Book excerpt

The Birdcage

A Novel

Marcia Willett

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One 
Dunster, 1956
The village is quiet this afternoon and Marina Hamilton hurries through her shopping, Piers skipping and jumping at her side. She says, “Walk properly, Piers,” but he takes no notice, knowing that today she is happy and he does not have to be so careful. He looks with pleasure at the castle on its wooded hill, its battlements and towers framed by the dense trees, whose leaves are the colour of the new pennies he has in the pocket of his corduroy shorts.
Remembering, he thrusts his hand deep down into the pocket and feels the smooth roundness of the pennies, warm from his body, and the little sharp-edged threepenny piece that his father had given him earlier.
“Buy a stick of chocolate, old fellow,” he said while Piers looked with awe at so much money. “Go on, put it away.”
Anxiously Piers tucked the coins into his pocket for there was that tiny edge of urgency in his father’s voice that he has come to recognise, although he doesn’t understand it, just as he recognises that state between his parents that he calls to himself “uncomfortableness.” It is present in the atmosphere like cold or heat—not visible, but there—and he tries to dispel it by talking loudly, showing something—a book, a toy—or demonstrating some new skill: standing on his head, turning a cartwheel. In the cottage, on the toll road just out of Porlock, such antics have sometimes caused trouble, the breaking of an ornament, the knocking over of a table, but not any longer; today, when they drive back home from Dunster, they will not be going to the cottage but to Michaelgarth.
Piers gives another big bounce of happiness, swinging on his mother’s hand, beaming up at her, remembering how she told him the wonderful news.
“Grandfather can’t manage on his own any longer,” she explained, “so we are going to move to Michaelgarth to look after him.”
Piers heard the lilt in her voice; he knows how she loves the place where she was born and grew up with her beloved brother, Peter: the big grey-stone house standing up on the hill looking out to sea, with the sunny, sheltered garth behind it, held within the two wings of the house. He loves it too. There is space to run, to make secret dens; his tricycle judders and jolts over the cobbles in the garth but once out on the drive he can go like the wind whilst Grandfather’s springer spaniel, Monty, bounds along beside him, barking madly. If only he had a brother, they could play such splendid games at Michaelgarth.
This afternoon, he stands patiently beside his mother as they wait in Parhams to be served with cheese and tea. Perhaps now is the time, now that she is happy, to ask for a brother—or even a sister. Outside the shop he changes his mind; something deep inside warns him not to spoil today’s happiness. Already at seven years old he knows how fragile it is.
“There’s Daddy,” he cries with delight. “Look, he’s talking to Mrs. Cartwright.”
He feels his mother’s grip tighten on his hand and looks up at her. The smoothed-out look her face has been wearing all day has gone: she frowns and her mouth turns down. It is as if the sun has disappeared behind a cloud; anxiety is heavy in his stomach—as if he has eaten rice pudding too quickly—and in a sudden panic he shouts aloud.
“Daddy,” he calls across the street. “Hello, Daddy. Hello, Mrs. Cartwright.”
They both turn and Mrs. Cartwright smiles, waves her hand. “Hello, Piers. How are you, Marina?”
His father raises his hat to Mrs. Cartwright, as if bidding her goodbye, but she accompanies him, crossing with him to where they stand outside the post office.
“Hello, darling,” says his father easily. Piers sees him move, as if to kiss his mother’s cheek, but a stiffening, a tilting of her chin, makes him hesitate.
“Hello, Marina,” says Mrs. Cartwright. She looks amused, her eyes sparkle, and Piers decides that she is very pretty, with her little feathered hat and tall-heeled shoes. “I hear that you’ve moved back home.”
“Yes, that’s right. How are you, Helen? How’s James?”
Piers tugs at his father’s sleeve. “Are you coming home to tea with us, Daddy?” he asks eagerly.
His father glances at his watch and Piers sees him look at his mother’s face as if he might find an answer written there.
“I expect your father has to get back to the office,” she says. “He’ll be home later.”
“I’ve been with old Mrs. Baker at Myrtle Cottage.” He says it to Piers but rather as if he is telling the others as well. “The roof is leaking like a basket. Well, I’d better be off. See you later.”
He raises his hat again and turns away. Helen Cartwright smiles down at Piers.
“This boy is just like his father, Marina,” she says. “So you’re back at Michaelgarth. That’s such good news although I’m sorry to hear that your father isn’t too well. Your mother’s death must have been a great shock to you all.”
“It was very sad but I hope he’ll pick up a little now.” Her voice is cool but polite. “You must come for tea soon, once we’ve settled in properly.”
“That would be very nice.” Mrs. Cartwright still looks as if something is amusing her. “Felix was saying that James and I should come in for drinks one evening but I’d love to come to tea.”
“Goodbye, then.” His mother turns away, pulling Piers with her into the post office, but he twists back to smile at Mrs. Cartwright.
“She’s pretty, isn’t she?” he says later, hurrying along at his mother’s side. “I like her.”
“Perhaps that’s why she says that you’re like your father.”
Her voice is sharp, the happiness is gone, and as he trudges back to the car his spirits flutter down and make a tiny cold pain inside him. He fingers the two sticks of chocolate in his pocket—one for him and one for Grandfather—and he still has two pennies left. He climbs into the car, kneeling up on the front seat so that he can see out properly, and as they drive down The Steep he remembers that they are going home to Michaelgarth and he is happy again.
As she drives along the familiar narrow lanes, between high-banked hedges, Marina is unaware of autumn’s magic. The haws gleam crimson against fading leaves of yellow, hiding the luscious purple blackberries which cluster on rich-red brambles, and the sun is slipping below the blue-black rim of Dunkery Hill. Marina sees none of it: inside her head is a muddle of images and she is torn between guilt and suspicion. She sees Felix—hands in his pockets, laughing with Helen Cartwright—and remembers the instant twisting fear that stifles every other normal reaction. She knows that there is no reason why he shouldn’t talk to an old friend, yet she is incapable of responding naturally; of calling across the street to him, as Piers did, or crossing to join them.
“Hello, Helen,” she could have said, “hello, darling,” and let him kiss her as he had wanted to, just a little affectionate kiss on the cheek. Instead, fear and rage held her aloof, recoiling from his gesture, hating him for standing with pretty Helen Cartwright in her silly hat and, no doubt, paying her compliments. If only she could have slipped her arm within his own, smiled back at Helen from a position of strength by his side, instead of remaining apart, mistrusting Helen’s look of amusement, sheltering behind disdain.
Marina’s hands tighten on the wheel: misery and anger war within her. Each time she vows that she will be different, that she will change, but each time that reaction is so sharp, so quick, that she has no time to fight it down and to remember that she means to trust him. She loves him—and hates him—because he is good-looking and attractive, because he likes to laugh and draws other people to him. She suspects every woman who comes near him and feels some kind of need to punish him for that quality, that warmth and generosity, which is like a magnet to men and women alike. He tries to understand and works hard to show that her suspicions are unfounded. That remark to Piers, “I’ve been with old Mrs. Baker at Myrtle Cottage,” was meant for her and, decoded, meant: “No, I have not been having lunch with Helen Cartwright.”
She bites her lips with agitation, feeling remorse. As they climb away from the coast she sees Michaelgarth, standing strong and invulnerable on the hill, and she feels balanced again, more calm. She will pour Felix a drink when he comes home, cook something special for dinner, and later they will make love. She relaxes a little, changing gear to turn up the drive, and smiles at Piers, kneeling beside her on the passenger seat, looking eagerly up at the house.
“We’re home,” she says to him and sees his answering beam of relief. For the moment all is well.
Copyright © 2004 by Marcia Willett Limited Born in Somerset, in the West Country of England, Marcia Willett was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to train as a ballet dancer. Unfortunately, her body did not develop with the classical proportions demanded by the Royal Ballet, so she studied to be a ballet teacher. Her first husband was a naval officer in the submarine serivce; their son, Charles, is now married and a clergyman. Her second husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. The Birdcage follows three earlier novels, A Week in Winter, A Summer in the Country, and The Children's Hour.