Published in Ten Miles From Anywhere (London: Jonathan Cape, 1958).
5,715 words ● 21 minute read.
(For Mary Somerville)
‘But doesn’t he say why he’s coming?’ Major Mainprice put the letter down on the table and made a confession. ‘My dear, I couldn’t agree with you more.’
‘In the middle of winter. Surely he must have heard what dreadful weather we’re having.’
Normally, Major Mainprice did not think of his brother. Even now he would have liked to put the letter out of his mind and take the dogs over the snow. It was frozen hard. He and the dogs would crackle over the surface. In the woods, though, the snow was soft and dry, protected even by the naked trees from the full rigour of the frost; and here, while he stood smoking, the dogs would run about, blowing the snow from their nostrils and barking.
‘You don’t think there’s anything wrong, do you, John?’
‘Wrong? Wrong? Good heavens, no! There’s nothing wrong!’
The envelope with its red, white and blue border, its Spanish stamp, its smudged foreign postmark, its sloping green handwriting, had fallen to the floor. Mainprice frowned. ‘Well, I expect he’s got some sort of business to do.’
Andrew, after all this time, coming to England! Coming to Wharton! Coming, for no reason at all, home again after —how many years was it? Ten? Twelve? Good heavens, it must be getting on for twenty years!
After twenty years Andrew would be more Spanish than English. For all anyone knew he was a grandfather. Mainprice had the idea that in Spain they married young. Some at least of Andrew’s little girls would have married. And Andrew’s wife! The guerilla fighter who had saved Andrew’s life somehow or other in that war they were having! Well, she would be fat by now! Twenty years! Mainprice thought of his own children and looked out of the window, across the empty waste of snow.
‘He seems to be coming alone,’ said Jane, now that she had read the letter.
At two o’clock the telephone rang and, to Mainprice’s amazement, it was Andrew speaking from Dover. He must have posted the letter with the intention of leaving Barcelona immediately; on his way to the station, so to speak.
‘Yes, yes, excellent!’ said Mainprice. ‘You’ll get a train from Paddington. They still run, you know. I think there’s one about seven. You ought to make it. We’ll get the car out and meet you at Malvern. There’s been a lot of snow. I said, there’s been a lot of snow. S-n-o-w!’
‘I could scarcely hear what he was saying.’ Mainprice saw James looking up the passage from the kitchen. ‘That was your Uncle Andrew. It was Andrew all right. He’ll be here tonight.’
James was wearing a bulky Fair Isle jersey, a woollen cap and mittens. ‘We’re going skating this afternoon. We’re going over to the reservoir. I think we ought to sweep the snow off and skate on our own lake.’
‘After dinner we’ll be meeting your Uncle Andrew at the station.’
The telephone conversation was even more disturbing than the letter had been. The voice, reedy with distance, now loud, now soft, as though blown in the wind, left Mainprice with a breathlessness. It was just as though he had been running. The shock was not due to anything Andrew had said or to any quality in the voice. Then why was it? Well, he had been taken by surprise and that was the truth of the matter. Andrew’s voice after twenty years! It was a voice from the dead. There had been occasional letters, certainly, and Christmas cards. But this was different. In order to speak one had to be — alive!
He leaned out of the window to call after his son.
‘Now don’t go without that hare. It won’t mean a couple of minutes off your way.’
James trudged across the snow, swinging the hare by its back legs.
By way of preparation for the hazardous night drive to Malvern Mainprice drove the car on to the orange frozen slush of the main road. Not bad! Provided he kept down to twenty the chains took a reasonable grip. At the cross-roads he turned, ground south to the village where he bought some cigarettes, and made for home along a road running like a dike higher than the frozen fields. Where was the horizon? A blur of trees appeared to be stuck half-way up the sky. He drove along but there was little sense of motion. The whiteness accompanied him. Then one wall of a wayside cottage rose up, black as a hole in the universe, and Mainprice wondered why he had ever got into the way of thinking of Andrew as dead.
At six o’clock Andrew telephoned again. This time he was in London and his voice came over high and clear. He sounded as though he were in mountain country calling from one pasture to the next. Mainprice found himself laughing. It was Jill who had answered the telephone in the first place and she had exchanged a few words with her uncle before handing over. Mainprice looked at his daughter who stood with big doubtful eyes.
‘That was Jill. She’s sixteen. You’ve never seen her, of course.’ He laughed to conceal a quite unexpected shyness.
‘What time will he be arriving? Don’t forget to ask him that, John,’ he could hear his wife calling.
‘Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!’ Mainprice joggled the telephone rest. We’ve been cut off! Operator! We’ve been cut off! My brother was calling me from London. He’s just arrived from Spain. We’ve been cut off!’
For three hours no further message came. Assuming that Andrew had caught the seven o’clock train, Mainprice was just preparing to set off for the station when the telephone rang for the third time. Andrew was in Oxford. The voice was vigorous. A little mocking, perhaps. Yes, Yes. He had caught the train all right; but it was so cold. If he had stayed on board another five minutes he would have frozen to death. The train was unheated. After the sunshine of Barcelona the English winter took some getting used to. No, seriously, he had to break his journey at Oxford or he would have passed out. Once he had warmed himself in front of a fire he would look up the next train. Or perhaps he would put up for the night. Or perhaps he would hire a car and drive over.
‘Ask him,’ said Jane, ‘what he’s come to England for.’
But Andrew had already rung off. Mainprice could hear the rattle of the receiver as Andrew replaced it. Perhaps that was what had happened when Andrew had telephoned from London. Only the abrupt end to the conversation had made Mainprice think they had been cut off.
‘The trouble is,’ said Andrew just before midnight, calling from Evesham, ‘I can’t really be sure you want to see me. It’s a family visit. After all, you’re my brother. But I must confess I’m strongly tempted to go back to Barcelona again.’
‘For God’s sake, Andie!’ Mainprice was frightened. The poor fellow did not sound right in the head. ‘Andie, listen! Can you hear me? Of course you’re welcome. We’re delighted you’re coming.’
‘I just wanted to be sure. You don’t mind me asking?’
‘Mind you asking? Andie, old chap, you’re only about twenty miles away. I’ll drive over and pick you up.’
‘Oh no. Quite out of the question. But don’t wait up for me. I’m not sure how the trains run. Perhaps I can scrounge a lift in a car.’
When he rang off, as abruptly as before, Mainprice telephoned the Evesham police. The sergeant said there were only a limited number of places in town from where one could telephone at that time of night. It should prove quite easy to pick the gentleman up, particularly as the last bus and the last train had gone. When, however, the sergeant rang just after one o’clock in the morning he said they had been unable to find any sign of a stranger. The streets were empty. Most people were abed. Fifteen degrees of frost were indicated on the police station thermometer and the sergeant could only suggest that the gentleman had taken a bed in some cottage for the night. He certainly had not booked in at any of the hotels or inns. And it was scarcely to be expected that anyone would be out walking on a night like this, even though there was little wind and a full moon.
No, it was not to be expected. Mainprice had sent his wife and the children to bed. He looked out of the drawing-room window and saw how the earth was brighter than the sky, as bright, almost, as the moon itself. Someone — Jill probably — had been sweeping snow from the frozen lake. The exposed ice was quite blue. Mainprice looked this way and that. Was there no sign of life? Not even a rabbit? Where were the owls? God in heaven, the fellow must be out of his wits! But there was no way of helping. It would be utter folly, for example, to get the car out and drive over to Evesham at this time of night. Or would it? Probably he was asleep in a comfortable bed. Or was he? Mainprice looked this way and that, over the lake and down again to his own cold fingers on the window-sill. But there was no sign of life.
Jane rubbed her hands before the fire. The cold was certainly too much for her. She had been numb since Christmas. The big log fires were useless. The bitter draughts from the doors and the ill-fitting windows! If only they could afford central heating! How the snow came from those clear skies was a mystery. The morning of Andrew’s arrival a dry, sifting of snow fell in full sunshine.
She was the first to see him. Having forbidden John to drive over to Evesham because of the state of the roads she had at last, when a bout of telephoning brought no result, allowed him to go to Malvern. James had accompanied his father so, except for the woman in the kitchen, Jane had only her daughter for support when looking from the window she saw a figure walking up to the front of the house across the hard snow. It was a man in grey. His coat had a foreign or old-fashioned cut, narrow in the waist and buttons up to the chin. By English standards his hat had an unusually wide brim. In his right hand he carried what looked like an outsize Gladstone bag in straw-coloured leather and as he walked his shadow ran before him.
‘You see, I’ve just popped in,’ he said confidentially when they opened the front door to discover him standing with his hat to his chest.
‘Well, you must be Andrew.’ Jane had not met her brother-in-law before. She saw that his pointed black shoes and the bottoms of his trousers had been wet and were now frozen.
‘John’s gone up to Malvern to meet you. Do come in.’ He was ten years younger than John but obviously a brother; there were the same sandy eyebrows and narrow, bony face.
‘I can’t stop, you understand,’ said Andrew Mainprice, stepping into the hall. ‘Where’s John? No, I didn’t expect him to be here to meet me. I want to cause no bother. Let me not put you out. It was just that I wanted to see you all. The house is the same. You’ve had the porch done up. How little it looked in all the snow. This bag’ — he held it up, looking Jane in the face for the first time, and blushing — ‘is full of fireworks.’
‘Fireworks!’ Jill was not surprised. ‘How lovely!’
‘They must be kept in a dry place. I bought them in London last night. When it gets dark we’ll go out and let them off, I thought.’
‘Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry,’ he said when, still wearing his overcoat, he sat holding his naked feet to the kitchen fire. D’you mean that John’s gone looking for me. I told him not to do it. It’s the last thing I want, you putting yourselves out.’
‘Why is it,’ he asked after a while, ‘that you’re not skating on the lake?’
The brother in Spain! She and John had met and married while the Franco war was still in progress. Everybody in the family talked about the brother in Spain. Some said he was a fool, some admired him, some said he was fighting on the wrong side, and they were all shocked because he could not contrive to come home during his mother’s last illness. After the fall of Madrid he was in prison. John had been on the point of going to Spain to make some kind of appeal. But Andrew wrote to say that he was free once more, working as a translator in Barcelona, and married to a woman who ‘saved my life in more ways than one’. When the big war started Andrew remained in Barcelona and John, she was well aware, took it badly. And now her own son, James, was eighteen years of age and probably did not even know there had been a war in Spain.
Having told her so much about Andrew they might have told her that he was shy. He looked at Jane and Jill and his steaming feet and twenty other objects in the room, all in the space of fifteen seconds. He flickered with embarrassment. For a while she had thought him mentally unbalanced, with his insistence that he was not stopping and his talk of fireworks, not to mention the devious complexity of his journey from Dover. But she could see now that it was shyness; stage-fright, to be more exact. She knew intuitively that he had often thought about coming to Wharton and the reality had dazed him. Reality? He could not have been sure he wasn’t dreaming. Jane understood all this but instead of being sympathetic she was irritated.
‘Well, we might,’ she said, answering his question about skating on the lake.
‘You’re a handsome woman. You won’t mind me saying things like that? After all, I’m your brother-in-law.’
No, she did not mind because there seemed little or no meaning in his compliment. It was the embarrassed gesture of a nervous man. They had been staring into each other’s eyes for some moments before she became aware of the fact. She did not look away. Why should she? She had done nothing to be ashamed of. Yet when he dropped his head and began rubbing his naked feet she suddenly realized that the gaze was a part of the compliment and it must have been genuine, therefore, because Andrew had conquered panic to look into her eyes at all. So he thought she was handsome! Handsome, not beautiful! She considered the difference and took her revenge — the tiniest, the most modest, the scarcely noticeable revenge, of asking the one question he would wish to postpone answering until later. Or so she imagined. Probably he wanted money and he would not like to ask for it until he had talked with John.
‘What have you come to England for?’
‘To go skating,’ he said, still rubbing his feet. ‘Out there, on the lake.’
‘You’ve come all the way from Spain to go skating?’
‘On the lake.’ Jill brought him some slippers. He walked about the kitchen with his trousers rolled up to his knees. ‘It isn’t just skating. There’s a skating rink in Barcelona. It’s skating here, on the lake, at night.’
‘There’s Daddy!’ At her father’s shout Jill ran out of the kitchen calling excitedly, ‘Oh Daddy, he’s come!’ and Mainprice could be heard clumping down the passage in his rubber boots.
‘Andrew!’ Mainprice’s face was red with frost. This was, indeed, the main contrast with his brother. Andrew was white with emotion. Clasping each other by the shoulders they stood staring. Momentarily, there was neither joy nor anger. They stared into each other’s eyes until Mainprice broke loose, flung his arms about, laughed, punched his brother affectionately on the shoulder, and said, ‘Andie! Well, Andie! Where in God’s name have you been all these years?’
Some of Andrew’s colour had returned. But when he laughed there was still a trembling uncertainty in the merriment.
‘I can’t stop,’ he said.
‘Last night,’ said Mainprice, ‘where were you? D’you know, you’d got us running up the wall! I’d set the police after you.’
Andrew groaned. ‘I don’t want to be any trouble. I slept in the waiting-room. There was a fire. This morning I got a lift to Upton. Then walked up here.’
‘To go skating on the lake,’ said Jane quietly.
Mainprice laughed as loudly as the rest although he could not have known what lay behind Jane’s remark. It did not matter. After Andrew’s eccentric behaviour Mainprice had plainly been fearing the arrival of a near-lunatic and was now relieved to find the fellow looking as normal as he did. His clothes were decent though foreign. He had even — who knew where? — managed to shave that morning. Obviously he was clean in his habits. As for the emotion, Andrew had always behaved like a woman in times of crisis — at the sight of blood, for example — which made it all the odder that he should have gone off to that war.
‘This is your nephew James,’ said Mainprice.
‘We are having a very hard winter,’ said James gravely as they shook hands. ‘Frost night and day. The coldest weather for forty years. We go skating on the reservoir.’
‘Why not on the lake?’ said Andrew.
‘Yes, why not on the lake?’ said James to his father.
No matter how much laughter there might be, no matter how much chatter about the weather and Andrew’s family down there in Barcelona — yes, thank God José and the three girls were well and she had come into some of her father’s property — no matter how much talk about the changes since Andrew was last in England, they could not get on the right terms with one another. The family provided a room, food, a change of clothing. They rushed here and there. James produced an old pair of skates out of the barn with straps to them and Andrew said they were his, after all these years! And Mainprice himself spoke seriously about the Government’s agricultural policy which, he said, was all right from one point of view but quite wrong from another. For his part, Andrew made himself more at home, laughed with less self-consciousness, smoked a little brown cigarette, answered questions, talked about José, tried on the skates, wanted immediately to go down to the lake. But there was no real communion. The family were too baffled and Andrew was too uncertain of himself.
If only, the family thought, he would explain himself. As the wife had recently come into property it could scarcely be money he was after. Yet there must be some reason for his presence, something more substantial than the whim of an exile.
After a late lunch they all went down to the lake with besoms to sweep the snow off the ice. This is what their conversation had come to; an activity. At first Andrew shivered visibly like a hound, in spite of the tweed coat his brother had lent him, but he worked so hard that his face became flushed and actually gave up a delicate vapour in the frost. They all worked hard. Below her fur coat Jane’s scarlet leather boots cast pink ripples on the ice; the declining sun, scarlet as the boots, but small and round, put a glow into all their faces. Two of James’s friends, youths in sheepskin jackets, turned up out of nowhere and were enrolled in the labour. Mainprice himself had not worked so hard since harvest. And Jane! Certainly she had done nothing so vigorous since swimming in the summer. The job was impossible. For some reason the snow was softer on the ice than it was on the land but clearing the entire lake — it was three acres was out of the question. The stuff would have needed carting away. It would have meant a good day’s work for twenty men. But they all stuck at the task, Mainprice and Jane and Andrew and James and Jill and the two youths, sweeping the snow into pyramids, mountains and whole himalayas of brightness, blue on the eastern flank, pink on the west, in dazzling disorder over the darkness of the ice. Hard though the work might be, it was easier than staying in the house to talk.
While the rest of them were drinking hot tea in the kitchen Mainprice remembered something his father had once done on just such a frozen evening and went into the barn to look for the braziers. But first he called at Starkie’s cottage. The bailiff and he threw back the straw and discovered the iron baskets which in April burned all night in the orchard to protect the blossom from frost. They carried them, one by one, to the margin of the lake, half filled them with straw, flung in wood and when the tea drinking was over — enlisted the others in carrying sacks of coke from the boiler house. The three braziers stood about ten yards apart and by the time darkness came they were bearded with fire.
Andrew stood on his skates in the snow to windward, spreading his hands and watching the light airs purge smoke out of the flames until the cauldrons held pure, rustling, fire. The children were skating. He could hear shouts and the ring of steel. Turning his back on the fires he struck into the darkness and felt his skates biting the ice before he had recovered from the dazzle and could make out the figures spinning in the pallor. Although the sun had gone, pink ribbons of cloud remained. They were far off. Whether in the sky or reflected in the ice, they were remote. The skaters hung over the reflecting ice, pursuing remoteness, shouting, coughing with the cold and, abandoning the chase, joining hands to swing in triumphant circles. When the skaters were at the moment of rest, the moment before the swing of the right foot and the body was thrown forward, they could glance round and see how the night went on turning about them; the three fires, the lights from the house, the dim snowy fields, and the constellations.
John Mainprice and his wife skated slowly, hand in hand. The braziers had melted the snow they stood on but two yards to windward the frost cut as keenly as ever. The skaters were glad to come and warm themselves before speeding into the darkness once more. Andrew was shivering but he was much too excited to stand by a brazier and thaw. Perhaps he was not shivering from cold. Having unstrapped his skates he ran to meet Jill who had emerged from the house carrying a cardboard box which they took to one of the mounds of snow on the ice. The fireworks! Jill shouted to her brother. The bailiff’s children came screaming over the frozen drifts, hurling snowballs which fell to the ground like feathers. The fireworks! The first rocket broke into a drift of green stars, the countryside rose to meet them, and Andrew shouted that if they did not hurry the moon would be up. What was the good of fireworks when a full moon was shining? Already, to the east, it looked as though a forest fire was raging below the horizon.
‘Don’t let yourself get cold, Andrew,’ Jane called to him from one of the braziers but he only waved a hand before bending to light another fuse. The vapour rose from her lips. The stars snapped with frost. Blue flames moved in the braziers as though salt were dropping from the sky.
‘I do believe,’ Mainprice said, ‘you could roast an ox on that ice.’
Deep into the glassy heart of the lake drove a spatule of sombre fire; over the reflection the Roman Candle threw lighter and brighter fire. Andrew’s face was a mask suspended in the night. He threw a Jumping Jack. It danced like a fire-fly, springing to kiss the fire-fly that glowed and faded beneath the ice. On the other side of the eastern horizon the forest fire raged more fiercely and the general obscure milkiness of the night played tricks with perspective. This point of fire, for example. Was it a star or the lighted fuse of a firework? No, over there! That one! That stub of red!
Andrew had been lighting crackers and hurling them out into the lake. The ice burned! The snow flared! Here and there the immense frosty fabric of night was beginning to crinkle, turn brittle, spit with a silken electric dryness. The breeze stiffened and the braziers snored. One more spurt of flame and the night would dissolve into a freezing incandescence.
James shot away into the dark. ‘There’s one behind you,’ his voice could be heard calling.
Jill and Andrew turned together and saw the bright eye. ‘Oh, it’s the window in Mr Starkie’s cottage,’ said Jill.
John Mainprice was saying it must be time for dinner and he was starving.
‘No, it’s a firework, Jill,’ said her mother. ‘Don’t go near it.’ ‘Stand back,’ one of the boys shouted. ‘It’s a banger! ‘
‘But it is the window in Mr Starkie’s cottage, Mummy.’
‘What, that light?’
‘No, it’s much too far off.’
‘But I can put my hand out and touch it! Well — almost! ‘
‘Mind it doesn’t blow your hand off.’
Moment by moment the rising moon was defining the landscape more sharply. It had not yet appeared above the horizon but the radiance was enough to show what was near and what was far. The little party walked away from the play of light and shadow around the braziers. At last the snow stopped flickering.
Mainprice gave a shout of laughter.
‘Oh Mummy,’ said Jill, ‘it’s a star.’
‘It’s Venus,’ said Andrew.
They stood in silence, even Mainprice, looking westward.
Not until after dinner, some ten hours after his arrival, did Andrew become forcibly aware that he was home once more, back at Wharton in the house he had hoped never to see again. Realization came with a shock. Why was he there? The newspaper had reported that England, together with the rest of northern Europe, was experiencing the coldest weather for half a century with no sign of a break. He had seen a flashing vision of winter snow, ice and fire – the fireworks were part of his childhood – but no such vision could by itself have brought him to where he was. He had turned forty. The wars were over, his mother was dead and he had returned to Wharton where they expected him to justify his life and opinions.
January was the time for pike fishing. With rods no longer than his boyish forearm they trawled the black river from a home-made punt. ‘They’ did not include John. He was old and already in the Army. The savage strike of the fish brought the rod whacking down on to the gunnel. How the brute fought! As he had fought, trying to break free at London, at Oxford and, lastly and most desperately, at Evesham. But he was not a pike. He was weak. The bitter weather robbed him of what the past twenty years had taught him to regard as a normal physical relationship to the world he inhabited. The wind brought him near to ghastliness. He was a vapour on the snow and could have passed through walls. Like a vapour he would come and he would go and he would not say a word.
‘We’re making a great mistake in this country about Spain,’ said John Mainprice after dinner. The Americans have got more sense. You’d agree with that now, wouldn’t you, Andie? We take too much notice of the French.’
‘But Andrew was against Franco, weren’t you, Andrew?’ said Jane.
After the fireworks and the skating and the frozen outdoors the room might have seemed warmer. But it was so large. The only heat came from the wood fire. The only light came from the single standard lamp and the full moon at the window.
God! To look through the window at the moon and the still glowing braziers by the lake was to be a child again. The real children were in bed, here in Wharton and in Barcelona, and his brother and sister-in-law were waiting for him to speak.
One moment he was fighting the temptation to walk out of the room. The next, he was explaining that if he had come home to join the Army in 1939 José and the children would have starved. Without knowing Spain this would probably not be understood; but it was so.
His brother drank whisky. All smoked. Bark curled from a log and revealed the silver shaft of wood. It bled vapour, exploded into flame and Andrew closed his eyes to think more calmly. He had not taken this winter journey to explain why he stayed in Spain. A letter would have served the purpose better if, at this late stage, he thought an explanation necessary.
‘Andie, this is all ancient history.’
Mainprice showed that he was embarrassed by his brother’s tone; but he wanted to know whether there was anything he could do for Andrew and his family. Forget the past! Let us think of the present and the future! But it all came back to the same question. Why, after an absence of twenty years had Andrew so suddenly come home again?
Not that the question was put into words.
First Andrew had resolved not to speak. Then he had spoken. They had set his words aside or pretended to and still Andrew did not know why he was eight hundred miles from his family in a cold, northern island. ‘I must have been about nine,’ he said. ‘D’you remember, John, we saw the Northern Lights. There was skating on the lake that winter too. Here I am, and I’ve actually skated at Wharton again. My legs’ll be stiff tomorrow and that’s sure.’
He stood up in excitement and spoke about the skating and the fireworks as though the others had taken no part in the fun. Or had been present and not understood. There and then, in the mingling of fire and moonlight he would recreate the enchantment by voice and gesture.
‘D’you know,’ said his brother from the window, ‘there’s not a thing stirring.’ He stood with one hand on the sill, gazing out into the night. ‘Just the sort of weather you’d expect to hear the owls hooting or a fox barking. But there’s nothing except snow and ice.’ He examined his fingers in the moonlight. ‘It’s too bad of you, Andie, insisting on pushing off tomorrow. Downright eccentric.’
The tone was genial but Andrew was not helped out of his bewilderment. The question still hung in the air. Why? It struck him that he had not asked to see his mother’s grave. Was it there the answer lay?
‘I really think this has been one of the happiest days of my life,’ Andrew said. ‘Remember how gritty the ice felt under the skates first of all? That was the snow. No matter how you sweep you never get all the snow off. It freezes on the ice and roughens it. Perhaps there won’t be any more snow.’
And perhaps his life could have been different. He had acted what he thought was right. Like the others who went, he followed his conscience. When the war ended he was to be shot, but he was not shot. He married, took a job and the children were born. This was all matter for a letter and, for all he could remember, had been put in a letter years ago. One did not look here to find out why he was home again.
‘It’s too cold for snow,’ he said aloud. ‘That’s what the country people always used to say, isn’t it?’
He was so happy he could not believe Jane and John had been skating too. If they had been on the lake with him why were they not as happy as he? How deep was the ice? he wanted to know. And did John remember the winter when the river rose and the water froze solid in the flooded meadows? Under the ice they could see the green grass.
‘It’s been wonderful,’ he said, ‘wonderful! I can’t put it into words. Especially when we saw the little glow. Remember that? We didn’t know what it was. Jill said it was a cottage window.’
‘Well, it was a funny sort of light, you know,’ John explained.
All that concerned Andrew now was to relive the experience. Even he, the firework lighter, could not be sure that the glow was not on the end of a fuse. He had taken his skates off and the snow crunched drily under his feet. The ice was spinning away from him in frosty circles as though cast by a juggler. The wind hissed in his teeth. Everyone was gigantic, taller than trees and as noisy as hounds hunting. Echoes were struck from the woods. You could see the woods, quite black in the moon’s face.
That light? It was a couple of yards away! Look, you could pick it up! Well then, it was somebody’s cigarette end. See, when the wind blows the light brightens. That means it is in the open, fanned by the wind.
But it is farther away than we thought.
‘Oh Mummy,’ said the girl’s voice, ‘it’s a star.’
Andrew stopped and looked into his brother’s face. He looked into his sister-in-law’s face. ‘I would not, if I had my life over again act any differently,’ he said. ‘It’s no good pretending.’
‘And I must go home tomorrow.’
P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.
To contact the P.H. Newby literary estate, please use this form. We will be happy to receive any queries and remarks.