Saturday 10th February
She should have seen it coming, but you never do. Only later when you play back the film in your head, you can see the clues, almost as if the director had left them there all along. But when it is happening you don’t manage to join up the dots, you fail to stand back and see it all from a different perspective. You are too much in the thing to see it clearly for what it really is.
Harriet had returned, and now she was really pissed off. The Bursar had been telephoned, by whom they never found out, but it was decided that Harriet be dispatched back to the relative safety of her home. Maybe the rumours of her drug-taking had reached the ears of the authorities, or maybe it was just the fear of scandal, but she was almost in disgrace; bundled away from Leeds as fast as British Railways could carry her. And now she really was a fish out of water. They were practically housebound too, because people must be talking out there, and even Harriet’s usual brash dismissal of the rest of society seemed to have deserted her in the shock of it all. She mooched around the house, rarely out of her dressing gown, and seemed to clash with her mother at every opportunity. It was like watching a storm brewing, the two of them almost circling each other, like prowling tigers. Maybe her mother was angry at their father and the whole mess he had landed them in, but precisely because he was not there her anger came out in her lack of patience with Harriet. What had been tolerated before as just Harriet’s nature, her sardonic take on everything, was now too much for my mother, and she constantly snapped back. It was as if she had nothing to live for now, she would just shrug her shoulders and toss back her hair and face Harriet and her constant questioning. She wasn’t trying anymore, and she certainly wasn’t pretending that it would all be alright soon. They all knew that, the worst that could happen had just happened, they were just living through the aftermath, trying to avoid the bits of debris flying about.
And Harriet was just as angry, blaming her mother for her father’s flight, though in the clear light of day, it was obvious that he had been heading for some sort of a breakdown for some time, and yes, maybe their mother’s being caught had accelerated things, maybe been the catalyst, or the excuse he needed to make to himself, in order for him to act so out of character, to embark on his sad little running away. And to Lowestoft of all places; it might have been different if he had gone abroad, or to Scotland even, but not to Lowestoft. Lowestoft was only a few miles away, a sleepy seaside town with none of the exotic allure of Paris or Rome.
And maybe, just as Harriet was blaming her mother for setting him off on his little escapade, she in turn was blaming Harriet for catching her and Uncle Ted. The irrationality of her unannounced appearance in the house only two days after saying goodbye, and being safely tucked away in Leeds. She had suddenly returned, and not making a sound really had almost crept upstairs to catch them literally in-flagrante, it must have been incredible bad luck. But then again they had gotten away with it for years and years, and it was this fact above all others that had started to rankle with Harriet.
Almost like a cuckolded lover she seemed to want to know all about it, as if by examining every aspect of it she might begin to understand a little about her mother, or even about herself. Maybe by pursuing her mother so relentlessly she was working out some of her own problems. And so she picked away at it, and reluctantly my mother had to admit that it had been going on even before she met my father. And no, she couldn’t explain why she hadn’t stopped; it wasn’t as if she didn’t love our father, that wasn’t it at all. Maybe it was more a case that she just couldn’t let go of Ted, he was her secret lover, and as no-one had known about them, they just carried on. And it must have been so exciting, knowing that no-one else knew, knowing that they had this thing together, this special thing; special precisely because it was their intense secret. They had a secret space where they came alive, where they maybe lived at a totally different intensity, another world, shielded and encapsulated within their secret, and nobody had guessed; it was just their place, theirs alone. And now her mother wasn’t even ashamed of what she had done; her father had eclipsed her little mistake by a much larger one, and her earlier mood of defensive apology was being replaced by a strangely quiescent defiance. At last she didn’t seem to care what Harriet was saying anymore; Harriet was the least of her problems.
And this didn’t stop Harriet, if anything it made her worse and the sniping got really serious. It was after their father had been caught, though caught is hardly the word for his silent surrender – he had been brought back, relieved of the burden of his lonely escape, which had maybe become, in itself, a sort of prison. He had been returned, but not quite to them; he was currently in police custody. There was a feeling on the part of the police that they could barely disguise, a mood that had been developing over the days. What had started off as polite deference – they were after all the family of a solicitor, even if he had apparently run away from home – had rapidly coalesced into a sneering disrespect for them, the family of a felon, and a pathetic one at that. When the mighty are fallen, the rest of us can’t help but take some open satisfaction in it, a sort of righteous self congratulation, a feeling of self justification and a joy, almost, in the trouncing of those who had quietly assumed that they were our betters.
And just when they should have come together, to help each other in this, their desperate hour of need, here they were tearing each other apart. Jane had never seen my mother so distraught, it was as if she were really broken by what their father had done; as if despite her betrayal of Phil, Phil’s betrayal of all of them was just too much to bear. And all Harriet could do was to taunt her, so it is really no surprise that my mother just let her have it. The last secret was thrown out at her, almost as retaliation, but maybe as the last despairing thing she could possibly say – ‘Are you happy now? Now, please for God’s sake, leave me alone.’
Harriet had been digging and goading their mother into it, trying to get her to admit even what Harriet hadn’t quite dared to ask. When had it started, how had she managed to get married knowing she still had feelings for Ted, had she ever stopped, even for a few months, what about when she had been pregnant with us girls – all of these half accusations-half questions being thrown around. As if knowing would have solved anything. And underneath it all the irrational desperation of Harriet being suddenly deprived of her new best friend (her drugs) was making her more and more reckless, more and more desperate, nastier and nastier to the shell of a person her mother had become.
In the end it was Jane’s mother who almost volunteered the information, begging her torturer to stop, hoping that by this final revelation she could put things behind her at last.
‘What exactly do you want to know Harriet? Because I can’t give you a definite answer, I simply don’t know.’ She pleaded with an exhausted look on her face.
‘Don’t know what mother? What is it you don’t know? Tell me. Tell me now. Tell me what you are hiding from us. Tell me the truth for once in your life.’ Harriet barked at her, though her mother had been answering her with a quite disarming honesty for the last couple of days
‘I simply don’t know Harriet, I am sure of Jane, I am sure that Jane is her father’s child, but you Harriet, I simply don’t know.’
‘What? What are you saying? Oh my God, are you trying to tell me that I might be Uncle Ted’s child, that my father isn’t who I think he is. After all this, are you now telling me that somehow it’s okay because Ted is really my father?’
‘No, it’s not alright, none of it is alright, it’s all wrong. I am trying to tell you that I simply don’t know – that’s all. I hoped that you were your father’s child; I have always told myself that you were, I always assumed that you were, but you could have been Ted’s. I mean I wasn’t expecting to get pregnant anyway, I wasn’t counting the days. I simply don’t know.’
Jane was stunned. She had never considered Harriet to be anything other than entirely like her, same mould, same parents and same blood. It had never occurred to Jane, even when she found out about Uncle Ted, that Harriet and she could possibly have different fathers. They were so alike, so together, so as one. How could anyone possibly imagine that they weren’t the same? They could have been twins, in fact in a way we always had been twins, hadn’t they; just separated by a couple of years. So what on earth was their mother suggesting? How impossible, that Harriet could have been Uncle Ted’s child? But it was outrageous, wasn’t it? Jane looked over at Harriet, but she was just blank, she had no idea what she was thinking, it was bad enough what Jane was thinking. Their mother walked out with an ‘are you satisfied now’ shrug, and slouched up to her room. Jane couldn’t take her eyes off Harriet, she was so scared for her. And she was uncertain of her, despite their previous closeness sometimes Harriet felt like a stranger to her. Jane tried to calm her, to mollify her.
‘I shouldn’t take any notice of her, she was only saying that to hurt you, you do know that don’t you. There can’t possibly be any truth in it.’ Jane said.
‘No, I expect you are right’ Harriet replied, but she didn’t sound convincing, it was too pat an answer, too un-Harriet like. In exactly the same way as Jane had been trying to reassure her by belittling my mother’s comments, Harriet was trying to reassure Jane by appearing to agree with her. In a way this was more terrible a revelation than the affair in the first place, or even their father’s running away and being caught. All of those things could be gotten over – maybe. But this, and the very fact that it was inconclusive, was suddenly a greater problem for them as a family than anything that had gone before.
Jane knew by the way Harriet was handling it, or actually refusing to handle it, that it was quite possibly the most terrible thing that could have happened. But she just seemed to brush it aside, as if it hadn’t really registered, as if the importance Jane was attaching to it was as nothing to Harriet. She was too nonchalant, almost light-hearted suddenly. She wanted to go out, she felt like a drink, and Jane like a fool, for once let her go on her own. The last thing Jane felt like doing was to act as if nothing mattered, as if it was all so much froth. She certainly wasn’t ready to face the world, she hadn’t been out in days, she had been crying so much her eyes were sore and she must have looked awful. But Harriet just laughed and said ‘Well, never mind, little sis. You stay at home moping about if you want to – I’m going to see what is happening in this sleepy little shit-heap we call home.’ And she was gone. Almost before Jane had thought about it she let he go, and on her own too, and after what their mother had just told her.