Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"The Wolfendens' Garden"

Print: " Pear Tree" Gustav Klimt ( 1903)
Not long ago, I arranged to meet a friend at The Cross in the centre of my small city. We'd meet at 4pm and disappear somewhere for coffee before heading home. But my friend was late ( she often is ) so I had plenty of time to stand and stare.
And I did.

School, of course, was Out For The Day.
And almost everyone in my city seemed to be 15.
Almost everyone was laughing, chattering, giggling, walking in lines, arms linked.
Almost everyone had long long legs ( boys and girls).
Almost everyone wore school uniform, customised to "suit" its wearer; baggy trousers, tight ones, floaty skirts, short miniscule ones.
Almost everyone had Life Before Them and Oh How It Showed.

And I was invisible; I really was.
I was part of the scenery: part of the sandstone church, the Rows of shops, the wide city street.
So I watched the boys.
So I watched the girls.
And their voices were loud and shrill
And their smiles stretched the length of Watergate
And their laughter rang through black and white buildings, sang into the medieval peace of quiet churches.

And my phone rang from the depths of my handbag.
My friend mumbled apologies. Coffee was Off.
So I went home and scribbled this.

It's a story called: “Wolfenden’s Garden”.

After school, they’d wander down Cuthbert Street, one big gang, past the newsagents, the chip shop, on into St Saviours Road where long gardens hid behind high walls.
Some girls (usually Kate and Allie) hitched up their skirts and clambered over the wall of one house in particular, the Wolfenden’s, and other girls squeezed through gaps in the wall into the garden, which stretched like a weary cat to the Wolfenden’s tall narrow house.
This was a house veiled from its garden by damp velvet leaves, by tangles of shrubs; veiled too by the preoccupations of the gang, high on each other’s glances, high on each other’s approval, their whisperings, their dreams of each other in the middle of last night.

Once there at the bottom of the garden, the girls lolled in the grass. They painted their eyes, ringed them with liner, and stared into tiny mirrors as if viewing their futures. They stretched their legs, giggled like golden flutes, and hid their secret faces behind floating silky hair.
And Lucy Baxter leaned against a pear tree, hands in pocket, observing them all, digging her nails deep into the palms of her hands.

Then the lads came; scrawny, villainous, scaling the wall or vaulting the wall or sheepishly following the girls as they puffed on cigs, drank from cans, slouched against trees. They smirked, they guffawed, and they sniggered together, eyes half closed.
And then the lads drew hard on their cigs, watched Kate snog Allie, Allie touch Kate, Kate move against Allie in the shelter of trees.
And the boys, blissful, scarcely able to stand it, held their breath while the girls felt strange new feelings and the Wolfenden’s garden grew wild around them; grass, high as their waists, chestnut trees, apple trees, hunched and dwarfed but shielding them with ease from the house.
And there were ginger cats with yellow eyes stalking in the grass.

Sometimes, when the Rasta guy had been hanging round school, Col and Will and Joe lit spliffs in the garden, sucked on them, giggled, and grew high on them.
Sometimes these lads stood close together, kept private their dealings and the others stared, thought of their mothers waiting for them, frying onions for supper in basement kitchens, and ironing shirts in their tower block bedrooms.
And the girls smoothed their hair, slunk beneath trees, watched as light faded across the garden.

Then Col yelled: “ Shift yerself, Simon, Bill Wolfenden’s coming with his gun!”
And white-faced Simon (who sang in a choir, shopped for his Nan on Fridays) turned towards the house, expecting to see Bill, blind with cataracts, staggering down the garden, brandishing a gun, coming at him down the garden.
Then Allie yelled: “ Shift yerself, Lucy, Marge Wolfenden’s coming with her knife!"
And sweet obedient Lucy, (who read history books beneath her duvet, cleaned the flat for her mum on Sundays) turned towards the house, expecting to see Marge, in filthy silk dress, staggering down the garden, brandishing a bread knife, coming at her down the garden.

Then Will grabbed Kate by her hand. And Allie grabbed Joe by his long greasy hair and those four beautiful ones, who knew their charm, played on their charm, they sank to the ground behind bushes while the rest, those plain sullen placid ones (girls with lumpy thighs, the shivering speechless lads) smirked and listened, tried to glimpse Kate’s small perfect breasts and Allie’s pale lovely limbs, to hear Will’s sighs, Joe’s grunts in the Wolfenden’s blackberry, gooseberry, raspberry bushes.

And Lucy cursed her freckles, her grey eyes, wiry brown hair that frizzed mercilessly to spindly shoulders; she wanted Kate’s darkness, Allie’s blondeness. She wanted hips, lips; she wanted to be the one the others watched, the one whose face they craved.

And then Will emerged, Joe emerged and Col chucked down the spliff, strolled into bushes and Col was alone with Kate and alone with Allie and other boys shivered and some trembled, scarcely able to stand it.
And the Wolfendens garden darkened.
When all was finished, Col saw Lucy beside the pear tree; he plucked off a leaf, tossed it over, yelled: "Pretend it’s a fig leaf! A leaf for a lady!” and Will yelled: "Cover yer blushes with it!” and Joe yelled: "Cover yer self with it!” and Col hunched his shoulders and the three lads sauntered away to the wall, turning to stare at Lucy Baxter’s spindly shoulders, hectic hair, sparrow ankles, and Lucy, digging her nails deep into the palms of her hands, watched Col till her body ached, till her body really ached.
Kate, laughing in the grass, nudged Allie so that Lucy heard murmurings "No chance” and “ fat chance” and “ pain in the ass chance”

At home Mrs Baxter tossed chips in a pan. Mr Baxter scanned the paper and their lads fought over something on TV; the living room was warm with family, clammy with family, and Lucy Baxter settled at the table to write up her Science.
And Col’s leaf, gold and red and frilly, lay in the centre of her notes: “In the 1750’s, John Mitchell examined the gravitational attraction of stars”...
And Lucy thought of Kate, of Allie, but she smiled because Col’s leaf was gold and red, stunning with the beauty of autumn and she stared at it, touched it, traced every vein with her fingers.

Monday, March 26, 2007

"My Mother In Violet Dress"

Some places we visit as children have lasting impact on our imaginations; we draw on their colours, their scents, their very essence, for the rest of our lives.
We store within us emotions evoked; years on, we remember the curve of a smile of someone we met there,the touch of a hand, the sound of footsteps on a street we strolled. The place becomes part of our creativity; it haunts and it taunts us.
For me, St Ives in Cornwall is such a place.
And this is a poem I wrote ages ago, after visiting St Ives September Festival. It's set on Porthminster beach.
It is, by the way, complete fabrication.

The painting is: " Untrodden sand" by Dame Laura Knight.
My poem is called “My mother in violet dress”.

"My mother in violet dress,
“Everything comes in threes”.

On Porthminster,
three deckchairs in a line,
Me in the middle,
And I said:
“The sea, the gulls, the sand, they come in threes,
flowing, screeching, drifting.”

And my sister beside me in ruched pink bathing suit,
wet from the waves, said:
“The Aunts at Christmas, they come in threes,
Ethel, Annie, Ruby,
bearing their gifts.
The scented soap, their flowers,
the Bristol Cream sherry
for the three course lunch….”
And my mother in peep-toe shoes, said:
“ Things that matter come in threes,
things that mattered in my life….”

And with voice bright as lemons,
She held out her compact so that it glittered in sun,
renewed her crimson lipstick,
pursed her crimson lips,
and then she remembered...
a third day of a third month,
when my father walked
beside a woman with titian hair,
and their child ran between them... "

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"Violet In A Red Kimono"

The print above is "June Roses 11" by Dahhui Nai.
I wrote this story ages ago; you could say it was inspired by the old lady I mentioned in my last posting. I met her as I sat with my husband beside the harbour in St Ives, Cornwall. She was very beautiful and she wore her wedding dress.

The lady in my story is also elderly, also a beauty. However, SHE wore a red kimono instead of a wedding dress and her name was Violet. But both women had magic about them...
The story is called ( you guessed) :" Violet in a red kimono"

" I was born peculiar; my mother said so. Apart from my inverted nipples, I am nothing like her. She wanted a beauty; she got me, with my widow’s peak. She wanted an academic, but I think you have the picture.
When I was ten, my mother told her friend Betty Liversage that I was so peculiar that I couldn’t cry.
“Oh yes!” confided my mother who was sticking corn plasters on her rather large toes at the time, “She can shout herself hoarse once in a while, but she never sheds a single tear! Hasn’t since she was thirteen months old. And that was the day her dad left...”
Betty Liversage, invited for tea and still wearing her hat, crumbled a buttery scone in her fingers and cooed like a nervous pigeon.
“Such a strange little creature!” she fluttered, “But June, she has wonderfully pretty feet!”
Mortified, my mother stuffed the corn plasters under the tablecloth and wielding the teapot, poured scorn from its curly brown spout.

As usual, I hid under the table, listening to grownup talk beneath the tablecloth, sucking Maltesers extremely slowly. Today I imagined I was imprisoned in the Trojan horse. Soon I’d emerge like a Grecian soldier and cause havoc in the living room. Of course I wouldn’t really, because I never did anything outrageous. And anyhow, it was more interesting eavesdropping.

I wasn’t entirely sure how my mother really felt about my tearless childhood. But I knew my feelings! How I envied girls who bawled in the playground, tears spurting in all directions, their loyal friends hugging them, passing clean hankies to blot tears, take home, keep. And then there were the boys who, kicked balls and fought, who stopped in their tracks and gawped…
MY tears were silent ones. They prickled behind my eyes, they trickled inwards, little icicles dropping down towards my heart. Something inside me was always determined to keep the tears. I really had no choice in the matter.
But when I grew up, I met Violet Axworthy.

I met Violet on a bench by the sea; I was half asleep, I was miserable.
In the space of six months, tearless ones of course, I had given birth, moved to Cornwall, quarrelled with my husband and become a deserted wife. And to crown all those disasters, my hair (my crowning, one and only glory) was falling out..

But then I met Violet. She was at least seventy, possibly approaching eighty, but I had never seen such style. She wore a crimson red kimono and her silver hair was piled up on her head. She sat, erect, smiling at the sea, a tiny beaded bag clutched in long bony fingers.
I saw bare feet, nut-brown toes, and a swirl of silk. I saw hoop earrings, catching the sunlight. Violet had high cheekbones, and when she turned to speak, I saw her eyes were clear as glass. And her voice was firm, her words startling.
“You’ll see mermaids dancing if you look closely at the sea” She said “ And at night, sometimes in the darkness, you can hear them singing love songs.”
Violet smiled, turned away, watched the sea. And I was enchanted. Lately, huddled in my misery, I had felt like the child under the table again, listening to the boring talk of adults from a Trojan horse. But this adult spoke of magic.
Betty Liversage (sipping tea with my mother and still in her hat) would have blinked in astonishment.

And so, all afternoon we talked by the sea, as strangers sometimes do.
And how I babbled. I babbled about my hair, about my husband Jack, about my baby, and my marriage.
I told Violet how after Alice was born, I found gold threads of my hair embroidered on the carpet. I told her how whorls of it clung to my fingers, made swirly patterns in the washbasin. I told her how, as my hair fell out, Alice’s soft baby hair grew, delighting her father, enthralling my mother. Then my hair grew back, pale and coarse, as though Alice, my wonderful baby, had plundered my goldness for herself. I was devastated, yet still I never cried.
“And in the end”, I whispered, “Jack left”.
Violet sat, peaceful, listening.
“He didn’t want a screaming bald harpy, he wanted a loving wife who could cry, then come to her senses! When I met Jack, I could take on the world. Suddenly I was lucky if I got to the shops to buy sausages...”
Violet passed me a photograph from her beaded bag.
“Look, this my daughter. You have a look of her; a lovely face, pretty eyes. You should be proud; be like the mermaids, enjoy yourself. Meet Jack again in moonshine, sing yourselves some love songs”.
She chuckled, pulled the red kimono around her.
“Come and have tea tomorrow. Bring Alice. I live in the white cottage on the hill. We can chat about mermaids.”

Jack rang later, wanting to see Alice. I told him about Violet. He said he could tell I was smiling, said he was glad. He laughed, said maybe it wasn’t too late for us to sing lovesongs after all. He was glad I seemed happier. He even said he’d like to meet me in moonshine, if I was smiling, because he hadn’t seen me smiling for a long time.
I put down the phone. Tears prickled behind my eyes. And little icicles dripped into my heart because Jack had said he liked me smiling and Jack had said he liked moonshine. I slept very well.

Violet’s cottage was plain, sparsely furnished; I called next day and her door was open. There were pinecones and shells on the windowsill and flecks of dust fluttered in streaks of sunlight. There was a jug of cream roses on the mantlepiece. And I was a spider caught in a web.
On a table were photographs, cracked and faded; there was a soldier in uniform, plump babies, a lovely woman in a cloche hat. I called up the stairs. A radio played, so I went up.

Violet’s red kimono was tossed over a chair, loose, swirling, its redness a contrast to the pale simplicity of the room. Then I saw her. Beside her bed were more cream roses. Some petals were clutched in her hand.

I cried. And I wiped my tears with the red kimono and watched them spread over it like wine stains. I stood by the window and saw darkness settle over the sea and when I remembered the mermaids, Violet's mermaids, I cried again. I really cried.

My mother would be so proud of me.
And so for certain, would Jack."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Here Comes The Bride!"

Recently I went with my future daughter in law, K, and her mother, to choose K's wedding dress.
She looked gorgeous; on glimpsing his bride, my son will be enchanted.
And now I'm remembering..
My wedding dress was white satin; it had sleeves made up entirely of lace daisies.
A year later, I sold it to a twelve year old Rose Queen; she dyed it pink and wore it with a tiara made of tinsel. She rode on a milk float and conquered the world. Well, she made waves in her village, at least..
BUT NOW I wish I'd kept my dress, let it hang prettily for ever at the back of my wardobe amongst jeans and sweaters and everyday things....

They're emotional, lovely things, wedding dresses.
There are stories attached to wedding dresses.
Someone dear to me once told me how, on moving into a flat in East London, she decided to strip wallpaper. Beneath several layers, she found a wedding dress, pinned and flattened to the wall. It was damp, yellowing and musty, but nevertheless, it was someone's wedding dress and why it should be there, hidden away beneath purple stripes, orange flowers, it was anyone's guess..

Then another story: one morning in St Ives as we sipped coffee by the harbour, we were joined on our bench by an elderly lady. She was scruffy, graceful, with the dignity of the very old and the bearing of the once highly priveleged. Her skin was tanned and wrinkled, and her hair, long and white and braided. And her eyes had that wonderful faded blue of the once very beautiful.
I slurped my coffee and stole glances.
I peered at her long paint-splattered fingers, at her stained silk scarf glittering with sea greens, aquamarine, the yellowness of golden sands. I stared at her silver ballet slippers, scuffed and muddy, and at the dark military coat she wore buttoned to her neck, despite the new delight of a warm April day.
And then she spoke: " So warm!" she said and her voice was a flute, a melody: "So welcome, this sun, isn't it?" and she unbuttoned the coat, pulled it off and I stared, of course, and she laughed, of course, and her laugh was rich and vibrant like the air itself: "You're looking at my dress, my dear. It's my wedding dress and I wear it for Spring. I wear it because April has come.I wear it because I remember my husband's love.."
And then she stood up to show off her dress, its lace and ribbons, its sash, its furbelows, all its prettiness.Then she smiled, a wide and lovely smile, and she touched my face with her bony fingers and then she sat for a while watching sea and gulls and boats while sun shone and we sipped coffee silently, sitting peacefully by the harbour..
**This painting ( Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) is " Wedding Morning" by John Henry Frederick Bacon ( 1866-1913). It was bought from the Royal Academy by Lord Leverhulme as an advert for his Sunlight soap. In his advert, soap replaced the clock on the mantlepiece and also the china on the table...
Critics varied in their views; the painting was described as " an essay in lighting" by one and as " hackneyed" by another.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

"Bye George!"

If you need a smile over the w/end ( we certainly do in this house; R pretty poorly, me pretty fragile) then take a look at Susan from Canada's blog. Her latest entry will have you grinning. Susan's blog is called " In over my head".

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"The Public Has Chosen.."

Today, Thursday March 1st, is World Books Day; today is also its 10th Anniversary.
For the past seven years, the event has been sponsored by National Book Tokens.
This year, over 2000 people cast their votes on line, choosing 10,000 books in all. And the winners do not surprise..

UK readers (dreaming of other historical times, other social worlds) placed Jane Austen's " Pride and Prejudice" first, swiftly followed by " The Lord Of The Rings" ( JR Tolkien) and the magical "Jane Eyre" ( Charlotte Bronte).
Then came the entire Harry Potter series by JKRowling, Harper Lee's thrilling " To Kill A Mockingbird" ( incredibly, the only book she's ever written ) and, of course, The Holy Bible, followed by Orwell's stunning " 1984" ( a year now long gone...but when I was thirteen, reading the book for the first time, "1984" seemed a long, long time off....)
Next: Philip Pulman's " Dark Materials" trilogy, "Great Expectations" ( Charles Dickens) Louisa M. Alcott's " Little Women" and Hardy's " Tess Of The D'urbevilles" (this a book that has haunted me now for decades...)
Bringing up the rear were: " Catch 22" by Joseph Heller, The Complete Works Of Shakespeare", Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier, "The Hobbit" ( JR Tolkein, again) " Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks, " Catcher in the rye" by JR Salinger, Audrey Niffenneger's " The Time Traveller's Wife" and last but not least, George Eliot's marvellous " Middlemarch".
Superb memories here; these titles are hypnotic...I'm remembering:
Teenage years: scruffy paperbacks (scribbled in margins) stuffed cruelly in satchels.
And lying on a tartan rug ( that smelt always of peppermints) in a sunny garden where roses grew...guitaring brother playing the " Z Cars" theme ( constantly) in an upstairs room.
And just remembered: me, running down a wide stone staircase, late for an exam at college, clutching the flapping pages of " Middlemarch"...
And a few years later, sqeezing in a chapter of something while the tube train rocked , surged its way to the school where I taught ( Pimlico, Putney, then Wandsworth...)
Then reading stuff while babies slept, while husband slept, while cats purred and mewed and tea went cold in the pot and black in the oven ...
And beaches and planes and airports and cottages where gardens ran into pine trees, where my family played in sand dunes and the turquoise day turned to deep violet and the books were sandy, sticky with sun-oil, splodged with flutterings of wine ...
Such lovely times, we have with books. ....
And World Book Day's list this year: wonderful contrasts, but then that's the great British public, isn't it....wonderful contrasts, all.