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The Swan in the Evening
Fragments of an Inner Life
By Rosamond Lehmann
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Rosamond Lehmann
All rights reserved.
I was born during a violent thunderstorm; and since the date was the third day of February, this disturbance of the elements struck the popular imagination with dramatic force, as being, in the strict sense of the word, phenomenal. Nobody, I hasten to add, related the portent to my personal entry into the twentieth century A.D. The time was not long after 1 A.M. of the day of the funeral of Queen Victoria. It was only myself, as I started to emerge from the animal-vegetable swaddlings of infancy, whom the coincidence impressed. It seemed to give me an unexpectedly distinguished cachet: almost the reflection of a royal nimbus.
One day, around the age of five, sitting in my kindergarten class with a tray before me of soft white sand in which letters of the alphabet are to be traced, I call out suddenly to Miss Davis and confide in her what a notable birthday is mine.
'Very interesting dear; but pay attention now, please.' Pretty Miss Davis, whom I adore, to whom I have publicly, gratuitously offered my passport, lays it down, patiently, as an irrelevance, thereby obliterating whatever it was that had seemed all at once to startle the dark backward of my identity with such a flash. Now I feel pinched in my chest because the other children stare at me; their cold eyes make a nothing of me, a WRONG SUM AGAIN. ... Rub her out, cry baby cry ...
Yet a few months later a similar urge wells up and over-masters me. This time it is in drill. March, march, round and round the schoolroom to a rollicking tune from Miss Davis at the piano. Halt! The music breaks off. I call out: 'Miss Davis!' on a reckless note.
'Yes, what is it?'
'I don't like being in the middle.'
'What do you mean, dear?' Puzzle for Miss Davis. I have in fact been top of the class this week and in consequence I lead the march.
'Well ... I'm not the oldest ... and I'm not the youngest. ...' Now I have qualms. 'Helen's older and Baby (my sister Beatrix) is –'
'Ah yes, I see.' She breaks into a soft chuckle. 'Well, I'm the middle one too, in my family. I think it's rather nice. Like the jam in the middle of a sandwich. Attention children, forward march! Heads up! Swing your arms!'
Forward I march, leading a Band of Hope, to the tune of John Brown's Body. When it comes to glory glory Allelujah! we belt it out with a will, I loudest of all for once, and most rejoicing. For lo! I am absolutely on the map, the sweet surprise of it! I am linked with Miss Davis, middle one of the family, I am the jam between the bread slices, given status and protection.
Miss Winifred Davis is tall, willowy and pale, with liquid, faintly protuberant eyes of violet flecked with green, and a cloud of ash-blonde hair. Her voice is low and caressing. Soon she will vanish from our lives. One day we break up for the summer holidays – always a day of sportive leaps and chatter; we kiss her good-bye until next term; and unaccountably she is not clasping us to her full-bloused breast (smocked tussore) with smiles and jokes, but speechless and raining tears.
'Why is Miss Davis crying?'
'Don't you know! I know!'
She is going to be married. Doesn't she want to be? Yes, she does want to be. Then why ...? She will be Mrs. Tinkler. At this we burst into hilarious shrieks: we bandy the name about, competing in flights of wit. But perhaps she weeps because she doesn't like her new funny name; and now I have sympathetic qualms, and try to choke back my laughter. I see that hers is a natural distress, for the funniness inherent in the syllables casts an unsuitably derogatory spell upon her, and upon our relations with her, and her tears seem to say that she is being down-scrambled by our mockery, doesn't like it, cannot help it. It is a shame.
We are assembled on the porch of our school, namely the brick and stucco pavilion built by our parents in the garden to house our education; and all of a sudden from nowhere, Mr. Tinkler materializes. He stands beside Miss Davis, immensely tall, thin, dark, with flashing spectacles. His arm is linked in hers; she is beaming, blushing, mopping her eyes. He has come to fetch her away, fetch her away. ... Some nurse or parent present to collect her charge calls out officiously: 'Three cheers for the bride and bridegroom! Hip, hip!' – and feebly we pipe: 'Hurrah!'
But won't she be coming back? No, of course not, says someone heartily. She is going to live in Birmingham, and have lots of children of her own to look after. Then, shall I never see her again? ...
The question is unasked, unanswered. Strange, strange to relate, I did see her once again, many years later; but I don't think – I shall never be sure if – she saw me. I am in my twenties, the author of Dusty Answer and quite often photographed. I am lunching alone in my London Club, and my eye is caught by two figures at a far table in the opposite corner; an attractive fair fresh-faced young man, and a thin faded-looking lady in black. Presently this young man gets up, comes towards me, and addresses me with a mixture of shyness and easy charm. 'Might I be Rosamond Lehmann?
'I thought I recognized you,' he says. 'My mother cut out your photograph. ... She was always so interested. ... She taught you once. The name is Tinkler.'
He is pleased that I respond so eagerly and remember so vividly, but the conversation proceeds with growing awkwardness. I follow his uncertain glance over his shoulder. Can it be –? She is not looking at me or at him but fixedly ahead of her. She has two flaming patches on her thin cheek-bones and gives an impression of tremulous disarray. 'Yes, that is my mother,' says this charming young man. 'I'm afraid she isn't at all well just at present. My father died suddenly in the spring and it shook her terribly. She had a breakdown. But I hope,' he added, resolutely cheerful, 'she's over the worst.'
Was he asking me to come and speak to her? – or delicately explaining that it would be wiser not to? I shall never know; and must for ever accuse myself of cowardly failure to find out.
I charge him with my love to her; he is to say I have never forgotten her kindness to me, and her beauty. He nods thanks and returns to his own table.
I steal one look before I hurry from the room and from the building. Dislocation, preoccupation are evident; a couple precariously tethered to their situation. The pathos of filial stiff upper lip strikes me forcibly.
Her dual image shocks, compels my imagination many days: the recollected one, allegra, in its silvery nimbus; this one dolorosa, lustreless; the discrepancy between the young and the older image is bridged by the tears of both.
Dearest Miss Davis, you were too vulnerable. Never more did a figure remotely resembling yours shine in the interminable, sometimes glum and eccentric path of my educational years. Quite soon after, I was learning to play the piano with Mademoiselle's gold watch placed alternately on the back of the left hand and the right, to maintain the correct flat position. When the watch slipped off she caught it and smacked my hand with a ruler. Quite soon, instead of being comforted when I fell down and cut my knees, I was being put to bed as a punishment for tearing my stockings.
Further back, further than the white sands of kindergarten lies my first conscious memory: so far back that it is much less visual than tactile. A dark obstacle, perhaps a wall or a door, obstructs me; I pat on its polished surface and hear the thump of my hand. I look up, and it is a little house with a window too high for me to look through. Suddenly the door of the little house opens with a squawk; I am swooped down on, snatched up, clasped in hard arms, pressed against black sour-smelling cloth, amid the glint and rattle of buttons, brooches, dentures, watch-chains. A cheek is pressed to mine – female, I recognize, but hairy; at the same time a succession of high-pitched crooning endearments assaults my ear. I yell and yell for rescue; and presumably rescue comes; for that is all that I remember.
But later this experience, together with the background and the protagonists, is verified. The place was St. Pierre en Port, my age was eighteen months; the little house of dark polished wood was the enclosed reception desk wherein sat Mademoiselle Sidonie, sister of the proprietor of our hotel, spinster, child-lover, and – poor afflicted lady – bristlingly moustached.
She went on sending us postcards from Guernsey for a long time afterwards; and I have a faint recollection of being told how unmerited was my generous portion of this kind attention. One of the postcards has stuck in my memory: a ginger tom cat in striped bathing drawers extending his paws and claws with a disquieting grin. Across him, written in a flowing French hand: Le chat dit Bonjour à la petite Rose!!!
Early memories have, I suppose, something inevitably traumatic in their composition. They record moments of being shocked, pitchforked out of the dream of wake which is our natural infant state: shocked out to register the pain of the first lesions in the adhesive web which our senses spin for the protection of our untempered bodies. For instance: an enormous Teddy bear wearing a clown's hat and a red, blue, green and yellow harlequin suit lies on his back upon the nursery floor. Abandoned to delirious mirth and unco-ordinated gymnastics we go on jumping on to his stomach to hear him growl. Myself and Baby: he is as tall as she. All at once a cascade of blood obliterates her flushed, wild face. There is no sound from her (she does not see what I see) but I let out scream upon scream; and someone comes rushing, exclaims, whips her up and disappears with her. I follow, and beat on the bathroom door, wailing that it is my fault, my fault. Presently she is carried back, washed, clean, on the pale side but composed, laid flat on the nursery sofa and told in the charged, scolding voice special to parents and nurses who have had a 'turn', to mind and stop acting silly for a change. A murmurous discussion ensues, between Lizzie our nurse and our nursemaid Lucy – beautiful Lizzie and rose-cheeked Lucy, soon to get married and abandon us like most of the pleasant faces and good-tempered voices that spread an Eden, early lost, around our nursery days. 'Funny thing to happen. ... Shall you mention it?' ... 'I may do.' 'Must have burst a blood vessel. ...' 'What did the other say it was her fault for?' ... 'You may well ask. She never touched her' 'Then why is she creating?'
Why indeed? Except that when it appears, even a few drops of it, blood, sacrificial, streams in the whole firmament of childhood.
Once again I have made an exhibition of myself and it is better to ignore me.
And yet again: My mother takes me, in the Victoria, to somebody's birthday party at Cookham. (Why only me ? But so it is.) On the sunny lawn are assembled about two dozen little girls and boys whom I have never seen before. We are lined up, given wooden spoons with plaster eggs in them. Ready, steady, go! 'Run, run, don't drop, pick up your egg, run, steady now, well done Eric, Eric's won, who's next? Norah, well done Norah. ... Brenda third. ... Who comes in last, eggless, and in tears? 'Bad luck Rosie, never mind dear. ...' Where is my mother? Vanished indoors. What is this abomination of desolation called SPORTS?
The cruel children fly all over the lawn, casual and sharp as birds. They compete and compete, as if competing was the height of fun. They jump over obstacles and crawl under them and climb up and down them; they tie their inside legs together with handkerchiefs and run in couples. I conceal myself appropriately beneath a weeping willow and watch, despairing, from a distance. A kind lady comes to coax me out: I will not come.
My state is such that when my mother comes at last with an unpleased face to lead me to the tea-table she murmurs: 'Take no notice of her'; and nobody does. Not one of those cheerful girls and boys takes the slightest notice of the hiccuping sodden object in their midst.
Now comes prize giving. Prizes, prizes, prizes, every sort and kind, are displayed upon a trestle table on the lawn. At once my eye is caught by a small round-bodied scent bottle, green glass overlaid with silver fretwork, and with a lovely stopper like an emerald jujube. It looks a bit lost among the other prizes, as if it had been taken off somebody's dressing-table at the last moment, just in case of a miscalculation. I covet it unspeakably. Every boy or girl who has won a race is called up in turn to choose a prize. Next, the also rans – not to choose, but to be given something. Nobody will go home empty-handed. The table is getting barer. The scent bottle remains.
'Oh, Rosie!' Our hostess looks at me dubiously, then at the table, stripped now of every single object except – 'You must have a consolation prize. What about this little scent bottle?'
The joy is piercing. How can it be that this treasure has fallen into no other hands but mine? How is it that, at the last moment, I have become the luckiest girl at the party?
On the drive home, I remark happily:
'It's just exactly the one thing I wanted!'
'You didn't deserve it,' replied my mother, justly pointing to the frightful abyss between my merits and my expectations. I clasp my consolation prize, but it feels cold now, tarnished. No question of it: I hold between my palms extravagant dishonour and reward.
And yet again: I am holding to the nose of my infant brother a flask of eau-de-Cologne (curious that the perfume motif should thus recur): He seizes it, tilts it, and at one gulp swigs down a fair portion of its contents. I stare. He stares back. Can all be well with him? All is not well. A second later a muffled choking roar announces his inner consternation. Julia his nurse appears. I bleat: 'He drank it. I meant him just to smell it.' Her face turns pale as junket, and his is now dark plum colour. As she charges from the room with him she flings across her shoulder:
'You may have been the death of him.'
Well, I have been the death of him. I hurry away and creep under my bed, and there, in my best cotton frock, entomb myself, inhaling the peppery smell of carpet and carpet dust, and listening as from the world of shades to far-off voices interspersed with dreadful silences. I am due to go to Henley Regatta – prime treat of the year; but they can call and call, I will never come out. Presently the vibration of the car rises, diminishes, and fades along the drive. My father is headed for the Umpire's Launch; he cannot brook delay. But can my mother and Helen really have accompanied him, indifferent to or unaware of the fatality? I practise saying sincerely to my parents: 'It was an accident.' The memory of Boy's congested outraged face is lacerating. 'You gave me poison to drink,' it says, 'on purpose.'
The silence now seems absolute. Perhaps Julia has charged with him to Nanny Green, her friend, expert in croup and other mysteries, who lives near by ... or to the doctor ... or the undertaker. ...
Time passes. Then I hear sounds impossible to associate with domestic tragedy. Shrieks and peals, with deep gardeners' voices interspersed. The maids are in splits in the kitchen, at their elevenses: a not uncommon occurrence whenever their employers are abroad. The day is not doom-laden, but ordinary. The call of nature obliges me to emerge. I gaze from the bathroom window and see my brother setting forth as usual in his pram, with Julia at the helm. He looks his customary outdoor self – an infant version of Mithras, Sun God, rayed round by the layers of a broderie anglaise sun hat, tied in a dashing bow beneath his chins. I hurry down to join them in the garden. He is unequivocally pleased to see me, and seems devoid of rancour or of mortal symptoms. 'Wherever have you been?' exclaims Julia sharply, eyeing me. 'They had to go without you.' I am silent, sheepish. She does not demur when I grip the handle of the pram and start to push. 'I told your mother,' she says presently, 'you felt a wee bit sicky after breakfast. It might be as well for you to stay here quiet with Birdie Boy and me.' I remain dumb. 'And who's his favourite sis-sis?' she cries, addressing her impassive charge.
She too is sheepish, I realize; also she has not given me away; also she is sorry for what she said; also has been agitated by my disappearance. But to refer to or admit to even one facet of this complex would be infra dig.
No grown-up, in my personal experience, ever said sorry to a child in those days. None, in the event of inability to answer a question, ever confessed to simple ignorance. As for subjects such as birth, death, physical and sexual functions, these were taboo, and invested with an aura of murk, shame, guilt, suggestiveness and secrecy. Children today are more likely to be spared taboos, whatever strains and stresses have been substituted. In some aspects of our sheltered, materially privileged childhood, my sisters and I happened to be unlucky. There was a period when, at least as regards our schoolroom life, and certainly whenever our parents were away, we took a considerable bashing; when there was no knowing when – or why – nemesis would overtake us. Perhaps I came off lightest, being too much of a coward not to try to court approval. But a part of one sister's whole life has been coloured, I think, by the burning sense of injustice kindled at that time; and as for the other, it seems to me that it took her many years and all her strength of character to resolve the blocks, mental and emotional, engendered by unlove in the nursery.
Excerpted from The Swan in the Evening by Rosamond Lehmann. Copyright © 1982 Rosamond Lehmann. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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