The Travelling Hornplayer (2022)


The Travelling Hornplayer


The Travelling Hornplayer (1) Read the Review


Des Mullers Blumen

Early on the morning of my interview, I woke up and saw my dead sister. I had not seen her for three years. She came into my bedroom, opening and closing the door without a sound. Her hair was bobbed short and she was dressed in plain white cotton T-shirt and knickers. Nothing else. I watched her cross the room on bare feet, and pause to touch the somewhat staid interview clothes that I had laid out on a chair the night before: navy calf-length skirt, navy lambswool jumper, cream silk shirt, paisley silk scarf, best polished boots. She paused again to stroke the foot-end of my duvet. Then she walked on towards the window, where the curtains were drawn shut. While her facial expression in life had been characteristically animated, it was now serene and fixed, like that of a person sleep-walking.

Though she made no sound, she left a five-word sentence behind her in the room. The words were in German. I heard them in her voice but, at the same time, I was aware that the voice was audible only inside my own head: `Die Sterne stehn zu hoch.' I should explain here that I don't really speak German -- that is, not beyond the level of GCSE Grade C -- though I knew that I had come across the phrase before, and I knew enough to be able to translate it: `The stars are too high.'

As soon as she had disappeared behind the curtain, I jumped out of bed and went to the window. Nothing was there; only the cold glass panes and, beyond them, the gleaming monochrome of the garden in the minutes before the dawn. Of one thing I am completely certain. I was not asleep. I remember that the vision of her filled me with a terrible longing, and that my lack of fear surprised me. I remember that I felt honoured by her being there, and that afterwards I felt pain. I felt the loss of her, once again, like an ugly lump of flesh twisting inside my own chest.

When my sister was killed by a car in north London, her small leather backpack was thrown clear of her body. It contained nothing except a return train ticket between King's Cross and Royston in Hertfordshire, where she was still at school, her Young Person's Railcard and the extended essay she had just then had returned to her that she had written for her A level German course.

Since she had not filled in the address section of the railcard, it was the essay that had made the job of identifying her such an easy one for the police. The front cover of the essay's binder had a large adhesive label with the name of her examination board and that of her school. It also gave her name and candidate number, and the title of her essay. It was called Love and Death atthe Mill: Twenty Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a TravellingHornplayer.

I was in Edinburgh when she died -- I was coming to the end of my first year at the university -- but no one at home had any idea why Lydia had gone into London that day, though within the week, while going through her things, my father and the Stepmother had come upon the draft of a letter written to the middle-aged writer son of one of my sister's godmother's friends; a person whom neither I nor my parents had ever met though we were all aware that he had written a novel some years earlier entitled Have Horn; Will Travel. The place where my sister died was directly in front of his London flat.

The letter, which was long and jaunty, was one in which she had sought his advice over the essay, but it was not difficult to tell that, in its childish, girly way, the letter was a bit of a come-on. Some months after the date of it, she had submitted the essay and had been awarded an A, along with special words of praise from both teacher and moderator. The speculation was that, on having the essay returned to her, she had simply decided, on the spur of the moment, to take it into London and show it to him, her unofficial adviser. She hadn't made any arrangement to do so, and had evidently found the writer away from his flat, since he had gone home two days earlier than usual that week, to be with his wife and family somewhere in the Cotswolds, where they lived. The place in London was merely a small bolt-hole where he went during the week to work.

Though the driver had been travelling too fast, the accident was ruled not to have been his fault. A witness confirmed that, for some reason, my sister had run at speed straight out in front of the car without looking to left or to right. It was said that she had seemed distressed.

The force of contact had been such that she had been thrown clear of the road onto the grass of a park. Near to where her body had landed, there was a small man-made lake bordered with periwinkles and forget-me-nots, Vergissmeinnicht. It is difficult, in retrospect, to avoid the crude symbolism of this too blatant coincidence, since the same blue flowers -- the blaue Blumelein -- are associated with the mill girl's eyes in the cycle of German Romantic poems to which her essay relates. They grow by water and they come to deck the grave of the miller who dies, of course, of unrequited love. They are a repeating and prevalent feature of my sister's extended essay; the essay which my father has had bound in leather and which he keeps on his study desk.

After that early morning visitation, I went downstairs to the tall bookshelves in the hall where, at the top near the ceiling, are stacked some dark green box files that contain those of my sister's papers that my father chose to keep. I felt impelled right then to re-read the letter, and it brought vividly back to me all that schoolgirl bubble and silliness that she and I had shared in our capacity as each other's best friend. Once my sister was gone, these were qualities that I either suppressed or lost. Not having Lydia to bounce off, I became somebody else. When you are young enough -- and I was eighteen to her seventeen when she died -- you still, perhaps, have options about the kind of person you will become. I became, because of her dying, a more earnest, more straight-faced, more directed person. It may be that I became a bit of a bore.

It surprises me now to remember that my father -- our father -- had used to call us `Gigglers One and Two'; that he was always inclined to treat us as if we were two halves of the same pantomime horse. He has treated me very seriously ever since. People in the past were often unable to tell us one from the other. This was not only because we looked alike, but because our speech and other mannerisms were similar. It is only very rarely now that a person will call me by her name. The Lydia that once lived is dead in both of us.

My sister's letter went like this:

Dear Mr Goldman,
I don't expect you will remember me, but I met you in my Godmother Vanessa's house in Worcestershire last summer. You had driven down to drop your mother. However, you may remember that Godmother was a concert soprano in her day and that she made you sing. You sang songs from Schubert's Die schone Mullerin and your mother played the piano. Although, as-you must know, you sing very well, I confess that, had my sister Ellie not left an hour before your arrival, we would have giggled throughout your performance. As it was, I merely yawned and played with the cat, and ate far too much of the carrot cake that Godmother had made in your honour. Godmother Vanessa is your greatest fan, and she always calls you `The Novelist'.
`My dears,' she'd said to Ellie and me, `do you know that "The Novelist" is coming to tea? I think we will make him a carrot cake.'
My point now is that when I got home I recollected your singing. After I got back I began to think about some of the things I'd half overheard you say to Godmother. You said that water was the metaphor that bound the poems together and you made some joke about its `convenient fluidity'. You said that the water, while it encouraged and sanctioned the idea of male restlessness and male wanderings, then became quite cruelly deceitful, detached and inscrutable. You said something about sex and fluids and suicide. You said what a useful thing it was for the German Romantics that the word Herz rhymed with Schmerz. (I hope you enjoy being paraphrased like this.)
To tell you the truth, I went out the next day and I bought the song cycle on CD. I bought it twice, once being sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sings beautifully but he has irritating nursery sibilants, and once, somewhat shriekishly, by a woman called Birgitte Something. I wanted to see if the songs could cross gender, but I expect they can't.
I decided then and there to abandon my previous resolution to Improve my Mind by reading my way through the Encyclopaedia Britannica, starting with the letter A. I have opted for A level German, though my sister thinks I must be off my head. We both did GCSE German, you see, because our mother said we had to. That's because she's French and shell always made us speak French with her at home, so we could do that quite well already. Naturally, we'd wanted to sign up for GCSE French, thinking it would be a good skive, but the tyrant matriarch wouldn't allow it. After that, Ellie thought two-years of German had been quite enough. Two-years of:
`Was hast du gern?'
`Ich habe Popmusik gern.'
`Und hast du eine Lieblingsgruppe?'
`Ja. Abba ist meine Lieblingsgruppe.'
She'd also had a Bad Experience during the German exchange, while I'd had the most adorable dentist's family in Munich who took me on lovely jaunts and offered to put braces on my teeth. Ellie's family swept her off over the border into the country somewhere outside Vienna. She was stuck with these two pigmentless boys in lederhosen called Hubert-und-Norbert, who looked exactly like white mice and had not an eyebrow between them. One of them played a squeeze-box and the other one blew on this brasswind item at all hours, fight under her window. On Easter morning she'd woken up to a blast, only to find that Herr Vater White Mouse was looming over her bed, clothed from head to foot in a yellow fur-fabric bunny suit with polka-dot bow-tie and handy pull-down zip.
The only outing she'd been taken on was once to the cathedral in Vienna, where Frau Mutti White Mouse had been so odiously smug about the Debated Infidel at the Siege of Vienna that Ellie was moved to observe (in English) that if only the Infidel had not been repulsed at the gates of Vienna then perhaps Hubert-und-Norbert would be sporting sexy black eyebrows and even sexier black moustaches. The episode has left my sister with leanings towards dark men called Ishmael and Quoresh, especially in djellabahs. She thinks it no accident that the word `pasha' should sound so much like `passion'.
Anyway, the upshot is that I have decided to write my A level long essay on the poet Wilhelm Muller, who, as you will of course know, wrote the poems on which Die schone Mullerin was based. The trouble is, I know very little about German poetry -- or poetry in general, since I see now that I have Misspent My Youth reading Quite the Wrong Sort of Book. I only know German poetry if it's hymns. I know `Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott' and I know `Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens Adore Him', which is really Deutschland uber Alles. So I wonder now if you could bear it if I were to come in on the train to see you and talk to you about German poetry, and German Romanticism, and Herz, and Schmerz, and especially about Wilhelm Muller? And would you mind if I were to take down absolutely every word you utter? And if I were then to submit these utterings, word for word, as my extended essay?
This letter is getting far too long. Ade. Ade. Please reply to me.
Yours sincerely,
Lydia Dent

My sister had added the obligatory adolescent postscript. It said:

P.S. I have translated one line in the poems as `Better you should have stayed in the woods' -- `Doch besser du bliebest im Walde dazu' -- but it sounds too much like the punchline of a Jewish joke. (As in `Better he should have been a doctor.') Is German a dialect of Yiddish, do you know, or could it be the other way round?
Yours again
Lydia Dent

As Lydia has mentioned in her letter, I was no longer with her when she met The Novelist. I had missed him by one hour, having left in order to accompany our paternal grandmother on a trip to Derbyshire which she had offered me as an eighteenth birthday treat. When I returned, Lydia reported, rather casually, that he was tall and dark, and wore a white linen shirt and steel-rimmed glasses and deck shoes, which she estimated as approximately European size 46. She said nothing about him singing.

The Novelist's mother had been at school with Liddie's godmother before and during the War. Both women were very musical. Both had married and were now widowed, though -- while her friend had had six children -- Liddie's godmother had remained childless. Liddie was completely right in her letter about Godmother's enthusiasm for The Novelist. She was a regular guest at all his launch parties and she liked to attend his readings. She was always in possession of his most recent hardback, signed and dated by the author.

I do remember that the making of the carrot cake had provoked in Lydia and me all our usual gigglings and foolings. Lydia's godmother had set us to grate the carrots while she had busied herself with the kitchen scales.

`Godmother,' Liddie said, `will The Novelist like his carrots grated finer than this?' We wrestled enjoyably for turns with the grater.

`Godmother,' Liddie said, `will The Novelist mind bits of blood and grated bones in his carrot cake?'

`Give over, Liddie,' I said, as the grater fell to the floor. `Now look what you've gone and made me do.'

`Godmother?' Liddie said, `will The Novelist mind floor scrapings in his carrot cake?'

Lydia's godmother had merely continued to regret that I was going to miss The Novelist's visit and had expressed the hope that my grandmother would be just a teeny bit late. In the event, Grandmother was punctual to the minute, and I believe that The Novelist and his mother were late. I have been told that he was somewhere in the background at Lydia's funeral.

Just as she flattered us with assumptions of consensus in the matter of The Novelist's work, so Lydia's godmother had always behaved as if we were in agreement generally upon matters of high culture. She took us to recitals and theatres and poetry readings and to exhibitions of paintings. On the whole, she affected not to notice that we tittered and fidgeted our way through all of them. If a soprano had the merest hint of moustache, or a poet a tendency to gather saliva at the corners of his mouth, or a painter appeared to us over-keen on lilac-tinted depictions of female crotch and nipple, then these would be things to set us off on our gigglers' course. If, on the other hand, the tenor were young enough or handsome enough, then Lydia would adopt a policy of staring at him fixedly with huge goose-eyes, until the poor man would resort to singing all of `On Wenlock Edge' or `Have You Seen But a White Lily Grow?' with his eyes glued to the ceiling.

Once, when Lydia's godmother had taken us to a production of Waiting for Godot, we had begun quite early on to wonder how long it would be before Godot came.

`When does Godot come?' Lydia whispered to me. I shrugged, having no idea, of course. `Godmother,' she said. `When does Godot come?'

`Oh,' said Lydia's godmother. `Oh, my darlings, he doesn't come, you see. Or perhaps he has come already. That is really the point.' After that, Lydia fell asleep.

From the start, GCSE German had made us giggle, along with more or less everything else. We giggled while testing each other's vocabulary -- and it is obvious that, for any English schoolchild bent upon rudimentary satire, a language in which the word for one's male parent coincides so rewardingly with the word in one's own language for a person given to anal expulsions of gas has blatant possibilities. We had already been disposed to it through the history class, which had offered us Martin Luther and his done-to-death Diet of Worms. Lydia informed us one weekend that a certain girl in her history class had been labouring under the misapprehension that Martin Luther had nailed, not his `theses', but his `faeces' to the church door in Wittenburg. Yet, to us, even theses had seemed bizarre enough.

`Theses,' Lydia said, `are what graduate students write. They come in huge books, about four hundred pages long. Martin Luther wrote ninety-five of them. And then he nailed them all to the door of the church in Wittenburg. The door must have been "pitted with holes the size of a sixpence".'

`Pitted with holes the size of a sixpence' was one of our automatic giggle-phrases. `It must have given the vicar "fair gyp",' I said, which was another.

One of our father's elderly one-time colleagues, now dead, had suffered a leg injury during the war. His left thigh had been peppered with bullet-holes that had never ceased, periodically, to suppurate -- a gruesome detail that his wife, an old-style staff nurse, had liked to dwell upon in detail.

`Will's leg is giving him gyp,' she'd say, `fair gyp. Pitted with holes, it is, the size of a sixpence, and each one filled with pus.'

All Lydia or I had to say when the couple came to visit was, `How's Mr Kethley's leg, Mrs Kethley?' and the response was always delightful. Even the idea of a sixpence was agreeably archaic to the two of us.

`Did you know,' Lydia said to her once, after one of her more extended septic set pieces, `Nietzsche oozed a pint of pus every day?'

`Every day?' Mrs Kethley said crossly, as if resentful of such up-staging of Will's capacity for festering.

`Syphilis,' Lydia said. `Our Sex Ed teacher told us.'

Whenever we stayed with Lydia's godmother, she would place one or other of The Novelist's books on our shared bedside table, though these were definitely not the sort of novels that Lydia and I ever read. And to confirm us in our reluctance was the fact that The Novelist had won a prize. Throughout our childhoods Lydia and I distrusted any prize-winning book because we knew it would be worthy; and for worthy, we read boring.

While our mother, before she left us all for her lover, had been inclined to abhor our philistinism in tones of despising innuendo, our father would cheerfully dish us out tenpences, chapter by chapter, as inducements to make us cast our eyes over the occasional improving volume. Or he would slip the odd superior book in amongst our Christmas and birthday presents, labelled in bold marker-pen, `This Book is NOT Literature.' Though we dismissed most of his offerings as `boys' books', he did, in this way, expose us to some shorter works of decent fiction and, just once, to an anthology of verse, containing Matthew Arnold's `Dover Beach.'

Occasionally, as we sniggered and shrieked our way through shared readings of dog-eared school stories, or through easy pulp romance, our father would oblige us by stopping to take an interest.

`What on earth goes on in these frightful books you read?' he'd say, and that was all the invitation we needed.

`Oh, but they're brilliant,' Lydia would say. `This one's completely brilliant. You see, all the teachers are lesbians. They're all kinky and butch.'

`All of them?' Father said. Our father was, and still is, the headmaster of a public school. We had lived in some stone splendour in the headmaster's house for most of our lives.

`They all believe in sensible haircuts and sensible shoes,' Lydia said, as though that clinched her assertions.

`And punishment,' I said.

`Oh, lots of punishment,' Lydia said. `Well, that's except for the French teacher. She's a weed, of course. And she's always got her hair in "curl papers". What are curl papers, Father dear? Are they like cigarette papers?'

`Search me,' Father said, who claimed never to have encountered a curl paper in his life.

`Anyway,' Lydia said, `she's always got them. Not in class but at night, when she's woken up by a mouse coming into her bedroom. The French teachers are always terrified of mice. I expect you'd call the rat-catcher if your school had mice, wouldn't you?'

`Dear me,' was all Father said.

`And the American girls,' I pitched in. `They come to English schools so that they can learn to speak properly.'

`And their fathers are called "Pops", and they drive huge cars, and they're all road hogs,' Lydia said.

`And they never ever get out of their cars at all,' I said. `They're surgically attached to them, we think.'

`And if there's a Spanish girl,' Lydia said, `then she always swings upside down from trees, sort of like a primate, and her parents work in the circus.'

`Big top,' I said, `it's brill. And the French girls are always cheats.'

`They have to come to English schools to learn a Sense of Honour, but they never do, they can't,' Lydia said.

`Why can't they?' our father said.

`Because they're French,' Lydia said, `of course.'

`And the teacher's job is to make everyone into "ordinary little schoolgirls",' I said. `The teachers are all bombed on ordinariness.'

`There's this girl,' Lydia said, `and she wants to be an opera singer, so she runs away to an audition because she's not allowed to go. But then it pours with rain and she loses her voice and she gets very ill and then she can't sing any more, and Matron says' -- here we both chanted gloatingly in unison -- `"Mavis can't sing at all. She can only croak."'

`After that,' Lydia said, `Mavis becomes an "ordinary little schoolgirl". She has pigtails and she croaks "Play up!" at the school hockey matches.'

`Do you two learn these books off by heart?' Father said.

`No,' Lydia said. `It's just that they're so good they stick in our minds.'

`They're fantastic,' I said. `There's this other girl, who wants to be an Olympic swimmer but she's not allowed to train, you see, so she strikes out--'

`In the rain?' father ventured, half rising to go.

`Well, yes,' I said. `There's a storm and she's dashed against the rocks and she's paralysed.'

`You see, it's all right to swim for your school,' Lydia said, `but the Olympics is a bit too ambitious -- for an ordinary little schoolgirl.'

`Tell me,' Father said, `aren't you two getting a bit too old for this sort of stuff?'

`Never,' Lydia said. `You can never be too old. Anyway, there's lots of sex and bondage. We're probably far too young for it.' Father raised an eyebrow.

`No, truly,' I said. `There's this bit when this girl who's bombed on horses keeps sneaking out to see this horse that's sick. But then there's this horrible teacher that captures her and keeps on punishing her.'

`She's not horrible. She's strict-but-fair,' Lydia said.

I ignored her. `She keeps on gating her and giving her lines and stuff,' I said. `But she still goes on sneaking out.'

`In the rain?' Father said.

`Yes,' Lydia said, `that's right.'

`I really don't think I can take any more of this,' Father said. `So if you will excuse me --'

`Anyway,' Lydia said quickly, `she sneaks out in the middle of the night in the pouring rain, and suddenly while she's there the teacher is right there behind her -- because the teacher is really a Good Sort and she likes horses too.'

`That's the bond,' I said.

`Bond-age,' Lydia said. `See, they stand all huddled together in the pouring rain and the teacher says --' We did the next bit again in unison, dropping our voices an octave and putting on Marlene Dietrich voices -- `"I zink I vill never haft to punish you again."'

`So you see,' Lydia said, `it's all about SM and rubber macs. We need these books, Father. They're sex manuals for us.'

` And our mother's not here to tell us anything,' I said.

`And you thought they were just school stories for "ordinary little schoolgirls", didn't you, Father?' Lydia said.

Our father laughed. `Spare me,' he said. He made attempts to leave. `I really have things I must attend to,' he said.

`Well, I think you should punish us more,' Lydia said, getting up and standing in his path. `Go on, punish us. Punish us now.'

`My dear girls,' he said. He held up his hands in mock surrender. `My dear girls.' And so we let him go.

I remember just a little bit later how hard we tried to embarrass him in front of the Stepmother, who was, at that time, not yet the Stepmother. She was Father's new woman. It was during a Sunday lunch. Father had bought the lunch entirely in Marks & Spencer's food department, because he was unable to do any sort of cooking except for what you did over camp-fires, and Liddie and I could only do jam tarts and cheese straws and convalescent diets and the sort of useless rubbish they'd taught us to make at school.

Liddie and I had been reading a trash romance about the Regency period.

`We've read this historical novel,' Liddie said to the new woman. `It's educational. It's all about this French convent girl.'

`She's not French,' I said, `she's an English convent girl. Her fiance's French, that's all.'

`OK,' Liddie said. `Sorry. She's English, but she's supposed to marry this Frenchman, you see. Arranged Marriage. He's kind of experienced and wicked and all that. Well, he would be. He's a French comte.'

`But this girl,' I said, `she doesn't want to marry him because she's in love with someone else, so her friend says she'll marry the comte instead, in disguise.'

`So she does,' Lydia said, `and the comte doesn't even notice.'

`Why doesn't he notice?' said Father's new woman, while Father helped her to a carefully calculated twenty-five per cent of the M & S salmon en croute that he'd somewhat high-roasted in the oven.

`Oh, veils and stuff,' Lydia said vaguely. `You know. Anyway, he doesn't notice and then after the ceremony they go gallop-a-gallop all the way to Dover. And then they go on a boat. But he reads his book all the way and --'

`What does he read?' asked Father's new woman.

`Oh, well, never mind,' Lydia said. `Some Black Lace number, I expect. But anyway, she's too sea-sick to raise her head and he orders his manservant to see to all her needs.'

`Not quite all her needs, I hope,' the new woman said, a little saucily.

`And then they go all through France,' I said, `bumpety bumpety in a golden coach, until at last they get to his chateau.' Father's croute had become so papery-dry, it was hard not to puff it about the room as one spoke. It was like those amaretto papers that used to make floaty angels in the air when you set them alight.

`And still he hasn't noticed,' Lydia said. `It's so exciting.'

`One of the maids meets them in the hall,' I said. `And she does lots of curtseying and bowing and scraping. And then she takes the convent girl up vast flights of stairs, and bathes her, and brushes her hair with a hundred strokes, and anoints her with perfumed oils, and puts her in a silk nightie, and tucks her up in a four-poster bed hung all around with tapestries.'

`And then,' Lydia said, `after a few tankards of brandy, the wicked, experienced comte turns up and they do the business, and --'

`I beg your pardon?' Father said.

`They do it,' I said, `and all is Confessed and Revealed.'

Father was attending to his new woman's wine glass.

`And next morning I suppose she's got cystitis?' ventured the new woman.

`No, of course not,' Lydia said confidently, though I don't think either of us had heard of cystitis at that point in our lives. `He forgives her because he's wild about her. Because she's so snowy-white and inexperienced. You see, men always love virgins.'

`Broccoli for you, my dear?' Father said, offering his new woman the M & S veg au gratin that he had decanted from the oval-shaped foil dish into one of our mother's oval-shaped Alsatian ceramics, thus causing the gratin to present itself upside down.

`You can tell she's inexperienced because she always speaks in dots when she's in bed,' I said.

`You mean she speaks in morse code?' Father said.

`Oh, don't be silly,' Lydia said. `It's sort of like this. Like she'll say --' and here Lydia clutched her bosom and talked in a higher, girlier voice than usual' -- "Oh," dot, dot, dot. "My dearest comte," dot, dot. "My beloved husband," dot, dot, dot, dot, dot. "Take me," dot, "all the way up to heaven again," dot, dot, dot.'

`The comte is terrifically lechy and sexy,' I said, perhaps extraneously.

`Please can we have arranged marriages, Father, with sexy Frenchmen?' Lydia said.

`Oh yes, please,' I said, `with wild, bad, experienced comtes. And then we can swap. Liddie can have my comte and I can have hers.'

`That happens in a Mozart opera,' Father's new woman said -- a remark which we instantly found more deeply embarrassing than she had found any of our prattlings. `The men come back in disguise,' she said, `and the women don't recognize them.'

`Pudding,' Father said firmly and he got up and was away for some minutes. He had bought four tea-cup-sized M & S Treacle Puddings and a half-litre carton of M & S English Custard. He had heated the puddings, two by two, in the microwave and had inverted them onto Grandmother's Crown Derby pudding plates. The custard was still inexplicably in the carton, wrenched open at the side that said `Open Other Side'.

`Bravo,' said the new woman, who had grown up in America. `Oh, I just love these little boarding-school puddings.'

It was not long afterwards that the new woman became the Stepmother.

Lydia and I were fond of the Stepmother and pleased to see our father become so happy. A lot of our knockabout clowning had been our clumsy, unwitting attempts to cheer him up, I think, because he'd been so shut in and grave in the two years since our mother had left. We had each other, we reasoned, while he had only himself, now that we were away at school.

Our father, by necessity, often ate in the school dining-hall, enduring, maybe even enjoying, the pomp and the gowns and the Latin grace -- Omo Lux Domestos Brobat, as Liddie and I had sometimes chanted -- but we tried, when we came home to him, during our half-terms and holidays, to do our best over the catering for his sake. We were, I think, unique in being able to make lumps even in instant mashed potatoes and gravy mix and powdered custard. Usually we gave up and opened tins of beans and soup and delicious Patak's Kashmiri Lamb Curry. We saved our creativity for making him fudge and cocoa and peppermint creams.

Liddie had a project for us to work our way through all the `serving suggestions' that we saw on the tins and boxes from the supermarket. The cracker boxes had illustrations labelled `serving suggestions' that showed a row of four savoury biscuits, the first with a sliver of cheese, topped with a small stick of celery.

`Now that's a good idea,' Lydia said. The next picture depicted an identical biscuit decorated with a small, half-moon shrimp on a blodge of cottage cheese. Once we found a box of Tesco's Coconut Cakes where the `serving suggestion' invited us to place the cakes on a silver platter daintily laid with a doily.

`Let's do it, Ellie,' Lydia said. `Only we don't know how to make doilies.'

`Yes we do,' I said. `You fold up a sheet of paper into quarters and cut bits out of the sides. It's like making snowflakes at playschool.'

`Brilliant,' Liddie said. `Get the scissors there, Ellie.'

If we weren't floating on `serving suggestions' we immersed ourselves in the `perfection recipe' that adorned the label of an old cocoa tin we had found at the back of the larder. I expect our mother had banished it there in her time. It not only told you how to make cocoa boringly everyday wise, but it offered a de luxe alternative; it offered perfection. For this, one mixed the cocoa with a modicum of cold milk, then turned the blend of both into a saucepan containing the bulk of the milk before heating through. The method was intended to produce the sort of cocoa that didn't leave your teeth on edge, and it allowed Liddie and me to feel like connoisseurs for having chosen it -- though Father, who is from an old army family, is always happy to eat and drink almost anything, including the sort of cocoa in which the spoon will stand up in a half-inch of silt on the bottom of the mug.

Only once did we have a go at a seriously ambitious pudding: an Austrian torte, which we tried to make shortly after my return from the Hubert-und-Norbert experience. The recipe called for fifteen eggs and a whole pint of cream. There were only two eggs in the larder, but Lydia had once read, in a wartime cookbook of her godmother's, that a tablespoon of vinegar could deputize for an egg, so we made the Austrian torte with two eggs and thirteen spoons of vinegar. I must admit that not even our father could be prevailed upon to believe that the resulting mess was how the Viennese liked their cakes.

During term-time weekends, when we were swept off to stay with our mother and her new man in Cambridge -- and where we were expected to pull our weight in the kitchen with regard to a daunting range of distinctly unskilled chores -- our sessions never took on this dotty, Blue Peter-ish quality. We were always much too subdued to fool about in the male usurper's house and we felt not a little like Cinderella girls, or perhaps like sorcerer's apprentices, left to peel potatoes and wash down surfaces, as we watched our mother, through the wide glass door, with her Garbo-like aura and her distinctly more townish clothes, making languid eyes at the encumbent.

My mother's new husband was one Hugo Campbell, a person who, to Liddie's eyes and mine, was a somewhat precious and foppish scholar, not notable for his emotional warmth or easy humanity. He and my mother had fallen precipitously in love -- or had, at least, been precipitously enchanted by each other's air of calm, egotistical detachment. From that moment on, her life with us in the Worcestershire countryside had simply become a closed chapter; a thing that ceased to exist.

Her going had occurred when Liddie and I were twelve and thirteen, a time when one tends to change schools, and our father -- perhaps typically of him -- arranged, in response to this distressing new development, for us to be placed in a boarding school some ten miles from our mother's new domicile. His action was, I think, built on the assumption that girl children had a greater need of their mothers, though, at the same time, he was adamant that he would not have us as day-to-day residents in Hugo Campbell's house. My mother had us for weekends only and, during the holidays, we returned home to him.

The arrangement did not suit any of us terribly well. Lydia and I missed our home at a time when our lives had been turned upside down, and we resented the way we were coerced into spending weekends in Hugo's house when what we wanted, if we couldn't be at home, was to party with our new schoolfriends. And our mother, who had, I think, never really adjusted to life in the country after her life in Paris, had by now returned to work with gusto. Her mindset had reverted to that of a full-time professional woman, and Lydia and I sensed her impatience at the weekly prospect of having to play mother to us on her precious days off.

Meanwhile, for us, it was positively unnerving to watch her negotiate a different kitchen in order to serve up our food on different plates. It was as though we'd landed ourselves in some ghoulish self-catering holiday house where, by horrible oversight, the landlord was permanently in residence as part of the package. And I think it was in order to reassure Hugo that she did not come trailing two great parasitical appendages, that our mother went in for such a rigorous show of delegation and insisted on our exhibiting company manners, especially at mealtimes.

Hugo was evidently quite freaked by children and engaged with us only to fire the same round of dead-end questions at us across the table about our `O Level' subjects -- an examination system that was, by then, already two years defunct.

`Speak clearly, Ellen. Don't mumble,' Mother would say and she'd pull us up for not eating with sufficient enthusiasm. She was going in for a different style of cuisine, now that she was no longer in the house in which we had started out as little girls. The message we read from this was that she was cooking, not for us, but for Hugo, who evidently had a more sophisticated and adventurous palate than our father. I admit that we were probably silly and bigoted, but our altered situation made us wish to regress at weekends, not advance, and what we longed for, in place of all the monkfish and okra and whiffy foreign cheeses, was roast chicken and gravy, and apple crumble for pudding.

In front of Hugo, our mother always referred to our father as `the Headmaster' -- a mannerism that we found both belittling and weird. And, when we balked at eating anything we'd deemed a touchway out, she'd say to him, `You see. The Headmaster's children.'

It was shortly before the advent of the Stepmother that Lydia and I had conceived the idea that Father needed a dog. The truth is that, having gone to the dog rescue bent upon any sort of puppy just as long as it was fluffy, we had quickly been persuaded that what our father needed was a retired racing greyhound. It was our good luck that, in the event, Father and the greyhound bitch fell in love at first sight -- though, of the two, Father was the less demonstrative.

`Dear girls,' he said, `you bad, unforgivable girls. How could you have taken a decision like this without consulting me?' The greyhound merely watched him fixedly. Every time he opened his mouth to speak she dived in with her tongue and gave him sexy, wet French kisses.

`Her name's Dilly,' we lied, because her registered name was Lady and we didn't like it. It lifted our hearts to watch Father take off across the fields in his green wellies with the greyhound running in huge wide circles as though programmed by the racetrack to proceed in spiral movements. Sometimes, as she got scent of a rabbit, she would break her pattern and zigzag wildly, bringing all four feet together in the air.

The following year we chanced our arm still further and found the greyhound a husband. The result was eight greyhound puppies, most of whose infancy I missed through my being away at university, but Lydia told me that they made it their business to bite the heads off all the wallflowers and to see to it that not a lupin was left standing. After that, she said, they had uprooted all the climbing plants and piddled on the grass until it yellowed. Our grandmother had then recommended the placing of a notice in the pages of Horse and Hound, which had resulted in queues of sensible country types -- exactly Father's sort of people -- who turned up in Range Rovers and talked with Father about the escalating price of gundogs.

And then the puppies were gone -- all but one, whose home had fallen through in the last minute. Another home was found, but the delay, in the event, proved vital. Four weeks passed before the family concerned were scheduled to return from a holiday and collect her. This meant that the puppy was still at home on the evening I was suddenly summoned from Edinburgh. It meant that the puppy never left us. It meant that the puppy was still with us on the day that my sister died.


(C) 1998 Barbara Trapido All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-670-88357-3

The Travelling Hornplayer (3)

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