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Authors: Zillah Bethell

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BOOK: Girl in Profile
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“Stop fidgeting.” She cleans her brush in a glass of Pernod and studies me through lidless eyes. “You're thinner. Someone been eating you up?”

Rodin of course. Licked the organs clean out of my body. Left the carcass, the bones. Femur, ulna, radius, pelvic socket. They swivel, gyrate, rotate on their own. Like the models Rodin uses who swivel, gyrate, rotate, reveal their sex to him, which he sketches frantically, not even looking at his paper. Little downy plums. A basketful of vulvas. Is that what he'll bring next time he comes? A basketful of vulvas? Rodent, I call him, when I'm angry with him – nimble eyes, bushy beard, up a drainpipe—

“Hold the pose.”

That is an insult. I'm known for holding difficult poses. Look at
Whistler's Muse
– left foot on a high rock, head bowed, mouth open. And this isn't
Madonna in Repose
, this is
The Blue Madonna
, Madonna with Pins and Needles, Madonna doing tuck, pike, straddle, leapfrog. I wish she'd turn into a St Bernard dog and give me a glass of Pernod or something from one of those silver decanters, but she continues to labour with her paintbrush and I continue to earn my keep and think of Rodin. Is he thinking of me? Surely the strength of feeling in my heart must resound in some auricle, some ventricle of his. I followed him once to Meudon, the Villa des Brillants, saw his thorny Rose. Ah, sweet domesticity. She was old and dignified, and dignity, in the circumstances, was truly remarkable. His dogs. The pond. I sat in the grass and peeped as the field mice played the piccolo and crickets the woodwind, tapping out their songs on the branches of trees or rubbing their wings together. I think I saw his shadow in their austere dining room. Easy chairs are for the English, he is fond of remarking. Then I went home and I've never felt so lost and alone. Even Edgar and my room couldn't console me. I dreamed that night that we were on a boat, he and I, in some elemental region. The sea is the very last thing to go dark, he whispered to me. The sea is the very last thing to go dark.

, she has done something she is satisfied with, captured a little of the mysterious human form, managed to get beneath the fictional skin of pigment. I can rest. She has bought onion tartlets and beer from Les Deux Magots. I am delivered from this alpine weariness. We chew together.

“It is love, I suppose,” she sighs through lidless eyes.

“Well, yes.”

“It is always love in Paris. I came here to work in my atelier and produce great paintings, but I am surrounded by passion and distraction. The men next door share a prostitute every night for five francs. They told me. Even the air is sensual here, stiff with flower semen and the sound of insects mating. Filthy as a frying pan. Paris is an eroticised terrain. I see bodies all around but little soul. Do you think we can manage a bit of soul, Gwendolen Marie, in the next session?”

I doubt it. Not unless Rodin gets off his sickbed and carries it here in his pocket next to his copy of
The Divine Comedy
– or in his outstretched hands. Doesn't let it slip between his hummingbird fingers, doesn't peck it to death.



The phone rings. It's Adam. The fingers didn't lie, after all. Adulterous little piggies about to stuff down some roasty roast beef if they're lucky. I put on my husky-dog three-pack-a-day prince-in-the-throat just-got-a-cold voice.

“Oh, hi, Adam.” Like I'm surprised. Not.

Drew, who is combing Dove's hair on the sofa, laughs. Wanker.

“There's been a cancellation, so if Roan wants to come to art club today…”

“Ooh, yes, he'd love to, wouldn't you, Roan?” Roan, who is reading a
Star Wars
comic, nods vaguely. Drew shakes his head vigorously. “But I'm not sure if we can.”

“It doesn't matter if you're late.”

wants me. I can see his voice travelling down the telephone wires in a sparrowful of sound waves. I'm wide open like a half-formed letter

making the treasure chest the other day.”


Drew sniggers, and I look at the stain on the windowsill where the treasure chest sat for two hours at most. On the pavement opposite, Hellboy from number 5 is polishing his mother's brass door knocker, which he does at exactly the same time every day. He's forty-five years old. One day I saw him screaming in his car like a freakin' psycho. The sound waves looked like motherfucking bullets.

“The class goes on till four so it doesn't really matter what time you turn up.”

“Oh, okay.” We're making love on a telephone wire in full view of the sky. If one of us touches the ground we'll both get fried. I raise my feet an inch from the carpet and try not to see Drew shaking his head, violently now. He's spent all week trying to illuminate some godforsaken Miss-Havisham -detritus-of-a-life attic, filled with boxes of china teapots, photograph frames and school reports circa 1940, and he wants to stand upright, get some fresh air and exercise. On a day like this. With Yoda.
I know
. “Oh dear, I don't think we can make it today.” My wing touches a particle of dust. Yeeoow.

“Sure. Maybe next time.” Sound waves curl into italics, a sparrowful of ashes.

I take my place on the red chair we bought in an Ikea sale, which doesn't match the blue sofa we bought in a different Ikea sale. “He said it didn't matter if we're late.”

“Yeah, but still.”

“I could have taken Roan on my own.”

Drew laughs for the third time in five minutes. “No, you couldn't. You'd never find the way.”

And there it is. The unadulterated, very unadulterous, truth. Even if I wanted an affair, Drew would have to mastermind the whole thing from Googling the rendezvous to pronouncing on my outfit to plucking the hairs from my chinny-chin-chin, to pruning my bush into a pleasing topiary. I'm stuck in this marriage like a lump of toffee in his teeth. Which reminds me…

“Did you use xylitol instead of sugar in their cookies?”


“And did you put the sunflower seeds in and the spirulina and granular lecithin?”


I read library books on the subject of children's nutrition. I know all about the good stuff to protect against the bad stuff.

“Darth Maul's got a red lightsaber.” Roan looks up from his comic and his eyes remind me that we need to mow the lawn. “What does RRP 20.99 mean?”

“Has he? Oh, good. Drew, you need to mow the lawn.”

“No idea, son.” Winking at me.

I even hide vegetables in tomato sauce à la Annabel Karmel, make spinach pancakes, blueberry smoothies, tangerine sorbets, sprinkle ground almonds onto breakfast cereals. When it comes to the kids I'm head of this little corporation. And it's lonely at the top, sometimes, I can tell you. I can't even delegate without checking all the minutiae because Drew would forget his cock if it didn't have a mind of its own.

“Yoda's got monkey.”

“Drop it. Now.”


I don't even let them drink carbonated water because those little air bubbles erode tooth enamel, and Wales has the worst rate of tooth decay in the whole of the UK. Dulcie from number 5 is beckoning Hellboy in. I've never seen such massive hands on a woman. She must have given Hellboy's dad an inferiority complex when she wanked him off. “In you go, Mel. Your tea's on the brew and it's coming to rain.”

(Lesson number three. Do not be a toffee-sucking mother. Do not steal your kids' teeth enamel. Let them fly high over the telephone wires in a transcendental arc. Let them fly to Africa if they have to. However hard it is to let them go, let them go. Like swallows.)


Yoda, as we're calling the rescue puppy these days, simply because he did a massive green shit after eating two green felt-tip pens and his ears are starting to stick out at the oddest of isosceles triangle angles, is hightail-arseing round the room with Drew, Dove and Roan in luke-sky-warm pursuit. What kind of sick genetic mix is this? I ask myself. Collie humping spaniel humping setter humping Yoda humping dachshund humping poodle humping Jar Jar Binks. Monkey waves a felt paw from the jaws of a Cheshire cat grin and I watch Hellboy go back in, his shoulders sloping under the dead fucking weight of it all, the dead wait of it all, the love. I press my fingers to the pane and leave a perfect set of prints. I was here. I did it all. Guilty of everything. My breath creates a fully formed
, closed and sealed as clumsily as the body seals two frayed nerve endings without bothering to reconnect them first. Paralysed. Vicious. Round and round on the Circle line like the man who lost his job and went round and round on the Circle line until he met his wife going round and round herself. A line from a poem comes into my head – Louis MacNeice's “Snow”.
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses
. More than glass, yes, and if you tried to walk through glass you'd cut yourself to pink ballet ribbons. There'd be mopping up, bandages, collateral damage. And you'd never find the last few splinters of glass. They'd lodge in the carpet, on top of dust jackets ready to strike – icicle bright and snow-queen deep – like the scalpels that stab microlesions into the hearts and eyes of laboratory rats. Oh God, do you vivisect us all for the greater good? Prevent some disease in the stars and the galaxies? Is that the plan?

I get up, go into the kitchen, start the washing-up.


Orgasms/Fairy Knickers/The Language of Death

Peter Pan's wheelchair leans like a nonchalant bike against the rotten fence surrounding the ornamental pond. He's stuffing the bird feeder with the bread roll he pocketed at lunch. Yes, High View House has an ornamental pond – it's in the brochure – with two resident goldfish. I've only fathomed one.

Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden. On the wrists, behind the ears. The stephanotis approaches, divining her way forward with her stick. We sink into the bench bequeathed by a relative of someone who sat and sank. Soon the earth will envelop us, liquefy our hearts until, tired of her embraces, we will pop out somewhere else like a ghostly snowdrop or brittle laugh. I've wet myself again just thinking about laughing and the other orifice feels uncomfortably damp. I do ten Kegels – this is worse than post-partum – and thank heaven for plastic knickers. Headwear, footwear, underwear is my motto, though I no longer support the upper balcony. It lolls against my ribcage like my brain lolls in my skull, like students loll on the grass (though I'm quite sure my daughter never did, even at Cambridge), like Freckles' tongue used to loll out the side of his mouth. Better without, Tinkerbell says, in case of an emergency. What kind of emergency, I wonder? I was brought up to have clean underwear in case of an emergency, not no underwear at all. I have considered faking an emergency, however, faking an attack. Then they would have to visit. Well, I faked orgasms for forty years, there can't be much difference.
Ow ow ow.

“Not since Jerry Song broke it off with me,” the stepahanotis is whispering, “have I been so insulted.”


“The love of my life.”


“Eleanor said I was too fragile, though.”

“Broad-bodied chaser.” Peter Pan, all gravy and gravitas at lunch, is strangely ebullient now. It must be the lack of food. He's stalking a dragonfly with his binoculars. “Like a gigantic wasp. Copulation brief, mid-air.” He wants to know what the sausages were like. All gravy and gravitas, I tell him. He sighs. “In comics, the little boy always drooled over bangers sticking out of mash in those thought balloons.”

Satie is coming from the Blue Room. Three
. Sad, faltering, slow. How ironic. We sit in the sun yet still feel cold, and our dreams are old and diaphanous as a fairy's wing. Blue-veined. I can hear the tick-tock of Wendy's heart. Sad, faltering, slow. If the music were fast and furious we might just stand a chance.

Dear James
, I will scribble.
I was Coppélia last night. I soared, the crowd roared. But let me tell you, training to become a ballerina is not inconsequential. There is sweat, sweat and more sweat. Strains, breaks, agony, tears beneath the perfect veneer, the polished show. Imagine a swan gliding on the surface of a pond and then think of the little webbed feet paddling beneath. The unknown depths, the reeds, the water snakes, the snares. Paddling for dear life, just to glide. Is it worth it for that moment of soaring?

“Eleanor warned him off.” Wendy's in the light but still in the shade. “Of course she knew best.”

Too fragile, yes. We are all too fragile for what life has in store. Too diaphanous by half. Look at Peter Pan over there nibbling at some fungus growing from the rotten fence surrounding the ornamental pond where one widowed goldfish still lives. Fungus that looks like a pair of frilly knickers. He's chowing down on frilly knickers, the dirty bugger, like Freckles used to lick and slurp his own balls. He must be famished.

BOOK: Girl in Profile
11.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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