The cigar was a large one and Robert Stonehouse was small. At the precise moment, in fact, when he leant out of the upstairs bedroom window, instinctively seeking fresh air, he became eight years old. He did not know this, though he did know that it was his birthday and that a birthday was a great and presumably auspicious occasion. His conception of what a birthday ought to be was based primarily on one particular event when he had danced on his mother’s bed, shouting, “I’m five—I’m five!” in unreasonable triumph. His mother had greeted him gravely, one might say respectfully, and his father, who when he did anything at all did it in style, had given him a toy fort fully garrisoned with resplendent Highland soldiers. And there had been a party of children whom, as a single child, he disliked and despised and whom he had ordered about unreproved. From start to finish the day had been his very own.
Soon afterwards his mother disappeared. They said she was dead. He knew that people died, but death conveyed nothing to him, and when his father and Christine went down to Kensal Green to choose the grave, he picked flowers from the other graves and sent them to his mother with Robert’s love. Christine had turned away her face, crying, and James Stonehouse, whose sense of drama never quite failed him, had smiled tragically; but Robert never even missed her. His only manifestation of feeling was a savage hatred of Christine, who tried to take her place. For a time indeed his mother went completely out of his consciousness. But after a little she came back to him by a secret path. In the interval she had ceased to be connected with his evening prayer and his morning bath and all the other tiresome realities and become a creature of dreams. She grew tall and beautiful. He liked to be alone—best of all at night when Christine had put the light out—so that he could make up stories about her and himself and their new mystical intimacy. He knew that she was dead but he did not believe it. It was just one of those mysterious tricks which grown-up people played on children to pretend that death was so enormously conclusive. Though he had buried the black kitten with his own hands in the back garden, and had felt the stiffness of its pitiful body and the dank chill of its once glossy fur, he was calmly sure that somewhere or other, out of sight, it still pursued its own tail with all the solemnity of kittenhood.
One of these nights the door would open and his mother would be there. In this dream of her she appeared to him much as she had done once in Kensington High Street when he had wilfully strayed from her side and lost himself, and, being overwhelmed with the sense of his smallness and forlornness, had burst into a howl of grief. Then suddenly she had stood out from the midst of the sympathetic crowd—remote, stern and wonderful—and he had flung himself on her, knowing that whatever she might do to him, she loved him and that they belonged to one another, inextricably and for all time.