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Authors: Fay Weldon

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BOOK: Female Friends
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Marjorie has not cried, she tells me, for twenty-five years. She got through all her tears in childhood, she explains; she used them all up then. (Grace, on the other hand, dry-eyed then, is tearful now. Perhaps we all have our quota to get through. My mother would say so.) Along with Marjorie’s tearducts, it seems, the rest of her dried up too. Womb, skin, bosom, mind. She shrivelled before our eyes, in fact, after her Ben died, the love of her life, long ago. Only once a month, punctually with the full moon, she practically bleeds to death, all but soaking the ground where she stands.

Poor little Marjorie, obliged by fate to live like a man, taking her sexual pleasures if and when she finds them, her own existence, perforce, sufficient to itself. Childless, deprived of those pilferings into past and future with which the rest of us, more fertile, more in the steady stream of generation, enrich our lives. Yet still with her woman’s body and her rioting hormones to contend with.

five

I
T IS TEN-FIFTEEN. IF
she means to get to the Italiano by lunchtime, Chloe will have to catch the eleven-fifteen to Liverpool Street Station. And before she can leave the house, thus unexpectedly and disturbing the smooth running of its routine, she must pay the expected penalties.

First she must explain her actions to the children, who will want to know where she is going and why, and with what gifts she will return, before giving her their spiritual permission to leave. Thus:

Imogen (8)
London? Can I come too?

Chloe
No.

Imogen
Why not?

Chloe
It’s boring.

Imogen
No, it’s not.

Chloe
Yes, it is. I’m only going to talk to my friends.

Inigo (18)
If it’s boring why are you going?

Chloe
It’s nice to get away sometimes.

Stanhope (12)
It’s nice here.

Kestrel (12)
Will you bring something back?

Chloe
If I can.

Kevin (14)
Male or female friends?

Chloe
Female.

Inigo
I should hope so too.

Imogen
Why can’t I come? There’s nothing to do here. The others are only going to play boring badminton.

Chloe
You can help Françoise.

Imogen
I don’t want to help Françoise. I want to go with you.

Stanhope
If you see mother, send her my regards. Is that who you’re going to see?

Chloe
Your mother’s moved house you know. She must be very busy.

Imogen
If you’re going, can we have fish and chips for lunch? From the chip shop?

Chloe
It’s very expensive.

Kestrel
So’s going to London.

Chloe
Very well.

Inigo
Will father drive you to the station?

Chloe
I shouldn’t think so. He’s working.

Inigo
I’ll run you down, then.

Oh, lordly Inigo. He passed his driving test a week ago.

Then there’s Françoise, muttering into the marinade. She’s a stocky, hairy, clever girl, not so much pretty as lascivious looking. The look is an accident of birth, more to do with a low brow and a short upper lip than a reflection of her nature.

Françoise
What about the children’s lunch?

Chloe
They want fish and chips.

Françoise
It is very extravagant.

Chloe
Just for once. Inigo can take you down to the village in the car.

Françoise acquiesces. She even smiles.

Chloe
The marinade smells lovely.

Françoise
The meat will be only soaking for four hours. This is not sufficient. It should have been immersed last night, but I am fatigued, and in consequence forgetful.

Chloe
If you like to have tomorrow off—

Françoise
Tomorrow I must prepare the
lièvre
for Sunday’s dinner. It is Oliver’s favourite dish. What is
lièvre
in English?

Chloe
Hare.

Françoise has done an advanced English course but never stops learning.

After Françoise there is Oliver. But Oliver has hardened his objections to her going into indifference. He is working in his study and actually, for once, typing. Usually, should she disturb him in the middle of the morning, he is merely contemplative, staring out of the window.

Oliver
So you’re off, are you?

Chloe
Yes. Is it going well?

Oliver
I’m writing a letter to
The Times
. They won’t print it.

Chloe
Why not? They might.

Oliver
No they won’t, because I won’t post it.

Chloe
You won’t want to read to me today? Because I can always put off going.

It is Oliver’s custom to read completed passages aloud to Chloe, before making a second draft of what he has written.

Oliver
Don’t be silly.

He turns back to his typewriter. It is not encouragement to go, but it is permission.

While Inigo takes the mini from the garage Chloe rings Grace at her new Holland Park number and asks her where the Italiano is.

‘You’re much better off not knowing,’ says Grace.

‘Please. I’m in a hurry.’

‘Up a concrete walk-way at Shepherd’s Bush. Stick to the pasta and avoid the veal.’

‘And Grace, would you please speak to Stanhope. It’s school holidays. Easter. He arrived yesterday. Shall I bring him to the phone now?’

‘I’m busy packing,’ says Grace. ‘I’m going to Cannes with Sebastian this evening. I’ll send Stanhope a postcard. He’ll like that. He doesn’t really want to speak to me, you know he doesn’t. I embarrass him dreadfully on the telephone. We really don’t have anything in common. You do nag, Chloe.’

‘He’s your son.’

‘You only ever say that when it suits you. I suppose you’ve got Kevin and Kestrel there too?’

‘Yes.’

There is a pause. Many people hold Grace responsible for Midge’s death. Midge, who was Kevin and Kestrel’s mother.

‘What a martyr you are,’ is all Grace says. ‘And I suppose the French girl is in Oliver’s bed by now?’

‘Yes. As it happens.’

‘Congratulations. So now’s your chance. You can throw Oliver out of the house and divorce him and live off his money for ever.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘What? Divorce him or live off his money?’

‘Either. I really must go. I’ll miss my train.’

‘I think it’s all rather sick,’ says Grace. ‘Do they make you watch?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ says Chloe, shocked.

Grace has a passion for detail. She will probe into tragedy and atrocity and insist on full details of childbirth, rape, heart-attacks, road accidents, suicides and murders, long after the teller is sick of the tale. ‘Yes, but what did he say? Did she scream? Did the eye-balls burst too? Where did he put it, exactly, and how? Did the steering-wheel show through his back? Yes, but
where
did they burn the after-birth?’ Grace knows all about after-births and how, by law, they have to be burned. And how if the mid-wife at a home delivery can’t find a suitable fire, she must carry it off to a hospital incinerator. Otherwise witches might get it.

‘If they don’t let you watch,’ says Grace, ‘it’s not just sick, it’s boring. Can you come round this afternoon after your lunch?’

‘Yes,’ says Chloe, though her heart sinks. Why? Grace is her friend.

‘Who are you having lunch with?’

‘Marjorie.’

‘I thought as much,’ says Grace. ‘Only Marjorie would be seen dead in the Italiano, and dead she will be if she touches the minestrone. Give her my regards and say I hope she keeps her moustache out of the soup.’

And she gives Chloe her new address and puts the phone down.

Grace, who is well over forty, lives with Sebastian, who is twenty-five. Chloe feels herself to be morally superior to Grace.

six

G
RACE, MARJORIE AND ME.

Who would have thought it, when we were young.

Grace, so talented, so bold and desperate, now lives off men. Well, it is the way the world was arranged, most women do, and we all have to live somehow.

Grace complains of debt and recalcitrant lovers, but always seems to have a house to sell, a Rembrandt print to pawn, someone to take her out to dinner or fill her bed for the night. The rest of us fear poverty, deprivation, abandonment, separation, death. Grace fears the lack of a good hairdresser. She has no doubt been trained to this end, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, by a series of unpleasant experiences, but she was, I suspect, a more than willing victim in the experiment.

Grace is beautiful and frequently disagreeable and it is the latter quality, I sometimes think, which is more of an attraction than the former.

Grace remains beautiful as she grows older—it is as if she gains nourishment from her temper tantrums and her tears. She looks dreadful when she cries. I have seen her many times, her eyes red and swollen and ugly: her mouth swollen by blows, her neck marked not with love bites but the strangle marks she no doubt provokes. See her the next day, and who would have thought it. All is smooth and glossy again: a necklace round the firm white neck, the eyes clear, mocking and indifferent.

Grace wounds easily, but heals suspiciously quickly.

seven

M
ARJORIE, GRACE AND ME
. How foolishly we loved.

Grace loved her Christie, arch-villain of a decade, and after that herself (and she is, as they say, her own worst enemy).

Marjorie loved and still loves her mother, who frequently forgot not just her name but her very existence.

I, Chloe, loved Oliver.

We all, at one time or other, loved Patrick Bates, and Marjorie still does, much good may it do her.

These days I hardly know what the word love means. My mother, I remember, once told me it was the force which keeps people revolving round each other, in fixed orbit, and at a precise distance, as the planets revolve around the sun; and the moon, that cold creature, around the earth.

My mother, poor dead soul, loved her employer, in secret, for twenty years, and he never once made physical love to her, so such a vision of love came easily to her. And it is certainly true that with the force which attracts us to other people comes a force which similarly repels—keeps us forever dancing and juggling in our inner spaces, like motes in a sunbeam, never quite close enough, always too near, circling the object of our affection, yearning for incorporation and yet dreading it.

I remember love’s enchantments. Of course I do. Sometimes something happens, like the sun across the garden in the morning, or a song, or a smell, or the touch of a hand—and the body remembers what love was like, and the soul lifts itself up, certain once again in the knowledge of its Creator; and the whole self trembles again in the memory of that elation, which once so transfigured our poor obsessed bodies, our poor possessed minds.

It did us no good.

eight

M
ARJORIE, GRACE AND ME.
How foolishly we loved, and murderous we are. We have had six children between us, but have done to death, as if to balance the scales, some six of our nearest and dearest. And though the world does not acknowledge such deaths as murder, we know in our hearts that they are. No-one lies dead in a coffin but that our neglect has sent them there, or else it was our death wishes, sickening the air about them while they lived. Or perhaps we have overlain them with the great weight of motherly or wifely love, and crushed the life and spirit out of them.

Our fault.

Grace killed her Christie. It was the morning after his third marriage, to California: Grace had kept him awake all night by first telephoning, then ringing his front door bell, then shouting obscene instructions to California through the door, until the police removed her. The next morning, exhausted, he drove his new Maserati off the M1 and was killed, not instantly, but horribly. The alimony stopped with him, and Grace was left with nothing (in Grace’s terms) but a run-down house in St John’s Wood. California, that flower child, had shrewd lawyers and a marriage settlement which withstood almost instantaneous widowhood, and was overnight a millionairess.

Marjorie killed her Ben, with whom she was living (in the terminology of those days) in sin. Ben, changing a light-bulb one evening, reached out to take the new one from a slow-moving Marjorie, fell off his chair, hurt his neck, and later went down to casualty to see why it was hurting.

He’d been there three hours when the hospital rang and asked Marjorie to collect him, so she went along and was met by an old man in broken shoes and a white coat, who led her into a chilly tiled room, where the full moon glittered through opaque glass. He pulled out a drawer from the wall and there was Ben, lying dead. He’d cracked a vertebra when he fell, they told her later, and by some remote chance the two pieces of bone, grating together as he waited in the queue for attention, had snipped some vital nerve.

Marjorie was six months pregnant and it was her clumsiness, undoubtedly, which had caused Ben to stretch too far and fall. The baby was born prematurely, and died.

Two deaths to Marjorie’s account. She wasn’t even asked to Ben’s funeral—his family, too, assumed it was all her fault, murdering seductress that she was. And the baby didn’t have one. The doctor just wrapped it up and took it away, as the vet does with a dead animal.

BOOK: Female Friends
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