uncomfortable, but at least you were having a conversation. For a real heart-to-heart you couldn't do much better than a clock. For a casual chat almost anything would do.
“A holiday house,” she said to the ashtray, “is presumably bright pink or something. Not normal at all. With balloons tied to the windows and a funny hat on the chimney. And jolly music coming out of the walls.”
“Here we are,” said Mrs Foster, and as she spoke Maria saw this place announce itself with a road-sign. Lyme Regis. She had been studying road-signs throughout the journey. The places to which one was not going were always the most enticing, lying secretly to right and left out of sight beyond fields and hills, promised by signposts that lured you with their names â Sixpenny Handley, Winterborne Stickland, Piddletrenthide and Affpuddle. They seemed not quite real. Could they be like other
places, with bungalows, primary schools and a Post Office? Like the green tracks that plunged off between hedges and fields, they invited you to find out. And I'll never know now, she thought sadly. That's one of the lots of things I'll never know.
She turned her attention to Lyme Regis, which she would have to know, like it or not. It did not seem too bad. It did not, for instance, have houses in rows. Maria had quite strong opinions about a fair number of things, though she seldom mentioned them to anyone, and she did not care for places in which houses were lined up in rows, staring blankly at you as you passed, though in fact she lived in this kind of house herself, and so did everyone she knew. The houses in this town, on the whole, were differently arranged. Their problem, if you could call it that, was that the town was built upon a hillside, or several hillsides, and seemed in grave danger of slithering down into the sea, so that each house had to dig its toes in, as it were, bracing itself against the slope with walls and ledges and gardens. The houses rose one above another, lifting roofs and chimneys and windows out of the green embrace of trees. She had never seen a place with so many trees, big ones and little ones, light and dark, all different. And between them you
could see slices of a sparkling sea, tipped here and there with the white fleck of waves.
“Delightful,” said Mrs Foster.
“Nice Victorian atmosphere,” said Mr Foster. And then, “This must be it, I think.”
They turned into a gravelled drive, tightly lined with bright green hedge. The drive made a little flourish between hedge and a somewhat unkempt shrubbery, and then ended up in front of a house. Maria and her parents got out of the car and stood in front of the house, considering it. At least Maria considered it. Her mother said, “How pretty. I like the white stucco,” and her father began to take the suitcases from the car. Maria went on considering.
It was a tidy house. It did not sprawl, as some of its neighbours sprawled, into such follies as little towers and turrets, glassed-in verandas, porches and protrusions of one kind and another. It stood neat and square â or rather, rectangular, for it was longer than it was high â with a symmetrical number of green-shuttered windows upstairs and down, at either side of a black front door with a fan-light above it. Its only frivolity was a pale green iron canopy with a frilled edge that ran the length of the house just beneath the upstairs windows.
“Well, Maria,” said Mr Foster. “Is it anything like you imagined?”
“No,” said Maria.
“About 1820, I should think,” said Mr Foster, in his instructing voice. “That kind of architecture is called Regency.”
And Maria thought, never mind about that, because somewhere there's a swing. It's blowing in the wind â I can hear the squeaking noise it makes. Good, I shall like having my own swing. And someone's got a little dog that keeps yapping. She walked round the corner of the house into the garden, to see where this swing might be, but there was nothing to be seen except a large square lawn, edged with more dense and shaggy shrubbery and a good many trees. At the end of the garden was a hedge, and beyond that the hillside dropped away steeply down towards the sea. The sun had gone in now, and the glitter was gone from the sea. Instead it reached away upwards to the sky, grey-green splashed here and there with white, to melt into a grey-blue sky so gently that it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. To right and left the coast stretched away in a haze of greens and golds and misty blues, and immediately in front of the town a stone wall curled out into the sea to put a
protective arm round a little harbour filled with resting boats, their masts like rows of toothpicks. Gulls floated to and from across the harbour, and on the beach behind it people sat in clumps and dogs skittered in and out of the water. It was a view you could spend much time examining.
The swing, she decided, must be in the adjoining garden, which was almost completely hidden by trees. The house next door, which was large, and of the towered and turreted kind, could just be seen between them. She went back to the front of the house again, where her father was just unlocking the door. They went inside.
“Good grief!” said Mrs Foster. “It's the real thing! Stopped dead in 1880.”
Whereas outside all had been softly coloured â green and blue and gold â within the house all was solidly brown. The walls, in the hall at least, were panelled. A brown clock ticked upon a table over which was spread a brown velvet tablecloth (“Tassels and all,” said Mrs Foster, picking up one edge and letting it drop again. “My!”). A brownly patterned carpet was spread across part of the brown tiled floor. Thick brown curtains hung at either side of the French windows opening on to the garden, visible through the door of what was clearly the main
room. (This, said Maria to herself, is what is called a drawing-room, like they have in books and I have never seen before.) They all three walked into this room, and stood for a moment in silence.