Unexplained Laughter, page 1
ALICE THOMAS ELLIS
Constable & Robinson
55-56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
This edition published by Corsair,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2012
Copyright © Alice Thomas Ellis 1985
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library
Printed and bound in the European Union
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Cover illustration: Diane Law
Cover design: www.simonlevyassociates.co.uk
To Jeffrey Bernard
I think I am dead. I think I have been dead for a long time now. I am Angharad. Do you hear me?
‘. . . she’s only a child, Hywel. She shouldn’t be let roam the hills alone.’ Elizabeth is speaking. She is Hywel’s wife and Hywel is my brother.
She says it again. She says, ‘Angharad should not be out on the hills alone. Hywel, she is out on the hills alone . . .’
He will not answer her. I hear him not answering from where I lie above them with my ear to a hole that the rats made a long, long time ago.
‘Anything could happen to her out on those hills alone, any -thing . . .’ Elizabeth’s voice goes with her to the back kitchen. ‘. . . you never know who’s in the valley these days – strangers.’
She has come back with Hywel’s dinner. Hywel is silent and now Elizabeth is silent too. She is as careful as a chemist with her reproaches.
All I hear is the owl, flower-faced, calling once in the night.
‘What was that?’ asked Lydia. She was standing in blackness in the middle of a narrow, ice-cold stream. The stones over which it flowed were as slippery as its fish and Lydia was wearing town shoes.
‘It’s an owl,’ said Betty.
‘No, it isn’t,’ argued Lydia. ‘Owls go tu-whit-tu-whoo. Whatever that was was squeaking. It was a mammal – something furry. Something’s eating something furry.’
‘Give me your hand,’ said Betty irritably. ‘I’m on the other side. I think I’ve found the path.again. And it’s only the tawny owl who goes tu-whit-tu-whoo. All the rest squeak like that.’
‘I can’t see my hand,’ said Lydia. ‘Anyway, you’ll have to wait because I’m going to have hysterics. I’m going to stand in this stream and scream.’
Betty had insisted on stopping to eat in a pub, pointing out, with apparent reasonableness, that there would be no cooking facilities ready in the cottage. Lydia had said that one night’s fast would be preferable to the plight in which they did indeed now find themselves, but Betty regarded the idea of missing a meal as unnatural and Lydia was overruled. It was during dinner that Lydia had begun to think of Betty as her ‘companion’ – as the compilers of restaurant guides describe the nameless individuals who share their good fortune and have their meals paid for. ‘To start, my companion chose prawns Rose Marie (ugh). Then, for the main course, she chose the steak-and-kidney pie, dripping gravy down her horrible blouse (it’s the sort of blouse that when you see it in the shop you wonder how the shopkeeper intends to dispose of it because no one in their right mind would ever dream of swapping cash for it). And you won’t believe this, but she rounded off the meal with a wedge of Black Forest gateau. Will she be sick in the car?’
Lydia had never been particularly fond of Betty, but during dinner she had begun to hate her. After dinner they had got lost, because Betty had fallen asleep and failed to note the few signposts and correlate them with the route on the map.
‘Did you know,’ Lydia enquired, ‘that a companion is literally one with whom one breaks bread?’ – affectation being as good a means as any of maintaining a distance between oneself and the rest.
‘Lydia, for goodness sake come on. You can’t stand there all night talking nonsense.’ Betty grabbed her and pulled.
‘Ouch!’ said Lydia, falling in invisible indignity out of the stream on to her knees.
Betty asked her why she hadn’t remembered to bring a torch.
‘I think torches are effeminate,’ said Lydia. ‘I could never never love a man who habitually carried a torch. Could you?’
This was unkind of Lydia, for Betty was not popular with men, which was another reason for Lydia to dislike her, since Lydia was one of those women who find something contaminating in ugliness and prefer to mingle only with those who are at least as attractive as themselves.
She pushed on, dark in the darkness, through barbed and whipping branches to the door of her cottage.
‘Now I just wonder if I remembered to bring the key,’ she speculated aloud.
‘Lydia,’ said Betty, who was carrying the luggage.
‘Oh joy,’ said Lydia. ‘What an amazing thing. Here it is in my pocket.’
There were candles and matches on a ledge just inside the front door where she had left them on her last visit, for Lydia was in fact a sufficiently practical person and not the ass she sometimes chose to appear.
‘Now isn’t this cosy,’ she observed of the dank and barely furnished room, shadowed in the candlelight. ‘There is an old saying that every time an owl hoots a woman has been unfaithful,’ she added, lifting the candlestick and looking round.
‘There are hundreds of them hooting all night,’ protested Betty.
‘Yes, well . . .’ said Lydia.
I heard a car stop at Ty Fach. I hear everything in the valley. All the sounds of the valley end here in my room, and the women speak in front of me – of Hywel and Beuno and Elizabeth and me – and the men who work on the farm piss in the hedgerow in front of me because they all think I am dead.
Lydia woke early the following morning and went out to wash in the stream, feeling it was brave and somewhat magnanimous of her after it had treated her so ill on the previous night. Then the icy touch of the water reminded her that she had planned to cool the hock in it for Finn and the bastard wasn’t here; and for a moment her towel served as a handkerchief as she mourned, and then, since she considered it degrading to weep for a faithless man, she dried her eyes and her ears and under her chin and returned with springing step to the cottage.
Betty was wearing a dressing-gown, a circumstance which served further to upset Lydia, who nevertheless painted her mouth bright red to facilitate her smile and set about connecting the bottled gas to the stove.
Betty, who clearly had not washed, since she had not been down to the stream and there was no water in the cottage, padded about in her dressing-gown and slippers offering to slice the bread for breakfast.
‘No, no,’ said Lydia, ‘don’t bother. I’ll do it in a minute. We need buckets and buckets of water for washing and cooking and putting in the vodka and down the lav.’
‘Oh,’ said Betty, but after a moment she went out to the stream leaving Lydia to sit back on her heels and wonder why she found dressing-gowns and slippers so tawdry. By the time Betty returned, her hems wet, she had decided it was because these anachronistic garments dated from an era when there were servants to perform the morning tasks while the quality lounged around in negligé.
‘You go and dress while I make the breakfast,’ said Lydia, rather too firmly for the perfect hostess.
Lydia had intended to spend the next few weeks alone attempting to eradicate these shafts of reminiscence, determined not to follow the common course and go round seeking replacements for her lost love: an undignified and doom-laden procedure, leading to recriminations and disgust. On several previous occasions she had done this, trying to persuade herself that the new Tom, Dick or Harry was quite as desirable and worthy as the missing Harry, Dick or Tom. It had never proved satisfactory, and as she grew older she was beginning to recognise and make sense of the repeating pattern, like someone unrolling a flamboyant wallpaper. It was at once reassuring and depressing to find life’s major events so predictable in their repetition. Eventually, she knew, she would fall in love again. She always did, but it was not a process that could be hurried or engineered. She was not yet prepared to believe herself incapable of what was known as a ‘lasting relationship’. She had invited Betty to stay by accident, or rather by drunken mischance, at one of those fatal office parties. She had said, her eyes glittering with simulated enthusiasm, that she could hardly wait to get to her cottage, and Betty had said wistfully that it seemed like years since she had seen a blade of grass (which was silly in itself, because of what else were the lawns of Hyde Park composed?); so Lydia, unhinged with the shock of bereavement, and further undone by wine, had said she could come too. Betty had taken advantage of her weakness, and here she was.
‘How do you like your egg?’ asked Lydia, determined to be pleasant since the one thing more disagreeable than staying with someone you detested was staying with someone who detested you too. Dissembling was tiring but squabbling was disgusting. She would never be sufficiently intimate with Betty to quarrel with her.
‘Poached, please,’ said Betty, which was annoying as Lydia had meant hard- or soft-boiled.
Lydia swirled the water in the pan into a whirlpool and slithered in the egg, which proceeded to foam and display other signs of rebellion. ‘The bloody thing’s stale,’ she said.
‘They always are,’ said Betty resignedly.
At least it didn’t stink, thought Lydia. She had been propositioned at that last party by a sub-editor with bad breath, who seeing her maimed and brought down had been swift to seize the opportunity. An egg was very like sex, she reflected. One bad experience could result in life-long egglessness or celibacy. She ladled the flat and listless thing on to a piece of toast and put it before her guest.
I went round the woods behind Ty Fach today. There is smoke in the chimney. Emyr has built it all up and put back the roof. There were bats where the roof used to be before. They hung from the rafters and hardly stirred when I walked beneath. The rafters were green and the floorboards had crumbled away like old green bread. Ty Fach had been dead for a long time. There are people there now. I shall never go inside Ty Fach again. I think when they steal back the houses they make the earth smaller.
‘Was that you in the woods a while ago?’ asked Lydia.
Betty stood in the doorway darkening the kitchen as she shook the skirt of her proofed cotton mac. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I just went to the waterfall and back. Though I don’t know why I bothered.’
‘It does seem rather too much of a good thing – going to look at a waterfall in the rain,’ remarked Lydia.
‘It wasn’t much of a waterfall either,’ said Betty.
Lydia considered this rude. She felt proprietorial about the valley. ‘It’s a very nice waterfall,’ she said defensively, adding, in case this ridiculous discussion should end in argument, ‘I wonder who was creeping about in the woods?’
Betty looked over her shoulder. ‘It was probably the gamekeeper,’ she said, ‘or a shepherd.’
‘Or mad axeman,’ suggested Lydia. ‘Or maybe it was Nationalists.’
‘Oh don’t,’ cried Betty. ‘They burned down a cottage just the other day. Not far from here.’
‘They wouldn’t get much of a blaze going in this,’ said Lydia, gesturing at the rain which was falling in an undisciplined, abandoned way as though someone had forgotten to turn it off.
‘I don’t know why, if they don’t want people to come here,’ said Betty fretfully, ‘they don’t just put up notices all along the border describing the weather conditions.’
‘But it is precisely those weather conditions,’ said Lydia carefully, ‘which make the countryside so unusually beautiful. The depth and particularity of the green are the result of the excessive rainfall.’
She had become aware of a peculiar element in her conversations with Betty. She always paused for rather too long before answering a question or responding to a remark for she feared that if she answered hastily she would say something unseemly.
‘Well, there’s no point in it being so beautiful if you can’t ever go out in it because it’s raining,’ said Betty, revealing a childish streak in her character which Lydia found rather less appealing than her habitual bossiness. Now she paused so long before answering that she forgot what she was going to say.
Hywel’s brother Beuno is coming home. He is my brother too. It is his Christian duty to love me.
I am laughing in the darkness.
The sun shone the next day, and Emyr arrived to connect the water pipes. Betty made him a cup of tea and sat among the cut lengths of gleaming copper and strong-toothed tools conducting a little chat, which afforded Lydia a moment’s amusement since Betty was adjusting her conversation to suit a person of low intelligence and the people of the valley were, on the whole, clever, devious and unusually literate. As Betty talked about the rain of the previous days the builder spoke briefly of water tables; as she deplored the unemployment in the Principality he gave a succinct resume of the economic situation; as, somewhat at a loss, she praised the sun for now shining, Emyr described in a few words how it would eventually burn itself out. The scene was rather like a bull-fight, with Betty, small-eyed, blundering hither and yon dazzled by the whisk of scarlet, the glancing slippers of the matador.
‘What do you want for lunch?’ enquired Lydia when Emyr, having demonstrated that the taps now functioned, had left.
‘I thought I’d make us my special salad,’ said Betty. ‘If you’ll wash the lettuce I’ll make my special dressing and we could pick some wild sorrel and chop it in at the last minute.’
‘Do you know, I’m not hungry,’ said Lydia, con -sideringly. There was something spinsterish in Betty’s plans for her salad, something intimate in her expectation that Lydia would collude with her, and something repellent in the prospect of two single women fussing over food in the kitchen. Lydia was damned if she’d play salads with Betty. She felt she might never eat again until Betty had gone. She had real women friends: pretty, witty women more likely to speculate on a swift method of fermenting potato peel than slaver over wild sorrel. Why were none of them here? Because she hadn’t asked them, that’s why. She had chosen for herself the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes, and she denounced herself for a masochist. Do I, she asked herself, imagine that because I have lost a man I am in the same category as spotty Betty? Is it my Unconscious (of the existence of which I have informed doubts) that has dropped me in this plight? Because, if so, I had better watch out. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk,’ she said.
‘Perhaps it’ll give you an appetite,’ said Betty.
As she walked, Lydia wondered whether perhaps Betty was lesbianly inclined and that this was why she found her presence so distasteful. After half a mile she had rejected this hypothesis and decided that it was merely because she was unattractive, the sort of person who, fifty years ago, would have worn rubber galoshes. Lydia did not castigate herself for so disliking a fellow-being, believing that it was sufficient merely to refrain from overt unkindness.
The lane had given way to a farmyard. Ly
Lydia sat down on the turf which, in its dry springiness, promptly reminded her of pubic hair. Oh hell, she said to herself and glared morosely at the scene before her, wondering why it was that while, in grief, she could still enjoy a good book or, say, a well-grilled sole, she could take no pleasure in a beautiful landscape. It’s the moon-in-June syndrome, she told herself. Lovers clasped, misty-eyed, against a backdrop of hills and trees and water. Soppy cow. She wished that Finn might contract painful boils, and rose to her feet.
A collie, black and white, and twitching strangely, approached her.
‘Hi, dog,’ said Lydia cautiously, sitting down again. Her imagination, which often inconvenienced her in this way, began to suggest that, naturally, this remote valley would be the haunt of rabid, starving packs of feral dogs.
But the dog was friendly and Lydia was relieved, since there are two sorts of sheepdog: this sort, and the other sort which bites. There is also a third sort which jumps under motor cars to embarrass their drivers in the presence of the farmer.
Here came the farmer now.
‘Hi,’ said Lydia, suppressing an urge to apostrophise him by his calling. ‘Fine day.’