Read Winter Garden Online

Authors: Beryl Bainbridge

Winter Garden

About the Author
Beryl Bainbridge
is the author of seventeen novels, two travel books and five plays for stage and television. The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure, Every Man for Himself and Master Georgie (which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Every Man for Himself was awarded the Whitbread Novel of the Year Prize. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize with The Dressmaker and the Whitbread Prize with Injury Time. The Bottle Factory Outing, Sweet William and The Dressmaker have been adapted for film, as was An Awfully Big Adventure, which starred Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. Beryl Bainbridge died in July 2010.
Also by Beryl Bainbridge
An Awfully Big Adventure
Another Part of the Wood
The Birthday Boys
The Bottle Factory Outing
Collected Stories
The Dressmaker
Every Man for Himself
Filthy Lucre
Harriet Said
Injury Time
Master Georgie
Mum and Mr Armitage
Northern Stories (ed. with David Pownall)
A Quiet Life
Sweet William
Watson’s Apology
A Weekend with Claude
Young Adolf
According to Queeney
English Journey, or the Road to Milton Keynes
Forever England: North and South
Something Happened Yesterday



Beryl Bainbridge

Hachette Digital

Published by Hachette Digital 2010
First published in Great Britain by Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd in 1980
Published by Penguin Books in 1991
Copyright © Beryl Bainbridge 1980
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All characters in this publication other than those clearly in the public domain are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
eBook ISBN 978 0 74812 529 6
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For Brian McGuinness
One morning early in October, a man called Ashburner, tightly buttoned into a black overcoat and holding a suitcase, tried to leave his bedroom on the second floor of a house in Beaufort Street. It was still dark outside and he had switched on the light. Hovering there, unable to take that foolhardy step on to the landing, he heard the whine of the filament; any moment the bulb would give out. Thinking of the blackness to come, he said, ‘Are you sure you’ll be able to manage?’
His wife, propped on pillows in the bed, struggled to keep her eyes open. She asked him, in a voice querulous with fatigue, what on earth he meant.
Though poorly phrased, Ashburner had thought it a reasonable question. Throughout twenty-six years of married life, between midnight and dawn, with the exception of his wife’s two confinements, a funeral in Norwich which had obliged her to stop overnight and a three-day business trip he himself had made to Santander, they had never been separated. Inadequately he mentioned the coal that had to be brought up in a bucket from the cellar and the dinner he usually prepared for the dog at seven o’clock. ‘There’s also the possibility’, he said, ‘that the television set may break down.’
‘It’s only you that bothers with the fire in the drawing room,’ his wife reminded him. ‘And I’d be delighted if the television broke. You know it gives me a headache.’ She closed her eyes. She was generally tired in the morning and always exhausted of an evening. ‘You’d better hurry,’ she urged. ‘You don’t want to miss your train.’
Ashburner began to have difficulty breathing. He remembered Nina’s telling him that people with murmurs of the heart, not yet diagnosed, often adopted a crouching position. Cautiously he lowered himself on to his haunches and almost immediately pitched forward on to his knees.
‘Have you gone?’ his wife called.
‘I’m tying on labels,’ Ashburner said, and he reached up and clung to the brass rail at the foot of the bed as though to stop himself sliding into an abyss.
His wife’s reaction to his sudden and peculiar need for a complete rest, arising so soon after their summer holiday in Venice, had been both sporting and unnerving. Ashburner hadn’t wanted to be prevented from going, but he had anticipated a fair amount of resistance. Indeed, if his wife had played her cards right – expressed her opposition in some female manner, like bursting into tears – he would have abandoned his plans entirely; only a rotter would rush thoughtlessly off, blind to a woman’s distress. But she hadn’t objected. On the contrary, she had sent his old tweed trousers to be cleaned and fetched down his waders from the attic. Last Wednesday she had bought him a map of the Highlands. It had been her idea that he should leave the car at home and travel by rail. ‘After all,’ she told him, ‘we both know how het-up you become when overtaken.’
‘I can’t deny it,’ he said.
‘And if you can’t find a decent loch straightaway, or a suitable hotel, you can always hire transport.’
‘That’s sensible,’ he agreed. ‘I expect I shall be moving about quite a bit.’
‘Two weeks in the open air,’ said his wife, ‘drifting in a rowing boat, will undoubtedly set you up for the winter.’ It was true that severe blizzards were reported to be raging in the north of Scotland, but then he had never been a man to feel the cold.
If she had uttered one single word of reproach, Ashburner might have made a clean breast of things. Even now, when it was obviously too late, he longed to experience that same heady sensation of martyrdom which had prompted him as a schoolboy, accused of some group misdemeanour, secretly to approach his housemaster and claim sole responsibility for a breach in the rules.
‘I may not be able to telephone you,’ he said, hauling himself upright. ‘There may not be a telephone.’ His wife had slumped further down the bed and lay with both arms raised above her head, palms together in a diving position. ‘On the other hand,’ he said, ‘you may be out.’ According to Nina, his wife’s posture, seeing that she wasn’t on the edge of a swimming pool, was evidence of back trouble. ‘And I’m not sure that I’ll ring the office. They’re bound to start pestering me. You’d better just tell them I can’t be reached.’ He thought he sounded insane.
His wife grunted. Ashburner knew she wasn’t likely to dramatise his absence. Later in the week, when she met her friend Caroline for lunch, she wouldn’t give the impression that her husband was in the first stages of a terminal illness or that he was heading for a nervous breakdown. She would simply say he had gone fishing.
‘Well, I’ll be off then,’ said Ashburner loudly. He picked up his suitcase. It would be unwise to kiss her again. When he had done so earlier she had ticked him off for digging his elbow into her shoulder.
His wife remained inert. The covers had been partially pushed back as though she had intended to leap out of bed and perhaps make his breakfast. There were two roses appliquéd at the front of her nightgown, one on each breast. Ashburner was uncomfortably reminded of several things Nina had said to him less than a week before. She had remarked that it was clear, from certain observations he himself had made, that his wife lacked any deep awareness of birds, of flowers; that she was innocent of theophanies, of mystical experiences, and those desired flashes of consciousness so essential to development. In short, she was a woman with no vocation for living. Since Ashburner had, to his way of thinking, been painting a fairly exciting picture of his wife, sketching in her sense of fun, her ability to spot an antique a mile off, her qualities as a mother, illustrated by the optimistic manner in which, during numerous rain-filled holidays on the beach at Nevin, she had sung
The sun has put his hat on
, he had been caught off balance. He could have kicked himself afterwards for not mentioning the extraordinary occasion when his wife saw her Uncle Robert, dead for five years, materialise in a bus queue at Hendon. Nor had he cared to mention the winter garden, a name his wife gave to the sunken yard behind the house, a paved area devoid of earth and so called because even in summer it lay as dark as the grave. Though his wife might have scored, poetically speaking, from the coining of such a phrase, he had known that Nina would immediately pounce on her choice of words and ludicrously interpret them as yet further proof of an abhorrence of sex. For different reasons he had kept quiet about his wife’s habit, indulged in throughout the warmer nights of June and July, of stepping down into the winter garden with a skipping rope. To have hinted that his wife was trying to improve her figure, springing up and down in the moonlight, would have inflamed Nina. She was never consistent. She would doubtless have told him that his wife was shaping up to throw herself at anything in trousers. Of course Nina enjoyed needling him, and on this particular evening she had drunk almost two bottles of champagne; but in pointing out his wife’s supposed failings, she had only exposed his own: he had never had any flashes, desired or otherwise, and his awareness of flowers was admittedly poor. In his view, as he told Nina, the things either poked up out of the ground or lolled in vases. Stung, Nina had gone further. She had suggested that his wife was frivolous – all that laughing she apparently went in for at dinner parties and on the telephone.
At the time Ashburner had dismissed Nina’s remarks as absurd, but at this moment, gazing down on his slumbering wife, bulky in her pink nightgown, he felt distressed. He wondered whether the night before, when he had made love to her, those slight tremors of her body had been due to stifled hilarity. He rammed his suitcase against the side of the bed. His wife fluttered one hand, encased in a blue cotton glove, in a queenly gesture of farewell.
Ashburner descended the stairs so forcefully that a shallow wardrobe, standing with its back to the skirting board in the hall, rocked violently. Its door, in which was set an oval mirror, swung outwards. He was confronted with an image of a face similar to his own, wobbling, as though reflected in water.
He went up the hall and into the kitchen to say goodbye to the dog. The dog, lying on its horse-blanket beneath the radiator, ignored him. Ashburner looked inside the knife-drawer for a pencil, thinking it would be a nice idea to scribble a note to his sons, and then remembered they no longer lived at home. Entering the hall once more he side-stepped the wardrobe and pausing only to shoulder his fishing rod left the house.
Enid had hoped to arrive at the airport before the others. She’d planned to be sitting down when Bernard appeared. She wanted to be the one who would wave, call out, draw attention to herself. She was therefore flustered, having gone through passport control, to see Bernard almost immediately, sprawled on a plastic couch in the middle of the departure lounge, drinking out of a paper cup. Spread out on the floor in front of him was a collection of carrier bags. Nina stood behind the couch, leaning against a balding man who was clutching a fur hat to his chest.
‘Got your bath plug, love?’ asked Bernard, as Enid approached. He didn’t bother to get up. He was wearing his old mackintosh and a pair of adventure boots threaded with bright yellow laces.

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