Saturday, April 07, 2007

"Remembering Descants"

Women and their relationships....with lovers, husbands, friends, mothers, sons, daughters, siblings.
This story is about the mother/daughter relationship; these relationships vary so much, don't they, from person to person? And they're never static, even in a particular relationship, are they? I imagine THAT's both a pro AND a con...
** The painting shown here is Edvard Munch's " Mother and Daughter". He painted it in 1897 and it is exhibited at Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo. This was an Art print.
My story is called “Remembering Descants”. It was shortlisted for the Bitch Lit Anthology which was produced in Manchester by Commonword Ltd.
( And my own mother, who WAS beautiful, was also far warmer..)

" “ Love me?” I whisper. My words float like the snowflakes outside.

I thought I’d be prepared, so yesterday I bought a black woollen dress from Oxfam. The price tag’s still on. It has a high neck, long sleeves and its hem settles around my calves. It’s sensible and prim; its plainness is its asset and my mother would approve: "It’s a canvas to adorn!" she’d cry, like a child with a brand new colouring book.

My mother’s hair is red against her pillow.Her skin is like alabaster and I’m murmuring old Leonard Cohen songs. They’re the haunting ones, about Suzanne and Marianne and I’m leaning on the windowsill. It’s snowing outside in the hospital car park and sky’s darkening and clouds lumber across it like porpoises. Then Dylan chips in and I’m suddenly not sleepy and I know for certain there’s no place I’m going to.
Snow drifts now, and sky turns grey as my hair. My mother wakes in her hospital bed. She would like my new dress.

My mother wears a satin nightdress. She’s always loved elegance, she's hated my sloppiness.
"Wonderful!” she’d laugh, when I swirled round in some dress she’d made me buy, and then my transformation would begin.
“Adornments! ” she’d cry. She couldn’t resist as she let rip with her own belongings....silvery necklace, copper choker, silky violet scarf around my throat. There was a brooch from Morocco, red leather gloves from Italy, often something emerald or orange. She’d clip huge earrings to my ears; she’d paint my mouth with her own scarlet lipstick.
And in the mirror, I’d see a doll I didn’t recognise and I’d wonder where I’d gone.

A Mini Cooper screeches into the hospital car park, blares music. A girl staggers out of the car. The sky shivers. This room is warm; it cocoons me. I run my fingers through my hair.
” Love me?” I say to my mother. It’s hard to ask. And she sighs, as I knew she would.

“ Give me some peace,” she says. I run my fingers through my hair. My mother’s hair was always red. “Flame coloured” she’d say as she brushed it out each night. I wished she’d brush out my hair; I wished this often. Not like a doll’s, but simply because she loved me.

Once my mother bought sweets while we waited for my cat to die. We sat by his basket and she giggled: “ It’s his turn to die. We get turns in everything. Don’t miss out on your turns. Grab your turn for love."
Then the cat died. And I cried.
“Love me!” I said to my mother. But she painted on lipstick, brushed out her flame coloured hair.

The girl in the car park wears a long white ball gown. She stands still and screams. The Mini Cooper swerves away through the gates of the hospital into the street. The girl screams again. A man in overalls carries a dustbin. He walks on through the gates into the street. A ginger cat grooms itself on the roof of a van.
My cat in his basket waited his turn. The girl stands in the car park. A nurse runs towards her. I hum more Dylan; turn back to my mother. The music in my head throbs and clouds heave themselves across the sky.

I’ve thought for years how this day would be; little girls do. When I was ten, my friends and I took turns to die. We played Death Beds, our favourite winter game, when central heating hadn’t spread to shivery unheated bedrooms.
We huddled together, Carol-Ann, Elizabeth and me, and we groaned and gasped and sighed under a salmon pink eiderdown. It smelt of stuffiness and teddies, peppermints and fizzy lemonade, pencil shavings and liquorice and forgotten overdue library books and as we snuggled, we took dying breaths and always we saw our mothers’ faces.

There are cards on the windowsill in this hospital room, a chocolate box on a chair. It’s almost Christmas and I look ridiculous. Tonight I was invited to a Fancy Dress Ball. I wear a ballerina’s tutu with top hat and tails. I’d just tried on my costume when the call came. And now my mother’s lying against pillows, her face as pale as frost.
A nurse called Maureen, in pristine uniform, smoothes my mother’s brow. Her efficiency emphasises my crazy clothes, the fact I couldn’t smooth my mother’s brow if I were last person on Earth. Maureen wears green mascara on gingery lashes. She has wide hips beneath her crisp dress.
The words "unfinished business” flash before my eyes like an illuminated cinema sign. They clog the dusky view of the city through the window; they screech their message above my mother’s locker where a jug of roses stands. She’s always liked roses. Men gave her roses; they often gave her roses. I tell her the roses smell sweet. She stirs beneath the blanket:"Hush, give me some peace.”
I loll in a chair. When she’s gone, I’ll be banished to the attic, left in a forest, hidden in caves. Wolves will guard me. I’ll be Heidi on her Alp, Mary in the Secret Garden. Elizabeth often said I had the eyes of an orphan.
My mother’s bed is high; its covers are tight. I remember the bed where library books lurked, the smell of liquorice. I see my mother’s younger face. I remember books I read, fears we had, Carol- Ann, Elizabeth and I. I remember the waiting of turns.

I’ve thought for years of this, because little girls do. She’ll stir in her bed, open her eyes so I’ll see their blueness. She’s waiting at the pearly gates. And I’ve waited my turn for her love.
We sang beneath the eiderdown. We chose delicate words for our mothers. Carol-Ann sang hymns, knew about descants. We tried to sing descants.

Outside, it’s dark and a street light flashes on. The girl in her ball gown has gone. There’s a strange patch on the ground where she stood; she must have been bleeding. My hands are cold. The bin man pees against a wall. The orange cat crawls beneath the van. Maureen has thick ankles in her dark stockings.
My mother sleeps and I doze. Maureen potters; she dampens a flannel, hangs my coat behind the door. Someone sobs in the corridor; another voice consoles. There are slow footsteps. A dish clatters to the floor; somewhere a man laughs loud. Maureen whispers in the corridor. A doctor stands in the doorway; his smile is wide, clown-like. My legs are cold in my tutu. He wears a pink waistcoat and his hair is black and unruly. His voice is loud; it turns cartwheels down the corridor as he walks away with Maureen. Somewhere a phone rings. The roses on the locker are yellow.
Carol-Ann, Elizabeth and I crushed rose petals in the garden. We soaked them in rainwater, made perfume for our mothers. The lawn was long and sunlit and my mother stretched in her deckchair beneath willows and Elizabeth said she was like a lady in a painting. My mother’s hair was red and the deckchair was blue and the garden was green. We stood with white roses in our hands and I stored this away forever.

I stare at a crucifix above the bed; Christ has hair as wild as the doctor’s. I eat processed cheese on thin buttered bread and a tiny lime green jelly that reminds me of birthday parties and balloons and the Farmer in his Den. The crucifix is thick with dust. The doctor had a cheerful face.
Maureen tucks a tartan rug round me, begs me sleep. Her gentle Irish voice laps over me and I slump in my chair and my tutu puffs round me like creamy meringue and I fade into sleep watching Maureen administer morphine. My mother’s hair is red on the cream pillow. The tartan rug is warm. I stare at the dust on the crucifix. There is the taste of peppermint in my mouth and in my mind, Carol-Ann, under a salmon pink eiderdown, is groaning.
I remember the roar of the Mini Cooper rushing back to the street, the girl in her white ball gown. I hear voices of people in the street. People often looked at my mother in the street. Men watched; women stared. And doors slam in the car park. Someone laughs.
“ Snow’s thick” says Maureen, writing notes on a chart “ Your mother is comfortable” And this room is warm, it cocoons, holds me tight. And Christ is there on His crucifix and my mother lies beneath Him.

People always stared at my mother. She walked with grace and I could never keep up. My legs were short; hers were long. Now, under the quilt, hers are slender; in the tutu, mine are stubby. Nothing changes. Maureen murmurs something; she squeezes my shoulder. No one has touched me for weeks.
I toss myself into a new position in the chair under the tartan rug; I’m remembering an eiderdown, the cuddliness of teddies. I hear the moans of Carol-Ann; I touch the fear inside Elizabeth.

I sleep but something’s aching and I’m running. I’m wanting my Mummy and I’m six years old and I’m running and I wear my blue tweed coat with velvet collar and the city is frosty and it’s bright as a Christmas card. I’m running along a city street trying to keep up, past railings giving glimpses of basement kitchens and cellars and families eating tea.
Ahead of me walks my mother holding hands with a man I have met only once. Her legs are long and strong and there are seams down her stockings and she moves with the grace of a racehorse and I wish I could have stilettos like hers that click and clatter on the pavement instead of black patent bar shoes and white socks that wrinkle and slither around my ankles.
The man has a laugh rich as chocolate and his fingers trail across my mothers back as she walks. Occasionally those fingers wander downwards and he cups her arse with them, runs them down to the hem of her skirt so that it rides up as he touches her thigh and I want to scream:"Don’t! She’s mine! Leave her alone!"
Her skirt is short for these times and it’s the colour of buttercups and I know she smells of apples and vanilla ice-cream and that perfume she bought in Paris. And then my mother turns, shouts back to me in her voice bright as lemons:” Keep up!” And I run like the wind, past all the basements and the black-painted railings and past all the houses in the city, as fast as I can and I long for her to sweep me in her arms and tell me I’m clever and fast and there’s no one like me.
But she’s distracted, she’s giggling and the man laughs his deep laugh, kisses her floating red hair so that his bristly face lies against her peachy soft cheeks and I totter behind them, clinging to the hem of the buttercup skirt, clinging to my mother with the tips of my fingers.
“ Give us some peace,” she laughs and her heels click and her skirt swishes and my mother’s laughter fills the whole of the city.

And waking, I toss away the tartan rug. I touch her cheeks with the tips of my fingers and the pale taffeta tutu crackles as I bend towards her and her eyes flicker and she sighs and Maureen leads me to my chair, soothes me with her lovely voice. And Carol-Ann is singing and her descant soars into my heart.

There’s a forest. It’s night. Trees have faces, leaves chatter. My feet slither amongst leaves and sky is vivid with stars. There’s a woman in front of me, she’s elderly, she’s smiling.
“I‘m here, ” she whispers and she cackles with laughter as the sky cracks and there’s thunder and I’m screaming into trees. When I turn, she’s gone and all that remains is a heap of clothes and in the centre, a skirt the colour of buttercups.

In the car park, a dog barks. There are angry voices, a child yells. Carol-Ann wants to play Deathbeds. Elizabeth swigs fizzy lemonade. The Farmer wants a Child. There are rose petals soaking in rainwater on a kitchen windowsill. But someone’s whispering.
“Not long now” Maureen says,” she’ll soon have her peace”
Maureen runs water into a bowl. In the corridor, a nurse trundles by with a trolley. It squeaks as she passes. Maureen is holding my hand. She squeezes it gently. I picture my new black Oxfam dress waiting in my wardrobe. I shall wear my mother’s copper choker. I wonder if that girl still wears her ball gown. Maureen smoothes my mother’s brow. I feel ridiculous in my tutu.
“Sleep for a while” Maureen turns to me “ I’ll wake you”
I remember the screams of the girl in the ball gown, the blood in the car park. The crucifix glitters, caught in light from the corridor. Elizabeth is sobbing at my bedside. My mother is sighing. When I was twelve, she laughed at my questions; she laughed at my blood, at my sheets, at my panic. She painted her nails the colour of sand.
Maureen touches my elbow. Her hair is as brown as Elizabeth’s. Maureen has freckles. She touches my hand. The lawn is sunlit; there’s the scent of roses. And Elizabeth says my mother is a lady in a painting.
“She’s gone” Maureen murmurs “ Your mother has peace” and then a man shouts again in the car park and the black-haired doctor passes by in the corridor humming a tune I don’t recognise and a chair is scraped across the floor of the room above. Somewhere, I hear the click of stilettos; the click of a nurse’s compact. And this room is warm; it holds me tight. I see the dust on the crucifix. I smell the roses on my mother’s locker. Her face is pale as frost.
“Love me?” I say, but of course there’s no answer and Maureen smoothes my brow, soothes me with her lovely voice.

My mother’s hair is red, her pillows are cream and I’m murmuring songs. And in the jingle-jangle morning, I shall have peace because I’ll be strong. And Carol-Ann will sing descants on a lawn filled with sunlight and I’ll brush out that flame-coloured hair.


Blogger Carole said...

This is a beautiful , and also a very powerful piece of writing. I love the way you have woven in the images, making it poetic prose. I'm not surprised that it was short listed. You also have a visually exciting blog.

2:42 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Hugely moving, Jan - and I thought the structure worked really well. I'm not surprised it was short-listed either. It's something that sticks in the head. Really memorable.

11:06 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

Glad it's OK.
I've been blogging for 6 months now and really enjoying it.

With all your recent research re memory, I feel honoured at your words..!
Reading my story again, I keep finding stuff to cut/change, but I suppose one could chip away for ever.... until all that's left is stubble.

6:42 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...

Jan, Great story.

Your stories always seem to have such bright rich colours - they are very pictorial. This story reminded me of my mother's death, which happened quite differently and had it's own minor drama. I still remember what the weather was like on the day she died, for instance - hot and sticky.

11:16 am  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

How perfect the Munch is for an illustration--that bright color, the terrible tension and passion (and, really, his inability to fully grow up and move away from the passionate bonds established in youth), and Munch's vital repetition of patterns. It would make a lovely little chapbook with a Munch variation of the same scene on every page!

Hah. It would have been a good anthology piece, too. I give you my little gold star.

4:13 am  
Blogger Jan said...

Anne S:
I'm not writing much at all at present but hope to put that right.
This summer I've a long stretch of time which I'm going to keep as free as possible.
Comments like yours are really appreciated.
Thanks Anne.

You've wonderful ideas!
And thanks for the extra info on Munch too.
I shall paste my GOLD STAR on the fridge.

12:00 pm  

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