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The big tent

by Gerald Roberts


“I want you to come.”

Mum was tapping her right foot – the other one was ruined by some sort of arthritis/rheumatism, so kept in retirement under one of her long dresses. She used to be a great hunter-on horseback of course- and once upon a time when we owned the Thornley estate she had managed to gallop over a petrified fox which sent her flying and initiated the stream of visits to expensive specialists. Consequence: everlasting pain and endless bills which had made substantial contribution to family poverty. I was now just a pointless  son at home, maintained by a long-dead father’s bequest and crumbs from the maternal table.

She didn’t have much either. Out here under the Wilshire Downs  it was difficult to go anywhere or see anyone in the manner to which we had been accustomed  and Mummy’s only salvation – liberally offered by the equally ancient Fr Roger, in retirement at Malmsbury, and similar vintages of undistinguished old folk – was the snapping up of occasional invitations still directed at us (I rather felt the lists we were on came out of some dusty drawer whose original transcribers had already passed away).

“And besides,” she added, “You might come across Anthea again. She’ll still be younger than you..” hesitating as the thought struck her that this was certainly likely to be true, “and I know the Hopkinsons are still living at….” She waved her hands with irritation, “Somewhere or other; he was a yeoman farmer wasn’t he?”

“Was he,” I said. It wasn’t a question, because I knew Mummy would have loved to go into her highly colourful account of county families, and why couldn’t I write a nice book about the aristocracy of Wiltshire, and none of those stories that editors failed to print. “I don’t think she would remember me…and do you know I can’t remember her.”

“We will go then, “said Mummy firmly. “When you do see her, you will remember her. A sort of English rose,” though she added, as if scraping the picture up from memory, “ a bit overblown, probably from too much good living, like all the Hopkinson’s. I used to go there for tea whenever I was passing. Your father used to say that was why I used to call on them. They specialised in cold rooms and he did not think, in the words of Michelin, that it was worth the detour”

Downstairs a bell rang. “Ah, that must be Agatha. Do go and open the door for her, dear. You know how heavy the tray is.”

Apparently the Occasion –General Hopkinson had just been appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for South East Wiltshire – involved inviting most of the county to the Big Tent which would be set up on the sweeping lawns of the host’s not-quite-big-enough and faintly crumbling mansion. My sole visit recalled a shameless wind and a cold lounge in which everyone had drawn themselves as near as politeness allowed to a smoking wood fire. Of Anthea I visualised nothing, and Father had there and then invented a desperate story of a dinner party, miles away, at which we all had to arrive on time to avoid offending  punctilious hosts. Alas, he had invented no further details of the story, and only Mummy’s bare-faced lying – she hated cold houses, too – had saved him from being thoroughly embarrassed.

This date was unavoidable, but at least I had due time to wheedle out of Mother a few more details of the wife she had intended for me  a long time ago and still held high hopes for a legitimate liaison. Apparently Anthea had completed her first year at Swansea University in Horticulture only to discover that she didn’t like Horticulture at all and with her father’s help had enlisted in the Equestrian and Wild Life Studies Department. She then turned up one winter afternoon at the Grange, saying, memorable words, that sweeping out the Department’s stables could be done just as well at home.

So much for Anthea’ ambitions in Higher Studies. The years passed and so did my memories of her. Occasional rumours floated across the county of treks to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Nepal, which might easily have been confused in local gossip with Armenia and Afghanistan, but Anthea no longer seemed to exist in the land of the ordinary living, and even Mummy only referred to her in sentences that usually began, “Do you remember that strange daughter…”

We went. In our modest Kia we lined ourselves up on a lawn so immaculate that the Deputy Lieutenant must have spent  all the previous day on duty directing his Gardener – he only had one and a half, the latter being a young man whose main reason for employment  was the perennial replacement of fuses in exploding parts of the house. The weather was gloomy, damp, and decidedly unappealing for a semi-exposed reception in a billowing canvas structure on a day which narrowly held its place in the autumnal equinox.

“Bloody fool,” muttered my second father ( whom I forgot to say  was almost a carbon copy of my first), who strode past the dinner-jacketed man at the entrance as he vainly tried to persuade him to hand over his name and his coat.

Mother and I followed. Father was usually useful on these occasions in getting through irritating formalities. Mother’s tactics were generally to confront the first interesting individual (including babies and dogs) to ingratiate herself, and even complete errors of identity were brushed off (by her) with all that tittle-tattle of informal conversation that is never wanting to the educated. She fixed on a lady standing next to a table covered in bravely discarded coats and wraps, but before she  could discover that it was the cloakroom attendant, Daddy and I had mutually peeled off to do our own things. We would no doubt hear later about the “Extraordinary lady whom she had come across at the entrance.”

At least I had a mission. Where, and who, was Anthea? Still in some unpronounceable part of the world, acting as unprofessional guide, amateur cook, horticulturist, or decayed maiden in the care of some avuncular headman in the Turkish Mountains? Or a now retiring almost middle-aged lady sitting at her parents table, exchanging occasionally dramatic anecdotes with family friends: “The poultry had to be steamed with delicious taki…I only escaped ravishment because I was deemed too old…Yes, a little torture but I quite enjoyed it…”

If I could not begin with the heroine herself, nor with the heroine’s mother (“Ah, Lady Hopkinson, you don’t remember me, but my mother must have mentioned you as having an eligible daughter”), the next best thing was to turn to the servants. No, not the man at the door, who looked much too important to answer family questions (and besides he’d pass it on to the others…”a strange man looking  for the heiress to the estate”), but someone obsequious carrying the champagne, from whom I could quaff a cup and seem to ask in passing.

I moved into the throng. The first problem was finding a tray-carrier. Whether the Hopkinsons were particularly mean, or their guests particularly thirsty, the only glasses visible were already in people’s hands, or every so often crunching gently under their feet. Mummy had, in fact, shown me an old newspaper photograph of my target in her prime, just before she had set off on one of her expeditions, looking mildly surprised and being forcibly hugged by her Mother.

But how people change over the years! For better or for worse.  Or not at all. In the heaving, chattering mass around me, which seemed to sway with the draughts blowing under the flaps and even the gusts and bursts of human voices, I caught what I thought was a distorted vision of Mummy, or someone like her, addressing some faceless heads, which knowing her, might have included some of the Hopkinson top knobs.

There might be found the mysterious Anthea. Gripping a champagne glass from a passing transporter, I tried to check out the girl’s whereabouts but the waitress, a tiny Chinese fairy, whose knowledge of English was clearly speculative, nodded with a smile, and did a swift turn into the crowd.

And then I saw her. Standing next to our Host and besuited husband, and looking rather younger, than I imagined her, was a slim (all that travelling?), young (– still) figure, wearing the kind of multi-coloured outfit that you might expect of an international wanderer, and talking animatedly to another formally besuited man next to her. This, surely,surely? was the Anthea of the past who had materialised as the  visionary lady of the present.

Suddenly caught in a violent gust of wind, the tent set up a flapping  and a half-amused, half-serious shrieking from the ladies of the party, followed by laughter as nothing worse happened than the light crackling of fallen glasses and the abrupt movement of a vast central floral arrangement that might have brought very disagreeable consequences to those nearby.

I was vaguely aware that I had given up love some years ago: the chattering of  Mother, the brusqueness of  Father, and the strange unfriendliness of life out in the country, had driven such feelings out of me. Nor was I the vehicle of sudden infatuations.  Except now.

Perhaps she was already married, her husband poised nearby and ready to punch intruders in the eye if they were too friendly. But that was not what they did these days. No, you could get away with anything…I stopped himself from vaguely familiar trains of thought, the Words of my Fathers which had subconsciously etched themselves on my passive mind so as to regard all “modern” judgements of society as inherently mischievous.

She must be caught. Questioned. Examined. Thrown back  (perhaps). But how to cast, how to win?  By edging round the whole group, he could perhaps steal Mother’s attention who would loudly call my name and so enable an introduction. But   Mother at that moment was insisting on retellling to her hangers-on and the Hostess (the Colonel had beaten a retreat as soon as he sniffed what was in the wind) some account of a recent adventure of her dog  called Throttles which had  followed the local hunt  and caused chaos among the hounds.

My eyes were on Anthea. There was a movement of the crowd which brought me closer and now I could see her eyes, which even while she talked suggested to me her utter boredom at the proceedings, the sort of boredom I had long grown used to in that benighted part of the world. There was another great whoosh of wind and the tent flapped  like a vast angry animal. Women clutched at ridiculous hats. Mother had given up lecturing those around her and sat down on one of those dangerously frail chairs that are  scattered round at cocktail events. Anthea, my Anthea, was sitting cross-legged on the ground exposing a pair of sunburnt knees which suggested lithe movements in foreign parts.

I had now reached the group around her and could faintly make out some of the words: “Dangerous…” “Where’s the gin girl?” “Hope they’ve got enough…” Then a loudspeaker voice boomed down the tent: “Please leave the tent. We have been warned of more high winds. Please leave the tent. You will be escorted to the house.” Besuited men appeared and started to circulate from group to group encouraging party-goers to make more progress towards  the exits.

Anthea was on her feet, dusting down her skirt, and apparently discouraging the attentions  of a fat man in  red trousers who was trying to propel her. Mother’s stories were losing their attraction to her audience, especially as a sheet of tenting was now hanging loosely across the refreshment table swiping the cream cakes and prawn sandwiches from its table-clothed surface. A scene of modest disorder. The chance of renewing a long ago friendship must be taken…

“Hello,” I said. “Can I help you ? Is this your father?”

Red trousers swelled up. But for whatever reason, my Anthea came to my defence: “O, it’s Henry, isn’t it? Henry Bradley. I haven’t seen you for ages.”

My flattering conclusion was that I looked a better social proposition than Red Trousers, but I wasn’t sure how to go on next, and started to stammer something, when further party disruption took place. The scattering of guests turned into something more like a rout, with even the old on the move, and deflated Red Trousers started to fidget. He looked at both of us and an uncertain “Well…” came from his mouth:

“I’d better look for Mother,” he said. “She’s no good in a…panic.” He edged his way into the crowd, changed direction more than once, and finally settled on the exit that fronted the house and garden outside. My Mother had long since disappeared, carried off in the crowd and perhaps worried by the collapse of the tea-table and the loss of the cakes which she probably had promised herself by skipping lunch to get to the party.

My Anthea took my arm, “Well then,” she said. I know you’re NOT Henry Bradley, whoever he is, so who do you think I am?”

Indeed. She was too young and too pretty to be the modern incarnation of the rather large, but still aimiable Anthea of the past  that I faintly remembered. As the last few decorations fell from the violently heaving tent canvas and the sole two members of the Hopkinson’s ground staff appeared with stepladder and bucket (Why the bucket? I wondered), I took  her hand and declared, in the most melodramatic tone I knew, “I am your Prince and have come to deliver you from….”

Yes, but what?

“From accountancy in Salisbury, from Mummy and Daddy doing the garden and re-arranging the furniture, from attentions from old provincial men…”

A great tear erupted in the canvas  a few yards from us. Leaves and twigs rushed over the remaining furniture as the ground staff struck out at the tumbling chairs and tables.

“Quick!” I said, “before the cars are blocked.”

Heads down, holding each other – for ever? For never? – we forced ourselves against the raging storm.

Someone else would take Mother and Father back home.

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