Deal Me In: Week 11, Elizabeth Taylor: “Spry Old Character”

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Taylor continues her streak of heart-breaking stories with “Spry Old Character,” about a man, Harry, who has been forced by circumstances (his sister’s death) to live in “The Home For The Blind,” where not a week passes without some “dispiriting jollity being forced upon him.”

Going blind was not easy for him:  “This orderly aspetic world was not only new to him, but beyond him imagining.  Food and talk had lost their richness; central-heating provided no warmth.”

He is juvenilized by the staff; he has been unable to learn Braille; and he decides that the other inmates are quite unfit for him because they are so virtuous, so wholesome, so upright–always turning off the radio when anything “suggestive” is on.  Miss Arbuthnot is a particular nemesis:  “She had been a governess in Russia in the Tsarist days and had taken tea with Rasputin”.   She describes her English Ascot experience as being “The cream of the cream, as one might say, but; dear, dear me…my poor feet. I wore some pale grey buckskin shoes…”

Harry finds a way to escape his insipid companions by learning how to make his way to the bus stop with his white cane.  There, bus drivers take sympathy on him and permit him to ride the bus route for free.   He finds a sense of true fellowship there:  “In their company he opened out, became garrulous, waggish, his old manner returning.”

He loves the bus, but the bus-drivers and the regular riders feel as if they’ve been “saddled” with an “old geezer”.

There are so many ways in which people fail to fit into the respective worlds into which fate has flung them.  Miss Arbuthnot is the “Queen” of the Home for the Blind, but perhaps only in her own head.   Harry feels that he’s in a community with the bus drivers, but they tolerate him and the warm feelings he had with his cockney friends in his youth are not reciprocated here.

Instead of remaining individual people, the elderly and infirm become “characters”.   That Taylor makes his feel fiercely in favour of Harry  as person and not merely “spry old character” speaks to her eloquence and skill as an author.

 

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 10: “A Red Letter Day” by Elizabeth Taylor

jackofhearts

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.

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 9: “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” by Elizabeth Taylor

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Elizabeth’s Taylor “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” is about a young girl, Rachel, –aged 18—who lives with an alcoholic mother who loves to browbeat her daughter and to make fun of her shyness and “modesty”.   Her mother insists that she start drinking but Rachel hates the taste and when she refuses to have a drink her mother responds:

“I, I, I, I hate this; I loathe that.  What do you think would have happened if I had considered what I liked through all these years.  Or the Queen…The poor girl!  The rubbish she’s been forced to ear and drink and foreign countries.”

When Rachel comments that the Queen is a “different kettle of fish” from herself, her mothers response is “I despair.”

Rachel is accompanying her father to a municipal  trade banquet, delegated presumably because her mother does not want to go herself or else perhaps because her father does not want to take his drunken wife–she is said to be “on the waggon”.   Rachel throws out her sherry–she cannot drink.   At the banquet and dance she is shy and mortified.  The only conversation she can make is about her cat.

This is a haunting little story about a girl who lives around people who drink all the time, while she prefers her cat.  Her mother wants her to act like the Queen of England yet Rachel is not only several years younger, she has not been trained to talk to people.  Shy, sensitive Rachel endures a good deal of estrangement in this story.  Her parents don’t value her; she is uncomfortable with a world of the intoxicated bourgeois and her cat is the only thing that makes her life happy.

 

“First Death of Her Life” by Elizabeth Taylor

4ofhearts

In this week’s “Deal Me In” challenge I drew the four of hearts—although the deck was well-shuffled, it happened to be an adjacent card–and story–to the five of hearts I drew last week.  “First Death of her Life” is a brief (three pages) story about a young woman whose mother has just died in hospital and it reflects the rush of ambivalent feelings that engulf her.  In the midst of her tears she pauses to mentally compose a letter—“for her mind was always composing letters”–to her boss telling him that she will be away for four days for her mother’s funeral.  The nurse comes in:

The nurse came in. She took her patient’s wrist for a moment, replaced it, removed a jar of forced lilac from beside the bed as if this were no longer necessary, and went out again.

Lucy, our subject character, resumes her mental letter, starting anew.  She wonders how her father is doing–he is late.  He will have missed his wife’s death.   It is snowing and 4 PM on a winter’s day.  Lucy works hard to push away her negative memories of her mother because it was important that they “be sent away for ever” and “only loving-kindness” to remain.

She takes a tentative sip of the champagne from her mother’s glass by the bedside.  The family is clearly poor, but they have spent money on the champagne, the lilac, the private room.  After a “life of drabness and denial” on the “mean street where they lived” they wish her to have a little piece of luxury.  Lucy gathers up her mother’s handbag, the library book she had chosen, which would go unread, and takes a final sip of the champagne then leaves.

This story, like the previous one I read by Elizabeth Taylor, reminds me very  much of the kind of impressionistic moodiness of a story from Joyce’s “Dubliners”.   The dead mother gets her flowers, champagne, and library book before she is able to appreciate them.  As the story ends, Lucy leaves the hospital as her father arrives:  There is a sense of missed opportunities; of missed messages; of the collision-course between one’s duties to work and earn money and one’s duties to family, especially when they are ill, dying, dead.

“Opening the glass doors onto the snowy gardens, she thought it was like the end of a film. But no music rose up and engulfed her. Instead there was her father’s turning in at the gates. He propped his bicycle against the wall and began to run clumsily across the wet gravel.”

This is the end of life—no grand swelling of music; no majestic pomp.  And I am reminded again of one of my personal moments of bitterness:  having to work at the very moment my mother died because I had taken too much time away when she was ill.  And I remember my husband being fired from a job because he went to my sister’s funeral.  Most American employers don’t deal with death very well.

Deal Me In 2017 Challenge: Week 2

5ofhearts

This week I drew the 5 of Hearts, which corresponds to the impressionistic short story, “The Idea of Age” by Elizabeth Taylor.   The unnamed narrator is a ten year old girl who clearly has a lot of anxiety about getting older.  She has a great fear of her mother’s death which she expresses obliquely:  she likes to read books about children who have dead mothers provided that the woulds are healed.

She carefully guards her mother along with a “mother-figure” in the form of a dramatic Mrs. Vivaldi who summers in the same place that the girl and her family go.  Mrs. Vivaldi is a larger-than-life dramatic woman, who recites Shakespeare and plays with her long pearls.  Mrs. Vivaldi also speaks a lot about being old.

Our narrator resolves no mysteries here, but she does give us a compelling portrait of the anxieties of a pre-adolescent girl who is worried about the concept of age, of growing old, and of the potential segue into death.

“When I was a child, people’s aged did not matter; but age mattered.  Against the serious idea of age I did not match the grown-ups I knew—who had all an ageless quality—though time unspun itself from year to year, Christmases lay far apart from one another, birthdays ever further; but that time was running on was shown in many ways.  I ‘shot out’ of my frocks, as my mother put it.  By the time I was ten, I had begun to discard things form my heart and to fasten my attention on certain people whose personalities affected me in a heady and delicious way” begins the story.

And me too.  For some strange reason,  certain “celebrities” of all types grabbed my imagination which clung to them.  For some, it was a name:  C. Douglas Dillon–secretary of the treasury.  What could the C. stand for?   There was Liz and Eddie and Debbie.  JFK and Jackie.  I started reading newspapers and I lavished as much attention on The New York Times as I did on Photoplay.  T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost were alive.  At that age I could not and did not sort out the relative importance of Pat Boone and Nikita Krushchev; Edward Villella and Shirley Jones; Katherine Anne Porter and Princess Margaret Rose.  They were all, in sundry ways, Mrs. Vivaldis for me.