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.

Although Daddy looked very fine in his white tropical suit, Mother was beautiful. If they were playing near the house and there were no people around, Mother would come out onto the balcony. She would look towards her children, not waving, not speaking, but as if the only thing she wanted was to take them in her arms. She seldom descended the steps into the garden.

It was Mrs Hemmings who cuddled them. The daily woman, big-boned, bosomy, ineffectual, in a flowered apron that was always a bit greasy, Mrs Hemmings had no children of her own. She kept a store of sweets in her apron pocket and liked to hear Mary and Benjy saying that they loved her. ‘Better than Amy?’ ‘Oh, yes!’ from their full mouths came the honest reply. Mrs Hemmings had bad legs and when she sat down with Amy and Joseph, the gardener, for elevenses in the kitchen she complained of her veins and ate too many of Amy’s scones. She surprised the children by telling them that Amy’s scones were so light they could fly. They had heard Daddy saying it was an odd fact that a brown leathery person like Amy should be a genius in the kitchen. Daddy loved his food. He had an appetite, Amy said, and for more things than one. Mrs Hemmings said that Amy had a bad influence on the children. Amy and Mrs Hemmings were constantly squabbling, but Amy got the best of it. She forced Benjy to say that he did not like Mrs Hemmings.

Mary came into the kitchen and saw the three servants sitting in the shadows, eating. The kitchen was full of smells; in the shadowed corners the smells were different from the smell of fresh food cooking on the stove. Mary stood in the back doorway and they stared at her, outlined against a dark wall like statues. Then Amy continued talking about Mother’s friend and her fancy clothes. She had seen her like before. Mignonette! That’s French for little darling, she informed them. She was surprised at Mother – put a bone before a dog and of course he’ll want it. ‘Hush!’ Mrs Hemmings was in consternation: ‘Big ears!’

Mary had needed to go to the lavatory, so Mrs Hemmings hurried her away upstairs. Mrs Hemmings began to cry. She dabbed her eyes with her grubby apron. Was it true, she asked Mary, that Benjy didn’t like her? ‘Oh, no! Amy forced him to say it. No, it’s not true, it’s a lie,’ Mary tried to comfort her. ‘That woman!’ Mrs Hemmings, who had taken Mary on her knee, now rose, with an effort that seemed painful, to her feet. ‘If there’s one thing I hate it’s treachery. Yes, treachery!’ she turned to the child: ‘D’you know what that means?’ To oblige her Mary nodded. Then for some reason Mrs Hemmings patted her head. ‘Poor lamb,’ she said, ‘poor wee lamb.’

Normally if the children had wanted to go to the lavatory they used the bushes, as they dreaded having to pass through the kitchen. Once Amy had caught them at it. They couldn’t hide from her, she had often told them: if they did anything wrong she would sniff them out. Amy herself smelled of the kitchen, only worse. But to be caught at it! What had most enraged her was that they were doing it together, Mary and Benjy, a girl with a boy, making one puddle between them. And what had happened? Their cousin, Sadie, bent forward showing the whites of her eyes, she was so eager to hear. But Amy was sly. One thing they did not know was that Mother would have sacked her instantly if she were to have laid a finger on them. So instead of punishment Amy told them warning stories about hotels – a man in a hotel that had been caught with his trousers down. The hotel had gone on fire and he had been burnt alive. Amy liked stories about fires. There was no fire-escape from the house, only the curving stair from the balcony. Malcolm whistled when he went through the kitchen. He stood on top of the wall and peed in a great arc, calling names at Amy. But, although Amy was out of sight, the others were so appalled they could hardly even admire him for fear of what might happen.

Mother had a silky dog called Peregrine, but the servants called him Charlie, which was really more sensible as he was a King Charles spaniel. Charlie was exquisite and nervy; Amy said dogs take after their owners. Charlie was a spoiled, overbred little dog, who had fits and was always needing to be wormed in spite of the expensive food that was wasted on him. Amy enjoyed tormenting Charlie by poking her foot at him over the bar beneath the kitchen table, teasing him till he sprang at her, when she would withdraw her foot so that his teeth snapped on the wooden bar. He would become so maddened that, unable to get at Amy, he would end by attacking the bar, sinking his teeth into it as if trying to shake the whole table like a rat. The thing that fascinated the children was the indecent excitement this aroused in the dog. Men were like dogs, Amy said. Malcolm, who had just passed his tenth birthday and was quite tall, flushed pink: ‘You shouldn’t do that to an animal – it’s not fair!’ Amy drew in her breath. She swivelled her chair and sat with her legs wide apart, her leathery hands grasping each knee: ‘I’ll do you!’ The others looked from Amy to Malcolm. Although she was seated and he standing, he seemed suddenly, even to them, very small and slight. He repeated: ‘It’s not fair!’ Amy startled them by laughing her rare cackling laugh: ‘Oh, you’ve a cheek, you have! You’ll be quite the young rip one of these days!’ She reached out and roughly stroked his curls and he went purple with humiliation.

Naturally Mother knew nothing of all this. And Daddy only played with them. Mary was Daddy’s pet. One evening they saw Daddy on the balcony with that lady, Mother’s friend. They were dressed for dinner. The lady was very bright; Amy said she was painted. Bright things were stuck in her hair and colours glittered as she rustled her dress. She was looking around, her hands prettily clasped under her chin, admiring the evening, the transparency of the violet light. ‘Here everything is so elegant,’ she said, ‘and today it’s so warm. One could be in Italy, one could almost have that illusion.’ Daddy popped a bottle of champagne. The cork flew into the garden and the children laughed. He touched her elbow: ‘Come on down.’ So down they came. Daddy was smoking a foreign cigarette. He was always sunburned and had a wonderful laugh. When he growled, playing lion, he made the children hysterical. Mother did not like this: she said he was embarrassing when he showed off with them, particularly with Mary.

Daddy allowed Malcolm a sip from his glass. He swung the twins, an arm in each hand, till they were giddy, then he gave Benjy a ride on his shoulders. ‘Little loves,’ murmured the guest: ‘no wonder you’re so fond of them.’ Daddy forgot about Sadie. To Mignonette he said, taking Mary tenderly by the hand: ‘And now you must meet my favourite girlfriend.’ Without a smile Mary held out her free hand, thinking she was being introduced. ‘But how cute!’ exclaimed Mignonette, ‘how old-fashioned! A little angel,’ she swooped down on Mary, enveloping her in her rustling silks, her smooth, pink, scented arms. ‘If only I had a little girl like you! D’you know what? I think I’m just going to parcel you up and take you away with me!’ Mary could not bear her scent, it made her head swim, it was horrible. Mother was fragrant.

The next day Mary thought up a new game. She wrapped a doll in coloured rags and painted its face and they made a house for it out of one of the boxes the groceries came in, a house where there was no fire-escape. Then they burned it. While they were watching the flames a shadow fell across them. It was Joseph. He looked angry, but said nothing at the time. Later he told Amy and Mrs Hemmings that they were very rum, those kids. While it was smouldering, the doll smelled dreadful.

Boom-boom went the quarries where the money came from. On the balcony Mother and her friend were discussing which was their favourite time of year, and how the flowers in the garden became more golden towards the end of the summer, receiving the sun at a milder angle. Then Mignonette talked about the children in the garden and how curious it was that in adult life there should remain a nostalgia for one’s childhood, a world completely lost. Mother said nothing. Mignonette sidled up to her: ‘You’re so lovely. You have everything – this heavenly house ...’ ‘I feel empty,’ Mother said: ‘One keeps things going for the children.’ Her friend raised her eyebrows, demurred. Mother looked desperate: ‘I feel as if I’d spent my life grieving – but I don’t know what for.’ Mignonette put her arms around her: ‘It’s your extreme sensitivity, you feel things more acutely than other people.’ Mother disengaged herself from the embrace: ‘You’re very kind – it’s pointless to talk about it.’

Mother was wearing a white, flowing evening gown. It looked more like a shroud, Amy said. Malcolm knew what a shroud was and explained to the others. This time Amy had gone too far and they revolted against her, for they had known for some time that Mother was unwell. ‘What’s got into you?’ Amy banged the saucepans: ‘There’s nothing seriously wrong with her. Don’t you know your mother’s going to have another baby?’

Everyone was cleared well out of the way on the day when a helicopter landed in the garden. It made an awful mess of the lawn, but the golden-haired man who alighted from it said Mother would not mind because it would be such fun for the children. He had an armful of presents, packets all of different shapes in brilliant wrappers that he tossed to them, calling, ‘Catch this! And this!’ as he sauntered through the garden and climbed up the steps to the balcony. It was odd to see a grown-up making his first appearance in the garden and then going up, when usually visitors entered by the front door and they never saw them till they were on the balcony looking down. The new guest lowered his curly head to kiss Mother’s hand and for the three days that he stayed with them she smiled. All the ladies clustered round him and Mignonette, clapping her plump little hands, told him he was a dens ex machina. Amy said he was American, he came from the New World.

They got used to him being there. Unlike other grown-ups, he bounded down the steps to play with them and Mother came with him. She did not seem to think that he was embarrassing. Just as it was difficult for Mary and Benjy to remember what it was like before their cousins had come, they quickly forgot what it had been like before the gaiety of the crazy man. Mother called him that: he made her laugh so much she felt crazy herself. So Mary cried when he got back into his helicopter and flew up into the sky. She climbed the wall and would not come down again, and because she had been naughty she was left behind when the others were taken on a jaunt.

The garden looked different with nobody there. It seemed much larger, ordinary things looked unfriendly, the heads of flowers rocking on their stalks, the hollyhocks much too high. She was afraid of the shrubbery. It was a grey afternoon with a moist wind undulating the evergreens. Even grown-up people had gone off on the jaunt and Amy had seen this as an opportunity to have a nap. Mary had never imagined that she could miss Amy. She brought her toys out into the garden and made them sit round a flat stone, pretending it was Panda’s birthday. Although she did not like dolls, preferring furry animals, she now felt guilty about the doll she had burnt. If her cousins had not been staying, she would never have dared to have done such a thing. She made the toys talk to one another, but they were not allowed to mention the name of the doll that had been destroyed.

The French windows opened and Daddy came out onto the balcony. She was about to call him when she saw that he was not alone. Mary hid. Thinking the garden deserted, Daddy and Mignonette came down the stairs and strolled across the ruined lawn. Then they sat down on a wooden seat behind the shrubbery where they could not be seen from the house. Daddy said: ‘I made the mistake of marrying a neurotic – nothing makes her happy.’ ‘But surely,’ Mignonette sounded astonished, ‘married to you ...’ Daddy’s mouth had gone thin and bitter: ‘I trespass on her sensibilities.’ Then he whispered in her ear and she laughed, curling back her lips to reveal her little teeth. He kissed her and put his hand down her dress. When she tried to push his hand away he said: ‘Let the dog see the rabbit.’ He was tugging at something inside her dress. Her hair was untidy and his face was flushed and angry-looking, swollen. Mignonette smacked his hand: ‘Naughty doggie!’ Later, when the others came home, Mary confided to Sadie that she did not want to grow up. Grown-ups were silly.

Living as she did from moment to moment, Mary had only a dim idea of the future; but now time ahead began to take shape. She found out from Amy when Mignonette was due to leave and counted the days – counting the days was like plotting. But, when Mignonette did leave, Daddy went too. From the garden, distantly, they heard the growl of his sports car as it sped away. None of the others noticed a thing. At bedtime she decided she would never again go into the house, she would just vanish. She heard them calling for her, first it was Amy, then she heard Daddy’s voice. It was Daddy who found her. ‘Why are you crying?’ He picked her up in his arms and rocked her. ‘Why is my little girl sad?’ He stroked her hair. She was engulfed in his strength and his warmth and the aroma of foreign tobacco. His neck was wet with her tears. ‘Why don’t you tell me? Tell Daddy ...’ At last she whimpered into his collar: ‘I thought you had gone away with that lady.’ ‘What lady?’ He held her at arm’s length, puzzled: ‘You mean her?’ He began to laugh: ‘You funny little thing! You don’t think Daddy would leave you for a lady?’ He hugged her, pressing her head against his chest. Obsessively he caressed the nape of her neck: ‘Not for anyone!’ On the lapel of his coat she smelled that lady’s scent. ‘I only love you – in the whole wide world you’re the only one I really love.’ But she had sniffed him out. ‘It’s a lie!’ The wailing of her childish voice was lifted into the violet evening air and carried away, echoing, ‘it’s a lie ... a lie ...’