With gentle but penetrating wit and insight, Elizabeth Buchan tells the story of two women whose lives are separated by fifty years, but linked in a variety of subtle and surprising ways as they try to make sense of the conflicting demands of liberation and duty, freedom and necessity, and the labyrinthine pursuit of happiness...
"I have so many laments filed away. My hair is greying. . . I've lost my suppleness of mind and body . . . My figure is ruined . . . Never, never again will I feel as I used to . . .
The cries of woman can be very loud. Plaintive and corrosive . . . grief-stricken and despairing ... strident. We stay at home, crowded by yeasty little bodies, our oh-so-efficient captors, and weep noisy tears into the sink. We go out to work and shriek at the difficulties. Biology has arranged to keep tight tabs on us. Fillies at the rodeo, lined up to be broken in by ovaries and uteruses.
But as I explained to Charlie, my husband, thanks to science, biology can be handled. One can keep it at arm's length. So far, I had managed to ignore the ticking of the biological clock, with a clean, simple career schedule and, please, Charlie, let me keep it that way. He had asked me to keep the case under review, and added that men cried too: it was just that they were not heard.
This was not to say the issue between Charlie and me was resolved, far from it, but I held him close after he made that particular remark (not bitterly, but with his lawyer's matter-of-factness), whispering into his ear that I loved him.
'And I love you, too, very, very much,' he responded, and ran his fingers through my hair. But I knew he was troubled. The question of whether we should have children ? or not ? was well-trodden ground between us, yet journey as we might over it, beating through the thickets of questions and arguments, we never agreed on the final destination.
'Am I cheating you, Charlie?' Am I? Was I?
I watched him carefully pack a parcel for his nephew's seventh birthday (a fake scar for the cheek, an inflatable cushion that emitted a rude noise if sat on and a starter pack of Meccano). He applied the last slick of Sellotape. 'Do you think I've made it large enough?' he asked. 'I want it to be a really big parcel and the most fun.' He sat down and wrote the card: 'To Nat, my favourite nephew, love, Uncle Charlie. PS Will you come paint-balling with me?' Then he drew a dinosaur on the back of the envelope, sealed it and said quietly, 'I have no idea if you're cheating me or not. I'll have to wait to find out.'
Why didn't I say to him 'I have enough in my life. It's so full, so busy, so absorbing that I don't have room for anything else.' Because I know Charlie would have pushed back his floppy hair and replied, with one of his sweetest smiles ? which seemed to embrace a secret vision of good things like a dog's wet nose pushing into your hand, sunlight falling on a cradle, 'We can make room. Of course we can make room.'
I envied Charlie his certainty and his immaculate generosity.
Lucy Thwaite (35) [ran the notes on my latest assignment] is a mother of three. Plans to return to work in catering. Needs smart, practical, adaptable wardrobe. The problem? Since birth of third child (5) she has put on weight and lost confidence. 'I'm at my wit's end ... I hate my body, hate looking at it, and always wear baggy clothes . . .'
Lucy Thwaite's case notes had been sent over by Jenni from Fashion, This Week with the schedule, which gave me approximately four days to think over and sort out the said Lucy. The accompanying photograph revealed a woman whose features were set with a mix of exhaustion and fury. Even to the untrained eye, the sorting out of Lucy Thwaite would take more than a week.
Jenni, who hunted out my subjects and did the preliminary research, had spotted it too. 'Caged,' she said, on the phone, 'and battering bars to get out.'
In general, the spectre of unhappiness in my clients stirred pity - which made an uneasy bedfellow with the requirements in a fashion consultant to be frank. But life is a series of polarities, and I was the white knight riding to the rescue, bringing cheer and a little tough talking on the point of my lance.
On meeting Lucy Thwaite at her home in the Midlands, it struck me that she had thought herself into the role of frump: she was prettier in the flesh and her skin had the lovely transparency that permanent fatigue sometimes gives women.
Lucy held out her hand, which was damp and soft when I took it. 'I'm so excited. None of my friends can believe it.' Her mouth twitched in a smile that did not reach her eyes.
Over the years I had made many mistakes, and to rely on first impressions was one of them, but I could not help recoiling a little from Lucy Thwaite's intractable aura of misery.
'You must come in. Do you want coffee? Mind the tricycle, that's Johnny's, my youngest, and - Oh, I'm sorry about the shopping. Just step over it.'
The house was a mess, as were many of the houses into which I stepped. A home was so naked, so revealing. Charlie and I hadn't allowed anyone into our flat until it was perfect. 'For better and for worse and for tidiness,? we joked with each other, for we shared the desire to remain hidden and private.
Lucy's kitchen was crowded with clothes, baskets and papers. She sat me down at the table and busied herself with the kettle and coffee. I cleared a space to put down my notebook among the cereal packets and papers, which included a cut-out of a small foot that had been glued on to a cardboard base through which laces had been threaded. It was a fragile thing, made in haste and inadequately gummed, but breathed childish optimism and determination. The label attached to it read: 'Centurion's boot, Hadrian's Wall, circa AD 200'.
Lucy gestured at it. 'I have the misfortune to send my children to schools that specialize in torture. Of the parents.' Her eyes were dull. 'Shelley came back last night and said she had to have a Roman sandal made by Friday. A Roman sandal! I don't know what one looks like, nor do I care - but what am I supposed to do? One thing's for sure, Derek won't be around to act as cobbler.'
I couldn't bear to make any comment, for I minded about that silly sandal.
Lucy dumped a mug of coffee in front of me. 'Will I be famous?' she asked.
I glanced at my watch - a gesture she understood instantly: she sat down at once. 'Lucy, let's talk about you. Could you tell me a little more about yourself?'
A shadow passed over the unhappy features. 'That's nice. I haven't been asked about myself since . . .' she rubbed her cheek '. . . since ... I can't remember.'
She seemed genuinely taken aback by the invitation, and I wondered about the equation that had brought her to this nadir. Fatigue and motherhood, clearly. But was there also an unkind husband? A sudden lack of money?
Maybe it was simpler than that. Unhappiness was an everyday, plodding thing, and one got used to it.
I knew all about that.
I extracted a pen from my red Tod's handbag. Lucy's eyes rested on it covetously. 'That's the one thing I do indulge in,' she said. 'A nice handbag.'
No surprise there. Big women are frequently compulsive handbag (and shoe) buyers for a simple reason: a handbag (or shoes) brightens up the image and allows one to acquire a fashionable badge without the ritual humiliation of shopping for large-size clothes. Vive the accessory.
'In fact, I get through quite a few every year. Derek's always telling me off.'
'Better than getting through husbands, though.' I was never quite easy about being a second wife. Ergo, I made jokes about it.
Lucy Thwaite stared at me, and there were tears in her eyes. 'Is it?'
I smiled at her gently. 'Why don't we start?'"
Elizabeth Buchan is the author of eight previous novels, including the bestselling and prize-winning Consider the Lily, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and most recently The Good Wife both of which received rare reviews. She lives in London with her husband and children.