Stand We At Last

Stand We At Last

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Zoe Fairbairns

 

The following excerpts are published with the permission of Zoe Fairbairns. They provide an insight into the two sisters’ different approach to life. In particular, their expectations of men, marriage and spinsterhood and their experiences arising from the different path each chooses are developed. Their choices, while different, present both with aspects of disillusion. Despair is an underlying theme, but mitigated by Sarah’s resourcefulness, enthusiasm for women’s equality and her strength of character.   Helena’s story, married  to the wealthy manufacturer of military garments, and living in a comfortable home with overwhelming material assets is compared with Sarah’s.  Sarah’s story is one of spinsterhood, feminism and fortitude. Sarah’s story proceeds through the generations until the 1970s where the novel ends – her recommendation to  ‘Teach that girl to type’ being as important then as when she first uttered it to Ruby as a child. This feminist historical novel was first published in 1983 and now can be accessed as an eBook. The well worn copies on my bookshelf can now rest while I again read Sarah, Helena, Pearl, Ruby, Emma and Jackie’s stories in a form which, however often I re-read, will remain pristine.  WHN Admin.

 

The wind died and the door stopped banging. I could hear human voices far away, men’s voices and the bleat of  sheep. “Better have a drinka tea ,” said James Daggett, “before ya go”.

I drank the tea which he clumsily made for me; but I did not leave. I rested; I wrestled with indecision, starting several times to tidy the house and giving up in fury and despair. When evening came James Daggett brought a sheet and a hammer and nails and somehow rigged up the curtain behind which I now shelter, writing to you, trying to sleep. I have eaten little, with the brothers abd te shearers, but the meal was a wretchedly awkward occasion.

The ir is thick with the smell of meat and alcohol and men; I long to push away the piece of metal which covers my window and let in some fresh air, but I hear the beat of insects against the outside, striving to join their fellows in my hot little tent. Most of the time the men are silent, chewing their food, pouring drink into mugs; or one will speak, a whining monotone in which I catch one word in six; or they will laugh together and resume their silence. Occasionally James Daggett’s voice will be hears, warning someone not to finish the remark he started.

it occurs to me if I am safe tonight, I am probably safe for ever. There is time enough to make decisions tomorrow. I did not come to Australia to be safe and conventional. I had thought I might live alone, or with just one woman. I think I have at least one protector in James Daggett, who seems to be a good man. And look what became of my sojourn in Sydney with a respectable married couple!  Bill and Arthur Daggett may be good men too; what did I expect, woven waistcoats and drawing room conversation? Heaven forbid!

I cannot bear to think that you are anxious about me. But I think you did not approve of my beign a governess, whereas now you may tell your friends I have joined the landed aristocracy! I think I am safe for now. God grant that I am right.

Your weary sister,

Sarah

***

“I am going to be very frank with you, Mrs Croft,” said the doctor, “and I am going to ask you to tell me the truth in return.”

“That’s what Sarah says, ” said Helena, trying not to be frightened of him.

“Sarah? Ah, Sarah! Sweet Sarah the shepherdess ! Wasn’t there a song…?”

I beg you to be honest with me always – otherwise how will we remain alive to each other as sisters?

The doctor had  silver pen shaped like a hard feather. He never wrote with it. He just moved it about in his hands while he talked. It glinted in the gloomy light from the white window. Helena watched the pen, to keep her eyes off his terrifying hands.

“Affection between sisters is a beautiful thing. But Mrs Croft, perhaps…it is important that you are honest with your doctor too.”

She had not told him any lies. She had not told Jonathan any lies. Could he say the same? This doctor was a specialist in Ladies’ nervous disorders. Jonathon  thought she did not know that. The doctor himself thought she did not know. Outside in the street the sky was grey but through the surgery window it looked white, dazzling white, nothing whiter in the world except the rain-drops.

“Your husband tells me you have been upsetting yourself.”

“You see, it was the red jackets.”

“The jackets?”

“He was telling a man he could make red jackets. For hospital orderlies.”

“Yes?”

“But don’t you see?” How could he not see? “Don’t you see why the have to be red?”

The doctor smiled. “War can be a nasty business. You shouldn’t think about it.”

How could she not? She imagined jackets stiff with blood, looking as good as new. She should not think about it. She had promised Jonathon she would not. And anything she told the doctor would be reported to Jonathon. She had to be careful. Jonathon said she need not come to the table when he had army people in if the conversation upset her. He might change his mind if he knew she was disobeying him. She was twenty-two but he still treated her as a child.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s nearly 35 years since Zoë Fairbairns finished writing Stand We At Last, and she is delighted that it is still around, as are some of her other novels including her feminist dystopia Benefits.

These days she tends to write shorter pieces, such as her Sue Innes Memorial Lecture Five Decades, Five Feminisms, given at the Women’s History Scotland conference in Glasgow, and her talk on Dying Without Religious Belief given at St Christopher’s Hospice in London.  Zoë lives in London, where she teaches creative writing at City Lit .

She is a founder-member of the Women’s Equality Party.

 Details of her other work – including short stories, journalism, plays, poems and pamphlets – can be found on her website.

 

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