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On the ShelfTom Crewe
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Vol. 42 No. 9 · 7 May 2020

On the Shelf

Tom Crewe

1839 words

Some of us​ are trapped all our lives. This is the lesson of Beryl Bainbridge’s novel Injury Time, first published in 1977. It is a sort of dinner party farce, except better. The aptly named Edward Freeman asks his friend Simpson and Simpson’s wife, Muriel, to spend the evening with him and his mistress, Binny, at Binny’s house. Binny, a divorced single mother, is ‘sick to death of being introduced only to those boozy male acquaintances of his who thought he was a hell of a dog for getting his leg over’, and Edward feels guilty: ‘He gave her so little; he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.’

All four of them are middle-aged or close to it, and have children. Edward and Binny ‘could never do anything until her ten-year-old had settled down for the night. They could usually start doing something at about five to eleven, and then they had to do it very quickly because Edward had to leave at quarter past.’ Binny thinks that ‘being constantly with the children was like wearing a pair of shoes that were expensive and too small. She couldn’t bear to throw them out but they gave her blisters.’ ‘I wonder,’ she asks her friend Alma, ‘if we should hit the children more?’

She had started with such liberal leftish ideas upon most things – education, socialism, capital punishment, sex and so forth – and then, like an old and tired horse knowing the road home, had veered inexorably to the right. Only the other day her son had called her a fascist pig. It was true she didn’t want to share anything anymore, particularly not with the children.

Injury Time isn’t the sort of novel that anyone writes these days: 150 pages of smart, efficient prose; characters and situation ruthlessly developed and then as ruthlessly discarded. Enormous skill is expended on a construction that builds rapid momentum, is packed with vitality, and then is abruptly over and done, roaring off into a chilly dark unknown, like sending a dog into space. It is typical of the books Bainbridge was writing in the 1970s, for her an improbably productive and artistically successful decade, in which she also published Harriet Said … (1972), The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) and Sweet William (1975), to name only a few.

In Injury Time, as in all these books, there is a brisk rhythm to the sentences – Bainbridge used to speak them aloud to herself, their da-dee-da beat:

She liked Edward when he’d had a lot to drink. His eyes, bloodshot and sleepy, gazed at her with passion. She would be able to lean against him and give him the biggest lamb chop. When he went into the bathroom he would notice how clean the bowl was and the basin. She knew it was important to him that the house should look like a good investment.

Her characters’ thoughts have a wayward circularity and her sentences a habit of biting down on the tails of the ones that precede them. Binny loses her patience with Edward, then is reassured by him, ‘and, reaching out, attempted to touch his cheek. He ducked, thinking she was going to strike him.’ Moments later:

‘Six letters,’ said Edward, looking down at his paper. ‘Beginning with T.’

‘Terror,’ said Binny.

‘A hard case,’ said Edward. ‘Turtle.’ And he pencilled it in.

Bainbridge credited her talent for apparently mismatched sentiments to Liverpool, where she grew up: ‘Somebody says something and you don’t answer directly but rather say something else. For example, someone would say, She’s a bad-tempered woman, isn’t she? And the reply would be, You can’t fault her sponge cake.’ You can see it in Bainbridge’s own patterns of speech, how good she was at undercutting one statement with another – with an understatement, in a literal and non-literal sense:

The night we separated, my husband had a party in our house to which the Beatles, John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe – the one who died – and I can’t remember who else, came. The party went on for three days and nights; I moved out down the road to a friend’s house with the children, and later we divorced amicably. I never saw the Beatles again.

It is there too when she discusses her plots in an interview with the Paris Review. The early books were very autobiographical, she says. The Dressmaker was ‘about my two aunts, Margaret and Nellie, plus a plot. Then came The Bottle Factory Outing, because for a while I worked in a bottling factory, and the story was all true, apart from the murder plot.’ (The Dressmaker also ends with a murder.)

Some of Injury Time must be based on life: Bainbridge was having an affair with a married man, her publisher Colin Haycraft, and had her own half-grown-up children getting under her feet. It is full of bitter comedy, turning mainly on gender relations. Simpson thinks ‘how unfair it was that the nicer moments of life – a few drinks under the belt, good food, a pretty woman seated opposite – were invariably spent in the company of one’s wife.’ Binny wonders why Edward couldn’t ‘pretend that he longed to leave his wife, so that she in return could pretend she wished he would.’ There are countless adroit shifts of perspective. Binny puts on her ‘best black dress’; when Simpson arrives, he sees a ‘small woman with a pale face, dressed in mourning’. Edward doubts that Binny is ‘a very good cook – not that she’d ever made him a meal – but he sensed that her attitude to food was rather casual. When he took her out to dinner quite normal things, like artichokes, annoyed her.’ Muriel finds the meal ‘plentiful and well-cooked’. She looks over at Edward and considers that ‘Binny was the right size and weight to be submissive; perhaps she had a father complex and liked some big rough man treating her in a patronising fashion and ticking her off about the vegetables.’

And then Bainbridge adds a plot. The dinner party is interrupted before dessert by four shotgun-wielding bank robbers, who, chased by the police, burst in and take the two couples (and Binny’s friend Alma, who has turned up drunk after an argument with her husband) hostage. There is a police stakeout that lasts overnight and into the next day. Part of Bainbridge’s genius is to emphasise not the outlandishness of the criminals and of their sudden appearance on the scene, but how quickly they fit in. When two of the robbers, Ginger and Harry, come back into the front room after scouting out upstairs, ‘Edward caught himself nodding. It was like growing familiar with people on the television – actors, celebrities – and then seeing them on the tube or in a restaurant. One imagined one knew them socially.’ And it turns out that the robbers also have views on Binny and the situation they’ve found themselves in: ‘Harry was holding his hands distastefully in front of him. “It’s bloody disgusting up there, missus,” he said. “Don’t you believe in cleaning?” He went to the sink and turned the tap full on.’ (The scrubbed bathroom is on the ground floor.)

Later, Binny tells Ginger that she and Edward aren’t, as he assumed, married, and that Edward has a wife elsewhere. ‘It’s bloody disgusting,’ he replies. Shortly afterwards, he rapes her. Once again, Bainbridge’s skill is to see what is mundane in it, how horror rubs up against the everyday. Ginger asks Binny to take off her stockings: ‘She thought he was very old-fashioned. She hadn’t worn stockings for years.’ She hopes her feet don’t smell; she lies flat and hopes he won’t strangle her.

‘Do you want to feel my chest?’ she said. She was showing him she was uninhibited and matter-of-fact about the whole business. He needn’t worry that she would throw hysterics or start imagining that he was madly in love with her. She was a woman of the world.

‘Keep quiet,’ he said. ‘I can’t abide tits.’

The neck of his woolly jumper smelled of aftershave; he was resting the point of his chin on her forehead. She moved, and for an instant his mouth brushed hers. He jerked his head away. He didn’t touch her at all; he just slipped inside … She supposed she was being raped. One huge tear gathered in her left eye and rolled down her cheek … It would be better not to mention any of this to a soul, not even under torture.

The action gets progressively darker after the crooks turn up, but the atmosphere isn’t really any more tense. Being held hostage encourages the two couples in their perception that the people they are truly stuck with are the infuriating, necessary ones they married or took up with; that the situation they can’t escape is the one they were already in. They are in injury time, anticipation still vying with reality – and they’re headed for an unsatisfying draw. When Edward says he wouldn’t have wanted Binny to go through this night on her own, she replies: ‘The reason I’m alone, as you put it … is because society’s altered. If this was forty years ago, I’d have my husband by my side. He wouldn’t have run off with that woman from the telephone exchange. My mother and father stayed together, and they didn’t like each other.’

It is only Alma, for whom captivity means an extended break from her husband and kids, who sees the positives in the situation: ‘Isn’t it funny, not having to do anything? We’re not expected to clear this up, there’s no meals to prepare, no beds to make. It’s hardly likely we’ll be asked to go shopping. People pay good money for this sort of life at holiday camps.’ For Edward, there can be no such compensations. But he is beginning to appreciate Binny. ‘He was staring at her full in the face. For once he didn’t notice the blotches on her cheeks, the state of her hair. He needed someone.’ When, finally, the bank robbers herd their hostages out of the house to a car, using them as a human shield against the police, they decide to take Binny with them as insurance. As they drive off, Edward forces the door of the getaway car open and throws himself on the back seat:

Eyes full of reproach, Edward leaned towards Binny and stretched out his arm.

‘I’ll never leave you,’ he cried.

The car gathered speed and swung round the corner by the garage. The four occupants of the back seat lurched sideways. The door opened.

Liar, thought Binny, as Edward fell away from the car.

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