How I Came to Belting
It was a hot day in late July when I sat with Uncle Miles at Belting beside the strippling ream. The deliberate Spoonerism was Uncle Miles’, and it did seem to express something about the stream that rippled beside us as we sat on the spongy grass. To say strippled rather than rippled conveyed something subtle about the movement of the water, and ream instead of stream suggested that large bream waited in it ready to be caught. At least, that was what I thought at the time, although I had never caught anything in it that was more than twelve inches long.
The strippling ream or the rippling stream was, in any case, a pleasant place to sit. Uncle Miles had on the back of his head the panama hat which he always wore on a warm day. He stared across the stream at the small field we called the paddock, I lay on my back and stared up at the blue but cloud-flecked sky.
“This is a pretty kettle of horsefeathers,” Uncle Miles said in his jerky, rather nervous way, and went on. “Don’t suppose you’ve ever seen the Marx Brothers. Too young.”
“One film, At the Circus. Not very good.”
“They were real comics, wonderful clowns. At the Circus wasn’t quite vintage, mind. I saw Animal Crackers nine times in seven weeks.”
One of the clouds was in the shape of an island. You sailed through the sky and landed in the small bay on the southern side. And then what happened? “Why is it a kettle of horsefeathers?”
“Because because,” Uncle Miles said. His voice seemed to come from far away.
“Won’t you be pleased if Uncle David’s alive? Didn’t you – don’t you like him?”
“It’s not a question of that,” Uncle Miles said rather pettishly, although he did not say what it was a question of. I took a book from the jacket that lay beside me. “What are you reading?”
I held up Works by Max Beerbohm, and quoted from memory the last of those seven essays, “Diminuendo”: “Once I wrote a little for a yellow quarterly. But the stress of creation soon overwhelmed me. I shall write no more. Already I feel myself to be a trifle outmoded. I belong to the Beardsley period.” As soon as I had spoken the words I regretted them, for I feared that Uncle Miles would take their application personally. I ended rather lamely, “Wonderful to publish your collected works at the age of twenty-four,” and then rolled over on my stomach to look at him. I could not see the expression on his face, but the corners of his mouth were turned down in disapproval.
All of this happened long ago, and it seems to me much longer, and I see it as if I were looking through the wrong end of a telescope at figures quite lifelike but extremely minute. Yet that is not right, for a telescope does not distort, and what I want to convey is that my vision and understanding of the things that happened, at Belting and elsewhere, during that summer was a distorted one. It was distorted by my ignorance of the past, for I have noticed that the past only becomes real to us as we grow older, but more still by my own age, or rather youth. I was eighteen, I had that very term left school and was waiting to go to university, and anybody over twenty-five seemed to me old. Nowadays I am inclined to think that middle-age does not begin until forty, or perhaps even forty-five, and it is a consequence of this that the people in the story seemed to me much older than they were, or at least than I should feel they are today. Uncle Miles, for instance, was in his late thirties, although at the time I should have felt him and a man of sixty to be very much of an age. Even Uncle Stephen, stiff-collared, stiff-necked and incredibly rigid Uncle Stephen, was only a year older than Uncle Miles.
I have begun with Uncle Miles and myself beside the stream, and that is as good a place to begin as any, but I ought to cast back a little, to say something about myself and about Belting, and how I came to be there. First of all, Belting. I have not been to Belting for years and shall never go there again, and I cannot trust my memory to give the picture that you, as reader, would see if you went to Belting today. I went there to live when I was twelve years old, and in my memory it is an immense house, one where I used at first often to lose myself. I can remember going up the big staircase and standing on the galleried landing at the point where the south and west wings met, and wondering which of three corridors to take. Each of them looked at night, and even in the daytime, dark and uninviting, and two of them, still more sinisterly, turned sharply after a few feet so that to go down them was to face a double unknown threat. It might be thought that the natural thing was to go down the third corridor, but the dim bluish electric light half-way down it seemed to reveal at the other end the shadow of a humpbacked man – the Deadly Humpback I called him to myself – poised waiting for me. It was not much of a light and hence it was not much of a shadow, but it was enough to make me wary of going down that corridor. I never did discover exactly what caused the shadow, but the width of the corridors varied at certain points, and these wider places were often filled with bits of old military junk, trunks, and all sorts of relics of the First World War. There was in one corridor a collection of German caps and helmets from such units as the Uhlans and the Death’s Head Hussars. I remember that I used often to try on the Death’s Head helmet. It must have belonged to a hussar with a very small head, for it seemed to fit me quite well. Some such collocation of relics was no doubt responsible for the Deadly Humpback and in a way of course I knew this, but I was frightened just the same.
It was a frightening house, at least to a nervous boy of twelve who was received there only because of the death of his parents. My father, James Barrington, was a film director. He had married my mother, Sarah Wainwright, very much against the wishes of her family. Her father Jonathan would, I think, have forgiven their runaway marriage, but her aunt Lady Wainwright would have none of it. She had met my father once, and strongly disapproved of him. He was a film director, he drank heavily, and he professed a rather noisy republicanism. It would hardly have been possible to find a combination of qualities more detestable to Lady Wainwright, who (as I learned later) regarded the cinema as one of the most corrupting influences in modern life, had a horror of drunkenness, and thought the Royal family our most valuable bulwark against the insidious advance of Socialism. I have never discovered what my father said or did on his one visit to Belting, but it must have been something that was to Lady Wainwright irrevocably awful. In the many references to my mother’s family that I heard my father make, “that old bitch Lady W,” figured always as an ultimate obstacle to reconciliation, certain not only to repel any advances but to do so in the most painful way. I think, even so, that my father would have been inclined to risk making an advance, not to Lady W in person but to Jonathan. It was my mother who would have none of it. She was fiercely independent, and when the family cut off contact with her after her marriage, she was prepared to be as unrelenting as they. She must, as I think of it now, have been herself an unforgiving woman, a kindred spirit to her aunt. At the time I knew only that cards arrived at Christmas from her father and from somebody who signed herself “Your Aunt Jessica,” but that their names were never on the list that was carefully prepared in our home.
I have said that my father was a film director, and that is what he called himself, but I doubt if he ever really directed any films. He must have been, it seems to me now, one of the hundreds of people who hang about on the fringes of the popular arts, employed in vague occupations with high-sounding names. I remember that once or twice when my mother took me to the cinema she would nudge me and say that there was my father’s name on the screen. I was a slow reader and saw the name, but did not quite take in the function to which it was attached. Certainly it was not displayed as, I now know, the name of the director is, on its own in large type. Certainly, too, we did not live in what might be called a film director’s way. Our small modern red brick semi-detached house at Woking had, as my mother said, a lady’s pocket handkerchief of garden in front and a man’s pocket handkerchief behind. When the war came my father found it more difficult to get work in films. Before long – I am hazy about dates and have not troubled to look it up – he joined the Army because, as I remember him saying, there was nothing else to do. My mother became a teacher, a job for which she had equipped herself by taking a teacher’s training course. I went to the local state school. I remember my father coming home, very dashing in uniform. He became an officer, eventually got into some branch of the forces concerned with film making and did rather well.
I never understood much about the war, nor was I much interested in it, and the war years tend to repeat themselves in a pattern in my mind. Father would come home on leave, bringing presents, taking my mother out for what he called “a night on the town,” coming back very noisy and even once or twice being brought home. Then he would be gone, and ordinary life would begin again. I accepted the war, shortages, occasional bombs, as ordinary, a natural way of life. At one time Lady W must have suggested that my mother and I should go to live at Belting, for I can remember my mother and father talking about it on one of his leaves. He was all in favour of it, as I suppose he had really always been in favour of reconciliation with her family, in spite of those references to Lady W. But my mother would not hear of it. Our contact remained confined to the Christmas cards.
This was true, even after the war ended and my father came out of the Army. I have said he did well, and he had made friends there (although he did not call them friends but “contacts”), so that he no longer had spells out of work. My mother gave up the teaching job, and there were long discussions about whether we should sell the house in Woking and move nearer the film studios. This had been decided, and we were negotiating to buy a house near Gerrard’s Cross when suddenly my whole life was changed. My father flew out to Spain for some location work on a film, and for once took my mother with him. The plane crashed near Granada, and everybody in it was killed. While they were away I had been sent to stay with some neighbours named Parker, the parents of Billy Parker, who was a friend of mine at school. I can remember hearing them say, “How shall we tell him? How can we ever tell him?” While they were brooding on this, I heard about the crash on the radio.
To be orphaned at the age of twelve sounds a terrible thing, and seen objectively it is terrible, but at the time I hardly took it in. Everything happened in such a whirl that I was conscious of excitement more than grief. No doubt this wouldn’t have been the case if our family circle had been a close one, but I had seen my father very little since I was four years old, so that my memories of him were rather those one has of a stranger who brings occasional presents than of a father who has emotional contact with his son. My relationship with my mother was much deeper, but she was a woman who thought of tenderness as softness. She looked after me in the most exemplary way, making sure that I went to school neat and tidy, putting me to bed when I had a cold, helping me with homework, but she flinched always from close emotion. This was part of her character as a proud, independent woman. Her mother had died when she was a girl, and I am sure she would have felt it inexcusable softness to forgive her father. When he was ill during the war she never visited him, and although she went to the funeral she told me afterwards that she hardly spoke to any other members of the family. She did not want me to grow up with that kind of softness in me. That would seem to a psychiatrist a superficial way of looking at it, but it is deep enough for me.
Even so, the gap left in my life was enormous, and if I had gone on living in Woking and going to the same school no doubt this would have been borne in on me, but I soon understood that my way of life was to be changed. It seems to me to have been within hours of my learning of my parents’ deaths, and certainly it must have been within a day or two, that I was visited by Lady Wainwright. I can remember as well as though it were yesterday being told by Mrs Parker that there were some people to see me, and going in to the Parkers’ untidy and rather dirty sitting-room. There sat a formidable-looking old lady dressed in what I remember as dark blue velvet, and wearing a tall hat with a black feather in it. A little baldish red-faced man was also in the room, but I had no eyes for him, but only for the old woman. I knew instinctively that this was the old bitch, Lady W, and before she could tell me so I blurted out her name.
She had taken one of the hard chairs, while Uncle Miles – for he was the little red-faced man – sat in one of Mrs Parker’s easy chairs. When I mentioned her name she jerked up her head. Her face was fierce as that of a hook-nosed bird, her voice sharp as though words were some hard substance at which she pecked.
“How did you know who I am? Did your mother show you my photograph?”
“No.” I did not know what to say next. I could not tell her how I knew.
She paused, looked at me with that fierce gaze, and said it did not matter. “I was very fond of your mother, did you know that?”
“No,” I said again, staring in fascination at her hat.
“She was my niece, you knew that, I suppose. I am your great-aunt.” I managed a nod. “But she would have nothing to do with me. That was very stupid.”
“Mamma,” Uncle Miles said warningly, and I almost burst out laughing, it seemed to me so funny that this little bald man should say “Mamma” in that tone of voice.
“I don’t believe in sentiment,” Lady Wainwright said, and it might almost have been my mother speaking. “You know that your mother and father are dead, and you are old enough to understand what that means.”
“He’s an intelligent boy, his school says so.” That was Uncle Miles again, and again Lady Wainwright took no notice.
“Your grandfather, my brother-in-law Jonathan, is dead, so it devolves upon me to look after you. At least, I feel it to be my duty. You would live at Belting. Have you heard of Belting? It is my home, and it is a beautiful house. You would be treated as one of my own family.” As though suddenly conscious that there was another person in the room, she said: “This is my son, Miles. He is in fact some kind of cousin of yours but you may call him Uncle.”
“I know,” I said. “From the Christmas cards.”
Lady W drew her brows together. Uncle Miles popped up with a jerky movement, shook my hand, said “How do you do, Christopher,” whispered loudly in Lady W’s ear, “Father’s family,” and sat down again. She nodded.
“I have been in communication with your father’s family, and they would be agreeable to this arrangement.” From the little I knew of them I could imagine that they would not welcome the idea of looking after a twelve-year-old boy. “What do you say, Christopher?”
I had wept when I first heard of my parents’ deaths, but this was the first time after hearing the news that I felt like weeping again. I was faced with an act of choice, but I knew even then that in any real sense I had no choice at all. What would become of me if I said no? It was not that I wanted to say no, but that I felt the humiliation of being a thing rather than a person, a thing that was not wanted by “my father’s family,” but that Lady W was prepared to accept. I looked down at the floor and mumbled something.
“What’s that?” Lady W asked fiercely.
I managed not to cry as I said, “All right.”
“I like a boy who can make up his mind,” she said as she got up. Uncle Miles got up too, and no doubt he understood something of what I felt, for with the eye that was on the blind side of Lady W he gave me the most tremendous wink.
After that things seemed to happen as if I were in a dream. Outside, Mrs Parker had already packed my things, and Uncle Miles had been to our house, collected my games and toys and put them into a suitcase. Within a few minutes the Parkers’ front door had closed on me and I was stepping into an enormous old-fashioned Daimler, which had a speaking tube between the chauffeur (who disposed a little contemptuously of my small cases) and the back seats. I can remember perfectly that my feeling as I got into the car was one of regret that Billy Parker was at school, and could not be there to see me drive away.