25 March 2017

Evelyn Piper had prayed for a family of three sons, only to be disappointed by giving birth to a single daughter. Olive was a calm and peaceful baby, a contented child and a pleasant, rather self-contained girl, and at every stage had the knack of being liked, but was never able to believe that this was the case.

Her mother had wanted compensation for producing just one child, a girl, by her being, at the very least, a beauty. But Olive had a plain face and by the age of fourteen she was short-sighted and so hid it behind large spectacles, which made her look startled. In fact, when it had settled into its adult form, she was attractive, simply because her natural expression was one of open friendliness. She had a perfect skin, silk-smooth when others suffered from varying degrees of acne, and her brown eyes were both warm and intelligent. But the large glasses did a good job of hiding all that, too.

‘Whoever would be drawn to you?’

Olive was not unhappy with the implied answer, and if young men were not drawn to her, friends were. There was everything to like about her. She was a sympathetic listener, she was good-tempered and she had a certain shy wit. She was interested in things. She grasped things. She was tactful and truthful, and she did not tell tales.

And all the time her mother, though always loving her, could find nothing about her daughter in which to take pride.

From the Heart

She looked across at her father in profile, sitting in his wing chair, and had not the least idea what he was feeling

Evelyn Piper died suddenly when Olive was seventeen and preparing for her A levels.
An unexpectedly large number of people came to the funeral, most of whom Olive did not know, though some she recognised – neighbours, a cousin. But others, all women, came from the Townswomen’s Guild, to which Evelyn had belonged. She had led an active social life during lunch hours and in the afternoons, though had said little to her family about it, and in the evenings had rarely ventured out except to the local repertory theatre, two or three times a year, with her husband Ralph – she had despised the cinema – and twice a year to Ladies’ Night at the Masonic Lodge.

‘I’m glad we decided to do the tea,’ Olive said to her father that evening. They were sitting in the small back room overlooking the garden. Her father called it his study, though he only read the paper there, or listened to Light Music programmes, such as the ‘Palm Court Orchestra’ on the radio. It had been the room his own father had occupied as a study, for this was the house in which he had grown up, and which he had inherited. He had moved back in the year after he had married Evelyn.

The windows were open onto the May garden, and always afterwards the smell of wallflowers brought back that evening of the funeral.

‘There was never any question of not giving tea, was there?’

There had been. Twice he had said that he was sure it wouldn’t be necessary, that few people would come, so that Olive had almost given up on the idea herself. As it turned out, there had not been enough to eat and too few teacups. She had had to rush about collecting empty ones and washing and replacing them and cutting small cakes up to make smaller ones.

‘I’m glad we did it, anyway. People were very appreciative.’

She looked across at her father in profile, sitting in his wing chair, and had not the least idea what he was feeling. She had never known what either of her parents felt, though she had gathered this and that about what they thought.

It was disconcerting. She loved him. He loved her, she knew. Once he had said, with a small smile, that he was very relieved her mother had not got her wish for three sons. But she did not know him.

Of course he had been badly shaken, and deeply upset when it had happened, in such a frighteningly sudden way. Evelyn had been walking in through the garden door, carrying two pots of seedlings, and saying ‘I’m still worried about late frosts, you know’, and on the ‘you know’ she had fallen to the ground. Olive had been immediately behind her, Ralph had just come in through the front door, from work, and was hanging his hat on its peg. There had been a soft thud as she had gone down, and then she had simply lain, crumpled and utterly still. Olive had not realised that people could die in that way, walking, talking – dead.

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