And so it was.
God saw all that he had made,
and indeed it was very good
The sound of her sister’s voice pierces the stillness of the afternoon.
Lucy continues her work on the chain of dandelions she is making from the scores of them scattered like stars across the street lawn. She would remember, if you asked her, that she didn’t always live here, that she came to this place with her family when she was smaller from some other place that didn’t have a lawn or even a yard. But just now it seems to her that there has only ever been this golden day; with the green of the lawn, and the yellow of the dandelions vibrating in the sun; the shade of the nearby box tree like a deep hole in the lawn.
“There you are Dilly Dream! Mummy says to come in and have some cake because Daddy’s going soon.”
It is Katherine her big sister, in her best dress: pink, puffed sleeves, gathered skirt and rows and rows of smocking across the bodice. It still has a fresh-from-the-ironing-board feel to it and she carries herself as if she is wearing a crinoline.
“Come on then!”
“I’m just doing this! You go way!”
Taking a deep breath in, Lucy splits the stem of the last dandelion with her big round thumbnail…. “She’s got her father’s hands” … then, breathing out, she very carefully extends the split to allow the neatly folded flower from the other end of the chain to pass through and complete the circle. It is beautiful; the dandelions all still open, petals taut and full of juice; the blue iris of blue and the center of blackness clearly visible on each, like eyes, wide open. This is the best chain she’s ever made. Laying it carefully on the ground, she stands up, then bending down picks it up on outspread hands and walks, carefully, inside.
As she enters the kitchen she has a sudden moment of hesitation and stands almost paralyzed in the doorway. She had forgotten the visitors who had come to say goodbye.
“Here let me fix your ribbon for you … just look at your dress.” Her mother’s voice goes unheeded, out at the edge somewhere.
“So there you are! What have you got there?”
“It’s for you!” she blurts out, her face going pink.
“Well, you’d better put it on me then,” says her father leaning down to her, his face doing that funny thing with one side of his moustache curling up in a grin and one eyebrow raised. A playful opening to the intimacy being offered.
Moving closer she smells the familiar mixture of tobacco and ether that comes from his suit, especially after mum has pressed it with a damp cloth and the thump, thump, thumping of the iron.
As she puts the garland round his neck, she feels a warm glow in her chest and a rush of energy tingling up her legs. Daddy squashes the flowers a bit with his big hug and all the flower-eyes are closed up by the time the time he swings his suitcase into the boot of the taxi, but he doesn’t take it off and goes off to fly ‘half way round the world’ wearing her daisy chain.
They wave until Daddy’s taxi disappears around the corner.
Her mother, Claire, stands looking up the empty street. From the way she is standing she might have stopped some cry just before it reached her lips, or tried to leap forward, only to be dragged back by the clawing of the two-year-old at her skirt, the pressure of the sleeping baby on her shoulder, and the chatter of the two girls elbowing each other out of the way as they compete for her attention.
“Up! Up! Wan ded up!”
“What are we going to do now Mummy?”
“Can we have some more cake?”
Securing her grip on the baby, the woman reaches down, grabs the toddler by the back of his dungarees and swings him up onto her hip.
“All right let’s see who can find the crayons and we’ll draw a picture to send to Daddy in Australia.” Her two girls race each other up the path, excited and laughing.
“Mummy, Cynthia said we’ll have to learn a different language when we go to Australia.”
“They speak English in Australia just like here, Cynthia is just teasing you because she’s jealous that you’re going to have a big adventure!”
Lucy is relieved to know that her father will not be in a strange place where no one can understand what he’s saying, but most of all she’s glad that Cynthia might be jealous of her.
Cynthia is her older cousin who lives in a big house with a banister for sliding down and a garden with fruit trees.
Once on a family visit, Lucy had somehow ended up alone in the dining room with her cousin. Lucy was very aware of a bowl of shiny red apples on the dining table and was hoping she might be offered one, when suddenly the older girl reached out and took one. Lucy remembers her cousin looking at her out of the corner of her eye as she took a big bite, munched away on one mouthful and flung the rest into the fireplace where it bounced against the black bricks at the back and rolled to a stop covered in ash.
“Who’s going to look after Daddy till we get there?” she says
“He’ll have to look after himself won’t he?” replies her mother opening her blouse and offering a breast to the baby who has just woken up.
At this time in her life Lucy experiences almost everything in her world as part of one pulsating organism. At the centre of that organism her mother emanates, as naturally and spontaneously as breathing, a kind of golden light that envelops and sustains it.
One day Lucy sees her mother waving a red flannel at an upstairs window. Minutes later he is there, a lovely boy/man at the back door, a little out-of-breath. Her mother comes to meet him at the back door laughing. In the sunlight his hair is shining and golden. His eyes crinkle at the corners as he grins and laughs at Mum, standing there holding the baby. Mum looks different, younger. She is laughing too, with her head thrown back and her hair loose and falling over her face.
“Oh look if you could fix that tap for me, the dripping is driving me mad!”
“The pleasure would be entirely mine, Madame.” He laughs and does a sort of sweeping bow like the prince in the story book. Then they laugh again. They are looking into each others eyes.
“Any time you need me, I’m just over the back fence. I can get here in a flash on my bike.”
He comes over a lot and always takes their games seriously, taking a pretend bite out of a stick Katherine has arranged artfully on a leaf, on their little tea-set, saying “How delicious!” in a funny voice and laughing. It’s as if inside he’s a kid, only pretending to be a grown up but he can still do grown-up things like fix the tap and he makes Mum laugh too.
As for Lucy she is in love with everything and everyone.
It sits in the corner of the rarely used room her mother calls ‘the drawing room’ or sometimes ‘the sitting room’. The armchair, big and green and low, with huge stuffed arms, saturated by the sunlight streaming through the window. Lucy spends ages hanging over it feeling the sun warming the back of her legs, her bottom, her back, then entering and dissolving her so that she finds she is only sunlight too. Seeing this, she breathes out through her skin till she is big and spread out like the light, watching the feeling of her body as if it’s inside her. When she is heated through, she rouses herself from her drunkenness and retreats to the cool, dim triangle of space behind the chair. Complete aloneness, privacy, blissful anonymity.
Occasionally she brings food to this little sanctuary, especially when she has taken it without asking. Perhaps an apple – her mother usually shares them out in quarters – once a big spoonful of butter and, on this occasion, the whole wedge shaped family cheese ration. She is holding the cheese in both hands scraping away with her teeth on the hard dry rind – the little bumps where the cheese squeezes out through the cloth and dries to a tasty hardness.
She hardly exists at this moment, being entirely absorbed in sensations of taste and smell when suddenly the chair is moved away. Standing there looking down at her is her mother. Lucy sees herself and her mother from a vantage point somewhere out above her mother’s right shoulder, where this sudden discovery flings her.
“You funny little thing, what will you get up to next?” And she leans down to rescue the cheese from her daughter’s outstretched hand. “You’ll mess up the whole cheese doing that, come on – I’ll cut you a bit.” And she peels Lucy a thin, thin slice from the rind, just the nice chewey bit and she sits in the kitchen, where the other kids can’t see, nibbling it like a mouse. She ponders the magic that allowed her mother to notice so quickly that the cheese was missing, to know who had taken it, and where she was hiding with it.
“The two girls” – that’s what Mummy calls them – Katherine and Lucy take turns at, sometimes fight over, playing mother to the two-year-old Bobbie. He is the only one so far to have inherited their father’s brown eyes. This has a satisfying logic as he is the boy. He has lots of golden curls too – the two girls have heavy, totally straight hair that would hang down in a curtain over their faces if Mummy didn’t part it neatly on one side and drag it back into a clip or a ribbon every morning.
“Stay still! It’ll take longer if you struggle.”
They have an attitude of possessive wonder to their only brother. ‘Little Mickey Dripping’ they sometimes call him. The name is from some story of their parents, but for his sisters it is simply a way of fondling him with words.
“Look at his little knees,” murmurs Katherine running her hands over his legs and standing him up to pull on his dungarees. She has just changed his nappy on the back lawn, Lucy looking on and carefully observing how it’s done.
“Can I carry him up the steps?”
“No, I want to.”
“But it must be my turn by now.”
Reluctantly the older girl surrenders the boy to her sister. “Well don’t you drop him then!” They head towards the back door, Lucy staggering and clutching the prize to her chest. His dangling legs are in danger of tripping her up and sending the two of them sprawling, but somehow she makes it up the steps with him and sets him down to get her breath back.
It is part of the rhythm of their days that at this time in the afternoon they gravitate to the kitchen. By now Mummy has put the baby down and is ready for a cup of tea. If there are visiting grown-ups the children will eat and drink their fill, sharing in the talk until they become bored and drift off to play.
Enter the serpent.
Lucy is still busy negotiating the high stool she always prefers for it’s panoramic access to the kitchen table when she hears it. The voice.
In her haste to get at the bread and jam she has failed to notice the presence of a strange woman in the kitchen. She first realizes that something is amiss when a falsely bright voice says firmly; “Now why don’t you children take your bread and jam outside in the fresh air, like good little girls, so your mother can have her tea in peace?”
It is a lady with black hair, skin on her face that looks thick like the skin on custard, and red cheeks like she is boiling inside.
“Who are you?” Lucy says, staring directly into the woman’s eyes. Recognition is immediate and instinctive. She does not like what she sees. Before they can protest, the two girls are bundled unceremoniously down the steps into the back garden. The door closes with a slam behind them. It is as if the woman is the boss of Mum for some reason. Tall and stiff she acts as if she knows something bad about everyone.
“We didn’t get our tea!” cries Katherine.
Thus begins the woman’s domination of the family. She can appear at any time and is in their house nearly every day telling their Mum what she should or should not do and what she should or should not ‘put up with’ from her children.
“I can see now.”
“What? What can you see?”
“There’s a house like ours.”
“And can you see him?”
Katherine is hanging off the back fence, her shoes and socks have been discarded and she stands, legs spread, her toes gripping the sides of the doll’s pram. The pram sets up an oscillating movement which she counters by stiffening her legs and tightening her grip with her toes.
“I can see his bike against the wall. He’s still there.”
“Well why doesn’t he come and see us any more?”
“Let’s go and ask Mum.”
Lucy reaches the back door only seconds before her big sister and is about to open it when she hears the voices in the kitchen. Her mother’s voice trailing off as another louder voice interrupts her.
“It’s that horrible lady from next door again why does she always have to come? I hate her!” she says furiously and runs off around the side of the house.
Over time Lucy senses the woman’s influence separating her family into something like strangers. She sees that the woman is playing a sort of game in which there are opposing sides. You don’t just have good girls there must be bad girls too. One thing the child is certain of is that she does not want any part of the game; it is stupid and mean and spoils everything.
“See what a good little helper Katherine is, doing that for your mother!”
“Oh, what a good little boy he is eating all his dinner up!”
Lucy takes a fierce delight in pinning the woman down with her eyes, as if saying silently “I know who you are and what you are doing and why you’re doing it”. And indeed, the child in her innocence is fully aware of the bleak emptiness in the woman that compels her to destroy everything living and joyful around her. The poverty is there in the eyes.
One day when they are playing dress-ups, the two girls manage to sneak downstairs with a pair of Mummy’s high heel shoes, they are – sort of – not allowed to wear because they will break the instep. Neither of them really believes in the possibility of such a disaster; Lucy doesn’t even really have a meaning to attach to the phrase ‘break the instep’ so they go on wearing Mummy’s high heels anyway, and mostly she lets them get away with it. It is Lucy’s turn to wear the shoes. She is carefully negotiating the back steps wearing the long skirt from the dress-up box, her nose in the air and a disdainful look on her face saying : “Oh you bad little girl you just did a poop, I never poop! I’m the lady from next door!”. Suddenly there she is, having come round to the back door, instead of knocking at the front like she should, the lady from next door. Her face even redder than usual.
Fascination and a touch of fear take the child’s attention from her balancing act and before she knows it, she’s all tangled up on the ground about to find out what ‘breaking the instep’ means because that is what has just happened. She has broken an instep in her mother’s best high heels….
“Oh you naughty girl look what you’ve done now!”
“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” screams the child and pulling herself to her feet in a tangle of clothing she stumbles inside and upstairs where she crawls under her bed and sobs until she falls asleep.
“It wasn’t my fault, she made me do it!”
Later on, in her mother’s arms; after the baby is asleep and the lady from next door has gone home; she can recapture the feeling of the light joining them together, and feel safe again, just for the moment.
“Come on now darling it was silly of you to wear the high heels going down the steps and you know I asked you not to wear them.”
“It was her fault she made me do it, I hate her! She’s spoiling everything!”
What is it that prevents her mother from seeing this too? Why does she let the lady get away with it? Can’t she see what is happening to them all?
Perhaps being alone with four children while her mate is half way around the world makes the woman insecure and ripe for domination. Perhaps the death of her own mother just weeks before has left her vulnerable. Perhaps she is tired and overwhelmed by too many children too close together, or perhaps she is just polite, a little lacking in courage, a little too English.
Did she simply take the light that permeated their lives for granted until was too late? Has she ever been aware of it? Or has she simply produced it in the same way an oyster produces a pearl, unconsciously, driven by the blind upsurge of its own life energy.
Over the next weeks, the child becomes more and more desperate. She tries once more to find solace in the green chair, but the sun no longer floods into the room. Winter is coming and she has lost the key.
Just like last time Mummy has stuffed stockings, big old socks really, for each of them and left them on the end of their beds. Down at the toe is a juicy round blood orange. Lucy is complacently aware that the stocking and the presents are put there by her mother and the knowledge sits quite comfortably in her mind with a belief in Father Christmas bringing them too.
“Blood orange,” she murmurs to herself, piercing the skin with her thumbnail to release a jet of fragrant oil before setting it aside to be eaten last, when the sugar from the sweets has become cloying to her taste buds. There are toffees, boiled sweets, almonds in the shell, walnuts and brazil nuts too. She loves the struggle with the nutcracker and conceives the ambition of getting a whole walnut out of the shell without breaking it.
At the top of the stocking, removed first but looked at last, is a coloring-in book and a packet of colored pencils. This year Katherine gets one with a paint brush and when you wet the pictures with the brush colors come on their own. Lucy quickly loses interest in that and goes back to her own, glad she’s got the other kind. You can choose the colors and it’s easier to stay inside the lines. She likes trying to do a perfect picture but mostly gets distracted and messes it up.
The morning passes in a glorious frenzy. This year it is Bobbie’s turn to get the big present and he gets a new blue and yellow tricycle. There is lots of noise and laughter as the two girls take it in turns demonstrating its use for him as he sits placidly on his mother’s knee.
“Oops! Watch your grasshopper knees on the wall Kate” calls Mummy as Katherine does a big loop around the closed-in back porch, followed by Lucy, her arms out like wings, making a loud buzzing noise.
During that morning something like the old ease and rapport, the old feeling of connectedness is re-established in the family. Then in the afternoon they go across to their cousins’ house to have the dinner. They have roast turkey, a plum pudding with real silver sixpenny bits – but they have to give them back for next year – and crackers.
The adults settle back with glasses of port after the meal. Aunty Barbara, Mum’s bossy big sister –a bit like the lady from next door – tells her kids to take the two girls upstairs to show them their presents.
They have never seen so many toys in one place before. They don’t have to take it in turns to get the big present in this family. But the two girls are not allowed to play with any of them or even really look at them properly. Lucy is just turning a little box over to see what’s underneath when Cynthia who’s standing really close to her grabs it off her and says “You just turn the key on the bottom but you’ll break it!”
Lucy is relieved when it comes time to go home. In bed that night she falls asleep wondering about Father Christmas and some people getting lots more presents than others.
The next day at breakfast her mother explains to them that they call it Boxing Day because, in the olden days, people would put all their leftovers in boxes on the day after Christmas, and then take them to the poor people.
“That’s not fair! That means they have to wait a whole day for their Christmas dinner,” shouts Lucy shoveling porridge enthusiastically into her mouth.
“Trust you to think of that,” says her mother.
“It’s mean to keep people waiting a whole day for Christmas dinner and then just give them leftovers”.
Lucy ponders it all later on in the back garden as she tries to get big cheeks to stay on the snowman they made with Mummy after breakfast.
“If you’ve got any to give away you’d know in time for the proper day.”
“Are there any poor people left to share with? We eat all our own leftovers. Are we poor?”
She had certainly felt like it as she stood in front of her cousins’ haul of Christmas presents and compared it to her own little pile that had seemed so wonderful the same morning.
Katherine appears at the back door.
“More presents! Come on! Don’t you want yours?
“Daddy’s parcel!” – she runs eagerly inside. But her heart sinks as she reaches the sitting room and finds – not a big box covered with Australian stamps – but only the lady from next door, standing near the tree.
“Now here’s one for Katherine,” says the woman, bending down and picking up a brightly colored parcel from under the tree.
“Doesn’t she know the tree is only for presents from Father Christmas? What’s she doing that for?”
“And here’s one for you,” says the woman, holding out another parcel towards Lucy who is turning aside, about to escape outside when suddenly she feels herself being drawn across the room towards the woman. She holds out her hand but doesn’t look at the woman.
“Now that’s not very nice. Say thank you and take it nicely like your sister.”
She feels the rush of energy, her face gets hot and her jaw gets tight. She is angry at her tormentor, angry at her sister Katherine who got it right and, most of all, angry at herself for wanting the brightly colored parcel so much.
“Thank you” she says and darting a glance of hatred at the woman, grabs the parcel and runs out..
“Well I never!” she hears as the door closes behind her. She hears the soothing voice of her mother making excuses for her.
Her hands are shaking as she tries to get the paper off and she ends up tearing at it with her teeth to get it open. Inside she discovers a small white rectangular vinyl bag with a zip at the top and a long strap which she supposes is for putting over your shoulder.
“That’s a good idea,” she thinks reaching inside to see what’s in it. It’s made of plastic and it’s stiff and unyielding and the zip scratches her hand. The shoulder strap has been folded and seems to be stuck in the shape of the fold. She has just put it over her shoulder and is trying to straighten it out when Katherine comes out the back door.
There is a moment of silence as the two girls compare their gifts. Katherine has a shoulder bag too, but it’s different. It is bigger and has a tartan pocket on the outside. It’s softer and swings down at Katherine’s side on a nice straight strap. Real leather.
Nothing is said. Lucy runs upstairs and throws hers into the bottom of the cupboard. She will never use it, it is tacky and cheap and horrid. Katherine puts hers away in a drawer and never uses it either.
For the rest of that day Lucy is very quiet and spends a lot of time with a book looking at the pictures and running her fingers along under the words mumbling and pretending to read. Mum is especially tender with her and makes her favourite, French toast, for tea. Nothing is said about the bags.
Lucy knows it will not stop now, that the woman will have to rub it in somehow. She decides to avoid her, to hide when she sees her coming, but the next afternoon she is so absorbed in getting the colors inside the lines in her Christmas coloring book that the woman manages to corner her at the little table on the back porch.
“Maybe if you’re a good girl, you’ll get a nice present next year,” she says, her voice dripping with a sticky mixture of triumph and sympathy. Her silent “I’m only doing this for your own good” hangs in the air as she goes on into the kitchen.
Lucy is overwhelmed. She can’t win against someone so powerful.. She sees that she could have had a nice Christmas present like Katherine and that they could both be playing with them now. If she had not seen what she had seen. If she had not let the woman know that she recognized her by holding her gaze too long on that very first occasion.
The golden light is now just an echo of a fading memory that might have been a dream to start with and even her mother still doesn’t seem to see what is happening to them. Perhaps if she keeps her vision a secret and doesn’t look too piercingly into the eyes of the powerful others, she can pretend she isn’t different, pretend that she too fits into the strange world of good and bad, where everyone is separate and the golden light no longer pervades everything as a deep interconnecting hum.
It is thus that she, Lucy, casts herself forth from the garden.
In time she will forget that she’s pretending – the pain of separation will be dulled and all that will remain of her original state of grace is an underlying sense of dis-ease and an embarrassing tendency to feel and act out exactly that which is being not said by those around her.