Last Exile

Ten-year-old Alastair lives on a West Indian island with his doctor-mother. He keeps getting bouts of malaria fever and when he is on the mend again his mother "exiles" him away from home to recuperate in the counryside. He hates being away from home and in his last exile he tries to get fever again so that the owner of the guest-house where he has been lodged will telegraph his mother to come for him. Eventually his mother does come, but Alastair finds a telegram he has sent on behalf of the guest-house owner has stirred up trouble in high places.

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1. suitable for everyone

 

Alasdair disapproved of Seabreck and its owner, Miss Lucy Quigley, even before he saw them. Alasdair was ten, going on eleven. His unruly brown hair contrasted with his neat khaki shirt and shorts. Taken together they told you he was a polite rebel. Seabreck was a plantation house,turned guesthouse, on a hilltop overlooking the Caribbean. Royal palms lined the drive to the house from the coast road.

 

Miss Quigley burbled on and on to his mother as they climbed the front steps between two Scotch Bonnet pepper bushes to a terrace of ferns: ”When will this war end? Nobody can tell me where my brother is. Yours, I know, is in the RAF too.” Then to Alasdair:  “You won’t have anybody to play with, young man. But you can keep me company. I only have Maude and Eliazer for that, my cook and yardboy. And they’re not much good.”

 

Alasdair kept getting malaria and his doctor-mother prescribed recuperative sojourns for him in the countryside. He wished she wouldn’t. He hated being away from home. He’d stayed with too many impossible people. Mrs Laing, who had looked after him during his last exile, had been an exception.  But before her there’d been Miss Maple and her Scottie who ”saw things” and would suddenly bark and snap at the air; Police Inspector Greenwood who quarelled with Mrs Greenwood almost every night; and Colonel and Mrs Blys. The Colonel collected old weaponry and had blown himself up firing off a cannon in the garden. Mrs Laing liked the cinema and had taken Alasdair with her to see a film on many occasions.

 

He wondered about Miss Quiqley. Something told him there’d be lumpy porridge and runny poached eggs at breakfast. “Do you have a dog?” he asked. Miss Quigley shook her head.

 

They climbed to an upstairs drawing-room crammed with stags’ heads and fox hunting pictures and brass bric-a-brac from Egypt and India. These mementoes commemorated Miss Quigley’s father, who, his mother said, had worked all over the world. Miss Quigley, he thought dismally, would tell him their history.  

 

Miss Quigley was like a pale, nervous bird, hopping about. He was sure she wouldn’t even let him swim.  It was 1940 and everybody said U-boats prowled the Caribbean. Suppose, he thought, one surfaced and fired at the house!  He’d have to go home.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

 

His mother took a bottle of pills from her Gladstone medical bag. “Phone me if he gets fever. This is quinine.  Instructions are on the bottle. Have you got a thermometer?”

 

Miss Quigley nodded. “The phone here has been out of order since you last called. I can’t get them to fix it. I’ll telegraph you.”

 

His mother kissed him and he waved at the marl dust the Buick churned up down the drive.

 

As the days passed, he missed his bicycle at home and his next door friend, Dom Chin, more and more. There was nothing to do save read, stone wasp nests and watch the lizards that ran along the veranda rail.  

 

The bike, he remembered, needed a new lamp if he was to make it ‘brand, brand new’ again. He thought of his Dad who had died in a car smash like Mrs Laing’s husband and little boy. If only Mrs Laing hadn’t gone on holiday, he’d have stayed with her this time too. She had a pretty, upturned nose.  He‘d decided to marry her when he grew up.

 

Miss Quigley would hum ‘Liliburlero’ and call him to listen to the Empire Service with her. “Five short and one long, Alasdair!” she’d shout, meaning the time pips were coming on. He loved ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ and once a man sang a silly song in a silly voice. “I love knitting pretty little mittens…A nice occupation for a good little girl.” Miss Quigley said the voice belonged to Arthur Askey and they put him on specially to annoy Hitler. That first evening the radio said Stukas were dive-bombing the beaches at Dunkirk.  

 

Sometimes he tried to race the soldier crabs he found in the garden against each other. Maude made him fudge. Eliazer made him a kite. Miss Quigley sent him out with Eliazer for exercise, to fetch the letters from the post office. One day she gave him a telegram, “All is well. Quigley,” to send to his mother.  He put it in his pocket, wrote out a new one in his room and handed it in.

 

The post office clerk held it up. “Wha’ it mean?”

 

Eliazer couldn’t read. Alasdair shrugged. “Shall I take it back to Miss Quigley?”

 

“No,” said the clerk. “No business a’ mine wha’ she say.”

 

Alasdair hugged himself all the way back to the house, but the next day black clouds piled up over the sea and Miss Quigley frowned at the barometer on the veranda. “A hurricane’s blowing up,” she said. “We must batten down.”

 

Alasdair felt desperate. His mother wouldn’t come now. He ran out and sat on the steps between the Scotch Bonnet bushes where he suddenly had a brainwave. He fetched a bucket from the kitchen, filled it with water and stood it a few yards downhill from the pepper bushes. Then he stuffed his mouth with peppers, chewed and swallowed. That, he thought, should give him fever. Fire flared in his mouth, sweat prickled out on his face and he ran, mouth open, to the bucket and dunked his head. He ate more peppers and dunked his head again and again until, feeling faint,but satisfied the pepper fire would give him fever and Miss Quigley would have to summon his mother, he staggered into the house to bed.

 

Miss Quigley took his temperature. It was normal.

 

Despite a tummy ache, he fell asleep and dreamt he was in a square-rigger heaving in heavy seas, its woodwork groaning with the effort to stay together. A roar of thunder woke him. The room creaked. “Miss Quigley!” he shouted.

 

A ripping sound shivered the house. The roof lifted off and vanished and the wind smashed the heavy porcelain goblet on the washstand to smithereens against the wall. It tore the sheets off the bed and dragged at Alasdair. He flattened himself on the floor and crawled to the door and the stairs which had turned into a waterfall as rain crashed down into the house.

 

He made his way to the disused lower part of the house, where Miss Quigley joined him and they eventually slept, wet as they were, under a table.

 

Alasdair woke at first light. The hurricane had passed and all was still. Miss Quigley lay on her back, an arm over her face. A watercolour of huntsmen, the red of their coats running into the pack of hounds, lay beside her. He called her.  She didn’t move, so he went out for a recce.  

 

The coast road which ran past the gate at the bottom of the hill was clearly visible, except for a pond at the entrance to the drive,but what looked like lakes filled the hollows in the fields on either side of the drive. The house was marooned. At the back, the roof lay beside a chicken coop. Maude had taken shelter in the coop. She was so fat she appeared to be wearing it. Eliazer sawed at the coop’s wire with a machete to release her. “Wheah Miss Lucy?” he asked.

 

“We’ll have to bury her,”Alasdair said.

 

“I’m not dead yet, Master Alasdair!” a voice protested from the veranda above.

 

Alasdair watched out for his mother, but no cars passed on the road. Then, at midday, he spied the Buick. It came to a stop beyond the gate on the coast road. As he ran down the hill a brown Packard arrived and stopped at the gate. Alasdair flung himself into the lake and started swimming to the Buick. A policeman got out of the Packard, stripped quickly down to his underclothes, waded through the water and hauled him out.

 

A British army officer occupied the front passenger seat of the Packard.  “A swim in muddy rain water when you have the sea before you!” he said banteringly. “What can you be thinking about?”

 

“I was going to my mother in that car over there.”

 

“I see,” said the officer. Then he spoke to the policeman: “Mallard, you’ll have to dry off discreetly behind the car. There’s a lady in the car ahead.”

 

Then he returned to Alasdair. “I think we’ll leave you to your mother, young man. A charming lady. I’ve had the privilege of meeting her.”

 

“May I go now, sir?”

 

“Yes. But before you go...” The officer took a piece of paper out of a briefcase on his lap and unfolded it. “Do you recognise that writing?”

 

It was the draft of his telegram. “DIEV BOMD BY SHTOOKAS, QUIGLEY,” it said in wavy capitals. The writing, he thought, gave the game away. “Yes, sir. It’s mine.”

 

“Why did you write that?”

 

“I heard it on the radio. I wanted my mother to come for me.”

 

“Ah, the Dunkirk evacuation. You know, you had some people in high office worried. Don’t do it again, will you. We’re at war.”

 

“No, sir. You won’t tell my mother, will you sir?”

 

“My lips are sealed.”

 

His mother turned the Buik around and drove up near the Packard. She  spoke from the window:  “Good afternoon, Major. Thank you for rescuing my silly son.” The Major got out of the car. “Not at all, Doctor.  I’ll be seeing Miss Quigley about our mystery telegram. I think loneliness may have got to her.”

 

“I hope you can get through that water. I want to go with you in your car, if you don’t mind. She may need some medical help. Come along, Alasdair, get into our car and get out of those wet clothes. We don’t need a case of pneumonia on top of everything else.  And put on my raincoat. You really deserve a spanking. We’ll see about that when we get home”

 

His mother got out and crunched over the gravel to the Packard, taking her Gladstone medical bag with her. The Packard moved away unsteadily through the pool in the middle of the drive. The pool was shallower than the one Alasdair had dived into, but the water still rose above the tires.

 

When she returned, his mother was angry. “How could you disappear from her sight like that? I had to give her a sedative! I must come back to see her tomorrow. Poor thing. She won’t leave the house. She’s afraid it’ll be burgled. She says she’ll sleep under cover downstairs. But how could she stop a robbery? That telegram must have been a cry for help in her loneliness. But I’ll never understand why she said what she did.”

 

“She got it off the radio. I sent it for her.”

 

“Well. That at least explains the spelling. You must have written it out. Did you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Home at last, Alasdair dropped off to sleep quickly that night, though, while still on the brink of oblivion he saw Miss Quigley again in a half dream, lying under the table, her arm over her eyes, shutting out the devastation around them. A pang of guilt went through him, but his hand tightened on the broken bicycle lamp under his pillow and he smiled. Tomorrow he and Dom would be racing each other on the driveway. He was glad to be home.

 

The bicycle race with Dom next day, however, did not happen. Nor was his mother’s half-threatened spanking delivered. She told him over breakfast: “I’m going to Seabreck to see how Miss Quigley is doing. You must come with me and apologise to her.”

 

“I don’t want to stay,” Alasdair said.

 

“Never fear,” she said. “You have become too much of a nuisance to be let out of my sight again.” 

 

And so it came to pass that Alasdair’s sojourn with Miss Quigley turned out to be his last exile from home.

 

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