Authors: Joanne Horniman
I could also have added that her namesake was beautifully manipulative and self-serving. She had to be, as she was an orphan, like me, and had no mama to arrange a marriage for her. She had to fend for herself.
âI like the sound of her,' said Becky Sharp. âBut I don't read novels. I play the flute.'
I wanted to point out that surely these two things weren't mutually exclusive, but she had been kind to me. We'd been walking down the hill all this time, and when we got to the car park at the bottom she said, âD'you need a lift?'
Becky Sharp's car was low-slung and old and iridescent green; it looked like an enormous frog. It was an old CitroÃ«n, she said, a CX. She stowed the pram in the back and opened the passenger door for me. Then she went around and folded herself into the driver's side. Becky Sharp's arms and legs were so soft and pliable they seemed almost boneless. And every part of her matched. With limbs like that, it was fitting that she had those adorable little lobeless ears and a tiny rounded nose so flat she looked almost like a painting by Modigliani. And her eyes were slightly slanted, and her mouth a veritable rosebud, with a protruding lower lip. I wanted to reach out and touch her.
She saw me watching her and smiled. Turning on the ignition, she pressed a lever, and the car lifted itself up like an animal about to pounce. âPneumatic suspension,' she explained.
As the green car slid out of the university car park, I felt a great sense of triumph. I had penetrated the fortress of the university and had come away in style, with an armful of forbidden library books and a girl named Becky Sharp.
The ride was very companionable. She put on a CD of Beth Orton (I gave her top marks for good taste in girl singers) and I retrieved the chocolate from my bag and gave her half. We laughed a lot, though I can't remember quite what we said, and arrived at Samarkand far too soon.
Gliding home in that car with its all-out, old-fashioned shabby elegance would stay with me for a long time. And the way Becky Sharp left her green frog car purring in front of Samarkand and ran slender-hipped up the stairs with Hetty's pram and down again to drive off with a wave of her hand, that stayed with me too.
FTER PERSISTING ALMOST
to the end of the book, I found that I
hated Madame Bovary
! Oh, some of the words were captivating, but who was she? this young wife of a country doctor living in a place called Yonville (Yawnville). She was a wraith, an absence, a giant hole in the middle of a lot of wonderful description. I thought that this
(you pronounce it Flo Bear, which always puts me in mind of a bear in a mob cap and apron in a children's book), this Flo Bear might have thought the world beautiful but he didn't much care for the people in it. Everyone in the book was awful, and I thought he did Emma Bovary an injustice in portraying her as soâ¦
! It was one of the few books I have been unable to finish. It made me want to chew on my wrists in frustration. It curdled my milk and gave Hetty indigestion, and I flung it across the room and paced the verandah with my hair and eyes wild. Because I knew what happened in the end (she dies, she dies, she dies â which seems the fate of every fictional adulteress), and I couldn't bear the tedium of getting to it.
I was sick of being spinsterish and bookish and alone. And all that wanting and wanting and not-getting that women since time immemorial have accepted as their lot â it was a bore in real life.
So I whiled away my time, waiting to go to university. I often didn't bother getting dressed, and lay on my bed reading, my dressing-gown tied with an old silk scarf of Lil's. In this garb I would venture out to change the sheets on the guests' beds, heaping them on the floor outside the bedrooms, and then forgetting all about them in the imperative of feeding or changing Hetty. I baked chocolate cake and ate it with peppermint tea on the back steps late at night while Hetty slept. I piled my hair up on top of my head and used chopsticks to pin it, then took it down again and let it flow over my shoulders. I dyed one of my nursing bras purple; the effect was so frightful that I had to go to the bridge and toss it into the river at the first opportunity. I washed the dinner dishes late at night whilst listening to music turned up LOUD (
Patti Smith!) until some guest or other came to ask me to turn it down. All my favourite singers were girls. I was living a life of indolent voluptuousness interspersed with necessary drudgery. Like Emma Bovary, I was waiting for something to happen.
I returned Becky Sharp's books on time, and hoped to run into her at the library again, but of course I didn't.
Then one day I took Hetty for a walk to the local library where they were having a sale, and I went on a book spending-spree, and all I spent was two dollarsâ¦for ten books! And they were all in fairly good condition â not great, but the words were all there, and besides, I love old books.
My favourite was
The Bay of Noon
, by Shirley Hazzard, and I read it that very night. It was a wonderful watery book, full of dappled light. It was a paperback thirty years old, the pages brown and dry and drifting away from the spine like autumn leaves from a tree. It felt weightless when I held it in the palm of one hand. It was a mere scrap of a book, like a fruit peel, or a small bird, softly breathing. But through that novel I knew what it was like to live in an apartment on the Bay of Naples after World War II, to have a friend who was a sophisticated older woman, and to become involved with a man who was my friend's lover. And to see it, as the narrator did, all with the benefit of hindsight, sadly, nostalgically, because it was all in the past. I wondered if there would ever be for me a time like that, when I could look back on my life with acceptance and wisdom.
There was one part in particular I liked, on page 91, and I marked it for future reference. When Jenny, the narrator, goes to Gianni's flat, she says:
I don't think I ever saw all the rooms in Gianni's flat. When I said this to him he answered, âIn Italy one should try to have some rooms one doesn't have to enter. Like undeveloped aspects of one's personality.'
Some nights, unable to sleep, I wandered barefoot through Samarkand's shadowy rooms. It was a house where the inside and the outside blended seamlessly, where rooms led onto broad verandahs and Nature was so close that the place seemed barely civilised. Mango leaves encroached through the windows, and bats squabbled in the branches outside. I would come across a green tree frog making its way across the bare wooden floor in search of cockroaches, or a mouse scuttling through a doorway, or a surprised-looking guest coming back late at night to encounter me, looking, I am quite sure, like the madwoman in the attic.
I felt that Samarkand must have captured something of every person who had ever been there â a molecule of breath, an atom of sloughed skin, an eyelash that had drifted into a seam in the upholstery, the echo of a voice, the insubstantial shimmer of a dream. I think that was what I was looking for, all the secret and unknowable things.
I imagined a hidden room that smelt faintly of oriental lilies, with faded rose wallpaper, a Persian carpet and an aspidistra that remained mysteriously watered. Because houses are like people, they have areas that remain mysterious, and that might never be known, no matter how you search.
At the end of that winter it rained, softly at first and then with a roar, driving fiercely onto the verandahs and pounding the house. Loose roofing iron clapped a rhythm to the deluge.
I love rain. You might have said that I was in my element. Hetty tugged at my breast, and it was sweetly satisfying, the way she stripped the milk from me. It was at that time, too, that my belly felt the pull of the moon and I menstruated for the first time since she was born. All of the liquid within or without me was in flux. One afternoon I went onto the verandah and saw that the river had broken its banks. Logs and debris rushed past on the brown water. Soon Samarkand would again be surrounded by floodwater. The old house yearned for it, I could tell, as if to be beset by flood was its natural condition.
Lil stood on the verandah watching. âWe'll be swept away!' she predicted, her eyes bright. The old drama queen! I knew that in the entire history of the place, floodwater had never come into the house.
But two of our guests decided to go to an evacuation centre that had been set up. The other two elected to stay. They were an Indian man named Dev and a woman called Pagan, who told us she was a Poet. She was pale and thin and freckled, with skimpy red hair, and I wished she was not quite so vapid-looking; she would give poets a bad name. Dev had flashing dark eyes and giggled a lot, and the two were almost each other's opposite in colouring and demeanour. They'd apparently not previously met, but I saw them later in the living-room together sipping tea. Pagan was reading his palm. There had developed a feeling of camaraderie brought on by the impending flood. The place felt like a houseboat.
Then we became more than a houseboat. We were an Ark!
First a dog arrived, just as the water started lapping at the bottom steps. She was a young border collie, thin and wet and shivering. I towelled most of the water from her fur, and as we had no dog food, I gave her some bread and butter and the bone from the previous night's leg of lamb, which she carried with her wherever she went.
Then, when water entirely surrounded the house, we acquired a small, dun-coloured domestic duck, who paddled up when the water reached its highest point, just below the level of the bottom floor. She came on board with a great flapping of wings and shaking of tail feathers, and then stood looking out at the flood as if she couldn't believe it (imagine a duck horror-stricken by the sight of water!).
It was strange and wonderful to be in a house that was lapped at by water and shut off from the rest of the world. Hetty sat on the bed listening to it with a look of awe and amazement on her face. And she was right to be awed â we were being visited by an act of the gods (which ones? I imagined the Greek ones â gods plural â gods multifarious and melodramatic).
The little border collie crept in (with her bone) through the open French doors of my room. She crouched at the entrance, and when I smiled at her she crept closer, and huddled on the floor near the bed.
I wondered who she was, and if anyone owned her.
I decided, in the meantime, to call her Tess.
We had two nights of being water-bound.
We don't usually serve any meal other than breakfast to our guests, but in the circumstances we could hardly starve them. And Dev turned out to be an inspired and enthusiastic cook. He took over the kitchen, and was wonderfully inventive with the various ingredients we had in store. Dev was short for a long polysyllabic name he refused to divulge on the grounds that we would never be able to pronounce it; his ethnicity may have been the reason he came up with delicious curried pasta dishes (we had no rice).
Cooking seemed an alien occupation to Pagan. She arrived in the kitchen to read out the collection of haiku about the flood she'd spent all day scribbling in her room, but Dev halted her after the first couple by holding up an imperious hand in the
âPagan, dear,' he said. âCould you possibly de-seed this cucumber for me? Never mind â I'll show you how. And in
bowl I want you to whisk up this apricot yoghurt â I'm afraid that's the only yoghurt we seem to have â and then over
there is a little pan for toasting coconut â¦'
I left them to it. Lil's friends kept ringing to see if she was all right, so she was seldom off the phone. The rest of the time she stood on the verandah wrapped in her big brown cardigan, smoking and drinking cup after cup of tea.
The sun came out and the rain stopped, but the river didn't recede. A boat came to check on us and asked if we needed anything, or whether any of us wanted to leave. Lil told them that we were staying put, and asked for a cask of red wine. I asked for some food for Tess, and after a while they came back with several cans of Pal and bread and milk (but no wine). With her tummy full of food, Tess was very happy. She set herself up next to my bed and thumped her tail and smiled whenever I looked at her.
The duck was also quite content and stayed most of the time on the verandah with Lil, looking out at the flood. She ventured inside once to see what the rest of the house was like, leaving a trail of sloppy droppings, and hissed at me when I tried to shoo her out. I fed her on rolled oats and pearl barley and lettuce leaves.
Kate rang â she'd seen pictures of Lismore in the newspaper, with houses standing like islands in brown rushing water. She wanted to
here, and take part in the excitement of it all.
From the verandah, all you could see was muddy, swiftly flowing water and trees bowing under the weight of it. Logs and rubbish shot past. Lone belly boards surfed the rapids. A gutted refrigerator sailed majestically downriver on its back. A dead cow drifted by. Magpies sat in the tallest trees and looked down on it all, silent for once.
There's a smell that a flood gets, of earth and rotting vegetation, spicy and sweet and rotten at the same time, like an exotic soup. Afterwards, everywhere stinks of it, and there's a layer of silt over everything. You still find evidence of it months later â dried encrustations of mud on leaves or grass, and debris caught on fences and high in the branches of trees.
HE DUCK SET
sail one morning. The water level had dropped, and she hopped carefully down to one of the lower steps, shook her tail, leaned forward to take a sip and paddled away. Later, when the water fell still further, Tess ran down and inspected the muddy, grassy area in front of the house. I half expected that, like the duck, she would keep going, but after sniffing around for a while she ran back up the steps and laid her nose in my hand.