The Interviewer’s visits were far less frequent nowadays. How long had it been? Somehow something always seemed to come up. Time after time, she had put off coming today because tomorrow would do as just well—tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that. This today, though … this particular today … she had no interview to conduct, no write-up to complete for her Editor, no must-watch TV, no party with friends, no date with a stranger new-met through a dating app. So, with no excuses left, she had finally decided that this was the day that she was going to go to the Community Clubhouse. (The “Community Clubhouse”? She wondered for a moment if that were still an appropriate term for the place.)
She prinked a bit in the mirror, freshened her lipstick, and straightened her skirt. There had been times when she’d arrived far more informally, even sometimes dressed in jeans when she’d just popped in for coffee and a chat. But it had been so long. She didn’t know who she’d find (or what she’d find) when she got there—or if (she felt a frisson) she even could get there. She realized suddenly that she was as nervous as she’d been the first time she’d slipped through the interfictional dimensions, sent by her Editor to talk to as many of Mary Renault’s characters as decided to come to their invited interviews.
Actually, she thought, today she was more nervous. That time, she had been venturing into the unknown. This time, she feared what she’d find.
Yes. It was time, and past time. With a final glance over her shoulder at her familiar apartment, she opened the door and … turned a corner.
She found herself just inside a hedge. It was a little over waist high and (she glanced behind her) had a garden gate set in it. At the tenth anniversary of the Community, the wall had been stone, and the gate wrought iron and several feet over her head. Ah, well, she thought, change is the one inevitable, and never more than in this place.
She walked along a gravel path, past a bed of shrubbery underplanted with violets. As she rounded the curve of the bed, the Clubhouse came into view. It was smaller than it had been last time she’d been here, closer to the size she remembered from her first visit. It lay over the water, as it had for years; but the great lake of the tenth anniversary celebrations had shrunk to the size of a pond, still overlooked by a large willow tree. Under the old stone bridge, a mere brook burbled away downstream; it led through a grove rather than the forest she remembered. Hippolyta would hunt no deer and boar in such a tame wildwood.
No one seemed to be around. The Interviewer skirted the near side of the pond, passed the few flowerbeds that remained of the glorious garden, ignored the diminished portico, and walked instead round to the rear of the Clubhouse. When she went into the kitchen, she found that no one was there, either. However, the room did at least look as normal as it ever did—which is to say that, this time, the refrigerator was modern, the counters formica, the cabinets somewhat battered white-painted pine, and the gas stove elderly. (Well, elderly from her perspective. She suspected that, to Renault’s modern characters, the gas stove was up to date and the fridge a sci-fi marvel. What the Ancient Greeks made of the kitchen she had never asked.)
At that point, she noticed a cup and saucer on the table, a teapot on the counter, and the kettle steaming slightly on one of the gas burners. There was the sound of footsteps in the pantry, and Mrs Timmings came out holding a biscuit tin.
“Long time, no see!” said the Interviewer cheerfully.
Mrs Timmings smiled warmly. “Sit down, sit down!” She put the tin on the table, bustled over to the cupboard, and took out a large mug. “I’ll make you some coffee.”
The Interviewer hastily said she’d get it herself. (None of Renault’s housekeepers could make decent coffee.) Then, smitten by a sudden worry, she looked quickly round. The sight of the percolator reassured her. It was, to be true, a scarlet model rather than the black she’d seen in previous visits; but it would presumably work adequately.
The kettle began to whistle. As Mrs Timmings partly filled the teapot, swished the water round to warm the china, and then poured it down the drain, the Interviewer looked through the cupboards to find where the package of coffee had been put—it was, fortunately, ready ground this time—and scooped a sufficiency into the top of the percolator.
“If you’d just get down the sugar,” said Mrs Timmings, and opened the (to her) fabulous icebox to fetch out cream for the Interviewer and milk for herself.
Each woman busied herself with her own preparations, and then sat down. Mrs Timmings opened the tin and proffered the biscuits. The Interviewer peeked inside, discovered only Garibaldi, and declined.
Mrs Timmings—who came from a country and time with rationing—was not so fussy. She put two of the squashed fly biscuits on the side of her saucer, milked and sugared her tea, and took a sip.
“Well, we haven’t seen you round here in a while,” she said. “Mind you, it’s been quiet.”
“I believe you,” said the Interviewer. “I couldn’t help noticing the changes on my way in. Not that the place seems to be quite the same ever, of course; but it’s almost back to the way it was … well, when I first came here to talk to people. And, let’s face it, that was years ago. By my time, anyway.”
“Time passes differently here,” said Mrs Timmings matter-of-factly. “Faster or something, I think. You’d have to ask one of those philosophers about it.”
“They’re still about?” Then, with a shake of her head, the Interviewer added quickly, “No, of course, they are. I saw that willow tree they always sit under. I bet if they didn’t come, then that would be gone, too. And the pond: I remember when it first appeared.”
“It’s a funny place,” Mrs Timmings agreed.
“So what’s been happening then? You’re here: who else still comes?”
There was no answer. The Interviewer quirked her brow interrogatively.
Mrs Timmings sighed, looked down at her cup, and stirred her tea. “Oh, dear,” she said, sadly. She put the spoon back on the saucer, but held it for a moment too long before picking up one of the biscuits. Then, without taking a bite, she put that down too and sat back in her chair.
“It’s more who doesn’t come,” she said flatly.
The Interviewer flushed. “Well, I know I haven’t—”
“No, no, it’s not you.” The tone was dismissive, uncharacteristically so (for Mrs Timmings was never one to forget her place). More politely, she repeated, “No, it’s not you,” and she sighed again.
The Interviewer waited. In her line of work, waiting often produces results.
Finally, Mrs Timmings leaned forward confidingly. “You remember how often the moderators would come by the Clubhouse, sit a while on the porch, and chat with people—that fancy young Persian lad was always waiting on them when King Alexander didn’t need him. And interesting things happened in the Community, too: you could always pop through to the library to read new stories and follow discussions about the Books.”
“I’m not sure one would still expect….” The Interviewer trailed off. “In the circumstances,” she finished lamely.
“Yes, I know,” said Mrs Timmings a little bitterly. “Still, we are here.”
“Things got difficult towards the end,” said the Interviewer gently.
“‘Difficult’?” snapped Mrs Timmings. “‘Difficult’ isn’t the half of it. Things got flat out scary at one point, and you know it! Quite apart from all the things that were being said about the Community, true and untrue, and often so wrong as to be ridiculous—and often enough said by people who’d never even read the Author’s books, let alone joined! We do have those ‘computer’ things in the library, after all: quite a few of us learned how to use them: Simonides, in particular, roams all over the Internet and is very good at that ‘Google’.”
The Interviewer’s lips twitched a bit, but she stayed silent.
Mrs Timmings forged on, with increasing indignation. “There was a point when we wondered if the moderators would delete everything: stories, discussions, celebrations, and all! They were so angry!—and what would become of us then? We were worried sick! Folks were in the library peeking into journals just to find out what was going on behind the scenes. Yes, even locked journals (which doesn’t seem quite proper to me); but you can hardly blame them.”
“It was a bad time,” the Interviewer agreed.
It was an overly mild response. “It’s all very well for you,” said Mrs Timmings, clearly annoyed. “I assume you have some place of your own somewhere, wherever you visit us from. And characters like me, we do at least have our Books. But what of someone like the Secretary? What of her?”
The Interviewer felt a chill of horror. She hadn’t even thought to ask after the Secretary. (Oh, God! Was that significant?) “Is she still here?” she asked urgently. Over the years, she and the Secretary had become quite good friends—two modern Americans together in a place filled with ancient Greeks and mid twentieth-century English.
“There was a point where she thought she’d be packing her bags and moving on,” confided Mrs Timmings. “She showed them to me: two suitcases: they just appeared in the closet in her room. It seemed a Sign.” She paused, “Well, certainly, once it was explained to them, all the Greek characters agreed it was a Sign. And when the moderators actually closed the Community,....” Mrs Timmings shook her head, and the Interviewer waited with bated breath. “But then we were reminded that there was that new Community. Not as large, but very keen on the Moderns, and apparently welcoming us—”
“Yes, I know,” put in the Interviewer.
“—so, as it turned out, she never did have to move on.”
The Interviewer felt a rush of relief.
“Though mind you,” added Mrs Timmings, “the suitcases have never disappeared. They’re in the hall closet.”
“Though that new Community,” Mrs Timmings went on, thoughtfully, “in the end, their members never did come here.”
“And I think most of them have moved on themselves, in their own way. At any rate, there’ve been very few stories in the last year or so.” Hastily, Mrs Timmings said, “Not that I object to people having other interests, of course. But it does seem a pity when they drop us entirely.”
“I’ve noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve received a copy of the Renault Times,” put in the Interviewer, thoughtfully.
“I doubt there’d be much to read. You’ve not been around, for a start. Nor have I seen Mr Odell—Mr Michael Odell, that is (Laurie’s father, you know). Not for a long time.”
The Interviewer nodded. Between the two of them, the two journalists had done much of the writing for the newspaper. “Who has been here then?” she asked. “Aside from you, that is.”
“Ah, well,” Mrs Timmings thought for a bit. “Some of the Ancients. Especially the slaves: I think they like taking the time off from work. We don’t see much of the Kings nowadays, though.” A bit dryly, she added, “I dare say it’s a bit quiet for them. They do like getting plenty of attention, don’t they? But the philosophers come quite often. I think they enjoy being able to chat with people from different Books.” She paused, and then added, “Oh, and Simonides is still working his way through that Internet thing. Quite a reader he’s become.” Mentally, she conned the casts. “Hardly anyone visits from the prewar Books. They’ve their own lives to lead, I suppose. Quite a few from my book come, especially the young men.” She winked as she added, “The House is very obliging with the rations. You know what appetites are like at that age.”
The Interviewer nodded. That probably meant the Bridstow crowd, she thought; and maybe people from Laurie’s school.
“Miss Lethbridge likes to pop in now and then, too. Mind you, Mrs Straike doesn’t come any more. Her husband doesn’t like it.”
The Interviewer wasn’t surprised to hear this. In quite a few fan stories, he was written as rather a bullying character.
“A matter of ethics, or some such,” added Mrs Timmings. “He’s a great believer in sticking to one’s rations—certainly, he’d never use the Black Market! (not that I do myself, of course)—but he seems to feel that coming here is only one step better. Of course, he is the vicar. I suppose he feels he should practice what he preaches, so Mrs Vicar should, too. It’s a bit hard on her, though, if you ask me. She does like a little extra, now and then; and I can’t see that it hurts anyone. Mind you, a nice cuppa here isn’t the same as taking back a few eggs, as she’s done more than once—the rationing of eggs is so bad now. Mr Straike had rather a lot to say about it when she asked me to make them an omelette for their Sunday breakfast. The more so since we’ve evacuees again, and questions bound to be asked, if only when the children talk about it at school. Which they well might, as you can imagine.”
The Interviewer listened to this in some fascination, if only for the insight into life at the vicarage. Neither of the Straikes was among her favourites. “What about Laurie?” she asked. Whether the Editor would approve another article, given the reduced reader interest, was something she doubted; but if anyone was reading, then she knew that, of all the Modern characters, Laurie (and Ralph, of course) would be the ones people would want most to know about.
“Oh, he’s fine,” said Mrs Timmings. “Writes his mother regularly, he does. I’m glad to say that, war or no war, the post is quite reliable, really. And, of course, he’s only in London.”
“Ah, right,” said the Interviewer. From her perspective, this helped to pin down which Mrs Timmings she was speaking to: post-Book, clearly; after Laurie left Oxford; but still during the war, obviously, given the evacuees; most likely— “He’s still at the Ministry, then?” she asked, hoping that she’d guessed right. (Fanfic could stray into so many futures.)
Mrs Timmings nodded. “They quite rely on him, according to his mother.” But there was a twinkle in her eye; and the Interviewer smiled.
“Does he come here a lot?” she asked.
“I suspect if he did, she’d be here every day, too, whatever Mr Straike says.”
“Oh, yes, she would!” said the Interviewer with a laugh. “Our first Christmas celebration here at the Clubhouse—I seem to recall it all started as her way of having a family celebration when he couldn’t get home.”
“And quite a do it was in the end, wasn’t it?” Mrs Timmings sighed reminiscently. For a few minutes, they swapped memories of better times. Finally, though, the Interviewer dragged the conversation back to the present.
“So Laurie doesn’t come here much?”
Mrs Timmings shook her head. “I dare say he’s too busy. And he’s in London, of course. I’m sure he has his own friends there.” She nodded sagely. “Young men don’t want to live in their mother’s pockets. For all that Mrs Straike would like him to come home whenever possible, I’m glad he’s found his own feet. There was a time, when he was at college particularly, when I feared he was getting quite tied to her apron strings. She wrote him all the time, you know; and he answered every letter, telling her the details of Oxford. And then, too, he spent his holidays at home in the village instead of going rambling with his friends.”
“I think he missed his home, as well as his mother,” said the Interviewer, who was familiar with parts of The Charioteer that Mrs Timmings, of course, could not have read.
“I think the war made a man of him,” Mrs Timmings declared. “They say it does; and, in his case, I think it’s true. Not that he wasn’t a lovely lad as a boy, mind. I’ve always had a soft spot for him.”
Haven’t we all, thought the Interviewer. Then, keeping her face quite straight, she asked, “Do you ever hear anything of his friend, Ralph Lanyon?”
“He’s at sea,” said Mrs Timmings. “That much I do know—though no details, of course. Laurie slips quite a lot into his letters to his mother; but I doubt if even he knows that sort of thing. There’s a war on, after all: none of Our Boys are allowed to put details in their letters.”
“He writes Laurie, you mean?” asked the Interviewer. “Don’t he and Laurie come here together?” After a pause, she added innocently, “I just wondered, since the mail is bound to be very irregular when it has to come overseas, as it would with Ralph on board ship. As you say, there’s a war on.”
“Ye-e-e-s,” said Mrs Timmings. She looked sideways at the Interviewer, hesitated, and then said, “Well, that’s none of my business.”
The Interviewer gave her a sideways glance in return.
“I don’t gossip,” said Mrs Timmings firmly. “Least of all about my family that I’ve worked for all these years. I’ve known Laurie since he and his mother first came to the village; and he was only a little boy then. I’ve made fruit cake and jars of jam for his tuck box, watched him fight back tears on his first day off to school—yes, and heard all his stories when he came back for the hols. I’ve seen him running round the countryside with that galumphing great dog of his, and sticking-plastered his knee when he came off his bike. I’ve watched him grow up; and he’s a fine young man who’s done his duty by his country, and lost a lot for it—and never complained about that knee of his, either, though I know it hurts him. I couldn’t love that boy more if he were my own.” After a moment, she repeated, “I don’t gossip.”
“No, of course not,” said the Interviewer. There was a pause. “If the Secretary is around, I should go and say hello,” she said finally. “And see if anyone’s in the library, for that matter.” She flushed slightly, and got up. “I’ve been a bit rude,” she said, “enjoying myself so much chatting here with you.” With a quick glance, she checked that the kitchen did still have a dishwasher, and popped her mug inside.
“Ah, well, it’s nice to have someone to talk to,” said Mrs Timmings. “I think you’ll find the Secretary in the bath house, actually. It’s still a bit cool for swimming in the pond.”