“Juliet, you made it! Splendid!”
It has been such a long time since I have seen Trish Pemberton – or any of the old school cronies, for that matter. Trish appears unchanged:
a new, slicker hairstyle complete with highlights, a touch more make-up maybe, but she still carries the lean, easy elegance of three years ago when our respective sons had moved on from their prep school to their chosen senior schools.
“Great to see you too, Trish. I was so pleased to get your email telling me about this fund-raiser – it all sounded rather jolly.”
Not wholly true, I reflect to myself; any contact from those who were mere acquaintances among the mothers’ battalion - rather than my trusted friends - continue to induce discomfort and suspicion in me. I still can’t shake the old fear of
being viewed as an object of fascination for all the wrong reasons. But then (I think), that’s very uncharitable - and possibly rather egocentric too, because everyone’s lives have moved on; my past isn’t half as vivid to women
like Trish as it is to me. “Love your haircut,” I say.
“Oh, it’s been like this for ummm….”
she squints her too-cute nose, puzzling it over “… ooh, more than a year. My God, is that how long it is since I’ve seen you? Where’ve you been hiding yourself?”
“Oh, you know – working, working, working. Wolves at doors, that sort of thing.” Immediately I regret the vision of wolves and the associations of cunning, predatoriness
and pillaging which it conjures up, but Trish is oblivious, putting her friendly manicured fingers on my sleeve and saying in her honeyed voice what a lovely day it’s turned out to be (“just as well, with the tug o’ war – and the bouncy
castle on the lawn for the littlies”), asking whether I’m still living in the area, whether I see anything of various other women – Louise, Alison, Amanda (“divorced now, you know – very messy, I hear”) - and telling me
her boy Rupert is very happy at Winchester, but would I tell her again, where did mine go in the end?
There is a barely-perceptible
increase of interest in her eyes as I give her the name of what is arguably the UK’s most prestigious school (Miles’s alma mater I remind myself, then quickly suppress the disagreeable pang) and I answer a few of her questions about the
place before I detect her glance twitching over my shoulder to see who’s coming through the door. “Oh look over there,” she says, lowering her voice to interrupt me, “that’s Hugh and Angela Byrne-Johnson – they inherited
an estate, you know?” These are people whom she thinks might be more useful than I am, clearly. Time to move on – and I have long experience of knowing how to extricate myself from situations like this one with people of high social ambitions and
somewhat lower IQ.
“Well, Trish, I mustn’t keep you from your duties,” I say, shrugging my handbag higher
on my shoulder and taking a half-step back in a decisively conclusive manner. “This charity of yours – such a deserving cause – and thanks so much for sending me the invite. Super of you to remember me after all this time.”
“Remember you? How could anyone not remember?” she exclaims and I blink, wary. “That accent of yours alone is unforgettable!”
I relax and beam broadly at her. “South African isn’t it?” she adds.
I’m proud to say that my
wide smile doesn’t even waver. “If you like,” I say. “Oh, is that a silent auction over there? I must go and see what’s on offer. Catch up with you later, Trish!” Then I’m gone and Trish has already begun to
talk to the estate-inheritors. About me? Now come on, I chide myself, that’s just paranoia. I snort inwardly: South Africa indeed.
The Parents Association-sponsored event is in full swing now, with visitors fairly thronging the stalls and stands around the perimeter of the large space. In the near-empty centre of the room, shafts of sunlight coming through the tall Georgian windows
cast pale golden oblongs across the wooden herringbone blocks of the floor. Women gather in small knots, chit-chatting: all slim, all impeccably-dressed, all holding their champagne flutes in one hand, Fendi and Vuitton handbags pinned to the other arm like
medieval bucklers. It amazes me that I know virtually no one now. It’s as if I’ve time-travelled to a weird place which is both familiar and unfamiliar. I can vaguely recognise an occasional face from the prep school contingent, but no names leap
It seems uncanny that this lovely family house – offered by its generous owner so frequently over the years
for charitable functions such as this – continues entirely unchanged, even down to the evocative scent of floor polish mingled with the garden’s lilac trees, yet it appears that one set of charity-supporting mothers with whom I used to socialise
have had their bodies erased and been replaced by a crowd of near-replicants, most of whom are total strangers to me. Although, I ponder to myself, theirs is a world through which I had always drifted rather than become embedded in. Being in the “mothers
who labour” camp disconnected me from the majority of mothers who didn’t, especially when it came to parent-generated social occasions such as coffee mornings, lunches, shopping trips – and weekday charity events such as this one.
In one corner, the home-made cakes and biscuits appear to be moving slowly – possibly because of their carb-count. The silent auction
table is receiving more attention. I look at a few of the offers here: dinner for four at a prestigious local hotel, a week’s stay at a French gite, a hot-air balloon ride, cases of wine – a good set of items to bid on. I write
out my name and offer bids on a few, including the gite and a case of French wine. A logical choice, I think: if I don’t get to France for a holiday with the boys, then I can at least knock back that country’s most exported product.
Not that it even compares with Antipodean wine, but hey-ho: the French are still in a process of learning.
Handing over a
fiver for a glass of warm Cava, I sip as I circumnavigate the sale-stands, admiring some very elegant jewellery, buying a few home-made cakes, some raffle tickets, inspecting some detailed but uninspiring paintings of country scenes which contain a great many
tudor buildings, hills, sheep, meadows and cherry trees in full blossom. They all appear to be the work of the same artist. In fact, this young long-haired chap in jeans and t-shirt could well be him; he stands desultorily behind his counter hugging
a cup of tea, eyes scanning the room without expression. Not many buyers then, I conclude.
I take pity on him. “Are
these your work?”
“Christ, no,” he replies, a man clearly in need of a marketing course. “They’re
my father’s. My taste in art is rather more experimental than this. Still - ” he decides to have a belated stab at a sales-pitch “- they’re competently-executed and a lot of people really like pictures like this. Dad began
painting more seriously after he retired, and he sells a fair few of them.”
“That’s great,” I say,
pretending to evince an interest in one or two, checking the rather ambitious prices and trying to place the market towns they illustrate.
An older man, short and wiry with a toothbrush moustache - about 70, I guess - bustles up. “How are they going, Hugh?” he asks the younger, who shrugs in a negative, hopeless way. The father looks crossly at his son, nodding
in my direction with a frown, as if Hugh’s unenthusiastic response has now deflected me from my intention to buy an entire flock of the insipid sheep pictures.
I look at the older man in his neat shirt and tie, dogtooth-check jacket and corduroy trousers and I realise that there is something familiar about him. “Excuse me,” I say, “don’t I know you?”
He smiles the practised smile of one accustomed to setting people at their ease while at the same time ensuring that the listener realises that
the balance of status or power is most definitely unequal. “Quite probably,” he says, tilting back his head and pushing his metal-framed spectacles higher on his nose so he can examine my face through the lower half of the lenses. “Maybe
you were one of my patients?”
Ah yes, I remember him now. He was a GP at a practice not too far away from here
– in fact we are well inside his catchment area, while I live at the other end of this county and actually work in the adjacent one. “No, not a patient,” I say, “but I do know you: George Pettifer, isn’t it?” I am quite
impressed with my own powers of recall.
“Doctor Pettifer, yes,” he corrects me, pleasantly. “I’m
so sorry. Your face does seem to ring a bell with me, but I meet so many people, what with the practice and the arts groups, English Heritage and all manner of other charity interests, like this one for the hospice … breast cancer …
Air Ambulance … and so on and so forth. Begging your pardon, but you’ll have to remind me who you are. Are you one of the hospice people?”
His politeness is slightly patronising, but in this company of strangers I also have a curious sense of relief at finding a fellow medic to talk to. “No, actually Dr Pettifer, I’m a GP too, but I don’t live
around here.” I make a selection from my own plentiful stock of warm and ease-provoking smiles. “I think I probably recognise you from when my sons were at the school and there was a close association with all those charities you mention.
We must have met at other functions, I think.”
“Ah,” he visibly relaxes and shakes my hand with a dry palm.
“Of course, of course – that’s the explanation. So what’s your name again?”
I’m in a practice just over the border in Gloucestershire.”
“Drummond, Drummond,” he muses.
“You aren’t married to the Hon. Anthony Drummond, are you? He got in with another mammoth majority in Cirencester last time, as I recall.”
Honorable – what irony is so often attached to this word. “No, no relation,” I say and laugh. “You should be able to tell from my accent that my roots are non-British. I’m originally from rather
further south than Cheltenham.”
Dr Pettifer gives a self-deprecating chuckle. “Of course, I can hear that. But
I thought maybe your husband ….? Or is he a GP too? These days you all seem to marry each other.”
settles on my skin. “Well yes, he is … That is, he was …. What I mean to say is that I’m no longer married …. We divorced some time ago.” I try to affect a bright “c’est la vie”
trill of laughter, but it sounds hollow and even borderline hysterical to my ears.
“I’m sorry to hear that,”
says Dr. Pettifer kindly, “But he’s a GP too, is he? Let’s see: Dr Drummond, Dr Drummond….” He frowns, trying to recall the name. “Do you know, I don’t think I know him. Odd, that - in a small world like ours. What’s
his first name?”
I’m beginning to feel my neck getting hot and I can picture the rosy flush rising towards my
cheeks to highlight the freckles in a most unattractive way, but the need to appear polite and unflustered drives me on. “Well, of course, his name isn’t Drummond,” I say. “I use my maiden name – always have done.”
I take a deep breath. “His name’s Bishop. Miles Bishop.” I scrutinise the doctor’s face. “He doesn’t live in the area any more.”
“Bishop, Bishop, Bishop, now let’s see.” Dr Pettifer purses his lips and his moustache bristles. Strikes a chord somewhere …. Miles Bishop, Miles Bishop, Miles ….” Suddenly
his moustache stops working, his face goes very still and it is as if a camera-shutter has clicked in his eyes.
yes,” he declares slowly, studying my face with sudden identification, “I know exactly who you are now.” After a barely-perceptible pause he puts his hand on my shoulder and I feel my flesh shrink back from the touch.
“How are you?” And he stares into my face through the lenses of his glasses upon which glint the sunbeams from the windows. Are his words and his gaze sympathetic to me? Or are they ripe with blame and judgement? Does he want to
comfort me or banish me? Does he pity me or despise me?
The problem is, I just
can’t tell. And the other problem is that even three years down the line, dead dogs won’t lie down and I can be turned back into a haunted wreck at the slightest provocation.
© Yes-land Moira Martingale 2013