The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey

3

THEY came home at tea-time with five unimpressive-looking trout and large appetites. Pat, excusing the thin trout, pointed out that on such a day you couldn’t expect to catch any but what he called ‘the sillies’; the respect-worthy fish had more sense than to be caught in such weather. They came down the last half-mile to Clune like homing horses, Pat skipping from turf to turf like a young goat and as voluble as he had been silent on the way out. The world and London river seemed the width of stellar space away, and Grant would not have called the King his cousin.

But as they scraped their shoes at the flagged doorway of Clune, he became aware of his unreasonable impatience to see that newspaper. And since he resented unreason in anyone and abominated it in himself he carefully scraped his shoes all over a second time.

‘Man, you’re awfully particular,’ said Pat, giving his footgear a rudimentary wipe on the twin scraper.

‘It’s a boorish thing to go into a house with mud on one’s shoes.’

‘Boorish?’ asked Pat, who, as Grant suspected, held it a ‘jessie-like’ thing to be clean.

‘Yes. Slovenly and ungrown-up.’

‘Huh,’ said Pat; and surreptitiously scraped his shoes again. ‘It’s a poor house that can’t stand a few dollops of mud,’ he said, reasserting his independence, and went storming into the sitting-room like an invading army.

In the sitting-room Tommy was dripping honey on to a hot scone, Laura was pouring tea, Bridget was arranging a new set of objects in a design on the floor, and the terrier was on the make round the table. Except that sunlight had been added to firelight it was the same picture as last night. With one difference. Somewhere in the room there was a daily paper that mattered.

Laura, seeing his searching eye, asked him if he was looking for something.

‘Yes, the daily paper.’

‘Oh, Bella has it.’ Bella was the cook. ‘I’ll get it from her after tea if you want to see it.’

He had a moment of stinging impatience with her. She was far too complacent. She was far too happy, here in her fastness, with her laden tea-table, and her little roll of fat above the belt, and her healthy children, and her nice Tommy, and her security. It would do her good to have some demons to fight; to be swung out in space and held over some bottomless pit now and then. But his own absurdity rescued him, and he knew that it was not so. There was no complacence in Laura’s happiness, nor was Clune any refuge from the realities. The two young sheep-dogs who had welcomed them at the road gate in a swirl of black-and-white bodies and lashing tails would once upon a time have been called Moss, or Glen, or Trim or something like that. Today, he had noticed, they answered to Tong and Zang. The waters of the Chindwin had long ago flowed into the Turlie. There were no Ivory Towers any more.

‘There is The Times, of course,’ Laura said, ‘but it is always yesterday’s, so you will have seen it.’

‘Who is Wee Archie?’ he asked, sitting down at the table.

‘So you’ve met Archie Brown, have you?’ Tommy said, clapping the top half on his hot scone, and licking the honey that oozed from it.

‘Is that his name?’

‘It used to be. Since he elected himself the champion of Gaeldom he calls himself Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn. He’s frightfully unpopular at hotels.’

‘Why?’

‘How would you like to page someone called Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn?’

‘I wouldn’t like to have him under my roof at all. What is he doing here?’

‘He’s writing an epic poem in Gaelic, so he says. He didn’t know any Gaelic until about two years ago, so I don’t think the poem can be up to much. He used to belong to the cleesh-clavers-clatter school. You know: the Lowland–Scots boys. He was one of them for years. But he didn’t get anywhere very much. The competition was too keen. So he decided that Lowland Scots was just debased English and very reprehensible, and that there was nothing like a return to the “old tongue”, to a real language. So he “sat under” a bank clerk in Glasgow, a chap from Uist, and swotted up some Gaelic. He comes to the back door and talks to Bella now and then, but she says she doesn’t understand a word. She thinks he’s “not right in the head”.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with Archie Brown’s head,’ Laura said tartly. ‘If he hadn’t had the wit to think up this rôle for himself he would be teaching school in some god-forsaken backwater and even the school inspector wouldn’t have known his name.’

‘He’s very conspicuous on a moor, anyhow,’ Grant said.

‘He’s even worse on a platform. Like one of those awful souvenir dolls that tourists take home; and just about as Scottish.’

‘Isn’t he Scots?’

‘No. He hasn’t a drop of Scottish blood in him. His father came from Liverpool and his mother was an O’Hanrahan.’

‘Odd how all the most bigoted patriots are Auslanders,’ Grant said. ‘I don’t think he’ll get very far with those xenophobes, the Gaels.’

‘He has a much worse handicap than that,’ Laura said.

‘What is that?’

‘His Glasgow accent.’

‘Yes. It is pretty repellent.’

‘I didn’t mean that. I mean, every time he opens his mouth his audience is reminded of the possibility of being ruled from Glasgow: a fate worse than death.’

‘When he was talking about the beauty of the Islands he mentioned some sands that “sing”. Do you know anything about them?’

‘I seem to,’ said Tommy, not interested. ‘On Barra or Berneray or somewhere.’

‘On Cladda, he said.’

‘Yes, perhaps it’s Cladda. Do you think that boat at Lochan Dhu will last a season or two yet?’

‘Can I go and get the Clarion from Bella now?’ asked Pat, having wolfed four scones and a slab of cake with the neat speed of a sheep-dog consuming a stolen tit-bit.

‘If she has finished with it,’ his mother said.

‘Uch, she’ll have finished with it this long time,’ Pat said. ‘She only reads the bits about the stars.’

‘Stars?’ said Grant, as the door closed behind Pat. ‘Film stars?’

‘No,’ Laura said. ‘The Great Bear and Co.’

‘Oh. The day as arranged by Sirius, Vega, and Capella.’

‘Yes. In Lewis they have to wait for the second-sight, she says. It’s a fine convenient thing to have the future in the paper every day.’

‘What does Pat want with the Clarion?’

‘The strip, of course. Two objects called Tolly and Snib. I can’t remember whether they are ducks or rabbits.’

So Grant had to wait until Pat had finished with Tolly and Snib, and by that time both Laura and Tommy had taken themselves off, the one to the kitchen and the other to out-of-doors, so that he was left alone with the silent child on the mat, endlessly rearranging her treasures. He took the tidily-folded paper from Pat ceremoniously, and as Pat went away he unfolded it with controlled interest. It was a Scottish edition and apart from the ‘middles’ the paper was crammed with the most parochial of news, but there seemed to be nothing about yesterday’s railway event in it. To and fro he went, through the jungle of unimportances, like a terrier routing through bracken, and at last he came on it: a tiny paragraph at the bottom of a column, down among the bicycle accidents and the centenarians. ‘MAN DIES IN TRAIN’, said the inconspicuous heading. And under the heading was a succinct statement:

On the arrival of the Flying Highlander at its destination yesterday morning it was found that one of the passengers, a young Frenchman, Charles Martin, had died during the night. It is understood that the death was due to natural causes, but since the death occurred in England, the body is being returned to London for an inquest.

French!’ he said aloud, and Bridget looked up from her playthings to watch him.

French? Surely not! Surely not?

The face, yes. Perhaps. The face quite likely. But not that writing. That very English, schoolboy writing.

Had the paper not belonged to B Seven at all?

Had he just picked it up? In a restaurant where he was having a meal before boarding the train, perhaps. The chairs of station dining-rooms were habitually strewn with the discarded papers of those who had eaten there. Or in his home, for that matter; or his rooms or wherever he lived. He might have come by the paper in a score of casual ways.

Or, of course, he might be a Frenchman who was educated in England, so that the round untidy script was substituted for the slanting elegant spidery handwriting of his inheritance. There was nothing fundamentally incompatible with B Seven having been the author of those pencilled lines.

All the same, it was an oddity.

And in cases of sudden death, however natural, oddities have importance. When he first came in contact with B Seven he was so divorced from his professional self, so detached from the world at large, that he had considered the matter as any other sleep-sodden civilian would. B Seven had been for him merely the young dead occupant of a whisky-sodden compartment who was being mauled about by a furiously impatient sleeping-car attendant. Now he became something quite different; he became The Subject Of An Inquest. A professional matter; a matter bound by rules and regulations; a matter to be proceeded with circumspectly, with due decorum and by the book. And it occurred to Grant for the first time that his abstraction of that newspaper might be held, if orthodoxy must be pushed to its furthest point, to be a little irregular. It had been an entirely unintended abstraction; an accidental purloining. But it had, if one had to be analytical about it, been a removal of evidence.

While Grant was debating the matter, Laura came back from the kitchen and said: ‘Alan, I want you to do something for me.’

She took her mending basket and brought it over to a chair beside him.

‘Anything I can do.’

‘Pat is sticking in his toes about something that he has to do and I want you to talk him into it. You’re his hero, and he will listen to you.’

‘It isn’t about presenting a bouquet, by any chance?’

‘How did you know? Has he talked about it to you already?’

‘He just mentioned it this morning on the loch.’

‘You didn’t take his side, did you?’

‘With you in the background! No. I expressed the opinion that it was a great honour.’

‘Was he convinced?’

‘No. He thinks the whole thing is “havers”.’

‘So it is. The hall has been in unofficial use for weeks. But the glen people spent a lot of money and energy on getting that thing put up, and it is only right that it should be opened with a “splash”.’

‘But does it have to be Pat who presents the bouquet?’

‘Yes. If he doesn’t do it, the MacFadyean’s Willie will.’

‘Laura, you shock me.’

‘I wouldn’t if you could see the MacFadyean’s Willie. He looks like a frog with elephantiasis. And his socks are always falling down. It should be a little girl’s business, but there is no female child of the right age in the glen. So it rests between Pat and the MacFadyean’s Willie. And quite apart from Pat’s looking nicer, it is right that someone from Clune should do it. And don’t say “Why?” and don’t say I shock you. You just see what you can do to talk Pat into it.’

‘I’ll try,’ Grant said, smiling at her. ‘Who is his Viscountess?’

‘Lady Kentallen.’

‘The dowager?’

‘The widow, you mean. There is only one, so far. Her boy isn’t old enough yet to be married.’

‘How did you get her?’

‘She was at school with me. At St Louisa’s.’

‘Oh: blackmail. The tyranny of auld lang syne.’

‘Tyranny nothing,’ said Laura. ‘She was glad to come and do the chore. She’s a darling.’

‘The best way to bring Pat up to his bit would be to make her attractive in his eyes.’

‘She’s ragingly attractive.’

‘I don’t mean that way. I mean, make her good at something he admires.’

‘She’s an expert with a fly,’ Laura said doubtfully, ‘but I don’t know that Pat would find that very impressive. He just thinks that someone who can’t fish is abnormal.’

‘I suppose you couldn’t endow her with a few revolutionary tendencies.’

‘Revolutionary!’ said Laura, her eye brightening. ‘Now that’s an idea. Revolutionary. She used to be a little on the pink side. She did it “to annoy Miles and Georgiana”, she used to say. They are her parents. She was never very serious about it; she was much too good-looking to need anything like that. But I might build something on that foundation. Yes. We might make her a revolutionary.’

The quirks that women are reduced to! thought Grant, watching her needle nicker through the wool of the sock she was darning; and went back to considering his own problem. He was still considering it when he went to bed. But before he went to sleep he decided that he would write to Bryce in the morning. It would be to all intents a letter reporting his arrival in these healthful surroundings and his hope to be better in less time than the doctor had given him, but in the course of it he would take the opportunity of putting himself in the right by passing the knowledge of the newspaper’s presence on to those whom it might concern.

He slept the deep uninterrupted sleep induced by fresh air and an unsullied conscience, and woke to an immense silence. The silence was not only out-of-doors; the house itself was in a trance. And Grant suddenly remembered that it was Sunday. There would be no post out of the glen today. He would have to go all the way to Scoone with his letter.

He asked Tommy at breakfast if he might borrow the car to go to Scoone to post an important letter, and Laura offered to drive him. So as soon as breakfast was over he went back to his room to compose the letter, and in the end was very pleased with it. He brought the matter of B Seven into the texture of it as neatly as an invisible mender fits an unbelonging piece to the over-all pattern. He had not been able to shake the memory of work from him as soon as he might, he said, because the first thing he had been confronted with at the end of the journey was a dead body. The body was being furiously shaken by an enraged sleeping-car attendant who thought that the man was just sleeping it off. However, it had been none of his business, thank Heaven. His only part in the affair had been to purloin unintentionally a newspaper from the compartment. He had found it among his own when he was having breakfast. It was a Signal, and he would have taken it for granted that it was his own property if it had not been that in the Stop Press space someone had been pencilling a scribbled attempt at verse. The verse was in English and in English writing, and might not have been written by the dead man at all. He understood that the inquest was being held in London. If Bryce thought that it was of any importance he might hand on the small item of information to the relevant authority.

He came downstairs again to find the Sabbath atmosphere shattered. The house rocked with war and rebellion. Pat had discovered that someone was going in to Scoone (which in his country eyes was even on a Sunday a metropolis of delectable variety) and he wanted to go too. His mother, on the other hand, was determined that he was going to Sunday school as usual.

‘You ought to be very glad of the lift,’ she was saying, ‘instead of grumbling about not wanting to go.’

Grant thought that ‘grumbling’ was a highly inadequate word to describe the blazing opposition that lighted Pat like a torch. He throbbed with it, like a car at rest with the engine running.

‘If we didn’t happen to be going in to Scoone you would have to walk to the church as usual,’ she reminded him.

‘Huch, who ever minds walking! We have fine talks when we’re walking, Duggie and me.’ Duggie was the shepherd’s son. ‘It’s wasting time at Sunday school when I might be going to Scoone that’s a fact. It’s not fair.’

‘Pat, I will not have you referring to Sunday school as a waste of time.’

‘You won’t have me at all if you’re not careful. I’ll die of a decline.’

‘Oh. What would bring that on?’

‘Lack of fresh air.’

She began to laugh. ‘Pat, you’re wonderful!’ But it was always the wrong thing to laugh at Pat. He took himself as seriously as an animal does.

‘All right, laugh!’ he said bitterly. ‘You’ll be going to church on Sundays to put wreaths on my grave, that’s what you’ll be doing on Sundays, not going into Scoone!’

‘I shouldn’t dream of doing anything so extravagant. A few dog-daisies now and then when I’m passing is as much as you’ll get from me. Go and get your scarf; you’ll need it.’

‘A gravat! It’s March!’

‘It’s also cold. Get your scarf. It will help to keep off that decline.’

‘A lot you care about my decline, you and your daisies. A mean family the Grants always were. A poor mean lot. I’m very glad I’m a Rankin, and I’m very glad I don’t have to wear their horrible red tartan.’ Pat’s tattered green kilt was Macintyre, which went better with his red hair than the gay Grant. It had been part of Tommy’s mother’s web, and she, as a good Macintyre, had been glad to see her grandson in what she called a civilised cloth.

He stumped his way into the back of the car and sat there simmering, the despised ‘gravat’ flung in a limp disavowed heap at the far end of the seat.

‘Heathen aren’t supposed to go to church,’ he offered, as they slipped down the sandy road to the gate, the loose stones spurting from under the tyres.

‘Who is heathen?’ his mother asked, her mind on the road.

‘I am. I’m a Mohammedan.’

‘Then you have great need to go to a Christian church and be converted. Open the gate, Pat.’

‘I’ve no wish to be converted. I’m fine as I am.’ He held the gate open for them and shut it behind them. ‘I disapprove of the Bible,’ he said, as he got in again.

‘Then you can’t be a good Mohammedan.’

‘What for no?’

‘They have some of the Bible too.’

‘I bet they don’t have David!’

‘Don’t you approve of David?’ Grant asked.

‘A poor soppy thing, dancing and singing like a lassie. There’s not a soul in the Old Testament I’d trust to go to a sheep sale.’

He sat erect in the middle of the back seat, too alive with rebellion to relax, his bleak eye watching the road ahead in absent-minded fury. And it occurred to Grant that he might equally have slumped in a corner and sulked. He was glad that this cousin of his was a rude and erect flame of resentment and not a small collapsed bundle of self-pity.

The injured heathen got out at the church, still rude and erect, and walked away without a backward glance, to join the small group of children by the side door.

‘Will he behave, now he is there?’ Grant asked as Laura set the car in motion again.

‘Oh, yes. He really likes it, you know. And of course Douglas will be there: his Jonathan. A day when he couldn’t spend part of it laying down the law to Duggie would be a day wasted. He didn’t really believe that I would let him come to Scoone instead. It was just a try-on.’

‘It was a very effective try-on.’

‘Yes. There’s a lot of the actor in Pat.’

They had gone another two miles before the thought of Pat faded from his mind. And, then, quite suddenly, into the blank that Pat’s departure left, came the realisation that he was in a car. That he was shut into a car. He ceased on the instant to be an adult watching, tolerant and amused, the unreasonable antics of a child, and became a child watching, gibbering and aghast, the hostile advance of giants.

He let down the window on his side to its fullest extent. ‘Let me know if you feel that too much,’ he said.

‘You’ve been too long in London,’ she said.

‘How?’

‘Only people who live in towns are fresh-air fiends. Country people like a nice fug as a change from unlimited out-of-doors.’

‘I’ll put it up, if you like,’ he said, although his mouth was stiff with effort as he said the words.

‘No, of course not,’ she said, and began to talk about a car they had ordered.

So the old battle started. The old arguments, the old tricks, the old cajoling. The pointing out of the open windows, the reminding himself that it was only a car and could be stopped at any moment, the willing himself to consider a subject far removed from the present, the self-persuading that he was lucky to be alive at all. But the tide of his panic rose with a slow abominable menace. A black evil tide, scummy and revolting. Now it was round his chest, pressing and holding, so that he could hardly breathe. Now it was up to his throat, feeling round his windpipe, clutching his neck in a pincer embrace. In a moment it would be over his mouth.

‘Lalla, stop!’

‘Stop the car?’ she asked, surprised.

‘Yes.’

She brought the car to a standstill, and he got out on trembling legs and hung over the dry-stone dyke sucking in great mouthfuls of the clean air.

‘Are you feeling ill, Alan?’ she asked anxiously.

‘No, I just wanted to get out of the car.’

‘Oh,’ she said in a relieved tone. ‘Is that all!’

‘Is that all?’

‘Yes: claustrophobia. I was afraid you were ill.’

‘And you don’t call that being ill?’ he said bitterly.

‘Of course not. I nearly died of terror once, when I was taken to see the Cheddar caves. I had never been in a cave before.’ She had switched off the motor and now she sat down on a roadside boulder with her back half-turned to him. ‘Except those rabbit burrows that we called caves in our youth.’ She held up her cigarette case to him. ‘I’d never been really underground before, and I didn’t mind going in the least. I went all eager and delighted, I was a good half-mile from the entrance when it struck me. I sweated with terror. Do you have it often?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you know that you’re the only person who still calls me Lalla sometimes? We are getting very old.’

He looked round and down at her, the strain fading from his expression.

‘I didn’t know you had any terrors other than rats.’

‘Oh, yes. I have a fine variety. Everyone has, I think. At least everyone who is not just a clod. I keep placid because I lead a placid life and collect adipose tissue. If I overworked the way you do I’d be a raving maniac. I’d probably have claustrophobia and agoraphobia, and make medical history. One would have the enormous consolation of being something in the Lancet, of course.’

He turned from leaning over the wall and sat down beside her. ‘Look,’ he said, and held out the shaking hand that held his cigarette for her to see.

‘Poor Alan.’

‘Poor Alan indeed,’ he agreed. ‘That came not from being half a mile underground in the dark, but from being a passenger in a car with wide-open windows in an open countryside on a fine Sunday in a free country.’

‘It didn’t, of course.’

‘It didn’t?’

‘It came from four years of consistent overwork and an overgrown conscience. You always were a demon where conscience was concerned. Quite tiresome you could be. Would you rather have a spot of claustrophobia or a stroke?’

‘A stroke?’

‘If you work yourself half to death you have to pay in some manner or other. Would you rather pay in the more usual physical manner with high blood-pressure or a strained heart? It’s better to be scared of being shut into a car than to be pushed about in a bath-chair. At least you have time off from being scared. If you hate the thought of getting back into the car, by the way, I can go on to Scoone with your letter and pick you up on the way back.’

‘Oh, no, I’ll go on.’

‘I thought it was better not to fight it?’

‘Did you scream and yell half a mile underground in the Cheddar Gorge?’

‘No. But I wasn’t a pathological specimen suffering from overwork.’

He smiled suddenly. ‘It’s extraordinary how comforting it is to be called a pathological specimen. Or rather, to be called a pathological specimen in just those tones.’

‘Do you remember the day at Varese when it rained and we went to the museum and saw those specimens in bottles?’

‘Yes; you were sick on the pavement outside.’

‘Well, you were sick when we had sheep’s heart for lunch because you had watched it being stuffed,’ she said instantly.

‘Lalla, darling,’ he said, beginning to laugh, ‘you haven’t grown-up at all.’

‘Well, it’s nice that you can still laugh, even if it’s only at me,’ she said, caught out in that flash of childhood rivalry. ‘Say when you want to go on.’

‘Now.’

‘Now? Are you sure?’

‘Quite sure. Being called a pathological specimen has wonderfully curative qualities, I find.’

‘Well, next time don’t wait until you are on the point of suffocation,’ she said matter-of-factly.

He did not know which he found more reassuring: her awareness that the thing was a sort of suffocation or her matter-of-fact acceptance of unreason.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tey/josephine/singing-sands/chapter3.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04