One Across, Two Down Online - Ruth Rendell

1

Vera Manning was very tired. She was too tired even to answer her mother back when Maud told her to hurry up with getting the tea.

"There's no need to sulk," said Maud.

"I'm not sulking, Mother. I'm tired."

"Of course you are. That goes without saying. Anyone can see you're worn out with that job of yours. Now if Stanley had the gumption to get himself a good position and brought a decent wage home you wouldn't have to work. I never heard of such a thing, a woman of your age, coming up to the change, on her feet all day in a dry-cleaner's. I've said it before and I'll say it again, if Stanley was a man at all …"

"All right, Mother," said Vera. "Let's give it a rest, shall we?"

But Maud, who scarcely ever stopped talking when there was anyone to listen to her and who talked to herself when she was alone, got out of her chair and, taking her stick, limped after Vera into the kitchen. Perching herself with some difficulty--she was a large heavily-built woman--on a stool, she surveyed the room with a distaste which was partly sincere and partly assumed for her daughter's benefit. It was clean but shabby, unchanged since the days when people expected to see a ganglion of water pipes protruding all over the walls and a dresser and built-in plaster copper requisite fitments. Presently, when the scornful glance had set the scene for fresh propaganda, Maud drew a deep breath and began again.

"I've scraped and saved all my life just so that there'd be something for you when I'm gone. D'you know what Ethel Carpenter said to me? Maud, she said, why don't you give it to Vee while she's young enough to enjoy it?"

Her back to Maud, Vera was cutting meat pie in slices and shelling hard-boiled eggs. "It's a funny thing, Mother," she said, "the way I'm an old woman one minute and a young one the next, whichever happens to suit your book."

Maud ignored this. "Why don't you give it to Vee now, she said. Oh no, I said. Oh no, it wouldn't be giving it to her, I said, it'd be giving it to that no-good husband of hers. If he got his hands on my money, I said, he'd never do another hand's turn as long as he lived."

"Move over a bit, would you, Mother? I can't get at the kettle."

Shifting an inch or two, Maud patted her thick grey curls with a lady's idle white hand. "No," she said, "while I've got breath in my body my savings are staying where they are, invested in good stock. That way maybe Stanley'll come to his senses. When you have a nervous breakdown, and that's the way you're heading, my girl, maybe he'll pull his socks up and get a job fit for a man, not a teenager. That's the way I see it and that's what I said to Ethel in my last letter."

"Would you like to sit up now, Mother? It's ready."

Vera helped her mother into a chair at the dining room table and hooked her stick over the back of it. Maud tucked a napkin into the neckline of her blue silk dress and helped herself to a plateful of pork pie, eggs, green salad and mashed potato. Before starting on it, she swallowed two white tablets and washed them down with strong sweet tea. Then she lifted her knife and fork with a sigh of sensual pleasure. Maud enjoyed her food. The only time she was silent was when she was eating or asleep. As she was starting on her second piece of pie, the back door slammed and her son-in-law came in.

Stanley Manning nodded to his wife and gave a sort of grunt. His mother-in-law, who had temporarily stopped eating to fix him with a cold condemning eye, he ignored. The first thing he did after throwing his coat over the back of a chair was to turn on the television.

"Had a good day?" said Vera.

"Been up to my eyes in it since nine this morning." Stanley sat down, facing the television, and waited for Vera to pour him a cup of tea. "I'm whacked out, I can tell you. It's no joke being out in the open all day long in weather like this. To tell you the truth, I don't know how long I can keep on with it."

Maud sniffed. "Ethel Carpenter didn't believe me when I told her what you