I found this handwritten manuscript, apparently the author’s only fictional creation, while sorting through my old family papers. * Except by osmosis, I was never privy to the lasting personal trauma it evokes. For me, that itself adds another layer of sadness; I never overcame my teenage alienation from the older generation, unable and perhaps unwilling to identify with their own human conflicts—and indeed it was many years before I became aware that such introspection was even possible. But aside from all that, I greatly admire the literary merit of the story, which speaks to an experience that extends beyond the Brief encounter generation.
She took the box of chocolates from him and glanced wearily at the contents—why bother to choose, she thought. I’m sure to get it wrong. Turkish delight… orange cream… perhaps ginger or brazil nut. What’s the betting I’ll end up with coffee or nougat—and anyway I don’t really know which one I want, or even if I want one at all. She pushed the box away, and her mind wandered back over the years, taking her from the comfortably furnished room, neat, warm, quiet, with its view onto a carefully tended suburban garden, to the shabby cottage where two little girls waited for their daddy to bring the Saturday treat he always collected for them when he went for his evening sports edition. The pools win had never come, but for her the memory of choosing which sweet to take from the penny packet he triumphantly produced was interwoven with the excited checking of football results.
When did I start to make the wrong choice, she wondered. The choice was my own, people didn’t influence me, did they? Did they? Was it not outside conditions, a sequence of events converging on me, forcing me into a narrowing passage where only one choice became possible, and finally became no choice at all? The war influenced so many people in so many ways, but for me the influence was gentle, tucked away as I was in the country, too young to have to leave home, my father in a reserved occupation, far from the bombs that caused such havoc. Oh no, I can’t blame the war. She thought of her dominant mother, who was outwardly kind, so absorbed in her little family, and whose whole life was lived for them, but who nevertheless expected complete obedience, unquestioning acceptance of her way of life. Was it her rule, her permanent ordering of every detail that had made it so difficult for her daughter to accept the responsibility for her own choice in even the smallest matters?
Two sisters, 1935.
At school the range of subjects had been limited by shortage of staff and accommodation caused by the need to share with evacuated schools, so by the time she had realised where her interests were it was too late to change, and the professional training she would have liked had been suspended for the duration of hostilities. She had fallen back on her mother’s choice of career, accepted her ambition for her, but chosen for herself the college in London—in spite of the doodlebugs.
She thought suddenly of the relief of being able to go home to the country from college, and then, for no reason at all, of the young farmer’s son who had been her constant companion. They had been friends, real friends, with an easy give and take, a flow of laughter and understanding, and a joy in the beauty of the countryside around them. His parents’ farmhouse had been welcoming, with a cool, clean atmosphere after the strenuous activities of haymaking in summer, and a friendly glow in winter after attending to the animals. His mother was a homemaker by instinct, not in the self-conscious manner of the modern housewife, and her husband made everyone welcome without looking over his shoulder to see if he was creating the right impression. His family had farmed there for generations; this was where he belonged, and he had no need to consider such things as creating the right image. Theirs was a happy life, and yet when Dan had asked her if she would consider giving up the prospects of the job she was training for and marry him, she had not even thought of it as a choice. She wanted to live in a town with all the excitement of constant entertainment, clever, smart friends and all that the best in the world of culture and arts could offer. Foolish girl that she had been, she had thought then that the big cities held everything the world could give. Foolish, self-pitying old woman that I am now, she thought, at least I know that the heart finds its own happiness regardless of material matters.
I did live in a beautiful city when I set out on my career, and I was so lucky with my work and my colleagues. The creative side of the work satisfied me, and the promise of being useful to others as well as enjoying the necessary routine. Why did I give it up, why did I leave the house where I was living as one of the family, but free to go my own way, why did I abandon my hopes of making my own life as I had planned? My choice again, she thought, to leave so much for so little. I was not swept off my feet by the handsome hero of the story books, I had no illusions about him; I expected no treats or surprises. Oh yes, I was flattered by his attentions, the promise of his devotion, and I made my own decision.
“Another chocolate, dear?” “No thankyou”. He didn’t even notice that she hadn’t taken one before—perhaps he no longer cared any more than she did. Was he too, perhaps, thinking back over the choices in his all to predictable life? The limited finance of the early years when he had chosen to buy a house that would be in the “right” area for one in his position, the child he had never wanted although they had decided together that the time had come when they could afford to start a family. Now that had been a wrong choice. Before that, she had been young enough to make a new life of her own without him, without a child to consider, and still able to make use of her training and experience. Did he remember that as a turning point too, one which had kept him in his dull job, paying the bills, gardening, decorating, listening to her nagging, the child’s grizzling—and for what? She remembered the years of shared misery, the endless arguments, the countless times when she had chosen to stay on, but in reality she had not had the guts to stand up to the recriminations of both families, to his concern about what people would think, how it would affect his career.
Perhaps just once she had rejected the choice to return to living in the country. Had it really been a choice? During one of her husband’s business trips she had taken her son back to the countryside of her youth, and seen again through his eyes the beauty of her native county. A picnic on the farm where she had so often ridden home with the harvest was a must, and it seemed natural that Dan would still be there, natural that she should show the boy the ducks, take him to the milling shed, lift him onto the back of the old horse, now out to grass, who had pulled so many hay carts. They had slipped so easily into their old friendly ways, and he had taken her hand gently, sensing her unhappiness, and said, “I’m still here if you want me, my lovely”.
Her husband was dozing now, and she looked across at him, tired, grey, lined, but still with the determination that was his hallmark. They were alone now; their son had done well, with his degree which had led to a successful career. But they rarely saw him, and when he did visit he was always in a hurry. She looked round the room and thought of the house they were in now. She had intended to leave when her son left, go her own way, at last be free to live her own life, independent of parents, husband, child, forget the bad times and make the most of what was left. But he had had a trick up his sleeve. Did he tempt her with that offer of a fresh start, the move to a new house? Did he really want to please her, make her happy, share with her the fruits of his dreary years? She looked at the room now, gleaming in the lamplight, carefully chosen by him, put together with patience, every detail meticulously stage-managed, taken out of her hands, and ending up like the magazine impression of an “Ideal Home”. The kitchen should be the heart of the home, like the farmhouse kitchen of long ago, but how easily hers had become not the heart but the powerhouse, full of all the latest and smartest equipment, an impressive showpiece.
Now she no longer had any real choice in anything that mattered, no choice whatsoever. Here in this lovely house, which could have been a bribe, in the suburbia to which she had never truly belonged, which had rendered her incapable of belonging to the countryside where her roots lay. “It hasn’t all been bad,” she thought, “there have been happy times, and I have much to be thankful for.” She looked at the helpless figure in the wheelchair, caught his glance as he awoke searching for her presence; shared with him the resignation to the crippling illness which two years ago had trapped him but would not give him a swift or easy release. No choice, she thought as she smiled at him and reached for a chocolate.
MM, 23rd March 1980.
* For more family vignettes, see A modest literary pedigree, Wisdom of the elders, and From the archives.
One thought on “A short story”
This is a compelling tale, fraught with the sorrow and yearnings of a frustrated life. I wonder how many women, caught in a trap of suburban ‘ideal homes’, must have felt like this. I admire you for posting your mother’s story, Steve. It takes years for many of us to achieve empathy with our parents, even to acknowledge them as full human beings. This now strikes me as a terrible thing. Perhaps we were unduly influenced by the ‘youth culture’ that dominated our early lives, persuading us that we were different, that we understood things better, that we were more sensitive and intelligent than the previous generation.What fools we were!…. Anyway, thanks, Steve: how vivid the writing is, how economical, and how powerfully it makes us feel the writer’s pain – and courage in dealing with it.
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