Fay Weldon is the author of 34 novels and five collections of short stories. In 2001 she was awarded a CBE for services to literature. She is currently professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. Her latest book, Mischief, brings together her favourite 21 stories from the last 40 years. She describes A Knife For Cutting Mangoes as "a morality tale: if guilt is to the soul what pain is to the body—don't run off with someone else's husband! In my story a husband and his girlfriend enjoy the marital bed, until the wife surprises them in flagrante and flees, never to return. The mistress moves in, only to be plagued by guilt."
When I moved in his wife’s belongings were still there, all around me, even to the sheets on the bed. She didn’t so much as bother to change them, and very pretty, impractical sheets they were; fine white linen with scalloped edges and self-embroidery, the kind which have to be ironed after the wash. What an absurdity! Who has anything these days but drip-dry? She moved out saying she didn’t want anything of the past: she wanted to start again: she was desperate to have a new life, she couldn’t be her true self while married to him. I wish her every luck, but perhaps she didn’t have much of a true self to begin with. It’s easy to blame others for one’s own shortcomings.
Using her saucepans, drinking from her coffee cups, going through the house and switching on her brass lamps as evening fell didn’t bother me. Why should it? The saucepans were heavy and expensive, not the tinny things I was accustomed to: food didn’t catch and burn if you stopped stirring. It made me feel quite dainty to drink black coffee from little cups with saucers, instead of from Safeways’ mugs. The lamps turned out to be real antiques—student’s lamps, Victorian. I found a cutting in a kitchen drawer all about them, so they were good not just for light to read by, but as a talking point when guests came.
One night she lay between the sheets, the next night I did. She couldn’t have liked them all that much, or she’d have come back for them. Wouldn’t she? Scalloped edges and self-embroidery and all. The things she spent money on that I never would! She was so hopelessly extravagant. She even had a knife for cutting and peeling mangoes. Mangoes are things I can do without, believe me. So messy and time-consuming. But I did quite like moving among her bits and pieces, I suppose, pushing aside her party dresses to make room for my jeans and T-shirts. All that silk and crushed velvet giving way to denim and lycra. It gave me a sense of victory. I expect soldiers feel like that when they sack and loot a town after a long war.
I’ve never worried about finding my true self, personally. I don’t think I have an inner me and if I have I don’t particularly want to meet her. And he certainly doesn’t want me to waste time searching, when I could be in bed with him. Look at the trouble he had with Chloe, for ever trying. That was his wife’s name. Chloe. Quite pretty, really. Mine is Jane, and very plain, but plain girls often win. And his is Jub, rub-a-dub-dub: Jub- Jub for short or for long. He says the sex between them was never very good, but men do say that, don’t they.
No, of course I don’t want us to get married. Marriage is for the birds. Look what happened to her, look what happened to my parents, look what happens to stay-at-home wives who have time to buy antiques and iron sheets. Divorce happens, because they get to be so dull, and end up buying mango knives. I took my father’s side in the divorce, not my mother’s. I wanted them divorced so I could go and live with my father and look after him and he wouldn’t yawn all the time, showing his back teeth. Of course it didn’t work out like that. I ended up living with my mother and my father married a real bitch of a girl I didn’t even know about. But all that’s in the past. This is now.
Trying to find her inner self, the real her. What a fool Chloe was. She deserved what happened. Why did she think she was more than she was? I’m sure I don’t. I am the sum of my parts, of what I do and what I say, I don’t add up to more. Feelings change all the time, it’s part of being alive. It’s dangerous to try and nail them. Define who you are and all you do is throw chunks of your life away. And what’s a self anyway? Nobody knows, do they: the psychologists and the philosophers argue about it all the time. What is the brain, what is the mind, what constitutes our identity? Since we don’t know, why bother. There’s everyday life to get on with.
And I am so happy, and there is nothing to go wrong. The sun shines upon our love, all things are beautiful. Chloe doesn’t bother me. It’s not as if she were dead. I wouldn’t like that, if she’d killed herself or something. Then I might get really spooked. As it is she’s just off searching for her true self, after the great gesture of leaving it all behind, even to the knickers in her drawers. I guess it took all her strength, just to go.
So here I am, happy as Larry. I once had an affair with a Larry, and I can’t say he was all that happy, rather depressed, in fact. I don’t suffer from depression; every morning I wake up full of the joys of spring, and summer too, and autumn and winter in addition, whatever season it happens to be. You know some religions say the object of life is to be happy. That being the case I am a very good person indeed.
I tell a lie. Not totally happy. Chloe left her cat behind when she went. Jub-Jub and Chloe together’s cat. I wasn’t at all happy about it, but I took the creature on. Jub insisted. “We are going to keep the cat,” he said, “and that’s that. No, we are not going to take it down to the vet.” I’ve always been perfectly kind to the animal, I never kick it or anything or keep it out all night as some people do, but it has never liked me, and I have to say the feeling is mutual. Sometimes when Jub-Jub strokes the cat so gently and carefully I get the feeling perhaps he loves me but he doesn’t quite like me.
Little by little the things she abandoned stopped being hers-left-behind and began to feel like mine, and the sense of her presence altogether faded. I bought some more sheets in a summer sale last week and I took hers down to the charity shop, because I’m working and have no time to iron and I’m tired of wasting money sending them out to be laundered. The lady in the shop shook her head and said, “Oh, they’re the kind that need ironing. We’ll have trouble shifting them.”
“Look at the hems,” I cried, “look at the stitching,” and she did, and was impressed, and took them in the end. I felt quite proud for Chloe at that moment. I think my dreams have been easier since, but I don’t see why they should be, I have done nothing wrong. I had only done what others do: we were both being true to our feelings, Jub-Jub and I. Why should there be punishment?
Jub and Jane, happy together. Life flows tranquilly by. If you don’t count the dreams. But I take sleeping pills now, which blurs them OK. Can we grow new skins? Become different people? Or are we doomed to stay the same bawling, devious little creatures we were when we were born? Nothing singular about us, all the same? Perhaps that’s why I could never feel properly maternal. When I looked at my child, I looked at me. Anyway my child’s doing just fine, I’d have heard if she weren’t.
Because I brought nothing out of my past either. I too wanted to leave everything behind. My husband was better than I was with our child, and the therapist said make a clean break, so I did. How strange the word husband sounds, all duty and obligation and female cowardice. “Please don’t leave me on my own.” It hurt at the time, breaking free the way I did, but I gritted my teeth and was able to follow through my feelings for Jub, rub-a-dub-dub, and this is the real life not the one I left behind. That’s gone. I don’t think of it if I can.
The one thing I brought with me was an alarm clock. Isn’t it strange how difficult it is to find a reliable alarm clock that works and goes on working? You’d think it would be easy in this technological age. But they clatter and chatter and you don’t hear them; they shriek their noises in your head and you sleep on, or else they don’t go off at all. And you miss your flight and your one great chance in life.
What’s so strange? Many women nowadays leave their children. As I say, I wasn’t the maternal type: my husband was always more involved. I think that’s what made me go off him. I just can’t love a man who likes to wash dishes and gets involved with the school nativity play. I’d cringe with embarrassment at the soppy bits, while genuine tears would run down his cheeks. It wouldn’t do.
A victory? Yes, I suppose it is a victory, that’s how I described it earlier. To take a man from someone else. From his wife. To win his affections. Not that I set out to do it. I just was, and he just was, and there we were, and she wanted to be herself anyway, didn’t she. That’s what she said. Find her true self. It’s been two years. I heard a noise from the back of the linen cupboard the other day: I looked, the noise drew me to it, such a little delicate clang, clang clanging, like a fairy fire bell. It was her alarm clock, I hadn’t known it was there, tucked away. Such a pretty little clock, with a tiny gold bell for an alarm, and the dial had flowers painted on it. That spooked me a bit. It was hers, left over. She was still lurking in the house. Perhaps she’d forgiven me. Perhaps she was trying to warn me. More likely something had just fallen on the alarm switch, and set it off. Perhaps the cat had disturbed it, looking for somewhere safe to have kittens. She’s pregnant again, that’s the second litter since I moved in and I have to find homes for all the kittens. As if I don’t have enough to do.
I probably didn’t tell you she found us in bed together but that wasn’t why she left, of course it wasn’t. Something like that wouldn’t be important if the relationship was good. She’d left the house before I’d even got out of bed and she never came back. She wrote a letter or two. We threw them away unopened. Why should she damage our happiness? And now I’m here. We’re here. Jub, rub-a-dub-dub, I think perhaps he’s rub-a dub-dubbing with someone else. The doctor’s given me different sleeping pills. They’re stronger. The dreams are back. I wander in a grey, still, flat landscape, without beginning or end. Sometimes the dreams creep into my waking life, so I can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t.
I think I should have taken the sheets down to the charity shop way back, but they were just so pretty and I’m so plain. I think one day I’ll come back from work and there he’ll be in the bed with someone else, because perhaps our relationship isn’t so good as I believe, and perhaps he does hanker after Chloe, and perhaps he does blame me—you know what men are—so perhaps he’ll find someone totally new. And I’ll walk out of the house too, saying I want nothing, I want to start a new life, I have to go in search of myself and I’ll leave everything behind, as she did. I don’t think the new woman will like my sheets, though, nearly as much as I liked Chloe’s. Mine are thin nylon, easy to wash, drip-dry, non-iron, practical, cheap.