There are two plots in The Comforters. One is fanciful and improbable; the other imaginative and convincingly real. The first is charming; the second disturbing. The plots are not distinct, for the same characters people both, but there is no thematic connection. The marriage of the related but distinct plots is imperfect as it isn’t in Memento Mori, the finest, and most assured success, of Muriel Spark’s early London novels. Nevertheless there is evidence of what would come to be recognised as the characteristic Spark touch: the unreal plot is presented in realistic style (even if the realism is also whimsical); the real one engages with religious mysteries and flirts with the supernatural.
The novel opens as light comedy:
“On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.
‘I’ll have a large wholemeal. I’ve got my grandson stopping for a week, who’s on the B.B.C. That’s my daughter’s boy, Lady Manders. He won’t eat white bread, one of his fads.’ Laurence shouted from the window, ‘Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.’
She puckered and beamed up at him.
‘Shouting from the window,’ she said to the baker.”
Their relationship is established with lovely economy – “puckered” is a good word.
Louisa Jepp, the part-gypsy grandmother, and Laurence adore each other. Laurence finds her endlessly engaging and amusing, but he is also an inquisitive young man who thinks his grandmother is up to something. His suspicion is confirmed when he finds diamonds concealed in a loaf of bread and then when he comes upon her entertaining a rather rum group of somewhat shifty friends, Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son. Grandmama has a gang, he tells his girlfriend Caroline, and speculates, light-heartedly, that they may be Communist spies. The discovery of the jewels suggests otherwise and indeed the gang are engaged in smuggling diamonds from the Continent, Louisa communicating with her friends by carrier pigeon.
The tone of this strand of the novel is very much of its period; it belongs to the world of Ealing comedy, Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers. The means by which the diamonds are smuggled into the country in plaster casts of saints, carried by the crippled boy in his wheelchair, echo The Lavender Hill Mob. In that film stolen gold bars are melted down and reconstituted as models of the Eiffel Tower. In the novel the diamonds are transported to their London contact, or fence, concealed in tins of Louisa’s home-made pickles, and this also breathes the atmosphere of Ealing Studios, with Louisa a character to be played by Margaret Rutherford.
Laurence is the link between the novel’s two plots. Caroline, a writer engaged in a study of ‘Form in the Modern Novel’, has abstained from sex since her conversion to Catholicism. (Surprisingly this doesn’t disturb Laurence.) Now she has gone to Yorkshire for a ‘Retreat’. She is a neurotic, but quite happy to recognise that she is: a priest will tell her that ‘neurotics never go mad’ – a line that sounds a note which one will come to view as characteristically Sparkian. The Retreat is not a success; she is oppressed by the housekeeper at the Pilgrim Centre of St Philumena, a Mrs Hogg, formerly a servant in the Manders family. Mrs Hogg tells her that everything she herself does is guided by “Our Lady.” Caroline finds her repulsive and soon “began to reflect that Mrs Hogg could become an obsession, the demon of that carnal hypocrisy which struck her mind whenever she came across a gathering of Catholics or Jews engaged in their morbid communal pleasures”. It doesn’t occur to her – or perhaps to Spark? – that in keeping Laurence on a string she may be guilty of “carnal hypocrisy” herself. Be that as it may, she flees the Retreat and returns to London.
The tone of the novel shifts. Caroline, alone in her flat, begins to hear voices. In a panic, she makes ready to flee to her friend, the Baron, with the voice or Typing Ghost remarking on “the difference between this frenzied packing operation and the deliberate care she had taken, in spite of her rage, to fold and fit her possessions into place at St Philumena’s less than a day ago failed to register. Tap.” Before long the Typing Ghost will insist that it is writing a novel and that Caroline and all the other characters in it are fictitious – the claim then regularly made in a prefatory note to novels in order to forestall any possible libel actions.
Caroline is therefore immediately brought up against questions which were to be repeatedly asked in Spark’s novels: what is reality? Is it what presents itself to the senses? If so, in what sense are the voices she hears less real than her conversations with Laurence and the Baron? Or do they belong to a different order of reality? In what sense is Mrs Hogg’s account of her conversations with the Virgin Mary to be considered less real than the voices by which Caroline is assailed? And in what sense is a novel – a work of fiction – to be considered a reflection of reality? It is no wonder that Caroline has been experiencing difficulty in writing the chapter on Realism in her study of ‘Form in the Modern Novel’. - Allan Massie
On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.
‘I’ll have a large wholemeal. I’ve got my grandson stopping for a week, who’s on the B.B.C. That’s my daughter’s boy, Lady Manders. He won’t eat white bread, one of his
Laurence shouted from the window, ‘Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.’
She puckered and beamed up at him.
‘Shouting from the window,’ she said to the baker.
‘You woke me up,’ Laurence said.
‘My grandson,’ she told the baker. ‘A large wholemeal, and don’t forget to call on Wednesday.’
Laurence looked at himself in the glass. ‘I must get up,’ he said, getting back into bed. He gave himself seven minutes.
He followed his grandmother’s movements from the sounds which came clearly through the worn cottage floorboards. At seventy-eight Louisa Jepp did everything very slowly but with extreme attention, as some do when they know they are slightly drunk. Laurence heard a clink and a pause, a tinkle and a pause, breakfast being laid. Her footsteps clicked like a clock that is running down as she moved between the scullery and the little hot kitchen; she refused to shuffle.
When he was half dressed Laurence opened a tiny drawer on the top of the tall old-fashioned chest. It contained some of his grandmother’s things, for she had given him her room. He counted three hairpins, eight mothballs; he found a small piece of black velvet embroidered with jet beads now loose on their thread. He reckoned the bit of stuff would be about two and a half inches by one and a half. In another drawer he found a comb with some of his grandmother’s hair on it and noted that the object was none too neat. He got some pleasure from having met with these facts, three hairpins, eight mothballs, a comb none too neat, the property of his grandmother, here in her home in Sussex, now in the present tense. That is what Laurence was like.
‘It is unhealthy,’ his mother had lately told him. ‘It’s the only unhealthy thing about your mind, the way you notice absurd details, it’s absurd of you.’
‘That’s what I’m like,’ Laurence said.
As usual, she knew this meant deadlock, but carried on, ‘Well, it’s unnatural. Because sometimes you see things that
She did not say, but she knew he had been in her room prying into her messy make-up drawer, patting the little bottles like a cat and naming them. She could never persuade him that this was wrong. After all, it was a violation of privacy.
Very often Laurence said, ‘It would be wrong for you but it isn’t for me.’ And always Helena Manders, his mother, would reply ‘I don’t see that’, or ‘I don’t agree’, although really she did in a way.
In his childhood he had terrorised the household with his sheer literal truths.
‘Uncle Ernest uses ladies’ skin food, he rubs it on his elbows every night to keep them soft’ . . . ‘Eileen has got her pain’ . . . ‘Georgina Hogg has three hairs on her chin when she doesn’t pull them out. Georgina has had a letter from her cousin which I read.’
These were memorable utterances. Other items which he aired in the same breath, such as, ‘There’s been a cobweb on the third landing for two weeks, four days and fifteen hours, not including the time for the making’ – these were received with delight or indifference according to mood, and forgotten.
His mother told him repeatedly, ‘I’ve told you repeatedly, you are not to enter the maids’ rooms. After all, they are entitled to their privacy.’
As he grew older he learned to conceal the sensational portions of his knowledge, imparting only what was necessary to promote his reputation for being remarkably observant. In those days his father was capable of saying, on the strength of a school report, ‘I always knew Laurence would outgrow that morbid phase.’
‘Let’s hope he has,’ Helena Manders had said. Parents change. In those days, Laurence was aware that she halfsuspected him of practising some vague sexual perversion which she could not name, would not envisage, and which in any case he did not practise. Then, it was almost to put her at ease, to assure her that he was the same Laurence as of old, that he said, during the holidays of his last term, ‘Eileen is going to have a baby.’
‘She’s a good Catholic girl,’ Helena protested; she was herself a Catholic since her marriage. None the less, on challenging Eileen in the kitchen, the case turned out to be so.
Eileen, moreover, defiantly refused to name the man. Laurence was able to provide this information.
‘I’ve always kept up with Eileen’s correspondence,’ he explained. ‘It enlivens the school holidays.’
‘You’ve been in that poor girl’s room, reading her letters behind her back, the poor thing!’
‘Shall I tell you what her boy friend wrote?’ Laurence said tyrannously.
‘I’m shocked as you know,’ she said, accepting that this made no impression. ‘How you, a good Catholic – but apart from that, it’s illegal, I believe, to read letters addressed to others,’ she said, defeated.
Merely to give her the last word he pointed out, ‘Well, you’ve got them married, my dear. A good Catholic marriage. That’s the happy result of my shocking perusal of Eileen’s letters.’
‘The end doesn’t justify the means.’
Pat it came out just as he had expected. An answer for everything. All the same, incidents like this helped to deaden the blow when she realised that Laurence was abandoning, and finally had abandoned religion.
Louisa Jepp sat at the table writing out her football pools as she waited for Laurence.
‘Come down!’ she said to the ceiling, ‘and leave off your snooping, dear.’
As soon as he appeared she told him, ‘If Manchester City had won last week I should have got thirty thousand.’
Louisa folded her football coupon and placed it under the clock. She gave all her attention to Laurence and his breakfast.
She was half gipsy, the dark one and the youngest of a large red-haired family, which at the time of her birth owed its prosperity to the father’s success as a corn dealer. The success was owing to good fortune in the first place, his having broken jail while waiting to come before the Bench, never afterwards returning to his gipsy tribe. It was a hundred and thirty years after this event that Louisa was sitting down to breakfast with Laurence.
Louisa’s hair remains black, though there is not much of it. She is short, and seen from the side especially, her form resembles a neat double potato just turned up from the soil with its small round head, its body from which hangs the roots, her two thin legs below her full brown skirt and corpulence. Her face, from the front, is square, receding in planes like a prism. The main lines on her face are deep, they must have been in gradual evidence since she was thirty, they seemed carved to the bone. But the little wrinkles are superficial, brushing the surface of her skin, coming and going like innumerable stars when she puckers a smile or unfolds a look of surprise. Her eyes are deep-set and black.
Her hands and feet very small. She wears rimless spectacles. She is still alive, not much changed from that day when Laurence came down to breakfast. She was wearing a brown dress, a brown woollen jacket with gilt buttons, and a pair of diamond earrings embedded in her ears. When Laurence had sized her up, as he always did with everyone, he dipped his fork into a jar and drew out something long, white and pickled.
‘What can this be?’
‘Chid’lings,’ she said. ‘They are beautiful.’
He was accustomed to Louisa’s food: whelks, periwinkles, milts and roes, chitterlings and sweetbreads, giblets, brains and the tripes of ruminating animals. Louisa prepared them at long ease, by many processes of affusion, diffusion and immersion, requiring many pans of brine, many purifications and simmerings, much sousing and sweetening by slow degrees. She seldom bought an ordinary cut or joint, and held that people who went through life ignoring the inward vitals of shells and beasts didn’t know what was good for them.
‘If you won thirty thousand in the pool, what would you do?’ Laurence said.
‘Buy a boat,’ she replied.
‘I would paddle you up and down the river,’ Laurence said. ‘A houseboat would be nice. Do you remember that fortnight on the houseboat, my first year at prep school?’
‘I mean a boat for crossing the sea. Yes, it was lovely on the houseboat.’
‘A yacht? Oh, how grand.’
‘Well, a good-sized boat,’ said Louisa, ‘that’s what I’d buy. Suitable for crossing the Channel.’
‘A motor cruiser,’ Laurence suggested.
‘That’s about it,’ she said.
‘Oh, how grand.’
She did not reply, for he had gone too far with his ‘Oh, how grand!’
‘We could do the Mediterranean,’ he said.
‘Oh, how grand,’ she said.
‘Wouldn’t it be more fun to buy a house?’ Laurence had just remembered his mother’s plea, ‘If you get an opportunity do try to persuade her to take a little money from us and live comfortably in her own house.’
She answered, ‘No. But if I won a smaller sum I’d buy this cottage. I’m sure Mr Webster would sell.’
‘Oh, I’d love to think of you having the cottage for your very own. Smugglers Retreat is such a dear little house.’
Even as he spoke Laurence knew that phrases like ‘your very own’ and ‘dear little house’ betrayed what he was leading up
to, they were not his grandmother’s style.
‘I know what you’re leading up to,’ said Louisa. ‘Help yourself to the cigarettes.’
‘I have my own. Why won’t you let father buy the cottage for you? He can afford it.’
‘I manage very nicely,’ said Louisa. ‘Smoke one of these – they come from Bulgaria.’
‘Oh, how grand!’ But he added, ‘How extremely smart and where did you get them from?’
‘Bulgaria. I think through Tangiers.’
Laurence examined the cigarette. His grandmother, a perpetual surprise. She rented the cottage, lived as an old-age pensioner.
Her daughter Helena said frequently, ‘God knows how she manages. But she always seems to have plenty of everything.’
Helena would tell her friends, ‘My mother won’t accept a penny. Most independent; the Protestant virtues, you know. God knows how she manages. Of course, she’s half gipsy, she has the instinct for contriving ways and means.’
‘Really! Then you have gipsy blood, Helena? Really, and you so fair, how romantic. One would never have thought –’
‘Oh, it comes out in me sometimes,’ Helena would say.
It was during the past four years, since the death of her husband, penniless, that Louisa had revealed, by small tokens and bit by bit, an aptitude for acquiring alien impenetrable luxuries.
Manders’ Figs in Syrup, with its seventy-year-old trademark – an oriental female yearning her draped form towards, and apparently worshipping a fig tree – was the only commodity that Louisa was willing to accept from her daughter’s direction. Louisa distributed the brown sealed jars of this confection among her acquaintance; it kept them in mind of the living reality underlying their verbal tradition, ‘Mrs Jepp’s daughter was a great beauty, she married into Manders’ Figs in Syrup.’
‘Tell your father,’ said Louisa, ‘that I have not written to thank him because he is too busy to read letters. He will like the Bulgarian cigarettes. They smell very high. Did he like my figs?’
‘Oh yes, he was much amused.’
‘So your mother told me when she wrote last. Did he like them?’
‘Loved them, I’m sure. But we were awfully tickled.’
Louisa, in her passion for pickling and preserving, keeps up with the newest methods. Some foods go into jars, others into tins sealed by her domestic canning machine. When Louisa’s own figs in syrup, two cans of them with neatly pencilled labels, had arrived for Sir Edwin Manders, Helena had felt uneasy at first.
‘Is she having a lark with us, Edwin?’
‘Of course she is.’
Helena was not sure what sort of a lark. She wrote to Louisa that they were all very amused.
‘Did they enjoy the figs?’ Louisa pressed Laurence.
‘Yes, they were lovely.’
‘They are as good as Manders’, dear, but don’t tell your father I said so.’
‘Better than Manders’,’ Laurence said.
‘Did you taste some, then?’
‘Not actually. But I know they were most enjoyable, Mother said’ (which Helena had not said).
‘Well, that’s what I sent them for. To be enjoyed. You shall have some later. I don’t know what they are talking about – “much amused”. Tell your father that I’m giving
him the cigarettes for enjoyment, tell him that, my dear.’
Laurence was smoking his Bulgarian. ‘Most heady,’ he said. ‘But Mother takes a fit when you send expensive presents. She knows you have to deny yourself and –’
He was about to say ‘pinch and scrape’, using his mother’s lamenting words; but this would have roused the old lady. Besides, the phrase was obviously inaccurate; his grandmother was surrounded by her sufficiency, always behind which hovered a suspicion of restrained luxury.
Even her curious dishes seemed chosen from an expansive economy of spirit rather than any consideration of their cost in money.
‘Helena is a sweet girl, but she does deceive herself. I’m not in need of anything, as she could very well see, if she took the trouble. There is no need for Helena to grieve on my account.’
Laurence was away all day, with his long legs in his small swift car, gone to look round and about the familiar countryside and coastline, gone to meet friends of his own stamp and education, whom he sometimes brought back to show off to them his funny delicious grandmother. Louisa Jepp did many things during that day. She fed the pigeons and rested. Rather earnestly, she brought from its place a loaf of white bread, cut the crust off one end, examined the loaf, cut another slice, and looked again. After the third slice she began at the other end, cutting the crust, peering at the loaf until, at the fourth slice, she smiled at what she saw, and patting the slices into place again put back the loaf in the tin marked ‘bread’.
At nine o’clock Laurence returned. The sitting-room which looked out on the village was very oblong in shape. Here he found his grandmother with visitors, three men. They had been playing rummy, but now they were taking Louisa’s refreshments, seated along each side of the room. One was in an invalid chair; this was a young man, not more than twenty-four.
‘Mr Hogarth, my grandson; my grandson, Mr Webster; and this is young Mr Hogarth. My grandson is on the B.B.C., my daughter’s son, Lady Manders. You’ve heard him give the commentaries on the football and the races, Laurence Manders.’
‘Heard you last Saturday.’ This was Mr Webster, the oldest guest, almost as old as Louisa.
‘Saw you this morning,’ Laurence said.
Mr Webster looked surprised.
‘With the baker’s van,’ Laurence added.
Louisa said, ‘Laurence is very observant, he has to be for his job.’
Laurence, who was aglow from several drinks, spoke the obliging banality, ‘I never forget a face’, and turning to the elder Hogarth he said, ‘For instance, I’m sure I’ve seen your face somewhere before.’ But here, Laurence began to lose certainty. ‘At least – you resemble someone I know but I don’t know who.’
The elder Hogarth looked hopelessly at Louisa, while his son, the boy in the invalid chair, said, ‘He looks like me. Have you seen me before?’
Laurence looked at him.
‘No,’ he said, ‘I haven’t. Nobody at all like you.’
Then, in case he should have said the wrong thing, considering the young man was a cripple, Laurence rattled on.
‘I may take up detective work one of these days. It would be quite my sort of thing.’
‘Oh no, you could never be a detective, Laurence,’ Louisa said, very seriously.
‘Now, why not?’
‘You have to be cunning to be a detective. The C.I.D. are terribly sly and private detectives will stoop to anything. You aren’t a bit sly, dear.’
‘I notice extraordinary things,’ Laurence boasted casually, lolling his brown head along the back of the sofa. ‘Things which people think are concealed. Awful to be like that, isn’t it?’
Laurence had the feeling that they didn’t like him, they suspected him. He got nervous, and couldn’t seem to say anything right. They more and more seemed not to like him as he went on and on compulsively about the wonderful sleuth he would make. And all the time he was talking he actually was taking them in, sleuth-like.
Their presence in his grandmother’s house was strange and surprising, and for that reason alone did not really surprise him. Louisa is pouring out tea. She calls the young Hogarth ‘Andrew’. His father is ‘Mervyn’ to her. Webster is ‘Mr Webster’.
Mr Webster with his white hair, white moustache and dark nautical jacket is not easy to identify with his early-morning appearance – the tradesman in a sandy-brown overall who calls with the bread: Laurence felt pleased with himself for recognising Mr Webster, who wore brown suede shoes, size ten by Laurence’s discernment, whose age might be going on seventy-five, and who, by his voice, is a Sussex man.
Mervyn Hogarth was thin and small. He had a washed-out sandy colouring. Louisa had prepared for him a thin slice of brown bread and butter.
‘Mervyn has to eat often, in small snacks, for his gastric trouble,’ Louisa explained. By his speech, the elder Hogarth is a knowing metropolitan product. God knows what he is doing at Louisa’s, why he is on sufficiently familiar visiting terms for first names and gastric confidences. But Laurence was not a wonderer. He observed that the elder Hogarth wore unpressed flannels and an old ginger tweed jacket with the air of one who can afford to go careless. The son Andrew, with full red lips, was square and large-faced with glasses. He was paralysed in the legs.
As Louisa asked Laurence, ‘Did you have a nice outing, dear?’ Andrew winked at him.
Laurence resented this, an injustice to his grandmother. He felt averse to entering a patronising conspiracy with Andrew against the old lady; he was on holiday for a special reason connected with a love affair, he wanted a change from the complications of belonging to a sophisticated social group. The grandmother refreshed him, she was not to be winked about. And so Laurence smiled at Andrew, as if to say, ‘I acknowledge your wink. I cannot make it out at all. I take it you mean something pleasant.’
Andrew started looking round the room; he seemed to have missed something that should be there. At last he fixed on the box of Bulgarian cigarettes on Louisa’s sideboard; reaching out he opened the box and helped himself to one.
Mr Webster tried to exchange a glance with Louisa disapproving of her guest’s manners, but she would not be drawn in to it. She rose and passed the open box to Laurence.
Andrew told him, ‘They are Bulgarian.’
‘Yes, I know. Rather odd, aren’t they?’
‘They grow on one,’ Andrew remarked.
‘Bulgarian!’ his father exclaimed. ‘I must try one!’
Louisa silently passed the cigarettes. She inclined her head demurely towards Laurence, acknowledging an unavoidable truth: the fact that three stubbed-out fat Bulgarian ends already lay in the ash-tray beside Mervyn Hogarth’s chair.
Louisa sat passively witnessing Hogarth’s performance as he affected to savour a hitherto untried brand of cigarette.
‘My dear Louisa, how exotic! I don’t think I could cope with many of these. So strong and so . . . what shall I say?’
‘Pungent,’ said Louisa patiently, as one who has heard the same word said before by the same man in the same place.
‘Pungent,’ Mervyn repeated, as if she had hit on the one only precise word.
He continued, ‘A flavour of – the Balkans, a tang as of – of –’
Louisa obliged him again, ‘Goats’ milk.’
‘That’s it! Goats’ milk.’
Louisa’s black shiny buttons of eyes turned openly on Laurence. He was watching the man’s face; he glanced towards the ash-tray with its evidence of the pose, then looked at Mervyn again. Louisa began to giggle inaudibly as if she were gently shaking a bottle of cough-mixture within herself. Mr Webster caught her movement with the corner of his eye. From where he was seated, and his neck being stiff, he had to swivel round from the waist to get a better view of Louisa. At this sign, her face puckered slightly, but presently she composed herself like a schoolgirl.
Laurence said to Andrew, ‘Do you live round here?’
Father and son replied simultaneously. Mervyn said, ‘Oh, no’; Andrew said, ‘Oh, yes.’
Louisa’s mirth got the better of her, and though her lips were shut tight she whinnied through her nose like a pony.
Mr Webster clicked his cup into his saucer as if the walls had spoken.
The Hogarths immediately attempted to rectify their blunder. Both started together again – Mervyn: ‘Well, we live in London mostly –’ Andrew: ‘I mean, we’re here most of the time –’ The father decided to let Andrew take over.
‘And we sometimes go abroad,’ he concluded limply.
Laurence looked at his watch, and said hastily to Andrew, ‘Coming for a drink? There’s about fifteen minutes to closing.’ Then he saw his blunder. For the moment the boy had looked quite normal, not a cripple at all.
‘Not tonight thanks. Another time, if you’re staying,’ Andrew said, unsurprised.
‘Laurence is stopping till the end of the week,’ said Louisa.
Laurence hurried out. They could hear his footsteps crossing the quiet road and down the village street towards the Rose and Crown.
Mr Webster spoke. ‘Charming boy.’
Louisa said, ‘Yes, and so clever.’
‘Interesting lad,’ Mervyn said.
‘I was wondering . . .’ said Andrew.
‘What, dear?’ Louisa asked him.
‘Hadn’t we better clear off till next week?’
Mr Webster twisted round to face the old lady. ‘Mrs Jepp,’ he said, ‘I did not think you would permit your grandson meeting us. I understood he was to be out this evening.
I trust he will not be upset in any way.’
‘My!’ said Louisa graciously. ‘He won’t be upset, Mr Webster. Young people are very democratic these days.’
That was not what had been meant. Mervyn spoke next.
‘I think he will ask questions. It’s only natural, Louisa, after all, what do you expect?’ He lit one of the Bulgarian cigarettes.
‘Whatever questions should he ask?’
‘He is bound to wonder . . .’ said Andrew.
‘He’s bound to ask who we are, what we’re doing here,’ said Mervyn.
Mr Webster looked sadly at Mervyn, pained by some crudity in the other’s words.
‘My!’ said Louisa. ‘Laurence will certainly ask all about you. Would you care for another game, gentlemen?’
Mervyn looked at the clock.
Andrew said, ‘He’ll be back after the pub closes, won’t he?’
Mr Webster smiled paternally at Louisa. ‘The matter is not urgent,’ he said, ‘we can leave our business till the end of the week, if you know of an evening when your grandson will be out.’
‘It can be discussed in front of Laurence,’ she said.
‘Laurence is a dear boy.’
‘Of course,’ said Mervyn.
‘That’s just what we mean,’ said Andrew. ‘The dear boy shouldn’t be made to wonder –’
Louisa looked a little impatient. Something was defeating her. ‘I did hope,’ she said, ‘that we could avoid making any difference between Laurence and ourselves. I assure you, with discretion we could say all we want to say in Laurence’s presence. He has not got a suspicious nature.’
‘Ah, discretion,’ Mr Webster said, ‘my dear Mrs Jepp, discretion is always desirable.’
Louisa beamed warmly at him, as at one who had come nearest to understanding her.
Mervyn spoke. ‘I understand you, Louisa. You can’t bear to participate in separated worlds. You have the instinct for unity, for coordinating the inconsistent elements of experience; you have the passion for picking up the idle phenomena of life and piecing them together. That is your ideal, it used to be mine. Reality, however, refuses to accommodate the idealist. It is difficult at your age to grasp a fact which you have never had occasion to recognise, but –’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Louisa said, ‘not at any age I wouldn’t know.’
‘You are too far away,’ she said, but then she perked up, ‘Now Mervyn, if you feel I’m too old-fashioned in my ways I will quite understand. You may always withdraw from our arrangements.’
Mervyn, who had stood up, sat down again. Andrew gave an unsmiling laugh which caused Louisa to look at him with surprise.
Andrew responded: ‘He spoke about doing detective work. He seems to be quite smart in the head.’
‘Laurence is doing nicely on the wireless. He would never make a detective, nothing so low.’
‘He would make a good informer,’ Andrew said, and from the privilege of his invalid chair looked squarely at her.
‘My, you need not continue with us, Andrew dear, if anything troubles you. In which case, of course, we shouldn’t continue, should we?’ She looked at Mervyn and Mr Webster, but they did not answer. They rose then, to leave.
As he took her hand Mr Webster said, ‘You see, Mrs Jepp, your dear grandson is exceedingly observant. That was the only reason I had for questioning the wisdom.’
Louisa laughed, ‘Oh, he never misses anything. I’ve never met anyone like him for getting the details. But, you know, the dear boy can’t put two and two together.’
‘You mean,’ said Mervyn, ‘that he lacks the faculty of reflection?’
‘I mean,’ said Laurence’s grandmother, ‘that he could be more intelligent in some ways than he is. But he’s clever enough to get on in the world, and he has a sweet nature, that’s what matters.’
‘And if he asks any questions . . .’ said Andrew.
‘Oh, he will ask questions,’ Louisa answered him.
There was no doing anything with her.
‘Oh, Mrs Jepp, you will be discreet won’t you? I’m sure you will,’ said Mr Webster.
‘My grandson can’t put two and two together – not so’s to make four.’ She looked rather amused so as to make them rather uncomfortable.
‘He’s leaving on Friday?’ Mervyn asked.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’
‘Friday evening then?’ said Mervyn.
‘Yes,’ she answered with melancholy.
‘See you Friday,’ said Andrew.
‘Thank you, Mrs Jepp, for a most pleasant evening,’ said Mr Webster.
Because Laurence had started writing a letter, resting the paper on a book on his knee, Louisa was clearing part of the table for him, saying, ‘Come, love, sit up at the table, it’s more comfortable.’
‘No, I always write like this.’
Louisa spread a white cloth over the corner reserved for Laurence.
‘Always put a white cloth under your papers when you write a letter. It’s good for your eyes because it reflects back the light. Come, dear, sit up at the table.’
Laurence shifted to the table and continued writing. After a few minutes he said, ‘The white cloth does make a difference. Much pleasanter.’
Louisa, lying full-length on the sofa by the little back window where she rested till tea-time in the afternoons, replied dozily, ‘When I told Mervyn Hogarth of that little trick, he started working out in his head whether it could be effective or not, all about light-rays and optics. “Try it, Mervyn,” I said, “just try it, then you’ll know for certain that I’m right.” ’
‘Of course,’ Laurence reflected absently, ‘it may be due to something psychological.’
‘Oh, it’s something psychological all right,’ said Louisa surprisingly and imponderably. Then she closed her eyes.
She opened them again a few seconds later to say, ‘If it’s your mother you’re writing to give her my love.’
‘I’m writing to Caroline, actually.’
‘Then give her my love and say I hope she feels better than she was at Easter. How has she been lately?’
‘Miserable. She’s gone away to some religious place in the north for a rest.’
‘She won’t get much of a rest in a religious place.’
‘That’s what I thought. But this is one of Mother’s ideas. She gets together with her priests and builds these buildings. Then they dedicate them to a saint. Then mother sends her friends to stay in them.’
‘But Caroline isn’t a Catholic.’
‘She’s just become one.’
‘I thought she was looking thin. How does that affect you, dear?’
‘Well, of course Caroline’s left me, in a way. At least, she’s gone to live somewhere else.’
‘Well!’ said the old woman, ‘that’s a nice thing!’
‘We might get married some day.’
‘Ah, and if not?’ She looked at him with a reserved wonder as she added, ‘Does Caroline know what she’s doing? The one certain way for a woman to hold a man is to leave him for religion. I’ve known it happen. The man might get another girl, but he never can be happy with anyone else after a girl has left him for religious reasons. She secures him for good.’
‘Is that really true?’ Laurence said. ‘How very jolly. I must tell Caroline.’
‘Oh well, my love, it’s all for the best. I hope you can marry her, soon. They wouldn’t make you become a Catholic, you only have to promise to bring up the children Catholics. And after all, children these days make up their own minds when they grow up. And there’s nothing wrong in being a Catholic if you want to be one.’
‘It’s a bit complicated,’ Laurence said. ‘Poor Caroline isn’t well.’
‘Poor Caroline. That’s religion for you. Give her my love and tell her to come down here. I’ll feed her up, I daresay everything will come out all right.’
‘Grandmother has just dozed off again,’ Laurence wrote, ‘after looking up to inquire after you. The news of your conversion caused a serious expression, on her face. Made her look like one of Rembrandt’s old women, but she rapidly regained her Louisa face. She wants you here, to give you things to eat.
‘I hated seeing your train out at Euston and mooned off afterwards with thoughts of following you on the evening train. Met the Baron in Piccadilly Underground and walking back with him to the bookshop fell under his influence and decided against. He argued, “The presence of a non-believer in a Catholic establishment upsets them if the unbeliever is not interested in acquiring their faith. Those places always advertise their welcome to the faithless. However, if you go merely looking for Caroline, it will upset them, you will not be welcome. Moreover, they will have it in for Caroline, for being manifestly more desirable to you than their faith.” On the whole, I decided it would be cloddish to barge in, just as well as it has turned out.
‘I couldn’t face the flat so went over to Hampstead. Father was in, Mother out. He let fall something that rather worries me. Apparently there’s a woman by name of Hogg at the outfit you are staying at. She’s a sort of manageress. Mother got her the job. God knows why. We all loathe her. That’s why we’ve always gone out of our way for her really. She’s that Georgina Hogg I think I’ve mentioned, the one who used to be a kind of nursery-governess before we went to school. She got married but her husband left her. Poor bastard, no wonder. We used to feel sorry for him. She suffers from chronic righteousness, exerts a sort of moral blackmail. Mother has a conscience about her – about hating her so much I mean, is terrified of her but won’t admit it. Father calls her Manders’ Mortification. Of course she’s
harmless really if you don’t let her get under your skin. I think I could handle the woman, at least I used to. But best to avoid her, darling. I hope you won’t come across her. I confronted mother with her damned silliness in sending you to a place where Georgina is, at a time when you’re feeling limp. She looked a bit guilty but said, “Oh, Caroline will put Georgina in her place.” I do hope you will. If she upsets you, leave immediately and come down here to be plumped up. Such things are happening down here!
‘Arrived on Sunday night. My little grandmother is a mighty woman, as I always knew. I’ve discovered such things! She runs a gang. I’m completely in the dark as to what sort of gang, but I should probably think they are Communist spies. Three men. A father and son. The son’s a cripple, poor chap. The father has a decided air of one manqué. The third gangster is rather a love, like a retired merchant sailor, fairly old. He’s sweet on Grandmother. He owns the local bakery and delivers the bread himself.
‘I don’t know how far Grandmother is implicated in their activities, but she’s certainly the boss. She’s handsomely well-off. I think she only draws her pension to avoid suspicion. Do you know where she keeps her capital? In the bread. She sticks diamonds in the bread. Without a word of exaggeration, I came across a loaf weirdly cut at both ends, and in one end diamonds, real ones. I wondered what the hell they were at first, and picked out one of the stones ever so carefully. Diamonds look so different when they aren’t set in jewellery. When I saw what it was, I put the stone back in its place. Grandmother has no idea that I’m on to this, of course. Isn’t she a wonder? I wonder what her racket is. I don’t think seriously of course that they are spies, but criminals of some sort. The thing is, Grandmother isn’t being used, she’s running the show. The main thing is, Mother mustn’t find out, so be most careful, my love, what you say.
‘I intend to find everything out, even if it means taking an extra week and mucking up Christmas. I’ve started compil ing a dossier.
‘Any ideas on the subject, let me know. Personally, I think Grandmother is having the time of her life, but it might be serious for her if the men are caught. I can’t begin to guess what they’d be caught at. They may be jewel thieves, but that doesn’t fit in with the sweet naval old fellow’s character. Anything fits G’mother’s.
‘Grandmother openly refers to them as “my gang”, airy as a Soho slender. Says they come to play cards. I met them here the other night, since when I’ve been snooping. I wish you would come for a few days and help me “put two & two together” as G’mother says. I hope you don’t get the jitters at St Philumena’s. Take it from me, you have to pick and choose amongst Catholic society in England, the wrong sort can drive you nuts. Mother knows she’s done the wrong thing in sending you there. It’s her passion for founding “Centres” and peopling them, gets the better of her. Father swears she’ll start a schism.
‘I expect a letter from you tomorrow. Longing to hear that you have got Mrs Hogg under control. It would be rather fun in a way if you had a set-to with her. I’d like to be there if you did. There, but concealed.’
Louisa opened her eyes and said, ‘Put the kettle on, dear.’
Laurence laid down his pen. He asked her, ‘Who d’you think is in charge of that religious place Caroline’s gone to?’
‘In charge! I thought it was a convent.’
‘No, only a Centre. Georgina is housekeeper or something.’
‘Does your mother know that?’
‘Yes, she gave her the job.’
‘I think something is happening to Helena’s mind,’ said Louisa.
‘Mrs Hogg! Just think of her, Grandmother, worming in on Caroline.’
‘Mrs Hogg,’ said Louisa, as if she’d never heard the like.
‘Mrs Hogg. Well, Caroline will fix her.’
Laurence went into the scullery to fill the kettle, and shouted from there, ‘You haven’t seen her lately?’
His grandmother was silent. But as he returned and placed the kettle on the black coal stove, Louisa told him, ‘I haven’t seen her for years. A few months ago your Mother wrote to suggest that Georgina Hogg should come and live here as a companion for me.’
‘You said no bloody fear, I suppose.’
‘I said that I would not wish to have that poisonous woman in my house for a five-second visit. It fairly puts you against Catholics, a person like that.’
Laurence took up his pen again.
‘I detest that woman,’ said Louisa.
‘Grandmother is awake now,’ Laurence wrote. ‘She has been delivering herself of her views on Ma Hogg. “Poisonous” she says. It makes me rather sorry for the old Hogg being so dislikable. Truly, she has to be savoured to be believed.’
‘Tell Caroline,’ Louisa broke in, ‘to be careful of Mrs Hogg. Say she’s dangerous.’
‘I’ve told her,’ Laurence said.
He finished his letter, and read it over.
After tea he added to it, ‘p.s. I forgot to mention Grandmother’s cheque book. According to the stubs she donates the exact sum of her pension each week to the Prisoners’ Aid Society.’
He sealed the letter, then went to post it.
*The Comforters by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Allan Massie, Polygon, 220pp, £9.99