‘Touch and Go’ was published in 1995, by Black Swan, and I suspect that if I had seen in back then, in a bookshop or in the library, I would have passed it by, seeing a cover that suggested it was probably just another ‘aga saga.’ I remember that Black Swan published a lot of those sort of books …..
But since 1995 I have seen Persephone Books reissue Elizabeth Berridge’s wartime short stories, I have seen Faber Finds reissue a number of her post-war novels, and so, of course, when I spotted a copy of that paperback book from 1995 I reached out for it.
Emma was at the centre of the story. She was nearly forty and she was nearly alone: she was newly divorced, her daughter was travelling the world in her gap year, and her mother was dealing with widowhood by filling her life with journeys and activities. And so when Emma was, quite unexpectedly, left a house in the Welsh border country – in the village where she had grown up – she decided to move there, to start a new chapter in her life.
That chapter came about as the result of a childhood illness. The local doctor had asked Emma what she would like as a treat, and she told him that she would love his shell house. He admired her taste, he told her that it would be hers one day, and he kept his word; years later he left her the shell house and the house in which it stood. That made me think a little of another book where a legacy leads to a new life – Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Scent of Water’ – but I was soon to find myself drawn into a very different story.
I watched Emma meeting old friends, and others she had known as a child; I watched her settle into a new way of life; and I watched her putting so much energy into that art that was her livelihood, and into restoring her somewhat dilapidated inheritance. There were moments when I thought that everything was falling into place rather easily, but the author’s wonderful understanding of the world she was writing about, of her characters and their relationships and interactions, and the beauty of her prose, made that seem unimportant. Sometimes in life things do work out nicely, and Emma did have concerns about how her daughter was coping, so far away from home, and about her mother.
One incident – a burglary at Emma’s London flat – changed the story, and took it to another level. Emma went back to London, and when she contacted her estranged husband to tell him that some of his possessions had been lost, the response made her realise that her marriage was truly over, and that she was glad. She couldn’t stay in the flat, and so she went to stay with her mother.
The story of Emma’s mother, Adela, was quietly heart-breaking. Adela’s marriage had been happy and strong, but since her husband’s death she was struggling with a future that she hadn’t planned for, that she didn’t want. She knew she had to make changes, but she wanted things to stay as they were; she was troubled but she knew that she had to keep going, that she had to so the right thing. I saw elements of my mother in Adela, and I was sorry that maybe she was so very real, so very alive, because Elizabeth Berridge became a widow a few years before this book was published.
Emma and Adela came to understand each other a little better; Adela gained strength from being needed as a mother, and she helped Emma to come to terms with her relationship with her absent daughter, Charlotte. There were some wonderful moments, some happy and some sad, and I was particularly taken with Adela’s perception of Emma’s situation.
Emma persuaded Adela to come to Wales with her for Christmas, but she didn’t quite realise how difficult that would be, that Adela’s life as a young mother in the same place that she lived now had not been quite as simple as she thought.
The later chapters of ‘Touch and Go’ work quite beautifully as a study of mothers and daughters, of love and loss. I was sorry that there were distractions from that story – a little too much country life, one or two loose or undeveloped plotlines – because they made a story that was both beautiful and profound feel just a little fuzzy.
‘Touch and Go’ was Elizabeth Berridge’s last book, and though it has weaknesses that detract only a little from a very fine novel. And a final novel this good leaves me eager to read her earlier novels, and her short stories.