A Principled Girl, a short story by Fay Weldon
She is soft-voiced, sexy and wants to save the world. He just wants a family Christmas. What shocks lie in store?
Ellie was a principled girl. That’s why he had married her. He thought she could turn him from a frivolous person into someone others took seriously. That, of course, and that she was so lovely. Long fair hair and a long face and a long thin body, rather flat-chested but it suited her. He was flattered to have her sitting next to him while he drove, though he rather wished she was wearing something more silky and ceremonial than her everyday jeans and sweater. They were on their way to Christmas dinner with his family. He loved Christmas, she did not. Well, that was OK too. Each to their own. There was very little traffic and almost no wind. A crisp, clear, beautiful morning. The seats of the new Jaguar were heated. A sprinkling of overnight snow caught the early sun as they moved out of Surrey and into Sussex.
Then she said: “I hope your father won’t smoke in the house. I can’t think why your mother lets him.”
He wished she could be more contented with the way things just were, would let them be, the way he did. Jason found himself answering more snappily than perhaps he should have.
“It’s not the kind of household where anyone stops anyone doing what they want,” he said. “Hadn’t you noticed?”
Jason’s mother Dahlia was a potter* and his father Edwin was an artist, once a household name in Tokyo and New York, now less so. Jason worked as an account executive* in an advertising agency. When he was first taken on, his father said, “At least it isn’t banking”, while his mother said, “I suppose it could have been the Army,” and they both said, being kindly people, “If that’s what you want, Jason.” Well, it had been, and still was, and he was doing well, responsible for 80 per cent of advertising on internet gambling sites, happily married and a flat in Chelsea. Dahlia and Edwin were barely computer-literate.
“Is that a dig at* me?” asked Ellie. “You think I boss you around?”
There was a hard note in her normally super-soft voice, the kind of hardness that presaged* a row. Women were strange. The slightest thing could set them off. Was she pre-menstrual? He wasn’t sure, but knew better than to ask. Just after their wedding three years back he’d casually cited some research from Norway — they had found a 20 per cent wage differential between male and female workers, as the direct result of increased female absenteeism on a 28-day cycle. Ellie’s reaction had been extreme. (Ellie: “Whose side are you on? Why are you seeking out this rubbish research? What sort of man have I married?”) Even to explain that it was part of his job — he’d been researching 28-day patterns in negative female response to male gambling — seemed enough to endanger the marriage. These days he kept such titbits to himself. He didn’t want to lose her. He loved her.
“It isn’t a dig,” said Jason. “I love you bossing me around. I need bossing around. I am nothing without you bossing me around.”
It was true. She had stopped Jason smoking, drinking, fornicating*, and weaned* him off layabout friends and watching rubbish on TV. He was grateful. He was two stone lighter than when he married, was bright-eyed and alert and looked like the young Michael Douglas in Wall Street, though Ellie hated the comparison. And he was his own man. Did he not keep his carnivorous* habits in the face of Ellie’s disapproval? Though he thought that bad habit might go too — these days he did seem to prefer a chicken leg to a steak oozing blood. And Ellie was high up in the Endangered Species Trust and had he not turned down the job they’d offered him, though Ellie wanted him to take it? Somehow he was not in the least moved by the extinction of rare species*, though he ought to be, while convincing dull people that a little gambling would liven up the drabness of their lives might be immoral but was far more diverting an occupation, not to mention more profitable. He hadn’t put it quite like that to Ellie.
Now she laughed and looked at him tenderly and he congratulated himself on defusing* the row. She even put her little white hand on his knee while he drove and said she was sorry for being snarky*, it was just that though she adored his family she hated Christmas. Christmas was for children, not adults. It was a sickening orgy of gift-giving. She couldn’t wait for the world to get back to normal. And the heated seats made her fidgety*, uncomfortable, both literally and figuratively: they were an unnecessary luxury and did nothing for anyone’s carbon footprint*. Jason offered to turn off the seat heating but she said no, he’d only blame her and complain of the cold. So he kept it on: he didn’t quite know what else to do. It was the right choice: she kept her hand on his knee and smiled.
“Like something out of a Disneyland Christmas,” she said, forgivingly, as the Jaguar turned into the drive. “No wonder you find it so hard to put your childhood behind you.” And indeed, with the sun twinkling on the snow-covered thatch of the cottage, its mullioned windows glittering, a big log fire flickering inside, he could see it was like one of the e-cards his firm sent out with their seasonal greetings. He had been the one to select it, and to all reports it went down very well.
Dahlia was waiting with glasses of mulled wine*, wearing her best silks and rather a lot of make-up. Normally she strode around barefoot, with large breasts flying, waving her big reddened potter’s hands around. This Christmas she minced in high heels, and had varnished her square nails, trying, Jason could only suppose, to make an effort for Ellie’s sake, to represent normality rather than bohemian eccentricity. And alas, Edwin was wearing his painting smock*, which Jason knew Ellie saw as an affectation — (Ellie: “But Jason, he hasn’t sold a painting for years”) — but which still smelt agreeably of turps and perhaps Edwin thought would make him attractive in Ellie’s eyes. Jason had hoped that this Christmas would see the family sealed into the kind of easy togetherness other families managed; now he rather doubted it. The trouble was that Ellie smiled rarely, though when she did the smile was delightful. But Christmases were not her smiling days, and Christmas was when they mostly got to see her. And she made them self-conscious.
“Isn’t she a bit, well, humourless for you?” Dahlia had asked, when Jason first took Ellie home. He’d explained her away — a hard upbringing, a diplomat’s child, moved from country to country, school to school, neither parent capable of fidelity to the other, a lost child to be cherished and comforted and looked after. “Ah, I see,” Dahlia said. But he thought she didn’t.
“No one can accuse you of marrying your mother,” Edwin said when Jason announced the engagement. Ellie did not want children, she did not cook, she did not paint or sculpt or write poetry, she just wanted to save the world. “But each man to his own.” It seemed to Jason like permission, if not enthusiasm.
There were ten of them for the present-giving ceremony under the Christmas tree, with mince pies and champagne while the turkey finished cooking. Jason’s elder brother Oliver, who worked for The Economist, and his wife Jo, the artist, were there: and Jason’s older sister Martha, who had no spouse but two teenage daughters. The latter were an agreeable pair, who gave up tweets and Facebook for the occasion. Jason gave designer ties, Harrods wrapped, to adult males; Liberty scarves to his mother and sister; electronics to his nieces. Ellie gave Action Aid cards to everyone, with a prepaid £20 gift voucher to go towards water purification* schemes in rural Zambia. (The grown-ups received these with careful courtesy: only the teenagers seemed genuinely enthusiastic.) Dahlia gave Ellie a string of large amber beads, which Ellie accepted graciously but did not put on, and Jason a crocodile wallet. (Ellie, sotto voce: “Crocodile?”) After the plethora* of gifts had been exchanged, Ellie went round smoothing bits of old wrapping paper and folding them for re-use, and Dahlia thanked her but was clearly just going to bin them as soon as she could.
The turkey was still not cooking: the gas pressure was low. Martha went out to help Dahlia in the kitchen. So it was more mince pies* and more champagne in front of the log fire. The teenagers texted their friends, and Ellie stretched her long splendid body on the sofa and Oliver tried not to look, and Jo tried not to notice him trying not to look.
Ellie politely declined both mince pies and champagne with the slightest raise of the eyebrows and flaring of exquisite nostrils.
“There’s meat suet* in the mince pies, Oliver. And I don’t drink alcohol. Just some water, please — not bottled, simple tap.”
Then Ellie brought up the subject of potlatch*. Jason shrank inwardly. She was bored and meant trouble. All he wanted was for them to like her.
“I know about potlatch,” Oliver said. “The annual gift-giving ritual of the red Indians.”
“Native Americans, I hope,” said Ellie, and Jo spluttered, and Jason thought disloyally that if he’d married his other girlfriend, Rosie, instead of Ellie, he might have remained a frivolous person without principles but at least Christmas would be more relaxed.
Perhaps he’d chosen the wrong woman? He’d read some research on courtship rituals, which said that women, with more invested in procreation* than men, waited a long time searching for Mr Right — often too long, their ability to choose diminishing with the years. While men, for whom in their early years it was just sexual hit and run, waited until their mid thirties before being moved to settle down, looked around the women of their existing acquaintance and picked the one they found most suitable. And it was true, either could have done; Rosie was in advertising, fun in bed, witty and sexy, if rather blingy in style, but Ellie had something extra — an erotic power, the unsmiling she-who-must-be-obeyed touch, the one with principles, the one he hoped his parents would like. Yet it could so easily have gone the other way.
Rosie would have understood that potlatch was not a tactful subject to bring up on Christmas Day, Ellie did not, unless she was doing it on purpose. Perhaps she was? Potlatch was the name given by the Kwakiutl tribes to their custom of annual gift-giving, evolved in a land of great plenty. It was their form of war. The tribe who out-gifted won. “Take five of our beautiful maidens.” “We give you this priceless totem pole.” “Take these two incomparable hunting canoes.” “Ha! We gift 12 weatherproof wigwams we don’t even need — you must have them!” The losing tribe would bow its communal head in disgrace and slink away. No blood shed, just victory and defeat.
But all stayed amiable, even animated. Martha’s home-made bramble jelly* for Jason, against his Liberty scarf to her — hers the expression of affection, his of wealth — who won? The teenagers’ unhealthy but welcome chocolate fudge against Ellie’s healthy but un-fun water purification scheme? Edwin’s gift of sacks of cut-price barbecue fuel for his sons and a half-price double-boiler for Martha, both from the local garage, when he’d received a Marc Jacobs necktie, a piece of Chilean mine rock and a jar of damson jam? Who lost? And then the turkey was cooked and they all went though to lunch, still friends, which Jason suspected might not please Ellie.
The 15lb turkey, now a perfect golden brown, oozing its juices, was carried in to mild applause. Ellie darted a look of despair at Jason, which Jason ignored but Martha’s teenagers did not miss. They whispered and giggled behind their hands.
“Ellie doesn’t eat dead animals,” said one.
“Eating dead animals is gross,” said the other. “Couldn’t you carve it in the kitchen?”
Oliver, as the eldest son, sharpened the knife for his father to carve., and glared at t his nieces. Martha came back from the kitchen with a special dish for Ellie. It was a miniature of the dead bird, sculpted in lentils and nuts, perfect in all detail, even to the darker colour of the fleshless stumps of the legs. It must have taken hours to make. Ellie stared at it for a second or two and then took a spoon and punched the bird shape down into an anonymous grey vegetarian mess and began to eat. Aware that others were staring at her, she put down her spoon and said, “Oh, sorry everyone, is there grace* or something?”
Dahlia said rather sharply, “No there’s not,” and Ellie said, “But I thought that was what Christmas was all about. Jesus and all that. I mean, otherwise, why?”
No one responded to her so Ellie went on eating while the turkey was carved. Jason had a vision of his mother snatching the knife and stabbing Ellie between her white breasts, which took some time to fade. Work was a cinch, he decided, compared with family life. He knew he should be angry with his wife. She had been deliberately hurtful to his mother. But after all, a man had to choose between them; surely the husband must in the end leave the mother and cleave to the wife.
Dahlia resumed smiling and everyone except Ellie helped themselves to cranberry and bread sauce, chestnut stuffing, crisp roast potatoes, baked parsnips*, buttered sprouts and quantities of gravy. And yet somehow, Jason felt, the spirit had fled the ritual, as had his memory of a charmed childhood. It was left empty and mildly absurd. He supposed that was growing up.
And then over Christmas pudding with brandy butter, whipped cream and caster sugar (Ellie: “No thanks Dahlia, I don’t eat puddings”), Martha let slip that she was pregnant. It was news to Jason but not to everyone else. He felt hurt and left out, and said so.
“I didn’t tell you,” said Martha, “because Ellie will only despise me for overpopulating the world, and somehow in the early stages all you want is other people’s good wishes. I thought I’d wait a bit.”
“We must all make our own moral choices,” said Ellie. “Mine is no babies. A Western baby has a frighteningly heavy carbon footprint. It uses up on average 8,300 disposable nappies*, and that’s just the beginning.”
Edwin said that personally he was a climate-warmth denier, which Ellie ignored as being beneath contempt. The teenagers stared at their grandfather in amazement, as if he’d just claimed to be a one-time member of the SS.
“I won’t use disposables,” said Martha. “I’ll use fabric nappies.”
“But you’ll machine wash and that’s even worse for the environment,” said Ellie.
“Then the planet’s just going to have to put up with it,” said Martha, crossly. “Why do you have to keep rubbing our noses in the truth? If it is the truth, which I doubt. You’ll invent any old statistic just to prove a point.”
“The truth is the truth,” said Ellie. “There are too many babies in the world.”
“Methinks our Ellie doth protest too much,” said Dahlia. “Her body clock is ticking away and now the clock has struck 30, Ellie will soon change her mind about not having babies.”
“Oh no, she won’t,” said Ellie. “Unless she divorces your son. Jason’s due for a vasectomy* next week.”
Startled eyes turned to Jason.
He was, too. He’d resisted the idea at first. He hadn’t thought Ellie’s not wanting babies through. Did that mean he was never to have children himself — just be with one woman all his life? (Ellie, weeping: “I thought you loved me, but you don’t.”) It wasn’t that he actively wanted children, he just didn’t want not to have children. (Ellie: “That’s totally unfair on me.”) She might die: he might meet someone else (Ellie: “Now you want me dead!”) Because it seemed somehow ungrateful to his parents, thus rejecting the line of life they had passed down to him. (Ellie: “I told you so. You love your family more than me!”) Then Ellie had pointed out that his mother’s mitochondrial line would pass through Martha’s girls anyway, bypassing her sons, so what was he worrying about? And then she added that the reason she was sometimes reluctant to have sex was in case she got pregnant and then she’d have to have an abortion. (Ellie, weeping: “Why are you doing this to me, why? You want our sex life wrecked!”) So he’d capitulated.
Babies are gross anyway,” said one of Martha’s teenagers into the silence, and the other one sang: “If you’re gonna be my lover, you gotta get with the snip.” And Ellie said smugly, “Way to go, girls!” and Jason had a sudden vision of a Christmas in which Rosie was his wife and his little children ran about — but Rosie had married someone else on the rebound, and anyway what was done was done. He had chosen Ellie, he would stick with Ellie. His parents had had to know, sooner or later.
One way or another they got through until the end of the day, when Ellie stood up and said: “We must be off now. Jason’s been drinking so I’ll be driving, it’s dusk already and I hate driving in the dark.” Jason stood up at once and that, thank God, was Christmas over.
When they were saying goodbyes at the door, Oliver whispered to Jason: “When she buggers off you can always come and stay with us,” which was fairly unforgivable but then Oliver, too, was rather drunk. Jason thought Dahlia had been crying and his father’s goodbye seemed strained and Martha was nowhere to be seen. He couldn’t somehow react to any of it. He thought he was in a state of shock but couldn’t remember why. He’d had a lot to drink.
On the way home, before they got to the main road, Ellie slowed the Jaguar and pulled into a lay-by. She laid her little white hand on his knee and moved it up towards his crotch*. “What, now? Here? Why?” He was startled. “Because you’ve been a good boy,” she said. “And we’ll never have to do Christmas again. It’s your reward.”
He was not sure what moved him but he found himself out of the car and walking back towards home.
“But why?” she called after him.
“Because it’s against my principles to stay,” he shouted back at her and went on walking.
© Fay Weldon 2010
* potter -Töpfer(-in)
* account executive - Kundenbetreuer
* to be a dig at - ein Seitenhieb sein gegen
* to presage - ankündigen, Vorbote sein
* to fornicate - herumhuren
* to wean off - abhalten von
* carnivorous - Fleisch fressend
* extinction of rare species - Austserben von seltenen Tierarten
* to defuse - entschärfen
* snarky - bissig, höhnisch
* fidgety - zapplig, unruhig
* carbon footprint - CO²-Bilanz, CO²-Fussabdruck
* mulled wine - Glühwein
* smock - Kittel
* water purification - Wasseraufbereitung
* plethora of - Fülle von
* mince pies - Mince Pie (süsses Weihnachtsgebäck, enthält oft Hackfleisch)
* meat suet - Rindertalg
* potlatch - is a festival ceremony practised by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The main purpose of the potlatch is the re-distribution and reciprocity of wealth.
The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods.
* procreation - Fortpflanzung, Nachwuchs
* bramble jelly - Brombeergelee
* to say grace - das Tischgebet sprechen
* parsnips - Pastinaken
* disposable nappies - Einwegwindeln
* vasectomy - Sterilisation
* crotch - Schritt, Genitalien
1. Characterize Jason and Ellie respectively, particularly taking into account their backgrounds and their present occupations.
2. Describe the atmosphere at Jason's parents' Christmas dinner party.
3. Why is the subject of 'potlatch' a tactless one to bring up at this occasion?
4. What does Ellie's remark "And we'll never have to do Christmas again" suggest as to her behaviour at the Christmas party?
5. Do you think that Ellie' attitude and behaviour towards her view of life is typical of present day women?
6. Concerning implicit and explicit characterizations, how is Ellie characterized? Why is the type of characterization you found appropriate for this character?
Source: TimesOnline, Dec.26, 2010