Friday, December 08, 2006

the history of her commons

They steamed into the Gravesend Basin crowned with gulls wheeling.

The sky was overcast and mild for late September but as yet there was little sign of Sunday strollers along the shore. True, it was only ten-thirty; no, nine-thirty; MacArthur swiftly adjusting his timepiece.

"Back to watching the clock again. Back to tight rations and that damned thieving government," he complained. "I tell you something's finished about old England."

"Be quiet, dear." Joan's eyes shone out of her tan; she was looking tired, absolutely worn out, but marvellous.

"Wouldn't you like to go back home? I don't see why we should hang around."

"Back to Capetown? I would, of course I can hardly wait, but we've talked about this."

"Why not? Look! - there's a P&O boat just sliding alongside us now."

London River was getting busier. Tan-sailed barges and lighters bearing heaps of coal and crushed stone under stretched tarps were making slow headway close to the Kentish shore. Excise craft, wide-prowed with their cabins forward and big windows flashing, darted across the tide.

"And what about Cassell, the little matter of that book?"

They were wrapped up in each other and the excitement of making port, yet still David's eyes looked over her shoulder. A young woman of extraordinary beauty, a woman who made Joan of all people look practically dumpy, had advanced to the rail.

Miss P. Lindkvist cast a glance in return. No doubt about it, he was good-looking, well into his forties though. Those Navy years had given him a hungry look that two months of touring Sweden had satisfied but not done away with.

He even reminded her a little of the hero in that absurd film, so lean and brilliantined. But why was it two huge diamonds he'd snatched from the vault in Scotland Yard? They represented balls no doubt, like the thunder-stones in the stone circles of Mälaren. And Farbror Erik, he was as unsure of himself as another man, he had pocketed plenty of diamonds! She had been shown the pictures of Wimbledon Common. She would disappear in that house. But could it really be so close, could it really be somewhere in this vast, dirty city?

Even down-river the signs of the war were everywhere, coast defences, bombed-out sites. Further in, London was ramshackle. Blackwall Docks was a rubble zone, St Katharine Docks might not be rebuilt at all. Whole streets of the East End were ruined, citizens of the Commonwealth's heartland living in barracks and dormitories on farms. This was what Stan had gone home to, Jimmy Barnes too.

They found themselves elbows together in the gangway, the morning light churlish through salt on the glass.

"Have you been long out of England? Ah, - " he saw her name-tag "Förlåt, jag trodde inte att ni var Svensk..."

"That is all right. As you see, I speak English quite well."

"You don't look Swedish - according to our silly ideas, you know."

"Of course my black hair, I understand."

“It’s far from black,” he protested and then paused, embarrassed.

They were down among the cabins. There was a change of motion; Saga was warping into her berth. "Your first time in England?"

Suddenly she looked vague. "Yes - I have some things to do here. It is psychological work."

"And I have been studying the Swedish psychology! It's a fine country."

"I don't know. We don’t speak of it easily. We never used to have flagpoles everywhere, but now, we seem to need them."

After disembarking he forgot about her, watching for the car to be hoisted on to the quay-side. As the crane swung it up he enjoyed its rakish dustiness. For this moment it still remained apart from the life he felt closing back in on them.

"Well, we've got our notes."

As soon as he thought of the precious notes, Joan's and his hand-writing side by side, all spotted with mosquito-blood and rain, he felt repelled at the thought of working them up into a clean-typed manuscript.

"You'll be busy in no time. I know you." Joan felt for him, how deflated he'd suddenly become. "As soon as we've been home and seen the dogs, I say we meet up with Bill and find a drink somewhere."

“Good idea – so long as the R.A.C. have done their homework. Steel is more in my line than a type-writer, I'm afraid. It isn’t really what I call work. Lord, how I envy Nils! But there's nothing for it. It's going to take an age to clear the car. Ach, Jennie – I wish we could just – book into a vandrarhem."

"In the middle of Westminster! Besides, vandrarhems did have one or two drawbacks...”



At 3:12 pm, Blogger Yves said...

It's very evocative, especially of the immediate post-war atmosphere (though I was hardly old enough to to judge, at the time). Not a word wasted. Does it continue?

At 5:20 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

No, I just wanted to try what historical fiction would be like to write. Very hard work, was the answer!

At 6:47 pm, Blogger Yves said...

I'm reading Small Island by Andrea Levy, and highly recommend it. War and post-war years seen through English and also Jamaican eyes by various characters whose lives mesh. Especially evocative of bombings in London, poignantly reminding us of what was put up with then - perhaps worse than Baghdad today.


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