Port of Southampton, 1924
Th ere is a dull thump of flashbulbs exploding, and light bursts behind us, breaking the soft late November afternoon. The newspaper men are here. A thin drizzle, a city drizzle, descends, gathering on the canopy of Gunnie’s umbrella and running down the ribs in small rivers. Delicate, less wet than a country rain but dirtier, dragging dust and smoke from the air with it so that my gloves are spotted already. Gunnie’s arm is tucked through mine, held tight against the excitement I can feel like a tremor through her.
We have been standing nearly an hour by the chiming of the church spire clock somewhere behind us, staring into the gray sea indistinguishable from the gray sky so that now, when Fantome II appears at last, she is like a ghost ship looming up out of fog, the lanterns at her sides bobbing drunkenly in the wind.
The sails are down, giving her a thin, spidery look; all those extraordinary triangles and rectangles of canvas tucked away. When out and full with wind, they stand in neat formation like pieces of the tangram puzzle Ernest brought back from Flanders. He made me count them once, the sails. I said I saw sixteen, but he said I had missed some and told me then how the moving and arranging of these sails sent the yacht forward and at what speed. He said they were a code that only the wind and sailors understood. It’s when he tells me things like this that I remember he is a man with no sons, who must therefore speak to daughters.
The dock is empty but for us and the knot of newspapermen, who have waited even longer than we have. We wait, all of us, for the same reason, although Gunnie and I would never say it. We wait because out there in the gloom, onboard Fantome, is a brightness that lights all our lives.
Forty thousand miles, Gunnie said. Although I can’t even imagine what that is. They have seen Panama, the Suez Canal, Fiji, Yokohama harbor. Gunnie showed me on the globe and I looked and nodded but the names meant nothing to me and even when I had all their letters, pitiful few for so many months, still they meant nothing.
Closer to, Fantome looks gay enough, though not as gay as the bright morning they set off, when I waved to them, my handkerchief fluttering long, long after I knew they no longer looked.
“This way, Mr. Ernest, sir; over here, sir!” The voice behind me becomes excited as the first figures step down the gang- plank. I feel Gunnie twitch, her arm still in mine though I know she will pull away from me at any moment. To be ready for them.
“Over here, please, Mr. Ernest!” the newspaperman calls again, followed by another of them, like dogs at a door begging to be let out. Or in. And then, voices mounting in excitement as first Cloé, then her daughters appear, slender wraiths in that treacherous air, “Look here, Miss Maureen, to me, if you will.” “This way, Miss Aileen, how was your trip?”
Gunnie lets go my arm and steps forward as the news- papermen move around and ahead of me. I stay where I am and know that the light from their flashing bulbs must obscure me so they cannot yet see me. I watch as Maureen turns one way, then the other, smiling. This is her element, just as surely as the trout at home inhabit the fast-running stream by the back of the stables. Beside her, Aileen is sterner, perhaps cross. She will not do what the newspapermen tell her. Oonagh, they ignore. Just fourteen, hidden by her father, I watch as she peeps out from behind his elbow, and see the laughing look she gives Maureen, turning this way and that for the cameras, and how she is so quick to take it all in. The rain, the gray mist, the empty dock, the flash of camera bulbs.
When they set off, the Daily Express wrote that “Mau-
reen and her two sisters, Oonagh and Aileen, vivacious young daughters of Ernest Guinness,” had left “Socialist Britain.” Why must they say “Socialist”? I wondered then. Now, I won- der how different this must all look to eyes that have seen trop- ical islands and the sun setting over strange lands; surely dawn coming up just as Mr. Kipling described it, “like thunder outer China crost the bay”?
They look so different. Maureen is quite grown up, I see. Under the cloche hat pulled down at a clever angle, her hair is bobbed and shining, just like Aileen’s, and she stands, languid, laughing, completely sure of her new self, just as she was of the old self.
Only Oonagh is the same. That mass of curly hair still, straw boater set back on her head so she can see clearly around her.
Those blue eyes that are sometimes silver, sometimes turquoise, too large and bright, until you look into other eyes and find them small and mean. The same eyes on all three girls, the effect so different.
“It’s good to be back,” Ernest is telling the newspapermen, who listen with pens poised to write down his words.
“We hear you had many adventures, sir,” one of them says. “A storm, was it? In Japan?”
“Earthquake,” Ernest replies. “Destroyed the harbor. Not us, though.” He speaks with satisfaction. I know how he enjoys a test of courage, particularly when combined with skill, but only against machines. He has no time for horses, likes only what can be made to move, tell the time or predict the weather at the touch of a button.
“Glad to be back, Miss Maureen?” one of the men calls out and I think, How quickly they see that she is the one to speak to.
“Jolly glad,” Maureen says, stepping forward a little into the line of flashbulbs. “You can’t imagine how tiring it is, being somewhere different every day.”
There is laughter then and good-natured encouragement to “tell us more,” but Ernest says, “Better get on. Thank you all for this fine welcome.”
Gunnie has moved forward now and is greeting the family. She’s careful not to cry as she embraces Cloé. “How happy this makes me, cousin,” she says, and Cloé submits to the embrace and says, “Dear Gunnie,” before relinquishing her to the girls, who put their arms around her and begin to tell her of their adventures in a rush. I watch and try again to see how they are different. More—how they are the same. And then, “Look, it’s Fliss!” Oonagh, of course, always the sharpest and quickest.
She darts forward, grabs hold of my hand and puts it to her face, then throws her arms tight around me.
The motorcars are waiting and we get in, Oonagh, Maureen, Aileen and me in one, Ernest, Cloé and Gunnie in the second and larger. The luggage will follow.
With the doors shut and the rain outside, rugs over our knees and a flask of chocolate, together, across from each other, it is easier. More like teatime at home in Glenmaroon.
“You look so grown up,” I say to Maureen. “I feel quite shy of you.” I am only a year younger, less than a year, but I do not, now, look it.
“Oh, we had such fun in Paris,” she says. “Mamma insisted, even though Papa didn’t want to stop for so long at all. Mon- sieur Antoine himself did my hair.” She puts a hand up to those cropped golden curls and pats them. “Do you think Harrods will be able to keep up?” She folds her gloves in her lap, smooth- ing the kid over and over with pleased fingers.
“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t know. My hair is done by Gun- nie, who is clever at brushing and pinning but cannot cut, so I still wear my red-brown curls in the style of Gunnie’s youth— Cloé’s youth—not this bobbed marvel that is the new fashion.
“But how was it?” I say. “How was it, really?” “Fun.” Maureen shrugs. “You know . . .” “Filthy food,” Aileen says.
“Too cold,” says Oonagh and shudders. “Remember Spitzberg?” “Too awful,” Maureen concurs. Then, “I suppose we’ll be in
the newspapers tomorrow. Papa will be furious.”
“And you’ll find it all very thrilling,” Aileen says. “Good- ness, Maureen, you are vulgar.”
“You like it all just as much as me only you won’t say so.”
I look out. The evening is raw and wet, the rain dragged sideways by a rough wind. Behind us, the lights of Southamp- ton dwindle, like a pale hand raised in limp farewell.
“I’ll have my coming out next year,” Maureen says after a while. “Mamma promised.”
“As long as she doesn’t have to do anything and Gunnie does it all,” Aileen says. “And it’s my coming out too, don’t forget. I’ve already delayed, because of this trip.”
“Well, it’s going to be the biggest party London has ever seen,” says Maureen.
“It’s going to be an utter bore—they always are,” Aileen con- tradicts her. “All that fuss.”
“Not fuss, fun,” says Maureen with the sullen sound her voice takes on when someone disagrees with her. I can see she is ready to say more cutting things to Aileen, who will say almost as cutting things back. That dynamic is still there, then—Maureen pretending to be more sophisticated than is even possible, in case anyone suspects her of being young, or inexperienced, perhaps even a little awed; Aileen determined to deny her, because they are sisters and neither can accept that for one to have doesn’t mean the other must lose out.
Oonagh must see the row coming too because she leans for- ward and asks, “So, Fliss, what have you been doing? Do tell.”
But I can’t. What would I tell? That I returned home, and found that it wasn’t home anymore? That I counted the days until their letters, then the days until their return so that when Gunnie wrote to Mummie and suggested I join her on the trip to Southampton to meet them, I said, “Oh, please may I?” too loud and too quick, and saw Mummie’s face turn hard and her mouth sharp even as she said, “Very well.”
“Oh, you know,” I say, “the usual things. I’m glad you’re back.”
“Me too,” says Oonagh, sinking against the upholstery and taking my arm so that the fur of her collar tickles my nose.
Not one of us says Hughie’s name, but he is there, beside us, in the car, so close that I think I can smell the Russian cig- arettes he smoked and the hair oil from the collar of his jacket, just as it was that last summer at Glenmaroon.