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The grandmothers, p.1
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       The Grandmothers, p.1

           Doris Lessing
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The Grandmothers


  The Grandmothers

  Victoria and the Staveneys

  The Reason For It

  A Love Child



  Title Page





  About the author


  By the same author

  Read On

  The Grass is Singing

  The Golden Notebook

  The Good Terrorist

  Love, Again

  The Fifth Child


  About the Publisher


  On either side of a little promontory loaded with cafés and restaurants was a frisky but decorous sea, nothing like the real ocean that roared and rumbled outside the gape of the enclosing bay and barrier rocks known by everyone – and it was even on the charts – as Baxter’s Teeth. Who was Baxter? A good question, often asked, and answered by a framed sheet of skilfully antiqued paper on the wall of the restaurant at the end of the promontory, the one in the best, highest and most prestigious position. Baxter’s, it was called, claiming that the inner room of thin brick and reed had been Bill Baxter’s shack, built by his own hands. He had been a restless voyager, a seaman who had chanced on this paradise of a bay with its little tongue of rocky land. Earlier versions of the tale hinted at pacific and welcoming natives. Where did the Teeth come into it? Baxter remained an inveterate explorer of nearby shores and islands, and then, having entrusted himself to a little leaf of a boat built out of driftwood and expertise, he was wrecked one moony night on those seven black rocks, well within the sight of his little house where a storm lantern, as reliable as a lighthouse, welcomed in ships small enough to get into the bay, having negotiated the reef.

  Baxter’s was now well planted with big trees that sheltered tables and attendant chairs, and on three sides below was the friendly sea.

  A path wandered up through shrubs, coming to a stop in Baxter’s Gardens, and one afternoon six people were making the gentle ascent, four adults and two little girls, whose shrieks of pleasure echoed the noises of the gulls.

  Two handsome men came first, not young, but only malice could call them middle-aged. One limped. Then two as handsome women of about sixty – but no one would dream of calling them elderly. At a table evidently well-known to them, they deposited bags and wraps and toys, sleek and shining people, as they are who know how to use the sun. They arranged themselves, the women’s brown and silky legs ending in negligent sandals, their competent hands temporarily at rest. Women on one side, men on the other, the little girls fidgeting: six fair heads? Surely they were related? Those had to be the mothers of the men; they had to be their sons. The little girls, clamouring for the beach, which was down a rocky path, were told by their grandmothers, and then their fathers, to behave and play nicely. They squatted and made patterns with fingers and little sticks in the dust. Pretty little girls: so they should be with such good-looking progenitors.

  From a window of Baxter’s a girl called to them, ‘The usual? Shall I bring your usual?’ One of the women waved to her, meaning yes. Soon appeared a tray where fresh fruit juices and wholemeal sandwiches asserted that these were people careful of their health.

  Theresa, who had just taken her school-leaving exams, was on her year away from England, where she would be returning to university. This information had been offered months ago, and in return she was kept up to date with the progress of the little girls at their first school. Now she enquired how school was going along, and first one child and then the other piped up to say their school was cool. The pretty waitress ran back to her station inside Baxter’s with a smile at the two men which made the women smile at each other and then at their sons, one of whom, Tom, remarked, ‘But she’ll never make it back to Britain, all the boys are after her to stay.’

  ‘More fool her if she marries and throws all that away,’ said one of the women, Roz – in fact Rozeanne, the mother of Tom. But the other woman, Lil (or Liliane), the mother of Ian, said, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ and she was smiling at Tom. This concession, or compliment, to their, after all, claim to existence, made the men nod to each other, lips compressed, humorously, as at an often-heard exchange, or one like it.

  ‘Well,’ said Roz, ‘I don’t care, nineteen is too young.’

  ‘But who knows how it might turn out?’ enquired Lil, and blushed. Feeling her face hot she made a little grimace, which had the effect of making her seem naughty, or daring, and this was so far from her character that the others exchanged looks not to be explained so easily.

  They all sighed, heard each other and now laughed, a full frank laugh that seemed to acknowledge things unsaid. One little girl, Shirley, said, ‘What are you laughing at?’ and the other, Alice, ‘What’s so funny? I don’t see anything funny,’ and copied her grandmother’s look of conscious naughtiness, which in fact had not been intended. Lil was uncomfortable and blushed again.

  Shirley persisted, wanting attention, ‘What’s the joke, Daddy?’ and at this both daddies began a tussling and buffeting of their daughters, while the girls protested, and ducked, but came back for more, and then fled to their grandmothers’ arms and laps for protection. There they stayed, thumbs in their mouths, eyes drooping, yawning. It was a hot afternoon.

  A scene of somnolence and satisfaction. At tables all around under the great trees similarly blessed people lazed. The seas all around them, only a few feet below, sighed and hissed and lapped, and the voices were low and lazy.

  From the window of Baxter’s Theresa stood with a tray of cool drinks momentarily suspended and looked out at the family. Tears slid down her cheeks. She had been in love with Tom and then Ian, and then Tom again, for their looks and their ease, and something, an air of repletion, as if they had been soaking in pleasure all their lives and now gave it out in the form of invisible waves of contentment.

  And then the way they handled the little girls, the ease and competence of that. And the way the grandmothers were always available, making the four the six … but where were the mothers, children had mothers, and these two little girls had Hannah and Mary, both startlingly unlike the blonde family they had married into, being small and dark, and, while pretty enough, Theresa knew neither of them was good enough for the men. They worked. They owned a business. That is why the grandmothers were so often here. Didn’t the grandmothers work, then? Yes, they did but were free to say, ‘Let’s go to Baxter’s’ – and up here to Baxters they came. The mothers too, sometimes, and there were eight.

  Theresa was in love with them all. She had at last understood it. The men, yes, her heart ached for them, but not too severely. What made the tears come was seeing them all there, watching them, as she did now. Behind her, at a table near the bar, was Derek, a young farmer who had wished to marry her. She didn’t mind him, rather fancied him, but she knew that this, the family, was the real passion.

  Over deep layers of tree shadow lanced with sunlight, sun enclosed the tree, the hot blue air, interfused with bliss, happiness, seemed about to exude great drops of something like a golden dew, which only she could see. It was at that moment she decided she would marry her farmer and stay here, on this continent. She could not leave it for the fitful charms of England, of Bradford, though the moors did well enough, when the sun did decide to shine. No, she would stay here, she had to. ‘I want it, I want it,’ she told herself, allowing the tears at last to run freely. She wanted this physical ease, the calm of it, expressing itself in lazy movements, in long brown legs and arms, and the glint of gold on fair heads where the sun had been.

  Just as she claim
ed her future, she saw one of the mothers coming up the path. Mary – yes, it was. A little dark fidget of a woman, with nothing in her of the poise and style of The Family.

  She was coming up slowly. She stopped, stared, went on, stopped, and she was moving with a deliberation that was willed.

  ‘Well, what’s got into her, I wonder?’ mused Theresa, at last leaving her window to take the tray to by now surely impatient customers. Mary Struthers was hardly moving at all. She stood staring at her family, frowning. Roz Struthers saw her and waved, and then again, and while her hand slowly lowered itself, as if caution had made an announcement, her face was already beginning to lose its gloss and glow. She was looking, but as it were indirectly, at her daughter-in-law, and because of what her face was saying, her son Tom turned to look, then wave. Ian, too, waved. Both men’s hands fell, as Roz’s had done; there was fatality in it.

  Mary had stopped. Near her was a table and she collapsed into a chair. Still she stared at Lil, and then at Tom, her husband. From one face to the other those narrowed accusing eyes moved. Eyes that searched for something. In her hand was a packet. Letters. She sat perhaps ten feet away, staring.

  Theresa, having dealt with her other tables, was in her window again, and she was thinking accusing thoughts about Mary, this wife of a son, and she knew it was jealousy. She defended herself thus: But if she was good enough for them, I wouldn’t mind her. She’s just nothing compared to them.

  Only the eye of jealousy could have dismissed Mary, who was a striking, attractive, dark young woman. She wasn’t pretty now; her face was small and putty-coloured and her lips were thin. Theresa saw the bundle of letters. She saw the four people at the table. As if they were playing statues, she thought. Light was draining away from them. The splendid afternoon might be brazening it all out but they sat struck, motionless. And still Mary stared, now at Lil, or Liliane, now at Roz or Rozeanne; from them to Tom, and to Ian, and then around again, and again.

  From an impulse Theresa did not recognise in herself she poured water from the jug in the fridge into a glass, and ran across with it to Mary. Mary did turn her head slowly to frown into Theresa’s face, but did not take the glass. Theresa set it down. Then Mary was attracted by the glitter of the water, reached out her hand for the glass, but withdrew it: her hand was shaking too hard to hold a glass.

  Theresa went back to her window. The afternoon had gone dark for her. She was trembling too. What was the matter? What was wrong? Something was horribly, fatally wrong.

  At last Mary got up, with difficulty, made the distance to the table where her family sat, and let herself subside into a chair that was away from them: she was not part of them.

  Now the four were taking in that bundle of letters in Mary’s hand.

  They sat quite still, looking at Mary. Waiting.

  It was for her to speak. But did she need to? Her lips trembled, she trembled, she appeared to be on the verge of a faint, and those young clear accusing eyes moved still from one face to another. Tom. Lil. Roz. Ian. Her mouth was twisted, as if she had bitten into something sour.

  ‘What’s wrong with them, what’s wrong?’ thought Theresa, staring from her window, and whereas not an hour ago she had decided she could never leave this coast, this scene of pleasantness and plenitude, now she thought, I must get away. I’ll tell Derek, no. I want to get out.

  Alice, the child on Roz’s lap, woke with a cry, saw her mother there, ‘Mummy, Mummy,’ – and held out her arms. Mary managed to get up, steadied herself around the table on the backs of chairs, and took Alice.

  Now it was the other little girl, waking on Lil’s lap. ‘Where’s my mummy?’

  Mary held out her hand for Shirley and in a moment both children were on her knees.

  The little girls felt Mary’s panic, her anger, sensed some kind of fatality, and now tried to get back to their grandmothers. ‘Granny, Granny,’ ‘I want granny.’

  Mary gripped them both tight.

  On Roz’s face was a small bitter smile, as if she exchanged confirmation of some bad news with someone deep inside herself.

  ‘Granny, are you coming to fetch me tomorrow for the beach?’

  And Alice, ‘Granny, you promised we would go to the beach.’

  And now Mary spoke at last, her voice shaking. All she said was, ‘No, you will not be going to the beach.’ And, direct to the older women, ‘You will not be taking Shirley and Alice to the beach.’ That was the judgement and the sentence.

  Lil said tentatively, even humbly, ‘I’ll see you soon, Alice.’

  ‘No you won’t,’ said Mary. She stood up, a child on either hand, the bundle of letters thrust into the pocket of her slacks. ‘No,’ she said wildly, the emotion that had been poisoning her at last pulsing out. ‘No. No, you won’t. Not ever. You will not ever see them again.’

  She turned to go, pulling the children with her.

  Her husband Tom said, ‘Wait a minute, Mary.’

  ‘No.’ Off she went down the path, as fast as she could, stumbling and pulling the children along.

  And now surely these four remaining, the women and their sons, should say something, elucidate, make things clear? Not a word. Pinched, diminished, darkened, they sat on, and then at last one spoke. It was Ian who spoke, direct to Roz, in a passionate intimacy, wild-eyed, his lips stiff and angry.

  ‘It’s your fault,’ he said. ‘Yes, it’s your fault. I told you. It’s all your fault this has happened.’

  Roz met his anger with her own. She laughed. A hard angry bitter laugh, peal after peal. ‘My fault,’ she said. ‘Of course. Who else?’ And she laughed. It would have done well on the stage, that laugh, but tears poured down her face.

  Out of sight down the path, Mary had reached Hannah, the wife of Ian, who had been unable to face the guilty ones, at least not with Mary, whose rage she could not match. She had let Mary go up by herself and she waited here, full of doubt, misery and reproaches that were beginning to bubble up wanting to overflow. But not in anger, no, she needed explanations. She took Shirley from Mary, and the two young women, their children in their arms, stood together on the path, just outside a plumbago hedge that was the boundary for another cafe. They did not speak, but looked into each other’s faces, Hannah seeking confirmation, which she got. ‘It’s true, Hannah.’

  And now, the laughter. Roz was laughing. The peals of hard laughter, triumphant laughter, was what Mary and Hannah heard, each harsh loud peal lashed them, they shrank away from the cruel sounds. They trembled as the whips of laughter fell.

  ‘Evil,’ Mary pronounced at last, through lips that seemed to have become dough or clay. And as Roz’s final yells of laughter reached them, the two young women burst into tears and went running away down the path, away from their husbands, and their husbands’ mothers.

  Two little girls arrived at the big school on the same day, at the same hour, took each other’s measure, and became best friends. Little things, so bravely confronting that great school, as populous and busy as a supermarket, but filled with what they already knew were hierarchies of girls they felt as hostile, but here was an ally, and they stood holding hands, trembling with fear and their efforts to be brave. A great school, standing on its rise, surrounded by parkland in the English manner, but arched over by a most un-English sky, about to absorb these little things, babies really, their four parents thought – enough to bring tears to their eyes! – and they did.

  They were doughty, quick with repartee, and soon lived down the bullying that greeted new girls; they stood up for each other, fought their own and each other’s battles. ‘Like sisters,’ people said, and even, ‘Like twins.’ Fair, they were, with their neat gleaming ponytails, both of them, and blue-eyed, and as quick as fishes, but really, if you looked, not so alike. Liliane – or Lil – was thin, with a hard little body, her features delicate, and Rozeanne – Roz – was sturdier, and where Lil regarded the world with a pure severe gaze, Roz found jokes in everything. But it is nice to think, and say, ‘like s
isters’, ‘they might be twins’; it is agreeable to find resemblances where perhaps none are, and so it went on, through the school terms and the years, two girls, inseparable, which was nice for their families, living in the same street, with parents who had become friends because of them, as so often happens, knowing they were lucky in their girls choosing each other and making lives easy for everyone.

  But these lives were easy. Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting: no one on these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food. What a good-looking lot, smooth and shiny with sun, with sport, with good food. Few people anywhere know of coasts like these, except perhaps for brief holidays, or in travellers’ tales like dreams. Sun and sea, sea and sun, and always the sound of waves on beaches.

  It was a blue world the little girls grew up in. At the end of every street was the sea, as blue as their eyes – as they were told often enough. Over their heads the blue sky was so seldom louring or grey that such days were enjoyable for their rarity. A rare harsh wind brought the pleasant sting of salt and the air was always salty. The little girls would lick the salt from their own hands and arms and from each others too, in a game they called, ‘Playing puppies’. Bedtime baths were always salty so that they had to shower off the bath water with water coming from deep in the earth and tasting of minerals, not salt. When Roz stayed over at Lil’s house, or Lil at Roz’s, the parents would stand smiling down at the two pretty imps cuddled together like kittens or puppies, smelling now they were asleep not of salt but of soap. And always, throughout their childhoods, day and night, the sound of the sea, the gentle tamed waves of Baxter’s sea, a hushing and a lulling, like breathing.

  Sisters, or, for that matter, twins, even best friends, suffer passionate rivalries, often concealed, even from each other. But Roz knew how Lil grieved when her breasts – Roz’s – popped forth a good year before Lil’s, not to mention other evidences of growing up, and she was generous in assurances and comfort, knowing that her own deep envy of her friend was not going to be cured by time. She wished that her own body could be as hard and thin as Lil’s, who wore her clothes with such style and ease, whereas she was already being called – by the unkind – plump. She had to be careful what she ate, whereas Lil could eat what she liked.

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