Poor Betty

 

A

t the time there was confusion. How could it possibly have happened?
Then, months later, Norma, the younger of two daughters, began stirring further uncertainty. Soon the whole town believed they knew what that girl said in our police station (we have only the one).
Since any cause for the accident was hard to fathom, at first most assumed Bill must have been driving – one of his “flare ups” might explain matters.
He was a decent man and much missed. He wasn’t a bully – no one accused him of that – but was inclined to shout.
Stragglers on the crossing might hear “take your time – we’ve all day to serve you!”
Youths driving recklessly with loud music would not catch words, though saw well enough if Bill was yelling at them.
But it was at golf that we most saw the erratic. On good days Bill’s swing was a beauty – a movement to watch. He would be winning until some small thing went wrong.
After fuming a bit he’d be incapable of getting back anywhere near his best.
It was, wrongly, taken for granted that the man who dropped from star player to unpredictable frustration must have been at the wheel.
His wife, Betty, known for having “the sweet patience of a saint,” never raised her mild voice.

She was a cautious driver. So something had to have happened. Maybe a tyre blew, or they skidded on a corner. Possibly Betty, who wouldn’t like to hit anything, was trying to avoid a possum on the road.
Except it was a long straight stretch and there were no marks to indicate the car went out of control, rather it looked to have been driven straight at a massive tree yards back from the road.
Bill went through the windscreen, this being before seatbelts, and his brother arrived in town to sort the funeral while Betty was still in a coma.
Neither of the two daughters had been with them and it was four weeks before Betty could be questioned.
But each day, once she began surfacing, she had to be told, as if for the first time, that Bill was dead. She seemed unable to take it in that her driving was almost certainly at fault.
Poor Betty. She had been close to her girls. A gentle woman, who smocked lovely, matching dresses when they were small and put frills on skirts when they were older. She embroidered exquisite daisies over dainty frocks and sewed roses on their nightgowns.
The house was all lace and pretty cushions, not pink except in bedrooms, but delicate in pastel. The beds, including the marital one, had soft toys put back each morning on top of candlewick bedspreads.
We laughed at how “Big Bill” sent the others in his household into a feminine flurry of mutual shelter.
Betty drew her daughters near and there was no doubt both were their mother’s girls. Colleen and Norma grew as pretty and soft as Betty – not sexy, except in exuding a need for protection.
At least that it is how they were before the crash.
Our good neighbour was dead and it looked conceivable careful Betty could be charged with reckless driving.
Meanwhile Norma had erupted. The day before her father’s funeral, she chopped off long, wavy, light hair to a crew cut as short as Bill’s, and dyed it black.
With this move she looked more like Bill than Betty.
She was seventeen and began to smoke and drink and call herself “Norm” at school
.
Colleen, at twenty, was already engaged. She worked in Wanganui, at a kindergarten, reluctantly an hour distant during the week and waiting for a job in town to become available.
But soon after the accident Colleen looked unlike herself – a ghost with no vitality.
“Become just a greedy stone,” Norma said of her sister.
By the time Betty recovered enough to go home both girls were a worry.
But at least Betty remembered- was sure she recalled – Bill suddenly shouting and grabbing the wheel. That made sense. Though never violent he would tense up more readily than most.
Betty was distraught to think she might in anyway be to blame, so while she wept the police felt it would be brutish to push. After all there were no witnesses.

On Bill’s birthday, five months after his death, Norma walked into the police station. She demanded to know why her mother had not been charged with manslaughter. The proof of Betty’s intent seemed to be that she had never before driven if Bill was in the car. Even when he was exhausted, he was the man and they both expected him to drive.

A few weeks after this scandal, Betty fell in the High Street outside our butchers.
The always trim and immaculately presented woman lay collapsed and bleeding on a pavement for all to see.
This was not the Betty we had known from school – her tranquil world had been transformed – everything tipped over.
As if her younger daughter flying off the rails wasn’t enough, the elder, Colleen, had broken the engagement, given up her job, and taken to her bed eating cake. For months she just watched old films, gaining weight.
It was a while before Betty realised Colleen was pregnant.

City ways might be changing but we still went for shotgun marriages and did not have children out of wedlock.
But Colleen, as limp as the ragdoll on her bed, would not face up to things – leaving all to her battered mother.
It was Betty who talked to the rejected fiancé and told him the deal. Shocked as he was – “But we only did it that night of the funeral” – nevertheless he would not “dash away to Australia,” he said. He agreed the wedding better be pushed forward very fast but could he talk to Colleen?
“Not yet,” Betty told him, since Colleen absolutely refused to get dressed or see the boy.
Unsure how to put backbone in her daughter, Betty called in the vicar to spell out the duty required of a girl who got herself with child.
Colleen just turned her face away and said she could never live with a man. Especially if he wanted to do “that” ever again.
Betty wailed and pleaded – the due date was getting near.
Finally she yelled: “So you intend to put your baby up for adoption?”
Colleen blocked her ears and looked blank. “Father used to shout,” she said, “and we don’t.”
Betty, presumably at breaking point, flung the cup she was holding at the window. As both broke, Norma rushed in, still smoking, though Betty insisted, as she’d done with Bill, that cigarettes must stay in the garden (Bill also kept whiskey in his shed. Betty didn’t drink apart from a small glass of sweet Sauterne at Christmas or a wedding).
Norma ran to her sister and gathered in her lap that pale face which had been lovely and now looked like blancmange.
What Norma then told Colleen she soon repeated to others.

Soon we all thought we knew she said, “But that mother of ours did, finally, learn to shout. For a moment I wanted to cheer! Eventually she was louder than him. It felt clean after years of sulks and silences and tears – two decades of “loving virtue” – perpetually wronged by “male insensitivity.”
You weren’t here but I caught every word, though the volume shrank once she started accusing him of having reduced her to his level. You should have heard the quiet venom in a declaration that “this” could never, ever be forgiven!
By “this” she meant standing up to him, using the same weapon, instead of the tricks with which she always got her way.
So why did she persuade him to drive off to those rhododendrons next morning?
Don’t tell me peace was on offer. Her spine was still stiffened with righteous indignation as they left.
Having watched them go, through the bedroom curtains, I curled back in bed, around certainty that something horrible lay ahead.
I didn’t turn up for basketball – just stayed here – waiting – till you got back for the weekend.”
“And the two of us made that lemon cake. It was ready for them,” was all Colleen had to say.

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