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22 August 2022

From the NS archive: A summer’s evening

24 August 1935: The band was filling the night with vaguely defined, heady promises; it was impossible to stay frousting indoors.

By Peter Chamberlain

It is a summer’s evening and the narrator in Peter Chamberlain’s short story from 1935 cannot resist the alluring sounds of the park much longer. He ignores the warnings from his mother to not stay out late, and dashes out the door before a sarcastic comment can come from his father. Instead, he follows the “gay, smashing notes” of the brass band. The familiar “hodgepodge of suburban smells” of tar melting in the sun, cheap motor oil and “new mown grass and bonfires” accompany him on his journey. Yet as he approaches the park gates, the hordes of “closely linked couples” trampling over the “seedy yellow grass” make him pause with anxiety. “All at once he wished he hadn’t come; he knew he would never dare to speak to anyone in this jostling bank holiday crowd.” Had this new-found freedom frightened him?

Supper finished, the boy sat with his father and mother pretending to read, but the sound of music trickling through the open window made it difficult for him to concentrate. A band was playing in one of the parks and the noise of its gay, smashing notes, bouncing about amongst the infinitely dull and dusty pre-Raphaelite reproductions on the walls and the chipped blue and white china plates, was disquieting, reminding him of holiday crowds sauntering along a pier, of young men in flannels and gaudy blazers, with slicked back hair, promenading up and down, arm and arm with girls, whose bright summer dresses fluttered round their sun-browned legs.

For a time, only a few disconnected bars sneaked past the faded curtains, mingling with the voices of people in the road, and submerging into the steady artillery of his father’s pipe, the infuriating crackling the evening paper made as he turned its pages, and the faint click of his mother’s patience cards; then, strong and clear, it came again, a whole gusty bagful of brassy music tumbling in, exciting him. The band was filling the night with vaguely defined, heady promises; it was impossible to stay frousting indoors.

After a brief struggle he gave up. It was no use, he simply must go out. And why the devil shouldn’t he anyway?

“I think I’ll go for a little walk,” he heard himself proclaim brusquely, hastily rising to anticipate the fussy questioning which inevitably followed when he showed any signs of possessing a life of his own. Nothing made him more sullen, more miserably rebellious, than being compelled to explain his every action to his parents.

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“Oh, Lord, no,” he called half out of the room, in reply to his mother’s anxious “You won’t be late, dear?”

As he closed the door firmly behind him he heard the paper rustled ominously preparatory to some waggishly sarcastic announcement from his father; but he had been too quick for him this time, and was safe.

Don’t be late indeed, he thought angrily as he hurried down the drive. It was so likely! Things never happened to make him late; he only wished they would, damn it!

At the gate he hesitated for a moment, frowning jealously at the close-linked couples, strolling along, heads together, waiting for the reddening sun to sink from the smoky blue sky; standing there, sensing the familiar hodgepodge of suburban smells – the suggestion of a hundred thousand dinners, the pleasant tang of soft tar melting in the heat, the acrid reek of cheap oil from the ‘buses, the sweet smell of new mown grass and bonfires, a thin odour from dreary, disillusioned laurel bushes, so fixed and timeless – waiting irresolutely on the pavement, he was unable to make up his mind in which direction to go, until an extra loud burst of wind-borne rataplans from the band decided him: at least he would take a look at the park.

Swarms of people trampled over the seedy yellow grass – already, so early in the summer, blistered with patches of naked earth – and clustered thickly round a space which had been roped off for dancing. As he pushed in amongst them, laughing faces peered into his, smirking their challenge; all about him pert breasts, straining against tightly stretched jumpers, seemed to wink at him knowingly; panting girls jerked up their stockings and pulled at their clothes, brushing the damp hair out of their eyes, and shouting at the lounging youths, who, caps set at jaunty angles, were gathered near the ropes. There was an overwhelming sourness in the air, which was cheap, powder and perspiring female flesh; gamey, tantalising; provocative, repellent.

All at once he wished he hadn’t come; he knew he would never dare to speak to anyone in this jostling bank holiday crowd. The music had lost its magic; he would clear out.

But he could not go home; once having escaped, it was out of the question to return yet. He would go along to his grandfather’s place.

A quarter of an hour’s walk from the seething life of the bandstand, here he might have been in the country; it seemed almost incredible that such an estate could exist little more than a mile from the centre of the city. Keeping away from the house, he dived through some bushes into a narrow seldom-used path, overgrown with brambles, the nettles shooting up as high as the tallest foxgloves. A sunning rabbit bolted down its burrow with a whisk of white; blackbirds fled noisily before him; a wood pigeon, loud-winged and panicky, whirred away, blundering into branches in its haste. Slipping over a gate, he was in the park.

A score of placid brown cows, knee-deep in the lake, their tails twitching, regarded him solemnly; rooks, beginning to return from the mysterious visits they paid during the day, ragged against the darkening sky, as they flapped slowly across the water in twos and threes, noticed his presence with gossipy concern, slightly altering their course to avoid flying above him; splashing deeper into the reeds, a moorhen called a shrill warning, which went echoing round the pool, causing a flotilla of wild duck to break into half-flight, rippling the water with the tips of their wings as they moved to the shelter of the willows overhanging the island.

Crossing a stile, his heart gave a bound; through the trunks of the elms he had caught sight of something white. As he approached he saw that two servant girls were leaning over the boundary fence gazing into the wood. Lighting a cigarette, he strolled in their direction with an air of nonchalance he was far from feeling, and, after a mean little detour, passed close to them, endeavouring to break the ice. Slowly and more slowly he went until he was scarcely moving, then one of the girls solved the problem for him by calling, “Please, master, could you spare us a match?”

Quickly he returned, blushing. They had a packet of Woodbines, and, giggling, they lit up, leaning against the palings, smoking inexpertly. Both were wearing uniforms, with stupid starched caps perched on their heads. They were very young, sixteen or seventeen, and one of them, he considered, was rather pretty; short and plump, with a high colour.

When at last he managed to find his voice it sounded strange and came croaking harshly out of the back of his throat: “It’s a lovely evening. Why don’t you take a walk in the park?”

“Oo, no,” the pretty girl said, and for a second their eyes met before each turned hastily away. “Oo, no, that would be trespassing.”

“And we got to be getting back now,” said the other.

Under the trees it was growing dusk; the sun, a purple ball, was disappearing into the marsh at the end of the lake. For a long minute they all remained in silence, intensely conscious of one another, but tongue-tied, embarrassed, the girls puffing at their cigarettes, the boy searching desperately for something to say.

“Come on, Jen, it’s getting late,” said the bigger girl.

“I suppose I’d better be getting back, too,” he said, doubtfully. But nobody moved.

“Come on, Jen,” she said again.

Oh, God, he must find something to say, anything!

But: “Would you like some matches to take back with you?” was the best he could produce.

“Oo, no, we’ve got plenty in the house.”

Still no one stirred.

“Come on, Jen, do.”

“Goodnight, then, if you really must go,” he said.

“Goodnight,” they called, throwing away their wet cigarettes and running towards the wall of the garden.

At the gate the rounded girl turned and waved. Through the dead leaves, which all the year round lay whispering in this corner of the wood, and over the dying bluebell plants, he started to walk home, not knowing whether to be pleased or sorry that the encounter had been so short and tame. Anyhow she had waved, that was something.

But, he told himself later, lying on top of his bed, confident and ardent in the warm darkness, if her friend had not been there, things would have been very different. He imagined pulling that silly rag off her hair, and…

Oh, blast! he thought, turning over on his side and closing his eyes tightly.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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