This is a the first of a two-part story. Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion. Copyright is held by the author.
“MOTHER! HOW ever many do you have?”
She looked up at me, touching the fine golden hair that floated across her forehead. “Don’t tell Beryl about it, will you, Heather? I don’t want Beryl to know.”
She was down on her knees trying to stuff the shoes into the cupboard, which must have held 30 pairs. As she jammed the new ones in, others fell out: a pair of brown patent-leather ones, and then, when these too were thrust into place, a whole pile fell from the other side. Two white sandals, two snakeskin shoes with pointed toes, and a single, knee-length boot.
“Here, let me… ”
We finally managed to get the doors closed, and she turned the key in the lock.
“Now let’s get the kettle on for a cup of tea. That really was lucky. Beryl will be home any minute now.”
Still in her outdoor coat she filled the kettle, put it on the stove and then started opening one cupboard after another to find a box of matches. I sat down at the table, smoothing out a wrinkle in the brown felt that covered it, thinking that I never really would understand this family I had married into. She looked in her handbag too, and I glanced as one of the letters fell out — the same handwriting as always — but she crammed it back in.
“When’s George coming back from Edinburgh did you say, Heather?” she asked, giving up the attempt to find the matches. “It’s really better without the men sometimes, isn’t it? I really enjoyed today, thank you so much for coming with me. Oh but” — it only now occurred to her — “I hope you didn’t mind not going on the pier with the rest?” She shook her head and frowned at me: “Only don’t you go and tell Beryl we were there all day and never even saw the sea! She’d never let me live it down.”
We’d seen nothing but the inside of shoe-shops.
As my mother-in-law chatted away I needed only to nod my assent from time to time. Shoes, then, were another of her little vanities. Hats were too, although if I’d been born with that hair I’d never have wanted to cover it up. Although it had faded since her youth, it seemed to float around her and sometimes she would pat it, interrupting her constant stream of words for a few seconds of daydreaming.
“Heather,” she’d said to me a good two weeks before George had left, “why don’t we have a day out together? The Mothers’ Union is putting on a bus trip to Eastbourne. I haven’t seen the sea for a long time. Just the two of us. We won’t tell anyone. It’ll be a secret.”
Almost everything in the family was a secret, I had discovered, only later to be revealed if it were whispered. On this occasion Beryl had found out, and was sarcastic about some people enjoying themselves while others had to work.
From the hallway came the sound of Beryl’s key in the lock. The door never opened for her on the first try, so there was always a few seconds of jiggling before she trotted into the house.
“Hello, mother. Heather,” she sniffed, looking worried. As always, she had a cold. “Gracious me, no tea made?”
“The kettle’s on.”
“But you haven’t lit it. Oh dear, mother, it’s gone six o’clock. And Arthur and Sarah are coming for tea as soon as he gets home.”
She lit the stove from a box of matches she’d found just behind it, then took off her coat and laid it over a chair.
“The crowds were terrible tonight. And Mr. Camps wants me to stay late tomorrow because there’s that new girl . . .”
“I’ll just cut some bread and get it buttered.”
I looked on helplessly. Even now, after all these years, the mention of buttering bread reminds me of that old house on the outskirts of London, with its darkened kitchen where the only thing I can ever recall happening, inexorably, was bread getting buttered. The process took an hour, which I can’t now explain because they were always buttering busily without ever seeming to finish it, and then there was never enough, just a few meagre slices. The house has other owners now and I haven’t been there since mother’s death, but even if I went back I’m sure I’d be greeted with “Come on in, we won’t be long, we’ll just get some bread and butter on.”
Beryl reached up to another cupboard to get the teapot. “Well, did you enjoy your gallivanting today?” She meant it humorously: the Holdaways never really understood the difference between sarcasm and humour. “Did you go on the pier?”
“Oh yes, and we even paddled in the sea,” mother answered, adding vaguely “The water wasn’t very warm though.”
I had the image again of those tiny feet pushing into pair after pair of shoes.
It wasn’t exactly that mother was afraid of Beryl. Rather, it was an uneasiness in case somehow Beryl mightn’t like it. It was almost as though, in the entire family, there were an unspoken conspiracy to protect Beryl — although what she needed to be protected from wasn’t entirely clear.
It wasn’t long before Arthur and Sarah arrived with their two children and we assembled in the dining room for our routine tea of bread and butter, cold meat, tomatoes, and lettuce, with a bottle of Heinz’s Salad Cream. Those family gatherings tended to depress me. It was worse when George was there, for he’d feel obliged to put on a show of bonhomie and would joke — sarcastically — about my silences. Without him I was free to stare round the walls and fantasize over the pictures: three rather stylized illustrations to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Or, if we were being informal, which meant sitting stiffly in armchairs (as we were today) rather than at the table, I could play endlessly with the heavy brass fly whose wings lifted to reveal an ashtray beneath and then would drop back with a little click. I hated that fly, but no matter where I sat it always seemed to be within reach.
There was another flurry of activity when father came home. Like Cromwell, father had a wart on his nose. For some reason I never discovered we always referred to him as Ga, sometimes with surname added: Ga Holdaway. Freeman of the city of London and fourth-generation pianoforte maker. Whenever there was a concert by a celebrity he would be the one to go just before it started to give a last fine-tuning to the piano. He couldn’t play, though, and never showed any interest in music or, as far as I know, in anything else.
“Evening, Ellen,” her husband grunted. “Evening Beryl.” He only nodded at Arthur, Sarah and myself, and ignored the children. He picked up the newspaper and read it, as always, while he ate. Usually he’d then go into the living room and read until he went to bed. This evening, though, he decided to make a pronouncement.
“I finally got the tax on my investments sorted out,” he said to no one in particular, putting the paper aside.
He must have had it on his mind. One of the convictions of the Holdaways was that it was part of the immutable order of things for a man’s salary and financial dealings to be a private matter, on no account to be revealed to the womenfolk: I hadn’t the slightest idea of what George earned, although it was all solemnly entered in huge account books.
“I got the people from Harrison and Company to come in and do a proper audit,” Ga grunted. “Cost me a few pounds, but it was worth it.”
I took hold of the brass fly and lifted its wings. I hadn’t been married very long, and little things like this still hurt me: “But George could have done it for you!” — he’d just qualified as a chartered accountant. “He’s your own son, after all, he’d do it for nothing.”
This was greeted by an uncomprehending silence. The Holdaways believed that there were certain ways of doing things and that whatever they did, however stupid in the eyes of others, was irreproachably correct. I put the fly down again, carefully closing its wings so as not to make a noise.
“Have you any smelling-salts, mother?” Beryl asked. “This cold of mine, really . . .”
Mother grabbed for her handbag and dug to the bottom, scattering its contents over the table. Three of the letters fell out, and lay there in full view. I almost hoped Ga would see them: I was still angry enough that I’d like to have seen him shaken. But mother just picked them up, holding them a little tightly, and crammed them back into the bag. There was no indication whether anyone else had noticed. One advantage, I realized, of living in a family with principles was that no one would for a moment have considered as much as glancing at her private correspondence, not even Beryl. And, with their habit of denying the very existence of things that didn’t fit in with a particular concept of propriety, they probably didn’t even see the letters, no matter how often they fell out of the bag.
“Heather and I had such a nice day at Eastbourne today,” mother began as she handed Beryl the smelling salts. “We walked on the beach, sat and enjoyed the band in the public gardens there, went on the pier— ”
“Bloody women,” Ga growled as he retired again behind the paper.
For a long time I used to think George’s family looked down on my own. My father didn’t make much money and gave almost everything to my mother to manage, keeping only a few shillings for tobacco or the odd flutter on the horses. Once, when he spent more and lost, he had to borrow from George because he couldn’t tell his wife about it. And then my mother had been three months pregnant when they were married, which I never mentioned to the Holdaways even after I knew them better because somehow I expected from them a reaction of incredulity that it should be physically possible.
George’s father, at one time, had been the stern Victorian: George used to tell me how as a young boy he’d often had the back of a knife rapped smartly across his knuckles if he ever dared say one word out of place at table. His mother too sat demurely, anxious not to do anything to displease her husband. But at this time in his life Ga’s authority had diminished, and mother chatted freely with Beryl, myself and the other wives, while he either glowered at us or, more often, ignored us entirely. He was in any case awkward in company. The boys all rather took after him, having his tendency towards baldness and skin diseases in about equal measure.
Beryl, supposedly, was the sensitive, artistic one. She played the piano or sang, accompanying herself. Never in public, but just at the old upright piano in the living room, filled always, it seemed, with the smell of grape hyacinths. I had difficulty keeping a straight face whenever she sang “We’ll gather lilacs” — I kept imagining her substituting “We’ll gather grape hyacinths.” Her other favourites were “Solveig’s song” from Peer Gynt and “God be with you till we meet again.” Beryl had had a boy friend once but nothing had come of it. I’d first met her at dances George had taken me to, but after which, to my fury, he’d never been able to take me home because he had to take Beryl home instead. I think I even told him he’d have to choose between her and me, and it must have been shortly after that that he proposed.
Once, in those years after our marriage, Beryl invited a man round. More bread was buttered and a cake with caraway seeds in it was bought for the occasion. He was a violinist in one of the London orchestras, and had been visiting the vicar of the local church.
I remember that for some reason Ga decided he was going to impress him, trying — not very successfully — to show his knowledge of London musical life. Several times he said things like “After all, we musicians have something going for us.”
“We musicians,” Beryl sniffed afterwards. “Since when has dad been a musician?”
Anyway, the violinist never came a second time.
As the years passed George and I decided not to have children, or rather he decided and assumed it was a mutual decision. Marriage was dull, but I soon gave up expecting it to be any different. We still lived down the street from the old house, still had our regular teas there. Mother still chattered on, bought shoes, while Beryl assumed even more the air of a harassed martyr.
“Tell me,” George’s mother asked me once, “how is it you have a brother so much younger than yourself?”
It was after my brother Eric, now a young man, had started visiting us.
“Well,” I began, wondering whether it was really a fit topic for the Holdaways. “After I was born, my mother had something wrong with her and couldn’t have another child. So for years and years she and my father never needed . . . to take any precautions. Then one day — this I remember — she was putting up curtains and she fell off a ladder, and felt a terrible pain in her back. The next month she discovered she was pregnant.”
“Oh no!” Mother clapped her hands. “And the fall put right whatever was wrong?”
“Apparently. I was 14 then and was horrified when I knew my mother was going to have a baby. I thought it was disgusting, and was jealous too. I remember I threatened to kill him with a kitchen knife. But then when I saw him . . .”
Mother was quite delighted. “How wonderful, how wonderful,” she kept saying. “Your parents must have been very much in love.” She reached for her handbag and touched one of the letters. “Here, let me tell you . . .” But then she stopped, became flustered, and said “Do you know there’s a sale of winter coats on at Hetheringtons?”
Her husband, now retired, had by this time become almost totally withdrawn, couldn’t stand being surrounded by women and spent most of his days in a small room upstairs, which had been rearranged as a bedroom and den combined. He seemed to like me better than the others, though, and once took me up to his room to show me his desk, just an old piece of office furniture, which he’d bought in a junk sale.
“Yes,” he mumbled, “I spend a lot of time doing things at this desk of mine.”
“What does he do there?” I asked Beryl later.
“Oh nothing,” she said with her usual impatience. “It just makes him feel important.”
“Like George . . .”
The greatest desire of my husband too was to feel important, and his greatest tragedy was that no one took the slightest notice of him.