Visitors

Naomi May

Seen from a helicopter or from an aeroplane the garden appeared to be no more than a green shape amid arid country where there was a reservoir and quarries and a private airstrip. Just beyond the garden on the far side of the house was a red tennis-court and a swimming-pool that was not properly regulated, so that even from the air it looked slimy.

But for the children, who could not get out of it, the proportions were different: the garden was their world. From within its high walls they could sometimes hear a booming from the quarries, or, if they actually climbed the wall at a place where they could not be seen from the kitchen, they could glimpse a distant glittering from the reservoir. The wall was dangerous. If they were observed, out would come Amy from the kitchen, her scold’s voice frightening them even when she was still a long way off. In a shed at the bottom of the garden they would imitate her, shrieking: ‘Benjamin! Benjamin! Show yourself, ye wee devil!’ Benjy, the youngest, did not like this game. ‘Why d’you pick on me? Why always me?’ But they would goad him: ‘Benjamin! Ben-jamin!’ until his uneasiness turned to anger and he gave them the spectacle of his infantile temper. They were careful, however, not to climb the wall when Mother was at the window or on the balcony that looked down into the garden, because the sight of them doing reckless things brought on her distress.

The way to climb the wall was up an elder tree that grew beside it, whose black berries they pretended they enjoyed eating, or by getting a foothold in the ivy. The ivy was old and tough, but sometimes it gave way. Daddy had wanted to cut down the tree, but Mother did not like growing things to be destroyed. Once they had heard them quarrelling about it; Daddy had said she was romancing – only a selfish romancer would put a tree before her children’s safety. Mother had hidden her face in her hands and Daddy said she was impossible, one could not even discuss with her a simple practical problem.

The whole point about climbing the wall was to fly. From the top of the wall they could see the airstrip and the plane Daddy flew away in to the strange countries Mrs Hemmings would point out to them on the rotating globe in the nursery. Sometimes they jumped off the wall using umbrellas – Daddy’s golf umbrella was the best – for parachutes. At least, Malcolm jumped. The others balanced on top of the wall, wobbling about, showing off – they were bomber pilots, or artistes on a trapeze – waving their umbrellas; then they threw them onto the ground and slithered down between the ivy and the elder tree. Their cousin, Malcolm, was the oldest, the hero, their protector. With four cousins to stay, Malcolm, Sadie and the twins, every day was an excitement; they had adventures, did things they would never have dared to on their own, for Malcolm was not entirely cowed by Amy. Living from one moment in the present to another, Mary and little Benjy had almost forgotten what it was like to be without people, without their cousins.

The house was full of people, their uncle and aunt and a lady nicknamed Mignonette, who was Mother’s friend, and visitors who came for a few hours. They saw them on the balcony having drinks after tennis, their socks red from the dust of the court, or, if they stayed up late, they might see them again dressed for dinner when Daddy wore a white suit. Mrs Hemmings said that this was what people wore in the tropics. The balcony was on the first floor and a staircase with a pretty iron railing curved down into the garden. Sometimes the people came down into the garden, but the children were not allowed to go up; they could only enter the house through the kitchen. If they hid in the bushes under the balcony, they could overhear. They heard Mother talking to her friend about the past, about something she had wanted or hoped for. But it was only a dream, she said.

Only a dream! The children turned this into a game, sometimes a happy game when they all climbed the wall and flew off to Africa, but at other times it was frightening: then they reenacted the stories Amy had told them. Amy had worked in hotels, she had seen things. When she came to look for them and stood above the rockery, one hand on her hip, the other waving a wooden spoon, ‘Come in at once or I’ll take this to yiz!’ they could laugh at her because it was only a dream.

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