So, story two from the recent retrospective, and rather than a tale of two estranged, formerly close people coincidentally rethrown together to interesting and surprising results, as in “Hetty Sleeping,” here we have two people (a mother (Mrs Thessaly) and daughter (Rosalind)) living in the same house who are miles apart.
But similarly: two people inextricably linked and influential over one another who are incapable of understanding why (beyond the no less mystifying biological connection) they’re linked or how they could possibly be part of the same family. To the point in this story where the mother can’t fathom how she ever produced this accomplished woman she shares a house with, for a second, less auspicious time.
She looked at me through her big glasses — such a big, handsome daughter. How could such a great big woman have come out of me? I’m so small. Jack was small, too. And neither of us was anything much. Certainly nothing so clever as a doctor in either of the families, anywhere. It’s funny — I look at her, my daughter, Rosalind, and I can’t believe she’s the same as the baby I had.
Notice the almost querulous “my daughter, Rosalind”: she will never come to terms with this person as part of her, of course her “daughter, Rosalind,” no doubt . . . and yet . . . there’s that denial by way of reemphasis, or reemphasis as means of denying incessant uncertainty, about even the most irrefutable facts.
I think what sets Gardam apart slightly is her description of the daughter from the mother’s point of view as something quite alien — as a baby she was “[t]he fat little round warm bright-eyed thing holding its wrists up in the pram against the light” — the constant gratefulness at the strangeness of the supposedly mundane and the vast irreconcilability between our thoughts and our reality. Nothing can ever be ordinary to a mind that weighs the myriad contradictions and unquantifiable abundance of the world, as nothing is ever any one thing. A chair in a for-years unused spare bedroom is loaded with all kinds of connotations, and such digressions are perilous as they’re everywhere and in everything. Gardam reinvigorates and emphasises and simply reminds us of the fundamental oddity of it all. This is one reason she’s so great.
The title itself tells you plenty (with hindsight) about what’s going on here: there is no “Lunch with Ruth Sykes.” It’s a lie told by a mother to shield her fragile daughter from her true, almost certainly regrettable intentions. And yet despite the fabrication we get a little digression from the narrating fibber about Ruth Sykes. Typical Gardam: in our heads, and in the heads of Gardam protagonists, the world is a swirl of everything and anything from moment to moment, and the very fact that no such meeting is in the offing doesn’t, of course, mean that mention of “Ruth Sykes” shouldn’t run to what such a meeting might involve. Our lies are all deeply substantial, if we want to unravel them, and are full of truths-in-passing that we haven’t yet embellished into our preferred version of events.
So mother tells daughter Rosalind, an overworked doctor, that she’s off for that lunch date with Ruth Sykes: Rosalind is currently residing with her for reasons we can’t help but assume — she’s prone to nightly sobbing fits (as mother helplessly prowls around the floor beneath, incapable of intervening, it seems, and incapable of enduring, and resigned to flushing the toilet, “bumping around” and fantasising about what might happen were they closer and if Rosalind were only to step out of her room and trip over her, initiating a comforting exchange . . . but this is never likely to, and doesn’t, happen) — is due to the absence of “Michael,” who we already know (this is all very skilfully woven in the space of a few paragraphs) is the recently-estranged ex-partner of the daughter.
But the mother has no such lunch date planned; she instead has an appointment with Michael, also a doctor, at his surgery, made for entirely spurious reasons and, we guess, for some kind of attempt at (possibly ill-conceived and unlikely seeming) rapprochement.
The mother seems a little on the eccentric side, and quite distant and meddlesome, but likeably so (not that the daughter seems particularly impressed). We haven’t a clue how she’s going to go about this imminent meeting, or what the response might entail, or whether she’s going to make matters much worse etc, which makes the whole setup that bit more intriguing than it might’ve been if, say, she was an awful harridan or very firm caricature. Then you’d have a situation whose drama or comedy all comes from veering from (or sticking to) convention. Here, you’re slightly unnerved: why, particularly when her relationship with her daughter seems so uncertain and fractious, would she make such a move? Is it out of a sense of duty, parental fury as yet unhinted at or seemingly uncharacteristic, mere curiosity, or for slightly dotty reasons? We don’t know (well, I didn’t) and I was glad I was in the dark. I hadn’t a clue what was coming and I couldn’t wait to find out.
This is entirely because Gardam has made sure of two things. One, we care about the mother, because she’s so exasperatedly, childishly engaged by matters you might think were of no interest to her anymore (her curiosity about every single thing her daughter does and her inability to understand how to react to any of it) but that substantiate her in all kinds of empathetic ways.
Two: anything seems possible, because, as likeable as the mother is, she’s unconventional and deeply unknowable and we desperately want to know her; and the only likely way possible is by seeing how she acts in a dramatic moment. Will this upcoming confrontation reveal a little more about this person we like?
She’s a woman desperate to do the right thing – with absolutely no conviction about what that is. And: not all that keen on her daughter (as she muses to herself late in the story, in her impulsively rented hotel room after her tearful escape from her strange confrontation, despite later reaffirming in her own mind that Rosalind is “lovely”). The constant vacillations that undermine the most steadfast of bonds: the curse of consciousness and choices and the possibility of elsewhere and other lives we’ll never know, swarming in our minds, blurring all. And, in any case: we’re not always happy with the veracity of what we absolutely know and try to wriggle free of such certainty in order to test its constitution: and even when we discover, finally, some truth, it’s soon rendered malleable in other mouths. Self-perception is impossible to trust in antic minds such as these and it’s maddening: perhaps literally.
Once in Michael’s office — and a “Mrs Thessally!” is the first of maybe three rarely arising moments of ripe comedy as he finally realises who it is sat at the other end of his “tennis court”-sized desk — we await his response to her arrival and a bit more telling details about this situation. Michael was until very recently, we discover, a very familiar, affable presence at her home (so why is she so reluctant to speak to him? Adds further, happily, to the complexity levels), a face-pulling gardening mainstay, by the sounds of it. They’re delayed somewhat by the bustle of apologetic intruders, before we get to the nub of it all.
“Mrs T,” he said to the distant chimney pots of Bayswater, “this is absolutely none of my doing. I want you to know. Nothing at all can come from me. I think that since Rosalind clearly hasn’t told you then I should. It is very much all over.”
Mrs Thessally’s garbled response — “I don’t know that I really knew what I was talking about but I went on.” — embarrasses her into a hasty exit.
And I was gone, out of the room, out of the waiting room, out of the hospital, back into Oxford Street and my heart was beating so loud it was probably making more noise than Mrs Arnold’s who’d collapsed. I seemed to be crying, too.
She “seemed” to be! Says everything . . .
I walked the whole length of Oxford Street looking in all the shop windows and what was in them all I don’t know. When I got to Tottenham Court Road there was a huge cinema and I bought a ticket and went in. It seemed to be a film made for giants. The screen was so big you had to turn your head to get it all in. Enormous people came bounding out of it at you, singing at the top of their voices — happy children nuns who became governesses and married princes and escaped from the Germans and sang and sang and sang. What curious lives people lead.
Soon enough, in the quest for a cup of tea, she’s surprised to find herself “standing instead on the steps of a hotel.”
Still not quite in control of her actions (or willing herself to disbelieve them), she nonetheless has, perhaps for the very first time (and her rambling thoughts and constantly preoccupied mindset is clearly borne of obsessing about Rosalind for probably every waking moment of the latter’s life), the distance required to fathom a brief glimpse of objective reasoning.
I began to think in a way I had never thought before in all Rosalind’s twenty-seven years. I thought of the breakfasts when she never looked in my direction; the months and months and months when she was only a hurried figure appearing for meals, retiring to her study, rushing out to see others; of all the years when — except for Ruth Sykes and Mrs Somebody in the road or Uncle James at Hastings, because we’ve so few relatives and since Jack died I’ve not had much interest in friends and going about — all the years when every telephone call and letter and message and enquiry and invitation has always been for her.
Resentment marshalled more than truly felt, that, I think. Gardam is often compared, not inaccurately, to the likes of Jane Austen, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Muriel Spark. I’d add B.S. Johnson to that list: that level of restlessness and confounding wrestling with absolutely everything as a means of distancing, a protective bubble of convivial paranoia, obsessive surveillant centerlessness.
At the close of the story we find a gloriously pessimistic Mrs Thessaly returning home after her adventure — a police car outside her house is obviously there to scrutinise a quickly-elaborated post-Rosemary-suicide scene — and collapsing, awaking to find a “very young and sensible” police officer, Michael and (“God be thanked!”) Rosalind in attendance. We learn that a reunion has taken place in the time that Mrs Thessally was absent. Despite that turn of events — initiated, lest we forget, by a gibberish-spouting Mrs Thessally — Rosalind’s ensuing relieved, volatile anguish about her mother’s hitherto mysterious whereabouts leads to her spilling (for the second time in the story) a cup of coffee down the front of her dress and her becoming the recipient of a delicious switch supplied by Michael’s story-closing line of dialogue.
“It beats me,” he said – but gazing back at her with such joy – “It beats me. Medically,” he said, “Genetically” (and I shall tell Ruth Sykes) “it beats me how such an intelligent woman could produce such a stupid great child.”
Lunch with Ruth Sykes — and there’ll be plenty of similar examples throughout the coverage of these stories — is host to another set of people happy to confer inaccurate best guesses upon each other and treat them as they have imagined them, not as they are (not that they themselves know who they are; and anyway, how much of us are our self-perceptions versus cultivated public personas? Etc. . . .). Gardam once again makes the ordinary bizarre and the peculiar commonplace. It obviously helps if, as a reader, I sympathise with the worldview of a writer (it isn’t essential). Gardam clearly considers everything fascinating, and, like Austen, somehow manages to delight in their flaws and remain optimistic as she enumerates their disasters. She doesn’t judge: rather, she lays someone bare very quickly and decorously and asks you to consider them, benevolently, as they fail to understand themselves and anyone else.