Mrs. Callaghan, too, kept [Isobel’s] birthday in mind and spoke of it now and then.
“January,” she said, “is too close to Christmas for birthday presents,” and later, serenely, “it is vulgar to celebrate birthdays away from home.”
Whenever she found a new argument against birthday presents for Isobel, a strange look of relief would appear on her face, and Isobel would be forced to accept, for the moment, that there would be no present.”
Birthdays, injustices, parents all vanished. [Isobel] sat on the floor reading till the noise of cups and saucers in the kitchen warned her that the grown-ups would be coming in for afternoon tea, then she went to the little room where she and Margaret slept, next to their parents’ bedroom. It was too hot there, but if she went outside to the cool shade of the fig tree, Caroline and Joanne Mansell would come asking her to play with them, or Margaret would want her to go for a swim. Besides, it wasn’t hot in Baker Street. What a lucky thing that she had found this new place in time to spend the birthday there. Presents didn’t matter so much, if life had these enchanting surprises that were free to everyone.
Isobel was living in two worlds. Miss Halwood’s, where she belonged and things were solid and predictable, and the other one, where she was exulting at making her mother uncomfortable. That was a great pleasure but it was like gobbling sweets—she expected some sickness from it. Meanwhile there was the world of Sherlock Holmes, which was better than both of them. She said, “May I be excused, please?” and hurried back to her chair. She fished out the book from under the seat and went back to Baker Street.
The sound of her mother's quick, foreboding tread made her push the box in a panic under her pillow. Now, she remembered: she had been told not to tell, and she had told. She had told Caroline, who had told Mr. Mansell, and retribution was coming, as her mother advanced with set face and luminous glare and began to slap her, muttering, “Don't you dare to cry. Ungrateful little bitch. Don't you dare to cry. You little swine, thankless little swine, you couldn't say thank you, couldn't even say thank you.” Slap, slap. “Don't open your mouth, don't you dare to cry.” There was not much to cry about, for her mother's intentions were far more violent than her blows. Her hands flapped weakly as if she was fighting against a cage of air.
Isobel took the box from under the pillow, took out the brooch and looked at it while she rubbed her stinging legs. Why hadn’t her mother taken the brooch? It would have been so easy. Isobel could even supply the words she had dreaded to hear: “Give me that, you don’t deserve to have it. Come on, give it to me.” Why hadn’t she said them? Could it be that there were things her mother couldn’t do?
That idea was too large to be coped with. She put it away from her, but she took the brooch and pinned it care- fully to the neck of her dress. It was hers now, all right. She went and looked at it in the glass and stood admiring it. In one way or another, she would be wearing it all her life.
There was a pause, so long that she thought it might be safe to pick up her knife and fork again, but as she stirred her mother said, “I want you to tell me what you are sulking about, Isobel.”
She was really frightened now, wondering how long she would hold out, foreseeing the moment when she would begin to scream and scream. She wasn't going to, not ever. She would think of grace and be still.
“Tell me.” Her mother's voice, which had been rising to a scream, turned calm and gracious again. Like somebody getting dressed. Isobel looked up and saw that her eyes were frantic bright. She doesn't want me to tell her, she wants me to scream. I do something for her when I scream.
Then she saw that her mother's anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.
Isobel was left to witness her mother's sufferings, which were real and ludicrous. She walked about white-faced, repeating, “Who'd be a mother? Who'd be a mother? You do everything for them, you give up everything for them and what do you get for it? Forgotten as soon as it suits them, they're gone without a thought. Heartless ungrateful children.”
She spoke not to Isobel, but in her hearing, wanting her perhaps to repeat the lament to Margaret, or inviting her to a new alliance. Isobel kept her mind averted, but thought it was strange, as she speeded up her polishing of the kitchen floor, that she should be hurrying through the chores in order to desert this misery and go and read about saintliness and brotherly love. She could not help it; grace told her to withdraw and she did what grace demanded, though it was more of a holding position now than an inner joy.
“Take that dress off, Margaret,” said their mother from the doorway. “It belongs to Isobel.”
“But Isobel said I could have it.”
Isobel said, “Aunt Noelene will never know.”
Her mother gave her a look of hate as she walked
towards Margaret, who did not know what was happening and stood like a good little girl having a dress fitted till she heard the dull snap of threads and the tearing noise. She cried out then as if she had been hit.
“Damn you,” screamed Isobel. “Damn you, damn you, it was mine. It wasn't yours to tear. It was mine and I gave it to Margaret. Damn you!”
She saw the look of peace and relief on her mother's face as she walked away and she knew what she had done. The old sick closeness was back and she was the same old Isobel.
Margaret was sitting on her bed dressed in her slip, stroking the torn yoke and sobbing.
“It's only a dress,” said Isobel. She had lost more.
“Oh, you shut up. You didn't want it, anyhow.”
It wasn't only a dress. It was much more, and it was gone, and so was the state of grace.
At that moment, Isobel thought such things were not for either of them.
Dead, thought Isobel, trying the word again. It still meant only silenced. There was no hope of calling up any decent feeling from her evil heart, which was rejoicing in the prospect of freedom and even of new shoes. She picked up Shakespeare, Byron, Keats and Shelley and carried them into the bedroom, where Margaret was sitting on her bed, dazed and weeping, silently and slowly tears dripping like blood from a cut finger.
“Do you mind if I take the Shakespeare? It isn't mine but I’d like to have it.”
Margaret shook her head, sending two tears running quickly down her cheeks. It wouldn't do to tell her to cheer up. Somebody should be giving Isobel the opposite advice. Yet there was in her, deeper than her relief, a paralyzing sorrow, not at her mother's death but at being unable to grieve at it. That one was going to stay with her; she looked for distraction from it in the cheerful business of packing and buying new shoes, but knew that any cheerfulness was, in the situation, shocking. She feared she had shocked Aunt Yvonne already. Perhaps the funeral would touch her feeling and make her a member of the human race.
It was a commonplace little room but she was prepared to love everything in it: bed (slightly sagging), chair (straight), faded floral curtains at the window (her own window), combination wardrobe and dressing-table (lucky she didn't have many clothes), a grate in the corner, with a vase of paper flowers delivering the message that it was no longer used for fires, above it a shelf for her books. She unpacked them first: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, The Last Chronicle of Barset, from the library. She looked with regret at that. She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn't reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire. She resisted temptation and went on with her unpacking, having a modest ambition to meet life, to be adequate. She had an idea of a life of her own, like the room of her own, where she chose the furniture-no rages' no black passions, no buffeting from the world. […] Putting her clothes away in a drawer she saw her face in the glass, so happy and hopeful that the likeness to her mother, which seemed to her usually to be a curse from birth, seemed unimportant.
“When do you plan to be married, Rita?”
“In September. We don't want a long engagement. Stephen's firm are sending him to Melbourne and we want to be married and go together.”
Isobel heard this with dismay. This was the opportunity Aunt Noelene would expect her to grasp, seizing that wild horse money by the bridle as it passed. She lacked courage for the deed. If she did manage it, she would have to take dictation from Mr. Walter instead of checking invoices with Frank. This was life: no sooner had you built yourself your little raft and felt secure than it came to pieces under you and you were swimming again.
“Do you ever think about being a writer?”
“What made you think of that?”
“Well. No need to bite my head off! You nearly made me drop a week's wages.” He brushed the packing away from a molded iridescent fruit bowl and set it on the table. […]
“I'm sorry I snapped.” She could offer no explanation either for the panic reaction.
“Well. You have this way of putting things. I thought of it when you said that about your little number fours. Summed it up in six words and made me mad, what's more. Made Olive madder, I'm thinking. Everyone can't do that.”
“I wish you'd drop it, Frank.”
“OK. But, to come back to it, what do you want out of life? What do you want to be? If you say Mr. Walter's secretary, I'll award myself a big horse laugh.”
'I want to be one of the crowd.'”
''Went very funny after the baby was born. Not the first one either, the third. Joe that would have been, got grown-up sons himself now. She was very bad for a while. She came out of it all right in the end.”
“I'm glad to hear that.” Mrs. Bowers' tone admitted that Mrs. Prendergast was not often the bringer of good news.
“It can take you in funny ways. There was the woman lived opposite us in Mudgee. Six weeks old the baby was and they were getting ready to go out. Her husband called out from the door, ‘Are you coming, Dorrie?’ ‘I won't be a minute, dear, I'm just popping the baby in the oven.’ He came running in and there was the baby greased all over and trussed up in the baking dish and the oven hot. He just got to it in time.”
Mrs. Bowers shrieked, 'Oh, my God!'
She said to Joseph—in bed at night she humped her pillow to the shape of a shoulder and unpacked her thoughts for Joseph—“Suppose one is born bad—not by choice—the hand of the potter shook, you might say—why can't one choose to be different? I thought I could. I thought I could make my life into a room and choose what came into it. I was a bit above myself, wasn’t I? That's what monks and nuns do, with God and prayer and fasting and all that stuff. No job for an amateur. Besides, life isn't like that. It's more like swimming in a sea, with currents and undertows carrying you where you don't want to go.”
The currents and the undertows were mysterious evil passions, rage and envy; most of all an unconquerable sadness—no matter how willingly they accepted her—at being somehow disqualified, never to be truly one of them.
You left the house thinking of freedom, of being a different person, seeing the world ahead of you, but you didn't go on, you went back. To fight the old fight and this time to win, to have the verdict set aside, to be the favored child.
Any rag will make a doll for the idiot in the attic.
Auden had a general in his head. (“But they've severed all the wires, and I don't know what the general desires.'”
Isobel had an idiot in the attic.
Back in her room, she sat on her bed and reflected. She was in a different position from Auden; she knew what the idiot desired, all right, and had to watch to see it didn't get it.
The idiot played its games with the real world and- and what was worse-it played them behind Isobel's back. Not any more, now that she knew. Could she do this, watch a part of herself and control it, fight against it all her life?
She was not too discouraged, the new knowledge giving her a feeling of strength. At least she knew where she was going wrong-no wonder the others disliked her, watching her suck up to Mrs. Bowers, taking what ought to be Madge's.
Idiot wants a mother.
Idiot can't have one.
Life is very difficult.
The idea of losing a job was so alarming to Isobel that she could not leave the subject. “But what are you going to do? You have to have a job. You have to eat!”
Diana considered that idea carefully, then shrugged. “I've got some money saved.”
“And when that's gone?”
She sounded quite belligerent. Interesting. Here was someone feeble enough to bring out the bully in Isobel.
“What do I care? I don't care about anything. I'm finished. I'm as good as dead.”
Isobel reflected. “You know, I think that's right. I mean, if you take life as change and development—and I think it must be, life must be always changing... if you had a life without change, it might be as good as death, I suppose... well, when you can't change, I suppose you are as good as dead.”
She was so interested in this idea that she forgot Diana and spoke with detachment, then was startled at the fury in Diana's eyes. True to form, she made a note: masochists prefer to devise their own sufferings.
Later, she thought wistfully of the vanished prospect of being Trevor's girlfriend, of belonging... Couldn't she have pretended? Would it have been enough, if she had done everything he wanted? That would have been no trouble; she would have been quite ready always to do what Trevor wanted. But she would have had to know what he did want. It would be like being a spy in a foreign country, having to pass for a native. She would be found out. The penalty for being found out appeared as Diana, walking and watching, obsessed with suffering. That moment when you found out they hated you and you did not know why—any deprivation was better than that.
“It was an accident, on his bike. I don't know much about it; he was badly hurt and he died this morning in hospital. Helen asked me to come and tell you.”
Absent-mindedly Diana pulled open the drawer of the bedside table, got out a hairbrush and began to brush her hair.
Shock. People do very funny things when they're shocked. But the feeling that was coming over Diana did not seem like shock. It was profound; she was thinking hard and breathing deeply. She dropped the hairbrush and steadied herself with one hand on the pillow.
This must be what they called being in travail. It was a private process; Isobel should go away and let her get on with it, but she did not know how to do that.
The feeling was appearing now: relief. Isobel was the prison governor who had brought her news of her reprieve. She said, “Can I get you something? Make you a cup of tea?'
What falsehood. I am thinking of what she ought to
Diana too thought Isobel had made a social error. “No, thank you. I'm quite all right.” She looked with surprise at the hairbrush and put it back in the drawer.
All right is no word for it. She's glad he's dead. She feels the way I felt when my mother died. He wasn't a human being to her, he was a thorn in her side, a stone in her shoe.
You could change your name, have your face altered, change your country and your language, but in the end you would resurrect your self.
Nevertheless, she felt cheerful as she packed her belongings. She was glad to be escaping from a grief not her own, she looked forward to the foolish pleasure of buying a saucepan and a frying pan, a cup and saucer and a plate, a knife, a fork and a spoon and two tea towels. Into the suitcase she put Shakespeare, Keats, Byron (now known as facile), Shelley, Auden. Though she knew the passage of Auden well, she found the place and read it with a grin.
“It's no use turning nasty
It's no use turning good.
You're what you are and nothing you do
will get you out of the wood.”
She shut the book and put it in the suitcase. One is never quite alone.
The tears were coming slowly. How could tears come from so deep, as if she was a tree with tears welling up from its roots? Then they came in a roaring flood that drowned thought; she put her cheek against the rock, which was as rough as a cat's tongue and unyielding, but she was too far gone to feel any perverse pleasure in that. Her sobs were so loud that even in this wasteland she had to put her hands over her mouth to muffle them; when her mind sobered up her body went on snuffling and heaving along ten years of roadway.
I am a writer. I am a writer.
Too late. It must be too late. The poor little bugger in the baking dish; nobody came in time.
Suppose I tried? Suppose I went through the motions? The writer might come back.
You've tried that with love. It doesn't work.
But that was other people, too. This is me.
The crying had slackened. There was such a feeling of limbs stretching, of hands unbound, she knew she could choose to be a writer. A pen and an exercise book, that was all it took, to be a rotten writer, anyhow. Good or rotten' that came later.
It meant giving in to the word factory. That frightened her, because the word factory was such a menace. Now she understood why the idea of being press-ganged was so alarming.
Oh, well. If you can't lick 'em join 'em.
Maybe that was what the word factory was all about, the poor little bugger trying to get out of the baking dish.