September 2004, England
There ought to have been a law against driving while you were in tears. It was probably infinitely more dangerous than negotiating the roads after a third glass of wine. It occurred to Freddie that she almost never drove up the A3 without crying. The whole landscape, from the hideous modern Guildford cathedral perched above the town to the exit signs for RHS Wisley, its slip road congested with elderly gardeners, driving with totally excessive care and attention, was always blurred for her. She was always leaving Harry behind.
She blew convincingly into a tissue, bit hard on her bottom lip, and switched the radio on. Woman's Hour. Listening to Jenni Murray's voice was like eating Galaxy chocolate while you were wearing cashmere socks on a suede sofa. If Freddie won the lottery, she was going to offer Jenni Murray a king's ransom to live with her and read out all the bills and letters, shopping lists and to-dos -- think how much nicer life would be.
Jenni Murray was definitely a Tenko mother figure.
She tried to concentrate on the woman talking with passion about the banners of the suffragette movement, but she couldn't stop seeing Harry. He was much braver than her -- he had to be -- so she didn't cry in front of him. She knew her voice was brittle, unnatural, as she straightened his lapels, and smoothed down the rogue curl that sprang from the window's peak he had inherited from her. It had earned him the nickname Pugsley, which he had assured her, the first time she's heard it, shouted across the car park, was no worse than Jugs, or Billy One Ball, or Timmy Tampon -- better, probably. She knew that at home the same gesture would bring him into her shoulder for a hug, their widow's peaks touching. He was tall for his age, but she was taller. She didn't tell him to take his hands out of his pockets, although a master surely would. She knew they were fists.
It was okay for her -- she was minutes away from being in the car, where she could cry, and no one would see. Harry had to face a dormitory, a hall, four hundred boys. For the next seven weeks, he wouldn't be anywhere where no one would see. Then she would come to take him home for the oh-so-precious half-term holiday.
Adrian had no idea how much she hated this. By the time he came home this evening she would have cried all her tears. She'd gone to pieces in front of him the first time, and his parents had been there. She's resented their presence, their need to be fed and entertained, when Harry, who should have been there, wasn't. she'd cried over the dinner she'd cooked.
Clarissa, Adrian's mother, (who would alienate two-thirds of the woman in camp and, with a bit of luck, get shot for condescension and insubordination really early on) had looked at her with something between disdain and confusion. 'Of course it's hard,' she had said, sounding as though it wasn't, in the least, 'but it's absolutely for the best.' This brooked no disagreement.
'Absolutely,' Charles, Adrian's pompous father, had echoed. They both said 'absolutely' a lot. It made them feel even more right about everything. What the pair of them lacked in intelligence, they more than made up for in dogmatic vehemence. Absolutely insane-making.
'It was the making for me, Freddie, and it will be of him.' Adrian had been nodding too. They looked like a line of those velveteen dogs people put in the back of their cards.
Freddie had wanted to smack them one after the other. She wanted to scream, 'He doesn't need "making", you stupid bastards. I made him already. And he's perfect. And he's eight years old.' But even she recognized the futility of it. It was decided. It had been decided since the midwife had held him up and Adrian had spotted the swollen purple testicles he had never doubted that the baby would possess. Adrian had been to the same school as his father and grandfather before him, and Harold Thomas Adrian Noah, seven pounds eight ounces, was to be no exception.
She couldn't fight them all. Maybe she would have done, but Harry didn't want her to. He wanted to make his father proud, and his grandfather. 'it'll be okay,' he had told her. 'I'll be okay.' And he was. After three years, she and he were used to the agonizing parting. On eighteen hideous days they had said goodbye to each other in that hateful car park. It broke her heart that Adrian didn't know what it cost his son. She no longer worried that he didn't know what it cost her.
'Frederica's American.' That was what Clarissa always said, when she was introducing her at some ghastly drinks party or golf club social. Like Sybil Fawlty pointed out that Manuel was from Barcelona. Like 'Frederica's got raging impetigo.' Except that, as far as her mother-in-law was concerned, that complaint was treatable. There was no known cure for being American -- unless it was relentless indoctrination and regular use of the word 'absolutely'. Surely she would understand the necessity of public-school education for male children if she were 'one of us'. Clarissa had never understood why Adrian had married a foreigner when it was bound to present so many cultural problems, this inappropriate display being only one. The poor child was called Noah, for heaven's sake. Thank God for the three proper Christian names that preceded it -- most entry forms (Oxbridge, Coutts, In and Out Club) would never have enough room for him to include it. She's insisted on placing the birth announcement in theTelegraph herself, with the express purpose of leaving it out, and had been gracious enough to excuse Frederica's unpleasant outburst on reading it as the direct result of a long, tiring labour.
Excerpted from The Friendship Test © Copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Noble. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperback. All rights reserved.
The Friendship Test
- paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
- ISBN-10: 0060777745
- ISBN-13: 9780060777746