Have you ever read Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale? I’ve been reading it slowly but with enormous pleasure. (It’s my ‘on the tube’ read, and I haven’t been on public transport much lately.) The man deserves to be better known for this work, and not just for his omelette.
In the opening part of the book I fell in love with the character of the mother, whose parenting style made me laugh out loud. Now the two daughters are grown up. One has run off to Paris with a lover. The man is not particularly interesting*. Then on the last tube home from a lovely evening with a friend, I was arrested by the following:
‘Her pride induced her to put Gerald in the right and herself in the wrong, for she was too proud to admit that she had married a charming and irresponsible fool.’
Is that what I did? And my ex is not even charming. Could he be a fool? Certainly there were times I felt he must be. Only yesterday I found by accident an old email to a friend, lightheartedly suggesting that he must be either an imbecile or on drugs. Many a true word is spoken in jest. Because I don’t remember thinking anything but that he was terribly clever. Degree from Cambridge. Dean’s list at business school. Able to spout on politics and economics and to recite great tracts of poetry and sections of the bible (catholic upbringing). Never given to self doubt.
And then, going back to the book: Gerald has run away with Sophia largely on the basis of having inherited £12,000 (1800s money). The following few paragraphs hit me hard. I had assumed my situation so unique and unlikely that I couldn’t believe or understand it myself. Therefore to have it described so exactly, and – further – described as ‘typical’, well, I could hardly breathe.
‘For a time there existed in the minds of both Gerald and Sophia the remarkable notion that twelve thousand pounds represented the infinity of wealth, that this sum possessed special magical properties which rendered it insensible to the process of subtraction. It seemed impossible that twelve thousand pounds, while continually getting less, could ultimately quite disappear. The notion lived longer in the mind of Gerald than in that of Sophia: for Gerald would never look at a disturbing fact, whereas Sophia’s gaze was morbidly fascinated by such phenomena. In a life devoted to travel and pleasure Gerald meant not to spend more than six hundred a year, the interest on his fortune. Six hundred a year is less than two pounds a day, yet Gerald never paid less than two pounds a day in hotel bills alone. He hoped that he was living on a thousand a year, had a secret fear that he might be spending fifteen hundred, and was really spending about two thousand five hundred. Still, the remarkable notion of the inexhaustibility of twelve thousand pounds always reassured him. The faster the money went, the more vigorously this notion flourished in Gerald’s mind. When twelve had unaccountably dwindled to three, Gerald suddenly decided that he must act, and in a few months he lost two thousand on the Paris Bourse. The adventure frightened him, and in his panic he scattered a couple of hundred in a frenzy of high living.
‘But even with only twenty thousand francs left out of three hundred thousand, he held closely to the belief that natural laws would in his case somehow be suspended. He had heard of men who were once rich begging bread and sweeping crossings, but he felt quite secure against such risks, by simple virtue of the axiom that he was he. However, he meant to assist the axiom by efforts to earn money. When these continued to fail, he tried to assist the axiom by borrowing money: but he found that his uncle had definitely done with him. He would have assisted the axiom by stealing money, but he had neither the nerve nor the knowledge to be a swindler; he was not even sufficiently expert to cheat at cards.
‘He had thought in thousands. Now he began to think in hundreds, in tens, daily and hourly. He paid two hundred francs in railway fares in order to live economically in a village, and shortly afterwards another two hundred francs in railways fares in order to live economically in Paris. And to celebrate the arrival in Paris and the definite commencement of an era of strict economy and serious search for a livelihood, he spent a hundred francs on a dinner at the Maison Doree and two balcony stalls at the Gymnase. In brief, he omitted nothing – no act, no resolve, no self deception – of the typical fool in his situation: always convinced that his difficulties and his wisdom were quite exceptional.’
And – no-one would believe this if it were a movie – while typing this out I received an email from my ex in response to my request that he comply with the Court Order and send the child maintenance he should have paid at the beginning of the month. It said ‘I’m sorry. I’m hoping desperately that it will arrive today’.
I’m tempted to send the book to him, but he wouldn’t read it, though if he did, he could hardly fail to recognise himself.
It staggers me now to think how thick I have been. And though it is less, I still feel the impotent fury that used to overwhelm me. He continues to get away with it. He got a huge whack of money from the sale of our home and pocketed it without paying his debts, plus: he works as a banker. It is almost but not quite inconceivable that he has actually squandered the whole lot. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do short of taking him to court, which will cost me more money than it brings. Meanwhile I am not making money either. The guy who asked if I was free to work (as a private eye) has not got back to me. And I am not getting on with anything useful.
Bollocks. Proof if proof were needed that I am indeed rubbish. And now it is noon, and while I have eaten two breakfasts, I am not even dressed. Crap.