Making jam the proper way, in an old-fashioned kitchen, is a long operation. It can take a whole day to complete the process, from selecting and washing the pulpy fruit to putting the full jars, still hot, into neat rows in the larder.
Granny would let me help; she would ask my opinion on whether or not the jam was of the correct consistency. I'd carefully spoon a little onto a cracked saucer, slowly push my finger into the very hot jam and pronounce its fitness or not for eating.
The smell was heady, summer fruits, thick and sweet. We'd label the jars and cover them with round cellophane wrappers secured with rubber bands of different colours and thicknesses. The covers would be soft and wrinkly while the jam was hot; drum-tight once the stuff had cooled. We'd begin to eat the jam the next day, on fresh white bread. If it was damson jam I'd poke out the stones, do that stupid little rhyme, tinker tailor soldier sailor.
My grandmother's house. I want to remember everything. Smells. A bonfire in the big back garden. Inside, a real coal fire. Toast. Old books, "Pilgrim's Progress", "A Tale of Two Cities". Old wood. Floor polish.
No fridge, no hot water. An oak roll-top desk with its treasures: blue indelible pencils; and all the beautiful, dusty books with their badly coloured plates protected with delicate pieces of tissue paper.
I remember. Wet, thinly sliced ham with its curious border of orange grit. Angel cake. The big feather bed I slept in with my mother. My father slept at the house of my other grandmother, half a mile or so down the road.
My grandmother's house was a womb which buffered me. I was safe. The loud tick of the clock: precise, reassuring and hypnotic. A safe house.
My grandmother was a small, quiet woman, one of ten children although only half that number made it into adulthood. She had a garden where plants grew wild and I grew wild in that garden, until my parents took me home and I had to go back to school where I learned a different kind of wildness.
As a teenager I neglected Granny, found pleasure in mundane things, the spotty boys and pop music. I ate artificially coloured jam bought from supermarkets, told myself there was no difference; but it tastes wrong; too sweet, too clear. There aren't any stones in shop-bought jam.
When I was young, I used to collect butterflies. I would catch them in a small, plastic net and drop them into jam jars with pierced lids. My father built a house for them; it had a wooden base, a dowelling pole at each corner, and it was covered with an old net curtain. Inside this tiny lace prison I would leave a growing plant, some richly scented, flowering variety; a saucer of sugar-water; and a few sprigs of ragwort. I would tip my captives out of the jam jars into their ghastly prison, and watch them die - some survived for days, others would become jaded, their colours would fade and I could play nurse, trying to tempt feeble appetites by uncurling the proboscis with a pin and laying it against a ball of cotton wool soaked with sugar-water.
Sometimes they mated, joining themselves together, back to back. Sometimes I had to reach in and pull the bodies apart.
I gave up collecting butterflies when I got sick of the stink of them, that smell of death and decay, a sickly sweet stench, an unclean smell; the smell of the sick-room, the death-bed.
The smell of Dominica. A stupid girl with very sharp canines. A girl named after a country - a stupid thing to do - but her mother was crazy too, and had those same sharp teeth.
I played with Dominica in the school holidays, when we went to stay with my grandmother. Dominica's mother would watch us with her mean, blackcurrant eyes; she'd never say anything to us, she just watched. If she thought we were playing too roughly, she'd pull her daughter away, often by her hair, and start screaming at her in their own peculiar language. It was a great show, and Dominica would always start crying, the big baby.
‘Girls! You'll wake your mother!' This from my great-aunt, really just another version of Dominica's mother except that she was on my side.
‘Why does your mama sleep in the afternoons?' Dominica asked me.
‘She's not strong. She's fragile.' My mother hated the sun and in the summer she perpetuated a myth of being weak, of suffering from various debilitating illnesses but which defied diagnoses. She was actually very robust, but the heat really did seem to affect and enervate her.
‘What is the opposite of fragile?'
‘Tough, I suppose.'
‘Well, my mama is tough, then.' She grinned. Those teeth!
Dominica laid her head on my shoulder.
‘Have you read The Song of Solomon?' she asked me. I said that I hadn't, so she recited bits of it to me.
‘I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled.'
‘For you are truly my sister. Look - I'll spill my blood for you.' She took a penknife and made a long, shallow cut on the palm of her hand, which began to bleed.
‘Now you.' I did the same, and we kissed our palms together.
‘Let me lick your hand,' Dominica said, as the blood continued to flow. She put her mouth on my wound and gently licked it. I wondered if she would do that to anyone else; would she have let a boy place his bleeding palm on hers?
Mum wanted to know how I'd got the cut on my hand. I told her it was a paper cut.
Dominica flirted with every boy and man she met and this seemed like a good game, so I did it too. This is how I first became aware of the power of sex and its destructive nature.
‘Don't you want to know what it's like, to go with a boy?' Dominica asked me.
‘I wonder about it sometimes. But people say it hurts and that you bleed. What's the point of doing it if it hurts?'
Dominica tried to explain about good-hurt and bad-hurt but I didn't really want to know. I felt dirty talking about it, but I still wished that I were more like Dominica. She was just 14, a year older than I.
Dominica flirted most of all with my father. He was a serious man, but Dominica made him smile, he enjoyed her casual attitude, her lack of propriety. Sometimes Dominica brought her brother John with her, but even my father ignored him and I began to feel sorry for him. I knew what it was like to be ignored. I was a little alien, my parents didn't know quite what to do with me. If they'd been rich they could have got a nanny for me and I wouldn't have been any bother to them. They were comfortably off but not extremely so and I found myself shunted between various relatives while my father did vague things in the study and my mother wilted and drank endless cups of hot, boiled water.
‘Domina is quite the young lady.' This from my mother; neither a compliment nor a criticism. Dominica wouldn't wear little girl clothes or tomboy jeans, she wore long skirts and old fashioned white blouses buttoned high at the neck, very proper in themselves but on her the effect was disturbing.
Dominica and I drank perfume because we'd cottoned on to the fact that it contained alcohol. We took a few nips but it just made our breath fragrant, we failed to become intoxicated. It was mum's perfume, expensive stuff but hardly ever worn. She saved perfume for weddings and funerals.
‘You look wanton,' I told Dominica. It was a word I'd picked up from an Edna O'Brien novel of my mother's which had caught my eye, and I liked the sound of it. Dominica's normally neat hairstyle had fuzzed around the edges, her bow was lost and she had smudges of chocolate around her mouth. Wanton.
She wore a pink satin dress. Its dipping sweetheart neckline framed a little cut-glass pendant which glittered in the light with different colours. It was a present from me: not worth much, just a bit of glass, but it could transform everything into colourful patterns that ran into each other.
Dominica held it up. She said she could see her face in it. It made you believe that anything was possible. Sometimes she saw her own face, sometimes mine. Sometimes, she said, they joined: two facets of the same cold glass bullet.
Dominica liked to try on her mum's wedding dress. It had been fashionable in the 1960s, short and full, but on Dominica it looked peculiar.
‘I've got a photo of me wearing the dress,' Dominica said. ‘I showed it to your dad, he said I looked like Janey Morris, that girl in the paintings. They've got some in the Art Gallery, he says. He says he'll show them to me some day.'
‘You're fatter than Jane Morris.'
‘Only a bit. She was very beautiful, wasn't she?'
‘Sulky. She always looked really fed up. I bet that's what dad meant.'
‘No, he didn't. He was being nice, I could tell.'
The more Dominica told me about sex (she called it 'love'), the more convinced I became that she and my father were having an affair. It was a ridiculous idea but one with which I became obsessed.
Dominica and my father; Dominica and my father.
I began to court John, with what aim I'm not sure, except possibly to pay back my father for imagined transgressions.
One day my father caught me with John. We were innocent enough but the way he just smiled somehow confirmed all my suspicions about him.
‘John, do you like me?' He just smiled at me, too. Of course he didn't like me, any more than I liked him. We were simply curious about a contemporary of the opposite sex: the simple curiosity of puberty.
But do you want me, John? Will you have me? Will we do this scary thing, so intense and so meaningless?
The moment passed and I realized that being with John would solve nothing for me. He was not Dominica, he was nothing to me. Dominica had all the power, she charmed my father and there was nothing innocent in it. Everything was too easy for her, she didn't have to try; she always got what she wanted and probably always would. That was real power.
I was jealous of her and I couldn't best her at anything. I was very young but that's no excuse; the die was already cast and I'd cast it myself.
I would have been an easy girl, an easy lay, that much never changed. I would have been John's on a plate if he'd wanted me.
He disturbed me because I was only a visitor and found the countryside too naked and bloody. John left the bodies of crows hanging on the farm gate and I thought he did it only to upset me.
‘They disgust me,' I told him.
‘They deter other birds. That's the only reason I put them there.' But he liked to leave a black feather in my room and point out the speck of blood on the feather's shaft. My grandmother, like my mother, was completely without sentiment where animals were concerned. She had insisted that I learn how to kill vermin. She sent me out with John and we walked until we found a rabbit in a trap, held there by a now useless leg.
‘Kill it, Lizzie. It's suffering. Put it out of its misery. Break its neck.' That's when I thought that John was evil: he didn't care about the rabbit's pain, he wanted to cause me pain. He wanted to make me cry.
I killed the rabbit. John put his fingers in the animal's blood and wiped it on my forehead.
‘Bad to the bone,' John said. I touched my head where John had touched me with bloody fingers. I felt that I'd pleased John and that made me happy. I forgot about feeling sorry for the dead rabbit.
‘Feel how soft the fur is,' John said, and we both stroked the dead animal's fur.
On Dominica's birthday, we bought her a white muslin dress with beautiful lace inserts. She looked beautiful. I think my mother said she looked ugly. No, not ugly: common. My mother thought her beneath us, and untrustworthy because not English. I wanted to be wild like her, a half-tamed gypsy. It was a foolish idea, based more upon adventure books than reality. Is the purpose of adventure stories to make us regret and desire other ways of life, or is it merely escapism, entertaining but essentially making us thankful for our real, mundane lives?
Dominica and I acted out adventure tales but the longing for real adventures was mine alone. Dominica was happiest lying in the sun, her eyes half closed, basking thoughtlessly. She was beautiful, she had no need to speak, to be intelligent or witty. Her ability with these things was impressive, but unnecessary.
‘Play "rescue the princess" with me, Domina.'
‘No, I want to sunbathe, I want to be brown like those girls on TV.'
‘But it's boring.'
‘Play with John, then.' She closed her eyes and rested her head on her arms, inviting the sun to scorch her, to mark her with its power.
John. The hay-loft. He had books in there, and a telescope.
‘What do you look at through that thing?'
‘There aren't any.'
‘You spy on us.' He shrugged, turning the telescope away from the window.
‘You're madder. You play those stupid games, like a big baby.' I felt my face reddening, but it was gloomy in the hay-loft, he wouldn't notice my discomfort.
‘I'm going to a new school in the autumn, I'm going to start learning Spanish.' He ignored this comment. ‘It's my birthday soon,' I continued, ‘I'm going to be - '
‘I know how old you are,' he said irritably. He didn't like me very much. Perhaps I talked too much, but it was only nerves. I didn't know how to talk to boys, what to say to them, which subjects to discuss. Shutting up altogether would have probably been the best way.
‘Shall I go?'
He shrugged. ‘I don't mind. Doesn't matter to me, either way.'
I hesitated, feeling stupid and in the way. Then I had an idea.
‘Would you like to touch me?'
‘Anywhere you want.' He considered my offer.
‘All right.' I walked over to him and sat down next to him. He looked very white; excitement, perhaps; or fear. He coughed a few times and wiped his hands on his jeans. Then he quickly put his hand up my skirt and curled his fingers inside my knickers, touching me. He took his hand away as suddenly as he'd put it there, and again wiped his hands on his jeans. He stared out of the hay-loft, ignoring me. I walked out of there and my legs were shaking and I felt sick.
Has dad done that to Dominica or have I got a sick mind? I shouldn't think about dirty things so much, not at my age, it's disgusting and wicked. Probably dad has done no more than bestow a warm smile upon Dominica and it is my own dirty mind that places his hands on Dominica's body, his lips on hers.
It was partly Dominica's fault for telling me things, putting this dirt in my head. She was only a bit older than me but already she had breasts and hips and a knowing, womanly look in her eyes. She was older than I would ever be.
In the attic bedroom, which smelled of apples, stood an antique dressing-table, half-eaten by woodworm. I was the only person who had opened its drawers for years, but it held dusty, interesting things: a necklace of bone beads, old postcards, a broken rosary, a wooden "Pears" soap jigsaw and old photographs.
I liked the dashing young men and beautiful bare-faced Victorian women. I would copy their poses before the mirror, draped in my mother's shawls, my hair pinned up with tortoiseshell combs.
A secret drawer contained sepia-tinted photographs bound with ribbon. They were slightly faded, and some were a little cracked and roughened. The people in them stared out innocently.
One girl with long brown hair had eyes even more revealing than her naked body. The man behind her seemed not to understand why he was there, his hand barely touching her shivering flesh. She was smiling - a false, waxy smile - and her eyelashes batted against her moist skin.
I wondered to whom the photographs had belonged, and who had put them in the drawer.
‘I'm just as pretty as Dominica,' I said to myself, looking at my reflection in the mirror. I removed the shawl and undid my blouse. I held my tiny breasts in my hands and showed them to the mirror and it didn't laugh at me or sneer. It didn't turn away from me or ignore me. I liked that mirror, which absorbed me and didn't answer back.
John and I unpacked a picnic of cheese and pickle sandwiches and Scotch eggs. We ate in silence, as absorbed with our food as animals.
John picked a scab off his knee and put the scab in the palm of his hand, to admire it.
‘What's it made of?' he asked me.
‘Blood and skin and that sticky stuff that's like clear blood.' The skin under the scab was the colour of ham and corrugated. John didn't know what to do with the scab once he'd examined it, so he flicked it from his tautened palm and forgot about it.
‘Domina says you used to eat them when you were little,' I reminded him. John shrugged. Very little turned his stomach. He'd watched calves being born and said he liked to see the way they slid out, covered in slime which the vet would scrape out of the animal's mouth. He wasn't allowed to watch the chickens being slaughtered, but he stood outside to listen which was just as bad.
‘Do you want to look for mushrooms? There's plenty round here. You could give them to your mum to cook.
‘Gran does all the cooking.'
As we rooted around for mushrooms, I saw an adder and screamed. The Freudian thing's rubbish, I disliked snakes purely because I didn't particularly want to die a horrible, pointless death at the mean fangs of a snake.
‘They said there were snakes here,' John told me calmly, looking at the thing slithering through the grass making its sinister swishing noises.
‘Are they poisonous?'
‘Vipers. I think so.' He made to prod it with a stick. He said he wished he had a gun, he'd like to kill it and strip its skin off. ‘I might be lucky and find a shed skin, I suppose. That would do.' John kept a collection of animal remains, a barbaric little black museum of his own. He had the skulls of a sheep and a rabbit; a rabbit's foot; animal teeth and dozens of photographs of dead animals, road kills, flattened corpses with their entrails splashed around them, tufts of fur scattered over the road.
‘You're so sick, John.'
‘Why? Animals don't mean anything to me. You're too sentimental.'
‘You're too morbid. All this death.'
‘What's up, Lizzie? Did the snake frighten you? You've gone all quiet.'
‘No, I'm not scared of snakes, it just surprised me.'
You want to see my fear, my pain. You want my tears and my blood and scars you can touch. I want to poke your eyes out, cut the smile from your face. I'm thinking of razor-blades and their possibilities, I'm thinking violent thoughts. You're fascinated by that damn snake because you think like Freud, lazy psychology, the prick is best. But I'll be the one to destroy it, not you.
‘I like snakes, in fact,' I lied. They remind me of you: sinister, creeping. You're the serpent in the garden, infecting with your foul smile, the words that slither off your tongue. You're the real tempter, the downfall of Eden, not Eve. She was just the stupid woman who listened to you.
‘What's up then? You look sick about something.'
‘Don't keep going on at me! You talk too much. You're so boring.' Am I beautiful when I'm angry or do I scare you?
Cat got your tongue?
‘Sticks and stones, Lizzie. Sticks and stones.'
Cruel countryside. Take a drive and count the number of dead animals and birds squashed onto the road; blood smears on your tyres. The countryside is cruel, vicious and mean. It's a spiteful place past the quaint cottages and the tea-roses.
Everything is different in the country. Black-stick bleak in winter, lush as sin in summer. And the great purple hills, rising out of the earth and spooky as live volcanoes. My grandparents on my father's side used to own a pub, the carpets of which were red because farmers and slaughterers used to come in with blood on their boots. Granddad said it was thoughtful touches such as the blood-coloured carpets which brought the punters flocking in. ‘It's not nice for the ladies,' he explained, 'to see maybe blood on a carpet. It's not the sort of thing they want to see, not when they're out for a drink with their menfolk.'
I thought that even my feeble, gentle mother had no heart. I remembered watching her aiming a shotgun at a sheepdog which, because it trailed home with blood around its mouth, was believed to have killed the two mangled sheep in their field.
‘I want you to watch this, Lizzie,' mum had said, positioning me next to her. I had liked the dog and hated to hear its whimpers.
‘It knows, mum. It knows what you're going to do to it. Can't we just wash his mouth and say it wasn't him?'
Mum fired the gun and I wet my knickers.
‘No place for sentiment in the country,' mum said, dragging me home. I had murderous feelings towards her but I'd seen the blood on the dog's mouth and, in my head, could imagine it ripping out the throat and tossing the body over its shoulder. I imagined the arc of blood, spraying out.
Dominica, asleep in the sun, in the long grass, as still and as lovely as Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin; red lips, black hair. But not dead, not dead at all. Her arms folded across her chest like a good Catholic girl. She could fake anything.
She opened her eyes briefly and smiled at me. She reminded me of a snake, the kind which hypnotize their victims before sinking their fangs in.
She is waiting for her sweet Prince, but it's not a kiss she wants, it's sex she's waiting for. Until he arrives, she'll just lie there and wait for him, comatose.
I'm sitting in the garden, reading a letter from Dominica. She has made a good marriage; she and her new husband are going to go and live in America.
‘Where my parents come from,' she had once told me, ‘there used to be all these birds. Parrots, would they be? It's so long ago I hardly remember. They were vermin, ate everything, farmers would shoot them. Flocks of them would just sit in the trees all day. They were beautiful, with pink and grey feathers. It's a fashionable colour scheme now, isn't it, pink and grey? They must have seen those birds.'
|click here to download text as a word document (.doc)|