I am the second wife, which means that, for the most part, I am spoken to. This is the first visit of my marriage and I am introduced around, to everyone’s slight embarrassment. There is an unspoken agreement among people not to mention her, except in some clear context where my advantage is obvious. It would be generous of me to say that I wish it were otherwise, but I appreciate the genteel silences, and, even more, the slurs upon her which I recognize to be just. I cannot attempt to be fair to her: justice is not the issue. I have married, and this is an act of irrational and unjust loyalty. I married for this: for the pleasure of one-sidedness, the thrill of the bias, the luxury of saying, “But he is my husband, you see,” and thereby putting to an end whatever discussion involves us.
My husband is English and we are staying in the house of his family. We, do not make love here as we do at my mother’s. She thinks sex is wicked, which is, of course, highly aphrodisiac, but here it is considered merely in bad taste. And as I lie, looking at the slope of my husband’s beautiful shoulder, I think perhaps they are right. They seem to need much less sleep than I do, to be able to move more quickly, to keep their commitments with less fuss. I wish I found the English more passionate; surely there is nothing so boring as the reinforcement of a stereotype. But it is helpful to be considered Southern here: I am not afraid to go out on the street as I am in Paris or Rome, because all the beautiful women make me want to stay under the sharp linen of my hotel. No, here I feel somehow to have a great deal of color, which has, after all, to do with sex. The young girls I can see already turning into lumpish women in raincoats with cigarettes drooping from their lips. This, of course, makes it much easier. Even my sister-in-law’s beauty is so different that it cannot really hurt me ; it is the ease of centuries of her race’s history that gave it to her, and to this I cannot hope to aspire.
Yesterday we went to a charity bazaar. One of the games entailed scooping marbles up with a plastic spoon and putting them through the hole of an overturned flower pot. My sister-in-law went first. Her technique was to take each marble, one at a time, and put it through the hole. Each one went neatly in. When it was my turn, I perceived the vanity of her discretion and my strategy was to take as many marbles as I could on the spoon and shovel them into the hole as quickly as possible. A great number of the marbles scattered on the lawn; but quite a few went into the hole, and, because I had lifted so many, my score was twelve; my sister-in-law’s five. But both of us were pleased with our own performance, and appreciative of the rival technique.
I am very happy here. Yesterday in the market I found an eggplant: a rare and definite miracle for this part of the world. Today for dinner I made ratatouille. This morning I took my sister-in-law’s basket and went out, married, to the market. I don’t think that marriage has changed me, but for the first time, the salespeople appreciated, rather than resented, the time I took in choosing only the most heart-warming tomatoes, the most earnest and forthright meat. I was no longer a fussy bachelorette who cooked only sometimes and at her whim. I was a young matron in stockings and high heels. My selections, to them, had something to do with the history they were used to. They were important; they were not for myself. I had wanted to write this morning, but I had the responsibility of dinner, served at one. I do not say this in complaint. I was quite purely happy in my basket and my ring, in the approval of the shopkeepers and the pedestrians. I am never so happy writing. It is not that the housewife’s tasks are in themselves repugnant: many of them involve good smells and colors, satisfying shapes, and the achievement of dexterity. They kill because they are not final. They must be redone although they have just been finished. And so I am doing this rather than polishing the beautiful Jacobean furniture with the sweet-smelling lavendar wax. I am doing this because I am dying, so that I will not die.
“Bring her in for a cup of coffee,” I said to him. I saw you on the street and you were so happy looking. Not me and my husband. Dead fifteen years and a bloodier hypocrite never walked. I pretended I was sorry when he died, but believe me I was delighted. He was a real pervert, all those public school boys won’t do anything for you till they’re beaten, don’t let them tell you anything about the French, my dear.
I was just in France. I was kind of like an au pair girl to this Communist bloke, only he was a millionaire. Well, they had a great house with a river behind it and every day I’d meet the mayor of the town there, both of us throwing our bottles from the night before into the river. They had men go round with nets to gather up the bottles and sell them. They know how to live there. The stores are all empty here. Not that I’m much of a cook. We start our sherry here as soon as we get up. Your coffee all right? Have a biscuit. I’ll have one too. I shouldn’t . . .look at me around the middle. I’m getting to look quite middle-aged, but there’s some life in me yet, I think, don’t you?
Look at your husband sitting there with his blue eyes just as handsome. Fancied him once myself, but he hadn’t time for me. Keep an eye on him, dear, he’s got young girls in front of him all day. Oh, I don’t envy you that job. They must chase him all the time, dear, don’t they. Cheer up, a little jealousy puts spice in a marriage, don’t you think?
Well, there’s a real witch hunt out for me in this building. I’ve taken in all the boys around town that’ve got nowhere to go. Just motherly. All of them on drugs, sleeping out every night. Well, my policy is not to chivvy and badger them. Tried marijuana myself once but I didn’t get anything out of it because I didn’t smoke it properly. But they all have a home here and I do them heaps more good than some virginal social worker with a poker you know where. Of course the old ladies around here don’t like it. Mrs. Peters won’t forgive me since I was so drunk that night and I broke into her house and started dancing with her. A poor gormless girl she’s got for a daughter, afraid of her own shadow. Starts to shake if you as much as say good morning to her. Thirty-five, she is, if she’s a day. Pious, that one. I’ve seen her chatting up the vicar every evening. You know what she needs. My husband was a parson. He was plagued with old maids. I’d ‘uv been delighted if he’d rolled one down in my own bedroom just so’s he’d leave me alone. Bloody great pervert, he was. And sanctimonious ! My God. He looked like a stained glass window to the outsiders. And all the old biddies in the town following him around calling him father. Not me. I’d like to tell you what I called him.
Anyway, all the old bitches here think they can get me thrown out, but they’re very much mistaken. This building happens to be owned by the Church of England, of which my husband happened to be a pillar. My pension conies from there, you know. Well, my dear, of course they can’t throw one of the widows of the clergy out on her sanctified arse, so I’m really quite safe for the moment.
That’s why I wouldn’t get married again. I wouldn’t give up that bloody pension for the life of me. I’ll see they pay it to me till I die, the bloody hypocrites.”Yes, Mrs. Pierce, if you’d conduct your life in a manner suitable to a woman of your position.” Bugger ‘em, I say. They’re all dust, same as me.
No, I’m quitting Charlie. I’ve been with him five years but I must say the rigamarole is becoming trying. His wife sits home with their dachshunds, Wallace and Willoughby, their names are—did you ever hear anything so ridiculous— Wallace—and occasionally she’ll ring up and say, “Is Charlie Waring there?” and I’ll say, “Who? You must have the wrong number.” Five years. It’s getting ridiculous.
I think I’ll take myself down to the marriage bureau. Thirty quid it costs for a year, and they supply you with names till you’re satisfied. Of course, at my age what d’ye have left? And I’d want somebody respectable, you know, not just anybody. Of course you meet men in pubs, but never the right sort, are they? My dear, you wouldn’t believe what I come home with some nights, I’m that hard up.
Anyway, Lucinda’s sixteen and she’s already on her second abortion. How she gets that way I don’t know. She simply walked out of school. Told one of the teachers off when she told her to take off her makeup. She said to her, “My mother doesn’t pay you to shout at me.” Dried-up old bitches those teachers were. Of course, in point of fact, it’s not me or her that’s paying, it’s the Church, but just the same, I see her point. They’ll never want her more than they want her now, right. Isn’t it true, they won’t let us near a man till we’re practically too old to enjoy one. Well, I’ve got her a Dutch cap now, though I don’t suppose she’ll use it. I never did. That’s why I’ve got five offspring. I’m sure I don’t know what to do with them. Anyway, she’s working part-time answering telephones for some lawyer and I’m sure he’s got her flat on her back on his leather couch half the time. Smashing looking Indian chap. But it’s pocket money for her. And we don’t get along badly, the way some do. I give her her own way and if she gets into trouble we sort it out somehow. I suppose she’ll get married in a year or so, only I hope it’s not a fool or a hypocrite. Bloody little fool I was at her age. My dear, on my wedding night I didn’t know what went where or why. Don’t ask how I was so stupid. Of course my mother was a parson’s wife too and I think she thought if she said the word sex the congregation would burn her house down. Dead right she was.
Well, you certainly are an improvement over the other one he was married to. My dear, she thought she could run everyone’s life for them. Knew me a week and she came over one morning and said, uninvited, “Marjorie, you should get up earlier. Why don’t you watch the educational programs on the telly.” “Bugger off,” I said and she never came near me again.
Well, I have to go off and see one of my old ladies. This one keeps me in clothes, so I’ve got to be attentive. Let me tell you, if you could see how respectable I am in front of her, my dear, you wouldn’t believe. Well, I take her cash-mere sweaters and hope the constable won’t see me on the way out. One visit keeps Lucinda and me in clothes for a year. I don’t care, it cheers her up, the poor old bugger. Hope someone’ll be as good to me when I’m that age. But I’ll probably be a cross old drunk, and I bloody well won’t have any spare Dior gowns in my closet, that’s sure.
You don’t mind if I give your husband a kiss goodbye. Lovely. Oh, perhaps I’ll just take another one. Fancied him myself at one time. Well, you’re the lucky one, aren’t you? Come over again, perhaps you could come for a meal, though what I could cook nowadays I’m sure I don’t know. I don’t suppose that would set well with the family. Can’t say that I blame them, they have to live here. Well, slip in some time on the QT and I’ll dig you out some tea. Make it afternoon, though, dears, I don’t like mornings, though I’m ever so glad of your company.
I don’t go anywhere by myself now. Three weeks ago I got a car but I took it back. I was so lonely driving. That was the worst. I think I’m afraid of everybody and everything now. I’m always afraid there’s men walking behind me. I won’t even go to post a letter in the evening. I was always afraid of the dark. My mother knew I was afraid of the dark so she made me sleep with the light off. She said if I kept on being afraid of the dark God wouldn’t love me.
Of course, it’s all so different now George is gone. People are like things, d’ye know what I mean ? They’re very nice, of course, and they do care for me and call, but it’s all I don’t know, shallow like. Of course, I do prefer the company of men. Not that I run down my own sex, but men are gentler, somehow, don’t you think. The first month after George was gone all I could think about was who could I marry now. But now I look back on it I shudder, d’ye know what I mean. George bein’ so sick and all that we didn’t have a physical relationship for many years. And men like to be naughty. Sometimes, though, I do enjoy a man’s companionship. After George lost his leg he said, “I can’t give you much in the way of the physical, Mother.” But we were terribly close, really. Talked about everything. He wouldinsist on having his chair here by the door so’s he could see everybody coming in. I used to kid him a lot about it. Winter and summer, never come close to the fire. He’d sit right there by the door, winter and summer. And Gwen would sit on the settee at night and never go out. I used to say to her, “Gwen, you must go out. Go to the cinema.” But she was afraid, like, to leave her father. Even though I was here. She was afraid if she went out he’d be gone when she got back.
Of course, it was very hard on the children. It’ll take them years to sort it out, I suppose. Perhaps they’ll never sort it out. Gwen went down to eight stone. Bonnie she looked, but I was worried. Then she got these knots-like in her back and she stopped going to work altogether. Said she couldn’t face the tubes anymore. She hated it; bein’ smothered-like, she said, it was terrifying. But I think she wanted to be home with Daddy so we let her come home.
Colin has a lovely job now. Got a hundred blokes under him. But they’re afraid he’ll go back to university and quit so they don’t pay him properly. He almost took a degree in logic but he broke down after two years. You should see his papers. Lovely marks on ‘em. His professors said if he sat right down he’d come away with a first. But he got too involved, if you know what I mean. Forgot there was a world around him.
He’s had a lot of lovely girls, and I guess he’s had his fling, but I don’t think he’ll ever marry. After George died he said, “I don’t know how to put it, Mum, but I’m just not that interested in sex.” Once a few years ago he came out to the breakfast table. He was white as a ghost, I was worried. He said, “Dad, may I have a word with you.” I said, “Do you want me to leave the room?” He said, “No, of course not, Mum.” Then he told George he didn’t sleep at all that night. He said he felt a kind of calling. He was terrified, he said; he was sure God was calling him to his service. Well, George held his tongue and so did I.He asked Colin what it felt like and Colin said, “Don’t ask me to describe it, Dad.” He had a lot of sleepless nights and we called the vicar and he took him to the place where the young men go for the priesthood and Colin said that he liked it, but when the time came he never did go.
Him and his father were great pals. Colin of course was studying Western philosophy and he was very keen on it and George just as keen on the Eastern. Oh, they would argue and George would say, “Just read this chapter of the book I’m reading” and Colin would say, “I’m not interested, Dad.” Then after George died he took all his books away with him to Bristol. I said, “I thought you weren’t interested.” He said, “I really always was, Mum.”
Lynnie’s going to be a mother in September. I’m not really keen on being a grandmother. I’m interested in my daughter ; she’s an adult. I’m not interested in babies. I’ve never seen anyone like her for being cheerful, though. That girl cannot be made miserable, not even for an hour. I’m sure it’ll be a girl, the way she holds her back when she walks, straight-like. I suppose I’ll be interested in it when it’s born.
George had a kind of miraculous effect on people, though. One time our vicar asked him to address a group of young people. Four hundred of them there was, packed the house with chairs, they did. And up on the stage one big armchair for George. One night I made them all mugs of tea, there must have been fifteen of them here on the floor. Half of them admitted they were on drugs. Purple hearts, goofballs, whatever they call them nowadays. And when they left here they said they were all right off them now.
Of course, he had this good friend, the bachelor vicar, Arthur. Like a father to him George was. A very intelligent man, but a terrible lot of problems. Spent all his time here, he did. He’d stay here till two o’clock on Sunday morning and then go home and write his sermons. Said George all but wrote his sermons for him. Once he told me he was jealous of George having me and me having George. Said it was the one thing he could never have. And him a wealthy man. His father had a big engineering firm in Dorset and a great house. Three degrees he has, too. But I think he’s really like they say, neurotic. He cannot express his feelings. Me and George we told each other everything. We kept no secrets. Not Arthur, though. He’s taken me out to dinner twice since George died, but I like plain food, d’ye know what I mean, and he took me out to this Japanese restaurant with Geisha girls and God knows what. Well, they gave me so much I sent half of it back and they said was there something Madame didn’t like and I about died of shame. I think old Arthur’s knocking but I’m not at home to him. Of course he’s a wonderful priest, the kids in the youth group love him. He cried during the whole funeral service. I was so mortified. And he will not mention George’s name. He says he can’t forgive God for taking George.
I used to feel that way but I don’t any more. When George was in so much pain-like, I’d go to the Communion rail and shake my fist at Christ on the Cross and say, “What d’ye know about suffering? You only suffered one day. My George has suffered years.” I don’t feel that way now.1 think there’s a reason for it, all that pain, even. George died without one drug in his body, he had that much courage.
Well, I guess I’ll be getting you a bath. It’s good you’ve come. You’ll never regret the man you’ve married. George thought the world of him. We’ve only water enough for one bath. So one takes it tonight and one tomorrow. George and I used to bathe in the same water, but I think we were different from most.
I feel like I’ve known you all my life. I knew you’d be like this from the letters. Old friends they were, my man and yours. You’re not like the first wife. She was a hard one, that one. Ice in her veins.
Perhaps I’ll come and visit you in America. I have a job now at the hospital and three weeks holiday in July. Perhaps I’ll come out to visit you. But what would I do the two of you out working. I hate to impose, you know. We used to have friends, widows they were and we’d invite them over and they’d say, “Oh, no thanks, we’d be odd man out.” I never knew what they meant but now I know. Look at me talking. I can’t even go to Epping by myself, and Lynnie made the trip when she was eight. Perhaps if you found out all the details for me. Wouldn’t it be something!
It’s good having someone in the house at night. I usually sleep with all the lights on, I’m that frightened on my own. I think I’m getting better with the job and all. But sometimes I’m very empty-like, and cold.
I like living here on my own. Dear lord, who else could I live with? Like old Miss Bates, she lived with another teacher, for, oh, twenty years it must have been. They bought a dear little house in the Cotswolds to live in for their retirement. Lived there a year and up pops some cousin who’d been wooing Miss Campbell for forty years and off they go and get married. Well, Amelia Bates was furious and she wouldn’t speak to Miss Campbell and they’d been like sisters for twenty years. Well, poor Miss Campbell died six months later and there’s Amelia Bates on her own in that vast house full of regrets and sorrow.
Here’s a picture of me in Algeria in 1923. Oh, I had a beautiful ride over on the ship, it took three days. Some people took the trip just to drink all the way, people are foolish. The first night I lay in my cabin and the ship was creaking so badly I was sure it was the end of me. I went up top and the waves were crashing around the deck and they said, “You’d better go down below, Miss,” and that’s where I met Mr. Saunders. Don’t let the others in the family act so proud to you. When I found out that Ethel had cut you, ooh, I was angry. I wrote her a very cross letter. Her mum and dad were separated for years and he was living with a half-caste woman in India and afraid to even write his wife a letter. Of course, he should have left her and stayed with that other woman but he didn’t have that much courage. He’s been miserable ever since. Poor old Lawrence, he’s a decent old boy but terrified to death of Millie. You know she was just a governess for his family when he fell in love with her. She was good-looking, though, the best looking of all of us. Well, poor old Lawrence when he came to Mt. Olympus (that was the name of my father’s house, dear. It fulfilled the ambitions of a lifetime for him) well, when he came to Mt. Olympus to meet the family he came down with malaria and was sick in bed for a month. Had to have his meals brought up to him and his sheets changed three times a day. Well, after that there was no getting out of it, he was quite bound. Not that he thought of getting out of it then. People simply didn’t in those days, and that’s why so many of them were so unhappy. I’m sure things are much better now, in some ways, but nobody seems much happier anyway, do they?
Here is a picture of the family I worked for in India. Now even I had my mild scandal I suppose. It wasn’t so mild to father. Millie came home from India and told dear father a great tale. Father wrote to Mr. Saunders and demanded that I be sent home. Then he wrote to me and said I must come back upon my honour as his daughter and an Englishwoman. We simply didn’t answer the letters. Mr. Saunders hid them in a parcel in his desk drawer and I simply threw mine in the fire. Then Mr. Saunders took the family back to England and I went back to Mt. Olympus. Father told me I must take a new name and tell everyone I was married, that I was the widow of an officer. I refused; I told him no one knew but him and Millie. Then we never spoke of it.
I started a kindergarten then for the children in the town. Here is the picture of the first class and here’s one of your husband as a baby. Wasn’t he golden? Then mother got sick and I had to give it up. Nobody took it on after that, it was a pity, really. I regretted that.
Here’s a picture of cousin Norman. Doesn’t he look a bounder? Wrote bad checks and settled in Canada. He’s a millionaire today.
I’m giving you these spoons as a wedding gift. They belonged to my grandmother’s grandmother. I think it’s nice to have a few old things. It makes you feel connected, somehow, don’t you think?
I only hope my mind holds out on me. I love to read and I wouldn’t care if I were bedridden as long as my mind was all right. Mother was all right for some time and then when she was in her seventies she just snapped. She didn’t recognize anybody in the family and one night she came at Father with a knife and said he was trying to kill her. We had to put her in the hospital then. It was supposed to be the best one in England but it was awful. There were twenty women in a room not this size and in the evenings you could hear them all weeping and talking to themselves. It would have driven me quite mad and I was sane. Then she said the nurses were all disguising themselves to confuse her, and they were trying to poison her. And then she said they wouldn’t let her wash, and she was dirty and smelt ill. Well, we finally took her back home and father wouldn’t let anyone see her. I gave up my position (I was working for that woman who writes those trashy novels that sell so well. And her daughter was an absolute hellcat) and came home. She’d call me every few minutes and say, “Elizabeth, what will we do if anyone comes? There isn’t a speck of food in the house.” And I would tell her no one would be coming. Then she’d say, “Elizabeth, what will we do if anyone comes, the house is so dirty.” And it would go on like that. Sometimes she wouldn’t eat for days, and sometimes she would stuff herself till she was quite ill. She died of a stomach obstruction in the end, but that was years later. Every night father would go in to her and say goodnight and kiss her and she would weep and say that she was wicked, and that she was hurting us all. But sometimes she would just be her old self and joke with us after supper and play the piano and sing or read—she loved the Brontes—and we’d think she was getting better, perhaps. But the next morning she’d be looking out the window again, not talking to anyone.
I can’t go near anyone who has any kind of mental trouble. When my friend Miss Edwards was so ill in that way she wrote and begged me to come and the family wrote and I simply couldn’t. I get very frightened of those sorts of things. I suppose I shouldn’t.
Here is a caricature my brother drew of the warden, and here is one of the bald curate and the fat parson who rode a bicycle. He was talented, our Dick, but of course he had a family to support and that awful wife of his put everything on her back that he earned. And here is one of our father turning his nose up at some Indian chap who was trying to sell him a rug he didn’t fancy.
Here I am in Malta and here’s one of me in Paris. Wasn’t I gay then? When the Germans took over Paris, I wept and wept. I didn’t want to go on. Have you been to Paris, dear? Beautiful city, isn’t it? You feel anything could happen there. It wouldn’t matter where you’d been or what you’d done, you could begin all over, no regrets or sorrows.
Here is a picture of your husband’s mother, wasn’t she beautiful. Turn your head like that, you look rather like her when you put your face that way. She would have loved you, dear, and she was a beautiful soul. She used to laugh and laugh, even during the war when we’d have to stay in the shelter over night and we were terrified we wouldn’t see the sunlight ever again. She’d tell us gay stories and make us laugh. She had a little bird, she used to call it Albert as a joke. She let him fly out all about the house on his own. And she taught the creature to say funny things; it was so amusing. She would be very happy for you, dear; she loved to see people happy.
I don’t suppose I’ll do any more traveling. I remember when I went to France last summer I said “Elizabeth, this is your last voyage,” and I felt so queer. But I have this house and my garden and Leonard’s wife Rosemary and I go out every week and do meals-on-wheels—we take food around to the shut-ins, dear. I suppose they’ll be doing that for me some day, but not for a while, I don’t think. I like to be active and work in the garden. These awful pillow roses have taken over everything and I haven’t the heart to prune them. And then, when people come, it’s so lovely, isn’t it, I wish they could stay forever.
It’s good to have company. Sometimes I feel as though 1 haven’t had a day off in three years since Maria was born. Geoffrey doesn’t seem to want to be weaned; he’s seven months. I suppose he will when he’s ready. It’s the only thing that quietens him. I’m beginning to feel very tired. And now Maria wants everything from a bottle, she wants to be a baby too. I suppose they’ll stop when they’re ready.
My days are very ordered, though. I remember when I was single and I lived in London I’d think what will I do with myself now? And then I’d just go out and walk down the street and I’d look in the windows at the china and the materials and then I’d stop somewhere and have a cup of tea and go home and read something. It’s so difficult, isn’t it, to remember what that kind of loneliness was like when you’re with people constantly. It’s like hunger or cold. But now my time is all mapped out for me. I give everyone breakfast and then I do the washing up and we go for a walk and it’s time for lunch. It goes on like that. It’s better now. When we lived in the high-rise building I felt terribly alone. There would be other push-chairs in front of other doors and occasionally I’d hear a baby crying in the hall but I wouldn’t know whose it was and when I opened the door there was never anybody in the corridor, only that queer yellow light. And I hated the air in that building. It tasted so false in my mouth and we couldn’t open up any of the windows. It was beautiful at nights and I would hold the baby by the window and say, “moon,” and “star,” and sometimes when they were both asleep Frederick and I would stand by the window and look out over the city at all the lights. The car horns were muted like voices at the ocean; it was very nice. I liked it then. But I did feel terribly lonely.
Sometimes I go up to the attic and I look at the piles of my research in egg cartons but I don’t even take it out. I suppose I should want to someday. I suppose I should get back to my Russian. But it all hangs around me like a cloud and I feel Maria tugging at me, pulling at my dress like a wave and I think how much more real it all is now, feeding and clothing, and nurturing and warming and I think of words like “research” and “report” and even “learning” and “understanding” next to those words and they seem so high, so far away, it’s a struggle to remember what they mean.
I love marriage, though, the idea of it. I believe in it in a very traditional way. My friends from graduate school come over and they say I’m worn out and tired and I’m making a martyr of myself. I should make Frederick do some of the work. But it’s the form of it I love and the repetition : certain tasks are his, some are mine. That’s what these young people are all looking for, form, but it’s a dirty word to them. I suppose I’m not that old, I’m thirty-two, that’s young, I suppose, but I like feeling older. I wish I were fifty. I like not having a moment to myself, it’s soothing and my life is warm and sweet like porridge. Before Geoffrey was born sometimes I’d spend the whole day and Maria was the only one I would talk to. She was two then and Frederick would come home and he was so terribly tired and I was too. We scarcely said a word to each other except “how’s the baby today” or “your shirt got lost at the cleaner’s.” It was the happiest time of my life. She wanted to know everything, and sometimes we’d spend whole mornings doing things like taking the vacuum cleaner apart or boiling water or walking up and down stairs. Then Frederick would come home and he’d want to talk about Talleyrand or something and I couldn’t possibly explain to him how perfectly happy I was all day, taking everything out of my sewing basket and showing it to Maria, he would have thought I was stark, staring mad.
But I love that: sleeping next to someone you haven’t spoken to all day and then making love in the dark with our pajamas on and even then going to sleep riot having spoken. It soothes me, like wet sand. We couldn’t have that without marriage, I mean marriage in the old way, with the woman doing everything.
Here’s something for your lunch. I cook such odd things now, sausages for the children, tins of soup, sandwiches. But I always make this stew for us. I just boil up a hambone with lentils and carrots. I suppose you’re a very good cook. I used to be but now I don’t like that kind of thing.
The babies have broken nearly all the china, so we use everything plastic now. Do you think it’s terribly ugly? I do miss that, nice thin china and glassware, I miss it more than books and the cinema. And the furniture’s terribly shabby now. We’ll wait until they’re grown to replace it.
Don’t worry about what people say. When I married Frederick even his mum wouldn’t come and people would run down his first wife, thinking they were doing me a favor, and all the time they were making it worse because I’d think if she was so bloody awful why did he marry her and then I thought if he loved her and she’s so dreadful and he loves me I must be dreadful too. And I kept going around in circles and hating Frederick and myself and some poor woman whom I used to think of as a perfectly harmless remote monster. I could scarcely get out of bed in the morning, and people thought they were being kind. You must simply shore up all your courage to be silent. That’s what I have done and sometimes I am so silent I like myself a great deal, no, more than that, I admire myself and that’s what I’ve always longed for.
You shouldn’t listen to me either, I’m probably half mad talking to babies all day. Only there’s something sort of enormous and grey and cold about marriage. It’s wonderful isn’t it, being a part of it? Or don’t you feel that way.
My mother had this thing about beauty, it was really very Edwardian the way she approached it. She had this absolutely tiny private income and my father took off the absolute second I was born and we hardly ever had any money and my mother kept moving around saying these incredible things like “it’ll be better in the next town” and “when our ship comes in” and things like that you expect to read in some awful trashy novel.
But she was a beautiful woman and she taught me these oddly valuable things, about scent and clothes and makeup. I’m trying to be kinder to her now I’m forty. I suppose one gets some kind of perspective on things, but what I really remember is being terribly, terribly insecure all the time and frightened about money and resentful of other girls who wore smart clothes and went off to university when they weren’t as smart as I was. My mother used to dress me in the most outlandish outfits as a child, velvet and lace, and what not. I hated it in school. I was forever leaving schools and starting in new ones and I was perpetually embarrassed.
Well, when I married for the first time I was determined to marry someone terribly stable and serviceable. As soon as I could I bought these incredibly severe clothes, they just about had buttons on them and I married Richard. I was eighteen. I suppose it is all too predictable to be really interesting—and we lived in this fanatically utilitarian apartment, everything was white and silver and I couldn’t imagine why I felt cold all the time. Suddenly I found myself using words like beauty and truth, et cetera, and I went out and got a job so we could buy a really super house. I spent all my time looking at wallpaper and going to auctions and the house really was beautiful. Then I met Seymour and he was so funny and lugubrious—I just adored it. Here was this Jewish man taking me to little cabarets. The first time we went out he said to me, “You know, Gillian, girl singers are very important,” and I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about. Here was this quite famous psychologist who bought a copy of Variety—that American show-people’s paper—every day, but it was very odd, the first time I met him I thought how marvelous he’d be to live with.
And then, of course I did a terribly unstable thing, I suppose. Shades of my mother only more so and I divorced Richard and married Seymour. He gave all his money to his wife and I let Richard keep everything of mine and we started out without a penny. We slept in the car in our clothes, but we were terribly happy. So I got a job and we got another lovely house, only this was a really cheerful one, a very motherly home. Then I went back to school. I suppose it’s hard for you to understand how important it would be for me: doing something on my own with my mind and speaking up and having people listen. I’d had too much sitting on the sidelines pushing the silver pheasant down the damask cloth and cradling the salt cellar while the men spoke to each other. So I told Seymour I simply had to go back to college and he agreed with me for a while in theory but when the time came he said to me “what about the house.” But I was very firm and I simply told him, “the house will simply be a bit less beautiful for a while.” Then he understood how important it was to me, and he stood right behind me. We didn’t do much entertaining for a while, but I did very well, really, everyone was surprised. I guess everyone else was much less smart than I expected.
Then I took a job teaching high school and it was a disaster, really. There were all these perfectly nice people who wanted to grow up and repair bicycles and I was supposed to talk about Julius Caesar and the subjunctive. It was all too absurd, really. I simply cared about the books too much to do it. I suppose to be a really good high school teacher you have not to care about the books so. Well, one day I simply didn’t go back. I suppose it was awful, but there were plenty of people who wanted the job. I didn’t feel too badly about it. Going in like that every day was making me so ill.
Now I’ve gone back to writing. I don’t know if I’m any good. I don’t suppose it matters, really. It’s a serious thing, and that’s important. I see everyone off in the morning and I go up to my study—the window looks out on a locust tree —and I write the whole day. The hardest thing is closing the door on Seymour and the children—but I do. I close the door on being a wife. I close the door on my house and all the demands. I suppose art demands selfishness and perhaps I’m not a great artist so perhaps it’s all ridiculous and pitiable, but in the end it isn’t even important whether I’m great or not—I’m after something, myself, I suppose, isn’t that terribly commonplace. Only the soul, whatever that is, whatever we call it now—gets so flung about one is always in danger of losing it, of letting it slip away unless one is really terribly careful and jealous. And so it is important really and the only answer is, whatever the outside connections, that one must simply do it.
Who is right, and who is wrong? For years, I have waited for a sign, a sentence, periodic and complete. Now I begin to know there is a loneliness even in this love. I begin to think of death, of solids. My friend, who is my age, is already a widow. She says that no one will talk to her about it. Everyone thinks she is tainted. They are frightened by her contact with dead flesh, as if it clung to her visibly. I should prepare for a staunch widowhood. I begin to wish for my own death, because I am happy now and vulnerable to contagion. A friend of mine who has three children tells a story about a colleague of his, a New England spinster. She noted that he had been out sick four times that winter; she had been healthy throughout.”But that is because I have a wife and three children,” he said, “and I am open to contagion.”
There is something satisfying about marriage at this time. It is the satisfaction of a dying civilization : one perfects the form, knowing it has the thrill of doom upon it. There is a craftsmanship here ; I am conscious of a kind of labor. It is harder than art and more dangerous. Last night was very hot. I didn’t want to wake my husband so I moved into the spare bedroom where I could thrash, guiltlessly. I fell asleep and then heard him wake, stir, and feel for me. I ran to the door of our bedroom.”You gave me a fright. I reached for you and the bed was empty,” he said. Now I know I am not invisible. Things matter. My feet impress a solid earth now. I am full of power.
The most difficult thing is my tremendous pride. To admit that there are some things I do not know is like a degrading illness. My husband tries to teach me how to use a hoe, a machete. I do not learn easily. I throw the tools at his feet and in anger I weep and kick. He knows something I do not ; can I forgive him? He is tearing down a wall; he is building a fireplace. I am upstairs in the bedroom, reading, dizzy with resentment. I come down and say, “I’m going away for a few days. Until you finish this.” Then I cry and confess: I do not want to go away, but I hate it that he is demolishing and building and that I am reading. It is not enough that I have made a custard and a beautiful parsley sauce for the fish. He hands me a hammer, a chisel, a saw. I am clumsy and ill with my own incapacity. When he tries to show me how to hold the saw correctly, I hit him, hard, between the shoulder blades. I have never hit another person like this; I am an only child. So he becomes the brother I was meant to hit. I make him angry. He says I should have married someone with no skills, no achievements. What I want, he says, is unlimited power. He is right. I love him because he is powerful, because he will let me have only my fair share. Stop, he says, for I ask too much of everything. Take more, there is more here for you, I tell him, for he is used to deprivation. We are learning to be kind to one another, like milky siblings.
Two people in a house, what else is it? I love his shoes, his shirts. I want to embrace his knees and tell him “You are the most splendid person I have ever known.” Yet I miss my friends, the solitude of my own apartment with its plan-gent neuroses, the coffee cups where mold grew familiarly, the little grocery store on the corner with the charge account in my name only.
But I feel my muscles flex, grow harder, grow supple with intimacy. We are very close ; I know every curve of his body ; he can call to mind in a moment the pattern of my veins. He is my husband, I say, slowly, swallowing a new, exotic food. Does this mean everything or nothing? I stand with him in an ancient relationship, in a ruined age, listening beyond my understanding to the warning voices, to the promise of my own substantial heart.