The Pringle sisters

by | May 25, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

Violet was sitting at the kitchen table, totally absorbed in her book. Before her, on the table, was a cold cup of tea and a half-eaten biscuit. Her sister, Daphne, called out from her arm-chair throne in the sitting room:
“Violet, are you going to just sit around all day, or are you going to at least think about getting my lunch? All my life I’ve slaved away for both of us, and here I am, at my age, having to beg for a little help from my younger sister!”
For a while Violet continued to read against the verbal tirade from the sitting room. Then, without looking up, she folded the corner of the page, closed her book, and went quietly over to the cupboard. The telephone in the kitchen rang just as she opened the cupboard door. She picked it up and put it to her ear.
At eighty-eight Daphne, the elder sister, still had a mind that was razor sharp, and she kept as close an eye upon her sister’s movements about the house as she had always done.All day long she fired barbed questions at the younger woman who now rarely replied, for an invisible wall had gradually developed between them. At first, after their mother had died and Violet was compelled to live with Daphne, she’d found it difficult to put up with her elder sister’s persistent nagging. She would stand up for herself and answer back. Slowly, painfully, she discovered that this approach was pointless. It only resulted in an intensified verbal attack from Daphne. Violet began to learn that if she were to remain quietly submissive then her sister’s anger would transform into a constant muttering about all the burdens and responsibilities that she, Daphne, had to bear.
Violet loved books. She’d abandoned the idea of teaching early on when she was offered the position of assistant librarian at the local public library. Displaying no ambition to further her career, she remained in the same poorly-paid post until she retired at sixty. Like her mother, she was one of life’s dreamers, and could not have been more different from her elder sister.
Daphne resembled her father in appearance and in character. Major Pringle had been killed in action early on during the second world war. He’d doted upon Daphne, but was forever criticising and castigating the younger of the two girls. Violet would cling to her mother whenever their father was at home, carefully watching his every movement with her large, sad brown eyes. Even this seemed to irritate the man. Daphne was only too eager to team up with her father against her little sister whenever the opportunity arose. As a consequence, the bond between Violet and her mother became very strong. They understood each other perfectly.When the twelve year-old Violet got news of her father’s death she skipped around the house happily waving the telegram. She received no reprimand from Mrs Pringle who knew precisely how her daughter felt. By then Daphne had already left home to take up a junior placement with the Ministry of Defence.
Unlike Violet, Daphne had ambition. Lots of it. She soon climbed the career ladder in the Civil Service, and ended up with a very senior position in the War Ministry. She proudly reminded Violet on countless occasions how secret her job was, not that Violet really had the remotest interest in what her elder sister got up to at work. Daphne’s retirement pension well exceeded Violet’s salary when the latter was still in employment, and Violet’s own final pension was meagre indeed. The house, together with all other assets, had been left to Daphne in her father’s will. There was nothing that Mrs Pringle could have done to change this, and Violet remained forever dependent on her sister.
It was a great comfort to Violet’s mother to have the younger girl at home with her during her last few years of life. When Violet was still only sixteen, she studied for entry into a teacher training college. Violet was a lovely girl, and Mrs Pringle was always on the lookout for a young man who might propose to her someday. She never told Daphne about allowing Violet to go to the RAF dances with her friends. She knew that Violet’s censorious sister, who only returned home once every month or two, would never have approved.
At one stage Violet thought that she would never get over the death, from tuberculosis, of her mother, but she did. In fact, somehow she became stronger. She learned how to deal with her sister’s moods and tempers herself. Of course, her own circumstances prevented her from becoming independent of her sister, and Daphne took much pleasure in constantly reminding Violet of this. Daphne had moved back to the family home after Mrs Pringle died, and commuted daily by train to London.
No one ever expected Daphne to marry. Her unappealing looks aside, she had a self-centred nature that prevented any close relationship with the opposite sex, regardless of which she’d never really had time for any man other than her own father. It was accepted that for Daphne a proposal of marriage was simply out of the question. Violet’s apparent celibacy, however, was a different matter altogether. Although her beauty faded somewhat over the years, she remained a most becoming and pleasant woman. It was certainly a great mystery to most acquaintances of the Pringles as to why the younger of the two sisters had never married. After all, many men would have found her attractive figure and her gentle, albeit dreamy, personality most endearing. Some blamed Violet’s failure to free herself from Daphne on this dreaminess. Much of the time Violet seemed to be in her own little world, and perhaps would-be suitors might have found it difficult to break through her defensive shell, although, in truth, the shell was thinner than it appeared to be. Nevertheless, most folk blamed Daphne for blocking Violet’s chances of marriage, and amongst themselves they agreed that Daphne’s jealousy of Violet’s good looks was at the root of the problem.
For whatever the reason, the two sisters stayed together as the years rolled by. Lifelong spinsterhood was clearly their destiny, and other people forgot Daphne and Violet’s differences. The two ladies simply became known as ‘the Pringle sisters’, as though they were one.
Violet went as white as a sheet as she stood in the kitchen clutching the phone to her ear.
“Who is it?” Daphne called out.
Violet’s hand holding the phone trembled. She pulled up a chair and sat down as she listened to the voice at the other end of the line.
“Violet! Who is it?” Daphne shouted.
Finally Violet, who’d only spoken a few faltering words into the telephone, put down the handset.
“For me, Daphne!”
“Daphne, it was for me.”
“Well don’t forget who has to pay for the phone bill!”
“They phoned me, Daphne. Don’t worry yourself.”
Violet had to concentrate hard as she prepared lunch for her sister, for her thoughts were far away. Even Daphne noticed her curious excitement.
“Why are you grinning, Violet?”
Every morning Violet became excited when the post arrived, and she would hurry to the door.
“What’s the rush for?” Daphne would ask. “The postman’s not going to take it away again once he’s put it through the letter box.”
Then one morning a particularly large envelope hit the doormat with a muffled thud. Violet knew this was it. It had a blue airmail label on it. She looked at the unfamiliar stamp. On it was written ‘U.S Post’. Her fingers shook with excitement as she held the envelope, turning it over to see the sender’s hand-written address, then back again to look at the stamp once more. She took the envelope into the privacy of the kitchen, where she knew she’d be completely safe from Daphne’s hawk-like eyes, despite the fact that Daphne was still in bed upstairs having one of her off days.
Violet opened the envelope very carefully with a knife. She shook out its contents onto the kitchen table. She read the letter, all three pages of it, several times. Staring at the hand-writing, with tears in her eyes, she gently stroked the dried ink script with the tips of her fingers, as though this would bring her closer to the writer. Violet picked up the writer’s photograph that had fallen out of the envelope with the letter.
“So like Alan,” she muttered, tears trickling down her cheeks. “So like him,” she repeated, touching the photograph.
Violet returned the letter and its other contents to the envelope. She placed this in the book she was reading. Daphne never touched Violet’s books. She hated books.
I’ll wait until the last possible moment before telling her, thought Violet, as she set about the day’s chores.
Violet had six weeks to sort out her affairs. She would have to renew her passport. Their last trip abroad had been almost twenty years before – a visit to Tuscany which proved to be a disaster. Ten days of nagging from Daphne, Violet ran out of books to read and to complete the picture Daphne fell ill with diarrhoea. This, it turned out, was Violet’s fault for insisting they ate at a romantic little restaurant in a hill-top village near Bagni di Lucca. Violet had earfuls about this for some years to come, and they never went abroad together again.
There was also the question of money. Violet had a little in her bank account. This she withdrew and converted to US dollars. However, he did say, in a later telephone call, that she really wouldn’t need to bring any money at all. She would be met at the airport in Boston, and he had arranged for a friend of his in London to take her to Heathrow early on the morning of the flight. As the day approached she felt more and more excited, and nothing that Daphne said seemed to irritate her any longer. She would just smile back at her grumpy sister and say, “Yes, Daphne,” or “No, Daphne.” Of course, she’d done her best to make arrangements to ensure her sister would be cared for. Mrs Williams would drop in daily, clean the house twice a week and do the laundry. Groceries would continue to be delivered to the door and, whether she liked it or not, Daphne Pringle would be getting meals on wheels every day. She could then direct complaints about her food to the council rather than to Violet. Most of all, Daphne could be reassured that would no longer have the financial burden of her younger sister. Surely she would be pleased about this?
Violet had set her alarm clock for six in the morning on the day of her departure. The pick-up for the airport was to be at seven o’clock. Daphne never got up before eight-thirty, so Violet came into her sister’s bedroom the evening before, just before Daphne would normally turn out her light.
“Violet, you really should knock before coming into my room, you know.”
It had been another of her off days.
“Don’t worry, sister. I won’t do that again. In fact, after tomorrow I shall never be seeing you again. You see, I’m flying to Boston tomorrow to stay with my son. He invited me over at first, and sent me the air tickets, but the last time he spoke with me he said to throw away the return ticket because he and his wife now want me to stay with them.”
Violet had spoken in her usual quiet matter-of-fact sort of way. Daphne just stared up at her sister from her pink, floral-patterned pillow. The woman’s mouth hung open, and with her stone-grey eyes she resembled a fishmonger’s cod. Violet thought that Daphne’s bed cap was uncommonly like a tea cosy, and with her hand she covered the faint smile that hovered on her lips. A cod with a tea cosy for a hat!
Daphne remained speechless.
“You’ll find plenty of food in the fridge,” Violet continued. “Mr Freeman will deliver the groceries as usual. Mrs Williams will see to most things, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the meals on wheels.” .
The elder sister’s cod-fish face went through a series of Rowlandson cartoon contortions as she tried to make sense of what she’d just heard.
Daphne had finally found her tongue
“Violet, I don’t think I heard you properly. I thought you said …”
“Yes,” said Violet calmly, “I’m off to stay with my son in America. I have three grand-children and one great grand-child, and I can’t wait to see them. It’s all so exciting, don’t you think?”
Daphne was not used to having questions put to her, but this one was simply preposterous. Her cod-fish mouth opened and closed, offering little in the way of sound other than a meaningless squeak. It wasn’t until Violet had left the room and closed the bedroom door that the fire-works really started.
Violet re-entered her sister’s room.
“Violet, what on earth were you saying? If this is one of your dreamy little fantasies I think it’s in bad taste. Very bad indeed! And what do you think father would have said had he heard you talk like that? Shameful! A very distasteful joke, Violet!”
Violet took the liberty of sitting down on the edge of her sister’s bed as she gave Daphne the whole story. She told her sister how she’d become pregnant towards the end of the war, when she was just seventeen, explaining, in response to Daphne’s expression of bewilderment, that those three months away, supposedly doing teacher training, were spent with a close friend of their mother prior to the baby’s birth. Their mother had made the adoption arrangements, despite her poor state of health, when it became clear that Violet would not be able to keep the child. The pain of having her own baby taken from her was, said Violet, indescribable, but her mother helped her through it all. Violet paused. Daphne’s mouth had remained open all the time, still unable to believe a word of what she was hearing. She was just about to say something, when Violet continued:
“And yes,” she said, “I do know who the father was. We were going to marry when the war was over, but he never even got the chance to know that I was pregnant. He was killed a month before the end of the war. What do you think of that, Daphne? The war destroyed our happiness!”
Daphne visibly flinched at the word ‘pregnant’.
“David traced me after his adoptive mother died at the end of last year. There were papers from our mother which his adoptive mother had kept from him all these years. Thankfully the old lady hadn’t got rid of them. So that’s about it. In a nut shell, so to speak!”
Daphne found her voice again. It was loud and clear.
“DISGUSTING!” she shrieked. “True or not, it’s all too disgusting! I don’t want to hear about it again. Our father would have been simply appalled!”
Daphne pulled the bed clothes right up to her pimpled chin as though this should somehow emphasise her point.
“Your father, Daphne,” said Violet quietly, before leaving her half-sister to her mutterings as she closed the door behind her.
That was the last time Violet saw Daphne. As she sat in the airplane bound for Boston, she mused over the previous evening’s confrontation with a smile on her face. She was happy, really happy, perhaps for the first time since Alan had died and David had been taken from her. Her son sounded so nice from their talks over the telephone. She pulled out the envelope from her bag and extracted the photograph of David. Every bit as handsome as Alan, the American airman she should have married. How ironic that David should end up in America after his adoptive parents emigrated in the early fifties. Alan had promised her such a wonderful life in America. Their love was so intense that she always knew there could never have been any one else for her, particularly as a part of Alan, their son David, was alive somewhere in the world. Until then, Violet never knew that her mother had sent details about herself to the adoption agency for forwarding to the baby’s adoptive parents.
Violet took from the envelope the family tree her mother had drawn up for her grandson to see one day. It showed that a certain Joseph Barrington, who died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four in nineteen twenty-nine, the year after Violet was born, was her true father. She was so happy


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