Sport 16: Autumn 1996
Catherine Chidgey — An Impression of Flowers
Etta is running through a field. To the left and right of her are flowers. Tulips, irises, daphne, beds of lavender, all blooming at once. She does not find this odd. Her feet vibrate the ground. Pollen falls.
There are drawers and drawers in Etta’s room. They are crammed with white pillowcases, made by her mother, Maggie, before she became engaged to Etta’s father. Maggie never went to school; she was raised to be a lady. At home she was taught needlepoint, and crochet, and the art of conversation. She began making her trousseau at age thirteen, and by the time she met Owen she had a dozen hem-stitched supper cloths with matching napkins (linen), twenty-six embroidered tray cloths, eighteen nightdresses (smocked, pure cotton), four dozen fine lace handkerchiefs, twelve pairs of double sheets (lace-edged, linen), ten crocheted milk-jug and sugar-bowl covers (beaded), two dozen pairs of cotton bloomers trimmed with lace, and forty embroidered pillowcases (crewelled).
Fortunately, Owen’s house had a lot of space where things could be tucked away.
Etta does not know how many pillowcases there are in her room, exactly. She knows there are enough for her to use a different one every day for a month, and still not have used them all. She has tried this.
They are all embroidered with flowers. A discreet bunch in a corner, usually, or slim garlands, or a ring around a butterfly. More occasionally, an initial. They smell of mothballs.
Etta thinks they are very beautiful. She can’t imagine how her mother had the patience; Maggie is not a patient woman, on the whole. Etta sleeps with her cheek on the stitching, and when she wakes there is an impression of flowers on her skin. In the mirror the patterns are the right way around, the same as on the pillowcases. This is all as it should be.
They fade in the bath, and by the time the steam has cleared from the page 26 mirror they have gone. Etta can go down to breakfast then, and nobody will say a thing.
She would not call herself a secretive person, but there are some things one simply does not discuss. This is not lying, exactly, but it can lead to a certain awkwardness. She creeps out at night, sometimes, and goes for a walk.
She walks down the sharp drive in bare feet. The house grows smaller behind her. It is a relief to reach the road. She avoids the edges, with their dark macrocarpas, choosing instead to walk right down the middle. It is the safest place.
Mr Blumenfeld, their German neighbour, sits at the piano in his front room. Sometimes Etta thinks she can hear him playing, but she's not sure. Sometimes he just sits there staring at it, his hands folded in his lap.
She strolls past the swings, which are always deserted after about five o’clock. She supposes it is the sort of place odd people might go, but she has never seen any. At the other side of the field is the stream. It is the same one that flows through their farm, but it is wider and deeper here. Sometimes it floods. A few years ago a boy was swept away, and all his mother could do was watch, but Etta does not remember this very well. She crosses the field. It belongs to nobody. There has been talk of planting it with potatoes for the War Effort.
Etta is not afraid of the stream (she should be). She paddles in it during her walks. There are no sharp stones. Then she goes back through the field, and past the swings, and home. She creeps in the back door, which is never locked, and up the back stairs. She knows to start with her left foot, otherwise the ninth stair creaks. Then she sleeps.
It is almost spring. Already some lambs have been born, and there have been the usual tragedies. Up until now, Etta’s father, Owen, has always given her one of the motherless lambs to look after, and it has always been called Topsy. Nobody has mentioned that there is a new Topsy every year, and that she never gets any older. This year, Owen tells Etta that she can choose her own lamb.page 27
She goes to the sweet-smelling shed and offers a finger to a moist bundle. It stands up, sucking, fluttering its tail.
‘I’ll call her Dandelion,’ says Etta. She inserts the teat of a bottle into the pink hole. One of the farm cats curls around her legs, then springs off to a corner, where it has spotted a mouse.
‘Not Topsy?’ says Owen.
Owen lights his pipe. ‘Well, don’t go getting too attached, love, will you. She’ll have to go out with the rest of them next year, when she’s bigger.’
Etta is aware of her clothes tightening. The stitches in her jersey are pulling sideways, opening almond-shaped slits. Behind them is her skin. She will have to mention this soon. They let the air through, especially at night, when she goes walking.
Owen puffs a cloud into the rafters. ‘Your mother thinks it would be better if you didn’t spend so much time outside.’
Etta stiffens. She must have been seen.
‘She could do with your help inside, now that Bernadette and Theresa are out so often with their young men. I’ve got men out here to help me. They’re around here most of the time. We both think it would be for the best.’
Etta breathes. ‘All right.’
‘There’s a good girl,’ says Owen, but he doesn’t touch her.
Etta tucks Dandelion into a blanket and takes the empty bottle.
‘Nip in to the meat safe on your way back, would you Eileen?’ says Owen as Etta is going out the door. When Maggie isn’t around, he sometimes calls her Eileen, which is her middle name. ‘Your mother wants that roast for tonight.’
Etta passes rows of hanging ducks and rabbits, their necks at strange angles. Their eyes are open. There are a few chickens, a turkey. One wild swan. A string of fat white sausages, untouched. Weißwurst, from their German neighbours.
‘I doubt even the cat would eat those,’ said Maggie after Mrs. Blumenfeld brought them over.page 28
Mrs Blumenfeld spoke with a strong accent. She wore her hair in fat white plaits crossed over the top of her head.
‘She means well,’ said Owen.
Etta’s jersey brushes hanging carcasses, ribs splayed like wings. She prefers these to the smaller ones that are still feathered or furred. There are no eyes. She unhooks the beef for her mother.
‘How now, brown cow,’ she says. Sister Michael has told her to practise her elocution regularly. Maggie doesn’t want her ending up with an accent from hearing so much Irish. Maggie was born in New Zealand, but she ended up with one.
‘The leaves on the trees leaped in the breeze,’ says Etta. ‘Father started for the dark park.’
‘Good Lord, girl, you’re filthy. Into the bath with you,’ says Maggie. She sips her sherry, and does not get up from her chair.
‘I brought the roast for tonight.’
‘Just leave it on the bench.’
The McClinchies have a deep, deep bath made of Royal Doulton china. It is dark green on the outside, and paler on the inside. A person could drown in there, says Maggie. Owen’s Uncle Henry brought it out with him from Ireland. Owen says when they got off the boat they couldn’t walk properly for a fortnight. Three months on water will do that to a man, he says. So will three months on whisky, says Maggie, but Owen just smiles at this. He doesn’t drink. When Uncle Henry died, Owen got the bath, and the house around it.
While the water runs, Etta undresses in front of the mirror. The glass clouds, until all she can see is a luminous after-image of herself, a ghost. The mirror came out on the boat too.
The bathroom smells of Three Flowers face powder, and Lily of the Valley. Bernadette and Theresa, Etta’s sisters, have been getting ready for a dance. Bernadette must be feeling better; she’s had the flu for the past couple of days, and has stayed in bed. She often gets the flu; it seems like every month to Etta. There is a smudge of lipstick on the mirror, as if someone has tried to kiss it. The hand basin is streaked brown. Bernadette page 29 and Theresa have been painting their legs; stockings are scarce.
Just as Etta is stepping into the bath, Maggie shoves the door open.
‘You brought the wrong one,’ she says. ‘I wanted the mutton.’
Etta has one foot in the water and one on the floor. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
‘The cat was in there. You let it in, didn’t you?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Idiot. All that meat, ruined.’
Maggie is raw in the face. Her breath is stale, acidic, the way Bernadette’s and Theresa’s floating dresses smell the day after a dance.
‘I’ll teach you sorry.’ Maggie’s hands are raised. She has beautiful hands, white as linen. Flowers have spilled from them, pastel petals, the initials of someone cherished. Etta concentrates on these. She thinks: satin stitch, loveknots, lazy-daisy, chain stitch, crewelling. Her mother’s hands, her needle fingers. Idiot. Wicked. I’ll teach you.
Etta is giddy. She feels as if the bath is moving away from her, like a ship leaving dock, with only half of her in it. She will be pulled in two, starting at her thighs, straight down the middle. She is giddy. She is falling.
‘Be good,’ says Bernadette, stroking a gloved finger over Etta’s cheek. Then she and Theresa float out the door in their butterfly dresses, leaving the scent of flowers behind them.
Etta is good. She has been good all afternoon. She cleaned up the mess in the meat safe; the cat was nowhere to be seen. The cool air was soothing on her bruises. She picked up the feathers from the ducks and the swan. They shone. Precious things, kept in a safe, kept safe. She waited for Maggie to come and let her out. There was no sign of the cat for the rest of the day.
‘A bit of face powder would cover those for church tomorrow,’ said Theresa when she saw the purple marks on Etta’s face.
‘She is thirteen years old,’ said Maggie. ‘I will not have my daughter looking like a hussy.’page 30
Etta slipped over when she was getting out of her bath. She’s at a clumsy age. She’ll be all right.
It is night. Etta has tiptoed over the cold cattle stop. She has wondered how it would feel for a foot, a leg to slip through those bars, to have to wait there all night. The air is cool on her bruises. The flag on the mailbox is up, and she can hear the stream. She pauses at the Blumenfelds’ house. Mr Blumenfeld is sitting at the piano; the lid is down. She passes the swings, which are still. She is in the field. A button pops off her blouse and is lost in the grass; she does not stop to find it. She goes to the stream. She stands on the bank and dips one foot into the water. The stream has swollen, she thinks. Under the water her foot is luminous. She steps from the bank, pulls off her skirt. She stands thigh-deep in water. Her legs are made of moon. The water flows between them. She smiles. Another button pops from her blouse, and another. They sink and become stones. She has no need for stones. Her blouse crumbles from her shoulders and dissolves. She inches down into the water, into the bed of the stream. Until she is kneeling. The water creeps up her body, parting to let her in. She glows. She is silver from the neck down.
Maggie cannot sleep. She throws back the hot eiderdown and places a foot on the cool floor. It is a high bed. She can just reach. Her hand hurts. She hit her knuckles too hard. She didn’t mean to hit so hard. She wonders how these things happen so quickly. She thinks, I am unravelling. She will try to be more understanding, less irritable, more generous, less impatient. More gracious. More serene. More Christian. She will have a little brandy and fall asleep.
Owen is sailing in the green bath. It is the colour of leaves. It turns the water the colour of leaves. The mirror is foggy. Owen looks through the fog and thinks he can see land. A misty green island. His Uncle Henry plays the violin. One of his feet is placed level on land. He ripples. His other foot is removed from the water and placed on land. He shivers like a view through old glass. People think he is drunk. He is not. For two weeks he cannot walk without falling over. His Uncle Henry plays the violin, and gives him a job cleaning the silver, so he can sit down.page 31
Maggie’s glass—finest Waterford—drops from her fingers. Her face sinks into white linen.
‘Violin,’ says Owen.
Mrs Blumenfeld is back in Dresden. Buildings are cracking like bone china. She must run to avoid the falling shards. A library smashes to the ground; pages flutter around her, shuffling themselves to form stories nobody would ever believe. She looks again, and people are cracking. Life-size, bone china people. A man on a bicycle shatters. A girl with a dog smashes to dust. A woman in a floral dress explodes, showering Mrs Blumenfeld with sharp flowers.
Mr. Blumenfeld watches the shut piano. He thinks, ivory, ivory. Such a strange new language.
At the dance, Theresa knocks back another vodka.
‘That’s the end of Bernadette’s,’ she says. ‘Time for mine.’ She produces a hip flask from the folds of her dress, and leans back against George Morton’s best suit.
‘It’s lucky you girls have such long frocks,’ says George, slipping his hand under a layer of voile. ‘What else have you got under here?’
‘Dirty bugger,’ says Theresa, laughing.
‘Where did a good Catholic girl like you learn that sort of language?’
‘Some of the men on the farm will teach you anything you want to know. Isn’t that right, Bernadette?’
Bernadette arranges the powder blue layers of her dress around her, smoothing them over her knees, folding them along her body like wings.
‘She’s a quiet one, your sister,’ says George. ‘You girls still thirsty?’
Theresa drains her glass. ‘I am now.’
George reaches inside his coat and slides a bottle out.
‘Nothing like a drop of mother’s ruin.’
‘Shame we haven’t got any proper glasses.’page 32
‘The first champagne glass,’ says Bernadette, ‘was formed around Marie Antoinette’s bosom.’
‘Pity it wasn’t round Theresa’s,’ says George. ‘Lean in front of me while I open it, would you love?’
Etta stays in the water until she cannot feel her bruises. She does not think she is cold. She can smell flowers. Under the water she gleams bone-clean. She stands up, slowly. Being careful not to slip. She is so clumsy. She curves her feet over round rocks, gripping with her toes. There is a shadow in the water where she was kneeling. It washed out of her; it spreads in the water. It is possibly red. It is possibly the colour of wine. It is dark.
It is dark. Etta can’t find her clothes. Something brushes her thigh, and when she looks down she sees that her skin is still glowing. As if she has become a ghost of herself. A velvety moth has landed on her thigh and is beating its wings, slowly as a heart. Another one is on her foot, fanning her toes with cool breaths. She can feel them settling on her back, her arms. They are clouding around her, making the air whisper. They are covering her shoulders, her chest, her small breasts.
Her mother hates moths, especially the fat ones that beat against the windows at night. When they get inside, she hits them with the back of her shoe.
‘They’re just night-time butterflies,’ says Owen. ‘They’re a hundred times smaller than yourself.’
‘Dirty creatures,’ says Maggie.
Etta holds up her fingers. They are covered with moths. She is not afraid (she should be). She feels warm. They do not fly away when she walks.
She crosses the field, passes the swings. She comes to her road. She
wonders if anyone will see her. Macrocarpas arch across her. The light is
still on in the Blumenfelds’ front window, and a few moths are drumming on the glass. Etta stops and looks in from the road. Mr Blumenfeld
is still sitting at the piano; the lid is down. The moths on his window come and sit in Etta’s hair. Mr Blumenfeld looks up, and frowns. He walks to the window and cups his hands round his eyes. Etta stands in page 33 the middle of the road (it is the safest place) and stares back. Mr Blumenfeld pushes up the sash and leans out.
‘You are Etta.’
‘I have daughter called Ete. Margarete.’
‘Oh, I haven’t met her yet.’
‘She is in Germany. She is died.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Thank you for the sausages.’
‘Ah, please, please.’
‘They were lovely.’
‘You enjoy Weißwurst.’
‘We give you more. You come tomorrow.’
When she places her foot on the cattle stop, Etta hears a sigh. Or rather, hundreds of tiny sighs. The air around her is moving; the moths are leaving. They arc away from the house, growing smaller. Etta looks at her body. It is not glowing any more.
She creeps up the stairs, starting with her left foot so the ninth stair won’t creak. She is very tired, and she buries her face in her pillow. The pillowcase smells of mothballs.
Maggie bursts into Etta’s room at seven in the morning.
‘Up you get! I want to get the washing done before church. And you have to feed that lamb of yours, it’s driving me mad with its noise.’ She page 34 pulls back the blankets. ‘Your face is all marked. Looks awful.’
Etta gets up to look in the mirror. ‘Oh, that,’ she says. ‘That’s just from the pillowcase.’
Maggie is looking at her sheets. There is a stain on them. Etta doesn’t know where it’s come from. She didn’t think she’d been cut when she fell over in the bathroom, just bruised. She’s hardly ever been actually cut. She hopes she won’t slip over in surprise. She’s so clumsy.
But Maggie just strips the sheets off the bed and bundles them up. Then she sets her jaw, pulls off the pillowcase and tears it down the seams. She folds the pieces into squares and hands them to Etta.
‘Here, You’ll need these.’ She sighs, picks up the sheets, and leaves.
In the bathroom, Bernadette’s and Theresa’s dresses are hanging to air. They look like shrivelled skins, and are stained under the arms. Etta looks in the mirror. There is an impression of flowers on her cheek, circling a butterfly. At least, she thinks it’s a butterfly. She turns the pieces of pillowcase over and over. They are still warm. She wonders what on earth she is supposed to do with them.