Part I: London, 9-10.
My mother came back as a ghost. She terrified me.
She floated around our three rooms in a tattered housecoat and slippers bent under at the heels. She stared into space and flicked her tongue in and out of the gap where the tooth used to be. She was bone-thin, and her skin had a gray undertone like an English winter sky. She stood in front of the mirror at the small makeshift dressing table Alfred and I had bought at a Salvation Army bazaar and twirled a strand of hair between her fingers. The fight was gone from her eyes and death fined them instead.
In the weeks that followed her return home, I'd come upon her pushing at the frown lines on the bridge of her nose as if her face were clay and she could make the anxiety disappear. Sometimes she'd be tapping out a tune on an invisible piano--her fingers moving into chords as if the black and white keys were really there. Mostly she was quiet. Very quiet. Often I'd forget she was in the house until I heard a sound like moaning coming from another room. Eventually it dawned on me that Louise was trying to sing. But someone had stolen my mother's voice, and all that was left behind was grief.
I begged to be sent back to Mrs. Butcher's house.
Alfred and Ruskin were flabbergasted. Ruskin threatened me with bodily harm if I ever mentioned my desires to Louise. Alfred was distraught. He put his hand on my forehead to see if I had a fever, and asked trick questions to test my state of mind. Some were very easy; others required some thought. "Two plus two," he'd say. Then, when I came back with the right answer, he'd ask me to explain the term "metaphysical" as it applied to George Herbert. He'd stare at me hard when I replied, then look more downcast than ever. I tried to explain to him about Mrs. Butcher and Hubert, how I'd grown fond of them; how routine governed their lives in a way that made me envious. I wanted to explain, but I couldn't do it well. I missed the children I'd helped take care of. I liked telling them Simon's stories, and I'd grown used to Hubert's requests for tea and cupcakies. He and I had formed an unlikely friendship. I could sit with him for hours without feeling compelled to say a word. I practiced my recitations on Hubert. He would repeat what I recited in his usual monotone and that helped me remember the lines. He knew Portia's speech in The Merchant of Venice, the first stanza of "To Autumn," and the opening of Pride and Prejudice by heart. Mrs. Butcher called me "love" all the time and let me stay up until one or two in the morning if I wanted. She put her arms around me without making a fuss about it, and let me watch television on school nights. But that wasn't the only reason I wanted to go back. The other one was far more serious: I was mortally afraid of the old woman who'd come to live in my house.
I didn't know Louise Buttercup anymore. I hadn't known her since the day she kicked a hole in the wall and tried to strangle me. At night I was petrified. She could come in and hold the pillow over my head in a second--who would know? I began sleeping without pillows before I reasoned that it would be safer to sleep with all of them so that she couldn't get to one easily. I put two between my legs and three under my head. She didn't seem to notice that I'd swiped the pillow from the bedsettee where she slept in the front room. She didn't seem to notice anything at all. It was like living with a shadow that passed through the house darkening the rooms. Alfred couldn't make head nor tail of my behavior. Later it occurred to me that he knew how scared I was, but that even he was afraid to talk about it. It's hard to tell with adults sometimes. They're so secretive. Maybe Alfred was like the rest of us--maybe he didn't know what the hell he should do under the circumstances. Maybe, for once, he didn't have the right answer. Besides, Alfred worshiped my mother. All the men did. She had something in her that was like a spark. Even as a shadow she could set people on fire. It got on my nerves.
Louise Buttercup Moses was old when she came home. About a month after her return, Ruskin took her to the dentist to have a tooth put in where the gap was in front. It looked artificial at first because it was so much whiter than the others. But she didn't smile much, and, on the rare occasions when she talked, she mumbled, so it wasn't too conspicuous. Alfred said she'd lost her own tooth in a fight at the institution. I didn't pursue it. The less I knew about the sordid details of her madness, the happier I'd be. Because she hadn't dyed her hair in months, all the color had grown out. I did my best to avoid her, but I shouldn't have bothered because Louise didn't seem to see me for hours on end. Then she'd look up suddenly and say, "O, there you are!" as if she'd been looking for me all along. But she hadn't. She was never looking for me. She was looking for someone else who would never, ever come back to Lavender Sweep.
A part of me envied her ability to shut out the world. I'd tried to do that after Alison's death and had failed miserably. People tiptoed around her, and she hardly did any housework. We had to remind her to take a bath. Alfred said she was a "fragile mechanism." I was fragile too, I said.
Louise didn't seem to hate me for swearing at her when I saw her the first time. In fact, I don't think she remembered it. She didn't seem to be angry about anything. She was apathetic and passive.
Just as I started to get used to the Shadow Buttercup, everything shifted again. The ground moved underneath me and the scenery changed. It began on a Thursday morning, three or four months after her return home.
I got up at seven as usual, and put the pillows back where they belonged. Another night when I hadn't gone to heaven. If I still believed in God, I would have thanked Him. I climbed the flight of stairs to the kitchen. Worn to a dirty brown, the rusty flippers on the stair carpet didn't resemble themselves any longer. Only a dreamer would ever believe that the paisley pattern had been pretty once.
When Simon was alive. When the house sang songs to itself and my mother knew how to smile.
A rhyme I'd made up with Alison came into my head. Alison and I would chant it together, even though she didn't know what I meant by fishes' hands, or that the line referred to the worn stair carpet and the paisley fins dyed into it.
Fishes' hands, paisley swirls It often stinks to be a girl.
The previous night I'd dreamed I'd sailed away to America. I'd entered it into my diary, detailing the dream so that Alfred and I could analyze it later. A man whose face never looked like a face and whose voice got lost before I could understand the words was there with me on the deck of the ship. Louise saw me off. She waved a long white scarf, longer even than Rapunzel's hair. Then it was caught up by the wind so that it wrapped around her body. "You're a mummy, Mummy!" I called out over the sea. No one got the joke. Try as I might that morning, sitting up in the chilly bedroom with a pen in my hand, I couldn't remember the rest of the dream. I wanted to know what America was like; but, when I turned the page over, it was blank. I woke up bursting to escape from South London. People were beginning to move to Battersea, saying it was a "trendy" place to be. But it would never be that for me. Battersea was where Simon died. Battersea was where Maurice slobbered in my mouth. Battersea was where Louise had tried to strangle me. I had to get away. I had to find some excitement to insert into my world and replace the fear that rented a room there. I would leave. Go somewhere. Anywhere, it didn't matter. America, Africa, as long as it wasn't Battersea. All the girls and all the women I knew along the Sweep were waiting for something wonderful to happen to their lives. But if you waited, like Louise had waited for Simon to climb back out of the grave and comfort her, you wasted your life. I wouldn't waste mine. I was going to be somebody. Most of the women I knew were acted upon by men or by the Church. I wanted to act. Louise was up in the kitchen waiting for the world to love her again. It never would. She'd die miserable and make my life hell too. My mother and I were a piece of a person now that the Man was dead. I thought of the song in Porgy and Bess about the man who was gone, and whose footsteps would never be heard again.
It was a song of suffering. All the women I knew sang it. The notes were like knitting needles, and women's hands were working them, working, working, working to make the long notes into nooses for our necks. Louise Buttercup was upstairs growing old waiting for her man's footsteps to join her in the kitchen-in-the-sky. But it was always me. Always only me who came up the stairs.
I reached the top. I opened the door and stepped into the ten-by-twelve-foot kitchen-cum-living room.
Someone had played a trick on me. This wasn't my house. This couldn't be my story. I rubbed my eyes. During the night, Louise Buttercup had died and risen again.
My legs felt weak. I almost screamed. My heart beat like a piston. I grasped the door frame for support.
For there, in front of my eyes, instead of my elderly parent, instead of the grubby kitchen of broken plates and promises, instead of weariness and despair, instead of leftovers from a killed passion, was a table fit for a queen and a mother reinvented.
"Do you like it?" she said.
I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. The room was shining in the sunlight from the window. The lace curtains were white again; the linoleum had a sheen on it as if it had been rubbed with oil; on the table was a white lace tablecloth, flowers in a crystal bowl, new plates, crumpets, jam, napkins, a teapot in a tea cozy, and cleanliness! Cleanliness everywhere!
"It's beautiful," I whispered. I didn't know how to behave now that I'd stepped into a fairy tale. What do you do when someone sweeps away your suffering and replaces it with dreams? I stood in the doorway with my mouth open.
She told me to sit down. I obeyed.
She told me to close nay mouth before a bird made a nest in it. I did that too.
The flower bowl on the table was very pretty. It had gold and crimson flowers on it. It was her nanny's bowl--her mother's mother's bowl. She never used it in case it broke. I was afraid.
"The bowl. Supposing we break it?"
"Don't worry about that. It's not going to break."
Next to the bowl was a silver spoon, a wedding gift from Mr. Fortesque, a man in publishing who loved my father's work and gave them their most expensive wedding gift. Under the spoon was a napkin with lace around the edges. It was as white as a Colgate smile. On the table was a pale green cloth, creases ironed in, smelling of flowers. The radio was on. The songs I liked. Motown. Diana was telling me to "Stop! In the name of love ..." but we'd been doing that for years. Why had we started up again now?
This wasn't my house. I was dreaming.
The woman sitting in front of me looked strange. Like my mother but not like her. What was it? My God! Her hair!
"I bleached it," she said, catching me staring at her head.
"It's gold! I didn't know dye could look that snazzy."
"You like it, then? You don't think it's too much, do you? I could always redo it ..."
"No! Don't touch it! It looks like ... angel hair. I love it. It's thicker too."
"It's growing back. It will never be lovely and thick like yours and Simon's, but it is growing back."
"It's growing back," I repeated like a fool. The room echoed with the sentence. Everything was growing back. I'd had my legs cut off but the stumps were pushing out like stems. Soon I'd be walking again. A miracle had happened on Lavender Sweep.
"I cleaned up. Do you like it?"
"You're sure my hair's not too brassy?"
"It's perfect. You look like Princess Grace and Doris Day all in one"
Louise Buttercup Moses milled. This must be someone else's house.
"What's two plus two?" I asked.
"Do you like the flowers?"
"Yes. They're beautiful."
"Do you want to stay home from school?"
"Why? Is someone dying?"
"No! Of course not! Whatever gave you that idea? I just thought you'd enjoy it. We could go to the bandstand and get some ice cream. Maybe have lunch in that little cafeteria." She sounded hesitant, anticipating contradiction.
"Have you won the football pools?" I asked.
She laughed. Louise Buttercup Moses laughed out loud!
"No. But I have got a little money. While I was ... away ... Alfred was able to draw my pension. There's some money in an account at the Midland. I plan to spend it."
I nearly launched into a litany of home improvements. I had to stuff a crumpet in my mouth to shut myself up. A few feet away to my right, in the space between the sink and the stove, was the imprint of Louise's foot in the wall. The place where it all began.
"Sorry," I said.
"O no, I mean ... I'm glad. That's great."
She looked over to the window. The sun was shining on the line of clothes she'd hung on a pulley that extended out and down to a post at the end of the back garden. My school shirt was waving in the breeze. The white nylon sleeves looked as if they were clapping. Her nightgown was there too--the one she'd worn in bed when she went mad. The yellowed lace looked white again and the tiny violets stood out against the pale lilac background. She must have been washing all night. Why hadn't I heard her using the kitchen sink? How much time needs to pass for light to enter a mind held in the dark? Who lit my mother up again? Was it the money? Is that all it took? Why hadn't I kept my childhood vow and worked harder to get money for her myself?.
"I know it's not been easy since your father died. And then, what with me going away ... I know it's been hard."
Damn right. Murderously hard. Louise's hands round my throat. Pressing, pressing in on me. Mother, mother, where have you gone? Who are you now that you've come back?
"I want to start again," Louise declared in a tone that began emphatically and ended with a question mark.
I bit off more crumpet. There was cereal next. The Kellogg's box was on the table. The red cockerel on the front of the box was crowing. "Pour a bowl of sunshine" they told us on the adverts. Louise had done just that. How rich were Mr. and Mrs. Kellogg? Rich enough to buy happiness, I should think. Maybe it was Louise's and my turn to buy some too.
But no one changes that fast. This is a trick. Test her. See what happens.
"Okay. Let's go out. But not to the bandstand. To the British Museum. Let's go there. We can eat at the cafeteria and pay for it all by ourselves. And we can ride on the tube instead of the bus even though it costs more. And we can see the mummies. Let's go there."
"The British Museum," she said. She seemed puzzled by the notion. I wondered if she remembered where it was. Her fingers twirled the tablecloth. Her movements weren't the staccato gestures of a madwoman; they were as smooth as sanity. "What a good idea."
I had to look away. No one should have to endure that much happiness in the space of a few minutes.
"I have to go and ask Alfred something, okay?"
She looked at me and smiled. "Don't be long. We'll need to get a move on if we want to have enough time for everything."
I rushed downstairs. Alfred was listening to the radio. His door was open and I barged in.
"Knocking is customary in England, I believe. Even for young ladies."
"What? O. Sorry."
Then he noticed how agitated I was. He came up to me and felt my forehead.
"Is anything wrong? Are you sick?"
"No. Neither's Louise. That's the whole point!"
I was talking so fast the words tumbled out on top of each other. It was as if my words were feet, and I was running for dear life.
"I think she may be on that LTD stuff because she's normal. I mean, normal like we are." We looked at each other. Alfred raised an eyebrow. They both went up in unison. He couldn't raise one at a time. We'd practiced for hours and never been successful.
"Sit down and tell me what's going on. You're making me nervous. Slow down. What's happened? Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Tea! Tea! Tea doesn't solve the world's ills, you know. It certainly doesn't. All you British people think tea is the answer to everything. Life's not like that, Alfred. It takes more than tea to make things right. I'm telling you, she's so well she's sick! It's that LTD. Didn't they give her all those drugs at that mental asylum?"
"I think you mean LSD, Jacinta. And no, she wasn't taking that. She's not taking anything, as far as I know. Will you please sit down? You're giving me the heebie-jeebies."
I sat down. My heart was racing. I could see that Alfred was about to test my maths skills. I hurried on with my story.
"I get up in the morning as usual, minding my own business, and
I'm thinking it's no fun being a girl and how I want to escape from this place, and then I open the door and--"
"Why don't you want to be a girl?"
"O, I don't mean it like that. Not like you and stuff. I mean, what you said about inhabiting an alien form and all that stuff. Not like that. I just mean ... well ... that's not the point. O, Alfred. You've made me lose my thread."
"Sorry. You were talking about getting up this morning."
"So I open the door and there she is. Normal! Absolutely normal! No one gets normal that fast, do they? I mean, you could have a hernia or a heart attack normalizing yourself at that speed, couldn't you? Crumpets, jam, tablecloth--it's all absurd! And clean, Alfred. Everything's clean! You know Louise never cleans anything except the dishes. And she leaves egg yolk and stuff on them most of the time so I have to do them all over again. She doesn't see the dirt like we do. And she's changed. Her hair is gold."
"Really! Is it nice?"
"Hmm. I've thought about doing that myself but you don't like to cause too much of a stir, do you; and people are so humdrum, a move like that can elicit unwelcome commentary. Sorry. I'm straying again. So what's your point?"
"What's my point!" I was almost screaming with frustration. Adults were too stupid to understand anything. "My point is that my mother isn't acting like a loon anymore. All of a sudden she's become ... she's become ..."
I burst into tears.
"And sh-sh-she wants to take me to the Bri-tish Mu-seum!"
Alfred put his arms around me. He smelled faintly of lavender. There was lace on the cuffs of his robe. His hands were smooth and motherly.
"There, there," he said. "Don't worry, Cinta. It'll be all right. Maybe she's better."
"People d-don't get better that fast. It's not natural."
"How do you know what's natural?"
"For God's sake, Alfred! We're not talking about you--we're talking about Louise!"
"How do you know we're not the same person?"
I blinked. "Don't do that kind of thing, Alfred. It gives me the willies. What do you mean, anyway?"
"I just think you should remember that we're all more intertwined than the culture lets us be. You think you begin here," he tapped me on the head, "and end here," he nudged my foot with his slipper, "and you think you're a coloured girl with a beginning and a middle and an end to your story. Well, perhaps it's not like that at all. Perhaps we're all each other's stories. Perhaps we're like rivers--we all run into each other and our identities are not as separate as they try to tell you they are."
"I don't know what you're babbling about. I know exactly who I am. I'm Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses and I am a coloured girl and I do live in Battersea and I know exactly where the tip of me begins and where the end of me ends. And if you're so mixed up and foolish that you think you begin where Louise does, then you're in deep, deep dog muck, Alfred Russell-Smythe! That is your name, isn't it? Or is it Alfred Louise?"
Alfred looked away. I'd hurt him. I couldn't stop.
"Okay, if you're so clever, why don't you tell me what the catapult was?"
"Yes. The catapult. You know. The thing that made her change."
"O, you mean the catalyst."
"That's what I said."
"Maybe she suddenly realized that life was better than she thought it was. Sometimes older people do that. We'll be anxious and angry at the world for many years; then, quite suddenly, we'll look around and see that the grass is still as green as it was when we lost our joy; that the trees are still as tall as they used to be; that children still remember how to say nursery rhymes and--"
"That's a load of codswallop. No one changes that fast. I think she's as nutty as a fruitcake. I think she's going to snap at any moment. Can you swear to me that she's going to stay sane for more than two minutes? Can you? No! Of course you can't! No one can. She could be eating her feces as we speak."
"Indeed she could, Jacinta. What a perspicacious observation."
"Don't be sarcastic. This is serious, Alfred."
He looked at me, then took my hand in his and squeezed it.
"You're right, little one. She could be temporarily sane. She could turn on you again and say terrible things. Or this could be the first moment in a long series of moments between Louise and the world when a truce has been declared. It could be that she has come to terms with something at last. Supposing you were the catalyst, Cinta. Just you. Your sweetness and your laughter. Supposing she remembered how that sounded and came back to us to hear it?"
"Me? It wasn't me who left us."
I stood up quickly and brushed off the front of my school uniform as if it had crumbs on it. "You talk rubbish sometimes," I said.
"At least I don't bite my nails."
I took my fingers out of my mouth. "I'm on edge. Louise thinks children don't have nerves. She used to say we have to go through wars to have them. Well, I've got them and she gave them to me. And if she thinks for one instant that I'm going to kiss and make up and assume we're all lovey-dovey just because of one trip to see some old mummies she's bloody mistaken."
There was a long pause.
Alfred's little sitting-dining-bedroom seemed to contract still further under the pressure. A picture of Maurice B. leaped into my mind. He'd stood in front of us like this--not knowing who he was or whether it mattered--angry and excited all at the same time. And I'd laughed at him.
Alfred was speaking. I tried to listen. "... a good time. It's important to accept these times, Jacinta. Whenever they present themselves. Life isn't so easy that you can afford to let some of the happy moments go. Don't be afraid of them."
"I'm not afraid of anything."
"Good. Then enjoy it. Louise wants to be happy. Be happy with her. Don't worry about tomorrow or the day after that. Just remember what today has been. Then you'll always have that to live by."
So Louise and I walked down to Clapham Junction, and took the overground train to the underground station. We got on the tube and headed up to Russell Square just like sane people did if they had money and time to spare.
The sun was diluted at first. It came to us weakly, as though it were apologizing for something. But gradually, in the short walk from the tube to the museum, the sun gained confidence. By the time we reached the foot of the massive stone steps leading up to the building, grayness had gone, and Louise's new blond hair sparkled in the light. I told her I liked her hair. It didn't look brassy; it looked classy instead. She returned the compliment. "If I had hair as black as yours," she said, "I'd be in heaven." She tried to run her fingers through my hair--the first touch in a long time--but, as usual, my hair was all tangled, so she could only pat it and smile.
"Midnight black," she said softly, almost to herself.
She almost skipped up the stairs to the museum. I told her at the entrance, from within the revolving doors, that her new tooth looked great. "You'd never know it was a denture," I reassured her as we made three revolutions inside the doors, just for fun. She laughed.
We knew there were only two things you should never miss in the British Museum. The first was the cafeteria because of the brown sugar that was poured into little crystal sugar bowls and set on the tables. It was more expensive than white sugar, which was why we never had it at home. The second thing you should never miss was the Egyptian collection. It was too early for lunch, so we headed straight for the mummies.
Ruskin worked in the Egyptian room. Not the room exactly, but in a small office near all the dead people. He'd begun as a custodian and had worked his way up. Louise used to say it was a miracle he'd made it to the top considering the fact that he didn't have any paper qualifications. They hated him there. My mother said it was because he wasn't an Old School Tie. I used to imagine all these striped ties working in the museum. It was years before I leaped from ties to people. Ruskin was waiting for us at the entrance to his office. Louise must have called ahead because it was clear that he was expecting us.
When he saw us coming toward him down the long corridor lined with glass cases he began to laugh. A few of the people peering into the cases at the bones of the long dead looked up. One of them said, "Shh!" Ruskin ignored him.
"Ha, ha! Well, if it isn't the real Louise Buttercup gracing us with a visit at last! Where's the Prince of Monaco?"
I winked at Louise as if to say "I told you so."
Ruskin embraced us both, but it was Louise he was enchanted by. He was brimming with happiness. He made us both take his arm, and we went on the grand tour of the museum. Whenever we met someone he knew, he introduced us as Princess Grace and Simone Madagascar. My mother thought he'd made my name up himself--we didn't bother to explain. Each time we met someone new, I'd get the giggles and he'd say, "Please excuse Miss Madagascar. The museum is a place of such delight for her that she cannot help but snort her way through the rooms, isn't that right, Your Majesty?" Then Louise would giggle too, and the strangers would shake their heads. All except the custodians, who winked at us and told Ruskin he was a very funny fella. Most of them were from India or the West Indies. I thought my father would have felt at home.
That day Ruskin knew everything. He made ancient worlds so fascinating that we tasted Egypt. I stood for a long time in front of the paintings and entered pharaohs' eyes as if I were a camel stepping through the eyes of needles. Everything was possible. The time that separated us from them seemed inconsequential. We had the things that made them. These things could make us. We were the same. Egypt's in Africa, I thought. And Africa's in me. Poor Ruskin and Louise were white; they couldn't be Africa the way I could. I hugged the secret to me like a wish as we raided tombs, and stole skulls, and stumbled across vast treasures. Ruskin told us about the time they pulled one of the mummies from the tomb, unwrapped it, and saw, for a fleeting moment, the full splendor of his face before it dissolved into ash. It brought a song to mind, one we sang in choir. Something about the splendor falling in castle walls. I thought about fallen splendor and wondered if all of us stolen from Africa had a piece of that in our hearts. Was that the burden we carried with us? That memory of how splendid we had been once, before we were taken away?
Ruskin told us stories about archaeologists who had transgressed too far. Many met horrible deaths: eyes gouged out by stalactites, ears gnawed off by rats. Ruskin said one man suffered castration when a coffin lid he'd opened snapped closed before he could remove himself. When Louise scoffed at his story, Ruskin claimed it was well documented, that the man's voice was two octaves higher when he emerged from the tomb. "Sounded a bit like our friend Alfred," he said. We were both angry with him, and he had to apologize. Ruskin was the kind of person who would try to get away with murder, if he could. He hated Alfred almost as much as I hated Maurice Beadycap. That kind of hate didn't dissolve on your tongue like a sherbet-lemon when you said you were sorry. Hate like that stayed with you always. I felt sorry for Ruskin. If you had to hate someone, you should hate a person like Maurice. It was more satisfying.
I told Ruskin the museum had a museumy smell. Ruskin asked me what I meant by that, and I said it was the smell of old books in someone's great-grandmother's house. He said it was the scent of knowledge. Louise said it was the scent of death. Ruskin and I changed the subject.
We had lunch in the cafeteria. I ate three spoonfuls of Demerara sugar. Louise never once warned me about cavities. We had tea and digestive biscuits. Then we each had a ham sandwich and a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps. Ruskin paid for all of it, so I asked Louise in a whisper if we could use our money to buy fish and chips on the way home. She said, "We'll see," which always used to mean no. I didn't push my luck.
We spent much of the afternoon with the Vikings, followed by the illuminated manuscripts. Ruskin had to leave us to our own devices because he needed to get back to work. I was glad he had to go. Louise was still excited, and I wanted her to myself. I was trying to live in the moment the way Alfred said I should. It was a hard thing to do well. My mind strayed to tomorrow; it was just the way I was made. Some people, like Louise, for example, looked back. A few, notably myself, looked forward. Today we'd come together in the present. It wouldn't last. I knew that Louise would go off the deep end again and rant and rave about God knows what.
Here were the Viking ships and the helmets. Here were the silver bracelets they wore and the goblets they drank from. A different time. All the ghosts who used them gone. How would I be when I was gone? Which objects would remember me? Ruskin and Louise and I were alive. These people had rotted to dust. I thought about poor Hamlet, dwelling on his own mortality. I didn't want to do that with my life. I wanted to live it fast and high and deep. If my world collapsed because I piled too much stuff into it, so be it. As long as it was full. As long as it was never boring. That's what killed you--boredom. You could stand everything else.
"I'd like to leave something to the world," I said to Louise as we stared down into a glass display case of Viking artifacts. A helmet stamped with the contours of the smithy's hands shone under the fluorescent lighting.
"What would you leave?"
All day she'd been responding like that. Listening, actually listening to what I had to say, and then coming up with a logical response.
She asked me again. "What would you like to leave behind?"
"Stories," I said.
"I suppose. Only they'd be mine instead. Stories or poems or pictures, maybe. Something other people could see so they'd know Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses was here."
She looked at me for a long time. I could feel her eyes on my face even though I was looking down into the glass pretending to be absorbed in old things.
"I hope you get your dream. I've a feeling you will. You have the talent and the determination. You're your father's daughter. I don't suppose there'll be much that will defeat you. It's a great thing to want to be some kind of artist. I wanted that once. Hold on to it. Don't ever let it go."
I wanted to jump up in the air and clap my hands. I wanted to kiss my mother's pretty, worn-down hands because she'd told me it was worth it to try.
"I hope you get your dream too, Mum."
"I've got it," she said, taking my hand and kissing it. Such a strange gesture in the strange high light of the museum. "You are my dream. I want you to be all the things I couldn't be. Then it will all be worthwhile."
I took a deep breath. I wanted to say something but I was suddenly heavy and my mouth wouldn't open for speech.
On the way out, we stopped at an ice cream van. Louise bought two ice cream cones. Each one had two Cadbury's chocolate Flake bars in it. They stuck out like rude brown fingers. I'd never had two flakes in my ice cream cone before. I ate them slowly, the way poor people can, knowing what they meant.
"I feel like a millionaire," I said.
"Me too," said Louise.
"It won't last, will it?"
We were strolling along the pavement, casually looking in shop windows. It was close to five; the rush hour was under way. People walked past us in the sunshine, their jackets draped over their arms. British people in a straight line home, foreigners with cameras straying from one monument to the next. Eight million people in a city at the end of the sixties. I wanted to know what it meant--whether it mattered that the Beatles had arrived and flower power was playing in the background like a nursery rhyme; whether it mattered that my hair was darker than my mother's pupils; whether it mattered that someone had knocked out her tooth during her stay in a lunatic asylum; whether it mattered that the sun may not come up tomorrow if the missiles of the world shattered it into brilliant flakes of iridescence; whether it mattered that I was called black and she was called white, and she was my mother--whether that mattered too. I wanted it to matter. I wanted it to matter that people were poorer than we were and that they were waiting for me to help them because otherwise, what was I doing here? I wanted it to matter that I'd known little Alison Bean before the bus ran her over and that we'd played hopscotch in the fading light of Lavender Sweep afternoons. I wanted it to matter that Louise and I were here at this moment in this city together. Like a mother and a daughter. I wanted a daughter of my own, consciously, for the first time. An odd feeling passed over me and made me shiver.
Louise stopped dead in her tracks. She gasped the way you do when you're startled by something.
"What's wrong?" My voice scared me. It was frantic.
"I've had a glorious idea," she said. Her voice was taut--as if someone had strung it up across the sky like a washing line.
"You have? An idea? What is it?"
She looked at me for a second or two, then shook her head. "I can't tell you yet. I want it to be a surprise. If it doesn't work, you'll be disappointed."
I begged her to tell me, but she wouldn't budge. I had to make do with fish and chips at Clapham Junction. I got cod; Louise got haddock; we got plaice for Alfred. We saved it until we got home, then unwrapped the vinegar-soaked paper and poured the fish and chips onto plates. Not since Simon's death had I been happier. We were as rich as kings. The world spun around us clapping its hands. We were us! We were us! We were us!
We sat in Alfred's tiny bedsit. He brought out his Glenn Miller records and a bottle of Sandeman's port. I told him about our day with the mummies, the Vikings, and the illuminated manuscripts. He liked the part about the manuscripts best because he had a kinship with monks, he said. He liked stories about people working in solitude because alone you could see in the dark. I asked him what he meant, but he had a bone stuck in his throat, and by the time we'd dislodged it with vigorous pounding on his back, he was too exhausted to speak. When he recovered he'd forgotten the question--adults always forget the question--but he did go on to talk about the Vikings, whom he called brutish, and the root cause of history's retreat from civility. "Mass production has ruined artistic endeavor," he said, leaping to the monks again, in time for my mother to tell him I planned to write a book.
Alfred got very excited about that. If I included a portrait of him in it, he wanted it to be a favorable one. I promised it would be. They made a toast to my anticipated genius, and I made a toast to the secret Louise still refused to share. Alfred said the day would go down in history as one of the best in our lives. Louise said she was glad, so glad we'd gone to the British Museum today.
That night, Louise tucked me in the way she used to before she went mad.
I tried not to let it slip out, but I was afraid. If I lost her again after she'd let me find her, how would I bear it? I grabbed hold of her hand and held it to my cheek.
"Whatever's the matter?" she said.
"Don't go! Don't go yet!"
"Go?You want me to stay here? Are you afraid of the dark?"
"Yes. Yes, that's it. I can't see in the dark. Will you stay?"
"All right. I'll stay until you fall asleep. But mind you close your eyes. No peeking. I'll be right here." "Will you stroke my hair?"
She stroked my hair. Her fingers were cold but gentle. Eventually I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up the room was dark. Above me, I heard Louise in the kitchen. Water was running in the sink, and I could hear her humming to herself. Her voice was sweet. The notes ended in a kind of question mark, as if she wasn't quite sure where the melody was going to take her.
I found myself whispering to the dark.
"Don't be afraid, Mum. It's okay. I'm here. We can be strong together."
I turned over into the pillow.
If all the other days of my life were less than this, it would be okay. My mother had been my mother again. Joy filled me like grief.
The next morning, I tiptoed upstairs to the kitchen. Behind the kitchen door was a devil or an angel: Louise I or Louise II. When Louise II was around, I wasn't a mishap after all; I was a lucky charm. I will never let my daughter think of herself as a mistake, I thought. She's going to know from the start that she's the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.
I looked down at the stairs. What was left of the paisley swirls gathered themselves into fishes' hands. None of them was clapping.
Fishes' hands, paisley swirls It always stinks to be a girl.
Up the stairs to the kitchen-in-the-sky. Up and up the stairs of the narrow terraced house whose coordinates were Battersea and deprivation. Up to a white woman who could scream down the walls and make me pay for all my past transgressions. Up to penance in the name of the Father and of Simon's Holy Ghost.
Hail Mary, full of grace The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women Make my mother love me.
Inside the door, a woman.
"Good morning," the woman said.
"How did you sleep?"
She's agitated. Don't annoy her. Be good. Otherwise she'll strangle you.
She's pouring me a bowl of sunshine. The Kellogg cockerel is a red clarion on the cornflakes box. She loves me, she loves me not. Her hands are flying around her face like birds. Her eyes are wide open and driven by lack of sleep. She can't stop talking. She's telling me her secret. Listen, you fool. React with care.
"So that's what I want to do. What do you think, Jacinta? Is it ridiculous at my age?"
I haven't heard what she's been saying! I could kick myself! Smile. I smile. She hugs me.
"I knew you'd be a Trojan! I knew it! It will mean some sacrifices, of course."
I nod. I've said the right thing. A smile comes of" its own volition.
"O, Jacinta! I can't believe it! After all these years your mother's going back to school!"
I begin to laugh.
She hugs me again. Then she pulls me up from the chair and spins me round in circles. Her white denture gleams in the morning sun. Her new blond hair looks happy. I begin to believe this isn't dreaming. At last I begin to believe my mother has come home.
I go in to say good-bye to Louise. They are coming for her body, to take it away from us for good. Lady is fast asleep upstairs.
"Do you remember what Vera said about Hubert--about his becoming the day rather than just experiencing it?"
"Sometimes it feels like that, doesn't it? As if there's no separating the experience from who you are. I have to look at Lady to remember I haven't become death too, now that Mum is gone. Do you know what I mean?"
"Yes, I know."
"We fought, Alfred. Even during these final months. I'm ashamed." Alfred pats my head in an effort to console me.
I think back to the time when she came to visit me in Virginia. She flew out to see me in her new wig. I combed it for her. It reminded me of my Tressy doll. We moved in and out of accusations as if we were in a courtroom.
After lunch one day, she and I did the dishes in my small kitchen with the pretty view of the Appalachians. I remembered her diary--how for years all she'd wanted to do was lie with a corpse. I was suddenly furious.
"You know something," I said, shocked by the poison in my voice. "I don't care what you do anymore. You can give up on yourself if you like and let the cancer eat you up, and I'm not going to try and stop you. You know why? Because I'm sick of being around people who don't want to be alive. You, then Manny, then you again. I'm sick of it. You have to take the rough with the smooth. You can't just give up--"
Before I could finish, she was in my face. We were back again in Lavender Sweep. Only her hands weren't round my neck. She let her words strangle me instead.
"The rough with the smooth, is it? The rough with the smooth!" She threw her head back and laughed the way she did all those years ago. I'd sent her over the edge again! I tried to take her hand. She shoved me away and stormed into the living room. She went over to the window and looked out at the mountains. Her back was filled with rage and her hands were trembling, but I knew it would be all right. She would come back this time. She hated me, but she didn't want to kill me. I was grateful.
"I'm sorry," I said, realizing I had to push her that far--had to see what she was like when I sent her to the edge. Had to see whether she'd jump into the abyss, the way she did before.
"You're always sorry, Jacinta. But you always want to push and push. Ever since you were little you've been that way."
"I just don't want you to die, Mum."
She turned round to face me, making me jump. Her face was bloated with pain. I think, I did that.
"You forget everything you don't want to remember, you know that?"
I told her I didn't know what she was talking about.
"The rough with the smooth--all that ... that crap!" She startled me with the word. One of my words. I wanted to put it back into her mouth and make her swallow it.
"Don't you remember, my girl, what the rough was like? Don't you remember those months after Lady was born? What you were like? How dark it was for all of us? You pushed us away because of some absurd notion you had about beauty. Always looking in the mirror at yourself. Always making me feel as though I was too old, too fat.... What right did you have to do that to anyone? What gave you the right to dictate beauty to others? And then your beautiful child came along and what did you do but reject her? Just like you rejected everything you thought was ugly. And all because of some tiny flaw that you--"
"Tiny flaw! Jesus!"
I recovered in time to quiet myself. Lady was upstairs in her room. Beautiful. Alive. I was stupid for a while. I must never send her to the same place this woman sent me. She must be the light I see by, and I must be her light. Just like the moon in Margaret Atwood's poem, able to endure the dark.
"I was sad for a while, but I recovered. It's okay now. It didn't take me years and years. And even when Manny ... even then I didn't go to pieces."
"You were always the strong one. Things didn't seem to affect you as much. Always found a way to keep yourself closed off, I suppose. Some people don't feel as much as others. It's a blessing, really--"
"Shut up, you old fool! Shut up!"
I was in her face this time. She was smaller than I. She who used to be taller had shrunk. When?
I stumbled over to the sofa. I fell down on it and buried my face in the cushions so that Lady wouldn't hear me crying.
My mother was next to me, stroking my hair.
"It's all right, Jassie. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things. I didn't mean them. I was only rambling. I didn't know you felt that way. You poor thing. A life like that--it can make you go mad. I'm sorry. I don't know what's gotten into me. You're right. It's your life and you should deal with it in your own way. You are braver than I was. I think you really can make it on your own."
"I'm not brave! I'm terrified. Every time Lady looks in the mirror and sees what isn't there, I want to find it for her. My heart is aching. And now you're going to leave us. Please, please don't go, Mum. She's so beautiful. Who will see it?"
"O, Jacinta. Can't you see that everyone sees it? Can't you see that you've loved your child so well that she sees it too? Don't you realize yet how much light you bring into people's lives? Don't you know it was you who brought me back from hell and kept Alfred laughing all those years? Don't you realize that?"
I sat up. "Me?"
"Of course. That day--the day before I cleaned the house and we went to the British Museum, remember?"
I nodded. It was the starting point of my faith for nearly twenty-five years.
"The day before you were sitting on the stairs singing a tune from Porgy and Bess--that one about the man going and no more footsteps on the stairs, and I was outside in the hallway, listening. And you could only finger out the melody because we'd never had enough money for lessons, and the piano sounded so mournful and hollow and it was horribly out of tune. But your sweet voice rose up above it as if it had wings, and you sang like a woman of forty. And there was pain in your voice--so deep ... made me think of wells and of water. And then I climbed upstairs to the kitchen and sat down and cried. I cried and cried and cried. And you kept singing that song about the man who'd gone, and I kept crying. And then I woke up. It was just like that. As though I'd been in a deep sleep all those years after Simon's death, and suddenly someone had pinched me. And there I was in the late 1960s, with a daughter and a life to live. And if I wasn't careful, she'd be joining me forever in the place where that song was being sung, and then we'd both be lost. And you were too beautiful to lose, Cinta.
"But it wasn't easy, even after that. And I had to pray harder than I'd ever prayed before. So that night I cleaned the kitchen until it sparkled, after I'd sent Alfred out that afternoon to buy napkins and crumpets, and cleansers and flowers. And every so often I sat down with my rosary and told the beads. All the Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Glory Bes I could muster to get me through. I think I prayed to Simon as much as I prayed to God because I knew that if anyone could break through into this world and help me it was him.
"And then at three A.M. something wonderful happened.
"I must have fallen asleep with the rosary in my hand when I felt a tugging at the beads, and I jumped up thinking it was you. The room was empty, except for a strange shadow on the wall, as if I had a fire lit in the room and a dancer was there in front of it casting his shadow on the wall. And then the shadow gathered itself into your father's face, and there he was--smiling and nodding as if, after all, I'd done the right thing by coming home.
"Because that's what haunted me. The idea that you'd be better off without me. That I was too unstable. That I'd ... harm you by being there.
"And it was as if I knew then that everything would be all right. Because of your song and his face. And then I woke up again because the first waking up was like the outer envelope of a dream--at least I think that's what it was, I was never really sure. The room was quiet. Nothing was left in it but a kind of fullness. And I knew I wouldn't be empty again because Simon was there in the walls and the floors and in your sweet voice and your gorgeous eyes. I put the rosary beads away and began to clean in earnest. By the time the dawn came, I was singing. When the sun came through the windows, I thought it was you. And when you came into the room that morning, I knew I was right.
"And now you're here in America and I'm here too, and you've written your poetry books and become a professor and done all the things that few people from Lavender Sweep ever have a chance to do. It's funny. After all these years, after all the things that have happened to us, you'd think I'd be ready to die. And sometimes I am, and that's what you heard just now. But you know, the ironic thing is, there's a large part of me that isn't ready to go anywhere. I want to see Lady grow up. I want to remember you as a child when I see her as a child. She is so much like you, Jacinta. So strong. So willful. No one will ever control her for long. And she'll bring light into the world the way you do. I know it and I'd like to witness it. You probably won't believe me, but I'd rather like to stay put, if I could."
"O, Mum. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. It's no one's fault. If something happens, I can say I've had a good run for my money. And I'd be lying if I were to say I didn't long to be with your father. I just think there's life in the old gal yet. I want Lady to know me. I'll be a much better grandmother than I was a mother."
That should have been the last conflict between us because then we would have had closure. But Louise was right: I've never been able to stop pushing. And that's been half the problem.
"Alfred?" I say when all that is left of Louise is a cold indentation in the bed where her small body lay waiting for the reunion with her soul.
"Yes, little one?"
"Mothers should never die. What do you do when you're not someone's child anymore? How do you stand it?"
"Mothers don't die," he tells me. "I see mine every day. I talk with her. We tell jokes. People are foolish to believe that death can divorce you from love. You just have to open yourself up to new possibilities, that's all. If you know yourself well enough, and if you're patient, you can do that."
"Patience isn't my strong point, Alfred. You know that. Alfred?"
"Africa was the most glorious and the most terrible of times for me. And I never told her about it. I locked her out. A few details about Simon's family--a few comments about Esther and Assieyatu--that was all I shared with her. I didn't let her know me. You were right all those years ago when you said it was me who left us. It was me."
"No, Jacinta. Don't do that to yourself. Don't you see? You came back. Here you are with your own lovely daughter. Just like sweet Louise, you came back."
Alfred invites me to sit in his room and listen to his old record player. He pulls out my mother's favorite music--Carmina Burana, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and everything by Delius. He says he'll see to Lady. I should lie down if I want. He goes out.
Later, between the gorgeous strains of the music, I hear Lady talking up a storm with him in the kitchen. Alfred is old in years now, but he hasn't lost his ability to talk with the young. She is opening up to him. I hear the hum of his consolation, though I cannot make out the words. She loved her Mama Lou and I know I can trust him to find the right words for her to live by. But who will comfort Alfred? The thought makes me feel ashamed again. Guilt creeps up me like rising damp.
Alfred has given me this space in which to grieve. I need to find a way to thank him for this gift. I open myself up to the music. At times I can hardly breathe because so much wells up from the past. I think about Lady and about Africa, about the ride in the Jeep and the ghosts who come back to haunt me, about Simon and what it meant to find his signature upon the land, about Esther Cole and John Turay and the way they swept me up to heaven for a few months before I found out that the night is an overlay of black paper with small holes cut in it for the stars; before I found out that behind that gentle blackness is an infinity of blinding light, the light that lunatics remember. I realize that most people do things out of fear--that's what drives them. They're afraid and then they act that fear out upon the world. That's what tragedy means--the reenacting of fear; and you mustn't judge us too harshly, must you? I mean, how much is our own fault?
Why, at twenty-four, was I so ripe for the plucking? Louise had come back. Life was picking up in Battersea. Why hadn't I grown stronger in a quarter of a century of struggle? If I, with all my advantages, had not been strong, how could I possibly criticize my mother, whose circumstances were always much more trying than my own? Why did I, like so many other women I know, yearn to be saved by a man?
As Puccini takes up the refrain of loss, I think back to midnight mass in St. Vincent de Paul.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, I Israel!
Did I meet him then--all those years before when I was a child singing to a God I didn't know at St. Vincent de Paul's church in Battersea? Was my husband, Emmanuel, the incarnation of the savior who would set me free? Take me away from one culture and plant me in another? Take me to a New World of fabulous promises? He was the person with the "man" in his name. He was the blond, beautiful American who had been to all the places I had dreamed about and who loved the Africa in me more than I did myself. I thought he would set me free. We wrote together and held out against the rest of the world. Then the world took a sharp turn to the left, and the night began to fade into whiteness.
Alfred's words have made me brave. Puccini's music adds to that courage. My mother's death opens me up to myself and to a remembrance of what was buried.
At last it's time to remember Easter. Half a dozen years locked up without a key. I think about Manny, the man who took me to Paris and made me want to write. I permit myself to think about the man whose life I ruined and who nearly ruined mine. The father of my little girl. The man who told me we should kill her.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
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