The Trouble Makers

Celia Fremlin

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Trouble Makers, by Celia Fremlin. This classic work of domestic suspense has recently been reissued, along with a number of other works by Fremlin, by Dover Publications. In the following excerpt, a woman waits in a queue, full of uncanny insights into the secret lives of those around her, and full of anxiety about her own marriage.

Sometimes Katharine felt the evening rush hour to be an almost tranquil thing. These long, devitalised queues provided a massed solitude—a breathing-space; an amorphous, unassailable no-man’s-land between work and home, where you had an opportunity, at last, to worry in peace.

Was that what these other dismal, damp, hunched-up people were doing—worrying in peace? Katharine glanced round; and realised at once that the actual queue you were actually standing in was never quite like that. It was the standard, prefabricated image of rush-hour queues that she had had in mind. When you really looked properly at your own special queue, you noticed that a lot of people weren’t looking dismal at all, nor hunched up—nor even damp, some of them, in spite of the thin, slowly worsening drizzle. Odd how those bright, smart young girls, with their vulnerable gay clothes and dazzling make-up, and with no umbrellas, never seemed to get wet at all, however hard it rained and however long they stood there. It was as if the gay, inscrutable qualities that had succeeded in getting them up like that in the first place had also provided them with a total shield against the outside world, weather and all; a shield of which the gloomy, defenceless middle-aged knew nothing.

Was that what these other dismal, damp, hunched-up people were doing—worrying in peace?

But no; even the middle-aged weren’t looking particularly gloomy either. Katharine observed this with a curious, perverse disappointment, as if the ordered course of Nature was somehow being mocked by this discovery. Just listen to those two behind her, for instance, heads together, absorbed, loving every minute of it as they went on, and on, and on, in resigned, kindly,  vaguely  resentful  monotones  about  somebody  called Ede who had done something with some pay slips. And what about that tall, gallantly rigged out woman in front, standing straight and unflinching on both her spike heels at once, instead of surreptitiously resting them in turns, like everyone else. A heroic figure, head up to the rain, and almost spitting her excite- ment about a lettuce. It had either cost an awful lot or an awful little—Katharine could not quite make out which, and the awed, upturned face of the woman’s companion gave no clue.

But what about the silent ones, the ones without companions. Were they, like Katharine, wallowing in a peaceful trough of worry—worry about which, for one blessed half hour, abso- lutely nothing could be done? Idly, Katharine began trying to apportion appropriate worries to the shadowy faces about her. That defeated-looking blonde, for instance, with too much purple lipstick. Was she wondering desperately if her cooling lover would, in spite of everything, ring her up tonight? Perhaps he hadn’t rung last night, or the night before, or the night before that, but all the same, if she sat at home all this evening, by her inadequate gas fire, listening and listening… ? And what about that elderly woman in black, so defensive and suspicious? She must be living with a son and daughter-in-law who didn’t want her; was going home to them now, defiantly, because, hang it all, it had been her house in the first place. And her daughter-in-law would be cooking something that her son always used to loathe, and using the wrong saucepans for it too. . . . Without warning, the woman turned her hostile black eyes straight at Katharine; and Katharine hastily glanced away, guilty and embarrassed. Had she been rudely staring? She could feel the woman’s eyes still fastened on her averted profile, and felt herself blushing— though of course it didn’t matter now that the sickly sodium lighting had come on. One could blush purple from neck to hairline and still only look ill and greenish, like everyone else.

But she wished the fierce old thing would look away, all the same. Did she know her by any unfortunate chance? That really would have been unforgivably rude—to have stared like that, fixedly, at someone you were supposed to know, and yet to have shown no signs of recognition.

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A slow, forward-moving impulse shimmered down the length of the queue, and like a great sleepy beast it stirred, heaved itself a few inches along the wet, shining pavement, and came to rest again, as if in relief.

A slow, forward-moving impulse shimmered down the length of the queue, and like a great sleepy beast it stirred, heaved itself a few inches along the wet, shining pavement, and came to rest again, as if in relief. Katharine was glad to find, when her section of the queue had finally shuddered to a halt, that the brief upheaval had been sufficient to put an olive green (or was it scarlet?) umbrella between herself and the old woman. And anyway, she thought, reassuring herself, perhaps the old thing was just whiling away the time by sizing me up. Two can play at that game, after all. Wryly, Katharine began to wonder what conclusion the woman would have come to? Did she guess at once that Katharine was a busy, capable mother, working  part-time to help  with  the  family  finances? Could she tell that Katharine was hurrying back now to her com- fortable suburban home, to her husband, and her three little girls? Or—Katharine shivered a little, and clutched her scarf tighter against a draughty sputter of rain—can it be that there is already something in my face to show that Stephen and I are no longer happy together? Is there even now that unmistak- able tightening round the mouth, that hooded look about the eyes that mark, like a brand, the discontented woman? Did that nosey old thing even imagine that she saw in Katharine’s face the frustrated, hungry look . . . ?

In sudden, idiotic defiance, Katharine wanted to turn round, to crane her head round the umbrella and scream at the old woman: You’re all wrong! I’m not frustrated! I have children. . . a husband. . . . We aren’t  getting on too well at the moment, I know, but it’s only temporary. What you see in my face is only temporary, you silly old fool; only temporary, don’t you understand? . . .

A sudden, purposeful surging forward of the queue brought Katharine, like the flotsam of a breaking wave, to the threshold of her bus; and a minute later she was wedged inside it, at the far end, trying with one hand both to steady herself and to extract the fare from her handbag, and with the other to deploy her bulging shopping basket in such a way as neither to annoy her neighbours, ladder her stockings, nor squash her pound and a half of tomatoes. Yet even in the midst of these preoccupations Katharine still found time to glance fearfully at the reflection in the darkened window behind the driver’s back. It was all right; with all imperfections dimmed by the dimness of the reflecting surface, she looked pleasant, quite young, even quite happy. Of course she did! That old woman was just a fool—a jealous old sour-puss, thought Katharine, happily savouring the total injus- tice of her unfounded imputations.

When she got off the bus it was nearly closing time at the local shops, and she still had to buy bread. There had only been the sliced, wrapped bread at the supermarket where she had shopped in her lunch-hour, and Stephen hated wrapped bread. Funny, thought Katharine, as she lumbered with her heavy basket towards the bakers, that the growing coldness between herself and Stephen should have affected her in this way: should have created in her not indifference towards his wishes, but rather a nervous, almost obsessive anxiety to please him in as many trivial ways as possible. Did it mean that she still loved him really? Still cared that he should be happy—or at least that he should enjoy as many small happinesses as she could salvage for him from the wreckage of their relationship?

It didn’t feel like love. It didn’t feel like caring. It felt more like being frightened, Katharine admitted to herself as she emerged from the warm, lighted shop, clutching the crusty loaf protectively under its paper wrapping lest it grow flabby in the damp autumn air.

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As she turned the corner into her own road, Katharine saw ahead of her a slim, neat figure, moving rather slowly under the lamplight, body almost primly erect, but head bent.

Mary. Mary Prescott, her next-door neighbour. Katharine hurried to catch her up and fell into step—albeit very slow— beside her.

It didn’t feel like love. It didn’t feel like caring. It felt more like being frightened, Katharine admitted to herself.

“Hullo.” Mary greeted her in the weary, disillusioned voice which Katharine—with a horrid stab of self-dislike—suddenly realised that she had been hoping for. For it meant that Mary had been quarrelling with her husband again; and what despicable, reprehensible comfort there was in this for Katharine! Why is it that when a woman is getting on badly with her own husband, nothing cheers her so much as the knowledge that another woman is getting on even worse with hers? It ought to make me feel worse, Katharine reflected guiltily, but it just doesn’t. It makes me feel much, much better. This is really why I ran after her in the first place, simply in the hope of hearing that she has had a perfectly frightful row with Alan!

“You go on ahead if you’re  in a hurry, Katharine,” Mary was saying tensely. “Don’t wait for me. I’m going slowly on purpose.”

Katharine was in a hurry, of course. But even if she had been less ghoulishly eager to suck comfort for herself from Mary’s troubles, it would have been cruel to have ignored so blatant an appeal to her curiosity.

“What is it, Mary?” she asked. “Have you . . . ?  I mean, is Alan . . . ?”

“He’s going out at six,” said Mary, her lips only opening the barest minimum to allow the words to escape. “And I can’t—I won’t—go back to the house while he’s  still there. If it wasn’t for Angela I’d face it—I really would. But it’s so bad for her to hear us quarrelling; and she’s getting to the age when you can’t hide it from her. Alan thinks he can. He thinks that if he talks to me in that quiet, dreadful voice, and doesn’t shout, then she won’t know anything about it. But of course she knows! She may be doing her homework at the top of the house, but that cold, restrained fury of Alan’s—it seeps up, Katharine! It does! Up the stairs. Up through the floorboards. . . .”

Something in her friend’s  intensity disconcerted Katharine for a second. Hastily she tried to bring Mary back on to her usual plane of trivial nattering about Alan and his shortcomings.

And it was not difficult. Soon Mary’s light, resentful voice was in full and familiar spate about her grievances: how Alan had been writing letters all yesterday evening, right up till bedtime, and then, if you please, had turned round and complained that she never talked to him in the evenings! Talked to him! And he knew as well as she did that if she had dared so much as to open her mouth while he was writing he’d have been furious and told her she was interrupting. If only he wasn’t so self-righteous when he was being unreasonable . . . so cold . . . so impervious to argument. . . . By the time their short walk was over, Katharine felt that her troubles with Stephen were the merest trifles in comparison—just superficial bickering, such as you might find in any marriage. And there were lamb chops and mushrooms in her basket, which could be cooked quickly, so that tonight at least there would be none of that sense of rush and strain which so often spoilt their evenings right from the start. Supper would be on time. Stephen would be pleased—and would show it, he wasn’t cold and undemonstrative, like Alan. Poor Mary!

This invigorating Poor-Mary feeling lasted Katharine for just so long as it took her to find the key in her handbag and to open the front door. For as soon as she came into the hall she knew at once, and with deadly certainty, that Clare was crying over her homework again. Not that she could actually hear the familiar, maddening sniffings and gulpings—Clare’s room was upstairs, at the back of the house—but she knew it all simply by the air of modest righteousness, the exaggerated composure, with which her second daughter, Flora, came out into the hall to greet her. Her elder sister’s troubles always affected Flora like this. You couldn’t call it deliberate unkindness—indeed, Flora had very likely been trying to help Clare to the best of her ability. But all the same, she seemed—there was no other word for it—to thrive on Clare’s inadequacies. Why, she even looked taller whenever Clare was crying, Katharine noticed irritably as Flora reached up to kiss her.

“Hullo, Mummy. You’re late, aren’t you? I’ve done all my homework except my practising, and I got A for biology. Miss Faith showed it to the whole class. She said my diagram was the only one which . . .”

“Splendid, darling. I’m so glad.” Katharine spoke rather perfunctorily. For it seemed to her—Oh, so unfairly!—that Flora wasn’t talking about her biology lesson at all. Instead, she was telling her that Clare was, at this very moment, crouched heavily over her books in her chilly, untidy bedroom; the fire not switched on, with no blotting paper or india-rubber to hand; and crying quietly, hopelessly, over her quadratic equations. Or was it Latin again? Those wretched gerunds and gerundives?

“And, Mummy,” continued Flora, tossing her shining and unwontedly tidy pony-tail (the little wretch had even brushed her hair in celebration of her sister’s trials, thought Katharine ungratefully), “Mummy, I tried to light the sitting-room fire for you. But it’s gone out.”

Katharine’s carefully laid fire. The dry wood—the paper—all would be gone; only the black, hopeless lumps of coal would be left; and the black, dead slivers of burnt paper would float out all over the carpet, gently tinkling, as soon as you disturbed them. More wood—and it would be damp this time—must be fetched from the shed.

One should either be a childless wife or else an unmarried mother, thought Katharine rebelliously as she set off up the stairs.

“Thank you, darling. Never mind.” Katharine hoped that she had kept the irritation out of her voice, for, after all, the child had been trying to help. It was hard on them to have to come back from school to an empty, fireless home. Hard on Stephen, too, to have to come home to a supper always late, a wife always preoccupied—and tonight, on top of everything else, to a daughter crying over her homework.

It was this that was going to cause the row tonight, and for a moment Katharine stood very still in the middle of the hall, paralysed by the total conflict of her situation.

For Stephen always said that she shouldn’t help Clare. “Doing her homework for her” was what he called it—deliberately provocative,  Katharine  felt,  for  he  must  surely  know  that she never actually did the homework; just explained it. And explained, and explained, and explained. That, of course, was probably the trouble—not that Stephen really disapproved on principle, as he claimed to do, but simply that he couldn’t stand spending his evening listening to his wife explaining about present participles, or square roots, or whatever. And what husband would like it, she asked herself, with a deliberate effort to put herself on Stephen’s side. Immediately she felt a familiar little stab of pleasure at finding she had managed to see something from Stephen’s point of view—followed by an equally familiar little stab of frustration at the fact that there was still nothing she could do about it. For Clare did need help—and needed it, as always, just when Stephen was expected home. One should either be a childless wife or else an unmarried mother, thought Katharine rebelliously as she set off up the stairs—and even in the midst of her anxieties, she found herself thinking how well this cynical observation would go down at one of those comforting Aren’t-Men-Awful sessions at the launderette or over the garden wall.


From The Trouble Makers, by Celia Fremlin. Used with the permission of the publisher, Dover Publications. Copyright © 1963 by the Literary Estate of Celia Fremlin.

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