The First Day of Spring

It was a Wedgwood day, with white clouds delicately modelled in relief against a sky of pale pure blue. The best of England, thought Mrs. Miniver, as opposed to countries with reasonable climates, is that it is not only once a year that you can say, "This is the first day of spring." She had already said it twice since Christmas -- once in January, when they had driven across the Marsh to the sea and it had been warm enough to lie on the sand without a coat; and once in February, when she had taken the children for a lunch picnic in Kensington Gardens. The grass had been scattered with twigs from the previous night's gale, and by the next afternoon it was snowing: but while it lasted that day had been part of the authentic currency of spring -- a stray coin tossed down carelessly on account.

But this time, she thought (though she knew quite well that one said that every time), it really was spring. On her way downstairs she paused in the drawing-room to look at the plane branches which she had picked up on the Embankment when the men were lopping the trees. She did this every year' but she could never quite believe her eyes when they actually burst into bud. It seemed impossible that those neat emerald bobbles, those velvety, milky-green leaves, should have been implicit in the soot-black sticks -- so much deader-looking than the polished brown twigs of the countryside which she had brought in a month ago. She bent closer to look at one of the newest leaves (it was soft and half-spread, like a little pointed paw), got a cloud of yellow pollen from the flowers on to her nose, and went downstairs sneezing.

Outside the air was delicious. She could feel it stroking her face as she moved through it, but there was no sensation of either warmth or chill. Walking towards Westminster (she was going to meet Clem for lunch near his office), she wondered why she found this particular temperature so charming ; and decided that it was because, on a day like this, she came nearer than usual to losing her sense of separate identity. Extremes of heat and cold she enjoyed too, but it was with a tense, belligerent enjoyment. When they beat against the irregular frontiers of the skin, with all its weak angles and vulnerable salients, they made her acutely conscious of her own boundaries in space. Here, she would find herself thinking. is where I end and the outside world begins. It was exciting, but divisive: it made for loneliness. But on certain days, and this was one of them, the barriers were down. She felt as though she and the outside world could mingle and interpenetrate; as though she was not entirely contained in her own body but was part also of every other person in the street ; and, for that matter, of the thrush singing on a tree in Eaton Square, the roan dray-horse straining to take up the load at Grosvenor Place, the cat stepping delicately across Buckingham Palace Road. This was the real meaning of peace -- not mere absence of division, but an active consciousness of unity, of being one of the mountain-peak islands on a submerged continent.

Just beyond the entrance to the royal stables she became aware that she was walking behind, and gradually overtaking, a small, ragged boy. He was about Toby's size, but probably older. His shorts, even though they had been hauled well up under his armpits, were still far too long for him, and they had a big cobbled patch on the seat; his grey jersey was dirty, skimpy, and threadbare; his legs were spindly, his hair mouse-coloured and closely cropped. He was not an attractive urchin: but what caught her eye were his accoutrements. He wore a sword made out of two pieces of broken lath, hung round his middle with string; his helmet was a brown paper bag with a pigeon's feather stuck through it and "Brooks's Stores" printed on it upside-down; and on his left arm he carried a home-made cardboard shield. His step was jaunty yet purposeful, as though he was setting off on some secret campaign in which he was confident of victory. (There were dragons in St. James’s Park, she knew, for those who needed them: she had lived near it herself as a child.)

By the time he reached the front gates of the Palace she had drawn almost level with him: she could see that the shield was roughly coloured with red chalk and tied to his arm with a boot-lace. She was about to pass him when he caught sight of another urchin, similarly equipped, on the opposite pavement. It was evidently going to be a combined expedition. He gave a shrill yell of greeting and stepped off the kerb.

"Look out!" cried Mrs. Miniver, grabbing him by the shoulder. A taxi swerved with screaming brakes and avoided him by perhaps an inch. But the boy was unimpressed.

"I'm awright," he protested impatiently; shook himself free, and dashed out again into the road. Mrs. Miniver watched him till he got safely over to the other side. Then she discovered that her knees were trembling and that she felt extremely sick. Behind her the sentries stamped and strode, met, turned, and parted, carrying out with beautiful precision their antique ritual. Sentries and cardboard shields: parallel gestures, it seemed, in a world of bombing planes and motor traffic. But perhaps the making of the gesture was what mattered.

She pulled herself together and walked on. The water, a bright translucent curve, flowed steadily into the marble basin; the tritons, nereids, and dolphins gambolled along the frieze; the symbolic bronze statues held, a trifle sententiously, their heroic poses; and high above them all the gilt Queen sat calmly in the sun.


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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther