Chapter 16 Visitors from home
Auntie Nell, my mother's sister-in-law, had written that she and her sister would be coming to Europe during the year. One day, the phone rang, and an unmistakably Australian voice said,
"Auntie Nell here, dear. We are in London at the moment and have a few days before we go to Scotland. We thought of coming to see you."
"Lovely. I could put you up if you like to stay. The boys can sleep in the van in their sleeping bags."
"Thank you all the same, but we don't want to put you out. We are settled in a guesthouse for these few days, so we'll come after school, and come back about ten o'clock. Would tomorrow suit?"
"Fine," I said. "We get home about half past four. We'll wait at the station for you, as we are a fair walk from there."
At lunch time I rushed to the shops near school and bought some cake and biscuits. Our budget was strictly limited to necessary food to provide nutrition and prevent hunger; we indulged in the luxuries on birthdays and when we had visitors. Elaborate celebrations and entertaining were temporary out of the question.
So when Auntie Nell and her sister arrived we offered them a very simple meal with biscuits and cake to follow. While they and I chatted, the children made tea and set the table. The prospect of the modest feast induced them to do something about it instead of waiting for me to make the preparations in between conversations.
"I think you manage very well on your own with the children," said Auntie Nell, who had been widowed when her boys, my cousins, were toddlers, and who knew all the difficulties.
"They're not always so eager to do domestic jobs," I admitted.
"I don't suppose so, but they obviously know how to, so they must have done it before."
"They are pretty good. They've never given me any serious problems, and they realize we couldn't do a fraction of what we do if they didn't help. When we're travelling they have to do quite a bit, because I have to do all the driving."
After tea, the boys showed Auntie Nell their stamp albums, and she gave them a few suggestions, as she was a fellow enthusiast. We showed our slides and discussed our plans for the coming long holidays. By the end of the evening I was quite hoarse, as I hadn't talked so much for years. After six months of continually meeting new people and going new places, finding my way through strange localities, exploring unfamiliar social possibilities, using expressions which baffled people, telling about experiences which I knew my audience could not comprehend - it was marvellous to chat to someone who had known me from birth, who needed no explanation.
"Have you ever met Margaret Smythe?" I asked.
"No, I don't believe so. Who is she?"
"Ted and Judy's daughter. I was at Teachers' College and staying with Auntie Clytie when she was born. Auntie Clytie was minding the two older children, Susan and James when Judy went to hospital.
"Have you seen them since then?"
"Yes, we once turned up at their place in Canberra. Ted now teaches at a High School there. The camping ground in Canberra had been closed to move to a new site, and we slept on their lounge room floor. Margaret was about seventeen. She was tall and dark, and attractive and had a lovely suntan. While we were there she went swimming in a new bikini she had crocheted and got terribly sun burnt in all the holes in the crocheting!"
"Have you heard news of them?"
"Yes. Margaret is coming to England. She is arriving on Sunday. We're going to Woburn Abbey on Saturday with the Interchange Teachers. We'll stay with a friend of mine for the night and meet Margaret in London on Sunday. She's going to stay with us until she sees what she wants to do.
We inspected the animal park at Woburn, enjoying especially the lion cubs who played on the road in front of the van, and the zebra who stood in the middle of the road, sound asleep. We avoided some of the expensive, lucrative ventures in the animal park and in the grand house and gardens, noted the worn gilding on the furniture, and began to realize the impossibility of maintaining these properties without commercializing them.
The group had afternoon tea at the home of an English member, then we made our way to Ruth's place, where as usual she had gone to a lot of trouble for us. She was by now an old friend, and although she had never been married and was twenty years my senior, we had a great deal in common, and I found her suggestions worth following.
"See if you can park on the south bank of the Thames," she said, "and look at the Festival Theatre, and walk along the embankment. I'd be interested in you impressions of the theatre."
This we did while waiting to meet Margaret. The theatre was impressive, solid and spacious, but not my idea of pleasing. I knew what Ruth would feel about it.
At one-thirty the boat train arrived, and there was Margaret, carrying a rucksack and wearing slacks and a striped top, as promised. I would have no trouble recognizing her in any case. She was unmistakably a Smythe, more mature and attractive at twenty, but not really different.
The boys carried her pack, and she took her case when it was available from the luggage van. A light snack in the van, parked nearby, and a walk towards Tower Bridge to help her get her bearings. When will I learn that everything is twice as far as it appears on the map? We found ourselves showing her some of the most unsavoury parts of London, condemned buildings and decrepit warehouses, before we came to Tower Bridge, and the Tower of London, from where we caught a tube back to Waterloo and our vehicle.
"I hope you'll excuse me," apologized Margaret.
"We had a party on the ship last night and hardly got any sleep."
Had I forgotten what it was like to be twenty, dragging her round London?
Margaret was dozing in the van before we turned into Brookfield Avenue, Larkfield. I had bought a chicken in honour of the event, but it had a somewhat uninviting smell when we came into the house.
"I usually buy just enough food for one day," I explained. "Sundays are always a bit awkward. There aren't any shops open or I'd buy something fresh. I buy milk every day, six bottles on Saturday. It wasn't so bad in the winter."
I rubbed the offensive chicken thoroughly with salt, and added some herbs to disguise the flavour. It was to have been baked, but in the circumstances I boiled it, tipping off the water several times hoping to wash away the smell. Nobody died.
Margaret fell into Jacqueline's bed, and left her unpacking until the next day. Jacqueline slept on the lounge and used my room for her clothes. Things were a little disorganized. The children were never very fond of having to run upstairs for things or to put things away. A variety of articles lived permanently in the lounge room. I was equally guilty. The best mirror was a hand mirror and the best light was from the main window, so I mostly applied my face downstairs, and kept my cosmetics in the sideboard. Especially in the winter I had set my hair and trimmed my eyebrows in front of the living room heater.
Margaret was in no hurry to decide on any definite plans. About a week after her arrival she came with us to the school fete, where I was given the backbreaking job of picking up the balls for the Coconut Shy. Margaret and the children wandered about to the variety of stalls until I could make a dignified exit, feeling that in doing my duty, I had permanently injured my spine.
"I'll take you to Rochester," I told Margaret. "There is a castle and a cathedral."
There was a floral festival in the cathedral, and in every niche and alcove there were beautiful arrangements of flowers, fruit, stones and wood by members of floral art groups. Although I am hopeless at arrangements myself, not being capable of doing more than stick flowers in a vase, I could well appreciate the originality and industry which was apparent, the combining of certain colours and shapes for effect, the use of a variety of materials all the same colour.
"Now let's go to the castle," said the children, on whom most of this artistry was lost.
The castle is just across the road and through the huge walls. There are three square towers and one round tower.
"That is very strange," the children observed.
"Apparently King John besieged the castle in 1215 and mined the tower to defeat the imprisoned garrison. When the tower was rebuilt, they made a round tower because it would be stronger."
When Samuel Pepys visited the castle he wrote; "But Lord! To see what a dreadful thing it is to look down the precipices, for it did fright me mightily, and hinder me of much pleasure."
We were to be denied both the fright and the pleasure, because, just as we approached the door, a keeper hung up a hastily produced sign, which said CLOSED. He explained that a young man had been climbing around and had fallen to his death. The papers the next day elaborated to say he had climbed on pigeon wire high in the castle, which, after years of neglect and attempts at demolition, is little more than a gaunt shell.