Rumpus Exclusive: An Excerpt from Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s Peculiar Ground


Her table was hard up against the café’s window. Outside the plate-glass people kept passing, and looking in at her, or rather at Jemima. If I was in England, she thought, I’d feel obliged to respond somehow, but when you’re a foreigner, you can act invisible. She shut her eyes.

Time passed. Jemima stirred and snuffled and arched her tiny body. There was a spluttering noise from her lower end and at once Nell could smell it. A woman out on the pavement was rapping at the window and shouting. The glass was thick. Nell couldn’t make out what she was saying, probably wouldn’t have understood anyway: her German was rotten. The woman kept banging on the window. She looked wild. A waiter made a shooing gesture. She waved both arms in the air and jumped up and down and then went on down the street dancing. Nell could see her banging on other windows, still shouting. Other people joined her. Some sort of a demo?

‘Come, little mouse,’ said Nell to Jemima, picked up her big bag (so much luggage for such a tiny person) and went to the Damen. There was a changing table—Germans really are better organised than us, she thought. She stripped Jemima to her vest, and cleaned her bottom and put the used nappy in a scented bag. Why do I buy these bags? she thought. The smell is sickening. I actually prefer the smell of poo. She put the nappy in a bin and got out the new one and she and Jemima played the usual games of where’s-it-gone and bum-up and tickle-tummy and all the time she was singing to her, or rather crooning, just little scraps of nursery rhyme, and because they were in Berlin she began to sing the rhymes that Gerti had taught her, Gerti the au pair girl who came to them after Heather left, when even Dickie was really too old to need a nanny any more but who still sometimes saw them into bed when their parents were out, and sang them the songs of her own childhood.

Hampti Dampti, ein schneeweißes Ei
fiel von der Mauer und brach entzwei.
Der König schickt Ritter mit Pferd und Lanz,
doch wer von den Herren macht ein Ei wieder ganz?

When the new nappy was on she played the All-of-Jemima game. Here are Jemima’s FEET. And here are Jemima’s KNEES and here is Jemima’s BOTTOM and so on, always giving the part in question a gentle little shake which made the baby laugh and wriggle. And then she sang Gerti’s rhyme again, and this time, because she was interested to know whether something she had memorised phonetically, as a sequence of meaningless sounds, would make sense now she understood at least a bit of the language, she translated it for Jemima.

Humpty Dumpty, a snowy-white egg—

Which gives it away. It’s a riddle-rhyme. Spoils it to begin with the answer.

Fell off the… Mauer—


Off what did Humpty Dumpty fall?

Now she knew what the madwoman had been shouting. No wonder she looked deranged. Hampti Dampti sat on a Mauer. What did Humpty fall off? The Mauer. ‘Die Mauer ist gefallen!’ That’s what she’d yelled. ‘Die Mauer ist gefallen!’ No wonder she was shouting and dancing. No wonder Jamie wasn’t there. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. The Wall ist gefallen.

‘All fall down Wall fall down,’ she told Jemima as she poppered her into a clean red suit with a panda face on the chest. ‘Wall fall down,’ she sang as she got her back into her sling. Jemima began to wail. This wasn’t right. She’d been hoping for a bottle. They walked back out into the café just as the kitchen door swung open and a dozen people burst through it shouting. Nell could see they had the television on in there. Three of them ran straight through the café and out into the street. The others were spinning between the tables, and people were rising to their feet and hugging each other and shouting and kissing and they were all saying what that first mad-looking Cassandra had been saying. ‘Die Mauer ist gefallen.’ A huge red-faced man hugged Nell and Jemima together and Jemima went quiet in astonishment and then began to cry louder and louder and Nell fought her way back to their table, and found the bottle of formula and got it into Jemima’s mouth, and struggled into her own coat, and got the sling back on because the world may be changed utterly but if you’re looking after a baby you still have to do these things and then at last she found the dummy that she really hardly ever used and popped it into Jemima’s mouth and by this time they were almost alone in the café, but she still went up to pay, but the cashier was dragging on her own coat and said something Nell couldn’t follow but which was pretty easy to understand and the three of them, cashier, baby and the serious-minded civil servant who was, at one of the great turning points of twentieth-century European history, in the ladies’ loo wiping shit off her daughter’s bum, went out into that stirring night.


Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.


Excerpted from the book Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Copyright © 2018 by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Read Monet Patrice Thomas’s interview with Lucy Hughes-Hallett about Peculiar Ground here.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of the novels Peculiar Ground and The Pike: Gabriele D'Annunzio. Her other books are the acclaimed cultural histories Heroes and Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, and Distortions. She lives in London and Suffolk. More from this author →