My housemate Melissa (not to be confused with a different housemate Melissa, who has also written the odd book review for SIAB) wanted to borrow a book, and ended up with one I was given but have yet to read - Apricots at Midnight (1977) by Adèle Geras. As always, I encourage my friends to write reviews for SIAB. This is seldom taken up, but thankfully Melissa said yes, and wrote this fab review! Do (as always) make my guests feel welcome in the comments section... and enjoy the review:
Actually, this is the sort of book that as a child I didn’t really appreciate. It’s one of those books which describes someone’s childhood memories, and why, I would wonder, should I read about another person’s everyday life when my own was so interesting and there were plenty of books about daredevil escapades, fantastic worlds, or true-to-life explorations? It’s only through growing up (a little bit) that I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and of simple, happy memories.
This book is built around a quilt; a quilt sewn together, patch by patch, by the narrator’s elderly relative Aunt Pinny, from fabrics picked up throughout her life. Each patch is tied to a story, the cue to a memory of long ago. The apricots of the title relate to the first ball Pinny attended, a little girl sneaking down to join her working mother for a midnight snack.
A child’s perspective is so different: everything is fascinating, but nothing is truly surprising. For Pinny, the line between make-believe and reality is not particularly important; there’s no disappointment when the adventurer Major Variana admits his limp was gained by dropping a crate of oranges on his foot rather than being bitten by a crocodile, and no questioning of his reassurance ‘That was the only made-up story, I promise you’. In her old age, Pinny retains this childlike ability to take her experiences at face value, so that the tone of the book hinges slightly on the fantastic.
The individual salient events, people and places slowly build a picture of the beauty of Pinny’s daily life. The emergent character in the backdrop is her mother: thrown from prosperity at the death of her husband, and fighting to build a life for herself and her daughter on the strength of her dressmaking skills. She is the constant in Pinny’s life, tying the book together, providing stability and a structure. It is she who first suggests the quilt and teaches a tiny Pinny to hold a needle and make her first stitches. Like a fairy godmother, she can always produce something from whatever nothing is to hand: a garden for a convalescent Pinny from scraps of flowered fabric; an extra sixpence when Pinny’s allowance isn’t quite enough for the music box she wants to buy; an overnight job at Mrs Triptree’s ball so that Pinny can see the ladies in their beautiful costumes.
There is a chance for Pinny to be involved in everything she does – sitting in on meetings with unusual and exotic guests, contributing a not-so-successful stuffed zebra to the soft toy stall at the church fair, cutting out the jam tarts for a picnic. Her tears and remorse on the day she is delayed picking Pinny up from school, and gratitude to the teachers who took the child home for tea and entertained her, is a moment of revelation for Pinny:
It occurred to me then that I had not once, even in the worst depths of my misery, thought what it must have been like for her, knowing she would not be at the school gates, knowing that she was making me more and more unhappy every minute she was not there.
Her selfless love and care for Pinny comes out at every turn. On one occasion, she covers for her daughter, losing a rich client in the process, when the little girl recovers a roll of cloth that she believes belongs to the future king and queen of Borneo but was actually the client’s curtains. I fell in love with her at the point when she stretches a tiny budget to provide Pinny with bulbs for her garden:
I do not remember that we had trouble finding the money. I was too excited at the prospect of my own garden. But now I can see that my mother must have gone without something she needed or wanted, in order to save what was necessary.
Her generosity is not reserved for her daughter alone: when Pinny asks a visiting gentleman at a loose end to stay, she hesitantly but not unwillingly opens her home to him until he is able to find his feet again.
To my delight, one of the stories turns out to take place in Oxford. This is Pinny’s first taste of what she calls ‘the country’. ‘”It’s not the proper country, Pinny,” my mother warned me. “Oxford is a large town, and quite near.”’ Unperturbed, Pinny’s imagination runs wild: ‘Milkmaids in mob caps and farmers in knee-breeches, small houses with roses growing round the doors, stiles, carthorses, shepherds coming down from the hills at sunset, wooden bridges curving over brooks.’
The reality is quite different, of course, but turns out to be no less exciting. Not least, St Giles’ Fair, ‘the most splendid, exciting, glorious fair in the whole world’, as Pinny’s Oxfordian friends, Miles and Kate, delightedly inform her. The description is priceless, a snapshot of the fair a century before I experienced it. Some things are quite different – the long-banned prizes of live goldfish, the penny charge for each game, the steam powering the organs. The exhilaration of the fair, however, is unchanged over generations, and the bright colours of the rides which draw the children’s attention, the reckless spending on hopeless attempts at skewering a prize, the loud music and bustle of the crowd, sound tantalisingly familiar.
Ten patches, ten stories; yet a quilt is so much bigger than that. I’m left wondering what else is in there; the stories that Pinny would not tell till her listener was older, the ones she perhaps would never tell at all?