A couple of weeks ago I was a bit early to meet a friend for an afternoon cup of tea. I started sifting through the basket of books outside one of the charity shops in Muswell Hill and came across a slim volume A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens.
‘Miss Hawkins looked at her watch. It was two thirty. If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six o’clock.’
As first lines go, it’s pretty intriguing and so I paid the 25p necessary to secure the book.
It’s an odd little story, and I went through phases of enjoying it followed by ones in which I found its humour a little too bleak for my mood. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it is definitely comic, from the initial set up to its unexpected conclusion.
Miss Hawkins has spent her life doing as she was told, from her days in a strictly run orphanage, through her employment at a sweet factory to which she was passed by the cruel Matron. Facing her retirement, with no further instructions to follow, she plans to end her life just as soon as her leaving party is over.
But that was before her colleagues gave her a five year diary as a parting gift. Conditioned by her life of obedience she cannot die before the diary is completed.
In that respect it reminded me a little of the start of the Jean Rhys story (I think it’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie) in which the heroine contemplating suicide, delays it because she has paid her rent to the end of the week, and wouldn’t want to waste the money.
But it take Miss Hawkins a good deal longer to feel anything other than terrible resignation over her five year sentence. To start with she records the banal daily non events of her life, but then comes upon the idea of writing about something that had not yet happened, and then treating that as an instruction to herself. Thus she starts on an increasingly bold set of adventures, the instructions for which she sometimes forgets having written in the book.
Still rather lonely and isolated Miss Hawkins creates a companion for herself by painting a moustache on the mirror above her dining table, which when she holds her head at a particular angle reflects back the image of Maurice. Maurice becomes both her confidant and her conscience, and when she becomes bolder in her ambitions and the tasks she sets herself, he has to be banished to under the bed until he no longer disapproves.
And there is plenty to upset Maurice after Miss Hawkins meets Brian at the library and starts to experience exciting new aspects of life that Matron had warned her so vehemently against.
Originally published in 1978, it is a bit of a period piece now, and at moments a bit bleak, but if you like your humour oblique it’s worth a look.