Houses lining a street in Clapham, London; a print by Jon Davison.
One of my sons lived in a similar street in the East End; we visited him and his partner there until they moved to Cornwall last summer.
In June 2005, their son was born; the weather was scorching. London seethed in the heat.
Sitting in the tiny garden at the back of the house, sipping celebratory champagne and eating cherries, a figment of my imagination appeared through the heat haze. Her name was Cecelia and I think she once lived in my son's house.
This is her story which I called " Cecelia's Vagabonds". As well as the beautiful name, I also wanted to use the wonderful word " vagabond"....
Cecelia keeps cats; she drinks cognac, scrawls letters to “The Times” on creamy foolscap. Every morning she sleeps late, in a small bedroom flooded by sunlight and filled with dying flowers, spent candles and frequently some loveable ghosts.
Cecelia Tolhurst-Quinn never married; there were lovers, principally Gerald and Hector, and finally, Harriet. All this was long ago, when time ran ahead, spread itself out like fields viewed from a train. Now Cecelia keeps cats in her crumbling terrace in a city’s midst, where memories jostle amongst threadbare possessions. Cecelia is old; her mind glistens like starlings’ feathers; it flutters with ideas, thoughts, philosophies.
Cecelia grows herbs in her kitchen; she cultivates them with elegant words, musician’s fingers. She finds tunes in colours of flowers; rhythms lurk in blades of grass. At night, she plays Debussy; she plays fractured, fragile pieces on her small piano. Eyes closed, she dreams old dreams; of Hector, Gerald, and always, Harriet.
Opening her eyes, Cecelia sees photographs. They’re coffee coloured, sepia, faded to cream. There are pre-war friends in Berlin, friends in Venice soon after. There’s a niece in white dress, she lolls amongst azaleas in a Cornish garden. She has ringlets, the sensuous calm of a young face at a special moment in time.
And there are the faces of Harriet, Gerald, and Hector. But most of all, there’s Harriet.
Cecelia sings at dawn. Hers is a willowy, fluting voice sighing through the house. It’s like the mildest of breezes, dancing between small ivory figures, a blue Chinese vase, a Georgian candlestick glittering with dust. Cats cluster at her feet beneath the piano, Prospero, Shylock and Tom, nestling into the bones of her sparrow ankles.
And all the while Cecelia’s night thoughts pirouette within folds of yellowing lace curtains.
But she’s safe, cocooned; she’s hidden at her piano, safe from those vagabonds skulking in her mind.
Cecelia was a Lord’s daughter; her home, a manor on moors above Penzance. The world was hers but she made choices; now she dresses in shabby satin, faded Oxfam velvet. But still she wears her mother’s pearls, her father’s ring.
And each dawn, Cecelia sings to her ghosts, plays music which haunts her cats, so that their eyes stare, their fur bristles, and the early morning milkman, bottles in hand, stands on the doorstep, still as a statue.
And Cecelia sees in the shadows, images of Harriet.
Later, as light steals into her garden, her mind wanders amongst waist-high thoughts in grass. Cecelia picks flowers; sky blue delphiniums, gillyflowers, the pinkest foxgloves, which she places in vases, on tables, in the hearth. All through the house she places her flowers, as the light creeps in. They’re nursery rhyme colours, pastels, the occasional crimson, and she sings them all in her high quivering voice.
The people next door are rarely seen, but often heard.
They shout, thud footballs against Cecelia’s garden wall so that her trellis of roses wobbles and shakes. There are quarrels and harsh cries. Sometimes Cecelia hears sobbing; it's as though someone’s whole being is dragged from their soul.
Once there was a white face at an upper window; Cecelia saw a child with gold hair, palms outstretched against glass. Cecelia saw the child’s face pressed against glass, contorted to ugliness; a pig’s snout, wet with tears. Then at midday, a pale red-eyed woman stood alone in next-door’s garden; in the yellow stillness, noon was dry as parchment.
And in her kitchen, Cecelia crimped leaves of herbs, rolled them between shaky fingers.
At night, bats blow round the house, wind flaps heavy wings against windows.
Cecelia’s rooms, full of flowers, heave as though someone were weary of their world.
Next door the red-eyed woman sleeps. Cecelia touches the keys of her piano.
Candles shudder and stare, like eyes of dark-time creatures.
Outside in the street, footsteps clatter; harsh words shatter against railings.
But in Cecelia’s house, Harriet sews in her chair; Gerald plays a manly game of chess with Hector.
Cecelia’s walls ache with her sadness. She hears her neighbour, hears her sobbing.
Gerald places strong arms around Cecelia’s shoulders and they walk, trembling, round the house, smell flowers in vases, the stately foxgloves; they marvel at vivid scarlet poppies.
Then, arms full of flowers, Cecelia steps into the street. She’s wrapped in grey suds of dawn. And smiling, she lays flowers on the step next door.
Returning, she crawls into her fusty, friendly bed, rests her head on Harriet’s chest, entwines her legs with Gerald’s.
Hector, looming by the window, checks his gold pocket watch, studies them all with tranquil eyes......
And Harriet’s night memories sidle away, disappear up the street in the morning; like dreams we have just before waking.
Again, there’s a girl’s face in her looking glass. It’s one who visits Cecelia regularly now, one she half remembers, recognises each blemish in the lovely face, each touch of fingers on cheekbones. And a smiling Harriet peers over her shoulder, a young Harriet, large eyed and pansy-flower bright.
Cecelia turns, stiffens as she moves to her bedroom window. In the garden, there’s bleakness, as if something were lost.
“Thieves have been, taken my flowers!” Cecelia flusters round the house, sees the Chinese vase empty of foxgloves. The hearth is colourless; no lush roses scenting her hall.
“Thieves!” she murmurs
And Harriet touches the lake of Cecelia’s throat, clasps her narrow wrists.
Harriet has dove-coloured eyes and a dress the colour of cornflowers.
In the garden, summer throbs but Cecelia’s mind skates fast over a rink of ice.
“ They’ve been again” she whispers, “ The thieves”
Harriet sits in the shade at the end of the garden, calls to Cecelia, her voice bright as lemons. Next door in the upper window, the woman waves; beside her, the gold haired child.
“ Thank you for your flowers” the woman mouths, “ those flowers on my step. They made a difference” And the child beams.
So Cecelia, beside Harriet, strokes the soft fur of a sleepy cat. She forgets thieves, forgets vagabonds skulking in her mind.
( STORY:MY COPYRIGHT)