“Interesting about E and A”: a new short story by Helen Oyeyemi

Best friends and the Brontës.

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The other night my best friend won . . . not an award, exactly. An accolade, a title? A “historian thing”. “Want to go to a historian thing?” she’d asked the week before. The ceremony was held in the sort of museum rainy days were made for. Proceedings were cordial and unusually transparent, the speeches intelligible to laymen, and we dined surrounded by discreetly enthralling artefacts – alembics and the like.

I cried all the way through that dusty little dinner. I’d stop for a while and then every time someone congratulated my best friend I’d start again. The worst of it is that I might have been forcing the tears; I don’t know. I hope I wasn’t, but . . . there was something unnatural about the weeping, too, or maybe just the staccato rhythm of it, like a rainstorm conducted from an orchestra pit. Two tears at a time, one held in each of my closed eyelids until there was no more room for them, and then they fell together. My best friend’s eldest son handed me tissue after tissue and stated, somehow without possessiveness, disgust or reproach (at least one of which he would’ve been entitled to, I think), that he was proud of her too:

“We all are.”

It’s childish to have a “best friend”, I know.

Even more childish to throw a tantrum – and I suppose it was some sort of tantrum – because she wins something. We made a pact, though . . . we did make a pact, and it’s too galling to have her break it this definitively, and without so much as a by-your-leave.

It was a question of devotion.

“She who loves most loses, and all that sort of thing,” was how my best friend put it at the time. “Then let’s always lose,” I said. It was our intention to be lifelong scholars, and we’d just reached the point at which the stratagems that used to win us praise as undergraduates only drew faint scorn from circles beyond. We saw much failure ahead. And so we vowed never to win, to read, to attempt no mastery, to suspect all conclusions, to read, read, read, and read again. For a good many years our fidelity to these principles kept us beautifully irrelevant to our contemporaries, our presentations at conferences only attended by handfuls of people who’d come in by mistake and were too embarrassed to correct their error. An assortment of small humiliations galled us more than we expected – galled us and spurred us on to yet richer losses. My best friend has kept and framed a postcard I sent her from Kyoto twenty-five years ago, a postcard on which I’d drawn my head crowned with a dunce cap. I’d written: Misreading of key passage so profound I must relearn alphabet. Once I’d found my way through that particular thicket, the work I’d submitted won a substantial grant that would’ve allowed me to pursue a few notions to a yet more preposterous place. I accepted the grant but my best friend made me give the money back. There was no need to even discuss it, no case I could have made to unfix her cold regard.

I reminded her of this last week after her dinner, and she asked if I held a grudge. There were so many answers that I could give no answer. There were so many other victories my best friend had forbidden, and she’d unremembered them all. I’d forbidden her nothing, though there were occasions that had kindled suspicion in me. When, midway through our thirties, my best friend passed from wistful glances at other people’s toddlers to cradling her own children, I asked myself if this was not covert breach of contract. While it wasn’t possible to quantify or even identify her winnings,
it did seem that she was no longer losing.

“Congratulations,” I said, at last.

“Thank you,” she replied. “And you know . . . here’s one way of looking at this evening . . . really I accepted an honour for the both of us.”

I screeched, startled us both, and went on screeching. Unlike the tears, this wasn’t forced. I could not steady my heart.

Luckily my best friend is a wonderful ­listener. That evening in my living room she sat beside me on my ugly, overstuffed sofa and listened to my screeching, and when she moved away it was to stoke up the fireplace, rest her foot on the fender and continue listening. I longed to push her into the flames but dared not, as that might necessitate jumping in too. After a while she cleared her throat; I heard that, so I must have stopped screeching. “We’re just like E and A,” she said. “Only which is which?”

****

E and A are letters my best friend found in a letter. We’ve formed such conjectures around those two letters . . . conjectures of a nature it’s not possible to publicly put our names to. Best friend would be furious if she knew I’d written this much about it – and that is very E of her. In this telling, initials and silhouettes are my friend – the best I have to hand, since Brontë scholars are a tempestuous bunch and any explicit links I make could land us into a feud we have no resources for . . .

The letter I speak of is in an archive not far from St Michael’s Mount; decades ago my best friend shook some branches of her family tree and some words came down. Fragmented sentences, only intermittently readable, as the paper they’d been written on had been torn apart and then pieced back together much later. The author of the letter is fond of snuff and common sense; the penmanship is handsome.

. . . interesting about E and A . . .

That’s the fragment that hooked us. The letter was written by a Haworth woman to her sister in Penzance; the carbon-verified date of the letter and all legible references to places and people suggest that its author was a contemporary of those three Yorkshire parsonage-raised sisters whose novels have shaped and refracted the English imagination for centuries.

. . . interesting about E and A . . .

A contemporary? Fiddlesticks to that, circumspection be damned. We’ve decided that the author of this letter is more than just a contemporary; she’s no less than a member of that literary family. And we have a name for her. We call her Aunt B, just as those three lady novelists might have if writing in haste.

Whatever it is Aunt B wonders about E and A, her query is not urgent. She doesn’t have time to examine her own curiosity; she can only note it and then make another run at that pile of darning that never diminishes, only grows, seeming to actively feed on the diligence of the needles applied to it. What moves such a woman? Duty. Pity. She came to Haworth from Cornwall when her sister was killed by uterine cancer. She’d only stay a while, she declared. Only as long as her sister’s children needed her. There were six to look after when she came, the eldest aged seven, and even as Aunt B cosseted and chided she wrote and spoke frequently of going home to Penzance. The two eldest children were killed by consumption and after that Aunt B was needed there in Haworth for the rest of her life. She co-operated with this demand as a matter of course, did not allow herself to dwell on it. Duty and pity; everyday fuel. A third factor too, not easily named.

. . . E and A . . .

What if Aunt B was talking about the two youngest members of that family? Dishevelled E with those no-colour eyes and abrupt shifts in attention – she ignored you when you were trying to teach her something, but at other times you’d look up from some bit of work of your own and find her contemplating you as if about to pounce. A was an oddly pleasing combination of mouse and muted pearl. E was as plain-spoken and concise as any housekeeping Aunt in need of practical assistance could wish, but she was like a magnet for bracken, muddy pawprints, canaries and injured moorland creatures that nonetheless made cunning attempts to shift the site of their convalescence to the Parsonage pantry.

Baby sister A, two years younger than E, was the picture of tranquillity. And yet there were those instances in their earlier childhood, before they became much more guarded, when E would blurt out some shocking observation and then, ever scrupulous, declare that A had said it first. A’s serenity cast doubt on the veracity of such declarations, but she never contradicted any word or deed of E’s. In her quiet way A contradicted every other family member but her infallible E, and got away with it, too.

Activities of E and A, what you’d notice if you took an interest in them (more conjecture):

Two girls sweetening their dreary breakfasts by flecking the morning porridge with sprigs of heather –

Two girls perched on a piano bench, giving their family a concert – A’s voice raised in song as E’s fingers swooped along the keys. Their elder brother and sister looked on fondly, minds elsewhere, penning despatches to absent friends. That was fine – all the more music for Aunt B and for the children’s father, who’s having such a nice time he keeps chuckling and slapping his knee. If Aunt B could, she might have wished for more concerts and less of the disorder with which E and A approached intellectual endeavour. Anything a person writes with her sister hanging off the back of her chair is bound to be utter nonsense.

Why single out E and A? It’s not as if the other sibling duo in the family, C and B, were dull. In fact most of that household’s drama was sourced from C and B. Perhaps they had a pact too. Perhaps their vow was to win, and that was what made them thrash so hard in those maelstroms of grand passion and foundering aspiration. Elsewhere in the house E and A designed their palace in the world to come, which was just like this one except much less frustrating because in E and A’s world to come you could simply horsewhip anybody who annoyed you. And if anybody tried to say you nay then you could horsewhip the naysayer too.

E did most of the drawing, and her drawing was like the music that she brought to the house – its opulent clarity lit fissures and contortions that connected the monstrous and the divine. E and A’s palace was not built in a spirit of secrecy; it was more of a second home they were making ready for their family to join them in. Yes, E and A’s brother and sister would be surprised one day, when they had a spare moment to visit. I did not realise the full extent of your powers, E and A, they would say. Especially little A. People already thought E might be a genius; mostly because she didn’t react well to affirmation. If anybody had asked A, which they did not, A might have said that E liked affirmation as much as the next person, but that the irritation lay in the limits. And if A had said that, she would have been speaking of the forms of affirmation that were available to E, to A, to their sister C, and so on. What are you meant to say if someone shows approval of you by saying you should have been born a man?

In contrast, the compliments E and A paid each other were in the work they did, together and apart. Once, their elder sister C implied that some story of A’s had in fact been written by or copied from E (there was a recklessness, or a desperation to it, a something that didn’t fit A’s habitual demeanour), and A set about the business of gentle contradiction, but E cut all that short by cracking open one eye – everybody had thought she was asleep – and stating that the story was A’s, unmistakably A’s, a fact that C’s envy could not alter. Another time E and A’s elder brother B sneered at some phraseology of A’s, and A assembled a defence, but E made short work of that, too, simply by saying “You are mistaken” as she smiled an unequivocally upsetting smile; E’s expressions could be so very graphic at times . . .

I mean, I know what I myself find interesting about E and A – the extraordinary good fortune of being so well understood, or well appreciated (whichever is most realistic), the circumstances that taint that good fortune, rages that check affection and affection that checks rage as you draw that understanding again and again from the only source from which it will ever be issued . . . these are the conjectures that interest me, but Aunt B, Aunt B’s shaking her head. Ah no, she’s saying. That is not it.

Aunt B’s story is a sibling story too. She had four other sisters, but E and A’s mother was the one dearest to her, so couldn’t the E-A dynamic have reminded Aunt B of the great love she bore her dead sister?

Aunt B is still shaking her head: That is not it. She’s got no time for my assumption that she’d only be interested in things that remind her of herself. She seems to think I could do with forgetting myself for a bit too. (After all, isn’t that the reason I picked up this entire line of thought?) Well, all right then . . . what if as far as Aunt B was concerned, this “interesting” thing about E and A is that they claimed Aunt B as mother rather than mother figure, as their elder siblings might have?

E and A’s elder brother took his scoldings with polite detachment and then made himself scarce for hours. E and A’s elder sister panicked when scolded; she was never quite sure Aunt B would continue to tolerate her. But E and A could not recall any ­maternal crossness other than Aunt B’s, so they embraced her instead of running away, E in particular having the temerity to kiss Aunt B’s furrowed brow, honouring the wrinkles she’d put there herself by ­doing things like coming home with lilac-coloured dressmaking cloth when she’d been sent out for navy. Lilac printed all over with lightning bolts, yet.

Aunt B is no longer shaking her head; this could mean she’s agreeing, or it could mean she gives up.

****

There is a stone circle in Penzance called the Merry Maidens. When E and A’s mother was seventeen or so and not yet E and A’s mother, she picnicked there with Sunday school friends, right in the centre of the circle. There must have been some sort of lesson in that, something about fearlessness. Most of the other picnickers stayed out of the centre in the end, as they didn’t quite like it there, but not only did the girl who was to become E and A’s mother despatch her share of the feast with appetite, she ran the Maiden run.

What is the Maiden run, asked the woman who was to become Aunt B.

The girl who was to become E and A’s mother swore her to secrecy before telling her, as it had to do with one of those local legends that, whilst harmless, also fall into the category of divination . . .

You should not try to foresee the future, but trust in God to order your days, the woman who was to become Aunt B said at once. At twenty-four years of age to her sister’s seventeen, she was a very prim and proper young lady. But she swore not to tell, and heard that by circling the Merry Maidens a virgin could learn in advance how many children they’d have when they were wed. One child per complete circuit of the stones. The teachers didn’t know the running had any special meaning, and when a boy who was in the know tripped and fell halfway around the stone circle he covered his gloom with a rueful smile.

Hmmm, said the woman who was to become Aunt B, and how many times did you circle the stones, then, M.

Six times.

Six times?! The girl who was to become E and A’s mother was so far from athletic that she must either have had great desire for progeny or those seven stones truly held the power of prophecy.

Six times. I didn’t even begin to tire until the fourth time round, I think. Ask Susan Jones; she counted for me. But you can’t really ask her . . . I swore her to secrecy too, so she’ll only feign mystification.

The woman who was to become Aunt B, prim and proper at twenty-four years of age and trying not to fear the prospect of remaining virginal for the rest of her days, took a group of visiting cousins to picnic near the very same stone circle as soon as was seemly. The cousins thought she was in the throes of some sort of nervous attack when she hitched her skirts up around her ankles and ran from stone to stone, running her palm along each rough surface, trying to keep count. Once she reached nineteen she could begin again at one, but she kept skipping numbers and ran faster than she would’ve liked to, as a couple of her cousins had taken it upon themselves to chase after her. Though it was spring there was an icy wind about, and this gale took her side, bending the grass so that as each heel struck the turf the after-ripple pushed her onwards.
A few of her more competitive cousins decided that this was a game, and began running too, shouting out rules as they did so. The woman who was to become Aunt B ran on and the wind kissed her – cold, lingering kisses that cracked the skin on her lips.

(This has been non-stop conjecture and Aunt B should have emphatically shaken her head all the way through it, but she’s kept calm. And just now she winked at me. Or got something in her eye. No, definitely a wink! It is the wink of an A or an E, doesn’t matter which, a wink that says you’re losing well, my dear, and I’m sorry, and I’m glad. We are specialists at this kind of wink, my best friend and me.)

When the girl who was to become E and A’s mother asked her sister how many times she’d circled the stones, the woman who was to become Aunt B didn’t know what to say. She saw a number in her mind . . . it looked like 0, but for some reason she didn’t interpret it to mean 0 as in zero children, no children. It looked like an open number, or the stone circle itself. And the woman who was to become Aunt B told the girl who was to become E and A’s mother that she’d circled the stones many more times than she could count. l

Helen Oyeyemi was included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list in 2013. Her most recent novel is “Boy, Snow, Bird” (Picador). A short story collection, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours”, will be published on 21 April

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue