Begin at the beginning, said the Red king. But no beginning is ever the
real one, there is always something before that...
I knew, all my childhood, that I was my fatherís favourite
The betrayals of adulthood, the cruelties and indifference, do not
change this, but endow it with the intolerability of paradox. My
weaknesses, my fears, my dishonesties, the defining hurts of my life,
are my inheritance from him: and these words. Particularly these words.
I was to migrate forever, from these shadowlands where speaking is not
possible because the darkness swallows every syllable before it can be
uttered, this realm that ate up my parents. Each step takes me further
into shadow, into the impossibility of speaking. But I must persist.
My father, also, desired a place to speak freely: he tore himself and
his family out of the old country where only the privileged could be
heard and brought us to a place where a possibility of freedom still
lingered, where a man could walk without the burden of history on his
shoulders. But his flight across twelve thousand miles of ocean
enough to strip the history out of our bones. It came with us, a sinew
flexing secretly within us, a black vine which contracted all the space
around us to a bewildering tangle of choking branches: so that here,
too, we could not speak.
My father preserved our writings and drawings, and at night, as I lay
in bed, told me his tale of Perseus and his winged boots, and recited
is Ozymandias, King of Kings!í in
the shower so that the great rhythms fell into my mind and became part
of me. He
made, also, the great scrapbook of beautiful pictures - curious
postcards from Chile made of beaten copper, advent calenders,
photographs of church windows cut out of magazines - with its huge
brown pages bound with brass bolts between large boards covered with a
luxuriously textured, flesh-coloured fabric. The pages had to be turned
one by one, or they would crease under their own weight.
For most of my childhood he was absent, travelling in Chile or Canada
or working at the mine. I am sometimes afraid that I can understand
nothing except absence, that his weaknesses are my weaknesses, that,
despite all my striving, I am truly my fatherís daughter.
over ankles, head over arse,
Alice fell into the
On my desk is a photograph of my mother. I am older now than she was
when it was taken: it dates from Cornwall, when I was six. It shows a
pretty, neat young woman in a prim, high-necked tailored dress (I
remember the dress - it was grey and the polka-dotted tie was navy
blue). Her hair is swept back into a bun, revealing fine features: high
cheekbones and forehead, a firm, almost square jaw. Her eyebrows are
neatly plucked, with a wide space between them, and carefully pencilled
over; she wears pale lipstick and almost no eye makeup. She is smiling,
but restrainedly, and her eyes look somewhere to the right of the
photographerís shoulder. The shyness in her eyes makes her
than she is and seems to release a brightness of expression otherwise
hidden in her face. There is a slightly awkward tension in her
shoulders which unsettles her poise.
At that time, she had probably been married to my father for about
There is a ship which
around it like a scarf of wind. It is
made of wood, to signify its status as an anachronism, an object of
nostalgia and derision and desire, and it heaves over the black waves
with its rigging straining and creaking. Its belly swells with
voices which bleed out into the night and are forgotten, which matter
only to themselves, which can never be erased from that secret book in
which all eternal things are inscribed and which anyone can read, if
they possess the necessary simplicity, the necessary love...
We feel bitter when we
ship: it carries all our
pettiness, our cowardice, our nightmares, our futile tears, all the
dank unnameable acts which haunt us below our memories. But sometimes
the holystoned deck glistens with a whiteness our eyes cannot register,
and above in the sails we hear the sound of wings, as if the sky were
pulsing at last with our failed and betrayed divinity.
Once upon a time there
was a castle
built of yellow stone,
with a rampart that dropped sheer
the blue sea. The sky had no
clouds and was pale and edgeless, like a robinís egg.
Once there was a woman who stood on the rampart with her three small
daughters. The sun struck the stone and rebounded into her eyes,
blinding her. She was afraid her littlest girl would climb over the
rampart and fall into the sea.
Near the castle was a park. The woman sat beneath a tree and watched
her daughters playing. The breezes stroked her mouth and thighs and
carried her off to sleep. The three little girls wandered off between
the beds of flowers into a maze of paths. When the woman woke up, they
had all disappeared...
Once upon a time there was a big house of granite with a greenhouse and
a bamboo grove and a winding pathway set with millstones. In the garden
were ancient rhododendrons which dropped their heavy flowers like bells
of blood onto the black earth. The little girls would run down the path
to the laurel tree to pick bay leaves for their mother. Around the
garden was a stone wall and in the wall was a cast-iron gate, painted
The garden is stippled with the rich honey light of autumn, which
ripples over the children as they chase one another across the lawn and
fall, giggling and breathless, underneath the window which opens out of
the sitting room. She is watching from the window and, although they
cannot see her, they are aware of her gaze, which is reflected in the
red and purple berries on the trees and the scented eyes of flowers and
the quick flickerings of light
scattered by the birds.
For the youngest child, this garden is the whole world. The
middle-sized child is planning to run away on her tricycle. For the
oldest, it is a place which can be measured against other places: she
knows it as a haven, a cradle, a temple, an earth of return and
celebration. Greenness surprised her, when she first arrived, she had
never imagined the possibility of the lush fields, up to her knees in
grass as soft as her own skin, or the abundant fountains of lilac
flowers: these things were like new sight, and the country of her
babyhood shrank to the small black and white photographs pasted in the
thick family album. Because of this comparison, she knows herself to be
The mother watches the children and hears without hearing the low
voices of the garden underneath their shouts and laughter. She leans
her brow against the windowpane and lets her body fill with
wordlessness, a radiance which dissolves the contours of her body and
sets her heart beating in everything around her so that her self is no
longer the self she knows but faceless and tender as the light.
The youngest child looks up and sees her and lifts her arms towards
her, so the mother bends through the window and blows her a kiss. The
little girl claps and shouts and runs to hide behind a shrub, peering
comically from behind it and withdrawing, scarcely human or
substantial, an embodiment of the breeze which moves in little jumps
and startles through the leaves. The other children run to the shrub
and they crouch down, examining a leaf or a snail or a beetle, out of
Released, the woman returns to her sewing. She is making a dress for
her youngest daughter. She is still inhabited by wordlessness, knowing
without looking how the fabric runs surely through her fingers,
effortlessly straight, and how the cotton gathers evenly for the skirt
and around the armholes, how precisely the scissors glide through the
cloth. Her face is intent and serene as she draws to herself all the
sounds of the house and garden, monitoring on subtle webs the actions
of her children, the angle of the sun slanting over the house until
Soon she will go to her kitchen and draw the roast lamb out of the
oven. She will send her oldest child to the back garden to gather mint
and chop it with sugar and vinegar to make mint sauce, and mash the
boiled potatoes with butter and milk and pepper and pour white
sauce over the cauliflower heads and put them into the oven to brown.
Perhaps she will put Handelís Water
on the gramophone, or perhaps
the children will be watching Dr
in the breakfast room,
unconsciously creeping closer and closer to the television screen,
their eyes wide with pleasurable horror. She will set the china on the
table and they will eat, orderly and hungry, and when theyíre
sheíll take out of the oven the golden rice pudding, brown
crackling with cream and sugar at the edges of the ribbed iron pan.
Then she will bathe each of them, washing their hair carefully and
cleaning their ears, and dress them in pyjamas and put them into their
beds. The house will hold their breathing in its immense quiet like a
quivering fountain and she will hear it downstairs, as she sits by the
fire, as her skin ripples in the imperceptible currents of their sleep.
We referred to each other, between ourselves, by the initials of our
names: F, C and A. To each other we were the known world, givens more
certain than the constellations, and our relationships within these
certainties were casual and cruel, a play of shifting alliances and
merciless competition. Above us loomed the figure of our mother,
all-powerful, beautiful, capricious, stern, the object of our adoration
and fear and passionate jealousies.
In my memories of England, my sisters are faceless presences, as if
they were parts of myself. I donít know whether this simply
the self-absorption of childhood. How does one trace the origin of a
fracture in oneself? We still trouble one another, raising unsettling
mirrors which flash into our different presents those ancient feuds and
alliances, and with them the constant, violent desire to be ourselves,
separate at last from these insistent identifications with which we are
branded, separate from the histories which have shaped us and which
seem to trap us again and again in their sad repetitions of failure.
I have a black and white photograph of three little girls, taken that
day at Lisbon when we got lost in the park. We are sitting underneath
some stylised metal toadstools in the middle of a garden of flowers.
Behind us runs a broad gravel path. Behind that, there is a stand of
trees through which you can see a patch of white, which might be a
building. It is warm, because we are wearing light cotton dresses and
sandals. It is just before my seventh birthday. C is four and F is
F, the youngest, is our motherís favourite child. She has the
advantage of having two elder sisters and knows herself to be the most
beautiful, the best, the real princess. A shadow bisects her face and
she stares through it with an unweighable expression: cautious,
sceptical, self-assured. She is severely pigeon-toed and holds herself
with a hint of spasticity, running with a peculiar, stooping gait which
we would later often parody. F is the one whose hair is never cut, and
it is natural for us to admire the tendrils around her forehead with
their glints of red and blonde, as it is also natural that
hair is cut short, with a blunt fringe, and that I should be
nondescriptly in between, with brown, straight, shoulder-length hair.
C peeps over my shoulder, her thin body incandescent with a kinetic
energy, a strikingly pretty child with unusually large hazel eyes and a
sharp, elfin face. In the cosmology of our family, C is the lone planet
travelling an elliptical orbit. She is the child who takes after my
fatherís family, unlike F and I, as if our very bodies were
the feuds of an earlier generation. Cís face is less hidden
than Fís or
mine and her eyes flash open to the camera, voluble and mischievous.
I am the most invisible. My eyes are completely hidden from the camera.
I cloak myself already with the anonymity of a writer, already I see my
thoughts as words crossing over my inner vision. The gap between myself
and I has become apparent to me: I have just been torn from my Eden,
and God has been banished from my sight.
My mother hungered for a home with the passion of the homeless. She was
born during the War and so could not remember, as her older brothers
did, that mythical time when there had been money. A
time came when all the money was lost, when serially they left the
houses they lived in, leaving behind them gold candlesticks in the
garage and boxes of photographs and letters and spoons, shedding their
history with a kind of reticent shame.
Although they considered themselves poor, my grandparents ensured my
mother had a governess. She was taught the infinite gradations which
alerted the initiated to the recognition of ourselves
speech and deportment and vocabulary which were so much more than
manners: a way of being and perceiving, a cool assumption of authority
in which the determining factor was control of oneself and in which any
ostentatious display of power was a confession of impotence. One
to say as unnaturally as possible: one
looked relaxed eating with oneís elbows jammed against
oneís ribs, and
gnawed bones at the table without the slightest trace of discomfort,
and was extremely polite, in particular, to anyone one considered
beneath one, and preferred the lower classes to the middle classes, who
were considered grasping and vulgar. All this was only possible with
the grace of hereditary habit and a secure knowledge of oneís
This was the ideal my mother attempted to marry with her longing for a
home. It was the ideal which rotted in the lascivious face of my
grandfather, dying of asthma in a council flat in Falmouth with his
quiet, white-haired wife drinking steadily to maintain her air of
serene indifference, trapped inside mean white walls stained
urine-yellow with years and years of cigarettes. Even before then, it
was easy to despise my grandparents, the decadent remains of a corrupt
and collapsed class.
The house was old, three hundred years old. Once it had been the core
of a farm, and the slate-flagged courtyard outside the kitchen led, as
now, to a vegetable garden, where rows of poles held up the vining
weight of peas and broad beans, and canes held raspberries and
blackcurrants, and lettuces concealed their white hearts in coarse
leaves. Its stern Georgian frontage had looked out over fields of
luxuriant grass hidden behind earthed stone hedges that were softened
by ragged robin and cowslip and
primroses, and in the fields had been pigs and geese and the
heavy-limbed working horses and slim-hipped Jersey cows and, horned and
flanked with dark, matted hair, one bull... But the town ate up the
fields and the farmers died and at last the house, forsaken and shabby,
waited for my mother to console it with her wallpapers and white paint
and wax polish and sandpaper.
She went to the farmers she knew and asked them for the hewn granite
drinking troughs which were then being thrown out in favour of modern
concrete: and inside them she grew miniature gardens of cacti and dwarf
roses. She begged the millstones from an old mill and set them, solid
granite mandalas, into the path which led up from the gate. She
plundered junk shops for cheap Edwardian and Victorian furniture and
restored each piece - a pair of nursing chairs with green cushions and
spindly turned legs, a mahogany sideboard which she found in a chicken
coop, white with droppings, for ten shillings, an oaken bow-fronted
chest of drawers, which was later lost in storage, and cottage chairs
and settles and a graceful Regency table. We regarded the furniture
with a proper awe, respecting each piece in its given place, for we
were very well-behaved little girls. Like the furniture, we were a
product of my motherís hard work.
Gradually, we inhabited the house... and where men had stamped and
scraped the mud off their boots and whistled to the dogs which
crouched, flat-eared, on a piece of sacking under the wall, where
chickens had prowled and stabbed for grain or beetles and cats had
slunk warily along the flags towards a tin plate of milk, we held our
childish conferences and took sandwiches and apples for picnics with
our dolls and swung our legs on the low stone wall, from which F fell
once, holding a saucer that broke and cut her across the eyebrow,
leaving a scar... the back porch bulged with souíwesters and
and the cold friendly noses of dogs, and C fell there once and broke
her thigh and her leg had to be encased in plaster from ankle to hip...
and in the greenhouse, grown over with mysterious inherited plants, I
would play with the green water in the fishtank and scrape patterns on
the brown-green glass and pour from a toy tin teapot so the water made
a sound like urinating... the house skinned our knees and bruised
our hands and cut us with its edges, and gave us nests to discover in
the bamboo grove, and the ancient black toad which lived in the walls
around the back lawn like a benign spirit, dry-skinned and slack and
heavy, and the smart black beetles running over the slate and the
woodlice quivering their white legs under the flat stones...
I often dream of buildings: dilapidated mansions with tarnished velvet
curtains and galleries that lead nowhere or look out over indeterminate
darknesses: or I dream I am a theatre, in which an opera of
mine is about to open, but there are two or three or four theatres with
foyers which have indecipherable signs on the walls and I am never in
the right place: or I am a warehouse, in which a saint is living, and
in his shower is a mural, constantly changing, which depicts the
Apocalypse, and after the Apocalypse, a giant stone hand standing out
of the desert, the City of God, and in its ring finger is an eye: and a
broad, scuffed flight of stairs leads down to the basement, and at the
bottom of the basement, into which I am chased by a man who wants to
murder me, a man I love, is a steel door through which I cannot pass.
From plenitude, an inheritance of fragments: from the immediacy of
presence, a half-life of exile from ourselves: from the homeland, the
rank stench of decay: from the being of God, non-being: from the
mother, sorrow: from the father, absence.
I donít know what legacy I can give my daughter. Too much has
broken or lost to allow me to speak of tradition or certainty. I wish
for her a clear space where she might grow unblighted and learn her
strength. But I am unable to make such a place for her, except in
certain rare moments, when the shell of my self-absorption cracks open
and my face is open to her...
And it seems to me miraculous that another human being could love me as
my daughter does, when she grants me the pure action of her kiss. And
perhaps this is the sum of my labour: to find, amid the nibble of
illusions, the real kiss that always lay there, unbroken and wholly
If I am calm and speak
sweet and low,
all womanly the ocean will
me safely on its breast and my little chicks tucked in around me will
feel the soft feathers of my voice and know a home. They are so small
to ride so large a sea... How frightening the world became when I gave
I am so tired. I hope they stay sleeping, perhaps I can keep writing,
but itís hard in here, the shadows are crazy, flinging
around the walls. Iím so tired. But this scribble grants me a
16th June 1869
My dear William
I miss you all so
and we are scarcely past Plymouth! I
felt as if apart of me was dying as the docks slipped away. The voyage
even so far feels like a nightmare - stuck in a tiny cabin with three
small children and no help is trying, to say the least. I am attempting
to keep my composure, for their sake, but I shall have to do better
than I am. Perhaps as I become used to this place things will become
easier to bear. I feel I have done wrong in agreeing to wrench my
family from their home where they were so happy in order to travel to a
wild place of which we know almost nothing. But Roger brooks no
disobedience. Forgive my complaints, I am very unhappy! Catherine has
been fretful and restive the entire time, enough to make me thankful
for Adelaidaís muteness: and Fanny has been most horribly
sick. I donít
understand bow the passengers manage in steerage; I am doing so badly,
and I am in
relative luxury. Down there they have to cook their own food and there
is little or no privacy. I saw a woman trying to wash some napkins in a
bucket on deck: a lieutenant came and was about to throw them
overboard, until I intervened. I have seldom felt so angry. The woman,
whose name is Agnes Clare, told me what it was like. She has a colicky
baby and is very afraid that another passenger, who sleeps nearby,
might smother it to stop it from crying. She is a widow and is
travelling to her sister, who runs a hotel in a town called Ballarat.
Her stoicism made me feel ashamed. I would like to help her, but fear I
might offend her. Because I have been talking to her and no doubt
because I am a woman on my own, some of the other passengers do not
acknowledge my greetings. They are so petty, and yet I cannot help
feeling hurt. The thought of spending four months on this ship
oppresses me as much as the fear of what I might find at the end of the
voyage. Tonight I donít know if I can bear it, which is why,
brother, you are shouldering the burden of my complaints. There is no
one I can speak to here who will understand me. How I wish we could go
out to a dance, and you could scribble all those silly notes over my
card, as you used to! I thought marriage would be like that, only more
so. How wrong I was! But here I am, complaining again. I shall write
again soon, in a lighter mood, I hope. Meanwhile think of your sister,
who misses you so much and so needs your malicious remarks to make her
With all my love, Jackie
I read once of a painter who died on a tropical island where he had
exiled himself, because he could stand the ignoble merchants of Europe
no longer, because he saw in the savages a possibility of uncorrupted
human beauty. And they found his last unfinished painting and it was -
How terrible, to die of longing for that which destroys one. Or to wake
blankly from a dream so compelling that it seemed real, to find, once
Somehow, in the muddle of everything, I lost myself. I was a girl, and
then I was a woman, and then I was married and I belonged to someone
else. But I thought I was someone, once. I donít know how it
Maybe I forgot something important, or maybe I was made to
forget. Or maybe that is how things are when youíre grown up.
keep thinking, if only I could remember, something - I donít
- maybe - like a precious button that I had when I was a little girl, a
gold button with a coat of arms on it, that I hid in a secret place and
was just mine - something like that - but I know itís not
just like that. And if only I could remember it, then Iíd be
itís so absurd, lo be thinking like this. Imagine if someone
How foolish I would feel!
My dear Husband
The voyage so far has
pleasant and the children are all well.
Adelaida is exhibiting signs of a slight Cough and Catherina has been
worrisome, as usual. Fanny has been most terribly Seasick, which has
led to a certain amount of disruption in the cabin, but nevertheless we
are all cheerful.
It is difficult to find
Acquaintance on the ship, apart from
amongst the Officers. A certain Mr Haricot very kindly took Fanny on
his lap at dinner yesterday night but the poor thing disgraced herself!
Mr Haricot was very embarrassed. However, without Help I do not feel I
can leave the children behind in the cabin, and so they must come with
The Weather has been
apart from a slight gale a day ago,
which alarmed us all exceedingly. We are looking forward to docking in
Melbourne very much, but it seems a very long time away. We all miss
you very much. I hope your work is proceeding favourably and that the
mine is as good a prospect as the Company hopes. There is much talk on
the Ship of mining, as many passengers are travelling to Victoria in
the hopes of finding gold; I canít help feeling assured that
working for a Company and are not Prospeckting in the wild.
Your loving wife, Jacqueline
O, the ache of the nib scratching the white paper. I make myself up,
every day I make myself up. I smile and smile and smile. Perhaps I
should throw myself in the sea and make an end of this, this tedium.
My daughters trap me in a womanly furrow. Their births so lovely, when
theyíre all suck and ravenous touch, tiny scraps of flesh
carnivorous flowers, so helpless and entirely mine - How sad that they
grow and turn their thoughts into secrets, they have sorrows they no
longer tell me. Sometimes theyíre so far away, I feel afraid.
I do then?
I am yet young. Where my husband is weak, I am all endurance, my
children shall look up and see a mountain. And yet he calls me soft and
spoilt, he mocks my small hands. It is not just of him. And I am
silent, I say nothing, to say the truth would kill him, is that not
right? And I am strong enough. What other can I be?
If thereís any comfort, it is cold as my heart is. Once I was
knew no better, I spent my warmth and now Iím bitter, bitter,
But Iíll not think on that. If I smile and weave the morning
with my hands, all will be well.
These unquiet thoughts, running round and round like a hamster in a
mill. The lamp swinging right left right left, I feel Iíll go
I cannot, I canít. What am I doing here? Last night I dreamt
wedding, awake gasping with the weight on my chest again, his mother
with her looking and the bodice so tight I could scream.. That ugly
dress. Maybe if Iíd borne a son, sheíd have
forgiven me something of
When I was a child, I was so happy. How often kneeling by the gilded
altar I saw through the milky face of Mary a threshold, glimmering with
dew - and now the door has opened on a dingy room and I staring through
the dark - smaller and smaller and smaller -
Once I breathed and the world breathed with me, I knew no better. When
he smiled at me my heart was light, he was a good man, I knew, he loved
me, I knew. You have
faith in me
he said, it makes me
heart swelled with pride, that I could be the earth on which he stood.
I married him for that. As soon as lie was sure of me, that I was his
like a lap dog, like a prize brood mare, he brought out the whip of his
indifference. I didnít know what poisons he would plough into
didnít know what gashes he would carve into my heart, I
how soil leaches, whitening with exhaustion, poorer and poorer, until
at last the trees stand stark and naked on a naked hill.
When I was virgin and whole the sea was different, it was a horse and I
was fearless. I was blown out across its expanse without harm, I knew
too little to care who I was. Now I am small and timorous, a nose
poking out from the wainscot, a scurry of frills, a noise of yes. I put
my hand to the ladle and the crib and arrange the silver. How is it I
despise myself so much?
How lovely the new moon over the water.
It is like the hunt, early, when the mist curls low about fetlocks and
the pheasants startle from hedges and the horse shies and riding the
shy without effort. And muscle bunching for the leap headlong into who
knows what with nothing but the sudden endless wind and the speed..
Mr Haricot, yes, and Mr James, they look on me with such veiled eyes, a
shiver of pleasure, yes, to know that still I can make them look, but
deeply, safely, secretly, Iíll not let them know that I know,
remote and polite, I am a wife, taken, labelled, it is safer that way.
That gypsy woman on the dock, she made me flinch, I did not want to
see inside her face, so wild, so indifferent, but she looked at me like
a man might look, I did not know where to put my eyes, even in all that
bustle of trunks and farewells and handkerchiefs, she standing there
with an armful of fish, hard and stern and dark, her breast all full
and shadowed and a
barelimbed child clinging at her skirt, and yet, I could not turn away,
not for that second, she accused me, she claimed me, she with all her
filth and wanton smile, her old dress and bold earrings, unhusbanded,
her brightness and her dark, the smell of her as if sheíd
men, that look, I cannot rid myself of thinking of her, before the
crowd closed up and she vanished and the ship took me away.
The children who I love but yet they tire me, they eat me up, they
leave nothing over. When my husband pulled them on his knee and tickled
them Iíd want to kill them, running over with their gifts for
given without pain, without travail, and he so casually Lord.
them for the pleasure of his shock, maybe then heíd know at
then his face would open up and let out all the blood Iíve
him, maybe then heíd see the prison that he is. But how can I
that, how can I think, my mindís not right.
Theyíll grow and grow and turn on me their beauty, then
Iíll be old and
worn and empty.
Who am I when Iím not a wife?
How lovely the moon upon the water.