Monday, 1:37 a.m.
How did I get here? Can someone please tell me that? Not in this kitchen, I mean in this life. It is the morning of the school carol concert and I am hitting mince pies. No, let us be quite clear about this, I am distressing mince pies, an altogether more demanding and subtle process.
Discarding the Sainsbury luxury packaging, I winkle the pies out of their pleated foil cups, place them on a chopping board and bring down a rolling pin on their blameless floury faces. This is not as easy as it sounds, believe me. Hit the pies too hard and they drop a kind of fat-lady curtsy, skirts of pastry bulging out at the sides, and the fruit starts to ooze. But with a firm downward motion--imagine enough pressure to crush a small beetle--you can start a crumbly little landslide, giving the pastry a pleasing homemade appearance. And homemade is what I'm after here. Home is where the heart is. Home is where the good mother is, baking for her children.
All this trouble because of a letter Emily brought back from school ten days ago, now stuck on the fridge with a Tinky Winky magnet, asking if "parents could please make a voluntary contribution of appropriate festive refreshments" for the Christmas party they always put on after the carols. The note is printed in berry red and at the bottom, next to Miss Empson's signature, there is a snowman wearing a mortarboard and a shy grin. But do not be deceived by the strenuous tone of informality or the outbreak of chummy exclamation marks!!! Oh, no. Notes from school are written in code, a code buried so cunningly in the text that it could only be deciphered at Bletchley Park or by guilty women in the advanced stages of sleep deprivation.
Take that word "parents," for example. When they write parents what they really mean, what they still mean, is mothers. (Has a father who has a wife on the premises ever read a note from school? Technically, it's not impossible, I suppose, but the note will have been a party invitation and, furthermore, it will have been an invitation to a party that has taken place at least ten days earlier.) And "voluntary"? Voluntary is teacher-speak for "On pain of death and/or your child failing to gain a place at the senior school of your choice." As for "appropriate festive refreshments," these are definitely not something bought by a lazy cheat in a supermarket.
How do I know that? Because I still recall the look my own mother exchanged with Mrs. Frieda Davies in 1974, when a small boy in a dusty green parka approached the altar at Harvest Festival with two tins of Libby's cling peaches in a shoe box. The look was unforgettable. It said, What kind of sorry slattern has popped down to the Spar on the corner to celebrate God's bounty when what the good Lord clearly requires is a fruit medley in a basket with cellophane wrap? Or a plaited bread? Frieda Davies's bread, maneuvered the length of the church by her twins, was plaited as thickly as the tresses of a Rhinemaiden.
"You see, Katharine," Mrs. Davies explained later, doing that disapproving upsneeze thing with her sinuses over teacakes, "there are mothers who make an effort like your mum and me. And then you get the type of person who"--prolonged sniff--"don't make the effort."
Of course I knew who they were: Women Who Cut Corners. Even back in 1974, the dirty word had started to spread about mothers who went out to work. Females who wore trouser suits and even, it was alleged, allowed their children to watch television while it was still light. Rumors of neglect clung to these creatures like dust to their pelmets.
So before I was really old enough to understand what being a woman meant, I already understood that the world of women was divided in two: there were proper mothers, self-sacrificing bakers of apple pies and well-scrubbed invigilators of the washtub, and there were the other sort. At the age of thirty-five, I know precisely which kind I am, and I suppose that's what I'm doing here in the small hours of the thirteenth of December, hitting mince pies with a rolling pin till they look like something mother-made. Women used to have time to make mince pies and had to fake orgasms. Now we can manage the orgasms, but we have to fake the mince pies. And they call this progress.
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