Quarrelling

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Tears before Bedtime by Barbara Skelton
    Hamish Hamilton, 205 pp, £12.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12326 7
  • In the Pink by Caroline Blackwood
    Bloomsbury, 164 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0050 9

‘You must explain to me why Cyril wants Barbara,’ Evelyn Waugh wrote to Ann Fleming in September 1955, a year after Barbara Skelton’s marriage to Cyril Connolly had formally ended. ‘It’s not as though she were rich or a good housekeeper or the mother of his children.’ The following year Edmund Wilson asked Connolly, now two years into his divorce, why he didn’t get someone else. ‘I’m still on the flypaper,’ Connolly replied. ‘I’ve got most of my legs loose, but I haven’t yet quite got off.’ A few months later Skelton married her next husband, George Weidenfeld. Connolly took to his bed, where his ex-wife, according to Wilson, sometimes brought him a bowl of soup.

It was very like Connolly to make an ado of his wife once he had lost her and very like his ex-wife to keep a bloke in hand when the one she wanted was still in the bush. Everyone had expected their marriage to be a disaster. It was and it wasn’t. ‘Saturday,’ Ms Skelton tells us, ‘was the gayest day of the week.’ In the morning they shopped, then they had lunch, then they quarrelled. After that, they did some more shopping, went to the cinema, had supper and quarrelled again. Even more than quarrelling, they enjoyed making plain their dislike of each other. ‘Seeing some red wine all over his face, I say: “What have you got all over your face?” “Hate,” says Cyril.’ On another occasion he is lying half-naked on the bed. ‘Is there anything you want?’ she asks him. ‘That you will drop down dead. That’s all I wish, that you will drop down dead.’ At Christmas she goes to Fortnum’s to buy her husband a present and chooses something she knows he won’t like.

Instead of a child, they acquire Kupy, a small animal that bites. It also sits in its hut in the garden eating its tail while, upstairs in his room, a despondent Connolly sucks the sheets on the bed. Other people didn’t often come to the house: for one thing, the Connollys couldn’t afford to feed them. The household had a reputation, however, and sometimes Connolly’s friends wanted to see it for themselves. Ann Fleming, in her malice, arranged for a party of toffs to call in there for tea: ‘A few days later reports of the visit drift back. They were all disappointed a. they had expected our surroundings to be far more squalid, b. because Kupy had not come out of her hut and bitten someone’s penis and c. because I had not been thoroughly rude to everyone.’ With another year of the four-year marriage to go, people were telling each other that they had already separated. Her former lover, Peter Quennell, eager for bad news, invited her to lunch at the Etoile and asked about her sex life. But that day she didn’t feel like doing Connolly down, so Quennell soon got bored and asked for the bill. While Cyril dined out on their quarrels, his wife, recording the insults day by day in her diary, listed the titles of the books he threw at her in his rage.

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