[Series heroine & narrator Janet is on board a ship travelling from the West Indies back to the UK. A young girl is one of the passengers, and it is Christmas time]
Friday 26th December 1958
[Helga] was allowed to stay up for Christmas dinner in the saloon and her pleasure in her small gifts was the only thing that made the party bearable. A steward had produced an iron which I had applied to the organdie dress over which she wore her quiver and on her head the green hat. The quiver no longer held arrows. In it she carried her clock, her calendar, a little red-bound address book that one of the officers had given her and a little figure of a Jamaican market woman that had been Roddy’s gift…
Nearly everyone had managed to produces something for Helga, but the gift that particularly charmed her was a black velvet eye-mask, trimmed with glittering brilliants.
Not until she was seated beside Roddy at the table did she produce the mask from the quiver and put it on. It gave her a slit-eyed unchildlike air as she looked up the table at the Captain or down it at the Misses Kindness, an air that made the ladies flutter uncomfortably, and even shook a little the Captain’s self-confident ill-nature.
commentary: All pictures of people in black masks are slit-eyed and unchildlike, otherwise I might have had doubts about using this photograph, which is from a very grown-up German website via Pinterest.
Helga has a Robin Hood fixation, hence the quiver and green feathered hat. It would be nice to see what she looked like in this particular combination of dress and accessories, but I don’t think such a photo exists. Everyone on this journey has some kind of mythological role: Helga perhaps is some kind of messenger figure.
I am coming to the end of this series, but saved this one for Christmas. I kept asking who would want to read 19 books about this rather uninteresting woman’s life, but of course the answer is, I did. I couldn’t stop myself, she did have something. And this particular one was very unusual – ten days on board ship, all kinds of life happening all around, and a lot of very unpleasant people. It has a portentous structure.
As ever, Janet is very hard on everyone else and rather easy on herself – for example she lies to people (including close friends and family) very consistently throughout the book, for no apparent reason. Not very Reachfar, I’d have thought. But as ever she is merciless on others. The child is ‘nice’ of course – all the good children in this series are the same child, who bears a huge resemblance to Jane/Janet’s idea of herself as a child.
As she leaves the West Indies, where she has lived for ten years, I like her description of ‘the odour of the islands, that mixture of spices, fermenting fruit, lilies and human sweat.’ And I like the detail that on a ship with few passengers and no female crew, the women passengers would be asked to look after each other for medical matters including seasickness.
The hideous Misses Kindness are adult triplets who do everything together, have never married, and wear the same clothes in different colours. They are particularly criticized for wearing matador pants, a look we like on the blog, where we sometimes find them as toreador pants or as capris.
And in a 3rd missed photo opportunity (I feel a failure on this book) another character wears this splendid outfit:
a bunchy cotton skirt with scarlet donkeys and blue palm trees printed on it and a bunchy ‘peasant-style’ blouse of white muslin that exposed her bony neck and shoulders.
See many (many) earlier entries on this series, and some conclusions on this one, an overview and list… there is one more book for me to read.
The Bello imprint has republished the My Friends series as ebooks, so they are easily available.
I found a couple of other people who knew the books well, but have shamefully lost their details - I hope they might contact me again at email@example.com if they would like to.