Read Tess Online

Authors: Emma Tennant

Tess (3 page)

BOOK: Tess
6.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The girls will knit. We will work as shop-girls at Mullens or waitress in a tea-shop in Weymouth or serve in the Marks and Spencer when it comes.

Behind our eyes, as we lead the teenager to those shelves so finely packed with whaleboned bras in layers of crinkly tissue, or Granny to the outsize rail, where tweed skirts like the flanks of battleships hang fiercely together – behind our eyes, as I say, there is only the dream that is always the same: the house, two bedrooms, the playroom that's built on later in an extension at the back. Roses over the door – that goes without saying.

And it makes no difference how many times the old song is sung: ‘betrayal, heartache, loneliness, death' – it'll always be a song that's sung for others and not for us.

The husband's step on the path.

The kiss goodbye in the morning.

And for us, Ella and Baby Tess (for, Ella, I am exploiting you shamelessly already, using you as childminder when you should be at school), there was all the excitement of a new world, built from machines.

For the first time in history, all the chores were done for us. Our dishes were washed and rinsed and came out piping hot and
gleaming. On the first TV sets we saw ourselves in the act of choosing soap powders, like a sultan's wives tasting delicacies in the harem while his eunuch stands over the proceedings and smiles at us, before leading us back to the seraglio.

A house!

Think, children, of the miracle of a house! And a car! For many, a ‘two-car family', as if people had been subsumed altogether by the machines.

The tumble dryer. The Tupperware party.

Little wonder our eyes dreamed, in those jobs that were just a prelude to the important part of life.

Just as much as all the nameless women and eyeless, vastly burgeoning fuck-goddesses of extreme antiquity, we were, despite all the machines, sacrifices on the altar of fertility.

And what we couldn't know, in this Brave New World, was that the song was just the same as it always had been. That if you don't take responsibility for your own life, the song will always be sung through you.

So it's best to return to Chesil Beach, on that late September day in 1954, and ask ourselves two questions:

What happened, since the beginning of Life on Earth, to knock women from their first, all-embracing position of power? What happened to reduce them to the status of the female sea-urchin (you can tell the female by the white pebble placed, as a claim of proprietorship, on her spiky back by the male); and what causes them to be, tens of thousands of years after the perfecting of brain and intellect, still preponderantly waiting for the placing of that fatal stone – and if bravely struggling away from it, toiling as mother alone, struggling, struggling?

And what happened, when the body of a man was taken in a boat up the coast and hidden, on that day thirty years ago (and that a full fifteen years since the day Tess and Liza-Lu and Retty Priddle and Alec and Victor played ‘scientists' on Chesil Beach), on September 22nd, 1969, to be precise?

How can a body disappear, just like that?

We'll have to go back – several millennia at first – before we can begin to find the answers.

But for the moment we have Tess – yes, up to her neck in stones on the beach.

Everyone knows the next stage of the game but no one wants to be caught doing it.

Tess doesn't care. She wants more than anything in the world for Alec Field to lie down beside her on the beach and pull off the stones one by one – except for one, which he will push, slowly and then more and more insistently, right up her vagina, so that as she gasps with pain and pleasure she sees a white plateau of rock inside her – a platform, hung with mosses and submerged by secret canals and waterways, where Alec's finger will at last walk away from the obstacle of the stone and begin to tickle her proper.

Victor and Retty Priddle will have to stand around, to provide a sort of human windbreak.

And when the stone is pulled out it's a different colour from the other stones that form the great barrier of Chesil Beach.

It's not white but grey and blue, veined, soaked by Tess's just-discovered inner sea.

To return to the stones.

The problem – in the first place – lay in explaining just how these stone fish and shells could possibly be found on dry land. Ammonites whose secret is in a spiral like a stowed ladder of evolution; burrows and trails of worms preserved in sandstone; the droppings of reptiles (which are called coprolites) had no right to be above the water-mark like this. The land had been formed by God on the third day of Creation; and that day itself was no more than six thousand years ago, at the time of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from a garden assuredly not littered with these relics of a marine past.

The Flood must explain it all.

And so the diluvialists, as they called themselves, kept right up to the seventeenth century their theory of Noah floating above the mountaintops and the fish swimming below him, waiting to be petrified in the receding flood.

Only with Lamarck – whose life spanned the greatest change to date in the living organism of society – the French Revolution – a life which ended five years after the flood of 1824 that rose above Chesil Beach and obliterated the village of East Fleet – came new ideas of evolution and geological durations of time.

The cliffs behind us – as we sit on the beach enjoying the late summer sun – are Jurassic, known as Fuller's earth. Far down there, beyond the last of the shingle beach, are the cliffs of Kimmeridge clay. Fossils from these cliffs can be extracted easily. Or you can find them lying among the stones: chipped, coiled mementoes of the Palaeozoic era.

It's with one of these fossils – actually it seems to be a prehistoric flint-head (there are plenty of them here, too) – that Alec, in the summer of 1954, is stroking the white stomach of Tess.

While I have been explaining to you, the game has gone on.

But before we go back to that September day in 1954 – and its consequences, reaching as they do as far into the future as your presence here (your presence in the world, one might say); and stretching as far back as the waves of the sea, each responsible for its successor and pushed by its predecessor into an eternal present – let me explain just one more thing.

It may help explain our story; and its eternal recurrence.

Lamarck's theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been long discredited. We are all Darwinians, like our grandparents before us.

Yet for us, Baby Tess, there is a truth in Lamarck's wild scientific poetry. He says:

It is not the orphans, that is, the nature and form of parts of an animal, which gave rise to its habits and specific faculties; on the contrary, its habits, its way of life and the circumstances in which the individuals from which it has descended, found themselves, have, with time, constituted the form of its body and the number and state of its organs, and ultimately its faculties.


Fluids moving in the soft parts of organisms which contain them, characteristically clear for themselves passages, settling places and outlets; they create canals and hence various organs; they vary the canals and organs either by different movements or by different fluids … they enlarge, lengthen, divide and build up these canals and organs by the materials which form and which are constantly separated out from the moving fluids.

Lamarck believed in the unity of Nature. He put forward the claim that minerals were produced by decaying living matter, making a cyclical relationship between living and inert nature. ‘Without exception, the raw compounds which form most of the earth's external crust and continuously modify it by their changes all result from the remains and residues of living organisms.' When an organism died there was nothing to hold the complex substances together any more and they gradually disintegrated, only to be recombined by new living beings, in a perpetual cycle.

And minerals could be understood in terms of the historical sequences they passed through.

On the day we return to believing this – when we are as fully aware of ourselves and the landscape irrevocably interrelated and producing of each other in as unending a chain of happening as the waves of the sea, we will be able to save the planet.

And our own bad cycle will be broken.

Baby Tess, you are my hope. With your eyes that show such surprise and rage at the world – and your starfish hands that take me in memory to the rock-pools of Charmouth, and to Tess's unformed breasts as they lie exposed on the stones of Chesil Beach on that late summer day so long ago – you lead me to hope, to believe in
a different future, in the ending of the endlessly repeating chain.

You will return us to the ancient cycle, when we lived and were transmuted – and we could hear the pain of a stone.

For Lamarck had a fabulous bestiary, and it is to this that we must look for the recovery of the old way of seeing and knowing.

Lamarck's beasts, like the beasts of La Fontaine (so said that great poet-martyr, Osip Mandelstam):

adapted themselves to the condition of life. The legs of the heron, the neck of the duck and swan, the tongue of the anteater, the asymmetrical and symmetrical position of the eyes in certain fish.

La Fontaine's philosophizing, moralizing, reasoning beasts were a splendid living material for evolution. They had already apportioned its mandates among themselves.

The artiodactylous reason of the mammals clothes their fingers with rounded horn.

The kangaroo moves with the leaps of logic.

As described by Lamarck, this marsupial consists of weak forelimbs, that is, limbs that have reconciled themselves to being useless; strongly developed hind extremities, that is, convinced of their importance; and a powerful thesis, called the tail.

So, in our landscape of fluids and fossiliferous limestone and clay, in our passages and outlets of water where the swans nest each spring and fly off across the Fleet in September, where the solitary flamingo, like some too obvious reminder of an evolutionary past in Africa, stands on long-adapted legs to scan the movements of the fish; let us learn to save the world from extinction, to believe that we are all one in the unity of Nature.

Perhaps it is some preconscious memory of this that has led to the fact of Tess's body on Chesil Beach, only her head sticking out like an odd piece of flotsam blown onto the shingle in the equinoctial gales, and the rest of her covered in stones.

And now, Ella, comes a history lesson – on the mothers and fathers of these stones. Learn it well. I'll take you to the little shop in Lyme that you'd think was an antiquarian bookshop – until you see the real story of the world is written in stone.

In the Beginning

The coast of south Dorset is famous for its fossils. You can buy them from a cart by the side of the ice-cream kiosk on the beach at Charmouth. You see them heaped in junk shops in Lyme Regis, where the elaborate spiral of the ammonite looks, in the gloom, like a broken-off claw of a Regency table. People set the fossils in earth either side of garden steps, so the hard snail-like protuberances flank a bed of petunias or salvia. But they're out of place like this, these wallfish, and belong on cliffs and shores.

The ammonite is the fossil most commonly found in our sandstone cliffs. Children from all over the country have visited the Natural History Museum and peered at the hollow, coiled shell, whose nearest living relative is the pearly nautilus. The main difference between the nautiloid and ammonoid shell lies in the partitions that separate the chambers: the ammonoid is the more highly crenellated of the two, and so more complex.

Ammonoids became extinct near the end of the Cretaceous age – that is, seventy billion years ago. We can therefore know them only from their shells. The soft: parts of the body must be inferred: one may imagine an ammonoid as a coiled shell with a protruding head, similar to a squid.

Two antithetical concepts concerning the evolution of the
have been actively debated: recapitulation and caenogenesis. Many lineages of
were set up in the last century on the assumption that the juvenile or young forms were similar in suture and/or shell morphology to the adult ancestors. In
other words, the young stages of the descendant recapitulate the adult stage of the progenitor. The second idea, that of caenogenesis, suggests that new characters appear in the young stage as a result of special adaptations to the environment occupied by the young, and that these special characters, if of survival value to adults, gradually spread through time to the adult stage.

A further complication, long known, but recently re-studied in considerable detail, is the effect of sexual dimorphism in the
on extant taxonomy, nomenclature and evolutionary concepts.

The first protozoic atom of the life-slime was female, reproducing itself, as always, parthenogenetically. But when, as a precedent, it brought forth a new sex, male, the first fatal step was taken in the undermining of its own authority.

Instead of retaining her power of reproducing life on her own, the female had now delegated half of that power to the male. As far as Man was concerned, neither sex was fully capable of creating life, and the female primeval urge to give birth would, in its need for fulfilment, eventually lead the sex to surrender to the male.

From that day, millions of years ago, the myth of male superiority has grown and flourished.

Now is the time for the new characters to appear in the young stage as a result of special adaptations to the environment.

I am telling you, we must adapt and change. Before the seas and lakes are thoroughly poisoned. Before the sky cracks open for good like an egg.

Outside the closed village school, Ella stands with me, and with Baby Tess in her pram, waiting for the queue in the little shop to disperse, for prying eyes to go away (who is that baby? Like her mother before her, and, so they say, her mother's grandmother too, left on the doorstep, found in a river bed, there's a curse on the family, everyone knows that), and Ella asks:

BOOK: Tess
6.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Twin Peril by Laura Scott
The Bastard by Inez Kelley
Saving Gary McKinnon by Sharp, Janis
Set Me Free by Daniela Sacerdoti
Fated Bliss (Bliss #2) by Cassie Strickland
The Princess and the Duke by Allison Leigh