|Vast: A Novel
Ch. XII: Beaconsfield
by Nicolas Travers ©
Beaconsfield proves predictably painful. Colin telephones from St. Marylebone, to make sure that Jane meets him at Beaconsfield station, and flies straight into flak.
Jack Wise answers, and sounds bad-tempered, whilst Jane scolds. "Why didn't you call earlier? Mum kept lunch waiting for more than half an hour, and then I rang your office, and a girl told me you'd already left, and so we waited for another hour, and lunch was ruined."
Her voice is quick, and accusing, and touched with the same bitter quality as Valerie's exchange with her husband.
Colin mumbles excuses, but she ignores them.
"You'd better be on the next train." It is an order. "I'll come and fetch you, Dad isn't in a very good mood." The telephone is silent for a moment, then her voice returns, sounding muted, as though she is speaking from behind a sheltering hand. "Sarah asked him for money, and asked him to keep it a secret."
Colin's spirits, already hovering anxiously somewhere about the region of his knees, slide through the soles of his feet. He now has an unpleasant headache, and he knows that the rest of the day is going to be exceptionally difficult. Jack Wise will fire more flak, Jane will make things worse, and Sarah will be a pain, in a family row likely to rumble on well into the week ahead.
Jane's voice returns. "Are you still there?"
"You told me you gave it to her."
"I did." Colin answers reluctantly. He really does not want to engage in a telephone shouting match. "I got it from petty cash, on Friday. You had a migraine. Remember?"
Jane makes a grumbling sound, as though preparing to say something, but the telephone suddenly emits a series of short sharp squeaks. Colin's money has run out, and he is free.
The train journey to Beaconsfield is a rumble of misery. Colin now has a bad, bad hangover, a matchingly bad attack of indigestion, and is crucified by a vision of what so easily might have been.
Arrival confirms his very worst fears. Jane's face is sullen, and her lips are set in a thin hard line. She is silent for a moment as he settles into the car, ande then turns to stare at him.
"You know what the little bitch told Daddy?"
Colin winces, preparing himself.
"I staged a confrontation, dragged her away from the telly, and Daddy away from his Sunday paper, and asked her straight out whether you gave her the money or not." Jane's voice climbs angrily. "You know what she said?"
It is a rhetorical question, and Colin waits dumbly.
"She said you paid for the trip, but you didn't give her any spending money, and she didn't want to look cheap in front of her friends, so she needed more cash on top of it."
Colin's stares at his wife, his head throbbing, and sighs. It is all he can do: nothing can come of recrimination, not parked in a car on a station forecourt.
"Well?" Jane wants blood. She has hyped herself into fury on her drive from her parent's home, and expects her husband to come up with a solution, a plan of action capable of shielding her wounded pride, bringing Sarah back to heel, and placating her father, all with a maximum of righteousness. She stares at Colin, willing him to share her anger, willing him to announce decisive and impressive action, and sees nothing but a flabby man pretending to be invisible. For a moment she is on the verge of violence, slapping Colin, or perhaps scratching his face to make him share her pain and rage. But the car is a confined space and she lacks room to attack, and her fury slowly subsides into a dull, seething sourness.
Colin waits until she quietens. "I'll have to speak to her."
Jane explodes in a small flurry of frustrated sounds.
"I can't do more than that."
Another small flurry, but this time on a lesser scale.
He turns to stare at Jane, face to face. "What do you want me to do?" His mind flips through choices, alternatives, possible courses of action, and comes up with a series of blanks. "Do you want me to give her a thrashing?"
Jane shakes her head dumbly. She knows that this is not really an option, but something in her expression suggests that an old-fashioned remedy might well provide the most effective treatment.
"I'll have to get her to face your father and apologise." Colin speaks wearily, thinking aloud. "Perhaps we should cancel her trip."
Jane is silent for a moment. The idea is appealing. But sadly it must also rank as non-starter, for cancellation can be counted on both to render Sarah completely unbearable, and possibly sour relations with her father into the bargain. She shakes her head regretfully. "That won't work. They'll both feel aggrieved, and then you'll be one against two, and my mother will start to cry, and you'll just make everything very, very much worse."
Jane's words prove prophetic. Jack Wise is waiting grimly in his lounge, standing with his back to a picture window looking out over an immaculately tended garden, He is a tall, thin man in his sixties, dressed in a lightweight summer suit, with a precisely knotted Law Society tie and neatly parted grey hair. The room echoes his legal precision - everything is well polished and well dusted and most neatly set out, for all the world as though in a courtroom. Sarah is curled up in a chair watching television and pretending to be invisible. Sophie Wise is hiding in her kitchen.
Colin inspects his father-in-law nervously. Jack Wise can be difficult at the best of times, and the moment is far from auspicious.
The two men measure each other silently. Jane judges that it is a time for men to be on their own, and talk, and marches to the television, switching it off. Sarah yelps in protest, but her mother cuts her short.
"Come on, we're going to see what Gran's doing."
Sarah yelps again, and tries to burrow deeper into her chair, but her mother grabs her by the shoulder and hauls her bodily to her feet.
"I said, come on, and I meant, come on." Her voice is firm and very determined.
Sarah tries a heart-rending glance at her grandfather. But the two men are still staring at each other silently, and she is ignored.
Mr. Wise clears his throat as the door closes. "Well?"
Colin decides on a frontal attack. "Jane's told me that Sarah deceived you. I'm sorry."
Mr. Wise blinks. This is not what he has been expecting, for it is clear that Colin thinks that Sarah has wronged him. He happens to hold the same opinion, and it makes it hard for him to demur.
"She said Sarah asked you for fifty pounds to pay for a school trip. But I gave her the money the day before yesterday."
Mr. Wise's eyes narrow slightly. But he is still silent.
"She also told me that when challenged, Sarah said I only paid for the trip, and omitted to give her any spending money. I think she may have forgotten to tell you that the trip is still some way away."
The room is silent for a moment. Then Mr. Wise clears his throat. "Your daughter asked me for a hundred pounds."
"What?" Colin is dumbfounded. He had expected twenty, or thirty, or perhaps even another fifty at most. But this is extortion.
Mr. Wise continues, speaking like a judge delivering sentence. "Sarah asked me for a hundred pounds to pay for her trip."
"But Jane never said ..."
"I only told Jane that Sarah asked me for money."
Colin is totally lost for words. Suddenly he is seeing a new side to his daughter, and it is not one that he likes. After a long pause he says the only words that come to his mind.
Mr. Wise's eyes are steely. "I think you should be. You don't seem to be teaching your daughter much respect for honesty and truth."
Colin flounders, his mind filling with a myriad protests. But none of them are worth translating into speech. Sarah is as much her mother's child as her father's, possibly more so. But he can reap no possible benefit from blaming Jane to her father: any exchange must only engender recrimination, and fighting will only stir even more recrimination.
Mr. Wise clears his throat again, and it is not a pleasant sound. He squares his shoulders, and it is obvious that he is about to make a major pronouncement. "I have invited Jane to come and stay here for a while, and bring Sarah with her." He marshals his words and fires them in short bursts like bullets. "Jane can take Sarah to school every day, it is not far. I think you need to reflect seriously on your future."
His words breathe life into a threat long hinted, though never openly spoken. But although Colin listens, and hears, he feels none of the fear, or defeat, that has beset him at every previous Beaconsfield admonition. Suddenly he realises that Jane's father is opening a door to freedom, and he experiences a magic engulfing wave of elation as he thinks of Dorothy, and Valerie, and a shiny new company car, and a comfortably fatter paycheck, and he smiles secretly to himself.
"You don't seem overly concerned." Mr. Wise is angry. But he has also been watching his son-in-law closely, and Colin is not reacting as expected.
"I think you're probably right." Colin is meek in agreement.
"Oh, and may I ask why?"
Colin looks down, avoiding his father-in-law's eyes, for he is now fighting hard to suppress a fast-rising tide of inner laughter. He knows Sarah only too well: at first she will cling to her grandfather, until she is bored with Beaconsfield, and misses being able to walk home with schoolfriends, and able to behave in her own home pretty much as she pleases, and then she will turn difficult, and Mr. Wise will be increasingly keen to see the back of her.
"I think you are right. Jane and I need some space." He begins to weave a theme. He will agree with everything Mr. Wise is thinking, and chase him to hell, and sod the nasty old bastard.
But he keeps his voice submissive. "You're right about Sarah, she's becoming a real handful, and it's a judgment." He colours his voice with deliberate defeat. "I'm afraid I spoil her. I think she needs to spend some time in an environment where she will be treated firmly, and we've also all been squabbling a lot recently, and that's another bad sign."
He sighs, and his sigh is a call for help. "I think we all need to get our acts together, and we'll probably do that better if we're not on top of each other."
"I see." Mr. Wise begins to doubt his intervention, for he has an unpleasant feeling that a tide has turned and begun to run against him, in ways that he cannot fathom. "You want to be apart from my daughter and granddaughter?"
Colin shakes his head solemnly. He is too fly to be trapped so easily. "I think your view is the right one."
They measure each other again. But now Colin knows that he will win.
Mr. Wise fires a despairing rearguard volley. "Do you have another woman?"
Colin looks offended, and righteous, and does not bother to reply by either word or gesture. It is a pleasant victory, and the pain behind his eyes is now ebbing fast.
Mr. Wise starts to walk towards the door, and pauses. "You better wait here. I'll go and talk to Jane, and see what she wants to do."
He is gone for perhaps twenty minutes, and then Jane and Sarah enter the room. They are on their own, and sit side by side on the sofa facing Colin, as though constituting a tribunal. Jane's face is red and stained by crying, and Sarah looks stern.
"Grandad says you want to throw us both out." Sarah's voice is accusing. She is accustomed to seeing her father cast as villain by virtuous femininity, and yielding, if not always gracefully. But now he seems to be rejecting femininity, and his family into the bargain, and it is not a pleasant experience.
Colin stares at her, sternness for sternness. "Not my idea. Your grandfather suggested having both of you to stay for a while. He wants me to get my act together, and I told him I agreed with him."
Jane sniffs heavily at this point, and Sarah glances at her with an expression of deep sympathy.
"You've made mum cry."
"Not me. It's your fault." Now Colin is accuser, and tears are no shield.
"Me?" Sarah looks uncomfortable.
"You." Colin steps closer, and stares down at his daughter. "You stirred all this up by asking him for money, and lying to him."
"I just wanted some spending money." Now her accusing tone changes to a whine. "I didn't mean any harm."
"But you lied."
Sarah turns desperately to her mother for help, but Jane looks away.
"I'm sorry." Now Sarah is whimpering. "I didn't mean to do it. I won't do it again."
"No, because you'll stay in Beaconsfield."
Sarah stares at her father in terror. "You're throwing me out?" It is a small wail of disbelief.
"I'm going to let your grandfather teach you to tell the truth." Colin stands over his daughter, and is tempted for a moment to slap her puffy, tear-stained face. But he has cowed her, and it is enough. "Go and wait outside."
Sarah hesitates for a moment, and puts out her hand to her mother, but Jane does not respond. She gets reluctantly to her feet and trails towards the door in a cloud of sniffs and sobs, but Colin ignores her, and she closes the door slowly behind her.
Jane is silent for a long moment. Then she speaks, and her voice is thick with grief. "You want to get rid of us."
She is bewildered, and baffled. Colin is behaving in a way that is completely new to her, and she has no way of coping with this transformation. She is alarmed, and even frightened, to find herself on the defensive, in unfamiliar territory. He has shattered her plans in a most underhand way, somehow transmuting what should have been a punishment into almost a victory, and now, instead of suffering, he seems to be on the verge of throwing her out on her ear, and it is all wrong; very, very wrong, and she needs to find a firm base again, a place where she can regroup, and escape the void that appears to be opening in front of her. But none of the certainties in her life are certain any more.
Colin shrugs. "Not my idea."
"But you want us to go?"
"Your father seemed to think it a good idea."
"Oh, damn father." Now Jane is sobbing openly. She can handle one man easily enough. But to have two combine against her is just too much. She can already envisage being treated with pitying condescension by members of the Church Guild, particularly Angela Scolding, and taste the sourness of certain humiliation. "I don't want to stay in Beaconsfield, and live in somebody else's house, and have my life run by other people".
Colin knows that he is winning again, and he presses his advantage. "They're your parents."
"I know they are. But Windsor's my home." Jane stares at him, tragic in her grief. Her mastery of her comfortable little world is collapsing around her, and she scrabbles desperately to retrieve lost ground. "I want to stay with you."
Colin shrugs again. He has no need to speak.
Jane stretches out her hands beseechingly. "You don't really want us to go, do you?"
"It might be good for you."
"Sarah will make life hell for Daddy once she has got over the novelty."
Colin allows himself to grin briefly.
"You bastard." Jane's expression shows her realisation that she is trapped. But her insult is also a surrender. She is boxed into a corner, and she has no exit, and she can see that Colin will not free her. She sniffs several times, to give herself time to change tack, and dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief before looking up at her husband again.
"All right, you win. What do I have to do to stay?"
Colin is astonished at the speed of her surrender. But he also has sense enough to remain a stern victor. "You start by sorting out Sarah."
"And you cut out all this vegetarian crap."
A weak smile grows on Jane's face. "You'll have to have pasta tonight. But you can have pork fillet with mushrooms and bananas tomorrow night, you'll like that."
"And you stop generally giving me shit."
"Do I?" Jane looks as demure as she can with her eyes swollen. "You mean you want more sex?" It is a peace offering. The worm has turned, and must be soothed. "Wait until we get home and Sarah has gone to sleep."
Later, much later the same evening, after Colin has described his own day, with a brief note on lunch at the Belvedere, though not his stroll to Valerie Sweetdreams' flat, and has dined on pasta and a sauce made from mashing cooked garlic into margarine, and shared a bottle of Italian white wine from the off-licence round the corner, and enjoyed marital coition that includes Jane performing oral sex, a thing she generally dislikes, and practises only in the most critical situations, they lie together in the dark.
"Daddy thinks you've got another woman." Jane's voice is uncertain. She is broaching a fear that she has never felt before, a totally new threat.
Colin smiles to himself.
"I wish I had." His answer is truth itself.
Jane sits up in bed and looks down at him, an indistinct shape in the dark. She is a proud woman, and has been woefully humiliated. But she will not accept infidelity. "We'll leave if you have."
Colin is in no mood to be threatened. "I might leave first."
Jane slumps back onto her pillow. Her world, previously predictable and comfortably certain, is now in disarray, and she is filled with an animal unreasoning fear. Colin is behaving in a strange new way, with a strange new assertiveness, and control seems to have slipped from her fingers. The future has been rent from a comfortable path into an abyss, and she must make her way as best she can. She wants to weep, but she dares not show further weakness, and her pent-in tears etch acidly into her soul.
To Be Continued...
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