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Authors: Monica Dickens

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BOOK: Man Overboard
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The front door was locked. Ben had a feeling that the doors of the house by the railway were never locked. Firbanks Avenue was a quiet street, on the way to nowhere except a disused gravel-pit, and there were no mental institutions nearby, and nothing in the house to steal except Ben’s father’s oriental souvenirs from the days when he was in the P. & O., but there were double bolts on all the doors, and little chains and pegs fitted to the windows to stop them being opened from the outside far enough to get an arm through. This also meant that they could not be opened from the inside far enough to get an arm through, or to get any appreciable amount of air; but Ben’s mother did not shake dusters or mops out of windows. She shook them on to a piece of newspaper. His father had once had malaria, which had never recurred, but had given him an excuse to keep out the good sea air and enjoy a comfortable stuffiness.

Ben would not use the electric chime—his mother’s pride—so he thumped on the frosted glass at the top of the door, and heard her quick feet coming tap tap along the linoleum.

“Don’t bang on the glass, dear,” she said automatically. She wiped her hands on her apron and stood on tiptoe to kiss him, for she was very small.

All the way from London, Ben had rehearsed how he should break the news. Better perhaps to tell them as soon as he stepped into the house rather than let them think that this was just a friendly visit prompted by nothing more sinister than filial affection. If he let them preserve that illusion any longer than necessary, there would be a double-edged accusation hanging in the air. Not only had he let himself get kicked out of the Navy, but he had let them welcome him as if everything was all right. He would tell his mother immediately, and then she could go running in to his father crying: “Tommy, Tommy, the most disastrous thing has happened!” and his father would puff out his cheeks and look as if he had been struck by lightning, and they could get the worst of it over right away perhaps, and then get on with lunch.

“Mum,” he began as she helped him off with his coat, but she was not listening to him.

“I quite thought we would see you yesterday,” she was saying.

“I was surprised when you phoned to say you wouldn’t be here till Saturday, with the week-end half gone.” No matter how glad she was to see him, she invariably managed to make him feel guilty for not having come sooner.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had to go to London.” He would let her finish fussing with his coat, brushing the collar with the edge of her hand and squaring up the shoulders on the hanger, and then tell her.

“Tommy! Benjy is here!” she called, although Ben’s father was already opening the sitting-room door and could see for himself.

“Well, well, well,” he said, rubbing his hands and nodding his head. “So you’re here at last, Benjamin. Quite a sight for sore eyes.”

“He didn’t come last night, because he had to go to London,” Mrs Francis told him, as if answering a question they had been discussing at some length.

“I’ve come to tell you, Dad,” Ben began. “I———”

“Come in, come in,” his father said. “Don’t stand there like a stranger.”

Another moment was lost, and Ben followed his father into the sitting-room. His mother came too, taking off her apron. She never wore it in the sitting-room in case someone came unexpectedly to call, although, as her husband never heard the door chimes, and nobody without gelignite could get into the house unless she shot back the bolts for them, there was not much chance of her being caught off her guard.

They all sat down on various pieces of the embossed suite of furniture which had managed to remain as unreceptively convex as when it was bought five years ago. Ben’s mother sat on the edge of the chair with her ankles crossed and her hands clasped, and looked at him with her bright, beady eyes. She was a spry little woman with a magpie look about her greying black hair and a taste in clothes which ran to the sulphur-yellows and heliotropes and that sickly colour which was once foisted on to a loyal public as Marina green when the Duchess of Kent was married. Only her skin was grey and colourless, and appeared more so because of her bright clothes and hats. She could have refurbished it to match her apparel, but in her code you did not do things to the face God gave you.

Ben’s father sat in his chair with his thick thighs apart and his torso laid between them like an egg. He too looked at Ben through his round spectacles, and Ben took a deep breath and started to say: “Well, the axe caught up with me at last.”

As he spoke, his father spoke too, in his louder boom. “Sun’s over the yardarm.” He pushed himself upright and went over to the cupboard under the gramophone, from which he produced a new half-bottle of gin, and broke the seal. It was always a new bottle, bought expressly for Ben’s visits. A generous gesture in a frugal household, but one which succeeded in making him feel that they thought of him as an alcoholic who would not come at all if he was only going to be given beer.

He poured pink gins for himself and Ben and a small gin and orange for his wife, which she held up to the light with her head on one side as if it were a ruby wine before sipping at it with puckered lips.

“Welcome aboard,” Ben’s father said, and Ben said: “Glad to be aboard, sir,” and looked into his glass to find the words to tell him that except as a visitor he would never be aboard one of H.M. ships again.

“So you went to London,” Mr Francis said, stretching out his short legs and leaning back in a man-to-man way. “Went to see Rose Kelly, eh?”

Ben had not originally told them about Rose, but they had found out about her from Geneva Hogg’s sister, Marion’s Aunt Florence, with whom Ben’s mother had maintained a regular correspondence, although since Marion’s death she had lost touch with Geneva, whom she had never liked.

She met Aunt Florence for lunch at Stewart’s once a year when she went to London to do her Christmas shopping. Between Christmases, they exchanged animated letters, mostly about the illnesses and bereavements of people unknown to each other, but none the less interesting for that. Then there had been the juicy piece of news about Ben, and when he had come to Wavecrest one week-end to mention casually that he might marry a television star, they had already known about Rose and been able to get in first with: “Why didn’t you tell us?”

They were familiar with Rose’s appearance on the television set which perched insecurely on narrow, pointed legs in the corner of the sitting-room, and Mrs Francis’s first reaction had been:
“Why did you have to pick another one who was so—you know?” Sexy was a word she might use to Ben when she was roaming chattily round his room at night when he was in bed trying to read, but she would not use it in front of her husband.

Rose would not go to Southampton and Ben’s parents seldom went to London, so that they had never met. Rose was not curious about the parents of Ben, or anyone else. She was not interested in the contents of people’s lives which did not directly affect her. Ben’s parents were curious about her, but not enough to make them drive their little car all the way to London or to do what they called “facing the trains”, so that they talked about her with a certain amount of suspicion, as if she were something that was being kept from them. Ben wished that they could meet, for Rose, who wanted everyone to like her, would be very charming and gracious, and would captivate his mother out of telling his father and people on the telephone: “I fear the worst.”

“We saw your lady friend on that thing last week,” Mr Francis said, jerking his head to the set whose existence he would not dignify with a name. He watched it by the hour, but would never admit that television was here to stay.

“She was good, didn’t you think?”

“So-so. Pretty girl.” He drained his glass and set it down with a little gasp. “When are you going to make an honest woman of her, Benjamin?” He did not think that his son was living with this woman, but it was just as well to be jocular about it, in case he was.

“I honestly don’t know,” Ben said truthfully.

“An actress,” his mother said. “I don’t know. It worries me sick to think what kind of wife she would make for a naval officer. If only she was on the B.B.C., it wouldn’t seem to matter so much.”

Now was the time to tell them that he would soon no longer be a naval officer; but his mother was off to the kitchen to dish up the lunch, and if Ben told his father while she was absent she would say that they were trying to keep things from her.

He could not mention it during lunch either, because the commotion with knife sharpeners and vegetable dishes and tipping the platter to extract the gravy from under the meat, and a long and inconclusive discussion as to whether this new butcher was any better than the Co-op, made any serious announcement impossible.

When they had drunk their coffee, from the little lacquer cups
which were so narrow that you hit your nose trying to get to the bottom of them, and before his father could knock out his gold-banded pipe and say: “How about taking a turn down the road to look at the sad sea waves?” Ben stood up in front of the tiled stove in the fireplace and said: “I’m being axed from the Navy.”

His father looked stunned and his mother clapped a flowered handkerchief to her mouth, and they both said: “Why didn’t you tell us before?”

* Chapter * *

Ben’s mother was sick at heart all the next morning, and would not go to church because she said she could not face the neighbours.

“Oh, look here, Mum.” Ben rather wanted to go to church with her. It was one of the few things they did together which gave him the illusion of being a closely knit family. Also it would get him out of the house in case his father wanted to renew last night’s discussion of whether he should stay in the Navy as long as he could, or get out next month. Unconsciously echoing Rose, his parents wanted him to stay. Not being realists, they believed in putting off until the last minute anything that was unpalatable. If the newspaper carried nasty headlines about Russia, they read the front page last.

“Even if you have telephoned half the neighbours,” Ben said, “and they’ve telephoned the other half, there’s nothing disgraceful about my being axed. It’s happening to everyone.”

“You are not everyone. You are my son. You don’t seem to realize what a crushing blow this has been to me,” his mother said, eating barley sugar as a substitute for the breakfast she had declared herself unable to face. “I would never have the strength to go out in this wind.”

“After all I’d hoped for. All I’d planned,” Mr Francis intoned. He was prowling about this morning like a ghost in the wrong house, unable to settle to anything. The Sunday papers were still unopened, a thing unheard of.

“Why harp on it?” said Ben, looking at the clock and wondering when he would have the courage to tell them he was not staying for lunch. “It doesn’t help. I felt badly about it first, I must admit, but I’m not sure that I give a damn about it now. It’s a new chance,
after all. I might make my fortune. One day we may all be glad the Navy threw me out.”

“How can you talk like that?” His father stopped in his prowling, stricken on the green-and-beige hearth-rug. “The Navy was your life. They’ve taken your life away from you.”

Ben was silent. Only his listening thoughts heard him answer the old man: It wasn’t. I never was a career man. The Navy happened to me because of you—on top of other things. You wanted it to be my life, but there were always so many other things I wanted to do. Now it’s too late for most of them.

Too late to be a doctor, a lawyer, a chemist, an architect—all the careers which his changing enthusiasms had considered for his moderate talents when he was still at school, and looking for a life without regimentation, or discipline from anyone except himself. When he left school, the war had come, and imposed regimentation and discipline on everybody. Ben applied for a commission in the Air Force. At least you could be on your own sometimes in a plane.

In January 1940 his elder brother was lost in a submarine in the North Sea. Ben withdrew his application and joined the Naval Reserve. There was nothing else to do, it seemed, if he were ever to meet his father’s eyes again.

The Navy was something Mr Francis had always wanted for himself, but his eyesight kept him out. He had spent most of his life at sea, however, as a purser on passenger liners. A mediocre man with less ambition for himself than for his sons, he had eventually risen from tourist-class purser, but he had never climbed higher than the cabin class, where for countless voyages back and forth across the Atlantic, his humourless anecdotes had bored the five or six passengers who had the misfortune to sit at his table. Widows had tried to draw him out, pretty women in irresponsible sea-going mood had tried to tease him. All in vain. It was always a relief on the last night of a crossing when Mr Francis was too busy to come to the saloon for dinner.

All his hopes and dreams were centred in the clever, genial Matthew, the very cut of a naval officer, as his father called him, our future First Sea Lord. When Matthew was taken from him, the hopes and dreams were transferred to Ben. As Matthew had been in submarines, when Ben was a sub-lieutenant, he chose submarines too. What difference did it make? There was a war
on, and it was at least something he could do to please his father, ploughing his way through the hazardous seas in the troop-transport liner in which he had once held his sober little cocktail parties, where the
hors d’oeuvre
were more exciting than the conversation.

At the end of the war, when everyone was trying to get out and there was a scramble for jobs, Ben had transferred to the regular Navy. His father desperately wanted it, and he had to have a decent job if he was going to marry Marion. She was not the type who would live in a caravan until you found work, or get up at half-past five to send you off fed to a factory.

School and the Navy were all he had ever known of life beyond the threshold of home. Now he had a chance to find out what else was going on in the world. How could his father talk about his life being taken away from him? When he got away from this house and could think straight without this confusion of irritation and pity, Ben believed that he was going to find that what the Navy had done was to give his life back to him.

BOOK: Man Overboard
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