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Authors: Rose Tremain

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BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
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Greg knew. He had never asked any questions, never once inquired, when he found Annie didn't go to Betsy's house, where she went in the evenings looking neat and pretty. She'll tell me in her own time, he thought. But he'd met Joe a couple of times and had been struck suddenly by the size of him, much too big and broad he seemed for Annie. Joe was very friendly, very polite to him and told him on the second meeting: ‘Annie and me's best of friends, daresay you heard, Mr Sadler.' Greg said he had.
And when it was over, Greg attached no blame anywhere. If that was the way things had happened, then that was what they'd have to settle for. There was no changing those kind of things, no going back.
The death of Mrs Elkins seemed to cast a shadow on the street. By the time August was half through, autumn winds shuffled the plane trees. A summer that had visited them early, early left. And Annie, because of the cold she said, took one of her mother's old shawls out of mothballs and began wrapping herself in it.
Then one morning in September Greg came down to the kitchen to find Annie sitting there, her face white and sweating, her body shaking with sobs. She had been sick on the floor.
‘Lord, Annie love, why didn't you call, girlie?'
Greg took out his clean handkerchief, ran it under the cold tap and, putting his arm round Annie, very gently wiped her face.
‘I'm sorry,' Annie sobbed, ‘I'll clean it up.'
‘You'll do nothing of the kind, darling. You'll come straight upstairs and into bed.'
Greg helped her up, almost lifting her. She leant heavily against him as they went upstairs and she couldn't stop crying. Somehow, the comfort she drew from her father's safe arm weakened her and she wept uncontrollably.
Tucked up in her narrow bed, she closed her eyes and her crying gradually ceased. Greg stroked her forehead.
‘You just lie there quiet a minute while I clear up downstairs, then I'll bring up a pot of tea and we can have it together.'
‘You'll be late for work, Dad.'
‘No work to do today,' Greg lied, ‘one job late this afternoon.'
‘You're dressed for work.'
‘Just so as I won't have to change later on.'
Annie smiled. Then she summoned breath.
‘Dad . . .' she began.
‘What is it, love?'
‘I'm having Joe's baby.'
Greg looked at her, wondering what courage she'd needed to tell him. ‘So that's what it is,' he said, ‘wrapping yourself up in your Ma's shawl.'
He made tea and brought it up to her. They talked and made plans, grateful for the tea that steadied them both and Annie knew that whatever might happen to her, she was fortunate in being Greg's child.
Greg's kindness, his cheerfulness, even the little jokes he occasionally made about Annie looking much prettier now that she was fat, sustained her through the tedious winter. He was very busy round Christmas time of course, as he was each year, but the extra money he earned went to buy things for the baby – a wooden cot and a little blanket, a couple of shawls and some flannel nightgowns. By the time the New Year came Annie looked forward to the April that would give her her child. Joe was remote now, gone long ago, left the house with the yellow windows as soon as Betsy told him about Annie's child.
‘What else can I do, Bets?' he asked.
‘You could marry Annie.'
‘Oh Betsy.'
‘Why not? Why couldn't you?'
‘I've someone else now.'
‘To marry?'
‘Maybe.'
‘Yes or no?'
‘She'll come with me and we'll see.'
She was called Arabella. She followed Joe to a job on a farm in Essex and in February her grandfather died and left her some money. So Joe deliberated a week or two and then decided to marry her. All the Elkins made the long trip down for the wedding, but it was worth it, they said, because the bride and groom looked a picture.
As March began, the first snow of the winter fell.
‘You'd call that spring, March, wouldn't you?' Betsy remarked one morning when she called to see Annie on her way to work. ‘And just look at it.'
But Annie liked the snow. Not to walk about in any more, just to watch, to sit at the parlour window in the warm house and watch it falling and drifting. She'd open the window from time to time and throw out crumbs for the birds.
Then, doing her shopping one morning, Annie slipped on the icy pavement and fell down, the potatoes in her basket rolling away into the gutter. She scrambled to her feet, helped by passers by and a little boy who appeared from nowhere who went round and round picking up all the potatoes. Annie was all right, only a bit white from the shock. But by the time she got home, the pains had begun, so she wrapped herself up again and trod a careful path to the doctor's house. She was shaking, with fear mostly, she decided, or from shock, she didn't know which. And the doctor was enigmatic; his face told her nothing.
‘How many weeks is it?'
He found his own answer by consulting a green card in one of his files. ‘More than probable it'll be all right,' he said.
When Greg came in from work, the house had an unfamiliar smell about it, like disinfectant. And it was deathly quiet.
‘Annie!' he called. But there was no answer. Then someone came tiptoeing down the stairs, a smiling fat woman in a blue overall.
‘Ssh,' she said. ‘She's sleeping now.'
Greg sat down on the uncomfortable chair in the hall. ‘You mean . . .?'
‘Yes. The baby's fine. Six and a half pounds. A boy.'
‘Oh,' said Greg, ‘oh.'
Not such a god-forsaken world, then, for little Jack Sadler's beginnings. A young mother who kissed him often and looked after him with infinite care, and a kindly man, aging a bit now, but still earning enough to keep the family going, who sat him on his knee and laughed to make him laugh. He was warmed and fed, he was given a plaything or two, he had a little patch of grass to crawl on. If he could have remembered his first months, he would have counted them happy. Annie was the centre of his universe, but Greg's was the gentle hand that kept the universe spinning. Greg knew that without him, mother and child would have been cast helplessly adrift.
This thought began to nag and worry him. They had no savings. Only eighty pounds in the bank, that was all. And they didn't own the house they lived in, had paid rent for it all those years. No amount of thinking of it as theirs could make it so. Greg began to lie awake at nights, blaming his lack of foresight. I never thought, he accused himself, not far enough ahead. We could have saved years ago when things weren't so dear and bought a place, but I'd never manage it now.
He began to travel greater distances each week, to find more work. He told Annie they should cut down on things for themselves, think of the future. But Annie's world had stabilized once more. Joe was gone, but she was watching her baby grow and she was perfectly happy. She refused to think of what the future might hold.
‘What's the sense in it, Dad? We're well now and living, aren't we? And whatever happened, I'd manage.'
Greg had nightmares about her. He saw her carrying her baby in the old grey shawl and begging in the street. And one by one his real worries seemed to accumulate. Supposing I go deaf, he thought, I couldn't carry on if I was deaf. And he took himself to the doctor's to have his hearing tested.
‘You must expect a certain loss,' the doctor told him. ‘You're sixty, aren't you? Bound to be a certain loss at your age.'
And that was all he could say, nothing to reassure him, nothing to take away this particular fear. And so it grew.
The same year, 1901, Queen Victoria died. People wept. And one morning in a big house where Greg arrived to tune the grand piano, he noticed that the whole household were wearing little black armbands.
‘A death in the family?' Greg asked the butler.
‘Oh no,' the man explained, ‘it's for Her Majesty.'
Greg nodded, felt ashamed just for an instant that he hadn't got one on, and yet thought to himself how remote they all must have been from the tiny, plump Queen in her widow's mantillas. Never even seen her, probably, unless they'd gone with the crowds to the Jubilee or to a state opening of Parliament. And yet they mourned, kitchen maids and all. He supposed that the death of Victoria made them feel insecure, they wore their armbands like a uniform, proud to be soldiers of her army and crossing the line of the twentieth century in uncertainty. Greg felt sad for them. What wouldn't he have given to cross over into a new age with years of vigour and work inside him. But he was old. His era was over.
And he couldn't work well any more, with all this worry. He stood at the piano with his ear pressed down, tapping and listening, tapping and listening, listening but not hearing, not like he used to, hearing with a certain loss, normal at his age, quite normal . . . But it wasn't just sound that was slipping away, it was his life.
As he sat there looking at the ivory keys, he tried to direct the rage he felt towards himself. For where else could he spend it? Not with God. God was a doctor he had never been able to afford. The door had stayed shut. Other patients came and went and sometimes they came out smiling. But not him. He cursed himself over and over for what he had failed to do. Music might have saved Annie, he thought now. Why hadn't he helped her and encouraged her, found her a new teacher? Where might she be now, had he done that?
So Greg shouldered a burden of guilt, a burden he'd never thought would be his to carry. He had always been so certain, so wise, he believed, so sure he was doing and saying, undoing or not saying, all for the best. Just shows, he thought.
For what could his Annie do? She was skilled at nothing but her music and it was a long time now since she had practised. She wasn't even a very passable cook. Couldn't lay a fancy table. And her sewing, they'd taught her sewing at the school, but it had never been a thing she was competent at. She might find work in a shop, like Betsy, but whatever would she do with little Jack? I'm sorry, dear, Mrs Collard would say, I'd like to take you on, but a little one of that age, grubby fingers into all my braids and elastics . . . No, I'm sorry, Annie, but I couldn't have the liability . . .
Greg played. One of the gentle, familiar Chopin waltzes Annie had dreamed over. Not much more than two years ago, was it, that he'd listened to her playing it? Or was it three? That day when her music teacher had got married – how long ago was that? He didn't know. It seemed to Greg that a whole lifetime had passed since then.
III
‘I don't remember my grandad, you know,' said Sadler. ‘Funny.'
He was back at the kitchen table, on his second cup of tea – a cup of tea that tasted so much nicer because Mrs Moore had made a pot with proper tea leaves and sat there with him drinking it.
‘Why's that, Mr Sadler?'
‘Don't know. Remember other things from that time. The bit of garden. Absolutely square. I'm sure it was absolutely square.'
‘Well, I expect it would be, wouldn't it, in a terrace. They make them like that, don't they?'
‘But not my old Gran'pa, though I often think it might come to me one day, what he looked like.'
‘You were telling me, Sir, when he died . . .'
‘I was three, I think. Or four. Perhaps I was three-and-a-half. Halves are important to kids, aren't they? They – she – told me afterwards. It was summertime.'
‘More tea, Mr Sadler?'
‘Oh yes. Yes. “Thank God for Tea.” That's what Vera used to say. She didn't have much to thank God for.'
Mrs Moore didn't like it when Sadler mentioned God. She rebuked him often, with her top lip drawn in. And Sadler often gave way to the temptation to tease her about ‘your friend Jesus', thinking to himself: don't know why I do it really, when it hurts her. But it amused him.
‘Oh I tell you what, Mrs Moore . . .' Sadler remembered the lost key.
‘What, Sir?'
‘The rooms on the top landing. I was going to have a look up there this morning, but the room was locked.'
‘Which room, Mr Sadler?'
‘It was the room I had, you see. In the Colonel's day, it was my room.'
‘Which one was it, Sir?'
‘The second to the left of the back stairs, looks out over the orchard.'
‘Well, I go in all the rooms quite regularly to dust cobwebs. I don't remember any being locked.'
‘I locked it, I think. A long time ago. Probably about two years ago.'
‘You couldn't have done, Sir. I must have cleaned in there a fair few times since then. That's what you said, wasn't it? You told me when I came you wanted all the rooms dusted from time to time.'
‘Yes. It's just . . .'
He could summon no recollection, none whatsoever, of putting the key away. But perhaps he
had
decided one day not to go in there any more. Because in that room, it seemed to him, all the past was held.
‘It's just that lately, I find I . . . being on my own . . . have to think about something, you know. There's the dog, you'll say, won't you? All his little needs to be attended to. I'm not very good with the dog any more. I forget things. I forget what time he's supposed to eat. Just old age, isn't it? But I tell you what you've got a storeful of when you're old – the past. The longer you hang on, the bigger the store gets.'
‘Well, I always say some things are best forgotten.'
‘I daresay that's true. Bet you enjoy thinking about when you were a girl.'
BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
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