Authors: Rose Tremain
He showed me some of the hidden things the Austin drivers
did not know existed: edible puff balls, chanterelles, bullaces, fennel roots and wild garlic. He had never been in an Austin. He could recognise the footprint of a badger and the call of the nuthatch. He had no particular interest in moths.
He climbed into my bedroom through the dormer window, while my father sat alone by the fire, sipping Wincarnis. What he had sampled in the cart he now used and I used him back. And, I remind Irene, usage of this kind is a drug. You want and want and your brain turns to slush and your cunt to a velvet river and your limbs to willow, bending to the least touch. You want and want. Until the day when you do not want any more. And then you are cured and free, but are a prisoner and have nothing.
In one month, I was pregnant with Mary. Sonny and I got married in the flint church. My bouquet was lilies and smelled of the past. Rose petals were flung at us. Even in church, the feeling of wanting was there, as we knelt down.
I moved to Sonny’s farm, leaving my father quite alone with his bottle of Wincarnis and the
In bed, Sonny laid his damaged ear on my belly. He said: ‘pray it’s a boy. Pray and pray.’
And so I wonder now, as I walk by the river, what, among all the lost or strange or disappearing things, does an unborn child know? What can it hear through the womb wall? Did Mary understand that it was not her that I was made to long for, but somebody else, a child of Sonny’s imaginings?
I remember, she got lost once. Almost before her life had started, she got lost in it. She wandered off into a wood and held on to a tree, as if the tree were what would save her and what she sought.
We didn’t find her for a long time. I thought she was drowned in a ditch and I began to cry. Sonny said: ‘All your looks go, Estelle, when you start weeping. Any resemblance you ever had to Ava Gardner disappears absolutely.’
So I go to the river and stare at myself. I look down at my face, at the ripples of water ignoring it and moving on. The
river has a goal, to get past the weeds and the rushes and on to the salt sea, and I have none and all my wanting of things is over. And on glittering days, I have the following thought: sadly, I think, for that girl in
, she did not return home, as I do from the river, to wash her hair in Drene.
It was near to Christmas when Mary was enrolled in Miss Vista’s Saturday-morning dancing class. This class was held in the Swaithey Girl Guide hut, a building that looked like a settler’s cabin, with creosoted plank sides and an iron roof. The floor was linoleum, waxed once a week. Miss Vista’s dancers squeaked around on it, eager but mortified. The squeaks were like farts, funny and yet awful.
It was Sonny’s idea. He said to Estelle: ‘That child is never still. Look at her.’
She’d found an old tennis ball in a ditch, electric green with algae stain. She’d dried it on the stove till it was crisp and bouncy and now she had it as a companion. She threw it and ran after it, hurled it and caught it, flung it at trees, kicked it and bounced it and rolled it. It wore her out. She slept with it in her hand.
Estelle watched. Mary’s movements were jerky and wild. More disconcerting seemed to be her aims. She’d pitch the ball in an arc and then try to outrun it. She’d try this again and again and again, refusing to see that it couldn’t be done. It was as if she wanted to
the green tennis ball hurled in the air, flung at trees to bound back.
‘At her age,’ said Sonny, ‘she should have some grace.’
‘I know,’ said Estelle. ‘But grace is not in the air, is it? It’s not something you can breathe.’
‘You don’t breathe it, you learn it.’
‘Yes. But I wonder how?’
So they enrolled Mary with Miss Vista.
Estelle remembered her own childhood dancing lessons in the library of a private house. She remembered ribbons and glancing sunlight, a piano played with the soft pedal down, Livia on a hard chair, watching. Estelle thought she was giving Mary something of value – a compartment of her own past.
Mary asked if there would be boys as well as girls in the dancing class. Estelle said she thought there might be; they might be taught to dance hornpipes.
But there were no boys. And the girls were rehearsing for a Christmas show Miss Vista had entitled
. The dancers had been divided into three groups; one group were buttercups, another scarlet pimpernels, the third thistledowns. ‘Welcome in, Mary,’ said Miss Vista, ‘you can join the thistledowns. Just follow what they do.’
It was cold in the Girl Guide hut. Miss Vista danced in her overcoat, with coils of knitting round her calves. The children wore only their chillproof vests and knickers and over these their flimsy meadow costumes: scarlet and yellow shifts for the pimpernels and the buttercups, and for the thistledowns skirts of white net that stuck out stiffly like fans. Miss Vista had a fervent mouth, lipsticked orange. Out of it poured her passionate instructions as she moved, squeaking on her blocks, about the room, her arms lifting and swaying under the weight of her coat. ‘
, buttercups! The wind is coming. Yield! Yield to the wind. You can do no other. But you, thistledowns. Up you go! You’re aloft. The wind is carrying you. You’re light,
! In a bunch, all together at first. Puff, puff! Then off and away singly. That’s right, Mary, off on your own. Riding on the wind. Light, light, light!’
Mary had thought there would be rules to dancing. Miss McRae often said that everything in life had rules, even if sometimes you couldn’t see what they were. ‘In these cases, they’re internal rules, Mary, hidden completely, but present nevertheless, dear.’ Yet in Miss Vista’s class you just skipped about, pretending to be weeds. You were not told what your feet should do or how to make a circle with your arms. You
could tell from Miss Vista’s legs that she had once learned some rules. She had just decided not to pass them on. If boys had come to the lesson, she would not have taught them how to do a hornpipe.
Mary was repelled. She despised Miss Vista. She wanted to hurl her green tennis ball at her face. She wanted a real wind to come and swoop her up into the black universe.
When she told her parents that Miss Vista was not teaching her how to dance, they said she could learn to ‘move better’. Estelle said: ‘When I was your age, we made beautiful patterns with ribbons.’
They’d spent money on ballet shoes. Wearing them was like wearing gloves on your feet. You could feel every bit of ground underneath you, every stone. Mary looked at her pink legs with these pink shoes on the end of them and pitied them, as if they belonged to some other girl, fooled into believing she could dance. With her thistledown skirt on, she reminded herself of the toilet roll cover doll Judy Weaver had brought to school as her ‘precious thing’. She tore off the shoes and the fan of net and put them out of sight. She lay down on her bed, balancing her tennis ball on her chest. She formed a plan.
As the day of the Christmas show neared, Miss Vista grew more attentive to unity. She urged the buttercups to bend in unison, the pimpernels to crouch down together. Only the thistledowns were allowed to scatter and fly, because this was their nature, this was what they did. But she urged on them the need to become insubstantial, to pretend they had no bodies, no feet on the earth. ‘Light, light, girls!’ Miss Vista implored. ‘Feathers! Dreams! Particles of dust!’ So they tore round the hall squeaking and jumping, sometimes falling over or accidently bumping into the walls.
Miss Vista grew hot in her efforts to alchemise them into windblown seeds and removed her overcoat, under which she wore an orange roman tunic and a fairisle cardigan. Mary moved with big, fast strides. She turned the near-chaos in the hut into an absolute, dreamlike chaos by removing her glasses. Now, Miss Vista was not only parted from her coat, but from
herself. Mary felt laughter rising inside her: laughter like a scream.
The parents arrived for the show and sat in two rows on hard chairs. Estelle’s hair was greasy from the oil baths she kept giving it to restore its lustre. Sonny sat with his head bowed, like a penitent. Estelle looked at the lino and remembered the yellowy parquet of the library.
While the thistledowns clustered behind a thin curtain waiting to come on, Mary left the group and returned to the cloakroom where her coat hung on a peg. She took off her pink ballet shoes and put on her wellingtons. She imagined each of them as a cardboard cylinder and her legs as the salmon-coloured plastic legs of Judy Weaver’s doll. She puffed up her net skirt round the boots. Now, she thought, I am a living toilet roll cover.
She returned to the group, shivering by the curtain. You cannot walk lightly in a wellington. The thistledowns turned, as if in one, synchronised movement, to stare at Mary. They drew in an anxious breath. They held on to each other. Their shivering intensified. The strongest of them put their hands to their mouths, stifling laughter.
The thistledown music came. Out they streamed, puff, puff, up and away, things of no substance, chaff and prayers. Mary followed, striding and leaping. The squeak of the wellingtons was louder than anything the class had heard. The buttercups gaped. The pimpernels huddled down in shame. From the two rows of parents came a muttering and whispering like voices in a dream. Then Mary felt Miss Vista’s hand on her arm. She stopped dancing. She smiled as she was led away. She couldn’t see her parents. The parents were a blur. What she saw were two Miss Vistas, both of them fragile and neither of them a dancer.
Sonny said, after this incident: ‘We must watch her all the time, Estelle. Day and night. Now, there’s no knowing what she can do.’
no knowing. Mary did not know.
When they got home after the thistledown show, Sonny hit Mary on the ear eight times with the flat of his hand.
She covered her ear with a grey mitten. She thought it would turn to coral. Without speaking, she said to her father: When I’m a man, I will kill you.
Estelle did not protect her or comfort her. Estelle went out and stared at her bantams in their compound, trying to hear contentment somewhere. Timmy followed her and put his hand in hers.
On Christmas afternoon, Sonny and Estelle went to the sagging bed. They smelled of the cheap port they’d drunk with the pudding. Sonny had his arm round his wife’s neck and his hand on her breast, fondling it like money. He told Mary and Timmy to go out and play and not to come in until dark.
Mary threw the green ball at Timmy. She threw it several times but not once could he catch it. She thought, this is why Estelle is in despair, because Timmy can’t catch a ball, because he walks about with his fingers over his eyes, because he has no stars on his class star-chart at school. ‘You’re barely human,’ she said as he dropped the ball yet again, ‘you’re killing our mother.’
He began to cry and run towards the house but Mary remembered the smell of port on her parents’ breath and the skewed look in their eyes so she ran after him and picked him up. He struggled in her arms and she hated the feel of his limbs. She dumped him in the tyre swing and pushed him till the sun went down behind the hedge and a green twilight hung over them. And all the time she was pushing she counted the things that Timmy could not do for himself and which were driving Estelle into her own unreachable world. He couldn’t tie his bootlaces; he couldn’t read a simple word like ‘thing’; he couldn’t get through three consecutive nights without wetting his bed; he couldn’t learn his tables; he couldn’t remember the words of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’; he couldn’t eat a meal without spilling it; he couldn’t feed the bantams without
throwing the grain up into the air. He was beyond hope. It would be better if, one morning in his saturated bed, he did not wake up. He would be buried in a little grave, nice and neat with a stone angel kneeling above him making sure he stayed where he was. Estelle would mourn. She would take flowers. She would go and stare at the angel. Then she would recover. She would no longer say thoughts out loud or sit in a trance, stroking her sewing machine. She would abandon her walks to the river. She would come back from wherever it was she’d been.
Mary decided to kill him that night, Christmas night, 1955.
She kept herself awake by hitting her ear, still bruised from Sonny’s slapping.
Her head ached. She wanted everything to be over. She thought, I know now why Grandma Livia went up in her glider; she was tired of every single thing except the sky.
When she heard Sonny’s snoring start, she went barefoot down the stairs and into the cold kitchen. She opened the door of the larder and took down the insect spray kept there for the summer flies. It was called Flit. She liked the word. She thought, this is how you kill: you have a weapon and a word you say. You use both. Flit. ‘Flit.’
She came back up the stairs. She didn’t feel afraid, only tired, so that her legs were heavy.
She knelt by the door to Timmy’s little room and opened it only wide enough to put her arm in and point the Flit gun at the bed. As a precaution against her own death she’d brought a handkerchief and she held this over her nose and mouth.
She began to pump. The nozzle of the gun bubbled and fizzed. There was no sound from inside the room. A Flit death was a peaceful one. You breathed the sweet-smelling poison and you slept. And in the morning you didn’t wake.
Sonny had woken at midnight with a drink headache and a thirst. On his way to the bathroom, he’d found Mary crouching by Timmy’s door.
‘What are you doing?’ he said.
‘Nothing,’ said Mary.
But Sonny could smell the Flit. He pushed Mary aside and went into Timmy’s room and saw his son sleeping peacefully under a cloud of poison.
He shouted for Estelle and she came running, in her stained nightdress, and gathered Timmy up and put him by the window of her room and made him breathe the freezing air of Christmas night. She didn’t look at Mary, nor at Sonny. She closed her door.
Sonny went to work with his hands. He took down Mary’s pyjamas and hit her buttocks and the backs of her thighs.