Authors: Daphne Du Maurier
Tags: #Fiction / Alternative History, #Fiction / Dystopian, #Fiction / Political, #Fiction / Satire
Terry vanished as quickly as Joe had done and Mad went through to the kitchen, followed by her granddaughter.
Mad’s one-time dresser, who had barely finished stacking the dishwasher and laying the kitchen table for the next repast, turned a flushed and harassed face in their direction.
“It seems those American soldiers want to camp in the stables,” announced Mad. “They’ve just landed in the paddock in a helicopter.”
“Oh dear,” said Dottie, “however are we to manage? Will they want tea? And what about blankets? There’ll never be enough to go round.”
“Don’t be idiotic, Dottie. These men have their own equipment. Iron rations, or whatever soldiers have, groundsheets, field telephones, radios, everything…”
Mad gestured largely, shrugging her shoulders. Anyone would think she was enjoying the situation. The other boys had dispersed to their various quarters, all but black Ben, who was hunting for crumbs under the kitchen table.
“Thank goodness,” said Dottie. “We couldn’t possibly have managed to feed a lot of soldiers. The baker’s never called as it is, with all this emergency, and we’ve run out of bread. I don’t know what to give the boys for tea.”
“Give them cake,” said Mad. Shades of Marie Antoinette, thought Emma. “I tell you what,” said her grandmother, “you go and lie down, Dottie dear, you look worn out. It’s been a tiring day and it will probably get worse. I will make a cake for the boys, and they can have tea with me. Find me a basin, and lots of flour and butter and sugar, and all the necessary. Eggs, have we any eggs?”
Dottie raised her eyebrows at Emma, and Emma shrugged. The thing was, Mad’s cakes were terribly hit or miss, generally miss, and the net result, as Pa used to say, was like molten lead. Her one or two successes had gone to her head, but usually the effect upon everybody’s digestion was damaging to the extreme and the cakes had to be crumbled up the next day and given to the birds.
“Come on, come on,” said Mad impatiently, “let’s get started. If it turns out well, I’ve half a mind to go against my principles and ask that Colonel Cheesering or whatever he calls himself in to tea, if he’s still here. I haven’t heard the helicopter take off yet.”
It will be his finish if you do, thought her granddaughter. She took a peep out of the kitchen window. Terry’s charm was working. He was engaged in conversation with both Colonel Cheeseman and Lieutenant Sherman. They must have been discussing the household, because the two officers glanced up at the window, and the colonel, whose voice had carrying power, said something like, “You don’t say? I thought there was something familiar about her face, but her costume had me puzzled.” His words could mean one thing only. Terry had spilt the beans about Mad. Emma could not decide whether this was in their favor or not. Possibly it was. Americans always liked well-known people. It must help, too, knowing Admiral Jollif. Perhaps the colonel had forgotten the remark about being a pompous ass, or if he still remembered it he would gloss it over, putting it down to Mad’s great age.
“I think it’s going to be all right,” said Mad later, inspecting her creation, which, on emerging from the oven and being turned out of its tin, looked like a semi-inflated, khaki-colored balloon and exuded a curious smell of burned almonds and bitter chocolate. “It’s risen, anyway. They don’t always. I shall tell that American colonel it’s a dough-cake. They live on dough over there. Terry’s just gone out to ask him to tea.”
Emma carried the silver tray through to the music room. Mad always used the silver tray when, as Dottie expressed it, they had company.
“Where on earth are the boys?” asked her grandmother, having spread a crumpled lace tablecloth on a card table with a rickety leg. “Call them, darling, will you?”
But only Folly, also on a rickety leg, emerged from her chair in the library. She had smelled Mad’s cake. She knew, with age-old dog cunning, that most of it would fall from the company’s hands onto the floor. Before Emma could summon the reluctant brood, there was the sound of the gate clicking by the front lawn. It was Terry, escorting the American officers to the front door. Flushed and self-important, he threw open the music room door.
“Colonel Cheeseman, Madam,” he announced, “come to say good-bye before taking off in the chopper.”
The colonel, with the lieutenant at his heels, looked less formidable than before. His teeth were bared in a smile. Terry had evidently done his stuff.
“I won’t detain you, ma’am,” he said. “I just want to thank you for your courtesy. This lad of yours has been of real assistance.”
“I’m so glad,” answered Mad, and Emma noticed she had assumed her false voice, the one she used for answering the telephone. “You must both have a cup of tea before you go, and a slice of my homemade cake.”
Her smile was gracious, the wave of her hand indicated the easy chairs close to the tea table.
“Well, ma’am, it’s hard to refuse you,” said Colonel Cheeseman, “and I reckon we can spare five minutes just to taste that cake.”
Terry, with a swift glance from the inflated balloon to Emma, darted from the room. “Oh, has the laddie gone?” exclaimed the colonel. “I meant to thank him too for his time and trouble.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mad, “he’ll be back. He’s probably gone to tell the others that tea’s ready. We’re quite a large household, you know.”
“So I’ve heard, ma’am, so I’ve heard.” The colonel looked arch and shook his head gently at his hostess. “I said to Lieutenant Sherman just now back in your stable yard, the assignment we’ve been given, which, please God, will turn out to the advantage of all of us, British and Americans alike, will be doubly interesting to me personally, now I know who is the owner of the stable block.” He paused, expecting perhaps that Mad would at least incline her head. She was intent, however, on cutting a slice of the cake to proffer to her admirer.
“Oh, really,” she said, frowning—the knife must be blunt.
“I don’t suppose you’ll credit it,” continued the colonel, “but one of my fondest boyhood memories is of your whirlwind tour of the United States. It made the most profound impression on me.”
Emma watched the knife finally succeed in its task. The piece of cake, like Shylock’s pound of flesh, fell onto the plate. She wondered, at the same time, what Colonel Cheeseman meant by a whirlwind tour. Her grandmother had been to America several times in the past, but as far as she knew had only performed in New York.
“I’m so glad,” said Mad, passing the plate to her victim, while Folly edged close to the colonel’s boots. “Can you remember the play? Was it one of my late husband’s?”
“No, ma’am,” answered Colonel Cheeseman. “The play I am talking about dates back three centuries or more and was written by William Shakespeare. And I’ve never forgotten your first entrance as Lady Macbeth.”
Oh heavens, thought Emma, he’s boobed, he’s absolutely done it. Mad had never been a Shakespearean actress, and had certainly never played Lady Macbeth either in her own country or in the United States, though she frequently imitated those of her contemporaries who had done so, as a parlor trick to amuse the boys. She watched her grandmother, waited for the knife-edge riposte. It did not come. Mad smiled. A smile so genuine, so unforced, it seemed to embrace the world, not only the colonel.
“Then it’s a memory we can share, Colonel Cheesering,” she said. “I’ve never forgotten it either. Have some of my cake.”
The impact of the one upon the other was short-lived, however, for the march of great events broke up the tea party. The colonel had made two attempts to bite into the toy balloon, and at the third, as an unblended almond slipped from between his lips and Folly upon her rickety hind leg leaped for it, the door burst open and Terry came into the room once more.
“Dottie’s just told me,” he said. “She heard it on the radio that the Prime Minister is making a statement on television. He’s in the middle of it now.”
Everybody stood up. Mad brushed past the tea table.
“Come through to the library,” she commanded. “All of you. Terry, switch it on fast.”
They grouped themselves around the television, and as they waited for the picture to appear the colonel murmured sotto voce to his hostess, “If he says what I think he’s going to say, this is a very great day for our two countries.” Right on cue, as if in answer to Colonel Cheeseman, came the voice of the Prime Minister in full spate, bang in the middle of a sentence.
“… we had no alternative, and we ask for no alternative; for the union that has been offered to us, and that we have gladly and gratefully accepted, is one which will bring new strength, new determination and new hope for the future, not only for our two peoples but for the whole of the free world.” His face and shoulders appeared on the screen as his voice dropped to a more solemn note. “You will ask yourselves why we have kept silent up to now, why, in fact, we did not take you into our confidence days, even weeks, ago. My friends, we have been living through troublous times. The breakdown of our partnership within the European community and our withdrawal from it, due to no failure on our part, brought great economic difficulties, as I feared would be the case and as I warned you at the time, and our political autonomy and military supremacy were also endangered.
“Now, thanks to our old allies and new partners, we are threatened no longer. The great combination of the United States and the United Kingdom, to be known henceforth as USUK, need fear no one. What we have to give is theirs, what they have to give is ours. We are a great and common people. I am proud to tell you that Her Majesty the Queen is at this moment on her way to Washington, to stay at the White House with the President of the United States, not only as his guest but as co-President of USUK. The President, in his turn, will enjoy a short period of office in Buckingham Palace.
“Once again, you may ask, why were the people of this great nation not informed that these momentous changes were to take place? Because”—and his voice dropped lower still—“it was essential, for the success of our enterprise, that no word of the project should become public knowledge until the union had come into being. Every loyal citizen will welcome this partnership as one of the greatest advances in our long and glorious history. But within the last few months a small minority—prompted by powerful groups in other countries with opposing interests to our own—have succeeded in causing grave disruption to our economic stability and to the peaceful rhythm of our daily lives. The damage caused has been out of all proportion to the insignificant numbers of those involved, and their cunning is such that few people outside their ranks have understood the perils to which their actions were exposing our nation. We could not run the risk of allowing this small body of malcontents to jeopardize the success of our great project. This is why you have woken up this morning to find our new allies already gathered on this island. I would ask you, wherever you meet with either our own armed services or those of the United States, acting singly or together, to give them your full cooperation. More than this, give them your friendship too. Citizens of USUK—long live the President of the United States, long live the Queen, long live our great and glorious people and the heritage we share.”
The Prime Minister’s voice rose to a higher note, he threw back his head and squared his shoulders, and as his image faded the picture of the two flags, the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, took its place, accompanied by the strains of the joint national anthems.
The silence in the library was profound. The two American officers were standing to attention, or rather endeavoring to do so, for both held between their hands, like an offertory at church, the plates on which lay the uneaten slices of Mad’s cake. Emma did not know whether to laugh or cry, and she looked to her grandmother for a lead. For the first time, however, this was not forthcoming. Mad’s expression was inscrutable. She continued staring at the television long after the picture had dimmed and the music had died away.
The tension was broken by the sounds of children’s excited laughter coming from the hall. Colin ran into the room, dragging Ben by the hand, his angel face triumphant, his eyes like stars.
“Ben can talk!” he cried. “Ben can talk! He heard the anthems on the telly and he’s spoken his first word!”
Mad held out her arms to both boys, but for once they disregarded the gesture.
“I taught him,” declared Colin. “It’s all my doing.”
Emma turned to the two American officers. “He’s three years old,” she explained hurriedly. “We were afraid he would never learn to speak, although he understands everything.”
Colonel Cheeseman smiled. “I guess this is doubly an historic occasion,” he said, “and I’m proud to be in on it. Come here, little fellow, and let’s hear what you have to say.”
Ben rolled his eyes towards Colin and Colin nodded his head. Ben wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and walked slowly forward to the colonel.
“Sh…” he began, “sh…,” then paused, as though to summon greater strength.
“Come on, son, don’t be afraid,” said Colonel Cheeseman. “This is the finest moment in your young life, and maybe in all of ours as well.”
“Shit!” said Ben.
Officially, the state of emergency lasted through the whole of the long weekend, from the Thursday to the following Tuesday. No reason was given other than that announced by the Prime Minister, that “a small body of malcontents” had caused “grave disruption to our economic stability.” The expression, Emma could not help feeling, was sinister but vague. Perhaps he meant demos in Trafalgar Square or outside the Houses of Parliament, but then there hadn’t been any demos for months, because the mass of people, having voted overwhelmingly for the present Coalition Government after the referendum about withdrawing from Europe, couldn’t very well demo about anything without losing face. Unemployment was still acute, prices were rising all the time, but this seemed to have become a way of life. Did union with the U.S. mean that everything would change and everyone be happy? In which case, who were the “small body of malcontents” who would wish to prevent it? It was all very puzzling. It was useless trying to discuss the matter with Mad, she refused to do so.
“I withhold comment,” she said icily, “until the state of emergency is over.”
Which means, decided Emma, she disapproves of the whole thing. She thinks it’s phoney. Well, perhaps she is right. But one can’t exactly treat it as phoney while the marines occupy the stable block, there are barricades on the main road and the telephone is cut. The only thing you can do is to sit glued to the television and hope something will happen in between the succession of old American and British films. There were news flashes, of course. The Queen being greeted at the White House by the President, Prince Philip being welcomed by a tribe of Red Indians with whom, somewhat surprisingly, he was suddenly going to camp. The other members of the royal family were also scattered, the Princess Royal doing something with Girl Guides in Australia, the Prince of Wales commanding his destroyer in the Indian Ocean, the Duke of York seconded from his regiment to serve with the Mounted Police in Canada and Prince Edward on a mountaineering course in Scotland.
Terry, whose technical school had also closed down for the half term, spent his time eavesdropping on the marines in the stable block. He inferred darkly that they spent most of their time listening to pop music on a shortwave radio.
“They did let Mr. Trembath know about poor Spry,” he told Emma. “The C.O. who came to tea sent the corporal down. Corporal Wagg.”
“How do you know?” asked Emma.
“The corporal told me himself, when he came to the side door to return the bucket,” said Terry. So there
to-ing and fro-ing, despite Mad’s instructions to the contrary. Only a matter of time, thought Emma, before they were creeping up the back stairs for cups of tea. “The corporal said they were very pleasant to him at the farm,” Terry went on, “and asked him in, and he said that if all the Cornish girls were as hot as Myrtle he’d stay put when the alert was over and to hell with the marines.”
“Go on with you,” laughed Emma, “that was just his talk.”
“Maybe,” said Terry, “but I know Myrtle. You’ve only got to flash at her once and she’s had it.”
Glowering, he lumbered off to the shrubbery, where Mad had set him and Joe to cutting down the dead trees, “to keep them employed,” she said. Mad herself, when not supervising the lumberjacks, had formed an association with Andy and Sam in the basement, and all three of them were engaged in cleaning and sharpening the stacks of lethal arrows and restringing the bows.
“But, darling,” remonstrated Emma, when the boys had run off to find fresh emery paper, “you shouldn’t encourage them.”
“Why ever not?” asked her grandmother, looking up from her task, the weapon in her hands more dangerous than a pygmy’s spear. “Andy will make a first-class shot. I wish I knew what’s become of that old straw target we used to have. I’m certain he would hit the bull’s eye every time.”
Andy, his thatch of hair more unruly than ever, came running back again from the old scullery, and smiled when he heard Mad’s remark.
“I can do better than that, Madam,” he said. “I can hit an orange on a bamboo stick at fifty yards. I know, I’ve tried it from my watchtower in the chimney.”
“Good for you,” said Mad, “but don’t waste the arrows.”
Oh, heavens, thought Emma, you might as well… you might as well go stand upon the beach and bid the main tide cease its angry flood… Was she quoting aright? Anyway, she knew what she meant. Her grandmother was inflexible. She went up to the kitchen, hearing voices, and found, to her great surprise, that Dottie was engaged in conversation with Lieutenant Sherman. Emma felt her cheeks go red, and was furious with herself in consequence.
“Good day to you,” he said, smiling.
“Good day,” replied Emma, but it was not an expression she ever used and she felt a fool doing so.
“The officer has come to tell us that the state of emergency will be over tomorrow,” said Dottie, “and we shall all be free to come and go as we please. That’s a great relief, isn’t it?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Emma. “Does it mean we shall have our telephone working again and the boys can go back to school?”
Lieutenant Sherman stroked his chin. “Well now,” he replied, “as to your first question, yes, your telephone should be working normally from 6 a.m. onwards. As to the second… I fear I’ve not been briefed. But I rather think your schools will remain closed until next week.”
“What a nuisance,” said Emma. “It’s such a bind to keep them amused.”
Lieutenant Sherman smiled again. “You find it so?” he asked. “I wouldn’t have thought it. They seemed fully occupied to me.”
He winked at her, which was rather fun, she thought—though she hoped he was thinking of Joe and Terry in the shrubbery rather than Andy with his bow and arrows in the chimney. It was nice that he had a sense of humor, though actually it hadn’t exactly been apparent the other day when Ben uttered his first word—Ben hadn’t spoken since—but then the commanding officer had been present, and everyone was under strain, what with the P.M.’s announcement and having to eat Mad’s cake. Emma wished she could ask him to come in later for a drink, but Mad might not like it, or, if she did, then she might come and pour out the drinks herself and hog the conversation.
“We’ll be seeing you, then?” she said casually.
“I hope so,” he answered. “By the way, my name is Wallace Sherman, known to my friends as Wally. My respects to your grandmother. I hope she’s been able to rest these last days and we haven’t disturbed her.”
Disturbed her, you little know… She’s sharpening arrows this moment below in the basement. Emma watched the lieutenant return to the stable block with reluctance, but she was slightly put off by the name Wally. One couldn’t imagine saying to Mad, “I’m going out with Wally tonight…”
There was no question of Lieutenant Wallace Sherman coming in for drinks or offering Emma iron rations in the stables, because later that evening they heard continual coming and going between the main road and the stable yard. A couple of jeeps had now appeared on the scene, and the marines were evidently clearing up their equipment in preparation for moving off.
“Good job too,” said Terry, peering out of the kitchen window into the dusk. “We don’t want them hanging about here any longer.”
“They’ll not be going far,” said Joe quietly, “only down the bottom of the hill. Corporal Wagg told me there are two commando units in our district, and they’re taking over all of Poldrea sands and the docks as well. The sands are to be roped off, and they’re to requisition the bathing huts and caravans as living quarters.”
“But what the hell for?” exploded Terry. “That Lieutenant Sherman said the state of emergency would be over by tomorrow.”
“He didn’t tell me why,” replied Joe, “and I don’t for a moment suppose he knew.”
“It’s the Communists, depend upon it,” said Dottie. “I expect they’ll be parachuted down from Russian airplanes dressed as nuns, as they did in the last war.”
“I know what the Communists will do,” said Colin, who had suddenly emerged from the playroom where, so it appeared from the state of the wallpaper later, he had been teaching Ben to write. “They’ll swim in to Poldrea beach disguised as mermaids, lashing great rockets to their tails that are full of T.N.T. At least that’s what I would do, if I were a Communist.”
Ben, who was clinging to Colin’s hand as usual, nodded his head vigorously in agreement, and to show he meant business pursed his lips to frame the dreaded Sh… Emma escaped just in time to spare herself hearing Dottie’s outraged cry and Terry’s shout of laughter.
That evening, when she and her grandmother were thinking of going to bed, the telephone suddenly rang.
“I’ll get it,” said Emma quickly. “It might be some sort of message from the stables, they could have fixed up a house-to-house line.”
For lack of anything better to think about her mind had been full of the lieutenant. She tore through to the lobby where the telephone was installed. It wasn’t the lieutenant, it was Pa.
“Oh, it’s you!” she exclaimed, not sure whether to be sorry or relieved. “We were told the line wouldn’t be working until tomorrow morning.”
“I got priority,” said Pa, “no problem at all.” Which was typical, of course. He liked to sound important. “Well,” he asked, “how have you weathered the crisis? I don’t mind telling you, things have been humming up here.”
“I dare say,” said his daughter. “They’ve been humming down here too. Helicopters roaring overhead, soldiers, Americans, everywhere—we’ve even had them in the stable block, but they say they’re going tomorrow. Rumor has it they’ve taken over all of Poldrea beach and the docks as well.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” said Pa, “a very sensible move, in the circumstances, nobody wants a lot of hooligans trying to upset the nation, not that they’d succeed. It’s wonderful news, isn’t it?”
“What is?” Emma asked.
“Why, the two countries forming a union. Should have happened years ago. Some of us have been advocating it ever since we boobed it in Europe. Now we’ve all got to make it work. There’ll be some dissenters, of course, but we can soon shut them up if they try to make trouble. Tell me, is Mad behaving herself?”
“More or less,” said Emma guardedly. “I mean, she’s not done anything dreadful. We were all upset the first day because one of the soldiers shot poor Spry, Mr. Trembath’s dog, who happened to be loose.”
“Oh well, if that was the only casualty, count yourselves lucky. These chaps can be trigger-happy, you know, and you want to take damn good care not to obstruct them when they’re on duty. I hope you’ve got that gang of yours under control.”
“Yes, they’re being very good.”
“Well, if I’m not under too much pressure up here I might slip down to see you all, though I can’t say when.”
Emma wondered what the pressure could be. Floods of money either coming in, or going out of, the Bank of England, and Pa with his finger on the pulse. Her grandmother came into the lobby. “Vic?” she said, seizing the receiver from Emma.
Mother and son started talking at once, neither listening to the other, both expostulating, both arguing, which was standard practice when they were on the telephone together.
“I shall never forgive you,” Mad was saying. “Of course you knew all about it, and so did Jimmy Jollif, one of you should have warned me, and then we shouldn’t have been taken by surprise. Nonsense, you know how discreet I am, I wouldn’t have shouted it from the rooftops or gone round Poldrea telling everyone I met. What? I can’t hear a word you’re saying. No, I thought the Prime Minister was very sinister, but then he always is. And who are all these people who are going to create trouble? I don’t mind telling you, I shall be among the first.”
They banged on, parry and thrust, like a couple of prizefighters. But time was precious and Pa’s five minutes of priority evidently ran out, for Mad, clamping down the receiver, made for the stairs and bed.
“Vic will go on and on,” she said, never realizing that it was precisely what she did herself. “I can’t think who he gets it from, certainly not from me, and his father was so quick and to the point. He’s talking utter nonsense, of course. Such a ridiculous name too, USUK, make us the laughingstock of the world, but then we’ve been that for years. Em darling, if those roadblocks are down tomorrow you and I will go and do the shopping. I must find out how everyone is taking this business.”
The following morning, soon after ten, Emma brought the car round to the front gate, and discovered, somewhat to her dismay, that Andy, Colin and Ben were ranged before her grandmother on the steps.
“Must we take them too?” she asked.
“Why ever not?” Mad, in full battle array, navy blue from top to toe, Mao Tse-tung to the life, told the boys to climb into the backseat. “I see the marines have left us,” she observed with a glance at the stable block. “Well, that’s a relief, at any rate. I hope they haven’t gone off with the manure.”
She settled herself at the driving wheel, and Emma resigned herself to the inevitable in the seat beside her. Mad’s first motion as chauffeur was generally to crash into reverse. The boys were used to it, and invariably braced themselves for the jolt.
“I feel as if we’ve been imprisoned for months,” Mad declared, as they swerved out of the lane at the top of the hill and onto the main road, taking the corner like the driver of a bobsleigh at St. Moritz. “Thank goodness there’s nothing on the road and we’ve got a clear run.”
It was clear, fortunately for the bobsleigh team, until they reached the bottom of the hill, when Mad, with great presence of mind, slammed her foot on the brake and brought her craft to a halt almost immediately beneath a roadblock that barred further progress. A hut had been erected at the side of the road and beside it a soldier was positioned as sentry.
“Your pass, please, ma’am,” he said.
“What do you mean, my pass?” asked Mad, outraged. “Everybody knows me here, I don’t have to have a pass.”
The soldier—not one of their stable block marines but American nevertheless—looked apologetic. “Sorry, ma’am, it’s a regulation, came into force this morning. Where do you come from?”
“I live three minutes from here, at the top of the hill, the house called Trevanal. Your men have been quartered in my stables for the past five days.”