There are weeks - especially Mondays
- when you see your audience, some
with ear trumpets, hoping that you won't swear and (if Hilda's waiting for
the paper and not dead in a deckchair) that you will try to keep home
truths above the crutch. A time for sitting in the field and reading "The
Mayor of Casterbridge" by Thomas Hardy, as a conditioner. For there are
some readers who get pretty sick of endings and middles and appreciate a
good, old-fashioned beginning.
It is the year of our Poodle, 1963. Beyond the Western Isles the sun shot
the clouds into the wildest colours of blood and feud as a young woman,
stylish by country habits - clothes, make-up and hair in rebellion against
the recent restrictions of home and college - and lugging a heavy chequered plastic suitcase
stuffed with hope and home, arrived to her first paid job at the small
hotel at Mallaig. A lonely spot on the headland that comes out by Loch Nevis, it is connected by a solitary road south and
the ferryboat service to Armadale on Skye.
"Is this my room?"
"Aye. It is..."
McCleod was a man with a rock-smooth, aged, fallen countenance who, like
the gale-tortured tree blocking the sunset view outside her window, leaned
permanently backward so that when she closed the door she heard the bump and the curse and knew she had
made an enemy. Although tired,
the anguish of home-sickness that defeats the wander-lust in the night
hours kept her awake; sometimes weeping for her little room at Honeylaw
Farm. She stopped when she remembered equal weeping in the same little
room for something more exotic.
Caledonia expects its privileged girrals, no matter what their private
yearnings, to settle down at home and teach. Sandra was a teacher and Morag was a teacher and so
was Helen and Janet. Somehow a lifetime of schoolrooms and screaming brats seemed not enough after all the student
madness. But neither was the
hotel at Mallaig. There was washing up and then more washing up.
"Do I get a share of the tips?"
"No. You do not..."
After three weeks of glorious sunsets and nothing else, Maggie (for she it
was, dear reader) left her first job. With the same heart and the same
case she flew to Italy, went by hovercraft to Ischia to look after some
rich Italian kids who tried to drown her by hiding under water, hoping she
might jump in. That lasted a fortnight and there was a short while in Mill
Hill with a Jewish family who bought everything from Harrods, darling, and
then - still with an eye to the world - she worked at the foreign
students' hostel in Mecklenburgh Square. By this time Maggie was looking
for a writer.
"Maybe I am dat writer?" one of the coloured boys suggested. She walked out on
him when she discovered
he had lied about the bus home.
"I hate kids, I hate washing up and I hate people who take me for an
idiot," Maggie used to say.
That's the old-fashioned bit. Now here's a letter from a solicitor who is
trying to get compensation for Ellie, who was knocked off a zebra crossing
last January. It says more about her than I dare to say on my nervous
"As a word of warning,
may I remind you to say very little when you are asked questions by the
doctor and to keep your answers to one or two words only. Do not be
tempted to get involved in a long conversation with him and certainly do not tell him
that the only difficulty you suffer as a result of e.g. pain in your
buttocks is an embarrassment in your love life..."
The legal world is still a
man's world where a limp
or recurring dizziness is worth more, cash-wise, than the possibility of a
childless future. In the play (finally you get your whole life in one room
with a wall missing) the claimant is wheeled in, bandaged like a mummy
from head to foot.
"And when did all this take place?" asks the judge. Twenty-three years
ago, m'lud. In fact, it was her mother. "Dear, dear," says the judge. "Can
she speak?" They remove one bandage to let her speak, another to let her
"Fraud!" screams counsel for the insurance company.
Played by Richard Burton wearing his other expression. "Gentlemen and
ladies of the jury! You saw what I saw! She was nodding her head!"
Insurance, if we all pay our premiums, means happiness, security and undreamed
of wealth for about 20 people.
Every week of her life, all through my long and curious boyhood, all the
time we were running away from her second husband Monty - Hertford,
Meldreth, Burwell, Cambridge, 13 moves in 10 years, a brick through the bedroom
window, Mrs Fordham, all the furniture on a coal cart and nowhere to take
it, the probation officer trying to give me to a vicar friend, pea-picking
- my mother left a shilling on the table for the insurance man.
When she died I refused to collect the paltry sum due. I like to think she
is not just another dead satisfied customer. She still owns a living brick in their
mansion. Somebody has to keep
shifting it from one book to another. Her computer will click into
eternity. So too, the sunset over the Western Isles. It is the first year
of our happiness, 1968.
"That's the place. Right over there. Do you see it?" Maggie said.
"Aye. I doŠ"
We sat o the quayside at Armadale, waiting for the ferryboat. The same
heart, the same heavy case full of home and wandering stowed in the boot.
The same young woman (wait for me, lady) is in the same kitchen doing the
same washing-up, dreaming of something more exotic, hoping for a
Away wi' ye, wretched grasshopper, while I turrun the page. As he went she
said eagerly, "You may hear them speak of me in Casterbridge as time
goes on. If they tell you I'm a coquette, which some may, because of the
incidents of my life, don't believe it, for I am not."
"I swear I will not!" he said, fervidly.
Thus the two...
(The Guardian, Saturday 7 July 1973)