Title: Rose and Cleis

Author: Anna Jackson

In: Sport 23: Spring 1999

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1999

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 23: Spring 1999

Anna Jackson — Rose and Cleis

page 73

Anna Jackson

Rose and Cleis

When I met Rose and Cleis I was on my way home to Paul, I was even carrying two plastic bags full of food to cook for him, not the sort of food I would have bought for myself at all. I had bought pasta, well I might have bought that for myself, but also squid, and almonds to toast, and parmesan cheese to peel with a carrot peeler, and rocket, and limes, and wine of course. I used to cook like that for him most nights, the sort of dinner I might do now for a dinner party. It was a hot day towards the end of the summer, and my feet were sweating inside my sandals and my shirt was getting to feel sticky under my arms, but I didn't mind any of this. I can still remember clearly the smell of the sun on the footpath that day, and the smell of the baking rocks on the rock wall of the house along from Rose's.

So I was just a couple of houses along from their place when I heard screams, kind of laughly screams I think from Cleis but I could hear the terror in Rose's screams, then I saw the little naked child run out onto the footpath straight towards the road, and I just dropped my bags of shopping and hurled myself after her. I just ran straight out onto the road myself without looking, to put myself onto the road before her, and there was a mad scream of brakes, and I was thumped forwards onto my face onto the road. I could hear the child screaming and screaming, and everyone screaming, and doors opening and cars lurching to a stop all around me. Everything was all right, but it took a moment for me to pick myself up and make sense of the scene around me. There were people all around me, and more people opening the doors of the cars, and none of the cars all around were going anywhere.

Rose of course was in such a state. She was still holding the baby over her shoulder, and the baby had no happy on and had pissed all over her top, and it was screaming and screaming, and Rose was sort of jigging it up and down but she only really had Cleis in focus. Cleis page 74 was utterly chastened, she had her head in Rose's lap and sobbed and sobbed, and Rose was just shaking all over and crying and crying. Everyone was asking if I was all right, and everyone else was saying that I was, and the driver of the car who'd hit me kept telling me again and again how I'd just run right in front of her and she thought she'd killed me, and everyone was comforting her too. Someone else was brushing the gravel off my face. I seemed to have used all my initiative up with my dash onto the road and it feels like I would have just sat there on the road forever if the people around us hadn't gradually taken charge and got us onto the footpath so that some of the drivers could start driving their cars away.

One of the other drivers and the driver who had hit me came in to Rose's house with Rose and the children and me. The driver who had hit me started making cups of tea, and the other driver—Liz she was called—took me to Rose's bathroom and washed my face and hands with a Dettol solution. Then she tried to take the baby off Rose, but it started screaming again, and Rose wept and took it back and shakily went off to put a nappy on it with Cleis following her crying and trying to climb up into her baby-laden arms. Then I remembered my shopping, and I asked Cleis if she wanted to come and find it with me, but she screamed and tried to climb onto Rose's back—Rose being bent over the baby on the bathroom floor. So Liz went to get my shopping, and Rose sat down at the kitchen table and put the baby to her breast, which at least stopped the baby crying, though Cleis clung to Rose's skirt and cried, and Rose was bent over her trying to cuddle her at the same time and crying herself. There was nothing the driver who had hit me or I could do until Liz came back in with my shopping, and then thank goodness I thought of the chocolate biscuits and they worked to console Cleis at last.

Then we all sat around the kitchen table and told each other over and over again how Cleis had been running right onto the road and how I had run out right in front of the car and how the driver had thought she had killed me and how Rose had thought Cleis was going to be killed, and Rose and the driver kept breaking down in tears. When the first pot of tea ran out, I got up to make another pot, and still the four of us sat there. I can't believe I can't remember the name page 75 of the woman who hit me, but there you go.

After a while she and the other driver got up to go, still asking us if we were both sure we were all right, but there never seemed a time when I could go. Rose still hadn't even changed her wet shirt.

‘Can't I hold the baby for you?’ I said. He was fast asleep now in her arms.

‘I don't know,’ she said. ‘I don't know.’

She gingerly handed him over and went and changed her shirt. Then I had the baby in my arms, and that was why I was staying for the next little while.

‘I suppose I should try again with this bath,’Rose said doubtfully.

Cleis was sitting on the windowseat moving little wooden beads in and out of various little boxes. She was still naked.

‘Cleis …’ Rose began.


Rose stood and looked at her for a while. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Oh …’

She started picking things up from the table and carrying them over to the sink. At the sink, she started looking in cupboards. ‘I suppose I could make her tea first,’ she said. ‘Would you mind holding the baby a bit longer, if I made her tea?’

‘I don't mind at all,’ I said, ‘this is lovely.’ And it was true, it was so lovely, that moment, sitting there with the baby asleep in my arms, breathing his little breaths in and out, his head nestled against my breast. Every now and then I leant over and sniffed at his little peachy head.

‘Don't baby's heads smell lovely?’ said Rose. ‘I suppose it is an evolutionary trick to make us love them.’

‘How long do they smell like this for?’

‘I don't know,’ said Rose. ‘I don't remember. I don't think Cleis does,’ and she left the sinkbench to go and sniff Cleis's head. ‘Nope. Just smells of ordinary head. A hairy sort of smell,’ and then she came over to sniff the baby's head. Her own hair fell down across my face and I sniffed at the ordinary hairy smell of her hair, and that too seemed to me a lovely lovely smell. Rose had beautiful hair, long and reddish gold, fine and crinkly. It seemed to cling to me a little for a moment as she drifted back to the sink.

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I sniffed the baby's head again. I was sniffing his fontanelle and it occurred to me, ‘do you think it's until the skull closes up? Maybe this is what brains smell like.’

‘The smell of thought,’ Rose said dreamily. ‘May be we'd love anyone if we could smell them think.’

‘But are grownups’ thoughts as peachy as babies’ thoughts?’

‘Babies would have peachy thoughts, wouldn't they?’

‘I want one!’ piped up Cleis from the sofa.

‘One what?’ said Rose.

‘One like him,’ said Cleis.

‘She means a peachy thought,’ I guessed.

‘A pizza-torte,’ agreed Cleis.

‘Oh darling,’ said Rose. ‘Oh darling. Oh darling, of course you can have a pizza-torte,’ but she looked despairingly at the mess of oatmeal and stewed apple she was stirring up on the stove.

Cleis hopped down off the sofa to go and inspect the cooking.‘Can I see?’ she asked tugging at Rose's skirt.

Rose lifted her up speechlessly. Cleis looked at the oatmeal and her lip quivered. She was about to cry but checked first, ‘Is that pizza-torte?’

‘It could be,’ said Rose, ‘if we baked it.’

‘All right,’ said Cleis, ‘we'll see.’

That was the first time I thought, in a sentence, I love this woman. I really love this woman.

‘Pizza-torte!’ Rose sang to me, getting out a baking tray and buttering it ready for the oatmeal.

They were extraordinary little things, the rows of pizza-tortes she ended up making, little round oatmeal cakes, sprinkled with brown sugar and baked under the grill. Cleis declared them ‘sumblime’.

sssAnd then the baby woke up, and the pizza-tortes fell onto the floor, and the brief moment of sumblimity was over. Both the baby and Cleis were screamingly adamant they couldn't do without Rose, the baby requiring her to walk at top speed without pausing, Cleis requiring her to get down to the floor and hold her and not let go, and the porridge was getting everywhere and needed to be cleaned up off the floor and off the children and off Rose, which at least was page 77 something I could do, and then, Rose yelled over the screamings, there was the bath to run, which again was easy, and then there was Cleis to get into the bath but this wouldn't be easy at all. I had a go at prising her off Rose but I felt like a monster, and anyway, I simply couldn't, and she hurt me, kicking so hard, and Rose was screaming too. So Rose thrust the screaming baby at me, and it screamed louder and wriggled in Rose's direction, but she was out of the room now hauling the kicking Cleis, and I took the baby out into the garden where—oh wonder—it quietened down and hiccupped and blinked its eyes. So I jigged it about on my shoulder and patted it on the back and felt quite weird really, sort of maternal but on the whole, noticeably unmaternal. Normally I never do anything maternal at all but just sort of assume there is a maternity in me I would draw on given a baby, I am a mother-in-waiting, it goes without saying I will have children one day. But actually doing maternal things I feel absurdly clumsy, I haven't got a feel for this at all. I am obviously not this baby's mother. I like it though. I like it so much. I am so grateful for it stopping crying, and because of me. I decide to start teaching it to talk. I point to a tree. ‘Tree.’ I pick a leaf and stroke it against the baby's cheek. ‘Leaf.’

Well, I do still remember that moment in the present tense. But at the time it all carried right on. The baby started crying again, and I carried it in to Rose, who tried to sit and feed it in the bathroom, and then Cleis wanted to hop out of the bath, and Rose was crying anyway and saying, ‘I've got no milk, I've got no milk,’ and it just seemed to be a nonstop emergency. Rose was wondering if I could salvage any of the pizza-torte that had got scooped up off the floor—no! no!—and if I could put Cleis to bed—‘NO! NO! MUMMY DO ME!’—and I thought Rose ought to eat something, and she burst into hysterical laughter at the thought. And so on. Somehow between us we kept the baby airborne, if not fed, and mangled Cleis into her pyjamas, and alternately read her stories and left her screaming while we stared at each other in guilty suspense in the kitchen, making more porridge for the screaming baby. Which was then too hot to feed to it. Rose clamped it to the breast and it struggled off to scream some more. I weakly suggested formula but Rose said, no, no, that was another page 78 whole THING—and she told me, and I could see it was.

It must have been about nine or so before it all slowed down enough to even think of eating anything ourselves, and I don't know if Rose would have ever got a chance to think of it if I hadn't been there. But I for one was starving, and I realised I had all the ingredients in my plastic bags for a dinner. Rose managed to keep the baby quiet while I cooked, and then I managed to get some porridge into the baby while Rose ate, and she walked about with the baby while I ate, and then I walked the baby while she ate again, and then she fed the baby to sleep, and I carried the dishes to the sink and stared at them stupefied. ‘Don't worry about them,’ Rose said, ‘let's just finish the wine.’

I woke the next morning on the sofa, after walking several times during the night on the sofa, listening to the baby crying and Rose staggering about. She staggered into the kitchen and the emergency started up again, the baby crying for a feed, and needing a nappy change, and needing dry clothes on, and Cleis in soaking pyjama pants, demanding milk now, and her cup missing, probably somewhere under the pile of dirty dishes on the sink, and Rose starving from breastfeeding through the night without eating, and needing to go to the loo—‘Can I just hand you the baby for a minute?’

And it all carried on being an emergency all day long. It was a Friday but Rose held the baby and fended off Cleis for a moment while I rang work to explain I'd been in a traffic accident and couldn't come in, then I slammed down the phone and lunged at the milk and miraculously got it off the stove just before it boiled over. It wasn't for another three hours that I got a chance to call Paul, though of course he was at work, and not in his office. I left a message on the answerphone at our house for him to get when he got in—‘Paul—it's Becky—I'm caught up in a bit of an emergency—I'll call again when I know when I'll be home.’ Then I turned back to Rose, feeling gloriously off the hook. She needed to pram the baby to sleep, so we all headed out together, in the middle of the day, slathered in sunblock, to the park. The sun shone on Rose's red-gold curls, and on Cleis's red-gold frizz, and the whole day seemed haloed with a hungover happiness.

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And really, I don't know if I would have got home that evening even if Lou hadn't come round. If it wasn't for Lou holding the baby and reading to Cleis I wouldn't have got the dinner cooked by the time I did. Lou had brought beer round and I drank from the bottle as I stirred the dahl. Then Rose got out her papers and weed and rolled us a joint at the kitchen table. I started choking with my first intake of breath. ‘Is she dying?’ Cleis asked, impressed. ‘Why don't you go and pat her on the back?’ Rose suggested, and I couldn't choke out ‘no, no’ firmly enough to stop her. She stood on tiptoes and whacked away at the bottom of my back while I choked and laughed, till Rose passed the joint round again and I pulled myself together.

Later, Lou and I bathed Cleis while Rose fed the baby in the other room. Cleis was slippery and giggly with sleepiness, and Lou and I were giggly from the dope. ‘Becky's our new Briar,’ said Cleis. ‘Hello Briar,’ she said to me, and shrieked with laughter. ‘Briar-becky, becky-briar, liar, riar, myer, flyer,’ she sang, and laughed and laughed and flung herself down onto the floor of the bath. ‘I'm a crocolyle,’ she said, ‘I'm a crocolyle that's a eat-you-up!’ and she reared up out of the bath towards us. ‘Got you,’ said Lou, grabbing her under her arms. ‘I'm going to catch you and carry you to the zoo,’ and she tried to pull her out. But Cleis screamed, ‘NO I'M A CROCOLYLE, I'M the getter, NO NOOOOO,’ and Lou lost her grip, ‘Help me, the crocodile's escaping,’ she yelled to me, and I leant over the bath and tried to help grab onto Cleis, but she was as slippery as a fish. My arms grew weak with laughing and Lou grabbled onto me by mistake and pulled me back and we both slid onto the floor. We lay there and laughed, our heads together, staring up at the dirty white ceiling. ‘Are you dead?’ Cleis asked after a while, poking her head up over the side of the bath, and that cracked us up again. We lay there still laughing when Rose came in, and she picked her way over our bodies to get to Cleis. Cleis snapped at us from her mother's arms, still being a crocodile on her way out.

‘Off to the zoo,’ said Lou.

‘Yeah lock her up,’ I said mindlessly.

‘She's a handful,’ said Lou. ‘Think you can cope?’

‘No,’ I laughed.

page 80

‘Yeah, you can,’ said Lou. ‘So you and Rose'll come to Elena's on Sunday?’

She had been telling us about a party earlier on, but I hadn't realised it was an invitation. But at that moment, lying there on the bathroom floor, it didn't seem to me like I was going to be going home to Paul in the near future, so I agreed, ‘Sounds fun.’

‘Fun is not the word,’ said Lou.

‘Then maybe we won't.’

‘Yeah, you will,’ said Lou, and for some reason we started laughing again.

When Rose returned from Cleis's room, she just stood in the door looking at us, and we looked at her, and back at each other, and couldn't get up for laughing. Rose turned away.

‘No wait,’ said Lou. ‘I was just keeping her company till you got back. Take your place, Rose, take your place,’ and she pulled herself to her feet. Rose hesitated in the doorway. ‘We were just talking about going to Elena's,’ said Lou, ‘Becky said you and her'll come and then we thought about it, and you know, Elean's, and you and Becky, and everyone, and so you know, we were having a laugh.’

She pushed Rose into the room. Rose looked down at me. She seemed enormous. Her face seemed miles away. ‘Getting up?’ she said. ‘Or shall I come down?’

‘Come down.’

Then there she was. ‘I love your hair,’ I said. It was in my mouth, against my nose. ‘I love you here too,’ she said. ‘I mean, not just on the floor, here, but in my life, here.’

And I did think, oh heavens, because I had only thought of myself as perching on her life for a moment, I hadn't realised I was in it, but of course I was. And then we were kissing each other, and it was me kissing her just as much as it was her kissing me and it was lovely, really, just lovely and so funny to be kissing on the bathroom floor.

I felt nervous again when we stood up to move to her bedroom. It was easy enough to lose all perspective on the floor and feel very stoned, but in fact when we stood up I didn't feel very stoned at all. It seemed far too definitive, to go to her room with her, and I felt like a fraud because after all I was completely straight and had only thought we page 81 were turning into friends, if that, up until we ended up on the bathroom floor. But as soon as I lay down the safe feeling of no perspective returned to me, and the softness of the bed soon just seemed part of the larger feeling of sweetness that started very specifically at the centre of me and spread out over the whole world.

I called Paul on the answerphone, on Monday, at work. It was the day after the party the night before, and I was feeling empty-headed from lack of sleep. It seemed extraordinary to come to work and have everyone just assume I was me, when I had been so comprehensively re-identified to a whole party of people as Rose's new girlfriend. Cleis's new Briar. It was weird ringing our answerphone and hearing Paul saying, ‘This is Paul East and Becky Carter's phone, please leave a message and we'll get back to you.’ ‘Hi, Paul, it's me, just to say, I'm not coming back. I'll pick up my things during the week.’ I know it doesn't sound like enough to say, but what would have been enough?

I went round to our house on Tuesday lunchtime. As soon as I started packing things up, I realised it was a job that would take weeks, or at least weeks of lunchtimes. It started to seem pointless even trying. In the end, I just packed some changes of clothes, some books and framed photos and some of my plates and bowls I'd inherited from my grandmother, all in together in a big cardboard box. I felt uncomfortable in the house all alone, a bit like a burglar. I almost wanted someone to come and catch me out, so I could explain to them that I really was entitled to be there.

I didn't come back for the rest of my things till Friday after work. I was just too tired to rush round in another lunch hour. Life continued to be a constant emergency at Rose's house, and the nights too were punctuated with emergencies. Often the baby ended up sleeping in Rose's bed with us, and on Friday morning Cleis had joined us in the bed at five. I almost didn't bother going round after work, but the thought of bathtime at Rose's was just as hard to face.

I'd been rushing around all week, and I was still in a hurry really, but the house was so quiet and peaceful and I was so tired I just put the kettle on and sat for a while at the kitchen table in the sun. I laid my head on my hand. The newspapers were all in a pile under a chair, there were piles of things everywhere, Paul just seemed to pile things page 82 up when I wasn't there. I read a newspaper while I had a cup of tea and felt less and less like ever getting up off the chair.

I woke with a start when my head slipped off my hand. Oh, I was so tired. I didn't know if I had the energy to pack, and it was a hopeless task anyway, there was no way I could get the job done before Paul got home. I was going to have to organise a day in the weekend when Paul would go out, and Rose and I and maybe Lou and some friends could come round together and make a proper job of it. While dealing with the children. And it would mean talking to Paul. I went into the bedroom, took off my shoes, and just went to bed.

When I woke again, it was dark. I had really messed up now. I briefly entertained the idea of climbing out the window. I don't know why I didn't, it might have been the best thing. Instead, I got up and wandered back into the other room.

Paul was sitting at the table, my cup in his hands. He was crying. I was appalled, and impressed. He looked up and saw me, and we just looked at each other. Then I said, ‘What's the time?’

That's the first thing I said! And Paul said, ‘Nine o' clock.’

‘Oh lord,’ I said. ‘Now what?’

‘I'll make something to eat.’


‘Why not? Have you eaten?’


‘You've got to eat,’ Paul said. ‘You've got to eat.’

I didn't even know Paul could cook. He never cooked. But he got up, and got some lamb chops out of the fridge, and started to cook. Lamb chops? We had never eaten lamb chops together before. But they were great, they were really delicious. I couldn't believe how good they smelt, cooking. We never ate meat, and at Rose's, we'd been practically vegetarian all week. I opened a bottle of red wine, and poured us a glass each to drink while the meat cooked.

We ate, and he didn't ask. He didn't ask me anything, and I was so grateful. I just couldn't have explained, not then. I didn't even know who I was living with, Rose or Paul. I couldn't possibly have talked about her. We just ate, and washed the dishes together, in perfect peace. Then Paul kissed me, and led me to bed.

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I slept till noon on Saturday morning. Then I lay awake, soaking in the silence. I felt rinsed through with silence and sleep, I felt cleansed.

I just never went back to Rose. I just didn't know what to say to her. I felt terrible, but I just wanted to forget all about her. I wanted to feel as if the whole week had never happened. I thought, when I let myself think about her at all, that she had managed before I got there and she would manage without me. But she hadn't been managing, had she? That's how it all started.

And then, last week, I was helping my sister move house. We were packing up all her things, and I couldn't believe how much of our grandmother's things she had. I helped her fold all these beautiful tablecloths that she never even used, because of her children. Paul and I would really use them, he loves things like that. We wrapped up a whole dinner service together in sheets and sheets of newspaper, which they kept for special occasions, and used maybe once or twice a year. I hardly even said anything till she asked if I'd mind polishing the silver before I packed it, and then all I said was, ‘I would have wanted some of these things myself, if I had been able to think about that at the time,’ and she just went off at me.

I was actually really hurt. She really had a go at me. She's always been prickly, but I had spent my entire morning helping her out, and it was just more than I could take, having her go on at me, just for saying, Paul and I would really have liked to have had some things from the estate. I didn't stay to polish the silver, anyway. And then afterwards, I looked everywhere for the bowls and things that I had taken home from Granny's house after the funeral, and I couldn't think where the missing pieces could be. Then suddenly I remembered Rose and Cleis and thought of that box of things I'd taken over on that Tuesday. I realised I would never be able to get those plates and bowls back, and I had a sudden, terrible, sense of loss. I just sat down and wept.

Then I made pizza-tortes for me and Paul.