Authors: Constance Beresford-Howe
ow it seemed like ages since night-time meant Ross and sleep. These days the dark brought round only an empty bed and dreams about chains and cells. And waking up meant only fatigue, a dogged resumption of the daily round. For the last half-hour, for instance, I’d been moving as heavily as someone in leg-irons. It would soon be time to tuck the kids in and lie down myself; but I felt a restless urge to talk to someone – almost anyone – as if just an exchange of words might by accident or design magically release me from all my dilemmas.
I dialled Billie’s number, but their phone repeatedly buzzed a busy signal. Oh well, I thought, putting down the receiver, Billie always shied away from talking about anything serious. For one thing, she didn’t really think there
anything serious, as far as I could tell. And she hated being depressed by other people’s troubles. Or even her own. One of the first really adult conversations I’d ever had with her – I was about thirteen – only made me feel more totally alone; and things between us hadn’t changed much since then.
We were in our room at Margate or Folkestone, getting ready for dinner – or rather, I was fidgeting while Billie sat at the dressing-table doing her face. It was a still autumn evening with a low mist that induced melancholy. Distantly the high tide could be heard thumping on the shingle with a muffled, grinding pulse. Billie leaned forward to her mirrored image and delicately, holding her eyes wide open as if in amazement, darkened her eyelashes with a little brush.
“Why ever do you bother?” I asked fretfully.
“Because white eyelashes make one look like a frightened rabbit.” She paused to take a gulp of the drink she’d had sent up from the bar. In those days it was most unusual for her to do this – normally she drank only as a social gesture, in a crowd of other people. I disapproved, in my priggish way, of her drinking anywhere, and I looked at that large gin-and-tonic beside her with keen disfavour, even suspicion.
“Can’t you hurry up? I’m starving.”
For something to do, I opened the little cedar box where we kept our small collection of jewellery: Billie’s rings, my birthday lockets and bracelets from aunts, and three or four heavy, handsome brooches that had belonged to one of my grandmothers. It was a queer and disturbing little shock to discover nothing in the box but a few gimcrack necklaces.
“Bill – where’s my gold locket – all your pins! They’re gone!”
I held out the box to her. She gave it one quick glance and then looked away. There was no surprise in her face, only a tight bitterness that for a second made her look like a stranger.
“They’ve been stolen!” I said dramatically. “We’ll have to tell the manager right away. And report it to the police. Those rings were
! Who on earth could have done it? They must have been taken while I was at Cheltenham with the aunts, because I took my silver cross and left everything else. It’s awful! Somebody must have broken into our room!”
“Nobody broke in,” said Billie.
“What do you mean?”
“I know who took them.”
I stared at her. She was now concentrating intently on shaping her eyebrows with a tiny pair of tweezers.
“But who, then?”
“Fred, of course.” She paused to toss off the last of her drink before adding in her shallow, indifferent little voice, “He’s gone, you know. For good.”
“Gone!” I said stupidly. Not that I regarded this as bad news. Fred’s watery eyes and weak mouth under his would-be jaunty mustache had never endeared him to me, nor had his recent habit of placing a flabby hand on my knee. But Billie had for some months past regarded him with favour as “amusing” – her highest tribute. One way and another, he’d spent a lot of time with us lately, his wife having some time ago (as he often mentioned) left him. Like us, he seemed to have no home apart from the hotel, and no ties other than those formed in the bar or the lounge. But he’d grown more and more attached to Billie; so much so that, just before going off to my aunts for the half-term holidays, I’d asked her, “You aren’t going to marry Fred, are you?” To which her airy reply was, “Of course not, ducky. He
married. This is just a
fun thing.” I didn’t ask what she meant by “this,” because I much preferred not to know.
“Yes, he’s gone off. Just last night, apparently. Everybody down there is buzzing with it, but nobody knows where he went. Or why.”
“But you mean he’s actually taken our –”
“What’s even more annoying, he’s taken the fifty pounds I lent him last week. Serves me right, of course. I
he was – oh well. Not to brood. But all those old biddies downstairs are watching me and whispering away behind their knitting, damn them. That’s why I can’t have pale eyelashes tonight, sweetie.”
“But the jewellery – how did – you mean he’s been up here in our room while I was away?”
“Of course,” she said impatiently.
I gave her a look of contemptuous disgust which she didn’t appear to notice. A rush of anger made my cheeks burn.
” I said. “I don’t know how on earth you could do it.”
“No, you don’t,” she said lightly. “And I hope you never do.”
The sea ground and thumped on the beach below. “Why do we live like this?” I burst out. “Why do we stay in these places and have such awful people for friends?”
“Come down and eat,” she said, and got up gracefully, giving a last touch to her newly set hair. Sullenly I clapped shut the lid of the cedar box and followed her out of the room. And I never saw Billie more animated, charming, sparkling, and attractive than she was for the rest of that evening. She never mentioned Fred again.
um,” said Martha, pulling at my trouser leg. “Let’s play Cave Bears.”
“Sure, love. Let’s go.”
This was a game we’d evolved through all these lonely months: we nestled together at bedtime in front of the fire in a warm muddle of blankets and pillows while I told them a rambling story about bears. Like my own disjointed history, it had no beginning or end, no meaning or moral. It was just there, something for my voice to say, and it seemed to satisfy them completely.
Listening in silence, they curled their small, hard bodies close to mine. The wood fire fluttered and hissed, and its light comforted us. In the bay window, my orange tree, pots of split-leaf philodendron, ivy, aspidistra – a mini-jungle – dozed too in the warm twilight. Violet lay down near us, head on paws, with a contented sigh. Mao crouched as close as possible to the fire-guard, contemplating the heat with approving blue slits of eyes. It was a lull in the good old mortal storm; an illusion that the wild world was tamed.
After the kids had dropped into their dense sleep, I dozed around the unborn one’s gymnastics. My hand rested sometimes on Hugh’s little arm, sometimes on the small chain of bones seaming Martha’s back. Soon I would carry them up to their beds, and it would be another day survived.
The night wind blew against the window. Winter pressured the roof, the walls. Ross would not come home. At night I knew this. Nor was it safe even to think about Ross after dark, because that made my double heart jump and twist with rage and grief, those two cripplers. He had wakened long ago from that long-ago sleep. He agreed with Bonnie now about that Procrustean marriage bed.
Outside, the snow lay like a deposit of anger and sorrow, a bitter crust under the feet of strangers passing by. It was cold everywhere but in our cave. Tomorrow was waiting, with God knew what contests and ordeals up its sleeve. But inside the cave, all my young were warm, breathing, safe. It was enough. It bloody well had to be.
n the basement, where a weak early sun streaked the dirty windows, I threw wet wash rhythmically into the maw of the drier. With one still in diapers all day, and two at night, laundry devoured a large share of my daily time and energy. Sometimes I thought acceptance of this mechanical routine was the most significant and awful thing about my present life.
June hated the whole business so much that she sometimes waited weeks before taking a huge load to the laundromat. There she would cast it all recklessly into the largest machine, and to avoid further effort dump in such lavish quantities of bleach and detergent that her laundry always came out queerly mottled and demoralized. But I didn’t mind washing, really. I quite liked the primitive noise of the water, and the feel and smell of it. And then the piles of soft, fresh clothes that emerged at the end of the whole process were a modest accomplishment of sorts – clean deeds in a naughty world.
This underground room had the further advantage of being some distance away from the kids and from life in general, but in touch with both. A locked gate at the top of the stairs kept Hugh and Martha from falling down and killing themselves, but I could hear them playing up there, just as I could hear the morning rush of traffic grinding past, and the scutter of people hurrying to the subway. It was a kind of isolation cell that encouraged retrospection, even resignation of a sort – for instance, it was some kind of austere comfort to reflect that nothing happening to me at the moment was anywhere near as awful as some of the things that had happened in the past. It was almost satisfying to think, for example, about that night when Ross and I told my parents I was pregnant – the great thing about the experience being that it could never possibly happen again.
For some reason we felt it would be easier to confront the two sets of parents separately. We agreed, also, that it would be better to face mine first. On both counts we were dead wrong. All it resulted in was two horrible scenes instead of one. It also created a sort of competition to see which of our parents could behave worst. In fact, much the best judgement of anyone concerned was shown by Ross’s father, who had died a few years earlier, thus cleverly avoiding involvement of any kind.
We thought the truth might not come as a total surprise to Billie and Max; but if this was true, it certainly turned out to be no help.
“As you know,” Ross began, clearing his throat, “Anne and I have been … seeing a lot of each other lately.”
“Which has been a bit of a surprise to me,” put in Max, “seeing that Anne has so much ambition for a career of her own.” His dark eyes regarded Ross with a tough look in which there was no discernible friendliness, though on various earlier meetings they had hit it off very well.
“Yes, well … yes. Only now …” His voice trailed away miserably. Max waited, his face grim. Two initiation ceremonies in one week, I thought. But getting our diplomas under the elms was sheer irrelevance compared to this.
With a sort of desperation, Ross jerked up his chin and said, “What we’ve got to tell you is that Anne’s pregnant by me.”
The silence that followed frightened me physically. I was afraid even to look at Max. I saw Billie’s little high-bridged nose start out tightly from her face like a bird’s sharp beak, as if she were frightened, too.
“So,” Max finally said, in a thick, brutal voice. “You college guys aren’t even smart enough to use a –”
“Max,” Billie said quietly.
“It was my stupidity, not his,” I put in. At this, Max jumped out of his chair as if something had bitten him. His face looked dark with rage, but he said nothing more, only went to the window and, after jerking the curtain back violently, stood looking out at the night.
There seemed to be no small talk possible in the circumstances, so we
sat there locked into the grimmest of all possible silences.
“Well,” Billie finally remarked in a small voice, “I must say you’ve been madly silly and careless, the pair of you. We’d all better have a drink at once. I’ll be right back.”
She disappeared. After what felt like a couple of years, she came back with a drinks tray. Max still stood at the window with his back to us. “Now, duck, come and sit down,” she said to him firmly, and touched his wooden shoulder. I marvelled at her bravery. He jerked around savagely, but then went back to his chair and sat down. She unfolded his clenched hand and put a very dark Scotch into it. I took a beer for something to hold. Ross shook his head mutely at the bottles. When I dared to steal a glance at Max’s face, I saw that he was still deeply, even dangerously, angry.
“So somebody’s got to get you out of this mess, is that it?” he asked Ross, still in his thick, insulting voice. “I understand you just got your law degree. That means for the next couple of years you file paper clips for the Q.C.s, right? Not exactly good timing for fatherhood. And Anne just beginning her university job. Ask me, this kind of irresponsibility is just plain goddam immoral.” He stared straight ahead of him, breathing heavily. His broad hand clenched his drink like the throat of an enemy.
“Look, I know you’re upset.” Ross took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “In fact, you couldn’t feel worse about it than we do. Only please get this straight – we’re not asking for help, or trying to get out of anything. We only thought you had some right to know how things are.”
By this time Billie had sunk her first drink and poured herself a second. She now said crisply, “All right, then; it’s time to be practical, all of us. There’s no need to have a whole lot of hard feelings or arguments, or anything dire at all. We’re civilized people. There’s no need to come all over portentous about this little blunder. In this day and age, thank heaven, nobody’s life needs to get messed up by this kind of mistake. That’s all it is – a mistake. The obvious thing to do is get the abortion over with as soon as possible, sweetie, and carry on from there.”