The Incomparable Mrs. McAllister: A Short Story

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It's Monday, so it must be rice pudding again. It's not so much the fact that they're careful of our teeth, here at the Meadowbank Home, rather a general lack of imagination. As I told Claire the other day, there are lots of things you can eat without having to chew. Foie gras. Avocado vinaigrette. Strawberries and cream. Why then this succession of bland puddings and gummy meats? Fancy food, they claim, upsets the stomach. God forbid our remaining taste buds should be overstimulated.

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I saw Hope grinning round the last mouthful of ocean pie, and I knew she'd heard me. Hope may be blind, but she's no slouch. Faith and Hope. With names like that we might be sisters. Chris sometimes sings to us when he's cleaning out the rooms. Faith, Hope and Char-i-tee! He's the best of them, I suppose.

Cheery and irreverent, he's always in trouble for talking to us. He wears tight T-shirts and an earring. I tell him that the last thing we want is charity, and that makes him laugh. Hinge and Brackett , he calls us. Butch and Sundance. I'm not saying it's a bad place here. We don't get many visits, as a rule. But he isn't much of a conversationalist. Are you keeping well, then, Mam?

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Last Christmas I gave her a box of my chocolates and told her they were from her daughter in California. She gave me one of her sardonic little smiles. I laughed at that. I've been in a wheelchair for twenty years, and the last time I did any dancing was just before men stopped wearing hats.

We manage, though. Hope pushes me around in my chair, and I direct her. Not that there's much directing to do in here; she can get around just by using the ramps. But the nurses like to see us using our resources. It fits in with their Waste not, want not ethic. And of course, I read to her. Hope loves stories.

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In fact, she's the one who started me reading in the first place. There aren't many books here, but the library van comes round every four weeks, and we send Lucy out to get us something nice. Lucy's a college student on Work Experience, so she knows what to choose.

Hope was furious when she wouldn't let us have Lolita , though. Lucy thought it wouldn't suit us.

But I could tell Lucy wasn't really listening. I know better because you're old. It's the rice pudding all over again, Hope tells me. Rice pudding for the soul. If Hope taught me to appreciate literature, it was I who introduced her to magazines. Black-and-white work used to be accepted at the Royal Academy, and to my joy and pride I found my picture '' Elizabeth Wood- ville parting from the Duke of York " had actually secured a place, in , when I was only fourteen. The next year two studies of still-life were accepted and hung, but I fully realised that I was indebted very largely to Edward Ward for this honour, seeing that it was due to his sound teaching.

From a drawing by E. Ward, R.

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When I became discouraged he would strike sparks of enthusiasm and leave me to fight on, freshly inspired. I had a wonderful dog, a King Charles spaniel, named " Mac," who acted as model day by day for my first picture. My grandfather, James Ward, was passionately fond of them, and showed it in all his studies of their grace and beauty, painted with his intimate knowledge and power. I used to pay frequent visits to my grandfather, at Roundcroft Cottage, near Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire. Edward was often in- vited, being a great favourite of his, and he would run down for week-ends. Precious memories of those hours come back to me — we were a trio united in our aims, all musical and artistic.

We used to talk art by the hour on those occasions, my grandfather, notwith- standing his age, being full of enthusiasm and counsel. My only experience of a drive in a hackney coach was after I was returning from one of my visits to Hertfordshire. My father said I must ride in a hackney coach, as they were soon to disappear ; he therefore engaged one to drive us to Fitzroy Square.

My only impression was a strong smell of mouldy straw, with which the floor was lined.

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There were no Lads' Brigades, Y. A line omnibus was started about this time, with a pair of lovely milk-white horses, splendid animals, who galloped from Notting Hill to the Edgware Road. Unfortunately, they were too good, and increased their speed to running away.

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One of the grandest and handsomest fancy balls ever given here was given in these rooms a little later. One party that lingers in my memory consisted of a motherly-looking woman, with a very long nose and receding chin, with two rosy- cheeked daughters, each armed with gingham bags and market baskets, wearing rural dresses and much befiounced skirts. It was a picture of perfect proportions and harmony of colour. Halls' — A tactless question — Mr. My grandfather's wife was also named Ward.

After many minor accidents they had a big smash, and we saw them no more. Many years later came the Underground Rail- way, in It probably may appear strange to the present generation that at this early stage his mother should have been thinking ahead for Edward's matrimonial future, but such was actually the case, as I afterwards heard. However, I was in advance of my age, and had attended grown-up parties ever since I could walk, so I considered myself quite old enough to accept Edward when he proposed to me when I was only fourteen and a half.

My parents, whose sole objection was that I was too young, gave their consent to an engagement which should end in matrimony two years later. Edward and I were blissfully happy, and he insisted on celebrating our engagement by a ball at his studio in Berners Street.

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I was still a mere child, and my delight knew no bounds at the prospect. With '' youth at the helm and pleasure at the prow," how we enjoyed that evening! More than a hundred and fifty guests were present. I wore a yellow tarlatan frock with white roses, and carried a bouquet given to me by my fiance. Never did two years seem so long as the time of probation set by my parents. They said it was to prove our affection for each other, to allow us to make certain that we had those qualities which would ensure a happy life together.

It fully convinced us that life apart would be impossible, and we felt confident that the wedding would take place as promised when I was sixteen. But my mother was inclined to break faith with me, excusing herself by saying I was too young to know my own mind, and she wanted us to wait on indefinitely. My poor mother was jealous at my affection being given so fully to my future husband. She adored me and hated the idea of my leaving home, and I was high-spirited and spoilt.

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Everything I had desired had been lavished on me up to this time. My grandfather understood the true position, and sided with the lovers. He tried to make my mother see reason, but she was an invalid, beset with nervous fears. I was constantly in disgrace, and for many months there was a strong current of friction. I was never allowed to go out with Edward unless a chaperone came too.

I could not see or talk to him alone at home, and this strict supervision coming after a life of freedom proved most irksome to one of my nature. My mother finally pulled the reins too tightly, and I kicked over the traces. I found out that a letter Edward had sent to me had been opened at home. We were at the Royal Academy one day, and settled our plan of campaign in the Octagon Room.

We decided to make sure of not being parted alto- gether by my parents, and we chose the same church they were married at for our secret wedding. Wilkie Collins played an important part in our plot ; he impressed great caution and secrecy, as he planned out the whole affair with zest and enjoyment. My sister-in-law, wife of Charles Ward, was another conspirator who fell in with his arrangements for uniting our destiny.

My sister-in-law gained permission for me to spend a day with her at her home in Grove End Road, St.