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Authors: Katharine Moore

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BOOK: The Lotus House
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A great literary work in the making could not support him so he had taken a teacher-training course and then a post as English master in a small sedate grammar school, where he had spent two uneventful years until it had been swallowed up by the neighbouring comprehensive. From that time on his troubles had begun. It was a completely different world demanding a robust self-confidence and the gift of establishing an easy relationship with the young. Aubrey possessed neither. Most of his pupils now came from a different background than his own, and he felt them alien to him, especially the girls, with their nonchalance and flaunting jokes and latent contempt, which grew in proportion to his own nervousness and inadequacy with them. Certain classes took on a nightmarish quality. He turned to his great work for comfort, but it was easier to plan it and to dream of it rather than to get down to the actual writing. He told himself that he must allow it to well up from his inner being — the sub-conscious, where all works of genius were conceived. But increasingly he seemed to need a stimulus to switch on: a glass or two of alcohol helped considerably. Now however, with this move, he hoped somehow that everything would take a turn for the better.

It was from this material that the innocent old Mrs Sanderson hoped to fashion a happy family group. There was indeed a common link between them, but this happened to be that none of them had experienced what it really meant to be a member of a family at all.

Letty was disappointed to learn that Harriet was not coming to the Lotus House for Christmas. She had planned her party to contain a Christmas tree with a child in mind. She could not help wondering at that delightful Mrs Royce apparently not longing for her little daughter to come home at once, as soon as the flat was habitable, especially for Christmas. Margot sensed this slight disapproval
and reacted to it immediately.

“You see, Mrs Sanderson, Harriet has all her little friends at Queensmead, which isn’t at all like an ordinary school, and they have a perfectly splendid time at Christmas, much better than she could have here, except for your lovely party, of course.” She also managed delicately to hint that it was Andrew who was not too anxious for Harriet’s company. It was now for the first time that Letty learned that Harriet was the child of a former marriage, though Margot did not think it necessary to divulge the fact that she was not legally Mrs Royce at all. She always found it better to adapt facts to her audience.

“Andrew is terribly good with her, of course, but he doesn’t like to be put out in the way children can’t help doing; you know what men are!”

Letty went away thinking that of course as Harriet was not Dr Royce’s child, it must make it difficult sometimes for poor Mrs Royce. She had not taken to Andrew much, a bit superior and standoffish, she thought him. She decided to have the tree all the same. She felt sure that there had always been a Christmas tree at the Lotus House in the old days, though she had never been privileged to see it, and she was determined that the house should have its tree once more, and that it should have real candles on it and not the dead garish brilliance of those horrid coloured electric bulbs. It took her a long while to track down clip-on holders for the candles, but she found some at last. She also bought crackers and presents and ordered a special Christmas cake from the Honey Pot who were doing the catering for her. The cake was to have “Welcome to the Lotus House” written on it in silver balls. “Everyone is a child at heart at Christmas,” Letty told herself delusively. She had worked hard and while she sat awaiting her guests, she looked round with satisfied delight. The room, she thought, looked charming — a well-shaped tree all ready to be
lit up, her father’s silver branched candlesticks on either side of the cake in the centre of the table which was decorated with the prettiest candles she had been able to find, a bowl of white chrysanthemums and scarlet-berried holly on the mantelpiece above the lively fragrant log fire and a fine piece of mistletoe suspended above the door. Everything, like herself, was waiting expectantly for the curtain to go up and the fun to begin.

There is nothing quite so flat and dreary as a party that never takes off and it is even more distressing when this happens at times that demand a specially festive spirit.

“Laugh, damn you, laugh,” swore Mr Donovan inwardly, as the guests pulled their crackers and donned their paper hats almost in silence. He had just read out one of those sublimely silly cracker jokes, but it had perished in mid-air.

Mr Donovan had been invited to the party by his old client and had come purely out of the kindness of his heart, but he did not like parties. That was the trouble, they none of them did. Aubrey and Andrew thought them a tiresome waste of time, Miss Cook distrusted them because her mother had, especially the parties in Albert Street. “You never know who you might meet there,” she used to say. Of course Miss Cook did know who she was going to meet at this particular party, but she did not particularly want to meet any of them. In Margot’s eyes this boring childish gathering hardly qualified as a party at all. Nonetheless, she could not help saving it from total failure. She sparkled at Mr Donovan, admired Miss Cook’s unbecoming dress and to Letty she cried, “Mrs Sanderson, you’re a magician, I haven’t seen a tree with candles since Christmas at my old country home, my father’s place in Dorset, where
did
you find them?”

The candles, indeed, provided the only real glory of Letty’s party, and as she extinguished them she acknowledged ruefully that it certainly had not achieved its
purpose. The mistletoe mocked her. “How stupid of me to put it up.” The scarcely-touched cake reproached her. “Nobody really wanted me,” it seemed to say, and indeed no one but Andrew had eaten much of the lavish meal. He had set about it with his usual whole-hearted concentration on the business in hand.

“How you could eat at that ungodly hour I can’t imagine,” said Margot (the party had been fixed early to suit Mr Donovan, who did not wish to be late home). She tossed the embroidered linen handkerchiefs that Letty had chosen for her into her “bring and buy” drawer — she never used anything but tissues. Miss Cook was taking one of her digestive pills which she usually did as a precaution after a meal out, and eyeing with malevolence the gorgeous bottle of bath salts which she had received. “I am
sure
she never buys herself little luxuries,” Letty had thought, “it’s expensive but Cooksie shall have a treat for once.” But Janet Cook had never used bath salts in her life and never meant to. “Just waste, stinks the place out and muddies up nice clear water.” Whatever was she to do with it? She might give it to Henry’s Doris, only as she never gave her presents like that, it would seem queer, it was a real worry!

“A party in a parlour, all silent and all damned,” quoted Aubrey Stacey to himself as he thankfully ran up the stairs to his attic fastness.

But old Mrs Sanderson firmly put away disheartening thoughts together with all the remains of the food, the candle-holders and the present-wrappings. She must not be in a hurry, she told herself, it was early days yet, give them time and they would all be friends, she felt sure. Meanwhile there was Harriet’s arrival to look forward to.

HARRIET WAS USED
to changes; she did not much like them, though. She did not really want to leave Queensmead because she had been at school there since she was five and a half and she was now nearly eight, and that was a long time. She had almost got a best friend now, too. When you were little, it didn’t matter not having one so much, but later it began to matter. The friend had not been at Queensmead very long, and she had been glad of Harriet because she had a squint and they called her ‘Squinty’ — her real name was Mandy. They called Harriet ‘Fatty’, not being very inventive at Queensmead, and the two got left out of things together which was better than being left out of them alone, though Harriet secretly didn’t like Squinty all that much.

But Margot arrived after Christmas was over and told her that she was to go to a more grown-up school. This was frightening but exciting and, what was more important even, she was to live at home with Margot and Andrew and go every day to this school from a new house. Margot had told Harriet to call them Margot and Andrew when she was six. She had never called Andrew “Daddy” anyway because he wasn’t her real father, so she hadn’t called him anything, and secretly she still called Margot “Mummy” to herself. She thought her the most beautiful and wonderful mother that anyone could have.
She knew the other children at Queensmead thought so too. When Margot came to visit Harriet she talked to them all and Harriet could see them liking it because she was so pretty and wore such lovely clothes. This was Harriet’s one claim to fame, but though she gloried in her mother, she had also felt sorry and ashamed for some time now, ever since one of the children had said to her “You’re not a bit like your mother, are you?” Once she had firmly believed she would grow like her when she was older, then she hoped desperately that she might — “O God, let me be, O God, let me be!” — but now she knew she wouldn’t ever be. She felt it deep down inside.

When her mother came to Queensmead this time and explained that Harriet was to leave, she brought a big box of chocolates for her to give to all her friends and though, except for Squinty, she knew they weren’t really her friends, she enjoyed handing them round and hearing everyone say how lucky she was to be going away from horrid old school with such a lovely mother. Mrs Campbell, the headmistress, was sorry to lose Harriet who was a quiet, if unresponsive, child and gave little trouble, unlike some of her other charges for whom Queensmead was a substitute home “especially designed to meet the needs of those children whose parents were, for reasons of all sorts, unable to provide a home for themselves”.

“I can’t thank you enough, Mrs Campbell, for all you have done for Harriet,” said Margot and her upward gaze, for Mrs Campbell was tall and thin, was so expressive of deep gratitude that Mrs Campbell thought that she must somehow have had more effect on the child than she had supposed.

As they drove away Harriet’s mild feeling of regret at leaving and her anxiety as to the future were temporarily swamped by delight as she realized that this was one of Margot’s good times. Except for one complaint that she
grew out of her clothes faster than anyone would think possible, there seemed nothing wrong with her at present, and Margot had called her “darling” twice — once in front of Mrs Campbell, which hardly counted, but once when they were alone together and when they stopped halfway for refreshment, she was allowed to have a chocolate éclair. “It won’t matter for once,” said Margot, looking at the stout square child opposite her with resignation.
Really,
she
grows
more
like
Dick
every
day,
she thought.

Harriet was very pleased to hear that she was going to have a bedroom of her own in the new house. This had never happened to her before as long as she could remember. At school she had slept with Lucy and Rebecca who had secrets and ignored her and, at the cottage, when she was there which wasn’t very often, she slept on a folding-bed in a sort of alcove between the bathroom and Andrew’s room.

“Has it got a window?” she enquired anxiously. A bedroom wasn’t a proper one with no window, and she had always wanted to be able to lie in bed and look out of one. Lucy and Rebecca could do this but she had had to look at a blank wall.

“Yes, of course,” said Margot.

When they got to the Lotus House it was getting dark and Harriet was tired. Being with Margot was marvellous but it always made her feel as if she had run a long way rather fast, as if there was a clock ticking inside her that wouldn’t stop.

“Don’t leave me to carry all the things in,” said Margot, “you’re quite old enough now to try and be helpful. You can manage that case — why, your arms are almost as long and big as mine.”

Harriet picked up the case, she knew her arms ought not to be so long and big at her age. She followed her mother into the hall, blinking at the bright light. An old
lady came bustling out of a door to greet them.

“Well, here we are, Mrs Sanderson,” said her mother, “all safe and sound, and this is my little Harriet. Harriet, this is our very kind landlady. She’s been longing to meet you. Say ‘How do you do’, Harriet.” But Harriet, who had not until this moment heard anything of Mrs Sanderson, just stared, and Mrs Sanderson’s smile of welcome grew a little fixed.

“How could Mrs Royce have produced such a very plain daughter?” she thought and then, feeling at once remorseful for such an idea, she bent down and kissed her. She felt Harriet stiffen and said to herself, “This child isn’t used to being kissed.”

If Mrs Sanderson was disappointed at her first sight of Harriet, Harriet was as disappointed in her bedroom. It was hardly bigger than the cottage alcove.

“It
hasn’t
got a window,” she said crossly, “Margot said it had.” Margot had gone straight to her own room and it didn’t matter what she said to Andrew.

“Yes, it has,” said Andrew, “look, the roof slopes out here and it is just above the bed.” Harriet looked up and saw a small square of glass that opened with a pulley.

“But you can’t see out of it,” she said.

Andrew switched off the light. “Now look,” he said. In the frosty January sky the stars were brilliant.

“You are the only person who can lie in bed and see the sky properly,” said Andrew, “and it’s always changing.” He switched on the light again.

“The bathroom’s along there next to my room — you’d better have a wash and then supper will be ready. I bet you’re hungry.”

Left alone, Harriet switched off the light once more and gazed up at the stars. She thought she had never really seen them before. Her room was a proper bedroom after all, and it was the only one in which you could lie in your bed and see the sky above you. Andrew had said so.

“Hurry up, Harriet,” came Margot’s voice down the passage, “supper’s ready,” and Harriet hurried.

The next few days were a rush of getting ready for the new school. A uniform had to be bought. Harriet had looked forward to this, it seemed grand and important for there had been no school uniform at Queensmead.

“I’m afraid she’s at least two sizes larger than the average for her age,” said Margot, smiling apologetically at the young shop assistant. “It’s a quite hideous brown, don’t you think?” she went on, “Why, do you suppose, any school should want to choose anything so unbecoming?
You
could carry it off with that nice fair colouring, but for anyone sallow it’s abominable.”

Harriet, listening, knew without any doubt from the way the shop assistant then looked at her that she must be the “anyone sallow”. “Sallow”, she hadn’t met the word before and it sounded horrid. The day’s shopping with her mother to which she had eagerly looked forward became as dust and ashes.

“Really, dragging that child about London got me down,” complained Margot that night.

“What does sallow mean?” Harriet asked Andrew next time they were alone together. You could ask Andrew things safely because he never wanted to know why you asked them.

“Sallow,” he said, not bothering to look up from the paper he was reading, “it either means a kind of willow-tree or a sort of greyish, yellow colour - rather a nasty colour really.” That was that then. She knew she wasn’t a tree so she must have a sort of greyish yellow face. Perhaps that was the reason she hadn’t ever had a proper friend — no one would want to have a person of that sort who was also called ‘Fatty’ for a best friend. She examined her face closely in the bathroom mirror, she hadn’t one of her own, and it was true, though she had never noticed it before, her face wasn’t pink and white
like her mother’s or red and brown like Andrew’s, it was sallow, sallow, sallow. And soon she would have to take it to the new school in the now hated uniform, but perhaps she would die first. “Oh, God, let me die now.” But she didn’t die, and at first school was so noisy and crowded and altogether bewildering that she was too stunned to think of anything at all. She was always getting lost in endless passages and bells rang suddenly, which meant you had to be in another classroom, or in the cloakroom, or in the hall, or in the playground, and she was hardly ever in the right place or knew how to get there.

After some time, though, it got easier and there were so many people at this school that they didn’t seem to notice her much as long as she kept quiet, and by the second term, though she hadn’t found a friend, she
had
found a hero. He was a boy in the same class and he had found her on one of those early days when she had got hopelessly lost, and had told her where she ought to be and had taken her there. He had freckles and a nice grin and hair like a yellow bush, and she had found out that his name was Ben. He could do handstands longer than any one else and keep two balls going up in the air for ages, too, and he actually lived in the housing estate at the back of the Lotus House. After she knew that she used to watch for him, over the fence, hidden in the old lilac bushes. Margot had said the garden didn’t really belong to them at all — the bit by the basement flat belonged to Miss Cook and the rest to Mrs Sanderson, who had kindly said that Harriet could play there whenever she wanted to. She didn’t want to play there. There was nothing to play at and no one to play with, but she spent quite a long while watching the children playing on the estate. There were two distinct groups of these — one she called “the Terribles” who were mostly the older ones. Harriet did not dare to be seen by any of these. They fought and shouted and threw things about; once they were throwing
things at a poor cat, but it escaped, and scrambling over the fence in its desperation, rushed into Miss Cook’s part of the garden and then disappeared. The boys continued to throw a few stones after it over the fence — one nearly hit Harriet and so she dared not go in search of the cat until they had all gone away, but she could not find it. Instead Miss Cook found her and was cross with her for “trespassing”, as she called it.

Of the other younger group Ben was the leader. Harriet, worshipping from afar, saw with approval that it was he who arranged all the games and that the others did what he told them. He was nearly always the centre of a crowd, but sometimes he would come out later, just before the “Terribles”, and practise by himself with a ball. One never-to-be-forgotten day he was there alone when Harriet came out and he actually looked over the fence and hailed her.

“Hullo, kid, I’ve sent my ball over by mistake. Can I come and look for it?”

Harriet nodded, she was speechless with shyness and emotion. She stood stock still until Ben appeared again on her side of the fence.

“There’s an awful lot of long grass and bushes,” he said, “I didn’t see where it went. Can you help? You look along here and I’ll start further off.”

Harriet began to look but without hope, her mother always said she could never find anything. And then she saw it, something red, half-hidden in the undergrowth and almost at her feet. But no, it couldn’t be, such a thing could never happen, it couldn’t actually be Ben’s ball. Transfixed with excitement and disbelief, she couldn’t move, she simply couldn’t stoop down and see for certain, and then Ben came up and saw it too.

“Why, there it is, staring at you. You are a blind bat!” he said kindly but contemptuously. He picked it up and ran away tossing it in the air.

“I might have found it for him, I could have been the girl who found Ben’s ball. It’ll never, never happen again, Why didn’t I, oh, why?”

She ran blindly into the house, on the way nearly knocking over Mrs Sanderson who, seeing the look on the child’s face, was troubled. She had not made much headway with Harriet as yet, although summer was now at hand. On several occasions Margot, with many pretty apologies and expressions of gratitude, had asked her if she would give an eye to Harriet when she and Andrew were going out for the evening. At first Letty had suggested stories and games, but Harriet had so obviously preferred any and every television programme and taking herself off to bed without help at the stipulated time, that she had not persevered. There was no denying that she found Harriet unattractive and unresponsive, a definite disappointment, but, displeased with herself for feeling like this towards the child, she had determined to make a more positive approach one day. Now she decided she would not put this off any longer. The doll’s house would be her trump card of course, and yet it was something of an effort to play it. It would be good to rescue it from being a mere museum piece, to witness again a child’s delight in the previous object, yet she was conscious of a wish to keep it sacrosanct, secure in the past.

But with the impression of Harriet’s stricken look as she had rushed past her, Letty dealt firmly with this sentimental weakness and wrote a note to Margot which she pushed into the Royces’ letterbox.

“Harriet,” said Margot the next morning. “Mrs Sanderson has kindly invited you to tea today to see her doll’s house.”

“Doll’s houses are for babies,” said Harriet indignantly. “The Queensmead one was kept in the nursery and I never played with it even when I was only five.”

“Well, it’s very kind of Mrs Sanderson anyhow,” said
Margot, “and it wouldn’t be polite or nice not to go.”

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