The Last Day of the Holidays

The last day of the holidays dawned relentlessly wet. The last day down at Starlings, that is, which for Vin was what counted. Judy liked London equally well, and Toby lived in a landscape of his own; but for Vin the twenty-four hours in London on his way back to school were only a kind of twilight, with one foot already in the grave. There was always some treat to mitigate it -- the circus, a theatre, or a music-hall ; but even this, enjoyable as it was, had a tinge of the macabre in its glory, like the pomps and splendours of a funeral feast.

Not that he disliked school; but it had to be regarded, he found, as another life, to be approached only by way of the Styx. You died on the station platform, were reborn, not without pangs, in the train, and emerged at the other end a different person, with a different language, a different outlook, and a different scale of values.

That was what the stray grown-ups you met in the holidays did not seem to understand when they asked you the fatuous and invariable question, "How do you like school? " It was impossible to answer this properly, because the person of whom they asked it never, strictly speaking, arrived at school at all.

The reverse process -- getting back into his home skin -- though not in the least painful, was almost as difficult. For one thing, he had always outgrown it a little, and, like his home clothes. it had to be adjusted. Sometimes, before it was a comfortable fit, nearly a week had gone by; he was almost half-way to the half-way mark -- that significant water-shed beyond which the days raced downhill in a heartless torrent.

However full the children packed them, however early they got up, however late, by various ruses, they contrived to go to bed, the holidays were always far too short. There was never time to carry out more than three-quarters of the plans they made. Some of these -- such as building a tree-hut or exploring the mill-stream to its source -- never got started at all; others they had to leave half done, such as the cardboard castle which had been lurking for two years in a corner of the boxroom, roofless, but with a practicable portcullis. Somehow it never seemed possible to finish things like that during the next holidays. There was always some newer craze.

This time their main occupation had been fitting up one of the outhouses like the cabin of a ship, with built-in bunks, straw palliasses, and a locker full of imaginary charts. (Vin drew the charts, Judy painted them, and Toby put in the casual dolphins.) But they had also made a brick-kiln in the kitchen garden and baked in it at least a dozen quite satisfactory bricks. Not enough to build anything with, it is true, but enough to give them a reassuring feeling that if they were ever wrecked on a desert island they would soon be able to run up a house or two: always provided, of course, that the island had a clay soil. And they had dammed the stream, and undammed it again; and watched the woodmen cutting and splitting young chestnuts for palings; and watched the blacksmith, and the wheelwright, and the man who came to mend the roof; and walked over to Loddenden to have tea with Old Jane; and had a bonfire, the day Vin caught a bream, so that they could cook it in the embers, wrapped in wet paper.

For the last day they had made at least six different plans, but they were all out-of-door ones and it was obvious that they would all have to be abandoned. The sky was black and sagging, like an old tarpaulin. A big cross-channel plane was labouring unsteadily southward against the gale, flying so low that it looked as though it would barely clear the chimneys. Below the high wooded ridge on which their house stood the green and silver network of the Marsh lay blurred with rain, its dikes swollen and many of its pastures already merged in flood.

It had evidently got to be an indoor day. And because it was the last one they took turns, in order of age, at choosing what to do. Clem, who came first, chose darts; they played Round the Clock, and Nannie, as usual, won. Mrs. Miniver chose Letter Bags (a game which is to all other letter-games as dry-fly fishing is to a string and a bent pin). Nannie, most popularly, chose toffee-making on the nursery fire; and by the time that was set aside in biscuit-tin lids to cool, lunch was ready.

Afterwards they took another look at the weather. It was quite hopeless. The wind, no longer squally, had risen to a steady roar. The trees were straining, the lawn sodden, the Marsh completely blotted out. Vin chose charades, and Judy said she had been going to choose dressing up, so they combined the two; and that, of course, lasted them easily till tea-time.

Next it was Toby's turn. But all he wanted, apparently, and he wanted it with a consuming urgency, was to be left alone in a corner with eight elastic bands and an old photograph frame: he said he had had a good idea at tea. So the rest of them had a concert. with Clem at the piano. They sang "Camptown Races " and "The Ash Grove " and "Rolling Down to Rio " and "Alfonso Spagoni " and "Cockles and Mussels " and "A Bicycle Made for Two. " They were going to sing "Home, Sweet Home, but Vin suggested that it ought to be pronounced "Hume, Sweet Hume, " like the surname; and after that, because they were just in the right mood for silly jokes, they laughed too much to be able to sing it at all, so the concert came to an end.

So far as they knew, Toby had been paying no attention. But when the noise of their own laughter had died away they became aware of a small reedy voice singing in the far corner, accompanied by a confused twangling sound. It was Toby, blissfully sweeping the strings of his good idea.

"'Carry me hume "' (he sang) "'to Old Virginny........ Tck! That end band's come loose again. "

When the two younger ones had been taken off to bed, Vin went to the window and peered out at the dripping garden. The rain had stopped at last; a few torn clouds were racing past in a clear moonlit sky. But it was too late now. The holidays were over.


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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther