Wednesday, 11 March 2009

My Mother

This memory is somehow out of order. I think I was much younger than eight, but it is confused with a time when I had already spent some time at the Comedie Italienne. I haven't yet explained how my father met my mother in London, her own short-lived stage career, or passing, but all these I learned about later in life. I only understood she was not there when I was a child.

"But Yolande, your mother is dead."

"When will she come back?"

"One does not come back after one dies, child."

"Why not? Does Mama not want to come back?"

"Dear no, I am sure Mama would come back if she could."

"Why won't she come back? Doesn't she love Yolande?"

"Mama is in heaven, where she watches over you every day."

"She watches me?"

"But of course! She makes sure you are well and that nothing bad will ever happen to you. You see she loves you very much."

"If she can see me, why can't I see her? Why is she hiding?"

"But she doesn't hide from you. She has left her body down here, on earth and her soul has gone up to heaven."

"Where is her body then? Can I see it? Is she beautiful?"

"We buried her in the cemetery at St Lazare, where we go for walks on Sunday."

"Her body is in the cemetery? She didn't want to take it to heaven?"

"Yes, dear, but it was too heavy to take to heaven."

"All her hair and clothes and cheeks and fingers, too?"

"Everything is buried in her grave."

"She didn't take anything to heaven?"

At this my uncle became impatient, and blinked at me from behind his thick spectacles. "She took her sweetness and her love with her to heaven."

"How can she see me then?"


"If she left her eyes in the cemetery how can she see me anymore?"

I put my hands over my eyes, for I felt tears welling up and I did not want my Uncle to watch them fall. He was wrong. My mother would come back and take me with her to the cemetery. I did not want to listen to his stories any longer, about her soul and about heaven. "She's not in heaven. I do not believe you. I think she is hiding in the grave and doesn't want me to see her because she is old and ugly now."

My uncle said nothing, but gazed on me with sadness. I knew he wanted to put his arms around me and draw me to him, but cruelly I stood away and would not look at him. I would let no one love me. I was a sad, cold girl whose mother left her and went down into the ground. That's where she lived and that is where I would live too, one day. My uncle touched me on my arm, a loving, tentative touch that sought to enfold me in his embrace. I was so miserable, because I loved him, and longed for the smell of his leather waistcoat and perfumed hair, even the familiar, warm smell of tobacco that hung on his fingertips and moustache. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and curl my fingers into his damp hair and comfort him. But I saw my mother living alone in that cold room beneath the cemetery, alone and strange, not missing me, not seeing me, not talking to me. The stone floor was damp and covered in earth, and there were roots and grubs, and she was barefoot, dirty, and always hungry. Dark circles around her eyes made them seem larger, more luminous in the dark. Her clothes hung limp and soiled, and I did not understand why she did not hear me when I prayed at night to her. She was mad, like little Betinna's grandmother, muttering and lisping, except she never smiled, and I could not hear my name on her pale lips. I did not want to believe in heaven when my mother was in such darkness, and I could not hope for the happiness and warmth that my Uncle wanted to wrap me in. I believe I wanted to hurt him. I cried and squirmed out of his reach, and flung myself on my bed. After a few minutes he got up quietly and left my room, softly closing the door behind him.

The moon came up and cast a ray of silver light into my room, throwing my Polchinello into a grinning silhouette. Perhaps that is what death was like, I thought, after you take your hand out of the puppet and it dangles like a rag, still grinning for no reason. I imagined my soul was the hand of my mother and she had withdrawn it from me, and hung me from a nail. Sometimes I would dance and curtsey and laugh, but that was when my mother's hand was in me, wiggling my puppet hands and masked face. At night, in bed, I lay silent and still, without feeling. Once I was alone, I did not feel sad, or sorry, or angry. I was a stone, an abandoned doll. I would wait until the play started again in the morning, and a commanding hand entered me when the sun came up and returned me to life.

I slipped off my bed and dragged a chair over to Mr. Punch, as my Uncle liked to call him. His round eye stared back at me, insolent like a dog who knows he has done something shocking on your floor and dares you to say something about it. It gleamed like the eye of a fish at the market, big as saucers. I unhooked him and the heavy wooden head flopped over. Lazy man! I put my hand inside and screwed my finger into the socket in his neck. Live! I make you live! Dance! Mr. Punch, bow to the left. Now bow to the right. Continenza left, continenza right, cambiomento left, meza volta and ripresa. Who is your lovely dancing partner? Yolande with the fair face and the fetching yellow stockings. Why you make a lovely pair, surely you will marry one day? What? You are already married? And so young! Ah, you are married to someone else, is that it, Mr. Punch? But where is your wife, and won't she be jealous of beautiful Yolande? Ah, your wife is dead! You beat her to death in the market. Bad man, have you no shame? But you gave her a beautiful funeral? Ripresa backward and volta tonda right. I think you are a scoundrel, Sir, and I send you to the gallows. I pulled my hand out of the grinning puppet and let his head fall backward. Still standing on the chair, I let him drop to the floor where his nose struck with a loud crack. Then I let myself fall in the same way, as if every muscle in my body were made of cloth.

My uncle rushed in, for my head had struck the floor boards so soundly above his study it awoke him from his nap. He threw open my door with a great cry and rushed to my side, immediately pulling me into his embrace and smothering me in kisses, while calling angrily for Madame Bouchard to fetch a doctor. He did not notice that his heel was crushing the puppet's face. I was bleeding great quantities of blood from my head, and they could not find the wound, even though they passed their fingers over the sore spot and made me cry out several times. Madame Bouchard made little high-pitched yells of alarm until they saw I was still breathing. I tried to feel nothing. I tried to stay dead, but instead a great hot wave rolled up from the bottom of my being and washed over me in salty waves, causing me to tremble and shake. I cried and cried, and crushed my uncle's face into mine, scratching my cheek on his whiskers. He cried too, and we clung together, lonely and thankful, who meant more to each other than any other thing in the world.

The next day we went to the cemetery together.


Osprey said...

Oh, such woe. Poor Yolande, whose mother and father have gone away forever.

Young Geoffrion said...

It happened a long time ago! As much as I dreamed of them then, I think I would have driven them crazy, or them me. Of course I also have Doctor Fluxus, though he's never been much of a father figure to me or anyone else I have met. Perhaps Salazar Jack will adopt me if I squeeze into a basket and show up on his doorstep one day.

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

What a terrible, beautiful rendition of childhood loss. I just wanted to wrap my arms around the child you and cry for you.

Can you remember anything of your mother in life?