Sunday 15 September 2013

Struggling with a Short Story...

Well, it’s Sunday again – they do seem to roll round very quickly, don’t they? Anyway, that means it’s time for some sort stories, and this week I’m back with my lovely Persephone collection, and a tale called Nine Years is a Long Time, by Norah Hoult.  And oh, how I struggled with this one. I couldn’t engage with it on any level whatsoever, and found it so wearisome I nearly gave up, but I felt I should be able to see a short story through to the end.

A woman is waiting for a man to return. She doesn’t know his name, or what he does, but she knows he comes from Rotherfield, so she refers to him as ‘my Rotherfield friend’ and we learn that she has met him once a month for nine years, regular as clockwork, and that she has received £3 a time for some unspecified service… then nothing. No telegram, no letter, no visit. Is he dead? Ill? Has he lost interest?

He brought a welcome change to her life, she decides. It had been a sort of holiday when she got his wire or letter. Then Mr Scott (she always thinks of her husband this way) knew he’d ‘have to manage everything himself’. She would take a bath, dress with care, add a drop or two of Coty’s Chypre (too expensive for any but special occasions) then off to the lounge of the Queen’s for a light lunch, sitting with well-dressed people, having a drink and a chat and another drink before going to the hotel…  

Now, if he never came to see her again, or if she never saw him again, life would just go on as if it were a wet November all the time.

At this point I realised my suspicions about the exact nature of the service she provided were quite correct. Our lady is on the game, and her Rotherfield friend is her only client, and has been for a long time, although she once had many more gentlemen friends. But it all seems very normal, mundane almost, and she approaches sex much as she does any other domestic activity, and enjoys a nice cup of tea afterwards! She even discusses the situation with her husband (who is unemployed) in much the same way that other women might talk about problems at the factory, or the shop, or the office. Mrs Scott is very matter of fact about things. She will miss the £3 a month, and her husband will have to go without tobacco.
I imagine Mrs Scott a bit like this Beryl Cook woman,
but in 1940s clothes, with red hair. A rather sad figure really,
 but still liking a good time 
Her chances of finding another ‘friend’ are not good. She’s getting older, putting on weight, wears too much rouge and make up, and too much henna on her hair. She’s too conspicuous says her critical daughter, with all the confidence of youth on her side.

There is no resolution here, no happy ending. At the end of the tale there is still no news from the mysterious Rotherfield friend, and life goes on in its usual fashion.

The Test, by Angelica Gibbs, is very different, which is just as well really! Published in 1940 (two years after the last tale) it’s a very short story about the nature of prejudice, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Marian has a college degree, and has held a driving licence for three years, but must take another in the state where she now works, so she can take her employer’s children to school and bring them home again. She’s already failed one test, and her employer accompanies her.

“It’s probably better to have someone a little older with you,” Mrs Ericson said as Marian slipped into the driver’s seat beside her. “Perhaps last time your cousin Bill made you nervous, talking too much on the way.”

But Marian knows only too well what went wrong last time, and she fears the ordeal that lies ahead. It doesn’t matter how well she drives, the inspector will fail her – because she is coloured. And that’s the exactly what happens. The inspector is outrageously offensive – he made my blood boil with his crass remarks and behaviour. He calls Marian Mandy-Lou, talks about picaninnies, and treats her like dirt, as if she belongs to some lesser species.

Eventually she loses her temper (frankly, I think she should have gone the whole hog and smacked him in the mouth), and he makes four random crosses on her application form.

It would be nice to think that we’ve learned something over the last 70 years, and that people no longer treat others like this in America, or anywhere else. But sadly, prejudice still exists, and all kinds of people are victimised all over the world, because of their ethnicity, or their religion, or sexuality, so we don’t seem to have learned anything at all.

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