Monday, 19 May 2014

...of protection

It never occurred to Edward to ask himself if she was happy. She certainly had her moments of anxiety, panicky attacks when her breathing came in snatches and her thin arms would rise and fall at her side, and all her attention was suddenly on her children, on a specific need she knew she must immediately address. Edward's fingernails were too long, she must mend a tear in a frock, the twins needed a bath. She would descend among them, fussing ineffectually, scolding, or hugging them to her, kissing their faces or doing all at once, making up for lost time. It almost felt like love, and their yielded to her happily enough. But they knew from experience that the realities of the household were forbidding - the nail scissors and matching thread would not be found, and to heat water for a bath needed hours of preparation. Soon their mother would drift away, back to her own world.
These fits may have been caused by some fragment of her former self trying to assert control, half recognising the nature of her own condition, dimly recalling a previous existence, and suddenly, terrifyingly, glimpsing the scale of her loss. But for most of the time Majorie kept herself content with the notion, an elaborate fairy tale in fact, that she was a devoted wife and mother, that the house ran smoothly thanks to all her work, and that she deserved a little time to herself when her duties were done. And in order to keep the bad moments to a minimum, and not alarm that scrap of her former consciousness, Lionel and the children colluded in the make-believe. At the beginning of meals, she might lift her face from contemplating her husband's efforts and say sweetly as she brushed the straggly hair from her face, 'I do hope you enjoy this. It's something new I wanted to try.'
It was always something old, for Lionel's repertoire was narrow, but no one contradicted her, and ritually, at the end of every meal, the children and their father would thank her. It was a form of make-believe that was comforting for them all. When Majorie announced that she was making a shopping list for Watlington market, or that she had more sheets to iron than she could begin to count, a parallel world of bright normality appeared within reach of the whole family. But the fantasy could be sustained only if it was not discussed. They grew up inside it, neutrally inhabiting its absurdities because they were never defined.
Somehow they protected her from the friends they brought home, just as they protected their friends from her. The accepted view locally - or this was all they ever heard - was that Mrs Mayhew was artistic, eccentric and charming, probably a genius. It did not embarrass the children to hear their mother tell them things they knew could not be true. She did not have a busy day ahead, she had not really spent the entire afternoon making blackberry jam. These were not falsehoods, they were expressions of what their mother truly was, and they were bound to protect her - in silence.

[On Chesil Beach, McEwan, I.]

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