Mrs Prunty Visits
By Rachel Curzon
She had once been very brilliant, although the London sky seemed to suppress anything like the excitement that they should have felt on expecting her visit. Olive had watched the dawn happen from her dark window, and had felt, in the hushed, early air, a kind of fitting reverence. But having breakfast, and feeding the cat (who never moved, but was always hungry, how could that be?) and clearing the plates away from last night’s disappointing dinner had seemed to rob the morning of its specialness, so when it came to crowding round the window to watch the long silver car glide into place behind the delivery van, the sky was colourless, and there were no birds to speak of, and there was nothing remarkable about the moment at all.
Nevertheless, everyone made small noises in their throats as a narrow ankle and patent leather shoe emerged, tentatively, from the car. This was a momentous day, someone had said in the lift as Olive had rode up to take her seat at her desk in the rookery of this giddy building. She hadn’t meant to answer, but she felt the moment’s momentousness, suddenly, so heavy on her, almost like the lead vest (she thought) the nurse had given her when she was X-rayed, that she cried out, Oh, yes, isn’t it remarkable that it should be today that Shelagh Prunty comes to visit! At the window, now, gazing on the patent shoe and the small woman now following it from the car, (Shelagh Prunty!) Olive caught her breath and felt herself bristle with shame at the recollection of her outburst in the lift. For the stern-looking man, who had spoken of momentousness, had seemed quite startled that his apostrophies should result in such eager agreement from a perfect stranger. After all, how was he to know that today was Olive’s birthday, and that a visit from Shelagh Prunty was as fine a present as she could have hoped to receive?
What are you doing, Olive, said a man’s voice, and for a moment, she thought it was the stern-looking gentleman from the lift, come to question her on her outburst, or possibly offer his hand in marriage. But it was Charles, and she allowed her head to tilt back, and a laugh to sound. Charles! But I was miles away, of course, thinking about Mrs Prunty, she said, snapping her head back like a doll’s.
Charles, who had no interest in the history of the firm, and therefore in Mrs Prunty, thought the whole business a thorough-going bore, and laughed in his high-pitched, snickering way. Rather like a horse, thought Olive, although she could in no way account for this, never having heard a horse do anything more remarkable than blow through its nose, or neigh. But I must have got it from somewhere, she would think, maybe from the television, or a western at the cinema. And Charles, who had stopped laughing and was regarding her with a strange, Mona Lisa twist to his lips, flicked his fingers and said lightly, You’ll be buzzing round her for an autograph before coffee, I’d imagine?
Yes, thought Olive, I probably will, although the question of what she would do with the signature of Mrs Prunty when she had it niggled irritatingly at the back of her mind. Wasn’t it, at bottom, rather ridiculous, this souvenir hunting tendency which had seen half the staff, herself included, dig out their old Prunty paperbacks, and imagine them with the author’s name – in the author’s very own handwriting! – written on the flyleaf?
So, I’m far too busy, Olive said, and stalked away to her desk, leaving Charles to wonder why such a short, stocky woman with unfashionable square heels should remind him so insistently of a snake.
Everyone had surged down to the vestibule to welcome Mrs Prunty to the firm – to think, Sebastian Samuels had been the very man to discover her talent, all those years ago! – and Olive had wanted very much to surge down with them, but catching sight of Charles’ quizzical eyebrows over his computer, she had sat down quite deliberately, and was getting on with answering some letters. My birthday, she thought as she wrote the date under the address. My birthday. And although she didn’t know it, her lips made the shapes of the words, and Charles was puzzled indeed as to what she might be saying to herself, there behind her big, cluttered desk.
Olive remembered birthdays when she had been young, and she had disliked them intensely even then, albeit for quite different reasons. Was it Joanne Wilkes who had had a magician come to entertain the boys and girls and was it not she, Olive, who had crept round to stare in at the Wilkes’ french windows as the magic man prepared his trolley of illusions? It must have been, for she recalled clearly the man’s hurt expression and the way he had stopped fiddling with his top hat for a very long time as he held the gaze of the little girl with anklesocks on the other side of the glass. And, ashamed, she had run back to the garden, and cartwheeled furiously into Robin Rochford, and had added to her list of things to regret that day. Of course, now that she was twenty nine she could see that it was no great crime to creep round to the French window and watch the magician assemble his tricks, but his crumpled face still looked at her in reproach whenever she remembered Joanne Wilkes, or thought about parties, and, if anything, she felt a little more sorry for him now that she understood he was just an ordinary man trying to make ends meet, and was probably not looking forward in the least to entertaining twelve children who had all eaten too much cake and would rather watch television, or play on the swings.
Birthdays these days were sad, mainly because there was nothing about them to distinguish them from ordinary days, which, thought Olive, was part of becoming realistic about life. Three cards had come through her door this morning, all of them from relations over seventy years old. Her mum and dad invariably posted theirs on the day itself, and believed in the power of Happy Birthday sung loudly and out of tune down the phone as apt consolation for the lack of any concrete proof that they had remembered her special day. But was this not a special day? Olive put down her pen, and listened to the sound of an admiring clique bustling through from the stairwell. Shelagh Prunty had come to visit, and she, Olive, had been chosen to select a stack of contemporary books for her as a gift. And, as everyone knew (and here was everyone now!) Mrs Prunty had once been brilliant, and that was indeed something.
Later, in the canteen, Liz put her tray down next to Olive’s and began her usual breathless incantation against the food, the work, the people, the day. This time, Olive did not pretend to agree with everything Liz said, because she was busy listening in to the conversation happening to her right. Shh, she said, waving her fork in an uncharacteristically assertive gesture, and immediately regretting it, because she saw a chip of pickled cabbage fly off and into Liz’s lunch. Liz did not notice, so startled was she by her friend’s new bravado.
I mean, I’m just earwigging, Olive offered by way of apology, motioning to the suited gentlemen on the next table. They were talking about Shelagh Prunty, and by all accounts, they were less than pleased about something.
I do think she should have agreed to sign copies, said one man (the redness of his face was surely nothing to do with the fact that Mrs Prunty had refused to sign copies of her books? Olive found herself staring at him, he looked so very angry).
Well, a fine chunk of the morning she’s taken up, and nothing to show for it, added a younger man, who was keen to insert as much of a chocolate éclair into his mouth at each bite as he could. He wiped the cream from his upper lip in a gesture that reminded Olive of a car windscreen wiper, which made her fork shake silently.
Not long now though, and we can get back to normal. The third man – still rather stern-looking, thought Olive, even though he was now surrounded by friends, and not by strangers in a lift, seemed amused by the lack of ceremony shown by his colleagues, but had obviously abandoned his idea that the day was to be momentous. Olive wondered how sincere he had been in the lift – whether in fact he had been commenting sarcastically on the obsequiousness of the firm’s receptionists, who had arranged their Pruntys neatly on the front desk in anticipation of their illustrious guest. Remembering her own contribution to the moment, Olive lowered her eyes to her coleslaw, and grew red.
But Liz was talking, and she felt she should make amends.
What’s that you’re saying?
I was just saying how nice that old Prunty woman was, you know. Has she been up to your floor yet?
I didn’t get to meet her. Olive swallowed her last mouthful, and jabbed at her tray in frustration, pushing it a fierce little inch across the table. I need some air, Liz, you fancy a walk?
She nearly added, it’s my birthday, but a sense of human dignity prevented her, and so she put her empties quickly on the rotating shelf (she was always so worried she would run out of time and be dragged through to the kitchens next door, still attached to her waterglass!) and waited for the lift to ground level.
When the lift arrived, she nearly turned around for there was Mrs Prunty, all alone, asking her if she was going down.
When Shelagh Prunty looked up from the spray of carnations she had suddenly realised she was holding, and saw Olive’s square-jawed face regarding her earnestly, she felt a sigh gather in her throat. The effort of not sighing – for they had all gone to so much trouble! It really wasn’t this poor girl’s fault, after all – the strain of keeping the sigh inside her, caused her forehead to pucker, and her left eye to droop slightly, which Olive, blushing vigorously, could only interpret as an invitation to say something important. For a giddying moment as she stepped into the lift, Olive had understood that the journey down to the vestibule was one undertaken outside the usual bounds of time and space and expectation, and all of those parameters which so consistently and so insidiously hemmed her in. She almost laughed at the strangeness of it – the smallness of the lift, with its corduroy carpeting and its brushed steel walls, and the hugeness of all the things she could possibly say to Shelagh Prunty on her way down to the ground floor. She felt intoxicated, and when Mrs Prunty winked at her, she thoroughly believed her to feel it too. This momentousness. The stern-looking man had been right all along! Olive felt a surge of pity for him, remembering the stiff way in which he had held himself, and the pitch of his voice. But what could she possibly say that had not been said already by the receptionist, and the PR assistant, and the admirers with their paperbacks, and the same man, possibly, biting back his pride and claiming that her visit had made his day?
Yes, she said.
Mrs Prunty’s face jutted from the collar of her winter coat rather like an argument, Olive thought wildly to herself – there was a fierceness about the angle of the neck and the set of her jaw, an aggression, perhaps, although her egg-blue eyes were streaming slightly in the lift’s close air, and the frown lines on her face had faded.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your day. She tasted the words before she spoke them, and listened to them happen with frank curiosity. My voice is higher than it really is, she noticed, disappointed.
I have, thank you. I don’t think I met you on my travels?
Mrs Prunty thinks I am another fan, Olive said to herself sadly as she watched the practised smile gleam from the little woman at her elbow. She cannot see that my interest in her is different.
No, I’m afraid not.
There was no music in the lift, and Olive was seized by the desire for some sound other than that of her too-high voice, and Mrs Prunty’s voice, and the thin creaking of the cellophane which was wrapped around the carnations.
What lovely flowers, she was forced to say to cover her embarrassment at the thought that Mrs Prunty might be listening to her breathing, in the same way that she was listening to Mrs Prunty drawing in the air from the lift and exhaling it.
Aren’t they. You’re all most kind. Well, Mrs Prunty crooked an elbow, and raised a hand, and there was a wrist, with a watch to look at, and another remark to be made. I wonder if my taxi will be here.
Olive saw the light illuminate the grey disc above her head. G for ground floor, she thought mechanically, and resisted an almost overwhelming urge to stop the lift and jam it here, metres away, inches now, from the vestibule, and take Mrs Prunty by the arm, and say all the things that were in her mind to say, on her tongue like so many communion wafers, important only if she believed enough. But I really have no idea, she thought, her eyes sweeping the narrow lift, returning now and then to the disc above her – G- G for Ground – how to stop a lift once it has started. And besides, if something were to go wrong, and we were to be stranded here between the floors…
The thought was incomplete when the chime sounded and the lift door concertinaed back, and the vestibule appeared, and with it, a crowd of people waiting to fit themselves into the space she was occupying, right at that moment, with Mrs Prunty and her carnations. The thought was incomplete, and Olive could only leave it that way, because she quickly discovered that she did, after all, have the courage to look Mrs Prunty in the eye, and tell her that she was a writer, too, and that she would float all the way around the office until it was time to take the tube home, and float above the draylon of the tube seats, and float back to her little flat and her large cat, if Mrs Prunty were to look back at her and see, not Olive, not a fan, but a writer, a real writer. But it’s my birthday, Olive thought, desperately, because Mrs Prunty was now giving her the briefest of nods, and quietly thrusting her way through the group of people going back to their desks, her head so neat and balanced so assertively on her neck. It’s my birthday!
QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005
Olive put out a hand to stop her, something working through her and readying itself to be spoken, a call, perhaps, to stop, to stay, and listen to the words, I am a writer too. But Mrs Prunty was moving away, and Olive knew that she could not leave the lift, that the moment had passed, that she had had a universe of time and space in which to talk to Mrs Prunty, who had been brilliant, who had once been very brilliant, and now the grey disc lighting up – G –G –G was like the loudest of bells tolling, and still she had said nothing at all.
Olive saw Charles in the group of shirt-sleeved people coming into the lift, and prepared her mouth to smile as he asked her, So, tell me, did you manage to get an autograph? And her eyes would not meet his, but would fix themselves, instead, on the row of discs above her head that illuminated one by one, and took her back, one by one, to her own big desk on the third floor and her letters, with the date under the address that said that today was her birthday.