The Ground Hostess

Francis Wyndham

The telephone rang. It had to be Hurricane Harriet.

‘Hi,’ she said.

‘Hi. Listen, I can’t talk now – ’

‘You sound funny. Is something the matter? Look, why don’t I come over right – ’

‘No,’ I said in a panic, and I hung up on her. The telephone rang again at once. This time it was Jeremy – who else? ‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi. Sorry but this isn’t an awfully good moment – ’

‘Oh, my dear, how awful. Are you all right? You sound a bit odd. If anything’s the matter I could always whiz straight round – ’

‘Nothing’s the matter. I’ll ring you later. Bye for now.’ And I hung up on Jeremy too. But I still couldn’t concentrate.

Something had to be done.

I always knew she’d die some day and I always dreaded it and now it’s happened. So what? So where does one go from here? Nowhere. Stay put. If they’d only let one. If they’d only ...

No, that isn’t the right beginning. Start again. From scratch. But where’s scratch? Ah, if one only knew that ...

For the first few weeks the letters of condolence flopped through the box in a steady spate. Variously combining conventional expressions of sympathy with licensed emotional indulgence, they gave a total effect of slightly smug hysteria. Some of them read like reasoned reviews – of a life, not a book or a play: all, naturally, ‘raves’. It was almost an agony to open each one, and yet they were vaguely comforting, and comforting in their vagueness: at least they made some comment on my obsession, for although grief may sometimes imagine that it wishes its privacy respected, in fact it senses insult when it is ignored. Replying brought a tiny, masturbatory release; the least welcome were those with a well-meaning postscript: ‘On no account, whatever you do, must you dream of answering this – you must be inundated!’ Then the flood degenerated into a tardy trickle – startled, apologetic or impertinently reproachful: ‘Why did nobody tell me sooner?’ Some of these struck a subtly hectoring note: ‘Please be sure to let me know if there is to be a memorial service!’

So there was one. The arrangements for this were supposed to ‘take my mind off’ by giving me something to do: they gave me something to do, but their essential irrelevance to the obsession only fixed it more securely in the forefront of my mind. When it was over, the trickle continued for a little while (with excuses for not having been able to attend and with congratulations – reviews again – on the success of the occasion) and then suddenly the whole thing stopped altogether. But the obsession, if anything, increased. The service, though religious in form, had been too social in spirit to work the intended trick of exorcism. A blank remained to be filled. Bereavement began.

A memoir. That might be the answer. Several of the letters, taking a cautious peep on the bright side, had suggested that now, with all the time in the world, I might be able at last to get down to some serious writing. A memoir of the mother I had lost. Of course it would be very difficult to do, perhaps even impossible, and nobody must know of my plan: secrecy would be an insurance against failure. But the harder my self-imposed task proved to be, the nearer it might come to filling that blank. Don’t tell a soul. Just do it.

Soon, then, every evening after work at the office, my formerly reluctant steps from the Underground station to the empty flat would be impelled by a sense of purpose. As for the weekends, they would seem a luxurious orgy of stillness, like a cool clearing in the jungle towards which I had been hacking my way all week. The lonely evenings, the uncharted wastes of Saturday and Sunday, were to be filled by literary endeavour. The sadness of my solitude could thus itself be turned to advantage – for the activity of writing is known to be an essentially isolated struggle, and the necessary conditions for its practice are not available to all.

I had forgotten about my friends.

There is a form of loneliness so complete that it transcends any need for human companionship: it is an end in itself, a pure state of possibly fruitful suffering. This is not, however, readily acknowledged by outsiders. My friends were kind; they wanted to help; and help took the fairly regular form of ringing me up to suggest a meeting. I have always felt vulnerable when answering the telephone, as if I were naked; indeed, sometimes I was naked when it rang. Cravenly, I fell in with any sociable plan that was proffered. This made it difficult to get on with the memoir.

What am I saying? It made it impossible to start the memoir. And the recurring dream began – not a nightmare (it was quite pleasant) but none the less disturbing. In the dream she was still alive, still there: everything I remembered about the death had been the result of some sort of silly mistake. The grim cremation, the exalted memorial service, had been elementary errors, quite easy to explain away should anybody ask me about them. The notice in the Deaths column of the Daily Telegraph was potentially embarrassing – but nobody seemed to have seen it anyhow, so perhaps it didn’t matter. In my dream I felt a mixture of slight anxiety that I could have made such a mysterious muddle and deep, calm, fulfilled relief. When I woke, I felt a mixture of mild assuagement that I hadn’t, after all, made such a fool of myself and acute disillusionment followed by renewed sorrow.

I told my doctor that I couldn’t sleep and he prescribed some pills which prevented me from dreaming, but I was still balanced enough to know that the Mogadons were a remedy rather than a cure and that only the finished memoir could reconcile me to my spiritually amputated condition and put an end to the period of mourning. What little time I managed to reserve for myself was wasted in embarking on aimless walks and making pointless lists (of Margaret Millar’s novels, or Danielle Darrieux’s films), although there were still things I couldn’t do (play Lisa Della Casa singing Beim Schlafengehen on the gramophone) and places I couldn’t visit (the house in St Luke’s Road with a brown plaque in memory of W.H. Hudson) because they either reminded me of her and therefore of death or of death and therefore of her. I kept on telling myself: ‘I mustn’t be rushed.’ Somehow or other, the friends had to be warned off, kept at bay. I desired the hitherto unattainable – to be left alone: what Henry James once described as ‘uncontested possession of the long, sweet, stupid day’: that peace to which no living creature has a natural right.

Yes, for a time I was decidedly neurotic on the subject of my friends. I even imagined a kinship with Dorothy Edwards, who wrote two remarkable books in the late 1920s, was taken up by Bloomsbury and then killed herself, giving as her reason (or so I had been told) that she had too many friends and didn’t like them. But soon I realised that most of my acquaintances had no wish to intrude on my precious privacy and were on the contrary only too happy to leave me to my own devices. The merest hint (that I was tentatively engaged on some unexplained ‘work’ and needed time to myself) was sufficient, as it turned out, to silence the telephone. I must admit to having felt a slight, illogical pang of resentment at finding myself so blandly abandoned, and the pang might have developed into a palpable hurt if the silence had been total. But it wasn’t. Two of my friends – perhaps, as these things are reckoned, the two ‘greatest’ – refused to accept the new regime. Hints, in their case, were not enough: they demanded details and assumed that I would share in their inhibiting desire for participation. Harriet was interested in herself and Jeremy was interested in me, both to the point of monomania: I don’t know which was the more exhausting. For her, I was an audience – convulsed with laughter or purged by pity and terror; for him, I was the show itself. Such intense relationships are stimulating when life is going smoothly, but they can take a lot out of you if you aren’t feeling quite up to the mark.

Harriet was involved in a protracted and painful divorce from her third husband, a rich man who had craftily gone to an aggressive young woman solicitor while Harriet was stuck with the stuffy old family firm, so that it looked as if she would emerge from the case with very little of his money. Her latest novel had just been published and was receiving patronisingly dismissive reviews; in it this husband was clearly identifiable as one of the less attractive characters. Meanwhile, she was herself bringing an action for libel against a journalist who had printed something disrespectful about her in a gossip column. One of her daughters was undergoing a cure for heroin addiction and her son had recently been sacked from Stowe just before sitting his A levels. She lived with a mild young man who was beginning mildly to bore her and she was blatantly on the look-out for a more exciting lover. She would come to me for advice with a solemn yet perfunctory insistence, as though consulting the I Ching, and would sometimes volunteer some disconcerting advice of her own. Small, blonde and assertive, she had the unsettling charm of a ferocious nature tempered by a cosy disposition.

Jeremy might be described as a professional fan. All his energies had been channelled into enthusiasms outside himself which he expressed in a manner bordering on the manic. In his moral make-up, the extrovert element had been overdeveloped like some hyper-active gland; his lack of ego was so spectacular that it paradoxically drew attention to itself. Self-deprecation ran riot in Jeremy, turned inside out and emerged as aggression; violent in his humility, he was a reverse-image of that old Warner Brothers cliché, the sensitive gangster. He had read every recent book (often before it came out), seen every current opera, ballet, play or fringe revue; he was as exhaustive as the information columns in Time Out or What’s On and his many friends, puzzled as to how he found time to cover so wide a field, sometimes caught themselves wondering whether he might not employ a team of researchers ... But there was nothing split, let alone multiple, about his personality: having cast himself as an ideal audience, he had the serene integrity of a collective noun. Tall, dark and very thin, he was insistently generous and relentlessly lively; his interest appeared never to wane. Both he and Harriet had a power to stimulate which made them irresistible; but they also shared (after lack of resistance in their interlocutors had assumed a pathological tinge) the power to deplete.

A typical evening: I entered the flat, put on my dressing-gown, poured myself a drink and opened a tin for the cat. These routine actions, briskly performed, were followed by an uncertain pause. What next? Perhaps there was something on the television. After a long wait a juddering green and mauve herring-bone pattern galvanised itself into an advertisement cartoon about a bouncing blob called Tommy the Thermostat ... I averted my gaze, which happened to fall on the writing-table. If at that moment I had caught sight of my bed I would probably have climbed into it instead, but as it was – why not sit at the table and work? It suddenly seemed possible. So I prised open the typewriter, twiddled in a stiff quarto sheet, and started. Not the memoir – not yet – but something less ambitious, a kind of warm-up, just to get back into the habit of thinking in words. This story, let’s say: how did it begin? ‘The telephone rang. It had to be Hurricane Harriet.’ And then the telephone rang ...

‘What’s the matter with them all?’ she demanded. ‘Are they all demented, or what? Would somebody kindly explain to me, please? Because it’s way beyond me. I give up ... The reviewers, I’m talking about, who else? Some of my very best work went into that book and they’re treating it like a Mills and Boon potboiler, it just doesn’t make sense. I don’t expect them to give me the Nobel Prize, for Christ’s sake – I do know my own limitations, only too well, alas! – but isn’t it rather peculiar that not one of them so far has spotted the perfectly obvious point that the whole thing is meant to be an allegory of Good and Evil? I promise I’m not going potty or anything like that, but I do sometimes wonder whether there might not be some sort of conspiracy at work here. Doesn’t it strike you as a leetle bit odd that they all seem to say exactly the same thing? As if they’d been primed: the word has gone out – get Harriet! And don’t you think that it just conceivably might not be a coincidence that every single one of them is a MAN? Listen to this snide bastard in the Listener, and I quote: if the word “compassionate” did not already exist I’m afraid it would have to be invented to describe Bleeding. The authoress, who is clearly in love with her heroine, is so busy saying “yes” to life that she neglects to provide more than the barest minimum of characterisation, narrative structure or plot, unquote. Did you notice that “authoress”? Well, there’s a giveaway, for a start. I mean, this is 1979 we’re living in, right? No wonder this bigoted ignoramus can’t understand that my emphasis on the theme of menstruation is merely a reworking of the Little Red Ridinghood myth in a post-modernist mode! What never ceases to amaze me is the way they all make the same stupid mistake and complain that I haven’t written a totally different novel to the one that I set out to write. Why just one of them can’t quite simply sit down and review the book in front of him, which has been sent to him for that purpose and for which no doubt he is getting handsomely paid ... oh, who cares anyway? To hell with the lot of them. Hasten, Jason, bring the basin – they make me sick!’

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