October 31, 2013 § 7 Comments
She used to say if I really wanted something to happen I should draw a picture of it, close my eyes and wish. So after he died I drew her holding hands with him on the beach. I paid particular attention to their faces. I flushed their cheeks, filled their eyes with light and turned the corners of their mouths into smiles. I made each drawing different because it made the spell stronger. Some had blue skies, others grey, and some had the cloudy stripes of a mirage or a moon rising from the sea. I drew ochre suns, thunderstorms, and rainbows arcing over their heads. I always made the sand yellow because that was my favourite colour.
But the magic wasn’t working so I drew more and more, and the wind blew through my open window and scattered the wishes over the bedroom floor. I left them where they were. The pictures grew old. They curled at the edges and turned yellow.
Each night I traced the shape of my parents on the windowpane with my fingertips, and then knelt by my bed, my hands in supplication. But still my father didn’t come back. I became frightened of the dark after that.
When she wasn’t sleeping, my mother wandered around the house. She peered into dusty corners, pulled open drawers, examined cupboards. She became a hunter. But when I asked her what she had lost she simply shook her head.
Soon she stopped answering my questions, and the edges of her body disappeared like the smudged shadows I made when I rubbed the charcoal off my paper with a rag.
Our days grew still and colourless, and the house took on the faded dullness of a thing aged before its time. My mother let the range go out and the kitchen became icy cold, facing in on its own depths like a cave. The mirrors, the windows, and the silver teapot with the dented spout, no longer glittered when the sun cast its light. Even the flower garden, so beloved by my mother, began to sink back into the earth.
I held images of our past deep inside my body. They were safe there; protected from the misery that filled our house.
But they made me feel disconnected. The kitchen had been a place of warmth where squares of sunlight slanted through the window onto the scrubbed table. My mother would butter my toast. She scraped a curl from the yellow roll wrapped in greaseproof paper, spread the butter so thickly it seeped onto the plate. There was my father’s kiss on her cheek, and the lightness of her laugh as she brushed him away. But the eggs I remembered most of all: almost green in their grassy yellowness. I cracked one open every morning with the silver spoon and watched its slither down the outside of the eggcup.
My bedroom filled with paper, so I drew in the kitchen. Soon a pile of paper grew on the table, the edges curling inwards like dying roses. The chickens hid their eggs in the bushes and there were no eggs for breakfast. That was when her sister Maria came. On the first day she wore a cheesecloth dress the colour of sun. She cleaned and cooked and I knew she understood what would make my mother better. Maria made the house shiny and gave it back its sharp edges again, but my mother stayed in her bed.
I drew a picture of a celandine and left it on the kitchen table. ‘Thank you,’ said my mother. The weak spring light struggled through the window, and she pressed her face against the pane until it grew misty with her breath. She began to cry, and taking the scissors, went to the garden and came back with a single celandine. She put it in an eggcup on the windowsill.
The next day I drew a crocus. Again my mother took the scissors, and this time returned with a bunch of the yellow blooms. She filled a glass with water, arranged the flowers, and took them to her room.
‘And now she refuses to come out,’ sighed Maria. ‘But at least she says she’s hungry.’
Soon the daffodils came, but after a week I stopped drawing them. ‘It isn’t working,’ I told Maria. ‘The more she picks, the more she weeps. ‘What shall we do?
‘Nothing,’ replied Maria. ‘Look what she’s done to the house. She’s filling it with yellow flowers.’
‘But she’s getting sadder and sadder.’
‘No,’ said Maria. ‘That’s not what she’s doing. She’s found the tears she never cried, and now she’s using them up.’
My mother filled more teacups with crocuses and celandines and put them on the windowsills. She filled jugs with daffodils and narcissi, and draped branches of forsythia over the inglenook. And still she wept.
I gathered the drawings from my room and from the kitchen table. ‘I want you to burn these now,’ I said.
‘Why?’ Maria asked.
‘Perhaps she doesn’t need them anymore.’
Maria shook her head and smiled.
‘Where is she?’ I asked.
‘Busy,’ she replied. ‘Look.’ She pointed through the open window to the garden. My mother was digging. Every few minutes she stopped to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
‘But she’s not fine,’ I said. ‘She’s crying.’
‘Listen,’ said Maria. ‘When she’s not crying, she’s singing.’
October 21, 2013 § 6 Comments
An excerpt – possibly the first chapter – from an unfinished longer piece. Freya, a child of maybe nine or ten, lost her father in a freak accident. He was a composer and musician. She lives with her mother in an isolated cottage. Her mother copes by fastidiously tending her garden, and by a kind of denial of her grief which manifests as a chilly pragmatism towards her only child. Freya copes by withdrawing into an inner world – an intensely private place where she believes her father comes to her when she is in his music room.
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Her mother slammed the kitchen door behind her. Now it was safe. Freya slipped through the shadows of the dark back hall to the door with the silver key. The room smelled of hot dust. The curtains were the colour of strawberries. As she pulled them open a weak sun streaked itself through the cobwebs lacing the windows. Her father’s music room wasn’t as Freya had remembered. It was smaller and darker, and it smelled of something she had forgotten – but mostly it was different because her father wasn’t there to fill it with his brightness.
She slumped onto the piano stool and inspected the creases on her palms. Now she was there Freya did not know what to do. She wiped the layer of dust from the shiny black lid with her cardigan sleeve. The particles rose, then settled on the bare floorboards like ash from a forgotten cigarette. Time was changing: it was becoming hesitant, shifting gear. Freya began to think in slow motion.
Her father’s dreaming hat lay on the top of the piano with his unfinished scores. The old straw boater smelt faintly of cigarettes, but the tang of his skin had gone. He would wear it when he sat in the garden and didn’t want to be disturbed – it was his sign. Sometimes he would have his papers with him and a freshly sharpened pencil; and sometimes he carried nothing but his thoughts. Freya knew she should not interrupt him until he spoke and broke his spell.
Freya put on the dreaming hat and lifted the lid. Her fingers slithered lightly over the keys as he had taught her. First the scales: C Major, E, D, F; her fingers remembering when to stretch onto the black keys to sharpen the note. Then the minor scales. But as she began to play the sad notes, her hands became stiff and heavy. She flexed the joints of her fingers as her father had shown her, and then stretched them wide into two starfish. Her fingers did not want to play.
She imagined she was in a concert hall. The audience was seated around her in a semi- circle waiting for her to begin. If you imagine these people, her father used to say; you will always play your best.
But what if I make a mistake? she would counter. Then he would smile and tip his head to one side. If you don’t try hard enough, you won’t make mistakes. Your audience won’t mind one bit.
She began to play the piece she knew best. She played the notes long and slow; she made the music sad. As her fingers began to move without thought between the major and minor keys of Fur Elise, she felt her father’s breath on the parting of her hair: he was breathing in and out in time to the music.
Freya stopped breathing – she dare not turn around to look at him. As she played the final notes, she felt a chill on her scalp, and she knew he had gone. She closed the lid and went to the window. She wiped them clean with the sleeve of her cardigan and left the room, locking it with the silver key.
The next day she waited again until her mother had gone to the garden, then returned to the music room. She stacked his papers into neat piles, returned books to his bookcase, and put his pencils in the mug on the piano lid. Then she sat down and began to play. Her hands were still too small to reach some of the notes of the Gymnopedies. ‘I remember what you told me, so I shall try anyway,’ she whispered. She put on the dreaming hat and played slowly at first, nervous of the notes her fingers could not reach; and then, as she felt the warmth of her father’s breath in her hair, she leaned back to feel his body. ‘I want to see you, Dad ‘ she said. ‘I want to feel you. You are more than flickering light. Be real again.’ She played as slowly as she could wanting to prolong the feeling of his warmth; but as she pressed the final keys she felt the chill on her scalp.
Freya closed the curtains and locked the door with the silver key. She went into the garden to pick some flowers for her father’s desk.
‘What are you doing?’ asked her mother.
‘Just picking roses,’ she replied.
‘And why are you wearing your father’s hat. You know you are not allowed in there?’