Archive for April, 2015

Wanderlings

April 25, 2015

It’s amazing to me how few people today have even heard of Sir Hugo Pennington. I only vaguely knew the name myself until I was researching for my PhD on, well, let’s just say, the wilder shores of science during World War II. When I began reading up on him, I could hardly believe my eyes. There in the British Library, for anyone to see, were his blueprints for such things as a cloaking device for bomber planes and, most incredibly of all, a force-field generator to blanket all of London, devised to be set atop the dome of St Paul’s.

Of course, none of these came to pass, but there must have been other things that did, no doubt shrouded by the Official Secrets Act for decades still to come. Pennington, a precociously young man then, was a favourite and close confidante of Churchill, and that was an honour accorded to just a special few. But, in spite of the knighthood in 1945, they had fallen out badly by the end of the war. Pennington wrote an impassioned article decrying the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, and Churchill cast him out into the wilderness, as only a man who has known his own wilderness can so effectively do.

Little evidence remains of what he worked on after the war, just some tabloid headlines from the 1960s. Clearly he was one of their choice figures of fun when news was short: “POTTY PROF SAYS CARS WILL RUN ON WATER!” blared a typical one. After that, it was just the obits. He died in 1972, aged sixty, ‘after a long battle with illness’. He left no children, but a widow, Hortensia.

I found an address and wrote to her, asking if I could send her some questions that would help with my research. I didn’t expect to hear back, given that she was in her eighties. So I was astonished when the thick cream envelope arrived, and even more so when I read the hand-written card inside, the writing slightly shaky but elegant and distinctive:

‘My dear Mr Grahame, it would be a pleasure to meet you to talk about my beloved Hugo. Please be so good as to telephone Cracknell at this number and he will arrange a date for you to visit me at Wanderlings for tea.’

When my old Fiat crunched onto the immaculate gravel drive of Wanderlings House, a week later, I nearly drove into an ancient yew, so breathtaking was the house and its setting. Designed by Lutyens, with a steep mansarded roof and hung at first-floor level with faded russet tiles, it perched on a ridge of the South Downs, so the back of the house and its gardens had sun-filled vistas from morning to night. It was quite the most perfect house I had ever seen.

The door was opened by a manservant – Cracknell, I now know – who led me through the house towards the gardens. Wanderlings was as lovely inside as it was out. Oak-panelled walls were covered with beautiful paintings – not dark ancestral portraits but light, airy landscapes and elegant nature studies. There were Ming vases of wild and cottage-garden flowers, squashy old sofas and faded Indian rugs, and the aromas of beeswax and woodsmoke.

As we passed a grand piano covered with photographs in silver frames, two caught my eye. In the first, there was Pennington, shaking hands with Churchill. Pennington must have been no more than thirty but looked middle-aged, as every adult did in those days, with greased-back hair and government-issue spectacles. Churchill looked, well, like Churchill. They were regarding one another seriously, formally. But there, at Pennington’s side, her arm tightly linked in his, her whole posture indicating pride in her man, was a simply radiant girl, beaming dazzlingly at the camera. Her fair hair was floating about her face as if she had just shaken her head and, despite the elegant little peplum-waisted, hound’s-tooth-checked suit that she was wearing, on looking closely I could see that she had kicked off her shoes. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of this wild child in the presence of Britain’s Bulldog. In the second picture, she was again on Pennington’s arm, perhaps a year later, and this time in a simple bridal gown, surrounded by family, outside a church whose windows were boarded up against the Blitz. I had not thought her smile could possibly be broader, but it was, and it had clearly infected Pennington, because he was beaming too.

Cracknell coughed quietly and I took my cue to continue out onto the colonnaded terrace. It was a perfect September afternoon, and the great oaks in the valley cast their shadows over mown hayfields, languid Jersey cows and dozing sheep. Beyond a stand of rustling poplars I could see an ornate little summerhouse set on the bank of a stream. There was barely a cloud in the sky, and a lark was tumbling music overhead. I felt I had stumbled into paradise.

I followed Cracknell down the gently sloping lawns to where Lady Pennington was waiting, at a small table already set for tea, an elderly chocolate Labrador dozing at her feet.

“Lady Pennington? Michael Grahame.” I extended my hand.

“Oh do please call me Polly, everyone does.”

She took my hand and looked up at me, and there was that dazzling smile. Her fair hair was silver now, of course, and held up loosely with Oriental lacquered pins. Her face was lined, her hands knotted and spotted with age. But her eyes, a clear blue-violet and dark-lashed, were still those of that young woman in the picture. Ageless, and beautiful. I confess I fell a little bit in love with her at that moment. I suspect she had that effect on most men, probably even Churchill.

“Polly?” I queried, trying to work out how that derived from Hortensia.

She laughed. “It’s what Hugo always called me. Neither of us much liked the name Hortensia – rather blowsy flowers, I always think – so he called me Polly because I was always drawing and painting.”

She saw my blank look.

“You know – ‘Polly-wolly doodles all the day’!”

It was only then that I noticed the easel behind her, and the smudgy palette on the stool beside it, and indeed that the dress she was wearing was actually a faded chambray artist’s smock.

As if politely to cover my confusion, she rang the tiny silver bell that lay beside her plate. Moments later Cracknell bore to the table a tray of tea, cucumber and salmon sandwiches, and a three-tier stand laden with tiny butterfly cakes.

We talked for what seemed like hours. Of his work and his inventions, and of his pain at being ignored and ridiculed (and of hers on his behalf). But also of how they met, she fifteen and broken-hearted at the injury that had ended her dreams of becoming a dancer, he twenty-five and just down from Cambridge, and so handsome, she said, that her heart healed the moment she first saw him. Of their life together, and their travels in Greece, and Italy, and the Far East. Of his final illness …

When we had finished with all the questions in my notebook, I began to sense that the meeting was drawing to a close, but I plucked up courage and began: “Polly, when Hugo died…”

“Oh, my dear, he didn’t die, he just disappeared,” she said, smiling.

I took it to be an old woman’s fanciful expression and continued.

“Well, when he… disappeared, you were only, what, fifty? Did you never consider marrying again?”

“My dear boy, how could I?”

I let it pass.

“And how do you spend your days now?”

“Well, to be honest with you, Michael, these days I don’t leave Wanderlings a great deal. I have a seemingly endless supply of great-nieces and nephews who fortuitously appear to enjoy coming to visit me. I paint – did you see my paintings in the house? – and I supervise the gardener, much to her displeasure, and the cook, much to his. And I read a great deal… and I wait.”

“Wait?”

“Yes, I wait for Hugo. Every day.”

From within the house came the faint notes of a clock, chiming five.

“Good heavens, is that the time? I am so sorry Michael, you will have to excuse me, I have an appointment that I cannot miss.”

She rang the bell again and Cracknell came down the steps from the terrace.

“Cracknell, would you be a dear and show Michael out? Oh, and there is a notebook of Hugo’s that I would like to loan you, Michael, I think you will find it useful in your work. You can return it to me the next time you visit. Cracknell will get it from the office while you have a look at my paintings.” She smiled once more, and turned away.

I watched her walking down the lawns, towards the stream by the summerhouse, the old dog waddling, stiff but devoted, beside her. Despite the silver-topped cane she carried, she seemed to step as lightly as the barefoot girl she once was.

When we reached the terrace, there was a slight buzzing in the air, and I looked up, expecting to see a microlite passing overhead, but the sky was empty except for a swirl of swallows. As I entered the cool shade of the house, I was sure that I heard a young girl’s laughter, drifting up from the meadows by the stream.

The next week I read that she had died, ‘peacefully, in her sleep, aged eighty-six’. That’s what it said. Now, I have a scientific mind. I am not prone to flights of fancy. But I can’t help wondering. Did she die, or did she somehow ‘disappear’ too, to be with her beloved Hugo again at last? Did he come for her at last?

I have still have Hugo Pennington’s fat leather notebook in my desk drawer. I haven’t even opened it. I’m not sure I’m ready to read what I might find there.

Waiting

April 25, 2015

“He’s there again.”

I was on the boardwalk, leaning against the rail, idly watching an egret picking in the shallows just below. The day was as calm as milk. So Lucy made me jump.

“Who? Where?”

“You know who. Steve. Down at the Point. On the lookout post.”

I knew. I just didn’t want my drifty morning mood diffused. The tide was running. I saw a grey seal break the surface, clutching a silver trout in its mouth, then the ripples closed again over its head.

I knew the expression I would see when I turned. Lucy’s mild, concerned face, with a ‘you’re a man, you speak to him’ look on it. I turned.

“Lu, there’s no point talking to him. You of all people should know how it is at this stage. Nothing I can say will convince him that she’s not coming. He won’t believe it. Can’t believe it. He has to work it out in his own time.”

“Yeah, but I reckon I was – ”

“You were what? Better? Over it? Don’t kid yourself, Lu. I remember exactly what you were like. Seriously. You were still in a million bits at six months. We had to hide sharp objects. Just because you didn’t hang around at the Point, waiting, makes no never mind.”

“Maybe… still… can you have another word with him?”

I turned away and, inevitably, scuffling pebbles under my sneakers to slow my pace, began to walk along the quay, under the beech trees, floppy-leafed with spring sap, towards the Point.

Once, there was a time when Steve was always smiling. He had seen her. They had spoken, He had smelled her hair. In those days they had spent the night together often, spooned in the way that comfortable lovers do.

But, as time went on, they saw one another less and less frequently. She was preoccupied. She was busy. The usual. Still, every now and then, there would be a flash of the old exhilaration. I would spot it in his stride even before I could read the look upon his face.

He had seen her. She had clutched him to her and wept. She had missed him so terribly, and was so dreadfully sad. She wanted him back so, so much. It was all going to be all right.

I could see his silhouette by now, on top of the lookout, one hand clutching the rail, the other shading his eyes against the brightness of the bay. There were sails on the horizon, pale blue, caught like fragile butterflies pinned against the pale parchment of the sky. I don’t think he was crying. I think he was just waiting. It’s still early days for him. We’ve all been there. Just not at the top of a lookout scanning the sea for a ship that never comes.

I sat down on a rock, kicked off my shoes and let the pale sand slip between my toes. Smiled at the first few swallows performing aerobatics overhead. There was nothing I could say that would make it any better, any different. I’d just be there waiting for him when he decided to come down.

We are a strange bunch, we band of the bereaved. No one can know how we feel but us, and yet we barely know ourselves.

In the beginning, we walk with our beloved throughout the day. We go to sleep only to dream of them. It’s there that we meet and touch and love and cling. We put right the thoughtless word, the rushed goodbye, the tiny mistake that led our world to end. Our thoughts are inextricably entwined. They are beside us, we beside them. They are the warm, sleepy body almost, almost encountered as a foot or hand slips over to that empty, sad, cold, far side of the bed. And we wait for them to come to us, against all reason, we wait for our old life to return.

It’s so hard to be the one left behind.

Because for them – the living – life really does, in the most mundane sense, go on. And so, while we wait, for them there are bills to pay, and kids to wash and dress, and obligations that must be met. We are never far away from their thoughts, but we are not in the forefront of their minds, all day, every day. We are not right there beside them any longer. And the bed in which we two once slept and loved becomes colonized by books, or kids, or cats, or, in the end, perhaps, another living body to be warm against.

Mary and Tray

April 25, 2015

The north wind whips her shawl about her shoulders and the salt flecks lifted from the top curve of each wave nip at her face like tiny teeth. She pushes her hair from her eyes and scans the cliff face, looking for evidence of this winter’s work.

Out on the strand, splashing through rock pools, Tray lifts his head and sniffs and turns, all attention, curious, watching her move cautiously towards the latest fall of flinted chalk. Then the sideways scuttle of a crab catches his eye and he is lost in the moment, bounding and barking, sneezing as his eager muzzle catches nothing but a slap of brine.

Mary glances over at the noise, and smiles gently at her foolish dog, but the diversion is a momentary one. There is much else to see here, today. She knows this beach, these cliffs, the wide curve of bay, and the Golden Cap beyond, better than the patterns on her palm.

She was a child, the first time – the first find – here with her brother Joe, the year after father died. She wonders, now, what it was they sought to find, scrabbling amongst the broken boulders on the beach, so soon after they had put him in the earth.

An angel lay uncovered, so it seemed to them. Not pretty, like in the books at Sunday School. Its strange head twisted ungainly to one side, its wings unfeathered, and all impressed into the stone as though God has thrown it down with all His might.

She knows better know. Plesiosaur. That was its name. It never flew, but swam in oceans older than the one that beats against this beach. It crawled up onto an earlier sand to lay its eggs, a hard struggle and a fruitless labour, for an earlier cliff came down upon it, saving its body and its bones for Mary and Joe to wonder at, and the world in turn to ponder and discuss.

Mary Anning is an expert now. For a woman, quite regarded in her field. Of course she cannot lecture in the academies of Germany and France, and the London institutions are unable to admit her, but consult her on their latest finds. She hopes that America’s forward-thinking scientific societies may yet acknowledge her.

The cliff fall lies just ahead of her, but her sturdy brown boot slips on a stone and she lands sideways with a gasp. She lifts a gloved hand and winces at the sharp stab of pain when she turns her wrist, but then her eye is caught by a sweet curve in the hardened clay. A word she has read comes into her mind. Quetzalcoatl. At last, the winged lizard? She must be dizzy, surely. The Latin – that would be pterosaur. As she scrapes away to reveal more, the pain blanks her eyes, and then there is a face by hers, and a long nose pushing and nuzzling her back into the world.

“Tray.”

He barks encouragement. Silly dog.

When the wet chalk ledge shears clean away above them, neither hears, until it is too late.

The tide turns.

—-

It is high summer, and low tide. She walks with a limp now, as she supervises the excavation and the scientific drawings of the bird that lay within the rock. Now she can see it fully she imagines it soaring in lazy circles over the primeval swamps.

It gives her comfort. Nothing is ever gone, entirely. Father, now part of the rich, red, loamy Dorset soil. And Tray, a scrap of fur, and teeth, and doggy bones, settling down to sleep inside the white rock, for paleontologists, millennia ahead, to find and wonder at.