We met, and became friends of a sort, by virtue of the fact that we started school on the same day. Because we had the same Christian name it was decreed that she should choose an alternative. For some reason—largely, I think, because she was influenced by the sort of sunny children’s books available in our milieu—she decided to be known as Betsy. When we met up again, several years later, she was Betsy de Saint-Jorre. Not bad for a girl initially registered as Elizabeth Newton.
How much nicer children were in those days than the adults they have become! Born in 1948, we were well-behaved, incurious, with none of the rebellious features adopted by those who make youthfulness a permanent quest. We went to tea in one another’s houses, sent each other postcards when we went on holiday with our parents, assumed we would know each other all our lives . . . The Sixties took us by surprise: we were unprepared, unready, uncomprehending. That, I now see, was why I married Digby: it was the right, unthinking thing to do. That was why Betsy took it upon herself to have a career, out of despair, perhaps, at not being provided for. Choice hardly dictated our actions. Yet I suppose we were contented enough. Certainly we knew no better. And now we know too much. Discretion veiled our motives then, and perhaps does so even now, even in an age of multiple communications, of e-mails, text messages, and news bulletins all round the clock. We still rely on narrative, on the considered account. That is how and why I knew Betsy’s story, though I cannot claim to know all of it. There were areas of confusion which it seemed better not to disclose. But she was always painfully honest, rather more so than prudence might advise. That quality made itself felt when we were still children; her desire to explain herself, to be known, was perhaps really a desire to be loved. That too was discernible, and it set her apart. In later life, when I knew her again, that quality was still there, obscured only slightly by the manners she had acquired, and always at odds with her mind, which was exacting. In other circumstances she might have been remarkable. But her hopes had been curtailed, and in the years of her adulthood one sometimes saw this, in the odd distant glance directed towards a window, or the eagerness with which she smiled at any passing child.
Her initial demotion from Elizabeth to Betsy was thought to be justified, given her uncertainty of status. She took it in her stride, thinking it gave her permission to assume an altogether different character, someone more lighthearted, skimming the surface, responding always with a smile. She longed to be superficial, with the sort of ease that I and my particular coterie took for granted. Adult responsibility, of an altogether unwelcome kind, had already come her way, in the shape of her widowed father and the faded aunt who kept some sort of primitive life going in that flat above the surgery in Pimlico Road. She was unfortunate: that was generally agreed, and it made her something of an anomaly in our midst. My mother professed sympathy for her, but viewed with dislike Betsy’s attempts to be winning when she came to our house in Bourne Street, on the rare occasions when I was obliged to invite her. The enthusiasm with which she greeted my mother’s teatime offerings (meagre enough in those days of austerity) and the attention she paid to the contents of our drawing-room were not attractive, and my mother was not tactful in acknowledging the evidence of Betsy’s social awkwardness. I had many years in which to reflect on my mother’s harshness. Even when young I was aware of a desire to depart from this, to be less brittle, less proud, less conformist than my mother. Now I see that I have not quite managed it. My only victory is that the harshness has been internalized. My judgements even now are sometimes less than charitable.
There was another reason for my mother’s dislike, and that had to do with the cause of Betsy’s profound disenfranchisement. Her father’s negligence, or incompetence, had led indirectly to the death of one of his patients, who happened to be an acquaintance of ours. Pity and dislike, first manifested by my mother, affected Betsy even more than her father’s disgrace, which she inherited. It seemed ordained to follow her through life, for there was nothing she could do to rectify it. His error was, I dare say, a common one: a lump in the breast which he assured his patient was a cyst revealed its malignancy in due course and led not only to that patient’s demise but to his own, after a year of brooding and of unpopular comment in the neighbourhood. I met him once, when I went home with Betsy, the only time I did so; he entered what I suppose had once been her nursery, where we were discussing our homework, turned off the electric fire and opened the window. I found this insensitive, though it may have been protective, but there was little in his demeanour which struck me as kindly. I thought him completely inadequate to fulfil the role of father, but I think he was simply indifferent to children. His better manners were reserved for his patients, in particular for his female patients. Maybe a desire to reassure, or even to comfort, came uppermost in his professional armoury. There was no whisper of impropriety, or none that I was aware of. His greater failure was his dwindling reputation in the year that followed our friend’s death, and his own death, from a heart attack, while sitting at his desk in his consulting-room, an irony he was spared. Irony was not a quality much appreciated in the 1950s. Now of course it is all-pervasive.
Sympathy was expressed, condolences were offered, and then the incident was forgotten, though not the fate of the patient. It was thought fitting that he should disappear, and that Betsy should be consigned to her aunt. This aunt—Mary to her niece, Miss Milsom to everyone else—was even less promising than her brother-in-law. Tall, thin, colourless, and obviously virginal, she inspired a vague repugnance even in those unliberated days. ‘Poor thing,’ said my mother, with a rich show of sympathy, but here again her dislike, or more probably her distaste, was evident, perhaps justifiably so. Miss Milsom had come to keep house after her sister’s death, shortly after the birth of Betsy, and she did so in a conscientious but defeated manner, so that it took her all day to prepare a meal which was no doubt unpalatable. After commiserating with Miss Milsom, or more probably for Miss Milsom, my mother would laugh, showing all her sparkling teeth, as if to demonstrate the difference between Miss Milsom and herself.
Nowadays, of course, we would assume that Miss Milsom and the doctor indulged in sex of a sort, but then we assumed no such thing. Those were innocent days; sex had yet to become the commodity on offer to all that it is now. By the same token there was little show of love between the aunt and the niece, neither of whom had been able to envisage an alternative to their present arrangement, but they were both loyal and obedient people, and they sustained an undemanding harmony, which, though honourable, provided little joy. Betsy proved to be a clever girl, who was obliged to keep her cleverness to herself, except at school, where she developed a passion for the drama, and was given to declaiming lines from Shakespeare and even Racine (we were doing Hamlet and Béré- nice); it was her one opportunity to deliver herself of aspiration (and it was aspiration rather than frustration) and to make contact with adult emotion.
The solution Betsy and her aunt made to their mutual lack of comprehension was their weekly visit to the cinema, usually on a Saturday evening, when they enjoyed a timid contact with the crowd. An early supper, the cinema, and a cup of tea on their return to the flat satisfied Miss Milsom’s sense of a justified indulgence, both for herself and for her niece. She viewed the films as an outsider: not for her the extravagance, the licence, the romance. Even so, something in her disciplined soul responded, whereas Betsy remained faithful to the grander concepts in her favourite Racine. ‘Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse/Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice . . .’ These lines became prophetic, so that at the very end, when I visited her in the hospital, I would see her eyes widen in her thin face, and hear her murmur, ‘. . . sans que de tout le jour . . .,’ and then fall silent.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner. Copyright © 2003 by Anita Brookner. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.