Archive for February 21, 2010


The Brimstone Wedding

Barbara Vine

The clothes of the dead won’t wear long. They fret for the person who owned them. You know what they say, as the body rots the clothes rot.

It’s as if they’ve gone into a twilight world where they’ve forgotten everything, don’t really know where they are half the time and call you by the names of all their relations until you

remind them you’re Jenny. I’m sorry for them, I want to help make their lives as pleasant as can be, but as for liking, they’re past all that.

her teeth are all her own. and quite white still .

There’s no roughness in Stella’s voice and it doesn’t sound old but like the voice of a clever girl at one of those fancy private schools who’s had no experience of life and no hardship. It sounds untouched, if that’s possible

. It’s funny how when people are really anxious to look at something their faces don’t light up or their eyes get narrow the way they do on telly.

What they do is go blank. Stella’s face went absolutely expressionless

You need protection everywhere all the time

My nan says that blood must always be shed at a funeral. If it isn’t the dead person’s ghost will walk

If you rescue a bird and it dies in your hands, your hands will shake for ever. Stella wouldn’t believe that but it’s true.

That’s how I feel when I look at the house, Ned’s house, as if I’ll shake for ever.

When you deceive people you make fools of them. You make them act stupidly, act as if things which are aren’t and things which aren’t are. And that’s what fools do or people who are mentally disturbed and we look down on them for it or if we’re unkind we laugh at them.

There’s a film my friend Philippa’s got on video about the sinking of the Titanic. It was a long time ago, eighty or ninety years, and in those days men used to treat women as if they were fra’jile creatures that had to be sheltered from unpleasant or horrible facts. In the film the men never tell the women that the ship will sink in an hour and there aren’t enough boats. They keep saying, we’ll be a bit late getting to New York, and so the women are ignorant of the true facts and look complete fools. They say it’s so bad for the children to wake them up, and should they cancel a hairdresser’s appointment.

All deception is like that. The deceived person asks if you’re ill or tired when you won’t make love to him. You didn’t hear the phone when he phoned last night because you weren’t there but he’s been deceived and he says maybe we should have a bedside extension, you can’t always hear it ring when you’re upstairs. Unless you’re a complete bitch you don’t let yourself think he’s making a fool of himself, but the thought is there deep down. It’s the beginning of contempt. I hate saying these things and I hate doing what I have to do, but I do have to do them. For a while. Until something changes

I didn’t know what to say. Mum’s all right and she’d never say a word or drop a hint to a soul, but I couldn’t confide in her. I couldn’t say, I love him, I have to see him, we have to meet, because it’s like food and drink, and without him I’d starve to death, because she’d laugh.

She’s not childish, I don’t mean that. I’ve never heard her say a silly thing or have any sort of tantrum. But her voice is soft with a really youthful intonation, simple and genuine I mean there’s no side to her, and those clear blue eyes look at you as if they don’t know what secrets are.

Stella is the most refined person I’ve ever come across. Dainty is the word my nan would use to describe her. It’s almost as if she’s not quite flesh and blood but a porcelain doll, if they ever make dolls that don’t look like little girls but like old women. She covers her mouth when she coughs and wipes her lips with a tissue with rosebuds printed on it. And yet none of that seems to go with those long crimson fingernails of hers. When I look at them they give me a shock. It’s such an odd picture: the wavy white hair, the touch of face powder and blusher, pearls round her neck, the floral silk dress, and lying in her lap those gnarled old hands with sapphire-and-diamond rings and blood-red nails.

She talks like that, very precise and correct. I don’t suppose she’s made a grammatical error in all her life. Sometimes it’s as if she’s reading what’s already written down.

He’s a very nice man. He’s thoughtful, like a woman. Well, some women

The very pale stockings she always wears that would turn some women’s legs into tree trunks were fine on hers that are smooth and shapely I said I always did if I got the chance and I sat down beside her and we looked at the butterflies, counting ten small tortoise shells seven peacocks, a red admiral and another one Stella said was a comma. She’s knowledgeable about things like that, nature, wildlife. She said she’d like to see a swallowtail and she’s heard you only see them in Norfolk, maybe she’ll see one here.

Before I die, she said. Perhaps I’ll see a swallowtail and die happy.

I’d no answer to that.

We looked into each other’s faces and we both smiled. In that moment, for me, there’s no past and no future, just the present, the absolute here and now.

It’s just that one of the things I like about you is the way you don’t talk down to me the way the others sometimes do. It’s a very common attitude to old people, it’s as if when you get to seventy, no matter what sort of a person you are or how much intelligence obviously remains to you, you’re to be treated like a child. Especially if you’re in a home. There’s no more speaking to you as if you’re a rational being, you have to be cajoled and and bullied and lied to.

Old people are always saying they know how much they’ve changed but they don’t really. They don’t know that the face they had thirty or forty years ago isn’t just a younger version of the face they’ve got now, it’s utterly different, it might be a different person. And that’s why Stella looked disbelieving when I talked about a woman’.

I’ve said we’re a family but you have to remember families are where most of the trouble starts in this world. We don’t all get on, far from it, but I reckon we’d all stand together against an enemy. Still, I expect they said that in Bosnia and look what happened there. Anyway, for good or ill we all know each other better than we know anyone else, we know whose mother someone is and who’s niece to this one or brother-in-law to that one. That’s the sort of thing we never make mistakes about. More important, we feel comfortable with each other

Stella listened to me while I told her all this, how at first I thought I’d found a friend, that him being of the opposite sex didn’t matter, we could still meet when he came down at the weekends and there needn’t be any sex involved, she listened and she said she understood. She understood only too well, she said, that you could fool yourself along those lines and what a shock it was when you found out you were fooling yourself.

Dying, actually dying, she would probably still care how she looked and sounded.

Writing, though, is a silent activity. You can do it surreptitiously and hide it. I think I’ve read somewhere that Jane Austen did that, slid her writing under a book she pretended to be reading when someone came into the room

But she is insensitive to other people’s vulnerability, or perhaps I should say she believes vulnerability shouldn’t be allowed. Her sense of humour, which I’m sure she believes she has in abundance, is the banana-skin kind. It’s concentrated on making others look foolish or, rather, on finding those areas where they differ calling the carer who was sitting there with a resident Jenny the rest of the time, but here was her chance to expose someone’s sensitive place to Richard and me.

Rex used to complain of how I let the association of ideas spoil my train of thought and he called me a mistress of the non sequetur

He never has a row, he’ll just say, Let’s not get on to that, go out of the room and shut the door. He’s not a talker or a reader, come to that

. Most of the time he’s at home he’s doing something to improve the house I thought boredom equals marriage, you can’t expect excitement.

Marriage comes with an escape clause these days.When you go into it you know that if the worst comes you can get out

The fact is that Mike, like a lot of men, best enjoys the company of men, he’s happiest with his own sex, and when we go to those village hall dos he always ends up at the bar end with the men he went to school with.

It’s funny how when we worry about having not confessed something, we try to make up for it by telling the person something else, some other semi-secret thing. Ned says it’s what psychologists call displacement.

People don’t realise it’s very hard work making a home and looking after a child and entertaining one’s husband’s friends. I had very little help, just a charwoman once a week. I was expected to give a dinner party single-handed at least once a fortnight. No one but a wife would do that sort of work and not get paid for it. Besides, my husband wouldn’t have let me take a job

. We all know a Marianne. They mean well, they promise to do something, they’re really enthusiastic, but they don’t do it. They forget. And then they apologise, they’re full of remorse, and they promise again, and the same thing happens

He was a very funny man, she said. He gave you the impression he was amusing without trying to be. These days they’d call it laid-back and they’d call some of his humour black humour.

The important thing about my dad was his passion for cars. He loved cars the way some people love animals, dogs or -horses. If it had been possible to breed cars he would have. It was sad really that he never had the money to drive the ones he wanted. He was doomed to selling them to people he knew would never value them the way he did. Even the Alvis he was polishing when he died was soon to be someone else’s.

All the years when you’re young and middle-aged and young-elderly you hide the way you feel. You smile and pretend you don’t mind when people are late or won’t stay or change the subject or show they’re bored. But children aren’t like that. They protest about these things and sulk and get angry. Maybe you know when a person’s really old by the way childhood protesting and anger have come back.

Candlelight isn’t a very reassuring sort of light, it quivers and streams and leaves great spaces of dark, and it makes you wonder if people in olden times were ever wholly free from fear in the night. Candles were all they had. It’s a horrid thought, the wick burning down and consuming the wax but having no other and no light switch, nothing to alter the deep black darkness.

The Gillda she saw, or who was presented to her, seemed always to be playing a part, striking an attitude, speaking in a false voice, expressing feelings she had decided were appropriate, not what she felt. It was as if she had never really stepped off the set. Her life was a long-enduring film script

More than that, Stella said, in the on-going movie that was her life, she had cast herself as the heroine and Stella merely as the heroine’s friend.

A lot of people would say that to be in this world is to be unhappy.

Sometimes I tell myself that all these precautions of Mum’s and my nan’s are nonsense and not for somebody like me, young and living at the end of the twentieth century. And then I see how death follows a ringing in the ears, and the dangers that come to a person who’s broken a branch from an ash tree or helped another to salt. I haven’t the courage to give up these things in this world that’s such a hard place.

I was like Amanda in Private Lives, my heart was always jagged with sophistication.

Just when she needed friends she dropped them

Misunderstanding’s an awful thing, yet I suppose it’s inevitable if we’re ever to have any privacy.

It must have been an awkward situation, three women who didn’t really like each other, Charmian still in love with Stella’s dead husband, Stella in love with Gillda’s living husband and Gillda always projecting the image she had made of herself as somehow superior to both of them, more sophisticated, cleverer, more beautiful and elegant.

Love is a frightening thing. I realise that I’m frightened so much of the time, afraid of losing him, afraid of discovery, but more than that, I live in fear of not being his equal, of not matching up to what he wants, of him changing because he’s disillusioned.

Do you know what folie a deux means?

I shook my head. French wasn’t very successfully taught at Newall Upper School. I did just about know it was French.

It means madness for two, double madness. It’s when two people who are close encourage each other to do something terrible, each one eggs the other on. A couple committing murder, for instance.

Bonnie and Clyde, I said. The Moors Murderers.

She gave him the keys to the street, said Stella, and when I looked mystified, It’s what they used to say a long time ago. We’d say, show him the door, or give him his marching orders.

If you write something down and destroy what you’ve written, cut it to pieces or burn it, and if you have no copy, those words you wrote are gone for ever. But it isn’t the same with the spoken word, or so I have read. Sound is never lost, it isn’t absorbed by the ears which hear it, but flies on into space, perhaps beyond the earth’s atmosphere and out among the spheres. Once a word is uttered it becomes indestructible and everlasting. My words are out there, flying on and up, even maybe heard by mysterious beings on other planets.

In fact, natural history has always been an interest of mine. It was one of the many I shared with Alan, for we had a lot of tastes in common, the same books, the same pictures, the same music, the same attitudes to life. We loved the wild flowers of the fen and of the Suffolk coast. Both of us hoped to see a swallowtail one day. We hated autumn and winter and loved the summer.

Tapes are better than life. You strip off the words and make them new and afterwards it’s just as it was before you said those things. You don’t have to live for twenty-four years with certain acts and words, for you’ve wiped them away. They have flown away to the planets on invisible waves.

But Genevieve, you’re the person you are, aren’t you, you can’t change yourself radically no matter how you want to.

It’s funny how you feel yourself blush. When I was a kid and we used to have coal fires I’d put my face close to the flames and feel the heat on my skin. Blushing is just the same feeling, a flame heating the skin.

You see, when we were together we ate and drank the things we liked best, we did only the things we liked best, we were complete hedonists. When you’re in love you want to see the person you love in every possible circumstance, in all possible situations, performing every action it’s possible for a human being to perform, to see him when he’s aware of you and when he’s unaware. I’d seen Alan asleep but never by night, never in the darkness of the night, never seen a dream make him smile or an anxiety make his eyelids tremble. I’d never seen him wake up in the morning. I didn’t know if he was a hard or an easy waker, if he lay there slowly surfacing or if he jumped out of bed, as alert first thing in the morning as at midday.

There are couples who can be together in companionable silence but we had never been among them. The silence that descended on us was not companionable.

The rattle that’s the body expelling its last breath. It’s awesome, that sound. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, it still sends a shiver through you.

it’s no use trying to make yourself into something for other people. If you do that it has to be for yourself. I’m ashamed of myself when I remember studying the encyclopaedia and looking up words in Chambers Dictionary, not to mention learning about classical music, all to impress Ned, and maybe that’s why I haven’t played a single one of those tapes Stella made and passed on to me along with the player.

But when you’re alone a lot, as I am, you need to hear voices or music, you need something to break the silence or you start wondering if your ears still work.

These summer evenings I walk in the fen a lot, taking the path that starts at my garden gate and winds among the willows and the alders and meadowsweet, passes into clearings where water lies and reeds grow, and back again into the quiet woodland. I never see a soul, no one goes there, it is all so silent, so still, that you could hear a water beetle skim the surface of a pool. It was there, one evening last week, that I saw a swallowtail.

Vanity remains, stays alive almost to the end,

 

saw an E at the beginning of run lola run……..looked up the poem ……..profound and deep

V

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make and end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from. And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree

Are of equal duration. A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always—

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.