|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.70(d)|
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Odd Girl Out
By Elizabeth Jane Howard
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Elizabeth Jane Howard
All rights reserved.
'Of course I don't mind, my darling. Of course I don't.' She wore the top half of his pyjamas and was putting cherry jam on a piece of toast. She thought for a moment, and then added, 'It will be lovely for me to have someone to talk to while you're in London.'
Edmund Cornhill looked at his wife for some time without replying. At moments like these, he told himself, his customary feeling of devotion for her was shot with something positively erotic.
What he liked about her, he went on to himself – he was a man of incessant internal words, few of which reached the drum of human ear – was the way in which she always contrived to be rational about any sacrificing attitude he called upon her to make. She did not simply say that something would be all right, she said why it would be, and then, of course, it nearly always was. She was in bed, a place that he felt sure most wives did not occupy often enough: he never let her get up in the mornings until he had either set out for London, or otherwise begun his day.
'Stripes suit you,' he said.
'Or it may be the red and blue that is so becoming. You remind me of one of those delightful pre-war plays when the girl stays the night unexpectedly.'
She said instantly, as he knew she would, 'I love blue.'
'She's been ill: or at least that's what it sounded like.'
'I thought you said that Clara said she just needed a rest.'
'She did say that. But she talked away about strain and needing a change, and the line kept fading out.'
'Where did she telephone from?'
'Lucerne. But she wasn't staying there, she said: she was on her way to Paris.'
'Goodness,' said Anne politely.
Anne had been married to Edmund for nearly ten years, and the very faint spark of curiosity she had earlier evinced about Edmund's ex-stepmother's whereabouts had long since died. She was, Anne felt, bound to be somewhere, and, as very little experience had shown, almost certain to be on her way to somewhere else. One could not keep up with her unless one wanted to a great deal more than Anne had done. But Edmund did care – in an odd and rather touching way regarded his fleeting and attenuated relationship with her as some kind of heraldic feather in his cap. Whenever Clara came to England, he always had tea with her at Claridge's: he sent her a fiendishly expensive Christmas card every year and faithfully executed any of the dreary commissions which in her huge writing on beautiful postcards she exacted from him. He called her Clara and she called him darling.
'Do you remember that parrot we had of Clara's?'
He straightened up with the breakfast tray that he had been removing from the bed. 'Of course I do. Why?'
'Nothing. I just remembered how bored it was – that's all.'
'Parrots are bored: it was nothing to do with Clara.'
She started to say that of course she hadn't meant that, when a scratching – as delicate as it was authoritative – interrupted them.
Edmund opened the door, and Ariadne made her customary graceful and noiseless entrance. She was black, and so see thingly pregnant that her body reminded one of a small muff, into which somebody had crammed their hands in a vain effort to stop fidgeting. In spite of this, she leapt lightly on to the bed and fell upon her side within reach of Anne's hand. Anne stroked her neck, and she began to examine the end of one paw with critical care.
'When are you going to do it?' Anne asked her softly, but Ariadne merely shut her juicy eyes.
'As long as it's not on our bed,' Edmund said as he went to run his bath. He said this every morning now, but neither Anne nor Ariadne took the slightest notice.
While Edmund was having his bath, Anne lay, wishing he'd let her get up first; she hated wasting any of a beautiful morning in bed, and so she made lists with her mind rambling lazily over the unrelated words as she wrote them on the back of Edmund's wine-merchants' catalogue. Muscari, she wrote. They had not really liked being under the cedar; it was far too dry for them. If she wanted drifts of blue under the cedar, she would have to make do with bluebells. But then, bluebells were really their best in woods. If Edmund asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she would say a wood. But that would mean moving, and she never wanted to do that. To find a house, not too far from London, on a river, with a garden that contained, among other charms, a cedar, a mulberry and a catalpa, was not something that could possibly happen twice to anyone, even if their husband was an estate agent. It had taken Edmund nearly a year to find it, and in spite of his professional sieving-out of the impossibles, they must have looked at thirty or so houses. Salmon trout, she wrote, and thought how like the Walrus and the Carpenter her fishmongers were. When was this daughter of Clara's coming? And really, Edmund had better put her straight about who had been – or was – the girl's father. Clara had been married six times not counting other prolonged relationships; the girl could as easily be a product of one of them as born in wedlock. But it would be as well to know, to be thoroughly briefed beforehand ... Get bedside lamp mended, she wrote. Do roses, she wrote. She meant, dead-head, pick and arrange and spray and generally take care. Her old-fashioned shrubs were at their best towards the end of June and this was a particularly good year for them.
It was Wednesday – the day that Edmund often looked at some country house for a client – occasionally even stayed the night in some distant market town or cathedral city: would ring her up in the evening to tell her what he had had for dinner and whether the house had been awful or charming, and would return the next day. On Wednesdays she would make some elaborate dish to be eaten on Thursday evening: would garden until it was nearly dark, and eat boiled eggs at the kitchen table with a novel propped against a loaf of bread. Afterwards, she would have a hot bath and wash her hair and write to Edmund's father who lived in a Home in Cornwall. She tried to write these letters once a week; at least made herself write them on all the Wednesdays that Edmund was away. This compromise was not satisfactory to her: she was someone who continually felt that she was on the brink of order in her life, and that when she actually embarked upon it, her life would, so to speak, start afresh in a far more dynamic and significant manner. Order meant to her that duties of all kinds had both a time and a place for their performance. She was not sure whether pleasures were contained in either, but only insecure and unhappy people would try to plan for them.
Edmund was whistling a bit of the 'Trout' – the bit that people always do whistle, if they whistle it at all. Soon he would be back in the bedroom wanting her to choose his shirt and tie and then changing her choice back to what she felt he could perfectly easily have chosen if she had not been there. One of the most noticeable things about Edmund was his predictability: to many this might equate with dullness; to Anne it was possibly his chief attraction. She had had enough of unpredictable behaviour – once – to last her for the rest of her life. She stretched, and got very slowly out of bed to consider Edmund's shirts ...
'How are you?'
'Pretty bloody.' After a pause, she asked, 'And you?'
'I'm all right, thanks.' Both of their answers meant exactly the same thing, he thought: that they couldn't feel much worse but that the other one neither cared nor could do a thing about it if he or she had.
'And the kids?'
She answered at once with the kind of dreary triumph that had always irritated him. 'They've got tonsillitis: or glandular fever; or mumps. They're both in bed, poor little sods.'
'Have you got a doctor?'
'Of course I've called a doctor; I'm not absolutely mad. But doctors don't come the moment they're called these days, you know. She said she'd try to make it before lunch. Nobody's rung for you, if that's what you're calling about.'
There ensued a frightful, minuscule, unknown amount of time, like watching somebody fall off a building, or the last grains of an egg timer, or somebody waiting to have their head chopped off; then he said, 'It wasn't, actually. Actually, I'm on my way back.'
She was silent for a moment, then with an almost aggressive lack of curiosity, said, 'Back where?'
He thought of counting three before he answered, 'Home: back to you – and the kids.'
She made a noise that sounded as though it was composed of a laugh, a cry and a snort, and said, 'Has she left you then? What a bloody silly question. She must have. You're not exactly the dutiful type, are you?'
Wanting to shout, Don't talk like a bad pre-war play, he said, 'Yes: she has left me, you'll be glad to hear.'
'Can't stand being alone.'
'No. If I can't have what I want, at least I ought to do what I should.'
'What makes you think I want you back?'
'It's not a matter of what you want, is it? That point always gets left out of these situations. It's what we can afford. I can't afford two establishments, and if you're to look after the kids properly, you can't work.'
'She was keeping you, was she?'
'It doesn't matter what she was doing,' he said, wanting to kill her for being so nasty about it. 'She's gone. Left me: I could have lied to you about that, but at least. I haven't. That's something, isn't it?'
'No – it bloody well isn't.'
'Why isn't it?'
'You've just decided to come back because there's nothing better to do. That's marvellous, I must say.' She was trying very hard not to burst into tears.
'It's not very marvellous for either of us. It never has been. I'll be back for lunch.'
He put down the receiver, and lay back on the unmade bed. It was extraordinary how quickly this ritzy little Chelsea non-painter's studio had seemed to change the moment she had gone – what, four days and five nights ago now. When she had been there, it had had all the charms of a secret, romantic nest. It was very small – a two-roomed flat, in fact, but with very mod cons – but it had seemed the perfect answer when they had first gone there. It belonged to one of her rich friends called Neville who spent most of the summer in Ibiza, and who she had said casually was always prepared to lend it to one when he wasn't in England – or, indeed, London; he apparently had a cottage in Hampshire as well, and a flat in Paris. But now – after these four days and five awful nights when he had simply drunk up all the remaining bottles of drink in the place, and even used up things like Worcester Sauce and very old eggs on Prairie Oysters, and got sick of the few LPs, and smoked several hundred cigarettes – the place looked as though someone had had an unsuccessful party in it. The blackberry-coloured fitted carpets were covered with ash; he had burned marks on the edges of white-painted bookshelves; the bathroom and kitchen were a welter of squalor – of tide marks and dirty crockery, and things going bad in cups and basins and black-cracked soap and uninvitingly damp and dirty towels. He had only gone out for cigarettes, and he'd only stopped going out for them because his money had run out. He looked at the last packet that he had clenched in his hand while talking to Janet – there were only three left and he'd bent them. Damn. He was out of work, out of love, and had three people to keep. He wondered for the thousandth time where she was now. She should have been an actress, he thought viciously: she was the one: she would never have been out of work. She could make anyone believe anything for just as long as she chose ... He found he was crying again – not making much noise – just tears and the kind of snuffling he wouldn't have liked anybody else to have heard. He got off the bed and went to the bathroom: better try and shave with that ghastly blade that he knew he'd cut himself with, but that was the only one left.
His face in the mirror looked so awful, and so different, that for a moment he was almost objectively impressed with his own grief. He would never be the same again, and quite possibly, she had ruined his life. (But no; it was Janet who had done that: a blonde at Drama School, wouldn't you know.) At moments like these, the rest of life can seem very long: visions of his ravaged and agonized middle and old age jerked tragically into his mind, like stills from some interminable film about suffering and the corrosion of a man: Dorian Gray, or Jekyll and Hyde, but the damage all done by plain heartbreak rather than plain evil. It was not he who had been wicked: he had not wanted to fall in love with her: he had not expected any more of life than to tool along with Janet and the kids, with the occasional girl on the side just to keep up his sexual morale. But she had picked him up, thrown herself at his head, dusted him off, and was now, no doubt, starting all over again. As he dabbed the blood off the first cut of his shave, he wondered again where the hell she had gone, gone so suddenly, and where in God's name she was now?
'Copper-bottomed; it does sound rude.'
'It is this offal worm; it attacks the hulls of all sheeps; even yours, my darling.'
'We never had any trouble in the Caribbean.'
'Possibly it is a Mediterranean worm. If we do not have it done, we either do not cruise there or we one day seenk like stones.'
'One thing after another. First Arabella – and then this. I'm not made of money.'
She was wearing a silver lamé leotard and grey tights: her head was encased in a black towelling turban and she lay on her back with her legs over her head so that her toes touched the floor: he could only see her sideways. He started putting the marbles back into position on the solitaire board and answered, 'Oh yes you are, my darling. With a little flesh and blood thrown in, of course.'
'Less flesh than there was. I've lost fifteen pounds in this boring place.'
He had lost considerably more pounds of a different kind, and felt it better to change the subject.
'What has Arabella been up to?'
'Nothing unusual. In fact, I wish that girl would branch out into some form of originality.'
'There was the affair with the lady sculptress,' he pointed out. He was a fair man when indifferent, and he was certainly indifferent to his stepdaughter.
Clara sat up, crossed her legs and began doing neck exercises. 'That was sheer bravado. Well – call those people in Cannes and tell them to put on a copper bottom, but I want it done by the middle of July so that we can pick up the yacht at Nice after I've collected my things from Paris.'
Her maid knocked, and entered with a tray on which was a saucer of various pills, and a jar of honey.
'Open the blinds, would you, Markham, and give me my dark glasses.'
'They'll have to be the white ones, my lady; there was an unfortunate accident with those that go with your exercising costume.'
Markham was of indeterminate age, ugly, efficient and spiteful: although she made a point of getting on with nobody, she had remained with Clara for over twenty years so that now her indispensability safely counter-balanced her spite. She disliked all men, and had enormously enjoyed the various divorces and breakups that she had witnessed at such close hand. It was not clear what she felt about her mistress, but she looked after her clothes – kept in at least three different countries – with obsessive care. Only she knew that Clara possessed and occasionally wore nearly two hundred pairs of handmade shoes: she was a beautiful needlewoman and laundered all the superb underwear herself.
With the blinds up, sunlight the colour of melted butter filled the hotel room, making its pastel discretion seem drab. Prince Radamacz got up from his solitaire and wandered to the balcony. Outside, the postcard sky – mercilessly blue – made the lake hyacinth, and the little sailing-boats upon it seem like a brand new set of toys as they scurried about in their aimless and miniature manner. The thought of being in one of them both bored and exasperated him. It was infuriating to have lost such a pleasure simply through being nearer death, and he had recently discovered that chronic comfort (or luxury) made him think a great deal about that.
Excerpted from Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Copyright © 1972 Elizabeth Jane Howard. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this book maybe about 5 times. I loved it, and still do. Initially, I didn't think much of it. There were many pointless/useless scenarios, but the plot of it all was so real, you can almost feel the characters. Who else these days can write about infidelity like this author can? I wouldn't say this book is outstanding, but I do recommend if you enjoy a good slow read.