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Though the Second World War has ended, times are anything but peaceful for seventeen-year-old Alan. His father, an entrepreneur who was once able to provide the family with a comfortable life, is now struggling to put food on the table. Meanwhile, Alan’s mother dresses as if money is plentiful and spends all her time avoiding her husband, indulging in the escapism of romance novels, and engaging in real-world love affairs. And as if a household struck by poverty and marital trouble isn’t enough, Alan’s bohemian sister, Madge, has been sneaking off into the sand dunes for lusty rendezvous with a German POW.
All Alan wants is for his sister to stop cavorting around and driving their father mad—and for a pretty choir girl named Janet to notice him. But the more he wishes for a normal life, the more chaotic it becomes. Everyone in his family is hiding something, not only from one another but also from themselves. And they’re all desperately clinging to something that is inevitably falling apart.
Award-winning British author Beryl Bainbridge has a keen eye for the dark humor that lurks in misery and a knack for illuminating the emotional rubble of postwar England. A Quiet Life is an entertaining family drama that is at once a quick read and a lasting portrait of twentieth-century life.
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About the Author
Born in Liverpool and raised in nearby Formby, Bainbridge spent her early years working as an actress, leaving the theater to have her first child. Her first novel, Harriet Said . . ., was written around this time, although it was rejected by several publishers who found it “indecent.” Her first published works were Another Part of the Wood and An Awfully Big Adventure, and many of her early novels retell her Liverpudlian childhood. A number of her books have been adapted for the screen, most notably An Awfully Big Adventure, which is set in provincial theater and was made into a film by Mike Newell, starring Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. She later turned to more historical themes, such as the Scott Expedition in The Birthday Boys, a retelling of the Titanic story in Every Man for Himself, and Master Georgie, which follows Liverpudlians during the Crimean War. Her no-word-wasted style and tight plotting have won her critical acclaim and a committed following. Bainbridge regularly contributed articles and reviews to the Guardian, Observer, and Spectator, among others, and she was the Oldie’s longstanding theater critic. In 2008, she appeared at number twenty-six in a list of the fifty most important novelists since 1945 compiled by the Times (London). At the time of her death, Bainbridge was working on a new novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, which was published posthumously.
Read an Excerpt
A Quiet Life
By Beryl Bainbridge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Beryl Bainbridge
All rights reserved.
Alan was waiting in the Lyceum café for his sister Madge. He hadn't seen her for fifteen years and she was already three-quarters of an hour late. The waitress had asked him twice if he cared to order anything. He said he would just hold on if it was all the same to her.
He felt in the pocket of his black overcoat, to make sure that the envelope containing Mother's engagement ring was still safe. Madge had never liked jewellery. His wife Joan had told him he must ask Madge to foot the bill for having it insured all these months. It was only fair. He'd paid for the flowers and the notice in the newspaper. Madge hadn't even bothered to turn up at the funeral. Instead she had sent that distasteful letter written on thin toilet paper, from some town in France, suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve 'Rest in Peace' on the tombstone.
He was about to order a pot of tea when Madge came into the café, carrying a bunch of flowers. She had an old cloche hat pulled down over her hair. He thought, how changed she is, how old she has become. She's forty and she's wearing a school raincoat.
'This isn't the Lyceum,' Madge said. 'It's the Wedgwood.'
Then he thought, how little she has changed. She handed him the flowers. He found it difficult to catch his breath; in middle age he'd developed high blood pressure, and the walk through the town had tired him.
'What do I want with flowers?' he asked sheepishly, laying them on the empty seat beside him.
'Silly old Alan,' Madge said, and immediately he felt disturbed. He hated reviving the past, the small details of time long since spent. Seeing her, he was powerless to push back the memories that came crowding into his mind. It was the way she sat hunched on her chair, elbows on the white tablecloth, looking at him. She didn't rearrange her face the way Joan had managed to do over the years, the way he had. She stared at him. It was this intensity of expression that struck him as child-like, awakening in him that fixation of love he had entirely forgotten. There she sat, after twenty-two years of terrors and triumphs that he knew nothing about, staring at him. When she removed her hat, he had to turn his head. He couldn't bear to see those threads of grey.
'Well,' he said. 'It's been a long time.'
'Yes,' she said. She was studying the menu.
'You look well.' She didn't have a handbag or gloves. It was obvious she did not see herself as others saw her. He took the envelope out of his pocket and laid it on the table. 'It's Mother's engagement ring,' he said.
She didn't pick it up.
'I don't want it. I don't like rings.'
'It's yours,' he said. 'You're entitled to it.'
'Can I have scones and jam, as well as cakes?' she asked greedily.
He beckoned the waitress and gave their order. He took from his briefcase the list of Mother's effects and told Madge to read it.
'Just say what you want,' he said. 'Anything you like. The rest Joan and I will take. Anything over we'll send to the sale room and you can have half of whatever it fetches.'
'I don't want half,' she said. 'I don't want anything.'
'What was the point of your coming?' he snapped, stung by her attitude.
'I wanted to see you,' she said.
The waitress brought the scones. The way Madge ate, he thought she'd come for the food, not him. She got butter all over her chin.
'Listen,' he said patiently. 'It's only fair you should have what's due to you. There's no money. She'd only her week's pension when she died. Nothing in the bank.'
'Those hats,' Madge said. 'Those cotton frocks.'
'We can't sell the house until the furniture's shifted.'
'Who went to the funeral?' she asked.
'Me and Joan and the children. And Mrs Cartwright from the fish shop sent flowers.'
'Read the list,' he persisted.
She managed to smear jam on to the edge of the typewritten sheet. She kept on shaking her head. 'Don't want the wardrobe ... don't want the china ... don't want the sofa ...'
He began to feel anxious. He'd promised Joan he would sort it out. It had taken him a good six months to track Madge down and arrange for them to meet.
'Just tick what you want,' he said. He'd already missed his usual train home.
'I'll have the dancing lady,' she decided. 'If it will make you happier.' She had always been awkward.
She began to talk about his boyhood. How lonely he had been. He hardly recognised himself.
'Rubbish,' he told her. 'I was never lonely.'
'Yes you were.'
'Was I?' he said. He hadn't known he was.
She said that was why he played the piano. It was the reason for him being so musical.
'Musical?' he cried. 'Whatever gave you that idea?'
'You've always played the piano.'
He was astonished. He hadn't played the piano for donkey's years. He doubted if he would know one note from another.
She hinted he'd been spoilt when he was young. Never having to do any washing-up. Avoiding the rows ...
'Rows?' he said.
'You were never there. You missed all that.'
'I daresay,' he admitted. 'One forgets.'
'You never did a hand's turn in the house. You got away with murder.'
'What do you mean?' he demanded indignantly.
'Well, you weren't all that upset when Father died. Not really. I cried for days.'
'It's twenty-five years ago,' he told her helplessly. She had always been a great one for discussing emotions.
She said he had been the favourite. The most loved. Not that she held it against him; she didn't mind.
'Loved?' he said. He thought she was mixing him up with someone else.
She didn't ask him about Joan and the children or what line of business he was in. She seemed to have no curiosity about the present, only the past.
'Who's got the clock?' she asked. 'It's not on the list.'
'The one at home. Did you really break it, or was it only Mother picking on you?'
He didn't know what she was talking about. It didn't occur to Madge that home might mean somewhere else for him.
'Which clock?' he said. 'I never broke any clock.'
And Madge said: 'The one in the back room. You weren't supposed to touch it.'
Then, prompted by some dimly remembered voice of reproach he heard himself saying with authority: 'Don't call it that ... it's the lounge.' It was as though, after they had drunk their tea and finished the cakes, it would be time for them both to return to that place Madge called home.
He had to leave her to go to the station. Madge kissed him on the cheek.
On the train he was annoyed with himself for not insisting she take the engagement ring. He looked out of the carriage window and saw the Territorial Army huts, set on their concrete acre among the dunes. There was a car manoeuvring backwards out of a metal gate. He pressed his face to the glass as the train rattled on. They must have taken the huts apart and rebuilt them. In the old days they had stood in the sand, surrounded by barbed wire ...CHAPTER 2
His mother and father were going to Birkdale to see a solicitor. They didn't say why and he never asked. Mother, in dark grey costume and trembling jacket of silver fox, waited on the pavement for Father to back the car down the path. He needed guidance. The wrought-iron gates had been removed during the war and never replaced; even so he'd managed twice to demolish the brick supports. Mother raised the veil of her grey hat and studied the road for approaching traffic.
'It's all right,' she called, shrill and confident. 'There's nothing coming.'
'Is it all clear, son?' begged Father, not able to trust her, and Alan ran over the grass to the fence and shouted that it was safe. Apart from the 'Lavender' cart, laden with night soil from the outside lavatories of cottages beyond the railway line, the lane was empty.
Madge had departed for the pinewoods immediately after she had eaten her dinner. She had promised not to get her feet wet. Alan had the house to himself until five o'clock, when he must go to Mrs Evans for his piano lesson. He intended, as soon as his parents had driven away, to prise the bound volumes of the Geographical Magazine from the bookcase and look at the pictures of African women without clothes.
As the car bumped down the kerb, Miss Clayton came out of the house opposite and waved to him. A spaniel, sniffing and heaving on the end of its lead, dragged her down the path. He ducked his head in embarrassment.
'Good-afternoon,' called Mother, crossing the road and laughing as she went. The dog strained towards her. 'No, doggie,' she cried, teetering backwards in her shiny black shoes and fluttering her gloved hands in the air.
Father leapt from the car, dapper in his best suit, and raised his homburg hat in greeting. Miss Clayton inclined her head and wound the lead more tightly about her wrist. The dog choked in frustration on the pavement.
'Going anywhere nice?' called Miss Clayton, fingering her headscarf.
'Business,' replied Father. 'Just business.'
He helped Mother into the car. She eased herself into the passenger seat, trailing one pale leg clad in silk. She still laughed. Miss Clayton stood for a moment, smiling and waving, before continuing to the shops. The black horse that dragged the Lavender cart plodded nearer.
'Alan,' said Mother, adjusting the folds of her skirt. 'Don't forget your music lesson.'
'No,' he said. 'I won't.'
The cart, shuddering on wooden wheels, rolled past.
'Ugh,' exclaimed Mother, wrinkling her powdered nose at the smell of dung.
He had just time to catch, sweet above the odour of earth closets, the scent of her perfume as she wound up the window.
Father made sure the mirror was at the correct angle; he rubbed at it with a duster. He looked sideways at Mother to see if she was settled. He patted her knee proudly.
'Don't forget to lock up,' mouthed Mother through the glass.
She gazed beyond him, at the freshly painted, semi-detached house, set in its winter garden. She smiled fondly.
Alan stood for a while, in the manner of Miss Clayton, nodding and waving at the departing car.
When he came home in the dark from his music lesson, the hall light shone through the circular window of the front door, lighting the lower branches of the sycamore tree. His father's car blocked the path. If he went over the grass, his mother would be bound to see the tyre marks on her flower beds. With difficulty he steered his bicycle along the side of the fence, scraping the handlebars across the wood. His father, changed now into his battledress, struggled in the shadows of the brick porch to rewind the hose. He'd been issued with the uniform during the war when he was supposed to be an air-raid warden, going from house to house to make sure everyone had drawn their black-out curtains. Mostly when the siren went, he'd hidden under the dining-room table. Madge used to say A.R.P. meant air-raid Pa, not air-raid precautions.
'Mind the blasted fence,' Father shouted. He had been washing the car in the dark.
Alan leant his bicycle against the privet hedge in the back garden. He could see the outline of the greenhouse and beyond, the small lighted windows of houses, snuffed out as the poplar trees swayed. He wiped his feet vigorously on the mat in the scullery, so that someone might hear. He always did as he was told and he resented that no one noticed. His mother was sitting in the armchair beside the fire. She had only just lit it and the room was cold.
'Sitting in the dark, then?' he said. His heart sank.
She said: 'I haven't got money to burn.'
All the same he switched on the light. She sat with her feet on the kerb, crouched over the coals. She'd put away her smart grey costume and wore a faded jersey over an old satin underskirt. One of her slippers had tumbled into the hearth. He looked at her broad white foot gripping the curve of the brown tiles.
'What's up?' he asked. As soon as he came through the door he felt anxious.
'She's an hour late. After all we told her.'
'Well, you should have taken her with you.'
He was angry. It was unfair of Madge to put everybody in a bad mood. He was supposed to be meeting Ronnie Baines at the youth club after his tea. How could he enjoy himself if he felt guilty? On the occasions when he left his mother in a distressed state, he never won at ping-pong.
'You try telling her what to do,' said his mother. 'You have a go, if you think it's so easy.'
He went out into the hall to hang his coat over the banisters. He could hear his father muttering on the porch. He had to tread carefully. If he moved too boisterously he would catch the net curtains with his shoulder and tip the vase of cut flowers from the windowsill. The marble statue of Adam and Eve, recently brought down from the landing, was shaky on its pedestal. Even the row of decorative plates, painted with roses and hunting scenes, might roll on their shelf above the door and bounce upon the red carpet. Madge said it was like walking through a mine-field. His mother had a flair for interior decorating; he had heard her remark upon it throughout his childhood. Everything in its place, though never for long. There was a constant rearrangement of rooms, a yearly shifting of ornaments. They had only to grow used to the dancing girl, painted dazzling-white on the dining-room mantelpiece, and she was gone, holding her skirts, now dark green and luminous, above the mahogany bookcase in the lounge. His father said his mother was a menace with a paintbrush: she didn't know when to stop – she would tone in the toothpaste tube to match the walls if she wasn't watched.
'Shut that door,' called his mother. 'You'd think you were born in a barn.'
He would have liked to go to his room then, but it would be too cold and if he wanted to meet Ronnie he must coax Mother into a better frame of mind. Besides, he would have to take off his shoes if he went upstairs. Madge said they might as well be Hindus, creeping around in stockinged feet, getting chilblains in winter, but he could see that you couldn't have nice carpets and tramp all over them in muddy boots. When Madge was older and less rebellious she would see the point. He turned off the hall light and went back into the kitchen, attempting to close the door behind him. The catch was stiff with paint.
'You're making the fire smoke,' said Mother.
He shoved harder. He was quite proud of his ability to suppress his feelings when she nagged at him.
'Don't be loutish,' she snapped.
The grandfather clock under the stairs chimed in protest. He stood with his back to the fire and wondered how to help her.
'I daresay,' he began, 'she met someone on the road.'
'That's no excuse.'
For the last month Madge had been coming in late. She went down to the shore straight after school and thought nothing of arriving home at nine o'clock at night. At the weekends it was even later. His father had taken the car out twice, using up his petrol ration, to look for her. It wasn't right for a girl of her age to be wandering about the pinewoods by herself.
Alan said: 'I went to piano lesson.'
His mother didn't reply. She sat, slovenly in her old clothes, and stared into the dismal fire. Usually when he came back from music she wanted to know if he'd remembered to sit up straight and arch his wrists. Then she'd tell him to go and shake his coat about in the back garden, to rid it of smells – Mrs Evans kept pigs in the yard and boiled the swill on the kitchen range; she went in and out, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, to stir the peelings while he played his Rachmaninov prelude.
He heard footsteps on the path outside. Fists beat upon the window.
'It's Madge,' he said with relief.
'You fool,' said his mother contemptuously.
He stuck his head under the net curtain and stared out into the darkness.
'What blasted idiot turned the hall light off?' shouted Father.
They were having their tea, silent under the hanging flypaper, when Madge returned. One moment they were there, the three of them eating their Saturday salad, and then she was through the door, into the light and the fire burning brightly now, her face white under her old school panama and her eyes shining.
'My God,' said Father, fork in the air, mouth turning sullen as he saw the dying leaves twined round the crown of her hat. 'She'll be the death of me.'
She was bursting into tears in front of them.
'Mummy, Mummy, Mummy.'
Excerpted from A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge. Copyright © 1976 Beryl Bainbridge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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