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Authors: Fay Weldon

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BOOK: Female Friends
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‘It wasn’t like that,’ says Chloe. ‘She had all kinds of pleasure. Her flower garden and the house, and making do. And when Edwin was out she’d get quite skittish.’

And indeed, Esther would sometimes act like a kitten on a windy evening, prancing and dancing and singing around the kitchen, to the mingled delight and embarrassment of the girls.

‘Whose afraid of the big bad wolf?’ she’d sing, but when the front door opened at eleven-thirty, and Edwin returned from the pub, she would be, and with reason.

twenty-three

O
NE SUNDAY MORNING CHLOE
comes early to The Poplars and finds Esther sitting crying amongst last night’s washing-up. Her right eye is black and puffy and her lip is bleeding. She wears an old green corduroy dress and the fabric has faded to a soft richness. Her eyes are magnified by tears and distress has smoothed out her face. She looks like a very pretty child. She speaks to Chloe, thus:

‘I’m afraid I fell downstairs, Chloe. I’m a little shaken. Will you put on the kettle? Shall we have a nice cup of tea? I can’t abide a dismal atmosphere in a home, can you? And it’s up to the wife and mother to set the tone, I always think. By and large men are gloomy creatures, always taking offence, and you have to keep chivvying and cheering to keep things going. How nice you look this morning, Chloe. Always so spick and span—such a good girl. I’m afraid Grace is still snoring in bed, and so’s her father. It’s the Rose and Crown does that, and I do find it unpatriotic. Pouring beer down the throat all evening and lying in bed all next morning and so bad-tempered in between! Still, I mustn’t complain. I was lucky to get married at all; I wasn’t all that pretty as a girl, and I met Mr Songford quite late on. I always wanted to be a singer, you know, but I didn’t have the looks, and of course my parents would never have heard of it. Young Corporal Bates wants me to sing at the garden fête—‘Now Is The Hour’—but I’m afraid my husband won’t hear of it. In fact I’m afraid he objects most strenuously to Corporal Bates himself—well, his views are rather extreme—and won’t hear of him having the fête in our garden, he says it must be at the vicarage as usual. I’ve tried to explain about how so many of the ranks are Irish Catholic, and that it’s not suitable, but I’m afraid he’s not the most reasonable of men. I’m so sorry for poor Corporal Bates: he tries so hard, and he really is a perfect gentleman, in spite of everything. I’m sure never in his whole life has he raised his hand to a woman.’

But even Chloe, schoolgirl that she is, knows that Corporal Patrick Bates is no gentleman. The Angel Lucifer before the fall, perhaps, but more an upstart than a gentleman.

Patrick Bates kisses and tells, and worse.

Patrick Bates is twenty-two. His father (he says) was an alcoholic criminal, murdered in a drunken brawl. His mother (he says) is a prostitute in Manchester. And Patrick himself, the child of this ill-omened match, was (he says) brought up by a maiden aunt in Morningside, that genteel suburb of Edinburgh.

Patrick Bates is afraid (he says) of nothing—not of husbands, fathers, brothers or his own nature. He is stocky and strong. He has brilliant blue eyes, coarse reddish hair, and a member (Grace whispers) both powerful and long.

Patrick Bates has the mature ladies of the village in an erotic ferment and the young girls giddy with love. What is this special power that Patrick has, beyond looking deep into the troubled eyes of ladies, and offering them his concentrated and admiring attention? Not, one may be sure, the size of his member (for only Grace, in all the village, knows or cares, let alone speaks, about such things).

Marjorie, later, was to say women felt themselves to be sexually worthy in Patrick’s presence. So intense was his curiosity about all things female, Marjorie maintained, that it quite overrode a woman’s consciousness of being too old, too young, too big in the bust, or too small, too inexperienced or over-experienced, too tight of cunt, too loose, too ready to respond, or too slow, in the simple knowledge that she was female, and that that was quite enough for Patrick.

Grace was to say it was because he didn’t see women as sex-objects, rather himself as one.

Chloe felt, in those days, that he was simply kind, and interested, and concerned. Only later, as youth and optimism fell away, and he got the sweets he wanted and found them ashes in his mouth, did the rumbling wheel of Patrick’s existence jam somehow at its summit, and turn into reverse, depleting the pool of goodwill, stirring up the muddy violence of his beginnings, leaving him revealed as mean, and mad, and malevolent.

Patrick Bates is Entertainments Officer at the local Airforce camp. Because the vicar has high blood-pressure it is Patrick who for a while organizes the village hops, whist drives, vegetable shows, waste paper and scrap metal collections, and so on. He seems surprised to find himself doing it, but as an occupation it is clearly preferable to being say, a rear gunner, whose remains are regularly hosed out of returning aircraft. Patrick has not come so far, so fast, to end in so humiliating a manner, and says so, publicly, in the Cosy Nook.

It is a mark of his popularity and charm that he can say so and still be bought drinks.

Only Edwin Songford, strangely, suspects him in those days, sees the destructive glint behind the smile, and senses the ultimate parasitical design, and has some vague vision of a ravaged future. But who will, these days, trust Edwin Songford’s judgement? The world has changed: Edwin has not. Edwin’s belly is swollen with beer; nightly he waxes hysterical at the notion of socialism, strikes, employment for women: he wishes to extend the death penalty to cover black-market and homosexual offences. When he speaks of his doubts about Patrick, who will listen? Only Esther, who has to.

Mrs Songford accepts her cup of tea from Chloe.

‘Thank you, my dear. My throat is very dry. It has been since that concert. I think I over-strained it then. I daresay Edwin is quite right—one makes oneself a laughing stock. Better not to make the effort, really. And I do worry about my throat. My mother died from an unpleasant disease—one of the spreading kind. It affected her throat. My father used to like us to chew every mouthful sixty-four times, in order to preserve our stomach linings. He was the best of men, but in retrospect I think a little eccentric about diet. And there was no talking at meals. Of course there was nothing mother could do about that, she’d married him, but all the same it was a dismal household. One has a duty to be cheerful and I do try, I don’t want to end up like mother, and I tell myself my troubles are nothing, compared to what our poor fighting men have to put up with.’

One of Esther’s troubles is Grace, now burgeoning into adolescence. Grace creeps out of The Poplars at half past ten, when her mother is already in bed and her father is dragging out his last drink at the Rose and Crown. She waylays Patrick as he leaves the public bar. She walks back with Patrick to the gates of the Army Camp.

What happens on the way?

Who is to say, but Grace has a sly and rounded look, and Chloe begins to hate her, not for the last time in her life, but with more intensity than ever after.

In Patrick’s company Chloe is paralysed. Grace flaunts herself before him: Marjorie entertains him: Chloe can only gaze, dry-mouthed.

All three girls are at the Chelmsford Grammar School. Navy pleated tunics, bunched round the middle (hardly waist) with a cord. White shirt. Striped tie. Panama hats in summer, navy felt in winter, and a detention if you didn’t wear one. Darned black lisle stockings, stout shoes, and in winter, combinations.

Combinations (a word used in the plural, never the singular) were worn next to the skin. They started at the neck and went down almost to the knees. Stiff yellowy-white flannel, scratchy, the neck opening fastened with a row of flabby buttons and stiff buttonholes (tab-lined to prevent fraying) and with two buttoned flaps, one at the front, one at the back, for when the wearer went to the lavatory.

On winter mornings Graces leaves the house wearing her combinations, and takes them off behind the hedge at the bus stop, even when it is snowing.

Marjorie and Chloe prefer to be warm.

Marjorie has stopped writing to her father. Culture seems without meaning. The female spirit, at fifteen, has time for little else but self-appraisal. (Though the Grammar School does its best to deflect it with hour after hour of homework.) A letter comes from Helen in New York, with a PS saying that according to a message from a prisoner of war organization that has finally caught up with her, her father Dick is still alive and still has partial sight in one eye.

Chloe is in love with her history teacher as well as with Patrick. Both loves are hopeless and agonizing, and, she is convinced, perverted.

They can never be spoken of to anyone. She learns to bear things inwardly.

Grace has no intention of bearing anything. She has prevailed upon her mother, at last, to admit that she is sufficiently developed to wear a bra. One is bought. It is marked with the Government Utility Kit Mark. It is stout and functional. For a day or two Grace goes about, like the other girls, with a shelf for a bosom.

It was not uncommon for a nice young man, in those days, on first seeing a woman’s breasts—something which might well not happen until his wedding night—to be horrified by their appearance, having assumed that they were of necessity forward, thrusting, nippleless cones, uniform in every female.

Grace finds the shelf irritating. She boils and boils the stout, unloving fabric in a saucepan, until it is denatured. Then she dyes it black.

The sports mistress spots it one combinationless hockey day, showing quite plainly beneath the open-weave of her Aertex sports shirt.

And thus the conversation goes:

Sports Mistress
Grace dear, I don’t think that bra is quite suitable.

Grace
What do you mean?

Sports Mistress
Nice girls don’t wear black underwear.

Grace
Why not?

Sports Mistress
Because how would one ever know whether or not it was clean?

Grace
By remembering when you last washed it. Besides, if it was black, would it matter? In any case we should all save soap for the war effort. They say men prefer black underwear. Do you think that’s true?

Sports Mistress
Only a certain sort of man. The kind of man you will be interested in likes a woman to be spotlessly clean in mind, body and underwear.

Grace
Do you really think so? Well, since it’s all such a fuss, I won’t wear a bra at all.

And she doesn’t. Grace, everyone agrees, will come to a bad end. She is all but expelled for being an evil influence on the other girls, but her talent for drawing saves her. They even line the school corridors with her pseudo van Goghs.

twenty-four

M
ARJORIE, GRACE AND CHLOE
. They bled in unison, punctually and regularly for five days once every four weeks, whenever the moon was full. It was a fact of their existence which used to make Grace furious.

‘You’re looking rather peaky,’ says Marjorie, to Chloe, as at last they leave the Italiano. ‘Do you have the curse, like me, or is it the life you lead?’

‘It’s the curse,’ says Chloe. ‘There is nothing wrong with the life I lead.’

‘We were always in time,’ says Marjorie, ‘do you remember? Grace used to starve herself to get out of step but it never worked. Do you think it means anything? Do you think there’s a kind of inner force which drives us all along? Perhaps we have a female group identity, as black-beetles do?’

‘No,’ says Chloe.

‘Do you remember those sanitary towels we used to have? Made of paper which shredded when you walked?’

‘I’d rather not remember.’

‘Do you know what today is?’ Marjorie persists. Chloe walks with her towards the Television Centre, past the rampant infertility of Shepherd’s Bush Green, down towards White City. Their nostrils are filled with diesel fumes.

‘No,’ says Chloe. ‘What is today?’

Ah, today.

Today Chloe’s children—hers by virtue of blood, or obsession or love—mark out a badminton court on an English lawn. They are well fed: they do not have hookworm, trachoma, or TB. Through the television screen they have become acquainted with the concept of violence in all its forms: the nearest they get to its reality is a bomb hoax at school, or a crashed car seen in passing on the motorway. They show little astonishment at their good fortune.

Yet at their births, who would ever have predicted so good a future for them? And they show little understanding of Chloe’s sacrifice in bringing them to this good end—if sacrifice it is, for do we not all do what ultimately we want?

So Oliver assures Chloe, when she complains about the burden of the children. And who pays, he asks? Not you, but me. Yes, thinks Chloe in her heart, but your money is easily earned. I pay with my time and energy, my life itself. Children take the mother’s strength, grow strong as she grows weak.

Inigo and Imogen. Kevin, and Kestrel, and Stanhope. Poor Stanhope.

Today Chloe lunches with Marjorie. And afterwards, Chloe will go to visit Grace. Who would have thought, after all that happened, that they would ever consent again to enjoy each other’s company?

Today Esther Songford is dead. Five bungalows stand where once the roses grew, not to mention the onions and the cabbages. A builder has bought The Poplars. He uses it as a storeroom for his materials, and waits for it to fall down so he can have planning permission to build luxury flats on the site. The motorway is coming. The chalkpit has been filled in; where Mad Doll’s boys once struggled for their lives, and lost, the slip road runs.

Today Mr Songford lives in an Old People’s Home in Bournemouth. Grace seldom visits him.

Today Patrick’s canvases fetch from £750 (for the larger works) to £2,000 (for the tiniest). He paints women making love, giving birth, dying, dead, emerging dimly from an overwhelming wealth of domestic detail.

BOOK: Female Friends
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