Silver Celtic Brooch set with heathergem
This is taken from the novel featured above. It was written in my twenties and first published in 1980, a departure from historical 'apprentice' works. Perspicacious readers may note a faint sense of anachronism in this latest edition (golliwogs, for instance, are no longer PC) but I hope the theme is still sufficently timeless to warrant a contemporary label. Historicals seem to encroach closer and closer!
For many years his mother had been a victim of multiple sclerosis and when she became confined to a wheelchair and unable to look after herself, he took her in. He could not find it in his heart to put her into care. Doors had to be widened, the brick path pointed up, a bedroom made downstairs, taps adjusted. Beth viewed the upheaval with horror and depression, appalled at the evidence of disability.
“Why do you have to be a martyr?” she attacked Adam.
“She is my mother.”
“I am your wife.”
He glanced at her with penetrating reproach. She had been unfaithful to him many times. “Yes,” he said, “you are.”
“She ought to be in a home, a place where she can have proper care.”
“We can’t afford it.”
“It’s too much for me to take on. There’s Andrew to see to. He’s very demanding these days. What sort of effect is it going to have on him, having an invalid around the house?”
Adam stared into the reddened coals. “I don’t know. It’s life, isn’t it?”
There were moments when she wished she could crack his everlasting patience. She wouldn’t need to feel so accused then. “Don’t imagine that I can’t see that you’re doing this to punish me! She’s all you have left. It’s safer to spend your devotion on an invalid who’s got no choice but to accept it. You won’t be let down.”
Silence filled the room. Then he said: “That may be true. Nevertheless, she needs me.”
He sprang quietly from his chair and went out. She envied him his unwavering resolution. She felt cut in two when she saw how well he cared for his mother, gladly taking pains to ease her suffering, never faltering. She herself could only muster a spirit of grudging tolerance and let fly when the old lady knocked over a bowl of soup. Perhaps she had never loved Adam so honestly as the day she went off with Andrew to the swings and bought him Jelly Tots and a 60p aeroplane and didn’t come back. Adam found the note propped up on his typewriter, crumpled it slowly and opened it again, searching the sky for an answer to his need to have and to hold. His mother called from the other room.
The following Friday, as she had promised, Elizabeth came back for her belongings. She drove up to the door in a silver saloon, slim as a bullet. She wore a red-spotted scarf tied peasant-fashion under her dark hair. She told him she was staying with her cousin in St. John’s Wood. They’d always got on well. It was ideal really, Karen was an air stewardess and the flat stood unoccupied half the time. He wondered at this dubious facility for fitting into other people’s lives. “You can’t leave,” he said impotently. “You can’t just walk out. Look, why don’t we sit down and discuss this rationally?”
“And I’ll be able to take up my painting again. It’s a ground floor flat and there’s a conservatory for my studio. It’s so cramped here.”
His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. He did not know how to reach her. He ran distraught fingers through his well-groomed hair so that it flashed across her mind in an off-guard moment that he looked as appealingly unkempt as when he made love. “What about the boy?” he protested. “He is my son too.”
“You can’t have it both ways, Adam,” she rejoined in a trenchant voice. She was staring at the floor, her teeth gritted. There was a 1/2p piece on the carpet, half-camouflaged by the pattern. After several seconds she trusted herself to meet his gaze. “You’ve no time for him, that’s certain. He needs me.”
It was incredible how, in the space of twenty-five minutes she had removed all trace of herself and the child from the house. There were only the Ribena stains on the wall and the abandoned cot. “I shan’t bother to send for that,” Elizabeth said. “He’s old enough to do without it.” At the flat, she surrounded his bed with pillows in case he fell out in the night. It was not so much that he might do himself harm, bodies were supple at that age, but that he made such an awful din, the floorboards shook like an earthquake. Adam looked around the room denuded of infant paraphernalia. Even the poster with the bear in sou’wester and red wellingtons disappeared. It had the name of a station on it.
“Perhaps if you’d been able to share him….” Adam went on bitterly. He was watching her in panic, alert to further disaster. It was true that babies bewildered him. He felt clumsy handling the child and had been glad to let Elizabeth get on with it. She knew by instinct what to do. But deep within him was a well of indescribable tenderness and a need to impress his own destiny on the next generation. Elizabeth did not appreciate that. “He’ll forget me, won’t he? It will be as though I never existed.”
Adam’s eyes were brilliant as though from some implosion of torment. He had never been able to offload his anger, let others bear burdens for him. Long ago his mother had advised him to prune the pear tree against the side wall, but Elizabeth had objected. It was an unnatural thing to do, she said. In any case it bore little fruit, facing due north as it did, only eroded the pointing as neglect took hold and choked from memory its true function. He’ll forget me.
Beth said: “You can come on Sundays if you like.”
He was within touching distance of an answer. He could see bits of green, the bare contours of the golf course rising behind the houses on the other side of the road. Then his gaze settled upon her, hooded with despair. She was cramming toys into the boot of the car. “You know I can’t. Who’ll look after mother?”
The boot lid went down with a muffled slam. “You’ll work something out,” she said confidently. “I’ll be off, then.” She went round to the driver’s door, mules slapping against her heels. The car took off and turned left at the end of the road; sun glanced off the rear window and sent a blinding ache across his vision. He had grown too used to the dim light of winter.
How long he stood there, immobile, torn between the claims of the future and the claims of the past, he did not know, but a sharp blast from a motorist’s horn brought him to himself and he realised he was standing in the middle of the road. He made for the house, half-staggering, all feeling gone from his limbs. He was in possession of nothing but a resonant emptiness. It was as if flesh and bone were dissolving in some undilute emotion stronger than death from which there was no hope of deliverance. But a bright article caught his eye, for lying there on the tarmac was Andrew’s golly. He picked it up and stared into its black, zany face with the permanent smile. For days it sat propped up on the kitchen windowsill, but one night Adam woke and thought of the child crying for what he had lost and next morning packed it up and sent it off in the post.
That summer most of the garden disappeared under concrete. Adam found it as hard to contend with the flowers as the weeds. The grass grew tall and the neighbourhood cats stalked one another like tigers in tropical undergrowth. Spaces were left here and there, just enough for a few hardy roses and shrubs.
Two years elapsed and then, just before Christmas, on the darkest day of the year, old Mrs Goodfellow passed away and with her his reason for living. He did not touch her room for weeks, but left it to gather dust, an odour of rotting flowers about the altar of her bed.
Adam slept badly during the weeks that followed and woke around four in the morning, dismayed that another day had dawned, afraid of its empty wastes. His body was charged with a feverish apprehension and broke into mechanical activity of its own accord. He could not remember having done anything or where he was when rinsed milk bottles were returned to the porch. He worried constantly about the price of bread and butter and soap, whether he ought to be investing in some cholesterol-lowering alternative and how he would stretch his income to cover the basic necessities of life. The insurance money would not go far – it had been taken out in an era of simple faith, when prices were modest and values were high – and he had worked only fitfully in recent months.
He was anxious about Andrew too. On occasion he had gone to St. John’s Wood, calling in an agency nurse to sit with his mother. He did not enjoy going. The flat had an air of subterfuge and gilded lies. It had white-louvred fittings and Hockney and Warhol prints on the walls. The soft furnishings reeked of decaying perfume and a particularly acrid foreign tobacco. The place was so airless always. He loosened his black cravat until Elizabeth, seeing his panic, offered to open a window and gave him a drink. She herself was so sensitive to draughts.
Andrew was overjoyed by these visits. He was a delightful child with zircon-blue eyes and thick fronds of toffee-blond hair. He brought toys and laid them at Adam’s feet, climbed on to his knee and burrowed in his pockets for the chocolate buttons which were sure to be there, feeding Adam as many as he ate himself. It was not without a prick of envy that Elizabeth observed a certain magic between father and son, but, emulating her, the boy called him Adam, a habit she made no attempt to correct. If Adam was hurt, at least it satisfied his artistic ear and seemed to confirm his role of being at a remove from the action. Once Elizabeth spoke of divorce, but there was no tact or premeditation in her manner. It was as though she acted on demon impulse and was trying to goad him into some affronted response. He did not take her up, although, afterwards, he debated whether access to the child might not be made more natural were the situation put on a legal footing. He even wondered whether it would be possible to gain custody and how much that would affect Andrew. But he could not face the endless wranglings of the court. It was an admission of what he preferred not to admit. No more was said, however.
Well, that time was over and gone. He had made a clean break with the past and come north of the Border to the open country he loved where a man might still fancy himself a pioneer. Here he realised his long-cherished dream of running a bookshop. The business flourished. Andrew was at prep school midway between London and Perth and came to stay in the holidays. These were intensely happy weeks for both of them. He called Adam ‘Dad’ and they went fishing together for rock salmon and cooked sausages over a fire, and Adam, bending over the boy’s shoulder, guiding his hand as he reeled in the line, thought he would never again be as close to another human being as this.
Mrs Craig, she who ‘did’ for Mr Oliphant at the manse, never far from a motherless bairn, brought round homemade shortbread and cheese scones for these expeditions. She clasped the boy to her bosom, cried: Och! How he’s grown! Andrew, ‘tis a fine Scots name, that, a name to be proud of. Twas Craig’s middle name and he was the best! It was always the same, the words were proclaimed in the same spirit of lyric discovery. If Andrew shuffled a bit with embarrassment, he devoured the scones with great relish and thought her a pretty good sort. Adam smiled his smile of genuine pleasure, a watery film lit his slanting eyes so that you did not know whether it was a trick of the light or if he had just come in from the cold. He understood so many things now, above all other people’s suffering. He had an affinity with those who had taken sorrow into their stride. He was profoundly thankful to have pursued his lifeline. Well, Andrew with the fine Scots name, won’t you ask Mrs Craig to stay to tea?
Aye, I’ll bide a wee while, little mannie, for when God made time, He made plenty of it!
Looking back, Adam did not know how circumstances could have been different. He simply wished they had been. He wished he had been wiser and hadn’t taken it for granted that Elizabeth loved him as much as he loved her. Such fantastic economies were not of this world. People changed, showed other facets, were elusive. He would have gone to the ends of the earth for her while she sought him in the avenue off the North Circular Road. Remembering those times, especially the early days, he seemed to be watching a former self. How alien the habits of intimacy were to him now, how dried out and set in his ways he had become. He had no desire to relive what was gone, but he felt that something precious was lost to him for ever.
ALL THE BEST FOR 2011!
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