Read The Lotus House Online

Authors: Katharine Moore

The Lotus House (4 page)

Before the cottage there had been the seaside maisonette: “so good for all our healths, the air like wine and a marvellous train service …” but this in its turn had become “too inaccessible and really a little vulgar, don’t you think?”

The frequent moves were expensive but Andrew’s motto was “anything for a quiet life”.

“At last there will be plenty of room for your piano and it’s nearer both our jobs.”

“Good,” said Andrew for the third time. He had slight
qualms about Harriet, but she was not his child and therefore not his responsibility, he told himself.

“Mrs Sanderson said she wouldn’t mind how much you played.”

“Who’s Mrs Sanderson?”

“Our prospective landlady.”

“What’s she like?” asked Andrew without much interest.

“Oh, I don’t know, just ordinary I think, the kind of person who adores Betjeman’s poetry and goes to the Academy and shops at Marks & Sparks. Well, I’m not sure about the last. She’s got some really good rugs in her room, though not much else. She’s rather sweet really and likes children. She’ll be good for some baby-sitting I should think when we want an evening out.”

“I should think so too,” said Andrew, “if you want it that way she hasn’t much choice.”

“Eat your lunch,” said Margot, “it’s disgracefully late.”

 

Aubrey Stacey walked away from the Lotus House across the heath with a sense of relief which was the nearest thing he got to happiness nowadays. The flat had an atmosphere of peace about it — that old nursery with the bars had taken him right back in time to his own nursery days which he had shared with his twin, his boon playmate and companion, before the years had separated them. The view towards London was transformed by the autumn mist into an ethereal and lovely city. Even the highrise flats and offices looked like fairytale towers. Aubrey, always sensitive to beauty, felt his heart lightened and the hope sprang up that this move would prove a fresh start for him. At the other side of the heath he boarded a bus which landed him near his present noisy lodgings, a shabby house shared with three other members of the school staff. How glad he would be to be free of them, and they, too, of him, he conceded wryly. What
a mistake it always was to live with colleagues. He ardently hoped that Mrs Sanderson would not go back on her word, but the old school tie seemed to have done the trick. It was lucky that Westminster had happened to crop up in the conversation and that she had had some connection with the place.

Miss Cook was also pleased with the Lotus House. That kitchen and that bathroom — really nice they were! Of course, everything needed a good clean up, one could see that, in spite of the workmen pretending they’d done it already, and the rooms would look much better still when she’d finished with them. The sitting-room got a bit too much sun for her covers and carpet, but she would get some really substantial curtains to keep it off. Of course there would be drawbacks, there always were to everything. Still, Mrs Sanderson seemed a pleasant sort of person; a bit untidy-looking and the front hall and stairs might have looked cleaner there was no denying, but these wouldn’t be her province. She had her own entrance, that was really a good point; her’s was much the most private of all the flats, and she needn’t meet the other tenants at all really unless she wished, and she couldn’t see herself wishing it. She thought her furniture would all fit in well. She’d see about those curtains as soon as possible.

Everyone was settled in before Christmas and Letty Sanderson woke one morning in her new bedroom which had been the old dining-room and felt the house once again full of life around her. She sighed with satisfaction. She was getting used to sleeping in her august surroundings, for the room still kept for her something of its original dignity. It had been the most formal in the house, but she had replaced the dark red paper of her memories with a pale grey distemper and the heavy red curtains by striped blue and green linen. She lay and looked up at the ceiling, admiring its graceful mouldings which she had
certainly never noticed as a child. They were too far away she supposed or, more probably, she had always been too pleasantly busy to spend time staring upwards. In one corner of the room the doll’s house now stood on a special stand she had had made for it. She looked forward to showing it to Harriet who, she thought with satisfaction, must soon be home for the Christmas holidays.

She heard a thump on the floor above, the opening and shutting of doors and later someone running down the stairs. She wondered if that was Mr Stacey or Dr Royce. Then a happy idea occurred to her. She would give a party at Christmas so that everyone could meet each other properly. It would be a party for the Lotus House too, to celebrate its starting to become a home once more, for she cherished the dream that they all might settle down so comfortably together that they would form a really happy, friendly community. It would be repaying a sort of debt to the past.

WHILE MRS SANDERSON
, in her bedroom on the first floor, was lying at ease planning her party, Miss Cook in the basement was sitting down to a well-earned cup of coffee and piece of toast after a good hour’s work at further unpacking and cleaning and tidying up. She felt tired but appeased. It really did begin to look nice, she thought. She had carried her tray from the kitchen into the sitting-room where the wintry sun was just beginning to send slanting rays through her new curtains. “In summer I shall have to draw them,” she said to herself, “can’t have my new covers fading — they say these new materials are guaranteed, but you can’t trust them, that’s the worst of a south-facing room and the carpet, it can’t afford to look worse than it does now, either.” She gave it a resentful little kick.

She would have loved to have got everything new, she would have kept her grandfather’s chair, of course, and her mother’s best china, but that was all. She had been left the furniture and quite right too, but Henry would have been welcome to it if she could have afforded to replace it. Oh well, it had fitted in quite well here — the glass-fronted cupboard, you couldn’t see a smear on it now and the china showed up well inside. She was glad she’d had grandfather’s chair re-covered, pricey though it was. It looked handsome now, nobody could say it didn’t,
and the curtains were pretty though, looking at them from where she sat, she thought they could have done with a bit more length to them. This worried her, had she spoiled the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar? But she was really glad she had chosen that colour — she’d always favoured pink. Henry’s Doris had wanted her to have green, quite cross she’d been about it, always had to be right, had Doris, came of being a schoolmistress she supposed. “There’s plenty of green outside,” she’d said to her — it was different at home with nothing but pavements and houses, but here there would be always something green to look at, even in winter. She could see some sort of evergreen bush now in a corner over by the fence. She had been told that the strip of garden below her windows belonged to her. “Well, I don’t know that I want it,” she had said to Mrs Sanderson. “I’ve never had anything to do with gardening.” But on thinking it over she rather liked the idea, she could learn, she supposed.
Better
than
having
someone
else
poking
about
so
close
any
old
time,
she thought. They hadn’t had a garden at home, just a square of coloured pavement in front and a yard at the back for dustbins and washing. The house was in one of those utterly characterless suburbs of London, a district which was neither going up nor down. Its streets gave away nothing about their inhabitants — far less than did the neighbouring large cemetery about its graves.

No doubt Albert Street, where Miss Cook’s home had been, contained some happy lively families but the Cooks’ was not one of these. The dominating factor in all their lives was that Mrs Cook had married beneath her. Her father had been a country clergyman, without any private income and therefore of straitened means, but undeniably, by reason of his profession, a gentleman. She had been romantically inclined towards a young Air Force flight sub-lieutenant quartered in a nearby camp during the latter part of the first world war. But after the
marriage, and Armistice Day when the uniform was laid by, there was found to have been nothing much inside it. Untrained for any civilian post and without influence and not very intelligent, Sydney Cook had failed in one job after another and had ended up driving a laundry van. Disappointed and resentful, his wife had concentrated on bringing up her two children — Henry, named for her father and Janet for her mother. She taught them to keep themselves to themselves and to despise their father. The neighbours in Albert Street where they were forced to live were potentially threatening to Mrs Cook’s self-respect and her son and daughter were strictly forbidden to play with the other children in the street. She starved her family of all indulgences so that she might send Henry and Janet to second-rate private schools where they made no real friends — the right sort in Mrs Cook’s eyes could not well be asked home, and the wrong sort were frowned upon. On the whole both children, she considered, had justified the care bestowed on them. They each qualified for respectable white-collar jobs and their mother died happy in the thought that she could now meet her Maker and her father (she had never really distinguished between them) with a clear conscience. By then Henry had made an entirely suitable marriage — his Doris was a schoolteacher and kept on her job. Janet had tried nursing but had found the paper-work difficult and had also had trouble with her back, so had given it up and entered the ranks of the Civil Service instead. She had qualified as a Post Office assistant. As for their father, he had driven his van and brought back his wages and eaten his meals, and bestowed a few furtive caresses on Janet when she was little, and gradually became invisible, and one day he had a stroke and died. His daughter could scarcely recall either his face or his voice. The voice of her mother, on the other hand, she remembered very well as an ever-admonishing wail — “do this, do that”, or
more often, “don’t do this, don’t do that”. When she actually heard it no more in the flesh, she felt at first stunned by the silence and even yet, especially whenever she sat down to rest, as she was doing at this moment, sipping her coffee and warming her toes by her now gleaming electric fire, she heard it echoing in her mind and felt it unwise to be too pleased with her new quarters.

“There’s sure to be snags,” she reminded herself, almost with a sense of satisfaction. There were the other lodgers, for instance, “not nosey, that’s all I ask,” and she congratulated herself once again on having a separate entrance. “You can’t be too careful.”

The sounds of departure Mrs Sanderson had heard that morning were neither Andrew Royce nor Aubrey Stacey, but Margot setting out for her art gallery. Physics research laboratories keeping later hours, Andrew was still finishing a leisurely breakfast. The move had been accomplished with Margot’s usual efficiency and though he did not care for these upheavals, he had to admit that each was managed with as little inconvenience to himself as possible. All that was left to him was the unpacking and arranging of his books, music and records and there was certainly more room for these here than there had been in the cottage. It was always a source of amused wonder to him that anyone so pretty and feminine as Margot could be so businesslike, but he did not think about this for long. People did not interest him very much. An only child, his relationship with his parents was amiable but distant. They were both always very occupied — his father as a GP and his mother as a practising physiotherapist. A capable nanny, prep school from the age of seven, followed by his public school, Cambridge and a year in the United States had not provided much opportunity for cultivating home ties.

At school he was sufficiently good at games to be allowed to go his own way without interference and this
way was that of a natural loner, increasingly absorbed in music and science. At college these had continued his main interests, and self-sufficiency had grown to be a habit. He had not mixed much with women but when he happened to meet Margot, older and more experienced than himself, he quickly fell under her spell. He had never seen anyone who charmed his senses so completely. They neither of them wanted marriage. She had fairly recently broken up a first unsatisfactory one, and was firmly set against a second, and Andrew was unwilling to undertake any definite commitment that might threaten his work in any possible direction. He was not unduly worried when he learned of the existence of Harriet.

“She’s at a home school at present,” said Margot, “I promise you she won’t be a nuisance.”

“That’s all right,” said Andrew. He knew very little about children and anyway it was Margot who mattered. He discovered quite soon that she was untruthful, self-centred, a snob and amazingly restless, but none of this troubled him overmuch. He had always accepted people as he found them with the same detached lucidity that he brought to his work. Physically, she enchanted him — it was like living with a rose. He sometimes wondered how long this state of affairs would last, but in spite of Margot’s love of change, it seemed to have become a habit with both of them.

As for Harriet, he found somewhat to his surprise that he quite liked having her about. She reminded him of a small mongrel dog he had had as a boy and been very fond of, but he was glad that she was unlike the dog in that she showed no special liking for himself, which would have bothered him, but it was obvious even to the unobservant Andrew that she had no devotion to spare for anyone but her mother. This was unfortunate for Margot was not cut out for motherhood. He wondered why she had ever had a child — he could not suppose her husband had
wanted it, he had shown absolutely no interest in Harriet as far as Andrew knew since the marriage had broken up, and besides, he did not think that Dick’s wishes would rank very high as a factor in the case. He supposed it was consistent with her inclination to try everything once. These ruminations of his were aroused by Margot’s decision not to bring Harriet home for Christmas. “We shan’t be settled in properly before all the rush is over and it’ll simply be a nuisance having her around. I’ll fetch her in plenty of time for the new school term,” she had said.

Margot herself considered Harriet her second big mistake, worse of course because the child was lacking in attraction, which she could not have foreseen. Still, it had been foolish to risk so much merely because she hoped that a baby would bring her the sort of fulfilment that it was said to supply to most women. The first mistake was, of course, her marriage, which she rushed into to escape from a home which was simply a wearisome battlefield.

Her father came from humble origins but possessed a good business head and had raised himself to the position of land agent on a large estate in the West Country — “my father’s place in Dorset” as Margot was wont to refer casually to it. He had married a town-bred wife whom he had admired for her delicate prettiness, but this soon withered from boredom and indulgence, and she had developed a waspish neurotic temperament. They kept together, Margot supposed on looking back, partly because divorce then was both more difficult and more expensive — her father was always mean about money — and partly because mutual dislike seemed to have habituated them to a habit of scoring off each other, which brought a certain spice into their relationship. Their daughter became a pawn in these unpleasant games. Her looks and her intelligence made her a valuable asset as a possession. Incessant forays took place over her education, clothes, friends, almost every possible
debatable point. Her father, who held the purse strings, generally came off as the victor, but her mother scored points by running up large housekeeping and dress bills and by occasionally staging a bout of frightening hysteria. Margot learned from an early age to play off one parent against another and that, both from them and from most other people, she could get what she wanted by the exercise of her beguiling charm. But then, what did she want? Certainly not Dick Harper after the first year, nor motherhood apparently. Lovers? Too easy to subjugate and too tiresome when enslaved. Success in her business? Yes, because she despised failures, but somehow this wasn’t enough. Meanwhile there was Andrew whose demands were so simple, whose detachment intrigued her, and whose brains commanded her respect.

 

Aubrey Stacey was busy hanging pictures. Over the fireplace in the room which had been the old night nursery, he hung a college group. He had gone up to Oxford because his twin brother had been a Trinity scholar at Cambridge, where he had taken a double first. Almost as soon as they outgrew their babyhood, Aubrey had realized that he was fated to play second fiddle to Michael — if indeed he counted at all in his mother’s eyes. “Is that you, darling?” he heard her cry sometimes when he had come home from school and he knew enough to answer: “No, it’s me, Mother.”

His father, on the other hand, had always been painfully determined to play fair. “It’s rough luck on the boy,” he would say to his friends, “that Michael happens to be rather a brilliant fellow all-round, though I say it myself. Aubrey should have been a girl, he’d have made a good one — he’d not have felt the competition then and it would have been natural the way his mother feels — mothers and sons, you know, and I would have liked a daughter myself too, but we’ve got to take what comes
haven’t we, till the scientist chaps have changed all that for us. Anyway, Aubrey will make it, I always say.”

What “making it” meant exactly had never been quite clear. A minor exhibition in English to one of the less distinguished colleges at Oxford, a respectable second-class degree, one need not be ashamed of these, but they were perhaps not exactly “making it”. Nonetheless, he had been happier at Oxford than at any other period of his life. He had been adopted by a set aspiring to the creative arts, had contributed several poems to a university magazine and had initiated a private resolve to “make it” in an entirely different but unmistakably as equally a successful manner as his brother, by writing a magnum opus. After much heart-searching he had decided on a subject. Actually this had been suggested to him by a sympathetic tutor — “I had thought of working him up myself one day but I don’t suppose I shall ever get down to it, so I make you a present of him, Stacey.”

The “him” in question was the 17th century bibliophile Sir Robert Cotton, who had devoted his life to collecting books, but who, in 1629, had been accused of sedition and whose beloved library was taken from him, which had broken his heart. The tutor had envisaged a scholarly monograph, but Aubrey was after fame and as wide a public as possible. He thought in terms of an historical novel — of a high literary standard, of course, serious in intent, with leanings towards mysticism and tragedy. Sitting in the Bodleian, whose founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, had been Cotton’s friend, it was easy to envisage such a splendid achievement, but after he had gone down from Oxford the initial impulse had waned a little. Still, a sizeable pile of manuscript now lay in a drawer of the bureau which was his most prized piece of furniture, a present from his brother, who had always treated him with the greatest affection and generosity and for whom he felt a blend of devotion and envy but never of
resentment —
that
he kept for his parents.

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