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Authors: Agatha writing as Mary Westmacott Christie

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BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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Averil was always like that. Dry, unemotional, affecting a cynicism and a detached outlook beyond her years. Averil, Joan sometimes thought despairingly, had really no heart at all. She disliked caresses and was always completely unaffected by appeals to her better self.

‘Darling Daddy –' It was a wail from Barbara, younger than the other two, more uncontrolled in her emotions. ‘It's all your fault, Mother. You've been cruel to him –
cruel
– always.'

‘Barbara!' Joan quite lost patience. ‘What do you think you're talking about? If there is one person who comes first in this house, it's your father. How do you think you could all have been educated and clothed and fed if your father hadn't worked for you? He's sacrificed himself for
you
– that's what parents have to do – and they do it without making any fuss about it.'

‘Let me take this opportunity of thanking you, Mother,' said Averil, ‘for all the sacrifices
you
have made for us.'

Joan looked at her daughter doubtfully. She suspected Averil's sincerity. But surely the child couldn't be so impertinent …

Tony distracted her attention. He was asking gravely:

‘It's true, isn't it, that Father once wanted to be a farmer?'

‘A farmer? No, of course he didn't. Oh well, I believe years ago – just a kind of boyish fancy. But the family have always been lawyers. It's a family firm, and really quite famous in this part of England. You ought to be very proud of it, and glad that you're going into it.'

‘But I'm not going into it, Mother. I want to go to East Africa and farm.'

‘Nonsense, Tony. Don't let's have this silly nonsense all over again. Of course you're going into the firm! You're the only son.'

‘I'm not going to be a lawyer, Mother. Father knows and he's promised me.'

She stared at him, taken aback, shaken by his cool certainty.

Then she sank into a chair, tears came to her eyes. So unkind, all of them, browbeating her like this.

‘I don't know what's come over you all – talking to me like this. If your father were here – I think you are all behaving very unkindly!'

Tony had muttered something and, turning, had slouched out of the room.

Averil, in her dry voice, said, ‘Tony's quite set on being a farmer, Mother. He wants to go to an agricultural college. It seems quite batty to me. I'd much rather be a lawyer if I was a man. I think the law is jolly interesting.'

‘I never thought,' sobbed Joan, ‘that my children could be so unkind to me.'

Averil had sighed deeply. Barbara, still sobbing hysterically in a corner of the room, had called out:

‘I know Daddy will die. I know he will – and then we'll be all alone in the world. I can't bear it. Oh, I can't bear it!'

Averil sighed again, looking with distaste from her frenziedly sobbing sister to her gently sobbing mother.

‘Well,' she said, ‘if there isn't anything I can do –'

And with that she had quietly and composedly left the room. Which was exactly like Averil.

Altogether a most distressing and painful scene, and one that Joan hadn't thought of for years.

Easily understandable, of course. The sudden shock of their father's illness, and the mystery of the words ‘nervous breakdown'. Children always felt better if they could feel a thing was someone's fault. They had made a kind of scapegoat of their mother because she was nearest to hand. Both Tony and Barbara had apologized afterwards. Averil did not seem to think that there was anything for which she needed to apologize, and perhaps, from her own point of view, she was justified. It wasn't the poor child's fault that she really seemed to have been born without any heart.

It had been a difficult, unhappy time altogether while Rodney was away. The children had sulked and been bad tempered. As far as possible they had kept out of her way and that had made her feel curiously lonely. It was, she supposed, the effect of her own sadness and preoccupation. They all loved her dearly, as she knew. Then, too, they were all at difficult ages – Barbara at school still, Averil a gawky and suspicious eighteen. Tony spent most of his time on a neighbouring farm. Annoying that he should have got this silly idea about farming into his head, and very weak of Rodney to have encouraged him. Oh, dear, Joan had thought, it seems too hard that
I
should always have to do all the unpleasant things. When there are such nice girls at Miss Harley's, I really cannot think why Barbara has to make friends with such undesirable specimens. I shall have to make it quite plain to her that she can only bring girls here that I approve of. And then I suppose there will be another row and tears and sulks. Averil, of course, is no help to me, and I do hate that funny sneering way she has of talking. It sounds so badly to outside people.

Yes, thought Joan, bringing up children was a thankless and difficult business.

One didn't really get enough appreciation for it. The tact one had to use, and the good humour. Knowing exactly when to be firm and when to give way. Nobody really knows, thought Joan, what I had to go through that time when Rodney was ill.

Then she winced slightly – for the thought brought up a memory of a remark uttered caustically by Dr McQueen to the effect that during every conversation, sooner or later somebody says, ‘Nobody knows what I went through at that time!' Everybody had laughed and said that it was quite true.

Well, thought Joan, wriggling her toes uneasily in her shoes because of the sand that had got in, it's perfectly true. Nobody does know what I went through at that time, not even Rodney.

For when Rodney had come back, in the general relief, everything had swung back to normal, and the children had been their own cheerful, amiable selves again. Harmony had been restored. Which showed, Joan thought, that the whole thing had really been due to anxiety. Anxiety had made her lose her own poise. Anxiety had made the children nervous and bad tempered. A very upsetting time altogether and why she had got to select those particular incidents to think about now – when what she wanted was happy memories and not depressing ones – she really couldn't imagine.

It had all started – what had it started from? Of course – trying to remember poetry. Though really could anything be more ridiculous, thought Joan, than to walk about in a desert spouting poetry! Not that it mattered since there wasn't anybody to see or hear.

There wasn't anybody – no, she adjured herself, no, you must not give way to panic. This is all silliness, sheer nerves …

She turned quickly and began to walk back towards the rest house.

She found that she was forcing herself not to break into a run.

There was nothing to be afraid of in being alone – nothing at all. Perhaps she was one of those people who suffered from – now, what was the word? Not claustrophobia, that was the terror of confined spaces – the thing that was the opposite of that. It began with an A. The fear of open spaces.

The whole thing could be explained scientifically.

But explaining it scientifically, though reassuring, didn't at the moment actually help.

Easy to say to yourself that the whole thing was perfectly logical and reasonable, but not so easy to control the curious odds and ends of thoughts that popped in and out of your head for all the world like lizards popping out of holes.

Myrna Randolph, she thought, like a snake – these other things like lizards.

Open spaces – and all her life she'd lived in a box. Yes, a box with toy children and toy servants and a toy husband.

No, Joan, what are you saying – how can you be so silly? Your children are real enough.

The children were real, and so were Cook and Agnes, and so was Rodney. Then perhaps, thought Joan,
I'm
not real. Perhaps I'm just a toy wife and mother.

Oh dear, this was dreadful. Quite incoherent she was getting. Perhaps if she said some more poetry. She must be able to remember
something
.

And aloud, with disproportionate fervour, she exclaimed:

‘
From you have I been absent in the Spring
.'

She couldn't remember how it went on. She didn't seem to want to. That line was enough in itself. It explained everything, didn't it? Rodney, she thought, Rodney …
From you have I been absent in the Spring
. Only she thought, it's not spring, it's November …

And with a sudden sense of shock – But that's what
he
said – that evening …

There was a connection there, a clue, a clue to something that was waiting for her, hiding behind the silence. Something from which, she now realized, she wanted to escape.

But how could you escape with lizards popping out of holes all round?

So many things one mustn't let oneself think of. Barbara and Baghdad and Blanche (all Bs, how very curious). And Rodney on the platform at Victoria. And Averil and Tony and Barbara all being so unkind to her.

Really – Joan was exasperated with herself – why didn't she think of the
pleasant
things? So many delightful memories. So many – so very many …

Her wedding dress, such a lovely oyster-shell satin … Averil in her bassinette, all trimmed with muslin and pink ribbons, such a lovely fair baby and so well behaved. Averil had always been a polite, well-mannered child. ‘You bring them up so beautifully, Mrs Scudamore.' Yes, a satisfactory child, Averil – in public, at any rate. In private life given to interminable argument, and with a disconcerting way of looking at you, as though she wondered what you were really like. Not at all the sort of way a child ought to look at its mother. Not, in any sense of the word, a loving child. Tony, too, had always done her credit in public though he was incurably inattentive and vague over things. Barbara was the only difficult child in the family, given to tantrums and storms of tears.

Still, on the whole, they were three very charming, nice-mannered, well-brought-up children.

A pity children had to grow up and start being difficult.

But she wouldn't think of all that. Concentrate on them in their childhood. Averil at dancing class in her pretty pink silk frock. Barbara in that nice little knitted dress from Liberty's. Tony in those cheery patterned rompers that Nannie made so cleverly –

Somehow, thought Joan, surely she could think of something else except the clothes the children wore! Some charming, affectionate things that they had said to her? Some delightful moments of intimacy?

Considering the sacrifices one made, and the way one did everything for one's children –

Another lizard popping its head out of a hole. Averil inquiring politely, and with that air of reasonableness that Joan had learned to dread:

‘What do you
really
do for us, Mother? You don't
bathe
us, do you?'

‘No –'

‘And you don't give us our dinners, or brush our hair. Nannie does all that. And she puts us to bed and gets us up. And you don't make our clothes – Nannie does that, too. And she takes us for walks –'

‘Yes, dear. I employ Nannie to look after you. That is to say I pay her her wages.'

‘I thought Father paid her her wages. Doesn't Father pay for all the things we have?'

‘In a way, dear, but it's all the same thing.'

‘But
you
don't have to go to the office every morning, only Father. Why don't you have to go to the office?'

‘Because I look after the house.'

‘But don't Kate and Cook and –'

‘That will do, Averil.'

There was one thing to be said for Averil, she always subsided when told. She was never rebellious nor defiant. And yet her submission was often more uncomfortable than rebellion would have been.

Rodney had laughed once and said that with Averil, the verdict was always Non Proven.

‘I don't think you ought to laugh, Rodney. I don't think a child of Averil's age ought to be so – so critical.'

‘You think she's too young to determine the nature of evidence?'

‘Oh, don't be so legal.'

He said, with his teasing smile, ‘Who made me into a lawyer?'

‘No, but seriously, I think it's disrespectful.'

‘I call Averil unusually polite for a child. There's none of the usual devastating frankness children can employ – not like Babs.'

It was true, Joan admitted. Barbara, in one of her states, would shout out, ‘You're ugly – you're horrible – I hate you. I wish I was dead. You'd be sorry if I was dead.'

Joan said quickly, ‘With Babs it's just temper. And she's always sorry afterwards.'

‘Yes, poor little devil. And she doesn't mean what she says. But Averil has got quite a flair for detecting humbug.'

Joan flushed angrily. ‘Humbug! I don't know what you mean.'

‘Oh, come now, Joan. The stuff we feed them up with. Our assumption of omniscience. The necessity we are under of pretending to do what is best, to know what is best, for those helpless little creatures who are so absolutely in our power.'

‘You talk as though they were slaves, not children.'

‘Aren't they slaves? They eat the food we give them and wear the clothes we put on them, and say more or less what we tell them to say. It's the price they pay for protection. But every day they live they are growing nearer to freedom.'

‘Freedom,' Joan said scornfully. ‘Is there any such thing?'

Rodney said slowly and heavily, ‘No, I don't think there is. How right you are, Joan …'

And he had gone slowly out of the room, his shoulders sagging a little. And she had thought with a sudden pang, I know what Rodney will look like when he is old …

Rodney on Victoria platform – the light showing up the lines in his tired face – telling her to take care of herself
.

And then, a minute later …

Why must she eternally come back to that
? It wasn't true! Rodney was missing her a great deal! It was miserable for him in the house alone with the servants! And he probably never thought of asking people in for dinner – or only somebody stupid like Hargrave Taylor – such a dull man, she never could think why Rodney liked him. Or that tiresome Major Mills who never talked of anything but pasture and cattle breeding …

BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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