Some versions of pastoral
The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden were all in bright, primary colours: yellows, blues and reds in charmless profusion. To negotiate them was to pass through the pages of a children’s picture book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay. Somewhere near at hand invisible insects buzzed ominously and there was a smell of aftershave. Further away, screened by giant hedges, to which an amateur topiarist had done untold damage, they could hear some animal or person thrashing about in the undergrowth. Buzz of bees; sickly scent; odd, chirruping noises deep in the foliage: the surprisingly sinister spell cast by these phenomena was suddenly broken by the sound of Mr Underwood’s voice – high, querulous and apparently belonging neither to man or woman – bursting through the verdure.
‘Hi! Over here! Through the gap in the bank. You know the way.’
They found the gap in the bank, which was more of a declivity caused by the earth falling away from the stumps of a couple of beech trees, and came tumbling out onto a square of emerald grass so scrupulously cut that it might have been manicured. Here other hedges rose on three sides to a height of eight or nine feet. There was no escape, either from the semi-circle of garden chairs, the occasional table spread with tea-things, or Mr and Mrs Underwood, who, proud and statuesque, like the elders of some benighted South American tribe, finally discovered in their Amazonian bolt-hole, sat waiting to receive them.
‘I suppose you had trouble in parking your car on the green,’ Mrs Underwood said, in a voice surprisingly like her husband’s. Tony looked at his watch and found that they were only three minutes late. ‘It does get rather clogged up at this time of year, what with all the trippers visiting the hall. There was a dreadful ice-cream van used to come and set up there,’ Mrs Underwood went on, ‘jangling its bell until all hours and making the air hideous, but Bunny got onto the parish council and put a stop to it.’
‘How dreadful for you to be inconvenienced like that,’ Jane said, who was less in awe of the Underwoods than her husband and could not resist teasing them when the opportunity presented itself.
How old were the Underwoods, Tony wondered, taking a closer look at the pair of cashmere-clad manikins, each with the same ley-lined faces and sun-cured skin, bolt upright in their chairs. Eighty? Eighty-five? And how long had he and Jane been visiting them? Twenty-five years? Thirty? All this time along the track he could not even recall their original connection with the Underwoods or what impulse continued to send them, annually, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to a part of Suffolk where the A-roads gave out, the sat-nav was cowed into incoherence and even the locals could not be relied upon for directions.
‘We were listening to a programme about Patrick Leigh Fermor on the wireless,’ Mrs Underwood said – her forename was either Oenone, or Christabel, he could never remember which – pronouncing Leigh Fermor’s name in a way that was new to him and pushing a tea-cup towards him, inch by inch, over the white-clothed table-top. ‘Now, you will be very careful of this, won’t you?’
What heights had the tea-cup scaled in its past life that such efforts had to be made to preserve it? Done service on some far-off Garsington lawn? Been sipped out of by one of the Bloomsbury Group? There were pictures of Virginia Woolf and Carrington on the wall of the Underwoods’ tiny drawing-room, and a bookcase harbouring the signed first editions of Cyril Connolly and Angus Wilson. It was a thoroughly innocuous piece of china, blue-and-white-striped, of a kind that you saw displayed in every roadside pottery the length and breadth of Cornwall, but nevertheless he brought his lips gratefully against its rim. The tea was Lapsang Souchong and rank as a civet, like ogres’ perfume.
‘I’m very fortunate to be able to welcome you at all,’ Mrs Underwood said, in an impossibly queenly way. ‘Why, this morning, taking the post in from the postman – such a nice man, but he will leave the parcels at the back door – I practically came a cropper on the step.’
Trippers. Wirelesses. Coming a cropper. There was a defiance about the manner in which Mrs Underwood dealt out these archaisms. The times had changed, but she would not. The reek of the aftershave turned out to come from her husband. Perhaps Mr Underwood was not quite such a barnacled adherent to the hull of the old world as his wife. Who could tell? The box hedges that surrounded them on three sides were quite impenetrable. Anything could have been concealed behind them: bare, empty plains; marauding armies; a hunt in wild halloo. Here in the Underwoods’ Suffolk garden they were cut off, surrounded, as detached as any plant in its pot.
‘The children send their…’ – he was going to say ‘love’, but then compromised on ‘best wishes.’ This was a lie. The children had long ago baulked at any amenities offered by the Underwoods. But he was more worried by the blue-and-white cup, Virginia’s nosegay, the repository of Cyril Connolly’s night-cap, or whatever it had done, which, like most other sanctified artefacts, had twice nearly bobbed out of his hand and had to be set down with a rattle and a slight spillage of tea on the table-top.
‘Daddy used to say,’ Mrs Underwood now volunteered, with what might have been an attempt at humour, ‘that children were a necessary affliction. Of course, Bunny and I never saw the need for them ourselves.’
A gust of wind, all unheralded, came dipping over the tops of the box-hedges and blew up one of the fronds of Mr Underwood’s sparse, elf-white hair into a kind of quiff. As generally happened on these afternoons in Suffolk, with the Lapsang Souchong pungently abrew and the starlings racketing in the thickets, there came a moment when the jigsaw of their association fell neatly into place and he remembered, first, that Mrs Underwood’s father had been a literary man of the inter-war era whose diaries had been the subject of a contemptuous review in the Sunday Times, and, second, that Mr Underwood had been a director of the gentlemanly (and now defunct) publishing firm for which, a quarter of a century ago, Jane had served out her apprenticeship as a secretary-typist.
There was another odd thing about Mr Underwood, Tony noticed, in addition to the reek of aftershave. He was wearing round his withered neck a small but punctiliously constructed daisy chain. There was something faintly macabre about this, as if he was about to take part in a pagan ritual, or the tea-cup, caught beneath his long, spatulate fingers, was brimful of virgins’ blood.
‘How is your book going?’ Jane asked, who tabled this question every time they came to the Underwoods and had once been rewarded with a story of how Evelyn Waugh had got stuck in the lavatory at a publishers’ lunch.
‘Yes, how is your book going?’ he joined in, thinking that such straws as these were there to be clutched at. But there were no more stories about Evelyn Waugh and defective door-keys, faint cries of abandonment echoing in far-off corridors, merely the sense of a painful subject recklessly disinterred by people who should have known better.
‘Oh, I’ve given it up,’ Bunny said, with a little cackle of disdain. Tony, who had been trying for some time to work out what he reminded him of, realised that it was a photograph of the aged Somerset Maugham shortly after his first injection of monkey-glands. ‘I decided that there are far too many books in the world already. Heaven knows, I was responsible for hundreds of them myself. And then I don’t think anybody is really interested in Cyril these days.’
‘Of course, you know Bunny did nearly everything for Cyril towards the end,’ Mrs Underwood said loyally. ‘Got all those first editions sold for him at Sotheby’s. Published that collection of belles lettres for him when no one else would take it on. There was even some talk of his being appointed literary executor. And then when that dreadful man came to write the biography, there was hardly any mention of him at all.’
This was true, but it prompted other questions, mostly unanswerable. Could you rate your life on the number of index references you achieved in a biography of Cyril Connolly? Or the celebrated mouths that had bent to drink out of one of your tea-cups seventy years ago? Mr Underwood looked as if he were going to sat something else about his memoirs, whose provisional title, Tony now recalled, had been Dawn in Wardour Street, and then thought better of it. The breeze was still swerving in over the box hedges and sending little fragments of wood-chip cartwheeling over the virid grass.
‘Did you see the documentary about Benjamin Britten on BBC Four the other day?’ Jane asked bravely. ‘There were some very nice shots of Aldeburgh.’
But the Underwoods had not seen the programme about Benjamin Britten. Neither had they heard of the Corot exhibition at the Tate of whose contents Jane now gamely offered details. Each year the range of their cultural interests shrank a little further while their disapproval of the life lived out beyond their Suffolk fastness increased. This did not make conversation easy, a fact that Mrs Underwood, to do her justice, seemed to appreciate.
‘Of course, we are dreadful recluses,’ she said at one point. ‘But then, we did our share of gadding about the world in our day, and one can’t keep up that kind of thing forever.’
Downwind of the Lapsang Souchong the smell was not so bad. What kind of gadding about had the Underwoods done in their day, he wondered? P&O cruises to locations filched from the National Geographic? Visits to the stately homes whose owners’ reminiscences Mr Underwood had schemed so valiantly to publish? And now here they were in a Suffolk garden, beaten back by time, with the world they knew sunk beneath the encroaching tide. He tried Bunny with a book about Kingsley Amis he had seen reviewed in one of the Sundays and got nowhere. Mrs Underwood, rising to her feet to inspect the tea-pot, looked suddenly shrunken, impossibly diminutive. She could not have been more than four feet ten. Not only had time beaten the Underwoods back; it had made them smaller. Soon at this rate they would vanish altogether.
‘Time for a refill,’ Mrs Underwood said, with what could have been deep-seated resentment or the placid acceptance of pleasure to come. It was inconceivable that so frail a piece of humanity should be able to lift the tea-things, so, tray in hand, he tracked her back through the verdant labyrinths and across a lawn where rooks grimly disputed cast-off bacon-rinds to a cubby-hole of a kitchen, where tea towels hung up to dry in the sun and the thought of being in a Beatrix Potter story where Johnny Town Mouse might soon appear at the window with his tail twirled over his top-coated arm was rather too strong for comfort. Here, framed in the triangle made by a Welsh dresser, a sink piled high with earthenware plates and an empty bird-cage suspended from wood-wormed rafters, Mrs Underwood turned unexpectedly resolute.
‘Of course Bunny’s not himself,’ she said, filling the tea- kettle with several badly-aimed spurts of water from the tap. ‘Not in the least. I don’t know what’s the matter with him. It may be medical. It may be not. There are some mornings when he won’t get out of bed at all. The other day I found him writing a letter – writing a letter – to some actress he’d seen on the television.’
There was something horribly symbolic about the bird-cage with its gilded bars and open door. What had lived in there? What had caused it to take flight?
‘What sort of a letter?’ Tony wondered. After all, the actress could have been Judi Dench or Eileen Atkins.
‘An extraordinarily embarrassing one,’ Mrs Underwood said, without turning a hair. ‘Quite out of the question that it should be sent. I told him I would take it to the post, but after he’d given it to me I simply took it into the study and tore it into pieces. It’s no end to a life, you know. Not for either of us.’
In all the years that they had been coming to Kersey, all the years that they had splashed through minor rivers that ran over village pavements, looked for road signs lost in the spreading hedgerows and sat pacifically behind items of slow-moving agricultural machinery, Mrs Underwood had never grown confidential. This was such an awful conceptualisation of her plight that he felt he had to say something.
‘You mustn’t think that,’ he volunteered. ‘I’m sure you must have a great deal to comfort yourselves with. ‘I mean…’ – he tried to think of something with which the Underwoods could comfort themselves – ‘I mean, there’s all the fine work that Bunny did… Your father.’
‘Bunny’s work,’ Mrs Underwood said, and left it at that. There was not enough room in the kitchen, and the job of unloading the first batch of tea-things onto the draining board was made more difficult by the curiously jerky movements – like some marionette whose strings were twisted from on high – that Mrs Underwood made as she spoke.
‘As for my father’s diaries,’ she went on emphatically, ‘do you know, there was a whole section – twenty thousand words at least – that I made the man strike out? It was all about when I was at school and how spotty I was, and not beautiful, and what a disappointment I was to him. I can’t tell you,’ Mrs Underwood said, drawing herself up to her full height and suddenly seeming taller, vastier and more consequential than she had ever done before, ‘how much it upset me. I minded most frightfully… Oh, for goodness sake, be careful!’
But it was too late. The blue-and-white china cup had rolled away from his imploring grasp and smashed into fragments on the red-stone floor. Mrs Underwood bent to retrieve them, and having done so stood sorrowfully with them in the palm of her out-stretched hand, like a votive offering brought to the shrine of some pagan god.
‘Lytton’s cup,’ she said miserably. ‘Lytton’s cup.’ Outside the noise of the rooks, still grimly disputing their bacon- rinds, rose to frenzy, followed by a human cry, so wild and alarming that they rushed into the garden to see who had made it. Here they were able to contemplate the interesting spectacle of an upturned easy chair, a second, shattered tea-cup and Mr Underwood, on hands and knees, daisy chain all askew, struggling to right himself. Jane stood at his side, a bit uncertainly, like a schoolmistress whose favourite pupil has cried off sick ten minutes into an exam, the expression on her face half mild amusement and half genuine alarm.
Half-an-hour later, in the car driving west through the Suffolk back-lanes, past the head-high clumps of cow-parsley and the loosestrife-patterned hedges, he said: ‘I don’t believe for a moment it was Lytton Strachey’s tea-cup.’
‘It could quite easily have been when you come to think about it.’
‘Well, they ought to have kept it locked up in a cupboard then, or given it to a museum, where passing chartered accountants couldn’t get at it.’ Mrs Underwood had not said anything as she consigned the shards of china to the waste-paper basket. In some ways this cut deeper than the sharpest rebuke. Something else struck him and he said:
‘I know what you said to Oenone… to Christabel about the chair giving way, but why exactly did Bunny end up on the grass?’
‘I told you. He asked me, quite conversationally, as if he wanted me to pass the rock-buns, if I would come and “live with him and be his love”. Those were his exact words.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘I told him not to be so silly.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘There was a bit of scuffling. And after that, because I was rather cross and I don’t like people’s fingers digging into my hand, I just gave him a tiny push.’
The road signs, which had hitherto been sporadic and confusing, now suggested that they were somewhere near Colchester. He thought of Bunny’s balding, aftershave-scented head waggling above its necklace of daisies, and then of Mrs Underwood explaining how frightfully she had minded about her father’s diaries. His own father had kept a diary in which he had recorded the price of petrol and the avian traffic of their south-west London back-garden. There had been nothing in it of a personal nature, and no spotty daughters. Whatever pained disappointment he might have felt had been kept to himself.
‘Do you know,’ she said. ‘Somebody told me that she once had an affair with Philip Larkin?’
‘Well I hope they both enjoyed themselves. And that he had a light hand with the crockery.’
He found himself imagining Oenone or Christabel sitting in a restaurant with Philip Larkin. The scene had a tuppence-coloured air of unreality. They were on the motorway now, flanked by a throng of mobile homes and caravans making their way back from the coast. Somewhere in the world, he supposed, lurked an art which you could set against the armies of commerce and bureaucracy to lay them waste, but it could not be found in the Underwoods’ green-girt garden. They set off home through the concrete and steel, past shoals of cars from which pale, incurious faces stared out, a firmament where broken cups were of little account and nobody, whether in jest or earnest, asked anyone to live with them and be their love.