Authors: Margaret Drabble
First Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition 2013
Copyright © 1969 by Margaret Drabble
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
First U.S. edition in 1964 by William Morrow & Co.
Published in Great Britain in 1963 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available.
’Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.
come home for my sister’s wedding. Home is a house in Warwickshire, and where I was coming from was Paris. I was keen on Paris, but will refrain from launching into descriptions of the Seine. I would if I could, but I can’t. I like the way things look, but can never remember them when I need to. So I’ll leave Paris at that. I was leaving to go home to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of my sister Louise. And I didn’t mind leaving, either: all the foreignness that seemed so enchanting when I first went in July had begun to drive me to distraction. Every time somebody pinched me on the Métro I felt like screaming, and as for things like the lavatory paper and the price of chocolate and the brisk, bare-kneed, smart little girls I used to take for English conversation—well, I felt I’d really had enough. I’d only been there for two months, but it seemed like far longer. So when the letter arrived from Louise asking me to go and bridesmaid, I heaved a sigh of relief and bought my ticket. Also, I felt that it was time I stopped wasting time. I don’t know why I hate wasting time so much.
I hadn’t really been doing anything in Paris. I had gone there immediately after coming down from Oxford with a lovely, shiny, useless new degree, in a
middle-class way, to fill in time. To fill in time till what? What indeed? It was quite pleasant, teaching those birdy girls, but it wasn’t serious enough for me. It didn’t get me anywhere. So when Louise wrote, the thought of England rose before me, gloomy, cold, but definitely serious. And as I wanted to be serious, I bought my ticket home, said goodbye to the girls and my landlady, and turned my thoughts to the Appointments Board, and National Insurance, and other such eminently serious subjects. I thought about them all the way to Calais, through the sandy flats, as I chewed a garlic-laden ham roll. I thought about jobs, and seriousness, and about what a girl can do with herself if over-educated and lacking a sense of vocation. Louise had one answer, of course. She was getting married. Moreover she was marrying a very wealthy and, in a minor way, celebrated man. It seemed to be one way of escaping the secretarial course-coffee bar degradation that had been creeping up on her ever since, two years ago, she too had left the esoteric masonic paradise of Oxford.
On the other hand I wouldn’t have married Stephen Halifax had he been the last exit open to me. I didn’t know why I disliked him so much: I wasn’t even sure if what I felt was dislike. Perhaps it was partly fear. I was intimidated and inhibited by the fact that he was a novelist, with four novels to his credit, all of which had received rather flattering reviews. Success is always scaring, particularly to the ambitious. Also, I hated his books. They were horrible books, but good as well as horrible: if one hadn’t known him one would have assumed that their author was sour, middle-aged and queer, whereas Stephen is sour, thirty, and married to my sister, whatever that may or may not mean. All four of them are full of social sneers and witty, thin-lipped observations. He never makes a joke. I dislike books without jokes. Even bad Victorian ones are better than nothing. I don’t think Stephen likes jokes at all. The reviews say he is a social satirist, and talk about his delicate perception and keen wit, but for me they can keep them. He behaves like his books as well: when I talk to him, I always feel that I am badly dressed and have the wrong accent. I am sure this is what he does think, but as he thinks the same about everyone, his opinion is hardly objective. Nobody escapes. Everyone is either ridiculously rich, or ridiculously poor, or ridiculously mediocre, or ridiculously classy. He leaves no possibility of being in the right, unless he means to leave himself as a standard, which would be logical, as he is almost entirely negative. He looks grey. It must be his skin, because his hair is a normal shade of brown. He looks very inconspicuous and distinguished and grey.
I couldn’t imagine why Louise was marrying him. I knew she had been seeing quite a lot of him since she left Oxford and went to live in a flat off the Fulham Road, but I had never thought it would come to this. I could see that he was quite a nice sort of person to have dinner with from time to time, as one would be able to have all the expensive things on the menu, but as for marrying—and as for Louise marrying. My sister, I should say, is an absolutely knock-out beauty. She really is. People are silent when she enters rooms, they stare at her on buses, they look round as she walks down the street. I don’t know where she gets it from. My mother is quite pretty, but in a twittering, soft sort of way, and so am I, I suppose, whereas Louise has a real old aristocratic predatory grandeur. As tags go, she is
where I am
, and she leads all her life to match it. She has a very pale skin and fabulous eyebrows and black hair and a tall, stiletto sort of figure and so forth. I thought to myself, as the train went past all the back views of houses that mean Calais, that perhaps Stephen was marrying her because she never looked ridiculous. At the worst he could call her aquiline and intense, but even that sounds quite impressive. Perhaps he wanted a wife to be a figurehead to his triumphal car, a public admiring ornament to his house. A hostess. But I couldn’t see what there was in that for her; she was never a great one for playing second fiddle. On the contrary, she was inclined to be ruthless about getting what she wanted. I supposed it was possible that she wanted Stephen. It occurred to me as the train began to slow down that perhaps she was in love with Stephen, and then it occurred a second afterwards that since this was such an obvious explanation it would certainly have occurred earlier if true. So I discounted the concept of love.
At least with regard to old Louise. Love. Love. I thought idly of Martin who had bidden me farewell on the Gare du Nord at seven-thirty that morning. It was nice of him to have got up. I had been sorry to leave him, and we had both clung a bit, but not significantly. I was glad, really, that there was a certain amount of wrench involved in leaving. It made the fact that I was going seem more of a decision and less of a drift. I thought how much less impossible it was that I should marry Martin or almost anyone than it was that Louise should marry Stephen Halifax. What a name. Stephen Halifax. At least I would find out at this wedding whether it was a pseudonym or not. Louise said it wasn’t but it didn’t sound at all real to me.
The train stopped. With a rush I felt terribly sad about French trains and notices saying
Ne te penche pas au Dehors
(is that what they do say?
? Why not
?): and as immediately forgot my sadness in the wave of fury that overwhelms me during the pushing, banging, queueing and waiting that accompanies getting off the train, through the Customs and on to the boat. I never get a porter, mainly because I hate being parted from my luggage, and so suffer all the irritation of battered legs, aching arms and hair in my eyes with no hand free to push it out of the way. I don’t know why I punish myself so, but I always do. I’m a menace on holidays or journeys, I can’t enjoy myself unless I do everything the hard way. Perhaps I do it on purpose, because the feeling of relief and spaciousness that succeeds sweaty exhaustion the minute one gets on the boat is wonderful and can only be savoured after undergoing the full initiation of effort. Nothing enchants me as much as the channel crossing. I hope they never make a tunnel. I’ve been across ten times now and each time I have been entranced and absorbed by everything, the harbour, the people, the inaudible announcements, the smell, the ladies’ rooms, the bars with cheap cigarettes which I regret not wanting, and delicious chocolate. I buy French chocolate going out and English coming back. There is something so solid and homely about Cadbury’s Milk in sixpenny blocks, and sixpence seems so extraordinarily little to pay for a whole bar.
I bought two and sat with them on the deck; it was a marvellous day, sunny and windy with lots of white clouds whipping across the sky. People kept being sick, which cheered me as I never am and I like feeling tougher than others. I sat and let the wind blow my hair about and remembered my last crossing which had been after a month in Italy and an unspeakable overnight journey on a students’ train from Milan: apart from being totally unable to sleep or even doze off, I had also frozen to death as I had no coat of any sort with me, only a large jersey and thin cotton jeans, which, as the train rolled through the icy Alps and equally icy Strasbourg,
, had proved alarmingly inadequate. In the end I had abandoned my seat and gone to sit in the corridor, where, by the dim light of passing stations and all-night factories, I read Plato’s
on which I was due to write an essay the following week. On the boat Simon, who is somewhat of a
in a youthful way, had insisted that he and Kay and I should have a proper meal in the restaurant, and we had finished the chianti we had bought just before leaving Milan, and afterwards we sat below the deck, warm and sleepy, amongst a party of Chinese immigrants coming from God-knows-where. It had been charming, but it was also charming to sit alone in the wind eating chocolate and making eyes at passing men.
Folkestone looked so delightfully ugly when we arrived, all the solid-fronted hotels and terrace houses. Oh, I felt so cheerful until I got on the train. I hate trains. I slept all the way to London, and woke up with a headache and a grudge against the whole journey. Honestly, I said to myself as I lugged my case along Charing Cross Station and on to a bus to Paddington, honestly, Louise is so selfish to drag me all the way home to this foul ugly country where people never smile at you or pinch your bottom in passing, where it rains all year round and the buildings are the most hideous in the world. I was really gloomy when I arrived at Paddington, especially as I found I had just missed a train, so I rang up home to inform them of my arrival without very much enthusiasm. When the ’phone was eventually picked up I said, ‘Hello, this is Sarah, who’s that?’ and a cool voice said ‘Louise.’ Nothing else, nothing about how nice to have you home, just ‘Louise.’
‘Good heavens,’ I said. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine. And you?’
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m at Paddington. I’ll arrive at New Street at eight-five.’
‘All right. Shall I come out and meet you?’
That really shook me. ‘Oh, there’s no need for that,’ I said. ‘I’m sure Daddy will if you ask him.’
‘No, no, I’ll do it. I wouldn’t mind getting out for an hour.’
There was almost a gleam of expression in that last sentence, so I ventured on a question. ‘How are things at home?’ I asked.
She heaved a great sigh that rattled down the receiver. ‘Oh, bloody,’ she said. ‘You know, people all over, presents, the hotel demanding numbers, letters to write, and old Daphne poking her nose in. She even comes into my bedroom,’ said Louise, in tones of such disdain that she might have been talking about an earwig, not a first cousin.
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘You’ll be out of it soon enough.’
‘That’s what I tell myself.’
‘Is my dress there?’
‘I hope it fits.’
‘It won’t be my fault if it doesn’t. I told you to come home earlier to have it fitted. And as for sending your measurements in centimetres, Miss McCabe was quite out of her depth.’
‘There aren’t any inches in Paris.’
‘Oh well, never mind, you can’t look worse than Daphne anyway, can you?’