"Doing a Mole"

Mrs. Miniver, having dropped the younger children at the seaside bungalow where they were going to stay with a school friend of Judy's, decided to spend an hour in the neighbouring town before driving back to London. It was to this town that she had been sent for a fortnight every year as a small child, and she felt a sudden desire to do a Mole. ("Doing a Mole" was Vin's phrase -- coined after reading The Wind in the Willows -- for a revisitation of old haunts.)

Having parked the car, she walked along the front in the fresh dancing sunlight. This part of the town was almost unrecognizable -- a street of angular lettering and neon strips, with ice-cream tricycles instead of the old painted hokey-pokey barrows. As for the children's clothes -- she tried to imagine what her old nurse would have said if she had wanted to walk from their lodgings to the beach in a wisp of a cotton sun-suit. She herself had worn no fewer than ten separate garments, including woollen combinations (folded thickly above the knee because they were too long) and baggy blue serge knickers into which all the rest of her clothes were tucked when she paddled, so that her shadow on the sand was always that of a gnome. Even in the sea she had worn blue serge, and on cold days a white Shetland spencer on top of her bathing-dress. She could still remember what it felt like when her nurse pulled it off over her wrists, wet.

At the pier she stopped and leant over the railings, hardly daring to draw a breath for fear of not finding what she was hoping for. She gave a cautious sniff, and then a luxurious one. It was all right. Evidently the most progressive of Town Councils could not do away with the peculiar, complex, deliciously nasty smell which is to be found under piers around high-water mark; a mixture of salt, rust, and slime, of rotting seaweed, dead limpets, and dried orange-peel. For a few moments, breathing it in, Mrs. Miniver could almost hear the creaking of her nurse's stays as she settled her broad back against the breakwater for the afternoon.

But presently the sight of a concert-party announcement brought her back again to the present day: for the name she read there was that of a sophisticated ensemble which she had often heard on the wireless. This was a far cry from the seaside entertainments of her childhood -- the slightly shop-soiled-looking pierrots, and the sham black minstrels with straw hats, banjos, and bones.

It was one of these, curiously enough, who had first introduced her to death. He sang a song which began:--

What's (plonk!) the use (plonk!) of saving up your money,
If you can't take it with you when you die? (plink-plonk!)

and ended:--

But if (plonk!) you've got (plonk!) a wart upon your nose,
Well, you must take it with you when you die (plink-plonk!)

This, for some reason, pierced her to the heart with a shaft of realization. She burst into tears and flung herself across her nurse's grey tweed lap. "I don't want to die!" she sobbed. "Oh, Nannie, I don't ever want to die!" The nurse, horrified, picked her up and carried her out of the pavilion. "There, there," she kept saying helplessly; "there, there." And that night she gave her a dose of magnesia.

Just beyond the pier Mrs. Miniver turned up a steep, curved street with a church in it. This was where their lodgings had been. She had no idea of the number, but she felt certain she would know the house when she came to it. Here again her nose had a good memory, for a breath of sickly-sweet scent brought her to a sudden standstill. Of course: she had quite forgotten about the privet hedge. And with that memory came another: there had been four panes of coloured glass in the middle of the front door -- green, red, yellow, and blue. Looking through them in turn from the hall, you could make it be whatever season you liked in the front garden -- spring, summer, autumn, or winter: but when you opened the door there was never anything but the hard white glare of July. She pushed the gate open and walked quietly up the path, to make sure whether those coloured panes were still there. They were: but as she bent down (she had once stood on tiptoe) to look at them, the door was opened by a woman with a shopping basket on her arm.

"Oh!" Mrs. Miniver tried to look self-possessed. "I was just going to ring. I -- I'm looking for rooms. But if you're going out, it doesn't matter a bit."

"No trouble," said the landlady. So Mrs. Miniver had to go through with it, peering into room after room. In the second floor front she paused and looked round very carefully.

"This is a nice one," she said. "So big and airy." But she was thinking, How low, how small; how time contracts the rooms of one's childhood, drawing the walls inwards and the ceilings down. What with the shrinkage and the redecoration (for now, of course, it had a porridgy modern wallpaper with an orange frieze) she would not have known it was the same room, if it hadn't been for the fireplace. This, she was relieved to see, was untouched. There was the same ornate ironwork, the same rather bad imitation Dutch tiles; and the lowest tile on the left was still loose. By wiggling it gently, she had discovered, you could slip this tile right out and put it back again; and once, on their last day, she had dug a hole in the plaster behind it with her nurse's nail-scissors and hidden a new farthing, in order to have some buried treasure to look for the next time they came. But there had been no next time.

"I wonder," she thought, eyeing the loose tile -- but no, it was ridiculous, things didn't happen like that. Besides, one really couldn't . . .

"There now!" said the landlady. "That's the bell. Excuse me a moment."

Mrs. Miniver made a bee-line for the fireplace, knelt down and wiggled gently. Her heart was thumping: she knew now what burglars must go through. The tile came out quite easily: the hole was still there, but the farthing was gone. She slipped the tile back, stood up, and managed to get her knees dusted just before the landlady reached the top of the stairs.

Afterwards, walking down the steep street towards the beach, she thought about that farthing with an absurd and unreasonable pang. It would have made such a wonderful ending to her Mole. But she was comforted when she imagined with what incredulous delight some later child, exploring, must have found it.


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