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The Syrian stands on the terrace,staring down into the bay. His head and shoulders are caught in the last of the light,massive,like a centaur's.He could be Apollo on his chariot with his hair blown back like that.Or Poseidon.Or Prometheus.He is the darkest white man I have ever seen.It is a sort of gilded darkness,gleaming and beautiful.Even an old man can look like a god,I think.
But,of course,he isn't old. He is just older than I am,much older.I am seventeen and a half and have just lost twelve pounds at the slimming salon.My body is curved and firm and brown.Until now,I have been plain,as my mother is plain,but in a different way.My mother is slim and elegant and plain.I have been sallow and lumpy and awkward,and too clever by half,as she says.
Since I lost weight,she has become more watchful than ever.If a boy whistles at me on the street,she says he is common rubbish,he wants one thing and one thing only,and if I give in,I will be his forever.The result is that every night I dream of common rubbish.Common rubbish comes to watch me sleeping,to adore me as I sleep.When we go out in the car, I am always on the lookout for common rubbish.And yet, walking on the street,I dread their attention.They are callow and leering,and I am full of phrases of contempt.
The Syrian turns.He shades his eyes against the sun and smiles."Join me?"he says,holding up his whiskey and soda.
I rub at something on my foot,looking away to hide the flush in my cheeks and neck and ears.If my mother were to see me like this,she would throw him out and cancel the dinner. When my father phoned to ask whether his Syrian friend might come,she did not slam down the phone as she usually does. She hung out her blue silk dress and told Maude to make vol au vent and crËme caramel. She likes to surprise my father like this, the way he once surprised her,walking into her dressing room one night and taking her into his arms without even asking.
My father has never lived with us.He has never lived with my mother,either.He lives with one of his other women,or at his house inland,or on his motor launch,tied up at the Esplanade.He is large like the Syrian,and rich,and he is used to getting what he wants.But with my mother,he gets only as far as the dining room table.And sometimes into the lounge afterwards for coffee.When he comes for dinner,it is I who ask Maude to stew guavas for him,and to make a custard to go with it.I am the one who remembers that he takes two lumps of Demerara in a demitasse of black coffee.
I am not his first child,nor,I suppose,will I be the last.But I am the one he has always wanted for himself.Perhaps this is because he cannot have me.Or because my cleverness makes him laugh,as my mother's must once have done.When he laughs at me,she makes a show of flapping out the tablecloth she is embroidering for my trousseau,asking which colour for the basket,which for the stems?She knows that the idea of a marriage will infuriate him.And she is right."I bloody well hope you're not going to be pulled into that stinking swamp," he shouts at me.
My mother herself has never wanted to be in that stinking swamp.She is an opera singer.If it weren 't for Hitler,she might have been world famous.But she had to leave the Conservatoire,where she was studying,and hide away.And then, near the end of the War,she was found out and sent to the camps like everyone else,high and low.After it was over,she got on a ship as soon as she could and came here,to the bottom of Africa,where you can be the greatest lyric soprano on earth and no one in the real world would ever even know.
Every week,she drives inland to see Katzenbogen,her psychoanalyst,who also survived the camps.They speak the same language,she says.More than this,the world is mad,and you need to know how to live in it.It takes half a day to get to him, and half a day to get back.And she is always coming home with new ideas.
Last week,she put down her grip in the hall and said, "Compared to the War,what was your father?"
I know enough never to answer such questions.Long before I was born,she found out about my father's other women, and she has hated him with all her fury ever since.
"Compared to the War,what was your father?"she roared at me again."An accident of Fate!A nonentity!A joke!"
After that,it was as if the War itself had become her real lover,had been her real lover right from the beginning.It is a cruel lover,a deadly lover,there in every shadow like a spider,a snake.And I am jealous of it.
The Syrian walks up from the terrace,onto the verandah. "Windy out there,"he says.
I nod.He has a scarf tied at his neck,like a film star.When he looks at me,all my cleverness vanishes,all my phrases of contempt.
"That is my ship down there,"he says,leaning against the other pillar.
I look,but I am thinking only of the broderie anglaise that I am to wear tonight.It is ridiculously childish with its laced bodice and puffed sleeves.
"I brought some presents for you,"he says,pointing to the table."For your mother and for you both."
I have seen them there,four boxes with beautiful bows and wrappings.When my father brings me presents,I am never to open them until he has left."Money is as money does,"my mother says,holding up a scarf,or a jewelry box,or a book. And then she goes through to the kitchen to give the present to Maude.
My father will be late tonight.He is always late.And always my mother and I wait upstairs until he has been shown into the lounge and made to wait himself.She likes to see him look up as we walk in together.Time after time,he is to regret what he cannot have for himself,what he cannot buy for all the money in the world.
But this time,it is I who have waited.All afternoon I have sat behind the curtains of the sleeping porch,hoping that my father's friend would arrive early.Except for my father,and Dr. Slatkin,and Braughton,the conductor of the civic orchestra, no white man has ever come into our house before."Let them wait at the gate,"my mother likes to say."Let them die of waiting."
Tomorrow she leaves for her trip inland.Already she is shouting down to the servants.Every week,they are called into the hall and told that Maude will be taking over the household for the days that she is gone,that Maude and only Maude will be in charge of me.This she says in case my father thinks of bribing the gardener or the housegirl to open the gate and let him in.
It has always been this way.When the girls at the convent asked why I could never come to their parties,I told them we had a cottage in the mountains to which we went every weekend-my father,my mother,and I. They didn't believe me,of course.They knew who my mother was,everyone knew.They saw her huddled with the nuns,and Maude waiting at the gate to take me home every Friday afternoon.They must have seen the padlock on our gate when they drove past.But whatever they knew,I lived with my secret as if it,too,were a lover. Every Friday night,I handed my diary to my mother,and then lay with my head in her lap as she read what I had written.
"Fat?"she would cry,lifting the notebook to look down at me. "Who says that you are fat?"
"It is winter where I live,"the Syrian says. "In Syria?"
He smiles."Oh no,"he says,"not there."And then suddenly he reaches out and closes his hand around my foot."Do you know what a beautiful woman you are?"
I know that I am not a woman,I am a girl,and that I have a sharp nose like my father,a sharp tongue to go with it.My mother has often told me this.But with his hand on my foot I forget about my mother,absolutely forget her.I forget the Syrian too,the way he was separated from me down there on the terrace.Up here we are invisible in the silence,he and I.We are his hand on my foot.It is a beautiful hand,with beautiful long fingers.
"Forgive me,"he says,sitting back.He folds his arms and looks out again at his ship.
I draw my legs in,hold them by the ankles as if I want to keep them from him.But I don't.I want him to reach over again and take them in his hands and tell me everything about myself.I would believe him,anything he said.When his car drew up at last,and I saw him climb out and shade his eyes to look up at the house,right up at the windows of the sleeping porch where I was sitting,it was as if I had been waiting for him always,all my life.Even as I slipped out of my sandals and crept down the back stairs,stopping at the bottom until Maude had delivered the drinks tray to him-even as I ran along the pantry passage and through the dining room,out onto the verandah,I knew that nothing they could do would stop me now. Not even if they caught me.Not even if they dug their nails into my flesh and screamed for the police.
"I sail tomorrow,"he says.
I can hear my mother in her dressing room.She is humming,she is happy. "I've never seen snow," I say,standing up, "I've never even needed a coat."
When I come upstairs,my mother is at her dressing table,smiling as she pats on her rouge.I know her body better than my own,naked and clothed,front,back,sitting,standing.Her flesh is pale as dough,innocent by contrast to mine.I love to watch her roll off her corset,loosen her enormous breasts from her bra.A girl at school taught her how to strap them down when they began to grow,she says,and that is why they hang down the way they do.It is always someone else's fault.
I stand behind her and hug her tight.She has her afternoon smell,a little sour,and I breathe it in.She reaches up and holds my arms,runs her nails lightly over my skin."Shouldn't you be getting dressed,darling?"she says."One nonentity is here already.And I think I hear the other one now."
She always hears my father long before he rings the bell, even before the dogs roar up to the front door,jumping and wagging.It is as if she is half animal herself,hiding in the long grass,waiting for the right moment to pounce.
I don't ask her why she has allowed the Syrian into our house.If I did,she could suddenly cancel the dinner and refuse to go down at all.Perhaps she has invited him so that he may fall in love with her under the eyes of my father-so that,once again,my father will know that he is not the only man on this earth.She has laid out her best black evening pearls and her pearl-and-diamond clips.When she makes up her mind, men forget that she is not a beauty and fall madly in love with her.
I watch her pull on her black corset and then her silk stockings,taking great care with the seams."Hadn't you better get dressed?"she says,taking her diamond watch out of its box. "Help me with the zip,will you,darling?Thanks."
She opens both wardrobe doors to look at herself in the mirrors,front and back.She is shining in the blue silk dress, black-haired and shining.She is Salome,she is Delilah,she is Mary Magdalene.It is impossible now that the Syrian's hand was on my foot,impossible that I listened when he told me I was beautiful.Who am I?, I wonder,staring over her shoulder. Who am I?, breathing her in, drunk already on her Madame Rochas.
"I'm going down without you,"she says,checking herself in the mirror one last time.I hang over the banister to watch her descend as if she were going a great distance,leaving me behind."Ma,"I say,"I'm going to wear my green velvet."But she is already in the hall,at the door of the lounge.
"Ah!"she cries,looping her voice around the Syrian, around my father,too."Thea will be down in a minute.Or in an hour.Or not at all."
When I do come down,she says nothing about the green velvet,or my flaming cheeks and ears.She makes room for me next to her on the couch as usual.But I slump into the rocking chair instead,and set it going.
"Stop it!"she says,"you're making me seasick."
My father comes over and offers me his hand.He lifts me from the chair and leads me to his friend."This is my Theadora,"he says,"my jewel,my diadem."
I know that they are playing a game,my father and his friend,a game whose aim is to leave my mother out.I turn to her.Her arms and her neck are creamy in the lamplight,but her face is pale,almost white,and her cheekbones are livid with rouge."I 'm going to tell the kitchen that we're coming in,"she says.
I wish now that I had worn my broderie anglaise,and sat next to her on the couch,and never,never gone out onto the verandah this afternoon.I might as well have stabbed her in the heart,or pushed her head underwater and held it down. "This one has opinions on every bloody thing under the sun,"my father says,still holding on to my shoulder. "My opinion is that it would be nice if you would dress for dinner once in a while,"I say.I have never spoken to him as my mother does,I have never dared to.When I am cheeky to him, I mean it to be charming.But now his khaki shorts and brown knees and cocky smile make me want to punish him.I don't care if he finds another favourite.I don't care.
He slaps the Syrian on the shoulder."See?"he cries."See?" My mother opens the French doors into the dining room. The table is laid with the best cloth and the good silver.There are wine glasses out,and candles lit."Entrez!"she says.
She sits at the top of the table,watching the men with suspicion.She knows now that inviting the Syrian has backfired, that nothing she can do will wipe the smile off my father's face. He raises his glass to her and says,"Navy becomes you,my dear."
"Pouf!"she says,waving him away with her hand."It 's midnight blue."
The evening is lost,but still she struggles."Do you have children?"she asks the Syrian,laying a hand on my shoulder.
He shakes his head.He has a villa,he says,and a garden, and two beautiful Irish setters.
"Ah!"she says,"that's a shame."
I want to save her,but I don't know how.I am desperate to save her,to catch him up somehow."Why are you going back by ship?"I ask.
My father cocks his head and turns to his friend."Yes,monsieur,why exactly are you taking a ship?"
The Syrian smiles."Because,"he says,"I am terrified of flying."
I know this to be another joke,I can see from the look on my father's face.So can my mother."Are your people prone to taking sea voyages?"she asks.
Ah,he says,sitting back,the real reason is that he loves the sea,and he loves ships.They cover the real distance in time and space.These days,people are always in a rush.They cannot wait to get there,and then they cannot wait to leave again.
All this he says to my mother.But then,when she gets up to serve the pudding,he turns to me at last.He stares at me the way he stared down at his ship on the bay.If I were not seventeen and a half,I would be able to see his sadness,and his longing,and his hope.I would also see my father's cold eyes watching.But my ears,my neck,my thighs have caught fire all at once.My throat is closing up and I need to swallow.I need to stand and help my mother serve too,but I don't.I take a drink of wine and look back at him,free and easy.I am Delilah myself,I am the lowest of the low,but I cannot help it.I want him to find me beautiful again.I want to be twenty-one,and free to look wherever I like.
When she comes to sit on my bed that night,she feels my forehead."What's the matter?"she says."Do you want me to put off tomorrow's trip?"
Never has she made such a suggestion.As a child,I used to beg her not to go inland to Katzenbogen.I would cling to her neck and cry for her to stay.Once,when I had measles,she did stay,but with such bad temper that I never begged again.Now, thinking she might actually stay,I am wild for her to go.I hold out my arms and she bends to me,careful of her hair."I want you to stay with me,"I say."Please."
She sits back up."I think the dinner has upset us both,"she says."A great mistake."
"The Ring of the Nonentities."
She does not scold me for this,she even lets out one of her laughs."That so-called friend of your father's probably had a wife and murdered her,"she says."They kill them for their jewelry,you know,burn down the so-called villa with the wife locked in it.Quite barbaric!"
"Oh,Ma!"I say.Tears begin to roll into my hair,into my ears."You 've got the wrong country for a change."
She feels my forehead again."If you need me,"she says, "you know where I'll be."She always says this when she is going inland.But only Maude knows where she is.And if I ask Maude for the phone number,she says,"Curiosity killed the cat."
Maude is a Roman Catholic,and her room is next to mine. Every night,she lights a candle to the Virgin Mary,which she won't blow out,even though my mother has ordered her to do so.She puts on her hairnet and kneels before her dressing table, where she has arranged a crocheted doily,and the candle,and a statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms.Sometimes the candle will only burn out at one or two in the morning, long after she has started snoring.
Even if the Syrian were to come for me,how would he get past her door?She is like Cerberus,she sees everything,she hears everything,too,even when she 's snoring.Once,when I was home for the holidays and my mother was inland,my father came to the gate and made a fuss.He threatened Maude, and shouted,and said that he would bring the police.But she only shouted back.She picked up a stick and threatened to hit him with it.After that,my mother bought a thicker padlock, and had a new wrought-iron fence put in,with sharp,curved spikes along the top.
I take off my pyjamas,and open the curtains.The moon is shining through the mango tree,dappling the whole room. Even though it is the hot season,I am shivering under the sheet.I have forgotten about common rubbish,forgotten entirely.It is the Syrian now who slides along the passage,past Maude's door,whether or not the candle is burning.It is he who comes into my room without making a sound,and stands like a god at my bedside.Little by little,he folds back the sheet as I sleep.And then he just stands there in the moonlight,gazing.Long before he puts out a hand to touch my skin,he stands there looking at me.I want him never to grow tired of looking.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Lynn Freed
2. In the novel's first chapter there are numerous references to mythological and biblical figures. Did you notice mention of Apollo, Poseidon, Prometheus, Salome, Delilah, Mary Magdalene, Cerberus, and Penelope? What role do you think these references play in the novel?
3. Discuss the issues of possession and control as they relate to the various characters in House of Women. How are keys significant in the story? Do the keys, in the end, have any real effect?
4. Thea and Nalia are always conscious of how they appear to those around them. What role does the 'audience' play in the novel?
5. Discuss the ways in which Nalia's past impinges on the story.
6. How do you think desire shapes and/or defines the characters in House of Women?
7. Katzenbogen tells Nalia, "Except for death, there are no mistakes in life." How is this phrase played out in the novel?
8. In classical mythology, the Fates control destiny. In House of Women, who holds sway over the destinies of the characters? Discuss the role of choice in the characters' lives.
9. Identify and discuss various lies that the characters in House of Women tell each other and themselves. What do these lies reveal about the people who tell them?
10. Thea has quite literally two lives - her life with her mother, locked in her house, and her life with her husband, locked on the ship. How do Thea's experiences compare to a "normal" girlhood? Are there similarities?
11. Do you think Thea's life will be any simpler once her mother is gone and she won't feel she has to choose any longer? What kind of mother do you think Thea will be? And Maude?
12. What is the "house of women" that gives the novel its title? Does the title refer to more than one "house of women"? If so, how are the houses alike? How are they different?