Authors: Joanne Horniman
I brought back the tea and we sat there sipping it. Finally, Maggie Tulliver leaned over and tipped the last of hers into the mint, and it seemed to be a signal that she was leaving. Impulsively, I said, âHow about I cook you dinner some time?' (As I've said, we don't, as a rule, serve dinner to our guests.)
She said, âThat'd be nice.'
âHow about tomorrow night?' I knew Lil planned to be out with friends, so we'd have the kitchen to ourselves.
That night I took Hetty into bed with me. She had a cot, but I often slept with her beside me. I listened to her murmurs that were so like the words she couldn't yet say when she was awake. I wondered what colours her dreams contained, and whether she was remembering or imagining. I loved the solidity of her presence, and the intensity with which she slept. I loved it that when I woke in the morning she was often staring right into my face.
HE NEXT TIME
I left Hetty at child care, I wondered where my normally sunny-natured child had gone. Surely the fairies must have been, and substituted a changeling with a foul temper in her place. I stood and watched helplessly as she went purple with fury, bubbles of spit and snot all over her face.
Her screams rent the air so rudely that other mothers looked askance.
âJust go,' said Jill. âShe'll be fine.'
The lecture hall was a refuge. The murmur of voices, the soft carpets, the discreet lighting, the cushioned seats and the air of calm expectancy made me relax. Already, I belonged there a little more than I had the last time. I dropped a pen, and the person in the seat near me retrieved it. He noticed my page of shorthand scrawl. âNifty!' he said with a smile.
That day the lecture was on
I learned that one female critic at the time said that if she had been Jane Eyre she'd have
Rochester because of his deceit (whereas
impulse would have been to run off and live in sin with him since he wasn't legally free to marry).
The lecturer spoke of the sadomasochistic forces at work in
, the cruelty Jane was subjected to, how she was like a caged bird. I took notes dutifully, as most students do. She suggested that her spirit was corrupted by the cruelty.
Abandonment, loss, defencelessness
, were the words I scrawled in shorthand on my pad in the interests of scholarship, as though these were mere words and had nothing to do with me.
She finished up with this quotation from the book, the part where Jane is locked in the fearsome red-room:
âBesides,' said Miss Abbot, âGod will punish her: He might strike her dead in the midst of her tantrums, and then where would she go? Come, Bessie, we will leave her: I wouldn't have her heart for anything. Say your prayers, Miss Eyre, when you are by yourself; for if you don't repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney and fetch you away.'
âI'll leave you with that,' said the lecturer, with a smile that came close to sadism. She closed her book.
Something came over me. I was a child again, and had been left alone in an empty flat, thinking I must have done something wrong to deserve it.
Getting to my feet, I pushed in front of people in my urgency to get away. I found myself crying (crying! I never cry!) as I raced down the paths through the university to the childcare centre. I thought only of Hetty, of how alone, how abandoned she must feel. Her screams had been heartfelt, and real.
When I reached the centre, Jill led me through to where Hetty was; her gestures cautioned me to observe quietly.
And there was my baby, sitting in the middle of a cluster of children. A little boy of about three was talking to her, and she was smiling at him and drooling, so clearly charmed by his conversation that she was lost in it. He leaned forward and gave her a hug; she squealed and grabbed him by the ears in her joy. She sat there in her old-fashioned white nightie with embroidered flowers round the neck, looking exquisitely happy.
I left without her even noticing I'd been there, and went to the library, where I sat and looked over my notes from the lecture:
abandonment, loss, defencelessness
That was the night I'd offered to cook for Maggie Tulliver. I'm not a natural cook, unlike Kate, who can turn the compost heap in our laughingly named vegetable crisper into a feast.
But I was happy, frying onions and garlic, chopping vegetables and finding all kinds of interesting flavourings in the cupboards. The main course was a kind of vegetable stew, with tinned tomato soup to start (with a dollop of sour cream), and Kate's dessert specialty for afterwards. (For the record, it's a sheet of frozen puff pastry with the edges crimped up, with sliced raw apple, brown sugar and cinnamon piled on top, then baked to caramelised perfection. I've heard that some people like a few recipes in a novel, so be my guest. Cook away!)
I fed Hetty while I was cooking. She was tired after her day at child care, and afterwards I put her to bed in our room. Then I sat with Tess at my feet in the kitchen and waited for Maggie Tulliver.
And she never turned up! At the point where I knew she was never going to appear I reheated the soup, because despite my humiliated, stood-up feeling, I was very hungry. After I'd eaten, I went to my room and seethed. I imagined a Maggie Tulliver doll, which I could stick pins into. Then I told myself it didn't matter. What was one dinner, in a whole life of dinners?
One of these days you'll laugh about it.
Isn't that what people said? I didn't think I would, as there was nothing funny in the situation at all. One of these days, I would simply forget about it.
I heard Lil arrive back while I was trying to get to sleep. There was a great slamming of car doors and raucous laughter as her friends dropped her off. The conversations those old women had late at night after a few drinks would make a Russian sailor blush!
Much later, I heard footsteps that might have belonged to Maggie Tulliver. I thought it ridiculous that I should be nursing hurt pride over someone I barely knew. But there it was, sitting in my chest like a stone.
, Maggie Tulliver apologised casually for forgetting the dinner. She had clean forgotten, she said. I replied that it hardly mattered; that I myself had almost forgotten she was coming, but inside I still nursed my humiliation. I made a vow to have nothing to do with her in future.
It was a non-uni day, so I did housework and read my lecture notes. That is a sentence filled with dull despair, if ever there was one. By the afternoon, when I took Hetty and Tess out for a walk, I was filled with discontent with my life, which seemed flat and predictable. The weather had turned blustery and cold. Everything that day was grey. I had to get a few things from the supermarket, but first, in an attempt to cheer myself up, I called in at the city library and borrowed one of my favourite books from the stack.
The stack is one of those no-go areas of the library that the librarians disappear into and emerge with the item you requested. In the case of our city library, this is not because the books are special, but because they're so old and tattered that no one ever reads them. I suspect it's the last stage before they get chucked out.
The book I requested was
Oscar Wilde, Selected Works
, edited by a Richard Aldington in 1946
It was clear from his preface that Mr Aldington disapproved strongly of Oscar Wilde's personal life, and didn't even appear to like his writing very much. I was surprised that he even bothered to edit the book. But as it contained writing that I hadn't seen elsewhere, I was thankful that he had.
So by 1946, Oscar Wilde still hadn't been forgiven, though he'd died at the turn of the century. Through his drama, he exposed the hypocrisy of late Victorian life; at first people loved him for it, and then they turned on him. He was imprisoned for his homosexuality, made a scapegoat really, and prison destroyed him, it really did â his spirit and his health. And then when he was released he was so reviled and shunned that he exiled himself to Paris, where he died soon afterwards.
I wonder if he ever had an inkling that long after he was dead, there would always be people who embraced and loved him? Perhaps he did. âIf one tells the truth,' he said, âone is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.'
Putting the book into my bag, I made my way to the supermarket. Despite getting my hands on a favourite book, I was in a particularly sour mood. After the gloom outside, the supermarket seemed supernaturally bright, a cacophony of clattering trolleys, muzak and voices. I emerged thinking that you would need to be a poet to find anything lovely about Lismore that day.
You find this ugly, I find it lovely
â didn't Kenneth Slessor write that about William Street in Kings Cross? And William Carlos Williams wrote about white chickens and red wheelbarrows and rainwater; he wrote about broken green glass in the cindery earth behind hospitals.
Even William Carlos Williams would have been hard-pressed to find anything to write about in Lismore that day.
As I walked, I saw that the hill above the town was filled with really awful houses, and the Worker's Club, all brick, had not a window in it. Next to it was an enormous new motel painted a particularly ugly magenta. I passed depressed-looking people in trackpants and thin polar-fleece jackets, ugly businessmen in ugly suits, and every second person was talking into a mobile phone. With disgust I noted service stations, all concrete and garish signs, car yards, and a pitiable dead pigeon in the gutter.
And then we came to the filthy, weed-infested river, which I crossed on a bridge I don't often use. On the other side of the bridge was a roundabout with a fake windmill, and an old timber structure stuck in the middle of it. Here the houses were old (usually I like that) but their peeling paint that day was particularly depressing. Other old houses had been done up, but in such an ugly way that it was worse than neglect. The defunct railway line was surrounded by dry, weedy grasses. I saw galvanised-iron sheds with gravel surrounds, so stark that I wanted to fall weakly to my knees in despair. Then more car yards, dog shit in gutters; a man who was unravelling in every conceivable way rode a bicycle with a milk crate on the back, the pavements were cracked, and there were cars everywhere.
I hated all of it.
And then I came to the stone lions.
They were at the entrance to a small park next to the old railway station. The park had a couple of shade trees, some swings, and neatly mown grass. It was fenced with timber palings painted in heritage colours, cream and brown and dark green â all ugly colours, especially when put together like that.
The lions stood on either side of the gateway; and sat on all fours on top of small concrete plinths, in a classical lion pose. They, too, were made of concrete, and had been painted cream once, but the colour had almost all worn away. They were such small lions, no bigger than a cocker spaniel, with nothing majestic about them. Their blunted muzzles were chipped and worn.
I sat down on the back of one of the lions and reached into my bag, retrieving the book I'd borrowed. I turned to my favourite bit, a letter that Oscar Wilde had written to his mother from Venice:
After dinner we went to the theatre and saw a good circus. Luckily a wonderful moon â we landed from our gondola coming from the theatre at the Lion of St Mark. The scene was so romantic that [? it] seemed to be an artistic scene from an opera. We sat on the base of the pillar â on one side was the Doge's Palace, on the other the King's Palace â behind us the campanile â the water steps crowded with black gondolas â and a great flood of light coming right up to us across the water â every moment a black silent gondola would glide across this great stream of light and be lost in the darkness.
I closed the book, and sniffed with shameful self-pity. It all sounded so beautiful. And look at where
was! Lismore was not Venice, and it would never be.
The Lion of St Mark
The Doge's Palace.
It sounded so grand.
But Oscar wasn't trying to make people feel envious. What surrounded him was wonderful, and he
that it was.
And then it struck me why I loved Oscar Wilde so much. The fundamental spirit in his work is joy. I thought of his lovely plays, and the way they made me laugh.
âI like to keep a diary. It gives me something sensational to read on the train.'
Something gave way inside me. I looked at Hetty.
didn't hate our surroundings; she liked going for walks, and was looking about with interest. Tess, too, seemed happy to be out and about. She sat wagging her tail at me.
I looked across at the battered little concrete lion, companion of the one I sat on, and felt huge affection for it. It wasn't the Lion of St Mark. But it was
lion. Across the road I could see a service station, a tattoo parlour, a butcher shop, a laundromat, and Dr Dirt of Dunoon (Dirt Bike Specialist).
I loved it all.
And at the edge of my vision, as if he'd been conjured by my love for the place where I lived, was Oscar. Very tall, in a long coat, he stood watching me.
With a camera?
Of course, it wasn't Oscar Wilde, it turned out to be the boy I'd met with Becky Sharp in the cafÃ© that day. I stood up.
âWhat are you doing?' I called out indignantly, hands on my hips like a fishwife, and my voice as shrill.
The boy slung the camera over one shoulder and approached me.
âYou're Sophie, aren't you?' he said, holding out his hand.
âI'm Lawson. We met the other day?'
âI remember,' I told him, whisking Hetty out of her pram. She'd started to grinch at the sound of my furious voice.