London in August

The woman at the far end of the Park seat kept on nervously twisting and untwisting her handkerchief as though in acute mental distress. She was muttering to herself, too, under her breath. Mrs. Miniver glanced at her sideways once or twice, wondering what was wrong and wishing there was something she could do about it; but all of a sudden the woman, noticing her glances, looked up and smiled quite cheerfully.

"It's me First Aid," she explained. "I do get so muddled up with them knots. The lecturer, she says, 'Right over left, left over right,' see? But it never seems to come out the same, not when I do it meself."

"I wonder," suggested Mrs. Miniver tentatively, "whether you'd find it any easier if you thought about it as 'back and front'?"

The woman experimented with this idea for a few moments, and then her brow cleared as if by magic.

"Well, that's funny! So it is! It all depends on how you look at things, doesn't it?"

She laid the knotted handkerchief on the palm of her hand and beamed at it as proudly as though she had just made a successful cake. Oh, well, thought Mrs. Miniver; even if no other good comes out of the present condition of the world, at least there soon won't be a person left in England who doesn't know how to tie a reef-knot. And that's always something.

"I must say," the other woman confided, "I do enjoy me First Aid classes. It's like being back at school again -- makes you feel quite young."

"I know," said Mrs. Miniver. Yes, she thought, that's the whole point. That is the one great compensation for the fantastic way in which the events of our time are forcing us to live. The structure of our life -- based as it is on the ever-present contingency of war -- is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old.

She looked at her watch, got up, and walked on towards Kensington Gardens, where Clem had said he would meet her for tea if he could. His latest job was a big new school on Campden Hill which had to be finished early in September: this gave him a reason, and Mrs. Miniver an excellent excuse, for spending a good deal of August in London. The children were away, and so were the maids; Mrs. Burchett came in every morning to do their breakfast, and they had the rest of their meals out.

London in August, Mrs. Miniver had long ago discovered, is bleak in theory but enjoyable in practice. For one thing, your circle of acquaintances, without any of the pangs of bereavement or estrangement, is arbitrarily reduced to half its normal size, with some interesting results. You find yourself knowing better, quite suddenly, people with whom you have been at a standstill for years; understudies blossom into stars; even boaks occasionally reveal an unsuspected jewel in the head. And the town itself too, has a strange charm, in spite of the shuttered houses, the empty window-boxes, the dusty plane-trees, and the smell of hot asphalt. Or perhaps, in a way, because of these. For young Johnny Flint (whose poems, she noticed, had lately been getting more personal and less political) had said yesterday that anybody who had a genuine passion for London got a particular pleasure out of being there at this time of year, "as you do out of being with somebody you're really in love with when they're looking very tired and rather plain." So that was it. Thank goodness, Mrs. Miniver had thought, as she always did when any of her friends came into love or money. She wondered idly who it could be, but knew that with poets this didn't really matter. Beatrice, Fanny Brawne, Ann More, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets -- they are all one and the same person: or perhaps no person at all. Happy or unhappy, kind or unkind, they are nothing but bundles of firewood.

And it will matter little, in after days,
Whether this twig, or that, kindled the blaze.

It was four o'clock. This was the hour when at any other time of year the great tide of perambulators, which is drawn up into the Park twice a day by some invisible and unvarying moon, would have been on the ebb. They would have been streaming steadily out through every gateway, back to the nursery tea-tables of Bayswater, Kensington, Brompton, Belgravia and Mayfair: sleek, shining, graceful, expensive perambulators, well-built, well-sprung, well-upholstered, pushed by well-trained nurses and occupied by well-bred, well-fed children. What that woman at the luncheon-party had called Really Nice Children: the sort of children who had rocking-horses, and special furniture with rabbits on it, and hats and coats that matched, and grandmothers with houses in the country. But in August the shores of the Park were forsaken by this tide, and another one took its place. They straggled over the worn, slippery grass in little processions -- whey-faced, thin, ragged, merry and shrewd. The boys carried nets and jam-jars. The eldest girl, almost always, was lugging a dilapidated push-chair with an indeterminate baby in it; and sometimes an ex-baby as well, jammy-mouthed and lolling over the edge.

These were the other children. With any luck, if there was a war before they grew up, they would one day see cows, and running streams, and growing corn. But not otherwise. Unless, of course, a miracle happened; unless the structure could be changed without altering the texture, and the people of England, even after the necessity for it had been averted, remembered how to tie a reef-knot.

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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther