Authors: Roberta Latow
Body and Soul
Copyright © 2001 by Roberta Latow
For Michael Booth and Stephen Thorpe,
friends who add to one’s life
I gave in completely
my body, my soul
Edna Archer and Beryl Pike, having shrugged out of their clear plastic raincoats and then their puffy navy blue nylon jackets, removed the waterproof scarves from their heads. Shopping carts carefully placed so as not to trip anyone were standing sentinel next to their chairs. The two women were halfway through the Frog’s Hollow tea room Thursday special: roast pork, stewed apple, roast potatoes and parsnips, balls of Paxo stuffing, Brussels sprouts and pools of Bisto gravy.
It was their Thursday ritual: the week’s shopping, lunch out at Frog’s Hollow, a brief exchange with the regulars. The highlight of lunch apart from the price – £2.75 for old age pensioners, £3.25 for everyone else – was always Eden Sidd. Just seeing her was uplifting for them. She was their very own celebrity. Though they were aware that she was a famous cellist, they had never heard her play except once on TV and then only because Beryl, changing channels, had caught the performance by mistake and immediately called Edna to switch on her set.
After seeing the performance the two women agreed Eden Sidd and her music were beyond them but that had no bearing on their liking for her and enjoyment of their Thursday chats with her: the butcher’s lamb’s liver, the bakery’s special price on baps if bought in lots of two dozen or more, too many people waiting in line at the Co-op till, the WI stall being sold out of cakes by ten o’clock.
They knew her Thursday schedule almost as well as their own: the hairdresser, the cheese shop, a visit to the butcher on the
corner (the one they didn’t use, too expensive), then lunch at Frog’s Hollow before she got into her soft-top black BMW and went home.
Eden Sidd enjoyed her once a week forays into the Gloucestershire town and lunch among the locals, especially Edna and Beryl. It was a world that was alien from the one in which she normally lived. Frog’s Hollow, Edna and Beryl, were for Eden a comfort zone, a pleasant and totally uncomplicated slice of normal day-to-day living. For her Thursdays were pure self-indulgence, a taste of the norm, the simple life. Often she would sit talking across the tables to the two women and at the same time marvel at the way discussing the price of a collar of ham with two old dears could be such a luxury in one’s life. But it was and she was grateful to have these two confidantes. She often thought as she ate her meal: From Fortnum & Mason to Frog’s Hollow – quite a distance. She never could work out whether she had come up in the world or down. She only knew that at this moment in time it didn’t matter. Fortnum’s or Frog’s Hollow – to Eden it made no difference.
Today she entered the tea room rather later than usual. The place was deserted. She was sorry to have missed Edna and Beryl and their shopping carts. They had already been and gone, the cook-owner told her as she came forward and took Eden’s order. The two women sat chatting together for a few minutes about who had been in and then the proprietor disappeared into the kitchen.
Eden was well into her meal and enjoying the solitude of dining alone in the tea room when the bell above the door rang and it burst open. A man entered, a gust of wind and a heavy shower of rain blowing in after him.
Eden looked up from her plate. In all the years she had been coming to Frog’s Hollow she had never seen him before. He was a man in his mid-thirties, it appeared, impressively handsome, tanned and with a shock of black hair worn on the long side. He was wearing a belted black cashmere coat, the collar turned up against the February elements. He was standing next to Eden but failed to register her. It was as if she was invisible. He opened his
coat and shook the rain from it and then, without a glance in her direction, passed by her, his coat grazing her arm.
Eden was devastated. For the first time in her life she had been overlooked as a sexually appealing woman on even the most superficial basis; not so much as a glance, a sideways look, a moment’s appreciation of her as an interesting sensuous lady, had he given her. Stunned and upset by the realisation that she had become one of those millions of women who at a certain age become invisible to attractive men on the hunt for sexual liaisons, the scent of death engulfed her.
She remained seated while trying to regain her composure. Eden could hardly take her eyes off the stranger now seated across the empty tables from her. Still he failed to notice her. No longer hungry but determined to finish her meal and put her emotions in order, she waited in the hope that he might finally acknowledge her with a glance. Just a brief look in her direction would be enough to restore her visibility, give her the sense of being alive again as a passionate female soul, one who could still interest a stranger.
For a moment she thought she was rewarded because he did look her way. But she was not. He looked right through her, making her invisibility and the pain it caused her even more acute. She felt dizzy with despair but, much as she wanted to run away from the tea room and her gloomy realisation, unable to move. She watched him finish his plate of lasagne and chips, drink a cup of coffee. Eden waited him out over a pudding of apple crumble and clotted cream. One glance at her on his way out – that was all the hope left to her now.
The stranger paid his bill and shrugged into his coat, turned the collar up and left the tea room still without giving her the glance of recognition she so needed. To add insult to injury, she was even forced to rise from her chair and close the door behind him for in the wake of his departure the wind blew it open and rain rushed in on her.
All the way home she tried to put the incident out of her mind. Tried to rationalise her feelings: tell herself she was over-reacting. How pathetic to have needed sexual attention from a stranger so
as to be made to feel erotically appealing and desirable. It didn’t work. She felt massively rejected on the most intimate level for a woman. She had seen incidents similar to the one she had just experienced happen to other women, to friends. Was it vanity or wishful thinking that had made her think it could never happen to her?
Eden had always been an outsider, an individual who had known she walked a lonely but bright and interesting road, and had never minded that. Suddenly to find that she was nothing special, merely another of the millions of women her age that society no longer regarded as sensuous and desirable beings but mere shells of those things, was a rude awakening.
Driving through the village and the open gates to the drive of her house she was shocked to find that tears would not stop streaming from her eyes. Eden halted at the front door. The rain still poured down seemingly in sheets and the grey of the sky was as heavy as her heart. The trees, dripping copiously, appeared to have been beaten into a submission of sorts by the weather.
The house was dark and sombre-looking. The faint sound of dogs barking reached her in the car. It snapped her out of that dark place she had slipped into. Opening the car door, she readied herself and then made a dash on to the terrace and through the never-locked front door. She shook the rain from her coat and whipped off her wide-brimmed rain hat, dropping it into a basket where umbrellas, paper parasols and walking sticks lived. A Russian wolfhound, Chekov, and two Shi Tsus, Winkie and Wonkie, vied for her attention with leaps and jumps, barks and dog kisses.
The menagerie followed her through the hall and dining room and into the kitchen where she hung her raincoat on the clothes rack and slipped out of her wet shoes, placing them neatly near the Aga to dry. Eden lifted one of the two copper lids and slid the kettle on to the hot plate before sitting down. Winkie and Wonkie leapt into her lap in a flurry of long silky blonde and white hair, while large and elegant Chekov collapsed lovingly at her feet.
Eden’s home was a Queen Anne house of many windows with elegant high-ceilinged rooms on the ground floor. Though it may have appeared sombre on approaching it that rainy day, once
inside it was a house of quiet, uplifting simplicity, not at all dark or dreary. Eden loved her home and the life she had been living in it for the past ten years. Though she was not reclusive she had settled for privacy, a quiet life that left behind the strains and stresses of a busy cosmopolitan existence. She had been tired, believed the time had come to retreat and enjoy the fruits of her labours, indulge in a more simple existence. Here she could garden, cook, write music and play the cello for her own enjoyment.
The kettle whistled and she rose from the wing chair at the end of the long wooden table and made herself a pot of tea. She was feeling more comfortable about the silly incident in the tea room. For a few minutes she actually thought she had shaken off that uncomfortable feeling of having become something less even than the shell of an attractive woman. Of being dead to all she had been as a sexual being, of having become an old woman, one she didn’t recognise or know. After tea she went to the music room and lit a fire, took up her cello and played for two hours. Music was her life. It had always been that way and even now in her retirement she practised at least five hours a day.
Over dinner, an omelette, salad and a glass of wine consumed by the open fire in the kitchen, Eden realised that she had not after all accepted the incident in the tea room with good grace. She did not want to be sexually insignificant to a stranger or, more to the point, to herself. That evening in bed the one thought in her mind was that she was no longer the woman she’d thought she was. Half the night she was haunted by questions. Where had all the love, sex and passion gone? When and why had she cut them out of her heart, her very being? Eden began to wonder if they had ever really been there. Time, the mind and loneliness can play tricks with reality, and more than any of those things loss can distort the truth as memory struggles to conjure up what once was but has long since vanished.
Eden was haunted by a realisation of what she had lost. The love affairs and sexual encounters that had been so much a part of her life – they had happened, hadn’t they?
There was no sleep for her that night. She rose from her bed
and paced the room in the dark. The rain was gone, the clouds had been blown away and the dark sky was filled with stars. A crescent moon lit her bedroom and the garden rolling down to the wood and the lake.
In the morning the housekeeper arrived and Eden was momentarily distracted from her anguish by the need to give instructions to Rachel. It never ceased to amaze her how much work there was to running a house and garden, a few dogs and a car, even on such a modest scale as this. She pondered on that as she went over the chores with Rachel but somehow could not keep focused on the list. Her mind wandered to other things: how much more time it took to keep her health and looks together nowadays, the interminable red tape that had to be waded through just to keep things ticking over. Hers was now a life mundane beyond any she could ever have imagined for herself in the past. It frightened her, but not so much as it shocked her.
Rachel Morgan was a good housekeeper, a local woman in her mid-thirties, married with two daughters. She was devoted to Eden, had learned how to run the house the way Eden liked to live in it and was at times dazzled by how famous her employer’s friends were. Rachel was curious about the men who on occasion, and for short periods of time, became a part of Eden’s life. At times she’d felt anxious that one of them might enter it for good and change Eden’s way of life.
When Rachel had first started work, Eden used to travel considerably more than she had been doing for the last few years. Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Fiji, Hong Kong, India … A brief announcement that she was visiting friends and off she would go. They were intimate friends as housekeeper and employer but worlds apart in every other way. Rachel was happy working for Eden but at the same time jealous and possessive of her, and Eden Sidd was not a woman to be controlled.
She was aware of that flaw in their relationship but was not certain if her housekeeper was. But then there was something in Eden’s character that made some of her friends as well as her housekeeper feel that she needed to be controlled by them. There was about her an air of vulnerability, an innocence that was at
odds with the sophisticated woman she was, the hugely creative and professional person of enormous passion and sensitivity. She was known for her wit and charm and for being clever, a caring person. She had her flaws and one of her greatest was that she was too soft, over-sensitive. She could be crushed by the hardness of others. How many times in her life had she heard people ask her, ‘Why do you care?’ It was a question she never seemed able to answer.
After her meeting with Rachel, Eden talked to the gardener but was unable to be constructive or creative about what she wanted done in the garden, resistant to his suggestions about thinning out the wood, so called the meeting to an abrupt end. The postman arrived and there were too many letters to deal with. She could concentrate on nothing. Her mind kept slipping back to happier times, the past and what her life had once been like, in spite of the fact that she had been very happy these last ten years in her country retirement. A feeling came over her then: a pressing need to affirm in some way that the excitement of the erotic life and loves she had once enjoyed had been real, as much fun as she remembered it to have been.
In late morning a girl friend, Anna Bascomb, called.
‘I can hear in your voice you’re not having a happy day. It always gives you away. Do you want to tell me about it?’
‘Come down to London, it’s ages since you were here. We’ll do the art exhibitions if you like. Lunch somewhere that’s amusing and terribly expensive if it’s on you, somewhere more modest if it’s on me. Do the windows on Bond Street, and you can get Charlie Chan to cut your hair. It’s months since you’ve done that.’
‘You are incorrigible and I am not going down to London. I’m filled with dread at the prospect and it would do nothing to calm me down.’
‘What would then?’ asked Anna.
‘I don’t know. I haven’t worked it out yet.’
Anna and Eden had been close friends for more than twenty years and knew and understood each other very well. Or so each of them thought. Anna had once been the wife of George Chen,
conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She was a
who’d seduced George away from a wife and five children, married him, and after two years split up from him. She chose to move on to someone who was not married to music and could give her the attention she demanded; he settled down with a young pianist who demanded nothing but to sit in awe at his feet. Anna and her present husband, Warrington Bascomb, lived in total adoration of each other. Her special charm was a
joie de vivre
that captivated husbands, lovers and her many girl friends.