Read On Loving Josiah Online

Authors: Olivia Fane

On Loving Josiah

On Loving Josiah

ON LOVING JOSIAH

 

For all those teachers I have ever loved.

THE INTERVIEW WAS NOT GOING WELL
. The man, a young
psychiatrist
of about thirty, was cowering at a large desk littered with discarded mugs of coffee, while the woman was standing on the other side of it, railing down at him inches from his face.

‘So, you diagnose love, do you? Ten years at medical school and that’s all they can teach you, you ass!’

‘I won’t be spoken to like this,’ managed the psychiatrist,
attempting
to meet his adversary in the eye. ‘Eve is my patient.’

‘“My patient”!’ the woman scoffed. ‘A more accurate description, young man, would be “my prisoner” or perhaps even “my poodle”.’

‘Stop it!’ The psychiatrist stood up abruptly, eyes ablaze. ‘Mrs de Selincourt,’ he said, and took some deep breaths, ‘the next time you come here to discuss your daughter’s progress I suggest you make an appointment. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to be getting on with.’

But Mrs de Selincourt wasn’t finished with him yet. ‘Work? Work? Is that what you call it? Look at the state of you! Look at the state of this room! In my day, secretaries used filing cabinets. Bins were emptied at night!’

The psychiatrist took another deep breath and said, ‘Just go, please.’

Mrs de Selincourt, stout and immaculate in tight tweed, surveyed her victim coldly. ‘Very well, Dr Fothering. I shall see you at the case conference at two.’

Dr Fothering visibly shrank. ‘The case conference? You received an invitation?’

‘I wouldn’t have driven all the way up from Harrow had I not, Dr Fothering.’

The psychiatrist winced. ‘I’m afraid,’ he began (and those two words contained the whole truth of the matter). ‘I’m afraid your daughter has specifically requested that you shouldn’t attend this afternoon.’

‘Then damn my daughter’s request!’ Mrs de Selincourt thrust her hand into her handbag and produced a letter. ‘Dr Goodman invited me. Now, could you be so kind as to direct me to his office? Please, don’t look quite so idiotic. He is, after all, the consultant directly responsible for my daughter’s welfare.’

And then Dr Fothering forgot his deep breaths, and indeed, forgot to behave like a doctor at all, but began pacing the room and muttering, ‘It’s not his case! It’s not his case!’

‘I think you’ll find that it is,’ insisted the woman, victoriously. ‘Read this.’

Dr Fothering swept the letter aside with the back of his hand, and, utterly impassioned, he cried out, ‘This has nothing to do with him! Leave him out of this! You’re right, the buck stops at me, I know Eve! And I know she has every chance of happiness. So blame me if things go wrong. But they haven’t yet, Mrs de Selincourt. I beg you, don’t jeopardize her chances now! Let her be!’

At that moment a pale girl in a pink, much-washed wincyette dressing-gown appeared in the doorway. Mrs de Selincourt’s back was turned towards her, and she waved at Dr Fothering, alternately smiling and making faces.

‘Mother! What a nice surprise!’ she said, when the joke had gone on too long and Dr Fothering’s expression had begun to betray her presence. ‘I didn’t expect you. You should have written. Oh Doctor Fothering, I blame you – why didn’t you tell me? You know how I like to dress up for an occasion.’

‘Eve’, said Dr Fothering gently. ‘I thought you wanted your
mother not to be present.’ But Eve resisted his tone and looked at her mother.

Mrs de Selincourt was used to smoothing over many a diplomatic embarrassment and said, ‘I hear you’re quite well now, my dear girl. Perhaps it’s time you came home.’

‘I’ve never been better,’ said Eve.

‘But you need fresh air, I can see that.’

‘You’re quite right there. But Mummy, they must have told you, I’m going to marry a gardener. Not quite our class, I know, but quite wholesome. He’s a good, solid man. But I can’t say you’d like him because you probably wouldn’t.’

‘Darling, you’re twenty! You know nothing of life!’

‘But more than you, mother dear. They should turn Fulbright hospital into a finishing school. For the human condition is fairly dire. We spend our lives hiding from that fact, but I feel privileged to have discovered it.’

‘Dear God! Oh Eve! Oh Eve! She shouldn’t be here, you idiot,
Fothering
. How dare you keep her in this place? She’s saner than you are!’ And then, witness this, the last maternal feeling the woman ever felt for Eve: ‘Please, darling, come home with us, leave this place, we’ll take a holiday the three of us, anywhere you choose….’

It was the last maternal feeling Patricia de Selincourt ever felt for her daughter, but it would be just as true to say it was the first. Nor would it be fair to blame her. It was just one of those gross
mismatches
between parent and offspring that occur from time to time; for her elder child, George, had adored his mother, and she, him – indeed, their first seven years together, before George’s dispatch to a first-rate English prep school, had been a text-book case of excellent mothering: boundaries drawn on the one hand, observed on the
other. Eve did not like boundaries, and had railed against them since her first breath. And disobedience was not only intolerable to Mrs de Selincourt, it was incomprehensible.

So when Eve was two, her mother decided she must be deaf and took her to a specialist on Harley Street.

‘Eve, look at the doctor when he’s talking to you,’ she’d
commanded
, but the pretty blonde moppet had continued to jump on and off a pair of scales and seemed to register nothing. But all the paraphernalia of temptation, the watches and the toy parrots, lured Eve out of herself, and the doctor had said, ‘No need to worry there, Mrs de Selincourt.’ In fact, he was wrong: a diagnosis would have been a relief.

Mother and daughter continued to drive each other to extreme versions of themselves. Mrs de Selincourt, the perfect wife to a man who needed one – always a gracious hostess to his business clients, always at the ready with a dozen ironed shirts and a peck on the cheek when he came home from work – never imagined that being a perfect mother would be any more demanding. She had happily sacrificed any vision of the modern ideal – that of self-fulfilment – to old-fashioned duty: to her husband, her family, the village church; and duty, besides, to the society whose values she respected and found true. For her, love was an almost biblical concept,
interwoven
with the idea of charity, not the sentimental, emotion-sodden version we have of it nowadays.

As Eve grew older, her mother became more and more intolerant of her behaviour. In short, Eve humiliated her. It was one thing to have Eve refuse point blank to go to bed when the family was alone; it was quite another when she sabotaged important dinner parties by coming downstairs at midnight to sing to the assembled guests. No one who saw her will ever forget her rendition of
Life is a Cabaret
at the age of ten, dressed in fuchsia pink and diamante, one of her mother’s cocktail creations, and now dragging across the floor. The
trouble was, she was sufficiently good at it that people were unsure whether to congratulate her mother or commiserate with her. Mrs de Selincourt looked at her husband for some sound, silent advice; and he nodded at her and smiled as if to say, relax, it’s quite funny, it’s all right. But when Eve picked up her skirts and revealed eighty pounds’ worth of brand new silver stilettos, Mrs de Selincourt leapt up from her seat. Eve didn’t even notice her, and only saw in the newly vacant chair a convenient way of getting up onto the table. ‘Come taste the wine,’ she sang, ‘come hear the band,’ and the guests began moving aside their plates and glasses to make room for her; ‘Come blow the horn, start celebrating,’ she bellowed out, her skinny arms flailing about in the air. There followed a general cacophony, led by Sir Ralph Holland, managing director of British Aerospace, who had flown over from the Isle of Man specially for the party, and was rumoured to be on the point of large, private investment in Mr de Selincourt’s fledgling company. He had begun
enthusiastically
banging his wine glass with his fork, and was shouting across to him, ‘What a wonderful girl! My daughter won’t say boo to a goose.’

Not an eye, not an ear was directed towards Mrs de Selincourt, who was whispering to herself, ‘May God strike her down.’ At every dance step she watched the silver heels embedding themselves into eighteenth century mahogany. What barbarians were these to clap for her? Do decent folk turn into a hideous, belching mass as easily as this? Eve shot her a look of victory, and began lifting up the pink skirts and swaying her child’s hips. She was wearing her mother’s peach cami-knickers held up by the belt of her school tunic; and kicking her legs up high, she sang to her,

‘No use permitting some prophet of doom

To wipe ev’ry smile away,

Life is a cabaret, old chum,

Come to the cabaret.’

Her mother left the room, but no one noticed. Everyone’s eyes were on the girl. They were laughing, cheering, raising their glasses to her. Mrs de Selincourt sat at the dressing-table in her bedroom, listening to their cries of ‘encore!’

Eve’s teachers were to fare somewhat better with her; twenty other children in the class made one to one confrontations the exception rather than the rule. And anyway, Eve was not wilfully destructive; rather, she was willfully absent, refusing to commit herself to what was going on around her. After a few weeks of vainly persuading Eve to co-operate, they saw no reason why they should bother. Every year in September, as Eve moved up through the classes, there was a surge of enthusiasm to ‘crack’ her; but already by November whoever was the latest of Eve’s teachers became tired and gave up.

What infuriated them most was the fact that Eve was so
fearfully
bright, and couldn’t be relegated to the ‘slow’ stream and left to moulder. She made them suspicious of their ability to teach. If she wasn’t gazing into space she would watch her teachers with a terrifying alertness, not out of eagerness to learn but in an attitude of judgment and criticism. No one could claim they had ever
taught
Eve a thing, and yet if she ever condescended to fill in an exam script she was generally first in the class.

Finally a September did arrive, however, in Eve’s lower sixth year, when a teacher managed to strike a chord in her. His name was Gilbert Fitzpatrick and he taught her English. Gilbert had, of course, already been briefed about Eve by his colleagues; but he was new to the school and wanted to be open-minded. Perhaps the technique he used to win her was the one Eve had been craving for all these years: namely, he fell in love with her. While she sat judging him at the back of the class, his eyes met hers and softened. There was no retreat, no defence, no refuge, just a look of utter appreciation and love. And Gilbert reaped his reward.

One day Eve was lagging behind the others during the general exodus at break-time, and as she passed his desk, she brushed her mouth against his ear and whispered, ‘I love you too, Mr Fitzpatrick.’ How could we blame Gilbert for not exhibiting what the headmaster was later to call ‘some sense of adult authority and responsibility towards the young’? Because Gilbert knew, as soon as he saw Eve, that she wasn’t young at all, and most likely she had never been young in the way that so many adult idealists conceive the word. Mere bodily innocence doesn’t imply spiritual innocence. So Gilbert kissed her; and the affair began.

Gilbert invited Eve home with him after school (you did
what?
the headmaster was to exclaim) and recited passages from Byron’s
The Bride of Abydos
to her, while she lay with her head in his lap:

Such was Zuleika, (he murmured, stroking her hair)

such around her shone

The nameless charms unmarked by her alone -

The light of love, the purity of grace,

The mind, the Music breathing from her face,

The heart whose softness harmonized the whole,

And oh, that eye was in itself a Soul.

‘My darling,’ responded Eve, ‘Take me.’

And quite soon, the radiant autumn light pouring in through the windows of Gilbert Fitzpatrick’s sitting-room, took on a seedy lustre while those two fucked and fucked and fucked, and their little
lovenest
was no longer the place ‘where the virgins are soft as the rose they twine, and all save the spirit of man is divine,’ but became, to put it frankly, a little squalid. 

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