Authors: Elizabeth George
The earth and the sand are burning. Put your face on the burning sand and on the earth of the road, since all those who are wounded by love must have the imprint on their face, and the scar must be seen
--THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS
Playing for the Ashes
New York Toronto London Sydney Auckland
FOR FREDDIE LACHAPELLE
n England the term “the Ashes” signi
s victory in test cricket (cricket played at the national level) against Australia.
This expression arises from the following bit of cricket history:
When the Australian national team defeated the English national team in a test series in August of 1882, it was the
st time England had been defeated on her own soil. In reaction to the loss, the
ran a mock obituary in which the paper declared that English cricket had “died at the Oval on 29th August 1882.” The obituary was followed by a note informing readers that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
After that fatal match, the English team left for Australia for another series of matches.
Captained by Ivo Bligh, the team was said to be on a pilgrimage to
recover the Ashes
After the second defeat of the Australian team, some women from Melbourne took one of the bails (the pieces of wood that lie across three vertical stumps and with them comprise the wicket that the batsman is defending against the bowler), burned the bail, and presented the ashes to Bligh. These ashes now reside at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, the Mecca of English cricket.
While no trophy exchanges hands at the end of a series between England and Australia, whenever they meet for the
e matches that constitute what is called a test series, they play for the Ashes.
Playing for the Ashes
hris has taken the dogs for a run along the canal. I can still see them because they haven’t yet come to the Warwick Avenue bridge. Beans is loping along on the right, flirting with falling into the water. Toast is on the left. About every ten strides, Toast forgets he only has three legs and he starts to go down onto his shoulder.
Chris said he wouldn’t be gone for long, because he knows how I’m feeling about writing this. But he likes the exercise and once he gets going, the sun and the breeze will make him forget. He’ll end up running all the way to the zoo. I’ll try not to be cheesed off about this. I need Chris more than ever right now, so I’ll tell myself that he always means well and I’ll try to believe it.
When I worked at the zoo, sometimes the three of them would come to fetch me in mid-afternoon, and we’d have a coffee in the refreshment pavilion, outside if the weather was fine, sitting on a bench where we could see the facade of Cumberland Terrace. We’d study the curve of those statues lined up on the pediment, and we’d make up stories about who they were. Sir Boffing Bigtoff, Chris would call one for a start, him that got his arse blown off at the battle of Waterloo. Dame Tartsie Twit, I’d call another, her that posed as a witless wonder but was actually a female Pimpernel. Or Makus Sictus for someone in a toga, him that lost his courage and his breakfast with the Ides of March. And then we’d snicker at our idiocy, and we’d watch the dogs play at stalking the birds and the tourists.
I’ll wager you can’t see me doing that, can you, weaving dim tales with my chin on my knees and a cup of coffee, along with Chris Faraday, on the bench beside me. And not even wearing black like I do these days, but instead khaki trousers and an olive shirt, the uniform we always had on at the zoo.
I thought I knew who I was back then. I had myself sorted out. Appearances go for nothing, I’d decided a good ten years past, and if people can’t deal with my chopped-up hair, if people have problems with my ink-pot roots, if a nose ring gives them the willies and ear-studs lined up like medieval weapons make their stomachs do
p-flops, then to hell with them. They can’t look beyond the surface, can they? They don’t want to see me as I really am.
So who am I, really? What am I? I could have told you eight days ago because I knew then. I had a philosophy conveniently bastardized from Chris’s beliefs. I’d mixed it with what I’d picked up from my mates during the two years I spent at university, and I’d blended it well with what I learned from five years of crawling out of sticky-sheeted beds with my head exploding and my mouth like sawdust and no memory at all of the night that had passed or the name of the bloke who was snoring next to me. I knew the woman who’d walked through all that. She was angry. She was hard. She was unforgiving.
I’m still those things, and with good cause. But I’m something more. I can’t identify it.
But I feel it every time I pick up a newspaper, read the stories, and know the trial is looming ahead.
At first I told myself I was sick to death of being accosted by headlines. I was tired of reading about the sodding murder. I was weary with seeing all the relevant faces peering out at me from the
. I thought I could escape the whole rotten mess by reading only
instead, because the one thing I knew I could rely upon was
’ dedication to the facts and its general refusal to wallow in gossip. But even
has picked up on the story, and I find I can’t avoid it any longer.
Who gives a shit
doesn’t cut it right now as a means of distraction. Because I do give a shit, and I know it. Chris knows it as well, which is the real reason he’s taken the dogs and given me this time alone. He said, “You know, I think we’ll have a longer run this morning, Livie,” and he changed to his tracksuit. He hugged me in that asexual way of his—a side hug offering practically no body contact—and off he went. I’m on the deck of the barge with a yellow lined pad on my knees, a packet of Marlboros in my pocket, and a tin
led with pencils beside my foot. The pencils each have been sharpened to a pinpoint. Chris saw to that before he left.
I look across the pool to Browning’s Island where the willows dip branches towards the tiny pier. The trees are finally in full leaf which means it’s nearly summer. Summer was always a time of forgetting, when the sun baked problems away. So I tell myself that if I hold on for just a few more weeks and wait for summer, all this will be past. I won’t have to think about it. I won’t have to take action. I tell myself it’s not my problem. But that’s not quite the truth, and I know it.
When I can’t shirk looking at the newspapers any longer, I start with the pictures. I look the most at his. I see the way he holds his head, and I know that he thinks he’s taken himself to a place where no one can hurt him.
I understand. I thought I’d
ally arrived at that place myself at one time. But the truth is that once you start to believe in someone, once you allow yourself to be touched by another’s essential goodness—and it does exist, you know, this basic goodness that some people are blessed with—then it’s all over. Not only have the walls been breached, but the armour’s been pierced. And you bleed like a piece of ripe fruit, skin slit by a knife and
sh exposed for consumption. He doesn’t know this yet. He will, eventually.
So I’m writing, I suppose, because of him. And because at the core of this dreary shamble of lives and loves, I know I’m the one who’s responsible for everything.
The story begins with my father, actually, and the fact that I’m the one who caused his death. This wasn’t my first crime, as you will see, but it’s the one my mother couldn’t forgive. And because she couldn’t forgive me for killing him, our lives got sticky. And people got hurt.
This is tricky business, writing about Mother. It’s probably going to seem like mud-slinging, a perfect opportunity to get mine back. But here’s one characteristic about Mother that you need to know up front if you’re going to read this: She likes to keep secrets. So while, given the chance, she would doubtlessly explain with some delicacy that she and I fell out round ten years ago over my “unfortunate involvement” with a middle-aged musician called Richie Brewster, she’d never mention everything. She wouldn’t want you to know that I was a married bloke’s “other woman” for a time, that he put me up the duff and then did a runner, that I took him back and let him give me herpes, that I ended up on the job in Earl’s Court, doing it in cars for fifteen quid a go when I needed to score some coke real bad and couldn’t be bothered wasting time taking blokes to a room. Mother wouldn’t ever tell you that. She’d hold back the facts and convince herself she was protecting me. But all the time the real story is that Mother’s always hidden facts to protect herself.
From what? you ask.
From the truth, I reply. About her life, about her dissatisfaction, and most of all about her marriage. Which is what—my own unsavoury behaviour aside—I believe set Mother on the path that finally led her to believe that she was possessed of some sort of divine right to meddle in the affairs of others.
Naturally, most people engaged in dissecting my mother’s life wouldn’t see her as a meddler. Rather, they would see her as a woman of admirable social conscience. She certainly has the credentials: former teacher of English literature in a nasty-smelling comprehensive on the Isle of Dogs, one-time volunteer reader to the blind at weekends, assistant director of recreation for the retarded on school holidays and at half-terms, a gold medal fund-raiser for whatever disease was media darling of the moment. From a superficial observation of her, Mother looks like a woman with one hand in the vitamin bottle and the other on the first rung of the sainthood ladder.
“There are concerns beyond our own,” she always said to me when she wasn’t saying sadly, “Are you going to be difficult again today, Olivia?”
But there’s more to Mother than the woman who rushed round London like a twentieth-century Dr. Barnardo for thirty years. There’s the reason why. And that’s where protecting herself comes in.
Living in the same house with her, I had plenty of time to try to understand Mother’s passion for doing good works. I came to realise that she served others in order to serve herself simultaneously. As long as she kept bustling through the wretched world of London’s unfortunates, she never had to think much about her own world. Particularly, she didn’t have to think about my father.
I realise that it’s quite the fashion to examine the marital condition of one’s parents during one’s childhood. What better way to excuse the excesses, the paucities, and the down-right infirmities of one’s own character? But bear with me, please, in this minor expedition through my family’s history. It explains why Mother is who Mother is. And Mother is the person you must understand.
While she’d never admit it, I think my mother accepted my father not because she loved him but because he was suitable. He hadn’t served in the war, which was slightly problematical as far as his level of social desirability went. But despite a heart murmur, a cracked kneecap, and congenital deafness in his right ear, Dad at least had the grace to feel guilty for having escaped military service. He assuaged his guilt in 1952 by joining one of the societies dedicated to rebuilding London. There he met my mother. She assumed his presence indicated a social conscience on a par with her own and not a desire to forget the fortune he and his father had made from printing propaganda for the government from their business in Stepney from 1939 until the war’s end.
They married in 1958. Even now with Dad all these years dead, I still sometimes wonder what the early days of marriage must have been like for my parents. I wonder how long it took Mother to realise that Dad’s repertoire of passion didn’t run much further than a short gamut from silence to a whimsical, sweet smile. I used to think their times together in bed must have been something along the order of clutch, grope, sweat, poke, groan, with a “very nice, my dear” thrown in at the end, which was how I explained to myself that I was their only child. I came along in 1962, a little package of bonhomie engendered by what I’m sure was a bimonthly encounter in the missionary position.
To her credit, Mother played the role of dutiful wife for three years. She’d got herself a husband, achieving one of the goals set forth for post-war womankind, and she tried to do her best by him. But the more she came to know this Gordon Whitelaw, the more she realised that he’d sold himself to her on false pretences. He wasn’t the man of passion she had hoped to wed. He wasn’t a rebel. He had no cause. He was at heart just a printer from Stepney, a good man, but one whose world was circumscribed by paper mills and print runs, by keeping the machinery up and running and keeping the unions from bleeding him dry. He ran his business, came home, read the newspaper, ate his dinner, watched the telly, and went to bed. He had few interests. He had little to say. He was solid, faithful, dependable, and predictable. In short, he was boring.
So Mother cast about for something to colour her world. She could have chosen either adultery or alcohol, but she chose good works instead.
She’d never admit to any of this. Admitting that she always wanted to have more in her life than what Dad provided would have meant admitting that her marriage wasn’t all she’d hoped it would be. Even now if you went to Kensington and asked her, she’d no doubt paint a picture of life with Gordon Whitelaw that was bliss from the first. Since it wasn’t that, she worked on her social responsibilities. For Mother, doing good took the place of feeling good. Nobility of effort took the place of physical passion and love.
In return, Mother had a place to turn when she was feeling low. She had a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of worth. She received the honest and heartfelt gratitude of those to whose needs she daily ministered. She got herself praised from the classroom to the boardroom to the sickroom. She got her hands shaken. She got her cheeks kissed. She got to hear a thousand different voices say, “Bless you, Mrs. Whitelaw. God love you, Mrs. Whitelaw.” She got to distract herself till the day Dad died. She got everything she herself needed, in fact, from keeping the needs of society foremost in her mind. And in the end, when my father was dead, she got herself Kenneth Fleming as well.
Yes, indeed. All those years ago.