Authors: Jonathan Coe
THE ACCIDENTAL WOMAN
Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. His most recent novel is
The Rain Before It Falls
. He is also the author of
The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love, The Dwarves of Death, What a Carve Up!
, which won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize,
The House of Sleep
, which won the 1998 Prix Médicis Étranger,
The Rotters’ Club
, winner of the Everyman Wodehouse Prize, and
The Closed Circle
. His biography of the novelist B.S. Johnson,
Like a Fiery Elephant
, won the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for best non-fiction book of the year. He lives in London with his wife and two children.
The Accidental Woman
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published by Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd 1987
First published in Penguin Books in 2000
This edition published 2008
Copyright © Jonathan Coe, 1987
All rights reserved
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance
to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Take a birth. Any birth.
Arriving on the threshold of womanhood (for it is she, as chance would have it) Maria finds herself in Mrs Leadbetter’s study. Mrs Leadbetter the headmistress. She beamed at Maria and waved her to an armchair. Outside it was dark.
‘I won’t keep you long,’ she said. ‘I wanted to say this only: that we are proud of you, Maria. The first of our girls in fifty-four years to have won a place at Oxford. What an opportunity stretches before you. How excited you must be.’
‘One doesn’t like to crow,’ said Mrs Leadbetter, ‘but the boys’ school this year has secured only three places. Out of twelve entrants, this represents only twenty-five per cent. And yet out of our two entrants, you represent fifty per cent success. You must feel very proud.’
Mrs Leadbetter had a peculiar face, very brown and wrinkled. She was a stout woman. Her breasts resembled nothing so much as two Dundee rock cakes (bonus size) of the sort sold in the bakery just around the corner, although strictly speaking this was a comparison which Mr Leadbetter alone was entitled to draw. Maria anyway took no notice of her, her mind running on the school motto,
Per ardua ad astra
, which she could read, upside down, on Mrs Leadbetter’s headed notepaper.
‘In less than a year’s time, Maria, you will be going to Oxford,’ the old woman continued. ‘It is a city of dreams. I went there myself, of course. Yes, I can remember doing my Christmas shopping there once. Have you any idea, Maria, what an exciting time of your life approaches? Freed from school’s closed world, you fling yourself pell-mell into the giddy whirl of life, in the company of life’s gay young things on the doorstep of their dreams.’
Maria did not believe a word of this, of course. She was inexperienced, but not stupid, and in the last few years she had begun to notice things, and to withdraw, unimpressed, from the society of her school friends, her former playmates. Miserable Maria, they had started to call her. Moody Mary. Childish nicknames, that’s all. Shit-face. Snot-bag. Their invention was inexhaustible. Maria’s reserve infuriated Mrs Leadbetter, as usual.
‘You are a quiet girl, Maria. You have a silent and studious disposition, admirable in one so young. You channel your youthful high spirits into the peaceful streams of the intellect, the passive contemplation of the great works of art and literature. You are placid, imperturbable.’
Maria was thinking furiously of a way to be rid of this maniac. She craved her lamp-lit bedroom.
‘All I wanted to say, Maria, is that I and all the staff, all of us here at St Jude’s, are behind you and rooting for you, and are pleased and proud with what you have done. We want your time at Oxford to be the glorious start of a life rich in achievement and fulfilment. You must begin even now to prepare yourself for it, psychologically and spiritually. Think daily on your success, Maria, and what it will mean for you. Look forward to it with joy and anticipation. Be thrilled.’
A hard thing to ask, that, of Maria, whom little thrilled, not even the darkness through which she walked that evening on her way to the bus stop. It was a cold night, and school was empty, but for the cleaners to be seen at work in bright windows. The homeward traffic hummed, the chill breeze swept, Maria shivered.
Beneath the street lamp which marked her bus stop she could see that Ronny was waiting for her. She sensed also that it was going either to rain or to snow, soon, perhaps before she had finished her walk up the long hill. She was too tired to feign pleasure on being greeted by him.
‘I thought I’d wait for you,’ said Ronny. He added, when they were on the top deck of the bus together, driving past the closing shops, the dark offices and factories, ‘Just think, a year from now, we will be in Oxford together.’
‘Ronny,’ said Maria, ‘why did you apply to go to Oxford? You told me once that you never wanted to go there.’
‘I applied because you will be there.’
‘But supposing I hadn’t got in, and you had? Where would have been the sense in that? You did a very dangerous thing, Ronny, because you tried to calculate how things would turn out in the future.’
‘But I was right.’
‘Supposing I were to die before then.’
Here you are to imagine a short silence.
‘I love you, Maria.’
‘And yet you know that I think you are very foolish. If you think you can control your life in this way, then why don’t you find another girl, one who knows what you mean by those words.’
This advice stung Ronny to what we in the trade refer to as the quick. However, he ignored it as usual.
When the bus reached the terminus, they performed a small ritual, as follows. Ronny asked Maria if he could walk her home, Maria refused, Maria descended from the bus, Ronny remained on it, and he then rode all the way back to school and beyond, for his home did not lie in the same direction as Maria’s, no. Accompanying Maria on her bus home involved for him a detour of some twenty-three miles, and the loss on a good day of some seventy-four minutes which could have been usefully spent on homework or on indulgence in pop-eyed sexual reverie. He would arrive home horrendously late, to a cold supper, to the wrath of his parents, to the scorn and taunts of his brothers and sisters. But he suffered all this gladly for Maria. So that’s two clowns we have met already.
Alighting from her bus, Maria next had to walk up the long hill. Certain preparations were essential. She put down her bag, her bag full of books, and buttoned up her coat, every button, for there was an attempt at snow after all. She turned up her collar, and pulled on her gloves. Now a decision had to be made. There was a cafe at the bus terminus where Maria could, if she desired, sit and drink a cup of coffee, or of hot chocolate, or could eat a sandwich, sitting in the corner. She had a favourite seat in the corner, and she could see that it was empty. But she decided against it, this evening, because she did not really have the money, and she did not really have the time, and above all she did not really want to, if the truth be told. So she picked up her bag and began to walk, this aged aged schoolgirl, past the cafe, and past the newspaper shop, past all the shops until there were no more shops, only bare woods on either side of the road, and the occasional house, and the road started to rise and the hill began.
It occurred to Maria, sometimes, as she walked up the hill on dark and frankly cold nights such as this, that there was every chance that one day she might be accosted, and perhaps mugged, and conceivably raped, and then left for dead, for the road was not used much by pedestrians. She did not see what she could very well do about this. She could only get home by climbing the hill, and she was not prepared to stay away from home, in spite of home’s obvious drawbacks, for a night away from home, out in the dark without a roof over your head, where is the pleasure in that. Perhaps her parents might have come to the bus terminus, in their car, and have given her a lift home, but the offer had never been made, and it is by no means certain that had it ever been made Maria would ever have accepted it. The whole question is only important insofar as it should be stressed that among Maria’s sensations, as she walked up the hill of an evening, was the fear that some day something like that might happen, and she was often afraid, at this time of her life, not very afraid but often very slightly fearful, of what might one day befall her. And it was often in the dark that these fears took shape, although generally speaking she preferred the dark to the light, any day of the week.
In those days Maria wrote poems, too. For instance, she composed a poem, or fragments of a poem, on her walk home that evening. It was a peculiar poem, well worth preserving, I wish I could give you the whole of it. Unfortunately it was destroyed, along with so many other mementoes of Maria’s life at this period, in the fire which burnt down half of her parents’ home in 1982. (Touching to reflect that of this event, which is not due for nearly twelve years yet, she has at present little inkling.) The poem concerned, among other things, the contact of half-formed snowflakes with unresisting cheek, the act of unthinking uphill progression, the texture of street lamp glow where it merges with winter sky, and the comfort to be derived from states of solitude. Maria felt happiest when she was alone, by and large, but the thought of being always alone terrified her, because she was only human, the source you might say of all her problems. Why Maria wrote these poems, what pleasure she took in wrestling with emotions, disguising them as thoughts and misrepresenting them in words, what satisfaction she derived from copying them out in a fair hand and reading them over to herself, I cannot say. Probably none.
Arriving home, Maria shouted hello to her mother, at work in the kitchen, for she was not averse to showing affection occasionally, and then went straight upstairs to her bedroom, where her brother was practising the violin. He stopped when she came in and they had a short, monosyllabic conversation. Sympathy, understanding, affection, trust, liking and love are all words completely inappropriate to describe the feelings felt by Maria for her brother, and vice versa. Soon he folded his music stand and left, much to Maria’s satisfaction. Alone again and inside at last, things were looking up. She deliberated between her bed and her chair, opting finally for the latter as being the more conducive to thought, since she wanted to think. She turned her bedside light on, the other lights off, and, while up, she wondered whether to listen to some music, on her portable cassette player. She decided not, because it was hard to think while listening to music, in her experience, you only ended up wasting one or the other. No, there was no need for music, that evening.
She thought, believe it or not, about Mrs Leadbetter’s words. These were what occupied her young mind. They made no sense to her, not surprisingly, but more disturbing than that, Maria could think of no reason for Mrs Leadbetter’s having spoken them which made sense to her either. She had a feeling, she had had a feeling in the study that afternoon, that something was expected of her, that now that she had done what had been expected of her, namely, passed her exam, something else was going to be expected of her. It was not simply that she was expected to be pleased with herself for having passed her exam, she was already pleased with herself for having passed the exam, she would not have taken the exam if she had not thought that to pass it would give her pleasure. Rather, her unease had something to do with the peculiar way in which it seemed to be required that she should manifest her pleasure. Maria had never been good at manifesting pleasure, although she was quite capable of feeling it, in her own way. As for excitement, that was quite beyond her, and had been since the age of about seven. So Mrs Leadbetter was really asking the impossible of her. This gave no particular cause for alarm, Maria had never felt any need to do what Mrs Leadbetter asked of her. However, she suspected that it meant that her parents would also ask the impossible of her, and this was more serious, partly because the bearability of domestic life depended to a large extent on the maintenance of good relations with her father and mother, and partly because she still bore towards them the vestiges of a sense of duty, the origins of which she had always chosen, sensibly, not to analyse.
But perhaps we could undertake this analysis for her.
Her gratitude towards her parents centred mainly, unbelievable though this may seem, around some memories for which they were indirectly responsible. Yes, Maria had happy memories of her childhood, who hasn’t. We all have our memories, we hoard them up and shape them to our requirements. We do things simply so that one day, it may be the next, we shall have the pleasure of remembering them, I can’t think of any other reason. Yet it is curious, isn’t it, there can be few things more useless, for practical purposes, than happy memories, except perhaps hopes, but then I don’t want to start getting difficult at this stage. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. These memories, anyway, were of events which used to take place on Sunday afternoons, little family excursions, walks and drives, to places of scenic or historic interest. They would climb into the car, the four of them, mother and father and Maria and little Bobby, and they would go to the woods, or to the common, or to the hills, or to a village, or to a museum, or to a garden, or to pick blackberries if it was the blackberry season, or to sit and watch the fishermen if it was the fishing season. Maria regarded these outings as evidence of parental affection, which was reasonable enough, for if her parents had been doing it merely to get the children out of the house, then they would not have come with them, but would have sent them out alone, or with an aunt or an uncle, and if they had merely wanted to get out of the house themselves, then they would have left the children behind, under the care perhaps of their grandparents. This affection seemed all the stranger, too, when she considered that as children she and Bobby had been, to put it mildly, insufferable, and much prone to fighting, and shouting, and biting, and screaming, and peeing, and puking. There was one Sunday afternoon which she remembered with particular fondness. She remembered it even now, this evening, in her bedroom chair. They had gone to the park, they called it the park, it was a ragged construct of meadow, trees, gorse, hawthorn, stretching over a hill or two five miles from home, with a fine view, for those who like that sort of thing, of the countryside, in one direction, and of Birmingham, in the other, and not far from the motorway, that was its real attraction, so that it was never quiet up there, you could always hear the roar of the traffic as well as the singing of birds, the mooing of cows, and all the other country noises which are so nice, if that sort of stuff appeals to you. The park. It was here one Sunday afternoon that Maria and her family were separated, by chance, for ten minutes at the most, but to Maria it seemed longer, much longer. She can only have been seven or eight. How she cried, and ran, and wandered, tearing her socks on the brambles and falling, in the end, so hard that she could not get up, and how they had called, Maria! Maria!, further and nearer, further and nearer. It was the crying finally drew them to her. Meanwhile a man had found her, he had come across her in the grass. Hello, little girl, he had said, why are you crying, or words to that effect, he had asked some bloody stupid question anyway, she remembered that much. In retrospect he had probably been going to molest her, this thought had not occurred to Maria at the time. But at that moment Bobby found her, he had heard the sobs, and then her mother was stooping to cradle her and brushing away the tears with the arm of her rough tweed overcoat, and Maria, although she did not stop crying for a good while yet, had never known joy like it, before or since.