Another story (two actually) by Elizabeth Jane Howard from her Mr. Wrong collection. I did, by the way, break down and pick up the second of the Cazalet Chronicles books, Marking Time, though I am just dipping into it now and again rather than reading it in earnest (for now anyway). The first short story was quite long and the second quite short. The story's title will give you come clue as to what Howard is taking as her subject. Whip hand means a dominating position, someone who has an advantage. In both stories actually, I like how Howard takes the story's title and throws it on its head in the telling. In one case it is a character who gains an advantage they didn't start out with and in the other the story takes on a surprising meaning at the end.
So, "Whip Hand". Kathy at Catching Happiness read this collection and in particular reading "Whip Hand" was, she thought, the creepiest of the stories in the collection (we had been chatting about RIP books/stories) and now that I have read it, I must agree. While it is not overtly a ghost story or a story of some sort of haunting, it is in its way very disturbing. Some of the scariest stories, really, don't involve a ghost at all. In this case the story involves a young girl and her mother, the girl being a budding actress and the mother a stage mother. But this is not a pleasant or happy relationship and you do wonder what it might be like for some children who are put on stage (or on TV) at an early age. Whose desire is this fulfilling? Child or parent?
"'She's ever so natural, as you can see.' Mrs. Bracken recrossed her legs so that Mr. Big (as she privately called each film-director she encountered) could see her ankles to better advantage. 'Has simply no idea that she's not like other children'."
Hmm. Well, that's certainly the case in a very disturbing way. Fern doesn't quite realize that her life is not like that of other children, though she knows that in her own life, something is most decidedly amiss. Fern doesn't look her age and her mother makes sure that everything she does--how she speaks and how she dresses--makes her appear younger than she really is. It is an unhappy existence for the girl. She is kept on a very strict diet while her mother eats and drinks as she pleases.
When Fern comes across a stray dog and brings him into the house, her mother begrudgingly allows it. To make the situation as unappealing as possible, however, she tells Fern that any food that she gives the dog must come from Fern's already skimpy meals. The dog, however, is so hungry and grateful for whatever morsels that he gulps it all down in one bite. The dog's own hunger mirrors Fern's yet he offers her unconditional love and affection despite the slim pickings. No wonder Fern gives him whatever she would otherwise subsist on. In the end, the dog is the instigator of change in Fern's life. She tips her world on end, but I won't tell you how. It is a disturbing portrait of a mother preying on her daughter's talents and abilities.
In "The Proposition" the reader is led to believe the proposition is romantically inspired yet the twist at the end reveals something far darker and more sinister. With a name like Robin Boston-Crabbe, a handsome young man who drives a Mercedes it's not surprising all eyes turn to him when he enters a room. Even his own eyes drink in his own image. It is almost a game of words that he plays with others, a perilous line he walks between getting what he wants and being booted out on his rear.
I've four more stories to read in the collection so I should have no problem to finish by year's end or even sooner. Next up is "The Devoted" about a family Christmas. The timing is just about right, but I wonder what sort of family holiday this one will be? Elizabeth Jane Howard has a wry eye but you never know just what to expect. A happy reminiscence, something melancholic or dark and sinister. This is what I love about short stories--you never know what you are going to discover when you begin reading!