You Should Have Seen the Mess
I am now more than glad that I did not pass into the grammar school five years ago, although it was a disappointment at the time. I was always good at English, but not so good at the other subjects!!
I am glad that I went to the secondary modern school, because it was only constructed the year before. Therefore, it was much more hygienic than the grammar school. The secondary modern was light and airy, and the walls were painted with a bright, washable gloss. One day, I was sent over to the grammar school, with a note for one of the teachers, and you should have seen the mess! The corridors were dusty, and I saw dust on the window ledges, which were chipped. I saw into one of the classrooms. It was very untidy in there.
I am also glad that I did not go to the grammar school, because of what it does to one’s habits. This may appear to be a strange remark, at first sight. It is a good thing to have an education behind you, and I do not believe in ignorance, but I have had certain experiences, with educated people, since going out into the world.
I am seventeen years of age, and left school two years ago last month. I had my A certificate for typing, so got my first job, as a junior, in a solicitor’s office. Mum was pleased at this, and Dad said it was a first-class start, as it was an old-established firm. I must say that when I went for the interview, I was surprised at the windows, and the stairs up to the offices were also far from clean. There was a little waiting-room, where some of the elements were missing from the gas fire, and the carpet on the floor was worn. However, Mr. Heygate’s office, into which I was shown for the interview, was better. The furniture was old, but it was polished, and there was a good carpet, I will say that. The glass of the bookcase was very clean.
I was to start on the Monday, so along I went. They took me to the general office, where there were two senior shorthand-typists, and a clerk, Mr. Gresham, who was far from smart in appearance. You should have seen the mess!! There was no floor covering whatsoever, and so dusty everywhere. There were shelves all round the room, with old box files on them. The box files were falling to pieces, and all the old papers inside them were crumpled. The worst shock of all was the tea-cups. It was my duty to make tea, mornings and afternoons. Miss Bewlay showed me where everything was kept. It was kept in an old orange box, and the cups were all cracked. There were not enough saucers to go round, etc. I will not go into the facilities, but they were also far from hygienic. After three days, I told Mum, and she was upset, most of all about the cracked cups. We never keep a cracked cup, but throw it out, because those cracks can harbour germs. So Mum gave me my own cup to take to the office.
Then at the end of the week, when I got my salary, Mr. Heygate said, “Well, Lorna, what are you going to do with your first pay?” I did not like him saying this, and I nearly passed a comment, but I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “What do you do in the evenings, Lorna? Do you watch Telly?” I did take this as an insult, because we call it TV, and his remark made me out to be uneducated. I just stood, and did not answer, and he looked surprised. Next day, Saturday, I told Mum and Dad about the facilities, and we decided I should not go back to that job. Also, the desks in the general office were rickety. Dad was indignant, because Mr. Heygate’s concern was flourishing, and he had letters after his name.
Everyone admires our flat, because Mum keeps it spotless, and Dad keeps doing things to it. He has done it up all over and got permission from the Council to remodernize the kitchen. I well recall the Health Visitor, remarking to Mum, “You could eat off your floor, Mrs. Merrifield.” It is true that you could eat your lunch off Mum’s floors, and any hour of the day or night you will find every corner spick and span.
Next, I was sent by the agency to a publisher’s for an interview, because of being good at English. One look was enough!! My next interview was a success, and I am still at Low’s Chemical Co. It is a modern block, with a quarter of an hour rest period, morning and afternoon. Mr. Marwood is very smart in appearance. He is well spoken, although he has not got a university education behind him. There is special lighting over the desks, and the typewrites are the latest models.
So I am happy at Low’s. But I have met other people, of an educated type, in the past year, and it has opened my eyes. It so happened that I had to go to the doctor’s house, to fetch a prescription for my young brother, Trevor, when the epidemic was on. I rang the bell, and Mrs. Darby came to the door. She was small, with fair hair, but too long, and a green maternity dress. But she was very nice to me. I had to wait in their living-room, and you should have seen the state it was in! There were broken toys on the carpet, and the ash trays were full up. There were contemporary pictures on the walls, but the furniture was not contemporary, but old-fashioned, with covers which were past standing up to another wash, I should say. To cut a long story short, Dr. Darby and Mrs. Darby have always been very kind to me, and they meant everything for the best. Dr. Darby is also short and fair, and they have three children, a girl and a boy, and now a baby boy.
When I went that day for the prescription Dr. Darby said to me, “You look pale, Lorna. It’s the London atmosphere. Come on a picnic with us, in the car, on Saturday.” After that I went with the Darbys more and more. I liked them, but I did not like the mess, and it was a surprise. But I also kept in with them for the opportunity of meeting people, and Mum and Dad were pleased that I had made nice friends. So I did not say anything about the cracked lino, and the paintwork all chipped. The children’s clothes were very shabby for a doctor, and she changed them out of their school clothes when they came from school, into those worn-out garments. Mum always kept us spotless to go out to play, and I do not like to say it, but those Darby children frequently looked like the Leary family, which the Council evicted from our block, as they were far from houseproud.
One day, when I was there, Mavis (as I called Mrs. Darby by then) put her head out of the window, and shouted to the boy, “John, stop peeing over the cabbages at once. Pee on the lawn.” I did not know which way to look. Mum would never say a word like that from the window, and I know for a fact that Trevor would never pass water outside, not even bathing in the sea.
I went there usually at the week-ends, but sometimes on week-days, after supper. They had an idea to make a match for me with a chemist’s assistant, whom they had taken up too. He was an orphan, and I do not say there was anything wrong with that. But he was not accustomed to those little extras that I was. He was a good-looking boy, I will say that. So I went once to a dance, and twice to films with him. To look at, he was quite clean in appearance. But there was only hot water at the week-end at his place, and he said that a bath once a week was sufficient. Jim (as I called Dr. Darby by then) said it was sufficient also, and surprised me. He did not have much money, and I do not hold that against him. But there was no hurry for me, and I could wait for a man in a better position, so that I would not miss those little extras. So he started going out with a girl from the coffee bar, and did not come to the Darbys very much then.
There were plenty of boys at the office, but I will say this for the Darbys, they had lots of friends coming and going, and they had interesting conversation, although sometimes it gave me a surprise, and I did not know where to look. And sometimes they had people who were very down and out, although there is no need to be. But most of the guests were different, so it made a comparison with the boys at the office, who were not so educated in their conversation.
Now it was near the time for Mavis to have her baby, and I was to come in at the week-end, to keep an eye on the children, while the help had her day off. Mavis did not go away to have her baby, but would have it at home, in their double bed, as they did not have twin beds, although he was a doctor. A girl I knew, in our block, was engaged, but was let down, and even she had her baby in the labour ward. I was sure the bedroom was not hygienic for having a baby, but I did not mention it.
One day, after the baby boy came along, they took me in the car to the country, to see Jim’s mother. The baby was put in a carry-cot at the back of the car. He began to cry, and without a word of a lie, Jim said to him over his shoulder, “Oh shut your gob, you little bastard.” I did not know what to do, and Mavis was smoking a cigarette. Dad would not dream of saying such a thing to Trevor or I. When we arrived at Jim’s mother’s place, Jim said, “It’s a fourteenth-century cottage, Lorna.” I could well believe it. It was very cracked and old, and it made one wonder how Jim could let his old mother live in this tumble-down cottage, as he was so good to everyone else. So Mavis knocked at the door, and the old lady came. There was not much anyone could do to the inside. Mavis said, “Isn’t it charming, Lorna?” If that was a joke, it was going too far. I said to the old Mrs. Darby, “Are you going to be re-housed?” but she did not understand this, and I explained how you have to apply to the Council, and keep at them. But it was funny that the Council had not done something already, when they go round condemning. Then old Mrs. Darby said, “My dear, I shall be re-housed in the Grave.” I did not know where to look.
There was a carpet hanging on the wall, which I think was there to hide a damp spot. She had a good TV set, I will say that. But some of the walls were bare brick, and the facilities were outside, through the garden. The furniture was far from new.
One Saturday afternoon, as I happened to go to the Darbys, they were just going off to a film and they took me too. It was the Curzon, and afterwards we went to a flat in Curzon Street. It was a very clean block, I will say that, and there were good carpets at the entrance. The couple there had contemporary furniture, and they also spoke about music. It was a nice place, but there was no Welfare Centre to the flats, where people could go for social intercourse, advice, and guidance. But they were well-spoken, and I met Willy Morley, who was an artist. Willy sat beside me, and we had a drink. He was young, dark, with a dark shirt, so one could not see right away if he was clean. Soon after this, Jim said to me, “Willy wants to paint you, Lorna. But you’d better ask your Mum.” Mum said it was all right if he was a friend of the Darbys.
I can honestly say that Willy’s place was the most unhygienic place I have seen in my life. He said I had an unusual type of beauty, which he must capture. This was when we came back to his place from the restaurant. The light was very dim, but I could see the bed had not been made, and the sheets were far from clean. He said he must paint me, but I told Mavis I did not like to go back there. “Don’t you like Willy?” she asked. I could not deny that I liked Willy, in a way. There was something about him, I will say that. Mavis said, “I hope he hasn’t been making a pass at you, Lorna.” I said he had not done so, which was almost true, because he did not attempt to go to the full extent. It was always unhygienic when I went to Willy’s place, and I told him so once, but he said, “Lorna, you are a joy.” He had a nice way, and he took me out in his car, which was a good one, but dirty inside, like his place. Jim said one day, “He has pots of money, Lorna,” and Mavis said, “You might make a man of him, as he is keen on you.” They always said Willy came from a good family.
But I saw that one could not do anything with him. He would not change his shirt very often, or get clothes, but he went round like a tramp, lending people money, as I have seen with my own eyes. His place was in a terrible mess, with the empty bottles, and laundry in the corner. He gave me several gifts over the period, which I took as he would have only given them away, but he never tried to go to the full extent. He never painted my portrait, as he was painting fruit on a table all that time, and they said his pictures were marvellous, and thought Willy and I were getting married.
One night, when I went home, I was upset as usual, after Willy’s place. Mum and Dad had gone to bed, and I looked round our kitchen which is done in primrose and white. Then I went into the living-room, where Dad had done one wall in a patterned paper, deep rose and white, and the other walls pale rose, with white woodwork. The suite is new, and Mum keeps everything beautiful. So it came to me, all of a sudden, what a fool I was, going with Willy. I agree to equality, but as to me marrying Willy, as I said to Mavis, when I recall his place, and the good carpet gone greasy, not to mention the paint oozing out of the tubes, I think it would break my heart to sink so low.
1. Define the forms of presentation and think whether the I-narrator serves as the author’s mouthpiece in this case.
2. Consider the setting of each episode. Which details arrest the attention of the main character? Compare the places described in the story with her own place.
3. The events are related through the perception and with the language of the main character. What are the points of primary importance for her while speaking of people?
4. Regard the narrator’s view-point of the general problems (education, career, marriage, friendship, etc.). How does her set of values characterize her?
5. Are you sympathetic with the protagonist? What is the author’s purpose in creating such an image?
The Garden Party
Helen looked out the window at the garden next door. It was a mass of colour, mainly from bushes and small trees. No troublesome flowerbeds that would need endless weeding, nor were there paths that would have to have their edges trimmed, or rockeries where one thing might spill and crowd out another. Little brick paths wound through it and there were paved areas with tubs of plants around the garden seats; unlike her own garden which badly needed attention.
She had been told that her neighbour was a Mrs. Kennedy, who had two placid cats and was known to be easy-going. Admittedly Helen had been told this by the estate agent who would hardly have warned her even if Mrs. Kennedy had been one of the Brides of Dracula.
Helen had been there for three days and she had not yet seen Mrs. Kennedy. The two big cats spent almost all day asleep on the sunny garden seats. They looked so peaceful, Helen envied them. Dim creatures purring and dozing in the sunshine; someone to feed them at the end of every evening, birds to watch sleepily from a distance. How Helen wished that she too could have a life like that instead of sleepless nights, hours of anxiety, torrents of grief and regret. And now the whole nightmarish business of facing a new house, a new life, because Harry didn’t love her any more, because he had found real love with this girl young enough to he his daughter. The girl who was pregnant with his child.
And Harry was so pleased to be a father. For fourteen years of their marriage he had told Helen that he wasn’t ready for parenthood yet and that they were so complete in themselves they didn’t need anyone else in their lives. Now, when she was thirty-six years old and he was approaching his fortieth birthday, he decided he would like to be a father. But he told her about the change of heart and direction only after he said that he was leaving her, and the mother of his child would be a nineteen-year-old.
Other people survived, but then other people could never have felt so betrayed, so shocked and so aimless now in life.
Her sisters lived far away in other cities; they were not a family given to writing or long telephone calls. And her friends? Helen knew only too well how easy it was to alienate your friends by weeping all night at their kitchen tables. Friends preferred to think you were coping, or trying to cope. Then they were supportive and practical and around. Friends could disappear into the woodwork if you cried on their shoulders as much as you wanted to.
So when Helen told people that she was going to move house, make a fresh start, everyone seemed pleased. A place with a garden, ideal they all said. Her sisters wrote and said she would find great consolation in digging the earth and planting and seeing things grow. Helen read their letters with mute rage.
She spent many hours of her first week in the new house staring aimlessly from the window and wondering about the unfairness of life. And then when she was least expecting it she saw Mrs. Kennedy; much younger than she’d imagined — this woman barely looked ten years older than herself. She wore a rainbow-coloured skirt and a white T-shirt. She had a big black straw hat and smiled as she carried a tray of tea things to one of the two wooden tables in her garden.
Helen watched as she saw her neighbour sit down and stretch and close her eyes with pleasure in the afternoon sunshine. She was as languid and relaxed as one of the big sleepy cats.
As she watched, Helen heard the gate creak and two girls came in. One about sixteen, dark and attractive; one about six, a moppet with blonde curls. They flung themselves at the woman on the wooden seat.
“You were asleep, Debbie,” the older girl cried. “We’ve finally caught you. This is what you do all day!”
“Poor Debbie, are you tired?” The six - year – old had climbed on Mrs. Kennedy’s lap and was hugging her.
Helen felt a wave of self-pity wash over her. She would never know anything like this. How could life have been so unfair? She wondered for a bit why they called the woman Debbie, but she could look and listen no longer. She sat down by a box of untouched china. She didn’t know where she would store it, who would eat from it. No marvellous children would come and throw their arms around her calling her Helen.
The afternoon wore on. Helen unpacked one cup and one saucer and one plate. She couldn’t live the rest of her life like this. But what were the alternatives? Harry was gone; he was not coming back. She wished she could get the woman next door out of her mind, but it was like probing a sore tooth.
When she heard a car draw up outside and a younger woman arrived to collect the girls, Helen was again at the window. The younger woman seemed to have trouble dragging the children away; there were still so many things to do. The teenager wanted to inspect the flowerbed, which was her very own, and examine the lupins. The little girl said she had to feed the cats. Then there was a final hug.
“Give our love to Granny,” said the teenager to Mrs. Kennedy.
“Do you still have Granny, aren’t you wonderful, Debbie,” said the younger woman: the girls’ mother?
“I love Granny coming, we’ll be making gingerbread and fudge tomorrow if you want to drop in.” Mrs. Kennedy smiled encouragingly.
Immediately the girls said they would come, and Helen saw from her upstairs window a look of irritation cross the younger woman’s face. She had to know who they were, these people who were acting out a play in the garden next door. There was wine unopened in her fridge. Helen wrapped it in tissue paper.
“I’m your new neighbour, Mrs. Kennedy. I saw your friends or family leave just now so I thought I would come in and introduce myself. I’m Helen…” she began, and then burst into tears.
She didn’t really remember the next bit, but she was sitting in the garden on the wooden seat with a cushion at her back. Debbie Kennedy had poured them two glasses of wine and produced some little bits of cheese and celery. They sat like old friends in the evening sun. And Debbie seemed to look into the distance at the sleeping cats as Helen wept the story of Harry and his betrayal. “I can’t go on, it’s no use pretending.”
“I think you have to pretend one way or another, we all do. But the question is which way you pretend.” She was very matter of fact.
“How do you mean?” Helen had stopped crying.
“Well, you could go one route and pretend nothing had changed and that you still thought he was wonderful, remain part of his life and take over the best bits…” Debbie spoke calmly. “Or you could pretend that he is no longer part of your life and that you have forgotten him, and eventually, of course, you will. It will take time, but you will. It just depends which you think would bring you more peace, but both of them involve pretending.”
“I’ll not forget him. I can’t write it off, start again.” Helen felt the prickling tickling in her nose, and hoped she wasn’t going to start crying again.
“Well then, don’t forget him. Stick to him like a limpet, take over his life. I did,” Mrs. Kennedy said, pouring them another glass of wine as she explained the story.
Her husband left her seven years ago for a woman who already had a ten-year-old daughter. A ready-made family, he called it. He left with a series of cliches: Debbie was a survivor, she had a good job, she wouldn’t miss him, it would leave her time and space for the things she really loved. But Debbie had really loved her husband. She had been shattered as Helen was now. If grief could be measured, hers had been just as great. But she had decided not to lose him.
She had not been hostile to the woman with the ready-made family. She had been welcoming. She had offered to baby-sit for them. She had won the mind and heart of the girl who was now her husband’s stepdaughter, Tina. She had moved to live near them; she was a presence in their lives. Her ex-husband thought she was a woman in a million. He sometimes came and talked with her in the garden. He lived in a place where the garden didn’t flourish.
Debbie Kennedy had decided to make her successor’s weaknesses her own strengths. Perhaps the new woman — she never spoke her name — was a tigress in bed; perhaps she was an intellectual giant; perhaps she flattered him more than Debbie had done. But Debbie still cooked better than she did, Debbie picked up his children from school and entertained them royally while the new woman was still at work. Debbie entertained her husband’s mother regularly when the new woman had no time or inclination to do so. Debbie had arranged deviously that Tina should win two pedigree kittens in a competition when she knew the new woman was allergic to cats, and Debbie kept them, on loan, for Tina.
“It sounds like hard work,” Helen said, full of admiration.
“It’s very hard work,” Debbie agreed. “But then I was like you, I didn’t think the day would come when I could ever live without him.”
“And now you could?”
“Oh yes, indeed I could. Now he actually bores me. Not totally but slightly. He’s very predictable. You would know immediately how he will respond. I never thought the day would come…”
“So, if you’re over him why don’t you bow out? Live your own life?” Helen wondered.
“I can’t now. I have too many other people that I love and who love me. I have his mother; she never liked me much during the marriage, but I’m like some kind of angel compared to the new woman.”
“No, I can’t abandon her, she never did anyone any harm. She didn’t abandon me and divorce me, her son did. And I adore the girls. And there are the cats. I only organised them out of spite, but I love them now. I couldn’t move on somewhere and abandon them when they had served their purpose.
“And the garden: I realised that the secret was to have the minimum to do, but to give the children a flowerbed each, and I work on those secretly and feed whatever they plant, so they think it’s all their own work. It’s a life, Helen, and I had no life the day he said he was leaving.”
“But he’s not the centre of it?”
“No, not now. He was when I needed it. Every single thing I did, I did from some kind of vengeance, and it gave me a purpose to my day.”
“I don’t think I could do it. I mean it’s not as if there were a ready-made family. There’s only a bump and an awful nineteen-year-old, and he doesn’t have a mother, and the cat thing wouldn’t work.”
“It’s that or get out of his orbit completely. When do you go back to work?”
“Right, if you like, I’ll ask the girls and Gran to help you unpack tomorrow. It’s much better with a few people there. We’ll do a great deal in an hour and a half…”
“But I can’t.”
“Of course you can, and then, when you get back to work, have a gardening party. Invite every one of your colleagues to lunch, say that in return for two hours’ gardening they’ll have a great picnic. Hire a huge trestle table for the day. I’ll tell you what to tell them to plant and what to weed.”
“But I haven’t decided, which road to choose; whether to worm my way back into Harry’s life or not.”
“You’ll still need to unpack and to clear up that messy garden,” Debbie said. They wouldn’t talk about plans and strategies again. From now on they would not need to refer to the desperation of the one and the deviousness of the other. As the curtains went up at the windows, and the china was unpacked on to the shelves and into the cupboards, and the garden took shape, their lives would go on. Helen would make friends again. She would start with her colleagues in the bank who would view her differently after they had seen her as the host of a marvellous gardening party. Debbie’s surrogate family would never know she had loved them initially as an act of revenge. It was good to have such solidarity established on a summer evening.
1. What does the story concentrate on? Who are the characters and what situation they find themselves in?
2. Debbie was also deserted by her husband. What similarities were there between her situation and Helen’s?
3. Describe the two routes that Debbie offers to Helen as ways out of her present situation. What other courses of action might deserted wives take?
4. What attitude towards the characters does the author create?
5. Is The Garden Party a good title for this story, so you think? Is it appropriate, and if so, in what way? What other titles can you suggest?
He knew he’d died at three o’clock in the afternoon of Wednesday, July the 27th, 1988, the moment he woke up in the room that he’d come to hate. He hadn’t left it for two months now, and he was wearily familiar not only with every object — the thermometer in a glass beside the lamp and the heavy chest of drawers and the dark, forbidding wardrobe — also with the quality of light and shadow in the room according to what time of day it was; with the way the room expanded and contracted as the ceiling joists shrank at night and swelled during the day; and how sound changed at different times so that in the morning his voice was dulled and barely reached the door but in the dark the room became an echo chamber, his daughter’s name, ‘Joan’, rebounding off the walls and returning to him from many different directions.
He was familiar with all these things but none of them interested him, as he declined in the starched sheets, propped up against a backrest of awkward, misshapen pillows that his daughter regularly thumped and plumped up with a ritualised but desolate enthusiasm, as if doing with them what she wished she could do for her father. He’d gradually lost his huge rustic appetite until it had become a torment to swallow even the soups and junkets she prepared in the liquidiser, and he lost weight with inexorable logic until the robust farmer was a skinny wraith whose ribs were showing for the first time in fifty years.
The pain moved around his body like a poacher in the night searching for a vulnerable deer in the pinewoods. It had first attacked him in his heel, reappeared in his neck, then after a six-month respite erupted from deep cover in his back, to roam up and down his spine with sporadic, intense malevolence. He knew (and so did everyone else) that it had to be lung cancer, since he’d smoked forty untipped cigarettes a day since the age of fifteen; so why the hell didn’t it just eat up his lungs and have done with it?
The pain was what had wrecked him. Joseph had always thought he was impervious to pain and his grandson, Michael, had grown up in awe of his grandfather’s disdain of both the occasional accident and the regular discomfort that beset the life of a farmer. When he gashed his hand or banged his head he only bothered to use his handkerchief if the blood was making too much of a mess of everything. And when they’d unclogged the field drains the previous February, while Mike was whimpering like a child from the cold his grandfather thrust his arms into icy mud as if oblivious of reality.
But this pain was different: it gripped him in its teeth like a primitive dog, and there was neither escape nor end to its torture. He felt nauseous. He fantasized heating up a kitchen knife and cutting out whole inflicted chunks of his own flesh, that that might bring relief — but he couldn’t even reach the stairs. Dr. Buckle prescribed ever-changing drugs of increasing dosage, until the pain was dulled and so were all his senses and he found himself withdrawing into a small space where there was no sense and no sensation, only a vague disgust with the faint remaining evidence of a world he’d once inhabited with force and command.
Joseph Howard knew he’d died at three o’clock in the afternoon when he woke from an inconclusive nap and he looked around the room with a sharpness of vision that made his mind collapse backwards through the years, because he’d refused to wear spectacles and hadn’t seen the world as clearly as this since his fortieth birthday. He could read the hands of the alarm clock without holding it three inches in front of his face, he could make out each stem and petal in the blue floral wallpaper, and the edges of things were miraculous in their definition, lifting away from each other and occupying their own precise space instead of merging into a dull stew of objects.
He pricked up his ears and heard a voice outside calling, and although it was too far away for him to make out the actual words he could recognise, beyond any doubt, the tone and inflection of his grandson, Mike. And even more remarkably, when another man’s voice answered, from even further away, he knew that that was old Freemantle’s grandson, Tom.
It was then that he realised, too, that the pain had gone. His whole body ached with something similar to the symptoms of flu, as if his body had been punched in his sleep; but it was such a contrast to the agony of these last months that he felt on top of the world. He got out of bed and stood up, and the blood drained from his head and made him feel faint and dizzy, so he sat back down to get his balance. Yet it was actually pleasurable to come so close to fainting, woozy and lost. It made him recall the one time he had ever fainted, as a beansprouting adolescent in the farmyard, the world suddenly losing its anchorage and drifting deliriously out of control.
Joseph had finished dressing and was trying his shoelaces, with an infant’s concentration and pleasure, when his daughter came into the room carrying a mug of weak tea. “Father!” she cried. “What on earth does you think you’re doing?” She rushed around the side of the bed but he took no notice of her until he’d finished, and then he sat up and looked her in the eyes and said: “Joan, I feels better and I’m getting up.” Then his smile disappeared and he studied her face with a scrutiny that she found unnerving, taking in the crow’s-feet and the puffiness around her eyes and the small lines at each side of her mouth, and he said: “You’re a good girl, Joan.”
He knew he’d died but he didn’t care. He found his stick behind the door and went for a walk into the village. He could feel his blood flow thin through his veins and his left hip no longer troubled him. He passed two or three people on his way to the shop and they returned his cheerful greeting with manifest surprise and a certain awkwardness. The shop bell rang and Elsie came through from the kitchen. Her large owl’s eyes widened behind her thick pebble-specs, and then narrowed. “Does Joan know you’s out, Joseph?” she demanded suspiciously. “She was only in yere just now.”
“Don’t worry about me, Elsie,” he replied, “I never felt better. Only I wants some fags. I’ve not had a smoke in ages.”
Elsie looked away, embarrassed. “I haven’t got none of your sort in, Joseph. You’s the only one what smoked that brand.” She reached over to the shelves. “You could try some of this, they says ‘tis a strong one.”
“I’m not bothered, I’ll take a packet of they,” he smiled. She handed them to him hurriedly and he felt in his pockets. “Damn it,” he said, “I’ve come out without any money. You know how much I hates credit, but can I send the lad down later on?”
“Course you can, bay,” she said without looking at him. “You git on, now.”
As he turned to leave, he said: “I might even bring it myself.”
Dr. Buckle appeared the next day and took the temperature and checked his pulse and listened to the sounds of his insides through the dangling stethoscope. Then he declared, in a voice of scientific indifference: “It’s an impressive respite, Joseph. But you’re still weak. Don’t overdo it.”
He wanted to get straight back out on the farm, but Joan told Mike she’d hold him responsible if Joseph picked up so much as an ear of corn, so he left his grandfather behind in the yard. Joseph wandered around the garden and poked about in the sheds. It was a hot day, the sun rose high in a blue sky and he wiped the sweat from his neck and forehead. Sparrows swooped in and out of the eaves, a throstle sang from one of the apple trees, and when he saw a magpie in the first field he knew without any doubt that he’d see another, and sure enough there it was over by the hedge.
A ladybird landed on the back of his hand. At first the tiny creature appeared strange, only for being so distinct in his cleansed vision, but then he observed that its markings were red dots on a black shell instead of the usual other way round. He didn’t think he’d ever seen one like that before, but he might well have and never been struck by it. There must be a name for it, he thought: an inverted ladybird, perhaps; a topsy-turvy. He lifted his hand and blew, and the tiny insect opened its wings and flew away.
During the months of his miserable decline Joan had climbed uncomplaining up the stairs many times a day to make him comfortable, to help him on to the bedpan and carry it off to the bathroom, to rub cream into his dry skin, eventually to spoon food into his mouth. His recovery must have meant a great easing of her burden and he was frankly glad that she let him occupy himself now without interruption. Midway through the afternoon he became aware of a curious, pleasing sensation somewhere inside him and then he realised with surprise what it was: hunger. He marched into the kitchen.
“You’ll not believe this, girl, but I’ve got myself an appetite all of a sudden.” She didn’t look at him directly but fussed around in the fridge and said at the same time: “Sit down, I’ll knock ‘e a sandwich.”
Joseph planted himself at the table and laid his cigarettes and matches on its grainy surface. He could remember his own father making it, after a huge old beech tree had come down in an April gale. He could remember the sweet smell of the shavings as his father sawed and planed in the far shed, and he could remember the way his father kept nails between his moist lips.
Joan set a plate of sliced-white-bread sandwiches in front of him and murmured that she was off shopping, as she departed from the room. He watched her through the window disappear down the lane and then he closed his eyes, the better to appreciate the texture of mushy bread and coarse ham, and to savour the sharp distraction of mustard, contradicted by granules of sugar.
That evening after supper Joseph suggested a game of draughts with Mike, and they played for the first time since Mike was a child and Joseph had taught him, after the boy’s father had left. They played half a dozen games, all of which Mike spent hunched over the board uneasily, never once looking up at his grandfather, who won every game.
That night Joseph slept for eight hours solid, untroubled by the morbid, drugged dreams of those last months, and he woke fully rested. He lay and listened to the chickens squawking and to house martins scurrying. He yawned and stretched, slowly, his knotty old muscles elastic again, and he relished their pleasure.
As he got dressed he saw his older grandson, John, who always came home late and left early, drive off to work in Exeter. Joseph went downstairs. The kitchen was empty. He heard the tractor ignition and stepped outside; he called but Mike didn’t turn around, as the tractor coughed and rattled into the lane. He came back in and called his daughter, but there was no reply, so he made himself a mug of strong tea and wondered whether there was any secret to making toast. And he assumed there must be because he burnt it, but he ate it anyway and enjoyed the taste of charcoaled bread beneath the butter and home-made, thick-rind marmalade. Then he took his cap and went outside.
He knew he’d died because he felt so light and so at ease. It occurred to him that that evening he should challenge Mike to an arm-wrestle, and he laughed out loud at the idea. He tried to look at the sun and it made his eyes water. He walked through the lower fields. The wheat was high and brittle. He bit some grains and let the dry nutty flavour linger on his tongue and he wondered who first discovered how to make flour, and then bread. He entered the pasture where the dairy herd was grazing and passed among his Friesian cows, patting their flanks. He rolled up his sleeves and held out his arms, and the braver among them licked his skin for its salt with their rough wet tongues, though still like all the others eyeing him with dull expression of fear and reproach. He wondered whether they forgave him for his life’s labour of exploitation and butchery, and he realised how much he loved this farm, these animals, this rich and crooked valley.
Joseph walked into the village. As he began climbing Broad Lane he realised he’d left his walking stick behind, but he also realised that he didn’t need it: he was striding forward, with his bow legs and his slightly inturned toes; his tendons and sinews and leathery veins felt invincible, and he wiped the healthy sweat from his face without pausing. For the first time in he didn’t know how long, he thought of his wife, whom he once used to walk to Doddiscombleigh to, and then court during long walks in Haldon Forest, where, while the Second World War raged far away from them, they made urgent love in the shadows of the pines on a scratchy bed of cones and needles, dry twigs crackling as they moved. But he found that, in truth, he was thinking less of her than of himself — walking, much walking in his life; he could carry on walking now and he needn’t ever stop, he felt so strong, he felt he could walk the length of the Teign Valley and back again.
Joseph looked around as he walked, peering over hedges and through gates, but there wasn’t a soul around. When he got up to the phone box he thought he saw a child running along the lane in the distance, but he wasn’t sure. He sat down on the bench at the top of the Brown. The improvised goalposts stood quiet and forlorn. An absurd television image leapt perfectly remembered out of his memory, of the majestic black French defender Marius Tresor lunging into a breathtakingly insane tackle during the 1982 World Cup semi-final.
Joseph felt some tiny drops of rain fall on his hands: he looked up and the sky was a clear, unblemished blue. He wondered whether they were the prickles of pins and needles and he lifted his hands and shook them, and ran them down over his face. The world was silent and empty. He knew he’d died three days earlier at three o’clock in the afternoon, and he leaned forward with his head in his hands and wept.
When he heard the church bell tolling he wiped his eyes with his damp sweaty handkerchief, which made his eyes sting, and walked up past the almshouses and then the village hall where he’d once gone to school, and he walked through the lych-gate into graveyard. Twenty yards away they were lowering the coffin into the ground and the Rector read from his Bible but Joseph couldn’t hear him. Then the Rector, still reading, picked up a handful of soil and threw it into the grave and then he did hear, faintly, granules scattering across the lid of the coffin.
He knew everyone there: Granny Sims, for twenty years his fellow churchwarden; Douglas Westcott; old Freemantle and some of his fragmented family; Martin the retired hedge layer; Elsie and Stuart from the shop.
As to his own family, in front of the various cousins and nieces and nephews, John held his mother Joan’s arm, while Mike looked like he ought to sit down, because he was leaning a little too much of his weary weight against his girlfriend, whose name Joseph never could remember.
He looked across the graveyard at them and for the first time since his death Joseph felt a sudden upsurge of anger. It swelled inside him, pure and physical: a rage of bile, while his heart pumped hot blood through his veins. Volcanic anger. Anger so strong he thought he might burst.
He closed his eyes, clinched his fists and gritted his teeth. And then he shouted out: “Why did you not show me this world before, you bastard!” as he lifted his eyes to the wide blue sky, and felt himself light and rising.
1. Consider the exposition of the short story (the time, the place, the main characters.)
2. State the forms of presentations employed in the story. What type of narration does the author resort to?
3. Through whose point of view are the events of the three days of the story proper related?
4. Will you regard the narrator as reliable or unreliable?
5. Define the genre of the story. Does the personality of the narrator help you to do it?
6. What is the central idea of the story related through such an unusual point of view?
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