“Words fail me,” the Princess tells her son. She isn’t sure which one.
“Why, Mother, what’s happened?”
“Nothing’s happened. Words fail me, that’s all.”
“Is that what you rang to say?”
“I think you’ll find,” she says, “that it was you who rang me.”
She grips the corded telephone receiver as though she means to squeeze the breath from it. She has never touched anything gently in her life.
“No, that’s not the case, Mother.” He too is a strangler, a cost-cutter by profession, and chokes a yawn, wanting her to hear the sleep in his voice. “I would never have called you at two in the morning.”
“Don’t exaggerate. It isn’t two in the morning.”
“It feels like two in the morning. And I didn’t ring you. Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t. Anyway—”
“What did you ring to say?”
“Stop showing your vest on television.”
“That must be Pen you’re talking about. And I think he’d tell you it isn’t a vest, it’s a T-shirt.”
“Whatever it’s called you should do your shirt up.” “Tell Pen that, not me.”
“You’re my son.”
“You have more than one.”
“So which is he?”
“The parsonical one.”
“Then which are you?”
“The prodigal one.”
He knows she knows.
“Well I didn’t bring any of you up to wear a vest on television,” she says.
“You didn’t bring any of us up to be anarcho-syndicalists. My dear brother is making an ideological statement that is entirely his own.”
“By wearing a vest?”
“It’s a T-shirt. The disaffected young are excited by the sight of an aged politician in a T-shirt.”
“Yes, now you come to mention it, I remember I was. Pen’s father— it must have been his father, mustn’t it?—had a whole wardrobe of vests. I called it his vestiary. He would throw his old ones on the bed and wait for me to wash them. Pen was conceived on a bed of vests, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“There’s no reason for you to be squeamish. You were conceived in the back of a Rolls.”
“I am putting the phone down now if that’s all you rang to say.”
“Don’t you think vests are slovenly?”
“No, I think they’re worse than slovenly, I think they’re artful. They seduce the gullible. They did the trick with you, after all.”
“That’s no way to talk to your mother. If that’s all you rang to say …”
“I didn’t ring you to say anything. You rang me.”
“I don’t think so.”
But in truth the Princess doesn’t choose to remember who rang whom.
She isn’t a real princess. That’s just a bit of fun she’s having with herself.
The Princess Schweppessodawasser. Her real name—the name she was born with—is Beryl Dusinbery. It never suited her to change it for a man. Princess Schweppessodawasser is, she says, her nom d’oubli, after the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, whose actual name keeps sliding from her memory. Schhh … you know who. She had thought the reference might amuse her children—they are old enough to remember the 1960s advertising campaign—but nothing amuses her children. They blame her for that. “You never permitted gaiety to enter our lives,” they remind her. “It’s a bit rich you thinking you can play with us now. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. You are the least playful mother who ever lived.”
“I! There you go. Any other mother would say ‘me.’”
“In an age of derelictions I brought you up to express yourself correctly. You should be thankful you were born to a teacher and not a scullery maid.”
“What’s a scullery maid?”
The Princess commends herself for not saying “You married one.”
“Your ignorance vindicates my system,” she says instead. “As I instructed my pupils in the higher things, so I instructed you.”
“We weren’t your pupils, Mother … .”
“I haven’t finished speaking.”
“Is that you being playful again?”
“I never pretended to be playful. It’s in the nature of fathers to look after that side of things.”
“Our fathers were never there.”
“That too is in the nature of fathers. But satisfy an old woman’s curiosity. You say I was the least playful mother who ever lived. How many other mothers have you been brought up by?”
“It’s a safe bet no other mother refused to read her children bedtime stories because she found them jejune. You actually used that word—jejune, for Christ’s sake!”
“There you are—I gave you a word you still remember … .”
“But can’t use.”
“Then try moving in more educated circles.”
“I sit in the House of Lords, Mother.”
“You make my point for me.”
“Life isn’t just words …”
“Yes it is. Life is only words.”
“It is also feelings.”
“Feelings! And what are feelings without the words to express them. You grunt until you have the word that tells you what you are grunting about. That’s why pigs don’t experience Weltschmerz or nostalgie de la boue.”
“How do you know they don’t?”
“Because they never mention it.”
“When you grunt out of fear you know you are afraid. We never mentioned we were afraid. But we were.”
“Afraid because you were threatened or afraid because you were naturally timorous?”
“We never had the chance to find out. You put the fear of God in us from the moment we were born. You read us the Brothers Grimm and Struwwelpeter before we went to sleep—in German.”
“Dich! I still wake screaming in the night because the Great Tall Tailor’s coming to snip, snap, snip my thumbs off.”
“It was necessary to remind you of the dangers the Germans posed. I lost your father to them, remember.”
“That wasn’t my father.”
“They were confusing times.”
“So are these. And you make them even more confusing when you decide suddenly to be light-hearted. You brought us up with a heavy hand and we’d prefer you to stay that way. It doesn’t suit you to be coming over all girly suddenly.”
“Words fail me,” she said.
This isn’t the record of an actual conversation with an actual child but the sum of many. Afterwards, her children regretted their harsh words. Mothers leave an oil slick of blame and guilt behind them. Even this mother. Yes, she had much to answer for—the absence in them of anything approaching a sense of the ridiculous, for one; the absence in their lives of anything approaching a father, for another; the lack of an affectionate interest in each other’s welfare; maybe even their steely drive originated in her. But she was ninety-something. You can’t go on blaming your mother. And maybe if they had shown a little more affection to her—hard to imagine how that would have worked, but still …
She can tell when her children are having second thoughts. She senses the retraction coming and puts up a ringed hand to stop it. Snip, snap, snip. The next they’ll be wanting to kiss her. The rings on her fingers, denoting all the hearts she’d stolen and never given back, act as a deterrent. “Ne vous embêtez,” she’ll say, knowing how much her finishing-school French exasperates them.
Well, can she blame them?
Can I blame them?
She/I. The Princess fears slippage. Then/now. Today/tomorrow. Me/her. Slip sliding away. Slip, slap, slip.
But she retains her unsmiling sense of the absurd. Girly! I have been called many things, but girly!
She wonders if she should take it as a compliment. Standing before a full-length mirror, she lets her hair down. The oldest girl in London.
Preposterous. Why, though, does she still have long hair?
Once she wore it in the style of Cleopatra. Her favorite character in all literature, when her favorite character in all literature isn’t Medea. Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, a woman too smart for any of the men who came calling on her. Which Medea wasn’t quite. Medea let love for Jason emasculate her. Emasculate? Yes, emasculate.
The imputation that she might be seeking her children’s favor is not something Beryl Dusinbery can take lying down. She has made mistakes but never the mistake of thinking she can beguile her way into her children’s hearts. She knows her limits.
She pins her hair up again.
I know my limits.
Of limits themselves, she is coming to realize, there is no end. Who would have thought there were so many things to run out of? When she runs out of sugar there is a carer to get more for her. When she runs out of energy or gets lost in her own apartment there is a carer to help her navigate her way around it. But there is no one to help her when she runs out of words. Mislaying would be a better way of expressing it. One minute she has a word, then she hasn’t. Where does it go? Rolled under the bed like the biscuits her day carer Euphoria brings her, balanced foolishly on the saucer of her tea cup? Or flown out of the bedroom window in her sleep? Because she definitely had the word before she closed her eyes.
She has slept with her window open ever since she came to London she doesn’t know how long ago. Some time after the children—that’ll do. After she didn’t need a playroom for them. “Them” meaning husbands as well as children. At first she opened it to listen to the hum of the city. She had lived in small unexciting towns in the company of small unexciting men for too long. She should have made the move earlier. The noise of the streets corresponded to the noise in her head. She had a city brain. But now her hearing has deteriorated it isn’t the urban roar she hears. It’s a lower, less purposeful end-of-summer drone, as of bees sipping their last, flies falling, the heat draining out of the day. I can hear the roses dying, she thinks, though she has only ever enjoyed tangential relations with flowers. Tangential—that’s another moth of a word that fluttered out through her open window the minute she shut her eyes. Where to? All the way back to Tangiers?
So why doesn’t she close the window? It’s a good question. There’s a word for why but she’s mislaid it.
Names have been going for years. She would lose a person’s name before she knew it. Couldn’t listen to an introduction. Why not? Conservation, she thought. Sparing her brain for better things. But now the better things have gone too. The ideas she once entertained—all that’s left of those is the immoderacy with which she entertained them. She can remember the inside of her anger. It lies like clothes spilled from a suitcase. But the suitcase itself is gone. As is the destination for which she packed it.
After people, things. What’s that biscuit called? What was that place? Remembering Tangiers delighted her. But what was it a memory of? And then suddenly a word returns, for no other reason than that she can see the shape of it. Otiosity has just popped into her mind. The condition of being perfunctory. Otiosity she can play with on her tongue. Is it that, rather than its meaning—the condition of being perfunctory—that reminds her of someone to whose face she cannot put a name? And if he was perfunctory—he was definitely a he—why remember even this much about him? Will the otiose stick in the cobwebbed cellars of her mind longer than the important-to-her? Faces are hanging around longer. She wishes it were the other way around. At a pinch she could manage without faces. But names she needs. Sounds have always been more suggestive to her than sights. Names are the key to her past, and therefore to her continuance. Names root her. No names and there’s just her spinning in space, seeing faces she doesn’t want to see, a blurry gallery of the otiose. And what happens when her own name goes? Does she become otiose to herself?
What is she called, the Princess who has to go on talking to save her life? Sch … Schh … Schhh … you know who. Some days she does know who, some days she doesn’t. And there is nothing cute about that. She too has to go on talking to save her life. To her, a word gone is a day gone. And the more I misplace, the more use I have to make of those I can still lay hands on.
O my oblivion is a very Antony and I am all forgot … that she remembers.
So she fills filing cards left over from the days she kept one for each of her pupils and telephone pads stolen from hotel rooms she can’t recall ever having stayed in. She writes letters to friends when she remembers which of them is still alive, though letters to the dead will do as well. She rings her sons, though she doesn’t at all care for her sons. She talks to herself. She unscrolls her old school photographs to see how many faces she can recognize and how many names she can give to those she does. Some days she scores highly, some days she doesn’t. Now it’s her best friend’s name that’s escaped her, now she can’t pick out the headmistress, now she can’t find herself. But she works at it. Tomorrow she will recognize the whole school again.
And she needleworks—not flowers or birds, not cottages or sunsets, but words, silken letters, one at a time, with vindictive deliberation, slower than the silkworm expends his yellow labors …
he died in great pain but turned his eyes to God
and never once complained. I will see you,
he told his wife, on the other side.
She didn’t have the heart to contradict him.
Funny, the difference stitching can make to letters. A mythical garden worked in finest threads, lovers with purple pouting lips in golden robes, twined hearts incarnadined, signed in dancing nursery letters—Beryl Dusinbery—and people don’t notice what cruelty you’re stitching. That was how I got my husbands. It didn’t matter what I said, my good looks distracted them, my breathtakingly blue eyes turned my poison words to love.
Excerpted with permission from Live a Little by Howard Jacobson. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Howard Jacobson.
Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.