A Proper Marriage, p.1Doris Lessing
of the ‘Children of Violence’ Series
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ALSO BY DORIS LESSING
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‘You shouldn’t make jokes,’ Alice said, ‘if it makes you so unhappy.’
It was half past four in the afternoon.
Two young women were loitering down the pavement in the shade of the sunblinds that screened the shop windows. The grey canvas of the blinds was thick, yet the sun, apparently checked, filled the long arcade with a yellow glare. It was impossible to look outwards towards the sun-filled street, and unpleasant to look in towards the mingling reflections in the window glass. They walked, therefore, with lowered gaze as if concerned about their feet. Their faces were strained and tired. One was talking indefatigably, the other unresponsive, and – it was clear – not so much from listlessness as from a stubborn opposition. There was something about the couple which suggested guardian and ward.
At last one exclaimed, with irritated cheerfulness, ‘Matty, if you don’t get a move on, we’ll be late for the doctor.’
‘But, Stella, you’ve just said we had half an hour to fill in,’ said Martha as promptly as if she had been waiting for just this point of fact to arise, so that she might argue it out to its conclusions. Stella glanced sharply at her, but before she could speak Martha continued, deepening the humorous protest, because the resentment was so strong, ‘It was you who seemed to think I couldn’t get through another day of married life without seeing the doctor, not me. Why you had to fix an appointment for this afternoon I can’t think.’ She laughed, to soften the complaint.
‘It’s not easy to get an appointment right away with Dr Stern. You’re lucky I could arrange it for you.’
But Martha refused to be grateful. She raised her eyebrows, appeared about to argue – and shrugged irritably.
Stella gave Martha another sharp look, tightened her lips with calculated forbearance, then exclaimed, ‘That’s a pretty dress there. We might as well window-shop, to fill in the time.’ She went to the window; Martha lagged behind.
Stella tried to arrange herself in a position where she might see through the glass surface of reflections: a stretch of yellow-grained canvas, a grey pillar, swimming patches of breaking colour that followed each other across the window after the passers-by. The dresses displayed inside, however, remained invisible, and Stella fell to enjoying her own reflection. At once her look of shrewd good nature vanished. Her image confronted her as a dark beauty, slenderly round, immobilized by a voluptuous hauteur. Complete. Or, at least, complete until the arrival of the sexual partner her attitude implied; when she would turn on him slow, waking eyes, appear indignant, and walk away - not without throwing him a long, ambiguous look over her shoulder. From Stella one expected these pure unmixed responses. But from her own image she had glanced towards Martha’s; at once she became animated by a reformer’s zeal.
From the glass Martha was looking back anxiously, as if she did not like what she saw but was determined to face it honestly. Planted on sturdy brown legs was a plump schoolgirl’s body. Heavy masses of lightish hair surrounded a broad pale face. The dark eyes were stubbornly worried, the mouth set.
‘What I can’t understand,’ said Martha, with that defensive humour which meant she was prepared to criticize herself, even accept criticism from others, provided it was not followed by advice - ‘what I can’t understand is why I’m thin as a bone one month and as fat as a pig the next. You say you’ve got dresses you wore when you were sixteen. Well, this is the last of mine I can get on.’ She laughed unhappily, trying to smooth down crumpled blue linen over her hips.
‘The trouble with you is you’re tired,’ announced Stella. ‘After all, we’ve none of us slept for weeks,’ This sophisticated achievement put new vigour into her. She turned on Martha with determination. ‘You should take yourself in hand, that’s all it is. That hair style doesn’t suit you - if you can call it a hair style. If you had it cut properly, it might curl. Have you ever had it cut properly–?’
‘But Stella,’ Martha broke in, with a wail of laughter, ‘it needs washing, it’s untidy, it’s …’
She clutched her hair with both hands and moved back a step as Stella moved to lay her hands on it in order to show how it should be arranged. So violent and desperate was her defence that Stella stopped, and exclaimed with an exasperated laugh, ‘Well, if you don’t want me to show you!’
In Martha’s mind was the picture of how she had indubitably been, not more than three months ago, that picture which had been described, not only by herself but by others, as a slim blonde. Looking incredulously towards her reflection, she saw that fat schoolgirl, and shut her eyes in despair. She opened them at once as she felt Stella’s hand on her arm. She shook it off.
‘You must take yourself in hand. I’ll take you to have your hair cut now.’
‘No,’ said Martha vigorously.
Checked, Stella turned back towards her own reflection. And again it arranged itself obediently. Between the languidly enticing beauty who was Stella before her glass and the energetic housewife who longed to take Martha in hand there was no connection; they were not even sisters.
Martha, sardonically watching Stella in her frozen pose, thought that she would not recognize herself if she caught a glimpse of herself walking down a street, or — a phrase which she saw no reason not to use, even to his face – managing her husband.
Stella saw her look, turning abruptly, and said with annoyance that they would go that moment to the hairdresser.
‘There isn’t time,’ appealed Martha desperately.
‘Nonsense,’ said Stella. She took Martha’s hand in her own, and began tugging her along the pavement: an attractive matron whose sensuality of face and body had vanished entirely under the pressure of the greater pleasures of good management.
Martha pulled herself free again, and said, ‘I don’t want to have my hair cut.’ Then, as a final appeal: ‘I’ll miss my appointment with Dr Stern.’
‘You can have an appointment with Dr Stern any time. I can always fix it.’ Stella, preoccupied, frowned at Martha, and commanded, ‘Just wait for me here, I’ll go and tell Mrs Kent you’re a friend of mine, she’ll do it as a favour.’ With this she hastened over the street and vanished into a door under the sign ‘Chez Paris. Coiffeuse’.
Martha remained at the street’s edge, telling herself she would hurry after Stella and put her foot down. A familiar lassitude overcame her, and she remained where she was, wishing that Stella would leave her alone and return to her own life - if she had one at all. But this spiteful final jab was rather as if she were sticking a pin into her own image, for whose fault was it, if not her own, that she had spent most of the last month with Stella, that the four of them had even gone off together on what was virtually a honeymoon for four? ‘After all, I don’t even like her,’ muttered Martha obstinately, thus committing herself to the ac
Feeling her back stung by the sun, she moved into the shade of a pillar to wait. She was looking along the pavement backed by low buildings. Half a mile away, at the end of the street, a glint of waving burnished grass showed the vlei. The urban scene, solid and compact in the main streets, tended to dissolve the moment one moved into the side streets. The small colonial town was at a crossroads in its growth: half a modern city, half a pioneers’ achievement; a large block of flats might stand next to a shanty of wood and corrugated iron, and most streets petered out suddenly in a waste of scrub and grass.
Outside a sprawling shed that was a showroom for agricultural implements lounged a group of farmers in their khaki; past them came a city man in smooth grey flannel. Martha’s eyes followed this man, the only moving object in the heat-stilled street. She was deep in worried introspection. Into this grey lake plopped the thought, I know that man, don’t I? It was enough to restore a little sight to her eyes, and she watched him coming towards her, while with another part of her mind she was thinking, When Stella comes out I shall tell her I won’t have my hair cut - as if this act of defiance would in itself be a protest against her whole situation.
The man was tall, rather heavy; the grey flannel which encased him was like a firm outer skin to his assurance. His large elderly face had the authority of a commanding nose, jowled cheeks, strong hazel eyes deep under thick black brows. It was that English face which, with various small deviations, has been looking down so long from the walls and countless picture galleries of country houses. Handsome it was, but more - every feature, every curve, had an impressive finality, an absolute rightness, as if the atoms which composed it had never had a moment’s hesitation in falling where they did.
Martha thought: here is another person who is complete-finished in his way as Stella is in hers. Whereas she herself was formless, graceless, and unpredictable, a mere lump of clay. She rejected even the sight of him, and returned to her own preoccupations.
Mr Maynard was also preoccupied, whether pleasantly or not could be deduced only by a certain sarcastic twist of the lips. He noticed a girl standing listlessly by a pillar, and was about to walk past her, when he slowed his pace: he ought to know her. Then he remembered that less than a week before he had married her to her husband. She was looking through him; and at once he was annoyed that she should not remember such an important figure at what was surely an important occasion. This annoyance was succeeded by a more sincere pressure: she, if anyone could, would be able to tell him where his son Binkie was.
He stood firmly before her, blocking her preoccupied stare, and said, ‘Good afternoon, Mrs Knowell.’
Martha glanced hastily sideways to see whom he was addressing, then blushed. She looked closely at him, and then exclaimed, ‘Oh - Mr Maynard!’
‘And how,’ inquired Mr Maynard, cutting short this mutual embarrassment, ‘do you find the married state?’
She considered this seriously, then said, ‘Well, I’ve only been married five days.’
‘A very sensible attitude.’
She looked at him and waited. He was struck by her tiredness, and the unhappy set of her mouth. That critical look, however, checked in him the instinct to instruct. He was not a magistrate and the descendant of magistrates and landowners for nothing. He found himself searching for the right tone.
She saved him the trouble by asking, ‘Has Binkie come home yet?’
‘I thought you would be able to tell me.’
‘The last we saw of him was when he left the Falls at two last night. He said he was going to swim across the Falls if it was the last thing he did. It probably would be, too,’ she added dispassionately.
Mr Maynard winced. ‘He was drunk, I suppose?’
‘Not drunk.’ This, it seemed, she found crude. But she added, ‘No more than usual.’
Mr Maynard looked sharply at her, saw this was not criticism but information willingly given, and said, ‘I suppose the fact that the river is full of crocodiles wouldn’t deter him?’
‘Oh, I’m sure he wouldn’t really do it,’ she said quickly, on a maternal note. ‘They rushed off in a horde saying they would. Three years ago they say one of them tried to jump across to that little island - you know the one, when the river is low - and he went over the edge. We reminded them about it just as they left. Besides, Binkie’s far too sensible.’
‘Binkie’s sensible?’ exclaimed Mr Maynard, very bitterly.
Martha, feeling that she was included in the bitterness, moved slightly away with ‘Well, I’m not responsible for Binkie.’
He hesitated, then again moved in front of her. ‘Young woman, it would interest me very much to know why you think Binkie is sensible. He drinks like a fish. He never does any work if he can help it. He is continually either giving it a bang or tearing the place to pieces.’ He heavily isolated these last phrases, and handed them to her, as it were, like a challenge.
After a pause for reflection Martha observed, ‘He always knows what he’s doing.’ This comment, it appeared, was enough.
‘You amaze me. You really do amaze me, you know.’ He waited for more.
Martha offered him a sudden friendly smile, and said, ‘I shouldn’t worry. In twenty years’ time he’ll be a magistrate, too, I shouldn’t wonder.’ She laughed, as if this in itself was funny.
‘My youth was not misspent, We neither gave it a bang nor tore the place to pieces.’
Martha’s eyebrows at once went up. ‘Really? I understood that you did - judging from novels, at least. Though of course in England you’d call it something else probably, you people.’
‘Who is “you people”?’ he asked, annoyed.
Martha looked at him as if suspecting a deliberate dishonesty, and then remarked, blushing because she had to put it into words, ‘Why, the upper classes, of course, who else?’
Ironically stiff, he remarked, ‘My son Binkie also uses the phrase “you people” - and in the same way.’
‘For all that, he’ll end up by being a magistrate.’ And Martha laughed with real enjoyment and looked straight at him, expecting him to share it.
He did not laugh. He was hurt. ‘You are exempt from this law?’
The shaft went home at once. She lost her shell of confidence, her face contracted, she looked at him from a haze of anxiety before turning away from him. He had no idea why this should be so.
He was contrite. Then he said apologetically, ‘Well, thank you. I daresay Binkie will turn up at midnight again. I don’t know why he imagines he can miss three days at the office without even ringing up to apologize - his chief rang me this morning.’ He heard his own voice becoming so bitter that he hastened to restore his balance by sarcasm. ‘Don’t imagine I am inquiring on my own account. As far as I am concerned, I decided long ago it would be no loss to society if Binkie did fall prey to the crocodiles. But my wife will have a sick headache until he returns.’
Under the impression that he had ended the interview on a note which must leave him whole in her eyes, he was about to turn away with a ‘Good afternoon’, when he saw her offering him a look of such ironic pity that he stopped.
She smiled and he found himself returning her smile. ‘Well, Mr Maynard,’ she remarked in precisely his own tone of cool self-punishing sarcasm. ‘If Binkie has learned to ignore sick headaches, then it must be because he knows he’d be doing someone out of a pleasure if he did not.’ But this logical sentence crumbled, and she added awkwardly, ‘I mean, everyone knows about sick headaches … Besides - they’re so old-fashioned,’ she went on angrily. And then: ‘Not that everything doesn’t just go on, even when one might think they had no right to exist any longer.’
Instilling gallantry into his voice, and a gleam of ironic complicity into his eyes, he moved nearer and said, ‘You interest me enormously.’
At once she frowned, and even moved away. He dropped the tone; but held it in reserve for a later occasion.
Then he lowered his voice like a conspirator, and inquired expanding his eyes with a look of vast inquiry, ‘Tell me, Mrs Knowell, is it the fashion now for young people to take their honeymoons in crowds? In my young days a honeymoon was an opportunity to be alone.’
‘You know quite well we did our best to get away without Binkie and the gang,’ said Martha resentfully.
‘I was referring to the other couple, the Mathews.’
For a moment it was touch and go whether she would repudiate them; but another loyalty was touched, for she laughed and asserted that they had all had a marvellous time and it was absolutely gorgeous.
Mr Maynard watched her, then raised his heavy brows and said drily, ‘So it would appear.’
He had expected her to succumb in confusion to this pressure; instead she suddenly chuckled, and met his eyes appreciatively. He said quickly, ‘Our generation has not made such a success of things that we can expect you to follow our example.’ This seemed to him the extreme of magnanimity, but she smiled sceptically and said, ‘Thanks.’
There was another pause. Martha was thinking that his eighteenth-century flavour had, after all, its own piquancy - not fifty yards away the farmers still lounged and argued prices and the weather and the labour question, while almost at their elbow arched the great marble doors of the cinema.
A Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes