Vanessa was sitting on the blue velvet bean bag, poking plastic shapes into her holey ball.
She had been doing quite well; the toy was possibly too young for her, but a triangle would not fit into a square despite twisting and pushing and biting. So now she had really no option but to scream; hurl the ball at her mother and rip off her nappy.
Which she did.
Vanessa was eleven months old. She could crawl, climb and stand. Over the last few days she had begun to place one foot in front of the other whilst standing.
She was a pink, white and blonde baby, who adored her father; her grandparents; her nanny; her friends at Kozy Kids Playgroup and even her doctor.
Everyone except her mother.
The person she was supposed to like the very best of all…..
The three of them – and dog Splosh – lived in a three -storey Victorian terrace, five miles to the south of Gridchester. Five miles out – and different continents, she mused, consigning the soiled nappy to soak in its white plastic Mothercraft pail.
Terry nappies were loathsome and despite Gillian’s strictures (only single mothers on slum council estates use disposables) she would have eaten an arm and several legs for a year’s supply of Comfytots.
Unfortunately, Vanessa had no interest in obliging her mother and sprouted lurid wheals and spots in the nappy area (the decorous phraseology of the Health Visitor) at the very glimpse of a Comfytot in all its padded, perfumed perfection.
Until you start school, probably, or get fed up with shit half way up your back because no matter how I pin the bloody Terry, it seeps out and up and through everything all the time.
It was not that she did not love Vanessa; indeed, anyone who dared insinuate that her daughter was anything other than the Godhead made flesh, ran a severe personal risk.
Btu Vanessa did not hold her in equal esteem.
At times like today, she had the distinct impression that Vanessa was disappointed in her; that she had failed a specially crafted Vanessa test; they were neither in the same club, nor on the same side.
Paul, and Gillian and Donald, and her parents, and Eric, and Nicola and the kiddies AND VANESSA, were on one side; knew the rules of the game and sang from the same hymn sheet.
And she was on the other.
It was not supposed to be like that. But it was.
Paul had returned from the embraces of Frances Hunt a week before the beginning of the autumn term and she took him back on auto pilot.
When she considered it (which she did not as a rule), it was to reflect; sometimes with pragmatism and at other times – not - that she had dismissed any alternative course of action.
She was 25. She had married at 24. She was not going to be a divorcee at 26 and have completed to quote Ishiguro, within a three year time span from start to finish.
She was not.
Paul’s explanation for 6 weeks AWOL in the arms of another did not convince, but humankind cannot bear too much reality. She certainly could not, and so allowed his defence; in essence a terror of remarriage consequent upon the deplorable parenting skills of Lilias, to pass without scrutiny It was not satisfactory, but she had neither desire nor inclination to uncover the skull beneath the skin.
From time to time, remarks would be made about life in the Stavely Forest love nest but these were disembodied and both graphic and vague.
On the one hand, she had little or no idea of how they had spent their time; obvious pursuits excepted.
On the other; the pursuit of the obvious pursuit was impeded by the fact that the Princess Margaret manqué who had supplanted her, albeit temporarily, had given birth five times and was as saggy as an under-done Victoria sandwich.
The revelation that he had made a disastrous mistake and was desperately pining for his young wife, hit Paul on the road to Damascus (or the road back to the converted chapel after a session in the splendidly rustic Horn of the Forest pub) as he returned to a light supper of anchovies on toast with Gentleman’s Relish.
There was then nothing for it but to decamp immediately after the meal, drive like a demented demon and cast myself upon your mercy, darling. Beast that I am – can I ever deserve you and make amends?
After a week’s prevarication, (and emboldened by a two stone weight loss) she allowed him into the hall; the lounge and the bedroom – in that order.
It had, by any estimation, been an eventful summer vacation – the details of which she would not be sharing with colleagues.
Her parents; Eric; Gillian and Donald; Nicola and the kiddies; Lynne and the assorted sheep and goats on the Dorlich and Chudleigh social scene had, however, to be acquainted with her change of circumstances. Or reversion to the original circumstances Or something.
He mother was relieved, deciding definitively within days, that her daughter had misinterpreted a tiff as you do in the the teething stage of a marriage.
Eric had never fathomed why Paul had abandoned his first wife; the charming Nicola (a finer judge of a decent malt than many a chap) and Nicola kept her counsel – as did the kiddies.
The Truscotts, Chases and Donald and Gillian, were visibly miffed (they had bought shares in her grief and now had the bad grace to feel cheated) Percy and Lionel were genuinely pleased.
Her father – and Lynne- remained silent…
After the hurdle of their first night together ( and a forensic wash and scrub) when she had felt closer to Frances Hunt than she had any desire to be – it was easier to continue as before.
Paul’s references to Frances were at best, sporadic – but scarcely a day passed without an acerbic bon mot at the expense of writer Aiden Cleghorn. These were uncharitable at best and at worst, homophobic and scatological. Cleghorn was the most terrible old Queen; a brown noser; a shirt-lifter and worst of all; a bum burglar.
She did not encourage him, assuming that the vituperation was a type of proxy exasperation with Frances.
She overheard Paul’s part of a phone call to the Manager of University Bookseller, Rivett and Souter; cancelling a bulk order of Billy Leaves Home.
No. We won’t be needing these after all. Yes – I’m aware that I ordered sixty but that was on a third party recommendation; hadn’t read the thing myself. Can’t imagine what got into my colleague! It’s so simplistic – won’t stretch our pupils a jot. I say – what about asking one of the comps to take them off your hands? Ideal for the less ‘academically challenged’, shall we say?
He was lying. As soon as Paul had discovered (at their anniversary party) that Percy’s inamorata was a member of the Cleghorn social circle, he had bought a copy of Billy which he proceeded to study and annotate with exemplary diligence.
He had not enjoyed the Kerridge/Bellwether nuptials, precisely because his singular assumption of Cleghorn’s attendance had been misplaced. And he had asked Frances to use her ‘influence’ in encouraging her friend to address the Oxbridge set.
In retrospect, Paul’s elopement with Frances was exceptional not because Emma had been spurned in favour of Miss Bates, but because he had never betrayed the slightest smidgeon of interest in Frances Hunt.
Whereas in the case of Aiden Cleghorn…..
She had found Billy Leaves Home mildly interesting and An Oval Stone virtually unreadable, so was ill-prepared for Paul’s new custom of referring to her as a Cleghorn enthusiast at each and every opportunity, including a Chase supper at the start of term.
The prospect of consuming baked meats at the table of Chester Chase was insupportable...
She had not told Paul about Chester’s conduct – but her unwanted caller had arrived at Paul’s request. Her husband knew that Chester considered himself to be a sexual dog and she knew that this particular dog had been soundly whipped to kennel.
She could not – and would not attend…….
Misgivings notwithstanding, she entered the Chase apartment on the arm of her husband, nursing familiar feelings of reluctant apprehension.
The air was heavy with the Chase aroma; joss stick -plus-gauloises-plus cannabis.
And something else.
Her wine goblet was greasy; she dreaded encountering a hair amidst the delicate leaves of mille feuille with layers of spinach, cheese and salmon and she had gone to the toilet four times before leaving Conyham Crescent to avoid visiting the Chase bathroom and a consequent depression of appetite...
Chester, in fringed orange kaftan, reclined, glass in hand, by a baby grand at the far end of the room. She hoped to keep it that way and was thankful that the supper was more of an informal reception than an intimate dinner. It was really a chance for the bohemian alternative to the Chudleigh matrons to make their mark at the start of term and the guests were an eclectic mix of establishment (three Housemasters and their wives) and fringe players (the German and Russian assistants) and several new members of staff.
Three of the Chase children, Calliope, Bertram and Lesbia, darted in and out of the room in various stages of undress, addressing their parents by their Christian names and displaying a predictable precocity.
This was, fortunately, no forum for intimate and personal exchanges.
But as she talked holidays, camp sites and the trial of in-laws with a tanned and freckled Betty, she felt as naked as a stripper in a nunnery.
Everyone knew how Paul had spent his holiday and she knew that everybody knew how he had spent it. Why oh WHY had she signed up for another dose of this when she could have closed the chapter; cut her losses and run?
The BBC has asked me to guest edit a most cunning little programme, announced Dorian in her distinctive Tallulah Bankhead meets Elizabeth Windsor voice.
Now do have another pork parcel Paul – they are quite divine; positively ambrosial! No really – they chased me all over Oxford last month - I had to spurn them in the Bodleian! I mean, these formats can be frighteningly underwhelming and one has to be a trifle cagey - but they were in such swoons over my scribble that I weakened – with a trillion caveats. Now, Paul – should I cancel? Be honest!!
Dorian was blatantly puffing the fact that her atrocious treatise on female masturbation; Minerva’s Itch, had finally attracted an obscure publisher specialising in the type of thinly-disguised soft porn tricked out as feminist intellectualism and customarily rejected by prestigious houses.
She was now regaling a wider audience; amongst others, David; Chester; Choirmaster Wendell Rigby and wife Tildy and Vernon Noyce, a new member of the English Department.
She wondered whether Dorian would actually have the gall to read from Minerva’s Itch and decided that he odds were about sixty/ forty with the balance of probabilities favouring a reading. Dorian was feeding and watering guests; this served as the cover charge for the meal; it would be mildly interesting to second guess her pretext.
Paul did not reply immediately.
She recalled intermittent attempts to interest a publisher in his own literary efforts and the fact that their wedding anniversary party had coincided with the arrival of several rejection slips.
He had been scathing about the commercial imperatives of the modern publisher but she sensed that rejection rankled. Larry Prideaux, a university contemporary, had been the surprise recipient of the Bellow prize for a first novel; a 20th century re-casting of the Eden myth.
Paul did not approve.
Outrageous! Larry can’t even understand what he reads! It’s purely because he’s Georgia Prideaux’s nephew; her stuff’s tolerable if rather SAMEY -- but Larry – tosser, tosser of the first water. Absolute, fucking TOSSER.
It was pointless responding; he was probably right.
She had never read Prideaux’s book, but nepotism was as rife in the world of letters as in the corridors of power. It was a detestable fact of life.
But in her husband’s case, the publishers had made the correct call.
Paul’s poems were bad.
She kept quiet. She dispensed whisky; performing in bed like a demented seal when rejection letters polluted the atmosphere...
But her critical faculties, honed by Mr Proudie; Lionel Kerridge and Professor Newbolt were infallible. Paul’s cryptic verse could be summed up simply:
Mene mene tekel upharison
Weighed in the balance and found wanting.
A radio programme – how exciting, Mrs Chase, enthused English Departmental recruit, Vernon Noyce.
Chudeligh was his first post and a turquoise silk cravat was his sole concession to the avant garde propensities of his hosts. Otherwise, cavalry twills pressed at knife edge; boots polished to military perfection and a Harris tweed jacket with leather elbow patches denoted the uniform of a public schoolmaster. Did he dress like this ‘off duty’? He must have been all of 24 and she wondered whether he regarded the wearing of jeans to be the especial prerogative of celluloid trusties like John Wayne.
Minerva --- fascinating! Is it a study of female intellectualism throughout the ages?
No – female wanking!
Chester was not sober and his contribution sank like a stone. Nobody laughed. Vernon Noyce shuffled and snuffled unhappily.
It’s a panel discussion format, interposed Dorian in a voice now entirely redolent of Elizabeth Windsor. On female independence and creativity; Aphra Benn, Virginia Woolf, Vita ….
Fanny Hill! chuntered Chester.
Paul did not need encouragement.
Hmm… the miniaturists! I can see why you’ve got reservations, Dorian. If they think they’ve got you as THE APHRA BEHN person, they’ll just never get you on to talk about George Eliot. Do you see? Perhaps it’s not too late to pull out……. They can always get someone else in that slot…
Dorian changed course, biting into a peach.
It was actually a very winsome panel; Edna Pill, the acclaimed American feminist from Sarah Lawrence; Brigg Dolby, fresh from his darling production of Henry 5th with an all female cast and, of course, My chum, Aiden Cleghorn.
Doesn’t he live locally? offered Vernon Noyce, hoping to steer the conversation away from the murky waters of female sexuality.
Stavely Forest, I believe, said Chester, moving into pole position betwixt Tildy Rigby and Vernon.
Isn’t that correct, Paul? And isn’t he rather a chum of yours – or a chum of a chum, shall we say? And didn’t you ask your chum if her chum, Aiden, might be persuaded to address our chums in the Oxbridge set? Such a lot of chums, all being chummy together!
She turned to Betty, who would not meet her eye. Chester had crossed the line between tipsy and drunk and the challenge now was to extricate Paul without further embarrassment. She pulled surreptitiously at his sleeve – but it slipped from her grasp as Paul took a flute of champagne from the tray proffered by Calliope.
Oh no – my wife is the Cleghorn enthusiast, Ches, old chap. And I really don’t know where you’ve got the idea we could have him at Chudleigh – in fact, the Oxbridge group would probably be safe – I think he likes them younger, but we have to think of their parents don’t we….?
Chester; a virtual Seville orange in his ludicrous kaftan; had reached the level of intoxication where social proprieties paled in comparison with the absolute necessity of having the last word.
Parents, old chap and what about WIVES, eh?! (aiming a playful punch in the region of Pauls’ midriff and treating her to an unpleasant smirk). And we’re all CHUMS here aren’t we and what’s mine is yours and YOURS IS MINE – and didn’t’ you try to pimp yours - wife, I mean while you were pimping your poems to Cleghorn?
As they walked home, the stillness was punctuated by an angry monologue from Paul on the twin evils of Chase and the hapless Cleghorn who had made an ill fated pass at him after a dinner party at Stavely Forest.
It was so awful darling, I didn’t want to bore you with it – but the man made a beeline for me from the moment I met him. I felt that Frances had procured me for him --- I just couldn’t stay there a moment longer – I was like a bond slave at the court of Caligula!
It was a terrible tale. In his emotionally fragile state, following the first anniversary of a second marriage, Paul had been assailed by psychological demons; guilt over Nicola and the kiddies; doubts about his ability to satisfy the hopes and dreams of his new young wife, and recurrent flashbacks of maternal abuse at the hands of Lilias. Surely she could recall the terrible nightmares to which he had been prey before his breakdown?
(So that was his name for it….)
And that evening after a supper at Bunter’s with the Truscotts when he insisted on taking the long route home via the Custerway Suspension Bridge and had lingered over the rail, debating whether or not to plunge to certain death on the rocks below?
She had forgotten it…..…
His emotional fragility had been ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous chancers like Cleghorn and his procuress, Hunt. Thank goodness he had escaped their toils like Prometheus Unbound and returned to safe haven with her…
And more in the same vein. He had found a story and was sticking to it, she might have observed, had she not decided when she took him back that
These deeds must not be thought after these ways …so it will make us mad.
Life therefore followed its usual courses with a few small if significant, emendations.
Apart from Chudleigh 3 Line Whip events such as Founder’s Day; the Headmaster’s Garden Party and the Oxbridge Leavers' Supper, they avoided Chester and Dorian Chase. This was welcome, because they were detestable; but also because she had convinced herself that Dorian knew about her encounter with Chester and was laughing at her.
Secondly, Paul’s trendy new clothes had mysteriously followed An Oval Stone and Billy Leaves Home into the refuse bin. He was once more underplaying his charms in flapping flares, baggy jumpers and frayed button-down shirts. His shoes too had seen better days.
When he wanted her to oblige him – such as telephoning Nicola to postpone an access visit with the kiddies in favour of a pleasure jaunt to Necker’s:
I’m so sorry – Paul has gone down with the most awful dose of ‘flu; it really would be so terrible if Verity caught it…
he had a habit of referring to his psychiatric breakdown and stressing his reliance
upon her understanding.
Again, it was easier to comply – just as it was convenient to dismiss her clear-eyed
alternative explanation for the events of the summer; that Cleghorn with his access to publishers had been the spur to an idyll in Stavely Forest; that the writer’s known sexual proclivities had prompted the purchase of the enticing apparel and that for Paul, sex as a bartering tool was fair game – regardless of gender.
The elderly male bookseller who had relinquished a cat and an Edward Thomas first edition in exchange for a fumble came to mind. But clearly Cleghorn’s literary scruples had mastered his sexual desires – hence the extraordinary venom evinced by her husband at the mere mention of the writer’s name.
Who, indeed could say? She had decided to stick at her marriage.
By Christmas she was pregnant.