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Authors: Zillah Bethell

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Seahorses Are Real

BOOK: Seahorses Are Real
11.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
  1. Title Page
  2. Dedication
  3. The Little White Horse
  4. Part one: Fairies, feathers and Quality Street
  5. One
  6. Two
  7. Three
  8. Four
  9. Part two: Between Scylla and Charybdis
  10. Five
  11. Six
  12. Seven
  13. Eight
  14. Nine
  15. Part three: Larger than gods, louder than gods
  16. Ten
  17. Eleven
  18. Twelve
  19. Thirteen
  20. Part four: Arwen and Elessar
  21. Fourteen
  22. Fifteen
  23. Sixteen
  24. Seventeen
  25. Eighteen
  26. Nineteen
  27. Dearest David
  28. About the Author
  29. Acknowledgements
  30. Copyright

Zillah Bethell


are real

For Mark

She knew that one day, whe
n she was a very old woman, she would dream this dream for the last time, and in this last dream of all she would see the little white horse, and he would not go away from her. He would come towards her and she would run towards him, and he would carry her upon his back away and away, she did not quite know where, but to a good place, a place where she wanted to be.

The Little White Horse

Part one: Fairies, feathers and Quality Street


At the edge of the town there are tulips and pretty cottages, bright fences and small dogs, foxes and wild rabbits. There is a quarry where boys fish and herons sit hunched like old men in overcoats or open their wings and fly in slow motion.
On the hills towards Farningham you can sometimes see a horse silhouetted against the sky or a tractor going up and down the fields in pyjama stripes. There were orchards
long ago – before the motor­way – around the woods at Farningham. Apple trees and pear trees apparently. The boys would sit beneath the trees and watch the dogfights – they didn't get much schooling. It's a cricket ground now and a model aero­plane club on Saturdays. You couldn't hear a sound in the orchards long ago.

St Margaret of Antioch rises up, like a medieval hat, into the flight path of birds and Boeings heading for Heathrow, dreams and prayers heading for God. There are many soldiers buried here and one Anna Czumak, who suffered much in this life. You can see the Dartford bridge on a clear day, straddling the Thames and the boats that have come from Gravesend, though they no longer sail for the Holy Land. At night it looks like a fairground attraction – a giant Ferris wheel or even a Christmas tree. If you followed the Darenth River to the Thames you would eventually come to the sea. If you follow the Darenth River through Sutton at Hone, past the tulips and pretty cottages, bright fences and small dogs, foxes and wild rabbits, you eventually come to the trade park where cars are dumped, like rusty old dinosaurs, for fun and for birds to make nests in. Crows' feet lead along the track beside the lake where you have to beware of Bohemia's ghost repenting poisoning her lover with agrimony and meadow saffron; of lines and mermaids' hair full of fish eyes, hooks and cut-glass confetti; trees laden with graffiti (‘I like it firm and meety'); and last but not least the old Canterbury road where many pilgrims must have trailed in search of an ever-receding god. To the park where Leslie Finch sits watching the kids and waiting for a bus, though he never takes one; where Rasputin strides tall and tyrannical with his tiny pink haversack; and Pegleg Pete hops around collecting snails (He was in the war!) in plastic carrier bags. Gentlemen and old ladies congregate in the shrubbery per diem for a whiskey mac and a packet of nasturtium seeds while gardeners bend over hollyhocks, chrysanthemums, primulas and old bones and the library sits with its unkempt shelves next to the public lavatories and a memorial for the dead.

There are directions here for a Sikh temple that has never been found by its worshippers, Talk of the Town (How much can you handle, boys?), the Emmanuel Pentecostal and a Tudor church. In ancient times (mainly Tudor), so the saying goes, an old hermit sat with his back to the church and helped travellers across the ford. He was a pilgrim of a sort. He doused and sang and waited by his billabong – they must have washed their clothes in the Darenth too – and now Waltzing Matilda sits feeding the ducks and if you do not look at her too close or speak to her too long you cannot tell that she is mad. The Emmanuel Pentecostal is always full on Sundays and they park quite hazardously round the launderette on East Hill, where there was once a Peasants' Revolt in 1382 due to unfair tax and impoverished conditions; where the cemetery sits above the steeple because ‘Dartford people are the strangest people and bury their dead above the steeple'; and Marly stood with her hand on Umfreville's tomb, wondering at what bad luck people had.

Somebody had fallen asleep in the lap of God, another had swapped time for eternity. Two or three were remembered in the grave while a party of six had tragically died yachting off Greenhithe. One more, unlucky man, had had a son die in the Darenth and another in the Tebekwe. Blessed husband, loving son, beloved wife, precious one and only... a jam jar upturned, two withered flowers, an evergreen wreath and a florist's loopy card – each grave its own universe. What a story each could tell, Marly thought, and her fingers sought the tip of the shopping list she had come across suddenly, unexpectedly, in her mother's coat pocket, like an odour blown on the wind: awakening long-forgotten memories, memories that haunt the edge of dreams, her mother's ashes on the breeze. Milk, two bread, orange juice, fish. They would have had cod in white sauce for supper that night, for sure. Ivy, ever pristine. Between Scylla and Charybdis. Between a rock and a hard place. That's what her gravestone would have said: Ivy, ever pristine, between Scylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place.

Marly blinked away the tears and craned her long neck up at the horse chestnut trees. Horse chestnut trees
were trees of death, trees of death and varicose veins apparently, of conker fights and bonfire nights, supper and ashes, seeds and ashes. Seeds and ashes on the breeze. How beautifully, how perfectly they popped out of their prickly lime-green pods – a deep, rich, varnished mahogany – and yet how quickly they were tarnished or bashed in playground fights, hardened little warriors hot-roasting in the oven. Tough little pipsqueaks with grey socks and cold sores. Marly moved like an automaton along the concrete path, mentally ticking off the register – Ruth Kemp? Here miss. Charles Messenger? Here miss. Patience Penn? Here miss. Clara

Weaver? Here Miss – and a class of old bones grinned back at her, except for Ivy, of course. Ivy Smart? Absent miss. Absent due to death. Marly Smart? Absent miss. Absent due to her complaint. Her complaint! What a ridiculous word. What a limited dictionary those doctors had, to be sure.

She cracked her knuckles in the open air. To be sure, that was the thing. To be sure of being loving and beloved, unconditionally loving and beloved like the fairytale books of happy ever after, the childhood imaginings of tall dark handsome strangers, the fizzy sweets you sucked and read: ‘Blue Eyes', ‘My Heart', ‘Pretty Lips'.

They had lied, of course, the fizzy sweets and the fortune fish. The fizzy sweets had lied! The fortune fish had lied! You sucked and sucked and read and read and it didn't get you anywhere. Might as well be back in the pram, her friend Helen had said; and it was true that life did not progress in a linear fashion nor was it predictable, though Marly read her stars each week and desperately tried to make them fit. You could regress way past the pram, way past birth, until you were seeing through the eyes of your father, your mother, even your grandmother. It was a horrible fact but true. Things shattered in through the wallpaper, breaking your world apart until you were on your knees, on your back, paws up and begging at the sky, like the fox she had seen on the motorway, dead and begging at the sky. It was a makeshift life, they should have said, the fizzy sweets and the fortune fish, a rickety thing built on the sands of disappointment, disillusion, even tragedy; a jumper of loose ends, knit on the needles of
terror and the French Revolution with wool the cat got
hold of first. Ever shrinking, ever stretching, in colour
co-ordinations even Ariel couldn't fix. Lumping up like
porridge when you needed it most – home-made, no treacle – porridge even the bears would have left, let alone Goldilocks. Goldilocks was an imagined fact, for children. Adults and bears got on with the burnt leftovers, the bread and scrape of days.

It didn't really matter, Marly thought, sprawled against the cemetery wall and watching two boys playing with a large yellow ball like a dirty full moon, that your eyelids got a little creased – she could cover them with iridescent blue shadow; that your hair became a little thin – she could sweep it over to one side; that your feet were worn and calloused – she could wrap them up in thick stockings and pink stilettos (she had always wanted pink stilettos); it didn't even matter that your mind got a little strained now and again – she could dose it up with paracetamol and Oprah Winfrey shows. But when your head had left you for the body of a passing stranger, an uninhabited crow's nest, a blue violet, then you were really in trouble, she decided, watching two boys kicking an old moon about, pointing, whispering, then eventually smiling at her. She smiled back, feeling jarred, embarrassed; almost fearful. Two boys with a ball like an old moon could do that to her now. It was unthinkable. She got up, pretending to look at a bowl of roses on a fresh grave – a visiting relative perhaps – and her eyes saw her mother's body in the chapel of rest, statuesque in its white lace Edwardian dress, ice cold, frost-filagreed. One of her mother's economy drives that dress – it had lain packaged up in the cupboard for years, along with the unopened bottles of Chanel perfume she'd been given – awaiting its purpose like the pink, sequined, honeymoon dress (meant for Marly) in the glory box above the boiler. No fear! ‘Damned sore. Had to lock myself in the bathroom all night.' Ivy, ever pristine, between Scylla and Charybdis... Marly twisted the daisy ring on the silver chain around her neck, too big for her twiglet fingers. He loves me, he loves me not. A ring from Topshop, David had said. What more do you want?

A vacuum bomb, she whispered, climbing over the wall when the two boys weren't looking. Hoovering stuff out and sucking stuff in. That was her complaint. Someone had opened her head with a rusty tin-opener, she was open to the ether, and the traffic in and out was worse than the M25, though no one paid her a quid at any tollbooth. (Cross my palm with silver, pretty lady.) They just walked in, wiped their feet, had a dump and went out saying thank you very much. Things flew by, fell in, got stuck and lay putrefying: a few twigs, an old leaf, somebody's face, a bad day, a daffodil maybe or a dead cat, scraps of conversation, even the shape of a tree. They all got stuck in that little garbage can, stinking, overflowing, emptied sometimes but always refilling. A little garbage can that ran across zebra crossings so the cars didn't have to wait so long. Smile, smile and the agony abides, someone had said and it was true. Apologising almost for being there, for having to cross the road at that particular place, impeding their speeding progress, their mobile machines. How ridiculous! I feel like a piece of trash, she said to David in her worst moments; and he would put on his tender eyes and say in his wise old Gandalf voice: ‘You're a little piece of stardust if only you could see it.' She could kick him then, for not understanding that at that moment, ever before and ever after, she really was a piece of trash, a piece of trash that ran across zebra crossings so the cars didn't have to wait so long.

BOOK: Seahorses Are Real
11.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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