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Authors: Wendy Perriam

Born of Woman

BOOK: Born of Woman
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Contents
Wendy Perriam
Born of Woman
Wendy Perriam

Wendy Perriam has been writing since the age of five, completing her first ‘novel' at eleven. Expelled from boarding school for heresy and told she was in Satan's power, she escaped to Oxford, where she read History and also trod the boards. After a variety of offbeat jobs, ranging from artist's model to carnation-disbudder, she now divides her time between teaching and writing. Having begun by writing poetry, she went on to publish 16 novels and 7 short story collections, acclaimed for their power to disturb, divert and shock. She has also written extensively for newspapers and magazines, and was a regular contributor to radio programmes such as
Stop the Week
and
Fourth Column
.

Perriam feels that her many conflicting life experiences – strict convent-school discipline and swinging-sixties wildness, marriage and divorce, infertility and motherhood, 9-to-5 conformity and periodic Bedlam – have helped shape her as a writer. ‘Writing allows for shadow-selves. I'm both the staid conformist matron and the slag; the well-organised author toiling at her desk and the madwoman shrieking in a straitjacket.'

Dedication

For L. W.
rarest and most precious of lilies.

Chapter One

‘Stand by, everybody. Total quiet now, please. Thirty seconds, twenty-five …'

Help! This is it. I'm on. Cameras surrounding me, zooming in with their prying spy eyes. Lights huge and hot, melting me away.

Twenty, fifteen, ten
…

Relief to melt away. To be only a grease-pool on the studio floor, instead of a celebrity with two hundred people watching me out there and another ten million due to switch on in two hours' time. I
can
‘t be a celebrity. Celebrities are always Other People. People with cast-iron nerves and proper talents. People like Vita Sampson. She's a household name, yet she's sitting there, just opposite, in her chrome and vinyl chair. She's the latest goddess on BBC's ‘In Town' and ‘In Town' has reached the Top Ten and Matthew said you're made if you appear on it.

Ten, nine, eight
…

There must be some mistake. I'm only Jennifer Winterton— somebody else's name, somebody else's creation. I'm only good at small things—planning herbaceous borders, messing about in the kitchen: Only a housewife, really; not even a wife—not now—well, not in
bed
. Pray they don't find that out, start asking questions about …

Seven, six, five
…

Stop! They're counting too fast. Set the clock again. No—must get a grip on myself. Matthew's watching me. Remember what he said. Relax, deep breathe, be gracious. You are the natural woman, sweet and unaggressive, the quiet, chaste, old-fashioned country girl. No, I'm not, I'm …

Four, three, two
…

Oh, help me, God! Smile. Matthew says always smile. One second left. Can't escape—I'm
ON
!

‘Hold it!'

What's happened? Floor manager tense and sweating, dashing on to the set. Technicians appearing from nowhere. Frantic consultations. My own mouth won't work at all. It's stiff and stuck together, tongue thick and dry like blotting-paper. I try to force it open. ‘What's wrong?' I mouth to Vita.

‘Minor technical hitch,' she smiles. ‘Just sit tight.'

I couldn't get up if I wanted. My spine has turned to string. The lights are so hot, I'm scared wet patches will show beneath my underarms. Why did Matthew make me wear this dress? It's hot, confining, claustrophobic—like the studio itself. We‘re shut in like a space capsule, black ceiling starred with lights, only a frightening void beyond. Void is a word Lyn taught me. He sees voids everywhere. If only he were with me now, instead of moping back at home. Oh, Lyn, I want you—you know that. I promise you it'll be better once …

Careful! People are still watching. Not tonight's ten million, but the two hundred flesh-and-blood ones staring from that darkness, suspended in that void. Live audience, they call it. ‘Live' sounds dangerous like sharks. I've got to please them somehow, got to swell the ratings. TV time is the most precious thing on earth. What did Matthew say it cost? Fifty thousand pounds to make a thirty-second commercial, up to three hundred thousand for an hour of TV drama.

Money like that set all the terrors off again. Jennifer Winterton drowning and choking in figures. Thousands of bank notes fluttering through her stomach, bags of coins dumped heavy in her gut. Ten million viewers had marched into her body and were tramping round and round it. And she wasn't even
on
, yet! Sound-man still baffled and huddled, struggling with yards of cable and a microphone. Floor manager with tie askew and jacket off, communicating (via headphones) with distant and disembodied gods. Jennifer swallowed. Tried to stop her hands shaking, fix her attention on something. The book, of course, the book.

She glanced down at the heavy, glossy volume preening on the coffee table—the only reason she was here at all. On the cover, Mrs Winterton Senior almost-smiled above her prim white collar. Hester Winterton. The public loved the name—old-fashioned, biblical, dignified. The photo wasn't right, though. They had made Hester too insipid. Her husband's mother was as powerful as the countryside she came from. That was on the back—the Cheviot Hills, the stern Northumbrian landscape soaring into a steel and granite heaven. Hester was trapped between those covers—the entries in her diaries, the entries in her life—soldiers in trenches, scullery maids in kitchens, babies in cradles, farm and home in crisis.

The smile was counterfeit. Hester wasn't pleased. She had been publicised and packaged, thrown to the modern world like a bag of sweets in pretty coloured wrappings; a world she had hated and shut out, a life she had kept as secret as her diaries—those crabbed and weeping notebooks she had coffined in a wooden chest and buried in the cellar.

Jennifer closed her eyes, saw the photo still, but darkened with a frown now. ‘Hester, I'm sorry, I never knew they'd …'

‘Right. Here we go then. Take two. Everybody quiet, please.'

Someone set the clock again. Every eye fixed on that slow, jerking finger, pouncing on the seconds. Sixty, fifty, forty, thirty … Quick. Practise your first sentence. SMILE!

Her jaw ached, her lips burned, her eyes were puckering at the corners. Cameras closing in like kidnappers on soft, treacherous feet—so close now, there was nothing left but smile. She could feel her heart thump-thumping like a …

‘Cut! Sorry, everybody. There's a jinx on us this evening.' Floor manager dashing on set again, audience growing restive in the darkness. Matthew was out there somewhere, fretting at the delay, ready to check and judge her every word—like God. Jennifer couldn't see him. Only a blur of faces, a choppy sea of heads. She was in a separate world, bounded by the cameras, blinded by the lights. It was Matthew who had decided her husband couldn't come. ‘He'll only make you nervous.' She was nervous, anyway. These last few weeks had worn her out, almost changed her character. She'd never been like this before—panicky and hollow, fixated on herself—
her
fears,
her
face, her … All the publicity had ground her down. Fourteen days rushing up and down the country. Strange beds, snatched meals, photographers lurking, interviewers pouncing; everything she did or said turned into a headline. She had become a legend in a fortnight, the reincarnated Hester Winterton with her message of wholesome country living, now shut up in a cage, trapped in a grid of headlines. She was still pale and shaking (underneath the greasepaint); had only just returned, thrust on television before she had barely caught her breath.

She opened her eyes. Vita was speaking, trying to reassure her. ‘All right, Jennifer? I don't think they'll be long now.'

She mumbled some reply. Ought to call her Vita. Celebrities were always Christian names. It had been like that on radio. Phil, Dave, Tony, Rosie, darling. Instant intimacy in twenty different towns.

‘Right, that's really it now. Silence on the floor, please. Take three. One minute countdown.'

Vita Sampson's long silk legs uncrossed. She snapped on her own slick professional smile.

‘Good evening—and welcome to ‘‘In Town''.'

Ten million people smiling back at Vita from John o' Groats to Land's End, goggling at her outfit, staring at her legs. Jennifer didn't exist yet. The cameras still had to create her. They were the gods—the cameras—giving life, withholding it, cutting off limbs, words, gestures, shutting out whole scenes. It was still Vita they were ogling now.

‘My first guest tonight needs no introduction. The book which has made her famous has sold twenty thousand copies in a fortnight and is well on its way to becoming a household name.
Born With The Century
is the story of a remarkable woman who began her long and busy life in 1900, endured two World Wars and many personal hardships, yet who found purpose and fulfilment by living close to nature and achieving self-sufficiency. She has left us an enthralling record of her life in the diaries she kept from the age of fourteen until 1948 when her son Lyn was born—diaries packed with vivid and touching details of public and private events. These diaries have now been published with a mass of other records and a fascinating preface by her daughter-in-law, who pays tribute to the older woman's skills, not only in this book, but in her own simple natural life-style …' Vita's pause was like a fanfare before the triumphant name which followed. ‘Jennifer Winterton.'

BOOK: Born of Woman
5.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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