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Authors: Rose Tremain

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BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
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‘I'm too busy, Mr Sadler, for that kind of thing.'
‘Are you? Too busy, are you? Well, that's good. There are plenty of days when I'd like to be busy.'
Mrs Moore had finished her tea. She was looking at the kitchen clock.
‘I must get on. I'll be late for my sister.'
‘Oh have some more tea. Mrs Moore.'
‘Never more than two, dear. It's bad for the veins to drink too much tea.'
‘I'd like another cup.'
‘Help yourself, Sir. Just leave the pot and I'll wash it up before I go.'
Sadler finished the pot. Thank God for Tea. Hardly a week in her scurrying life when Vera hadn't blessed her Maker for giving her that. Nowadays, Sadler thought, it was the kind of saying they printed on the front of T-shirts. But Vera wouldn't have understood that.
Vera had always reminded Sadler of a chicken, from that first evening when he talked to her – scrawny neck, bony, yellowish arms and long fingers that pecked at things when she was nervous, hairpins that fell out round the house like moulting feathers. With her German name and her Cockney accent, nobody ever knew where she came from, only that she'd been head kitchen maid at a Mrs Burgess's before coming to Madge.
Betty asked her one evening: ‘Tell us about your old man, Vera.'
She hadn't looked up from her knitting.
‘I don't talk about 'im, Betty.'
And she never did. In all those years Sadler had never learned his Christian name.
Sadler watched Mrs Moore begin to bustle about. He remembered now, with dismay, that he'd meant to ask her to cook him some breakfast. He'd forgotten and now it was too late. Of course he wasn't really hungry. There was no worm eating for him in his belly. He believed he could have nothing all day and not notice.
‘It's a lovely day,' Mrs Moore said.
‘Cold, wasn't it, coming up?'
‘Yes, a bit nippy. Frost all right last night.'
‘Snaps the heads off the crocuses.'
‘Oh no. They're a picture down the drive. If I were you, I'd get out on a day like this. You could go and have a look at the crocuses.'
‘Are the daffs out?'
‘Won't be long.'
Sadler nudged the sleeping dog with his foot. The dog didn't stir.
‘Do him good, a walk.'
‘Do
you
good, I wouldn't wonder.'
He hadn't been out for days. Too cold. He had felt like he felt when he was ill, glad to sit still near a fire, sit still and let his body rest. The thought of bundling it up in an old coat, boots and a scarf and sending it out to totter on the frozen ground was unbearable. He'd begun to wonder if he'd ever go out again. But it was nice to see a sun for once, and it was a long time since he'd been down the drive, he might enjoy it.
‘I think I will go out.'
‘I would, Sir.'
‘I'll take the dog.'
‘That's it.'
‘Better get dressed up, hadn't I? Catch my death like this.'
‘Finished with the tea, then?'
‘Yes.'
He got up. He made his way back up the stairs to the Colonel's room. There was quite a feeling of warmth in it now because he'd left the electric fire on. It was a well insulated room, with all those cupboards, and the sun was now shining on the carpet and over the bed in great yellow squares.
There had been a time, when he was very small, he supposed, when he had expected the sun to be more or less everywhere inside a room, like it was outside, and it puzzled him that it only seemed to come in in squares. And why, more distressing still, was there always dust in a sunbeam? He'd been afraid of dust. He didn't know where it came from but whenever he saw any he'd imagined it growing like a fungus, piling up higher and higher until it smothered things. It might have been because his mother had stolen
Great Expectations
from the library at Milord's house and read it to him, a little bit every night when they were in bed. And he had been terribly, mortally afraid of Miss Havisham and the ghastly room where her wedding breakfast lay mouldering. Usually when Annie read him books – and she did this quite often, taking one carefully from the library shelves, hiding it under her mattress and then slipping it back when they'd finished it – he wanted to
be
the boy or the man in the story, but after seeing Miss Havisham's dusty room he never wanted to be Pip.
Sadler dressed carelessly, noting but untroubled that from day to day he put off having a bath. Old men look dirty, even when they're scrubbed and powdered, that was his view, and he and the dog could live quite happily with the smells his body harboured. Anyway, it certainly didn't matter what he put on: old viyella shirt – the Colonel's or his? Baggy trousers, brown corduroy with whole furrows worn away on the bottom; his thickest socks, and the one nice thing he owned in the way of clothing – his fawn lambswool cardigan, knitted for him by Mrs Moore and her sister, one side each. He looked at himself in the mirror, felt uneasily that he ought to shave if he was going out. He might meet the postman or the milk delivery van or even Lady Grainger from Dale Farm bringing his eggs in her Range Rover. But he couldn't stand the thought of shaving. It hurt him more than it tidied him up. It was as if the skin on his face was getting softer and softer.
He shuffled downstairs once again. He could hear Mrs Moore hoovering in the drawing room and, as always, he found the noise pleasing. He often wished someone would start hoovering at night, when he couldn't sleep in the deathly quiet that held him. He believed it would have comforted him.
He picked up the dog's lead which he kept on a table in the hall and as he saw it remembered that he hadn't given the dog the food he'd promised him. Not even a biscuit or a worm pill. But the dog still dozed, warm by the Aga, uncaring.
‘Come on,' said Sadler.
The little clump began to wag.
‘I'll get you a drink and then we'll go out.'
He picked up the chipped yellow bowl inscribed DICK in black letters. Dick wasn't the dog's name; the dog had never had a name. Dick had been the name of Tom's dog.
Tom. Sadler filled the bowl with cold water and set it down. The dog trotted up and began lapping. Tom was back in Sadler's thoughts. He watched the dog drink. No wonder the little chap peed a lot.
‘Hurry up,' said Sadler. And the clump twitched at the sound of his voice.
Leading off the kitchen was what had been a pantry. Now Sadler kept his boots and the Colonel's old shooting mac in there, ready to hand when he felt like going out. Like all the Colonel's clothes, the mac fitted him well; it was six inches too long, that was all. But he enjoyed wearing it. Dressing in all the Colonel's old things had become part of his life. Boots on and the mac and a navy blue scarf round his throat, an old walking stick to lean on and he was ready to go.
He opened the door and the dog followed him out into the cold. More cold, even with the mac on, than he'd bargained for and the grass still crunchy with frost. But the garden looking wonderfully neat under its white coating, a bit like it used to be when the lawns were flat as billiard tables with all their edges straight as a knife and not a molehill to be seen.
The sky was a blinding blue, too bright to look up at. The laurels that hedged the back garden displayed a garish green plumage among the old dark leaves and there were tight, coffee coloured buds on the chestnut trees. The dog went ahead, sniffing. You wouldn't have called it a scamper: the animal's short legs were too rheumaticky for that, it was more of an amble, a little stiff trot. Sadler followed, leaning a bit on the stick, but now he was used to the cold, glad to be out, glad that the green his feet trod was his.
He'd always wondered how it would feel to own things that grew. Used to watch old Madge going round with her pruning scissors, snip, snip, snip, hers to cut and shape as she pleased. And the Colonel poisoning daisies with an orange plastic tool like a syringe.
Madge, delighted one morning by the sight of her garden under her window, felt a little ashamed, wanted to share it. There was so much of it, after all.
‘So feel free, Sadler, to walk in the garden whenever you like.'
‘That's very kind of you. Madam.'
‘You could even have a little plot of your own if you'd like, to grow things. You could grow some strawberries, couldn't you? I know Wren would help you. He made things grow in the Middle East, you know, in
that
soil! We used to marvel. Green fingers the Colonel always said.'
Sadler didn't know about green, but gnarled they certainly were, Wren's old hands. He and Wren selected a little plot, about the size of an allotment, on rough ground next to the orchard, ground that had been left to sprout its tangle of nettles and weeds because nobody had been able to decide whether to plant apple trees on it or level it off and grow flowers.
‘This'll do grand,' Wren said, ‘there's good soil under there. Needs clearing, that's all.'
They didn't want to bother the gardeners. So busy they always were with their lawn mowers and their edgers and their little boxes of seedlings, and they never came into the house. It was as if, like certain species of birds, they were afraid to leave their camouflage.
But in one season, it became Wren's garden, not Sadler's. The old man spent the whole of the war digging and planting there, kept repeating for some reason that, with times as they were, it was important to use soil wisely. Once or twice he whispered that ‘the day', when it came, wouldn't find him unprepared, referring obliquely to his neat rows of radishes and feathery parsley. But no one ever really knew what he meant, nor did ‘the day' ever come, as far as anyone could tell. And then as Hiroshima burned, Wren died. It was as if the bomb had hit him.
Sadler had always liked Wren. The old man had found Christian names very difficult, even his own. He preferred to call other people ‘Sir' – an army legacy, of course – and he told Sadler one day that he thought of himself not as Harold, which was his name, but as 1797074, his army number. Sadler would have liked Wren to call him Jack. Their servant status was just about equal and they were friends, weren't they? And no one called him Jack any more. But somehow Wren never managed it and so they always spoke to each other in this odd, formal way.
Wren was born in Lancashire. Joined the army to escape his parents' drab home. Always an unkempt little boy, once in the army he affected a smartness of appearance, a neatness immaculate enough to gladden the heart of the most meticulous drill sergeant. It was as if he spent the rest of his life making amends for his grubby beginnings. The role of batman to the Colonel was one Wren had loved and the Colonel grew attached to him. It seemed only right that Wren should be given a part in the Colonel's retirement, and what could be a more fitting reward for all those years of buffing and polishing than a car, with its flashes of chromium to shine? The fact that Wren wasn't a good driver (he'd learnt much too late) never bothered the Colonel or Madge either. They were getting on and they liked going slowly.
Thinking about Wren, Sadler turned right at the east side of the house instead of coming round in front of it to go down the drive. The lawn (you couldn't call it a lawn any more, though, it was just ‘the grass' now) sloped upwards away from the house to a tattered beech hedge dividing it from the orchard and the piece of waste ground that had been Wren's allotment. Sadler reached the hedge, puffing.
‘I wouldn't give you nowt for beech stuck in like that,' Wren had criticized. ‘Too damned untidy, the way them leaves hang on.' But the yews, the great dark shoulders, they gave him pleasure.
There was a wooden gate set in the hedge. Sadler undid the latch and went through.
‘Come on then!' he called to the dog.
Weeds and brambles had long since reclaimed the patch that Wren had tended. In the summer the nettles sprang up shoulder high. But whenever he stared at that bit of ground, Sadler always saw Wren with one muddy wellington pressing on his spade or squatting, hunched over, his careful fingers making little beds for his seedlings. Sadler had never done much in the way of work there, only one summer – at Tom's request.
‘Couldn't you sow some flowers?'
‘Well, it's more of a vegetable garden, Tom.'
‘They'd grow, wouldn't they?'
‘Yes.'
‘You can buy these packets of flowers in Woolworths.'
‘Seeds.'
‘I dunno. They got pictures of flowers on.'
So they went with Wren in the car to Norwich and in Woolworths Tom chose a packet of shirley poppies and a packet of larkspur and Wren grudgingly granted Tom and Sadler a few feet of earth to sow them in. They came up – to Tom's delight – but he complained that the colours weren't the same as on the packet. And he never wanted to pick them.
‘Bet they'd die, wouldn't they?'
Sadler went into the orchard. He remembered that when he went for walks with Tom, the boy nearly always ran on ahead, shouting.
The billeting officer, Miss Mary Reader, always thought of herself as a Socialist. She volunteered for the job of billeting officer late in 1939, after she discovered what was happening in her own village to the first trainloads of evacuee children from London.
Mrs Dart, who lived next door to her (a smaller, more rickety door, but nonetheless side by side with Miss Reader's in The Street) had taken in two – a brother and sister from Hackney. With these additions, she now had to find food and clothing for a family of seven, all on Jim Dart's nurseryman's wage of £6. 14s. 6d a week. Miss Reader watched the Darts. She watched how proper walking shoes and woollen socks and macs were found for the Hackney children. She saw Jim Dart bring home comics for them. She noticed that most evenings when he came back from work, he'd take them off with him for a walk with Ross, the collie. She watched how their two pale faces acquired little dabs of colour.
BOOK: Sadler's Birthday
12.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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