The story of a motherless girl named Faith and her family and close friends, all of whom are determined to see her live a happy life.
Faith’s mother died in childbirth; her overworked father cannot raise his child alone; and her unconventional grandmother refuses to acknowledge the child whose birth took away the daughter she loved. And so a motley crew of family and friends converges to see that Faith is brought up correctly. The concerned parties include Faith’s uncle, who runs a commune in northern England; the Tibetan refugees who have moved in with him; and the splendidly bickering paternal grandparents. What ensues is a brilliant comedy of manners set equally amidst high society and low.
Faith Fox is a story that explores the wonder of the human heart in all its thunderous eccentricity. Gardam has mastered the essence of age and youth and above all nonconformity. Her memorable characters are sure to delight.
“Wonderful, sharply observed, deeply funny.” —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“[A] cleverly wrought British import . . . That Gardam is a virtuoso of structure creeps up on you until you begin to glimpse the outlines of the multiple subplots converging with the satisfying click that reminds you that you’re in the hands of a master.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Hugely funny and deeply moving.” —The Atlantic
“Pure pleasure.” —Anita Brookner, author of The Debut
“An endearing story. Gardam’s feisty characters deliver a tale that crackles with charm and energy.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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It was terrible when Holly Fox died. Terrible. Just awful. Pammie Jefford heard first, at the hospital, doing her voluntary work. At the sluice. In came a nun and hurtled by and out of the other door. Then after a minute another volunteer came in, looking white. It was a wonderful hospital. It had not lost a mother for years and years. Holly was only the third since the foundation of the place before the war, and the other two had been foreigners with queer blood groups. Holly Fox. Oh no, no — not Holly Fox! Oh God.
Pammie wouldn't dream of ringing anyone from the hospital and of course she couldn't stay on there today. 'You mean you know her?' they asked, not yet able to say knew; and Sister Mark said, 'God rest her. God rest her. Yes, away you go, dear,' and Pammie left, almost forgetting to take off her apron.
Outside in the drive she stood for minutes together beside her fast little Peugeot GTI, stood in the sunshine, not able to get in.
Holly Fox, Holly Fox!
Soon all round Surrey the telephones were ringing. Women were putting down receivers, covering their faces, putting fists to mouths, going out into gardens and calling people in. Ringing up yet other people. Holly Fox's own generation mostly heard later because they were all at work. But these, Pammie's lot, friends of Holly's mother, were the women who had all lived at one time, thirty years ago, in the world of one another's children. Oh — Holly Fox!
'A blood clot. It could have happened at any time, apparently. Just a coincidence it was while she was in labour, though I don't suppose that helped. No, an easy time. A very easy time. No fuss. Just laughing and joking and deep breathing — well, you know how she was.'
'Was he there? Whatsisname? I never remember the husband's name. Pammie, Pammie — he was a doctor. And people don't die in childbirth now.'
'I don't know. It was early. Quite two weeks early. Maybe he was over in his own hospital. There was no sign of him at the nuns'. Well, there was no sign even of ...'
Now they approached it.
'Even Thomasina wasn't there.'
'Whatever will happen? Oh, poor Thomasina.'
The news spread from Surrey into Hampshire and Sussex.
At a nice house in Liss four friends of Thomasina stopped their Bridge for nearly half an hour and picked up the cards again quite abstractedly. Somebody else near Petersfield was watching the six o'clock news, where a procession of skeletons straggled across a desert. Children's mouths in close-up were patrolled by flies. Starving madonnas, with lakes instead of eyes, rib cages almost exposed through parchment skin, gazed uninterested at the cameras. 'Hello? No — perfectly good moment. Just the news. Ghastly — but what can one do? I'm waiting for the weather forecast: it's the Ladies' Cup tomorrow. What? What? Oh my God, no! Not Holly Fox? Oh, poor darling Thomasina! Who told her? Where is she? Where's her husband? Have you rung? I said rung? The house, of course. Oh, course go round there. Of course you must. If not, I'll go from over here. I'll get in the car now. Don't be silly, "butting in." She's somewhere, and the son-in-law's no earthly good. All his family live in Wigan or somewhere. Don't be so wet, Pammie. It's not like you. Go round.'
Others, nearer, had already gone round, but Thomasina's house in its large garden stood locked and silent. Florists' bunches were already gathering on the step. Pammie tramped round to the back. All was still and silent. Bulbs had been planted in hundreds under trees. Thomasina's gardening gloves lay together in prayer in the conservatory, beside a sheaf of carefully divided irises.
On the way home Pammie called on another woman, who answered the door, brick-red in the face with shock, glaring in outrage. 'She's at that health farm, Thomasina. That's where she is this week. To "get herself together for being a grandmother," she said, "in good time." It wasn't due, you know. "The first one's never early," she said. She said it here. This Thursday. Standing there where you are now. "May as well have a last fling de luxe," she said, "before my time stops being my own." She was going to be such a grandmother.'
'I know. We said, "She'll outclass Holly."'
'Not that she could have done. Holly was unimprovable. It was all talk with Thomasina.'
"Taking over!" It wouldn't have happened. She's too erratic. But the help she would have been at first ...! Adored it, patronising Holly and saying, "How hopeless," and yet proud as hell that she was such a marvellous mother. Oh God — would have been such a marvellous mother. I don't believe it. I do not believe it. Holly. That bursting, bursting health.'
'I suppose that's what it was,' said Pammie. 'Yes, please, I'll have another.' She held up her glass. 'Yes, don't stop. It was bursting health and she burst.'
'What a foul thing to say.'
'Well, something burst. Gone. Bang. And things will go bang in Thomasina now. You'll see. At last.'
Jinny of the brick-red face whose house it was and who did not have to drive home and whose dinner was already in the Neff awaiting the husband's reliable seven-thirty return had a third whisky and soon began to weep.
'I must go,' said Pammie; 'I've a madrigal group.'
Jinny at the door, sniffing, said, 'Matter of fact, what we were talking about: "would have been" a good grandmother? ... She is a grandmother.'
Pammie looked blank and then remembered. 'I never thought,' she said. 'Oh God! Is the child all right? They never said. Have you heard? What was it?'
'I don't know.'
'A boy, I think. Yes, I think now they were saying ... Yes. A lovely child. Though it may be a girl. I don't know. I can't believe I never asked. One or the other, I suppose.'
Which is how Faith Braithwaite was heralded into the world.CHAPTER 2
Holly Fox had remained Holly Fox after marriage to Andrew Braithwaite not because of the least breath of feminism in her but because she had always been such a vivid creature that nobody could think of her with any other name.
She really was an extraordinarily nice girl. Well, not nice so much as passionately loving and infectiously happy. She adored people. She adored places. She adored artefacts. At school she had adored games and been wonderfully good at them. She hadn't adored intellectual activities all that much and had often been in tears over her work; but after the tears, great big shiny ones, she had always recovered quickly and was soon laughing. She laughed beautifully — and she had always scraped through her examinations somehow. Holly Fox got by.
She was rather a noisy girl and you could pick out her laughing voice a long way off, but then a lot of girls are noisy, and at least she was tunefully noisy, never strident. She was adored, doted upon by the little girls at school, and to some of the big girls and several members of staff she was the cause of pangs. Her breeziness seemed to feed Sapphic passions which she never reciprocated nor seemed to comprehend, for she sent off shameless little presents quite publicly to all and sundry and jolly birthday cards covered in kisses to home addresses.
Holly Fox was effective. She was never late for anything. She was clean and even in the hideous school uniform of the day she managed to look as if she knew how to wear clothes. She always carried an extra pair of tights about with her in case of ladders and at any time of any day she would have been confident enough to meet the Queen, never without a handkerchief, comb, toothbrush, tampon, book of stamps.
She shone with health. Her teeth gleamed. Her strong clean nails were filed into nice white ovals. Her hair sprang up shinily from the scalp on either side of a quarter-inch-deep parting. She never looked weather-beaten or awry but always, even in deep November, bronzy and smooth. She tramped about in wellies and loved a rainy day. Such fun!
Her self-confidence was daunting and would have been loathsome had it not been obvious that it sprang from neither conceit nor self-awareness. She was so outgoing, so enthusiastic about her life, her friends, her family, her tennis, her Christianity (she ran astonishingly successful sponsored charities from the age of fourteen: 'Well, we just know so many people and they're all so generous'), that you could not really say that it sprang from self-absorption either.
It probably did spring from self-absorption, of course, for Holly Fox was not altogether a good listener. But how could you mind when the self she presented was so delightful? She never missed a birthday of the most long-ago family cleaning lady, or au pair from earliest childhood, or teacher in her first primary school, or her mother's old, old friends, especially the hairy, warty ones. Her big joy, almost her passion, was the putting of people in touch with other people who were vaguely connected with one another by distant threads of blood, by godchildren of second and third cousins, by half-remembered funerals, the wedding parties of long-lost enemies and old and sometimes desperate-to-be-forgotten passions. Her bulky address book at the age of twenty or so was already like the Almanach de Gotha. Once inscribed in it you were hers for ever. Holly Fox never, never, dropped you.
And men? Sex? No great trouble there either. She adored men, and said so. Often. She had adored men since she was born, she said, calling out the information across rooms full of them, laughing not archly but, it has to be said, deliciously. Sometimes chin in hand, eyes large, she said it lovingly, longingly, introspectively, confidently, like an experienced old courtesan who had much that she might tell; or as if she were preparing for a maturity and old age when it would be said that Holly Fox in her prime had been a femme fatale, a raving beauty.
And this was untrue. Holly Fox was not beautiful at all, but behaved with a shining openness and an innocent heart so that when she looked at you with big clear eyes she seemed to expose a classic face. In fact it was broad, freckly, and the chin colossal.
At the time of her death at twenty-eight in the 1990s Holly Fox had settled deeply into the mores of an almost lost generation, her mother's. She wore pearls and good suits and a hat for lunch in London. Do you believe this? Well, it is true. I promise you that Holly Fox at twenty-eight in the early nineties would wear a hat for lunch in Fortnum & Mason, usually as the guest of older women, and sit there among the antiseptic Americans — who thought, mistakenly, how amazingly English she was — and all the old scrags with their painted faces and tortured voices that floated together, piercingly clear, high up among the pretty lights on the ceiling. So sweet, the old-fashioned voice, the little diamond brooch in the lapel (she loved a diamond). She smiled up at the deadpan waitresses who said to each other, 'Isn't she like Brief Encounter, and yet she can't be more than, say, thirty-five?' 'Or Mrs. Miniver,' they said.
They knew their stuff, these old creaking Fortnum warriors, for Holly Fox was no better educated, no more politically, sociologically or sexually advanced, than either of these wartime film stars of nearly half a century before. Holly Fox was a throwback, a coelacanth. She aimed at being a thoroughly nice girl.
A fool and an idiot, then? A leech upon society? Not at all. Holly Fox before her marriage had been a nurse, a staff nurse in a great London hospital, and though she had had such trouble with her school examinations there was not a thing she balked at or mismanaged or mistook in her medical ones. She won distinctions. Before an examination she was still adept in fanning herself into the proper hysteria — 'I'll never do it, never' — but then she would pass out top.
'But I meant it!' she would cry. 'I thought I'd made a terrible mess of it! I swear. I can't believe it.'
Her nursing gifts, which unfolded naturally, were very thrilling to her. Her father had been a doctor, and his father before him, and instinctively she seemed to know the form, the jargon, the medical mythology. She seemed to comprehend the Hippocratic world so well that she even dared sometimes to send it up. As a first-year nurse she attended the hospital Christmas party dressed as a kissagram and embraced the Dean while ogresses in higher power stood dumbfounded. Sharp-faced, pock-marked authoritarians gaped, bewildered. The nerve of her with her pink glowing face — was it makeup or wasn't it? (It wasn't, it was health) — and her lah-di-dah vowels. 'What sort of example, Nurse Fox?' and so on.
But there was a certain steely authority about Holly Fox. Her credentials were impeccable. Her grandfather and father (and the man soon to be her husband) each had his name painted gold upon mahogany on the honours boards of the hospital Rugby XVs.
Cleverer girls than Holly Fox sometimes said that her confidence beneath the unrelenting sweetness made them sick. Ugly ones said she was over the top, snobbish, no beauty and a pain. But nobody could help liking her genuine good nature and her loving ways and lack of self-consciousness, and the fact that she was exactly the same with everybody, which, incidentally, is only nice if you are nice and not poisonous. Tamburlaine the Great was the same with everybody and so were Napoleon and Mussolini and Ivan the Terrible and Queen Elizabeth the First. But Holly Fox was not like them.
And she was not snobbish. No.
Or was she snobbish?
Oh, God, yes. Holly Fox actually, when you came down to it, was snobbish. Any political party not blue as the summer sky was in unthinkable shadow and she had never once been out with a man who hadn't been to an English public school, though she would have been thrilled with Harvard maybe, or Gordonstoun, which was OK. because of the royal family.
During her nursing training, when Holly Fox met and worked with proles for the first time (and found them all perfectly sweet), she didn't know them socially. She would have been lost anywhere that her own language was not spoken, both metaphorically and actually, and before meeting her future husband she had never travelled north of the home counties of England except once by air to St Andrews for her mother's golf, and to Dublin for a ball given by a girl at school. She muddled up Westmorland and Wolverhampton.
But look — she was lovely. You could tick off a thousand shortcomings in Holly Fox, failures of imagination, limitations of everyday understanding, and you might not choose to go on holiday with her especially if you were of rather low vitality or cared for guidebooks or for reading on an empty beach in silence. You might not waste a ticket on her for a concert. You might get fed up that every theatre performance she ever went to was pronounced 'absolutely marvellous' and was the more marvellous the less she understood it. And you might not be inclined to tell her any secrets, because although they would be perfectly safe with her (she forgot them) you had to watch them bounce and slide like dandelion clocks off her hands, scarcely touching her consciousness.
All the same, Holly Fox wept with the bereaved, held the hands of the dying, and she was wonderful with patients in pain. Yet the knife-twist of failure or loss somehow you felt never came near her and 'tragedy,' a word she used often, was never applied to anything large. She believed effortlessly in God, effortlessly in Christ, hazily in the Holy Spirit. She confused Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip and never thought which language Christ spoke in since what He said had always sounded so English. Eternal life presented no difficulties to Holly Fox for she knew that it must be so, and heaven somewhere or other, or why should such awful things happen to us here? There must be more to us than bodies that rotted and stank and broke apart and grew things both inside and out and looked worse as they aged and loathsome at the last. Children's bodies, too. All that she had had to see and face head-on in hospital, the facts that so often persuade better-educated, subtler people than Holly Fox against the existence of God, were for her simply proof that there must be something else to come or why should God have bothered? She had a point.
I tell you, everyone looked for the crumbled feet of clay on this shining girl and nobody found them. Certainly men never found them. Holly Fox was physically, uninhibitedly warm-blooded and determined on a lot of sexual love — in time. Not yet. What's more — and this was important to the medical students she usually went about with — she was pretty well-off and well-connected to the top medical mafia. Quite a few were stirred by the heart that beat so strongly beneath the starch that her hospital still insisted upon.
Oh Holly Fox, Holly Fox — she knew in her genes, as many don't, that what the sleazy, exhausted, nearly gutted soul of the young male hospital doctor wants is not femininity and softness, and someone who won't bleat when he's never at home, so much as self-confidence; an effective, fearless sort of woman, preferably a wielder of some sort of power in the profession, who keeps cool, smiles at him when he comes home, ticks him off, keeps her (and his) love affairs to herself, is silent as the grave about gossip, doesn't get drunk at parties and has the making of a stupendous medically political hostess of the future.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Faith Fox"
Copyright © 1996 Jane Gardam.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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