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Ruth at College
(Extract from the book by A. Brookner "A Start in Life". Abridged)
The main advantage of being at college was that she could work in the library until nine o'clock. She was now able to feed and clothe herself. She had, for the moment, no worries about money. In her own eyes she was rich, and it was known, how, she did not understand, that she was not on a grant,' did not share a flat with five others, did not live in a hall of residence, and took abundant baths, hot water being the one element of life at home.
There was also the extreme pleasure of working in a real library, with access to the stacks. The greed for books was still with her, although sharing them with others was not as pleasant as taking them to the table and reading through her meals. But in the library she came as close to a sense of belonging as she was ever likely to encounter.2
She was never happier than when taking notes, rather elaborate notes in different coloured ball-point pens, for the need to be doing something while reading, or with reading, was beginning to assert itself. Her essays, which she approached as many women approach a meeting with a potential lover, were well received. She was heartbroken when one came back with the words "I cannot read your writing" on the bottom.
She bought herself a couple ofpleated skirts, like those worn by Miss Parker;* she bought cardigans and saddle shoes3 and thus found a style to which she would adhere for the rest other life.
* Miss Parker — Ruth's teacher at school.
The days were not long enough. Ruth rose early, went out for a newspaper and some rolls, made coffee, and washed up, all before anybody was stirring. She was the neatest person in the house. As she opened the front door to leave, she could hear the others greeting the day from their beds with a variety of complaining noises, and escaped quickly before their blurred faces and slippered feet could spoil her morning. She was at one with the commuters at the bus stop.4 There would be lectures until lunch time, tutorials in the afternoon. In the Common Room there was an electric kettle and she took to supplying the milk and sugar.5 It was more of a home than home had been for a very long time. There was always someone to talk to after the seminar, and she would take a walk in the evening streets before sitting down for her meal in a sandwich bar at about six thirty. Then there was work in the library until nine, and she would reach home at about ten.
'But don't you ever go out?' asked her friend Anthea. For she was surprised to find that she made friends easily. Needing a foil or acolyte for her flirtatious popularity, she had found her way to Ruth unerringly;6 Ruth, needing the social protection of a glamorous friend, was grateful. Both were satisfied with the friendship although each was secretly bored by the other. Anthea's conversation consisted either of triumphant reminiscences — how she had spumed this one, accepted that one, how she had got the last pair of boots in Harrod's sale, how she had shed five pounds in a fortnight — or recommendations beginning 'Why don't you?' Why don't you get rid of those ghastly skirts and buy yourself some trousers? You're thin enough to wear them. Why don't you have your hair properly cut? Why don't you find a flat of your own? You can't stay at home all your life.
These questions would be followed rapidly by variants beginning 'Why haven't you?' Found a flat, had your haircut, bought some trousers. It was as if her exigent temperament required immediate results. Her insistent yet curiously uneasy physical presence inspired conflicting feelings in Ruth,7 who was not used to the idea that friends do not always please.
By the end of the second year a restlessness came over Ruth, impelling her to spend most of the day walking. The work seemed to her too easy and she had already chosen the subject for her dissertation: "Vice and Virtue in Balzac's Novels". Balzac teaches the supreme effectiveness of bad behaviour, a matter which Ruth was beginning to perceive. The evenings in the library now oppressed her; she longed to break the silence. She seemed to have been eating the same food, tracing the'same steps for far too long.8 And she was lonely. Anthea, formally engaged to Brian, no longer needed her company.
Why don't you do your postgraduate work in America? I can't see any future for you here, apart from the one you can see yourself.
Ruth took some of Anthea's advice, had her hair cut, won a scholarship from the British Council which entitled her to a year in France working on her thesis, and fell in love. Only the last fact mattered to her, although she would anxiously examine her hair to see if it made her look any better. Had she but known it, her looks were beside the point;9 she was attractive enough for a clever woman, but it was principally as a clever woman that she was attractive. She remained in ignorance of this; for she believed herself to be dim and unworldly and had frequently been warned by Anthea to be on her guard. 'Sometimes I wonder if you're all there,'10 said Anthea, striking her own brow in disbelief.
She did this when Ruth confessed that she was in love with Richard Hirst, who had stopped her in the corridor to congratulate her on winning the scholarship and had insisted on taking her down to the refectory for lunch. Anthea's gesture was prompted by the fact that Richard was a prize beyond the expectations of most women and certainly beyond those of Ruth.11 He was one of those exceptionally beautiful men whose violent presence makes other men, however superior, look makeshift. Richard was famous on at least three counts.12 He had the unblemished blond good looks of his Scandinavian mother; he was a resolute Christian; and he had an ulcer. Women who had had no success with him assumed that the ulcer was a result of the Christianity, for Richard, a psychologist by training, was a student counsellor,13 and would devote three days a week to answering the telephone and persuading anxious undergraduates.
Then Richard would wing home to his parish and stay up for two whole nights answering the telephone to teenage dropouts,14 battered wives, and alcoholics. There seemed to be no end to the amount of bad news he could absorb.
Richard had been known to race off on his bicycle to the scene of a domestic drama and there wrestle with the conscience of an abusive husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister.
He was rarely at home. He rarely slept. He never seemed to eat. His ulcer was the concern of every woman he had ever met in his adult life. His dark golden hair streamed and his dark blue eyes were clear and obdurate as he pedalled off to the next crisis.
Into Ruth's dazed and grateful ear he spoke deprecatingly of his unmarried mothers and his battered wives. She thought him exemplary and regretted having no good works to report back.15 The race for virtue, which she had always read about, was on.
So Ruth took more of Anthea's advice and found a flat for herself.
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