Authors: Angela Huth
ANGELA HUTH has written twelve novels, four collections of short stories, and has put together various anthologies, including one of eulogies. She has also written plays for radio, television and the stage. After thirty years in Oxford she and her husband, the historian James Howard-Johnston, now live in Warwickshire. She has two daughters and, to date, five grandsons.
Copyright © Angela Huth 2015
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Virginia Fly is Drowning
Invitation to the Married Life
Wives of the Fishermen
Once a Land Girl
South of the Lights
Monday Lunch in Fairyland and other stories
Such Visitors and other stories
Another Kind of Cinderella and other stories
The Collected Stories of Angela Huth
The Trouble with Old Lovers
I was forty last week and I didn’t mind. Everyone warned me it would be a terrible day, traumatising. But it wasn’t. I said I didn’t want any fuss, and there was none. Some jokey cards. A few pastoral scenes from those who know my love of the country. Sylvie had taken great trouble in painting a bunch of bright tulips – the black parrots, done with a wobbly hand, made their petals authentically frilly. She also gave me a pair of purple kid gloves which she confessed, even before I’d unwrapped them, that Dan had paid for ‘mostly.’ Dan produced a first edition of
Jude the Obscure
and took me out to dinner. He was all for going somewhere with a star or two. But I chose our local Italian, where I’m never disappointed.
So the fortieth birthday was no more than a brief interruption in our normal life. Carlotta, still at the superior age of thirty-six, rang to warn me that from now on I should pay some attention to my appearance and well-being. Daily vitamins were a help, she said, and suggested various expensive potions that could be rubbed into the skin at night. I agreed, but took no notice. I only take Carlotta’s advice on more serious matters. When she tries to be helpful in a practical way she assumes an earnestness that doesn’t become her. I listen politely, but ignore all she says. She couldn’t resist adding that from now on I should also be aware that my powers of attraction would diminish visibly. I said I couldn’t care less: so long as Dan didn’t find me wanting, I was happy. We both laughed, but could not read each other’s laughter. It was one of those short, off-key conversations with a great friend that leave a silt of unease once the telephone is put down. It stays with you for a few moments, faintly unsettling, before it’s put aside.
So now it’s back to routine life, thank God. The birthday forgotten, the daily hum resumed. Once the front door has banged – Dan and Sylvie gone – I climb the three storeys to the attic room which I turned into my studio five or six years ago. By the time I’m half way up the stairs – the balding edges of the carpet widen a little every week, I notice, but they’ve done well for fifteen years – I can hear the hoover in the hall. Gwen arrives at 8.30 every morning through the back door. She’s never late, and her routine never changes. Hall, sitting-room, dining-room, kitchen – either a ‘thorough’ or a ‘flick over’ depending on the day. The upstairs floors, we agreed when we devised this routine, need never receive the same attention as the downstairs.
Gwen came to us nine years ago. Her reliability, good humour and apparent love of domestic work proved to be understated in the formal reference from her previous employer. She has the energy of someone half her age. I’m not sure precisely what that is, but she must be over sixty. My respect for her, and devotion to her, are boundless. But I don’t want to talk to her – or to anyone – before I have made a start every morning. I like to arrive in my studio unencumbered by greetings and small talk, and feel I’m well into a pool of solitary silence before I sit down and begin.
I explained all this to Gwen when she first came. She understood absolutely, said she liked to start quietly, too. She couldn’t abide talk when she was polishing, she assured me: it disturbed the concentration. So our understanding on the matter of how we like to begin our working days is one of so many things we agree upon, and is part of the great fortune of Gwen in our lives.
There’s no telephone in the studio: I’ve no wish for any calls. I do have a mobile, a very complicated affair which Sylvie has explained to me a thousand times but I still haven’t quite understood, so I find it easier not to turn it on unless I’m in the car. Thus I’m unobtainable until lunchtime: a state I relish greatly.
This morning when I went down to the kitchen for coffee with Gwen at ten-thirty (we allow ourselves ten minutes) she said the telephone had rung at least five times. As persistence always seems to me to threaten importance, I felt a frisson of irritation. I did not want this fine morning to be broken by some vital news outside my work. But I assured Gwen I’d ring before going back upstairs. ‘You carry on’, I said.
By this I meant you go ahead with your resumé of news in the
She likes to read me a few snippets from her own copy every day, and is very good at picking out the bits bound to entertain, and leaves out the provocative views that she knows would annoy me (Gwen is very right wing but she doesn’t like to argue about politics). This daily reading service, which came about unplanned last year, provides me with an insight into tabloid thinking which, Gwen feels, is necessary to one like me who lives mostly in a narrow world of her own (she’s never been so impolite as to call it narrow, but I believe that’s what she thinks). In fact the routine continues for her own enjoyment rather than my interest. I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to suggest the habit should be broken, but one day I will.
Before going back upstairs I reluctantly listened to the answering machine. Four of the five messages were from Dan. Could I ring him as soon as possible? He’d just been speaking to Bert Bailey, back from New York, and had invited him to supper tonight. Would that be OK? Nothing complicated. No need to make a great effort.
Bert Bailey? Nothing complicated?
I racked my brain. Both about supper – thinking of delicious uncomplicated suppers is not my forte – and this Bailey man. Then it came to me:
Bailey. Of course. Dan’s oldest friend, not seen for years. It would be good to see him again, though I wish there’d been a bit more notice. Sea bass, I thought, and ginger cheesecake. Quick and easy. I rang Dan to agree, hoping I sounded eager. He then suggested it might be a good idea to ask another woman. Carlotta, why not? They’d known each other as children. I contained a sigh. That would mean more telephoning. If I didn’t ring Carlotta
, she’d be in one of her eternal meetings. But I agreed again. The small thought that perhaps Gilbert would have preferred to be with just the two of us, after so long, would have taken more precious moments of discussion with Dan. I rang Carlotta – as always having to dash, but yes, delighted to come – and saw Gwen open the fridge. She shot me a look of sympathy which meant there wasn’t much by way of help within it. I stomped back upstairs. By now the morning was a broken thing, crumbled to bits. I knew that whatever I accomplished between now and lunchtime would not be much good: the spell, that earlier had been strong, had vanished.
are lethal to the concentration. It was one of those days on which I wished I was alone in the Shetland Isles close to sea, rocks, churning skies – nothing, and no one, to disturb.
The telephone was ringing as I got into the office – ten minutes late, usual bloody traffic. I snatched it up, before Lesley had a chance. She was still fiddling with her watch. One day I’m going to buy her a new one that doesn’t take up so much of her time. It was Bert. Bert! I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t recognise his voice for a moment. Then he said ‘
. Your old friend – remember?’ I apologised.
, hell. Friends since school – best friends, declared formally somewhere on the banks of the Thames. Oxford together, saw each other a good deal before Isabel and I were married. Travelled together all over the place before we settled down to earning a living. But he’d chosen the army, was so often posted abroad. We lost touch, though of course I read about his heroism in the Gulf War and sent congratulations. Then he left soldiering, a distinguished colonel, and went to work for an oil company in New York. Now it seems he’s returned home to retire. Retire? He’s the same age as me. I chided him. He changed it to ‘semi-retire’. ‘And to find a wife, perhaps, at last’, he said. There’d been no time in the army, and he hadn’t fancied any American girls. Wonder if he’ll succeed. My impression is he’s a bit clumsy where women are concerned. Anyhow, I asked him to supper tonight and he’s coming. When I suggested to Isabel it might be more entertaining for Bert if we asked some girl, too, said she’d ask Carlotta – though no hope there. I rather wish this first re-union could have been just Bert and me, get through all the stuff that won’t interest Isabel much. But never mind: we’ll have lunch together next week.
Looking forward to seeing Bert in the evening put a brighter colour on the day. There wasn’t much to do, a few proposals to read, couple of calls to H.K. I spent an hour studying a catalogue of a Christie’s wine sale, wishing I had the wherewithal for some of the really good stuff. Still, I might go. Pick up a case or two. During the slow morning I wished that I, too, could semi-retire. But I can’t: not for some years. We’re not extravagant, Isabel and I, by any means. Quite modest by some standards. But what with council tax, two cars to run, decent holidays, school fees, all from taxed income, it’s hard to feel well off, lucky though we are compared with many. I like working hard: endeavour is not my problem. But the trouble is I’m bored by the import-export business, although I’m known – and privately confess – to be good at it. In an ideal world I’d never again have to think about trading, balancing, the implications of fluctuations of the economy. I’d like to cease to advise the company on the state of world finances. I’m fed up with figures, and forcing myself every morning through the City pages. That’s not my natural world. I’m delighted it brings me a decent salary, but money cannot really make up for the hostility I have to my job. In a few years, God willing, I’ll join Bert in semi-retirement and write. Every day, all the time.
Ay, there’s the rub, as they say. My plays.
I was blighted, I suppose, by a hugely successful start – success of a very minor kind in relation to the outside world, but of monumental importance in university life. As a student of the Classics, I’d just seen
at the Playhouse, and remember saying to Bert I was gobsmacked. He was reading Law, hadn’t understood a word of the Greek, so was unable to agree with me. I’d only persuaded him to come with me on the promise of dinner at The Elizabeth. We drank several bottles of mediocre wine, ate horribly creamy chicken, and I declared I now knew my calling in life: I was to be a playwright.
Bert was always one for encouraging his friends – in any direction they fancied going. So he solemnly expressed faith in my ability in this area, despite the fact there was not a shred of evidence that I could write anything, let alone a play. We drank several more glasses to my future success. I wrote a cheque which amounted to three weeks of my allowance, but had not a care. Then we staggered back up St. Aldates. There was a moment when we had to stop and cling to the post office. Bert promised to be there on the first night. As we parted, I gave him one of those gentlemanly punches in the stomach that I had learnt from my father, and said ‘God, Bert, old man: life is bloody marvellous’. By now he was past agreeing, and I was too drunk to wonder if he managed the next hundred yards to Balliol.
What Bert never expected, I imagine, was that there would be a first night: that I would write a play. But I started it next morning within a few hours of the hangover lifting. It was about, I suppose, love and truth and hidden meaning – but lightly conveyed. There were plenty of jokes to adorn the serious base. I wrote almost without stopping for two weeks – well, it was only my second year. Finals were still on the horizon. And anyway I couldn’t help myself. I wrote furiously, as if guided from above, as some famous writer once put it. It was the most exciting, stimulating two weeks of my life so far. At the end of it was a neatly typed script, bound in green, all as professional as I could manage. Then I showed it to a friend – no, more of an acquaintance, to be truthful – much involved in student drama. Two days after delivering it to his pigeon hole there was the answer I hadn’t even dared to hope for: ‘
’, was Fergus’s reply. ‘We’ll do it’.