Authors: Teresa Waugh
Copyright © Teresa Waugh 1989
The right of Teresa Waugh to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton Ltd in 1989
This edition published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
Prudence by name and prudent by nature. I often wonder whether perhaps my name has contributed over the years to the shaping of my nature. Would I have been an entirely different person, leading an entirely different life, had my parents chosen to call me, for instance, Fleurette, or Diana? That is, of course, something which I shall never know, but when I consider my pusillanimous brother, Victor, I am forced to the conclusion that it is not, in the end, the name that counts.
My parents were yeomen farmers in the West Country. That is to say that the farm in Somerset on which I was brought up belonged to my mother who, as an only child, inherited it from her parents. She and my father, one of five sons of a local seedsman, were married shortly after his return from the First World War when both were young and eager to work the farm together.
They lived, I suppose, fairly happily despite having to put up with a certain amount of hardship, not least of which was the loss of several children. Of the six children which my poor mother bore my father, Victor and I were the only two to survive infancy. Pusillanimous Victor is four years younger than I.
Victor could never, from the earliest age, tolerate the discomforts of country life. When he was a little boy, the cold, the mud, the chilblains, the geese hissing at him across the farmyard, the rat scurrying in the granary, the stinging nettles behind the milking-shed, the bats hung up in the barn and even the docile, brown-eyed gaze of the Jersey cows, all conspired to reduce him to tears.
It was hardly surprising then, when in his early teens and just as my father was looking forward to having a useful pair of hands to help him about the place, he announced that nothing on God's earth would persuade him to spend the rest of his life on a farm. My father suffered the blow stoically. Perhaps he thought, or at least hoped, in his heart of hearts, that Victor would change his mind. But Victor never did and when my father eventually died, my mother battled on alone for two or three years before giving up the unequal struggle and dying herself.
The farm was sold and the proceeds divided between Victor and myself, so that I was able to buy a comfortable, small house in the town where I worked for many years, teaching French in an undistinguished and little known girls' private school. At some time during the early seventies it was decided to amalgamate this school with an equally undistinguished boys' school in the same town so that for the last ten or so years of my working life, I was teaching in a co-educational school.
I am now retired. In fact I not only retired quite recently, but also moved house. I always planned to move, on retirement, nearer to where Victor and his wife live and so I sold the little town house which was my home for so many years and moved to a cottage in a village about seven miles away from Victor's more substantial establishment. This meant a move back to Somerset from the Home Counties.
My roots, as I have explained, are very much in the West of England and, quite apart from Victor's presence here, it has always been my intention to return to die where I was born, beneath the soft grey skies of the loveliest county in England.
Of course it is an added advantage being near to Victor. I have never been married and have no children, so when I speak of my 'family' I naturally refer to Victor, his peculiarly gloomy wife, Patricia, and their children. No one, I am sure, would deny that it is a great comfort, in old age, to live close to one's family.
I am very fond of my brother, which does not mean that I am incapable of seeing what he is really like, and the sad truth is that apart from being somewhat pusillanimous as I have already mentioned, Victor is a pernickety, rather humourless and remarkably narrow-minded man. But he has been kind and loyal to me and, after all, we share the experience of our formative years. I say that I am very fond of Victor, and that is the absolute truth, but I sometimes wonder quite how much I like him. As I have explained, he is not a particularly likeable man, but he is a decent and an honourable one and I have no reason to quarrel with him.
As for Patricia, I do not really like her very much either. But then I imagine that few people do. Patricia, like Victor, is decent and honourable, but nobody on earth could pretend to enjoy her company. She is some years younger than Victor and must now, I suppose, be in her early fifties. But it is not middle-age which has made her so gloomy since she is no gloomier now than she was nearly thirty years ago when she and Victor were first married.
Patricia and Victor have two children, Leo and Laurel. Both Leo and Laurel were long awaited, or so it seemed at the time. I think that Leo must have been born about five years after his parents were married. Laurel is eight years younger than her brother. Gloomy Patricia yearned for children and would, so she says, have liked to have had a large family if it were not for the dreadful trouble she had in conceiving them.
It always amazed me at the time, and still does now when I think about it, that anyone with so despairing a view of life as Patricia should wish so ardently to inflict the pain of existence on others. But there you go – as they say nowadays. Leo and Laurel, when they finally appeared, may well have caused a fleeting smile to cross their mothers face, but it seems to me that from the moment of Leo's primal cry, Patricia has done nothing but wring her hands. Certainly, neither child has done anything to lessen their mother's nihilistic approach to life, and yet she must, I imagine, love her children.
It may well seem that I write this out of a sense of injustice and a feeling of jealousy because I myself have never had any children. I do not think this is the case.
Years ago I went through a very painful period of my life when I had to face up to the fact that even if I did get married which seemed increasingly unlikely, the chances of my having a baby were slim. At one stage I longed to have children of my own, so much so that I could easily imagine the mental anguish which leads women like myself to abduct babies from outside supermarkets. But time passed and with the help of a basically stable temperament, I was able to weather the storm, accept my lot and devote such maternal feelings as I have to my pupils, to a certain extent to Leo and Laurel, and not least to Pansy, my most beloved black Pekinese. Pansy, alas, is old now and will not be with me for very much longer.
I shall miss Pansy dreadfully when she goes, but nowadays, as far as children are concerned, I can honestly say that when I consider the anxiety and the disappointment, not to mention the pain that so many parents suffer in these times of drugs and AIDS, and so forth, I sometimes wonder if I have not had a lucky escape.
It took a little while for me to find my ideal cottage, and when I did I was very nearly persuaded against buying it by Patricia who discovered a thousand and one things wrong with it. She was sure that I could never be happy with a thatched roof which was bound to harbour rats, with so open a fireplace which was bound to smoke, with the apple tree outside the kitchen window one of the oldest and most beautiful apple trees I have ever seen but which, according to Patricia, was so old that it would soon fall down, leaving the garden quite bare. She was sure that the cottage must be damp, the little sitting-room would never be big enough to house my furniture and the stairs were so steep that I would soon be too old to climb them.
Patricia put forward all these views with the best of possible intentions. She sees herself in life as the guardian of all wisdom, someone with a peculiar gift of insight. She, and only she, can warn us of the pitfalls which lie ahead, and it is her unquestionable duty to do so. No one else has her awareness, nor would it seem do they have the slightest understanding of, nor any ability to deal with, the most trivial everyday problem. It is so fortunate for us all that she is there to guide us. Yet when it comes to problems concerning her immediate family, however small or imaginary, Patricia collapses and is reduced to nothing.
The decision to buy the cottage was obviously an important one. I never wish to have to move house again. And for this reason I did, for once, listen with half an ear to Patricia. She might well have struck on the one fatal flaw which I, in my enthusiasm for this delightful cottage with its enchanting garden, might have overlooked, but I finally decided to ignore her objections and to take the plunge.
Patricia was appalled and full of foreboding. She is convinced that I shall soon be having to move again and that when I do I will have the greatest possible difficulty in finding a buyer for my cottage.
Victor, too, was rather nervous about the whole thing. Wouldn't I be happier nearer to them? It was, he thought, a lovely little house and the price was surprisingly reasonable, but I had been living in a town, and wouldn't I be frightened alone on the edge of a small village? Pansy could hardly count as a guard dog. I am not so sure. Pansy is not the least bit pusillanimous. Neither am I when I come to think about it.
I really enjoyed the move when the time came. It was invigorating and life-enhancing. The change was exciting. After all, I can barely count the years I have lived in the same house, doing the same job and meeting the same people day after day. Now, suddenly, everything is new, and how lucky I am, so late in life, to be able to have an entirely novel existence. Not only do I frequently meet new people, but the whole experience of learning to live not alone – which I have always done – but without the disciplines and routine of a job, is a demanding challenge.
I have, every morning, to find a reason for getting dressed. For getting out of bed. Indeed for continuing to exist. There are no longer little rows of children waiting to learn the
, no more sixth formers puzzled by Camus's philosophy of the Absurd. No more homework to correct. No more lessons to prepare. Here am I alone. Prudence Fishbourne, retired teacher. I have, I suppose, between fifteen and twenty years more to live. I could, of course, live for another thirty odd years, but I am not altogether sure that that would be entirely desirable.
So, as I have explained, I have no dependants, no job – nothing – just myself and a possible twenty odd years. Twenty odd years may not seem very long but add to them yourself and nothing else and those years may seem like an eternity.
I have always been a practical, level-headed person and have always tried – not merely in the matter of my childlessness but throughout the tribulations of this life – to accept what has been my lot. To many outsiders my lot may not appear to be a particularly enviable one, but I have been, if not ecstatically happy, at least fairly contented. There have, of course, been highs and lows, disappointments and even the occasional brush with tragedy. But I think that most people of my age would have very much the same tale to tell.
I think that at this point I should describe my appearance – I have never been considered pretty but then I would never say that I was exactly plain, either – in fact, if you analyse my features, I should be quite nice looking. I am tall and thin with hair which used to be middling brown, but which has been white now for some years. I keep it quite short and I pin it away from my face, neatly behind my ears. My eyes are brown and large, my nose thin and bony, my face narrow, my eyebrows arched. My hands I have always secretly thought of as rather beautiful with long, tapering, sensitive fingers. My feet are on the large side. I would even admit to being somewhat flat-footed.
From the very beginning my main trouble has always been not my appearance so much as my manner, or perhaps my personality. I have never been able to achieve that lightness of touch, that delicacy of movement, the tilt of the head, the arch of the brows, the cheerful laugh, the frankness of gaze or whatever essential ingredient it is which ultimately attracts the opposite sex. I am perhaps a little too pedestrian, a little flat-footed in every way.
Now I am perfectly well aware that times have changed and that there are nowadays a great many young women who despise, or affect to despise, the male sex, and of course I entirely agree that men as a breed have a lot to answer for and that many of them are not worth the shoes they stand up in. I am also of the opinion that women are, on the whole, the finer sex, being in almost every way morally superior. Of course there are exceptions like Patricia. But, to return to the point, I have to say that, despite their self-centred arrogance and their emotional inadequacy, I like men and find them attractive and always have done. I do not like to find myself, as is often the danger with single women, surrounded only by my own sex. I like, when I enter a room, to hear a man's deep voice.
It is also worth remembering that although I have formed these opinions from observation throughout my life, as well as from the present climate of opinion, I was brought up in a generation which looked up to men. My father had been in the trenches and lived through the Somme and for that we, quite rightly, looked up to him as a hero. Never mind the men who caused that terrible war in the first place, we only thought of my father.
And of course in those days girls were expected to get married and they, too, usually expected to marry, so it was not without a melancholy sense of increasing disappointment that I gradually became aware of my apparently innate inability to produce that intangible something which would attract a husband to my side. Or perhaps I just never met Mr Right.
Only the other day I gave my name to an impertinent tradesman, that he might deliver some goods to my door.
"Miss Prudence Fishbourne," I said loudly and clearly over the telephone. "F.I.S.H.B.O.U.R.N.E."