There was something essentially girlish — not skittish, or sullen, or liquid, but unmarked, about this face and body, which were also those of a neat, elderly woman. The story was allegorical. It was about a caddis-grub which scuttled about on the floor of a pond, making itself a makeshift tube-house of bits of gravel, twigs and weed to cover its vulnerable and ugly little grub body.
Its movements were awkward and painful, its world dank and dimly lit. One day it was seized with an urge to climb which it could not ignore.
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Painfully it drew its squashy length out of its abandoned house and made its way, bursting and anguished, up a tall bulrush. In the bright outer air it hardened, cased in, and then most painfully burst and split, issuing forth with fine iridescent wings and darting movements, a creature of light and air. Miss Crichton-Walker enjoyed this tale of contrasts.
Emily Bray could not make out — she was never much to make out, it was her failing — what the other girls thought or felt. Always afterwards she imagined the dead Hodgie as grub-like and squashy. During the telling she imagined the others as little girls, although she herself was the smallest in size, puny and stick-like. They all sat in their dressing-gowns and pyjamas, washed and shapeless. Later in the dormitory they would chatter agitatedly, full of opinions and feelings, pointing fingers, jutting chins.
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Here they were secret and docile. Miss Crichton-Walker told them they had had a peaceful evening together and that had been good. Emily Bray saw that there were two outsiders in the room. There was herself, set aside from the emotion that was swimming around, and there was Miss Crichton-Walker who wanted them all to be sharing something. Every Wednesday and every Sunday the school walked into the centre of the cathedral city to go to church.
On Wednesday they had their own service, shared with their brother school, Holy Communion and Morning Prayer. On Sunday they made part — a large part — of the general congregation. There were rules about walking through the city; they did not go in a crocodile, but were strictly forbidden to walk more than two abreast through the narrow streets. A result of this reasonable ruling was that it was important for each girl to have a partner, someone to walk with, a best friend.
Girls of that age choose best friends naturally, or so Emily had observed, who had not had a best friend since her days in the junior school, before her unfortunate habits became pronounced. The church-walking added forms and rituals to the selection and rejection of best friends. Everyone knew if a couple split up, or a new couple was formed. Emily discovered quickly enough that there was a floating population of rejects, rag, tag, bobtail, who formed feebler ties, ad hoc partnerships, with half an eye on the chance of a rift between a more acceptable pairing.
She assumed she would belong with these. She had no illusions about her chances of popularity in the class. The best she could hope for was decent anonymity. She also knew that decent anonymity was unlikely. When the exam results came, she would be found out. In the interim, she realized quickly enough the significance of the size of the class, twenty- nine girls.
There would always be a final reject, one running round when all the musical chairs were occupied. That one would be Emily Bray. You might suppose that grown-up, intelligent schoolmistresses would be capable of seeing the significance of twenty-nine, or that it might be possible for Emily to point it out, or recall it to them, if they did not. You also almost certainly know enough about conventional institutional rigours to be unsurprised that it was quite impossible for Emily to say anything coherent when, as happened regularly, she was caught up in the street and reprimanded for tagging along in a threesome.
Walking anywhere alone was an unthinkable and serious offence. She dreaded Wednesdays and Sundays, working herself up on Tuesdays and Saturdays to beg, with mortified mockcasual misery, to be allowed to come along. After she began to get exam results, the situation, as she had foreseen, worsened.
With appalling regularity, with unnatural ease and insulting catholicity, Emily Bray came first in almost everything except maths and domestic science. She came first in the theoretical paper of the domestic science, but her handiwork let her down. She was a simply intellectual creature. She had an image of herself in their minds as a kind of abacus in its limited frame, clicking mnemonics, solving problems, recording transactions.
She waited to be disliked and they duly disliked her. There were clever girls, Flora Marsh for example, who were not so disliked: Flora was peaceably beautiful, big and slender and athletic and wholesome, genuinely modest, wanting to be mother of six and live in the country. Flora had a horse and a church partner, Catherine, she had known since she was five.
Emily Bray wrote hunched over the page, jabbing at it with a weak-nibbed fountain pen. There was never a misspelled word, but the whole was blotted and a little smeared and grimy, the lines uneven, the characters without settled forms. The papers were a disgrace in other ways too, nastily presented, and dirty.
If Emily would be kind enough to make a fair copy she would be delighted to read them. She delivered this judgment, as was her habit, with a slight smile, not deprecating, not mitigating, but pleased and admiring. Admiring the accuracy of her own expressions, or pleased with the placing of the barb? It did not occur to young Emily to ask herself that question, though she noted and remembered the smile accurately enough to answer it, when she was ready, when her account was made up. But the child did not know what judgment the woman would make, or indeed that the woman would judge.
The child believed she was shrugging off the judgment of herself. Of course the paper was dirty: schools thought dirt mattered; she believed it did not. She opposed herself like a shut sea-anemone, a wall of muscle, a tight sphincter. It is also true, changing the metaphor, that the judgment dropped in heavily and fast, like a stone into a pond, to rest unshifted on the bottom. She had written for pleasure. She had written for an imaginary ideal Reader, perfectly aware of her own strengths and failings, her approximations to proper judgments, her flashes of understanding.
If she had thought for ten minutes she would have known that no such Reader existed, there was only Miss Harvey and beyond Miss Harvey Miss Crichton-Walker. But she never yielded those ten minutes. If the real Reader did not exist it was necessary to invent Him, and Emily did so. In a female institution where justice, or judgment, was Miss Crichton-Walker, benign impartiality seemed to be male.
Emily did not associate the Reader with the gods worshipped in the cathedral on Sundays. God the Judge and God the Friend and God the rushing wind of the Spirit were familiars of Miss Crichton-Walker invoked with an effort of ecstasy in evening prayers in the school, put together with music and branched stone and beautiful words and a sighing sentiment in the choir stalls. Emily could not reasonably see why the propensity to believe this myth should have any primary guarantee of touching at truth, any more than the propensity to believe Apollo, or Odin, or Gautama Buddha, or Mithras.
She was not aware that she believed in the Reader, though as she got older she became more precise and firm about his attributes. He was dry and clear, he was all-knowing but not messily infinite. He kept his proportion and his place. He had no face and no imaginary arms to enfold or heart to beat: his nature was not love, but understanding. Invoked, as the black ink spattered in the smell of chalk dust and dirty fingers, he brought with him a foreign air, sunbaked on sand, sterile, heady, tolerably hot.
It is not too much to say that in those seemingly endless years in that place Emily was enabled to continue because she was able to go on believing in the Reader. She did not make a fair copy of her papers for Miss Crichton-Walker. She believed that it was not really expected of her, that the point to be made had been made. Here she may have been doing Miss Crichton-Walker an injustice, though this is doubtful.
Miss Crichton-Walker was expert in morals, not in Hamlet or Emma. When she was fifteen Emily devised a way of dealing with the church walk. The city was mediaeval still in many parts, and, more particularly, was surrounded with long stretches of city wall, with honey-pale stone battlements, inside which two people could walk side by side, looking out over the cathedral close and the twisting lanes, away down to the surrounding plain.
She discovered that if she ducked back behind the church, under an arched gateway, she could, if she went briskly, walk back along the ramparts almost all the way, out-flanking the mainstream of female pairs, descending only for the last few hundred yards, where it was possible to dodge through back streets to where the school stood, in its pleasant gardens, inside its own lesser barbed wall. No one who has not been an inmate can know exactly how powerful is the hunger for solitude which grows in the constant company, day and night, feeding, washing, learning, sleeping, almost even, with partition walls on tubular metal stems, excreting.
It is said women make bad prisoners because they are not by nature communal creatures. Emily thought about these things in the snatched breathing spaces she had made on the high walls, but thought of the need for solitude as hers only, over against the crushing others, though they must all also, she later recognized, have had their inner lives, their reticences, their inexpressive needs. She thought things out on that wall, French grammar and Euclid, the existence of males, somewhere else, the purpose of her life.
She grew bold and regular — there was a particular tree, a self-planted willow, whose catkins she returned to each week, tight dark reddish buds, bursting silvery grey, a week damp and glossy grey fur and then the full pussy willow, softly bristling, powdered with bright yellow in the blue.
One day when she was standing looking at these vegetable lights Miss Crichton-Walker and another figure appeared to materialize in front of her, side by stiff side. They must have come up one of the flights of steps from the grass bank inside the wall, now bright with daffodils and crocus; Emily remembered them appearing head-first, as though rising from the ground, rather than walking towards her. Miss CrichtonWalker had a grey woollen coat with a curly lambskin collar in a darker pewter; on her head was a matching hat, a cylinder of curly fur.
There were two rows of buttons on her chest; she wore grey kid gloves and sensible shoes, laced and rigorous. She stood there for a moment on the wall and saw Emily Bray by her willow tree. Then Miss Crichton-Walker pointed over the parapet, indicating some cloud formation to her companion, of whose identity Emily formed no impression at all, and they passed on, in complete silence. She even wondered wildly, as she hurried away back towards the school, if she had not seen them at all. She had, of course. Miss Crichton-Walker waited until evening prayers to announce, in front of the school, that she wanted to see Emily Bray, tomorrow after lunch, thus leaving Emily all night and half a day to wonder what would be said or done.
It was a school without formal punishments. No one wrote lines, or sat through detentions, or penitently scrubbed washroom floors. She could make you feel a real worm, the girls said, the lowest of the low, for having illegal runny honey instead of permitted hard honey, for running across the tennis lawns in heavy shoes, for smiling at boys.
What she could do to those who cheated or stole or bullied was less clear and less urgent. They were on the whole nice girls. Emily stood in front of Miss Crichton-Walker in her study. Between their faces was a silver rose bowl, full of spring flowers. Miss Crichton-Walker was small and straight in a large upright arm chair. She asked Emily what she had been doing on the wall, and Emily said that she had no one to walk home from church with, so came that way.
She thought of adding, most girls of my age, in reasonable day schools, can walk alone in a city in the middle of the morning, quite naturally, anybody might. Miss Crichton-Walker said that Emily was arrogant and unsociable, had made little or no effort to fit in with the community ever since she came, appeared to think that the world was made for her convenience. She set herself against everything, Miss Crichton-Walker said, she was positively depraved. Here was another word to add to those others, regrets, aggressive, depraved.
Emily said afterwards to Flora Marsh, who asked what had happened, that Miss Crichton-Walker had told her that she was depraved. Surely not, said Flora, and, yes she did, said Emily, she did, that is what she thinks.
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You may have your own views about whether Miss Crichton-Walker could in sober fact have uttered the word depraved, in her soft, silvery voice, to an awkward girl who had tried to walk alone in mid-morning, to look at a pussy-willow, to think. It may be that Emily invented the word herself, saying it for bravado to Flora Marsh after the event, though I would then argue, in defence of Emily, that the word must have been in the air during that dialogue for her to pick up, the feeling was there, Miss Crichton-Walker sensed her solitude as something corrupt, contaminating, depraved.
What was to be done? For the next four weeks, Miss Crichton-Walker said, she would walk back from church with Emily herself. It was clear that she found this prospect as disagreeable as Emily possibly could. She was punishing both of them. What could they say to each other, the awkward pair, one shuffling downcast, one with a regular inhibited stride?
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Emily did not regard it as her place to initiate any conversation: she believed any approach would have been unacceptable, and may well have been right. You will think that Miss Crichton-Walker might have taken the opportunity to draw Emily out, to find out why she was unhappy, or what she thought of her education.
She did say some things that might have been thought to be part of such a conversation, though she said them reluctantly, in a repressed, husky voice, as though they were hard to bring out. Occasionally spontaneous remarks broke from her, not in the strained, clutching voice of her confidential manner, but with a sharp, clear ring.
Ask Sister to give those blackheads some attention: you must have an abnormal concentration of grease in your nasal area, or else you are unusually skimpy in your attention to your personal hygiene. Have you tried medicated soap? I do not like to think of the probable state of your hatband. I have never understood how people can bring themselves to bite their nails. I see you are imbued with ink as some people are dyed with nicotine: it is just as disagreeable. Perhaps the state of your hands goes some way to explain your very poor presentation of your work: you seem to wallow in ink to a quite unusual extent.
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Please purchase a pumice stone and a lemon and scour it away before we go out next week. Please borrow a knife from the kitchen and prise away the bootpolished mud from your shoe-heels — that is a lazy way of going on that does not deceive the eye, and increases the impression of slovenliness. Emily imagined the little nose sniffing at the armpits of her discarded vests, at the stains on her pants. Miss Crichton-Walker seemed to be without natural exudations. A whiff of lavender, a hint of mothball.
She talked to Emily about her family. Emily Bray was a scholarship girl, from a large Potteries family of five children. Emily was the eldest of the five children; the next one, Martin, was a mongol. She loved him extravagantly and best. The three younger ones were left to their own resources, much of the time. Emily felt for them, and their cramped, busy, noisy little life, some of the distaste Miss Crichton-Walker felt for her, perhaps for all the girls. There are two things to note in this brief summing-up — a hereditary propensity to feel guilty, handed down to Emily from her briefly ambitious mother, and the existence of Martin.
Miss Crichton-Walker knew about Martin, of course. Miss Crichton-Walker, in so far as she wanted to talk to Emily at all, wanted to talk about Martin. Tell me about your brothers and sisters, dear, she said, and Emily listed them, Martin, thirteen, Lorna, ten, Gareth, eight, Amanda, five. Did she miss them, said Miss Crichton-Walker, and Emily said no, not really, she saw them in the holidays, they were very noisy, if she was working. But you must love them, said Miss Crichton-Walker, in her choking voice, you must feel you are, hmm, not properly part of their lives?
But she sensed, rightly, that Miss Crichton-Walker wished her to feel cut off by the privilege of being at the school, guilty of not offering the help she might have done. She described teaching Amanda to read, in two weeks flat, and Miss Crichton-Walker said she noticed Emily did not mention Martin. Was that because she was embarrassed, or because she felt badly about him? I do love him, said Emily, who did, who had nursed and sung to him, when he was smaller, who suffered from his crashing forays into her halfbedroom, from scribbled-on exercises, bath-drowned books.
She remembered his heavy amiable twinkle. We all love him, she said. You must try to do so, said Miss Crichton-Walker. Miss Crichton-Walker had her lighter moments. The girls sat for hours hollowing out these heads, at first nibbling the sweet vegetable, then revolted by it. For days afterwards the school smelled like a byre: during the story-telling the roasting smell of singed turnip overlay the persisting smell of the raw scrapings. For an hour before the storytelling they had their annual time of licence, running screaming through the dark garden, in sheets and knitted spiderwebs, jointed paper skeletons and floating batwings.
The ghost story concerned an improbable encounter between a Roman centurion and a phantom cow in a venerable clump of trees in the centre of which stood an old and magnificent swing. Anyone meeting the white cow would vanish, the story ran, as in some other time the centurion had vanished, though imperfectly, leaving traces of his presence among the trees, the glimpsed sheen on a helmet, the flutter of his leather skirting. It is very pleasant to feel the air on your skin, said Miss Crichton-Walker, holding her hands judicially before her chest, fingertips touching.
It is natural and pleasant. Emily did not know what authority there was for the legend that she swung naked at night in the garden. She had perhaps once told such a group of girls that she would like to do so, that it would be good and pleasant to swoop unencumbered through the dark air, to touch the lowest branches of the thick trees with naked toes, to feel the cool rush along her body. There were in any case now several stories of her having been solidly seen doing just that, urging herself to and fro, milky-white in the dark. The swing, in its wooden authority and weight, reminded Emily of a gibbet.
It was said that under a previous, more liberal headmistress, the boys had been encouraged to walk the girls back from church. No one would even have dared to propose this to her. That there were girls who flouted this prohibition Emily knew, though only by remote hearsay. She could not tell one boy from another and was in love with Benedick, with Pierre, with Max Ravenscar, with Mr Knightley. There was an annual school dance, to which the boys were brought in silent, damp-palmed, hunched clumps in two or three buses.
But she spoke against it. For weeks before the arrival of the boys she spent her little Saturday evening homilies on warning the girls. It was not clear, from what she said, exactly what she was warning against. The school was full of accomplished parodists of Miss Crichton-Walker.
They polished their coloured court shoes, scarlet and peacock, and fingered the stiff taffeta folds of their huge skirts, which they wore with demure and provocative silk shirts, and tightly-pulled wide belts. She could not bring herself to mention the armpits. Any gardener will tell you that grass grows coarser after it has once been cut. I ask all the girls who have razors in the school to send them home, please, and all girls to ask their parents not to send such things through the post.
A little talcum powder would be quite sufficient if they feared becoming heated. I am not going to describe the dance, which was sad for almost all of them, must have been, as they stood in their resolutely unmingled ranks on either side of the grey school hall. Nothing of interest really happened to Emily on that occasion, as she must, in her secret mind, have known it would not. Emily at the time of the static dance was beginning to sample the pleasures of being a linguist. Nair sounded like a Miltonic coinage for Satanic scaliness.
Veet was a thick English version of French rapidity and discreet efficiency. Immac, in the connexion of Miss Crichton-Walker, was particularly satisfying, carrying with it the Latin, maculata, stained or spotted, immaculata, unstained, unspotted, and the Immaculate Conception, which, Emily was taught at this time, referred to the stainless or spotless begetting of the Virgin herself, not to the subsequent self-contained, unpunctured, manless begetting of the Son. No one sent her razor home.
It was generally agreed that Miss Crichton-Walker had too little bodily hair to know what it was to worry about it. Meanwhile, and at the same time, there was Racine. It is amusing. Let in the maid that out a maid, never departed more. Get thee to a nunnery, said Hamlet, and there was Emily, in a nunnery, never out of one, in a rustle of terrible words and delicate and gross suggestions, the stuff of her studies.
But that is not what I wanted to say about Racine. Shakespeare came upon Emily gradually, she could accommodate him, he had always been there. Racine was sudden and new. That is not it, either, not what I wanted to say. Think of it. Twenty girls or so — were there so many? When they riffled through the pages, the text did not look attractive. It proceeded in strict, soldierly columns of rhymed couplets, a form disliked by both the poetry-lovers and the indifferent amongst them. Nothing seemed to be happening, it all seemed to be the same.
The speeches were very long. There appeared to be no interchange, no battle of dialogue, no action. The French teacher told them that the play was based on the Hippolytus of Euripides, and that Racine had altered the plot by adding a character, a young girl, Aricie, whom Hippolytus should fall in love with. She neglected to describe the original play, which they did not know. They wrote down, Hippolytus, Euripides, Aricie. She told them that the play kept the unities of classical drama, and told them what these unities were, and they wrote them down.
She neglected to say what kind of effect these constrictions might have on an imagined world: she offered a half-hearted rationale she clearly despised a little herself, as though the Greeks and the French were children who made unnecessary rules for themselves, did not see wider horizons. The girls were embarrassed by having to read this passionate sing-song verse aloud in French. Emily shared their initial reluctance, their near-apathy. They were all creatures of excess, their secret blood burned and boiled and an unimaginably hot bright sun glared down in judgment.
They were all horribly and beautifully interwoven, tearing each other apart in a perfectly choreographed dance, every move inevitable, lovely, destroying. In this world men and women had high and terrible fates which were themselves and yet greater than themselves.
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This art described a world of monstrous disorder and excess and at the same time ordered it with iron control and constrictions, the closed world of the classical stage and the prescribed dialogue, the flexible, shining, inescapable steel mesh of that regular, regulated singing verse.
It was a world in which the artist was in unusual collusion with the Reader, his art like a mapping trellis between the voyeur and the terrible writhing of the characters. It was an austere and adult art, Emily thought, who knew little about adults, only that they were unlike Miss Crichton-Walker, and had anxieties other than those of her tired and over-stretched mother. The Reader was adult. After the April foolery, Miss Crichton-Walker said she would not have believed the girls were capable of it.
No one, no one Emily knew at least, knew how the folly had started. It must have originated with some pair, or pairs, of boys and girls who had managed to make contact at the static dance, who had perhaps sat a few waltzes out together, as Miss Crichton-Walker had bidden.
Not to mingle, that is. No rationale was given for this jape, which was immediately perceived by all the girls and boys involved as exquisitely funny, a kind of epitome of disorder and misrule. The bolder spirits took care to arrive early, and arrange themselves decorously in their contrary pews.
The others followed like meek sheep. To show that they were not mocking God, the whole congregation then worshipped with almost unnatural fervour and devotion, chanting the responses, not wriggling or shifting in their seats. The Vicar raised his eyebrows, smiled benignly, and conducted the service with no reference to the change. Miss Crichton-Walker was shocked, or hurt, to the quick. What outraged her was that, as she saw it, she, and the institution of which she was the head, had been irrevocably shamed in front of the enemy.
In the icy little speech she made to the school at the next breakfast she did not mention any insult to the church, Emily was almost sure. Nor did she dart barbs of precise, disgusted speech at the assembled girls: she was too upset for that. I shall eat nothing. You can watch me while you eat, and think about what you have done.
Did they laugh about it? Were they shocked and anxious?
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Emily herself, as always, she came to understand, reacted with a fatal doubleness. She thought Miss Crichton-Walker was behaving in an undignified and disproportionate manner.
She felt, gloomily and heavily, that she had indeed greatly damaged Miss Crichton-Walker, had done her a great and now inexpiable wrong, for which Miss Crichton-Walker was busily heaping coals of fire on her uncomprehending but guilty head. Emily was trapped. When the A-level exams came, Emily developed a personality, not perhaps, you will think, a very agreeable one.
She was approaching a time when her skills would be publicly measured and valued, or so she thought, as she became increasingly aware that they were positively deplored, not only by the other girls, but by Miss CrichtonWalker. The school was academically sound but made it a matter of principle not to put much emphasis on these matters, to encourage leadership, community spirit, charity, usefulness and other worthy undertakings.
Girls went to university but were not excessively, not even much praised for this. Nevertheless, Emily knew it was there. At the end of the tunnel — which she visualized, since one must never allow a metaphor to lie dead and inert, as some kind of curving, tough, skinny tube in which she was confined and struggling, seeing the outside world dimly and distorted — at the end of the tunnel there was, there must be, light and a rational world full of aspiring Readers. She prepared for the A level with a desperate chastity of effort, as a nun might prepare for her vows. She learned to write neatly, overnight it seemed, so that no one recognized these new, confident, precisely black unblotted lines.
She developed a pugnacious tilt to her chin. She struggled secretly for perfection. As I write, I can feel you judging her adversely, thinking, what a to-do, or even, smug little bitch. If I had set out to write a story about someone trying for perfection as a high diver, perhaps, or as a long distance runner, or even as a pianist, I should not so have lost your sympathy at this point. I could have been sure of exciting you with heavy muscles going up the concrete steps for the twentieth or thirtieth time, with the smooth sheet of aquamarine always waiting, the rush of white air, white air in water, the drum in the eardrums, the conversion of flesh and bone to a perfect parabola.
You would have understood this in terms of some great effort of your own, at some time, as I now take pleasure in understanding the work of televised snooker players, thinking a series of curves and lines and then making these real, watching the balls dart and clatter and fall into beautiful shapes, as I also take pleasure in the skill of the cameramen, who can show my ignorant eye, picking out this detail and that, where the beautiful lines lie, where there are impossibilities in the way, where the danger is, and where success.
Maybe I am wrong in supposing that there is something inherently distasteful in the struggles of the solitary clever child. Not Emily. She did not become a writer, about her misunderstood cleverness or anything else. Maybe you are not unsympathetic at all, and I have now made you so. You can do without a paranoid narrator. Back to Miss Crichton-Walker, always in wait. On the evening before the first exam, Miss Crichton-Walker addressed to the whole school one of her little homilies.
It was summer, and she wore a silvery grey dress, with her small silver brooch. In front of her was a plain silver bowl of flowers — pink roses, blue irises, something white and lacy and delicate surrounding them. The exams, she told the school, were due to begin tomorrow, and she hoped the junior girls would remember to keep quiet and not to shout under the hall windows whilst others were writing.
There were girls in the school, she said, who appeared to attach a great deal of importance to exam results. Who seemed to think that there was some kind of exceptional merit in doing well. She hoped she had never allowed the school to suppose that her own values were wrapped up in this kind of achievement.
Everything they did mattered, mattered very much, everything was of extreme importance in its own way. She herself, she said, had written books, and she had embroidered tablecloths. She would not say that there was not as much lasting value, as much pleasure for others, in a well-made tablecloth as in a well-written book. Any good speaker can do this, can appear to single out one or another of the listeners, can give the illusion that all are personally addressed.
Miss Crichton-Walker was not a good speaker, normally: her voice was always choked with emotion, which she was not so much sharing as desperately offering to the stony, the uncaring of her imagination. She expected to be misunderstood, even in gaudier moments to be reviled, though persisting. Emily understood this without knowing how she knew it, or even that she knew it.
At first she stared back angrily, her little chin grimly up, and thought that Miss Crichton-Walker was exceedingly vulgar, that what mattered was not exam results, God save the mark, but Racine. And then, in a spirit of almost academic justice, she tried to think of the virtue of tablecloths, and thought of her own Auntie Florence, in fact a great-aunt. And, after a moment or two, twisted her head, broke the locked gaze, looked down at the parquet. In the Potteries, she had many great-aunts. Auntie Florence was the eldest and had been the most beautiful. Her mother had died when Florrie was fifty-four, demented and senile.
Her husband had had a stroke, that year, and had lain helplessly in bed for the next ten, fed and tended by Auntie Florrie. She had had, in her youth, long golden hair, so long she could sit on it. She had always wanted to travel abroad, Auntie Florrie, whose education had ceased formally at fourteen, who read Dickens and Trollope, Dumas and Harriet Beecher Stowe. When Uncle Ted died at last, Aunt Florrie had a little money and thought she might travel. But then Auntie Miriam sickened, went off her feet, trembled uncontrollably and Florrie was called in by her children, busy with their own children.
She had always been as strong as a horse, toiling up and down them stairs, fetching and carrying for Gran, for Uncle Ted, and then for poor Miriam. She always looked so wholesome and ready for anything. But she was seventy-two when Miriam died and arthritis got her. If you went to see her you took her a present of white satin to work on. She liked heavy bridal satin best. She liked the creamy whites and could never take to the new glaring whites in the nylon satins.
When she was eighty-five the local paper had an article in it about her marvellous work, and a photograph of Auntie Florrie in her little sitting-room, sitting upright amongst all the white rectangles of her needlework, draped on all the furniture. Aunt Florrie still wore a woven crown of her own thinning hair. The arthritis had got her hands. She cried at first rather noisily in a subterranean locker-room, swaying to and fro and gasping a little, squatting on a bench above a metal cage containing a knot of canvas hockey boots and greying gym shoes. When bed-time came, she thought she ought to stop crying now, she had had her time of release and respite.
She must key herself up again. She crept sniffing out into the upper corridors, where Flora Marsh met her and remarked kindly that she looked to be in a bad way. At this Emily gave a great howl, like a wounded creature, and alarmed Flora by staggering from side to side of the corridor as though her sense of balance were gone. Flora could get no sense out of her: Emily was dumb: Flora said perhaps she should go to the nursery, which was what they called the sick bay, should see Sister.
After all, they had Alevel Latin the next day, she needed her strength. Dusty round white lamps hung cheerlessly from metal chains. Sister was a small, wiry, sensible widow in a white coat and flat rubber-soled shoes. She made Emily a cup of Ovaltine, and put her into an uncomfortable but friendly cane armchair, where Emily went on crying. It became clear to all three of them that there was no prospect of Emily ceasing to cry.
The salt tears flooded and filmed her eyes, brimmed over and ran in wet sheets down her face, flowing down her neck in cold streamlets, soaking her collar. The tears, now silent, darkened and gathered in the pillow. Emily put her knees up to her chin and turned her back on Sister, who pulled back some wet hair, out of her nightdress collar. What has upset her, Sister asked Flora Marsh. Emily heard them at a huge distance, minute in a waste of waters. Emily was double.
The feeling part had given up, defeated, abandoned to the bliss of dissolution. The thinking part chattered away toughly, tapping out pentameters and alexandrines with and against the soothing flow of the tears. The next morning the feeling part, still watery, accepted tea and toast shakily from Sister; the thinking part looked out craftily from the cavern behind the glistening eyes and stood up, and dressed, and went wet-faced to the Latin exam.
There Emily sat, and translated, and scanned, and constructed sentences and paragraphs busily, for a couple of hours. After, a kind of wild hiccup broke in her throat and the tears started again, as though a tap had been turned on, as though something, everything, must be washed away. Emily crept back to the nursery and lay on the iron bed, cold-cheeked and clammy, buffeted by a gale of tags from Horace, storm-cries from Lear, domestic inanities from Mrs Bennett, subjunctives and conditionals, sorting and sifting and arranging them, tic-tac, whilst the tears welled.
In this way she wrote two German papers, and the English. She was always ready to write but could never remember what she had written, dissolved in tears, run away. She was like a runner at the end of a marathon, moving on will, not on blood and muscle, who might, if you put out a hand to touch him, fall and not rise again. She received a visit. There was an empty day between the English and the final French, and Emily lay curled in the iron bed, weeping. Sister had drawn the blinds half-way down the windows, to close out the glare of the summer sun, and the cries of tennis players on the grass courts out in the light.
In the room the air was thick and green like clouded glass, with pillars of shadow standing in it, shapes underwater. Miss Crichton-Walker advanced precisely towards the bedside, bringing her own shadow, and the creak of rubber footsteps. Her hair in the half-light glistened green on silver: her dress was mud-coloured, or seemed so, with a little, thickly-crocheted collar.
She pulled out a tubular chair and sat down, facing Emily, her hands folded composed in her lap, her knees tightly together, her lips pursed. She lay still. I am sorry that I was not informed earlier, or I should have come to see you earlier. I should like you to tell me, if you can, why you are so distressed?
It is a pity, I always think, to force young girls to undergo these arbitrary stresses of judgment when it should surely be possible more accurately to judge the whole tenor of their life and work. Naturally I shall write to the Board of Examiners if you feel — if I feel — you may not quite have done yourself justice. That would be a great disappointment but not a disaster, not by any means a disaster.
There is much to be learned in life from temporary setbacks of this kind. Miss CrichtonWalker went on. You cannot expect to see it that way just now, but I think you will find it so later, if you allow yourself to experience it fully.
Half of her wanted to respond with a storm of loud crying, to drown this gentle concerned voice with rude noise. Half of her knew, without those words, that that way was disaster, was capitulation, was the acceptance of this last, premature judgment. She concentrated on the area below the judging face: the little knots and gaps in the crochet work, which lay sluggish and inexact, as crochet, even the best, always will, asymmetrical daisies bordered with little twisted cords.
See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Overview The word "Unvisited" takes center stage throughout F. Mazur's stories, and while it relates to the earthly space of rooms and outdoor locations, it overwhelmingly describes how circumstances sometimes force new and often dangerous thoughts and considerations upon our psyches. It tells of Abigail finding herself as a whore as young as possibly 13 in what I see naively, Britishly, as the mid-west and then, as she grows older, her journey by stagecoach as a product of a marriage agent to the Wild West.
Her attachments and loves. So brilliantly characterised and described stylishly, with sagebrush, souls or not, snakes, flies, wingspans, orphan trains and, yes, again, snakes. Memorably special. Or a precocious, petulant, tantrumic 11 year old girl called Crystal with pendulous breasts? But who the changeling, who the captive, who the capturer and who the still point of this poetic wordstorm of nightmarish mothering, one that co-opts even the Co-Op as well as the snake in the previous story?
After all, the Grimms and Hans Christian were men, but there are no men in this story except an imputed darkened Dale. This story itself is a changeling I somehow feel. And if I return to it, it will tell quite a different story from the one I think I have just read. Each reader a disturbed foundling.
A monologue, addressed to many named people, discretely, no? Of gorbeys, moosebirds, jays, fog and his daughter Lina. And ring doughnuts. Engagingly idiosyncratic to my English ear. A genius loci I got. I found this plot a bit contrived compared to earlier ones, but beautifully written nevertheless. Meanwhile, here in this story, for another tantamount to a wilful child? Then they burned him at the stake or buried him alive. One can only hope. Backs to Walls, if not sunk in Wells. Workaday being an empty plate to be filled with unknown coins and notes.
Alt-time, this review revealing its own inchoate version of blind real-time, blindness being something all story texts after all depend on to make your vision sharper, not seeing the characters, but truly feeling their harsh love and survival techniques, give or take the many rooted eye-props in this book…. And Marcus wants to be her boy friend and braid her hair. A significant scene ensues of subtly were-horse riding and braiding and a final Sapphic kiss. Beautifully done. I am about halfway in this book, and it has slid down so easily. I may now have a sabbatical from reading it for a short while to let its wonderful pent-up expectations percolate.
It is certainly a landmark book, and it seems, so far, in blended synergy with three other marathon reads and reviews of mine In recent years: Silvina Ocampo , Clarice Lispector and Leena Krohn. I would also cross-reference my reviews of the Frances Oliver fiction canon. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account. Notify me of new comments via email.
Notify me of new posts via email. Share this: Twitter Facebook. Like this: Like Loading THE NAME James the elder brother acts as babysitter for his two younger brothers or brats as he calls them, when the feisty Mum goes out to work, the father having departed after the divorce, the Dad who once took James fishing.
- Visualizing your world;
- 2. KIWIFRUIT;
- United Nations Reform and the New Collective Security (European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation).
- JADE T. STEVENS (Book I of the Romanceville Suite Series).
- Nathaniel Hawthorne;
- Selected Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics: Poets in Translation).
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From the Diaspora. My real-time review of the stories will continue HERE. Leave a Reply Cancel reply Enter your comment here Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:. Email required Address never made public. Name required. Post to Cancel.