Friday, January 05, 2007

"Listening To Mother"

This is a painting by Camille Pissarro. It's called " Landscape with snow". Pissarro is my favourite Impressionist painter. The painting makes me shiver with cold. And I shiver too at the sheer beauty of winter, at its treachery.

Here is a story for January. I wrote it two Januarys ago. It's called " Listening with Mother." There are different sides to snow and ice. Their beauty can terrify. Here is the story:

Once our mother saw a girl fall through ice on a pond. Our mother saw the girl's hand, just one hand pointing out of the water, fingers up to the sky.
"Ice" says our mother " ruins lives. It ruined Jennifer Ann Henshaw's in 1963"
So our pond's out of bounds. When it's frozen, my brother and I stare at it, stand close together, remember our mother's story. We remember the hand in the fairisle glove ( whatever fairisle might be). We picture the hand, sinking fast. And we see fingers pointing up to the sky.

It happened years ago. My mother says she screamed so that her shouts rocketed to the sky and grownups appeared, shrieking and crying and running fast. And my little-girl mother stood on the snow in her red bobble hat, like a figure on a Christmas cake, and Jennifer Ann's father, Harold Henshaw, a fat man in a fawn waistcoat, with trouser pockets jingling with coins and spectacles and other manly things, leapt into the ice as though it were the swimming pool at Llandudno. And the ice cracked like an Easter egg breaking up, slithering slowly aside, grey and crumbling and ghastly, revealing the darkest of water, which gurgled and sighed deep mournful sighs. And then all was still.

Jennifer Ann's mother, a frilly woman called Aileen, in duck egg blue twinset and well polished court shoes, ran across the snow dragging a ladder.
" She was a little woman with a large ladder" says our mother, but Aileen found strength from somewhere and with two helpful neighbours, she dragged the ladder so that it looked like a musical stave and the ice was a sheet of music and the people were crotchets and quavers dancing in staccato-like fashion on the snow. And the snow was greying now, muddied with the footprints of frenzied Wellingtons, with the ghostly imprints of the quiet sledges of horrified children.
And the ice, with Jennifer Ann in it, waited and was still and my mother saw colours in it, limey green ones, the pink of dollymixtures; she saw reflections, the branches of trees skidding across its surface. And the winter sun lolled there, orange as a Jaffa.

My mother sucked her pigtails as she waited. Her hands were numb and her toes ached in her cosy fleecy ankle boots with the neat little zips. And day closed in, the twilight grey of the pond, that wicked silence of ice meeting the heaviness of sky in late afternoon. And all around, of course, there were people standing.

Next day our mother peered from her bedroom window. Solemn men brought Jennifer Ann up the garden, the quickest way to the main road. They past bare rose trees, walked up the crazy paving path. And Jennifer Ann aged ten lay on a stretcher, covered by a tartan blanket and flanked by Aileen in her best herringbone tweed suit, her face drained of all colour. And Harold Henshaw swayed up the path, gripping the stretcher with his large beefy hands as though it might turn back, head for the ice on its own accord; as though it had a mind of its own.

Our mother's washing dishes today.She's tired because she's forty six and she works fulltime and she looks after us all and she feels like a whirligig beetle.
And I'm creeping out of the house now because it's January and there's ice on our pond. I want to watch it crinkle. I want to look up at the sky, see clouds, watch their reflection flutter on the surface of our pond. I might touch the ice, see if it smells. I might stuff it in my mouth, taste it. There'll be coldness on the roof of my mouth. I might sniff it, hold it to my nostrils so that it slides into my nose. It'll be so cold it might burn me.

Our crazy paving leads me on a dance to the ice. It twists, it pirouettes, it twirls along. I'm swaying but not like Harold swayed, him full of whisky and his fatherly grief.
Ice is the stuff of fairy tales; the Snow Queen, pure white palaces. Ice can keep secrets. Ice has a past that recreates itself in seconds. It opens up, reveals marvellous things. I run across the garden.

In the kitchen, my mother dries coffee cups, sings in her soft tired voice along with the radio.


Blogger Susan said...

Jan, this is absolutely wonderful writing. The story was so gripping, I read it with mouth agape and eyes wide. It felt so real; I do hope you didn't base it on an actual incident...but you must have... It brought tears to my eyes.

5:19 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

Not an actual incident that I saw but I remember as a child how my father talked about seeing something similar in HIS childhood. I lived in the same Cheshire village as he did as a child; we played in the same fields and woods and on the same ponds and we gave those ponds, fields and woods exactly the same names....

5:55 pm  

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