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`It's in the stories,' Jane had once insisted on a Friday car journey home from school. `Everyone hates the wicked stepmother, and the wicked stepmother schemes to get rid of the beautiful stepdaughter. Think of Snow White.'
'I don't go "Mirror, mirror on the wall",' Prue protested, only half amused.
`You don't have to, Mum.'
`Thank you,' said Prue with dignity. Beauty had never been her problem — and now that she was fortysomething and understood that more elements lay below the surface than on it, she realized that beauty was a problem for its subject. Not that she considered the problem to apply in any way to herself for, in Prue's view but not necessarily in the opinion of those who came to love her, she did not possess beauty. Whereas Violet did, in bucketfuls.
Happily, Violet was safely in New York with her new husband and baby and well out of Prue's way. Or she had been until that morning in January 1992.
'When did you say they're coming?' asked Prue, pouring milk into her saucer for the cat. Bella placed an elegant, bangled paw on Prue's knee, leapt into her lap and was surprised when Prue clutched her hard against her midriff.
`I wish you wouldn't do that. It's so unhygienic,' replied Max, her husband, watching the milk spray the tablecloth. It was not the first time he had protested. Nor would it be the last. `February. Because of the recession the bank is cutting staffing levels on its overseas operations. Anyway, apparently they want Jamie back home tohead up the London bit of the European arm.' He pushed the airmail letter over to Prue.
Prue picked it up with reluctance and Max, aware of what was going through her mind, said, `It's only till they can buy a house in London. Jamie can commute and Violet will be looking for a job.'
`Lucky Jamie.' Prue gave the letter a brief glance and then ignored it. Meanwhile, Max creased The Times into a raging sea.
`You don't object too much, do you, Prue?'
She leant over the table, nipped the paper out of his grasp and folded it into order. `I object to you doing that.'
`Do you mind?'
She considered his question, the familiar sleepy look in place that meant she was thinking hard. Was sharing a kitchen with her stepdaughter a good thing because it would shake Prue's moral fibre into a bracing workout, or a bad thing because the inevitable clash would cancel any Brownie points thus gained?
I hate you, Prue ...
`It's Violet's home and you're her father.' Fairness, she reflected bitterly, was the curse of the middle class, the fatal weakness. `They can look after themselves.'
Bella's purr broke the uneasy silence which fell between them. Oh, Max, thought Prue, you look so pleased at the prospect of your daughter coming home. How can I possibly deny you?
Max looked at his watch and got to his feet, wincing at the twinge that occasionally attacked his right hip. `Time to go.' He retrieved The Times, which he had no intention of yielding up. Prue swallowed half a cup of coffee so strong it made her tongue go dry, but that was how she liked it. One day she intended to renounce caffeine, being reminded daily by the inside of her cafetière what her stomach lining must resemble — but not yet. She squinted at Max. He looked irritable and impatient, two things which until recently had been alien to his nature, brought on, she suspected, by panic. For Max was sixty and he did not like the idea of retirement.
These days he maintained, a little too frequently, that he was still in his prime. Still capable of good things. Oh, yes, his listeners agreed, but then they were not likely to disagree. To be fair, Max's large, fit-looking body gave the impression of strength and a well-oiled mind, both of which were true.
Prue did not relish the idea of his retirement either, but there was nothing to be done. Sometimes, she caught Max looking at her as if to say: It's unfair that you're twenty years younger. Other times, she sensed that he almost disliked her for it. I can't help it, she wanted to cry out. I would take on your years if I could. It did not occur to her that it was not her business to shoulder Max's advance into old age, it was his. But, then, it is almost impossible for the lives of people who are bound together by deep feeling and habit, not to seep into each other's.
Meanwhile, it was Prue's business to help negotiate this tricky period. She pushed a reluctant cat on to the floor.
`You've got the big meeting today, haven't you? I won't expect you home until late.' She paused to insert the first plank in the bolstering-Max programme. `I don't know what the firm would do without you.'
Max tapped his right hand on the table and the little white scar on his index finger — Helen's wound — attracted Prue's gaze as it had done a hundred thousand times during their marriage. `I've made noises that I would like to take over the working party into setting up the European structure.' Max's large and profitable law firm in the City was in the process of setting up a working relationship with like-minded firms in France, Germany and Spain, the idea being that clients would get the best advice on all fronts. `I would like to get it,' said Max, whose fluency in French, German and Spanish certainly put him in the running, `so spare a thought.'
`I will, darling. I will.' She fingered her coffee-cup. `They would be foolish to ignore you, I think.'
`Thanks,' he said, a touch drily. He adjusted the silk handkerchief in his lapel pocket, his only sartorial indulgence, and flashed her one of his disconcerting smiles, which told her that he was not going to let his feelings get the better of him. `Good try, darling. Butter the old boy up. I might just bring a decent bottle back for supper on the strength of it.'
Palm up, he stretched out a hand across the table and curled his fingers in invitation. Prue tapped the edge of the table with hers and her mouth twitched.
`Darling Prue ...' said Max. `Don't be mean. Give me a kiss.'
She laughed, leant forward and traced a circle on the exposed palm. He caught her hand and kissed it.
`My lovely Prue,' he said.
`I love you really,' she said.
`That's fortunate,' said her husband. `You've got me for life.'
Prue removed her hand, looked down at her lap and endeavoured to brush the cat hairs from her skirt.
The car nosed into Winchester station only just in time. Max wrenched open the passenger door to show his annoyance at Prue for insisting on changing her skirt at the last minute. It had made them late and the road from Stockbridge had been full of feeble drivers unwilling to go above 40 m.p.h.
`Nobody looks at your bottom half if you're behind the counter,' Max had pointed out, not unreasonably, which made Prue feel quite exasperated — unfairly she knew. All the same, there was a diminution of the goodwill of breakfast.
She swerved to avoid a squashed hedgehog, which had made the mistake of imagining the station was a safe place. There was no need to add insult to grievous injury and, besides, the idea of going over the bloody little body was too much at this time of the morning.
`I'm sorry I made you late,' she said.
`So I should think.' Max dropped his large, squarish hand on to her thigh for a second and she covered it with hers.
Although Prue's life was oriented around her husband's, the minute he was out of her sight she forgot him. She often puzzled over the conundrum. Was it a normal stage in a twenty-year-old marriage? She supposed it was. After all, she did not notice her wedding ring from one week to the next, despite its tendency to make her finger swell. It was there, much as her nose was (which she disliked), or her legs (marginally better) or the rather startling mole, positioned above her right eyebrow.
Once upon a time, as all good stories go, there would not have been a day not dedicated to the idea of Max. Every breath she took, every meal she ate, every stamp she licked (Prue had been a secretary when they met) had revolved around a Max-shaped space. And why not? He was older, wiser and infinitely sadder, and, thus, irresistible to a nineteen-year-old, a young nineteen-year-old whose favourite childhood game had been to re-enact Florence Nightingale's lamp-lit passage through suffering men at Scutari. Perhaps a too-young nineteen-year-old?
What she got with Max was love that showed no sign of running out, fishing rods, a pair of guns to which he was devoted, gentleness in all their dealings, a village life and a degree of comfort.
Prue drove through the city and realized that too much reflection on what constituted normal was not a good idea. Stones were upturned and worms exposed.
With a lot of extra exhaust and gear changes, she manoeuvred the car into her secret parking place behind the market square. The morning was still sharp and exuded depression, and wherever Prue looked as she made her way to the bookshop she was accosted by `For Sale' signs.
Whatever else she had expected, she had learnt quickly that bookshops are not peaceful places. Certainly not Forsight's. It was busy, which was good, but it was also haphazardly organized, which was bad. Any ideas Prue had entertained for browsing, paid, through Fict., Class. and Fict., Pop., or even Hist., Med., vanished by the end of the first week. Since then, she had tried for two years to impose order, but order — and Prue was a mother — is a slippery animal and slithers away at the slightest opportunity.
Books were delivered daily, others were piled up waiting to be returned, publicity material buckled in corners and gangways, and Gerald, the owner, had a knack of sabotaging Prue's ideas for display with his own. Still, most days the shop was full, and not only with browsers who had no intention of buying. The family holiday might be jettisoned along with the new car, you might be a witness to the repossession of your house, be forced to sell the BT shares, weep at the destruction of your life, but buying a book remained an achievable goal, particularly if the bookshop offered free warmth and the comforting evidence that others felt the same.
Disorder is relatively easy to accommodate, particularly if you were Prue. She was used to smoothing paths through problems yet, if challenged, she would stick on one thing. To her surprise she was not prepared to yield up her job. You cannot make compromises with oxygen and, devoted as she was to the hearth and the Hoover, Prue's three mornings a week at Forsight's (cash and no questions) were like three draughts of pure air.
`What do you think?' Gerald held up a paperback with an explicit cover.
She directed her sleepy look at it. `It will sell.'
`Winchester doesn't like sex. Hadn't you noticed? But stack it on the table, will you, Prue, after you've served the customer by the till who wants a book on hats.'
Sometimes, Gerald sounded remarkably like Max. Prue threw her scarf into her basket, twitched at her blouse and refrained from asking if he had had a bad night.
By half past one, three people had placed orders for a book on coping with bankruptcy.
`You should stock some,' Prue informed Gerald, much struck by this neglected window in the market, as she put on her coat.
`Can they pay for it, dear?'
Next door to Forsight's was a bakery, the kind that sells `Olde Worlde Bread' and pipes a smell of cooking yeast into the retail area. Prue bought a sausage roll and an almond croissant to which she allotted four out of ten and ate them as she walked to the public library. It gave her satisfaction — still — to flout one of her mother's rules: never eat in the street. In fact, the transgression gave her so much pleasure that she was tempted to conclude that the more draconian and senseless the rule, the more excellent it was.
It is the small things, rule-breaking, sleep positions, a way of brushing the hair, that provide a continuum through the years. The eternalness of habit, and Prue, now accustomed to the library and its best positions, made for `her' niche and was forced to restrain a frown when she saw it was occupied. She retreated to a position by the door, arranged her books and began to write.
`It was in my thirteenth year when God sent a voice to guide me ...'
Thus Jeanne la Pucelle, fille de Dieu, as those mysterious voices addressed her, describes the moment when her life, the hard-working, simple life of a daughter of a well-to-do peasant, was stopped in its tracks. `Say what you will', Prue wrote in her notes, then came to a halt. Say that Joan was born with the compulsive exhibitionism of many of our public figures, which drove her to invent something, anything, which would stamp her life in bas-relief on the often dark and frightening medieval chronicle of life and death. That she was schizophrenic, that she was a transvestite driven to extremes by the limits of the age in which she lived. Say anything you like, but as Joan stood in the garden, carpeted with lilies-of-the-valley and wild strawberries, a heroic poetry, a meaning, a clash of arms and a terrible beauty flowed into her life.
Prue had never regarded herself as a woman given to a hot rush of feeling, or a candidate for the steel grip of the idée fixe, and her ambition to write a biography of this woman and saint, Joan of Arc, took her, and anyone to whom she confided it, by surprise.
Do it, Max urged, when Prue faltered out the idea to him. Do it. Do it.
Do it, echoed the obstinate part of Prue which she kept hidden, folded into the dark areas of her mind (of which she was secretly afraid). She obeyed, and that was why she was to be found in the public library on every spare afternoon.
Prue's biography was intended to be the unacademic, ordinary woman's view of the medieval equivalent. Where the idea had arrived from was mysterious, but arrive it had as a sunburst over a bleak landscape. Even now, Prue maintained a level of extreme surprise at her daring, for nothing in her life had trained her for a project like this. That obstinacy, a quivering response to the colour, the boldness, the surrender, the excess of St Joan, and perhaps an unconscious need to change an element in her own life, fuelled Prue's researches. Not that she would explain it as such.
The results so far were headings, `Life', `Death', `Battles', in a red-and-black notebook imported from China, and notes made on A4 paper which she kept meaning to transcribe under the headings, once she had got through the stack of reading she had set herself. This was composed of biography, to guide her as to what she should be doing, history, for its background information on labyrinthine politics, gold-encrusted artefacts, and the collection of John the Bolds, the Fearlesses, the Bads, and degenerate Valois that had littered medieval France.
The library smelt of polish and, less fortunately, of sweat, which was not surprising for the central heating had been turned up to furnace level, and the faces at the tables were varnished with an unnatural sheen, Prue's included. She sensed the stain that crept up her neck when she was hot and bothered, spreading like red ink above her blouse. Somebody should tell the council. She should tell the council.
Shopping. St Joan. Ironing. Jane. Bank managers. Max. Councils. This was a life indeed.
She looked at her watch. It was time to pick up Jane from the excellent but staggeringly expensive school where she was a weekly boarder. She stacked her books together and got up.
Outside, the cold wind blew, cooling Prue's flush and she put up a hand to her neck in a gesture that was becoming habitual. Still smooth, she thought, a little guilty that she minded.
In front of her flowed the life of the city — an arterial stream of traffic, punctuated by the ganglia of shops, precincts and the market. Looming over this commercial activity was the cathedral, whose massive symbolic and physical presence used to exert an osmotic force on the life of the city. Mutandus mutandi ... (Prue was learning some Latin.) Today, having been trampled in the rush towards science and commercialism, its supremacy was composed mostly of memory and the reverence the British accorded to the past. But Prue took delight in the building, and often made a detour as she did today to wander in its precincts or look inside. The January light failed to penetrate the dim interior, lit here and there by the bright, isolated stars of candies. The aisle was shrouded in a green-tinged dimness, and echoed to the half-whispers of tourists and church officials going about their business.
Her basket weighing on her arm, Prue hovered in the transept, thinking about people and their separate circles of isolation, sometimes overlapping others, sometimes moving forward without contact. It was perfectly possible to live a life thoroughly boxed in by Christian habits but lacking the essential core of belief. She knew because she was making a good job of it herself, and occasionally she told God off for not being there. Life would be easier with him.
A group of Japanese tourists fluttered and fussed in the aisle, and some nuns were praying in the pews. Presumably God loved this stone tribute to him. She trusted that he did, for it had been built on sweat, lives and ambition. Of course, the same could be said for motorways and supermarkets.
Prue left the smell of wax and ripe flowers and returned to the daylight.
`Wicked, Mum, you're on time.'
Jane was preceded by a Collection of bags slung into the back seat, then a great deal of green uniform and green tights, and plaited fair hair.
`How's the week been?'
`Fine.' Jane always made the question sound irrelevant.
`The French test?'
`Oh, Mum. Don't ask me those questions the minute you see me.'
It was windy and rather bleak on the hill where the school was situated. To the east the motorway, always crowded, cut away to London, and to the west a new section was being hacked out of the chalk downland, much to the bitterness of local protesters. That view was not pretty.
`What, my sweetie?'
`Nothing. Just glad you're here.'
Prue drove out of the school yard. `Violet and her family are coming to stay for a bit.'
Jane sat up. `Oh, Mum,' she repeated, this time with a dying inflection indicating her disapproval. `That's a real pain. Where will they all sleep?'
`In the spare room, of course. Luckily it's big enough for the baby as well. If not, they can put him in the guest bathroom.'
Jane bit her lip.
`Aren't you curious to see your new cousin?'
`Not really,' said Jane, who preferred computers to ballet and software to clothes. `Babies are boring.'
Prue smiled. `You weren't. You were marvellous.' She observed her daughter from the corner of her eye. The approach always worked, mainly because she meant every word. `I used to wonder what I'd done to deserve such a good baby. Sometimes, I imagined a big foot in the sky waiting to squash me because I was too lucky.'
Actually, there had been the equivalent of the foot in the sky and that had been Violet. But Prue would not permit herself to say so to Jane.
Jane went quiet for several minutes. They drove on between hedges lightly tipped with new life — nature always got on with things much earlier than you imagined — over mud islands from last night's rain and past telegraph wires on which rooks and moisture were equally strung. The landscape was suspended, but also secretly in flux, waiting for the moment it tipped over into spring proper. Every so often, a cascade of water hit the windscreen and, as they descended the hill to Stockbridge, the road became slippery.
What had I done to deserve such a good baby — and such an awful stepdaughter?
The car skidded slightly and a vision of Jane lying crushed and bleeding by a roadside, calling for her mother, flashed by Prue, so vivid it almost made her choke. It was the old nightmare, come back to visit, the old anxiety. It meant many things.
Prue tried to explain her fears for Jane to Max, and how they were connected to the idea of perfection. They'll vanish quickly enough when she's a teenager with a safety-pin through her nose, he said.
Jane broke the silence. `It's a pity you don't like Violet. You don't, do you, Mum?'
`Why do you ask?'
`My intuition,' said her eleven-year-old daughter. `Don't worry, it's quite normal in the circumstances.'
It was then that Jane explained the Snow White theory.
What did it matter? All over Britain the lights were going out. A fog was stealing over northern towns and masking the classy shopping developments in the south. Desperately worried men and women prepared for the weekend, and talked to each other about banks calling in loans, high interest rates, the behaviour of building societies, about the dole and sleeping rough, of businesses collapsing and redundancy.
Then, again, perhaps they kept silent. Perhaps you do not talk about things that are too pressing. Perhaps silence is easier. Perhaps it is human nature to ignore the thing that looms largest and most awful in your life.
Prue climbed into bed that night and said nothing to Max about Violet.
Posted September 24, 2003
I found this book to be very hard to get into. The story does not flow and it slows down when the character talks about her Joan Of Ark story she is writing. I will finish this book,because I don't like to abandon a book that I have started. I was a little disappointed after reading the reviews.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.