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Can you hear them?
As I walked down my garden a moment ago I thought I heard – no, I did hear, I'm not deaf – I heard laughter. Collective hatred. Ill wishes. Thistles and weeds choking my roses under such a clear blue basin of sky.
As the DJ insists on telling me, it is six o'clock precisely, and at six o'clock on a Monday and Thursday it was my habit to leave the house by the stable door, go along the path to my back fence and reverse the whole procedure to let myself into Martha's kitchen. This ritual was so deeply ingrained it was more on the lines of sleepwalking, me blundering along like a blindfolded child with a tail to stick on the donkey, arms outstretched, a junkie groping my way towards the shameful fulfilment of my need.
What a sad and pitiful fool.
But Martha's kitchen was warm and crumbly like home-made biscuits on blue and white plates and it beckoned me like the ghost of something – childhood stories and fairy tales. She had so many knacks that I lacked. Martha picked flowers in handfuls and rammed them into muddy brown jugs while I took time with mine and missed that spontaneous effect. Snipped and brittle in Worcester china, my arrangements ended up formal as flowers made out of blown glass.
And now I can't go there any more it feels like a desolation.
I am reduced to standing motionless, peeping out between my curtains till my eyes ache and it hurts it hurts, dammit, it hurts.
Something like this happened at school. They have counsellors to prevent it these days, but looking back on those faraway times it was no more than a painful game. God help me, this is real.
How I would look forward to Mondays and Thursdays at six o'clock. You couldn't compare it to Graham's homecoming; it was balmy, better than Graham's returns. It wasn't the signal for manic activity – making sure the kids were changed and pushing a shepherd's pie in the oven, scraping toys off the living-room floor so that Graham could walk safely across without stamping on a Fisher-Price game or breaking a careless ankle.
No, when Martha came home from work the sherry bottle would be brought in slatternly triumph from dresser to table, her shoes would be kicked off and the day's events chewed over, along with any old Twiglets she might find in her rusty cracker tin, while she rubbed her poor blistered heels.
I have never seen Scholls so distressed as hers and the soles of her feet were bleached and splintered, rough as those chewed-up blocks of wood.
'It's my time now, damn you, you little buggers,' Martha would shriek at her children – wiry, olive-skinned creatures with peepy eyes like infant orang-utans – who were unfazed by their mother's excesses, not nearly so ultra-sensitive as my little Poppy and Josh. 'Old Mother Frazer's been working all day chopping kindling for the stove and now she needs some quality time for herself.'
Mondays and Thursdays. And with Martha at work on those two days a week, I used to depend on these evening half-hours and know they would make me happy because in those early years I was closer to Martha than to anyone else in my life.
She'd always threatened to get back to work as soon as she possibly could, but for some defensive reason I never really believed her. I suppose I imagined that I was so happy with our slow and often hilarious days that she would be as reluctant as me to change the status quo.
How stupidly mistaken.
'I am a woman of no substance,' she moaned. 'Kids, cats, carrots, cold custard, curtains, curses. This is my life I'm talking about. As soon as these brats go to nursery school I'm off like that bat out of hell.'
It was like a threat of bereavement. I used to say, 'Yes, it would be nice, for the money mostly,' but I never meant it. And anyway we were lucky, Graham earned enough without me working.
Martha and Sam named their house Beavers after Sam's grandfather, some bigwig in the navy, and nobody laughed at them for that. Graham and I, we would never have got away with it.
Mondays and Thursdays.
Martha's words spun round her like cat's cradles, she strung them about her with gestures while I sat across the table waiting. I listened to Martha slack-jawed, like a kid eating popcorn at the cinema, chewing up every nuance as in her husky, smoky voice she set out her colourful, tempting stall and went through the bric-a-brac of her day.
She knew what I had been doing, of course; there was no mystery surrounding my life. What continued to surprise me was the fact that Martha could like me. Once I asked her why she did. At first she said she didn't know and then she admitted it could well be that she had felt sorry for me, I looked so vulnerable and pathetic crabbing down the ward after stitches. So shy and frightened. Trying to stand up for myself against those pushy nurses. All I remember about that time is laughing so much that the stitches pulled, and being shocked at the lengths she went to in order to have a smoke.
If you smoke, they say, you'll have a small baby.
'Who wants a large baby anyway, for Christ's sake?' was Martha's answer to that. 'Big, fat, sluggy wartime things. That can't be healthy.'
The boot-faced midwife said to Martha, 'You are a very crude and selfish young woman.' And the whole ward screamed with laughter, for we were a charmed circle.
When she went to work I was her backstop. If Scarlett or Lawrence was too ill for school she would pop them over the fence still warm in their night clothes, like a new recipe to be tasted, and I would automatically take over.
God, how I loved those kids.
Beautiful but oblivious to it, just like their mother.
I despised myself for the disloyal way I wished mine were more like hers. Easy, laid back. They didn't whine for hours on end after a fall or a fight. They didn't nag for attention from her – they knew that was a waste of time – but all the same they had no doubt that they were the apples of Martha's eye.
Did I resent my role at that time? Since she accused me of this I have asked myself the question, but the only answer I can come up with is, if I did resent it I wasn't aware.
I must be honest, I suppose: I did resent Martha going back to work even though she gave me fair warning. So I wasn't enough for Martha? Why not? We had good times, didn't we? Why did she need more in her life? I understood that staying at home was threatening her sanity, especially given the high-handed way she allowed herself to be treated by Sam. She needed more independence and I could sympathize with that. I babysat for her during interviews although most of the jobs were inappropriate – agony aunt for Marie magazine – and I meanly rejoiced when she got turned down.
'But, Martha, you haven't got time for a job,' I used to say to make her feel better after another rejection.
'I need other people to reflect who I am. Without their approval I feel that I'm drowning. You're lucky, Jennie, you're far more self-sufficient than me. You don't need anyone.'
But she knew how much I needed her and that was part of the trouble.
We used to be honest together. There was no rivalry between us.
But Martha was right in that I was contented with just a few close relationships. Awkward with strangers, hopeless at parties; those meaningless, superficial friendships you pick up and put down at whim leave me cold. It takes me years to make a friend, and then Graham calls me loyal to a fault.
This remark annoys me, and the grudging way he says it. 'How can anyone be loyal to a fault? You're either loyal or disloyal, surely?' I'd ask.
'But you don't have to make such a song and dance about it.' And I'd be hurt, shocked by that, because when did I make a song and dance? And I wasn't used to Graham being critical. We were united in our disapproval of the way Sam used scorn and criticism in his treatment of Martha. In my eyes she was a martyr the way she put up with Sam, but then she adored him, worshipped him and their relationship was seriously physical.
Sometimes I looked at Sam's hands – active, roving hands, all muscle and bone – and compared them to Graham's ...
And now I am betrayed.
Undone. That formal classical stuff should never have gone out of fashion. Woe is me for I am undone. Cursed be the day I was born. Undone, unravelled, ravished, cut into pieces to make little labels, like Christmas cards turned into gift tags.
There are some things so precious they shouldn't be shared, secrets which should never be written down. To betray the confidence of a friend in exchange for fleeting popularity – that heart-squeezing sense of self-disgust the moment you close your mouth. You instantly know what you've done. But when you betray yourself, you don't realize it until later.
I used to think the ultimate betrayal must be that of a man who has left his wife for another woman. A bodily betrayal, those bedroom/bathroom secrets, secretions, tingles and squirms.
But I was wrong.
Martha and I had a meeting of minds and that was exciting and sweet, not so much striking a chord as composing a whole concerto, and the only person who can know the pain I'm feeling now is Martha. Martha with the flashing laughter.
Who won't speak to me.
Who puts the phone down when I call.
Who refuses to answer my notes.
And who is breaking my heart.
There's a drifting of spirit from our house since Martha stopped whisking in carrying hysteria like a cloak about her shoulders, melodramatic, full of ideas, life swishing in velvet around her.
But it is worse than that.
The way it began was worse than that, watching Poppy and Josh being hurt, really, truly, deep down hurt for the first time in their lives. Ten and seven is too young to feel those pangs of anguish and I thought Martha was bigger than that. We might not be friends any more but we should have tried to prevent the feud from touching our vulnerable children.
'You're splendid at catastrophes, Jennie, so go away quietly and indulge.'
Those were the last unkind words she said. A crumbling Ayesha ... that was me. I felt that I had suddenly aged and was quite unable to cope.
I tried to explain exactly what happened but Martha refused to listen.
I was awed by her fearful anger, blinded, groping towards the truth.
I would have preferred an older house and Martha said, nastily, that was so I could empathize with its pain. But the Mulberry Estate wasn't bad as they go. The architect had made an effort; every house was that little bit different and the gardens were a decent size. They were called executive lodges and Graham and I, being the first ones in, were presented with a bouquet and a beribboned bottle of bubbly. The first three lodges were only just finished when we moved into ours through the muddy wastelands of Mulberry Close, and we lived with strips of thick brown paper over a mustard wall-to-wall carpet provided by the company.
Inducements indeed – built-in Scandinavian hob, fridge freezer, Bosch dishwasher and washing machine. We had put our name down for the first house on the day Graham and I got engaged, but because it wasn't ready in time we had to move in with Graham's mum.
A lawn brittle from over-mowing. A bungalow neat and gloomily solid. A pirate head from Majorca, glass-fronted cabinets, G-plan Sixties furniture, and pot plants, a timid green in the passionless air, sitting sadly in spindly wicker stands.
'What do you two get up to all evening, hiding away in your bedroom like this? You can't possibly be comfortable. For goodness sake, come in and join Howard and me in the lounge. We won't eat you,' said Graham's mum, Ruth, aggrieved.
But Graham and I, cuddled up on the bed watching telly, were just happy to be together, at one, married, a front to the world.
Graham said, 'Leave us alone, Mum. We'll come through if we want to. We're fine.'
'Well, excuse me for interfering.'
Because I worked I didn't have time to help with stuff like laundry, shopping or housework but I knew Ruth expected more of me, and sitting with her and Howard in the evening seemed to be part of the deal. We ate with Graham's parents even though we had made it clear we would rather eat alone. Gravy with everything. Stewed fruit in various guises in shell-shaped dishes of watery green. On the day after we moved in I came home to find the table set for four.
'Ruth, you should have left that,' I said. 'I'd have done it.' But my voice trailed away as I undid the buttons on my mac while she tied on her apron.
'You can do the potatoes, dear, if you really want to help. Let Graham and his dad watch the news in peace.'
Oddly, as if she resented me, Ruth seemed deliberately to do her chores in an order which made it impossible for me to help. I simply was not there to do my duty, so her irritation was self-induced.
The dishes could never be left to drain. 'We don't want smeary china,' she told me. She eyed me through a stiffening distaste. 'In this household, Jennie, we have always dried up.' And then she watched me carefully. 'One plate at a time, dear, please. I've kept these plates for twenty-five years and I don't want chips in them now.'
Clean sheets would be folded and pointedly left on the end of the bed every week, as if she guessed ours would be stained. Every Friday, top sheet to bottom and a fresh one on top. I said, 'Please don't bother to iron our sheets, Ruth. They really don't need ironing.'
And Ruth smiled staunchly.
I don't think Ruth disliked me, but maybe she was trying to tell me something I had failed to grasp about marriage. Graham and I were married now and so the romance was over. As a wife, self-sacrifice came next on the list and this was a mild initiation.
I would look at Graham reproachfully but all he could do was shrug his shoulders.
When we drank wine it was secretly and in the morning Graham smuggled the bottles out of the house in his briefcase, rolled up in serious newspapers.
Another couple would have made a fuss but not me and Graham, oh no. We hated to argue, we dreaded scenes and we felt so grateful to have found each other. Neither of us had imagined we were special enough to be chosen, neither of us had had a best friend; we were so similar in that kind of way. Middle of the road, fifteenth in a class of thirty, sixth in a team of twelve, friends with everyone but special to no-one.
Fair to middling. Could do better.
One of the best things about being married was sharing somebody else's name. There was strength to be had in this pooling together; a name was a stout wooden fence and meant we could peer at the world through the knots. And Gordon, a good strong name, was near the front of the alphabet whereas my maiden name, Young, had kept me last in life, near the back.
Every day during that first summer we went to look at our sprouting house, pacing round it and imagining what our new furniture would look like inside. I would walk up and down the stairs, running my hand along the smooth wooden banister. Graham planned out the garden. Unsure of the house to begin with, I came to start loving it then. It signified such a great escape and I whispered to it, 'Oh hurry, house, hurry up, please hurry.'
Heaven. We could breathe again. Truly together for the first time ever and he carried me over the threshold. We were proprietorial, understandably I suppose, and kept an eye on the couples who came to see over the show lodge, the last house to be sold in the frying-pan-shaped close.
We weren't in longer than a month before the red SOLD sign went up on numbers two, three and four, even though the men were still working inside. We saw this as a good sign: we'd be able to sell quite quickly when we came to move on, we believed. I was already pregnant. Poppy was due the following spring and I had already resigned from the bank, having no real interest in the job.
'I know him,' said Graham, shamelessly spying on the couple coming up next door's path with the keys to number two in their hands.
'Oh?' I stared as rudely as he, fascinated by the blowzy woman with the wild mane of hair, more pregnant than anyone I'd ever seen and wrapped in an emerald curtain. She was big. No shame. She flapped along penguin style in large ethnic sandals, her hands kneading her back as if she was about to give birth. Her coarse guffaws of laughter were unreasonably disturbing; after all, she was the stranger, I already lived here – me, Graham and a few sick saplings.
'Sam Frazer, he runs his own advertising company and goes to the Painted Lady for lunch. I've seen him in there with his mates.'
'What's he like?' I felt uneasy but didn't know why.
'Seems like a decent kind of guy.'
'Perhaps we should make them a cup of tea ... and go round ... be friendly, you know.'
Sensing my tension, Graham held my hand. We stood together warily in our house of brand-new wood, breathing sawdust and turpentine, paint and putty. 'Jennie, no more "shoulds" for us, this is our house, we don't do anything we don't want to and we can be as unsociable here as we damn well like.'
Martha would have been the first to echo this sentiment. She might even have raised a smeary glass in a toast, had she heard it.
Dear God, how I wish that I'd never met her.
Excerpted from Copycat by Gillian White. Copyright © 2003 Gillian White. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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