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Sport 10: Autumn 1993


Elizabeth and I are in the common-room skipping assembly. Elizabeth brings through two cups of coffee, thick pottery vessels steaming like chimneys in her thin white hands. The same hands that picked up after her father last night, and the night before. The father who fills the house with his rantings, or with his operatic soarings, with his galloping colliding destructive resentments at being a lone man in a house full of women. A lone page 19 lion in a house full of unicorns. A gargoyle on a house full of altars, scathing and protective of those within. And of those outside.

'What are you going to do next year Elizabeth?'

She looks at me, her face pale between her long coils of hair, surprised, as if I should know. 'I'm going to finish my novel, and try to find a publisher.' The clouds are clearing above her head, the thick, wet, velvet mantle of exhaustion is being lifted from her sparrow-light frame. She will leave home, and write her novel. The favourite child will climb out of the father's hand. She will live in a room which doesn't get the sun, with friends who leave her alone, or not; she will plug a heater into the socket behind the dark-stained set of drawers, and pull her paper and pens towards her. I am, already, envious of her arrow-straight direction.

At home, in the quiet moments, Elizabeth writes copiously in note- books, kneeling on the floor of her bedroom. She leans into her visions, her people. On the table beside her a Mexican Walking Fish drags itself along the bottom of an aquarium just the way you might walk through dreams, or if you were very very tired.

For now, no shred of colour relieves the uniform pallor of her skin, except for her eyes which gleam like dark brown shells underwater. She has the look of a beachcomber, prepared to be fascinated by what the sea turns up: a gold ring, a bottle, a severed foot still inside its boot. We sit down side by side, laughing at our teachers, at our hopes, at the discrepancy between what we are now and what we will be. Closing our eyes against the bleak clean brightness which has overtaken the soft light of morning.

Maxine bursts through the door in a bright green satin dress with a train that reaches almost to the floor. The bright river of her talk ceases for a moment when she spies us, slyly sipping our coffee, furtive escapees from the songs and tirades of assembly.

She pulls in a ragged breath. 'Oh! oh, this is off! This is really off! Look at them skulking in the corner like thieves.' She waves her arm sweepingly at us as her cloak of admirers smile, sensing a performance. 'Darlings you missed it! And we sang "I Pray for thee my Country" and "Fight the Good Fight". Never mind darlings, little darklings, little mice, we will fill you in on what you missed.' Roger puts his long effeminate arm around Maxine's shoulders and Jo pulls out her violin, the rest of the group gather together and launch into 'I Pray for thee my Country' with some indescribable variations. 'What, no pithy address, no humorous yet serious message to page 20 give us? We are quite bereft,' Elizabeth says as the singing and playing subsides and the group wander around finding coffee cups behind cushions and stuck glueily to the sink bench. 'Darlings, even I'—she emphasises with a swing of her train and toss of her head—'even I have my limitations, I would not attempt to soar so high.'

Karen sits down beside us in a rush of musk oil and clinking silver bracelets. 'Sue and Peter are showing off,' she says moodily. 'Trying to remember all the past presidents of America, it's so boring. I don't even know who our own one is.' Elizabeth lifts her head from her book to comment that we don't have a president at all. 'You know what I mean,' Karen says with her pleasing smile. The common-room is filling with students, earnest students in cords and hand knitted jumpers who will get A or B bursaries and who are definitely going to university to study commerce or science or business administration-students who are calm and confident, whose lives will lead eventually to their conclusions, with the desired degrees and other such indispensables, and it will be no surprise to be dying, they will not be caught on the hop. They will not cry out, 'But I can't die yet, I've only just got started!'

'Have you seen my Groucho Marx impression,' Karen asks us. 'Yes Karen, you did it at my birthday dinner.' She had leaned across the table and plucked the cigar out of my father's hand and disappeared out of the room to bang back in doing the best, the absolutely best Groucho Marx impression since Groucho Marx. Nobody could throw herself into a part like Karen. When she sat back down at the table, she calmly smoked the rest of my father's cigar, making an arc of smoke over her head, tapping the fat grey ash into a white ashtray.