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Authors: Emma Tennant

Tess

BOOK: Tess
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EMMA TENNANT
Tess

Contents

Part One

Where You Are

A Summer Game

Chesil Bank

When Did it Begin?

In the Beginning

Crime and Punishment

Going all the Way

First Rites, Lost Love

The Very Near and Distant Past

Part Two

When We Were Very Young

Fairy Tales Replayed

On the Art of the Spinster

Pilsdon Pen

Tess's Mouth

The Beginning of Tess

When You Were Free

About the Celts

Before the Fall …

The Rape of Maiden Castle

The Summer of Dis

Invasions, War and Peace

Tess's Sex

Part Three

Bad Women

The Transformations of Mary

Our Mother's Country

The Rape of Lambert's Castle

Where You Came From: The Ballad of Tess

The Growth of Tess

Wessex's Tail

Genesis

Incarnations

The Scandal of Tess

Making it Real

Star

Oh, What a Cloud!

Marriage Rites

Part Four

Tess and her Baby

Swan Song

Life with Angel

Fog

Father Love

Evening

A Note on the Author

For Renée Wayne Golden
with affection

‘Everything has already been lived and relived a thousand times by those who have disappeared but whom we carry in the very fibres of our being, just as we also carry in us the thousands of beings who will one day live after us. The only question which incessantly poses itself is why, of all these innumerable particles floating in each of us, certain ones come to the surface rather than others'

and

‘ … how strange each existence is, where everything floats past like an ever-flowing stream and only those things which matter, instead of sinking to the depths, rise to the surface and finally reach, together with us, the sea'.

Marguerite Yourcenar,
Two Lives and a Dream

Part One
Where You Are

My mother used to say she could always tell a first-timer from a soul that had been around before. Even with the youngest babies it was there: a fierce, incredulous look – no one had prepared you for
this
! – while the revenants, if you could so call them, had an air of acceptance, of resignation, even if their destiny was likely to be as violent or unpredictable as you could get.

The minute I saw you I knew you belonged to the first lot.

And let's hope, if you've really broken the chain, that we can all start anew. Kill the deadening sense of repetition, where every single thing you do has the taste of being done by a woman standing just ahead of you: your mother and then her mother and all the mothers together, as they go back into the fog of their unchronicled days. Go into a new world.

– But soon there won't be any world, says Ella, the eleven-year-old who no longer goes to school. And I can't tell her any different – unless making sense of all our past will give her a sense of how the world could have been different all along, if life's tape had been played another way. So there could be time still to change it.

You came as I always knew you would. On an afternoon in September when the seas are beginning to build up – and smash their way through to the very edge of the cliffs, sucking the brown clayey base and further weakening the defences against the rising tide. We don't have long – neither you, nor I, nor Nature – so listen carefully and there's just one chance in a million that we'll turn back the waves and put the earth back in kilter again. Queen Canute, you might say.

I shall call you Baby Tess. I don't know what your mother called you and she didn't have the grace to tell me, after she'd rung the bell of the Mill and shoved you in at me with a dummy stuck in your mouth that looked as if it had been there so long it was growing out of your poor face. I don't know your age either – but I'd say there hadn't been a Full Moon shining down on you at midsummer: the world didn't know you were coming, then.

No, you're here in time for the harvest. The last in two thousand years since the birth of that other child – whose advent brought grief and conflict and joy. You have come to change the pattern, to reverse the code and give a new message of hope.

If it's not too late. Tomorrow they'll come and find her. Either here – or in a little market town where Thomas Hardy loved to go wooing his latest incarnation of Tess.

They'll find the woman, last in a long line, who loved – and was abandoned – and took her revenge in the end in the only way she knew how.

My sister. Your grandmother. Tess.

And Ella – who squats on the stones of Chesil Beach and peels an apple with the penknife she stole in a fight the last time she went on a school outing (she was a rough girl, Ella, until Mr Pagden slapped her down in front of all the others and she went quiet and decided to stop going to Weymouth High altogether) – Ella grins up at me as I begin to tell the story of where we are and what we are to the baby I have named Tess after all the luckless Tesses before her.

– Tell her about the ghost at the Mill, Ella says. Please, Liza-Lu!

But it's my turn to feel impatient with this child – this truant who lives in our little village near Abbotsbury by the sea and attaches herself to me, wherever I go.

I tell her she should learn history properly, and not just listen to ghost stories. (And I'm hurt, too, of course: the ghost the villagers say they see is Mary Hewitt, my mother; and even dead they can't leave her alone. She's mad, they say, as if the spirit, that fierce
independence that my mother had, that I see already in the eyes of Baby Tess, must always be spoken of in the present tense. Mad Mary Hewitt: she's come back to haunt us. Little wonder the rich folk who come down from London, and from Los Angeles and all over the joined-up world, don't like a mill with the ghost of a madwoman roaming about in it.)

– But I don't like history, Ella says, and pouts. She wants another kind of history lesson – different from the potted, dead scraps of information her mother sells in the tourist brochures from the kiosk by the gate of the tropical gardens and the swannery. Utterly unlike the succession of lifeless kings and stale-smelling politicians Mr Pagden beats into his pupils at Weymouth High.

– You can stay and listen if you're good, I say.

So here goes. The baby – whose mother I knew once when she was a little girl–

How can I say to Baby Tess: of course I knew your mother. She's the daughter of my sister, Tess. Tess the murderess, you know–

How can I explain to you, Ella, that little girls can never be too careful? That there is danger everywhere, and no man can be trusted?

How could anyone with a heart say that to a young member of the human race – and then tell that person to go and listen to Mr Pagden's history lessons at Weymouth High?

So, while there's time, I'll try to tell you both the history – of the Then, the Here and the Now.

And I'll show you how the story Thomas Hardy wrote – the story of Tess, ‘A Pure Woman, Faithfully Presented', who was seduced by Alec D'Urberville and murdered him for the love of a man who betrayed her a million times worse – how this story comes up again and again and now is the time it must end.

We'll leave the story of the Old Mill, where my father and my mother lived and were in love once – and where Tess, the beautiful one, grew up more worshipped by her father than the swans he tended down there in the saltwater lagoon.

We'll walk back, when the sun goes down across the sea, and Lyme Bay with its wooded hills looks as if it's swimming out to join the fingers of the setting sun on the water.

Then you'll know how Tess loved. And why my mother went mad. And whose ghost it is that really walks all this area – this ancient place neither of my parents would ever have dreamt of leaving.

Ella frowns at me. The tide is going out and she has gone down crab-like on her bottom to shining, coarse sand that has half-mussel shells and cuttlefish thrown casually over it as if by a decorator's hand.

A couple walk by; they're each holding a brochure from Ella's mum's kiosk. They stop, as if to ask me a question – but for some reason when they see Baby Tess they change their minds and walk on.

The man of the couple – he has a tense face, you can see he's not enjoying himself and the woman isn't either – tosses his shiny paper down on the beach and it flutters towards us on the breeze. The woman remonstrates with him for making litter – but he shrugs, and they walk on, ill at ease with each other.

Ella retrieves the brochure and twists it into a cone to place on the battlements of the damp, grainy castle she has scooped up from the newly naked beach.

– Wessex! she says, as she pulls at the cone, reading the words on the bright cover of sea and greensward, with the sharp, pointed and white-moustached face of Thomas Hardy inset against a touched-up photograph of the birthplace of the famous man at Bockhampton.

– Wessex! I think that's a silly word, Liza-Lu, Ella says. Why is it called that?

But I'm too busy changing little Baby Tess and giving her the Ribena bottle her mother at least had the sense to tuck into the carry-cot under the stained little blankets, to answer Ella.

– Later, I say. And I tell Ella if she wants to hear some of the story she'll have to learn to look after the baby and give her a bottle when she starts to cry.

And when we've settled Baby Tess and made her comfortable, I begin.

A Summer Game

It's the end of summer, 1954.

We're lying on a bank of pebbles – my elder sister and Retty from down the road, and Alec and a boy called Victor who seems to have escaped from the caravan site on a permanent basis and roams the beach with one of those stubby fishing-rods everyone except townies knows never catch anything at all.

All the same, Victor is holding up a fish – it's a mullet and he says he caught it in the Fleet, a few miles down – and we wonder why he bothers when it's so obviously three days dead.

Anyway, there are other things on our minds. For the first time since they closed Abbotsbury Swannery a week ago we have the place to ourselves: no sightseers, no hikers over the narrow bridle paths that wind between the reed beds and the sharp green hill where the chapel of St Catherine stands in ruins, looking out over the sea. No trudging, dragging steps of walkers on the shingle bank as they go two steps forward, one step back, and slide down, when they lose their balance, to the water's edge.

We're on our own, half in the long eelgrass and half on rough sand, under a tamarisk hedge and facing a wall of white stones that is as brightly lit by the late September sun as the walls of an operating theatre.

I am five years old, my sister Tess is seven – and so is Retty – and the boys are a bit older, which seems a lot at that time.

All summer we knew we were going to play this game. The ‘scientists' (Alec and Victor, of course) and the Nurse – poor Retty – are slowly covering Tess's body with stones.

Then it will be my turn. But while I wait – nervous, both wanting the game and wanting to run away from it – I stare at Tess's face and wonder if they'll even remember to get round to me once they've finished with her.

BOOK: Tess
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