On Hampstead Heath

They went away nearly every week-end, either to Starlings or to other people's houses, but about once a month they made a point of staying in London. On Saturday afternoon they would drive down to see Vin at school, and on Sunday the two younger children would take it in turns to choose a treat. This time it was Toby's turn, and he chose Hampstead Heath because he wanted to sail his boat on the pond. Judy wasn't particularly keen on boats, but her favourite doll Christabel had a new spring coat and she was quite glad of a chance to take her out in it.

It was a clear, clean, nonchalant kind of day, with a billowy south wind. The scene round the pond, as they burst upon it suddenly up the hill, would have made an admirable opening for a ballet -- a kind of English Petrouchka or Beau Danube. The blue pond, the white sails, the children in their Sunday clothes, the strolling grown-ups, the gambolling dogs, the ice-cream men (hatched out prematurely by the unseasonable heat) tinkling slowly round on their box-tricycles -- it all had an air of having been rehearsed up to a perfection of spontaneity. The choreography was excellent, the decor charming: it remained to be seen whether any theme would develop.

When they got out of the car Toby discovered that he had left the key of his motor-boat at home. It was much too late to go back, of course: there was nothing to be done except wait and see how he would take it. One never knew, when setting out to comfort Toby, whether to prepare first aid for a pinprick or a broken heart. He was not yet old enough to be able to grade his own misfortunes: it is one of the maturer accomplishments. Fortunately he was in a philosophical mood. He just said: "Oh, well, we can watch the others," and trotted off to the pond with Clem, his feet beating crotchets against his father's minims.

Mrs. Miniver found a deck-chair and sat down in the sun. Judy walked about, carrying Christabel rather ostentatiously so that people could see her new coat. It was really magnificent -- pale yellow tweed with a brown velvet collar and brown buttons. Watching her, Mrs. Miniver wondered whether the modem unbreakable dolls, which lasted for years, were more, or less, precious to their owners than the old china ones, whose expectation of life had been a matter of months. The old ones had had the agonizing charm of transience: the modern ones held the promise of a reliable and enduring companionship -- you could make plans for their future, think out their next winter's wardrobe. But it was a silly problem, after all. For love is no actuary: and a new-born baby was probably neither more, nor less, treasured three hundred years ago than it is now, in spite of all our statistics about infant mortality.

The sun was getting quite hot. From where she sat Mrs. Miniver could see two street orators setting up their flimsy platforms and angling for an audience. Judging by their clothes and general demeanour she guessed that the one on the right was Left-wing and the one on the left Right-wing: but she was too far away to read the wording on their notice boards, and when they began to speak nothing reached her except a confused gabble, like a mix-up of stations on the wireless. Seeing Clem and Toby leave the pond and walk over towards the speakers, she collected Judy and joined them. As soon as she got near she found that her guess had been wrong: the right-hand speaker was extreme Right and the left extreme Left. But how many of their audience, she wondered, would have noticed if they had got up behind the wrong placards by mistake?

It was hard to take in the sense of what the speakers were saying, so confusing was the double clamour. But one thing was certain, that the fabric of both speeches was shot through and through with the steely tinsel of war. "To combat the forces of tyranny . . . " one of them ranted. "To crush down the menace of revolution . . ." mouthed the other just as glibly. "Is any sacrifice too great . . . ?" "Which of us would not willingly lay down . . . "

And now, from somewhere behind them, came the sound of a third voice, so shrill, reedy and raucous that it made itself heard even through the babel nearer at hand. It seemed only half human, and for a moment Mrs. Miniver had a sense of nightmare; but as soon as she realized what it was she grabbed Clem by the arm. "Come on!" she said. "There's a Punch and Judy!" Clem's face lit up. He hoisted Toby on to his shoulder and they all four edged their way out of the crowd.

The rest of the morning was pure bliss. For over an hour they stood, absorbed. while the immortal melodrama unfolded itself before their eyes. The proscenium was shabby, the properties crude, the puppets battered almost featureless by the years of savage slapstick they had undergone: but the performance was superb. The baby yelled and was flung out of the window; Judy scolded and was bludgeoned to death; the beadle, the doctor, and the hangman tried in turn to perform their professional duties and were outrageously thwarted; Punch, cunning, violent and unscrupulous, with no virtues whatever except humour and vitality, came out triumphant in the end. And all the children, their faces upturned in the sun like a bed of pink daisies, laughed and clapped and shouted with delight.

"So what?" said Mrs. Miniver at the end, to Clem.

" So nothing," said Clem, shrugging his shoulders. "It's great art, that's all. Come on, I'm hungry."


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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther