|My 1993 edition of Infinite Riches,
is edited by Lynn Knight.
A slight change from ‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’ this week, because I found a copy of Infinite Riches, a Virago Modern Classics short story collection, and once I looked at it and saw the first offering was by Sylvia Townsend Warner how could I possibly resist? And I’m so glad I bought the book, because An Act of Reparation is a little gem. It opens with a shopping list – are there any other stories, short or long, which do that I wonder?
Lapsang sooshang – must smell like tar.
Liver salts in blue bottle.
Strumpshaw’s bill – why 6d?
Something for weekend – not a chicken.
I realise that not everyone likes lists, but I do: lists for shopping, lists of things to be done, lists of books I want to read, lists of things I must ask my mother…. I may not stick to them (in fact I rarely do) but they lend a sense of purpose to my daily routine, and make me feel a warm sense of satisfaction when I manage to tick anything off. Occasionally I stumble across an old list, tucked inside a book, marking a long-forgotten day in my life, and I marvel at the eclectic nature of the things scrawled on scrap paper.
This list, which is a wonderful mish-mash of disparate items, belongs to Valerie Hardcastle, who has been married for five months (and cooked a chicken every weekend) when she bumps into her husband’s first wife while waiting in the bank. You might think the stage is set for a scene of bitter recriminations. Even Valerie, who knows as little about human nature as she does about housework and cooking, is a trifle concerned. But she might be surprised at her predecessor’s thoughts.
…she, Lois Hardcastle, writhing in the boredom of being married to Fenton, had snatched at snatched at Miss Valerie Fry, who had done her no harm whatever, and got away at her expense. And this, this careworn, deflated little chit staring blankly at a shopping list, was what Fenton had made her in six months’ matrimony.
The two women go to a cafe, where Lois reflects on the nature of guilt and compassion as she surveys Valerie’s shopping bags.
They were her bags, her burden: and she had cast them onto the shoulders of this hapless child and gone flourishing off, a free woman. It might be said, too, though she made less of it, that she had cast the child on Fenton’s ageing shoulders and hung twenty-one consecutive frozen chickens round his neck … a clammy garland. Apparently it was impossible to commit the simplest act of selfishness, of self-defence even, without paining and inconveniencing others.
She whisks the younger woman off to buy the ingredients for an oxtail stew and returns to her former home to cook the dish, and there’s a hilarious passage where she hunts for her old cooking utensils, including the large stewpan, which is hidden in the cupboard under the stairs and now holds jam pots and spiders!
The story is very humorous, with a slightly witchy feel – I could imagine Lolly Willowes applauding the first wife’s actions, especially as Lois, like Lolly, seems to have finally made her own decisions about the life she wants to lead. But there’s an unsettling edge. Valerie seems spellbound by Lois, who gathers her ingredients and prepares her stew as if it were a magical potion, and whose motives may not be as unselfish as they appear. At one point Warner tells us:
No act of reparation, thought Lois, sitting in the taxi, can be an exact fit. Circumstances are like seaweed: a moment’s exposure to the air, an hour’s relegation to the past tense, stiffens, warps, shrivels the one and the other.
I think there’s an undertone of menace there that hints at decay and rottenness. And when Lois embarks on her cooking she certainly doesn’t seem to feel compassion: indeed, at this point I started thinking of Valerie and Fenton as her victims, although there is nothing explicit, and you must decide for yourself whether this an act of reparation, or a subtle form of revenge – or perhaps, in some strange way, they could even be two sides of he same coin.
Without a flutter of pity, of compunction, of remorse, of any of the feelings that should accompany an act of reparation as parsley and lemon accompany fried plaice or redcurrant jelly jugged hare, Lois searched, and cleaned, and sharpened, and by quarter to three the oxtail was in the large stewpan, together with the garlic, carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns and celery.
I love Warner’s writing, especially the way she juxtaposes small, domestic details alongside bigger issues, using unexpected turns of phrase and comparisons which give a sudden, perceptive insights into a character’s thoughts and feelings. I have no idea if this particular short story is available in any currently published collection, but if it isn’t it should be. If you haven’t come across it I would urge you to track down this book immediately, forthwith, and even sooner than that, because whatever the price it’s worth it for this story alone.