Friday, 15 August 2008

No Robbery. A Fable for the Times, by Dorothy Whipple

I recently bought The Queen's Book of the Red Cross from a second hand book shop in my area. It was published in November 1939, a month after war broke out. It contains short stories from the likes of Georgette Heyer, A A Milne and Daphne DuMaurier and it is illustrated by, amongst others, Mabel Lucie Attwell, Rex Whistler and Dame Laura Knight. There is a short forward by the then Queen, who thanked the Red Cross, on behalf of all the women in the Empire, for taking care of those who were "fighting to defend liberty". Most of the short stories have a war-time theme and emhasise the need for courage and fortitude in troubling times. I have chosen to post the story No Robbery, by Dorothy Whipple, because, like most Persephone customers, I am a fan of Whipple's prose, her understanding of the variations of womanhood and her canny knack for displaying domestic detail. The story is quite short, and should appeal to all of you Mrs Minniver fans out there.

Mrs. Green and Mrs. Bromley lived side by side in two small houses under the shade of one great ash tree.

"What a lovely tree!" Mrs Green exclaimed when she first came. "Oh, you'll find it a nuisance," said Mrs Bromley darkly. "What with leaves dropping in the autumn and bird droppings all year round. I'm for ever cleaning up after that tree. It's a great nuisance, I warn you."
But nothing seemed to be a nuisance for Mrs Green. Mrs Bromley didn't think it was normal.
"Thoughtless, that's what she is," said Mrs Bromley. "Not a thought in her head."

It was a very charming head. Mrs Green was young, slender, pretty - like a little girl. It astonished everybody in the lane to find that she had a boy of two and a half. Mrs Green had shining hair which she was always doing in different ways, sometimes letting it swing loose, sometimes tying it up with a ribbon, sometimes doing it up on top like an Edwardian lady.

"The time she must spend on that hair," said Mrs Bromley.

All the summer Mrs Green went out in slacks and shorts, her little boy straddled on her hip. Nothing seemed to worry her. She was always gay. Giddy, Mrs Bromley called it. Mrs Bromley was ashamed when Mrs Green came out in shorts to speak to the butcher, the baker, and the other vanmen who brought their supplies to the lane. From which it was gathered that Mrs Bromley belonged to an older generation. She did. She was a widow with a son rapidly nearing Militia age, and perhaps that pressed on Mr Bromley and made her rather sour. At any rate, the summer was an anxious time for any thinking person, or so Mrs Bromley said. The times might not affect Mrs Green, but they affected her. She read the newspapers closely and did all she was told to do. Housewives were advised to lay in stocks of food, and Mrs Bromley began.

She warned Mrs Green. She cut pieces from the papers and gave them to Mrs Green to read. But she had a strong suspicion that Mrs Green did not read them, so she took to reading them to Mrs Green herself, over the hedge in the afternoons. She could see, however, that she was making no impression. Mrs Green went on rolling on the grass with her child. Even on Monday mornings, when Mrs Bromley was rubbing and wringing in her wash-house, Mrs Green would be rolling on the grass with her little boy and laughing so hard that Mrs Bromley had to look out to see what she was laughing at. Nothing as far as Mrs Bromley could make out, except that the child was sitting on his mother's stomach. Mrs Bromley could no see anything particularly funny in that. She wouldn't have liked anybody to sit on hers.

During that summer Mrs Green continued to sing about in the garden and play with her child, while Mrs Bromley, most afternoons, made tiresome journeys into town, which was two miles away, to buy things from the shops. When she came toiling up the lane with her baskets and carriers, Mrs Green would run out in her shorts.

"Hello," she would cry. "Laden again! Let me help you in."

Through the summer days, Mrs Bromley made jams, jellies, chutneys. She bottled vegetables; she clarified fat and stored it in jars. She laid in tins of this and tins of that, she laid in everything. And when her store cupboards were full, she brought in Mrs Green to look at them and take a lesson.

"Ah," said Mrs Green mischievously. "I shall know where to come." And she would too, thought Mrs Bromley. The cheek!

Mrs Bromley knew the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant who toiled all summer long, as she had done, and the grasshopper who did nothing but fiddle and enjoy itself like Mrs Green. And when the winter came and there was no food, the grasshopper came to beg of the ant, just as Mrs Green would come and beg of her. Well, she would get the same answer, determined Mrs Bromley, looking forward to that time. Even now Mrs Green borrowed.

"Could you lend me one egg?" she would ask, putting her bright head over the fence. "Just for John's lunch? I'll pay you back when the grocer's been."

"Could you lend me one slice of stale bread to toast for Jim's baked beans? Ours is too new."

She asked in such a way that Mrs Bromley found it hard to refuse her. But what a housekeeper, she thought.

When Mrs green did her housework, Mrs Bromley couldn't think. She was out not only practically all the day, she was out before breakfast. Every fine morning, about half-past seven, the Green family would emerge fro their gate on bicycles - Mrs Green on hers, her hair swinging, far too much leg, according to Mrs Bromley, showing in shorts; Mr Green with John on his handlebars, and like that they would go for a ride.

"I suppose the poor husband doesn't get any breakfast," thought Mrs Bromley, seeing him rush off to work in his car a few moments after their return.

She had to admit, all the same, that the Greens looked remarkably well, in spite of Mrs Green's sketchy housekeeping. The child was sturdy and well kept. They all looked very happy. Mrs Bromley could only conclude that they had all been very hardy to begin with. Time would tell on them, she said darkly.

War was declared on a bright Sunday morning, and a few moments after the declaration of war, the lane had its first air-rade warning. Wardens in tin hats appeared as if by magic in the lane, sending children from their play into the houses. Mrs Green went into the garden and swung her som up into her arms, kissing him. She was carrying him into the house, her face serious for once, when Mrs Bromley, gas-mask in hand, approached the hedge.

"Are you all right, Mrs Bromley?" called Mrs Green. "Or will you and Charlie come into us?"

"We are all right, thank you," said Mrs Bromley rather stiffly. She had prepared a refuge as she had prepared everything else, and she thought it was rather hard lines that she should have to ask the Greens in to use up the oxygen, just because they had not prepared a refuge of their own. "I was going to ask you to come in to us," she said.

"Thank you very much," said Mrs Green, "but we'd rather stay in our own house, you know, in case a bomb starts a fire or anything. See you later," said Mrs Green, with one of her smiles, and going into her house she closed the door.

The lane waited, silent, empty under the radiant sky, in which, so the lane had been warned, enemy planes might appear at any minute. They did not appear, and by and by the all-clear signal was given. Five minutes later, the Greens emerged from their gate on bicycles and went for a ride as if nothing had happened. Mrs Bromley was astounded. It seemed such an extraordinary thing to do.

the black-out orders were given and Mrs Bromley, fussing and clucking, like an anxious hen, made incessant journeys into the town to buy, with great difficulty, her material. She measured and cut out and machined and got all her windows successfully blacked-out. There is no doubt that Mrs Bromley was a model citizen. But Mrs green and her husband pinned up brown paper every night and when this got torn, as it did, the police came round. Mrs Bromley would have been very ashamed, she knew, to receive a visit from the police, but Mrs Green only laughed as she recounted how the police had come into the house and helped her to pin up more paper.

It was the autumn and the leaves fell thick from the ash tree and strewed both gardens. Mrs Bromley swept hers up, complaining, but Mrs Green laughed at hers and said, "Oh, they'll blow away in time."

Then Mrs Bromley's son, Charlie, was called up and she was left alone in her well-provisioned, carefully darkened house. The days were long and the nights were longer. She began to look wistfully over the hedge for sights of Mrs Green, still gay, still singing, still doing her housework, not according to routine but when she felt like it, still bicycling before breakfast, though in a wollen jumper and a tweed skirt now. The vans no longer came with supplies to the lane, because of the shortage of petrol. In consequence Mrs Green often ran out of things and came to borrow. But, strangely enough, Mrs Bromley no longer minded. She was glad to see Mrs Green under any pretext. She was delighted, too, when she could get Mrs Green and her little boy into her house for tea. They were such a dear young pair, she thought, so comforting to be with. Mrs Green's gaiety was undiminished. When Mrs Bromley saw the posters on the walls, "Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory," she though of Mrs Green. It was Mrs Green's courage and cheerfulness; not hers. Left to herself she felt not much of either. She had to draw on Mrs Green's. And so it came about the following dialogue - astonishing when one remembers Mrs Bromley's attitude in the summer - the following dialogue took place over the hedge one bright cold morning in late autumn:

"Mrs Bromley! Mrs Bromley!" called Mrs Green in her clear voice, standing on the stone she had permanently beside the hedge to facilitate borrowing. "Mrs Bromley, darling," she said, lowering her voice when Mrs Bromley ran out to her. "Could you lend me just one egg? For John's lunch. Have you had a letter from Charlie this morning? Is he all right? Will you read bits to me later? One egg, just for John's lunch is what I wanted. And if you could lend me one teeny-weeny bit of butter for Jim's supper tonight, I'd be so grateful. We've eaten all ours already and we've no petrol to go for more, even if they'd give us any at the shop."

"I tell you what," said Mrs Bromley. "You three come in and have supper with me. I'll make a nice one. I've plenty of stuff."

"Oh, we couldn't do that," said Mrs Green. "With things as they are. It wouldn't be fair."

"Oh, yes it would," contradicted Mrs Bromley. "I laid everything in. I've got the food, but I haven't got the company. Good company like yours. I couldn't lay up a store of that, it seems. You can't provide what I've got, it's true, but I can't provide what you've got. So we're quits. You know what they say: 'Exchange is no robbery.'"

"Right you are," cried Mrs Green gaily. "If you look at it like that, we'll come."

EDIT: Here is a link to another Whipple short story. Enjoy!


Marie N. said...

Thank you for sharing the story!

~~louise~~ said...

What a timeless tale, Natalie.

I enjoyed it immensely.

Thank you so much for sharing.

Niki RuralWritings said...

I loved it....thank you for posting it. I'm going to go looking for Dorothy Whipple.

Simone said...

I really enjoyed that story. I kept wondering whether I am more like Mrs Green or Mrs Bromley. I like to think that I am a bit of both. Thanks for sharing. It has made me think.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed that story chuck!

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Marie
You're welcome!

Hi Louise
I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Hi Nicky
Try Persephone books, but there are a few free books of her sonline.

Hi Simone
I think to be a mixture of the two is a very good combination.

Hi Sarah
I'm glad you enjoyed it!