Authors: Tessa Hadley
âI've got to be back at the docks.
Lil picked up the knives and forks from the floor when he had left and wiped them on her apron; then she carried the fabrics out of the way of tea into the front room.
âYou ought to go to this Ladies' Night affair, she said.
Vera's face was closed.
âWhy shouldn't you go? Why shouldn't you have something nice to wear? You're his rightful wife.
âI don't want to spend my evening listening to that mumbo-jumbo.
Lil swept her sewing table clear from all the bits left over from Ann's Mary Queen of Scots costume. Then she shook the satin and velvet out from their folds until they were heaped up in sumptuous excess in the dim light. The curtains in this room were always half drawn across; they didn't use it much.
Vera stood passively while Lil draped the brown satin over her gray pleated skirt and cream blouse, her usual things for school.
âIt suits you! said Lil. It goes with your dark hair. See how it hangs. It's such good quality, so heavy. Look how it takes the light. The dress wants a classic line, very fitting; then a velvet bolero with a three-quarter-length sleeve. You could bind the edge of the bolero with the satin. Wear it with those earrings Mam gave you. You could wear it for the pageant, too.
Vera looked down at herself, hesitating. She leaned forward onto one hip to make the fabric swing and swirl.
âI certainly don't want anyone else flaunting about in it, she said.
Lil tucked an end of the velvet around Vera's shoulders and under her arms; then she and Joyce stood squinting their eyes at her, trying to blur the draped fabrics into looking like the finished outfit. She submitted to their attention with unaccustomed meekness.
âIt could look very elegant, said Lil.
Lil and Joyce both set about persuading her, as if they knew something she didn't know about what this dress could do for her, something she was incapable of managing for herself. Now that Joyce had seen the blond woman, she was afraid her aunt didn't know what she was up against.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
âI might go to art school, Joyce said to her art teacher.
Miss Leonard was tiny, ancient-looking, with a face as lined and vivid as a monkey's; she walked with an odd sliding motion, lifting her knees and carrying her head very high and far back as if she were keeping her face above the dull muddy water of the rest of school. Girls who wanted to get on with some drawing or painting were allowed to be up in the art room at lunchtime. Joyce was making fussy tiny changes to a drawing of an extravagant tropical shell gorgeously lined with pink, although she was sure that her fussing wasn't going to make the timorous drawing any better. She didn't know what art school was, really, anymore than she had a clear idea of university, although she knew her aunt wanted her to go there. She hadn't thought about going to art school until the very moment she said it.
Miss Leonard was working in pastels on a still life she had arranged on a table for one of her classes: two jugs glazed in thick yellow against a scrap of oriental rug with a couple of lemons. She gave her a rapid unimpressed bird glance.
âI thought you were one of the brainy ones?
âOh no, not really. Joyce blushed.
âSo why on earth do you want to go to art school? Apart from being too stupid to do anything else?
âWell, I love art, of course.
One skeptical eyebrow went up: the eyes flickered rapidly, assessingly, between the lemons and her paper.
âOh, don't love art. That's sounds frightfully high-minded. You'll never make a living at it, you know.
Joyce was shocked.
âI never dreamed I could make a living!
âYou have to teach, or else you do illustrating, if you can get it. Unless of course you're one of the lucky few. The ones who've really got it. Whatever
is. Talent, genius, originality, the right friends in the right places.
âWhat it is, really, said Joyce, is that I love these things. I've never seen things like these before.
Miss Leonard looked at her blankly. Then, as if she had forgotten it existed, she cast a surprised glance round the room full of the treasures that had pleased her eye.
âOh. I see.
She put down her crayon and went over to shelves piled with a miscellany of crockery, topped with pieces of driftwood and a couple of ostrich feathers.
âCome and feel these, she said.
Anxiously, Joyce took one of the big flat dishes from her. Miss Leonard brushed off the dust with the side of her hand.
âDo you like them?
The dish was heavy, the clay half an inch thick; the uneven green glaze was decorated with swirls of brown so freely drawn you could see the marks of the brush hairs. Joyce could hardly understand a way of making things that was so opposite to the one she had been brought up to admire: her mother's best tea set, for example, where precision and delicate finish were everything and the making process was tidied secretively out of sight.
âI love them, she said.
âThey come from Portugal. In Portugal the sun is hot, the people live out of doors so much more, they drink wine and eat fish cooked with olive oil and tomatoes and spices and garlic, off dishes like these. Their houses are often crumbling and untidy, but inside and even outside they are covered with locally made tiles.
She took away the dish and gave Joyce a handful of tiles, each one different. They were in glowing colors, blues and reds and yellows: mostly patterns but some pictures, a fish and a bird, drawn as crudely and casually as a child might draw them. They didn't even seem quite perfectly square.
âYou should go there, Miss Leonard said. Or Italy. You should go to Italy too. You should eat
and drink Chianti. Children suffer under a blight of ugliness in this country. What's for dinner today, for example? Can you smell it? You usually can up here. Boiled liver and cabbage? Boiled cod and white sauce? No wonder their paintings are ugly.
Miss Leonard was suddenly impatient with Joyce. She picked up the drawing of the shell as if it exasperated her and scribbled on it with a piece of charcoal, crudely, exaggerating the horns of the shell with bold black Vs.
âDon't be meek, she said. That's what I can't bear. Boiled cod and white sauce.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The making of Aunt Vera's outfit for ladies' night was fraught with problems. Both fabrics were difficult to cut and sew. Lil needed pinking shears and didn't have any. She cut the three-quarter-length sleeves of the jacket in one with the bodice and then let in gussets under the arms, but the gussets were difficult and puckered on the corners. Nonetheless, there was a certain gathering excitement in the week or so while the dressmaking was advancing. It was full summer now. There were rust-colored weeds and shaggy old-man's beard among the tall mauve grasses. The full-grown leaves on the trees lolled in the heat and showed their gray undersides, the rhines were rank and shallow.
Aunt Vera stood on the kitchen table for Lil to do the hem. The floor was strewn with scraps of cloth and ends of thread and pins. They were still not sure how the outfit finally looked. Too many bits were provisional, pinned or unfinished, and then Vera inside it was too obviously her ordinary self, her hair untidy, her face long and tired with bruise-colored pouches under the eyes. She was scowling and fretting at being kept prisoner while Lil fussed. Joyce hoped something different would happen when she did up her hair, powdered her skin, put on lipstick and scent, put in her garnet earrings.
Meanwhile, she was testing Joyce on her English history. She told an anecdote about Palmerston that Joyce had heard from her before, in school. Palmerston said, “There are only three people in the world who have understood the Schleswig-Holstein question. One's dead, one's mad, and I've forgotten.” There were other stories about Palmerston: how he cheered when he heard that the London dockers put a Hungarian general in a barrel and rolled him down a hill, and how he was fit enough to vault over a gate the day before he died. Vera had favorites among the men in history. When she talked about them her voice was coy, as if she were sharing some kind of flirtatious joke.
Into the indoor quiet erupted Peter and Kay with news that they had caught an eel, Martin following importantly with an enamel bucket, which he set down on the floor for everyone to admire. The eel stirring in its dark coils in the bit of muddy water was like a sight of something urgent and shameful that was best kept hidden. Ann, who had been sitting on the low stool learning her lines for the pageant, was fearless with animals and wanted to reach in the bucket and touch the eel, but Lil said she'd get an electric shock.
âIt's the wrong kind of eel, said Peter impatiently, but he held himself well back and peered into the bucket with excited loathing, from a respectful distance.
âTake it away, children, said Lil, removing a mouthful of pins. I do not want that dirty creature anywhere near this precious sewing.
âWe could eat it, said Martin, trying to sound at his most reasonable and practical.
âWe could not, said Lil. If you think for one moment I'm going to grapple with that blinking thing and kill it and gut it, not even knowing whether it's habitable or not.â¦
âYou don't mean habitable, said Peter, but there was relief in his voice.
There came the sounds of Uncle Dick's car negotiating the tormenting ruts of the lane. Lil and Vera looked at each other.
âCan we keep it as a pet? said Martin. Please? He didn't seriously expect an answer.
âD'you want him to see? said Lil to Vera.
âHeavens, Lillie, what do I care what he sees? Anyone'd think I was a bride in a wedding dress!
Obediently Lil went on pinning, while Vera on the table moved stiffly round for her as if she were on an old slow turntable. The children took the eel outside, Ann following them, chirruping coaxingly into the bucket. She was wearing her Mary Queen of Scots headdress, her heart-shaped face with its sly dark eyes uncharacteristically demure under its little gothic vault. There was a pause while in the yard Uncle Dick duly admired the eel. He sounded as if he was in a good humor. He blocked the light, standing in the doorway, with Kay in his arms; Lil lifted her head up from her concentration on the hem.
âWhat d'you think, Dick?
He was blinking in the shadows after the glare outdoors. Kay, who with no prompting or encouragement adored her father, had laid her head on his shoulder and was fingering his lapel while she sucked her thumb.
âSmells like a real old witches' kitchen in here, Dick said.
âThat's them children bringing their creatures in.
âWell, let's see what kind of a mess you've managed to concoct. Turn round, turn round.
Lil stood back and Aunt Vera turned on her turntable again, looking tense and exposed.
âLift up your arms. Turn round.
Obediently Vera lifted her arms like a ballet dancer. Lil pressed a hand to her heart.
âIs it all right?
âIsn't it a bit tight? he said cheerfully. It makes her look like the back end of an upholstered sofa.
âShe does not! said Lil stoutly, but her voice was full of doubt. D'you think it's tight?
âShould have cut it with a bit more room in it, he said, and they could see immediately that he was right. And isn't there something funny with those sleeves?
the sleeves, said Joyce, in a great effort of optimism.
âI could undo them, said Lil, and try to get a better seam.
âOh, it'll do, he said. Don't bother.
âIt's not worth the bother, said Aunt Vera calmly, lowering her arms. It'll do as it is. I've got better things to do than stand up here every evening like a dressmaker's dummy.
She looked around for her way down from the table; someone had moved the chair she'd climbed up by. The brown satin dress seemed suddenly exposed as an awful failure: the lovely luxuriant deeply glowing cloth had been spoiled, cut in clumsy lines that made Aunt Vera's belly a huge coconut, perched comically on top of her long legs, and her bosom a pair of slanting torpedoes. When Lil moved the stool for her to step onto, Vera hesitated; and Joyce knew she was paralyzed by her humiliating sense that the skirt might rip or she might topple.
âAllow me, said Uncle Dick. Smiling, he offered her his free arm, and she let him help her down onto the stool and then half swing and half jump her from there to the floor. She stood flushed and stoical.
âThere's room in these seams for me to let it out. Lil was contritely seeking remedies.
said Vera sharply. Help me get the wretched thing off.
âNever mind, Lil, said Uncle Dick. Your sister isn't interested in clothes, she's got her mind on more important things. She doesn't care what she puts on.
Joyce was suddenly hotly aware of her own frock that she'd changed into when she got home from school, a friendly old cotton thing with faded sprigs of blue flowers. She'd had it for years: Lil had made it for her when she was a flat-chested child, and it was so familiar that she wore it as unthinkingly as her own skin. For the first time now she saw it as if from outside: how tight it was across her developing bust, how high the waistline came across on her chest, and how compromisingly short the skirt was, even though Lil had let the hem down twice. A kind of rage flared up in her at her mother and her aunt, that they were so unknowing, so helpless themselves, allowing her to go on wearing this and never seeing how it exposed her. She wanted to run upstairs to hide, only she couldn't move for fear they all saw how ridiculous she looked.
âIn case any of you are interested, by the way, she proclaimed loudly, I'm going to go to art school.
Of course they had all forgotten she was even sitting there; they turned on her slow glances steeped in adult preoccupations. Whatever was she talking about?