The Comfort of Others
Published 2 June 2016 by Hodder & Stoughton
Clara will be rounding the corner soon. I could set my wristwatch by her. Tap tap tap goes her stick on the pavement, but I can’t actually hear it so I am embellishing that part. The shopping trolley looks particularly full. Likely she will have bought curly kale, swedes, turnips; floor wax, too. Tomorrow I will polish the hall floor. The colour of the wax is Bishop’s Cardinal Red.
Clara’s posture is impressive. ‘Did you ever ballet dance, m’dear?’ a market stallholder asked her once. She told me she shook her head and said, ‘No, never.’ She is not stand-offish, but she can be mistaken for being so. I am less likely to be misunderstood, mostly because I hardly go out and I speak as little as possible. It has crossed my mind that all my unsaid words might be stacked up somewhere, waiting, like a wick, to be set alight. If it ever happens, I wonder if I will find myself torched by a hot flame of words.
The marmalade cat which belongs to a house down the road is looping itself around the gatepost. It lifts its tail like an ensign. Clara will shoo it away with her stick. She can’t abide cats, their scratching and scraping.
There are rooms I have not been in for years: small attics, the billiards room where the green baize table gathers dust. Clara steps purposefully in there sometimes, the ostrich-feather duster held upright in her hands. I’m not sure it does much good. Dust re-gathers, re-groups, re-falls anyway; rooms become softly shrouded in greyness.
However one tries to avoid it, matter settles and ossifies.
Clara is getting closer. A boy cycles past her, and it looks like he is singing or shouting. She doesn’t flinch. The woman in the post office asked her if she considered herself a target, what with her fixed routines. ‘I’d be worried,’ the woman said. Clara replied that she didn’t see why anyone would target her. She’s probably right. There is something in the way she wields her stick, some kind of peculiar authority and untouchability, which means it would take no small measure of courage to mug Clara.
A mug used to be something one might drink from; now it also means a kind of assault. There is no denying it; words scamper forth and make new meanings for themselves. You can look out of a window for the best part of fifty years, and the whole world can label itself differently.
My label changed. I began as Hermione, my baptismal name. It was rapidly truncated to Minnie; sometimes Min, my father’s pet name for me. Hermione, Minnie, Min. Smaller and smaller, as if I were shrinking.
Clara always insists on unpacking the groceries herself. She says I am undisciplined about what goes where in the refrigerator, which is not entirely fair. Also that I do not always replace the newspaper which lines the vegetable basket before laying out the fresh potatoes and onions. It is not worth a squabble. I am usually relegated to watching as Clara takes out carrots, cauliflower and a small block of cheddar. Perhaps she will have treated us to a custard slice each. Or it might be a jam tart, red and smooth as wax.
As I sit now by the bay window again the late afternoon sun casts long, angular shadows and the gate is picked out by the light. Rosemount Park, written on slate, retains its purchase on the ornate ironwork. The lowest hinge is broken. Clara has noted it in the Repairs book, which is no longer necessarily a step to it being repaired.
Our house stood, previously, in a hundred acres of its own parkland. There was a tennis court, a croquet lawn, a walled garden fragrant with pleached fruit trees and soft, blowsy roses.
There is an ancient photo of myself and Clara, dressed in white sprigged muslin dresses, obediently holding hands in front of the neat vegetable garden. The butcher delivered meat tied in waxed-paper parcels, and the fishmonger, on Fridays, a fillet of cod or haddock laid out on granules of ice. I remember the gardeners, their tools, barrows, clippers; a man who pruned the trees, harnessing himself to the branches, and who with particular skill trimmed the wisteria, encouraging it to thread its way along the length of the glasshouse. The apples from the orchard were stacked in trays in an outhouse. ‘Apples from the garden,’ our mother used to say, ‘right through until February.’ It was Father who, after the war, in the mid-1950s, sold off all the land to the council to build a new estate. The houses now lap practically to the front door. The child who lives opposite is physically closer to me than Clara making tea in the kitchen. ‘People need homes,’ my father had said firmly, ‘the time for all this is gone.’ When I close my eyes, I can still see the lake, the parkland, the feathery asparagus beds, the row of delicate aspen trees. The planners tried to commemorate the original context. Lake Street. The Long Walk. Wisteria Avenue. It’s all a nod to Rosemount’s vanished space.
The money gained is perhaps now almost gone. Clara has not said – the accounts are her business – but last November she burned our stack of accumulated Yellow Pages in the woodstove, cutting them up with her old pinking shears. The flames danced green.
What plays out now in front of me are other people’s lives with all their business and colour. I watch the hurry and scurry of their routines; women on their way to nurseries with pushchairs, stooping to pick up things their toddlers hurl; schoolchildren bumping up the kerb on their bikes and wheeling with no hands on the handlebars down the middle of the road; teenagers smoking and laughing by the row of garages; grocery deliveries arriving in supermarket vans; young women in high heels teetering out on Friday night; a man in a yellow sou’wester walking his dachshund at precisely the same time, twice daily. I can measure my day by it all.
I am not alone in watching, in taking it all in. The child opposite does so too. I would guess him to be ten, possibly eleven if he is small and slight for his age. He sits on the low brick wall which runs in front of his house, and watches the comings and goings. He swings his legs as he sits there. He waves to other children as they go by, and sometimes he walks to the park but is not gone long. I think that he does not have a father; there is no sign of a man. He has the air of a child who has been brought up by women and the elderly. I don’t know why I am so sure of that, but I am. He is considered in his movements, and there is about him a gentleness which is the opposite of the boisterousness I see in some of the other children of his age. When he first moved in, an old couple used to visit, and he would walk very slowly around the block with an elderly man who wheeled an oxygen tank. I imagine it was his grandfather. I would watch him talking intently to him, and there was a sweetness about him which I found heart-warming.
The boy looks across at me sometimes. We catch each other’s eye and hold our gaze for a second. Sometimes he stands by the window ledge of his sitting room, or at his bedroom window, scanning the length of the street. In the last day or so I think he has a new project. He seems to be talking to himself, his lips moving quickly, animatedly. He is holding something constantly in his hand. It is a machine of sorts; perhaps a phone, or maybe a tape recorder of some kind. Perhaps he is telling himself a story.
Would I be telling myself a story? Perhaps. I have a sudden, overwhelming desire to write what happened. It is different from a story. In doing so, I wonder if at last I will be able to let it go. As I look up at his window, the boy is talking into his machine again. We would be twinned in our endeavour. This is how I will think of it.
Minnie has lived her whole life with her sister Clara in Rosemount, her family’s beautiful, grand, crumbling house. Clara organises their daily life, and Minnie is reflective and watchful. Max lives with mother in the housing estate built around Rosemount. It is the school summer holidays, and she has a new boyfriend who is making Max’s life tricky. Slowly, hesitantly, an unlikely friendship forms between Max and Minnie as she shares with him the antiques Rosemount holds. As Max begins to tell his story, Minnie begins to write about hers and reveals the secret which has shaped her life. A novel about courage, forgiveness and the power of friendship, The Comfort of Others is about coming to terms with the present and laying to rest the ghosts of the past.
Langdale is a wonderful writer, plots beautifully and is brilliant at showing her characters’ inner worlds.Daily Mail
In this double portrait each voice comes from a combination of speech, thought and writing for a tale of cruelty and redemption both moving and deeply satisfying.Oxford Times