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Dorothea May is most at ease in the company of strangers. When her late husband's relatives prevail on her to take in a young man for the week before an unexpected family wedding, Thea's carefully constructed, solitary world is thrown into disarray. As the wedding approaches, old family secrets surface and conflicts erupt between the generations, trapping an unwilling Thea in the middle. Confronted by the company of Steve Best, a carefree young wanderer, Thea's fragile facade of peaceful acceptance is pierced, forcing her to face in a new way both her past and her future.
Exquisite writing, richly drawn characters, and penetrating prceptions about people are here combined into another superb novel by the writer about whom The New York Times Book Review has said, "If Henry James were around, the only writer he'd be reading with complete approval would be Anita Brookner."
|Publisher:||Doubleday Canada Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
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Towards evening the oppressive heat was tempered by a slight breeze, although this merely served to power drifts and eddies of a warmth almost tropical in its intensity. But this was England: somewhere in the atmosphere was a memory of damp. Truth to tell, the day had been almost uncomfortable: one was not used to such temperatures. The light, however, compensated for everything. Not quite crystal clear, but blinding in the absence of cloud, and gaining authority from the becalmed stillness of the garden, it put Mrs May in mind of novels and stories celebrating gardens other than her own, gardens which were part of estates, demesnes, where richly endowed families conversed in idleness, sat on terraces, or awaited visitors. `What meads, what kvasses were brewed, what pies were baked at Oblomovka!' The great sun, clearer then, must have shone down on that Russia as it did now in London, at six o'clock on a Sunday evening in early September. It was the hour at which she was accustomed to experience a slight failure of nerve. At seventy she understood how closely she was being subsumed into the natural process, feared the dark, welcomed the light. On this particular day the sun had provided a respite from bodily ills; she identified with its power, put her faith in its continuation. The sun was constant, encouraging one to regard it as a familiar. Winter, even autumn, seemed far away, almost unimaginable. She shut her mind against both.
There was Turner's sun, of course, a real English sun, dilute in the watery atmosphere, mirrored in the inevitable sea beneath. There was the great sun of antiquity, of which perhaps just an echo reached one at torrid midday. And there was the sadness with which one saw it depart, even though the resulting slight drop in temperature was refreshing. This, for Mrs May, signalled the end of the day, even though some hours remained before she could decently go to bed. And she must not anticipate those darker hours which were to her so precious: solemn hours, hours of infinite recall, of the mind on automatic pilot, throwing up fragments of conversations decades old, or memories of a school-friend not seen for even longer, until that other ancient god, sleep, conducted her into what she privately thought of as her true dimension, in which she became a vivid actor, weightless and sometimes joyful, embroiled in obscure adventures which puzzled her only when she woke. More troubling dreams she was able to discount: the effect of old age, she imagined, since nothing so very terrible had befallen her, although it almost certainly would do in that very near future about which she preferred not to think. The body would betray her; the body was therefore taboo, glanced at without amenity in the bath, and ignored once it was covered. It still functioned, more or less, although there were now pills to hand in both bedroom and bathroom. It was almost a comfort to her to know that there was no-one intimate enough to share the stoicism and distaste with which she endured herself. Strangers, introduced to her for the first time, assumed that she had never married, thinking her self-sufficiency no more than the sum of others' indifference. That was their business; hers was to give no sign of anything out of order. This she succeeded in doing. Unbeknown to herself, she was considered slightly forbidding. She had few friends now, but that, she thought, spared her the pain of losing them.
When she closed the French doors to the garden she was surprised how dark it seemed in the flat. On this ground floor of an Edwardian mansion block darkness was to be expected. She did not particularly mind this; in winter it intensified the pleasures of reading. The advantage was direct access to the extensive communal garden. She was told, even by relative strangers, that she put herself at risk by leaving her doors and windows open, but she was not nervous, although everyone she knew seemed to be, on guard against imaginary dangers. She was a Londoner born and bred, but she liked to imagine country emanations in the stillness of the early morning. She rose at half past five, donned her late husband's dressing gown, made tea, and took a tray out to the small table she was entitled to place on that portion of the terrace that was judged to be hers. This too was a blessed hour. At six-thirty, when she thought there might be neighbours about, she went in and had her bath. Dressed, the imperfections of her body superficially disguised, she would sigh briefly and prepare to confront the day. This was sometimes difficult.
Mondays were substantially different from Sundays, even for those who no longer worked. On Monday morning there was a tension in the air, which she could sense even as she drank her early morning tea, in solitude, without a newspaper, without the radio, with nothing to alert her to the day's events. Monday mornings made her feel vaguely ashamed of her idleness, of her unpartnered state, though neither was blameworthy. Rather she had been cast up on the barren shore of old age by a process of natural wastage, and she in her turn would disappear, unlamented. Given the inevitable disappointments of Monday, Sunday had to be prolonged, particularly such a resplendent Sunday as this had been. She stood at the window gazing out, until the outline of the trees turned a more sombre green. It would soon be dim enough to light her lamps, although left on her own, as she invariably was these days, she preferred not to bother.
It was at this point on a Sunday evening that her thoughts turned to Henry, her husband, and their past Sundays, unvarying, obligatory, occasionally enriching. For there was no time to enjoy the garden on those distant Sundays, but rather an afternoon trip to Hampstead, to visit Henry's twin sister, Rose, whom they could not disappoint. Henry had felt guilty at abandoning his sister; he had married not once but twice, leaving Rose forlorn. It had taken Mrs May, the second wife, a whole afternoon to understand that Rose was of rather feeble intelligence, not quite backward or retarded, but responding best to a sheltered life, looked after by her parents' former housekeeper. She had somehow imbibed a little knowledge, mainly from the Swiss establishment to which they had sent her; she had certainly acquired exquisite manners, though these might simply have been the natural outcome of her quiet nature. Her welcome was rapturous; she ran to her brother like the girl she had once been, though she was now a stout woman in her late fifties. Dressed, scented, she awaited their arrival with a girl's ardour.
After Henry had disengaged himself from her embrace it was the turn of Mrs May to be exclaimed over, patted, and led to a chair. Coming from a naturally austere background, she had found this alarming, until, timidly at first, she allowed herself to relax, for there was nothing of which to be afraid. There was little conversation, but a wealth of largely mimed gratification. She sat in a chair next to Rose and allowed her hand to be stroked; she admired Rose's clumsy embroidery until Henry returned from the kitchen and his settling of the household's accounts. The tea was served, with the cakes of which Rose was so fond. Henry teased and indulged her like the child she still was, and although she did not quite understand that he had become a man and she therefore a woman, she laughed delightedly at his remarks, hearing the sound of his voice rather than the sense of his words.
Mrs May said little but was attentive, removing a slopped saucer, unobtrusively substituting a dry one, marvelling quietly at Rose's dexterity with a cake fork when her remarks were so random and repetitive. But there was always the delighted laughter, until Henry looked at his watch and announced that it was time that they were on their way. Then there were tears, and the housekeeper had to intervene, to put an end to Rose's prayerful embraces, and lead her to the window for the last goodbye. `Until next week, Rose,' Henry would say, but she did not quite believe him. They waved exhaustively, until they saw her form retreat into the room behind her. Then Henry would shake off the burden of the visit, and they would walk back into town, glad of the activity. A different Sunday then impinged on their consciousness: tourists in T-shirts, tired children, decorous Asian shopkeepers and their families strolling in the park. All this, which could have been entertaining, became alien, as they silently compared it with the life, or half life, they had just left. Henry would sigh intermittently throughout the evening, though Mrs May was naturally equable. She was more than willing to share Henry with his sister; for both of them Henry was of equal importance. Tired, therefore, but uncomplaining, she would set about preparing the evening meal, with scarcely a glance through the window at the garden.
And they were both dead, both Henry and Rose, within weeks of each other. Rose, supported by various cousins, had fainted at Henry's funeral, although that had been as sparse and unemotional as Mrs May could contrive it. In that other garden, at Golders Green, Rose had finally understood the facts of death. An ambulance was called; in the ambulance she had a stroke, and in the hospital soon surrendered what consciousness she had left. Her bedside was thronged with those same relatives. Mrs May came and went silently. And then it was over. The relatives dispersed, and she was alone.
Alone except for the telephone calls, routinely made on a Sunday evening to ascertain that she was still alive. Henry's married cousins, Kitty Levinson, Molly Goodman, his doctor and distant connection, Monty Goldmark, all paid her faithful though absent-minded attention. She felt herself to be a stranger in their midst, a truth on which agreement was more or less unanimous. Hospitality was invariably offered, but at the same time there was a tacit acceptance that she would continue her alien life at a distance. Both parties felt some relief at this convention; the cousins, guilty at even feeling relief, redoubled their expressions of goodwill. Again there was little conversation. Mrs May was in no doubt that the calls were motivated by love for the absent Henry rather than for herself. She did not take exception to this; she knew that Henry had been a superior character, that she was little more than his shadow, his relict. It was because they felt so sorry for any woman whom Henry had left alone that their ready emotions overflowed on Sunday evenings, as if even they acknowledged the sadness of those hours, sadness that was perhaps little more than a pause for unwanted reflection, and the knowledge that time was slipping away.
The conversations seemed to follow an unseen rota, as if Kitty had previously agreed with Molly which one of them was to undertake the task. Mrs May took a small wager with herself as to who was shouldering the obligation on any particular week. If anything she dreaded the interruption of the silence in which she now lived, yet once the routine enquiries had been exchanged she surrendered almost pleasurably to Kitty's or Molly's invariable recital: their health, the health of their husbands, the dinner party of the week, the menu served at the dinner party, the projected visit to Kitty or to Molly, whoever was speaking or not speaking, reminiscences of Rose, whom these good women had been assiduous in visiting on days other than those sacrosanct Sundays, the fears they had entertained on Rose's behalf after the death of her parents, the subsequent splendid behaviour of Henry, and ultimately of herself. This was what really spurred them to keep in touch, not her own health (monotonously good, they supposed, since she never complained), not the reminiscences, but their own unquestioning acceptance of Henry's priorities. Even though she remained so puzzling a stranger, she was still Henry's wife.
It seemed to surprise them that one not of their immediate kin could identify so closely with Henry's life, and Mrs May could not tell them that Henry had been her subject, as if she had been studying him for a degree and was intent on knowing as much of him as it would be discreet of her to know, without impinging on his own sorely tested privacy. She was a novel reader, which helped, and the cousins were not. So she could not explain her deep appreciation of the differences that existed between them. Henry was festive, emotional, easily moved, extravagant; when he brought her flowers his own cheeks would flush with pleasure. Her own response, though outwardly moderate, was deep. How to explain this to Molly or to Kitty, whose own husbands were usually described in terms of physical ailments? So that the telephone calls were usually a disappointment, at least on their side. After her meagre stock of news was exhausted, after she had made the usual response to accounts of the rheumatism or the recipe for lemon chicken, aware that she was letting them down, and sincerely sorry for the fact, she would ask after every extended family member--fortunately her memory was excellent--and thus repair her reputation.
`I hope you're looking after yourself, Thea,' was usually the concluding remark. `What are you eating tonight?'
`Gazpacho and baked cod,' she would say, or, `Cold tongue with Madeira sauce.'
In fact she would eat a banana, as she usually did, and settle down with a book. Kitty or Molly would then think more kindly of her, guiltily reassured once again, although after the call they would telephone each other to deplore her coldness. This too she knew and did not resent.
For if they pitied her she did not pity herself. She had had Henry, so puzzlingly absent. His presence was somehow denied her, owing perhaps to that same rationality or coldness that the cousins deplored. For she could not tell of the loyalty, and gratitude, that had united her with Henry, and was therefore judged unfeeling. Because nothing had prepared her for this unlikely marriage she was profoundly surprised to be acknowledged as a wife. Not to be found a novice, to be made a companion, was her endowment from Henry. Yet there were no photographs of him in the flat, and she was not afraid of the dark, nor did she commune sentimentally with his shade. Simply, he was gone, leaving her as alone now as when he had found her, neither more nor less. As a widow she cut a poor figure, she knew. If she wished for anything now it was to be left alone, to furnish her own silence. She knew that she was approaching the end of her life, and that silence was appropriate. She was unaware that she gave no sign of this, and was thus not understood. But to express her acceptance of these facts, of this situation, would be to invite the charge of morbidity, which she rejected with something of the same distaste as would be felt by Kitty or Molly if she so much as voiced her thoughts. Therefore her conversation consisted largely of enquiries as to the health and welfare of her interlocutor. These protected her and at the same time gave pleasure, easing her into another week with a consciousness of duties fulfilled and obligations discharged. Without this consciousness she would have felt undressed.
Since that remote day when she had tripped on an uneven paving stone and fallen, and had been rescued by a passer-by, who was Henry, her life had hardly been her own, and on occasion she had difficulty in recognising it. Therefore she felt a certain familiarity with these latter days; this was the solitude she had always known before and until her marriage. She had been rescued in more senses than one, though, strangely enough, on hot still evenings such as this, she could remember the involuntary surrender of the fall, before the strong hands had restored her balance. Now that they would never hold her again she sought no substitutes, was chary of affectionate gestures, a fact which estranged her even further from the cousins, as did her apparently unsupported status. She had no family, which to Kitty and Molly made her pitiable, even shameful. Yet she was still too loyal to her origins to describe her relief at her escape from home, from the tall narrow house at the far end of the New Kings Road, in which she and her mother and father had passed their harmonious but largely silent days. Conversation was somehow a luxury, confined to Sundays. Thus she had learned nothing except to visit the Public Library: fiction taught her all she knew of life, taught her to interpret the lives of others. And she had not been found wanting: that was also Henry's gift to her. Even the cousins, once introduced, could not fault her, little knowing that their immaculate carpets and voluptuous sofas provided such a contrast with the serviceable upright furniture and plain curtains of home. She had bought her present flat with the proceeds of the family house after the deaths of her father and her mother. They too had died within weeks of each other, as if their largely coded conversation could only be pursued beyond the grave.
Her first efforts at furnishing had been awkward; it had taken some time for her to settle on the blue-grey carpet and curtains that had so soothed Henry. And of course there was the outlook onto the garden, to which she paid so much attention these days. She had never really known whether Henry had loved the flat as much as she did. On those visits to the cousins, which could not be avoided, he seemed to reveal an affinity with the amiable husbands who put aside their newspapers to wave a cheerful greeting, leaving the formalities to their wives. Something wistful and pleasure-loving then emanated from him. The coffee, the cake, which appeared as though by magic, were just as magically consumed, as though they were a birthright, as natural as mother's milk.
Their life alone together was courteous, deeply considerate. This enabled Mrs May to endure her sparse attractions, which the cousins, so abundant, so fecund, openly deplored. Had she been guilty of weaning Henry away from his family? Perhaps she had; perhaps he had it in him to be just such an amiable husband, comfortably ensconced in just such a soft armchair, served coffee and cake by the sort of mother figure that Mrs May could never be. Yet alone with her he became more of a man; not merely the provider, through a family trust, of an extended network of cousins and nephews, but thoughtful, dignified, mature. He had been the director of a small charity for refugees, from which he took no salary, being satisfactorily financed through investments. There had been factories in Germany when the name was Meyer: as Henry May a native charm, together with his own resources, made him a respected figure in his own world and in hers. She had thought herself his debtor; only now, in old age, and in solitude, did she ever think of herself without reference to Henry.
This puzzled her. Although lonely she was not unhappy. A day like today, spent watching her neighbours' children playing in the garden, hardly moving for the duration of the long Sunday afternoon, had not been unduly burdensome. If she saw herself, even in her memory, she did not see the brightness that had been hers as a wife; she saw the lined and ageing woman she had become, as if these lineaments had been waiting to emerge since her features had first been formed. For Henry's sake she kept up appearances, had her hair done, applied discreet colours to her face, yet when she looked in the mirror, lipstick in hand, she saw a drained countenance, its expression wary, as if at any minute it might undergo disintegration, as if there were no longer any cells to separate the skin from the bone. This was a bad moment every morning. Once she was packaged for the day, in one of her navy-and-white print dresses, she thought no more of this sly transformation. Housework occupied a bare half hour; she was not untidy. Once a fortnight a cleaning firm turned out the flat, during which time she sat politely in the garden. She had got rid of her daily, Olive Gage, who was so devoted to Henry, because she could no longer endure her tearful reminiscences. The cleaners sent by the firm were Vietnamese and silent. This suited her much better. She was aware of herself as a selfish old woman, but she knew that her character, like her appearance, was unlikely to improve, might even deteriorate to the extent of asking other people to be quiet, in a voice now almost rusty from misuse. The only voices she really welcomed were those she heard on the radio, since no response was called for. Yet these days she listened only to the news, and a little music in the evening. She had grown used to her own company, paid it little attention. At the same time she was aware that the world made demands even on one as undemanding as herself.
In these days of her solitude her own history reclaimed her, her life before Henry and her life since. She saw an intimate connection between the two, as if Henry had been an improbable interlude for which nothing had prepared her. On the contrary: his company, his presence had been a source of surprise as well as pleasure. It was in fact when she saw him buttressed by Rose, by Rose's housekeeper, who always greeted her kindly, by Kitty and Molly and their husbands, that the breathtaking realisation struck her: these people are my relations. For her youth had been a long apprenticeship, her parents too busy, too abstracted, too conscious of each other, to satisfy any longings she might have had for gossip, for fantasy, such as she was to encounter in Kitty's and Molly's drawing rooms. Her youth had been an affair of studious long walks, trying to appreciate the wonders of nature in the dusty shrubs of her dull suburb; as soon as she was old enough she took the bus to Kensington Gardens and walked round Hyde Park. This excursion usually occurred on a Sunday afternoon, when her parents settled down for their customary nap; her absence was tolerated unquestioningly, and on her return there would be a proper tea, with cake, as if the day had some significance after all. Now, her days once more unaccompanied, she remembered those timid celebrations (for that was what they were) with a sense of recognition that surprised her. Between the Public Library and her long walks she had preserved her youth in innocence, unaware of either happiness or unhappiness, unmarked by anguish or rebellion.
She had been thirty-nine when she married Henry, still shaken by the death of her mother and hardly prepared for change. Yet she had acceded calmly to Henry's surprising fervour, though it rather embarrassed her now to think of it. She was a born spinster, as the cousins shrewdly perceived; at roughly the same age as herself, or a little older, they were looking forward to further festivities, were in the throes of planning them, so that no time would be lost. She had sat with her cup of tea and listened to their news; it was as if they were showing her what she could never be. She intuited that they were severely put out by this union. Henry, having returned to the bosom of his family after his unhappy first marriage, was once again to leave them, and to leave them for this thin plain woman who compared so unfavourably with the petulant Joy. She had endured their baffled annoyance, until their better natures reasserted themselves. They made amends by giving her the names of their dressmakers, suggesting lunch in town. Yet they were kind women, if easily put out, and because they judged her to have passed some test of conformity, or obedience, because Henry appeared contented, because Rose was not neglected, they admitted her to their company, while privately expressing astonishment at the fact that she lived in Fulham. They saw immense difficulties in the way of visiting--Hampstead and Highgate were so distant!--and had to be brought over by car by complaisant husbands whom they contradicted, uneasy away from their familiar surroundings.
She had made them welcome. The fact that Henry had married her gave her confidence, and her fledgling dinner parties were surprisingly convivial. In addition to the cousins and their husbands they had invited Monty Goldmark and his wife, Helene, so that the conversation was animated and she could slip out of the room into the kitchen without being noticed. Reabsorbed once more into his family, Henry expanded: old anecdotes were repeated, ancient relatives recalled. She could hear them laughing as she prepared the coffee. The dinners having proved a success--almost an initiation--efforts at hospitality were somewhat relaxed. They kept in touch, even after Henry's death, and if their plaintive voices arrived at her from a distance both geographical and metaphorical, she was still moderately pleased to hear from them. She did not know that they thought her eccentric, that they had to overcome a mild uneasiness before they spoke to her. They thought that she could never understand them, in which they were mistaken; they thought that she could never, now even less than formerly, become one of them, in which they were correct. At the funeral, after Henry's death, Molly had tearfully clasped Mrs May's light frame to her capacious bosom. She was as shocked by Mrs May's unyielding thinness as Mrs May had been by Molly's abundant flesh. Now that it was accepted that they should remain apart, contact was easier. They were no longer critical of each other, having jettisoned many of their prejudices along with their combative middle age. In their seventies--Mrs May the youngest of the three--they understood each other much better. If the cousins telephoned one another to marvel at Mrs May's oddness, it was in order to revive an old pleasurable subject, as others might read, or indeed write, a novel. Mrs May was calmly pleased to provide them with such a diversion.
But those timid walks round Hyde Park, those bus rides, how they came back to her! It was as if no time had passed between the ages of sixteen and seventy, except that she no longer had the energy or the stamina for such walks. The newsagent in the early morning, the Italian cafe at lunchtime were as much as she could encompass these days, though she regretted her passivity. In her mind she strode out, even on these hot days, remembering the healthy tiredness of times gone by. That was all over now, yet the memory of her training in solitude had stood her in good stead. It may even have been a rehearsal for the ultimate solitude, which would be revealed to her in due course. For the moment she was unencumbered, almost ready to depart. Only the memory of her first meeting with Henry was allowed to intrude into her present becalmed state.
`These paving stones are a disgrace,' he had said, helping her to her feet. `I shall write to the Council.'
He had insisted on walking her back to the office and delivering her into the kind hands of Susie Fuller, her fellow secretary.
`May,' he had said, holding her by the elbow. `Henry May.'
`Jackson,' she had said. `Dorothea Jackson.'
`Really, Thea,' Susie Fuller had remarked, after he had left. `I sometimes wonder whether you should be out alone.'
That was the day when everyone was good to her. He had come back at five-thirty to see whether she had recovered from her fall, and had invited Susie and herself out for coffee. He was so beautifully considerate that they had had no thought of refusing.
`Lovely manners,' Susie had whispered, as they had gone to collect their coats. And he had demonstrated those lovely manners by making no distinction between them, although interested only in Dorothea--but this she had learned later. And the rest had followed quite naturally, as if they had both willed the same outcome. Fifteen years of harmony had followed, and if she was puzzled that they had not changed her, had in fact left her as they found her, so that Henry was a memory only, she bore the absence uncomplainingly, and was more at home with those phantom Sundays before the advent of Henry, seeing quite clearly the leaves falling in the park, and turning her steps quite contentedly towards home.
It was still very hot. The light had almost faded, signalling the last hours of liberty before the working week began again. She would make coffee, she decided, take a cool bath. Then the night could begin, and if she were lucky unexpected images would surface. She could be young again, the only reasonable wish at her age. Once she had distinctly recaptured the appearance of a dress she had worn when she was fourteen. She might see her parents, no longer ailing, as they had been so often in their lives, but smiling their placid smiles as they offered her tea and cake. She was not disconcerted by this process, did not confound it with the onset of senility. Rather it was her pastime since Henry had left her. His memory was evanescent now, as evanescent as she was herself, yet somehow she must pursue her course to the end, whatever that would be.
When the telephone rang, a little later than usual, she noticed that it was almost dark.
`Good evening, Kitty,' she said. `And how are you this week' And Austin? Oh, dear, I'm so sorry. Perhaps the hot weather doesn't agree with him. Yes, very hot today.'
There followed the ritual medical bulletins, the news of married friends and familiars, and a reminder, yet again, that they would be going away for three weeks in ten days' time. This took just over seven minutes. At the end, like an orchestral conductor embarking confidently on the final bars, she said, `Yes, I'm perfectly fine, dear. My love to you both. Until next week. Goodbye.'