Thursday, 18 October 2007

Lady Macauley takes the alarm

I stayed only ten minutes or so after Will Macauley had appeared so unexpectedly the other day. It was long enough to tell me that he was a tall young man with charming eyes, and a rather unruly mop of dark brown hair; that he smiled with what looked like genuine warmth at everyone to whom he was introduced – but that he was constructed, physically, along the kinds of long, lean, loose-jointed lines more suited to the sporting field perhaps, than to his grandmother’s drawing room. His grandmother herself however,was instantly so very absorbed and pleased with him, that it seemed to me the kindest thing a mere outside observer could do was simply to murmur her farewells, and slip quietly away. I have since then developed the kind of wretched, sneezing, streaming cold that makes it essential I stay far away from Lady Macauley, and have had to depend for further bulletins upon visits from Bill, who breezes in here every morning to bolster my spirits, and make sure I have everything I need.

He gives me an engaging picture of young Will Macauley; who is an amiable youth, he says, with an easy, uncomplicated character, and an apparently boundless fund of goodwill for all men. His only fault, so far as Bill can see (apart, that is, from his determination to introduce his grandmother to a girl whom she’s certain to deplore), is that way he has of entering a room as if it were a rugby field, and then of crossing it with his eyes fixed resolutely on the ball. The ball in this case being the person or persons towards whom he happens to be advancing at the time: he takes the most direct route, Bill says; it’s an endearing trait, but one that has little regard for objects likely to be encountered on the way – so that cabinets, and chairs, and random coffee tables are always more or less at peril of a direct hit. It’s an affliction Bill recognises, having suffered from something very similar throughout his own life; and it does seem to have inclined him very firmly in favour of the young man.

He sees its possible downside very clearly nonetheless. “He gives the old lady a scare whenever he enters a room” he told me when he called this morning. “And with good reason, as it turns out. A marble head went flying yesterday – the poor lad had only bumped a table as he passed, and off it went. It was a fraught moment – Lady M uttered a little shriek, I seem to remember, and Belle obviously feared the worst. Luckily, Will caught it just before it hit the ground - he’s an accomplished cricketer apparently, and his catching skills served him well on that occasion...

"But his granny has taken fright, and given orders that every free-standing object in his path be moved, lest irreparable damage should be done. It’s clear she simply dotes on him for all that. He apologises profusely for every mishap, and you see her melting. He has just that habit his father and grandfather had before him, she says, of running his hands through his hair whenever he fears he’s made a gaffe. He makes it stand on end, just as they did – and then he throws at you a smile of such regret, of so much honest penitence, and desire to make amends, that you forgive him everything on the spot, and the whole thing is forgotten.”

Will’s stock of goodwill has been put to its severest test, apparently, in his efforts to prepare his grandmother for what she will find when his girlfriend and her mother arrive tomorrow. He has come down a day or two ahead of them just for that. “It’s not so much Angelica herself” he tells them: she being well named, in that she is “beautiful as an angel, and just as good” - his granny and his Aunt Belle will adore her on sight! No, it’s her mother, Mrs Avril Wilmot, who might take what Will calls quite a bit of getting used to. He’s sure they’ll ‘come round to her’ in the end however: she barks a bit, he says, but has never been known to bite!

He is at pains to assure them that what might seem to them at first like gruffness - by which he means that she never seems especially pleased with anything you do: that she has a certain way of looking at you as if she thought you’d said a mouthful, and had really much better have shut up.... Well, it could be disconcerting, that was all; he’d discovered that for himself. But really, it was just her way of trying to look out for her daughter’s interests, didn’t Granny and Aunt Belle see? She’d been the most ‘amazing’ mother, and that was a fact: there was absolutely nothing in the world she wouldn’t do for her darling girl! Everything she did and said arose from that - to most marvellous effect, as they would see when they saw Angelica. So that what might seem to them like surface gruffness, actually concealed a heart of gold.

Bill had seemed to find all this rather entertaining, but Lady Macauley was apparently very little reassured by Will’s stout defence of the lady whom he hopes will become his mother-in-law. She thinks he made a very poor show of it in fact, and fears it does not augur well for any legal career he might have it in mind to follow (he has recently been called to the Scottish bar); since so far as she could see, he succeeded only in sinking his client deeper in the mire with every word he uttered.

She has taken deep alarm at the idea of the lady who ‘barks a bit but doesn’t bite’. This was not the sort of thing she had been expecting at all. She had expected plumpness, garrulity - extreme vulgarity even; and with all or any of these she would have known how to cope. But with someone angular and grim, who would come down to breakfast punctually every morning, the better to glower at one over the coffee pot .... why, with such a one as that there was simply no way that she knew, of contending; and she’s wondering what kind of dreadful mistake they must have made, in consenting to open their doors to her?

She has already drawn up contingency plans for getting rid of her, should she prove quite impossible. Bill could take the car to fetch her every day, she thinks – or at least for as many days as her presence was considered essential to anyone’s happiness. Or, she and her daughter could take a bus – or as many buses as it might take to get them from wherever it was they lived, which was in a part of London of which Lady Macauley herself had never even heard ... And if those measures failed, well they would both, the girl and her mother, simply have to go and stay with Rose. She had a spare bedroom, hadn’t she? She had two spare bedrooms in fact; and had always said how glad she would be to help out in any way required....

Bill seems to think that on the whole, the Rose option will provide the most satisfactory outcome. Which only goes to prove, to me at least – though also to Pamela, who called here later to give me her version of events - how little men understand the nuances of these things, and how very gravely all at sea we should be, if the entire range of social intercourse were to be left to them.