Daphne du Maurier is best-known for her novel Rebecca, and as the writer of the tale that inspired another film of her work that Alfred Hitchcock would go on to make, The Birds (though it seems likely that her short story was itself influenced by Frank Baker’s earlier novel of the same name). Du Maurier, however, can certainly conjure an effective ghost, as her story ‘Don’t Look Now’, which was transferred to the big screen in Nicolas Roeg’s chilling 1973 adaptation, testifies.
What Du Maurier gives us in another of her tales, ‘The Pool’, is more low-key than the haunted Venice of ‘Don’t Look Now’, but I find it even more strange and unnerving. Just as in L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, the events of ‘The Pool’ take place in a scorched English summer, the story’s brusque grandfather taking grim delight in the weather reports on the wireless that say ninety-one has been reached “on the Air Ministry roof”. Hartley’s novel and the story share a similar theme: the reality and disappointment of coming of age.
We focus on Deborah, aged around thirteen, and her younger brother Roger. They are staying for the summer holidays – an annual tradition – at their grandparents’ rambling house and garden in an unnamed English locality. The mentions of its winter snows might place it in the midlands or somewhere further north, but where exactly the house is located doesn’t really matter.
‘The Pool’ is a story about the power of the childhood imagination, as Deborah palms off her brother – with his need to always be doing something with her, like building a den, or trying to outwit the gardener – so she can be alone to contemplate the treasured places and objects of the holiday-home, and the stories she has invented around them. I wonder whether my brother felt like that back when we were kids – me six years younger and forever pestering him to play cricket, like Roger in the story. I’m sure he did, though he was good enough to humour me, at least some of the time. Our back-garden cricket had its own rules and idiosyncrasies: if you hit the tennis ball over next door’s fence you were out, so you’d try to tempt the other with looping underarm full tosses – the “Vera ball”, named after the neighbour on the right-hand side whose garden would cost you your wicket – or off-breaks pitched to leg that might induce an edged prod over the low barrier into the left-hand garden, the so-called “Ellis ball”.
At the first opportunity she gets Deborah manages to shake off Roger in order to visit a pool in the adjacent woodland. Because, to her, its “dank, dark, brackish water” harbours a hidden world beneath, accessed under the cover of night via a turnstile and a ticket. The pool attracts a stream of phantom visitors besides Deborah, who melt beneath its scum-choked surface. It’s a dreamlike vision of a place Deborah longs also to enter.
“The secret world… It was something Deborah had always known, and now the pattern was complete. The memory of it, and the relief, were so tremendous that something seemed to burst inside her heart.”
As readers we’re aware that Deborah’s vision is most probably a fantasy, created in part as a way of dealing with the gap in her life left by the death of her mother when she was very young – though there is still something tangible about the turnstile and its ticket-collector that offers a threatening suggestion of the dark carnival from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The story’s ending, though perhaps not what we might anticipate, makes perfect sense – and Deborah’s dawning disappointment with the innocence that she has lost chimes with that of the aged Leo as he looks back from the distance of time in The Go-Between:
“The heaviness of knowledge lay upon her, a strange deep sorrow.”