A Friend from Englandby Anita Brookner
In one of her most delicate and suspenseful novels to date, Anita Brookner brings us an exquisite story of friendship and duty. Rachel Kennedy and Oscar Livingston were not precisely friends or family. Rachel had been acquanted with Oscar for some time, first as her father’s accountant, and then as her own. Part owner of a London bookshop, Rachel is thoroughly independent and somewhat distant, determinedly restrained in her feelings for others, but above all responsible. And it is this trait that leads Oscar and his wife Dorrie to seek out Rachel as a mentor for their twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Heather. Yet when Heather seems poised to make an unsuitable romantic decision, Rachel decides to speak out and intervene, causing an unwitting and devastating insight.
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A Friend from England
By Anita Brookner
Random HouseAnita Brookner
All right reserved.
I first got to know Oscar Livingstone in fairly humdrum circumstances. He was an accountant, in a small way of business, with a few faithful and unambitious clients. I had inherited him from my father, who had also been in a small way of business, and I would go to his tiny office in Southampton Row once a year for a routine inspection of my bills and receipts; he would offer no advice about exciting ways of diversifying or investing, and I found this extremely restful, the whole transaction taking on something of the enactment of a religious office, in which both Oscar and I knew our responses and after which we shook hands gravely, and then relaxed into an exchange of equally ritualistic questions about our respective families. My own family was largely in the past, but Oscar was married to a woman who looked so remarkably like him that I had always assumed her to be his sister on those occasions when she came in to do a bit of typing for him. They were a placid, wistful couple, and when my visits coincided with their both being in the office they would gaze at me with large sympathetic eyes and commiserate with me all over again on small and large losses, both financial and familial, which I in my absent-mindedness had consigned for contemplation to the odd empty afternoon, or perhaps the late evening, or, more properly, had forgotten about altogether.
So established was this ritual that the news of Oscar's astonishing piece of luck was all the more surprising, although it did not disturb his expression, except for adding a furrow to his previously untroubled brow. His wife, Dorrie, had come into the office to help him bear the burden of his good fortune, and she gazed at me with an almost tragic fixity as she imparted the news. 'We wanted you to hear directly,' she said, 'before the rumours started flying. Although we did say we wanted no publicity.' It appeared that Oscar had had an extremely substantial win on the football pools. They could not bring themselves to name the sum, but they assured me that they would no longer have to worry about the future, and then, as if to put my mind at rest, told me that although Oscar would be giving up his office, he would continue to see to my tax returns if I would take them to him at his house in Wimbledon. 'Oh, no, we shan't be moving,' said Dorrie. 'Just a few little additions to the home. And something for our daughter, of course.'
When the time came round for my annual financial consultation, I found it entirely natural to speak to Oscar again, and the same queries were offered and answered, although he was now a millionaire (rumour had, of course, escalated the sum into two or even five millions) and I, like my father, was now in a small way of business. The only difference was that when I telephoned to ask if I might make an appointment to see him at his house, his voice seemed to have taken on a nostalgia and also a sleepiness which I put down to the fact of his retirement and the indolence bred in him from merely having to move from one room to another instead of stepping out each morning and encountering the challenge of a difficult journey on tubes and buses. It occurred to me to wonder how he had faced the prospect of working in central London, distant as it was from his suburban home, for so many years. As far as I could see, he was so unassuming as to appear endangered: he brought his lunch in a selection of bags in his briefcase, and did not trust the sort of food that everybody else ate or was obliged to eat. Or perhaps Dorrie did not trust it for him. Once, when I had had an early afternoon appointment, I had found him delicately peeling an orange into an empty box file, evidently designated for that purpose, and on another occasion I noticed a complicated bouquet of Brie and something pungent and sweet. 'What did you have for lunch?' I asked him, eager to penetrate this mystery. He answered the question with the same gravity as that with which he responded to my enquiries about Value Added Tax. 'Dorrie put me up some biscuits and cheese,' he said. 'And a slice of the pineapple we had last night for dinner.' He had always impressed me as home-loving and uxorious, mildly inert, a bulky soft-voiced man with beautifully cared-for hands, something about him broadcasting the resignation of a schoolboy who has to submit to an inspection before he is allowed to leave the house.
He had always seemed pleased to see me, which was flattering, for I was nothing like my father, who had been something of a friend to him, and when I telephoned he warned me that Dorrie was about to issue an invitation to dinner. It was natural to him to assume that our association would continue over and above the call of the Inland Revenue, and I was touched that he should remember me when this sudden influx of money might seem to promise them a different life. But Oscar was a very steadfast man and indeed spread about him an aura of benign pessimism which somehow went with his profession. I liked to think of him relaxing in Wimbledon with Dorrie, and I found myself quite looking forward to seeing them both again, and to talking over this astonishing turn of fortune. I had never known anyone so scandalously rich before, and I wanted to see if it had changed them. I imagined that the possession of wealth made itself known through some kind of stigmata: I foresaw difficulties in getting through the eye of a needle, and wondered if the strain would show. Above all, I wanted to see their house and with it Dorrie's improvements. Living austerely myself, I enjoyed luxury in others.
I was not disappointed. The house-a substantial but essentially modest suburban villa-was furnished with voluptuous grandeur in approximations of various styles, predominantly those of several Louis, with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century additions. Heavy coloured glass ashtrays of monstrous size and weight rested on inlaid marquetry tables of vaguely Pompadour associations. At dinner we drank champagne from ruby Bohemian glasses: the meat was carved at a Boulle-type sideboard. 'Regency' wallpaper of dark green and lighter green stripes was partially covered by gilt-framed landscapes of no style whatever. The dining-room seemed dark, as dining-rooms often do. In fact all the rooms seemed to repel both light and weather; they were designed to keep one's thoughts indoors, resigned and melancholy. I thought of listless Saturday afternoons, when I pictured Oscar relaxing in one of the turquoise silk-covered bergeres, with footstools to match. I thought of Dorrie taking a nap in her shell-pink bedroom with the extravagant expanses of white shag-pile carpet. All the windows would be closed, of course, the smell of a substantial lunch still heavy on the air, slightly obscured by one of the two or three weekend cigars. Upstairs, the nap finished, and the light already beginning to fade, I imagined Dorrie switching on the vaguely baronial gas fire and pulling the satin curtains. Throwing a handful of flowery cologne over her throat and shoulders, she would change into a patterned silk dress, taking a clean handkerchief and tucking it up her sleeve. It would not be quite time for tea, but as relatives were expected she would start her preparations in the kitchen, transferring home-made cakes and biscuits on to dishes with gold rims, and laying cups and plates, interleaved with tiny napkins of ecru linen, on the trolley, knives and spoons tinkling, to be wheeled in effortlessly at the right moment. For she was daintily houseproud.
I found it all very cosy. Although their life seemed to depress Oscar and his wife, both of whom had a vaguely disappointed air, I could see myself transformed into just such a virtuous member of just such a successful but melancholy family. I could see myself running baths in my pale pink bathroom and scenting them with expensive essences; I could see myself switching on the television next to my courtesan's bed; I could see myself making quantities of food for the freezer, or, on a sunny day, sitting cautiously out on the terrace, a cut-glass pitcher of orange juice next to me on the dazzlingly painted white wooden table. Days would pass without reference to the outside world. No letters would come through the post, for kinship would be maintained by means of the telephone. I appreciated the ferocious central heating and even the sadness that seemed to go with all these acquisitions, as if the middle years signified just such comfort and just such disenchantment. Youthful impulse or folly, of which not a trace remained, had retreated to the images in those silver photograph frames that crowned the bookcase and the downstairs television: in them, younger versions of Oscar and Dorrie appeared hesitant, in uncharacteristic sunshine, as if awaiting their mature bulk and their natural setting, indoors.
For their present life was the apotheosis of everything that pertained to indoors, and the seasons would revolve without their being much disturbed. Late nights would be theirs, and many snacks: three-course teas and five-course dinners, their large family supplying most of the appetite and all the conversation. When all the sisters and the brothers-in-law were assembled, as they were on the first occasion that I was invited to tea, it took some courage to enter their discourse, which consisted of references beyond or to the side of one, yet they were kindly people, and after one visit, which I thought a total failure, they apparently referred to the occasion amongst themselves or related it to a sister, a brother-in-law, as if it had been important or at least interesting. This touched me, for I was susceptible to their modesty, their rituals, all of which seemed to spell a certain timidity with regard to the outside world, a world from which Oscar had been miraculously freed by the intervention of chance. I responded to their invitations, which were repeated, as if having come once I was bound to be included again, possibly for ever; I sat on one of the many-styled sofas, obediently eating the tiny sandwiches, the little filled rolls, and the various cakes, listening to their calm uninflected voices, and studying what seemed to me to be the superior style of their daughter, Heather. Heather's visit was the ostensible pretext for the monumental tea that was always on offer: it was understood that Heather would never come home to dinner, having more exciting and mysterious plans for the evening. These she would not explain, but would murmur vaguely about going round to someone's house, and it was assumed that all her friends were as well off and as dull of mind as Heather herself. Actually, I believe she was extremely shrewd, but she somehow impressed one as having no inappropriate desires or ambitions. Her parents had looked after her so well, and provided for her so amply, that she had no need to emulate a life other than the one she was already leading, and I knew that Oscar and Dorrie had already set her up in a comfortable service flat in Portman Square. From what I managed to glimpse, on my one brief visit to this flat, it contained the same lush hybrid furnishings as the house in Wimbledon.
Like her mother, Heather had a generous and at the same time melancholy attitude to her wealth and possessions. She would insist on driving me home, in her immaculate new car, as if she had nothing better to do, and as if the fabled evening could wait. She was in no hurry, and something told me that she would have been just as happy at home as she was in Portman Square, pretending to be in the fashion business, but actually managing the boutique which Oscar had bought for her after his windfall. Despite her scornful and up-to-date appearance-the schoolboy's hairstyle, the flat shoes, the long skirt, and the dangling earrings-she was a passive person and would have been content to shelter under the protection of her parents, going with them to their entertainments, accompanying them on their holidays, and eventually marrying a man who had been mediated through the various filters that separated the Livingstones from the rest of humanity. Instead, she did what was expected of her, appeared to enjoy what her parents had provided for her, and enacted for their benefit the emancipated image that they, greatly daring and humble, had imagined that she desired. In this way she repaid them, although I never heard her utter more than monosyllables in their presence. It was, I suppose, honourable of her to accommodate the wilder fling of their imagination in this way. As I say, Heather was shrewd.
It soon became clear to me that Oscar and Dorrie thought me a suitable companion for Heather, and that the strain of melancholy I had detected in that house had something to do with Heather's destiny, which had not yet declared itself. Far from being a problem to them, Heather was docile; rather than the expected rebellion, she had presented them with a temperament as undemanding as that of a Victorian matron, and I say matron rather than virgin because Heather's manner always struck me as extremely grown-up, whereas her expectations of the world were, like those of her parents, somewhat fearful. She was always very nice to her aunts and uncles, interested in their activities, which I found indistinguishable, willing to compare accounts of shopping triumphs or disappointments, rather as if she were the same age as they were. She had a mature attitude, too, to ills of the flesh, professing to know all about ailments and remedies, although she was in the prime of life and not yet a martyr to anything, let alone the rheumatisms, the sinusitis, and the incipient ulcers that had cast their shadow over the brothers-in-law: she always knew someone who suffered in the same way, and was thus able to offer the names of specialists or chiropractors. She was, for instance, able to say of her assistant's mother that she had been to 'all the best men' but had obtained instant relief from acupuncture. She was extraordinarily earnest as she discussed this, giving a foretaste of the woman she would become. In fact the woman she would become was not much different from the girl she already was, and there seemed no reason to suppose that she would ever change or develop or move away from the family circle. Whereas most parents would view this with something like relief, Oscar and Dorrie would sigh inwardly and contemplate their daughter with a mild bewilderment that contained a minute quantum of despair.
Excerpted from A Friend from England by Anita Brookner Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Anita Brookner was born in London and, apart from several years spent in Paris, has lived there ever since. She trained as an art historian and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 1988. A Friend from England is her seventh novel.
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