In our final Lenten short story on the seven deadly sins, novelist and critic Kate Saunders (left) looks at anger
EVERYTHING had been fine, until Monica told Ida to sit down. Then Martin had shouted "can't you ever stop being a doctor for one bloody minute?" and stomped off to the beach in one of his rages. The path was too steep and rocky for literal stomping, but despite his slithering feet and flailing arms, his whole demeanour had radiated giant sulks.
Ida stood beside the heathery rocks which divided her motherin-law's garden from the sheer drop down to the shore. She could see Martin parading across the sand below her, knowing he had an audience, and innocently convinced that he looked dignified.
"I'm sorry, Monica," she said. "I don't know what gets into him. He talks for days about coming here, and the minute he does, he gets angry with you."
Monica was kneeling over one of her windblown herbaceous borders, neatly pulling weeds from the barren, sea-bleached soil. The late summer breeze lifted a loose hank of iron grey hair across her cheek. She tucked it absently back into her bun with a hand encased in a huge gardening gauntlet. "Goodness, don't worry about me. I'm used to it."
Ida was getting dizzy. She did not mind heights, but her pregnancy made her less confident about her balance. She retreated a couple of steps. "What was it all about? What did you say? I never understand what sets him off."
"He's been angry with me ever since I stopped breastfeeding him," Monica said. "Don't you know that all men are angry with their mothers?"
"Dereliction of duty."
"But you've been wonderful! He boasts about you at dinner parties."
Monica's trowel paused in the act of levering out a rock. "Does he?" She sounded amused.
"It impresses women no end. He tells them how you never gave up being a doctor when you got married, and how marvellously you ran the practice as a single parent, after Leonard left you. He's really terrifically proud of you." Ida paused, feeling this needed a qualifier. "In a way."
"Oh." Monica swung back to rest on her heels, and dug the rest of the rock out with her earthy gloved fingers. "How are you, anyway? I never have a chance to ask, when he's around."
"I'm fine. It's — it's not that he doesn't care about me, you know."
"I know," Monica said mildly. "I should have been concerned about his health first, even though there is nothing apparently wrong with him. But he's not the one carrying the baby. That makes them furious too."
Ida felt she should be loyal at this point. "He says — I mean, he has a cold."
"Oh dear. Why didn't he mention it?"
Ida knew that Martin would wish her to look reproachful. She tried, feeling silly. I have to be on his side, she thought, but if only Monica had been less honest, less reasonable. A little more sentimentality would have made things so much easier. She was the sort of doctor who called haemorrhoids "piles" and told patients to bend over, while they were still twittering prudishly about trouble "down below".
"He was waiting for me to notice," said Monica, reading her mind. "I was supposed to tell him he was looking peaky. Remind me to feel his forehead anxiously later."
She spoke with indulgent affection, completely without rancour, and they both laughed. "Now sit down on the bench, Ida, or you'll get varicose veins in the backs of your knees."
The use of a person's name during a conversation was Monica's version of an endearment, like "dear" or "darling". Ida sat down, touched. She had always liked this gaunt, soldierly woman, with her weatherbeaten gipsy's face and crisp incisive manner.
"I hardly recognise him sometimes, when we're down here," she said. "He's never like this at home — he's so gentle and considerate."
"Ida," Monica interrupted firmly, "you don't have to make excuses for him. Mothers bring out the worst in men. The mother is the mainspring. Good or bad — everything comes from her. And since life is usually more bad than good, she becomes a focus for a man's anger. They have to blame someone."
Ida remembered Martin telling her that Monica had been the first doctor in the area to refer people to therapists instead of handing out tranquillisers. "Who do women blame?" she asked.
Monica went on briskly flicking out weeds with the point of her trowel. "When something goes wrong, who do you blame?"
"There you are. That's the difference between men and women." She smiled. "That'll be eight-and-six."
"Do you miss the practice? We often worry that you might be lonely, now you've retired." Martin speculated on his mother's loneliness all the time, as if saying it often enough might make it come true.
"Heavens, no. I still do locum work. Have to keep my hand in.
I was brought up to believe that it was important to be useful.
My parents' idea of usefulness for a woman was embroidering tray-cloths, mine was being a doctor, but the principle is the same. Do tell Martin not to worry. But what about you? No problems, I hope?"
"None at all," Ida assured her. "Six and a half months of pregnancy, straight out of the textbooks."
"Old Mrs Prewett next door is knitting it a matinee jacket thought I ought to warn you. Blue, of course. Her generation thinks it's rude not to assume the first will be a boy."
Martin's shadow fell between them. He had recovered his temper. "Talking about the baby? I knew you would be. No —" he raised his hand importantly, as if in court. "Before you say anything, don't apologise. It's all right."
Whistling, he went into the cottage, shaking sand out of his plimsolls.
"It's all right, he forgives me," Monica said. "This time."
MARTIN'S fits of anger with his mother were constant, but brief. The afternoon's squall cleared into an evening of fair weather. Ida felt cosy and loved over supper, and fond of Martin. His mother complained she could not build a decent fire, and he built one for her; a beautiful wood fire which took the edge off the September chill.
He had hit the seam of bantering amusement which brought out Monica at her best. They were a pair of adults, instead of a mother and her perpetual little boy. Ida did not care about being excluded from their ancient jokes. It was comforting. They were a family.
Monica mentioned a friend of hers, who had gone to the West Indies.
"Did she go of her own accord?" asked Martin.
Ida, who had been half dozing, started as they both hooted with laughter, and blinked at them like a bewildered owl.
"Sorry, darling, sorry," said Martin. "It's a dreadful old riddle — 'My wife's gone to the West Indies.' — 'Jamaica?' 'No, she went of her own accord'. It isn't funny!", he added triumphantly, seeing her feeble smile. "No, but the point is, it came out of a Christmas cracker, and it somehow got into mum's prayer-book, and fell out during the sermon."
"And we became quite hysterical," recalled Monica. "Oh Martin, do you remember the year when all the jokes in the crackers were in French?"
"Garcon! Garcon!" cried Martin, "Il y a une mouche dans ma souppe" and they were off again.
His face striped with firelight, Martin was a living ghost of Monica. His complexion was fair, and his hair mouse brown, but they were both sinewy and spare, with watchful hawk's eyes. Ida fell into a pleasant, pregnant trance, wondering if her child would have them too. When she was in bed, Martin brought her some cocoa, and drew the curtains across the rattling window panes. The rough winds receded far, far out to sea.
0 you see anything of Leonard?" Monica asked.
Martin's shoulders tensed, and Ida's spirits sank. They were sitting at one of the warped trestle tables outside the Old Ship Inn, drinking beer and eating the landlady's doorstep cheese and pickle sandwiches. The season was over, and the breeze had fangs, but silver sunlight was dancing on the caps of the waves.
And now Monica had to spoil it — it really was her fault this time. She must know, Ida thought, how cross it made Martin to talk about his father.
"Sometimes," "How's Bernice?"
"She's fine. They both are."
"I'm glad." Monica was heroically good about the woman who had stolen her husband all those years ago, but she never could see that her being good was not enough. Martin wanted her to be grieved and sorry. She had managed far too well without him.
"Their youngest girl has just got a job in a building society," Martin said.
"Has she?" Monica vaguely sipped beer and looked out at the horizon.
"Not that you'd consider that much of an achievement," Martin said bitterly. "But it's not bad, when you've only got a couple of CSEs. Dad's pleased."
"Oh, I am glad," Monica said again.
A large seagull was strolling about on the next table. Ida found herself addressing it earnestly: "Sandra is a Very Nice Girl."
"Dad doesn't measure success by qualifications," Martin's voice was aggressive and challenging.
"No, he never did," said Monica. "I like that in a man."
"Do you? You amaze me, mother. How can you like it? That was the reason he took up with Bernice in the first place. Because she wasn't always making him feel small, and leaping out of bed in the middle of the night to deliver other people's babies. But let me tell you — there's nothing wrong with being a woman like Bernice."
"I didn't say there was," Monica said soothingly. "She's very nice, and she's made your father very happy."
"Oh for God'd sake!" snapped Martin. "Stop lying! You're only trying to convince yourself, and it makes me sick. You think she's common, because she worked in a cake shop."
Unfortunately — very unfortunately — this made Monica laugh. Martin was touchy about his stepmother, and even touchier about his three half-sisters. Monica's cleverness and independence had driven his father into giving Martin embarrassing siblings with bad perms, nasty accents and crossed-over teeth. He never could forgive her for that. "Laughing," he said. "That's your reaction to everything, isn't it? Because it means you won't have to deal with emotions — you can just feel superior. God, no wonder he left you."
"Please," whispered Ida.
Monica glanced at her sympathetically, but Martin ignored her. "The fact was, you put yourself above him, and above me."
Ida winced, but Monica only said: "It isn't good for you, Martin, this anger. It doesn't change anything. It certainly doesn't explain what you want from me, and it makes Ida miserable."
"I don't want anything from you," said Martin. "Good thing, isn't it, because I never did get anything. You were doctor first and mother second."
"Shehad to support you!" Ida blurted out.
THERE was always a moment when she was goaded into taking Monica's side. It was the lowest point of every visit. Martin became white with fury; almost stifled by indignation at the injustice of women.
"You stay out of it. She didn't bring you up."
"Martin," Monica said warningly.
Something like triumph glittered in his eyes. "Here it comes. Mustn't upset little Ida, because she's pregnant. You don't care about me at all, do you? It's been Ida -Ida — Ida ever since we arrived. Sit down, Ida dear. Do you need a cushion, Ida dear?"
Ida had a moment of detachment, in which she noticed the invented endearments. Monica never called anyone "dear", but in his corrosive anger, he believed that his mother gave to his wife the doting affection that was rightfully his. She would have been quite sorry for him, if she had not had the eerie feeling that he was somehow enjoying himself. It was another score for him, in the imaginary battle.
"What do I have to do, before you take any notice of me?" he demanded. "Roll around in agony? Die?"
"Is there anything the matter with you?" asked Monica.
Martin summoned his vestigial cold, in such a white heat of belief that his voice began to rasp. "I think I might have the flu."
"I'll give you something for it." "Oh, please don't bother. I'll make an appointment at the surgery."
"What do you want from her?" Ida shouted suddenly. "What the hell has she done wrong, except work to support you because your father buggered off with some tart in a cake-shop?" She smacked her hand down on the wooden slats of the table, and her husband and his mother stared at her like a pair of strangers. Martin was in a cul-de-sac of rage now, with no path but absolute fury in front of him. He leapt up, dropping the crust of his sandwich on his foot. There was a dangerous moment of comedy, when the bold seagull instantly swooped on it and pecked Martin's laces undone. Ida was so terrified of laughing, her heart contracted. Half her mind followed his predictable tirade: "You're just the bloody same, both of you . . . all right, I'll leave you here . . . you can have a good laugh at me . . . I'm always in the way . . . I've just been in the way all my life . . . in the way of her wonderful. caring bloody career . .."
He stormed away across the quay, vanishing in the masts of the fishing boats. Ida felt a tissue being pushed into her hand, and she lifted it to wipe her eyes.
"I'm so sorry."
"This really isn't good for you," Monica observed.
"But what's the matter with him?"
"I believe it's something to do with never coming home to the smell of baking," said Monica. "Except he's far too intelligent to put it like that. It's rather awfully funny, isn't it, when you think of the tart in the cake shop?"
IDA wanted to go and look for Martin. She could not control a sneaking feeling that they owed him an apology. But Monica insisted on finishing her sandwich, and having a long conversation about tumours with the landlord of The Ship. They were still at the table when Martin returned, coughing and holding his throat. He drove them back to the cottage, as Keats on his deathbed might have driven Fanny Brawne and her mother around Hampstead.
If they had been alone, Ida would have made kiss-it-better noises, but her sympathy had no value now. This was all for Monica's benefit.
"Martin, there's some paracetamol in the bathroom," she said. "Do take some for that throat." She smiled at them both. "I wonder if there's enough light left to make it worth lifting the geraniums?"
They departed the next morning. Martin's anger was burning steadily, like a pilot tight. Ida knew there was enough fuel to last them all the way to London.
"She's so cold," he complained, heaving the bags into the car. "Everything has to be rational. And love isn't rational."
"Oh darling, how can you say she doesn't love you? It's just not true — you're so unfair to her. She adores seeing you. She's thrilled about the baby. What more do you expect?"
He fixed her with a cold, stubborn eye. "When our child has a cold, will you tell it where you keep the paracetamol, and go off to lift the geraniums?"
"Not when it's little, no. But you're a big boy now."
"She was always like that. No wonder Dad couldn't stand it." He kissed her forehead. "God, I'm glad you're so sweet." Monica came out to wave them off. Ida noticed that she looked rather old, wrapping her cardigan tighly round her thin shoulders. Martin noticed her calm smile..
"Glad to get rid of me," he muttered, jamming his foot down and backing out of the gate.
"Look out!" shrieked Ida, and the second she did so, an elephantine tractor crashed into the boot, hurling them into the windscreen.
The world danced and span. Ida's bones leapt fiercely inside her skin. Time became nonsense, and she saw In snatches of primitive homemovie, divided by intervals of blackness. Martin climbing out of the car unscathed, scrambling over the bonnet to get at her door. Wetness snaking from her forehead and dripping off the end of her nose. Monica running towards them, Monica shouting her name. Some blackness. Waking with her chin resting on the open glove-compartment, raising her head to hear Martin screaming "you're unnatural! You're a freak! I'm your son and you should run to me first! Me first! How do you know I'm all right?"
More blackness, followed by profound nothing. But in between, a snapshot of Martin hitting Monica so hard that she toppled to the gravel like a ninepin.
IAVISHLY supplied with grapes and I Lucozade, Ida lay in hospital, wanting for nothing. She had concussion, a partlyshaved head and nine stitches, and was under observation in a pleasant private room, because of the baby. "All's well that ends well," the nurse said complacently, listening to the baby's healthy heartbeat through a stethoscope.
Ida said nothing. Monica had not been to see her, and she was thinking. On the opposite wall above the sink, there was a reproduction of a medieval virgin and child. The virgin in her jewelled head-dress knelt in a daze of adoration before the cradle, her hands meekly folded in prayer.
"That's what he wants," she thought. "That's what they all think they have a right to." And she imagined herself kneeling before the bunny-painted cot in the nursery at hone. For the first time, she hoped it would be a girl — or she would be another heartless mother, bringing up an angry man all by herself, and laying up a store or black eyes for when he was old enough to hit her.
The West Indian nurse straightened the bedclothes and ate one of the grapes. Ida suddenly wondered if she came from Jamaica, and whether she had gone of her own accord. An unholy desire to laugh covered a vastness of fear she did not wish to examine.
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