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One

It was just like my father. He hadn’t told anyone what he was up to. He came downstairs that Sunday morning as usual at nine o’clock sharp, glanced at the clock, cast an eye around the breakfast table to see that everyone was dressed and in their place, took a bowl of cereal from my mother’s hands, and said, “Well. This morning I’ve something to show you all. Be ready in half an hour.”

My small sister, Ellen, aged eight, asked, “Are we going in the car?”

“Yes,” said Father.

“Can we take Peggy?” (Peggy was Ellen’s dog.)

“No,” said Father.

My brother Geoff, aged fifteen, asked, “How long shall we be away?”

“As long as it takes,” said Father.

My elder sister, Nessie, aged seventeen, said, “If it’s going to take long I’m not coming. I promised I’d go round to a friend’s house this morning.”

“Agnes,” my father said, “I am…” (a pause) “…requesting you to come with us. Everyone is coming. There’s something I want you to see.”

“But what shall I say to Pauline?”

“You can telephone her. You can say what you like. It’s not for me to tell you what to say to your friends. I should have thought the truth would serve as well as anything. But I’ll be…” (another pause) “...obliged if you’ll be ready at half past nine like the rest of us.”

“Nobody else my age…,” Nessie began.

“Agnes,” my father said, very quietly, “I have asked you if you will kindly come with us, and I hope you will.”

Nessie opened her mouth to say something but thought better of it, and the conversation was at an end.

Later I found I was to dry the dishes for Mother. We had a roster for household duties, drawn up by Father, and Sunday was the day it was changed.

“What’s he going to show us?” I asked her.

“It’s no good asking me,” Mother said. “You should know by now, he doesn’t tell me anything.”

“Well, he ought to, oughtn’t he?”

“You know how he is,” Mother said.

“He thinks he’s still in the Army.”

“Not now, he doesn’t.”

It was twenty years since Father had been in the Army. He’d enlisted as a regular soldier and had become a sergeant and finally an officer, not bad for a man who’d left school at fifteen without any degree. It was the height of Father’s career. We knew he sometimes wished he could have stayed on in the Army. Managing a shop was a comedown. Managing the same shop, year after year, was a disappointment he’d never been reconciled to.

“He can’t go on treating us this way, you know,” I said. “Nessie won’t stand for it much longer.”

“Don’t talk like that,” my mother said. “Not about your father.”

“As soon as she’s earning, she’ll go.”

“Hurry up with those dishes, Barry, or we’ll be late.”

“Late for what?”

“You heard what he said. Half past nine.”

Nessie had come in while we were talking.

“Mother, I despair of you…,” she said.

But Mother was taking her apron off, not listening.

It was September. Back-to-school time, back-to-work time. The holidays, endless-seeming in July and August, had shrunk to snapshot-size memories. The world was closing in again. The headlines were full of economic gloom, ever-rising prices, political squabbles. “Winter is i-cumen in,” our English teacher had told us wittily. The weather wasn’t too sure about that, for we were having a run of clear blue days. But the leaves were innumerable shades of yellow, green, and brown, and the air cooled quickly in the evening.

We were late starting after all, that Sunday. Father sat on at the breakfast table while we waited, ready to go. He was studying the Sunday newspaper. More gloom. Bread up, meat up, milk going up any day now. They had all doubled in price since last year.

But Father’s expression was strange. There was a kind of grim satisfaction in it.

“Right,” he said at last. “We’ll be on our way.” But he still didn’t tell us where we were going.

Father got the car out. Mother didn’t drive, and Father wouldn’t let Nessie learn, although she was old enough. He didn’t think much of women drivers. The car was five years old, but it was in lovely condition. Father maintained it himself. “You can’t trust garages to do the job properly,” he used to say. “Employing too many young lads these days. They don’t care.”

The journey took twenty minutes. Father, driving meticulously as always, took us through the city center, traffic-free in the Sunday morning peace, out to the other side of town, and up the Mount.

The Mount is a high, leafy suburb where rich merchants and manufacturers lived in Victorian times. Nowadays any wealthy businessmen who work in our Midland city live many miles away, in deep country. But the old houses were built to last, and last they do. Most have been converted into apartments.

Near the top of the Mount, we turned into a gravel drive between stone gateposts, from which hung a pair of peeling wooden gates, propped open and leaning at an angle. One of them bore the name, in Gothic lettering, Rose Grove. The drive, neglected and weedy, disappeared into a thicket of dark, drooping evergreens and took two or three twists and turns in a very short distance. Then we were at the house. It wasn’t really far from the road; you could hear the traffic clearly; but it was as if somebody had tried to make it as remote as a limited amount of space allowed.

It was a squarish house, not big but brutal. A solid house of hard red brick, ugly as sin. The windows were narrow, not much more than slits. There was a massive front porchway, with double doors that seemed intended to keep people out rather than open and welcome them in. A crest of battlements. An enormous sign, FOR SALE.

“Well, here we are,” Father said. He got out of the car. We followed and stood in a little group, just behind him.

“FOR SALE,” my mother read out—unnecessarily, since the letters were about a foot high. A pause. Then, “Who’d want that?”

“I suppose it could be turned into flats,” I said.

“It’s like a fort,” said Nessie.

“A castle,” said Geoff. “Look at those battlements. You could shoot with bows and arrows from behind there. Or mount guns, even. Or pour boiling oil on people.”

“Don’t be horrid,” Ellen said, shuddering.

My mother’s train of thought was different. “I can’t think who’d buy this,” she said.

There was a glint in my father’s eye, a glint of pride and satisfaction. “It’s not for sale any more,” he said.

“You mean it’s sold?”

“Yes, it’s sold.”

“Somebody with more money than sense, I should think,” my mother said.

A frown crossed Father’s face, but a moment later the satisfied gleam returned. And suddenly I knew. I looked across at Nessie, who opened her eyes wide in an expression of comic dismay. She knew, too.

“You haven’t . . ?” I asked Father.

“Yes, I have.”

“You’ve bought it?”

“Yes, indeed!” Father said proudly. “It’s my house now. We move in next month.”

My mother gasped.

“Norman!” she said. Her dismay was not comic. She paused, and then went on with a flat recklessness, “You can’t have. You must be out of your mind.”

My father’s eyes narrowed. “That’s enough, May,” he said in the quiet voice that usually shut any of us up.

But Mother was roused now. “It’s far too big for us,” she said. “How could we furnish and carpet a place like this? Think what the taxes would be. Think of keeping up the garden. You must be joking.”

“I never joke,” Father said in the quiet voice. “Pull yourself together, May. I’ve bought it, and you may as well start getting used to the idea. I’ll deal with the problems.”

“Bought it without consulting me,” Mother said.

“Consult you?” Father seemed amused by the idea. “I didn’t need to consult anyone. I knew it was the right move. Have you ever known me not to know what I was doing?”

Mother shook her head dumbly.

“You’ve never made the decisions,” Father went on. “I don’t know why you should expect to start sharing in them now.”

“You never let her make any decisions,” said Nessie, fiercely. “It’s time you did!”

“Be quiet!”

It was the third time that Sunday morning that my father had used his tone of authority. Usually, if we irritated him to that degree, a hard day would follow. But he was excited, and little as he valued our opinions, he wanted to show off his purchase.

“Anyway,” he said, “we don’t have to stand here and talk about it. Let’s go inside.” He produced a big heavy key from his pocket and threw open the front door with a flourish.

Ellen ran ahead of us through the big bare hall and in and out of the downstairs rooms. We heard her feet clattering around on the board floors. Geoff followed and at once disappeared upstairs. Mother, Nessie, and I moved in more soberly, still shaken by the surprise that Father had sprung on us.

The house had been cleared completely. Not a relic remained of former occupation, nothing to indicate what kind of people had lived in it before. There was a total, echoing emptiness about it, as if it had been stripped not only of contents but of character—an empty vessel ready for a new use.

Father led us on a brisk tour, giving no time for more than a glance into the main rooms. There were four of these on each of two floors; they were large and high, but although the sun was shining outside, the light from the narrow windows was only moderate. The kitchen and bathroom were old-fashioned, and Mother grimaced at them, but Father hustled her past.

The view from the attics seemed to interest him more. The garden at the back was a good deal larger than that of the small modern house we were living in at present. There was an expanse of uncut shaggy grass with a big, unpruned apple tree in one corner. Round most of the grass were flowerbeds, half overrun by weeds, though a few tired end-of-season flowers still showed their heads. There were some straggly roses, though hardly enough to justify the name of the house. And beyond these was a fringe of big, well-established rhododendrons, which had all grown together at the top but had a row of dark caves underneath.

Over the tops of the rhododendrons, you could glimpse the roof of a neighboring house, and over a high privet hedge at the side, the end wall of another. But these glimpses were no more than hints of the presence of other houses; it was obvious that even in winter you wouldn’t see much of them.

“We’re not overlooked, you see,” said Father with satisfaction. “Nobody to take a nosy interest in what we’re doing.”

“What do we ever do to interest anybody?” Nessie whispered in my ear.

Father glanced sharply at her but said nothing. He seemed even more pleased by the cellars. “Plenty of storage there,” he said. And then, to me: “You or Geoff can help me with a little job, Barry, before we go.”

But Mother grew less and less happy as the tour continued. “This place still looks a white elephant,” she said when we’d finished. “And it must have cost an awful lot. And you always said you liked modern houses best.”

Our other house didn’t have either attics or cellars. It was semi-detached and small, not to say poky; always neat and shipshape. “Just what we need and no more than we need,” Father used to say. “No point in paying taxes on useless space.” But now, mysteriously, he seemed to have changed his tune. “Things aren’t as they used to be,” he said. “An intelligent man can change his mind. An intelligent man adjusts to new circumstances.”

Mother didn’t say anything to that.

“As for the cost,” Father said, “well, it’s certainly costing me a pretty penny. Five times what it would have done a year or two ago. But money’s going down faster and faster. By next year it’ll seem cheap. Dirt cheap.”

“I’ll feel lonely here during the day,” Mother complained. “No neighbors nearby, and I don’t know anybody around here anyway.”

“Neighbors? I don’t know why you bother about neighbors. Coming in, wasting time, drinking tea, borrowing things...You’re better off without neighbors. Anyway, I specially wanted a house with privacy. I have my reasons, May. Good reasons.”

It was just as Father mentioned privacy that Geoff’s voice came echoing down the staircase. He’d been up in the attics, looking out of the window.

“Dad!” he called. “Dad! There’s somebody in the garden.”

Father didn’t like that at all. He stalked out to meet the intruder. The big untidy apple tree in the corner was laden with fruit, and more apples lay around it on the ground. A young man with long fair hair had found his way through the hedge and was now munching an apple. Father marched briskly up to him. The young man waited, quite at ease, and took another bite.

“This is a private garden,” Father said stiffly.

The young man grinned amiably. “Thought it was up for sale,” he said.

“I’m the buyer.”

The young man grinned again. “I’ll take your word for it,” he said.

“So the apples belong to me.”

“OK, chief. You can spare a few, can’t you?”

“That’s not the point,” Father said. “The point is that I’d prefer you to ask before helping yourself to my property.”

“I’m asking you now. Look, I got a bag here, holds about a dozen. You don’t mind, do you? The old lady likes a nice apple.”

Father looked him up and down. Tall, very narrow hips, round face, blue eyes, cheerful unabashed expression.

“All right,” he said shortly. “Just this once,” and turned away. “May,” he called to Mother, “find something to carry apples in. We’re not wasting them.”

He wasn’t the only one who’d been looking the young man up and down. Nessie had been inspecting him, too; and he had noticed Nessie. Nessie was indeed noticeable in any company: taller than average, slim, with hair to the reddish side of blonde, and wide, blue-gray eyes. Now, as Father’s back turned, the young man winked at her. Nessie looked away but didn’t seem offended.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Terry.”

“Nessie!” Father called. “Come along!” And then, over his shoulder, to Terry, “You’d oblige me by going out through the gate, not through the hedge.”

“We live just down the hill, in the old cottages,” Terry said to Nessie. “Me and my mum. So we’ll be neighbors, sort of. Well, not too far apart.” He grinned engagingly.

Nessie didn’t respond. But I thought I could interpret her expression. As we followed Father back to the house, I said, “Some interesting people around here, aren’t there?”

“Are there?”

“He fancies you. Do you fancy him?”

“Mind your own business,” said Nessie; but her lips twitched in the beginnings of a smile.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Father was saying. “I’m going to put a stop to trespassing. That’s something I won’t have. It could spoil all my plans.”

“What plans?” asked Nessie.

“Never you mind.”

“Well now,” Father said. “While your mother’s fetching a bag to put those apples in, let’s consider which rooms people are to have. It needn’t take long, but I don’t want any of you saying I haven’t consulted you.” He looked around our faces. “Now, to begin with, the front bedroom obviously is for your mother and me. That’s reasonable, isn’t it? No questions there. Now, as for Nessie...”

“I don’t mind about having a proper bedroom,” Nessie said. “I’d like the front attic. I could play my records there and have friends in, and you wouldn’t hear us.”

“And I’d like the back attic,” said Geoff. “Plenty of room there for my football gear. And my photography.”

“Horrible noise,” said Father automatically to Nessie; and, to Geoff, “Wish you’d take up a less expensive hobby.” But he didn’t seem to care a great deal. “Very well. That’s all right. So Barry and Ellen can have the two middle bedrooms, and there’s one to spare for guests.”

“When do we have guests?” asked Nessie under her breath.

“And what about Cliff?” I inquired.

“Oh, about Clifford,” my father said. “Well, I’m afraid Clifford won’t be coming. He’ll have to look for new lodgings.”

Clifford was Father’s assistant manager at the shop. He was in his early twenties: a smallish, thin, spectacled young man with a homely accent. When he came to the town a year earlier he hadn’t anywhere to go, and he’d been given our tiny back bedroom “for the time being.” But somehow or other he’d stayed. He was a quiet lodger who brought books home from the library and went to evening classes, no trouble to anyone. I got on rather well with him, and we often played chess.

“Did you say Cliff will have to look for somewhere else?” my mother said, coming in.

“That’s right. He’s had a good run. He always knew he couldn’t stay with us forever.”

“We had room for Cliff in the little house,” Mother said thoughtfully, “but you say we’re not going to have room for him in this great big one?”

“Correct.”

“I wish I knew what you’re up to, Norman. I just don’t understand.”

“There’s a lot you don’t understand, May. There always has been. I don’t have to explain every move I make to you.”

“I don’t think Cliff will like to go,” I said. “He doesn’t have many friends. And…”

“And he won’t like leaving Nessie!” finished Ellen.

“He wasn’t getting anywhere, was he, Nessie?” Geoff asked.

“He certainly wasn’t,” Nessie said. “Poor Cliff. So shy he made even me feel embarrassed. If I spoke to him, he hadn’t a word to say for himself.”

“You must admit he’s harmless,” I pointed out.

Nessie smiled. “Oh, yes, he’s harmless. P’raps that’s what’s wrong with him. One of nature’s harmless ones.”

“Anyway, Clifford won’t be coming here!” said my father with an air of finality. “And now, there’s something else I have to do before we go. Barry, I want you to come down with me into the basement while the others collect those apples.”

I followed him down the cellar steps, which led from the kitchen. Father had brought a tape measure. He kept me busy for several minutes, holding an end of the tape as he took various measurements. The basement was the full width of the house, with wide arches and pillars helping to take the weight of the dividing walls above. Father made sounds of mild satisfaction as he jotted down figures in a notebook. He also remarked favorably on the absence of damp. Clearly he was still feeling pleased with himself.

“You’re not taking any measurements in the house itself?” I asked him when we had finished.

“Eh? … Oh, no, that’ll be all right. You lot and your mother can do anything that’s needed. Now, just a minute while I look around outside.”

Father turned his back on me to go into the garden, obviously not needing my company. I joined Geoff and Nessie, who had come in and were up in the attics again, planning where they would keep their possessions. But I didn’t take much part in their talk. I was more and more puzzled by Father’s enthusiasm for a house that he would formerly have dismissed as a white elephant, and by his strange interest in the basement. I wandered across to the front attic window and looked down on his foreshortened figure as he walked a few paces across the gravel of the drive, his sharp black shadow stepping out ahead of him. He stopped, turned, and put a hand to his eyes against the sun, surveying the evergreens between house and road. Then he took out the notebook again and made what seemed to be a quick sketch.

Father was a compact, dapper man, a little below average height. His face was thin and tended towards sallowness. His eyes were blue and sharp; his hair had been fair but was graying now and thinning a little on the temples. As he moved around with his neat, slightly military step, making notes as he went, it struck me that he looked very much like an Army officer surveying a position.

Noah's Castle - John Rowe Townsend


Debt is Slavery by Michael Mihalik