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Authors: Frank Baker

Miss Hargreaves

Miss Hargreaves

A Novel

Frank Baker

NEW YORK • BERLIN • LONDON

‘Creative thought creates . . .’

(FROM THE POSTCARD
         BY A.F.W.)

Over the sea to Skye . . .
           

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Prologue

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

A Note on the Author

Postscript

The Lay of the Last Cricket

A Small Thing

The Ferry

Evensong in Advent

A Friend for Tea

Sonnet to My Bath

Doctor Pepusch

Triolet: Early to Ely

Imprint

To
Jimmy
without whom it could not have happened

NOTE

The correct pronunciation of her
name is, of course, ‘Hargrayves’.
Astonishing as it must seem,
there exist people who refer to her
as Miss ‘Hargreeves’. Doubtless
they belong to the ranks of those
who ‘Macleen’ their teeth.

F.B.

PROLOGUE

‘M
ISS HARGREAVES —’ I murmured. ‘Miss Hargreaves?’ I leant over the rail and looked into the darkness of the Irish Sea. It was night. The lights of our boat were the only lights upon the black water. No answer came from the sea as I murmured that name. And yet, it seemed to me that very faintly in the cold December air, in the wind, I could hear the sighing of my own name. ‘Norman–Norman–Norman–’

Nine years have passed since that night, the night which saw the end of a great adventure. I wrote an account of it all and kept it locked up, showing it to nobody but Henry, Marjorie and my father. In those days I was a lay-clerk in the choir of Cornford Cathedral, and I used to study the organ under Dr Carless. I was, and I dare say I still am, in every way but one, a perfectly ordinary sort of a fellow. You want to know in what particular way I differ from other people? You must read this book to find that out. Were you to look at me, you’d say there was nothing exceptional about me; merely Norman Huntley, who used to live at 38 London Road, Cornford, with his parents and his sister Jim. Thirty-two I am now, and possibly a little wiser than the youth who leant over the rail of the Belfast boat that December night, murmuring a lost name upon the wind.

A lost name . . . a lost name. But, maybe, you are one of those who remember? I don’t live in Cornford now. I run a bookshop in the West of England. I’m not going to be more definite than that: I went there to get away from publicity and I don’t want any more of it. Marjorie, my wife, often hears from her parents, and my mother also writes to give me the Cornford news. I have her last letter before me:

‘ . . . people still talk about Miss Hargreaves and some of them are silly enough to believe she must have been something to do with the I.R.A. What an extraordinary business it all was and how I do wish, dear boy, you would tell us what you
really
know. A shadow comes over me whenever I think of her. I can never quite get over your having to leave the town as you did — though, as you know, dear, nothing would even make me begin to believe the wicked things they said about you. I happened to meet the Dean in the shop the other day and he asked quite kindly about you. Think he would really like you to come back. Why don’t you write to him? It all happened so long ago now. . .’

Go back? Back to Cornford? Yes, I want to go back to that lovely cathedral, back to the Thames meadows where Henry and I went fishing as boys. But can I bear, even now, to face it?

I remember the last occasion I was in Cornford Cathedral. The Dean had most politely suggested it would be better for me to resign–meaning it would be better for the Cathedral and him. Too much was being said about me, and although the police could never prove a thing (there was no body, of course) suspicion fastened on me as closely as lichen to an old apple tree.

My bags were all packed; I was glad to go. On my last morning, before breakfast, as had been my habit, I went to the Cathedral, there for the last time to play the organ. I went through the Bach B Minor Fantasia, but it sounded empty to me. Stricken by a sense of the unrecoverable past, I played a movement of a Mendelssohn sonata, increasing my registration to full organ at the end. Raising my hands from the keys sharply, I listened to the sound chasing itself in and out of the nave; I half hoped that, as the sound died away, I should hear a voice crying from below, ‘Bravo! Oh, bravo, Norman!’

But there was no voice. I came down from the loft, went along the nave, unlocked the west door to the roof and climbed up, hardly knowing what I wanted to do. Slowly I traced my steps over the narrow plankway. Like great beeskeps the domes over the nave arches rose up in a long chain before me. It was cold. Everything shrouded in a green, gloomy light. I stood there for a few minutes, half afraid. I wanted to call her name. But my tongue was dry; I could make no sound.

That day I left Cornford and came to live in the West. The town of my youth, of my birth, had become unbearable to me; in all these years I have never once revisited it.

Perhaps I shall go back now. Her name is dying to a legend. Soon, for memory is fickle, she will be forgotten.

Forgotten? But that, too, is unbearable. Shall it be said of her, ‘but some there be that have no memorial’? Not while I am alive.

So I offer the reader this account of a mystery which he may remember if he reads his newspapers. It was written years ago, part of it in Ulster, and reading through it now I see no reason to alter much of it. I offer these pages solely as a memorial to a person I loved. Let the reader call me a liar; let him examine my family history for signs of queerness; I am prepared for that.

All that I ask of him is this: that if I chance to meet him in any house where toasts are drunk, he will raise his glass with me and say:

‘God bless Miss Hargreaves!’

1

W
HEN I wrote essays at school I was always told to begin at the beginning and end at the end. I’m not at all sure that this story
has
an end. As for a beginning–well, in my opinion it really begins–as I began–with my father. Anyway that’s where I’m going to start.

Let me introduce you to him. Cornelius Huntley, rather a speciality of Cornford in every way. He runs a bookshop in the town. If you know the place you’re almost certain to know number 17 Wells Street, the little street branching off from the old market hall in Disraeli Square.

Huntley’s bookshop is as well known as the Cathedral. Most days I work there with father, except when I’m studying music. We sell everything, modern and old, any language you like. Though I say it myself, Cornelius Huntley knows a good deal more about books than you’d imagine from his rather muddled talk.

At this point I think Henry comes in. Henry Beddow is my oldest friend; at school together, and so on. He’s my age, but he’s much more of a lad than I am. Dark hair and eyes, fine teeth, and a swaggering sort of style that could get him into Buckingham Palace. A fine footballer and swimmer. I never was any good at football. I once made a phenomenal effort and scored a goal; unfortunately it was at the wrong end of the field. Rather embarrassing.

The real link between Henry and me is that we both have a pretty fanciful imagination. We like to use it, too. I’ll tell you a story about that, which seems to me to have a bearing on the future, though I don’t want to turn this book into an autobiography.

When we were kids, Henry and I were sent off to Cathedral together on Sunday mornings. Our parents used to go in the evenings. Well, after a bit we got tired of spending this hour and a half in Cathedral on fine summer mornings. One Sunday they were doing the Litany we cut, and spent the time fishing for eels. While we fished we made up the sermon, knowing we should be asked what it was about, as we always were.

‘So long as we’ve got a good text,’ remarked Henry, ‘they won’t bother much about the rest. They always want to know the text.’

I thought. Then suddenly I said, ‘What about “They also serve who only stand and wait”?’

‘Spiffing!’ said Henry.

‘I don’t know where it comes from,’ I said.

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