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Authors: Margaret Kennedy

The Oracles

BOOK: The Oracles
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THE ORACLES

MARGARET KENNEDY

TO
C
HARLOTTE
D
AVIES

T
HE
thunderstorm frightened a great many people in East Head. It came after a phenomenal
heat-wave
, and it reached the Bristol Channel upon a Saturday night.

During the afternoon it had rumbled a long way off, to the north-east, over the Welsh coast. At ten o’clock the thunder-claps were coming fast upon the heels of the flashes. An hour later it was described by everybody as
right
overhead
,
although this hardly did justice to its menace. Had it remained vertical it would at least have kept to its own place; it became horizontal, a continuous glare, punctuated by short sharp cracks. It no longer descended from the sky, but sprang out of the earth—sizzling along the roads and blazing through drawn window curtains.

After midnight it subsided for an interval and went growling off towards Exmoor in a dissatisfied manner, as though nothing had been settled yet. During the whole of Sunday the skies were sulphurous, the air stifling. At night it returned again in full force, damaged the power station, and extinguished the lights all over the town for nearly an hour. It was not until Monday morning that torrential rain fell, and the sense of oppression lifted. The air grew cooler. By noon the sun was shining in a clear sky and it was possible to believe that no serious damage had been done. Nothing had been struck save a tree in the middle of a field behind the town.

In spite of the confusion caused by the temporary black-out, many people felt that Saturday night had been worse than Sunday. After twenty-four hours they had got used to it, but they had not liked Saturday night at all. It had reminded them too closely of the big raids on Bristol. For a short time they were all doing and
thinking
and saying identical things. There was a prevailing disinclination for solitude. Families assembled in
whatever
room was felt to be ‘safest’, frightened children were brought down from their beds, and everybody had a cup of tea. It was, some declared, worse than a raid, because there was nothing to be done. The risks might be smaller, might be negligible, but there were no civic duties to protect the mind from panic. It was difficult to believe that nothing would come of all this; a terrifying force seemed to have broken loose, and it was universally felt that something must be going to happen somewhere.

Old Mr. Pattison, who lived in The Rowans, at the end of Battiscombe Avenue, felt no uneasiness of this kind. If he remembered the raids, it was to thank heaven for his present contentment. He had no impulse to put on a tin hat and a warden’s overcoat—to go out and be doing something. He had no fears which must be kept at bay. The entire universe, for him, revolved round his son Dickie, who had been in danger and was now safe.

Things had been very different ten years ago, when the sirens set up their wail and Mr. Pattison scuttled down the Avenue to his action station. In those days he could scarcely be persuaded to go home, even after the All Clear, so haunted was he by thoughts of Dickie up in the skies, Dickie shot down over Germany. Even on the night of the oil bomb, the flames which he had fought did not seem half as terrible as those other flames
which he could imagine. And when he went off duty it was to meet the same fear in the eyes of Dickie’s mother, as she rose from her violent knitting to brew him a cup of cocoa.

She was dead now. He missed her hourly. Yet he could not want those days back. Dickie no longer ranged the perilous skies. Dickie had got through it safe and sound. He had come home to follow the path appointed for him, to make the wills and guard the property of East Head citizens, to marry a sweet, pretty local girl, beget a son, and bestow upon his father an Indian summer of thankfulness and rejoicing. So long as all went well with Dickie, the Crack of Doom itself could scarcely have disturbed old Mr. Pattison.

He felt, however, some sociable desire for comment and conversation. The storm was certainly phenomenal, and a prodigy is better appreciated in company. His housekeeper had gone to bed. There was nothing for it but to go out, in the hope of a word or two with strolling neighbours. Halfway down the Avenue he found two cronies, Dr. Browning and Sam Dale, a substantial building contractor, who had lately become Mayor of East Head. They were both talking at once, and Mr. Pattison, on joining them, began immediately to talk too, without listening to what they were saying.

The air was insufferably hot. Not a drop of rain had as yet fallen, and nothing stirred in the Avenue. Yet there was a sense of high wind, of a violent gale blowing somewhere. Trees and houses sprang into inky relief, two or three times a minute, against a blinding sky. The splitting cracks ended as sharply as they had begun; their sinister brevity suggested some malign, unexpended force, some event still in preparation. The three men talking in the road were half conscious of this. They
were waiting for something. Their minds were not on their words; they repeated themselves and paid very little attention to one another.

Dr. Browning had a patient at an outlying farm to whom he wished to send some medicine. He had meant, he said, to drive up there after supper, but his wife was nervous and he did not relish the idea of a drive through this himself. He was waiting for things to get quieter, yet wondering if he ought to wait.

Sam Dale was worrying about a lot of metal
scaffolding
poles which had been left near the top of Bay Hill. All that metal, piled up there, offered a sure target for lightning, and there was some timber close to it which might catch fire. But he could not imagine what he was to do about it, even if he did go up there.

The reference to Bay Hill attracted Mr. Pattison’s attention for a minute or two, because Dickie lived there. He listened to poor Dale’s lament just long enough to be sure that these poles could not endanger, or
inconvenience
, Dickie, Christina, and their son Bobbins. Had such a thing been possible he would have urged Dale to go up immediately and control the elements, at whatever risk to himself. But as soon as he learnt that the poles were on the other side of the hill he left off listening, and began to describe Dickie’s experiences when flying through atmospheric storms. Neither he nor Dale paid the slightest attention to Browning and his pills.

Presently a car came crawling cautiously down the Avenue. It drew up; its owner got out and joined the voluble group in order to tell them, and to be told, that it was a nasty storm. He was a retired engineer, of some distinction, and his name was Pethwick. In East Head he rated as a newcomer, for he had only lived in the district
for three or four years. Everybody liked him, but nobody knew him very well, for he was troubled by lumbago and seldom left his house, which was at Brinstock, some miles inland. He was said to be a good talker, but he also had gifts as a listener, and was able to give Dale an expert’s opinion upon the problem of the scaffolding poles. Nothing, he asserted, could be done and it would be very foolish to go up there. As for Browning’s pills, he could quite easily deliver them himself, on his way back to Brinstock. It would be less than half a mile out of his road and no trouble at all.

Browning, relieved and grateful, went off to get the package, and it was old Mr. Pattison’s turn. To be listened to by Pethwick was an agreeable experience, of the kind which is subsequently described as a pleasant chat.

‘I believe,’ said Mr. Pattison, ‘that my son and daughter-in-law are going to have the pleasure of meeting you tomorrow night, up at Summersdown.’

‘You mean Conrad Swann’s party?’ said Pethwick. ‘Yes, I was asked, but I’m afraid I can’t go. I have people coming to dinner.’

‘Pity!’ said Mr. Pattison. ‘You’d have seen this new statue Swann has just finished. Apollo, it’s called, I believe.’

‘Swann, eh?’ said Dale. ‘Giving a party? Well …’

Had Pethwick not been present he would have made some jocular reference to Swann’s good lady, who was not good, not a lady, and did not even trouble to call herself Mrs. Swann. But he stood a little in awe of Pethwick, and the scandal was, in any case, a stale one. All that could be said about that rummy pair had been said two years ago, when they first came to the town. So Dale merely grunted and asked if Pethwick knew Swann well.

‘Hardly at all,’ said Pethwick. ‘But I own a work of his. I expect that’s why I was asked.’

‘What? One of his statues?’

‘Well … a piece of sculpture. Abstract.’

Dale stared and exclaimed:

‘I never thought …’

But he left the sentence unfinished, because he was not quite sure what it was that he had never thought. That Pethwick was the type of man to buy Swann’s statues? That Swann’s statues were worth buying? Pethwick was not, surely, so simple as to waste his money on rubbish.

‘I saw a photo in the
Gazette
,’
said Dale. ‘Something Swann did that got a prize in Venice. I couldn’t make head or tail of it. I daresay I’m behind the times.’

‘Dickie’s up in all that sort of thing,’ broke in the happy father. ‘Art and all that. You mightn’t think it, Mr. Pethwick, but my son Dickie is quite keen on Art. Went to Italy for his honeymoon, and Christina, that’s my daughter-in-law, said he walked her off her legs, in all those galleries. Very intellectual in a quiet sort of way, Dickie is. You’d be surprised at all the books he’s read.’

‘I don’t think I should,’ said Pethwick, smiling. ‘I always enjoy a talk with him. One can see he’s a reader.’

This was true. He had taken a strong liking to Dickie Pattison, whom he thought a most attractive young fellow, pleasant, modest, good-mannered, but saddled with more intellectual ability than he quite knew what to do with.

‘He got a scholarship to Oxford,’ proclaimed Mr. Pattison, ‘from the Grammar School here. I can tell you, we felt proud of him, his mother and I.’

‘Did he?’ exclaimed Pethwick, surprised. ‘Did he go then?’

‘Well, no. It was in the war. He joined the R.A.F.’

‘Wouldn’t they keep it open for him?’

‘Yes, but it was getting a bit late in the day for that sort of thing. He’d a job waiting for him here, and his law exams to get through. I wasn’t so much set on his actually going there, anyway, though it was gratifying for us, his getting that scholarship. No point in it. He wouldn’t learn anything there he’d need for his job here. People round here don’t go to Oxford and Cambridge. It might have given the wrong impression. Might have looked as if he was getting a bit big for his boots. No, no, I said to him. You’re a man now. You come back home and get down to your job. You’ll only waste time at Oxford. Here’s your future all waiting for you.’

There was a pause. During the past few seconds the thunder and lightning had halted. They stood silent in the stifling night, listening and waiting. Dr. Browning returned with a little package which he gave to Pethwick. Sam Dale, who had been pursuing his own train of thought, said suddenly:

‘He owes money all over the town.’

‘Who does?’ asked Browning.

‘Swann. That sculptor chap. He’s in Queer Street.’

Their voices sounded loud and harsh, in that strange hush.

‘Oh, Swann!’ said Browning.’ ‘He owes me ten and six, and I can whistle for it. I went up there … they rang me … you never saw such a set up! One of the kids had a bean up his nose. Know what? Not a single solitary soul in charge. No sign of Swann or the lady. Just these kids. It was one of them rang me. Pint size. But had a head on her shoulders.’

‘I’ve heard a rumour,’ began Dale,’ that those kids …’

AK-AK-CRRRACK-AK!

Dale’s rumour was never revealed. All four were reeling and blinking, dazzled by the flash, aware that
it
had
happened.

They remained for a few seconds longer in a silent group, until the dazzle had faded, and they could see one another once more in the wan light of the street lamp. Then the bond which had held them there dissolved. They separated, like a flock of birds which suddenly rises and flies away. Pethwick, with a muttered good night, got back into his car. The others returned to their houses.

Mr. Pattison trotted home to The Rowans. It was a large house, too large for one old man, but his father had built it, and Dickie would have it someday. Only for a few years more would it be silent and empty. To him it was already full to the attics and throbbing with life. The future was ever present in his mind—a future in which the central figure was always that beloved youth, who was never to grow bald, wear dentures, or develop a paunch. The boy … he thought—able to envisage everything save the inevitable disappearance of the boy, who had, indeed, already taken flight. A stripling Dickie received civic honours, fondled
grandchildren
, and celebrated his golden wedding. I’d like to come back and see that! thought the father,
undaunted
by any premonition of a stranger, an interloper, another ‘old Mr. Pattison’ trotting down the path to meet him.

BOOK: The Oracles
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