Making It Up, page 1
Table of Contents
The Mozambique Channel
The Albert Hall
The Temple of Mithras
The Battle of the Imjin River
Number Twelve Sheep Street
By the same author
The Road to Lichfield
Treasures of Time
Next to Nature, Art
According to Mark
Pack of Cards and Other Stories
City of the Mind
Beyond the Blue Mountains
Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived
A House Unlocked
Copyright © Penelope Lively, 2005
All rights reserved
PUBLISHERS NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the
product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Lively, Penelope, 1933-
Making it up / Penelope Lively.
eISBN : 978-0-143-03784-2
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To Lawrence and Helen
When I was very young I made up stories—the refuge of an isolated and frequently bored child. These were fables that I told to myself—long satisfying narratives that passed the time and spiced up otherwise uneventful days. For this was how life seemed to me, growing up in Egypt in the early 1940s—the Libyan campaign ebbing and flowing across the desert, the Middle East seething with its nascent conflicts. With the wisdoms of today, I see that I was living in interesting times, but a seven-, eight-, or nine-year-old has strictly personal horizons, and my idea of a spot of drama came from my reading—from Greek mythology, from The Arabian Nights. My internal narratives featured gods and goddesses, heroes, mythical figures, magicians and princesses. And, of course, myself—out there in the thick of it, with a starring role. And now, at the other end of life, storytelling is an ingrained habit; I wouldn’t know what else to do. But the mythology that is intriguing today is that of imagined alternatives. Somehow, choice and contingency have landed you where you are, as the person that you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those climactic moments when things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome.
Novelists have absolute control over their material—what to put in, what to leave out, how people are to behave, what is to happen. That, of course, is also the problem with writing fiction, and accounts for much, from writer’s block (which means simply that you don’t know where to go next) to individual shortcomings. But the writer is able to impose order upon chaos, to impose a pattern. Real life is quite out of control; you have been a straw in the current, it seems, snagged up against a rock, hurtling down a rapid, not quite sucked into a whirlpool.
This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a form of confabulation. That word has a precise meaning: in psychiatric terminology, it refers to the creation of imaginary remembered experiences which replace the gaps left by disorders of the memory. My memory is not yet disordered; this exercise in confabulation is a piece of fictional license.
The Mozambique Channel
My childhood was spent in a garden. This garden was in Egypt, a few miles outside Cairo, but its furnishings were English—ponds and pergolas and rose beds. There were majestic eucalyptus trees, with which I communed—children are natural animists. Beyond the garden were fields of sugarcane, mud villages, palm trees, donkeys, and camels—the familiar trappings of my world. I had been born in Egypt and knew nowhere else; England was a vague memory of a cold, damp place visited when I was very young. And on the outer rim of this known landscape was the desert, to which we went for picnics, though not just now because it was out of bounds. It was full of soldiers, and battles were being fought there. I accepted this distant unrest as a normal procedure and in any case it was nothing to do with me, busy with my fantasy life beneath the eucalyptus trees. Except that it was, of course.
In the spring of 1941 the German advance across Libya brought Rommel’s army to Sollum, on the western edge of Egypt. The British garrison at Tobruk was encircled. A British offensive at the end of the year had Rommel in retreat, but in June 1942 his Panzer divisions came surging on again. Tobruk was taken. The Eighth Army fell back, and the Germans entered Egypt. They halted at El Alamein, a mere seventy miles from Alexandria.
Everything pointed to a German assault on Cairo. An aerial invasion was anticipated, along with widespread bombing of the city. These were the days of “the Flap,” when the burning of the files at the British Embassy and GHQ sent charred paper raining down onto the streets, the banks were besieged, and the railway station was packed with those seeking flight. The wives and children of military personnel had been evacuated the previous year, but British residents had stayed put, for the most part. Now, there was a serious exodus. Family parties headed in different directions—the civilian expatriate families whose men worked for Shell and the other oil companies, the appendages of the engineers, the bureaucrats, the government administrators, the Embassy and Consulate staff, the bankers like my father, who worked for the National Bank of Egypt. Many went to Palestine, as it then was; others to Kenya, Tanganyika, Aden. And those who could get a passage boarded ships bound for South Africa. Cape Town was said to be delightful.
She stood on the promenade deck, up against the rails, looking down at the water and quayside, keeping a careful hold on Jean. The rails had streaks of orange rust and she didn’t want Jean’s frock stained, clean on today, so she wouldn’t let her hang over the top rung like some of the children were doing. There were native boys lined up on the quayside who would dive for piastres—they gesticulated and pointed and someone on the ship would throw a ten-piastre piece up in the air, and down it would go, flicking the water, and the boy would already have flung himself after it and time and again they’d surface, clutching the money.
There were people still coming on board. She could see the Stannards making their way up the gangplank, with that Irish nanny holding the baby who was yelling his head off, and Mrs. Stannard shouting at the porters. One of them had just dropped a hat box. Thank goodness for having got on board early; she had already unpacked their thi
Suez. She’d never been to Suez before. Port Said, lots of times. Ismailia. Qantara. Never Suez.
She was Shirley Manners, of Pinner, but no one called her Shirley now. She was Nanny. Or she was Film Star; that was what the other nannies called her because she was pretty. She wished they wouldn’t; it embarrassed her, but they meant it kindly, just a joke. It didn’t suit her, either, as a nickname; she wasn’t that type. On her afternoons off she wore lipstick, never at other times. And she saved her only pair of silk stockings for then, and her two good frocks that she’d made herself—seersucker from Cicurel. Ordinary days she always wore the same—gray or navy shirt-waists with a gray or navy cardigan in winter. The gray serge suit for Sundays if they went to the cathedral. And a hat, gray or navy felt with a matching petersham ribbon.
One thing was already clear, this wasn’t going to be like P&O or Bibby Line before the war. There weren’t the white-jacketed stewards, and the ranks of deck chairs with rugs, and the nice cabins. This was a troop ship. She had brought soldiers and military supplies out from England, right round by the Cape, weeks at sea, and now she was going back for more, and dropping several hundred women and children off at Durban and Cape Town on the way. So the men in white jackets weren’t stewards but naval officers, who were running the ship, and Mrs. Leech was already saying they were absolutely sweet. And there were no deck chairs but notices everywhere about Lifeboat Stations, and the cabins were very basic and not enough room. Four bunks, and they’d got a retired teacher from the English School in with them, a bit of an old prune-face, to be honest. Mrs. Leech didn’t reckon much with that; she was going to have a quiet word with the Purser and see if there couldn’t be some other arrangement for her.
They were saying there’d be a big battle soon, in the desert. They were saying Rommel would push through to Alex. It wouldn’t happen, she was sure of that. So was Mrs. Leech, so were most people. It was all just a flap; in a few weeks or months they’d be back, and all this upheaval for nothing, except that actually she didn’t half mind seeing South Africa, they said it was so different from Egypt, and Cape Town quite English really. Mrs. Leech didn’t mind either, though she kept going on about how beastly it was having to leave Reggie behind. The Consulate staff were staying, of course, and the Embassy, and the other men, come to that—the government advisers and the Shell people and the Bank people. It was just women and children being shipped off. Lots of families had preferred to go to Palestine, but Mrs. Leech had been there several times, and never to the Cape.
The deck was packed. There were people who’d come to say goodbye—the loudspeakers were calling for them to go ashore now—and natives selling oranges and mangoes and peanuts and pistachio nuts and everyone milling around meeting up with friends. That was what Mrs. Leech would be doing too, down at the Purser’s office. She was already fussing about who they’d get on their table.
Shirley didn’t really like Mrs. Leech. Mr. Leech was all right, but she didn’t see so much of him, so that was neither here nor there. Jean was a dear little girl, good as gold, which was why Shirley stayed: she loved Jean. Oh, she could have got another job with a snap of her fingers, anytime she liked, and Mrs. Leech knew that. People were crying out for English nannies; the rich foreign families would pay the earth, and some girls took advantage. But it wouldn’t be her cup of tea, no thank you; she’d rather an English family frankly. Not that she couldn’t have taken her pick there too. Lady Clayton had come over and talked to her for ages at Billy Clayton’s birthday party, too nice and friendly for words, and Shirley had a pretty good idea what that was all about. So Mrs. Leech knew that if she overstepped the mark, Shirley would be liable to pack her bags, which was the last thing Mrs. Leech wanted. She would be seeing to Jean herself until she could find someone else, and then probably she’d have to settle for one of those Armenian girls who let the children run wild and hadn’t a clue about table manners.
This meant Mrs. Leech had to be as nice as she possibly could, which was quite an effort for her. And she couldn’t criticize, because she didn’t know the first thing about children and didn’t want to. Shirley had once heard her say to a friend that it took a particular mentality to look after children; you knew exactly what was implied by that. All right, Shirley had thought, but if you’re so jolly superior then you can leave me in peace to get on with what I do. No interference in the nursery—that was the rule, and Mrs. Leech knew it all right.
Shirley had had Jean from six months. From birth is best, of course; before Shirley there had been a Swiss nurse, and Shirley sometimes felt that she’d left some faint, unwelcome imprint. But Jean was her creation, through and through—obedient, lovely manners, and of course always beautifully turned out. Shirley made most of Jean’s clothes herself: cotton frocks with ric-rac round the sleeves and hems, and silk smocks for parties. She was a good needlewoman, and that made her smugly pleased; some of the other nannies were hopeless. From time to time Mrs. Leech would come humbly with a hem to be taken up, or a zip to be replaced; she couldn’t sew for toffee.
Jean loved Shirley more than she loved her mother. If she hurt herself, it was to Shirley that she ran; on Shirley’s evening out, she cried herself to sleep. Mrs. Leech must have been aware that things were so, but there was no indication that this bothered her. Presumably she saw it as the price you pay, which of course it was. Personally, Shirley couldn’t imagine handing your child over to someone else like that, but then she couldn’t actually imagine having a child of her own anyway. She couldn’t imagine getting married, not that there weren’t men who showed an interest, now and then.
The Buchan nanny had up and married a Lebanese last year. Goodness knows how she met him—you didn’t get Lebanese coming to the YWCA, for heaven’s sake. They said it was probably on the beach in Alex, Sidi Bishr, he must have come up and talked and one thing led to another. She’d always been a bit of an odd girl, and none of them saw her anymore now. Apparently she’d had a little boy, and of course he’d be half Lebanese. Shirley knew she couldn’t take that, personally, but each to his own.
There was a naval officer coming round now, chivvying the orange sellers off the ship and asking visitors to go ashore. He gave Shirley a smile and said Suez was quite a place, wasn’t it? So she smiled back and agreed.
Actually, she wouldn’t be sorry to see the back of Suez. It was jam-packed with the Army, trucks and stuff everywhere, the gharries could hardly get through, they’d had a fine old time trying to get the luggage down to the quayside. The gharry driver had wanted some ridiculous price, and when the porters turned up there was a trunk missing and Mrs. Leech was getting in a proper state until they discovered it had been left at the guest house. They’d had to spend last night somewhere after the train journey from Cairo, and all the good pensions were booked up, so Mrs. Leech was forced to take a room at this tatty place, Greek-run, horrible food, and the sheets were none too clean. There’d been no hot water for baths, and Shirley didn’t dare let Jean touch the milk. There was a prewar poster for Thomas Cook stuck up in the entrance hall: “Going Home? Save Time, Money and Worry by booking at Cook’s. They will ship, forward or insure all baggage, furniture . . . even Polo Ponies, at the best rates. . . .” Well, nobody was going home now, that was for sure, not for the duration anyway.
Shirley couldn’t remember England very well. At least, it wasn’t so much that she couldn’t remember it as that she could no longer imagine being there. The place was in her head still, a series of sharp images: a blowy Cornish beach, the brown moquette suite in her parents’ front room, children sailing toy boats on the Round Pond, chestnut trees in flower, glinting wet streets. It was in her bones, too, of course—one was English, and that was that. But somehow a shutter had dropped down between that time and this, so that the norm was now heat, dust, the raucous street life of Cairo, and all those routine accompaniments to living
Everyone out here got ill at some point—malaria, dysentery, typhoid, sandfly fever—and lesser afflictions waited to pounce on a daily basis. You never went anywhere without the iodine and the mercurochrome—every cut or graze or insect bite was likely to turn nasty, surging into a ripe infected wound within hours. Children were forever being daubed with yellow iodine and scarlet blotches of mercurochrome. You couldn’t trust the water, let alone the milk. Shirley saw to it that Jean never drank anything that hadn’t been boiled. She had her own little meths stove in the nursery and insisted that the milk was sent straight up to her. And of course you slept under a mosquito net and were strict about hand washing and no fingers in mouths. Even so, Jean had had scarlet fever and a bout of impetigo, and of course endless tummy upsets and styes and boils. Shirley was good with boils. She could do hot poultices, draw the thing gradually day by day until it was ready to burst, and then you squeezed firmly and the pus came oozing out, a yellow worm. Mrs. Leech had had to come to her once when she had one on her behind. Sometimes when Shirley saw her done up to the nines to go out to some do, all lipstick and scent and low-cut frock, she would get a picture of Mrs. Leech facedown on the bed, with her bare white bottom and the angry red hillock of the boil.
And then there was the sun, the remorseless battery of the heat. Sun hats, Nivea cream, trying to keep children in the shade. They all got sunburn and prickly heat. But that too had become normal, the way of the world; she could not now conjure up cool English weather, or rain. It was as though all that had slipped away, an unreal and unreachable place, much like the time that was equally unattainable: before the war.
Before the war, they went to England every summer. Long summers of rented houses in Cornwall or Devon, and spells in London, and visits to the Leeches’ relatives. Shirley saw her parents quite a bit, and her sisters. But even then she had begun to feel a bit strange with her family. Distanced. She no longer talked like them, she knew that. Her parents and her sisters had the voice of suburban London, they had what Mrs. Leech called “an accent.” Shirley’s had gone, all but. She spoke like her employers and their friends. Her family’s speech sounded unfamiliar now, and bothered her in some disturbing way, as did the speech of servicemen she met on her days off, at the YWCA, at whist drives there and tea dances. She was no longer used to that speech, she had been for years among those other voices, those of the Leeches and before them the Arlingtons, who were grander, actually, titled, and who had a huge house in Belgravia, and all the children’s clothes from Harrods, dozens of smocked dresses and little tweed coats. Shirley had been the nursery maid then, and Nanny Collins was a dragon, which was partly why she had left, but also she had thought it would be exciting to travel, so when she saw Mrs. Leech’s advertisement in The Lady she had written off at once: “Cairo. Summers in England. Large house and garden in best residential district. One six-month-old baby girl.”
Other author's books:
- A Stitch in TimeNext to Nature, ArtFamily AlbumOleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood PerceivedCleopatra's SisterLife in the GardenThe House in Norham GardensThe Photograph
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