THE Thurlows lived on a small hill. As though it were not high enough, the house was raised up, as on invisible stilts, with a wooden flight of steps to the front door. Exposed and isolated, the wind striking at it from all quarters, it seemed to have no part with the surrounding landscape. Empty ploughed lands, in wintertime, stretched away on all sides in wet steel curves.
At half-past seven every morning Mrs. Thurlow pushed her great rusty bicycle down the hill; at six every evening she pushed it back. Loaded, always, with gray bundles of washing, oilcans, sacks, cabbages, bundles of old newspaper, boughs of wind-blown wood, and bags of chicken food, the bicycle could never be ridden. It was a vehicle of necessity. Her relationship to it was that of a beast to a cart. Slopping along beside it, flat heavy feet pounding painfully along under mudstained skirts, her face and body ugly with lumpy angles of bone, she was like a beast of burden.
Coming out of the house, raised up even above the level of the small hill, she stepped into a country of wide horizons. This fact meant nothing to her. The world into which she moved was very small: from six to nine she cleaned for the two retired sisters, nine to twelve for the retired photographer, twelvethirty to three for the poultry farm, four to six for the middle-aged bachelor. She did not think of going beyond the four lines which made up the square of her life. She thought of other people going beyond them, but this was different. Staring down at a succession of wet floors, working always for other people, against time, she had somehow got into the habit of not thinking about herself.
She thought much, in the same stolid pounding way as she pushed the bicycle, of other people: in particular of Thurlow, more particularly of her two sons. She had married late; the boys were nine and thirteen. She saw them realizing refined ambitions, making their way as assistants in shops, as clerks in offices, even as butlers. Heavily built, with faces having her own angular boniness, they moved with eyes on the ground. She had saved money for them. For fifteen years she had hoarded the scrubbingand-washing money, keeping it in a bran bag under a mattress in the back bedroom. They did not know of it; she felt that no one, not even Thurlow, knew of it.
Thurlow had a silver plate in his head. In his own eyes it set him apart from other men. ‘I got a plate in me head. Solid silver. Enough silver to make a dozen spoons and a bit over. Solid. Beat that!’ Wounded on the Marne, and now walking about with the silver plate in his head, Thurlow was a martyr. ‘I did n’t ought to stoop. I did n’t ought to do nothing. By rights. By rights I did n’t ought to lift a finger.’ He was a hedge cutter. ‘ Lucky I’m tall, else that job would n’t be no good to me.’ He had bad days and good days, even days of genuine pain. ‘Me plate’s hurting me! It’s me plate. By God, it’ll drive me so’s I don’t know what I’m doing! It’s me plate again.’ And he would stand wild and vacant, rubbing his hands through his thin black hair, clawing his scalp as though to wrench out the plate and the pain.
Once a week, on Saturdays or Sundays, he came home a little tipsy, in a good mood, laughing to himself, riding his bicycle up the hill like some comic rider in a circus. ‘Eh? Too much be damned. I can ride me bike, can’t I? S’long as I can ride me bike I’m all right.’ In the pubs he had only one theme, ‘I got a plate in me head. Solid silver,’ recited in a voice challenging the world to prove it otherwise.
All the time Mrs. Thurlow saved money. It was her creed. Sometimes people went away and there was no cleaning. She then made up the gap in her life by other work: picking potatoes, planting potatoes, dibbing cabbages, spudding roots, pea picking, more washing. In the fields she pinned up her skirt so that it stuck out behind her like a thick stiff tail, making her look like some bony ox. She did washing from five to six in the morning, and again from seven to nine in the evening. Taking in more washing, she tried to wash more quickly, against time. Somehow she succeeded, so that from nine to ten she had time for ironing. She worked by candlelight. Her movements were largely instinctive. She had washed and ironed for so long, in the same way, at the same time and place, that she could have worked in darkness.
There were some things, even, which could be done in darkness; and so at ten, with Thurlow and the sons in bed, she blew out the candle, broke up the fire, and sat folding the clothes or cleaning boots, and thinking. Her thoughts, like her work, went always along the same lines, towards the future, out into the resplendent avenues of ambitions, always for the two sons. There was a division in herself, the one part stolid and uncomplaining in perpetual labor, the other fretful and almost desperate in an anxiety to establish a world beyond her own. She had saved fifty-four pounds. She would make it a hundred. How it was to be done she could not think. They were growing, the cost of keeping them was growing. She trusted in some obscure providential power as tireless and indomitable as herself.
At eleven she went to bed, going up the wooden stairs in darkness, in her stocking feet. She undressed in darkness, her clothes falling away to be replaced by a heavy gray nightgown that made her body seem still larger and more ponderous. She fell asleep almost at once, but throughout the night her mind, propelled by some inherent anxiety, seemed to work on. She dreamed she was pushing the bicycle down the hill, and then that she was pushing it up again; she dreamed she was scrubbing floors; she felt the hot stab of the iron on her spittled finger and then the frozen bite of icy swedes as she picked them off unthawed earth on bitter mornings. She counted her money, her mind going back over the years throughout which she had saved it, and then counted it again, in fear, to make sure, as though in terror that it might be gone in the morning.
She had one relaxation. On Sunday afternoons she sat in the kitchen alone, and read the newspapers. They were not the newspapers of the day, but of all the previous week and perhaps of the week before that. She had collected them from the houses where she scrubbed, bearing them home on the bicycle. Through them and by them she broke the boundaries of her world. She made excursions into the lives of other people: tragic lovers, cabinet ministers, Atlantic fliers, suicides, society beauties, murderers, kings. It was all very wonderful. But emotionally, as she read, her face showed no impression. It remained oxlike in its impassivity. It looked in some way indomitably strong, as though little things like beauties and suicides, murderers and kings, could have no possible effect on her. About three o’clock as she sat reading, Thurlow would come in, lumber upstairs, and sleep until about half-past four.
One Sunday he did not come in at three o’clock. It was after four when she heard the bicycle tinkle against the woodshed outside. She raised her head from the newspaper and listened for him to come in. Nothing happened. Then after about five minutes Thurlow came in, went upstairs, remained for some minutes, and then came down again. She heard him go out into the yard. There was a stir among the chickens as he lumbered about the woodshed.
Mrs. Thurlow got up and went outside, and there, at the door of the woodshed, Thurlow was just hiding something under his coat. She thought it seemed like his billhook. She was not sure. Something made her say: —
‘Your saw don’t need sharpening again a’ready, does it?’
‘That it does,’ he said. ‘That’s just what it does. Joe Woods is going to sharp it.’ Thurlow looked upset and slightly wild, as he did when the plate in his head was hurting him. His eyes were a little drink-fired, dangerous. ‘I gonna take it down now, so’s I can git it back to-night.’
All the time she could see the saw itself hanging in the darkness of the woodshed behind him. She was certain then that he was lying, almost certain that it was the billhook he had under his coat.
She did not say anything else. Thurlow got on his bicycle and rode off, down the hill, his coat bunched up, the bicycle slightly crazy as he drove with one tipsy hand.
Something, as soon as he had gone, made her rush upstairs. She went into the back bedroom and flung the clothes off the mattress of the small iron bed that was never slept in. The money: it was all right. It was quite all right. She sat down heavily on the bed. And after a moment’s anxiety her color returned again — the solid, immeasurably passive calm with which she scrubbed, read the newspapers, and pushed the bicycle.
In the evening, the boys at church, she worked again. She darned socks, the cuffs of jackets, cleaned boots, sorted the washing for the following day. The boys must look well, respectable. Under the new scheme they went, now, to a secondary school, in the town. She was proud of this, the first real steppingstone to the higher things of the future. Outside, the night was windy, and she heard the now brief, now very prolonged moan of wind over the dark winter-ploughed land. She worked by candlelight. When the boys came in she lighted the lamp. In their hearts, having now some standard by which to judge her, they despised her a little. They hated the cheapness of the candlelight. When they had eaten and gone lumbering up to bed, like two colts, she blew out the lamp and worked by candlelight again. Thurlow had not come in.
He came in a little before ten. She was startled, not hearing the bicycle.
‘You want something t’ eat?’
‘No,’ he said. He went straight into the scullery. She heard him washing his hands, swilling the sink, washing, swilling again.
‘You want the light?’ she called.
He came into the kitchen. She saw his still-wet hands in the candlelight. He gave her one look and went upstairs without speaking. For some time she pondered on the memory of this look, not understanding it. She saw in it the wildness of the afternoon, as though the plate were hurting him, but now it had in addition fear, and, above fear, defiance.
She got the candle and went to the door. The wind tore the candle flame down to a minute blue bubble which broke, and she went across the yard, to the woodshed, in darkness. In the woodshed she put a match to the candle again, held the candle up at eye level, and looked at the walls. The saw hung on its nail, but there was no billhook. She made a circle with the candle, looking for the bicycle with dumb eyes. It was not there. She went into the house again. Candleless, very faintly perturbed, she went up to bed. She wanted to say something to Thurlow, but he was dead still, as though asleep, and she lay down herself, hearing nothing but the sound of Thurlow’s breathing and, outside, the sound of the wind blowing across the bare land.
Asleep, she dreamed, as nearly always, about the bicycle, but this time it was Thurlow’s bicycle and there was something strange about it. It had no handles, but only Thurlow’s billhook where the handles should have been. She grasped the billhook, and in her dream she felt the pain of the blood rushing out of her hands, and she was terrified and woke up.
Immediately she put out her hands, to touch Thurlow. The bed was empty. That scared her. She got out of bed. ‘Thurlow! Bill! Thurlow! Thurlow!’
The wind had dropped, and it was quiet everywhere. She went downstairs. There, in the kitchen, she lighted the candle again and looked round. She tried the back door; it was unlocked and she opened it and looked out, feeling the small ground wind icy on her bare feet.
‘Thurlow!’she said. ‘Bill! Thurlow!’
She could hear nothing, and after about a minute she went back upstairs. She looked in at the boys’ bedroom. The boys were asleep, and the vast candle shadow of herself stood behind her and listened, as it were, while she listened. She went into her own bedroom: nothing; Thurlow was not there — nothing. Then she went into the back bedroom.
The mattress lay on the floor. And she knew, even before she began to look for it, that the money was gone. She knew that Thurlow had taken it.
Since there was nothing else she could do, she went back to bed, not to sleep, but to lie there, oppressed but never in despondency, thinking. The money had gone, Thurlow had gone, but it would be all right. Just before five she got up, fired the copper, and began the washing. At seven she hung it out in long gray lines in the wintry gray light, holding the pegs like a bit in her teeth. A little after seven the boys came down, to wash in the scullery.
‘Here, here! Mum! There’s blood all over the sink!’
‘Your dad killed a rabbit,’ she said. ‘That’s all.’
She lumbered out into the garden, to cut cabbages. She cut three large cabbages, put them in a sack, and, as though nothing had happened, began to prepare the bicycle for the day. She tied the cabbages on the carrier, two oilcans on the handlebars, and then on the crossbar a small bundle of washing, clean, which she had finished on Saturday. That was all: nothing much for a Monday.
At half-past seven the boys went across the fields, by footpath, to catch the bus for school. She locked the house, and then, huge, imperturbable, planting down great feet in the mud, she pushed the bicycle down the hill. She had not gone a hundred yards before, out of the hedge, two policemen stepped into the road to meet her.
‘We was wondering if Mr. Thurlow was in?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘he ain’t in.’
‘You ain’t seen him?’
‘No, I ain’t seen him.’
‘Since last night.’
‘You mind,’ they said, ‘if we look round your place?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘you go on up. I got to git down to Miss Hanley’s.’ She began to push the bicycle forward, to go.
‘No,’ they said. ‘You must come back with us.’
So she turned the bicycle round and pushed it back up the hill again. ‘You could leave your bike,’ one of the policemen said. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’d better bring it. You can never tell nowadays what folk are going to be up to.’
Up at the house she stood impassively by while the two policemen searched the woodshed, the garden, and finally the house itself. Her expression did not change as they looked at the blood in the sink. ‘He washed his hands there last night,’ she said.
‘Don’t touch it,’ the policeman said. ‘Don’t touch it.’ And then suspiciously, almost in implied accusation: ‘You ain’t touched nothing — not since last night?’
‘I got something else to do,’ she said.
‘We’d like, you to come along with us, Mrs. Thurlow,’ they said, ‘and answer a few questions.’
‘All right.’ She went outside and took hold of her bicycle.
‘You can leave your bicycle.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ll take it. It’s no naughty way, up here, from that village.’
‘We got a car down the road. You don’t want a bike.’
‘I better take it,’ she said.
She wheeled the bicycle down the hill. When one policeman had gone in the car she walked on with the other. Ponderous, flat-footed, unhurried, she looked as though she could have gone on pushing the bicycle in the same direction, at the same pace, forever.
They kept her four hours at the station. She told them about the billhook, the blood, the way Thurlow had come home and gone again, her waking in the night, Thurlow not being there, the money not being there.
‘The money. How much was there?’
‘Fifty-four pounds, sixteen and fourpence. And twenty-eight of that in sovereigns.’
In return they told her something else.
‘You know that Thurlow was in the Black Horse from eleven to two yesterday?’
‘Yes, I dare say that’s where he’d be. That’s where he always is, Sundays.’
‘He was in the Black Horse, and for about two hours he was arguing with a man stopping down here from London. Arguing about that plate in his head. The man said he knew the plate was aluminium and Thurlow said he knew it was silver. Thurlow got very threatening. Did you know that?’
‘No. But that’s just like him.’
‘This man has n’t been seen since, and Thurlow has n’t been seen since. Except by you last night.’
‘Do you want me any more?’ she said. ‘I ought to have been at Miss Hanley’s hours ago.’
‘You realize this is very important, very serious?’
‘I know. But how am I going to get Miss Hanley in, and Mrs. Acott, and then the poultry farm and then Mr. George?’
‘We’ll telephone Miss Hanley and tell her you can’t go.’
‘The money,’ she said. ‘That’s what I can’t understand. The money.’
It was the money which brought her, without showing it, to the edge of distress. She thought of it all day. She thought of it as hard cash, coin, gold and silver, hard-earned and hard-saved. But it was also something much more. It symbolized the future, another life, two lives. It was the future itself. If, as seemed possible, something terrible had happened and a life had been destroyed, it did not seem to her more terrible than the fact that the money had gone and that the future had been destroyed.
As she scrubbed the floors at the poultry farm in the late afternoon, the police telephoned for her again. ‘We can send the car for her,’ they said.
‘I got my bike,’ she said. ‘I’ll walk.’
With the oilcans filled, and cabbages and clean washing now replaced by newspapers and dirty washing, she went back to the police station. She wheeled her bicycle into the lobby and they then told her how, that afternoon, the body of the man from London had been found, in a spinney, killed by blows from some sharp instrument like an axe. ‘We have issued a warrant for Thurlow’s arrest,’ they said.
‘You never found the money?’ she said.
‘No,’ they said. ‘No doubt that’ll come all right when we find Thurlow.’
That evening, when she got home, she fully expected Thurlow to be there, as usual, splitting kindling wood with the billhook, in the outhouse, by candlelight. The same refusal to believe that life could change made her go upstairs to look for the money. The absence of both Thurlow and the money moved her to no sign of emotion. But she was moved to a decision.
She got out her bicycle and walked four miles, into the next village, to see her brother. Though she did not ride the bicycle, it seemed to her as essential as ever that she should take it with her. Grasping its handles, she felt a sense of security and fortitude. The notion of walking without it, helplessly, in the darkness, was unthinkable.
Her brother was a master carpenter, a chapel-going man of straight-grained thinking and purpose, who had no patience with slovenliness. He lived with his wife and his mother in a whitepainted electrically lighted house whose floors were covered with scrubbed cokermatting. His mother was a small woman with shrill eyes and ironed-out mouth who could not hear well.
Mrs. Thurlow knocked on the door of the house as though these people, her mother and brother, were strangers to her. Her brother came to the door and she said: —
‘It’s Lil. I come to see if you’d seen anything o’ Thurlow?’
‘No, we ain’t seen him. Summat up?’
‘Who is it?’ the old woman called.
‘It’s Lil,’ the brother said, in a louder voice. ‘She says have we seen anything o’ Thurlow?’
‘No, an’ don’t want!’
Mrs. Thurlow went in. For fifteen years her family had openly disapproved of Thurlow. She sat down on the edge of the chair nearest the door. Her large lace-up boots made large black mud prints on the virgin coker-matting. She saw her sister-in-law look first at her boots and then at her hat. She had worn the same boots and the same hat for longer than she herself could remember. But her sister-in-law remembered.
She sat untroubled, her eyes sullen, as though not fully conscious in the bright electric light. The light showed up the mud on her skirt, her straggling gray hair under the shapeless hat, the edges of her black coat weather-faded to a purplish gray.
‘So you ain’t heard nothing about Thurlow?’ she said.
‘No,’ her brother said. ‘Be funny if we had, would n’t it? He ain’t set foot in this house since Dad died.’ He looked at her hard. ‘Why? What’s up?’
She raised her eyes to him. Then she lowered them again. It was almost a minute before she spoke.
‘Ain’t you heard?’ she said. ‘They reckon he’s done a murder.’
‘What’s she say?’ the old lady said. ‘I never heard her.’
Mrs. Thurlow looked dully at her boots, at the surrounding expanse of coker-matting. For some reason the fissured pattern of the coker-matting, so clean and regular, fascinated her. She said: ‘He took all the money. He took it all and they can’t find him.’
‘Eh? What’s she say? What’s she mumbling about?’
The brother, his face white, went over to the old woman. He said into her ear: ‘One of the boys is won a scholarship. She come over to tell us.’
‘Want summat to do, I should think, don’t she? Traipsing over here to tell us that.’
The man sat down at the table. He was very white, his hands shaking. His wife sat with the same dumb, shaking expression of shock. Mrs. Thurlow raised her eyes from the floor. It was as though she had placed on them the onus of some terrible responsibility.
‘For God’s sake,’ the man said, ‘when did it happen?’
All Mrs. Thurlow could think of was the money. ‘Over fifty pounds. I got it hid under the mattress. I don’ know how he could have found out about it. I don’t know. I can’t think. It’s all I got. I got it for the boys.’ She paused, pursing her lips together, squeezing back emotion. ‘It’s about the boys I come.’
‘The boys?’ The brother looked up, scared afresh. ‘He ain’t — they — ’
‘ I did n’t know whether you’d have them here,’ she said. ‘Till it’s blowed over. Till they find Thurlow. Till things are straightened out.’
‘Then they ain’t found him?’
‘No. He’s done a bunk. They say as soon as they find him I shall git the money.’
‘Yes,’ the brother said. ‘We’ll have them here.’
She stayed a little longer, telling the story dully, flatly, to the two scared pairs of eyes across the table and to the old shrill eyes, enraged because they could not understand, regarding her from the fireplace. An hour after she had arrived, she got up to go. Her brother said: ‘Let me run you back in the car. I got a two-seater now. Had it three or four months. I’ll run you back.’
‘No, I got my bike,’ she said.
She pushed the bicycle home in the darkness. At home, in the kitchen, the two boys were making a rabbit hutch. She saw that they had something of her brother’s zeal for handling wood. She saw that their going to him would be a good thing. He was a man who had got on in the world: she judged him by the car, the white-painted house, the electric light, the spotless coker-matting. She saw the boys, with deep but inexpressible pride, going to the same height, beyond it.
‘Dad ain’t been home,’ they said.
She told them there had been a little trouble. ‘They think your dad took some money.’ She explained how it would be better for them, and for her, if they went to stay with her brother. ‘ Git to bed now and I’ll get your things packed.’
‘You mean we gotta go and live there?’
‘For a bit,’ she said.
They were excited. ‘We could plane the wood for the rabbit hutch!’ they said. ‘Make a proper job of it.’
That night, and again on the following morning, she looked under the mattress for the money. In the morning the boys departed. She was slightly depressed, slightly relieved by their excitement. When they had gone she bundled the day’s washing together and tied it on the bicycle. She noticed, then, that the back tire had a slow puncture, that it was already almost flat. This worried her. She pumped up the tire and felt a little more confident.
Then, as she prepared to push the bicycle down the hill, she saw the police car coming along the road at the bottom. Two policemen hurried up the track to meet her.
‘We got Thurlow,’ they said. ‘We’d like you to come to the station.’
‘Is he got the money?’ she said.
‘There has n’t been time,’ they said, ‘to go into that.’
As on the previous morning she pushed her bicycle to the village, walking with one policeman while the other drove on in the car. Of Thurlow she said very little. Now and then she stopped and stooped to pinch the back tire of the bicycle. ‘Like I thought. I got a slow puncture,’ she would say. ‘Yes, it’s gone down since I blowed it up. I s’ll have to leave it up the bike shop as we go by.’
Once she asked the policeman if he thought that Thurlow had the money. He said, ‘I’m afraid he’s done something more serious than taking money.’
She pondered over this statement with dull astonishment. More serious? She knew that nothing could be more serious. To her the money was like a huge and implacable section of her life. It was part of herself, bone and flesh, blood and sweat. Nothing could replace it. Nothing, she knew with absolute finality, could mean so much.
In the village she left the bicycle at the cycle shop. Walking on without it, she lumbered dully from side to side, huge and unsteady, as though lost. From the cycle-shop window the repairer squinted after her, excited. Other people looked from other windows as she lumbered past, always a pace or two behind the policeman, her ill-shaped feet painfully set down. At the entrance to the police station there was a small crowd. She went heavily into the station. Policemen were standing about in a room. An inspector, many papers in his hand, spoke to her. She listened heavily. She looked about for a sign of Thurlow. The inspector said, with kindness, ‘Your husband is not here.’ She felt a sense of having been cheated. ‘They are detaining him at Metford. We are going over there now.’
‘You know anything about the money?’ she said.
Five minutes later she drove away, with the inspector and two other policemen, in a large black car. Traveling fast, she felt herself hurled, as it were, beyond herself. Mind and body seemed separated, her thoughts nullified. As the car entered the town, slowing down, she looked out of the side windows, saw posters: ‘Metford Murder Arrest.’ People, seeing policemen in the car, gaped. ‘Murder Sensation Man Detained.’
Her mind registered impressions gravely and confusedly. People and posters were swept away from her and she was conscious of their being replaced by other people, the police station, corridors in the station, walls of brown glazed brick, fresh faces, a room, desks covered with many papers, eyes looking at her, box files in white rows appearing also to look at her, voices talking to her, an arm touching her, a voice asking her to sit down.
‘I have to tell you, Mrs. Thurlow, that we have detained your husband on a charge of murder.’
‘He say anything about the money?’
‘He has made a statement. In a few minutes he will be charged and then probably remanded for further inquiries. You are at liberty to see him for a few moments if you would like to do so.’
In a few moments she was standing in a cell, looking at Thurlow. He looked at her as though he did not know what had happened. His eyes were lumps of impressionless glass. He stood with long arms loose at his sides. For some reason he looked strange, foreign, not himself. It was more than a minute before she realized why this was. Then she saw that he was wearing a new suit. It was a gray suit, thick, ready-made, and the sleeves were too short for him. They hung several inches above his thick protuberant wrist bones, giving his hands a look of inert defeat.
‘You got the money, ain’t you?’ she said. ‘You got it?’
He looked at her. ‘Money?’
‘The money you took. The money under the mattress.’
He stared at her. Money? He looked at her with a faint expression of appeal. Money. He continued to stare at her with complete blankness. Money?
‘You remember,’ she said. ‘The money under the mattress.’
‘The money. That money. Don’t you remember?’
He shook his head.
After some moments she went out of the cell. She carried out with her the sense of Thurlow’s defeat as she saw it expressed in the inert hands, the dead, stupefied face, and his vacant inability to remember anything. She heard the court proceedings without interest or emotion. She was oppressed by a sense of increasing bewilderment, a feeling that she was lost. She was stormed by impressions she did not understand. ’I do not propose to put in a statement at this juncture. I ask for a remand until the sixteenth.’ ‘Remand granted. Clear the court.’
This effect of being stormed by impressions continued outside the court, as she drove away again in the car. People. Many faces. Cameras. More faces. Posters. The old sensation of mind severed from body, of thoughts nullified. In the village, when the car stopped, there were more impressions: more voices, more people, a feeling of suppressed excitement. ‘We will run you home,’ the policemen said.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I got my cleaning to do. I got to pick up my bicycle.’
She fetched the bicycle and wheeled it slowly through the village. People looked at her, seemed surprised to see her in broad daylight, made gestures as though they wished to speak, and then went on. Grasping the handles of the bicycle, she felt a return of security, almost of comfort. The familiar smooth handlebars hard against her hands had the living response of other hands. They brought back her sense of reality: Miss Hanley, the cleaning, the poultry farm, the time she had lost, the boys, the money, the fact that something terrible had happened, the monumental fact of Thurlow’s face, inert and dead, with its lost sense of remembrance.
Oppressed by a sense of duty, she did her cleaning as though nothing had happened. People were very kind to her. Miss Hanley made tea, the retired photographer would have run her home in his car. She was met everywhere by tender, remote words of comfort.
She pushed home her bicycle in the darkness. At Miss Hanley’s, at the poultry farm, at the various places where she worked, the thought of the money had been partially set aside. Now, alone again, she felt the force of its importance more strongly, with the beginnings of bitterness. In the empty house she worked for several hours by candlelight, washing, folding, ironing. About the house the vague noises of wind periodically resolved themselves into what she believed for a moment were the voices of the two boys. She thought of the boys with calm unhappiness, and the thought of them brought back with renewed force the thought of the money. This thought hung over her with the huge preponderance of her own shadow projected on the ceiling above her.
On the following Sunday afternoon she sat in the empty kitchen, as usual, and read the stale newspapers. But now they recorded, not the unreal lives of other people, but the life of Thurlow and herself. She saw Thurlow’s photograph. She read the same story told in different words in different papers. In all the stories there was an absence of all mention of the only thing that mattered. There was no single word about the money.
During the next few weeks much happened, but she did not lose the belief that the money was coming back to her. Nothing could touch the hard central core of her optimism. She saw the slow evolution of circumstances about Thurlow as things of subsidiary importance, the loss of the life he had taken and the loss of his own life as things which, terrible in themselves, seemed less terrible than the loss of ideals built up by her sweat and blood.
She knew, gradually, that Thurlow was doomed, that it was all over. She did not know what to do. Her terror seemed remote, muffled, in some way incoherent. She pushed the bicycle back and forth each day in the same ponderous manner as ever, her heavy feet slopping dully beside it.
When she saw Thurlow for the last time his face had not changed, one way or the other, from its fixed expression of defeat. Defeat was cemented into it with imperishable finality. She asked him about the money for the last time.
‘The money. You took it. What you do with it? That money. Under the mattress.’ For the first time she showed some sign of desperation. ‘ Please, what you done with it? That money. My money?’
‘Eh?’ And she knew that he could not remember.
A day later it was all over. Two days later she pushed the bicycle the four miles to the next village, to see her brother. It was springtime, time for the boys to come back to her. Pushing the bicycle in the twilight, she felt she was pushing forward into the future. She had some dim idea, heavily dulled by the sense of Thurlow’s death, that the loss of the money was not now so great. Money is money; death is death; the living are the living. The living were the future. The thought of the boys’ return filled her with hopes for the future, unelated hopes, but quite real, strong enough to surmount the loss of both Thurlow and money.
At her brother’s they had nothing to say. They sat, the brother, the mother, and the sister-in-law, and looked at her with eyes over which, as it were, the blinds had been drawn.
‘The boys here?’ she said.
‘They’re in the workshop,’ her brother said. ‘They’re making a bit of a wheelbarrow.’
‘They all right?’
‘Yes.’ He wetted his lips. His cleanplanned mind had been scarred by events as though by a mishandled tool. ‘They don’t know nothing. We kept it from ’em. They ain’t been to school and they ain’t seen no papers. They think he’s in jail for stealing money.’
She looked at him, dully. ‘Stealing money? That’s what he did do. That money I told you about. That money I had under the mattress.’
‘Well,’ he said slowly, ‘it’s done now.’
‘What did he do with it?’ she said. ‘What d’ ye reckon he done with it?’
He looked at her quickly, unable suddenly to restrain his anger. ‘Done with it? What d’ ye suppose he done with it? Spent it. Threw it away. Boozed it. What else? You know what he was like. You knew! You had your eyes open. You knew what —’
‘Will, Will,’ his wife said.
He was silent. The old lady said: ‘Eh? What’s that? What’s the matter now?’
The brother said, in a loud voice, ‘Nothing.’ Then more softly: ‘She don’t know everything.’
‘I came to take the boys back,’ Mrs. Thurlow said.
He was silent again. He wetted his lips. He struck a match on the warm fire-hob. It spurted into a sudden explosion, igniting of its own volition. He seemed startled. He put the match to his pipe, let it go out.
He looked at Mrs. Thurlow, the dead match in his hands. ‘The boys ain’t coming back no more,’ he said.
‘Eh?’ she said. She was stunned. ‘They ain’t what?’
‘They don’t want to come back,’ he said.
She did not understand. She could not speak. Very slowly he said: —
‘It’s natural they don’t want to come back. I know it’s hard. But it’s natural. They’re getting on well here. They want to stop here. They’re good boys. I could take ’em into the business.’
She heard him go on without hearing the individual words. He broke off, his face relieved — like a man who has liquidated some awful obligation.
‘They’re my boys,’ she said. ‘They got a right to say what they shall do and what they shan’t do.’
She spoke heavily, without bitterness.
‘I know that,’ he said. ‘That’s right. They got a right to speak. You want to hear what they got to say?'
‘ Yes, I want to,’ she said.
Her sister-in-law went out into the yard at the back of the house. Soon voices drew nearer out of the darkness and the two boys came in.
‘Hullo,’ she said.
‘Hello, Mum,’ they said.
‘Your Mum’s come,’the carpenter said, ‘to see if you want to go back with her.’
The two boys stood silent, awkward, eyes glancing past her.
‘You want to go?’ the carpenter said. ‘Or do you want to stay here?’
‘Here,’ the elder boy said. ‘We want to stop here.’
‘You’re sure o’ that?’
‘Yes,’ the other said.
Mrs. Thurlow stood silent. She could think of nothing to say in protest or argument or persuasion. Nothing she could say would, she felt, give expression to the inner part of herself, the crushed core of optimism and faith.
She stood at the door, looking back at the boys. ‘You made up your minds, then?’ she said. They did not speak.
‘I’ll run you home,’her brother said.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I got my bike.’
She went out of the house and began to push the bicycle slowly home in the darkness. She walked with head down, lumbering painfully, as though direction did not matter. Whereas, coming, she had seemed to be pushing forward into the future, she now felt as if she were pushing forward into nowhere.
After a mile or so she heard a faint hissing from the back tire. She stopped, pressing the tire with her hand. ‘It’s slow,’she thought; ‘it’ll last me.’ She pushed forward. A little later it seemed to her that the hissing got worse. She stopped again, and again felt the tire with her hand. It was softer now, almost flat.
She unscrewed the pump and put a little air in the tire and went on. ‘I better stop at the shop,’ she thought, ‘and have it done.'
In the village the cycle shop was already in darkness. She pushed past it. As she came to the hill leading up to the house she lifted her head a little. It seemed to her suddenly that the house, outlined darkly above the dark hill, was a long way off. She had for one moment an impression that she would never reach it.
She struggled up the hill. The mud of the track seemed to suck at her great boots and hold her down. The wheels of the bicycle seemed as if they would not turn, and she could hear the noise of the air dying once again in the tire.