Authors: Monica Dickens
‘You must let Jo come and play with my family,’ she said.
‘Well, wouldn’t that be lovely!’ cried Mrs Abinger, with as much delighted surprise as if she had not been hoping for this ever since she had heard that the Moores were, coming home. ‘What do you say, Jo? Lost your tongue, have you?’
Jo was thinking out a cunning scheme. ‘Could I come Sunday?’ she asked eagerly. ‘I’d like to come to tea to-morrow, ever so much.’
‘Why not?’ said Mrs Moore. ‘We’re in an awful muddle still, but she could help the children unpack their toys. There might be something she’d like. They’ve got far too many.’
‘The child has plenty of toys of her own,’ put in Mr Abinger, moving down the counter, scenting charity. ‘And I thought you were going to tea with Mrs Loscoe,’ he told his wife. He did not want any patronage, thank you, from such as the Moores, nor did he want Jo going up there to get big ideas and fancy herself too good for the Portobello Road. There was too much of that already.
‘Miss Loscoe won’t mind.’ said Mrs Abinger, winning the struggle against her conscience. ‘Jo would love to come, Madam. I’m sure it’s very kind of you.’ Dot would be furious. She had made the cake and had even talked about buying crackers, but if Jo did not go to Chepstow Villas this time, Mrs Moore might forget to ask her again.
When she had washed up after Sunday dinner, Mrs Abinger dressed Josephine in a muslin confection that was far grander
than anything Tessa Moore had ever been made to wear, and sat her tidily down in a pinafore with a book.
If it had not been for missing Mrs Loscoe’s birthday tea, Jo would not have wanted to go to the Moores. Since yesterday, she had heard so much about how lucky she was to be asked, and how politely she must behave, and not snatch at tea nor say ‘ain’t’, nor presume with toys, that she was bored now with the whole idea. Her mother was in the bedroom repinning her hair, which was always more trouble in hot weather. If Jo could escape, she might find Arthur and Norman down the Lane, and persuade them to let her go digging.
‘Can I go out for a bit, Dad?’ Mr Abinger was fussing round the table, setting chairs and laying out sheets of paper and thinking up what he was going to say about the presentation fund for old Bob Stewart’s widow.
‘No,’ he answered. ‘You heard your mother.’
‘But, Dad – ’
‘Don’t blame me.’ He held up a hortatory hand, as if the committee meeting had already started. ‘It’s your own fault, if you will go chasing after your fancy friends.’
Josephine sighed, and looked round the low, stuffy sitting-room as if it were a prison. The round table with the bobbled green cloth and the drawers shaped like wedges of cheese took up most of the space. With chairs round, you had to go sideways to get between it and the monumental sideboard which Mr Abinger had insisted on inheriting when his mother died. The room was further cramped and darkened by bosky wallpaper, sunless photographs in overpowering frames, and by the potbellied curtains looped on either side of the window.
Mrs Abinger liked fresh air; Mr Abinger feared it. Coming up from the shop one winter day to get his cough lozenges, and finding the window opened after he had closed it, he had banged it shut so furiously that now it would not slide down more than a few inches. He was always talking about fixing it, but he had not done it yet, and on a June afternoon like this, the sun beat through, turning the room into a conservatory of the smell of roast meat and vegetables and Mr Abinger’s pipe.
Most husbands in the Portobello Road went collarless and
coatless on hot summer Sundays. Mr Abinger was fully dressed in a suit, waistcoat and watchchain, stiff collar, and bow tie. Heat did not crimson his long, colourless face, but it was already glistening waxily. By the end of the afternoon, with four men in here smoking and talking his collar would be limp, and he would demand a clean one before going to bowls at Avondale Park this evening. Mrs Abinger spent more money on his laundry than on her own and Josephine’s, which she mostly did herself; but Mr Abinger insisted on even his white grocery aprons going out to the wash. He liked a professional finish to his linen. She admired that in him; it showed his breeding.
Mrs Abinger was afraid they were going to be too early at the Moores’. Charlie Cummerford and Fred Oakes had arrived before she was ready to go, so she had had to put on her hat in a greater hurry than she liked, and take herself and Josephine out of the way.
All the way up the hill, she gave last-minute instructions about manners and grammar. She was nervous, because she could not decide whether they ought to go to the front or the back door. Rounding the corner, however, she was relieved to see that the Moores were all out in the front garden, helping their father plant out some roots he had brought from the country.
Commander Moore loved to organize his family into a team, issuing orders as if on the quarterdeck. He had them lined up now, Billy making holes with a trowel, Tess dropping in the plants, and Wilfred, with his small craftsman’s hands and absorbed face, patting down the earth. They would not last long like this. They got quickly tired of being organized, and would drift away as soon as their father’s back was turned.
Billy, bored with digging holes, looked up to see Mrs Abinger hovering outside the gate. He had been barely six when he went away, and he did not recognize her now.
‘Do you want something?’ he asked socially. ‘Are you selling something? We’ll have one.’ In the country, people had always been coming to the gate with things to sell. Mummy would buy anything, because she felt sorry for anyone who had to do that for a living.
Mrs Abinger was taken aback. ‘I – we – I’ve brought my little Jo to tea. Your Mummy very kindly invited her.’
‘Did she, by Jove?’ Commander Moore looked up from the box where he was sorting plants. ‘Well – come along in.’ If she said she had been invited, she probably had. It was not the first time Margery had issued an invitation and forgotten all about it.
‘Open the gate, Billy,’ he commanded. ‘Tess, come here and shake hands. Wilf, get up. And you’re packing that earth too tight.’
As he opened the gate, Billy exchanged a look of despair with Tess. What had their mother let them in for? Wilfred moved on to the next plant and began to bed down.
‘Are you sure –?’ Mrs Abinger hesitated in the gateway, as shy as Jo, who was hiding behind her. None of the opening conversations she had rehearsed could survive the damper of not being expected. She felt flustered, and knew that her hair would come down at any minute. ‘Perhaps we’ve come on the wrong day?’ But it could not be the wrong day, because it was Mrs Loscoe’s birthday. She had met Dot this morning, and a coldness had passed between them which was going to take weeks to thaw out.
‘Of course not. Come in,’ boomed Commander Moore, extra loud, to carry off the situation. ‘I’ll call my wife; she’s indoors.’ He dusted earth off his hands. ‘Who shall I say it is?’
‘Of course, I suppose you wouldn’t know me, sir, you having been away so much. The name’s Abinger – Mrs Abinger from the Corner Stores, and this is my little girl. Come here, Jo, and don’t be so silly.’ She pulled Josephine round to the front and stood looking up at him, feeling shorter and stouter than ever beneath his lean height, which was topped by a bird-like, balding head.
They all looked towards the house as the drawing-room window squeaked up, and Mrs Moore stepped out on to the balcony. ‘Hullo, Mrs Ab.!’ she cried. ‘And little Jo – how sweet she looks. My children have been so looking forward to seeing her.’
‘But Mummy, we never – ’ began Tessa, who was deadly honest and could always be relied on to say the wrong thing.
‘I’ll be out in a moment.’ Mrs Moore bent double to go under the window and disappeared, trying to remember whether she had asked the mother to tea as well as the child.
‘Well, I’ll be running along.’ Mrs Abinger backed towards the pavement, trying to stop Jo backing with her. ‘I only just came to fetch Josephine up. You’ll be all right, dear. Mum will come back after tea. Look, here’s Billy, who used to come and talk to you in your pram. Don’t you remember, Master Billy, how you used to come and steal my currants and raisins? I’ve been wondering when you were going to come down and see me. I’ve been saving some glassy cherries for you. Don’t say you’ve forgotten me?’
‘I don’t remember,’ he said, puzzled. So much had happened since they lived here before. He could hardly remember anything about it. Coming back to the house had been like revisiting somewhere known in a dream. Things hazily remembered looked different now that they were solid and real. Everything seemed much smaller. He could not understand why the basement staircase and the bathroom geyser held the memory of fear. He lived so energetically in the present that he could not imagine himself here as the baby boy in the photographs he was told were of himself.
‘What’s her name?’ he asked, staring at Jo. ‘I don’t remember her.’
‘I remember you,’ lied Jo, drawing confidence from the support of her mother’s skirt.
‘You couldn’t possibly, dear.’ Mrs Abinger laughed at Commander Moore. ‘Aren’t kiddies funny the fancies they take?’
‘Rather,’ he said heartily, and glanced up at the front door, wishing his wife would come and take over so that he could get on with his gardening.
Mrs Abinger knew that he wanted her to go, and she wanted to go, but could not quite achieve it. ‘I must be going along then,’ she repeated hopefully, as if the words could get her out of the gate. ‘Goodbye, sir, for now. Remember me to Nanny. Is she still with you, if I may ask?’
Billy said: ‘Yes, but she’s not our Nanny now.’
‘She sews,’ explained Tess.
‘In the country sometimes she cooked, but the standing is getting too much for her,’ said Wilfred.
‘I see. Yes, I daresay.’ Mrs Abinger gave Jo a little push, hating to leave her now that the moment were here and fraught with unexpected awkwardness. It had never occurred to her that they might not remember her, who had thought about them on and off for five years.
Josephine’s face crumpled. She turned and buried it in her mother’s skirt.
‘She needn’t stay if she doesn’t want to,’ said Tess cheerfully. ‘We don’t mind.’
Mrs Moore came down the front door steps at last. She had knocked over a flower vase on her way into the drawing-room and knew that if she did not stop to clear it up, she would not remember.
‘Oh, are you going, Mrs Ab.?’ she asked relieved. One day, she would have the old dear, but not to-day, when there was so much to do. She was wearing an overall and her head was tied up in a yellow duster, which managed to look more ornamental than workaday. She bent down to Jo, who did not recognize her, and put her finger in her mouth babyishly.
Mrs Abinger’s heart ached for Jo’s hung head and pinkening eyes. She found her way out at last, and as soon as the flowers on her hat were seen rounding the garden wall into the Portobello Road, Mrs Moore’s family turned on her.
‘Who is she, Mummy?
don’t remember her.’
‘Really, dearest, I do think you might prepare me for these things. Damned awkward.’ Commander Moore mopped his crinkly forehead.
‘Aren’t I awful?’ she lamented. ‘I forgot all about it. I meant to tell you, and then, you know what it is …’
Jo, interested in the talk, forgot her shyness and watched the family with her quick, intelligent eyes.
‘What shall we do with her?’ grumbled Billy.
‘Don’t be a bore.’ His mother flapped her hand at him. ‘Let her play the game you’re playing, whatever it is.’
‘It’s not a game,’ said her husband. ‘We’re gardening.’
‘Then let her garden.’ Mrs Moore looked doubtfully at Jo’s dress with its frills and ribbons. ‘Oh dear.’ She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Oh well. Never mind.’ She expressed her thoughts in casual, labour-saving utterances.
‘All right crew.’ Commander Moore began to get into his stride again. ‘As you were. Billy, come here and leave that gate alone. You haven’t done nearly enough holes. Make the next one here. Tess, we’ll do the primroses now. Come here, and I’ll show you. Wilf – oh good chap, you’ve been getting on with it. But I told you – not so tight! Here, young lady, you can help Wilf fill in the earth; he’ll show you how. Over here.
Come here, you young blackguard and do as you’re told. Stop swinging on that
Having got them safely into line again, he leaned against one of the cannon balls at the foot of the steps and lit a pipe, watching them over the match. Josephine, who had obeyed his vibrant tones more promptly than she ever obeyed her father’s nagging monotone had gone to squat beside Wilfred, who was about the same age as herself. He accepted her as philosophically as he accepted everything, good or bad, that came his way in life.
‘Like this,’ he said.
I said, Wilf,’ called his father, between the puffs of his kindling pipe.
‘Like this,’ repeated Wilfred, going on in his own way, which he knew was the right one.
They had tea in the kitchen, because the maids were out, and nursery and dining-room still in disorder. Nanny was at the head of the table. Smaller than ever, she had to sit on a cushion to pour out. Josephine thought she was the Moores’ grandmother. She had never heard of anyone having a nurse before, and ‘Nanny’ was the Portobello word for ‘Granny’.
She behaved beautifully. She ate whatever was given to her, even a half-chewed crust which Wilfred slipped on to her plate because he wanted to get on to cake.
‘Oh dear,’ Mrs Moore said to her husband. ‘I hope she’s enjoying herself. She’s so quiet. Are you always as quiet as this at home, Jo?’
‘Mustn’t it be lovely?’ sighed Mrs Moore.
‘Once,’ said Jo, putting on her candid, inventing face. ‘I didn’t speak a word for a week.’
Billy stared at her. He was fascinated by anything abnormal. ‘Were you dumb?’ he asked.
‘Were you a deaf mute?’
‘Golly,’ he said, respectfully. As a freak, she rose in his estimation.
Josephine was quiet, because she was busy noticing things. She had never been in such a big house before. It was even bigger than Mrs Mortimer’s private school, which was tall and narrow like a tube, in which the smell of Mrs Mortimer fulminated, unable to find a way out.