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Prologue

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 daughter. 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 wasnít 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 ĎMy name 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.

Dress over ankles, head over arse,
Alice fell into the looking glass.

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 look younger 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 seven years.

*

There is a ship which folds time 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 encounter this 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.


I    Arcadia

Once upon a time there was a castle built of yellow stone, with a rampart that dropped sheer into 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 midnight blue.

*

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 happy.

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 sight.

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 suppertime.

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 Music on the gramophone, or perhaps the children will be watching Dr Who 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 finished sheíll take out of the oven the golden rice pudding, brown and 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 reflects 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 three.

F, the youngest, is our motherís favourite child. She has the fairytale 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 Cís black 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 replicating 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, the nuances of 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 behaved naturally, which is 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 own people.

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 gumboots 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 been 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 itself.


II    Anaesthesia

If I am calm and speak sweet and low, all womanly the ocean will bear 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 it hostage!

I am so tired. I hope they stay sleeping, perhaps I can keep writing, but itís hard in here, the shadows are crazy, flinging themselves around the walls. Iím so tired. But this scribble grants me a little peace.

16th June 1869
HMS Fidelis

*

My dear William

I miss you all so terribly already 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, my dear 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 laugh.

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 - a snowscape!

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 again, oneself...

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 happened. Maybe I forgot something important, or maybe I was made to forget. Or maybe that is how things are when youíre grown up. But I keep thinking, if only I could remember, something - I donít know what! - 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 that, itís just like that. And if only I could remember it, then Iíd be free. But itís so absurd, lo be thinking like this. Imagine if someone read this! How foolish I would feel!
16th June 1869
HMS Fidelis

*

My dear Husband

The voyage so far has been very 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 any 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 me.

The Weather has been mostly fine, 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 you are 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 clinging like 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. What will 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 warm, I knew no better, I spent my warmth and now Iím bitter, bitter, bitter. But Iíll not think on that. If I smile and weave the morning together 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 mad, but I cannot, I canít. What am I doing here? Last night I dreamt my 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 myself.

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 strong. And my 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 me, I didnít know what gashes he would carve into my heart, I didnít know 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, I am 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 been with 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 a smile given without pain, without travail, and he so casually Lord. Iíd kill them for the pleasure of his shock, maybe then heíd know at last, maybe then his face would open up and let out all the blood Iíve given for him, maybe then heíd see the prison that he is. But how can I think 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.

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