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THE

COMFORTERS

Muriel Spark

PART ONE

ONE

On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.

‘I’ll have a large wholemeal. I’ve got my grandson stopping for a week, who’s on the B.B.C. That’s my daughter’s boy, Lady Manders. He won’t eat white bread, one of his fads.’

Laurence shouted from the window, ‘Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.’

She puckered and beamed up at him.

‘Shouting from the window,’ she said to the baker.

‘You woke me up,’ Laurence said.

‘My grandson,’ she told the baker. ‘A large wholemeal, and don’t forget to call on Wednesday.’

Laurence looked at himself in the glass. ‘I must get up,’ he said, getting back into bed. He gave himself seven minutes.

He followed his grandmother’s movements from the sounds which came clearly through the worn cottage floorboards. At seventy-eight Louisa Jepp did everything very slowly but with extreme attention, as some do when they know they are slightly drunk. Laurence heard a clink and a pause, a tinkle and a pause, breakfast being laid. Her footsteps clicked like a clock that is running down as she moved between the scullery and the little hot kitchen; she refused to shuffle.

When he was half dressed Laurence opened a tiny drawer on the top of the tall old-fashioned chest. It contained some of his grandmother’s things, for she had given him her room. He counted three hairpins, eight mothballs; he found a small piece of black velvet embroidered with jet beads now loose on their thread. He reckoned the bit of stuff would be about two and a half inches by one and a half. In another drawer he found a comb with some of his grandmother’s hair on it and noted that the object was none too neat. He got some pleasure from having met with these facts, three hairpins, eight mothballs, a comb none too neat, the property of his grandmother, here in her home in Sussex, now in the present tense. That is what Laurence was like.

‘It is unhealthy,’ his mother had lately told him. ‘It’s the only unhealthy thing about your mind, the way you notice absurd details, it’s absurd of you.’

‘That’s what I’m like,’ Laurence said.

As usual, she knew this meant deadlock, but carried on, ‘Well, it’s unnatural. Because sometimes you see things that you shouldn’t.’

‘Such as?’

She did not say, but she knew he had been in her room prying into her messy make-up drawer, patting the little bottles like a cat and naming them. She could never persuade him that this was wrong. After all, it was a violation of privacy.

Very often Laurence said, ‘It would be wrong for you but it isn’t for me.’

And always Helena Manders, his mother, would reply ‘I don’t see that’, or ‘I don’t agree’, although really she did in a way.

In his childhood he had terrorized the household with his sheer literal truths.

‘Uncle Ernest uses ladies’ skin food, he rubs it on his elbows every night to keep them soft’ … ‘Eileen has got her pain’ … ‘Georgina Hogg has three hairs on her chin when she doesn’t pull them out. Georgina has had a letter from her cousin which I read.’

These were memorable utterances. Other items which he aired in the same breath, such as, ‘There’s been a cobweb on the third landing for two weeks, four days and fifteen hours, not including the time for the making’ — these were received with delight or indifference according to mood, and forgotten.

His mother told him repeatedly, ‘I’ve told you repeatedly, you are not to enter the maids’ rooms. After all, they are entitled to their privacy.’

As he grew older he learned to conceal the sensational portions of his knowledge, imparting only what was necessary to promote his reputation for being remarkably observant. In those days his father was capable of saying, on the strength of a school report, ‘I always knew Laurence would outgrow that morbid phase.’

‘Let’s hope he has,’ Helena Manders had said. Parents change. In those days, Laurence was aware that she half-suspected him of practising some vague sexual perversion which she could not name, would not envisage, and which in any case he did not practise. Then, it was almost to put her at ease, to assure her that he was the same Laurence as of old, that he said, during the holidays of his last term, ‘Eileen is going to have a baby.’

‘She’s a good Catholic girl,’ Helena protested; she was herself a Catholic since her marriage. None the less, on challenging Eileen in the kitchen, the case turned out to be so. Eileen, moreover, defiantly refused to name the man. Laurence was able to provide this information.

‘I’ve always kept up with Eileen’s correspondence,’ he explained. ‘It enlivens the school holidays.’

‘You’ve been in that poor girl’s room, reading her letters behind her back, the poor thing!’

‘Shall I tell you what her boy friend wrote?’ Laurence said tyrannously.

‘I’m shocked as you know,’ she said, accepting that this made no impression. ‘How you, a good Catholic — but apart from that, it’s illegal, I believe, to read letters addressed to others,’ she said, defeated.

Merely to give her the last word he pointed out, ‘Well, you’ve got them married, my dear. A good Catholic marriage. That’s the happy result of my shocking perusal of Eileen’s letters.’

‘The end doesn’t justify the means.’

Pat it came out just as he had expected. An answer for everything. All the same, incidents like this helped to

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