I AM LYING on my back on the grass. Thoby is lying next to me, his warm flank pressing into my side. My eyes are open and I am watching the clouds, tracing giants, castles, fabulous winged beasts as they chase each other across the sky. Something light tickles my cheek. I raise myself onto my elbow and catch hold of the grass stalk in Thoby’s hand. He jerks away from me, and soon we are pummeling and giggling until I scarcely know which of the tumbling legs and arms are Thoby’s and which are mine. When we stop at last, Thoby’s face is on my chest. I feel the weight of his head against my ribs. His hair is golden in the sunlight and as I look up I see the blazing whiteness of an angel. I loop my arm round Thoby’s neck. For the first time in my life I know what bliss means.
A shadow falls. My angel disappears. I recognize your snake-green eyes. You want to lie between us and when I push you away you jump up and whisper in Thoby’s ear. He lifts his head and looks at you. I see from his expression that your words have captured him. I know that you will lure him away with one of your daredevil plans. I roll over and press my face into the grass. The blades prickle my eyelids and I concentrate on the sharpness. When I turn round again the two of you have gone. I sit up and spot Thoby perching precariously on top of the garden wall. His hand clutches at the branches overhead as he tries to steady himself. I hear him shrieking with daring and fear. I want to shout to him to come and play in the grass with me. Then I watch you catch hold of Thoby’s leg and pull yourself up beside him. You wobble for a moment before you find your balance. I know that now you will turn and wave to me in triumph. I lie back on the grass, feigning indifference. Not for the world will I let you see my tears.
I lift my head from the page and look out the window. Sunlight shivers on the glass. For a moment I see your face as it was then, impish, grinning at me as I write. The light dissolves and you disappear. I am left staring at the empty pane. My memories are as tangled as the reels of thread and fragments of cloth in Mother’s sewing basket, which I loved to tip out and sort on the nursery floor: colored ribbons, stray buttons, a triangle of purple lace.
Mother. She enters the nursery like a queen. We, her troops, present ourselves for her inspection, fidgeting as we wait in line for our turn. Her hair is parted in the middle and tied at the back of her neck in a net. She wears a black dress, which rustles like leaves as she moves about the room, gathering up the damp clothes that have been draped over the fireguard, sweeping the scattered pieces of a puzzle back into their box. Her ringed fingers dance as she talks to the nursemaids. I learn the questions she asks them by heart. Later I will set out my dolls and quiz them in her clear round voice about castor oil and the mending. I practice standing with my head erect and my back straight until my shoulders feel as if they are pinned in a press. Finally, Mother seats herself in the chair by the fire and calls us to her.
Always, Thoby goes first. I watch him pulled into the curve of Mother’s arm, closing my eyes to imagine the silky feel of her dress, her smell of lavender and eau de nil. When I open my eyes her fingers are stroking his hair. I do not question why it is always Thoby who is first, or why, when Adrian is born, he takes his place after Thoby. I sense that this is the order of things and that here my wishes count for little. Yet when Thoby is relinquished with a kiss and Mother holds out her hand to you it is as if a promise has been broken. My stomach clenches and a hot spurt of indignation surges to my cheeks. I am the eld-est. I should come before you. As Mother lifts you onto her knee your dimpled hands reach for the ribbon she wears at her throat. Checked by her reproving frown, you lean forward and kiss her. Her smile is like sunshine on a winter’s afternoon. You seem to spend an eternity in her arms. Your palms clap together in a rhyme of pat-a-cake, and when Mother praises you I wonder what would happen if a spark from the fire were to catch your petticoat. I picture your clothes igniting and your red hair blazing and Mother in her alarm hugging me to her breast.
There is a knock on the door. Ellen, slightly breathless from the stairs, holds out a card on a tray. Mother sighs and reaches for the card. When she has finished reading it she puts it back on the tray and tells Ellen that she will come straight down. She lifts you from her lap and with a final instruction to the nursemaids follows Ellen onto the landing.
I stare after her. You crawl toward me and your hand reaches for the buckle on my shoe. Quick as lightning, I kick back with my heel and trap your fingers under the sole. Your howl voices what I feel. I count to five before I lift my foot. Then I reach down and pick you up and carry you to the chair Mother sat in. I settle you on my lap and rock you backward and forward until the soft lullaby of your breathing tells me you are asleep.
It is my half sister Stella who first puts a piece of chalk in my hand. She and I share a birthday. I rummage in her pocket and pull out the package I know is there. It is wrapped in brown paper that crinkles as I turn it over in my hands. Inside are six stubby colored fingers. Stella takes a board she has concealed under her arm and draws on it. I am amazed by the wavy line that appears and reach up to try the chalk for myself. I spend the morning absorbed in my new pursuit. Though my hands are clumsy, I persevere until the board is covered. I am fascinated by the way my marks cross and join with each other, opening tiny triangles, diamonds, rectangles between the lines. When I have finished I sit back and stare at my achievement. I have transformed the dull black of the board into a rainbow of colors, a hail of shapes that jump about as I look. I am so pleased with what I have done that I hide the board away. I do not want to share my discovery with anyone.
We are in the hall dressed and ready for our walk. At our request Ellen lifts us onto the chair by the mirror so that we can see the reflections we make. Our faces are inexact replicas of each other, as if the painter were trying to capture the same person from different angles. Your face is prettier than mine, your features finer, your eyes a whirligig of quick lights. You are my natural ally in my dealings with the world. I adore the way you watch me accomplish the things you cannot yet achieve. I do not yet see the frustration, the desire to catch up and topple me that darkens your awe.
“Who do you like best, Mother or Father?” Your question comes like a bolt out of the blue. I hold the jug of warm water suspended in midair and look at you. You are kneeling on the bathmat, shiny-skinned and rosy from the steam. The ends of your hair are wet and you have a towel draped round your shoulders. I am dazzled by the audacity of your question. Slowly I let the water from the jug pour into the bath.
“Mother.” I lean back into the warmth.
You consider my answer, squeezing the damp from your hair.
“I prefer Father.”
“Father?” I sit up quickly. “How can you possibly like Father best? He’s always so difficult to please.”
“At least he’s not vague.” You spin round and look at me directly. I sense that you are enjoying this discussion.
“But Mother is . . .” I search for my word. I think of the arch of her neck as she walks into a room, the way the atmosphere changes as she seats herself at table.
“Is what?” Your eyes are daring me now.
“Beautiful.” I say the word quietly.
“What does that count for?” You do nothing to hide your contempt. “Mother doesn’t know as much as Father, she doesn’t read as much. At least when Father settles on something you know he isn’t going to be called away.”
I want to rally, hit back, protest how self-centered Father is. I want to declare Mother’s goodness, proclaim her unstinting sense of duty, her ability to restore order when all is in disarray. Instead I stare in silence at the water. From the corner of my eye I can see that you are smiling.
“Well at least we needn’t fight about who we like.” Sure of your victory, your tone now is conciliatory. I get out of the bath and wrap myself in a towel. As so often happens, our argument has made me miserable. I press my forehead against the glass of the window and watch the branches of the trees make crisscross patterns against the sky. I do not like this sifting through our feelings, weighing Mother’s merits and Father’s faults as if the answer to our lives were a simple question of arithmetic. Not for the first time, I find myself fearing where your cleverness will lead.
I want to convey the aura of those days. Father’s controlling presence, the sound of his pacing in the study above us, his clamorous, insistent groans. Mother sitting writing at her desk, preoccupied, elusive. I visualize the scene as if it were a painting. The colors are dark — black, gray, russet, wine red — with flashes of crimson from the fire. At the top of the picture are flecks of silver sky. The children kneel in the foreground. Mother, Father, our half brothers George and Gerald stand in a ring behind us, their figures monumental and restraining. Though our faces are indistinct it is possible to make out our outlines. Thoby’s arm reaches across mine, in search of a toy, perhaps, a cotton reel or wooden train. Laura hides behind Thoby, Stella’s arm curled round her in a sheltering arc. Adrian, still a baby, lies asleep in his crib. You are in the center of the picture. You seem to be painted in a different palette. Your hair is threaded with the red of the fire, your dress streaked with silver from the sky. You leap out from the monotone gloom of the rest. I cannot tell if this prominence has been forced on you, or if it is something you have sought for yourself.
“Do pay attention, Vanessa!” Mother’s rebuke startles me from my reverie and I struggle to focus on what she is telling us. She is teaching us history. Her back is as straight as a rod and her hands are folded demurely in her lap. This, too, is part of our lesson. She wishes us to learn that we must be controlled and attentive at all times. My mind skates over the list of names she is reading aloud to us. There is a picture of a crown at the top of her page and without meaning to I lose myself in its delicate crenelations.
“Vanessa! This is the second time of telling! You will please stand up and recite the kings and queens of England in order and without error!” I jump out of my chair. Your eyes are fixed on me and I sense you willing me to remember. I stammer the names of William and Henry and Stephen then grind to a stop. Before Mother can scold, you come to my rescue.
“Please, I have a question.” We both look at Mother, who nods.
“Is it true Elizabeth the First was the greatest queen England has ever known? Was she truly — a superlative monarch?” Mother smiles at your eloquence and I slink back into my chair, dejected as well as relieved. You have your permission to proceed and your eyes shine in triumph. I know that nothing will stop you now.
“Do you suppose it was because she was a woman that she achieved so much? I mean, it’s true, isn’t it, that she never married? I suppose there wasn’t a king who was good enough for her. If she had married she would have been busy having -children and so wouldn’t have had time for her affairs of state. The people called her ‘Gloriana’ and she had her own motto.”
“‘Semper eadem’!” Father stands in the doorway, applauding your performance. He has the book from which he is teaching us mathematics under his arm. “‘Always the same.’ It was the motto she had inscribed on her tomb. So it’s Elizabeth the First, is it? The Virgin Queen. In that case, perhaps you had better come with me and we will see what we can find for you in my library.” You slip from your chair and take the hand Father holds out to you. I see the skip in your walk as you accompany him out of the room. The door closes behind you and I turn my attention back to Mother. I try not to hear her sigh as she begins to reread the list of names.
I thumb the pages of the family photograph album and stop at a portrait of Laura, Father’s daughter by his first marriage. She is nine, ten, perhaps, and her ringleted hair cascades over her shoulders. Her face is turned away from the camera and she clasps a small doll in her arms. It is impossible to tell her expression.
You never ridiculed Laura, I remember. Once when Thoby tried to imitate her stammering and pretended to throw his food in the fire you were so angry you slapped him. He turned to you in disbelief but the indignation on your face was real.
The day Laura was sent away you stayed in our room. It was one of your “curse” days, and when I went to see if you wanted anything I found you lying with your face buried in your pillow. As I tiptoed toward your bed you turned to look at me.
“Have they sent her to a madhouse?” I did not know the answer any more than you but shook my head.
“How could they?” I saw then the anguish in your eyes. As I put my arm around you it was my fear as well as yours I was shielding.
We lie in our beds watching the darkness. Though we plead for a crack to be left in the curtains they are pulled tight against the certainty of drafts. I close my eyes to conjure the moonlight and listen for Mother’s footsteps on the stairs. There are guests tonight and we have helped her dress. I fastened her pearl necklace carefully round her neck and she promised to come and kiss us goodnight. I imagine her sitting at the table, handing round the plates of soup. If the dinner is a success she will tell us about her labors. She will describe the fidgety young man who must be coaxed into the conversation, and the woman whose talk of ailments has to be curtailed to avert alarm. She will tell us these things not for our amusement but because she wants us to benefit from the example. We must learn, she will remind us with a judicious nod of her head, that the hostess cannot leave her place at table until those around her are at their ease. Her own wishes, and those of her daughters, must be placed second to the needs of others.
The darkness is so intense it seems to be alive. I think of the silver candelabra, drawing those seated round the table into a circle of light. A floorboard creaks and I turn toward the sound.
“Mother?” I whisper.
Your hand is on my arm. I have forgotten you in my musings. I pull back the bedclothes and make room for you. We lie shoulder to shoulder, comforted by each other’s presence. You clear your throat and begin.
“Mrs. Dilke,” you say in your storytelling voice, “was most surprised one morning to discover that the family had run out of eggs.” I settle back on my pillow and let your words weave their spell. Soon I have forgotten the darkness and Mother’s broken promise. I am caught up in your world of make-believe. I fall asleep dreaming of hobgoblins and golden hens and eggs fried for breakfast with plenty of frizzle.
“Is she reading it?”
I stand by the window that allows us to see into the drawing room from the conservatory where we work. Mother is in her armchair, the latest copy of our newspaper on the table beside her. She has a letter in her hand and I can tell from the movement of her lips that she is reading parts of it aloud to Father. He is in the armchair next to her and appears engrossed in his book. You are crouching on the floor beside me, your hands pulling nervously at a cushion. Your agitation surprises me. The newspaper is something we have compiled for fun. I peer through the window.
“She’s finishing her letter, folding it back into its envelope.”
“And has she picked up the newspaper?”
I stare at Mother. She has leaned her head back against the chair rest and closed her eyes. I watch her motionless for a few moments. You pummel the cushion in desperation. I can bear your anxiety no longer.
“Yes,” I lie. “She’s opening it now.”
“Can you see what she’s reading? Is it my piece about the pond? Does it make her laugh? What’s the expression on her face?”
I turn back to the window. Mother still has her head resting against her chair. I watch her rouse herself, pick up the newspaper, glance at its headline, then let it fall unopened on her lap. I cannot tell you what I see.
“She loves it,” I say. “She turned straight to your story and now she’s laughing her head off.” I pull the curtain firmly across the window and turn away.
You smile as if what I have told you is the most important thing in the world.
It is our ritual. You sit on the bathroom stool, a towel wrapped loosely round your shoulders. I choose lily of the valley and rose water from the shelf and stand behind you. I pour a little of the rose water into my palm and leave it for a moment to warm. Your shoulders are smooth under my fingers. I work my hands down your back, watching your skin undulate to my touch. You lay your head on my chest and as I look down I see the curl of your lashes against your cheek. I knead the soft flesh of your arms as if it is dough.
“Go on,” I nudge you gently, “carry on with the story.”
The garden is divided by hedges into a sequence of flower beds and lawns. A pocket paradise, Father calls it. We are on the terrace playing cricket. It is my turn to bat. You throw the ball into a high arch and as I wait for it to descend you suddenly abandon your post and start to run, shouting to Thoby and Adrian to follow you. I stand stock still watching the ball, then, prompted by the flare in your eyes, begin to run too. We arrive breathless and excited at the thickets of gooseberries and currants that grow at the back of the vegetable plot. It is only then that I hear Father. You put your finger to your lips, defying us to answer. You march toward the old fountain, bawling a poem at the top of your voice to drown him out. We fall in behind you, obedient soldiers. We are almost at the cracked stone basin when Father catches up with us. He questions you first. You stare him straight in the eye and tell him that you did not hear his call. Your conviction astounds me. Then you swing round and we read clearly your command to lie. Thoby, whose eyes never leave you, shakes his head when Father asks him and is rewarded with your smile. Adrian, delighted to be included in the game, giggles and refuses to speak. It is left to me to bear the brunt of Father’s fury.
“Did you not hear me?” Father’s cheeks are flushed from the exertion of chasing us across the garden. There is a glare of thunder in his eyes. You watch me intently for a moment. I gaze at the grass.
“Yes, Father,” I begin, “we did hear you. We are very sorry we disobeyed you.”
The look you turn on me is one of unmitigated scorn.
You are sitting on my bed, my amethyst necklace threaded through your fingers. You hold the stones up to the light.
“This one,” you say, as if the beads are a rosary, “is for Mother.” I gaze at the jewel’s violet sparkle. “Mother who loves the beautiful Nessa more than she has time to say.” Your words hit home and I grasp for the necklace. You swing it out of reach and continue your litany unperturbed. “Nessa the bountiful, Nessa the good. If only Mother wasn’t so busy.” Your tone is artful, wheedling, malicious. “Shall we see who else loves our sister?”
You dangle the beads and your voice tails to a seductive murmur.
“Ah, now who have we here? A poor, orphaned goat, bleating most piteously for her dolphin mother. Someone who would rather Ness didn’t scold quite so much, someone who wishes Ness would stop drawing and put her lovely arms round her and pet her.”
I know where you are heading and try again for the necklace. You jump off the bed and dart to the window. Before I can say anything, you have climbed onto the ledge, the beads swaying from your fingers.
“Goats are good at climbing, remember. And at leaping.” I watch you measure the distance to the chair, and I dart to the window to stop you. You laugh as I catch you round your waist. Your weight drags us to the floor. You clasp my wrists and let your head fall onto my chest. I feel your lips nuzzle my cheek but I am in no mood to baby you. Eel-like, I twist on top of you and use my shoulder as a clamp. Then I seize your fist and prize the necklace loose.
You wait a week for your revenge. We have been walking in Kensington Gardens and are exhilarated by the gift of a balloon from the old woman who sits at the entrance. As we round the corner into Hyde Park Gate we argue about whether or not we should tell Mother about the gift. Your list of reasons for keeping silent is compelling, and as we hang our coats in the hall I acquiesce in the hiding of the balloon in the chest. We remove several rugs in order to accommodate the balloon, and when, later, Mother finds them in our room I feel obliged to confess.
“Is this true, Virginia?” Mother hates deceitfulness and her tone is stern. You glare at me before you answer.
“What you see before you, Mother,” you say, with a spiteful glitter in your eye, “is a devil and a saint!” You take a mock bow then point to me. To my amazement, instead of chastising you, Mother laughs. That evening your phrase is repeated to Father, who claps his hands at your wit. Soon he is calling me “saint” and winking at you. George, Gerald, even Thoby join in the taunt. I feel constrained by your tag but do not know how to retaliate. Any suggestion that you might be a devil seems to slip from everyone’s mind.
The first week of July. The trunks are packed ready in the hall. We crowd into the carriage that will take us to the station, our arms full of books, spades, butterfly nets, cricket bats, tins of crayons, straw hats. I sit pushed up against the window. The swallows weave and dip like runaway shuttles against the cerulean blue of the sky. All winter we have waited for this moment.
Inside the train everyone talks at once. We count the stations, straining for a glimpse of the sea. Father sets his books aside and takes hold of Mother’s hand.
On holiday in St. Ives we do not keep to our rigid London schedules. Guests come and go according to the dictates of the trains and not the immutable pattern of meal and visiting times we live by at home. Even Father appears released from the relentless burden of work that oppresses him in London, finding time for walks, outings, games. We are given an unprecedented freedom to roam the garden and neighboring beach almost at will. The house is light and airy, the rooms opening out of each other like origami boxes. Somehow Mother makes all the piecemeal arrangements coalesce.
It is here that I come alive. Shut up all year like Persephone, it is as if my reward for the sacrifice, the absence of horizon, is a sudden baptism of light. Like a starved prisoner I drink it in. All summer long I try to bottle the light, store it up, capture it in my sketches, so that I can take it back to London with me and feed on it during the dreary winter months. In St. Ives I am at liberty to draw and paint all day. It is here that I do my first serious exercises, Stella guiding my hand as I discover new shapes to fill the dark.
Thoby looks preposterous in his suit, as if he is trying to impersonate a grownup. Mother tucks a clean handkerchief into his pocket and pulls his collar straight. Then she beckons us forward. We shake hands, conscious of our awkwardness. Father appears at the top of the stairs and adds a final injunction to the leave-taking. We watch Thoby vanish into his carriage and I feel your fingers clutch mine. It is beginning to dawn on both of us that our beloved brother will not be home for some time.
Did we long to follow Thoby to school? It is a complicated question. Part of me yearned to break free from that dark, imprisoning house and discover life for myself, while another part drew back, reluctant to relinquish the familiar template. There is no doubt that his going sealed us even more completely into our pact. We became each other’s mirrors, as our lessons and walks marked the contours of a day in which we were required to depend largely on ourselves. We spent hours alone together in the small conservatory, you reading aloud while I sketched, hours open-eyed in our adjacent beds at night, your tales the only glow in the unremitting black. To this day, when I read it is your voice and not mine that I hear, your pitch inflecting the thoughts that beat in my head as I drift off to sleep.
There was an arrogance in our complicity. We had no external reference but each other, no guide to direct us, no check on our imaginings and delusions. We were pitiless with the failings of others. Metamorphosed in the mill of your descriptive genius, the weaknesses and foibles of those around us became props to shore up our own faltering self-images.
You were the one with words. You were the one who knew how to take an event and describe it so that its essence was revealed. I do not have your talents. If you were here you would know how to tell this tale. You would find a way of penetrating to the truth and enclosing what you found in words of such poetry that one’s heart would sing, even as it wept.
Easter. We walk through the park as usual, stopping to gaze at the crocuses that erupt like lava from the winter-brown crust of the flower borders. On the path by the pond Mrs. Redgrave comes toward us in her bath chair, looking, you say, like something from the museum that has not been successfully preserved. As we enter the hall Miss Mills nods at us from her rostrum, her crucifix gleaming against the slate gray of her dress. The rest of the girls assemble and Miss Mills appeals for our attention.
“Who can tell me what day it is?” There is a timorousness in her voice, a plea to be listened to and liked, which you find infuriating. You mutter something under your breath. Julia Martin steps forward.
“Please, Miss Mills, it’s Easter Friday.”
Miss Mills beams and looks up at the ceiling, as if she is communicating with a higher power.
“Exactly. The day our dear Lord died on the cross. Good Friday.”
“Good?” I hear you snort with derision. You draw a question mark in the dust with your toe.
“Who is that talking?” When she realizes it is you, Miss Mills takes on the air of a beleaguered captain who knows from past experience that this will be a difficult skirmish. “What is it, Virginia?”
Her lips are set in a line of firm resolution. Something in her expression fans your sense of the ridiculous, and you stuff your cuff in your mouth to stifle your laugh. In a moment I am seized too, shoulders twitching as I try to conceal my mirth. We stand together, heads bowed, allies against the preposterousness of the world.
We were trained to be ladies. How was it you put it once? We learned to venerate the angel of virtue, whose selflessness was such that she had no requirements of her own. She was paraded constantly before us, our goal and unrelenting goad. She shamed us when we failed to imitate her, stood in the way of any ambitions we might have. Little wonder, then, that you murdered her, stabbed the point of your pen in her perfect, impossible breast.
It is four o’clock. I pause at the entrance to the drawing room and pull my skirt straight. Father glowers as I enter. I notice a stain of paint on my hand and tuck it behind my back. I seat myself on the couch next to Mother. A knock on the door announces the first guest. We begin our familiar routine.
We are mechanical figures, you and I, controlled by an invisible puppeteer. We listen and observe, saying only enough to keep the ball of conversation lopping backward and forward across the table. We are its reluctant guardians, required to keep it always in motion, suppressing any desires we might have to send it spinning out of orbit or to allow it to settle for a moment at rest. We must pat it to the shy young woman in the corner, judging our stroke so that it will land gently enough to encourage her to raise her racket and participate in the game. We must sequester it away from the monopoly of our aunts batting it conspiratorially between them, somehow prevent the young men sitting with Father from stealing it to show off their learning.
You are better at it than I am. You become a mistress of disguise. I am astonished, as I listen to you, at the way you weave your barbs into a fabric of such loveliness that your interlocutor is left wondering whether it is a compliment or an insult you intend. I lack your subtlety and skill.
You were to record, later, the impact that tea-table training had on your writing, so that you never felt able to give yourself free rein. You had words at your disposal nevertheless, and you found a way to survive. For me it was different. I had to fish in precisely that area of myself where I felt most ill at ease. I was always running out of things to say, straying into territories I knew were forbidden and where I exposed myself to censure, or coming aground on the banks of an unstoppable pause. Increasingly, I copied Mother, adopting her silent attentiveness as my costume for those apprenticeship afternoons.
We learned even as we despised. Young, earnest, eager to please, we were like fledgling birds watching for the clues that would enable us to fly. We caught occasional glimpses of the dancing kite tails of our lives in the space ahead of us, and our hearts quickened in response. We longed to take the leap that would allow us to chase after them, yet we clung to the safety of our nest.
You walk along the bank searching for stones to fill your pockets. I think of you that day, staring into the fast-flowing river, the still leafless branches of the trees etched against the ghostly gray of the sky. I try to picture what went on inside your head. Did you remember me, Leonard, the children, as you left your stick on the bank and strode out into the swirling water, or were all your thoughts bent on escaping what you could no longer bear to endure?
You see, even after all these years, I wonder if you really loved me.