Read Time and Time Again Online
Authors: James Hilton
'So you're the chap Lily's bin seein' so much of litely?' He pumped Charles's hand up and down. 'Pleased to meet you, Mr. Anderson, I'm shore. And 'ow d'you like our part of the world?'
'I think it's very nice,' said Charles tactfully, 'especially the trees in all the streets.'
'I'll warrant that's what she put you up to say.' He was pleased, though. 'Not that you ain't right about the trees. Mike all the difference, don't they? . . . You know Linstead?'
'I'm afraid not, sir.'
Mr. Mansfield chuckled as he relit his pipe. 'You don't 'ave to call me 'sir'. What d'you think I am--a school-teacher? Any'ow, 'ave Lily bring you round some Sunday for dinner. Can promise you a nice bit of roast beef if you fancy it.'
'Thank you very much.'
Mr. Mansfield passed on his way with a nod. When he was out of earshot Charles gripped Lily's arm with extra warmth. 'Well, aren't you glad? The best things sometimes happen by accident. Now he's met me he won't mind you being out late so often. Or at least I hope he won't. Nice old boy. . . . Why . . . Lily . . . what's the matter?'
'You REALLY like him, Charlie? You really DO?'
'Of course. And remember what he said--you've got to ask me to dinner at your house.'
'On a SUNDAY?'
'Yes, I can take a Sunday off instead of a Saturday. When shall we fix it?'
'Any Sunday--if they know in time. You really want to come? You'll like my mum, too, that's certain, but I'm not so sure about Bert and Reg.'
'Who's Reg?' At last he had been forced to ask.
'He's Bert's pal. Reg Robinson. He always has dinner with us on Sundays.'
* * * * *
On Sundays in summer Ladysmith Road was rarely at its best. The air was apt to be hot and impregnated with smells from a hundred households in which the ceremonial meal of the week was being prepared, and of this meal, though the ingredients were many and various and wholesome, the predominant smell was usually that of boiling cabbage. Ladysmith Road was far higher in the social scale than would have allowed noisy children to play in the gutter or dance to a hurdy-gurdy; indeed it was higher in the social scale than would have allowed street music on any day of the week; so instead, on Sundays, there was this vast and cabbagy calm, broken only by the murmur of someone's piano or the distant grind of trams along the High Road. At midday the pubs opened and the Sunday Schools closed, but the nearest pub and Sunday School were round several corners, so that their traffic was straggling and intermittent by the time it reached the laburnums. Nor was there on Sundays any of the movement which, like systole and diastole, drew the inhabitants to and from Linstead station and gave Ladysmith Road, between certain hours on weekdays, the appearance of being actually on the way to somewhere.
Charles's visit to Number 214 was not an entire success, though he didn't think it was either his own fault entirely or that of the Mansfields. Their hospitality was friendly and their roast beef excellent. Charles had seen the outside of the house so often that its interior hardly surprised him; if at all, it did so by being cosier and more comfortable than he had expected. On the whole he blamed Reg Robinson for the fact that he failed to get over his initial shyness. He was always inclined to be shy with a group of strangers, at Beeching or Cambridge or anywhere else, but at Ladysmith Road it seemed to stay with him more obstinately because all the time he was afraid the Mansfields were thinking him stuck- up.
Dinner was delayed (he could gather) by some minor mishap in the kitchen, so that they were not at the table till after three o'clock, by which time Reg had fully established himself as the life of the party. He banged the piano with slapdash facility, he sang (in tune but thunderously), he played gramophone records of comic songs he had brought with him, cueing the laughter in which he expected everyone to join. Charles, after deploring a first painful handshake, was ready to admit his good intentions, but soon found even this effort hard to sustain; while Reg, it seemed, saw in Charles the kind of dull fellow whom it was his social duty to wake up at all costs. To assist him he had the natural equipment of a loud voice and a set of verbal clichés and stale witticisms which he unloaded at every chance, evoking shrieks of laughter from Bert and from Lily's two sisters, Evelyn and Maud. Charles was troubled to notice that Lily also laughed, though perhaps only from politeness; it soon became clear, though, that Reg was much attracted by Lily and was on jocularly affectionate terms with her. 'Nice bit o' stuff, ain't she, Charlie?' he commented, nudging Charles in the ribs, and Charles could only mumble an affirmative.
After dinner they sat in a small glassed-in annex to the dining- room while Mrs. Mansfield and the girls cleared the table. Beyond the windows was the garden, neat and pretty as might have been expected, with tall hollyhocks affording a token privacy from neighbours on either side. After an ample meal and in a comfortable chair Charles was ready to relax; he could have done so, and by now would almost certainly have lost his shyness, but for Reg. Reg was indefatigable, and his range of facetiousness limitless. It seemed he possessed a motorcycle and had driven to Cambridge on it with Bert. He gave a vivid description of the undergraduates with their caps and gowns; indeed he had a snapshot which he produced there and then for general inspection. 'You mean the boys have to wear them in the street?' Maud queried, and when Reg answered: 'Well, look, stupid, that's in the street, ain't it?'--Maud turned to Charles with an incredulous: 'Do YOU have to, Mr. Anderson?'
'Don't call him Mr. Anderson, he's Charlie,' said Reg. 'Of course he does, don't you, Charlie? Looks like a dog's dinner in 'em, too, I'll bet. . . . Wonder how I'd look if I wore 'em up the Mount?'
This caused roars of merriment, during which Charles asked Lily, who was next to him, what the Mount was. 'It's where Reg works,' she whispered, but did not explain further.
Maud did, whispering in his other ear. 'It's a cemetery. Reg works for an undertaker.'
Charles smiled. At last he saw an opening and claimed his audience by the way he spoke up. 'I can understand, then, why Reg has such a sense of humour. What work exactly do you do, Reg?'
'I'm in the office,' Reg answered, not quite comfortably.
'You don't do any--er--spadework then?'
'SPADEWORK?' Reg was at first genuinely puzzled, and puzzlement made him look sullen. After a pause he said truculently: 'I ain't a blasted gravedigger, if that's what you mean.'
Charles was still smiling. 'No? I just thought that some of your jokes sounded a bit as if they'd been . . . disinterred.'
At Cambridge or Beeching it would have raised a laugh, but not in Ladysmith Road. Evidently Reg's jokes were funny and Charles's weren't. Indeed a somewhat chilly silence supervened till Mrs. Mansfield broke it by a gentle rebuke to all: 'Really, I don't think we ought to laugh about things like that.' (But they HAD laughed, when Reg had first brought up the subject by mentioning the Mount!) Charles was bewildered even more than disconcerted, and from then on made no further attempts to challenge Reg in the field of humour. It was perhaps some consolation that Reg also seemed put out, and presently left to take a walk with Bert.
Conversation was easier after that, and Charles gladly accepted an invitation from Mr. Mansfield to tour the garden. It could not have been more than a hundred feet long and twenty across, but it took Mr. Mansfield half an hour to name and explain the various plants and flowers. He hadn't spoken much at all inside the house, but the garden made him garrulous. Charles, who loved gardens, warmed to the man's obvious pride and quiet satisfaction. Presently Mr. Mansfield pulled out an old-fashioned watch and checked the time. 'Dunno 'ow you feel, Mr. Anderson,' he said hesitantly, 'but round about now I usually 'ave a little stroll. Just ourselves, mind you--I don't 'old with takin' ladies along, not on Sundays, anyway.'
Charles was very willing to escape, and Lily looked equally pleased to see him on such good terms with her father. The two left the house and walked half a mile to the end of Ladysmith Road, then right along Mafeking Road to Roberts Road, then left as far as the Prince Rupert, a modern sham-timbered but decent-looking pub.
'Dunno why they call it the Prince Rupert,' commented Mr. Mansfield, as they pushed through the doors. 'I never 'eard of no prince named Rupert.'
Charles had, but he did not want to seem learned. 'Looks a nice place,' was all he said.
'Not too bad--and quiet, mostly. It's what you might call the local round 'ere, for those that ain't teetotallers. . . . What's yours, Mr. Anderson?'
'Thanks, I'll have a bitter,' said Charles, beginning to feel more at home than for hours. 'But I wish you wouldn't call me Mr. Anderson.'
'I know . . . the others kept callin' you Charlie . . . Ah, good evenin', Milly, two bitters for me and this gentleman. . . . Some'ow, though, I thought they wasn't treatin' you quite respectful.'
'RESPECTFUL? . . . Nonsense--why should they? I'm no older than any of them, except Lily.'
'Well, yes, that's true, but after all you was a stranger, and that Reg--'e shouldn't rightly 'ave carried on the way 'e did. . . . Mind you, 'e soon calmed down afterwards--you got your own back all right, only I think you 'urt 'is feelin's.'
'I hope not. I certainly didn't intend to.'
''E's a nice smart young feller,' Mr. Mansfield continued. 'Always ready with a joke--and--like you said, only you was bein' sarcastic-- he ain't in a job where there's much fun, in a manner of speakin'.'
'I'm really sorry if I did hurt his feelings,' Charles repeated.
'Oh, 'e'll get over it. Lily'll tell 'im you didn't mean no 'arm.'
The two bitters arrived, and Mr. Mansfield raised his glass to Charles. 'Well, Charlie . . .' He paused to let the name achieve significance, then added: ''Ere's to us and our dear ones. . . .'
* * * * *
Lily walked with him to Linstead station later, and on the way they had their first slight tiff. It was about Reg, whose discomfiture after Charles's single crack at his expense seemed to have aroused her sympathy. Like her father, she thought Reg's feelings had been hurt, but Charles felt in no mood to apologize again as he had done once already at the pub. 'Look,' he said, 'here's a fellow digs at me all afternoon and I take it--bad jokes included. Then I make one joke about him and he goes off in a huff.'
'Not BAD jokes,' she objected. 'Reg has his faults, but he never says anything blue in front of ladies.'
'I mean the sort of jokes men tell to each other. Reg tells them to dad, but only when they're on their own.'
'I see. I didn't know that's what "blue" meant. And you didn't know what I meant by "bad". I meant silly jokes, not blue necessarily, just jokes that aren't amusing.'
'Almost as if we didn't speak the same language,' she said gaily. 'Anyhow, Charlie, they made everybody laugh.'
Charles had to admit that they had, and that his own joke hadn't, and that any further development of that issue might bog down in a philosophical impasse. Was laughter a valid empirical test of humour? If there were no one to see it, could a joke ever be said to exist at all? It was a bit like the nominalist-versus-realist arguments of the medieval scholars. But all that he could hardly go into with Lily, and by this time the fact that they were at odds was beginning to trouble him, as also her suggestion (shrewd or naďve, he wasn't sure which) that they didn't speak the same language.
'Oh, Lily,' he exclaimed, taking her arm (they were on the platform and the train was due and he couldn't endure the thought of separating from her on clouded terms)--'we're not going to quarrel about it, are we?'
'Of course not.' And of course they were not. 'But I can't help being sorry you were bored.'
'I wasn't bored at all.' He had to get back into the argument. 'It's just that a fellow of Reg's type always makes me shut up in company. I just can't compete with them.'
'I know. He IS a bit noisy sometimes. Poor old Reg--he'd like to have had your advantages, going to Cambridge College to study. He's really clever, everybody says, but he had to leave school at fourteen. If only he'd been properly educated it would make all the difference.'
'I don't believe it would,' Charles could not help replying. 'I've met fellows like Reg at Cambridge and I can't get along with them there either. You mustn't think education changes what people are like.'
'Then what does it do?' she asked, again either naďvely or shrewdly, and he had no time to speculate, for the train was coming in. He pressed her hand. 'Even if I knew an answer it would take me all night to give it to you.' He found a compartment and leaned out of the window to kiss her. 'Maybe you'd better come up to Cambridge and see for yourself. . . . Yes, why not? That's a wonderful idea. Come the weekend after my examinations, then I'll be free and won't have anything on my mind. Leave on the Saturday and I'll get you a room at the Lion or somewhere--there's a good train back on Sunday evening. . . . Will you, Lily?'
'I don't know if dad would let me.'
'But it's only fair--for you to come and see me once after all the times I've come to see you.'
'Yes, I know . . . Oh, I'd love to, Charlie, but I'll have to ask dad first.'
'Fine. Ask him. I don't think he'll mind. He and I got along all right.'
'Yes, you did, didn't you?' At last they had found something to agree and be glad about, and on this happier note could time their separation. 'I knew it when he took you to the Prince Rupert. He only does that with people he likes.' The train was beginning to move.
* * * * *
At Cambridge Charles was thereafter sustained a good deal by thoughts of Lily's visit. Those were the days just before the examination that (with the Diplomatic in mind) might make or mar his career; and he had better not think it absurd, while he girded himself for last-minute cramming, that what he would be doing thirty years hence might depend on a few thousand facts so chancily selected and forcibly absorbed. The days entered a tunnel of eventlessness, but once the actual examination started the tunnel became dreamlike, streamlike, a silent aqueduct of time. Every evening, after the six-hour ordeal, an entire section of knowledge was banished from his mind as if it had no longer any business there, so that concentration on the remainder could become more intense. His tutor had warned him not to overdo the cramming, but Charles found he could not sleep even if he went to bed, and it was no harder to read than to lie awake. By the end of the third of the five crucial days he could roughly estimate how he was faring, and he did not think too well. Many questions he had been unable to answer confidently, and there had been few he would have chosen for a display of what he knew. One afternoon he half collapsed over the desk; the day was hot and the examination hall airless-- all that, plus lack of sleep, probably accounted for it. An invigilator went out with him for a spell in the open, and Charles found it a strange effort to make conversation, knowing they must avoid mention of anything remotely connected with the questions. There was one about the Amphictyonic Council that Charles had been answering at the moment he slumped forward. He was afraid he had leaked his fountain pen all over the page, and he wondered if, in the circumstances, this would matter--whether, for instance, he should asterisk the smear with a note of apology--'Here I fainted owing to the heat'.