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Foreign Landby Jonathan Raban
It was a shadowless London morning; a grudged measure of twilight between darknesses. They breakfasted under a bare 150-watt bulb. Sheila worked her passage through a plate of All Bran, Tom drank coffee from a mug with a thick and warty glaze. The window of the tall room at the back of the house showed a lawn of fallen plane leaves, a clogged birdbath, a torn fence, and then the city, lying far below them like a lake. It was thunderously still and black.
Sheila held her father's letter, a single sheet of onionskin.
"He's coming back. For good, he says."
Tom was staring at the stamp on the envelope. There was a flag, with some gaudy Third World heraldry on it, a sword, a fishing boat, a torch, some sort of tree.
"Great," Tom said, losing the word in his beard. He went on looking at the stamp. Then, "Why?"
"What do you mean, why? He's sixty."
"I thought he might be ill. Or something."
"Oh, he isn't coming here. He'll go to my gran's old house in Cornwall. That's why he kept it on."
"Is that a baobab tree, do you reckon?"
"I've no idea. Probably. I suppose that's what they have out there.
"Is that what you want?" Tom said.
"I don't see that it really makes much difference. London to Cornwall is as far in time as London to Bom Porto."
"Bom Porto," Tom said with a faint snuffle. It was difficult for anyone to pronounce the name of the place where her father lived as if they meant it seriously. At least his transfer to St Cadix would solve that problem.
"It's his deathbed repentance. It has to be a wrong move. He can't know England any more. It's a foreign country. What'll he do here? He's got some chocolate-boxy picture in his head of spreading elms and village pubs and thatch with everything. Poor old bugger."
"Perhaps he's just fed up with the heat."
Sheila laughed. Tom, surprised, smiled at pleasing her so easily.
"Yes, that's what this country's for. It's a place where people come to cool off."
Tom watched her, his lips moving slightly behind his Mr Rat whiskers. He got up from the breakfast table that he'd carpentered when he first moved in. Sitting at it, feeling its bare grain under her fingertips, she felt soothed by its weightiness.
"Do you want me to go to the shops first? Or fix the van?"
"Shops," she said.
"Okay," said Tom. His extraordinary specific gravity made the room seem to float as he left it.
Sheila carried her mail up to the study at the top of the house. It was a room too small for Tom. He always stopped at the doorway unless he'd come to repair something. Tom had built the bookshelves: a honeycomb of varnished oak to replace the piles of bricks and boards that Sheila had made for herself. Tom installed the telephone answering machine. Tom framed and hung the pictures on the walls. He had created this working place for her, then gone below. She noticed that when he did come to her study, he dipped his head and gathered his great shoulders together in embarrassment, like a man in church. She would lend him books from the shelves, and he'd carry them cautiously off in hands as big as a pair of garden spades.
She could hear him now, rumbling somewhere downstairs like a passing underground train. She needed his bass accompaniment in order to work; had come to depend on his noises, of banging and sawing and drilling, and smells, of machine oil, turpentine and pine dust. Sometimes she would go down at the end of the day and find whole walls gone and Tom, looking huge and rimed, saying "Is that what you want?" Yes, on the whole; though it was still hard to be sure of what Tom wanted. There were days when she found his consoling presence in the house perfectly inexplicable, like some extravagant anonymous gift.
Outside, the top branches of a leafless tree were waving in silly semaphore. She spread her father's letter on the desk. It was exactly the same as his letters always were, covering one and a third sides of the paper; the handwriting was upright, the grammar good. It ended, Much love, George. Her father was not one to squander a lots of or an all my on his daughter; she saw his much as a quantity that he had weighed out with some care. It was a little more, perhaps, than a teaspoonful; a good deal less than a dessert spoon. It was not much.
Even so, she was excited. Her father was coming home, and the news lay like a splash of sunlight on the desk. About time too, (here she put on the steel-framed glasses that made her look like a governess in a Victorian novel); she had waited for years to make a reckoning in that department.
All daughters should make a reckoning with their fathers. Sons did it all the time. Every rambling memoirist found room for a chapter or two in which he could fork over his old oedipal battles with the family patriarch. Daughters did it rarely--and when they did, it was usually hedged and reluctant, with too little bite and too much routine irony. Where the sons tasted blood, the daughters drew back: no sooner had they inflicted a small scratch than they were fussing about with the Savlon and Elastoplast. Sheila, in theory at least, believed that fathers should be tackled boldly. They called for a heavy spanner or a sharp knife.
She had made her reckoning with her mother long ago. No-one had been hurt in the process of accountancy; Sheila had simply emerged, slowly, as the parent, with her mother as a sort of dizzy teenager. Now Sheila scolded her mother down the telephone line to Norwich, posted money to her in rather large, irregular sums, and organized her mother's trips to London so that there were very few minutes of these weekends left over for mischief or introspection. She took her mother to the Zoo, the Planetarium, the Sir John Soane Museum, Fortnum's, the National Portrait Gallery and by riverboat to Greenwich--all childish treats that Sheila had never had as a child herself.
But her father had evaded her. He was like the dinner guest who is never seen again after the soup. He had slipped out of her life without even an excuse me.
She had been five, going six. They were living in Aden. She felt cheated of Aden too, since the journey back to England with her mother had been such an adventure that it blotted out practically all memory of the life which had gone before, and caused it. They had kept on going up and coming down again in aeroplanes. First Cairo, then Athens, then Rome. . . . The overnight stop in Rome had a useless clarity in her head; it sat there, glowing to no purpose, like a colour transparency in a plastic viewer. Then they had flown in the Comet. Super!! she had written, in wonky capital letters, across half a world, to that unperson, her father.
There must have been quarrels, red eyes, single beds, chilling public declarations, but she couldn't recall any. When she thought about Aden, all that came to mind were irrelevancies, like the grown men no taller than herself, with heads like eggshells, or the huge, brassbound mahogany wheel of a big ship that she'd been taken to see. In the wheelhouse, she could still make out the bearded English captain (he had given her a rough-cut opal, which she lost and mourned). The man standing next to him must be her father. He was a certain disposition of space; but the light passed clean through him.
In the movie version of Sheila's childhood, it was unclear to her whether her father had ever had a part to play at all, or whether his scenes had been edited out at some late stage in the production. Things had been no more satisfactory since she'd been a grown-up.
He had the unfair advantage of someone who stays in hotels. On his English leaves, when not in Cornwall he put up at a gilt and chocolate affair which was hidden around the back of St James's Street. This offended Sheila. Fathers, in her experience, didn't stay at hotels--at least they did so only in the country, and only then in overgrown pubs with names like The Railway or The Crown and Anchor. All fathers needed was a place to sleep: a "spare room" was royal luxury, and they were happy to bunk down on sofas among empty glasses under a canopy of smoke. Not her father. Shielded by switchboard girls, by "He's not in his room" and "Can I take a message?", he was as invulnerable in London as he was in Africa.
She'd never seen him in the early morning, never seen him drunk, never caught him taking dentures out of a tumbler or buttoning a shirt over a vest: she barely knew him. They met at times of the day when love was out of the question: appointments were for 12.45 or 6.30, as if they had a contract to argue over. When her father appeared, he came on the dot, looking as crisp as if the hotel kept him in a hatbox. There was nothing to say about his grey tweed suit--it was a grey tweed suit, and that was that. He smelled of the sort of soap that boring people gave each other for Christmas.
His kisses lent no weight to his presence. There wasn't any sense of particular proximity about them. He kissed her on meeting exactly as she supposed he greeted the planters' wives in Bom Porto--if they had planters in Bom Porto, which was something else she wasn't clear about.
Heaven knows, she'd tried to find out what she could. His job, for instance. Her father was in the bunkering business. The word sounded grubby. It didn't fit in at all with the smell of soap and that immaculate hotel. "My father is a bunker in Bom Porto . . ." It was the first line of an awful rhyme.
"But what do you actually do?"
She was seventeen. It was lunchtime on a summer Saturday in the dawning age of the Beatles. George--he was still "Daddy" then--snapped an Italian breadstick in half on the opposite side of the restaurant table.
"Oh . . . fuelling, provisioning. The general idea is to keep ships fed and watered and stoked up. Dull stuff, really." He had a dry, open air voice. Sheila thought of it as "Navy", though George's Navy days had ended in 1946.
"What about History?" he said, patting his mouth with his napkin. "What period are you doing for A-level now?"
"Tudors and Stuarts," she said, feeling crushed. She heard George saying something about the Rump Parliament and shut her ears to it: was he really so bored with his own life, or was he just shy of boring her?
After lunch, George said he had to "pick up a few shirts". They walked to Jermyn Street. Sheila's head ached and swam from the wine. The shirt shop smelled of George: it had a disinfected, herbal odour, and the man behind the counter was more like a parson than a shop assistant. He greeted George by name and George, more surprisingly, knew his name too. A gangling deacon brought coffee. Shirts were summoned and yet another apologetic minister, a curate perhaps, brought them up from the crypt. They were unwrapped from veils of tissue paper and laid out along the counter. Considering the fuss that was being made over these shirts, Sheila thought they were a serious disappointment. The six shirts were identical--made of limp cotton in a faded, denimy sort of blue. They had been specially made for George, and they came to fifty-four guineas. Sheila watched as he made out the cheque. She had never seen anything so extravagant in her entire life.
"Now for your turn," George said as they left the shop. He steered her through the crowd, his hand at her bent elbow. Looking at the faces through her afternoon hangover, she saw a race of people; everyone seemed to be obscurely related to her father; no-one was related to her at all.
What Sheila wanted then was some thirty-shilling piece of nonsense from Carnaby Street. It would have been so easy for George to rescue the day for her, if he'd bothered to think about what it might mean to be seventeen and a bit. Instead they rode by taxi in the wrong direction, to another of George's shops that weren't proper shops, staffed this time by women who talked as if they were at a garden party. There was more coffee, served on a silver tray with a family crest, and more pleasantries of the "Haven't seen you for simply ages, Mr Grey!" kind. And I should think not, thought Sheila, who was feeling sweaty and was trying to hide the spot on the left side of her chin.
The dress was bought; a swirl of green silk with a hemline so low that it reached right down into the 1950s. The bunker (or was it bunkerer?) made out another gruesome cheque. At Liverpool Street Station, Sheila was violently sick in the Ladies. George waited for her on Platform 11, and said ". . . next year, then . . ." and touched her cheek with three cold fingers. All Sheila hoped was that he wouldn't smell the sick on her.
She'd worn the dress just once. When she came downstairs in it, her mother said, "Oh, that is bliss. Yes." but had looked at the green silk exactly as one might recognize an acquaintance from the past whom one had never much liked. That night Sheila put it away in her wardrobe, where it dripped from its hanger like an alpine waterfall. When she happened on it subsequently, it just looked indecent, like money.
In her twenties, Sheila thought she had got George sorted out. It should have been obvious all along. His boarding school and then the Navy had crippled him emotionally. He couldn't express his feelings, even to himself. At forty-eight, he was stuck with the emotional apparatus of someone of what? Eleven? Twelve? Thirteen? His only fluency (and Sheila savoured the double meanings of the word) lay in paying, as his hand raced across the velvety surface of that depthless chequebook. Paying was at once an act of atonement and a bid for superiority. And, on the question of fluency, wasn't it significant that George always used a fountain pen (black ink) and never a biro?
To anyone who questioned her about her father, Sheila said, "He's a sad figure, really. Hopelessly bottled." As nutshells went, it would do.
Then George stole even her nutshell from her.
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