‘What’s that about my life?’ Lizzy came unsteadily into the kitchen as her mother was speaking, wrapped in the new red quilted dressing gown Sarah and I had given her for Christmas.
‘We’ve been talking about men, pet. I was just saying …’ Lizzy grunted angrily. ‘Oh, fucking great.’ My stomach knotted. Lizzy only swears when she’s been seized by the sudden bouts of anguished rage that have dogged her since Peter died. She thumped down onto a chair and, glaring at the tabletop, tugged at a strand of hair. ‘Faun been playing the Elfin Queen again?’ (Our private term for casual sex).
‘Pet, she was just …’
‘Christ, mummy! Faun can speak for herself. What were you saying Faun?’ I repeated that I’d wished that, like her, I’d settled on one man when I was young and stuck with him.
‘Oh, instead of fucking half the art students in London?’ I said nothing. Lizzy knew I’d had a couple of brief affairs before Quentin. I’d hardly been promiscuous, but then she had always been something of a prude.
‘Christ, you think Peter and I were a fairy story with an unhappy ending. You’ve no idea, Faun, not a clue’.
Mrs. Oliver, now visibly upset, knew better than to intervene. Like the Ancient Mariner, Lizzy needs an audience and, having chosen one, insists on full attention. If you stay quiet and listen she’ll rant and lament and then, tearful and exhausted, sleep for hours. If not, she gets violent and starts breaking things. I was just thankful Sarah was staying over after the party because she finds her mum’s outbursts unbearable
‘You think Peter and I …? Oh for fuck’s sake, Faun …’
Her mother stood up a little unsteadily and left the room. Lizzy then spent the best part of two hours filling me in, with far more candour than I would ever have expected, about aspects of her life about which I indeed knew almost nothing.
The girls of the ‘Oliver menagery’, including Lizzy it now seems, had always assumed she and Peter would eventually marry. But by the time she started university he was all but absent from her life. When she’d ring him in York he was largely monosylabic, clearly deeply preoccupied with his family’s problems. His answers to her letters consisted of a few scribbled lines. After a while she gave up, desperate to concentrate on her studies and assuming he’d get back in touch when things at home had settled down. So in a relatively short time she went from being at the heart of a group of friends to barely socializing at all. Initially, because she was preoccupied with working and trying to reestablish her relationship with Peter, then because she turned in on herself, consumed by a toxic mixture of unhappiness, anger and self-doubt.
Her assumption that, after college, she and Peter would get engaged, marry, and in time live on the Reed estate, now seemed presumptious to a degree that appalled her. There had never been any explicit understanding between them. She’d just somehow presumed that signs of affection on his part, a quick hug or peck on the cheek on all the usual occasions, were a prelude to all that. Now she neither knew where she stood with him, nor what she herself really wanted. She was too furious to talk with Kate, who she blamed for triggering Peter’s family situation, and didn’t want to discuss it all with her mother. She’d also started to obsess about something James had once said when she, Kate, and the twins were arguing about what to wear to a posh fancy-dress party the Easter before we were all caught drinking. (‘Posh’ being my tern for anything the rest of us were not invited to). He’d proposed they go as their fairytale selves and they’d all asked him what he meant.
‘Lizzy always does the right thing. She’s our parochial equivalent of the beautiful and virtuous princess. Go as that. Kate is the mischivous fairy who gets everyone into trouble, of course.’ Kate threw a magazine at him and asked about the boys. ‘Dad’s taken to introducing Peter to his shooting crowd as his ‘son and heir’, so he’s obviously the Prince who’ll inherit a kingdom. He’d better go as that. Which means I’m the younger son who has to go out into the world to seek his fortune. So, rags and a stick with a bundle in a spotted handkirchief for me. Or I suppose, if the younger son is lazy and cunning like me, he might just steal the virtuous princess from under his briother the Prince’s nose and live happily ever after off her father’s land!’
It had all been smilingly said, in the usual half-joking, half-mocking way James used to wind people up and that Lizzy usually ignored. But she had a bit of a soft spot for him and he’d smiled so warmly at her as he spoke that, despite knowing it was all nonsense, she’d been touched by his calling her beautiful (something James had never done), and a little flattered by his proposal to steal her away. And now, because of all that had happened since, those feelings returned to trouble her.
Then by a stroke of ill-luck a student, whose demeanour and self-confidence reminded her a lot of James, transferred into her seminar group and quickly become the centre of attention among its largely female attendees. Lizzy, troubled by his similarities to James, studiously avoided him. He quickly noticed this and took it as a challenge, going out of his way to greet and flirt with her whenever they met. She started to feel haunted by James’ doppelgänger. She had always told herself that she was angry about Kate’s sexual adventure with James because of its consequences. Now she began to realise that, at some level, she was also furiously jealous of her sister. She’d always rather liked James and Kate had had carnal knowledge of him, something she could barely admit to herself that she too might have wanted. This became mixed up with her increasingly ambiguous feelings about Peter, her gratitude and irritation at his being the quiet, steady, and yes, slightly boring, twin; for not having made her want him enough to do what Kate had done with James. And so on, interminably.
Lizzy now doubted everything she’d formally believed about herself and, increasingly consumed by self-loathing, clung to the life-raft of her academic work. Often unable to sleep, she would pace up and down in her tiny top-floor flat, fearful that she was heading for some kind of break-down but equally determined to block out that possibility.
Then one evening James’ doppelgängersaw her on her way home, dodged the traffic on the busy street to cross and speak to her, insisting she let him buy her a drink. She said she had to get home but, true to type, he refused to take no for an answer. Tired and unable to resist his smiling insistance, she eventually reluctantly agreed. She drank a gin and tonic faster than was sensible and was then cojoled into accepting a second. The result was a sudden emotional thaw and, knowing quite well she shouldn’t, she accepted a third. Later, very drunk, she invited the doppelgänger back to her flat.
When she finally woke next morning Lizzy was first appalled at what she’d done and then incandescent with a blind rage. She blagged the doppelgänger’saddress from the departmental secretary on the pretense she’d picked up his essay with her own and needed to return it. She went to his flat and, when he answered the door, forced her way in. When his flatmate tried to intervene, Lizzy boilded over, screaming and yelling. The flatmate called the police. The angrier Lizzy got the more the doppelgänger actedbemused. They’d had a drink, she’d invited him back to her flat, he’d used condoms, what was her problem? Fortunately the police arrived in time to help the flatmate restrain her from hitting him a second time.
She spent several hours in a police cell until the doppelgänger informed them that he would not be pressing charges. She was released with a caution. But she knew she had completely lost her way and dispaired. Knowing both her parents would be out she drove back to Homehaugh and, having gathered up all the pills she could find, drunk the best part of a bottle of whisky to get up the courage to take them. The alcohol kicked in really quickly, she eaten practically nothing in the previous twenty-four hours, and she dropped the pills, most of them white, onto the white bathroom carpet. When her mother came home later she found Lizzy slowly circling the bathroom on hands and knees like a damaged insect, sobbing wildly as she tried to collect up the pills. She was literally blind drunk. Her mother put her to bed and rang the university to say she’d had an accident and wouldn’t return for the last week of term. When Lizzy finally woke up she was as mortified as she was monumentally hung over.
Mrs. Oliver tried to insist Lizzy take time out from her studies. She refused but promised to see somebody and get help. At the start of her second session with a counsellor, she heard herself say all this, adding that she obviously didn’t love Peter. She was so shocked by this that she couldn’t speak for the rest of the session, just shook and cried silently while the counsellor passed her tissues. Nothing really changed for a long while. Afraid to go home, she barely spoke ouside tutorials and seminars. These were a nightmare because she was convinced the whole world knew what she’d done and despised her. But her deepest fear was that she’d fail her degree. That terrified her but also kept her working.
Then very early one morning she heard a blackbird singing. The sound upset her terribly, which in turn shattered her numbness. Shivering, she ran a hot bath and, soaking in it, realized with a clarity she’d not experienced for months that the blackbird’s song reminded her of times with Peter.
Once, on a winter charity walk, Lizzy, Peter, and James’s group got caught in a white-out. It took the young woman in charge about ten minutes to orient them and start them on their way down but, before that happened, Lizzy spoke out of turn, something about which direction they should take. She’d been told in no uncertain terms to shut up. Humiliated, she’d sulked at the back of the group. Peter had dropped back to walk with her. When they got back to the village Lizzy, still miserable, sat down on the low wall behind the village hall and cried. Peter sat down beside her and put a rather tentative arm around her shoulder while offering her his rather grubby handkerchief. A blackbird sang nearby and they sat and listened to it until she’d stopped crying. Then he’d walked back with her to Homehough.
Remembering Peter’s concern that day let loose a flood of memories. Most particularly, Lizzy remembered going with Peter’s mother to pick him up at Edinburgh airport after a school trip. She’d been maybe fifteen. Peter didn’t see her hanging back until he’d put down his luggage and hugged his mother. When he did see her his face had lit up. She’d given him a little hug and kissed his cheek and he’d blushed and ducked his head as he aways did when he was really pleased about something. They’d sat together in the back of the car and, when it got dark, Peter had reached out and found her hand on the car seat and held it until they got back to the village.
When the cold bathwater brought Lizzy back into the present, she knew all she wanted was to finish her degree and put things right with Peter. She wrote him a long letter and, contact reestablished, struggled through the rest of her degree to get a Two One (we’d all expected her to get a First.) Peter and his mother came to her degree ceremony.
By the time she’d told me all this Lizzy’s anger was quite spent.
‘Not a fairytale princess, Faun. Just weak, stupid, neurotic. Jealous of Kate about James, and angry Peter hadn’t wanted me the same way. I fucked a nobody, tried and failed to kill myself and, yes, finally married Peter because I couldn’t live without him. And now I have to anyway. And Faun, I never told him. I just pretended he was the first because I was so ashamed. I’m a lie, Faun, everything about me is a lie.’
She started to rock back and forth in mute anguish.
‘Come on Lizzy, you’ve coped wonderfully with Sarah and the farm, with everything.’
‘Oh God Faun, I miss him. I needed Peter so much and now he’s gone.’
I helped her upstairs and then got her into bed. She was asleep in moments. When I got home I set the alarm so as to be at the farm by seven. When Lizzy wasn’t down for breakfast by half seven, I phoned Arthur and got Nessa.
‘She’s had a bad night.’
‘Right Miss Flora, I’ll tell himself she’ll speak with him later.’
I collected Sarah from the sleepover and, when we got back, Lizzy, although still in her pyjamas and new red dressing gown, was eating breakfast while making a list of groceries with her mother.
Cattle on the high hill
‘Hello pet, did you have a good party? There’s toast left over or grab some cereal. And soon as you can, please, let the hens out. I had a bad night and I’m already terribly behind. I must go and help with the cattle’.
Sarah gave her a sharp look and openned her mouth to say something. But whether because of the redness of her mother’s eyes, her grandmother’s warning glance, or the slight shake in Lizzy’s voice, she closed it, nodded, buttered a piece of toast, and went upstairs to change into her everyday clothes.