The Poets and the Housewife (a Fable)
Once upon a time, on a summer’s day, two poets, having shut up shop, went out into the country to collect copy, for their stock of this commodity was exhausted.
And they were careful to dress themselves carelessly: one put on a black collar and black-and-white checked trousers, and the other a cravat of raging scarlet, “for” they thought (though they did not say so) “we must dress the part”. And their hats were wide and reckless and the hair beneath their hats was like the thatch upon a broad-eaved barn.
And as they journeyed, poking about with their walking sticks after the precious substance of their quest, there gathered over their heads the devil of a storm.
And at the proper moment the storm burst and the rain came down and the poets left off seeking for copy and huddled under a hawthorn tree. And they appeared as two proud exotic birds, lighted down from the Lord knows where.
And there was a lodge near the hawthorn tree, and the lodge-keeper’s wife looked out and, seeing the two, she exclaimed: “Lord, look what the wet brings out!” And the rain increased fearfully.
And after a while she looked out again and the poets were changed, for their bloom was impaired, the rain had clotted their hair, and the scarlet cravat of the one had become crimson from saturation. And rain dripped from all their extremities.
And the lodgekeeper’s wife was grieved for them and called out: “Young men, will you not come in? Why play the heron who stands lugubrious with his feet in cold water when it is open to you to become as sparrows twittering with gladness beneath the eaves?”
But they bowed politely and replied: “Thanks awfully, ma’am, but we are poets and we like it.”
And the lodgekeeper’s wife was riled and sneered at them, remarking: “They have certainly had a drop too much.” But they, smiling deprecatingly upon her, responded: “Madam, you are pleased to be dry.” “And you,” quoth she, “are pleased to be wet.” And she slammed-to the window, casting up her eyes and inquiring rhetorically, “Did you ever?” and “What next?”
And the rain came down like hell, leaping a foot high and sousing all things.
And after another while, the lodgekeeper’s wife looked out again, and the two had gathered closer about the trunk of the hawthorn-tree, and they were as two old crows, for their shoulders were up and their beaks were down and they were unbelievably dishevelled.
And she shouted to them again, for she was a charitable woman, saying: “O miserable gentlemen, in the name of civilization and commonsense, come inside.”
But they dared not turn their faces to her, lest the water should run down their necks: so, revolving themselves all of a piece, they replied: “Renewed thanks, ma’am, but we are very well, for we are acquiring copy.” And they cowered under the deluge with great earnestness of purpose.
But the lodgekeeper’s wife did not understand the word copy, so that she was amazed beyond measure and the power of comment was taken from her.
And the storm, having stormed itself out, abated: and the place was bathed in delicious smells of breathing leaves, and the warm sweetness of hawthorn perfumed the air.
And the lodgekeeper’s wife looked out from the window a fourth and last time, and the poets were in the act of departure. And the tragedy of their appearance was beyond all comparing. For the scarlet of the cravat of one had run down into the bosom of his shirt, so that he was, as it were, a robin-redbreast. And both were soaked to the uttermost.
And when those poets were returned home, the one found that he had lost a shirt and the other that he had gained a cold. Therefore the one went out and bought a new shirt at seven and six and dear at that, and the other got himself a shilling bottle of Ammoniated Quinine which was tolerably cheap considering.
And the one wrote an ode called Midsummer Storm for which he obtained five guineas, so that (deducting fourpence for stamps and seven and six for the shirt) his net profit was four pounds seventeen and twopence.
But the other could only manage a one-guinea sonnet called Rain Among Leaves, so that (deducting fourpence for stamps and a shilling for the quinine) his net profit was nineteen and eightpence.
Thus the two acquired great store of copy (more, indeed, than they bargained for) and the sum of five pounds sixteen shillings and tenpence thrown in.
But the wife of the lodgekeeper knew nothing of all this, so that she still believes, like many another ill-informed person, that poets are nothing more than unpractical dreamers.
1. Dwell on the title of the short story. What functions does it perform?
2. Regard the subtitle — A Fable. What is a fable? Which features of this genre can you point out in the story? In what way is it different from a traditional fable?
3. Analyze the choice of words in the text. How can you characterize such words as quoth, cravat, to abate? Point out some more examples of words which help to imitate the style of the fable.
4. Have a closer look at the syntactic structure of the sentences. Many of them begin with And… or But…. What effect does this constant repetition produce?
5. In what way are the characters opposed? Can the two poets and the lodgekeeper’s wife be regarded as foils? How does the opposition help to disclose the main idea of the story? Give your reasoning.
Shopping for One
“So what did you say?” Jean heard the blonde woman in front of her talking to her friend.
“Well,” the darker woman began, “I said I’m not having that woman there. I don’t see why I should. I mean I’m not being old-fashioned but I don’t see why I should have to put up with her at family occasions. After all…” Jean noticed the other woman giving an accompaniment of nods and headshaking at the appropriate parts. They fell into silence and the queue moved forward a couple of steps.
Jean felt her patience beginning to itch. Looking into her wire basket she counted ten items. That meant she couldn’t go through the quick till but simply had to wait behind elephantine shopping loads; giant bottles of coke crammed in beside twenty-pound bags of potatoes and “special offer” drums of bleach. Somewhere at the bottom, Jean thought, there was always a plastic carton of eggs or a see-through tray of tomatoes which fell casualty to the rest. There was nothing else for it — she’d just have to wait.
“After all,” the dark woman resumed her conversation, “how would it look if she was there when I turned up?” Her friend shook her head slowly from side to side and ended with a quick nod.
Should she have got such a small size salad cream? Jean wasn’t sure. She was sick of throwing away half-used bottles of stuff.
“He came back to you after all,” the blonde woman suddenly said. Jean looked up quickly and immediately felt her cheeks flush. She bent over and began to rearrange the items in her shopping basket.
“On his hands and knees,” the dark woman spoke in a triumphant voice. “Begged me take him back.”
She gritted her teeth together. Should she go and change it for a larger size? Jean looked behind and saw that she was hemmed in by three large trollies. She’d lose her place in the queue. There was something so pitiful about buying small sizes of everything. It was as though everyone knew.
“You can always tell a person by their shopping,” was one of her mother’s favourite maxims. She looked into her shopping basket: individual fruit pies, small salad cream, yoghurt, tomatoes, cat food and a chicken quarter.
“It was only for sex you know. He admitted as much to me when he came back,” the dark woman informed her friend. Her friend began to load her shopping on to the conveyor belt. The cashier was busy with a man who had been poised and waiting to write out a cheque for a few moments. His wife was loading what looked like a gross of fish fingers into a cardboard box marked “Whiskas”. It was called a division of labour.
Jean looked again at her basket and began to feel the familiar feeling of regret that visited her from time to time. Hemmed in between family-size cartons of cornflakes and giant packets of washing-powder, her individual yoghurt seemed to say it all. She looked up towards a plastic bookstand which stood beside the till. A slim glossy hardback caught her eye. The words Cooking for One screamed out from the front cover. Think of all the oriental foods you can get into, her friend had said. He was so traditional after all. Nodding in agreement with her thoughts Jean found herself eye to eye with the blonde woman, who, obviously not prepared to tolerate nodding at anyone else, gave her a blank, hard look and handed her what looked like a black plastic ruler with the words “Next customer please” printed on it in bold letters. She turned back to her friend. Jean put the ruler down on the conveyor belt.
She thought about their shopping trips, before, when they were together, which for some reason seemed to assume massive proportions considering there were only two of them. All that rushing round, he pushing the trolley dejectedly, she firing questions at him. Salmon? Toilet rolls? Coffee? Peas? She remembered he only liked processed kind. It was all such a performance. Standing there holding her wire basket, embarrassed by its very emptiness, was something out of a soap opera.
“Of course, we’ve had our ups and downs,” the dark woman continued, lazily passing a few items down to her friend who was now on to what looked like her fourth carrier bag.
Jean began to load her food on to the conveyor belt. She picked up the cookery book and felt the frustrations of indecision. It was only ninety pence but it seemed to define everything, to pinpoint her aloneness, to prescribe an empty future. She put it back in its place.
“That’s why I couldn’t have her there you see,” the dark woman was summing up. She lowered her voice to a loud whisper which immediately alerted a larger audience. “And anyway, when he settles back in, I’m sure we’ll sort out the other business then.” The friends exchanged knowing expressions and the blonde woman got her purse out of a neat leather bag. She peeled off three ten pound notes and handed them to the cashier.
Jean opened her carrier bag ready for her shopping. She turned to watch the two women as they walked off, the blonde pushing the trolley and the other seemingly carrying on with her story.
The cashier was looking expectantly at her and Jean realized that she had totalled up. It was four pounds and eighty-seven pence. She had the right money, it just meant sorting her change out. She had the inclination that the people behind her were becoming impatient. She noticed their stack of items all lined and waiting, it seemed, for starters orders. Brown bread and peppers, olive oil and lentils and, in the centre, a stray packet of beefburgers.
She gave over her money and picked up her carrier bag. She felt a sense of relief to be away from the mass of people. She felt out of place, a non conformer, half a consumer unit.
Walking out of the door she wondered what she might have for tea. Possibly chicken, she thought, with salad. Walking towards her car she thought that she should have bought the cookery book after all. She suddenly felt much better in the fresh air. She’d buy it next week. And in future she’d buy a large salad cream. After all, what if people came round unexpectedly?
1. Why do you think the author chose the title Shopping for One for the story? How is it connected with the story’s themes and concerns?
2. Dwell on the main character, Jean. What is the problem she is facing at present? What is her frame of mind? Explain.
3. Concentrate on the talk that Jean overhears. Can you guess what problems the two women were discussing? What is the author’s purpose in introducing this detail? Is Jean concerned with what other people might think of her? Do you think the negative attitude of others may aggravate Jean’s misery?
4. What significance in the story do the goods that people buy acquire? Which of the items mentioned symbolize family life? What does Jean’s half-empty basket symbolize? Consider the purchases Jean makes and explain why she feels half a consumer unit.
5. Do you regard the ending of the story as optimistic or pessimistic? Why?
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