The reading took unusually long because the digressions of the novel were partially reflected by the discussions among the readers. The novel is full of juicy gossip and the women were quicker to seize upon the undercurrents and unstated liaisons.
There’s a naïve socialist-Christian sister, Laura, in whose name the novel was penned by her older sister, Iris. The fact that there are two stories, one of the weird Sci-Fi type, and another of the realistic sociological type set in Toronto in the early twentieth century, did not bother the readers. Everybody agreed the first was a perfectly ignorable distraction.
It is in the nature of sociological dramas (it would make a good Malayalam TV serial, Sunil said) that the Canadian details are reflected in a society as distant as that of Kerala. Molestation of minors, marriages of convenience shorn of love, maid-servants aware of the shenanigans of the masters, competition among sisters-in-law, dangerous liaisons, and so forth are a part of the fabric of society everywhere; and the same kind of glossing over of facts to present a sanitised front must also be common.
Priya, Thommo, Talitha, Zakia, Gopa, & Sunil
A wonderful gift KRG readers have is to extract every snippet of humour from the conversations of the characters; the novel had enough to keep us mildly amused throughout. But none could explain why the novel deserved to win the Man Booker prize in 2000.
Priya, Thommo, Talitha, & Zakia
Here are the readers at the end. Zakia is missing as she had to leave early.
Talitha, Priya, Thommo, Gopa, Sunil, & Joe
An exercise for the diligent reader appears just before the Readings.
Click below for a full account.
Kochi Reading Group session on Dec 7, 2012
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
Attending: Talitha, Joe, Thommo, Zakia, Sunil, Priya, Gopa
Absent: Bobby (unexplained), Kavita (dinner with extended family), Sivaram (unexplained), Mathew (off-base), KumKum (grandson at home).
In future we shall select all the fiction books (six in a year) at the beginning of the year, so all the readers have time to prepare, borrow from libraries, or from other readers, etc. so there is never a case of a book not being available in time.
Since KumKum (and Joe) have already selected the Feb 2013 fiction (Chekhov stories), here are the pairs of readers who have to select the remaining 5 books for 2013:
Bobby & Kavita
Gopa & Sivaram
Sunil & Mathew
Talitha & Zakia
Priya & Thommo
Please submit the book selections by end Jan 2013.
The next session (Poetry) will be held on Friday Jan 11, 2012. The Chekhov reading will be in Feb on a Thursday, Feb 7, 2012.
Royal York Hotel, Toronto
Gopa referred to the end pages where a story summary, a crib, is laid out in a few pages in the Epilogue by the author, assumed to be Iris posing as her sister Laura. The passage Gopa chose was the section titled ‘The Silver Box.’ When she finished reading, there was a call to read more, and Gopa obliged. Talitha called it ‘beautiful.’ The line ‘When I look in the mirror I see an old woman; or not old, because nobody is allowed to be old any more’ reminded her of the poem Mirror by Sylvia Plath:
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Talitha wondered if the subsequent passage Gopa read was about the story of the blind assassin or the main story about Iris and Laura. Laura died in 1945, according to the novel, said Thommo. Laura didn’t write The Blind Assassin (TBA). Talitha opined that the reference to writing in this passage:
For whom am I writing this? For myself? I think not. I have no picture of myself reading it over at a later time, later time having become problematical. For some stranger, in the future, after I’m dead? I have no such ambition, or no such hope.
Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.
is not to TBA but to this book, which is in itself a paradoxical statement. Gopa said you can interpret this any way you like. And what’s a Malayali doing in the midst of all this with thirty odd uses of ‘simply’ in the novel, asked Sunil? The Sakiel Norn stuff could be skipped without missing anything.
Was Alex’s lover Iris? Richard didn’t know, but why did Winifred, Richard’s sister, say so. Priya thought Richard was incapable of love, a cad therefore. Was there sibling rivalry between Laura and Iris, wondered Priya. Iris is always protecting her sister. Did Laura make a sacrifice, or was it Iris who did so? Aimee was Alex’s daughter.
Laura was in the early socialist-Christian mould — helping out at church, ladling in the soup kitchens, and so on. Laura never told Iris about Richard’s advances, commented Gopa. Sunil replied that TV serial guys didn’t read this book, and he went on to say that all molestation cases (many are surfacing of late) are featured on page 3 of the Indian Express newspaper. Joe said Gopa has raised a lot of doubts in the minds of us readers. You can read many deconstructions of the novel on the Web, for instance:
by Mullan, a lecturer in English at University College, London.
Laura is an idealist, said Gopa; she is ready to work as a waitress to escape from the trauma of molestation and encourages Iris to do the same, trapped as she is in a loveless marriage of convenience.
The Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel
Zakia read the passage where Richard proposes in the Imperial Room of the venerable York Hotel in Toronto. After listening to the passage Sunil remarked that it is typical of many marriages in India, where the girl is denied a choice. Here Iris did have a choice to refuse, but thinking of the ruination of her father’s business (a button factory) agreed to the marriage; but the business promises Richard made to her father were not kept. Had he sought to equip his daughters with the means of earning a living themselves, the choice to turn down an inappropriate match would have been more viable, said Joe. As it is, her father's saying the choice was hers, meant nothing. It happens all over the world, Gopa said. Sunil phrased the same sentiment as “the operating systems are the same everywhere.”
The second short passage Zakia read is drenched in the disillusionment of finding herself alone in the marriage, waking up the morning after the night before. Joe thought that education is everywhere the bedrock of liberation for women, the assurance that they can earn a living themselves and need depend on no man. Somebody remarked laughingly (perhaps Sunil) that he liked the way she fixed her private tutor.
Toronto's Union Station
Talitha’s reading was from the next chapter, the Arcadian Court, following Zakia’s reading. There is quite a lot of humour and pathos in it, said Talitha. There was quiet laughter at the advice that Reenie affords Iris:
“Just never show fear. They’ll smell it on you, like sharks, and come in for the kill. You can look at the edge of the table—it lowers your eyelids—but never look at the floor, it makes your neck look weak.”
Reenie’s worldly-wise advice and stratagems to overcome any opposition the sisters may face is tart and funny. Here’s another piece of her expert counsel that amused the readers:
“When in doubt, go to the powder room, but go slowly. Grace comes from indifference.”
The second passage is about Iris’ return from Europe and discovering her father was dead and she hadn’t been informed by Richard. Even he provides some humour in this comment:
I went upstairs to freshen up, at Richard’s suggestion. I must have looked as if I needed it. Certainly I felt sticky and wilted. (“Dew’s off the rose,” was his comment.)
Gopa was reminded of an old Hindi movie where Lalita Pawar plays the mother-in-law and Meena Kumari and Mala Sinha act. Forget the title. Talitha was amused by the newspaper report titled ‘Toronto High Noon Gossip’ describing the revels at the bacchanal ‘Xanadu Ball’ held in the Royal York hotel.
Thommo selected a passage in which children in the school are presented with awards in various subjects at the end of the term. Thommo referred to his attendance at a club like the Toastmaster’s Club to encourage public speaking and everyone is given elaborate introductions, followed by Felicitations, followed by a Vote of Thanks – all redundant formalities and occasions for the bores to go on and on. From there the conversation shifted to the shiftless Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a merry feast on the money provided with no accountability. An old Merc was spotted bearing the logo of the Biennale whose newsletter is called the Biennale Leaf, a weak pun on Banana Leaf. The proper pronunciation of ‘Biennale’ was cleared up; it’s Italian and the original is the Venice Biennale. See
Talitha mentioned that a ‘ghastly’ painting by one Riyas Komu had been snapped up for one of the Goenkas who run the HML enterprise. It depicts a person with the face covered; Talitha claimed the painting should have been titled ‘Swineflu.’ More on the feckless Biennale and its art exhibits can be read at
SE corner of King and Spadina with the CN Tower in the background
Priya, like Gopa alluded to the few pages at the end that yield a précis of the story, or at least one of the stories. She read a couple of passages and raised the question of whether one or both sisters were interested in Alex, the persecuted socialist hiding in their house. They were both interested, is the opinion offered by Priya, as evidenced by their behavior at the picnic. Indeed Alex was 'two-timing' the sisters, said Priya. Two for the price of one; in fact, for no price at all, since Alex had nothing to offer, but a febrile promise of revolution, where and for what cause, yet to be determined. Joe, genuinely mystified, asked, ‘So what’s so attractive about Alex?’ Since the novel gives no overt testimony to any sexual encounter, it’s all left up in the air and gossip-mongers can deduce what they please. Sunil thought it makes ideal material for a TV serial.
According to the friend of Priya who recommended the novel, there is no sibling rivalry between Iris and Laura; the elder sister is very protective of the younger one. Is the ‘no, NO, NO.’ and ‘X.X.X.X.’ in Laura’s diaries at the end, any clue? And what about this: ‘Alex belonged, for Laura, in another dimension of space.’
About bedding the two sisters Talitha offered this opinion: ‘Richard was using Iris to get to Laura.’ The discussion then took off into the sci-fi dimension of the novel’s other story, Sakiel Norn and the myth of TBA. Sunil complained that his elder daughter for a while seemed interested only in vampire stories. It’s a phase, someone reassured him. Talitha said of The Handmaid’s Tale by the same author that it is quite weird even by sci-fi standards. Someone also noticed that the use of quotation marks in direct speech is different between the two stories in the book.
Offices of the Toronto Star newspaper
Sunil read the hand-tinting of photographs passage. It starts with a reference to Laura’s interest in a chap called Elwood Murray (‘such a pansy’). Returning to the interest Laura showed in Alex Thomas, Talitha volunteered that Laura is helping Alex regain the faith he had lost (in the Cominterm?). Iris, however, got down to brass tacks. Sunil confessed he hadn’t thought of that perspective; only women pick up on those faint hints; Joe is likewise at a loss to pick up on little things that KumKum detects unerringly, like a satnav system.
For lack of time, Zakia had to leave, but Talitha could not resist reading what seemed to be her favourite passage in the whole book, the Toronto High Noon Gossip about ‘an Abyssinian maid in green and silver.’
Mount Pleasant-Cemetery in Toronto
KumKum Joe said since we had overrun the time, he would not read his passage but would contribute the reading chosen by KumKum, who wrote a short appreciation:
“I have had this book since 2001, a gift from my daughter. I tried to read the book soon when I go it, but couldn’t proceed very far into it. And it remained "unread" since then.
Thanks to Priya and Tommo, another opportunity came up to pick up the book. This time, I read the whole book, though the going was just as tiresome as it was the first time.
I found the book “The Blind Assassin” too digressive; a story of collective dissembling and pretence. Very gossipy in flavour. Atwood's writing here lacks that evocative literary quality. One story tagging on to another story for no literary merit whatsoever, made the reading tedious.
I decided to read today the passage where Iris reveals her pregnancy to Richard and then to Laura."
Xanadu - Kubla Khan's pleasure dome
Joe did not read his piece at the session for lack of time, but here is the appreciation he prepared.
“TBA as a novel did not engage me in any way. The writing is workmanlike, and unexceptional. It's hard to find a passage that stood out. The device of telling more than one story simultaneously does not work, because there is no point of contact between the stories. I skipped all the stuff about Sakiel Norn, and I don't think I lost much thereby. Perhaps one of you will convince me otherwise. Why it should have received the Man Booker prize, I do not know.
The story of Iris and Laura and their difficult growing up, and the slightly unhinged nature of Laura makes for an interesting story. We get a good idea about the father of the girls and the family Iris marries into (Richard and Winifred). We learn that the novel was written by Iris and published as the work of Laura, to discredit Richard and show him up, so that Iris could get her own back on the man who had molested her sister, and used herself to get ahead in Toronto society.
The passage I will read is the Xanadu Ball which has a bit of Coleridge’s great poem."
Maple Leafs Gardens ice hockey rink
Exercise for the diligent reader:
Characterise in about 100 words per person below, the relationship of (a) Iris and (b) Laura with
Diligent reader exercise – Priya
Iris and Laura-
The relationship between the sisters is the most interesting aspect of The Blind Assassin. Is there sibling rivalry between the two? Does Iris play mother to Laura or is the role too burdensome? Is Laura jealous of Iris? Do the sisters end up cheating each other about a common lover? Do their love lives cross? Does Iris make Laura famous as a writer to redeem her failure to stand by Laura and rescue her from the asylum? Does Laura wrong Iris or vice versa? Their relationship, though fraught with undercurrents of mistrust, survives and their loyalty to each other is confirmed at the end.
Iris with Reenie-
Reenie played mother to both Iris and Laura, she being the housekeeper of the Avilion. Reenie had a command over the girls. She drilled propriety into them making them quite misfit to tackle the world in which they found themselves later. Iris loved and respected Reenie, like a mother, but strangely Reenie always expected more from Iris. Laura was always accepted as a different kind and Iris the more practical, sensible, grounded girl. Reenie felt that Iris had betrayed Laura and towards the end of the novel, she seems to take sides and is biased towards Iris, much to her dismay and disbelief. The two therefore shared a deep closeness that turned suspect.
Laura with Reenie
Laura was treated as a baby by Reenie, not spoilt or pampered, but always excused. Iris protected Laura, whenever Reenie pointed out her unconventional and scandalous behavior that would damage the family name and reputation of the girls. But Reenie came to Laura’s rescue when the latter disclosed her plight at the hands of Richard and her admission at Bella Vista, the sanatorium. Reenie readily believed Laura and held Iris suspect. Laura and Reenie also shared a motherly relationship and her reaction to Laura’s story was a direct outcome of that.
Iris with Richard- They had no relationship at all. They shared nothing and had nothing in common. It was an arrangement right from the start, loveless and lifeless. Richard was mean and villainous in keeping away telegrams and letters from Iris, not letting her know of her father’s death or of Laura’s letters. He was selfish and self-centered and Iris knew that and played along perfectly.
Laura and Richard - Laura was the target of Richard’s lust and he indulged in child abuse. He planned Laura’s abortion declaring her mentally unstable and kept the truth out of Iris’s way, causing rift between the sisters. Laura hated Richard right from the start though he tried to play the perfect brother-in-law.
Iris and Alex Thomas- Iris was in love with the strange mind of Alex Thomas. It seem to cast a spell on her as she met him over affectionate long story telling sessions. Alex’s intensity of love is not revealed except that he kept in touch with Iris despite long separations because of the war. Iris found comfort and affection and fun in her meetings with Alex, something that she desperately missed in her marriage. This relationship comes out as two-sided and balanced.
Laura and Alex- Laura seems to have been infatuated with Alex Thomas. It is not clear whether he was in love with Laura.
(d)Winifred - omitted
Diligent reader exercise – KumKum
Iris and Laura-
Iris, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's TBA, is a weak character. She is fragile, unsure of herself, yet the demand is on her to carry a novel as complicated and as digressive as TBA. Everyone lorded over her: Laura, Reenie, her father,Richard, Winifred, Aimee, and Alex, too. Though the entire story revolves around her, she remains a distant observer of the happenings.
Laura, the younger sister of Iris, had a mind of her own — a stubborn, wild, precocious woman. This is how Iris once described Laura: “But even as a child, Laura never quite agreed. Was this the problem? That she held firm for no when yes was the thing required? And vice versa, and vice versa.” (p 537). Laura took responsibility for her actions. Of course, she could not shield herself from harm; there were mightier forces that managed to throttle her to some extent. Even they were scared of Laura's fighting Spirit.
The relationship between the two sisters is an important part of the story. The mother at her death-bed wished Iris to take care of her kid sister, Laura. So did Reenie, their house-keeper, care-giver, and substitute mother of the two waifs. But, Iris had no power over Laura, emotional or intellectual. Laura always had her own way. In fact, often it is Laura who showed Iris the better way.
Did the sisters love each other? No, I do not think so. Iris definitely cared for Laura. But to love a girl like Laura, one has to be an emotionally mature person or an all -forgiving mother. Iris was neither.
Did Laura love Iris? Never. She pitied Iris for her stupidity, her trusting ways and her lack of adventurous spirit.
Was there any sibling jealousy between the two? Not very pronounced, I would say.
Reenie: She was a very capable house keeper. She managed the Avilion household through the mother's sickness, after her death and, continued in that role till the family had no money to pay her salary. Reenie did care for the family she served. Especially, for Iris and Laura. Often she stood in for their dead mother. Reenie took care of the father too. She overtly disapproved father's new girl friends for one reason or the other. It transpires she also serviced his sexual needs. We learn much later in the book that Reenie's daughter Myra is actually a half-sister of Iris and Laura.
Iris and Laura both appreciated Reenie's admirable service to their family and they cared for her. The three formed a relationship that remained above pettiness. And yes, Reenie’s love held them together.
Richard: An ambitious, conceited, selfish, upstart person. He was a pervert, too. He chose to marry Iris, who was many years younger to him, for her youthful innocence, but violated her minor sister, Laura, when she was under his protection.
Richard diddled the father in a business deal that ultimately killed the father. Richard then owned their father's button business, and the manor, Avilion. A trick he played gave him power over the minor, Laura, as well. He abused Iris emotionally and abused Laura physically. Both sisters became his victims. Laura killed herself to get out of his clutches. Even the timid Iris ultimately found strength to run away from Richard. There was never any love in the marriage between Richard and Iris. Laura who was shrewd enough to guess how fake her sister's marriage to Richard was, never liked him.
Winifred: The most deplorable character in the book is that of Winifred's. There was nothing nice about her. Richard and she are of the same kind. Richard got some of his evil projects done by conniving with her. Surely, Atwood introduced these two characters to enhance the gossip elements of the novel.
Iris hated Winifred from the time she first met her. But she was too timid to stand up to her. On page 534, Iris observes how grotesquely Winifred used make up to hide her age : “She was done up to the nines as usual, but despite this she was looking tatty. Well, she must have been pushing seventy, and after certain age her style of maquillage does tend to make you look mummified.”
Laura never tolerated Winifred. She was blunt in her disapproval.
Alex: He remains a veiled mystery throughout the novel. He barely steps out of his cocoon for the readers to see him, and he is only talked about by the two sisters. I felt his shadowy presence more in the Iris's tale than in Atwood's novel. The author definitely did not wish to make Alex a living, perceptible character.
Iris was more infatuated with Alex's ethereal personality. The male lover in her book resembles Alex, the woman could be Iris herself. Their encounters are described in a titillating, yet vague way.
Laura too was attracted to Alex, for a different reason. She admired the fact he was prepared to struggle for his cause.
Diligent reader exercise – Joe
Towards both sisters Reenie was the mother they missed. Although she is only a cook in the house, she offers advice on etiquette, deportment, men, sex, and sundry matters. She determinedly keeps the sisters out of trouble as long as she can, and rescues them from their follies, including hiding Alex, the tatterdemalion revolutionary. She is the only loyal ally the sisters have while growing up and beyond.
Richard uses Iris as his ticket from new money to old world prestige, in his ambition to get ahead in society and become a political bigwig. He loves her not, and denies her a woman’s freedom within marriage, circumscribing her with an expense account and offering little else. Was he really attracted to Laura as a minor, or was it just the working of his baser instincts arising from the coldness between Iris and him? He denounces Laura to a lunatic asylum when she becomes pregnant by him, to save his reputation.
As the collaborator and defender of Richard, Winifred is determined to preserve her ascendancy in the household, even after Richard marries Iris. She thwarts Iris at every stage, and shows a faint contempt for her. She knows about her brother’s villainy toward Laura, and helps him send Laura away to an asylum. If Richard is a cad, a reprobate scoundrel in high-society disguise, Winifred is the Lady Macbeth of the story.
Laura, the untutored girl, felt her first frisson of sexual attraction, masked by a Christian concern for the unfortunate, when she met Alex at a picnic. Iris immediately wanted to protect her from Alex’s dishonourable intentions. Perhaps he had none, but Iris too is in a way drawn to him. The sisters collude, Iris reluctantly, in hiding the chap on the run from the interest the police had expressed in him. “Tending Alex Thomas brought Laura and me closer together than we had been for a while,” says Iris. It is unlikely that Alex had either of the sisters, in my opinion, though he got as far as undoing the buttons of Iris’s blouse, on one occasion. But Laura nurses a forlorn love for him and expects Alex to return from the war and look for her.
Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto
The silver box (a suggestive passage from early on when Iris is writing the book that she publishes under Laura's name to spite Richard, her husband)
The orange tulips are corning out, crumpled and raggedy like the stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can, without much help from me. Sometimes I poke around in the debris of the back garden, clearing away dry stalks and fallen leaves, but that’s about as far as I go. I can’t kneel very well any more, I can’t shove my hands into the dirt.
Yesterday I went to the doctor, to see about these dizzy spells. He told me that I have developed what used to be called a heart, as if healthy people didn’t have one. It seems I will not after all keep on living forever, merely getting smaller and greyer and dustier, like the Sibyl in her bottle. Having long ago whispered I want to die, I now realize that this wish will indeed be fulfilled, and sooner rather than later. No matter that I’ve changed my mind about it.
I’ve wrapped myself in a shawl in order to sit outside, sheltered by the overhang of the back porch, at a scarred wooden table I had Walter bring in from the garage. It held the usual things, leftovers from previous owners: a collection of dried-out paint cans, a stack of asphalt shingles, a jar half-filled with rusty nails, a coil of picture wire. Mummified sparrows, mouse nests of mattress stuffing. Walter washed it off with Javex, but it still smells of mice.
Laid out in front of me are a cup of tea, an apple cut into quarters, and a pad of paper with blue lines on it, like men’s pyjamas once. I’ve bought a new pen as well, a cheap one, black plastic with a rolling tip. I remember my first fountain pen, how sleek it felt, how blue the ink made my fingers. It was Bakelite, with silver trim. The year was 1929. I was thirteen. Laura borrowed this pen—without asking, as she borrowed everything—then broke it, effortlessly. I forgave her, of course. I always did; I had to, because there were only the two of us. The two of us on our thorn-encircled island, waiting for rescue; and, on the mainland, everyone else.
For whom am I writing this? For myself? I think not. I have no picture of myself reading it over at a later time, later time having become problematical. For some stranger, in the future, after I’m dead? I have no such ambition, or no such hope.
Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.
I’m not as swift as I was. My fingers are stiff and clumsy, the pen wavers and rambles, it takes me a long time to form the words. And yet I persist, hunched over as if sewing by moonlight.
Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto by architect Frank Gehry
Passage 1 - Richard proposes to Iris in the Imperial Room of York Hotel
Richard proposed to me in the Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel. He’d invited me to lunch, along with Father; but then at the last minute, as we were walking through the hotel corridors on our way to the lift, Father said he couldn’t attend. I’d have to go by myself, he said.
Of course it was a put-up job between the two of them.
“Richard will be asking you something,” said Father to me. His tone was apologetic.
“Oh?” I said. Probably something about ironing, but I didn’t much care. As far as I was concerned Richard was a grown-up man. He was thirty-five, I was eighteen. He was well on the other side of being interesting.
“I think he may be asking you to marry him,” he said.
We were in the lobby by then. I sat down. “Oh,” I said. I could suddenly see what should have been obvious for some time. I wanted to laugh, as if at a trick. Also I felt as if my stomach had vanished. Yet my voice remained calm. “What should I do?”
“I’ve already given my consent,” said Father. “So it’s up to you.” Then he added: “A certain amount depends on it.”
“A certain amount?”
“I have to consider your futures. In case anything should happen to me, that is. Laura’s future, in particular.” What he was saying was that unless I married Richard, we wouldn’t have any money. What he was also saying was that the two of us—me, and especially Laura—would never be able to fend for ourselves. “I have to consider the factories as well,” he said. “I have to consider the business. It might still be saved, but the bankers are after me. They’re hot on the trail. They won’t wait much longer.” He was leaning on his cane, gazing down at the carpet, and I saw how ashamed he was. How beaten down. “I don’t want it all to have been for nothing. Your grandfather, and then…Fifty, sixty years of hard work, down the drain.”
“Oh. I see.” I was cornered. It wasn’t as if I had any alternatives to propose.
“They’d take Avilion, as well. They’d sell it.”
“It’s mortgaged up to the hilt.”
“A certain amount of resolve might be required. A certain amount of courage. Biting the bullet and so forth.”
I said nothing.
“But naturally,” he said, “whatever decision you make will be your own concern.”
I said nothing.
“I wouldn’t want you doing anything you were dead set against,” he said, looking past me with his good eye, frowning a little, as if an object of great significance had just come into view. There was nothing behind me but a wall.
I said nothing.
“Good. That’s that, then.” He seemed relieved. “He has a lot of common sense, Griffen. I believe he’s sound, underneath it all.”
“I guess so,” I said. “I’m sure he’s very sound.”
“You’d be in good hands. And Laura too, of course.”
“Of course,” I said faintly. “Laura too.”
“Chin up, then.”
Do I blame him? No. Not any more. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but he was only doing what would have been considered—was considered, then—the responsible thing. He was doing the best he knew how.
Richard joined us as if on cue, and the two men shook hands. My own hand was taken, squeezed briefly. Then my elbow. That was how men steered women around in those days—by the elbow—and so I was steered by the elbow into the Imperial Room. Richard said he’d wanted the Venetian Café, which was lighter and more festive in atmosphere, but unfortunately it had been fully booked.
It’s odd to remember this now, but the Royal York Hotel was the tallest building in Toronto then, and the Imperial Room was the biggest dining room. Richard was fond of big. The room itself had rows of large square pillars, a tessellated ceiling, a line of chandeliers, each with a tassel at the bottom end: a congealed opulence. It felt leathery, ponderous, paunchy—veined somehow. Porphyry is the word that comes to mind, though there may not have been any.
It was noon, one of those unsettling winter days that are brighter than they ought to be. The white sunlight was falling in shafts through the gaps in the heavy drapes, which must have been maroon, I think, and were certainly velvet. Underneath the usual hotel dining-room smells of steam-table vegetables and lukewarm fish there was an odour of hot metal and smouldering cloth. The table Richard had reserved was in a dim corner, away from the abrasive daylight. There was a red rosebud in a bud vase; I stared over it at Richard, curious as to how he would go about things. Would he take my hand, press it, hesitate, stutter? I didn’t think so.
I didn’t dislike him unduly. I didn’t like him. I had few opinions about him because I’d never thought much about him, although I had—from time to time—noticed the suavity of his clothes. He was pompous at times, but at least he wasn’t what you’d call ugly, not at all. I supposed he was very eligible. I felt a little dizzy. I still didn’t know what I would do.
The waiter came. Richard ordered. Then he looked at his watch. Then he talked. I heard little of what he said. He smiled. He produced a small black velvet-covered box, opened it. Inside was a glittering shard of light.
Passage 2 – Waking up
I spent that night lying huddled and shivering in the vast bed of the hotel. My feet were icy, my knees drawn up, my head sideways on the pillow; in front of me the arctic waste of starched white bedsheet stretched out to infinity. I knew I could never traverse it, regain the track, get back to where it was warm; I knew I was directionless; I knew I was lost. I would be discovered here years later by some intrepid team—fallen in my tracks, one arm outflung as if grasping at straws, my features desiccated, my fingers gnawed by wolves.
What I was experiencing was dread, but it was not dread of Richard as such. It was as if the illuminated dome of the Royal York Hotel had been wrenched off and I was being stared at by a malign presence located somewhere above the black spangled empty surface of the sky. It was God, looking down with his blank, ironic searchlight of an eye. He was observing me; he was observing my predicament; he was observing my failure to believe in him. There was no floor to my room: I was suspended in the air, about to plummet. My fall would be endless—endlessly down.
Such dismal feelings however do not often persist in the clear light of morning, when you are young.
St. Simon the Apostle Anglican Church,
I nodded and smiled, unsure of where I myself was assumed to stand. Was I one of the sticky entanglers? Perhaps. On the surface of things however I was being led to understand that Richard had a high intrinsic value, and that I’d better mind my p’s and q’s if I was to live up to it. “But I’m sure you’ll manage,” said Winifred, smiling a little. “You’re so young.” If anything, this youthfulness of mine should have made managing less likely, which was what Winifred was counting on. She had no intention of giving up any managing, herself.
Our Waldorf salads came. Winifred watched me pick up my knife and fork—at least I didn’t eat with my hands, her expression said—and gave a little sigh. I was hard slogging for her, I now realize. No doubt she thought I was sullen, or unforthcoming: I had no small talk, I was so ignorant, so rural. Or perhaps her sigh was a sigh of anticipation—of anticipated work, because I was a lump of unmoulded clay, and now she would have to roll up her sleeves and get down to moulding me.
No time like the present. She dug right in. Her method was one of hint, of suggestion. (She had another method—the bludgeon—but I didn’t encounter it at this lunch.) She said she’d known my grandmother, or at least she’d known of her. The Montfort women of Montreal had been celebrated for their style, she said, but of course Adelia Montfort had died before I was born. This was her way of saying that despite my pedigree we were in effect starting from scratch.
My clothes were the least of it, she implied. Clothes could always be purchased, naturally, but I would have to learn to wear them to effect. “As if they’re your skin, dear,” she said. My hair was out of the question—long, unwaved, combed straight back, held with a clip. It was a clear case for a pair of scissors and a cold wave. Then there was the question of my fingernails. Nothing too brash, mind you; I was too young for brashness. “You could be charming,” said Winifred. “Absolutely. With a little effort.”
I listened humbly, resentfully. I knew I did not have charm. Neither Laura nor I had it. We were too secretive for charm, or else too blunt. We’d never learned it, because Reenie had spoiled us. She felt that who we were ought to be enough for anybody. We shouldn’t have to lay ourselves out for people, court them with coaxings and wheedlings and eye-batting displays. I expect Father could see a point to charm in some quarters, but he hadn’t instilled any of it in us. He’d wanted us to be more like boys, and now we were. You don’t teach boys to be charming. It makes people think they are devious.
Winifred watched me eat, a quizzical smile on her lips. Already I was becoming a string of adjectives in her head—a string of funny anecdotes she would retail to her chums, the Billies and Bobbies and Charlies. Dressed like a charity case. Ate as if they’d never fed her. And the shoes!
“Well,” she said, once she’d poked at her salad—Winifred never finished a meal—“now we’ll have to put our heads together.”
I didn’t know what she meant. She gave another little sigh. “Plan the wedding,” she said. “We don’t have very much time. I thought, St. Simon the Apostle, and then the Royal York ballroom, the centre one, for the reception.”
I must have assumed I would simply be handed over to Richard, like a parcel; but no, there would have to be ceremonies—more than one of them. Cocktail parties, teas, bridal showers, portraits taken, for the papers. It would be like my own mother’s wedding, in the stories told by Reenie, but backwards somehow and with pieces missing. Where was the romantic prelude, with the young man kneeling at my feet? I felt a wave of dismay travel up from my knees until it reached my face. Winifred saw it, but did nothing to reassure me. She didn’t want me reassured.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” she said, in a tone that indicated scant hope. She patted my arm. “I’ll take you in hand.” I could feel my will seeping out of me—any power I still might have left, over my own actions. (Really! I think now. Really she was a sort of madame. Really she was a pimp.)
“My goodness, look at the time,” she said. She had a watch that was silver and fluid, like a ribbon of poured metal; it had dots on it instead of numbers. “I have to dash. They’ll bring you some tea, and a flan or something if you like. Young girls have such sweet tooths. Or is that sweet teeth?” She laughed, and stood up, and gave me a shrimp-coloured kiss, not oh the cheek but on the forehead. That served to keep me in my place, which was—it seemed clear—to be that of a child.
I watched her move through the rippling pastel space of the Arcadian Court as if gliding, with little nods and tiny calibrated waves of the hand. The air parted before her like long grass; her legs did not appear to be attached to her hips, but directly to her waist; nothing joggled. I could feel parts of my own body bulging out, over the sides of straps and the tops of stockings. I longed to be able to duplicate that walk, so smooth and fleshless and invulnerable.
I was not married from Avilion, but from Winifred’s half-timbered fake-Tudor barn in Rosedale. It was felt to be more convenient, as most of the guests would be from Toronto. It would also be less embarrassing for my father, who could no longer afford the kind of wedding Winifred felt was her due.
He could not even afford the clothes: Winifred took care of those. Stowed away in my luggage—in one of my several brand-new trunks—were a tennis skirt although I didn’t play, a bathing suit although I couldn’t swim, and several dancing frocks, although I didn’t know how to dance. Where could I have studied such accomplishments? Not at Avilion; not even the swimming, because Reenie wouldn’t let us go in. But Winifred had insisted on these outfits. She said I’d need to dress the part, no matter what my deficiencies, which should never be admitted by me. “Say you have a headache,” she told me. “It’s always an acceptable excuse.”
She told me many other things as well. “It’s all right to show boredom,” she said. “Just never show fear. They’ll smell it on you, like sharks, and come in for the kill. You can look at the edge of the table—it lowers your eyelids—but never look at the floor, it makes your neck look weak. Don’t stand up straight, you’re not a soldier. Never cringe. If someone makes a remark that’s insulting to you, say Excuse me? as if you haven’t heard; nine times out of ten they won’t have the face to repeat it. Never raise your voice to a waiter, it’s vulgar. Make them bend down, it’s what they’re for. Don’t fidget with your gloves or your hair. Always look as if you have something better to do, but never show impatience. When in doubt, go to the powder room, but go slowly. Grace comes from indifference.” Such were her sermons. I have to admit, despite my loathing of her, that they have proved to be of considerable value in my life.
Passage 2 – Postcards from Europe
A note from Winifred was propped against the telephone in the front hall. “Hi kids! Welcome home! I got them to finish the bedroom first! I hope you love it—so snazzy! Freddie.”
“I didn’t know Winifred was doing this,” I said.
“We wanted it to be a surprise,” said Richard. “We didn’t want you to get bogged down in details.” Not for the first time, I felt like a child excluded by its parents. Genial, brutal parents, up to their necks in collusion, determined on the rightness of their choices, in everything. I could tell already that my birthday presents from Richard would always be something I didn’t want.
I went upstairs to freshen up, at Richard’s suggestion. I must have looked as if I needed it. Certainly I felt sticky and wilted. (“Dew’s off the rose,” was his comment.) My hat was a wreck; I flung it onto the vanity. I splashed my face with water, and blotted it on one of the white monogrammed towels Winifred had set out. The bedroom looked out over the back garden, where nothing had been done. I kicked off my shoes, threw myself down on the endless cream-coloured bed. It had a canopy, with muslin draped around as if on safari. This, then, was where I was to grin and bear it—the bed I hadn’t quite made, but now must lie in. And this was the ceiling I would be staring up at from now on, through the muslin fog, while earthly matters went on below my throat.
The telephone beside the bed was white. It rang. I picked it up. It was Laura, in tears. “Where have you been?” she sobbed. “Why didn’t you come back?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “This is when we were supposed to come back! Calm down, I can’t hear you.”
“You never answered!” she wailed.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Father’s dead! He’s dead, he’s dead—we sent five telegrams! Reenie sent them!”
“Just a minute. Slow down. When did this happen?”
“A week after you left. We tried to phone, we phoned all the hotels. They said they’d tell you, they promised! Didn’t they tell you?”
“I’ll be there tomorrow,” I said. “I didn’t know. Nobody told me anything. I didn’t get any telegrams. I never got them.”
I couldn’t take it in. What had happened, what had gone wrong, why had Father died, why hadn’t I been notified? I found myself on the floor, on the bone-grey carpet, crouching down over the telephone, curled around it as if it were something precious and fragile. I thought of my postcards from Europe, arriving at Avilion with their cheerful, trivial messages. They were probably still on the table in the front hall. I hope you are in good health.
“But it was in the papers!” Laura said.
“Not where I was,” I said. “Not those papers.” I didn’t add that I’d never bothered with the papers anyway. I’d been too stupefied.
It was Richard who’d collected the telegrams, on the ship and at all our hotels. I could see his meticulous fingers, opening the envelopes, reading, folding the telegrams into quarters, stowing them away. I couldn’t accuse him of lying—he’d never said anything about them, these telegrams—but it was the same as lying. Wasn’t it?
He must have told them at the hotels not to put through any calls. Not to me, and not while I was there. He’d been keeping me in the dark, deliberately.
I thought I might be sick, but I wasn’t. After a time I went downstairs. Lose your temper and you lose the fight, Reenie used to say. Richard was sitting on the back verandah with a gin and tonic. So thoughtful of Winifred to lay in a supply of gin, he’d already said, twice. Another gin was poured ready, waiting for me on the low white glass-topped wrought-iron table. I picked it up. Ice chimed against the crystal. That was how my voice needed to sound.
“Good lord,” said Richard, looking at me. “I thought you were freshening up. What happened to your eyes?” They must have been red.
“Father’s dead,” I said. “They sent five telegrams. You didn’t tell me.”
“ Mea culpa,” said Richard. “I know I ought to have, but I wanted to spare you the worry, darling. There was nothing to be done, and no way we could get back in time for the funeral, and I didn’t want things to be ruined for you. I guess I was selfish, too—I wanted you all to myself, if only for a little while. Now sit down and buck up, and have your drink, and forgive me. We’ll deal with all this in the morning.”
The heat was dizzying; where the sun hit the lawn it was a blinding green. The shadows under the trees were thick as tar. Richard’s voice came through to me in staccato bursts, like Morse code: I heard only certain words.
Worry. Time. Ruined. Selfish. Forgive me.
What could I say to that?
TSO - the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Myra took me backstage and asked me if I’d like to use the Ladies’—she’s good about remembering that—then sat me down in the dressing room. “You just stay put now,” she said. Then she hurried off, bum lolloping, to make sure all was in order.
The lights around the dressing-room mirror were small round bulbs, as in theatres; they cast a flattering light, but I was not flattered: I looked sick, my skin leached of blood, like meat soaked in water. Was it fear, or true illness? Certainly I did not feel a hundred percent.
I found my comb, made a perfunctory stab at the top of my head. Myra keeps threatening to take me to “her girl,” at what she still refers to as the Beauty Parlour—The Hair Port is its official name, with Unisex as an added incentive—but I keep resisting. At least I can still call my hair my own, though it frizzes upwards as if I’ve been electrocuted. Beneath it there are glimpses of scalp, the greyish pink of mice feet. If I ever get caught in a high wind my hair will all blow off like dandelion fluff, leaving only a tiny pockmarked nubbin of bald head.
Myra had left me one of her special brownies, whipped up for the Alumni Tea—a slab of putty, covered in chocolate sludge—and a plastic screw-top jug of her very own battery-acid coffee. I could neither drink nor eat, but why did God make toilets? I left a few brown crumbs, for authenticity.
Then Myra bustled in and scooped me up and led me forth, and I was having my hand shaken by the principal, and told how good it was of me to have come; then I was passed on to the vice-principal, the president of the Alumni Association, the head of the English department—a woman in a trouser suit—the representative from the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and finally the local member of Parliament, loath as such are to miss a trick. I hadn’t seen so many polished teeth on display since Richard’s political days.
Myra accompanied me as far as my chair, then whispered, “I’ll be right in the wings.” The school orchestra struck up with squeaks and flats, and we sang “O Canada!,” the words to which I can never remember because they keep changing them. Nowadays they do some of it in French, which once would have been unheard of. We sat down, having affirmed our collective pride in something we can’t pronounce.
Then the school chaplain offered a prayer, lecturing God on the many unprecedented challenges that face today’s young people. God must have heard this sort of thing before, he’s probably as bored with it as the rest of us. The others gave voice in turn: end of the twentieth century, toss out the old, ring in the new, citizens of the future, to you from failing hands and so forth. I allowed my mind to drift; I knew enough to know that the only thing expected of me was that I not disgrace myself. I could have been back again beside the podium, or at some interminable dinner, sitting next to Richard, keeping my mouth shut. If asked, which was seldom, I used to say that my hobby was gardening. A half-truth at best, though tedious enough to pass muster.
Next it was time for the graduates to receive their diplomas. Up they trooped, solemn and radiant, in many sizes, all beautiful as only the young can be beautiful. Even the ugly ones were beautiful, even the surly ones, the fat ones, even the spotty ones. None of them understands this—how beautiful they are. But nevertheless they’re irritating, the young. Their posture is appalling as a rule, and judging from their songs they snivel and wallow, grin and bear it having gone the way of the foxtrot. They don’t understand their own luck.
They barely glanced at me. To them I must have seemed quaint, but I suppose it’s everyone’s fate to be reduced to quaintness by those younger than themselves. Unless there’s blood on the floor, of course. War, pestilence, murder, any kind of ordeal or violence, that’s what they respect. Blood means we were serious.
Next came the prizes—Computer Science, Physics, mumble, Business Skills, English Literature, something I didn’t catch. Then the Alumni Association man cleared his throat and gave out with a pious spiel about Winifred Griffen Prior, saint on earth. How everyone fibs when it’s a question of money! I suppose the old bitch pictured the whole thing when she made her bequest, stingy as it is. She knew my presence would be requested; she wanted me writhing in the town’s harsh gaze while her own munificence was lauded. Spend this in remembrance of me. I hated to give her the satisfaction, but I couldn’t shirk it without seeming frightened or guilty, or else indifferent. Worse: forgetful.
Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper
The war ended officially in the first week of May—the war in Europe, that is. Which was the only part of it that would have concerned Laura.
A week later she telephoned. She placed the call in the morning, an hour after breakfast, when she must have known Richard would not be at home. I didn’t recognize her voice, I’d given up expecting her. I thought at first that she was the woman from my dressmaker’s.
“It’s me,” she said.
“Where are you?” I said carefully. You must recall that she was by this time an unknown quantity to me—perhaps of questionable stability.
“I’m here,” she said. “In the city.” She wouldn’t tell me where she was staying, but she named a street corner where I could pick her up, later that afternoon. In that case we could have tea, I said. Diana Sweets was where I intended to take her. It was safe, it was secluded, it catered mostly to women; they knew me there. I said I would bring my car.
“Oh, do you have a car now?”
“More or less.” I described it.
“It sounds like quite a chariot,” she said lightly.
Laura was standing on the corner of King and Spadina, right where she said she’d be. It wasn’t the most savoury district, but she didn’t seem perturbed by that. I honked, and she waved and then came over and climbed in. I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Immediately I felt treacherous.
“I can’t believe you’re really here,” I said to her.
“But here I am.”
I was close to tears all of a sudden; she seemed unconcerned. Her cheek had been very cool, though. Cool and thin.
“I hope you didn’t mention anything to Richard, though,” she said. “About me being here. Or Winifred,” she added, “because it’s the same thing.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said. She said nothing.
Because I was driving, I could not look at her directly. For that I had to wait until I’d parked the car, then until we’d walked to Diana Sweets, and then until we were seated across from each other. At last I could see all of her, full on.
She was and was not the Laura I remembered. Older, of course—we both were—but more than that. She was neatly, even austerely dressed, in a dull-blue shirtwaist dress with a pleated bodice and small buttons down the front; her hair was pulled back into a severe chignon. She appeared shrunken, fallen in on herself, leached of colour, but at the same time translucent—as if little spikes of light were being nailed out through her skin from the inside, as if thorns of light were shooting out from her in a prickly haze, like a thistle held up to the sun. It’s a hard effect to describe. (Nor should you set much store by it: my eyes were already warping, I already needed glasses, though I didn’t yet know it. The fuzzy light around Laura may have been simply an optical flaw.)
We ordered. She wanted coffee rather than tea. It would be bad coffee, I warned her—you couldn’t get good coffee in a place like this, because of the war. But she said, “I’m used to bad coffee.”
There was a silence. I hardly knew where to begin. I wasn’t yet ready to ask her what she was doing back in Toronto. Where had she been all this time? I asked. What had she been doing?
“I was in Avilion, at first,” she said.
“But it was all closed up!” It had been, all through the war. We hadn’t been back for years. “How did you get in?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “We could always get in when we wanted to.”
Our coffee arrived. It tasted of burned toast crumbs and roasted chicory, not surprising since that’s what they put into it. “Do you want some cake or something?” I said. “It’s not bad cake here.” She was so thin, I felt she could use some cake.
“Then what did you do?”
“Then I turned twenty-one, so I had a little money, from Father. So I went to Halifax.”
“Halifax? Why Halifax?”
“It was where the ships came in.”
I didn’t pursue this. There was a reason behind it, there always was with Laura; it was a reason I shied away from hearing. “But what were you doing?”
“This and that,” she said. “I made myself useful.” Which was all she would say on that score. I supposed it would have been a soup kitchen of some kind, or the equivalent. Cleaning toilets in a hospital, that sort of thing. “Didn’t you get my letters? From Bella Vista? Reenie said you didn’t.”
“No,” I said. “I never got any letters.”
“I expect they stole them. And they wouldn’t let you call, or come to see me?”
“They said it would be bad for you.”
She laughed a little. “It would have been bad for you,” she said. “You really shouldn’t stay there, in that house. You shouldn’t stay with him. He’s very evil.”
“I know you’ve always felt that, but what else can I do?” I said. “He’d never give me a divorce. And I don’t have any money.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“Maybe not for you. You’ve got your trust fund, from Father, but I have no such thing. And what about Aimee?”
“You could take her with you.”
“Easier said than done. She might not want to come. She’s pretty stuck on Richard, at the moment, if you must know.”
“Why would she be?” said Laura.
“He butters her up. He gives her things.”
“I wrote you from Halifax,” said Laura, changing the subject.
“I never got those letters either.”
“I expect Richard reads your mail,” said Laura.
“I expect he does,” I said. The conversation was taking a turn I hadn’t expected. I’d assumed I’d be consoling Laura, commiserating with her, hearing a sad tale, but instead she was lecturing me. How easily we slid back into our old roles.
“What did he tell you about me?” she said now. “About putting me into that place?”
There it was, then, right out on the table. This was the crossroads: either Laura had been mad, or Richard had been lying. I couldn’t believe both. “He told me a story,” I said evasively.
“What sort of a story? Don’t worry, I won’t get upset. I just want to know.”
“He said you were—well, mentally disturbed.”
“Naturally. He would say that. What else did he say?”
“He said you thought you were pregnant, but it was just a delusion.”
“I was pregnant,” said Laura. “That was the whole point—that was why they whisked me out of sight in such a hurry. Him and Winifred—they were scared stiff. The disgrace, the scandal—you can imagine what they’d think it would do to his big fat chances.”
“Yes. I can see that.” I could see it, too—the hush-hush call from the doctor, the panic, the hasty conference between the two of them, the spur-of-the-moment plan. Then the other version of events, the false one, concocted just for me. I was docile enough as a rule, but they must have known there was a line somewhere. They must have been afraid of what I might do, once they’d crossed it.
“Anyway, I didn’t have the baby. That’s one of the things they do, at Bella Vista.”
“One of the things?” I was feeling quite stupid.
“Besides the mumbo-jumbo, I mean, and the pills and machines. They do extractions,” she said. “They conk you out with ether, like the dentist. Then they take out the babies. Then they tell you you’ve made the whole thing up. Then when you accuse them of it, they say you’re a danger to yourself and others.”
She was so calm, so plausible. “Laura,” I said, “are you sure? About the baby, I mean. Are you sure there really was one?”
“Of course I’m sure,” she said. “Why would I make such a thing up?”
There was still room for doubt, but this time I believed Laura. “How did it happen?” I whispered. “Who was the father?” Such a thing called for whispering.
“If you don’t already know, I don’t think I can tell you,” said Laura.
I supposed it must have been Alex Thomas. Alex was the only man Laura had ever shown any interest in—besides Father, that is, and God.
Zakia with Gopa reading
Laura told me what she was doing vis-a-vis Elwood Murray; she also told Reenie. I expected a protest, an uproar; I expected Reenie to say that Laura was lowering herself, or acting in a tawdry, compromising fashion. Who could tell what might go on in a darkroom, with a young girl and a man and the lights off? But Reenie took the view that it wasn’t as if Elwood was paying Laura to work for him: rather he was teaching her, and that was quite different. It put him on a level with the hired help. As for Laura being in a darkroom with him, no one would think any harm of it, because Elwood was such a pansy. I suspect Reenie was secretly relieved to have Laura showing an interest in something other than God.
Laura certainly showed an interest, but as usual she went overboard. She nicked some of Elwood’s hand-tinting materials and brought them home with her. I found this out by accident: I was in the library, dipping into the books at random, when I noticed the framed photographs of Grandfather Benjamin, each with a different prime minister. Sir John Sparrow Thompson’s face was now a delicate mauve, Sir Mackenzie Bowell’s a bilious green, Sir Charles Tupper’s a pale orange. Grandfather Benjamin’s beard and whiskers had been done in light crimson.
That evening I caught her in the act. There on her dressing table were the little tubes, the tiny brushes. Also the formal portrait of Laura and me in our velvet dresses and Mary Janes. Laura had removed the print from its frame, and was tinting me a light blue. “Laura,” I said, “what in heaven’s name are you up to? Why did you colour those pictures? The ones in the library. Father will be livid.”
“I was just practising,” said Laura. “Anyway, those men needed some enhancing. I think they look better.”
“They look bizarre,” I said. “Or very ill. Nobody’s face is green! Or mauve.”
Laura was unperturbed. “It’s the colours of their souls,” she said. “It’s the colours they ought to have been.”
“You’ll get in big trouble! They’ll know who did it.”
“Nobody ever looks at those,” she said. “Nobody cares.”
“Well, you’d better not lay a finger on Grandmother Adelia,” I said. “Nor the dead uncles! Father would have your hide!”
“I wanted to do them in gold, to show they’re in glory,” she said. “But there isn’t any gold. The uncles, not Grandmother. I’d do her a steel grey.”
“Don’t you dare! Father doesn’t believe in glory. And you’d better take those paints back before you’re accused of theft.”
“I haven’t used much,” said Laura. “Anyway, I brought Elwood a jar of jam. It’s a fair trade.”
“Reenie’s jam, I suppose. “Out of the cold cellar—did you ask her? She counts that jam, you know.” I picked up the photograph of the two of us. “Why am I blue?”
“Because you’re asleep,” said Laura.
KumKum could not come - she had to stay home to care for Gael
KumKum’s piece (read by Joe in her absence):
I waited until the end of October to tell Richard that I was pregnant. I said I’d wanted to be sure. He expressed conventional joy, and kissed my forehead. “Good girl,” he said. I was only doing what was expected of me.
One benefit was that he now left me scrupulously alone at night. He didn’t want to damage anything, he said. I told him that was very thoughtful of him. “And you’re on gin rations from now on. I won’t allow any naughtiness,” he said, wagging his finger at me in a way I found sinister. He was more alarming to me during his moments of levity than he was the rest of the time; it was like watching a lizard gambol. “We’ll have the very best doctor,” he added. “No matter what it costs.” Putting things on a commercial footing was reassuring to both of us. With money in play, I knew where I stood: I was the bearer of a very expensive package, pure and simple.
Winifred, after her first little scream of genuine fright, made an insincere fuss. Really she was alarmed. She guessed (rightly) that being the mother of a son and heir, or even just an heir, would give me more status with Richard than I’d had so far, and a good deal more than I was entitled to. More for me, and less for her. She would be on the lookout for ways to whittle me down to size: I expected her to appear any minute with detailed plans for decorating the nursery.
“When may we expect the blessed event?” she asked, and I could see I was in for a prolonged dose of coy language from her. It would now be the new arrival and a present from the stork and the little stranger, nonstop. Winifred could get quite elfish and finicky about subjects that made her nervous.
“In April, I think,” I said. “Or March. I haven’t seen a doctor yet.”
“But you must know” she said, arching her eyebrows.
“It’s not as if I’ve done this before,” I said crossly. “It’s not as if I was expecting it. I wasn’t paying attention.”
I went to Laura’s room one evening to tell her the same news. I knocked at the door; when she didn’t answer, I opened it softly, thinking she might be asleep. She wasn’t though. She was kneeling beside her bed, in her blue nightgown, with her head down and her hair spreading as if blown by an unmoving wind, her arms flung out as if she’d been thrown there. At first I thought she must be praying, but she wasn’t, or not that I could hear. When she noticed me at last, she got up, as matter-of-factly as if she’d been dusting, and sat on the frilled bench of her vanity table.
As usual, I was struck by the relationship between her surroundings, the surroundings Winifred had chosen for her—the dainty prints, the ribbon rosebuds, the organdies, the flounces—and Laura herself. A photograph would have revealed only harmony. Yet to me the incongruity was intense, almost surreal. Laura was flint in a nest of thistledown.
I say flint, not stone: a flint has a heart of fire.
“Laura, I wanted to tell you,” I said. “I’m going to have a baby.”
She turned towards me, her face smooth and white as a porcelain plate, the expression sealed inside it. But she didn’t seem surprised. Nor did she congratulate me. Instead she said, “Remember the kitten?”
“What kitten?” I said.
“The kitten Mother had. The one that killed her.”
“Laura, it wasn’t a kitten.”
“I know,” said Laura.
Joe’s piece (not read for lack of time):
Xanadu Ball p. 411-412 (533 words)
The snow fell, softly at first, then in hard pellets that stung the skin like needles. The sun set in the afternoon, the sky changed from washed blood to skim milk. Smoke poured from the chimneys, from the furnaces stoked with coal. The bread-wagon horses left piles of steaming brown buns on the street which then froze solid. Children threw them at one another. The clocks struck midnight, over and over, every midnight a deep blue-black riddled with icy stars, the moon white bone. I looked out the bedroom window, down to the sidewalk, through the branches of the chestnut tree. Then I turned out the light.
The Xanadu ball was the second Saturday in January. My costume had come that morning, in a box with armfuls of tissue paper. The smart thing to do was to rent your costume from Malabar’s, because to have one specially made would be displaying too much of an effort. Now it was almost six o’clock and I was trying it on. Laura was in my room: she would often do her homework there, or make a show of doing it. “What are you supposed to be?” she said.
“The Abyssinian Maid,” I said. What I would do for a dulcimer I wasn’t yet sure. Perhaps a banjo, with ribbons added. Then I remembered that the only banjo I knew about was back at Avilion, in the attic, left over from my dead uncles. I would have to skip the dulcimer.
I didn’t expect Laura to tell me I looked pretty, or nice even. She never did that: pretty and nice were not categories of thought for her. This time she said, “You aren’t very Abyssinian. Abyssinians aren’t supposed to be blonde.”
“I can’t help the colour of my hair,” I said. “It’s Winifred’s fault. She should have chosen Vikings or something.”
“Why are they all afraid of him?” said Laura.
“Afraid of who?” I said. (I hadn’t considered the fear in this poem, only the pleasure. The pleasure-dome. The pleasure-dome was where I really lived now—where I had my true being, unknown to those around me. With walls and towers girdled round, so nobody else could get in.)
“Listen,” she said. She recited, with her eyes closed:
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
“See, they’re afraid of him,” she said, “but why? Why Beware?”
“Really, Laura, I have no idea,” I said. “It’s just a poem. You can’t always tell what poems mean. Maybe they think he’s crazy.”
“It’s because he’s too happy,” said Laura. “He’s drunk the milk of Paradise. It frightens people when you’re too happy, in that way. Isn’t that why?”
“Laura, don’t keep at me,” I said. “I don’t know everything, I’m not a professor.”