“What happened to Milly was what happens to most people when they are confronted by mistakes or disasters too big to be borne; they let in the reality of it inch by inch, as it were, a little bit at a time, avoiding at all costs the full, total shock of it.”
Celia Fremlin’s suspense novel Appointment with Yesterday is packed with the author’s signature theme: the suffocation and claustrophobia of domestic life. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother who feels inadequate (nosy neighbours, nasty critical husband) but her biggest threat is the woman who rents a room in her home. Uncle Paul is the story of very different sisters who go on holiday together but find that the past catches up to their present. Listening in the Dusk is the story of a woman who takes a room in a third rate boarding house after being kicked to the curb by her husband. So that brings me to Appointment with Yesterday, my favourite of the lot so far. Yes, it’s definitely Celia Fremlin–here she’s in top form and … there’s humour.
The novel opens with a middle-aged woman who is on the run. Just what she is running from .. what and who … becomes apparent over the course of the book as hints slide into memories and flashbacks. At first the woman who, like a hunted animal, is so terrified she’s not rational, spends a day riding the Tube. She’s certain the police will be looking for her, so she fabricates a name, Milly Barnes. She has no possessions, no luggage, just a coat, and a handbag containing a little over 2 pounds. Eventually she calms down enough to make a decision of sorts; she takes the first bus that comes her way and ends up in the small coastal town of Seacliffe.
Milly’s survival instants kick in. Soon she’s rented a room in a drab boarding house and she starts cleaning houses–at least she can eat and pay the rent. Gradually over time, we learn Milly’s story. She was, at one point Candida Harris, a plump, plain little nurse who caught the eye of a “promising young house-surgeon,” good-looking egotistical Julian Waggett. Many nurses tried to get his attention, “wear[ing] their sober uniform[s] as if it were part of a striptease.” But Julian shocks the entire hospital community when he marries dumpy little Candida (aka Milly).
Milly, of course, knew why. She had known all along, but had no intention of allowing the knowledge to mar her joy and excitement over her extraordinary good fortune. She had known right from the start that what Julian wanted–nay, needed–was a wife who would serve as a foil for his own brilliance. A woman so retiring, so inconspicuous, that in contrast to her dullness his own wit, his own charm, would shine out with redoubled radiance. A woman who never, ever, in any circumstance, would draw attention away from him and on to herself.
Well it worked for a while, but as Julian goes up in the world, the poor dowdy little Mrs. can’t keep up with his glittering peacock image. Milly “had seen it coming.” It happened a lot “in their sort of circle.“
The brilliant, ambitious husband rocketing his way to the top and discarding his dowdy, middle-aged wife en route, like a snake shedding its outworn skin in springtime. She’s met the wives, too, after the amputation was over: drab, dejected creatures moaning on and on about the meagerness of the alimony, and about ‘his’ ingratitude after all they had done and all they had sacrificed for him during the early years of struggle.
Milly is humiliated, of course, when she’s dumped for a young movie star, but not ready to be defeated, she marries again. The scenes of Milly’s new life in Seacliffe are splintered with memories of the tortured path that led to her panicked, desperate escape. Two young men who also live in the boarding house adopt Milly and their haphazard chaotic lives spill over into Milly’s terror-ridden loneliness. In Seacliffe, her first cleaning job is for a ridiculous, desperate, harried, upper middle class woman. The job is supposed to be cleaning, but the woman suddenly produces a baby, and dumps the neglected child into Milly’s care. Like Drums Along the Mohawk, word of Milly, a domestic savior, echoes around Seacliffe, and with dizzying speed, other women flock to poach Milly’s services. These harried wives frantically juggle the demands of their cluttered lives with appeasement of sulky, peevish spouses and each household has its own miserable pathology and chaos. It’s through these jobs, each which presents a window into a variety of unpleasant, tortured marriages, that Milly begins to put her own life, her own marriages, with the constant conditioning of appeasement, into perspective. Victimhood may be instant, but all too often it’s a slow process–confidence and courage slowly chipped away for weeks… years…. It’s through Milly’s views of various versions of dreadful home life that the humour appears:
Already she had sized up Mrs. Lane (or Phyllis, as she must remember to call her) as one of those employers who have at the back of their minds an imaginary dream-home: one which has no relation to the one they are actually living in, but which they believe –and continue to believe–will one day suddenly materialize if they only go on faithfully paying someone forty pence an hour, like sacrificing enough sheep at the temple of Athene. With an employer of this type, a Daily Help’s first task is to get as clear a picture of this imaginary dream-home as she possibly can, so that she can then make all her efforts tend in this direction, or at least appear to do so.