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Authors: Katharine Moore

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BOOK: The Lotus House
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Harriet had got up early the morning of that same day and had paid Maisie and the kittens a visit before she went to school. Already she thought they were looking more like real kittens and she decided that the black and white one was going to be the prettiest, she could see his little shirt-front quite clearly. She was enraptured. She happened to be late home from school that day, it was her piano lesson afternoon and then, after she had had her tea and done her prep, Margot wouldn’t let her go out again. “But I’ll get up early so as to see Maisie and the kittens before school. I mean to go and see them every morning.”

Janet too was up early. She had noticed that her michaelmas daisies wanted staking — they had grown so while she was away, and the wind was getting up. She was interrupted by Harriet.

“I can’t find the kittens,” she said, “and Maisie’s miaowing dreadfully. Have you got them here, Miss Cook? I know they’re lovely but Maisie wants them back.”

Janet Cook felt uncomfortably embarrassed and this made her speak brusquely.

“There aren’t any kittens any longer. Cats have far too many, you know; they have to be got rid of.”

Harriet stared at her, then: “What do you mean, ‘got rid of’, you don’t mean
killed,
do you?” she asked in a whisper — the words were too dreadful to say aloud.

“Now,” said Janet, the more sharply for an irrepressible, though she considered a quite unwarranted, sense of guilt, “don’t be silly, when people don’t want kittens, they always drown them, you know; they are much too little to feel anything.”

Harriet, after a shocked silence, shouted loudly: “I hate you, you’re a wicked woman!”

The ingrained red of Janet Cook’s cheeks became
redder. “And you’re a very rude little girl,” she rejoined, but Harriet had fled.

She had to see Mrs Sanderson at once. “You’ve got a murderess in your house, Mrs Sanderson,” she cried when she had found her, “you won’t let her stay, will you?”

“Is it the kittens?” asked Letty apprehensively. Harriet answered with a flood of tears.

Oh
dear!
thought Letty,
Oh
dear,
dear,
dear!
Aloud she said, “Don’t cry so, darling, they were too young to know anything about it.” But Harriet did not believe her, nor really did Letty herself.

“But Maisie,
poor
Maisie,” Harriet sobbed, “she’s calling and calling for them.”

“She’ll forget about it in a day or two,” said Letty, this time with more conviction, “she really will, Harriet.”

Harriet stopped sobbing in consternation. “But she oughtn’t to forget,” she cried, “I don’t want her to forget!”

“Do you want her to go on being miserable, then?” asked Letty.

Harriet was silent. She did and she didn’t — all she really knew she wanted, and that passionately, was to have the kittens alive again.

It was a miserable day. That evening Harriet said to Andrew: “Do kittens go to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” said Andrew.

Harriet sighed; if Andrew didn’t know, no one would know, but on the other hand, if he didn’t know one way or other, there was still a hope that they did.

THE IMPROVEMENT IN
his job that Aubrey Stacey had hoped for after his move to the attic flat in the Lotus House had not materialized. It was indeed a relief to return to his peaceful rooms after the day’s ordeal instead of the incessant noise and permanent smell of stale smoke of his old lodgings, but at school matters became even worse. He had been allotted an older class of mixed ability. The mixture was divided roughly into three groups — the aggressive, the apathetic and a minority who, with a possible GCE as a target, gravitated to the front of the classroom where they were just able to hear the teacher and, by ignoring what went on elsewhere, managed with difficulty to accomplish a little work.

A ringleader amongst the first group was an overweight black-browed girl called Marcia. She had quickly classified Aubrey as a creep and thenceforth as fair game. His subsequent mortification was systematically planned. There was first the straightforward crude “hubbub” ordeal to which each of the staff in turn were subjected as a matter of course. Aubrey, as Marcia expected, fell into the trap and responded by shouts of, “Silence, stop that row at once.”

Silence immediately ensued but it was too complete, too sudden, and soon the tapping began — tap, tap, tap of ball-point pens on desks, and then of boxes and
transistors, anything handy, gradually mounting to a crescendo and then dying down, only to start again after a pause. Next there was the veiled insult, the innuendo that must not be noticed in case worse should follow, and the provocative personalities:

“Oh, Mister, I like your shirt — look at Mister’s shirt. Cool, isn’t it?”

“Did your wife choose it for you?”

“You boob, he hasn’t got a wife.”

“Hasn’t he? Well, now’s your chance then, Tracey.”

“Why hasn’t he?”

“Oh, Mister, Pete’s
bent
my book!” (Hilarious laughter).

“Mister, tell Marcia not to take off her cardigan, I can see her big boobs and it’s distracting me.”

“Yes, what is it, Doreen?”

“What’s what, Mister?”

“You had your hand up.”

“Oh, I was only combing my hair.”

Or, again, there was the stonewalling ordeal, and in this the apathetic group would often join.

“But it’s so
boring,
it doesn’t
mean
anything. What the hell’s the guy after?”

“It’s like difficult to do this, Mister.”

“Why should we anyways? My Mum, she never had to bother with this dope and she’s done all right.”

Lastly there was the absolute defiance — “Pass us a fag, mate,” or a chair hurled across the room, a window broken deliberately.

After each failure to cope with one or other of these challenges, Aubrey sought escape from humiliation in dreams of his true vocation as a writer; after all, no creative genius could be expected to succeed as a hack teacher — look at the Brontës, look at D.H. Lawrence. He would get out his manuscript and sit with it before him, his pick-me-up at hand which he felt to be not
only a necessity but a just compensation for what he had to endure during the day. Often the whole evening would slip away in a vague pleasant trance which he excused to himself as a period of gestation. True inspiration could only occur at the right time, when the subconscious had done the preparatory work, so this period of relaxation was not at all a waste of time.

But as he filled and refilled the glass beside him, his musings over his plot and characters were apt to merge into bright fantasies. The six presentation copies of the finished book lay there on his table, together with the reviews, all highly appreciative, or he heard his brother calling him up on the phone, or better still, appearing at the Lotus House with a bottle of champagne under each arm to celebrate, or he was receiving the congratulations of his headmaster and the staff. Best of all he pictured his mother and father overcome with pride and pleasure. After such an evening he would put away his manuscript in a euphoric haze. Then would follow the deep oblivion of the night; and next morning a hangover and the grim reality of another school day. He sometimes thought of giving in his notice but shrank from the confession of failure; also his parents were not rich and he could not see himself living on the dole, having no taste for economy, and it would not be easy to find another job, for he could not hope for an enthusiastic recommendation. Anyway, would another teaching post be any better, there were worse places, he knew, and he lacked the confidence to launch out into fresh fields. No, he must keep on until his novel was finished.

But the autumn term brought some improvement. In the holidays he had had two weeks’ holiday in Greece, where he had been intoxicated by colour and warmth. He was among friendly, civilized people, and the world of sordid savagery in south-east London seemed thousands of miles away, tiny, unreal and of no importance.
Although, on his return, this impression naturally faded, he felt the benefit in health and spirits. Surely things must be better this term, and so, at first, they were. Marcia and her chief cronies were themselves in sight of freedom, being due to leave at Christmas, and therefore less aggressive. Besides, baiting the same creep for so long became boring, like everything else. And then there was Hassan. He was a new boy, a Pakistani with a mobile intelligent face and the large appealing dark eyes of his race. Aubrey immediately became aware of those eyes fixed upon him in eager anticipation. Here was someone actually anxious to learn. He felt as if, parched with thirst, he had been offered a drink of water. He soon discovered that the boy was responsive and sensitive even to the poor material he was handing out to him.

When he had first started at Brook Comprehensive he had intended, as had been his custom, to include some carefully selected classics into his general syllabus, but this hope was quickly dispelled.

“My dear Stacey, we keep in touch with reality here. Teach them, if you can, to speak and write grammatically and to spell, that’s your priority; they’ll need that to get jobs. As for any reading, go easy — there’s quite a useful anthology on the staffroom shelves — Salinger and that
Lord
of
the
Flies
man, and Wynham.”

“Poetry?” Aubrey had asked tentatively.

“No go, my dear chap, they won’t take it, I’m afraid, though if you’re keen you might try to squeeze in a contemporary now and again. There was a fellow I heard on the radio the other day, a description of a decaying fish, very lifelike I thought it — you a fisherman?”

“No.”

“Well, you wouldn’t appreciate it then. But something like that might appeal.”

Now, however, Aubrey found himself longing to try out on this boy some of his favourites, and this became
compelling after he had had Hassan’s first bit of written work. He had read the class a descriptive passage of D.H. Lawrence out of the staffroom anthology, about the Australian bush, and then told them to write what they remembered of it and what they liked or disliked about it — a routine exercise from which he expected little. Half the class would never attempt it, would not even have listened. “It doesn’t mean anything anyway,” “What right’s he got to bother us!” The rest would vary in presentation but would be depressingly similar as to content. Then suddenly he came upon this:

“Words are magic things, sometimes they dance, sometimes they cry, sometimes they sing. Some are terrible, some take me travelling. This man’s words make me feel alone, the only person left in the world, but I do not mind because I am changed into a magician by his words. I can do and see anything I wish.”

Aubrey, staring at the round careful script, was silent upon his peak in Darien. His discovery filled him with excitement, almost with awe. From then on he taught for Hassan, waited in suspense for his response, contrived opportunities to see the boy alone that would appear accidental — excuses to retain him after class, or seemingly chance meetings out of school. He began to lend him books: poetry, Stevenson, Kipling, the short stories of Conrad; which the boy returned shyly, without much comment, but with such glowing looks of appreciation that expressed better than words that they had done their work. Aubrey experienced in all this the deepest satisfaction that life had yet offered him. He planned how he would continue to nourish Hassan’s talent, how, as he grew older, Hassan would become a real friend as well as a pupil, yet would always keep that gratitude and admiration for himself that he now gave so innocently and openly. Too openly, too innocently, for after a time things began to go wrong.

Aubrey had been aware that he must be cautious about the relationship, but he was not conscious of how his face lit up whenever he spoke to the boy, nor that Hassan’s response had been noted as beyond even that expected by the despised and ridiculed “snobs” in the front row. Hassan became all of a sudden withdrawn and silent during lessons and avoided all other possible encounters. Then one day, after the others had all gone, he did return to the classroom with Aubrey’s copy of “The Ancient Mariner”, which he hastily thrust at him with a quick glance over his shoulder and round the room.

“Thank you, sir,” he half whispered, “but do not lend me any more just now, please — I am too busy.” He was gone before Aubrey could detain him and as he started up to try and do so he thought he saw a face pressed against the window.

The next morning as he came into the room, there was a sudden unnatural hush. He opened his desk to get out his books and there, lying on the top of them, was a large bold drawing executed with a crude vigour in black and red. It was an obscene picture of himself and Hassan and beneath was scrawled “Mr Stacey is a bent.” The drawing gave Aubrey an almost physical sensation of a violent blow between the eyes. It was probably for only a second or two that he gazed at it behind the shelter of the desk lid, though it seemed an age. Then he became conscious of the air of suppressed excitement in the classroom and with a tremendous effort he controlled his rage and disgust. Hassan … he must think of Hassan, and force himself to carry on the lesson as usual. Aware of rows of eyes fixed upon him in expectation, aware, alas, though how he did not know for he did not look at him, of the boy crouching down over his books, he heard himself saying quietly, “Get out your exercises and take down a dictation.” Mechanically he started reading out the passage — “Think of this sentence,” he ordered himself,
“now, the next and the next — now collect the books, now write up the difficult words on the board, now ask for their meanings — soon the bell will go and the lesson will be over. Nothing exists for you except the next necessary action.”

“Not so hot after all,” said Doreen at the end of the morning. “Looks as if old Creep Stacey’s got no bloody eye for art.”

“Oh, fuck it,” said Marcia.

“Watcher doin’ tonight? Goin’ home?”

“You must be kidding, my Mum’s got her new bloke there, or she’ll be out with him and not back till morning.”

“Where you goin’ then?”

“What bloody business is it of yours?” said Marcia, pushing her way through the crowd.

“What the hell’s got her?” asked Tracey.


She
won’t be home till the morning either, if I know her,” said Doreen.

“She got a Dad?” enquired one of the others. “My Dad’d bloody well murder me if I didn’t show up.”

“Never had none as far as I know,” said Doreen.

Luckily it was a Friday, the day when the afternoon was supposed to be given over to organized games and crafts, so Aubrey was free. He had intended a visit to the British Museum to look up some fresh data on the lately neglected hero of his novel, but now his one wish was to get drunk as soon and as thoroughly as possible. He reached home, unaware of the journey or of anything but the goal ahead, but before he could start on his drinking bout there was one thing that had to be done. He took out of his pocket the crushed ball of paper that was Marcia’s drawing. This must be destroyed at once. In feeling for some matches in another pocket to set it on fire, he came across the little volume of Coleridge where he had thrust it on the previous day, and recalled how he had looked
forward to sharing its glory with Hassan. A wave of love and loss swept over him and he threw the book across the room. By late afternoon he was lying on his bed in the desired state.

 

Something wonderful had happened to Harriet that day at school. It wasn’t that Miss Johnson had said “good” after her piano lesson which made her feel powerful and good, (she had been learning nearly a year now and Miss Johnson not infrequently praised her), but this time she had added; “I think you already manage the little Mozart piece almost well enough to be able to play it at the end of term Christmas concert.”

“Do you mean the big one when everyone comes?” asked Harriet incredulously. She had heard this event talked about with awe.

“Yes, would you like that?” asked Miss Johnson.

“I don’t know,” said Harriet, “I think I
would.
Mothers and fathers come, don’t they?”

“Oh yes,” said Miss Johnson, “especially the ones whose children are playing, we keep special seats in front for them. It’s great fun. Now, just run through the sonatina again.”

This time the notes seemed to play themselves, Harriet’s fingers didn’t have to find them on the keyboard at all. She loved this piece, the little twinkles that Mozart had put in here and there always reminded her of the way the stars twinkled and flashed at her through her window on clear nights.

When she had finished Miss Johnson said “That is really very nice indeed, Harriet, you can tell your mother now that you will certainly be playing at the concert. Of course she’ll get a proper invitation soon.”

At the end of the afternoon Harriet ran all the way home. She was early. Mrs Sanderson let her in but was on the point of going out to visit a friend, Andrew was not at
home and Margot too was not yet back, and there was no sound from the basement either; not that Harriet would have felt like telling Miss Cook her great news, the murder of the kittens was too recent a tragedy. The whole big house seemed empty and silent. Well, there was always the doll’s house family. She knew she wasn’t supposed to go into Mrs Sanderson’s room except on Saturdays but now she had to. Harriet Royce, alias Wilhelmina Rose,
must
tell her mother and father she was playing in the school concert. They clapped their hands for joy. Harriet thought she had better not stay long with them in case Mrs Sanderson came back and found her there and was cross. She gave every room in the little Lotus House a loving happy glance before she shut it up, and seeing the grandfather on his bed upstairs made her wonder if perhaps the big house wasn’t quite empty after all, for Mr Stacey might be at home and she could tell her news to him. She had never been up to the attic floor before but the need to communicate was too great for shyness.

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