Authors: Barbara Trapido
This novel was completed with the
assistance of a bursary awarded
by the Southern Arts Association.
When the first noah made his ark and failed to invite the neighbours in, he turned a practical ear to the voice of God. Only so many could come on board before the overloaded ark sank to the bottom of the sea, leaving no survivors at all. Barbara Trapido’s brilliantly effervescent play on the Noah story conceals a profound, realistic understanding of human affairs. The whole world has never been gathered into security, and it never will be.
Trapido’s Noah, Noah Glazer, arrives in Alison Bobrow’s life like a knight in a fairy tale. His first act is to yank her back from the path of a speeding car, thus saving her life. The reason for Alison’s near-accident will be immediately and painfully familiar to many mothers. She is in a state of caring frenzy, so frayed by a last-minute search for the right size of gym shorts and the correct name tapes that she almost orphans the child who is to wear the kit. It soon becomes clear that Alison’s marriage to petty, spiteful, faux-Marxist Mervyn Bobrow has established her in a pattern of servitude which verges on the masochistic. Even for the sake of her daughter Camilla, whom she cherishes and Mervyn abuses, she can’t throw her husband out. When he finally chooses to go, he leaves behind a legacy of parasitic neighbours. Mervyn, full of political righteousness and very much in favour of
communal living on his wife’s behalf, has encouraged these neighbours to dump both their problems and their children on Alison. Noah Glazer diagnoses the situation with immediate, brutal clarity. These neighbours must be abandoned to sink or to swim on their own account, if Alison is to survive. Just as instantly, he falls in love with her. Alison tries to warn Noah off—it’s her Quakerish demeanour that makes men feel they must fall in love with her before they can sleep with her—but Noah is not to be deterred. Working ‘highly competent erogenous magic upon the female folds of her groin’, Noah is soon asking her about contraception in the same breath as he enquires, ‘Which way now to the Friends’ Meeting House?’
This combination of verbal by-play and physical directness is typical of their relationship, and of Trapido’s writing. Wit is part of the pleasure of sex, rather than a way of distancing mind from body. Noah teases Alison for her ‘tremulous quim introspection’ while assuring her that she fucks ‘like the emperor’s whore’. Alison is too intelligent not to wonder at the sexual pleasure she gets from acquiescing to Noah like ‘the conniving handmaid in her own subjection’, but also too intelligent to throw away the best sex she has ever had.
Trapido makes Noah’s force, charm, professionalism and directness immensely appealing, but it’s not an uncritical view. Noah’s character is comically exaggerated in his fierce, practical, strong-minded little daughter Hattie, who is ‘not gorged on guilt’ and ‘spread the belief throughout the junior school that the vicar kept a half-jack of whisky in the folds of his cassock’. Noah himself can be ‘offensively managerial’ and even ruthless when he considers that ruthlessness is called for, but his ark will never founder. Noah’s attitude to personal responsibility underlines one of the novel’s key questions: where do we draw the line between those people and things for which we are responsible, and those for which we are not? Noah, a specialist in respiratory medicine, is an obvious, hands-on improver of this world, with no pretensions and an aversion to ideology.
Alison’s views are less clear-cut. Her upbringing in apartheid South Africa and her cruel marriage to Mervyn Bobrow have left her deeply sceptical about institutions. Her generosity is always personal and her concern directed towards individuals, but she still harbours the guilts and uncertainties that made her prey to Mervyn Bobrow’s certainties. Bobrow, meanwhile, espouses ideologies for their convenience as well as for the flattering reflections they cast on his own conduct.
As the action of the novel moves to South Africa, Trapido draws a sharper profile of a political activist in Thomas Adderley, Alison’s first love. Thomas is a mixed-race South African, an instinctive nonconformist who becomes an inspirational playwright, using his wit, charisma and deep, weary knowledge of the system to undermine apartheid. The characterisation here is laced with wonderfully typical Trapido ambiguities. We see Thomas through a public lens, and simultaneously feel him as Alison’s muddled, enchanting, frustrating first love, who remains as emotionally baffling as ever. As another of his lovers observes: ‘For all his size and loveliness, he is not altogether corporeal, if you know what I mean. Thomas is too good for this life. Too good and not good enough.’
Barbara Trapido’s writing is so sparklingly clear and witty that it can be a shock to realise how strong an undertow runs beneath the surface. There is real cruelty and vice in this novel. Mervyn Bobrow’s sadistic abuse of his daughter Camilla is as shocking as Alison’s inability to protect her child. A girl who wets the bed until the age of eleven becomes a beautiful but insecure woman, ripe for the same disasters in love as those which beset her mother. The old are just as vulnerable as the young. Alison’s former neighbour Margaret is manoeuvred out of her house and into an old people’s home, after ‘the bloody neighbours’ smell smoke from a potful of singed ox-heart, and summon the fire brigade. Her dogs are sent to a dogs’ home, her possessions consigned to a house-clearing agency. ‘In the old people’s home, Margaret sat in the day room like a hollow-eyed boarding-school girl waiting for the dawn of an exeat weekend.’
Trapido makes no bones about harms done, and the further harms which may proliferate from them. The South African regime and the lives it wrecks and shames are described with bitter, furious intimacy. The water is rising, and no vessel can be big enough for everyone. For all her wit, funniness and charm, Trapido makes sure that we see the outstretched hands of the drowning, and hear their cries as the ark sails away without them.
Ali glazer was stitching up her husband’s trouser hems, but had paused to glance up at the kitchen pin board in some fascination. The photograph of a man, bearing a disconcerting resemblance to Thomas Adderley, had been torn from a Sunday magazine advertisement and pinned there by Ali’s older daughter Camilla. The girl herself had had no awareness of that resemblance which now so forcibly struck her mother and had fixed the picture there merely because she liked the man’s collarless Edwardian shirt. The man – in keeping with the clichés of capitalist realism – was manoeuvring a white stallion through a dappled glade of redwood trees and was advertising cigarettes. Ali noticed that Camilla had fixed him rather high on the pin board where he beamed out, as from a higher plane, above the two postcards pinned side by side below him. This hierarchical arrangement struck her as altogether suitable given that she had always elevated and revered Thomas, while the postcards had come from people to whom she felt predominantly antipathetic. They had come from the Bobrows and from William Lister. The first, from the Bobrows, had been there only five days and read as follows:
Mervyn and Eva Bobrow will be
on Thursday, May 9th for
6.00-8.30 p.m. RSVP
Ali had pinned it there in a spirit of gleeful irony, the more to relish the Bobrows’ talent for premeditated spontaneity.
William Lister’s card, on the other hand, had been there for almost two years. It got buried from time to time under gas bills and children’s party invitations, but Ali’s husband Noah had exposed it at that moment in the process of unpinning his statement from American Express. Noah had campaigned consistently for it to remain there because, he said, it reminded him that William Lister was not likely to come by again for quite some time. After William’s last uninvited stay in the Glazers’ house it had been Noah, and not Ali, who had firmly directed him to the letting agency and told him to find himself a bedsitting room. Ali had merely cringed with embarrassment during the confrontation, but she knew that as a person with no proper walls, she needed Noah to build fences for her. He was good at heaving out unwanted guests. He had not been trained, as she had been, in that salivating, female eagerness to please.
William’s postcard had been written during the course of this last visit and had been left for the Glazers on the kitchen table. It said, in William’s careful, microscopic handwriting, ‘I think you owe me two streaky rashers.’ One of poor William’s more irritating habits, Ali considered, was the way in which he had always stowed his own rations in the fridge in order that he might lodge high-minded complaints if any of these got eaten in error by anyone else. But moral one-upmanship had always been William’s special area of study. He was a single-minded political animal, dedicated to what he called ‘The Struggle’ or, more alarmingly, ‘The Armed Struggle’ and even his postcards were inclined to carry gratuitous political overtones. The card on the pinboard depicted a group of grey-trousered young men clustered round a machine gun and was captioned:
North Korean Working People Express Solidarity after the Fatherland Liberation War.
Noah unpinned the card and glanced wryly at the picture. He had always regarded William Lister as belonging to that
category of pretentious down-and-out which appended itself with so sure an instinct to his tender-hearted wife. As such, William was fair game for his gently uncharitable ironies. He wondered why he had never before noticed that the Korean Working People were all wearing wrist watches, and it caused him to glance mechanically at his own watch.
‘Long live the solidarity of Working People everywhere,’ he said pointedly, handing the card to his wife. ‘Speaking of Working People, Al, would you get to work please and stitch up my pants? I ought to shift my ass.’
Ali had meanwhile been staring assiduously at the photograph of Thomas Adderley’s double. She had neither seen nor heard from Thomas for twenty years, yet the photograph brought home to her all the force of those heroic, Bohemian looks; those looks which, for all they had caused her to fall so dramatically in love with Thomas at the unsuitable age of sixteen, had at the same time inspired such awe that they had got in the way of contact. As a result, she and Thomas had spent their three years at the university bound in a delicate friendship of true minds. They had sat side by side in lectures. They had read poetry together and had discussed the concept of evil in the plays of Bertolt Brecht. Two precocious and idealistic adolescents, trailing ribbons of merit from the sixth forms of their respective single-sex high schools. As to their induction into that gross and glorious sweating act, which had loomed at the time always so huge and imminent, they had each of them unhappily turned elsewhere. Twenty years on, and three marriages later, this still sometimes occurred to Ali as a wasteful and unnecessary misdirection of destiny. But standing squarely before her was dear Noah, addressing her with some urgency to the matter of his trouser hems.