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Authors: Rose Tremain

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BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
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‘Aunties' replaced her. Once or twice a Nigerian woman from the flat next door called Martha-Ann brought him round a great spicy bowl of something or other for his supper, and laughed and clapped her podgy hands while he gulped it down. He liked Martha-Ann. They would play noughts and crosses on a slate and he could beat her. Or listen to the wireless. He wasn't allowed to touch the wireless if no grown ups were there, but Martha-Ann always turned it on for him and at that time in the evening there was usually a funny show that they enjoyed; and Martha-Ann would laugh at all the jokes.
Tom's Ma – so different from Annie Sadler – couldn't bear to do any fussing and petting over her kid, it didn't seem natural to her. Tom had never been hugged much, or had her attention for longer than was necessary to keep him quiet. Tom loved her because she was his Ma. He was glad when she stayed in and talked to him. But he had also come to realize that as Mas went, she wasn't all that good. Martha-Ann's children were often picked up and given wet kisses and taken to the funfair on Saturdays. They even had a sweet tin on the window sill with lemon sherberts in it, and on Sundays they sat down to huge dinners that had taken all morning to cook. Tom once said to Martha-Ann that he wished she was his Ma, but the remark brought instant disaster. He immediately felt ashamed of having ‘betrayed' his own Ma, and Martha-Ann started shedding a great Niagara of tears.
When the war had started and people said the Germans would drop bombs on the East End, Tom's Ma thought it best to heed the Government's warning and send Tom away. She told herself that this would be ‘best all round'. Tom would have a nice time in the country and, bombs or no, at thirty-one she would at last have regained her freedom. When the bus left, taking the boy away, she made herself a cup of tea and lit a cigarette, feeling happier than she had done for years.
For his part, Tom experienced a very real despair as the bus turned out of his street. It wasn't leaving that was so bad, it was the feeling of having failed.
It was some weeks before Sadler could piece together enough of what Tom had told him to be able to follow the muddled turnings the boy's life had taken. But on that first evening, climbing the stairs to the top landing with Tom, Sadler racked his brain for something to say, some promise, he thought, some word to reassure the child that he could give him – what? Friendship? He supposed that was it: friendship. But Sadler had never really understood the term. He'd either loved people, or been indifferent to them. Understanding, then? But understanding was so close to pity and children recognized pity for the base emotion Sadler knew it to be. So keep quiet, he told himself, say nothing. Instead, he took Tom's hand as they went into his little room.
‘You be all right, then?' Sadler asked him.
‘I'm OK, mister,' Tom said.
Sadler drew his curtains and left him to himself. Tom sat down on the bed, took a dirty rubber out of one of his pockets and started rubbing his knee.
Miss Reader called after a week. She made a point, she said, of going round all the evacuee foster homes as often as she could, to find out how things were going. Clothes, she explained, had turned out to be one of the biggest problems. The long summer was tb blame. The weather had been so hot in the south of England that many of the London children had been sent off wearing sandals and cotton blouses. And now, of course, it was beginning to turn cold, and some of them didn't even possess a warm coat. The Government was to blame in part, Miss Reader stressed, so little warning was given that many of the mothers panicked and forgot to pack properly, just sent the youngsters off with what they had to hand.
‘Oh Tom has a coat,' Madge assured her, anxious for Miss Reader to be gone. ‘Anyway, if he needs clothes and things, you can be sure we'll get them for him.'
‘Good,' said Miss Reader. ‘Now what about bed wetting? Have you had any trouble?'
‘Oh good heavens no! I don't think so. I don't make the beds, you understand, but I'm sure Jane or Betty would have reported anything like that.'
‘You would be sure not to scold, if it does happen, wouldn't you? It's the strange surroundings, you see. They get over it in time, when they get used to you.'
‘I see. One can't help feeling sorry . . . It must be . . . I don't know . . . terrible, I suppose.'
‘It's a social upheaval quite unparalleled in recent years. But at least we know they're safe, don't we?'
‘I don't expect anyone knows how long it'll last, do they?'
‘Months – or years. Our lives will change, maybe for the better.'
Madge couldn't imagine a ‘better'. Money had bought her such treasures and when she moved among them she believed she was perfectly happy. There was Geoffrey, of course, so much less bright than all those shiny medals he'd won at Gallipoli, and a bit disorientated these last years, with no orders to give. He'd taken to making inventories: inventories of his library of military history, inventories of everything in the house worth more than a hundred pounds, inventories of the things he kept in his bedroom cupboards – stud boxes, button shiners, clothes brushes, shoe horns, cigar cases, innumerable ties and pairs of cufflinks, and his medals. Gives me something to do, he explained. And Madge thought he's probably a bit batty by now – perhaps we both are. But Geoffrey loved her. Geoffrey had cherished her all these years, without asking for much in return. She hated to think of a life without him.
‘Don't you agree?' Miss Reader asked.
‘What did you say?'
‘Don't you agree that change can be for the better? Take the last war.'
‘Oh,' said Madge, ‘we were still quite young then. It makes all the difference, doesn't it?'
Miss Reader abandoned the conversation. Madge told her that she'd find Tom in the garden, if she wanted to see him. Out at the back, Madge thought, or down at the stream.
‘He seems to like the stream,' she said.
Miss Reader went out and made rather ungainly progress through the damp orchard grass. She had caught sight of Sadler standing on the bank of the stream and welcomed the chance to talk to him again. Because he puzzled her. Behind the butler's convention of playing deaf, she judged him to be an intelligent observer. He himself seemed to invite observation. He looked, not down, when he spoke to you, but right at you and Miss Reader liked that look.
Tom was down in the stream. He'd collected as many large stones as he could find and was trying to make a dam. But the current was stronger than it seemed; he could hardly get two or three stones together before the water parted them and sent them scudding into the bank. Sadler was watching him, biting on a pipe that had gone out.
‘It's no good, Tom,' he was saying, ‘we'll have to go and look for some bigger stones.'
‘There ain't none any bigger.'
‘Or use something else as a foundation, a log or something.'
‘Yeah, OK.'
Miss Reader waved to them.
‘Hullo there!'
Sadler turned and Tom looked up. Miss Reader sensed that they resented the intrusion.
‘What a lovely stream, isn't it?' she said.
‘Wot she want?' Tom asked Sadler.
‘Oh, I've come to see if everything's all right. You remember me, don't you, Tom? I was at the Centre when you all arrived.'
‘I don't remember you.'
‘We're OK though, aren't we Tom?' Sadler cut in quickly.
‘I dunno.'
Tom climbed up the farther bank of the stream and began to wander off. Miss Reader turned to Sadler.
‘He's with you most of the time, is he?'
Sadler's eyes were following Tom.
‘Yes.'
‘I suppose everyone's happy with the arrangement?'
‘Oh yes.'
‘Of course, it's very wrong of them . . .'
‘My choice, Miss.'
‘Oh I see.'
Sadler called out: ‘Don't get lost, Tom!' But the boy didn't turn. Just kept walking in his aimless fashion.
‘Well . . .'
Miss Reader would have liked to talk to Sadler. She felt like telling him not to bother with all that politeness, not with her. She might belong by birth to the class it flattered, but she only recognized its superfluousness. What hope for understanding can there possibly be, she felt like saying to him, if all we can say is what's expected of us, the things charted and set down? But it was coming out with questions of that sort that had so often landed her in trouble at her father's dinner table with everyone looking at her in astonishment and her mother asking: ‘Is this another of your Equality things, Mary?'
She felt suddenly miserable, thinking to herself how nice – how
right
really – it would have been to take Sadler's arm and walk gently along, comfortable as she walked, with her arm tucked in like that, and just talk. She was so conscious of the weight of her loneliness. It would have been a blessed relief to have rested it, if only for a while, on him.
‘Well . . .' she said again.
She followed Sadler's gaze and saw that Tom was almost out of sight now, gone right across the big meadow. Sadler took his pipe out of his mouth and knocked it against the tree. Then he turned and looked at Miss Reader.
‘He's best left alone, I think. For a while yet, anyway.'
‘Tom?'
‘He keeps most things inside him. Never even answers a question straight.'
Miss Reader assumed her professional voice.
‘What does he talk about?'
‘The things he reads. And his Ma.'
Sadler was disappointed. He'd told Tom that he'd spend this, his day off, with him. He'd even suggested he pack them up some sandwiches, go for a long walk, watch them burning off stubble, maybe even go as far as the river and have a picnic there. He'd been looking forward to it. Now he turned his back on the stream and started to walk towards the house.
Miss Reader followed.
‘I was just thinking, Mr Sadler, if you do find the days a bit long . . . thinking up things for him to do, you know . . . I live in the village and you could bring him down one afternoon, perhaps on your day off, for a cup of tea?'
‘Thank you, Miss,' Sadler said, ‘but I wouldn't like to put you to the trouble.'
‘Oh, it wouldn't be any trouble.'
‘And as I said, he's best left alone . . .'
‘Oh, of course, just at the moment. Period of adjustment – that's what they call it, don't they? But in a week or two.'
‘Thank you, Miss,' said Sadler. Then he nodded goodbye and walked quickly away from her towards the back door.
IV
Sadler was aware of the spring. When you got old, or so he found, all that spring did to you was remind you of other springs, springs that had bloomed into summers and burned out long ago, springs when the sight of straight, bright grass coming up in last winter's pale hay had been enough to set your mind muddling forward to some new endeavour, springs when you weren't old.
He couldn't remember when spring had started to hurt him. Ages ago, probably. He'd been old it seemed for so long. Old at fifty, and since then a shameful decline. Looking at the buds, the contained, strong growth everywhere creeping out, he tried to imagine his body crushed and crammed into one of those tiny sheaths, reduced to something no bigger than a bean, but with the whole of its existence in front, not behind, the whole of his being curled there, growing, the flower and the leaf yet to come. He spat. Silly old fool, what thoughts!
But this happened quite a lot now, particularly on days when he was tired. He'd have these odd notions about himself, shunting his mind backwards in time, dwelling on things that once seemed important and on things that had never happened. A muddle, he decided. That's all I've become. Not coherent any more, even. Typical case of senile decay. Decay of body into lumbering old wreck, decay of mental faculties.
He leant on his stick looking at his orchard. So foolish to drag what little power of thinking left to me backwards. Why not think forward into the tiny bit – moments even? – left to come? And try to understand. Understand yourself at least. Because what's there in the past to give you any clue? What's to show for all that time? An awareness of your mediocrity, a growing despondency. That was all. Nothing else of any note, was there? After seventy-six years – from soft-skinned child grubbing on a green square to a blotchy old man who limped, and whose mouth, for some humiliating reason, made too much saliva – was that all he could think of to say? He searched, of course. The search had become frenzied. Now hardly an hour went by without him finding some buried splinter of his existence and picking at it. But, probe as he did, he could find nothing much of any significance: just the odd day – odd
hour
, really, because that was the burning time of the fuses occasionally lit with happiness – yes, the odd hour of wonder. There were, he decided, about seven or eight of these in all that time. A long time, though, or just a few minutes? Impossible to tell how long, like the dreams he'd had, or like the film, one of the few he'd ever seen, where they'd gone through three generations in as many hours and Elizabeth Taylor had grown old and died as he sat there going through a bag of popcorn.
And now the spring had turned up again. Still half immersed, but there. There. Even in the sounds he could hear. There. To taunt him, he supposed. And why not? A foolish spectacle, he was, leaning on his stick – like the beggar in fairy tales who pops out of a wood and alters the whole story. No story left for him to alter. The ending was already set down.
BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
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