Tourist in Bohemia a novel by Elizabeth McKellar

Readers’ comments:
pacy, racy and really engaging...
very funny but sad too...
original... a straight woman observes the gay scene... the fag-hag’s tale told with sharp-eyed sympathy

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London — May 1979

“So how does this clitoris thing work, then?” Grenville shouted above the roar of the Underground.

“I’m not giving a demonstration here,” Eleanor said.

“Pity! It’s not just poofters like me that need education, my dear. There is too much secrecy and confusion in the world. Provincial prudes who feel shame and run away are giving in to the hideous forces of repression,” Grenville’s ranting voice was ground up in the clatter of the train. Eleanor, not wanting to be lumped in with the provincial prudes, nodded her head.

“I am determined to stay in the vanguard of sexual politics,” he went on. “Despite my great age I’m still a radical, I still believe in the war against guilt and censorship!”

Though Grenville moaned about being over thirty, there seemed to be an endless supply of sex. Eleanor put this down to him being gay, upper class and the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen.

“Your hetero world is a dreadful mess,” he said. “The pursuit of erotic pleasure as part of the great quest for enlightenment is virtually forbidden. Why is that, d’you think? Women are so peculiar. What, in Heaven’s name, d’you want? Do you want sex?”

“Not just at the minute.”

“There you are! It’s inconceivable! Perverse, when one thinks how much you girls are lusted after. What do you want?”

“What I’m after is —”

“I know a little ditty and it goes like this,” Grenville began,

Nimini pimini Boys like polygamy!

The train was slowing to a stop as Grenville finished,

“But...! Nomini pomini Girls like monogamy.”

They picked up Eleanor’s bags, left the train, walked off the platform and onto the escalator.

“All the same,” Grenville announced, “I think it’s time to diversify. Try the other side —”

“Have a go at women you mean?”

“Jolly exciting, uncharted waters. New adventures! Which is why I will need you, my pet, to give me directions, provide a map, tell me how it all works.”

Eleanor looked up at him as he slouched on the moving handrail, sounding off from the step above. Unlike her, he was bold and promiscuous. She was timid in bed. Thought maybe love should come into it somewhere. No point in saying so. He’d think it was pathetic.

“There is a leetle button, yes? We press, yes? And wheee!” Grenville rolled his eyes.

“Got your sex education from a comic, did you?”

“All right, all right. Seriously. I mean, women are different aren’t they?”

“Have you someone in mind, then?” Eleanor really, really hoped it wasn’t her. Was this why he’d offered her a room in his house? Yes he was gorgeous but she hadn’t come all this way to be a guinea pig.

“Someone in mind? Not quite. But I’m preparing myself. So what will I do? Advise me, my dear. I should take it more slowly? More... whatyoumacallit?” Grenville juggled with invisible body parts. “Foreplay!” he shouted as he went past a startled busker. “I’ve been reading all about it in a magazine.”

“A magazine?” Eleanor repeated and cringed as Grenville yelled at her over the heads of the crowd,

Bottoms or something! I don’t know. It was full of women anyway. Perfectly filthy! I’ve obviously been missing out. What d’you think?”

Eleanor had never been on the London Underground before and had to concentrate on keeping up. Her pack bounced on her back as she hurried after Grenville, down the tiled tunnels and out onto another platform.

“How do you know which way to go down here?” she was out of breath.

“Aha!” Grenville pulled Eleanor over to the curved wall of the platform, “Now, my young friend, pay attention. Here we are in front of Beck’s brilliant map. A piece of genius. Beck of the tube and Bazalgette of the sewers, unsung heroes of our beloved city. Gods of the Underworld, guardians of the trains and drains —”

There was a hot blast of wind and a train rushed into the station.

“The London Underground map is a perfect system based on colours and cardinal points,” Grenville shouted. “Even the most mundane journey on the tube has a mythical quality for we are always bound north, south, east or west like the migrants of the Blues or the travellers in a tale —”

The train doors parted and they pushed into the crowded carriage.

“I like to think that we are hurtling through the city’s body in a cell of warmth and light,” Grenville’s voice was still loud as everyone, pressed together, waited in silence for the doors to close. “And I like to think of the superb sewage system too of course, only it’s not so much fun imagining oneself as a turd.”

Eleanor looked down and let her hair hide her face. Not long now, surely. But she must think of something to keep him off sex and sewers. Two stops and the journey was done but as they walked away from the train towards the exit, Grenville started up again,

“A new direction for the libido is —”

“Grenville, I haven’t come to live off you and what I’m hoping —”

“Really? I’m sure I shall find having you around tremendously pleasant and I know I intend a heterosex recce but I think we’ll keep our relationship platonic, don’t you?”

“Oh, definitely!” Eleanor tried not to sound too relieved as it might be insulting. “I think just friends is best for us, I do. What I’m after is a job and —”

“This venture into fannydom,” he said, steering them towards the news stand at the station exit. “My friends are not at all supportive. Think it’s queer. But,” Grenville waved at the kiosk plastered with pictures of Mrs. Thatcher, “I am merely responding to these radical times. Our new Prime Minister has a handbag, blouse and bouffant —” he said as he bought a paper. “A break with tradition, wouldn’t you agree? Change is in the air! Fannydom is in the ascendant and ‘Enterprise’ is the watchword.”


They emerged from the Underground and after dodging fast moving traffic, turned into a quiet square of delapidated grandeur. There were dumped cars and basements full of trash. A dusty wind blew newspaper across the square and splayed it onto gap-toothed railings. Up some steps, under a pillared portico, Grenville unlocked one half of a massive door. Stepping over the junk in the hallway they carried Eleanor’s luggage up a wide marble staircase to a spacious landing on the first floor. Grenville started stabbing the air with his newspaper, saying,

“Loo, kitchen... bathroom... up here... my room, library —”

Eleanor, ducking away from Grenville’s waving arm, caught glimpses of scruffy, book-filled rooms furnished with stunning untidiness.

“And at the top,” Grenville led her up futher flights of stairs, “are your quarters.” Putting down her suitcase he muttered, “First-night-at-boarding-school-awfulness for you, I’m afraid,”

Never having slept away from home but wanting to get away from it, Eleanor didn’t respond. Instead, she looked round, trying to orient herself.

“I’ve put out some pillows and sheets and my tartan rug which I thought might comfort —” Grenville cocked his head at a distant ringing sound, “There goes the phone!” he said as he rushed away down the stairs. “Come to the front when you’ve settled in,” his voice receded.

Eleanor stood still for a moment and then eased her backpack off her shoulders and put it beside her bookbag, coat and suitcase.

The attic was long and low, with a firedoor opening onto a roofscape of chimneys and high parapets. The viewless windows made the space feel private. There was a large brass bed, antique furniture, piles of books, boxes and half-sorted jumble. She didn’t mind Grenville’s clutter; the miracle was that here, in the middle of this great, chaotic city, she had a room of her own, quiet and safe.

Eleanor slumped down on the bed. She felt shaky. Maybe she was in shock. Couldn’t get over it. What she’d done. How she’d had the nerve to come all the way from her hometown to London, a place she’d hardly ever been in her life. And as if that wasn’t scary enough, she’d come invited by a loony toff she hardly knew, whose world was more weird than hey-diddle-diddle. She had a moment of white panic. How was she going to manage?

She must stand up and force herself to do something. Make the bed. Use the clean sheets Grenville had provided. It was a choice: risk this or go back to life at home. Being nagged. Being compared to her big sister. Having a nothing job at her Dad’s works. Come on... tidying, sorting things out... it always calmed her.

When the bed was made, Eleanor began to unpack. She cleared a shelf and claimed it for her bag and sketchbooks. Her nightdress and shawl went on the bed. She pulled over a flat-seated chair to use as a bedside table. A lamp was wanted. She’d feel more settled tonight with a light at hand next the bed. Maybe there was one... somewhere in all the junk up here.

At the other end of the attic there were storerooms, one with a basin and toilet. Like the rest of the place they were untidy with boxes and lumber. Eleanor spent some time exploring cupboards and looking for a lamp. She found one. More rummaging turned up a dusty packet of bulbs. They fitted. Was the lead long enough? Eleanor put the lamp on the chair, crouched down and plugged it into the socket near the bed. She knelt on the floor and pressed the switch. Yes! Never mind the smell of hot dust, she felt pleased with herself. Looking round the room, it seemed more familiar and cosy. She’d have a pee and a wash now.

Eleanor glanced in the mirror as she rinsed her hands. She didn’t wear makeup and her clothes were simple. The girls’ fashion for black trousers, white shirt and boy’s lace-up shoes suited her flat figure and the need to travel light.

The rest of her unpacking was done in no time. Clean underwear went into an emptied drawer. Four coat hangers on a curtain pole dealt with the rest of her clothes. Eleanor took a deep breath. She should go and join Grenville.

Pages 73–78

Eleanor was being driven through the outskirts of her hometown. Grenville had offered to come with her for the weekend to satisfy her family. She had managed to impress them, for once, by having a rich, upper class boyfriend. More than a year it had been now, and they wanted to meet him. Eleanor had tried to explain that Grenville was not exactly her boyfriend but her Mam wasn’t having it. Trouble was, Eleanor could not let on that Grenville was gay, there was no knowing what her Dad might do and to say that Grenville had other girlfriends would mean more questions and arguments. Eleanor had to keep on the right side of them. Her Dad was giving her handouts that made it possible to hang on in London while she made her way. Her earnings from costume making were still low and on-off.

As they left the main road and drove through the suburbs, Eleanor said,

“I wouldn’t care if I never saw them again. I come home for the money. I feel despicable —”

“We all have to compromise, my dear. In deference to your father’s royalist sensibilities, I have eschewed my copulating corgis tee shirt —”

“It’s all right for you, you’re rich, independent. You can cut free.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Independent? Where do you think my money comes from? Families are perfectly awful but there is nothing to be done about it. I can as soon ‘cut free’ as change the colour of my eyes.”

As Eleanor directed Grenville through the housing estate she began to feel more and more wound up, “I’m dreading this. It’s going to be bloody terrible. I’m sorry to drag you —”

“Never apologise. I’m delighted to dabble in a little social anthropology. And, rest assured, I do know how to behave among the savages of suburbia —”

“Grenville, you mustn’t —”

“Play with my food or warble on about flagellation.”

They turned into the close.

“It’s not just about offensive clothes and shutting up about sex, love,” Eleanor said as they drew up outside her house. “It’s about... you’ll have to... you know, pretend and that.”

“How so?” Grenville looked out of the car at the crazy paved driveway, replacement windows and hanging baskets.

“My father hates gays.”

“How queer of him.”

Eleanor’s mother had sent Grenville and her husband to the lounge bar of a nearby hotel while supper was got ready. Eleanor was fed up because it had meant that she was left to lay the table and make a display of all the best china while her Mam went off to beautify herself. Like the wicked witch, she had always played “who’s the fairest of them all” with Eleanor’s boyfriends. Grenville, Eleanor noticed, was going to get the usual treatment: her Mam had changed into a shorter skirt, higher heels and a more revealing top.

“Your property in London will be worth serious money soon,” said Eleanor’s Dad between mouthfuls of coq au vin. “Prices are set to rocket. This chicken’s done to a turn, Missis. Being an owner occupier round here, like what we are now, is a good thing. I’ll have you know, houses in this location are coming up fast. A better class of people are moving in. Getting too expensive for scroungers and suchlike. We have a connection, you know, in the estate agent business, being my son-in-law that is. And he had a word in my shell-like and said to stop renting, borrow money and buy up. So I did. Bought this house off the old woman who owned it. Didn’t know her arse from her elbow. She was easily persuaded. I got it for next to nothing. It’s wonderful what this government is doing. Cutting red tape. Creating wealth. Letting people like me, get on.”

“We’re doing the house up now it’s ours,” Eleanor’s mother said, “central heating, nice décor. But we don’t think much to DIY. Like you, Grenville, we can afford to have it done proper like, by professionals. The upstairs bathroom has just been finished —” she ate primly, not wanting to disturb her lipstick, “and I’ve been ever so busy choosing a colour match for the Austrian blinds.”

“Absolutely!” Grenville agreed. “Choosing colours is very difficult. The most infinitesimal gradation of shade can be the difference between right and wrong. But with the bathroom there’s at least the certainty that the porcelain and tiles must be white. I suppose blue might be allowed in the tiles if they’re Delft.”

“We’ve had a new suite put in. Top of the range. And I spent a long time, I can tell you, choosing between Champagne and Avocado.”

“Avocado? But that’s all black and knobbly surely,” said Grenville.

“It’s a green colour,” Eleanor put in.

“Green? In the bathroom? That would never do. Like lying in a swamp and so unflattering for the poor ageing bod —”

Grenville, warmed up now, talked with his mouth full. Eleanor had always admired his disregard for prissy table manners but here, it made her feel jumpy.

“I made the mistake of buying a pair of dark green silk knickers once but I found the green set off my varicose veins. So I gave them to a young renter. What is it old bean?” Eleanor had nudged him under the table.

“Oh God ah! A young um passing... ah?”

“Jumble sale,” Eleanor said.

“Yes! Jumbo thing.”

“Oh, we’re always giving away mountains of clothes to charity,” Eleanor’s mother said. “The lady down the Oxfam says she relies on me. Well, they can charge more for the designer labels so I’m very popular. Would you like some more? My hostess trolley keeps everything piping hot!”

“Herself’s second helpings are just as good as her first. Not often you can say that about a woman, eh Grenville?” Eleanor’s father winked.

“What? Right ho! Delicious.”

“I left the mushrooms out of the recipe because I know you don’t like them. So can I tempt you to a teensie-weensie bit more, Grenville?” Eleanor’s mother’s gold bracelets clashed on the table as she leaned towards him.

Grenville held out his plate, saying,

“I’m very wild. I never resist temptation.”

After supper Eleanor’s father moved to the lounge to watch TV while her mother insisted on a tour of the “stately home”. She was keen to show off the improvements.

“I’ve done yours up too.” Her mother opened the door to the room that Eleanor had slept in all her life.

It had vanished. All the precious clutter of her childhood had disappeared. On the pink repapered walls hung pictures of thatched cottages and cats, bought ready framed from a department store. Her old bed had been replaced with matching twin beds and one wall was made up of a fitted wardrobe suite. On the display shelves were gift shop novelties, glass animals and a wicker basket of dried flowers.

Eleanor had been swept away. She stood confused as her mother darkened and brightened the room, showing off the dimmer switches for the built in spotlights.

“You’ll have the room when you visit. I put my grandchildren in here when they come. I’ve got some of their things in the drawers.” Eleanor’s mother turned to Grenville and prompted, “People say I don’t look old enough to be a Nana.”

“Well my Nanny was very young. Looking back on it I think she was probably one of my aunt’s little fancies.”

“Our son-in-law is doing ever so well,” Eleanor’s mother said. “He’s very enterprising so our married daughter lives in the lap of luxury... she was always the bright one. You’ll like your new room, won’t you, Eleanor.”

“Where are all my things?”

“You don’t want any of that old rubbish. Your sister didn’t want it, not even for the kiddies. They have such lovely clothes and things nowadays.”

“I don’t care about the clothes, Mam, but what about the little dolls’ teaset Uncle Arthur give us and the ark he made and his photo...?”

“It were just trashy stuff, all chipped. They weren’t antiques or anything. I checked. You wouldn’t have got any money for them. This room, now, it’s an investment. I had a design consultant —”

“But my photo of Uncle Arthur. I loved him. We got on and —”

“Our other daughter loves the new look. What do you think, Grenville?”

“It’s certainly pink.”

“It’s all completely colour coordinated,” her mother said. “So you must like it, Eleanor.”

She didn’t like it at all. To her eye it looked like one of those stuffy hotel rooms. A room without a memory and all for show. She opened her mouth to protest. And closed it again. So what. Couldn’t be bothered. She took a moment to register the change in herself. How she felt no need to argue. No need to resist or fight her corner any more. In that second, without any fuss, without cake, champagne or celebration, Eleanor cut the cord and left home,

“It’s great, Mam,” she said. “Yeah. Great.”

Pages 101–103

Having stopped for supper on the way, they arrived at Wyvernden Hall after dark. Eleanor had an impression of stone gateposts, headlit flurries of snow, a bridge, then crunching gravel under high walls. Too late to ask Grenville how to address his aunt and mother. Madam? My Lady? Your Ladyship? They all sounded daft, like playacting.

Grenville had been tooting the horn as they came up the avenue and, as they got out of the car, a door opened in the blackness, dropping a drawbridge of light and releasing a pack of yelling dogs. Eleanor’s worries were exchanged for a turmoil of flailing paws, wagging tails, barking and shouting,

“Get down! Down Turpy! Dido! At once! Nipper! Nipper, stop it! Damned dogs! Pay no attention, Eleanor ducks! Giddy! Giddy, darling!”

She could see that aunt and nephew were very alike, that Aunt Pod was a tanned, middle aged, tomboy version of Grenville. Tall and lean, she carried a cigarette and glass of spirits in one hand and tried to calm the dogs with the other.

“Sorry there’s no Christmas tree,” she shouted over the tumult, “Dogs go mad peeing up it!”

Learning the names of two labradors, two terriers, a three-legged collie and realizing that “Giddy” was Grenville got Eleanor over the threshold, through the long tapestried hall and up the stairs to a panelled room with a log fire.

Grenville’s mother greeted him as if his coming was a complete surprise. A petite woman, she clung to her son, laughing girlishly and wrinkling her nose at him. She ignored Eleanor who took the chance to look round, registering how many painted portraits and photographs there were of Grenville’s mother in the room and how her beauty had contributed to the refinement of his face.

“Darling, it’s so cold, which is why I’m in these dull things,” his mother simpered. “So you musn’t be cross with little me.”

“You look perfectly lovely, as always,” Grenville’s voice was tight.

“What a sweet, naughty man you are,” she flirted. Taking his hand, his mother made him sit beside her while she chattered to him, all the time patting her hair and wanting compliments on her appearance. Grenville’s language was effusive but the delivery, Eleanor noticed, was mechanical. After a few moments he extricated himself in order to show Eleanor to her room.

Wyvernden Hall felt like a huge deserted hotel where she might have a whole floor to herself. She was relieved to have been put in the room next to his. As they left after settling in, Grenville turned the key in her door and gave it to her, saying,

“Keep it locked.”

“O my God! Why? Will I be raped by a barmy butler?” she joked to cover her jitters.

“Nothing so thrilling, I’m afraid. It’s Mummy,” he frowned, “she’ll come in and steal your things. Bit of a klepto, that’s all.”

“But she can afford to have anything in the world! What does she want to steal my mingy bits for?” Eleanor regretted her nervous babble when she saw Grenville’s frozen face and had to go all the way back to the sitting room with him in silence.

Pages 109–112

Grenville pulled a sledge as they walked up the road from the Hall to the church for the second time that day.

“Snow is so lovely...” he looked round. “But for Aunt Pod and the Hall it’s a disaster... the livestock, the birds, the oldies in the village, the frozen pipes at the stables. And it will mess up the Boxing Day meet. Can’t be sorry. I’m on the side of the fox.” He snorted, “Always was a class traitor!”

The church was at the top of a wooded rise and Grenville explained to Eleanor that the hill had been a sacred site ever since a pagan hero had vanquished a wicked wyvern there. They paused by the war memorial where he pointed out the dragon’s head on his family coat of arms. It matched the one on his signet ring. Here it was carved above the names of the fallen in the Great War.

“I like the old-fashioned names,” Eleanor said, “Ernest and Cedric —”

“Yes, so many, just from this estate. John Jarvis was my grandfather’s coachman and those Baileys there? That means Ada Bailey, Jarvis’ wife, lost her brothers as well.”

“But it’s all years ago, Grenville.”

“Not to me, it’s not!” he said. “I remember Ada. And her son John, whom you met in church this morning, has only just retired from the stables. And, you know, one of my very earliest memories —” his voice softened, “is being given strawberries, in his cottage garden, by old, old Grampey Turner. Look here! Robert, Harold and Alfred Turner. All his boys killed. It’s... it’s insupportable! And you seem to think that life in the country is some sort of escape? The country fills me with —” He shook his head and walked away, the sledge’s steel runners grinding on the gritted stone flags of the path.

“But I’m glad to know where I shall come to at last!” His voice lifted again, “They will take me back, that’s the greatest comfort. In death, I know exactly where I’ll be...” He pointed to a wrought iron grille set into the dry sandy walls of the church, “Through there, in the family vault.”

“Oh aye, with the upper classes. Out the wet and doing nowt, as usual,” she said.

“Hm. Not so harmless,” he muttered. “They’re mostly soldiers... killed while urging ploughboys to their deaths.”

“So you’re a pacifist,” Eleanor said.

“Well, that’s a bit tricky. The defence of the realm against the Crown’s enemies is the ancient role of the nobility. It satisfies honour and justifies our power and privileges. But a world without boundaries, there’s a wheeze! I’d be prepared to die for that.”

This morning, after Christmas service, Grenville had been so busy greeting people he had not had time to show her the new carving of a dragon in the niche above the south porch. He pointed to it now, squatting in its nest of snow, its head arched back, breathing flames of stone.

“There’s the wyvern again,” he said. “Symbol of greed, pestilence, darkness and untransmuted matter. That’s the hero’s sword you see through it’s neck. Spunkingly good, don’t you think? We finally managed to fund its restoration, along with the lychgate. No thanks to the present vicar. That awful, happy-clappy dimwit taking the service today. He disapproves of this ‘image of the devil.’ Imagine having to deal with such people!”

They moved down the path.

“What does the lettering say on this gate thing?” Eleanor asked.

Semper ad lucem. Always towards the light.”

“And all this will get you to heaven faster, will it?” she said, as they passed through the lychgate.

“I doubt it very much. Not with all the responsibilities I’ve shirked. And who knows what sins of the fathers I shall have to atone for.”

Eleanor still felt fed up and refused to be moved by his subdued manner.

“Shouldn’t the cost of it have been spent on the workers’ cottages instead of on all this? Hardly anybody goes to church any more, anyway,” she said.

“The cottages are much more comfortable than the Hall —”

“And there’s you people at dinner,” she interrupted him, “complaining about the rise of house prices in your village when you’re coining it from rents on your London properties.”

“The point is, my precious, that everything is done, not for money, but to preserve a way of life. Doomed, in my opinion, but there you go...” Grenville started to caper round her. “A way of life, I might add, that involves a large number of working class people!” He struck a fencer’s pose. “Who now can’t afford to live in their own village because —” he feinted and lunged at her, “it has been bought up by new-rich townspeople like your family, Eleanor dear. Nyah!” he shouted. “A hit a hit! I win I win!”

“Piss off! You’re just a clever clogs. Talk your way out of everything, you!” What was left of her anger ran out, like the last grains of sand through the neck of an hourglass. Till the next time.

PAGE 136

Eleanor put her head back in the passenger seat of Grenville’s car and watched the dark city slide quietly round her and away. Lighted windows, shop fronts, street lamps, neon signs approached and then glanced off, out of sight. Jewel-bright traffic lights changed for no reason. The Belishas flashed faithfully at empty crossings. The on-off jostle of daytime driving was replaced by a swift possession of the streets. Occasionally a pedestrian or another car swung into view, rare enough in the deserted cityscape to be of interest. Who were they? Where were they going at this hour? But they too would glide away into the past. Tunnel lights flipped overhead, railings flickered by and the river lay still and heavy as they flowed past it on the Embankment.

“I want to ask,” Grenville began. “You have lived with me for years. Are you warm enough? I’ve left the car roof on, spoils the view but I don’t want us to be cold.”

“I’m fine, it’s very cosy like this.”

“And I notice that you can go for long periods, weeks, without fucking anyone. Am I right?” he said.

“I suppose so...”

“How do you do that?”

Pages 239–242

“That’s them now!” Zeb had heard the crunching sound of tyres on gravel. Eleanor followed Gail and Zeb out to the entrance portico. There was a tootle on the horn and the raking crash of the orange campervan’s sliding door.

“Oh my God!” Zeb shouted, “It’s like the bloody Trojan Horse, isn’t it!” as children, dogs, bags, toys and sweet wrappers erupted from the van.

Before long, the hall was full of mattresses, sleeping bags, clothes, boxes of food, dog bowls, shoes and wellingtons. Bedding, towels, pillows, clothes, toys, rolls of lavatory paper and a potty had broken out of their plastic binliners and were making their escape up the stairs. Greetings, barking and excited laughter echoed up to the landing and soon Lucy could be heard crackling over the intercom,

“Me down! Me down! Upa! Upa! Dadda? Dadda! Me down now!”

Eleanor showed Carlo the sleeping arrangements, apologising for the lack of proper furniture.

“Stop saying sorry!” Carlo said. “It’s just fine, honey. The empty rooms are so restful... makes a real change for us! I like it. The get-away-from-it-all of summer camp but with proper sanitary arrangements and privacy! It’s great. I’ll start bringing up our things and get the kids pumping up their lilos.”

When Eleanor went back downstairs she was stunned by the complete scene change. Her tidy kitchen had been transformed into a chaotic canteen. It was as if her and the visitors’ belongings had been mixed together, flung into the air and left wherever they landed. Gail, pregnant and eating lightly but often, had started on a quiche. Seeing this, the children said they were starving and Imogen had begun to hand out food, insisting they sit down properly at the kitchen table. Being sent on a hunt for chairs, the kids discovered the dining room and ransacked it for chairs, cutlery and blue paper napkins. Eleanor was in time to see a packet, which was being pulled open by a nine-year-old, come apart suddenly, creating a ceiling-high fountain of salted peanuts. The dogs went berserk. It was now a race to see how many peanuts could be salvaged before the dogs gobbled them up. Above the noise Theo’s sister called over to her,

“I’ve opened some wine we brought. Here’s yours, darling!”

After supper the adults sat among the ruins, drinking and passing round a joint while the children, who had been put to bed, could still be heard in the distance.

“They’re so excited those kids, they’re still racketting about up there!” Carlo yawned.

“How do we amuse them if the weather breaks?” Eleanor asked, worried.

“Darling, stop fretting,” Theo’s sister patted her arm. “If it’s raining they’ll play football, Batman and princesses up and down the corridors and if its sunny they’ll do it outside. Live for the day! You have to with children!” Imogen leaned back in her chair and took the spliff from Zeb. She inhaled the smoke, “Oh heaven!” she breathed, “the children are happy somewhere else. It’s the end of the day. I’ve got some wine and some dope and I’m not bothered about the meaning of life. I’m sorry Gail, darling, I forgot, you can’t drink or smoke. But it’s extraordinary how when one’s in pod one doesn’t want any of it, actually.”

“Yeah, and being pregnant is the one time...” Gail sliced banana onto a piece of bread and marmite, “I’m not bothered about the meaning of life, either.”

“That’s because you are the meaning of life, honey, and —”

Carlo was interrupted by his daughter who’d come down to the kitchen in her pyjamas to complain that her brother had taken her Sad Rabbit because he couldn’t find his Silky and she and her friend wanted to be in the same room and the baby wanted to be in with the boys too but was a bit smelly...

Zeb switched on the intercom, bringing the upstairs hullaballoo into the kitchen. In amongst it, his Lucy’s furious voice could be heard, yelling,

“Me down! My done poo! My done poo! Want noo napnap now! Me down now!”

When the children and dogs had finally settled to sleep, the adults began a drift to bed. Eleanor, the last to leave the kitchen, hesitated tipsily in the doorway,

“By ’eck! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a mess...”

Gail put her arm round Eleanor and looked at the kitchen with her,

“Yeah, mate. I’ll admit, it’s impressive and what’s more we’re going to leave it all till the morning, eh.”

“Good thing Theo isn’t here to see it —” Eleanor giggled as she switched off the light. “I think Grenville’ud be proud of me, though, don’t you!”