Ramona Returns From Oxford To Helvstead To Recover Equilibrium After a Minor Head Injury and Molly’s Unpleasant Revelations; Ramona Finally, Finally, Finally Loses Her Temper With Millicent and Meditates on the Nature of Forgetting Ugly and Unhappy Things; We Learn of Ramona’s Secret about Her Mother Which to Her Unhappy Surprise Is Not Actually a Secret
I awoke, late, with a headache and an unfamiliar awareness of my skull’s fragility. This was an unhappy combination of the previous day’s injury and the after effects of liquor; I’d stolen into Millicent’s room for a large glass of whiskey to top off the sherry.
But, far more terrible, after a few fitful soakings and scrubbings, I had to admit the blue suit was ruined. I stood up from the side of the bathtub, letting it slosh in the water, and turned away from its drowned form to the mirror. I surveyed myself: skin unearthly pale, temple a violent purple, gaunt cheeks, eyes bleary, mouth a thin, colorless, down-turned line. I looked as if I had been involved in something far more dissolute than what the previous night had wrought.
I rung out the suit and left it dripping, and began to dress. Why had I sprung up from the pavement, I wondered as I pulled on my tights and shoes, why had I staggered to my feet and hurried away, disoriented, foolish, blood seeping down my ear? Why had I not heeded the woman’s voice but run, guilty, frantic, as if meeting Miss Caruthers at the arranged time was of some life-threatening importance? Glancing at the piece of plaster on my bureau I could hear the dull, penetrating crack as it connected to my temple, and tucked it under knickers and brassieres in the top drawer.
I came down to find the dining room empty, except for a lingering miasma of porridge, fried eggs and bacon. I dialed the kitchen for a pot of tea in the morning room. Lucy asked if I’d like the ice-pack, something Millicent employed for the sore ankle or bruised knee after riding, and I agreed. I closed my eyes and sank back on the sofa, regretting I wasn’t up to the tiny marching lines of newsprint of the Times; I longed to get away from my own restless thoughts.
Through the closed door I heard a stifled sneeze, followed by a discreet blow of the nose, and Lucy entered, bearing a tray with the blue-flowered ice pack with its screw-top plastic lid with a daisy on it, in a large ceremonial silver bowl, a sight that even through nausea and distress, nearly made me giggle. I knew, without having to ask, that this presentation had been learned under Molly’s tutelage. Lucy had also, in that short period of time, put together a large breakfast of egg, kippers, sausage and bacon, with a heaping plate of buttered toast on the side. It looked absolutely revolting, sitting there, glistening with grease.
“Millicent said you might be wanting a hearty breakfast,” she said doubtfully. “I said you don’t tend to eat more than to keep a cat alive, but she said all the more reason.”
It was the sort of thing that it was impossible to know if it was something of a practical joke or one of her very occasional acts of solicitude that Millicent made this suggestion.
“Lovely, thank you Lucy. Could you possibly close the curtains?” I picked up the ice, putting it to the side of my head. “Millicent’s out for today?”
“Good,” I said without thinking, and then hastened to add. “Of course I’m not pleased, you see, it’s just…. I’m afraid I’m not much company today.”
“Oh, I understand, Miss Bright. Feeling poorly you are,” her voice had a croak to it.
“You don’t sound too well yourself.” Her nose glowed pink from regular attentions of the handkerchief, and she looked flushed.
“A bit of a cold. Nothing serious. Anything else you’re needing, Miss Bright?”
“Just the curtains—shut them, will you please?”
The light diminished with the sound of each wrench, a physical relief.
“Lucy, I know we don’t usually, but would you mind terribly closing the door on your way out. I might have a lie down after breakfast.” I smiled in a manner that I hoped communicated appreciation for her solicitousness and a desire to be left undisturbed.
As soon as she left, I poured myself a cup of beautifully hot, strong tea, but the smell of breakfast was so overpowering I had to put the cup down before I had taken a sip, my gorge rising. I heard a muffled sound outside; Tony with his wheelbarrow, if the squeaking that accompanied the sound of tramping feet was anything to go by. I rose, taking the plate and lifted the window sash. I whistled softly, waving a sausage from the plate discretely at Lilliput, Tony’s black spaniel. The dog stopped, sniffed the air, and after a moment of quivering recognition, came bounding towards me with such enthusiasm I feared she might hurtle herself through the window. Craning around, I saw no sign of Tony and scraped the better part of the breakfast off into the flowerbed. Lilliput set to devouring the eggs, sausage and bacon as well as a good amount of the peat around it.
How ridiculous I was behaving, I thought, after I closed the curtains and heaved myself onto the sofa. I could have very easily been seen by Tony or Lucy, the latter whose feelings might well have been hurt; still, I’d done it, and felt too much relief to mind the risk. I drank my tea, letting my eyes adjust to the dim and when I’d finished, lay down, feeling the coolness of the sofa against my cheek. Soon enough, I slept.
The next day, Lucy and I made short work of our weekly lists of duties. Lucy’s cold had worsened and she fell into protracted fits of coughing.
“I’m quite all right,” she croaked. “Miss Molly once worked through walking pneumonia Boxing Day of ’27—”
“There were about twenty-five guests, all of them titled, Lucy,” I said. “The impetus was rather different. Go on, do be sensible.”
Finally she agreed, and, after she left, I rang Miss Caruthers, fearing if I didn’t she might stop by. I dreaded revisiting the subject of the previous day, but I needn’t have worried; I’d never felt the sting of pity from Miss Caruthers and I wouldn’t that day either, only solicitude and offers of a boiled ham. I reassured her of my fortitude sans ham, and made plans for church that week and a lecture on the Roman Empire the following. I rung off, feeling more cheerful.
With the post came a letter from the Cleavus’. The Cleavus’ had finally been recognized by one of the O’s elderly inhabitants as the Loch Leairne Ice Dancers, and everyone was making much of it; the manager had even deigned to allow a photo in the lobby. Cleavus suggested, rather shyly, the possibility of lunch as they traveled for a bit of restorative sea air for Mrs. Cleavus. The idea of them at Helvstead was dreadful, but it might be all right if we met somewhere nearby. I suggested as much, and remarked I wished this picture of their ice skating days had been there in my time at the O.
That dispatched, I attended to that week’s flower delivery, found a duplicate billing for a hound’s-tooth skirt of Millicent’s, called the feed store to order more hay and oats for Millicent’s horses and wrote a letter to a company in Spain requesting a silver-tipped crop for Millicent. I picked up the needlepoint I’d been attempting since I’d arrived, undertaken more as proof of leisure time, than real interest.
My head ached, I still felt a bit wobbly, but my equilibrium had returned. Oxford seemed far away, and could be, credibly, chalked just an unfortunate day, of no particular meaning. The past had caught up with me for a moment, but it needn’t again, I thought resolutely. I put aside my needlepoint for a cigarette and an ancient copy of PUNCH. I would take care it didn’t.
Lucy had just cleared the tea things away, and I was attempting to engage myself in needlepoint the following afternoon, when Millicent entered.
“Hello, Ramona. Lucy,” she bellowed “G & T please!” And then after a moment “And NO Lime!” I heard the rustle of a silk lining as she took off her coat.
She pulled off her hat, threading a long glinting hatpin through its width, and tossing it on the side table with breathtaking casualness; the hat had cost a year’s earnings at the foreign office. Lucy returned with the drink, took the hat and coat, and Millicent slumped into the sofa.
“Took an eternity to get home. Some farmer and his idiot brood taking up the whole road for some funeral or another. So tiresome.”
“Where were you coming from, then?”
“The Quai—met Joansie. Bit of a dipsomaniac, but entertaining for an afternoon. She’s gone vegetarian and spent the whole time scowling at my duck, but her taste for gossip is certainly carnivorous as ever. Oh! And something rather interesting happened. Concerning you.”
I felt my ears prick up.
“She had to dash out early, to an assignation with—well, there are some intrigues best left unspoken of—especially with fat middle-aged Hungarian aristocrats in purple velvet capes and heavily waxed moustaches—but never mind. I wanted to finish my pudding, and during coffee a lady came bustling right up to me.”
“Apparently she knew Daddy very briefly—I think there may have been just a pin prick of romance there—before Mummy. But she’d been in America, seemed to know your family.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“A Mrs. Baxter-Jones.”
She paused, waiting for me to speak. I kept my eyes on my needle, feeling the blood drain from my face.
“She says she knew your parents from the school in New Hampshire, I think it was.”
“Ah. Well. Yes, I believe she did,” I said. “I thought she’d moved to Australia.”
“The son in Perth died five or six years ago, and now she’s come back to live out ‘her last years.’ Although that’s the sort that should be around forever. All avarice. They never die.”
“Oh.” I said. “You know, I read in the paper yesterday that emigration to Australia—”
“So she was a friend of your parents?”
I took a deep breath. “Not really.”
“Hmmm.” She regarded me from the rim of her glass. “She was quite mysterious, you know—dropping all sorts of leading remarks. Said something about the shock of her life at a garden party and then pretended to be very sorry to let it slip out.”
“Did she really? How odd.”
“You don’t know what she meant, then?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t. She always was a bit of liar, you see.” I said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me Millicent, I have some bills to attend to.” I began to gather my things.
“Yes, Millicent?” I busied myself bundling the needlepoint into its bag.
Millicent took out a cigarette, tapped it.
“Oh, Ramona, for God’s sake, we all knew,” she waved the unlit cigarette in an encompassing gesture. “About your mum. Balmy Aunt Sarah, we called her. We knew—you must know that much at least.”
I halted, embroidery clutched to my chest, smoothing my skirt in what I hoped to be an offhand gesture but with a hand that trembled.
“I know, I know, no one’s ever to speak of it,” she used a theatrically ghoulish whisper, wiggling her fingers for effect. “And you’ve always been commendably calm on the subject, I must say, but honestly, it’s really quite silly to pretend with just you and me now.”
Millicent wasn’t listening. “Why did anyone think that could be kept a secret?” she mused, shaking her head, rummaging around in her pocketbook.
“My father—” I started.
“Took great pains, I know—where is the damn lighter—but something like that wasn’t going to stay mum, how could it? Anyway, if you knew of Mummy and Daddy’s friends who went in to such ‘for a nice long rest’—ha!—all very hush-hush of course—you mightn’t mind so much.” She glanced at me and seemed to register my distress. “Well, it’s not like I went about broadcasting it, Ramona, but can you imagine anyone believing those ridiculous excuses your father came up with? A child could see through them. ‘She’s got a fever,’ ‘She was gardening and cut herself’—‘She’s just high-spirited.’ That was a particular favorite of Reggie and mine, we got a good laugh out of that one.”
She tilted her head reminiscently and lit her cigarette, her eyes squinting through the smoke, becoming more thoughtful. “I do think he was a bit more adept at first, don’t you? But time went on …and, well, perhaps he ran out of steam. You never knew, did you?”
“What?” I said warily.
“Well, that we knew she was in Pleasant Fields or Green Pastures or whatever it was. Those asylums. God, the names they do come up with,” she snorted. “Leaping Loony Bin would be less bizarre than the sinister insistence on the pastoral—well, anyway. ‘Now don’t pity your cousin Ramona,’ Mummy always said, ‘that’s just what she wants. Just treat her just like you would otherwise.’ I do believe she rather hated the idea that you—or anyone—might be entitled to some human feeling, you see. ‘It’s her own fault,’ she always said about your mother. She really did dislike your mother, even before all that, thought her quite the tart, but that never seemed quite fair especially considering—”
“Millicent,” I said, standing. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got something I should attend to—”
Millicent waved her hand for me to sit down again.
“That Mrs. Baxter-Jones was hinting pretty damn hard at something juicy. A small garden party—‘oh, what a terrible shame it was, nearly gave her a heart attack’—”
“Millicent!” I thundered. I could hear the current of my voice go through the room, and the faint reverberations in the hutch holding the crystal. “Will you leave it! Please!”
Millicent’s eyes had rounded with bemused astonishment.
“Mrs. Baxter-Jones was always a mean, low, lewd woman not to mention a—a nuisance and a gossip and if you were to believe a—bloo—” I stopped myself, with effort, through trembling lips. “A—word—a single word—she says, you would be a fool.” I tried to control the heaving of my chest, the shameful wobbling of my chin. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
I left the room, forcing myself not to run through the hall, up the stairs, the upstairs hall to my bedroom. I locked it behind me. I sat on the bed, facing the window.
Silently, in bitter fury, I wept.
It is odd, the way we are able to forget so completely. Oh, yes: one can forget. As impossible as it sounds, even if one is structuring one’s life around that very information it is essential no longer exists anywhere in the mind, it can be done. I know. I’ve done it myself.
For ages and ages, I had forgotten. I don’t know how I did so; it was a magic trick that I could never have succeeded in if I had known what I was undertaking or repeated if I had tried. And although I had forgotten, perhaps to explain it more accurately one might say I had grown accustomed to —in fact it was necessary that I continue—not remembering, memories sealed away in the catacombs of the mind.
It was rather like if there is a room, and in that room there is a statue that you no longer wish to see. But this statue is unbudgeable, intractable, impossible to move. The only way to no longer have to see it, is for it to be hidden. So one might drape this statue with a large swath of fabric. You know there is something there, underneath; the outline is visible, even familiar, but the your cloth obscures, and affords some distance. Then, as the days pass, one becomes so accustomed to the shape, eventually it no longer quite registers as being connected to what’s underneath, or has any sort of pressing reality to it. Perhaps there are so many of these draped things that the room has become crowded with them, forcing strange circuitous pathways to cross one end of the room to the other. But even this one gets used to. If someone were to ever ask about them it would be a shock, for in pretending for so long you forget it is only agreement with yourself to never acknowledge their presence.
My defenses had begun to erode against such memories since leaving London where I’d kept myself so very very busy; the long idle hours had allowed them to come to surface like shrapnel working its way out of the skin. It was coming to me slowly, a strange unhappy dawning of recollection. And once I remembered, any talent for forgetfulness was gone.
I had met Mrs. Baxter-Jones, of course. I’d thought her very pretty, I remember, with her dark curls, bright make up, small navy blue pointed shoes with gold tassels on the tops which I immediately coveted. Her husband, an American, and some sort of logging baron of the northeast, had bought a school and through some distant connection, had helped my father get the position there instructing history.
We’d been there some ten months when they came for tea, this Mrs. Baxter-Jones, and a friend, both looking very smart. That this simple tea with my family had been altered to “garden party” by Mrs. Baxter-Jones angered me. In her greed for our shame she had exaggerated.
I had greeted them, leading to the garden, quite the nicest part of the house, for the last tenant, a Latin teacher and an ardent gardener, had taken great pains with the flowerbeds and shrubbery.
When I look at pictures of myself taken at that age, I think, as I always do, of what a peculiar-looking child I was. I appeared much younger than my twelve years: a ghostly pale, spindly, rabbit-y girl with uneven teeth and a mass of crinkling colorless pale hair. Every facet of my appearance seems to reveal furtiveness, trepidation or premature weariness.
“Please, won’t you have a seat? Tea will be out in a minute,” I said, motioning to the wrought iron table and chairs, and hating myself for the falsity terror had wrought in my voice; I sounded smarmy, like a girl in a movie.
Inside, I found my father skulking down the stairs, radiating apprehension.
“Have you seen your Mother?” he asked. “Bloody hell! I feel asleep, after last night—” he bit off. He must have been quite agitated; he rarely swore. “I must go look for her. Can you make the tea?”
I nodded, although I was deathly afraid of lighting the stove. I was often moved to such acts of heroism around my father.
“Good. I’ll be right back,” he said and disappeared out the front door.
I crept into the dining room, pulled out a heavy silver teapot and hefted it into the kitchen. Mustering my courage I lit the burner, and put water on to boil. I spread linens on a tray and pulled a kitchen chair over to the counter and climbed up to get a package of shop-bought biscuits. I could only hope Mrs. Baxter-Jones wouldn’t comment at the lack of cake. I scalded myself pouring from the pot, but not badly, and managed not to get too many tea leaves in the water.
“Everything all right dear?” I heard her carol alarmingly close to the door.
“Yes! Yes, thank you!” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “Please do sit down—I’ll just be a moment.”
I tiptoed to the window, straining for sight of my parents. Perhaps he’d bring her back, his arm around her shoulders, Mother holding a small bouquet of flowers he’d picked for her, while she laughed and apologized for her lateness. I had begun, without realizing it, to ration such hopes, having discovered too little dangerous, but too much, far more so. No one tells you that as a child, the treacherous nature of hope. I readied everything, heaved the tray, just managing to get through the door with the tea things. The ladies mouths opened to little “o”s seeing me and jumped up to assist which frightened me so much I almost dropped the tray.
“How nice,” said Mrs. Baxter-Jones. “Aren’t you the gracious young lady?”
People often spoke to me as if I were younger than I was, and that I didn’t entirely mind I kept secret, feeling ashamed of the pleasure it brought me.
“Where is your mum, dear? We’d hope to see her and talk about the plans for the jumble sale for the Junior League—or—what do you call it in America, Lily?”
“This will be for the thrift store.”
“Yes, yes. So young lady, where is your she?”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out.
“Dear? Perhaps she’s upstairs. I could pop up and—”
“Hello,” called my father, walking through the gate, wearing coat and hat, carrying his walking stick. He must have snuck around the side, down the hill towards the creek, to make this contrived entrance. How shocked and relieved I was at this subterfuge.
“Well, my, doesn’t this look good. And how are you ladies this afternoon?”
Perhaps his relaxed manner meant he had found Mum. His gaze turned to me and saw the concern on my face. My father and I had developed quite a vocabulary of speaking glances. This one I recognized from schools, a cue given from one pupil to another: not now. But he was very aware of the shrewdness of his audience and a perfect blandness overlaid his expression; my father, for all of his mild-mannered distractedness, would have made a good spy.
He sat. He wasn’t an animated man, but I believe he could be charming, and as we drank tea, he inquired about their children and various activities, looking handsome with his wind-ruffled dark hair and white teeth. But Mrs. Baxter-Jones wasn’t to be dissuaded, and soon brought the conversation round:
“We were just asking about your wife,” she said. “I do hope we haven’t gotten the date wrong.” She pressed her finger to her forehead, to indicate she was thinking hard. “As much as we like your company of course, Mr. Bright,” she added with a girlish giggle.
I remember this was my first feeling of disquiet about Mrs. Baxter-Jones: I didn’t like that giggle.
My father smiled. “You’ll have to make do with us, I’m afraid. My wife sends her regrets. She had an appointment she couldn’t miss, I’m afraid, and would have rung you up sooner if she’d remembered herself. She’s does hope you’ll forgive her.”
“Oh? Anything important?”
Again, my father smiled. “She can tell you next time you ladies get together, I think? More tea, Mrs. Baxter-Jones?”
She accepted, and the chatting continued, although I didn’t hear it, being awash in relief: mother had known, remembered. I picked up a biscuit and began to nibble. I had such a fitful stomach as a child I knew I must take whatever opportunities to eat in-between wobbly bouts.
Father began querying Mrs. Baxter-Jones about her travels in America. They talked of New England and the West, Mrs. Baxter-Jones was recalling the marvels of the Grand Canyon (I remember how enthralled I was: rattlers, red rock, cactus, donkeys), when she stopped speaking, her eye widening in the direction of the garden, and inhaled sharply.
And there she stood: Mother. Mum. Filthy, covered in what looked like dried mud, wearing only her undergarments, her knickers dirty as well as ripped, one breast jutting outside her brassiere. Her hair lay damp against her head with a few bits of grass and leaves hanging off to the side, and an ugly gash on her shin oozed blood. Her lipstick, however, one of the bright tangerine colors popular at the time, looked quite neat. A terrible look crossed over my father’s face, equal parts sorrow and fatigue, as if he’d been hit. I suppose I saw it then, finally, how these episodes affected him. He had been very careful with me.
“Darling,” he said, and struggling to get out of his chair twice before he was able to rise to his feet. “Please, darling you’re not well.”
Mrs. Baxter-Jones exchanged a shocked look with her friend, shock leavened with something else, an acknowledgement of some sort of good fortune. Neither of them made a move to leave. That is when I realized why Mrs. Baxter-Jones was there: to spy. They wanted to know about my mother. They knew of her strangeness and desired to see it first hand and to tell others. While they couldn’t have known what was going to happen, this scene was exactly the sort for which they’d hoped. There stood my mother, dirty and lost in the wilderness of her own mind and both of those women stayed seated on their chairs, like patrons at the dinner theater, determined to witness every last moment they could. The comprehension of this flattened me, left me stupid, sick. How easily I’d been bought with a few small coins of kindness.
My mother came towards my father, speaking in quite a normal tone, something about a steam train being covered with devils gorging on mutton. She grew frustrated as he struggled to put his coat around her, pushing it away.
“Darling,” he said. “Darling, please. We must get you upstairs. You’re not yourself.” He turned to our guests. “Please,” he said. “Please. This is a family matter.”
Mrs. Baxter-Jones rose reluctantly. “Well if you’re quite sure we can’t help…?”
“No, thank you,” my father said, shortly.
“You don’t need us to…” her voice trailed off as she watched my mother unselfconsciously tuck her breast into her brassiere, her tangerine lipstick mouth still talking, talking, talking.
“Leave,” my father finally bit off. “You and your friend. Leave.”
Like many of the things my mother did and said, her behavior that day was in some way comical as it was piteous. The two do so often go together, and I was aware as I watched her, I hadn’t a schoolmate that wouldn’t have a long laugh at her expense, standing there in her knickers, grass dangling so absurdly behind one ear.
As I watched my father put his arm around my mother, murmuring, moving her towards the door, I felt my mouth set in an unaccustomed line. She hadn’t even looked at me. Me, the one who had brushed her hair and cleaned up the odd messes she made in the middle of the night; who made her toast when she wouldn’t get out of bed, who took care of the house as best as I could. Not a week ago, she had kept me in the closet half the day and then hauled me out, weeping, holding me tightly; whether she did such things to punish me or protect me from herself I never did entirely know: both depending on the minute or the hour or the day. I used to wonder what my father made of my flying at him when he came home, clinging.
But I believe that day a seed of real hatred took root. I felt what I thought to be my mother’s deliberate disinterest in me more deeply than when she struck me from time to time. I no longer wanted to ‘be understanding,’ as father was so often insisting; perhaps I never had, but I had been very willing to simulate it. My child’s patience, my devotion, had come to end.
My hatred would divide me; it would change me. It made me a different person, the one I am now.
After a time, sickened and tired by the onslaught of memories—there are few things more exhausting than wading through such a deluge—I got up and splashed my face, which felt thick and false, as if made out of clay. I lay back in bed, seeking the oblivion of drawn curtains, darkness and sleep.
When I woke, night had descended. Opening my bedroom door I listened, and, hearing nothing, crept downstairs. Moving with extreme stealth, I plundered the biscuit tin, grabbed from the fruit bowl two apples whose overripe perfume wafting through the room had suggested themselves to me, and snatched a decanter of sherry. Dressing gown fluttering noiselessly, I ran to my room, and locked the door. Breathless, in inky darkness, I sat on the bed, bolting the apples and biscuits, tossing two glasses of the sherry back to wash it down quickly, quickly.
My haste evaporated and, suddenly, dreading the return to bed, I lingered at my ablutions, taking absurd care not to spill a grain of tooth powder, laving the facecloth in dawdling circles around my cheeks. But finally I could delay it no more, and climbed under the covers, my body still warm from my sprint downstairs. The darkness had settled in impenetrable corners of the room, and I felt a moment of fear, but a remarkable gluey tiredness overwhelmed me, and to my surprise and gratitude, I slept.
The next morning before I even opened my eyes, I thought of my shouting at Millicent the previous day. Pinioned by horror, I relieved each word I’d said. I imagined Millicent talking to Lucy, or worse, Molly, her droll voice announcing I’d become unbearable, and I’d be leaving immediately.
This last thought managed to catapult me out of bed, and I dressed, hastily, wondering how I’d been able to think of anything else moreover sleep the night before. I tidied my hair and frock, pulled off the cardigan from the chair I’d tossed it on, my mother’s brooch making several unmusical clanks against the back, and noticed last night’s apple cores in the dustbin. One had the remains of a worm. I looked away, swallowing my rising gorge with difficulty. With a final resolute tug to my jumper, I headed downstairs.
Millicent sat, face obscured by the newspaper. A cup of tea lay steaming before her.
“Millicent,” I said. “Millicent, I’m so terribly sorry about yesterday.”
Millicent rattled the paper once, irritably.
“I hope,” I started. “You will—someday—be able to forgive me for my unpardonable rudeness. I suppose—well, you took me unawares. I wasn’t prepared and—well, I just am so awfully ashamed I shouted when you’ve been so kind these last few months.”
Usually at this juncture, Millicent might rebuke me for what she called my schoolgirl-reciting-a-catechism voice, but instead remained quiet. Unprepared for this lack of interruption, I went on in droning soliloquy.
“You’ve been so kind and—” I was repeating myself, when she finally spoke.
“All right,” Millicent dropped the paper, looking more perplexed than angry, although her features were stamped with impatience. “And, actually I do understand. But I’ll remind you of one thing, Ramona. I could have gotten any piece of information I wanted from that hideous woman. She was going to tell me and in fact, I had to knock my bloody cup of tea over to keep her from doing so. Instead, I came to you.”
“Oh, Millicent I—”
“If I really wanted, all I have to do is ring, and I’d hear the whole lot, you know.”
For one terrible moment I felt the welling of tears.
“But I’m not going to. And that’s not because I think you’re going to tell me, either. You’re not, are you?” She shrugged and glanced down at the paper. “You’ll take whatever horrid little embarrassment it was to the grave with you. Well,” she turned a page. “That’s probably as it should be. Your Mum had her fair share of misery as it was. I did know, Ramona. I mean, as a child I heard—long before she was sent away, or was ‘committed,’ whatever ghastly way one puts it. All those ‘attempts to harm herself.’ I knew how it was—and how Grandmama and Grandpapa favored my father.”
I must have looked a little shocked. “I didn’t know you—”
“Knew? You seem to have failed to comprehend the essential fact about the Clives: while life’s tetchy business may never be admitted to exist within our own nest, we are insatiable gossips. Perhaps that could account for the Clive propensity to schadenfreude. Funny, never thought of that. Anyway—of course, Ramona. Of course we knew! How much they favored him, all that nonsense. And he bullied your mother abominably—oh you needn’t look so surprised—he used to brag about it,” she shook her head fondly. “He thought is was just proof he was a bit of lad. Grotesque the cruelty he got up to. I don’t know if he ever understood what an utter bastard he’d been. Odd thing—but that’s dear old Papa, all round. And good god, there’s no getting around it, Grandmamma Clive was a nasty piece of work,” She shrugged, eyes finding mine, thoughtful. “Funny all this sentiment about mother-love, when half the time they don’t give a hang, or they just take against their own, like she did your Mum.”
I looked at my hands.
“Oh, look, there were hints at the dinner table, when your Mum’s name came up. And then Molly told me,” she caught my glance. “Molly absolutely revels in such things, what she perceived to be some sign of divine judgment, you know that, at least. Did your Mum really have all those lovers?” She waved her hand. “No, don’t answer that. Molly always used Auntie Sarah as an object lesson as to where I’d wind up. Dear Molly.”
She rolled her eyes; it wasn’t a subtle thing, offering collusion on Molly’s awfulness, but it worked. I laughed shakily.
“Well,” she said settling back into the couch with the paper and plucking up her cigarette. “I for one will never say another word on the subject, and there’s no need for you to either.” Her eyebrows raised inquiringly: “All right?”
In any other person I might have doubted the veracity of that moment: the return to the paper, the idle grounding out of her cigarette, the topping off of cooling tea, as if self-consciously aping the ordinary in hopes that the pretense of equilibrium would lead to the real thing. But with Millicent, amazingly really, there was no falsity here. Yawning, she stirred her tea and took a sip. And now I recognize, that for all of my horror and dismay, I felt the tiniest frisson of disappointment we would not speak of it.
Lucy came in with a half grapefruit.
“Well, finally,” said Millicent. “It’s really rather nice to have this before I get my egg, you know.”
“Yes, Lady Von Favre. Only it’s just come, the greengrocer’s boy, his bicycle—”
“All right, yes, yes, yes. No need to wring your hands,” she waved her away. Lucy wasn’t really the hand-wringing sort, but Millicent’s acumen tended not to be wasted on servants. She turned to me, and I felt myself grow alert. But all she said was:
“Can you order more of my talcum from Harrods’s?”
I agreed and stood up to fetch poached eggs from the sideboard. For a moment, standing by the silver troughs of eggs and bacon it seemed everything would be all right. I will put it behind me, I thought, I would never brood so horribly ever again, It doesn’t matter now, it only seems to; nothing from that long ago can possibly matter so much that it can’t be forgotten or moved past.
This surge of relief lasted exactly the distance from the sideboard to the table. I sat, and everything seemed a reproach, a shaming reminder: Millicent’s graceful crook of elbow as she held the paper, the gleaming furniture, the starched white of the doilies and linen. I began on my eggs and toast, stomach buckling. I’d forgotten the sensation I’d had so often as a child, eating, knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to keep it down.
Millicent put her cup down with a faint musical clink and folded up the paper.
“Well, that’s that.” She stood. “Ta, Ramona—don’t forget the talcum will you?” she said.
Her footsteps retreated overhead, becoming the to-ing and fro-ing of a woman at her toilet, then returned down the stairs; the door opened and shut, an engine revved and then retreated into silence.
The moment it did, I put my knife and fork down and walked into the kitchen.
“Lucy,” I said. She looked up from topping and tailing runner beans, her face young and guileless.
“I’m afraid I’m feeling rather unwell.” I paused. “I won’t be able to meet for the preparing of next week’s menus. Would you mind terribly much attending to it yourself today?”
“Not at all, Miss. You’re as pale as anything, if you’ll forgive me for saying so.”
“Yes! I do feel rather terrible!” I said idiotic brightness. “I’ll just be going to bed. If I could have a few undisturbed hours, you see—”
“Oh, I do understand. I hope you’re not getting my flu. I’m only just getting over it.”
“I certainly don’t feel well. You needn’t worry about luncheon. I’ll just sleep. Only if Millicent calls should I be in. And, Lucy—”
“Don’t bother her with this, please. I do hate to trouble her when it’s something so silly.”
“Just as you like.”
I gave what I hoped to be a careless smile but felt merely foolish, and returned to bedroom; feeling such defeat to have only been able to stay away from the comfort of bed for thirty minutes. A few minutes of desultory reading of the Parish News later, the words swimming before me, I threw up my breakfast. Relief bubbled through me: my face might be hot, throat burning, but my stomach, for the first time in a few days, unfurled from its throbbing knot.
I couldn’t allow myself the sybaritic pleasure of returning to my nightgown at this hour, I felt, for who knew what loosening of standards that might lead to, but, rummaging in the closet, I found a frock, a favorite, one I wore when I knew I wouldn’t be leaving my flat at the ‘O’ for the day. Made for a woman much larger than myself, with a confused pattern of blue poppies, nightingales and clocks, the frock had become irresistibly soft from many washings over the years. I pulled it on, followed by my cardigan and took a quick inventory of provisions: a half dozen parish magazines; three novels from the library, the biographies I’d purchased in Oxford and a carafe for water I kept under the bed.
I slid the curtains shut and crawled into bed, sliding into the covers. Unbidden, my mother came to me from that dreadful day, the dried mud on her arms, the gash on her shin, the comic terribleness of the lipstick. Why must I do this, I wondered angrily, why must I go on in this beastly way? I pounded my pillow and wrestled with my frock which had twisted, near to another round of being sick. Finally, to my disgust, I wept. I fought even as I did so, feeling like I was dislodging a branch that grown twisted about my entrails. In a sudden sickening lurch I felt sure everyone— Millicent, Lucy, Molly, Miss Caruthers, Tony, the day maids—knew of the incident with Mrs. Baxter-Jones. They had been laughing at me, why hadn’t I seen it? I moaned aloud at the thought and clapped my hand over my mouth, horrified I’d made a sound, feeling the tears pour over my eyes.
Eventually I began to weary, yet every time I fell into unconsciousness I would be jarred awake by the image of Mother, following me through every corner of sleep.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com