A novel about a woman who intends to literally end her life after retiring, but instead finds herself locked into an obligation of pleasure fulfillment. 1978.
It’s so hard to talk about this book without first blurting something out: the ending is EPIC. It’s probably one of the most epic and memorable story endings I’ve ever read. I would tell you why it’s epic, but, well, that be giving away a bit much, wouldn’t it? Oh well. Guess you’ll just have to read it!
I think on some level I’m still suffering from a Delderfield hangover, so instead of casually choosing a book, not caring whether its historical fiction or not, I’ve been deliberately choosing not-historical fiction. (Isn’t there a more eloquent name for that? Oh yeah, that’s right. Fiction.) This impulse has led me down some very pleasing roads lately, like Fortune is a Woman and The Vet’s Daughter (all right: technically historical fiction).
But it’s also led me down some very unusual roads. Thankfully, “pleasing” and “unusual” can intersect somewhere, and at that intersection is Favours. First published in England under the title A Five Year Sentence (why do they do that to us??), its author, Bernice Rubens, is actually a Booker prize-winning author. Favours didn’t win any major awards, but it is certainly prize-winning caliber.
The opening lines in themselves promise something special:
Miss Hawkins looked at her watch. It was two-thirty. If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six o’clock.
But don’t worry! Unlike The Vet’s Daughter, which, yes, does admittedly dip a toe into the dark side of life and storytelling, Favours only looks at the dark side, without really feeling the need to go there.
Miss Hawkins has carefully planned her death because after she retires, she will no longer have anyone to take orders from. Commands have been the ruling force in her life. As an orphan, her childhood was ruled by the Matron of the orphanage, the only home she ever knew. From there she went immediately to working in the candy factory, where she eventually rose up the ranks to cashier. Retiring now from the factory, she no long has anyone to tell her what to do.
So she decides to kill herself. But then her colleagues surprise her: as a retirement gift, they give her an inscribed five-year diary. Miss Hawkins immediately understands that they have handed her a new set of chains. For five years she must record her daily doings in the diary.
At first she just barely exists. She records the times when she wakes, eats, and sleeps. Each time she plans on doing something, she writes it down. Once she’s done the task, she ticks it off with a red mark.
This early part is quite entertaining, really, as we witness this timid soul coming to terms with what might seem like chains but is actually freedom. At one point, she’s feeling happy in the grocery store and has a conversation with the display of bacon:
‘Oh, what fun,’ she said to the bacon, and those who passed her thought, Poor woman. She spends too much time on her own. When Miss Hawkins heard her own voice she realized that they were the first words she had spoken in over a week. She tried her voice again, and again to the bacon with which she felt a secure familiarity. ‘You’ve gone up again,’ she said reprovingly. Her voice squeaked as if it needed oiling. I must talk a little more, she said to herself, and she decided that thereafter she would read aloud to keep her voice in trim, just in case one day she would wish to use it for communication.
These thoughts are Miss Hawkins’ first real plans for a future. Quickly, she becomes bolder in the daily tasks she assigns herself. She invents a man so she can ask him to dinner. This man is Maurice, who is actually a mirror with a mustache drawn on; she hangs the mirror opposite her when she’s having dinner, and has dinner with herself and a reflection of herself with a drawn-on mustache. Yes, Maurice is both real and not. (For another book featuring a spinster who makes up a male companion, but in a slightly nuttier way, try: Wish Her Safe At Home.)
She marveled at the change that had come over her in the months that had passed since her retirement. She hardly recognized the fearful soul who had risen and eaten so precisely. And had done absolutely nothing else. She was aware of a terrible wastage. Indeed not only of the days since her retirement but of her entire life that had consisted of fulfilling duties prescribed by others without one hint of her own initiative. If, as a child, she had had half the daring that she had presently acquired, she would have broken out of the Orphanage prison.
“Maurice” is inspired in part by Morris, a girl from the orphanage who often enters Miss Hawkins’ thoughts. There’s a flashback story of Morris, who hanged herself with her own allotted sanitary cloths and was discovered dead by Miss Hawkins. Through this story we obtain the first real insight into why Miss Hawkins is the way she is. In particular, through the stories of the orphanage’s Matron—who did things like tell lies to prospective parents so that Hawkins, the best domestic worker among the orphans, wouldn’t be adopted—we see that part of Miss Hawkins’ problem is that she is still holding onto the rage she felt as a child. The Matron is at the root of it all: Hawkins’ pent-up rage, her stunted emotional maturity, and her warped sense of morality.
Miss Hawkins recognizes all of this, but still she’s powerless against the Matron’s influence. In her retirement, Miss Hawkins now takes to knitting whenever she feels the rage building against Matron. The result is a scarf that, by the novel’s end, is well over five yards long.
In between knitting through rage and dining with her mustachioed mirror man, Miss Hawkins assigns herself the task of meeting a man at the library. Obviously, she can’t return home without being able to check the task off the diary, so she lurks around the library until she meets a man.
The man she eventually meets is both a perfect match for her and one with disastrous prospects. The man is Brian Watts, also retired and also unmarried. He lives with his mother, a bitter, manipulative woman who pees herself just so he will have to clean it up. Brian is waiting for her to die, or at least become senile enough so he can put her into a state home. The old lady, though, shows no sign of doing either thing any time soon.
So what we have here is Miss Hawkins, who has always been controlled by others—who in fact longs to be told what to do—and Brian, who longs to have power, so he might control another as his mother has controlled him. Yikes!
It starts innocently though awkwardly enough. Brian comes up with a “bill of fare,” much like you would find in a restaurant, listing what items are available and at what cost. Miss Hawkins agrees to this bill of fare and its premise, feeling some kind of power in being able to use her nest-egg to make Brian hold her hand, caress her knee, and so forth. Brian relishes his newfound power and decides to offer his services to other lonely aging women.
The other women are willing to pay more for grander services. For Miss Hawkins, the smaller services are sufficient, and don’t cross Matron’s strict moral prescriptions. Still, Miss Hawkins’ pension is small and her nest-egg dwindling with the weekly regularity of Brian’s visits. We come to see that the situation has a limited number of outcomes. Given Miss Hawkins’ dogged adherence to the five-year sentence imposed by the diary, it’s easy to guess that things aren’t going to end well.
And yet, in a way, they do! SUCH a perfect, epic ending. The kind that makes me go “Oooooooh” like I’ve just tasted something delicious. And that’s what this book is, really; it’s delicious.