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Authors: Anita Brookner

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The Rules of Engagement

BOOK: The Rules of Engagement
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The Rules of Engagement

Anita Brookner

 

 

 

 

1

 

We met, and became friends of a sort,
by virtue of the fact that we started school on the
same day. Because we had the same Christian name
it was decreed that she should choose an
alternative. For some reason

largely, I
think, because she was influenced by the sort of sunny
children's books available in our milieu

she
decided to be known as Betsy. When we met up
again, several years later, she was Betsy de
Saint-Jorre. Not bad for a girl initially
registered as Elizabeth Newton.

How much nicer children were in those days than the
adults they have become! Born in 1948, we were
well-behaved, incurious, with none of the
rebellious features adopted by those who make
youthfulness a permanent quest. We went to tea in
one another's houses, sent each other postcards
when we went on holiday with our parents, assumed
we would know each other all our lives ... The
Sixties took us by surprise: we were
unprepared, unready, uncomprehending. That, I
now see, was why I married Digby: it was the
right, unthinking thing to do. That was why Betsy took
it upon herself to have a career, out of despair, perhaps,
at not being provided for. Choice hardly
dictated our actions. Yet I suppose we were
contented enough. Certainly we knew no better.
And now we know too much. Discretion veiled our
motives then, and perhaps does so even now, even in
an age of multiple communications, of
e-mails, text messages, and news
bulletins all round the clock. We still rely
on narrative, on the considered account. That is
how and why I knew Betsy's story, though I
cannot claim to know all of it. There were areas of
confusion which it seemed better not to disclose. But she
was always painfully honest, rather more so than prudence
might advise. That quality made itself felt when
we were still children; her desire to explain herself, to be
known, was perhaps really a desire to be loved. That
too was discernible, and it set her apart. In later
life, when I knew her again, that quality was still
there, obscured only slightly by the manners she
had acquired, and always at odds with her mind, which was
exacting. In other circumstances she might have
been remarkable. But her hopes had been
curtailed, and in the years of her
adulthood one sometimes saw this, in the odd
distant glance directed towards a window, or the
eagerness with which she smiled at any passing child.

Her initial demotion from Elizabeth
to Betsy was thought to be justified, given her
uncertainty of status. She took it in her
stride, thinking it gave her permission to assume
an altogether different character, someone more lighthearted,
skimming the surface, responding always with a
smile. She longed to be superficial, with the
sort of ease that I and my particular coterie
took for granted. Adult responsibility, of
an altogether unwelcome kind, had already come her
way, in the shape of her widowed father and the faded
aunt who kept some sort of primitive life
going in that flat above the surgery in Pimlico
Road. She was unfortunate: that was generally
agreed, and it made her something of an anomaly in
our midst. My mother professed sympathy for her,
but viewed with dislike Betsy's attempts to be
winning when she came to our house in Bourne
Street, on the rare occasions when I was obliged
to invite her. The enthusiasm with which she greeted
my mother's teatime offerings (meagre enough in those days of
austerity) and the attention she paid to the contents of our
drawing-room were not attractive, and my mother was not
tactful in acknowledging the evidence of Betsy's
social awkwardness. I had many years in which
to reflect on my mother's harshness. Even when young
I was aware of a desire to depart from this, to be
less brittle, less proud, less conformist
than my mother. Now I see that I have not quite
managed it. My only victory is that the
harshness has been internalized. My judgements
even now are sometimes less than charitable.

There was another reason for my mother's dislike, and
that had to do with the cause of Betsy's profound
disenfranchisement. Her father's negligence, or
incompetence, had led indirectly to the death of one
of his patients, who happened to be an
acquaintance of ours. Pity and dislike, first
manifested by my mother, affected Betsy even more
than her father's disgrace, which she inherited. It
seemed ordained to follow her through life, for there was
nothing she could do to rectify it. His error was,
I dare say, a common one: a lump in the breast
which he assured his patient was a cyst revealed its
malignancy in due course and led not only to that
patient's demise but to his own, after a year of
brooding and of unpopular comment in the
neighbourhood. I met him once, when I went
home with Betsy, the only time I did so; he
entered what I suppose had once been her
nursery, where we were discussing our homework,
turned off the electric fire and opened the
window. I found this insensitive, though it may have
been protective, but there was little in his demeanour
which struck me as kindly. I thought him completely
inadequate to fulfil the role of father, but I
think he was simply indifferent to children. His better
manners were reserved for his patients, in particular
for his female patients. Maybe a desire
to reassure, or even to comfort, came uppermost in
his professional armoury. There was no whisper of
impropriety, or none that I was aware of. His
greater failure was his dwindling reputation in the
year that followed our friend's death, and his own death,
from a heart attack, while sitting at his desk
in his consulting-room, an irony he was spared.
Irony was not a quality much appreciated in the
1950's. Now of course it is
all-pervasive.

Sympathy was expressed, condolences were offered,
and then the incident was forgotten, though not the fate
of the patient. It was thought fitting that he should
disappear, and that Betsy should be consigned to her
aunt. This aunt

Mary to her niece, Miss
Milsom to everyone else

was even less
promising than her brother-in-law. Tall,
thin, colourless, and obviously virginal, she
inspired a vague repugnance even in those
unliberated days.

Poor thing,

said my mother,
with a rich show of sympathy, but here again her dislike,
or more probably her distaste, was evident, perhaps
justifiably so. Miss Milsom had come
to keep house after her sister's death, shortly after
the birth of Betsy, and she did so in a
conscientious but defeated manner, so that it took
her all day to prepare a meal which was no doubt
unpalatable. After commiserating with Miss
Milsom, or more probably for Miss
Milsom, my mother would laugh, showing all her
sparkling teeth, as if to demonstrate the difference
between Miss Milsom and herself.

Nowadays, of course, we would assume that
Miss Milsom and the doctor indulged in sex
of a sort, but then we assumed no such thing. Those
were innocent days; sex had yet to become the
commodity on offer to all that it is now. By the same
token there was little show of love between the aunt
and the niece, neither of whom had been able to envisage
an alternative to their present arrangement, but
they were both loyal and obedient people, and they sustained
an undemanding harmony, which, though honourable,
provided little joy. Betsy proved to be a
clever girl, who was obliged to keep her cleverness
to herself, except at school, where she developed
a passion for the drama, and was given to declaiming
lines from Shakespeare and even Racine (we were
doing Hamlet and
Bérénice
); it was her
one opportunity to deliver herself of aspiration (and
it was aspiration rather than frustration) and to make
contact with adult emotion.

The solution Betsy and her aunt made to their
mutual lack of comprehension was their weekly
visit to the cinema, usually on a Saturday
evening, when they enjoyed a timid contact with the
crowd. An early supper, the cinema, and a cup
of tea on their return to the flat satisfied
Miss Milsom's sense of a justified
indulgence, both for herself and for her niece. She
viewed the films as an outsider: not for her the
extravagance, the licence, the romance. Even so,
something in her disciplined soul responded, whereas
Betsy remained faithful to the grander concepts in
her favourite Racine.

Que le jour
recommence, et que le jour finisse ar
Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir
Bérénice
...

These lines became
prophetic, so that at the very end, when I visited
her in the hospital, I would see her eyes
widen in her thin face, and hear her murmur,

... sans que de tout le jour
...,

and then fall silent.

However, she naturally gave no sign of this
when we were children, even adolescents. She was a
pretty girl, though there was no one to tell her
so. Our friendship in those early days was largely a
matter of propinquity, and that only at school.
My mother discouraged it.

Can't you find someone more
suitable?

she would say, meaning someone richer, more
fortunate, more useful. She envisaged a life for
me exactly like her own, marriage to a
professional man, a comfortable establishment,
licensed idleness, licensed amusements.
Betsy's general lack of all these prospects
ruled her out of what my mother, even in those days,
thought of as an appropriate social circle.
And she had noted, and condemned, Betsy's ardour
when she came to our house, her slightly
too emphatic good manners. Maybe she had
also noted Betsy's appraising eyes, which had,
for one or two significant moments, been
trained on herself. Brought up in circumstances of
bleak rectitude, Betsy was inclined to view
any departure from that state with something like
surprise. My mother was a frivolous woman but
she had a well-developed sense of
self-preservation; any hint of criticism
offended her. Not that Betsy was critical; she was
too well-mannered for that. But she was wide-eyed,
no doubt with some sort of admiration, at the
display my mother put on for any sort of witness,
even one so very unimportant. I could intuit
exasperation in the way she tapped her cigarette
on the lid of the silver cigarette box before
lighting it with a flourish.

Do you want to show your
friend your room?

she asked, after a brief
silence.

And show her round the garden, why don't
you?

We were dismissed. In the garden Betsy
said,

Your mother's very beautiful, isn't she?

I saved this up to tell my mother after Betsy had
left, hoping that this would propitiate her. For she
was slightly annoyed; I knew her too well
to miss the signs. And Betsy tended to have that
effect on others, certainly in later life.
Through sheer incomprehension she would fail
to administer the right platitudes. This may have been
a sign of virtue, one she had no doubt
absorbed from her reading of the great dramatists, who
only deal in virtue, and of course its
opposite.

BOOK: The Rules of Engagement
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