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The Grandmothers

On either side of a little promontory loaded with cafés and restaurants was a frisky but decorous sea, nothing like the real ocean that roared and rumbled outside the gape of the enclosing bay and barrier rocks known by everyone -- and it was even on the charts -- as Baxter's Teeth. Who was Baxter? A good question, often asked, and answered by a framed sheet of skilfully antiqued paper on the wall of the restaurant at the end of the promontory, the one in the best, highest and most prestigious position. Baxter's, it was called, claiming that the inner room of thin brick and reed had been Bill Baxter's shack, built by his own hands. He had been a restless voyager, a seaman who had chanced on this paradise of a bay with its little tongue of rocky land. Earlier versions of the tale hinted at pacific and welcoming natives. Where did the Teeth come into it? Baxter remained an inveterate explorer of nearby shores and islands, and then, having entrusted himself to a little leaf of a boat built out of driftwood and expertise, he was wrecked one moony night on those seven black rocks, well within the sight of his little house where a storm lantern, as reliable as a lighthouse, welcomed in ships small enough to get into the bay, having negotiated the reef.

Baxter's was now well planted with big trees that sheltered tables and attendant chairs, and on three sides below was the friendly sea.

A path wandered up through shrubs, coming to a stop in Baxter's Gardens, and one afternoon six people were making the gentle ascent, four adults and two little girls, whose shrieks of pleasure echoed the noises of the gulls.

Two handsome men came first, not young, but only malice could call them middle-aged. One limped. Then two as handsome women of about sixty -- but no one would dream of calling them elderly. At a table evidently well-known to them, they deposited bags and wraps and toys, sleek and shining people, as they are who know how to use the sun. They arranged themselves, the women's brown and silky legs ending in negligent sandals, their competent hands temporarily at rest. Women on one side, men on the other, the little girls fidgeting: six fair heads? Surely they were related? Those had to be the mothers of the men; they had to be their sons. The little girls, clamouring for the beach, which was down a rocky path, were told by their grandmothers, and then their fathers, to behave and play nicely. They squatted and made patterns with fingers and little sticks in the dust. Pretty little girls: so they should be with such good-looking progenitors.

From a window of Baxter's a girl called to them, 'The usual? Shall I bring your usual?' One of the women waved to her, meaning yes. Soon appeared a tray where fresh fruit juices and wholemeal sandwiches asserted that these were people careful of their health.

Theresa, who had just taken her school-leaving exams, was on her year away from England, where she would be returning to university. This information had been offered months ago, and in return she was kept up to date with the progress of the little girls at their first school. Now she enquired how school was going along, and first one child and then the other piped up to say their school was cool. The pretty waitress ran back to her station inside Baxter's with a smile at the two men which made the women smile at each other and then at their sons, one of whom, Tom, remarked, 'But she'll never make it back to Britain, all the boys are after her to stay.'

'More fool her if she marries and throws all that away,' said one of the women, Roz -- in fact Rozeanne, the mother of Tom. But the other woman, Lil (or Liliane), the mother of Ian, said, 'Oh, I don't know,' and she was smiling at Tom. This concession, or compliment, to their, after all, claim to existence, made the men nod to each other, lips compressed, humorously, as at an often-heard exchange, or one like it.

'Well,' said Roz, 'I don't care, nineteen is too young.'

'But who knows how it might turn out?' enquired Lil, and blushed. Feeling her face hot she made a little grimace, which had the effect of making her seem naughty, or daring, and this was so far from her character that the others exchanged looks not to be explained so easily.

They all sighed, heard each other and now laughed, a full frank laugh that seemed to acknowledge things unsaid. One little girl, Shirley, said, 'What are you laughing at?' and the other, Alice, 'What's so funny? I don't see anything funny,' and copied her grandmother's look of conscious naughtiness, which in fact had not been intended. Lil was uncomfortable and blushed again.

Shirley persisted, wanting attention, 'What's the joke, Daddy?' and at this both daddies began a tussling and buffeting of their daughters, while the girls protested, and ducked, but came back for more, and then fled to their grandmothers' arms and laps for protection. There they stayed, thumbs in their mouths, eyes drooping, yawning. It was a hot afternoon.

A scene of somnolence and satisfaction. At tables all around under the great trees similarly blessed people lazed. The seas all around them, only a few feet below, sighed and hissed and lapped, and the voices were low and lazy.

From the window of Baxter's Theresa stood with a tray of cool drinks momentarily suspended and looked out at the family. Tears slid down her cheeks. She had been in love with Tom and then Ian, and then Tom again, for their looks and their ease, and something, an air of repletion, as if they had been soaking in pleasure all their lives ...

Excerpted from The Grandmothers © Copyright 2006 by Doris Lessing. Reprinted with permission by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

The Grandmothers
by by Doris Lessing

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060530111
  • ISBN-13: 9780060530112