Read My Candlelight Novel Online

Authors: Joanne Horniman

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My Candlelight Novel (4 page)

BOOK: My Candlelight Novel
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She lived on sardines and tinned tomatoes and longed for Turkish delight. She missed us and she was lonely…

As I was lonely. And that was the truth, it really was. Even though I said I relished our walks (and I did!), when I got up early every morning and strapped Hetty into her pram and walked her across the river and then home again, I was lonely, lonely.

Not lonely for Hetty's father Marcus, not anymore, or even always especially for Kate – it was a loneliness of the light perhaps, as Kate said, or a loneliness of the world being so large and we just small people in it. Lonely, lonely, said the wheels of the pram under the silent misty early morning figs, lonely on the concrete path, lonely on the soft fallen leaves. The man who sang on the bridge at dawn knew lonely, so did the people who slept under it. All of us know what lonely is, and we accustom ourselves to it, but that does not stop the loneliness of the light and the world and all the people in it.

But in truth I walked not always unaccompanied. Sometimes Oscar Wilde (Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde) walked beside me, silent companion of the soul. I felt such an affinity with this witty and outrageous Irish playwright. If he was still alive, he would be more than one hundred and fifty years old, though he didn't even live to be fifty. He said once, ‘I have never learned anything except from people younger than myself', so I like to think he enjoyed my company. I always imagined him in a beautifully tailored long black coat with an astrakhan collar (astrakhan: horrible concept, made of the skin of young lambs – or worse, even
lambs – with wool like fur). But I'm working from wild surmise, as I don't truly know whether he wore astrakhan or not.

And as we walked, Oscar strewed flowers about him, gladioli and lilies.

And did the people of Lismore catch them and take them home?

Well, some thrust them aside angrily; some trod them underfoot, not seeing them (or indeed him, or even me and Hetty for that matter). But others caught them gladly and took them back to their manky kitchens and displayed them in old juice bottles, or in 1930s vases of indescribable ugliness inherited from their maiden great-aunts.

I had spent the autumn and part of that winter reading the works of the Brontës. Emily may have given us the archetypal soul mates in Catherine and Heathcliff, but Charlotte is my favourite. The life of feeling and passion was everything to her. She gave her heroines what she could never have in real life, and the undertones are so lustful I believe her books must be the sexiest ever written. I first read
Jane Eyre
at fourteen; that book is so depraved that it ought to be kept out of the way of impressionable young girls.

Hetty learnt to crawl while Lucy Snowe waited for her Professor in
. She tore the cover from
Jane Eyre
while I was reading
Wuthering Heights
. She chewed the spine of
and smeared butter and Vegemite over the portrait of Charlotte Brontë on the inside cover. Despite her propensity to destruction, and her frequent tears and grizzles, Hetty was a happy baby, and I think that is the most that one can hope for in babies, that pure and unself-conscious happiness which must surely be our natural state.

And while it seemed to me sometimes that I had a meagre life, and the often meagre lives of the women in the Brontë books shaded into and coloured my own, the richness did as well, the glory of being alive. I would get up at night and wander the house in my threadbare chenille dressing-gown the colour of old roses (and sometimes, it seemed, the scent of them as well), then go to the kitchen and sit and stare, my hands cupped around a bowl of hot chocolate (which somehow tastes best in bowls). Or I'd lie on my side with a book open next to me, and Hetty asleep in her cot nearby, while the wind wuthered around the house. And at those times I'd think how lucky I was, really. I had books and a baby and a room of my own and what else does a girl need?


my own question, a girl needs quite a lot, really.

A day or two after Kate's call, sick of doing nothing but reading and housework, I packed a bag with all the things Hetty might conceivably need, and prepared to go to the university. I had enrolled because I needed a qualification if I was going to be eventually able to support us both. I'd only decided on enrolling a little while ago, so I couldn't start until mid-year. But I wanted to go and get the feel of it all, and imagine myself there for the next few years of my life.

That day, I also squeezed into the already bulging bag things that
might conceivably need: a brand-spanking-new copy of
Madame Bovary
, an apple, and a bar of chocolate. Slinging the bag over the back of the pram, I pushed it to the bus stop. It was an unromantic Monday morning, one of those days when I noticed tiresome things like the scruffiness of people's sneakers and the way apple labels and chewing gum had been stuck onto the benches. While I waited for the bus I thought about the poetry of bus trips. Where, I wondered, was the poetry about young women with babies who must struggle onto buses (the hands-full juggle for the fare, the fold-up pram hooked over the arm, the baby spinning a web of drool over the mother's shoulder, the lurching progress up the aisle to fall down into a juddering seat, the other passengers staring at you as if this was
just what you deserved

The bus wound away from the shops and through suburban Lismore. I held Hetty on my lap and we both looked out the window, swaying gently with the movement of the vehicle. I thought how dull it all was: the fast-food places clustered on Ballina Road, the timber cottages set in inevitable gardens, and yet inside me there was a spark of anticipation. At the university the bus spat us out onto the footpath. Its doors sighed loudly as they shut, and it roared away, as though pleased to be rid of us.

The university looked like a fortress. The entrance had a boom gate and sentry box. I saw young people in cars trying to bluff their way in, attempting to drive closer to the top of the hill, but they were banished to the student car park at the bottom. Being on foot with a pram I was able to whisk past the grey-uniformed men unnoticed.

Buildings straggled up the hill, connected by winding paths. At the foot stood the Union building, and a plaza where people sat eating and drinking in the sun. Beyond that, I found a building that said
School of Contemporary Music
. Because Hetty's father Marcus was a musician, I've always exposed her to music in case she turns out to have an aptitude for it.

So I went in. There were sounds that you might have called music coming from various rooms, most of it hesitant or discordant, starting and then stopping. I went down corridors where people stood in little knots talking to each other, people with dreadlocks and glamorous ragged clothing that exposed glimpses of beautiful flesh. I felt like such an outsider. Everyone around me was purposeful; they knew what they were doing; they belonged. No one else toted a baby; no one else wore a pilled cardigan over a dress that had seen far better days (though in truth, I dressed that way deliberately to show that I was above such considerations as appearance).

I stopped to read the notices posted on the walls; most were lists of class groups. I read some of the names, trying to get a sense of the real people they must belong to. That boy over there in the long black tailcoat over torn jeans and bare feet – surely he couldn't have one of these ordinary names – such as the Michael Hart who did drums on Tuesdays at one p.m.? I saw a beautiful girl greet him warmly; as I watched them hug (it took a long, long time and involved much caressing of her smooth bare back) I felt a pang of sorrow. No one here knew me, nor would I ever be greeted in such a way.

I slunk away, feeling even more of an alien and an outsider. I pushed Hetty up the hill till I reached the building that said
School of Arts and Humanities
, which was where I had enrolled. The people there appeared to be even busier and more purposeful than the music students. I looked down at Hetty, who lolled back in her pram with her big toe in her mouth. She looked so delightfully unimpressed by her surroundings that I immediately picked her up and kissed her.

I found the library, bought a cup of tea from the cart outside, and sat in the sun with Hetty at my breast. Self-consciously, I took
Madame Bovary
from my bag and read, aware that no self-respecting university student would be caught dead with such a book. I had only just begun reading it, and at that stage thought that it was entirely delicious. I loved the bit where Emma Bovary licked the last drops of wine from the bottom of a glass with her tongue.

I finished my tea and, leaving the pram at the entrance, carried Hetty into the library. It was modern and airy and light; a stairwell in front of windows two storeys high had rainforest plants growing in it. A set of carpeted metal steps led to the upper floor. They were long, with gaps between the treads, the sort of stairs I knew I had to protect Hetty from falling down.

I made my way up those alarming stairs to the literature section, plopped Hetty onto the floor and started to browse. I soon had my arms filled with books – I was lost in a happiness of books – but when I thought to look at Hetty again she had disappeared.

The books fell from my arms, but I scarcely noticed. And the library became a place of danger.

The rows of shelves were ill-lit tunnels; I ran past them, scanning to left and right along the ranked metal shelving. The heavy door that led to the fire escape banged shut with a hollow, threatening echo. The doors of the lift made a noise like a sword cutting the air. I bumped into a man. His face loomed over my shoulder as I looked back without apology; the eyes bulged in his pale face.

I was sweating, but my legs and arms were chill. I think I forgot to breathe. My heart thrashed, but I willed my mind to stay clear. It was possible that someone might have found her, or worse, taken her. I would go to the front desk and ask them to keep a lookout for anyone leaving with her. I would demand a search party!

Then I remembered the airy, dangerous stairs I had come up, and I ran for them.

They came in view just as Hetty arrived at the top. She had an odd way of crawling – instead of going on her hands and knees she sat, and scooted along on her bottom, and had become incredibly fast.

I called to her, but she didn't seem to hear. She sat there, her neck as tender as a mushroom stalk, looking down the long drop as if considering what to do next. She made to move forward, but before I could get to her, a girl came leaping up the stairs two at a time and scooped her into her arms.

‘Is she yours?'

‘Yes,' I said. ‘Thank you. Oh thank you, thank you.'

‘It was nothing,' said the girl, smiling at Hetty and squeezing her on the foot before walking away with the sort of loose, insouciant stroll that should be set to music. With my heart singing (my baby was safe!) I went back and picked up the books I'd dropped all over the floor. Hetty belatedly decided to burst into tears; her hands probed into my dress for the comfort of a breast, so I sat on the floor between the shelves and fed her. Then I took my books down to the front desk.

‘Do you have a card?' asked the librarian.

I took my card from the city library out of my purse, knowing as I did so that it wouldn't be sufficient.

The girl at the desk had a pretty face and short brown hair so straight and beautifully cut that a poet could have written several sonnets to it. But when she saw the card I presented she looked as though she'd sucked a lemon. I thought it a waste that someone so pretty should feel so sour. She looked at my inferior library card as though she wanted to incinerate it with her breath.

‘It is forbidden to use this library without proper authorisation.'

I so wanted those books. There was one about the life of John Keats the poet, very promisingly thick, and so pristine I could tell that no one ever bothered to take it out.

‘I'll be a student here very soon,' I said, but she shook her head and dismissed me.

I thought that I should dump the books somewhere and slink away with my tail between my legs, but the girl who'd rescued Hetty, who'd been standing in the queue and must have seen it all, said quietly, as I passed her, ‘I'll get them out for you, if you like.'

I waited for her outside the library. In a while she came out and placed the books ceremoniously into my arms. ‘It is forbidden,' she intoned, and we laughed. I noticed that she herself had only borrowed a pile of CDs. ‘You have exactly two weeks,' she told me. ‘Don't get them back late – it's a dollar a day per item.'

I thought how trusting she was. She didn't even know me. And though I love them, I am notoriously bad with books – I lose them, I give them away, they fall apart willy-nilly under my fingers. I allow Hetty to eat them.

‘My name's Sophie O'Farrell,' I told her, in case she should need to chase the books up. ‘And I live in a boarding house called Samarkand – you know that big old house down near the river?'

She nodded.

She had long, dark, perfectly flat hair tucked behind ears that were small and delicate and had almost no lobes. She dressed like a certain kind of boy, in plain jeans and T-shirt, and along with the CDs she carried a slim case that might have contained some tool or other.

‘And my baby's called Hetty.'

‘Hetty,' repeated the girl with a smile. Ever alert to her name, Hetty looked up and took her fingers out of her nose.

‘And I'm Becky Sharp,' said the girl, holding out her hand.

‘Really!' I exclaimed. We stopped, and I took the hand, which was long and slender, and very cool.

‘What is it about my name? You're not the first person who seems to think it's remarkable.'

‘Becky Sharp's the heroine of a famous nineteenth-century novel,' I said, ‘called
Vanity Fair
. And she was the author of her own life, a wonderful thing to be, don't you think? She made sure it was an audacious and adventurous life, too. Full of surprises.'

BOOK: My Candlelight Novel
11.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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