Sport 21: Spring 1998
Elizabeth Smither — Thin Green Beans
It is nearly dusk when the bus pulls into the little town of Woolcombe. Everything is bathed in a blue-grey light. Looking out, wondering if she has the energy to gather herself let alone her luggage, Sara cannot see Bruce in the little group of figures. Then a tall shadow detaches itself from the side of the depot and she sees his face. He is looking not at her but into the middle distance as if, having followed the bus's long journey across the plain to this valley, he is resting his eyes. A great deal will be demanded of eyes this weekend Sara thinks and feels her own longing to rest on anything: the overhead rack, the neck of the passenger in front as he hoists himself to his feet.
‘You made it,’ Bruce says as she steps down, unsteady on the silver steps. I must not take everything personally, Sara thinks, though now is an odd time to start. Even the light is silvery now.
‘The car's outside,’ Bruce says. ‘I don't suppose you brought much.’
‘You know me,’ Sara says and she tries to inject some gaiety into her voice. Should she have brought an evening gown, long gloves or at the very least a pearl choker?
‘The motel first?’ Bruce asks.
‘Yes. I need to freshen up.’
To freshen up: a quick patting of cold water on an overheated face, a tiny sadistic slap to the cheeks, self-administered. A quick running of the brush through tousled hair, a quick repair job, not a full stripping back to moisturiser and night cream. Night cream doesn't work, Sara has read. The skin grows in the morning and the afternoon: night creams are a myth. Can I freshen your drink? and someone will whisk away a gin and tonic with a tablespoon or so left in the bottom. I expect the ladies would like to withdraw: to freshen up. There were always stairs and long skirts that rustled to be gathered up, a last glimpse of ankle as the cigars and port were readied. A little hint of what was to come. ‘I won't take long,’ Sara says.page 163
‘Don't rush. The restaurant will wait. Mother's invited us for lunch tomorrow.’
‘I hope she won't go to a lot of trouble,’ Sara calls, brushing her teeth.
‘Oh trouble is automatic for the mother. Don't let it fuss you.’
Hermione Blackstock had smoked more than twenty cigarettes a day since her son had broken the news to her that his marriage was over and he had another woman in tow. ‘Wait until you meet her,’ he had said confidently, adding flesh and hair and bone to insult.
‘And why should I meet her? Why should you expect that?’ she had asked, keeping her voice even like a spirit level. Level and liquid and bobbing and settling. Fool, said the olive-green bubble inside the glass, fool and floosie and fuck. All her rationing was overthrown in an instant: six fags in a silver box on her dressing table, lovingly placed there each night, the heavy silver lighter alongside. Now she plucked them from a torn packet and lit them from the gas. She might as well bite her nails and be done with it.
‘And have you spoken to Martine?’ she had asked. ‘Is she aware of this new situation?’
‘She will be,’ her son had replied complacently. ‘I thought I'd tell you first.’
At least that had given her something to do. ‘I won't tell her, you know. That's for you. Not that I imagine you had the nerve …’
‘No, no,’ he said wearily. ‘Though you used to do so much of my dirty work…’
‘If you mean washing your rugby gear and cricket whites. Fat lot of good…’
Then, because she felt close to tears, she had turned her back, gone into her bedroom and shut the door.'
Eyeing herself in the motel mirror the next morning Sara is overcome by a feeling of faintness. All through the long journey, through the morning chill when the taxi called, the afternoon warmth and then the gathering dusk, she had sought out rules of conduct for herself. And all she had arrived at was something to do with appearance: she page 164 would be natural, her manners would be plain and pared. But looking at puffy eyes and gaunt cheekbones, a mouth devoid of lipstick, gave her pause.
‘Just a moment,’ she called to Bruce who was waiting in the tiny living area: formica table, two chairs with glittery seats, shiny benchtop and electric jug with folded cord. She ran cold water into her hands and dashed it onto her face. Then, quickly, she patted a little moisturiser onto her face and began automatically, unthinkingly, as if her resolve was not yet translated, applying foundation, smoothing it up to her hairline, onto her nose and chin. Finally she drew in her mouth with lip pencil and filled it in, like a teacher marking children's essays.
‘You okay, doll?’ Bruce asked when they were in the car again and Sara was fastening her seatbelt. ‘Not terrified of the mother, I hope.’
‘Doll’ and ‘the Mother’ were typical of his vocabulary: add-ons that bore no relation to a situation. But ‘doll’, now she was lightly but securely made up, seemed oddly comforting.
‘Why do you call her the Mother? It makes her sound like the Don.’
‘She is a Don. Haven't you ever noticed how worried those movie Dons are? Bad health and family worries. Who to shoot and who to protect.’
‘Stop it,’ Sara cried. ‘You're making me terrified. And don't call me doll again until the day's over.’
Hermione stood at her kitchen bench pushing runner beans through the slicer. She had picked them in the early morning, mindlessly as if she was milking a cow. Runner beans, mashed potato, fillet steak. The beans and potatoes in serving dishes, the steaks on a platter. A bought apple pie and whipped cream. Perhaps Bruce would see a protest in it. ‘Where's the third vegetable?’ he might demand. Instead he'd eat three of the small tender steaks, using a corner of a bread roll to mop up the juices. The beans, sliced down both sides, emerged like thin snakes. Martine had always thought them terribly superior. ‘Plain things done well,’ Hermione insisted. She meant blatantly. Hadn't she read recently that someone had been served a dish of mashed potatoes in a Paris restaurant? If only Martine was driving carefully, mindful of the page 165 precious cargo in the back. Perhaps Cody's chatter would help her concentration.
In this Hermione was correct. Cody was bouncing about on the back seat where he had insisted on sitting so he could be close to his new pack. ‘Did you know we are going kayaking?’ he shouted at his mother. ‘Kayaking, kayaking. Do you think we could build a kayak when we get back?’
‘You'll have to ask your father,’ Martine said but her instruction was lost in a further litany. ‘They teach us how to fall out without drowning and how to get the right way up. We have to wear helmets. Rations, I bet we have rations. When will we get there, will it be soon?’
Neither her imaginings nor Bruce's description had prepared Sara for her first sighting of Geierstein. They passed through the little town, then sparse suburbs until they were in the country. They turned into a long drive bordered with chestnuts; the drive ended and there was an expanse of lawn; the house, white, gabled, with wide verandahs, seemed like a long white bejewelled hand.
‘Shouldn't we go to the back door?’ Sara whispered.
‘Daft ape. Nothing to be awed about. Scent of dog and all that.’
The door was opened suddenly and a large imposing woman accompanied by a golden spaniel came towards them, extending a hand. ‘Bruce,’ she said, addressing him first, ‘and you must be Sara. Come in. The dog's name is Sidney,’ she said to Sara, looking at her directly for the first time. ‘He's nearly blind.’
It was a comfortable room: chintzes faded to the delicacy of a hoar frost, pale golds bleached to old dog bones. A big bowl of chrysanthemums, funeral flowers, sat on a low table among piles of books.
‘There,’ said Bruce, lolling back in a huge sofa. ‘I've got the two of you together at last. No mean feat, if I say so myself. Now what's for lunch?’
‘Are you a good cook?’ the woman said suddenly. ‘They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.’
‘And an army marches on its belly. What do you get when you join two clichés?’page 166
‘I've no idea,’ said his mother. ‘There always seem to be a good many present at any one time.’
The spaniel came and lolled against Sara's feet and she felt grateful.
‘Do you drink gin? Would you like a gin and tonic?’ Bruce's mother asked. ‘I feel like something before lunch.’
‘Sara doesn't like gin. It makes her maudlin,’ her son explained.
‘I'm sure Sara can speak for herself. Would you like something else?’
‘Just a glass of water, if you don't mind. Thank you.’
Hermione Blackstock rose a little unsteadily to her feet. There was a long silence in which only the spaniel shifted his position and Bruce's hand covered Sara's where it rested on the chintz.
Martine, turning the car after depositing her child at the cub camp, had the rest of the day to herself. Cody had gone with hardly a backwards glance, anxious that she not help him with his pack. Later he would probably be angry to find the sweets and biscuits among his clothing. All his adoration now would be directed at Akela, a white bristle-haired woman wearing a bone wolf's-head scarf toggle. One evening last winter Martine had arrived to collect Cody and been horrified by raw-throated growls of allegiance issuing from mouths of mere babes. On your head, she thought as she drove off. If your child grows up into Wolfman. There had been something disturbingly sexual about the growls: perhaps by taking on the characters of animals they could be as uninhibited as animals were supposed to be. She imagined herself in a wolf skin, eyes narrowed and cold, advancing on the scene now taking place in her mother-in-law's house. Cold grey eyes against the window, or were wolves' eyes yellow?
Why should she not stay away for the night. Find a motel or a hotel, put an elaborate dinner on her credit card. She could phone home later to say she was safe. Or not phone at all. Have the hospitals discreetly phoned, the police.
Autumn was in the air and the poplars were shedding. Unwillingly they tossed down a scattering of small gold leaves like a miser throwing a handful of coins. But it took a gust of breeze to shake each handful loose.
There was a white gravel road to her left and she turned down it. page 167 The water came in a crystal tumbler on a silver tray. Was it an insult? Sara wondered. But the hand that lifted the gin and tonic trembled slightly and heavy rings made a faint tintinnabulation against the glass. We are both full of fear, Sara realised, suddenly. And the need, since the situation is so desperate, to say nothing. Perhaps she is that rare mother who loves her daughter-in-law, loves her more even than her son. Though that was unlikely. Bruce had all the marks of indulgence: where else would his confidence, including his confidence to deliver this blow, arise?
‘Well, we might as well come through,’ said Hermione. ‘Though I warn you it is plain. Such a week …’
‘Plain will be wonderful,’ said Sara and it did seem so. Something as lacking in artifice and flavouring as rice pudding. Though even that could be creamy and elevated by long cooking into something beyond itself. The thought of some elaborate dish now, something to be cut like Gigi eating ortolans, would be intolerable.
The long dining table, its beautiful surface reflecting a bowl of late roses, could have seated an estranged king and queen at either end with no prospect of conversation. Three place mats had been laid at one end, three water glasses, three linen napkins laid across three large white plates like arrows. In Sara's home the plates would have been hot, juggled from hand to hand as they were brought from the oven, like a conjuring act. It was a rule caught from her mother: sometimes the vegetables or a sauce would hiss. But Sara could not help admiring the beans. Long, unbelievably thin, stringless, lying in a white dish with a cover, a knob of butter draining over them, a scattering of parsley. How could they have been prepared in a distraught state, what was the purpose of such perfection?
‘Help yourself,’ said Hermione, pushing a serving dish towards her. ‘Plain as I said.’
‘You could never be that, darling,’ said Bruce. ‘Even if you had gone down with the Titanic you would have changed.’
‘Oh I doubt it,’ replied his mother. ‘I very much doubt it. I might have gone back for a shawl and a good slug of whisky. What would you have done, Sara?’page 168
‘I would have been in steerage,’ said Sara slowly. ‘Perhaps the doors would have been bolted. I would probably have got back into bed and pulled a pillow over my head.’
‘No, darling. You would have been braver than that.’
Two darlings, equally shared.
‘I think it is wonderful, the way you have done the beans.’
The sealed road, old-fashioned in its submission to landscape, dipped and rose as if inhaling and expelling breath. Martine imagined she was driving a gig or a phaeton, allowing the horse its head or tightening the reins on the crest of a hill. Occasionally there was a small hump-backed bridge. Martine reached her hand into the glove compartment and put on Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain. The notes took off like birds, the low ones resting in the hollows, the high soaring but pinioned. A little flock of white gulls rose from a ploughed field. Finally the little road reached the sea. Martine parked above a rocky outcrop. Small bright waves dashed themselves to pieces. Indefatigably the spray flew and the wave beaks reassembled. But such could not be said of the human heart. Hadn't Martine read that the only time the heart had to heal itself was between beats? With what patience it must wait for each echo to end. An image of splints and bandages, tiny plasterings and stopgap cauterisings came into her mind. One day, when all this was over, for everything ended, even heartbeats, would she bear some unseen scars, weakness that required repair? And what should she do now, how should she act? Never in her life had Martine acted. She had performed and acquitted herself; not merely had she accepted the roles that came her way, she had leapt into them like an eager Alsatian through a burning hoop. Marriage, wifehood, motherhood: these were wide and variable but titles nonetheless. Only for a short period of her life had there been uncertainty: during six months travelling in Europe she had quarrelled with a girlfriend and been abandoned in Pisa. The friend, Bianca, had disappeared in a crowd in the Piazza del Duomo. When Martine returned to the pensione there was a note on the bed. Her panic was at first extreme: she continued her itinerary but rarely ventured outside local tours. Even in the art galleries she attached herself to a group. No wonder her son, who had inherited page 169 her temperament beneath his father's looks, liked Akela. At least for a few days he would be safe: taken in by wolves who had decided to suckle, not devour.
Hermione, clearing the plates and taking them through to the kitchen—Sara had risen to her feet and offered to help but a single wave of a heavily-ringed hand had stopped her—was aware her temples were aching. She wet a corner of a teatowel under the tap and pressed it against her head. She left the tap running to indicate she was busy. She rested her elbows on the sink and gazed out at the autumn garden. All the summer order was obliterated: a covering of leaves, like bad omens, smudged every outline; one had caught in a cobweb on the head of the little statue of Psyche. She longed for Bruce and his woman to go. Let the leaves fall on them and cover them, she thought. Then she thought of Peter Pan trying to stick his shadow on with soap.
A few beans lay at the bottom of the serving dish and Hermione stuck her finger in and tasted the congealed butter. Cody had imagined they were green worms and she had once served them to him atop a pile of noodles.
‘What are you doing, mother?’
‘I'm just finishing off the beans.’
‘The beans were wonderful,’ Sara said, when the dessert had been carried through and there had been a return trip to collect a bowl of whipped cream. ‘I've never seen beans done like that before.’
‘I'll show you before you go,’ Hermione said and proceeded to pass the plates.
Sara had half-expected Bruce's mother to ask how they had met, what chance encounter had sparked what she would obviously regard as a cataclysm. She had rehearsed what she might say on the bus journey, turning it into a mock-serious anti-romance in which she would describe her attempts to escape and then failing. But it was obvious, as the pie was being served, that no such space was to be permitted. Sara was aware, as her fingers grasped the heavy, deep plate, in which a triangle of deep dish apple pie rested, that an inexorable order was being imposed, that the day was moving forward to a conclusion that had nothing to do with her.page 170
Of course I knew Bruce was married, she was going to say. I am not unacquainted with pain myself, being a divorcee. And I hold no brief for ‘eyes meeting across a crowded room’. In this explanation it seemed to Sara her language had changed and become formal, almost judicial. There was no case of resistance at the beginning because there was no occasion requiring its exercise. As the bus travelled interminably through town after town, Sara had said such sentences to herself. And in between she read a novel by Anita Brookner, A Family Romance. There was remarkably little dialogue in the novel but when it did occur it was vicious and debilitating.
‘More dessert? Seconds?’ Bruce's mother was asking.
‘No, thank you,’ Sara replied, with a hint of protest in her voice.
‘You've done us proud, mother,’ Bruce said and his tone was light and mocking. ‘We didn't expect as much. Not quite the fatted calf but very creditable.’
‘You always know what to expect,’ his mother replied, lifting the silver coffee pot and holding it poised over a fine bone china cup.
The dinner party at which Sara and Bruce had met—Sara paired with a bachelor who turned out to be confirmed, Bruce tacked on at the last minute as a visiting cousin—was romantic in the extreme. All the lighting was provided by candles, to cover, as the hostess put it, stains and pulled threads on the carpet, her next renovating project. There were candles on windowsills and on an old dark dresser where plates ghostlily gleamed, silver candlesticks, candles in huge pottery candleholders of gothic proportions. Sara was grateful, after a few sentences convinced her the bachelor was uninterested; perhaps, like her, he had just fancied an evening out. The dinner itself was as mysterious as a medieval feast: here and there something in a casserole glowed, a golden carrot, an aubergine.
‘It gave me time to observe you,’ Bruce would say later. The candlelight allowed a liberty that was almost medical. Besides, Sara had shown no reciprocal interest and that, to Bruce, sorely in need of a challenge, was part of it.
Martine reached the next small town before deciding to stop. She could phone her mother-in-law from there. It was strange how, in the page 171 last few weeks, Hermione had turned into almost a mother. ‘Keep in touch. Promise,’ she had insisted as Martine and Cody drove off. And, ‘I won't be going to any fuss, I can assure you. If I had one of those Borgia rings I might be tempted to slip something in the wine.’
‘Don't be silly,’ Martine had said, but she felt relieved.
Instead of a motel which would be too sterile and lonely she chose something called the Liechtenstein Inn. A blue and red flag with a crown flew from a little flagpole bedded in the garden and surrounded by petunias: Liechtenstein seemed the sort of place she could cope with. Her room looked out over the back garden where vegetables grew. The receptionist offered her apologies: the Liechtenstein Inn occasionally hosted winners of mystery weekend getaways and they required the best rooms. A middle-aged couple, flushed and triumphant, with far too much luggage, were just getting out of a stretch limo in front of the hotel. The staff assembled to make a welcome line and Martine, seizing her opportunity, quickly exited, as if the compliment was for herself.
Martine found a coffee shop and ordered a cappuccino. She lifted the froth off, spoonful by spoonful, and licked the spoon. She decided to call her mother-in-law from a phonebox. The phone rang fifteen times before Hermione answered, sounding flustered.
‘I'm on the kitchen extension,’ she said and there was a clattering sound as if something was being lifted and noisily put down. ‘Everything's okay, I think. Or will be. Can you phone back this evening?’
Martine promised to try; the new intimacy her mother-in-law seemed to be proposing had consequences she wanted to think about.
‘Go shopping,’ Hermione said, before she hung up. ‘You've got your credit card, haven't you? Buy yourself some perfume.’
But Martine was not in the mood to shop. There was a surprisingly upmarket florist though and after examining everything she had the assistant assemble a giant bouquet. ‘Do you want a card?’ the girl asked as coloured and brown paper was wound around making a cornet tied with raffia twine.
‘Just put “With love”,’ Martine said. ‘No name, I'll deliver it myself.’page 172
‘Some lucky person,’ the assistant remarked.
‘Someone very very lucky indeed.’
Sara and Bruce sat side by side on the sofa drinking coffee. The sofa had huge rolled arms on which a cup could balance. They were alone though sounds of the dishwasher being stacked reached them. Sara's offer to help had been firmly declined. There was a new firmness now, Sara thought. In two more hours Bruce would drive her to the motel to collect her scanty luggage and then to the bus station.
‘It's not going to work,’ said Sara, covering the sound of her voice by setting her cup down on a low table.
‘Don't even think that. The mother will come round. When she stops rustling her garments.’
‘Garments of china and cutlery,’ said Sara, trying to look cheerful but her mouth twitched. China or armour, what did it matter?
‘At least she hasn't openly opposed. She could have thrown a tantrum. Quite within her range, believe you me.’
‘I'm unworthy of a tantrum, I expect,’ said Sara softly.
‘Darling … don't …’
They were holding hands when Hermione returned with a refilled coffee pot.
‘I feel I've been disagreeable,’ she said. ‘Not myself. I was wondering, Bruce, if Sara would like one of the new puppies? Do you like dogs, Sara?’
‘I do,’ said Sara. ‘God spelt backwards.’ She felt pleased she was talking in code. ‘I'd love to see them.’
‘Bruce will take you then. You'd probably like to get outdoors.’
They walked towards the barn in which the puppies were housed. Bruce kicked a few leaves and Sara noticed the gesture. She trod firmly on a few and they crackled. Could she make some light remark about puppies, puppies as payoff? She thought not. It would make a puppy seem a substitute for Bruce. How many puppies make a man? The puppies trembled and huddled in a large wooden crate with no lid. The mother lay triumphant or depleted on her side, as if feeding was being open to the elements.
‘Why did your mother offer?’ Sara asked.page 173
‘It's just the sort of thing she is likely to do. Being Lady Bountiful.’
But the sight of the puppies confirmed she was outgunned. The way they rolled and cascaded over one another, landing up at a teat, that kind of bounty she had no preparation for. Her parents, had they wanted a dog, would have gone to a pet shop. There is a sort of largesse that can never be made up or, once lacking, assumed. Perhaps Hermione had seen this and was using the puppies to deliver a message. Roll around with my son if you like but remember you are not born for it. A defeat by furniture.
‘What shall we do?’ Sara asked Bruce as they walked back.
‘Do? Why nothing. We shall continue. Wear the opposition down. Just be.’
When she said nothing, he took her hand and squeezed. ‘Courage, mon brave.’
Hermione, now the house was hers for a short space, debated what to do with the time. Another gin? Half an hour stretched out on her bed? Neither would do: she needed all her faculties and she might fall asleep. At least Sara had shown a spark of intelligence in the remark about the dog. Both had recognised the offer was ridiculous, a kind of brutality, trading in living flesh. That was Shylock's bluff but it was amazing how it could be applied to gifts. Then she thought of the bean slicer, something small and easily replaced. She went into her bedroom and carefully repaired her face, stripping it back the way one would strip a house wall. Layer by layer she built it up again. A temporary filling, she thought, looking in the mirror. Then she went downstairs, found a twist of dark green paper left over from Christmas and wrapped the bean slicer in it.
Sara waved from the bus window as the bus pulled out, then she averted her head. She knew Bruce would expect her to wave or make some signal for as long as he was within sight, standing forlornly beside his car like a knight beside his steed. There must be a beginning, she thought. A beginning to an end. And if she could just turn her head away, she could make some small start. She thought of her parents and the modest private way they had lived their lives. Until now she page 174 had not realised it was a style, one that could be chosen. You could choose not to be a debutante, not to celebrate anniversaries at restaurants, not to have your faces in the paper proclaiming tolerance made a good marriage. Nonetheless, as they passed the first small town, Sara knew she had been defeated. Bruce did not know it yet, her slightly stiff farewell was an intimation.
‘Thank you for suggesting a puppy,’ she had said to his mother, using the childish word to show she had understood.
‘I understand of course, dear. Silly of me.’ Then she had pressed the slender green parcel on her. ‘Open it later, not here.’
‘I'll phone you when you get home,’ Bruce had said.
‘It'll be too late. Wait until the morning.’
It was the beginning of the end and for the first time during the weekend Sara felt faintly amused. There would be another invader, eventually. Another woman to be regaled over a beautiful table, to be served thin green beans in a covered dish. And eventually another woman to be accepted, because for all the successful defence this time, there was a dark dissolving begun. Why, the bus travelling into the dark might even pass the wife's car heading home. Too many ironies take away the truth of the matter, thought Sara just before she turned on her side in her seat—luckily there was no one beside her—tucked her legs under and fell asleep.
Between her fingers she held her handbag strap and the long thin parcel. It feels like a knife, she thought. But I won't open it yet.