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95

Lu was still thinking about Mrs Man when she was walking in the woods the following afternoon. Her mind picked away apathetically at the problem of Mrs Man’s disappearance, as if only because it had to be occupied with something. After the triumph of the dolls’ house, there was now, it appeared, nothing left for Lu to want or worry about ever again. And so she continued along the woodland path in this rather dazed way. The vision of the sunny woods floated in front of her, perfect but separate, like the bed of a river which is revealed in thrilling detail in the afternoon sunshine.

The path had commenced a long climb across the side of a hill. Midway up the slope, Lu turned around with a start at the sounds which were coming up behind her. There was the clopping of hooves and slushy snorts and a noise which resembled faraway bells slapping thickly. She then registered the snowy whiteness of the horses and the rich colours of the vehicle. It was a golden carriage and it was trundling rapidly up the path. She had only ever seen a carriage once before, when she was a tiny girl being carried about at a wedding. This one, however, seemed to look immediately more authentic. Although she had never seen real gold, she knew that this one was real gold.

Of course, Lu knew that a little girl such as she could not tell between real gold and fake gold paint. But her preliminary instinct that she must be unknowingly trespassing on a film set, and that angry adults with cameras would immediately appear to chase her away, was contradicted by the distinct note of realism to this carriage. It was lumbering inelegantly towards her, with the horses compressed together and trembling with frustration. Lu ran further up the slope and amongst the trees, sure to put a good gap between herself and this unpredictable vehicle.

As it passed, she had a clear view of several footmen in white livery scampering ahead, almost in disarray, with the horses. The footmen were so small and nimble in comparison to the clumping horses that they could not help resembling monkeys, dressed up as if to advertise a circus. When one of them looked up and glared at her, his grey face was even more fearsomely impish than that of a monkey. He had blazing red eyes and tiny fangs bared under his tricorn hat.

Then, Lu was looking down on the passengers. There was a very beautiful lady with magnificent golden hair, who sat smiling peaceably at the sunlit forest. She looked both sweet and authoritative; a lady who would be always gentle and always careful, in everything that she did. But alongside her sat a lady who Lu did not like so well.

She was a black lady with a turban on her head and a ghastly, ogling face. Her face was as thin and as pinched as a death’s head.

Lu had never seen a negro before.

“You!” The carriage stopped abruptly and the negro hunched forward with her huge, ogling eyes pointing like spears. Her companion sat back lifelessly, but still smiling calmly. The negro was slipping about on her haunches in a shabby red frock which drooped around her like the petals of a decaying flower. The force with which her eyes protruded was accentuated by the virtual absence of any eyelids. They were like the eyes of a chicken, with rings of minute scales around them.

Lu found, with a click, that she was unable to move.

“You’re a little fucking serpent, aren’t you?” the negro hissed breathlessly.

Nobody had ever sworn at Lu before.

She whimpered for her mother. Some tiny part of her was indignant and appalled at the limpness of her own voice. She swayed on her feet, almost as if the negro’s staring eyes were all that was holding her up.

“But you’re due to get what you deserve,” the negro confided. “Just what a little fucking serpent like you deserves.”

Lu tried to look straight into the negro’s eyes, but she was repelled. There was no understanding or sympathy there, merely a shimmering malice. Lu was trying to desperately shake motion back into her body as the negro hopped out of the carriage. She was now running up to Lu, her bare feet thumping a rapid tattoo on the earth.

“You’re English?” she hissed.

Lu managed to nod her head in affirmation. In any other circumstances, she would have remembered and explained that she was born in Edinburgh.

The negro was exuberant and she span on her heels and all of the visible hysteria in her shining eyes seemed to flood out into her arms and legs. “I’ve never met an English person before. I’ve only seen them in books – really dirty, really fucked up books. So you drink the tea, eh? Time for cuppa tea? You drink the tea?”

Lu realised that the negro was taunting her.

“Oh time for a cuppa tea, what what?” The negro shimmered, scandalised by how outrageously ridiculous this was. “Oh so we all wanta cuppa tea, eh?” She began to mince about, spinning on her heels in a caricature of absolute Englishness.

Lu was weeping when she arrived back at Mr Hatter’s side. He gazed down on her with concern, but then he was gazing back and forth between Lu and his dog. The latter had sat back to howl in vast draughts of dismay.

The words rang in her head. “You’re due to get what a little fucking serpent like you deserves.” The negro and the footmen had jostled around her, sneering and glaring. “Cuppa tea, cuppa tea,” the footmen had jabbered. She had been frozen before the spellbinding force of their hatred and next she was witnessing this experience from a tremendous distance, supposing in a dull way that they were going to hit her and kill her. But then the carriage had begun to trundle off on its way and the negro and the footmen were all at once tumbling after it in a panic, still spitting back insults at Lu over their shoulders.

When Mr Hatter arrived in Waldingham, the daylight was very frail. Whatever he wanted from the village shop he could get tomorrow – it had probably run out anyway. On a whim, he took it into his head to show his face at the village pub, the Coach and Horses. Of course, Lu had to go in with him.

Lu was suddenly frantic about her little sister. Janet was surely fantastically unprotected, with this ogling lady running about like a dervish and taunting them.

The Coach and Horses hummed away, with a sound that appeared to go on without end like the babbling of a stream. Mr Mabbutt was seated in there, bathed contentedly in this sound. The face of Tom Gunnett, the landlord, hung over the beer taps like a merry moon over fairyland in one of the girls’ picture books. Various other farmers, stout and beery, had collected here. These were men who had decided that they would put up with none of the war’s nonsense. So long as food was to be pumped into the war effort they were needed, but they had no obvious need for the war. They were trading at an advantage, often cannily and with deliberation.

[Next instalment: “The Tank.”]

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