Authors: Constance Beresford-Howe
Copyright © 1981 Constance Beresford-Howe
First published by Macmillan of Canada 1981
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data
Beresford-Howe, Constance, 1922-
The marriage bed / Constance Beresford-Howe.
PS8503.E76M37 2002 C813′.54 C2002-901936-2
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
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my son Jeremy
omewhere on the frontier between darkness and light, I was detained by a dream. Like my daytime existence, it was obscure and cluttered with detail of bewildering insignificance; but as dreams so often do, this one seemed to have a meaning beyond the sum of its parts.
I was visiting a prison – or was I the jailer? – in any case, the cell was a mediaeval affair, stony, dark, and cold, where a prisoner sat fettered with heavy chains. It was my husband Ross, but his seat was the low rocking-chair where I nursed our children, and I felt the weight of those chains as if they bit into my own flesh. Somewhere in the background (which suddenly became an airport Departures lounge) my stepfather Max and my mother were dancing, and I could hear seagulls. I was weeping, because we all knew that Ross, who had left me five months ago, was as free as a feather in the air. I was the prisoner loaded with chains, namely my two children, my current pregnancy, and my own temperament.
Snowlight at the window pulled me into the day. The dream faded and vanished. Awareness came first: the sleepy, fragmented chat of Martha and Hugh from their cots in the next room, like the conversation of birds; the kick of the fetus in my imprisoning belly. Next my identity came back – the who if not the why of Anne Graham, with her honours degree, her double heartbeat, and her dishevelled life. The dream, of course, was nonsense. Besides, it was plagiarized. It came from one of those metaphysical Body-and-Soul debates, a poem I’d read the night before. Just the same, there had to be meaning, if not answers, in things like dreams and books. I fumbled for the anthology on the bedside table among a clutter of socks, letters, and kids’ toys. Yes, here it was – a poem by Marvell.
Oh, who shall from this dungeoun raise
A soul enslaved so many ways?
With bolts of bones; that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
• • •
A soul hung up, as ‘t were, in chains
Of nerves and arteries and veins;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head and double heart.
A nice bit of imagery, that, even if my pregnancy gave it a new dimension Marvell never intended. But answers? – No. The arts, like the sciences, could provide no more reliable clues to my future than the entrails of a bird.
With a great sigh I wallowed up out of my blankets and sat on the edge of the empty bed to brush and braid my hair into its thick rope. Sad that my library card, in so many ways a passport out of
chaos, took me nowhere in particular. How could it, when I read more for escape than enlightenment? Just the same, I devoured piles of books weekly, searching for some kind of reconciliation with this narrow house, or my failed marriage, or my stalled academic career. Now I reached again for the Marvell poem and read the next verse with my unfinished plait in one hand like a loose tether.
Oh, who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go …
A crash from the next room, and Hugh’s wail. Downstairs the dog began to bark hysterically as the postman pushed a handful of bills through the slot. The day had begun. I tossed back the braid and slung on my tentlike dressing-gown, thrusting my feet into slippers.
But when I opened the kids’ door, the sight of them gave me a crazy lift of joy, as it did first thing every morning. Hugh was on the floor howling, having tipped over on his head as he tried to climb out of his crib. Martha, her stout, naked form precariously balanced on a chair, was trying to drag her best smocked dress down off its hanger. She eyed me with truculence, as if I were the one caught red-handed.
“Put on the blue overalls, Mar. Then you can run down and get the mail for me.”
Ignoring this, I peeled Hugh out of his sodden pyjamas and began to dress him for the day. From below, our Siamese cat Chairman Mao yowled imperiously for his breakfast. Scuffling on her out-turned feet, the basset nosed open the door, then
histrionically flopped down and began to scratch herself. On one flank I spotted a new red patch of eczema. And that meant, oh God, a trip to the vet – our supply of ointment was all gone.
At this point the phone rang in the hall. “Go and answer it, Martha,” I said cunningly. At once she dropped the dress and ran. She loved dealing with the phone; it fed her self-importance and love of management, and made her forget the major frustration of her life, the fact that she wasn’t yet three. I hung up the small frock, closed the cupboard door, and followed her with the blue overalls. Hugh staggered after me.
“Hullo, Granny,” Martha was saying into the receiver. “I have no clothes on.” Craftily I began to ease her into pants and T-shirt, a manoeuvre she pretended not to notice. Hugh squatted down near us to chew a small toy dog.
While my mother-in-law’s slow voice quacked out of the mouthpiece, it suddenly occurred to me that this was not the day for her regular weekly call. What the hell could it mean, then? – had Ross at last told her about us? In an effort to instil calm, I laid a hand over the unborn one as it kicked into a somersault.
“Let me speak to your mother now,” the voice said.
want to talk.”
“Thank you, love,” I said, and ruthlessly twisted the receiver out of her fat grasp. She promptly tripped over Hugh, who broke into a shrill wail and kicked at her. With a groan I hauled him up and slung him over one hip, rocking him to and fro soothingly. Martha stumped off downstairs singing “Stayin’ Alive” in a loud and tuneless voice.
“Good morning, Mother.”
“Is that you … Anne?”
“Yes, it’s me.” Edwina Graham never believes anything, however self-evident, until she’s heard it at least twice; but this was only
one of the reasons why talking to her made me wonder over and over again whether it’s possible actually to die of boredom.
“Um – is everything all right, Mother?”
“Everything is fine.” (He hadn’t told her, then.) “And how are you …
“Oh, great. Just great.” My distended belly began to itch fiercely, perhaps with relief. While not as total a coward as Ross, I wasn’t looking forward either to the day when she had to know he was living with his secretary Larine.
On my hip, Hugh grizzled away drearily, his nose running. Teeth or another cold? All this time, Mother’s calm, oblivious voice went chuntering on:
“Not due for my checkup till April, but this weekend at Lucy’s bridge party … never could resist peanut brittle … so my – there’s a small Adjustment the dentist will have to make to my … so I’m coming in to the city this afternoon.”
“Your plate has cracked again,” I thought. “Why the Christ can’t you be a woman and say so?” But Edwina was haunted by a suspicion that most plain English nouns and
verbs of action were potentially dirty words. This, of course, made her conversation quite indecent with all its meaningful pauses and strange, embarrassed italics. Hard to believe a mind like this could exist in the year 1977; but there we were.
“And so if you’re not …
anything special around tea-time, Anne, perhaps I could just …
by and say hello to you and the Little Ones.” There was a brief pause while in a lull of Hugh’s squalling I nearly fell asleep. “Maybe I’ll be lucky,” she went on, “and Ross will come home early for once. It’s months since I saw the boy.…”
In another, longer pause, I scratched my belly and tried to think of something reassuring to say.
“Sure, come whenever you like, Mother. I’m not doing a thing. See you, then.”
But I might have known better than to hope for a quick escape. She now launched into one of those timetable chats so dear to the hearts of all true bores, in which her most trivial move for the next eight hours would be described and revised like the strategy for some obscure battle.
“… so Dr. Payne has very kindly offered to …
me in around two-thirty, which I can just manage if I catch the one-forty-two. I’m not sure, of course, just exactly how …
he’ll be, but I suppose he’ll be finished by four. If it’s later, I’ll take a taxi so as to be with you at four-thirty, or at the very latest a quarter to five.…”
My own watch was seldom wound or accurate, and I rarely knew or cared what day it was; but dear old Mother made me feel that these were virtues, not faults.
“Just a cup of tea now, Anne; you’re not to dream of going to any trouble.” (This meant the tea party had better be perfectly organized and presented or she would be horribly understanding about it, and mention me to all her friends as Poor Anne.) But my attention was briefly distracted by an ominous silence from downstairs. Sometimes, to mark her disapproval of long phone calls, Martha would retire to make a puddle (or worse) in a corner of the sitting-room.
“Look forward to seeing you,” I said hopefully. But with Mother, phone conversations were never for anything so crass as communication; they simply existed as models of good form.
“And how is Ross these days, my dear?”
Once more the fetus, curling, dived and kicked me under the ribs with acrobatic accuracy.
“Oh, Ross is fine, thanks.”
“Still working much too hard, I suppose. I just hope setting up his own place wasn’t rather …
He’s a really bad
worrier, that boy; and as for overwork, I well remember that in his second year at Osgoode I simply had to –”