A Very Kind House
by Barendina Smedley
When he was six years old Frank was sent, along with his baby sister, to live with his aunt Leonora. Auntie Lili, as he was encouraged to call this formidable person, was not actually his aunt at all, but a sort of cousin so distant that even Mr Landsberg — tutor to Auntie Lili’s sons, and by far the most brilliant person Frank had ever met — had been unable to explain the exact connection. But his summary — ‘Lady Lili is a very kind woman’ — was surely correct.
Lady Lili and her husband the Colonel kept a flat in London, just off Sloane Street, but the house where Frank stayed, and where Auntie Lili lived most of the time too, was a place in Norfolk called Friary Farm.
Friary Farm had, indeed, once been a farmhouse, but since Aunti Lili had got to work on it — helped by an urbane, harmlessly flirtatious London architect and an army of local craftsmen — the warren of heavily-timbered, low-slung rooms, punctuated by inconvenient beams and surprising doors, had somehow transformed itself into a handsome, well-appointed, intensely charming yet also comfortable minor country house. ‘Well, this is what a sense of style will do,’ observed Mr Landsberg. Then he added, ‘money helps too, of course’.
Friary Farm was also extensively haunted. No one in Auntie Lili’s family or retinue was remotely troubled by this. Nor, it has to be said, once he’d got used to them, did Frank mind the ghosts either. Frank had known a great deal of change and upheaval in his short life, so much so that the admixture of a ghostly element into his daily routine hardly registered. Indeed, he soon learned from Auntie Lili’s sons to blame any missing sock or jersey on the phantom hound that roamed the long gallery at the top of the stairs, or to salute the old soldier who used to pace up and down in the old kitchen but at its former floor level, so that he seemed to walk knee-deep among the tiles, or to point out to Auntie Lili, who liked to be kept informed about them, the shadowy tonsured friars who could often be seen down at the end of the meadow near the big barn, going about their conventual duties in the indistinct, sweet-scented, late summer dusk.
Of all the Friary Farm ghosts, though, Frank’s favourite was the Grey Lady. Indeed, Frank grew almost to love this spectral person.
Most old houses who have a Grey Lady — and, it must be said, many do — attribute to her some extremely romantic tale of thwarted love, possibly violent revenge, and certainly tragic loss. At Friary Farm, however, the Grey Lady was widely understood to be the elderly local woman — sister, as it happened, to one of the current under-gardeners — who had looked after Auntie Lili’s children as babies, but who, sadly, had died of natural causes a few years earlier. Consequently, rather than appearing in the conventional flowing gown or billowing shroud, Friary Farm’s Grey Lady wandered the low corridors or appeared at the kitchen door attired in wire-rimmed spectacles, a cardigan and sensible shoes.
‘Oh, Peggy,’ Lady Lillie would sigh when she caught a passing glimpse of the Grey Lady — only a glimpse, though, because children can always see the ghosts more clearly than the adults can — ‘how I could do with your help now!’
But as Frank knew, the Grey Lady already provided a great deal of help. It was she who chased the tabby-cat out of the well-stocked larder, who would turn up suddenly to quell the amorous ambitions of some of the younger and less sensible household staff, and who would calm Frank’s baby sister when she was fretful or colicky. More than once, when Frank himself had felt very homesick, he had found himself soothed by the Grey’s Lady’s comforting arm wrapped around his small shoulders, her distinctive smell of lavender and butterscotch, her slightly conspiratorial, insubstantial yet bolstering smile.
Mr Landsberg was pragmatic about the Grey Lady. ‘Science can explain many things, Frank’ he reflected once, ‘maybe even most things — but the love of a mother, the love of an old nurse — what is science against that?’
Frank, it must be said, rarely had occasion to feel very homesick during those first few months. Not least, so much was constantly going on at Friary Farm that there was very little time to feel anything other than caught up in the general whirl of activity. On one day, the drama might revolve around the appearance of a short, portly person referred to as The Ambassador — yet another of Lady Lili’s rescue cases — who arrived with more cases and hampers and servants than expected, all of which had to be stowed away somewhere — while on the next day, the kitchen cat might be found to have produced a litter of kittens in Aunt Lili’s disused ‘cello case — while in the meantime, the rector perhaps came calling with a brace of pheasants slung over the shoulder of his cassock, the majestic boiler in the scullery sprung a leak, Auntie Lilli’s younger son stole the under-gardener’s motor-bike and ran it harmlessly into a hedge, and half-a-dozen uniformed airmen started preparations for the dance they would be holding later that week in the old tithe barn.
Most festive and uproarious of all, though, were those rare occasions on which the Colonel, Lady Lili’s husband, managed to escape the War Office and motor up to Friary Farm. The Colonel was the tallest, handsomest, most cheerful man that Frank had ever met. He would pick Frank up and swing him around, squashing him slightly against the brass buttons of his tunic, just as he did with his actual sons, laughing and teasing until Frank, confused but happy, found himself laughing too, as Auntie Lili, a round mass of lace and tweed and pearls, clasped her hands in delight, and Mr Landsberg stood somewhere in the background, his face set for a moment in a hard-to-read look, and even the most austere of the resident ghosts seem to smile on this pleasing scene.
Under such circumstances, what opportunity had a six-year old boy for reflection, let alone sadness? Only occasionally, snuggling down into the warmth of his bed at the end of a tiring day, in a room that smelled of woodsmoke and beeswax and great age, did he remember with a pang another bedroom, different hands tucking in the blankets around him, sweet low-voiced words intoned in another language. And that, often, was when the Grey Lady sat by him, ruffling his hair and stroking his forehead until he fell once again into a sleep that was as profound as it was dreamless.
Upheavals and dramas notwithstanding, Frank’s days at Friary Farm soon settled into a definite rhythm.
In the morning, six days a week, there were lessons with Mr Landsberg. These were conducted in a low room hung with William Morris wallpaper, a map of the Empire and another distant cousin’s over-ambitious watercolours of the Holy Land, the space terminating in a huge leaded window looking out across an expanse of well-tended lawn, haunted on misty days by the ghost of long-deceased but apparently still hard-working gardener. The room was called, predictably enough, the School Room. At one end of a mahogany breakfast-table sat Mr Landsberg, with one of Lady Lili’s sons on each side of him and with Frank at the end of the table. Day after day, they pursued their individual courses of study.
Unlike Frank, the other two boys, engaging but unscholarly, were not in the least in awe of Mr Landsberg. They often made fun of his accent or the fact that he had a fiancée, a remarkably pretty red-haired nurse who worked at a hospital in north London, and that he was known to carry a photo of her in the breast pocket of his jacket.
At first this teasing surprised Frank, who was accustomed to showing authority figures great respect. Soon, however, it had come to seem entirely natural, and he joined in the teasing, even though his English was, of course, far worse than that of Mr Landsberg, who had studied law at Leipzig before everything had ‘gone kaput’, as the Colonel always put it, and thus spoke excellent English long before he even arrived in Britain. Mr Landsberg found this, at least, endlessly amusing. ‘You have learned a great deal about this new life already, Master Frank’ said Mr Landsberg. ‘Do not worry. The grammar and vocabulary will follow.’
On Sundays, of course, they all went to church together, except for Frank’s baby sister, who was a baby, and the baby’s nurse, who was a Methodist. The church, a short walk away along a lane lined with stately beech trees that shivered and shimmered liked giant ghosts, was even older than Friary Farm. Frank had never seen anything remotely like it and when he was first taken there it frightened him slightly.
Lady Lili, her family origins notwithstanding, had in her youth become a fervent Anglo-Catholic — her father the Marquess had not particularly cared, either, being almost entirely secular himself, only observing the religion of his forefathers for the propriety of the thing, about which he felt very strongly indeed — and so it was that Lady Lili’s church, like most things around her, reflected her firmly-stated preferences. There was not only a rood screen and monstrance but also candles, incense, a great deal of genuflection and signs of the cross, as well as processions of obedient local children dressed in cassocks and starched surplices. The Colonel and his family sat in a pew directly in front of the rood screen, just below the chancel, affording Frank a particularly clear view of all the comings and goings. The first time he saw the rector prostrate himself in front of the high altar, he worried that this jovial young man had stumbled and hurt himself, and was much relieved when he rose again.
At first Frank was usually seated next to Auntie Lili, who enjoyed sharing her prayer book — or was it a missal? — with him, whispering loudly ‘this part is very beautiful’, or sometimes just eyeing him with precisely the gaze of sharply critical affection he associated with his own mother. But when it was discovered that the little boy wouldn’t fidget and generally paid attention — which was consideraby more than could be said for either of Auntie Lili’s own sons — he was allowed to sit next to Mr Landsberg instead.
Mr Landsberg, it was rumoured, was quietly seeking adult baptism into the Church of England in order to please his fianceé’s parents, or perhaps to please Lady Lili, who had been very kind to him and his relations, for indeed some of them would never have made it out of Germany without her urgent and forceful intercession. ‘Rome is worth a mass,’ he once said, enigmatically, when no one but Frank could hear him, and winked. But he clearly loved the music, which in truth was very good, and would close his eyes and drum his long, elegant fingers on the treacle-coloured oak of the bench pew. Also, it was impossible to know whether Mr Landsberg was being serious about anything, his jokes in particular.
One Friday afternoon, the Colonel returned from Whitehall to spend the night at Friary Farm, his big motor car stirring up a cloud of dust along the drive and sending the servants rushing about in an enjoyable sort of panic, because he hadn’t rung to let anyone know that he was coming up from London. Auntie Lili, summoned from writing letters in her little study lined with family photographs, children’s drawings and an actually rather important study for a painting of the Holy Family by Rubens, came rushing downstairs, lace and pearls all aflutter. The boys, who had been helping the airmen get the barn ready for their dance, came running at the sound of tyres on the gravel. Even Mr Landsberg, who had been sitting out on the lawn reading either a newspaper or a volume by Hegel — he was carrying both — appeared on the drive, drawn as if by some inexorable magnetism into the Colonel’s bountiful, joyful orbit.
Yet on that day, unfolding his long limbs from the car and with a word to the ADC who accompanied him, the Colonel for once looked serious. Frank recognised that look. His own father had often looked worried and tired and serious. The Colonel threw his arms around his sons, but in a half-hearted way at odds with his usual ebullience. Then he looked at Frank with one of those looks that Mr Landsberg sometimes gave him. And then, as Frank’s father had so often done, too, he dismissed everyone else so that he and his wife could talk, in private, in the drawing room, with the door closed.
Supper that night was strange, too, devoid as it was of the hilarity usually associated with the Colonel’s return. Lady Lili made polite conversation with the ADC about where his parents lived and whether he liked music and whether he played the ‘cello, but her heart wasn’t in it. Lady Lili’s older son told an amusing story about how the airmen had been frightened earlier by the shadowy tonsured friars who insisted on carrying phantom bags of grain into the barn just as the airmen were trying to set up trestle tables, and Lady Lili smiled encouragingly and nodded, but was clearly paying no attention. Even the Ambassador, who always ate an enormous amount of food and would ask for second servings if they weren’t automatically offered, for which Auntie Lili’s sons mocked him incessantly behind his back, only picked at his supper and then pushed the plate away from him with a great and plangent sigh. Indeed, of all those present, only Mr Landsberg seemed remotely normal, glaring at one boy to take his elbows off the table and crisply correcting Frank’s halting English reply when the ADC politely asked him how he liked Friary Farm. Then for some reason Lady Lili had to leave the room very suddenly.
For the adults, once dinner had finished, there was music and coffee in the drawing room, and also for Lady Lili’s older son, who would have been at Harrow by now had everything not been so disrupted by the war, but the younger son and Frank, who shared a room, were put to bed by 9 pm as usual. Except it wasn’t quite as usual, because instead of Mr Landsberger making certain they said their prayers and Mrs Pye the housekeeper fussing with the fire in the grate and the extra blankets, Auntie Lili suddenly appeared at the door. And for once she didn’t even ask about their prayers and whether they’d said them. Instead, she sat down at the end of Frank’s bed, her lace and pearls and force of personality and her incredibly expensive Parisian scent completely overwhelming the little room.
‘My dear little Frank, there is something I must say to you,’ she said, and then promptly switched her language to German, which she spoke not with the slangy, Berlinerisch oddities of Frank’s own speech, or even with Mr Landsberg’s pedantic clarity imposed on Sächsisch origins, but rather the sort of German a well-bred English girl would have learned from her English governess, because for all her German Jewish family background, it must be said that Lady Lili had been raised not only as a Christian but as a native Anglophone. Her son, who was a lazy student and bad at languages, only partially understood what his mother was saying.
And as for Frank, he sat up in bed, polite and alert, and when she had finished, he said only, very carefully, as Mr Landsberger had taught him, ‘Thank you, my dear Auntie Lili’. At which point Lady Lili enveloped him in an enormous cloud of lace and pearls and sympathetic helpless grief, held him for a moment to her formidable bosom, then rose, gave her son a glancing kiss, and vanished as suddenly as she had appeared.
The boys lay in their beds in the gathering darkness, unable to sleep.
‘I say, I’m sorry about your mother and father,’ said Lady Lili’s son, tentatively. ‘I think the same thing happened to Landsberg’s French cousins, for what that’s worth, and to his sister, who didn’t have the right papers. It’s rotten, though. Are you all right?’
Frank thanked him and affirmed that, yes, he was all right. There was little else to say so after a while, the older boy drifted off into sleep. Frank, for his part, turned to the wall and tried to cry, because he somehow felt that was what one did under these circumstance. But the tears would not come. Neither did the Grey Lady. He thought of his baby sister in the room next door, now more of a toddler than a baby, but he still couldn’t cry. There was only an emptiness that still surprised him each time he checked it, rather distantly, the way one might prod with one’s fingers at a recent bad bruise.
Once or twice, someone opened the door and looked in. Frank knew from the footsteps that it was Mr Landsberg, but he pretended to be asleep and slowly, quietly, the door closed again. And so it was that he passed a sleepless, tearless night.
The next morning, everyone was particularly kind towards Frank. Ada the cook gave him an extra egg at breakfast. Auntie Lili’s older son let Frank handle a pocket-knife, its sleek handle set with mother-of-pearl that glowed with an otherworldly luminosity – a knife that Frank had long admired – and then, in his casually elegant manner, told the little boy that he could keep it. And as for the Colonel, who seemed brighter again, he bellowed ‘Frank, my boy!’ in affectionate if abstracted sort of way every time he saw the child.
After lessons in the School Room had finished, Mr Landsberg kept Frank back as the other boys dashed out to enjoy the freedom of a Saturday afternoon. ‘Your English is improving quite remarkably’ he said. ‘You also demonstrate the sang froid of your English ancestry, which is perhaps admirable in its way.’
Frank’s mother was half English — or rather, she had been half English. Frank corrected his thoughts into the past tense. ‘Had been’ — although of course he still thought in German. He suddenly felt slightly unwell. Mr Landsberg was looking at him closely, with one of those hard-to-read looks.
‘Is there anything you want to say, Master Frank?’ asked Mr Landsberg, switching to German, which was most unlike him.
Frank thought for a moment. ‘What happens to people when they are dead, sir?’
Mr Landsberg winced, as if he’d cut himself on the edge of a clean sheet of paper. It took him a moment to reply. ‘The dead? It is hard to know what happens to the dead … well, the One who created them will decide that, won’t He? And He is kind, and wise — more so, it must be said, than those he created.’
‘Please, sir, is that what the Christians think, or what the Jews think? Because my parents were Jews.’
‘As are mine. As were your Aunt Lilli’s. But on this, at any rate, we can all agree. Leave the Creator to decide, to judge. He is great. He —‘ And here, awkwardly, almost as if under a sort of compulsion, Mr Landsberg suddenly started speaking in some other language altogether, as if he were reciting something, but then, as if embarrassed, stopped as suddenly as he had started.
Frank, whose parents had really been quite remarkably secular — they ate what they liked, treated Friday evenings like any other evenings, and at the relevant time of year even put up a pretty Christmas tree, decked with little candles, which they invited their neighbours around to admire — had no idea what Mr Landsberg had just said, but then Mr Landsberg was by some distance the cleverest man Frank had ever met, so he simply looked at him for a moment, waiting for him to say something more, and then when he didn’t, asked politely whether he might go out and join the other boys.
Meanwhile, preparations for the airmen’s dance continued apace.
Between Lady Lili and the Colonel, together in Lady Lili’s little study, there had been some brief discussion earlier about the propriety of allowing the dance to go ahead in light of the news about Frank’s parents. But the conversation had a rather pro forma air to it, for the sad truth was that since the war had begun, quite a lot of people had died in all sorts of circumstances — and indeed, as Lady Lili opined, who knew how many of the airmen would still be alive in a month’s time?
So within a minute or two they had moved on to discussing what was to be done with the Colonel’s ancient and very deaf great aunt who had been bombed out of her flat near Cheyne Walk, to which Lady Lili’s inevitable reply was that Aunt Octavia must of course come to stay at Friary Farm, they would fit her in somehow, she must be wretched at having lost all her lovely bibliots, poor old thing, surely one more seat at the table would hardly make any difference? And the Colonel looked silently at his wife — plump, still handsome if considerably more grey about the temples than she’d been even a year before — and reflected, not for the first time, that the woman he had married was not only very rich, well-connected and sensible, but also extremely kind.
And so it was that the day spun round in a whirl of excitement and expectation, cooking and polishing and rearranging, carrying cases of clanking bottles or trays of food, shouting across the big kitchen courtyard for someone who was always to be found somewhere else entirely. Lady Lili soon had the airmen marshalled, completely organised and under her spell, and sat in barn on an upturned bale of straw, fanning herself with a dance programme and directing operations from the centre. The household staff abandoned their normal duties in the service of this exciting new higher cause. And as for the boys, they all went delightfully unsupervised, stealing sweets from the larder, winding up the airmen and spending no time whatsoever on their lessons.
Nor did Mr Landsberg notice, as he turned out to be very much in demand for his previously unsuspected ability to wire up lighting systems without setting the late medieval barn on fire, as per Lady Lili’s express instructions. But then this was typical of Mr Landsberger, who also knew the Latin name for every beetle the boys ever brought to him, could produce a decent piano rendering of most of Schubert’s lieder, and made jokes with the Ambassador in his own language. Mr Landsberger really was by far the cleverest man who had ever lived at Friary Farm.
By the time dusk fell, the barn had been transformed into a very plausible dance hall, with long trestle tables at one end, a well-lit stage at the other, and plenty of well-swept, open, surprisingly shiny floor in between. The band, having motored up all the way from London, were not only in place but had been judged to be ‘swell’ according to the verdict of Auntie Lili’s elder son, a stern critic of such things. Soon the barn and stable yard were flooded with uniformed airmen, local girls in all their finery, the odd local lad, some tennis-playing friends the Colonel had invited over from a neighbouring village, the rector and the rector’s several unmarried sisters, the Ambassador who now seemed in a better mood, a miscellaneous few old ladies in whose welfare Auntie Lillie took a longstanding benevolent interest, and probably other people too — it was hard to tell, really, so large and various and often quite indistinct was the gathering multitude.
There was music, and dancing, and as much food and laughter as anyone could want, even in those difficult years. Was the atmosphere so joyful because everyone had forgotten the war, or because, conversely, everyone was in fact entirely aware of the war with every single fibre of their various beings, and hence determined to escape it, the fear and horror and grief — or perhaps the boredom and tedium and inconvenience of it all — for a few hours at least? Mr Landsberg found himself pondering this point, briefly, until the statuesque girl from the bakery, previously assumed to be hopelessly shy, approached him with a bottle of beer and a proposal that they should dance, at which point he decided that pondering could wait until another day. It was no surprise to anyone that Mr Landsberg also danced very admirably.
Lady Lili danced with the Colonel, the rector and a particularly bold but also extremely handsome and highly-decorated young airman, until she was giddy and out of breath. The Colonel danced with the rectors’ sisters, old Mrs Pye the housemaid, and a perplexed old dear who mistook him for her own late husband. The Ambassador danced while holding a pie in his free hand. The boys, for their part, ate truly epic amounts of sandwiches and cake. Lady Lili’s younger son also somehow found a source of beer and was particularly merry up to the point he collapsed into a border of Japanese anemones and bergenia. Both, though, are famously forgiving plants, so the overall feeling was that no real harm had been done. Right down at the end of the meadow, there were indistinct yet oddly festive swirls in the gathering mist. Could it be that even the spectral friars were caught up in the moment?
And as for Frank, it must be said that he, too, was having a surprisingly happy time. Every now and then, of course, he would remember that his parents were dead — that he was now an ‘orphan’, an English word that that rolled around in his thoughts like some particularly rare pebble found during a walk by the seashore — but his grief was one of those wounds that was at once too sudden and too deep to hurt instantly, so before he knew it he was once again laughing at someone one of the older boys had done, or accepting more cake from an RAF officer who probably missed his own little ones, or — rather boldly — taking a sip of beer when another airman jokingly offered him a bottle. No, on reflection, despite the sad circumstances, Frank decided that he had never in his life attended such a wonderful party, in such a magnificent location, amid such a gay yet distinguished company. He would happily have stayed up a good deal longer, in fact, had not Aunt Lili, soon after midnight, noticed that he was still up and about, feigned shock and — with an affectionate kiss — told him it was high time he was asleep and sent him away, albeit — having had a few glasses of champagne herself — without arranging for the nurse or housekeeper to show him to up bed.
No matter, though. Frank knew the house well by now. Life had taught him to be reasonably self-contained and self-reliant. He was more than capable of finding his own way upstairs
He entered the house through the kitchen door, left open by someone in a moment of high-spirited inattention. At first Frank thought that the long, rambling, ancient, inscrutable house seemed empty, at last compared with what was going on in the stable yard and barn beyond. The music and the happily raised voices, heard from inside its thick flint walls, sounded surprisingly far away — as if they were in some other world.
He moved on silently through the familiar corridors, from the warren of service rooms towards the dining room, the hall with its chamfered late medieval beams, the big staircase that led up to the bedrooms. As he passed the telephone cupboard he could hear the Colonel, who was taking the opportunity to steal a few brief words with a young violinist who lived in a flat in Clapham — a lithe, mercurial little thing who only a few weeks before had become the Colonel’s lover. ‘I know, my darling, I know, it seems like an eternity, of course it does, but tomorrow night …’ And then through the window, out on the lawn well away from the courtyard, Frank could see Auntie Lili’s elder son deep in conversation with a local boy, the lad who used to cycle up to Friary Farm with wildfowl or sometimes fish. In the half-light reflected from nowhere in particular Frank could see one of the boys reach out to stoke the neck of the other, and then it as as if the two figures inexorably faded into one.
Frank did not stop. Travelling through the dark rooms was like swimming through water, a deep cool stream where one was safe, carried on by the current, always drifting forward. At length Frank felt he was alone. But of course, in that strange old house, at Friary Farm, he was not alone at all, and as he ascended the stairs this grew ever more clear to him, because what he had at first taken for solitude was in fact once again the state of standing amid a jostling crowd, except in this case the crowd was silent, a little more solemn and indeed entirely ghostly. But as we have seen, Frank was now as accustomed to the ghosts as he was to everything else about his new life, from his eccentric new family and their odd way of living to his unruly new language. And there was nothing unfriendly or frightening about the ghosts, either. Like so much that surrounded him, they were overwhelmingly kind.
Of course, there seemed to be rather more of them about than usual — not only the big phantom hound, shaggy and shambling and affectionate, whose great soft ears he casually rubbed in passing, or the Grey Lady whom he saw, or rather felt, standing near the end of the corridor, but many others besides, most of whom he didn’t know. Some looked as if they came from the distant past, but others were, it must be said, much more ordinary — like the crowds he had seen at Victoria Station when he’d first arrived, or even on the Continent earlier in his journey. Later he couldn’t quite work out how they had all fit into the narrow corridors and flanking small rooms, but at the time it all seemed perfectly natural. And certainly he found their proximity comforting, because they themselves seemed comfortable, welcome — very much at home where they were.
When Frank reached the bedroom he shared with Auntie Lili’s younger son, he walked in, gently closed the door behind him, and looked around. Someone had banked the fire so that its embers were only just glowing in the grate. The heavy curtains were closed. From far in the distance, as in a dream, came a few notes of music, a stray laugh, but it wasn’t clear where the sounds came from, because he thought he heard not only the party, but Aunt Lili playing something on her ‘cello, or perhaps even his own mother singing his little sister a lullaby.
The Grey Lady was there too, smiling reassuringly, as were others too. They didn’t mind in the least when Frank slipped off his shoes but then lay down on his bed, still fully dressed, on top of the carefully-smoothed sheets and blankets.
Later, he would remember lying there, with the Grey Lady sitting beside him, stroking his forehead, as the others crowded about, not frightening or anxious but simply companionable. And as if to pass the time, which suddenly seemed both endless and completely unproblematic, the Grey Lady spoke with him, although not with a voice, exactly, but through a sort of deeper connection. That was how it was that Frank was able, that evening, to see so much and travel so far, to drift slowly through the future as he had drifted through the corridors and rooms below, effortlessly, silently, observing and remembering.
So it was that Frank saw that the day would come when Mr Landsberg, no longer needed when the one boy followed his father into the army and the others went away to school, would himself find his way to a military role, at first as a translator but later in the Intelligence Corps, and would later go on to be present at the liberation of death camps not unlike those in which his own cousins and sister had been murdered, but then would further go on to live a long and happy life as an engineer, surrounded first by children then grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, all the product of a spectacularly happy marriage with that pretty red-haired nurse from North London. Auntie Lili would serve as godmother to Mr Landsberger’s oldest son.
In the same way, Frank could foresee the freak accident that would end the Colonel’s life only a very few years hence, but also all the honours and general glory that would come to attach themselves to the Colonel’s name and memory. And he could foresee not only how gravely Auntie Lilli would suffer from the disease that would later claim her life, but also the near-saintly patience with which she bore that suffering. And he could foresee her sons’ futures, too, both of which involved a good deal of laughter and conviviality, if perhaps a bit too much wine, and also too little thought for what would come next, and what in particular would become of the large, old, rambling, otherworldly house which was their common birthright, and the lawns and gardens and fields that surrounded it.
But at the same time, as if out of the corner of his eye, just beyond his field of vision, Frank could also see his own parents, standing nearby, there with the others, waiting, watching him. In life, they had so often looked tired and worried. That is how Frank remembered them. But now they were different, younger and happier somehow, smiling at nothing in particular — or perhaps smiling at Frank and his little sister. Perhaps they were glad to see that their two young children were now so safe and loved, as of course was actually the case. Or perhaps that was just the only way in which Frank could later bear to think about them, and about the others he had lost, about the world he had lost?
And so it was that Frank fell asleep on the bed, as the dancers whirled about the vast high-roofed space of the barn, ever faster and faster, and the band played, and the waves of laughter rose through the clear night air, until at last it grew late and the party, which was deemed a tremendous success and fondly remembered by some of those present a good seventy-five years later, drew to a close.
When Auntie Lili came upstairs and found him, and made him climb into bed properly under the bedclothes, making as she did so little clucking noises of pretended disapproval, he didn’t even notice, so soundly was he asleep. Nor did he notice when she bent over him and kissed his cool forehead, and smoothed his hair, and whispered ‘you poor lovely thing, you poor little lovely thing’ to him. Then Auntie Lili exchanged a sad but knowing look with the Grey Lady herself, who in turn smiled back at Auntie Lili — her own indistinct smile also a sad and knowing one, but as ever, in that house, endlessly kind.