Helen had been brought up to be a Nice Girl.
“Always smile,” her mother would advise briskly. “For goodness sake, girl, if you can’t be pretty you can at least look cheerful!” Now, don’t show me up and remember to be friendly. If you want people to like you, Helen, and god knows they have little enough reason to, you must always find something to compliment them about no matter how small. Never go anywhere without a gift, and it must be a good one – people will remember you when they think of the gift, and you’re hardly going to stick in their heads without some help, are you? Always be helpful. Never say no if you can say yes. What did I tell you about smiling?!”
Her mother was only trying to be helpful, she would tell herself firmly later. Only trying to help her make friends. Wasn’t that what mothers were meant to do? And later, when she got the plastic surgery (‘Look mom, now I’m pretty and I’m smiling!’), when she paid for the very expensive haircut (‘Will people remember me now, mom? Will they?’), when she learnt to party plan – a career that would allow her to be helpful to almost everyone she knew at some point or another – she would keep on telling herself that. Her mother was only trying to help.
It was just that the part where, if she followed all the rules and did everything she was told, people would like her didn’t quite seem to work somehow.
Sometimes it got halfway. She met her husband-to-be at a party, and ignored the fact he was terribly dull. You had to find the good in people and compliment them on it. That was what her mother had taught her, so Helen had smiled and told him how lovely his shirt was; admired the whiteness of his teeth. She said yes when he asked her if she could join him for a drink later; yes when he booked them a hotel room; yes when he asked her to marry her. Somehow it worked, and it wasn’t so many months later that she was walking down the aisle, beaming at her family as she showed off her handsome man (‘Look, mommy, see what I can do!’). It was a happy-ever-after, and she was the princess who had won it by obeying all the rules. See what being nice could get you?
And yet when she got what she had worked so hard for it didn’t seem to be quite what she had expected. Being married to her husband didn’t seem to make him magically more interesting. Somehow, too, she was still having to say yes; yes he could bring people home for an unexpected dinner party; yes they could have sex when he got home late and stinking of alcohol; yes she didn’t mind if he went overnight to a business conference with his pretty, young secretary; yes it was fine that his children still came over even though he was away.
And the children hated her. It might have had something to do with the fact he had technically still been married to their mother at the time of that fateful party, but that wasn’t her fault! She hadn’t known! Okay, she hadn’t asked, but she hadn’t known! But saying yes to them didn’t make them any friendlier, and if she tried saying no they laughed and ignored her. She tried complimenting them, but they only sniggered – just like the nasty girls at school so long ago. When Helen looked in the mirror she could still see the plain little girl without any friends.
But she could have friends! Even if her marriage wasn’t working out, she could have friends. She wasn’t working so she had time to be helpful; she had money so she could buy people the best gifts. She would spend hours contemplating the perfect present for someone – a pony, perhaps, or a puppy.
Sometimes it worked, briefly. People would throng around her, quick to admire her skill at party-planning or her wonderful knack for buying the perfect gift. She was so clever, so talented, would she be kind enough to just help them with this? And she would (‘Never say no!’) and for a while she would be suffused with the radiant delight of knowing she was good at something, people liked her.
And then the party would be over, the wedding finished, or a few months would tick buy since she bought them that wonderful Christmas present. Suddenly they would be too busy to talk when she called, wouldn’t have time to keep up with that weekly game of tennis. She would try for a few weeks – even, hopelessly optimistic, for two months or more. Eventually though, she would put the phone down and know that however she dressed it up she was still mousy Helen, hopeless Helen, good for helping out but underneath dull, dull, dull. Who would want to be friends with her? (‘For Heaven’s sake girl, smile!’)
It seemed so unfair, especially when you considered how many people were surrounded by friends who barely made an effort to keep them at all. Look at Annie; she never said yes, even to exciting things like a trip to Las Vegas in First Class; she barely ever smiled; she didn’t try not to embarrass her friends; she certainly didn’t seem eager to compliment people. And yet Lillian stuck to her like glue, refusing to see that her so-called best friend wasn’t obeying any of the rules of friendship! Perhaps it was the ideas. Maybe Helen’s ideas were fatally flawed, too dull to be truly of any interest to anyone. Perhaps if she used Annie’s ideas – but obviously did them better, with actual enthusiasm – Lillian would be forced to acknowledge her obvious superiority as a friend.
It all went right but then it all went wrong. Perhaps Helen managed to reclaim it, but only with Annie’s help. She just knew, looking around the wedding, that in another three months Lillian would be added to the list of people who didn’t answer her calls. Heading home afterwards she crawled into bed and pulled the covers over her head (‘Sorry mom, I guess I’m just a failure after all.’).
If Helen wanted to sulk in bed, it was unlikely that anyone would stop her. The maids didn’t care; the kids certainly didn’t as long as they could find the key to the liquor cabinet and their father wouldn’t be back from his ‘business trip’ for several days yet. She let herself moulder pleasantly in self-pity, in a world where no-one would object if she didn’t smile.
The doorbell came as a surprise, and she dragged herself reluctantly to the door. A pack of Labrador puppies was a bigger surprise and she forced herself to smile rather than worrying about what they would do to her carpet. They dragged a woman in behind them, and Helen recognised Megan from the wedding. She shuddered inwardly. What did one of the bridesmaids want with her now? Hadn’t she been punished enough?
“I’m here to talk about the wedding,” Megan puffed as dogs filled Helen’s house.
Helen felt her eyes fill with easy tears, and blinked them back furiously. “I was only trying to be nice,” she said in a small voice, sensing a lecture of her mother’s epic proportions.
Megan flopped down onto the sofa, and eyed her thoughtfully. “Oh, I know that,” she said in a voice that, while not entirely sympathetic, didn’t seem half as stern as Helen was expecting. “But you know, I think perhaps you need a lesson or two in being nasty.” She eyed Helen’s wedding photo for a moment. Helen had tried to hide it behind ornaments – it was too harsh a reminder of yet another failure – but hadn’t had the heart to put it away entirely. “And I think maybe we need to start with your husband.”
And as a dog tried to climb into her lap, Helen settled for the lesson that might change her life.