Growing Up For Beginners- Claire Calman (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Growing Up for Beginners’ by Claire Calman.

Growing Up for Beginners

Claire Calman

1

Eleanor

For as long as Eleanor can remember, she has snuck a look at the end of a book before reading it. In her head, it was rather like when you go swimming and you want to know exactly how deep the water is before you get in. She was embarrassed by her need to do this – and it was unquestionably a need – realising that other people might find it an odd thing to do, foolish even. When she was little and her father was reading to her at bedtime, even then she would reach out and peep at the last page to see. She could still recall his saying, ‘Well, it’s your book, little thing, so you can read it any way you choose.’

She wanted to know that the terminus would definitely be there before embarking on the journey. When she read a novel, which was only rarely nowadays, she liked to turn to the final page at once, read the very last sentence, then the whole of the last paragraph, then the final page and perhaps a paragraph or two of the penultimate page. If dissatisfied – the ending seemed ambiguous or inconclusive – she abandoned it; if intrigued, she felt it was safe to commit to it. She was sure that this peccadillo must reveal something deep and meaningful about her warped psyche but she didn’t care. Why shouldn’t she read a book back to front, upside down, or perched on the branch of a tree if she so chose? It didn’t harm anyone else, after all.

Before she married Roger, he used to tease her about this habit, often mentioning it to other guests at parties or dinners if ever the conversation turned to books. Eleanor flushed and tried to redirect the subject away from herself and back onto what people liked to read, which was surely much more interesting anyway.

But his remarks were limited to teasing at that point, even if at times she thought the teasing had a note of something else that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. The first occasion he went further was while they were on their honeymoon, over twenty years ago now.

* * *

Roger has booked a fortnight for them in southern Italy. It is July and Eleanor is looking forward to it, of course, but with some reservations, chiefly about the fact that it would be so very hot. She does not function well in heat and feels like a wilted flower unless she can skulk in the shade, while Roger basks and stretches in the baking sun like a freshly sated lion.

Anticipating that she might spend a fair amount of time sitting beneath a tree, she has packed eight books, all novels she had been saving up for their trip. Roger is clearly taken aback when she unpacks their suitcases and sets out her book stash on top of the bedroom chest of drawers.

‘You do know we’re not relocating, just here for a fortnight?’ he teases, and she laughs.

He has brought just two books: a thick thriller and a political biography.

‘Darling,’ he says, pulling her to him, ‘I do hope you won’t spend the entire time reading?’

‘Of course not.’ She smiles invitingly and stretches up to kiss him.

‘And you’re not going to be a naughty little wifey and read the ending first, I hope?’ His tone is still teasing and she assumes he is joking.

‘No, I’m planning to read it upside down.’

They go off on long excursions the first two days and return exhausted, so in fact it isn’t until the afternoon of the third day that she opens one of the novels to begin it. Roger has gone to lie by the pool while Eleanor has opted to rest in their room for a little while, desperate for time out of the heat. As usual, she turns to the end. Odd. The last sentence seems… not final. Intermediate, not conclusive. She reads the last paragraph. Disappointing. It doesn’t even seem like a proper ending at all. She really dislikes books where the story simply peters out or stops. And the reviews were so glowing, too. She sets it to one side and selects another. This one she picked up at the airport, read the last paragraph right there in the bookshop and found it irresistible. But still she wants to refresh her memory.

She jolts back as if she had been slapped. That isn’t the right ending. How can that be? Besides, now it breaks off mid-sentence. It makes no sense at all.

A horrible thought strikes her but she pushes it away and drops the book with a bang as if it has burned her. Thinks for a minute, recalling her husband’s expression, that strangely knowing smile this morning when she came out of her lovely long shower. No. No. Slowly then she picks up the book and turns to the final page again; cracks the spine to open it as wide as she can. It couldn’t be true surely? And yet it is: the last page has been excised from the book. Now fully spread, the remaining tell-tale stub is visible. It has been cut with something very sharp: a razor blade or – her mind racing now, breath catching in her throat, imagining – a knife. A penknife, to be precise. She thinks of the ever-present bulge in Roger’s left-hand pocket: his red Swiss Army knife, with its useful corkscrew, nail file, scissors, pliers, and blades. She swallows and blinks, a rabbit noticing the yellow glint of the fox’s eyes suddenly very nearby.

No doubt Roger means it as a joke of sorts. Sometimes his sense of humour is really rather different from her own. She has no problem with being teased, but this is different. There is something very deliberate about it that unsettles her. Still, she would tell him that he has upset her, albeit inadvertently, and he would understand and never, ever do such an awful thing again.

She wonders how best to broach the subject. Roger could be a bit… prickly at times if one happens to catch him at a bad moment, rather like her father in that way, so she knows how to manage such a man. Perhaps a teasing comment would be best, showing she understands that it is clearly no more than a misguided joke that has overstepped the mark?

Out on their bedroom balcony, having an aperitif before dinner, looking out to the sparkling sea, she steels herself.

‘Such a curious thing has happened in this heat,’ she says, clinking her glass against his.

‘Oh, yes?’ Roger leans back in his chair and stares out at the view.

‘Yes. Some of the pages in my novel seem to have melted away! But only the last one or two – isn’t that odd?’

He smiles and pats her leg.

‘You’ll thank me soon enough.’ Behind his sunglasses, his expression is unknowable. ‘Go on and read it in the normal way. You’ll love it, I promise you.’

‘But I already love reading my way.’ She sits more upright. ‘Roger?’

‘Oh, darling!’ He waggles her leg to and fro with his hand. ‘Come along now. It’s so peculiar to read the end of the book first. Don’t you realise it’s abnormal behaviour?’

‘I don’t care if it is. It’s not bothering anyone else.’

‘Well, it bothers me, as you very well know.’ He takes a long swallow of his gin and tonic. ‘And I think you ought to care about that, if nothing else. I am your husband, after all.’

‘That doesn’t entitle you to… to… defile my things!’

‘Oh, don’t be so ridiculously emotional! That’s inflammatory language. No one’s defiled anything. So I temporarily removed a page or two from the books so you’d read them normally, like everyone else. Big bloody deal. It’s not as if I chucked the pages away. For God’s sake!’ He stands up and marches into the bedroom and comes back a minute later with a sheaf of pages scrunched in his fist. He drops them from a height into her lap.

‘Have them now if you’re really such a baby you can’t manage without them.’ He sniffs and turns to go. ‘I’m going down to the terrace to have my drink and a cigar. I’ll see you at dinner in twenty minutes. Don’t be late.’

The bedroom door slams.

Eleanor’s whole body is shaking. She picks up the pages from her lap, the table, the floor and does her best to smooth them out, crying uncontrollably now, great gulpy sobs lurching out of her body, tears splattering onto the crumpled pages. She takes them into the bedroom and looks through all the books she has brought with her: all eight of them have been cut. Tries to tuck the shorn pages back into position, telling herself perhaps she could buy some tape in the morning and it would be OK, everything would be OK.

* * *

Later, back at home, at first she simply tucked her book out of sight, in her bedside cabinet or in her underwear drawer, but that proved to be insufficient. Instead, she settled on short stories, biographies, travel journals. These she was happy to read in the ‘correct’ way, and Roger left them alone. But if she read a novel, she had to secrete it very carefully, put out a decoy book to allay his suspicions, and only read it while he was out.

She kept the honeymoon books up in her studio, all together on a shelf. Whenever it happened again, she added the brutalised corpse to the others, a sad, strange sort of shrine. She needed to keep them as some sort of record for herself, so that she would never think, even for a passing moment, that she had imagined it. It was silly, of course – why give yourself further pain by reminding yourself, after all? – but she couldn’t bear to throw them away. It would seem a second violation. The loose pages had been returned by Roger and she had smoothed them out and blotted away any stray tears and tucked them into the back of their amputee parents. After that first time, she chose never to tape them; that would merely offer some illusion that they were whole and fine.

Sometimes Eleanor ventured into bookshops and stood in the fiction section, guiltily reading the last page of a novel, sneaking a glance over her shoulder as if she might be caught indulging in this secret pleasure. Then she turned her back on all those stories just waiting, longing for her to immerse herself in them, and headed instead for Memoir or Travel or Poetry, or treated herself to a sumptuous cookery or gardening book. Only very occasionally, when she could not resist, did she buy a novel. She would take it home, bury the bag at the bottom of the rubbish bin, and slip the book itself into the linen cupboard, between the sheets and pillowcases for the guest room, where Roger would have no cause to look.

Once, she had what at first seemed a rather clever idea of buying a hardback novel and switching the loose dust-jacket with a biography of the same size at home. She curled up in an armchair, entirely lost in the story, but something must have triggered Roger’s radar because he suddenly asked some odd, specific detail about the book. She flushed and looked guilty and he took it from her hands, unpeeled it from its dissembling cover and read to himself for a minute while she sat there feeling stupid, like a child who has broken some precious ornament and been found trying to hide the pieces. He sighed and reached into his pocket for his knife.

‘Oh, no, no, please don’t.’ She stood up to face him square on. ‘I hate it when you do that. It is my book, after all, and it doesn’t affect you how I choose to read it, does it? I don’t understand why it bothers you so much.’

I really hate it when you behave in an embarrassingly eccentric way for no reason, Eleanor. Perhaps you should think about that for a minute?’ He stood very close to her. ‘And it is not your book. I believe you paid for it from our joint account – i.e., with the money I worked extremely hard to earn.’ He set the book down on a side table and, as she left the room and ran up the stairs to be on her own, Eleanor heard the quiet click as he slid open the blade.

* * *

October 2012

It was not the first time that Roger had moved his wife’s birthday, so she told herself that perhaps she was just being silly to mind so much. This year, the date happened to clash with an important work function he couldn’t avoid; these things were inevitable sometimes. Roger pointed out how much better it would be to celebrate just a couple of days later instead, on the Saturday; then he could wine and dine her in the evening at their favourite restaurant. It was infuriating anyway, wasn’t it, having to open presents in a mad rush before dashing off to work? Yes, better by far to shift it to the Saturday, have a lie-in, breakfast in bed, the whole kit and caboodle, and bask in her birthday all weekend long if she so desired.

It certainly made good sense in a way, Eleanor could see that. But she only worked two days a week, never liked to lie in, and considered breakfast in bed overrated, as the bed ended up full of scratchy toast crumbs and you couldn’t move if you were hemmed in by a tray. Perhaps, the thought crossed her mind, she would have been quite capable of enjoying her birthday on the day itself.

‘But Saturday is Hannah’s last day,’ Eleanor said in response. Their daughter was about to embark on a trip to India and south-east Asia as part of her gap year before going to university the following autumn.

‘So? Her flight’s at six: plenty of time for you to take her to the airport and be back for dinner.’

‘Won’t you come, too? I thought perhaps it would be nice if we both saw her off?’

‘No, darling. That would be overkill. You do it. Then you can both be soppy and snivelling into tissues together. As she’ll be away nearly five months, I hardly think she’ll mind doing without my company for a couple of extra hours, do you?’

‘I suppose not.’

‘Good, good.’ Roger turned back to his newspaper.

Eleanor thought that she should just clarify about her birthday; maybe Roger only meant that her birthday dinner would be on the Saturday, as they had done a couple of years ago? Yes, that made sense, of course. She went back through to the kitchen to clear away the breakfast things.

On Thursday morning, her birthday, Roger turned to her and kissed her and said with a laugh, ‘Happy not-proper-birthday, darling! I’ve got you a little unbirthday gift for today, because I know you’d be a sad little kitten if you had to wait another two whole days until your proper birthday and would feel hard done by!’ He handed her a small gift bag. Inside was a bottle of the extremely expensive perfume he always bought her; he was very thoughtful, making sure she never ran out, although she had in fact not yet opened the bottle from the previous year.

Eleanor suppressed the urge to point out that today was her proper birthday and she had her birth certificate neatly filed away so she could prove it.

* * *

Saturday. Out there, somewhere, there were, no doubt, many women who would be thrilled with a pair of fluffy sheepskin slippers as a birthday present. For Eleanor, however, relishing the promising rustle of gold tissue as she opened her present, there was a moment of silent revulsion, followed by sagging disappointment that her husband could have so little idea of her taste. She imagined how her father would view the slippers, as further proof of the decline of civilisation. What could she say, other than, ‘Oh dear God – take them away! Bury them in a pit, far from human view.’ Externally polite as always, however, she installed her feet in the slippers, wondering how quickly she might reasonably remove them again. Beneath the svelte black legs of her elegant trousers, the bulky beige slippers looked absurd, as if the feet were no longer her own.

‘They’re so comfy, you’ll want to go everywhere in them, you’ll see.’ Roger, in grey cashmere sweater and weekend cords, was clad in a pair of identical sheepskin slippers himself, but in a darker brown.

In her head, Eleanor amended the word ‘comfy’ to ‘comfortable’ automatically. That word, along with many others, made her feel queasy, she disliked it so much. It was a word for people who were ‘roundy corners’, as her sharp-cornered father labelled them – people who had no edge, no bite, people who followed up any opinion with ‘on the other hand’, scared to formulate a view and stick to it, people who were beige on the inside. In fact, Roger was not usually ‘roundy corners’ at all; he was rarely devoid of a strong opinion on most matters, but there were certain words he favoured that Eleanor could not bear. There must be something nice she could say about the slippers. Think, think.

‘Gosh, they’re certainly very warm. Thank you, darling.’

‘I knew you’d love them.’ Roger smiled. ‘We’ll be snug as two bugs in a rug.’

‘Yes, won’t we?’ Eleanor shucked off the slippers with what she hoped didn’t seem like unseemly haste. Seeing Roger’s face, she said, ‘I’ll just give them a spray with fabric protector… while I think of it.’ She picked them up firmly, trying not to look as if she were removing two large turds, and bustled out towards the kitchen.

‘Good thinking. And you don’t mind about not having jewellery this year, darling?’ Roger called out.

Normally, he gave her a necklace or earrings that she had picked out herself – something quietly elegant and unfussy, something Eleanorish. This year, as well as the perfume and the slippers, he had bought a Joint Membership of the National Trust for them both, the perfect gift to remind a woman of forty-seven that she was getting older and had better set aside any thoughts of wild carousing and instead turn her mind to the exploration of the stately homes and enviable gardens of England. But, after all, they did enjoy visiting National Trust properties, so really, it was a very good choice. And the perfume was lovely. And the slippers were certainly intended as a kind thought.

Perhaps the problem was partly in having an autumn birthday? In October, no one thought to buy you a chiffon scarf or a silky camisole. Everything was woolly or fleecy or snuggly; all presents were, at heart, roundy corners at this time of year, in the run-up to the full-on chunky knitwear-fest of Christmas. It wasn’t that Eleanor really wanted to receive scarlet satin lingerie; she would never have worn anything so obvious, and scarlet would have made her look horribly washed out. It was just that, sometimes, it would be nice to think that the person you lived with, had lived with for twenty-one years of marriage, might still – even for a mad, impulsive moment – think of you that way, as a vibrant, passionate woman. Even if you didn’t see yourself that way, even if you never had. And, when she had first seen the plump tissue parcel, clearly not jewellery, hadn’t she thought for a second or two that it would be something silky – or lacy – or maybe a velvet scarf in burgundy or purple, the colour of ripe plums?

It was highly possible that she might not have heard Roger’s enquiry about whether she minded not having jewellery. The acoustics were often unreliable in this house, so that at times one simply failed to catch what the other person was saying.

She placed the slippers in the hall closet.

‘Oh, and I said I’d pop over to see my father,’ Eleanor said as she came back in. ‘He has a present for me.’

‘Must you go today?’ Roger checked his watch. ‘It is Hannah’s last day before the off.’

‘I won’t be long and she’s not even up yet.’ Eleanor dropped her gaze. ‘And… I believe the conservator is returning Dad’s painting this morning. It’s been reframed, too. I offered to help hang it.’

‘Oh, that bloody painting!’ Roger thunked down his coffee mug. ‘How much did all this faffing about cost? And why has it taken all this time? There was barely a mark on it. If he hadn’t tried to pick the broken glass out, it would have been fine. Honestly, it’s ridiculous – so much fuss over a picture! It’s not even as if it’s especially valuable.’

‘No one’s asking you to pay for it.’ Eleanor picked up her handbag and started fingering through the contents as if she were looking for something in particular. ‘It’s fine.’

‘But I did offer to pay for the stupid thing.’ He stood up then and marched over to the window to glare out into the garden.

‘I know you did. My dad doesn’t mind about the money. Really.’

Roger snorted.               ‘Exactly – that’s so bloody typical of Conrad. He’s insisted on paying for it just so he can relish the pleasure of resenting me.’

‘I’m sure he doesn’t resent you at all.’ Eleanor’s voice took on the soothing tone she had used to comfort her children when they were small.

‘It was his own stupid fault in any case. He’s impossibly stubborn. I had it safe. If he’d just let me carry it instead of trying to grab it—’

‘I’m sure he accepts it was an accident.’ Eleanor re-zipped her bag. ‘And, as you say, it’s ages ago… Well…’

‘I really ought to put in some time in the garden.’ Roger half-turned to look at her like a cartoon bloodhound, his face comically freighted with woe. ‘You can hardly see the lawn for all the fallen leaves.’

Eleanor knew he was wondering just how wet it was out there. If the leaves were sodden, there would be no point using his all-time favourite toy, a leaf blower, which he had come back with a few weeks ago after visiting the garden centre unaccompanied. Lately, Eleanor often caught her husband looking up at the mature trees at the far end of their garden as if mentally willing the leaves to fall so that he would have a reason to get out the leaf blower. When he used it, Eleanor retreated to her small studio right at the top of the house, the only place where the noise could barely be heard.

‘It’s all right, you don’t have to come, too.’ She tapped him lightly on the shoulder. ‘I hereby release you from the onerous and perilous undertaking of visiting my father.’

‘It’s just the leaves, you see.’ He faced back to the garden again. ‘You know I don’t mind having to visit him sometimes.’

‘No, I know. You’re very noble to put up with me and my irascible parent.’

 

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