Authors: Andrea Goldsmith
‘It sounds excellent, although I’ll hardly recognise you – fulltime job, full-time money. How about a car?’ Kate nodded, Monica Vanderlou had already found her a good second-hand Fiat. ‘It’ll be real estate next,’ Elizabeth said.
‘Don’t be so sure, money has tamed more dishevelled lives than yours.’
‘Maybe so, but not home ownership, not for me. The mere thought is horrifying. Can you imagine me studying the real estate pages every Saturday, spending the entire weekend trespassing on other people’s lives, testing their plumbing, peering into their underwear drawers?’ She shuddered. ‘And then having to decide which of these other people’s houses I want to occupy, which underwear drawers I could make my own. Impossible!’
And of course it was. Kate had stayed in her mangy little flat because no one had found her somewhere better to live. Kate dashing around with the home-buying crowd would require a
personality change that not even money and a full-time job could effect.
Elizabeth reached across and patted her arm. ‘Calm down, Kate, no one’s going to push you into the real estate market. Come to think of it, when did anyone force you to do anything.’ They both laughed. ‘Why don’t we just sit back and take in the view.’
They settled into their chairs, with Kate resting her feet on the bumper bar of Oliver’s Porsche, taking care to smear mud on the immaculate red duco. Elizabeth closed her eyes and thought of Vivienne, something Vivienne had said about Kate, how she hoped the stability of the new job, ‘a proper job at long last’, would finally motivate Kate to produce something. Elizabeth had mentioned Kate’s reputation, and Vivienne replied that intellect could only be gauged through studying its products – a difficult task in Kate’s case because there were none.
‘Surprising how you and Vivienne have become so close,’ Kate said suddenly. ‘I am right? You are seeing a lot of each other?’ Elizabeth nodded, two, maybe three times a week. ‘You’re so different,’ Kate continued, ‘opposites, and yet – ’
Kate thought for a moment. ‘An elusive thing, a certain consonance, like the voices of a fugue.’ She sucked on a chicken bone. ‘I’ve watched Vivienne for years, know all about her odd way of seeing the world, and I always thought it was unique. But recently, when the two of you have been together it’s occurred to me that you have a similar perspective. And yet you’ve both had such different experiences, lead such different lives. You should be so different, blast it all, you
Kind uncomplicated Elizabeth, austere impassioned Vivienne. One inspired love, and the other? – well, people either disliked Vivienne or were obsessed by her, nearly everyone admired her, most found her abrasive, many found her attractive, a few suffered a terrible discomfort because of her, and only Kate knew how to love her. Of course Vivienne and Elizabeth were different.
Elizabeth leaned forward, took a fresh piece of parsley and nibbled on it. After a couple of minutes she popped the sprig in her mouth, chewed it up and turned to Kate. ‘Did you know what
Vivienne would be when you were children together? Did you have an inkling of what she’d become?’
‘I suppose I did, although we never really discussed it. She used to call me a repository of hope, from which I assumed she was not, that whatever she wanted she’d achieve.’
‘And has she?’
‘How could anyone doubt it? Although to my mind she’s driven, besotted with work, much more interested in analysing people and writing about them, than relating to them. That’s why you should be careful, Elizabeth. In recent years Vivienne has developed an almost pathological response to leisure, hardly leaves her desk, rarely socialises and when she does she’s usually so rude that everyone would prefer she’d stayed at home. I really am worried about her; I’ve seen signs of paranoia, and sometimes I’m convinced she’s agoraphobic what with her constant references to the hostility of the outside world – always proclaimed from the safety of her own home. It worries me that what was once healthy eccentricity is now not so healthy, that she’s tipped the balance. And she won’t let any of us help, although to be honest I think she’s beyond us now and needs expert – ’
‘What nonsense!’ Elizabeth was on her feet, shoving the air with irritation. ‘And from you, Kate, of all people. Sick? Vivienne? – utter nonsense! I’ll tell you what it is about Vivienne you all find so vexing: she’s entirely devoid of pragmatism. It’s not her attitude to work that’s a problem, neither is it her view of the world, rather it’s rigour and scrupulousness that nags at you all and makes you uncomfortable. Makes
uncomfortable so you call
sick. Or arrogant, I’ve heard her described as arrogant often enough.
‘Vivienne’s not like the rest of us, she rarely does anything simply because it’s easy or expedient or designed to preserve the status quo; she refuses to compromise. It’s not difficult to see why people find her offensive – but then, unlike the rest of us, she’s not desperate to be liked, in fact, she doesn’t care what people think of her. You describe her as rude, well I think that’s laughable! Just because she refuses to observe the social niceties and remain politely silent while others give voice to beliefs she finds abhorrent.
That’s not being rude, it’s being principled!’
With fists knotted into her thighs Elizabeth paused for a quick breath before continuing.
‘She’s difficult company, I’ll grant you that; where we would prefer our posturings and our cocoons of deceit Vivienne does not. She asks her questions and makes her pointed remarks, guided always by what she believes is right and not the routine demands of our social life. Vivienne is a continuing reminder of our failures, of all those acts done for ease or approbation or fear of causing offence; she’s like a restorer with a palimpsest, revealing what you might have been, or were once, or should be. She makes you recall lost attributes, she unearths dreams relinquished long long ago, and she makes you uneasy with the life you live now. So you want to reject her, reject her insights, but you can’t, because having been reminded of what you might have been you can’t go back, not peaceably nor honestly, and neither can you go forward alone because you don’t trust yourself to know the right way.
‘What masochism drives people to spend time in the company of one who nibbles away at everything that is familiar and pulls your life from underneath you? What could make people tolerate – no, more than that, be partisan to such an exercise? The answer is simple, Vivienne caters to the hopefuls, to those of us who want to be better than we are, or other than what we are, to people who remember their dreams, to those who are – ’ she paused and smiled at Kate, ‘repositories of hope. Vivienne appeals to those who are already uncomfortable, already eroding, already sifting the crumbs of a life. It’s not masochism that draws people to her but the need to survive. Happy housewives don’t seek her out, smug husbands certainly don’t, only odd little children struggling to be noticed – your story, Kate, and young adults who have come to distrust the fairytale promises of youth – those special students of hers, and grown women whose neglected faculties are soughing feebly into a void. Women like me.’
Elizabeth was suddenly silent. The last words brought her to her senses. Women like me. But women like her did not make such a noise, they were quiet, unobtrusive, without complaint. Women like her listened, they involved themselves in the lives of others
and kept their opinions to themselves. The sound of her voice was strange, the passion even stranger – and profoundly embarrassing. She sat down, not daring to look at Kate, and tried to breathe the passion away. Elizabeth was unaccustomed to heat and fury, unaccustomed to emotions that ripped words from your mouth; how she hated the crude outbursts that flayed and betrayed and defeated you in the end. And she worried about Kate, what Kate was thinking, Kate was her friend, a close friend, Vivienne’s too. Always the worry of what others would think – habit of a life time – Kate’s face averted, Kate’s thoughts in shadow. How to make things normal again, be normal again, reinstate inscrutable Elizabeth snug in her skin and in control of the situation once more.
She took a deep breath.
‘Kate dear, are you all right? I didn’t mean to explode like that.’
Kate turned towards her with furrowed brow and outstretched hands. ‘
perfectly fine, it’s you I’m worried about.’ Elizabeth brushed the concern aside. ‘Seriously,’ Kate continued, ‘you’re all flustered and upset, you look like you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks, it’s clear you’ve allowed Vivienne to get to you, and it’s doing you no good whatsoever.’ Elizabeth tried to interrupt. ‘No, listen to me, I know Vivienne, know her better than anyone, and I love her, don’t ever think otherwise, but she has an uncanny knack of taking a life and holding it up to such scrutiny that when she lets go it slithers to the ground in shreds. I’ve seen her do it time and time again, destroy a perfectly adequate life. And why? as an assertion of power that’s why,
power; it’s Vivienne contriving to be needed, Vivienne avoiding a confrontation with her own miserable existence. But it’s at the expense of the other person, Elizabeth,
expense. Don’t let her do it, be firm with her, more selective in what you want from her. Don’t let her take over your life.’
‘Are these ready to go?’ Lydia picked up the plate of marinated chicken wings. ‘Everyone’s starving. Are there any more sandwiches?’
Elizabeth pulled herself together and attended to the food. She was furious at Kate’s attack on Vivienne. How much more obvious
could it be? Vivienne wasn’t her problem, Adrian was. Furious and offended too, for Kate’s analysis had said little for Elizabeth – weak impressionable Elizabeth. Kate had gone too far and Elizabeth had had enough, she handed a plate of sandwiches to her and sent her into the messy pile of weary women with their doctors and lawyers and merchant bankers and businessmen. Only when Kate had disappeared did Elizabeth move off in the other direction bearing some spinach and smoked salmon roulade.
She disagreed with everything Kate had said. It occurred to her that the attack had been inspired by Kate’s own less-than-fulfilling life, but just as quickly she rejected the idea: Kate had never given any indication of being disappointed in her own life, never a suggestion she had failed. And it was not that Kate was a stranger to criticism, she wielded thick slabs of it when it came to the lives of others; Elizabeth’s life, for example, Kate had pronounced as unequivocally inferior to her own. And yet Elizabeth couldn’t help but wonder how it could happen that while she was drowning in a slush of wasted years, Kate with her own bucket of slush seemed content enough. To suggest it was Vivienne’s fault was simply ridiculous – Vivienne had supplied Elizabeth with the first hope in years – but to blame it on Elizabeth’s sad wasted life was equally unacceptable, because, sad and wasteful as it had been, so too had Kate’s. The major difference between them concerned what each would own up to knowing. Kate never admitted to faults and misdemeanours, and, if she bothered to remember them at all, she managed, in her own inimitable way, to remember them as considerably more generous acts. Kate was prejudiced against certain types of knowledge. Elizabeth, however, knew you couldn’t retreat from knowledge simply because it was harrowing. Or perhaps you could but there was a certain skill to it.
‘Elizabeth, be a dear and do another plate of chicken wings, this one just disappeared. And I’ll relieve you of that,’ Lydia took the roulade and moved deeper into the throng.
The champagne had long ago washed away the last remnants of reserve, everyone was bloated with bonhomie. Lydia was pleased: the food was lasting well and there was plenty of alcohol for the best of stayers.
‘Marvellous party, Lydia.’ Manicured hand to the roulade. ‘Mm, this is delicious! I’ll just take another teensy bit while you’re here.’ ‘Don’t know how you manage it, Lydia,’ a hairy hand reached for the roulade, ‘you and the Dadswells and the Warbys. Each year is better than the last. Imagine what an extravaganza Cup Day 1990 will be.’ ‘We’ll all be too old to enjoy it,’ an emerald-encrusted hand plucked a piece from the plate. ‘Don’t be such a wet blanket,’ manicured hand again. ‘That’s the attitude,’ hairy hand took two more pieces. ‘What did you say was in this stuff, Lydia?’
Lydia chatted and smiled and distributed food as she passed among the crowd and when the plate was empty she smiled and chatted her way back to the car. She rummaged in the boot for a clean plate and covered it with meat balls – the last of the meat balls, she noticed.
‘You’re looking perfectly scrumptious.’ Adrian had joined her at the back of the car and in the shadow of the raised trunk slipped his hand around her breasts. ‘And feeling scrumptious.’
‘And I thought you were too busy to notice.’
Adrian leaned against her. ‘What a suggestion! I’m always aware of you.’ His penis was pronounced through his trousers, he leaned in harder and twitched it.
Lydia laughed. ‘Adrian, you’re incorrigible.’
Lydia laughed louder. ‘Here? Adrian, you’re simply awful!’
‘Go on, touch me. Can’t let it go to waste.’
Still laughing, Lydia grasped his penis through his trousers and gave it a squeeze.
‘Properly Lydia, do it properly.’
‘Don’t be silly, Adrian, we can’t.’
‘I’m not being silly, I’m being deadly serious. We could stand here, our bodies shielded by the car, you could get to work and I could watch the crowd.’ He took her hand and guided it down the front of his trousers. ‘I’d like that.’
‘Well I wouldn’t,’ Lydia said withdrawing her hand. ‘You’re such an exhibitionist I wonder you don’t suggest we make love in the middle of the crowd.’
‘Of course not!’
‘All right then, not in the middle of the party, but where? It’s been days.’
‘It’s been four days – we had lunch last Friday.’
‘It’s been forever. Come on Lydia, I’m as randy as hell.’
‘But Adrian – ’
‘No one will notice us, come to think of it there aren’t too many who can still see straight.’