When I met the woman who was to be my first wife, Ann Livingston, she was acting a princess in a traveling show for school children. Ann, like myself, had come to Canada from England in her teens; and had married an emigrant from Estonia who was three times her age. It proved unsuccessful and she had divorced him. Ann was just one day younger than I was. Soon we were lovers, but her mother in England had paid for her to go to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and Ann felt bound to go. So I resolved to go with her and, basically, set foot in England for the first time in ten years. Here is an excerpt from that chapter, when Ann and I were living with my parents in London.
The office I worked in was surely a contrast to being back at home where my father found something to complain about every day. He had recently retired, and mother had never had a job, so she bore the brunt. Some evenings my wife was home, too and if things had not gone to her liking at rehearsal that day, I became the brunt-bearer.
But before long my wife would attempt to bring my mother into the argument, on her side, of course. But my mother had forty years of training and was hard to bestir.
"Your son just told me he won't go into the army, and is now holding a razor to his throat and swearing he'll cut it. (Conscription was still legal in England).
"No. no, my dear, my son would never do a thing like that."
"But that is what he is saying."
"Well, you know how men are, dearie. They get het up and go over the top."
"Over the top? That's what he says he'll do now."
"I've seen his father do this act a dozen times." Then with unexpected heat, she added, "But he never did it…Not once."
My wife wept uncontrollably. My mother went on:
"And this was during the First World War. And he was actually wounded in that. In fact, he was killed."
"Mrs. Bromige, he can't have been killed. He was just here moments ago."
"Yes," my mother said, sounding helpless, "It is such a big house."
Mrs. Murphy, who was sitting next to my mother,and was the one who actually cleaned the big house, gave a look of disapproval. I think she disapproved of my mother making excuses for my father, who was always cluttering it up
"But Mrs. Bromige," Ann wept, warming to her role. "What's a poor girl to do?"
"Stiff upper lip," my mother actually said. "Don't let the blighters get you down."
To which my wife replied, "but my husband…the razor."
All of this was said within easy earshot of me, where I stood, upright, naked and trembling in the doorway to the pantry off the kitchen..
"When they've got razors in their hands, it makes more sense to stay out their way," she said to my wife. "A friend of mine was blinded by a man with a razor. Only he wasn't her husband."
"No, really?" said my wife, lighting a cigarette. "Someone she knew?"
"Oh, I expect so," my mother said, absently. "It usually is."
"Mrs. Bromige, how can you take this so calmly," asked Ann.
"Now I remember, dear," said my mother, coming more awake. It was during the First World War, the Big One, she added. To start with, this young man only meant to kill himself. But his girlfriend tried to stop him, so he killed her instead. It was in all the papers. So then they hanged him. That was sad," she added dabbing her eyes. "He was so good-looking. And brave. And he swore he was sorry for what he done."
I had heard all I could stand. Besides, my hand was getting tired of holding the razor and I was trembling with cold.
What about me?" I cried, stumbling into the kitchen. "What about David?"
"David had better put his clothes on," said Mother. Mrs. Murphy's eyes remained averted.
Defeated, I went off to follow her instructions.
"Where's Dad?" I queried as I headed down the hallway.
"Ah yes, where is your father anytime he is needed?" said my mother. " I have told you before that this is a very big house."
Mrs. Murphy nodded sullenly.
"It is ten times the size of the house I grew up in, with a family of twelve. We are only a family of four, but we never seem to cluster together. Poor Mrs. Murphy here, lives in that two-room flat with troublesome Johnny, her son. And except for that son, she lives there quietly and , by the sacraments of our Lord, Jesus Christ, even though being from County Cork she is misled to think our Lord was a Catholic." She was speaking to Ann, who I imagine looked dismal and abashed.
It was hopeless. Once my mother got talking about the Lord, Jesus Christ with Mrs. Murphy, whom I loved, because I loved her son ( and his smashing sister, Pat, now married to a New Foundlander), she took on the lofty tone that made me want to throttle her. I set off on my own to find my father.
By the time I found my father, which was upstairs, dully hammering in an otherwise empty, echoic room, he was fit to be tied. As soon as he saw that I was in the room with him, my father put down his hammer and, in a fierce whisper, asked if Mrs. Murphy had been released from custody yet.
"No, Dad, Mum's just brought up her religious differences with Mrs. Murphy."
"Cor stone the bleedin' crows," my father said. "How long have they been at it?"
"Five minutes since, sir, is when it began, sir," I answered with the fake tartness that my father liked.
"Stone the bloody crows", my father responded, rolling his blue eyes towards heaven (by way of Shepard's Bush, as he often like to add).
"Blimey, when your mother starts giving church lessons to her Irish friend. I've heard all I can stand, Dave. Church lessons from your mother, who hasn't been to church since her father died. That was twenty years ago…to Mrs. Murphy who goes to church every Sunday. Cor blind old Peter!"
What are you doing, hiding out back here?"
"I am not hiding out. I just wanted to get out of earshot of your mother's interminable religiosity."
"Dad, mother hardly ever speaks. Cut her some slack."
"When Mrs. Murphy is here, she hardly ever stops. And Mrs. Murphy is almost as bad."
"Dad, they're only doing what women are supposed to do, talking."
"Oh, does Eugene O'Neill say that somewhere?"
He was too quick for me, the way he could spot how I lifted something from what I'd been reading. It was an uncanny knack. I didn't like it. He was always pruning me. I had to change the subject.
"What are you doing, Dad? Improving the spare room?"
"It was the best way of doing something useful out of hearing range of those two harpies. That was my first reason. But, there is a definite slope to this window. Look here."
"Where, Dad. I've been looking at it all over, and it's straight."
"Of course it's straight. That's what I'm telling you. I straightened it."
"Congratulations, Dad. How did you do it?"
"I cut in that joist there. At the far end. I call it my James Joist."
That ended our conversation; the front door could be heard opening, then closing; Mrs. Murphy was on her way, and my mother had sunk back into silence. My father could switch on the television and watch what remained of his show. I could find my wife and apologize for not seeing reason earlier. What I was apologizing for I couldn't remember, but it seemed to please my wife.
A soothing silence fell over the Bromige household. It had been a family day.
Finally, mist came in to soften the night time noises. Anson Road was sleeping.