Authors: Zillah Bethell
I shrug, gaze about the room. The little interior so like my own: the round table, the teapot which from where I sit looks as if it has no spout, no phallic adornment, the paints, overalls, smock. How hard it is to create light and space for ourselves as women. I should like to paint so that the viewer has to work hard also to create light and space within my pictures. “My friend Ursula is an artist who lives with her parents. Sometimes she has to go into the middle of a field to scream.”
We must be ruthless. There is no place for family. Or love.”
I think of my father playing the organ every Sunday in Gumfreston, his foot firmly pressed on the tenuto pedal of grief. “If I could make a living out of my painting that would be a start. The rest I leave to others. But I think if I am left alone without distraction I can produce something good.”
“So. Let the pompous turd shake at his own wonder. Start to tremble a little at yours.”
Cunts and Flying Saucers
We trudge down the hill, Ro racing ahead with Mr Stinks. What a delight â a boy and his dog running through the countryside. Jamie whacks nettles with a big stick.
“If we had some string,” his voice gleams, “we could have a conker fight.”
“Absolutely not. No, no, no. We don't have any in the house.”
“Everyone has string. You must be mental.”
“Yes, we do have string.” Dove pulls me up. “In the drawer by the sink in the kitchen.”
“Oh, yes, sweetheart, we did. But Daddy took it to work this morning. Oh look, here's Cherry with her nana.”
Nana Rottweiler is hurtling towards us with a pram so shrouded in shawls and blankets it's impossible to discern its contents. Jamie and Max charge up. Even Roan and Dove peer in tentatively.
“Fucking hell.” Max steps back. “Have you been feeding her Bombay Bad Boy?”
“She looks veryâ¦” I fumble for a word like a stone in my pocket.
“Red?” Jamie offers, his magical eye travelling so fast I catch it with a grin.
“Well. She looks very well.”
“Teethin', innit. Little cunt. Kept me up half the night.”
“Oh dear. Well, we better get on. Lovely day for a walk.”
“For them what's got the legs.”
She puffs off and Ro falls in beside me, his face solemn.
“What does cunt mean exactly? I thought it was a swear word.”
“Mo's just saying she's a bit cheeky, a bit naughty.”
“No, not like Dove. Not at all.”
Jamie hits Mr Stinks with his stick. “Cunt's a fanny, knobhead.”
“Frou-frou,” I correct. “Don't do that. It could hurt him.”
“He likes it, see. He wants me to do it again.”
“No, he doesn't.”
“So there are lots of words for the same thing.” Ro's interest is piqued. “Why is that?”
“I don't know. I suppose it's how the language evolves.” I keep stumbling over the precipice of my own making. “Fanny in America, for example, means bottom.”
“Fanny, fuck, cunt, cunt.” Jamie gyrates his hips like he's having sex with an invisible nymph. I wonder suddenly if he's witnessed his parents at it or accessed some porno site. Luckily I'm distracted from these horrific mental images by Dove grabbing my arm and pointing.
“Look,” she squeaks, her eyes wide as flying saucers steeped in vodka. “Look.”
“Crudities and dip, Elizabeth. If they don't do the trick, we'll try a laxative.”
“Thank you.” I have a surprisingly muscular sphincter.
“Peter's on his way.”
Peter brings a record to play on the gramophone Minnie gave me for my sixtieth. Vintage kitsch. It's pink, wind up, and the stylus wobbles in a zigzag pattern over the grooves. Peter has to steady my hand. Beethoven's
. Sad, faltering, slow, but it makes a change from Satie. We chew splinters of courgette with jalapeno dip. Peter starts to sweat.
“Phew.” He smiles. “This is tropical heat.”
“Very good for Alzheimer's, so my daughter informs me.”
“Well, then, I must persist.”
I smile and listen to the man who conducts moonlight, makes the stars shimmy. Peter's face looks like it's about to catch fire.
“He was profoundly deaf by this time, of course,” he gasps. “The only music he heard was in his head. After a performance of his ninth symphony he couldn't hear the applause and, fearing there was none, he wept. Someone had to turn him around to see it. When he died there was a massive peal of thunder according to his doctor. I like to think it was God, shouting him a welcome. Making sure he heard the ovation. âWell done, Ludwig. In you come.'”
I giggle, nearly choke on a cauliflower floret. I haven't giggled in ten years and Peter knows it.
“Don't stand on ceremony, man. Get yourself in here.”
My cheeks ache.
“Everyone shout âLudwig'. One two three. Oh dear, he thinks we're saying earwig. Ludwig, get in here you deaf bugger. I haven't got all year. Christ, when I created a musical genius why the hell did I make him hard of hearing?”
My cheek muscles have gone, as has my sphincter muscle. Thank god for plastic knickers. The smell mingles with the smell of Peter Pan's colostomy bag, producing a new fragrance perhaps â vintage kitsch Minnie might call it.
“I love you.” His voice is unnaturally loud. Like Beethoven's probably. The man who made the stars shake. How shall I react? What word shall I choose to continue the narrative of our lives? In a selection box of words shall I keep the soft centres for last, leave the chewy ones unwrapped, go to the next layer?
“Yes,” I said in the past tense, remembering the moment hours later.
Note to Self
Stop thinking about carnal relations, or at least have carnal relations with someone other than R. Anyone other than R.
Letter to Augustus John
I escorted father round Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. It was a good visit. Then he went back to Wales. He's still much concerned about the weather and he still plays the organ every Sunday at Gumfreston.
I hope you are feeling a little better about Ida. I notice in your lyric fantasies you often depict her holding a bunch of violets not unlike the ones I sent on her deathbed. Strange how you take my ideas and present them as your own.
How is Dorelia? Do you still get her up in that ridiculous Romany attire? And does she still fulfil your romantic ideal or has she taken Ida's place completely now â flatfooted, earthbound, domesticated, babies grunting about her like pigs? Is she finding out how hard it is (as Ida did) to be wild and free yet still be able to nurture properly?
(Note to self â don't send this draft.)
We eke out the days, Peter, Wendy and me. The sunlight stretches like an ageing ballerina
, fearing the imminence of the final curtain. On Tuesdays we take tea al fresco on the bench by the ornamental pond. It's a small privilege allowed patients who are not completely delusional or dangerous. Cucumber sandwiches and scones, sometimes a pot of tea and jam. Peter Pan refuses any food that is pink or orange. His wife and the stains on her clothes put him quite off colour. A subdued palette, however, he eats with relish.
“Strawberries,” Tinkerbell announces, putting up the camp table in front of us and spreading a blue-checked tablecloth over it.
Peter makes a face.
“Maybe a glass of white wine.”
“As it's my birthday.”
Exclamations at this. How old can Nurse Tinkerbell be?
“Twenty-one is it? Twenty-one again?” Peter's attempt at chivalry goes a little astray.
“Will it interfere with my medication?”
“Oh, how lovely.”
The poor old crotchets and quavers stuck in the Blue Room with Satie floating around their heads.
“This is nice. A few boats on the pond and it's Henley Regatta.”
“Oh yes, Eleanor went every year with a French hamper and a bottle of bubbly.”
“Was it as wonderful as they say it is?”
“I don't know. I never went. I stayed back, looked after Bruno. Eleanor's cousin Rosemary once said, âDear Wendy, always so obliging.'”
“Destroying angel.” Peter Pan consults his book on
Common Toadstools of the Great British Isles
. He points to the rotting fence surrounding the ornamental pond. “Jelly ears, elfin saddles, hairy curtain crusts if I'm not mistaken.” He wheels away, waving. “I'm off in search of the rare
Wendy's on her tenth sip. I've been counting. “Sometimes I think I've spent my whole life obliging. Smiling and obliging.”
I catch up in sips. “I'm lucky if my son writes to me once a month. Some postcard from Nigeria where he's sorting out the Igbo tongue, whatever that is, after the mess the missionaries made. Never a âWhat's the weather like in Tenby, Mum?'”
“I hate to say it, but I don't think Eleanor always got it right. Jerry and I planned to be wed.”
Light glimmers on the veins in a leaf.
“Until she put her nose into that. We used to â¦ play ping-pong â¦ up on the roof terrace behind the hydrangeas. One time we were in the middle of â¦ ping-pong â¦ when there was a most dreadful smell. They were frying onions for the chow mein special. Jerry made a carefree, grandiloquent gesture up there on the roof terrace underneath the stars and said, âI shall let my wok burn.' It is something, isn't it, that a man let his wok burn for me.”
What a waste. All this life reduced to a pencil sketch of two old women on a bench. I surpass her in sips, drain my glass like a clown fish. “Definitely. Definitely something.” We giggle like schoolgirls, don't hear the soft split of the rotting fence as it gives way to Peter's wheelchair. Nor the deep plop as his body hits the water, submerges with barely a ripple like a perfect turd. The kind of turd that doesn't need toilet paper. Clean submarine. Our reminiscing hearts can't beat fast enough to save him. A pencil sketch of two old women on a bench, life and death going on behind them.
My Despair Over the Inexorable Nature of Time and How We Cannot Ever Go Back to That Moment When All Potential Was There, When It Wasn't Over
Why does it fret me so that we change and age? Why does it fret me so that we can't hold on to that one luminous moment?
In the middle of the off-road cycle track sits a fox like a shy red dog. When the sun hits its coat it could even be a golden retriever puppy. Mr Stinks is wagging his tail and sniffing him all over like he's thinking, yippee, fox shit to roll in soon.
“There's another,” breathes Dove, and sure enough a second fox limps out from behind a tree trunk to join the first.
“His brother,” Jamie asserts. “Have you got any rope?”
“Absolutely not.” I ignore the look on Dove's face. “We definitely don't have any rope.”
“You must be mental. Everyone has rope.”
“Ssh.” I put a finger to my lips. “We don't want to scare them. They shouldn't be out. Foxes are nocturnal. Does anyone know what that means?”
“They're zombies?” offers Max.
“It means they sleep in the day and come out at night. Something's wrong. Look how dazed and thin they are. This is a bit of an emergency, guys. We need to get home as fast as we can and ring the RSPCA. We've got a mission here.”
I'm surprised by the children's response. The words emergency and mission have galvanised them. They all turn on a ten pence and start moving. Even Jamie has a
look about him. That's all he really needs â a goal, a purpose. Something to dig his teeth into. (Enough of the Pot Noodles and porn.)
We speed back up the hill, overtaking Mo and fizzy pop Cherryade. I explain about the foxes as we pass.
“Vermin,” she calls after us. “If Gavin still had his gun, he'd shoot 'em.”
Dove starts to cry and I scoop her up for the last few paces. “Nobody's going to shoot them,” I tell her. “We're going to save them.”
A Ceaseless Rumba
I am Ondine tonight, the watery sprite. I arabesque from the sunless depths, take my first tentative steps on dry land. My body's chalk, the rocks are dust, grass is sharp as bait. I acquire a shadow from the burning light, receive air like rain, kiss my mortal lover on the lips. Drained of all life, he gasps like a fish. I've spent too long in the deep to frolic now in the shallows. Peter lies dead at my feet.