She was a friend of my family—the Carlins, as I have chosen to call them. She and my father met in the fifties through the editor of the architecture magazine where she began her career. My father had taken her out a few times. They were never lovers, but there had been some tenderness between them: enough that, years later, when she took to phoning our house in the middle of the night, my father would drag himself out of bed, and I would hear the low monosyllables of someone listening to another’s woes, patiently if without great interest, until I fell back to sleep. My mother, absolutely unthreatened by this sallow, angular woman with her horn-rimmed glasses and staring eyes, who by then looked unwell much of the time, would say, after these nocturnal disturbances, “Poor Helen. We ought to do something for her.”
“Ye—es,” my father would agree warily. And they would invite her to dinner in London or to Salesey for the weekend.
In fact they had already “done something” for Helen in at least one significant way. They had introduced her to their friends Renata and Otto Shenker, proprietors of the Whitethorne Press, who took her on as a proofreader and an editor after she lost her job at the architecture magazine.
Occasionally Helen would take me and my sister to a pantomime. I found her a forbidding figure, unsnapping her hard little handbag for cigarettes every few minutes and arguing viciously with the bus conductors and other officials we encountered. Later in life, I began to find her more interesting.
She came down to Salesey one weekend in the summer of 1975. My mother had invited some neighbors to join us for Sunday lunch. It was a hot July day. Helen had been out on the lawn in a deck chair with the papers since eleven, sipping her dry vermouth and smoking. She broke off with her usual irritable air when the guests arrived.