Many stories ( and poems) grow in the writer's mind from one particular image. In Monday's post, I mentioned how an owl flew against our windscreen as one night, we past Tintern Abbey ( see water colour painting, above ) *** . This was a memorable sight. And then several years after, I wrote the enclosed story. It developed from that one marvellous image: the snowy white owl, passing us by on its flight to the abbey at midnight..
Here is the story.
It's called:" Remembering Fenella and a snow white owl."
I’m dozing in the passenger seat in the dark. The motion of the car, the warmth inside it, lulls me to sleep. David drives with avid concentration; our children sleep in the back, cuddled in pyjamas, dreaming of holidays we’re approaching.
At midnight, the road slithers through the Wye Valley, dark and silent. Tall black trees loom, the giants of childhood gone in seconds, their branches outstretched to clutch the darkness. A car speeds past, hurtles on into the void beyond, and the radio plays low, the tinkle of a jazz piano.
And then as we pass the ruins of Tintern Abbey, a white owl hoots and swoops low across the moon, and I’m wide awake and I'm remembering.
In our navy gabardines we came, me, Pamela, Lesley and Fenella; into the doom of the churchyard at midnight, holding our breath and clutching each other’s hands.
Fenella was first, walking with the grace of a dancer between tall gravestones, her thick gold hair glinting in the eerie light; Fenella, always confident, always serene. Lesley was beside her; little, dark, secretive Lesley. I scuttled behind with lumpy Pamela, sucking sweets and sneezing. We were four school friends, creeping in the shadows of the night-time churchyard, as our feet squelched on wet grass, as our eyes stayed ever watchful.
“Come on!” hissed Fenella, snapping us into action. “We’re here for a reason, and we can’t muck about. We’ve got ten minutes, then you go back”.
“Let’s look at graves first,” said Pamela, “I like to see who I'm with”. Pamela, always logical.
So we huddled together, peered at epitaphs in the moonlight. We examined the lives and deaths of families. We read Sarah West’s gravestone, saw she was buried at seventeen with baby, at the beginning of another century. We gripped hands, suddenly chilled. At John Patterson's grave, we saw he was killed at nineteen in the Great War, but remembered years later on his parents’ tombstone. We’d read Wilfred Owen in English, but it never seemed real....
Fenella was impatient: “Come on” she snarled, “ You know what to do”.
As usual, we accepted her bossiness, although Pamela grumpily kicked pebbles, which skidded across the path.
“Do you really think it’ll work?” Lesley whispered, “Really, truly, Fenella?”
“It’s daft,” snorted Pamela, “I’d rather be in bed. I’m freezing and I’ve got a sore throat. It's mad and we’ll be expelled if they find out. It’s OK for you, Fenella Carter, you won’t get caught. You're invincible!"
She spat her words into the midnight air.
Lesley, Pamela and I were boarders at a rather second rate boarding school; we were supposedly in our dormitory asleep. Fenella, a daygirl, lived at home nearby. Her parents were oblivious to their daughter’s activities.
“Shut up, Pamela. Just eat more sweets,” Fenella commanded, “Get to the lichgate and start there. Remember; we keep walking and no talking. Then we wait and see. We wait and see what happens....”
So we crept across the churchyard to the gate. Halfway across, I halted by a high grey marble slab; someone had left a posy of crimson roses. I touched the tight, furled petals, wondering who left them, who they were for. I stared at the epitaph beneath a woman’s name and read: “Remember me when I am gone, gone far away into the silent land.” And I shivered, lingered over Christina Rossetti’s words, traced my cold fingers over the letters, until Fenella urged me to hurry. Then I slid away to the edge of the churchyard, and gazed over heavy rhododendron bushes at frosty fields beyond, stretching icily white into bleakness of night. And ever since, I’ve pictured such fields as the haunting silent land of that poem.
AND THEN we did what we set out to do. Twelve times on that cold night, we staggered round the churchyard in silence, trembling in ghostly silver-dark. After each circuit, Fenella snapped a berry from a holly tree near the lichgate, left it in a long-stemmed wineglass beneath the tree. (She’d smuggled this glass from her parent’s sideboard.)
Twelve times, we circled the churchyard. Then we knew we must wait. Pamela choked with fear; little engulfing sobs shaking her plump body. And graceful Fenella stood beneath the holly tree, an ethereal figure in the moonlight, bearing the wineglass like a chalice at an altar.
And once a car swept past in the lane beside the churchyard. Somewhere in the woods an animal shrieked. Huddling together, we willed night to open up, reveal its secret, reveal what we were desperate to see. Show what we were here for.
A fleeting breeze shifted leaves in the trees overhead. They swirled, quivered round our ankles. Somewhere distant, an iron gate clattered, slammed shut. All the clichés of the night were all rolled into approximately five minutes.
And then an owl hooted and a snow-white owl fluttered ghost-like across tombstones....
BUT at last, the time had come. Fenella swirled a dozen berries in her wineglass. Now we believed we'd see the faces of the men we would marry. An old superstition said so. It said that if we walked twelve times round the churchyard at midnight, we'd see these longed-for faces. It was, according to Fenella, even more likely to happen, should a snowy white owl pass by.
But Fenella was lurching us back to reality. Something, strangely, had changed in her attitude.
“Blast it! Go back to school!” she insisted, suddenly bored. “This is codswallop. Nothing’s going to happen now”. She tugged a comb through her hair and I wondered why; the wind was worsening, there was no one to see us, but she was determined we left her….
“Go on,they'll notice you're not at school. I could elope and my parents wouldn't notice. ”
Fenella was actually rueful. We glanced at each other, suddenly pitying her. So we left, did as required, and headed back across the churchyard.
Halfway across, I turned; Fenella sat on the wrought iron bench. Despite the breeze, she smoked a Woodbine, cupped her handsround it, film star fashion; in the moonlight, she looked like Marilyn Monroe.
But obediently, we stumbled off up the path. And as we clicked open the gate to the lane, we heard heavy-booted footsteps running up the path at the other side of the churchyard, and seconds later, Fenella’s bubbly laughter....
Safe in school, we climbed into bed in the dormitory.
Lesley whispered: “Tony’s probably with her. Fenella's Gorgeous Tony"
We knew about Tony. Some days we heard nothing but Tony.
Pamela continued: " He’ll be holding her hand in the churchyard, gazing into her eyes with passion”.
Pamela rolled over in bed: “And the rest” she groaned, and I heard the rustle of sweet papers in the dark.
Next morning, we trouped into Assembly. Miss Ella Tibbett, our esteemed Headmistress, stood on the platform, wearing polished brogues, tweed skirt, and kindly pastoral smile fixed on her face. Hers was a handsome face, the kind Whistler may have painted.
Once seated on the floor in Assembly, we always listened to music for a while, supposedly to collect our thoughts, but actually to allow latecomers to straggle in. Girls whispered and giggled; teachers looked bored, examined their nails, and glared at girls they disliked.
Just as the door monitor closed the door because Assembly was starting, Fenella sashayed in, to the triumphant strains of “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”. The music might have been chosen for her. With arms folded across chest, emphasising swaying hips, she pouted like a young Bardot, moved with the grace of Shrimpton. And the older teachers glowered, the younger ones smiled, apart from Miss Bright in navy serge trouser suit, who openly drooled.
“Look at Fenella, the tart” sizzled Ingrid Sulaiman; her stage whisper hissed around the entire Fifth Form. Ingrid, the sole contender for Fenella’s title (The School Beauty), had a mysterious Indian father with haunted eyes and a beautiful Swedish mother. Ingrid was a mix of them both.
And so we gawped from our place in the line. Fenella lowered herself onto the floor, crossing elegant legs, swinging glossy hair. She ignored Ingrid, acknowledged us (her rapt audience) with an imperious nod. The music ended, the whole school stood up, and oh, HOW we wished we were gorgeous.
Then Pamela burped, brought us back to a giggling guffawing reality and we sang “All things bright and beautiful” with the gusto of victorious rugby players on a homebound football coach.
Fenella’s Gorgeous Tony was an older man. He was an apprentice plumber aged twenty,who lived with his divorced mother in a council house near the church. Fenella was in love with him. They drove to the pub on the coast road in his battered Sunbeam Rapier; Fenella got tipsy on gin and orange. She piled her hair up and pouted her lips and middle-aged men propped on the bar said she was the spit of Brigitte Bardot.
Tony looked Italian but his eyebrows met in the middle. We warned Fenella that this was a bad omen. However, he sang like Elvis and had mates in jail, so our words fell on Fenella’s deaf ears. They met in a basement cafe in town a few miles away, where Tony hung out with his greasy mates, thumbing through magazines, supping coffees and leering at girls’ legs swinging past in the street above.
Once, Tony had sped past me on his bike, almost knocking me flying as I stepped off the kerb, but his wide grin floored me quicker than any bike. He cycled off, waving , and I stared at his thin waist in his denim jeans. And for the first time in my life, I had caught my breath while looking at somebody else. ..
After Assembly, Ingrid Sulaiman glowered in the school library.
“Get here quick” she hissed across the table where we were planning essays. She’d been scribbling, crossing things out, screwing up paper. I left Emma Woodhouse dallying with Darcy and crossed to the end of the table.
“Look at this!” Ingrid glinted, passing me a piece of paper bearing a message printed in purple capitals. The message was cruel, the message would hurt. I read it and couldn’t believe my eyes.
Ingrid laughed: "What do you think then? This’ll put Jezebel in her place once and for all. Come on, sign it.”
So I thought for a second, then wrote “C. Black” and Ingrid scrawled “D. Springfield” and then she shot out of the library to deliver her missive.
AND would you believe?
From that day on, we never saw Fenella again.
But over the years, my guilt was bright, bright and fertile like the nasturtiums flowering all over my rockery. It burned in my throat when I saw a girl with light hair running across a street or a woman turning heads as she came into a room. Over the years, it shook a fist at me and sometimes, it made me catch my breath.
But I had a letter from Pamela last week. She’s a History teacher in East London, lives with a trumpet player, and breeds dachshunds. There was a PS at the end of her letter.
“Guess who I met in Oxford Street?" scrawled Pamela " Fenella. She’s still blonde, she's still stunning. And guess what? She knew absolutely nothing about the letter you sent her, that stupid letter you and Ingrid wrote.That was obvious. She left school so fast, so suddenly because her parents had split up. She had to go to a school near her Granny. She said she was too choked to write to us, and time went on, so she never did.... She especially asked how you were. She said she always thought you were the nicest friend she ever had.”
The ruins of Tintern fade into the dark behind us.
( STORY:MY COPYRIGHT)