RUTH a novel by Pat Mosel
On the Thursday before the party, when the murder happened, my son, Nicky came into the kitchen. “Whoa!” he called and slid onto his buttocks on the wet floor.
I left off cutting circles to make scones and helped him up.
“You should put up a sign saying ‘slippery floor’,” he admonished me. At twenty one, Nicky still didn’t know where he wanted to go in life but he did know what he expected of his parents.
“I’m sorry, Nick.” But I couldn’t help smiling.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me Nick. It sounds like a police station or a prison, or the Devil himself.” He was on his feet and feeling his trousers for damp.
“But you must admit your entrance into the kitchen was a bit funny.”
He wasn’t going to be drawn into that. “How many guests have you got coming?”
“Eight staying and five more for lunch on Sunday.”
“How many times have you cleaned this floor?”
“Millions of times over the past twenty-four years.”
“You exaggerate, but I mean in the last two days.”
“Do you really think your guests are going to inspect it?” He sauntered off without waiting for an answer.
Dealing with Nicky while he was a teenager was a delicate affair, although now he was growing up faster than I realized. It was not so long since I found myself censoring what I would like to say, only to discover that what I had censored might have been appropriate after all and what I did say turned out instead to be provocative. The one guide was that when wanting him to do something I should suggest the opposite. Max criticised my caution, saying Nicky needed a strong set of rules to go by. Whenever Max said that, it signalled the start of another lecture on the importance of discipline. I have erased from my memory some of Max’s standard lecture. It seemed to me it had something to do with getting up at five in the morning and having a cold shower but it could be applied to anything – housework, socialising or making a car journey. It could be brought to bear on anything one didn’t want to do. Max would extol the virtues of discipline without ever seeing the need to follow the rules himself. He rarely got up at five and I had only his testimony that he took cold showers.
It was Friday, mid-July 2004, the day most of the guests were due to arrive. Wearing pink rubber gloves, wrists deep in white foam, I paused and wondered, as I often did, how many people could have such a view from their kitchen window. An expanse of lawn, cared for, rectangular, surrounded on two sides by a beech hedge with copper-bronze leaves catching the light, a boundary for privacy. This side of the hedge the scene stretched in layers. The scalloped flower bed, mainly of roses, lupins, lavender and lady’s mantle, ran along the length of the hedge opposite the window. In the middle ground were the four mature apple trees, gnarled and knotted, trunks host to lichen, with their crooked branches now laden with green, tight fruit waiting to ripen. In the foreground, I could see lawn and had a partial view of the plum trees around which I had planted fairy rings of crocuses that flowered in the autumn. Our kitchen garden in the Scottish Borders in July contained the possibilities and inevitabilities of all the seasons. I could imagine winter; stark trees and few flowers. A snowman with a carrot for a nose and two pieces of coal for eyes and Max’s uncle’s bowler hat. It seemed there was more snow when Nicky was a child. There used to be a swing for him, hanging from one of the apple trees, and a sandpit, now grassed over. In those days, summer and winter, I would watch him from the window, seeing him making sandcastles. Patting and brushing, decorating his castles with leaves and stones, building and trampling. The sandpit had gone; those days were now over. Now, still, every spring I waited at the kitchen window for the blooming of the daffodils under the fruit trees. Hundreds of them, in many different varieties, shot through the green grass. They were well sheltered by the hedges. Like trumpets, they triumphed over the dark days of winter. They and the little heroes, the snowdrops. We were very close to the seasons at Auld Oak Hall. continue » »
The house was named after a tree that stood at the bottom of the front garden, at the entrance to the driveway. It was massive and loveable. The place belonged to Max. He had inherited it from his bachelor uncle, along with a lot of antique furniture and silver. I had no say in any decisions that concerned Auld Oak Hall apart from minor household details, like what washing machine to buy or when to clean the silver. I had responsibility but no authority. Fourteen years before, when Max and I nearly split up, he told me that it was he who allowed me to live at the Hall. Presumably, that meant he thought it was he who dictated whether I stayed or went.
Yet, from the moment we moved in, I fell in love with Auld Oak Hall, the space in it, the setting, the quietness. I treasured the privilege of living amongst natural beauty; beautiful landscape, beautiful things, but I had to work hard for it. Thank God for my home help, Heather. She would come twice a week and together we could meet the standards Max expected and I had absorbed.
“You fuss too much,” Nicky would say. “Who cares if there’s a spec of dust on the TV or a cobweb in the dining-room. You’ve got your priorities all wrong.”
I couldn’t argue with him. I just carried on doing what I always did. At the same time I kept up my freelance writing business. I nurtured and developed contacts beyond the Scottish Borders, which was an essential part of making money for the business. I wrote about house interiors, gardens, stately homes and produced profiles of people and, every now and again, I would write a romantic fiction story. However, when we had guests the housework and cooking took precedence.
When Max’s old school friends came to stay I sometimes felt like a servant. Some of them acted as though they lived life with servants, even if they didn’t, and I was the most suitable person to play out the role. They charmingly persuaded me to carry luggage, sew on buttons and once I even found myself washing a guest’s car. It was a strange turnabout because I had been brought up with servants myself and I remember with fondness some of the cooks and nannies my family employed. During my childhood in Rhodesia we had Black African servants. While I was growing up they were the closest I got to knowing Black African Rhodesians, I’m sorry to say. In daily life in the town of Bulawayo I saw Blacks roughly sent to the back of queues in shops, heard grown men called “boys” and had a vague idea that Black people were poor. The Black Africans I knew were smiling and friendly. Even with liberal parents, as a child I was not even partially aware of the injustices being perpetrated in the name of White rule. I was unaware that the political system which denied Black Africans the vote was wrong, that across town children my age were scavenging in rubbish bins for food. I was unaware of this. It was only later that I understood and knew these things in any real sense. Our way of life was ruptured when Ian Smith, the then Prime Minister of Rhodesia declared unilateral independence from Britain on the eleventh of November 1965 which was followed by international sanctions, tense political negotiations and an intensifying war between Rhodesian security forces and African nationalists. During the tragic years in which Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, although no longer living there, I took upon my shoulders a general guilt based on an increased awareness of the erosion of human rights in the country of my birth. My guilt wasn’t just the product of political awareness. It began early. It centered on a baby girl called Joy.