Back From Abroad

"Partir, c'est mourir un peu. . . " How shrewdly the French language can drive home a nail, thought Mrs. Miniver, seeing again in her mind's eye the row of smiling faces to which she had waved a regretful good-bye, the evening before, from the window of the little Alpine train. At her sister-in-law's request she had travelled out with her niece Alison, who was going to spend six months living with a Swiss family; and she had stayed on for a week at a pension in the same village, just to see that Alison was happily established. The whole family had come to see her off at the station. The solitary porter, standing beside his yellow toy barrow, had had a grass stalk between his teeth; and the moon, just topping the Mittelhorn, had looked for the space of a breath or two like a vast snow-ball which was about to roll down the glacier.

But why, she wondered, as the serene but unjoyful landscape of northern France slid past the dining-car windows -- the white horses, the dun cattle, the red farms, the grey shutters, the beaded cemeteries, the hedgeless fields like foreheads without eyebrows -- why has nobody ever made the parallel observation: "Revenir, c'est savoir ce que c'est que d'être un revenant"? That would be no less shrewd: for when you first come home from a strange place you are always something of a ghost. They were sorry when you went away, and they welcome you back with affection: but in the meanwhile they have adjusted their lives a little to your absence. For the first meal or two, there is not quite enough room for your chair. They ask, "Where did you go? What was it like?"; but for the life of you you cannot tell them. You can say, "It was like a large, neat Scotland"; or "They use nonante instead of quatre-vingt-dix"; or, "They trim all their buildings with wooden lace"; or,"There was a nice little German boy staying at the pension"; or "I made friends with a charming farmer at the village fête." But however eagerly they listen they do not really take in what you are saying. For you cannot make them understand the essential point, which is that when you went away you took the centre of the universe with you, so that the whole thing went on revolving, just as usual, round your own head. How could they, indeed, be expected to believe this, when they know quite well that all the time the centre of everything stayed at home with them? It is a day or two, as a rule, before your universe and theirs (like the two images in a photographic range-finder) merge and become concentric: and when that happens, you know you are really home.

But that moment, for Mrs. Miniver, was still far ahead. She had not even quite detached herself yet from the place she had just left. Like the earth-bound spirit of one who has recently died, she still thought in terms of the life she had been leading. Glancing up at the clock of the dining-car, she reflected: "Hansi's mother will just be tying the napkin round his neck; and he will be saying 'Bit-te, Mama, keinen Blumenkohl.'" The first time she had heard him say this she had caught his mother's eye and smiled: for the tone and the sentiment were so exactly Toby's. She had smiled, too, when she overheard at breakfast the so familiar question: "Aber du, Hansi, hast du dir die Zähne gut geputzt?" But she had done more than smile when Hansi, after a day or two's distant politeness, had taken her by the hand and led her to a row of curiously-shaped pebbles in a secret hiding-place between the wood-stacks.

"Meine Sammlung," he said briefly. "My c'lection," echoed Toby's voice in her memory. Her heart turned over: how could there be this ridiculous talk of war, when little boys in all countries collected stones, dodged cleaning their teeth, and hated cauliflower?

Indeed, what always struck her when she went abroad was how much stronger the links are between people of the same calling than between people of the same race: especially if it is a calling which has more truck with the laws of nature than with the laws of man. The children of the world are one nation; the very old, another; the blind, a third: (for childhood, age and blindness are all callings, and hard ones at that). A man who works with wood, a man who works with iron, a man who works with test-tubes, is more akin to a joiner, a smith, a research chemist from the other end of the earth than to a clerk or a shopkeeper in his own town. A fisherman from Ushant and a fisherman from Stornoway are both citizens of the same relentless country; and Nicollier, the farmer with whom Mrs. Miniver had made friends at the village fête, had expressed in a different tongue precisely the same feelings and opinion as Tom (Brickwall) Iggulsden.

If only, she thought, sipping her black coffee, one could somehow get them together -- not the statesmen and the diplomats, but Toby and Hansi, Iggulsden and Nicollier. If only all governments would spend the price of a few bombers on exchanging for the holidays, free of charge, a certain number of families from each district. . . .

The attendant brought her bill. She paid it, burying her last thought as a dog buries a bone, to be returned to later. They had passed Boulogne now and were on the last lap of the journey to Calais. As one does when there are only a few minutes to go and it is not worth while embarking on anything new, she let her gaze wander round the carriage, idly seeking the titillation of the printed word. On the window sill she read:--

Ne pas se pencher en dehors.
Nicht hinauslehnen.
E pericoloso sporgersi.

Exactly, she thought. "What I tell you three times is true." But the trouble was, it still had to be said in three different languages . . . .


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