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END OF THE LINE
"There's a girl called Weena Dodds on the end of the line," said Elaine Desmond.
"Tell her I'm busy," said Defoe Desmond, her husband. They were fiftyfiveish. Both were personable and attractive. They lived in a secluded Grade I listed property.
"She's from the New Age Times," said Elaine. "And she wants to talk to you about Red Mercury."
"Red Mercury's a hoax," he said, "and the New Age Times is a streak of shit. Tell her to go away."
Elaine couched his response in gentler terms, but Weena Dodds would not go away.
"What's he fucking afraid of?" Weena demanded. "What's he so guilty about? Ask him!"
"I am afraid of nothing and guilty about nothing," said Defoe Desmond to his wife. "Tell Weena Dodds she can have her interview."
Elaine explained to Weena that Drewlove Village was at the end of the line. Weena would need to change at Westbury Junction, and start out from London at 9 a.m. to arrive at midday. Then she should take a taxi. The interview would last an hour. Elaine was sorry she could not offer lunch, but there would at least be coffee.
"All that way and no lunch," said Weena to her editor, Dervish Wilton. "What a bitch she sounds. Just like my mother."
"Find out why the Defoe Desmond show was really axed," said the editor of the New Age Times, who was thirtyish and had dark eyes as cold as Stalin's. "You're not going for the food."
"I'm going First Class," warned Weena Dodds. "I'm not roughing it in Standard."
"You're lucky I don't make you cycle down," said the editor. "There's a dozen Vegan girls out there already lining up for your job."
"Let 'em line," said Weena. She was safe enough. She blow-jobbed the editor on Friday afternoons, and not many Vegan girls would do that these days, not even for the sake of employment. The old world and the new criss-crossed each other. You could turn them both to your advantage if you had the instinct. She was a pretty girl with a prim mouth and wide eyes, a smooth high forehead and a great deal of frizzy hair, and a bosom plumper than she wanted it to be. Sometimes she shaved the hair back from her forehead: then she had a bland, medieval look. But it was a problem when the hair was growing back. She had to stay at home.
"What do you reckon the girl from the New Age Times looks like?" asked Defoe.
"Lank-haired," said Elaine, "from the sound of her voice. It had a nasal whine."
"Ah," said Defoe. He was sketching a nuclear warhead on his architectural drawing board, prior to Weena's arrival. Six slugs of Red Mercury backed six slugs of plutonium, all focusing in on a central point, where he helpfully wrote, "POW! CRITICAL!" Underneath he wrote, "A neutron bomb in a golf ball!"
"Isn't that rather too jokey?" enquired Elaine. "You don't want even the New Age Times to do a hatchet job."
"I have been so hacked to pieces already," said Defoe, "a hatchet would have nothing with which to engage."
Defoe's TV science show had recently been pulled. Ratings had fallen with the end of the Cold War. No one feared nuclear extinction any more. Death by passive smoking seemed a more prescient danger. The world was bored by Defoe's pacings, up and down, up and down across the studio floor, as he explained the mechanics of the nuclear apocalypse at length for the home market, in snippets for CNN, and many a broadsheet and yellow sheet had remarked upon it, and he chafed.
"Tell me more about how you see Weena Dodds," said Defoe.
"Unblinking," said Elaine. "Therapists, New Agers and Born Again Christians seldom blink. A blink marks the mind's registration of a new idea. Converts have no intention of receiving new ideas. They know already all they want to know."
"I see," said Defoe, "that you already have a prejudice against the girl. Well, I will have to be nice to her to make up for it."
"She has a strange name," said Elaine. "Weena Dodds! What kind of parents name their child Weena? How did they expect her to turn out?"
"I expect they were fans of H. G. Wells," said Defoe. "I expect they had read The Time Machine. Weena was the name of the little creature who befriended the Time Traveller. She was an Eloi. In the distant future, Elois skipped about and danced and sang on the surface of the earth; Morlocks toiled below the ground, dealing with the intricate workings of the universe. They lived in the fetid dark, dwarfish mechanics, and surfaced only to herd the Eloi for food." Defoe liked to give instruction.
"And the Time Traveller brought her home with him?" asked Elaine.
"I seem to remember," said Defoe, "that the Morlocks ate her before he could."
"You are the chief Morlock," said Elaine. "I am glad I didn't ask her to lunch, for her sake."
"I can't stand wives," said Weena Dodds to her mother Francine that night. They were doomed to live together, it seemed, mother and daughter, for reasons of commerce and comfort.
"I was your father's wife," said Francine. She was an elegant, unemotional woman, doing a further degree in Clinical Psychology.
"Exactly," said Weena. "You always acted as if you owned him."
"I did," said Francine. They decided, mutely, not to take the argument further. Both were tired.
"What a bitch!" said Weena, playing for sympathy instead. "All the way to the end of the line and not even any lunch."
"You could do without lunch," said Francine, who had been born thin and attributed her daughter's tendency to put on weight as lack of self-control. Weena burst into tears and ran from the room.
Weena called her friend Hattie.
"My mother is such a bitch," Weena said. "She killed my father, you know. People only get cancer if they're unhappy."
"My father killed my mother," said Hattie gloomily, "in that case."
"It was stomach cancer," said Weena. "Even after it was diagnosed, she wouldn't go over to health foods. She kept on feeding my father meat, not to mention animal fats."
"My mother was the worst cook in the world," said Hattie. It wasn't so much that they conversed, these two, as set each other off. "My father says it contributed to her early death. It was stomach cancer, too."
"It isn't healthy to live with one's mother," observed Weena. "I'd move out, only I know my father always intended me to have the apartment. It was just the inheritance laws stopped him so now we have to share."
"Couldn't one or the other of you buy the other out?"
"Yes, but which one? We both want it. Guess where I'm going tomorrow?"
"Where?" asked Hattie.
"To interview Defoe Desmond."
"That man who used to be on the TV?"
"That's right," said Weena.
"What on earth for?"
"There's this new stuff called Red Mercury they say could blow up the world."
"Never heard of it," said Hattie.
"That's the point," said Weena. "It's used in neutron bombs. Neutron bombs kill people but preserve property. So they're keeping it a secret."
"They are awful," said Hattie bleakly. "What news on the Bob front?"
"Still pattering along behind," said Weena, "breathing halitosis over my hopes." Bob was Senior Editor at a Publishing House, and forty-fiveish.
"Men are awful," agreed Hattie. She was trying to paint her toenails and speak on the phone at the same time.
"I blame his wife," said Weena. "First she said she loved him, and wouldn't leave him alone; then she threatened to burn us alive in our bed, so we had to go into hiding; then she changed her mind and left him, and now it's over between us and he needs her she won't even go back to him. God, women can be bitches."
"It sometimes seems to me, Weena," said Hattie, "that once they've left their wives for you, that's when you lose interest."
"I suppose you could see it like that," said Weena, "or you could see it as men trying to reduce you to wife status the moment they get you, and me fighting back. I would have thought a friend would see it the second way."
"Sorry," said Hattie. "I thought friends were the ones who were meant to tell you the truth. Well if Bob's going free, perhaps I should take him up? He has money and influence. I think you're mad to let him go."
Weena shivered and drew the conversation to an end. Once a man was rejected, he ought to stay rejected, and by everyone she knew. She went and said she was sorry to her mother, for no rhyme or reason, and took herself off to bed. She still had teddy bears on her counterpane and liked to cuddle them.
Elaine showed a couple called the Swains, David and Lila, around Drewlove House. The property was for sale.
"I like the way the house is at the end of a line," said Lila, "and then you take this journey into the woods, and suddenly there it is, a little piece of old England." Lila was from Bangladesh and had an American accent. David nudged her and she said, "Oh, sorry."
"It should perhaps be better described as remote, not secluded," said David. He was tall, thin, whiter than white, blond and had a receding chin.
"Just you and me," said Lila, twitching her sari to stop the gold and red fabric trailing in the cat's saucer of milk. They were in the kitchen, Aga-warmed. There were spring flowers on the table especially for the occasion. "You and me. Safe from the world's stare. Nature is so much kinder than people."
"We were looking for somewhere more accessible to London," said David Swain. "That wait at Westbury Junction certainly lowers the value of the place," and as Lila opened her mouth to speak, he nudged her and she shut it again.
"I'm surprised you want to sell," David Swain said as they walked through the garden, and Lila fell on her knees in front of a frilly double tulip of particular attractiveness. "If, as you say, it's been in your family for some generations."
"There has been a rather sudden change in our circumstances," said Elaine.
"The names on the deeds of Drewlove House are a matter of public record—one likes to get these details straight before contemplating purchase. Do get up, Lila. You are making your sari dirty."
"I am a Drewlove," said Elaine, pleasantly. "My mother lost the house, gambling, in 1941, when I was little, which as you can imagine caused quite a family upset. My mother lost to a local builder, a Mr. Malcolm Trott. Had she won, she would have owned the Trott farm. Mr. Trott, being no gentleman, held her to her gambling debt. She would have done the same to him, no doubt. The house was presently requisitioned by, and later bought by, the Ministry of Defence, who then sold it to my husband, on our marriage. My husband was at the time a young scientist working for the Ministry. So the names on the Land Registry should read, since 1785, Drewlove after Drewlove, with various mortgaging, surrendering, conveyancing, further charging, of various lands and buildings to the Family Trott; the whole lot going to Malcolm Trott in 1941, who won in the end; to the MOD in 1947, and from MOD to Desmond in 1963. Okay?"
"That was a very full explanation," said David Swain, appearing satisfied. They were back inside the house by now. Elaine had talked all the way. David Swain drummed his sweaty fingers on an Aga especially cleaned and polished for his visit. "Thank you for it. I know you understand that in the circumstances some explanation was certainly called for."
"Would you like to see the Granny flat?" asked Elaine.
"I don't have a family," said Lila. "They have disowned me."
"One moment," said David Swain. "There is something fishy going on here. How come your mother's name was Drewlove? There should be another name there somewhere if that cock-and-bull story is true."
"My mother," said Elaine, "never married. She was a very fishy woman. I am illegitimate. And I do not want you living in my family home; it will take you twenty minutes to walk to the station, the end of the line. My phone is out of order, or I would call you a taxi."
"I heard it ringing just now," said Lila.
"It does that sometimes," said Elaine. "The lines round here can be very bad. You had better go now, and hurry, or you will have to wait hours for your next connection."
"The Swains went away quickly," said Defoe.
"Not soon enough," said Elaine.
"We don't have to sell this house," said Defoe.
"You haven't seen this morning's letter from the bank," said Elaine. "We do. They say it's the end of the line."
"Perhaps this house is unlucky," said Defoe.
"It was okay until they extended the railway line, in 1919. That was the year my mother was born," said Elaine. "And things go wrong anyway. One can hardly attribute all cosmic events to a verbal pun. One can hardly say we lost our income because you lost your job because the world lost interest in the nuclear threat because our house is at the end of the line."
"Some could," said Defoe. "Someone like the girl from the New Age Times could very well. New Agers drive winsome thoughts between ordinary notions of cause and effect."
And his eyes drifted towards the window, to see if Weena Dodds was coming up the path. She was.
Elaine opened the door to Weena. Weena saw a woman who was a dead-ringer for her mother Francine, but without scarves and earrings. Her nails were broken and she was without eye make-up, which for someone of her age was foolish. This woman had clearly lived in the country too long.
"There wasn't a taxi at the station," said Weena. "I had to walk."
"Walking would do you no harm," said Elaine, "from the look of you." Weena seemed to be a heterosexual version of her own daughter Daphne. Just one of those things.
"The bitch, the bitch!" said Weena to Hattie that night on the phone. "I expect she was jealous," said Hattie. "Probably flat as a board herself." Hattie had a nice little bosom herself, just about right. Weena giggled.
"Not flat," said Weena. "There are advantages to flat. Just shapeless. You know how wives and mothers get."
"I expect you had your revenge," said Hattie.
"Oh, I did," said Weena. "I did."
"Well," said Defoe, waiting until his wife had left the room, "this is a surprise. I didn't think you'd have the nerve. I want my £20 back."
"The £20 you stole from my wallet while I was asleep."
"That was the point," she said. "I always take money from a man's wallet if he falls asleep after sex. It's policy. It repairs my self-esteem."
"I was tired," Defoe said. "It was after the show. You had no mercy. I am a tired old married man."
"You could have fooled me," she said. "And the wallet was so stuffed I'm surprised you noticed."
"That was before Nemesis fell," he said. "I could do with every penny now."
"Not Nemesis," she said, "but Karma. We all get what we deserve. But I know the feeling."
"We get what we deserve!" he marvelled. "Do you honestly believe that?"
"I got you that night," she said, smiling her pretty smile, "so I must have done something right."
"When I called the number you gave," he said, "the woman who answered said she didn't know who you were."
Excerpted from Wicked Women by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 1997 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
RUN AND ASK DADDY
IF HE HAS ANY MORE MONEY
An Exercise in Italics
Well now! It was Easter and my friend David was helping his wife Milly Frood in the shop when he heard a voice he recognised crying loud and clear across the crowded room, "Run and ask Daddy if he has any more money," and his blood ran cold.
Easter is upon us now. It is a season when we should reflect upon our sins and consider the pain we cause others, especially those who have no choice but to put up with us; this trauma of self-knowledge, self-revelation, culminating on Easter Friday, leaving us Saturday to shop and recover, so that on Sunday we can wake exhilarated to our new selves--and then have Monday to calm down a bit and prepare to get back to work. Should, should! Mostly we just give each other cards and Easter eggs and are grateful for the holiday.
David is in his early forties. He has not very much reddish hair and an abundant, very red beard. He wears a tweed jacket. He is now a professor. He used to be a mere lecturer but his Polytechnic turned into a University and voila! there he was, Professor Frood, a pillar of society: looked up to and trusted: a family man.
A really nice guy, too: the trustful kind, prone to loving not wisely but too well, as the best people are. But that is all in the past, of course. Professors can't muck about. There's too much at stake. All that a man can do is hope that the past, burrowing away like some mole through the pleasant green fields of his present, doesn't surface and spoil everything in an explosion of mud and dirt.
This particular Thursday before Easter, at two minutes past four in the afternoon, it seemed as if it very well might.
Milly Frood is sometimes spoken of by friends as Frilly Mood. They're being ironic. She's a really un-frilly, serious, nice, good woman. She has straight hair and a fringe and a plump, rather expressionless, round face and a body well draped in unnoticeable clothes. The Frood children, Sherry and Baf, now in their teenage years, have never wittingly eaten sugar or meat under their own roof: Frilly Mood has seen to that. The kids are healthy if a little thin, and very polite. Frilly Mood's done well by them. It is no crime to be serious.
The shop is between the Delicatessen and the Estate Agents, down the High Street. It's an upmarket gift shop, selling the kind of decorative things nobody needs but everyone likes to have, from papier-mache bowls (French) in deep, rich colours, at 65 [pounds sterling]; black elephant pill boxes (Malaysian) at 2.75 [pounds sterling]; fluffy rabbits (Korean) at 12.35 [pounds sterling]; little woolly lambs (New Zealand) at 8.50 [pounds sterling] and decorated Easter eggs (English) at 4.87 [pounds sterling], and so on. Pre-Easter is these days almost as busy a time as pre-Christmas. Everyone feels the need for a little unnecessary something extra, or what is life all about? Where are the rewards?
* * *
David was helping Milly out in the shop over the pre-Easter rush. And why should he not? The Poly (sorry, University) was closed for the holidays (sorry, vacation) and in Milly's words, David had "nothing better to do." His wage remained that of a lecturer no matter that he was called a professor. You can re-name everything you like, but harsh facts don't alter just because you've done so. In other words, money was tight and if Milly could do without extra staff so much the better. Nevertheless, David felt that helping out was a humiliation, and blamed Milly for it. In Milly's view a man was only working if you could see him working, and who can see a man thinking?
The voice he recognised was that of Bettina Shepherd; the voice had a most attractive actressy double timbre (that's in italics because it's French, not because it has significance for this story) and it was familiar because there'd been a time when it had spoken many words of true love, murmured many a sinful suggestion into his ear. But all that had been some seven years back, a long time ago: longer, surely, than was needed to make that man now feel responsible for the man then. Do we not all grow an entirely new skin every seven years? Should a man not be allowed to start anew; as with a driving licence, should the passage of time not wipe out past misdeeds?
Daddy was the man Bettina referred to: he was at the back of the shop where the inexpensive trinkets were. Bettina was looking peculiarly attractive in a cashmere dress, in seasonal yellow, belted by a linked chain which for all anyone could tell was made of pure gold; the whole setting off her bosomy figure, little waist and black hair to advantage. Daddy was gray-suited, good-looking, gentlemanly and wore a solid gold tie-pin. David thought he looked extremely boring and rather stupid, but David would, wouldn't he?
* * *
"David, this has to stop," Bettina had said to him in the History Tutorial Room one day, seven years ago. "You are a married man and I'm going to be married too. The ceremony is next week. I wanted to tell you earlier but didn't like to, because I didn't want to upset you. You are the only man I'll ever really love but I have to think of my future. We have to be realistic. You could never support two homes in any comfort and I'm just not cut out for employment. I'm not that kind of person." He'd thought his heart would break. He was surprised it went on beating. Later he'd told himself he was lucky to be out of a trivial, passing affair with such an unfeeling, whimsical person, but he'd never really believed himself. The truth was that he'd taken no real pleasure since in Milly's straight hair and earnest face. He could see Milly was good, but what a man wanted was something more than honest worth. Sometimes he felt guilty because others called his wife Frilly Mood, ironically, but then he'd tell himself she'd always been like that. Not his doing.
His blood ran cold--I say this advisedly. When David heard Bettina's voice--last heard on the floor behind the sofa in the History Tutorial Room--echoing through the shop at two minutes past four, he felt a chill strike down his head to his right shoulder, into his arm and down to his fingers, and he had the feeling that if that section of blood didn't warm up before it got back up to his heart, that organ would freeze and this time stop once and for all. So much a heart can stand, no more.
David turned his back on his customers, lest he be seen and recognised by Bettina, and busied himself looking for a Peruvian crucifixion scene, grateful that his heart had survived the shock. But not before he had seen the little girl obediently leave her mother's side and head through shopping bags and spring-clad elbows towards her father. Bettina, near the door, was clearly interested in purchasing the papier-mache bowl at 65 [pounds sterling]; Daddy flicked through Easter cards at the back of the shop.
The Peruvian crucifixion scene consisted of six pieces in brightly glittering tin--a crimson Judas, a gold Jesus, a navy Pontius Pilate, a scarlet Mary Magdalene, a pale blue Madonna, and a black cross.
The little girl had red hair like David's own. Bettina had black hair; Daddy's was fair and painfully sparse, as if responsibility had dragged a lot of it out. The little girl must be six years old. Her front teeth were missing, to prove it.
The Easter cards were the cheapest things sold in the shop. For 75p you could buy cards depicting bunnies and chickens; from there on up to 2 [pounds sterling] you could find anything an artist in a time of recession could invent. Milly and David Frood saw the innovation of the Easter card as one of the more sinister accomplishments of the Greetings Card Industry. Who ever in their youth had heard of an Easter card? All part of the commercialisation of religion, etc., etc. Obliged to live by commerce, the Froods despised commerce. Who doesn't?
Such things pass quickly through the mind when sights are seared into a man's heart, and he doesn't know what to think or feel, and he's gazing at a shelf.
David felt a familiar hand upon his arm. It was his wife's. "Perhaps we should have another baby," she said, to his further astonishment.
"Why now?" he asked. "Why mention it now in the middle of such a rush?"
"Because we're always in a rush," said Milly Frood, answering back, quite out of character, "as anyone not on the dole these days is. And I just saw a little girl in the shop with hair the same lovely colour yours was when you were young: and I thought, last chance for a baby. I'm nearly forty now." Before David could reply, a voice behind him said, "Is there no one serving here?" and Milly Frood turned quickly back to her work and David was let off the hook.
The familiar hand had cooked his food, burped his babies, returned the VAT, encouraged him in love and in illness, and it was a whole seven years since he had even been grateful for it, he realised. Now suddenly he was. But the habit of disparagement remained. "Why mention it now?" he'd said, discouraging spontaneity, being disagreeable. He was ashamed of himself.
Another baby. David had not really wanted children in the first place: he had not wanted to get married. He would tell me about it when he lamented the everyday ordinariness of his life. The college, the kids, the shops, the bills, and never anything happening. But a man's seed bursts from him here and there, unwittingly, and a good man settles down to his responsibility, sometimes with a good heart, sometimes not. Another baby? David felt all of a sudden Milly could have anything she wanted. Suppose Bettina saw him; recognised him, greeted him? Then everything could simply fall apart. Supposing Daddy looked from his child's hair to the red beard, and remembered some clue, some time, some place? It's a wise man doubts his child's paternity, if his wife is Bettina. Supposing this, supposing that?
Let off the hook--but of course he wasn't let off the hook. The past may be another country, but there are frequent international flights from there to here, especially over the public holidays, when everyone leaves their homes and mills about in search of objects, not caring who remembers what. A papier-mache bowl here, an Easter card there.
"Daddy," said the little piping voice: was it like Sherry's? Was it like Baf's? It was. "Mummy says do you have any more money?"
Silence fell upon the shop. All waited for the reply: mothers, divorcees, widows, working women, and their escorts, should they have them. It's mostly women who shop. Slips of girls. Redheaded six-year-olds with gap teeth looking trustingly up at alleged fathers. An honest question, honestly asked, in time of recession.
David turned: you cannot look at a single shelf forever. David caught Bettina's eye. Bettina smiled, in recognition, acknowledgement. Bettina's mouth was not quite as plump and full as once it had been. Everyone waited. A question publicly asked will be publicly answered.
"Tell your mother," said Daddy loudly, "the answer is no. My money's all gone and your mother has spent it."
Daddy tipped over the box of Easter cards onto the floor and, parting customers with grey-suited elbows and gold-ringed hands, made his way to the door and out of it. The little girl ran weeping after him. David saw Daddy take his little girl's hand as they passed the window: he saw her smile: evidently the little girl cried easily and cheered up easily. Sherry had been like that.
If a woman has no money left, perhaps she'll turn back to love? Bettina stood irresolute for a moment, all eyes upon her. She looked at Milly, she looked at David. Then she said to Milly, "I just love the shop," and followed her husband and daughter out. It was four minutes past four.
Bettina had found herself pregnant: perhaps by one, perhaps by another. Perhaps she had not been unfeeling, whimsical, in dismissing him, David, after all, behind the sofa in the History Tutorial Room. Perhaps the dismissal had been an act of love, to let the erring husband off the hook? Perhaps she had simply done what was right? In thinking better of Bettina, in forgiving her, David felt himself become quite free of her. And high time too. Seven whole years!
I just love the shop.
"What a nice woman," said Milly. "Saying that. Did she know you or something?"
"No, she didn't," said David. "And you're the nicest woman I know," and he found that, though the first was a lie, the second was true. Happy Easter, everyone! Which speaks for itself: no need for explanation, or excuse.