WALTER had welcomed the idea of progression by canoe, not because he looked forward to folding himself into an inadequate small boat, but, because it would give him his ‘story’. If the book was to be a success he must have ‘adventures’, and an unusual method of locomotion was the easiest way of providing them. It is difficult to garner quaint experience when being borne along comfortably in a car. And walking has lost face since it became universal in the form of an activity called hiking. Walter, who had walked over a great part of Europe with a toothbrush and a spare shirt in his burberry pocket, would have been glad to do the Rushmere valley on foot, but felt that he could not hope to satisfy any modern devotee. His toothbrush-and-spare-shirt technique would merely puzzle the masochistic enthusiasts who plodded, packed and hobnailed, to the horizon their glazed eye was fixed on, more Atlas than Odysseus. And to do the valley as an incidental accompaniment to puppets or a Punch and Judy might be productive of copy but was a little infra dig in one whose holding in the Open Air was of almost proprietorial dimensions.
So Walter welcomed the idea of a canoe. And in the last week or so he had begun to welcome the idea for a different reason altogether.
In a car or on foot he would be cheek by jowl with Leslie Searle day after day; in a canoe he would be virtually free of him. Walter had reached the stage when the very sound of Searle’s quiet drawl annoyed him into the need for momentary self-control. And a dim awareness that he was being a little ridiculous did nothing to soothe his annoyance. The last straw had been when Liz started being kind to him. He had never analysed Liz’s attitude to him, which had always seemed an appropriate one. That is to say that Liz supplied the undemanding devotion that he considered ideal in a woman after eight months of Marguerite Merriam. And now Liz had gone kind on him. ‘Condescending’ was his private word for it. But for his new awareness of Liz he might not have noticed the change, but Liz had moved to the very forefront of his thoughts and he analysed her lightest word, her most fleeting expression. And so he caught her being kind to him. Kind! To him. To Walter Whitmore.
Nothing so revolutionary or so unbecoming could have happened but for the presence of Leslie Searle. Walter needed a great deal of self-control when he thought of Leslie Searle.
They had planned to camp out each night, weather permitting; and of this too Walter was glad. Not only would it give him opportunities for tangling the Great Bear in the branches of some oak, or describing the night life of field and stream, but it would excuse him from the close quarters of night in some tiny inn. You can stroll away by yourself from a bivouac, but not, without remark, from a pub.
The canoes were dubbed Pip and Emma — the Rushmere, according to Searle, being a place where it was always afternoon — and Mrs Garrowby was unreasonably annoyed to find that Searle owned the Emma one. But what dismayed her far more was a dawning realisation that she might not, after all, be getting rid of Searle. There was to be one piece of comparative cheating about the trip, it seemed. To photograph the larger pieces of landscape needed more apparatus than could conveniently be carried in a canoe that was already occupied by a sleeping-bag and groundsheet, so Searle was to come back later and photograph the set-pieces at his leisure.
But for all the subterranean tremors that agitated Trimmings — Lavinia’s misgiving, Walter’s resentment, Liz’s feeling of guilt, Emma’s hatred — life on the surface was smooth. The sun shone with the incongruous brilliance so common in England before the last trees are in leaf; the nights were windless and warm as summer. Indeed Searle, standing on the stone terrace after dinner one night, had pointed out that This England might very well be That France.
‘Reminds you of Villefranche on a summer night,’ he said. ‘Until now that has been my measuring rod for magic. The lights on the water, and the warm air smelling of geranium, and the last boat out to the ship between one and two in the morning.’
‘What ship?’ someone had asked.
‘Any ship,’ Searle said lazily. ‘I had no idea that Perfidious Albion had the magic too.’
‘Magic!’ Lavinia had said. ‘Why, we’re the original firm.’
And they laughed a little and were all friendly together.
And nothing disturbed that friendliness up to the moment when Walter and Searle departed together into the English landscape late on a Friday night. Walter had given his usual talk, had come home for dinner (always put back an hour and a half on ‘talks’ day) and they had all drunk to the success of Canoes on the Rushmere. Then Liz drove them through the sweet spring evening, up the valley of the Rushmere, to their starting-point twenty miles away. They were going to spend the night in Grim’s House; a cave that overlooked the high pastures where the river originated. Walter said that it was apt and fitting that they should begin their tale in prehistoric England, but Searle doubted if the domestic arrangements were likely to be any more prehistoric than some he had already sampled. A lot of England, he said, didn’t seem to have come far from Grim, whoever he was.
However, he was all for sleeping in a cave. He had slept, in his time, on the floor of a truck, on the open desert, in a bath, on a billiard table, in a hammock, and inside the cabin of a Giant Wheel at a fair, but so far he had not sampled a cave. He was all for the cave.
Liz took them to where the track ended, and walked up the hundred yards of grassy path with them to inspect their shelter for the night. They were all very gay, full of good food and good drink and a little drunk with the magic of the night. They dumped their food and sleeping bags, and walked Liz back to the car. When they stopped talking for a moment the quiet pressed against their ears, so that they stayed their steps to listen for some sound.
‘I wish I wasn’t going home to a roof,’ Liz said into the silence. ‘It’s a night for the prehistoric.’
But she went away down the rutted track to the road, her headlights making metallic green stains on the dark grass, and left them to the silence and the prehistoric.
After that the two explorers became mere voices on the telephone.
Each evening they rang up Trimmings from some pub or call-box to report progress. They had walked successfully down to Otley and found their canoes waiting for them. They took to the river and were delighted with their craft. Walter’s first notebook was already full, and Searle was lyrical on the beauty of this England in its first light powdering of blossom. From Capel he called specially for Lavinia to tell her that she had been right about the magic; England did really have the original blue-print.
‘They sound very happy,’ Lavinia said in a half-doubtful, half-relieved way as she hung up. She longed to go and see them, but the compact was that they were to be as strangers in a strange land, passing down the river and through Salcott St Mary as though they had never seen it before.
‘You spoil my perspective if you bring Trimmings into it,’ Walter had said. ‘I must see it as if I had never seen it before; the countryside, I mean; see it fresh and new.’
So Trimmings waited each night for their telephoned report; mildly amused at this make-believe gulf.
And then on Wednesday evening, five days after they had set out, they walked into the Swan and were hailed as the Stanleys of the Rushmere and treated to drinks by all and sundry. They were tied up at Pett’s Hatch, they said, and were sleeping there; but they had not been able to resist walking across the fields to Salcott. By water it was two miles down river from Pett’s Hatch to Salcott, but thanks to the loop of the Rushmere it was only a mile over the fields from one to the other. There was no inn at Pett’s Hatch, so they had walked by the field-path to Salcott and the familiar haven of the Swan.
Talk was general at first as each newcomer inquired as to how they did. But presently Walter took his beer to his favourite table in the corner, and after a little Searle followed him. Several times from then on one or other of the loungers at the bar made a movement towards the two to engage them once more in conversation, only to pause and change his mind as something in the attitude of the two men to each other struck him as odd. They were not quarrelling; it was just that something personal and urgent in their intercourse kept the others, almost unconsciously, from joining them.
And then, quite suddenly, Walter was gone.
He went without noise and without a goodnight. Only the bang of the door called their attention to his exit. It was an eloquent slam, furious and final; a very pointed exit.
They looked in a puzzled fashion from the door to the unfinished beer at Walter’s empty place, and decided in spite of that angry sound that Walter was coming back. Searle was sitting at his ease, relaxed against the wall, smiling faintly; and Bill Maddox, encouraged by the easing of that secret tension that had hung like a cloud in the corner, moved over and joined him. They talked outboard-motors and debated clinker versus carvel until their mugs were empty. As Maddox got up to refill them he caught sight of the flat liquid in Walter’s mug and said: ‘I’d better get another for Mr Whitmore; that stuff’s stale.’
‘Oh, Walter has gone to bed,’ Searle said.
‘But it’s only ——’ Maddox was beginning, and realised that he was about to be tactless.
‘Yes, I know; but he thought it would be safer.’
‘Is he sickening for something?’
‘No, but if he stayed any longer he was liable to throttle me,’ Searle said amiably. ‘And at the school Walter went to they take a poor view of throttling. He is putting temptation behind him. Literally.’
‘You been annoying poor Mr Whitmore?’ said Bill, who felt that he knew this young American much better than he knew Walter Whitmore.
‘Horribly,’ Searle said lightly, matching a smile with Bill’s.
Maddox clicked his tongue and went away to get the beer.
After that, conversation became general. Searle stayed until closing time, said goodnight to Reeve, the landlord, as he locked the door behind them, and walked down the village street with the others. At the narrow lane that led between the houses to the fields he turned off, pelted by their mock-condolences on his lack of a snug bed, and throwing back in his turn accusations of frowst and ageing arteries.
‘Goodnight!’ he called, from far down the lane.
And that was the last that anyone in Salcott St Mary ever saw of Leslie Searle.
Forty-eight hours later Alan Grant stepped back into the affairs of the Trimmings household.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14