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Authors: Fay Weldon

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BOOK: Female Friends
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And they go back to the house, and Helen sweeps the Polish count away from an inspection of Esther’s roses, and pecks Marjorie good-bye, and Edwin quite forgets to tell Marjorie that her father is a prisoner of war, and Esther has a bad time for a day or two, while Edwin finds fault with her appearance, her cooking, her extravagance, her handling of the children, her very existence, and finally, provoked beyond endurance by her bewildered, suffering face, digs up her antirrhinum bed and lays down onions.

Chloe and Grace help.

twenty-one

I
N THE SUMMER OF
1943 Marjorie goes up to London for the day, to visit her mother. It’s a Sunday. The Frognal house, built in 1933 by a leading architect, rather in the fashion of a concrete boat, with portholes instead of windows, now stands like some dingy ark stranded in a jungle of creepers and shrubs. All the young gardeners have been called up and all the old ones can find better-paid work.

But Helen is cheerful. She still entertains: there are more than enough guests. Assorted Polish officers on leave in London, one or two reformed friends left over from the Peace Pledge days; former struggling painters, now official war-artists, previous avant-garde writers, now earning good money as war correspondents—all take refuge in her house. Tradesmen, warmed by Helen’s charm, supply extra food in quantity and the hospitality is lavish.

Helen cannot leave her guests to meet Marjorie, who makes her own way to Hampstead from Liverpool Street Station on a bus which takes her through the still smouldering rubble of the City, and from the top of which she sees, half hidden by bricks, what she thinks at first is a sack and then realizes is the top half of a body. She wonders whether to draw the attention of the conductor, and then changes her mind. Someone must know. She does not want to look silly.

She tries to tell Helen about the body, but Helen is too busy to listen. She is telling her friends what an independent girl Marjorie has become, by virtue of living in the country and going to the village school. Marjorie, laying the table for lunch, overhears her mother talking to a friend, thus:

Helen
Poor dear Dick! I don’t know what he’ll miss most in his prison camp. Sex, or culture. Can you imagine Dick without the Left Book Club, or the
New Statesman
or
Apollo
? All they ever get to see in those places is
Tit-Bits
and
Esquire
, I believe, sent in by the Red Cross. I’m afraid his mind will quite wither up and dry without its accustomed stimuli, and that’s not the only thing that will! He was never a one for inner resources.

Marjorie
Mother?

Helen
Run along, Marjorie.

Marjorie
You mean father’s a prisoner of war?

Helen
Yes of course he is, dear. Mr Songford told you.

Marjorie finds her father’s POW address by searching her mother’s rosewood desk. Every week she posts a lengthy letter to this address, copying out pages from
Apollo
, and the
New Statesman
, and whole stories out of
Penguin New Writing
; Chloe helps, churning out page after page when she should be doing her homework, and Grace—‘quite the little artist’ as her teacher says—copies Henry Moore sketches and Paul Nash paintings on to airmail paper, and these too are enclosed. (Grace has an amazing facility for graphic mimicry; she will pick up a pencil and dash off a copy of someone else’s original, with half indifferent, half contemptuous pride.) Whether the letters get through, none of them knows. Certainly there is no reply. It doesn’t seem to matter.

‘I expect they’ve tortured him to death,’ says Grace, one day over tea. ‘You know what the Germans are.’

‘Be quiet, Grace. He’s an officer and a gentleman,’ says Esther, comforting, ‘that kind of thing only happens to the ranks. Don’t upset poor Marjorie.’

But Grace does if she can, and no wonder, Marjorie’s school report is startling. At the end of her first year in the Grammar School she’s top of everything, with Chloe running second. Grace gets the Art Prize and ‘Could do better if she tried’ for nearly everything else. And though Grace does have normal parents, and lives in her own house in a fairly normal way, these, with the years, appear less and less desirable attributes. Grace is limited to the reality of Edwin—choleric, open-pored and fallible. Marjorie with her missing father, and Chloe with her dead one, live in a world of might-have-been and might-yet-be.

Marjorie sends her school report to her mother, and gets a reply in which Helen quite ignores the report but says she is going to the States for a year to work for a Free French organization in New York. Will she tell Mr and Mrs Songford, please.

Marjorie does. The guinea a week has long since ceased arriving.

‘You should be doing some kind of warwork,’ is all Edwin says to Esther, ‘sitting round here on your backside all day.’

Esther rarely sits. It’s all patch and mend and make-do, these days. Every available blackberry is bottled; turnip pulp must be added to the jam to make it go further; custard must be set with golden syrup, not eggs—there are no eggs available; even here in the country, officials pounce, it seems, while they’re still falling from the hen. Only the supply of cabbage is unlimited. And, of course, the garden vegetables.

‘I’m singing for the troops at the concert,’ says Esther, roused to defiance at last by the injustice of his fault-finding. Before she married, Esther had plans to be an opera singer. Edwin is horrified.

‘You’ll make a fool of yourself,’ he says. ‘And me.’ But Esther persists, and Edwin tries to get the organizers to cancel her appearance. But they won’t, and Esther sings. She stands up in front of all those men, this middle-aged lady with her red, swollen hands and lost ambitions, and sings, of all things, a Brecht song. ‘The Ballad of the German Soldier’s Bride’:

‘And what did he send you, my bonny lass,’

it goes,

‘From Paris the City of Light?

From Paris he sent me a silken dress

A dream caress of a silken dress,

From Paris the City of Light.

And what did be send you my bonny lass,

From the deep deep Russian snows?

From Russia he sent me my widow’s weeds,

From the funeral feast my widow’s weeds,

From the deep deep Russian snows.’

Her voice is clear and firm and young, her delivery exact and confident. There is silence after she finishes. Then applause, on and on. She seems gratified but not surprised by the response she gets. She won’t sing an encore.

‘That’s enough,’ she says. ‘That will last me for ever.’

It has to.

‘Sometimes,’ says Gwyneth to Chloe, ‘you rub brass and find gold. Not often, but sometimes,’ and for once what she says sounds true to Chloe.

Edwin does not hear his wife sing or witness her triumph. He slips a disc a couple of hours before she is due to appear on stage, and takes to his bed, and afterwards is in too much pain to listen to anyone’s description of the event.

twenty-two

‘I
KNOW WHAT THE
matter is with you,’ says Marjorie, as they wait for their coffee, ‘and with me. It’s the Stay Put poster. It has embedded itself in our minds.’

Oh yes. The Stay Put poster, on the notice boards of Church, Pub, School, Women’s Institute and Station, along with the Ministry of Food recipes for carrot cake and cod-and-potato pie.

‘What do I do?

—If I hear news that the Germans have landed? I stay put. I say to myself “our chaps will deal with that”. I do not say “I must get out of here” whether at work or home, I just stay put.’

‘I stay put at work, and you stay put at home,’ says Marjorie. ‘What good little girls we are.’

Snip, snip, snip, goes the shopkeeper’s scissors round coupons and points. Little packets of margarine, smaller ones of butter, tiny squares of cheese pass over the counter. Melon jam and milk powder. That’s all for this week. Ration books get flabby with use. Identity cards to children, are a source of pride. So that’s who one really is! The suicide rate plummets. The standard of health soars. If you can’t fill up on chips, you have to on carrots. War babies grow inches taller than pre-war ones. Britain’s finest hour!

The buses are filled with turbaned women on their way to work in the munitions factory. The sweet-shop lady’s son is killed in action. The baker’s brother loses a leg. The gardener who once helped Esther with the herbaceous borders is posted missing. Regulars at the Rose and Crown, laughing, handsome, horse-playing young men from the air-field, fail to turn up at their usual time. Other young men take their place at the bar, leaning and crowding in the same way, ordering the same drinks. It is hard to tell them apart.

Sometimes Gwyneth lies in bed at night and cries. Why? Chloe does not know. For herself or for the world. In the morning she is brisk and competent again. Chloe and she follow the early-morning exercise classes on the radio as best they can in their tiny room. Chloe breaks her little finger hitting the wall as she swings her arm. Well, there’s a war on. Hardship is no longer one’s own responsibility.

A German bomber is shot down, and explodes a mile or so from the village. The charred remains, metal and human, are cordoned off. A week later Marjorie comes across a severed human arm, still in its uniform sleeve, in a ditch.

Always Marjorie.

‘It’s nothing to do with staying put,’ says Chloe. ‘I love my husband.’

‘Love!’ says Marjorie. ‘What’s that? At your age?’

She gets up, goes over to the Cona coffee machine, and helps herself and Chloe to coffee. The waiter is nowhere in sight. Chloe longs to leave, but Marjorie has no intention of giving up.

‘One gets driven too far,’ says Marjorie. ‘Like Edwin Songford. Did you know he once raped Grace? She would walk round the house with no clothes on.’

Chloe blenches.

‘Grace will say anything to liven up a conversation,’ she says, faintly.

‘What’s more,’ says Marjorie. ‘she says that when her father was a little boy in India his father wired him up to a machine which gave him an electric shock if he masturbated, and that’s what rendered him impotent for ever.’

‘Then how did he rape her?’

‘She didn’t go into that.’

‘And how did she get born in the first place?’

‘You take everything so literally, Chloe,’ Marjorie complains. ‘And the reason he was cashiered, was because he cut a hole in the floor to watch his commanding office copulating with his lady in the room below.’

‘Poor Edwin,’ says Chloe. ‘Why is she so dreadful about him?’

‘Because he’s alone and senile on the Bournemouth coast and if she had a good word to say for him she might feel obliged to go and look after him. But it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the rape story is true. Grace was very provocative and very inquisitive, and the whole set-up was there waiting. In primitive communities, I may say, the wife who finds her sexual duties distasteful will rear one of the daughters to take her place in the marital bed. Remember how Esther kept insisting Grace wasn’t developed enough to wear a bra, so she used to bounce about the house, when the rest of us were decently encased in solid boned uplift bras?’

‘Nobody bounced in those days. One died with shame if a nipple showed through. Anyway, you’re talking about incest, not rape, and I don’t believe a word of it. Life just wasn’t like that.’

‘Yes it was,’ says Marjorie. ‘You just never noticed. You walked past that ditch twice without seeing that pilot’s arm. I was the only one to see it.’

‘Perhaps it was only there because you expected it to be,’ says Chloe, desperately.

‘According to Grace,’ Marjorie goes on, ‘it happened after I’d gone back to London to stay in the Frognal house, and Edwin was worrying about Grace’s purity. He’d come back from the Rose and Crown and gone to her room to check that she was there, and she wasn’t. So he blamed poor Esther for it, and she went to bed crying, and he sat up waiting with a bottle of whisky. When she finally came in about three, all flushed and mocking and furious—you know what she was like—he followed her up to his room and took off his belt to thwack her and his trousers fell down and that’s when it happened.’

‘I suppose,’ says Chloe gloomily, ‘that if you have a fantasy as detailed as that it might as well be true. If she’s determined that he raped her, the facts of the matter are irrelevant.’

‘That is simply not true,’ says Marjorie, ‘and you know it. A fact is a fact, and a fantasy open to Freudian interpretation.’

‘Whosoever lusteth in his heart,’ says Chloe, ‘as my mother used to say.’

‘No wonder you can’t keep Oliver in control,’ says Marjorie. ‘Why
do
you put up with Françoise?’

‘Because she makes Oliver happy,’ says Chloe.

‘And what about you?’

‘She doesn’t make me unhappy,’ says Chloe, cautiously.

‘She ought to,’ says Marjorie.

And what do you know about it, thinks Chloe, furious. Unmarried as you are and always have been and always will be, so sure you are of ought and oughtn’t.

‘You’re like your mother,’ Marjorie goes on, blandly. ‘You put up with too much. Endurance is a disease, and you caught it from her.’

‘It’s a question of alternatives,’ says Chloe. ‘How would my mother have lived, except by putting up with things? And what could Esther have done, except stay with Edwin? How would she have lived? Women live by necessity, not choice.’

‘Women who don’t earn,’ says Marjorie.

‘I tried to earn,’ says Chloe. ‘I did, and that’s when the trouble started. And Esther Songford didn’t have too bad a life, in spite of what you say. Married people don’t, it just looks dreadful from the outside.’

‘It doesn’t look,’ says Marjorie. ‘It is.’

‘She had an inner life, which nothing could touch.’

‘That’s not true,’ says Marjorie. ‘It was touched, and bruised and destroyed. Esther hurt dreadfully when Edwin mocked her, or Grace was rude to her, I know she did. I had to watch her being brave.’

BOOK: Female Friends
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