JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING
OF LOVE AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2024 JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY
|| JULIAN OF NORWICH || SHOWING OF
LOVE || HER TEXTS
|| HER SELF || ABOUT HER TEXTS || BEFORE JULIAN || HER CONTEMPORARIES || AFTER JULIAN || JULIAN IN OUR TIME || ST BIRGITTA OF
SWEDEN || BIBLE AND WOMEN || EQUALLY IN GOD'S IMAGE || MIRROR OF SAINTS || BENEDICTINISM || THE CLOISTER || ITS SCRIPTORIUM || AMHERST
MANUSCRIPT || PRAYER || CATALOGUE AND PORTFOLIO (HANDCRAFTS,
BOOKS ) || BOOK REVIEWS || BIBLIOGRAPHY || Dedicated
to my husband to whom I gave this book many times
MOSAIC, PART I
Mosaic floor, Murano
sea marshlands, level horizons rises the town of Rye. It has
been an island with a causeway approach but now the sea has
retreated, has left it cast up like a drowned body on the
shore. In the centre of the town is a church. Aligned with
the high altar swings the great pendulum of a clock
suspended from the tower. The light, flickering through vast
windows of myriad-coloured leaded panes, gleams on the brass
nodule as it swings across the flagged floor, leaving a
moving shadow as it attempts to trace the passage of time in
by the chimes of this clock whether they hear them or no.
Happening in the square they sometimes will stop when they
see the imminence of the quarter hour marked by those
ominous hands. They look up and watch curiously the two
gilded, baroque, mechanical boys advance, woodenly, lift
their hammers and strike the gongs held in their either
hand, giving the hour and fraction thereof, letting it be
known by mechanics to curious man where he stands on the
measured map of eternity. This done, they retreat, awaiting
again and ever again their time, when the pre-ordained
movement of cogs, levers, wheels will call upon them to
perform their task.
The sun glints on their gilt and daily revolves around their shadows on the grey stone wall. At night the moon achieves the same phenomenon but with a colder, lesser light and to a different regularity, while the sea tides wash against the land walls to the south.
of the great clock presage lives, births, deaths. Each and
every event is noted by the precise placement of fated
fingers on the figured felloe. This clock is a trustworthy
instrument of exactitude. All rely upon it. But the many hub
spokes radiate from a centre of timelessness.
Man measures his time by the juxtaposition of but one of many earths, with but one of many suns and but one of countless moons. He attempts a minute imposition of order upon matter in a universe created or existing from the shifting of atoms, continually combining, splitting, fusing, disintegrating, passing back to less and forward to more, beyond the mere sphere of man-measured time, beyond this puny map that man charts for his petty convenience. He creates Books of Hours and Shepheardes Calendars. The stars of other worlds are visible, but do they see or do they care?
March 24, 1962
am I? I ask who I am.
I can ask the question. A quest. I can seek the answer. How? Thus. In a diary. It shall not be a formal tale, beginning, middle, end. No one lives so. But it shall be a grasping of glimpses of memory, a collection of the make-up of a personality, a portrait of light and shadow, myriad brush strokes of variegated colour, a disorderly mass - for such is reality - and such is time - and such is life.
Another, such as I, wrote once in her journal:
What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loosely knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes to my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends with out looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.
Virginia Woolf, A
April 20, 1919.
the beginning of the river of my time I lived near Rye. Then
I left England, came to California. I have been unable to
return. So this is a tale of exile, a mosaic of broken
geographies. Ithaca remains unfound. Though Italy has been
visited. And Mexico. So expect far-flung backdrops to my
tale, picture an Elizabeth and non-Aristotelian drama, with
rapid scene changes from Belmont to Venice and Venice to
Bohemia and Bohemia to Illyria and Illyria to Sicilia. For
this is the tale of Perdita. Let it unfold.
children, a brother and a sister, Richard and Julia, under
an apple tree. The petals of blossom fall steadily and in
the fields beyond the sheep are bleating sorrowfully at the
joyous lambs. We are quarrelling. We are sent to search for
windfall apples for the cook. The apples on the ground are
wasp-gnawed, bruised and rotten. I feel that my brother is
loved more than I. This angers me. I find myself with a
broken stick in my hand beating down on my brother's head,
again and again. The blood starts to run thickly, matting
his fair hair. More and more it comes, running in rivulets
down his face, his neck, while he stands and screams. The
blue eyes are covered with red gore that goes on flowing.
The ugly stick with its splinters and jutting nail is
stained with it. Could not the anger go away and I stop? I
have no further memory of the scene. It ends in my mind as
suddenly as it began. But the guilt and nausea of it remain.
we are playing. The boy snatches the girl's doll, they
struggle and the doll falls with its porcelain head smashed.
One blue china eye remains open in its grotesque portion of
brokenness while farther away the other lies closed as the
angle has forced the weights even in death to perform their
mechanical function. Hot anger. Then remembrance, as before,
'Look, Richard, you owe me sixpence. Don't you remember last night on the ˜bus? Mummy wants the . . . ˜
˜Shush, you'll scare the fish'.
˜Damn the fish'.
'Naughty, naughty. Girls don't swear, only boys can'.
don't care. Please, Richard'.
was silent this time, standing by the water, holding the
line intent. Julia shrugged her shoulders and sat down on
the bank. She joined him in gazing at the telltale red float
suspended amidst the rippling water. A dragonfly whirred by.
And the water reflections undulated on the trees above them.
The girl felt the rippling, reflecting water become part of
the red plastic float started bobbing. The boy stood there
tense, holding his breath. Julia squealed with excitement,
her trance forgotten. Then he hauled the line out of the
water. From the hook hung a gleaming red and silver fish. It
writhed and squirmed, shaking and twisting its body in an
effort to get free. The silver scales flashed and glittered
as it flung itself from side to side.
boy jerked the line and the fish somehow loosened itself and
fell back into the water with a splash that sent the ripples
circling out over the surface of the pond. The boy said
under his breath all the swear words that he knew. Julia
almost clapped her hands with joy. To see the gleaming fish
go free was such a funny painful feeling that she had to
catch her breath and then she laughed. The ripples went on
circling over the surface of the sky-mirroring water and the
reflections on the pale green leaves danced.
'Richard, can I have a got this time? I promise I won't break your line. Cross my heart and cut my throat I won't.
'No, I'm jolly well not going to let a sissie girl like you have it, so there!'
'Well, next time then? Please. I'll let you keep that sixpence. Then you can buy hooks'.
dare snap that line you'll get it!'
nodded delightedly as she watched her brother place the
dough bait on the hook, cursing whenever his fingers got
pricked. Then he flung it far out into the water and the
bait landed, making circular ripples around and around,
farther and farther. The girl watched until the last one had
reached the opposite bank. She could barely see it, it had
become so faint. Perhaps there were others that were too
slight even to be seen.
clasped her hands around her knees and laughed softly. She
heard the sound of a tractor ploughing up some fallow field.
Streaks of sunlight warmed her back and on her hands she
watched the flickering reflections of the water. She used to
watch that at school, the reflection from sunlight on glass
creeping across the blackboard . . . imprisonment . . . king
john . . . Runnymede . . . 1066 . . . vernal
equinox . . . tradewinds . . . the name, JULIA BOLTON,
carved on the desk lid with her ivory-handled penknife . . .
the smell of ink and cedarwood pencils . . . and stale
cooked abbages along the corridors. She wasn't at school
though. Often she had gazed out the classroom windows and
longed to be by water, in sunlight.
flurry. Another fish had bitten. Richard carefully landed
this one as its tail flailed around, its red and silverness
squirming. The boy grasped it tight in his fist and worked
the barbed hook out. He pt it in a tin can. It writhed.
Gradually its struggles ceased.
'Hey, Julia! Thought you wanted the rod this tune?'
yes. I must have been dreaming. Here. Give it to me'.
handed the rod over to the girl. She struggled with the bait
and then stood up to cast it into the water. The first time
it didn't go far enough. Richard jeered at her. The next try
she fumbled and the serpentine line coiled round some of the
small branches. She tried again.
line flung out and the bait sank, weighted by the lead shot,
leaving the red float wobbling amidst the circling ripples.
Gradually the float became still. A bird that had been
singing, stopped. The two of them only heard the chugging of
a tractor somewhere far on the horizon.
stared at the float. The water around it looked as if
someone had melted down thousand-hued jewels and had put
liquid diamonds amidst the peacock greens and blues and the
muddy browns. Sometimes a breeze would cross the water and
little wavelets would glitter like the myriad scales of
was sometime before the fish bit, longer than usual, but it
was a big one, bigger than any the boy had caught. The girl
landed it with pride and insisted on unhooking it herself.
She felt no pity for the fish now.
'There you see. It's bigger than any you've caught'.
'Yeah. But I've caught more fish than you have and those two eels'.
Ann shuddered. He took the rod out of her hands.
˜You know, Julian, I think that sixpence is worth two go's'.
'I don't, so shut up'.
your hair on'.
looked annoyed and the girl grinned in triumph. He cast the
line again and they waited. The girl plucked a blade of
grass and chewed the juicy end of it, and then reached out
for a blackberry growing up amongst the thorny ramblers. The
trees bowed down over their heads. The water at their feet
rippled and sparkled.
spaniel dog came crashing through the bracken and came up to
the girl, nuzzling his nose into her hand. She started to
laugh. The dog barked. But the boy was angry at the
to keep quiet, Prince', the girl said, ˜Richard's fishing'.
dog went on barking, jumping up and down. He leapt up
against the boy who lost his balance, slipping in the mud.
Julia laughed at him and he laughed, too. He struggled to
his feet with her help. Prince lay watching them, thumping
his tail. He jumped up and barked again, his spaniel ears
right, old guy. Wait a minute and we'll go for a run'.
packed up his home-made rod with care and they set off for
the house. Julia whispered, ˜Don't let Mummy see that mud'.
The boy dashed into the yard leaving his rod and catch in
the stable house. A litter of puppies began to run for his
feet, crying and yelping and rolling over while their
mother, another cocker spaniel, watched the boy anxiously
and thumped her tail on the brick-laid yard.
ran back to join the girl. Prince took off and they followed
after, scrambling over the gate and running down the green
sloping field with the wind rushing in their ears. The dog
was far ahead of them. They reached the hedge at the bottom
of the field. There Prince lay on the ground waiting for
them, panting, with his tongue hanging out. Then they
scrambled over the wooden style and walked together across
the next field where the wood began. The dog dashed round
them in circles, barking. Then he ran off and flushed up a
bird into the blueness of the sky, pointing with forepaw
boy tried to whistle as they walked along. Julia laughed at
him. He couldn't whistle very well. He cut a hazel switch
from the hedge with his pocket knife. He beat the air with
it making a sharp, swishing sound. He said, 'Daddy is going
to sell the pups'.
turned around sharply, spreading out her hands in a sudden
impetuous gesture 'Why won't he let us keep them?'
'Silly. Because then we'd have eight dogs instead of two, then more and more'.
they got to the wood the boy led the way up a path they had
not been on before. It was strange coming into the wood
after the openness of the fields. The boughs of the trees
filtered through so little sunlight. The light would come
down in narrow spear shafts gilding the undergrowth and
green bracken and fern. The rotting leaves on the ground
deadened the sould of their footsteps. The dog ran along
shuffling amongst the leaves, snuffling with his nose the
strong wood smells. He dug up a dead shrew from under the
leaves. Julia made him leave it. They ran on through the
came to a sunlit glade which was a crossing of the paths.
They boy turned down another path into the half light again.
There were fungi on the trees, strange toadstools forming
out of the mould on the ground, creations of decay, coloured
like poison. Then suddenly they came into the sunlight and
the open fields again.
The dog began barking at something hanging from the tree by the fence. The girl started to climb over the fence and then saw what the dog was barking at. She screamed out. 'Richard, what is it?' A black crow rose into the air, startled, beating its wings. Richard said, 'That's the gamekeeper's gallows. He hangs stoats and weasels he's caught there to scare the others away. He picked up a stone and flung it at one of the decaying weasels hanging on the plank of wood nailed to the tree trunk. There were dead rabbits, too. One was fresh. Its fur was still pretty and soft save for a blood stain on its neck. Its eyes had not yet been picked out by the carrion crow.
They walked up to the house. The boy took his fish in to show off. The puppies gambolled and played in the sunshine.
they drank wine from the cellars of Ewart Gladstone. Silver
spoons, cups, napkin rings in leather cases were bestowed on
me by godparents. By no choice of mine I was made into a
member of the Church of England, a little Liberal and an
entry in small print in Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage and Companionage.
Those who had done this congratulated themselves on their
great generosity. At a later time and in another country a
different perspective has robbed these symbols of meaning. I
have to start anew from nothing and with nothing.
give the past to the children as a curiosity, a mere
plaything. The importance of my birth exists in the past
tense alone. And there it has the colour and unreality of a
lending-library novel. The useless but bright silver napkin
rings are my children's toys. For today we weave a new past.
Joyce Bolton, drawing of
Julia and Robin, October 1959
as a diversion to amuse a child is the Pandora's chest of
memory unlocked. As Nanny had revealed to me the bits and
pieces and childhood treasures of her past. My Russian Nanny
kept a vast trunk in our nursery. It was never opened until,
one day, my doll had lost the ribbons for her hair. It was
to replace these that the chest was at last flung open. What
treasures we saw inside: wooden Russian dolls with stiff
mechanic joints and round red-painted circles on their
cheeks, more dolls with peasant rich patterns painted upon
them that fitted one inside the other, generations of five
or seven or ten, a gay profusion of jacquarded cloth,
ribbons and laces, a riot of reds and blues and golds. And
then the gates of Paradise shut. But my plain doll had
scarlet ribbons in her hair.
with the harsh hands
Water, wine, bread from stones,
They've spilt enough of it for this.
Bread from stones, make flesh.
Blood's been often shed in exchange for bread.
Take with the harsh hands,
Water, wine, bread from stones.
Rivulets of blood shed for creed and bread.
They knew not which nor why nor where
On the barbed wire lies impaled the lacerated flesh.
Take with the harsh hands.
She is six years old when her long loose hair is tightly plaited behind her face and she is first taken to the school. Her mother is not with her. She is in London. War is raging. The young child and her brother are boarded with a childless Scots couple who love them dearly. They live in a Sussex bungalow filled with fumed oak furniture and which has a sand pit, an orchard, a tool shed and a green house with a grape vine, thick and gnarled with age, thrusting up against the paned glass roof.
The frail Scotswoman rings the convent doorbell. The girl and her brother lean close against her skirts. The door is opened. It is the first time the girl has seen a nun. The garbed figure whose face is framed by a stiff, snowy coif, smiles sweetly and bids them enter. They walk along a sunny white corridor to the parlour. There they are greeted by the headmistress and shown into chairs. Talk. Talk in waves and rhythms, incomprehensible. The children fidget. They feel guilty, knowing they should not do so. The nun talks forever to their foster mother. When they are ready to leave she swoops down and kisses the girl's forehead. The sharp coif feels uncomfortable but the kiss is gentle. There are butterflies in the walled garden beyond the window. A bell chimes slowly. The interview is broken off and they leave, the girl and her brother holding hands as they go down the stairs from the grey stone doorway with the Latin inscription on the lintel.
Words in a strange language, left an unsolved mystery until, some years later, the Latin mistress introduces her first year pupils to the ancient tongue by helping them translate the many classic mottoes to be found throughout the school grounds on mossy stone lintels and baroque Italian archways. Then and only then did she decipher:
Peace to those who enter here
Salutation to those who leave us
And blessings upon those who abide here
Elsewhere in the garden of Paradise it said,
SALVE ATQUE VALE
She remembered, in Italy, the naked child standing amidst the wheat. A scene glimpsed briefly in the golden landscape from a swift moving car. The child's mother stood apart, her hair bound in a blue cloth, grasping the grain with one hand and the swiping sickle in the other. The father was drinking from a cool amphora. The parents' faces squinted in the bright noon light. Their backs were bowed, their faces glistening with runnels of moisture.
But the child was free, stalwart and golden, in his hand a sceptre of wheat, on his face a look of kingly triumph. Then the scene vanished as it had come, eclipsed, glimpsed, eclipsed through swift near trees. The car sped onwards. The glance at vital myth gone, save for the image of memory.
A gathering on the lawn. Tea cups clattering elegantly in saucers. A garden party at Powdermill House in those halcyon days of the late thirties. The guests, writers, dancers, an M.P. or two, a sculptress with red hair, a dame and a poet. Quite one or two county families. Husbands, wives, a few small children. A mother with her child, a daughter in flounced white silk, a mere baby of four months.
Dame Lilian Baylis was old, with little life left of all her magnificent years as founder of the Royal Ballet, the English National Opera, the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells. Her eyes were dim. Her legs, dancer's legs, were tired. She took the small girl on her lap. The baby was a chubby thing. It smiled at her. Dame Lilian declared, and in a manner becoming to her theatrical career, 'I am your fairy godmother, little Julia. I predict that one day you, too, will be a great dancer. You will charm the world with your gift as you now charm an old lady with your youth'. The baby waved its hands solemnly in the air. Her mother felt a burst of pride. Dame Lilian had said . . . Her daughter would be . . .
Dame Lilian died within the year. The theatrical world mourned. A mother determined on a ballet career for her little daughter.
The war came. The girl grew older. When the wireless filled her parents' London drawing room with concert music the little girl pirouetted and danced upon the Aubusson carpet. For hours she danced in joy of untrained movement. The magic times would come when the music came inside her, her dance and the music came together, knit and were married, became one and the same. Then she was happy. The mother watched and planned. The girl's father took her to see the Sadler's Wells Ballet. The little girl thought that when they got there everyone would get up and dance, even she would dance. Her disappointment was bitter that the only dancers were those on a stage far away. That a platform divorced them from the beholder, they were seen above adults' head imperfectly. She began to cry. To the consternation of her father.
Her mother enrolled her in a dance class. Her Nanny took the little girl. They waited in an anteroom where the other pupils sat around and talked. A girl came down some stairs singing. The little girl stared in disbelief. Then they went into the practice room. She left her Nanny behind. The pupils lined up down the room. Some were at the barre. She found herself in the centre row. The instructress in a black leotard anounced the arrival of a new pupil to the class. Then she told them to start.
Julia thought she was meant to dance as she had in front of the wireless upon the pale Aubusson. She commenced to twirl and skip and pirouette. Then a hot blush mounted to her face. The others were not doing this. They were not dancing at all. They were stiffly raising their arms and placing their feet awkwardly into odd positions. The girls at the barre were swinging their legs in front and behind. She was supposed to do this. This was not dancing! She stumbled to a stop and stood, watching in panic, hot shame in her heart. She remembers no more of this incident.
Other such dancing schools swim before her memory. Gleaming oak polished floors and bronze slippers with a tiny diamond on each, the clean handkerchief, white silk frilled dress, white socks, silk ribbon around the long loose hair. The other children. The teacher in shimmering mauve watered silk and long jangling strings of beads and the light falling through great mullioned windows. Or the ballet school with its barre, the great grand piano, the William Morris wallpaper, the room that must have once been the drawing room of the large house. The windows that looked out onto a tangled, ill-cared-for garden. Her embarrassment when she could not hear the teacher's instructions because of her war-deafened ears. Her fumbling and stumbling, perspiring, cold and clammy in her black short silk practice frock. 'Must I go, Mummy? I hate it'.
It was when the war was over that her mother decided to take her to London for an audition. She was to miss school for that day. Had she practiced her dances? A large bouquet of flowers was gathered from the country garden and taken with them on the tedious train journey. Their scent filled the closed carriage. The dingy London streets. A ride in a red bus. The square of Convent Garden filled with flowers and vegetable stalls and hawkers. Dank concrete stairway. Asking information of where to go from a cross-looking man. Being ushered onto a vast stage. Something about it being a quarter of a mile lone. Ghost-like hanging scenery, a greyness over everything. Workers shifting pieces endlessly. Staring into the curtain behind which, that night, would be countless faces, staring, talking, fluttering, waiting for it to lift.
Miss Ashburn, the director, came up. Graciously accepted the flowers, talked to the mother, while the daughter stared at another girl, self-assured, jolly, waiting with her mother for their turn. 'Now show me what you can do, dear'. The girl startled, turned back and mumbled something about a waltz. 'All right, show me your waltz'. She started to waltz stiffly across the stage away from the figures of her mother and the director. 'Wait! Come back here! You'll get lost, dear'. She came back feeling silly. 'Now show me your basic steps'. She fumbled through them. At the ballet school her pupil teacher rarely taught her because she could never hear her instruction and so was left to stare into the ruined garden for an hour and then return home. Miss Ashburn looked worried. Then she examined the girl's feet, making her stand against a great theatrical bed of blues and golds to be used on one of the sets that night. She turned to the mother and told her the child should continue to go to the local school, come back later when had made some improvements, thanked them again for the flowers. The other mother and her daughter smiled as they made their way towards the exit.
Outside Julia begged her mother to let them stay and see the ballet that was being given that night. Her mother became angry. They had spent enough money as it was, she said, and they had to catch the train. The girl's hands reeked from having held the flowers so long. They were empty and displeasing to her. Her mother did not smile and for days she remained cold and distant towards the girl.
To my Icarian Uncle
Spitfire pilot of the R.A.F.,
I haven't forgotten how you once described
The land falling upwards to your plane,
In a sickening landslide reversed.
My brother won't forget how you
Cried when he shot his toy gun at you. You
Were the first adult he had ever seen cry.
You had been his hero.
He won't forget either the day you killed the dog,
Breaking its back, and had tried to set the house
On fire, merely because we had told you what
We saw the day when they shot
The German plane down in the field by our house.
We were going to show you as a curiosity
The hole it had made. We told you how the pilot had
Died, screaming in flames, the twisting of metal in heat.
And so the sea-darkness of nameless emotion had risen
With a deadly lurch, slapped violently against your
Identity, and you had drowned in lunacy.
Children are callous.
Psychology, literature, history, all were to be studied in an attempt to plumb human personality. In psychology a great deal of time was given to Pavlov's salivating dogs and also to tests which attempted to reduce personality to a matter of numbered statistics, but beyond the theoretical formula that personality = heredity x environment, that field of study proved unprofitable. The wrong direction had been taken and it led nowhere. Literature was of more value. I found that the writing of man mirrored man. I read interminably. But I was seeing a reflection, a shadow of the real thing. History disappointed me because it failed to tell of the people involved within the great historical actions. It is not equipped to do that. It has a falseness like that of the analogy to the human body that Bacon makes out to be the commonwealth. The working of the historian tends to depict those human traits that are at the bestial end of the scale rather than the angelic or even humane. Its spirit is the spirit of the mob. And I wanted to believe in free will. Neither psychology nor history gave me rein for this. Literature could. I read Milton, Milton who believed wholly and entirely in the Free Will of Man. Milton who wrote of English flower-filled meadows, whose words to me became truth.
In college we had a friend, a bearded Sicilian who majored in philosophy. He had formulated a theory of determinism and he would walk with us for blocks working his theory out verbally. With words and concepts he built a fantastic, invisible structure which had, nevertheless, its own reality. There was only one argument with which I could attack it. And that argument I purloined from Milton.
His theory refuted predestination. The past can not be changed at all nor by any means. The past is irrevocable. But the present, determined by the past, is also the agent of future determinism. And so, in a sense, having the power to determine, although determined, it is, paradoxically free. A person living on the narrow thread of the present whose personality is supposedly determined by what has gone before yet has the power and the freedom of being himself the agent for determining the act, who makes the choice. For all acts are based on the choice of the individual even when it is the choice of not choosing; of letting events continue without acting is also a choice. And the future does not exist. Only the present with the past behind it, the influence of the past on it, is real and has power. Each individual is the agent of determinism. Each individual has the choice of how he will determine the future. He is the determining agent himself and therefore he is free. He is, as the existentialists say, chained to freedom.
For many hours we listened as this argument was unfolded by my philosopher friend, walking in the streets, watching his sensitive face while we heard his words, walking in sunlight and starlight, beneath trees and clouds. The 'professor' as he was called by us, would take us by the power of his words beyond thoughts of things around us. We would live in an intellectual kingdom divorced from the petty reality of physical things. We were beyond Plato's cave and in the spiritual sunlight of which that great philosopher speaks. And then we would have to return home.
Of what is a human? I am yet too young to know. I tried to find the answer in the poor deceptive mirror of the printed page. I should have gone out into the streets and found him there. I went out to look. But I found not people but a mask on the face of every man. Each seemed to say, ˜This is what I wish you to think I am. The real 'I', I do not wish to show. It is not what I think you would care to see. Or if you cared to see it and did, you might harm me. Therefore to protect myself and live I wear this mask'.
I was intent on breaking the mask. But I never could. I knocked on the doors of homes and was shown the front room which was clean and garnered but the back room with all its delights and individuality was not shown me. Until I fell headlong in love.
California is six thousand miles away from Sussex. It is dry and dusty and has a different beauty. There I knew the longing to find primroses and to hear the cuckoo song of spring and watch the trees burst into leaf and be April with its showers and blossom. Once, twice, three times I knew this and I thought my heart would break. But in the third spring someone would come and say, ˜Let's go and have coffee'. Over cups of coffee and the cadence of juke-box music I knew that he knew that which was in my heart. So I learned to know a person. The world became a thing of fruitfulness, of completeness.
I had not known before that it was this that opened the door, that allowed one to pass beyond the anteroom. I had laughed at love. All the poetry of the world until this has been as valueless fool's gold when it spoke of the power of love. But now I could no longer laugh. I, too, belonged to the confraternity of lovesick poets. Although these poems I hide. Only he has read them.
Game and play
Of love and
Castles overthrown, queen captured,
Upon the motley board
The martial red awaits the move.
Let me kiss you.
Do you mind?
Do you enjoy
Cherries from off the laden boughs of summer?
Do but bid me get them.
Ah, I forgot your pawn.
And now it is your move.
Miranda, though art most lovely,
See, the sun makes rainbows of your hair.
It glints like the light on
New minted pennies.
Let me give you cherries.
But see how
The black rook advances.
Ah, my king.
So, it's checkmate
But do come gather cherries
Before they fall and fade.
We had quarrelled. No, we had not quarrelled. And that had made it all the worse. The anger had not broken surface, had had no outlet. I was full of it.
The sun was too hot for our child so my father stayed with him, took care of him at the wine-shaded albergo where we had lunch. My husband had not been eager to see Paestum. Indeed, in a sulk, he had caused us to miss the bus the day before. Now we were here. An extra night in southern Italy. My father did not reproach us for our absurd anger and the added expense. I apologised. My husband did not.
The anger and the heat grew worse. We walked in the blinding sunlight towards the entrance. The plain now only had ruins, a handful of habitations, the sparkling bay and expanses of infertile and dry weeds, wheat and rye mutated back to wildness. The wealth of Paestum was obliterated by disease, its population long gone, its livelihood lost. Even its roses famous in antiquity were now wild, the simple petaled tudor form one sees in English hedgerows, cultivation barbarized.
Between squat, powerful columns we walked. But we could not walk in harmony. Rage filled me. The last thing I wanted was to be close to him. No enjoyment of classic Greek could come in his presence. While he stood gazing, I slipped away. And as I left the anger left me. Had it come from him, then, and not from within myself?
I was free. I no longer cared where he was, what he felt. I saw a butterfly, golden, tawny, flit among the stones. Towards the Temple of Neptune I went, like a child, wandering at the dawn of time. The rosy shafts gathered me to their epicentre, and there I stood, gazing at the alternations of warmth, sunned stone, tawny tawdry grain and sea water glimpsed briefly.
Temple of Neptune, Paestum
Then I tried to populate the vast old city, calling up those crowds of merchants, haggling over their shipments, Bassanios, Gratianos. They refused to come. Had the city always been dead, ruined since time began? But the columns lived, their tension spoke of power and warmth. Architecture beyond ornamentation, the marriage of art and science, with its own meaning, its own life.
A lizard then suddenly scuttered up one side of a column right before me. I had touched its sandstone, sun-warm surface. The lizard stopped scuttering and hung there, its eyelid blinking slowly.
Then I knew the ruins lived. When the temples were newly built, unruined, lizards such as these had climbed their shafts to hang and bask in the golden light. Paestum became alive. A bridge was made in time, life and stone co-mingled.
Then I saw my husband come towards me. I had forgotten the emotions of the morning and now all their power was gone. He, too, had forgotten. And he smiled.
All the way home he could not stop talking of Paestum.
Julia's father, John Robert Glorney Bolton, was the son of an Irish painter and portraitist, John Nun Bolton. Julia scarcely knew him. The war separated Julia and Richard from their parents, its aftermath brought work habits that kept Glorney in London and the children in the country. Julia's father was mostly a stranger to her.
But there were moments together. One in particular, a remembrance of October sunlight, the wallflowers growing against the brick in warm golds and brown's and Julia's father putting a book in her lap. She was to read. The print was eighteenth century and at first she stumbled over, then mastered, the long s's like f's. The binding was luxuriant old leather and the pages, turning, made the sound of subdued waves of the sea. It was a volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
She remembers, too, on a winter's day, his reading to her Plato's tale of the death of Socrates. Then she understood death, the extinction of intellect, the finis of identity. Socrates had a way in her young mind of getting mixed up with Gandiji. And Glorney Bolton was one of Gandhi's biographers. Julia's father could not paint, but yet he had not denied his father's calling. After Oxford he became a biographer and journalist, the portrait painter whose palette held words for pigments.
Sometimes, perhaps, you have seen a dragonfly born, its metamorphosis. It drops its last sheath and like a prism or diamond cut glass takes on the myriad colours of refracted light, but above all it is blue. It alights on some rock or leaf and there in the sunlight unfolds itself and takes on strength and life from the sun. The dappled light of the pool flickers around it, and its wings stretch and tremble and it waits for full strength to come.
John, as he watched her, thought that Irena was like a beautiful insect, her character unfolding, continually unsheathing itself. He should, perhaps, have not married an actress. She made him feel clumsy, like a lumbering bear, or like a heavy bumblebee around a delicate flower. Even now he felt a blush rising, the heat of shame. As a child he had felt remorse at touching the weak dragonflies' wings and crippling them before they attained their full strength.
She was watching him, standing there and behind her the firelight flickered. It was a coal fire and amongst the orange flames was one blue one, that suddenly flared up from time to time. She stood there, tall with her hands on her thin, lithe waist. She raised herself as if she would, in stretching, reach so high that she would finally take off in flight.
She wore vivid blue chiffon that draped and fell away from her new forming wings, growing and yet not fully strong. Her hair was lustrous and dark like a bird's wing and smoothed back over her head without a parting. The smoothness accumulated in the shining coils of a braided coronet. The firelight glinted in the dark mass and caught red-gold lights. Her pale neck reminded one of a swan's, its fairytale, exotic quality.
Irena Whitecastle, besides being beautiful, was also an actress of genius. She sighed. The sound was like water rippling over a quiet country pond which glinted in exotic and alien colours. She made even the elegant French style room of creams and golds seem but a foil to her brightness. 'John', she whispered. John Whitecastle was captivated, he was eternally captivated. 'John, say goodnight to the children for me. I'm too tired, and don't stay to tell them stories. Come back soon'.
John Whitecastle kissed his wife and did as she bade him. Until he was out of the room he felt like a clumsy oaf. But John Whitecastle's colleagues felt differently. They knew him for an outstanding surgeon. Away from Irena and under the great chaste lights of the operating rooms his hands were as sure and as deft as the movements of a dancer. It was only with Irena that he felt this sense of inadequacy, of clumsiness and a lack of graciousness.
John Whitecastle went to the children's room. Little John and Elizabeth were asleep. Their faces rested on fair pillows in complete innocence. John wished they were awake. He worried because they were pale and longed to take them to the countryside. He wished to give them more the feeling of a family. But his hours were very long. And his wife was an actress. Irena acted so many roles that she seemed to forget her own. John did not know what she really was like. He had never known. She seemed to have no past, no being, only an exquisite exterior and personalities that she assumed and discarded as she did her theatrical costumes and make-up. The directors would shout at her when she explained that she needed time off when she was carrying little John and then Elizabeth. She did not like child bearing. He should be grateful that she conceded so much. Little John's face was sensitive and thin. Elizabeth got her way by screaming and crying. Neither child really knew how to laugh. They were taken care of by a hired nursemaid who took them for walks in dreary city parks and by a governess who prepared them for boarding school. John Whitecastle felt suddenly weary.
When he went back to the room with the flickering firelight he started to tell his wife about an idea he had. But Irena was telling him something at the same time. He stopped to listen to her, but in his weariness he heard only her voice and did not follow the sense of her words. As Irena talked she glided around the room, her chiffon drapery floating around creating endless patterns against the pale gold wall behind. She captivated him. Once when he was a child he had read a story by Anatole France of a monk who had renounced all evil, but who, when he was in prison for his goodness, was released and led into the fields of day by a being so beauteous that he fell down and worshipped. And the being was Satan. Irena was like that beauteous being, John though, but without the evil, only the good. All through time man has coupled beauty with the good.
Her movements were liquid music. They were studied and yet effortless. Everything she touched and did and saw became a work of art. And always she reminded him of beauty remembered from childhood of the new born wings of dragonflies, of the hypnotic gaze of an exotic snake amongst the bracken, of the jewel eyes of a toad and sometimes of the purity of falling drops of water catching sunlight from a lone angler's rod cast amongst the osier reeds.
Irena's words came floating to John Whitecastle's ears. They were beautifully modulated, they came as the sounds of summer come drifting over fields of golden wheat. Irena was an exotic poppy, gypsy red and scarlet velvet amidst the golden sheaves. John Whitecastle spoke also, forgetting what his wife was saying, not having heard her words.
'Irena, come here by my side'. She came and he could smell the perfume she wore. It was warm, vibrant, expensive. She curled around his feet like a feline creature, a magnificent princely cat with all the elegance and superiority of that animal.
'John!' she laughed like rippling water. 'I am sure you did not hear a word I said'. She propped her chin on her hand, her elbow resting on the pale carpet. Her eyes looked at him. The position she assumed was one that children like, but then again she was far from being a child.
John went on talking into her eyes. 'Irena, the children need to go to the country. We can go to my parents' place. Do you remember how I put cherries over your ears? They will be ripe soon and I can get a holiday. Garth, you know, who was at medical school with me, can take over the practice for a week or two weeks perhaps. Can you get away from your theatre? It would the children so much good'.
There had been the time he had taken her there. She was like an exotic plant in his parents' Georgian house amidst the castle ruins. The cherries were ripe on the trees that were trained to the old walls. He had hung the red fruit over her ears. They looked well on her, better than the jewels he gave her. But she disputed that point. She loved rubies and emeralds and diamonds. And she loved large, even vulgar stones. John's mother had been distressed when Irena scorned the old- fashioned Whitecastle tiara and the heirloom necklaces and brooches. She had, it is true, had some of these reset and these she seemed to like better. A visit to Cartier went to her head like wine. She never liked the country or simple pleasures. Her eyes were blind to the loveliness of dappled light on water and the harvest gold accented with the scarlet of poppies. John, who had a good seat on a horse, was surprised to find that Irena could not ride well. Elegant as she was, she could not ride a trotting horse with grace. She disliked horses. John would be disappointed. But she did love the exotic peaches brought in from the sunny south wall where they were grown so carefully. She only liked expensive, exotic things.
'I know Garth will take over for me', John Whitecastle found himself saying. John had gone up to the cold north to medical school. Edinburgh had the finest medical school in the world. And both Garth and he competed for the top honours. They were the most brilliant students of their year, it was said. They competed in a friendly way. On the surface there was friendship but underneath each desired to do better than the other. Now both were celebrated Harley Street surgeons. They had exchanged the Edinburgh of delicate Gothic pinnacles for the London of iron railing and fog, the Thames at low tide and nursemaids wheeling perambulators in parks where the very trees were covered with soot.
Garth was a Scot. He was tall, dark-haired with intense blue eyes. He had gone through medical school entirely on bursars because his parents were too poor to pay for it. John Whitecastle was also dark, a Norman. His eyes were hazel. His family had estates in the south and he grew up amidst the fields and meadows where sheep were shorn of their wool and where golden wheat was reaped and harvested. Skylarks soared and sang. The sea was not far away. In the summer they would swim out in the great rollers and in the winter the sea mists would come inland. During the holidays, as a student, he would ask Garth to stay with him. They would follow hounds, a sport which the Whitecastles introduced to Garth. John's father, a stern country Justice of the Peace, had also been Master of the Fox Hounds for years. In the summer John and Garth would swim in the sea, rejoicing in their prowess.
Irena answered. John suddenly felt again that she acted. Her attitude changed. Always she changed. Her companions in the theatre world were like her in that way, too. Of all the roles they played he never knew which one was their real self, by which one he could judge their real attitude toward things. Likewise he had never known, he felt, who the real Irena was. His eyes followed her. She stood up elegantly. How could she get up from that position and still be graceful, he marvelled. As she spoke in reply she lighted a cigarette in her long holder. John realized that again he had blundered. He should have lit it for her. Once he had laughed at her because he though the affectation of a cigarette holder was absurd. The next day she had bought a jewelled one, one that was very expensive.
'John, darling', she said. ˜I wish you had been listening earlier. Peacock, you know, the young playwright with the auburn hair, has just written a play for me. We start rehearsals Monday. I can't possibly leave, at least not for some months. You know, it's a terribly beautiful play. Peacock writes lines that are poetry. And he wrote the main part with me in mind. I have the script over there. You must read it, John'.
'I wish Peacock and his stupid play were at the bottom of the sea. Listen, the children need to feel a family around them. It isn't fair'. John knew she was angry, knew it was no use. The light from the coal fire was dying down. Irena stood there. He knew he could never have his way with her. The play would be perfect, like some fine rare gem, because of her acting. Her acting was like the brilliance of an enduring diamond and yet it constantly changed, like the unsheathing of a dragonfly. Never was it quite the same.
John would go backstage to his wife's dressing room, the star's dressing room, to tell her how wonderful he thought she was. But so many people would be there whom he did not know, all of them crowding around while she removed her make-up with blobs of smearing cold cream, yet managing to look beautiful all the while. She would talk to them, her manner changing with each person. She introduced them to John, Mr So-and-So, the Director, So-and-So, the critic, So-and-So, of the cast, and yet some other vague personality. John did not belong to their crowd. But she reigned over them all. John wondered whether she was sincere, whether she could ever cease acting with them or with him. After all, the word 'hypocrite' came from the Greek for actor.
John Whitecastle thought of his children. 'Very well then, Irena', he heard his voice saying into the silence of the room. 'I shall take the children to the country. I shall go down for only three days but shall leave them for as long as they like it. My mother will love to have them'.
The next weekend John left London taking with him Elizabeth and little John. The two children seemed so forlorn to him as they stood there by his side, amidst the swarming railway station crowd, beneath the steel girders of Edwardian functional architecture and surrounded by the noise of raucous loudspeakers and the shunting and letting off of steam of the engines. They were afraid to go near the great engines and talk with the driver as he would have done in the hope of a ride on the footplate. But they had fun those three days. John tried to teach them to swim in the sea. They took walks together in the countryside. He left instructions that they be given riding lessons. They went fishing all three. And John Whitecastle even heard his children laugh.
His mother organized a tennis party and John played several sets. Garth and he had played a lot together. When he did not play he sat with Elizabeth. One day she, too, would play tennis dressed in white linen. One day, too, he would see Elizabeth's daughter. After they, at last, released him from the asylum where he had been placed on a charge of insanity. One of the evenings they got into a discussion of Peacock's plays.
It was with a light heart that John Whitecastle returned to London. The country had done him good. His children were happy. He felt relaxed and full of new vigour. He longed to see Irena again. It would be good, too, to get back to the dramatic moments in the operating theatre under the harsh white lights, where he could feel his skill as a surgeon assert itself.
He mounted the stairs to their flat. It had been late evening when his train got in and he had taken a taxi so as not to lose time. He knew Irena would be home from rehearsals. Perhaps she would be in the French drawing room arranging a bouquet of expensive flowers in a vase. His mother had had sweet smelling sweetpeas in every room when he was there. He liked to see women arrange flowers.
He unlocked the door of their flat with his latchkey and walked down the corridor. It was then that he heard the voices. Irena's and another's. Was it Garth's or young Peacock's?
Something within his head gave way. It was like blinding light and yet it was darkness. One side of him was perfectly aware of the turmoil of the other, of the wildness of the action, but lacked control, had not even desire to control, but stood aside, apart, as an onlooker. It was aware that the other part of him picked up the gun kept in the bureau drawer and walked over to the bedroom door, opened it and shot him. The whole thing seemed to be perfectly and coldly rational. What was abnormal was that the action was devoid of any emotion. With the explosion was a scream of Irena's and then nothing for a long time except the glinting, prismatic light on the unfolding of a dragonfly's wings, strengthening itself in the dappled sunlight that flickered over the ripples of a country pond.
A Poem for my Son
You were born when the golden
Wheat dancing in waves to the wind
Fell to the sickles of farmer folk
And stacked in shocks sunned goldenly
˜Til the wagons came and garnered them
Into storehouse and barn.
And when the rose red apples like your
Silken plump cheeks were harvested
And garnered into winter attics.
And the onions were festooned from the rafters
And the lavender stripped and
Laid between fair linen in cupboards.
And as winter came you learned to smile
And the stars smiled and trembled in the
Sky above vast lands of snow. You and I
Went fishing for stars.
We hung them round your cradle in an endless
Sparkling chain and laughed and smiled together
Until you squalled for food and shook the chains with anger
And I gave you milk. You suckled my breast
Lustily and grew strong and
Satiated drew you head away
Looking up and crowing with
With the spring
We went out into the fields, you and I,
You tried so hard to say words in our language.
We gathered flowers.
You grabbed them and my hair.
Do you remember the daffodils growing wild in the
Woods and the bluebells, the primroses, the gorse,
The vetch, the violets,
The daisy chain chaplets we wove for you,
King of your dark eyes, your auburn hair
And your apple red cheeks?
And the hawthorn blossom falling speckled the grass
And you laughed.
And in the summer
When along the hedgerows the wild roses and
The ivy tendrils wove white and dark green
Canopies of shade
You became sun gold.
You took your first few faltering steps
And laughed when you tumbled.
We dined then on strawberries, clotted cream,
With never a care in the world.
A book, that is the thread Ariadne gave to Theseus, the unappreciative Theseus, that he might follow through all the passageways and corridors that were the maze of her life and so understand her. A portrait, a map, a journal. Different moods, different facets. All that she might write, of what she might be. Uneven, textured, varied, coloured. Sketches, a writer's notebook.
An environment of the past, Sussex and England. Also Italy. The present tense of California. The theme of alienation and exile.
She at the hub of a spider's web, fraught in relationships to poles, daughter to father and mother, sister and brother, wife to husband, mother and sons.
The symbol of the sun clock, the placement of action within a geographic area and in a social era that determines and rules all unaware. And which is but the backdrop, the chart upon which to plot the ship's course.
I listen, Though my ears are deaf. I listen with my eyes and to the moiety of sound. I follow the words, the looks. Beautiful strangers they are, of another world. They sit at tables, consuming sacramental food. The cleanliness of fish and fine sea wine. The conversation is in diverse tongues and yet I follow, tasting the words like kisses from lip to lip while the sense explodes like fireworks upon the brain. I smile. And sip more wine.
The sea at our side slaps against the rock. Waking this morning I had seen it rise up window with Homeric hue. The wind-spewn, wine-dark water, puissant with being, two prows against it whose shape belonged to Bayeux art, to the paintings of Greek vases. I like it too well. I speak of this, of the cleanliness of the sun, of the simplicity of the food, the humanity of the people.
Today I sit with my father and his friends, listening while they talk. Tomorrow, my husband will come. I wonder how they will blend, how they will react to one another. And I am a little afraid. Afraid of the unknown. The world of tonight is one I know. Its language is mine. I have been away so long but it is a homecoming. I understand the mannerisms, the differing tongues, the relationships. They are the script of a play I know by heart. Everything is predetermined. But my husband will be the unknown factor.
The fishing boats are leaving one by one into the darkness, their lamps tied to each prow. They diminish into the unknown horizon of night.
We lodge for the night in Siena at a place my father knows. It is the home of an elderly lady. She is aristocratic, impoverished and dying. The dolls of her childhood are arrayed on the couch in the hall. They are without life, infinitely old. Their faces are cracked and their china eyeballs stare at us without comprehension; their painted lips are laughing at some forgotten pleasantry and their clothes are grey with dust.
We pass through the hall and the dolls' heads do not turn to watch us go. We follow the servant as she shows us to our rooms. She opens a door for the signora and her child. I carry in my sleeping son and lay him down on the bed from which the red damask cover has been turned back. The damask is tattered and the lace-edged linens do not have that whiteness I have become so used to in Italy. But the room is palatial. The same red silk hangs on the walls. The ceiling is frescoed with Venus' children. At the louvred window swings a long mirror which catches and flings back the shifting light of the street. A ewer and basin stand on the marble wash stand. I find on the door the tacked notice, required by the Italian government, stating the price of the rooms and the class of the lodging, both lowly.
Robin was asleep when I carried him in. I changed him for the night and he awoke. Together we lay and looked up at the painted ceiling. 'Bambino, bambini', I exlain. 'Bimbo!' his soft voice replies. And then he begins his nightly chant of words, of all the words he knows, words like lalle, (for latte, milk), Mama, cane, cattivo. The litany becomes softer, dwindles away and then he sleeps once more. I undress quietly, leave the light burning and lie down beside him. The children of the ceiling peer out from behind the clouds and mock me.
I lie there, and with approaching weariness dream Alice-in-Wonderland dreams, reliving the day. Setting off in the tourist bus that morning from Monte Mario with my father and his friend, listening forever to the voice of the guide chanting of Etruscans, Tuscans, watching the male and female cypress both pass and diminish into Giotto landscapes. The cleanliness of Aquapendente where we lunched in a trattoria of gleaming parquet and blue and white tiled walls, more Dutch than Italian. And the terror of San Gimignano, its tall towers and lightning bolts, rain, sharp ozone, electric madness and hellish din. And now Siena in the weariness of night, its streets washed clean by rain.
A ceiling cupid laughs at me. Like Robin he is eighteen months old, chubby, can toddle, laugh, play but not yet speak. My child's most complicated communication to date is 'Mama, da mi la!' Together we play in the roman squares and parks with the wolf fountains and stone lions. 'Guarda, leone!' Nearer and nearer goes the hand to the lion's jaws. Nearer, nearer. Then quick, snatch it away, growl, laughter. Robin plays with the Italian children. A little girl at San Giovanni lets him use her skipping rope. But he can't jump yet. He smiles while she tries to teach him. His hair falls on his forehead, his arms and legs are short and plump. I can't keep his shoes as white as can the Roman matrons and I despair. Although his shoes are not the whitest, I know him a princely child.
Another boy is aiming his bow at me. There's no arrow in its taut string.
III. Sessa Aurunca
The Via Appia, tree-shrouded, unravelled itself beneath the wheels of the bus. We travelled swiftly, outrageously. The bullock carts, the laden, paniered donkeys proceeded along the same plane but in a dimension that differed from ours in speed, in era. One held one's breath yet somehow it all worked, it harmonized without violation. The bus lurched to pass, the passengers would lean, sway, then resume their balance. The horn would blast out its musical scale in mockery. Once in front and now behind us would be the hay-laden cart, the clopping horse, the peasant woman sitting atop the load with her child. Sense emerged from impossibility. No collision, speed maintained.
My father and his friends left their seats and conferred with the driver. The bus came to a stop. Surely we were yet far from the city of Naples, our destination? We all got out and the bus drove off in a triumphant swirl of dust and noise. There we stood, facing the road in an orderly line. My father and his friend were smiling. They had planned a surprise for me. The child I held in my arms was half asleep with noonday drowsiness. They turned and walked along the side of the road. They gave no explanation and I asked for none, only waited to see what would unfold. Though this was not Naples, but countryside. We turned up a lane and a farm dog ran to us barking, followed by Amalia in her blue dress patched and patched again with light and dark blue slivers of cloth, her friendly lined face framed by a yellow kerchief. Maria, her daughter, came too. Then Antonio, the idiot son. And last Vito.
Vito greeted us. So did they all in their dialect. A chicken was caught and in the cavernous darkness of the kitchen it was slaughtered. Amalia cut the cock's throat with a dinner knife and let the blood flow into the plate that Maria held. Robin watched all this curiously. My eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room. Food was kept in a kneading trough of wood. Dishes dried on an upside down basket frame. Wheat was stored in burlap sacks. Onions swung from the rafters. In the corner stood an earthenware amphora full of cool water. Antonio and Vito came in often to lift it and take a drink from its lip. A fire was lit in the corner on the floor beneath the chimney and the cock was fried. Zucchini squash was prepared also and a salad of lettuce and olive oil. Maria took Robin with her to her parents' bedroom. They went up an outside staircase and Maria let Robin unlock the door with a huge iron key. She brought down crude white plates, crystal glasses, a loaf of bread, snowy napkins.
We ate at a rough-hewn table under a shady vine. The chickens came and pecked our legs. The wine we drank Vito had made himself. His grapevines swung from fruit tree to fruit tree. His wheat was ripening and in its midst were olive trees. Beneath the fruit trees grew squash, onions, potatoes. Ancient eruptions of Versuvius made his soil rich and fertile.
My father's friend and Vito talked in dialect. They were cousins. From time to time Amato would tell me things of the family in his broken English. They had two hectares of good land, two daughters who were married, two sons who had jobs elsewhere. Antonio was their eldest, conceived out of wedlock and an idiot. But a good farmer. A stupid, hard-working child. Antonio grinned at me, hearing his name and knowing he was being spoken of, his blue eyes laughed. He was stunted and smelly, but nice. He was twenty-five years old and would inherit the farm. Maria, the unmarried daughter, was fourteen. She held Robin on her lap and made him eat. Her mother was, one by one, teaching her the tasks of running a household. Last year Maria learned how to launder clothes snowy white, this year to cook, next year she could bake bread. Amalia was teaching her slowly, completely, as she herself had been taught. Maria's formal education was long ago dropped. But when we left she was reading a Roman newspaper Amato had brought from cover to cover.
The house, the farm was devoid of any modern touch. It had remained an unspoiled piece of life from the Golden Age. One concession alone was made to the twentieth century, a radio from Germany that worked on batteries and had good tone. Vito bought it to listen to opera and to concerts. That day its battery was almost worn down and the family listened with their ears to the set. They had no money to buy a new one. Their crops they bartered for seed and cloth. Coin was something they almost never used.
After the meal Robin was taken up to the large bedroom to sleep. He was too restless. Amalia told me to lie with him. The bed was huge, far off the brick floor. Faded banners hung on the rough wall above its head. The board was inlaid with mother of pearl. A dark locked press from which had come the plates and crystal stood in the corner. The window had no glass but closed with wooden shutters. The marble washstand had hanging from linen damask towels with hand knotted fringes. They had come with Amalia's dowry. We slept.
In the evening after coffee we left to catch the bus to Naples. We flagged one down, standing in the road, the Appian Way, and progressed on our journey.
A Song of Rye Sixpences
O Rye Town's a fair town
Of cobbled streets and Dolphin Taverns.
Beyond lies Sussex, Kent,
All England stretching
Into Wales and over
Rippling sea to Ireland.
Marshes surround Rye Town
Where lambs can skip and ewes do bleat.
Beyond are primrose woods and mossy banks
And bluebell carpets magical.
Nightingales and cuckoos sing
Terue, terue, jug, jug, cuckoo,
And hawthorn blossoms on the hedge.
For England in April is Shakespeare
And England in May is Milton,
With a hey, nonny, nonny, ney,
Under the Greenwood tree,
Come hither, come hither, come
You with your princelike name,
There are sixpences and cobbled streets
The two walked hand in hand in a world of one. The women saw them from inside their shambled cottages and cursed and went back to their work with emptiness in their souls.
One old man sitting in the sun saw them and slapped his knee and laughed. His daughter came out to see what had happened. She saw the couple and spat on the ground. The old man went on laughing, his face mahogany coloured with the effort of it. His daughter slapped him hard on the face. He stopped and smiled to himself an idiot smile. His daughter went inside the cottage, wiping her hands on her faded print apron.
The women remembered the night of the storm and stared at the clothes they were darning, the dough they were kneading, with emptiness. The rockets had flared up and their men had gone out. Their husbands, their sons, their lovers, had gone. The lifeboat had perished and day after day the news would come and the women would be sent for to identify the bodies washed up on the shore. Some of the bodies they never did find. And they were alone in this village of old men and children, of death and crying gulls. Alone, where the waves of the sea slapped up against the landwall and where the river Rother emptied itself in rivulets and currents into the Channel, where the waves danced and where the wind of the sea tempests howled.
May looked into Matt's face and smiled. Matt pressed her thin hand. They walked slowly down to the rotting dock and looked out to the sea where their fathers had gone. Matt put his arm around May and pulled her close to him.
The sailing yachts were coming down the river. About six or seven of them were being towed along. In the first one sat a fat woman, laughing at the man above her who was towing the yacht. When they reached the estuary the towers boarded the yachts and paddled them out into the wind. The wind caught the sails and filled them. The crews leaned this way and that, often right over the water, with a wary eye on the cracking boom. The line of sails floated away, skimming the water with the crying gulls circling around them. The fat woman went on laughing at the waves.
They watched the yachts, gazing at the sea with its white crests of waves and the gulls balancing on them. Matt kicked at some of the wood lying around. It caved in like matchwood, and under them an eel slipped out, disturbed, and swam away. May took a piece of stale, hard bread out of her pocket and threw some crumbs of it on the ground. The sea gulls came wheeling down on them. She held some out in her hand and one perched on it and took it. She laughed at Matt and he smiled back at her.
Then he took her hand and led her away from the rotting boats and the rotting dock that had been their fathers'.
She was slight in her thin print dress. Her eyes were big and she looked scared when she didn't smile. She put her head on his shoulder and Matt looked down wonderingly.
They walked along the high river embankment, lost in themselves. A small motor boat came chugging softly down the river. The man at the wheel waved to them cheerily. He chuckled to himself and went on.
They shied away from the town road to Rye and wandered beside the marsh edge. May would stop and pick marshcups and blue speedwell. She put them into Matt's hands. He held them clumsily and dropped them along the road as they walked together.
They went back over the Marshes in the sunlight, wandering over the sheep runs that look so like footpaths, crossing the little dike bridges that laced the land with water. They were forever retracing their steps. Matt had to wade over a dike that had no bridge. He carried May in his arms and placed her on the bank. They smiled at each other.
And May looked into his eyes that were above her. The water in the dike gurgled along, drawn back to the sea with the tides. The sheep nibbled the marsh grass. May saw deep, deep into his eyes and knew fear. But she smiled though she was afraid, though her heart was beating in fear. She smiled and the corners of her mouth trembled as she smiled, lying there on the grassy dike bank.
Matt looked down at her. He smiled, too. He had held her as he walked through the water in his fisherman's boots, had felt the water and mud squelching around his feet. She was so close to him as she lay there. The sheep bleated and the sea waves slapped against the dike wall. The water gurgled, running through the many channels that laced the land to the sea.
They were like sailors cast up on the beach with a shipwreck and their ears were like two seashells with the sounds of the waves murmuring and clashing within them. May softly put her hand to Matt's hair and smoothed it, with fear and wonder in her eyes. The water in the channel went on its way down to the sea and back with the movements of never-ending tides.
Then the mist came and they looked up
in fear. The Marshes were dangerous to cross even in
daylight. They ran blindly together, sometimes holding
hands, so they would not lose each other and sometimes Matt
They came home in the damp night with the mist swirling around their face, May shivering in Matt's coat over her thin shoulders, and their hair glistening with particles of moisture.
The women in Matt's house stared at him and the women in May's house were spiteful to her. But her grandfather laughed over the fire and slapped his knee in merriment as his idiot laughter filled the house and the flames of the fire seemed to flare up in answer.
They walked together day after day. May fed the seagulls and picked marshcups and Matt would look at her. They walked in the Marshes often among the sheep and the baaing lambs and the water of the land dikes. In the distance would be the sound of the sea breaking endlessly and the mewing of the gulls.
Then Matt went into the Service. He came and stood before May in his khaki. She looked into his eyes and did not tell him all she knew.
They sent him to the East, across the ocean, and he didn't come back. May walked around the cottage doing the chores with the women's spiteful eyes watching her.
Her time came and she brought forth the fruits of her body with labour. She brought forth a man child to the village of death and the women forgot their hatred and fondled the child with delight.
Life is a pilgrimage. But we wear the cockle shells in our hats too timidly. We are afraid. We dare not ponder on the destination. The old glory of faith is gone. And we travel through alien territory alone in our emptiness. Of, for the old courage and companionship! The friendly sound of ambling palfries and the gay crowd that told stories as they travelled, where are they gone? The old yews under which they passed still stand on the Canterbury roads. I walked under them in my childhood but the gay tabards and the many-coloured cloaks were then only to be worn by stage actors and clowns. People dressed in the monotone of modern military camouflage, or civilian tweeds and faded cottons. Companionship occurred with the uneasy jest and the hollow laughter in the underground shelters during air raids. We lived under the threat of death and slavery, death or slavery.
Dear Ann Holland,
It is ten years since I have seen you. You still live in Rye? To you it must seem an ordinary place, full of the daily little things of life. You must smile when I ask you to tell me about it, about the sunlight on the old houses. You have always lived there and to you there would be nothing special about the place, the familiarity taking away enchantment.
It is now ten years since I left
England. You must remember those nightmares children have:
lost, they cannot find their way home. Or they struggle
along the road they know so well, each step an impediment,
forcing their way in agony along the one mile that is left.
And when they arrive the house is gone. Ashes and burning
embers lie strewn on the ground and although they glow as it
with heat they are cold and dead and unreal and there is
nothing left. My nightmares were of war, bombs, armament
factories with infernal machines that fed on humans, the
hollow openings of tunnels with railway trains rushing out
upon one with a frightening roar, the bridges across the
Thames collapsing beneath one and that strange habit of
flying that could never be recaptured when awake.
Of what stuff were your dreams? Do you dream of the pirates returning home, walking with a seaman's gait over the cobblestones of the roads that curve up over the hill of your town? Does the sea return again in your dreams and make of Rye a island again, beleaguered by the French at the time of Creçy? Do the French cannonballs in their glass cases in the church of St Mary rise up, smash the glass, tumble out upon the floor and dance a danse macabre there in the moonlight that some seeping through the blue stained glass? Do they rattle down the cobble stones in the middle of the night waking good, staid citizens who think they are the bones of the dead departed, the militant armies of Kor in the moonlight? And at dawn return to their places.
In the hall of your house there is a portrait of a child. It is just as you were when we struggled with our Caesar and Ovid, term after term. The child is dressed in dark green velvet and wears a pointed lace Van Dyke collar. It stands playing a violin, and its hair is long, luxurious and curly like yours, only dark blond, lighter than yours. I know it is your father. You have the same faces, the same merry fine eyes, the beautifully shaped skulls, the hooked noses and the finely moulded lips. Your father is very old and his skull is almost fleshless. The skin is white and so is his hair of which there are left only a few thin curls following the contour of the bones. Where has all the waist length hair of the portrait gone? He is very old and he holds himself like some fragile porcelain doll, as if a delicate bone might break. But his eyes are intensely alive and always laughing at the humour of the world. From your name I believe your family came from Holland and your father is probably Jewish. Rembrandt in Amsterdam caught those features. Your mother is Welsh and young and loving. You live with them in Rye. You work in a book shop and sometimes are rather wistful at being trapped amongst people of older generations. You would like to travel. The boy you are fond of but do not love is very sincere. Your parents do not feel he is good enough for you. The bond you have with your family is a very strong one. You are scarcely aware of its strength.
Ann, I beg of you, write to me and tell me about Rye. Tell me about your family. Tell me about my country. I think I shall never see England again and have become an exile. But in your letters there is a faint continuation of my life, a whisper of what-might-have-been. We had known each others' families, each others' homes. You remember the time you came to see us at Broomham. I met you at the bus stop. We walked down the driveway to the hold house surrounded by hedges of flowering hawthorn and my mother met us at the door. Our dogs rushed forward to greet you. After lunch I showed you my room, with the furniture from Henry James' house that had belonged to his sister Alice, my mother had bought following the bombing in Rye, the washstand in mahogany with blue and white china shipped from Canton to Boston to England, and even the attic, filled with my old, out-grown toys, the doll's house, made by my Scots foster father as an exact replica of our former home, Darbyes, with its miniature four poster bed in which my brother and I had slept, the old books, the little chairs, the dried-up paintboxes and rickety easel. We were like children, although we were too old to play with childish things. They are all gone now, my toys, to orphanages where other children play with the dolls' house, the train sets, the dolls and their wicker blue silk lined cradles; they delight and cause quarrels now amongst other children.
At school the desks where we once sat are used to hold the books of other girls who must wonder at our initials we engraved there with penknives. And so, too, are left behind cut letters on the old trees of the Powdermill Woods, in their small way doing just the same as Shakespeare with his sonnets, Leonardo with his paintings, Michelangelo with his sculpture, Beethoven with his music, Napoleon with his conquests, our flights into the future, that we be remembered when time is older and we are dust, believing fame to be immortality.
Dear Ann, write to me for I want some one to think of me where I was born. To have no one to think of one is to have no existence, to have no beginning is to have no end, to have no past is to have no future, no history, nothing.
Il faut se déraciner. Couper l'arbre et en faire une croix, et ensuite la porter tous les jours.
S'exiler de toute patrie terrestre.
Robin loves 'infinity'. It is a magic word. 'How many is infimity?' he asks. A child's mind, the emerging grasp of time, number, physics, astronomy. How can I tell of infinity, eternity, the endless ∞?
I cast around for ideas. Then I remember the story I read as a child in a book my mother in turn had owned when but small. And I tell Robin the tale.
Once upon a time there was a pilgrim who was a saint and who wandered all over the fair land of England but he knew not where he was going and he became impatient with God for he had spent seven years in questing. He began complaining aloud when an angel came to him and told him to cease his plaints for seven years were but nought in the eyes of God and that in time God would reveal himself to the pilgrim although it might not be till seven times seven years had passed.
And the angel took him to the edge of a vast abyss. For down below lay the jagged ridges and ghastly chasms of a gigantic crater, the black walls of which were so steep that it was impossible to climb them. Smoke and steam rose in incessant puffs from the innermost pit of the crater and trailed along the floor and about the rocky spikes and jagged ridges.
Then as the pilgrim gazed, his face grew pale, and he turned to the angel,
'What are these crowds of tiny people that seem as small as images that stand so still?' the pilgrim asked.
'They are living men and women', answered the angel, 'that seem but small for they are very distant from us although we see them clearly'.
'There seem to be hundreds of them standing in crowds'.
'There are thousands and hundreds of thousands', replied the angel.
'And they do not move, they are motionless as stone, they do not even breathe'.
'They are waiting'.
'Their faces are all turned upward, all staring'.
'They are watching'.
And then the pilgrim looked also and saw in the iron-grey air a huge ball suspended in the sky above. The angel answered his unspoken question, his queries thought.
'It is a globe of polished stone - the stone adamant, which of all stones is the hardest'.
'Then why do they gaze so steadfastly?'
'Not hard to say', replied the angel. 'Every hundred years a little blue bird passes by, flying between them and the globe, and as it passes it touches the stone with the tip of its wing. On the last day of the hundredth year the people gather and watch with eager eyes all day for the passing of the bird, and while they watch they do not suffer. Now this is the last hour of the last day of the hundredth year, and you see how they gaze'.
'But why do they wait to see the bird?'
'Each time it touches the stone, and every hundred years it will touch it, till the stone be utterly worn away'.
'Ten thousand years, and yet again ten thousand, and it will not have been worn away'.
The pilgrim turned and asked, 'But when it has been worn away, what then?'
'Why then', said the angel, 'Eternity will be no nearer to its end than it is now. But see! See!'
The pilgrim looked, and beheld a little blue bird flash across the huge ball of glimmering adamant, brush it with a single feather and dart onward.
Jupiter. - Oreste! Je t'ai cré e j'ai cré toute chose; regarde. (Les murs du temple s'ouvrent. Le ciel apparait, constellés d'étoiles qui tournent . . . ) Vois ces planètes qui roulent en ordre, sans jamais se heaurter : c'est moi qui en ai réglé le cours, selon la justice, Entends l'harmonie des sphères, cet enorme chant de graces minéral qui repercute aux quatre coin du ciel . . .
Oreste. . . . Tu es le roi des Dieux, Jupiter, le roi des pierres et des étoiles, le roi des vagues de la mer. Mais tu n'es pas le roi des hommes . . .
Jupiter. - Je ne suis pas ton roi, larve impudente. Qui donc t'a cré ?
Oreste. - Toi. Mais il ne fallait pas me créer libre.
Jupiter. - Je t'ai donné ta liberté pour me servir . . . .
Oreste. - Je ne suis ni le maitre, ni l'esclave, Jupiter, Je suis ma liberté. A peine m'as-tu cré que j'ai cessé de t'appartenir.
Jean Paul Sartre
When it was hot he removed the jacket of his
suit. His lectern was smothered with papers and notes. And
his shirt sleeves had large tucks sewn in them which shone
extra white with starch. Within them his arms were
undeveloped and thin. Students talked among themselves. His
failings were obvious. He lectured with a hangover. He used
the words 'gracious' and 'scholarship' too much. John
Heckler, sitting in the back row, could take advantage of
the instructor's patience, good manners, and perpetually
interrupt the careful flow of the lectures with intellectual
Yet Robert Orem enjoyed these skirmishes. One
by one with logic, brilliance, and, yes, scholarship he
would demolish Heckler's points. And then proceed to read
the lectures from his notes and papers. He had so little
confidence in himself that he could not start the class
without them. Yet when he became excited he could then speak
clearly and well without his props.
Two nuns who sat in the second row provided the
class with much information on theology when these matters
came under discussion. A Spanish boy wrestled with the
problem of learning the material in an alien tongue. The
class was a large one since the course on John Milton was
one that was required for literature students.
Julia managed to sit in the front row. The
previous semester Orem had assigned her to his back row in a
course and she had been unable to hear a word of his
lectures and yet was too proud to tell him so. She now
regretted what she had then missed. She came to respect him
more and more for the intensity, the learning of his
studies. Strange, that of all the professors she had had,
this mere instructor who had been too timid to take his M.A.
impressed her most. His failings even became a part of his
quality, the English traits, the 'gentlemanliness', his
painful shyness and feelings of inadequacy, and then those
glorious flashes of brilliance when he forgot his puny self,
delight spoke from his eyes, and the kingdom of the
intellect with its golden roofs was constructed with his
After finishing the papers of the final
examination Julia placed them on his desk, hesitant about
speaking to him in the hushed room, then left. He had been
reading. But then he was running after her in the hall. He
came to tell her he thought her research paper, one she had
written on Milton's concept of the music of the spheres,
excellent. Two shy people stood there, with words tumbling
over themselves, awkwardly trying to say that they
appreciated the qualities of the other's mind.
Academia. The brief years of studying in the
California college. And then. What has come since? Marriage.
The birth of two boys, Robin, then Colin. The journey to
Italy between them. There a family friend was England's
ambassador to the Vatican and it was from him that I must
obtain permission to use the Vatican Library to seek out
material on Milton's visit to that land. But Sir Marcus
Cheke lay dying, Pope John XXIII visiting him in hospital,
and I abandoned my plans.
The old yearning for study, for research, came once more to the fore and I wrote to Robert Orem. He wrote back detailed letters outlining reading to be done, patient, fine, tutorial letters. That summer we saw the Merchant of Venice acted at Stanford under the stars. The costumes had come out of the paintings of Veronesi. Banners floated in the breeze. When Lorenzo spoke of the celestial harmony of the heavens, the audience with one accord stretched their necks to the sky, but the stars were become overcast with cloud and shone not nor did they sing.
That was the summer Robert Orem was killed,
with his mother, in an automobile. A few short lines
appeared about it in the paper. That was all. Those of us
who liked him were sad. But we consoled ourselves. 'He was
not happy, perhaps this is best'. 'It happened so quickly.
There was no pain, no knowledge'. I have yet to tell John
Heckler. When we last spoke of him, he scoffed still. But
oh, the waste, the bitterness.
For at the end he had gained his doctorate, a
professorship. He had a new-found happiness. His letters to
me were filled with the enthusiasm he derived from his
studies, the pride of accomplishment and excellence. I had
wanted t be his student again, tread the steps he had trod,
become myself a teacher. He knew this, too. But I am a
mother with children and my links with the academic world
are being torn asunder.
But that does not change a habit of the mind.
Last night, reading Shelley, Orem's lectures came teeming
back in my thoughts. I remembered his fiery discussions with
Heckler on Milton's identification with Satan. Shelley added
more clues and then something clicked. From words like 'the
sacred Milton was, let it ever be remembered, a republican
and a bold inquirer into morals and religion', of the Prometheus
Unbound preface, it dawned upon me that the
rather pallid God of Paradise Lost
has a parallel to Milton's King Charles, the decapitated
one, and Satan to the iconoclastic pamphleteer, the
rebellious republican, Milton himself. It is a subconscious
parallel but definitely a valid one. For Milton ever and
ever again pleads for sacred order, yet at a critical moment
in his life and in politics went against a very deeply
ingrained habit of thought. Satan's nobility becomes a
magnificent rationalization of his portrayer. To defy the
divinity of a king in the context of Milton's age meant to
deny the divinity of God. And Milton's enemies had declared
that his blindness was inflicted by the anger of God. He
refuted this, yet what feelings of guilt must have still
lurked within his subconscious thoughts.
For one remembers the Van Dyke painting where
one sees three King Charles sitting at table holding
converse with one another. One is full face, one
three-quarter, one profile. There sits the martyr king,
elegant, fastidious, delicate, weak, yet charming. The
device of the double image in art is the symbol of death.
And here there are three images of the same man, three icons
of a very much decapitated king, a smashed idol.
Someone loaned me a volume of poems. It
contained one by Theodore Roethke, written just before his
death and it was filled with double images. I recalled,
while reading it, the Cocktail Party
lines on Celia Copplestone,
Ere Babylon was
The magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them and they part no more.
to find last night that the lines were Shelley's, not
Eliot's, and to read that Shelley, too, had met his double
image walking with him in a garden before his death by
water. A reinforcement of the point.
Shelley to Yeats, led by Yeats' lines,
Then one's thoughts go from Shelley to Yeats, led by Yeats' lines,
Shelley had his
Thought-crowned pinnacles he called them.
Shelley had his
But no, in my mind they had undergone a
sea-change of memory. For in the text I find instead,
And Shelley had his towers
Thought's crowned powers he called them once.
Joyce began the tale of Ulysses
in a tower by the sea. Yeats took the tower as a powerful
symbol, the gyring stair of ascent, Glendalough of the
kings, the scrap of brocade, the sword blade, 'Alexandria's
was a beacon tower, and Babylon's/ An image of the moving
heavens,/ a log-book of the sun's journey and the moon's.'
Then the gulls with their 'wings to the wild spirals of this
wind-dance' wheel over the stone, hand-hauled tower of the
poet on California shores, 'for a poem/ Needs multitude,
multitudes of thoughts, all fierce, all flesheaters,
musically clamorous/ Bright hawks that hover and dart
headlong, and ungainly/ Grey hungers fledged with desire of
transgression, salt-slimed beaks, from the sharp/ Rock
shores of the world and the secret waters'.
Before sleeping I remembered the fishing nets
spread out to dry on the rocks, shades of blue, shades of
brown. Why? To match the shades of the Tyrrhenian Sea in its
different moods and so cheat the fish. I watched them mended
with deft fingers. 'Who owns the tower?' I asked, and they
told me. That fisherman there. He was ninety years of
seahood, lively, full of stories, had been to America, back
again, now, rich, yet still fishing the fertile waters night
after night under the stars, his lamp hung to his ship's
prow. A Norman tower on Italian shores. He was happier home,
that's all. A life of unlettered simplicity became him best.
Five loaves and seven fishes.
Time is like a river made
up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as
soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and
another comes in its place, and this will be carried away
The Vicar of Westfield, delightful, mad, gaunt
and dark. Imagine a walking cadaver endowed with immense
charm and wit. He lived with his mother for years. We as
children loved them both. At the Vicarage teas Mrs Kelly
would ply us with buns and cakes while her son had everyone
in gales of laughter. The reverend and dog-collared Kelly
shocked and delighted the entire parish. For one thing, like
most war-time clergy, he used a motor bicycle for his parish
visiting and it was an intriguing sight to see his long
leanness clad in clerical sable speeding up and down the
hills of his parish on his roaring, sputtering monster.
One part of the village which had its own
stores, roads and green was the domain of the Welsh chapel
goers, for John Wesley had preached eloquently there. Kelly
became their friend, too. And every Christmas at the Carol
Service we would hear different and gorgeous voices which
made our choir pale. Kelly had purloined them from the
Methodists and by what means we know not. But gradually,
while he held the living, the divided village tried to
reunite its separate halves.
Years passed. The suddenly we saw him in San
Clemente, in Rome. He was expounding the meaning of the
fantastic mosaic apse to a Jewish couple from New York. He
saw us. 'Why, it's Glorney!' he exclaimed coming over to us.
'And no, it can't be! This must be Julia. And with a child!'
Turning to me he declared in a stage whisper, 'I trust, my
dear, you are married?'
'Oh, yes', my father hastened to rejoin, 'I
have even seen the photographs, all properly done, white
dress and veil!' They laughed together at the pleasantness
of the surprise. And arranged for Kelly to have dinner with
us that evening. Kelly admired my little boy and the Irish
Dominicans around us in their creamy garb and tonsure smiled
. . . And led us down to the
mysterious depths of their church, layer upon layer of
history, the Byzantine wall paintings of the older church
beneath, below that, Roman Christian sculpture . . . And then the head of a pagan god
sculpted in marble, nailed against the wall of the
More stairs and the rushing waters of
underground rivers and chilling damp, swirling around us,
seeping in between bone and flesh, and we enter the cave of
the bull sacrifice, the sacred initiates of Mithras, the
life-source devouring dog, the youth, the noble warrior with
his flying cape and the knife held at the god's throat.
Above our heads but beneath the many layers of Christianity
is the marble coffered ceiling carved with rose vines. I
become afraid and leave the rest to go upstairs into the
cleansing sunlight with my child. The power and spell of
pagan things appal me.
Oh, yes, I can see in it the parallels to the
Christian fable of St George and his serpent, to Theseus and
Venice, St George and the Dragon
I know that the Mithraic sect was widespread in
Britain, extending to the ultima thule of
the Great Wall. Possibly the bull fighting of Spain and the
Midi are part of it. But its hidden underground violence
horrifies me. The eyes of the young Mithras were round blank
balls, the eyes of a blind man set in the midst of shocking
virility. My father teases me. He tells me that the day I
become Roman will be the day I become pagan. White marble
Venuses in Italian churches have red and blue robes placed
on them and ornate crowns perched on their classic heads,
candles are burned before them and prayers made to them and
no one minds.
And then I find that even the air and sunlight
of Italy is pagan and delightful. Together with Kelly and
his two Jewish friends we go on to visit the excavations of
the inn where Saint Peter and Saint Paul are said by
tradition to have stayed. Beneath the baroque church are
rooms frescoed with nudes, garlands, chubby dancing
children. I look at the staid faces of my companions to
gauge their reactions. Then I realize that Saint Peter and
Saint Paul were no more bothered by the painted walls than
are our friends, they were just something in a different
culture, different country, different world. And I see that
Jewish Protestantism has never even tried, excepting in the
bonfires of the vanities in Renaissance Florence, to undo
the richness of Italian thought and art, but has bypassed it
to reign supreme in our cold, Protestant north. I smile at
Robin and together we laugh at the painted, playing
So it was that I came to realize that we of the
north condemned non-Puritans of irreligion, that we hid the
worship of life under a confusion of inhibitions, that we
could find affinity only in other Puritan sects, the Parsee
Zoroastrians, the Zen Buddhists, the Judaists, and then only
if we loosened the bonds of our own stern faith enough to
look for like bed-fellows elsewhere, which is rare in our
confounded righteousness. We are horrified at rank fertility
worship, colour, ritual, beauty, naturalness, be it in
church, temple, field or forest. We call it primitive,
savage, low, and dare not see it as the other face of God.
Freud and Jung, in unleashing the magical, sexual world of
the unconscious, have deprived our Puritanism of its sense,
whilst we continue to condemn those whom we envy in their
freedom and sanity.
'You are beginning to understand. Soon you will
become a Roman', says my father. We have been talking
together, leaning over the wall of the terrace, gazing down
at the people leisurely walking in the street far beneath
our tall Roman apartment building. The children beneath play
in the warm twilight and we can hear their laughter and
song. They play without toys but in their games I recognize
the same snatches of tunes but with other words, the same
rituals, rules, as our Oranges and Lemons, our Gathering
Nuts in May and Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush. My
father and I talk endlessly. It took Oscar Wilde's selfish
giants seven years to say all they had to say to one
another. We had, too, seven years of absence from one
another to talk over, years between two brackets, with the
first a sixteen-year-old girl saying good-bye to her father
on the platform at Victoria Station before boarding the boat
train, both stoically refusing to show their emotions, and
the second, at Ciampino Airport, my father waiting on the
terminal platform, suddenly seeing me as I get down the
stairs from the plane, clutching a sleeping child and
suitcases. My eyes brim full with tears. I stumble across
the hot tarred field in which my shoes stick while my father
waves his right arm with a large sweeping movement and the
tears are pouring down his face. I raise my arm holding the
child for I have no arm free to wave, to point. It takes
eternity to reach him and we both weep through the entire
Kelly is coming to dinner. Amato is cooking for
him peas in bacon and also spaghetti. I have candles on the
terrace table, set in straw-clad bottles. And the child is
When he comes he gives a fantastic account of
the wedding of Princess Margaret, tells all the latest
scandalous rumours of the Queen Mother and the Bishops.
Before dinner he declares he must shave. We have razors,
soap, badger hair brushes, we tell him. Oh, no, none of
that, he begs. 'Only what wattage, voltage do you have here?
Is it alternating or direct?' We don't know. He produces an
electric razor. And then some enormous contraption filled
with dials and knobs. ˜Well, I'll make a guess. Here goes'.
We implore him not to, it'll cost a fortune if he blows a
fuse, we don't even know if we have any. He plugs the thing
in, turns on the switch. The sparks fly. 'Ow! Well then, now
I know. It's this. Can't be any other'. This time he is
successful and he stands in the middle of the marble floor
of the drawing room cum bedroom of our apartment gaily
shaving his blue jowls. When he is through they are as blue
as ever. But we breathe a sigh of relief.
While he shaves he tells us of his
housekeeping. He has nylon sheets so he need not iron them,
likewise black nylon shirts which he washes in a machine,
plastic dog-collars (he tried paper ones but gave them up).
He uses paper plates to save on dish washing. He has bought
a huge four-poster bed for his vicarage and has hung it with
blue damask. He takes great pride in his red flag-stoned
floor. His mother has been dead now four years.
In the conversation at dinner I mention Sir
Harry Newton and the grand children's parties at Westfield
Place, with the November Fifth fireworks, the rockets
flaring out over the trees of the park, and the Christmas
games of snapdragon, snatching raisin and fruit out of a
bowl of flaming brandy and the games of Family Coach with
Sir Harry as narrator and Punch and Judy shows presented in
the vast ballroom. We talk about Lady Newton. 'Poor Myrtle',
commiserates Reverend Kelly, ˜She is a dear but I do wish
she could be less of a saint. You know, at every marriage in
the parish she descends on the poor couple with books on sex
education in one hand and in the other the Pauline Letters.
It is embarrassing!'
After he had left, I talked much more with my
father and I learned then of something I had not known
before. For years my brother and I had lived with a
childless Scots couple in Westfield Lane. Their name was
Beattie. He was a carpenter and she was a frail, kind person
whom we loved dearly. We played for many hours in Mr
Beattie's tool shed where he made us toys, a doll's house
that was an exact replica of Darbyes with its great
four-poster beds, thatched roof and lead-paned diamond
windows, a milk wagon, a toy machine gun with which we
scared a war-unnerved uncle. But suddenly we were taken away
from there and no one told us why.
My mother had arrived in a taxi and told us to
pack our toys and go home with her to Darbyes. But our home
was not Darbyes, but Rosemount with the Beatties. We were
frightened and incredulous. We got into the taxi but refused
to take our toys. We begged to leave them. They were
security for our return. We were scolded.
My father explained this. It was thought that
Mrs Beattie had tuberculosis. Later, when it was too late,
they found she had cancer. She died while I was at boarding
school. We were always running away from Darbyes trying to
make our way back to Westfield Lane but the distance was too
far for us. Later, when I was in America, in a letter from
my mother, she mentioned that Mr Beattie had killed himself
on his motor bicycle. I mourned him and wished they had told
us more. Now my father told me the story.
At the inquest it was stated that Mr Beattie had committed suicide. Suicides are not buried in consecrated soil. But the Reverend Kelly insisted, despite considerable opposition, that Mr Beattie lie beside his wife in the quiet graveyard of the old Norman church within the shelter of the dark yews. He knew how deeply Mr Beattie had mourned her and that his self-inflicted death was brought about through his sorrow. The only place for Mr Beattie to lie was where his grave now is, in consecrated soil, beside his Mary. In the shadow of the old church which they never attended in life. I have not been able to thank Kelly. I remember him as a prize comedian with a heart of gold and the courage to flaunt convention to do what was right.
The two children are playing. The baby is exploring the face of his brother as a blind man seeks to know the features of his friend. He pokes his fingers into all the facial orifices, pats the cheeks, tugs hair, and pulls an ear. Soon the older brother will lose patience. He moves away beyond reach. Such curious love is also pain and ennui. Now the child cries with loneliness. He feels forsaken and weeps as though his heart would break. I stop typing this . . .
. . . There. I held him in my arms and now he
sleeps, his arms outstretched and his face swept clean of
sorrow. His brother slept so. Once in maternal solicitude I
became afraid for him and told my fears to the father of the
child. He thought me absurd and rebuked me. In my bitterness
I wrote a poem of it.
Look at our child
I am afraid.
He sleeps with his arms outstretched
As if in blessing
Or in crucifixion.
Whose weary feet had trod
Calvary all day,
Muttered from behind the evening paper,
What fools you women are
Over religion and babes.
My mother's house in Sussex was built of great
darkened ships' timbers and plasters, bleached white by
sunlight in the squares, oblongs and triangles left by the
beams. The roof had had thatch on it but had caught fire on
Easter Day, exactly a year before I was born. So when I knew
it the structure was covered by warm red tiles instead. The
low-ceilinged, dark, diamond-paned windowed rooms inside
were filled with antique furniture my mother had collected.
Heaven knows how large a fortune was sunk in that house.
There were massive tallboys carved out of the blackest oak
that shone in firelight and sunlight, a bedstead with the
arms of the Duke of Monmouth carved amidst 'shameless boys'
of almost Renaissance vigour and yet the posts were of Adam
and Even arising out of fir cones, only the heads and
breasts depicted, as if the medieval sculptor was too
ashamed to reveal more. A magnificently threadbare red and
gold embroidered cloth covered the bed. My parents slept
there after my father married my mother.
A four poster bed stood in the next room. It
was said to have come from the castle of Ann Boleyn. It was
hung with pale ivory rose and dark green damask. My brother
and I slept there, a long hard bolster between us, until we
became too old and were graduated to separate room in the
attics beneath the great sloping roof where dormer windows
looked out onto fields, lamb-filled. Downstairs, there was
the dining room with high-back, worm-eaten Jacobean chairs
and an immense oak refectory table that shone like a mirror.
A Chinese bowl, with mandarins nodding at each other over
bridges and streams and lakes, that had been broken and was
now riveted together with metal, lay at the center of the
table between two pewter candlesticks. The drawingroom had a
fireplace on which were burnt logs the size of small trees.
You could sit in the fireplace on a stool and read by the
firelight alone and look up the chimney at the stars in the
black sky which were kept company by the glowing sparks
which flew up the shaft. There was a long Jacobean settle
with a seat cushion of Kashmiri work, reminding one of
Paisley prints and Byzantine craft. A small Jacobean table
had a tree of life design carved on its surface. The room
was filled with oriental patterns. In one part of it was my
father's table littered with typewriter paper covered with
his neat but almost-diagonally-written-across the page
handwriting. Along one wall of the room were shelves of
books up to the ceiling, save for the space for two windows,
outside of which nodded rose briars in the wind. In the room
also were small treasures brought home by my father from
India, an ebony elephant with ivory tusks, a cup and ball
that rattled carved out of wood and exquisitely painted by
an Indian child, a small ivory elephant that had lost its
trunk and its dignity as well since it now looked like a
pig, a brass paperknife with eastern hieroglyphs inscribed
on its handle, and a chess set. My father would challenge my
mother to an evening game by the firelight, later my brother
and he played. I rarely had that honour since I detested the
long waits in between moves when the wheels of one's
opponent's brain turned almost audibly. I usually lost.
My mother and father had fascinating, brilliant
friends. There was a Polish count who played chess like a
god, a male ballet dancer whose autograph I cherished as a
school girl. Lilian Baylis had died, but her prophecy that I
would become a great dancer caused me much unhappiness as my
mother dragged me to ballet classes, an audition at Sadler's
Well, and lost her temper with me at another garden party
when I was six and refused to speak to Dame Ninette de
Valois resplendent in a red linen sheath. I had wanted to
play in the swing with a boy I knew, with almost my name, a
'Julian', and to go to the magic island in the middle of the
lake with the other children. Besides I was painfully shy.
One of these friends was Clare Sheridan, cousin
to Winston Churchill, who became my heroine. I did not
actually remember the first time I met Clare Sheridan but my
mother described it so well that I can see it clearly in my
mind's eye. I had come running into the drawing room and
seeing her lying on the Jacobean settle I had cried out,
'Sleeping Beauty!'. She was asleep in the firelight, dressed
in a simple white evening gown. The pillow under head was
embroidered with a Jacobean flower design. The colour of her
hair still eludes me. I do not remember whether it was a
deep auburn red or whether it was changing to grey. For she
was an older woman, living in a generation of a misty past.
There was something of the romance of distant things
clinging to her. That was why she suddenly seemed to me to
be La Belle au Bois Dormante. She made my mother's house
appear to me in its right character . . . the firelight, the
games of chess, my mother reading to us the story of Honey Bee of Clarides,
sometimes in English and sometimes in the original French of
Anatole France, and the old retired colonel who would sit in
the firelight with his silvered hair, the Monsignor in his
sweeping garb, all became part of a fairy tale.
The second time I met her was when my mother
and I were invited to tea at Brede Place where she had her
home. It was one of those perfect summer days when the land
is sun-gilt caressed and when the countryside brings to mind
the tendril of a rose and the landscape beyond that appears
in Italian Quattrocento paintings of the Madonna and Child.
Brede Place was in the next village from ours and a bus
passed through. Alighting from this we had a few miles' walk
through summery fields. The final approach to Brede Place
was through a hop field of green tendrilled avenues up the
slope of a hill. The Benedictine monks had built Brede Place
so that it would overlook the valley. Many legends were told
about it. The village people believed that a giant once
lived there who ate small children as they crossed the
bridge of the stream nearby. There were rumours of later
smuggling activities - lace, brandy and silks from France
brought in secretly to avoid being taxed duty.
Clare greeted us. She was wearing a simple red
linen dress and on her breast was a red-gold cross fashioned
after the Gaelic manner. I am sure that her hair was red. We
had tea on the lawn and the card table was covered with a
red linen cloth. The sun shone and the roses nodded their
heads in the soft breeze that found its way up the valley
from the sea. Once, when the stream in the valley below had
been a large river, King Alfred had sailed his whole fleet
Later, Clare took us inside. The place was
huge, gaunt, hewn out of cold stone but which could turn to
a soft gold sand colour in the sunlight. Perpendicular
windows filled the room with this light. They looked out
over the hop fields stretching down to the valley and up
again beyond to that ridge before the sea. There there was
another stone building, a gracious house with Latin mottoes
on the doors and arches which had been built by the
Victorian travel writer, Augustus Hare, and which now
sheltered the Anglican convent school I attended. In the
winter storms the nuns and the girls would fight to close
the great windows of the cold dormitories against the sea
wind and rain, and lighting would flicker amidst the trees.
Clare's house would also be swept by storm, being high on
that great hill. But now it was eternal summer. The laughs
and shouts of trippers on the beaches of Hastings and
Bexhill mingled with the sound of the waves beyond those
Clare is a sculptress, besides being a writer,
and in the great stone halls lay figurines, statues, blocks
of stone, chisels and mallets. The starkness of the great
rooms with their thick stone pillars and the lack of
furnishings, save for the working materials of stone and
art, pleased me. Tendrils of roses nodded outside the
perpendicular windows. Clare had her personal rooms
upstairs. She had made a stained glass light for one of the
little windows there, a Madonna and Child, and in it the
Madonna is ironing, such a modern activity! I liked this,
this bringing Mary into our moment in time.
She took us to the little chapel she had
discovered and restored at the south end of the building.
Tall slender windows surrounded the room, looking out onto
the valley and sky above the hills. It was here she sculpted
the Madonna and Child out of a solid oak trunk from Brede
Place, to place in Brede Church's Lady Chapel, her family's
chapel, where an ancestor lies in Crusading armour on his
tomb. It is a Byzantine Madonna who fiercely protects her
She told us the story of the cross she was
wearing. An old gardener of her father had said he found
buried treasure at Brede Place. He refused to tell where the
treasure lay, said he had sealed it up again. But he gave
the gold cross as proof. I, being a romantic child, was
enchanted by the story but my mother, when we returned home,
said that Clare had probably made it up. That was in the
days when my brother and I would roam the countryside in the
hope of stumbling on an old smugglers' lair and finding
Clare's mother was American, one of those
beautiful American women who came to Europe in Victoria's
century and enchanted everyone. Henry James knew them. They
made excellent marriages. And Clare's mother, it was
whispered, was once in love with the Prince Impériale and he
with her. Clare's mother and her sister Jennie attended
dances at the Tuileries, were spoken to by the beautiful
Empress Eugènie, and were always accompanied by their tall
coloured women, who dealt with their voluminous wraps and
trains and watched the dancing beneath the crystal
chandeliers, her stately head wrapped in a turban. She is
said to have caused a stir in Paris in her own right.
Clare once described a delightful scene. Her
family was staying in London. As usual they were in debt.
Clare's coming-out dance was to take place that evening. And
the bailiff called for the rent. Clare's mother, with her
nineteenth-century American charm, soon even had the bailiff
with his sleeves rolled up cleaning the windows. It is said
that he so enjoyed the delightful family that he forgot to
ask again for the rent money.
I collected stories of Clare, made them into a
legend for myself. I came to depend on her as she and my
mother depended on their past. I made Clare into an idol, a
brazen image. Then there was the day when my love for Clare
began to crumble. We have moved to a house in Brede then. My
favourite subject in school was painting. I wanted to be an
artist like my Anglo-Irish grandfather. It was raining very
hard and my brother and I were playing an endless game of
chess. The house was cold. It was large, half-Victorian,
half-Georgian. We were in the cavernous pale green and gold
drawing room that my mother had designed, not realizing that
her colour choice did not make for warmth. Some
chrysanthemums were on the table. Clare suddenly came in.
Her hair was really grey now and she was bundled up in
waterproofs. She seemed cross and old and tired. She
unwrapped herself, shaking the drops onto my mother's pale
Aubusson carpet, and sat down. My mother ordered me to get
my drawings to show to Clare. I knew she did not want to be
bothered with such things. I brought them to her. She took
them coldly and looked them through. She said nothing. And I
suddenly knew they were all terribly bad. Like my dancing.
When the rain fell more softly she wrapped herself up again
and went home.
My father's income as a free-lance journalist and author was not sufficient to keep pace with my mother's grandiose dreams of interior decorating and running a private guest house. The purchase of the large house put us heavily in debt. Finally we were forced to sell and move again. We went to stay with a great friend of my mother's, Evelyn Webster, who lived in her ancestral Queen Anne Powdermill House where the garden parties had always been held. She also was running it as a guest house. It was embarrassing to have to pay rent to friend and not always be able to pay it.
In my unhappiness and I was usually unhappy
when I was home from school, I would hide away in the old
gun room where fox masks and bushes were mounted and the
family guns were kept. One or two hunting prints were hung
on the walls. It had been fixed up, too, as a study for one
of the sons of the house and books lined one wall. There I
found Clare's books. I read them from cover to cover and
Clare, an unreal Clare, became my heroine again, my magic
sleeping princess. She wrote about a world of adventure, of
fascination. Riots in Paris, her house that she had built in
Algeria, her friends amongst them. Once she had know a
beautiful young Arab girl who was about to be married. The
girl was not allowed to see her husband. Clare knew the man
whom they gave out to be her bridegroom. She took the girl
to the roof her her house and showed him to her as he passed
by below. The girl thought him exceedingly handsome. But on
her marriage night she found she was married instead to his
elder brother, a cripple, hideously deformed.
Clare was told ghost stories in Algeria, of
'golden men', and deduced that they were legendary remnants
of the Roman soldiers who had once invaded these parts and
had left half ruins of civilization everywhere. She told the
story of her son, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had gone to
sea in his ketch, taking with him the Sheridan manuscripts,
and had been shipwrecked, the manuscripts lost in the storm.
She told of how she became the first woman to enter Russia
after the Bolshevik revolution. And how, during the war, she
sculpted the head of the prime minister and, before that, of
I have seen her statue of
the Madonna and Child in Brede Church's Lady Chapel many
times. She told me how her family for generations, having
ancestral rights in the Lady Chapel and being Protestant,
always refused to allow a statue there despite requests. And
finally Clare carved one herself. I think it is one of the
few beautiful things she has done. So much of her work I now
realize was solely to earn money, mass-produced and too
realistic. But this statue is different. She hewed it out of
a solid oak tree, carving it in the little chapel she showed
us that day, praying as she worked, It is very simple and
strong, a tree trunk shape rising up into the folds of a
simple cloth over Mary's head, her face and the head of the
Child between crossed hands with the elongated symmetry of
the archaic Greek.
I never saw her after that time in the dank
rainstorm. But I thought of her often, wondered if I could
write her a foolish letter, telling her of reading her books
at Powdermill. Sometimes I still think of her. I found her
name in the card catalogue of the library here the other
day. Once my father wrote before leaving for Italy, with
that peculiar observation of one who is about to leave his
country, a description of Hastings. He mentions a loud
speaker van touring the rain-swept streets declaring that
'that famous Clare Sheridan, world-renowned author and
sculptor would open a garden fête at Battle School'.
Those English school fêtes! How unlike the fête champêtres after which they are named! No gallant courtiers and fair damsels, but prim schoolmistresses blushing at bowing fathers, shoes that pinch and awkward floppy garden party hats, stiff dances, sixpences for a cup of tea, lavender bags and nightdress cases on sale, hand-embroidered to benefit missionaries in India and tennis courts for schoolgirls.
For Robert Orem
A sorrow of seagulls
Patterns 'gainst a pewter sky
John Milton's melodies
Composed in lofty blindness
Upon oceanic organs.
Spheres, stars, orbs,
Celestial morris of the tides.
Shadows on sand of the flight of a gull.
The nun sang in the choir - then her voice
trembled - and she began sobbing. The convent school girls
were afraid to stare. Two nights later the nun was dead -
and the chapel hung in purple - the crucifix of lead and the
coffin. The girls found death eerie, mysterious -
terrifying, close - only the panels of wood between them and
it. Julia and the other girls in their white veils, upon
their kneews, forced their thoughts on death - what did it
mean? - and decay.
The travel books of Augustus Hare lined the
shelves of the Common Room. Julia found this in a footnote:
In 1791 Ferdinand III, gathered together all the coffins containing the royal bodies, and had them piled together pell-mell in the subterranean vaults of the chapel, caring scarcely to distinguish one from another; and there they remained uncared for, and protected from invasion only by two wooden doors, with common keys, till 1857. But shame came over those who had the custody of the place, and it was determined to put them in order. In 1818 a rumour was current that the Medicean coffins had been violated and robbed of all the articles of value which they contained; but it was not till thirty-nine years afterwards, in 1857, that an examination of the fact was made. It was then found that the rumour had been well founded. The forty-nine coffins containing the remains of the family were taken down one by one, and a sad state of things was exposed. Some of them had been broken into and robbed, some of them were hiding-places of rats and every kind of vermin; and such was the nauseous odour they gave forth, that at least that at least one of the persons employed in taking them down lost his life by inhaling it. In many of them nothing remained but fragments of bones and a handful of dust; but where they had not been stolen, the splendid dresses, covered with jewels, the wrought silks and satins of gold embroidery, the helmets and swords, crusted with gems and gold, still survived the dust and bones that had worn them in their splendid pageants and ephemeral days of power; and in many cases, where everything that bore the impress of life had gone, the hair still remained, almost as fresh as ever. Some, however, had been embalmed, and were in fair preservation; and some were in a dreadful state of putrefaction. Ghastly and grinning skulls were thre, adorned with crowns of gold. Dark and parchment-dried faces were seen, with thin golden hair, rich as ever, and twisted with gems and pearls and golden nets. The cardinals still wore their mitres and red cloaks and splendid rings. On the breast of Cardinal Carlos (son of Ferdinand I) was a beautiful cross of white enamel, with the effigy of Christ in black, and surrounded with emerald, and on his hand a rich sapphire ring. On that of Cardinal Leopold, the son of Cosimo II, over the purple pianeta was a cross of amthysts, and on his finger a jacinth set in enamel. The dried bones of Vittoria della Rovere Montefeltro were draped in a dress of black silk of beautiful texture, trimmed with black and white lace, with a great golden medal on her breast, and the portrait of her as she was in life lying on one side, and her emblems on the other; while all that remained of herself was a few bones. Anna Luisa, the Electress Palatine of the Rhine, daughter of Cosimo III, lay there, almost a skeleton, robed in a rich violet velvet, with the electoral crown surmounting a black, ghastly face of parchment - a medal of gold, with her name and effigy, on one side, and on her breast a crucifix of silver; while Francesco Maria, her uncle, lay beside her, a mass of putrid robes and rags. Cosimo I and Cosimo II had been stripped by profane hands of all their jewels and insignia; and so had been Eleanora de Toledo and Maria Christina, and many others, to the number of twenty. The two bodies which were found in the best preservation were those of the Grand-Duchess Giovanna d'Austria, the wife of Francisco I, and their daughter Anna. Corruption had scarcely touched them, and they lay there fresh in colour as if they had just died. The mother, in her red satin, trimmed with lace, her red silk stockings and high-heeled shoes, the earrings hanging from her ears, and her blonde hair as fresh as ever; and equally well-preserved was the body of the daughter. And so, centuries after they had been laid there, the truth became evident of the rumour that ran through Florence at the time of their death, that they had died of poison. The arsenic which had taken from them their life had preserved their bodies. Giovanni delle Bande Nere was also there - the bones scattered and loose within his iron armour, and his rusted helmet with the vizor down.
Augustus Hare, Florence, pp. 136-8.
She summoned the girls to listen to it. Better far than any ghost story narrated in a moonlit dormitory where the sea breezes shook the white bed curtains and the new girls were told of the Lady who walked in a white nightgown wringing her hands and wailing on Beulah. The girls shuddered at the vivid account of Florentine past reality.
My father and I lean over the balustrade of the terrazzo watching the Romans walking in the evening light in the streets far beneath us. They are walking in their world, ten stories below. It is both funny and mysterious to see how, when they are coming, their feet are in front of them, then, when they are going, their feet and legs get longer and longer behind them. When they are directly beneath, all that can be seen is their heads from the top set on shoulders, beneath which appear their feet in turn, behind and in front. I laugh, for the crême de menthe we are drinking and the perspective combine to form a comedy. They are like shadows on some world where the sun gyrates above in the sky producing noon, morning and evening shadows in quick succession. But these are substance, not shadows.
I tease. 'Daddy, this drinking is shocking! It's the stuff that rots poor Frenchmen in novels, isn't it. Or is that absinthe? Whatever made you get it?'
'Ah, this bottle which so horrifies you has remained at the bottom of the wardrobe mixed up with all our shoes for two years. I decided to open it tonight in your honour. Kelly's coming to dinner tonight, too. I never had crême de menthe before and I was as curious as you as to what it is all about. Umm, it's like drinking green velvet!'
We muse. We watch the crowd and think. We talk of my mother. I remember the barrel of cider that always stood in the kitchen, the drips of it falling into a jam jar in which drowned wasps would gather. And how she, in her red velvet dressing gown would drink the amber liquid from Jacobean cut glasses with the many convex facets. My brother and I, too, drank the liquid from those glasses at our meals. The cider vendor would come in his truck very frequently to replenish the barrel, driving over from his apple orchards in Kent. He was called Mr Luck and he hung horse shoes all over his truck. He was large and red-faced and he wheezed in at the kitchen door, ˜Here's Luck!' My mother would be overjoyed with the oblivion he brought her. My brother and I regarded him not as some mortal but as some strange hobgoblin, some personage from an allegorical world, someone who bartered and traded in the traffic of souls, an emissary of the underworld.
'What was it that made her so terribly bitter and cruel?'
'Many things, an unhappy childhood, envy of men'.
We watch the people pass. 'She was very beautiful, you know'.
'Was she? Her face frightened me. Once I made a drawing of it and it only became a likeness of her when I put bitter lines around the mouth'.
'That is true. Yet physically she is perfect. You cannot imagine how beautiful she really is. Her skin is incredibly fair. You and Richard have that skin, both of you, but you do not have her cloudy dark hair. The contrast of the dark and the light is strikingly beautiful'.
'Then you loved her, and loved her deeply'.
'Yes, I loved her. That was my weakness. She wanted a man who would torment her, would be cruel to her. But I couldn't be. When the love between us died, after Richard's birth, I could still be only tender towards her. When we had so much difficulty with money, she blamed me night and day, she made things five times more difficult than they were, she made scenes all the time and I could not get on with my writing. She was begging for punishment. But all I could do for her was to remain steady, not lose my temper with her, continue to be kind and patient. I felt that by that, perhaps, I could win back her love.
'But it was such a torment. Life was a hell. We were both trapped by each other. Until the end came, I was able to prevent her from quarrelling in front of you. But then she dragged you into it against me. I felt it against my honour then to tell you of the true state of affairs and yet I watched her twist you to her own thinking. You believed her. Although I did not wish you to go to America at sixteen I saw in it a chance for you to escape from the influence of your mother. When you left I was sure I would never see you again. A few days later I left her. I had meant to cut all ties with her and with you. You were taken care of. Your mother should face up to her situation. I would try to find a new life and so manage to see to Richard's education. My life with your mother couldn't go on. It was too unbearable. And I identified you with her.
'And now you are here, in Rome, in my new life, and in there is my grandson, sleeping soundly. Let's put this liqueur away. Pour yours down the sink if you like. You've scarcely drunk any. We will open the bottle of wine I got today for Kelly's coming. Poor Amato. He is working much too hard getting this stupid meal ready for Kelly. Kelly isn't particular'.
I jump up, guilt-stricken. Amato is doing my work. ˜Let me set the table'. But I cannot stop talking. ˜Robin's fast asleep', I say as I lay out the cloth, crisp folded napkins, forks, glasses. 'Playing in the Celimontana Garden has worn him out. Ah, there's the doorbell! It must be Kelly at last. We'd almost given you up for lost! Come in and welcome'.
'Ah, my dear child and Glorney. How good it is to see you! I hope I am not too late. And Amato, hello. I got terribly lost on my way but here I am at last. I hope I did not upset your plans'.
'Not at all. We have been talking our hearts out. Julia has been here but three weeks and we have so many broken pieces to put together again that it will take forever. She should stay three months more!'
Soon the candles are lit on the table. The roof garden, which in daylight looks so meagre and barren, at night becomes a thing of enchantment. The neighbour, within green trellises, has a superb collection of bits and pieces of Roman marbles, a torso of a Venus, white marble rosettes clamped on dull red walls, a little plump child in stone. Our own pots and urns filled with cacti and marguerites seem to blend into hers and we are for once unaware of her wall. What in daylight is division and envied, at night becomes communal and enjoyed.
My father and Amato tell Kelly of their fantastic preparations for my arrival. One day they had tackled the cacti with scissors, cutting off each spine lest the child be hurt by them. On another Amato had purchased muslin for curtains and had sewn them with enormous masculine stitches. They had mended the glass of the French door into the bedroom from the terrace. Legs replaced books to prop up the living room chairs. Plumbing had been repaired, costing a small fortune. It is told as a joke but I am touched, for this is the first time I had heard of their labours. I look from face to face. Their conversation sometimes has a cruel wit but they are kind and warm. I am the only woman present and they are men who do not much like women. Kelly has lived with his mother until her death at a great age. Now he is too set in his ways to live with another. My father has suffered too much during a marriage that was infernal. Amato is engaged to a woman older than he who cannot bear children. He hates her, the engagement has been arranged by his family, who thereby hope his nephew will inherit his land and his house in the countryside near Gaeta and he refuses to marry the poor thing. She is very ugly, very little, with huge feet, hardworking and deceitful. Amato hides out in Rome from her. They accept me because I am a fellow being like them, capable of being hurt, capable of kindness, warmth and love, moved by the same music, architecture, painting to which they respond. My sex has nothing to do with our companionship. I am simply the child of one of them, also I do not nag. And I have suffered.
For my mother has exiled me. It is impossible for me to go back to England. Over our wine we talk of my mother's fierce strategy. 'She telephoned me long distance from London two days before I left. I had not dared to tell her I was coming to see her and you this time, Daddy. Before my marriage, I had planned, as you know to come but she made impossible conditions which I refused to meet, that I be a witness in a divorce case against you. I refused. I was also forbidden by her to see you if I came. So I remained in California.
'This time, she was quite sweet about everything. She talked for a long time. That call must have cost the earth! But my suspicions were lulled. I told her I would be seeing her and you. "Whom did I plan to see in Sussex?" she asked. Like a silly goose I told her I would probably go down and see my grandmother, my old school, Lady Newton and Evelyn Webster. I didn't suspect anything, but since I have been here in Rome, I have received letters from all these people. They had been looking forward to seeing me after these seven years away in California. But now they all have excuses to offer. I am not to go to Sussex, they tell me. Some are apologetic, some furious, but obviously all are afraid of my mother and all insist that I not come. That I not see them.
˜I definitely can't go back to England. I can just imagine myself in some horrible Hastings hotel with Robin crying. And people wondering what I am doing travelling alone with a child. I could not bear the loneliness of being among my own people and a stranger. I should have so loved to see those who once meant so much to me. This hurts too much'.
'But you can go to London and stay with some of my friends, people who do not know your mother. You could see London and the people again. You should go back. It is your country. Just keep away from Sussex'.
'But it is Sussex above all that I want to see again. All those years I have dreamed of the woods and the fields. I have imagined my child dancing in the fairy rings, wading in the streams as we did. I had wanted my child to pick nosegays of flowers to bring home with him from long walks in the countryside with me. I had wanted to know that I belonged there. In California you can't walk in the countryside. It's fenced off with barbed wire. You can't pick flowers. It's against the law. You have to keep in your car on the ugly roads, just like everybody else. There's no freedom, no natural beauty. If the land is useless for man then it is fenced off from man. If they can use it, they scar it with great tractors and cover it with heavy buildings. You can never touch the soil. It's covered with cement on the parts where you are allowed to walk. You can't swim on the beaches. That's where the sewage goes. Where we live there are no clean beaches. We never swim from year's end to year's end, save when we are lucky enough to be invited to use a friend's tiny cement pool. For years I have dreamed of Sussex in the midst of all that ugliness, those scars, the harsh cement. I still yearn for it. I cannot bear this exile'.
'Ah, we are too sad', rejoins Kelly. He sits across the table from me and his eyes are cavernous and dark. Somewhat sympathy. We pour more wine and change the records on Amato's stereo. He is now playing Verdi's Requiem Mass and we listen in silence. But the street beneath is not silent, trams roar, vespas shriek, echoing against the sides of the tall building, the people walk on and on forever, talking as they go, and the children play in the courtyard. These sounds blend with the music and our thoughts. Only the sky, with a hint of sirocco, is silent and heavy.
Kelly talks of Victoria Sackville-West's garden at Sissinghurst Castle which he had visited just before coming to Rome. 'Ah, you are on dangerous territory there', I laugh. 'My mother sent me a copy of Sackville-West's book-length poem, The Land, on the Kentish agriculture and its seasons. It is a lovely thing. Do you know it? Well, anyway she inscribed it to me as 'To Persephone'. She is always calling me Persephone, saying that I will return to the flowers and fields of England. But in her mythology, not Cerberus, but Ceres, guards the portals of Dis to prevent her daughter's escape into the land of spring. One day, when I was very homesick I wrote to Sackville-West telling her how much I loved the poem. I treasure her reply. She in turn spoke of the redwood trees of California and the wild sea coast of Mendocino'.
Kelly caps my conversational remarks by talking of Vita Sackville-West's friend, Virginia Woolf. 'One day, when I was staying at Rodmel, I was walking in a country lane. Very beautiful it was, with the wild spring flowers. When suddenly I noticed a woman coming towards me. I felt a horrible feeling of panic. And she seemed as much afraid of me as I of her. I thought, 'My God, this woman knows every thought that has ever passed within my brain, she sees right through me, she knows everything about me!' We both went on walking, much shaken, and passed each other. A few days later the news broke, Virginia Woolf had drowned herself'.
Though we teased him on his appearance being enough to drive an already unbalanced genius to her death, we were all moved by the story.
In Rome there is no hour for sleep. The night is eternal. One sleeps at noon when the light becomes unbearable, a thing of death. At night the city is alive. My father accompanied Kelly to the pensione he recommended, walking together through the warmth and friendliness of human footsteps. Amato remained to listen to the final glory of the Requiem, I to be with the sleeping boy. Then all became silent, a great brooding happiness, while the living Rome walked besides them in the crowds of countless families, laughing, chiding, conversing.
Sophia's Papa in London Town
Have you never roamed the hills and through the woods,
You mean you've never, gun levelled, watched pheasants rise
And measured 'em with precision.
The frost tingling your fingers as you blow on 'em,
Smoke rising straight from the keeper's cottage?
You mean you've never followed hounds
As they sing
Through the meadows?
Or head the horn sounding 'em to pack,
Pink coats severing fox brush and mask for you,
To mount in some manorial gun room smelling
Of musk, snuff, leather, tobacco, woodsmoke?
Richard Bolton's photograph of Lord Burghley,
Master of the Foxhounds, Normanhurst
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