Season Three of Read Me To Sleep, Ricky features the short story, beginning with two by Katherine Mansfield (1880-1923) read by your host, Rick Whitaker. Both are from her 1922 collection The Garden Party: "Life of Ma Parker" and "The Singing Lesson" with music from The Fairy Queen (1692) by Henry Purcell.Support the show
Read Me to Sleep, Ricky is hosted by Rick Whitaker and produced in New York City.
Life of Ma Parker
When the literary gentleman, whose flat old Ma Parker cleaned every Tuesday, opened the door to her that morning, he asked after her grandson. Ma Parker stood on the doormat inside the dark little hall, and she stretched out her hand to help her gentleman shut the door before she replied. “We buried ’im yesterday, sir,” she said quietly.
“Oh, dear me! I’m sorry to hear that,” said the literary gentleman in a shocked tone. He was in the middle of his breakfast. He wore a very shabby dressing-gown and carried a crumpled newspaper in one hand. But he felt awkward. He could hardly go back to the warm sitting-room without saying something—something more. Then because these people set such store by funerals he said kindly, “I hope the funeral went off all right.”
“Beg parding, sir?” said old Ma Parker huskily.
Poor old bird! She did look dashed. “I hope the funeral was a—a—success,” said he. Ma Parker gave no answer. She bent her head and hobbled off to the kitchen, clasping the old fish bag that held her cleaning things and an apron and a pair of felt shoes. The literary gentleman raised his eyebrows and went back to his breakfast.
“Overcome, I suppose,” he said aloud, helping himself to the marmalade.
Ma Parker drew the two jetty spears out of her toque and hung it behind the door. She unhooked her worn jacket and hung that up too. Then she tied her apron and sat down to take off her boots. To take off her boots or to put them on was an agony to her, but it had been an agony for years. In fact, she was so accustomed to the pain that her face was drawn and screwed up ready for the twinge before she’d so much as untied the laces. That over, she sat back with a sigh and softly rubbed her knees....
“Gran! Gran!” Her little grandson stood on her lap in his button boots. He’d just come in from playing in the street.
“Look what a state you’ve made your gran’s skirt into—you wicked boy!”
But he put his arms round her neck and rubbed his cheek against hers.
“Gran, gi’ us a penny!” he coaxed.
“Be off with you; Gran ain’t got no pennies.”
“Yes, you ’ave.”
“No, I ain’t.”
“Yes, you ’ave. Gi’ us one!”
Already she was feeling for the old, squashed, black leather purse.
“Well, what’ll you give your gran?”
He gave a shy little laugh and pressed closer. She felt his eyelid quivering against her cheek. “I ain’t got nothing,” he murmured....
The old woman sprang up, seized the iron kettle off the gas stove and took it over to the sink. The noise of the water drumming in the kettle deadened her pain, it seemed. She filled the pail, too, and the washing-up bowl.
It would take a whole book to describe the state of that kitchen. During the week the literary gentleman “did” for himself. That is to say, he emptied the tea leaves now and again into a jam jar set aside for that purpose, and if he ran out of clean forks he wiped over one or two on the roller towel. Otherwise, as he explained to his friends, his “system” was quite simple, and he couldn’t understand why people made all this fuss about housekeeping.
“You simply dirty everything you’ve got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing’s done.”
The result looked like a gigantic dustbin. Even the floor was littered with toast crusts, envelopes, cigarette ends. But Ma Parker bore him no grudge. She pitied the poor young gentleman for having no one to look after him. Out of the smudgy little window you could see an immense expanse of sad-looking sky, and whenever there were clouds they looked very worn, old clouds, frayed at the edges, with holes in them, or dark stains like tea.
While the water was heating, Ma Parker began sweeping the floor. “Yes,” she thought, as the broom knocked, “what with one thing and another I’ve had my share. I’ve had a hard life.”
Even the neighbours said that of her. Many a time, hobbling home with her fish bag she heard them, waiting at the corner, or leaning over the area railings, say among themselves, “She’s had a hard life, has Ma Parker.” And it was so true she wasn’t in the least proud of it. It was just as if you were to say she lived in the basement-back at Number 27. A hard life!...
At sixteen she’d left Stratford and come up to London as kitching-maid. Yes, she was born in Stratford-on-Avon. Shakespeare, sir? No, people were always arsking her about him. But she’d never heard his name until she saw it on the theatres.
Nothing remained of Stratford except that “sitting in the fire-place of a evening you could see the stars through the chimley,” and “Mother always ’ad ’er side of bacon, ’anging from the ceiling.” And there was something—a bush, there was—at the front door, that smelt ever so nice. But the bush was very vague. She’d only remembered it once or twice in the hospital, when she’d been taken bad.
That was a dreadful place—her first place. She was never allowed out. She never went upstairs except for prayers morning and evening. It was a fair cellar. And the cook was a cruel woman. She used to snatch away her letters from home before she’d read them, and throw them in the range because they made her dreamy.... And the beedles! Would you believe it?—until she came to London she’d never seen a black beedle. Here Ma always gave a little laugh, as though—not to have seen a black beedle! Well! It was as if to say you’d never seen your own feet.
When that family was sold up she went as “help” to a doctor’s house, and after two years there, on the run from morning till night, she married her husband. He was a baker.
“A baker, Mrs. Parker!” the literary gentleman would say. For occasionally he laid aside his tomes and lent an ear, at least, to this product called Life. “It must be rather nice to be married to a baker!”
Mrs. Parker didn’t look so sure.
“Such a clean trade,” said the gentleman.
Mrs. Parker didn’t look convinced.
“And didn’t you like handing the new loaves to the customers?”
“Well, sir,” said Mrs. Parker, “I wasn’t in the shop above a great deal. We had thirteen little ones and buried seven of them. If it wasn’t the ’ospital it was the infirmary, you might say!”
“You might, indeed, Mrs. Parker!” said the gentleman, shuddering, and taking up his pen again.
Yes, seven had gone, and while the six were still small her husband was taken ill with consumption. It was flour on the lungs, the doctor told her at the time.... Her husband sat up in bed with his shirt pulled over his head, and the doctor’s finger drew a circle on his back.
“Now, if we were to cut him open here, Mrs. Parker,” said the doctor, “you’d find his lungs chock-a-block with white powder. Breathe, my good fellow!” And Mrs. Parker never knew for certain whether she saw or whether she fancied she saw a great fan of white dust come out of her poor dead husband’s lips....
But the struggle she’d had to bring up those six little children and keep herself to herself. Terrible it had been! Then, just when they were old enough to go to school her husband’s sister came to stop with them to help things along, and she hadn’t been there more than two months when she fell down a flight of steps and hurt her spine. And for five years Ma Parker had another baby—and such a one for crying!—to look after. Then young Maudie went wrong and took her sister Alice with her; the two boys emigrated, and young Jim went to India with the army, and Ethel, the youngest, married a good-for-nothing little waiter who died of ulcers the year little Lennie was born. And now little Lennie—my grandson....
The piles of dirty cups, dirty dishes, were washed and dried. The ink-black knives were cleaned with a piece of potato and finished off with a piece of cork. The table was scrubbed, and the dresser and the sink that had sardine tails swimming in it....
He’d never been a strong child—never from the first. He’d been one of those fair babies that everybody took for a girl. Silvery fair curls he had, blue eyes, and a little freckle like a diamond on one side of his nose. The trouble she and Ethel had had to rear that child! The things out of the newspapers they tried him with! Every Sunday morning Ethel would read aloud while Ma Parker did her washing.
“Dear Sir,—Just a line to let you know my little Myrtil was laid out for dead.... After four bottils... gained 8 lbs. in 9 weeks, and is still putting it on.”
And then the egg-cup of ink would come off the dresser and the letter would be written, and Ma would buy a postal order on her way to work next morning. But it was no use. Nothing made little Lennie put it on. Taking him to the cemetery, even, never gave him a colour; a nice shake-up in the bus never improved his appetite.
But he was gran’s boy from the first....
“Whose boy are you?” said old Ma Parker, straightening up from the stove and going over to the smudgy window. And a little voice, so warm, so close, it half stifled her—it seemed to be in her breast under her heart—laughed out, and said, “I’m gran’s boy!”
At that moment there was a sound of steps, and the literary gentleman appeared, dressed for walking.
“Oh, Mrs. Parker, I’m going out.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And you’ll find your half-crown in the tray of the inkstand.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, by the way, Mrs. Parker,” said the literary gentleman quickly, “you didn’t throw away any cocoa last time you were here—did you?”
“Very strange. I could have sworn I left a teaspoonful of cocoa in the tin.” He broke off. He said softly and firmly, “You’ll always tell me when you throw things away—won’t you, Mrs. Parker?” And he walked off very well pleased with himself, convinced, in fact, he’d shown Mrs. Parker that under his apparent carelessness he was as vigilant as a woman.
The door banged. She took her brushes and cloths into the bedroom. But when she began to make the bed, smoothing, tucking, patting, the thought of little Lennie was unbearable. Why did he have to suffer so? That’s what she couldn’t understand. Why should a little angel child have to arsk for his breath and fight for it? There was no sense in making a child suffer like that.
... From Lennie’s little box of a chest there came a sound as though something was boiling. There was a great lump of something bubbling in his chest that he couldn’t get rid of. When he coughed the sweat sprang out on his head; his eyes bulged, his hands waved, and the great lump bubbled as a potato knocks in a saucepan. But what was more awful than all was when he didn’t cough he sat against the pillow and never spoke or answered, or even made as if he heard. Only he looked offended.
“It’s not your poor old gran’s doing it, my lovey,” said old Ma Parker, patting back the damp hair from his little scarlet ears. But Lennie moved his head and edged away. Dreadfully offended with her he looked—and solemn. He bent his head and looked at her sideways as though he couldn’t have believed it of his gran.
But at the last... Ma Parker threw the counterpane over the bed. No, she simply couldn’t think about it. It was too much—she’d had too much in her life to bear. She’d borne it up till now, she’d kept herself to herself, and never once had she been seen to cry. Never by a living soul. Not even her own children had seen Ma break down. She’d kept a proud face always. But now! Lennie gone—what had she? She had nothing. He was all she’d got from life, and now he was took too. Why must it all have happened to me? she wondered. “What have I done?” said old Ma Parker. “What have I done?”
As she said those words she suddenly let fall her brush. She found herself in the kitchen. Her misery was so terrible that she pinned on her hat, put on her jacket and walked out of the flat like a person in a dream. She did not know what she was doing. She was like a person so dazed by the horror of what has happened that he walks away—anywhere, as though by walking away he could escape....
It was cold in the street. There was a wind like ice. People went flitting by, very fast; the men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats. And nobody knew—nobody cared. Even if she broke down, if at last, after all these years, she were to cry, she’d find herself in the lock-up as like as not.
But at the thought of crying it was as though little Lennie leapt in his gran’s arms. Ah, that’s what she wants to do, my dove. Gran wants to cry. If she could only cry now, cry for a long time, over everything, beginning with her first place and the cruel cook, going on to the doctor’s, and then the seven little ones, death of her husband, the children’s leaving her, and all the years of misery that led up to Lennie. But to have a proper cry over all these things would take a long time. All the same, the time for it had come. She must do it. She couldn’t put it off any longer; she couldn’t wait any more.... Where could she go?
“She’s had a hard life, has Ma Parker.” Yes, a hard life, indeed! Her chin began to tremble; there was no time to lose. But where? Where?
She couldn’t go home; Ethel was there. It would frighten Ethel out of her life. She couldn’t sit on a bench anywhere; people would come arsking her questions. She couldn’t possibly go back to the gentleman’s flat; she had no right to cry in strangers’ houses. If she sat on some steps a policeman would speak to her.
Oh, wasn’t there anywhere where she could hide and keep herself to herself and stay as long as she liked, not disturbing anybody, and nobody worrying her? Wasn’t there anywhere in the world where she could have her cry out—at last?
Ma Parker stood, looking up and down. The icy wind blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain. There was nowhere.
The Singing Lesson
With despair—cold, sharp despair—buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife, Miss Meadows, in cap and gown and carrying a little baton, trod the cold corridors that led to the music hall. Girls of all ages, rosy from the air, and bubbling over with that gleeful excitement that comes from running to school on a fine autumn morning, hurried, skipped, fluttered by; from the hollow class-rooms came a quick drumming of voices; a bell rang; a voice like a bird cried, “Muriel.” And then there came from the staircase a tremendous knock-knock-knocking. Some one had dropped her dumbbells.
The Science Mistress stopped Miss Meadows.
“Good mor-ning,” she cried, in her sweet, affected drawl. “Isn’t it cold? It might be win-ter.”
Miss Meadows, hugging the knife, stared in hatred at the Science Mistress. Everything about her was sweet, pale, like honey. You would not have been surprised to see a bee caught in the tangles of that yellow hair.
“It is rather sharp,” said Miss Meadows, grimly.
The other smiled her sugary smile.
“You look fro-zen,” said she. Her blue eyes opened wide; there came a mocking light in them. (Had she noticed anything?)
“Oh, not quite as bad as that,” said Miss Meadows, and she gave the Science Mistress, in exchange for her smile, a quick grimace and passed on....
Forms Four, Five, and Six were assembled in the music hall. The noise was deafening. On the platform, by the piano, stood Mary Beazley, Miss Meadows’ favourite, who played accompaniments. She was turning the music stool. When she saw Miss Meadows she gave a loud, warning “Sh-sh! girls!” and Miss Meadows, her hands thrust in her sleeves, the baton under her arm, strode down the centre aisle, mounted the steps, turned sharply, seized the brass music stand, planted it in front of her, and gave two sharp taps with her baton for silence.
“Silence, please! Immediately!” and, looking at nobody, her glance swept over that sea of coloured flannel blouses, with bobbing pink faces and hands, quivering butterfly hair-bows, and music-books outspread. She knew perfectly well what they were thinking. “Meady is in a wax.” Well, let them think it! Her eyelids quivered; she tossed her head, defying them. What could the thoughts of those creatures matter to some one who stood there bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, to the heart, by such a letter—
... “I feel more and more strongly that our marriage would be a mistake. Not that I do not love you. I love you as much as it is possible for me to love any woman, but, truth to tell, I have come to the conclusion that I am not a marrying man, and the idea of settling down fills me with nothing but—” and the word “disgust” was scratched out lightly and “regret” written over the top.
Basil! Miss Meadows stalked over to the piano. And Mary Beazley, who was waiting for this moment, bent forward; her curls fell over her cheeks while she breathed, “Good morning, Miss Meadows,” and she motioned towards rather than handed to her mistress a beautiful yellow chrysanthemum. This little ritual of the flower had been gone through for ages and ages, quite a term and a half. It was as much part of the lesson as opening the piano. But this morning, instead of taking it up, instead of tucking it into her belt while she leant over Mary and said, “Thank you, Mary. How very nice! Turn to page thirty-two,” what was Mary’s horror when Miss Meadows totally ignored the chrysanthemum, made no reply to her greeting, but said in a voice of ice, “Page fourteen, please, and mark the accents well.”
Staggering moment! Mary blushed until the tears stood in her eyes, but Miss Meadows was gone back to the music stand; her voice rang through the music hall.
“Page fourteen. We will begin with page fourteen. ‘A Lament.’ Now, girls, you ought to know it by this time. We shall take it all together; not in parts, all together. And without expression. Sing it, though, quite simply, beating time with the left hand.”
She raised the baton; she tapped the music stand twice. Down came Mary on the opening chord; down came all those left hands, beating the air, and in chimed those young, mournful voices:—
Fast! Ah, too Fast Fade the Ro-o-ses of Pleasure;
Soon Autumn yields unto Wi-i-nter Drear.
Fleetly! Ah, Fleetly Mu-u-sic’s Gay Measure
Passes away from the Listening Ear.
Good Heavens, what could be more tragic than that lament! Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness. Miss Meadows lifted her arms in the wide gown and began conducting with both hands. “... I feel more and more strongly that our marriage would be a mistake....” she beat. And the voices cried: Fleetly! Ah, Fleetly. What could have possessed him to write such a letter! What could have led up to it! It came out of nothing. His last letter had been all about a fumed-oak bookcase he had bought for “our” books, and a “natty little hall-stand” he had seen, “a very neat affair with a carved owl on a bracket, holding three hat-brushes in its claws.” How she had smiled at that! So like a man to think one needed three hat-brushes! From the Listening Ear, sang the voices.
“Once again,” said Miss Meadows. “But this time in parts. Still without expression.” Fast! Ah, too Fast. With the gloom of the contraltos added, one could scarcely help shuddering. Fade the Roses of Pleasure. Last time he had come to see her, Basil had worn a rose in his buttonhole. How handsome he had looked in that bright blue suit, with that dark red rose! And he knew it, too. He couldn’t help knowing it. First he stroked his hair, then his moustache; his teeth gleamed when he smiled.
“The headmaster’s wife keeps on asking me to dinner. It’s a perfect nuisance. I never get an evening to myself in that place.”
“But can’t you refuse?”
“Oh, well, it doesn’t do for a man in my position to be unpopular.”
Music’s Gay Measure, wailed the voices. The willow trees, outside the high, narrow windows, waved in the wind. They had lost half their leaves. The tiny ones that clung wriggled like fishes caught on a line. “... I am not a marrying man....” The voices were silent; the piano waited.
“Quite good,” said Miss Meadows, but still in such a strange, stony tone that the younger girls began to feel positively frightened. “But now that we know it, we shall take it with expression. As much expression as you can put into it. Think of the words, girls. Use your imaginations. Fast! Ah, too Fast,” cried Miss Meadows. “That ought to break out—a loud, strong forte—a lament. And then in the second line, Winter Drear, make that Drear sound as if a cold wind were blowing through it. Dre-ear!” said she so awfully that Mary Beazley, on the music stool, wriggled her spine. “The third line should be one crescendo. Fleetly! Ah, Fleetly Music’s Gay Measure. Breaking on the first word of the last line, Passes. And then on the word, Away, you must begin to die... to fade... until The Listening Ear is nothing more than a faint whisper.... You can slow down as much as you like almost on the last line. Now, please.”
Again the two light taps; she lifted her arms again. Fast! Ah, too Fast. “... and the idea of settling down fills me with nothing but disgust—” Disgust was what he had written. That was as good as to say their engagement was definitely broken off. Broken off! Their engagement! People had been surprised enough that she had got engaged. The Science Mistress would not believe it at first. But nobody had been as surprised as she. She was thirty. Basil was twenty-five. It had been a miracle, simply a miracle, to hear him say, as they walked home from church that very dark night, “You know, somehow or other, I’ve got fond of you.” And he had taken hold of the end of her ostrich feather boa. Passes away from the Listening Ear.
“Repeat! Repeat!” said Miss Meadows. “More expression, girls! Once more!”
Fast! Ah, too Fast. The older girls were crimson; some of the younger ones began to cry. Big spots of rain blew against the windows, and one could hear the willows whispering, “... not that I do not love you....”
“But, my darling, if you love me,” thought Miss Meadows, “I don’t mind how much it is. Love me as little as you like.” But she knew he didn’t love her. Not to have cared enough to scratch out that word “disgust,” so that she couldn’t read it! Soon Autumn yields unto Winter Drear. She would have to leave the school, too. She could never face the Science Mistress or the girls after it got known. She would have to disappear somewhere. Passes away. The voices began to die, to fade, to whisper... to vanish....
Suddenly the door opened. A little girl in blue walked fussily up the aisle, hanging her head, biting her lips, and twisting the silver bangle on her red little wrist. She came up the steps and stood before Miss Meadows.
“Well, Monica, what is it?”
“Oh, if you please, Miss Meadows,” said the little girl, gasping, “Miss Wyatt wants to see you in the mistress’s room.”
“Very well,” said Miss Meadows. And she called to the girls, “I shall put you on your honour to talk quietly while I am away.” But they were too subdued to do anything else. Most of them were blowing their noses.
The corridors were silent and cold; they echoed to Miss Meadows’ steps. The head mistress sat at her desk. For a moment she did not look up. She was as usual disentangling her eyeglasses, which had got caught in her lace tie. “Sit down, Miss Meadows,” she said very kindly. And then she picked up a pink envelope from the blotting-pad. “I sent for you just now because this telegram has come for you.”
“A telegram for me, Miss Wyatt?”
Basil! He had committed suicide, decided Miss Meadows. Her hand flew out, but Miss Wyatt held the telegram back a moment. “I hope it’s not bad news,” she said, so more than kindly. And Miss Meadows tore it open.
“Pay no attention to letter, must have been mad, bought hat-stand to-day—Basil,” she read. She couldn’t take her eyes off the telegram.
“I do hope it’s nothing very serious,” said Miss Wyatt, leaning forward.
“Oh, no, thank you, Miss Wyatt,” blushed Miss Meadows. “It’s nothing bad at all. It’s”—and she gave an apologetic little laugh—“it’s from my fiancé saying that... saying that—” There was a pause. “I see,” said Miss Wyatt. And another pause. Then—“You’ve fifteen minutes more of your class, Miss Meadows, haven’t you?”
“Yes, Miss Wyatt.” She got up. She half ran towards the door.
“Oh, just one minute, Miss Meadows,” said Miss Wyatt. “I must say I don’t approve of my teachers having telegrams sent to them in school hours, unless in case of very bad news, such as death,” explained Miss Wyatt, “or a very serious accident, or something to that effect. Good news, Miss Meadows, will always keep, you know.”
On the wings of hope, of love, of joy, Miss Meadows sped back to the music hall, up the aisle, up the steps, over to the piano.
“Page thirty-two, Mary,” she said, “page thirty-two,” and, picking up the yellow chrysanthemum, she held it to her lips to hide her smile. Then she turned to the girls, rapped with her baton: “Page thirty-two, girls. Page thirty-two.”
We come here To-day with Flowers o’erladen,
With Baskets of Fruit and Ribbons to boot,
To-oo Congratulate . . .
“Stop! Stop!” cried Miss Meadows. “This is awful. This is dreadful.” And she beamed at her girls. “What’s the matter with you all? Think, girls, think of what you’re singing. Use your imaginations. With Flowers o’erladen. Baskets of Fruit and Ribbons to boot. And Congratulate.” Miss Meadows broke off. “Don’t look so doleful, girls. It ought to sound warm, joyful, eager. Congratulate. Once more. Quickly. All together. Now then!”
And this time Miss Meadows’ voice sounded over all the other voices—full, deep, glowing with expression.