The crowd was certainly a big one: much bigger than last year, and Mr. Stevens could not help feeling a little worried…With a smile to his wife he added “some are bound to be for another train,”–but in his heart of hearts he was afraid they were all for theirs.
Although this kind of worry has happened many times in my life, I remember very clearly a time in 1989 when I was headed to the Tate Gallery. When I got off the Tube (at Pimlico?) I was convinced that everyone getting off the train was also headed to the Tate and that I needed to hurry to beat the crowd. Of course what really happened is that no one who got off that train headed to the Tate. Not to mention that the Tate is a big place and could have handled a whole train load of visitors without much impact on my experience.
On a less worrisome, but no less obsessive note, I also share a trait with Ernie, the youngest of the Stevens children. His way to puzzle out a situation rarely includes asking someone who may know the answer. Rather he lets his imagination fill in the blanks. While his father spends his time worrying about the potential for things to go wrong, Ernie wonders about the ticket agent at the station:
For years he had wondered how they got the man through that tiny opening from which he served the tickets. Was he pushed in as a baby–or built in at a later period of his life?
He had received a shock of disappointment when the romance he had built round this wistful prisoner was shattered by Dick, who one day pointed out the very ordinary side door. The Railway Company had dropped a little in his estimation.
Once the Stevens family arrive in Bognor they all start to decompress with the worst of their worries eventually falling away. During the course of the holiday, each of the family, with the possible exception of Ernie, work through a personal issue or two on their own. For those of us who are used to social, educational, and economic mobility in our own lives, it is sometimes hard to fathom what it would have been like to have our life opportunities as limited as they were for the Stevens’. Yet there is something comforting about their limited world view. Maybe I am romanticizing their lives a little too much, but I think there is some perspective to be gained by appreciating the small pleasures in life. Mrs. Stevens doesn’t like the seaside much. She goes along because her family enjoys it. But she does look forward to those two weeks when she can have a quiet hour to herself each evening as she sips her “medicinal” sherry–something she would never do the other 50 weeks of the year. And Mr. Stevens doesn’t have much hope of advancing beyond being a clerk but at least he has those two weeks where he can breathe in the fresh sea air and go on long solitary rambles in the nearby countryside. When I think about all that I have had the opportunity to do in my 41 years, the Stevens’ life could seem quite depressing. But then I think about how excited I get each day to spend time with John and truly enjoy our life together and I realize that despite all my yearning for more, I really do appreciate the small things in life. Of course it is always good to be reminded of that.
The more the memory of the book bounces around in my head the more I appreciate what R.C. Sherriff pulled off in The Fortnight in September. Although it is a charming tale of a family on holiday it has so many more layers to appreciate: brilliantly, but quietly quirky and likable characters, a fascinating look into days long past, and a rather touching exploration of life’s priorities. Even among Persephone fans I think this one deserves more attention.