Monday, January 30, 2012

Excerpt from When Sisyphus Spoke


It was a man who came to her, shadowed by the dreams of day, claw-footed creeping through the halls of sleep. His face was twisted, one side dropped and set as if it wished to run away from the other but had been suddenly stopped and was now held captive; imprisoned by the living power of its other half. He sat on the side of her bed and leaned over, so close to her face that she feared he would fall into her and be lost forever, but instead he kissed her on the forehead and then the lips. He placed soft hands upon her cheeks and then stood up and walked to the door.
She watched him, wondering where her fear was, but knowing too it was only a dream,  and that the crippled man with the broken face loved her deeply. It was as his hand reached out for the door and he turned for one last look at her that the image changed, and fear reached out to wrap bony talons around her chest. It was no longer a man who looked at her but a mask. She could not take her eyes from the face, and as she watched the vision took form, found shape, grew arms and legs ... became more than an idol of plaster and paint.
It was life that gave birth to the form in death, struck bone and feathers and soft, furred pelts in the shape of a woman. This figure that stood before her, towered high to the ceiling, with a face of brown, polished bone; cruelly pointed of nose, wide of mouth and with eyes which were formed from the dry, whitened skulls of small birds.
There were no lips, just the open darkness of a mouth and from her ears dropped white, feathered earrings, red-tipped, like dangling matches. Upon her head was an eagle, its wings spread in brown and cream upon the drying locks of fine, grey hair. Her body formed from the wizened shapes of dead birds and animals; her breasts, cups of bleached, white bone, threaded through with tiny veins; nippled red.  She raised one arm its leathered length and pointed a shining finger of sharpened bone at Ellie, and then she began to dance, weaving in a feathered fall across the room, the tangle of dried pelts and tasselled  bones making small dry sounds as she moved.
Ellie looked into the face and knew that the breath moved no longer through her own body, that it had flown from her to join the dance and that it would never return unless she woke. The thunder in her heart grew louder, cascading through the blood-swollen veins of her neck, roaring with terror at the back of her ears and hammering everything into blackness.
“Ellie, Ellie, for God’s sake bloody well answer me.” The knocking on the door grew more furious.”Are you fucking well dead or something?”
Ellie struggled from the bed, the deathly pull of daytime sleep sucking her energy; the pounding in her head refusing to subside.
“Sorry, sorry,” she mumbled, unlocking the door and letting in a flushed and annoyed Lydia.
“What the hell are you locking yourself in for?” Lydia was grinning but she sounded angry. “Think I’m going to eat you, like a vampire.” Lydia bared her teeth and growled, threatening Ellie with long, scarlet claws, before flinging herself onto the bed.
“No, sorry, just something I always do,” said Ellie wearily. Not only did she have a terrible headache, she also felt physically sick.
“God, you look awful,” said Lydia, in a tone reminiscent of concern.
“Feel bloody awful,” Ellie muttered weakly.
“Can’t take your wine then. God you’re a wimp.” Lydia sighed and lay back on the pillow beside her. “Hate this room,” she added, turning her head from side to side as if to convince herself that she meant what she said. “Yes, I really hate it.”
“Why,” said Ellie,”it’s just a room.” She felt too tired to think, let alone talk and was trying to remember the dream she had had before waking. It had frightened her, she knew that, but beyond the fear there was little of recall other than something about a man kissing her.
“What’s up with you?” Lydia sounded hurt and Ellie chided herself for her own lack of graciousness. It wasn’t often that Lydia tried to be friendly and tired as she was, she did not want to waste the opportunity.
“Sorry, just had a terrible dream,” she said, sitting up and pulling the eiderdown up around her shoulders as she had always done as a child when she had nightmares. “You know, when I was little I used to have lots of bad dreams and I always used to think that if I hid under the covers the monsters would never get me.”
“And then you found out that they did anyway,” Lydia said sourly.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I just stopped having bad dreams.” Ellie yawned. Her head was beginning to clear and the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach had eased.
“Lucky you,” said Lydia ruefully. “I only ever have bad dreams and they seem to get worse as I get older. But I ignore them, just tell all those crazy bastards to fuck off and go back to sleep. What was yours about? “
“Don’t really remember, that’s the trouble. Just remember the fear and something about a man.” There was no way she was going to tell Lydia that she had dreamt about a crippled man kissing her. It was not the sort of thing that Lydia would be able to leave alone and Ellie was not in the mood to be ridiculed.
“Well, that’s the best place for men really ... in dreams. They’re too much trouble in the real world that’s for sure.”  Lydia yawned and then examined her nails, as if surprised to find them so bright. “Hate this colour,” she muttered. “I usually wear black. Mother loathes it,” she added, dragging out the ‘loathes’ as if it were some rotting corpse. Lydia giggled and then grabbed a pillow from behind Ellie and began hugging it, just as a small child would nurse a favourite doll. “Well, say something,” Lydia added pouting. “I didn’t come up here to talk to myself.”
“Sorry,” Ellie said with a start, dragging herself back from a ramble through Lydia’s conversation. She had been surprised to hear Lydia say such a thing about men. With her beauty and dynamic, if difficult personality, she could hardly believe that any man would be too much of a problem and even if he were, that Lydia would not be able to do something about it, or for that matter, even care.
“Anyway,” said Lydia quickly, as if thinking better of what she was doing,”are you going to sleep all day?”
“Guess not.” Ellie smiled at her and Lydia looked embarrassed and turned away.
“Look,” she said, the words rushed and clumsy, ”look I just wondered if you had any tampons. Got my damn period and I seem to be out.”
“In the suitcase, right-hand corner.” Ellie pointed in the direction of the case. “Just don’t make a mess,” she added, but it was too late, for Lydia was searching through her clothes with a fury, tossing things from one side to another without thought.
“Here, let me get them.” Ellie was annoyed, both at the mess that Lydia was making of her neatly folded clothes and at being forced out of bed. “Here, they are, right where I said.”
“Thanks. I suppose I could have stuffed up some toilet paper but thought you might have some. Couldn’t be bothered going to the shops. Actually I’ve been using a sponge instead of tampons, much easier, but the damn thing fell apart last time I tried to wash it.”
“I’ve never heard of that.” Ellie wrinkled her nose at the thought of washing out a blood-filled sponge.
“Yeah, one of the girls at college in the States told me about it. Saves money and time. Just stick it in and when it’s full,  pull it out and give it a rinse. Doesn’t matter where you are. I just do it in the sink.”
“In front of people.” Ellie’s voice had risen to a squeak.
“Sure, why not. Just blood, won’t hurt anyone although I have to say you should see the look on some of their faces. I was in Paris once, at the George V and I went to the ladies. Well, you would have thought the bloody thing was riddled with the black death or something ... it was worth it just for the look on their faces. I thought a couple of them were going to be sick but in the end they just screamed a bit and ran out. Silly bitches.”
“Well,” said Ellie hesitantly, sensing that care was needed in any response, ”well, I don’t suppose it’s the sort of thing they see every day.”
“It’s only blood,” chortled Lydia, obviously pleased with herself. “I can’t see what all the fuss is about. We’d be dead without it that’s for sure although I have to say there are times when I wish I didn’t have to bother with a period, bloody nuisance. I read once about an injection you can get which stops you from having babies and periods. Perfect, just what I need.”
“But things like that can’t be good for your body,” said Ellie, suspecting that one part of her agreed with Lydia but not liking to admit to it. She wanted to believe in the beauty of being a woman if only because it was something that Gai had impressed upon her and yet, as Lydia said, it was all a nuisance at times.
“Living isn’t good for your body Ellie but we do it all the same.” Lydia waved one finger as she spoke in a manner that Ellie found to be strangely familiar.
“I think having an injection to stop natural functions is different,” said Ellie. ‘It doesn’t feel right, even if it is convenient.” Ellie found herself wavering but felt obliged, at least to the memory of Gai, to make such a point.
“When did you get yours?” Lydia stopped playing with the packet of tampons and turned to face her, sounding somehow more serious.
“Oh when I was fifteen.”
“Who did you tell?”
Ellie thought for a moment. It all seemed so very long ago, as if it were another life and she was trying to remember a story that she had heard about another someone else.
“I think I told my mother, or it might have been Gai. I know I talked to Gai about it.”
“Who’s Gai?”
“Oh, she’s my aunt... my great-aunt actually and her name is Iris and I call her Gai...” Ellie stopped short, realising as she spoke that she was talking about Noel’s sister and wondering if Lydia knew about her. There was some part of her that did not want to tell Lydia about Gai, did not want to share her but she knew it would not be right. “Um, well, actually she’s your aunt too ... a real aunt... she’s your father’s sister. She’s really lovely, you’d like her.”
Lydia did not look interested and Ellie was secretly relieved when she ignored the reference to Gai and went on talking.
“I told the gardener, that’s who I told.” Lydia gave a silly little laugh and began to pull at the tampon, removing the paper with a rough jerk and fluffing out the white, packed cotton. ”Mum was away, she was always away and I wasn’t going to tell him so I told the gardener... gave him the money to get me some tampons ... it was worth it for the look on his face.” Lydia laughed and tossed the now fully fluffed tampon into the air. When she caught it she crushed it between both hands and threw it to the floor. “I hated it when she told him,” she hissed the ‘Him’ at Ellie,”hated the way he looked at me, as if he felt sorry for me.”
“I’m sorry,” whispered Ellie, and she was,  sorry that Lydia had a father whom she did not love when she Ellie, had never had the chance to love a father; sorry too that Lydia who was so beautiful seemed to hate herself as a woman and everything about herself that was womanly; and sorry that she could not comfort this brittle, angry girl who seemed bent upon self-destruction.
“Oh fuck it Ellie, you’re always bloody sorry and it’s never got anything to do with you. You’re like a broken record and I’m sick to death of you,” Lydia shrieked as she stormed from the room.
It was then that Ellie remembered the dream, saw the image of the man with the twisted face and that of the hideous woman made of feathers, bone and pelts. She shuddered. It was the faces that were truly awful because they spoke of things she did not know and had no wish to discover.
 They reminded her of the doll which her grandmother had given her, an expensive, beautiful porcelain doll which had come all the way from Europe and had been made with a face which was an exact copy of a real child
Ellie had been horrified when her grandmother told her that the face of the doll was that of a real girl. It had seemed to her then that the doll lived in a way that none of her others did, that it had taken on the power of the child from whom the face had been stolen. She had known at first sight that this was a child that, not only could she not know, but it was one that she would never wish to meet. The face that had watched her from across the room, that is until she put it behind the curtain,  was one that she did not like. Worse, it was one that she knew did not like her in return.
She had dreamt often as a child, of the doll chasing her, tormenting her through the blindness of night and she had screamed herself awake time after time until finally,  she had written to Gai asking her what she should do.
“Bury it,” Gai had said in her letter. “There is a personality in that doll which has been stolen from the child and it is angry. Bury it.”
And so Ellie had taken the doll to a friend’s house and together they had dug a very big hole and buried the doll. But first they had wrapped it well in brown paper and tied the box tightly with string so there was no chance of escape.
Her grandmother had been furious at the loss of the doll but was prepared to accept the explanation that one of her friend’s must have liked it so much she had taken it.

“God, it sounds like something you would call a cat, “said Lydia.  Lydia was painting her toe-nails ... gleaming black. Ellie was curled up on the couch reading a book.
“What does?” she asked, without looking up from her book.
“Siggi .... here Siggi, Siggi, Siggi.” Lydia giggled and waved the blackened brush at Ellie. “Like a little pussycat he is, a little black pussycat.”
“He’s black?” Ellie put down her book and sat up.
“Black as the night Ellie my dear, black as the bloody night.”
“But you said he was German.”
“Well he is, on his passport and in his head and I suppose he looks a bit Germanic but the skin is ebony ... a gift from his South Indian mother and probably the only thing he didn’t really want. It’s a real mix that family, a dog’s breakfast. It’s no wonder that George is strange. He and his brother were not brought up together. The marriage broke up and George went with his mother to Scotland and his brother went to Germany with his father. Don’t think they’ve seen much of each other and George seemed surprised when Siggi appeared out of the blue last year.  His name’s Siegfried really if you want to know. God what an awful name. All I can say is I’m glad my mother didn’t marry a German although Lydia is not so great. Horrible name. ” Lydia had finished her toe-nails and now held the brush over her right thumb.”What do you think...fingernails as well?”
“It’s a bit much isn’t it?” Ellie thought it all looked awful but knew that Lydia would do what she wanted no matter what anyone said.
“Perfect!” Lydia spat the word out between tight lips and began a careful blackening of her fingernails.
“It doesn’t matter what colour people are,” said Ellie, knowing she sounded a bit precious but fearful that Lydia might think she was prejudiced.
“Course it doesn’t, he’s a man isn’t he ... well, bit of a boy really and he’s got a dick so nothing else matters.” Lydia revelled in her coarseness all the more so because she thought it offended Ellie. It didn’t really, it was just something which Ellie considered unnecessary. When people had an adequate vocabulary there was no need to be crude or to swear. It was one of the few things that her grandmother said with which she was in total agreement.
“You don’t have to talk like that Lydia.” Ellie picked up her book and retired from the conversation.
“God you’re precious Ellie. A little miss perfect bitch that’s what you are. The fucking sky would probably fall in if you said anything out of place and I bet you’ve never even seen a bloody dick!” The bottle of nail polish landed on the table at this point and did a slow, black roll across to where Ellie was sitting. “Go on, “Lydia prodded, dangling ten ebony claws in the air,” I bet you haven’t got the guts to put some on.”
Ellie sighed. Lydia was in one of those moods and there would be no winning. “I’ll put some on later,” she said, hoping that seeming assent would satisfy.
“Bloody liar. You won’t, you’re just trying to keep me calm. Doesn’t work though, not if I’m in the mood for an argument.”
Ellie sat up again and squared her shoulders. “Lydia I don’t want to fight.”
What surprised her was the response.”Neither do I,” said Lydia with a quick shrug of her shoulders. “Anyway,” she went on,”have you seen one ... have you seen a dick.”
Ellie felt a warm creep from the base of her neck. Please God don’t let her blush at something Lydia said. She took a deep breath. “Of course I have.” It didn’t sound convincing but then it wasn’t true.
“Bet you haven’t,” Lydia huffed. “You never had a father around to spy on and I bet you’ve never had the guts to fuck anyone.” Lydia folded her arms across her chest and threw her sandalled feet up onto the table as if daring Ellie to disagree.
Ellie had no choice. There was no way she would admit to Lydia that she was so inexperienced.  It would be too humiliating. She knew it should not be but she knew that it would be. Lydia, from the way that she talked, had had hundreds of men. It was a game in which Ellie could not compete even if she had wanted to.
“I don’t talk about things like that.”
Lydia laughed at Ellie’s feeble response. “That’s because you’ve got bloody nothing to talk about,” she teased, and then, as if tiring of the conversation, picked up a magazine and began to read.
Ellie watched her. Hating her in that moment more than she could remember hating anyone else. What was she doing here? There was no suggestion of an answer other than that she was sitting here with Lydia because she had not had the courage to say no to Charis and that was one answer which she was not prepared to own.
It was then that Lydia looked up and smiled, almost kindly. “Come on Ellie, don’t be angry. I was just teasing. You mustn’t take too much notice of what I say ... I don’t mean to be awful. “ Lydia wrinkled her nose as if in apology and then said: ”It just comes naturally. Blame dad, he’s the expert.”
“I’m not angry Lydia,” said Ellie slowly, feeling suddenly tired and thinking that it was probably time to make plans to go back to Paris anyway. In truth she was no longer angry, for her ability to maintain such an emotion in the face of apparent contrition was not great. Ellie did not like fuss of any kind and she deplored scenes. It was a sign, she believed, of weakness of character. She did not know why she believed such a thing but it held her all the same.
“Hey,” said Lydia conspiratorially, holding  one hand to the side of her mouth as if fearful that someone could be listening, ”you might be in luck with Siggi, he’s quite sweet really ... in a pathetic sort of way. Sorry, shouldn’t have said that. I’ve met him before, last year.  I think he’s about twenty ... a toy-boy for you Ellie. He came down from Madrid, that’s where his father is working at present ... he’s a diplomat. Anyway, he spent a week here last year and I saw him once or twice. Cute actually ... but not my type.” This last comment was accompanied with a shake of the head and a small twist of smile at the corner of Lydia’s mouth.
“I thought you only had one type Lydia,” Ellie said acidly, “male!”
Lydia looked surprised and then collapsed with helpless laughter.”My God Ellie,” she said, convulsed, “bloody hell, there’s hope for you yet. It’s catching you know, by the time I send you back to Paris you’ll be a real bitch like me and you can make their life hell instead.”
Ellie found herself laughing as well, caught by the infectious nature of Lydia’s collapse and amused herself at the thought that she could ever become like Lydia. More than anything though she was amazed at what she had said, surprised and even a little horrified at the words which had come out of her mouth. She could not remember ever saying such a nasty thing before. Perhaps Lydia was right, perhaps it was catching and she would return to Paris a different person. There was no denying she already felt different but that was more about feeling stronger in herself, more independent and able to make decisions which did not need approval from others. If that meant becoming a bitch she was not sure she wanted it.
Ellie stopped laughing quite some time before Lydia did, more than a little chastened by her thoughts and now feeling terribly guilty for what she had said. She wanted to say sorry but refused to do so, knowing that Lydia was not offended and had already remarked upon how often she apologised unnecessarily.
 With Lydia falling about in paroxysms of laughter on the couch Ellie felt herself grow annoyed again. She bit her lip to stop the words and began to worry that something was at work within that she did not recognise. Lydia was like someone possessed; perhaps the same thing had happened to her.  There was something evil about the house, she had felt it the first time that she walked in although she had told herself it was just the unlived in designer look of the place which gave it a cold, unforgiving air. But maybe it was more. That mask behind the door. Ellie shuddered at the thought. It wasn’t just a mask, it was something ... someone. Demonic, that was the word, thought Ellie as she watched Lydia laughing hysterically about nothing! Ellie shuddered again and pushed away at the thoughts. “You’re being a bloody idiot,” she muttered, not realising she was talking out loud.
“What,” giggled Lydia, holding her chest and beginning to wheeze,”what did you say?”
“I said it wasn’t that funny,” Ellie lied. All that she wanted was for Lydia to stop laughing. Her thoughts were beyond conversation. She didn’t really understand them herself and to expect Lydia to make any sort of sensible response was ridiculous.
“Oh, oh,” Lydia sighed out the words with the last of her chuckles,”Ellie, you don’t know how funny it all is. God I’m exhausted. Get me some water will you, I can’t breathe.”
Ellie jumped up, grateful for any chance of release, glad just to get away.
“Oh, by the way,” Lydia called after her,” George has asked us in for a drink tonight so you’ll get to meet Siggi.” It was then that Lydia collapsed on the sofa again, helpless with laughter. It was a sound that followed Ellie out to the kitchen, niggling and teasing and making her angrier than she could ever remember feeling. Whatever it was that Lydia found so funny was lost on her and she hated Lydia for that, hated her with a passion which rose firm-trunked and muscled, like a gnarled and ancient tree sourced deep in the swamp of some primeval forest.
“Fuck Lydia,” she muttered to herself and then gasped at what she had said.
“What did you say?” Lydia was standing directly behind, having followed her into the kitchen like some hungry cat.
“Nothing.” Ellie felt her ears turn pink, just as they always did when she felt caught out doing something wrong.
“Yes, you did.” Lydia walked up and took her by the shoulders, determined, so it seemed, to shake the truth from her.”Come on, I heard you, admit it ... you said fuck.”
“So what if I did,” Ellie admitted angrily, spinning herself out of Lydia’s grip, more furious that she had said the word than been found out and even angrier that she should feel the way she did.
Lydia laughed and took the glass of water from Ellie’s hand, drinking it down in one gulp. “Don’t be such a drip Ellie,” she said, when she had finished and handed back the glass, as if returning something that did not belong to her, ”it’s only a fucking word and I don’t give a shit what you say. I just can’t stand it when you act holier than thou and try to make out you are better than me. “
“But I don’t.” The protest came high-pitched and false, accompanied as it was with a sudden understanding for Ellie that Lydia could well be right.
Lydia took it for what it was and arched one perfectly shaped eyebrow in response. Ellie’s cheeks began to burn, just as they had when she told her grandmother about the doll.
“Ellie,” said Lydia slowly, as if she were forming the words carefully so that even a child could understand, ”you really do know nothing and the worst thing of all is that you know nothing about yourself as well. Whatever you may think of me at least I know myself for what I am.”
“And what are you Lydia?” Ellie snapped. She was beginning to feel trapped and she did not like it. Lydia was bearable as long as she could keep her at a distance.
“I’m honest Ellie,” that’s what I am. Lydia leaned against the cupboard and folded her arms protectively across her chest and then repeated her claim: ”Yes, I’m honest. What you see is what you get. I don’t hide things ... I say what I think.” This last she delivered with a small nod of the head as if she had suddenly found agreement with herself and was pleased.
“So do I,” Ellie protested, knowing she didn’t but feeling she had to defend herself.
Lydia fixed her with a withering look. “No you bloody well don’t ... you say what you think people will want to hear, not what you really think. I don’t even think you know what you think half the time. I bet you’ve always been such a good girl, doing what you’re told, bossed around by all those old bags who brought you up, that you never bothered to think anything out for yourself, just crept around on baby feet and tried to be invisible.”
The feelings that surged in Ellie’s chest masqueraded as confusion but were really anger. There was something in Lydia’s words that rang true and she did not like the false and empty echo that reverberated around them. She told herself that arguing with Lydia was pointless anyway and it would be easier to let her have her say and get it over and done with. But it was not to be so simple.
“Well.” Lydia prodded, digging one finger into Ellie’s shoulder. “Well, cat got your tongue. What have you got to say for yourself?”
Ellie felt the tears burn at the corner of her eyes, the fullness of her throat which had a tight grip on anything she might want to say and the rising hysteria of frustration which threatened to consume her. How dare Lydia attack her like this? It was indignation which pulled her through, gave her the strength to push back the tears, release the stopped words and fight back.
“Fuck off Lydia,” said Ellie, pushing her way past her. “You’re just being a bitch.”
Lydia kept laughing as Ellie ran up the stairs and before she closed the door of her bedroom, the words caught up with her:”Keep up the good work Ellie, you’ll get there,” Lydia screamed after her. “One of these days you’ll realise you’re just like me and not some fucking saint.”
It was guilt and shame which kept Ellie company on the bed, if only because she could not deny the truth of what Lydia had said. It was not completely true but it contained elements of the truth. She did try to keep the peace by going along with people. Not rocking the boat! Her mother always said, that was the best way to get through life. Now she wasn’t sure anymore. In fact she seemed to have a rockier time not trying to rock things, as if in attempting to keep everything steady she was going against the forces of nature; angering the Gods. More and more she had a sense that she was living a life over which she had little or no control. Had she ever felt in control? She wasn’t sure. She had thought she was.
Gai had once said she was a cat person, that the world was divided into cat people and dog people. The cat person is defined by what is within, the dog by what is without. A cat knows the world by itself; a dog knows itself by the world. Cats find themselves in themselves; dogs find themselves in the world. For a cat the world does not have to exist; for a dog the world must exist or they do not. Cats know they are despite the world; dogs know they are because of the world. Gai had called herself a dog person and Lydia must certainly be a dog person although when Ellie thought about it she couldn’t see that much similarity between her two aunts.
“They would fight like cats and dogs,” she said to herself and then laughed at the thought, knowing too that it was what she and Lydia did. Perhaps it was just the differences between them that created the problems. Ellie wanted an answer but feared she would not find one. She was prepared to admit that there was some truth in what Lydia said about her but would have to think it through before she admitted to much and even then it would be an admission for herself and not for Lydia.
“Why am I here?” She asked the question of herself but directed it to the wall and got no answer from either. “Fuck knows,” she added, picking up her book, prepared to read away the afternoon rather than spend more time with Lydia.

If anyone had told Ellie that within hours her life would be irrevocably changed, transformed forever, that she would be in love ... she would have laughed. It was not that she did not believe in love at first sight but rather that she feared it would never come to her.
In that first time she had had so much hope and found only bitter disappointment. She had tried to love Jason but it had not worked. For a long time she had refused to admit to herself that he would not love her,  even when she had come to understand that he liked her but that his passions were directed toward boys, not girls.
Finally, the day had come when she could no longer deny the truth of what she knew. It had hurt less when she accepted he could not have loved her, no matter who or what she had been in terms of looks or personality, but it hurt all the same and she had felt sour and crumpled for weeks after they broke up. It had been her first experience of what she called love and even then she had failed to recognise  its deceitful shape. If she trusted herself little before this first passion then she trusted herself even less afterwards.

And so it was that when she and Lydia went across to have drinks with George and his nephew, there was a sense of curiosity, nothing more, nothing less, and no hint of expectation. It was therefore all the more surprising that with her first sight of the delicate, blue-black boy, Ellie found herself transfixed. He was like no other boy that she had ever known and while she wished him to be a man there was no getting away from the fact that he had the look and the air of a boy about him.
There was something terribly young, almost fragile about him although his body was strong, finely muscled, and his features were sharply drawn. He was tall and he was handsome, with a well-shaped nose and chin, which bespoke his Aryan heritage, but it was his mother’s gifts, of almond eyes, glittering black against the polished ebony of his skin that captured her heart
He was like nothing she had ever seen before, tall, glorious and thoroughly exotic. His voice was low, almost timid and he had shaken hands with her as if he held something precious. But it was the smile from which there was no escape. It was warm and embracing, and it whispered in siren-song that she was  the most beautiful woman in the world.
Ellie had known that Lydia was watching her; alert for any sign of interest. She had felt the fierceness of those serpentine eyes burning into her back and almost thought she heard her laugh. But Lydia had soon turned her attention to George, draping her body next to him on the sofa, drawing him in and teasing him with that soft, low voice which Ellie had heard her use on the phone.
But the visit had been brief, brought suddenly to an end by a coughing fit that had siezed George with vicious intensity. Siggi had immediately offered to take him to the nearby hospital, but not before extracting a promise of lunch with both Ellie and Lydia the following day. And then he had left them with a quick toss of one heart-stopping smile.
 Ellie had watched him walk down to the car, leaning over the patio rails until he was out of sight, remembering how he had picked up his uncle in fine-boned but powerful arms and carried the convulsing body down the stairs and out to the garage without a second thought. Her last sight of Siggi that evening had been a quick, shadowed glimpse of his face as he backed the car down the drive. She had waved, but he had not seen her. It had seemed unbearable that she should have to wait until the morning before she would see him again. The night stretched black, cold arms in front of her and beckoned with steely fingers.
 Like a strange and alien god, he had appeared before her and then disappeared into the darkness. When she fell asleep it was with crossed fingers that dawn would deliver him back to her and a fervent prayer that it was not a dream.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Excerpt: Persephone's Children

The sunlight moved gently on the grey face of the lake,  shivering and glittering in the breath of the breeze which slid off the haze-hidden mountains. The late morning sunshine blinked softly through a cowl of mist but the day had dawned bright enough to ensure that the canvas blinds had already been drawn on the hotel verandah.
A slim, angular woman, crossed the road and stood for a moment, watching the move and crush of people before threading her way carefully through the crisply dressed tables and neatly placed chairs.  Dressed in black, loose trousers, a long black jacket and white silk shirt she did not stand out for long but was quickly swallowed by the distracted embrace of the crowd. Sunday lunch at the Beau Rivage was for her, as it was for many of those around her, a necessary ritual, maintained as much for appearances as for pleasure.
She settled herself at a table near the window, removing her sunglasses as she did so and placing them carefully into her handbag. Many years before she had left an expensive pair of sunglasses in a Zurich coffee shop; it would not happen again.  She was not the sort to make the same mistake twice and regarded sensible habits as the foundation of  an ordered life. As she had also done so many times before, Jennifer then placed her bag securely on the seat beside her and turned toward the mountains, waiting for that moment when they would emerge from the mist.  Always she was moved by them and this day would be no different; there was no reason at all why it should be.
The mountains had been cast with a brave hand in a shade of rich, deep blue and the fine-honed edges of ancient stone bore testament both to substance and a sense of security.  It was this unchanging quality which pleased her most.  She ordered coffee and then sat back to wait, watching as the sparrows hopped soundlessly among the granite-topped tables and cream cane chairs, searching for dropped crumbs. They were ordinary little birds, with no particular talents, except a capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.  They were unremarkable but they endured where perhaps others would not.  She could admire them for that.  Making the most of life, that was what it was about.
The hum of cars passing along the lakefront made its way up the hill and mingled with the steady sound of the fountain which trickled in the garden.  A promise of summer drifted in through the open doors, holding tight to the wings of Spring, and  brought with it the heady tang of crushed pine needles.  She breathed deeply, invigorated  by her recent exercise and excited at the prospect of lunch.  It was a short but refreshing walk down the steep hill from her small and always immaculate flat, to the grand old hotel and one which she enjoyed.
There was no preference for either direction.  The going out, she told herself, had a special quality, not only because of the enjoyment which lay ahead, but also because she savoured that moment of perfection when, freshly dressed and with every hair in place, she closed the door behind her and knew with comforting certainty that she was going forth with all in order.
The returning home stood just as solidly upon its own merits with the steepness of the hill demanding enough exertion to aid the process of digestion without raising too much of a sweat, and yet, at the same time providing an adequate amount of exercise for the day. All in all, Jennifer decided each Sunday, as she double-checked that the door of her apartment in the Jordils Residence was securely locked, this was the best of days.  By the time she had properly settled herself into the plump comfort of the restaurant chair on this particular Sunday, there was no reason to change her mind.
The Jordils Residence had been her home for many years, ever since she  fled England and her husband after discovering he was on the verge of leaving her for another woman.  It had seemed easier and much more discreet simply to leave him before he had the opportunity to leave her.  It provided her with some measure of self-respect, if only because she was then able to say with perfect honesty that she  had done the leaving.
She reminded herself frequently, that while John was generous enough with his first offer of settlement, it was she who had been smart enough to act quickly.  It was important to take full advantage of the initial state of guilt.  Such attacks are only ever of temporary duration and, in many cases, remarkably brief.  It was the practical side of her nature which told her that his feelings of guilt would not last. They were no more than a gut reaction to the dramatic changes which had overturned the structure of his life -- changes brought about by his own actions.  There was little doubt that as John adjusted to his new state, more rational responses would emerge and it was vital that her future be well and truly secured before that point was reached.
This was of course exactly  what did happen but by the time Jennifer felt the first brisk winds of a changed attitude she had already gained for herself enough money to maintain a modest but perfectly adequate lifestyle as far away from England as she could sensibly get.  He  would never  be able to pay her enough to compensate for what she now saw as the wasted years,  but at least the time  she had remaining would be spent in security and modest comfort.
 Choosing to live on the continent had also meant that she was able to avoid the unpleasantries associated with divorce.  Distance provided a barrier between one's self and the source of memories,  not to mention the uncomfortable questioning from family and friends.   All in all, she told herself once more,  moving to Lausanne had been quite the most sensible thing to do.
She had had no desire to see him again but she wrote one quite scathing letter which she felt he deserved and which, surprisingly, made her feel much better than she thought it would.  After that, with the past tidily folded up and posted off she had settled down to life in Switzerland.  Her French was enough to manage but she was not so fluent as to risk the loss of privacy.  This was an important consideration for a woman who had things which she did not even want to remember,  let alone discuss.
There were times though when she did think of him, whether she wanted to or not.  His face would rise before her  --  with its sharp hook of a nose, high round forehead and head abundant with thick, black hair which rose at the crown and fell heavily to the edge of his collar.   It was how she had first seen him that day in the shop and,  while time had thinned the hair and sharpened even more the edge to his nose, it was how she remembered him and the image she found hardest to put from her mind.
It all started with the  Indian statue. She had been visiting Wells to see friends and had taken advantage of the long wait before her  train left to explore a little of the cathedral city. She saw  the antique shop from the  other side of the road and hurried across for a closer look.  It was not that she expected to buy as there was little money to spare.  She had just completed a Fine Arts Degree and was hoping to find work in a London gallery, and for the moment the only money she had came from working part-time in a coffee shop.  It was enough though to look; she had learned early to make the most of what she had and antique shops offered pleasure even when one could not afford to buy. They also offered the possibility of promise and the chance to dream of a treasure to be found; something exotic and wonderful but surprisingly unappreciated  --  and therefore available for a ridiculous price.
The figure of the dancing girl took her eye as she pressed close to the window.  She knew instantly, even through the thick glazed glass that it was reproduction and therefore no unappreciated treasure.  It was hard to say what drew her to it and even now, many years on when she chanced to look at it, standing as it did on a small side table in her bedroom, there was no denying that it was a rather mediocre piece of sculpture.
At the same time though, it  had appealed to her. There was beauty locked within the confines of the ordinary. She reasoned that it was this innate and unexpected quality which had taken her attention.  It was only later that she wondered how beauty could be such an intangible part of something mass-produced and in essence so common-place.  When she first saw it, she merely liked it and had been young enough not to bother about wondering why.
The statue was of bronze, richly carved with short, looped skirts, breasts wrapped in a ribbon band and with the hair tied, curled and dressed at the back with an ornate cap. It  was no more than ten inches high, knees crooked in semi-bow, hands together in front with the fingers pointed outwards and the eyes, long lines drawn from the fine ridge of the nose  almost to  the ears.   It had been exotic, enticing and, as she discovered, relatively inexpensive.
The young man  had emerged from behind a curtain at the rear of the shop as she entered. Smiling broadly, he had taken the statue from the window and placed it in her hands.  It was surprisingly heavy and icy cold to the touch.  It came from India, he told her.   It was a minor goddess, but an important one for it was she who stood by the door to welcome guests.  Her hands were together in the traditional greeting of Namaste and her small smile represented the reserved delight that her hosts would have in the receiving of any guests.  But even if one were to be alone forever, destined never to have a guest, it was still a very pretty piece, he  added.
 There had been no choice but to buy it. He was handsome and charming too, with the air of someone who knew far more of the world than she could yet claim.  He was exotic like the statue, but he was not cold to the touch as she discovered when he reached out to take her hand in an unexpectedly familiar gesture of  farewell.  His  hair  moved as  he talked,  silken-black, and  his dark  eyes teased.  Jennifer did not at  first realise that she had in a very short time lost her heart to this dark-haired stranger.  She thought about him all the way home on the train and had not a moment's hesitation in accepting his offer of dinner when he wrote a few weeks later to say he would be in London on the following Friday.  It began as  easily as that, but the statue  proved to be more enduring than the man.
At first she thought he was Jewish and felt strangely relieved when he told her he was Armenian.  It was not that she had anything against the Jews, but rather that she  remembered her father's words.   He had often warned against the dangers of unsuitable marriages.  While it was unwise to marry out of one's class,  he said, it was foolhardy in the extreme to marry out of one's culture.  Mixing religions was even worse and could only end in disaster.  Most religions, he had instructed her, were cults in essence and those from the non-Western world were amongst the worst as the religious and social  beliefs were so intertwined.  The adherence to a rigid mix of customs, ritual and ceremonies meant  that they could not be  adapted to suit the complexities of mixed marriage.   Each would  consider their religion to be superior and so the marriage would begin and remain a power struggle.  There was no reasoning in such situations; religion would always be beyond  reason.  There was enough struggle in marriage without those sorts of complications.  It was better to keep to one's own kind.
Jennifer had reasoned that since both the Armenian and Anglican churches were Christian the only differences could be cultural.  She found that comforting.  There were in fact too many positive aspects,  even apart from love,  which necessitated  that she do away with  the inconvenience  of doubt.  There was also the question of money.  He had a good income.  Money oiled many things in a relationship.  Something else her parents had taught her.  With a little effort she could make the positive aspects stack very nicely.   Not only did  he have money, but it was secure and could only increase.   He and  his parents owned the antiques business where he worked and over the years had built  it into one of the most respected shops outside London.  There were only the three of them and they seemed always to be in agreement.  His only brother had emigrated to Australia many years before.
It had appeared,  or so  she  thought at  the time, almost perfect.   In later, possibly wiser years,  she would consider the appearance of perfection to be a danger signal.  One's ability to view the  world more clearly, was, she could reflect, something which actually  improved with age.  It was almost  as if  the young  were meant  to be  half-blind; were meant to  make mistakes.   How else could she have believed that his looks and his money were  a sound  basis for  her choice?
It did not  take long for her to begin to see the world through  different   eyes.    The  learning  began almost immediately and it took a mere matter of weeks, sometimes she thought days,  for her to discover that it was the cultural differences which were the most difficult to bridge simply because they were so heavily disguised as habit.  Even money, after a time, could not lubricate the rusted remnants of their marriage.  She had been misled by many things aside from her own dreams.
  The fact that John, while being born in Jerusalem,  had come to England as a small boy had led her to believe that he must be  more English than Armenian.  She suspected at an early stage that his parents might create problems, but believed in the sanctity of their relationship and hoped that it would overcome all difficulties.  What she misjudged, however,  was the power of the unlived dream and what truly shocked her when confronted by it was the energy of inherited hatreds; that bitter legacy which,  when handed down from generation to generation, kept minds and souls in bondage to the past.
John and his parents,  she discovered,  were tied to a country in which they had never lived and were inexorably bound to a  culture which demanded homage because  it was all that remained of a shattered nation.  She had thought that he was hers, but learned soon enough that  he belonged  to his parents, to his  community and mostly to a  dream which lived only in  the minds of  the world's scattered  Armenians.  His country, or rather that country  which he called his, and one which he had  never seen, was strangely enough  a place which he had no wish to see.
Jennifer  wanted,  at least  in the  early days,  to understand the man she had married, had sought to find common ground on which they could work.  She was, at times, at least in  regard to  others if  not  to herself,  capable of great insight and while she was not  a  particularly  intuitive person,  she could travel far in the realms of reason and generally find safe passage. She had set a formidably rational course through the wild and windswept ocean of John's cultural inheritance and,  while it carried her some distance, it  failed,  in the end,  to carry her far enough.
She came to see that there was no place for the real within the framework  of their dream and it was on this that all reason foundered.  It  became painfully clear that John and his parents needed to hold fast to their particular world perspective in order to survive.  It was not mere choice but destiny. They needed to believe in their own unique suffering so that  they could continue to hate the Turks for the genocide which had been carried out against their people in the early years of this century. The hatred gave them a reason for being.  Without it,  they were nothing.
 Hatred gives people the power to survive but, once survival is assured,  it serves little honest purpose... except in a life without meaning,  and then it becomes the meaning, maintains the belief that one has a role to play.   It was within the horror that the Armenians, like so many displaced and abused peoples,  had a sense of their own importance.  It gave them something to claim in the stead of a country.  Their's was no country of rock,  earth and  tree,  but an  eternal landscape of grief and agony.
Like so many before them, and so many to come, John and his family had been seduced by suffering. Agony may dress in torn, foul robes, but she has a winsome smile.  The heel of oppression is cruel,  but it  leaves a vivid impression of life. Suffering as victim can be a heady draught,  for even in the depths of misery one feels special,  singled out and,  as a result,  truly and vitally alive. It is that sense of aliveness which humans crave and will cling to,  no matter the source.  As often as not it is the sheer,  endless ordinariness of life which keeps people chained to their hatreds.   In the arms of rage,  their rightful inheritance,  John’s ancestors, like so many others before them, had felt once again the salty kiss of power. They wrapped themselves in the cloak of victim and stayed warm and safe, calling foul when the chill winds of reason blew and claiming innocence as their own. 
This inheritance they had then handed down to their children;  at first in memories fired with pain and passion and then in stories well fertilised with rage and hate.  Those children when grown had in turn given it to their children and so it had been passed on to John and his brother,  like some sacred relic,  remnant of a rich and glorious past.   It held such power that,  in time,  it came to live its own truth,  to create its own reality and was written into the genetic code to be  inherited by each and every cell so that the capacity for hatred would remain undiminished throughout the generations;  undisturbed by reason and reality.
Jennifer had not been able to share him with that hatred,  nor to share the hatred  with him and so had remained what she had begun... the outsider.  There was not within her the power, nor  perhaps the will, to break  the bloodied bond which held him tied to his parents and the past.  He had been handsome and loving and that helped for a time,  but eventually his  anger had exhausted her,  even though she did not necessarily bear the  brunt of it.   It was sharing him with the anger,  sharing life with the anger, sharing energy with the anger which wore her down.  She removed herself from his passion in order to remain safe and in time he removed himself from her.
"Best forgotten," she murmured quietly to herself as she straightened  the cutlery in  front of her.
 Today  was a special occasion because for once she was not eating alone. She had made one friend in Lausanne, and Monique, with whom she had a  warm but disciplined friendship, agreed from time to time to meet her for lunch.   Jennifer budgeted quite carefully for the regular, if infrequent event.   It always cost more to have lunch with someone else simply because she felt herself less able to be frugal in her ordering of the food.   And there was wine. When she ate alone, she was perfectly happy to drink water, but when lunch became a social occasion, it was expected that one would drink wine.
  Monique at least expected it and her tastes were expensive.  She had a private income and that made her circumstances rather less constrained.  There were times though when Jennifer wished that her friend would either order something cheaper or offer to pay for the wine herself, but it never happened.  Monique always ordered something absolutely excellent, but unfortunately expensive and the bill was always split exactly down the middle.  For Jennifer, the only consolation could be in the drinking of the wine which thankfully helped to numb the sense of irritation which she invariably felt.
Living costs in Switzerland were high and while she had adequate funds they were only enough for moderate living.  Lunch at the hotel was something of an indulgence.  She knew that, but it was also one of the few expensive outings which she allowed herself.  She guarded her privacy and yet at the same time did not want to be seen as unsociable, nor as someone who was living the life of an impoverished hermit.   Lunch on Sunday at the Beau Rivage went some way putting both fears at rest.
She had met Monique one morning while taking a brisk walk along the lake front.  Rather, she saw  her from a distance, resolved to ignore her, failed in her intention and was forced  to participate in a meeting of sorts.   She had seen a figure,  tall, but somewhat askew standing at the water's edge, the right hand  raised  in firm grip upon a walking stick which rose and fell in frenzied waving.
Jennifer had stiffened her resolve as she neared.  She would walk past, re-affirming to herself that she had absolutely no desire to have her morning interrupted and more to the point, not the slightest need to know why this stick of a woman was so outraged.   Compassion and the situation did however combine to overcome her rather flimsy resolution, because as Jennifer had drawn closer, the waving and shaking brought the woman dangerously close to falling and she hurried across the lawn just in time to prevent her from toppling into the lake.
Settling her on a nearby bench,  she had then felt obliged to sit and talk with this seemingly well-bred but somewhat dishevelled creature, all the while acutely aware of the effect that this disruption would  have  on the day's routine.  Surprisingly she soon relaxed and even began to enjoy the  conversation and before farewells were taken each had agreed they should  meet again.  It was only later that evening as she lay  in bed, turning the sods of the day over in her mind, that she realised there was little that would stand as a satisfactory explanation of Monique’s behaviour. What cannot be understood by reason is best dismissed and before too long she  turned toward sleep convinced that most people were a little odd and that some were more odd than most.
When she woke the next morning there had been a strange and troubling sense of something not quite right settled heavily at the back of her eyes.  It was only when she prodded at it for a time that she remembered the events of the day before and found the source of her discomfort. The foundations of a new friendship had been marked out in her life; stark, solid and demanding; they cluttered up space which had previously been open and free.
Jennifer had sighed and turned over in bed, unsuccessfully attempting to find a more comfortable position beneath the badly rumpled sheets.  She was a restless sleeper at the  best of times  and this new commitment  had obviously weighed heavily on her as she slept.  It was not that she did not like having friends,  it was more the making of them which was unnerving.  It was  so important to be  careful in the making  of friends, she had  told herself with a  pang of regret at the hasty promises made the day before.
Friendships should only be established after one had made very, very sure that the other person was suited to one's own situation and  that shared  attitudes and values ensured the relationship  would generate no conflict nor embarrassment. How terrible to make a friend of someone who turned out to be unsuitable and then to be stuck with them forever. They would be a part of one's life whether  one wanted it or not!