A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
By Margaret Drabble
Hardcover, 256 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $24
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
There was once this woman. She was in her thirties. She was quite famous, in a way. She hadn't really meant to be famous: it had just happened to her, without very much effort on her part. Sometimes she thought about it, a little bewildered, and said to herself, This is me, Jenny Jamieson, and everybody knows it's me.
Her husband was quite famous, too, but only to people who knew what he was doing. He was famous in his own world. He was the editor of a weekly, and so he had quite a pull with certain kinds of people. It was through his pull, really, that Jenny had got her job. She was getting bored, the little child was at nursery school and the big ones at big school, so he had looked about for her and asked a few friends and found her a nice little job at a television station. But he hadn't quite bargained for how she would catch on. Everybody had always thought Jenny was pretty — in fact, she'd been a very recognizable type for years, had Jenny: pretty, a little restless, driven into the odd moment of malice by boredom, loving her children, cooking dinners, flirting a little (or possibly more) with her husband's friends and old lovers. She deserved a little job. But when she got going, when she got on the screen, she was transformed. She became, very quickly, beautiful. It took a few weeks, while she experimented with hairstyles and clothes and facial expressions. And suddenly, she was a beauty, and total strangers talked of her with yearning. And that wasn't all, either. She was also extremely efficient. Now, she always had been efficient; she'd always been able to get all the courses of a four-course meal onto the table, perfectly cooked, at the right moment. She was never late to collect children from school, she never forgot their dinner money or their swimming things, she never ran out of sugar or lavatory paper or cellotape. So people shouldn't have been surprised at the way she settled down to work.
She was never late. She never forgot appointments. She never forgot her briefing. She began quietly, interviewing people about cultural events in a spot in an arts programme, and she always managed to say the right things to everyone; she never off ended and yet never made people dull. She was intelligent and quick, she had sympathy for everyone she talked to, and all the time she looked so splendid, sitting there shining and twinkling. Everyone admired her, nobody disliked her. In no time at all, she had her own programme, and she was able to do whatever she fancied on it. She used to invite the strangest people to be interviewed, and she would chat to them, seriously, earnestly, cheerfully. She told everybody that she loved her job, that she was so lucky, that it fitted on so well with the children and her husband, that she didn't have to be out too much. It's a perfect compromise, she would say, smiling. She didn't take herself very seriously — it's just an entertainment, she would say. I've been lucky, she would say. All I do is have the chats I'd love to have at home, and I get paid to do it. Lovely!
Her husband did not like this state of affairs at all. He became extremely bad-tempered, never came home if he could avoid it and yet would never commit himself to being out, because he did not want to make Jenny's life any easier. He wanted to make it as difficult as possible. So he would arrive unexpectedly and depart unexpectedly. He stopped bringing his friends home. He made endless unpleasant remarks and innuendoes about Jenny's colleagues in the television world, as though he had forgotten that he had introduced her to them in the first place. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night and hit her. He would accuse her of neglecting him and the children. She was not quite sure how this had all happened. It didn't seem to have much to do with her, and yet she supposed it must be her fault. At night, when it was dark, she used to think it was her fault, but in the morning she would get up and go on smiling.
Then, one night, she came back from work, as she usually did on Wednesday evenings, late, tired. She noticed, as she parked the car outside the house, that the downstairs lights were still on, and she was sorry, because she did not feel like talking. She was too tired. She would have quite liked to talk about her programme, because it had been interesting — she had been talking to a South African banned politician about the problems of political education — but her husband never watched the programme these days. She found her key, opened the front door. Her head ached. She was upset, she had to admit it, about South Africa. Sometimes she thought she ought to go and do something about these things that upset her. But what? She pushed open the living-room door, and there was her husband, lying on the settee. He was listening to a record and reading.
She smiled. 'Hello,' she said.
He did not answer. She took off her coat and hung it over the back of a chair. She was going to make herself a milk drink, as she usually did, and go straight to bed. But just for the moment, she was too tired to move. She had had a long day, so she stood there, resting, thinking of the walk to the kitchen and how comfortable it would be to get into bed. She was just about to ask her husband if he would like a drink too — though he never did, he didn't like milk and coffee kept him awake — when a strange thing happened. Her husband put down his book and looked up at her, with an expression of real hatred, and said, 'I suppose you're standing there waiting for me to offer to make you a drink, aren't you?'
Now, the truth was that he had hardly ever made her a drink, in the evening after work, so she could not possibly have been expecting such a thing. He had done so perhaps three times in the last six months. The thought of his offering to get up and make her a drink had never crossed her mind. So she answered, politely. 'No, I was just going to ask you if you would like one.' And then an even stranger thing happened. For no sooner were the words out of her mouth than a rage so violent possessed her, as though an electric current had been driven through her, that she began to shake and scream. She screamed at him for some time, and he lay there morosely, watching her, as though satisfied that he had by accident pressed the right button.
Then she calmed down and went and made her drink and went to bed. But as she lay down, she felt as though she had had some kind of shock treatment, that she had suffered brain damage and that she would never be the same again. Let us not exaggerate. This was not the first time that this kind of thing had nearly happened to her. But this time it had happened, and the difference between its nearly happening and its happening was enormous. She was a different woman. She went to bed a different woman.
Excerpted from A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble. Copyright 2011 by Margaret Drabble. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt. All rights reserved.