Stephen arrives at his destination and finds that “everything is as it was…and everything has changed.” He gets off his train and walks the familiar path to the old cul-de-sac where he once lived, noticing the different changes to the town. Finally he reaches the cul-de-sac, which he calls “the Close,” with the same fourteen houses that were there fifty years ago. However, his initial feeling of familiarity soon disappears, and he realizes that the houses actually have changed. They are more standardized now, with asphalt and cars, and their own individual uniqueness gone. The privet scent is also gone.
Memory is dependent upon the passage of time, and the Close has changed immensely within the span of five decades. Yet it still retains a familiarity to Stephen that he recognizes from the past. In a similar way, Stephen has completely changed in that same span of time, but he still carries the thoughts and memories of what happened at the Close fifty years ago. Notably, the privet that brought Stephen back to the Close has disappeared from the Close itself.
Stephen says that even the sky, which usually stays unchanged throughout time, is different now. In the past, the war had painted the sky with searchlights and flares, but now it is “mild and bland.” As Stephen starts to question his return, wondering if he’s been foolish to come back, the familiar sound of a nearby train ushers in a rush of memories of the area. He starts to envision the Close as it was when he was a young boy. The same houses transform back into the houses of the families that lived there before: the Sheldons, the Hardiments, the Geests, the Averys.
The way Stephen’s memories materialize in front of him as he is standing in the Close emphasizes their powerful force and plays with the elusive distinction between imagination and reality. Frayn also mentions the War’s effect on the landscape in order to hint at its larger influence on Stephen’s childhood, which will become more evident further into the story.
The second house in the line, No. 2, catches Stephen’s attention in the image of his memory. Semi-attached to the Hardiments’ house and the Pinchers’, No. 3 was the house Stephen himself used to live in. Though the house is now remodeled and renamed, it still seems “faintly embarrassing,” and Stephen recollects how “shameful” it used to seem to him. He remembers the dreary gray of the house in his time, and how depressing and messy the lawn used to be, especially because the Pinchers next door had used their garden as a dump for old furniture. Stephen notes that the Pinchers were “the undesirable elements in the Close—even less desirable than we were.”
Notice that Stephen is very meticulous about situating the different families in their respective house numbers. Frayn is already alluding to how the War affects the family structure and is also illustrating how wartime London was organized around class and social status. In fact, pay close attention to the organization of the neighborhood, which is arranged largely by a socioeconomic hierarchy.
Stephen starts to wonder if his younger self would have seen what he sees now. He finally reveals his full name to the reader—Stephen Wheatley—and he recalls his younger self as an awkward boy in colorless clothes, since he remembers himself as he was in old monochromatic photographs. He comments that the name Stephen Wheatley now sounds “strange” to him, and remembers the “delicious silvery serrated texture” of the belt buckle—a metal snake in the shape of an S—to his old school uniform.
Stephen starts to situate the principal narrative as an extended flashback, seen through the eyes of the young Stephen. Again he emphasizes small sensory details (like the texture of the belt buckle), giving his memory a particular vividness but also a scattered quality. Note also the hint that the older Stephen is no longer named “Stephen Wheatley.”
The older Stephen sees his younger self leaving the house, and he describes everything about himself, even his various items of clothing, as “inadequate,” “hopeless,” and “failed.” Stephen wonders if he was aware of his social standing even at that age. Speaking of his younger self, he says “he knows precisely, even if he doesn’t know that he knows it.” Deep down, he can tell that something about him “doesn’t quite fit” with the other neighborhood children of the Close.
Through his language Stephen suggests his negative perception of himself as a young boy, both from his perspective at the time and perhaps even now, as an old man. These vague allusions to a feeling of not-belonging immediately refer to a class difference between Stephen and the other children, but also gain more meaning in light of Stephen’s later revelation that his family is secretly both German and Jewish.
Stephen imagines himself going through the neighborhood, commenting on the other children of the Close, including the “sly and treacherous” Barbara Berrill and her sister Deirdre, who has been hanging around with Stephen’s older brother Geoff lately. The girls’ father is away fighting in the war, and “everyone says they’re running wild.” Stephen continues to watch his younger self, who seems “lost in some kind of vague daydream,” and comments on how “unsatisfactory” he seems.
Note Stephen’s first mention of Barbara Berrill and her sister. Stephen clearly parrots a phrase he has heard from someone else—that they’re “running wild”—and he sees the girls as wholly alien and even antagonistic to him. This passage also shows how the war brings disruption into the home. With so many fathers and husbands away fighting, society sees the women left behind as “running wild” in the men’s absence.
Next the young Stephen passes the mysterious Trewinnick house, where the blackout curtains are always drawn and some mysterious strangers have moved in. They only come and go at night, and no one knows their names.
The Trewinnick house seems like an unimportant oddity at first, but it gathers meaning over the course of the book. Ultimately it’s suggested that Jewish refugees are living at Trewinnick.
The young Stephen finally reaches his destination: No. 9, the Haywards’ house. In the present, he examines it and says that the house is the same as it was before, neatly maintained with white paint and still called “Chollerton,” as proclaimed by a copper plate near the door. He sees the younger Stephen waiting at the door, trying to tidy up his appearance. His friend Keith opens the door and Stephen enters. The Stephen of the present proclaims that this is where his story begins, on the fateful day when Keith, his best friend, uttered the six words that “turned our world inside out.”
Stephen now approaches the start of the narrative action, and he sets the scene by contrasting his own unkempt appearance with the neat and luxurious Hayward house. It’s immediately suggested that the Haywards are wealthier than Stephen’s family.
Stephen wonders what the inside of the Haywards’ house looks like now. He describes how it looked before: dark oak paneling and different pieces of art and furniture. He explains that he now can picture the color of his and Keith’s belts (which he previously remembered in monochrome). Keith’s belt was yellow and black, the colors of the local preparatory school, while Stephen wore the green and black belt of the school he and his brother attended, which he describes as the “wrong school.”
The inventory of the ornaments and fixtures that adorn the inside of Keith’s house should be enough to suggest his family’s wealth and high social standing. Coming from a more modest family, Stephen displays discontentment with himself by describing his own school as the “wrong” one. He also starts to fill in his memories with color, whereas before they were only in monochrome—he’s now more fully reentering his past and inhabiting his recollected sensations.
Stephen expresses how even then he knew how lucky he was to be Keith’s friend. He describes their relationship, in which Keith was the leader and Stephen his loyal follower. They had conducted many projects, all led by Keith because of his “intellectual and imaginative superiority.” He then lists Keith’s various fantastical projects, like creating an “underground railway” for traveling via “pneumatic tubes.” Keith’s projects are ingenious and successful—or would be successful, Stephen says, “as soon as we put our plans into effect.”
That Stephen feels grateful to be able to play with Keith hints at the rigidity of the social hierarchy, which makes it difficult for people to interact across different classes. Notice that early on Frayn establishes Keith’s naïve creativity and his absurd stories—wild imaginings that seem entirely real to the young Stephen, and which he defends with what are clearly Keith’s own excuses.
For example, Stephen states that it was Keith who discovered that the Trewinnick house was occupied by a secret, sinister organization called “the Juice,” who are “behind all kinds of plots and swindles.” Stephen says that Keith would have discovered the secret passageway the Juice used—if only Keith’s father hadn’t called him inside.
It’s suggested later that the “Juice” actually refers to “Jews”, who are living as refugees in the Close (note also the anti-Semitic stereotype of “swindling” associated with them). This is also an early example of Keith’s tendency to make mistakes with words. Stephen again makes excuses, presumably parroting Keith’s own words.
Stephen now imagines the two boys standing back in the hall of the Hayward house, deciding what to do. He explains that they could do the chore Keith’s father had instructed Keith to finish, which usually was to oil his special bicycle. Keith rode his bike to school, while Stephen took the bus—and Stephen comments that “cycling’s plainly the right way to go to school,” and the bus is “plainly the wrong way.”
Again Stephen sees everything about Keith and the Haywards as being “right,” and everything about himself and the Wheatleys as being “wrong.” This shows him internalizing at a young age differences in class and social status as actually being differences in morality or value.
Alternately, the boys could play in Keith’s playroom, which was filled with expensive toys (and which Stephen painstakingly catalogues). Or they could play in the garden (which contains all kind of fantastical adventures that Stephen describes), or take a walk to the golf course, where Keith claims he’s seen a talking monkey and a crashed German plane.
Again Stephen lingers on the material realities of Keith’s luxurious existence. We also see more instances of Keith’s fantastic imagination and Stephen’s submission to his friend’s reality. It’s also notable that all the boys’ “projects” revolve around Keith, and never Stephen.
Although all these different pastimes were equally viable options, Stephen states that going to his own house was never a possibility. Unlike Keith, Stephen shared a room with his brother Geoff. While Keith had a separate playroom, Stephen had to play and do homework in his bedroom. He tries to imagine the unlikely scenario of Keith asking his mother to visit Stephen’s house; Stephen believes that Keith’s mother would have deferred to Keith’s father, and Keith’s father would have given Keith another chore to avoid allowing his son to come over. Stephen wonders why Keith’s parents even allowed Keith to play with him. He notes that Keith’s mother would only refer to Stephen indirectly, and says that Keith’s mother rested all the time, spending most of her day on the sofa or in her bedroom—or she would post letters several times a day.
That Keith would have never been able to play at Stephen’s house points to the strict maintenance of class difference that dictated London society. Although Keith’s parents tolerate Stephen and his daily visits, they still subtly show that they are uncomfortable with a boy of lower class, so much so that they can’t even acknowledge his presence or address him directly. But it seems that the war provides enough of a distraction or shakeup of social norms to allow Stephen to continue associating with Keith—although it’s suggested later that Stephen is being unnecessarily hard on himself, and in fact it’s Keith who has a hard time making friends and is disliked by most of the children in the Close. This passage also introduces some information about Keith’s mother that later becomes more important.
Stephen then describes Keith’s father, who spent most of his time working around the house and the garden. However, his private abode was the garage, where he would do wood- or metal-work. Stephen describes the Haywards’ car, which was kept in pristine condition without its wheels until it could be driven after the war’s end. Keith explained to Stephen that the wheels were taken off to keep invading Germans from stealing the car, and the wheel nuts were hidden away with the revolver that Keith’s father had used in the Great War.
The Haywards’ wealth is again apparent in Keith’s father’s ability to just work around the house all day. It’s unclear if the plan to keep the Germans for stealing the car comes from Keith’s father or is just another exaggeration of Keith’s, but either way it shows the general atmosphere of paranoia and anti-German sentiment in England during the war.
Keith’s father was a man of few words, except for the occasional “old boy” or “old bean” that he used to address Keith. Stephen notes that Keith’s father did not acknowledge Stephen’s existence and never addressed him. However, Stephen also never spoke to him directly, because he was too intimidated by Mr. Hayward, who had won a medal in the Great War for killing five Germans. Keith said he killed them with his bayonet, though Stephen privately wonders how Keith’s father fixed the bayonet to his revolver. Keith’s father then carried the bayonet fixed to his belt when he went away to the Home Guard on weekends (though Keith claimed he was really in the Secret Service).
Keith’s father uses seemingly affectionate language, but in fact he is a cold, domineering, and even violent figure. Here the bayonet is introduced as an important symbol in the novel. It’s unclear whether or not Keith’s father actually used the bayonet to kill the five Germans, but the fact that Stephen believes it to be true makes the matter moot in terms of the narrative. We also see another example of Keith exaggerating or distorting the facts—this time about his father’s military service—which Stephen totally accepts as true, and which in turn heighten his awe of the Haywards.
Stephen was the only person in the Close whom the Haywards let willingly into their home. They did not interact with anyone else in the neighborhood, except for Keith’s mother’s sister, Auntie Dee, who lived three doors down. Stephen describes Auntie Dee as being the opposite of Keith’s mother, who was tall, unhurried, and calm: Auntie Dee was short, reckless, and cheerful. Keith’s mother did the shopping for Auntie Dee, who was often busy looking after her daughter, Milly. Unlike the Haywards, Auntie Dee directly addressed Stephen. Stephen recounts a time he followed Keith to Auntie Dee’s house. He says that Keith had a look of disapproval, much like his father’s, because of her messy house.
Despite being part of the Haywards’ social circle, Auntie Dee represents a pleasant figure with middle class standing. Notice that she lives three doors down from the Haywards, which suggests her lower social standing in comparison to her sister’s family. Furthermore, she has a different and even opposite personality from Keith’s mother. She even addresses Stephen directly with his name because she does not pay so much attention to the arbitrary rules of class difference.
Stephen attributes Auntie Dee’s recklessness and untidiness to the absence of her husband Uncle Peter, who was a bomber pilot off fighting in the war. Stephen describes how everything in the house reflected the “glory” of Uncle Peter, who seemed almost holy because of his role in the war. Other fathers in the neighborhood were off fighting, but only Uncle Peter was in the RAF (Royal Air Force) and flew on secret missions over Germany.
Stephen glorifies the idea of Uncle Peter, and this ideal comes to distort his perception of later events in the novel. The language describing Uncle Peter also shows the general atmosphere of nationalism and pro-military propaganda at the time. Uncle Peter’s exploits may be exaggerated by Keith, but once again the fact that Stephen accepts them as truth makes them true in his version of events.
Stephen then thinks about his own family and asks himself if he ever loved them. He disregards the question by considering love to be a kind of inevitable obligation, and then he compares his family to Keith’s seemingly perfect family, noting that he was able to appreciate the Haywards because of his own inferior family—Stephen was “encumbered with a brother,” for example. He specifically compares his father with Keith’s father. Stephen’s father was an unremarkable man, who spoke few words and worked a dull job (something to do with “controls on building materials”) at an office. He even went away on a work trip for a whole year once. Stephen’s father never calls Stephen “old bean” or threatens to cane him, unlike Mr. Hayward with Keith.
Stephen can only describe his family in terms of Keith’s, which reveals his inner dissatisfaction with himself and desire to have a higher status. He states that he loves his family because he simply must, and describes his father in a rather unpleasant light. However, pay attention to the differences between Stephen’s father and Mr. Hayward. To the naïve young Stephen the Haywards seem far superior, but an outside observer will note that Stephen is actually lucky to have the family he does. Stephen’s father seems to actually be doing something interesting with his life (and indeed he’s later revealed to be working for the British intelligence), and he doesn’t cane Stephen like Keith’s father does. Yet because Stephen idolizes the Haywards so, he sees even caning as being a sign of superiority.
Stephen describes his father’s unkempt appearance, which was as “unsatisfactory” as Stephen himself. He mentions, in particular, the strange language that only his father used. Stephen’s father would call his and Geoff’s messy room a “coodle-moodle,” and whenever Stephen would say something nonsensical, his father would call it “schnick-schnack.” Stephen was embarrassed by these words that his father used. Stephen then recalls telling his father Keith’s theory about “the Juice” moving into the Trewinnick house. Stephen’s father looked thoughtfully at his son, but seemed relieved to learn that this was only one of Keith’s wild imaginings.
Stephen is never proud of anything that is associated with himself and his family. Although that feeling of embarrassment frequently stems from his lower economic status, this particular instance alludes to another kind of quality of the Wheatleys that embarrasses Stephen. In general he finds everything about them provincial, vulgar, or boring, and contrasts these qualities to what he sees in the Haywards. Note also how Stephen’s father catches on to the mishearing of “Juice,” and he seems worried about his son.
Stephen answers his previous question again, saying that he must have loved his family because it was the “ordinary” thing to do. But he admits that he longed to be at Keith’s house. He especially loved being invited for tea and enjoying their chocolate spread and lemon barley. He offers a description of a Wimbledon couples trophy on their mantelpiece—Keith said his parents would have been world champions if they hadn’t been cheated out of it by “members of the same sinister organization now entrenched at Trewinnick”—and Uncle Peter’s photograph on the sideboard.
The kind of praise and adoration that (young) Stephen expresses for the Haywards will continue throughout the novel. Even the reckless Uncle Peter is rigid and upright in the photograph in the Haywards’ house, as the Haywards represent an undefeatable presence of high social class in the Close that does not allow for any disruption of the social order in their house—except for Stephen. Notice more vaguely anti-Semitic language from Keith (which is then repeated by Stephen) as he describes the “Juice” (Jews) cheating his parents out of a victory.
Stephen then describes how he once went into Keith’s mother’s sitting room and thanked her for inviting him over; even as an adult, he feels immense gratitude to her for letting him come over. Stephen then addresses the reader and everyone else who played a part in the “drama” of his life, saying, “thank you for having me.”
It’s clear that even as an older man, Stephen still feels awkward and unsure of his own value. He hasn’t yet gotten over his childhood insecurities. Here he also makes explicit the “literary” nature of reality, as he describes his life as a “drama.”
Stephen returns to the subject of the “disconcerting scent.” In the present he is slowly walking down the street to figure out the smell’s source, and he stops at No. 4, the remnants of Miss Durrant’s house, which used to be called “Braemar” and was destroyed by a German bomb. He notes that he and Keith spent a lot of time hiding in the hedges of Braemar, which had grown wild, and describes the place as “our Arcadia, our Atlantis, our Garden of Eden.” Stephen then finally reveals the identity of the smell’s source: “plain ordinary privet.”
This is the first time that Stephen reveals the actual source of the scent that has set off the narrative. His mythological comparisons portray the Braemar hedges as a secret place of imagination and innocence, but the fact that the scent of privet brings such complex emotions with it suggests that this “Garden of Eden” will also become a place of lost innocence. Miss Durrant’s destroyed house is another example of the war finding its way even into a quiet London suburb.
Stephen then returns to the story he began earlier, which takes place at the tea table in Keith’s house. He recalls the sound of beads clinking against a glass jug—but then realizes that the wind was causing the clinking, so they were outside, not inside. He confirms his correction with an auditory memory of the trains on the railway. He has troubling recalling the exact order of events, the “vivid particulars” of his remembered sensations and the connections between them.
Here, Frayn directly compares the way we want to believe memory is constructed and the way it actually is formed. Stephen vividly remembers the smell of the privet bushes and the background sound of the trains, but he cannot recall the exact order of the events that contribute to his actual story. In fact, he offers a scientifically accurate depiction of human memory and the scattered way that it solidifies itself.
Stephen recounts a time when a policeman arrived at the Close to apparently arrest Keith’s mother. But Stephen then corrects himself again, and resituates the memory to an earlier time when a policeman paid Auntie Dee a visit over a complaint about her failure to comply with the blackout. Stephen then thinks of the suspicious look of guilt on Keith’s mother’s face at the time, and wonders if it planted “the idea” in Keith’s head. But Stephen thinks that those six fateful words came out of nowhere, and were simply the product of Keith’s wild imagination. Those six words were: “My mother is a German spy.”
Stephen’s struggle to accurately chronicle the events in his past is frustrating for the reader, but it also reveals the inherent faultiness of memory. On another note, Stephen considers the potential source for Keith’s bold claim against his mother, which essentially sets the action of the story in motion. We have seen Keith embark on other “projects” of his wild imagination, but it’s clear that this one will have very real consequences.