And the greatest of these is charity

(first published as “Charity” in Peninsular 26, 2002)

Rain oozes from her hair, dribbles down her plastic mac, pooling in a ring of puddles round her feet as she stands in the doorway, panting as though out of breath. I have to go and fetch a towel. George wouldn’t like damp patches on the hall carpet. She must have walked from the station, the shoes she leaves on the mat are filthy and her trousers are splashed with mud.

“I’ll just go up and see Maria,” she says.

“She’s asleep.” I refrain from pointing out that my own daughters are asleep too, since it’s past eight o’clock. And they’re all in the same room, as she well knows. But I shouldn’t expect Hetty to think of others. Naturally she wants to see her daughter, I understand that. But surely no sensible mother would want to disturb a two-year-old at this time of night.

Hetty’s forehead creases in that infuriating way she has. “I got here as soon as I could. It’s a long way.”

“Never mind. Come and have a cup of tea.”

She goes to put her overnight bag on the stairs, but I insist everything is left to drip in the vestibule. It’s as well George is hidden away as usual in his study, working on Sunday’s sermon. He won’t like the way she clutters up the place the moment she arrives – soggy macintosh, dirty shoes, bulky plastic bags blocking the front door.

Every time George and my sister are in the same house, I feel like one of those early Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs, fearing capture and being martyred for the faith.

George disapproves of Hetty. He has been very good about the big things: her running away to a Women’s Refuge; our having to call the police when her husband turned up on the doorstep threatening violence if we didn’t tell him where she was; Hetty deciding to take a job down south, as far from Barry as possible, and needing help with her two-year-old until she can find a place to live. Thanks to my putting Hetty’s situation to him so carefully, it was George who suggested we be Good Samaritans and look after Maria.

But somehow Hetty is changing, and now everything about her seems likely to upset George: she’s got a new short haircut, is wearing trousers instead of a skirt, and lipstick and eye-shadow and nail varnish, even talks about the future as though she can live without a man…

I feel as though I’m bound to them both, one arm and one leg tied to my sister, and the other arm and leg chained to my husband, and now they’re dragging me in opposite directions, splitting me in two.

No, that’s absurd. But I still feel trapped. I have a vision of Hetty as the Devil with her enticements of painted lips and trouser suits, a job, and proof that even someone from our family can leave her husband. And George is there, as big and immoveable as the Deep Blue Sea. His faith holds me up. He gives me peace and safety and the comfort of knowing I have chosen the strait and narrow. I have chosen to be good.

Hetty hasn’t had any supper, so I have to make her an omelette. And while she’s eating, I let her know how difficult it is coping with Maria.

“She’s stopped crying at night, thank goodness. But she still wakes up soaking wet. You should let me toilet train her. Two years old, she quite big enough to learn how.”

“Oh, Fliss, she’s had such a hard time. Can’t you let her wait a bit? I’ll have her home with me very soon.”

“Up to you, of course. I don’t want to interfere. I just thought she’d be happier if she could learn to use the toilet like everyone else.”

George makes an entrance into the kitchen, and Hetty slithers over to him, smiles in his face. “You’re really good allowing Maria to stay, George.” Her voice is soft, smarmy. “I know my leaving Barry was difficult for you. I do appreciate it.”

George waves his hand in a dignified and benevolent manner, blinking behind his glasses. “We are happy to assist you in your hour of need.”

Hetty puts her hand on his arm, kisses him on the cheek. I expect him to recoil, but he doesn’t, he seems to bridle and smiles a little.

“I’ll just look in on Maria now,” Hetty says in her don’t-cross-me voice. “I won’t wake her. Or the others.”

Don’t think you can fool anyone in this house, I tell her inside my head as we go upstairs. You may beguile others, but not George and me.

Faith is asleep on the camp bed we had to squash in somehow. Naturally, she had to move out of her own bed for Hetty, but Faith didn’t mind, she’s a generous child, and they know they have to be kind to Aunt Hetty at this difficult time.

When Maria arrived, I allowed Faith to move to the spare room, all by herself, and Hope to transfer to the top bunk. Hope always wanted to use the ladder, and was once quite rude when I explained that Faith had the top bunk because she was six while Hope was only four. So my children are quite happy with the new arrangements, and of course I’m always careful to make sure they don’t grow jealous of their little cousin.

Hetty kneels beside the bunk where Maria lies, curled up in the tatty yellow blanket she tries to carry everywhere, sucking her thumb in her sleep. A strange expression is on my sister’s face, very dark and brooding. Then, embarrassingly, I see a tear trickle down Hetty’s cheek. Time for bed.

The next day, being Saturday, is very busy, what with shopping and cooking and cleaning and preparing for the Lord’s Day. Hetty attempts to help. Inadequately. I find it easier to perform my duties myself. Maria is almost silent, which is a blessing, follows her mother as though towed by a rope.

“She’s so good,” Hetty says, as though it’s something to worry about. “Poor little darling. She seems afraid that if she’s normally naughty, something terrible will happen.”

Perhaps it’s as well I have the training of her, I think, if you imagine being naughty is normal. But I don’t say anything. I don’t want to interfere.

Bedtime we keep as usual. Hetty bathes Maria and dresses her in a long pink nightgown, and then I put them all to bed. I can’t allow our routine to be disrupted. It took long enough to accustom Maria to our ways. Hetty kisses Maria goodnight and leaves the room.

Time for prayers. I realize Hetty is hovering on the landing, listening. She’ll see, her daughter is in good hands.

“Now,” I say, as I say every night, “what would you like to thank our Heavenly Father for this evening? Faith?”

“For my Clarissa Cat,” says Faith promptly.

Hetty brought each of the children a stuffed toy: a black cat with peculiar purple eyes and Clarissa on its collar for Faith, a pink rabbit with long satin-lined ears for Hope, and a fat white teddy bear for Maria. It must be nice to be able to waste money like that. But as George says, it’s not good for children to have too many toys.

“I see,” I say neutrally. “Your cat.” Faith hugs the cat in an unpleasantly defiant manner. Hope, I notice, has the pink rabbit in bed with her. “Well now, what about you, Maria? You could thank the Heavenly Father for making your cold better, couldn’t you?”

Maria looks at me with big wide eyes. I just have to hope she understands something of this ceremony, for it’s clear Hetty has taught the child nothing.

“And you, Hope?”

Hope puts the rabbit at the foot of her bed. Faith puts the cat on the floor.

“Cos we’re going to Sunday School tomorrow?” Hope says. I smile and nod.

“Good. Now close your eyes, hands together.”

Maria repeats with the others, hands together and eyes wide open: “Sankoo Heaveny Fazer for M’ria better ‘n’ Fais’ pussy ‘n’ Hope school ‘morrow.”

I find Hetty wiping away tears when I close the bedroom door, and experience a warm sense of benevolence towards her. We can now spend a lovely evening together, just the two of us. George always shuts himself away in his study after the children are in bed, and this evening I can enjoy my sister’s company with no disapproving frown to make me uneasy.

I’d forgotten how pleasant it can be to drink tea and eat chocolate biscuits and chat about female things. I know Hetty is not a bad person, and to be honest, I can’t really feel it was wrong for her to leave Barry. He used to punch her in the breasts and stomach so that no one would be able to see the bruises, until one day she showed me and I was so shocked I felt really sick, and wanted her to stay with me right there and then. Of course, we knew she couldn’t.

One day her neighbour called the police, and Hetty said they helped her find a Refuge, because Barry had starting hurting Maria and she wasn’t having that. I told George the police had got involved, because I was really worried he might not understand. But he was very good, as I should have known a clergyman would be. He said it was our Christian duty to help our sister in her hour of need, so that was all right. Sometimes I wish Hetty hadn’t moved so far away. Now she realizes George is a good man, and she doesn’t have that awful aggressive husband around any more, we could spend more time together.

But then Hetty asks, “How can you stand it, Fliss?”

“Stand what?”

“Oh, I don’t know – living like this. You don’t even have a radio, and I truly can’t see anything wrong with having a radio. And a record player. You used to love music.”

Hetty’s voice is soft, and I’m looking at the brown swirly lines on the carpet, and suddenly feel I might choke. I can see us, dancing in the living room of our old home, pretending we’re taking part in Top of the Pops. That was a good time. Before Hetty got married. I used to love dancing. I wish she hadn’t reminded me.

Hetty puts her arm round my shoulders. “Hey, Fliss, let me do your hair. It would look so nice with a bit more shape, and you’d look so pretty with a bit of lipstick…”

I pull away. How unkind she is. “You know I can’t do anything like that. George says a good woman should be content with the looks the Good Lord gave her. You’ve heard him yourself.”

“The two of us do seem to have made some strange choices. While I was being bullied by a drunken lout and feeling I had to put up with it, you seem to have become submerged, as though you don’t count.”

“Maybe. Maybe that’s what marriage is all about.”

“But you do count.”

“At least I have a husband. And George is a good man.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

We sit in silence, and I begin to think of all those future weekends alone with Hetty until she finds a flat and a child-minder and takes Maria away. It’s a relief when the doorbell rings.

Norman is standing on the step, smiling with his crinkly brown eyes. I feel giggly and shy, I just can’t help it. He’s popped in, he says, for a chat about the Church Council before we go to Service in the morning. Strange how often Norman comes round on a Saturday evening, while George is writing his sermons. As I feel his warm body brush past me, I have the delicious thought, Hetty’ll realize Norman and I have a special relationship. She isn’t the only one to experience life.

“This is Norman Ambler, my next-door neighbour.”

“Hel-lo!” says Norman, going over to take Hetty’s hand. “You must be the pretty sister.”

Right. Yes. Of course.

“I am Felicity’s only sister,” Hetty says coldly and stands up.

“Oh, go on with you,” Norman says brightly. He puts his arm round my shoulders, but it gives me no pleasure. “Fliss and I are good pals. You don’t mind what I say, do you, Fliss, old girl?”

“Excuse me.” Hetty leaves the room, her face closed up. As though she has anything to be upset about.

It’s always the same. All my life, my sister has spoiled things for me. I try to be forbearing, I know this is the cross I have to bear. But people always seem to like Hetty better, just because she was born good-looking, and flatters people by looking them in the eyes and speaking softly. Mother says, Flissy, do try to overcome this jealousy, it’s making you bitter, so even she prefers Hetty.

But what make this situation intolerable is that being kind and generous to Hetty when she needs help has brought no rewards. It has just made everything worse. My friendship with Norman has been ruined.

That evening at the top of the stairs, I step on Hetty’s brooch. Henrietta it says in carved ivory: Mother found it in an antique shop and gave it to her for Christmas. I pick up the pieces. Hetty will be upset, but really it’s not my fault. It must have fallen off as she ran upstairs. No, it can’t be mended. Accidentally I break another piece as I make sure. What a pity.

George’s sermon next morning is about the Good Samaritan. In the afternoon, Hetty takes Maria for a walk. She offers to take Faith and Hope too, and to tell them a story when she returns, but I really don’t think that’s a good idea.

Maria is very quiet when her mother has gone. I feared tears, fortunately without cause. The little girl sits in the corner of the sofa with her horrid yellow blanket against her face and her new teddy in her arms, sucking her thumb, her eyes open, staring. The sooner she’s in bed the better.

Those long blonde curls are a real nuisance. Every night and every morning they need brushing. Hetty sets great store by not cutting the child’s hair, but then she doesn’t have all the bother. They’ll have to go.

“Sankoo Heaveny Fazer for Aunt Flissy kind to M’ria,” prays Maria under guidance. I tuck her in.

“Nigh-night, Mummy,” says Maria, imitating her cousins, and it makes me smile.

Hetty said she’ll be back next weekend. But it won’t be convenient. Nor the following one either. She’ll be disappointed. Ah well. We all have our cross to bear.

© 2002

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