Chocky, Page 2John Wyndham
We never got to Rome.
After spending an uncomfortable night at an indifferent hotel a few miles from Lake Como, where the accommodation was inadequate and the food disagreeable, we woke one benign-looking morning with the sun just clearing the mist from the Lombardy hills, to find ourselves stranded. Our courier, our driver, and our coach itself had all vanished overnight.
An agitated counsel resulted in the sending of an urgent telegram to the head-office of GOPLACES TOURS LTD. It brought no reply.
During the course of the day tempers deteriorated, not only those of the tourists, but of the hotel proprietor as well. He had, it appeared, another coach-party booked for that night. The party duly arrived, and chaos took over.
In the disputes which followed it became obvious that Mary and I, the only two unattached members of our party, were not going to stand a chance of beds, so we, during the evening, bagged two moderately easy chairs in the restaurant, and stuck to them. They were at least better than sleeping on the floor.
By the following morning there was still no answer from GOPLACES. A second, and more urgent, message was dispatched.
After some delay we managed to get coffee and rolls.
‘This,’ I said to Mary as we breakfasted, ‘is not going to get us anywhere.’
‘What do you think has happened?’ she asked.
I shrugged. ‘At a guess I’d say Goplaces has gone bust, that our two were tipped off about it somehow, and chose the opportunity to make off with the coach in order to flog it.’
‘You mean it’s no good our waiting here?’
‘Not a bit, I’d say.’ I let that register, and then asked: ‘Have you got any money?’
‘Not enough to get home with, I’m afraid. About five or six pounds, and nearly four thousand lire. I didn’t expect to need anything much,’ she said.
‘Nor me. I’ve got about ten, and a few lira. What do you say to seeing what we can do?’
She looked round. Every other member of our party within sight seemed to be engaged in ill-tempered argument, or oppressed by gloom.
‘All right,’ she agreed.
We set out, carrying our suitcases, and sat by the roadside until a bus came along. In the small town which was its destination we found a railway station, and took tickets for Milan. The consul there did not welcome us, but eventually he relaxed enough to advance us the money to cover our fares home, second class.
We married the following spring. It turned out to be quite an affair. There were so many Bosworths that I had a feeling of being engulfed.
My own father and mother had both been dead some years, and I have few close relatives so that the Gore side of the ceremony was supported only scantily by my best man, Alan Froome, an uncle and aunt, a couple of cousins, my senior partner, and a scatter of friends. The Bosworth assembly practically filled the rest of the church. As well as Mary’s parents there were her eldest sister Janet, with her husband and her four children, displaying evidence that there would soon be a fifth; her next eldest sister, Patience, with her three; her brothers, Edward (Ted) and Francis (Frank) with their wives and seemingly innumerable children; a host of uncles, aunts, and cousins, and a mob of friends and acquaintances all apparently gifted with such fecundity that the place resembled a combined infant school and crèche. My father-in law, having no further daughters to dispose of, was minded to do the occasion in style, and did – exhaustingly.
It was with a feeling akin to convalescence that we caught up with the previous year’s intentions of spending our honeymoon partly in Yugoslavia, and partly amid the Grecian isles.
From it we came back to take up residence in a small house in Cheshunt – a strategic position for easy contact with most elements of the Bosworth ganglion.
Even when we were buying the house I had, I recall, a slight sense of misgiving, an intimation that I was not taking the wisest course, but at the time I put it down to my own prejudice. I was unfamiliar with clan life, I had not been brought up to it, and what I had seen of it had little appeal, but for Mary’s sake I determined to do my best to qualify as an acceptable associate member. She was accustomed to it. Moreover, I told myself, it would help her to feel less lonely while I was away from home.
The intention was good, but as things turned out it was a mistake. It soon became clear to me, and, I fear, to most of the rest, that I am not first-class clan material – though, even so, I suppose I might in time have found myself a niche among them had it not been for other factors…
During our first year there Mary’s sister Janet produced her fifth, and was heard to speak in favour of six as a good round number. Her other sister, Patience, was well on the way to completing her quartet, an additional aunthood was thrust upon Mary by her brother Frank, and she received several invitations to act as godmother. But she had failed to detect any indication that there was to be a baby of her own.
Our second wedding anniversary approached and passed, still without any sign. Mary consulted another doctor, and, unconvinced by him, appealed to a specialist. He, too, told her there was nothing for her to worry about… but worry she did.
I, for my own part, felt no great urgency. We were both young, we had plenty of time before us: where was the need for hurry? Indeed, I did not dislike the idea of a few more years of freedom before we trammelled ourselves with family cares, and said as much to Mary.
She agreed, but unconvincingly. She contrived to give the impression that it was sweet of me to pretend not to mind when she knew I did. I could not press the point further for fear of seeming to protest too much.
I don’t understand women. Nobody does. Least of all themselves. I don’t know, and nor do they, for instance, how far this compulsion that most of them have to produce a baby as soon as possible after marriage is attributable to a straight biological urge, and what percentages of it can be more justly credited to other factors such as conformity with peoples’ expectations, the desire to prove that one is normal, the belief that it will establish status, a sense of personal achievement, the symbol of one’s maturity, a feeling of solidarity, the obligation of holding one’s own in competition with the neighbours. Nevertheless, whatever the proportions of these ingredients, and other trace-elements, they compound to build up a formidable pressure. It is not the least use pointing out that some of the world’s most influential women, Elizabeth the First, Florence Nightingale, for instance, would actually have lost status had they become mums, in fact it is much wiser not to try. Babies, in a world that already has far too many, remain desirable.
It began to worry me a lot.
‘She frets about it,’ I confided to Alan Froome, who had been my best man. ‘It’s not necessary. The specialist assures her that there’s nothing wrong – me, too. The confounded thing is this constant social pressure all the time. The whole family circle is baby-ridden; they talk and think about nothing else. Her sisters keep on having them, so do her brothers’ wives, and all her married friends, and every time it happens it rubs it in that she doesn’t. Each new baby that comes along makes her feel more inadequate and inferior until I don’t know, and I’m sure she no longer knows, how much she wants a baby for itself, and how far it has become a sort of challenge. All the time she’s over a sort of forced draught. She’s in a circle where it’s a kind of competition in which every married woman is considered ipso facto an entrant – hich makes it damned hard on a non-starter.
‘It might not matter so much if she were the independent sort, but she isn’t really. She’s happier conforming, and the pressure to conform is terrific – only she can’t…. The whole thing is getting her down – and that’s getting me down…’
‘Do you think you’re getting quite the right slant on this, old man? I mean, does it matter how far her desire for a baby is inherent, and how much it is being stepped up by the environment? Surely, the point is that she has it – and has it very strongly. It seems to me there’s only one thing to be done about that.’<
‘But, damn it, we’ve tried; and we’ve taken just about all the advice there is…’
‘Well, then it looks to me as if the only thing you can do is take the alternative, don’t you think?’
So we had adopted Matthew.
For a time he seemed to be the answer. Mary adored him, and he certainly gave her plenty to do. And he enabled her to talk babies on an equal footing with the rest.
Or was it? Well, not quite, perhaps.… She began to get an impression that some babies confer a little more equality than other babies. And when the first thrill of her excitement had worn off she became aware of a feeling that her association with the motherhood group was a shade, just a shade, less than that of a member in full standing. It was all conveyed by the nicest, almost indetectably refined blend of sympathy and bitchiness…
‘We’re moving,’ I told Alan about six months later.
He looked at me for a moment, eyebrows raised.
‘Where to?’ he inquired.
‘I’ve found a place at Hindmere, Surrey. A nice house, slightly bigger, more countrified. Stands higher. Said to be better air there.’
‘I see,’ he said, and nodded again. ‘Good idea.’
‘What do you see?’
‘It’s the other side. The whole width of London in between.… What does Mary think about it?’
‘Not enthusiastic – she’s not very enthusiastic about anything these days – but she’s perfectly willing to give it a trial.’ I paused, and then added: ‘It seemed to me the only thing to do. I had a nasty feeling she might be heading for a breakdown. It’ll get her out of the influence. Leave that family of hers to wallow in its own fecundity. Give her the chance to make a start on her own footing. In a new place nobody will know that Matthew isn’t her own child unless she chooses to tell them. I think she’s beginning to realize that.’
‘Best thing you could do,’ Alan agreed.
It undoubtedly was. It put new life into Mary. Within a few weeks she had started to take herself in hand, to join things and make new acquaintances, to take a place in her own right.
Furthermore, within a year of the move there had come the first harbinging signs that a baby was on the way.
It was I who later broke the news to Matthew, now aged two, that he had a new baby sister. Rather to my concern he immediately burst into tears. With some difficulty I elicited that what he had really hoped for was a baby lamb. However, he managed the readjustment quite easily, and quickly adopted an attitude of responsibility towards Polly.
We then became a comfortable and contented family of four – save for the interlude when we appeared to be five, because we had Piff, as well.
Piff was a small, or supposedly small, invisible friend that Polly had acquired when she was about five. And while she lasted she was a great nuisance.
One would start to sit down upon a conveniently empty chair only to be arrested in an unstable and inelegant pose by a cry of anguish from Polly; one had, it seemed, been about to sit on Piff. Any unexpected movement, too, was liable to bowl over the intangible Piff who would then be embraced and comforted by a lot of sympathetic muttering about careless and brutal daddies.
Frequently, and more likely than not when a knockout seemed imminent, or the television play had reached the brink of its denouement, there would come an urgent call from Polly’s bedroom above; the cause had to be investigated although the odds were about four to one that it would concern Piff’s dire need of a drink of water. We would sit down at a table for four in a cafe, and there would be agonized appeals to a mystified waitress for an extra chair for Piff. I could be in the act of releasing my clutch when a startling yell would inform me that Piff was not yet with us, and the car door had to be opened to let her aboard. Once I testily refused to wait for her. It was not worth it; my heartlessness had clouded our whole day.
Piff, for one of her kind, had been remarkably diuturnal. She must have been with us the best part of a year – and it seemed a great deal longer – but in the end she somehow got mislaid during our summer holiday. Polly, much taken up with several more substantial, and much more audible, new friends, dropped Piff with great callousness, and she was still missing on our return journey.
Once I was satisfied that she was not going to follow and take, up residence with us again I was able to feel quite sorry for the deserted Piff, apparently doomed to wander for ever in summer’s traces upon the forlorn beaches of Sussex; nevertheless, her absence came as a great relief – even, one suspected, to Polly herself. The idea that we might now have acquired another such was by no means welcome.
‘A grim thought,’ said I,’ but, fortunately improbable, I think. A Piff can provide useful bossing material for a member of the younger female age-groups, but an eleven-year-old boy who wants to boss seems to me more likely to take it out on other, and smaller boys.’
‘I’m sure I hope you’re right,’ Mary said, but dubiously. ‘One Piff was more than enough.’
‘There’s quite a different quality here,’ I pointed out. ‘If you remember, Piff spent about eighty per cent of her time being scolded for something or other, and having to take it. This one appeared to be criticizing, and coming back with opinions of its own.’
Mary looked startled.
‘What do you mean? I don’t see how…’
I repeated, as nearly sis I could recall, the one-sided conversation I had overheard.
Mary frowned as she considered it.
‘I don’t understand that at all,’ she said.
‘Oh, it’s simple enough. After all the arrangement of a calendar is just a convention…’
‘But that’s just what it isn’t – not to a child, David. To an eleven-year-old it seems like a natural law – just as much as day and night, or the seasons.… A week is a week, and it has seven days – it’s an unquestionable provision, it just is so.’
‘Well, that’s more or less what Matthew was saying, but apparently he was being argued with – or he was arguing with himself. In either case it isn’t easy to explain.’
‘He must have been arguing with what someone’s told him at school – one of his teachers, most likely.’
‘I suppose so,’ I conceded. ‘All the same, it’s a new one on me. I’ve heard of calendar reformers who want all months to have twenty-eight days, but never of anyone advocating an eight-day week – or, come to that a thirty-two day month.’ I pondered a moment. ‘Besides, it just doesn’t begin to be on. For one thing you’d need nineteen more days in a year…’ I shook my head. ‘Anyway,’ I went on, ‘I don’t mean to make heavy weather of it. It just strikes me as odd. I wondered if you had noticed anything of the sort, too.’
Mary lowered her knitting again, and studied its pattern thoughtfully.
‘No – well, not exactly. I have heard him muttering to himself occasionally, but nearly all children do that at times. I’m afraid I didn’t pay any attention – actually I was anxious not to do anything which might encourage another Piff. But there is one thing: the questions he’s been asking lately –’
‘Lately!’ I repeated. ‘Was there ever a time when he didn’t?’
‘I know. But these are a bit different. I mean – well, usually his questions have been average-boy questions.’
‘I hadn’t noticed they’d changed.’
‘Oh, the old kind keep on, but there’s a new kind, too – with a different – a different sort of slant.’
‘Well, one of them was about why are there two sexes? He said he didn’t see why it was necessary to have two people to produce one, so how had it got arranged that way, and why? That’s a difficult one, you know, on the spur of the moment – well, it’s difficult anyway, isn’t it?’
I frowned. ‘Um – now you come to mention it…. Of course, it does sort of help to – er – spread the load…’ I tried, doubtfully.
‘But I didn’t mention it: Matthew did
. And there was another one, too, about “where is Earth?” Now, I ask you – where is Earth? – in relation to what? Oh, yes, he knows it goes round the sun, but where, please, is the sun? And, there were some others – simply not his kind of questions.’
I appreciated her point. Matthew’s questions were plentiful, and quite varied, but they usually kept a more homely orbit: things like ‘Why do you use a washer with a nut?’ or, ‘Why can’t we live on grass if horses can?’
‘A new phase?’ I suggested. ‘He’s reached a stage where things are beginning to widen out for him.’
Mary shook her head, giving me a look of reproach.
‘That, darling, is what I’ve been telling you. What I want to know is why they should widen, and his interests apparently change, quite so suddenly.’
‘But why not? What do you expect? Isn’t it what children go to school for – to have their minds widened and their interests expanded?’
‘I know,’ she said, frowning again.’ But that’s not quite it, David. This doesn’t seem to me like just development. It’s more as if he’d switched to a different track. It’s a sudden change in quality – quality and approach.’ She went on frowning for the pause before she added: ‘I do wish we knew a little more about his parents. That might help. In Polly I can see bits of you and bits of me. It gives one a feeling of something to go on. But with Matthew there’s no guide at all.… There’s nothing to give me any idea what to expect…’
I could see what she meant – though I have my reservations about the validity of this ability to see parent in child. I could also see where we were heading. In about three more moves we’d be back at the old unprofitable contest: heredity versus environment. To sidestep that I said:
‘It looks to me as if the best thing we can do for the present is simply to listen and watch carefully – though not obviously – until we get a firmer impression. It’s no good worrying ourselves over what may easily be an insignificant passing phase.’