MUM AND MRS. ARMITAGE
Selected Stories By Beryl Bainbridge
McGraw-Hill. 144 pp. $14.95
THE WORLD," remarked a Bainbridge character several novels ago, "is menacing and full of alarms." A certain alarmed fascination with life's little ironies -- with the tragi-comical way people's fates are trimmed to their moral stature -- has always been a hallmark of English writer Beryl Bainbridge's fiction. From Harriet Said, a hair-raising tale of two prying, murderous schoolgirls, to Young Adolf, an imaginary account of the youthful Hitler's supposed sojourn in turn-of-the-century Liverpool, Bainbridge's many novels carry a curiously bitter aftertaste. Like ashes, they sting, but also put you in mind of death.
Like the novels, too, the stories gathered in Mum and Mrs. Armitage define a highly particularized world. Bainbridge casts her net wide in search of subjects, settings and characters -- from a postwar Christmas at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel to a lunchtime game of tennis (interrupted by magic) in modern Hampstead or the strange spiritual odyssey of a contemporary English adulterer abroad -- but all the stories distill an unmistakably English quality of rooted eccentricity. Possibly not since Joyce's Dubliners has there been so depressing a group-portrait of people trapped and stunted by their cultural circumstances.
Still, Monty Python rather than James Joyce is Beryl Bainbridge's true compatriot and her satirical gift, based on an unerring eye for the killer detail -- "the stuffed stoat on the mantelpiece"; offspring who are constantly "gone hop-picking" -- has the effect of relieving the stories' otherwise relentless melancholy. Thus the best of them juggle menace with hilarity in a surprisingly pleasurable, if slightly unsettling, balancing act.
THE TITLE STORY is the most sheerly Pythonesque. A group of ill-assorted holidaymakers of all ages is staying in a hotel in the Welsh border country sometime after World War II (a favorite Bainbridge period). Coquettish Mum and her "companion" Mr. Armitage are the life of the party for everybody but Miss Emmet, a "thin lady from the Midlands," the only one apparently aware of the subtle malice underlying Mum's frenzied antics. When Mum finally gets her shocking come-uppance at Miss Emmet's hands, it is only mildly ironic that in this instance Mum was not personally responsible for Miss Emmet's injury.
"Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie" is a genteel little horror story which also lodges thrillingly in the mind. "Two weeks before Christmas, Angela Bisson gave Mrs. Henderson six tickets for the theatre. Mrs. Henderson was Angela Bisson's cleaning lady. 'I wanted to avoid giving you money,' Angela Bisson told her. '. . . Somehow the whole process is so degrading.' " Mrs. Henderson, who "had never, when accepting money, felt degraded," nevertheless takes her family -- scoffing husband, snooty son and daughter, obnoxious grandson -- to a performance of Peter Pan. But then the gaudy pantomime being acted out on stage is counterpointed and mocked by the slow, unnoticed pantomime of Mr. Henderson's death by heart attack in the private darkness of the auditorium.
And what is one to make of "Helpful O'Malley," a marvelously creepy tale of a tenant who, in the absence of the landlady, assiduously undertakes to rent out the difficult-to-let second floor room? Why had several recent occupants "moved on in the space of a few weeks"? Why were "none of those ever likely to come back"? It is chilling to speculate on O'Malley's interest in the free gas which a broken meter supplies to that particular room.
No less strange is "The Man Who Blew Away," the story of a timorous adulterer named Pinkerton, traveling to Corfu to meet his mistress while his wife thinks he's fishing in Ireland. Pursued by "signs and portents of a religious nature" all the way from Gatwick airport, Pinkerton is finally overcome by the discomforts of guilt and packs to leave. Before he does so, however, he wants to try just one parachute ride across the bay, a matter of holding on to a bar attached to a scarlet parachute tethered to a speedboat. When his parachute snaps loose from the boat in a freak gust of wind, Pinkerton simply blows away, "free as a bird," in an involuntary gesture of religious ecstasy.
Several of the stories, less flamboyant than these, focus on the furtive activities of suburban philanderers, a type which seems to fascinate Bainbridge. In "People for Lunch," Margaret and Richard invite their toney friends Dora and Charles for a Sunday meal, which they are forced to hold al fresco, next to the rubbish bins, since their teenage son refuses to budge from the "telly" in the dining room. Before lunch is over, it is clear that relationships are more squalidly complicated than they appear. "The Worst Policy" dramatizes an amusing variation on the same scenario: a cheating wife contrives to entertain her lover in her best friend's bedroom, only to be caught in flagrante delicto by her friend's son, climbing in the bedroom window in pursuit of some underhanded activity of his own.
All dozen stories in Mum and Mrs. Armitage are pretty funny; what limits them is that the laughter they prompt is so often uneasy. The humor which leavens these scenes of people getting, in various ways, their just deserts, is after all thoroughly dismissive. There are no second chances, no possibilities of redemption or life-altering revelation, such as Joyce or Flannery O'Connor or even Raymond Carver, all quite as keenly aware of life's little hampering threads, allow their characters. It is hard not to ask: even though the house is English, must it be so bleak?
Elizabeth Ward frequently reviews contemporary fiction for Book World.