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My Former Heart

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      My Former Heart
Cressida Connolly

When she grew up, Ruth would say that she could place the day that her mother had decided to go awayShe didn’t know the actual date, but she recalled the occasion: it was on the afternoon of a wet day, early in 1942, during a visit to the cinema. She thought she could even pinpoint the exact moment at which Iris had made up her mind to go, leaving her only child behind. Neither of them could have guessed then that they would never live together again.Spanning the second half of the last century, ‘My Former Heart’, Cressida Connolly’s mesmerising first novel, charts the lives of three generations of Iris’s family. Ruth will be deserted again, many years later, by a husband she loves, but not before she has had two children by him. She leaves London to live with her uncle, where she creates a new life for herself with another woman. And we follow the lives of her two children, trying to make a place for themselves in the world in the shadow of the family that precedes them.With its large cast of fascinating characters, this is an outstanding novel about families and their ability to adapt. It surely marks the beginning of a long career as a novelist for Cressida Connolly.

CRESSIDA CONNOLLY

My Former Heart

Dedication (#)

To Violet, Nell and Gabriel

Epigraph (#)

For thou art with me here upon the banks

Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend, My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch The language of my former heart …

From ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth

Contents

Cover (#)

Title Page (#u214c79c1-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Dedication

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Also by Cressida Connolly

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter 1 (#)

Ruth always remembered the day that her mother decided to go away. She didn’t know the actual date, but she recalled the occasion: it was on a wet afternoon early in 1942, during a visit to the cinema. She thought she could even pinpoint the exact moment Iris had made up her mind to go, leaving her only child behind. Neither of them could have guessed then that they would never live together again.

Her mother used to give her a treat after each visit to the dentist. Because the dentist’s rooms were in Devonshire Place, near Regent’s Park, this was quite often a visit to the zoo. But the zoo had shut down by then. The animals had been sent to the country, partly to keep them safe, but partly to keep people safe from them. No one knew what might happen if the zoo got hit and some of the animals escaped. Ruth tried to imagine what it would be like to meet a lion ambling down Albany Street, or a rhinoceros thudding along the towpath of the canal, where she had walked with her mother and father the summer before. She thought it would be frightening, but not as frightening as the Egyptian mummies they’d been to see at the British Museum. She was glad the museum had closed and she didn’t have to go there again.

Once, they had met up with an old friend of her mother’s, a lady called Jocelyn who designed costumes for the theatre and who had eyes which stuck out like a pug’s. Iris said that her friend was fun, but their lunch together had not been a treat; or at least not for Ruth. Jocelyn had said that she didn’t want to be married, ever; and she certainly, absolutely, didn’t want a family of her own.

‘I dislike children intensely,’ she drawled, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards at her own wit. ‘They have no conversation.’

Ruth had been shocked that her mother had laughed. It had never occurred to her that anyone might choose not to have children, let alone not enjoy their company. Everyone wanted to get married and have bridesmaids and a lovely dress: that was what you did when you grew up. And when you got married you had children and a kidney-shaped dressing table all of your own, with little silver-lidded glass jars full of hairpins, and others packed with cotton wool. You had scent in a bottle with a cloth-covered rubber squisher on its side, and a swan’s-down powder puff which sat separated from its powder by a disc with holes in, like the ones on soap dishes, so that the feather filaments of the powder puff did not become clogged. That was how things worked.

But this time, after Ruth’s teeth had been looked at – she couldn’t later remember whether she’d had to have any drilled that day – her mother took her to Oxford Street, to the cinema. The cinema was the Studio One and it had a swirly carpet, with a pattern which was meant to look like spools of film unravelling. The feature was a new cartoon from America about a baby elephant, but first there was a newsreel. Whenever Mr Churchill appeared everyone in the cinema gave a cheer. There were pictures of men getting their trousers wet as they got off landing craft, and of people waving, and of tanks, and the voice which described it all was very cheerful and urgent. Iris was hardly watching the newsreel though, because she was looking in her bag for change so she could send Ruth to get some cigarettes from the usherette, and some sweets. Before the war there would have been ices, but you couldn’t get ices by then.

Iris was always rummaging in her bag, looking for a book match or a pencil, inclining her head, an escaping curl of dark hair, like a question mark, falling over one eye. Eight-year-old Ruth went and fetched the cigarettes for her mother and a small white paper bag of sweets for herself and came back to the seats with them. Now the newsreel was showing some pictures from the desert, and she could feel that her mother was concentrating on them, because there was a sort of tightness about her. When General Montgomery came onto the screen, he got an even louder cheer than the Prime Minister had had. The screen showed men in uniform marching about and then more of them, queuing with trays, outside a big tent, while others stood around a tall van in the background. Then suddenly Iris was on her feet and hissing in a loud whisper, ‘Stay here, Ruth. Don’t move. I’ll be back in a minute.’ Ruth supposed she must have needed to go to the lavatory. Lots of people all along the row had to stand up so Iris could get past. Ruth would have felt a little embarrassed about disturbing people, but Iris never minded about that sort of thing.

She seemed to be gone for a long time. The film started and Ruth was a bit frightened because the story began with a lot of thunder and lightning and she was afraid of storms. She consoled herself by trying to concentrate on not chewing her sweets, holding them against the roof of her mouth with her tongue until they dissolved and her mouth was flooded with their sugary flavour. On the screen big birds with long beaks brought baby animals down from the clouds, wrapped in what looked like towels. This troubled her. No one had ever mentioned to her the role of storks in bringing babies into the world, so she did not understand what these gawky birds had to do with the arrival of children. It was all very quick and muddling. Next there were animals going two by two, which made her think the film was going to be about Noah and the Flood. But the story turned out to be about a circus, travelling along in a little train. The train got puffed out when it went uphill. Ruth put another sweet into her mouth. Still Iris had not come back to her seat.

Now there was a baby elephant with big ears, who made friends with a mouse. The mouse was kind, but the other elephants were not. They were standoffish and then they ganged up. It wasn’t fair. The baby wasn’t allowed to see its mother because she’d turned fierce, but the kind mouse took the baby to where the mother was – in a sort of prison – and the mother reached her trunk between the bars and rocked her funny little baby. This was so sad that Ruth began to cry.

The one thing she could never remember was at what point her mother came back to her seat. ‘There was a funny – I mean funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha – bit in the film, when suddenly the proper story stopped and there were lots of pink elephants with empty eye sockets doing dances together, and what looked like ice-skating,’ she told her own daughters many years later. ‘I felt scared of them because of the eyes being hollow, like a skeleton’s. My mother must have been back in her seat by then, because I remember putting my hand on her arm for reassurance and it was then I noticed that she was crying. She wasn’t sobbing or anything, but she had tears on her face. She hardly ever cried. She rubbed her cheek with her fist, roughly. I guessed she was crying about the poor baby elephant, as I had. “Don’t worry, Mummy,” I whispered, “it’s only a film, it’s not real.” Pathetic, really, to have thought she was crying about the cartoon. And she smiled a little smile.’

The baby elephant became a tremendous success in the circus and was allowed to be with his mother again, in a special railway carriage all of their own. That was the end, and everyone got up to go, buttoning up their coats, the women pulling on their gloves, but Iris stayed in her seat. ‘They’re going to show the newsreel again now,’ she told Ruth. ‘I must just have another look, you see.’ She lit a cigarette and sat back, while a new audience in different coats shuffled into their seats. Before long the same newsreel started. Landing craft, troops waving, tanks, the Prime Minister, the desert, the same men standing in the same queue outside the same tent, smiling, with the same men behind them around the truck. Suddenly Iris leant forward and tensed, as if she were a cat about to pounce on some buzzing thing.

At once Ruth guessed why. It must have been because her mother had seen Ruth’s father, Edward, on the newsreel. Ruth herself had not spotted him on the screen, and over the months that followed she wondered why not; why Iris had been able to see him and she had not. She was sure she loved him quite as much as her mother did; wanted to see him just as much. She thought she must have looked away, at the precise moment, to have missed him. Perhaps she had been looking down into her dwindling sweets, licking her finger to catch the grains of sugar sprinkled in the bottom of the bag, concentrating on not spilling any onto the knobbly wool of her coat.

After that they did not stay until the end of the newsreel. They went out into the foyer and Iris spoke to the cinema manager. On their way home she told Ruth that she’d already talked to this man, when she first went out, before the cartoon had started. She’d wanted him to show the newsreel again, then, straight away. He had told her that this often happened to people: they thought they recognised a husband or a brother or a sweetheart. He always asked them to stay on and watch the newsreel again, at the end of the feature, to make sure. Sometimes – usually, he was sorry to say – it turned out not to be who they thought it was after all. But if, after a second viewing, they were quite sure, then the manager would try and obtain a still photograph from the newsreel company. So after she’d seen it for a second time, Iris was able to describe the scene in the newsreel exactly, to make sure he’d get the right picture. She gave the manager her name and address. He said he would do his best.

Ruth was used to her mother getting what she wanted; it was just another thing about Iris. Ruth supposed it was because her mother was pretty. She had long arms and legs, with the thinnest ankles and wrists, like a whippet; and wide pale-hazel eyes with gold flecks in them. Once a friend of her father’s – his name was Bunny Turner – had come to lunch and stayed on for most of the afternoon. Iris had gone upstairs to the drawing room to get a second bottle from the drinks tray. As he was leaving he’d taken Ruth’s shoulders in his hands and looked her intently in the face. ‘You must take good care of your mother,’ he’d said; ‘she’s a captivating woman.’ Ruth didn’t like that word: it sounded like captive-taking, like the poor boys Captain Hook had taken prisoner in Peter Pan. But she was used to people thinking that her mother was wonderful.

Before the incident in the cinema, it had never occurred to Ruth that her mother might have been worrying that Edward was dead. She had certainly never said so. Anyway, people protected children from such fears. Ruth knew from talking to her friends that grown-ups didn’t tell children very much, certainly not bad things. During the worst of the bombing raids, when Ruth was six and seven, Iris had bought a pale-green silk moiré box full of rose and violet creams from Fortnum’s, to take into the coal hole in front of the kitchen, where they waited out the raids. They never ate the chocolates otherwise: they were a treat reserved for the shelter. Iris had taken an eiderdown into the coal hole – it had been ruined, covered in black smudges – and a blanket for them to huddle under, and they’d eaten the chocolates together, waiting in the cramped blackness for the all-clear to be sounded. Iris had made a game of it: which was more delicious, the soapy rose or the chalky, fragrant violet? Ruth had had to concentrate, taking tiny nibbles out of first one then the other. They could never decide. Iris never said anything about being frightened in all those times, even when bombs landed nearby, which had happened more than once. She never seemed afraid of anything.

Courage came easily to Iris, but happiness was more difficult. This was something that Ruth sometimes glimpsed in her mother: a sudden plunge, as if the temperature had dropped, when Iris would sit smoking in her chair, without a book or sewing, hardly speaking. Ruth’s father, Edward, had an aptitude for happiness – a gift, Iris called it – like being musical, or having a good head for numbers. For Iris happiness was something delicious but hard to keep hold of, like the almost-pins-and-needles sherberty feeling when summer air dries seawater on your skin. Ruth thought this was why Iris made decisions so abruptly, in the same way as she snapped shut her powder compact. It was as if she were trying to catch happiness in a trap.

Ruth didn’t know if the cinema manager ever sent the photograph. She never saw it if he did. But she believed that Iris had made her mind up that afternoon at the cinema, when they were both, for their different reasons, crying in the flickering dark. Because three days later, Iris took her daughter to Paddington station and put her on the train. And then, even before the guard had walked the length of the platform to close all the doors, before the flag was waved or the whistle went, she was gone.

Ruth liked her grandparents’ house in Malvern, except that she missed her mother and she did not like the cold, or the henhouse. She loved her grandparents, both of them; their soft voices and their routine and quiet kindness. In the evenings, before supper, her grandfather sometimes read to her, adventures by Rider Haggard and Erskine Childers, or stories by Kipling. Ruth was mousier, less emphatic, than her mother, with a sturdier frame; she felt at home with her grandparents. Even so, there were occasions when the cold was so cold as to be indistinguishable from misery: sometimes, when she cried at night, even she could not have said whether it was from missing her mother or because she could not get warm. London had been cold too, but the rooms were smaller and her mother had taken to lighting a coal fire downstairs in the kitchen grate and staying in there, where it could be made warm, even if it was not so comfortable as the first-floor sitting room.

The house at Malvern had high-ceilinged rooms with big Victorian sash windows, to make the most of the view. Before the war there had been log fires in every grate, but now there was only a one-bar electric fire in the drawing room, which would be unplugged and brought to stand in the grate of the breakfast room before they ate. But it was only ever switched on just before they came in to sit down, more a formality than an actual heating appliance. And there was never enough hot water to get really warm in the bath. Ruth developed chilblains, which made her toes tickle, then throb and burn. Until Mrs Jenkins, who came in to clean every morning, took the potty Ruth used at night and – horrifyingly – dipped a linen hand towel into the urine and dabbed Ruth’s toes with it, bringing an exquisite but temporary relief, like a dock leaf on a nettle sting.

The house, like the town of which it formed a part, stood in the lee of a western slope. Even as a child Ruth was aware of the way that the whole place fell into shadow, as the sun slipped behind the hulk of the hills. But she liked the way you could still see a wide band of sunlight, sliding perceptibly across the lawn like the train of a wedding dress, away from her grandparents’ house towards the distant abbey towns, with their wide rivers and gentle slopes of ancient orchards. She imagined the sun was still shining in London, long after Malvern had fallen into shade.

Her grandparents were her father’s parents, although it was her mother who had sent her to stay with them. Iris’s mother was alive, but she lived outside Sidmouth, a long way away, and her house was thought to be unsuitable for children; no one ever explained why. Ruth hardly ever saw this grandmother, who had been a widow for years and smelled of tobacco and face powder – dry smells, musty, like the bottom of an old handbag. But she had often stayed with her Malvern grandparents before. She and Iris had spent several weeks there together, towards the end of 1940, during the worst of the Blitz. In the winter the mottled colours of rock, dead bracken and gorse made the hills look like giant slabs of Christmas cake. Iris had played cards with her father-in-law after dinner each evening, while his wife added pieces to the jigsaw which was accumulating slowly on the writing table in the window.

Ruth had shared a room with her mother during that visit. Before bed, Iris always pinned her hair into tight coils with kirby grips, so that it would curl the next day. While she sat doing her hair she would talk to her daughter in a loud whisper; so loud, it seemed to Ruth, that it would have been better – quieter – if she had spoken in her normal voice.

‘Why does your grandmother have to do those enormous puzzles?’ she asked one evening. Ruth could tell it wasn’t really a question.

‘I don’t know. Why shouldn’t she?’
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