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Authors: Daphne Du Maurier

Tags: #Fiction / Alternative History, #Fiction / Dystopian, #Fiction / Political, #Fiction / Satire

Rule Britannia (2 page)

BOOK: Rule Britannia
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Emma awoke to the sound of planes passing overhead, but she was not fully conscious, and the sound merged with her dream. The dream was a recurring one, begun in childhood around the age of five and returning still at the age of twenty, so she knew it must have some sort of psychological importance, but what it was she did not care. In the dream she and Mad were holding hands, bowing gracefully to the audience and then to one another. The applause was deafening, and the curtain rose and fell several times but the clapping never ceased. As a child she had looked up to Mad in the dream, as her protectress, and there was a feeling of reassurance in the echoing smile, in the squeeze of the hand, as though Mad were saying, “It’s all right, they can’t hurt you, I’m here, now and forever.” Then through schooldays and adolescence the protectress figure had shrunk, or rather it was that Emma grew, and now they were equal in power, she and Mad, they were identical faces on either side of a coin, and the applause was for them both… The last burst of clapping, the final fall of the curtain, and it wasn’t the world of theater anymore but the dwindling sound of aircraft humming inland away from the coast, and she was in her own bed with the window rattling against the sill, the curtains blowing, and the smell of morning, cold and clean, seeping into the room.

Emma looked at her bedside clock—it was a few minutes after seven—and then switched on her radio to the local station. But there was no time signal, no announcer with the news, nothing but an interminable hum that must mean there was a fault somewhere, and it wasn’t any better when she tried the national program. The hum persisted, with crackling and spitting thrown in for good measure. “Oh, to hell with it!” She pushed the transistor aside and lay back on her pillow, her hands behind her head, transposing “To be or not to be” from
into a critical assessment of her own ambivalent life. To leave or not to leave, that is the question; whether ’tis nobler to continue living, sharing Mad’s life, her home, her whole existence, or to break here and now with all dominion, cut myself loose, start on a separate road…

The trouble is, which road? That was the rub. No openings for girls with or without the right exams behind them. Secretarial pools all jammed with applicants. Men, women, boys, girls, jostling for position, scrambling to obtain the few jobs worth the holding, and ever since the government had back-tracked and pulled out of Europe—dissension among the Ten was the official reason, and a national referendum had given the government of the day a thumping majority—things seemed to have gone from bad to worse. So Pa said, and he ought to know, being a merchant banker.

“Travel the world,” he told her. “I’ll pay.”

“I don’t want charity,” she replied. “I’ve turned eighteen.”

And so the inevitable and abortive effort to make the grade on the stage. Mad’s influence, of course. But despite the recurring dream she had made no headway. And unless she could get to the top bang off, then there was nothing doing. Not after all those childhood years with applause sounding in her ears. TV commercials or regional announcing? No, thank you, ladies and gentlemen and viewers everywhere. Let us rather bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.

Emma tried the radio again, with the same result, a prolonged hum. She got out of bed and went along the passage to turn on the bathwater. Glancing out of the window she saw that the curtains of the little boys’ room were still tightly drawn. Thank heaven for that—with luck they might still be asleep. The side door slammed, well, that would rouse them, if the sound of the planes hadn’t. It was Terry, wheeling his bicycle out of the side hall—where he was not supposed to keep it—and careering away up the drive. Terry was a poor early riser as a rule, unlike Joe, who was always up by seven, chopping wood or digging in the garden, and curiosity impelled Emma to throw open the window and call after him.

“Where are you going?”

He took no notice, of course, merely waved a careless hand, grinned over his shoulder and continued on his way. She was about to close the window again when she noticed that a slate on the sloping roof above the little boys’ room had worked loose and was sliding down into the guttering. It was followed by a second, and then a third. Rage filled her. She knew what it meant. Andy had climbed onto the roof from his bedroom on the other side of the house and was squatting on the disused chimney that was his favorite spy-place. He must somehow have dislodged the slates. “I can’t and I won’t stand it.” The memory of the dream, so different from reality, infused Emma with the sense of frustration that can only be appeased by instant action of a useless sort. Deliberately she let her tooth-glass fall into the washbasin with a crash. The splintered fragments gave her satisfaction. “Serve her right,” she muttered. Serve who right? Herself or Mad? The bathwater was tepid—the immersion heater must have gone wrong again. And this, she told herself, is what comes of living in a madhouse, rightly named after its owner, who, on retiring from the stage some years ago after a brilliant career, could think of nothing better to do than to adopt six parentless, maladjusted boys and let them run riot in her home, believing, by so doing, that she had justification for living when her career had finished.

“I won’t help her anymore. She must find someone else. I will not let my life be ruined. I’m far too young.”

Emma bathed and dressed—same old tunic, same old jeans, no one here to care how she looked—and then went downstairs into the kitchen, to be greeted by the revolting smell of eggs and bacon. Dottie insisted that growing boys must start the day with a good breakfast, otherwise they would lose their strength, and as she had the cooking of it she took responsibility.

Dottie had been Mad’s dresser for forty years, and now, torn from the world of theater she had made her own, was installed as cook, housekeeper, cleaner, nurse, or whatever else she might be called upon to do through the sudden demand of the employer she adored. You could hardly imagine, so Emma had decided long ago, the one without the other. If memory was a photographic plate, as she sometimes felt it must be, then her first memory was of the dressing room at the Theater Royal, with Mad turning round from the stool in front of the wide mirror, holding out her arms to Emma at the age of three or four and saying, “Darling…” with that radiant, wonderful smile, and Dottie bustling in the background behind a screen, putting some incredible costume on a hanger. Madam must have this… Madam must have that… Madam is on top of the world… Madam is in one of her moods. And so it was that Dottie’s appellation of “Madam,” which through the years spread down the theater hierarchy, from director, author and leading man to callboy and sceneshifter, became shortened at some forgotten moment, on the lips of a child, to the Mad of today. It was significant, though, that nobody was allowed to use the name but Emma. If anyone else had dared… the heavens would have split asunder.

The heavens were going to split any moment, as a matter of fact, so Emma decided as another wave of planes passed overhead. There must be scores of them, probably some exercise or other, and perhaps that was what was causing interference with the radio. Dottie was trying to squeeze her rotund form into the narrow gap between dishwasher and kitchen sink, head uptilted to the window beyond.

“What’s going on?” she said to Emma. “The blessed things don’t give one a moment’s peace. I didn’t need my alarm clock this morning. It was one long throb-throb before six. They ought to have more consideration for the general public.”

“Who do you mean by ‘they’?” asked Emma.

She began laying the table for the boys. Plates, knives and forks, cereal bowls.

“Well,” Dottie replied, returning to her fry, “the powers that be, whoever they are. They’ve no right to do it. Now I’ve burned the toast. It’s going to be one of those mornings. The post’s never come and I had to send Terry on his bike to look out for the van. If Madam doesn’t get her post with her orange juice there’ll be murder in the house. I’ve been expecting her bell for the past half-hour as it is. Get those boys moving, Emma dear, I’m all behindhand. And tell Andy to clean his teeth with the toothpaste, not the soap.”

A moment’s respite from the droning overhead. A sudden lull. I ought, thought Emma, to be doing something truly worthwhile, like nursing old people with leprosy, or feeding famine-stricken multitudes after a tidal wave… Oh hell, she thought, what a load of rubbish. This is what TV documentaries do to one, Mad is perfectly right. All judgment goes.

Deathly silence from the little boys’ room. Surely they were not still asleep? She opened the door. The curtains were tightly drawn, but the light was on. Ben was sitting in the far corner of the room on an upturned chamber pot to serve as stool. He was stark naked except for a pair of gloves and a discarded hat of Mad’s, sent to a jumble sale and never sold. He was ebony black and beautiful, and looked less than his three years. It was not only because of his color that Mad had adopted him but because, so the authorities told her, there was something amiss with his tongue, he might never learn to speak. He rolled delighted eyes at Emma as she entered, held up two fingers, a gesture taught him by Terry, then gazed once more towards the uppermost bed of the double-bedded bunk which he shared with Colin.

Colin, six years old, was as white as Ben was black, blue-eyed, golden-haired—a director would have picked him from a million candidates for the role of the child Jesus. Found in a ditch after a Pop festival, his parents never traced. Mad, who was snobbish at times, swore he was of royal descent, but the devil had a hand in his making too, for he had a serpent’s guile beneath an angel’s hide. “If anyone can teach Ben to speak Colin will,” Mad determined, and to Dottie’s consternation she placed them together in the double bunk, from which moment Colin had become Ben’s god, though speech had not yet materialized.

“What are you doing?” asked Emma suspiciously.

Colin was lying motionless on the top bunk with a sheet folded over him, his hands crossed on his breast. His eyes were closed. Emma walked over to the bunk and prodded his cheek, and one eye opened.

“Go away, Emma. I’m doing a play for Ben. I’m Madam dying, and in a moment I’m going to gasp and choke and it will be the end of the play. Ben will then have to clap, and I shall jump up and bow.”

“What a horrible idea for a play,” said Emma. “Stop it at once and dress, breakfast will be ready any minute.”

Colin looked aggrieved. “It’s not horrible at all. It’s realistic. Madam thought of it herself. We’re rehearsing it for her. At least, I am—Ben’s the audience.”

Emma left them to it and went out of the room. The trouble was, as Pa was in the habit of saying—though she disliked agreeing with him where Mad was concerned—the trouble was that Mad was the last person in the world who should be permitted to give a home to maladjusted children. Happy they might be, but the world they lived in was unreal, a world of fantasy. Like mine, Emma thought, like mine, we’re all tarred with the same brush, Mad’s brush…

She walked along the narrow passage and opened the door of the middle boys’ room. Andy and Sam, being twelve and nine, were known as the middle boys to distinguish them from their elders, Joe and Terry, who were nineteen and seventeen. The middle boys also had bunks, but their room was larger than the little boys’ lair, and it had a distinctive smell. This was due to the wired-off portion, containing a very ancient gray squirrel which, Sam had decided, could no longer fend for itself. The squirrel had shared the bedroom with him and Andy for several weeks. Discarded nutshells scattered the floor. Dottie had protested, practically in tears, that it was against all laws of hygiene.

“Hygiene my foot,” Mad told her. “Sam will probably grow up to become a famous zoologist and win a Nobel prize. I won’t have him checked.”

Sam was kneeling on the floor when Emma entered the room, but he was not tending to the squirrel’s needs. A new inhabitant, a pigeon, trailed a wing, while Sam endeavored to coax his visitor to take seed from his open palm. He glanced over his shoulder and motioned Emma to silence.

“Don’t come too near, Emmie,” he whispered, “you might scare him. Once he knows me for a friend he’ll let me bind up his wing.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Sam had saved wounded birds before now, but he had known failure too, and then there had been tears, and funeral ceremonies in the shrubbery, with Colin, invariably fascinated by death, performing his role as parson.

“How did it happen?” asked Emma, also whispering.

“He fell from the roof. He was disturbed by something.” Sam had a narrow, thin face, and he had been born with the squint that was still his distinguishing mark, making those who did not know and understand him feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the squint that had discomfited his parents some years previously. Sam had been a battered baby, and when Mad saw the bruises she seized him for her own.

“What disturbed him?” Emma enquired. “Was it those planes?”

The crossed eyes spared Sam from many an admission. People could never tell from their expression whether he was speaking the truth.

“Yes,” he said, “at least, I think so.”

The open window and the absence of Andy suggested otherwise, but Emma knew better than to expect Sam to betray his roommate.

“It’s all right, you don’t have to tell me,” she said. “I know he’s on the roof again, I saw the fallen slates from the bathroom window.”

She crossed the room, and opening the window wider still, but holding it firmly, leaned backwards, suggesting someone on the point of suicide. The square chimney at the roof’s end, long blocked from within, had a rounded aperture, whence the smoke in ancient times had issued from a vast range in a basement kitchen. Today the opening made a splendid vantage spot for an adventurous boy, who, well concealed, his matted hair, which might have been a jackdaw’s nest, the only visible sign of occupancy, could thus ensconce himself as lord of all he surveyed, occasionally to the disadvantage of those below.

“Come on down,” called Emma authoritatively. “I shan’t tell you again.”

BOOK: Rule Britannia
5.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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