Set a few months before the events of Ready Made Family, with two conscious anachronisms. Notes at end.
The four of them sat at the round table in the bay window of the tea shop. Both Edwin and Rose might have preferred to sit in the relative privacy and cosiness of the back room, but the waitress had shown them to this table without giving them a choice. Edwin had ordered tea and teacakes for four and the waitress had gone away.
Rose tried not to feel disappointed that they hadn’t been allowed to choose for themselves. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with teacakes; nobody could say they didn’t like them - unless they were burnt; but they weren’t specially treat-ish. If you were asked what you wanted, like Mummy or Grandma always did, you could choose: jam tarts, or shortbread, or doughnuts or whatever they liked.
They hadn’t seen Daddy since before Christmas, and now it was past New Year, and she had been offering up secret, silent prayers that nothing would happen to spoil the day. At least Phoebe, whose attention was fixated on the pot of sugar lumps, wasn’t fussing about wanting the chocolate cake she‘d had last time, and Charles was chattering away. So it was only herself, trying to pretend that she didn‘t feel flat.
The word ‘stuffy’ came back unbidden into her mind and she wondered again what it meant when you said it about a person.
Earlier that day, she had been sitting on Mummy’s bed, watching as she and Aunt Grace rummaged through drawers and wardrobe.
“Do you have to go?” Rose asked, not for the first time.
“She certainly does, Rosie,” answered Grace. “There isn’t a thing in here fit for a proper holiday.”
Rose had meant the holiday, not the shopping trip that they were about to go on, to be out of the way when Edwin came to see the children. Her mother understood.
“Come on, Rosie, we’ve been through this. It’s only ten days. You’ll be at school most of the time, and I bet you’ll hardly notice I’m gone, what with Mum and Dad spoiling you.”
Rose sighed inwardly. School was another thing. It was alright, no-one was actually nasty, but neither had she made any specially good friends in the two terms since they’d moved to Chester.
“Goodness!” said Grace, holding up a faded pair of flannel pyjamas. “I hope you’re not planning on taking these. We’ll have to find a nice negligee while we’re out.”
“Oh, nonsense,” said Rosemary. “No-one’s going to see what I wear in bed.”
“You never know. Larry’s invited all sorts of people to the villa. And besides, it’s not just what it looks like, it’s how it makes you feel.”
“Oh, but, Edwin always ..” started Rosemary, then abruptly aware of Rose listening, never finished.
Grace, unawares, said blithely, “Well, you’re not worrying about your stuffy old man on this holiday.” Suddenly catching Rose’s eye, she tried to wink conspiratorially, saying, “You don‘t mind Mummy having a bit of time to have some fun for herself, do you?”
“Will we go back to live with Daddy afterwards?” Rose asked her mother, ignoring Grace.
Her mother sighed. “Rosie. This is home now. You like it here, don’t you?”
And Rose, who had never said anything about not having friends at school, answered, “I suppose so,” because making a fuss never really changed things anyway.
“Phoebe!” said Edwin warningly. Phoebe’s fingers, creeping irresistibly towards the sugar bowl, stopped.
“’m hungry!” she announced.
Edwin lifted his battered leather case off the floor and opened it. He solemnly pulled out a small package and handed it to Phoebe. “For you.”
Charles and Rose looked with hopeful interest at the case, and weren’t disappointed; Edwin passed each of them a package too. Normally presents didn’t happen between birthdays or Christmas; and they’d had their Christmas presents under the tree at Grandmother’s, inscribed ‘love from Mummy and Daddy’ but all in Mummy’s handwriting. This was a new experience.
Phoebe ripped at her paper, and revealed a drawing block of thick cartridge paper, while Charles unwrapped a lined notepad. Phoebe opened her block and stroked the paper lovingly. “I need a pencil,” she demanded.
“Not now,” said Edwin. “The tea will be here soon.”
Charles looked at his notebook without enthusiasm. “I thought you might use it for train numbers,” explained Edwin.
“I’ve already got one for that. Grandpa gave me one before,” said Charles with unconscious ingratitude. Rose winced inside.
“Well, use it for something else then,” said Edwin.
“How about new words?” suggested Edwin. “When you hear them. Then you can look them up when you get home.”
Charles looked thoughtful. Rose, slower than the others, slid the wrapper off what felt promisingly like a book. ‘Tales of the Greek Heroes’ proclaimed the title, above a picture of a ship on which the mast was bursting into leaf, and foliage spreading over the deck and the startled sailors.
“Let me see,” said Phoebe, next to her, fascinated by the picture, and to hide her disappointment Rose passed it over.
“Thank you,” she said automatically. She didn’t have to say any more because Charles was chattering.
“What word shall I have first then? Something that starts with an A?”
“Aardvark,” suggested Edwin.
“I know what that means,” said Charles. “They eat ants. Something I don’t know?”
“Aggravating?” answered Edwin, dead-pan.
“Dad! Give me a proper one!”
Edwin thought again, and came up with “Ambivalence,” which satisfied Charles. “Can I borrow your pen?”
At that moment the waitress finally returned with a loaded tray. Rose hastily took her book back from Phoebe who, entranced, had been tracing the cover picture with her finger. Rose put it on the spare seat next to her, and paid attention to tea and tea-cakes.
She had disliked the Tanglewood Tales and other versions of the Greek myths that she had already come across. The characters were so puzzling in their arbitrary rages and random cruelties, their glorified temper tantrums; the way ordinary people didn‘t matter. What she really liked were stories about families, or just normal children doing things.
Not that children in books were ever quite ordinary really, not like people at school. Take Arrietty, much braver than she could ever be; Rose imagined her now, crossing the table to ‘borrow’ a sugar lump, using the teacups as cover. She took a gulp of hot tea to hide her smile before anyone could ask her what she was thinking about. Or the Walkers and the Blacketts, who seemed so adventurous and competent that she wondered if any families really were like that in real life. It was the Ds she liked best, because they were closest to herself and Charles, if Charles liked stars instead of trains. She could easily imagine herself as Dorothy, always with half a story in her head. But Rose’s current favourite and most adored book was ‘When Marnie Was There’ bought with her Christmas book token, and already read twice over.
“I hope you like it, Rose,” said Edwin, when the table was organised enough to allow conversation to resume. “A friend of mine suggested it.”
Rose, aware of something that didn’t quite fit with her perception of the world, smiled and said thank you again in her best polite manner. Daddy didn’t have friends. At least not anyone she could imagine him talking to about children’s books. Sometimes rather old, dull University people had come to the house for dinner and talked boring grown-up talk; until the children asked to be excused from the table as quickly as possible, and Mummy spent far longer making coffee in the kitchen than she really needed to.
Mummy, on the other hand, did have friends. Bright butterfly ladies, Rose thought of them, who brought Beatles records for them to listen to, or joined them on picnics with exciting hampers of food - treats they didn’t have at home, like grapes, or fancy cakes in pink and white boxes.
Teacakes were consumed and tea was drunk in a fairly orderly fashion. Only Charles knocking his teaspoon off the table with his elbow, and it then clattering on the wooden floor, caused the frown lines to briefly appear on his father’s face, his bushy eyebrows bunching together in a way that usually presaged an irritable comment. But this time he let it pass.
Once the end of the jug of milk had been drained into Phoebe’s teacup, and buttery hands were being wiped on napkins, Edwin asked, “What shall we do now?”
They all hesitated, Rose hoping that Charles wouldn’t ask the obvious.
“We could go and look at the dig at the amphitheatre,” suggested Edwin. “See how they’re getting on?”
Rose and Charles exchanged gloomy looks. “What’s that?” asked Phoebe. As Edwin tried to explain to Phoebe, Rose thought to herself that the Romans must have been quite, quite horrible to want to watch people being killed, or animals fighting.
Eventually Charles could resist no longer. “Can’t we go to the station?”
It was Edwin’s turn to look unenthusiastic. “I’m sure you go there often enough, don’t you?”
“Grandma said you wouldn’t take us!” said Charles, with the defiant air of one proving a point. Rose was shocked. All that Grandmother had actually said was that Charles shouldn’t pester his father to take them, because Grandfather took him there almost every day anyway.
Edwin’s eyebrows knitted again, but he said quite mildly, “And what do the girls want to do?”
Phoebe instantly said that she wanted to go the station too, though, as Rose knew, that was only because she was fascinated by the tuppenny chocolate machines. That meant Rose was outnumbered and she agreed that she didn’t mind if that was where they wanted to go.
Walking beside her father, with Charles and Phoebe, more eager, going on ahead of them, Rose caught his eye glancing down at her. “I take it you’re not as enthused about trains as your brother?” For a second she recognised his thin smile. It always made her feel tight inside, because she knew other people didn’t see it. She didn’t think even Mummy saw it any more.
“Not really,” she admitted, then timidly, “Don’t you like them too?”
“They’re useful for getting you from A to B,” he said. “Sometimes they even get you there on time.”
That wasn’t really an answer, she thought and looked shyly up at him.
Charles and Phoebe were well ahead of them, but he slowed slightly, matching his stride to hers. “Two boys were killed on the railway at home, when I was about your age.”
Shocked, she looked at him. Catching her anxious glance, he said quickly, “Oh, they weren’t great friends of mine. Rather the opposite in fact.” Remembering, his brow creased. “They were show-offs, rather, and bullies. Always daring people to do stupid things, then calling them coward when they wouldn’t. They were playing some game on the tracks, apparently. …. Mother knew their families so we had to go to the funeral. I remember it was their mothers’ faces that made rather an impression on me.”
Rose, quick to feel sympathy for those poor unknown boys, felt tears prick. Edwin took her hand, almost absently, and said kindly, “It was a long time ago, Rosie. I shouldn’t have told you.”
But she was glad he had, though it made her feel tight inside again.
The station platform was a cold place to be on a January afternoon, but Charles was oblivious, gazing in adoration at the engine waiting to pull out. Phoebe planted herself hopefully in front of the chocolate machine. Edwin and Rose sat on a spare bench, and tried to wrap their coats more tightly round them, against the chilly wind that gusted through in the wake of the departing train.
Rose was still carrying her book, though Edwin had offered to put it back in his case with the others. Idly tracing the picture on the cover with her forefinger, as Phoebe had earlier, she wondered if Daddy might understand more than Mummy would about school. And friends or not-friends. Then she suddenly recalled what she’d meant to ask before.
“Who was your friend?”
“Sorry?” he blinked slightly, coming out of different thoughts.
“You said your friend said to buy this?”
“Oh, I see.” He paused, and she thought he might shrug her question off, but he actually seemed pleased to talk. “I suppose she’s a bit like you, Rosie. Always reading. She loves books too. And she’s clever.”
“Cleverer than Mummy?” If she’d been asked, she couldn’t have said why she felt she had to bracket this unknown friend together with her mother; other than that, as far as she knew, Daddy didn’t really have women friends.
“Cleverer than me, probably,” answered Edwin, side-stepping the question neatly.
Rose digested this. “Is she from your work?”
“No. She’s at the University actually.”
Rose found this slightly disappointing. Daddy’s dull old friends came from the University.
“She was at a party I had to go to. You know the sort Mummy didn‘t like, and could somehow never manage to find a babysitter for?”
Rose smiled, as she supposed she was meant to. Her mother had confided in her once, when Rose had expressed curiosity as to why her mother, who wasn’t at all shy like she was, shouldn’t want to go to a party. ‘Oh, they’re dreadful things, Rosie. A lot of first-year students handing round ghastly nibbles, who haven’t got a single interesting thing to say to anyone who’s not their own age; and then all the old dons, who have got interesting things to say, but they’ve said them twenty times over to anyone who’ll listen, so you want to scream with boredom the minute they open their mouths.’
Edwin carried on. He didn’t seem to mind if Rose was paying attention any more. “It was rather interminable, and she seemed pretty fed up too. so I said why don’t we see if there’s anything on at the pictures instead, because we’d just been talking about films. So that's what we did.”
Rose pricked her ears at the mention of the cinema, something she absolutely loved. It had been her favourite treat, in the past, when Daddy had taken her and Charles to the pictures on a Saturday afternoon, while Phoebe had her nap, and Mummy had a rest.
“What did you see?” she asked eagerly.
His thin smile again. “Oh, nothing you’d like, Rosie. It was foreign and subtitles. And rather a lot about trains too, as it happened. But it was the next thing about to start when we got there.”
Rose, looking at her father’s face, supposed it was an amusing memory. But before she could ask, or he tell her more, Phoebe materialised solidly in front of them.
“Can we have chocolate?” she demanded.
“Can we have chocolate, please,” corrected Edwin, absently.
And then rather surprisingly, found some spare change in his pocket and told them to go and buy two blocks.
He gave one to Phoebe to share with Charles, which she did, scrupulously watching him count the squares - twice over to be sure. And the other he shared with Rose, but without the others noticing, he managed to give her much the bigger share.
The last of the daylight had gone by the time they came out of the station, and they walked home in the patchy glow of the streetlamps. Rose enjoyed the walk home, her thoughts, private and confusing as they were, kept safe in the comforting blanket of darkness that wrapped the four of them round.
Edwin saw them to their grandparents’ door, and said a polite goodnight to them and the children. Rosemary and Grace were back from shopping too, but trying on new clothes in an upstairs room, they didn’t come to the door.
Later, Rose might have remembered the details of that afternoon more clearly, but by the time she saw her father again everything had changed and the world had become a different place.
Ready Made Family was published in 1967, as was When Marnie Was There, and in the same year Closely Observed Trains had its UK release. So assuming RMF took place the year before it was published, Rose could hardly have read Marnie yet, or Edwin and Karen gone to see COT in my story. So I have imagined RMF set a year later to make it all work!