Monday 25th September
And now for the great rationalizing, the somehow ‘Ooh aren’t we clever grown-ups’ talk was about to begin. Their precious mother was now going to tell Jane and |Harriet what they, the wonderful adults, had decided. Well, if she thought it would make a blind bit of difference to Harriet, she was mistaken. She couldn’t give a shit what they decided. As soon as all of this nonsense died down, she would be out of it all for good. For Dad’s sake more than anything she would have to wait a few weeks before skipping University and moving to London. Her father was always a bit on the nervous side, a bit vulnerable, and Harriet truly didn’t want to hurt him. In a few weeks all of this would have died down and she could escape. She would just have to be patient until then. Okay Mother dear, let’s hear what you’ve got to say.
* * *
They sat around the wooden kitchen table, unusually clear of any papers or salt and peppers or the vase of flowers, which normally brightened up their large but dark old wood-lined kitchen. The girls sat and waited for their mother to begin, to try somehow to explain away what she thought she had been doing with Uncle Ted all this time.
‘Well, I suppose you know the bare bones of what has happened by now.’ She said in a quiet and serious little voice Jane hadn’t heard her use before.
To which neither of them spoke. For Jane’s part she had no idea what to think, and even less idea of what to say, and Harriet was almost looking away from both of them, she kept glancing sideways, as if someone else were in the room.
Their mother continued, ‘The first thing I have to say is that it has all been my own fault, your father hasn’t been in any way to blame in all of this.’
She looked from one of the girls to the other, as if seeking some sign, some confirmation, some acceptance from them. ‘It was me – I just couldn’t stop myself. What you probably don’t realise is that this all started a long time ago, before your father and I were even married.’
That shocked Jane more than anything. ‘Why did she marry our Dad, then?’ she kept thinking. ‘If she had been seeing Uncle Ted before she got married even, then why marry Daddy at all?’ But as usual Jane said nothing; she was always too scared to say what she was thinking in case people thought she was stupid. Harriet was hiding behind her screen of hair again, holding a hank of it in her hand and determinedly sucking the ends. So their mother carried on talking, ‘And though I have told myself, oh so many times, to stop it, and I have tried; believe me, somehow….I never have. That must sound pretty pathetic I know, and you are both too young to really understand how complicated things can get, if you let them. And that is where I was to blame, I did love, no that’s wrong, I do love your father, and yet I couldn’t stop myself from seeing, and yes, from loving your uncle Ted too.’ She looked at Harriet and then at Jane, almost pleading with her eyes, but receiving no help from either of them. ‘Anyway it has happened now, and in some ways I am so relieved, even though things will never be the same again, at least it isn’t my guilty little secret anymore.’
And then Harriet suddenly spun round in her chair and almost spat the words at her mother. ‘Oh, so you do actually feel guilty, do you Mother?’
‘Of course I do Harriet? What sort of a monster do you imagine me to be?’ She had this incredulous look on her face, as if she was the one who was misunderstood, as if she had been the innocent party all along.
‘The standard sort of monster I would say; nothing unusual about you, Mother, is there?’ smiling despite her words of hatred; Harriet was the master of sarcasm. ‘I mean to say what could be more normal, than while daddy-dear was earning all the money to keep you in nice dresses and a big house and all, you were out there, oh God knows where, and having an affair. And not even with just anyone. It was your sister’s bloody husband, wasn’t it? Couldn’t you find anyone else? Is that it, so poor old Ted had to do, is that it Mummy? Or did you just get your kicks by taking something of your sister’s, something she didn’t even know was being taken; was that how you got your kicks?’
‘No Harriet, and stop being so melodramatic, you really are turning into a little drama queen. It wasn’t about Aunt Julie. It’s never been anything to do with her.’ And she had a tiny hanky balled up in her fist and kept dabbing it to the corners of her eyes where little teardrops were forming. ‘In fact I have always been terrified of her finding out. I never wanted to hurt her. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I know none of you will ever begin to understand that, but really I never meant to hurt anyone, least of all Julie, or your father, or either of you two either.’ Just like yesterday she was crying again, it was amazing how easy it was for Harriet to make her mother cry, or Jane come to that. Harriet could make Jane cry at the drop of a hat.
And real tears were running from her mummy’s eyes now, as she gazed from one of them to the other. Little tears that formed and slowly ran down and past her nose; Jane almost felt sorry for her, she looked so helpless, but somehow her anger and disappointment got the better of any pity she might have felt for her. After all she had gotten herself into this mess, it really wasn’t anyone else’s fault, except Uncle Ted’s of course, because how could he do that to his wife as well, sleeping with her own sister. Jane was close to tears myself just thinking about it.
Harriet broke the mood in her usual charmless way by clasping her hands in mock excitement and asking sarcastically,
‘And what happens now Mummy, do we go to live with Uncle Ted now? Will I have to share a bedroom with the boys, our great big hairy cousins? Will Aunt Julie still be there, or will she move in with Daddy? After all we should really keep all of this in the family, don’t you think?’
‘Stop it now Harriet, you’ve had your fun. And believe me, this is no laughing matter for any of us. We have talked things through, and for the time being we are going to try to carry on as normal.’ And she sounded almost sincere for once as she said, ‘I know that is a big thing to ask of you, and none of us knows if it will be at all possible to get over this, but we are going to try.’ Then she paused as if waiting for some inspiration, some prompt, some whisper from the wings where she had forgotten her words. ‘Obviously we won’t be seeing my sister’s family for a while. And I know she will never be able to forgive me, but I hope she can forgive Ted enough to save her marriage, that is all. And I will not be seeing him anymore. That is the truth. I really mean it, I am staying with your father, and we are going to try to rebuild some trust again. That’s all I really have to say, except to ask you to try and help us too, to put this all behind us and become a family again.’ And as if she had just read all of this from a script which she had just laid down in front of her she looked up expectantly and hopefully at her two daughters. Well, if it had been a script and she had thought for a moment she had passed the audition Harriet soon disillusioned her. Harriet smiled almost complicitly but then brought her straight back to earth.
‘But we never were a family, don’t you see that Mummy? You have never really been here for us at all. I mean you haven’t, have you? And do you really expect this to work, this little arrangement? Because that’s all it is – an arrangement. Maybe your whole marriage has been an arrangement, a convenient little arrangement to allow you the time and space and money to slope off with your boyfriend. Ha, now that is funny, Uncle Ted, good old farmer boy Ted – a boyfriend. And what does Daddy think of all this? Does he agree with this little arrangement? Will he play his part, will he still keep bringing in the money; will he still be Mr. Respectable Family Solicitor?’ She was utterly fearless, Harriet. Jane was too frightened to say anything at all.
‘Yes Harriet, and it has never been a part he has played, he was always my husband, despite what you might think.’ And almost reverting back to the script she had prepared she continued, ‘And I am going to ask you both to play your parts too. I don’t want you to lie, but I really am begging you to keep this within these four walls. Can you imagine how it would hurt your father’s reputation if this should get out? Can you?’ She looked intently at Jane, almost ignoring Harriet, as if Jane were the one who was in the wrong. ‘Well I hope you can. Just think about it before you start to tell your friends, just think about the damage it will do.’
‘What, like you did?’ Harriet, completely her mother’s equal now, threw back at her.
‘Harriet, please show some respect, if not to me, then to your father. I know I haven’t been a very good mother. I apologise for that. I may have been stupid, but I have never totally neglected you, and I have never insulted you or tried to rub your noses in any of this mess. I wish to God it had never happened.’
‘Being caught you mean, don’t you? Because I don’t think you are sorry you did it, just me catching you; that was the terrible thing for you, wasn’t it? I am actually sorry I ever came home yesterday. Actually at the moment I am sorry I ever came home at all, I should have stayed at University forever, away from you, away from all of this….mess. I know I shouldn’t say this mother, but I am absolutely bloody ashamed of you. I always thought you were a bit uncaring where we were concerned but now I am actually ashamed of you, and ashamed at myself for even being your daughter.’
And then Harriet suddenly pushed her chair back, scraping the legs across the quarry-tiles with an awful screech, and got up and left. She turned at the door and said, ‘I’m going back to University today, I should never have come back, but I needed some money. I’ve run out of money and came back to ask for some and then all this happened. Do you have any, or do I have to ask Daddy for it?’
‘I have got about twenty pounds in my housekeeping drawer, will that do?’
‘Yes, that will keep me going for a while. But I can’t say when I’ll be back. At the moment I don’t ever want to come back. Do you know that? That’s how I feel about things at the moment. I just don’t know when I will be back.’ Then after pocketing the money which her mother silently held out for her she turned to her sister and said, ‘Come on Jane, let’s go for a walk.’
And she got up and hardly looking back at her mother Jane followed Harriet, as she had always done. She would have followed her to the ends of the earth, if she had wanted her to; trouble was they both knew she only wanted Jane because she didn’t have her new best friend, but even then, second best was better than not being wanted by Harriet at all.