Context: It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. Spinster Frances lives with her genteel mother Mrs Wray and mourns the death of her brothers in the Great War. Her father has died leaving considerable debts and they are obliged to take in lodgers: Lilian and Leonard Barber of the 'clerk class'.
The Barbers had said they would arrive by three. It was like waiting to begin a journey, Frances thought. She and her mother had spent the morning watching the clock, unable to relax. At half-past two she had gone wistfully over the rooms for what she’d supposed was the final time; after that there had been a nerving-up, giving way to a steady deflation, and now, at almost five, here she was again, listening to the echo of her own footsteps, feeling no sort of fondness for the sparsely furnished spaces, impatient simply for the couple to arrive, move in, get it over with.
She stood at a window in the largest of the rooms—the room which, until recently, had been her mother’s bedroom, but was now to be the Barbers’ sitting-room—and stared out at the street. The afternoon was bright but powdery. Flurries of wind sent up puffs of dust from the pavement and the road. The grand houses opposite had a Sunday blankness to them—but then, they had that every day of the week. Around the corner there was a large hotel, and motor-cars and taxi-cabs occasionally came this way to and from it; sometimes people strolled up here as if to take the air. But Champion Hill, on the whole, kept itself to itself. The gardens were large, the trees leafy. You would never know, she thought, that grubby Camberwell was just down there. You’d never guess that a mile or two further north lay London, life, glamour, all that.
The sound of a vehicle made her turn her head. A tradesman’s van was approaching the house. This couldn’t be them, could it? She’d expected a carrier’s cart, or even for the couple to arrive on foot—but, yes, the van was pulling up at the kerb, with a terrific creak of its brake, and now she could see the faces in its cabin, dipped and gazing up at hers: the driver’s and Mr Barber’s, with Mrs Barber’s in between. Feeling trapped and on display in the frame of the window, she lifted her hand, and smiled.
This is it, then, she said to herself, with the smile still in place.
It wasn’t like beginning a journey, after all; it was like ending one and not wanting to get out of the train. She pushed away from the window and went downstairs, calling as brightly as she could from the hall into the drawing-room, ‘They’ve arrived, Mother!’
By the time she had opened the front door and stepped into the porch the Barbers had left the van and were already at the back of it, already unloading their things. The driver was helping them, a young man dressed almost identically to Mr Barber in a blazer and a striped neck-tie, and with a similarly narrow face and ungreased, week-endy hair, so that for a moment Frances was uncertain which of the two was Mr Barber. She had met the couple only once, nearly a fortnight ago. It had been a wet April evening and the husband had come straight from his office, in a mackintosh and bowler hat.
But now she recalled his gingery moustache, the reddish gold of his hair. The other man was fairer. The wife, whose outfit before had been sober and rather anonymous, was wearing a skirt with a fringe to it and a crimson jersey. The skirt ended a good six inches above her ankles. The jersey was long and not at all clinging, yet somehow revealed the curves of her figure. Like the men, she was hatless. Her dark hair was short, curling forward over her cheeks but shingled at the nape of her neck, like a clever black cap.
How young they looked! The men seemed no more than boys, though Frances had guessed, on his other visit, that Mr Barber must be twenty-six or -seven, about the same age as herself. Mrs Barber she’d put at twenty-three. Now she wasn’t so sure. Crossing the flagged front garden she heard their excited, unguarded voices. They had drawn a trunk from the van and set it unsteadily down; Mr Barber had apparently caught his fingers underneath it. ‘Don’t laugh!’ she heard him cry to his wife, in mock-complaint. She remembered, then, their ‘refined’ elocution-class accents.
Mrs Barber was reaching for his hand. ‘Let me see. Oh, there’s nothing.’
He snatched the hand back. ‘There’s nothing now. You just wait a bit. Christ, that hurts!’
The other man rubbed his nose. ‘Look out.’ He had seen Frances at the garden gate. The Barbers turned, and greeted her through the tail of their laughter—so that the laughter, not very comfortably, somehow attached itself to her.
‘Here you are, then,’ she said, joining the three of them on the pavement.
Mr Barber, still almost laughing, said, ‘Yes, here we are! Bringing down the character of the street already, you see.’
‘Oh, my mother and I do that.’
Mrs Barber spoke more sincerely. ‘We’re sorry we’re late, Miss Wray. The time just flew! You haven’t been waiting? You’d think we’d come from John o’ Groats or somewhere, wouldn’t you?’
They had come from Peckham Rye, about two miles away. Frances said, ‘Sometimes the shortest journeys take longest, don’t they?’
‘They do,’ said Mr Barber, ‘if Lilian’s involved in them. Mr Wismuth and I were ready at one.—This is my friend Charles Wismuth, who’s kindly lent us the use of his father’s van for the day.’
‘You weren’t ready at all!’ cried Mrs Barber, as a grinning Mr Wismuth moved forward to shake Frances’s hand. ‘Miss Wray, they weren’t, honestly!’
‘We were ready and waiting, while you were still sorting through your hats!’
‘At any rate,’ said Frances, ‘you are here now.’
Perhaps her tone was rather a cool one. The three young people looked faintly chastened, and with a glance at his injured knuckles Mr Barber returned to the back of the van. Over his shoulder Frances caught a glimpse of what was inside it: a mess of bursting suitcases, a tangle of chair and table legs, bundle after bundle of bedding and rugs, a portable gramophone, a wicker birdcage, a bronze-effect ashtray on a marbled stand . . . The thought that all these items were about to be brought into her home—and that this couple, who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger, and brasher, were going to bring them, and set them out, and make their own home, brashly, among them—the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders.
But there was nothing else for it, if the house were to be kept going at all. With a determined smile she went closer to the van, wanting to help.
The men wouldn’t let her. ‘You mustn’t think of it, Miss Wray.’
‘No, honestly, you mustn’t,’ said Mrs Barber. ‘Len and Charlie will do it. There’s hardly anything, really.’ And she gazed down at the objects that were accumulating around her, tapping at her mouth with her fingers.
Frances remembered that mouth now: it was a mouth, as she’d put it to herself, that seemed to have more on the outside than on the in. It was touched with colour today, as it hadn’t been last time, and Mrs Barber’s eyebrows, she noticed, were thinned and shaped. The stylish details made her uneasy along with everything else, made her feel old-maidish, with her pinned-up hair and her angles, and her blouse tucked into her high-waisted skirt, after the fashion of the War, which was already four years over. Seeing Mrs Barber, a tray of houseplants in her arms, awkwardly hooking her wrist through the handle of a raffia hold-all, she said, ‘Let me take that bag for you, at least.’
‘Oh, I can do it!’
‘Well, I really must take something.’
Finally, noticing Mr Wismuth just handing it out of the van, she took the hideous stand-ashtray, and went across the front garden with it to hold open the door of the house. Mrs Barber came after her, stepping carefully up into the porch.
At the threshold itself, however, she hesitated, leaning over the ferns in her arms to look into the hall, and to smile.
‘It’s just as nice as I remembered.’
Frances turned. ‘It is?’ She could see only the dishonesty of it all: the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood, which had had to be sold six months before; the dinner-gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years and years. Turning back to Mrs Barber, she found her still waiting at the step. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’d better come in. It’s your house too, now.’
Mrs Barber’s shoulders rose; she bit her lip and raised her eyebrows in a pantomime of excitement. She stepped cautiously into the hall, where the heel of one of her shoes at once found an unsteady tile on the black-and-white floor and set it rocking. She tittered in embarrassment: ‘Oh, dear!’
Frances’s mother appeared at the drawing-room door. Perhaps she had been standing just inside it, getting up the enthusiasm to come out.
‘Welcome, Mrs Barber.’ Smiling, she came forward. ‘What pretty plants. Rabbit’s foot, aren’t they?’
Mrs Barber manoeuvred her tray and her hold-all so as to be able to offer her hand. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know.’
‘I believe they are. Rabbit’s foot—so pretty. You found your way to us all right?’
‘Yes, but I’m sorry we’re so late!’
‘Well, it doesn’t matter to us. The rooms weren’t going to run away. We must give you some tea.’
‘Oh, you mustn’t trouble.’
‘But you must have tea. One always wants tea when one moves house; and one can never find the teapot. I’ll see to it, while my daughter takes you upstairs.’ She gazed dubiously at the ashtray. ‘You’re helping too, are you, Frances?’
‘It seemed only fair to, with Mrs Barber so laden.’
‘Oh, no, you mustn’t help at all,’ said Mrs Barber—adding, with another titter, ‘We don’t expect that!’
Frances, going ahead of her up the staircase, thought: How she laughs!
Up on the wide landing they had to pause again. The door on their left was closed—that was the door to Frances’s bedroom, the only room up here which was to stay in her and her mother’s possession—but the other doors all stood open, and the late-afternoon sunlight, richly yellow now as the yolk of an egg, was streaming in through the two front rooms as far almost as the staircase. It showed up the tears in the rugs, but also the polish on the Regency floorboards, which Frances had spent several back-breaking mornings that week bringing to the shine of dark toffee; and Mrs Barber didn’t like to cross the polish in her heels. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Frances told her. ‘The surface will dull soon enough, I’m afraid.’ But she answered firmly, ‘No, I don’t want to spoil it’—putting down her bag and her tray of plants and slipping off her shoes.
She left small damp prints on the wax. Her stockings were black ones, blackest at the toe and at the heel, where the reinforcing of the silk had been done in fancy stepped panels. While Frances hung back and watched she went into the largest of the rooms, looking around it in the same noticing, appreciative manner in which she had looked around the hall; smiling at every antique detail.
‘What a lovely room this is. It feels even bigger than it did last time. Len and I will be lost in it. We’ve only had our bedroom really, you see, at his parents’. And their house is—well, not like this one.’ She crossed to the left-hand window—the window at which Frances had been standing a few minutes before—and put up a hand to shade her eyes. ‘And look at the sun! It was cloudy when we came before.’
Frances joined her at last. ‘Yes, you get the best of the sun in this room. I’m afraid there isn’t much in the way of a view, even though we’re so high.’
‘Oh, but you can see a little, between the houses.’
‘Between the houses, yes. And if you peer south—that way’—she pointed—‘you can make out the towers of the Crystal Palace. You have to go nearer to the glass . . . You see them?’
They stood close together for a moment, Mrs Barber with her face an inch from the window, her breath misting the glass. Her dark-lashed eyes searched, then fixed. ‘Oh, yes!’ She sounded delighted.
But then she moved back, and drew in her gaze; and her voice changed, became indulgent. ‘Oh, look at Len. Look at him complaining. Isn’t he puny!’ She tapped at the window, and called and gestured. ‘Let Charlie take that! Come and see the sun! The sun. Can you see? The sun!’ She dropped her hand. ‘He can’t understand me. Never mind. How funny it is, seeing our things set out like that. How poor it all looks! Like a penny bazaar. What must your neighbours be thinking, Miss Wray?’
What indeed? Already Frances could see sharp-eyed Mrs Dawson over the way, pretending to be fiddling with the bolt of her drawing-room window. And now here was Mr Lamb from High Croft further down the hill, pausing as he passed to blink at the stuffed suitcases, the blistered tin trunks, the bags, the baskets and the rugs that Mr Barber and Mr Wismuth, for convenience, were piling on the low brick garden wall.
She saw the two men give him a nod, and heard their voices: ‘How do you do?’ He hesitated, unable to place them—perhaps thrown by the stripes on their ‘club’ ties.
‘We ought to go and help,’ she said.
Mrs Barber answered, ‘Oh, I will.’
But when she left the room it was to wander into the bedroom beside it. And she went from there to the last of the rooms, the small back room facing Frances’s bedroom across the return of the landing and the stairs—the room which Frances and her mother still called Nelly and Mabel’s room, even though they hadn’t had Nelly, Mabel, or any other live-in servant since the munitions factories had finally lured them away in 1916. This was done up now as a kitchen, with a dresser and a sink, with gaslight and a gas stove and a shilling-in-the-slot meter. Frances herself had varnished the wallpaper; she had stained the floor here, rather than waxing it. The cupboard and the aluminium-topped table she had hauled up from the scullery, one day when her mother wasn’t at home to have to watch her do it.
She had done her best to get it all right. But seeing Mrs Barber going about, taking possession, determining which of her things would go here, which there, she felt oddly redundant—as if she had become her own ghost. She said awkwardly, ‘Well, if you’ve everything you need, I’ll see how your tea’s coming along. I shall be just downstairs if there’s any sort of problem. Best to come to me rather than to my mother, and—Oh.’ She stopped, and reached into her pocket. ‘I’d better give you these, hadn’t I, before I forget.’
She drew out keys to the house: two sets, on separate ribbons. It took an effort to hand them over, actually to put them into the palm of this woman, this girl—this more or less perfect stranger, who had been summoned into life by the placing of an advertisement in the South London Press. But Mrs Barber received the keys with a gesture, a dip of her head, to show that she appreciated the significance of the moment. And with unexpected delicacy she said, ‘Thank you, Miss Wray. Thank you for making everything so nice. I’m sure Leonard and I will be happy here. Yes, I’m certain we will. I have something for you too, of course,’ she added, as she took the keys to her hold-all to stow them away. She brought back a creased brown envelope.
It was two weeks’ rent. Fifty-eight shillings: Frances could already hear the rustle of the pound notes and the slide and chink of the coins. She tried to arrange her features into a businesslike expression as she took the envelope from Mrs Barber’s hand, and she tucked it in her pocket in a negligent sort of way—as if anyone, she thought, could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality, and not the essence, the shabby heart and kernel, of the whole affair.
Downstairs, while the men went puffing past with a treadle sewing-machine, she slipped into the drawing-room, just to give herself a quick peek at the cash. She parted the gum of the envelope and—oh, there it all was, so real, so present, so hers, she felt she could dip her mouth to it and kiss it. She folded it back into her pocket, then almost skipped across the hall and along the passage to the kitchen.
Her mother was at the stove, lifting the kettle from the hot-plate with the faintly harried air she always had when left alone in the kitchen; she might have been a passenger on a stricken liner who’d just been bundled into the engine room and told to man the gauges. She gave the kettle up to Frances’s steadier hand, and went about gathering the tea-things, the milk-jug, the bowl of sugar. She put three cups and saucers on a tray for the Barbers and Mr Wismuth; and then she hesitated with two more saucers raised. She spoke to Frances in a whisper. ‘Ought we to drink with them, do you think?’
Frances hesitated too. What were the rules?
Oh, who cared! They had got the money now. She plucked the saucers from her mother’s fingers. ‘No, let’s not start that sort of thing off. There’ll be no end to it if we do. We can keep to the drawing-room; they can have their tea up there. I’ll give them a plate of biscuits to go with it.’ She drew the lid from the tin and dipped in her hand.
Once again, however, she dithered. Were biscuits absolutely necessary? She put three on a plate, set the plate beside the teapot—then changed her mind and took it off again.
But then she thought of nice Mrs Barber, going carefully over the polish; she thought of the fancy heels on her stockings; and returned the plate to the tray.
About the book:
With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
Snippet from The Handmaid's Tale
- Margaret Atwood
Snippet from A Fine Balance
- Rohinton Mistry