The Jack of Hearts returns me to Elizabeth Taylor and her “A Red Letter Day” is a triumph of astute character revelation. Tory, the divorced mother of an eleven year old boy, is going alone to a parent’s visiting day at his school. The atmosphere could not be less propitious:
It’s a “malevolent landscape” with “wastes of rotting cabbages, flint cottages with riakish privies, rubbish heaps, grey napkins drooping on clothes-lines, the soil like plum cake. Even turning in at the rather superior school-gates, the mossy stone, the smell of fungus” is dismaying.
Tory has caught one of the last cabs because, she thinks she has “no man to exert authority for her.” At home, she had spent too much time trying to figure out what to wear so that having tried on so many hats and flinging them, rejected, on the bed, “It resembled a new grave with its mound of wreathed flowers.”
Tory has one child and she begins to hate a rather random woman who “looked as if she had what is often called a teeming womb.” She thinks of her “spitefully” and imagines all the fun her sons must have. Tory’s own “love for her son was painful, shadowed by guilt.” She thinks to herself, disparagingly about her son, “Between Edward and me there is no promise of love, none at all, nothing taken for granted, as between most sons and mothers.” It’s very painful reading: Tory does love her son, but has no idea how to spend an afternoon with him.
Edward tells her that he is not popular with the other boys–“unbearable news for any mother,” but she is not able to respond. They go to a museum and are bored together. For Edward, “sinking down within him are the lees of despair….alone with his mother he felt unsafe, wounded and wounding” and thinks of death.
“So lovely, Darling,” she remarks to him as she drops him back at school.
The story is heart-wrenching because both the mother and the son have been caught in traps of self-loathing, depression, and despair. Edward seems to think he’s the worst child at school and Tory has an inferiority complex that emerges in spite towards others.
There seems to be no way out. Tory, as a mother of an eleven-year-old, deserves to be scolded for her lack of empathy for his plight; for her perhaps associating him (by indirect contamination) with his father, who has left her. She’s stuck to far into her slough-of-despond which has become a quicksandish quagmire. Both Tory and Edward are thinking of death — prematurely — and seem to have no way to escape the entrapment they feel around each other.
Taylor knows her to dangle her readers between judgment and sympathy in her exquisitely wrought stories about people who are unable to connect. She has a clear empathy for young people as the story I read last week about the young girl who does not want to drink alcohol despite her parent’s expectations indicates.