Ruth Rendell’s The Saint Zita Society


Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell, (aka Barbara Vine) the 82 year-old British novelist

Saint Zita, Ruth Rendell tells us, is the patron saint of servants. The Saint Zita Society is spearheaded by June, the 80 year-old companion to the Princess. June gets little or no respect and starts the society to improve working conditions on Hexam Place, an upscale London address. Attendance is never high, the chief draw being that meetings are held in the local pub, the Dugong. (You could look that word up in a myth dictionary.)

I would call it an ensemble novel because it has so many characters all more or less of equal importance. Only one of them, Rabia, the Muslim nursery maid to Thomas, a banker’s son, engages our sympathy. She has had a tragic history as mother and wife and she has attached herself to her charge with ferocity.

Two of the others fall into the doormat category: Thea, who rightly claims that she is not actually a servant, nonetheless, is admitted to the Society because she fulfills that role to her landlords, a gay couple planning a civil union ceremony and to the angry widow who lives in the first floor flat of the 3 flat house. She would qualify for sainthood herself if she wasn’t filled with furious resentment. The other pushover is Dr. Jefferson, Hexham’s resident paediatrician. The doctor does not, of course qualify as a member, nor do, the gay couple, the Princess or Lord and Lady Studley.

There are several drivers, Jimmy, Beacon and Henry, easily distinguishable by their differing morality and who they drive for – Dr. Jefferson, Mr Still and Lord Studly, respectively. They do not indulge in alcoholic beverages at the meetings, although some of them indulge in other vices on their own time.

Several people entertain the idea of marrying persons they do not love, but these plans don’t always pan out. In fact love gets a bad rap in this book, with the exception of Rabia’s love for baby Thomas.

There are those ready and willing to take advantage of the pliant nature of others, including the gay couple and the Still’s au pair, Montserrat, who lives in the Still’s house and collects a salary but apparently has no duties.

There are 2 nasty old girls, the afore-mentioned Mrs. Grieves and the Princess, although the Princess’s dog Gussie may have the inside edge on nastiness.

The novel is not a Whodunit nor even a Whydunit, nor even a Will-they catch-em. It’s inciting event is an accidental death, which gets mismanaged, so to say. There are, I hasten to add, additional, actual murders. A red-headed detective wanders ineffectually  into the drawing rooms and bedsits of Hexham Place. Nevertheless things get wrapped up nicely, including the St. Zita Society. No one is left out of this denouement. And there is a measure of what my history prof called natural justice in the end.

I read this book on my Kindle.

Consider the Second-Best Bed


Shakespeare famously left his wife, Anne Hathaway, his second best bed. Period. Biographers have explained this. Most of his estate went to his daughter Susanna including the best bed, which would have belonged to the master bedroom, but to quote Anthony Burgess in his book Shakespeare, “She (Anne) had her widow’s dower at common law, and her place in the great house that Susanna and her husband took over, She was content to live with Susanna and she got on well with her son-in-law. The second-best bed was installed in a particular chamber and this chamber was inalienably hers.”

Will was not, after all, expressing his feelings for the older woman he married in a hurry and left asap to pursue a career in London. He wasn’t a miserable tightwad either. Having lost his son Hamnet when the child was 11, and being estranged from his daughter Judith who had married unwisely, he was laying his money on Susanna to produce a male heir. Didn’t work. Susanna had a daughter who married twice but had no children. Judith had three sons but none survived to produce children. Pas de heir!

Whew! Good to get that settled.

We all have experience of the second-best bed – at holiday time, on vacations, in cheap hotels, as children at grandma’s – the deep-valleyed ones, the plastic pull-out couch, the couch itself, the hard-as-cement beds, the mat on the floor. We have stubbed our toes on the metal legs of the pull-out and ruined our backs on the ones with blown springs and woken up aching all over in the hard ones. Our host’s query “How did you sleep” has been met with a bald-faced, not entirely convincing lie.

Or we have found ourselves in the best bed, a comfortable place to be, and discovered in the morning that the host and his wife somehow managed to coil together in a narrow cot. Discovering such a carefully concealed secret is a humbling experience.

These days, we have boxed beds that can be blown up with an all-included foot pump and provide our guests with a waterbed experience, long after the death of waterbeds, which was, as you know, watery and unexpected. Whether these air beds leak with rude noise in the middle of the night, I do not yet know.

My own second-best bed sits in the den, rather awkwardly I must admit, because of feng shui demands. It is narrow, has a metal frame on casters and no headboard. It is prone to surprising trips across the floor. In its defence, it has a good mattress -should be for that price- if somewhat too hard. When I realized that I would be sleeping in it myself, I remedied that by topping it with a feather bed. Odd that we think a night in a semi-comfortable bed won’t hurt a guest, but don’t want to spend one ourselves. Then I decided that the thread count of the sheets had to be upgraded to the best bed’s standards and a requisite number of pillows added. I overdid the duvet and find that it works well in mid-winter but after that, the quilted duvet cover is enough.

And why do I sleep in my second best bed about a third of the time. Neighbours. Thin floors. Don’t ask. There’s only so much I want to know about other people’s personal lives.

I’ve got used to sleeping there and never wake up disoriented, wondering why things are in the wrong place. This is handy since those mandatory trips in the dark would otherwise prove disastrous.

One of the advantages is better brain plasticity. Thanks to Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself) and others, we now know after years of being told that once brain cells die, it’s game over, that in fact new neural pathways can be established and for example, stroke-damaged limbs can learn to move again. To maintain neural plasticity or brain change, however, we need to be learning constantly. One of my tai chi instructors harps on about moving your kettle to a different burner to avoid rigidity and stagnation. The kettle, in this case, is me and the new burner is the second-best bed.

Twas there “I dreamed the latest dream that ever I did dream”. It wasn’t a police procedural with noir overtones nor was it a lucid dream. (See previous posts.) But it was one of two dreams that have been life-changing. Someday I’ll write about the first one, which I call Etherica and which I had while napping after an exhausting trip to  Los Angeles. The latest one isn’t ready for publication yet, but I can give you the highlights.

It was suffused with love, the kind of love that I felt as a young woman for Blake, my high school sweetheart whom I married, and which I saw reflected in my grandson and his fiancé whose wedding I recently described. This nourishing, accepting and all-encompassing feeling made me not want to wake up, but stayed with me once I did. The dream began with me in my early twenties but looked forward in my dream thoughts many years and actually incorporated someone from my real future. As I pondered over its meaning, I understood the “future” person as I never had before. That was instructive, but more important was a shift that had happened.

Like many people who have had abusive childhoods, I have felt like an orphan, bereft of care, human and divine. As I did the dishes the evening after the dream, I knew that this was over. My heart felt as if it were shattering. Not breaking. I wasn’t sad although I cried. It was opening up. It had to be bigger to accommodate what it would now have to hold – another part of me, repossessed at last.

How can I break the news to Best Bed, the black Hemnes bed from Ikea, so solid, so high, so comfortable, that its second-best Sleep Country cousin has bested it in dreaming?

Hapless Human VS Pressure Cooker: if at first you don’t succeed, repeat


Bright sunshine and the fragrance of spring drew me out of bed at 7 am on holiday Monday. (We Canucks like to get the jump on ‘mericans by having some of our holidays early.) How could this not be a great day!

I turned on the burner under the pressure cooker to high. In it, inside an Ohsawa pot, brown rice had been soaking overnight. (another story – hingeing on weak digestion). I walked away. And thus the saga began.

A violent hissing, like six angry adders drew me back to the kitchen. Six streams of steam were jetting out from under the front handle in every direction. Clearly pressure was not building.

Fine! I’m not afraid of a pressure cooker.  I have heard the story of a young woman who fled her exploding cooker across her loft, head down, in a brilliant display of broken field running. She escaped but the ceiling did not. Not me, boys! I’ve been handling one of these for 30 years. I grab the back handle, move it off the burner and turn off the heat.

A little background: my old Lagostina pressure cooker, the one with the bendy lid that was such a pleasing puzzle to insert, served me uncomplaining and without maintenance for 30 years until last Feb 8th. I had a brief, unsatisfactory relationship with a model called Fresco. I say ‘brief’ but it felt interminable. Every morning was a new battle: the rice remained hard, the rice was swimming in water and half done, the lid wouldn’t go on, the lid wouldn’t come off. I grew crazed. I took it back for a  full credit. Then I looked up where to buy another Lagostina, but of course, it was not at all like the good old reliable bendy lid one. It was a new, improved model. In fact, it looked like the Fresco, but I had faith because it was a Lagostina.

Still I had a kind of residual post traumatic stress around the issue so I tackled the new problem warily but with confidence.

1. Removed lid, carefully aligned arrows, pressed down firmly with left hand, turned lid with right. Put pot on burner, turned heat on high, walked away.

Result: jets of steam, no pressure built.

2. Examined lid carefully, studied flanges of metal that were supposed to interlock, pressed yet more firmly, shut lid, turned heat on, walked away.

Same result.

3. Removed lid. Noted that the front handle seemed loose. Looked in vain for screws to tighten. Moved the Ohsawa pot more to the centre thinking it might be preventing a seal. Repeated #1.

Same result.

Vaguely remembered that human failing: if something doesn’t work, keep doing it, but try harder.

4. Maybe the inner pot was the problem. Removed Ohsawa pot, got out an old one, which isn’t as tall. Transferred rice, inserted in cooker and repeated #1.

Same result

Well, at least, I had eliminated one hypothesis.

5. Removed lid, took out gasket, studied situation, pressed it carefully back, repeated #1.

Same result.

6. Pulled out old bendy lid Lagostina, transferred rice pot. Glanced heavenward. Turned heat on.

Different result.  This time water bubbled out instead of steam. Well, what did I expect? The old thing was fatigued and told me so last Feb 8th.

7. Picked up the lid of the new cooker, shook it in admonition. It rattled. Took out the gasket. Ah, there they were -2 screws about half way out. Pulled out the heavy red tool box from under the sink, found the screwdriver with the star-shaped head, tightened those darned screws within a millimetre  of stripping them. Repeated #1. Leaned over the stove. Never mind the “watched pot” rule.

Result: a few seconds later, a soft sigh, the red-knobbed pressure indicator floated upward, I had 13 psi and in 50 minutes, I would have edible rice.

I also seemed to have fairly high blood pressure, but there was relief for that. I fired off an email missile-I mean missive- to Lagostina advising them to include a small screwdriver with their pressure cookers and clear instructions regarding loose screws.

Then, wouldn’t you know, turns out that other pressure cooker adherents of my acquaintance already knew that.