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The looking glass, p.19

The Looking Glass, page 19


The Looking Glass

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  Miss Milly was certainly strongly impressed by my uncle; whenever he spoke to her she turned pink as a boiled prawn. To me this affection seemed reasonable: he was great fun when he was in a holiday mood; he could be playful and kind; it was normal to love him. Miss Milly gazed at Uncle Gérard with an enraptured look like someone in church coming back from Holy Communion; her face blurred to dreaminess; she sat next to him on the beach, listening to him talk, with her hands clasped as though she were praying. I lay curled up between them, supposedly taking my nap, but it was too interesting, what was going on just next to me, to let myself drift away into unconsciousness. I peeped through my half-closed eyelashes, when they thought I was asleep, and saw them kissing each other. A kiss which linked up with the softness of my uncle’s coat padding the pebbles underneath me, and the heat of the sun on my cheek. The two of them were my windbreak, a sheltering pavilion of bodies. They arched over me, joined by their mouths.

  Almost immediately after that, Uncle Gérard went to Paris, and Miss Milly disappeared. My grandmother explained that she had returned home to England, to see her mother who had suddenly been taken ill. Geneviève said that she was sure Miss Milly had been sacked. Why? I demanded. Oh, she said vaguely: your grandmother was displeased with her; she didn’t do her job properly; something like that.

  That must be my fault, I was sure. I hadn’t worked hard enough, and I hadn’t learned enough English. Guilt was a blow that made me stagger. Change whirled upon me, a thundercloud out of a blue sky. A change in the weather. My two suns had departed and left me exposed and alone on the chilly beach, shivering. Uncle Gérard might return, but Miss Milly never. I felt so lonely one night that I took my collection of stones and shells to bed with me and slept with them under my pillow. In the morning the pillowcase was stained with salt water and the chambermaid complained and I was made to throw my treasures away. Geneviève helped me collect some more and lent me a handkerchief to keep them in. The knotted bag hung from the bedpost so that I could see it if I woke up and be certain it was still there.

  Sometimes at night Geneviève cried, but she wouldn’t tell me what about. Sometimes she took me into her bed. Her arms stretched out and encircled me as the cliffs did the beach, arching out like wings to catch and hold me. I lay against her like a sea lulled after the tempest, breathing in and out on the shore. She was soft, despite being so thin. She wore a thick linen nightdress, and being in her embrace reminded me of the afternoon I lay on the beach on Uncle Gérard’s coat. I loved falling asleep with her in her bed, melded to her side like a limpet to a rock. I made her promise not to tell my grandmother or she’d be sacked as well.

  Back in Jumièges, the summer drew towards its close. I took chilly walks along the river bank in the fine rain, picked sopping bunches of wild flowers to present to my grandmother on my return. The house felt empty, fidgety.

  Uncle Gérard was now back from visiting his friends in Paris. He continued to give me a daily lesson, and the rest of the time I worked at my books under the eye of my grandmother. I am afraid I was not easy to teach; I was a sullen and grumpy child at this time, only too prone to bursting into tears when reproved. My grandmother would cast up her hands at these tantrums and exclaim: what are we going to do with you! To cry in her presence was a sign of great weakness. Often I compounded my disgrace by not being able to stop crying and had to be sent to my room.

  One weekend in early September Uncle Gérard took me to Le Havre for an overnight visit. We stayed in a dim, gloomy hotel in a cobbled backstreet. We were invited by the Polpeaus to go with them, riding in their carriage as far as Rouen and then taking the train. While they were settling their daughter Yvonne back into her school before the start of the new term, for special coaching after failing her end of year exams in June, my uncle took me to the sea.

  The beach did not shelve steeply, as at Etretat, but seemed completely flat, a wide expanse of grey under uncertain sunshine and racing clouds. No pebbles here, either, but sand, which children are supposed to prefer. You can run across it barefoot, build castles with it, and so on. I didn’t like the sand. It blew into our eyes, into our goûter of bread and chocolate; it gritted inside my socks when I put them back on; it dried on my legs and scratched.

  I felt it was only polite to reassure my uncle, who was looking after me on his own because my grandmother had business in Rouen and could not accompany us, that I was enjoying this treat. But Le Havre felt foreign, and too big. There was too much town crowding up onto the promenade, and too little sea. It was low tide, the water’s edge a long way out, the waves almost invisible, a grey wrinkle on the horizon. To get to the sea you had to walk over what seemed kilometers of grey sludge, leaving everything familiar far behind. I dutifully marched down the beach a little way, past the seaweed-draped breakwaters, until I reached the tideline, where dry sand was replaced by wet, and by coarse shingle. I kept turning round to check that my uncle was still there, lying, propped on one elbow, further up the beach, looking bored and smoking a cigar. He had dwindled to the size of a doll. I didn’t want him to get any smaller, and disappear, so I stopped, and chose my digging place.

  I dug a hole in a wet patch of sand and poured seawater into it from my little red and white tin pail, plodding to the far-off low breakers to fill this. I made several journeys but the level of water at the bottom of my hole got no higher. I couldn’t hold the sea in my hands. It vanished every time, seeping away through the grey squidgy walls of what was not even a puddle. I don’t know why I bothered doing this. I suppose I hadn’t the energy to raise a castle; I retreated from such an assertive act; I chose concave over convex.

  I returned to my uncle and outlined the problem of the water not being willing to stay. He grimaced and said I was a philosopher seeking to understand infinity; an impossibility; he couldn’t help me. Then, as I gaped at him, he snorted and added that surely I knew that water leaked through sand; I was old enough, surely, for heaven’s sake; I was seven years old.

  I remember that day so clearly, perhaps because we were both edgy and discontented, showing each other how we felt but unable to cheer each other up. Also because it was almost my last day of freedom. Soon afterwards I understood the reason for the visit to Le Havre. It was a special treat, a kind of farewell to the summer holidays, and an introduction to the wider world outside Jumièges which I scarcely knew at all. My grandmother’s trip to Rouen had been in order to arrange for me to become a termly boarder at the junior school attached to the lycée there. With Miss Milly gone, my grandmother naturally wished to assure herself that I would be properly cared for and educated. Her health was too shaky for her to go on teaching me my lessons herself, and my uncle was really too busy to continue his part of the business. My father had written from Africa to say that he was making plenty of money out there among the black people; the fees would be no problem. So off I was to go to school.

  The prospect frightened me. School sounded like a punishment. I believed that if I was sent there I should become lost, like a parcel, and never find my way home again. I plucked up my courage and visited my uncle in his study to tell him this. Unfortunately I chose a bad moment, when he was in the middle of writing something. A poem, I suppose. We were not meant to interrupt him in his study, and his face, as he turned it to me where I stood hovering at the door, was at first absent and then irritable.

  I pleaded with him not to send me away; I promised to reform and become an angel of virtue if only he would allow me to stay at home. It made him quite angry to have to say to me that it was not his decision; it was not he who had charge of children; my grandmother ran the household and we must respect her wishes. She was doing it for the best, etc., etc. I saw how ashamed he felt, and that even he could feel as powerless as a child. Immediately I felt I must protect him and so said no more. I duly departed for school.

  I was as unhappy there as it is possible to be, even more unhappy than I had expected. I thought I would die, in those first weeks, of the strangeness
and loneliness. The nights were the worst, since, being the youngest boarder, I was sent upstairs before the others. The stairs up to the dormitory, polished and carpetless, loomed like scree on a mountainside. I hauled myself up over their menacing edges, rising higher and higher into blackness, towards whatever presence waited for me there. The corridor at the top was lit only by a single lamp at the far end. Walking through this hall of shadows felt like approaching hell; I was convinced that demons lurked in the darkness, eager to clutch hold of me. At night I frequently wet the bed since I was too frightened to get up and walk what seemed a kilometre to the lavatory. I would lie in my cold and stinking sheets, waiting wretchedly for the morning, the humiliation of having my shameful state discovered, and being made to strip the bed and carry the sheets past all my fellow pupils down to the laundry. I should not dwell on that period in my life, however, since this is not my story but Gérard’s.

  It’s just that, years later, when I was grown up and could properly appreciate my uncle’s poems, I read his chef-d’oeuvre Men and Mermaids (written while he was still a young man) for the first time, that long, astonishing sequence of jagged, dissonant lines whose uneven music you can fancy represents the crashing of the waves onto the shore; that complex meditation with its interwoven themes of sea serpents and monsters and mermaids, one seductive image metamorphosing into another in the same way that the sea is described as shimmering with layers of constantly changing colours. I was intrigued to discover what seemed to me such clear references to the unforgettable and dramatic landscape of Etretat, which meant so much to me during the short time I was there and was so bound up with people I loved.

  The poem mimics a landscape of the heart, certainly, a landscape of the imagination, but, to this reader at least, paints a vivid picture of the real. As I turned the pages, there it was, the eager sea, its surface tint altering subtly with the light, from green to turquoise to violet and back again, the rough, white-capped waves pounding the beach and sending up walls of spray, the powerful salt-laden wind, the caves hidden inside the arching cliffs, the heaps of black nets, the fishermen’s thatched black huts, their piled lobster pots. I was very proud to think that I could share a memory of all that with my uncle, that I’d actually been there with him.

  That was all, of course, many years ago. Looking back from the vantage point of the present, I struggle to understand exactly how the present changes into the past, how what seems utterly modern, now, subsequently becomes charmingly old-fashioned and quaint. The present can appear so brash—Etretat full of motor cars, noisy with blaring music, the old shopfronts marred by lurid advertising posters—that it’s easy to look back at the Etretat of the past and see it as far more beautiful, more unspoiled. Yet as a child visiting Etretat I saw it as utterly modern and up to date: the hotel newly decorated; the women in the latest fashions. It was the present, the epitome of progress.

  Deeper than this, my nostalgia points me towards something I’ve lost; some treasure of goodness and beauty that belongs in the remote past. Some golden age of happiness, some paradise land of long ago. I used to think I was some kind of reactionary, always moping for what was gone, insisting things were better then. Now I think that that yearning back has to do with mourning my mother, whom of course I never knew. In my imagination death has preserved her incorrupt; eternally beautiful and young; she can’t be bruised or spoiled by age and time. And in my imagination my beloved uncle, also, lives on unharmed, fixed for ever as handsome and smiling, as though in a studio portrait. Is that what the imagination does for us, then, preserves for ever what we most love? So imagination and memory are one. And to remember is to become an archaeologist, discovering images of the past whole and undamaged. Or, at least, knowing how to fit the remains together again; to mend what was destroyed; to make something new out of it.

  My uncle’s work gives me back my mother. His poems heal and repair the wounds of my childhood. What more could he have done for me?

  None of this is explicit in Men and Mermaids, naturally. I have brought my own musings to the poems. Yet, reading them again, I’m intrigued to rediscover how the figure of a pensive young woman drifts through them, an insubstantial wraith who seems only half flesh and blood, half created from foam and seawater. The Muse? She doesn’t speak in human language, the poet tells us: but in an unknown tongue that he translates for the reader. She is never named, and we don’t know who she was.

  What enchants me, reading and re-reading this group of poems, is my discovery of how art has the power, so realistically and convincingly, to summon and recreate the past, to find and invent it; how it hasn’t gone away and vanished for ever as we might suppose. The past can come back, like a spirit from the dead. The poems’ metaphors allow the past and the present constantly to blur into one another, like watercolours. Men and Mermaids presents me with a childhood world whose colours and shapes are as fresh and bright as those in a picture book.

  Perhaps poetry in itself is a metaphor, a metaphor of presence, beginning with absence and then making something alive out of it, revealing that emptiness can be inhabited by fullness. Space on the blank white page suddenly leaping with the black squiggles of words. Yes, conception and birth. So to remember and to write seems to mean to be haunted, and simultaneously, to feel fertile. Did Uncle Gérard feel like this? I imagine not! These are my own images, for my own writing: this memoir that sprawls and dashes about all over the place, that wants to be given its head and won’t stay tidy, within the bounds of some logical narrative of what happened next, but which is as fanciful as any fairy story. Writing this, I’m a bareback rider standing astride two galloping steeds: memory and desire.

  Ah, that armchair, and that uncle, that prancing delight on which I rode, night after night, excitement mounting to fever pitch—no wonder my grandmother always stopped the game at a certain point of overheatedness and sent me off to bed.

  Was I in love with my uncle, then? Yes. Can a child of seven be in love with a man of thirty-five? Most certainly, yes. Miss Milly and I were both in love with him, and we were both punished for it by being sent away. That, to my childish mind, was irrefutably logical. That I can acknowledge it at all, now, so many years later, is because help and rescue arrived just as I had given up hope.


  I had thought I would have to walk all the way from Jumièges to Rouen, but a passing sailboat took me up and gave me a lift along the tightly winding S of the river. Its owner came alongside one of the numerous little wooden quays which jutted out over the milky green water and invited me to hop on board. He was a ferryman, he told me, who made a living transporting people, and sometimes their poultry too, trussed by the feet and squawking loudly, up and down the great waterway which was our main road. Having taken a couple of tourists, laden with folding easels and camp-stools, downstream to their early morning destination, a popular sketching spot in our particular loop of the Seine, he was returning to his boatyard and was happy to have a passenger to keep him company.

  He was a grizzled old man with faded blue eyes in his brown, weatherbeaten face. He was bent and shaped by work in the way that thorn trees get blunted by the wind. Seeing the basket over my arm he assumed I was on my way to the market in Rouen, and I assented, glad that my flight could appear such a normal journey.

  Once we were away from the shallows and out in midstream, our sails felt the fresh breeze knocking against them, filling them, and we fairly scudded along. The river, buoyantly rocking us up and down, seemed enormous, and our craft so tiny it might easily capsize. We were skimming the surface of what felt like unknown depths; you could imagine them swelling underneath you, like blown walls of liquid glass; we tilted along precariously on top, ready at any moment to plunge and topple down. Grey-green water raced past on either side; my face was level with the distant willows lining the shore. Everything but the surrounding river seemed very far away. I sat in the bows, watching the pilot’s skill, the tiller leaping in his hand like a live thing as the wind
drove us along and the sails cracked and whipped like taut sheets drying on the line. Then Rouen rose up, and I said goodbye to the kind ferryman as he put me ashore. He had not bothered me en route with curious questions about where I came from and what household I worked for, and now he wouldn’t take any money for the trip. He grunted his refusal, handed me out, and pointed me in the direction I should go, to steer clear of the port and into town.

  Rouen was waking up, stretching, yawning, as I walked into it. Shutters above my head squeaked as they were pushed open from within then creaked apart, wooden lips ready to announce the start of the day, releasing quilts, like fat tongues, sent flopping over windowsills to air. Voices called out abruptly from inside, staccato, harsh, and the rhythm of a child’s crying interlaced itself with the soothing murmurs of a woman, the one tone leaning into the other, a counterpoint. Shop doors gaped wide; awnings were lowered screechily down; buckets of soapy water sluiced across the pavements onto the cobbles, scummy and frothing, so that I had to scuttle out of the way as I passed. My boots made a loud clattering noise in my ears, uncontrollable, though I told my feet to keep quiet; I was a surprise who surprised myself; I was afraid I was creating a disturbance, whereas I wanted to pass through these fresh morning streets invisibly, unnoticed by anybody, like a cat-burglar slithering in and out of casements, tiptoeing over eaves, in the middle of the night.

  I had been following the sun, but now I felt less sure of what road to take. At a junction I hesitated, not knowing which way to go, yet reluctant to draw attention to myself by asking someone. In the end I headed in the same direction as a couple of women in front of me. They looked, with their bags over their arms, as though they were going shopping, and so I followed them. They walked at a good pace, springily; their backs were energetic. They talked and gesticulated, their free arms flying up and their hands tapping the air. Their sabots rapped on the cobbles.

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