The Sweetest Dream, p.1Doris Lessing
With gratitude to my editor at Flamingo, Philip Gwyn Jones, and to my agent Jonathan Clowes, for good advice and criticism, and to Antony Chennells, for help with the Roman Catholic parts of the book.
About the Author
Other Books by Doris Lessing
About the Publisher
I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character. I hope I have managed to recapture the spirit of, particularly, the Sixties, that contradictory time which, looking back and comparing it with what came later, seems surprisingly innocent. There was little of the nastiness of the Seventies, or the cold greed of the Eighties.
Some events described as taking place at the end of the Seventies and early Eighties in fact happened later, by a decade. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament took a stand against the government doing anything at all to protect the population against the results of nuclear attack or accident, even fall-out, though surely protection of its citizens should be any government’s first responsibility. People who believed that the population should be protected were treated as if they were enemies, attacked with verbal abuse, fascists being the least of it, and sometimes physically. Death threats . . . unpleasant substances pushed through letterboxes–the whole gamut of mob abuse. There has never been a more hysterical, noisy and irrational campaign. Students of the dynamics of mass movements will find it all in the newspaper archives, and I have had letters from them on the lines of, ‘But that was crazy. Just what was it all about?’
‘And people leave who were warm children.’
AN EARLY EVENING in autumn, and the street below was a scene of small yellow lights that suggested intimacy, and people already bundled up for winter. Behind her the room was filling with a chilly dark, but nothing could dismay her: she was floating, as high as a summer cloud, as happy as a child who had just learned to walk. The reason for this uncharacteristic lightness of heart was a telegram from her former husband, Johnny Lennox–Comrade Johnny–three days ago. SIGNED CONTRACT FOR FIDEL FILM ALL ARREARS AND CURRENT PAYMENT TO YOU SUNDAY. Today was Sunday. The ‘all arrears’ had been due, she knew, to something like the fever of elation she was feeling now: there was no question of his paying ‘all’ which by now must amount to so much money she no longer bothered to keep an account. But he surely must be expecting a really big sum to sound so confident. Here a little breeze–apprehension?–did reach her. Confidence was his–no, she must not say stock-in-trade, even if she had often in her life felt that, but could she remember him ever being outfaced by circumstances, even discomfited?
On a desk behind her two letters lay side by side, like a lesson in life’s improbable but so frequent dramatic juxtapositions. One offered her a part in a play. Frances Lennox was a minor, steady, reliable actress, and had never been asked for anything more. This part was in a brilliant new play, a two-hander, and the male part would be taken by Tony Wilde who until now had seemed so far above her she would never have had the ambition to think of her name and his side by side on a poster. And he had asked for her to be offered the part. Two years ago they had been in the same play, she as usual in a serviceable smaller role. At the end of a short run–the play had not been a success–she had heard on the closing night as they tripped back and forth taking curtain calls, ‘Well done, that was very good.’ Smiles from Olympus, she had thought that, while knowing he had shown signs of being interested in her. But now she had been watching herself burst into all kinds of feverish dreams, not exactly taking herself by surprise, since she knew only too well how battened down she was, how well under control was her erotic self, but she could not prevent herself imagining her talent for fun (she supposed she still had it?) even for reckless enjoyment, being given room, while at the same time showing what she could do on the stage, if given a chance. But she would not be earning much money, in a small theatre, with a play that was a gamble. Without that telegram from Johnny she could not have afforded to say yes.
The other letter offered her a niche as Agony Aunt (name still to be chosen) on The Defender, well paid, and safe. This would be a continuation of the other strand of her professional life as a freelance journalist, which is where she earned money.
She had been writing on all kinds of subjects for years. At first she had tried her wings in local papers and broadsheets, any place that would pay her a little money. Then she found she was doing research for serious articles, and they were in the national newspapers. She had a name for solid balanced articles that often shone an unexpected and original light on a current scene.
She would do it well. What else had her experience fitted her for, if not to cast a cool eye on the problems of others? But saying yes to that work would have no pleasure in it, no feeling she would be trying new wings. Rather, she would have to steady her shoulders with the inner stiffening of resolve that is like a suppressed yawn.
How weary she was of all the problems, the bruised souls, the waifs and strays, how delightful it would be to say, ‘Right, you can look after yourselves for a bit, I am going to be in the theatre every evening and most of the day too.’ (Here was another little cold nudge: have you taken leave of your senses? Yes, and she was loving every minute.)
The top of a tree still in its summer leaf, but a bit ragged now, was glistening: light from two storeys up, from the old woman’s rooms, had snatched it from dark into lively movement, almost green: colour was implied. Julia was in, then. Readmitting her mother-in-law–her ex-mother-in-law–to her mind brought a familiar apprehension, because of the weight of disapproval sifting down through the house to reach her, but there was something else she had only recently become aware of. Julia had had to go to hospital, could have died, and Frances had to acknowledge at last how much she relied on her. Suppose there was no Julia, what would she do, what would they all do?
Meanwhile, everyone referred to her as the old woman, she too until recently. Not Andrew, though. And she had noticed that Colin had begun to call her Julia. The three rooms above hers, over where she stood now, below Julia’s, were inhabited by Andrew the elder son, and Colin the younger, her and Johnny Lennox’s sons.
She had three rooms, bedroom and study and another, always needed for someone staying the night, and she had heard Rose Trimble say, ‘What does she need three rooms for, she’s just selfish.’
No one said, Why does Julia need four rooms? The house was hers. This rackety over-full house, people coming and going, sleeping on floors, bringing friends whose names she often did not know, had at its top an alien zone, which was all order, where the air seemed gently mauve, scented with violets, with cupboards holding decades-old hats that had veils and rhinestones and flowers, and suits of a cut and material not to be bought anywhere now. Julia Lennox descended the stairs, walked down the street, her back straight, her hands in gloves–there were drawers of them–wore perfect shoes, hats, coats, in violet or grey or mauve, and around her was an aura of flower essences. ‘Where does she get those clothes?’ Rose had demanded before she had taken in that truth from the past, that clothes could be kept for years, and not discarded a week after buying them.
Below Frances’s slice of the house was a sitting-room that went from back to front of the house, and there, usually on a huge red sofa, took plac
The room was not used enough to justify taking such a big slice out of the centre of the house. The life of the house went on in the kitchen. Only if there was a party did this room come into its own, but parties were few because the youngsters went to discos and pop concerts; though it seemed hard for them to tear themselves away from the kitchen, and from a very large table that Julia had once used, one leaf folded down, for dinner parties when she had ‘entertained’. As she put it.
Now the table was always at full stretch with sometimes sixteen or twenty chairs and stools around it.
The basement flat was large and often Frances did not know who was camping out there. Sleeping bags and duvets littered the floor like detritus after a storm. She felt like a spy going down there. Apart from insisting they kept it clean and tidy–they were taken by occasional fits of ‘tidying up’ which it was hard to see made much difference–she did not interfere. Julia had no such inhibitions, and would descend the little stairs and stand surveying the scene of sleepers, sometimes still in their beds at midday or later, the dirty cups on the floors, the piles of records, the radios, clothes lying about in tangles, and then turn herself around slowly, a severe figure in spite of the little veils and gloves that might have a rose pinned at a wrist, and, having seen from the rigidity of a back, or a nervously raised head that her presence had been noted, she would go slowly up the stairs, leaving behind her on the stale air the odours of flowers and expensive face powder.
Frances leaned out of the window to see if light was spilling down the steps from the kitchen: yes, they were all there then, and waiting for supper. Who, tonight? She would soon find out. At that moment Johnny’s little Beetle appeared from around the corner, parked itself neatly, and out stepped Johnny. And, at once, three days of foolish dreams dissolved, while she thought, I’ve been mad, I’ve been crazy. What made me imagine anything was going to change? If there was in fact a film, then there wouldn’t be any money for her and the boys, as usual . . . but he had said the contract was signed?
In the time it took her to walk slowly, stopping at the desk to look at the two fateful letters, reaching the door, still taking her time, beginning to descend the stairs, it was as if the last three days had not happened. She was not going to be in the play, not enjoy the dangerous intimacy of the theatre with Tony Wilde, and she was pretty sure that tomorrow she would write to The Defender and accept their job.
Slowly, collecting herself, down the stairs, and then, smiling, she stood in the open door of the kitchen. Against the window, standing with his arms spread to take his weight on the sill, stood Johnny, all bravado and–though he was not aware of that–apology. Around the table sat an assortment of youngsters, and Andrew and Colin were both there. All were looking towards Johnny, who had been holding forth about something, and all admiringly, except for his sons. They smiled, like the others, but the smiles were anxious. They, like herself, knew that the money promised for today had vanished into the land of dreams. (Why on earth had she told them? Surely she knew better!) It had all happened before. And they knew, like her, that he had come here now, when the kitchen would be full of young people, so he could not be greeted by rage, tears, reproaches–but that was the past, long ago.
Johnny spread out his arms, palms towards her, smiling painfully, and said, ‘The film’s off . . . the CIA . . .’ At her look he desisted, and was silent, looking nervously at his two boys.
‘Don’t bother,’ said Frances. ‘I really didn’t expect anything else.’ At which the boys turned their eyes to her; their concern for her made her even more self-reproachful.
She stood by the oven where various dishes were shortly to reach their moments of truth. Johnny, as if her back absolved him, began an old speech about the CIA whose machinations this time had been responsible for the film falling through.
Colin, needing some sort of anchor of fact, interrupted to ask, ‘But, Dad, I thought the contract . . .’
Johnny said quickly, ‘Too many hassles. You wouldn’t understand . . . what the CIA wants, the CIA gets.’
A cautious glance over her shoulder showed Colin’s face a knot of anger, bewilderment, resentment. Andrew, as always, seemed insouciant, even amused, though she knew how very far he was from that. This scene or something like it had been repeated throughout their childhoods.
• • •
In the year the war began, 1939, two youngsters, hopeful and ignorant–like those around the table tonight–had fallen in love, like millions of others in the warring countries, and put their arms around each other for comfort in the cruel world. But there was excitement in it too, war’s most dangerous symptom. Johnny Lennox introduced her to the Young Communist League just as he was leaving it to be a grown-up, if not yet a soldier. He was a bit of a star, Comrade Johnny, and needed her to know it. She had sat in the back rows of crowded halls to hear him explain that it was an imperialist war, and the progressive and democratic forces should boycott it. Soon, however, he was in uniform and in the same halls, to the same audiences, exhorting them to do their bit, for now it was a war against fascism, because the attack by the Germans on the Soviet Union had made it so. There were barrackers and protesters, as well as the faithful; there were boos and loud raucous laughter. Johnny was mocked for standing up there tranquilly explaining the new Party Line just as if he had not been saying the exact opposite until recently. Frances was impressed by his calm; accepting–even provoking–hostility by his pose, arms out, palms forward, suffering for the hard necessities of the times. He was in the RAF uniform. He had wanted to be a pilot, but his eyes were not up to it, so he was a corporal, having refused on ideological grounds to be an officer. He would be in administration.
So that had been Frances’s introduction to politics, or rather, to Johnny’s politics. Something of an achievement, perhaps, to be young in the late Thirties and to care nothing about politics, but so it was. She was a solicitor’s daughter from Kent. The theatre had been her window into glamour, adventure, the great world, first in school plays, then in amateur dramatics. She had always played leading roles, but was typecast for her English-rose looks. But now she was in uniform too, one of the young women attached to the War Ministry, mostly driving senior officers around. Attractive young women in uniform in her kind of job had a good time, though this aspect of war tends to be played down from tact, and perhaps even shame, towards the dead. She danced a good deal, she dined, she mildly lost her heart to glamorous Frenchmen, Poles, Americans, but did not forget Johnny, or their anguished passionate nights of love and that rehearsed their later longing for each other.
Meanwhile he was in Canada attending to the RAF fliers being trained there. By now he was an officer, and doing well, as his letters made clear; then he came home, an aide to some bigwig, and he was a captain. He was so handsome in his uniform, and she so attractive in hers. In that week they married and Andrew was conceived, and that was the end of her good times, because she was in a room with a baby and was lonely, and frightened, because of the bombing. She had acquired a mother-in-law, the fearsome Julia, who, looking like a society lady in a nineteen-thirties fashion magazine, descended from her house in Hampstead–this house–to show shock at what Frances was living in, and to offer her space in her house. Frances refused. She may not have been political, but with every fibre she shared her generation’s fervent desire for independence. When she left her home, it was for a furnished room. And now, having been reduced to little more than Johnny’s wife and a baby’s mother, she was independent, and could define herself with that thought, holding on to it. Not much, but her own.
And the days and nights dragged by, and she was as far from the glamorous life she had been enjoying as if she had never left her parents’ home in Kent. The last two years of the war were hard, poor, frightening. The food was bad. Bo
Johnny had done well in the war, and had been noticed. No one could say he wasn’t clever and quick, and his politics were unremarkable for that time. He was offered good jobs in the London reshaping itself after the war. He refused them. He wasn’t going to be bought by the capitalist system: not by an iota had he changed his mind, his faith. Comrade Johnny Lennox, back in civvies, was preoccupied only by The Revolution.
Colin was born in 1945. Two small children, in a wretched flat in Notting Hill, then a run-down and poor part of London. Johnny was not often at home. He was working for the Party. By now it is necessary to explain that by the Party was meant the Communist Party, and what was meant to be heard was THE PARTY. When two strangers met it might go like this: ‘Are you in the Party too?’ ‘Yes, of course.’ I thought you must be.’ Meaning: You are a good person, I like you, and so you must, like me, be in the Party.
Frances did not join the Party, though Johnny told her to. It was bad for him, he said, to have a wife who would not join.
‘But who would know?’ enquired Frances, adding to his contempt for her, because she had no feeling for politics and never would.
‘The Party knows,’ said Johnny.
‘Too bad,’ said Frances.
They were definitely not getting on, and the Party was the least of it, though a great irritation for Frances. They were living in real hardship, not to say squalor. He saw this as a sign of inner grace. Returning from a weekend seminar, ‘Johnny Lennox on the Threat of American Aggression’, he would find her hanging up the children’s clothes to dry on rickety arrangements of pulleys and racks screwed precariously to the wall outside the kitchen window, or returning, one child dragging on her hand, the other in a pushchair, from the park. The well of the chair would be full of groceries, and tucked behind the child was a book she had been hoping to read while the children played. ‘You are a real working woman, Fran,’ he would compliment her.
The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes