The Bride of Christ
When Lyndall Berger derided, at sixteen, to be confirmed into the Church of England, her parents were at first appalled, then watchful. The test came on Good Friday. In the hands of one of South Africa’s most talented artists, this family situation generates an impressive short story.
A Story by Nadine Gordimer
LYNDALL BERGER, at sixteen, wrote to her parents for permission to be confirmed.
“Are you mad?” Sidney’s gaze was a pair of outspread arms, stopping his wife short whichever way she might turn.
“Well, I know. But it never enters your mind that for someone—I’m not saying for her—it could be necessary; real, I mean. When one says ‘no,’ one must concede that. Otherwise she must put the refusal down to rationalist prejudice. You see what I mean?”
“Saved them all the abracadabra at the synagogue for this. Mumbo jumbo for abracadabra.”
It was Shirley who had agreed when the child went to boarding school that she could go to church with the other girls if she felt like it—just to see what it was all about. She bought her, at the same time, a Penguin on comparative religion; in the holidays she could read James Parkcs on the origins of Judaism and Christianity, righthand lower bookshelf near the blue lamp. Shirley did not know whether the child had ever read either; you were in the same position as you were with sex: you gave them the facts, and you left an unspoken, unanswerable question. Plow docs it feel to want to perforin this strange act? Plow docs it feel to have faith?
“It’s like cutting her skirts up to her thigh. She wants to be confirmed because her friends arc going to be. The answer is no.”
His wife’s face winced in anticipation of the impact of this sort of dismissal. “Of course it’s no. But we must show her the respect of giving her the proper reasons. I’ll talk to her when she’s home next Sunday.”
Shirley had meant to take her daughter for a walk in the veld, but it wasn’t necessary because Sidney and Peter, their other child, went off to play golf anyway. Shirley was not slow to take a stand on the one ground that stood firm beneath her feet. “You’ve been going to church for over a year now. I suppose you haven’t failed to notice that all those nicely dressed ladies and gentlemen of the congregation are white? A church isn’t a cinema, you know — I say this because we get used to seeing only white people in public places like that, and it’s quite understandable that one begins to take it for granted. But a church is different, you know that; the church preaches brotherhood, and there’s no excuse. Except prejudice. They pray to God, and they take the body ot Christ into their mouths, but they don’t want to do it next to a black man. You must have thought about it often.”
“I think about it all the time,” the girl said. They were peeling mushrooms; she didn’t do it well; she broke off bits of the cap along with the skin she rolled back, but her mother didn’t complain this time.
“That’s why Sidney and I don’t go to synagogue or church or anything — one of the reasons. Daddy wouldn’t belong to any religion wherever he lived — that you know — but perhaps I might want to if I lived anywhere else, not here. I couldn’t sit with them in their churches or synagogues here.”
“I know.” Tyndall did not look up.
“I wonder how you feel about this.” No answer. Shirley felt there should be no necessity to spell it out, but to force the child to speak, she said. “How can you want to join the establishment of the Church when there’s a color bar there?”
“Well, yes, I know —” Tyndall said.
Her mother said of the mushroom stalks, “Just break them off; I’ll use them for soup.”
They returned to the silence between them, but a promising silence, with something struggling through it.
“I think about it every time I’m in church — I’m always — but it’s got nothing to do with Christ, Mummy. It’s not his fault” — she paused with shame for the schoolgirl phrasing before this woman, her mother, who inevitably had the advantage of adult articulacy — “not Christ’s fault that people are hypocrites.”
“Yes, of course, that’s the point I’m trying to make for you. I can understand anyone being attracted to the Christian ethic, to Christ’s teaching, to the idea of following him. But why join the Church; it’s done such awful things in his name.”
“That’s got nothing to do with Christ.”
“You associate yourself with them! The moment you get yourself confirmed and join the Church, you belong along with it all. from the Crusaders and the Spanish Inquisition to the good Christian Nazis, and the good Christians of the Dutch Reformed Church who sprinkle pious sentiments over the color bar the way the Portuguese bishops used to baptize slaves before they were shipped from West Africa —you belong along with them just the way you do in church with the nice ladies in smart hats who wouldn’t want a black child sitting beside theirs in school.”
Tyndall was afraid of her mother’s talk; often the constructions she had balanced in her mind out of her own ideas fell down before her mother’s talk like the houses made of sticks and jacaranda feathers that used to turn to garden rubbish beneath the foot of an unrecognizing grown-up.
She was going to be quite good-looking (Shirley thought so), but the conflict of timidity and determination gave her the heavy-jawed look of a certain old uncle, a failure in the family, whom Shirley remembered from her own childhood,
“What about Garth and Nibs?”
The child made the statement. The Lellands, ex-missionaries who had both been put under government ban for their activities as members of the Tiberal Party, were among the Bergers’ closest friends.
“Yes, Garth and Nibs, and Father Huddleston and Bishop Reeves and Crowther and a lot of other names. Of course there are Anglicans and Catholics and Methodists who don’t preach brotherhood and forget it when it comes to a black face. But the fact is that they’re the rarities. Odd men out. The sort of people you’ll be worshiping Christ with every Sunday are the people who see no wrong in their black brothers’ having to carry a pass. The same sort of people who didn’t see anything wrong in your great-grandparents’ having to live in a ghetto in Galicia. The same people who kept going to church in Germany on Sundays while the Jews were being shoveled into gas ovens.”
She watched her daughter’s face for the expression that knew that was coming; couldn’t be helped, it had to be dragged up, again and again and again and again and again — like Tear’s “nevers” — no matter how sick of it everyone might be.
But the child’s face was naked.
“Darling” — the words found release suddenly, in helplessness — “I really can understand how you feel. I’m not just talking; I can tell you that if. I had a religion at all it could only be Christ’s; I’ve never been able to understand why the Jews didn’t accept him, it’s so logical that his thinking should have been the culmination —but I know I couldn’t become a Christian, couldn’t . . .”
The child didn’t help her.
“Because of that. And the other things. That go with it. It’s like having one drop of colored blood in your veins. You’d always have to admit it, I mean, wouldn’t you? You’d always want to tell people first. Everything’d have to begin from there. Well, it’s just the same if you’re a Jew. People like us —color and race, it doesn’t mean a damn thing to me, but it can only not mean a thing if I begin from there, from having it known that I’m Jewish. I don’t choose to belong with the ladies who separate the meat and the milk dishes and wear their Sunday best to synagogue, but I can’t not choose the people who were barred from the universities — they were, just like the Africans, here —* and killed by Lhe Germans — you understand?” Her voice dropped from an apologetic rise; she hadn’t wanted to bring it in, again. Tyndall was rubbing rolls of dirt on her sweating hands. She blinked jerkily now and then as the words pelted her. “And you, you belong along with that too, d’you understand, you’ll always belong with it. Doesn’t matter if you’re confirmed a hundred times over. And another thing—it’s all part of the same thing, really. If you were to become a Christian, there would always be the suspicion in people’s minds that you’d done it for social reasons.”
In her innocence, the child opened her lips on a gleam of tooth, and frowned, puzzled.
Shirley felt ashamed at what was at once trivial and urgently important. “Clubs and so on. Even certain schools. They don’t want to admit Jews. Oh, it’s a bore to talk about it. When you think what Africans are debarred from. But at the same time — one wants all the pinpricks, one must show them one won’t evade a single one. How can I explain — pride, it’s a kind of pride. I couldn’t turn my back on it.”
The child moved her head slowly and vehemently in understanding, as she used to do, near tears, when she had had a dressing-down. “Lyndall,” her mother said, “you’d have to be a real Christian, an every-minute-of-the-day, cvery-day-of-thc-week Christian, before I could think of letting you be converted. You’d have to take all this on you. You’d have to know that the person kneeling beside you in church might make some remark about Jews one day, and you wouldn’t be able to let it pass, like a Christian; you’d have to say, I’m Jewish. Ld want you to take the kicks from both sides. It would be the only way.”
“Oh, but I will, I will, I promise you, Mummy!” The child jumped clumsily, forgetting she was almost grown-up, forgetting her size, and gave her mother the hard kisses of childhood that landed on cheek and chin. The bowl of mushrooms turned over and spun loudly like a top coming to rest, and scrabbling for the mushrooms, looking up from under the hair that fell forward over her face, she talked: “Father Byrd absolutely won’t allow you to be confirmed until you’re sure you’re ready — I’ve had talks with him three times— he comes to the school on Thursdays — and I know I’m ready, I feel it. I promise you, Mummy.”
Shirley was left with the empty bowl; she urgently wanted to speak, to claim what had been taken out of her hands; but all she did was remove, by pressure of the pads of her lingers, the grit in the fungus dew at the bottom.
OF COURSE Lyndall had to be baptized, too. They hadn’t realized it, or perhaps the child had wanted to break the whole business gently, one piece of preposterousness at a time. She had been named originally for that free spirit in Olive Schreiner’s book, a shared feeling for which had been one of the signs that brought her parents together. Her mother attended both the baptismal and confirmation ceremonies; it was understood that Sidney, while granting his daughter her kind of freedom, would not be expected to be present. For the confirmation Lyndall had to have a sleeveless white dress with a long-sleeved bolero; all the other girls were having them made like that. “So’s you can wear the dress for parties afterwards,” she said.
“One never wears these dresses for anything afterwards,” said her mother. Eighteen years in a plastic bag, the zipper made tarnish marks on the wedding dress.
Lyndall also had to have a veil, plain muslin, like a nursing sister’s. It was even held in place with bronze bobby pins.
“The Bride of Christ,” said Sidney when, trying it on, she had left the room. At least he had managed not to say anything while she was there; Shirley looked up for a second, as if he had .spoken to her thoughts. But he was alone in his own.
“She’s not going into a nunnery,” she said.
Yet why did she feel such a cheat with him over this thing? He could have stopped the child if he’d been absolutely convinced, absolutely adamant. The heavy father. How much distaste he had — they had — for the minor tyrannies. . . It was all very well to set children free, he wouldn’t compromise himself to himself by accepting that he might have to use the power of authority to keep them that way.
Lyndall was weeping when the bishop in his purple robes called her name and blessed her in the school chapel. The spasm on the rather large child’s face under the ugly veil as she rose from her knees produced a nervous automatic counterspasm within her mother; the child was one of those who hadn’t cried beyond the grazcd-knecs stage. Shirley stirred on her hard chair as if about to speak to someone, even to giggle . . . but she was alone: on the one side, somebody’s grandmother with a pearl earring shaking very slightly; on the other, a parent in dark gray hopsack with no gap between trouser and sock. Afterward there was tea and cake and an air of mild congratulation in the school hall. Meeting over a communal sugar bowl, Shirley and another woman smiled at each other in the manner of people who do not know one another’s names. “A big day in their lives, isn’t it? And just as well to get it over with so they can settle down to work before the exams, I was just saying . . .” Shirley smiled and murmured the appropriate half phrases. The white dresses swooped in and out among the mothers and fathers. Bobbing breasts and sturdy hams, or the thin waists and blindly nosing little peaks just touching the flat bodices, but nubile, nubile. That was Sidney’s explanation for the whole thing: awakening sexuality, finding an emotional outlet; they do not love Christ, they are in love with him, a symbolic male figure, and indeed, what about Father Whatnot with his pale, clean priest’s hands, appearing every Thursday among three hundred females?
Father Byrd was gaily introducing the bishop to a parent in a blue swansdown hat. The bishop had disrobed, and appeared in the assembly like an actor who has taken off his splendid costume and makeup. The confirmants were displaying presents that lay in cotton wool within hastily torn tissue paper; they raced about to give each other the fancy cards they had bought. Lyndall, with a deep, excited smile, found her mother. They kissed, and Lyndall clung to her. “Bless you, darling, bless you, bless you,” Shirley said. Lyndall kept lifting her hair off her forehead with the back of a mannered hand, and saying with pleased, embarrassed casualness, “What chaos! Could you see us shaking? I thought I’d never — we could hardly get up the steps! Did you see my veil? Roseann’s was down to her nose! What chaos! Did you see how we all bunched together? Father Byrd told us a million times . . .” Her eyes were all around the room, as if acknowledging applause. She showed her mother her cards, with the very faint suggestion of defiance, not used but at the ready; but there was no need — with heads at an angle so that both could see at the same time, they looked at the doggerel in gilt script and the tinselnimbused figures as if they had never wrinkled their noses in amusement at greeting-card sentimentality. Shirley said, “Darling, instead of giving you some little” (she was going to say “cross or something,” because every other girl seemed to have been given a gold crucifix and chain), “some present for yourself, we’re sending a donation to the African Children’s Feeding Scheme in your name. Don’t you think that makes sense?”
Lyndall agreed before her mother had finished speaking: “That’s a much better idea.” Her face was vivid. She had never looked quite like that before; charming, movingly charming. Must be the tears and excitement, bringing blood to the surface of the skin. An emotional surrogate, Sidney would have said, if Shirley had told him about it. But it was something she wanted to keep; and so she said nothing, telling the others at home only about the splendor of the bishop’s on-stage appearance, and the way the girls who were not confirmants hung about outside the school hall, hoping for leftover sandwiches. Peter grinned — he had disliked boarding school so much that they had had to take him away. Beyond this, they had had no trouble with him at all. He certainly had not been bothered by any religious phase; he was a year older than Lyndall, and as pocket and odd-job money would allow, was slowly building a boat in a friend’s backyard.
WHEN Lyndall was home for a weekend she got up while the rest of the house was still asleep on Sunday mornings and went to Communion at the church down the road. It was her own affair; no one remarked on it one way or another. Meeting her with wine on her breath and the slightly stiff face that came from the early morning air, her mother, still in a dressing gown, sometimes made a gentle joke: “Boozing before breakfast, what a thing,” and kissed the fresh, cool cheek. Lyndall smiled faintly and was gone upstairs, to come clattering down changed into the trousers and shirt that was the usual weekend dress of the family. She ate with concentration an enormous breakfast: all the things she didn’t get at school.
Before her conversion, she and Shirley had often talked about religion, but now when Shirley happened to be reading Simone Weil’s letters and told Lyndall something of her life and thought, the girl had the inattentive smile, the hardly patient inclinations of the head, of someone too polite to rebuff an intrusion on privacy. Well, Shirley realized that she perhaps read too much into this; Simone Weil’s thinking was hardly on the level of a girl of sixteen; Lyndall probably couldn’t follow.
Or perhaps it was because Simone Weil was Jewish. If Lyndall had shown more interest, her mother certainly would have explained to her that she hadn’t brought up the subject of Simone Weil because of that, Lyndall must believe her; but given the lack of interest, what was the point?
During the Christmas holidays Lyndall went to a lot of parties and overslept on several Sunday mornings. Sometimes she went to a service later in the day, and then usually asked Shirley to drive her to church: “It’s absolutely boiling, trekking there in this heat.” On Christmas morning she was up and off to Mass at dawn, and when she came back, the family had the usual present-giving in the dining room, with the servants, Ezekiel and Margaret and Margaret’s little daughter, Winnie, and constant interruptions as the dustmen, the milkman, and various hangers-on called at the kitchen door for their “bonsella,” their Christmas tip. The Bergers had always celebrated Christmas, partly because they had so many friends who were not Jews who inevitably included the Bergers in their own celebrations, and partly because, as Sidney said, holidays, saints’ days — whatever the occasion, it didn’t matter — were necessary to break up the monotony of daily life. He pointed out, apropos Christmas, that among the dozens of Christmas cards the Bergers got, there was always one from an Indian Muslim friend. Later in the day the family were expected at a Christmas lunch and swimming party at the Trevor-Pearses’. After a glass of champagne in the sun, Shirley suddenly said to Sidney, “I’m afraid that our daughter’s the only Christian of the lot who’s been to church today,” and he said, with the deadpan, young-wise face that she had always liked so much, “What d’you expect, don’t you know the Jews always overdo it?”
THE Bergers thought they would go to the Kruger Park over the Easter weekend. As children grew older, there were fewer things all the members of a family could enjoy together, and this sort of little trip was a safe choice for a half-term holiday. When they told Peter, he said, “Fine, fine,” but before Shirley could write to Lyndall, there was a letter from her saying she hoped there wasn’t “anything on” at half term, because she and her school friends had the whole weekend planned, with a party on the Thursday night when they came home, and a picnic on the Vaal on Easter Monday, and she must do some shopping in town on the Saturday morning. Since Lyndall was the one who was at boarding school, there was the feeling that family plans ought to be designed to fit in with her inclinations rather than anyone else’s. If Lyndall wasn’t keen, should they stay at home, after all? “Fine, fine,” Peter said. It didn’t seem to matter to him one way or the other. And Sidney, everyone knew, privately thought April still too hot a month for the Game Reserve. “We can go at our leisure in the August holidays,” he said, made expansive and considerate by the reprieve. “Yes, of course, fine,” Peter said. He had told Shirley that. he and his friend expected to finish the boat and get it down for a tryout in Durban during August.
A friend at school had cut Lyndall’s hair, and she came out of school as conscious of this as a puppy cleverly carrying a shoe in its mouth. Pier mother liked the look of her, and Sidney said “Thank God” in comment on the fact that she hadn’t been able to see out of her eyes before, and whatever reaction there was from her brother was elicited behind closed doors, like all the other exchanges between brother and sister in the sudden and casual intimacy that seemed to grow up between them, apparently over a record that Lyndall had borrowed and brought home. They played it over and over on Thursday afternoon, shut in Lyndall’s room.
Lyndall’s head was done up like a parcel, with transparent sticky tape holding strands of hair in place on her forehead and checks; she gave her fingernails a coating like that of a cheap pearl necklace and then took it off again. She had to be delivered to the house where the party was being held by seven, and explained that she would be brought home by someone else; she knew how her mother and father disliked having to sit up late to come and fetch her. Her mother successfully prevented herself from saying, “How late will it be?” — what was the use of making these ritual responses in an unacknowledged ceremony of initiation to adult life? Tribal Africans took the young into the bush for a few weeks, and got it all over with at once. Those free from the rites of primitive peoples repeated plaintive remarks, tags of a litany of instruction half but never quite forgotten, from one generation to the next.
Lyndall came home very late indeed, and didn’t get up until eleven next morning. Her brother had long gone olf to put in a full day’s work on the boat. It was hot for early autumn, and the girl lay on the drying grass in her pink gingham bikini, sunbathing. Shirley said to her, “Isn’t it awful, I can’t do that anymore. Just lie. I don’t know when it went.” Whenever the telephone rang behind them in the house, Lyndall got up at once. Her laughter and bursts of intense, sibilant, confidential talk now sounded, now were cut off, as Ezekiel and Margaret went about the house and opened or closed a door or window. Between calls, Lyndall came out and dropped back to the grass. Now and then she hummed an echo of last night’s party; the tune disappeared into her thoughts again. Sometimes a smile, surfacing, made her open her eyes, and she would tell Shirley some incident, tearing olf a fragment from the sounds, shapes, and colors that were turning in the red dark of her closed lids.
After lunch her mother asked whether she could summon the energy for a walk down to the shops — “You’ll have an early night tonight, anyway.” They tried to buy some fruit, but of course even the Portuguese greengrocers were closed on Good Friday.
As they came back into the house, Sidney said, “Someone phoned twice. A boy with a French name, Jean-something, Frebert, Brebert?”
Lyndall opened her eyes in pantomime astonishment; last night’s mascara had worked its way out as a black dot in the inner corner of one. Then a look almost of pain, a closing away of suspicion took her face. “I don’t believe it!”
“The first time I’d just managed to get Lcmmy down on the bathroom floor,” said Sidney. The dog had an infected ear and had to be captured with cunning for his twice-daily treatment. “You won’t get within a mile of him again today.”
“Jean? He’s from Canada, somebody’s cousin they brought along last night. Did he say he’d phone again, or what? He didn’t leave a number?”
“He did not.”
She went up to her room and shut the door and played the record. But when the telephone rang she was somehow alert to it through the noisy music and was swift to answer before either Shirley or Sidney moved to put aside their books. The low, light voice she used for talking to boys did not carry the way the exaggeratedly animated one that was for girls did. But by the time Shirley had reached the end of the chapter they had heard her run upstairs.
Then she appeared in the doorway and smiled in on the pair.
“What d’you know, there’s another party. This boy Jean’s just asked me to go. It’s in a stable, he says; everyone’s going in denims.”
“Someone you met last night?”
“Jean, The one Daddy spoke to. You know.”
“Such gaiety,” said Sidney. “Well, he’s not one to give up easily.”
“Won’t you be exhausted?”
But Shirley understood that Lyndall quite rightly wouldn’t even answer that. She gave a light, patronizing laugh. “He says he wanted to ask me last night, but he was scared.”
“Will you be going before or after dinner?” said Shirley.
“Picking me up at a quarter past seven.”
In Shirley’s silences a room became like a scene enclosed in a glass paperweight, waiting tor the touch that would set the snow whirling. The suburban church bells began to ring, mu filed by the walls, dying away in waves, a ringing in the cars. —
“I’ll give you a scrambled egg.”
LYNDALL came down to eat in her dressing gown, straight out of the bath: “I’m ready, Ma.” Sidney was still reading, his drink fizzling flat, scarcely touched, on the floor beside him. Shirley sat down at the coffee table where Lyndall s tray was and slowly smoked, and slowly rose and went to fetch the glass she had left somewhere else. Her movements seemed reluctant. She held the glass and watched the child eat. She said, “I notice there’s been no talk of going to church today.”
Lyndall gave her a keen look across a slice of bread and butter she was just biting into.
“I woke up too late this morning.”
“I know. But there are other services. All day. It’s Good Friday, the most important day in the year.”
Lyndall put the difficulty in her mother’s hands as she used to give over the knotted silver chain of her locket to be disentangled by adult patience and a pin. “I meant to go to this evening’s.”
“Yes,” said Shirley, “but you are going to a party.”
“Only seven months since you got yourself confirmed, and you can go to a party on Good Friday. Just another party; like all the others you go to.”
A despairing fury sprang up so instantly in the girl that her father looked around as if a stone had hurtled into the room. “I knew it. I knew you were thinking that! As if I don’t feel terrible about it! I’ve felt terrible all day! You don’t have to come and tell me it’s Good Friday !” And tears shook in her eyes at the shame.
Peter had come in, a presence of wood glue and sweat, not unpleasant, in the room. Under his rough eyebrows bridged by the redness of an adolescent skin irritation, he stared a moment and then seemed at once to understand everything. He sat quietly on a footstool.
“The most important day in the year for a Christian. Even the greengrocers closed, you saw—”
“I just knew you were thinking that about me, I knew it.” Lyndall’s voice was stifled in tears and anger. “And how do you think I feel when I have to go to church alone on Sunday mornings? All on my own. Nobody knows me there. And that atmosphere when I walk into the house and you’re all here. How d’you think I feel?” She stopped to sob dramatically, and yet sincerely; her mother said nothing, but her father’s head inclined to one side, as one offers comfort without asking the cause of pain. “And when you said that about the present — everyone else just got one, no fuss. Even while I was being confirmed I could icel you sitting there, and I knew what you were thinking — how d’you think it is, for me?”
“Good God,” Shirley said in the breathy voice of amazement, “I came to the confirmation in complete sincerity. You’re being unfair. Once I’d accepted that you wanted to be a real Christian, not a social one —”
“You see? You see? You’re always at me—”
“At you? This is the first time the subject’s ever come up. When’ve I ever said a word?”
The girl looked at them blindly. “I know I’m a bad Christian! I listen to them in church, and it just seems a lot of rubbish. I pray, I pray every night —” Desperation stopped her mouth.
“Lyndall, you say you want Christ, and I bcli’eve you,” said Shirley.
The girl was enraged. “Don’t say it! You don’t, you don’t, you never did.”
“Yet you make yourself guilty and unhappy by going out dancing on the day that Christ was crucified,”
“Oh, why can’t you just leave her alone?” It was Peter, his head lifted from his arms. His mother took the accusation like a blow in .the chest.
Sidney spoke for the first time. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Just leave her alone,” Peter said. “Making plans, asking questions. Just leave people alone, can’t you?”
Sidney knew that he was not the one addressed, and so he answered. “I don’t know what you’re getting hysterical about, Peter. No one’s even mentioned your name.”
“Well, we talk about you plenty, behind your back, to our friends, I can tell you.” His lips pulled with a trembling, triumphant smile. The two children did not look at each other.
“Coffee or a glass of milk?” Shirley said into the silence, standing up.
Lyndall didn’t answer, but said, “Well, I’m not going. You can tell him I’m sick or dead or something. Anything. When he comes.”
“I suggest you ring up and make some excuse,” said Shirley.
The girl gestured it away; her fingers were limply twitching. “Don’t even know where to get him. He’ll be on his way now. He’ll think I’m mad.”
“I’ll tell him. I’m going to tell him just exactly what happened,” said Peter, looking past his mother.
She went and stood in the kitchen because there was nobody there. She was listening for the voices in the living room, and yet there was nothing she wanted to hear. Sidney found her. He had brought Tyndall’s tray. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “If the whole thing’s half-forgotten already, why push her into it again? For heaven’s sake, what are you, an evangelist or something? Do you have to take it on yourself to make converts? Since when the missionary spirit? For God’s sake, let’s leave well alone. I mean, anyone would think, listening to you in there—”
His wife stood against the dresser with her shoulders hunched, pulling the points of her collar up over her chin. He leaned behind her and tightened the dripping tap. She was quiet. He put his hand on her cheek. “Never mind. High-handed little devils. Enough of this God-business for today.”
He went upstairs and she returned to the living room. Lyndall was blowing her nose and pressing impatiently at the betrayal of tears that still kept coming, an overflow, to her brilliant, puffy eyes.
“You don’t know how to get hold of the boy?” Shirley said.
There was a pause. “I told you.”
“Don’t you know the telephone number?”
“I’m not going to phone Clare Pirie — he’s her cousin.”
“It would be so rude to let him come for you for nothing,” said Shirley. Nobody spoke. “Lyndall, I think you’d better go.” She stopped, and then went on in a tone carefully picking a way through presumption, “I mean, one day is like another. And these dates are arbitrary, anyway, nobody really knows when it was, for sure — the ritual observance isn’t really the thing — is it? —”
“Look what I look like,” said the girl.
“Well, just go upstairs now” — the cadence was simple, sensible, comforting, like a nursery rhyme — “and wash your face with cold water, and brush your hair, and put on a bit of makeup.”
“Well, I suppose so. Don’t feel much like dancing,” the girl added, offhand, in a low voice to her mother, and the two faces shared, for a moment, a family likeness of doubt that the boy Peter did not see.