A Girl Called Peter

Novelist and master of the short story, H. E. BATES was attached to the Royal Air Force during the Second World War; and the short stories which he wrote at that time under the signature of Flying Officer X had an enormous reading in England. His new collection, Colonel Julian and Other Stories, from which we have drawn the poignant narrative which follows, will appear as an Atlantic-Little, Brown book in early October.

by H. E. BATES

EVERY morning she rode the horse through the park, by the crumbling empty mansion, through the long avenue of flowering limes. She was a big ungainly girl, lawny and flat-colored, and somehow she looked too tall, too heavy, and too uneasy even for the big sand-maned nervous horse.

“Give him a good working, Pete,” her father would say. “He needs a good working, Don’t let him dictate. Get hold of him. Be a man. Match him. You’ve got to match him, Pete, you’ve got to match him.”

Every morning she rode in the same way: tensely and rigidly, keyed up, until out of her father’s sight, and the horse hammered with brittle highstrung strokes at the metal road. It was only when she got him through the scrolled iron gates and onto soft grass beneath the double mile of limes that she let him slacken into the easier, sloppier walk her father would have despised. Even then it was still she, rather than the horse, who was taut and uneasy. Her broad long legs were ungraceful in the cord breeches and brown high boots she wore instead of jodhpurs. Her heavy riding jacket was lumpish across her square solid shoulders. If she was hatless her tawny hair was screwed sharply backwards in a short close cut that coarsened and hardened the shape of her head.

They had called her Peter from the day she was born; and now, al twenty-three, she looked as if the final moments of girlhood had been beaten out of her. She had grown up in a house where even the windows, iron-framed and curtainless, seemed masculine things. Big oak doors stood propped open all day by lumps of fossil dug up from surrounding clay lands, and wind blew healthily through a house of bare wood floors. Spurs rang with military harshness on broad carpetless stairs, and riding crops were hooked everywhere on picture frames, The chairs were upholstered in heavy leather, like those of a club, and large sheep-dogs lay like gaunt rugs before the fires and rose with heavy promptitude at her father’s words of command.

“ Up!” her father would bellow. “Heel! Up!”

Gradually it had begun to grow on her that her father really thought she was a man: that the pretense of treating her as a male, as a person to be called Peter, was not a pretense any longer. She had qualified at last for the loud, hairy, stentorian masculine world.

“ Pete! ” he would sometimes yell at her across the yards. “Where the hell is Johnson? Tell him if that damned mare isn’t here on the dot of ten you’ll wring his neck. Pulverize him.”

At first, when he had called her Peter, it was quite charming and there was a softness about it; and then it had become Pete, curt and slung-out and metallic, and as the name hardened she herself hardened. Her father believed in exercise, a great deal of it, by horse, by foot, by work in stable yards, and exercise had hardened her too; so that now, at twenty-three, something wooden and inflexible seemed to exist in the tall bony body under the shiny boots, the crisp shirts, the thick riding jacket: something bloodless and unawoken and dry.

It was soon after the beginning of summer, when the limes had just flowered, that she began to be really nervous about herself. She had begun to discover that she could not face people. She had got into the habit of riding as far as the mansion and then giving the horse a breather on what had once been the lawn behind the house. Huge black cedar trees rose from tall grasses, and below the garden, beyond a maze of broken hothouses, was a stream. It had been fifteen years at least since the lawn had last been mown, the hothouses exoticallv heated, the white window-shutters thrown back. Dry rot had begun to eat at the floors, and bright green crustings of moss covered most of the roof tiles. It was dead and quiet and there was now no chance, everyone said, of anyone ever coming to live there again.

2

ONE morning a young man was walking across the lawn. Behind him he trailed a long steel tape measure that flashed like a tinsel snake, rattling and quivering.

She did not know what to do about this and stood holding the horse where she had dismounted. For three or four minutes he did not notice her. In between pauses when he wrote down, in a notebook, the measurements he was taking, the long nervous snake of tape measure leapt about after him, glittering and alive.

Finally he stopped, and then, as he began to wind up the tape, he saw her there. She was not really conscious of watching him; what she felt was not a question of surprise or unreality. She did not even resent him as an intruder. It simply made her more nervous and uncertain of herself.

Winding up the tape at last, he came across to speak to her. Afterwards she sometimes felt it was that snakelike jumping length of steel, slithering and sliding through the high grasses, that made her so nervous and unsure of herself that she did not know how to speak to him.

“Hullo,”he said. He had cheerful pale blue eyes set under light golden brows that were always crinkling against the sun.

“Good morning,”she said.

At the sound of the steel tape crackling through grasses the horse darted nervously in the air, head up, in high-strung stabs. It was one of those moments when she ought to have jabbed at him clearly and firmly, to let him see authority; but the rein slipped up through her hands.

“Tape measure,”" the young man said. “He doesn’t like it. I’m sorry.”

“Oh! no, it isn’t that. He’s young. He has to learn. He has to get used to new experiences and —”

“Not really broken in yet?”

“Oh! yes. But he’s young. He just isn’t quite used to some things.”

“Like tape measures.”

He laughed and next moment dropped the round leather tape drum in the grass. Behind him ten or fifteen yards of steel dropped with snakelike clinking.

“Oh! you mustn’t stop working,” she said, “just because of that —”

“I was knocking off for a sandwich, anyway,” he said. “It’s terribly hot up here. Would you have a sandwich?”

“Well, I — ”

“Quite good. My mother puts them up.”

He had slung a khaki haversack on a low branch of a cedar tree. She heard him say as he went over to get it: “I rather fancy they’re roast duck. Awfully lucky if they are.”

She ran her hand down the horse’s nose in smooth, calming sweeps, and let him walk away.

“I’m going to sit under the tree. It’s too hot out there.” She watched him under the tentlike canopy of cedar branches, fair head glowing as he peered into the haversack. A sandwich flapped open and shut again like a trap. “Good; they’re roast duck. You ‘ll have one, won’t you?”

“I’m sure they’re your lunch sandwiches and if you eat them now —”

“If I eat them now I don’t eat them later, and if I eat them later I don’t eat them now. It’s like everything else. You can’t have it both ways.”

“I suppose not.”

“Why don’t you come and sit down?”

Sitting under the cedar, munching sandwiches of roast duck, he stared at the horse.

“I don’t know a thing about horses. Is he good?”

“He’s quite good. Don’t you ride?”

“Good God, no.”

He resented the suggestion quite cheerfully, with small amiable flickerings of fair-haired brows and a graceful and slightly ironic upward gesture of both hands. In doing so he parted the sandwich and a piece of duck fell out. “That comes of showing off,” he said.

It was because of this small pantomime of the breaking sandwich that she noticed the flexibility and grace of his hands. They were long-fingered and narrow, more like the hands of a girl.

He offered another sandwich. “Go on. I’ve got plenty. We had two ducks yesterday. It was my mother’s birthday.”

“What are you doing with the mansion?” She took the second sandwich while he stared up at the shuttered windows.

“I have to do a rough survey for a plan.”

“Is someone moving’in?”

“Doubtful,” he said. “It’s much more likely they’ll pull it down. Bang goes another bit of England.”

He abruptly ceased bothering about the house. Instead he began to take deep inquisitive breaths of air. “All morning there’s been that marvelous scent — I simply can’t think what it is —

“Limes,” she said. “They’re beginning to flower.”

“It’s a most exquisite scent; he said. “Don’t you think so?”

She did not know what to say; she had not thought of it. In the masculine world of which she was part, no one troubled to discuss the exquisite nature of limes.

He took another long breath of lime-scented air, filling his lungs slowly, eyes half-closed; and it then occurred to her, for the first ot several times, that he had taken infinitely more notice of the horse, the mansion, the sandwiches, and the scent of limes than of anything about her. And suddenly her nervousness expanded. It became a full self-conscious anxiety about the clumsiness of her body. She was aware of being too large and too awkward in the heavy riding jacket, the big boots, the breeches that gave her legs the grossness of huge fawn hams. Beside her, dressed only in a white shirt and light gray trousers, he had a terse and quite delicate lightness.

“How long will the survey take?”

“Oh! depends. Two or three days. Depends on how lazy I am.”

“I can’t think you’re lazy.”

“Terribly. I’ll probably go to sleep this afternoon.”

She thought of her father; “Give him a good working, Pete. Watch him, Pete. Be a man, Pete. Tell that bastard Johnson you’ll wring his neck. Pulverize him.” She had been brought up under the incontestable notion that the male was not lazy. It did not sleep in the afternoons. It behaved like a physical steam-roller, flattening and crushing all.

“ I ought to go, she said. ” My horse is restless.

“Have another sandwich.”

“No, really, thank you.” She stood up and she saw him then, for the first time, look full at her. He looked away immediately. It was as if he had looked through a telescope and been surprised, perhaps bored, if not horrified, by what he saw.

“Good-bye,” he said. “If you come up again don’t be surprised to find me having a siesta under the tree. This is a hot. spell we’re having.”

“ Yes. Good-bye.”

3

WHEN she came up through the park on the following morning she rode past the house, through the chestnut copse, as far as the deserted gate-lodge, before she could bring herself to ride across, as she always did, to the overgrown lawn behind the mansion. For some time she had been bored by that same ride, taken in the same way, past the deserted mansion to the deserted gate-lodge, and had not known it. She had been driven by the dull notion that it was the thing to do. “Ride him hard, Pete. Give him a good working. Don’t let him dictate! Match him, Pete, match him.” An urgent, stentorian masculine world of habit, breezy with open air and harsh-odored with horse and dog, had pressed her forward with commands she had not thought of refusing. Now because of the steel snake of a tape measure flicking through summer grass she was aware of being unbearably lonely, more and more unsure.

The young man had worked his way down across the overgrown lawns to where, in the direction of the river, there was an abandoned swimming pool. She found him only because, even from the mansion, she could hear the tinkling of his steel tape on the glazed waterless tiles.

“ Hullo,” he called.

The pool was empty and he was standing down in it, peering at the feed pipe in the deep end. All along the rectangular basin dry white tiles glittered hotly in the sun.

“Just thinking of filling it,” he said. “Nothing comes, though. It’s probably turned off at the main.”

“They used to have parties. They say it used to be lovely,” she said.

“Do you swim?”

“Yes.”

He climbed out of the pool by a half-rotten wooden ladder. Frost had lifted many of the tiles on the bottom and he said: “Probably never hold water, anyway.” He made the little tossing gesture of abandon that had fascinated her the previous day: the hands graceful as they surrendered into air the notion of filling the pool.

“Pity,” he said. “It’s hotter than ever. It would have been nice to swim.”

“There’s a swimming-place in the stream,” she said. “They used to swim a lot there.”

“Stream?”

“Down there.” She pointed down the field that lay, bright yellow with late buttercups and white with islands of rising clover, beyond the pool. A long line of alders, spreading away tawny purple along the stream, sheltered a few brown and white cattle that lay panting in the shade. On the low hill beyond them a glassy line of heat pulsated like a transparent flame under the deep blue line of sky.

“I’ve half a mind to bring my things.” He stood looking down at the alders that concealed, from so far up, the deep black-shaded pools of the stream. “Would you swim?” he said suddenly. “Would you bring your things if I did?”

“Oh! I don’t know —”

“It would be awful fun,” he said.

She did not know what to do or say. Another recollection of her father urging her to work the horse hard, to give Johnson hell, to be a man, destroyed all the self-confidence she had. She felt an extraordinary downward stab of alarmed uneasiness, in the form of a hot and solid wave, go clean through her body; and then she began to walk away up the hill.

He came st riding after her. “ I’m awfully sorry if 1 said something I ought not to have said.”

“Oh! you didn’t.”She felt even more all the hideous flapping ugliness of her muscular body, its impossible hamlike legs, its bolslerlike bust under the hot jacket. “I simply didn’t think you meant it —”

“Of course I meant it. I think it would be awful fun.” He smiled in the free, amiable, languid way, with trembling fair eyebrows, making once again the friendly gesture of his graceful hands. “ Why not ? ”

“I’ll see,” she said. “It’s not very likely —”

“ Well, I shall go in,”he said. “ You can come and watch me.”

In the morning she rode the horse another way, outside the park; she could not bring herself to face the hot deserted garden, the amiable careless young man, the unbearable sweetness of limes. It was not until afternoon that she rode up to the house; and then she did not take her costume.

It was some time before she heard the steel tape measure clinking in the hot afternoon. She heard it at last trailing in its tinny snakelike way over gravel paths down by the empty hothouses. Soon, too, she saw the young man, bare to the waist now, jotting down measurements in his notebook beside the scalding white roofs of glass.

“Hullo,” he said, “how about the swim? I had one already at lunchtime.”

“I couldn’t find my costume. I spent all morning trying —”

“Bad luck,” he said. “It’s terrific down there,”

Today it was so much hotter that she had ridden up without her jacket, in a white silk shirt, mannish but soft, with black necktie, and she hoped he would notice it. He did not notice it, and she said: “How does the survey go?”

“Almost finished. About five minutes and I’m taking another swim.”

Old peach trees, reverting to suckers, had here and there pushed their way up through broken hothouse roofs. Nettles grew in the vast derelict waste of vine-houses. She could smell an arid blistering of old paint, a hot breath of baked air from under glass. The tin snake of the steel measure did its last clicking squirm along the path and the young man said: “Survey finished. Thank God. Coming down ? ”

Some minutes later she sat under the alders, watching him making a series of dives that ended in joyous duck-paddling about the pool. His flesh was smooth, startlingly white in the alder-shadow. She sat simply without thought, watching. He had something of the delicacy of a stork, whitely poised on the pool edge, before the flashing spring of each dive. From the back there was nothing by which to tell that he was not a girl, compact and slim-hipped, and it was only when he stood beyond the dark water, grinning, ready to dive again, that the masculine shape of him was startlingly, beautifully revealed. He came out at last to lie in the sun.

“Marvelous. Absolutely wonderful.” Panting softly, face and body beaded with glittering iridescent drops of water, he lay for some time staring at the sky, “Pity you couldn’t make it. Simply marvelous.” He was struck by a sudden, idle thought. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“ Peter.”

“Suits you. Who thought that one up?”

If there was any pain in her face he did not see it; she in turn did not answer, and he remained held in languid fascination by the sky.

“ Wonderful sky. It seemed terribly hot before, but after you’ve been in it’s cool. Just right.” He spoke to her without troubling to look at her. “Why don’t you go in?”

She shut her eyes, impelled by a stupid notion that if she did nothing, did not even look at anything or speak, he would come to her out of pure curiosity. She heard a kingfisher whistle like a bullet upstream and the voice of the young man, like the bird’s, seemed now to be drawn thinly away into the spaces of the hot afternoon,

“Go in while I pack my things,” he said. “I’ve got to go up to the house again. Swim while I’ve gone.”

She did not speak.

“You’re quite safe with a name like Peter.”

Her tears of anger and frustration seemed, in the moment of breaking, to turn back into her body, flooding her. She heard the kingfisher repeat its thin sharp whistle upstream, thread-drawn, fading instantly. She felt the impenetrable alder-shadow unexpectedly cold on her body. For a few moments the longing to move into sun, combined with the longing to be touched, to be spoken to and to be comforted, was almost too much for her. Her only movement was to let the palm of one hand lie in the sun, and for some time it burned there while the rest of her body, cold in the alder-shade, waited.

“Absolutely wonderful to do nothing,” the young man said. “Just nothing. Lie here and do nothing, nothing at all.”

She felt her inarticulate and clumsy body drown again in an ebb of tears. Another thought of her father brought the recollection that he hated tears. “Got to learn not to cry. I can’t bear it. Be a man. I won’t have sniveling.” Now that she wanted to cry it was not possible, and once again, far off in the hot silence, she heard the kingfisher, briefly and shrilly, almost plaintively, calling along the water.

When she opened her eyes at last it was to be struck with the brutal sharpness of black leaves against blue hot sky. Her eyes seemed to be shocked into fresh alertness.

“Where will you go after this?” she said.

“Thought you were asleep.”

“No, awake,” she said. “I’m awake.”

“Oh! here, there, and everywhere,” he said. “ Up, down, and round. I take it as it comes. I go where they send me.”

“Don’t you mind where?”

“Couldn’t care less.”

She lay for a little longer, waiting. This time she did not hear any sound of the kingfisher and there was no sound from the young man except a long sigh, and then presently: “All I ask for is this. Lying here with nothing on my mind. Nothing to bother about. Nothing at all. I’m a lazy hound.”

Some time later she stood up to say good-bye. She saw that he was lying on his face. For one moment the slim spare body was lithe and graceful, and then he turned over. He heaved his chest against the sun and she saw the muscles of his thighs cramp and ripple as the legs thrust themselves outward, white and shadowless, in the long meadow grass.

“I’ll have to be going,” she said. “Good-bye.”

“Swim made me terribly drowsy. I think I’ll have to sleep,”he said. “Good-bye.”

She walked away up the field. She walked by the empty hothouses, through the empty deserted gardens, and past the empty house. She walked slowly, with long mannish strides, her head up. She was too far away now to hear the kingfisher, so like a small shrill echo of the tape measure in the grass; and although her eyes were clear and quite awake, she did not seem to notice the emptiness and the silence everywhere. She was aware only of her heavy limbs; and all along the avenue, unbearably sweet, the great scent of full summer in the limes.