Less than a week until the North American Barbara Pym Conference in Boston and Cambridge!
I look forward to seeing Pymsters I met at last year’s conference and others whom I’ve come to know through the BP Facebook pages.
Here’s a Pymish story, using characters from Jane and Prudence:
MOTHERS IN MAY
By Betsy Hanson
“I shall be mother,” Nicholas Cleveland announced as he set the tea tray down on the garden table between his wife Jane and her friend Prudence. “I shall serve two mothers in May! The father being the mother, so to speak!
“Being a mother is much more than simply pouring out,” Jane declared, but Nicholas, preoccupied with avoiding drips from the chipped spout of the Clevelands’ teapot, did not seem to hear her.
“So kind of you,” Prudence said with her usual good manners, accepting an overly full cup of Assam. “Since Felicity arrived, I have let Geoffrey ‘be mother’ most of the time. My hands are always full!”
“Then just sing out when you are for me to pour out again,” Nicholas called as headed toward the house. “At your service!”
The baby began to mewl. Prudence lifted up her pullover and nestled Felicity at the breast, arranging a purple shawl for modesty.
“Nicholas apologizes for not joining us,” Jane said. “He has set aside this afternoon for a task.”
“Oh yes, the demands on the clergy! A Sunday morning service, then Evensong,,” Prudence noted.
“Oh no, none of that.” Jane helped herself to a slice of iced cake – she hoped it was not too dry – that she’d chosen from the village bakery’s day-old shelf. “It’s cigars.”
“His tobacco crop has dried, and he found a book on cigar-making at the library.”
Prudence seemed to stifle a giggle. “A vicar and his tobacco! Men do need their hobbies. That’s why Geoffrey is off on his country walk.”
“A man must have his rambles,” Jane suggested vaguely.
“That’s what Geoffrey would say.”
The two friends sipped their tea. The sweet May sunshine coaxed Prudence into closing her eyes. Soon both she and the baby were asleep.
Jane was glad that Geoffrey had set off on his “rambling” early that morning, giving her plenty of time to hear Prudence’s thoughts on motherhood.
“You just don’t know, do you?” Prudence had said, almost in tears. “You can’t understand what joy is until you see your baby’s face!”
Jane had agreed but hesitated to tell Prudence that having grown-up children created a new list of worries. Off to study in France, Flora wrote postcards with effusive lines about the wonders of Paris, but Jane knew that her daughter was experiencing much more than flaky croissants and vin ordinaire at a sidewalk café.
French men – what else did one need to say? And was Flora strong enough to resist their charms?
Well, for that matter, why should she? Jane admitted to herself. Flora is a grown woman now. She can make her own choices.
Prudence and Felicity, Jane thought, as she gazed at the sleeping pair. What interesting names for a mother and daughter. In real life aren’t these two qualities at odds with each other? The prudent are averse to the risks that could lead to felicity. Those with felicity are too happy to be prudent – though Jane hoped this did not describe her Flora in Paris. . .
From her dress pocket Jane pulled the flyer that had incongruously landed with the vicarage post the previous morning:
“Sunday, 6:30 p.m.! AVALON BALLROOM! FREE introductory ballroom dance course! Beginners welcome! No partner needed! Certified instructor, Fidelio Caravaggio.”
I have always liked to dance, Jane thought. Nicholas has never been keen, but surely he would encourage me to learn to waltz just as I have encouraged him to roll cigars? I have more free time than I could ever have imagined when I was a young mother – and aren’t women’s magazines always exhorting their older readers to discover new passions? Why not ballroom dancing?
Jane dozed off while indulging in fantasies of the sleek Mediterranean good looks of a Fidelio Caravaggio (well, even a married woman in her forties is allowed to admire a beautiful man, is she not?) and gliding across the shiny dance floor in his arms.
“I thought I’d find you here!”
Jane started awake at the sound of Jessie Morrow Driver’s sharp voice. Prudence woke too and hastily adjusted the shawl.
“Such a beautiful May afternoon! When I heard Prudence was visiting, I thought you’d plant her in the garden!” Jessie laughed and peered at the sleeping Felicity on her mother’s lap. “Felicity, isn’t it? Ours is a bouncing baby boy! Earnest.”
As if responding to a theatrical cue, Fabian Driver hove into view at the open garden gate, cradling a baby in one arm and a stack of cigar boxes in the other.
“Oh! And to think not so long ago, you arrived cradling two bottles of wine!” Jane blurted as he joined them.
But Fabian ignored this, as he had spied Prudence.
“How motherhood suits you!” he said, blushing.
“As it does your Jessie,” Prudence said coolly.
Jane agreed; Jessie’s thin frame had filled out, as had her face, making her beaky nose seem less so. Her cheeks even had a natural color that one might even call “a rosy glow.”
Earnest, propped awkwardly in his father’s arms, began to wail. One would say wail in earnest, Jane noted with a smile.
“Fabe, sit in this chair and give him his bottle,” Jessie commanded, as if to a well-trained Alsatian, “and you can deliver the boxes later. It was my idea. Those empty cigar boxes in the attic — I immediately thought of Nicholas and his tobacco.”
“Very kind of you, and please, I shall give these to Nicholas,” Jane said.
When she returned to the garden, Fabian was sitting in a deck chair, holding a bottle of milk for his son but glancing at Prudence as she conversed stiffly with Jessie about sleep schedules and the virtues of bottle-feeding over breast and vice versa.
Oh, poor Fabian, Jane thought, as she poured tea for him and Jessie. Not even the charms of his firstborn are enough to quench whatever residual longing he has for Prudence!
Or is it the residual longing for all the extra women in his life?
Geoffrey Manifold arrived exactly at 5 p.m. to collect his wife and child for the train ride back to the city, pausing to unfurl a clean nappy and carry Felicity to the washroom for changing.
“A man of manifold talents, is Geoffrey Manifold,” Nicholas quipped.
“Geoffrey does everything for Felicity,” Prudence said proudly.
“Nicholas was never a man for the nappies,” Jane explained. “It wasn’t what men did, then, though I can’t imagine why.”
“Times have changed,” Jessie sniffed. “Fabe does nappies as well as anyone.”
“Well now, aren’t you two fortunate mothers, fine husbands both,” Jane said.
Fabian Driver, now with his arms at his sides as Jessie was holding Earnest and the cigar boxes had been duly delivered, hung his noble head and shrugged, as if to say “Ah yes, even a fine creature such as I has been brought to this–a man for the nappies!”
Jane was relieved that the guests and Nicholas had left the vicarage a bit past 5:30. Kindly Nicholas had said only “Fine, dear” when Jane had told him she would skip Evensong to spend the soft May evening “on her own.”
She’d scurried upstairs to change into a colorful peasant skirt that Prudence had brought back from a trip to Spain. From the back of the closet she extracted a pair of flat-soled shoes, and she quickly swiped on some lipstick. She’d thought to take her crocheted shawl as a light wrap but could not find it so grabbed her old tweed coat instead.
The Avalon Ballroom was on the second floor of a pub at the far end of the village, but thankfully the entrance was off the alley at the back, all the better for a vicar’s wife to sneak in unobserved.
“Beginners are most welcome,” Fidelio Caravaggio said as he introduced himself at the door. Jane was surprised that he did not have the swarthy good looks she had imagined for a Fidelio, nor did he have a charming foreign accent. He wore slim black trousers and a white shirt with a deep green bowtie, his ginger hair slicked back with a fragrant pomade.
“My husband had other plans,” she said, “though in truth he has never been keen on dancing.”
“So true for many of the ladies,” Fidelio said, shaking his head in sympathy. “Lovely women ready to throw themselves into the pleasure of a waltz, and their husbands nowhere to be found.”
And surrounded by wives without their husbands, I hope you recall the meaning of your name, Jane thought, as Fidelio sauntered across the room to prepare the record player.
The other students included a balding middle-aged man with a decided limp, a clutch of giggling young women whom Jane did not recognize, and youngish men of varying heights and degrees of charm.
“May I invite you to be my partner?” Fidelio gave a quick bow and began to use Jane to demonstrate the basic swing step.
“One, two, rock step,” he brayed over the tinny strains of “In the Mood.”
Are you noticing that I’m quite good at this? Jane wanted to shout as they finished that tune and began the next, “Tuxedo Junction.” She could not stop smiling, so pleasant was the feeling of moving to music.
“I see you are enjoying yourself!” Fidelio said. “Now we will do the closed position,” Fidelio barked to the class, “like this.”
He pulled Jane in tightly to demonstrate. “Blend with my body,” he whispered in her ear.
“Pardon?” Jane thought she must have misunderstood. “Blend with” – was he perhaps calling her “Belinda,” forgetting her name?
“I said blend with my body, my dear,” Fidelio murmured huskily and hugged her more tightly.
“What cheek! What cheek!” Jane yanked herself out of Fidelio’s arms, grabbed her coat, and fled down the stairs to the alley.
“Been taking classes with ol’ Frank Carver, have you?” said a blonde woman smoking a cigarette by the back entrance. “He’s one to watch out for, that I can tell you.”
“That’s right. He’s got a stage name, maybe that’s the one you know. Figaro something.”
“It’s Fidelio – ha! Frank Carver? I should have known!” Jane hurried through the dusk to the vicarage.
Once out of sight of the Avalon Ballroom, Jane slowed down. The May evening was spicy with the aroma of new green leaves and the tang of compost from back-garden vegetable patches. Silly me! Jane thought. No need to garnish one’s life with dance lessons in the middle of May, when all of nature is offering you promises and the long days of summer are just beginning. And a vicar’s wife on Sunday is supposed to be at Evensong, listening to her husband offer comfort to a handful of lonely old people.
The front room of the vicarage was dark but the kitchen lights shone brightly. At the table sat Nicholas, a book with instructions for cigar-making propped in front of him and cigar boxes scattered about.
“Well, like a scene from Carmen! All those women rolling cigars!” Impulsively Jane pulled off her tweed coat and flounced her Spanish skirt as she danced around the kitchen.
“Jane dear, aren’t you clever! And in that fancy skirt!” Nicholas said. “Fabian Driver just left – he would have enjoyed the show.”
“He offered to help me roll, but my harvest of tobacco was barely enough for these.” He pointed to a cigar box with six clumsily rolled cigars, all the other boxes empty.
“Did Fabian have something to say about fatherhood?” Jane asked.
“Oh yes,” Nicholas said. “Whinging about a distracted wife who doesn’t pay him much attention. It seems the responsibilities of fatherhood do not rest easily on ‘one’s’ shoulders.”
“Your advice?” Jane opened the Ovaltine jar and put milk in a pan on the stove.
“I said that family life is never what you imagine. It fills many of our human needs but not all. But a real man aims to keep his wife happy. Full stop.”
“And real men may need to grow tobacco to make themselves feel whole,” Jane suggested. “And accept that there may not be enough cigars for all the empty boxes?”
Nicholas looked puzzled. Jane too wondered what she was trying to say. Tobacco leaves and cigar boxes had nothing to do with a happy marriage.
“I do make you happy, don’t I, Jane?” Her husband’s voice trembled.
“Why, of course you do.” She handed him his mug of Ovaltine and kissed his cheek. His face relaxed into a smile.
Tomorrow I shall regale you with stories of Fidelio Caravaggio and the Avalon Ballroom, Jane thought. but not tonight. No, dear Nicholas, not tonight.
Your delphinium blue eyes are shining much too sweetly.