Authors: Morag Joss
Burnhead Association for Singing Turandot
Now I’m here I begin to sense the trouble I’m…
Also by Morag Joss
Puccini’s Ghostsis forSue Chilcott8 July 1963–4 September 2003whose life, music and friendship inspired me in many ways althoughnot in the creation of any of the characters or events in the story,which are entirely imagined.
‘Covent Garden was haunted last night. It was haunted by the gentle and immaculate ghost of Puccini…who died with the final bars ofTurandotstill imprisoned within his brain, who disappeared to solve an enigma more terrible and profound than any created by the Princess Turandot.We like to think that Puccini revisited the glimpses of the moon last night to observe the opera’s performance in England, where his works are so universally cherished, to watch his tricksy spirits at their revels. We imagined him pleased with the magnificent production and the sensation it created.’Daily Express, 8 June 1927
Lyric drama in three acts and five scenes
(completed by Franco Alfano, abridged by George Pettifer)
LibrettoGiuseppe Adami & Renato Simoni after Carlo Gozzi abridged by George Pettifer
Directed byGeorge Pettifer
Designed byGeorge Pettifer and Giuseppe Foscari
The BAST Chorus
Chorus DirectorGeorge Pettifer
Chorus MasterGordon Black
Populace, guards, Turandot’s ladies, phantoms,wise men, heralds and soldiers
now I’m here I begin to sense the trouble I’m in. I’m back at the window but the view has changed. I haven’t switched on a light so I’m standing in the dark watching night colours gleam through the glass: silvered wet tarmac, darts of rain caught in the cloudy glow under the streetlights and across the road, garden walls soaked in warm, sodium glare. There are no streetlights on our side—they belong to the new houses—but their orange sheen leaks as far as our privet hedge, staining its green leaves brown. The old road is a street now. At intervals across it there are lumps lying in wait to slow the traffic; even at this hour one or two cars pass. The beam of their white headlamps tilts and dips and steadies as they curtsey over the bumps and then they pick up speed with the fizz of tyres on the wet road, pulling their shadows after them. I follow the line of streetlights stretching through the sky all the way back to the bridge, receding spangles of orange distorted by the rain on the window into a row of tiny bursting suns. Behind me, the room creaks with damp, its emptiness sighs. But I will not turn round yet, nor switch on a light. I know what it would show me. I shall carry on standing here, looking out and feeling ridiculous.
What was the rush? Why did I drop everything and come immediately to arrive so late at night, when tomorrow would have done? When they rang to tell me he was dead I came at once as if, having just died, he might be still within reach, somehow not quite gone. His death reminds me of something obvious that I feel stupid for having overlooked, that he was old and one day would die, and yet how can he leave like this, a man who never did anything sudden in his life? I talked to him in my head all the way here. I told him I was sorry.
I’m sorry, I say again now.
All I hear in reply is his tired voice, Och, Lizzie. His voice comes to me, it seems, from a great distance. He sounds lost and cut-off as if he has got himself stranded somewhere, though he isn’t crying for help; he is, if anything, resigned.
I can’t tell if he means it as dismissal or forgiveness.
Maybe it isn’t so ridiculous, my jumping to attention now he has died; maybe it’s an effect the newly dead have on the rest of us. And am I acting any more suddenly than he did? Off he goes raising a cloud of dust and up I start, needing to move in some direction or another, as if giving chase. It’s the kind of thing, scrupulously misinterpreted to feed their hunger for a disgraceful tale, that people round here get their teeth into. I can hear their voices, too.
Doesn’t see him for years but she’s here fast enough to hear the will read.
I don’t know if he made a will. But even while I’m booking a flight, packing, cancelling appointments, I think I make out a shape in the dust as it begins to settle, some dark weight he left behind. It’s cumbersome, as heavy as history, and I have no use for it, yet I can’t leave it lying unclaimed. It’s the past, and now it’s mine and I have to do something with it. He’s not been dead a day but I intend to be practical about it, as I will be about his other things. Already they are no longer just his things but obstacles of a kind, an affront to order, a challenge to the clarity of what belongs where and to whom. I am unsettled by the sudden knowledge that, for an interval at least, everything the dead leave behind is still theirs and yet no-one’s, though I’m not sure if this question of ownership is a trivial or a profound matter. But what a strange hurry I feel to bestow or destroy, as if his belongings might be dangerous if they are not at once attached elsewhere. I don’t care where they go as long as I get them off my hands, and it’s the same with this story of our past. It’s a shapeless load with one straggling thread, its unsatisfactory ending, that trails from it like a fuse. I want it tucked out of sight. I have to find somewhere to dump it, some unvisited place in my mind, a kind of mental cupboard under the stairs for a filled sack of worn-out memories.
They’ll expect a show at the funeral. Not necessarily of grief, but they’ll expect me to make myself somehow conspicuous; I’m sure there are still those who like to think I’m as bad as my mother. Thinks she’s the next Maria Callas your mum, everybody says so, Enid used to say, smirking at the very idea, and I would snigger with embarrassment because my mother did think that. Or believed she might have been if my father hadn’t ruined her chances, as she so perfectly rewrote events. In my mother’s mind she and my father are Persephone and Pluto; he practically threw her in a sack and bore her down into darkness although he, lacking any authority, makes an improbable god of the underworld. But by the time I’m fifteen I believe completely in her shuttered and powerless misery, which seems irreversible. She lives here as if unable to break out of some truly dreadful contract, under a form of house arrest that leaves her in turn distraught and enervated. All that changes, of course, but I cannot look round from the window now that this recollection is upon me.
Behind me she sits, with Uncle George. They’re lingering over breakfast, I’m clearing it away.
I need a day off. The voice is tired, she tells him. I’m tired, vocally.
I remember now, she’s in a sulk because he has made her give up cigarettes but is still smoking himself.
He says, But you don’t know the part properly yet.
I don’t want to get stale.
Come on, Florrie, he says, wise up. If Callas spends every hour God sends preparing a role, why shouldn’t you?
He’s the one who sounds tired. He has his chin cupped in the hand that holds the cigarette and threads of smoke are weaving up through his hair, silvery blue into chestnut. With the spent match in his other hand he is stirring a little paste he has made out of toast crumbs and leftover butter on the side of his plate, black into pale yellow, over a pattern of ferns.
Don’t call me Florrie, she says, waving away the smoke. It’s Fleur. And don’t talk to me about Callas.
She stands, sets her shoulders wide, looks through this window and arches her eyebrows. Out pours the final phrase of‘Vissi d’arte’fromTosca,minus the words, for she doesn’t know them beyond the first two lines. I notice how unused her lips are to being stretched, as if they haven’t done enough laughing. Uncle George looks away and smiles his private smile with one last drag on the cigarette, which he stubs out in the paste of crumbs and butter. The way it hisses a little seems to seal the point, as far as I am concerned.
Of all those people who said my mother thought she was the next Maria Callas, I wonder how many are still here.
When I arrived, I found the key where it’s always been behind the loose brick in the garage wall. I stepped through the kitchen and into the back room that my father’s life had shrunk to fit: one armchair, the television, everything else on castors. At once I snapped off the light and came in here to the dining room. In a minute or two I’ll find my way upstairs in the dark and grope around for blankets in the landing cupboard. I cannot bear bleak electric light scouring the corners and washing out shadows, showing me how unchanged everything is.
I’ll linger here just a while longer. In the silences between cars I listen for the rasp of the incoming water of the Firth up the beach not far behind the house, but maybe I only imagine I can hear it, in the same way that I imagine the moon, invisible tonight behind clouds, pulling the tide across the shore. I like such commonplace movements as these: the coming and going of the sea, the falling of rain, the passing of cars. In this dead room, from behind the glass, I feel I am witnessing a kind of breathing.
The First Riddle
In the dark night flies a many-hued phantom.It soars and spreads its wingsAbove the gloomy human crowd.The whole world calls to it,The whole world implores it.At dawn the phantom vanishesTo be reborn in every heart.And every night ’tis born anewAnd every day it dies!
In ancient Peking, the cold-hearted Princess Turandot has sworn a terrible oath. Her ancestor Princess Lo-u-Ling was ravished and killed by a conqueror and Turandot will never be possessed by any man. But her suitors are offered a chance. She will marry the one who correctly answers her three riddles. Those who fail, die. Calaf, prince of Tartary, incognito and exiled, falls in love with Turandot at his first glimpse of her. His old father Timur tries to dissuade him from attempting to answer the riddles and so does the slave girl Liù, secretly and hopelessly in love with him. But Calaf remains steadfast.
The school year fell in a heap as soon as the end of term exams were over and done with, trapping Lila Duncan and everybody else under the final shapeless week that had to be got through. Cupboards were tidied and books counted in and then Lila’s class sprawled on their desks playing noughts and crosses, bickering in low voices, basking in aimlessness. Sunlight burned through the windows and glazed their hair and dark backs; like giant, stranded flies they fretted and buzzed as if condemned to perish where they lay, the prospect of escape—the summer holidays—seeming too distant, too exhausting and unreal. Over their heads the last days of June loitered, the hours advancing casually with the drowsy menace of things trite but unpleasant that were still to come, like milk turning sour or fruit waiting to rot.
By Wednesday the week had halted. Late morning took all day. Lila had not acquired the knack of looking forward to things and now time itself, because there was enough to spare for her to wonder at it, seemed crowded with tiny, hovering omens of ill. She thought she could see them, hanging in specks of dust that sparkled out from emptied cupboards into shafts of sunlight or washing back and forth in watery shadows on the ceiling, wafting with the lazy threat of jellyfish in the weight of the tide.
On Thursday Miss Marten set them an Ink Composition, even though they weren’t meant to do Ink Composition in the last week. They weren’t meant to do anything but wait in a slump and suffocate in the sitting-out of the term, and in any case the inkwells had already been cleaned. Miss Marten knew this as well as the class did, but she hated them after a year of their round shoulders and eyes like greasy stones, their smell of sour wool. You runts, she thought, smiling at the back wall. You’ll never see me again.
‘Ink monitors Enid Foley and Barry Henderson. Inkwells out, one between two. “The World As I See It Today”,’ she said. ‘To be handed in at the end of this period.’
The class rose from its torpor to stir tired hostilities into the air, and Miss Marten bowed her head over her desk. None of them would write anything worth reading, though one or two of the oddballs and outcasts might try. It filled her with warmth to set work she had no intention of marking. In August she was marrying an air traffic controller called Leonard and she wasn’t coming back.
‘ “The World As I See It Today”,’ she repeated, placing ticks against an inventory of the books that stood in ruined columns around her. ‘And no outer space stuff, no seeing the world from a Sputnik. Crossings-out will lose marks. When you come back and look at what you write today, you might be surprised. A lot can change in a summer.’
Was she really still trying to scratch at their minds? She glanced up again and found herself looking into the faces of people staring as if through smoke and wandering from a battlefield, unconscious behind wide-open eyes.
The World As I See It Today
Today as I sit in this classroom on Thursday the 23rd of June, 1960, the world looks a hard blue colour. That is because it is a Thursday. Monday is pale green and unripe. Tuesday is beige, Wednesday is white, Thursday see above, Friday is grey like a man’s suit, Saturday is a different blue from Thursday and Sunday is that dark green that old people paint their houses. I would rather not do this but I can’t help it. I think if I lived somewhere else that was better and a more definite, proper place, I might have other things to think about and not get the colour coming straight into my mind the minute I think what day it is. This is the first time I have mentioned this. Other people would laugh and I get teased quite enough anyway! By certain people who shall remain nameless though everybody in this school knows who they are. I would even get teased for my name, the one my mother uses on me, which is Eliza. That is her sort of name. I don’t feel like an Eliza. I stick to Lizzie at school, that’s what my dad calls me, an ordinary name. He is ordinary himself so it suits him to use it, but I don’t feel like a Lizzie either. I used to get called Lila but that was a long time ago.
Best friends don’t tease one another or at least they shouldn’t, but I still wouldn’t tell even Enid Foley (about the colours), though she is my friend she takes things the wrong way and she’s only interested in God at the moment, since Easter she is OBSESSED. She thinks everything is a sin and only Jesus can get you out of it. Most people are obsessed by something, Elvis Presley is one, Cliff Richard ect, who I really like but being obsessed is going a bit far and makes you look stupid. My mother hates them, she only likes classical music and opera, the rest is just noise according to her. My father likes Lonnie Donegan but he doesn’t play the records in our house.
Anyway, the world as I see it today, it’s a stupid idea because I don’t see the world today in any way at all. Nobody can see the world. We only see the bit we’re in ie this bit of Scotland called Burnhead. And if you only had Burnhead to go on you would say the world is a dump. Burnhead is neither one thing or the other, and I am the same. Anyway who cares? How I see the world isn’t important as I am only me and it doesn’t matter what I think, so I will just go on seeing the world my way, you can’t change. Why I have to live here I don’t know, there must be thousands of places more interesting where people really enjoy living there. But wherever you go you have to take your own head with you. What I mean is wherever you go it’s the same you inside. You can’t get away from yourself, it all comes down to what goes on inside your own head unfortunatly, changing that is your only hope of changing the way you see the world.
In the staff room on Friday morning, softened by her leaving present of a stainless steel hors d’oeuvres tray with matching coasters and a bottle of sherry, Miss Marten marked Lila’s composition. She returned it to her in the dinner hall. On it she had written:
Rather solipsistic! You fail to address the question. Perhaps you will ramble less as you mature. 55%
After dinner, order broke down. Boys roamed the corridors wearing their blazers inside out, they started chalk fights and set fire to rolls of lavatory paper, turned on all the taps and threw dustbin lids onto the roof. Senga McMillan and Linda McCall stripped every twig, leaf and bloom from the line of flowering currant bushes that grew along the path bordering the school field and got the belt from the headmaster for it. Lila waited out the afternoon in the empty library, lulled by the smell of dust. She looked up ‘solipsistic’ in the dictionary and then the bell sounded and before she reached the gate where Enid was waiting she had forgotten what it meant.
‘Can we go to yours?’ Lila said. She always wanted to go to Enid’s. Enid always waited for her to ask.
‘What for? It’s only a stupid shop.’
‘Just. No reason. Just, might as well, why not?’
‘Can’t. See Senga? She got three of the belt. You should see her hand.’
‘She wasn’t even crying. Her and Linda, they’re going to the Locarno, they said I could go as well.’
They had come out of school into cloudless sunshine. But the heat in the classrooms had been an illusion of summer; outside, a sharp wind off the sea pulled at their hair and raised swirls of wastepaper and ripped jotters in the playground. Lila squinted in the brightness, thwarted and annoyed.
‘The Locarno’s tough,’ she said. ‘Why don’t we just go to yours?’
‘It’s not tough. They’re not toughies.’
‘They are so.’
‘Not when you get to know them.’
‘Oh, so you know them? You’ve changed your tune.’
‘So? It says in the Bible you should forgive your enemies.’
‘Where in the Bible? Bet you don’t know where. And you’re the one loves going to church.’
‘It’s not church, it’s the Fellowship of Sinai Gathering in His Name.’
‘Senga’s been going round behind your back. She says it’s not a proper church.’
‘So. You don’t even sing hymns.’
‘You don’t need to. You speak the Word and that’s when the Lord hears.’
‘You said you hated Senga. She calls you Holy Foley.’
‘So what? That was ages ago. You should come off your high horse.’
‘I’m not on a high horse.’
‘Well, your mother is. Thinks she’s the next Maria Callas, everybody says so.’
They walked along for a while without speaking beside the naked currant bushes. As they went, the wind lurched through the branches, sending gusts of stray leaves and squashed flowers down the path, whipping away the bitter smells of torn blossom and spilt sap. Though she was seething over Enid’s defection Lila was pleased; the scent of the flowers had always made her feel queasy and restless.
They followed the wind as it blew a veil of sand across Burnhead Main Street. Shop awnings cracked in sudden gusts and the painted buckets and spades strung up in clusters outside gift shops clacked next to beach balls and rubber rings wheezing against the window fronts. Mrs Dobie brought the bin filled with toy shrimping nets in off the pavement outside Dobie’s Hardware & Fancy Goods and replaced it with one of canvas windbreaks.
In the branch office of Kerr, Mather & McNeill, Solicitors & Commissioners for Oaths, Mrs Audrey Mathieson got Hugh Mather out of the office for his Round Table meeting on time, checking his papers, dusting off the hat and clicking her tongue without once letting her smile drop. In the calm after the door closed, she finished some typing—only a letter that took no time at all but, as she said, if she had a thing to do she preferred to be allowed to get on and do it. This was true, but the real reason she rattled out a minute or two of typing every now and then, rather than wait until she had what Mr Mather called a proper batch, was that she disliked the brittle sounds and smells of office work and could not bear the thought of them filling an entire afternoon. She liked to get the snap and ting of the typewriter over with and afterwards she would flap the smells of carbon paper and ink away from her desk with a duster dipped in polish.
When she had finished the letter she sat listening to the silence that sang between her office and the small room across the corridor behind Mr Mather’s, where Raymond the legal clerk worked. His door would be ajar. Waves of afternoon stillness lapped from room to room.
Through the ridged glass of the window she saw the bobbing, blurry shapes of children in school blazers go by on Main Street, beyond the stretch of gravel and low wall that fronted the offices of Kerr, Mather & McNeill. Their voices reached her only in faint, neutral snatches, adding to the pleasure of her distance from them. She looked at her watch. Twenty past three: out early for the last day, most likely. Raymond’s Lizzie would be among them, drifting along in the tide of black blazers yet not quite of it; she was like him, dreamy and tall and not an ounce on her, knock-knees in the offing. The mirage of children passed; the dancing pattern through the window faded. Traffic noise was a murmur.
The distance from the street was a feature of the offices that Audrey liked, along with the fact that Kerr, Mather & McNeill occupied detached premises, one of the better double-fronted bungalows on Main Street just before the shops. It had been the home of the senior partner’s mother, a powdery lady with a dowager’s hump and large buckled shoes who hadn’t lasted the war; in 1946 the firm took the house over and Audrey joined them soon after.
It had required explanation, to her neighbours if not to John, an accountant’s wife of thirty-seven going out to work. Not that she would ever tell them the truth: she and John, already married ten years and settled back from China and Hong Kong for four of those, had been awaiting the babies that she, silently, never quite believed in. Childlessness had seemed to her apt enough. Punishment in some form, as her missionary parents had taught her, there was bound to be, for John not being ‘the first’ and for her ‘coloured’ baby, given away to a couple from the New Territories before she had seen his eyes open; punishment too, for remembering the touch of Wang Hoa’s skin and her heart’s refusal to feel that loving him was a disgusting and immoral blunder. Her little job distracted her from John’s disappointment, his forbearance, his goodness. It helped her to be nearly as kind to him as he deserved. And there seemed less to explain if she worked somewhere that looked like a private house. It’s just a small branch office, she would say, and it’s only secretarial. Oh, there’s a lot of working wives now, people told her, pretending to judge her leniently. They did not need to add mind you, not in St Quivox Drive, but at least no-one alluded directly to the empty cradle.
So Audrey saw to it that the house-turned-office, dignified and aloof despite the new gold lettering and ridged glass in the windows, remained homely. At her desk she hurried through the typing in snatched moments, anxious not to disturb a peace that was essentially domestic. Her suits for work were apricot, mint and powder blue, never charcoal or bottle green; she would not wear clothes the same colour as the filing cabinets. Paper clips were kept in a porcelain sweet dish from Shanghai. It was she who tended the bulbs edging the path between the two squares of gravel up to the front door, and who kept tray cloths laundered for the junior partner’s tea tray. She brought in the spherical millefiori paperweights of Vasart glass with brilliantly coloured chips set in their bases in frozen patterns of flowers that John gave her nearly every birthday and Christmas. They accumulated over the years; now there were at least four in every room. She was an excellent secretary.
Her ear picked up a creak from the floorboards in Raymond’s office and the burr of the second desk drawer. She covered her typewriter, stepped out to the hall, pulled down the blind over the glass portion of the front door and pushed down the snib on the Yale lock. Then, leaving her door open, she returned to her desk and took the compact and comb from her handbag. She freshened her lipstick, tidied her hair and popped the things back. Holding her breath, she snapped her handbag shut, a loud single shot into the silence, a dart of enquiry to Raymond. With its usual whine, his door opened wider and his footsteps squeaked along the floor to the clients’ waiting room at the back. When she joined him there a minute later he was ready for her on the Chesterfield.
‘Och, Audrey,’ he said, glancing up with his usual slow smile.
‘That’s your Lizzie out for the holidays, now,’ she said, settling beside him and turning to look at his face.
‘Aye, eight weeks. Eight weeks getting on her mother’s nerves.’
His smile gets wearier every time, she thought. Was it silly to think he was beginning to look old, when he was nine years younger than she was? The gap in their ages seemed to be closing.
‘And how are Fleur’s nerves just at the moment?’ she said.
Instead of answering, he leaned over and kissed her, a dry touch on the mouth. It was the only kissing they did now; at fifty-one she felt too old to kiss him with hunger and he, at forty-two, no longer expected it. What a relief that that peculiar, questing curiosity that possesses lovers about each other’s mouths had faded.
He pulled her against him and placed a hand on her knee and cleared his throat with a long murmur, the signal that he would like to make love to her. He didn’t often, nowadays. More often they talked or just held hands. The important thing was the space and time they took, the blind drawn over the front door on the days of the junior partner’s meetings: Round Table last Friday of the month, partners’ lunch at the Ayr branch every second Thursday. Space and time not snatched by stratagems, merely offered by circumstance and taken without greed for nearly fourteen years. They didn’t go in for declarations or breathless discussion of what had brought them together to the back waiting room in the first place; they had no zest for an extenuated philosophy of wrong turnings or missed chances. A little space and time in which to rest from their stoicism was all they took.
Audrey shifted to let Raymond reach under her skirt, smiling over his shoulder at the customary murmurs and familiar moves, assisting him in the removal of the relevant clothing. She sighed as he slipped fondly into her, grateful for life’s sweet routines: Raymond’s respectful use of her body, neither abrupt nor protracted, and then the resumption of propriety—the tucking away of those parts of themselves, the smoothing of cushions—as pleasurable in its way as Raymond’s stately, conscientious thrusting, and after she had popped to the Ladies to make herself decent, a cup of tea made and brought by him and a little talk of ordinary things. Adultery was the last thing it felt like. Adultery meant devious and dangerous and uncontrolled, and what they did was kindly, and ceremonious.
‘Well,’ was all she said, glancing at him as she finished her tea. Like many sensible ceremonies their lovemaking changed very little over time and sealed a bond that was never expressed in words.
‘Och, Audrey,’ Raymond said, draining his cup.
At a quarter to five they closed the office and walked down the front path. Raymond removed the padlock from his bicycle in the corner behind the wall, put on his cycle clips and rode away with a backwards smile and a ring of his bell. Audrey started on her walk along Burnhead Main Street, nodding to people she knew, scarcely glancing into prams parked in front of shop windows. When she left the busy pavement and made her way up past St Ninian’s church to her immaculate house in St Quivox Drive, she began to prepare her greeting for John, who would be busy in the garden despite his lumbago and would look up as she clicked along the pavement and turned in at the gate.
idon’t think there is anything reprehensible about putting my mind to an outfit. One has to wear something to a funeral and it takes my mind off being here. They’ll expect me in fur and probably sunglasses, so I shall try not to disappoint. Leather is a definite possibility. Black, of course. I packed both, skirt and trousers.
I’m wearing the trousers. It seems a good idea to put them on for a few hours to see if they feel right. My black wool coat will have to do, though maybe it’s marginally better with the skirt. I may find an opportunity to mention that of course there is nothing like real fur on a cold day but it’s impossible to pack fur in a suitcase and what a pity nobody travels with trunks anymore, all of which is true whether one actually has real fur or not. I’ve brought boots, but if I decide on the skirt with shoes then I’ll have to buy tights. There will be tights for sale in Burnhead but they won’t be anything special and there’s nobody I can send to get them, and somehow going into a shop myself to buy very ordinary ones will reduce me in their eyes. I know that’s silly. Whose eyes, exactly? I don’t know anyone here anymore unless I count Enid and Bill—and I suppose old Mrs Foley, though she’s probably dead by now—and I don’t.
But there it is, I’m not comfortable. I feel watched. I feel known by the strangers in the low, new houses across the road. I sense an interest in my return, if not from the people who once knew me then from their children, or perhaps by nowtheirchildren, God knows quite who; the labyrinthine, passive interconnectedness of people here revolts me. People in a place like this just have to stand still to proliferate. They reproduce in long invisible strings; they form, they hang and then they drop, like beads of water along the strands of a web.
I’m at the window thinking about this when a young woman comes to the door. I can’t judge the age of women under forty anymore, especially the blondes—they all look like underfed children—but I guess she’s in her twenties. She has a pushchair with a child in it who looks to me too old to be wheeled around. Apparently they live next door. That figures; I noticed this morning that next door’s back garden is full of plastic. She’s in one of those fleece tops, bright red with the sleeves some other colour, not the sort of thing I think a person should wear to come and offer condolences, quite apart from the fact it’s spitting with rain. I don’t ask her in.
These people! They fill the little houses in the tidy web of Burnhead streets in long, dripping lines, one soggy generation after another. She can’t help glancing past me up the hall.
She says, I’m awful sorry about Mr Duncan, was it your father?
Yes, indeed, I say. Thank you. That’s most kind.
Lovely man, your father. A gentleman. And he was still managing fine, right up to the last stroke.
Yes. He was very independent.
I seen him around, you know, when he was still getting out. He was saying you’ve been moved away a long time. Is it down south you stay?
I live abroad, I say. I have an international career.
Oh aye, abroad, that was it. Sorry, only your dad was saying you was retired, I remember him saying one time. You’ve lost your accent, any road, she says.
I tell her I have never spoken with the local accent because my mother was English and never would have allowed it.
And singers never really retire, I say. My father may have been confused. I smile to show I don’t expect her to understand.
She looks put in her place and a little pathetic, and laughs nervously.
I smile again. I suppose I really don’t blame her for being unused to people like me.
I’ve lived in several European countries, I tell her. In fact these trousers came from a place in Stuttgart where Princess Caroline of Monaco was a frequent customer. I’ve bought from the finest shops in Europe. Julie Christie, she was a regular, too.
(I never actually saw either of them but I don’t say that. They had their photographs up in the shop. While my trousers were being wrapped I told them it was my first season in Stuttgart but they didn’t ask for my picture. Perhaps because I was only buying the one pair of trousers. Or maybe because I was in the chorus.)
Stuttgart’s in Germany, I add.
She looks rather startled. She’s probably never been further than Glasgow. Her kind don’t go far, they hang about a place like Burnhead breeding and watching. She’s staring at me now. Maybe she sees me as the big, black, jewelled spider that’s come back to trample her under my shiny black legs and set the web swinging. No wonder she watches. In a place like Burnhead one never escapes the eyes of people like her.
Well, lovely trousers any road, she says. So, anyway, if you’re needing a wee hand with anything I’ll be only too pleased.
I’m very busy, I say, to get her to go.
Funeral’s one thing but it’s the stuff, builds up when you’re in one place all your life, she says. I’m Christine, by the way. This is Paris—say hello, Paris! You’re never here on your own with the whole house to clear?
When I tell her I am she tilts her head and clicks her tongue. I want to throttle her.
Well, if there’s anything at all don’t hesitate, she says.
Actually there is something, I say. I need to know where in Burnhead I can buy tights. Proper tights.
Tights? Oh, all over. There’s a wee Boots. And the Somerfield keeps them, there’s loads of places, plenty wee dress shops. No problem.
I stop her. No, no, no—I’m talking about tights of very good quality, I say. Oh, never mind, I don’t suppose there’s anywhere here that sells very, very good ones. It doesn’t matter.
Right. Well, if you’re needing a hand I’ll maybe can pop in when this one’s asleep, she says, nodding at the pushchair. You know, help you out.
Perhaps I’ll pop up to Glasgow for the tights, I say. It’s only thirty miles and I’ve got the hire car. But oh, the parking. I don’t think I can face having to find parking. How it does spoil one, having a driver!
Sure, well, just you feel free to chap on my door. And Steve’s back day after tomorrow so don’t go lifting anything heavy, he’ll be only too pleased.
Steve? Is that your husband? I’m afraid I don’t know the people round here, I say. I have already noticed she isn’t wearing a ring.
He’s my partner, aye, she says. He’s through in Edinburgh on a job next couple of days, he’s in IT. Nuisance, ’cause he’s got the car. Lucky you’ve got yours. You’d be stuck if not, the buses are useless.
I have to smile when I say yes, I’m lucky to have the car. Do they never learn? Stuck alone in cheap clothes at Seaview Villas with a child and no way of getting out, and because she’s not married she thinks she’s keeping her independence. I get rid of her before she can start asking for lifts here, there and everywhere. I think she gets the message that I want to be left alone.
I am undecided about the tights. I wonder if I could find my way back to that place in Glasgow—Fenwicks, is it? I think it was on Sauchiehall Street. My mother got a lot of her clothes in Glasgow.
Glasgow. Suddenly it sounds again as it did years ago, when it meant the same as dark, alarming, noisy. When I’m small, in the holidays when she has no choice but to take me, I go, too, on the train from Burnhead to Glasgow Central. She always tries to find a compartment that is empty, but even when she does I am not allowed to sprawl beyond the confines of my place. I want desperately to rub the insides of my arms and the backs of my legs all over the velvety seats. I have a memory of Glasgow afternoons filled with coal smoke and car exhaust, the squeal of bus brakes and the rustle of tissue paper and the silent opulence of dress shops and new clothes. From the ladies who bring things to the fitting room I sense a kind of approval towards my mother that extends to me, sitting outside the door on a chair dangling my legs, and although I do not ask, I always wonder why these ladies, who are clearly our friends, never come to our house. And I see a sort of dream of Fenwicks, the revolving door from the street landing us in the shining Perfumery and Cosmetics, hard and dazzling with mirrors and lights reflecting thousands of myself, when I feel quite awkward enough about being just the single me. The enamelled-looking ladies trailing their bright, pepper and powder scents between the glass counters are less friendly than the clothes shop assistants; I feel like a black stone tossed into a pool of crystals. We stop halfway through the afternoon and my mother has tea and I have ice cream in a freezing metal dish with a wafer. The ice cream has chips of real ice in it and for years I will think this is the sign of superior ice cream, chunks of ice big enough to creak when you bite into them, because from my mother’s face I can tell the place we are in is superior. I also know that I am tagging along and not the point of the outing but I love the high decorated ceiling and the swift black and white waitresses carrying tongs and cake-stands, notepads hanging from their belts. I don’t think these afternoons are planned. I think my mother acts on sudden impulse. There is always a numbness on the journey home, certainly.
I wonder if it’s gone now, Fenwicks. If it is still there it’ll seem ordinary now. It’s Glasgow.
On the other hand they’ll think black leather trousers at a funeral—black leather trousers anywhere on a woman my age, no matter how long her legs—are outrageous, and that in itself is enough to tempt me.
I suppose it’s not really about the tights.
On the first day of the holidays, Lila stood at the dining room window of 5 Seaview Villas and realised that the colours of the days of the week had tiptoed from her mind, leaving it bare. It was raining, the day was Monday, and that was all.Monday is pale green and unripe. Tuesday is beige, Wednesday is white.Maybe it was the telling of it that had chased the colours away; writing it down in an Ink Composition had revealed how stupid a habit it was. She was glad to be rid of it, she supposed, though the space left behind seemed to need filling with something else; the colours had simply fallen from the words leaving eight weeks stretching ahead in a cycle of monochrome days, passing and returning. Already she was so heartsick with the repetition she could not move. She hoped Enid would come. She didn’t really want to see her, but if she came they might wander into Burnhead and then she could suggest going to see Enid’s mum.
She was also rooted by the noise. Her mother, still in her dressing gown and singing along in the title role with Maria Callas, was playing her records ofTurandotin the music room across the hall. She had turned the volume right up and through the squalling of the orchestra and competing voices came the fuzzy metal spit of the amplifier; blurted explosions of sound hit the air like handfuls of nails hurled at a window. Every few seconds the space over Lila’s head cracked with a noise like snapping bones. Yet she stood quite still; it seemed slightly less risky. Her mother’s voice, blaring through the walls and eddying round her like hot fumes, made her feel so flimsy and insubstantial she was afraid she might be whipped up and scattered like dust in its slipstream. She could not hear herself breathe. If she were to speak, her words would be drowned. Suppose she were tempted to sing herself, to slide a single note of her own into the roar, the sound would be lost.
Yet the day had started well. The post had dropped through the door with its usual tired flip but there had been a letter bearing the words ‘Official Notification’ with the news that one of their Premium Bonds had come up. Not before time, her mother said, opening it and then dropping the envelope on the floor with a cry. She made a series of little jumps along the hall in her mint green nylon dressing gown, playful with self-congratulation.Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh, look! Look!The sound brought Lila out of the kitchen with the kettle in her hand, and Raymond clattering down the stairs. They had no idea how to behave in an unleashing of glee. Slowly, they began to see it was safe to be happy.
The bond had come up not with the usual £25 but spectacularly, with £500, a sum you never heard of anyone you knew getting, a sum that would get your photo and a caption in theBurnhead & District Advertiser. Suddenly they were a proper family, no longer odd and fractious and easily dismayed. They were people to whom a good thing not only had happened but ought to have happened; with Fleur as recipient it felt less random than deserved, somehow. From now on they would wear the lustre of prosperity and luck. Fleur flitted about making toast, insisting they all sit down to breakfast in the dining room as if this was how life would be from now on. No more short-tempered, solitary foraging for breakfast eaten off the draining board. At the table Lila, cautiously elated, poured out her cornflakes and watched her parents.
‘At last!’ Fleur said. ‘Oh, at last we won’t look silly anymore, having a garage and no car. We’ll have a car! A new car!’
Lila could see it already, her mother in calfskin driving gloves and ladies’ slip-on driving shoes, happy.
‘Once I’ve learned to drive, I’ll be able to take the car anywhere I like!’
Lila’s mind sailed on. Enid’s mum had no car. Enid’s mum ran the remnant shop on Main Street and did dressmaking and alterations and she and Enid lived in a cramped flat above. Lila was ashamed of how much she loved Enid’s mum. Sometimes she ached all day to see her. She suspected, especially since last Easter when Enid had taken up with the Lord and the Fellowship of Sinai, that she only stayed friends with Enid because of her, and that Enid suspected it too. When she suggested going along to Sew Right after school and Enid gave her a hard look and said, Whatfor? she was afraid that Enid knew exactly what for. Then she would have to pretend she didn’t care and drift home to 5 Seaview Villas, aching all the more.
Maybe when the car came she would be safe from that. Oh, I nearly forgot to mention it, she would tell them both in the back shop, in a careful floating voice, we’re getting a car. Surely when she and Fleur were out together on lovely mother and daughter excursions she would have no more need of the back shop. She would not crave the smells of cloth and paraffin and biscuits, the sight of Mrs Foley’s round, slow body and the click of the sewing machine like an oiled tongue lapping up the fabric as her big hands fed it under the needle. I won’t be able to come round after school so much, I’m afraid, she would say. My mum and me, we’ll be off out.
Yes, they’d be off places, and she would never again have to worry about how much she wished that Enid’s mother were hers instead.
Her father finished chewing. ‘Och, Fleur,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘just you hold your horses a minute. A car’s a major expense.’
‘Oh, come on!’ Fleur cried, her eyes still shining. ‘Now we canaffordit.’
‘Aye,’ he sighed, ‘we could maybe buy it. But we couldn’t run it.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Raymond, of course we could!’ She picked up the letter and waved it at him. ‘Look! Five hundred! What’s the point of having a garage and no car? Yousaidwe’d get a car.’
‘Aye, one day. I never said when. We’re still paying off the stereogram.’
Fleur’s mouth twisted. Lila, recognising dangerous ground, stood up and began stacking the plates. Her father did not believe in hire purchase so her mother had bought the Decca stereogram—glide-away doors, dark walnut finish, three speakers, four-speed auto-changer—by forging his signature on the forms and on the cheque for the down payment. It had cost 95 guineas and the instalments would go on for another three and a half years.
‘That’s justtypicalof you. What’s that got to do with it? I suppose you think I should sit in this dump with nothing decent to play records on?’
Raymond said, ‘Och, Fleur, I’m just saying—’
‘If it was up to you we’d never buy a thing. Don’t be such a bloody wet blanket, weneeda car. Of course we should get it now, stuck out here! With a garage and no car!’
‘I’m just saying…There’s purchase tax, don’t forget. That bumps it up.’
‘We’ve got five hundred!’
‘There’s the servicing.’
‘Oh, typical. You’re so mean. You’re a meanbastard!’
‘Fleur! There is no call…’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Raymond!’
‘Well, it’s a fact. And there’s insurance, and have you any notion what petrol costs? And you’ve to take into account,’ he said mournfully, ‘depreciation. You never get your money back on a car. We’d be better seeing to the damp.’
There was a tight moment of silence.
‘You mean bastard! Youbastard!’
Lila stepped swiftly out of the way. Fleur stormed out with a scream about the Last Bloody Straw, trapping a wad of mint green nylon in the door. It muffled the slam and ruined the exit. She screamed again and yanked the material after her, ripping it. Lila sat down again and waited while her cornflakes sank in the milk and collapsed into saturated orange scabs. The music room door slammed,Turandotstarted, and her father went to work.
Lila had watched him cycle past the window and over the bridge towards Burnhead, his pumping feet appearing and disappearing from under his grey plastic cycling cape. Then, bludgeoned by the noise and surrendering herself to a trance of loathing for the wet view, she did not move from the window. Afternoon shadow would crawl into the room and displace the morning’s, and she would not move. She did not wonder if from the room across the hall her mother was staring at the same view and escaping into a trance of her own. The rain dripped down.Monday is pale green and unripe. Tuesday is beige, Wednesday is white.But they weren’t; the days were insubstantial, colourless, nothing more than shadows burning dimly in emptiness, putting out no heat. She felt trapped and erased, and could not move. She would fall away into ash, probably, in the end.
my first thought is just to get people in. Just get a couple of men in and tell them to get rid of the lot; there are firms that do such things. But when I call the solicitor to get the name of somebody who will take it on for me, it turns out I can’t. I find that the solicitor requires me to go through ‘the deceased’s effects’, something to do with valuation and tax, and now there’s more. They ask me if the death has been registered. I have to call the bank, they need the numbers of his accounts and any cards which somehow I have to find, why haven’ttheygot them? And the undertaker suggests I may care to look out a set of clothes for him unless I want him sent off in the pyjamas he was wearing or wrapped in a polyester shroud. They all need copies of the death certificate.
I have to find things. I have to think. I have to organise. I am unnerved, because these are tasks for which I am not equipped and have no aptitude: tasks requiring at the very least completed forms, lists, decisions and in all probability also buckets and bin bags and rubber gloves. Now I realise that with him gone I was imagining this place already empty of anything important. Not that I think that things left behind spill spontaneously out of houses and dispose of themselves, but I am not prepared for discovering significance in the clutter. It’s surprising, like raking over a rubbish dump and finding it full of things I want. I’m not talking about discovering treasure. It’s the cheap, broken, dirty things—his disposable razor, a comb with oily strands of hair coiled in it, a tin opener sticky with the dark glue of canned foods, objects I don’t recognise and never watched him use—that lie in wait and assault me, because I see them in his hands. I see the daily pickings-up and placings-down of objects by those hands, everyday tasks filling year after year and becoming in themselves the main point, the last of his pride residing in such lonely skills as shaving himself unaided or opening a small tin of baked beans. As Christine says, he was still managing fine.
The picture I have of his hands comes from childhood. They are huge, safe paddles, warm and oddly veined and three times bigger than mine. Which brings me to the problem of his body. I have no intention of seeing it; I want to think it’s just a container of no further use, of no more interest than an empty eggshell. But I want to see his hands. I must see his hands one last time, so that’s another bloody thing I have to arrange.
I brace myself to get on, to concentrate on the surfaces, and I decide to begin with the topmost layer, the room he lived in: taking down the signs of his routines, assessing the objects he touched four days ago, disturbing the last air he breathed. But all I see is how immutable his things are and how eloquent, on the subject of his loneliness and my neglect. His ‘effects’ exude the silent loyalty of a bereaved dog; there is something stubborn in their failure to reflect that the life they belonged to is over. ARadio Timeslies on the edge of the hearth by the armchair, folded over to last Wednesday whereCountdownis ringed in a shaky, ragged circle. The armchair is like an animal’s bed, layered and bumpy with extra rugs and cushions, as squashed and favourite as a nest lined with scraps. It still harbours the crumbs he let fall, still waits for his backside and thighs to hover and fold and collapse into the two channels in the seat. Everywhere, on chair arms and light switches and door handles, there’s a waxy patina of grey, the pewtery shine of gentle fingers depositing their oil so imperceptibly there is something sinister in it.
I have not yet dared open a cupboard or a drawer. I start with the sideboard, expecting its shelves to harbour sauce bottles stuck onto spilt syrupy rings, and I am amazed to find instead row upon row of smooth glass paperweights with chips of coloured glass trapped inside that look like petrified anemones or bunches of tight stone flowers. There must be over thirty, each one different, each placed on tissue paper. He never deliberately collected anything, nor was his life prone to the incidental accretion of cherishable objects. I want to ask him where they came from, and why, when dirt became invisible to him elsewhere, he has not let it touch these. I see his hands again, turning each glass sphere in warm soapy water and drying it, holding it up to the window to catch the unchanging colours, placing it on fresh paper. Small rays of a simple, ritual happiness in taking care of them still shine from their surfaces. I tell myself that he would like them set aside and kept apart from the grime elsewhere in the house. In death, he is full of preferences and reasons; in guilt, I am full of consideration for them.
And so, I go up to the attic to see if there is an empty box up there for the paperweights, and now I have got myself into something. There are no boxes, at least not empty ones. There are boxes and tea chests, full mostly of papers thrown in anyhow and spilling over the edges, with shadows of dust sloping into their depths like a powdering of charcoal over white hillsides. There are scrunched-up piles of cloth on the floor, heaps of unrecognisable shapes wrapped in newspaper and pushed in one corner next to suitcases; there are dust-sheets, a yellow-grey glacier of newspapers in a slow slide against the wall, a row of jars. A thousand doomed mending jobs flung through the barely opened door have landed across the camp bed or have missed it and hit the floor: bits of lamps, a bag of old plugs, coils of flex ending in wire tongues, chair legs, wallpaper, linoleum off-cuts, picture frames with broken glass, an open box full of tools fused together under a coat of rust like handfuls of sifted sand. Standing up here under the attic skylight at the back of the house, I realise I can hear the sea, and then everything in the room seems to have come from there, thrown up in great freak waves and deposited to rot: the washed-up relics, ruined and stranded after the tide.
I turn to go back downstairs but I know I can’t. I can’t go on clearing out his sideboard, emptying his fridge, sorting his clothes, with all this waiting above. I tell myself it makes sense to change the plan, to start here at the top of the house and in the scene of greatest chaos and decay, but that’s not it. It’s the sight of the camp bed and a glimpse of the papers stuffed into the tea chests that make me admit that this is what was waiting all along.
And maybe it should, but it does not surprise me that stuff from theTurandotsummer is still here, though it doesn’t look deliberately kept, and certainly can’t have been cherished. On the morning after that unforgettable first night it must have been unbearable for him to see it: cuttings and scraps of paper and lists and sheets of music and props and bits of costume and the rest of it all over the empty house, so I guess he bundled it up and just stuffed it up here, maybe for my mother to collect later, which of course she never did. It doesn’t look as if anyone has touched any of it since. I wonder if he forgot about it. I can only hope so.
I bring the tea chests down, scratching my shins on the way, and start them in no particular order—my eye caught first, I suppose, by the cutting from theBurnhead & District Advertiseron the top of one of them.
It was Wednesday andTurandotstill raged from the music room. Fleur’s voice had deteriorated to a rasp and now she was singing along with Callas only in short bursts. It seemed to Lila that everything sung by one person to another in an opera was a complaint of some kind—too heartless, too cruel, too jealous, too beautiful, too young to die—and also a waste of breath. It was all supposed to be about love. But wasn’t it obvious that nothing would be settled before there was blood on the floor?
And now an old man was singing:
Abbi di me pietà!
Non posso staccarmi da te!
Lila had been put through enough books with titles such asOpera Tales for Childrento know theTurandotstory. It was Timur, the deposed and exiled king of Tartary, roaming disguised and unwanted somewhere through Act I, alone but for his loyal slave girl Liù. Have pity, he sings to his son, I can’t separate myself from you. Have pity. I cast myself moaning at your feet.
She remembered. Timur has just come across his lost son, Prince Calaf, also exiled and in disguise. But joy is short-lived because no sooner are they reunited than Calaf glimpses the Princess Turandot, falls in love instantly and vows to solve the riddles that will win her in marriage. Timur begs him not to try.
Lila sighed. The story was a fairy tale, full of people who were not very real, yet Timur’s frail plea to Calaf brought her own father to mind. Not thatI cast myself moaning at your feetwas the kind of thing Raymond would ordinarily come out with, but Timur sounded more tired than he ought to be and her father, too, cranked his voice into speech with difficulty, as if winding up words in a bucket from a brackish, underused well. By contrast her mother’s words were always waiting in her mouth, ready. Lila began to listen as though her father, no less deposed or exiled or royal for being a lawyer’s clerk rather than the king of Tartary, were across the hall on his knees in front of the Decca stereogram, beseeching her mint green nylon dressing-gowned mother to have pity on him. Casting aside his disguise of grey cycling cape, her wandering, exhausted father would beg:
Pietà! Pietà! Non voler la mia morte!
Pity! Pity! Do not wish my death!
It wouldn’t work. Anything sung from the heart would sound out of place in 5 Seaview Villas; the house was too damp for heroics. It was one of a row of five built in the 1930s, between two wars. There were meant to be more of them; Seaview Villas were to have been the start of a new suburb—high-class, according to Raymond—between Burnhead and Monkton, but for some reason the others never got built. So the five stood detached and shabby along the road in plots too small for them, looking like the abandoned advance party they were and guarding the empty land behind that nobody wanted, a flat stretch between road and sea less attractive or useful than either salt marsh or meadow, where hardly anything grew in the briny wind off the Firth of Clyde. Across this stretch and almost at right angles to the road, on the Burnhead side of Seaview Villas, ran the Pow Burn. Its brown water trickled between banks overgrown with nettles and under the sandstone bridge next to 1 Seaview Villas, and emptied thickly into the sea.
Like the others, number 5 was double-fronted, with ruby and dark green glass in a pattern of diamonds and leaves in the top pane of the downstairs windows, and had been cheap for its size. But it was the only house to have had a brick garage added at some later point on its far side, there being no space between the others for garages. (This small superiority had softened Fleur’s dismay a little when Raymond had first brought her here but because, fifteen years later, it sheltered nothing but Raymond’s bicycle, the garage now enraged her.) The front gardens were so small that the houses had the look of wide matrons lifting little green aprons clear of splashes from the road that ran by much too close. When Fleur complained from time to time about the permanent garnish of rubbish and grey dust in the hedge, Raymond told her that the houses were built close to the road because of the drains.
‘Drains,’ she would say, as if drains could ever be a reason for anything. ‘For God’s sake don’t talk to me about drains.’
‘Och, Fleur,’ he might reply, or he might not bother; his failure to win her over in the matter of drains would be noted whether he spoke or not. If Lila were present Fleur might cast her a glance and raise her eyes and her father would look droopily from Fleur to Lila and back again, getting them no further forward with the drains but implicating Lila in the general exasperation and fixing her firmly in the middle.
Drains, and all matters concerning the disposal of water, were often on Raymond’s mind, for in and around 5 Seaview Villas there was too much of it. Damp lived there too, and to Lila that also seemed in-betweenish, neither wet nor dry, justdamp; hinderingly dank like her father, whose fault it seemed. Damp was always nearby, waiting upstairs or in the room next door. They quietly tracked its movements as if it were the owner of the house, a smelly old relation who must be tolerated and whom they secretly couldn’t wait to see dead and buried. Raymond made a hobby of it. He called it intramural moisture. It was a minor science, he said. The movement of intramural moisture was predictable because certain materials retained moisture while others drew it—it was a question of drawing the moisture. With pathetic optimism he applied his mind to futile little remedies, stalking the damp and laying traps: rice grains in the salt cellar, a dish of pumice stones in the pantry, a branch of seaweed at the back door. He forbade houseplants, sprinkled talcum powder on the carpets, pasted the downstairs floors with rubberised paint. Intramural moisture was not drawn.
They heard it in the tapping of rain on the hedge, the drip from downpipes, and if they did not hear it they felt it in the claggy weight of clothes left too long in wardrobes. They smelled it in the yeasty gust from a cupboard suddenly opened and they tasted it when a biscuit that should have broken tight and crisp instead clung in a sluggish pulp to the roof of the mouth. Every spreading stain on the wallpaper and fresh patch of mould cast a new pall over their mealtimes, which were anyway quiet but for the excruciating chewing and swallowing noises of people trying to eat silently and Fleur’s ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Raymond!’ when he clanged his fork against his teeth. And all the time from behind the walls it seemed that the damp, too, contributed to the hush with the wordless percolation of water through plaster.
‘Skirting board’s warped,’ Lila’s father might offer. ‘Of course, wood retains intramural moisture. There’s a plastic skirting you can get now we’ll maybe try.’
Her mother would adjust her immaculate shoulder seams, looking across the table not at Raymond’s face but at his hands, which seemed to appall her. Lila didn’t know why; he kept them clean and usually remembered to hold a knife to her satisfaction, tucking the handle out of sight inside the palm. But Fleur would watch his hands and shudder as if she were managing, just, not to scream out loud.
‘I don’t suppose I am ever going to get a holiday,’ she might reply. Then she would lift the salt cellar and shake it over her plate and because it was clogged with damp and rice, no salt would come out, precisely as she intended.
Nor did Seaview Villas view the sea. The dining room window faced inland. Lila was looking out at the road and beyond that a kind of bogus farm with tussocky fields bordered by barbed wire and hawthorn, which harboured broken drainpipes and lost hubcaps and in whose corners pieces of metal and piping that could once have been bicycle parts or bathroom fittings were stacked. Today some cows loitered round the pylon in the middle of the field bordering the road, offering their brown and white sides to slanting arrows of rain.
The farmhouse lay at the end of a cinder track that ran past the pylon and down through more fields. Today it was partially obscured by the only tall trees for miles—sycamores, according to Raymond—whose branches were almost black against a sky the colour of cold grease, but for most of the year you could see it, a red-brick house that would have looked ordinary in any street in any unprosperous town, with the farm sheds set randomly around it.
And offering a view in one direction of a farm that didn’t look like one, 5 Seaview Villas looked out from the back towards a beach that was not much of a beach. The shore behind the house was not like Burnhead’s proper seafront nearly a mile south that drew the Glasgow crowds in summer, with the new coach park, boating pond, putting green and coloured lights along the esplanade, and where a line of semi-detached villas not only viewed the sea but offered ‘B & B, H & C, Home Baking & TV Lounge’ on creaking board signs.
The cross tides met and curled in on the length of coast behind Seaview Villas in a particular way that dumped all the seaweed in that spot; when a west wind blew in hard on a rainy day the smell was like old vegetables rather than brine and seashells. From her bedroom window at the side of the house, Lila could see over the garage roof to the rise of the low dunes where the zigzag wrack of seaweed lay fused to the land, trapped and dead in the sharp dune grasses and dried more by the wind than by the sun into cracked brown shards. And apart from the seaweed and a faint whiff of cow, the air round Seaview Villas smelled of ash from the smouldering heaps of the council tip down by the shore, half a mile further up the coast towards Monkton. The sky, summer and winter, was usually white and empty but for twists of smoke from bonfires on the tip and the hundreds of seagulls that wheeled and dived over it in greedy orbit, their wings flapping to soundless music with the irregular, lazy beat of scavengers on the make.
Now in ancient Peking the courtier Ping was singing
Ho una casa nell’Honan…
I have a house in Honan
With its little blue lake
All girdled with bamboo…
Lila pictured it. A place, for all that it sounded suspiciously perfect, a real place that knew what it was. A place you wouldn’t be ashamed to get stuck in.
iwonder if one ought to wear a hat with trousers? I always think it looks a little odd. I have one with me, in case I wear the skirt.
I am roused to this and other practical thoughts. His death should be announced in theBurnhead & District Advertiser.I jot down the names and dates and hope I’ve got them right. The date of death is easy. But was he born in 1918 or 1919—his birthday was February 10th, that I do know, but was he eighty-four or eighty-five? Heaven knows where his birth certificate is and I haven’t the heart to go looking; I’ve seen enough for today. My guess is 1918. I may be out by a year but there’s nobody to ask which means there’s nobody to mind if I’m wrong. Strange to think that if it was 1918 he was a wartime baby like me, and with me being born in May 1945 we were both only just wartime babies, both born right at the end. Never occurred to me before.
I find I don’t feel altogether insincere saying ‘beloved’. So I will put ‘Raymond James Duncan, aged eighty-five, beloved father of Lila du Cann’ and leave it at that. I’m sticking to ‘du Cann’. I don’t need to revert to ‘Duncan’ just because he’s dead and anyway, I changed my name too long ago to switch back now. I won’t add ‘soprano’ or anything, people will probably know. Nor am I going to put after his name ‘widower of the late Florence’ even though they never divorced, because I can’t go as far as ‘beloved’ in front of ‘widower’, and its absence would make the whole thing look odd. Is there something else? It feels as if there should be something but I can’t think what. My thinking is letting me down, oddly; it’s not quite that I can’t think, it’s that the thinking I’m doing feels a little less reliable. Anyway, I can’t think what else unless it’s ‘sadly missed’. I don’t think ‘sadly missed’ is called for.
Although, strangely, he is.
I could telephone the paper and give them the wording but I don’t trust them not to misspell ‘du Cann’. I shall write it all out and take it in person and make sure it’s taken down correctly. In any case I could do with an outing. There’s nothing here I can eat and there are other errands, too.
The funeral. Before I get as far as the newspaper office I realise what’s missing. You have to say in the notices what the funeral arrangements are, don’t you? The undertaker did hint something about ‘arrangements’ on the telephone but I put them off coming to talk to me about them. Why do undertakers always hint? But arrangements must be made and they are up to me, too. He left no instructions.
So I park in Burnhead, in a car park behind a supermarket that never used to be there. It doesn’t surprise me that the Main Street’s changed in over forty years but I am not prepared for the extra smells and colours and all the glass. Every third place is a Thai or Chinese or Indian takeaway and is a Palace or a Garden or a Jewel according to the signs painted in gold over purple, yellow or red. They all have flat windows reaching to the ground showing interiors full of white light and tiles and benches where you sit and wait as if you’re keeping an appointment at a clinic for people with some affliction connected to deep frying. It’s funny to remember a time when you could get fish and chips at one end of Burnhead from the Seashell Café, at the other from the Locarno or in the middle from the Central, and you felt spoiled for choice.
Today a low winter sun slants across the street. The pavement on one side is a tunnel of cold shadow, on the other a long row of glass shop fronts burns in the fire of the reflected sun and shimmers as if furnaces blaze inside. Sew Right is no more, of course. In its window hang those vertical blinds like strips of cardboard joined by loops of thin chain, and the place now offers IT Logistics and Database Solutions.
But I’m looking for a church, of which Burnhead used to have at least half a dozen. The South Church has a new porch with a ramp and has become a Centre for Family Counselling and Child Psychology Services. Kingcase looks unchanged, colourless—its walls still craggy and black and its arched windows filled with small panes of plain glass—except that where there used to be a painted sign with Times of Worship there’s now an enormous lit-up board telling me about Opportunities for Praise and Thanksgiving. But I do not want to praise and I don’t feel grateful. It is no help to me to know that there are crèche facilities on Sundays (bring your children), a service for Young People once a month (bring an instrument!) or that Mums’ Flex ’n’ Stretch is restarting after Easter (mats provided). I walk on, thinking about the funeral. I don’t object to talk of God—what’s the alternative?—but I want it unembellished. Suddenly I decide that there will be no singing. He didn’t care for music so I think he would approve and I, certainly, would prefer there to be none. I think being here again is renewing my awareness of its power to falsify.
I know it can’t still be here after all this time but I turn off Main Street and walk down Bridge Street. It won’t be there. Even during Enid’s short spell in their clutches there was something rickety about them, her Fellowship of Sinai Gathering in His Name. I don’t mean rickety about their convictions. They were so lost in those that they had lost also all sight of themselves, that was the trouble. They were so cheerful and absorbed in their hobby they didn’t notice they looked mad to everyone else, like people at dog shows. What was rickety was their grasp of the idea that religious fervour need not preclude caring what you look like. Maybe that was one reason why Enid’s fad was so short-lived. Their clothes embarrassed her.
The place where they used to gather was rickety, too, little more than a shack with a corrugated roof and arched windows with railings round it, near the bottom of Bridge Street between the railway line and the back of the post office. It always looked shut up and in need of repainting, and nobody ever did anything about the buddleia and dock and willowherb that grew in the few feet of ground between the walls and railings. If Jesus died so that the Fellowship of Sinai might Gather in His Name, he had every right to be disappointed in how the bargain turned out.
So it is a surprise, not to find that the shack is no more but to see that it has been replaced with a red-brick building, bigger but of exactly the same shape, so new and hard that it looks as if it has not been long out of doors. The bricks have the bright colour and sharp angles of a child’s picture. The railings have gone. Instead there is a low double-sided wall that serves as a container for a line of lush phoney plants of the kind that sometimes hang outside pubs, weeping figs and palms, which seem to me appropriate choices for a biblically-inspired enterprise. There is a sign on the wall that says Evangelical Lutheran Fellowship. The windows are set very high and the building has the same shut-up and empty look that the old place had, but I try the door quietly and it opens into a space of blond wood that smells of varnish, and from deeper inside I hear two people, a man and a woman, talking as they set out chairs across the floor. They have American accents, which is another surprise, and as soon as they catch sight of me they come forward beaming white porcelain smiles. Under the strip lights they look newly wakened, as if they had set some alarm clock whose ring coincided with my arrival.
They tell me they are Luke and Lucy and happy to meet me and that Luke is the pastor and Lucy is his wife. When I tell them my name and that I want to arrange a funeral for my father Luke says, Lila, hey. This must be a hard time for you.
He leads me to a chair. Lucy disappears.
This is the Fellowship of Sinai, isn’t it? I ask. Because it all seems very different and I want to be sure the funeral will have no singing. I remember the Fellowship of Sinai never had singing.
Luke tells me there has been much prayer and debate on this issue since the Fellowship of Sinai merged with Brothers and Sisters in Evangelical Lutheranism in 1987, when the brothers and sisters came over from Burnhead’s twin town, Vandalia, Ohio, to take up what he calls their ‘Scaddish outreach mission’. I move him on from giving me the entire history and back to the point. Is there singing or isn’t there?
The current position, he tells me, is that it all depends. The brothers and sisters, while neither down on nor up for singing in principle, feel that music can enhance Scripture and consequently ‘our experience of Jesus’. But it is by no means necessary and there remain a diminishing few of the original Sinai Fellows who are strongly opposed. So it’s optional. He assures me that the Divine Shepherd will hear every word taken to Him by a person with a humble heart.
So delivery method optional, I say. Kneeling in silent prayer or borne on wings of song, you’re not fussy?
He says, Lila, God will know what is in your heart however you speak to Him. In that sense, no ma’am, the Divine Shepherd is not fussy.
Then I want a funeral without singing or music of any kind. That is what I would prefer.
Luke tells me I have come to the right place. He is dying to talk more but I write out my address and number, and the undertaker’s.
I tell him, As long as there’s no singing it’ll be fine. Please just fix the time to fit in with what the undertakers are arranging with the crematorium and let me know.
He asks if I’m sure I’m comfortable with that. Don’t I want more input?
I say, No I don’t, and you needn’t come up with much to say. He was eighty-five and there won’t be many there. His name was Raymond Duncan.
He says, Lila, I mean this is kind of a hard call. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing your father.
I know it’s hard, I tell him. I didn’t either.
I say goodbye and leave, though I have to accede to being prayed for.
Nothing changed. Fleur playedTurandot,Enid did not come, Raymond cycled through the rain between 5 Seaview Villas and Kerr, Mather & McNeill. He and Lila spoke like prisoners, as if speech were circumscribed and the overuse of words punishable in some way.
Milkman’s wanting paying, it’s three and eight.
There’s five, get the change.
Fleur was still camped out in the music room. She had become nocturnal, timing her forays to the kitchen and bathroom at night whenever she could. Occasionally in the daytime, looking displaced and pale and wafting her green folds after her, she would meet Lila on the stairs and pass without a word. Perhaps to show that she was not utterly mad she would sometimes try to ruffle her hair or pat her backside as she went by, but in brash daylight her gestures were gawky. They carried too much force; she could not help a pulse of aggression entering her hands.
At night Lila would go upstairs leaving her father staring at the television in the back room off the kitchen, or wiping round the sink, stoking the Rayburn, cleaning his shoes. Lying in bed she would hear over the blaring ofTurandotthe slam as he left the house by the back door and sloped off across the garden, through the door in the wall and down to the shore.
On Friday as he left for work he said, with a tired glance at the music room door, ‘Aye well, Lizzie. She’s gone too far this time. Stereogram’ll overheat. It’ll blow a valve in the end. Can’t be long now.’
It was his longest speech of the week. Lila looked away in case even meeting his eye might make him think she was on his side. Not that she thought her mother was in the right; she simply never knew whose colours to wear. The choice was too stark, nor did it matter. Her parents argued over real things: the damp, the Premium Bond, but over unreal ones too, such as whether the ants’ nest at the back door step was in the same place this year as last or not. They were not interested in the difference, nor in whether Lila agreed with one or the other.
‘Then maybe we’ll get a wee bit of peace. Eh, Lizzie? Hear it and tremble.’
Lila studied his face and wondered why, when she might be kinder to him, she wasn’t. Maybe it was simply that kindness was too embarrassing in a house where endearments were never heard, and too risky, for what if she created in him an expectation of future kindness? She didn’t know how much she had.
‘The noise isn’t the point,’ she said.
She meant it. In their house it was the silences that made her head ache with watchfulness; she was alert always to the danger of lips pressed together, an unknowable distance in the eyes, the cardigan adjusted pointlessly over the shoulders. In a perfect copy of her mother’s manner, she stood up from the table and with a single, slow blink turned her head to gaze past Raymond through the window. She couldn’t deny herself the sting of pleasure it gave her to dismiss him, and what difference would a little more unkindness make?
A few minutes later she watched him cycle off in the rain towards Burnhead. She continued to stand, the remnants of his breakfast behind her.Turandotsounded to her now no more than a slanging match. She knew that the opera ended—how else?—in the triumph of true love, but there was a lot of wailing at the moon to be got through before that happened. People had to waste themselves; in the name of love they had to lie down and be trampled on and vow to tear out their hearts, and the idea exhausted her.
By lunchtime she had not moved from the dining room.Turandothad been played all the way through and started over again; Act I came to an end with the crashing of gongs. She waited for Act II. Nothing came, then the music room door opened and she heard the clip-slap, clip-slap of Fleur’s mules along the hall. The sound faded to a sweet, sudden silence; Lila waited, listening. Only then, as if her other senses had just been allowed to waken, did she take in the crumby table, the used plates and cups and ashtray. She began clearing up, faintly puzzled. Surely breakfast had been days ago.
It was while she was drying the cutlery she began to feel something else lurking under the silence. The atmosphere had changed. The rain had stopped; maybe things were about to get better, maybe some transformation was even now taking place. In a minute her mother would come downstairs and she would be happy. A tingle started in Lila’s chest. Such yearning was dangerous, and she tried to catch hold of the fantasy and tie it down. She wouldn’t, for instance, ask for her mother to become like Enid’s mum. Fleur could carry on being conspicuous and English, she could even go on playing her records and dressing in her youthful and expensive way that was unlike any other mother in Burnhead. But if she could be cheerful, not occasionally hilarious and alarming, but cheerful in a daily sort of way you could rely on. If she could only laugh things off a little bit and keep some good mood over in reserve.
Lila let herself imagine how it would be. Her mother was in her bedroom now. She was washed and dressed, looking in her dressing-table mirror and clicking her tongue at herself, while sun slanted in through the window. The frivolous dressing gown—what had possessed her to buy that?—was cast on the floor ready to be thrown away. A white, solid, motherly kind of dressing gown was folded on the bed. She was about to turn and hurry downstairs; she would appear in the doorway with a dimply smile and take the tea towel from Lila’s hands. She would say, Oh here, Lila, give me that, I’ll finish up. You pop the kettle on and let’s think about what to do this afternoon.
While Lila made tea she would put the dishes away, humming an easy tune, not one of her tragic ones. The day would open out like a story, filled with friendly talk, mellow with hope.
Now it’s a rainy old day but that’s not going to stop us, she would say. There’s time to get into Ayr and back before your Dad’s home. You need some summer clothes. Hourston’s have some lovely new things in.
Lila gulped. If they were not getting the car then there was, after all, the Premium Bond to spend. Her daydreams varied in the details but they all featured her mother growing kind, her father in the background but vaguely included in the new warmth, and ended with her getting new clothes. And the daydreams failed her every time, returning her to her life unchanged unless a little more tainted and empty. Would she never learn? She tried to concentrate on something unselfish.
We’ll make Dad his favourite supper, your poor dad always comes home tired on a Friday.
Lila would look up and see her mother smiling. She would be as striking as ever with her carved mouth and large eyes, the shapely waist and ankles. But her beauty would be safer to look at. The edges would be softer; she would look warmed up, less easily broken.
She finished drying the spoons and started on the collection of dirty ashtrays next to the sink. Still no music. She peeped into the hall. The door stood ajar as her mother had left it. She stood with the sink cloth in her hand and waited for a sound; it was impossible to move upstairs without making the floor creak. The quiet was absolute. A new thought ticked through her head. How quickly and quietly could a person commit suicide? In an opera you could see it coming and even then it took forever and could be heard five streets away but what if, in real life, it could be accomplished as unobtrusively as popping upstairs for a minute, in no more time than it took to brush your hair? Could pills or razor blades or a noose work that fast? She held her breath and listened again for a cough or footstep, afraid that she might not hear such little sounds over the thudding of her heart. It could not, surely, be happening just over her head. She returned to the kitchen and took up another ashtray. It could not be happening. There would be crying and pain and mess, she reasoned, and there was only silence. At the same time her mind was working guiltily, trying to devise a scale on which to calculate just how desperate her mother was.
She rubbed at the ashtray over and over, raising its sharp, dirty smell. Suppose it could be even more modestly done, without drawing blood or stopping airways or poisoning the heart? It might be possible simply to slip away in the manner of her mother’s tragic sopranos—like Mimi, Violetta—who could expire without having to do very much apart from singing about it. Suppose the creeping illness whose symptoms never seemed all that distressing, or the betrayed heart, or the selfless renunciation (or the Last Bloody Straw) were enough to see you off, if that was what you wanted, without the need for anything as crude as a suicide method? Lila threw down the cloth and made for the stairs.
Her mother was not in her own bedroom, nor Raymond’s, nor Lila’s, nor the bathroom nor the small spare bedroom. Lila paused on the landing and gazed up the attic stairs. Nobody ever went up there. The two attic rooms were full of junk that nobody wanted, and suddenly she knew. Her mother had taken herself off to die in the attic, among the old and useless and broken things. She took the stairs slowly, noticing the smell grow thicker as she went. At the top, she halted. The two doors in front of her were closed. Silence was embedded here like silt, laid down in the dust. Motes swam in the beam of light that shone from the skylight in the roof. She checked both rooms. Empty.
She clumped back down to her own room, her heart tilting uncomfortably. She needed to hide; she needed the secrecy of a confessional that would absorb her disappointment at not having come across her mother dead. To think that she might want her mother to die just so that life would be different made her feel warped and ashamed; she had to rearrange her mind so that the idea never crossed it again. Life was going to continue in the same way. There was going to be more of it: more being afraid to move from one room all day, more loneliness in her parents’ company, more nights lying in bed with her breath trapped in her throat.
She looked out across the waste ground behind the house, now a lurid patchy green after the rain, to where the sea writhed into the shore. Though her curiosity about her mother’s whereabouts was diminishing now that she was not dead in the attic, she wondered again where she was. Had she got dressed and taken herself off for a walk? But Fleur hated the beach, and there was nowhere else to walk unless you roamed along the road and it was impossible to do that without looking stray and half-witted. Lila’s eye was drawn from the distance to something almost immediately below. The front double doors of the garage were closed as usual, but the side door into the garage from the back garden was open. Above it, the garage roof seemed to be swaying slightly. When she looked properly she saw that it was the drift of a soft line of smoke rising from the joins between rows of slates that made it appear to move.
She turned and ran downstairs, out through the kitchen and across the grass. Soft rasping noises and whining grunts were coming from the open door; inside, her mother was crouched and weeping, striking matches and tossing them into a high mound of twisted newspapers and sticks set in the middle of the floor. As she moved, the skirt of the dressing gown, gauzy and flammable, floated and sank over the edges of the heap; from her wrists the long sleeves were already waving like smoke. Lila stared at the drifting folds and the crossed sticks of firewood hazy beneath the green shadow and reaching up like open beaks, pulling at the material. She couldn’t help waiting to see what would happen.
The paper was refusing to catch properly. With each dropped and extinguished match Fleur cursed, leaned forward and blew hard. Some paper crackled and the pile settled a little.
‘God!Oh, for God’s sake! Oh, this bloody place!’ she moaned. She paused and swallowed, crouched deeper and blew and blew again.
‘Might have…known…too…oh, bloodytypical…damp…bloodyburn,damn you…Oh,God!’
She poked at the sticks in the centre of the fire and a cloud of smoke bulged out from the papers and into her face. Weak glimmers of flame flared and subsided. She threw in another match, leaned forward and blew again. A curl of flame gusted at her and she leapt to get away, snatching her dressing gown and pulling out several sticks that clung to the hem.
She wiped her eyes and nose with her sleeve, bringing away a trail of sooty slime, and glared at Lila.
‘What do you want? What are you staring at?’
For a moment Lila could not speak. Her mother’s face had shrunk to a tiny white mask in which her lips opened and closed over teeth that seemed smaller and sharper than before. Her frayed sleeves hung over her hands; she was like a creature from a fable, a fairy wrecked and grounded after some calamity, her ruined wings in shreds. But the effort of blowing had made her look younger; her eyes were hard and bright.
‘What—what are youdoing?’
‘Oh, for God’ssake! For God’s sake, I am so sick and tired, have you no idea? You and your damn father, the bastard, the bloodybastard.’
‘But why are you…’
‘Him and his precious bloody garage! I’ve had enough, I’ll bloody show him!’
She barged past her out to the garden. Lila was too frightened to follow and besides, there was the fire; the smoke behind her was already thick and sulphurous. She stepped to the doorway for a lungful of air and turned back but there was so much smoke she could hardly see. Shielding her eyes, she stamped at the edges of the pile on the floor until her breath gave out, then she sucked in another and her throat filled with hot smoke. She stumbled to the door, retching and dizzy. Several more times she ventured back in and tried to stamp out the fire, retreating each time to the door for breath and returning to find that the flames had encroached further. Her eyes were almost blinded by streaming tears and when she coughed she doubled over with stinging, zig-zagging pains in her chest. There was now heat coming off the fire and she could hear ominous crackling noises from deep inside it. Licks of orange brightened the gloom of the smoke. She ran to the outside tap on the back wall of the house and found a watering can already half-full of rainwater, filled it to the top and lurched back with it, water slapping over the sides and drenching her. With the first canful the fire hissed and collapsed a little. She came and went from the tap several times, dousing the flames until all that was left was a wet, burning stink in the air and a sulking heap from which trickles of water snaked out into black pools on the concrete.
Lila went back outside and collapsed breathless onto the grass, rubbing her eyes and shaking. She was shocked and cold and wet; her legs and arms were soaked and scratched, smeared with black, her nose and eyes sticky with smoke. Her hair and clothes reeked of it and she could taste it in her mouth. She lay for a few minutes with her eyes closed until the ground felt so cold against her back that she had to move. She struggled to her feet, paused, and looked round. All was quiet again. There was no sign of her mother. The door of the shed beyond her father’s vegetable patch stood open and was moving gently in the wind; she could see that the shed was empty except for the usual gardening tools and the laden, chaotic shelves where he kept his weed-killer, pesticides, turpentine, brushes, half-empty tins of paint and sinister, unlabelled jars. Her mouth dried. How much poison stood on those shelves? Just then came a clatter and a loud cry from the driveway in front of the garage, and she started running.
Her mother was standing in a pool of red. Red ran down her flailing arms and dripped off the ends of her fingers, casting a ragged circle of splashes all around her. So itwashappening. As Lila gazed, the world seemed to halt and stretch and fall away and everything became very quiet and flimsy, as in a slow-moving dream; her mother receded into silvery white air, the ground between them swelled and disintegrated, leaving her weightless in empty sky. She looked like a statue in a fountain although far-off and less solid, her red drapery shimmering and transparent, her form fluid, scintillating, as if Lila were staring across a bright, distorting distance or catching glimpses of her through water. Then her mother stooped to pick up something—a paintbrush—from the red pool, and when she straightened up and turned, the world dropped back in place. Shapes resumed boundaries and substance, colour flooded in. Time righted itself and began to tick along again, passing with the swift ease of a nightmare. Lila and her mother were back on the driveway under a rainy sky, their clothes stirring in the breeze, faces stained. A pair of seagulls gloated from the ridge of the garage roof.
With a quiet grunt, Fleur pushed one foot at the overturned paint tin and with the hand holding the brush she lifted the hair from her face. Behind her Lila read, in scarlet letters seven feet high across the left garage door,
Shining beads from the letter B were already glopping off the bottom of the door and staining the ground. From the tin—Lila recognised it as one of the colours her father had used for the kitchen cupboards—a red ooze was still spreading around her mother’s feet. If it hadn’t been spilled there would have been ample paint left for the
that she guessed she was planning for the right door to welcome her father home.
It was so nearly funny—the day’s havoc ending in such a spectacle as these foolish giant letters, her mother dripping in paint, not blood—that for a moment it seemed impossible that anything serious could be happening. But Lila was too frightened to laugh. There had been rows before, of course. It wasn’t that. There had been objects thrown and broken, whole days of grand opera at numbing volume. But until now, 5 Seaview Villas had soaked up the arguments and held them in its walls, like the damp. The poisoned air in the house, bloated with spent storms, at least had not escaped, at least nobodyknew. But this? Such unadorned madness would not be missed by anyone passing by on the road. It was not a busy road, but that was not what mattered: here was her mother out of doors in a rag of a dressing gown soaked in red paint, hair felted to her scalp and her eyes lost in hatred, in front of ‘B A S T’ seven feet high on the garage door. It was insane and shameful and worse than that, public, and she did not even appear to care.
A memory ofTurandot’s jagged music was still sounding in Lila’s head, reverberating like hollow pain. How shrill and untrustworthy those voices, what lies they told. Love made nothing clear or right. It did not triumph. As she looked at her mother standing on the driveway—ridiculous, filthy, defiant—Lila loved her with such a surge of want and pity and rage that she again wished her dead. This wasn’t love the way an opera would have you believe it. The real thing was far too big a mess to fit to music. Lila leaned back against the wall of the house feeling the cold stone scrape against her spine, and buried her face in her hands. Real love could annihilate the beloved; there was in it something smirched and lethal.
When she looked up, she was alone. A pattern of footprints and flicks and scratches like fallen red petals and twigs trailed up the side of the garage towards the back garden. Once againTurandotwafted out from the house. Lila didn’t much mind. It sounded almost like a return to normality. The rasp of the music and the lies it complained of were preferable, in their way, to silence.
i’ve been up since six, unable to sleep. I’ve got an ache in my legs and grit on my feet, as if I’d been walking about all night. The house is warmer than it used to be—all houses are—but all day I’ve felt the need to keep moving. Done a bit to shift the stuff in the kitchen. Oxfam, mainly.
I get to the undertaker’s late. It smells, in a chemical kind of way, layered, as if each smell oozes into another, higher one that is trying to mask it. The premises are done out in pale grey and lavender. The carpet has a pattern like scattered pins and there are misty photographs on the walls of mountains and sunsets and rainforests at dawn. I’m put in a waiting room with quilted armchairs and tight arrangements of artificial flowers in ugly colours—turquoise and ultramarine—and boxes of tissues. Wherever you look there are bibles. I wait while they dress him in the clothes I have brought and then they come to tell me he is ready.
He lies in a coffin in a room without windows. There are more chairs and acrylic flowers and bibles, but I don’t take in any more detail than that. It’s cold. The air-conditioning makes distant, electrical lapping sounds and in the glowing yellow light everything in the room looks buttered. I want to see his hands. One rests over the other across his torso and they look hard and waxy now, but I know them. I saw them lift teacups, wipe his moustache, wash carrots under the garden tap, but the surprising trust I feel about these hands means, I suppose, that they must also have spooned food into me, picked me up after falling, tidied my fringe out of my eyes, though I do not remember. It’s an odd thought that his hands won’t move again.
I pull up a chair and look at him hard, and am relieved to see that all that was important about his face is gone. He’s aged, but considering he is dead he really doesn’t look bad. What I am looking down at, dressed in a suit and tie and pillowed in wads of gleaming artificial satin, is not him. But it’s a good thing to be reminded of who he once was, especially since I haven’t seen him in nearly eight years.
Every couple of years I used to send him his tickets, for the flight and a seat in the stalls. Each time we act it out this way: it’s dutiful of me to send for him, generous of him to pretend he is keen to come, essential for us both that the time together is short and that we make no reference to my mother, to Uncle George, or to my never coming anymore to Seaview Villas. I make it easy. We do not meet until after the late finish of the performance in the evening and then it’s just a drink before his taxi back to a slightly less than convenient hotel, and I always put him on an early flight home. I ring him next day to see that he has got back safely, and then resume the pattern of a short call every three weeks or so. Well, every month. We get quite good at this.
The last time turns out to be my last season in Antwerp, coincidentally, before my semi-retirement. It’s a bitchy game, opera. And by then it’s a struggle for him, but he still comes. I don’t know what he is expecting—he says nothing about the performance except to ask if I am sure I’m in it as he didn’t quite manage to spot me. He has never liked opera. I don’t try to get him over after that. He isn’t up to it anymore, and anyway by this time I am concentrating on building up my pupil numbers. Maybe I could come to see him, and we mumble about this on the telephone from time to time, but I tend to stay close to base and in touch with the opera house in case I’m needed at short notice. Disasters do happen! After all I do have the repertoire and they asked me to step in as Henrietta Maria inI Puritanionce, in 1992.
I’m on the doorstep, I’m a local resource, use me! I keep telling them. I say, You know you can always call on me in a crisis, I don’t mind short notice.
I don’t think I manage to make them realise that I don’t object to being rung up at any time.
Lila was stroking one finger through the red paint and wondering if it would come straight off the door with turpentine when Enid arrived. She turned and watched as she freewheeled on her bike through the puddles up the side of the house, feet outstretched and pedals ticking, her small eyes fixed on the doors. She stopped and balanced on one foot, spinning the pedal round with the other. She was wearing pedal pushers made from material patterned with pineapples, and a yellow knitted windcheater. Enid had no hips; the clothes were perfect on her, so light-hearted they made Lila’s heart sink.
‘Hiya, what’s all that?’ Enid asked, nodding past her.
‘All what?’ Lila said, not looking round.
‘That. All that mess.’ Enid turned glassy eyes on Lila and pulled a bag of Parma Violets from her pocket. She poured a few into Lila’s cupped hand then tipped back her head and downed some herself.
‘Senga’s away to Filey till Wednesday,’ she said in a gust of violet-scented breath. ‘Senga’s dead nice when you get to know her. What’s the matter with you? Whatisthat?’
‘That?’ Lila chewed and swallowed. ‘Oh, don’t you know? That’sTurandot. It’s an opera. My mother’s playing records.’
‘I don’t mean the noise, I mean that. The letters, that all over the door. All that paint.’
‘It’s by Puccini. It’s her favourite.’
‘Not the noise—that. I’m talking aboutthat.’ Already she was preparing to win. Between them, it was always a victory to point out something embarrassing about the other. She leaned forward, peering and sniffing. ‘You’re filthy. You smell all smoky. Have you been crying?’
‘Crying?’Lila said, too strenuously. ‘ ’Course not! No, I was, I was just doing a bonfire. Just a minute ago. My mum—she had rubbish to burn, I was just burning a bit of rubbish. Makes your eyes sting.’ She rubbed them to make the point.
‘Stinks, anyway. So what is that—all that mess?’
Lila turned round. ‘That? That was just an accident with the paint tin. It got knocked over. And the paint ran a bit when they did the letters.’
‘Whothough? What for? What’s that meant to mean, bast? What’s it meant to mean?’
‘Oh, it’s just this thing. Are they new?’ Lila said, nodding at the pedal pushers. She was so envious of Enid’s clothes she usually could not bear to draw attention to them, but she had to deflect her; she needed time to think of something.
Enid flicked a hand against her thigh and said, ‘Uh-huh. My mum made them.’
Lila’s insides curdled. ‘Really nice.’
‘They’re only a Butterick,’ Enid said. ‘Out of a remnant.’ She picked away a loose thread. ‘You should get your mum to make you some.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Lila’s mother did not sew. Enid knew this.
‘See my mum? She made them all in the one go. Last night. Started when the shop shut.’
‘Oh? Right you are, then.’
‘If you ask her she’ll give your mum a lend of the pattern.’
There was silence.
‘Want a lend of the pattern?’
‘My mum says they’re that easy you don’t evenneedthe pattern. Only four pieces and a zip, five if you want the pocket. Not counting waistband, you can just use bias binding. Could yours not even manage that?’
‘Can she really not sew at all then? Thinks she’s the next Maria Callas. Senga and Linda says so too.’
‘She does not.’
‘See your mum, where is it she’s from again?’ Lila’s mother was English. Enid also knew this.
‘England,’ Lila said, in a deliberately tired voice. ‘So what?’
Enid asked slowly, ‘And what is it you said she used to be again?’
‘An opera singer. I’ve told you before.’
Enid was glaring at her. ‘Has she ever went to Italy?’
‘No. So what? Neither’s yours.’
‘Ha! So! She can’t have been a real opera singer, then. Senga says opera’s Italian, you get it in Italy, and your mum’s not from Italy. She’s never even went!’
‘She’s never went to Italy in her life! So how can she be?’
Lila pounced. ‘See you? See Senga? You’re stupid, the both of you. You get opera loads of places,loadsof places have opera, everybody knows that. You’re just stupid. You get opera everywhere.’
Enid was unabashed. ‘Not round here, you don’t.’
Lila stared at her. She was always underestimating how unashamed Enid was of her own ignorance. Somehow, because Enid seemed simply not to believe in it, it became Lila’s problem. She, not Enid, had to work around it.
‘You’re that childish,’ Lila drawled. Enid shrugged. ‘And anyway,’ Lila went on, ‘I’d have thought you’re too busy going to church to bother with Senga McMillan. I wouldn’t think going tochurchall the time was exactly Senga McMillan’s cup of tea.’
‘It’s not going to church, it’s the Fellowship of Sinai Gathering in His Name,’ Enid said. ‘Senga doesn’t go. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.’
‘Doesn’t she now? So is she not heeding the Word? Dear, oh dear, oh dear. I thought that was a sin, not to heed the Word,’ Lila said. ‘That’s what you said.’
Enid looked over the garage roof into the sky. ‘The Lord is a loving father. He hears his children when they call unto him,’ she said.
‘And how is it you call, again? You don’t have hymns, do you?’
‘We do verses.Andpsalms.’
‘Don’t sing them though, do you? It’s stupid. You just say them.’
‘Music is a distraction from the Bible Message. Musical performance is a temptation to vanity. The Lord hears us when we speak in humble prayer.’
Lila felt suddenly sick at heart. ‘Oh, who cares?’ she said. It was tiring, to despise but at the same time envy Enid’s certainties.
‘The Lord does,’ Enid said flatly. ‘Anyway, Senga says it’s a free country. Whatisthat?’
From the front of the house came a blast of brass and strings and Lila’s mother’s voice, rising with Callas’s:
Son la figlia del Cielo!
I am the daughter of Heaven!
‘I told you, it’sTurandot.’
Lila turned back to the garage.‘B A S T?’She spoke casually. ‘Oh, theB A S T? It’s this new thing, have you not heard?’
‘This thing my mum’s doing. She’s doing this thing for opera singing. It’s the Burnhead Association for SingingTurandot. It’s for people that want to singTurandot.’
Enid gazed at the garage door, dropping her bottom lip so that it hung free of the top one and revealed the bulge of her tongue, today stained violet. Lila had often seen her do this and she intended never to tell her how stupid it made her look.
‘So why’s it on the garage?’
‘Because…because that’s to be the headquarters. They’re going to do it up inside.’
Enid’s mind was clumsy with anything new. Lila watched her weigh up what she could see and hear against the reliability, or otherwise, of her explanation. For a moment she felt a secret joy in the speed of her own mind, until the difference between them filled her with loneliness.
‘To begin with,’ Lila said. ‘Just to begin with.’
‘Let me see.’
‘No! You can’t. It’s not done yet. There’s still clearing up to do.’
‘Okay, I don’t care,’ Enid said. ‘So what, anyway.’
‘So what your mum’s an opera singer, so what she’s started a stupid singingTurandotthing. Who wants to sing, anyway?’
Lila said lightly, ‘Well, actually, lots of people.’
‘Not me. Senga neither. Wait till I tell her. And Linda. They’ll die laughing. Want more violets?’ She fished for the bag.
‘You’re just ignorant.’
‘Who cares? Want to go down the shore?’
Lila didn’t, but they went. She couldn’t let Enid near the house.
They loitered for a while around the beach not far from the tip, kicking over piles of seaweed and the usual washed-up tangles of rope, bottle fragments, broken plastic and pulpy rags. Lila always half looked for treasure, hoping for something to glint through the green-black weed that she would spy before Enid did, but the gleam of silver or gold always turned out to be foil from a cigarette packet, a milk top, a tin can. They found the bumper of a car and a broken lobster creel, a table top and the remains of an armchair; they sniggered at the shreds of tampons lying ragged in the debris, bleached by salt water. Further on they found an upturned rear car seat and hauled it over and set it facing the sea next to a bare, washed-up tree trunk. Enid suggested collecting empty herring crates to use as little tables and making a fireplace in front of it with rocks, but after ten minutes neither of them could be bothered anymore.
It rained again half-heartedly, in large, isolated drops that pocked the beach like silent gunfire and made a field of tiny craters all the way down to the sea, whose surface swallowed the rain with grey calm. Soon after that Lila fell mute and Enid, resentful at finding herself no less bored than when she arrived, sulked all the way back to the house to pick up her bike, and went home.
Lila saw her off from the driveway and wandered round to the back. The ruined green dressing gown was stuffed in a paper bag next to the dustbin. She fetched turpentine and rags from the shed and did her best with the paint marks on the kitchen floor and then she stood, becalmed in a turpentine haze mixed with the tarry smell from the Rayburn that filled the kitchen whenever rain got in the chimney.Turandotwas still playing. She wondered if the volume of the stereogram had been turned down a little or if she were at last growing deaf. Exhausted, she climbed the stairs on shaking legs that she hardly trusted to get her to the top, collapsed onto her bed and fell asleep.
Later from her window she saw her father arrive, looking like a soft, battered grey bell under the billowing cycling cape. He set his bicycle against the wall and stared at the garage for a while, then he marched round to the back door, pulling the cape over his head. A few seconds laterTurandotstopped. From downstairs Lila heard raised voices, and resigned herself. But not long afterwards the shouting stopped, too. A door opened and was closed. A hush settled over the house, but it was too early to tell if the Last Bloody Straw might be capitulating to Gone Too Far This Time. The silence was of the kind that occurs when an engine cuts out but might at any moment be kicked once more into combustible, raging life.
When she had waited for as long as she could, Lila crept across the landing to the top of the stairs. Would she always be like this, afraid to walk through the house? After her parents’ rows she was always embarrassed at how long it took her to get used to being in the same room with them again; she didn’t understand how they could be so unaffected, why for days afterwards only she remained wrung out by the things they’d said. She waited till she heard conversation before opening the kitchen door, believing that to arrive in the room during an exchange of words would make her entrance less conspicuous.
Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a burning cigarette in an ashtray and a cup of tea in front of her. She was wrapped in a thick dressing gown that didn’t belong to her and she looked cleaner but bedraggled and nervy, as if she’d been recently plucked from a hideous predicament—pulled out of a pothole maybe, or winched from a shipwreck. She sent in Lila’s direction, without catching her eye, the fluttery smile of someone rescued but not yet quite able to believe it. Raymond was leaning against the sink stroking his moustache and smoking, from time to time drinking from a bottle of beer—Fleur’s authority in the matter of drinking straight from bottles (boorish,typical) having for the moment lapsed. He rose forward on his feet when Lila came in, gave her a nod and went over to the Rayburn. Setting the beer bottle down, he began cracking eggs into a bowl and beating them, holding the cigarette between two fingers as he worked, another of Fleur’s strictures flouted.
‘I’ve rung your Uncle George in London,’ he said, not turning round. ‘He’s coming up to stay.’
Lila gasped as a shudder of pleasure and fright ran through her. ‘When?When’s he arriving? How long for?’ She hadn’t seen him for more than two years. He’d be amazed to see that she was no longer just a little girl. He might think her pretty. He had to think her pretty.
‘How long’s he staying?’
Raymond was melting butter in a saucepan. He tipped in the eggs, set the pan back on the stove and began stirring.
‘That depends,’ her mother said flatly, drawing on her cigarette and looking at Raymond’s back, ‘on your precious father,’ from which Lila guessed that she expected Uncle George to take her side about the car and to stay until her father caved in.
‘Oh, for God’s sake…’
‘That’s enough. We’ve all had enough now.’
Both their voices were wary. Fleur drank some of her tea, her eyes still fixed on Raymond as he stirred at the stove. Just the prospect of Uncle George’s presence seemed to create between them, if not harmony, then a slight benefit of the doubt.
‘Eliza, make some toast, will you? Give your father a hand.’
‘You leave Lizzie be, I’m managing. Want another cup?’
Lila went to the dining room to lay the table, not wanting to test the strength of the truce. A little later they sat down to eat, her parents grudgingly. Lila, between them, kept watch.
‘You’ll have to do something about the door. Before he comes. That spare room door won’t close. It swings open.’
‘It’s holding moisture. You just need to push it hard so it clicks. I’ll tell him he just needs to push it hard.’
‘You’d better open the window. I can’t reach it and the room needs airing.’
‘There’s damn all in the pantry. I’ll get extra bread and eggs tomorrow. Lizzie could call at the butcher.’
‘There’s enough till the order comes. You can get the meat. I need her to help with the bed.’
‘George likes an English paper. Is itThe Timeshe likes?’
‘He likes theListenertoo. Order that.’
Later Lila asked again, ‘How long’s he staying?’
‘He’s on his summer holidays now, he’s a free agent,’ her father said. ‘He’s getting off crack of dawn, he should be here this time tomorrow,’ he added more robustly, with a slight, head-of-household raising of his voice. Then he sucked his teeth and shook his head. ‘Traffic permitting. It’s July the first when all’s said and done.’ He had to tone down anything that might be veering towards optimism.
‘But how long? How long’s he staying for?’ Lila asked.
Fleur raised one eyebrow and looked past Raymond.
‘I told him his sister’s been having hysterics,’ he said. ‘Right hysterics.’
‘At least he understands,’ Fleur said complacently, though her voice wavered. She lit another cigarette and shook out the match. ‘George understands what it’s like, suffering from nerves.’
Her mother was making every gesture prettier than usual. She nipped the match daintily between finger and thumb while her lips pouted smoke into little feathers over her head. Claiming George’s understanding was all she needed to do to excuse herself. As long as George understood, she could call it ‘nerves’, as if setting the garage on fire and painting giant swear words all over it were just extra, mildly challenging facets of her attractiveness, so quirky and endearing there was no question of their having to be forgiven.
Lila felt sick. It was she, not her mother, whom Uncle George loved and approved of. His visits were so irregular and infrequent that Lila was a different person each time he came and yet each time she was certain, just from the way he looked at her, that his reserves of affection were hers. He was obliged, of course, not to make it too obvious; it was their shared knowledge, private and unspoken. How she adored him, how her love for him squeezed her heart, was her secret alone. She turned from the sight of her mother’s cigarette between her long fingers and looked down at her own hands. They looked pink and boneless, unbearably childish. She wanted to be the one Uncle George could really love. Suppose she were just to die? He would never forget her then.
‘Aye, right hysterics, and he says he’ll stay till she’s not having them anymore,’ Raymond said. ‘Sends love to you as well, Lizzie, saysnil desperandum.’
Lila caught the lifeline.Nil desperandumwas their phrase. Uncle George had first said it years ago when she was little, bawling over a scraped knee; if he was saying it now he was sending a message to say he understood and remembered how it was between them.Nil desperandum. He would be here tomorrow. A shiver of expectation sparkled down her spine and she prayed silently for her mother to have hysterics indefinitely.
it’s getting towards four in the afternoon when I leave the undertakers and finish my errands. I register the death, do a little bit of food shopping and go back to the car. It’s too late for the newspaper office so I’ll have to call them after all.
The sun is going down with one of those attention-seeking sunsets that occur here, great luminous sheets of pink and turquoise billowing up from the horizon. As I drive I find I am rather taken by it, garish though it is. The flat land between Burnhead and Seaview Villas is still empty, but now there is a long lay-by on the shore side of the road. I pull in and park, knowing it is useless to think I can capture the sunset by getting out of the car but wanting at least not to see it through glass, even though the wind buffets the door and I know it is getting cold. At the end of the lay-by I come across one of those clumsy stone tables tilted at an angle, with a map and diagrams of what you are supposed to look out for. Seagulls, apparently. Three kinds. This is news? It tells me also that this stretch of land down to the sea is no longer the pointless, marshy waste ground it was in my day. Now it is designated. They have made paths across it that are marked on the map by lines of meandering green dots. It seems I may not look at this landscape simply because its empty darkness reflects my present mood or because I am drawn by the sunset. It is now an area of local ecological interest and I can ‘access’ more information if I visit some bloody website.
So even this small moment, my tiny, unplanned detour into melancholy has been anticipated and catered for and in a manner that seems to me typical of Burnhead: invasive, crass, and beside the point. Whether I’m ogling all the shades of pink or scanning the clouds for a glimpse of the Divine Shepherd or just depressing myself, I can’t simply be left for a while to idle in a lay-by and watch the sky; I must count seagulls and be ‘oriented’ along phoney bark footpaths, grateful to the Burnhead Civic Amenities Trust and a clutch of minor charities. I feel jaded and empty, and I turn to go.
Then I hear it—a little fluting note sounding in the wind, a voice calling a name. A long way away, almost at the point where the flat land becomes the shore, I can see someone walking, rising into the sunlight and dropping down again, following the undulations of the dunes. The glowing light makes the figure almost a silhouette but I think I can see that it is wearing red—is it her, Christine from next door? Is she calling for the child? It comes again: two notes, a singsong call across the reeds. What did she say the child’s name was? Why did I not listen when she told me the child’s name?
The roadside is not a bad vantage point. I stand and wait, hoping for a slight, sudden movement or a flash of colour that will show me where the little one is. I cannot go out onto the marsh looking and calling because I do not remember her name. My not knowing what she is called feels part of the reason she may be lost, and I find my mind suddenly crowded with all my names—Eliza, Lizzie, Lila—and I hope for her own sake that Christine’s child goes by just one and that it is a name she likes. The person on the dunes—I am sure now it is Christine—calls again. Perhaps there is no note of urgency in it, after all. Perhaps they are playing a game.
But I continue to stand and watch just in case, and as Christine’s voice unhurried and faint lilts across the flat ground, I hear also, across a landscape of years, both my parents’ voices: hers high and edgy and his a dry, enclosed one that sounds unnatural out of doors. I think I must be remembering a particular day when I was very little, on a picnic or something.
The sun is almost below the horizon now; its rays stretch down the water in a widening, sparkling path of broken stars. Christine has dipped out of sight onto the shore side of the dunes.
I think I have a memory of that day, of the sun shining too brightly. The wind is in my face and my eyes are stinging. They are calling for me. Lila. Li-la! And then there is no sound at all except a roaring in my ears that might be deep water or could be my own gasps. Have I fallen in the sea? Am I crying? From somewhere above I hear my name again—Lila!Li-la!—no sooner heard than carried away, voices calling across so huge a distance that I know I have strayed past some important limit. On that day I wander from the place where my name is spoken, and when I hear it being called I cannot believe that a word so lonely-sounding can really mean me. The shock of it is that then I know—know it for certain with an ache that seems for a second to stop my heart—that I am alone. Not that it’s a discovery, quite. It confirms something I am born knowing, knowledge that lies in the blood. Did I that day let go of a hand and run, stumble, fall and lose myself, along with my baby name?
I don’t remember. I don’t know when I stopped being Lila to everyone but myself. It would be some row or another of theirs, not related to any picnic, that would mark me as Eliza or Lizzie, perhaps some theory that I shouldn’t start school with my baby name. They probably disagreed about what I should be called instead and then simply ignored each other’s opposition. I’m not under any illusion that by calling me by different names either of them was trying to lay claim to me.
Later memories are even less clear. The years from then until theTurandotsummer bunch themselves into uniform clumps of silence, resentment, boredom. I perform, sincerely but badly, in the roles allotted me by my other names. As Lizzie, I am beetle-browed and sullen with my father and at school I keep in with Enid and fight off the torments of Senga and whoever happens to be in her gang. My mother reminds me that nobody likes a sourpuss and tells me to smile, and then I wear the name Eliza like a showy, embarrassing hat that she—stronger and capable of cruelty—has chosen for me and is insisting I keep on. Her yearning for a daughter to match the name she thinks so sophisticated flits around me constantly, not as a stated desire but like blinking, a fraction’s distortion between one frame and the next in the drama playing out between us every day, as hard to catch as a concealed wince. Eliza is the name of the daughter she could be proud of. Lizzie is the straightforward, reliable girl with her feet on the ground. Answering to either one, I feel muddy inside. Nobody knows who I really am or what I am for, except Uncle George.
Between visits Uncle George became an abstraction. From the moment his car disappeared over the bridge and Lila stopped waving he was again an idea, a private absence. She could almost lose hold of the fact that she knew him personally; he acquired a film star’s perfection and distance. And London assumed cinematic grandeur; it was all clean avenues and squares overhung with blossom or drifting with papery fallen leaves, where well-dressed people walked pretty dogs and ladies hailed shining taxis with a gloved finger and were whisked off to the Ritz or the London Palladium. Lila marked his road in a street map he once left behind; it smelled leathery and ashy, like his car. She kept it in her room and took it out and looked at his page often, sprawling on her bed. She memorised the names of the streets and pictured herself setting down her suitcases and Uncle George calling from an upper window, so here you are at last!
When she was little, saying goodbye, she used to cling and beg to go back to London with him and he would promise that one day she would. Wait until you’re old enough, he said. She would be different too, in her London life. The sun would not always shine, of course not. But when it rained she would be adorably mackintoshed for it, tight-belted and accessorised like Audrey Hepburn, and the rain would be cleansing and amusing, unlike Burnhead’s mucky obscuring drizzle. Buses would swing into view when required. Just the name Crouch End, where Uncle George lived, had a ring of civilised magic.
She never tried to picture the flat precisely but knew it must be high-ceilinged and airy. She would take the smaller bedroom and get a job in a high-class but friendly dress shop, and would come home in the late afternoon to find light pouring through the drawing room windows. She would have flowers in a glass bowl on the low table in front of the fire, always. Uncle George would wonder how he had managed all this time without her cheerful and economical ways. He and his artistic but respectful friends would include her in everything—trips to the country, rolling back the rug for impromptu rock ’n’ roll—and they would pay her teasing, affectionate compliments.
One day. Wait until you’re old enough, he said. She had waited. There was no reason why one day should not be now.
The real Uncle George could not live up to the perfected version who was forever charmed, forever laughing and in bright sunshine, so his arrival at 5 Seaview Villas required at the very least an adjustment to everyday lighting. When Lila watched his car draw up into the evening shadow that the house cast over the road, he seemed part of the shade. He was crumpled and less tall. He frowned over the bringing in of his luggage and didn’t stand straight. Lila came along last, worried in case she did not love him. She had forgotten that the pores round his nose and chin sometimes looked like a sprinkling of black pepper.
As it always was when Uncle George came, tea that day was special. While Fleur had rested, Lila and Raymond sliced cucumber and tomatoes, opened a tin of vegetable salad and spooned it into a dish. Lila’s potato salad, tepid, floury chunks coated with salad cream that had turned translucent, sat in a bowl on the sideboard next to a jelly with tinned pears suspended in it. On the table were four plates on which, under wrinkled sheets of lettuce, beetroot was bleeding into slabs of pink ham and halved hardboiled eggs.
George said what a spread it was and how they spoiled him. As he always did, he had brought a bottle of wine and Raymond, as he always did, had put out cups and saucers instead of glasses because Fleur said it was boorish to expect it.
‘Oh, Georgie, lovely! Chianti! Oh, are we opening it now? Eliza, glasses,’ she said, seating herself. ‘We’ll need glasses, the proper ones.’
Lila brought four instead of three. Uncle George raised an eyebrow and gave her a nod as he poured. She didn’t like the wine. She wanted it to taste of London life, richly perfumed and exciting or at least more like blackcurrants, and this reminded her of damp rubber. But Uncle George was already forgiven for being merely himself. She sipped the wine, relieved that he did not fix her with an exclusive Rock Hudson gaze full of blistering admiration. He admitted he was tired after his journey and then there was a plain, ordinary silence while they ate. Fleur picked at her food, flipping the lurid ham between her fork and knife and raising a shower of beetroot juice that fell in an arc of magenta dots onto the tablecloth.
She laid down her fork and asked questions: did he still like his flat, were his students doing well, was he still friends with what was the name again? George pushed his plate away and lit a cigarette, making a show of the first drag, moving his hair out of his eyes.
‘Oh, Florrie,’ he sighed. ‘Everything’s fine. Life goes on.’
Lila was not interested in his answers, anyway. Nothing her mother wanted to know would figure in her future life with him in London. He taught music in a college; she didn’t need more than that to be able to picture him in a grand building with columns and stone steps. The rest—the detail of his life and hers—she could embroider from her own thoughts.
‘Stop that, it’sFleur,’ her mother said. ‘And I just like to know. Is that a crime? I worry about you.’
Uncle George cast her a look. ‘Don’t. You really needn’t.’
With a little defeated sigh Fleur got up and started dishing out the jelly at the sideboard. Lila felt safe and pleased. Although six years younger than her mother, and single, Uncle George was without doubt the head of their side of their family, not that Lila, knowing the meagre facts, thought of them as that. They were too depleted, somehow, not robust enough to be thought a properfamily—more a huddle of people clinging on because they were related and the only ones left. Lila’s grandmother had died before the war; the father had been killed in early 1944. There had been a brother stillborn between Fleur and Uncle George, and that was all that Lila knew. Having no memory of them, she had never been able to make these dead people belong to her. No sound, not even the rustle of clothes, came from the sombre pair in the photograph on the piano; she could not imagine words coming from their mouths, nor a cry from the baby on the woman’s lap. It was impossible even to connect that baby with her mother, whose life seemed dense with adult misery, so opaque with complication that no simple light from a childhood shone into it.
Fleur said, ‘But I do worry, you know I do.’
‘Well, I worry about you, too,’ George said, a little sternly. ‘And, it appears, with some cause.’
‘It’s my nerves,’ she said. Calmly handing round the jelly and pears, she seemed perfectly happy now. Lila wondered why only Uncle George seemed able to affect her mood for the better. For a while nobody spoke.
‘So, George, you winching these days?’ Raymond said. ‘Knocking on thirty, you not leaving it a bit late?’
Fleur let the use of one of his ‘coarse’ dialect words pass with an indrawn breath; as Raymond had judged, she was in too peaceful a mood to complain.
‘Ah well, Ray, you never know,’ George said, with a wink.
‘Aye, I ken what you’re up to,’ Raymond went on, pointing with his spoon. ‘You’ve got a lassie down south, eh? Scared to bring her up here in case a Scottish lad sweeps her off her feet.’
Uncle George smiled, pouring a trail of evaporated cream over the top of his jelly. He caught the white drip off the lip of the jug with one finger and sucked it clean.
‘I certainly wouldn’t risk a girl anywhere near you, Ray,’ he said, though he was looking at Fleur. ‘Lucky my big sister can keep you in line, you old Romeo. Still the best looker for miles.’
It was so naturally done. Lila knew that her parents’ meeting and marrying had been a disastrous mischance, yet Uncle George was casting them as a pair of heartbreakers, and getting away with it.
‘Romeo—that’ll be the day!’
Fleur and Raymond’s laughter was brittle, but for a few moments they were absorbed in this flattering picture of themselves. Just for an instant they were lovers on a cinema poster, propelled by fate towards their final destiny, romantic combustion in each other’s arms. George tipped the last of the wine into their glasses.
He said, ‘If you ask me, it’s Missy here we need to keep an eye on.’
‘You mean Lizzie? Och, she’s young yet,’ Raymond said.
‘But she’s her mother’s daughter,’ George said. ‘I hope the gilded youth of Caledonia are preparing to fight over her,’ he added.
Lila was too busy trying not to blush to notice that he had just rendered her as helpless as her parents.
After tea Uncle George sent Fleur upstairs to take a long bath, producing some bath salts that he said were specially for frayed nerves. Raymond washed up, George dried and Lila put away. Then Raymond took George outside to show him how he was progressing with burning the letters off the garage door; afterwards they stood at the edge of the vegetable garden, hands in pockets, talking in low voices. When they came back in Raymond looked exhausted. He accepted George’s suggestion that he take himself off to bed.
‘Come on, you,’ Uncle George said to Lila as soon as he had gone. ‘The night is young! Come and show me the sunset. Sun’s just going down.’
They walked along the road without talking. A gusting wind had blown the rain out of the sky but more clouds were massing in wads over the sea. When the low sun broke through from time to time, their elongated shadows cut sharply across the black road. Lila could think of nothing to say, tongue-tied because she was only her ordinary, unembellished self. She so longed to be amusing she did not dare open her mouth, and she looked all wrong with her hair blowing into knots, her eyes screwed up against the wind and sun. When they got as far as the Pow Burn they stopped and watched the slow slide of the water under the bridge.
On the Burnhead side, in front of each of the bridge posts sat a concrete bin. Litter fluttered around them, although they had not been litter bins originally; they had appeared a year or two before as part of ‘a drive’ to boost Burnhead’s chances in the West of Scotland Floral Borough Competition. After a short wet summer when a few flowers struggled and died and their leaves turned yellow in the salt wind, nobody came to plant anything else or take the bins away. It seemed that, by its failure, the effort of communal cheerfulness had left everyone exhausted, and now the bins were used for target practice by any passing motorist who had a bottle, cigarette packet or dog end. Lila’s mother complained about it from time to time. They were, according to her,typical.
Lila picked up a wooden lolly stick from the ground and leaned against one of the bins, staring down and prodding into it. She turned over a waxed bread wrapper and uncovered a grey lump, mould coating it like fleece. George wandered across the road, brushed the edge of the other bin with his hand and perched on it. He lit a cigarette and dropped the match behind him.
He called over, ‘So—Lizzie or Eliza?’
Lila looked up.
‘Which is it these days?’
Lila shrugged. Once she would have claimed to prefer Eliza, seeking to like what her mother liked, but now she was less inclined to; the ground under her feelings for her mother was shifting too much. But if not Eliza then not Lizzie either, in case that amounted to saying she admired her father. She looked down and concentrated on stirring the contents of the bin. It was all going wrong; she wanted to be chatting to Uncle George with dancing eyes and smooth hair and clothes like Enid’s. They were meant to be laughing, delighting in quick and clever conversation. There was meant to be light music in the background.
‘You know, your face really is very funny when you’re cross,’ he called. She looked up and he burst out laughing. ‘It’s not designed for it.’
She carried on stirring. ‘Enid chucks lolly sticks in here, you know,’ she said.
‘Enid. My friend. She comes on her bike and times it so she’s finishing it just when she gets to the bridge so she can chuck the stick in without stopping. My friend, so called.’
There was a long pause while Lila tried not to cry. ‘I hate her,’ she said vehemently.
‘Oh, so she’s that sort of friend,’ Uncle George said. ‘I see. Of course, certain friends—’
‘She makes me feel like screaming,’ she said. This wasn’t true but she had to account for the shake in her voice and the noises coming from her throat.
‘Ah well, now, that I can help with. Go ahead. Go on, scream. Scream your head off. Give me a minute, I’ll just go and warn the neighbours.’
At that Lila burst out laughing, or something between laughing and crying. She could imagine Mrs McBray at 1 Seaview Villas with her mealy face and pinhead eyes, wiping her hands and saying, uh-huh, screaming, is it?
‘Don’t bestupid.’ Her nose had started to run. She wiped her sleeve across her face.
George tossed his cigarette in the bin, crossed the road and pulled her away.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘we’re going down to the beach.’
‘What for? So you can have a proper scream, of course. You can frighten the fish if you like. And you can tell me all about the ghastly Enid.’
‘There aren’t any,’ Lila gasped. ‘There’s no fish. It’s not a proper beach. It’s horrible. There’s nothing down there.’
‘Oh, there’s never nothing,’ George said, lightly. ‘Never ever. Come on.’
‘I hate it. There’s just seaweed and dead birds and rubbish.’
‘There you are then. Something after all. Proves my point.’
Lila did not know what to do with Uncle George’s refusal to agree that life was awful. She followed him down towards the sea, and the shadows of their walking legs criss-crossed behind them on the scrubland like clashing silent swords. A straight band of steel-coloured light gleamed between sea and sky. Clouds collided and merged above the water and the sun came and went, shifting veils of pink and orange around itself.
‘Beautiful,’ Uncle George said, and Lila wiped her eyes and said she supposed so. She could not explain that it was just another thing put there to diminish her, another thing to feel separated from.
They made their way over the dunes to the start of the beach, kicking up from the sand its usual smell of briny rot. Now the marram grass broke off in clumps, revealing small bunkers of pebbles edged with reeds. They crossed the broken line of seaweed that marked the high tide and walked along in silence but for the cracking of dried weed and shells under their feet. The tide was miles out and the wheeze of the waves did not reach this far. George sat down on a tussock of grass and shifted over to make room for Lila.
‘I don’t suppose,’ he said, ‘that it’s really all about Enid, is it? If I were you, I think I’d be screaming for other reasons.’
Lila was silent.
‘Suppose we start with Enid, then,’ he said. ‘What’s Enid done?’
‘She saw the garage door,’ Lila said. ‘She saw the garage door and she kept on about it, what the letters were for. I had to tell her something, I made something up. I just made up this thing and she’ll find out it isn’t true. Then it’ll be awful, she’ll go on and on. She’s always going on.’
‘So? Does that matter?’
‘Of course it matters! She’ll tell Senga! She’ll tell Senga and everybody. You don’t know what it’s like!’
‘And what exactly will she tell them? What did you say?’
‘I had to say something! She kept asking, she was going on about Senga and her—Senga’s always getting people ganged up on me, I hate Senga. So I told her it was about singingTurandot. I said it was a sort of club. The Burnhead Association for SingingTurandot.’
‘For singingTurandot. BAST.’
‘My God. Did she believe you?’
‘I don’t know! Oh, I hate it! All the stupid, the whole stupid…’ Lila burst into tears. ‘I hate it! I hate this place!’
Uncle George stared straight ahead and let her sob.
‘Oh, dear,’ he said after a while, turning to her, ‘you’re so like your mother.’
He laughed and shook his head. ‘But that was clever.’
‘What was?’ She was still upset but the hint of a compliment at once opened up the possibility that she might be brought round.‘What?’
‘Your whatsit. B A S T—your Burnhead Association for SingingTurandot.’ Speaking the words himself, Uncle George seemed to find them hilarious. He threw back his head and laughed. ‘Bet it shut her up. What did she say?’
George fished in his pockets and lit another cigarette. The fumes from the match drifted Lila’s way, reminding her of railway smoke.
‘So what about this Premium Bond? What do you think it should go on? What would you do with it, if it was up to you?’
The novelty of being consulted made Lila’s eyes fill with tears again and this time she wept for a long time. ‘I wish it’d never come,’ she said eventually, gulping. ‘They can spend it how they like. As long they stop arguing. As long as she starts being normal.’
George placed an arm across her shoulder.
‘I hate it here,’ she whispered. ‘I want to come to London. Can’t I come to London with you? You wouldn’t have to pay for me. I’d get a job and pay you rent and everything.’
Uncle George tugged at her shoulder and gave a light laugh. ‘Oh come on,nil desperandum,eh? Can’t be as bad as all that, can it?’
‘It’s getting worse. She’s never been this bad before. I have to get away. Can’t I come to London?’
Uncle George snorted. ‘I can promise you she’s been every bit as bad as this. You were just too young to know.’ He made a wry face and raised one eyebrow. ‘Quite funny in retrospect, most of it. You think this is bad…’
‘What could be worse?’
‘Oh, there’s worse. If I tell you a funny story would it cheer you up?’
‘Okay, well. This is true, remember. This was one time not long after they got the house. You were just a baby. She ate the housekeeping.’
‘What? She what?’ Lila clapped her hands over her mouth. ‘Shewhat?’
Uncle George nodded solemnly, and they both burst out laughing.
‘A week’s housekeeping. Your dad had just given it to her. They were having a row about money, I gather she was going through it a bit fast. She tore it up, stuffed it in her mouth and swallowed it. To show him how fast shecouldgo through it. By the time he rang me she’d been retching for three hours.’
‘So what happened? Was she really ill?’
‘You mean how fast did it go through her? Oh, nature ran its course. Eventually. She got herself in a real state.’ Uncle George grinned. ‘Mind you, it was only the notes. Not even your mother went as far as eating the coins.’
When their laughter died away, Lila said, ‘I still hate it. I want to go back with you and live in London.’
‘Look, these things pass. They always do.’
‘This won’t. I hate it. It’s their fault. Idowant to scream.’
‘Well, scream, then. Go on, there’s nobody about. Scream for all you’re worth,’ Uncle George said jovially, waving an arm towards the beach and the faraway sea. ‘Scream at them. Scream at Enid. Shatter their eardrums.’
He was laughing again. To show him she minded, she filled her lungs and tried to scream, but managed only a couple of stifled, breathy yelps. She sounded like a tired kitten. Her mouth was full of gluey, salt liquid; she swallowed a couple of times and tried again.
‘Call that screaming? Oh, you are so funny!’ He slapped his leg, snorting with laughter. ‘Go on! Scream!’
Lila stood up, walked away a few steps and turned from him, took a breath, and screamed. It came out flickering at first, like a guttering light, and then strengthened to a bright blast that cut the air. She stopped, suddenly light-headed, took a deeper breath and screamed again; after a few seconds the sound changed, grew long, high-pitched, sailing. On it went, one steady note with a slight, fluting vibrato, heartless and clear. She knew what she was doing. She was singing, and she intended it as a warning. When she came to the end of her breath she stopped abruptly. She walked back and sat down again, folded her arms and looked calmly out to sea.
‘Congratulations,’ Uncle George said. ‘That was a B flat. I see I’m right. I thought you might have the voice to go with the temperament. How long have you been able to do that?’
‘Since forever,’ she said carelessly. ‘There’s not much to it, you know.’
She didn’t quite believe this but saying it made her feel superior. Uncle George stifled another laugh.
‘Shut up! You’re as bad as her. She goes on,’ she said in an angry whisper, ‘like it’s something special, like you should get sympathy for being able to sing or something!’
Uncle George nodded, not needing to be told that Lila was now talking about Fleur rather than Enid.
‘Just because she was a singer once. It’sstupid.’
‘Does she know you can sing?’
Lila had no clear idea of what her mother knew, about her or anything else. Fleur displaced simple knowing—about everyday, ordinary things—with irritation or loathing.
‘She doesn’t care, anyway. She’s not really interested in it, except for singing along to her records.’
‘What about at school? Don’t they make you sing at school?’
Lila scowled. ‘They try. I can’t be bothered. I’d only get teased anyway, it’s bad enough they all knowshesings.’
Lila nodded. ‘And Linda McCall. And Enid, some of the time.’
‘But isn’t it difficultnotto sing? Don’t you ever just want to, don’t you want to take a deep breath like you did just now and just do it?’
Lila was taken aback by how instantly Uncle George had hit upon it. More and more often when she opened her mouth in assembly for some dreary compulsory hymn, she thought that to let the sound burst out of her would be, at the very least, interesting, and probably wonderful. The idea filled her with a sense of danger but also with an intense premonition of safety; she predicted that there might be a kind of sanctuary in the very letting go. She had been glad when the end of term had freed her from the temptation. But now, one long top B flat sung out towards the sea had left her elated. She stared at the beach, poking in the stones with the toe of her plimsoll, and tried to quell a bubbling feeling in her throat.
‘Your mum doesn’t really mean it, you know,’ Uncle George said. ‘She’s just—’
‘—having a nervous breakdown.’
He searched for a way to deny this truthfully and couldn’t. ‘It’s just hard for her…The thing is, she wanted to have more of a career, and when people are disappointed, they sometimes…’
‘Oh, I know! I know! They’re allowed to shout and scream and go on and start fires and paint letters on doors! They’re allowed to upset everyone around them!’
She got up and marched down the beach. ‘He’s just as bad, she wouldn’t be like that if he was any use! I hate them!’
Her disloyalty felt magnificent and risky, as if something with strong wings were trying to flap its way out of her chest. Uncle George watched her stride around, kicking through seaweed and soaking her shoes.
‘Oh, come on,’ he called out to her, ‘she’s not as bad as all that. Your dad does his best. There are reasons.’
‘I know! You all think I’m too stupid to notice! I’m not stupid, I’ve worked it out, I’m not a child!’
‘Worked what out?’
Lila returned up the beach and stood in front of him.
She said, ‘I know what happened!’
George looked at her while he took the last drag of his cigarette and threw the butt away. ‘You do?’ he said, shading his eyes. ‘Really? Who told you?’
The mildness in his voice perplexed her. She was telling him she hated her parents and knew their dirty secret and he did not seem to mind.
‘Youknow what I’m talking about.’ Was he going to make her say the words aloud?
‘Well, I think I do, but maybe you’d better tell me and see if I’m right.’
‘Well.It’s no secret, she met him when she was twenty, she tells everybody that much,’ she said, dropping down onto the tussock again. ‘Before she had a chance to get famous. He came to hear her sing andfell madly in love with her and promised to look after her forever.’ She pushed the words out sourly. ‘And he told her he was going to be a lawyer, and they got married straight away, a fortnight after they met, and he misled her. He lied to her. He’s not a lawyer, he’s only a lawyer’s clerk.’
She sensed Uncle George was about to interrupt. Quickly she said, ‘Look, I worked out ages ago what happened!’
She leaned forward and cupped her face in her hands to hide how red it was. ‘I doknowthe facts of life, you know,’ she said, trying to sound adult and breezy. She did know them, but having to associate them with her own parents nauseated her.
‘Not sure I’m quite with you.’
‘You know! August 1944, and my birthday’s May 1945. It’s obvious! They must’ve, you know. I must have been a…a honeymoon baby.’
George was staring into the sand and appeared not to hear.
‘Right? And so that was that,’ she said. ‘Wasn’t it? They didn’t evenwantme. She couldn’t be a singer, not with a baby, and he never did what you’ve got to do to be a proper lawyer because they got stuck with me.’
‘You were a bit unexpected,’ Uncle George said.
Lila said more quietly, ‘It’s not as if I could help it.’
They said nothing for a while.
‘Look,’ George said, ‘that’s not the whole story.’ He turned to Lila and scanned her face. ‘Listen, if I tell you this, it’s because you’re old enough now, okay? It’s not fair you don’t know, I think you’re entitled to know.’
‘Know what? I’m not adopted, am I?’
‘Of course not! No. It’s more…unusual than that. And if I tell you, you mustn’t let on you know, to them or anybody, all right? It’s not to spread around. It doesn’t change anything, only it might stop you thinking the wrong things about them.’
‘They…Well, your mother…’ Uncle George began. ‘She…I mean, look. Have you ever wondered why she only plays herTurandotrecords when she’s really angry?’
Lila cast her eyes upwards. ‘That’s obvious! She was singing inTurandotwhen he met her. Turandot was her big role, or should have been. Anyway, she plays other things, too, now and then.Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, La Bohème—’
‘Yes, all right,’ Uncle George said gently, ‘butTurandot’s the one, isn’t it? But your dad never actually heard her. He didn’t go to the opera to listen to her.’
‘What then? What do you mean?’
‘They were on in Glasgow. It was some touring company from England. Your mother did well to get in. When our father was killed she had to make her own way so she got this chorus job. I was still at school.’
‘I know that. She tells people she was the youngest in the company.’
‘Probably true. It was no great shakes, the company, just a scratch thing in wartime. And frankly I’ve never understood how she came to be even covering Turandot at that age. They were irresponsible to let her, it doesn’t bear thinking about what she would have made of it. Her voice hadn’t the heft for it at twenty, no-one’s has. Could have damaged it, permanently. Turandot’s a role you shouldn’t even consider before you’re at least—’
‘Stop going on about thesinging.’
George paused. ‘Your father went round the Glasgow theatres. He was working in a lawyer’s office and studying for his law degree, hadn’t much to live on. Somebody he met via his firm, some kind of merchant…anyway this man put some under-the-counter stuff your father’s way—this was when there was rationing, you couldn’t get nice things on coupons. Your father sold it in a pub. He could have sold anything, he was different then. Plenty to say for himself. Real polish. And he was very good-looking.’
Lila snorted in disbelief.
‘So,’ George went on, ‘he started getting quite a bit of this stuff, it was coming in all the time off boats from Ireland. He sold round the theatres, mainly clothes and stockings. The chorus girls were earning and they liked good stuff and they moved on. Safer for him. Hundreds did it but it was risky, the black market.’
‘Black market? You mean he was breaking the law?’
‘Look, I’m telling you how hard it was. He was studying and working for peanuts, he needed the extra just to live. He never did that much. He wasn’t a real spiv.’
‘So what’s that got to do with my mother?’
Uncle George paused before he answered. ‘Turandot herself doesn’t appear on stage till the second act, does she? On the last night the woman singing Turandot was fine, she always was. Vocal cords like steel cable. Your mother was singing in the chorus. After the first half hour of Act I she wasn’t needed on stage till well into Act II, so she slipped off with Raymond. He’d got a lot of things, more than he could bring backstage with him. She went along with two empty cases to this pub where he was keeping the stuff. She had orders from everybody. He got her back in time for the chorus’s first appearance in Act II but when they arrived the curtain was down, backstage was total chaos.’
‘Why, what happened?’
‘They’d abandoned the performance, people were demanding their money back. Turandot had fallen backstage during the first interval, tripped on something, a stage weight. She was in agony and had to be carted off with suspected broken toes, and there was no sign of the understudy. Your mother was sacked on the spot. They were travelling on to the next venue that night and they told her she wasn’t going with them, they’d manage with the Turandot they’d got if they had to carry her on and off on a sedan chair.’
Lila burned with confusion. The picture of her mother, rejected and afraid, reminded her of herself. ‘Well, so what? It was her own fault,’ she said. ‘Why didn’t she just go and join another company? She didn’t have to go and get married.’
‘Tough luck though,’ George said. ‘Out of a job, nowhere to go, she hadn’t even got digs for the night.’
‘Allright. But if she really wanted to sing she could’ve. It needn’t have been the end of it. You said she was young.’
George sighed and fished for his cigarettes.
She said, ‘She just used it as an excuse, if you ask me.’
‘Your father’s a very kind man, a good man. Yes, he is,’ George insisted. ‘He couldn’t just leave her. He took her for a drink. She drowned her sorrows pretty thoroughly.’
‘So? After that she could’ve gone and got another job.’
George lit his cigarette and paused. ‘Okay. I might have known you’d take that line. I’ll tell you all of it but you’ve got to be sensible, all right? No attack of histrionics.’
‘It’s what your mother does and one hysteric in the family’s enough. So just be quiet and listen, okay? That night she had nowhere to go so your dad put her up. He sneaked her into the room he was renting. Out ofkindness. They hadn’t much choice, either of them.’
‘You mean, they…?’
Lila had never questioned the version of how her mother’s life had been ruined, in which she starred as innocent victim of false hero; such stories as there were in their family never were questioned. There was no telling and retelling of what really happened, no agreeing on the turning points, arguing about consequences, honing the details; only families reconciled to past events can weave tales about themselves. As a consequence Lila had not learned curiosity. With the full-blown egotism of most unhappy children she had not pictured her parents doing much with their shadowy, half-formed lives except waiting for her to arrive and be made unhappy. And yet here they were with things happening all around them, behaving irresponsibly, even dramatically, as if she might never have been.
‘That’s disgusting. They hardly knew each other!’
‘Don’t be such a prig. It was wartime. They’re human.’
‘How could she? Why did nobody tell me?’
‘Look, I thought you were mature enough to cope with this. Your parents aren’t perfect, they’re just human beings.’
‘Of course I know they’re not perfect! God!’
‘The point is your mother had nothing. She had nobody to help her. This happened at the end of August. They didn’t get married then, they only say that to account for you arriving in May. They got married in October once you were on the way. Your father didn’t hesitate.’
Lila sniffed the air and blew out a long, slow breath.
Uncle George said, ‘So none of it was your fault, okay? You’re nearly grown up, you’ve got your own life ahead of you. Don’t let them drag you down. But try not to be too impatient with them, that’s all.’
Lila wasn’t listening. Her face was livid with shame, for all of it, for all of them. She was ashamed even toknow. How dare they bring her into being in this way, clumsy and drunk? How dare they regret her? But her indignation was stale, for in some way she had always known. She ought to hate them even more. Yet a fragile, reluctant thread, a single filament connecting her to some notional sympathy for the times, the circumstances, their desperation, was tugging at her. It said, forgive them, it could have been you. Forget it was loveless, forget what you know.
‘So, yes, the baby,’ Uncle George was saying, ‘the baby—you—stopped her career. But you see? They got themselves into it. She missed her big chance because she was off buying stockings. A career over before it began for the sake of half a dozen pairs of nylons. Same thing with him, six months in jail and his future ruined over a suitcase of lingerie.’
Lila gaped while George offered her the cigarette packet. ‘Want one? You look a bit green. Sorry. You won’t know that bit either, I don’t suppose.’
‘He went to prison?’
‘They came down hard after the war on black-market traders. I’m telling you something they’ve kept quiet all this time, so you’ve got to keep this to yourself. I want your promise.’
‘Of course I promise! Why would I tell anybodythat?’
‘Okay. Well, he was prosecuted. Don’t remember exactly when, around the time you were born. And you can’t practise law with a criminal record so after that he got a clerk’s job. There was some connection, I forget just what, the head of the law firm in Glasgow’s wife had been a black-market customer or something, and they knew someone in the firm here. He’s terribly overqualified. It changed him. He’s never been the same since prison, actually.’
Lila waved a hand. Refusing to care was, she had already decided, the adult thing to do and she wanted Uncle George to credit her with that. ‘Well, why should I feel sorry for them?’ she said. ‘Just because she never got up on a stage again, just because he went to prison. So what? It was ages ago, anyway. Worse things happen to people.’ Tome,she was thinking. What was worse than knowing all this? What was worse than being stuck here with the people her parents were turning out to be?
‘Of course, you’re too young to sympathise,’ Uncle George sighed. ‘At your age, you don’t make allowances, do you? Mistakes not allowed. You’re made of granite at your age.’
‘I am not made of granite. I can be sorry for people. When they deserve it.’
Uncle George raised an eyebrow. ‘How magnanimous. Can you really not understand it, wanting to sing so much and there’s nobody to hear you? Can you imagine what prison’s really like? For a proud man like your father?’
‘They brought it on themselves.’ She sniffed and looked away. If she possibly could, she would forget it all; it was going to be too great a burden, to be so ashamed of her parents she could barely look at them.
‘Stand up. Sing me a scale,’ Uncle George demanded suddenly. He gave her a note, the same one, B flat, but two octaves lower. ‘Start there. Go on.’
‘Why should I? I don’t feel like it.’
‘Stop arguing. Stand up and do it. Two octaves. Goon—lah, lah—’
Lila shrugged, stood up, and sang it.
‘Now this.’ He started a semitone higher.
Lila sang that, too, unfolding her arms.
This time she took a proper breath.
‘And hold the top note…loud and strong as you can…’
Lila did so.
‘And now…listen. Hold that note but bring it down, not so angry. Make it quieter, gradually, that’s it. Don’t wobble, release the breath gradually, don’t collapse, support the sound,piano,down,pianissimo…’
Lila was finding this more difficult, but she held it through the wobble, righted it, sustained it. The note was thrillingly high. It made her want to sing and laugh at the same time. When she ran out of breath and stopped, Uncle George smiled.
‘Now. Sing me something—some music, a song, something you like. Anything you know.’
‘No! I won’t. I don’t see why I…’
‘For God’s sake, shut up and justdoit.’
Lila turned away, her heart thumping. How could she? How could she sing anything that included words, words that Uncle George might think she meant? The words of all the songs she knew from school were absurd:
O’er the ocean flies a faery fay,
Soft her wings are as a cloud of day
It was unthinkable that she should come out with rubbish like that to Uncle George, and the hymns were even worse. He would laugh. But again the elation was almost taking over. Her insides felt watery. What could she sing that would sound right? What would be real? Turning to Uncle George, she sang
Signore, ascolta! Ah, Signore, ascolta!
Liù non regge più!
Uncle George sat up straight, recognising Liù’s first aria fromTurandot. He opened his mouth and closed it again. Lila had little idea that, in mimicked Italian barely approximating the real words, she was pleading with him to listen to her because she could bear no more. Glancing at him and then looking away across the beach, she continued.
Ma se il tuo destino doman sarà deciso,
Noi morrem sulla strada dell’esilio!
She would die on the exile’s road, she sang, though her grasp of what she was saying was vague; she remembered only that Liù sounded sad and desperate and that in the end nobody came to her rescue. Long before the end, she abandoned any attempt at the words, finishing on the long, imploring top B flat. She had heard it sung so many times on the record that she was surprised to feel its sadness, still fresh, from her own mouth.
‘I don’t know exactly what it means,’ she said, ‘but I know how it’s meant to sound.’
Uncle George nodded, for once stuck for words. ‘Well, then,’ he said after a while. ‘Well, enough for a first lesson. Come on.’
It was chilly now and they walked back fast across the wavering grass that was luminous and pale in the last of the light. They did not say much more that evening.
at six o’clock Luke rings me. He’s a fast worker, I’ll give him that. He’s got everything arranged and may he call in later this evening to discuss it? He speaks tremulously and is slightly hoarse; sympathy flutters in his throat like a trapped and dusty moth. I tell him there is no need, for it is surely a simple question of jotting down the timings, which he can perfectly well give me over the telephone. Pause. Am I happy then, he asks, with twenty minutes at the crematorium at two o’clock for the dispatch of the coffin (prayers, committal and blessing only, he apologises, though this sounds plenty to me), then allowing a generous forty minutes to get from there to the Evangelical Lutheran Fellowship for a service at three o’clock, all timings confirmed as accurate by the undertakers? I tell him this sounds fine. He is working on appropriate readings from Scripture for the service, and as he says this his voice grows solid. When he mentions that the service will end with grateful thanks that our departed brother has died in Christ, he is practically heaving with belief in life everlasting and I find myself wondering if it is possible to vomit with rapture. Would I care to pray with him now?
On thetelephone? I say.
God will hear you, Lila, he insists.
Not convenient, I say. I’ve got something on the stove.
As soon as I get rid of him I run myself a hot bath that fills the bathroom with steam so I cannot see too clearly the dark grouting of dirt that grows between the tiles and the black blossom of mould on the ceiling. Afterwards I sit by the gas fire with a glass of whisky and eat toast and butter. These are the comforts I have found to be the reliable ones. Moderate sensual pleasures can, with practice, assuage intangible miseries. Temporarily, of course, but then there are always more warm baths to be had, more drinks and scents and tastes. It’s a knack.
Later, though, I am in danger of big feelings so I fish out my counted cross-stitch. I never travel without it. On the continent, cross-stitch is not the seedy Laughing Cavalier footstool kind of thing it is here. The Queen of Denmark does it. A lot of people in my business take it up, either that or knitting; it fills gaps in rehearsals and stops you eating. Knitting’s not for me. I always feel there’s something improbable about a single strand of yarn evolving into a garment. Trusting balls of wool to become cardigans leaves too much to chance. By contrast, there is no leeway in cross-stitch. A piece of cross-stitch is a transparent promise. There are rules. The pattern is counted out and waiting. The threads are coded, a symbol for each colour. No interpretation is required and nothing is hidden. All I have to do is count and stitch and if I do I will suffer no surprises, no colours will stray across the boundaries, no shapes will distort. As regular and contained as a pulse, the needle in my hand bestows its tiny stabbed kisses—criss-cross, criss-cross, criss-cross—not a single one more nor less than is predetermined. Enid’s mother would be pleased at my liking for needlework. She might think I got it from her. It is true that I like thread; I pull and it follows, laying its colour down obediently in the track allocated to it. It doesn’t spill.
I enjoy the sight of my finished stitches. A visual pleasure, simply enjoyed; why look for more? Balm for the eyes and balm for the soul should not be confused.
When I’m singing to Uncle George on the beach that summer night long ago, is that the mistake I make? Do I begin to fancy in myself a rare and finely tuned sensitivity that sets me apart from the likes of Enid and Senga? Beautiful, says Uncle George, of the sunset. But it is a sunset, nothing more. It was a sunset just as tonight’s was, and an aria. Not a symbol or portent but the end of another day and that is all, with a bit of Puccini thrown in. A flash of pink or mauve in the sky is not a glimpse of higher meaning. A top B flat does not reveal a spotless soul. Be dazzled, but do not let bright colours or pretty songs lead you anywhere.
But after Uncle George and I get back that evening I go to my room and stand looking out, wishing I could see the patch of beach where we have been sitting. The sun is going down with that final, burning desperation, and it strikes me how all my old days of the week colours were bland or cold.Monday is pale green.At the time they were the right colours for my days, the colours I saw around me, but how could I have overlooked the sky? I somehow missed the reds, pinks and silvers. I was in no mood to be caught up in their exuberance. I suddenly feel less separate from them, less drab in comparison. That evening a brightness seems to be growing, a flame glimmering below the horizon, and it includes me. Anything can catch and burn.
Oh, this is the wisdom of hindsight. It must be an illusion that I had a sense of what was coming for if I had, could I have stood at the window and not been terrified? Would I really have wanted all our lives to change, to be refined the way they were into something perhaps more honest but no purer, something clearer but also worse? I am uncertain. I do know that I took the days of that summer and threw them like sticks into a fire that drew everything to it until the air was tight with heat. Everything flared and was gorgeous for a moment. All of it glittered with significance until it expired in flames and now only I am left, blinking and blinded and giddy.
I’m just starting on this new piece of embroidery. This particular piece has a formal and pleasing pattern like a knot garden, with fleur-de-lys and trefoils and diamonds set within squares, and if I concentrate on it I shall keep hold of a certain perspective, I hope, that this house seems to want to send askew.
Lila was glad the next day was Sunday because there would be no Enid. While Enid’s mum lay in the flat above the shop reading magazines or doing extra sewing, Enid took herself off and was Gathered for Morning Witness, for Repentance and Prayer and for Eventide Worship. Lila had all but given up a lazy campaign to goad her out of it.
So she was surprised, late in the morning, to hear the bicycle bell and see Enid appearing in the back garden. Raymond, cheerful again, was working in the vegetable patch. Lila came out to stop her saying anything embarrassing in front of him. She pulled her through the gate back into the drive.
‘Where’s the B A S T?’ Enid demanded. ‘It’s gone.’
Uncle George had been out early that morning and had already painted one coat of green over the burned-off traces of the letters.
‘Oh, they might not have the headquarters there after all. It might not be big enough. Why haven’t you got church today?’
‘We haven’t got church, it’s the Fellowship of Sinai,’ Enid said, sauntering back through the gate into the garden. She spoke with the authority of an archbishop, which they also did not have. Lila was tired of it all.
‘Okay, why aren’t you Gathered?’
‘Bird,’ Enid said, turning and walking backwards. ‘There’s this bird got in and they can’t get it out. It’s huge, a big seagull, they’re all up ladders with the windows open and clapping at it and it just keeps flying from side to side or it sits in the rafters, they can’t make it go. So they’re hearing the Word in the minister’s front room but the young folk got to go home.’
Raymond was washing a handful of carrots at the outside tap, and overheard. ‘Right y’are, Enid,’ he said, half-turning. ‘Act of God, was it?’ He stepped into the house leaving a trail of drips.
Enid grinned after him. Lila had noticed before the way she wanted Raymond to like her. ‘There’s mess all over the Word. It’s all over the minister’s big Bible, it was on the lectern open,’ she called out to him, ‘at the bit where Christ feedeth the five thousand and reproveth his fleshly hearers.’
She waited, hoping to be teased further. Then she turned back to Lila and whispered, ‘Honest, there’s number twos all over it.’
Just then Uncle George appeared and leaned in the kitchen doorway. Lila watched, expecting to be proud of his impact on Enid.
‘What’s this I’m hearing? No church? Because of a bird? Bird turd? Bird turd on the Word?’
While Enid was still gasping with shock he advanced and held out his hand. ‘Soyoumust be Enid,’ he said, as if he could not believe his luck. ‘Hello. I’m George.’
‘So—not at Sunday School?’
‘We don’t get Sunday School.’
‘We don’t believe in Sunday School. The Bible Message is the same for everybody, young and old.’
‘They don’t get singing, either,’ Lila said. ‘There’s no hymns.’
‘Yes, there is, only we’ve got our own. We recite them.’
‘Bet you don’t really believe them though.’
Enid’s face flushed. Not even Jesus knew that the only one of the recitations she was really interested in was the first one she’d heard, spoken by the minister on the esplanade last Easter holidays in front of a flimsy semi-circle of Fellowship members. Standing under a banner that said JOIN US IN JOY EVERLASTING they had intoned in unison:
Home come the soldiers of Lord Jesus,
Bloodied from the earthly fight,
Home to dwell in righteousness
Glorious in eternal light.
Weary soldiers of the Saviour
Rest ye in His grace and might.
Enid, at a loose end, had listened from a safe distance. The words reminded her of a picture she’d once seen. She couldn’t remember where, maybe in a history book or a photo in the paper, but it was a proper painting, a painting of those very words. It gave them shape. In it an exhausted soldier lay slumped back in a chair, his kilt hanging over his legs, bayonet cast at his feet and his boots half-off. His head was falling back against a woman who was standing behind him and his white neck was exposed; he was so tired, the poor soldier of the Saviour, he hadn’t even finished unbuttoning his tunic. But the point of the picture wasn’t how tired he was, or how long he’d been away or even how much danger he had been in. In the woman’s arms was a baby that Enid knew was herself.Home come the soldiers.The point was he was back. He was home, the weary soldier, the dad, the Saviour, Jesus in a kilt. He had come home, and that was all that mattered to Enid.
‘That’s not proper hymns then, is it? And you don’t sing them.’
‘We stand up and talk them and we listen to the Word. Music distracts from the Bible Message.’
Lila made a short snorting noise.
‘No hymns?’ Uncle George said.
‘The Lord listens when we to come to Him in quiet prayer,’ Enid said, still thinking of the picture.
‘But no singing!?’ cried Uncle George. ‘Oh, isn’t that the saddest thing you ever heard? We love singing, don’t we?’ he said to Lila.
Lila glared at him. ‘Don’t say that.’
‘Well, don’t scowl. But can you imagine? Nosinging!?’
Lila caught his eye and she saw that the joke was theirs. It was Enid who was being teased and isolated and who looked suddenly crushed.
‘Come on inside, both of you,’ he suddenly told them, his eyes glinting with something. ‘I’ve got something I want you to do.’
They followed him through the house to the music room where Fleur was sitting with a cup of tea. ‘See, Florrie? See? Here you are, for a start,’ he announced.
‘Fleur,’she said firmly, but with a slight smile. ‘Hello, Enid.’
‘A willing recruit for you,’ he said, pushing Enid forward. ‘First of many. There’ll be hundreds more.’
‘George, you’re mad. It’s a mad idea,’ she said over Enid’s head. ‘Turandot’s huge, lots of proper professional companies can’t do it. And anyway, where? Where could you do it, round here? There’s nowhere nearly big enough.’
Uncle George was walking up and down the room. He waved all this away. ‘We’ll reduce the forces, of course we will. We can look into all that,’ he said.
His looks seemed to have taken on harder lines than Fleur’s. He had similar features, the straight nose and sharp jaw, but now his cheekbones glowed and his eyes glittered, as if something were heating up under the surface.
‘As to where, there are halls, aren’t there?’ he said. ‘And look, the scale of the thing’s the point. It’d really catch the imagination, it’d involve everybody. And just imagine, you’d be singing Turandot. Imagine!’
Fleur looked away.
‘Look, I’ll say it again.’ He paused with his back to the window. ‘Wouldn’t it help? If you and Raydidsomething? And anyway,’ he said, gesturing towards Enid, ‘see? They fetch up right on your doorstep. We’ll get plenty more—they’ll rope their friends in, there’s all the choirs, the amateur operatics, orchestras, they’llflockto be in it.’
Lila’s mother glanced at Enid without much interest and took up some sheets of paper from the spindly coffee table.
‘We’ll advertise, hold a public meeting,’ George said. ‘There’s a local paper, we’ll talk to them. Get the ball rolling.’
‘I’m just trying todosomething for you. Fleur?’
‘And the cost! That Premium Bond’s not boundless riches, you know.’ In a low, flat voice she added, ‘And what’ll he say? Raymond. You’re forgetting bloody Raymond.Hewants to fix the damp.’
‘Oh, Ray’s fine! I’ve already told him!’ George said. ‘As long as you’re happy and we’re not letting him in for any more expense, he says you can have the whole Premium Bond for the production.’
Fleur looked up in surprise. ‘Raymond saidthat?’
‘As long as it makes you happy. And he says he’ll take his annual leave to fit in with the dates. I’ve asked him to be stage manager.’
‘He said that?’
‘Well,’ George looked sheepish, ‘well, about the annual leave, he hasn’t quite said that, not yet. But I’m sure he will when I ask him. He’d be all right as stage manager.’
He started pacing again and Fleur’s eyes followed him up and down.
‘The Premium Bond. All of it? Did he really say that? Are you sure?’
‘I promise you, he absolutely did. You don’t give him credit, you know.’
‘Well, anyway, that’s not the only thing. If—ifI decide to sing Turandot, I can’t do it opposite an amateur. I won’t. I will not sing,’ she said, ‘if an amateur is singing Calaf.’
‘Calaf’s not a problem, I told you.’
‘Unless we’ve got a proper Calaf it’s ridiculous. What makes you so sure this fellow would want to do it even if he’s up to it? Are you sure he isn’t just another of your protégés? George? George, are you listening to me?’
‘Oh, he’s up to it! Of course he’d do it. How many tenors would turn it down?’
Enid was still standing awkwardly in the middle of the floor. She glanced longingly at the door and widened her eyes at Lila, who was staring at Uncle George and biting her lip.
Fleur shook her head. ‘He’s really up to it, he knows the part? Sounds to me like one of your what’s-its. You’ve got him on one of your pedestals.’
‘That’s nonsense! Of course I haven’t. I know the real thing when I hear it. He’ll make a fine Calaf.’
‘What makes you think he’d come up here for the whole summer anyway?’
‘Look, he’ll love just getting out of London, let alone the chance to sing Calaf. He’s keeping himself going with a summer job. He could easily come if we laid on bed and board. I’ll stand him his fare.’
‘Even so. What about everything else?’ She began to count off on her fingers. ‘All the other parts. Venue. Rehearsal space. Staging. Scenery. Costumes. Props. Lights. Publicity. Huge chorus. Huge orchestra. Scores…’
Uncle George shivered and pulled a deep breath in through his nose. ‘I know. God, it’s thrilling, isn’t it?’
‘The point is,’ he said, lowering his voice, ‘yes, it’s huge, it’ll take some doing, but Iknowthere are enough people out there. We just have to think bold. She really hit on something, you know,’ he said, nodding towards Lila, ‘she really has. I was awake half the night working it out. We could actually do it. You’d be wonderful and this place is crying out, you’re always saying so. I mean God knows there’s nothing else happening. You’re so bored you’re going mad—you think you’re the only one? Listen.’
He turned suddenly on Enid, startling her. ‘So, Enid,’ he said, looking at her hard. ‘Dear, lovely Enid. What are you doing this summer? What are your plans?’
Enid’s lower lip dropped free of the top one. The question could be either mocking or just meaningless and she couldn’t tell which. Lila couldn’t, either. Uncle George was moving away somehow, going beyond the reach of sensible remarks, setting the air in a spin. Didn’t he know? Plans did not enter their lives. They did what they were told or they did nothing. Plans belonged to girls in the kind of stories that left Lila sour with envy, girls winning scholarships to ballet school, entering gymkhanas or living on barges, not to her and Enid. The room seemed suddenly too small for four people when Uncle George was one of them. How could they keep up when he was whirring with an enthusiasm that nobody else understood?
He said, ‘See? Fleur, see? They’re bored out of their minds. There are dozens like them, hundreds! It’s just what they need. What you need, whateverybodyneeds.’
He lunged across the room, pulled Enid forward and positioned her in front of the piano, pressing down on her shoulders.
‘Stand there, Enid, hands at your sides, shoulders relaxed. Relax! And breathe!’
Landing hard on the piano stool, he pulled back his shirt cuffs and sent a clatter of notes up the keyboard.
‘Now! To LAH! Sing!’ Red-faced, Enid sucked in a breath. Uncle George led her in with three chords, singing along himself, and then off she went obediently, piping up the scale in a tinny, pleasant voice.
‘Bravo, Enid! Well done!’ he cried, when she reached the top. ‘Again! Deep breath! Louder!’ Enid did as she was told.
He whirled round on the stool towards Fleur while Enid turned to Lila with a look of terror. ‘See, Fleur?’ he shouted. ‘Even Enid’s got a voice. Everyone’s got a voice. Everyone can sing!’
Fleur raised an eyebrow. ‘Chorus material,’ she said, ‘if that. And unless we’ve got a Calaf…’
Uncle George interrupted with a flurry of notes at the top of the keyboard, his fingers flickering as though he were catching beads tinkling from a broken necklace. ‘Sure we need to bring in our Calaf,’ he called to her, ‘we might need to reduce the number of principals, rewrite the really hard bits. But the chorus and little parts, everyone else we need, we could get from round here. There’s bound to be amateur orchestras, we’ll ask them—anyway we’ll cut down the band. We’d have to find plenty of brass and percussion, of course. It’ll be great.’
Enid, looking like a stranded cat, blurted out, ‘I need to go. My mum doesn’t know I’m here. I’m needed at home.’
She turned and ran. Lila followed her out the door but Enid sped back through the kitchen, past Raymond in the vegetable patch and round to the driveway where she jumped on her bike and tore away. Lila called after her but she did not turn round.
Lila drifted back into the house leaving the back door open, and stopped in the kitchen. Over the sound of her father’s spade from outside she heard Uncle George start up at the piano again and then came her mother’s faltering and shaky attempt at one of Turandot’s arias. When it was over there was laughter from the music room and outside, the chuck of the spade stopped and was followed by solitary, slow applause from the carrot patch.
iwant to laugh (and unkindly at that) at the first cutting out of the tea chest. It’s a full page from theBurnhead & District AdvertiserThursday 7th July 1960.
I remember now. On the Tuesday, Uncle George gets in touch with the paper and they send along Alec Gallagher the same afternoon. He can only be in his early thirties but to me he is already fading, like a watercolour. With that pink Scottish complexion and pale lashes and eyes, he looks diluted.
He brings a photographer with him but he also says that if George has any ‘suitable existing photographic material’ they might print that too because the paper’s short on pictures this week. When George tells him he also wants to place a full page advert for a big public meeting, Alec beams and says he’ll almost guarantee him two pictures with the article.
So there we are in the picture, the three of us smiling round the piano in the music room, our eyes almost blacked out in newspaper ink but mine oddly wide and delighted, as if I can see fairies on the ceiling. Quite a good picture, it fills nearly half the page, and far more picture than words, typical of a local rag. Don’t know what I’m thinking of with those wads of hair and the clasp on top though to give myself credit I do change my hair very soon after this photo is taken. Over the picture it says:
Local Musical Family’s Opera Plea
Burnhead mother and daughter singing duo Fleur and Eliza Duncan are aiming for the stars in a bid to bring high culture to town, with the brand new Burnhead Association for SingingTurandot(BAST). Says Fleur (36) pictured left, ‘It all started with my brother George Pettifer (right). Puccini’s never been done here but that’s no reason why it shouldn’t. You need trained singers for the principal parts but there’s plenty of scope for amateurs.Turandot’s got everything.’ Conductor George (30), up visiting from London where he teaches music, stresses you don’t have to be a Maria Callas or a Mario Lanza. ‘You need vision. There are plenty of voices out there, enthusiasm’s more important than experience. Everyone can get involved. People who already sing in choirs or amateur opera are very welcome to BAST but we want beginners too.’ Like big sis Fleur, a fully trained soprano known in opera circles as Fleur Pettifer, he’s confident that local talent can rise to the challenge. ‘It’ll be hard work,’ he admits. ‘BAST is a big step up from Gilbert & Sullivan, something people can get their teeth into. Opera changes lives. I want to help people see the vision.’ Songster Eliza (15), pictured centre, is tipped for one of the big parts. Has she always dreamed of treading the boards? ‘I sort of knew I had a voice,’ she says modestly, ‘but I didn’t see any point in it till Uncle George came up with the idea of BAST. There’s nothing round here for young people,’ she adds. About singing in public she says, ‘With Uncle George encouraging me I’ll do my best. I won’t let him down.’
All is not lost for those whose gifts lie elsewhere. ‘BAST needs instrumentalists, anyone with an instrument is welcome, we’ll fit everybody in! We also need help with set and costumes,’ prompts George. He would especially like to hear from amateur orchestras and bands.
So come on, give BAST your support and enjoy yourself into the bargain. Don’t miss BAST’s inaugural meeting on 9 July (page 18 for full details) ALL WELCOME. No experience required.
In real life prima donna Fleur is Mrs Raymond Duncan. Mr Duncan is legal clerk with respected Burnhead firm Kerr, Mather & McNeill.
By Staff Reporter Alec Gallagher
The photographer leaves when he’s done the picture but Alec stays. He’s smiling very hard at both of them. He’s thrilled when George offers him tea. My mother trips away upstairs and brings down the photographs she had taken when she left music college. Uncle George doesn’t point out to Alec that they are more than a decade out of date, and Alec either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. My mother’s pride in these photographs suggests she simply doesn’t consider that she has aged at all.
So here she is in the yellow cutting, a smaller picture underneath the first one. She’s not unlike Callas in colouring but more nipped in feature as well as smaller in spirit, leaning in towards the camera in an off-the-shoulder frock. She looks feverish, young, tremulous. The twin points of the lipstick bow of her mouth reach up towards her nostrils and her hair is folded over her temples like smooth, painted wings. She is gazing through oily-looking eyes towards, what, Parnassus? Not, certainly, 5 Seaview Villas with Raymond Duncan and a baby. The caption reads:
Soprano Fleur Pettifer in her heyday: Known locally as Mrs Florence Duncan (36) Burnhead’s own prima donna will soon be delighting audiences again. Those with highbrow tastes need not go far for she is lending her talents to a local venture as grand opera comes to Burnhead. The Burnhead Association for SingingTurandot(BAST) needs your support (see details page 18). Mrs Duncan’s career began with the Cercle de la Lune Touring Opera Company in 1944 when aged just 20 she understudied major roles. ‘I was exceptionally young but I was thought to have enormous potential,’ she admits. When marriage and family came along Mrs Duncan settled in Burnhead with husband Raymond, legal clerk with local firm Kerr, Mather & McNeill.
Don’t forget BAST’s inaugural meeting on 9th July (see page 18) and join in with this exciting new artistic venture. ALL WELCOME.
By Staff Reporter Alec Gallagher
Poor Alec paid for that ‘in her heyday’, I remember. For days my mother flared her nostrils at the mention of his name but she forgave him before the next edition was out.
They entrance him from the start. He just falls for them both; they are so elegant and shiny-eyed and attractive and English, and they must make a change from the Burnhead Bathing Belles and the presidents of bowling clubs receiving memorial shields and town councillors’ wives opening Coffee Mornings. Alec particularly loves all George’s vision talk and says it’s in short supply round here and exactly what the place needs. He says the place is full of philistines and he isn’t planning on staying that long himself, only with his fiancée Veronica’s mum not so well it’s a bit up in the air where they’ll settle. He personally needs to be around like-minded people.
As theTurandotstory unfolds in print through July and August the whole undertaking will acquire a glamour that all three of them like. Everything Alec writes will frame Uncle George and my mother in their preferred version of themselves as artists—instinctive, refined, unembarrassed—and they will encourage Alec to take a similar view of himself. If he regards them as demigods, albeit small-town ones, they return the compliment. As well as persuading him that he can sing, they will egg him on as ‘a writer’. Before long Alec will be complaining that his editor is a philistine with no vision. He really will think he is in with some sort of élite.
Meanwhile they, after this first meeting with ‘the press’, are skittish and elated.
Poor Alec Gallagher, how you were captivated. I can still see you, your pale eyes smarting and pink with devotion and your hands studded with sun spots and short ginger hairs like a piglet’s back. You are ready to do anything for the vision, as you guide your stubby pencil with surprising elegance over your notebook, spinning out in shorthand a tale that even George and my mother, before you began to write it, scarcely believed in themselves.
It’s tempting to claim it was the way the paper has it. Even now, the idea of doingTurandotlike that doesn’t seem so very ridiculous, given how we look in the picture. The reasons George gives Alec Gallagher sound plausible enough. If only matters could just be left like that.
Yes, it’s tempting. It’s tempting to look at myself in this photograph and think, look at me, I must have been happy after all. One day more than forty years ago—not even a day, only an afternoon fragment—trapped in a photograph, and I want to remember us just as the picture has us. Caught by the camera and look, here’s how we are: the lips curled in a smile just so, a scarf lying across a shoulder, a watch on a man’s wrist, every detail stands clear. Here’s the evidence you want, you can’t argue with it. Here is the very moment untouched by the hours and the days that surround it.
If I have to think of theTurandottime at all I wish I could remember it as a succession of days like that: single days of one dimension, no leakage from one into the next, each one free to be spent and let go, and on the next I wake up complete and wiped clean. Not a shadow of yesterday will cling, no cloud is forming over tomorrow. There’s no binding in of what came before and no hankering in me for the yet to be, and nothing is missing. But time never is like that, like a newspaper report. Days are not like photographs, in which we imagine we felt just as we looked. The real reasons for what we do never are explicable in a carefree paragraph or two, and seldom are there simple words for all that needs to be said.
Who is this person again, George?’
Less than two days into his visit, George was smoking too much. When he answered a question in the tone Fleur expected, an unkind, barely tethered part of him was composing mentally the reply he thought she deserved. He wondered if his sister’s voice—so high and spiritless, as if grievance sent it up in pitch—had changed, or if he had just forgotten how irritating it was.
‘Because Calaf’s not a role for just anybody. I won’t do it with just anybody.’
When she spoke he could feel a tightening in himself, like a key turning, locking fury into a cell inside his head.
‘Joe Foscari, Italian family. One of the best students.’I’ve told you this a hundred times.
They were sitting at the table while Lila cleared around them.
He lit his third cigarette since breakfast. ‘After National Service he decided to do something with his singing. See if he could make a go of it.’Why can’t you just listen?
‘That doesn’t sound very serious.’
‘He is serious. He had to leave school young and work in a draughtsman’s office.’
Fleur murmured a sound of disengagement, and watched George smoking. Lila chinked the dirty crockery and cutlery together, preferring any noise to the silences during which she feared, even with Uncle George here, that the day could slide to a halt.
‘A draughtsman?’ Fleur said, pushing out her bottom lip.
‘I’ve seen some of his work,’ George said. ‘He’ll be good with sets and costumes, he’s done a bit of stage design at college.’Oh, you snob. Who do you think you are?
‘And what was it you said about the family?’ she said lazily. ‘They were dukes or something? He’ll be far too grand for us.’
‘Not dukes, doges. Of Venice. The last doge of Venice was a Foscari.’Too grand for you? You don’t think that for a minute. Florrie, what happened to you?
He said, ‘They’re almost certainly descended but they’re not grand now, all that’s past. I told you.’You’re still not listening.‘Joe says they actually started off in Glasgow but they’re all down south now. They had restaurants.’I told you this a hundred times, too.
‘What kind of restaurants?’
‘Fleur, I’ve told you. Italian ones. Foscari’s.’If you ask me to tell you again that Foscari’s was one of Glasgow’s most famous Italian restaurants I shall slap you.
‘Hmm. Wasn’t Foscari’s one of the smarter ones before the war? Smart for Glasgow, I mean,’ Fleur said.
Raymond appeared in the doorway, bicycle clips in one hand and a paper bag in the other. ‘Well, that’s me away,’ he said, folding his trouser bottoms in place under the clips. ‘Monday morning. No peace for the wicked.’ He scraped outdoor shoes on the threshold. ‘Okay for some.’
‘What’ve you got there?’ George asked.
Raymond seemed surprised to have the bag in his hand. ‘Oh, just runner beans, few carrots. There’s a woman I work with’s fond of them. She was saying. She doesn’t grow vegetables. We’ve that many. So she’s doing me a favour.’
‘John Mathieson does grow vegetables. He’s got a greenhouse. Last year we had some of their tomatoes,’ Fleur said.
‘Aye, but…well, he’s maybe just not brought so much on this year, maybe that was it.’
‘Ahhh, Raymond’s runners and carrots! She’s in for a treat,’ George said, foolishly. ‘So, off goes the legal eagle, eh?’Don’t you ever smile? No wonder your family’s cracking up round you.
‘Aye, right you are,’ Raymond said. ‘Well, that’s me away. Cheerio.’ Hesitating with his hand on the door, he said, ‘This, er, this wee opera you’re to be at—Chinese, is it? I’ve got that right, set in China, is it?’
Fleur looked at the ceiling. ‘Well,obviously.’
George said, ‘That’s right, China.’Where have you bloody been? Your fifteen-year-old daughter knows the whole thing off by heart.‘Actually, the libretto says “in Peking in legendary times”.’
Raymond cleared his throat. ‘Aye, well, I’m thinking, this woman I work with, Mrs Mathieson, Audrey. See, she knows China, she was brought up there from a girl. Her parents were missionaries. She’d maybe help, you know? She’s the helpful kind.’
‘Ooh, goody! What’s she got?’ George said. He pounced on the pen on the table and scribbled down the name. ‘Anything in silk? Costumes, jewellery, shoes? Or even furniture, or swords or…Has she got a gong? Any cutlasses?’
‘I’d need to ask. I think maybe. But I was thinking more Audrey herself. I mean, she’ll know a lot about it. She’s lived in Shanghai. Before the war.’
‘For God’s sake, Raymond, what has Shanghai before the war got to do with ancient Peking in an opera of a fairy tale?’ Fleur snapped. ‘Anyway, it’s not meant to be realistic. Is it, George? This is opera. Audrey Mathieson probably knows as much about opera as you do. Which is damn all.’
Raymond cleared his throat. ‘Och, Fleur. I’ll ask, will I?’ he said, looking to George. ‘I’m sure she’d be only too pleased.’
‘Thanks, Ray,’ George said, winking. ‘You ask her. Mrs Mathieson, we want your Chinese treasures and your fact-filled mind. Don’t we, Fleur?’
Raymond backed out of the dining room, nearly colliding with Lila coming back in with a tray.
‘So, this Joe whatever his name is,’ Fleur said, glaring at the closing door, ‘when’s he coming? You say he’s got family in Glasgow?’
George mashed the end of his cigarette into the ashtray. ‘Joe Foscari, and his family’s all down south, Bedford area. He’s just finished his second year. And he’s very good, potentially.’
She shook her head. ‘Potentially? Calaf’s not a role for just anybody.’ She lifted her elbows from the table to let Lila gather up crumbs.
Conversations since yesterday had been circling and retreating around Fleur’s doubts about the grand idea, but Lila could tell that her mother’s energy was lessening. Uncle George was wearing her down; the cadences of her replies were growing relaxed. Now she was objecting in a way that made Lila think of someone making up new verses for a song, keeping an endless duet going for the sake of it. She carried on tidying around them. She liked the warm secret inside her that Uncle George was doing all this for her. Already some of his brilliance was rubbing off his hands and on to the idea itself; it was growing too bright ever to have been hers.
He said, ‘Well, yes, he’s young, but between us we know how to take care of a young voice. Fleur, it’s quite straightforward. All I need to do is ring him up.’Jesus! Will you shut up and let me get on with this?
‘It’ll be one more to cater for,’ Fleur said listlessly. ‘I hope he’s not fussy.’
‘I’ll tell him he’ll be appearing opposite the best Turandot he could hope for, so why don’t you get some work in on your voice today?’Get it moving, for God’s sake. You’ve got ground to make up, God knows.
Fleur sighed with the burden of her talent. ‘I’m tired. I don’t want to get stale. And Eliza singing Liù? For God’s sake, George, I never heard anything so ridiculous. Singing Liù at fifteen?’
‘Well, you just wait,’ Uncle George said, ‘till you hear her sing.’ He smiled at Lila. ‘Could you squeeze another cup out of that pot for your old uncle?’Christ, she is only fifteen, poor little witch. I wonder if she’ll be up to it.
Lila skipped off with the teapot.
‘And you, conducting? Georgie, this isn’t theMikado. Come on, what’s the biggest show you’ve ever done? Something at college—Orpheus in the Underworld?Die Fledermaus?’
‘Of course it’s a challenge,’ George said tightly. ‘I knowTurandotinside out. Thank you for your faith.’
Fleur gave a bitter little laugh and reached for George’s cigarettes. She said, ‘It doesn’t matter a damn if you can conduct it or not or if Eliza can sing it or not because we haven’t got a venue.’
‘You,’ George said, pulling the packet away from her, ‘may no longer smoke. I’m telling you, I’ll have a venue and a tenor lead by lunchtime.’
Christ. This is bloody mad. Joe—you’ve got to come. Say you’ll come. It’s for you.
now I’m tired. I have a sore throat, as if my voice has been under strain although I have spoken to nobody. I’m sitting by the gas fire in the empty back room and I’m back at the boxes, looking at papers. Rubbish, all of it, I could just burn it but as it’s been here all this time I owe it—or somebody does and there is nobody else left—at least a look-through.
I have George’s notes in my hand. Even rough jottings on torn-off scraps of paper are here, silly faces drawn inside the rings left by coffee cups on the edges of notes, doodles on pages from the telephone pad. On one page interspersed with telephone numbers and names in George’s writing are his sketches made that first day: a ceremonial sword, a helmet studded with points, a suit of armour with metal wings coming off the shoulders like blades. I am watching him as he works over them in ballpoint. He also writes this:
Town Hall seats how many ?? stage how wide? Lighting rig?
Norrie’s Marquee and Banqueting Hire (Glasgow) no!
Mr?? clerk to the whats?—keep trying.
He is waiting for the telephone to be answered, drawing quickly and jerkily. His mind seems set on something far away; I think he is imagining the hoard of Chinese artefacts that he intends to charm Mrs Mathieson into lending him.
He whispers to me as he scribbles, Here look, this is how it’ll be—Calaf’s tunic. Like this. He carries a sword, something small, a dagger will do as long as it looks Oriental, a curving blade. Something for his head…
He etches the drawings over and over until he nearly goes through the paper.
Now the empty house fills with sound, in broken snatches. In the music room my mother puts herself through a succession of ascending and descending scales, singing every vowel on each note. Her sound is not constant. Filling the air for an instant it is then borne away, now it returns. I hear it in random waves as if it is carried on a wind that is always changing direction; no, I hear it as if I am moving from room to room. I suddenly have an idea of myself roaming through the house and half-singing as I go, a soft mewing noise that seems, even though it is coming from my lips, to be following me. I wonder, fleetingly, about my sore throat. My feet were dirty again this morning.
Now my mother’s voice again. She is singing more elaborate exercises involving leaps, changes of pitch, consonants, staccato and legato notes. She even sings through her nose, she hums, she sings arpeggios to yo and yah and bow-wow-wow and brrr. Now she is laughing. She plays a few chords at the piano, rests for a minute, and off she goes again.
I hear the roar of the electric coffee grinder that Uncle George has brought as a present along with proper coffee beans from Soho. He sets it going while I clamber up on a stool and pull our coffee percolator down from the top of one of the kitchen cupboards. I smell the greasy metal as I scrub at it, and now the wood and spice of real coffee rises as the pot makes its plocking sound on the Rayburn. George pours, and then our kitchen is exciting in the way I imagine his London kitchen is: it smells foreign, a place of grown-up ease. I taste my coffee and it needs a lot of sugar; it is a little like the wine, better as an idea than as a drink. Bring those, George says, nodding at our cups and striding into the hall, where he pulls the telephone and the directory down from the hall table and onto the linoleum. I join him on the floor with my back against the wall and look up the numbers of all the halls I can think of, which he writes down. I sip my coffee and think that for once I am more like somebody in a book than the real me. Not madly Bohemian perhaps—not living in a castle or enduring hardships cleverly and talkatively—but it is enough for half an hour or so to be living in a way that is verging on the unusual, sitting on the floor with a cup of real coffee and looking up telephone numbers.
Uncle George is on the phone to the Town Hall. I shuffle up closer and he tilts the receiver so that I hear everything. I sit, waiting and tingling.
Oh, good morning. I have an enquiry about the Town Hall.
I listen, picturing his voice floating like fairy dust around the person at the other end and setting him a-sparkle with competence, cooperation, awe.
He gives it. He adds, And I would need to know the charges involved, of course, but my main query is how big is the stage?
Aye, but who’s it for? I mean what organisation’s wanting it, because it’s only organisations can get it. And then it’s at the Town Clerk’s discretion, or his designated officers.
Oh, I do beg your pardon. Uncle George lifts his eyes and smiles at the wall, then turns and includes me. I’m calling on behalf of BAST. The Burnhead Association for SingingTurandot.
We listen to the whispering of papers being leafed through at the Town Hall.
That one’s no on my register.
Uncle George takes a breath to speak.
You’re no from round here, are you? Have you enquired before?
BAST is a new organisation, Uncle George says. Brand new. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it.
His English accent is so reasonable. His words rise and fall like folds of dark brown velvet. All you have to do to believe him is to listen.
Well see, this is the official register, you’ve to be a properly constituted and affiliated club, association or society otherwise you’ll no get on it. An’ if you’re no on the register you’ll not get the hire.
My mother comes and leans on the wall with her arms folded. She sets her mouth in a thin line.
Uncle George bluffs on, giving assurances about honorary office-bearers and Memoranda and Articles of Association.
We’ll have all the proper affiliations in place. May we not book now, for August? It’s still several weeks away.
Our hearts lift a little, he is so easy to believe.
August?The hall’s booked solid for August.
George shakes his head at my mother. He sticks out his tongue at the telephone.
The Burnhead Majorettes Display and the Bathing Belles go in the Town Hall in the eventuality of inclement weather. There’s the Land o’ Burns Ceilidh and the Accordion Championships Junior Heats. If you’d just said your dates to begin with, the man scolds, you’d have saved all the bother.
He sounds exhausted.
And it’s only a twenty-eight foot stage, any road.
George rings off. I shuffle away and lean back against the opposite wall.
My mother’s eyes are full of tears. She says, You see now? I told you. That’s all you get in this bloody place. OhGod!
She spins away up the stairs to her bedroom, sobs juddering out of her as she goes. Over our heads, the door slams and the house goes quiet.
Just the first hurdle, Uncle George says. You’re not deserting me, are you?
Now it’s just him and me. I look at him sitting on the floor opposite, and I turn away from noticing the little deposits of yellowy stuff in the corners of his eyes. I have my back against the wall and my legs are slightly apart, knees bent; the telephone directory is still open in my lap. I tip my head back and concentrate on the ebbing away of our good spirits. Uncle George is looking at the directory as if it fascinates him. No, he isn’t. I realise that the back of my skirt lies open on the floor under my thighs. He can see all of the backs of my thighs, right up to my pants, and not only that. He sees not just a glimpse of the gusset but the crack into which it has ridden up and now clings, the place of which I am ashamed and over which I have so little control that from it, these days, various dark-smelling and unwanted excretions seep and flow for no other purpose, it seems, than to degrade me. His eyes are bleary, wistful with interest and it is my fault, yet in the moment before I swing my knees to the floor and cut off the view, some other feeling swamps my shame. This feeling is impersonal, because I am momentarily in thrall to curiosity itself—to his, my own, anyone’s—I am captive to a fascination which is also, for a second or two, mine, helpless in the glow from any greedy eyes and anyone’s strange need to truffle between my legs. In that instant I think I would offer no resistance at all to a lascivious inspection of that part of me, and for the first time in my life I am open to the possibility of being unashamed. This thought at once gives rise to more shame, and I blush.
I’ll help you, I say. After all, there must be other halls. Of course I’ll help you.
I am delighted to have any chance to show him how helpful I can be. I’ll make sure he knows that it’ll be the same when I’m staying with him in London, and he’ll realise he can’t do without me.
The gas fire flickers. I push Uncle George’s notes off my lap onto the floor. There’s a smell in here. It’s the smell of dirty old man: gas, matches, crumbs and ammonia, and it makes me angry.
Uncle George tipped back his head to finish his coffee and Lila heard it go down with a wet, secret noise. He pulled a hand across his mouth and half stood to get his cigarettes from his pocket.
‘All right then, not the Town Hall. Too small, anyway,’ he said, lighting up. ‘There are other halls, surely?’
‘There’s only church halls,’ Lila said. ‘Even smaller.’
Uncle George tapped his finger on his cigarette.
She added, ‘It’s no good. I knew it wouldn’t be.’
‘Don’t say that! What about…I know, what about doing it in the open air?’ he said. ‘LikeAidaat the pyramids. People bringing their champagne and picnics and all that, like Glyndebourne.’
Lila looked hard at him. ‘Outside? Here? Champagne?Here?’
‘Okay, I’m just trying to think. You’re right,’ George said, screwing up his eyes in the cigarette smoke, ‘they’d probably come with limeade and fish suppers.’
‘It’d rain. It’s always raining.’
‘All right. Shut up.’
They thumbed through the directory and tried a few of the church halls. Uncle George rang a marquee firm in Glasgow that had only one marquee big enough, and that was booked out for August to a golf tournament at Turnberry. Lila was slightly, guiltily relieved. In the grip of what was their last chance she had not wanted to point out to him that they had nowhere to put a marquee.
‘Don’t scowl,’ Uncle George said, getting up from the floor. ‘Keep thinking. We’re not giving up on day one.’
They drifted into the kitchen and washed the coffee cups. There was silence from upstairs.
‘Tell you what,’ Uncle George said. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime, let’s get in the car and go for a picnic. Let’s make sandwiches and go off somewhere, wherever you like, somewhere we can think. I’m going mad cooped up here. Cheer your mother up.’
Lila wanted to believe that life could be like this, that maybe something as simple as a picnic could actuallybesimple. Then she shook her head. ‘We can’t. There’s no bread and the baker’s boy doesn’t come till three.’
‘Doesn’t matter, we’ll get some on the way. We’ll take a knife and butter and things and make sandwiches on the spot.’
‘There’s nothing to put in them.’
‘We can buy meat paste. Cheese.’
‘Grocer’s closed till two. Anyway, she,’ Lila said, raising her eyes to the ceiling, ‘she doesn’t like picnics. And it’s about to rain.’
Uncle George sighed. ‘Oh, for God’s sake. All right, what have we got here, then?’
‘There’s nothing,’ Lila said.
‘Don’t scowl. There’s never nothing.’
Uncle George seemed to feel he had something to prove. He nosed about in the pantry and came out with an onion held under his chin. In his hands he had a bowl of dripping and the platter with the remains of the Sunday joint and some leftover potato. He opened a jar of Marmite and sniffed at it. Lila watched him, pessimistic about anyone’s chances of turning the ragged grey brick and surrounding rubble of yesterday’s joint into something they would want to eat; the attempt seemed hardly less doomed than the opera. But Uncle George sliced up the onion and started to sing something silly in Italian and she couldn’t help laughing. He threw the onion and some dripping into a pan on the stove, added the chopped-up meat, stirred it furiously, tipped in the potato and gave her the wooden spoon.
‘Keep it moving,’ he told her, springing away to the pantry again. He emptied in a tin of baked beans and shook on some Lea & Perrins, took the spoon again and told her to lay the table.
‘See? Lunch. There’s never nothing. Go and call upstairs for your mother. Tell her we’re eating in the kitchen and I want her down here in one minute,’ he said, opening the window above the sink, ‘and no histrionics.’
Uncle George and Lila kept up a humdrum conversation as they ate but Fleur said nothing. Tears kept rolling down her cheeks and time after time she wiped them away with a movement more covert and modest than any Lila had ever seen before. Watching her, she swelled with guilt. In Uncle George’s company she had been beginning to forget to feel accountable.
Afterwards, the afternoon began to press in. Lila was wondering what they’d do once the washing up was done when they heard whistling and then the clack of the gate into the back garden.
‘Jimmy from Brocks,’ Fleur told George, dully. ‘The coke, first Monday in the month.’
Jimmy passed by the window under a loaded sack. Lila heard a pause in the whistling, a rumble as he emptied the sack into the bunker against the back wall, a scrape of boot nails as he returned, folding the sack as he went. He passed backwards and forwards, weighted in one direction and straightening up in the other. A few moments later the face appeared back at the kitchen window. Lila opened the back door.
Apart from a pink patch where he had lately wiped his nose, and the lids of his swimming blue eyes, Jimmy was like coal itself, as if he had been dipped in it and burnished. With a show of gums and sparse teeth he explained that the truck wouldn’t start.
‘Auld bitch,’ he said. There was grey glue in the corners of his mouth. ‘Bitch’ll no start. No been right all day.’ He held out a dirty delivery note with the coal merchant’s address at the top. ‘Goannie ring this number for us? Need tae get somebody out from the yard tae give us a tow.’
Fleur, as lady of the house, went away to make the call while Jimmy waited in the garden. She came back and arranged herself in the doorway. She seemed to have brightened up with something to do.
‘There’s nobody at the yard who can come in less than two hours. They say you should try starting her again, maybe all she needs is a minute to cool down.’
They all trooped out to the truck. On the back were a few full sacks and several heaps of empty ones weighted under bricks. Jimmy tried the ignition again. The engine wheezed and died. He tried several more times and climbed down from the cab.
‘Bloody nuisance,’ he said. ‘See they? They’re for the farm, last call.’ He nodded at the last few sacks and gestured across the road towards the track between the fields. ‘They was wanting it urgent. They’ll no get it the day.’
He shook his head, releasing a dusty smell that was both human and tarry.
‘But they could load the sacks themselves from here if they brought down a trailer or something,’ Uncle George said. He and Jimmy were now lighting cigarettes from George’s packet.
Jimmy turned his lakes of eyes on Fleur as he took his first drag. ‘So they could, right enough,’ he said. His black finger and thumb, tipped with ridged grey horns of fingernails, held the cigarette with strange delicacy. ‘If they kenned it was here. But they don’t ken.’
Uncle George turned and scanned the distance. ‘Well, somebody could go and tell them, couldn’t they?’
‘Canna go mysel’,’ Jimmy said. ‘Got to stay wi’ the truck. Mind you, Mrs Duncan…’ He grinned at Fleur.
‘Me? I hardly know them,’ Fleur said. ‘We never see them.’
He sucked again on his cigarette. ‘See me? I hate letting folk doon. And they was wanting it the day.’ He looked sadly up the track.
‘George, I really don’t think we can go barging up there. I don’t know them.’
‘We wouldn’t be barging, it’s just neighbourly. We’d be doing them a favour.’
‘I’m not wearing the right shoes, I’m afraid.’
Jimmy looked at her light slingbacks, the same toffee colour as the cardigan slung over her shoulders.
‘Right enough,’ he said.
‘But I’ve got the car, silly,’ George said. ‘I’d rather walk though, it’s no distance. Anyway, Florrie, you don’tpossessthe right shoes. There’s no need for you to come. You stay and make Jimmy a cup of tea. We’ll go, won’t we?’ he said, turning to Lila.
‘All right,’ he said as the two of them started up the track. ‘What about these people we’re about to see?’
‘They’re called McCarthy, I think.’
‘Don’t know. Well, there’s a boy. He went to the High School. Older than me, he left soon after I started. Never spoke.’
‘Just him? Does he work the farm with his dad or what?’
‘Don’t know. Think so.’ From time to time she saw one or other of them at a distance, in the fields. The question of talking to them, even if she wanted to, never arose.
‘Anybody else? Just the two of them?’
‘Is there a mum?’
Uncle George seemed exasperated. ‘Listen. Your mother…I know she doesn’t mix much but does she stop you? I mean, stop you taking an interest? Aren’t you curious about people? Or is Enid all you’ve got?’
Lila shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’
‘I see. Well, wouldn’t you like to widen your horizons a little?’
‘How can I?Here?’
‘Well, by doingTurandot,for one thing.’
‘I want to go and live in London.’
‘I’m talking about right now. AboutTurandot. Your mother’s desperate to, though she’s pretending she isn’t. Don’t you want to?’
The truth was Lila was ashamed of her excitement about doing anything that involved Uncle George. She shrugged again. ‘Doesn’t matter now anyway, does it, ’cos we haven’t got anywhere to do it.’
Uncle George picked up the pace and soon snatches ofTurandotstarted to rumble from his lips. Lila strode along, trying to keep up. He was deliberately putting distance between them; she wondered why he did not care about her sorrow at being left behind.
She had seen the farm from a distance every day of her life but had never been there, so that reaching the end of the track felt like entering a landscape known from a picture, familiar but unfamiliar; there might be different customs here, and a strange language. Together they passed under the trees and entered the yard and stopped, taking in the clutter strewn across what had been the small garden of the farmhouse: choked flowerbeds round a patch of grass criss-crossed with tractor ruts and petering out at its fringe into cracked concrete that led round to the farm buildings. Lila gazed at the front of the house. They were alone, yet something about it suggested they were awaited, as though they were arriving in a story already being played out behind the windows. Around them lay a queasy silence that might at any moment turn out to be no more than a lull between disasters. The day could yet blow open.
Uncle George strode up to the door and hammered with the knocker. After a few minutes he banged on the door, bringing down a few flakes of pale yellow paint. Then he turned away and walked round the side of the house out of Lila’s sight. She waited. The trees rustled in a gust of wind and a few crows let out hacks of complaint and flew away. As she looked up, the wind descended smoothly into the yard and sleeked around her, as though the sky were pouring emptiness straight into her. Gooseflesh rose on her neck and arms and she shivered, and suddenly the quiet yawned open, as full of certainties as the stillness in the house three days ago—it felt like weeks—when she thought her mother had killed herself and she had gone looking in empty rooms for her dead body, her mind fighting between horror and desire. Once again time was passing in a way that must belong to the kind of afternoon on which a death might take place, when a quiet person might suddenly kill another with clean, beautiful strength; in the air hung a calm that threatened to end in the taking of a life, a ripping apart of dreams. She ran a few steps in the direction Uncle George had taken, calling out for him. He reappeared and took her by the hand, as if he knew.
‘Nothing round the back. Come on.’
They returned to the yard. ‘Halloo-oo!’ he called, in a womanly falsetto that returned Lila to the world; she snatched her hand away and prayed nobody had heard. Then a dog barked and skeetered into view. It slavered around them as they skirted past it and followed the direction from where it had come, past the side of a low barn and round to the entrance of a newer, higher building behind. The dog overtook them at the wide doors and rustled through a scattering of straw on the floor towards two people leaning into a tractor. A radio sat squealing in the straw like a small dark animal. The building was vast, and seemed too clean to belong to a farm. It smelled of oil and electricity rather than of earth and blood and hoof, and in its echo there was something metallic.
The older man looked up. ‘Well, now?’ he said, advancing on them with his hands on his hips. Uncle George stepped forward, offering his hand.
‘You must be Mr McCarthy?’
‘McArthur,’ the man said, not smiling. ‘I’ve oil on my hands. What’s your business?’
He listened while George explained. The boy Lila had known by sight at school kept his head in the tractor and did not look up. When Uncle George finished, the corners of Mr McArthur’s closed mouth tilted slightly upwards. He wiped his hands with a rag from the floor, finger by finger, giving him a long, assessing gaze. Then he accepted a handshake.
‘Obliged to you.’
Uncle George looked past him into the shed. ‘A pleasure. Sound building,’ he said. ‘Bone dry. How wide, about forty feet?’
‘Five thousand feet square, fifty-five by ninety-five. Doing well, only eight year old,’ Mr McArthur said, as if he were talking about offspring or livestock. ‘I put it up to expand, there was to be a big expansion. Fully automated.’
From the radio on the floor Mantovani and his orchestra pealed out a tune on high, silvery wires: ‘Forgotten Dreams’, a spiralling chase after elation and sadness and the chance of love. If she could see it, Lila thought, the sound would lift from the straw and curl up through the shed in plumes of shining dust.
‘Good acoustic for music, anyway,’ Uncle George said, with a backward grin at her. Then she saw the way his mind was going.
‘Aye well. I never got round to finishing. Never expanded the herd, we hit a wee bad patch there. I’ll maybe still do it, one of these days.’
‘Shame to let it sit empty.’
‘Handy for storage,’ Mr McArthur said.
She followed Uncle George’s eyes up to the pitched roof. The floor and walls were of concrete and breezeblock and the steel struts from which lights were suspended crossed from side to side like rafters at a height of about ten feet. Six square, metal-framed windows, some with broken or missing panes, ran down one side. At both ends of the building, wide sliding doors opened it up like a hangar. Apart from the tractor and boxes of tools, some lengths of timber and a heap of tarpaulin, the place was empty. Uncle George clicked his tongue twice and sang an arpeggio over the sliding racket from the radio. His voice rose and echoed generously.
Mr McArthur cleared his throat and glanced at his son. ‘Aye, well. Billy, turn that damn thing off, we’ve to take the van and get the coal,’ he said.
Billy scrambled down without looking at the visitors.
‘Are you the music lover, Mr McArthur?’ Uncle George asked, as they walked back across the yard.
‘I am not. Fair gets my goat.’ Less gruffly he said, ‘Billy here, he’s the one. Got it from his mother, she could sing you back a tune even if she just heard it the once.’
‘I’m just wondering, you see—the shed there. I’m looking for a place like that, for a musical venture. Just to use for a while, till August, nothing permanent. No disruption to you. Would you be interested at all—hiring it out, for a musical event? At the going rate, of course?’
Mr McArthur looked baffled. He cleared his throat again. ‘Aye well, good of yous to come and let us know about the coal. We’ll take the van down now, give yous a lift home.’
He led them over to a van with an open back. ‘Your lassie all right on the back there wi’ Billy? Billy, help the lassie up,’ he said. Then he made his way round to the driver’s side and opened the door. ‘I’d no be putting up wi’ yon beatniks, mind,’ he said, over the roof of the cab.
‘Oh, no. No, absolutely not…’ Uncle George said, scrambling in at the other side. ‘Quite the opposite. Let me tell you…’
Billy jumped onto the back and hauled Lila up. His hair covered his eyes so he was still managing not to look at her. The dog leapt on too and barked as the van suddenly pulled forward. Lila grabbed a hold of the side and laughed as she lurched around. The wind blew Billy’s hair back from his face and she caught his eye; he stared back at her without trust.
‘What’s its name?’ she asked, pointing at the dog.
‘Sherpa,’ Billy said.
‘It was Schubert—my dad changed it.’
‘Just. None of your business.’ Billy looked away startled, as if he had not known that such a question could reasonably follow from what he had said. They bounced on down the track without speaking. Lila pretended to be enjoying the ride more than she was, laughing and holding down her hair as if being blown to bits were pleasurable, and Billy kept his eyes on the fields as if it were scenery. When she knew he wasn’t watching, Lila took a look, memorising him so she could tell Enid every detail, already enjoying the edge that meeting a boy would give her. He was about eighteen, solid and dirty but in an outdoors way; about his shabby clothes was a hint of coal smoke and animal and stale bread that she didn’t mind in the least. It was easily preferable to the smell of boiled eggs that eddied round most of the boys in her class and his skin was nicer than theirs, too, darker and almost foreign-looking. She liked looking at him, assessing him. It was a relief to let her mind flow away from her thoughts about the farmhouse and back to the familiar preoccupation and still hypothetical anxiety of her and Enid’s virginal lives: what you do when you meet a boy. How you tell if he likes you. The ultimate, most worrisome of all: how you find out if he is interested in One Thing Only, except the hard way.
When they reached Seaview Villas Lila jumped off by herself before Billy could think she wanted him to touch her. Jimmy, Billy and Mr McArthur shifted the coal onto the back of the grey van, Uncle George’s clothes being too clean for him to help. More tea was made, Fleur by now quite the hostess. She brought it out on a tray and they became a modest street party, chatting and smoking and drinking tea out on the road next to the loaded van.
Lila watched them all, dazed. In the space of a day Uncle George had changed them, doing something as alchemical with them as he had done with the leftovers at dinnertime (just the way he called it lunch made it different). She didn’t understand how, but his assurance about everything was part of his power. He wouldn’t believe, and wouldn’t let you believe either, that a thing wasn’t going to turn out fresh and lively and right. Meeting neighbours, chatting with the coalman—whatever he touched, fromTurandotto beef hash, he turned into a story thrumming with fun and full of connections, people, events.
As Billy turned to go he handed Lila his cup and managed a direct look that was not hostile. Sherpa was whistled back on board the van, Uncle George shook Mr McArthur’s hand and told him he would be up in the morning. Mr McArthur said that would be grand and the corners of his mouth tilted upwards again.
iring theBurnhead & District Advertiserand speak to a woman who seems to like her job. She cares about spelling. I carefully dictate the wording of the announcement and by the time she finishes taking it down she is quite jocular.
Aye, we’re the old-fashioned kind, she says. Spelling matters to us. We got taught right.
They don’t teach anything useful nowadays, I say.
She says, You’re right there. Well, that’s all in hand for you now, Miss du Cann, I’ll just read it back.
‘On Wednesday January fourteenth 2004 following an illness, Raymond James Duncan aged eighty-five, late of 5 Seaview Villas, Burnhead. Beloved father of Lila du Cann. Funeral Friday twenty-third January Ayr Crematorium 2.00 p.m., followed by service 3.00 p.m. Evangelical Lutheran Mission, Burnhead. Friends, neighbours and former colleagues welcome. No flowers.’
Without realising I am going to, I ask her, Would you mind just adding, before ‘Beloved father’, the words ‘sadly missed’?
I hear the muffled patting, like words scurrying by in light shoes, of fingers on computer keys.
Right you are. That’s that done. Now was there anything else I can help you with today?
I can’t reply. Sometimes lately when I open my mouth to speak my voice comes out but the actual words lag behind. It’s a bit like gasping, as if I’m suddenly frightened of what I might say. At other times my voice seems entirely absent. It’s something to do with breath and vocal coordination, probably.
Are you all right? the woman says. She sounds almost worried.
After a little while I say, Yes, thank you, I’m all right.
No hurry, Miss du Cann, she says. I know bereavement’s stressful, you take your time. You don’t have to tell me, I’ve known it myself.
But he was bound to die. He was old, I say.I’mold.
Ah, doesn’t matter though, she tells me with authority. Doesn’t matter how old you are, it takes you just the same. Take your time. It’s a shock. Was there anything else?
I used to live here, I tell her. I’ve been away a long time. I had to get away. I’d forgotten how it was.
Aye, a lot of folk do that. You need to get away to get on, there’s not the opportunities round here, is there? That’s what I tell my kids. I’ve four.
TheBurnhead & District Advertiser,I begin, and falter. I don’t even know what I intend to say. I try again. The paper, years ago…There was a lot in the paper. One summer…there was a lot about my family, our family. The Duncans…and the Pettifers…A long time ago.
Oh, I see. Was your family well known in the area, Miss du Cann? Will I put you through to Features? They’d be the ones you’d need to deal with as regards the possibility of an obituary for your father in the paper.
While I wait to be connected I gather my wits and so am quite ready when a young man announces himself as the Features Assistant. He sounds Australian, which throws me for a moment. There were no Australians in Burnhead when I lived here. I tell him my name. I am not going to falter anymore.
I’ve returned from abroad for the funeral, I say. Just for a few days. I thought it might make an interesting little piece for the paper—I mean there can’t be many Burnhead people who go on to have careers in opera! Never mind a career spanning more than three decades. I’ve been in opera for nearly thirty-five years, there aren’t many people I haven’t worked with.
Oh? he says. Big names?
And a career abroad, of course, it takes one so far from one’s roots. Roots are so important for an artist, people don’t always realise. It might interest your readers to hear about that?
Can you give me an idea of who you worked with? The big stars? Pavarotti?
I give him some names, to which he barely reacts.
These are all opera stars, are they? Okay. Thanks.
And Joan Sutherland, I add.
Now I’ve heard of her, he says. Is she still alive?
She once lent me her limousine and driver, I tell him.
Really? You were mates, were you?
(At last, a bit of interest—the hoops one has to go through!)
I tell him, Actually it was all rather a scream. There was some mix-up. She thought she was free so she’d ordered her car to pick her up outside the theatre but in fact she had a rehearsal, so this car arrived and she couldn’t use it. We’d just got off so she gave it to us. Let us have it for the whole afternoon. Complete with chauffeur!
Letushave it? Who else, other big stars?
A group of us from the chorus. Though actually I was covering a small part, onnorehearsal I might add—in fact Joan was probably appalled at that. Covers did not get anything like proper consideration, she would have noticed that. Anyway, the car took us out of town to a porcelain factory that had a seconds shop. It parked right outside and waited for us, then we drove back. How it does spoil one, having a driver!
He says, Hey, right you are. Well, thanks for your time. I’ve got your details but it’s not actually my decision, so, thanks anyway.
Obviously he’s too young to know who he’s dealing with.
I’d better have a word with he whose decision it is, then, I say. You can put me through, I suppose?
He’s in a meeting, I’m afraid. But I’ll pass it on, tell him who you were and everything. Call you back if he’s interested, okay?
As I ring off I ask myself what made me mention roots at all, never mind say that they were important, because I never think of them normally, living a truly international life (I don’t think he really got that point). I am not sure there really is any such thing as roots, and even if there is, I would rather there weren’t.
It’s nearly dusk but I haven’t been outside today, or I don’t think I have, and I need some fresh air. Perhaps if I walk for a while I shall sleep better. That’s probably all it is. This wandering about at night that I seem to be doing rather a lot, it’s because I’m not getting enough exercise during the day. In Antwerp I walk everywhere. With roots still in my mind I set off under a broken umbrella of my father’s. Darkness is already coming on fast and there is nowhere else to go but across the road and up Arranview Drive, into the orange light from the streetlamps. In no time at all I have strayed far from Seaview Villas and deep into the winding and interlocking roads that snake through the rows of new houses. Not so new, now; early eighties and typically unattractive but at least when they went up they brought mains gas out here and he got central heating at last at 5 Seaview Villas. Though it didn’t altogether remove it, it made the damp warmer.
These houses are bungalows, mostly, with flat staring windows reaching almost to the ground. As I guessed, there is nobody about on the pavements in this weather and at this time of day. It’s cars that come and go along these streets, not people. So I don’t bother much that my raincoat doesn’t look right over these trousers. Charcoal grey and the milky beige of the coat don’t do much for each other but under the streetlights they barely look like colours, anyway. I have a scarf for my head that has both grey and beige in it, and navy and red as well, in a pattern of horseshoes and crossed riding crops and other equine clutter (not Hermès but just as good) so I feel I have pulled the look together at least a bit. Thinking about that cocky little Australian on the telephone made me put on some lipstick so I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be recognised and stopped. I’m not finished yet.
I walk by little, low houses skulking in the rain, some empty and dark, others inhabited by fluttering television screens in uncurtained rooms whose light spills out and trembles on wet front lawns. There are houses that show the backs of drawn curtains, pulled in and hugging to themselves all their padded, warm peachiness, flaunting the glow that the room bestows on those within and that excludes me. I leave Arranview Drive and wander along Arranview this and Arranview that: Avenue, Court, Close, Walk, and then I turn back the way I came, past the lit houses with cars sitting tidily alongside and the unlit ones where empty concrete ramps are still waiting. Now I am in High Trees territory; the same looping cul-de-sacs called High Trees this, that and the next thing. There are no high trees, of course; the real sycamores have long since gone. I guess they disappeared some time between the decision to name part of the development for them, and the realisation that nobody had recorded what kind of trees they were before cutting them down. It’s impossible to work out where they stood except perhaps by the next name change, as High Trees gives way to roads called Old Farm. I keep walking under the pattering umbrella, my soles making no sound above the rumble of a few cars rolling home at a conscientious crawl.
I am half-looking for their house. If the Old Farm collection of streets bears some relation to where the farm used to lie, I must be near it. It should not be difficult to find.
Part of the deal when they sold the land was that the developers would build a house to their specification close to the site of the old farmhouse. For a few years I used to get, along with their newsletter, a Christmas card with a photograph of the new one, floodlit. Makes a better card than the ubiquitous robin! she would write, and each year I would privately disagree. Then I suppose I moved and didn’t send my new address and the cards stopped. In the last year or two I was treated to a view of not just the house but an extravaganza of fairy lights racing around the eaves and a flashing reindeer on the grass, so it was no great loss.
He went into golfing supplies and sports equipment. Her idea. As soon as the land was sold she put him in silly caps and pastel jerseys and shoes with fringed tongues and sent him off, pulling a top-of-the-range, two-tone leatherette caddy, to play golf in the afternoons. He turned middle-aged overnight. Given the company he was keeping it was a natural development that he should spot a ‘gap in the market’ and start selling the gear to men like himself: foolish great boys as ruddy in the face and as thinning on top, as bored and gadget-hungry as he was. He needn’t have turned out that way. The Christmas newsletter would give a tally of the number of outlets: Gleneagles, St Andrews, Harrods. There was talk of Scottish airport concessions and a tie-in with Burberry. He must have gone along with it.
I find it at the end of Pow Drive, a bungalow more than double the size of its neighbours and standing in a plot four times larger than theirs. It alone has a faade of pink faux marble and is surrounded by low walls made from ornamental blocks with fancy shapes in them that make a pattern of daisies, as if someone has been at work with a giant biscuit cutter. The wrought-iron house name on the wall—‘Casa Lisboa’—stands out in the beam of floodlights set into the ground.
The floodlights must be on an automatic timer for the house is shut up and dark. Around the porch sit the hulks of patio plants overwintering in black plastic shrouds and in the apex of the front gable a burglar alarm winks its alternating red and green eyes. This is just as I expect. I would not have come this way if I thought there was any chance of running into them. I took the small risk of supposing that their habits haven’t changed; the habits of people like them don’t. I’m confident they still spend January and February in the Canaries. They will still own property—with them, it’s always ‘property’—in Gran Canaria, and they will have kept the apartment in the Algarve that one newsletter explained they couldn’t part with. She wrote, you do get very attached to your very first overseas property! So with two properties abroad there’s nothing for it but to take more holidays! But they prefer Portugal in the spring, when his golfing weather is more reliable and she can take her classes on wild flowers in watercolour.
I gaze at the house for a while until I am numb to its immaculate ugliness. I picture the garden of the old farmhouse where lupins and a tangle of roses grew up through rusting machine parts and old tractor tyres and where in Sherpa’s water bowl on the front step you would sometimes find flakes of paint from the peeling yellow door when it was slammed. I turn round and head back to Seaview Villas. Going in this direction I am walking straight into the wind and raindrops land in wet explosions on the umbrella that flaps loose where the cover has torn away from three of its spokes. I tip it downward in front of my face and walk fast, looking at my feet. I do know that this is the last time in my life that I shall walk here, but I can’t make this feel significant. I can find no mental commentary for the occasion; as I step briskly back down Old Farm Drive, my footsteps refuse to feel historic.
I wonder if theBurnhead & District Advertiserwill take up my idea for an article. I wonder if I could put into clearer words this feeling—this sad truth, and true sadness—that although you may be exiled from a place long before you leave it you still crave, upon your return, an invitation to belong.
Traces of the old farm exist nowhere now except in my head. The sounds of that day when I saw it for the first time—my mother singing scales above the noise of a coffee grinder, the whistle of Jimmy from Brocks and the rumble of coke hitting the bunker, a barking dog, Mantovani from the Café Royale in the echoing farm shed—mingle in my mind with the day’s many other accidents and coincidences. Suppose we had not run out of bread? Uncle George would have trampled over my mother’s distaste for picnics and frog-marched us out to some freezing beauty spot with travelling rugs and sandwiches and flasks of tea, and we would not have been at home when Jimmy’s lorry refused to start. Then we would never have wandered up the track to Pow Farm and found ourselves a venue—an improbable one, a putative cowshed with a tractor in it, draughty and floored with straw—forTurandot.
I might never have met Joe Foscari.
Uncle George returned the next day from the farm and told Fleur and Lila that they had ‘a space’ for the opera.
‘Stanley—Mr McArthur—he’s converted. All for it,’ he said, rubbing his hands, but Lila thought his jollity was forced. ‘It is a greatspace,isn’t it?’ he said to her. ‘Tell your mother. Isn’t it great?’
They were in the kitchen. Fleur, perched on a kitchen chair, looked papery with exhaustion. She had pulled out the twin tub and started on a washing but then lost heart, and was now watching while Lila got on with it. Lila was used to the petering out of her mother’s energy. It came and went like matches struck in the dark—weak, random flares usually ill-directed and almost immediately extinguished. She seldom found any forward momentum for the jobs she undertook because they never acquired enough purpose for her; long before she came close to finishing anything she would succumb to a listlessness in herself that would be even deeper than before the doomed effort was made.
‘I’m not performing in a shed,’ Fleur said, over the droning and sloshing of the machine. ‘I want a cigarette.’
‘It won’t look like a shed, we’re going to whitewash it. Paint the back wall black. We’ll do the whole production very modern, almost bare. With drapes and lights and…and…shapes.’
‘Shapes, yes…to suggest things. Scenery, buildings, you know. It’ll be sort of experimental. Though it’s been done before,’ he added quickly, ‘I mean this kind of approach. They use all kinds of spaces for opera now—it’s modern.’
‘I suppose he’s charging a fortune.’
‘I don’t want you worrying about that,’ he said. ‘You leave that to me. You need to concentrate one hundred per cent on your part.’
Fleur sighed. ‘I’m exhausted just thinking about it. I need to lie down.’
George looked hard at her. ‘Why are you always coming out with thesestatementsabout yourself?’
‘I don’t come out with statements about myself. I’m just exhausted.’
‘You’re only just up. It’s only eleven o’clock in the morning.’
‘I can’t help it,’ Fleur said, yawning.
George shrugged. ‘Well, all right. Go and lie down. I’ve plenty to do, anyway.’
‘You’ll manage on your own,’ she said, eyeing Lila and sniffing weakly at the wet smells of bleach and washing soap. She pushed herself up from her chair, pressed her fingers into the space between her breasts and produced a deep, solid note that after only a few seconds faded to a sigh.
She said, ‘I’m tired,’ and let the line of her shoulders sag. ‘I don’t know where I’d be without you.’ She drifted through the door, not caring which of them she was addressing.
Uncle George sagged a little, too, as she passed. ‘I should make some calls,’ he said to Lila, loitering. ‘I should ring the paper and get the ball rolling. If we’re going ahead.’
Lila half-turned from the sink where she was holding the draining hose.
‘If? What do you mean, if?’
Before he could answer there was a hot grunt from the twin tub and then the pump started to throb softly. The hose reared in Lila’s hand as a snake of grey water gushed from its end into the sink, wave after wave of suds raising the smells of wet wool and warm rubber.
He said, ‘Oh, of course. It’s just…I need to make some calls. Have to ring the publisher, we’ve only got your mother’s vocal score. We need to hire all the parts.’
He was tossing a box of matches from hand to hand and bouncing on the balls of his feet but the little dance of optimism did not fool Lila. She frowned.
‘Shouldn’t you get your orchestra before you get the music?’
‘Don’t scowl,’ he told her, throwing the matchbox high and catching it. ‘We can’t delay that long. We have to advertise in the paper for players and singers, for everybody. We’ll have to hold a meeting. If we left getting the parts till after that it’d be too late.’
He stood neither in nor out of the kitchen, shaking the matchbox in time to some tune in his head. ‘Anyway we still need to get our Calaf,’ he said.
‘I thought we’d got our Calaf,’ Lila said, glaring at the diminishing trickle of water pulsing from the hose. She was disappointed. Uncle George had arrived with at least as many dirty clothes as clean ones and more than half the things in the wash were his, but he didn’t seem to notice either the hard work she was doing or how willingly she did it. This was the second load. Standing in all this steam, hauling the sodden weight of washing from tub to tub was exhausting; did he not know that? Was there a washing machine in the flat in Crouch End, or would she be taking his things to a laundry?
‘Calaf? Well, we have, really. It’s only a matter of getting hold of him.’
He looked at his watch. As if he had just thought of it he said, ‘Actually I might be able to get him now. He starts work at twelve. He’s working as a waiter, just for the summer, did I say? I suppose I might…I might just catch him, before he goes.’
Lila had now attached the filler hose to the kitchen tap and was running fresh water into the machine. She looked up. If he had calls to make then why was he sighing in the doorway? If he might catch this person before he went to work, why wasn’t he trying his number right now? He had withdrawn something from her—his conviction, perhaps—and had grown suddenly mean with his certainties. She resented it; he had handed out promises like sweeties and was gathering them all back, still in their wrappers.
She said, ‘Well, go on then, for God’s sake,’ placing in her voice a sharp edge that belonged to her mother’s. ‘If you’re so sure he’ll want to do it, why don’t you just go and ask him?’
She dragged the dripping clothes from one tub to the other, using the long wooden tongs. Uncle George twisted his hair in the fingers of one hand and stared at the wall.
‘Yeah. Maybe I will.’
He looked at his watch again and then at Lila. Her arms were pale and slippery, the ends of her fingers tight wrinkled nubs. A weak sun gleamed through the steamed-up window behind her and illuminated her strangely. Down the thin curtains in cascading vertical lines the pattern of wine flasks, soup ladles and sticks of celery was casting patchy tints of sage and yellow and charcoal across her damp skin.
‘Have you…I mean, is all that nearly finished? When will you be ready to hang it out?’
‘Well, there’s the rinsing, two more rinses, then it’s to go through the mangle.’
‘You’ll be a while then?’
‘I don’t mind.’ She smiled her forgiveness. ‘The mangle’s electric, it doesn’t take long.’
‘You’re a good kid. Look, I’m not sure, you see. About doing this. The opera.’
The day lost its balance for a second, threatened to tip into chaos.
She said, ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean it’s a big thing. Your singing, are you going to take it seriously? Are you prepared to take it seriously enough?’
Not just the balance of Lila’s day but the rest of her life lurched dangerously. With a tiny indrawn breath she caught the idea that was still as delicate as a gasp. She held it, set it upon its pivot.
‘But I don’t want to do just the opera. I want to be a real singer. A proper one.’ Then, quickly, she said it. ‘I want to train properly. At college in London. I want to live with you and go to a London college.’
Uncle George looked at her. ‘Well now. Well, that is serious.’ He nodded. Lila waited for him to speak and then realised he wasn’t going to. But the nod was enough. She knew she must not ask him for any more now, but she would get what she needed. She smiled.
‘Hard work,’ he said.
She wasn’t sure if he meant the singing or the laundry. ‘I don’t mind,’ she said, which was true in either case.
‘I’m thinking, you see. You should do some work on your voice today too, like your mother, and it’s much better done in the morning when it’s freshest.’
‘Work on my voice?’
‘So why don’t you leave all that for now and go and do some scales while I’m on the phone? Might be easier if I’m, you know, not interrupted or anything.’
‘But if I leave it now I won’t get it hung out by dinnertime,’ Lila said. ‘If you’re on the phone, I won’t interrupt. I could help you with the numbers again.’
Uncle George laughed. ‘I think I can manage!’
‘The rinsing’s easy, the machine does it all. I could help you and still keep an eye on it.’
‘No. You go and make a start in the music room. I want you to get busy on that voice.’
‘But any minute I’ll have to empty it again. And then it’ll—’
George gave the matchbox a savage shake. ‘Jesus! Look. You need to realise something,’ he said. ‘This opera’s not just a little joke that we fit in round everything else. If we do it, it’s going to be done properly, you hear me?’
‘I don’t think it’s a joke.’
‘It’s not too late, you know. You just have to say, “I’ve changed my mind. I want to do the washing and squabble with Enid and watch my mother going round the bend. I don’t want to sing, I don’t want to put in the work. It’s too hard.” Is that what you want?’
‘No,’ Lila said in a whisper.
‘Sure? Because you’re going to have to work hard. Starting rightnow.’
‘I don’t mind. As long as something nice happens in the end.’
that day in the kitchen there are three voices, a trio of strands weaving around one another and each telling a separate story to which the other two are deaf, a story about what each one of us wants and loves and fears.
Snatches of his voice, his modulated deceits: It’s only a matter of getting hold of him.
Hers, twisting itself into a disappearing wisp of sound slipping away up the stairs: I don’t know where I’d be without you.
My voice barges in comically. I’m the ingénue in the dreadful dress with the wet sleeves, guilelessly wielding the bawdy toys—the hose and tongs—and knowing nothing, not even how burlesque my mimicry of the adults is, for the sniggering has not yet started. As long as something nice happens in the end.
A trio, all of us blind and expectant and for the time being only—this far in the story, in the delicate plaiting of lies—innocent, still unaware of how massive and ungainly our expectations are, how grotesque we look as we go about their concealment and how ugly, in our final disappointment, we will all be.
I have no choice but to leave the washing in a pond of filmy grey water and be led away, placed in the middle of the music room and bullied about my posture. Uncle George shakes my shoulders, makes me breathe in and out so deeply I feel slightly faint. He talks about my spine and my shoulder blades and my diaphragm and the tip of my tongue on the floor of my mouth and keeping it out of the way; he waggles my jaw and pinches my chin and comes out with something about smiling through my ribs (most of which, I will appreciate years later, makes a sort of sense). He makes me think about the space around myself. I wave my arms. I am to claim this air and claim my sound and the right to make it. He gives me a note to start on and a page of exercises: scales and arpeggios and octave leaps to Ay, Ee, Ah, Oh, Ooo. He warns me that he will be within earshot and that if I fail to breathe properly and concentrate on the sound I am making, he will be able to tell. It always shows, he says, if a singer doesn’t mean it.
Do I blame him? At fifteen I am a lanky, dull-eyed girl solidified by neglect and on my way to becoming hard; his arrival is pulling me out from the slow drip of my parents’ misery and inattention, under which I am gently calcifying. Starting with the singing on the beach and now, with my very first singing lesson, he is softening me up. I may start to leak feelings, but for the moment I must work on my scales.
Even while I am singing my exercises, and in the intervals between them, I listen to him in the hall as he speaks with private urgency into the telephone.
Joe? Look. Of course I’m not changing my tune, you know I have to stay up here.
I do not actively decide to do it, I do not think, but by the time he rings off and comes back to tick me off about my vowels, I have decided that I have not been eavesdropping.
Because she’s my sister. Of course I want you here! Of course it’ll be better than staying in London, there’s a beach on the doorstep, don’t forget.
Joe? You’ve got to come, I need you to.
I have not learned that the gift of making Uncle George happy rests with someone other than me.
Joe, I need you here, I really do.
I have not learned that he put me in here to make a noise of my own in order to get me out of earshot, so that I would not hear him plead. Joe will be here tomorrow, and I am having my first proper singing lesson and the attention—I have never had a lesson in anything all by myself with just one other person before—is intoxicating. That’s all I know.
He pops out and makes another call: a man from theBurnhead & District Advertiserwill be round this afternoon. My mother comes downstairs and is happier than I have seen her in weeks when Uncle George says he hopes she’s had her beauty sleep because the man from the paper is bringing a photographer. At last it is safe to reenter the day and for me to pick up my plans and dreams again.
The sound of Uncle George’s naked begging to Joe will be sent to the now quite crowded place in my mind where I keep words that I wish I had never heard spoken. The general clutter of words already in there—the weaponry of all my parents’ rows and altercations—is a blessing; Uncle George’s entreaties can nestle there unnoticed with the rest of the spent arsenal, his collapsed dignity like a punctured breastplate under a heap of broken spikes and arrows and staved blades.
He shows me my aria written down in my mother’s vocal score—the aria I sang on the beach,‘Signore, ascolta!’—and goes through the words with me and tells me who is singing them and why. He asks me what I like best about singing it, and I tell him it’s the highest note, the note on which it ends, the saddest one. The most difficult, he says. Your favourite part is the most difficult part. That means you’re a real singer.
When I sing it this time, my eyes fill with tears. I am softening, flooding on the inside; a river has started to flow in me, bearing my thoughts and my feelings and my voice along, swirling and commingled. As I come to the last note my blood bubbles up and my heart is cast free of its moorings and is afloat in clear, fast-flowing water.
The Second Riddle
It kindles like a flameBut it is not flame.At times it is a frenzy.It is fever, force, passion!Inertia makes it flag.If you lose heart or die it grows cold, But dream of conquest and it flares up.Its voice you hear in trepidation,It glows like the setting sun!
The ordeal begins. Turandot poses her three riddles, and inspired by love, Calaf solves them all. He has won her hand. Turandot is overcome with distress; she will belong to no man. Calaf knows he must win her heart. He gives her a chance to defeat him. She does not know his name. If she can discover who he is before dawn she will be victorious and he will die.
The next evening Uncle George stopped Lila from coming with him to meet Joe off the train. From the window she watched them arrive, George trudging up the path under the weight of two suitcases and Joe following with a holdall and a smaller case balanced on one shoulder. He swaggered, in search of an audience. Lila kept still. She could tell he was pleased she was watching and she was drawn to him for that alone, for the compliment of enjoying her eyes upon him. She liked the showmanship of the suitcase borne aloft, his display of strength behind Uncle George’s struggle with the heavier cases.
Inside the house he took her hand and said, ‘I say, how do you do, you must be the sweet little brand-new soprano I’m hearing about, how very delightful.’
His voice was like no other she had ever heard. It was a little high-pitched and had a slight flouriness in it as if he spoke through a dense white cloth, and it was mesmerisingly hard to place. Any accent that might have attached him to a region or a category of person had been washed out by elocution, and to Lila’s ears the result, a controlled neutrality in the vowels, consonants quaintly pointed, was enchantment. His words floated from him unhindered by the local grunt that rendered delicate, private things unsayable; Billy with his floppy hair and sideways looks and reticence would never come out withsweet, little, delightful. Words like that would not survive in his rough Burnhead mouth to be at her disposal even half-meant when she might need to hear them. In Joe there was a hurry to put words to use. He was anxious to be known.
‘Well, all the way from London! You’re very welcome. I hear you’re Italian,’ Fleur said, wiping her hands down the back of her skirt. Her voice clicked oddly.
‘Dear lady, indeed! Indeed I am. How do you do?’
‘George says you had restaurants. In Glasgow.’
‘Ah, did he, did he now? Well, but those are past glories. Oh, how are the mighty fallen!’
Raymond said, ‘I never heard of a Foscari’s in Glasgow. Rogano’s, yes.’
‘Oh,don’t!’ Joe said with a strange shudder. ‘Oh, the heyday of the Foscaris is lost in the mists of time. It’s little more than hearsay now. But I want to hear all aboutyou. Tell me, tell me, tell me—all about yourselves.’
Lila felt his urgency had something to do with her, that she was drawing out not just his words but setting loose inside him some thrilling notion of herself. His voice was a road to elsewhere, his words an invitation to her to shed her limitations: her name, her fear, this wrong place where she had somehow got stuck. She resolved to start talking like Joe immediately.
They sat round the table pushing food and drink at him and letting him amuse them, as if he were a strange new pet whose habits they had to learn. He produced a quarter bottle of whisky from his holdall, tipped some into his teacup, swilled it round and tossed it back. As an afterthought he offered the bottle round. Raymond fetched liqueur glasses and took what he called just a wee hoot, but George refused. He looked, suddenly, as if some air had been let out of him; the spinning ideas and the whipped-up energy of the previous few days were in abeyance. Like Lila he watched Joe who, in between nips of whisky, had plenty to say. When Joe was talking his eyes would settle on some object, the cruet, the hedge outside the window, his two thumbs circling each other, and stare at that rather than look in the direction of the person to whom he was speaking. Although short and round and solid—there was a substantial quilt of flesh around his torso—he seemed ready to flap away into the air if startled; his beak of a nose added to the impression of a solitary and alert bird of prey. When he looked at Lila, in the same way that he had stared at the hedge, she felt floodlit, as if there were something in her that he was determined to find in the bright beam of his gaze. His eyes were channels for escaped light, as if a sun blazed somewhere in his body; his skin seemed luminous. He wore short sleeves, and she studied the plump lilac veins in his forearms as they writhed down to his hands under dark, shining hairs. Why had nobody else noticed how startling he was? Her father was half-asleep. Her mother was listening too hard, leaning forward with her chin resting along the back of an arranged hand. Uncle George just sat looking folded up, his hair dull with smoke and his dark eyes, next to Joe’s that were the same green-grey as a winter sea, merely blank.
Nothing was to be trusted now. Angles were newly treacherous, objects unreliable, words slippery; what if she were to collide with furniture or drop a teacup or come out with something childish? She was having to learn much too suddenly how to pretend that nothing had changed, when everything had. She got up from the table and began to fill the tray with things to take back to the kitchen, trying to do what she always did on an ordinary day. But Joe’s eyes drifted over the outline of her body as he handed her his plate and she needed the shelter of the table again and sat back down. She felt as if he knew something, as if all her seams and fastenings and buttons were showing and now that he had seen them she could be in an instant dismantled.
‘Aha! Kind young lady,’ he said, tipping his head to one side. He poured himself more whisky and to Raymond he proposed, lifting the cup and draining it, ‘A toast, to the daughter of the house!’
Raymond pulled at his earlobe with a finger and thumb and glanced at George. His glass was empty anyway.
Fleur touched Joe on the arm. ‘Joe, carry on with what you were saying. You’re ambitious, you have a strong sense of direction, do you, about being a singer?’
‘I feel something pulling me towards a career in music, certainly,’ Joe said, frowning attractively. ‘La Forza del Destino! Whatever the hurdles might be—and oh my goodness, Fleur, you know whatthoseare—whatever the hurdles. I simply must sing!’
He flashed a smile around the table, stood up, struck his chest with one fist and launched into ‘Ode to Joy’.
Fleur got to her feet and joined in from the other side of the table, lit up with mirth. They sang to Lah, stretching arms towards each other, trading actors’ glances; they were both equally proud of the power of their eyes. When they came to the end everyone clapped. Joe pulled Fleur’s hand to his lips and kissed it and turned a sparkling look on her. She sat down stroking her hair with both hands as if arranging a veil of his admiration over her head. Across the table she looked at him as if saying calmly, can I help it if I fascinate you?
Lila got up from the table again. Joe’s attention was all that mattered now, and she wouldn’t have it again this evening. Already she was getting an idea of how hungry life could be when you were in love, how it would call for patience and cunning to live from now on in need, waiting to pounce on whatever thin bones of hope he might drop behind him. With some idea that by drifting up to her room she might leave behind a memory of herself that would be more compelling than her presence, she said goodnight. She knew that her eyes were too hot and bright, her face too pink and young-looking for her to be taken seriously by the adults for a moment longer.
In her room she peeled the clothes off her limbs as if she were undressing a doll, imagining Joe’s gaze. She lay very still in bed with her eyes open, straining to hear his voice and waiting to be struck down by a fever whose first symptoms were already creeping through her. The stereogram started up: Act III ofTurandotand‘Nessun dorma’,to which Joe sang along. There was clapping and more laughter. Somebody, she assumed her father, clanked knives and forks alone in the kitchen and ran water into the sink.
Later, Joe and Uncle George came up to the landing and paused at the door of the spare room across from Lila’s. There was some bumping of luggage, doors opening, the rise and fall of their voices. Her father’s joined in; she wondered if it were being explained that Joe would be sleeping in the attic room because Fleur (on account of her nerves) had her own room and George was in the tiny spare one. There was a clattering up the attic stairs. Doors opened again, feet shuffled to and from the bathroom, water gurgled, doors closed, the landing light was snapped off.
Lila lay in the dark, glad to think of Joe in the room above, alone like her. She heard his feet on the boards and the creak of the camp bed, and sent silent messages up through the damp-stained ceiling that he was to wake up the next day to find himself in love with her. She had no notion that he was typical of anything or anyone; he seemed freshly invented for her alone, in answer to a long, aching list of things that until now she had barely realised she wished for.
when you go to Venice you see scores of Joe Foscaris. I was a little unsettled on my first visit. I kept accidentally catching the eyes of strangers and opening my mouth to speak—but to say what? Then, the moment I knew there was nothing I could say I would realise it couldn’t possibly be him. But he is replicated everywhere, the stocky, squat Italian running to fat, arms swinging, bandy little legs bearing him along with a pugilist’s bounce. He sells fish, steers thevaporetti,hawks headsquares and keyrings on the Rialto Bridge. Through eyes the colour of the Adriatic he scans yours, without malice, to see the size of the bargain. I remember reading in a guide book about the people of the Veneto, their meeting and mixing with whoever it was—the Phoenicians or some other seafaring tribe, perhaps more than one—and the attractive genetic accident as east and west conjoined: the aquiline nose, the dark hair and black lashes fringing eyes the colour of the lagoon. You never truly see through the milky greeny-grey to what lies below.
Paris. The child’s name is Paris. She is quite an engaging little thing, twisting in Christine’s arms as she stands at the door this morning, and staring at me from under a hat that looks like the toe of a sock. She holds a rag of striped brushed cotton up to the space between her top lip and her nose, and rubs it gently against her skin. Her eyes are glazed and distant; she sees only the secret landscape of the comfort it gives her. She doesn’t even hear when Christine tells her to say hello. Christine can’t get her Stripey away from her, she says. She supposes she’ll grow out of it but she’s looking forward even more to the day when she grows out of needing so much picking up, she’s a dead weight. Paris comes to, grins and turns to hide in her mother’s neck. Christine is holding a carrier bag as well as Paris and looks rather burdened. I tell her she may come in as long as she takes me as she finds me.
Paris made you some chocolate krispies, Christine says, putting Paris down among the papers and boxes and chests in the back room. Didn’t you, Paris?
I warn her to watch the child because there is no guard round the gas fire but actually Paris can’t get near it for all the stuff. Christine takes a deep breath and I notice a smell of hot cardboard that I don’t think was here before.
Christine looks at me. Are you not well? I didn’t get you out of your bed, did I?
I don’t understand the question.
I mean, you in your dressing gown. Are you all right? Still turning stuff out?
You look tireder than you did before. Is it getting to you?
She raises her voice as she says this because she is on her way into the kitchen with the chocolate krispies. I hear her putting on the kettle.
I’m making you a wee cup of tea, she says. See when you’re on your own—you sometimes forget. I’m the same, I don’t look after myself. Oh, is there no milk?
She pops home to get some while I wonder how to be friendly to Paris and she stares back at me from behind Stripey, her eyes full of suspicion. Just before she starts to cry, Christine comes back with the milk and a plastic container with a lid.
I brought you a drop soup, she says. You don’t look very well. If you’ve no much appetite I thought still you maybe can manage a wee drop soup.
She pronounces it ‘seup’ and I want to smile.
Instead I say, Oh, you Scotswomen! You and your soup! If in doubt, make a pot of soup, eh? Soup, soup, soup!
Christine stares at me. It’s out of a carton, she says. I’ll put it in the fridge.
She pours our tea and brings it in and we sip at it. She has put sugar in mine. The dark clumps of Paris’s chocolate krispies sit on sideplates in neon-coloured paper cases. I nibble a piece and find it hard to swallow. Then I see on Christine’s face another impending outbreak of compassion so I draw attention to the half-empty, upended tea chests, some of whose contents are littering the floor. I pick up a cutting, the full page advert Uncle George took in theBurnhead & District Advertiseron 7th July, the same day they published our photograph and the old one of my mother.
What do you think of that, then? I ask, holding the page up to her. The paper is filthy, the edges frilly with rot and damp. I sneeze, twice.
She cranes forward and reads it.
I wouldn’t know, she says. What’s it meant to be?
I don’t answer because suddenly she exclaims, Paris! Paris, come out of there!
Paris has got hold of my cross-stitch, pulled it out of its bag and is making a kind of cat’s cradle out of my silks. I jump to my feet. I don’t want it spoiled, she’s a sticky-looking child. She may have chocolate on her fingers. Plus there’s a needle in it.
Christine gets there first and pulls the work gently away from her. Paris wails, plonks herself on the floor and returns to Stripey.
Hey, brilliant, Christine says, smoothing it over, did you do this? It’s brilliant.
She turns it this way and that. Honest, it’s really good. What’s it meant to be? What way up does it go?
It’s not meant to be anything, it’s stylised, I say. It’s not meant to be anything, it’s just a symmetrical pattern. Just shapes.
Christine doesn’t know what to say to this, so as she sits down again she picks up the cutting and looks at it.
My God, she says, this is over forty years old. People hang on to stuff that long, don’t they? She waves an arm over the boxes and papers on the floor. It’s daft. I mean what would you want to hang on to stuff like this for?
BURNHEAD ASSOCIATION FOR SINGINGTURANDOT
COME AND JOIN IN this thrilling amateur production of Puccini’sTurandottaking place in Burnhead 26th, 27th and 28th August under the baton of top London professional. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. We need the following VOLUNTEERS AGED THIRTEEN OR OVER:
…PERFORMERSChorus: (all voices, no auditions, just bring your enthusiasm!)Principals: (some amateur experience desirable)Strings, brass & percussion players(own instrument and stand preferred)Dancers, jugglers, acrobats—any style,all other special skills also very welcome…PRODUCTION
Carpenters, painters, technicians, general helpers, front of house, costumes, makeup, props, production assistants. Electrical knowledge helpful. ALL HELP WELCOME
WHATEVER YOUR AGE OR EXPERIENCE
you can join in and have lots of fun. Come to an INFORMAL MEETING to LEARN MORE at 5 Seaview Villas, Pow Road, Burnhead, Saturday 9th July at 6.00 p.m.ALL WELCOMEFREE REFRESHMENTS
I wouldn’t know, I say.
When she goes I sit among the cuttings and papers and they feel like old wrappings, the crumpled and torn tissue round precious things so long ago put by that the reasons that made them worth keeping have disintegrated silently inside their coverings. Treasures shrink with time, as do the objects of all youthful ecstasies; unwrapped and recalled later, they are mystifyingly undeserving of preservation. Although those paperweights in the sideboard may be the exception here. I bring the paperweights out again and set them in a row along the sideboard. Clean and pretty things make a contrast in this house.
My father was a mild man—a gentleman, as Christine says—mild to the point of powerlessness, unable to put up much resistance, but still I ask him now, aloud, over the purring of the fire: Why did you allow it? When Joe Foscari came that night, did you not see? I saw you watching. Surely you saw me fall for him. Why was there nothing in me that inspired your protection?
No answer comes. I see his face in old age when his mildness had deepened and he had grown whimsical and ambiguous. No answer will come now.
All right then, I say. All right, just tell me this. Were you not in the least concerned about the way they came and took us over—all of us? Were you not at the very least concerned about the money? You always worried about money. Did it not bother you, the whole Premium Bond being wasted on an amateur opera?
Ah, wasted? It was wasted, you think?
I see him, his hands draped over the arms of his chair like empty, hanging gloves. I could never actually have seen him this way in life so I must be imagining what it was like for him afterwards, late that night, that botched night when everything disintegrated and everyone left.
Yes, I think it was wasted. I lick my fingers clean of chocolate, pick up the cross-stitch, rearrange the skeins of silks, take up my needle and work by the glow from the fire. I don’t want bright light.
Christine grows bolder. This afternoon she is back. Paris has just been deposited at the Pow Little People’s Paradise—a wee playgroup kind of thing, Christine says—and she is dropping in to ask if I enjoyed my soup. My eyes are hot and dry from my sewing. Her lips tighten a little when I find myself unable to answer and she walks past me to the kitchen and starts to bang around looking for a pan to heat it up in. She rests in the doorway while it’s on the stove and asks if I’m all right for bin bags, because if I like she can pop home for a couple and give me a hand to get some of this mess tidied up.
No thank you, I say.
She sighs. It’s just, I seen it in the paper at lunchtime, she says. The paper, theBurnhead Advertiser,it’s out today. Mr Duncan’s funeral’s in the paper, the announcement? So I was kinda wondering.
You know. Wondering where you’ll be going after, Christine says, as if such a concern is natural or obvious. After the funeral, for the refreshments. The announcement never said. I’m thinking if you’re having them back here you’ll need a wee hand to get tidied up first.
Refreshments? I haven’t thought about refreshments, I tell her. There won’t be many there. There may be no-one.
Christine disappears into the kitchen and comes back with soup in a mug. It is far too hot and smells of compost but something tells me she’s not leaving till I’ve eaten it.
Listen, she says. When her voice drops like this, it’s pleasant enough. I watch her over the rim of my mug. Listen, it’ll mainly be old folk, it’ll be a cold day. You need to give them a cup of tea. It’s expected. It’s what you do.
The soup tastes green and salty and makes my eyes water. I fish about for a tissue. Christine finds one on the floor. There are, in fact, many paper handkerchiefs on the floor, among all the other papers.
I’ve got this friend that does wee functions, teas and parties and that, Christine says. She works from home, does all her own baking. Want me to ask her? She’ll do it all nice for you, brings the urn and cups and everything. She’s not dear either, not like the hotels.
She pulls a business card from the pouch in the front of her fleece. On it there’s a picture of a pie with ‘Sheena’s Party Fayre’ and a telephone number written underneath. In a cloud of steam coming out of the pie it says in fluffy letters: ‘Function catering in your home. Complete service. Large or small. All fresh made.’
I wonder what this has to do with me.
Here? I say, looking round.
Christine is looking at me carefully. Uh-huh, she’s got a wee van and everything. I’ll help you get straight. I’m thinking, maybe, she says gently, maybe Mr Duncan would have liked folk back here. He was the gentleman.
Maybe, I say.
She is catching me off guard, this girl, easing herself sideways into my business with bloody soup and chocolate krispies and that blonde, blank child and now, pictures of steaming pies.
See, I’ll help you get tidy. Want me to phone Sheena for you? Will I tell her tea and sandwiches and cake and maybe a dram? For about a dozen, or maybe twenty?
I don’t stop her. It’ll be something to work towards.
Audrey entered the clients’ waiting room and saw that Raymond was frowning. That meant it would be one of their talking days. She liked those, especially after one of the other kind; it allayed the sound of her mother’s voice that could sometimes still, even now, start up in her head, telling her she was plain oversexed and a shame to her parents (there being no shame like that of missionaries with a daughter in trouble), just the type to get caught in a trap of her own making, a web woven from her dirty wants, her cheap compliance and her graceless soul. No man’ll ever respect you, she said. After all these years Audrey found this information wearying, but not much more. She was safe from the worst consequences of it, even supposing it were true, but still she liked to see that Raymond was as anxious to talk to her as he sometimes was to have her splayed, as decorously as she could manage, on the leather Chesterfield. He was frowning at theBurnhead & District Advertiser.
‘Paper’s just out. Would you take a look at that,’ he said, folding the page back for her to see. They studied it together.
She said, ‘So they’re really going ahead with it?’
‘Daft,’ Raymond said. ‘They’re dead set. We’ve the young fella up from London now, moved in for the duration. Tenor. Fancy talker.’
‘Well, what Fleur wants Fleur gets, isn’t that usually the way?’ Audrey said easily.
On and off she tried to get Raymond to stand up to his wife a little, for his own sake, but the pattern of her encouragement followed by his failure to act on it was by now reassuring and neither expected any more of it than that. It was a marker, that was all, of how things were and how things were done, like the cool paper smells of the office, tea cups washed as soon as finished with, pencils sharpened: daily, expected, approved. Raymond lived by such measures and so did she.
‘Aye, well. Well…’
His voice tailed off. Audrey waited, without expectation. He often tried to feel his way forward like this, with little murmured observances that carried no meaning. He would let the potential of words expire in a sigh of exhaled breath, compromising the moment when he might speak by letting it pass with a shrug because it always turned out to be not the right time, after all, when he might come out with a speech about what he really felt. She didn’t regret his lack of rhetoric anymore.
He said, ‘It’s not just Fleur, mind you…it’s the lot of them. They’re egging each other on. I’m to stage manage the thing, so I’m told.’
‘Stage manage it? Can you do that?’
‘I’m to get a team to build the stage. In the evenings. I’m to talk to a firm about lighting, I’m to look at drawings for the set. I’m to ask, no, I’m totellMr Mather I need to take my holidays to fit in with it.’
‘You’ll be busy, then.’
‘I’ve tried to tell them! I’ve tried to say I can’t do this kind of thing but George won’t hear a no. Fleur’s not listening at all, the Italian fella just smiles and swings his arms about. I mean, what’m I supposed to do?’
‘You’re not to worry. They can’t expect you to do it all by yourself, can they? They couldn’t, surely.’
‘Och, Audrey.’ Raymond hesitated. ‘I don’t know. Maybe if, how about if you come in on it, too? Maybe help with the costumes or something, just so’s maybe…maybe I’d not be so much on my own?’
Audrey took Raymond’s hand and gave it a squeeze. ‘Well, maybe I could. Though there’s John.’
Another moment passed with a faint clearing of the throat from one or both of them, and a small sigh of respect for John. The anemones on the low table that he had grown and that Audrey had brought into the office on Monday were open and curling now, the petals gaping inside out to their polished hearts, stamens purple and smoky like the remains of a private, burned-out pyre. A dusting of sooty pollen lay on the cloth under the vase. She didn’t know whether her deceiving of John was important or not, in the wide sense. Conducted so modestly that Raymond, beyond the door of the clients’ waiting room, was shy of asking anything of her at all, her infidelity felt like a discreet grace note in her life in which she was permitted to take a small and private pride, such as the filing kept up to date, the placing of cloths under vases.
‘John’d help too. He wouldn’t want to be left out. And he’s practical enough,’ she said.
Raymond murmured, then withdrew his hand from hers and hit at the folded page of the newspaper. ‘Ach I mean, look at it,’ he said. ‘How am I supposed to know what to do?’
Audrey pulled the paper away and folded it up and tucked it out of Raymond’s sight. ‘Don’t worry so much. We’ll come to the meeting, John and me.’
‘That’s good of you.’
‘And what’s Lizzie making of it all?’
‘Oh, Lizzie.’ His incomprehension became even more burdensome. ‘We’re to understand from George that Lizzie’s got this voice, a real big voice. He’s got her full of it. She wants to get properly trained.’
Audrey raised her eyebrows. ‘Like her mother?’
‘Or so I’m told. I’ve never heard her on the subject. Lizzie never speaks to me.’ He sighed. ‘She’s living in a world of her own. I think she’s away with the fairies.’
Audrey thought for a moment. ‘Well, it’s probably her nature. I was like that once.’
‘Her head’s in the clouds.’
‘She’ll be all right. As long as they’reherclouds,’ she said, ‘and nobody else’s.’
igo to bed in my old bedroom, and I dream. Though I am there in the dream, I am not doing anything except watch, nor am I utterly myself. It is some more valid person than I am who is doing the watching; through my eyes and from inside my own head she is looking out and seeing my parents and somehow me as well. This nearly-me, beside-myself person wonders if she is asleep or awake.
What she—or I—sees is a fragile picture. It comes and goes in light that is full of tricks and keeps changing and is the colour of neither night nor day; in an unsteady glow that could be from sun or moon the picture flickers and could evaporate altogether if stared at too long. In the dream I know that it is 1960, so it is another trick, then, that the dream is playing this picture back to me as if it were a memory, for it is impossible that I ever did see my parents like this in 1960, or ever. But there they are, staring as from a photograph, my mother at the end of her rope and my father dull with bewilderment. Their eyes, impenetrable circles of darkness, are larger than in life. They are standing in the garden and all around them on the ground lie the splintered remains of something they have broken, and they are sick at the loss and waste of it. They look ready to end their lives, and it seems arbitrary—a question of timing only—whether they will kill themselves or each other. But in their eyes sits the knowledge that one way or another the whole sorry business will soon be over and the hush surrounding them has something to do with respect for this fact. The waiting must be borne out with decorum.
Now I am lying down and staring through darkness towards the ceiling. I rise and take myself to the attic where at night the air smells even older than in daytime. The light of the bare bulb glares on the camp bed, which is still strewn with things piled up in a bank against the wall. I start to remove them, methodically at first, ferrying armloads to unfilled patches of floor, imagining that I am sorting things out. But all I want is the bed cleared, so I start to push stuff off and fling it around anyhow. Under all the junk, the surface of the dusty bedcover is still its original indigo blue. I ignore a fleeting, dark movement across its surface; something swift and scurrying has already vanished with the lightness of blinking. When I give the cloth a shake I find woven into the underside of its folds little silky white swellings that are powdery to the touch, the remains of ghostly, fled cocoons. Where more than forty years of light from the square skylight has fallen on the edge of the cover as it spills over the side of the bed to the floor, the colour has faded to a dim lilac.
I pull back the cover and get in and surrender to the embrace of the cloth and also to my own disgust, for it smells, and is heavy with damp and sticky with the layers of years; it feels like a coating of death. No trace of Joe remains. Not a breath or a hair nestles in the brown-stained ticking of the pillow, no memory of his skin is held in a whiff of talcum powder or aftershave between the cover and the rank mattress. Yet here is where he lies night after night while in my room below I stare upwards. I have to know how he sleeps. Is he on his back staring up too, not at the ceiling but through the skylight at the moon? On his side? Are his legs straight or scissored and are they covered or bare, does he grasp the bedcover between his thighs? Does he think of me and touch himself, imagining my hands, as I am trying to make my fingers feel like his body, opening mine? Does he listen for the sea or turn at once towards the wall and dream? It seems that I am still lying awake and burning in the dark, tormented by the heat in myself.
Now I see him. As I watched my parents so I watch Joe, simultaneously witnessing my invisibility to him. He is here in the attic but lying in a high, carved, baronial bed, the kind of bed I imagine his family owning. Uncle George is in the doorway with his back to the room, explaining something to my parents, who are out of sight. What he says is making them unhappy. Joe sleeps. I fancy George is talking about him. Nobody sees me.
A dream and not a memory, but this is how it was that summer. My watching with nothing to do while others talk, talk, talk, stretches of time when I hesitate between rooms, unsure whether to go towards or away from the sound of voices. Spells of loitering, waiting for Joe to turn up and give shape to long, senseless hours. Days filled with the single purpose of awakening a part of him that doesn’t really see me, to bring him alive to the necessity of me. Day after day when I fail to rouse him beyond a vague, drowsy friendliness and into a revelation of what I mean to him, when I squander hours devising excuses for his being unaware that his life and mine are unbearable unless we are together.
I am wrong to try to remember that time as if I saw one thing leading to another. Memory tries to insist that there is a kind of inevitability between events but even if there is, it is hidden at the time. But that summer, we really are marooned and voiceless until Uncle George comes along. He makes everything possible, even easy; swinging to our rescue the way he does, he seems to explain to us who we are. Above all, he disguises the preposterousness of it: an amateur production ofTurandotmounted in nine weeks with a cast of kids, oddities and thwarted also-rans. How blind I am not to see that Uncle George is just as blinded, and chasing just as hard after what he himself wants. But I don’t care to go over and over it.
Now I sneeze and the blue cover fills my nose with a smell like pepper and dead leaves and is rough against my face, like a prison blanket. I struggle to my feet and try to wave away the frowsty air around the bed, protesting. I feel things crawling in my scalp. My eyes water under the bright light that casts a blade of shadow along the sloping ceiling of the attic and now I really am awake, scratching at my arms and shivering on the bare floor.
Lila woke up with two hot patches high on her cheeks. In the bathroom she washed furtively and afterwards hid her flannel and toothbrush because there was nothing pretty about them. She kept the taps running while she used the lavatory and then she tipped bleach down it and waited ten minutes in case the next person in the bathroom should be Joe.
Back in her room, she looked at herself in the mirror. Reflected behind her she saw clothes draped over a chair and behind that the stale and wrong things that she had accrued, outgrown and stopped noticing: her old dolls’ house with painted ivy wandering up its walls, the shelf of school stories and ballet annuals, a flaking black metal tin of broken geometry tools. She owned nothing that she still wanted. Overnight she had become herself, arriving in her real life at last only to find that she had got there burdened with possessions with no point, and dressed as someone else. She had no clothes she could bear to appear to Joe in. Somehow she had been surviving under a shadow that obscured how unacceptable she looked.
But the tragedy of her clothes could not be played out now, on a Thursday morning in Burnhead. She could smell burning toast from downstairs, she heard the back door bang as her father left for work and the sound of the taps running again in the bathroom and the rippling of her mother’s voice, trilling and turning Italian phrases. A gusty wind blew outside, squeezing an ordinary, everyday draught through the window frame. She had to join the day and get dressed in something, however thwarted her changed self would be in it. She pulled on her dirndl skirt. It had a pattern that reminded her of half-beaten eggs but it was reasonably new; Enid’s mum had run it up for her at Easter at the same time as doing one for Enid in red and white stripes. (Two’s as simple as one, she said, handing it over to Lila and waving away thanks.) If she pulled her white belt in tight it looked better, but the yellow aertex shirt would not do. It would never do again. She put on her reasonable white blouse with the Peter Pan collar and bows on the cuffs, and spent a long time practising how to move: she turned sideways to the mirror, straightened her back and thrust out her chest, imagining through Joe’s eyes the combined impact of her bust and her glancing smile. He had to catch sight of her like this, bashful and skittish, just at the moment when a tiny, breathy laugh escaped her lips.
She was still barefoot. The flat sandals would also have to go, permanently, but she had little else apart from school shoes and plimsolls, only a pair of tan pumps meant for special occasions. They would have to do, with American Tan stockings. She undressed again in order to put on her suspender belt which was ointment pink and needed a wash, but at least she would not have to worry about Joe’s eyes judging it.
The stockings and smart shoes did not look right with the high colour in her face and her hair flattened childishly under Kirby grips. She damped down the pink in her cheeks with some Max Factor but it looked strange, sitting on her face by itself, so she put on mascara as well, scrubbing a paste off the surface of the flat black cake with spit and stroking it into clumps on her lashes with the little doll’s brush. She scraped her hair back hard to make her eyes look Chinesey and startled, and then she backcombed it into a thick, felted swell and tied it high at the back of her head in a yellow chiffon scarf. She was amazed at how long all this took. But she had to count herself now among those who knew the true purpose of dressing to the nines. Realising she could never again be a person who wasn’t prepared to go to such lengths, she felt initiated and dismayed.
Uncle George and Joe were in the dining room. Going in, she broke an atmosphere, as if opening the door snapped threads lately spun between them. She poured herself tea in silence, not sure if their eyes were on her or on the trickle into her cup that meant she was emptying the pot.
‘So,buon giorno, la bella!’ Joe said, loudly and suddenly.
Lila lifted a hand to the scarf in her hair.
‘So, today,la bellaLiù, may I enjoin you to give me a tour of my new surroundings?’ He stretched out a hand that remained too far away for her to touch, had she dared reach for it.
‘Lawhat?’ she asked, unconsciously dipping her head to receive the garland of her own special name. ‘La bellawhat?’
‘We have a great deal to do,’ Uncle George said. He sounded as if he were repeating himself. ‘We have a public meeting here the day after tomorrow. The three of you need vocal coaching every day, and on top of that you have to be able to sing your parts in your sleep. And all in a matter of weeks.’
‘Yes, Maestro, but I don’t see why that means we have to hang around all morning,’ Joe said. Lila giggled.
‘There is no need to be hanging around. You should be working on your parts, on your own. Without over-taxing your voice, naturally. Then we need to start thinking about the set, do some drawings, start thinking about materials. You said you were keen to design it. I’d have thought at the very least you’d want to go up to the farm to see the space where you’re performing.’
Joe widened his eyes. ‘Ah, may I remind you, the set’s all up here,’ he said, tapping the side of his head with his index finger. ‘I told you, that’s the way I work. I could get it down on paper in ten minutes. How you fuss! Doesn’t he,la bellaLiù?’
Uncle George lit a cigarette and looked at his watch. Joe screwed up his nose and waved the smoke away. ‘Really, Maestro, I don’t know why you get so het up,’ he said.
‘At 9.15 I shall give Fleur her session. At 10.15 you will have yours, and at 11.30, after a fifteen minute break, it’ll be her turn,’ George said, nodding at Lila. He got up from the table. ‘You will each work for at least four more hours every day learning your parts. At 2.30 every day we shall meet and discuss what else needs to be done. Understood?’
‘We’re not students now, you know,’ Joe said, looking at Lila for support.
‘Exactly. You’re taking on something that even professionals would baulk at. You should also,’ he said, now fixing his attention on Joe and dropping his voice, ‘rest for at least an hour and a half every afternoon. You need to build up stamina. I expect you all singing your parts, word-perfect without scores, in two weeks’ time.’
He set his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and left.
Joe said, ‘He’s not being fair. I just need time. I know the part already, most of it. I need to mull ideas over in my head. My…’ He spun a hand in the air. ‘My ideas for the set…they are buds. They need time to flower. You understand, don’t you?’
‘Oh, of course,’ Lila said. ‘I understand.’
‘Hedoesn’t,’ Joe said. He seemed to be waiting for her to say something.
‘I know. Typical.’
‘Come on,’ he said, standing up. ‘We’ll go out. We’ll just forget all about him, shall we?’
‘Anywhere—you choose. Take me anywhere you like,’ he said, putting on a smile and spreading his arms.
Lila’s heart thumped; he didn’t care where he went as long as it was she who took him. ‘But Uncle George, the dishes…’
George was now at the piano across the hall, stabbing out the chords of the chorus at the end of Act I:
La fossa già scaviam per te
Che vuoi sfidar l’amor!
We are already digging the grave for you
Who want to challenge love!
The sound rose and punctured through Fleur’s whooping and swooping voice from upstairs.
‘Forget him! Come with me. You’re not scared of him, are you, little Liù? He’s not Bernstein, you know. We’ve got to stand up to him.’ He made for the door and opened it noiselessly. ‘Comeon,’ he whispered, reaching out a hand.
Without having to discuss the need to avoid the front door, they left the house by the back, crossed the garden and slipped through the gate in the wall into the scrubland that stretched down to the shore. The wind almost toppled Lila’s hair and she raised a hand to steady it while with the other she grabbed her skirt that was suddenly full of treacherous, billowing life. The weather infuriated her. She had to get used to the new way she looked; she did not want to have to concentrate on keeping herself in one piece and stopping her stocking tops from showing. Now the wind was making her eyes water and soon her mascara would run and she would be weeping indelible, soot tears in front of Joe.
‘There’s nothing to see,’ she said, watching his eyes scan the shoreline and the windy sky. ‘It’s a rotten place.’
He was taking deep breaths in the manner of inland people about to say something about sea air. ‘No, it’s not the Riviera, is it?’ he called over the wind. ‘George exaggerates so.’
‘I hate it. I’m not staying, I’m moving to London.’
‘Still, I wasn’t expecting much,’ he said, taking a few purposeless steps. He turned back to her. ‘So! Now Joey is in your gentle hands. Show me round! I’m interested in everything. I want to see it all.’
Lila pushed her skirt down, trapping its folds between her thighs. What did he mean? He had, strictly speaking, asked her out, so why was it up to her what they did? Could this be a date, on a blustery Thursday morning? Was this the material on which she was to build memories for saying, for the rest of their lives:Do you remember the first time we went out together?
‘Suppose you take me down to the beach?’ he said.
She couldn’t possibly take him to the beach. To get to the beach you had to cross the dunes with sand stinging your legs, and the dunes, as everybody knew, were where couples went at night to make little shelters in the marram grass and writhe privately in the dark to the sucking of the tide. Joe was in short sleeves again. She could see the hairs on his arms, ruffled by the wind. When she looked at his open top shirt button and saw the hair sprouting there at his throat, a ragged flutter of warmth ran through her. She blushed, thinking of One Thing Only, the thing that all boys wanted and that certain girls were apparently prepared to go to the dunes for. Joe might think that was what she wanted. She turned away. It had never occurred to her before, but what if some couples went to the dunes in daylight and they were to stumble across one? Until now she would have thought it impossible because what took place was so embarrassing surely it could only be done in the dark, but she was getting an inkling of powerful reasons why people could throw off that kind of shyness. And hardly less awful than stumbling uponthatwas the thought of Joe and her together catching sight of the things she and Enid occasionally came across on the beach and that Lila was ashamed of knowing the purpose of: the limp, discarded evidence of One Thing Only lying like pink emptied maggots, sometimes delicately knotted at the end.
‘Well, what about showing me the glorious sights of fair Burnhead?’
His gaze was now drifting over Lila’s head. Was he regretting coming out with her?
‘All right,’ she said, ‘come on, we’ll go this way!’ The carefree laugh she tagged onto the end of the words was lost on the wind.
When they emerged onto the road next to the bridge over the Pow Burn, Lila stopped. It was nearly a mile’s walk in one direction to Burnhead, a mile in the other to Monkton, where there was even less to see, and she was in her pointed court shoes. Joe wasn’t equipped for a walk either; he didn’t seem the type who ever would be. He was wearing pointed shoes too, come to that, black leather ones that curled up slightly at the toes, and the belt round his jeans pulled him in so stiffly it was hard to imagine him striding carelessly along the sea road. They loitered moodily for a minute or two.
She was about to suggest that maybe they should go up to Pow Farm after all, when Joe called out, ‘Hey, look, a bus!’
Lila looked up and saw it in the distance, rocking along the road from Burnhead towards Monkton, going the wrong way.
‘Quick! There’s the stop, come on!’ Joe yelled.
He grabbed her hand and suddenly Lila didn’t care where the bus was going. Even running with splayed feet, terrified she would lose a shoe, she was storing the moment away:Do you remember the first time you took my hand?
The bus pulled to a halt. Joe clattered upstairs and Lila lurched behind, thrilled at how willingly she could abandon decency and follow him, for upstairs on a bus was a place where only a girl who wanted to mix with chain-smoking men playing with themselves would go. Joe marched up to the very front seat and slumped in it. A minute later they rumbled past Seaview Villas, almost level with the drawn curtains of Fleur’s bedroom window. Lila, laughing, sent the house a little wave.
‘Byesie-bye, Fleur, byesie-bye, George,’ Joe said, turning and wiggling his fingers. ‘Byesie-bye,Turandot.’
The conductress clumped upstairs and took their fares. Joe paid, as was only right on a date and besides, Lila had no money. Then he leaned across and gave the ends of her yellow chiffon bow a little tug.
‘You’re coming undone,’ he said. ‘You’ve come undone running for the bus. You’re falling to bits. Turn round.’
He took the ends of the scarf. ‘ “A sweet disorder in the dress…”’ he said over her shoulder, laughing. ‘D’you know the rest?’
‘The rest of what?’
Joe took his time adjusting the scarf, lifting it and fluffing the bow, primping the ends.
‘That’s better now,la bella,oops, just a minute…’ With one finger he lifted a loose tendril from her neck and pushed it upwards into the mass of dark hair under the scarf.
‘ “…kindles in clothes a wantonness.” Or so they say. Done—there you are!’
He patted the top of her head and turned back. Lila, breathless with the sensation of his finger on her neck, hardly heard what he had said. She sat letting memories form—already memories, already she was starving for more—of his hands touching her hair, grazing her skin. She had to fix them in her mind. She had to edit and interpret them too; that pat on the head, for instance, he must have meant to be tender rather than casual. There couldn’t have been anything brotherly in it. She turned to look at him. He was staring straight ahead now and lifting and lowering his eyebrows as if practising facial expressions or conducting a silent conversation. She must be patient. For the time being the rules confined them to gestures and looks. Words would come later. She saw a series of arches through which she and Joe would pass, gradually shedding the layers of rule-keeping—the pretence of indifference, the perfected indirectness—until their true feelings could be admitted. Soon after that they would be engaged and she would be able to say:Do you remember the first time you touched my hair?
Of course I do, but what I really wanted to do was kiss it.Lila looked at him again, surprised. Now she was inside his head and seeing herself: she felt the chiffon under his hands and her warm hair tangled in his fingers, knew precisely his impulse to lean forward and breathe the scent of her shampoo and taste strands of her hair drawn through his lips. She knew the sparkle that went through him when he touched her, all the magazine talk of destiny, romance and encountering True Love melting in a single, tyrannical leaping of the blood.
The bus rolled along, slowed and stopped. A man came upstairs with a cigarette in his mouth, pulling a greyhound on a lead. Its claws tapped like falling stones along the deck between the seats. If he had not come, Joe might have kissed her. ‘So, where is it you’re taking me, then?’ Joe said, after a few more minutes. ‘Where exactly are we?’
She tried to explain. ‘The bus only goes one way. It goes the wrong way, it comes along our road away from Burnhead and goes up to Monkton and back round all the little roads to Burnhead by the long way. The road’s not wide enough for buses to pass, that’s why.’
‘So you have to go nine miles in the wrong direction to get where you want that’s only one mile away.’
She failed to make this sound amusing. They sat in silence for the rest of the journey and by the time they got off the bus Joe seemed to have forgotten that the outing had been his idea. He dawdled a little behind Lila as if he were indulging her by consenting to follow. They joined Burnhead Main Street and walked along past the mix of gift shops and tearooms—Ice Cream Made on the Premises, Sugar Novelties—that sat side by side with the butchers, chemists, ironmongers and churches. Lila longed for him to assert how things were meant to go; the responsibility for making the day special was beginning to crush her. With a pang of sorrow she led him past Sew Right. She wished he were more curious about her because then she might be able to explain, at the very least, about Enid’s mum. But a single glance at him told her they couldn’t possibly pop in and see her together. She wasn’t sure why.
They followed the path through the public gardens between the beds of wallflowers and the children’s putting green and still they said little. Lila wondered what she was supposed to do with him now. If they could just stop marching along, if they could only come to a halt and look at each other and talk with nobody else around, all would become clear between them. But there were no places designed for them. There was nowhere they could linger and be out of the wind and away from other people, except perhaps certain notorious park benches where Senga McMillan’s initials were etched with several others and at which no right-thinking girl could suggest pausing.
Families defeated by the weather and giving up on the beach for the day limped past them, laden parents with faces cured pink by brine and wind, hauling behind them urchin offspring in sopping plimsolls, shivering and clutching their crotches and whining for a place to stop. A number of them lodged on the benches next to the swings and rubbish bins to eat their jam pieces and swig from Thermos flasks—dinnertime brought forward to half past ten for want of anything else to do—not far from the sinister, red-brick conveniences that were set back at the end of a path lined with thorn bushes studded with discarded papers.
At the point where the path joined Station Road and led down to the sea, Lila and Joe turned and wandered back up to Main Street.
‘Well,’ Lila said, slowing by the bus stop. ‘Well, that’s Burnhead. See, there’s nothing to do. We might as well go back.’
‘We’ve only just come!’ Joe stood with his hands on his hips, looking round, his eyes suddenly, newly bright. ‘I suppose it’s too early for a drink. How’s about a coffee? Where’s your usual haunt? Where do all the lovely young things go?’
There was nothing for it but the Locarno. These days the Chit Chat was soaking up the clientele the Locarno no longer wanted: the more prosperous sand-covered families from the beach who had the money for choice of sausage roll or fish and chips, orangeade or tea, and solitary old people dropping jammy scones in their laps. Nobody of Lila’s generation went there anymore. The Locarno was the place, the set high tea off the menu and newly done up, the dark panelling and bentwood furniture stripped out. Lozenge-shaped Formica tables with lethal metal trims were now screwed to the floor and brash lighting buzzed from the ceiling where the plaster cornicing and ceiling roses had been chiselled away like icing off an old cake. There, Burnhead’s teenage sophisticates sat numbed by the jukebox while condensation from the new, hissing coffee machine poured down the plate-glass window. Joe’s kind of place. They went in. He ordered coffee for them at the counter and sauntered towards a table. He knew without being told that the waitress would bring it.
Enid was sitting in a bay with Senga McMillan, Linda McCall and Deirdre Munro, one of several bovine quartets of girls slumped and chewing on their empty mouths or on straws poking out of Coke bottles, while their eyes travelled round for the subject of their next sneer. The boys, commandeering the jukebox in knots of four and five, shoved and showed off, breaking into laughter and catcalls that carried sometimes a sudden unfettered high note that was giddy and female. Lila raised a smile to Enid as she went by and sank into a seat opposite Joe.
The four girls leaned in and whispered and broke into laughter. Senga called over, ‘Look whit the cat’s brung in! Who’s yer friend, got yoursel’ a fancy man?’
‘And who do we have here?’ Joe asked Lila, turning round and sending them a lazy smile.
‘Don’t look round! They’re my friends.Supposedto be. I hate them.’
‘Look at the state of her. Haw, Lizzie! I seen your mum’s picture in the paper. Goin’ to gie us a wee song?’ Linda said.
‘Tra la! What’s your favourite opera? How’d you cry it again? Touring-whit?’
‘Aw, ’scuse me, my Italian’s a wee bit rusty, what’s Italian for fancy man?’
‘What’s Italian for fancy hair-do?’
‘What’s Italian for whaur’s yer knickers?’
Three of the quartet collapsed into more laughter; only Enid looked uncomfortable. Lila stared at the table, her face hot and red under the Max Factor, and folded her hands over her head to try to hide the scarf. Then, before she could stop him, Joe got up and walked over slowly, thumbs hooked into the front pockets of his jeans. The girls shifted, composed their faces and shook out their hair.
‘How do you do, ladies? Allow me to introduce myself. Joe Foscari,’ he said, planting himself in front of them. ‘And how are yourselves, ladies?’
He proffered a hand but none of them dared take it.
‘I hope I shall have the pleasure of seeing you all on Saturday,’ he said, looking round at the other tables, assessing the attention. ‘Full details, as you say, in the paper. I trust youareall coming on Saturday to join BAST?’
‘Well, hawdy hawdy haw. Opera, you kidding?’ Senga said. ‘BAST? Is that that shite you was telling us, Enid?’
‘What?’ Enid said. ‘Oh. Uh-huh. It’s some thing of Lizzie’s.’
Joe said, ‘It’s a great chance. We’ll be needing young ladies like yourselves.’
Senga turned lazy eyes back to Joe. ‘You—have—got—to—be—kidding. Opera’s shite. You wouldn’t catch me dead.’
A squabble broke out over by the jukebox. There was some pushing and complaining, and then ‘A Big Hunk O’ Love’ began blaring out of it.
Hey Baby, I ain’t askin’ much of you
No no no no no no no no baby
The boys fell silent and grouped round, some of them pumping from the hips with their eyes closed, lips pushed out; alerted, in with a chance, jerking with adult stealth to the universal beat of lust, the thump, thump, hump of an easy pick-up. Senga dropped her mouth open, pulling taut a sheet of gum between her top and bottom teeth, snapped it, flipped her tongue round it and joined in with the song, smirking at Joe:
Well you can spare a kiss or two and
Still have plenty left, no no no
The boys looked over. The girls giggled.
Well I ain’t greedy baby
All I want is all you got, no no no
Baby I ain’t asking much of you
Just a big-a big-a hunk o’ love will do
The song finished and another one started up. Senga sucked up a mouthful of Coke and stared at Joe without blinking.
He said, ‘Dear me. That’s a most grave error you’re making. Opera’s not what you think. You’ll be missing the time of your lives.’
Senga tried to engage the other three in an exchange of sniggers but now they were all watching him, trying to work out how, while being so polite and friendly, he was managing to make fools of them.
‘You surprise me, up-to-date ladies like yourselves,’ he said. ‘Opera’s the in thing. Everybody’ll be there. You’d better come or you’ll miss your big chance.’
Enid said, ‘Big chance of what? Singing in a stupid opera?’
Joe glanced down the aisle at Lila. ‘No, I mean your chance—your glorious chance—of appearing on stage with the tenor Giuseppe Foscari. That’s me.’
‘Haw! Fancy yoursel’, don’t you? Whit’s so great about you?’ Senga said. ‘That’s a stupid name, anyway.’ The others gasped. She would always go further than any of them.
Joe smiled and turned to Lila again. ‘Hear that, Liù?’ he called over. ‘What’s great aboutme?’
Just then the waitress came along with their coffee. To give her room to get past, Joe turned back to the girls’ bay and pressed himself hard against the end of their table. The edge pushed into his thighs. Even Senga had to look away.
‘Ah! What’s so great about me?’ he said softly, easing himself back on his heels. ‘That, ladies, I shall demonstrate.’
The last verse of ‘Please Don’t Tease’ was bouncing from the jukebox. Joe took a few steps down the aisle and waited while the song died away. Then he turned and fixed his eyes somewhere above the girls’ heads. He was on stage; he placed his fingertips on his ribs, took a deep breath and from his mouth came a caramelly slick of sound that coated the steamy air of the Locarno:
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me,
Il nome mio nessun saprà!
It was‘Nessun dorma’,though to Lila’s ears, pitched a couple of tones lower. The hairs rose on the back of her neck at Joe’s effortful, insistent sound. It was over in a matter of seconds. People turned to see if they’d heard right. There were murmurs, snorts of laughter, raised eyebrows. A few people peered round, whistled and stamped, then they turned back. Talking resumed.
Lila’s face burned. She could have told him Burnhead people were the most heart-sinking on earth. Joe deserved cheering and clapping and most of them hadn’t even taken their straws from their mouths. Then the Locarno’s proprietor, Mr Locatelli, appeared from the back. He wiped his hands, raised an arm and laughed. ‘Bravo, bravo! Bravo,signor!’ he called. Conversation stopped again.
Joe bowed towards him. ‘Prego.Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, ‘come and sing in an opera! Details in your excellent local paper! And now if you’ll excuse me, my coffee’s getting cold.’
He slipped onto the bench opposite Lila, beamed at her and reached for the sugar. He seemed refreshed. The jukebox began again. While Lila waited for him to finish with the sugar, she glanced round. She was beginning to enjoy herself, nervously; being with Joe filled her with an uneasy, though pleasurable sense of importance.
After a while Enid and the others got up to leave. They loitered at the door, calculating interest in them. Joe called out, ‘See you on Saturday, ladies!’
All of them sailed out except Enid, who hung back, came over to their table and sat down. She looked embarrassed.
‘They’re away to get cigs. I’m not going. My mum’d kill me.’
‘Well, quite right,’ Joe said evenly. ‘Sensible young lady.’
‘See my mum?’ Enid turned to Lila. ‘She saw the advert in the paper. The BAST what d’you call it. She says I’m to join, it’ll keep me out of the wrong company.’
‘I thought singing was supposed to be against your religion,’ Lila said.
Enid clicked her tongue. ‘That’s only when we’re Gathered, stupid,’ she said. ‘Otherwise music is one of God’s gifts, except Elvis Presley. Anyway, my mum says I’m to join.’
‘Well, how splendid!’ Joe boomed. ‘You must come and sing!’
Enid considered. ‘I can’t. I can’t sing…you know, yon way. Like you. You’re dead good. Are you the star of it?’
Joe laughed. ‘I am singing the tenor lead, yes! But leave the tough stuff to us. You don’t need a big voice for the chorus, just come and sing.’
Lila said, ‘I’m singing one of the main parts too, did you know that?’
‘One of the best natural lyric soprano voices you’ll ever hear,’ Joe said gravely. ‘Totally astonishing for her age. She could have a great future.’
Lila murmured, adoring Joe’s adoration enough to forget that he had not heard her sing so this assessment must be Uncle George’s. Her insides were rocking joyfully at the sight of Enid having to hear him speak admiringly of her. Enid had never managed a fraction of that kind of compliment from anyone, not even a slow-eyed Burnhead lout, let alone a handsome and devoted man like Joe Foscari.
‘My mum,’ Enid went on at last, ‘she says if you want any help with the costumes you just need to ask. She can get you material wholesale if you want.’
‘Her mum’s the manageress of Sew Right. She can make anything,’ Lila said. ‘She’s dead good.’
‘Splendid, splendid, splendid!’ Joe said, raising both arms. ‘Your kind mama’s contribution is most gratefully received! Please do convey to her our thanks. And, so, young lady, we look forward to seeing you on Saturday!’
It was a dismissal, and Enid left.
It was then that Joe’s perfection almost faltered. While Lila waited for him to say something, he sucked the dregs of his coffee from his spoon, belched, and turned to look vacantly through the window. Then she realised he was being natural with her. Soul mates do not put on performances for each other. He belched again.
‘Pardon,’ he said. ‘Shall we be getting along?’
When the bus came he led the way inside without explaining why he was abandoning the lark of going upstairs. He sat saying nothing as the bus lurched along, and Lila’s doubts gathered again.
In quiet terror she asked, ‘Penny for them. What are you thinking about?’ giving him the chance to say I’m thinking about you, and dispel the clouds.
‘You must be thinking about something.’
‘Well, yes, I am in a way,’ he said, frowning. ‘Nothing important.’
They rode on in a silence that was deeper and now as much Lila’s as his, while her mind raced to find excuses for him. It did not occur to her to put his withdrawal down to simple boorishness; she was disproportionately respectful of other people’s silences. At 5 Seaview Villas she had waited out enough of them to know that silences were not merely one of the things that adults imposed on children. They were a mark of separation between the two states; it was one of the privileges of adulthood to clam up and control the atmosphere, a ploy by which children were kept halted, guessing, on the edge of grown-ups’ lives. So she reminded herself that Joe was five years older than she was and probably just further on than she in the mastery of unfathomable behaviour.
They had got off the bus and were walking over the bridge when she could bear it no more. The glitter of the morning was falling away, spoiled. She had had him to herself all this time and she had wasted her chance, and now she was about to lose him in the crowd made by Uncle George and her mother. They were claiming him back before she could find out why he wouldn’t speak to her.
‘What’s the matter? Joe, what’s the matter? Is itme?’
Joe stopped. ‘What? Nothing’s the matter!’ He spoke as if she had been pestering him for hours. Then he saw that she was about to cry. ‘Look, of course it’s not you! Sometimes…things…they get on my mind. That’s all. Things you don’t know anything about. Things I have to think about, okay?’
He started to walk away and Lila grabbed his arm. He shook her off gently and kept going. ‘Hey! Come on, look, I told you…I’ve just got things on my mind, okay?’
‘Tell me! I want to know. What things?’ she bleated after him. ‘I want to help! How can Ihelpyou if I don’t know?’
At heart she knew that she was not making an offer of help at all, but a plea to be included.
Joe stopped, exasperated. ‘Look. Just…this thing, this whole thing George started. I mean, other things as well. There’s a lot to it. You won’t understand.’
‘Yes I will! I do understand! I know it’s a lot to organise, I know we need to get lots more people! I know it’ll be hard work! That’s the point!’
‘I didn’t…Look, that’s not what I…’
‘Okay! Okay! I know! There’s casting, tickets, publicity, the band, the lights, the set. The costumes. Headdresses. I know!’
Joe shook his head. ‘Aw, Jesus! For God’s sake. That’s not what I’m talking about.’
‘Well,whatthen?’ Lila shouted. ‘Tellme!’
Joe took her hand. She let him, though it was a humiliation to be so ready to be appeased while not yet knowing if appeasement would be offered. She waited in terror for him to drop her hand, to reject her for the sake of whatever secrets were whispering in his head. But he raised it and touched it with his lips.
‘You’re quite a little fireball. Forgive me,la bellaLiù,’ he said. She pulled her hand away. ‘La bellaLiù. The Princess Turandot is no contest for Liù. Allow me to pledge to you,’ Joe reached for her hand again, ‘my undying respect.’
Respect did not sound quite right. Lila could hear the same tone with which he had mocked Senga and her gang, and he had put a certain look in his eyes. She withdrew her hand once more.
‘I don’t believe in pledges,’ she said, mimicking his grandeur. ‘Why should I?’
‘Ah,la bellaLiù requires proof, a token?’ Joe said, thumping his chest, still acting. They started walking again and now he was darting to and fro in front of her. It was impossible not to laugh. Any of their neighbours might be looking out of their windows.Oh, aren’t they a lovely couple, I remember when they first met.They would all be on the pavement in front of the church to see the bride come out.
‘La bellaLiù shall have…what? What does Madame Liù desire?’ Joe cried. This time he took both her hands.
Lila said, ‘Desire? Nothing. I don’t want anything.’
She blushed. She wanted everything, could he not see it? She knew that wants on the preposterous scale of her own must be kept hidden, for now. Still, she was imagining his first, shy gift: a little vase, a book of poetry, a shining, unreal jewel. Something in silver perhaps, a tiny object about which a modest and tender poem could be written. There it would be in times to come; the two of them would hold hands as she explained to their lively and artistic friends:This was the very first thing Joe gave me.
He said, ‘Well, I shall think of something. And you must promise to keep it as a little memento of me! Promise!’ Then he dropped her hands and dashed on ahead.
Lila followed him slowly, watching him disappear up the side of the house. Why would she need a memento of him when she would see him every day? He must mean a memento of him as Calaf, or a memento of the time they met. She would get used to it. Her life would soon be full of little events deserving of tokens of commemoration.Keep it as a little memento of me. Promise.He did not hear her whisper after him, once the dizziness in her head cleared, that she would promise him anything he cared to ask.
She could not expect to understand yet what it all meant: his changes of mood, the banter that faded away when she was the only audience, the holding out and snatching away of little signs. Already she accepted that being confused was another thing that was now her due, a trial to be passed on the way to forming herself into the perfect template that would fit over Joe’s nature precisely. At that point she would merge with him completely, but meanwhile there were bound to be occasional rough corners and misunderstandings to be honed away.
it’s Christine’s doing, I have no doubt, that brings pastor Luke to the door. She knows from the announcement in the paper where the service is being held and she’s rung and tipped him off to come and see if I’m going off my head. Luke’s not in holy clothes this time. He’s in jeans and a checked shirt with a white T-shirt showing at the neck, a padded jacket and a hat with earflaps. Hands in pockets, stamping on the threshold.
He says, Hey, it’s a frosty one, isn’t it? His breath forms a cloud around his head. At this rate I guess it could even snow, it sure feels cold enough.
I know he thinks to catch me off guard, dressed like that, and means to sneak in a prayer before I can stop him.
I’m not expecting you, am I? I say. I could have been out.
Well, I tried calling you, he says, but no-one’s been answering. Are you okay, Lila? Hey, you okay? You look a little upset.
Well, maybe, I say, wiping my eyes with the bundle of papers I happen to be holding. Maybe you telephoned but maybe I don’t always answer. I’m busy. I’m busy now, in fact.
Good! That’s one reason I’m here, I thought maybe you could use a hand. His teeth really are very impressive. He stamps his feet again and blows on his hands.
Oh, all right then, I say.
He follows me inside quickly and I take him into the music room. You can tell it’s a music room because the piano is still there, though of course the Decca stereogram has gone. She had it sent down.
Fine piano, Luke says. Do you play?
Needs tuning, I say.
We look around for a while. Luke is searching for a way, I can tell, to bring God into it, into these stale remnants, the quiet wreckage left by people—and among them I count myself—who had their chances once and squandered them so long ago that it should not still matter. Luke will want to insist it does matter and I predict that his attempts to proffer higher meaning will offend me, because the way I see it God is either inattentive or plain uncooperative and either way it adds up to the same thing. I wonder if it daunts him. God I mean, not Luke. Maybe even God realises that where his presence hasn’t been noted within living memory is a place he isn’t wanted, though that realisation would entail an unexpected degree of humility on his part. More likely, to me, is the thought that he justisn’t. But to spare Luke that view into the void, I start to tell him a bit about the piano.
Our eyes are now fixed on it, perhaps because it is the only object in the room that retains any possibility of life. The chairs and the spindly coffee table look somehow extinct.
You call it fine, I say, but that night, that night when everybody comes to the first opera meeting, my mother’s Decca stereogram outclasses that piano by a mile. That’s what people notice.
Decca stereogram? Luke laughs. That’s going back some!
I turn away. It’s in the same place as always, right here along the wall. It’s her favourite possession: a walnut-veneered rectangle of pure status. It stands on black legs with brass rings at their bases, it’s got slide-away doors and a panel of dials like a dashboard that lights up all greenish, the latest thing.
The stereogram eclipses the piano completely, I tell Luke. Do you understand what I’m saying?
I hear what you say, he assures me. You’re talking about a long time ago, right? About stuff that’s gone. It’s not here, right?
But I see it, here in the crowded room. I stay where I am and Luke goes away somewhere, I have an idea he’s putting on the kettle. I know the room: the carpet that does not go all the way to the skirting board and shows linoleum in a herringbone pattern of olive green and yellow at its edges, the lampshade overhead of thick, pale green glass, the empty grate in July. A smell of linseed and dust.
People—more people than have ever gathered here before—occupy all the dining chairs and every stool we can find. They are squeezed up, two in every armchair and more on the arms, others are leaning, perching where they can and the younger ones sit cross-legged on the floor. Our chairs are mortifying: wartime brown with wooden arms, now re-covered in red and charcoal, but the room is so crowded tonight they can hardly be seen. (He hung on to two of those chairs and here they are still, re-covered again in stretch nylon in a pattern of dark green leaves.)
How many people are here? I hear their voices murmuring small, balanced remarks over cups of tea. These people are nearly all dead now, their quirks and mistakes and stupidities evened out and neatly put by as if their lives were a pile of ironing. But I am here, too, yellow chiffon scarf in the hair and the dirndl skirt all over again, anxious in my wrong clothes, watching the door. Joe walks in, moving slowly. When Uncle George asks him to go and find more chairs, he looks sullen.
Do you think, Uncle George says through his teeth, I can do everything myself?
Joe glares and exits. He and I are still somewhat in disgrace for skipping off to Burnhead on Thursday but Joe is brazening it out, claiming that he was drumming up support for the meeting. The thrill I am getting from sharing a bond of criminality with him outweighs any fall from grace in Uncle George’s eyes. Uncle George sometimes looks a little seedy and unwell, now. He saysnil desperandumtoo often. I do not meet his eyes because I am afraid that there may be a look in mine that will reveal to him how I have changed. But whenever I remember about going to London with him, I feel nicer about him, and try to be helpful. Maybe I should feel confused about this, but all I feel is powerful.
The trickle of arrivals for the meeting thickens, and slows again, and by twenty to seven there are well over three dozen people crammed into the music room.
Enid is sitting with her mother. I am glad to see that Enid’s mum is as placid and solid here as she is at Sew Right, behind the sewing machine. I have an idea she is the same everywhere. Enid sticks her tongue out at me. Behind her, to my dismay, sit Senga, Linda and Deirdre. They kick and poke and giggle behind their hands.
My mother glides into the room like a knowing guest, like a visiting priestess. The other women are in cotton skirts and twinsets; she is in oyster chiffon that drifts around her body like smoke. She does this. Her clothes are not just superior, they are antithetical. When Burnhead womanhood is wearing tiny floral prints she’s in pared-down black and white. They turn out in tweeds and she’s in bias-cut crêpe-de-chine, get them in navy check and she’ll be in caramel zig-zags. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate. She presents herself like an exhibit, some untouchable artefact from an exotic and distant civilisation. Her value is not explicit and to guess at it would be vulgar and irrelevant.
She finds a stool at the back of the room. I think she feels awkward about our house filling up with people she knows slightly or not at all. She doesn’t have friends as such; her dealings with people are skewed and unnatural because she wants too much and expects too little. She is not quite at ease with those by whom she would like to be regarded a social equal, the wives of the town’s professional men—Moira Mather, Delia Hunter the doctor’s wife, who are both here—but nor is she quite friends with ordinary folk like Mrs Mathieson and Enid’s mum to whom all she conveys is her sense that deference is due to her, along with faint surprise that they turn out to have perfectly nice manners after all. She is only really comfortable giving orders to the shopkeepers, I think.